FM Shalom presented a detailed briefing at the Cabinet meeting on current issues.

Briefing by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Silvan Shalom to the Cabinet Meeting
8 January 2006
(Communicated by the Foreign Minister’s Bureau)

Prime Minister’s health – reactions from the world

I would like to begin this briefing by conveying my personal wishes for Prime Minister Sharon’s speedy recovery, and my support to the medical team treating him, and especially to Omri and Gilad and the whole family.

The Prime Minister’s medical condition is of great interest not only in Israel. Since Wednesday night, the Foreign Ministry and Israeli missions all over the world have been deluged with thousands of letters expressing support and get-well wishes to Prime Minister Sharon – letters from heads of state, foreign ministers and ordinary citizens, including from Arab countries.

I myself have spoken in the last few days with many well-wishers, including the foreign ministers of Canada and Germany, who expressed their support in this difficult time. I know that the Acting Prime Minister and other ministers have had phone calls from all over the world, all conveying a similar message. Incidentally, the German foreign minister is expected to arrive in Israel on January 19, to prepare for the visit of the new German Chancellor, Angela Merkel at the end of the month. I believe it is important to continue the plans for this visit as scheduled, if possible.

All of the world media is reporting Prime Minister Sharon’s condition in detail. The major stations have sent their senior reporters. In the United States and Europe, the reports are full of praise for Sharon’s leadership and courage, while reactions from the Arab world have been mixed. There is a tendency to talk about the end of his term and to speculate as to the nature of the next government and the consequences for the political process. It is interesting that while part of the Arab media has reacted predictably with malicious joy, others admit that Sharon represented a chance for peace, recognizing that Israel could not hold onto all of the territories.

The Palestinians themselves are divided in their reactions. Senior PA officials are voicing their worries regarding the impact of the Prime Minister’s medical condition and the political situation in Israel on the areas under their control. The Hamas, for their part, are warning us not to take advantage of the situation in our dealings with the Palestinians.

Elections in the Palestinian Authority

The question of postponing the elections continues to generate controversy inside Fatah, with some elements trying to exploit the condition of Prime Minister Sharon to further this end. On the other side, Marwan Bargouti has issued a statement from prison that the elections should not be postponed, unless Israel decides against allowing residents of East Jerusalem to vote. Abu Mazen continues to insist on the scheduled date, January 25, and at the moment there is no change in plans, although we believe that, in light of the continuing anarchy in the PA, Abu Mazen is more and more inclined to postpone the elections. If he decides to do so, he will probably claim that the reason is Israel’s stance on East Jerusalem. Hamas also wants the elections to proceed as scheduled.

The US administration continues in its view that the elections be held on the date scheduled and that residents of East Jerusalem be allowed to vote. The message we wish to deliver is that residents of East Jerusalem will be allowed to vote, but not in East Jerusalem; rather, in a place not too far from their homes. At the same time, arrangements are continuing for the presence of international observers from Europe and the United States, some of whom have already arrived.

Lebanon – Palestinians

The Government of Lebanon decided on January 6 to permit the reopening of the Beirut office for Palestinian interests, which has been closed since 1982. This signals the strengthening of the ties between Saniora and Abu Mazen, ties that Farouq Qadumi and the Syrians are trying to prevent. However, they are still a long way from collecting arms from the Palestinians in the Lebanese camps.

Egypt – Palestinians

The Egyptians continue to criticize the behavior of the Palestinians at Rafah, where two Egyptian policemen were killed and 26 others wounded. As a result, the Egyptians are rethinking the deployment of their soldiers there and in Gaza. Egypt has harsh words to say about what it calls "the hate-filled Palestinian minority," while remaining loyal to its commitment to the Palestinian people.

Iran

Saturday, Iran invited inspectors from the IAEA to be present at the Natnaz site when the Iranians remove the seals from equipment that has been prohibited for use. The equipment is apparently related to centrifuges. The IAEA inspectors have so far not agreed to the removal of the seals and are not cooperating with the Iranians and are not coming to the site.

This comes against the backdrop of a written Iranian announcement last week (January 3) to the IAEA stating that Iran intends to begin, starting Monday (January 9), nuclear R&D. This is evidently a code name for centrifuge activity, an essential step in the development of nuclear capability. This, taken together with the information from Saturday that Iran intends to remove the seals, is a significant development. According to the statement by the Deputy Head of the Atomic Energy Organization in Iran, there are no plans at this stage to begin injecting UF6 gas into centrifuges in the enrichment facility at Natnaz. The Iranians are supposed to meet with representatives of the IAEA in Vienna in order to clarify their intentions. In Vienna, not too much hope is held out for these contacts.

American officials meeting with representatives of EU3 (Germany, France and Britain) seemed to be in agreement that if Iran carries out its intentions, this will spell the end of its contacts with Europe, and will inspire a joint American-European diplomatic effort to adopt a concrete resolution at the Security Council. A rejection of this message by the Iranians will result in cancellation of the meeting between the Europeans and Iran scheduled for 18 January.

On January 7, the Presidency of the EU issued a special statement calling on Iran not to resume the suspended activities, which it calls a surprising and unreasonable step that it views with deep concern, especially at a time when international trust in Iran’s intentions is far from complete. This act jeopardizes the possibility of resuming negotiations.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated on January 5 that the international community will soon be forced to decide whether it is possible to get an Iranian commitment for a civilian nuclear program that does not allow the transfer of technology for the production of nuclear weapons. If it is not possible to proceed to negotiations on this subject, diplomacy will continue on another track, which will probably include submission of the issue to the UN Security Council.

The Iranian announcement, which is a de facto rejection of the Russian proposal to carry out the enrichment on Russian soil, makes it likely that Russia will support the option of bringing the issue to the Security Council. It is becoming harder and harder for Russia to sidestep the need to establish red lines. Incidentally, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister arrived in Iran on Saturday, and later in the month a delegation of the Russian Atomic Energy Organization is scheduled to come.

The Iranian statement reveals increasing self-confidence and points to the failure of international efforts that were declarative in nature and did not succeed in halting Iran’s nuclear program. The inability to bring the subject to the Security Council [until now] strengthens the Iranian feeling of confidence.

I would like to note that the cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Atomic Energy Commission is very good. As soon as the Iranian statement was announced, I directed the Israeli missions around the world to respond immediately and to make our position clear, that Iran is acting in direct contradiction of the European demand at the last meeting in Vienna to refrain from producing parts for centrifuges or continuing with R&D work relating to them.

It is now more important than ever to adhere to the present policy and to exploit all available diplomatic means, while emphasizing that the situation with Iran is a global problem, and not just an Israeli one. This is despite the attempts by Iran’s president to claim that this is a conflict involving only Iran and Israel.

Syria

The Syrian regime continues to find itself under pressure. Last week, the situation worsened, following two developments. The first problem for Damascus was the sensational interview granted by former Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam to the Saudi al-Arabiya television channel (December 30). Khaddam’s remarks provoked great dismay among the Syrian leadership, particularly because of its natural concern that such a high-ranking official, a confidante of President Hafez Assad, would launch such an outspoken attack against Bashar Assad. Damascus has therefore decided to launch a harsh counter-attack, in a bid to portray Khaddam as a corrupt individual who has sold his soul to foreign elements. In his interview, Khaddam claimed that Bashar Assad was not fit to serve as President, because of his reckless and impulsive conduct.

The second problem facing the Syrian regime last week was the demand of the panel investigating the murder of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to interview President Assad, Foreign Minister Farouq Shara and others. If, three weeks ago, the Syrian leadership breathed a collective sigh of relief following the publication of the Mehlis report, this sense of relief has now evaporated. The demand to interview the Syrian President and Foreign Minister has sharpened the dilemma facing the Syrian regime: Should Syria take an extreme line involving confrontation with the international community and refuse to comply with the demand of the Panel of Inquiry, using the excuse of presidential immunity? Alternatively, should Syria adopt a more moderate position and agree to an "introductory meeting" between the President and Serge Brammertz, the new Panel of Inquiry Chairman? There is, of course, the danger that Brammertz will see this as an evasion of the more extensive cooperation that is required.

Damascus is unwilling right now to burn its bridges with the international community, although it is aware that the United States and France are determined to hold Syria accountable. Thus, Syria has announced that it is ready to send its Foreign Minister, Farouq Shara, to meet with the Panel Chairman in Geneva. For the time being, it appears that President Assad’s domestic position is secure, notwithstanding the heavy international pressure that he is under and the American desire to focus on Syria.

The Erez Industrial Zone  – A Trilateral Agreement

Last week, I signed a Joint Declaration with the Turkish Foreign Minister regarding the rehabilitation of the Erez Industrial Zone. This is a joint initiative of Israel’s industrial associations and the Turkish Chamber of Commerce. According to the plan, Turkey will establish an organization to oversee the management of the industrial park. It was agreed that all the activities relating to the park, including the entry and exit of goods from the region, will be based on understandings between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the interim agreements, and in accordance with the prevailing security conditions. During my discussion with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who arrived here to sign an agreement with us, I made it clear to him that all economic activity in the Erez Industrial Zone is dependent upon the security situation. I also explained to him that there will be no assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the Erez Zone as long as we are facing rocket fire.

Aside from the importance of an agreement on the Erez Industrial Zone for the Palestinian economy, it is also very significant that Turkey, a Muslim country, has established extensive cooperation with Israel and actively supports the peace process. We are referring to an important strategic partner, and the ties with this country are becoming ever closer.

Summary of the First Session of the 109th US Congress

The first session of the 109th US Congress has demonstrated, once again, that the US legislative branch has maintained its unique and long-standing status as a stronghold of support for Israel, transcending party lines and Congressional houses. This support is expressed through all the decisions affecting us, on subjects such as foreign aid, the funding of joint security projects as well as visits by congressmen to Israel.

The special relations with Congress are expressed through hundreds of meetings and contacts between our representatives and legislative officials in Washington, as well as with officials at state-level:

• During the first session, 23 senators and 80 representatives visited Israel. Indeed, some of them visited on a number of occasions.
• During the first session, both Houses passed 15 resolutions directly related to Israel. In addition, there were nine resolutions which related to issues that concerned Israel, such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran.
• The average Congressional support for resolutions relating directly to Israel was 400 votes.  In the Senate, all the resolutions on Israel were passed in a consensual vote.
• Military assistance totaling $2.28 billion and civilian assistance totaling $240 million were approved for the fiscal year 2006. In addition, $40 million was approved for immigrant absorption.
• Congressional approval for joint security projects continues. This year, $600 million has been earmarked, aside from the regular military assistance. The ‘Arrow’ project is at the top of the list, with financial support of $133 million. A new project for the development of a missile that can intercept short-range missiles has been allotted funds totaling $10 million.
• Recently, Congress passed a resolution condemning the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority elections. The resolution calls for the blocking of financial assistance to the PA if the organization’s terrorist infrastructure is not dismantled.

The work of our representatives vis-a-vis Congress is bearing fruit, adding to the enhancement of our strength and national security. This is being accomplished through comprehensive work on the ground in the United States and through the organization of visits of congressional delegations to Israel.  These visits enable congressmen to become directly acquainted with the reality of life in Israel.

The Norwegian Minister of Finance

Last week, there was an incident involving the Norwegian Minister of Finance, who called for an economic boycott of Israel. I instructed our Ambassador in Norway to take immediate action: to meet with the Norwegian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister and to make it clear to them that we take a grave view of such declarations. Following the action of the Ambassador, the Norwegian Minister of Finance, Kristin Halvorsen, was summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office, where she delivered her apology. Over the weekend, Minister Halvorsen also issued a statement to the Norwegian media, admitting that she had been mistaken when she called for a boycott of Israel, which contravenes the Norwegian Government’s policy.

Halvorsen’s remarks provoked reactions from the Foreign Minister, as well as from Norwegian ministers and politicians from across the political spectrum who expressed their support for Israel. My colleague, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, also sent me a letter of apology on behalf of the Norwegian Government, in which he disassociated himself from the statements of the Minister of Finance and emphasized Norway’s close ties with Israel.