Briefs: West Bank withdrawals coming, Peres says; Israel wants U.S. to stay the course on P.A.

West Bank withdrawals coming, Peres says

Israel plans to remove some West Bank settlements according to Shimon Peres.

The Israeli vice premier said Saturday that, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan to “realign” the West Bank deployment was shelved after last year’s Lebanon war, settlement evacuations are still on the agenda.

“Yes, settlements will be removed — not all the settlements, and I’m not even sure most of the settlements,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 television, adding that the number of communities evacuated could be in the dozens. “I think that a serious effort will be made to do that which we undertook to do, which is removing settlements.” Peres said the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority could affect the scale and pace of the withdrawals by accepting peace talks with Israel.

Israel wants U.S. to stay the course on P.A.

Israel is trying to shore up U.S. objections to the planned Palestinian Authority coalition government. Top aides of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled Sunday to Washington, where they will urge Bush administration officials not to yield to European calls to engage the Hamas-Fatah unity government when it is formed.

The Palestinian Authority power-sharing pact, which was signed in Saudi Arabia last month, contains a vague reference to “respecting” past peace deals with Israel, falling short of Western demands that the Hamas-led government recognize the Jewish state and renounce terrorism. But Israel believes that some European nations are wavering for fear that the Palestinian Authority’s continued isolation will harm its president, Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and a perceived moderate.

Separately, U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey was in Israel on Sunday for talks with local officials on the effect of the Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority, and whether such measures could also be applied against Iran’s nuclear program.

Jordan’s King Abdullah wants more U.S. involvement

Jordan’s King Abdullah said the United States was not balanced in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

“It is our duty to push this great nation, and others, to take balanced positions and support the peace process,” Abdullah told Jordanian television in a weekend interview ahead of a trip to the United States. He said Washington should use its influence on Israel “to prove its transparency to the peoples of the region, and that it is not biased.”

Abdullah, whose pro-Western country is considered an important regional broker, suggested that Israel was not displaying sincerity in its efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

“The main responsibility lies with Israel, which must choose either to remain a prisoner of the mentality of ‘Israel the fortress’ or to live in peace and stability with its neighbors,” he said.

Hungarian political unrest spurs anti-Semitism

Hungary’s leader warned of rising anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said in an interview published over the weekend that the hatred of Jews in Hungary has reached new heights since a wave of anti-government protests last year.

“I have to say that there have never been so many anti-Semitic remarks as now,” Gyurcsany told Britain’s Times newspaper.

Hungary’s left-leaning government was disgraced in September after it was revealed to have lied about the economy in order to win the previous election. Gyurcsany said that during the resulting demonstrations, protesters tried to blame Jewish politicians, apparently with the encouragement of right-wing opposition members.

“There is something horrible happening,” said Gyurcsany, whose wife is of Jewish descent.

Hadassah receives $75 million for Jerusalem hospital

Hadassah received a $75 million contribution for a new inpatient tower at its Jerusalem hospital. William and Karen Davidson gave the gift on behalf of Guardian Industries Corp. of Auburn Hills, Mich., of which William Davidson is president. Hadassah will name the new facility at the Hadassah Medical Center the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower in memory of William Davidson’s mother, who was a founder of the organization’s Detroit chapter.

“The power of family is truly a binding one, and I feel privileged to be the third generation to support Hadassah’s goals and achievements,” Davidson said in a statement.

Davidson, who owns several sports teams, including the Detroit Pistons, said he was impressed by the way Hadassah treats patients of all religions and backgrounds. The $210 million inpatient tower will be a 14-story structure with 500 beds, 20 state-of-the-art operating rooms and 50 intensive-care beds. The tower is expected to boost Hadassah’s capabilities in many fields, such as cardiology, telemedicine and laparoscopic surgery, and will facilitate the use of advanced robotics and computers.

Minister denies war crimes allegations

An Israeli Cabinet minister denied Egyptian accusations that he was involved in the killing of Egyptian prisoners of war.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a retired army general, said Sunday that his record during the 1967 war with Egypt was spotless. His comments came after some of his former subordinates said in an Israeli documentary that they had killed Egyptian prisoners, a claim that was picked up by the official Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram and prompted calls in the Egyptian Parliament for Ben-Eliezer to be tried for war crimes.

“The commandos under me did not kill Egyptian soldiers,” Ben-Eliezer, who is due to visit Egypt later this week, told Yediot Achronot.

“When the commandos encountered POWs from an Egyptian battalion, they gave them food and water.”

RJC launches anti-Reform Iraq resolution

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) launched an effort opposing the Reform movement’s call for withdrawal from Iraq.

“If you or someone you know is a member of the Reform movement, you should know that the movement’s leadership is pushing the Executive Committee of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Board of Trustees to adopt a dangerous and wrongheaded resolution opposing the U.S. efforts in Iraq,” the RJC said in an action alert sent out this week.

It urged RJC members who belong to Reform synagogues to register their protests locally and nationally. “RJC will continue to speak out on this and make it clear that the Union for Reform Judaism does not speak for all Reform Jews or all Jews in general,” the RJC said.

Saudis breathe new life into diplomacy

For the first time in years, serious Israeli-Arab peace moves seem to be afoot. The key mover is Saudi Arabia, and the key document is a 2002 peace initiative that it sponsored.

The Saudis have quietly been exchanging ideas with Israeli leaders on changes in the document that would make it more palatable to Israel. They also have been closely coordinating their moves with the United States and the Arab world.

For its part, Israel is working with the U.S. on a common front. The Israelis and Americans believe that the Saudi peace plan, with changes along the lines Israel is suggesting, could become a basis for comprehensive peace talks.

For the Saudis, regional stability is the name of the game. They identify two main sources of potential unrest in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iranian radicalism.

On the Palestinian front, the Saudis have made some striking moves. They’ve revived their 2002 peace plan and put it on the table for prior discussion with Israel; helped Hamas and Fatah reach a national unity agreement in Mecca; and provided the Palestinians with millions of dollars to help their struggling economy.

In other words, the Saudis have helped to create what some see as conditions for a new Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

But more than trouble with the Palestinians, the Saudis are motivated by fear that Shi’ite Iran might act to destabilize their regime and that of other Western-oriented Sunni Muslim states by launching a terrorist war against them. They also fear that Iran’s threatened attacks on American interests throughout the Middle East could destabilize the region.

The Saudis, therefore, are determined to persuade Iran to moderate its policies. That clearly jells with Israeli and American interests.

The Saudis do not oppose U.S. or, according to some reports, Israeli military action to preempt Iran’s nuclear program and curb Iranian influence, but they prefer the diplomatic route. An early March meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a last-ditch effort to halt the Iranians’ drive toward nuclear weapons.

But it also was an attempt to get Iran on board for the peace initiative with Israel. After the talks, the Saudis announced that Iran was ready to accept the Saudi peace plan, which entails recognition of Israel.

If true, it would have been a strong added incentive for Israel to engage. But Iran denied it had accepted the plan, which indeed would have contradicted Iran’s oft-stated aim to see Israel wiped off the map.

Nevertheless, no one disputes the rising Saudi influence.

“With the active encouragement of the White House, the Saudi king is becoming the No. 1 mediator in the Arab world, taking over the role from Egypt’s President Mubarak,” Arab affairs analyst Smadar Peri wrote in Yediot Achronot.

In her view, the Saudis have become key instruments of U.S. policy in the region. They’ve been using their economic and diplomatic muscle to prevent a sharp rise in the price of oil and to put economic pressure on Syria.

“The fear of the Iranian octopus is driving the Saudis and bringing about their growing closeness to the U.S.,” Peri wrote.

It also is creating an identity of interests between the Saudis and Israel.

The key player on the Saudi side is national security adviser Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. Bandar, who served as Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years, has been mediating between the U. S. and Iran. Most important, he has been leading secret contacts with Israel over the Saudi peace initiative.

Still, American input on the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Israeli-Arab tracks will be crucial. With this in mind, some Arab players are trying to convince the U. S. to lean on Israel.

On the eve of a Washington visit, Jordan’s King Abdullah II declared that the time had come for the United States to use its influence on Israel “to prove its transparency to the people of the region and that it is not biased.”

To ensure the United States stays on its side, Israel sent two of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s top aides, Yoram Turbovitch and Shalom Turjeman, to Washington to coordinate policy.

The main sticking point for Israel is the Saudi plan’s prescription for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The 2002 formulation would give the refugees a right to return to Israel proper, which virtually all Israelis see as shorthand for the destruction of the Jewish state through a demographic onslaught.

In the secret talks with Prince Bandar, Israel has made it clear that the refugee option is totally unacceptable. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni argues that in the context of a two-state solution, it’s logical that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not Israel.

According to unconfirmed Israeli press reports, Saudi King Abdullah has ordered an appropriate change in the text. The plan, according to these reports, now says refugees will have a choice: either to return to the Palestinian state or stay where they are — in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria — and receive financial compensation.

The Saudis also reportedly hope to persuade Syria to drop its opposition to relinquishing the demand for a “right of return” to Israel in exchange for lifting Damascus’ international isolation.

If the Arab League adopts this position in the summit in Riyadh at the end of March, it would constitute a dramatic change in the Arab position — and, some feel, would force Israel to accept the revised plan as a basis for negotiation.

The plan offers normalization of relations with the entire Arab world, provided that Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 armistice lines and resolves its dispute with the Palestinians.

But the chairman of the Arab League, Amre Moussa, denies that there is Arab agreement on amending the Saudi plan. Moreover, even if the plan is changed, will the Palestinians agree to forego their demand for a right of return?

Hamas most certainly would not. It prefers to put off difficult final-status issues like refugees to a later date.