Middle East Crisis Headlines - 12/18/2000

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Middle East Crisis Headlines - 12/18/2000
Events in Israel continue to swirl in an almost surrealistic dance today as new talk of peace mixes with more violence and final Knesset moves toward early elections next year. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are flying to Washington today after President Bill Clinton agreed last week to make one last push to realize his dream of overseeing a final peace accord between the two warring parties. The Israeli team is headed by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, assisted by PM Ehud Barak's bureau chief Gilead Sher. The Palestinian side is represented by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, and Gaza Strip security chief Muhammad Dahlan (who is widely thought to have been behind the deadly terror attack on a Jewish school bus in Gaza several weeks ago). If a breakthrough is reached at the talks, Barak and Yasser Arafat will fly to America to join Clinton in a signing ceremony sometime after Christmas.

Despite the pilgrimage to Washington, Palestinian leaders and most Israeli political analysts poured cold water on the prospects for achieving a breakthrough at virtually the last possible hour. Abed Rabbo told reporters he did not expect any progress. "I don't think there is a possibility of a breakthrough," he told reporters, although he added that both sides would "engage in intensive work" to achieve something anyway. He said the two teams would hold separate talks with US officials beginning Tuesday, and only meet together if significant progress is made.

Writing in today's newspapers, most Israeli political analysts said the rush to Washington was based on Barak's desperate need to forge an accord before the nation goes to the polls early next year, and Clinton's strong personal desire to go down in history as the leader who brought peace to the troubled Middle East. They said there is little evidence that Arafat would now accept what he rejected at the Camp David summit in July, and added that Barak could hardly offer much more without insuring his defeat in the upcoming national vote. Opposition Likud leaders warned that Barak was prepared to "sacrifice Israel's vital security interests" in his attempt to "stay in office at any price." They said it was shocking that Barak was going back to the peace table while attacks continued against Israeli civilians. Some Palestinian groups echoed this theme, saying no peace deal was possible while the "Zionist siege" against Palestinian towns continued.

According to reports in today's Israeli press, PM Barak is negotiating an even greater land withdrawal than he did last July when he offered to cede around 90% of the disputed territories to Arafat's Palestinian state and hand over most Arab parts of Jerusalem to effective Palestinian control. Barak wants to show "even more flexible" on the explosive Temple Mount issue, offering Arafat exclusive control over the holy site. Ben-Ami said yesterday that Israel "is being held hostage" to the sacred area instead of ruling over it. His comments drew condemnation from various right wing and religious politicians who warned the government not to disregard the deep religious feelings that millions of Jews have for the ancient Temple Mount. Meanwhile Egypt's increasingly hard-line President Hosni Mubarak threw his spanner into the works by warning Arafat not to make any concessions on Jerusalem: "No one can surrender Islamic rights concerning Al-Quds" (Jerusalem) he told his parliament members on Sunday. Mubarak also attacked Israel once again, charging that the Barak government "has turned the Palestinian areas into one big prison for unarmed people."

Israeli commentators said the main sticking point in the way to a final peace accord is continuing Palestinian insistence that all Arab refugees be granted "the right to "return to their ancestral homes" inside of Israel. Politicians from left and right are united in rejecting this demand, saying it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish State. Analysts say that if Arafat holds onto this demand at the new Washington talks--as he surely must do--they will be doomed to failure. They add that the Palestinian leader can hardly abandon his hard-line position since the so-called "right of return" is supported by most Palestinian groups with the backing of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Egypt and Jordan would agree to some compromise on the issue, although Jordan wants major financial compensation at the very least for the many refugees living within its borders. Analysts said another reason to expect failure in Washington is the fact that Bill Clinton will not be president in just over one month's time. They said his ability to get the new Congress to fulfill any financial or political commitments connected to a peace settlement is questionable at best. "Why should Arafat agree to give way on his unbending demands in the face of a new, untested US administration and Congress and looming elections here in Israel?" asked one commentator.

Despite all the talk of peace, violent clashes continue today in the disputed territories, as they did over the weekend. Shots were fired at an Israeli commercial bus near Jericho today, lightly wounding two Jewish passengers. Palestinian gunmen are again firing at Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron. Israeli forces shot at Palestinian rioters near Nablus this morning wounding two Palestinians. Five Palestinians were killed on Sunday, two of them in a firefight with Israeli forces along the Egypt-Gaza border. A 23 year-old Fatah Tanzim militia leader was killed by a bomb in a refugee camp in northeast Jerusalem. Palestinians called it a deliberate murder committed by undercover Israeli security forces. A Palestinian man who once served in the Israeli police was shot dead by Arab gunfire at close range. Palestinian officials accused him of "collaborating" with Israel although no proof was presented.

The body of a 18 year-old Arab was discovered on Sunday morning near Ramallah. He had been shot in the head in unclear circumstances. Israel says two Palestinians suspected of carrying out the killing have been arrested. A 36 year-old Israeli civilian was shot in the head and hand last evening while he was driving in northern Samaria. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Haifa where he was declared to be in serious condition. Shots were also fired at two Israeli school buses and a Jewish high school in the Gaza Strip, but no casualties were reported. Palestinian gunmen opened fire at IDF outposts in several Gaza locations last night. Roadside bombs were detonated near Israeli vehicles in two areas north of Jerusalem, but again no one was hurt.

Lebanese media reports say Israeli warplanes staged mock raids over Beirut on Sunday. Meanwhile a leading British newspaper reports that Israel is bracing for war with Syria. The Sunday Times said three recently delivered German-made submarines have been rushed to sea in order to be ready in case hostilities break out in the region. The German Der Spiegel magazine reported last month that the new Israeli subs have been equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles by German experts working closely with their Israeli counterparts. The missiles give Israel a second strike nuclear capability, noted the magazine.

The Times reported that an additional Israeli armored division has been deployed in recent days on the Golan Heights to bolster IDF forces stationed on the strategic plateau. It also said Israeli troops are being trained to defend the deep Jordan Valley against a potential Iraqi invasion from the hills of nearby Jordan. The paper also revealed that Syrian-backed Hizbullah forces in south Lebanon have built over 30 military posts along the border in recent months and placed around 1,000 fighters in them, with thousands more stationed further back. The radical militia has also acquired new anti-tank missiles and long-range rockets from Iran. Reports say the weapons are being flown directly into Beirut airport by Iranian jets flying over Iraqi airspace with Baghdad's approval. It should be noted that foreign media reports on Israel's military situation are often based on direct Israeli information that is banned from publication here by military censorship. PM Barak discussed the tense Mideast situation in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State designate Colin Powell on Sunday.

The next two days may be crucial in deciding who will lead Israel following early elections next year. The Knesset is expected to vote later today or early tomorrow on two bills that will determine if former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu can run for the post that he held until mid-1999. The so-called "Netanyahu bill" that would allow him to be a candidate even though he is not a Knesset member is widely expected to be defeated since it is not backed by the man it is named after, nor by an increasing number of Likud party members. Netanyahu prefers that the current Knesset dissolve itself and go to early general elections.

The Knesset dissolution vote, expected to take place late tonight or early tomorrow, is predicted to be quite close. The left-wing Meretz party and several other parties say they are not yet certain how they will vote. The orthodox Shas party is still hoping that the Netanyahu bill will pass. if it does so, party legislators can vote against the Knesset dissolution bill without angering their core supporters. Shas leaders realize that most of their traditional supporters want to see Netanyahu run and win, but are fearful of polls which project that Shas will lose many parliament seats if a full-blown Knesset contest is held.

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