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If the U.S. media turns Saddam Hussein's trial into another extravaganza along the lines of the trial of football star O.J. Simpson, President George W. Bush can start to cut down on his campaign donation dinners. Indeed, the Iraqi dictator was captured a little too early (11 months before the presidential elections), and the celebrations were somewhat exaggerated (the news was accompanied by three terror attacks that exacted 47 casualties, and another 27 casualties followed from two car bombings since); but live coverage of the trial of a man who has become the symbol of evil, like the murder trial of a celebrity, can alter the agenda of the Americans.

Testimony about the horrors perpetrated by Saddam and his sons could cause viewers to forget the fact that the lives of the finest young men and women, together with their hard-earned tax dollars, are being used to settle the Bush family's account with the Husseins. Many U.S. citizens, according to public opinion polls, have already forgotten that Bush himself reiterated that the war was aimed at freeing the world of the threat of weapons of mass destruction (traces of which have yet to surface), and not at freeing the Iraqi people of the yoke of Saddam.

One can expect that the pictures from the court and the images from the killing fields in Iraq will not leave more than a narrow opening in the American agenda for the troubles of others in the Middle East. A hint of this could be seen in the recent visits of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Wllliam Burns and his deputy, David Satterfield. Both left their hosts at the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry with the impression that when it comes the peace process, U.S. diplomacy has already taken an election sabbatical. Those who are unaware of the history of the illegal outposts could have been led to believe that that the U.S. envoys had just heard of the phenomenon for the first time and that the talks with regard to them had just begun.

Reports that reached Jerusalem from the meeting last week between Jordan's King Abdullah and Bush reinforced the assessment that the White House will not be coming down heavy on the prime minister. Sharon can turn all his attention to the Israel Police's investigations department. The Jordanians left the meeting under the impression that Bush has finally had enough of the road map; his advisers started to long for Abu Mazen even before Abu Ala returned from Cairo without a hudna.

The source of the disappointment lies in the determined positions of the new prime minister; and first and foremost, his stubborn opposition to a state in temporary borders - a position that glorifies (as an option only) President Bush's road map. This position opens the way for Sharon to circumvent the road map in the form of "a unilateral withdrawal."

The Americans understand that if the president allows a withdrawal plan like Sharon is seeking (to be accompanied, of course, by a separation fence), he will provoke the anger of his Arab friends and European rivals. The only thing that Bush expects from Sharon is for the prime minister to take a sabbatical until the time of the presidential elections and to ensure that the settlers do not make too many waves.

These messages could explain the nonchalance, bordering on satisfaction, with which Jerusalem took the return of James Baker, U.S. secretary of state under Bush Snr., to the diplomatic arena. Recruiting Baker for a reconciliation mission in Europe is seen as another ringing slap in the face for the current secretary of state, Colin Powell, and his liberal aides, and yet another victory for the neo-conservatives in the Pentagon and White House.

Baker has bitter memories from Sharon. In his book, "The Politics of Diplomacy," the former secretary of state recounts a conversation he had with then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in the spring of 1991, following an announcement by then housing minister Sharon about a plan to construct 13,000 new housing units in the territories: I see this as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the peace, Baker wrote, noting that he asked Shamir to reject the announcement. I am not asking you to adopt our position, the secretary of state continued; but I am asking you to prevent this man from strewing mines along the road to peace.

A year and a half later, and in the wake of a dispute with the Shamir-Sharon government over the issue of loan guarantees, Baker helped Bush Snr. to pack his bags. Those in the know say that Baker, like the Bush family, learned his lessons.

Already at the beginning of his term of office at the Jerusalem Municipality, long before he suggested taking leave of 80 percent of the Palestinians, Ehud Olmert "knew" that his Arab subjects are happy under Israeli rule and fear the day when they will be annexed to a Palestinian state. Now, too, when the deputy prime minister preaches for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories (no one has yet seen the map he proposes), he insists that Israel remains faithful to his admirers in Issawiyeh, Wadi Joz and the Muslim Quarter. For the minister who is in charge of deporting foreign workers, it is important that Jerusalem remains "united," even at the cost of the addition of tens of thousands of workers and thousands of unemployed Palestinians to the Israeli job market.

The dissatisfied East Jerusalemite

A first-of-its-kind survey conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC), headed by Ghassan Hatib, refutes the myth of the "satisfied East Jerusalemite," the one who thanks Israel for the National Insurance Institute allowance, and to hell with Palestine. The study, conducted in September (at the request of the Orient House, in conjunction with the Economic Cooperation Fund headed by Yossi Beilin) does not indicate that the East Jerusalem residents are longing for the city's former mayor.

Some 81 percent of the respondents (650 adults selected as a representative sample and interviewed face-to-face) fully or partially support Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem; 62 percent believe that this would lead to some kind of improvement in their standard of living (22 percent of the respondents believe it will "contribute to a large degree"); 89 percent are not satisfied with the situation in the city; 56 percent are dissatisfied with the municipal services; and 72 percent "feel threatened by Israel." Only 11 percent visit the western part of the city on a daily basis; 16 percent go there a few days out of each month; 42 percent "less than that;" and 23 percent never go at all to the other part of the city that has been united. That said, some 48 percent of the respondents would like to see an open city, as opposed to 35 percent who support a partially open city and only 9 percent who wish to see Jerusalem as two separate cities.

Around 47 percent of the respondents are in favor of cooperation between the two municipalities under a peace deal. Rehabilitation, order and security top the list of issues worthy of cooperation between the two parts of the city. These are followed, at a fair distance, by health and social insurance, employment, tourism and trade, closer ties between the peoples, and the exchange of know-how and technology.

Some 70 percent of the respondents said they would remain where they are once the Israeli occupation has ended, while 21 percent wish to move to other parts of Palestine. Around 37 percent support evacuating the Israelis from the Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city and transferring the neighborhoods to Palestinian control; some 22 percent would like to see these neighborhoods razed following the withdrawal. Only 10 percent agree to allow Ramot, Gilo, Har Homa and Pisgat Ze'ev to be annexed to Israel.

Some 46 percent of the East Jerusalem residents refuse to forgo the Western Wall, even at the cost of forgoing a peace deal. Some 36 percent said that "the Western Wall is most important and not a matter for negotiation." Only 11.5 percent are willing to forgo the Wall.

The survey was conducted prior to publication of the Geneva Accord, which includes the Palestinians' consent to forgo the Israeli neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city and the Western Wall. Dr. Menachem Klein, who was part of the team that conducted the talks over Jerusalem, says that the opinion poll indicates duality among the Palestinians - pragmatism with regard to daily life, and rigidity when it comes to religious and national symbols.

A Taiwanese storm in Herzliya

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 2002 "Herzliya speech," and the expectations from his 2003 address turned the preparation for the annual conference of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, into something reminiscent of the state of the union address delivered by the U.S. president. The long list of ministers, high-ranking officials and generals participating in the conference, together with the appearance of the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry on the list of the "contributing organization," adds a semi-official touch to the event.

There are those, such as the Chinese Embassy, who find it hard to believe that this is nothing more than a seminar arranged by an academic college that is not subject to the dictates of the regime. The name of Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Zvi Gabai alongside the names of two guests from Taiwan - one, a high-ranking official from the Foreign Ministry in Taipei - on a panel to discuss "challenges in special ties in the international arena" added to the concerns of the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Gabai canceled his participation, after being invited to join President Moshe Katsav's entourage that left, by chance this week, for a visit to Beijing. Katsav's invitation to China was designed to finally clear the relations between the two countries of the bad taste left over from the Phalcon affair. The spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv, Lu Kum, said yesterday that it was regrettable that now, in particular, Israel deemed it fit to harm the ties between the two countries. He noted that Taiwan was a province of China and that his government did not recognize its independence. Therefore, Kum said, the participation of the representative of the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry was causing displeasure, prompting the embassy to lodge a formal protest with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It was likely, the spokesman added, that President Katsav would be hearing more on the matter from his hosts.

The Foreign Ministry responded as such: "The participation of the ministry deputy director-general was arranged before it emerged that representatives from Taiwan would be participating in the same session. It goes without saying that the Foreign Ministry does not intervene in the composition of those participating in an academic conference. Israel, as always, recognizes a single China; nevertheless, the agreement with China allows Israel to maintain cultural and commercial ties with Taiwan."