Wednesday 30 August 2000

Barak's reform plans raise eyebrows among supporters, critics

Wednesday, August 30, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

Jerusalem -- Prime Minister Ehud Barak's sweeping plans for religious and civic reforms have supporters and critics wondering whether he is launching a true crusade to repair Israel's splintered society -- or simply embarking on a populist campaign to win the next election.

Less than 10 days ago, Mr. Barak stunned his country by announcing a new "civic agenda" for Israeli society. He wants to draw up a written constitution; end the Orthodox Jewish monopoly on marriages and burials; make national service compulsory for all citizens, including Arab-Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews who are currently exempt; and dismantle the Ministry of Religion and its local religious councils.

Secular Israelis who worry about the growing strength of the Orthodox religious establishment hail the plan as a "secular revolution" and as a turning point in Israeli history.

But religious leaders accuse the Prime Minister of blatant electioneering in the wake of the collapse of his Labour Party's coalition government in June. Many subscribe to the view that the new plan was hatched solely to solve Mr. Barak's political woes.

"This whole constitution proposal by Barak is a bluff," said Moshe Gafni, an MP for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, which once supported Mr. Barak. "Everyone knows that if either we or Shas [another religious party] would call Barak tonight and offer to join the government, he would call off this whole program."

But Mr. Gafni also cautions that if Mr. Barak is serious in his plan, there could be trouble ahead.

"The question is whether the Prime Minister is leading a process that will change the state of Israel to a non-Jewish state," he said. "If this indeed true, we are talking about a world war."

The most perplexing question concerns Mr. Barak's timing and motivation. He has been trailing badly in opinion polls since his coalition collapsed, and has been saved from outright defeat only by the disarray of his opponents and the fact that the Knesset (parliament) is in recess until October.

Some observers suggest he is trying to deflect attention from the shaky state of peace talks with the Palestinians by focusing instead on sweeping domestic change, even though he has the support of only 42 MPs in the 120-seat Knesset.

"I can't imagine a worse time than this to draft a constitution," said Professor Avi Ravitsky, an expert on Jewish philosophy and a Barak supporter who declined an invitation to join the government.

"In a society which is so divided, it is not right to legislate a constitution with a slim majority -- which will just be overturned by the next government with its slim majority."

Others suggest Mr. Barak is merely trying to exert pressure on the religious parties, among them his former coalition allies, to support his peace initiatives by showing them what could happen to their power base if they remain outside the government.

The influential Maariv newspaper suggested the Prime Minister's new agenda is not quite as billed. "If it was clear that Ehud Barak and his government would unfurl the flag of the civil revolution not just in word but deed, then it would have to be welcomed," the paper argued.

Whatever his motive, Mr. Barak is forcing his country to consider key issues that have been largely ignored in favour of the peace process and the fight against terrorism.

As Avraham Burg, Speaker of the Knesset, put it: "There is a need for a new Zionist narrative not based on a shared external enemy or the ideology of settlement, but a social revolution that will resurrect the Labour Party and the Israeli people."

Mr. Barak's agenda also includes questions of pressing concern to Israel's one-million-strong community of Russian immigrants, who make up about 20 per cent of the electorate and have been tagged by experts as the key swing voters in the past five elections, including the one last year that brought Mr. Barak to office.

For example, many Russian immigrants are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria, which means they cannot marry or be buried the way they want in Israel, which does not have civil marriages or funerals. The problem was intensified because the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for such personal matters, was controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party until last year.

Yisrael b'Aliyah, a Russian immigrant party headed by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, made opposition to Shas the basis of its election campaign last year, reflecting the widespread Russian dislike for the political and religious hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox.

The Russian community was dismayed when Mr. Barak took Shas into his coalition as the second-largest party in the government. But after a year of coalition crises and scandals, fuelled largely by the refusal of Shas to have its schools adhere to financing regulations, Mr. Barak seems to have washed his hands of the party.

Monday 28 August 2000

Israelis killed in raid on Hamas leader

Three soldiers believed to have died from friendly fire; target flees

Monday, August 28, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

Nablus, West Bank -- A botched raid on an Islamic militant's hideout ended yesterday with three Israeli commandos dead, apparently by friendly fire, and Palestinian officials upset about Israel's handling of threats to peace between the two peoples.

The target of the late-night Saturday raid was Mahmoud Abu Hunud, a fugitive at the top of Israel's most-wanted list, blamed for two 1997 bombings that killed at least 21 Israelis and injured hundreds.

Mr. Abu Hunud, a leader of the militant Hamas group, which is adamantly opposed to any peace deal with Israel, fled the shootout into Nablus, a nearby town under Palestinian control. There, he surrendered to Palestinian security forces for medical treatment and was being kept under heavy guard yesterday in a Nablus hospital.

Despite their failure to capture Mr. Abu Hunud, for whom they had been searching for years, Israeli officials praised Palestinian security forces and said his detention proved the effectiveness of Palestinian-Israeli security co-operation.

"It doesn't matter under whose custody he is," Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, told Israel radio. "He's out of commission."

A senior Palestinian security officer said the Palestinian Authority had no intention of handing Mr. Abu Hunud over to the Israelis.

Israel's military chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, set up a special commission of inquiry to find out what went wrong with the ambush and how the three Israelis were killed.

"There is a basis to believe that there was a serious operational error, which led to one of our units mistakenly shooting at their comrades," he said yesterday morning.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak also said it was possible the three Israelis had been killed by friendly fire.

"When three of our best sons are killed, it is hard to talk of success," said Israeli Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh, "but the operation has saved the lives of dozens of Israelis."

The Palestinians did their best to distance themselves from the botched operation.

"What the Israelis have done is a mistake that they committed on their own initiative, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority," said Colonel Jibril Rajoub, the top Palestinian security official in the West Bank. "They paid the price."

The area of the shootout is jointly controlled by Israel and the Palestinians, with ultimate security control in Israel's hands. Col. Rajoub suggested that it is time for Israeli forces to move out for good.

"It would have been more appropriate to have given the information to the [Palestinian] police to tackle the issue peacefully and without bloodshed," he said.

But Gen. Mofaz said Israel is not about to cede its West Bank operations.

Mr. Abu Hunud, 33, was tracked down late Saturday night by commandos from the crack undercover Duvdevan unit, who surrounded a relative's house in the village of Assireh al Shamalia, north of Nablus. But he apparently saw them and opened fire, launching a fierce gun battle that left him wounded and the three Israelis dead.

Palestinian security officials said he suffered at least three bullet wounds. His mother, Fatmeh, visited him yesterday and said he was in good condition.

Mr. Abu Hunud has been on the run from Israeli and Palestinian security forces since escaping from a Palestinian jail in 1996. He became commander of the Hamas military wing in 1998 after his predecessors were each assassinated by Israeli soldiers. He recruited suicide bombers and planned the attacks in Jerusalem in 1997 that sparked a major crisis in the peace talks.

Since then, he is believed to have been planning major terror attacks on Israeli targets. He managed to evade a nationwide search by never sleeping in the same place twice and rarely returning to his home village to see his parents.

Mr. Abu Hunud's younger brother, Mustapha, who works as a nurse at a hospital in Nablus, said he saw the attack from the start.

"We didn't even know Mahmoud was in the village, and we were very surprised," he said. "We had always thought that he was in Iran or somewhere else abroad. He apparently came to the village [Saturday] night to see my parents. Someone tipped off the Israeli security forces, who arrived immediately."

According to Mustapha, Mr. Abu Hunud was hiding in a house belonging to a relative. The Israeli commandos scaled a house opposite and waited on the roof.

"At around 9:15 p.m. I heard shots," Mustapha said. "When I looked out the window, I saw dozens of Israeli soldiers. Some of them were panicking, crying and shouting. I saw them carrying some of their own soldiers, who were bleeding. I left my house and people told me that Mahmoud had opened fire at the soldiers."

Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Abu Hunud's escape from the soldiers was being celebrated by Hamas supporters, who consider him a hero of the Palestinian resistance.

Friday 11 August 2000

Jewish refugees' seized assets may be used as bargaining chip

Israelis divided on whether their effects should square accounts with Palestinians

Friday, August 11, 2000

By Matthew Kalman and Joshua Brown

Jerusalem - When Asher Yissachar left his native Iraq for Israel in 1951, he was allowed to take nothing with him except a few clothes. The watch and the ring he wore to the airport did not make it onto the plane with him.

Now, nearly half a century later, Mr. Yissachar hopes that the assets that he and his family left behind in Iraq will help Israel square its accounts with Palestinian refugees, to whom Israel owes billions of dollars.

Mr. Yissachar, a 66-year-old retired farmer, sees a symmetry between the estimated 600,000 Jews who left or were expelled from Arab countries when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, and the similar number of Palestinian refugees created at the same time.

"If the Palestinians can come and claim that they are refugees, then we are refugees, too," he said. "We are refugees just like they are refugees. They left, and we came."

He said it would have been impossible for Jews to remain citizens in countries such as Iraq after the founding of Israel. He recalled a day in Baghdad, before he moved to Israel, when he watched police stop every car that came their way.

"If it was being driven by a Jew, they just took the keys. In one half-hour I saw them confiscate 125 cars."

In 1951, the Iraqi parliament passed a law allowing its Jewish citizens to forfeit their Iraqi citizenship and move to Israel. More than 130,000 Jews applied. A year later, Iraq passed a law saying that property of those who went to Israel would be confiscated by the government, a move decried by the Israeli government as "legalized robbery."

Mr. Yissachar says that the Iraqi government still owes him money, but he is willing to give up the claim if Israel could use his lost assets as a bargaining chip against the claims of Palestinian refugees, a controversial plan the Israeli government has long supported.

The thousands of Jews from Arab countries who made their way to the new Israeli state were housed first in makeshift camps. Within a short period, they were given permanent housing and became fully absorbed into Israeli society.

Meanwhile, their displaced Palestinian counterparts had to live in refugee camps overseen by the United Nations. Today, Palestinian refugees and their heirs are numbered at about four million, with thousands dispersed in camps across the Mideast.

At last month's peace talks at Camp David, Md., Palestinian officials are reported to have claimed $40-billion (U.S.) in compensation for Palestinian refugees' lost property, now in Israeli hands.

After the summit, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that in addition to the establishment of an international fund to compensate Palestinian refugees, a peace accord might also call for the compensation of Jews from Arab lands.

The idea that Jews should be compensated for the property confiscated by Arab governments is not new. In the past, Israel has made intermittent efforts to register Jewish claims against the relevant governments.

Just how much property the Jews left behind in Arab countries is difficult to gauge. One estimate claims that the assets of the 100,000 Jews who abandoned property in Iraq, the wealthiest of the Jewish-Arab communities, are now worth $100-billion (U.S.). The most conservative figure places a price tag of $8-billion on the confiscated assets in Iraq.

The value of the Jewish property left behind in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, while less than the Iraqi total, is also substantial.

But even if a compensation fund were set up, it is not clear that it would bring any direct benefit to the former owners and their heirs. Israel has long argued that the assets left behind in Arab countries should be used to cancel out some or all of the debt owed by Israel to the Palestinian refugees whose property it expropriated after the 1948 war.

In 1988, several organizations representing Jews from Arab countries, working with the World Jewish Congress, began compiling a registry of all Jewish-owned assets lost in the late 1940s and the 1950s in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen.

The registration forms ask respondents to list details of former communal property such as synagogues, schools, ritual baths and hospitals, as well as private assets including homes, bank accounts and jewellery. The questionnaire states: "The data will be used as the basis for a counterclaim to the Arab claims in the future final negotiations between Israel and the Arab states."

For Yehouda Shenhav, one of the founders of an Israeli political advocacy group for Jews from Arab lands, the notion that Israel might use his family's property to pay off its debts to the Palestinians is deeply disturbing.

A sociologist at Tel Aviv University, Professor Shenhav is the son of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, and is a left-wing political activist. He objects to what he sees as the Israeli government's attempt to use his family's assets to reduce its debt to the Palestinians.

"These are not Palestinians who took their property, these are Arabs," he said. "Why do we include all Arabs in one box? They have nothing to do with each other. These are two different, separate issues. Why do we link them?"

What disturbs him most is that the Israeli government appears to be claiming the abandoned property for itself, without asking its former owners whether they agree to yield their ownership.

"If the government was fair, and [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak would say, 'Listen we want your help. There is no way you are going to get compensation. Are you going to give a hand?' -- that would be different," he said.

Prof. Shenhav is not alone in challenging Israeli attempts to use the abandoned Jewish property as a bargaining chip. These efforts are especially problematic to Jews from Arab lands living in Europe and North America.

Professor Heskel Haddad, an ophthalmologist in New York City, left Iraq with his family in the 1950s, leaving behind a great deal of property. That property, he says, belongs to his family, not Israel.

"It has no legal right to represent Jews from Arab countries living outside Israel, no legal right to link their claims to those of the Palestinians," he recently told the Jerusalem Report.

Thursday 3 August 2000

Defection not likely to deter Israeli PM

Barak says he expected Foreign Minister's exit

Thursday, August 3, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

Jerusalem -- A calmly defiant Prime Minister Ehud Barak vowed yesterday to continue with Mideast peace efforts, despite the resignation of one of his senior ministers and a parliamentary move to call early elections.

As he surveyed the debris of his shattered government coalition yesterday and contemplated his future, the 58-year-old former soldier seemed deaf to the chorus of politicians and experts singing his political requiem.

The resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy -- who quit over what he said were concessions over the fate of Jerusalem made by Mr. Barak in last month's peace talks with the Palestinians -- left the Prime Minister exposed and isolated on the battlefield of Israeli politics, but he looked and sounded far from beaten.

Smiling calmly, Mr. Barak said he expected Mr. Levy's exit (the 10th minister to quit the cabinet in the past year) and regretted it, but "I am committed, first of all, to moving the state of Israel forward and averting the danger of war, strengthening the country through peace agreements."

He also insisted that he had not made concessions at last month's peace talks in Camp David, Md. "Until now we have not made any concessions, we have not agreed to anything, nothing is signed, nothing is on paper."

Yet he is convinced that a historic peace deal with the Palestinians will be concluded before the agreed mid-September deadline, and that the Israeli people will approve it -- and approve of him -- in an election he will call as a referendum on the peace pact.

Despite what appears to be an uphill battle, Mr. Barak has a bit of breathing room. The Knesset adjourned yesterday for a three-month recess after giving approval to first reading of a bill calling for early elections (it must be approved twice more to take effect). This gives Mr. Barak until late October to finish an agreement with the Palestinians.

He can also use the interval to patch together a new coalition and stop the unravelling of his government, which began after most of his coalition partners quit over his decision to go to Camp David.

A former army chief of staff and the most decorated warrior in Israel's history, Mr. Barak's critics accuse him of behaving as if he were still in uniform, making decisions alone and barking orders instead of participating in the collegial give-and-take of cabinet government.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man he once commanded in the elite commando unit where they both served, suffered the same sort of criticism, which eventually led to his defeat at the polls to Mr. Barak. Mr. Netanyahu's demise began with the exact same overture -- the resignation of his foreign minister, the same David Levy, and the same vote by the Knesset in favour of early elections, at the same end-of-term session exactly two years ago.

But Mr. Barak insists that the comparison stops there.

"The Netanyahu government had effectively come to the end of its agenda and had lost the support of its most committed supporters on the extreme right," he said after the Knesset vote. "As a result, there was a feeling that it was there just in order to survive and the people decided to bring it down."

In comparison, he said, "This government is setting out on a tremendous push for profound changes, both in our political-security situation and on socio-economic issues."

But at a stormy meeting of his One Israel Party caucus, Mr. Barak was warned by colleagues that unless he can strike a peace accord, he will not be able to count on their support once the Knesset returns.

Leading the dissidents within his own party was Avraham Burg, the popular young Speaker of the Knesset, who refused to rule out a leadership challenge to Mr. Barak before the next election.

"The rosy picture which you are drawing is a black one," Mr. Burg told him. "You lack the qualities of leadership. If you want to pursue the process alone, you will find yourself alone. If you want other people with you, you must share your plans with them."

But Mr. Barak's critics cannot escape the fact that he won the last election, fulfilled his promise to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon after a 22-year occupation, and has come closer than any of his predecessors to a final peace treaty with the Palestinians.

He has vowed that any treaty will include a promise that the Palestinians will have no more demands of Israel -- something Mr. Barak is betting most Israelis will find too tempting to reject.

But Tommy Lapid, a popular MP for the small Shinui Party, warns that Mr. Barak cannot focus on security and military issues alone.

"Mr. Barak must understand that he cannot survive politically only on the basis of negotiations with the Palestinians," said Mr. Lapid. "He must conduct negotiations with the people living in this country."