The Judaisation of occupied Jerusalem continues apace while the hapless Palestinian president refuses to quit "peace talks", reports Khaled Amayreh from East Jerusalem
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is contemplating a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip which observers say is intended to deflect attention away from the corruption scandal in which he is increasingly mired. Speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington on Tuesday night Olmert hinted at a wide-ranging "military campaign" in Gaza.
"Israel will not be deterred from a large military operation in Gaza if and when we come to the conclusion that this is the best way to restore calm on our southern border," Olmert told the powerful American-Jewish pressure group. Earlier, Olmert had told representatives of Israeli settlers from the southern region bordering Gaza that "the moment of decision is imminent... the rockets will be stopped one way or another.
Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who last week called on Olmert to "suspend yourself or resign", has been quoted by the Hebrew press as saying that a large-scale incursion into Gaza would be bloody and its outcome unsure.
Commentators view Barak's reservations about a fresh Israeli blitz in Gaza, which would kill hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the densely-populated coastal enclave, as being motivated by political considerations and his political rivalry with Olmert. Israeli pundits suggest that Barak is concerned that Olmert could benefit politically from a large-scale operation in Gaza which might silence voices calling for his resignation.
Last week Morris Talansky, an American Jewish businessman, told investigators in occupied Jerusalem that he had passed $150,000 to Olmert over a 15-year period because he thought he was "a good politician and was capable of achieving much for Israel and the Jewish people".
Despite his constant references to "serious talks with the Palestinians" it is becoming increasingly clear that the Israeli premier thinks there is little or no chance of Israeli-Palestinian talks yielding any substantive results until at least next spring, by which time a new American administration will be in place at the White House, and quite probably a new Israeli government.
Olmert met for nearly two hours with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides last week. The meeting produced no results of note as Abbas reiterated the same demands he had voiced in all his previous meetings with the Israeli premier.
Ahead of the meeting the Israeli government announced plans for the construction of thousands of Jewish settler units across the West Bank and in occupied Arab East Jerusalem where an aggressive Judaisation drive is currently underway.
Abbas asked Olmert to relax restrictions on Palestinian movement and to cancel plans to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes under the pretext that they were built illegally. Israel regularly refuses to grant Palestinians building licences.
On Wednesday the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the Knesset had okayed the preliminary reading of a bill to make Jerusalem the Jewish capital. Displaying characteristic impotence, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the new settlement expansion drive "obstacle to peace".
During the meeting Olmert reportedly lambasted efforts by the PA to convince the European Union (EU) to refrain from ratifying a partnership agreement with Israel in light of continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and its refusal to remove barriers on Palestinian movement in the occupied territories. Olmert is said to have argued that it was unacceptable for the PA "to stab Israel in the back" while conducting peace talks with it.
Given the unwavering US support of Israel, starkly voiced by President Bush during his speech to the Knesset last month, the PA views the EU as a counterweight to Washington.
The meeting drew angry reactions from Hamas. One of the group's spokesmen, Fawzi Barhoum, said the Olmert-Abbas meeting served only to "legitimise Israeli settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian land".
"The meeting," said Barhoum, "provides Olmert with a lifeboat. These meetings don't serve the national interests of the Palestinian people and only give Israel cover under which it can continue to grab more Palestinian land and murder more Palestinian civilians while at the same time claiming to be involved in a peace process with the Palestinian leadership."
Olmert is reported to have told Abbas that he remained committed to efforts to reach a draft peace agreement with the Palestinians before the end of 2008, despite the difficulties he is facing. He also suggested that the Palestinians should moderate their demands by taking "various realities" into account.
Palestinian political analyst Hani Al-Masri dismisses Olmert's assurances as "no more than diplomatic niceties".
"Olmert and Abbas and everyone else, save the stupid and dishonest, know deep in their hearts that the talks are hopeless."
Al-Masri told Al-Ahram Weekly that Israel is now in a pre- electioneering phase and that neither Olmert nor any other Israeli leader is able to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians under current political circumstances.
"I think Abbas should have concluded that these peace talks are futile a long time ago. The fact that he didn't and is not about to do is undermining his stature as well as that of Fatah in the eyes of the Palestinian people."
Abbas, he added, has placed all his eggs in the bottomless American-Israeli basket. "So what is he going to tell the Palestinian masses six months from now, when his term as president of the PA expires?" (see p.6 and Editorial p.12)