Wednesday 22 November 2000

Egypt recalls envoy to protest Israeli attacks

Special to The Globe and Mail
JERUSALEM — Egypt recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv yesterday to protest against the "severity and aggression" of Israeli attacks on Palestinians, a dramatic move that increases the prospect of a full-scale regional crisis in the Middle East.

"This step expresses the extreme displeasure of Egypt for what is going on in the occupied territories against the Palestinians," Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said in Cairo, announcing the recall of Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouny for "consultations" with President Hosni Mubarak. "We deplore the severity and the aggression, the use of force . . . against a civilian population, against Palestinians in their territories."
The move took both Israelis and Palestinians by surprise, and increased diplomatic tensions after two months of clashes in which more than 280 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed.
Israelis fear that the move is the first step toward a complete severing of ties and even, possibly, war. Palestinians welcomed the display of support.
"This is a fateful message to the Arab people, the United States and the international community that Israel must pay a price for its violence," said Palestinian cabinet minister Hassan Asfour.
Apparently stunned by the announcement, Israeli leaders did not respond for several hours. Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel said officials were attempting to persuade Mr. Mubarak to change his mind.
"I would not exaggerate the immediate consequences of such a step, but of course we regret it," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "Egypt plays an important role in the peace process and this move will not help her to fulfill that role."
The move followed Israel's fiercest attack yet on Palestinian security and communications facilities, which left one person dead and more than 130 injured in Gaza on Monday night.
The missile attacks were launched after the bombing of a school bus carrying Israelis. Israel said the bombing was the work of Palestinian security forces, an assertion the Palestinians denied.
Yesterday, violence raged unabated in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Four Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops and a fifth Palestinian died of wounds suffered in earlier fighting. An Israeli civilian died after he was shot by a Palestinian sniper near the scene of the bomb blast that killed two adults and wounded several children.
Egypt's recall of Mr. Bassiouny, the doyen of the diplomatic corps in Israel, is a low point in more than 20 years of often-tense diplomatic relations between Israel and its most populous Arab neighbour.
Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has played a complex and important role as a mediator in the current crisis, and throughout the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In recent weeks, Mr. Mubarak's refusal to break off relations with Israel or back an economic boycott of the Jewish state had sparked praise in Jerusalem and protests in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The Egyptian leadership has come under heavy pressure as a result of the expectations in the Arab world and in Egypt, as the leading Arab country, to cut off its ties with Israel," said Egyptian political analyst Nasser Abdel Rahman. "Monday's air attacks on Gaza were the straw which broke the camel's back and enabled Egypt to ignore U.S. pressure not to sever ties with Israel or recall its ambassador."
The last time Egypt recalled its envoy to Israel was in 1982, after the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel.
Then-ambassador Sa'ad Mortada was also called home "for consultations," but never returned. Four years later, after the two countries reached agreement on a border dispute, Mr. Bassiouny became ambassador.
He has played a key role in Israeli-Arab mediation ever since, and is a popular figure with Israeli leaders and the foreign diplomatic corps. Three years ago, he became embroiled in scandal when an Israeli belly dancer accused him of attempting to rape her, but Israel's top court ruled that his diplomatic immunity protected him from prosecution.
The only other Arab country with full diplomatic ties with Israel is Jordan. The Jordanian envoy to Tel Aviv ended his posting in the summer; King Abdullah has postponed naming a replacement while the violence continues.
At a meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen yesterday, King Abdullah asked Washington to help defend the Palestinian people against "Israeli aggression."
There have been pro-Palestinian demonstrations in both Egypt and Jordan; authorities are concerned that such displays could turn into antigovernment protests. The situation in Jordan, home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians, is particularly volatile.
Israel's diplomatic isolation from the Arab world is the worst it has been for years.
Israeli representative offices in Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia have also been closed in recent weeks because of the violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

Wednesday 15 November 2000

Israel mourns Leah Rabin

Widow of assassinated prime minister to be buried among nation's heroes

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM - As Leah Rabin is laid to rest today beside her husband, assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, many could be forgiven for wondering whether the Oslo peace process that he led and she championed is being buried with her.

Mrs. Rabin held no official position, but her status was such that her funeral in Jerusalem will be conducted with the trappings of a national event. Her body will lie in state in the Tel Aviv square where her husband was shot by a religious Jewish extremist five years ago.

The burial will take place on Mount Herzl, where Israel's national heroes are laid to rest. U.S. President Bill Clinton was visibly moved when he attended Mr. Rabin's funeral there along with other world leaders such as the late King Hussein of Jordan.

Just steps away from the Rabins' gravesite lie the remains of Theodore Herzl, the assimilated Jewish journalist who founded the Zionist movement in 19th-century Europe. His dream of a Jewish return to Zion was fulfilled, but it also became the Palestinian nightmare of displacement and exile.

The Oslo process, which was to have finally settled the century-old conflict, should have concluded this year. But just as Mrs. Rabin was being diagnosed with the skin cancer that ultimately killed her (she died on Sunday), the peace process was losing pace. As Mrs. Rabin entered hospital a few weeks ago, unable to fight the disease, Israelis and Palestinians lurched from peace talks to deadly confrontation.

Mrs. Rabin was one of the few notable Israelis who bridged the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians, even describing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as "almost one of the family."

He returned the compliment when he paid an unprecedented condolence call to her Tel Aviv home in the days after her husband's murder, doffing his black-and-white keffiyeh and revealing for the first time in public his balding pate.

But Mr. Arafat is likely to be the most conspicuous absentee from today's funeral. Tentative suggestions that he might attend were originally welcomed by Israeli officials, but the mood soured after more violence erupted this week.

Yesterday should have been an auspicious day, when the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization was to meet and declare an independent Palestinian state following the successful conclusion of peace negotiations.

Instead, four more Palestinians died in continuing clashes in the West Bank and Gaza. One of them was a middle-aged man who lost control of his car when it was stoned by Israelis, near the site of an ambush Monday by Palestinian gunmen north of Nablus, who shot dead a female teacher and two soldiers.

Israeli security forces have clamped a tight cordon around Palestinian towns and cities, allowing only food, medical and other essential deliveries.

"The closure is one way to prevent violence, because the alternative is to go after the terrorists and to enter cities, which is something we do not want to do," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. "We want to stop any kind of escalation."

Other Israeli voices called for more punitive action against Palestinian gunmen. "The best way to deal with this reality is to track down these attackers and strike at them, and so reduce to a minimum the possibility that such acts will occur again," said Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz.

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak should stop using force against the Palestinians.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday it would be "premature" to declare a Palestinian state.