|Southwest Asia News Digest
Israeli Minister Calls for Barghouti's Release
Feb. 24 (EIRNS)Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has called for the release of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti (Fatah), who is currently serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison.
Ben-Eliezer was quoted by the Feb. 24 Jerusalem Post as saying that a man who has "endured seven levels of hell" understands that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be solved through dialogue. "He is by no means a moderate," Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio. "But at least if an agreement is signed with him, he will stand by it. I know him very well. And I am convinced and certain that he knows military options will not bring an answer to the conflict."
Both U.S. statesman Lyndon LaRouche and former Secretary of State James Baker III have called for Barghouti's release as key to any attempt to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Ben-Eliezer said that Barghouti may have murdered Israelis, "But you do not sign agreements with educators and professors; you sign agreements with strong leaders." He indicated that Barghouti could be released in a prisoner swap in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and even if such a proposal were to come from Hamas, Israel should accept it, saying that, in the end, Israel would be forced to live with the movement.
Ben-Eliezer concluded by saying he wished to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "After 60 years, I very much hope Israel can finally start to live in tranquility."
Israeli Knesset Member Beilin Holds Talks with Qatar Premier
Feb. 25 (EIRNS)Yossi Beilin, head of the Meretz-Yahad party and member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), held talks with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamed bin Jassem al-Thani in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 24. The latter said he is willing to help broker a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.
"You are making a big mistake if you think you can reach an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas without including Hamas in the talks," the Qatari premier is quoted as saying in the Feb. 25 Ha'aretz. Al-Thani said that Hamas "must be taken into account," and that Abbas "will not be able to sign an agreement without Hamas's consent." He added that "the possibility of separating Hamas and Abbas is an illusion." He called for reviving the Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement, which could have served as basis for bringing Hamas and Fatah together.
Beilin reportedly told al-Thani that it was difficult for Israel to support Hamas's return to the Palestinian government, since it refuses to come to a peace agreement.
Al-Thani responded that Israel's conditions for a ceasefire were unrealistic, and "the fact that they are now speaking about a ceasefire and a temporary state in the borders of 1967 is a significant development that must not be overlooked."
Arabs Could Withdraw Peace Initiative
Feb. 23 (EIRNS)Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned that unless Israel begins serious peace negotiations, the Arab League will withdraw its peace initiative of 2002, which had been reiterated during last year's peace summit in Annapolis, Md.
"It is unbelievable that we keep blaming the weak party in the equation, which is the Palestinian people, with all the suffering they live under, while ignoring what Israel does by expanding settlements, tightening the siege, humiliating the Palestinians and carrying out mass punishment against them," al-Faisal said on Feb. 21 in Cairo, according to Ha'aretz.
Backing al-Faisal's statement, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said, "The key to solving the Arab-Israeli issue is to hold serious negotiations, not fictitious ones." The Arab League will take up the issue at its next summit, in Damascus next month.
Israeli Commentator Calls for Talks with Syria
Feb. 22 (EIRNS)Writing in today's Ha'aretz, Israeli commentator Ari Shavit calls for Israel to open peace talks with Syria. He writes: "For the past eight years, Israel has not taken a genuine diplomatic step regarding Syria. Emissaries have come and gone, trial balloons have been floated, but a firm decision to extend a hand to Damascus has not been made. Why? Because an unwise U.S. administration encouraged irresponsible Israeli governments to turn their back on the Syrians. Because the local peace lobby preferred virtual negotiations with a virtual Palestinian Authority instead of a concrete attempt to find out whether we can reach a true settlement with our northern neighbor.
"Peace with Syria is not an enthusiastic prospect. It will neither vanquish settlers nor heal guilt feelings. It will bring the Syrians close to Lake Kinneret and cost us bed-and-breakfasts, fine wineries, and cherished holiday sites. But peace with Syria will divorce Nasrallah [head of Hezbollahed.] from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, isolate Iran, and surround Israel with a ring of cold but stable peace arrangements. In a gradually darkening Middle East, peace with Syria might light a torch of hope and create a meaningful strategic turning point.... It is not certain that an attempt to arrive at peace with Assad will be successful. But the diplomatic paralysis is dangerous, and locking the gates is a serious mistake. Those who choose to live in the Middle East must always balance power with generosity. The time for generosity has arrived."
Barak Warns Assad To Stay Out of Israel's Conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas
Feb. 21 (EIRNS)The London-based al-Hayat newspaper has reported that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak conveyed a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad, through Turkish President Abdullah Gul, warning Damascus not to intervene in support of Hezbollah or Palestinian groups if Israel attacks them, according to the Israeli publication YNet today. A similar article in the Jerusalem Post stated that this demand is "a prerequisite for peace talks."
Barak conveyed the message days before Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel with an "open war" worldwide, in response to the assassination of Imad Mugniyah, a Hezbollah leader, in a car explosion in Damascus.
"I tell them, you killed Imad outside the war's natural territory. Our war with you was on Lebanese soil. You fought us here, and we faced you. But you crossed the line. I won't say more than this," Nasrallah threatened.
In another anomaly, YNet wrote that U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said this week that it is possible that factions within Syria or Hezbollah could have been behind the hit.
YNet's report said that during his meetings in Ankara, Barak tried to learn how Turkey would respond if Israel launched a broad offensive in the Gaza Strip. He also sought support for an international force to be stationed in Gaza, which would include troops from Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia, and Jordan, in order to guarantee the cessation of rocket attacks on Israel from that area, and in order to supervise the border. The Turkish President told Barak that any Israeli military operation in Gaza would be unacceptable to Turkey.
Lebanese Prime Minister Visits London
Feb. 20 (EIRNS)After a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called for the election of Lebanon's President before the Arab Summit to be held in Damascus March 27-29. The election has been stalled by a combination of Western, largely U.S. pressures, and a series of destabilizing assassinations.
Brown responded: "His government has our strong support as it works to restore and strengthen the integrity of Lebanon's institutions, and to protect Lebanon's future as a tolerant and diverse democracy. The UK will continue to back the efforts of the Arab League to resolve Lebanon's political impasse. To work closely with European and other international partners and to continue our strong bilateral support."
U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Syrian President's Cousin
Feb. 22 (EIRNS)The United States has frozen the U.S. assets of leading Syrian businessman Rami Makhluf, who is a cousin of President Bashar Assad. The reason given for the sanctions has nothing to do with links to terrorism, illegal trading in weapons of mass destruction, or even interfering in the affairs of Lebanon. The sanctions are based on alleged cronyism in his gaining control of the Syrian mobile telephone provider Syrian Tel.
The grounds given are: "Rami Makhluf has used intimidation and his close ties to the Assad regime to obtain improper business advantages at the expense of ordinary Syrians." On these grounds, the U.S. should impose sanctions on Vice President Dick Cheney.
According to Ynet, President Bush signed an executive order authorizing the sanctions on Feb. 13, one day after Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyah was assassinated in Damascus. While the U.S. Congress did pass into law the Iran/Syria Non-Proliferation Act last year, there is no provision in it for sanctions on the basis of "corruption."