Monday 15 June 2009

Analysis: Obama is Satisfied but Now Netanyahu has to Sell It at Home

Written by Matthew Kalman
The Media Line,
Monday, June 15, 2009

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grudging acceptance in his landmark speech on Sunday that a “demilitarized Palestinian state” could be created through peace talks with Israel has bought him some time with U.S. President Barack Obama, but it left Palestinians unmoved and may have started the countdown to the end of his unwieldy government coalition.

Netanyahu knows that his last government was brought down not by the Palestinians but by the Israeli right. He himself encouraged the right-wing revolt against former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that triggered a split in the ruling Likud Party and founded Kadima in 2005.

Netanyahu is forced to manage a complex balancing act between the conflicting pressures of the Obama administration, the Palestinians and his own coalition. There is little doubt that Sunday’s speech was directed more towards Washington than to Netanyahu’s own voters. It was delivered at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, rather than from the podium of the Knesset in Jerusalem. Consistent with the tradition of Israeli communications disasters, the official English translation of the Hebrew text was not made available by Netanyahu’s office until three hours after the speech was delivered, but according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Netanyahu phoned the White House on Sunday afternoon and gave the highlights of the speech to Vice President Joe Biden.

Although Netanyahu had hoped that President Obama would watch it live, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the president was out playing golf when Netanyahu took the stage. But Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs lost little time in expressing the White House’s satisfaction. "The President welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech. The President is committed to two states—a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine—in the historic homeland of both peoples," Gibbs told reporters.

"The President will continue working with all parties—Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Arab states, and our Quartet partners—to see that they fulfill their obligations and responsibilities necessary to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a comprehensive regional peace," said Gibbs.

Palestinian leaders were not so enthusiastic.

"He spoke about a Palestinian state, (but) after he removed from it the issue of Jerusalem, placed the issue of refugees outside negotiations, placed security outside negotiations when he spoke about a demilitarized Palestinian state,” negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al-Jazeera. "Netanyahu tonight unilaterally ended the negotiations and there is no need for these negotiations anymore," he added.
"He will have to wait 1,000 years before he finds one Palestinian who will go along with him with this feeble state," he said.

Netanyahu’s Labor coalition partners welcomed the speech, as did the Kadima opposition, but there were howls of protest from the right, including from within Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. It evoked the days when Netanyahu himself was encouraging right-wing protests against Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has caved in to American pressure that influenced him to declare a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan,” said Danny Danon, a Likud lawmaker. “The Likud movement and the present coalition will not allow him to go forward with a Palestinian state. If the prime minister tries to advance the idea of a Palestinian state in practice, he will encounter opposition, not just from members of Likud, but from all the members of the coalition.”

Zevulun Orlev, a leader of the Jewish Home Party, said Netanyahu’s “declaration of a demilitarized Palestinian state” was “a severe disappointment and contradicts both his principles and our principles and is a repudiation of all the promises and obligations towards the voter. This statement requires a very serious discussion within the coalition regarding its future and cohesiveness.”

Outside parliament, the Jewish Front and Land of Israel HQ – the grassroots movement behind the expansion of illegal outposts in the West Bank – said they would pour their energies into bringing down the government and setting up more outposts. Benny Katzover, head of the Jewish communities in Samaria, accused Netanyahu of reverting to his former career as a commercial salesman. “The worst things we had feared were said and how,” said Katzover. “I very much regret that a prime minister talking about the heart of the Jewish homeland has become a salesman for that same homeland. No country in the world would trade in the territory of its own homeland. Nominating Judea and Samaria as the site of a Palestinian state is a very serious thing which I think Jewish history will neither forget nor forgive of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Sunday 14 June 2009

Carter Bombshell: 'West Bank Settlements Will Stay'

Written by Matthew Kalman
The Media Line: Sunday, June 14, 2009

Jimmy Carter has surprised Israelis and shocked Palestinians by declaring that one of the largest blocs of Israeli West Bank settlements should remain under Israeli control.

Carter, who is on a week-long visit to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, made the comments during a visit to the settlement of Neve Daniel near Bethlehem. The settlement is part of the Etzion Bloc, one of the largest Israeli enclaves on road between Bethlehem and Hebron and home to more than 15,000 Israelis.

The enclave was under Jewish control prior to the founding of Israel in 1948 and was lost to Arab control during fierce fighting in Israel’s war of independence. It was resettled after Israel regained control of the area in the 1967 war and is one of several areas that most Israelis would like to become absorbed into their country in any peace deal with the Palestinians.

“This particular settlement area is not one that I envision ever being abandoned or changed over into Palestinian territory,” said Carter as he emerged from a meeting with Shaul Goldstein, head of the Etzion Bloc Regional Council.

“This is part of the Gush settlement to the 1967 line that I think will be here for ever,” Carter told reporters in the garden of Goldstein’s home in the tiny hilltop settlement of Neve Daniel.

“I have been very fortunate this afternoon in learning a perspective that I didn’t have,” said Carter.

The former president caused uproar among Israel’s supporters when he titled his last book “Israel: Peace or Apartheid.” On Saturday he was honored by Palestinian leaders in Ramallah who applauded his longstanding commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

‘Saib ‘Ariqat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, said Carter’s comments were unacceptable.

“I cannot accept anyone prejudging and preempting the issues that are reserved for permanent status negotiations,” ‘Ariqat told The Media Line.

“The negotiations are between Palestinians and Israelis and it’s not for anyone to decide. Our position is that all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal,” he said.

“In accordance with international law settlements are illegal and they are obstructing peace,” he added.

The Obama Administration has demanded a complete freeze in settlement construction by Israel on the West Bank, but Israel says it needs to expand its communities there in line with their “natural growth.”

“I hope that in the future we’ll see accommodation between Israel and the United States and between Israel and the people of Palestine in signing peace with a mutual respect for one another and mutual security on both sides,” Carter said.

“The most important element in my life in the last 30 years has been to bring peace to the people of Israel – and security. With that obviously will have to come peace and security for Israel’s neighbors. That’s the purpose of my even coming here,” he said.

As US president in 1978, Carter helped seal the Camp David peace accords that brought about the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. That treaty ended decades of wars between the two countries and has remained intact despite regional tensions and mutual differences over policy towards the Palestinians.

Carter also met with bereaved Israelis who had lost family members in terrorist attacks in the area.

“I came to learn,” the former president said. “I’ve done more listening than I have talking this afternoon. The listening has been very valuable to me.”

Shaul Goldstein described the meeting with Carter as “very important.”

“He came here and saw things he never knew of before. He said that he wants to see more world leaders visit the settlements and hear what settlers have to say to truly understand what is going on here,” said Goldstein.

Friday 12 June 2009

Exclusive: “I never faked any antiquity”

Written by Matthew Kalman
The Media Line, Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Israeli antiquities collector accused of faking the burial box of Jesus’ brother and other priceless historical items says he is confident that new scientific evidence will prove that he is innocent.

Oded Golan, 58, has been on trial at the District Court in Jerusalem for the past four years, charged with forging an inscription on a Roman-era burial box or ossuary that says it contained the bones of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The discovery caused a sensation when it was first announced in 2002 and displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum. But on its return to Israel, the ossuary was seized by Israeli police and Golan was arrested.

He was accused of faking the ossuary and other items in order to trap gullible collectors. In December 2004, he was indicted with four other defendants and accused of being at the center of an international antiquities forgery ring.

“They took original antiquities and added inscriptions and decorations, which turned the artifact into something valuable – and some of the antiquities we’re talking about are worth millions of dollars. One example is the ossuary of Jesus’ brother,” said Commander Shaul Naim of the Jerusalem police.

“We have the basis to believe that there are many more fake artifacts circulating, both in private collections and museums in Israel and abroad that we haven’t found yet,” Naim said.

“We know there are antiquity forgeries – it’s not a new thing. But the extent and the drama in attempting to fake history didn’t allow us as a government body not to become involved,” said Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

“I believe we have revealed only the tip of the iceberg. This industry encircles the world, involves millions of dollars,” said Dorfman.

Golan and his co-defendants went on trial in the summer of 2005, but after more than 70 prosecution witnesses and 8,000 pages of testimony, Judge Aharon Farkash warned the prosecution that he was not convinced they had proved their case and advised them to consider halting the trial.

"After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" Judge Farkash pointedly asked the prosecution in October 2008. "Not every case ends in the way you think it will when it starts. Maybe we can save ourselves the rest."

"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment?” Judge Farkash said. “The experts disagreed among themselves. Where is the definitive proof needed to show that the accused faked the ossuary? You need to ask yourselves those questions very seriously.”

In an exclusive interview with The Media Line at his Tel Aviv home, Golan said he was confident that new scientific research undertaken by defense experts would finally exonerate him. Prosecution scientists had accused Golan of faking patina – a thin layer of biological material covering ancient items – in order to make the inscriptions on the artifacts seem old.

“No, I never faked any antiquity,” Golan told The Media Line. “During the last several years there were several tests and examinations of those items by prominent experts from different countries in different laboratories and I think we succeeded to prove that these inscriptions could not have been inscribed in the last century. There is a thin layer of patina – it’s a thin layer of crust made actually by a micro-organism that was developed inside the grooves of the inscription and this product made by the micro-organism could not have been developed in less than a hundred years.”

“It’s impossible to generate artificial patina, which takes a long, long time to be developed. It normally takes a hundred years in nature to be developed. Technology has not developed yet any technology to make it in a short time in a way that you will not be able to recognize it. You may do something similar, but this is not a forgery. This is like reconstruction of a building with similar materials,” said Golan.

“I am sure that most of the people who originally claimed that it’s a forgery recognized later on – just look at the articles and the researches that were done later on – that it should be ancient. I cannot guarantee that it belonged to the brother of Jesus Christ but it’s definitely ancient. I have no doubt about it,” he said.

The Israel Antiquities Authority and Justice Ministry refused to comment.