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August 31, 2008: A Strong Stand

August 30, 2008

According to a Friday report by Ben Caspit in Maariv, subsequently carried in The Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva and elsewhere, a decision has been made by the Israeli government to hit Iran if need be.

Israel, it is being reported, made the critical decision three months ago and is now preparing a military strike on Iran that would be activated whether the US approves or not. If the situation is not resolved by 2010 — through an internal coup, sanctions that are genuinely effective, or military action by the US — Israel will proceed.

Currently, the US is prepared to provide defensive weapons, but will not assist in making it possible for us to hit Iran — has not, for example, provided necessary codes for flying over Iraq.

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The report describes action to promote sanctions with teeth that has been taken by Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister who recently left the Labor party. He is pushing a total international embargo on spare parts for Iran’s oil industry and a complete international boycott of Iran’s banks.

Sneh wrote to both US presidential candidates outlining this plan, which would have to be undertaken within the next 18 to 24 months, and which would cause the regime to topple. It would. however, require recruiting all of Europe to be on board with this — as partial participation does not constitute effective sanctions. Thus, as good as this plan might be on paper, we should not hold our collective breath waiting for this to happen.

Last week, Sneh visited Austria and Switzerland, which have both announced plans for major investments in gas and oil fields in Iran. As he listened to his hosts describe their plans, he replied, “What a shame, for Ido will set fire to all of it.” Ido is Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, Commander of the Israel Air Force, who would be in charge of carrying out the air strikes on Iran.

“Investing in Iran in 2008,” Sneh told the Austrians, “is like investing in the Krupp steelworks in 1938, it’s a high risk investment.” He reported that his hosts turned pale.

Could it be that talking tough and forcing a new reality might do the trick? European leaders would have to perceive their economic dealings with Iran as ultimately not being in their own narrow best interest. As Sneh said, “Talk of the Jewish Holocaust and Israel’s security doesn’t impress these guys.” Plans — made public — for Israeli air strikes on Iran might be useful in this regard.

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Iranian officials, responding to talk of an attack on their facilities, warned in al-Quds al-Arabi that they have supplied Hezbollah with longer range missiles that would be unleashed if we or the US were to hit Iran. This is supposed to be the “surprise” that Nasrallah has been referring to recently.

But security analyst Maj.-Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror says he doesn’t believe this is the case: 

“This is nothing new. Hezbollah has had these missiles – such as the Zilzal, which can reach Tel Aviv – for years. I don’t think Hezbollah received longer-range missiles, but they are stockpiling more of the same.” 

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According to the Post, the Arab states unequivocally oppose a strike on Iran.

I found this interesting because I sat just weeks go with an Arab-speaking Israeli investigative journalist who told me of the on-going animosity between the Sunni Arab states and Shia Iran, which is seeking to overtake them. According to him, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have been annoyed at Bush for softening his stance on Iran. The opposition to a strike may be a public stance only.

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Let me return here to the issue of a possible signed agreement between Israel and the PA that might be secretly pushed through in a matter of weeks or days. There is an enormous amount of disinformation afloat, with responses that sometimes verge on the hysterical — perhaps understandably, given the seriousness of the issue.

In a nutshell: The story circulating is that Olmert is pushing to get something on paper before September 17, the day of the Kadima primaries. He would still hold his position after that, but only as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed — he would lack the authority to act on something as major as this. (Never mind that — in the face of the multiple investigations he is dealing with — he is currently lacking the authority as well.)

Olmert’s “problem” is that the PA and Israel are still too far apart to finalize a deal. The sticking point being discussed most often is Jerusalem (although there is surely similar discord on the matters of “return” of refugees and borders).

Some sources have it that Olmert is pushing for a vague document that simply outlines what has been agreed on so far and can serve as the basis for a shelf agreement to be activated later. But according to Haaretz, Olmert’s latest wrinkle on how to resolve differences and allow something to be signed is this:

There would be general framework signed now. But with a five year time-table for completing negotiations on Jerusalem, which would take place under an “international umbrella” with various parties able to “bolster” — though not impose — an agreement. His conceptualization is that in an international venue, with a number of nations privy to discussion and putting in their thoughts, there would be a “mellowing” on both sides and an inclination to come to terms. On the one hand, it would give the very weak PA backbone, and on the other, would coerce our public into accepting something that already had international sanction.

My conceptualization is that it is an obscenity.

To propose involving international parties at any level with regard to our heritage, our security, and our sovereignty is a disgrace of the first order. We have here a prime minister — and I write this with a deeply heavy heart — who cannot, or chooses not to, speak for and protect our heritage, our security and our sovereignty.

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Nor am I alone in voicing this opinion. Shas head Eli Yeshai (who could take apart the coalition if only he would lead his faction in resignation) declared that Olmert had no legal or moral authority to make such a deal. 

“The leadership of the Palestinian Authority is virtual. Any agreement with them will be the basis for more terror. It is clear to everyone that Jerusalem’s fate cannot be negotiated like it was a currency, and certainly not with international participation.” 

Foreign Minister and Chief Negotiator Tzipi Livni is also greatly unhappy with what Olmert is trying to do. She sees attempts to accelerate the negotiation process as a huge mistake: 

“We must not let the pressure of time cause us to make one of two grave mistakes: To try and bridge the wide gaps [note please: there are “wide” gaps] in a manner that will lead to a collapse, or to compromise on issues critical to Israel just to achieve results.” 

I here reiterate my opinion that a precipitous agreement signed by Olmert would seriously damage Livni’s chances of putting together a coalition that would allow her to be prime minister after the Kadima primary. She has to be fiercely opposed to this. (I note however, that, in due course she might well make concessions that are similar.)

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter expressed anger that Olmert was proceeding without the backing of his Cabinet — without even informing his ministers. Said Dichter: 

“…in light of the security-related circumstances, and even more so the political ones in which Olmert is about to step down and Abbas’s term ends in four months’ time – we cannot repeat the mistake from the [Israeli-Palestinian] talks at the Taba Summit in January 2001 and create a problematic standard for future negotiations that will be lead by Olmert’s successors.” 

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But what of the PA? Once again, they are likely to be our salvation. No, it should not be this way. And yes! we must work to have leaders that protect our interests. But this is how it seems to be now.

For some time PA negotiators have been expressing great reluctance to sign anything that is vague and incomplete. Chief PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei said, just over a week ago, that “We either agree on one package that includes all the issues, or we don’t agree,” and Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo has declared that they “will not accept any partial deal like a framework or shelf agreement,”

Most recently Abbas has said that the proposal for negotiating Jerusalem over five years represents an incomplete deal that would leave him weakened.

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And then we have this, which represents a major stumbling block in negotiations from the PA side:

Rumor of late has had it that Rice is back-tracking on Bush’s commitment — made in a letter to then PM Sharon in 2004 — regarding our right to retain major settlement blocs, and that Olmert is ready to go along.

But that’s not how Nahum Barnea tells it in today’s Yediot Ahronot. In conversation with Barnea, a “senior US government official” is reported to have said the following: 

“…In her last visit ten days ago Secretary of State Rice heard opposition to the Israeli settlement blocs remaining in the area of the [West] Bank from the Palestinians. They said that this impairs Palestinian movement. We told them that this is a problem that has to be dealt with, but the settlement blocs would remain. We made it clear to them that they must understand the reality: no Israeli prime minister can abandon communities where tens of thousands of Israelis live.” 

I would suggest that the rumors originated with Palestinian sources, who implied that Rice agreed with their position. This serves as a prime example of how convoluted and complex this entire situation is, and how prone to misunderstandings.

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Summing up more definitively, there is this, from Saeb Erekat, PA negotiator: 

“The gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions still exists. This is especially true with regards to all the final-status issues: Jerusalem, borders, refugees, settlements, water and security. Therefore, I rule out the possibility that there would be an agreement or a written document this month. 

“We are not in a bazaar or a market. We are talking about rights and we must ensure our rights in any agreement.” 

Along with the core issues, Erekat is looking for return of “detainees” (i.e., terrorists) to Judea and Samaria, removal of the security fence and of checkpoints, and the opening of closed PA institutions in Jerusalem.

The simple fact is that the more hungry Olmert has acted to reach an agreement — an abysmally bad negotiating stance — the tougher the PA demands have become. The PA presumably wants a state. Why should they not be petitioning us?

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Olmert and Abbas met today, presumably for the last time before the Kadima primary. There was no press conference following, so it can be assumed nothing was resolved. It can also be assumed that Olmert used this opportunity to push Abbas to consider his plan, even though officials are denying that Olmert is pushing in this direction. Their claim is that the goal is still the end of 2008.

According to Mark Regev, Olmert’s spokesman, “significant progress had been made in the talks” but “there are still considerable gaps between the two sides.”

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It was anticipated before the fact that Abbas would be requesting the release of more prisoners, and indeed that turned out to be the case, although no details are forthcoming and Israeli officials are saying no promises have been made.

Actually, a PA official had claimed that Israel has agreed to release Barghouti, Fuad Shabuki, who was involved with the Karine-A weapons ship, and Abdel Aziz Dweik of Hamas. And that Abbas would be demanding as well the release of Ahmed Sa’adat, connected to the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, and hundreds of others. All of this was to strengthen Abbas, according to this official: 

“It’s better for all if Barghouti and the Hamas officials are released as a result of our efforts and not through a prisoner exchange with Hamas. Hamas is hoping to score points by releasing Fatah and Hamas prisoners in return for Gilad Schalit.” 

One needs a strong stomach to deal with this. Competition as to who gets credit for securing the release of more prisoners, with some perverted notion that if we are willing to give prisoners to Hamas to secure Shalit, we have to also do something to make Fatah look good.

The bottom line is that Hamas will seek prisoners in return for Shalit no matter what, and in fact, will demand more if we keep giving to the PA without a quid pro quo. (see more following)

In response to these claims, an Israeli official has said that “the release of Barghouti is not on the table today.” But he also said that the release of 198 recently is not the end.

Haim Ramon is now convening a committee to decide on 450 prisoners to be released to Hamas for Shalit, but Asharq al-Awsat has cited Hamas officials who say the price is now over 1,000.

I imagine we now have to wait for the other shoe to drop, as Olmert announces what he he is willing to do for Abbas next.

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One thing has been announced: Olmert reprimanded Abbas for meeting with Samir Kuntar during his recent visit to Lebanon. “You’re not supposed to meet with killers,” he told him. Not supposed to if he’s a moderate, but this is an indication of Abbas’s true inclinations.

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A very solid reason (among many!) to not even attempt to complete negotiations by the end of 2008: Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin has reported to the Cabinet that when Abbas’s term as president ends in early 2009, there is a good chance that political turmoil will ensue. The “rift between Palestinian factions is so deep it will be nearly impossible to hold an election.”

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Coming soon: Comments on Gov. Palin, McCain’s choice of VP candidate.

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