TRUCE TALKS: It is not clear whether negotiations between Israel and Hamas, conducted through Egyptian mediation, for a long-term truce and the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit will bear fruit.
On Thursday, Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk said that an 18-month truce, which did not include the release of Shalit, would be announced soon. "It will be in a short period, God willing. within two days," he told Reuters. Another Hamas negotiator, Taher Nunu, also voiced optimism: "Most of the obstacles preventing us from consolidating an agreement have already been solved."
Discussions about Palestinian prisoners that Israel is expected to release are another indication of progress. In a rare interview with Al-Ahram, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman said Friday that negotiations were being held with Israel to finalize a list of Palestinian prisoners to be released. Israel 's security cabinet is set to convene tomorrow to review the negotiations.
Nevertheless, some analysts see a stiffening of the Israeli negotiating position. "Until last Saturday, the tahdia [truce] was at the core of the arrangement between Israel and Hamas, while Shalit was only an appended clause," writes Alex Fishman in Yedioth Ahronoth. "But on Saturday, the situation was turned around. Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert announced: Without Shalit, there will be no tahdia. The turnabout is mainly a direct outcome of the elections in Israel : [Labor leader and Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, who supported the tahdia in its original format, lost his position of power overnight. [Kadima leader and Foreign Minister] Tzippi Livni was opposed to an arrangement with Hamas in any case, and believed that deterrence was enough to obtain calm. At the same time, a new player joined the field, opposition chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. Today, he too is a partner to the consultations."
Fishman adds that Hamas stalled efforts to prevent a deal before the Israeli elections. "The Egyptians wanted to announce the tahdia agreement on February 10, election day in Israel, but [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashal decided that it was more important for him to be in Sudan that day, and not to make decisions. Now he can whistle for an agreement."
Fishman also explores the risk to Israel for playing hardball: "In the package of post-Operation Cast Lead arrangements, there are three mutually dependent components: Along with the tahdia and Shalit's release, there is an essential component to the State of Israel, which is the Egyptian and international effort to halt the smuggling. An Israeli rejection of the tahdia formulated by the Egyptians is not only a slap in the face to Egyptian prestige. The Egyptians also view the reduction of the tension in Gaza as an issue of Egyptian national security, in light of the Iranian infiltration, the battle against the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and more. So we have become entangled with the Turks, and now there is also potential for damage to Israeli-Egyptian relations. And how will this help Gilad Shalit? It is not at all clear."
Meanwhile, in the absence of an agreement, violence continues. Palestinians fired several mortars and rockets into Israel last week, including long-range rockets that landed more than 40 kilometers from Gaza . Israel 's air force has also repeatedly struck targets in Gaza . ( Jerusalem Post, 2/12 & 2/13/09 ; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/15 & 2/16/09 ; Haaretz, 2/13/09 )
EGYPT CRACKS DOWN ON SMUGGLING: A new crackdown by Egyptian police has led to the arrest of 40 smugglers and the seizure of contraband along the Egyptian-Gaza border, according to Egyptian security officials.
The Egyptian effort - including the deployment of about 1,000 policemen near the border - garnered both praise and expressions of concern in Israel . General Security Service Director Yuval Diskin told the Israeli cabinet Sunday that the "Egyptians are working at a relatively slow pace, but we can see a positive trend in dealing with smuggling." ( Jerusalem Post, 2/12/09 ; Ma'ariv, 2/16/09 )
COALITION HAGGLES: Likud leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahuand Kadima leader Tzippi Livnicontinue to posture in public over which of them will become Israel 's next prime minister.
The most dramatic example of this posturing emerged just before yesterday's cabinet meeting, when reporters overheard Livni dissuade Prime Minister Ehud Olmertfrom calling for the establishment of a broad unity government. After Olmert proposed the statement, Livni responded: "No, no Ehud. Do me a favor."
She elaborated on her position in a note, the content of which was published in today's Ma'ariv: "I have no intention of being in a national unity government lead by Bibi and don't hint anything leading to that."
Nevertheless, Netanyahu is more likely to form the next government, as Nahum Barnea explains in Yedioth Ahronoth. Netanyahu "can form a right wing coalition government under his leadership with either 63 or 64 seats," Barnea writes. "A coalition of that sort will restore to the top tier of the Likud and, first and foremost, to Netanyahu himself the power and influence that they have missed so badly. But that is hardly the coalition that Netanyahu dreamed about. He doesn't want to head a government whose very existence is dependent on Lieberman and the National Union's whims. The leaders of those parties have a hard time persevering inside coalitions. They will impose political paralysis on Netanyahu and impede his relations with the U.S. administration."
Barnea recalls that Netanyahu "repeatedly said that the greatest political mistake he made was when he succumbed to the temptation to head a narrow right wing coalition when he was elected prime minister in 1996. He vowed never to repeat that mistake. The alternative is a unity government with the Likud and Kadima at its center. Netanyahu would be happy to form a coalition with Kadima, with him as prime minister, Livni as foreign minister and [Kadima's Shaul] Mofaz as defense minister. The problem is that Kadima will not agree. Kadima has emerged from these elections as a party that is at least the Likud's equal... It will demand the premiership for itself. The solution that seems to beckon is of a rotating premiership. Livni will serve for two years as prime minister, after which Netanyahu will serve for two years. The voters will love that solution, at first at least. Netanyahu will love it less."
The final election results are as follows: Kadima - 28 seats; Likud - 27 seats; Yisrael Beiteinu - 15 seats; Labor - 13 seats; Shas - 11 seats; United Torah Judaism - 5 seats; National Union - 4 seats; United Arab List - 4 seats; Hadash - 4 seats, Meretz - 3 seats; Balad - 3 seats; and Jewish Home - 3 seats. Each seat represents roughly 28,000 votes. (Ma'ariv, 2/16/09 ; Yedioth Ahronoth, 2/11/09 ; Haaretz, 2/13/09 )
BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT: "Binyamin Netanyahu will be Israel 's next prime minister," predicts former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin in today's Israel Hayom. "I would have preferred that the next prime minister would be someone who was committed to an intensive peace process that would include the West Bank , Syria and Lebanon . But the die has been cast. Netanyahu's political vision is unclear except for his general tendency not to believe that peace in our region is possible in the near future."
"On the other hand," writes Beilin, "he certainly lives in this world, knows what the world expects from us, and even if he feels that it is unjustified or irrational, it is very clear to him that we cannot behave as `a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.' [Numbers 23, 9] He also knows that despite the right-wing majority in Knesset, a vast majority believes in the two-state solution even if it does not have faith in its neighbors and even if it does not think that peace is right around the corner."
Beilin recalls that as the 1996 election neared, Netanyahu moderated his rhetoric and - as prime minister - signed two agreements with Yasser Arafat. He also ordered the IDF to withdraw from 13.1% of the West Bank . "His attempts to reach an agreement with [former Syrian President Hafez Assad] through [informal mediator] Ronald Lauder, with a willingness to give up all or most of the Golan Heights. also indicate Netanyahu's readiness to check out possibilities beyond his election slogans," Beilin believes.
"This time he has come to us with a new invention," Beilin continues, referencing Netanyahu's campaign promises, "`economic peace.' No more peace forced on an unenthusiastic public by political leaders, but rather a real peace, a peace which starts with the people themselves, when the people understand what they will have to give up if they choose the path of violence. Instead of sneering and telling Netanyahu to stop pulling the wool over our eyes, this is the moment that even those who believe in peace should demand that he keep what he promises. Economic peace is no simple thing. You can't make economic peace in a situation in which agricultural goods that have to reach a port or a bridge have to go through dozens of roadblocks, making it pointless to market them."
Beilin adds: "We have to realize that the phrase `economic peace' means giving permits to Palestinian laborers to work in Israel, [it means] giving permits to export to the PA goods that Israel does not [now] permit exported to it due to fear that dangerous use will be made of them (such as chemical fertilizers liable to be used for producing bombs), [it means] giving permits to landowners in the West Bank to work their land, [it means] giving exit permits [for Palestinians] to attend courses overseas, [it means] bringing experts from overseas to the West Bank, and so on and so forth. If this takes place, the security establishment will come to Netanyahu the prime minister and demand that he not remove roadblocks, that he not give permits, and will warn him of the risk he is taking on himself. His first test will be if he can stand up and say to them: I promised economic peace, and I am determined to realize it." ( Israel Hayom, 2/16/09 )
THE "R" WORD: Yisrael Beiteinu, led by the polarizing figure of Avigdor Lieberman, won 15 seats in last week's elections, making it the third largest party in the Israeli parliament, prompting concerns about the rise of racism and demagoguery in Israel .
Last month, Haaretzreported that in the 1970's Lieberman had been a member of the racist Kach movement, which was later outlawed and named a terrorist organization by the Israeli government. The United States also considers Kach to be a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Lieberman never denied the report.
"I don't know [Lieberman] on a personal level," Kadima Knesset member Shlomo Molla told the Jerusalem Post. "But his campaign was certainly racist. The whole idea of citizenship for loyalty is very problematic. I mean, how do you decide what loyalty is? What do you base it on? I don't love what the Arab parties are saying per say, but I do love democracy, and part of democracy is allowing freedom of expression for minorities. Lieberman wants the opposite."
Molla also expressed concern that the anti-Arab vitriol now being heard could later target other minorities in Israel. "Yisrael Beiteinu has no Ethiopian candidate on their Knesset list, not even far down the list," he said. "They didn't try to get the Ethiopian vote, yet they say that they're a party for immigrants. Ethiopians aren't immigrants? There are 130,000 of them. I think that says something, too, and the same ideology that Lieberman is advocating today could be used against the Ethiopian community tomorrow."
Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter and head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, refused to call Lieberman a racist. "But he's certainly a bit of a demagogue," said Zuroff. "He's offering `solutions' to problems that are on a lot of people's minds, and he's playing on the fears of Israel's citizens. It's a mixture of politics, ethnic strife - not racism - and how he can increase [his party's strength] in the Knesset. he's putting Israeli Arabs on the spot and saying, do you want to be loyal to the state and receive its benefits? And if not, he's saying that they will lose their citizenship. That's not the classic definition of racism, but it is demagoguery."
Hebrew University historian Alex Yakobson similarly shied away from calling Lieberman a racist in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. "I would say, however, that there was an air of racism surrounding Lieberman's campaign," Yakobson commented. "Before the elections, they held mock elections in many schools across the country, and there were reports of high school students voting for Lieberman and yelling out, `Death to the Arabs.' If I were him, I would have made it clear that I was opposed to such things, but he didn't."
In a statement released today, Americans for Peace Now (APN) called a spade a spade. APN, the statement noted, "views Lieberman as a serial provocateur, a blemish on Israel's character as a democratic, moral country, and as a strategic liability. APN therefore warns against legitimizing him and what he stands for."
It is still unclear whether Lieberman will serve in the next government. The presence of a number of criminal investigations against him bars him from serving in several key cabinet positions. (Haaretz, 1/3 & 2/13/09; Jerusalem Post, 2/12/09; APN, 2/16/09)
ARAB WORLD REACTS TO ISRAELI ELECTIONS: While the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and even Syria for the most part reacted diplomatically to the results of Israel's general elections, opinion articles in the Arab press did not pull many punches.
Many opinion articles focused on the diminishing prospects for a meaningful peace process under a right-leaning Israeli government and on the likelihood of enhanced regional instability. "The region is thus heading toward extremism and instability," predicted the Palestinian-owned London-based al-Quds al-Arabi in its post-election editorial. "The side which will be the most harmed will be the Arab moderation axis and the Palestinian national authority, as well as the Arab peace initiative and the Arab official inclination to reach a political settlement based on it." Any government formed in Israel, according to al-Quds al-Arabi "will not be powerful enough to make fateful decisions at the level of the peace process even if it wanted to, due to the weakness of its electoral base and the size of the majority supporting it at the parliament." Conversely, the article argues, "any government, in which [Avigdor]Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party is partaking, will be a government of war."
Lieberman still attracts enormous interest in the Arab media. During the lead-up to the elections and immediately following February 10th, he was depicted as personifying the belligerent Israel - the Israel that was humiliated by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and sought revenge in Gaza this winter. He was also depicted as personifying the racist Israel that seeks to disenfranchise its Arab citizens.
"Israel has announced officially that it is fostering its racist mentality. The Jewish street has voted for the racist parties or their allies who flagrantly announce their racist policy," wrote Barhoum Jaraisa in the pro-government Jordanian daily al-Ghad. "Attention was focused during these elections on rightist racist Yisrael Beiteunu Party headed by Avigdor Lieberman," Jaraisa wrote, adding that Lieberman's electoral success was enhanced by the strong showing of other right-wing parties.
In al-Hayat al-Jadidah, the West Bank daily newspaper associated with the Palestinian Authority, opinion writer Muaffaq Mattar criticized Israel's Arab citizens for not voting as a bloc. In an article headlined "Palestine Beitenu," or "Palestine is Our Home," Mattar argued that had Israel's Arab citizens united behind one party and turned out to vote, "Palestinian voters in Israel could have surpassed the extremist Yisrael Beitenu, which won fifteen seats." Pointing out polling data, which shows that 85% of Israeli Arabs support the formation of a united Arab party, Mattar wrote: "Once again, the Arabs in Israel lost a political battle they could have won..." (al-Quds al-Arabi, 2/12/09; al-Ghad, 2/12/09; al-Hayat al-Jadidah, 2/12/09)
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: One of the casualties of Israel's military operation in Gaza was a joint Israel-Syrian announcement of the start of direct negotiations between the two countries, according to a report in Friday's Haaretz.
During Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Turkey one week before the start of Operation Cast Lead, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan mediated the drafting of the joint statement. Erdogan first broached the idea with Olmert, and then spoke to Syrian President Bashar Assad by telephone, while Olmert waited in another room in Erdogan's home. Erdogan shuttled back in forth between the Israeli and Syrian leaders for four hours, until about 1 A.M. Olmert then returned to Israel with the understanding that Erdogan would continue this effort.
"The joint Syrian-Israeli statement was nearly finished and needed only a few corrected words to be completed," a Turkish official told Haaretz. "After making the statement, the parties were to announce that they were ready to start direct negotiations and Erdogan was convinced that he had an agreed on draft."
In another development on this track, Senator John Kerry is expected to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad this week. Speaking in Egypt, Kerry, who chairs the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said that he plans on challenging Syria to demonstrate its seriousness in encouraging peace and regional stability. (Haaretz, 2/13/09; AP, 2/15/09)