Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel and Syria / Arab World reacts to Olmert's legal problems

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Update from AIJAC

June 3, 2008
Number 06/08 #01

Today's Update contains some more differing analysis and opinion on the new indirect Israeli-Syrian talks.

First up, top Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi explains the sceptical view that appears to be predominant in Israel about the talks and the prospects of an Israeli-Syrian agreement. Halevi argues that Israelis are attached to the Golan and remember the violence that emanated from the Syrian border before 1967, but above all have little reason to trust that Syrian President Assad is ready to offer a true peace for it. He also argues that peace with Israel is probably not Assad's top priority. For this important explanation of the generally modest Israeli expectations, CLICK HERE. Halevi also had an excellent recent piece on the paradoxes of life in Israel today.

The opposite view comes from two leaders of the Israeli-Syria friendship group, Shai Ben-Zvi and Alon Liel, the former a businessman and the latter a former senior figure in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. They argue that Syria is signalling it is ready for a peace, and that while tough compromises are needed, a deal is both feasible and will transform Israel's standing the Middle East, both with other Arab states and with the Palestinians. For this strong statement of the minority, more optimistic Israeli view of the prospects of the Israeli-Syria talks, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, David Schenker of the Washington Institute argues that Israeli-Syrian talks have the potential to worsen the situation in Lebanon.

Finally, Khaled Abu Toameh, the Jerusalem Post's intrepid Arab Affairs reporter, explores how Arab commentators and especially internet posters have reacted to Israeli PM Ehud Olmert's recent legal troubles. His finding is that the main reaction is high regard for the rule of law and democracy in Israel, and a wish that their own societies could subject their own leaders to similar levels of legal oversight. For this heartening report, CLICK HERE. Some differing comments on how Olmert's legal and political troubles affect the various peace negotiations in play come from academic and peace activist Dr. Yossi Alpher, and top thinktanker Prof. Barry Rubin.

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Who gets the Golan?

Israel has no reason to trust Syria in talks over that strategic area.

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2008
JERUSALEM -- The Israeli mainstream, so the truism here goes, is so desperate for peace that, in the end, it will overcome misgivings over relinquishing territory and mistrust of Arab intentions and endorse any diplomatic initiative aimed at solving the Middle East conflict. After all, the majority of Israelis have supported every withdrawal so far -- from the Sinai desert in 1982 to the pullout from Gaza in 2005. And according to polls, a majority of Israelis are prepared to leave most of the West Bank and create a Palestinian state.

But that willingness to relinquish territory for peace -- or even a respite -- ends with the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War and whose fate Israel and Syria are negotiating. By an overwhelming majority, Israelis oppose ceding the Golan to Syria, even in exchange for a promise of peace from Damascus. So does a majority of the Israeli parliament, along with most Cabinet members from the governing party, Kadima.

One reason is that few here believe that the regime of Bashar Assad will honor an agreement. No Arab state has consistently shown greater hostility to Israel than Syria. The Palestinian terrorist movement Hamas is headquartered in Damascus; Syria is Iran's leading Arab ally. Without a Syrian attempt to convince the Israeli public of its benign intentions, domestic opposition will stymie any attempt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to cede the Golan to Assad. And the prospects for a convincing Syrian overture are almost nonexistent.

The Middle East conflict has produced two models of Arab peacemakers. The first was former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who realized that the key to resolving the conflict was psychological. The Israeli public needed to be convinced that, in exchange for concrete concessions, it would win legitimacy from the Arab world. And so Sadat flew to Jerusalem, addressed the Israeli parliament and announced that Egypt welcomed Israel into the Middle East. The result was an Israeli pullback from every last inch of Sinai.

The second model was former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who, rather than prepare his people for peace, assured them that Israel was an illegitimate state destined to disappear. And when Israel offered the Palestinians a state, Arafat's response was a war of suicide bombings. The result was an indefinite deferment of statehood.

Grudging and suspicious, Assad reminds Israelis far more of Arafat than of Sadat. So far, Assad has refused even to hold direct negotiations with Israel, preferring Turkish interlocutors. Give me the Golan, he is in effect saying, and then we'll see what kind of peace develops between us.

But Israelis are hardly in a rush to part with one of the most beloved areas of their country. For Israelis, the Golan Heights, with its empty hills and vineyards, is more Provence than Gaza. Unlike the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan poses no moral or demographic dilemmas. Here there is no occupation of another people; barely 20,000 Druze, and an equal number of Jews, share the nearly 700-square-mile area.

Under Syrian control before the 1967 war, the Golan was Israel's most volatile border. Many here still recall the years when Syrian soldiers on the Golan routinely shot at Israeli civilians in the Galilee below. After 1967, though, the Golan became Israel's most placid border. Israelis sense that, for the sake of quiet if not formal peace, it is far better to have their soldiers overlooking Syria than for Syrian soldiers to be once again looking down on the Galilee.

Israeli advocates of a Golan withdrawal argue that Syria may be enticed to sever its ties with Iran as part of a peace agreement. Neutralizing a potential Syrian front in a future Middle East war -- with Iran, say -- would be a major gain for Israel, which is why much of the Israeli strategic community supports negotiations. Syria, though, continues to affirm the primacy of its alliance with Iran. And, during a visit this week to Tehran, Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmany reinforced that message by signing a security agreement with Iran.

Two Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, tried and failed in the 1990s to reach an agreement with Bashar's father, the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad. Though both Rabin and Barak agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan, the Syrians demanded more: several hundred yards of shorefront on the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main freshwater source, which the Syrians had seized from Israel before 1967. When Rabin and Barak refused to allow Hafez Assad to fulfill his stated dream of again dipping his feet into the Sea of Galilee, negotiations collapsed.

The current negotiations will almost certainly fail too. In fact, possessing the Golan is hardly Assad's top priority. Instead, Assad has two more pressing interests: evading an international tribunal investigating the Syrian government's complicity in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and deflecting attention from the intensifying domination of Lebanon by the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance. Negotiations with Israel -- regardless of whether they actually succeed -- help Assad achieve both goals, by deflecting world attention from the destruction of Lebanese sovereignty and by transforming him from pariah to peacemaker.

Israel's Olmert hopes that peace negotiations will deflect attention from his own woes -- allegations of corruption dating in part from his days as Jerusalem's mayor. Other Israelis, though, are wondering how helping Assad destroy Lebanon and escape justice can possibly be confused for Israel's national interest, let alone for a peace process.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the Israel correspondent for the New Republic.

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Op-Ed: Syrian peace will yield regional stability

Shai Ben-Zvi and Alon Liel

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Published: 05/27/2008

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- On May 21, the ground shook in the Middle East as two separate and significant conflicts suddenly and simultaneously headed in the right direction: toward peace.

Warring Lebanese factions meeting in Doha, Qatar, reached an agreement after 18 months of great tension, and Israel and Syria announced the relaunching of formal peace talks following eight years of near silence.

Many in the Middle East celebrated the news even as others looked on with cynicism and distrust. The following morning, new Israeli polls showed a clear majority of Israelis opposed to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, even in return for peace.

But there is room for optimism.

Rather than addictively clinging to the hopeless Palestinian track, Israeli leaders at last are choosing a more sensible opportunity -- one that has been knocking at their doorstep for nearly four years.

Never has another Arab leader voiced his hope for peace and the end of his nation’s decades-long conflict with Israel as has President Bashar Assad. Over the past four years or so, not a month went by without the Syrian dictator giving public and private hints, through every possible channel, calling on Israel for peace.

The gradual return of the Golan Heights to Syria, under various propositions and arrangements that have been articulated in recent years, undoubtedly will bring the region to a new level of stability. This stability not only will prompt the rest of the Arab world to adopt peaceful ties with Israel almost immediately, but also will press the Palestinian people to reach a consensus about their own claims and demands on Israel.

Peace with Syria could be Israel’s most effective tool against Iran’s belligerency, with a newly created peaceful atmosphere in the region triggering renewed efforts to solve the crisis over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

What will an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement entail? First and foremost, the return to Syria of the entire Golan, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. But there are many details to work out.

The two sides will negotiate what constitutes “entire": Will the border pass along the shores of Lake Kinneret 33 feet away or be placed 1,300 feet away, as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once proposed?

On the timetable issue, will Israel withdraw over a period of five years or 15, and what will happen in the interim period?

Israel and Syria will discuss military and security issues, including demilitarization, early-warning stations, cross-border activity, the passage of armaments to Hezbollah via Syria and more.

Creative solutions will be found on energy and access to water resources. Turkey and other third parties already have offered to cooperate.

No peace agreement between Israel and Syria can be forged without giving special attention to the Palestinian issue.

Israel and Syria will discuss the Palestinian right of return, particularly as it relates to the 400,000 or so Palestinian refugees living in Syria. Israel’s agreement with Syria will resolve the political and citizenship status of these refugees, as well as their ability to return to a future Palestine or instead choose financial compensation.

The agreement also will deal with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel will demand the dissolution of Syria’s contacts with these parties. Syria will have to compromise and swallow this bitter pill, but likely will agree only to change the nature of its military ties with these parties and not eliminate its political alliances.

Neither side will achieve everything it wants.

Israel and Syria share a long history of failures to reach peace, and both sides desperately want this renewed peace process to succeed.

Every day, the price of failure to reach an agreement grows ever more expensive. Israeli leaders know and understand this quite well, often when others do not. They know that failure may usher in a new regional conflict, possibly a catastrophic one, that surely will endanger Israel and Syria.

Neither nation wishes to endanger its people further and thus will find a way to reach an agreement.

Windows of opportunity in the Middle East tend to appear quite infrequently and last but just a short while. If we continue to miss them, we may well bring upon ourselves and our children another 60 years of misery.

Israel has proven its abilities and its courage in the battlefield. Now is the time to be courageous in making peace.

Shai Ben-Zvi, an Internet entrepreneur, is a board member of the Israel-Syrian Peace Society. Alon Liel is its founder and a former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

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Arab world: No one is above the law in Israel

Khaled Abu Toameh


The corruption case against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has earned Israel tremendous respect throughout the Arab world, where many have called on their leaders to benefit from Israel's democratic system and independent judicial system.

Words of praise for Israel are a rare phenomenon in the Arab media. But judging from the reactions of many Arabs to the corruption case in the past week, the trend appears to have changed.

Even some Arabs who describe themselves as "sworn enemies of the Zionist entity" have begun singing praise for Israel.

Over the past week, the corruption case against Olmert received wide coverage in the mainstream Arab media, prompting an outcry about the need for transparency and accountability in the Arab world.

"Show me one Arab or Islamic country where a prime minister or a senior government official was ever questioned for financial corruption or bribery," said a reader who identified himself only as Majed.

Majed, like many others, was responding to a news story on an Arab Web site about the testimony in court of American philanthropist Morris Talansky, who told police he had given Olmert more than $150,000 in cash over the course of some 14 years.

Another reader, Sami, commented: "The Israeli regime with all its defects is better than all the Arab 'democracies' and still changes ministers and governments every few years."

A Saudi national named Abdel Karim urged his Arab brethren to stop criticizing Israel and learn something about its democracy. "Before we curse Israel, we must learn from the democratic and judicial system in Israel, where no one is above the law," he wrote.

Khaled, another Saudi national, chimed in: "Although we are talking about Israel, which I have always hated very much, there is still no one above the law there."

Mahmoud al-Bakili of Yemen posted the following response on one of the Web sites: "We want this kind of accountability and transparency in the Arab and Islamic world."

And there was this comment from an Arab who described himself as a Syrian Voice: "Despite my strong hatred for the Zionist regime, I have a lot of admiration and respect for this entity because there is no one above the law. In the Arab world, laws are broken every day and no one seems to care."

Egyptian writer Abdel Aziz Mahmoud said he doesn't believe the day will ever come when an Arab leader will be put on trial for sexual harassment or financial corruption.

"I don't think we will live to see the day when the police interrogate an Arab leader for sexually harassing his secretary or receiving bribes," he wrote. "Nor will our children and grandchildren live to see that day. What happened in Israel can never happen in any Arab country."

Some Arabs went as far as condemning the Arab people for failing to rise against their corrupt dictators.

"There is corruption in Israel and the Arab world," wrote Abu Hadi from Iraq. "But the difference is that the Israelis hold their leaders accountable, while we the Arabs remain silent about corruption."

Jamal, who described himself as the Madman, wrote that "the reason why Israel has lasted for so long is because of its independent and fair judicial system. I challenge the Arabs to have such an independent judicial system."

Many of the readers found it quite ironic that Olmert was being questioned because of "only" tens of thousands of dollars he allegedly received from Talansky.

"They say he received something like $3,000 a year," said Abu Atab from Morocco inaccurately. "This shows that Olmert is a decent man. This is a small sum that any Arab government official would receive on a daily basis as a bribe. Our leaders steal millions of dollars and no one dares to hold them accountable."

Touching on the same issue, a reader from Algeria posted this comment: "In the Arab world, our leaders don't accept less than $1 million in bribes; the money must be deposited in secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Olmert is a fool if he took only a small sum."

Another comment, this time from Ahmed in Jordan, also referred to the alleged amount: "Only a few thousand dollars? What a fool! This is what an Egyptian minister gets in a day or what a Saudi CEO gets in 45 minutes, or a Kuwaiti government official in five minutes. This is what the physician of the emir of Qatar gets every 30 seconds."

One Arab commentator who identified himself as Jasser Abdel Hamid advised Olmert to seek citizenship of one of the Arab countries. "Why don't you seek Arab citizenship?" he asked sarcastically. "There you can take as much money as you want. Even if they discover the theft, they will erect a statue for you in a public square."

The following are more comments that appeared in recent days in the Arab media:

Mohammed in Lebanon: "Can you imagine if there was an investigation against an Arab or Muslim leader? Do you know how much money they would discover?"

Abu Yusef in Egypt: "Unfortunately, this is the real democracy. Our enemies are very good in practicing democracy. In the Arab world, our leaders steal everything and no one ever dares to ask a question."

Rashid in Saudi Arabia: "Despite all our problems with the Jews, they are much better than us in fighting corruption and revealing the truth."

Israel Lover in Saudi Arabia: "Israel is a state that deserves to exist. It deserves our profound respect. I wish I were a citizen of this state."

Hani in Ramallah: "This is democracy at its best! Enough of dictatorship in the Arab world! Let's learn from the Israeli example. Let's benefit from Israel's democracy."

Rashid Bohairi in Kuwait: "I swear Israel is a state that will succeed. They are prosecuting their prime minister because of tens of thousands of dollars. What about the millions of dollars that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority stole? How come the Palestinian people are still hungry?"

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