[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


December 9 2005


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


Violence returns


This has been another very bloody week in the life of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Qassam rockets and mortars have continued to hit Israeli towns in the Negev since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, fortunately there have been no casualties yet.  The Palestinian Authority seems to be completely inept or unwilling to confront the barrage of missiles coming from Gaza.  The perpetrators of the attacks come from virtually all of the Palestinian factions and groups.  One of the latest and most violent of the groups taking part is the so-called popular committees, loosely associated with Fatah.  In reality these are gangs of thieves, extortionists and gangsters who were once part of the PA security apparatuses in the south of the Gaza strip – from Khan Yunis and Rafah.


The Islamic Jihad, which is not participating in the upcoming Palestinian elections has raised its ugly face to new heights, completely ignoring the commitments of the other factions to the ceasefire agreement.  Jihad launched the terrorist attack in the Netanya shopping mall that killed six Israelis and wounded tens of others.  One of the Israelis killed is the brother of an activist from Mahsom Watch – the Israeli women’s organization that persists in daily monitoring of checkpoints to ensure the protection of human rights of Palestinians who must go through the checkpoints.  The Islamic Jihad suicide murderer is believed to have passed through one such checkpoint without being detected.


The Islamic Jihad once again claims that it was taking revenge for the targeted killings by Israel of Islamic Jihad leaders in the West Bank. In November alone Israeli troops killed 15 Palestinians in the West Bank including 3 minors. The Israelis have also engaged in massive arrests of Jihad activists in the past weeks.  But according to Israeli intelligence officials, the latest round of Jihad activism has more to do with external affairs than the continuing Israeli-Palestinian saga.


Israeli intelligence officials claim that Syria and Iran are stirring the cauldron of fire and that directives, funds and ammunitions are pouring into the territories from outside to hit at Israel. Syria is encouraging the Islamic Jihad which has its headquarters in Damascus, in order to divert attention from the worldwide pressure that is building up against the Syrian regime following the investigations of the murder of Rafiq Hariri. 


Iran is interested in diverting attention away from the global focus on Iran’s continuing nuclear program returning to the enrichment of uranium and from the insane extremism coming from its new President.  Just this week UN officials concurred that Iran could be only months away from nuclear weapons capabilities.  According to the Israeli reports, direct orders are being sent from Damascus to Jihad field operatives in the West Bank including details of timing and locations for attacks. Despite what appears to be the first real attempts of the Palestinian Authority to arrest Jihad activists, Israel is not relating seriously to Palestinian President Abbas’ claims that more than 30 such activists are being held by the Authority.  Israel is claiming that all of those arrested by the PA are unimportant low level people and that the real targets are still enjoying immunity from the PA.  Israel’s response is to continue its policy of targeted killings and massive arrests.


Election fever and the security situation


Israeli public opinion is very difficult to decipher.  It seems to be clear that the wide public support that Sharon is enjoying in the polls is a reflection of support for further Israeli disengagements from the Palestinians and for additional withdrawals and settlement dismantlement. On the other hand, Israeli politicians seem to gain public support when they advocate tough measures against the Palestinians and others.  Bibi this week spoke emphatically about future Israeli actions, should he be elected, against Iran’s nuclear threat.  Anyone who knows anything about the Iranian plans is aware that the Israeli success in removing the former Iraqi nuclear threat is child’s play next to the situation in Iran.  While the international community is taking the Iranian threat quite seriously, it seems like the least responsible and unhelpful thing that an Israeli leader could do is to threaten attacks against Iran. But what does Bibi care – it is a good sound bite that the right wing and insecure Israelis like to hear and Bibi loves to shout.


Defense Minister Mofaz, running for the leadership position of the Likud has called for a renewal of house demolitions against the families of suicide bombers.  An IDF report, commissioned by him months ago, showed that these acts are counter-productive and do not deter terrorism – quite the opposite.  But why let facts cloud the rhetoric – it is good for electioneering.


Even Labour leader Amir Peretz was duped into thinking that he can don his own general’s wardrobe and together with his security clique of Ephraim Sneh, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Ami Ayalon threaten military actions if he elected.  Peretz is competing on a field that he should not have entered.  Labour dropped from 26 to 22 seats in the polls following the Netanya terrorist attack.  Peretz appearance in the war room, in my assessment, only contributed to the loss of public support.  Amir Peretz is not going to win votes by acting like General Patton.


Agreements and breaking agreements


Israel continues to voice dissatisfaction with the working of the Rafah border under Palestinian control with EU supervision.  Israel continues to claim that persona non grata are entering Gaza freely and that the agreed mechanism to allow Israel to review those entering Gaza is not working in real time.


The recent terrorist attack provided Israel with an excuse to freeze talks with the Palestinians on the other issues agreed upon in the Rafah crossing agreement. According to the agreement, the bus convoys for passengers were slated to start operating next Thursday, and truck convoys were to begin in mid-January. Security officials confirmed Wednesday that the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yosef Mishlav, had been ordered to cancel meetings scheduled with Palestinian officials in an effort to resolve the controversial issues related to the convoys. Negotiations held in the last few weeks between the Israeli team, headed by Mishlav, and the Palestinian team, headed by PA Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan, have exposed significant gaps between the two sides on a number of issues.


The Palestinians want all those who have PA identity cards to be allowed to cross between Gaza and the West Bank, but Israel wants only Gaza residents to be allowed to enter the West Bank, and says they should be allowed to stay there no more than 10 days. In addition, the Palestinians oppose the Israeli demand that Palestinian men between 16 and 35 not be allowed to cross from one area to another. Israel is currently preventing university students from Gaza to study in West Bank universities.


The US presented a working paper to both sides that proposes that the West Bank and Gaza be connected via five convoys per day, each of which would consist of five buses that would transport a total of 1,800 passengers a day. Israel proposes setting the limit at one five-bus convoy a day, transporting no more than 250 passengers a day between the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border and the Tarqumia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron. The United States recommends that the buses go from the Gaza Strip to stops in the central and northern West Bank, since the checkpoints make it difficult to get from the Hebron area to the rest of the West Bank.


The US hasn't applied pressure on Israel to resume talks over establishing convoys for Palestinians between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, despite having brokered an agreement calling for them, diplomatic officials said Thursday. The US has sent Under-Secretary of State David Welsh and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams to the region to press the sides on the issue, but no tangible results of their visit are yet visible.


More political movements


The most dramatic movement of the week is was the defection of acting Likud chairman Tzahi Hanegbi.  This former radical extremist, the son of the hysterical Geula Cohen, once faced Sharon on the roof tops of Yamit, leading the movement against the withdrawal from Sinai.  Hanegbi is remembered by many of us as the leader of a gang of students who together with Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz would beat up Palestinian-Israeli students at the Hebrew University campus. 


Appearing on Channel 10’s London and Kirschenbaum program last evening, Hanegbi spoke of his moderation that has come with maturity and a growing understanding that Israeli must make concessions to the Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Hangebi stated that Sharon was the best person to negotiate with the Palestinians because he will never be a prisoner of the delusions of the Oslo peaceniks.  And if there are no negotiations, Sharon will be the best person to secure Israel’s future unilaterally. 


From Sharon’s perspective, this acquisition is most problematic.  Just this week the Israeli police, after a three year investigation, recommended to the Attorney General to indict Hanegbi on charges of illegal hiring of personnel when he served as Minister of Environment. Kadima party officials said that new acquisitions of this high level normally go through the “farm forum” – Sharon’s closest advisors, but in the case of Hanegbi, Sharon made a unilateral decision and ordered Kadima officials to put out the welcome mat. Israeli political analysts have spoken about the father-son relationships between the two.  With Sharon’s real sons constantly under investigation for corruption, Habegbi should be a welcome addition to the family.


Speaking about corruption….


Seventy-nine percent of Israelis believe corruption has worsened in the country in the past three years, and 65 percent believe it "has worsened greatly," according to Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer. TI released the results of this global survey in recognition of International Anti-Corruption Day today. TI, a non-profit organization that acts to curb global corruption in business and politics, surveyed 55,000 people in 69 countries, including 500 in Israel. But corruption is not an issue on the Israeli agenda.  Israelis speak about corruption in Israel in the same way they speak about the weather – there doesn’t seem much we can do about it.


More political movements


Kadima officials claim that 1,000 new members are signing up on their web page every day to become members of the new party.  Kadima already claims to have 15,000 registered members – not bad for a new born party.


Some 200 Likud members on Wednesday came out in support of Labor Chairman Amir Peretz at a rally held at the Labor party headquarters in Tel Aviv. Among the surprise guests, which included mainly affiliates from peripheral towns, were a few mayors and Likud branch chairmen.


Businesswoman and cosmetics queen Pnina Rosenblum will swear allegiance to the Knesset next Wednesday, after returning from London. Rosenblum officially replaces Tzahi Hanegbi in the Likud Knesset faction on Saturday afternoon, after the latter's resignation goes into effect.


The registration for the Labour primaries has concluded.  In all 95 contestants will seek positions on the Labour list to be decided by some 100,000 registered Labour voters.  Each contestant had to pay 7500 NIS (over $1,650) to be included in the list of candidates.  Ehud Barak decided to save his money and did not register for the primaries.  Apparently Barak understood that after claiming that the registered Labour voters had no legitimacy he could not expect them to vote for him.  Good riddance.


The Likud primaries


The race in the Likud is heating up.  According to Channel 10 correspondent Raviv Drucker, Likud activists all speak openly of their disdain for Netanyahu using the slogan “anyone but Bibi”, yet Bibi is leading in the polls with about 35% of the support of Likud voters. Drucker’s explanation is that the remaining 65% of the members, who are all against Bibi, are simply not unified behind another candidate.  The other contestants: Silvan Shalom, Shaul Mofaz, Yisrael Katz and Moshe Feiglin all seem to have no chances against Bibi – unless they unite around one opponent to Bibi.  Most analysts believe that with Bibi at the head of the Likud there are severely reduced chances of a Kadima-Likud coalition following the elections. That may be a convincing argument to encourage some of the other contestants to withdraw their candidacy and to back Mofaz or Shalom.  It is almost impossible to imagine a Kadima-Likud coalition with Bibi at the head of the Likud, yet Likud voters, those who have not gone to Kadima, seem intent on leading the opposition to Sharon once he resumes his plan for additional withdrawals in the West Bank.  Bibi is already claiming that Sharon is planning for “the mother of all withdrawals” – sounds good to me!



Sasson who?


Talia Sasson the former Ministry of Justice official who prepared the government report on the illegal outposts spoke this week about the government not taking any action – continuing to ignore the laws of the State of Israel. Only a handful of remedial steps have been taken over the nine months following the March release of the report on the establishment of illegal outposts in the West Bank. Neither the military nor the government has taken any real action in implementing the recommendations of the report.  The Ministerial committee that was created to implement the report has been now disbanded due to the elections.