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DEFENSE MINISTER MOFAZ - UPBEAT ON PALESTINIANS AND EGYPT

Defense Minister Mofaz: ‘Co-Ordination With Palestinians On Gaza Withdrawal Can Be Platform For Future Withdrawals From Palestinian Towns’

‘Iran and Hizballah May Heat Up Lebanese Border To Torpedo Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue’

Defence Minister Mofaz

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says Israel and the Palestinians may now be on the eve on a new and positive era. Addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mofaz spoke of new opportunities but he also warned that Iran and Hizballah may heat up the northern border in an effort to sabotage a peaceful dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. In the south, the Defense Minister sees an important strategic relationship developing between Israel and Egypt.

The U.S. presence in Iraq and the death of Yasser Arafat may have created new opportunities for Israel and the Palestinians. Defense Shaul Mofaz is definitely in an upbeat mood.

Hizballah

The key is a first ever free and democratic Palestinian election. Mofaz hopes the outcome will see the election of an effective Palestinian leadership which will not use terrorism as a tool to achieve its national goals. For its part, the IDF will withdraw from the Palestinian towns several days before the voting on January 9th and will not interfere in any way. He hoped the terrorists would not exploit this for fresh attacks. An Israeli-Palestinian coordinating team has already started meeting on the issue. Mofaz went on to say that if the Palestinians are willing and able, Israel will be ready to co ordinate the Gaza evacuation with them. And if this succeeds, it could be the ‘platform’ for the Palestinian leadership taking over towns in Judea and Samaria, that is the West Bank. However, the Defense Minister also warned that Iran and Hizballah might try and sabotage an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement by heating up the Lebanese frontier. Hizballah has deployed 13,000 rockets, from Iran and Syria, along Lebanon’s border with Israel. The Defense Minister said: ‘We Must Be Ready For This Contingency’.

After the release of the Israeli Druze prisoner Azam Azam, Mofaz spoke in glowing terms about a strategic relationship with Egypt. The Egyptians have agreed to station 750 Border Guards along the border with Gaza to prevent Palestinian arms smuggling. They are expected to start deploying in January and February. Egypt is to also train Palestinian security officers in maintaining law and order. In addition, Israeli and Egyptian forces are setting up a coordinating mechanism to combat terrorist infiltration from Sinai.

Syria - Mofaz said President Bashar Assad’s talk of peace did not fall in line with his deeds. The Defense Minister noted that Assad was facing pressure from the U.S. over Iraq and the U.N. over its occupation of Lebanon. Therefore, Assad was turning to Israel. But Mofaz said if Assad is really serious he should:1. Expel the terrorist headquarters from Damascus2. Evacuate Syrian forces from Lebanon3. Halt aid to Hizballah4. Close Damascus Airport to Iranian arms supplies to Hizballah

However, in committee several MKs criticized the government’s cold shoulder to Syria. Likud MK David Levi called it irresponsible not to take up Assad’s offer for peace talks. Labor MKs Danny Yatom and Haim Ramon charged that Israel was making a mistake in ignoring the Syrian overtures. Yatom charged that in thirty years an Israeli government had never turned down an Arab leader who ready to talk peace.

David Essing

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