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Lieberman's Gaza Proposal A Non-Starter

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Reported Proposal To Lift Israel's Gaza Blockade & Hand Over Control To European Union Likely To Be Non-Starter

Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas To Consult With Arab League On Returning To Direct Talks With Israel

U.S. Congress Grants $200 Million To Israel For Deployment Of 'Iron Dome' Missile Defense System That Can Protect Jewish State from Future Rocket Attacks From Gaza & South Lebanon

Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 The week in Israel ended with some surprising developments. According to the Yediot Ahronot daily, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is about to propose a dramatic plan to lift Israel's naval blockade of Gaza and hand over control to countries from the European Union. The latest aid ship bound for Gaza complied with Israel's naval blockade and agreed to change course for Al Arish, Egypt without provoking violence. Meanwhile, U.S. envoy George Mitchell has met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on the West Bank. However Abbas, who fears condemnation from Hamas, may not agree to return to direct talks with Israel, unless he gets the green light from the Arab League.

 Israel's Foreign Minister has done it again - according to the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Lieberman is about to propose that Israel lift her naval blockade and transfer all responsibility for Gaza to the international community. However, this is Lieberman's private initiative and there is no evidence that he has even discussed it with Prime Mminister Binyamin Netanyahu. The problem has been that although former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conducted a unilateral Israeli pullback from Gaza in the summer of 2005, Israel still controls the land, sea and air borders to most of Gaza. Therefore, the international community has not recognized an end to the Israeli occupation. Israel's Foreign Minister believes his plan for a second disengagement from Gaza will stick.

On May 31st, Israel's naval blockade turned into a public relations disaster when nine Turkish activists were killed in a clash with Israeli naval commandos, who boarded the Turkish ship Marmara when she tried to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. Now Lieberman would have vessels bound for Gaza searched by European inspectors in Cyprus or Greece rather than forcing them to dock at the Israeli port of Ashdod. He reportedly suggested that the French Foreign Legion and Special Forces from other nations could be tasked with preventing arms smuggling into Gaza. In addition, Israel would sever all her ties with Gaza and be sealed off completely. Israel currently supplies electricity (from an Israeli power plant that Palestinian terrorists have even tried to rocket). In Lieberman's view: ' Gaza would be permitted to go its own way and function as an independent' entity'. European Union members would be encouraged to play a greater role in Gaza by building a power station, a water desalination plant and housing facilities. Lieberman's sees Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was expelled from Gaza by Hamas in 2006, is a lost cause. Israel should not expect Abbas to compromise on peace moves even if direct negotiations do get underway.

Lieberman's surprising plan for Gaza was leaked from inside the foreign ministry which has refused to verify the report. The Foreign Minister reportedly planned to discuss it with Lady Ashton, the European Union's chief diplomat, when she visits Israel shortly. Known for his volatile temperament and sharp tongue, Lieberman could be venting his anger at Prime Minister Netanyahu for his being left out of the picture about the recent secret meeting between Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels. But if the newspaper report is accurate, Lieberman is running counter to Netanyahu's approach to Gaza. The Prime Minister views Hamas controlled Gaza as he does Hezbollah dominated southern Lebanon; both are Iranian 'forward bases' that pose dangerous threats on the very borders of the Jewish state. The reason for the naval blockade is to prevent an inflow of missiles and terrorists to Gaza by sea, now important than ever after Egypt is finally cracking down on the Palestinian arms smuggling through tunnels from Sinai. And the idea of international inspectors preventing illegal weapons from being smuggled into Gaza will go over like a lead balloon in the Prime Minister's office. Israel is now confronted with the UN's failure to prevent tens of thousands of rockets from being sent from Iran via Syria to Hezballah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006, UNFIL forces were stationed in south Lebanon to stem the missile flow from Syria but have failed utterly. Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has estimated that Hezballah now has an arsenal of over 40,000 rockets and missiles smuggled in under the noses of UNIFIL. This is not the time in Israel to be talking about another international scheme for blocking illegal weapons from reaching Hamas. The bottom line: Lieberman's proposal is a non- starter and may sink silently after being leaked to the media. Within twenty four hours, Hamas swiftly retorted to the Lieberman report. Hamas officials declared that Israel will continue to bear full responsibility for Gaza. Why does Hamas not jump at the offer to end the 'occupation'. On the contrary, Hamas insists that the occupation must continue and that apparently is because it serves as the pretext for continuing to rocket Israel and rail at its rival Fatah which rules the West Bank for halting the terrorism and agreeing to talk to Israel.

Aid Flotillas & Israeli Inquiries:

The latest aid ship bound to Gaza, sponsored by the son of Libyan despot Muammar Gadaffi, finally anchored in the Egyptian port of Al Arish, from where its cargo will also be trucked to Gaza. Actually, Israel has not imposed a total siege on Gaza as is widely reported because there is a border crossing at Rafah, in Egypt. However, the Egyptians also object to weapons being smuggled into Gaza. The Israel Navy warned the Almathea she would not be permitted to sail to Gaza and was obligated to comply with Israel's naval blockade by international law. The latest incident proved that the Marmara affair was a deliberate provocation to break the blockade and serving as a precedent for other ships to sail without being searched to Gaza. Obviously, the missiles and other weapons would then be pouring in to Hamas as they have been to Hizballah from Iran.

What can be said about the IDF inquiry, headed by Gen.(res.) Giora Eiland? In a word what stands out is 'complacency'. Mistakes were made at all levels in both the planning and execution of the boarding operation by the naval commandos who had successfully commandeered dozens of ships trying to smuggle weapons both to Hamas and Hezballah, mostly without a shot being fired. But never had they tackled a vessel with over 600 passengers, many of whom turned violent. Strangely, the IDF had not prepared a 'worst case scenario' prepared if things went wrong as they did when the fifteen naval commandos slid down their 'fast ropes' from a chopper' firing paintball weapons, unaided by another force that failed to board the Marmara from the sea. The commandos then had to fight for their lives against scores of Turkish militants wielding knives, axes and crow bars. The lack of Israeli intelligence coordination also failed to warn that the IHH Turkish 'charity' organization is supportive of radical Islamic movements. Aside from the inquiry, the Turkish government itself deserves a share of the blame. It actively encouraged the attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade, which is legal. The threats by Prime Minister Erdogan to send some more Turkish vessels to break the blockade appear to have subsided. Some observers think that Turkey may now be having second thoughts. Although Israel bungled the Marmara boarding operation, Erdogan has been perceived as an irresponsible 'rabble-rouser' in some quarters of the international community. A French investigative magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere has cast more light on the terror connections of IHH, the Turkish 'charity' organization that organized the Turkish flotilla. Bruguiere has worked for both French and American authorities to 'dry out' the financial sources that feed international terror organizations'. During a visit to Israel, the magistrate said: 'As far back as 1996 we identified the IHH as a terror organization and not a charity group'. His investigation had uncovered an international terror network that reached as far as Bosnia and Afghanistan with connections to the Turkish IHH headquarters. Interviewd by the Haaretz newspaper Bruguiere added: 'We had recordings of telephone conversations and documents from people who explicitly testified that IHH is a terror organization'. Moreover, the magistrate disclosed that even the Turkish authorities had at one time raided the IHH headquarters: 'The Turkish authorities had good reason to do so - they discovered weapons, explosive materials and forged documents'.

Why has Israel taken so much international heat over the aid ships? To this very day, terrorists in Gaza still launch rockets into Israel. Although most do not kill or wound Israeli civilians, the terror effect is still there and most, if not all states, would have also acted to prevent it. However, from a tactical point of view, it was a mistake to link the naval blockade with the land closure that banned thousands of non- threatening items from entering Gaza. The Israeli thinking idea was that if abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was being held in a dungeon without any humanitarian rights, then the people of Gaza would not be allowed to enjoy 'chocolate or cusbara'. The Gazans would then blame Hamas for their plight and exert pressure for a reasonable exchange. However, such thinking does not apply in a brutal dictatorship as is the case in Hamas controlled Gaza. In fact Israel's plan backfired. Israel provided her enemies with ammunition for a major propaganda campaign - 'Israel was starving the children of Gaza!' and therefore the need for the aid vessels. It is a matter of record that even the UN has never charged Israel with blocking food and medical supplies from entering Gaza. In fact, even during the IDF's Cast Lead Operation, the Israeli forces called a unilateral cease-fire every day to allow the supplies to be trucked in from Israel! In this vein, the Muslim holiday of Id el Fitr is fast approaching in Gaza, no less than the rest of the Muslim world. Consider this: the Hamas regime has requested to buy ten thousand head of cattle for the celebrations. The Gazans were said to have preferred Israeli beef over that of neighboring Egypt because of quality and veterinarian supervision. The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture has agreed to supply 300 head daily to meet the latest Gaza 'demand'.

And what's going on in Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continues to ponder his response to U.S. envoy George Mitchell. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu apparently saw eye to eye on the need to return to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but Abbas is still holding out. After the latest meeting between Abbas and Mitchell on July 17th, Palestinian officials say they are sticking to their preconditions that Israel must commit to some clear cut concessions in advance of direct negotiations. However Netanyahu has declared he would not make any confidence building gestures until the plestinian return to direct talks. Nevertheless, Mitchell was reportedly hoping to launch the direct negotiations by the end of August. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the the Israeli settlement freeze which expires on September 26th. There is conjecture that Netanyahu might agree to limit any renewed building to areas inside the settlement blocks that Abbas agrees would remain part of Israel in a future peace agreement. The latest signals from Ramallah indicate that Abbas plans to consult again with members of the Arab League on whether to renew direct negotiations with Israel. Last time, the Arab League did tell Abbas to go for it and it's likely to do so again. Clearly, Abbas does not feel strong enough in the Palestinian camp, to repel Hamas condemnation for returning to direct talks with Israel. Netanyahu is also flying to Egypt to update Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his recent meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House. It is a fact of Middle East reality that the Egyptian leader views Israel as a better friend than Hamas.

In another development, the U.S. Congress has approved $200 million dollars in aid to Israel to help pay for the Israeli produced 'Iron Dome' defense system. Iron Dome has scored bull's eyes in simulations of Kassam and Katyusha rocket attacks that have plagued Israel from Gaza and southern Lebanon. In announcing the aid, an American official said 'it would help Israel to make the tough decisions required in the future'. With all this American largess it is hard to see Prime Minister Netanyahu launching a full blown building program in the territories after the 'suspension' expires in September.

David Essing

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