Saturday, January 03, 2004

Golan grab?
Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is denying that the Israeli government has approved a plan to double the population in the occupied Golan Heights. According to Ha'aretz, he told the BBC's Hard Talk program:

"There is no program, there is no policy, there is no expansion of Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights," Olmert told the BBC.

"He [Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who announced the decision] may have declared something... but in terms of the government policy... there is no such approved program..."

The statement comes amid mild hopes that Syria and Israel might resume negotiations on the Golan. While the prospect of serious talks still looks far away, the Syrians and Lebanese are "coordinating". As the Daily Star reported today:

A series of meetings will be held between Syrian and Lebanese officials in the next few days to pave the way for a possible meeting of the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council in the next few months. The meetings are apparently intended to reinforce the image of complete cooperation between the two countries.

The article suggests the reason for this is increasing American pressure on Syria through the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. However, it is quite possible that it is also, and perhaps mainly, linked to the prospect of progress in talks with Israel. If such talks resume, Syria is very keen to keep a tight rein on Lebanon.

The Battle of Algiers II
Christopher Hitchens has done a piece on the Battle of Algiers for Slate, the second in the online magazine in a few months. The first was written by Charles Paul Freund.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Press review
My biweekly review of the Middle East press for Slate is an end-of-year roundup, with some interesting material on Syrian-Israeli relations. Since then, this New York Times story has cast the prospect of Syrian-Israeli negotiations in a new light--and showed where Ariel Sharon's priorities lie.
We'll borrow this for now
The U.S. contemplated seizing Gulf oil fields in 1973 to break the Arab oil embargo, according to recently released British intelligence memorandum cited by the Washington Post:

It cited a warning from Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger to the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Cromer, that the United States would not tolerate threats from "under-developed, under-populated" countries and that "it was no longer obvious to him that the United States could not use force."

Seizure of the oil fields, the memo said, was "the possibility uppermost in American thinking [and] has been reflected, we believe, in their contingency planning."

Ironically, one danger was that Iraq might, at the USSR's instigation, move into Kuwait:

"The greatest risk of such confrontation in the Gulf would probably arise in Kuwait where the Iraqis, with Soviet backing, might be tempted to intervene," it said, presaging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Presaging, yes: but the Arab world would have backed that intervention wholeheartedly, and regarded the U.S. as the threat to regional stability.