'Gaza is like Dakar'
When officials of the various aid organizations hear Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, claiming that talk of a humanitarian crisis in the territories is "propaganda," they don't know whether to just sob or really break down crying. The head of the UN World Food Program (WFP), Arnold Vercken, based in Jerusalem, arrived in this country nine months ago after a long term of duty in Senegal. He knows western Africa from up close and knows a thing or two about poverty, famine and malnutrition. When he visits the Gaza Strip and sees the children digging in the garbage bins, Vercken feels he is in his previous home. "Since the donations were frozen and the Karni crossing point closed," he says unhesitatingly, "the Gaza Strip reminds me more and more of Dakar."
According to the latest data the organization has, every second Palestinian in the West Bank or Gaza Strip - about 2 million people, of whom close to half are under 18 - are suffering from "a lack of food security" (as opposed to 37 percent last summer). The significance of this is that most of the time their stomachs are rumbling and their heads are busy with worrying where their next meal will come from.
And we have not yet seen the worst. Vercken estimates that unless there is a significant change in the policies of the donor countries, and if Israel continues to refuse to release the money from taxes, in the coming months the WFP will have to deal with a 25 percent increase in the number of mouths they have to feed - reaching a total of 600,000 non-refugees. This in addition to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who exist on the food they get from UNRWA.
What bothers Vercken most is the situation of the children who, because of bird flu and their parents' descent below the poverty line, (which has dropped to $1.6 per day per capita) do not remember what poultry or meat tastes like and are suffering from a lack of protein.
There are increasing reports of families selling their jewels and furniture to ensure their children eat. Doctors and teachers who continue to turn up to work even though they have not received salaries now can't even buy a bus ticket, and they are slowly dropping out. Senior defense establishment officials, mainly those who go to the territories, share the worries of the aid organizations that the territories will undergo Africanization. The politicians are starting to find it difficult to get data from the professionals that will support their approach about "propaganda."
That is why Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided to open the Karni crossing point to goods. But without money to pay the salaries to the Palestinian Authority workers and sources of livelihood for tens of thousands of unemployed persons, the "propaganda" - pictures of Palestinian children with extended bellies - will soon provide full-time employment for Israelis explaining this country's position abroad.
It sounds different in English
In Hebrew, Olmert's visit to Washington was a victory campaign. Like Saul, he went out looking for his donkeys and got a throne. According to the Israeli media, the Israeli premier did not dream he would come home with bilateral agreement to his unilateral plan. But the visit looks completely different in English.
The Boston Globe claims President George W. Bush told Olmert that America would not stand in his way if he wished to dismantle settlements. This is where the agreement between them began and ended. In an editorial summing up the visit last Thursday, the paper writes that Olmert's address to Congress "was received warmly ... His press conference with President Bush suggested an affinity between the two leaders. Olmert's domestic audience could assume his plan to withdraw from outlying West Bank settlements and unilaterally establish permanent borders for Israel had not met with an outright rebuff."
But, the paper continues, "the heavy lifting was done in private talks" with the president and his secretaries of state and defense. The information about those meetings points to "a cooperative atmosphere but also a healthy administration skepticism about Olmert's still preliminary proposal to draw Israel's final borders unilaterally."
The Globe points out that, even in his public remarks, Bush warned Israel, albeit politely, that it was possible it had no Palestinian partner at present, the U.S. had not changed its position "that a final status peace agreement must be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. A sound corollary of this stance is that Israel must not undertake any unilateral measure that could bar a negotiated agreement, on permanent two-state borders," the paper adds.
On the same day, The New York Times wrote that Bush must warn Israel against Ariel Sharon's misbegotten plan to unilaterally redraw the borders of what could eventually be Palestine. The paper describes Olmert's proposal to withdraw settlers and troops from the West Bank as a "worthy goal" and one that has been "way too long in coming." But it immediately adds: "The problem is with the second part of the proposal - to retain several large settlement blocs in the Palestinian West Bank." This, the paper says, "is a recipe for disaster."
The Washington Post suspects that though Bush and Olmert "paid lip service" to continued negotiations, they in effect inaugurated an entirely different process, in which essential Palestinian interests will be disregarded and Bush's two-state dream will be sabotaged. "Left to his own calculations, Mr. Olmert would probably settle on such a strategy," the paper says, hinting that the Israeli prime minister returned home without being able to do things his own way. The Washington paper appears to have been influenced by the administration officials' briefings that doused cold water on some of the over-enthusiastic briefings of their Israeli counterparts.
Who missed the train?
The compliments Olmert heaped on George Bush with regard to the crisis with Iran, like the crisis in the territories, will improve the U.S. president's position in Washington about as much as an aspirin could have helped the cancer victims on hunger strike in Jerusalem.
Just as in the Iraqi war, so in the conflict with Iran, the Bush administration's reputation is not exactly sky-high. In an interview published on the Web site of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, whose director was appointed by the president, Bush is accused of missing the chance to reach agreement with Iran, not only with regard to developing weapons of mass destruction.
The reports of new conciliatory Iranian overtures lend credence to this story. Flint Everett, until three years ago a senior member of the National Security Council, claims that on the eve of his retirement in May 2003, a document reached him in which Tehran expressed agreement to stop supplying the Palestinian terror organizations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with weapons and to put pressure on them to end violent actions against civilians within the Green Line, as well as turning Hezbollah into a political body.
In the document, which was handed to the Americans by the Swiss ambassador of Iran, the Iranians even agreed to support the Beirut resolution of the Arab League from March 2002 about normalizing relations with Israel in return for a withdrawal to the 1967, borders. In return for lifting sanctions, wiping their name off the "evil axis" list and putting an end to American support for anti-Iranian terror groups, the government of the relatively moderate President Mohammed Khatami was prepared to open speeded-up negotiations over arrangements for limiting nuclear development so that it be used for peaceful purposes only.
Everett, who is a senior member of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, said that in those good old days following the conquest of Iraq, Iran was ready to start a broad strategic dialogue with the U.S. Unfortunately, Everett adds, the Neo-Cons and even Bush himself showed no interest in such a dialogue and arrangement with Iran, including an agreement over the nuclear problem. They were determined to tackle the regime in Tehran after new order was brought to Iraq.
According to Everett, instead of examining the Iranian proposal seriously and continuing contacts, the administration rebuked the Swiss ambassador for trying to push his nose into other people's affairs. Officials in the White House and State Department say no authoritative Iranian proposal to begin direct negotiations was ever brought before the U.S. Dr. Hagai Ram of Ben-Gurion University, a historian who specializes in Iran, says that in light of the previous failure to open a dialogue with Tehran following the events of 9/11, one should take a good look at Everett's version of events. It is not clear whether, today, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we might not have missed the train.