Aug 24, 2009

August News Update

David DolanBy David Dolan

Israeli government officials confirmed media reports during August that they have been quietly enforcing a construction freeze in disputed territory north and south of Jerusalem for several months. The ban against issuing new housing starts in Jewish communities located in contested portions of Judea and Samaria went into effect soon after Binyamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Prime Minister on March 31. Officials said American President Barack Obama — who has made a total construction halt a central plank in his emerging Arab-Israeli peace plan — has been aware of the de facto freeze since its inception.

Meanwhile Palestine Liberation Organization leaders furiously blasted the Jewish State during a raucous PLO Fatah convention held in Bethlehem. Led by Israel’s Palestinian Authority “peace partner” Mahmoud Abbas, conference delegates unanimously approved a resolution blaming Israel for Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004.

The latest scathing Palestinian “blood libel” was quickly followed by another one published in Sweden’s largest newspaper, claiming that Israeli soldiers were secretly slaying Palestinians in order to steal and sell their body organs to local hospitals. Headlined “THEY PLUNDER THE ORGANS OF OUR SONS” the insidious report — based solely on totally unsubstantiated Palestinian allegations — led to a sharp crisis in diplomatic relations between Israel and Sweden, whose leaders refused Israeli government pleas to renounce the article.

Tensions remained high in the north as Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his Iranian and Syrian-backed Shiite militia organization is prepared to rain rockets down upon Tel Aviv if new fighting erupts in the region. The latest verbal threat came as the Times of London reported that the nefarious Lebanese group now possesses some 40,000 rockets, many of them capable of reaching central and southern Israel. Meanwhile Syrian dictator Bashar Assad visited Tehran, where he publicly congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his “victory” in Iran’s disputed presidential election last June — pledging to support him militarily if Israel strikes his country’s nuclear facilities.

Indications grew during the month that a deal is nearly complete to free hundreds of Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. This came as an Israeli man, sitting on a bench with his wife and daughter on a north Tel Aviv beach, was brutally attacked and murdered by a gang of young Arab men. The victim was one of 13 Israelis murdered during the first half of August, including a teenage girl gunned down in a mass shooting at a homosexual youth counseling center in Tel Aviv. The spate of domestic killings, which dominated Israeli headlines during the month, sparked a special Knesset session amid a surge in local gun purchases by citizens apparently worried that they might become the next victim.

Obama Gets His Way

Various Arab and Israeli media outlets reported in late August that US President Obama will unveil his new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan either when he speaks at the United Nations the end of September, or at a “Group of Twenty” summit meeting several days later in Pittsburg. The White House would not confirm the reports. Israeli political analysts said the plan’s final formation is largely dependent on the outcome of a crucial meeting to be held this Wednesday in London between PM Netanyahu and Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

According to the usually well informed AL Quds Al Arabi (Arab Jerusalem) newspaper published in London, the Palestinians will be asked by a team of retired US officials led by former Democratic President Jimmy Carter, and including George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, (neither exactly known for their love of Israel) to give up their “right of return” demand in exchange for international financial compensation for family homes lost inside of Israel during the 1948 and 1967 wars. Some border adjustments would also reportedly be recommended, giving Israel official sovereignty over three large settlement blocks located near the pre-1967 de facto border north and south of Jerusalem. In exchange, Israel would transfer an equal amount of its current land to a demilitarized Palestinian state, which would share Jerusalem as its capital city with Israel. Palestinian leaders have already publicly rejected most of these concepts.

Meanwhile several members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own cabinet expressed shock when the Israeli media reported August 18 that their leader had secretly ordered a total freeze on new construction permits in all Jewish communities located in Judea and Samaria, as demanded by Obama. The reports said the freeze had actually quietly gone into effect shortly after the Likud-led government assumed power last spring, with most cabinet ministers unaware of the move.

The reports — apparently confirmed the same day by the US President himself when he told visiting Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak he was “encouraged by what I am seeing on the ground” — claimed that the building ban was hammered out in a clandestine agreement made between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who heads the Labor party) and Housing Minister Ariel Atias of the Orthodox Shas party. Both Labor and Shas have expressed past support for uprooting Jewish communities in the disputed territories as part of any final status peace accord with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s office quickly denied that the Premier had made a secret pact with Barak and Atias to stop issuing construction permits. However it confirmed other reports that he had promised President Obama that no new housing tenders will be issued from now on until at least early next year. Atias later told Israel Radio that a de facto freeze on new construction permits had indeed been in effect since early April, but added that building projects approved before then had not been halted by the new government.

Barack Obama’s demand that Israel immediately halt all construction in every inch of territory it seized from Jordan during the Six Day War in order to get the peace process moving forward again was rebuked by a prominent American newspaper which strongly supported his election. In an editorial that sparked widespread discussion in the US media, The Washington Post said the President’s “unbalanced” campaign to put pressure mainly on Israel was harming his professed aim to help bring an end to the long and bitter Arab-Israeli conflict. It pointed out that due to Obama’s “absolutist demand for a settlement freeze,” various regional Arab and Palestinian leaders that “had accepted previous compromises immediately hardened their positions, and also balked at delivering the ‘confidence building’ concessions to Israel that the administration seeks.”

Coalition Jitters

Ron Nachman, a prominent member of Netanyahu’s Likud party who serves as mayor of the growing Jewish town of Ariel in northern Samaria, warned that “the government’s days will be numbered” if the construction permit freeze is not soon reversed. This was echoed by Benny Kashriel, the mayor of the largest disputed community, Ma’aleh Adumim, located several miles east of Jerusalem. He was upset to learn via the media that the PM was withholding approval of a proposed expansion in the city’s industrial park, which he noted employs Arabs as well as Jews. He charged that Netanyahu was “doing above and beyond” what the Obama administration was demanding of him.

At the same time, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported that Netanyahu — worried about the stability of his coalition which includes several pro-settlement parties, including his own Likud party — has approved a plan devised during the previous Olmert government to construct up to 450 apartment units and homes in the large Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, located in northeast Jerusalem. Construction will reportedly begin early next year. The Israeli leader has stated several times in recent months that he will not halt building inside any portion of Jerusalem’s wide municipal boundaries. The United States government insists on at least a one year total construction freeze, including in portions of Jerusalem captured by Israel in 1967.

Plans were filed with the Jerusalem municipality on August 23 for a new Jewish housing project called Ma’ale David. The proposed gated community would include over 100 luxury apartments in several buildings, a communal swimming pool, and a synagogue. The new homes would be built in the middle of the Arab neighborhood of Ras Al Amud on land owned by Bukharan Jews since the nineteenth century. The land was previously the site of Israel’s Judea and Samaria police headquarters, which has been moved to an area below the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Anti-settlement Arab and Israeli groups are expected to strongly oppose the project.

Meanwhile Israel’s capital city was again the scene of Palestinian-Israeli building tussles during the month. Several Arab families were evicted after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a number of Jewish families who had earlier judicially proven that the homes belonged to their relatives before the Arab residents had illegally occupied them after five Arab armies attacked the nascent Jewish State in 1948. The evictions were quickly condemned by the US and British governments. The Israeli Peace Now group noted that many Jews are living in homes in other parts of the city whose original Arab owners had fled the fighting, expecting to return after the anticipated military annihilation of the emerging state.

Several weeks later, dozens of left wing protesters who oppose Jewish home building in eastern Jerusalem clashed with right wing supporters of such construction. The confrontations took place outside of the former Arab-run Shepherd Hotel one mile north of the Temple Mount, which is scheduled to be transformed into apartments for observant Jews.

The demonstrators were there in response to a special dinner being held inside the building, where former US Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was the featured guest. Now the host of his own television program on the Fox News cable channel, Huckabee later told reporters that he “honestly assessed” President Obama’s proposal “to establish a Palestinian state in the middle of the Jewish homeland” to be “virtually unrealistic.”

Little Town of Bethlehem

As if to confirm Huckabee’s contention, some 2,000 delegates from the Palestine Liberation Organization gathered in the Arab town of Bethlehem in August for a fiery convention which hardly added to expectations that Obama’s emerging peace plan will eventually be implemented. Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the convention had “buried the peace process” for some time to come. The Fatah parlay, in the world renowned Judean town where Israel’s ancient King David and his descendent Jesus were born, was the first formal PLO political gathering in over 20 years.

The “Sixth General Assembly” featured many hard line threats and accusations against Israel, along with fierce disputes between rival factions inside the PLO that actually led to fistfights on several occasions. The main battle lines were drawn between the so-called “Old Guard” led by Yasser Arafat’s successor as PLO chief, Mahmoud Abbas and other longtime Arafat cronies, and the “Young Guard” that publicly demands internal reforms in the organization — widely viewed as full of corruption.

Even before the convention got underway the first week of August, disputes were swirling over who was or was not allowed to attend. The radical Hamas movement announced that it would not permit any of the nearly 400 Fatah delegates who reside in the Gaza Strip to travel to Bethlehem unless Abbas released hundreds of Hamas activists arrested in his Palestinian Authority zones of control in recent months, which he refused to do. The PA chief then publicly promised the Gaza delegates that their phoned in votes would be counted for the election of a new 21 member PLO Central Committee and a 120 member Revolutionary Council (historians say the 120 number was chosen when the PLO was founded in 1964 in a deliberate attempt to mirror, and eventually replace, the 120 member Israeli Knesset).

Several Israeli Knesset members expressed disgust when it was learned that the Netanyahu government was allowing a number of prominent Palestinian terrorists to cross Israeli security lines to attend the Fatah convention. Among them was Khalad Abu Asba who participated in the worst ever PLO terror attack in 1978, known as the Coastal Road Massacre. The heinous assault left 38 Israeli bus passengers dead, including 13 children, and over 70 wounded. Widespread Israeli public anger that Abu Asba had been allowed to attend the Fatah convention only intensified when he brazenly told the gathering that he had “no remorse” over taking part in the massacre.

Rigged Vote?

The missing Gaza delegates and their mostly “Young Guard” supporters charged that their ballots had mostly not been counted in the final vote tallies, which they claimed swung the Fatah elections entirely in favor of Abbas and his Old Guard camp. In fact, all 21 of the PLO Central Committee candidates endorsed by the PA leader were initially said to have been elected, which prompted some delegates to term the vote more fraudulent than the apparently rigged Iranian presidential election last June. Many angry delegates declared that they would break away and form a new political grouping to rival Fatah, which dozens later did after the convention ended.

Realizing that the acrimonious gathering might actually erode into armed clashes, Abbas tried to quell the storm by announcing that a recount would be held where it would be made certain that all Gaza votes were included in the tally. Somewhat different results were then announced after the convention had formally ended, including the election of a female candidate (none had won in the first vote tally), along with several prominent Young Guard leaders. Still this did not end the disputes, and the entire Gaza Strip Fatah leadership resigned from the party to protest what they termed “massive voting fraud.”

Chief among the announced Young Guard winners was Marwan Barghouti, who many left wing Israelis and Palestinians would like to see become the next PLO chief since they believe he has the popular street support to carry on with Yasser Arafat’s “pragmatic” style of peacemaking, which combined an olive branch with a gun. The former Tanzim militia force leader is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for his involvement in plotting several Tanzim terror attacks that took five Israeli lives during the Al Aksa uprising earlier this decade. Another surprise winner is actually an Israeli Jew, Uri Davis, known for his strident anti-Zionist political leanings.

Ghost of Arafat

Israeli officials said they expected the PLO convention to feature the usual anti-Israel tirades that have always been part of such gatherings, despite the PLO’s official commitment at the last parlay in 1988 to make peace with the Jewish State. However most did not anticipate that a resolution would be put forward blaming Israeli leaders for the November 2004 death of Yasser Arafat. The resolution, unanimously adopted by the Fatah delegates, said “Israel bears full responsibility” for the late PLO leader’s death at the age of 74, without presenting any evidence of this incendiary claim. An “investigative committee” with “international participation” will be established to confirm this contention, added the resolution.

The Fatah action was sparked by a statement made in Jordan last month by the PLO’s former “Foreign Minister” Farouk Kadoumi. He claimed Arafat had revealed to him that Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders were plotting with American intelligence agents to assassinate him, with the implied connivance of Abbas and other Fatah leaders. Doctors never revealed the exact cause of Arafat’s death, but mentioned that he suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and a low blood platelet count, which some suspect was a byproduct of Aids. Later unsubstantiated reports claimed he had been poisoned to death.

Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai of Shas said the PLO resolution demonstrated that “there is a better chance for peace negotiations to succeed on Mars than in this region.” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (tipped to replace Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister if the Russian-born politician is indicted by the Israel police over various alleged crimes said to have been committed in previous years, as is widely expected) said the PLO had “reverted to making extreme statements” which “raised suspicions that the Palestinians do not want a two state solution, but rather a one state solution.”

A post convention meeting of the newly installed PLO Central Committee only added to Israeli government concerns that Fatah is not serious about making peace with Israel. PA President Abbas completely ruled out resuming negotiations unless Israel “halts all forms of settlement activity without exception in Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories.” More than this, he strongly hinted that Fatah-sponsored terrorist activity might be resumed if peace talks fail, telling his top PLO comrades that “our Palestinian people have a right to engage in legitimate resistance to the occupation.”

A post conference opinion survey jointly conducted by Hebrew University and a Palestinian group showed that most Israelis thought the PLO Fatah convention harmed the chances of peace in the region. It also revealed that only 12% now believe US President Obama is a true friend of Israel.

Whatever the nations say or do, the God of Israel will have the final say over His special Chosen People and their unique Promised Land:

“I will rejoice over them to do them good, and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).

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