Middle East poised for impact of UK withdrawal from EU vote

In the run up to Thursday's vote in Britain on whether to exit the European Union, Israeli policymakers have studiously avoided comment, desiring not to be seen as interfering in the UK's internal affairs.

Israeli analysts nevertheless stress that Israel has a definite stake in the outcome, though they differ on whether a British exit (Brexit) would be good or bad for its interests.

Polls show that the race is too close to call, with the latest surveys pointing to a resurgence in support for remaining in the EU. An opinion poll for the Mail on Sunday taken June 17-18 showed 45 percent in favor of remaining and 42 percent in favor of leaving.

The stakes for Israel became greater on Monday when all 28 EU foreign ministers decided to endorse the French peace initiative, which began with a meeting in Paris earlier this month and which, according to French President Francois Hollande’s plan, will culminate in an international peace conference dedicated to relaunching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be held before the end of the year.

Israel adamantly opposes the French initiative, seeing it as a bid to impose a solution on it against its security and interests. ''International conferences like those that the EU's foreign ministers welcomed push peace further away because they enable the Palestinians to continue to avoid direct talks and compromise,'' the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.

Israel's hopes of staving off the initiative and its standing vis-à-vis the EU could be set back if Britain exits the body, according to Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to the EU and now a senior analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. ''It is preferable for Israel that Britain remain in the EU, where it is a voice of moderation'' in favor of Israel, Eran told The Media Line.

Because of Britain's close relationship with the United States, London tends to be more sympathetic to Israel than many other EU countries, Eran says. Economically, the EU is Israel's largest trading partner ''and it is important that it remain robust'' he says. In the security sphere, Britain is one of the most active members of the EU and NATO, he notes. ''We prefer to see a stronger Europe in its battle against terror and other threats,'' he says.

But it is in the coming diplomacy over the French initiative that Eran believes Britain's presence in the EU is acutely needed by Israel. In the run up to the planned conference, ''Britain's role is still very important for Israel,'' he said.

In Eran's view, the United States is not very enthusiastic about the French initiative and is likely to seek to foil it, possibly in favor of an American initiative, provided Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu facilitates this by showing some flexibility on peace issues. In this case, he believes, Britain would assist the US in trying to convince the French and other Europeans to make way for American moves. ''Britain would play the role of facilitator of the American efforts to enable Netanyahu to take a different track than the French initiative.'' However, if London exits the EU, ''Israel will lose a moderating factor, a voice that could help it avoid the French initiative if necessary.''

British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose political future depends on a vote to remain, is seen in Israel as a reliable friend. Defense and intelligence ties have reportedly been quietly but considerably strengthened under Cameron. During the Gaza conflict in 2014, his Conservative party for weeks withstood pressure from its Liberal Democrat coalition partners to condemn Israel's military campaign.

The international conference push is far from the first time that Israel finds itself at loggerheads with the European Union. The EU considers Israeli communities built on the territories captured by Israel during the 1967 war – commonly referred to as “settlements” — to be illegal while Israel disputes this. The EU says the settlements are an obstacle to peace, something Israel denies. Last November, the differences came to a head as the EU required goods emanating from the post-1967 areas to be labelled to that effect, rather than being marked ''product of Israel.'' The Israeli foreign ministry blasted the decision, terming it in a statement ''an exceptional and discriminatory step inspired by the boycott movement.''

Israel and the EU are also at odds over Israeli demolition of Palestinian structures, some of them EU-funded, in the Oslo Accords-designated “Area C” part of the West Bank, meaning under full – administrative and security – control by the Israelis. Israel maintains it is merely acting against illegal construction while the EU views the same building as vital to the Palestinian presence in an area it sees as crucial to Palestinian statehood.

In the view of Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the EU stances on these issues reflect an ''anti-Israel'' orientation emanating from Brussels.

''If Britain leaves and the EU becomes weaker, it will impact positively on Israel,'' he told The Media Line. ''The EU as a whole is much more anti-Israel than its individual countries so if it is weakened that will be good.'' Inbar adds that a British exit, in so much as it can be seen to reflect heightened nationalism of individual European nations, could help boost sympathy for Israel. ''The EU is basically a post nationalist phenomenon while Israel is a nationalist phenomenon, so with each country being nationalist there will be a greater understanding of Israeli behavior,'' he says.

In contrast to Inbar, Alon Liel, the dovish former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, says that Britain exiting the EU would be a negative development. ''The EU as an aggregate is much more pro-peace than its individual members. To have such a major country depart is weakening the Brussels machine,'' Liel told The Media Line.

The Palestinians for their part do not expect the British decision to have a significant impact on them, according to Ghassan Khatib, Vice President of Birzeit University in the West Bank. Regardless of what happens with the vote, there is a trend in European and within British public opinion of greater sympathy with the Palestinian cause, he says. The French initiative’s acceptance reflects this, he adds.

''These trends will continue in the EU and Britain whether Britain is in or out because there are objective reasons for them,'' Khatib tells The Media Line, citing Israeli behavior as being  foremost among them. ''Israel is doing the kind of thing that even friendly countries like Germany and Britain don't want Israel to do such as expanding the settlements and this is effecting negatively their support for Israel.''

In Amman, Sabri Rbeihat, the former minister for political development, says that supporters of the Jordanian monarchy want Britain to stay in the EU.

''There is a long historic relationship and a feeling that the British have an understanding of the area and its geography and history. Many feel the Jordanian regime was created and maintained by Britain,'' he told The Media Line. The EU without Britain ''would be an unknown, a question mark, there is a sense of uncertainty over what would happen and who would steer the EU.''

Iraqis fret about security after US withdrawal

Iraqis fretted about the ability of their armed forces to protect them from violence after U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday all U.S. troops would withdraw by the end of the year.

Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on the issue of immunity for U.S. forces after months of talks over whether American soldiers would stay on as trainers more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Obama’s announcement prompted worries among Iraqis over the stability of their country and a possible slide back into sectarian violence.

“I would be very happy with this withdrawal if our military and security forces are ready to fill the gap of the American forces. But I don’t believe they are. We can’t deceive ourselves,” said Baghdad shoe shop owner Ziyad Jabari.

“Our forces are still not capable of facing our security challenges. I’m afraid this withdrawal will allow al Qaeda and the militias to return.”

A stubborn Sunni insurgency tied to al Qaeda and Shi’ite militia still carry out lethal attacks in Iraq, where bombings and killings happen daily even though violence has dropped from the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-2007.

At least 70 people were killed last week as a series of attacks rocked the capital Baghdad.

In September, 42 Iraqi police and 33 soldiers were killed, according to government figures.

Iraqi security forces have been the prime target of attacks this year as insurgents seek to undermine security in the country ahead of the scheduled U.S. withdrawal by year-end.

“As an Iraqi citizen, I say to Mr. Obama, you will leave Iraq without accomplishing your mission,” said Munaf Hameed, a 47-year-old account manager at a private bank.

“No security, an unstable political regime, sectarian tensions and weak security forces, that’s what America will leave behind,” he said.


Some Iraqi leaders say in private they would like a U.S. troop presence as a guarantee to ward off sectarian troubles and keep the peace between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds in a dispute over who controls oil-rich areas in the north.

Iraqi and U.S. forces have said Iraq needs trainers beyond 2011 to develop its military capabilities, particularly its air and naval defences.

The country’s power-sharing coalition made up of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish blocs is also caught in a political stalemate many Iraqis fear could worsen without a U.S. buffer.

“I think the fighting between the political blocs will increase because the U.S. presence was a safety valve for security and political issues,” said Muntadhir Abdel Wahab, 44, a Baghdad merchant.

But some Iraqis applauded the decision by Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and said the withdrawal of U.S. troops would help stabilise the country’s fragile political situation and quell sectarian tensions.

Many Iraqis still have memories of abuses committed by U.S. troops and contractors during the more violent years of Iraq’s conflict. That made securing immunity tricky for Maliki.

Iraqi lawmakers backing anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc is a key part of Maliki’s coalition government, said they would disrupt the power-sharing government if he agreed to keep U.S. forces.

“Iraq’s people will realise the necessity of living together in one country despite differences in religion, sect and nationality,” said engineer Mahdi Salim, who was visiting family in Kirkuk. “America tried to drag us into civil war.”

Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Writing by Serena Chaudhry

Post-Palin Depression

A therapist I know — OK, since you dragged it out of me, my therapist — told me that I’d be astonished if I knew how many emergency calls she got the night that Sarah Palin gave her convention speech.

Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. Judging from the number of unnerved post-Palin phone calls and e-mails that I got, I wonder why I didn’t think of calling her myself.

Why was it such a psychic downer? Movement conservatives might gloat that it was because Palin kicked Los Angeles liberals in the kishkas, made unanswerable arguments, strutted her Super Woman stuff, and — worst of all — signaled their inevitable defeat come November.

I don’t think so. For one thing, we all know that Election Day comes after the High Holy Days, which means there’s plenty of time before the book on McCain/Palin — the Book of Life, that is — gets written. Who shall win, and who shall lose is still (theologically speaking, anyway) up for grabs.

For another, there’s no evidence that the independents who were the key targets of her speech are buying what Palin is selling.

I don’t doubt that some people experience a presidential campaign as one long audition for the show that will be playing on their television sets these next four years. But I’m hoping that the 5 percent to 10 percent of undecideds in the 18 battleground states who will swing the Electoral College more resemble the savvy mass audiences of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” than voters for the next “American Idol” or the mob in “Coriolanus.” Why should a single performance by the governor of Alaska, or even several of them, bedazzle millions of otherwise skeptical Americans into throwing away their bull—t detectors? The historic disapproval ratings of the incumbent president are continuing evidence that the American mainstream has soured on the culture wars’ politics of group against group and the rest of the ressentiment at the heart of Palin’s message. So what accounts for the panic Palin provoked?

Part of it, I think, is that we catastrophize. By “we,” I don’t mean liberals. I mean the many functioning neurotics among us who think that a doctor’s every “hmmm” during a physical is a portent of tragic doom; who mentally extrapolate from routine family conflicts to irreparable ruptures; and whose pessimism is relentlessly fed by cable news, which — in order to hang on to our attention — portrays every freeway car chase as a potential shootout; depicts every global brushfire as the start of World War III; and shouts, “Breaking news!” so frequently that the scary music that accompanies it is itself enough to spike the nation’s blood pressure.

This is not just a Jewish phenomenon, though a few thousand years of expecting to be scapegoated, persecuted, exiled or killed certainly contributes to the melancholic gene Jews are known for carrying, the optimism of a Ben-Gurion or Sandy Koufax notwithstanding. No, this gloominess is a nonethnic worrywartism, arising from the fear and sensationalism fanned by politicians and news media alike.

This is not to say that putting Sarah Palin one melanoma from the presidency would mean good times. It would be more like James Dobson with nuclear weapons. But while her Rovian apparatchiks are stoking the worst among us with passionate intensity, it’s not inevitable that the best will lose all conviction in the voting booth.

When a political candidate convinces half a country to hope again, it’s a double-edged sword. The endorphins and neurotransmitters that wash our brains when we welcome the future instead of dreading it are as powerful as any drug. It’s like love. Unless you let your guard down, unless you permit vulnerability to trump cynicism, you rarely can get what you want. That’s why Howard Dean or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton were, for many people, so thrilling to support. That’s why hardened political operatives call that kind of enthusiasm “drinking the Kool-Aid.” That’s why, when the fall comes, it’s so painful.

But my therapist, if I understand her, has another take on this. She thinks that people identify too much with candidates. Their ups have become our ups; their downs, ours as well. And by identifying with them so closely, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable to outside factors, to forces we can’t control. And the more political media we consume — on cable, online, on e-mail, on radio, in print — the more we cultivate the illusion that we ourselves are actual political players, that our advice is urgently needed, that everything depends on our counsel.

I’m totally guilty on this charge. “Go negative!” I yell to Obama and Biden when I see them on my screen. “Put McCain on the defensive! Go after his strength! Make the POW thing irrelevant to the presidency! Destroy the ‘maverick’ charade! Call their lies lies!” But my tirades, instead of making me feel better, only underline my powerlessness to second guess the campaign’s strategy or reshape its tone and message.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of every single citizen in a democracy. Registering to vote, giving money, going door-to-door, expressing our opinions: there is plenty that each of us can do, and the collective action that comes from that commitment can move mountains and make history.

But there is a difference between pitching in and hitching our psyches to the day-to-day vicissitudes of campaignland or to the news media’s breathless “narrative” of the horse race. One is about us, and it is within our power to control what we ourselves do. The other is about them, and it is a kind of annihilation to cede our identity and our well-being to people outside ourselves, whether those people be candidates and commentators — or audiences, critics, velvet-rope guardians, fashionistas, studio executives, admissions committees or that hottie over there at the bar.

As for me, I’m trying to unplug. I’m still reading the papers, but I’ve gone cold turkey — well, room-temperature turkey — on cable (except for C-SPAN and “The Daily Show”), blogs (except for a few), radio (except for NPR) and every other source of political news that I thought I was obligated to mainline in real time 24/7. If I fall off the wagon, maybe there’s some 12-step group for media addicts I can join, or a 1-800-TVDETOX hotline I can call. All this may make me a lesser media yakker, I know, but think of the dough I’ll be saving on therapy.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly, and his

U.S. Needs Time Frame on Iraq Mission

It’s been nearly two and a half years since the president gave a triumphant speech about

Iraq before a banner declaring, “Mission Accomplished.”

But while he was right to celebrate the skill and bravery of the U.S. military forces that deposed Saddam Hussein, he was wrong about where we stood.

Years later, our troops are in the midst of a brutal insurgency, and the U.S. continues to pour hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into Iraq.

To this day, the president still hasn’t provided the American people with a clear, convincing explanation of our remaining mission in Iraq, and how it fits into a broader strategy to prevail in the fight against terrorism.

In June, I introduced a resolution calling for the president to clarify the military mission in Iraq and lay out a plan and flexible time frame for accomplishing that mission. This doesn’t seem like much to ask for — after all, if we don’t have a clear plan and time frame, we cannot hold ourselves accountable for giving the military the tools they need to succeed in achieving those goals. My resolution also calls on the president to submit a plan and time frame for the subsequent return home of U.S. troops, so that we provide some clarity about our intentions and restore confidence at home and abroad.

But instead of the clarity my resolution called for, the administration has provided only confusion, in the form of conflicting signals about the duration of U.S. troop deployments. That’s why I have proposed a target time frame for the completion of the military mission in Iraq, and suggested Dec. 31, 2006, as the target date for the completion of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

I felt obligated to try to jumpstart a discussion about just what remains for our military to accomplish in Iraq, when our troops can come home, and how we can get our national security focus back on a viable strategy to combat terrorist networks around the world.

The president and others have criticized this approach. They have suggested that to question the path that we are on is to undermine our united commitment to support our troops. And some believe that any discussion of time frames, flexible or otherwise, is basically code for a “withdraw now” agenda. It’s almost as if talking about completing the mission in Iraq has become taboo.

The men and women of the U.S. armed forces deserve our admiration, our respect and our unflagging support. But they also deserve sound policy from elected officials.

We must not accept a false choice between supporting the status quo and cutting and running. The status quo is a rudderless course without a clear destination, and it is not leading to strength. In fact, it is making America weaker and our enemies stronger.

Staying the course is driving the all-volunteer Army off a cliff, and it is providing dangerous opportunities for the very terrorist networks that wish to do us harm. We need to refocus on fighting and defeating the terrorist network that attacked this country on Sept. 11, 2001, and that means making sure that our Iraq policy is consistent with that global effort, rather than letting Iraq dominate our security strategy and drain vital security resources for an unlimited amount of time.

My proposal for a target date will strengthen our position in Iraq and our larger fight against global terrorism by:

• Reassuring the American people that our Iraq policy is not directionless.

• Encouraging Iraqi ownership of the transition process and bolstering the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities.

• Undermining the recruiting efforts and the unity of insurgents.

• Most importantly, facilitating a broader discussion of our real national security priorities.

It’s time for members of Congress, especially those from my own party, to be less timid while this administration neglects urgent national security priorities in favor of staying a flawed policy course in Iraq.

It’s time to restore the confidence of the American people. It’s time to put Iraq in the context of a broader vision for our national security. It’s time to regain a position of strength.

That starts with sustained attention, debate and, at last, a plan and a target time frame for the completion of the military mission in Iraq.

Sen. Russ Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin.


Center Court

At the Mercedes-Benz Cup doubles final last Sunday at UCLA, the clumps of Israelis in the grandstands waved their blue-and-white flags between points and yelled out encouragement in Hebrew. They were cheering on the team of Yoni Erlich and Andy Ram, who had reached the finals by defeating the top-seeded team in the world, Americans Bob and Mike Bryan.

At one point a woman began chanting, “Yisrael! Yisrael!” and a few others joined in, but mostly people just clapped and smiled, thrilled that their country could put such a team on center court.

Given the news from Israel this week, the tournament setting — a spirited but genteel competition on a quiet, sunny day — was all the more incongruous. The country faces one of the watershed moments in its history. Make no mistake: When Israel begins its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza — the slated date is Aug. 16 — a new chapter of history books will be written. It is a huge event in the life of the country, and in the saga of the Jews.

Much of this issue is devoted to the pros, the cons, the risks and the rewards of the withdrawal. “Disengagement” is a plan that has the support of the majority of Jews in Israel and America, but thoughtful and caring critics also have raised their voices.

Indeed, the plan promoted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull Israeli citizens and soldiers out of land Israel has controlled since 1967 has shattered long-standing political categories and created a confusing political realignment.

Are left-wing supporters of the Sharon’s Likud government now de facto right-wingers? Is Sharon, once the nation’s fiercest hawk, now its most effective dove? What of right-wingers who championed Sharon two years ago? Where do they turn for political leadership? And what of Sharon’s long-standing left-wing critics? Is it strategically wise for them to put forward a left-wing critique of Sharon at this critical moment, when the prime minister has embraced a major tenet of the left-wing agenda? What are the nuances of and divisions within the new left and the new right?

“I’m for getting out of Gaza,” one left-wing Israeli diplomat told me last week. “But I’m against unilateral withdrawal.” Sharon, he said, has gone about it all wrong: using anti-democratic means to ensure a demographic result that he hopes will strengthen Israeli democracy. The diplomat would have preferred more coordination with the Palestinians, including more concessions from Palestinians.

The diplomat also said that there’s a very good chance the withdrawal will be seen by Palestinians as a victory for terrorism, even though such a conclusion would be yet another catastrophic mistake on their part.

Leaders like Natan Sharansky have voiced similar warnings from the right, or the new right, and Sharon has successfully squelched their influence for now.

“Oh, it’s going to happen,” the diplomat told me, when I asked if opponents and threats of civil war would deter Sharon. “There is going to be a withdrawal.”

And so, no one knows what will happen.

Viewed from this side of the ocean, Israel should be reaping praise for all its pain. The American churches that have supported total or partial divestment from Israel need to reconsider their foolish untimely punishment in light of Israel’s unprecedented step. Sadly, some critics on the left can’t bring themselves to credit Sharon and the Bush administration for pursuing a risky step toward de-occupation; these naysayers most likely will never be satisfied with anything short of Israel’s demise.

As for the choices available to Sharon, the real world offered him a messy set of options, and he chose the one he believes will make his country safer.

Trying to understand Sharon’s position, I thought again of the tennis match. Never mind that the doubles team, in the end, lost. Anybody with even a cursory understanding of Jewish history will tell you there was something miraculous in their being there at all. Throughout Jewish history, normalcy has never been a given.

Israel remains a small country of great promise, great achievement and great peril. Ideally it would be a bigger country, but the dream of modern Zionism has always been to sustain a normal life in a normal country.

What Sharon has done is seize an opportunity to come closer to the Zionist dream, by sacrificing the Zionist ideal. Let’s pray he’s made the right call.


There’s No Place for Ugly Words on Gaza

The withdrawal of Israeli settlements and settlers from the Gaza Strip will dominate the Jewish summer.

Now, you can think that’s a good idea or a bad one, be for it or against it. All that’s fine and in the best tradition of Judaism. What is not fine and what is desecrating Judaism is how some of those opposed to the disengagement are seeing it, what they are saying about it.

What we are seeing and hearing are allusions to the Nazis, to the Holocaust. Somehow, when Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) compares treatment of soldiers at Guantanamo to the Nazis, Jews go nuts, find that outrageous.

And yet, too many Jews are using Nazi allusions, making Holocaust comparisons when describing the intention of the democratically elected government of Israel to do what it believes is in the best interest of the State of Israel — which is exactly what governments are elected to do.

It might be nice if all those Jewish right-wingers so desirous of seeing democracy come to Iraq would show some respect for democracy in Israel. But they do not. Even worse, much worse, they play the Nazi card in talking about the government of Israel.

It started when a large number of settlers in Gaza and the West Bank began wearing orange stars, reminiscent of the yellow stars the Nazis forced the Jews of Eastern Europe to wear during the Holocaust — orange stars being worn in the State of Israel to make a point about the action of the government of Israel.

Seeing Nazi behavior in the disengagement is not only as nuts as seeing anti-Semitism in the shuttle disasters, but is far more obscene, way beyond the pale.

The Holocaust is a sacred memory in the life of the Jewish people. Six million of our people, babies and grandfathers, whole families, whole towns were systematically murdered in the most barbaric of ways, in an atrocity unique in human history.

And so for Jews to wheel it out to make some political point about a political decision of an Israeli government is to act in as shameful a way as a Jew can act.

After a while, even the settlers recognized that, and so they stopped wearing the orange star. Which seemed to signal that they had learned something.

But evidently not. For just this past week, several Gaza settlers wrote their Israeli identification number on their arms in an attempt to evoke the memory of the tattoos the Nazis put on the arms of Jews in the concentration camps. How disgusting. What a desecration of the memory of the 6 million.

How can Jews in 2005, living in the State of Israel, dare to compare the decision by the Israeli government to leave Gaza to the decision by the Nazi government to identify every single Jew for the purpose of murdering every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe?

Nothing, nothing, shows how lost we are as a people, how far we have fallen, than this.

That so many Jews put on the orange star, while tattooing their arms is bad enough. Even worse is how many Jews, how many American Jews support that.

And how many American Jews are using ugly words? One press release that just crossed my desk comes from a group sponsoring a prayer vigil against the Gaza disengagement. Nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, what is disgraceful, is that in describing what they are opposing they say it is “Sharon’s edict of deporting Jews from Gaza.”

Edict. Deporting. Words that are loaded with the weight of Jewish history, Jewish suffering. Words that have no place in the debate over Gaza.

Sharon is not issuing an edict. He was elected by the people to be prime minister. He has put the Gaza issue to a vote several times before his Cabinet, and each time the Cabinet has authorized the pullout. He has then put the issue several times before Israel’s democratically elected parliament, the Knesset, and it, too, has voted for the pullout each and every time. This is a democratic decision made by a democratically elected government.

And no one is being deported. The government of Israel has made a decision as to what is in the best interest of the people and the State of Israel. A decision as to what would best ensure the security and improve the future of the state and people of Israel. And that decision involves having some people move.

That is no different than the concept of eminent domain in this country, where a city or state can require that the people of a neighborhood move so that an airport or a new highway or such can be built for the greater good of all.

While such decisions always involve some personal discomfort for some, they are routinely made. No one says those who had to move so that the new ballpark could be built were “deported.” And none of the settlers in Gaza are being deported.

The press release from this group also notes that “Jewish people have never been expelled from Israel since the modern state was created in 1948.”

Oh, where to begin. For starters — and this is also directed to those who mindlessly babble the mantra, “Jews do not evict Jews,” — ever hear of the evacuation of Sinai after the peace with Egypt?

But such ignorance pales in comparison with the ugliness of using the word “expelled.” And never mind, of course, that no one is being expelled from Israel. The use of such ignorant arguments, and of such inflammatory and despicable language, shows just how weak the case is of those who oppose the pullout.

The next month will be a key one in the life of the Jewish people and in the democracy of the State of Israel. Which is why pullout opponents must immediately stop using such symbols as stars and tattoos and such pornographic terms as edict and deportation and ghetto and expulsion when discussing the disengagement from Gaza.

And why senior rabbis in the State of Israel must immediately stop urging Israeli soldiers to disobey orders, and why they must immediately stop making speeches full of halachic references that strongly imply it would be a mitzvah to assassinate the prime minister of Israel.

Two things that have always been unifying forces for the Jewish people have been holding sacred the memory of the Holocaust and respecting the nonpolitical role of the Israeli army.

By doing what they are doing, saying what they are saying, too many opposed to the Gaza pullout are recklessly endangering those unifying values, and in so doing are endangering the Jewish people.

Joseph Aaron is the editor of the Chicago Jewish News.


Gaza Settler Pullout Protest Draws 500

More than 500 demonstrators, mostly Orthodox Jews, gathered in front of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles last weekend to oppose Israel’s planned, upcoming pullout of settlers from Gaza.

The two-hour Sunday afternoon rally drew the largest gathering yet of several recent anti-pullout events in Los Angeles. It took place in the Miracle Mile District near the Beverly-La-Brea and Fairfax neighborhoods, and slowed traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.

So far, the Israeli government has successfully resisted attempts to derail the Gaza pullout, saying the withdrawal ultimately will enhance Israel’s security and increase the chance for peace with the Palestinians. With some of the 9,000 Gaza settlers refusing to leave, the Israeli government has mobilized thousands of police and soldiers for what is expected to be an emotionally draining, forced removal, scheduled to start in mid-August.

Experts say, and polls show, that a majority of Israelis and American Jews support the withdrawal, which would turn Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority. But opponents at Sunday’s rally were adamant that leaving Gaza is wrong.

“This is not Palestinian land,” said one of the speakers, Avi Davis of the group Israel-Christian Nexus, a Jewish outreach group to Christian Zionists.

Listening to Davis was attorney David Palace, 30, who attends Beverly-La Brea’s Congregation Levy Yitzchok.

“I came here to protest Jews being put in dangerous situations,” Palace said, as he held one of his four children.

His father, Moshe Palace, said the pullout would decrease the distance between terrorists and cities in Israel proper.

“We’re not talking about Orange County to Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s more like what Santa Monica is to downtown Los Angeles.”

The three generations of the Palace family reflected the consulate crowd’s demographics, which though broad in age range appeared almost exclusively Orthodox. Several Chabads and other Orthodox shuls in Beverly Hills, Hancock Park and Beverly-La Brea supported the quickly arranged protest, allowing flyers to be distributed to their congregants.

The rally focused on the Gaza community of Gush Katif, was organized and sponsored by SaveGushKatif.org, the brainchild of Beverlywood mortgage broker Jon Hambourger.

“We pulled a police permit in half an hour even though it usually takes a week.” Hambourger said. “A sound system costs $1,500. We got it for free. Everything fell into place.”

The consulate protest was blessed with lower-than-expected temperatures amidst the current heat wave. Stacks of free bottled water did not interest the crowd listening to speakers denounce Israel’s planned Aug. 16 pullout from Gush Katif and other Jewish settlement areas.

Along Wilshire Boulevard stood a line of teenage girls and young women holding placards toward the cars driving past them. Horns honked at signs bearing phrases in Hebrew such as, “Don’t give the Arabs our homes.” The loud line included two vanloads about 20 road-tripping Orthodox girls and women from New York and Toronto, who took a break from three weeks of sightseeing to join in.

“We stopped all our fun. We wanted to show our support,” said 22-year-old trip leader Bracha Krausz.

The July 24 date was picked for the prayer-and-protest rally because it was also the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day on the Hebrew calendar and the start of three weeks of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem’s first and second temples. By emphasizing Gush Katif as a religious issue, organizers tapped into a broader sense of outrage in the Orthodox community.

The consulate protest’s turnout surpassed other recent, middle-of-the-week Gush Katif events in synagogues, which had been attracting no more than 250 people. These included a June 23 event at Beverly-La Brea’s Torah Ohr with Knesset Member Benny Elon. Six days later, a crowd of about 200 attended a Gush Katif “evening of solidarity” across the street at Congregation Shaarei Tefila.

“I tried to push it in my synagogue, said Shaarei Tefila’s Rabbi Nachum Kosofsky. “It just seemed like the people who were the most ideologically driven came. I wish it was different. Even people who are very pro-Israel, to them it’s a not a simple issue.”

A planned SaveGushKutif worldwide event on July 19 did not materialize in Los Angeles, though its cancellation partly fueled the quick creation that same week of the July 24 event.

Whatever the crowd size, the rhetoric at Gush Katif events ranges from somber to furious. During the question-and-answer session at the Torah Ohr event, one man said that Israeli Arabs were, “sucking the blood out of [Israel]…. These Arabs are basically Nazis…. One Arab less, one loaf of bread more!”

At the Shaarei Tefila event, Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda focused on the internecine strife: “Jews fighting fellow Jews — the images of, God forbid, a civil war.”

Outside the consulate, a man gave a reporter a prayer asking God to “destroy our enemies completely and utterly wipe them off the face of the earth….”

But this sentiment appeared isolated as most in the crowd seemed more determined than vengeful.

Chavi Shagalov, a mother of four, said it is unwise to give away land.

“For years and years, the Jews have been chased by the Romans, the Greeks, or gone into exile while some stayed in the land,” said Shagalov, as her two toddlers swirled around her. “We live in exile and there’s no knowing what there’s going to be tomorrow.”


Analysis – Sharon’s Worries Over Pullout Mount

With the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza less than three weeks away, right-wing leaders say they haven’t yet given up hope of preventing it.

According to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), about 2,000 right-wingers have managed to pass through the army cordon around Gaza, and are planning to join up with radical settlers there to resist the evacuation by force.

But that’s not Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s only worry. Palestinians continue to launch terrorist attacks in and around Gaza, and they will almost certainly try to step up their activities during the evacuation.

Sharon promises firm action on both fronts. More than 60,000 soldiers and police have been assigned to respond to recalcitrant settlers or rogue Palestinian terror attacks. Should the Palestinians attack, Sharon has warned that Israel will employ harsher retaliatory measures than in the past. Some pundits speculate that this could even mean shelling civilian areas in retaliation for Palestinian attacks on Israeli population centers.

As difficult as carrying out the withdrawal may prove to be, an even larger question looms: What happens after Sharon pulls out of Gaza and the northern West Bank? He will be under enormous pressure from the United States, the international community and the Palestinians to make further withdrawals from the West Bank — and under equally strong pressure from the Israeli right wing and his own Likud Party to stay put.

And there’s another taxing issue that is critical for Israel’s future: How will religious Zionists at the forefront of the settler movement redefine their relationship to the secular state they have been defying so bitterly for so long on the withdrawal issue?

The settler leaders say that they’re planning more large-scale anti-withdrawal protests in advance of the pullout, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 15. They say they were heartened by the huge turnout for last week’s demonstration at Kfar Maimon, a national religious movement community about eight miles east of the Gaza Strip.

The demonstration took place at Kfar Maimon only because police and army units prevented the protesters from marching to the Gaza Strip. This exercise of control by the Israeli security forces and the fact that there was no serious violence in the two-day standoff between the security forces and the demonstrators led several pundits to conclude that the withdrawal will go through more peacefully than expected.

Still, some pundits fear that the 2,000 right-wingers who have slipped into Gaza could turn the withdrawal into a violent showdown.

In an editorial, the Ha’aretz newspaper urged the government to act now to head off the potential threat: The Gaza settlements, the paper wrote, “must be combed to locate the infiltrators, and they should be arrested and tried.” Otherwise, Ha’aretz argued, the government would be projecting weakness and inviting more infiltration.

On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority has promised to deploy 5,000 policemen as a shield against rogue terrorists. The P.A. also has reached an agreement with Hamas not to launch attacks on the withdrawing Israelis.

But terror organizations like Islamic Jihad and some groups associated with the Palestinians’ ruling Fatah movement aren’t part of the cease-fire deal. Both groups claimed responsibility for Saturday night’s shooting of an Israeli couple near the Gush Katif junction in the Gaza Strip.

In the past few days, Sharon repeatedly has said that Israel will not tolerate terrorist attacks during the planned pullout. At a top-level security meeting Sunday, Sharon warned that if the Palestinians fail to restrain rogue terrorists, Israel will feel free to retaliate with a ferocity not seen in the four-year-long intifada.

IDF generals acknowledge that this could entail a sweeping land operation through Gaza, as well as a more telling use of air power and artillery. During the evacuation, the IDF says it expects that 70 percent of Gaza’s 8,000 settlers will leave voluntarily. That means the generals estimate that about 2,500 settlers will dig in, joined by at least 2,000 infiltrators from the outside.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he expects the entire operation, which will start in northern Gaza and sweep south, to last two to four weeks.

Ironically, the smoother the pullout goes, the higher the stakes for Israel. Sharon has been saying that once the army pulls back to the new lines, he does not intend to go any further.

But the United States and other key players in the international community see a successful Gaza pullout as a prelude to further Israeli concessions in the West Bank that kick-start a new peace dynamic with the Palestinians.

As for the Palestinians, they are expected to launch a new intifada if, after the Gaza pullout, the process bogs down — or, as many observers warn, even if it doesn’t.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report

Q & A With Daniel Ayalon

The mid-August Israeli pullout from Gaza is fraught with risks and unknowns, but the Israeli government remains committed to “unilateral disengagement,” says Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Ayalon spoke with The Journal about the reasons for disengagement, a policy he characterized as virtually inevitable and worth the sacrifice of the Israeli settlers who will have to leave their homes.

Ayalon, age 49, has served as Israel’s top diplomat in the United States since July, 2002. He played a leading role in negotiating the blueprint for a two-state solution known as the “Roadmap for Peace.” Prior to his U.S. posting, Ayalon was chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. From 1997 to 2001, he was deputy foreign policy adviser to former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jewish Journal: To what extent was the government prepared for the protests and resistance to the pullout from Gaza?

Daniel Ayalon: The government has been prepared and, I think, is prepared. It wasn’t something that we did very cheerfully. We did foresee objections. We do empathize with the people. We’re talking about three generations, 8,000 people who made their lives there. It is very difficult to uproot.

But the prime minister had to make the decision because he knew this was the best course of action to take and the best way to strengthen Israel — politically, securitywise, economically and I also would say socially. And understanding that Gaza is not an asset but a liability.

JJ: What do you mean when you speak of Gaza as a liability?

DA: Everybody realizes that there was no future for a Jewish presence in Gaza. You have 1 million or 1.2 million Palestinians and 8,000 Jews. The numbers talk here. And from a historical or biblical point of view, I’m not sure that Gaza was part of our land in the past.

JJ: What history are you talking about? History covers a long time in this part of the world.

DA: The past of the Jewish people. Gaza as I recall was Philistine land. Back in March 1979, during the negotiation of the second Camp David accord between President Carter, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, at that time Begin offered Gaza to Sadat and Egypt together with the rest of the Sinai peninsula.

So there was no great attachment to the Gaza, ever.

JJ: But there was a Jewish presence.

DA: Right, although strategically you cannot compare Gaza to Jerusalem, the Judean Hills, the Jordan River valley and all these areas.

JJ: Yet the Israeli government did allow and encourage these settlers to go to Gaza.

DA: Totally. They were sent by successive Israeli governments.

The first settlements there were built before the peace treaty with Egypt. So on the southern front we still had all these threats when Egypt was still the enemy. Egypt is no longer an enemy and the demography is also a factor. After all these years we have 8,000 people surrounded by these 1 million Palestinians.

[Years ago] you couldn’t really foresee the [future] developments. I can guarantee you: Had we had 1 million Israeli settlers in Gaza, we wouldn’t have left Gaza. If we had 500,000 Israelis, we wouldn’t have left Gaza.

JJ: How much does it cost Israel to protect the settlement region, Gush Katif, on an annual basis?

DA: Well, listen we had to keep there a division, about 20,000 troops. I would say it was quite costly. But the cost is not the factor. Protecting other areas is very costly as well. Strategically there is just no merit in staying there.

JJ: Of course, you could allow the settlers to stay, but inform them that they may soon become citizens of a Palestinian state.

DA: This is not realistic. No one was even contemplating this.

JJ: So you’re saying the settlements are a dead-end vestige of policies that, in the past, seemed to make sense. That doesn’t exactly make things easier for the settlers.

DA: We are very proud of the settlers’ achievements. I believe that their effort, their endeavors, were not in vain. And we applaud the achievements of the settlers over there. We do understand their pain.

It is incumbent on us, the government, to make sure the people who are losing what they’ve spent all their lives building will feel the least pain possible. And for that there are packages of compensation and other services that will be rendered and offered to the population there, from economic help to professional advice and placement, to psychological treatment as well. We try to prepare all of this.

JJ: You’re saying that all this upheaval is justified for the greater good of Israel.

DA: By doing the disengagement, by leaving Gaza, we have much strengthened our position in Judea and Samaria. Sometimes you come to a juncture when you have to make a choice and you have to look ahead. And you have to think of the global picture.

Disengagement is a very timely thing to do, the right thing to do for the people of Israel, and I hope for the region.

One more thing: This pullout did not follow an agreement with the Palestinians, but it followed something which is much more important, an agreement with the United States. Disengagement has to be viewed in the context of Israel-United States relations. It was enthusiastically endorsed by President Bush, and most in the international community are also accepting and endorsing it. Disengagement is something that creates a common agenda between us and the United States.

In support of disengagement, President Bush wrote a letter to Prime Minister Sharon reiterating his commitment to Israel’s security, and his commitment to strengthening Israel’s defense and deterrence capability. And President Bush went to an extent that no other president did talking about Israel living in recognized and defensible borders.

Not to mention that the American government now supports the realities on the ground. They do not expect us to return to the 1967 or 1949 lines, which is also a great asset. They don’t expect the Palestinian refugees to ever go back to Israel. That also is a great benefit that we have received because of the disengagement.

And we have received the political reassurance that the only road ahead is the roadmap to peace. The United States will not accept any other initiatives that are undesirable from any other quarter of the world. And there’s also a commitment to strengthening the Israeli economy. So all these factors are also very important in the decision to pull out from Gaza. Israel will be much stronger after the disengagement.

JJ: To what extent does the success of the pullout depend on the Palestinians?

DA: We would expect two things. First of all, during the disengagement, we would like to see that they make sure that terror doesn’t erupt. Toward that goal we have allowed them to move 5,000 security troops of the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank to Gaza. And we would expect they would create a perimeter or a buffer for our own troops, who would mostly be engaged with our own population, dealing with them and pulling them out — something that is not only excruciatingly painful but also very complicated.

If we encounter enemy fire and terror we will have to respond. And we will have to respond in a very decisive way because we will not allow them to pursue us as we move out. We will not allow even the perception of terror winning.

Secondly, we would expect the Palestinians to coordinate with us all the economic and civil affairs. For instance, we intend to leave most of infrastructure intact for the Palestinians to use, to create value for the Palestinian economy. For instance, there are greenhouses that could employ 8,000 to 10,000 people, which could sustain 100,000 or more Palestinians, about 10 percent of the population of Gaza.

After the disengagement, they will have to dismantle the terror infrastructure. They will have to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror organizations. They will have to arrest the fugitives and the known terrorists, break their cells and do it on a sustainable basis, so they can really come with us and negotiate on the roadmap. But the ticking bomb of Hamas is re-arming, re-grouping, recruiting new terrorists on a daily basis, and nothing is being done about it. The Palestinian Authority will have to take it head on if they want to be a viable partner for the future.

JJ: Isn’t there an argument for leaving intact the houses once occupied by Israeli settlers? Or at least letting the Palestinians make that decision?

DA: They have conveyed to us that they would prefer for those houses to be demolished because they are not suitable for Palestinian living because they are very expensive on land consumption. With the density of the population in Gaza, I think they would prefer high rises. Instead of 8,000 Israelis, they can inhabit this same area with tens of thousands of Palestinians.

We would like to see Palestinian refugees settled over there. It’s very unfortunate that throughout all these years, and certainly since the Palestinian Authority was created with Arafat in 1993, that they have not done anything to help their own refugees. Certainly they can move those refugees out of very miserable and inhumane conditions to new housing. Also by creating this housing, by building new housing, it can give a lot of immediate employment to the citizens of Gaza.

JJ: So how will the demolition be handled?

DA: The houses will be demolished by Israel. And the debris will be taken out by the Palestinians, who would not have to bear the costs for it. Israel is willing to participate in that cost. The international community should as well.

JJ: Some critics characterize disengagement as a defeat, as a retreat that will just encourage more violence and bring enemies who will never accept Israel’s existence closer to Israel’s doorsteps.

DA: I don’t think this is the case. We are leaving Gaza quite triumphant. Hamas was on the run. If you recall, we have taken on all its leaders, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheik Yassin. [Israel forces killed Rantisi and Yassin.] We really demolished all the infrastructure.

The reason the Palestinians have voted in a massive way for Abu Mazen is because he offered them a strategy of quiet and of doing away with terror. He has not really performed yet, but the terrorism did not further the Palestinians’ national interest. They have lost militarily. They have lost economically. They have lost in international legitimacy. And they have not done what they wanted to do, which is break the Israeli spirit.

Will terror spring out of Gaza? I doubt it. If it does, we will have all the legitimacy to respond in a very decisive way. And the Palestinians would want to see Gaza as a showcase. If they can govern Gaza in a responsible way, without terror, then they may have a case to start the roadmap and talk about other areas. If not, then nothing will be moving ahead.

JJ: Critics on the left say that even while Israel is withdrawing from Gaza, it is entrenching itself elsewhere in the territories and even expanding areas of control.

DA: Everything always depends on the performance of the Palestinians. If they will make good on their obligations in the roadmap: to dismantle the terror organizations, to complete their reforms, to create a viable entity with one rule of law and a monopoly over the military and the guns — then we can negotiate in good faith.

We cannot move forward to the second stage before the first stage is completed.

JJ: Is anything nonnegotiable, such as the status of Jerusalem, for instance?

DA: I repeat to you what Prime Minister Sharon said: Jerusalem is the one indivisible, united, eternal capital of Israel forever and ever.

JJ: Do you have a particular message for the Jewish community of Southern California?

DA: There is great compatibility between the American economy and Israel. In Israel, we’re talking about a very developed high-tech economy with a very well trained labor force that is also excelling in areas like entrepreneurship. We are proud to be the United States’ largest trading partner in the Middle East.

There are many American companies that are represented in Israel. And we would like to see more. I would like to see them look into business opportunities for joint ventures and investments. Now is the time to invest. Equity is still cheap in Israel. The growth is up and tourists are back. The economy is moving in the right direction. We are deregulating, changing the tax code, privatizing — so I think now is a good time to invest in Israel.

Also in your area I have met with many leaders in the entertainment industry. I have invited many of them to Israel and many of them did come. I would take this opportunity to [invite] actors and actresses to come to Israel, to discover Israel, and also to promote it.

JJ: Is there anything that could derail or postpone the pullout?

DA: I hope not. We are prepared to do it. And we are going to do it. We understand the demonstrations. We are a democratic country and they have the right to do it. But Israel also is a country with the rule of law. D-day will be Aug. 16, and we would expect the settlers to leave voluntarily. I hope most of them will. And those who will not, we will have to deal with them, very compassionately and with great patience. And just bring them back one by one.

Israel, Palestinians Coordinate Withdrawal

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank as a unilateral step, but it’s increasingly being coordinated by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

The two sides are working on joint military plans to stop Palestinian terrorists from firing on Israeli soldiers and civilians during the pullback, slated to begin in mid-August. They also are putting together a string of ambitious economic projects to provide incentives for the Palestinians to keep the peace long after the withdrawal is complete.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s lightning-quick visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem over the weekend was part of a concerted American effort to encourage coordination, and Sharon’s meeting Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also focused, at least in part, on the coordination effort.

In the two-and-a-half hour meeting, Sharon and Abbas discussed a number of key coordination issues, including deployment of P.A. police during the evacuation, arrangements for control of the “Philadelphia route” on the border between Gaza and Egypt, administration of border-crossing points between Gaza and Israel and demolition of evacuated settler homes.

Sharon also agreed to transfer the West Bank cities of Kalkilya and Bethlehem to P.A. control within the next two weeks.

But Sharon’s main message to Abbas was that Israeli-Palestinian military and civilian coordination will have little credibility unless the Palestinian Authority starts making good on its pledges to crack down on terrorism.

Israel claims there has been an increase in attacks by groups like Islamic Jihad over the past few days, and that the Palestinian Authority is doing very little to stop it.

On Monday night, Israeli forces arrested more than 50 Islamic Jihad activists after the group claimed responsibility for killing two Israelis in recent days. The message was clear: If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take action, Israel will.

In her visit to the area, Rice met separately with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and emphasized to both sides the importance the United States attaches to coordinating the withdrawal. She left no doubt that the Americans see a coordinated, relatively peaceful pullback as the key to creating a favorable climate for renewed peace talks.

Coordination is “absolutely critical,” Rice said.

The military coordination talks are going ahead on three levels: ministerial, top brass and officers in the field.

To strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s prestige and policing capacity, Israeli negotiators, headed by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, the army’s deputy chief of staff, are proposing:


• Handing over more West Bank cities, such as Jenin and Ramallah, to P.A. control before the withdrawal from Gaza. The Israeli side, though, insists that the Palestinian Authority first fulfill promises to disarm terrorists on Israel’s wanted list.


• Transferring P.A. police from the West Bank to Gaza to beef up their presence in key areas.


• Setting up joint Israeli-Palestinian operations rooms to coordinate movement of forces on the ground before, during and after the withdrawal.

The Israeli side has provided maps of the settlements and asked the Palestinians to come back with a detailed security plan that would dovetail with Israel’s overall blueprint for protecting the withdrawal.

But some Israeli leaders are skeptical. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that because Israel is not demanding anything from the Palestinians in return for the withdrawal, members of terrorist groups have no motivation to keep the peace.

On the contrary, he says, apart from any agreement Israel reaches with the Palestinian Authority, terrorists almost certainly will fire on the departing troops because they want to create the impression that Israel is being forced to leave.

The civilian coordination talks aim to provide incentives for a more enduring commitment to peace. At least five major projects are under consideration:


• A rail link between the Gaza Strip and West Bank.


• Completing construction of a seaport in Gaza.


• Reopening the Gaza airport.


• Streamlining border crossing points between Gaza and Israel.


• A massive housing project for Palestinian refugee resettlement.

In early June talks with the Palestinians, Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon proposed a rail line from Erez on the Gaza border to Tarkumiya, near the West Bank city of Hebron.

“The idea is to show the Palestinians that the planned withdrawal is not a case of ‘Gaza first and last,’ as many of them fear, but rather that it is a first step leading to a full-fledged, unified Palestinian state incorporating both Gaza and the West Bank,” Ramon said.

Even more important for the “economics of peace” are the border crossing points between Gaza and Israel. Israeli officials admit that the way the crossing points operate at present could stifle Palestinian economic development by holding up the transport of goods to ports in Israel for export.

To solve the problem, the Defense Ministry has drawn up plans for rapid, high-tech security checks, and the World Bank has agreed in principle to help meet the cost of building a pilot, state-of-the art crossing point.

Another key issue on the civilian agenda is the fate of evacuated settler homes. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to demolish the houses after the Palestinians said they don’t want them — because what they need in densely populated Gaza are high-rise buildings, not villas.

According to the agreement, Israel will destroy the homes but the Palestinians will remove the debris and use it in the construction of the Gaza seaport.

Another Israeli proposal, that the international community help finance a major high-rise housing project in the evacuated area for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees, also is under consideration.

American economic envoy James Wolfensohn, who until recently was president of the World Bank, is reportedly trying to raise $3 billion for Gaza rehabilitation projects.

“The hope is that if they materialize, these projects will provide work for thousands of Palestinians and help stabilize the security situation,” a senior Israeli official told JTA.

Such actions amount to conflict management, Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. What the United States needs to advance to is conflict prevention, he said, by producing a breakthrough between the sides that would help placate Israeli fears of renewed violence and Palestinian fears that Sharon wants to squeeze them out of a state.

Currently, “the U.S. strategy is to help Mahmoud Abbas to survive — not succeed, but survive,” Klein said. “In my view, conflict management is not enough because we face the renewal of the intifada.”

With the evacuation less than two months away, finalizing these ambitious coordination plans will be a race against both the clock and Palestinian militiamen. Indeed, the degree of coordination could decide the immediate future of Israeli-Palestinian relations: whether or not the ongoing violence finally gives way to economic cooperation and the beginning of a credible peace process.

JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


Israelis Still Divided on Lebanon Move

Five years after Israel completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, the jury is still out on whether then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the right strategic choice in pulling back troops without an agreement with Lebanon and Syria.

Despite the pullback, border tensions still flare up from time to time. On Monday, the day of the anniversary, Israeli troops were on red alert in anticipation of a dramatic cross-border attack by the terrorist group Hezbollah.

On the other hand, the Israel-Lebanon border has been largely quiet for most of the past five years, and pro-withdrawal analysts argue that a new strategic balance that serves Israel’s long-term interests has been created.

The impact of the withdrawal, however, goes well beyond the Lebanese arena, and its full historic significance probably will be gauged only in light of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Will Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas adopt Hezbollah’s tactics of cross-border shelling, or will the deterrent model created by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the north be applicable on other fronts, too?

Analysts who emphasize the positive side of the balance sheet argue that the pullback enabled Israel to create a new strategic balance based on deterrence rather than occupation. By withdrawing to the international border, they say, Israel regained the moral high ground and created a situation in which Hezbollah finds it difficult to justify further attacks.

Conversely, whenever such attacks occur, Israel can make a strong case for hitting back at targets in Lebanon and Syria, holding their governments responsible for not restraining the militiamen they control. This new strategic balance, they say, has ensured that the border has been mostly quiet since the withdrawal.

The pro-withdrawal analysts also argue that the Israeli precedent led to pressure on Syria to pull its forces out of Lebanon. Syria’s recent withdrawal has increased international pressure on Hezbollah to disarm and stop providing Damascus with a proxy military presence, they argue.

In sum, these analysts say, the withdrawal sparked a dynamic that has created more favorable conditions for eventual peacemaking with Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, the situation suggests that a security doctrine based on deterrence might be similarly applicable in Gaza and the West Bank, after Israel regains the moral high ground by withdrawing from those territories as well.

In a fifth-anniversary interview published in the Ma’ariv newspaper, Barak claimed vindication, arguing that the withdrawal had enabled the IDF to shorten its lines without having to make security sacrifices.

“I said at the height of the controversy that not only would our withdrawal create an invisible protective wall by delegitimizing shooting at us, it would also turn Hezbollah into a more political organization, and that over time the Syrians would have to give in and leave Lebanon,” Barak said. “All these things happened, beyond our most optimistic expectations.”

One of the strongest arguments pro-withdrawal analysts make is the dramatic reduction in the death toll along the northern border. In the five years since withdrawal, 20 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed in hostilities in the north; in the preceding 18 years, the IDF lost an average of 25 soldiers in Lebanon each year.

Most Israelis seem to accept the pro-withdrawal arguments. An opinion poll in Ma’ariv showed that 55 percent believe the withdrawal improved Israel’s situation, 12 percent thought it made things worse and 29 percent said it had made no difference.

But critics of the withdrawal have their points as well. Scenes of Israeli soldiers retreating from Lebanon in disarray were greeted as a major victory by the Arab world and may even have sparked the Palestinian intifada that erupted four months later.

Alex Fishman, military analyst for Yediot Achronot, argues that even if it didn’t cause the intifada, the Lebanon withdrawal certainly served as an inspiration for Palestinians and led them to believe that they, too, might be able to drive Israel out by force — an impression seemingly strengthened as the Palestinians conclude that violence is forcing Israel to flee the Gaza Strip as well.

The antiwithdrawal analysts turn the strategic-balance argument on its head. Fishman says it is Hezbollah that has been able to create a balance of fear. Having moved more than 1,000 rockets into southern Lebanon and trained them on Israeli targets, Hezbollah could threaten or bombard Israeli civilians whenever Israel makes a move of which it disapproves, or whenever it thinks an attack might be politically advantageous.

Recent border tensions offer a good example. Senior Israeli officers, including Northern Command Chief Maj.-Gen. Benny Ganz, are convinced that attacks in the past two weeks are related to upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, they say, hopes cross-border exchanges with Israel will win big points with the Lebanese electorate. Months of quiet were broken when Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars in a number of incidents just weeks before polling day.

By attacking Israel, the officers say, Hezbollah hopes to present itself as the only force in Lebanon capable of standing up to Israel and resisting supposed “Israeli aggression.”

The officers argue that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has not weakened Syria’s links to Hezbollah. On the contrary, the withdrawal has left the Syrians more dependent than ever on their proxy for a foothold in Lebanese affairs, and for a lever to keep Israel and the international community aware of Syria’s interests.

Therefore, the officers say, Syria is continuing to arm Hezbollah, and supports its candidates in the parliamentary elections.

Fishman argues that one of the worst developments for Israel would be if Hezbollah both retains its militia and becomes an even stronger political force after these elections. That could serve as a model for Hamas, which has struck a balance of fear by firing rockets or mortars at Israeli communities in or near the Gaza Strip whenever Israel does something of which Hamas disapproves – or even, as lately, to score points in internal rivalries with the Palestinians’ dominant Fatah movement.

“We must not allow Hamas to create a similar balance of fear on the Gaza border and in the West Bank,” Fishman writes. “They are already trying to dictate this formula, and we, foolishly, are allowing it, as if there were no lesson from Lebanon.”

The next few months could help decide the Lebanon argument. What happens with Hamas in the wake of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer almost certainly will influence the way Israelis understand the withdrawal from Lebanon in retrospect.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


Nation & World Briefs

Sharansky Quits Cabinet

Forever the rebel with a cause, Soviet-refusenik-turned-democracy-proponent Natan Sharansky has left the Israeli government rather than take part in the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Sharansky tendered his resignation as Diaspora affairs minister Monday, accusing the Sharon government of failing to demand Palestinian reform as a prerequisite to peace moves.

“As you know, I have opposed the disengagement plan from the beginning, on the grounds that I believe any concessions in the peace process must be linked to democratic reforms within Palestinian society,” Sharansky wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “I no longer feel that I can faithfully serve in a government whose central policy — indeed, sole raison d’etre — has become one to which I am so adamantly opposed.”

Sharon, who lost two right-wing coalition partners and a Cabinet member from his own Likud Party last year over the plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank this summer, took Sharansky’s walkout in stride. It was not immediately clear who would inherit the Diaspora affairs portfolio.

Some speculated that Sharansky — who is now outside the government because he does not hold a Knesset seat — will tour to promote his recent bestseller, “The Case for Democracy.”

In any case, Sharansky pledged in his letter, “I will continue my lifelong efforts to contribute to the unity and strength of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the Diaspora.”

Arrest Made in AIPAC Scandal

A Pentagon aide was arrested on suspicion of passing classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Larry Franklin turned himself in to the FBI on Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office told JTA, and will answer charges that he passed information to two senior AIPAC staffers during a June 2003 lunch in Virginia. The staffers — AIPAC’s policy director, Steve Rosen, and Iran specialist Keith Weissman — were fired last month. AIPAC declined immediate comment on Franklin’s arrest. According to the federal complaint, the information Franklin allegedly passed was classified top-secret and related to potential attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. The complaint goes on to say Franklin told the AIPAC staffers, who aren’t named in the complaint, that the information was “highly classified” and asked them not to use it.

New Chair for Conference

Harold Tanner was elected chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The past president of the American Jewish Committee was unanimously confirmed Tuesday afternoon at a meeting of the umbrella organization for 52 U.S. Jewish groups. Since the nominating committee announced its choice of Tanner on April 7, the heads of the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League questioned the nominating process, suggesting Tanner was a last-minute candidate who had not been vetted properly. Tanner will assume his duties on June 1. At Tuesday’s meeting, only Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, raised a point of procedure, suggesting that future candidates provide a brief presentation to the group so that members know their positions. After Tanner’s nomination, Klein complained that he knew nothing about the candidate.

Palestinian loses U.S. Citizenship

A U.S. court stripped a Palestinian man of his citizenship for not reporting $6.4 million in cash withdrawals and for illegally sending the money abroad. Federal authorities declined to say where Hasan Ali Ayesh sent the money. Ayesh, who owned a convenience store in Memphis, immigrated to the United States in 1984 and became a citizen in 2002.

Iran Lashes Out

Iran said Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal endangers world peace. Addressing a United Nations conference on the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Tuesday that Israel “has endangered regional and global peace and security” because it has nonconventional weapons, believed to include atomic warheads. Iran, which signed the treaty, has been censured by the United States for its pursuit of nuclear technology that can be used to make weapons. Israel, which has never confirmed having a nuclear arsenal, is not a signatory to the treaty and thus is not attending the U.N. conference. “Israel has continually rejected calls by the international community to accede to the NPT,” Kharrazi said in his speech.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


AIPAC Packs Punch Despite Fed Probe


It was a balmy spring evening, and the Jewish elite of Los Angeles had gathered in Beverly Hills to hear two U.S. senators provide a top-level briefing on Israel and the Middle East. The dinner at the Beverly Hilton was hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the nation’s pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby, and it was a record-setter, with 1,100 in attendance, checkbooks in hand.
But strangely, barely a word was mentioned about Israel’s most immediate compelling challenge, its impending withdrawal from the Gaza strip and from part of the West Bank.
Instead, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), delivered an alarming bulletin on Iran.
“These are dangerous times, we all know this, for Israel,” Stabenow said. “Iran is building nuclear weapons and has missile technology to use them.”
Not all experts hold that view of Iran, but Stabenow’s message — what she said and what she didn’t say — was 100 percent on target for AIPAC. The overriding theme was unmistakable: Israel needs your help now more than ever, and the way to help, with your checkbook and your politicking, is through AIPAC.
AIPAC keeps its focus on external threats to Israel. But its own survival has become a question in recent months as it waits out a federal probe that began with an FBI sting operation last year. AIPAC and two of its senior staffers are under investigation for allegedly passing classified U.S. government information to the Israeli government. AIPAC apparently fired those two employees last week.
In other ways, though, AIPAC is doing better than ever. Membership has climbed to record levels of more than 100,000. The Los Angeles area, the nation’s second-largest chapter, has added some 300 members since December, swelling numbers past 4,000, also a high-water mark.
And there’s room to expand, with an estimated American Jewish community of 5.5 million and growing interest among conservative Christians in joining and backing groups that support Israel. AIPAC, after all, is not a Jewish organization per se. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-based AIPAC is developing new reach by pushing initiatives involving state and city governments that want to improve homeland security with help from Israel.
The March AIPAC fundraiser in Beverly Hills raised an estimated $700,000, according to organizers, a number impossible to confirm independently. More importantly, the guest list was developed with community leaders in mind, the kind who have direct sway over others, such as rabbis and successful entrepreneurs. By intent, there was a full range of religious traditions represented, including ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. In fact, AIPAC made a point to bring together Jews who, philosophically, disagree on many things, showing once again that preserving Israel remains the great unifier. All told, the gathering was the largest AIPAC event by a factor of two or three in at least 10 years, said Elliot Brandt, AIPAC’S West Coast regional director.
While the dinner lacked A-list Hollywood celebrities, it was a who’s who of local, state and even national politics. For AIPAC, it’s all about politics, even in Hollywood. The guest list featured three U.S. senators, most of the top statewide electeds, a score of state legislators and headliner local attractions including L.A.’s mayoral opponents: incumbent James Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.
Besides Stabenow, the other keynote politician was Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, whose presence in liberal Los Angeles underscored AIPAC’s determination to work with both parties. In his remarks, Kyl talked of how Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, far outshines the late Yasser Arafat, but has accomplished far too little in fighting terrorism.
No speaker mentioned the travails of Palestinians under Israeli “occupation.” And the only victims spoken of were Israelis. This perspective has always made AIPAC suspect on the political left, and among those who argue that a person can be fully pro-Israel while also opposing specific policies of an Israeli government.
There was no speechmaking on this summer’s scheduled removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza and part of the West Bank. For good reason: The pullout is not a cause around which to rally all American Jews and checkbooks, especially within the Orthodox community. And emotions will run hotter still if settlers physically resist displacement or if violence breaks out between settlers and Israeli troops. At that point, AIPAC is likely to feel heat from the portion of the political right that supports the settlers.
AIPAC keeps a studiously low profile on such matters, though for the record, it supports both the withdrawal and the two-state solution embodied in the Bush administration’s “roadmap” to peace.
Given the potentially perilous rhetorical terrain, it was remarkable how expertly Kyl and Stabenow stuck to the AIPAC playbook. Either they just happen to think like AIPAC, or else they’ve learned their lessons well.
These lessons come in two forms, one quite literal. AIPAC will take politicians to Israel and educate them on history from an Israeli perspective. And AIPAC can cite chapter and verse on the advantages of a “strong U.S.-Israel relationship.” The other part of the curriculum is a syllabus on power politics, namely, the money, votes and noise that AIPAC and pro-Israel Jews can bring to bear.
Much of this organizing and lobbying happens at AIPAC’s annual conference, in May in Washington, D.C. That’s when AIPAC trains and further indoctrinates its own faithful, who then descend in person and en masse on lawmakers at the Capitol. By that time, AIPAC would fervently like to have the federal probe behind it.
The investigation into AIPAC may be overblown as a spy scandal, but it’s invited comparisons to the 1985 case of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel. The association is potentially damaging to AIPAC’s effectiveness, because AIPAC walks a fine line of credibility as an all-American operation. On one hand, AIPAC supports the Israeli government and lobbies relentlessly for foreign aid and policies that benefit Israel. On the other hand, AIPAC maintains that the Israeli government has no control over its actions; in short, AIPAC is 100 percent American, 100 percent independent, even while it’s 100 percent behind what the government of Israel wants, at least in public.
That’s an equation so ingrained into American Jews that it hardly seems worth mentioning. But substitute the word China for Israel, and an organization like AIPAC would look, to many neutral observers, like a front for a foreign government, one that is seeking undue and self-serving influence over U.S. policies. Such a taint, if it stuck, could destroy AIPAC overnight, along with its lobbying for a pro-Israel policy that proponents also characterize as genuinely pro-American. In the words of a news story in last week’s Washington Post, “the brewing scandal at AIPAC has caused an uproar in the Jewish community, especially among wealthy political donors.”
An AIPAC spokesman took pains to emphasize the organization’s independence. “AIPAC is not a foreign agent and does not represent the government of Israel,” said Andrew Schwartz. “We represent more than 100,000 Americans who are dedicated to advocating for a strengthened U.S.-Israel relationship.”
In a move that could limit damaging fallout, AIPAC cut ties last week with policy director Steve Rosen and senior analyst Keith Weissman. Both had been on paid leave since late January. Rosen, in particular, has been a force for AIPAC within official Washington for nearly two decades, so his departure is no small thing. Rosen and Weissman, through their attorney, have denied any wrongdoing.
AIPAC defended them as well, until their apparent dismissal last week. “The action that AIPAC has taken was done in consultation with counsel after careful consideration of recently learned information and the conduct AIPAC expects of its employees,” another AIPAC spokesman, Patrick Dorton, told The Journal.
Dorton declined to comment on the federal investigation in any way, but a knowledgeable source confirmed to The Journal that four members of AIPAC’s professional staff testified in late January or early February before a grand jury in northern Virginia: Howard Kohr, executive director; Richard Fishman deputy executive director; Renee Rothstein, head of communications; and Rafi Danziger, a staffer in policy and research.
The grand jury can take the investigation anywhere it chooses; it isn’t limited to the FBI sting that allegedly snared the two staffers. The investigation of AIPAC broke last year when the FBI raided AIPAC’s Washington offices in August. Agents searched the premises again in December.
AIPAC, of course, continues to press its political agenda in Congress. This menu, as always, includes massive U.S. aid to Israel. The projected figure for next year is $2.38 billion. AIPAC also supports $200 million in aid to Palestinians, but not to the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC wants these funds limited to specific projects managed by outside groups. The organization also would also like to see more federal support for cooperation between Israel and local governments in the U.S. The Capitol police force, for example, has already sent officers to Israel for anti-terrorism training.
A top priority is legislation to tighten sanctions on Iran. It’s already illegal for American corporations to do business with Iran, but a bill before Congress would tighten the noose on foreign subsidiaries and American investors.
“Iran has continued to lie and deceive regarding its nuclear weapons program,” said AIPAC’s Schwartz, “and it’s incumbent upon the United States and the Europeans to work toward getting Iran to dismantle its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Stabenow and Kyl could hardly have said it better. Similar echoes of AIPAC dogma in the halls of Congress testify to AIPAC’s success. That influence could come crashing to earth, however, pending a bad outcome to the federal investigation.
Over the long haul, AIPAC faces other threats to its clout, including a declining Jewish population and the nation’s growing Islamic and Arab communities. But then, AIPAC members are never more motivated to act or donate than when the future of Israel is at stake.


Israel Skeptical of Abbas Moves


The appointment of new commanders to lead a reformed Palestinian Authority security force would seem to be a step toward meeting one of the Palestinian Authority’s key obligations under the “road map” peace plan.
Yet far from winning plaudits for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, the move has hardly moved Israeli officials, who remain skeptical of Abbas’ ability to root out Palestinian terrorism.
Their concern reflects a deeply rooted lack of confidence in Palestinian capabilities and intentions, which could have far-reaching political ramifications: Pundits on both sides agree that unless the Palestinians convince Israel over the next few months that they are waging an effective anti-terrorist campaign, the chances of renewing peace talks after Israel’s scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank this summer are extremely remote.
In late April, Abbas announced a shake-up of the P.A. security set-up. The number of services would be reduced from 11 to three and would be put under new commanders: Suleiman Khellis in charge of the national security forces; Tareq Abu Rajab as head of military intelligence; and Alaa Hosni to lead the police.
The three services would be unified under the command of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, and more than 1,000 officers over 60 years old would be retired.
The reform signals a clear break with the past: Men appointed by the late President Yasser Arafat are out and new, younger commanders, not tainted by corruption, are in.
While Arafat was notorious for his deft manipulation of the plethora of armed organizations to consolidate his power and wage a terrorist war against Israel that couldn’t be traced back to him, the unified new force is intended to become an organ of state, dedicated to maintaining law and order and preventing terrorism.
Indeed, Abbas is presenting the force as a significant move toward implementation of his dictum of “one authority, one law and one gun” — in other words, a Palestinian entity with only one legal armed force and no rogue militias.
The trouble is that Israeli officials see the reform as merely a declaration of intent, rather than a done deal. Israeli officials point out that Abbas has done nothing so far to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad — which, they say, makes a mockery of the “one gun” claim.
Indeed, they note that Abbas has not even delivered on the deal he made with Israel on rogue militiamen wanted for their involvement in terrorism.
The Israelis demand that these men be disarmed and promise that once they are, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) will not target or arrest them. Instead, Abbas has allowed the wanted men to keep their weapons and join the Palestinian armed forces
“They don’t even bother to disarm them first. It’s pushing terror into the services and it’s like asking the cat to guard the cream,” Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim said.
Boim said Abbas’ biggest mistake has been his failure to demand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad hand in their weapons, not only because these might be turned on Israel but because one day they might be turned on Abbas himself.
Abbas claims his policy is working and that Hamas will hand in its weapons after participating in parliamentary elections scheduled for July. However, Hamas spokesman Mushir Al-Masri flatly denies this, saying Hamas will keep its weapons until Israel ends its “occupation” of Palestinian land.
The exchange highlights the difference between the Palestinian and Israeli approaches to the terrorist groups: Abbas wants to talk them into surrendering their weapons voluntarily; Israel wants to see a military-style clampdown before it takes Abbas’ “one-gun” slogan seriously.
The Palestinians argue that the relative quiet since Abbas took over in January shows they’re making progress in the fight against terrorism, even if they refuse to confront the radicals head-on.
Terror attacks are down by 80 percent, they say; there is security cooperation with Israel; and P.A. forces have foiled a number of attacks, in some cases even handing captured weapons and suicide belts to the IDF.
Moreover, they say, Abbas has not been given credit for his courage in dismissing the entire cadre of senior officers associated with Arafat — a move that pundits say could weaken Abbas’ Fatah movement before the upcoming elections.
Abbas complains that Israel is not giving him a chance. Last week he summoned Israeli journalists to his Ramallah office to make his case.
“There has not been a single minute without criticism, without complaints, without incitement — just like the first government I headed we can’t get a moment’s rest … and just like during that first government, we are not being given a chance,” he protested.
The reference was to the brief period in 2003 when Abbas served as prime minister under Arafat.
The key question is what all this means for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer. Ostensibly, by reforming his security forces and helping to reduce terrorism significantly, Abbas has done enough to warrant engagement in peace talks within the framework of the “road map.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hanging tough. In a string of Passover interviews, he repeated several times that Israel would not go forward with the road map — designed to lead eventually to a Palestinian state — unless the Palestinians meet their commitment to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure by disarming Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The United States supports Israel’s approach, Sharon claimed.
“I suggest that the progress be slow. I’m not saying it should be halted, but we must insist that their commitments are thoroughly met and we must not give an inch on their obligation to prevent smuggling, prevent terror, dismantle the terror organizations and stop producing weapons,” he said. “The Americans also don’t propose that we yield on these things.”
With Israel and the Palestinians divided over how much progress Abbas is making on his road-map obligations, it seems certain America will be asked to judge.
After his mid-April visit to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, Sharon claims he has the United States on his side.
Abbas will go to Washington in May in an attempt to redress the balance — and his well-timed security shake-up, announced just weeks ahead of the visit, will be one of his strongest cards.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report


Jews Try to Sell Withdrawal Plan to Jews


The hardest sell for American Jewish groups signed on to promote Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip might be other Jews.

Many of the major Jewish religious streams, lobbying groups and civil rights groups are encouraging the Bush administration, lawmakers and opinion makers to maintain political support for Israel’s July 20 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

In Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, is working to help win approval of $200 million in aid money for the Palestinians when the U.S. Senate returns next week.

The U.S. House of Representatives already has approved the cash.

“AIPAC is strongly supportive of aid to the Palestinians, provided the proper oversight is in place to ensure the money is not misspent,” AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz said. “Congress is currently working on making sure that such oversight is in place.”

It should be smooth sailing, except that a coalition of Israeli settlers and their U.S. supporters are making themselves heard loud and clear. They are raising hard questions about the historic — and traumatic — removal of thousands of long-established Jewish settlers and whether their removal is worth the risks associated with turning over the region to the Palestinians.

The difficulty of the situation means having to explain the withdrawal to American Jews first of all, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella body.

“It’s an internal issue, in that we educate people about what Israel is doing, why it’s doing it,” Hoenlein said. “The trauma is great.”

The conference’s own rocky path to endorsing disengagement reflects the divisions: It held back until late last year — almost a year after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the plan — when it issued a statement of qualified support.

On a recent mission to Israel, the group endorsed the plan more explicitly.

Fierce opposition to the disengagement plan is a concern for the Reform movement, which has emerged as one of its most avid backers.

“We’re always concerned that a fairly small minority of Jews in the United States have a disproportionately loud voice,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“We have an obligation to make clear where the vast majority of Jews are. We must make sure that political leaders, opinion leaders have the right perspective.”

To that end, Saperstein is encouraging hundreds of Reform rabbis meeting this week in Houston at this year’s Central Conference of American Rabbis to tackle the issue.

Much of the American Jewish opposition is being fueled by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and its president, Morton Klein, who calls the ZOA stance “anti-forced deportation,” and was behind an abortive effort in the House earlier this month — led by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) — to scuttle aid to the Palestinians altogether.

Meanwhile, the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has sent representatives to the United States to enlist support for their opposition to the withdrawal.

They focused especially on the Orthodox Union, which has not taken an official position. Many Orthodox Jews in America have family members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and feel a particular empathy for those who will be uprooted. Against such determined opposition, getting out the message of support is hard but necessary, said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“In any situation, those who are pro come out in the tens of thousands, those who are against come out in the hundreds of thousands. We need to find incentives for people to come out there,” said Foxman, whose group supports the disengagement.

Each organization is working its bailiwick: The ADL, which has a long-established presence in Israel, has focused on condemning calls for violent opposition in that country and soliciting pledges of moderation from settler supporters.

The American Jewish Committee, with its extensive ties to international leaders, is mustering overseas support for the transition.

In Washington, support for disengagement has created an unlikely alliance between AIPAC and the dovish pro-Israel groups that work the Hill, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum — although there are substantive differences over the details. AIPAC and the dovish pro-Israel lobby groups disagree over what conditions should be attached to the $200 million in aid for the Palestinians. AIPAC was behind an effort to remove the presidential waiver, which traditionally is attached to such bills, meaning every dollar must be subject to congressional review.

AIPAC was involved in adding provisions that would require additional vetting of any money that went to the Palestinians. Such vetting procedures have in the past led to funding through non-governmental organizations rather than directly to the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC opposes such direct funding to the Palestinian Authority.

Mindful of that outlook, congressional drafters removed the presidential waiver, which traditionally is attached to such bills, meaning every dollar must be subject to congressional review.

Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum want the Senate to restore the waiver, and make sure it makes the final version that lands on Bush’s desk for his signature.

“Adding new conditions on aid — and eliminating the president’s authority to waive them — sends the Palestinians a message that the U.S. Congress seeks to thwart the president’s efforts to assist them,” Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, said this week in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Another difference is over Israel’s continued settlement activity. Peace Now sharply criticized Israel’s recent announcement that it would move ahead with an old plan to build 3,500 new units in Ma’aleh Adumim, a West Bank settlement that serves as a bedroom community for Jerusalem.

Others say Israel is not obliged to freeze settlements until the Palestinians make good on their own commitment to dismantle terrorist groups.

Controversy over the Ma’aleh Adumim expansion underscores another task for Jewish organizations backing disengagement — reminding non-Jewish leaders of Israel’s sacrifice.

“The risks inherent in what Israel is doing, I don’t think people appreciate it,” said Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents. “It’s taken for granted. We have to remind people what’s involved.”


Sharon Wins Key Likud Party Vote

After a string of embarrassing defeats in his own party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election of key Likud officers raises the chances that he will be able to broaden his government and push through a promised withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — though it’s still not certain.

Likud rebels, who have been at the forefront of the campaign against Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, put up candidates for three top party posts. Had they won, Sharon’s political future would have been bleak.

“The message of such a victory will be that Sharon is finished,” pundit Yossi Verter wrote in Ha’aretz ahead of Monday’s vote. “It would be very difficult for Sharon to lead the Likud again in the next Knesset elections.”

Instead, the victory of three people who aren’t diehard Sharon loyalists but are figures the prime minister feels he can work with, improves the prospects for progress just as the United States and Europe prepare for a reinvigorated peace push.

The vote came as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the region to see whether new chances for peace have opened in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, and what the United States can do to facilitate elections for a new Palestinian leader.

On the plane coming in, Powell hinted that if the Palestinians make real efforts to stop terrorism, the United States would be ready to contribute $20 million toward Palestinian elections. On Tuesday, the diplomatic “Quartet” behind the “road map” peace plan — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — announced that it would help finance th elections.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Sharon told Powell that Israel would do all it could to facilitate the Palestinian elections. He said Israel was ready for security coordination with the Palestinians in the run-up to the vote, would allow Arabs from eastern Jerusalem to vote and would allow full freedom of movement in the Palestinian territories on election day.

Clearly, the Americans want to exploit the chance to kick-start the deadlocked process, and Powell sounded an upbeat note after his talks in Jerusalem and with Palestinian leaders in Jericho. He spoke of a “new attitude on the Palestinian side” and “flexibility in Israel,” and said, “there is enough for us to move forward now.”

Powell also pleased his Israeli hosts by dismissing the possibility that the Quartet would seek to skirt the road map — which calls for incremental progress only after each side has met its commitments at each step along the way — by hosting a high-profile summit.

“The road map is the way forward — the only way forward — and it is nothing that can be jumped into, it has to go step by step,” Powell said.

“What we really need is for the Palestinian side in this new era to speak out clearly against terrorism, and to gather in all of the elements of the Palestinian community and make it clear to them that it is time to stop all incitement, to stop all violence,”he said, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The Israelis also are upbeat. A senior Israeli intelligence source told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that with the new Palestinian leadership there is a good chance for a “total change in Palestinian political culture.”

If so, Monday’s Likud vote improves the chance that they will find an Israeli coalition able to break the diplomatic deadlock.

The rebel candidates — Uzi Landau for the key Central Committee chairmanship, Michael Ratzon for the secretariat and Gilad Erdan for the bureau — were comfortably beaten by, respectively, former Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Health Minister Danny Naveh.

The results show that the rebels do not control the 2,970-member Central Committee, the Likud’s highest decision-making body, when there is full turnout.

Sharon lost a number of key Central Committee votes when turnout was low. For Monday’s showdown, his supporters focused mainly on getting out the Central Committee vote, and pundits agree that it was the huge 91 percent turnout that sank the rebels.

Analysts say the vote shows the rebels control a hard core of around 30 percent of the Central Committee, and that Sharon can count on about the same number.

The rest float and vote according to the issue at hand. That means Sharon theoretically could win support for moves to widen his coalition.

The prime minister’s losses in the party began in May 2002, when the Central Committee defied him and put the party on record against the establishment of a Palestinian state. In May this year Sharon was defeated in a full party membership vote on his disengagement plan, with Landau, Ratzon and Erdan leading the campaign against him.

Then, in August, the Central Committee defied Sharon again, voting against bringing in Labor to bolster Sharon’s shaky government.

The successive defeats heightened perceptions of the prime minister’s vulnerability inside the party. In the Knesset, a growing number of Likud legislators came out against his disengagement plan.

As the anti-Sharon bandwagon gathered pace, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a move designed to unseat the prime minister. He and five other Likud Cabinet ministers planned to vote against Sharon’s disengagement plan in the Knesset last month, a move that could have created a major government crisis and sparked an early national election with Netanyahu leading the Likud.

Ironically, Hanegbi, Katz and Naveh — the men Sharon was pleased to see elected Monday — were among the ministers involved in what Sharon aides described as Netanyahu’s “putsch.”

But Sharon’s overwhelming victory in that Knesset vote, after Netanyahu backed down, was a turning point for the prime minister’s standing in the party. Several Knesset members who had vociferously opposed him suddenly declared their allegiance. Monday night’s triumph shored up Sharon’s position.

The question now is whether Sharon will be able to bring Labor into his coalition and create a firm political base to carry out the promised withdrawals.

If he had been elected Central Committee chairman, Landau would have done all he could to torpedo the disengagement plan, including keeping Labor out. Hanegbi, however, seemed to open a crack for Labor to come through after Monday’s vote.

Labor wouldn’t be able to join the coalition without other parties such as Shas or United Torah Judaism, he said. In other words, if Sharon can persuade either of the two ultra-Orthodox parties to join his coalition, he would be able to bring Labor in, as well.

What Hanegbi and many in the Central Committee oppose is a Likud-Labor-Shinui government, in which the Likud likely would be bullied into more dovish positions by the two more moderate secular parties. But a coalition in which Likud and at least one right-wing, ultra-Orthodox party force Shinui out and dominate Labor is a different proposition.

In Labor, there now is a strong drive to join Sharon’s coalition — partly to help him carry out the disengagement and partly to block former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s bid to recapture the Labor leadership.

Matan Vilnai, one of Barak’s chief rivals for the top spot, is proposing that Labor agree to join Sharon’s government without taking any ministerial posts. That would achieve two purposes: Carrying out the disengagement and putting off Labor primaries for another year, forcing Barak to cool his heels.

Over the next few weeks, Sharon will make a supreme effort to widen his coalition, with Labor and the ultra-Orthodox as his main targets, even though success almost surely would mean the departure of Shinui, his main coalition partner until now.

If Sharon is able to cut a deal, the Central Committee under Hanegbi will be asked to approve it, despite its earlier vote against a unity government with Labor. And if a new vote goes Sharon’s way, Monday’s victory will have been extremely significant for Sharon — and for disengagement.

Sharon’s Knesset Win Could Be a Loss

Tuesday, Oct. 26 may well go down as one of the more important, and bizarre, dates in the annals of Israeli politics.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a resounding victory in the Knesset for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, but the vote ended with his Likud Party in tatters and on the verge of splitting in two, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the rebels.

The upshot is that although Sharon secured Knesset approval for his plan, which includes the dismantling of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, it’s not at all clear whether he will have the political clout to see it through. Backed by the opposition Labor and Yahad parties and opposed by almost half of the Knesset faction of his own Likud Party, Sharon mustered 67 votes for his disengagement plan, with 45 against and seven abstentions.

Tuesday’s vote does not authorize the actual removal of any settlements. The withdrawal is to be carried out in stages beginning next year, with Cabinet approval necessary before each move.

Still, Sharon had hoped that such a clear margin of victory in the Knesset would squelch demands for a national referendum on the withdrawal and open up new coalition-building possibilities.

But Netanyahu’s move against Sharon means that his government could soon fall, and instead of moving ahead smoothly toward disengagement, Israel could find itself caught up in a stormy election.

For four hours before the vote, Netanyahu and three other leading Likud ministers — Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz and Danny Naveh — closeted themselves in a Jerusalem hotel, working on a proposal to condition their support in Tuesday’s Knesset vote on a commitment by Sharon to hold a national referendum on disengagement. Sharon rejected the demand out of hand, even refusing to meet the four ministers before the vote. He argues that referendum advocates simply are looking for a way to delay the disengagement plan indefinitely, and accused them of planning a putsch against him.

Things came to a head in the last hour before the vote. The National Religious Party (NRP), which is part of Sharon’s government but which opposes disengagement, served the prime minister with an ultimatum: Hold a referendum or else. NRP Cabinet minister Zevulun Orlev said the party had received rabbinical approval to remain in Sharon’s coalition until the end of its term in November 2006, even if the referendum goes against them. But if Sharon refuses to hold a referendum, Orlev warned, the party will leave the coalition within two weeks.

Then, immediately after the vote, Netanyahu dropped his bombshell: Unless Sharon agrees within 14 days to hold a referendum, he, Livnat, Katz and Naveh will leave the coalition as well.

What that means is that if Sharon doesn’t buckle — and so far there are no signs that he will — the Likud will split in two, with Netanyahu and Sharon on opposing sides.

Sharon finds himself left with three possible choices: Build a new coalition or parliamentary pact with Labor and the left; agree to hold a referendum; or push for early elections. None of the choices is easy. To get a majority coalition with Labor and the left, Sharon would need the support of at least 17 of Likud’s 40 legislators — and it’s not clear he can count on that many.

Agreeing to hold a referendum would be a monumental reversal and would leave Sharon severely weakened. And early elections would be a major gamble that he well might lose.

Sharon is unlikely to agree to the referendum demand. His most likely game plan will be to try to formalize the support of Labor and the left and keep going as prime minister as long as he can, betting that his opponents in the Likud and parties further to the right won’t force elections because they, too, fear losing their Knesset seats.

In case it does come to an election with a split Likud, Sharon may try to take his portion of the party into an electoral alliance with Labor and the centrist Shinui Party. Advocates of this potential scenario — called the “Big Bang” of Israeli politics — argue that it would create a centrist alignment more accurately reflecting the will of the Israeli electorate than does the current political arrangement.

The game plan of Netanyahu, a former prime minister himself, likely will be to force Sharon into an election, hoping to depose him as Likud leader in the run up. Then, running at the head of the Likud, Netanyahu would hope to defeat any centrist alliance and win power as the head of a right-leaning government.

What actually happens in the showdown between Sharon and Netanyahu will depend initially on how many Likud legislators each of them is able to control. The more that are loyal to Netanyahu, the quicker the election scenario is likely to come about.

In his speech presenting his plan to the Knesset on Monday, Sharon seemed to recognize that his own links with the right, once close, were over, and that his political future will depend on ties with the center-left. Uncharacteristically, Sharon lashed out at the settlers, accusing them of a deluded “messianism” that was hurting Israeli national interests. In an equally surprising departure, he made a point of expressing regret for Palestinian suffering.

But more than anything, journalists in the Knesset on Monday were struck by Sharon’s determination. He told them he would not bring the disengagement plan to the Knesset again, and that Tuesday’s approval was all he needed. He declared that he had no intention of resigning, holding a referendum or sparking new elections. And he said he was absolutely determined to carry out the disengagement plan to the letter.

Still, pundits are not convinced that Sharon will be able to pull it off. Writing in the Yediot Achronot newspaper, political analyst Shimon Shiffer maintained that “the general assessment among the politicians was that the evacuation of the settlements will not happen: Either because Sharon will have to go to early elections, or because Benjamin Netanyahu will force Sharon to accept a referendum that will delay the evacuation indefinitely.”

After his big Knesset success, Sharon will probably bank on a deal with Labor that keeps his coalition going. The next few weeks will tell whether this is a realistic proposition.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Claim to Gaza

In the debate over a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza — 80 percent of which was already surrendered by Israel in 1994 according to the Gaza-Jericho First policy — little has been said about Gaza’s Jewish roots. Media reports typically depict Gaza as an Arab territory to which Israel has no claim. But the truth is far different.

Gaza has been a part of the Land of Israel since biblical times. The borders of Israel, as defined in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21, stretch from the Euphrates River in the east to the “River of Egypt” in the west, which refers to either the Nile or the Wadi el-Arish, both of which are west of Gaza — meaning that the borders of the Land of Israel clearly include all of Gaza. In Joshua 15:47, God specifies the areas that are the inheritance of the tribe of Judah — including “Gaza [Azza, in Hebrew] with its towns and villages.” In Judges 1:18, “Gaza with its border” is listed as part of the territory of Judah. In Kings I, 5:4, Gaza is mentioned by name as one of the areas ruled by King Solomon. The area came under foreign occupation during some periods, but the Jewish King Yochanan, brother of Judah the Maccabee, recaptured Gaza in 145 C.E. and sent Jews to rebuild the community there.

The Jews of Gaza were expelled by the Romans in 61 B.C.E., but they returned, and the Roman Emperor Constantinus the Great tried, but failed, to convert them to Christianity in the fourth century C.E. The remains of ancient synagogues have been found in Gaza, including a remarkable mosaic floor adjacent to the Gaza pier, which dates back to approximately 508 C.E.

Throughout the centuries, there was a large Jewish presence in Gaza — in fact, it was the largest Jewish community in the country at the time of the Muslim invasion (seventh century C.E.). Medieval Christian visitors to the region mentioned the presence of the Jewish community in Gaza. Giorgio Gucci of Florence, in 1384, praised the wine produced by the Jews of Gaza — Bertandon de la Brooquiere (1432), Felix Fabri (1483), Martin Baumgarten (1507) and George Sandys (1611).

The Jews of Gaza were also mentioned in the writings of Jewish travelers, such as Benjamin of Tudela, Ovadia of Bartenura (1488), and Meshullam of Voltera (1481), who wrote of their real estate holdings, wine industry and hilltop synagogue. The Egyptians, under Ibrahim Pasha, destroyed that synagogue in 1831; interestingly, the Arab neighborhood built on its ruins is called Khart Al Yahood — “the Jewish neighborhood.”

The medieval Jewish communities of Gaza included many famous rabbinical authorities, among them the kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azoulai, author of the famous book Hessed L’Avraham, and Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of the 16th century hymn, “Kah Ribbon Olam,” which to this day is sung at Sabbath tables throughout the Jewish world. Rabbi Najara is buried in Gaza.

The fact that the most infamous false messiah in Jewish history, Shabtai Zvi, launched his movement in Gaza in the 1660s indicates that there was a sizable Jewish community there at the time.

Writing about the question of whether or not living in Gaza fulfills the biblical requirement [mitzvah] to live in the Land of Israel, the famous 18th century sage Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in his book, “Mor Uketziya,” wrote: “Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel, without a doubt. There is no doubt that it is a mitzvah to live there, as in any part of the Land of Israel.”

When the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, some of them moved to Gaza, and after the Ottoman occupation of Gaza in 1517, there is evidence of continuing Jewish residence there. The Jews of Gaza were forced to leave the area when Napoleon’s army marched through in 1799, but they later returned.

There were Jewish neighborhoods in Gaza in the late 1800s, a Jewish school was established in 1910, and a Jewish bank was created in 1914. Beginning in 1906, the chief rabbi of the Gaza Jewish community was the famous Nissim Ohana, who later served as chief rabbi of Cairo and then Haifa, Israel. Deported by the Turks after World War I erupted, the Jews returned in 1919, began operating the area’s windmill and hotel, and established a Jewish day school called Shimshon, named after the biblical hero Samson who died in Gaza.

When Palestinian Arabs threatened to slaughter the Jews of Gaza during the 1929 pogroms, the British ruling authorities forced the Jews to leave. But in 1946, the Jews returned, establishing the town of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip, which lasted until 1948, when Egypt occupied the area. Kfar Darom was established on the site where a Jewish town of the same name had existed in the third and fourth centuries C.E. — indeed, the Talmud, in Tractate Sota, refers to a famous rabbinical sage as Eliezer, the son of Yitzhak of Kfar Darom.

During the Egyptian occupation of Gaza in 1949-1967, Egypt refused to let Jews live in the area. Only Arabs were permitted. Interestingly, the international community said nothing about this Egyptian form of apartheid. Finally, after the 1967 war, when Israel took over the territory, Jews were able to return to Gaza and rebuild communities there.

From the biblical era through the Middle Ages and into modern times, Gaza has always been an integral part of the Jewish homeland. Even when they were persecuted or deported, the Jews fought tenaciously to return and rebuild their homes in Gaza. Today’s Jewish neighborhoods in Gaza have deep roots indeed.

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Settlers Threaten to Resist Withdrawal

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a new obstacle to his plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank: right-wing rabbis who have ruled that dismantling settlements contravenes Jewish law. The rabbis are calling on soldiers to disobey orders and on settlers to forcibly resist evacuation.

Given the potential for confrontation, the army and police are training special forces to carry out the evacuation, and there is even talk of building detention camps for settlers in case of mass resistance.

The Israeli right wing is split on the issue, and left-wing politicians are warning the rabbis against creating conditions like those preceding the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when some settler rabbis made religious rulings that seemed to condone violence against the prime minister.

No evacuation is scheduled to take place until next year, but the mood on both sides already is tense. In its worst-case scenarios, the defense establishment is not ruling out that some settlers will use guns against Israeli troops, and some legislators have warned settler leaders against following a path that could lead to "civil war."

The latest rabbinical ruling came from a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, now head of the Rabbis’ Union for the Complete Land of Israel and one of the National Religious Party’s most influential spiritual leaders.

In answer to a question from a follower, Shapira came out unequivocally against any evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gaza. "It is clear and obvious that, according to the Torah, handing over parts of our holy land to non-Jews, including parts of Gush Katif, is a sin and a crime," Shapira wrote, referring to one bloc of Gaza settlements.

"Therefore, any thought or idea or decision or any semblance of action of any kind to evacuate residents from Gush Katif and hand the land over to non-Jews is opposed to halacha," or Jewish religious law, he wrote. "Therefore, nothing must be done to assist the eviction from their homes and land, and everything done to prevent it."

Shapira’s call followed a similar ruling by the Yesha rabbinical council, which declared that "no man, citizen, police officer or soldier is authorized to help in uprooting settlements."

Not only the rabbis are taking a militant stand. In a mid-June interview with a national religious publication, Uri Elitzur, editor of the settler journal, Nekuda, declared that "the uprooting of a settlement is illegal and shocking and therefore justifies refusal to obey orders and violence, excluding the use of firearms."

Elitzur added that he would grant his "complete understanding to people who harm those who come to evacuate them."

Coming from a man who served as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau chief and who ran the National Religious Party’s last election campaign, sympathy for violent opposition sent shockwaves through the political system.

Peace Now and legislator Avshalom Vilan of the Yahad-Meretz Party urged Israel’s attorney general to prosecute Elitzur for incitement to violence.

Ilan Leibovich of the Shinui Party told Israel Radio that "Uri Elitzur has lost his mind and must be stopped immediately before he starts a civil war."

Even Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev, leader of the National Religious Party’s more moderate wing, dissociated himself from Elitzur, insisting that Elitzur doesn’t reflect the position of the national religious movement.

On the contrary, Orlev said, "we distance ourselves from any threat of civil war and bloodshed, as from fire."

What happens on the ground could depend to some extent on the National Religious Party’s leadership. But the party’s two senior figures, Orlev and party leader Effi Eitam, are sending out mixed signals.

Eitam resigned from the government over Sharon’s plan to evacuate settlements, while Orlev stayed on. Moreover, Eitam is championing legislation to bar the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from participating in the evacuation of settlements, while Orlev says the government has the right to use the army as it pleases.

In marked contrast to Eitam, who says soldiers from Orthodox or settler families would face an impossible dilemma if ordered to evacuate other settlers or even their own families, Orlev insists that "the IDF must carry out government orders without reference to the political beliefs of its soldiers. If it starts choosing assignments according to political beliefs, that would constitute an existential threat to the State of Israel."

The question is to what extent will settlers take their cue from National Religious Party leaders, and whether they will heed the moderates in their own leadership.

Bentzion Lieberman, chairman of the Yesha settlers’ council, echoed Orlev when he said that "uprooting settlements and expelling Jews is a historical and moral crime, but refusing to obey an order is an existential threat to the State of Israel."

But will settlers listen to Lieberman or to the radical rabbis? And what about settler extremists who, even if a minority, are bound to oppose evacuation with violence and create considerable mayhem?

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz estimates that thousands of settlers will resist evacuation forcibly, and the IDF is taking into account the possibility that settlers will use firearms.

The army and police both are training special forces to deal with expected settler resistance. The plan at present is for the soldiers to cut off the areas being evacuated and for the police to do the actual evacuating. A team planning the evacuation, led by Sharon’s national security adviser, Giora Eiland, even is considering building detention centers for settler resisters who break the law.

A decision on the first evacuations is scheduled for March. As the date approaches, signs are that the clash between government and settlers will go beyond anything seen in Israel until now.

To avert this, voices of reason and conciliation will have to come to the fore. But for the time being, it’s the radicals who are getting louder by the day.

Sharon Battles for Pullout Plan

Facing a crucial Cabinet vote next week on his amended disengagement plan from the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon is facing as much pressure as he ever did as a general on the battlefield.

On the international front, the Israeli prime minister has weathered scathing criticism of Israel’s latest military operation in the Gaza Strip, which left more than 40 Palestinians dead and dozens of homes demolished in the Rafah refugee camp.

At home, a rebellion is gathering steam in Sharon’s Likud Party by opponents of the planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

But Sharon is determined to press on. Just as his crossing of the Suez Canal turned the tables in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sharon hopes that Cabinet passage of his amended disengagement plan will disarm critics in his party and improve Israel’s tarnished international standing.

The Israeli army’s top brass hasn’t been fully behind the plan, the confrontation with the Likud rebels could split the party and threaten Sharon’s political career, and Sharon first will have to get the plan approved in the Cabinet, where opinion is split.

The decision last week to send Israeli troops into Rafah, in southern Gaza, came after reports that Iranian arms, including Katyusha rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons, were about to be smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels leading from Egypt.

The army leadership has long argued that if Israel withdraws from Gaza, it would need to widen a strip along the Gaza-Egypt boundary, known as the Philadelphi route, and maintain a presence there to prevent future arms smuggling.

But international condemnation of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes to find smuggling tunnels and widen the Philadelphi route, thereby making future tunneling virtually impossible, led to a revision of the military’s thinking.

The generals realized they wouldn’t be able to widen the Philadelphi route as much as they had planned, strengthening arguments against maintaining any Israeli military presence in Gaza.

Ironically, despite the international criticism and the Israeli and Palestinian casualties in Gaza, Sharon found himself in a political win-win situation.

If the army succeeded in establishing an efficient hold over the Philadelphi route, the army leadership then could back Sharon’s disengagement plan. If it failed to do so because of international and domestic pressure, it would have to rethink its overall Gaza strategy in line with Sharon’s longer-term evacuation plans.

The Likud challenge to Sharon is more serious. The main difference between Sharon’s amended plan and the one Likud voters rejected in a May 2 referendum is that, under the new plan, withdrawal will be implemented in stages.

The idea is to evacuate the more vulnerable settlements first, proceeding from one stage to the next only after the government is satisfied that the previous stage has created a more favorable security situation.

Sharon’s Likud opponents say that’s only a cosmetic change from the original withdrawal plan, which party members resoundingly rejected. In proceeding, Sharon is in breach of party discipline, they argue.

This group claims to have the support of more than half of the 40 Likud legislators in the Knesset, and the group clearly poses a serious threat to Sharon.

The first major battle will come next Sunday, when Sharon submits his amended plan to the Cabinet. Of the 23 ministers, 11 support the new plan, 11 are opposed and one, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, is the potential tiebreaker.

One way or another, a determined Sharon likely will push at least part of his plan through the Cabinet. Then he will have a party rebellion on his hands, the size of which will depend on whether leading figures like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu join it.

Sharon’s hopes of political survival could depend on whether he is able to forge a political alliance with Labor. Labor could join with Likud in a coalition that pushes the disengagement plan through the Knesset. Sharon also could form an electoral alliance with Labor and Shinui by running on a disengagement ticket in new elections that would be seen as a sort of national referendum on withdrawal.

But there’s yet another wrinkle for the beleaguered prime minister: Aside from all the political maneuvering, Sharon must survive a legal battle against corruption charges.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz is due to rule within the next few weeks on whether or not to indict Sharon. An indictment almost certainly would end his career, while a decision not to indict would enable Sharon to survive yet another day — and face the political battle of his life.

Europe Pushes Palestinian Interests

After what it sees as President Bush’s tilt toward Israel, the European Union is indicating that it wants to play a larger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — with an eye toward promoting Palestinian interests.

In a series of under-reported statements after Bush’s perceived watershed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, senior European officials have been hinting at greater European involvement on the ground and a new get-tough policy with Israel.

Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on April 21, Chris Patten, the E.U. commissioner for external relations, declared bluntly that the Europeans are ready to help rehabilitate the Gaza Strip after Israel’s promised withdrawal next year, on condition that the Israel Defense Forces guarantee "not to destroy again what we build."

Speaking in Tel Aviv the same day, Giancarlo Chevallard, E.U. ambassador to Israel, warned that the European Union intends to link the level of ties with Israel to the Jewish State’s "commitment to peacemaking."

Top European officials also have been meeting with their American counterparts to coordinate the precise role the union can play in the context of the Gaza withdrawal. This will be discussed further early next month at a meeting of the "Quartet" — a diplomatic grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia that produced the "road map" peace plan.

The European Union began its campaign for a more significant role in the Gaza process by sending Javier Solana, its foreign policy point man, to Washington for an April 20 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Afterward, Solana outlined three principles of E.U. thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Nothing should be done to prejudge the outcome of final-status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Quartet should coordinate its policy moves and the withdrawal from Gaza should be carried out in an "appropriate manner."

All three principles implied criticism of Bush. In the European view, the American president prejudged issues of borders and refugees by saying the demographic realities on the ground — that is, Israeli settlements — should be taken into account in setting final borders, and that refugees should return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel.

Moreover, in declaring his "new" policy, Bush acted alone, without consulting his European partners, and did nothing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians.

Powell is taking the European sense of slight seriously. The day after his meeting with Solana, he approached Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos — who served for seven years as E.U. special envoy to the Middle East — urging him to help with the Gaza plan.

The Europeans would like to play a role in coordinating the withdrawal with the Palestinians. They maintain that this is essential if the pullback is to create a new peace dynamic.

Patten made the point in his address to the European Parliament: "Our aim must be that Israelis recognize again the Palestinian Authority as their partner in the peace process. The objective should be to hand over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority — not to Hamas — and to ensure that the handover takes place in an orderly fashion, not in a way that leads to more chaos and violence."

Patten suggests that the Europeans, rather than the Americans, could help bring the Palestinians into a positive process with Israel. It’s the Europeans, he points out, who more than anyone else have funded Palestinian projects; and it was constructive European influence that helped P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad achieve transparency and accountability on budget procedures, in line with economic reforms the Quartet demanded of the Palestinian Authority.

What seems to be shaping up is a complex carrot-and-stick policy in which the United States encourages Israel and puts pressure on the Palestinians, while the Europeans do the reverse. Patten made clear that Europe is prepared to continue its humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and help rebuild their economic infrastructure. But at the same time he was highly critical of Israel.

"We are certainly prepared to continue our humanitarian assistance and to support the rebuilding of the infrastructure of those areas from which the Israel Defense Forces withdraw," he said in Strasbourg.

The Europeans are not making do with mere criticism: They intend to use their economic clout to exert political pressure on Israel. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner, and Israel has a preferential trade agreement with E.U. countries.

It took Israel years to negotiate the agreement, and for years it has been trying to upgrade it. Now the Europeans say bluntly that they intend to create a linkage between their economic ties with Israel and the way Israel deals with the Palestinian issue.

At his Tel Aviv news conference April 21, Chevallard declared, "Up till now we kept the strengthening of bilateral relations with Israel separate from the regional diplomatic process. From this point on they will be part of one complex."

He did not envision sanctions on Israel, but said the Europeans would enhance or downgrade their ties with Israel depending on its peacemaking performance.

He added that the Europeans expected that Israel would "recognize that the E.U. has a large role to play in the Middle East" and, in the future, he suggested that Israel consult not only with the United States, as it had on the Gaza plan, but with Europe as well.

Some Israeli analysts believe the Europeans may even suggest an alternative plan to the one Bush and Sharon agreed to in the White House.

It’s more likely, however, that they will seek a role within the framework of the Israeli-American plan and will use their support for the Palestinians to make inroads in the Arab world, where the United States is struggling, partly because of its support for Israel and partly because of the situation in Iraq.

The Drawbacks of the Proposed Pullback

The targeted killing of Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin and the
“open season” that Israel has declared against Hamas leaders and those of other
Palestinian terrorist organizations must be viewed as part
of a larger Israeli policy designed to achieve a number of objectives.

One of the major objectives is to create more favorable
conditions for Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the
dismantling of the settlements there. The assassination of Yassin was designed
to weaken Hamas over the long-term and was also designed to prevent
Palestinians from coming to the conclusion that Israel was withdrawing under
fire from the Gaza Strip (thanks to the efforts of Hamas and other terrorist
organizations) and thus make it possible to avoid the kind of blow to Israeli
deterrence that occurred in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from southern
Lebanon in May 2000.

It is highly doubtful, however, that Israel will be able to
enjoy the longer-term benefits of this and future key assassinations should it
implement Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s separation plan. This is because this
anticipated pullback, far from decreasing the number of future terrorist
attacks, will actually increase it.

Sharon’s separation plan is designed to minimize the
financial and human costs involved in maintaining direct Israeli control over
enclaves within heavily populated Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip (and in
some of the West Bank), as well as to provide more easily defensible lines that
can be held by fewer troops.

One of the increasingly serious problems that Israel has
faced over the nearly four years of open conflict with the Palestinians has
been how to maintain troop levels high enough to cope with security threats on
the part of Palestinian terrorists, while, at the same time, not undermining
the system of military reserves from which much of the additional troop
strength is taken.

The fence network already in place in Gaza and being built
in the West Bank includes a sophisticated system of cameras and other high-tech
devices designed to detect movement — thus enabling the Israel Defense Forces
to station fewer troops at fewer points along the fence in order to achieve
what would previously have required far larger deployments.

While the idea of pulling back the Israeli army and
dismantling Israeli settlements located in the heart of Palestinian-populated
areas in the Gaza Strip is, in and of itself, a necessary step in the context
of a future peace settlement, it becomes a catastrophic mistake in the absence
of such a peace settlement. And this, for three primary reasons.

Firstly, any pullback of the Israeli army and dismantling of
Israeli settlements in the context of an ongoing Palestinian campaign of
terrorism against Israel offers the Palestinians both a moral and a practical
victory. Yasser Arafat’s strategy of encouraging terrorism against Israel as a
means to “force Israel’s hand” will be vindicated, because he will be achieving
a long-standing and major goal — the “ending of the occupation” over part of
land claimed by the Palestinians, as well as the dismantling of some of the
hated Israeli settlements.

Handing Arafat such a victory will only encourage him — and
those who share his view that terrorism is a legitimate tool to be used to
achieve national goals — to continue to believe that negotiations with Israel
and concessions to it, in the context of a peace process, are not necessary.
Why should Palestinians negotiate and make compromises when sticking to a
policy of promoting terrorist violence eventually produces Israeli concessions
without any comparable Palestinian concessions?

The prime minister of Israel is thus sending the
Palestinians a clear message that violence and terrorism pay and that Israel
does not have the resolve, in the long run, to defend its interests and to
stand firm against terrorism. In practice, the main benefactor of this in the
Gaza Strip will be Hamas, and thus Israel will be inadvertently handing these
intractable enemies of Israel a victory.

Secondly, this anticipated pullback, far from decreasing the
number of future terrorist attacks will actually increase it. This is because
Israel’s policy of surrounding Palestinian cities with army roadblocks and
entering the heart of Palestinian cities from time to time on search and arrest
missions of Palestinian terrorists and attacks on Palestinian bomb-making
factories forces the terrorists further underground and significantly restricts
their freedom of action to plan and execute terrorist attacks against Israel.

A withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will provide Palestinian
terrorists with complete freedom of action, and the result will be larger
numbers of attacks, as well as increasingly deadlier ones. No network of fences
can guarantee complete success in preventing terrorist attacks if they are not
coupled with an active military policy of searching out the terrorists where
they live and plan their attacks.

Moreover, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have already
acted to attempt to surmount Israel’s barriers there by building increasingly
sophisticated Kassam rockets, which they fire from time to time into Israeli
towns near the borders of the Gaza Strip. If a future planned withdrawal from
much of the West Bank is also carried out, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel’s international
airport will be within range of such rockets.

This will create a situation similar to the one that Israel
faces on its northern border, where Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel have
successfully limited Israel’s freedom of action in responding to Hezbollah
attacks on the border and active support for Palestinian terrorism.

Thirdly, the inevitable wave of terrorism that Israel will
experience in the weeks and months following the planned unilateral withdrawal
will necessitate Israel going back in and reentering Palestinian cities in
Gaza, as it had done with respect to the West Bank in April 2002, during
Operation Defensive Shield.

And, as was the case during Operation Defensive Shield, the
crowded Palestinian cities will take their toll on human lives –Â Israeli and
Palestinian — as Palestinian gunmen set traps for the Israeli army and
Palestinian civilians find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Moreover, international criticism of Israel, which has, all
in all, been increasingly muted over time, will flare up once again as the
world is treated to images of Israeli tanks inside Palestinian refugee camps.
From the point of view of public relations, a continued Israeli presence, which
the world is used to seeing and has grown tired of commenting on, is preferable
to a renewed and broad-based Israeli military assault on Palestinian cities.

As long as a credible Palestinian leadership that is
committed to negotiation, which means also a commitment to making painful
compromises, does not exist, unilateral withdrawal cannot produce tangible
benefits for Israel. Moreover, such a withdrawal will not require any
commitment whatsoever on the part of the Palestinians to maintaining a
semblance of quiet in the areas vacated by Israel.

The vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Israeli army
will quickly be filled by terrorist organizations and, in the Gaza Strip, this
means primarily Hamas. This is hardly a more desirable situation than the
present one. Â

Dr. Nadav Morag is director of the Center for Israel Studies at the University of Judaism.

Will Sheik’s Assassination Bring Stability?

No one believes Israel is a safer place just after the assassination of Sheik Ahmad Yassin, leader of the terrorist group Hamas.

The question is whether the assassination and continued Israeli pressure on Hamas will contribute to stability over time.

In targeting Yassin, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had clear political goals. Sharon said he intends to crush Hamas so that when Israel withdraws from Gaza as he plans, it will not seem to be forced out by terrorism. As such, Yassin’s boast that Hamas would make Israel leave under fire may have cost him his life.

Sharon also hopes to tilt the balance of power in Gaza dramatically in favor of the more moderate Palestinian Authority, so that when Israel pulls out, the Palestinian Authority will be strong enough to maintain law and order.

But will Monday’s attack really help achieve such objectives?

In the short term, few doubted that there will be more terrorist attacks and that more young Palestinians will swell Hamas ranks.

The uncertainty is about the longer term. Advocates of the assassination said relentless pressure will eventually wear down Hamas and help the Palestinian Authority take control of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal.

These advocates pointed to the unilateral cease-fire declared by Hamas last summer after intense military pressure by Israel.

Opponents maintained that the pressure will backfire and that Hamas, with the “martyred” Yassin attracting more recruits than ever, will become stronger and even more radicalized. If so, it could forge alliances with major players in the international terrorist network, such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, endangering not only Israel but Jews and possibly Westerners everywhere.

The immediate fear is that Hamas will redouble its efforts to carry out a so-called megaterror attack to retaliate for Yassin’s death. Palestinian terrorists have attempted such megaterror acts before.

The decision to kill Yassin came after terrorists earlier this month attempted a megaterror attack to blow up deadly stores of chemicals and gases at the Ashdod port. They failed, however, but killed 10 Israelis in a double suicide bombing at the port.

There are several precedents for strong terrorist reaction when Israel kills terrorist leaders. A similar assassination 12 years ago of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi resulted in a retaliatory attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people.

Likewise, the killing of Hamas master bomb maker Yehiya Ayash in 1996 was followed by a wave of bus bombings that killed dozens of Israelis. The August 2001 targeting of Abu Ali Mustapha, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was followed by the assassination of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

With the terrorist organizations constantly trying to attack Israel, many regard their claims of specific retribution with skepticism. But some analysts warned that Sharon’s pressure on Hamas is likely to backfire.

Reuven Paz, an expert on fundamentalist movements at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, argued that it could trigger such widespread Palestinian support for Hamas that P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s days in office could be numbered.

Pressure on Hamas also could undermine local strongman Mohammed Dahlan, whom Israel eventually would like to see imposing order for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Other analysts suggested that chaos after the assassination could adversely affect Sharon’s projected withdrawal from Gaza. That might make it necessary to leave Israeli troops there, deferring plans for a full withdrawal indefinitely.

But Sharon appears determined to smash Hamas and avert the kind of disorder the analysts fear. Beyond the political tactics surrounding the withdrawal, the government has defined Hamas as a strategic threat that must be destroyed. That’s because Hamas rules out any compromise with Israel, advocates the destruction of the Jewish State and its replacement with an Islamic theocracy and is ready to use any means to achieve its goals.

Government spokesmen said Sharon in effect has declared war on Hamas. The assassination of Yassin, whom Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called Israel’s Osama bin Laden, was only the opening shot. From now on, the officials said, the Israel Defense Forces will focus almost solely on Hamas, targeting its leaders, militiamen and funding.

“No Hamas leader will be immune,” Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared.

The Israelis believe they have a green light from Washington for all-out war against Hamas. Unlike the Europeans, who condemned Yassin’s assassination as contrary to international law, U.S. officials at first expressed tacit understanding for Israel’s position, drawing parallels to the U.S. war against global terrorism. Later in the day, however, a U.S. spokesman called the attack “deeply troubling.”

Since the eruption of the violent Palestinian uprising three and a half years ago, Hamas has committed 425 terrorist attacks, leaving 377 Israelis dead and 2,076 wounded. It has been responsible for 52 suicide bombings that claimed 288 Israeli lives.

According to Lt. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, the Israel Defense Forces intelligence chief, Yassin was directly involved in planning and approving military operations.

Some pundits, like Ha’aretz’s Danny Rubinstein, claimed that Yassin was a relative moderate within Hamas. Unlike some of his potential successors, Rubinstein maintained, that Yassin could have agreed to a temporary cease-fire with Israel and made it stick.

Also writing in Ha’aretz, Zvi Barel noted that Yassin insisted that the war against Israel not transcend Israeli-Palestinian borders, but his successors might not be similarly restrained.

Barel said new Hamas leaders will lack Yassin’s authority, and that Hamas could break up into small splinter groups, some of which may ally themselves with global terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Hamas, Barel suggested, now could decide “to turn its back on years of strategy and begin operations outside the country, striking at Israeli, Jewish or American targets overseas.”

Abdel Aziz Rantissi, named Tuesday as Hamas’ new chief for the Gaza Strip, vowed that the group would attack Israelis everywhere.

“We will fight them everywhere,” Rantissi told thousands of mourners gathered in Gaza’s main soccer stadium on Tuesday. “We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation.”

It’s too early to say to what extent targeting an Islamic symbol like Yassin may have opened up a wider front for Israel with the Muslim world. Al Qaeda, at any rate, has vowed to avenge Yassin’s assassination.

Israeli army officers described the Yassin assassination as heralding “a new era in the fight against terror,” which Israel has entered with its eyes wide open. But as the struggle with Hamas escalates, it could take on new forms, raising the stakes for both sides.

If that happens, will the Palestinian Authority and its main Fatah movement stand aside, happy to watch Israel create the conditions for the Palestinian Authority’s political hegemony? Or will they feel forced by Palestinian public opinion to join Hamas in fighting Israel?

The answers to those questions could determine whether Sharon’s bold attempt to single out Hamas succeeds or fails — in other words, whether new violence leads only to more carnage or to some sort of political accommodation.

Gaza Withdrawal Rewards Terrorism

Should Israel withdraw from Gaza, as some are proposing?

First, consider the impact of a Gaza withdrawal on the international war against terrorism. After three years of nonstop Palestinian Arab terrorism, in which nearly 1,000 Israelis — and 41 Americans — have been murdered, to unconditionally give Gaza to the Palestinian Arabs and expel the 8,000 Jewish residents would be to reward the terrorists.

It would also encourage more terrorism by demonstrating that additional violence may bring about additional Israeli concessions. An Israeli withdrawal would whet the appetites of terrorists everywhere. Correctly viewing an Israeli retreat as surrender and appeasement, terrorists in the Middle East and beyond would be strengthened and emboldened by their feeling of victory.

Second, consider the implications for Israeli security. After the Six-Day War, the U.S. joint chiefs of staff prepared an analysis — without regard for political considerations — of which territories Israel needed to keep to defend itself. The joint chiefs strongly recommended that Israel keep Gaza: “By occupying the Gaza Strip, Israel would trade approximately 45 miles of hostile border for eight. Configured as it is, the strip serves as a salient for introduction of Arab subversion and terrorism, and its retention would be to Israel’s military advantage.”

No wonder. Throughout history, foreign armies have used Gaza as a springboard for invading the Land of Israel, from Pharoah Sethos I in the 13th century B.C.E. to Napoleon in 1799. In 1948, Egypt used Gaza as its route to invade the newborn State of Israel.

Third, consider what would happen in Gaza if Israel withdraws. The Palestinian Authority regime currently administers parts of Gaza but does not have sovereignty, because of the presence of Israeli soldiers and citizens. The Palestinian Authority does not have a full-fledged army and does not control the borders or sea access to Gaza.

If Israel withdraws from the area, the PA will be able to establish a sovereign state. It will become much, much harder for Israel to prevent the continual smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza or the arrival of boatloads of weapons via the Mediterranean Sea.

No wonder Israeli military experts are warning about these dangers. Israel Radio reported that army officials want a withdrawal to be “conditional on the Palestinians not being able to operate a seaport or airport from Gaza.”

Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, chief of Israeli military intelligence, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Feb. 10 that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza “will be seen as surrender to terrorism” and “might motivate further terrorism.”

And Shlomo Gazit, former chief of Israeli military intelligence, recently wrote: “Our exit from Gaza will transform it into a big armed camp, into which weapons of all kinds will stream via land, sea and maybe even air. It will also become an arsenal for independent development and production of arms. Moreover, this capitulation will be rightly viewed as an unambivalent victory for the Palestinian armed struggle.”

A Gaza state would certainly be a terrorist state, to judge by how the Palestinian Authority has promoted and glorified terrorists until now. It has not disarmed or outlawed terrorist groups. It has not shut down their bomb factories. It has not closed down the terrorists’ training camps. It has rewarded terrorists with jobs in the P.A. police force.

In short, the Palestinian Authority has actively collaborated with and sheltered the terrorists. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority has sponsored thousands of terrorist attacks against Israel.

The Palestinian Authority has also created an entire culture of glorification of terrorism and anti-Jewish hatred in its official media, schools, summer camps, sermons by PA-appointed clergy and speeches by PA representatives.

Establishing a state in Gaza would not satisfy the Palestinian Arabs’ goals. It would be a springboard for terrorism and invasions aimed at destroying the Jewish state.

The Palestinian Authority makes no secret of its goal. The official maps on PA letterheads, in PA school books and atlases and even on the patch worn on the uniforms of PA policemen show all of Israel — not just the disputed territories — labeled “Palestine.”

But the issue is not just security. It’s also a matter of Jewish rights to the Land of Israel. It is not well-known, but Gaza has been a part of the Land of Israel since biblical times and is described as such in, for example, Genesis 15, Joshua 15:47 and Judges 1:18. In Kings, it is included in the areas ruled by King Solomon.

The area came under foreign occupation during some periods, but the Jewish king Yochanan, brother of Judah the Maccabee, recaptured Gaza in 145 C.E. and sent Jews to rebuild the community there. Throughout the centuries, there was a large Jewish presence in Gaza — in fact, it was the largest Jewish community in the country at the time of the Muslim invasion in the seventh century C.E.

The Jews of Gaza were forced to leave the area when Napoleon’s army marched through in 1799, but they later returned. The Jewish community in Gaza was destroyed during the British bombardment in 1917 but again was rebuilt.

When Palestinian Arabs threatened to slaughter the Jews of Gaza during the 1929 pogroms, the British ruling authorities forced the Jews to leave. But in 1946, the Jews returned, establishing the town of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip, which lasted until 1948, when Egypt occupied the area. After the 1967 war, Jews were finally able to return to Gaza and rebuild communities there.

The Palestinian Authority’s demand that all Jews be expelled from Gaza is an ugly demand for ethnic cleansing. And ethnic cleansing in Gaza is just as bad as the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans that the international community, and world Jewry, so strongly and appropriately protested. It is a racist and immoral notion to say that while 1 million Arabs live within Israel, not one Jew can live in Gaza.

An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will reward terrorism, thereby undermining America’s war against terrorism. It will pave the way the for creation of a dangerous Palestinian Arab state that will further endanger Israel, and it will establish a precedent for the mass expulsion of Jews from their homes for no other reason than that they are Jews.

This is a mistaken policy that will not make things better but will only make things worse.

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

World Briefs

Public Support for Israel Wanes

American public support for Israel has declined slightly over the past year. In its annual “favorability of nations” poll Feb. 9-12, Gallup found that 59 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Israel to various degrees, versus 35 percent unfavorable, with 6 percent having no opinion. That’s down from 64-29 one year ago with 7 percent staying neutral.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Palestinian Authority, 15 percent have a favorable view and 9 percent have no opinion. One year ago the ratio was 73-13, with 14 percent undecided.

Bus Security System Tested

Israel’s Egged bus company field-tested a system meant to spot suicide bombers before they board. Five buses equipped with the driver-controlled entry turnstile were deployed in Jerusalem on Monday, to a mixed reception. One Egged staffer noted that a terrorist successfully locked out by the turnstile could still detonate his bomb and kill the driver.

A Jesus Whodunit

Seventy-five percent of Americans believe Jews were not responsible for Jesus’ death, according to a new poll. The Anti-Defamation League released the poll this week on the eve of the opening of Mel Gibson’s controversial new movie on Jesus, “The Passion of the Christ.” In the poll of 1,200 Americans, conducted last December, 25 percent of respondents said the statement “Do you think that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ?” was probably true. A similar poll recently released by ABCNews.com found that 80 percent of Americans do not hold Jews responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Proof Positive

Terrorist infiltration has ceased in areas where the West Bank security barrier has been built, Israel’s Shin Bet chief said. In a briefing to Israel’s Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, Avi Dichter said areas of Israel still vulnerable to Palestinian suicide bombings were Kafr Kasim, where the West Bank boundary is still open, and Jerusalem.

“Ten measures of terror were bequeathed to the world and nine of them ended up” in the northern West Bank, Israeli media quoted Dichter as saying. “Since the fence was built, the terror in this area has ceased completely.”

5,000 Protest Gaza Withdrawal

Two former Israeli chief rabbis led prayers at the Western Wall to imploring God to stop “evil plans” to evacuate settlements.

Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, both chief rabbis in the 1980s who went on to advise the settler movement, led about 5,000 worshippers in prayer last Friday at the Jerusalem holy site.

They described Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pledge to pull out of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank as an “evil decree.”

Birthright Baby Born

A couple that met on the Birthright Israel trip had a baby. On Nov. 17, Shoshana and Stephen Kronfeld had a son, Ezra. The two met on a 1999 trip sponsored by Birthright, which provides free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26 who have never been on an organized trip to the Jewish State.

You Want to Marry a Jewish Doctor?

Doctor still tops the list of prized Jewish professions, according to an Israeli survey. The poll of 500 men and women published in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv on Tuesday found that 22.6 percent of respondents named medicine as the most valuable profession, with pilot or teacher a distant second, at 12 percent each. Politician came in at 12th place in the popularity list, at 1.8 percent. The paper did not provide the date when the poll was conducted or its margin of error.

British Jews Want Hezbollah TV Blocked

The umbrella organization for British Jews urged Britain’s government to block reception of Hezbollah’s satellite television station. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the director-general of the Board of Deputies, Neville Nagler, that he “shares your disgust” at the anti-Semitism expressed in the Al-Manar series “The Diaspora,” a board statement said.

It’s Final: Le Pen Can’t Run

Jean-Marie Le Pen lost his final chance to run for the presidency of southern France. On Sunday, a court in Marseille rejected Le Pen’s final appeal against a decision that he did not possess the necessary residency qualifications enabling him to run as a candidate in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, which includes large Jewish populations in Marseille and Nice. He will also not be a candidate in any other region, a party spokesman said.

Wrong Body to Hezbollah?

Israel may have sent Hezbollah the wrong body. Kul Al-Arab reported that a Lebanese family expecting the body of Muhamed Biro, a drug dealer who died in an Israeli prison when he was 70, instead received the body of what appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. Now, the paper reported, Hezbollah wants an additional 30 bodies as compensation for the mistake.

The body was transferred to Lebanon as part of an exchange of more than 400 Arab prisoners for one live Israeli citizen and three dead Israeli troops.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

U.S. Could Play Positive Gaza Role

Ariel Sharon stunned Israeli politics early this month by announcing that he had ordered official plans for relocating 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip and at least three more in the West Bank. He has ignited a political firestorm in Israel, as many on the Israeli right are mobilizing against him, while others charge that he is merely diverting attention from a snowballing corruption scandal.

Regardless of his true intentions, Sharon, by marking most of the Gaza Strip for evacuation, has almost completely given up on meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the near future. There is a small chance that negotiations may still occur, precluding Sharon’s withdrawal from occurring in a vacuum. However, if Israel chooses to navigate the risky path of unilateralism, America’s goal should be to encourage a safe and secure outcome through hands-on engagement.

Sharon’s remarks have set an entirely new process in motion. The widespread perception throughout Israel is that there is no longer anyone serious to talk to among the Palestinians, and that Arafat is fomenting chaos so that the international community will turn to him in desperation.

But the unilateral road is fraught with risk and uncertainty, mainly because the reactions of the other side are unpredictable. The worst-case scenario is that Gaza follows the South Lebanon precedent of 2000, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s withdrawal was interpreted as a victory for Hesbollah’s armed resistance and became an inspiration to the current Palestinian intifada.

A negative response to a Gaza withdrawal is still likely if Palestinians continue to suspect Sharon’s intentions for the West Bank. Most observers agree that Sharon envisions not a maximal withdrawal roughly along the Green Line but a limited, minimal withdrawal, with continued settlement presence on nearly half of the West Bank. The results of this withdrawal, in the absence of Palestinian agreement, are likely to be dangerous.

Partial withdrawal from the West Bank would mean the continuation of the current chaos in the Palestinian territories, where in most cities, local armed gangs and criminals are increasingly outmuscling the nearly defunct Palestinian Authority. The ensuing chaos and lack of law and order means that groups like Hamas will thrive and the long-term threat of terror will remain. Israel would then need to continue military incursions into both Gaza and the West Bank, making any withdrawal devoid of the much-needed separation.

Can the United States do anything to help? Though a slippery slope of unilateralism seems increasingly likely, a different scenario is still possible. Intensive U.S. efforts to either restart negotiations or to at least choreograph the next few months could measurably change the situation.

Part of the problem today is that neither side sees any incentive to negotiate or even to cooperate. Sharon and Arafat both believe that they can get more out of unilateral actions.

Sharon has said that the Palestinians will get more if they negotiate, so he can give less if he acts unilaterally. Arafat, meanwhile, clearly thinks that unilateral concessions confirm the value of the intifada.

Only the United States has the capacity to slice through this dangerous calculus and precipitate a different way of thinking on both sides. Though success is not guaranteed, unilateralism could still be blended into the President Bush’s "road map" to peace strategy of performance-based progress toward a Palestinian state. Sharon’s offer could be used by a U.S. mediator to gain counterconcessions from the Palestinians, such as concrete action against terror.

Both sides would only be encouraged to take positive steps, knowing that an America committed to ensuring security and safety for both sides was unshakably committed to the process. In this sense, America can play the role of coordinator — making sure one gesture of good will is met with another, without depending on elusive bilateral breakthroughs to achieve an end to violence.

It can work. But it cannot happen without a forceful U.S. diplomatic presence. This means a complete overhaul of the current strategy, ideally in the form of a high-level special envoy assigned to handle the conflict on a full-time basis. No other mechanism holds the promise of resolving the delicate issues that are now in play.

Sharon has rolled the dice, and the president has a choice. He can take steps to influence the situation positively, or he can continue to watch the two sides slide further into conflict.

Steven Spiegel is associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations and a political science professor at UCLA. Gilead LIght is the deputy director of the Israel Policy Forum’s branch in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Should Support Right to Build Fence

Attacks on Israel are escalating again. With another deadly suicide bombing in the heart of Jerusalem, the race to thwart the infiltration of terrorists is up against yet another rush: to condemn Israel at the United Nations.

This time, the forum is the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, where Israel faces a legal challenge to its security barrier along the West Bank (see story, page 16). The case was brought about by a Palestinian resolution in the U.N. General Assembly calling on the court to evaluate the impact of the fence on Palestinian lives but not to consider the hundreds of Israeli deaths that led to its creation.

The pressure for the hearing is part of a concerted effort by Arab nations to divert attention from Palestinian terrorism. Just weeks before the resolution was approved, Israel had sponsored a General Assembly resolution expressing sympathy for Israeli children wounded and killed by Palestinian terrorists.

The language of the resolution mirrored a similar one concerning Palestinian children that had already passed. The Israeli version, however, was never even given a chance, after the Arab nations used every trick to try and water it down, so it would not acknowledge Israeli suffering.

While the United States has lodged objections to the ICJ’s authority to rule on the security fence and raised concern about the politicization of the court, it is disappointing that the Bush administration has refused to argue on behalf of Israel’s right to have the fence to protect its own population from terrorist murderers.

Why, one might ask, is the Bush administration taking such a weak position?

Some speculate that it is because we are so bogged down in Iraq that we are ignoring this issue. Others suggest that the United States is so desperate to appeal to the Europeans and the United Nations to bail us out of Iraq that it doesn’t want to take a position fully in support of Israel.

Whether or not these theories are true, I do believe that the mixed messages indicate that the president does not have a clear and organized plan to get the so-called "road map" for peace moving again or to look for an alternative.

The administration has gone out of its way to challenge the security fence as an obstacle to the peace process. In January, the Bush administration cut $290 million from Israel’s economic loan guarantees to protest the planned path of the security fence.

During President Bush’s visit to the United Kingdom in November, he warned Israel not to "prejudice final negotiations with the placement of walls and fences." The State Department has also announced that the fence will be denounced in the 2003 edition of its annual Human Rights Report.

Even though the road map had good ideas, the security fence was the least of its problems. Israel sustained close to 6,000 terrorist attacks from the time the plan was announced in June 2002.

With Yasser Arafat not about to disappear and another weak Palestinian prime minister unable or unwilling to control terrorists, there has been little hope for any change soon in the status quo. The Palestinian tactic of taking its concerns to the ICJ instead of the negotiating table is only further evidence that Israel has no viable diplomatic partner.

I agree that Israel should adopt a less- provocative route for the security fence. I agree that even though final-status negotiations will not be judged according to its placement, the fence should be adjusted to minimize the disruption of innocent Palestinian lives. But the battle at the ICJ is not about these details, it is about the unrelenting determination of the Palestinian leadership to hide from its own record as a sponsor of terrorism and use U.N. institutions to single out Israel for isolation and shame.

There is clear evidence that the fence is saving lives. Once completed, it will provide for more security and stability for Israel and serve as a platform for an eventual return to final status negotiations. The demarcation will bring about a more vigorous debate among Israelis about the removal of illegal outposts and small pockets of settlements beyond the fence that are difficult to defend.

The boundary should also enable Israeli troops to withdraw from Palestinian cities and push the Palestinian people to work toward reforms that will challenge the political paralysis and corruption of their leaders.

The fence may not be an ideal scenario, but it is a workable substitute until the road map can get back on track. As the ICJ case moves forward, I would hope that the Bush administration will go beyond supporting Israel on technical grounds and stand for Israel’s right, as a sovereign and democratic nation, to take the measures necessary to defend its people.

Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) represents the 30th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Olmert Withdrawal Plan Stirs Up Israel

In a single passionate interview recently, Ehud Olmert, Israel’s deputy prime minister, managed to do what most politicians only dream about — recast a nation’s political and diplomatic agenda.

Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been talking vaguely about "unilateral steps," vis-a-vis the Palestinians, for some time, nothing could have prepared the Israeli public for the urgency in his deputy’s recent plea. Olmert called for Israeli withdrawal from large swaths of Palestinian-populated territory, including parts of Jerusalem, without so much as a hint of a Palestinian quid pro quo.

Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, made his call for a unilateral pullback in a high-profile exchange with a leading political journalist, Yediot Achronot’s Nahum Barnea. The interview startled the left by appropriating one of its central ideas — the demographic threat to the Jewish State — and throwing the right, to which Olmert nominally belongs, into confused disarray.

Borrowing from the political idiom of the left, Olmert told Barnea that time was running out and that Israel needed to separate from the Palestinians before they started calling for a single binational state, in which Arabs soon would be the majority. Since there is no chance of a deal with the Palestinians any time soon, Olmert argued, Israel would have to make the move unilaterally — and the sooner the better.

Olmert’s proposal comes in the wake of the unofficial Geneva accord peace proposal, which was launched with much fanfare last week, and a grass-roots peace petition led by Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh and former Israeli security official Ami Ayalon. Settlers also have proposed their own peace plan in recent weeks.

Olmert’s dramatic policy shift is significant, because unlike the other initiatives, it arises from within the ruling Likud Party.

Yet it comes at a political price: If it sinks without a trace, the proposal could cost Olmert his career. If it gets off the ground, it could break up Sharon’s center-right coalition and even split the Likud, to which both Olmert and Sharon belong. However, it also could change the course of Israeli history if it rallies the right behind policies already supported by much of the left.

Olmert gave an inkling of things to come in an early December speech at David Ben-Gurion’s grave site on the anniversary of the death of Israel’s first prime minister. Of all Ben-Gurion’s voluminous sayings, Olmert chose to quote one on the folly of trying to retain the entire biblical Land of Israel.

"Suppose we would have conquered all of western Israel," Ben-Gurion mused shortly after the 1948 War of Independence, referring to the West Bank. "Then what? We would create a single state. But that state would want to be democratic. There would be general elections, and we would be a minority. Faced with the choice of the whole land without a Jewish State or a Jewish State without the whole land, we chose a Jewish State."

Israel’s chattering classes pricked up their ears, detecting a change in Olmert’s worldview. Then, in the interview with Barnea, Olmert elaborated on the demographic threat to which Ben-Gurion had alluded.

The time is fast approaching when Arabs will constitute a majority in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Then, Olmert said, Palestinians will abandon their calls for an independent state and instead will demand a one-man-one-vote system in a binational state that they will control.

"The day we come to that," Olmert said, "we will lose everything. Even when they carry out terror, it’s hard for us to convince the world of the justice of our cause."

"How much the more so," he continued, "when all they ask for is one man, one vote? I shudder to think that the same liberal Jews who led the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will be at the forefront of the struggle against us."

The event that crystallized Olmert’s thinking was the collapse of the government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in September. Abbas’ failure in optimal international conditions led Olmert to conclude that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was not possible.

Adding to Olmert’s sense of urgency was Israel’s loss of support on the world stage — especially in the United States — in the wake of Abbas’ failure and the emergence of new peace proposals like the Geneva accord, which are less favorable to Israel than the official "road map" peace plan.

Progress in building the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank made the idea of unilateral separation more practical. The key question now is the extent to which Sharon will back his deputy’s bold proposal. Olmert implied that the prime minister has gone through the same thought process and has reached similar conclusions.

However, aides said the unilateral pullback that Sharon favors would come only after an attempt to reach an agreement with Ahmed Qurei, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, and would be much smaller in scope than Olmert’s.

Likud critics of both Sharon and his deputy believe Olmert is floating a trial balloon for the prime minister and that Sharon will modify his policy according to the feedback. In both cases, though, the withdrawal would entail evacuation of many Jewish settlements.

The talk of unilateral withdrawal has triggered a fierce ideological debate within the Likud, with most public figures highly critical of Sharon and Olmert, accusing them of selling out party principles and giving in to terrorism. One legislator, Gilad Erdan, has signed up one-third of the party’s Knesset caucus against the unilateral moves; another, Ya’acov Hazan, has tabled a bill stipulating that any dismantling of settlements would require a two-thirds majority in the Knesset.

In a tense Likud Party caucus meeting in late November, Erdan challenged Sharon, saying bluntly, "Perhaps we," the ideological purists, "don’t belong in the party — and perhaps someone else doesn’t."

The direction the ideological battle will take depends on whether party heavyweights who oppose unilateral moves — especially Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — decide to lie low or to challenge Sharon.

Theoretically, Netanyahu could lead a vote of no confidence in Sharon and, with the support of 61 Knesset members, replace him as prime minister. Such a scenario is far-fetched — it would mean splitting the Likud — but it’s a possibility.

What is certain is that if Sharon does move toward unilateral withdrawal, he would lose his two right-wing coalition partners, the National Union bloc and the National Religious Party, and would have to bring in the Labor Party to replace them.

Effi Eitam insisted that his National Religious Party will not remain in the coalition and said unilateral moves defy logic.

"We won’t be in the territory, we won’t have an agreement and we will have given a prize to terror," Eitam said.

The unilateral withdrawal plan comes partly to counter a flurry of private initiatives: The Ayalon-Nusseibeh statement of principles and the Geneva accord both deal with the demographic problem by drawing the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state more or less along Israel’s pre-1967 border with Jordan.

The settler plan would solve the problem by offering the Palestinians Israeli citizenship but by weighting voting procedures so that the country is always ruled by a Jew.

Olmert argued that his plan is superior to all three: The settler plan almost surely is a nonstarter and, compared to Ayalon-Nusseibeh and Geneva, Olmert’s recommendations would maintain the country’s current demographic balance — approximately an 80-20 ratio of Jews to Arabs inside Israel — while giving up less land and retaining more of Jerusalem, specifically the Temple Mount.

The immediate question, though, is whether Sharon will stay the course and risk his coalition, his position in the Likud and a possible head-on clash with his greatest rival, Netanyahu.

Israel Reconsiders Peace Policies

Last week’s massive bus bombing, which killed 21 people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews and some of them children, may turn out to be a defining moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It signaled the collapse of the hudna (cease-fire) declared by Palestinian terrorist organizations in late June and generated potentially far-reaching Israeli, American and Palestinian policy reappraisals.

Israel launched a string of targeted strikes against terrorist leaders, warning that it would no longer distinguish between political and military echelons of any organization waging terror, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The United States exerted unprecedented pressure on the Palestinian Authority to unite its armed forces, collect illegal weapons and smash terrorist organizations before a new cycle of terror and reprisal spins out of control.

And the Palestinians made some tentative moves against terrorists, while urging a new cease-fire that Israel suspects is designed to tie the Jewish State’s hands and avert the need for the Palestinian Authority to take more tangible steps against groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Officially, Israel and the Palestinians continue to back the American-initiated "road map" peace plan. Indeed, both parties claim the breakdown stems from the other side’s failure to implement its obligations under the road map, and both maintain that their new moves are designed to force more scrupulous execution.

Some critics, however, say the flaw is not in the failure to implement the road map but in the plan itself, and they are calling for a new approach.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, never a fan of the road map, has revived his call for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, has reiterated his proposal for an American trusteeship over Palestinian areas.

For different reasons, both say the road map in its present form will never work.

Still, Israel remains committed to the plan — and aides say Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes the renewed policy of targeting Hamas leaders will help get the plan back on track.

Critics charge that the targeted killings are a deliberate ploy to undermine a peace plan Sharon never wanted, but his aides claim the strikes make clear to the Palestinian Authority what will happen if it continues to evade a confrontation with Hamas.

Moreover, Sharon aides say, knowing they are targets could convince Hamas leaders to suspend hostilities. If they don’t, Israel believes, eradication of the top leadership will weaken the movement’s ideological and organizational coherence.

The policy of striking at Hamas leaders has revived the debate in the Cabinet and the defense establishment over what to do about Arafat — who, Israeli officials say, is every bit as much a supporter of terrorism as the Hamas leaders, and more of a thorn in the side of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu support expelling Arafat, and the government is preparing an "Arafat file" so that it will be in a position to explain any action it may decide to take against him.

Several months ago, Amos Gilad, a top adviser to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and an expert on Arafat, convinced Israeli leaders not to expel Arafat, arguing that Arafat would be more dangerous abroad than confined to his headquarters in Ramallah. Now, however, Gilad says the option of expelling Arafat should be considered seriously. Gilad argues that international conditions have changed with the road map, and Arafat’s disruptive influence has grown since Abbas was appointed.

Barak, however, argues that recent events prove that with or without Arafat, there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side. Therefore, in Barak’s view, there is no point to pursing the road map. Instead, he says, Israel should complete its security fence along the border with the West Bank as quickly as possible and then withdraw behind it.

At the same time, it should announce a generous peace plan of its own that would show that the fence’s route — which cuts into the West Bank at several points to surround major Israeli settlements — is not a land-grab but purely a security arrangement until the Palestinians are ready to talk peace.

Moreover, Barak and others argue, the road map offers the Palestinians statehood before the sides have settled the key issues of borders, Jerusalem and refugees — something that’s "very dangerous for Israel," Barak said.

Indyk agrees that the Palestinians are not yet prepared to cut a peace deal with Israel — but his conclusion is that they need considerable American help. Recent events show that no solution is possible without deep American involvement, said Indyk, who proposes an American trusteeship in Palestinian areas.

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece in late August, Indyk explained what he has in mind: "With United Nations backing, the United States should establish a trusteeship for Palestine, relieving Arafat of all his powers and providing an American-led force to fight terrorists alongside the Palestinian security services. The United States would have to supervise Palestinian reformers in their efforts to build accountable institutions."

"[If President] Bush really wants to help create a democratic Palestinian state," Indyk wrote, "it should be clear by now that the road map alone won’t get him there.”

As for the Palestinians, the new situation has led to the first real challenge to Abbas’ position as prime minister, as some suggest replacing him with the speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, Ahmad Karia.

Karia is considered closer and more amenable to Arafat, and his challenge is part of a renewed power struggle between Arafat and Abbas that included Abbas’ recent attempt to place all security forces under his overall command, which Arafat foiled.

The outcome of this struggle could determine whether Israelis and Palestinians are heading for a new cycle of bloodshed or whether this beleaguered peace process can still be salvaged.

Most Americans Mistrust Saudi Peace Plan

Only 26 percent of Americans believe the Saudi peace initiative is sincere, according to a new poll of more than 1,000 Americans. Thirty-one percent believe the Saudis launched the initiative to improve their image in the United States. Sixty-two percent of respondents believe the Saudis are not ready to accept Israel’s right to exist.

The plan calls for the Arab world to make peace with Israel in return for a withdrawal from all lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. The survey, commissioned by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, has a margin of error of 3 percent.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency