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Ariel Sharon's followers have a new etrog, to be protected and treated with the utmost care. In Palestine it is known as Mahmoud Abbas, but he is better known as Abu Mazen. Ever since Hamas snatched away from him the title of champion of no partners, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority has turned into a distinguished citizen of Jerusalem. The decisions to unfreeze the Palestinian funds and open the Karni crossing to the passage of merchandise are a message of sorts to the Palestinians: This is how the leader whom Israel favors shall be treated.

Up until a week ago, Israel only had a stick for its neighbors. They, in turn, hung a Hamas flag on it. Now, it suddenly turns that Israel also knows how to hold out the carrot. If you want Abu Mazen - you'll eat. If you want Hamas - you won't eat. Democracy is one thing and cooperation is something else.

In the briefcase of Tzipi Livni, who was scheduled to depart for Washington last night, there is a very important document. The foreign minister carries in her bag a summary of her meeting with President Mubarak regarding the desired attitude toward Abu Mazen and Hamas. It states that Israel and Egypt agree that the balance of power between the institution of the Palestinian presidency and parliament must be changed. In short, Abu Mazen must be strengthened.

Along the way, they will have to overcome the Palestinian brethren of the Muslim brotherhood - a burden that President Bush, with his obsession over democracy in the Middle East, brought upon the two countries.

Fortunately, the too large a victory in the elections exposed in one fell swoop the tension between Hamas' responsibility toward the civilian population, first and foremost economically speaking, and its commitment to the commands of Islam, first and foremost among them - damaging the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Hamas has an interest in easing this tension as much as possible and benefiting from both worlds. Israel, of course, would like to actually heighten the tension between the harsh reality Hamas finds in the territories and the dream of greater Palestine. It plans to present the organization with a unified international front and force it to expose its "true face," in the words of Ehud Barak.

"Democracy on the defensive," key words in the joint Egyptian-Israeli policy, is very familiar to America ever since September 2001. The defensive posture will be maintained primarily by going on the offensive. Hamas' leaders launched a campaign of declarations about their willingness to accept an ongoing hudna (cease-fire), in order to place the burden on Israel and merit aid from the international community. Israel, in coordination with Egypt and the United States, will assault Hamas with a slew of conditions: recognition of the state of Israel's right to exist, of UN Resolution 242, of the Oslo Accords and of course, immediately dropping the armed intifada. If Hamas accepts even one of these conditions, it will have to change its name to Salaam Now. In the worst case scenario, the debate over these conditions will increase the tension between the extremist circles and the moderates even more and perhaps even lead to a big bang: unification of the Fatah hawks and Hamas doves.

The success of this policy is contingent to a large extent on the proper formulation of the conditions. We should be wary of politicians who in their eagerness to ride the wave impose conditions that would transform Hamas into a member of a Zionist movement. Take for example the Jewish U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, who hurried to propose an amendment restricting aid to the PA. Among other things, the amendment states that in order to be worthy of receiving U.S. taxpayers' money, the PA government must publicly declare that it recognizes Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Anyone who can find a reference to the words "Jewish state" in the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and in the Oslo Accords can enter to win a green flag with a Star of David.

Land laundering

The stir over the demolition of a handful of homes in the Amona outpost, at the order of the judges on the High Court of Justice, overshadowed a shocking discovery in the kingdom of the settlements: Someone, perhaps several people, high up in the State Prosecutor's Office were for years involved in land laundering in the territories. They did so without the knowledge of two attorneys general and at least one state prosecutor. The matter surfaced during a hearing last Wednesday in the Supreme Court on a petition filed by Peace Now and residents of the village of Bil'in against the route of the separation fence. They argue that under the guise of security requirements, the authorities are approving questionable land deals in order to build the Matityahu East neighborhood in the ultra-Orthodox community of Modi'in Ilit.

Attorney Renato Jarach argued on behalf of one of the large construction firms building the neighborhood that the land in question is private land purchased many years ago from the residents of the village. He explained that in order to protect these same residents from the death sentence that awaits those who sell land to Jews, the buyers hand over the asset to the Civil Administration, which declares it "state land." The state later returns the land to its owners.

Jarach, who in the past was the head of the High Court of Justice department in the State Prosecutor's Office, argued that the latter gave its blessing to the procedure. A representative of the State Prosecutor's Office, Aner Hellman, confirmed that the Ministry of Justice did indeed permit the supervisor of government property in the Civil Administration to back up land merchants by declaring private lands as "state land" temporarily.

The expression on the face of the head of the panel, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, showed his surprise. It was apparent that the man who in the 1980s served as attorney general was hearing for the first time about the government laundering effort. The vice president, Dorit Beinisch, expressed her surprise more specifically. "That an owner of a place would ask that it be declared state land," she said, "is trick I'm not familiar with."

Hellman was undaunted. With a broad smile on his face he claimed, "The veterans of the State Prosecutor's Office actually do remember."

Beinisch, who served for many years as the state prosecutor, signaled that she also knew a thing or two about what goes on in the State Prosecutor's office. Several weeks ago, it was noted here that Michael Ben Yair, who was the attorney general in the second Rabin government, was also surprised to hear about "the trick" as Beinisch referred to it, and stressed that in any case he did not approve of the process of laundering private lands.

The Ministry of Justice spokesman argued at the time that the arrangement was entrenched in an order dating from 1967, a legacy of the Jordanian government, that defines "government property," among other things, as property whose owner has asked the supervisor to manage it for him. The spokesman added that seven years ago, the supervisor of government property was ordered to accept under his management only lands recorded in the land registry in the name of the person submitting the request for management and not to accept statements or other documents as sufficient proof that the person submitting the request was indeed the owner of the property.

A large share of Bil'in's land was laundered in the early 1990s, at the request of land merchants who acquired a reputation for themselves by obtaining fabricated affidavits. Attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing the petitioners, says the laundering was intended to protect not the Arab land merchants, but their shady Jewish associates. He says a resident of a settlement who wants to build on private land purchased in the territories is obligated to present documents proving the deal was made. Police files are overflowing with cases of forged Palestinian land ownership deeds, which served as fertile ground for building settlements.

On the other hand, when it comes to building on "state land" the burden of proof of ownership is on the Palestinian. In Palestinian society, land often is transferred for generations from father to son, without any kind of orderly documentation.

It is therefore clear for who and why it is worth converting private lands into state lands. The unanswered question remains: How is it possible that at least two attorneys general and one state prosecutor did not know that for years, right under their noses, lands were being laundered, thereby dispossessing who knows how many miserable Palestinians of their lands and putting who knows how many billions into the pockets of shady land merchants?

Political reckoning

If Benjamin Netanyahu were still in the Finance Ministry, he would probably have torn to pieces the MK who at the last minute left a discussion held 10 days ago in the Knesset House Committee - thus thwarting the European Investment Bank's entry into Israel. Netanyahu invested considerable efforts in convincing the bank's top executives that Israel offers it a wide range of opportunities. After a visit to Israel, the bank's leaders agreed to operate here without any government guarantees, as is the practice in industrialized countries. Among the projects eagerly awaiting the arrival of the European Bank in Israel: the expansion of the ports, water desalination plants and ventures in the energy field.

In order to enable the bank to operate here, the Knesset only had to pass a formal amendment to the law that would grant the bank employees immunity, as is commonly done for representatives of international organizations. The ministerial committee on legislative affairs approved the bill in December 2005. The next step was to submit the bill to the Knesset two weeks before being brought for its first reading. Assuming that the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee would not make any major changes to the bill, it would have been passed into law in its second and third reading.

Because the Knesset was heading into the election recess, an effort was made to complete the process while the current Knesset was still sitting.

Ten days ago the Knesset House Committee was asked to exempt the bill from the requirement that it sit on the Knesset table for two weeks, in the hope that it would be possible to apply to it the continuity clause and complete the process in the next Knesset. Only seven of the 12 members of the committee showed up for the hearing. If just one member left it would be enough to prevent a quorum and thwart the process.

Gideon Sa'ar, who was until not long ago the coalition chairman, decided this was an opportunity to teach the Kadima government a lesson. He announced that no one from the government had explained to him why an opposition member should do such a big favor for the government and pass a bill in an expedited process during an election recess.

"I don't work for the government," Sa'ar said in response. "There is no reason why I should support a quick snatch, especially since in any case the procedure would not have been completed in the current Knesset."