Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition government continued to encounter heavy turbulence, with the worst episode rekindling enmity between the religious Sephardim of Shas and Natan Sharansky's Russian immigrant party, Yisrael B'Aliyah. After a round of Shas invective against non-Jewish immigrants, Sharansky warned, "We'll bolt the coalition unless Shas apologizes." This came after rabbis at a Shas rally charged that "hundreds of thousands of non-Jews are flooding the land... bring[ing] with them abomination, pornography, prostitution, disease and alcoholism." Rather than apologize, Shas called for eliminating the clause from the Law of Return granting automatic citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent. After Sharansky clarified "maybe three percent of the non-Jews come to Israel under the grandparent clause," defiant secularist Tommy Lapid of Shinui joined the fray, saying the Russian olim act as a "balance" to the expanding electoral support for haredi parties. PM Barak soon chimed in as well, emphatically praising the new immigrants as "the greatest gift the State of Israel has received since its birth... I wish there were a million more of them." Barak added he had appointed Sharansky as Interior Minister for the sole purpose of "protecting the Russian aliyah."
Should Sharansky bolt the coalition, the National Religious Party is likely to follow suit, spelling trouble for Barak. On the other hand, Barak's partnership with Shas is based on a simple trade-off: Shas supports the peace process in exchange for funding for its social programs, especially its debt-ridden school system. Shas' top leaders made a recent trip to Europe to raise private funding for its schools, sending Barak a subtle warning they intend to reduce their dependence on him. Barak's only real alternative to Shas (17 MKs) is Likud (19 MKs), but this would hamstring his flexibility at the peace table with both the Palestinians and Syrians.
RABIN FAMILY AIRS DOUBTS ABOUT ASSASSINATION
On the day Israel marked the fourth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's death, his surviving family went public, for the first time, with their own doubts concerning the official account of his assassination. His daughter, MK Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, aired the family's shared reservations over the main unresolved question in the state's inquiry into the tragedy -- the meaning and source of shouts of "blanks, blanks" as Rabin was being shot after a peace rally on November 4, 1995. "How is it," she queried, "that the people whose job it was to protect my father didn't instinctively shoot the person who shot and killed him? They accuse Yigal Amir, but it's a lot deeper and more complex." Rabin-Pelosoff added that, although she did not want to lend them any credence, she could understand why conspiracy theories abound about her father's death. Her brother, Yuval Rabin, (now a prominent peace activist) quickly concurred, after which their mother, Leah Rabin, responded, "They know exactly what they are saying. There are things that have been left unanswered." Rabin-Pelosoff expressed the hope of many that the trial of Avishai Raviv (a paid GSS informer and right-wing agent provocateur) for not preventing the murder, will shed some light on a subject that still generates heated national debate and recriminations across political lines. In a related development, Israeli authorities finally allowed release of the "Raviv protocol," which kept showing up on the Internet. The document, a classified transcript of a 1996 meeting between Justice Ministry and GSS officials to discuss a possible indictment of Raviv, became a highly-prized item due to lingering suspense over the connection between Raviv and Amir.
JORDAN DEPORTS HAMAS LEADERS
Jordan continued its delicate restraint of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic terrorist organization, releasing twenty-five members detained in raids last August, but sending four of its key leaders to Qatar. Those deported include Khalid Mashaal, the militant chief of Hamas' political bureau in Amman who survived a botched Mossad attempt on his life. A top Palestinian Authority official quickly offered the four deported Hamas leaders a new home, saying, "Hamas should move its politburo to Palestine, and not to any other Arab capital." Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub indicated he would ask Israel for return permits for the Hamas leadership if they would accept PA rule and renounce violence, but this seems unlikely to happen.
HILLARY'S CAMPAIGN HITS MIDEAST MINEFIELD
Just before confirming her bid for a Senate seat, US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made a "campaign stop" in Israel in hopes of courting New York Jewish voters, 10% of the state's electorate. But her carefully scripted plans went awry when she shared a podium in Ramallah with self-confessing "Hillary admirer," Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. While other speakers paid homage to Clinton's support for Palestinian statehood, Suha used the occasion to level an especially vicious attack on Israel. "Our people have been submitted to the daily and intensive use of poisonous gas by the Israeli forces which have led to an increase in cancer cases among women and children," charged Ms Arafat. She added, "Israelis have contaminated 80 percent of the PA's water supply." Ms Clinton drew criticism for waiting a full 24 hours before issuing a tepid disclaimer, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was incensed by Suha's "blood libel." Although Suha Arafat has alienated most PA leaders by openly criticizing rampant corruption in her husband's self-rule authority, many PA officials tended to back her wild allegations - which mirrored such previously popular Palestinian rumors as Israeli lacing of chewing gum in Gaza to inhibit childbearing among Arab women. By any objective standard, and even as documented in UN reports, Israel has dramatically improved the health and quality of life of Palestinians in Judea/Samaria and Gaza since assuming administrative duties there following the 1967 Six-Day War.
CHINA BERATES HOSTING OF DALAI LAMA
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, caused quite a stir on his third pilgrimage to Israel in November to attend an interfaith conference. While most Israeli officials again steered clear, lest they incur the wrath of Beijing, avant garde Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and Education Minister Yossi Sarid could not resist a meeting with the Tibetan leader. While in Jerusalem, the Dalai Lama sounded a new approach to the communist Chinese government, saying he merely sought "autonomy" for Tibet, not full independence. Nonetheless, China's second most powerful leader, Li Peng, arrived within days on a regional tour and angrily declared, "The Dalai Lama is not simply a religious figure. He is a separatist engaged in separating [Tibet from] China." Li is the highest-ranking Chinese leader to visit Israel since diplomatic ties were established in 1992. He eventually held a surprisingly long, cordial meeting with Burg at the Knesset. For its part, the Palestinian Authority turned down the Dalai Lama's request to visit Bethlehem, leading one Israeli interfaith activist to lament: "I find it ironic that a people clamoring for the international community to help its refugees would be so cynical in dealing with another people's plight." But the snub seemed to work, as Li assured the PA of China's firm support for the "sacred goal" of Palestinian statehood.
ARROW-2 ON TARGET
The Arrow-2, an Israeli-made, US-funded anti-ballistic missile system, successfully passed a crucial phase of testing when it intercepted a "live" incoming missile recently just off the Tel Aviv coast. Fourteen up-and-down years in development, the system is the cornerstone of Israel's answer to the growing threat of ballistic missiles carrying conventional and non-conventional warheads, such as Syria's advanced Scud-C's. Considered superior to the US-made Patriot batteries used with limited success during the 1991 Gulf War, the Arrow-2 uses proximity fused warhead technology to create an explosion in the path of incoming missiles - meaning it does not need to hit the actual target to be effective. With this latest success, the Arrow-2 may be deployed in an "emergency" capacity as early as next year.
PA CRACKS DOWN ON DISSENT
The Palestinian Authority clamped down hard on twenty prominent figures for signing a petition charging it adheres to a "policy of threats, corruption, subjugation and exploitation of the Palestinian people." After arresting 11 private citizens for signing the manifesto, PA chairman Yasser Arafat released five detainees who recanted their endorsement. The Palestinian Legislative Council then adopted a statement condemning the petition and censuring nine PLC members for signing the leaflet. The move fell short of lifting their colleagues' immunity, which could have led to their arrest as well. The nine lawmakers withstood PA and Fatah pressures to also recant. After attending the PLC session, one signer was shot outside his Ramallah home by three masked assailants, one a PA policeman. The PA fought back against the petition's charges and a backlash of criticism surrounding the arrests by suggesting certain Arab rivals were behind the manifesto's circulation. Syria drew the most finger-pointing, after dictator Hafez al-Assad ordered a recent crackdown on Arafat loyalists in Palestinian camps in south Lebanon. Palestinian human rights organizations and numerous political factions united in condemning the PA violations of free speech and press. One key figure behind the petition drive told a Bir Zeit University rally: "We say to these corrupt people, stop where you are. This is a country that gave martyrs for a homeland, not for a mafia."