NEWS BRIEFS:

Mordechai enters the race

Last month's Digest carried profiles of some of the prime ministerial candidates standing for election in May. Since then, former defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai has joined the fray. Mordechai was born in Iraq in 1944 and immigrated to Israel at the age of five. He joined the Israeli army in 1962, holding numerous senior commands and leading paratroopers during both the Six Day (1967) and Yom Kippur (1973) wars. Mordechai retired as a major-general in 1995, and joined the Likud after the ruling Labour Party turned down his request for a senior administration post (Ha'aretz, July 31, 1998). He was elected to the Knesset in May 1996, and became defence minister under incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the following month. Fired from that portfolio in January, he shot to the top slot of the new centrist faction established by Dan Meridor and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (both of whom have since withdrawn their candidacies) to challenge Likud and Labour. Polls show him running third to Netanyahu and Labour leader Ehud Barak in a first round of voting--but beating Netanyahu in a second round run-off.

PA calls for boycott

The Palestinian Authority cabinet has called for economic sanctions against Jewish communities located throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza, according to a Jordan Times report. "The Palestinian leadership, in view of the current stalemate in the implementation of the Wye River accords is asking the European Union, the United States, Russia, Japan and economic groups to boycott products from Israeli settlements," the statement said. For opponents of boycott calls, a store recently opened in central Jerusalem specialising in a wide range of products from Jewish settlements in disputed areas.

10,000 Russian Experts in Iran

The Mossad estimates that up to 10,000 Russian experts are assisting Iran's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programmes, according to the London-based newsletter Foreign Report. This has led to a chill in defence relations between Israel and Russia. The government has also frozen cooperation between the Israeli arms industry and the largest Russian arms exporter, which was seeking techniques for rebuilding tanks and aircraft captured during wars. Former defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who informed US President Bill Clinton of the Mossad assessment during a recent visit to Washington, also reported that Russian experts were helping Iran to develop Shihab-3 and Shihab-4 ballistic missiles, as well as a missile identified as the SS-400, which will have a range of 3,600 kilometres. The newsletter said Israel believes the missile might be in operation by 2002 and capable of carrying nuclear warheads by 2007.

Christian Groups Targeted

Israeli police are investigating a number of recent threats and violence against Jerusalem Christians. Pictures of a Swiss Christian woman whose Mea She'arim apartment was destroyed by ultra-orthodox Jews in November were plastered outside two churches and a Bible bookstore on New Year's Eve. Her pictures had a bullseye superimposed, with a "bullet hole" in her forehead. (Three haredi men being held in connection with the November attack have become celebrities among some sectors of the ultra-orthodox community.) In another incident, stones were hurled at Jerusalem's St Andrew's Church of Scotland, breaking several of its stained glass windows. It is not known if the events are related, but anti-missionary groups are suspected of involvement. Christian leaders are concerned that the violence may be a result of the recent deportation of members of a US-based doomsday cult, whom police accused of planning violent attacks in Jerusalem. Media coverage of the incident tended to blur the distinctions between true Christians and cultists.

Foreign Ministry launches 'virtual embassy'

An Internet mega-site--of more than 10,000 pages--is one of the latest projects of Israel's Foreign Ministry. The site can be found at <www.mfa.gov.il> and provides detailed information on just about any topic imaginable relating to Israel. It will also make available all daily press releases from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office.

Israel sets up National Security Council

Israel last month established a National Security Council, seven years after the Knesset passed a bill legalising such a body. Its purpose is to deal with broad questions of national security--not only in the security and military fields, but involving the international, political and economic spheres too. Its intention is to increase coordination and integration between various government ministries and offices, and to keep Israel abreast of the rapid changes in communications technology and other technologies that could endanger Israel and its citizens. David Ivry, former Air Force commander and presently a senior adviser to the defence ministry, was named head of the new body. PM Binyamin Netanyahu announced the establishment of an NSC immediately after he fired defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who had been a long-standing opponent of the concept.

PA goes international

The UN-affiliated International Telecommunications Union has awarded the Palestinian Authority its very own international phone code (..970; Israel's is ..972). One small problem: For residents of PA-controlled Ram'Allah (basically a suburb of Jerusalem), a call to Jerusalem is now a long-distance, international call.

UN resolution "politicises" Geneva Convention

Israel rejected an early February decision by the UN General Assembly to assemble Geneva Convention signatories in Switzerland this summer to discuss whether Israel's actions in the disputed territories violate the convention. Signatories to the convention have never before been summoned in the document's 49-year history. The Assembly, meeting in special emergency session, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Arab-sponsored resolution, which also called for PLO participation--although the PLO is not a signatory to the convention. Only Israel and the US voted against, while five countries abstained. The Israeli government vowed it would not attend the session, slamming the decision as "unjust". Why was the UN so concerned about Israeli settlement construction in Judea-Samaria and Gaza, asked PM Binyamin Netanyahu, while it ignored uncontrolled Palestinian building in these same disputed areas? Israel's UN ambassador, Dore Gold, said the UN was selectively applying the Fourth Geneva Convention--signed by 188 countries as a measure to protect civilians living in areas occupied by an enemy during war. He noted that 97 per cent of the Palestinian Arabs in the disputed areas live under total or partial Palestinian Authority rule. As legal repository of the convention, Switzerland has been asked by the UN to prepare for the July meeting. However, Swiss diplomats cited in Ha'aretz on February 11 said the situation in the disputed territories was hardly one of the most serious cases of violation of the convention. "At a time when other flashpoints around the globe are witnessing acts of cruelty like the murder of innocents and the amputation of limbs, the situation in the territories is not the worst," a senior Swiss official at the UN was quoted as saying. Other Swiss representatives have objected to what they called the "politicisation" of the convention.


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