President Barack Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, shuttled last week between Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. That leaves only Syrian President Bashar Assad waiting in George Bush's axis of evil.
In discussions held on the eve of Mitchell's departure for the region, it emerged that the foreign relations teams of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama don't agree on how to proceed with Damascus. Several team members advised Obama not to do any favors for Assad without getting anything in return and that Mitchell should head to Syria only when armed with a shopping list.
The new list would not only include things that Israel is seeking from the Syrians - mostly relating to its ties with hostile entities, such as Iran, and its wards in Lebanon and Gaza. With all due respect to Washington's good intentions in promoting the peace process between Damascus and Jerusalem, the White House has its own Middle East agenda.
First on the list is President Obama's promise to get the U.S. out of Iraq. In order to receive the credentials of an American ambassador, Assad will have to promise that Syria will shut its doors to Shi'ite and international jihad forces seeking to take the place of the American army.
Assad will have to wait for the news from the U.S. at least until Mitchell's next visit to the region.
This will happen after the elections and perhaps only after a new government is formed in Israel. Until then, the Syrian president is taking comfort in meeting with members of Congress, retired diplomats and representatives of research institutes and peace organizations.
Last week, no less than three American delegations landed in Damascus one after another: the American Institute of Peace, Search for a Common Ground, and delegation of members of the newly inducted Congress. Some of them came for the weekend to Israel. The main message that Assad and his associates sought to convey via the delegations is that with all due respect to the Turkish mediation, without a senior American representative at the table, the negotiations with Israel will not get anywhere (and this was before the presidential scuffle in Davos involving the Turkish and Israeli heads of state).
The visitors reported that Assad understands closer ties with the U.S. will cost him in relations with those the U.S. deems questionable company, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
However, he asked that it be made clear to the incoming administration in Washington and the outgoing government in Israel that it would be advisable to lower their expectations regarding Damascus' ties to Iran.
Assad said he understands that opening a new chapter in the relations between the U.S. and Syria will require a shift in its ties with Tehran, but he has no intention of declaring this on the streets of Damascus.
Hamas' biggest help (it's not Iran)
UNRWA Gaza chief John Ging has an accent that immediately reveals his origins. As a native of Ireland, Ging understands a thing or two about war and peace, hatred and reconciliation.
Perhaps for that reason it is hard for him to understand Israeli policy toward the Palestinian population. Ging does not understand what Israel gains from opening only one of the two border crossings, Kerem Shalom and Sufa, to allow goods into Gaza even during times of quiet.
What did Israel gain from the destruction of the American school in Gaza, and of the UNRWA schools? He describes the effort UN teachers invest over many years in educating students to break from preaching against Israel and Jews; so why doesn't Israel open the Erez crossing to allow passage of Palestinian workers who have valid security documents?
I said that in any case Hamas would prevent them from crossing into Israel.
Ging smiled. "On the contrary," he said. "Then everyone will know who is stealing bread from the mouths of Gaza's children."
The senior UN official wonders where the group of Israeli businessmen who for years have been making a fortune off of trade to Gaza disappeared to. Why don't they explain to their friends in the government what this siege is doing to the private sector in the Gaza Strip? Perhaps someone up there will understand who benefits from the dismissal of 100,000 salaried employees because Israel is barring the transfer of raw materials to factories in Gaza.
"Hamas is perceived in Gaza as the winners of the elections, the ones who succeed in taking control of the Strip, the winners of the siege and the winner of Operation Cast Lead," said Ging. "The only thing Hamas needs to win the elections too is for Israel to maintain its current policy."
An automatic security concern
Shepherd Hani Halil Abu Aram, one of the cave dwellers in the southern Hebron Hills, was 2 years old when a phosphorus shell left by the Israel Defense Forces in a field after a training exercise injured him and his three siblings three years ago.
The oldest, Mohammed, died a few days later due to asphyxiation that was not diagnosed at the hospital. Hani, who was seriously injured in the abdomen, was determined to receive 100 percent disability benefits. As part of a suit filed against the Ministry of Defense, it was agreed that Jerusalem psychiatrist Dr. Yoav Cohen would examine him today.
The Shin Bet Security Service decided that the handicapped child is "prevented for security reasons" and barred from entering Israel.
Attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represents the Aram siblings, says that an officer working in the Judea and Samaria legal adviser's office confirmed to an apprentice at his firm that the term "prevented for security reasons" is an automatic classification for every Palestinian injured as a result of security force operations, because they are suspected of seeking revenge against Jews. Lecker says this isn't the first time he's heard of this phenomenon. You are injured and then you are also barred.
In the end, after much begging and pleading, the child was allowed into Israel to see Cohen.
The Shin Bet said they do not usually provide details of their policy on issuing entry permits to Israel.
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