[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


April 21, 2006


This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin


Terror hits again


Nine more Israelis were killed this week when an Islamic Jihad youngster murdered innocent holiday celebrators at a popular worker’s restaurant near the old Tel Aviv bus station.  This is the second time the same restaurant was hit. Reminiscent of the bloody Pessah of 2002, it seems that Israelis were deeply impacted by the attack and many of the usual Pessah celebrations had unusually low turnouts.  Many Israelis felt safer to stay closer to home and not to show up to places where there would be large crowds.  We were once again reminded that the war has not yet ended and even though the Hamas has kept itself out of direct aggression, it has not done anything to prevent other forces from attacking Israel.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quick to condemn the attack in very strong language.  All ears were waiting to see if the Hamas Prime Minister would follow in Abbas’ path, but there was no announcement at all from the PM’s office. Instead, some Hamas spokespeople said that Hamas would not condemn attacks against the occupation and the occupiers, and that Israel continues everyday to kill innocent Palestinians and that no one is raising a voice against Israel’s terrorism.


How to respond?


Prime Minister elect Olmert was presented with a difficult challenge with the terror attack hitting on the same day that the new Knesset was being sworn in.  He convened a meeting of some of the cabinet members and brought in the military and security chiefs to hear their recommendations of how to respond.  The family of the bomber from a village near Jenin immediately cleared out their possessions from their home expecting the IDF to come at any moment to demolish the home. Some of the Islamic Jihad leaders took for the hills knowing that the Apache helicopters would soon be gunning them down.


The decisions coming out of the cabinet were far less dramatic than expected, although I assume that a number of military operations were decided on that were not exposed to the press.  The main Government decisions, after the well known words “we will know how to respond and where to respond” were sounded off by Olmert, included speeding up the building of the wall that will close the entire Jerusalem area off from unchecked Palestinian entry, removing Jerusalem residency status from Hamas MP’s and Ministers living in Jerusalem, and arresting Islamic Jihad activists throughout the West Bank.  Close to 70 of those were arrested immediately after the attack in Tel Aviv.


The wall around and in Jerusalem is progressing rapidly changing the face of Jerusalem with almost no public debate or oversight.  Even the Courts responded rapidly after the Tel Aviv attack by rejecting the petitions of several Palestinian communities where the wall will remove their free access to Jerusalem and Ramallah and move them further away from their lands.  Residents of Bir Naballah between Jerusalem and Ramallah will no longer be able to use a road that enabled them free access to both cities, now they will have to go through the new Atarot (Kalandia) passenger terminal. Israel’s policy will be to have passenger terminals established at all possible crossing points (about 9 of them will be built) using biometric technology that will enable Palestinians holding permits to cross into Israel with minimal contact between soldiers and civilians. The use of those technologies is something that we recommended early in 1997 when the numbers of Palestinians crossing into Israel was much higher. The message behind these steps is that physical and economic separation of Israel from the West Bank is moving forward. Olmert’s commitment to separation is firm and rather than making fiery speeches about hitting back at the Palestinians, he is speeding up policy decisions that implement his vision.


Removing Hamas from Jerusalem


The decision of revoking residency rights from Hamas PLC Members and Ministers in Jerusalem is not the first time that Olmert has advanced a policy to reduce the number of Palestinians living in Jerusalem.  Olmert was behind an aggressive policy of limiting residency rights from Palestinians when he was mayor of the city.  Many Palestinians were forced out of the city during that period because of the policy of reducing their numbers.  The policy against the Hamas politicians is not aimed at reducing the numbers of Palestinians in the city but at fighting back at Hamas with a political weapon.  The Hamas members do enjoy certain real benefits by holding residency in the Israeli capital and the blue ID card that they carry enables them to receive National Insurance payments, medical benefits and free movement inside of Israel.


The Government of Israel has declared that the Hamas led PA Government is a “hostile authority” and therefore its members should be treated as such.  It is interesting that the Government has not yet declared the Hamas-led PA an “enemy authority” – that will be the next step up the ladder if and when there is an escalation in violence with the Hamas actively engaging in attacks against Israel.  As a “hostile authority” Israel is holding firm to its demands that Hamas recognize Israel, adhere to signed agreements and denounce terrorism, and if not, it will pay the price of its hostility. Israel is placing full responsibility for the Tel Aviv attack on the Hamas government because as the ruling authority it holds responsibility over the security forces which are supposed to fight against terrorism according to the Oslo agreements.  The revoking of Jerusalem residency rights from the Hamas PLC members did not create political shock waves in the local diplomatic community.  Their biggest concern seemed to be whether or not it would include their family members.  Tzipi Livni assured the diplomats that it did not include the family members, and they were calmed.



Arab MK’s hit back


The newly elected Arab Members of Knesset were not calmed and they immediately organized a meeting with the Hamas PLC Members from Jerusalem. The presence of Raam-Tal’s Taleb a’Sana’ at the meeting set off some loud decibels from some of the right wing Israeli MK’s.  A’Sana had just been appointed a member of the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset.  This appointment was seen as a pay-back for A’Sana’s support to PM Sharon during the battles over the Gaza disengagement. Now MK A’Sana’ was seen supporting the enemy together with the other Arab MK’s in direct confrontation with the decisions of the cabinet.


Former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami publicly defended their rights as MK’s to advance their own political agenda.  As members of the opposition, he said, it is their responsibility to oppose the decisions of the government.  Their meeting with the Hamas members is why the Knesset created and legislated political immunity for elected officials.


Jewish MK’s hit back at Taleb but Taleb wants to visit Dimona


But not everyone agrees with Ben Ami.  Yuval Shteinitz, the strongest ally of Bibi, still acting chairman of the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset, demanded that a temporary ad-hoc ethics committee be formed to remove A’sana from the Security and Foreign Affairs committee. Likud MK Danny Naveh suggested immediate legislation that would prevent meetings with Hamas members making those meetings criminal acts even for MK’s.  MK Taleb A’sana added fuel to the fire of the debate by announcing that as a member of the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset he will demand the right to visit the nuclear reactor in Dimona.  A’sana is a Bedouin from the Negev who has grown up in the shadow of the reactor – the most secured military facility in the country. Now A’sana is fully prepared to challenge the military and legal establishment by demanding the rights to inspect and visit the site.  The 17th Knesset will certainly be an interesting one.


Hamas continue to challenge


The appointment of Jamal Abu Samhadanah, the overall commander of the Popular Resistance Committees in the Gaza Strip, to a senior post in the Palestinian Authority Interior Ministry, which is formally responsible for the Palestinian security forces is Hamas’ latest challenge to Israel. Abu Samhadanah has been on Israel’s “most wanted” list since the beginning of the intifada.  Several failed assassination attempts were made against him.  His new position heading a newly formed Hamas supported security force will bring him out into the open and expose him to possible Israeli attacks in the future. I assume that Israel will take great pleasure in the challenge of removing Abu Samahadan from his new position.


Livni on refugees


During her meeting with the local diplomats after the Tel Aviv attack, Livni once again took up her favorite issue – the future of the Palestinian refugees.  Livni impressed upon the diplomats that they can help in any future political process by accepting Israel’s position that any future Palestinian refugee return would be to the Palestinian state only and not to Israel.  If this position were to be accepted by the international community, as it was accepted by President Bush, it would enable Israel to more actively seek to advance some kind of negotiations with the Palestinians.  The refugee issue is the key, according to Livni and acceptance of the Israeli position would provide Israel with the possible strength to be able to negotiate other issues with the Palestinians with greater freedom, that is, assuming that there is a partner on the other side.


Livni did not speak at any great lengths about the partner – Mahmoud Abbas.  Palestinian newspapers have been filled with articles dealing with Abass’ establishment of a shadow government – a parallel political authority to that of the Hamas-led Parliament and cabinet.  Abbas is employing more and more of the former executives of the Fateh-led PA under the Office of the Presidency.  It would be wise for the Tzipi Livni and the Government of Israel to pay more attention to the positive steps that Abass is taking and to finally decide that he is the partner.  Abbas needs to be recognized for what he is doing in directly challenging Hamas.  Israel should acknowledge those steps and engage him directly.  Olmert should come through now with his election victory declaration that he would meet Abbas.  Olmert should take the message of partnership with Abbas to the White House as well and the US Government should also take steps to acknowledge what is being achieved in Ramallah and Gaza.


Coalition negotiations


Coalition negotiations should be winding down over the next week.  They are now reaching the most sensitive and difficult stage – who gets what position. On substance, the principle of raising minimum wage has been achieved, now it is a matter of how much and when.  Labour’s most significant achievement will prove to be the acceptance of its demand of a mandatory pension law for all workers.  Millions of Israelis will be able to thank Peretz for years to come for that wonderful achievement. 


It seems that Lieberman will be joining the coalition, which means that Meretz will not be there.  That is most unfortunate and a very bad call by Olmert. While Lieberman may not get the post of Minister of Internal Security, his number 2, Yisrael Hasson, will probably sit in that Ministry.  Hasson’s joining together with Leiberman raised a lot of eyebrows because Hasson was an active member of the Israeli negotiating team with the Palestinians as Number 2 in the Shin Bet.  Most Palestinian negotiators I know who worked with Hasson had rather positive things to say about him and could not understand what he was doing in such a clearly racist party.  We may get to witness a different side of Hasson that was until now not known.


Kadima is still adhering to the position that the Finance Ministry will remain in Kadima’s possession.  At the same time, Peretz is still demanding that he will be the next Minister of Finance. Kadima has apparently offered Peretz the Defense Ministry probably calculating that public criticism of that appointment would force Peretz to appoint someone like Ehud Barak to the Ministry.  That would be a disaster and might lead to the political rejuvenation of Barak who, in my view, should be kept in permanent political exile. I believe that Peretz would be a much better Defense Minister than Barak and that he would even be better in the Defense Ministry than in the Finance Ministry.  He would also be in a better position to help the economy from the heavily inflated Ministry of Defense than in Finance where he would be in constant battle with the professional civil servants who are the leaders of the most capitalist policies that Peretz opposes – such as wholesale privatization.


Labour is still trying to strengthen its position by fighting for the contested 20th seat. The 20th seat was turned over to the Arab list Raam-Tal but Labour is contesting that decision in the courts claiming that there were some irregularities in some of the Arab ballots. Meanwhile, Labour is demanding the Education Ministry for Yuli Tamir and the Interior Ministry as well.  Kadima has said that since Sharon promised Education to Kadima’s Uriel Reichman, that is what will happen.  The relative calm of the coalition negotiations will be lost this week as the real issues of who gets what heats up into threats and walk-outs – finally some drama in what has been seen as the most boring Israeli political negotiations in history.