Tuesday 31 May 2011

Israel Announces First Grants in $350-Million Program to Reverse Brain Drain


GLOBAL NEWS TICKER May 31, 2011, 12:15 pm

The Israeli government has announced the first three grants in its $350-million program to create 30 Centers of Research Excellence to lure Israeli scholars back from abroad. The first centers will be established in molecular science, led by the Hebrew University professor Howard Cedar; in cognitive processes, led by the Weizmann Institute of Science professor Yadin Dudai; and in computer science, led by the Tel Aviv University professor Yishay Mansour. The three centers have already signed up 11 Israeli scholars currently at U.S. institutions including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale Universities and the University of California at Berkeley. “In the framework of the national program to establish centers of excellence, some 300 leading Israeli scholars from the best universities in the world are expected to return to Israel,” said Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Israel Council for Higher Education.

The award caps a good month for the Cedar family. Mr. Cedar’s son Joseph, a leading Israeli movie director and Oscar nominee, just won the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival for his movie Footnote, about competing father-son Talmud scholars at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Retired U.S. Academic Is Arrested in Israel on Suspicion of Antiquities Trafficking

A retired American college lecturer has been arrested in Israel on suspicion of trafficking in stolen antiquities and attempting to smuggle them out of the country.

John L. Lund, 70, a motivational speaker, author, and tour guide, was detained late Monday by Israeli customs and antiquities agents as he prepared to board a plane at Ben Gurion Airport. Mr. Lund is an expert on Egyptian history, is the author of How to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing With Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities, and, according to his Web site, has lectured in history as an adjunct faculty member at universities in California, Idaho, Utah, and Washington.

A search of his belongings revealed a stash of ancient silver and bronze coins that he was attempting to take out of Israel without a permit, as well as $20,000 and other evidence from the illegal sales of ancient coins, clay oil lamps, and glass and pottery vessels, said a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Mr. Lund had been acting as a guide to two groups touring Israel.

One of the items retrieved by officials was a rare Roman lamp bearing an incised decoration of a seven-branched menorah. Such items are not permitted to be taken abroad without an export license from the antiquities agency.

Mr. Lund was allowed to leave Israel after posting a bond of $7,500. Israeli police expect to file charges in the near future.

"The sale of antiquities without a permit and the export of antiquities from Israel without permission are criminal offenses for which the penalty prescribed by law is up to three years' imprisonment," said Amir Ganor, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, in the written statement.

Contacted by phone at his home in Utah, Mr. Lund categorically denied that he had trafficked in any stolen antiquities or attempted to smuggle any items out of the country. "I’m not trying to smuggle anything," he said.

He said he had brought coins, the inscribed oil lamp, and a few other items from his personal collection to use as visual aids for his lectures.

Agency officials said they were first alerted to Mr. Lund's alleged trafficking two weeks ago by a sale at a Jerusalem hotel where he offered items to a group of American tourists he was guiding. Mr. Lund was detained, and a search of his room revealed "hundreds of ancient archaeological artifacts in his possession, ... which had allegedly been stolen by antiquities robbers from different sites throughout the country," the agency said in the statement.

He was questioned and released, but officials continued their surveillance. "He resumed his evil ways and continued selling antiquities to tourists—this time to another group that arrived in Israel," said the Antiquities Authority.

On Monday officials searched the luggage of a group that had been guided by Mr. Lund as they prepared to cross the border from Eilat to Egypt. They found 20 of the group carrying dozens of illegally purchased archaeological items, including Roman-era bronze and silver coins, 1,500-year-old clay oil lamps, and ancient pottery and glass vessels. The items appeared to have been stolen from tombs and antiquities sites and most were allegedly purchased from Mr. Lund. The travelers were permitted to leave after the items were confiscated.

Mr. Lund said he had bought items from authorized dealers to pass on to the group at no profit and said that no one in the group had any stolen antiquities.

Monday 16 May 2011

Israel left reeling after deadly border breach

THE INDEPENDENT Tuesday, 17 May 2011

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

Palestinian mourners with the body of a protester killed in Sunday's march

Palestinian mourners with the body of a protester killed in Sunday's march

Israeli security and intelligence chiefs traded accusations yesterday over who allowed more than 100 protesters to cross the heavily guarded border with Syria, as Palestinians marked the "catastrophe" of Israel's founding in a string of incidents that left 15 unarmed protesters dead and Israel's doctrine of border deterrence in tatters.

Israeli leaders believe that the simultaneous appearance of thousands of civilians marching towards three sensitive borders in different parts of the country suggested a co-ordinated campaign.

Ahead of September's expected approval of Palestinian independence by the United Nations General Assembly, the Israelis fear that the Iranian-backed military efforts that link Gaza, Lebanon and Syria will be supplemented by further mass political action to which Israel currently has no response except gunfire.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is also coming under increased pressure to produce a peace proposal, if only to recover the diplomatic initiative from the Palestinians, who seem to be on a roll.

Palestinian representatives from Hamas and Fatah met yesterday in Cairo to flesh out an agreement to end their mutual hostility and form a unity government to prepare for new elections.

As military engineers repaired the breach in the border fence made on Sunday, Israeli security forces flooded the area, searching for infiltrators who had failed to return to Syria.

Israel police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said police carried out house-to-house searches in Majdal Shams village throughout the night. One man who hid overnight in the village was captured in a taxi en route to Jerusalem.

Israeli military commanders blamed faulty intelligence for the border breach while intelligence chiefs said the local commanders were at fault for failing to prepare their ground forces. Only about a dozen soldiers were on duty when the crowd burst across the border.

Observers pointed out that the protests had been publicised on Facebook for months and it did not take intelligence training to notice hundreds of buses arriving on the Syrian side of the border.

Acknowledging that Sunday's events were "not good", Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of Israel's armed forces, praised his troops for not inflicting higher casualties in what rapidly developed into an impossible situation.

Alex Fishman, a commentator at the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said: "What we witnessed yesterday on the Syrian border was a failure." He warned of "more attempted mass marches into Israeli territory... Marches and flotillas to implement the right of return will gather more and more momentum."

"The state of Israel has a systemic problem," Mr Fishman said. "Except for deterrence, it has no means to prevent tens and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – who succeed in getting organised and in realising the dream of return with their own feet – from breaking across its borders."

But Israel's border deterrence was shattered by Sunday's marchers, who simply walked through a minefield thought to be deadly. Not a single landmine exploded. Shaul Mofaz, the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told colleagues that Sunday was merely a curtain-raiser and was likely to be replayed unless the Government produced a peace plan.

"The Israeli Government is burying its head in the sand. Without any peace initiative, yesterday's events will repeat themselves in September," Mr Mofaz said. "The present Government, headed by Netanyahu, isn't initiating anything."

Protesters shot dead by Israel as Arab Spring crosses borders

THE INDEPENDENT Monday, 16 May 2011

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

A Palestinian throws stones at Israeli police at a checkpoint near Ramallah

A Palestinian throws stones at Israeli police at a checkpoint near Ramallah

The Arab spring finally found its way to Israel's borders yesterday, with deadly results.

At least eight people were reported killed after Palestinians marched on three different frontier posts with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba ("catastrophe") of the founding of Israel on 15 May, 1948, and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis.

Two people were killed and more than 100 wounded after Israeli troops opened fire when 200 protesters broke through the border fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and marched to the centre of the village of Majdal Shams. The village has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six Day War. It was the first time anyone had breached the heavily guarded border fence, which is flanked by minefields and patrolled by the UN, Israeli and Syrian forces.

Syria condemned the shootings as "criminal acts" by Israel, while Israeli officials said the deadly "provocation"bore "the fingerprints of Iran".

"I instructed the Israel Defence Forces to act with maximum restraint but to prevent any infiltration into our borders," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Everyone should know that we are determined to protect our borders and our sovereignty."

The worst incident occurred when thousands of protesters, transported to the southern Lebanese village of Maroun Al-Ras by bus, threatened to break down the border fence after hanging flags on the barbed wire and singing songs. Israeli and Lebanese troops both fired warning shots to disperse the crowd and five people were reported killed.

Eyewitness Matthew Cassel reported on Twitter: "Lebanese army started shooting in air non-stop. There was a stampede, refugees running away."

There were more deaths in Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians marched through a Hamas checkpoint towards the Erez border crossing with Israel. Border guards opened fire with tank shells and machine-guns. Medics in Gaza said one person was killed and more than 40 injured.

There were also violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces in Hebron, East Jerusalem, Kalandia and Wallajeh.

Palestinians demonstrated throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The main rally was held in the West Bank city of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority government. Mohammed Elayan, of the Higher National Committee for Commemorating the Nakba, told thousands of people: "The Palestinian people are today more solid in confronting occupation and the policy of ethnic cleansing. The Zionist conspiracy against our people will be destroyed in the face of our steadfastness."

Earlier, Ismail Haniyeh, the outgoing Hamas prime minister, told thousands of worshippers at a Gaza mosque that Palestinians would mark Nakba Day this year "with great hope of bringing to an end the Zionist project in Palestine".

Mr Netanyahu retorted that were was "no place... for denying the existence of the State of Israel". "I regret that there are extremists among Israeli Arabs and in neighbouring countries who have turned the day on which the State of Israel was established, the day on which the Israeli democracy was established, into a day of incitement, violence and rage," he told cabinet ministers in Jerusalem.

The mass breaching of the border with Syria left Israeli security chiefs floundering, after weeks of announcements that they were expecting trouble on Sunday. "The Israel Defence Forces were ready," protested Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai. But eyewitnesses in Majdal Shams said only a handful of Israeli soldiers were on duty on Sunday and were taken by surprise when more than 1,000 buses appeared on the Syrian side of the border.

"I don't think they were really prepared for anything to happen on this side. It took more than an hour for the back-up to come," said Majdal Shams resident Shefaa Abu Jabal. "They crossed into the village and not even one landmine exploded, even though we've learned all of our lives that this place is full of landmines."

The local residents greeted the infiltrators like heroes, joining them as they marched towards the main square singing and waving Palestinian flags.

Ahmed, a Palestinian refugee from the Yarmouk camp, denied the Israeli army's claims that the event was planned by Iran. "We didn't really plan," he said. "We got a bit excited and we decided come on, let's do it. We didn't plan to cross. The army said we could stand near the border. The army didn't know. I don't think the Syrian army would have let us in if they knew."

What is the 'catastrophe'?

* Every 15 May, Palestinians commemorate the "Nakba" ("catastrophe") of the declaration of independence of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Palestinians and their Arab allies had hoped to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state by force of arms. But their defeat led to the double "catastrophe" of losing territory and transforming those Palestinians who had fled during the fighting into stateless refugees.

In recent years, protests have been marked by clashes between Israeli security forces and stone-throwing Palestinian youths, but yesterday was the first time the commemorations had descended into such widespread violence. Across the West Bank and Gaza, thousands took to the streets, holding old keys to symbolise their dreams of reclaiming the property they lost when Israel was created.

For the most part, the demonstrations passed off peacefully within Palestinian-controlled areas. But they encountered opposition when they approached checkpoints guarded by Israeli forces.

Thousands of Palestinians staged marches from Gaza City to the Erez border crossing with Israel. At least 15 unarmed marchers were reported wounded after Israeli forces opened fire to halt the crowd's progress. The Israeli warning shots included at least two tank shells and machine-gun fire at open fields close to the protestors.

At the Kalandia refugee camp north of Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli forces, who fired tear-gas and rubber bullets. There were clashes too in Hebron, Wallajeh and East Jerusalem.

Matthew Kalman

Sunday 15 May 2011

Who will lead the Palestinians?

After Abbas

Faced with upheaval across the Middle East, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called elections for September. But it’s unclear who might run to succeed him, if the aging leader really does step down.

The day after Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that elections for the president and legislative council of the Palestinian Authority would be held by September. Forty-eight hours later, he asked for the resignation of the current Cabinet. “The new government should concentrate its efforts on mobilizing its energies to prepare national institutions for the establishment of an independent state of Palestine before the deadline of next September,” Abbas said.
The Palestinian leader has just seven months to reach a working relationship with Hamas, which controls Gaza and which rejects the PA government, or the elections cannot be held in Gaza. Early indications are not promising. Hamas spokesmen flatly rejected the idea of rapprochement, despite an offer from Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Sha’ath to travel there and agree to “any conditions” the group might demand. “I don’t know if there will be an independent state around September and if we will see another president in the coming months or even after September,” Nabil Amr, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and ambassador to Cairo and Moscow, told me. A confidant of both Yasser Arafat and Abbas, Amr has become a gadfly critic of the leaders he once advised.
While Abbas’ commitment to the September deadline could be dismissed as Palestinian rhetoric in the style of Yasser Arafat’s pledge to declare an independent state in September 2000, this time the Palestinian leadership may have no choice, given the wave of popular revolts rolling across the Arab world and the Palestinians’ own internal problems. A week after the fall of the Tunisian government in January, Al Jazeera began publishing the “Palestine Papers”— a WikiLeaks-style trove of documents detailing confidential peace talks between Palestinian negotiators and Israel that portrayed the Palestinian team as weak and desperate. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat initially denounced the documents as forgeries, but he was later forced to confirm their authenticity and resigned. Meanwhile, attention shifted to events in Egypt, where mass demonstrations led to Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.
The loss of Erekat, a key confidante, was a serious problem for Abbas. Even worse was the fall of Mubarak, a stout supporter of Fatah and opponent of Hamas. “The Palestinian leaders don’t have a good response to what is happening,” says analyst Hani al-Masri at the Palestine Media, Research and Studies Centre. “They are afraid because they lost their big friend and ally.” Al-Masri adds that the only way to achieve the unity with Hamas necessary to conduct elections and a breakthrough in the peace talks that will bring about independence by the September deadline is for the Palestinian leaders to change both their tactics and leadership. “Abu Mazen”—as Abbas is known—“must say seriously that he is not running in the next election,” says al-Masri. “We must prepare ourselves for the future.”
Hafez Barghouti, editor of the semi-official Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida and a veteran Fatah insider, says the party is failing to prepare for the inevitable generational handover of power. “Abu Mazen is old and he doesn’t want to be like the Arab leaders, to be fired by the people,” says Barghouti. “But I don’t know who will be the new leader. From Fatah I don’t see anybody. I cannot see a good leader or a popular leader now from Fatah. Fatah till now is sleeping.”
Hatem Abdel Kader, a former Palestinian minister for Jerusalem and a prominent leader of the young guard with close connections to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah, echoes Amr’s call for Fatah to get its act together while still maintaining his support for Abbas.
“Fatah is the movement of our people, Fatah is the leader of our national project, and only Fatah can achieve our national project—but we need to clean up our home,” says Abdel Kader. “Right now we haven’t any choice, only Abu Mazen. After Abu Mazen, I don’t know.”
The absence of any natural successor to Abbas either now or in the future is likely to spell trouble for Fatah, for the Palestinian national movement, and for Israelis hoping for a peace partner. Observers agree that while Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad has built enormous political capital with his “Homestretch to Freedom” plan for Palestinian statehood, his closeness to the Americans makes him an object of suspicion, and there is no chance he can win an election as an independent.
“Salam Fayyad is a good man, but he is not from Fatah,” says pollster Nabil Kukali, director-general of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in Beit Sahour. “If Fatah will support Fayyad I’m sure he will win the elections. But if Fatah have their own candidate it will be very difficult for Fayyad.”
Several members of the Palestinian Central Committee who were elected in 2009 appear to have dropped out of contention for a leadership role. Saeb Erekat’s chances were probably destroyed by the Palestine Papers leaks. Tawfik Tirawi, a former head of Palestinian General Intelligence, prefers to play a backroom role as chief security adviser to Abbas. Jibril Rajoub, former head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, is reveling in his new job as head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and Football Association and refuses to discuss anything except soccer and athletics.
Polls suggest that the potential candidate likely to win the largest majority in a post-Abbas presidential election is Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life terms in an Israeli jail for his part in launching terror attacks against Israelis during the intifada. While Fatah leaders respect Barghouti, they rule out his candidacy as impractical.
“Marwan Barghouti could be an excellent candidate, but he is in an Israeli prison,” says Hanna Siniora, a veteran Fatah leader in Jerusalem. Amr concurs: “I like him and he’s my friend, but who will nominate a president in prison? It will be a joke.”
Recent events also suggest that Abbas, far from encouraging a smooth leadership transition, is working hard to deter would-be successors from staking a claim to the presidency. Until November, one obvious front-runner was Mohammed Dahlan, 49, the feared former commander of Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza. Dahlan’s U.S.-trained and -equipped forces were roundly defeated by the Hamas Executive Force and expelled from Gaza in 2007. Some 400 Fatah fighters and activists were killed in that battle. But Dahlan bounced back from that humiliation to secure a seat on the Central Committee in 2009. Dahlan had established close ties with U.S. and British intelligence during his tenure as Gaza security chief and amassed a sizable personal fortune, with which he began to build a power base in the West Bank.
But last fall, Dahlan was suddenly stripped of his official duties and accused of financial and other misdeeds after he criticized the business dealings of the president’s family. An unprecedented attack on Dahlan published by the PLO’s official WAFA news agency announced a full-scale investigation into Dahlan’s alleged corruption and linked him to a plot to overthrow Abbas also involving Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew and a former foreign minister and PLO representative to the United Nations—and another possible successor to Abbas.
Indeed, al-Kidwa’s name comes up frequently in conversations with senior Fatah officials about successors. Now 57, al-Kidwa was talent-spotted in his teens by his uncle and charged with turning the General Union of Palestinian Students into an international force to help Fatah consolidate its control of the PLO while also serving as a nursery for future Palestinian leaders.
In the modest basement office he now occupies as the head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation, al-Kidwa is clearly caught between a desire to continue his uncle’s legacy, his frustration at the current leadership’s lack of progress in the peace process, and his shock at the public accusation that he was plotting with Dahlan to overthrow Abbas.
Al-Kidwa bears an uncanny resemblance to his late uncle—he favors business suits over military fatigues—but Fatah kingmakers are divided as to whether he has what it takes to fill Arafat’s shoes. His supporters cite his rich diplomatic experience, impressive intellect, and his freedom from the taint of corruption that swirls around many other Fatah officials. Detractors say he is largely untried on the domestic scene and his profile since returning from diplomatic service has been too low to attract much following among the 400,000 registered members of Fatah.
One Israeli diplomat who frequently locked horns with al-Kidwa at the United Nations said he was a force to be reckoned with. “He is very intelligent, extremely slippery, and he can be unnecessarily aggressive,” said the Israeli. Many Palestinians may feel that is exactly the kind of person they could use right now at the helm of their drifting ship.
Al-Kidwa says the conspiracy allegations published by the official news agency are symptomatic of a leadership that has lost touch with its own people and frozen democratic institutions like the legislative council.
“We are seeing a decrease in the amount of tolerance of other opinions, of opposition, of dissent,” says al-Kidwa. “There is an absence of democratic check and balance and a muting of opposition generally, especially after the military coup d’etat in Gaza. This led to more accumulation, more centralization of power. Part of this is not our making. Part of this is a result of the Hamas military coup in Gaza, the situation here, the lack of progress in the peace process. But irrespective of whose fault this might be, the results are not nice.”
He denounces the Hamas regime in Gaza as “authoritarian and merciless” but says the priority must be a power-sharing agreement that will allow Hamas to fully participate in the PLO and the Palestinian Authority without needing to join a government whose peaceful program they would be unable to endorse. He is confident that Hamas can be persuaded to drop its demands for Israel’s destruction.
“They have a really very serious problem,” al-Kidwa says of Hamas. “They don’t have answers either for the Palestinian people or for themselves.”
While he praises Salam Fayyad as “a serious man” and lauds his achievements in recent years, he says the idea that building institutions can bring a Palestinian state into existence is “deeply flawed” in the absence of a coherent political program, both at home and internationally. He says there should be much more pressure on the Israelis from the United Nations and other international institutions to produce an agreement, since direct negotiations have clearly failed.
Evidently, he has thought long and hard about the new policies that could be pursued under a new leader. Will he run in the planned election, if it happens? “I’m not sure, to tell you the truth,” al-Kidwa replies. “There is total confusion when it comes to whatever might happen next.”

Friday 6 May 2011

Israeli University Sues Google to Remove Former Student’s Blog


May 6, 2011, 3:11 pm

Jerusalem—The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, has filed suit against Google demanding that it remove a blog by a former student that the institute says slanders the Technion’s program for American medical students.

The blogger posted critical articles and personal denunciations about the Technion American Medical Students program, known as TeAMS, on www.technionteams.blogspot.com, where he warns prospective students not to enter the program, leveling serious allegations of corruption against the university and its staff.

The blog alleges that only 20 percent of students in the past two years have secured residencies in the United States after graduation and says the university is “evasive with information and withholds it from people in order to lure potential applicants from North America.”

“We have brought these issues to the school’s attention since 2006 in e-mails, class meetings, letters, etc., and the school appears not to do anything,” the blog states.

The blogger also filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education against TeAMS. The Israeli daily Haaretz reports that an investigative lawyer for the Oversight Committee of the U.S. Congress recently informed the blogger he was interested in examining the allegations against the Technion.

The Technion responded to the blog allegations on its Web site, declaring them slanderous and inaccurate. On April 17, the Technion filed suit in Haifa District Court against Google, which owns Blogger, the company that hosts Blogspot. The university also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, demanding that Google “remove published items that defame and insult the Technion in general, its staff, and in particular one of the flagship programs of the faculty of medicine.”

The Technion’s lawyers argued that, as the owner of Blogger, Google is responsible for deleting the blog, which they say is “entirely dedicated to slander.”

Google said the court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the case. But in a hearing on April 28, Judge Menahem Raniel of the Haifa District Court rejected that claim.

“This is the first time an Israeli court determined the responsibility of World Google as a provider of Web-hosting services to remove defamatory statements on the Internet,” the Technion stated on its Web site this week.

By Friday, Google had not yet shut down the site, but in any case the blog has now been transferred to a new site, www.technionteams.com, hosted by another service provider.

“Rather than investing in fixing the corruption at the Technion Medical School, the Technion Medical School has decided to pay lawyers to make a feeble attempt to once again cover up the continued abuses of the American medical students,” writes a blogger who identifies himself as “Joe Caro” in a new post on the controversial blog.

“The plain truth is that the TeAMS program continues to have an abysmal rate of postgraduate placement with an annual revenue stream exceeding $3,000,000/year. Most often, the American students are at the Technion as a hope of last resort to become a physician after being rejected from all American medical schools and the other American programs in Israel. After investing in excess of $100,000/each into their Technion education, most of the recent graduates have nothing to show except loans due to the US Government,” says the writer.

“I can attest to malfeasance that the Technion appears to be engaged in,” a former student told Haaretz. “The environment was abusive, and when wrongdoings were brought to the school’s attention they reacted in a very defensive and threatening manner.”

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Cameron threatens to recognise Palestine state unless Israel opens peace talks

DAILY MAIL 4th May 2011

By Tim Shipman and Matthew Kalman

Britain is prepared to formally recognise a Palestinian state unless Israel opens peace talks with the Palestinians.

David Cameron last night warned Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu that the UK is prepared to recognise an independent Palestine at a United Nations meeting in September.

British diplomats described the threat as one of Britain’s few ‘levers’ to press Israel to join talks with Palestinian officials.

Tough talking: David Cameron (right) last night warned Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu that the UK is prepared to recognise an independent Palestine at a United Nations meeting in September

Tough talking: David Cameron (right) last night warned Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu that the UK is prepared to recognise an independent Palestine at a United Nations meeting in September

The two prime ministers met in Downing Street last night after rival Palestinian factions endorsed a unity agreement yesterday.

The deal ends four years of bitterness and violence between the dominant Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza.

Palestinian leaders hailed the deal as a major step towards an independent state. They plan to form an interim government and hold long-delayed elections within a year.

Mr Cameron turned the screws on Israel last night after Mr Netanyahu said: 'What happened today is a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism.'

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the reconciliation ceremony that Israel’s opposition to the reconciliation, was an excuse to 'evade a peace deal'.

Mr Abbas said. 'The state of Palestine must be born this year.’

He is expected to call for unilateral recognition from world powers at a UN meeting in September, a call likely to be backed by Arab countries and Latin America, with the USA opposed.

A senior Downing Street source made clear Britain is ready to recognise a Palestinian state.

‘Our clear preference is for a negotiated settlement where everyone can endorse a two state solution,’ the source said.

‘But if there is no agreement to enter talks that could force the issue.
‘The best way for the Israelis to avoid a unilateral declaration is to engage in peace talks.’

Britain has already beefed up its diplomatic presence with the Palestinians, upgrading its presence in Jerusalem from a delegation to a mission earlier this year.

The Prime Minister told Mr Netanyahu that he understood Israel’s nervousness about the sweeping changes in the Middle East but insisted that the Arab Spring is ‘an opportunity not a threat’.

Resistance: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel's opposition to the reconciliation, was an excuse to 'evade a peace deal'

Resistance: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel's opposition to the reconciliation, was an excuse to 'evade a peace deal'

Mr Cameron warned that failure to engage in talks with the Palestinians would ‘fuel hate and radicalisation’.

He also told Israel that opting for talks on a two state solution was necessary to silence Israel’s critics who say the country is not interested in peace.

Officials said Mr Cameron hoped to influence what Mr Netanyahu says when he makes a speech to the US Congress in a couple of months time.

The prime minister’s spokesman also urged the newly re-united Palestinian factions to do a deal: ‘The Prime Minister made clear we hope Palestinian unity between Fatah and Hamas will be a step forward but we will judge any Palestinian government on its actions.

‘We want the Palestinian government that emerges to reject violence and engage in a meaningful peace process.’

The new government in Egypt helped broker the truce after Hamas had a change in heart and finally accepted a deal first offered two years ago.

Mr Abbas said it had “turned forever the black page of division. Hamas is part of the Palestinian people’.

Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal said the rivalry with Fatah was over. 'Hamas’s only conflict is with Israel,' he said.

Mashaal hinted at a change in policy when he said, 'We want an independent Palestinian state with sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza.'

Hamas has always sought the destruction of Israel. Mashaal has not said whether the new state will live at peace with its neighbour or continue fighting.

Hamas spearheaded suicide bombings against Israel and entered Palestinian politics in 2006, promptly defeating Fatah in parliamentary elections. But the refusal of Hamas to renounce violence and recognize peace agreements with Israel led to the collapse of a unity government.

In 2007, Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in a bloody coup that left more than 400 Fatah supporters dead. Fatah retaliated by arresting Hamas supporters in the West Bank and stopping funds.

Some of those tensions remained yesterday. The ceremony was delayed nearly two hours when Abbas refused to allow Mashaal to join him on the podium.

Tony Blair, envoy for the Middle East Quartet of the UN, EU, US and Russia, said the international community supports Palestinian reconciliation but will demand that the new unity government recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence.

Blair said Hamas must have “a change of heart” for the government to succeed.