May 18, 2000
Barak Under Fire
When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak travels to the United States for meetings May 21-23, he'll leave behind faltering peace talks, a government in jeopardy and violent flare-ups with the Palestinians.
Barak plans to meet with American Jewish leaders, many of whom are as confused and divided about the peace process as Barak's constituency back home.The trip comes after Barak secured approval from the Israeli Cabinet and Knesset this week to transfer three Arab villages outside Jerusalem to full Palestinian control. This gesture, which was aimed at building confidence among the Palestinians, may have cost Barak his ruling coalition.And in a dark convergence of events, the decision Monday to hand the towns to the Palestinians came on the day gunfights erupted between Israeli troops and Palestinian police officers.
Monday also witnessed the first mass right-wing protest against Barak since he was elected a year earlier. Hours after the 56-48 Knesset vote supporting Barak, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers converged on Jerusalem's Zion Square, where Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon told the crowd that the Barak government "has bowed to the Palestinian rioters."Protests had taken place on and off for more than a week in the territories. The earlier protests, marked by repeated clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets, had focused on the Palestinian demand that Israel release more prisoners.
Israeli officials said the clashes escalated Monday when Palestinian snipers joined the stone-throwers, prompting shooting from Israeli soldiers. It is unclear whether Palestinianpolice were among the original snipers, but they were later seen exchanging fire with Israeli troops.
Palestinian witnesses claimed -- in some cases proudly -- that the first live bullets had come from Palestinian civilians.By the end of the day, the clashes -- which were at their worst in Ramallah -- left at least three Palestinians dead and hundreds more wounded. Fifteen Israeli soldiers were wounded in the violent exchanges, at least two by Palestinian police fire.
Most of the Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets fired by Israeli troops to disperse rioters throwing Molotov cocktails and stones.
The violence was the worst in the territories in two years, when several Palestinians were killed in clashes during similar disturbances marking the "catastrophe," as Arabs refer tothe establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.
Barak discussed the situation on the phone Monday night with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who Israeli officials said had encouraged the protests.For their part, Palestinian officials called the street demonstrations a public outpouring of frustration over slow progress in the peace negotiations. But with the volatile turn of events,reports said, the Palestinian Authority tried to restore order.
On Tuesday, clashes continued in Ramallah and several West Bank towns, but the violence was less intense than the day before.Meanwhile the already troubled peace talks appeared to have hit another glitch, with reports that the chief Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, had tendered his resignation to Arafat, angry over his exclusion from back-channel talks Israel and the Palestinians held in Stockholm this week.
Monday's violence came as the Israeli Cabinet and parliament approved a proposal to transfer the Arab villages of Abu Dis, Al-Azariya and Sawahara outside Jerusalem to total Palestinian self-rule.
Right-wing legislators oppose the idea, saying it will jeopardize Jerusalem. But Barak urged legislators during Monday's stormy Knesset session to remember that "Jerusalem did not fall because Abu Dis was not part of it."The Cabinet voted 15-6 for the proposal, which Barak described as necessary to prevent "stalemate and deterioration" in the negotiations. Barak wants the areas handed over in order to persuade the Palestinians to delay a thirdIsraeli withdrawal from the West Bank and instead focus on a final peace agreement.
But the Cabinet decision sparked a coalition crisis, with the hawkish five-seat National Religious Party announcing it was pulling out of the coalition.The development raised the stakes regarding the future of two other coalition partners, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the conservative Yisrael Ba'Aliyah immigrant rights party. A departure by either faction would leave Barak's government, which until now held 68 seats in the 120-member Knesset, without a parliamentary majority.
The trial of the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel moved into its final stages this week amid fresh concerns for the future of Iranian Jewry.With Monday's "confession" of a second religious leader, a shadow has been cast over all Jews there, say American advocates for the 13."Based on the way the trial has been portrayed, and broadcasting two of the confessions on television, the entire community is now suspect," said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.Meanwhile, Dayanim and others expressed skepticism about an Iranian judiciary official's assurances Monday that none of the 13 will face execution."I don't know how much we can trust these things they say," said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the Los Angeles-based American Iranian Jewish Federation."At the end of the day, it will depend on the political climate. The verdict will not be a judicial decision, it will be a political decision. We have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario at all times."Monday's closed-court confession of Asher Zadmehr, the senior religious leader in the southern city of Shiraz, where the trial is taking place, came on the heels of a similar confession last week by Nasser Levi-Haim, 46."The Jewish community is shocked and scared. Many have stopped going to work and sending their children to school, because they're afraid of being taunted," said Dayanim."They're calling their children Israelis or spies."
Eight of nine Jews who have come before the Revolutionary Court have "confessed" to assorted spying-related activities.Their advocates contend the confessions were coerced and scripted prior to the hearings.A tenth suspect, Javeed Beit Yakov, was slated to face the judge on Wednesday in what was expected to be the last hearing.Three Jews out on bail since February are expected to be freed, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conferenceof Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.Verdicts and sentences are expected some time next week, said Hoenlein, who has led the international campaign for their release.Zadmehr, 49, is said to be a university English instructor and the most learned of the Shiraz Jews, a fervently Orthodox community.
Zadmehr, also the oldest of the 13 Jews on trial, reportedly admitted he had lived briefly in Israel before the 1979 Islamic Revolution but returned home soon after.He was quoted as admitting that he collected cultural information about Iran and analyzed material broughtin by other accused spies. But Zadmehr also denied he was the mastermind behind the spying, as some Iranian media reportedly asserted.
Outside the courtroom, Zadmehr burst into tears after being embraced by his distraught wife and two children, according to news reports.Zadmehr's court appearance was followed by an announcement by judiciary spokesman Hossein Ali Amiri that none of the 13 had violated the Islamic law of moharebeh (taking up arms against God and the state).Assuming that they are not going to be executed, it appears that the 10 likely to be convicted will be sentenced for anywhere from 2 to 10 years behind bars, but some may be let off with time served.
Regardless of the Iranian maneuvers, advocates like Hoenlein are working to ensure that Iran paysa price for its handling of the case.While some countries have indicated they may withdraw their ambassadors from Iran and cut their diplomatic relations if the judgments are seen as excessive, Hoenlein wants to hit Iran where it hurts -- financially.His organization, the Conference of Presidents, is pressing member countries of the World Bank to further delay or cancel a planned $231 million loan to Iran.
The larger of the two loans, for $145 million, would improve waste water collection and distribution for some 2.1 million people in greater Tehran. The second loan, for $86 million, would improve the quality of primary health care and family planning services in both rural and urban areas.The United States, Canada, Austria and France are fighting against the loan, said Hoenlein, while Germany supports the loan.