[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


February 10, 2006


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




Lists and more lists


Campaign season is officially open now that 31 political parties have submitted their lists to the Central Elections Committee. Last minute negotiations led to the unification of the National Religious Party and the National Union. The unification will probably increase their strength but it will weaken the Likud.  The new union of religious Zionist extremists still holds onto the mystical dream of the greater land of Israel.  The main difference between the religious union and the Likud is over this issue.  The Likud officially recognizes the Oslo process even though Netanyahu, as Prime Minister, worked systematically to destroy the agreements. Another difference is that the Likud is almost completely devoid of religious people on their list.  The right wing of Israel has diminished over the past years while the religious parties, which in general were moderate in their political views, have moved to the right.  The new union will depend mainly on the settlers for their votes. The rest of the religious public has a number of choices – as usual, from the Sephardic Shas party, which tried but failed to include a prominent Ashkenazi intellectual on their list, to the ultra orthodox  Ashkenazi Jewish Torah party, to the fanatic extremist Hebron hoodlum Baruch Marzel, the follower and disciple of Meir Kahana, who heads the National Jewish front party.


The Arab parties also managed to somewhat unite with the United Arab list of Dahamshe (the Islamic movement), Ahmad Tibi’s national Arab list, and the Arab democratic party.  Running against them are Hadash – the communists and Arab nationalists, and Azmi Bishara’s Balad party.  Balad is planning an aggressive campaign against voting for Zionist parties.  Their slogan will be something like “shame on you if you vote for Zionists!”


Some of the more esoteric parties that will probably not pass the 2% threshold are: Tafnit of the former national security advisor Uzi Dayan, Shinui and its estranged sister Hetz – standing for secular Zionism, Lechem – bread or struggle – leading the unemployed and hungry who did not find a common language with Amir Peretz, Tzomet and Herut – both looking to the shrinking radical right for support.


One party which will fair well is Avigdor Leiberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party which is looking at 6-10 seats in the polls – mainly from the Russian voters.  Ale Yarok – the green leaf party is bordering the threshold once again, and may send two happy smokers to the Knesset.


The polls show no major shifts this week but now we are 46 days from elections and in the coming weeks the reported 9% of undecided voters will begin to make decisions, some changes may be ahead but very few surprises and in store.



Doha, Cairo, Moscow, Washington, New York and back again


Qatar, the small desert Emirate, 11.5 thousand square kilometers of sand with zero fresh water reserves and some 863,000 citizens with a per capita income of about $26,000 (Israel= $17,000 per capita) deserves some attention this week. Qatar is home to Al-Jazeera satellite television that has revolutionized television news in the Arab world. It is also one of the oil rich nations of the world producing some 790,000 barrels a day. Qatar hosted the Hamas delegation yesterday after concluding their summit meeting in Cairo.  The Hamas delegation is making the rounds in the oil rich Gulf in search of money to fund the PA should international aid decline or end.  It is likely that Qatar will add some funds to the PA’s empty barrel. 


Qatar’s Foreign Minister also telephoned Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to New York last night where she is completing her first US tour as Foreign Minister.  Is Qatar trying to be a mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict?  Qatar has been making serious inroads into Israel in the past years.  The most visible of all of Qatar’s efforts was the funding of the football stadium in Sakhnin which is called Doha Stadium in honor of Qatar’s capital city. Last week a Qatari business delegation visited Israel – staying way below the media radar screnes. 


In the Cairo summit Egyptian leaders and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa pressured Hamas to accept the Arab league initiative of March 2002 which called on Israeli to withdraw to the 1967 borders, allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just and agreeable solution to the refugee problem in exchange for which Israel will receive full peace and recognition from all of the countries of the Arab league.  The initiative had the unanimous support of all member states of the Arab league when it was voted on in Beirut in 2002.  Quite interestingly, if Hamas were to accept the Arab League initiative it would then be able to state unequivocally that it is willing to recognize Israel on the condition that Israel ends the occupation. If, along with it Hamas continued the tahdiya – calm – ceasefire, which it has observed with great discipline already for just over 1 year, two of the three main Israeli demands on the Hamas could be interpreted as having been met (1-recognition, 2- ceasing terrorism, and 3- recognizing all signed agreements  = agreeing to a political process). Regarding the issue of disarming, Hamas leaders laughed that one off as they stated that they would be fully willing to turn over their arms to the Palestinian Authority police that they control.  Hamas’ political strategy is to place the onus of meeting demands on Israel rather than on itself.  Hamas’s grand strategy is to turn the occupation into the main issue and crime and not terrorism.


Israel’s strategy is to ensure that the international community not compromise on the accepted demands for recognition of Hamas, but Russian President Putin already broke out of the international consensus and invited Hamas leaders to visit Moscow.  Hamas has already responded positively to the invitation.  Russia is one of the four legs of a Quartet, which if until now was not particularly relevant, is now either going to function as a triplet or cease to exist – at least from Israel’s viewpoint.  The Russian invitation and recognition of Hamas is a major blow to Israel’s strategy.  Tzipi Livni’s message to the Ambassador’s of the five permanent members of the Security Council, who she met with yesterday was that the international community must not lower the demands to recognize Hamas – this would only encourage global terrorism - she told them.  Her meeting took place prior to Putin’s announcement that he is inviting Hamas to Moscow.  It is even likely that the Russian Ambassador in the UN had no idea of Putin’s surprise.  Perhaps now Israel should invite the Chechnyan Islamic separatists for a visit to Jerusalem?


Hamas will continue to find cracks in the wall of international resistance to recognize it.  Nonetheless, Russia is only the first of others that will open a door to Hamas.  Now, those open doors are being explained as the only way to influence a process of moderation.  Time will tell if this strategy works – until now Hamas has not given any official signals of a policy shift, despite some of the more moderate voices that have been heard.


President Bush’s “surprise” visit with Livni while she was meeting with US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was aimed at sending a clear message around the world that the US supports Israel’s policy on Hamas.  The President’s message was further strengthened this week when his 2007 budget was sent to Congress with no less than $2.8 billion of US tax payers support to Israel. Bush also spoke about a US military umbrella that will protect Israel in the event that Iran does manage to complete its nuclear weapons program.  The US would like at this time to keep Israel silent while the international community, through the Security Council, tries to prevent the Iranians from advancing their program. With the price of oil rising above $66 a barrel this week, the Iranians now have enough cash flowing back to Tehran that any attempts of international sanctions will take a very long time to have any real impact.


Speaking about money….


Israeli trade to the Arab world grew substantially in 2005.  Israeli exports to the Arab world were up 29% reaching a total of $232.6 million.  The highest growth on the list was Egypt where Israel increased its exports by 214% reaching $93.  Israel exports more to Jordan, $115.2 million in 2005, but this was a decrease of 13% from last year. Other significant increases were 18% to Morocco ($11.2 million), and Tunisia 69% ($1.9 million). The Qatari business delegation that visited Israel last week kept a very low profile as almost all of their time was spent searching out business opportunities in Israel.  They were not interested in doing business in the Palestinian areas although the Palestinians are hoping to increase some of their meager exports to the Gulf.  In particular the Palestinians are interested in shipping agricultural produce from the West Bank to the Gulf where they hope to get higher prices than the local market. 


The Israeli Contractors Association this week announced that it was making efforts to renew purchases of stone, marble and aggregates from Palestinian producers. This is the result of the single-handed effort of Lt. Colonel (ret.) Itzik Gurvitz who for the past years headed the economic branch of the Coordinator’s office in the Ministry of Defense. At a time when Palestinian labor in Israel is being reduced to a negligible level, purchasing of Palestinian goods by Israelis is the best way to help the Palestinian private sector to survive.


Erez, Karni, Qassams, Fatah and futility


For the past two weeks Israel has been fighting back against the Qassam rocket rainfall that continues to hit the western Negev and south of Ashkelon.  Israeli General Yoav Gallant said that Israel has fired hundreds of artillery shells into the northern area of Gaza destroying roads and bridges leading to the areas where Qassam rockets are fired and will continue to shoot as long as the Qassams are being fired.  The launchers apparently have not been Hamas people, but Fatah affiliates. Under the operations title of “lightening” the Israeli air force has been hitting hard at Fatah gunmen.  In the past two week 15 have been killed by air force missile.  Along with the continued Qassam launchings, yesterday Fatah gunmen tried an attack at the Erez crossing where more than 5,000 Palestinian laborers cross into Israel every day. At 4:30 am Israeli guards suddenly noticed that the flow of human traffic ceased.  They also noticed that the Palestinian guards on the other side of the wall deserted their posts. The Israeli troops had sufficient time to prepare for the attack and after just a few moments of fighting, two Palestinian gunmen were killed, a third is believed to have escaped.  Now Erez is closed until further notice. I tried to help a friend, the manager of the Beit Hanoun agricultural cooperative, to get out of Erez yesterday – he needs to travel to Tunis where he is supposed to attend an agricultural trade fair trying to market Palestinian fresh produce from Gaza to Tunisia.  Obviously, after the attack on Erez there was no one to speak with.  The Israelis had issued a permit for him to travel to Tunisia via Ben Gurion airport, now at least he has the possibility of traveling to Cairo via Rafah. It is not as easy and takes more time, but at least he is not trapped.


Israel re-opened the Karni crossing after being closed for 26 days because of security risks.  During that time, the Palestinians claim that they lost $30 million from fresh produce that rotted instead of getting to the markets.  The Israeli-Palestinian agreement on crossing facilitated by Secretary Rice stipulated that if Karni had to be closed for security reasons, another crossing would be opened immediately in its place.  Israel offered the Palestinian the use of Kerem Shalom, which has never been used for cargo, but the PA refused because they fear that this was an Israeli attempt to force the Palestinian to use Kerem Shalom on a permanent basis.  The Palestinians rejected the use of Kerem Shalom because it leaves full control to the Israelis and could replace Rafah.  The Palestinians insisted on using Erez or Sufa crossings which are not prepared for regular cargo transports and would be likely to remain temporary.  The political haggling was, as usual, on the backs of the poor guys – in this case the Gaza farmers.  Two weeks before Karni was re-opened the Palestinians found a tunnel underneath Karni that led to the Israeli side and they turned over some $25 kilos of explosives that were supposed to be used to blow up the crossing.