|Southwest Asia News Digest
Palestinian Unity Gov't Formed: Cheney War Drive Continues
Despite continuing attempts by the Cheney forces to foment civil war, and provoke Hamas into breaking its "truce" of no terrorism against Israel, the Palestinian National Unity Government agreed to in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Feb. 8-9, was voted up, 83-3, in the Legislative Assembly on March 17 (41 members of Parliament could not vote because they are still imprisoned in Israel). President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the new government, headed by Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. However, the European Union (EU), the U.S., and Israel remained committed to withholding funds to the Palestinians, and furthering tension.
Among the developments surrounding this:
* Saudi King Abdullah phoned Abbas and Haniyeh, congratulating them, and expressing hope that the new government "would work for achieving a settlement based on UN resolutions and the Arab peace plan [of 2002, passed in Beirut]."
* Haniyeh said, in a speech to Parliament, that the coalition wants to set up a Palestinian state "in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast War," and will seek "to expand a truce with Israel," in the words of the Saudi-run English paper Arab News March 18. He also made the usual statement that Palestinians do not give up their right to resist occupation.
* Israel's Foreign Ministry statement says the Palestinian government "platform ... does not accept recognition of Israel's right to exist, elimination of terror and the dismantling of terrorist infrastructure," therefore, Israel "will not be able to work with the Government or any of its ministers." But it says they will continue to "work with" Abbas on "security" and on "improving the quality of living of the Palestinians."
* Through the consul in Jerusalem, the U.S. said that it will not lift financial sanctions on the Palestinian government.
* The EU basically backed Israel and the U.S., albeit more "politely"no full financial support until the Palestinians accept the Quartet demands, though individual European countries, like Norway, might give some immediate financial aid.
Saudis Prepare for Arab League Summit
Jordanian King Abdullah II and Saudi King Abdullah met at the latter's ranch in Janadriya on March 22, and discussed relaunching the Arab peace plan, for the March 28 summit. Saudi Arabia's permanent representative to the Arab League, Ahmed Kattan, was there to prepare the summit, which he said would focus on Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Sudan. He said he expected it to be a success, in light of the Saudis' diplomatic efforts over the past six months. He said the Arab League would also discuss the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the Shi'a-Sunni conflict, and measures to boost educational, economic, and social development. Muhammad Al-Tuwaijeri, assistant Arab League secretary general for economic affairs, said the summit would discuss economic cooperation, preparations for a greater Arab Free Trade Zone, and review a report on an Arab customs union.
U.S. Pressures on Arab League Members Prior to Summit
Reports from the Middle East at the end of March indicate that U.S. envoys in three Arab countries are exerting pressure on the Arab League to retool the Saudi peace proposal, which is up for discussion at Riyadh on March 28-29 at the 19th Arab League Summit. The Saudi peace proposal, originated in 2002, by Saudi King Abdullah offers Israel recognition and permanent peace with all Arab countries, in return for full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Mideast War. It also calls for Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel. Israel rejects full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and it strongly opposes the influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees into the Jewish state.
It is evident that the U.S. position is not to allow the Arab League Summit to form a consensus around the 2002 Saudi Peace Proposal. The Jerusalem Post reported on March 23 that if the Arab League does not retool the plan the way "it would be acceptable to Israel and the international peace brokers," then Israel would launch a diplomatic campaign to paint the current Arab regimes as the primary obstacle to peace.
New Sanctions Imposed on Iran
On March 24, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to impose new sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt its enrichment of uranium. The new resolution bans all Iranian arms exports, calls on nations "to exercise vigilance and restraint" in supplying military hardware to Iran, freezes the assets of a number of individuals and organizations (connected with the Revolutionary Guards), calls on governments and financial institutions not to make any new commitments of grants, financial assistance, or loans to the Iranian government, and a number of other measures. The resolution gives Iran 60 days to suspend its enrichment activities before the new penalties are imposed. If Iran still refuses, then tighter economic sanctions may be considered.
Acting U.S. Ambassador to the UN Alejandro Wolff said the vote "sends a clear and unambiguous message to Iran" that pursuing a nuclear weapons capability "will only further isolate Iran and make it less, not more, secure." Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who went to New York in place of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, said after the vote, that the Security Council "is being abused to take an unlawful, unnecessary, and unjustifiable action" against Iran's "completely peaceful" nuclear program.
For its part, Russia announced two days earlier, that its first international enrichment center will soon open. Known as the International Center for Uranium Enrichment, it will start operating in Angarsk by the end of 2007, said Nikolai Spassky, head of the Russian delegation at Rosatom-IAEA talks. It is a pilot project and more centers are to follow.
Sharon-Syria Talks Kept Secret from Bush Administration
Ha'aretz of March 22, quoting the London-based Arab daily Al Hayat, reports that, according to French sources, Israel does not want to see the collapse of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, especially because they don't know what would follow. These French sources, apparently government officials, had been in discussions with Israel over the situation in Lebanon. Israel told the French they feared the Lebanese government itself was backing the rehabilitation of Hezbollah forces.
Also on Syria-Israeli relations, Akiva Eldar of Ha'aretz, quoting former head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi, said that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had fully backed the secret talks that were being held between Syria and Israel between 2003 and 2006, but kept them secret because he did not want the Bush Administration to know about them. Ze'evi, now retired, is quoted saying Israel should hold talks with Syria.
Expressing criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's anti-Syria policy, Ze'evi said, "The approach that Assad is not a partner is pushing him into the axis of evil. He doesn't want to be there, but when everyone is rejecting him and telling him he is a bad boy, there is nothing left for him to do but to behave like a bad boy."
Indian-Israeli Talks on Infrastructure Development
During his recent visit to India, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz said at a conference, organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on March 21, that Israel's government is looking forward to Indian Railways and other Indian private sector companies for participation in Israel's infrastructure development. In return, he said, Israel would share with India its expertise in providing state-of-the-art road-safety infrastructure. He also said that they would look forward to strengthening relationships with India in research and development as well as infrastructure investment.
At the New Delhi conference, Mofaz said Israel is in the process of preparing a master plan for Israel's infrastructure development.
Gideon Siterman, director-general of Israel's Ministry of Transport and Safety, who accompanied Mofaz, said India could be a gateway for Israel into the South Asian market, while Israel could be a gateway for India into European markets.
Gulf States Plan Pipelines To Bypass Strait of Hormuz
Gulf countries are planning to build two pipelines with an output of 6.5 million barrels per day of oilabout 40% of total oil exports from that areawhich will reduce transportation through the Strait of Hormuz. The ostensible reason driving these projects is the threat issued by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, last June, that his country could disrupt the world's oil supply if it comes under attack.
The first 224-mile pipeline would carry 1.5 mbpd oil from United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the emirates of Fujirah, located outside the Strait of Gulf of Oman. Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Co. is planning to build the line and the construction of it would start sometime this year.
The second pipeline, which would carry 5 mbpd oil and has been dubbed the Trans-Gulf Strategic Pipeline, would bring in oil from various Persian Gulf terminals outside the Strait, perhaps to Oman. A forthcoming Gulf Research Center study identifies six possible routes for the second, 1,500-mile-long pipeline, which is not expected to be completed before 2015.