Thursday, June 26, 2008

French Muslim, Jewish Leaders Unite to Encourage Religious Tolerance

Let us pray for these leaders, that they can succeed in the difficult challenges they have nobly set for themselves

Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities, both located in France, have just elected new leaders Sunday, who both vow to make their faiths more tolerant and open to non-believers. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports the two men assume their new jobs under difficult conditions.

Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of France's Representative Muslim Council and Gilles Bernheim, tapped to become the next Grand Rabbi of France, are both intellectuals who preside in their separate positions over Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. France is home to between five to seven million Muslims and roughly 500,000 to 600,000 Jews.

In interviews on French radio and in newspapers, both new leaders call for a new openness, with Mr. Bernheim specifically talking about the need to reach out to those outside the Jewish faith

Israel Keeps Gaza Crossings Closed for Second Day

It’s a little hard for us all to keep track of the players without a scorecard, but here are some points to take note of with today’s news:

  • Israeli domestic struggle: Livni: Foreign Minister, Palestine negotiator and Olmert rival “Bomb ‘m back every time.” Prime Minister Olmert: hassled by his own foreign minister while trying to make a truce work
  • Gaza and West Bank: Today’s bombing - al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (Fatah based - Abbas), Tuesday’s bombing - Islamic Jihad (non- Hamas).

Complicated enough?

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came under pressure from a strong rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to act. Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said she urged him to order “an immediate military response to every violation.”

No casualties were reported in the rocket attack, which was claimed by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group belonging to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.

The latest strike followed salvoes on Tuesday launched by Islamic Jihad in response to an Israeli army raid that killed one of the group’s commanders in the occupied West Bank. Israel said the raid was aimed at foiling attacks on its citizens.

Mandela refers to a "tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe.

Although out of office for nearly a decade, Mandela remains a commanding and respected figure. He uses his influence sparingly, and it is particularly rare for him to publicly differ with South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki. South Africans and other Africans have been increasingly questioning Mbeki’s unwillingness to publicly criticize Mugabe, so Mandela’s brief but sharp comments will have particular resonance.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Saudi Arabia increases oil output after UN pressure

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Olmert says truce last chance for Hamas

How foolish it is for Olmert to make such remarks in public before the launch of this truce. These show precisely the character that has led to his long list of problems, his struggle-ridden northward adventure included.

Everyone knows this truce is perilously fragile. How lacking leadership and statesmanship to bluster out, even before it starts insults and threats to the group with whom you expect to cooperate!
clipped from

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Hamas on Thursday that an Egypt-brokered truce pact was the militant group's last chance to avoid another Israeli military incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Hamas supporters and the people of Gaza were "pissed off with Hamas" after years of violence, Olmert said in an interview with Australia's Sydney Morning Herald.

"I think the strategy of Hamas, which does not want to recognise Israel's right to exist in the first place, and the extremism, and the fanaticism, and the religious dogmatism, is the enemy of peace," Olmert reportedly told the newspaper.

"We are at the end of our tolerance with regard to terror in Gaza."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

US favours diplomacy in Iran nuclear row: Rice


JERUSALEM (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday that the US administration was giving priority to solving its row with Iran over its nuclear programme through diplomatic channels.

“We have made very clear, and the president has made very clear that, while taking no option off the table, the US policy is that this can work diplomatically,” Rice said during a visit to Israel.

“And that is where we have been focused and that is where all our energies are, I emphasise all our energies, because we have just, through Javier Solana, proposed a package to the Iranians,” Rice said. (via AFP: US favours diplomacy in Iran nuclear row: Rice)

Many positions on Abdul Qadeer Khan

Today, June 15, 2008, Fox News in six short paragraphs reports:
David Albright, a well-known nuclear weapons expert, said that designs for a nuclear device small enough to fit on a ballistic missile were found on computers belonging to the now-defunct smuggling ring of rouge Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Nothing more said, a simple "report."

This Fox News "report" makes zero effort to contextualize its language in the May 30 reports that flooded every powerful established media outlet (CBS, IHT, Telegraph, etc. etc.) that Khan called his confession forced, saying in a CBS interview:
"It was not of my own free will," he told The Guardian, saying he had been forced to make the admission by Musharraf. "It was handed into my hand," he was quoted as saying.

Today, though, Khan told CBS News that he had not written that confession, but merely read a document put in front of him “because of the promises that were made.”
Khan says the origin of the proliferation lies in Europe.

The Fox "report" on the sudden discover of documents on Khan's computers also fails to make mention of the fact (as reported in the Guardian, May 31):

Alarm about the sale of nuclear know-how follows the disclosure that the Swiss government, allegedly acting under US pressure, secretly destroyed tens of thousands of documents from a massive nuclear smuggling investigation.

The information was seized from the home and computers of Urs Tinner, a 43-year-old Swiss engineer who has been in custody for almost four years....

President Pascal Couchepin stunned his Swiss compatriots last week by announcing that the Tinner files, believed to number around 30,000 documents, had been shredded.
All news needs a news outlet.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

16 Monks Arrested in Tibet Bombings

Monks arrested

This is an extremely important article. The situation requires constant observation and perseverance from international rights and watchdog groups.

If the monks are involved with bombs, even if their cause is just, and even if the destruction is only to property, still this must stop. The current world situation needs to purge violent activity from all religious activists.

If the monks have been subject to torture or questionable interrogation and confession seeking tactics, it is vital that all people and organizations of conscience stay vigilant and bring these realities to the light of day!

HONG KONG — The police in Tibet have arrested 16 Buddhist monks and accused them of involvement in three bombings, a police spokesman in northeastern Tibet said Thursday.

All three involved homemade explosives and caused only property damage, no deaths or injuries, the spokesman said in a telephone interview.

The spokesman, in Qamdo, Tibet, declined to give his name and referred further questions to the Tibet Department of Public Security headquarters in Lhasa, where a press officer said that he had no information.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported Thursday that the Tibet Department of Public Security had arrested the 16 monks on May 12 and 13 in connection with bombings on April 5, 8 and 15 in villages near Qamdo.

All of the monks have admitted their guilt, according to Xinhua.

Human rights activists and Tibetan exile groups have repeatedly accused Chinese security forces of using torture to extract confessions. The police in China also frequently delay announcing arrests until confessions have been obtained.

Nicolas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch said that while he had no specific information on the monks under arrest, he was doubtful that their treatment would meet international standards.

“We have no confidence that these people get due process, and in particular the issue of confession is always tricky, because of the use of pretrial torture and coercion in China,” he said.

Judges in Tibet have also been outspoken in saying that their goal is to try cases as quickly as possible and preserve the territorial integrity of China. “They don’t pretend that they’re giving people a fair trial, they say they are fighting separatism,” Mr. Bequelin said.

Israel Eases Exit Restrictions on Gaza Scholars

Published: June 6, 2008

TEL AVIV, Israel — Senior Israeli officials said on Thursday that they would no longer stop all Palestinians who have foreign study grants from leaving Gaza

and would look favorably upon their applications for exit permits, a
change from the near total Israeli ban on movement out of Gaza, the Hamas-controlled coastal strip, since late 2007.

The officials said the decision had been made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak
in the aftermath of the embarrassing misunderstanding with the American
State Department last week that resulted in the cancellation of
Fulbright grants to Gaza and then a hurried reinstatement of them. The
officials, from the Defense Ministry, spoke on the condition they not
be identified by name.

Muslim women in Turkey forbidden to wear headscarves!

Court Annuls Turkish Headscarf Bill

The Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body, said
lifting the headscarf ban was contrary to three articles in the
constitution, including article two that specifies that Turkey
is a secular republic. Turkey is also 99 percent Muslim.

The AK Party says the right to wear the headscarf at
university is a personal and religious freedom. Secularists see
it as a symbol of political Islam.

"If Turkey is a secular, democratic state, we must all
respect the (court's) decisions. The ruling states the
obvious," military chief General Yasar Buyukanit told

Gaza agency working with Blair seized by Hamas

By Adam Entous and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA, June 5 (Reuters) - Hamas has seized control of the Palestinian water agency that is spearheading Middle East envoy Tony Blair's signature project in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian and Western officials said on Thursday.

Hamas's takeover of the Palestinian Water Authority in Gaza cements the group's control over the territory and could cast doubt on the future of the North Gaza Sewage Treatment Works project -- a centrepiece of an economic package touted by Blair to try to bolster the chances of a peace deal this year.

The seizure comes ahead of a planned tender by the Water Authority for building a water treatment plant, and amid delicate negotiations with Israel on bringing critical building supplies into Gaza, which Hamas Islamists seized a year ago

This is a major development. Read the entire article here

U.S. and British diplomats are detained in Zimbabwe

clipped from

JOHANNESBURG: A contingent of American diplomats investigating the political situation in Zimbabwe was chased by the police in their car Thursday, stopped at a roadblock and detained, American officials said.

The diplomats were released from custody after five hours, according to the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, William McGee. A team of British diplomats was also detained and released along with the Americans.

During a car chase of about 10 kilometers, or six miles, the police tried to force the American diplomats off the road. When the diplomats were finally stopped, all four tires of their white SUV were slashed and a local security official was punched.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oil and the Saudi Peace Offensive

The author of this article is cynical about the interfaith qualities of the coming June 4 interfaith conference that Saudi King Abdullah will open, and over which Saudi Shura Council head Saleh bin Huma will preside, and perhaps rightly so.

The author approaches the event from the hard edge of oil profits and national self-interest. Of course these are elements in all equations in the region. Further it is the responsibility of peace seekers and interfaith activists to be sophisticated in their efforts for peace.

For this reason, Mr. Friedman's excellent article (though it might be felt as a touch harsh by Saudi leaders) is a must read.

To move away for a moment from the mental prisons of materialism and self-interest as the core motivational essence of being human, I for one pray that Shiite and Sunni Muslims can discover beauty in one another's traditions, and find a higher home in Islam for the breadth of approaches these two historical approaches represent.

June 2, 2008
By George Friedman

The Saudis are hosting an interfaith conference June 4. Four hundred Islamic scholars from around the world will be there, with one day devoted to interfaith issues. Saudi King Abdullah will open the conference, over which Saudi Shura Council head Saleh bin Huma will preside. This is clearly intended to be a major event, not minimized by the fact that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s most influential leader — who heads Iran’s Assembly of Experts, the body that elects and can remove the Supreme Leader — will be attending as well. Rafsanjani was specifically invited by the Saudi ambassador to Iran last Wednesday with the following message: “King Abdullah believes you have a great stature in the Islamic world … and he has assigned me the duty of inviting you to the conference.” We would not have expected to see a meeting on interfaith dialogue even a year ago.

For its part, al Qaeda condemned the conference. Its spokesman, Abu Yahya al-Libi, said of Abdullah via videotape that “He who is called the defender of monotheism by sycophantic clerics is raising the flag of brotherhood between religions … and thinks he has found the wisdom to stop wars and prevent the causes of enmity between religions and peoples.” He went on to say “By God, if you don’t resist heroically against this wanton tyrant … the day will come when church bells will ring in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.” In the past, the Saudis have been very careful not to push al Qaeda, or the kingdom’s own conservatives, too far.

One reason for the change might be the increasing focus by conservative Saudi clerics on the Shia, particularly Iran and Hezbollah. Twenty-two leading conservative clerics issued a statement condemning the Shia as destabilizing the Arab world and hostile to Sunnis. More important, they claimed that Iran and Hezbollah are only pretending to be hostile to the United States and Jews. In a translation by The Associated Press, the clerics said that “If they (Shiites) have a country, they humiliate and exert control in their rule over Sunnis. They sow strife, corruption and destruction among Muslims and destabilize security in Muslim countries … such as Yemen.” This view paralleled statements by al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri a few weeks back.

No Fear of the Conservatives

To begin understanding all this, we need to start with the obvious fact that the Saudi government is no longer afraid of antagonizing conservatives. It should be remembered that there was extensive al Qaeda activity in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004 after the Saudis increased their cooperation with the United States. The Saudis eliminated this activity, and the royal family has done extensive work in decreasing its internal rifts as well as reaching out to tribal leaders. Nevertheless, the Saudi government has been careful not to push too far. Holding a meeting to study interfaith dialogue would appear to be crossing the line. But clearly the Saudis don’t think so.

There are three reasons for this. First, al Qaeda has been crippled inside Saudi Arabia and in the broader region. The U.S. boast that al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run is no exaggeration. Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Iraq are on the run because of a split among Sunni conservatives. Conservative Sunnis have their roots in local communities. Al Qaeda is an international grouping that moves into communities from the outside. As such, they threaten the interests of local Sunni leaders who are more unlikely to share theological values with al Qaeda in the long-term, and don’t want to be displaced as communal leaders nor want to see their communities destroyed in al Qaeda’s adventures. Theology aside, al Qaeda pushed its position too far, and those Sunnis who might theoretically support them have come to see them as a threat.

Second, and far more important, there is Saudi money. At current oil prices, the Saudis are absolutely loaded with cash. In the Arabian Peninsula as elsewhere, money buys friends. In Arabia, the rulers have traditionally bound tribes and sects to them through money. At present, the Saudis can overwhelm theological doubts with very large grants and gifts. The Saudi government did not enjoy 2004 and does not want a repeat. It is therefore carefully strengthening its ties inside Saudi Arabia and throughout the Sunni world using money as a bonding agent. That means that conservative Sunnis who normally would oppose this kind of a conference are less apt to openly criticize it.

Third, there is the deepening Sunni-Shiite split. In Christian history, wars between co-religionists like Roman Catholics and Protestants were brutal, and the distrust still echoes today. The Sunni-Shiite split, like the Catholic-Protestant split, ranges across theological and national interests. Iran is the major Shiite nation. It is mistrusted and feared by the Sunni Saudis, whose enormous wealth and military weakness leaves them vulnerable to the Iranians and forces them into an alliance with the Americans.

At this particular point, where Tehran’s mismanagement of Iran’s economy and particularly its oil industry has caused it to be left out of the greatest benefits of the surge in oil prices, the Saudis are worried that internal Iranian tensions and ambitions will cause Tehran at least to increase its subversive activities among Shia in the Arabian Peninsula and in Lebanon. Hence conservative Saudi clerics have focused their attacks on Iran and Hezbollah — officially without government sanction, but clearly not shut down by the government.

Protecting the Oil Bonanza

Behind all of this, something much deeper and more important is going on. With crude prices in the range of $130 a barrel, the Saudis are now making more money on oil than they could have imagined five years ago when the price was below $40 a barrel. The Saudis don’t know how long these prices will last. Endless debates are raging over whether high oil prices are the result of speculation, the policy of the U.S. Federal Reserve, conspiracy by the oil companies and so on. The single fact the Saudis can be certain of is that the price of oil is high, they don’t know how long it will remain high, and they don’t want anything interfering with their amassing vast financial reserves that might have to sustain them in lean times should they come.

In short, the Saudis are trying to reduce the threat of war in the region. War is at this moment the single greatest threat to their interests. In particular, they are afraid of any war that would close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large portion of the oil they sell flows. The only real threat to the strait is a war between the United States and Iran in which the Iranians countered an American attack or blockade by mining the strait. It is assumed that the United States could readily deal with any Iranian countermove, but the Saudis have watched the Americans in Iraq and they are not impressed. From the Saudi point of view, not having a war is the far better option.

At the same time, if the Iranians decide to press the issue, the Saudis would be in no position to defend themselves. It is assumed that the United States would protect the Saudi oil fields out of self-interest. But any American government — and here they are looking past the Bush administration — might find it politically difficult to come to the aid of a country perceived as radically Islamist. Should another contingency come to pass, and the Iranians — either through insurgency or attack — do the unexpected, it is in the Saudi interest to create an image that is more compatible with U.S. tastes. And of course nothing does that better than interfaith dialogue. At this point, the Saudis are only at the point of discussing interfaith dialogue, but this still sets the stage.

It also creates a forum in which to drive home to the Iranians, via Rafsanjani, the unease the Saudis feel about Iranian intentions, using Hezbollah as an example. In permitting public attacks on the Shia, the Saudis do two things. First, they placate a domestic conservative constituency by retargeting them against Shiites. Second, they are boosting the theological framework to allow them to support groups who oppose the Shia. In particular that means supporting groups in Lebanon who oppose Hezbollah and Sunni groups in Iraq seeking more power in the Shiite dominated government. In doing this, Riyadh signals the Iranians that the Saudis are in a position to challenge their fundamental interests in the region — while Iran is not going to be starting Shiite uprisings in Arabia while the price of oil is high and the Shia can be made content.

Pacifying the Region

The Saudis are engaged in a massive maneuver to try to pacify the region, if not forever, then for at least as long as oil prices are high. The Saudis are quietly encouraging the Syrian-Israeli peace talks along with the Turks, and one of the reasons for Syrian participation is undoubtedly assurances of Saudi investments in Syria and Lebanon from which Damascus can benefit. The Saudis also are encouraging Israeli-Palestinian talks, and there is, we suspect, Saudi pressure on Hamas to be more cooperative in those talks. The Saudis have no interest in an Israeli-Syrian or Israeli-Hezbollah conflict right now that might destabilize the region.

Finally, the Saudis have had enough of the war in Iraq. They do not want increased Iranian power in Iraq. They do not want to see the Sunnis marginalized. They do not want to see al Qaeda dominating the Iraqi Sunnis. They have influence with the Iraqi Sunnis, and money buys even more. Ever since 2003, with the exception of the Kurdish region, the development of Iraqi oil has been stalled. Iraqis of all factions are aware of how much money they’ve lost because of their civil war. This is a lever that the Saudis can use in encouraging some sort of peace in Iraq.

It is not that Saudi Arabia has become pacifist by any means. Nor are they expecting (or, frankly, interested in) lasting peace. They are interested in assuring sufficient stability over the coming months and years so they can concentrate on making money from oil. To do this they need to carry out a complex maneuver. They need to refocus their own religious conservatives against the Shia. They need to hem in Iran, the main Shiite power. They need to reposition themselves politically in the United States, the country that ultimately guarantees Saudi national security. And they need to at least lower the temperature in Middle Eastern conflicts or, better still, forge peace treaties.

The Saudis don’t care if these treaties are permanent, but neither would they object if they were. Like any state, Saudi Arabia has interests to pursue; these interests change over time, but right now is the time for stability. Later is later. It is therefore no surprise that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Riyadh for talks this weekend. The discussions weren’t theological in nature. Mubarak shares with the Saudis an interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Mubarak fears the spread of Hamas’ ideas back into Egypt and he wants the radical Palestinian group kept in its Gaza box. A large cache of weapons uncovered in the Sinai last week, including surface to air missiles, is as much a threat to Egypt as to Israel. Mubarak has been in no position to conclude such an agreement, even though he has tried to broker it. The Saudis have the financial muscle to make it happen. Clearly the Egyptians and Saudis have much to discuss.

We are not at the dawn of a new age in the Middle East. We are in a period where one country has become politically powerful because of mushrooming wealth, and wants to use that power to make more wealth. A lasting peace is not likely in the Middle East. But increased stability is possible, and while interfaith dialogue does not strike us as a vehicle to this end, hundreds of millions in oil revenue does. Peace has been made on weaker foundations.

(this is a report from )

Monday, June 2, 2008

Study Shows Young Adults Hit by ‘News Fatigue’

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Young adults experience news fatigue from being inundated by facts and updates and have trouble accessing in-depth stories, according to a study to be unveiled at a global media conference Monday.

The study’s purpose was to obtain a deeper and more holistic understanding of the news consumption behavior of younger audiences. The results were scheduled to be presented Monday in a 71-page report to media executives and editors from around the globe at the World Editors Forum in Goteborg, southwestern Sweden.

A key finding was that participants yearned for quality and in-depth reporting but had difficulty immediately accessing such content because they were bombarded by facts and updates in headlines and snippets of news.

The study also found that participants were unable to give full attention to the news because they were almost always simultaneously engaged in other activities
 blog it

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Conscience, Honor, Respect

What to do when your work deserves honor, when you respect the awarding group, but have your own strong views and ideals you cannot compromise, even in the face of prestige and honor?

Here is one sterling example of how to handle such a situation. A story distributed by Common Ground News Service:

US professor shares Israeli prize with Palestinians
Barbara Ferguson
WASHINGTON—Here’s a story of a man with guts... and a big heart. The recipient of one of Israel’s most prestigious prizes donated his $33,333 portion of the shared award yesterday to a Palestinian university and an Israeli human rights group that tries to ease Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinian students.

US mathematician David Mumford, a professor at Brown University’s Applied Mathematics Division, was co-winner of the Wolf Prize on Sunday for his groundbreaking theoretical work in algebraic geometry. Mumford announced yesterday he would donate his prize money to Bir-Zeit University in the West Bank and to Gisha, an Israeli lobby that works to help Palestinian students travel to their places of study.

He received the award at a ceremony on Sunday from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Knesset in recognition of his groundbreaking theoretical work “on algebraic surfaces; on geometric invariant theory; and for laying the foundations of the modern algebraic theory of the moduli space of curves and theta functions.”

“Mathematics in Israel flourishes today on this high international plane. Its lifeblood is the free exchange of ideas with scholars visiting, teaching, learning from each other, travelling everywhere in the world,” Mumford, professor emeritus at Brown University and Harvard University, said in a statement. “But this is not so in occupied Palestine where education struggles to continue and travel is greatly limited.”

He added: “Access to education determines how the next generation of Palestinians will grow up, specifically whether potential mathematicians will have the opportunity to join the international community.”

Israel has withstood international criticism of its closures on the Gaza Strip and West Bank, saying they aim to prevent terrorist infiltrations. But these closures make it next to impossible for many Palestinian students to travel to their schools.

“Education for people in the occupied territories gives them a future. The alternative is chaos,” Mumford said, adding that his decision was not aimed at Israel. “I have tremendous regard for Israel, which is without a doubt a major force in the mathematics world. But unfortunately, the Palestinians cannot take part in this prosperity.”

“I decided to donate my share of the Wolf Prize to enable the academic community in occupied Palestine to survive and thrive,” he told Israeli daily Ha'aretz.


* Barbara Ferguson is Arab News' Washington Correspondent. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Arab News, 27 May 2008,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

More on the Israel - Syria talks

These talks are not receiving a lot of press in the United States, (possibly due to the fact that bi-lateral talks of massive significance, over a hithertoo intractable issue, brokered at the exclusion of the United States, despite Anapolis plus 3 presidential (presidential!) trips to the region), but information on these talks and developments is very important for people who are concerned about peace in the region.

Common ground news service has distributed a valuable and insightful report on how these talks are developing, an article that first appeared in the 28 May 2008, Jordan Times,

What Syrian-Israeli talks mean
Hasan Abu Nimah
AMMAN—There was a surprise announcement last week that Syrians and Israelis started indirect peace negotiations under Turkish patronage in Istanbul. That was confirmed in both countries' capitals soon afterwards.

Almost simultaneously, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that the two sides had already reached understanding as a result of secret talks in Europe two years earlier, between September 2004 and July 2006, and that the two sides would sign an agreement of principles, and once they had fulfilled their commitments, a peace agreement would be signed.

The terms include Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of 4 June 1967, without agreement on a timetable for the withdrawal. Syria demanded five years while Israel demanded 15.

Although Syrian sovereignty would be acknowledged on the evacuated land, the agreement includes the establishment of a public park on a “significant area of the Golan” for joint Syrian-Israeli use, but the Israeli presence there “will not be dependent on Syrian approval”.

The agreement, described as an unsigned “non-paper” also speaks of a demilitarised zone on the Golan; a buffer zone in between the two sides on the basis of a ratio of 1:4 (in terms of territory) in Israel’s favour; and Israeli control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and the Lake Kinneret.

Ha'aretz published on May 21st a summary of the agreement in an article by Akiva Eldar, with a link to the full text.

If this is what Israel means by withdrawal from all the Golan Heights, then one should understand the leaks, towards the end of last month via the Turkish prime minister, in that light.

The Syrian Arabic daily, Al Watan, revealed on April 23rd that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had informed the Syrian president that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was prepared to evacuate the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement. Conditions on Syria, such as ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and scaling down relations with Iran had always been linked to such offers.

Knowing Israeli negotiating style, it was hard to take the offer at face value. Israel would never expose its negotiating cards in advance; they never did that before. Quite the opposite, the Israelis negotiate hardest on matters they would normally be willing to concede, in order to help their position with respect to more difficult issues.

But if the recent Olmert offer was based on the so-called non-paper, and if the Istanbul talks are meant to proceed on that basis, the matter should be different, although it is hard to believe that Syria would consider such an arrangement as basis for a final settlement.

Replacing the occupation with a shared public park, with no Syrian control on access, renders any claim of sovereignty worthless.

Olmert was criticised at home for the Syrian talks surprise. Some political leaders accused him of trying to divert attention from the criminal investigation of his controversial financial deals, which casts doubt on his ability as well as his authority to make such big decisions at such a crucial turn—when the investigation might push him out of office.

One may add to that the possibility that the Syrian opening could also be intended to serve as a cover for the apparent failure of the Palestinian track, despite much American promise and “mild” persuasion on Israel to make any kind of face-saving gesture.

Israel did not offer anything at all. Olmert, since Annapolis and before, was under severe pressure to not even talk about final status issues with anyone. Defiant settlement activity has also continued full-scale. It is likely, therefore, that opening a new track with the Syrians, with talks that could drag on endlessly and without much commitment on the part of the Israelis, may offer a convenient, though temporary distraction.

The response from Washington has already been lukewarm, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice affirming that the Palestinian-Israeli is “the most mature track,” but without expressing explicit discouragement. The question is whether Washington is really prepared to allow Syria, through engagement with Israel in a renewed role in the stalled peace process, to place itself in a better position internationally. Probably the Syrians see the renewed talks – even if they hold little or no promise – as an exit for them as well.

The Doha agreement amongst the conflicting Lebanese factions was another development in Syria’s favour, with its allies in Lebanon gaining good ground as a result. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, supposed to be on the opposing side, included in a statement at the brief ceremony announcing the agreement a specific but a noteworthy call for improving the “brotherly relations” with Syria. Both developments could lead to a substantial reduction of the diplomatic pressure on Syria, but one needs to know if that is acceptable to Washington at this stage.

Some analysts, according to Reuters, doubt that any results would emerge from the current talks before President Bush has left office.

Although leaks about secret Syrian-Israeli talks have been circulating for few years, the truth is that official negotiations have been held on and off between the two sides since Madrid in 1991, but no progress was ever made. Renewed talks always had to start right from the beginning, as probably they will do this time.

There is no doubt that serious talks between the two sides with the objective of reaching a settlement would be a major breakthrough. It is an important step that will contribute substantially to peace and stability in the region, and will have positive effect on the other tracks. But, and most unfortunately, the new enterprise is surrounded by dubious signs and uncertain circumstances.

Maybe the time has finally come for a miracle, which will be very warmly welcome.


* Hasan Abu Nimah is Jordan’s former ambassador to the United Nations. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Jordan Times, 28 May 2008,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.