Just days before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s scheduled arrival in Israel Saturday night, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced a series of moves to bolster the Palestinian Authority, including the deployment of another 600 Palestinian policemen and approving permits for thousands of Palestinians to work in Israel.
The issuance of work permits is a major change in Israeli policy, according to Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“In the last few years, Israel prevented Palestinians from working in Israel because the security fence was seen as something that could seal Israel from terrorist penetration,” he explained. “Preventing Palestinians from working in Israel was a security measure and it was to exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority to take action against terrorists to promote the peace process. This issue has been raised now, perhaps, because Abu Mazen believes the Palestinian Authority has to give hope to the Palestinians that the peace process could promote some economic development.”
Barak was also expected to announce that Israel would provide the Palestinians with 300 vehicles for use by senior officials in Ramallah and in the Palestinian security forces. In addition, Israel Radio said, Palestinian police would receive Kalashnikov rifles, rubber bullets and night-vision equipment. The 600 Palestinian police are being trained by the U.S. in Jordan and will be deployed in the West Bank city of Jenin. Earlier in the year, several hundred Palestinian policemen were deployed in the West Bank city of Nablus.
Rice’s trip is designed to advance peace talks between Israel and Mazen, the nickname for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It comes just a week after Vice President Dick Cheney visited the region and warned that continued Palestinian attacks on Israel only serve to “kill the legitimate hope and aspirations of the Palestinian people” for their “long overdue” state. And he vowed Washington’s “unshakeable” defense of Israel.
President George W. Bush is slated to return to Israel in May to help it celebrate its 60th birthday and to further press both sides to formulate a peace agreement in principle by the time he leaves office next January.
Support from the international community is needed to achieve that goal, according to Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman. He told the UN Security Council Tuesday that the two sides need “the support of like-minded moderate leaders in the region that understand the threat posed by the extremists ….”
But contrary to lending support, one of the proposed resolutions at the Arab summit this weekend in Damascus calls for the cancellation of the Arab peace initiative unless Israel agreed to its terms. It calls for Arab recognition of the State of Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. But observers pointed out that any discussion would be irrelevant because half of the Arab leaders were expected to boycott the meeting.
“They can do nothing; they will do nothing,” said Mordechai Kedar, an Arab affairs expert at Bar-Ilan University. “The Arab summit is like a petrified corpse in a refrigerator — no one is brave enough to fill in the death certificate.”
Iran, although not an Arab nation, is to attend the summit at the invitation of Syria, which acts as a conduit for Iran to re-supply Hezbollah forces in Lebanon following its war with Israel last summer. Syria also hosts the leadership of two other terrorist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last weekend that Iran is providing Syria with more than a $1 billion for arms purchases, a move that only strengthens the ties between the two countries.
The newspaper also quoted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as telling a European diplomat recently that he is increasingly concerned about Iran. He is said to have remarked that the problems in both Gaza and Lebanon “stem from the growing influence of Iran.”
Haaretz said Hamas’ recent firing of Iranian-made Grad rockets at Israel was proof positive to Egypt that Iran has penetrated the Gaza Strip.
“Now, when Iran becomes too dangerous, he is starting to talk of it openly,” Kedar said of Mubarak. “The Iranians do not abide by any law or restrictions. They just do whatever they like and disseminate money and weapons and training in order to undermine the stability of the regimes in the Arab world. Today, it is the most powerful player in the Arab arena.”
Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office, said Iran’s presence at the Arab summit and the “increasingly defiant” attitude of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has convinced the international community that Iran “is a danger that must be faced.”
During her visit to Israel two weeks ago, German Chanellor Angela Merkel and Olmert agreed to try to arrange an international conference aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Despite Iranian denials, there is widespread belief that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
In another development, Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party Tuesday called on Olmert to begin construction of homes in the controversial area known as E-1 that lies between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim — despite American objections.
“All of Israel has been built, not because of the approval of the Arabs and the international community, but despite their opposition,” he was quoted as saying. “We need the kind of leadership that would insist on this.”
Lerman said Netanyahu’s argument “is not a partisan” one because even the Geneva Accords (an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian agreement) calls for Ma’aleh Adumim to remain as part of Israel and to be connected to Jerusalem.
“The question is not substance but timing,” Lerman said. “There is a notion that this would humiliate Abbas and provide Hamas with further proof that he is a Zionist lackey.”
In addition, he said, it comes as Netanyahu is trying to shift public attention away from his highly publicized spending spree in England.
“He needs to shift the debate away from those issues to this wedge issue,” he said. “There is a growing sense in the Israeli political system that we may face an election in 2009,” one year early.
Netanyahu is still seen by the polls as the favorite to become the next prime minister.