Robert Fisk: US power games in the Middle East

As the West looks anxiously at Iraq and Afghanistan, dangerous cracks are opening up in Lebanon ­ and the White House is determined to prop up Fouad Siniora’s government

The spring rain beat down like ball-bearings on the flat roof of General Claudio Graziano’s office. Much of southern Lebanon looked like a sea of mud this week but all was optimism and light for the Italian commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, now 11,000 strong and still expecting South Korea to add to his remarkable 29-nation international army. He didn’t recall how the French battalion almost shot down an Israeli jet last year – it was before his time – and he dismissed last month’s border shoot-out between Israeli and Lebanese troops.

No specific threats had been directed at Unifil, the UN’s man in southern Lebanon insisted – though I noticed he paused for several seconds before replying to my question – and his own force was now augmented by around 9,000 Lebanese troops patrolling on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier. There was some vague talk of “terrorist threats … associated with al-Qa’ida” – UN generals rarely use the word ‘terrorism’, but then again Graziano is also a Nato general — yet nothing hard. Yes, Lebanese army intelligence was keeping him up to date. So it must have come as a shock to the good general when the Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan Sabeh last week announced that a Lebanese Internal Security Force unit had arrested four Syrian members of a Palestinian “terrorist group” linked to al-Qa’ida and working for the Syrian intelligence services who were said to be responsible for leaving bombs in two Lebanese minibuses on 13 February, killing three civilians and wounding another 20.

Now it has to be said that there’s a lot of scepticism about this story. Not because Syria has, inevitably, denied any connection to Lebanese bombings but because in a country that has never in 30 years solved a political murder, it’s pretty remarkable that the local Lebanese constabulary can solve this one – and very conveniently so since Mr Sabeh’s pro-American government continues to accuse Syria of all things bestial in the state of Lebanon. According to the Lebanese government – one of those anonymous sources so beloved of the press – the arrested men were also planning attacks on Unifil and had maps of the UN’s military patrol routes in the south of the country. And a drive along the frontier with Israel shows that the UN is taking no chances. Miles of razor wire and 20ft concrete walls protect many of its units.

The Italians, like their French counterparts, have created little “green zones” – we Westerners seem to be doing that all over the Middle East – where carabinieri police officers want photo identity cards for even the humblest of reporters. These are combat units complete with their own armour and tanks although no-one could explain to me this week in what circumstances the tanks could possibly be used and I rather suspect they don’t know. Surely they won’t fire at the Israelis and – unless they want to go to war with the Hizbollah – I cannot imagine French Leclerc tanks are going to be shooting at the Middle East’s most disciplined guerrilla fighters.

But Unifil, like it or not, is on only one side of the border, the Lebanese side, and despite their improving relations with the local Shia population — the UN boys are going in for cash handouts to improve water supplies and roads, “quick impact projects” as they are called in the awful UN-speak of southern Lebanon – there are few Lebanese who do not see them as a buffer force to protect Israel. Last year’s UN Resolution 1701 doesn’t say this, but it does call for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon”. This was a clause, of course, which met with the enthusiastic approval of the United States. For “armed groups”, read Hizbollah.

The reality is that Washington is now much more deeply involved in Lebanon’s affairs than most people, even the Lebanese, realise. Indeed there is a danger that – confronted by its disastrous “democratic” experiment in Iraq – the US government is now turning to Lebanon to prove its ability to spread democracy in the Middle East. Needless to say, the Americans and the British have been generous in supplying the Lebanese army with new equipment, jeeps and Humvees and anti-riot gear (to be used against who, I wonder?) and there was even a hastily denied report that Defence Minister Michel Murr would be picking up some missile-firing helicopters after his recent visit to Washington. Who, one also asks oneself, were these mythical missiles supposed to be fired at?

Every Lebanese potentate, it now seems, is heading for Washington. Walid Jumblatt, the wittiest, most nihilistic and in many ways the most intelligent, is also among the most infamous. He was deprived of his US visa until 2005 for uncharitably saying that he wished a mortar shell fired by Iraqi insurgents into the Baghdad “green zone” had killed then- Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But fear not. Now that poor old Lebanon is to become the latest star of US foreign policy, Jumblatt sailed into Washington for a 35-minute meeting with President George Bush – that’s only 10 minutes less than Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert got – and has also met with Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Gates and the somewhat more disturbing Stephen Hadley, America’s National Security Adviser. There are Lebanese admirers of Jumblatt who have been asking themselves if his recent tirades against Syria and the Lebanese government’s Hizbollah opponents – not to mention his meetings in Washington – aren’t risking another fresh grave in Lebanon’s expanding cemeteries. Brave man Jumblatt is. Whether he’s a wise man will be left to history.

But it is America’s support for Fouad Siniora’s government – Jumblatt is a foundation stone of this – that is worrying many Lebanese. With Shia out of the government of their own volition, Siniora’s administration may well be, as the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud says, unconstitutional; and the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics came violently to life in January with stonings and shooting battles on the streets of Beirut.

Because Iraq and Afghanistan have captured the West’s obsessive attention since then, however, there is a tendency to ignore the continuing, dangerous signs of confessionalism in Lebanon. In the largely Sunni Beirut suburb of Tarek al-Jdeide, several Shia families have left for unscheduled “holidays”. Many Sunnis will no longer shop in the cheaper department stores in the largely Shia southern suburb of Dahiya. More seriously, the Lebanese security forces have been sent into the Armenian Christian town of Aanjar in the Bekaa Valley after a clump of leaflets was found at one end of the town calling on its inhabitants to “leave Muslim land”. Needless to say, there have been no reports of this frightening development in the Lebanese press.

Aanjar was in fact given by the French to the Armenians after they were forced to leave the city of Alexandretta in 1939 – the French allowed a phoney referendum there to let the Turks take over in the vain hope that Ankara would fight Hitler – and Aanjar’s citizens hold their title deeds. But receiving threats that they are going to be ethnically cleansed from their homes is – for Armenians – a terrible reminder of their genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915. Lebanon likes its industrious, highly educated Armenians who are also represented in parliament. But that such hatred could now touch them is a distressing witness to the fragility of the Lebanese state.

True, Saad Hariri, the Sunni son of the murdered ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, has been holding talks with the Shia speaker of parliament, Nabi Berri – the Malvolio of Lebanese politics – and the Saudis have been talking to the Iranians and the Syrians about a “solution” to the Lebanese crisis. Siniora – who was appointed to his job, not elected – seems quite prepared to broaden Shia representation in his cabinet but not at the cost of providing them with a veto over his decisions. One of these decisions is Siniora’s insistence that the UN goes ahead with its international tribunal into Hariri’s murder which the government – and the United States – believe was Syria’s work.

Yet cracks are appearing. France now has no objections to direct talks with Damascus and Javier Solana has been to plead with President Bashar Assad for Syria’s help in reaching “peace, stability and independence” for Lebanon. What price the UN tribunal if Syria agrees to help? Already Assad’s ministers are saying that if Syrian citizens are found to be implicated in Hariri’s murder, then they will have to be tried by a Syrian court – something which would not commend itself to the Lebanese or to the Americans.

Siniora, meanwhile, can now bask in the fact that after the US administration asked Congress to approve $770m for the Beirut government to meet its Paris III donor conference pledges, Lebanon will be the third largest recipient of US aid per capita of population. How much of this will have to be spent on the Lebanese military, we still don’t know. Siniora, by the way, was also banned from the United States for giving a small sum to an Islamic charity during a visit several years ago to a Beirut gathering hosted by Sayed Hussein Fadlallah, whom the CIA tried to murder in 1985 for his supposed links to the Hizbollah. Now he is an American hero.

Which is all to Hizbollah’s liking. However faithful its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, may be to Iran (or Syria), the more Siniora’s majority government is seen to be propped up by America, the deeper the social and political divisions in Lebanon become. The “tink thank” lads, as I call them, can fantasise about America’s opportunities. “International support for the Lebanese government will do a great deal for advancing the cause of democracy and helping avoid civil war,” David Shenker of the “Washington Institute for Near East Policy” pronounced last week. “… the Bush administration has wisely determined not to abandon the Lebanese to the tender mercies of Iran and Syria, which represents an important development towards ensuring the government’s success,” he said.

I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Wherever Washington has supported Middle East “democracy” recently – although it swiftly ditched Lebanon during its blood-soaked war last summer on the ridiculous assumption that by postponing a ceasefire the Israelis could crush the Hizbollah – its efforts have turned into a nightmare. Now we know that Israeli prime minister Olmert had already pre-planned a war with Lebanon if his soldiers were captured by the Hizbollah, Nasrallah is able to hold up his guerrilla army as defenders of Lebanon, rather than provokers of a conflict which cost at least 1,300 Lebanese civilian lives. And going all the way to Washington to save Lebanon is an odd way of behaving. The answers lie here, not in the United States. As a friend put it to me, “If I have a bad toothache, I don’t book myself into a Boston clinic and fly across the Atlantic – I go to my Beirut dentist!”

Olmert’s testimony reveals the real goal of the war in Lebanon

Global Research, March 13, 2007

Nazareth. 12 March 2007. Israel’s supposedly “defensive” assault on Hizbullah last summer, in which more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in a massive aerial bombardment that ended with Israel littering the country’s south with cluster bombs, was cast in a definitively different light last week by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.

His leaked testimony to the Winograd Committee — investigating the government’s failures during the month-long attack — suggests that he had been preparing for such a war at least four months before the official casus belli: the capture by Hizbullah of two Israeli soldiers from a border post on 12 July 2006. Lebanon’s devastation was apparently designed to teach both Hizbullah and the country’s wider public a lesson.

Olmert’s new account clarifies the confusing series of official justifications for the war from the time.

First, we were told that the seizure of the soldiers was “an act of war” by Lebanon and that a “shock and awe” campaign was needed to secure their release. Or, as the then Chief of Staff Dan Halutz — taking time out from disposing of his shares before market prices fell — explained, his pilots were going to “turn the clock back 20 years” in Lebanon.

Then the army claimed that it was trying to stop Hizbullah’s rocket strikes. But the bombing campaign targeted not only the rocket launchers but much of Lebanon, including Beirut. (It was, of course, conveniently overlooked that Hizbullah’s rockets fell as a response to the Israeli bombardment and not the other way round.)

And finally we were offered variations on the theme that ended the fighting: the need to push Hizbullah (and, incidentally, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians) away from the northern border with Israel.

That was the thrust of UN Resolution 1701 that brought about the official end of hostilities in mid-August. It also looked suspiciously like the reason why Israel chose at the last-minute to dump up to a million tiny bomblets — old US stocks of cluster munitions with a very high failure rate — that are lying in south Lebanon’s fields, playgrounds and back yards waiting to explode.

What had been notable before Olmert’s latest revelation was the clamour of the military command to distance itself from Israel’s failed attack on Hizbullah. After his resignation, Halutz blamed the political echelon (meaning primarily Olmert), while his subordinates blamed both Olmert and Halutz. The former Chief of Staff was rounded on mainly because, it was claimed, being from the air force, he had over-estimated the likely effectiveness of his pilots in “neutralising” Hizbullah’s rockets.

Given this background, Olmert has been obliging in his testimony to Winograd. He has not only shouldered responsibility for the war to the Committee, but, if Israeli media reports are to be believed, he has also publicised the fact by leaking the details.

Olmert told Winograd that, far from making war on the hoof in response to the capture of the two soldiers (the main mitigating factor for Israel’s show of aggression), he had been planning the attack on Lebanon since at least March 2006.

His testimony is more than plausible. Allusions to pre-existing plans for a ground invasion of Lebanon can be found in Israeli reporting from the time. On the first day of the war, for example, the Jersualem Post reported: “Only weeks ago, an entire reserve division was drafted in order to train for an operation such as the one the IDF is planning in response to Wednesday morning’s Hizbullah attacks on IDF forces along the northern border.”

Olmert defended the preparations to the Committee on the grounds that Israel expected Hizbullah to seize soldiers at some point and wanted to be ready with a harsh response. The destruction of Lebanon would deter Hizbullah from considering another such operation in the future.

There was an alternative route that Olmert and his commanders could have followed: they could have sought to lessen the threat of attacks on the northern border by damping down the main inciting causes of Israel’s conflict with Hizbullah.

According to Olmert’s testimony, he was seeking just such a solution to the main problem: a small corridor of land known as the Shebaa Farms claimed by Lebanon but occupied by Israel since 1967. As a result of the Farms area’s occupation, Hizbullah has argued that Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 was incomplete and that the territory still needed liberating.

Olmert’s claim, however, does not stand up to scrutiny.

The Israeli media revealed in January that for much of the past two years Syria’s leader, Bashir Assad, has been all but prostrating himself before Israel in back-channel negotiations over the return of Syrian territory, the Golan, currently occupied by Israel. Although those talks offered Israel the most favourable terms it could have hoped for (including declaring the Golan a peace park open to Israelis), Sharon and then Olmert — backed by the US — refused to engage Damascus.

A deal on the Golan with Syria would almost certainly have ensured that the Shebaa Farms were returned to Lebanon. Had Israel or the US wanted it, they could have made considerable progress on this front.

The other major tension was Israel’s repeated transgressions of the northern border, complemented by Hizbullah’s own, though less frequent, violations. After the army’s withdrawal in 2000, United Nations monitors recorded Israeli warplanes violating Lebanese airspace almost daily. Regular overflights were made to Beirut, where pilots used sonic booms to terrify the local population, and drones spied on much of the country. Again, had Israel halted these violations of Lebanese sovereignty, Hizbullah’s own breach of Israeli sovereignty in attacking the border post would have been hard to justify.

And finally, when Hizbullah did capture the soldiers, there was a chance for Israel to negotiate over their return. Hizbullah made clear from the outset that it wanted to exchange the soldiers for a handful of Lebanese prisoners still in Israeli jails. But, of course, as Olmert’s testimony implies, Israel was not interested in talks or in halting its bombing campaign. That was not part of the plan.

We can now start to piece together why.

According to the leaks, Olmert first discussed the preparations for a war against Lebanon in January and then asked for detailed plans in March.

Understandably given the implications, Olmert’s account has been decried by leading Israeli politicians. Effi Eitam has pointed out that Olmert’s version echoes that of Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who claims his group knew that Israel wanted to attack Lebanon.

And Yuval Steinitz argues that, if a war was expected, Olmert should not have approved a large cut to the defence budget only weeks earlier. The explanation for that, however, can probably be found in the forecasts about the war’s outcome expressed in cabinet by Halutz and government ministers. Halutz reportedly believed that an air campaign would defeat Hizbullah in two to three days, after which Lebanon’s infrastructure could be wrecked unimpeded. Some ministers apparently thought the war would be over even sooner.

In addition, a red herring has been offered by the General Staff, whose commanders are claiming to the Israeli media that they were kept out of the loop by the prime minister. If Olmert was planning a war against Lebanon, they argue, he should not have left them so unprepared.

It is an intriguing, and unconvincing, proposition: who was Olmert discussing war preparations with, if not with the General Staff? And how was he planning to carry out that war if the General Staff was not intimately involved?

More interesting are the dates mentioned by Olmert. His first discussion of a war against Lebanon was held on 8 January 2006, four days after he became acting prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s brain haemorrhage and coma. Olmert held his next meeting on the subject in March, presumably immediately after his victory in the elections. There were apparently more talks in April, May and July.

Rather than the impression that has been created by Olmert of a rookie prime minister and military novice “going it alone” in planning a major military offensive against a neighbouring state, a more likely scenario starts to take shape. It suggests that from the moment that Olmert took up the reins of power, he was slowly brought into the army’s confidence, first tentatively in January and then more fully after his election. He was allowed to know of the senior command’s secret and well-advanced plans for war — plans, we can assume, his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, a former general, had been deeply involved in advancing.

But why would Olmert now want to shoulder responsibility for the unsuccessful war if he only approved, rather than formulated, it? Possibly because Olmert, who has appeared militarily weak and inexperienced to the Israeli public, does not want to prove his critics right. And also because, with most of his political capital exhausted, he would be unlikely to survive a battle for Israeli hearts and minds against the army (according to all polls, the most revered institution in Israeli society) should he try to blame them for last summer’s fiasco. With Halutz gone, Olmert has little choice but to say “mea cupla”.

What is the evidence that Israel’s generals had already established the protocols for a war?

First, an article in the San Franscisco Chronicle, published soon after the outbreak of war, revealed that the Israeli army had been readying for a wide-ranging assault on Lebanon for years, and had a specific plan for a “Three-Week War” that they had shared with Washington think-tanks and US officials.

“More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to US and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail,” wrote reporter Matthew Kalman.

That view was confimed this week by an anonymous senior officer who told the Haaretz newspaper that the army had a well-established plan for an extensive ground invasion of Lebanon, but that Olmert had shied away from putting it into action. “I don’t know if he [Olmert] was familiar with the details of the plan, but everyone knew that the IDF [army] had a ground operation ready for implementation.”

And second, we have an interview in the Israeli media with Meyrav Wurmser, the wife of one of the highest officials in the Bush Administration, David Wurmser, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s adviser on the Middle East. Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli citizen, is herself closely associated with MEMRI, a group translating (and mistranslating) speeches by Arab leaders and officials that is known for its ties to the Israeli secret services.

She told the website of Israel’s leading newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, that the US stalled over imposing a ceasefire during Israel’s assault on Lebanon because the Bush Administration was expecting the war to be expanded to Syria.

“The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space. They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its [Iran’s] strategic and important ally [Syria] should be hit.”

In other words, the picture that emerges is of a long-standing plan by the Israeli army, approved by senior US officials, for a rapid war against Lebanon — followed by possible intimidatory strikes against Syria — using the pretext of a cross-border incident involving Hizbullah. The real purpose, we can surmise, was to weaken what are seen by Israel and the US to be Tehran’s allies before an attack on Iran itself.

That was why neither the Americans nor Israel wanted, or appear still to want, to negotiate with Assad over the Golan and seek a peace agreement that could — for once — change the map of the Middle East for the better.

Despite signs of a slight thawing in Washington’s relations with Iran and Syria in the past few days, driven by the desperate US need to stop sinking deeper into the mire of Iraq, Damascus is understandably wary.

The continuing aggressive Israeli and US postures have provoked a predictable reaction from Syria: it has started building up its defences along the border with Israel. But in the Alice Through the Looking Glass world of Israeli military intelligence, that response is being interpreted — or spun — as a sign of an imminent attack by Syria.

Such, for example, is the opinion of Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli professor of military history, usually described as eminent and doubtless with impeccable contacts in the Israeli military establishment, who recently penned an article in the American Jewish weekly, the Forward.

He suggests that Syria, rather than wanting to negotiate over the Golan — as all the evidence suggests — is planning to launch an attack on Israel, possibly using chemical weapons, in October 2008 under cover of fog and rain. The goal of the attack? Apparently, says the professor, Syria wants to “inflict casualties” and ensure Jerusalem “throws in the towel”.

What’s the professor’s evidence for these Syrian designs? That its military has been on an armaments shopping spree in Russia, and has been studying the lessons of the Lebanon war.

He predicts (of Syria, not Israel) the following: “Some incident will be generated and used as an excuse for opening rocket fire on the Golan Heights and the Galilee.” And he concludes: “Overall the emerging Syrian plan is a good one with a reasonable chance of success.”

And what can stop the Syrians? Not peace talks, argues Van Creveld. “Obviously, much will depend on what happens in Iraq and Iran. A short, successful American offensive in Iran may persuade Assad that the Israelis, much of whose hardware is either American or American-derived, cannot be countered, especially in the air. Conversely, an American withdrawal from Iraq, combined with an American-Iranian stalemate in the Persian Gulf, will go a long way toward untying Assad’s hands.”

It all sounds familiar. Iran wants the nuclear destruction of Israel, and Syria wants Jersualem to “throw in the towel” — or so the neocons and the useful idiots of “the clash of civilisations” would have us believe. The fear must be that they get their way and push Israel and the US towards another pre-emptive war — or maybe two.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His book “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” is published by Pluto Press. His website is www.jkcook.net

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Three Provocations: The method in the madness

When A Prime Minister has just lost a war, is dogged by corruption allegations and sees his popularity ratings in free fall – what can he do?

Why, he can initiate provocations.

A provocation diverts attention, generates headlines, creates the illusion of power, radiates a sense of leadership.

But a provocation is a dangerous instrument. It can cause irreversible damage.

PROVOCATION NO. 1: The northern frontier.

Along the northern border runs a fence. But not everywhere does the fence coincide exactly with the recognized border (the so-called Blue Line). For topographical reasons, some sections of the fence run a few dozen meters south of it.

That is the theory of the situation. In the course of the years, both sides have become accustomed to regarding the fence as the actual border. On the Lebanese side, the villagers farm the fields up to the fence, fields which may well be their property.

Now Ehud Olmert has decided to exploit this situation and reveal himself as a great, invincible warrior. Some explosives recently found a few yards from the Blue Line serve as a pretext. The Israeli army claims that they were put there just days ago by Hizbullah fighters disguised as goatherds. According to Hizbullah, they are old bombs that have been there since before the recent war.

Olmert sent soldiers beyond the fence to carry out a “Hissuf” (“exposure”) – one of those new Hebrew words invented by the army’s “verbal laundry” to beautify ugly things. It means the wholesale uprooting of trees, in order to improve vision and facilitate shooting. The army used the trademark weapon of the State of Israel: the armored bulldozer.

The Lebanese army sent a warning that they would open fire. When this did not have any effect, they indeed fired several salvoes over the heads of the Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army responded by firing several tank shells at the Lebanese position and lo – we have our “incident”.

The whole affair is very reminiscent of Ariel Sharon’s methods in the 60s, when he was the chief of operations of the Northern Command. Sharon became quite an expert at provoking the Syrian army in the demilitarized zones that existed on the border between the two countries at the time. Israel claimed sovereignty over these areas, while the Syrians asserted that it was a neutral zone that did not belong to either state and in which the Arab farmers, who owned the land, were allowed to tend their fields.

According to legend, the Syrians exploited their control of heights overlooking the Israeli villages in the valley below them. Again and again the evil Syrians (the Syrians were always “evil”) terrorized the helpless kibbutzim by shelling. This myth, which was believed by practically all Israelis at the time, served as a justification for the occupation of the Golan Heights and their annexation by Israel. Even now, foreign visitors are brought to an observation post on the Golan Heights and shown the defenseless Kibbutzim down below.

The truth, which has been exposed since then, was a bit different: Sharon used to instruct the Kibbutzniks to go to their shelters, and then send an armored tractor into the demilitarized zone. Predictably, the Syrians shot at it. The Israeli artillery, just waiting for its cue, then opened up a massive bombardment of the Syrian positions. There were dozens of such “incidents”.

Now the same method is being practiced by Sharon’s successor. Soldiers and bulldozers enter the area, the Lebanese shoot, the Israeli tanks shell them.

Does this provocation make any political sense? The Lebanese army answers to Fuad Siniora, the darling of the United States and the opponent of Hizbullah. In the wake of the Second Lebanon War, this army was deployed along the border, at the express demand of the Israeli government, and this was proclaimed by Olmert as a huge Israeli achievement. (Until then, the Israeli army commanders had adamantly opposed the idea of stationing Lebanese or international troops in this area, on the grounds that this would hamper their freedom of action.)

So what is the aim of this provocation? The same as with all Olmert’s recent actions: gaining popularity to survive in power, in this case by creating tension.

PROVOCATION NO. 2: The Temple Mount.

Islam has three holy cities: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. In Mecca this week, the chiefs of Fatah and Hamas assembled in order to put an end to the mutual killing and set up a unity government. While the attention of the concerned Palestinian public was riveted there, Olmert struck in Jerusalem.

As pretext served the “Mugrabi Gate”, an entrance to the Haram-al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), the wide plaza where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located. Since this gate is higher than the Western Wall area below it, one can approach it only over a rising bridge or ramp.

The old bridge collapsed some time ago, and was replaced with a temporary structure. Now the “Israel Antiquities Authority” is destroying the temporary bridge and putting in its place – so it says – a permanent one. But the work looks much more extensive.

As could have been expected, riots broke out at once. In 1967, Israel formally annexed this area and claimed sovereignty over the entire Temple Mount. The Arabs (and the whole world) have never recognized the annexation. In practice, the Temple Mount is governed by the Islamic Waqf (religious endowment).

The Israeli government argues that the bridge is separate from the Temple Mount. The Muslims insist that the bridge is a part of it. Behind this tussle, there is a lurking Arab suspicion that the installation of the new bridge is just a cover for something else happening below the surface.

At the 2000 Camp David conference, the Israeli side made a weird-sounding proposal: to leave the area itself to the Muslims, but with Israeli sovereignty over everything beneath the surface. That reinforced the Muslim belief that the Israelis intended to dig beneath the Mount, in order to discover traces of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans 1936 years ago. Some believed that the real intention was to cause the Islamic shrines to collapse, so a new Temple could be built in their place.

These suspicions are nurtured by the fact that most Israeli archaeologists have always been the loyal foot-soldiers of the official propaganda. Since the emergence of modern Zionism, they have been engaged in a desperate endeavor to “find” archaeological evidence for the historical truth of the stories of the Old Testament. Until now, they have gone empty-handed: there exists no archaeological proof for the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan and the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon. But in their eagerness to prove the unprovable (because in the opinion of the vast majority of archaeologists and historians outside Israel – and also some in Israel – the Old Testament stories are but sacred myths), the archaeologists have destroyed many strata of other periods.

But that is not the most important side of the present affair. One can argue to the end of days about the responsibility for the Mugrabi walkway or what it might be that the archaeologists are looking for. But it is impossible to doubt that this is a provocation: it was carried out like a surprise military operation, without consultation with the other side.

Nobody knew better what to expect than Olmert, who, as mayor of Jerusalem, was responsible for the killing of 85 human beings – 69 Palestinians and 16 Israelis – in a similar provocation, when he “opened” a tunnel near the Temple Mount. And everybody remembers, of course, that the Second Intifada started with the provocative “visit” to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon.

This is a provocation against 1.3 billion Muslims, and especially against the Arab world. It is a knife in the back of the “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Olmert pretends to be ready to have a “dialogue” – and this at exactly the moment Abbas reached an historical agreement with Hamas for the formation of a national unity government. It is also a knife in the back of the king of Jordan, Israel’s ally, who sees himself as the traditional protector of the Temple Mount.

What for? To prove that Olmert is a strong leader, the hero of the Temple Mount, the defender of the national values, who doesn’t give a damn for world public opinion.

* * *PROVOCATION NO. 3.

After Haim Ramon was convicted of indecent conduct, the post of the Minister of Justice fell vacant. In a surprise blow, after laying down a smoke screen by dangling the names of acceptable candidates, Olmert appointed to the post a professor who is the open and vocal enemy of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General.

The Supreme Court is almost the only governmental institution in Israel which still enjoys the confidence of the great majority. The last President of the Court, Aharon Barak, once told me: “We have no troops. Our power is based solely on the confidence of the public.” Now Olmert has appointed a Minister of Justice who has been engaged for a long time and with a lot of noise in destroying this confidence. Indeed, it seems that this is his main interest in life, ever since he failed to get a close friend, a female professor, elevated to the Supreme Court.

One can see in this an effort by Olmert, a politician who is dragging behind him a long train of corruption affairs (several of which are at present under police and State Comptroller investigation), to undermine the investigators, the Attorney General and the courts. It serves also as revenge against the court that dared to convict Ramon, his friend and ally. He did not, of course, consult with anyone in the judicial system: not with the Attorney General (whose official title is “Legal Adviser of the Government”) nor with the President of the Supreme Court, Dorit Beinish, whom he cannot stand.

I am not an unreserved admirer of the Supreme Court. It is a wheel in the machinery of the occupation. It cannot be relied on in matters like the targeted assassinations, the Separation Wall, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the hundred and one other cases over which the false banner of “security” is waving. But it is the last bastion of human rights inside Israel proper.

The appointment of the new minister is an assault on Israeli democracy, and therefore no less dangerous than the other two provocations.

* * *WHAT DO the three have in common? First of all: their unilateral character. Forty years of occupation have created an occupation mentality that destroys all desire and all ability to solve problems by mutual understanding, dialogue and compromise.

Both in foreign and domestic relations, Mafia methods reign: violence, sudden blows, targeted eliminations.

When these methods are applied by a politician haunted by corruption affairs, an uninhibited war-monger who is fighting for survival by all means available – this is indeed a very dangerous situation.