Sderot was the hot story of the Labor Party primaries, in every respect. What news editor would relinquish a picture of party chairman, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the one of whom it is said that "he is fighting for his political life," voting at a ballot box in the town where rockets are threatening the lives of its inhabitants - without exaggeration?
This story did not start yesterday morning, when the polling stations opened. It did not end last night, with their closure. Whether the primaries chapter ends in one round or whether there will be a need for another round, it appears Sderot will continue to be the apple of Labor's eye.
A hint of this could be found in the remarks of Minister of National Infrastructure Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer at the meeting of the Labor Party Central Committee that was supposed to have discussed MK Ophir Pines-Paz's proposal to resign from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. Fuad scolded the members, since rather than "going down to Sderot that is under bombardment," they had made the effort to come to the air-conditioned hall in a Tel Aviv hotel. By a large majority, the central committee decided to postpone the discussion until the day after the primaries.
What will Fuad, Minister of Social Services Isaac (Buzhi) Herzog, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Shalom Simhon, Minister of Education Yuli Tamir and Minister of Science, Culture and Sport Raleb Majadele say about Labor's partnership with Olmert if quiet returns to Sderot? Even if their candidate, Ehud Barak, is crowned the party's new-old leader - without the Qassams, what excuse can possibly make them adhere to the star of the Winograd Committee?
However, the Qassams could be the most effective weapon against MK Ami Ayalon, who has declared that under his leadership the Labor Party will not sit with Olmert-led Kadima. It will be interesting to see him pull the Labor MKs out of the ministerial chairs instead of "joining hands" and standing as one behind the residents of Qassam-blighted Sderot. This glue proved itself at the time of the terror attacks and Operation Defensive Shield. It held up until Amir Peretz pulled the Labor MKs out of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's warm lap by force. They aren't going to let this happen to them again.
The proximity of the Winograd crisis and the Labor Party primaries helps explain the hysteria surrounding the wave of Qassams on the Western Negev, which started especially early this time. It could explain why the convoys of politicians visiting Sderot have been longer, and why the polishing of swords has been noisier than ever. The huge uproar already began in the first week, when the number of Qassams that fell in the area had not yet reached 100, about half the number that were identified last November and about 50 rockets less than the number that fell last June.
The government's reactions and the military's reprisal actions were also far more aggressive this time. Both were aided by the media uproar surrounding the scandal involving the lack of fortified secure rooms and the expectation of seeing a Gaza-version of Operation Defensive Shield. The restraint the government and the army are supposedly evincing in the Gaza Strip is serving as a smokescreen for the renewed fire in the West Bank.
This "restraint" is distracting attention from the mass arrests in the West Bank and from Olmert's refusal even to discuss the proposal put forth by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to enforce the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, on condition that Israel agree to extend it to the West Bank. The "restraint" leaves no room for reports of new decrees affecting the inhabitants of the West Bank, such as the prohibition on bathing in the Dead Sea.
The IDF Spokesman has confirmed for the first time the Palestinians' claim that their swimming season has been closed, explaining: "In light of grave security warnings in the area of the northern Dead Sea, restrictions have been imposed on traffic at the roadblock that operates in the area of the Beit Ha'arava junction. These restrictions will be examined in the future, following an up-to-date assessment of the security situation."
The Internet site of the President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pottering, states that his father was killed during the final days of World War II without ever knowing his son. It claims that this influenced the career of the 61-year-old lawyer and his involvement in European politics.
Perhaps this also explains why his first visit to a foreign country since being elected four months ago brings him to Israel. He is very excited ahead of his speech to the Knesset tomorrow. In his first interview to the Israeli media, a few hours after he landed here, he made a point of mentioning his meeting with the families of abducted soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. He told them that to his regret, Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri suggested that he postpone his visit to Beirut because of the security situation. But Pottering promised them that he would transmit to Berri a written request for help in locating their loved ones.
If he sticks to the positions he presented in the interview, his term as president will allow Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to save a number of Foreign Ministry posts responsible for relations with European Union institutions. Pottering's only deviations from Israel's policy lines have been meetings with Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amar and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. But even the Americans are not observing the Israeli boycott of non-Hamas ministers. Pottering supports the Arab League's peace initiative. His conversations with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa have led him to believe that the Arabs intend to fulfill its terms. He is glad Ehud Olmert and Livni have also welcomed this initiative.
And what is his position with regard to negotiations with Syria and the ratification of its new partnership agreement with the EU? The answer could fit into the PR file of Israel's emissaries to Europe: "To my great regret, Syria is not playing a positive role in the region. It is too close to Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denies the Holocaust and is calling for the destruction of Israel." Pottering also shares Israel's concerns about the progress in the Iranian nuclear program and thinks there is still scope for diplomatic efforts, including on the part of Europe. And just like the government of Israel, he believes that the nuclear disarmament of the Middle East will have to wait until a comprehensive peace is achieved in the region.
Pottering promises that his first visit to the Middle East and Israel will not be his last. Europe's commitment to the dignity and independence of all the peoples of the region is at the top of his agenda. It is possible that the European presence on the Israel-Lebanon border and the Gaza-Egypt border is not Europe's last word with respect to security issues in this wild neighborhood. He does not rule out the possibility that Europe will send troops to the Gaza Strip itself, within the framework of UN forces.
The lead story in The New York Times reports that Iraq has become Afghanistan's biggest competitor for the title of outstanding exporter of Al-Qaida produced terror. The head of Lebanon's internal security service, Major General Ashraf Rifi, has said that the Fatah al-Islam organization, which has declared war on the Lebanese regime, consists of no less than 50 terrorists who are graduates of the war in Iraq.
Rifi added that any country that believes itself immune to the evildoings of these fanatics is burying its head in the sand. The Syrians have managed to pull out their head. They killed the son-in-law of Shaqir al-Abassi, the head of Fatah al-Islam, as he was trying to cross the border into Iraq. Al-Abassi was one of Musab al-Zarqawi's closest confidants, until he was killed last summer.
The Syrians and the Jordanians are anxiously following the actions of the Al-Qaida state that was established less than a year ago in central Iraq and which is openly eyeing the rich oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Calling itself "the state of Islamic Iran," a Sunni group has declared an independent entity in the middle of Anbar province. At the head of the state is the emir known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and beside him are 10 ministers, among them War Minister Hamzeh al-Masri, who also heads Iraq's Al-Qaida branch. They are declaring that their state is the nucleus of the Islamic caliphate and "the gate to Palestine."
And so, in this strange way, Syria has found itself in the same boat as Israel, in the same storm that is threatening to inundate the region from Iraq in the east to Lebanon in the west, and everything in between. In a speech he gave in front of the People's Council about two weeks ago, President Bashar Assad repeatedly referred to the collapse of Arab order and the tremendous importance he attributes to the political, economic and social stability of Syria. From there he arrived at the conflict with Israel, which undermines this stability, and his support for the Arab peace initiative, which promises to provide what is lacking of this precious commodity.
Assad asserted that he is firm in his support for the principle of land in return for peace and he insists that negotiations with Israel be held openly. A senior intelligence source recently confirmed to the Israeli government that the talks between Alon Liel and Ibrahim Suleiman, conducted via the Swiss channel, were held with Assad's full authorization and permission. As far as the Syrian president is concerned, the two of them have done their bit and they can now go, making way for official and open emissaries of both countries.
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