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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2000, Pages 62-63

People Watch

A Palestinian Torture Victim’s Strange Distinction

By Lucille Barnes

There’s nothing unusual about being a Palestinian Christian or Muslim who has died in the interrogation cells of the Israeli Security Police. (It would be noteworthy to be the first Jew to die under Israeli torture since Israel has never permitted the torture of Jews, either in Israel or in the occupied territories.) But 20-year-old Lafi Rajabi, whose battered body was returned to his family Jan. 17, now has the tragic distinction of being the first Palestinian to die under Israeli torture since the Israeli High Court’s recent ban on the legalized torture of Palestinians. Amir Abramovitch, media adviser to Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, said the minister was unaware of the case but had asked his ministry to investigate. That shouldn’t be difficult since Rajabi was in the ministry’s custody when he was killed.

Former American Consul General in Jerusalem Edward G. Abington’s bureaucratic turf included the Gaza Strip, where he was the U.S. liaison with the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat. While Abington was in Jerusalem, former Washington, DC lobbyist for Israel Martin Indyk was serving as U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, and struggling behind the scenes to bring the Jerusalem consulate and Gaza under the bureaucratic jurisdiction of the U.S. Embassy to Israel. When Abington, a brainy, soft-spoken career foreign service officer, returned to Washington to serve as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and research, Indyk, a Clinton administration political appointee, returned to serve as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. Now Indyk has returned to Israel for an unprecedented reappointment as U.S. ambassador there, and Abington, who retired in December after 30 years with the State Department, has become the first-ever lobbyist in the U.S. for the Palestinian Authority. His employer is Bannerman and Associates, a Washington, DC lobbying firm, which has landed a three-year PA contract totaling $2.25 million to pay for its services.

It all would have been quite unremarkable if Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations hadn’t complained that “it gives the appearance at least of inviting corruption of the diplomatic service if those posted to...countries can then turn around and become lobbyists for them.” That’s a particularly striking comment because London-born Australian citizen Indyk’s U.S. naturalization had to be speeded up in 1993 so that he could become the Clinton White House’s top Middle East adviser. But two years later when Indyk was appointed a diplomat and sent off to serve in Israel, the country for which he had been a paid lobbyist, we can’t remember a single one of the 52 member groups of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations suggesting it might corrupt the diplomatic service.

Jerome Segal of the Center of International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland organized a petition signed by 300 rabbis calling themselves “The Peace Lobby” and lifting the corner on serious discussion of sharing Jerusalem. Segal and the Peace Lobby pioneered support for discussions between Israel and the PLO a decade ago. In their current statement, released Jan. 19, the rabbis said “the question is whether the pursuit of both justice and peace requires that, in some form, Jerusalem be shared with the Palestinians. We believe that it does.” Explained Segal, “there has been no serious discussion inside Israel about any general compromise on Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still viewed as the third rail of Israeli politics, with the right claiming that the left will redivide Jerusalem and the left saying this is a lie.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is a likely candidate to succeed Israeli President Ezer Weizman if 75-year-old Weizman yields to intense media pressure to step down while charges are investigated that he accepted some $450,000 in gifts from a French businessman, Edouard Saroussi , over a period of several years. However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s favored candidate is said to be former Likud leader David Levy. Barak rewarded Moroccan-born Levy with the foreign minister portfolio in the current government after Levy first broke with former Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and later urged thousands of Moroccan-born former Likud members to vote for Barak’s Labor Party ticket in the 1999 election.

Also in trouble with the law in Israel is Ofer Nimrodi, publisher of the respected Tel Aviv daily Ma’ariv. He is under investigation for allegedly plotting to have two rival publishers and a detective killed.

Making waves in Israel was the January decision of Education Minister Yossi Sarid, chairman of the dovish Meretz bloc, who decided for the first time in Israeli history to pay for Reform and Conservative Jewish educational programs. In overturning the country’s traditional “Orthodox-only” state financing policy, Sarid explained that he believes in “religious pluralism.”

Creating further shock waves was Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who announced on Jan. 19 that the Knesset will hold the first open debate in Israel’s history on the Israeli nuclear program. The debate initially had been requested by a left-wing legislator, but the request was denied for security reasons. An Israeli High Court decision then overturned the denial.

A number of Algerians and a Canadian woman have been detained in the U.S. since the Dec. 14 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, 32, as he tried to drive a van containing explosives off a ferry making the crossing from British Columbia to Port Angeles, Washington. In addition to Ressam those named in indictments include Abdel Hakim Tizegha, 29, arrested in Seattle on Dec. 24, and Abdel Ghani, arrested Dec. 30 in New York City after he allegedly traveled to Seattle to meet with Ressam. Also wanted is Abdel Majid Dahoumane, who stayed with Ressam in a motel in Canada and who is believed to have been on the ferry when Ressam was arrrested, but who apparently was able to debark unnoticed.

Former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro has charged that the four are part of a terrorist splinter organization that broke with the extremist Armed Islamic Group in Algeria over its practices of targeting Muslims. The splinter group is said to have raised money for its activities in Algeria through holdups in France, and more recently though petty crime in Montreal such as thefts of credit cards and telephones stolen from automobiles. Cannistraro quoted French officials as saying Ressam has links to the suspected leader of the group, Fateh Kemal, who has been jailed in Paris since April 1999. Why the group, whose actitivies have been centered in Algeria, France and Canada, allegedly was bringing explosives into the U.S. has not been explained.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz revealed in late December that Moshe Kochnovsky, a senior official in the Israeli Defense Department, had met with White House counsel Beth Nolan to lobby for a pardon for convicted American spy for Israel Jonathan Jay Pollard. Pollard, a U.S. Naval counter-intelligence specialist, was arrested in 1985 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. President Bill Clinton turned down clemency appeals for Pollard in 1993 and 1996, but in 1998 reportedly was on the verge of releasing Pollard to then-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in return for Netanyahu’s signature on the Wye Plantation agreement with the Palestinians. Clinton’s action allegedly was forestalled by a threat from CIA Director George Tenet to resign. Instead, Clinton promised to review the case and, many believe, made it clear that his decision would be positive. Confronted with the revelelation in the Israeli press of the Kochnovsky visit, administration officials would only contrast the quiet diplomacy being exercised by the Barak administration with the demand by Netanyahu that he be allowed personally to escort Pollard from the Wye Plantation to Israel, which has made Pollard a citizen and where he has been receiving a salary during the nearly 15 years of his imprisonment in the U.S.

Lucille Barnes covers Washington, DC for U.S. and Middle East publications