November 2010 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
NEW SETTLEMENT FREEZE MAY BE ON THE WAY
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepted an offer from the Obama administration in mid-November for a new construction freeze in Judea and Samaria that would be in effect for three months. In exchange, the American government has pledged to supply Israel with new military hardware, including twenty advanced warplanes. A vote on the proposal by Netanyahu's Security Cabinet did not take place as expected on November 21 since an assurance note promised to Netanyahu by the Secretary of State had not yet been finalized.
The Israeli Premier's decision to accept the American proposal sparked off a political firestorm in the country. Settlement leaders set up a protest tent near Netanyahu's official government home and also held demonstrations against a new building ban in several locations. Opposition politicians and some Labor party members charged that a three month freeze would not allow enough time for serious negotiations to be completed with the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile the PA itself condemned the American proposal, calling it a cover for further US military arming of Israel. PA leaders again demanded that Netanyahu immediately enact a permanent building freeze which would include the eastern half of Jerusalem.
Tensions remained high in and around the Gaza Strip during the month as a new flurry of rockets were fired by Palestinian Muslim militiamen at Israeli civilian targets. Israeli military forces returned the fire, killing several wanted terrorist activists. This came as a senior IDF official revealed that Hamas now possesses rockets that are able to strike the country's largest urban area in and around Tel Aviv. Tensions also remained high in Lebanon, with IDF officials warning that the radical Hizbullah militia has the ability to capture full control of the fractured county within a few hours of launching a coup.
In a rare act, Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders in the Lord's land joined together to call upon their congregants to fast and pray for much needed rain. This came as Israeli meteorologists forecast that this coming winter's precipitation would probably not end the half decade drought which has plagued the country. On a brighter note, Israel broke its old tourism record in November as the number of foreign visitors topped three million for the first time ever.
THE AMERICAN PROPOSAL
The new construction ban being proposed by the United States government dominated the news in Israel during the month. The proposal was put forward by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a visit by PM Netanyahu to Washington on November 12. The Obama administration reportedly offered to supply Israel with new military hardware including up to 20 F-35 stealth fighter aircraft by the year 2020. The US would also preposition billions of dollars worth of American weaponry in storehouses around Israel, with the understanding that the armaments would be quickly made available to the IDF in the event of a new Middle East war.
Netanyahu and Ehud Barak both publicly maintained that the supply of the advanced warplanes would significantly enhance Israel's military capabilities. A three month building freeze is a small price to pay for the coveted fighter aircraft, they argued. However critics pointed out that the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran and its allies Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas is an immediate one, with a major missile attack expected sometime in the next few years at the most. Some analysts even predicted that a new war on the Korean peninsula could spark off a conflict in the Middle East, with Iran closely linked to communist North Korea. Critics of the US proposal charged that the supply of the sophisticated F-35 jets in ten years time would not aid Israel in its current struggle against the Iranian axis of evil. Some added that if a new round of peace negotiations falters, as many regional analysts predict, this could trigger widespread Palestinian street violence which Iran and its allies might use as a cover for fresh aggression against the Jewish state.
Media reports quoted unnamed Israeli leaders who said Netanyahu agreed to negotiate the final borders of a future Palestinian state with the PA during the proposed three month construction halt. PA leaders have been insisting that final borders must be spelled out before other issues like a potential refugee return can be tackled. However many analysts warned that pushing the border issue to the front of any new peace talks is an almost certain guarantee that the negotiations will fail to end the conflict with the Palestinians. This is because the PA wants the permanent border to run right through the middle of Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest city on earth. Any serious Palestinian concession on this explosive issue could potentially ignite a new Hamas attempt to overthrow the PA in the West Bank, as the extremist group succeeded in doing in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Any major concession by Netanyahu could split his party and prematurely end his days as Premier.
Various Israeli and Arab media reports claimed Mahmoud Abbas is demanding President Obama back the PA insistence that all Jewish residents of two major settlement cities, Ariel in Samaria and Efrat south of Jerusalem, be thrown out of their homes as part of any final peace deal. While some Israeli politicians support the idea that Ariel, located northeast of Tel Aviv and now home to around 17,000 Jews, should be abandoned since it is rather isolated in its location, very few support the destruction of Efrat, which is located in the large Gush Etzion settlement block between Bethlehem and Judaism's second holiest city on earth, Hebron.
Ariel is the fourth largest city in the disputed territories. It was founded in 1978 just months after the late Likud leader Menachem Begin defeated the long ruling Labor party headed by Yitzhak Rabin in the 1977 national elections. Today the thriving city has several large shopping centers, a sports club, 14 synagogues, a public library and two industrial zones where some Palestinians from the area are employed. Twenty seven new factories opened up in the two zones last year. The fact that Ariel is situated 11 miles east of the 1967 Green Line, deep inside territory that the PA claims for a future state, is the main reason that some Israeli political parties say it must be evacuated as part of any final peace deal. Others maintain that the city should remain in place, especially since it is on the main road route to the Israeli coastal plane that military forces from the east would probably attempt to use in any major conflict.
Efrat is a smaller town than Ariel with nearly nine thousand residents. Located just a couple miles southwest of Bethlehem, it is considered a suburb of Jerusalem. Efrat was founded in 1983 by Shlomo Riskin, an American-born rabbi who writes a weekly religious column for the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Rabbi Riskin still serves as chief rabbi in the mainly observant community that is home to many Americans. Named after the second biblical designation for the ancient town of Bethlehem, Efrat has 22 synagogues and several Orthodox Jewish seminaries. Most religious Israeli Jews would probably strongly oppose uprooting the community, although some say they realize that a final peace accord will never be achieved with the PA unless at least a few of the more isolated Jewish settlement communities are eventually abandoned.
PA POURS COLD WATER ON NEW TALKS
The prospects that a new round of peace negotiations will actually take place seemed to dim in late November when PA President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech before his Fatah partly leaders in Ramallah spelling out his conditions for resuming the frozen talks. He said his PA autonomy government would only sit at the negotiating table again if Israel declares a complete settlement building freeze which included the eastern half of Jerusalem, and agrees to tackle the thorny border issue first. An unidentified Israeli official told journalists that "It is a pity he is entrenching himself in his pre-conditions, and we don't understand the logic. It is almost as if he is searching for excuses not to negotiate." Some Israeli analysts said that is precisely the case, since Abbas fears a showdown with Hamas and its regional backers far more than he wants a peace deal with Israel.
Israeli officials admit that the touted negotiations are in limbo do to the question of which of the many issues that needs to be addressed would be discussed during the proposed three month construction freeze. PM Netanyahu has stated several times that he wants overall security to be the first issue discussed. This came as indications grew that the Obama administration was backing away from its earlier pledge to give the Israeli government a written guarantee that this would be the final building freeze it would ever demand. Analysts said the Americans apparently want to keep open the possibility of yet another freeze in the future if the peace talks make little progress during the proposed three month ban. It was not clear by the end of November if Netanyahu would go ahead and attempt to seek cabinet approval for a new housing halt without the promised US guarantee.
NEW LAW STIRS CONTROVERSY
Meanwhile the Israeli Knesset passed legislation on November 22 that would possibly render any negotiated final status peace accord null and void. The new law stipulates that any future land withdrawals must either be approved by a large ‘super majority' of Knesset members, or be taken to the voters in a national referendum. The controversial Israeli law states that if at least 80 Knesset members do not sanction any negotiated withdrawal plan, a national referendum vote must be held.
The withdrawal legislation was supported by 65 Knesset members, including many who are part of the ruling coalition led by Netanyahu's Likud party. Just over one fourth of the parliament members, 33, voted against the bill, including most members of the opposition Kadima party headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The PM publicly supported the proposal, stating it will assure that any future peace accord with the PA and/or Syria will have broad public support. He insisted that the new legislation will not hinder efforts to reach sustainable peace treaties with the Palestinians and Syria.
Chief PA peace negotiator Saeb Erekat blasted the Knesset vote, maintaining that "With the passage of this bill, the Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law." He insisted that "Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum." Ironically, PA President Abbas has pledged to hold a similar referendum vote amongst his Palestinian people, which is widely seen as an attempt to deflect expected fierce Hamas opposition to any compromise peace accord.
In Damascus, Syrian leaders also rejected the referendum law, saying Israeli government officials must pull out of the Golan Heights whether the general public supports such a move or not. Opinion polls consistently reveal that a substantial majority of Israeli voters oppose any future evacuation of the strategic plateau, which rises above the vital Sea of Galilee and the upper Galilee panhandle and is home to thousands of Israelis. A majority also oppose any land transfers inside Jerusalem's wide municipal boundaries. Most also want to keep control over three large settlement blocks near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Although home to over 300,000 Israelis, the area in question comprises only 4.5% of the total land that the Palestinians want to incorporate into any future state.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly opposed the approved legislation, saying the new law "raises questions about the government's desire and ability to lead the peace process." In a speech before pensioners later the same week, he said he wants to see right wing parties, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, replaced in the coalition government by Kadima. Barak noted that "There is a certain contradiction between the structure of the government and the chances of deepening the peace negotiations." The Labor party leader added that "We joined the government so it would go in that direction, and we are going that way, but still not reaching the destination. If it turns out that this government in its current configuration cannot move forward in a diplomatic process, it will be necessary to weigh expanding it and creating a national unity government." Opinion surveys reflect widespread public support for such a government. Still everyone realizes that PM Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni are deep personal rivals who are likely to frequently clash if her centrist party joins the coalition.
Meanwhile PA officials renounced an Israeli cabinet decision which authorized spending over $23 million dollars to make improvements to the hallowed Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem's walled Old City. The five year plan includes upgrading the plaza's physical infrastructure, improving transport to and from the area, and preserving archaeological findings located there. The plaza is the most visited public site in Israel, hosting eight million people last year, a majority of them religious Israeli Jews. It is also the site of several annual state ceremonies, many bar mitzvahs and other private religious celebrations, and visits by student groups and IDF units.
PM Netanyahu's office released a statement noting that the Western Wall "is the Jewish people's most important heritage site." This view is obviously not shared by PA leaders who often echo the late Yasser Arafat in denying any ancient Jewish link to the Temple Mount. The PA Information Ministry reacted to the November 21 cabinet decision by releasing what it claimed was a "study" about "the Al-Buraq Wall." That Arabic name for the Western Wall comes from the Islamic teaching that the wall was the place where Muhammad tied up his flying horse Al Baruq after a nighttime supernatural ride from Arabia to Jerusalem's Old City.
The acrimonious PA statement asserted that the Western Wall plaza is exclusively Islamic Trust property that is supposedly actually owned by an Algerian-Moroccan Muslim family. The Western Wall itself belongs entirely to Muslims, added the statement, and is "an integral part" of the Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount. The PA alleged that "the Zionist occupation falsely and unjustly claims that it owns this wall," maintaining falsely that Jews had never used the site for worship until the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917. "No one has the right to agree with the occupation state's racist and oppressive measures against history and holy sites…or to give up one stone of the Al-Buraq Wall or other religious sites," said the belligerent statement. Ownership of the wall was behind the 1929 Arab riots which left dozens of Jews dead in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron and other locations. A commission was established in London to investigate the matter, concluding that the wall should be shared by the two faiths.
FRESH THREATS FROM THE NORTH
American congress members who had withheld 200 million dollars in designated financial aid to the Lebanese Army because of the border clash with the IDF last August released the money during November. This came soon after Secretary of State Clinton issued a strong warning to the Shiite Hizbullah movement that it would suffer severe consequences if it attempts to overthrow the current Lebanese government, of which it is a coalition partner. This came soon after a senior IDF intelligence officer stated that heavily armed Hizbullah militiamen could probably take over the entire country within four hours of launching a coup against the government headed by Saad Hariri. Syrian forces would probably then enter Lebanon to reinforce the move, backed by Iran.
Hillary Clinton's warning came as indications grew that a special UN tribunal report on the 2005 assassination of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad's father, was carried out by Hizbullah. She told the Lebanese An Nahar newspaper that Hizbullah leaders "should know that if the goal of violence is to stop the tribunal, it won't work." Her statement came after senior Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah maintained his militiamen are ready to "cut off the hand" of anyone that attempts to arrest any Hizbullah officials or militiamen in connection with the upcoming UN report. He added bellicosely that, "Those who think the resistance will not defend itself and its dignity against any accusation are mistaken." He also boasted that his forces are ready and eager for a military showdown with Israel.
Other statements threatening military action against Israel were issued during the month by the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Syria. During a visit to Beirut, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of committing war crimes in Lebanon and warned that his country "will not remain silent" if fighting breaks out between Israel and Lebanese forces. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told the Moscow News media outlet that "there is no doubt that closing the horizons to peace may lead to a possible war." In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued new vows to destroy Israel as Egypt and Saudi Arabia held major military maneuvers in the north of Egypt in preparation for a possible regional war with Iran. This came as Israeli army leaders warned that the Jewish state has been sliding into the same precarious military situation that was revealed during the treacherous 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Israel was initially losing.
Meanwhile many Israelis were focused on the continuing dearth of rainfall plaguing the small country and its regional neighbors for over half a decade. This November was the driest on record since 1968. Israeli meteorologists say indications are growing that the coming winter may see the least rainfall ever in modern times. Several desalination plants are being built which will help alleviate the water shortage, but not until 2013.
As noted earlier, the lack of rain prompted religious leaders in the country to call for special prayers and fasting. One of Israel's chief rabbis stated that it is the blatant sins of the Israeli people, especially moral sins, which are causing God to withhold rain from the Promised Land, as occurred in the time of Jeremiah when the weeping prophet prayed that the Holy One of Israel would forgive the gross sins of His covenant people: For Your Name's sake spurn us not, disgrace not the throne of Your glory. Remember Your covenant with us and break it not" (Jeremiah 14:21).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.