NEWS: Egypt outrages Israel; Israel ready to talk to Syria; Syria alienates France

Egypt opens crossing so Palestinians can return

Egypt opened its main crossing into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to allow more than 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims — including at least one official of the armed Hamas movement — to return to their homes there, outraging Israel in a growing dispute over border security.

The return followed a month of increasingly bitter words between the two neighbors over Egypt’s policing of its border with Gaza, which Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last month described as “terrible.”

The friction between the two long-standing partners in U.S.-brokered peace deals comes as President Bush prepares to visit the region next week with a goal of smoothing the way for further peace accords. [complete article]

Israel signals willingness to reopen talks with Syria

Following a softening of the Bush administration’s opposition to Israeli-Syrian contacts, the Israeli government is actively exploring the possibility of reopening negotiations with Syria, according to Israeli sources and a senior Republican lawmaker who visited Damascus last week.

The Republican lawmaker, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, spoke after meeting last Sunday, December 30, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and conveying a message from Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Specter, accompanied by Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, told Assad that Israel is still waiting for a response to its request that Syria take public actions to prove its readiness for peace negotiations. For Specter, this message was seen as giving a green light to negotiations. “The time is right now, and prospects are very good,” the senator told reporters in Damascus after meeting Assad. “The parties will continue talks through intermediaries, and it’s my hope and expectation at some point, if preliminary progress has been made, the U.S. government would be ready, too.” [complete article]

Israel does not expect war with Iran: Peres

Israeli President Shimon Peres said he did not believe a war with Iran would be necessary but called for the end of the current government in Tehran, in an interview published Wednesday.

Peres told the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was dangerous for Israel and the region but that other means could be used to contain the threat. [complete article]

Syria’s foreign politics

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made good on his threat to take action against Syria on account of its presumed role in blocking the election of a new president of Lebanon. Speaking in Cairo at the end of a holiday-cum-official visit, Mr Sarkozy said that France will henceforth suspend all diplomatic contact with Syria “as long as we do not have proof of their [the Syrians’] willingness to allow Lebanon to have a consensus president”. In a further swipe at the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, Mr Sarkozy said that France was willing to bankroll the tribunal that has been established under UN auspices to try those charged with the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, and a series of subsequent political murders in Lebanon—Syrian involvement is strongly suspected, although Mr Assad has consistently denied responsibility.

Mr Sarkozy’s exasperation follows several weeks of intensive French diplomacy aimed at working with Syria on a solution to the Lebanese presidential impasse. The French president dispatched several of his senior foreign policy advisers to Damascus, and spoke to Mr Assad on the telephone on three occasions in pursuit of a breakthrough. This approach appeared to mark a shift from that of the outgoing president, Jacques Chirac, in that it invited Syria to wield its influence in Lebanon. Mr Chirac had been the architect of a joint policy with the US that sought to extirpate all Syrian influence over Lebanese affairs in the interest of enabling Lebanon to achieve full independence and sovereignty over its territory. [complete article]

Eight Gazans killed by IDF fire; Katyusha hits north Ashkelon

A Katyusha rocket fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Thursday morning struck an open field in northern Ashkelon, the furthest distance a rocket has struck yet – traveling some 16.5 kilometers.

Also Thursday, at least eight Palestinians were killed by Israel Defense Forces fire in several separate incidents in the Gaza Strip, including at least four militants. [complete article]

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