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The Media Line Sunday News Roundup

1. BUSH ACCEDES TO ‘ABBAS REQUEST FOR GENERAL WARD TO MEDIATE SECURITY ISSUES WITH ISRAEL… U.S. President George W. Bush has agreed to a request by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas to expand the scope of General William Ward’s mandate to include mediating security issues between Israel and the P.A. ‘Abbas called the President’s decision an indication of the American commitment to the peace process. General Ward’s original mandate was only to help the Palestinians rebuild their security apparatus under a single authority. Israel has opposed any broadening of the scope of Ward’s mandate.

2. SHARON ADMINISTRATION TRIES TO DOWNPLAY ‘ABBAS SUCCESS IN WASHINGTON… Ariel Sharon’s office is hard at work spinning Mahmoud ‘Abbas’s visit to Washington into a no-loss outcome. But media and pundits award the round to the Palestinian Authority chairman. Most bitter for Sharon was President Bush’s leniency on the matter of disarming terrorist organizations. The Americans will let it slide at least until after Palestinian parliamentary elections this summer. Sharon had made it a condition-precedent for Israel’s cooperation, but that position will be difficult to sustain in the aftermath of the White House summit. President Bush also fired a broadside against Sharon’s plans to build the post-1967 Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim into contiguity with the capital. It was the first time the President referred specifically to Jerusalem in the context of warning against building in post-1967 areas. Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s usual conduit for commenting on such issues, offered a weak assessment that President Bush “contradicted no promises vis-à-vis Israel.” Even Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the key parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee and member of Sharon’s Likud party, called the Bush comments, “a defeat for Israel.”

3. LEBANON GOES TO THE FIRST POST-SYRIAN POLLS… Voters in Lebanon are going to the polls on Sunday to elect the first parliament elected without Syrian direction in 29 years. Analysts predict that anti-Syrian candidates will be swept to power, led by Sa’ad A-Din Al-Hariri, the son of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, whose murder signaled the beginning of popular support for the ouster of the Syrians. The capital of Beirut is divided into three districts, all of which will vote today, the results released on Monday. The rest of the country is divided into additional regions which will vote on consecutive Sundays. Several teams of international observers were allowed to oversee the voting, the first time Lebanon has permitted outside scrutiny.

4. SAUDI KING HOSPITALIZED… King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was hospitalized in Riyadh on Friday. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’oud Al-Fei’sal called the King’s condition “stable” and said the tests were “reassuring.” A spokesman at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital said Fahd was being treated for water in the lungs and said the King was “improving…slowly.” Saudi Arabia has been ruled by Crown Prince ‘Abdallah since 1992 when King Fahd suffered a severe stroke. But Fahd’s health remains a factor in world oil markets as owner of the world’s largest oil reserves.

5. CANADA GIVES P.A. $12 MILLION ‘DOWN PAYMENT’ GIFT… Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin pledged $12.2 million in what he called a “down payment” on further contributions to the Palestinian Authority after spending six hours with P.A. Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas in Ottawa. ‘Abbas stopped by on the way home after meeting with U.S. President George Bush in Washington. Martin, however, cautioned his guest that future aid will be conditioned upon ‘Abbas following through with his promises of reform. He said “President ‘Abbas must take firm measures against terrorism and should vigorously pursue the reform program that he has launched.” Martin said “Hamas are terrorists.”

6. PALESTINIANS RECRUTING 5,000 TO SECURITY FORCE TO REPLACE ISRAELIS IN GAZA… The Palestinian Authority is trying to recruit as many as 5,000 new members of its security forces in order to patrol the areas that Israel will evacuate this summer. But because Israel limits the number of weapons P.A. personnel can carry, the new recruits will be unarmed – unless Israel can be convinced otherwise. A P.A. spokesman said that Israel has been asked to allow the new troops to carry weapons purchased by other nations. Israel has so far refused.

7. NUCLEAR CONFERENCE ENDS WITHOUT RESULTS… The United Nations review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ended on Friday with no tangible results. But after the session ended, Iran’s United Nations ambassador told reporters that the world’s real nuclear threat comes from the United States and from Israel. Javad Zarif said that Israel was the greatest threat to the Middle East because of its nuclear weapons and its “aggressive policy.” He called American opposition to the Iranian nuclear program a “smokescreen to divert attention from its violations.” Israel, India and Pakistan remain the only nuclear-capable nations refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

8. GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL SUPPORTS ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATIONS, SURRENDER OF LAND BY ISRAEL… The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council met on Saturday and issued a statement supporting the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The group also encouraged the international community to fight terrorism. The conference participants stressed that a “just and comprehensive peace” can only come to the Middle East if Israel surrenders all of the land it acquired in the 1967 War (Six Day War). The GCC is comprised of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

9. ISRAEL EASES REQUIREMENTS FOR RELEASE OF PALESTINIAN PRISONERS… The Israeli government is preparing a list of more than 400 Palestinian prisoners it plans to release as the second installment of Ariel Sharon’s promise at Sharm A-Sheikh in February. While the Israelis insist that the oft-cited criterion of not releasing prisoners with “blood on their hands” remains operative, the guideline will be eased as it relates to what portion of a prisoner’s sentence has been served. The requirement that those released must have already served two-thirds of their sentences is being waived. Member of Knesset (parliament) Uzi Landau, a cabinet minister until fired by Ariel Sharon, called for the prisoner release to be linked to the release by the United States of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

10. ISRAELI POLL: MAJORITY BELIEVE GOVERNMENT CORRUPT; PLURALITY BELIEVES SHARON PERSONALLY INVOLVED… A new poll commissioned by the Hebrew mass-circulation newspaper Ma’ariv indicates a strong majority of Israelis believe their government is corrupt. Those who believe that Ariel Sharon is personally involved in the corruption outnumbered those who think the prime minister is clean by a vote of 44% to 38%. Regarding who should succeed Sharon as the leader of the Likud party, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz edged out former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by two percentage points overall. But Netanyahu, the current finance minister, showed his greatest strength among members of the party’s Central Committee. The Media Line analysts point out that because of the party’s electoral procedure, Netanyahu’s position is arguably stronger than the overall numbers indicate. Another right wing mainstay of the party is seeing her ambitions crumble amid a financing scandal. Education Minister Limor Livnat was negotiating the firing of 4,500 teachers for lack of funding when it leaked out that she had received a secret $400 million windfall from the Treasury. A new poll shows a whopping 71% of the nation critical of her actions. On the left side of the aisle, the newspaper Yediot Aharonot released a poll showing elder politician Shimon Peres retaining his strength as Labor Party head. But the same survey shows every possible Labor candidate losing to Likud.

11. TWO BUSINESSMEN MOVE FORWARD ON $80 MILLION EILAT CASINO PLAN… Two prominent businessmen are pushing ahead with a plan to build an $80 million casino in the southern port city of Eilat. Alexander Tessler, a German Jew, and Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, an Israeli, have announced that they will put together an investor group to proceed with the casino. Long controversial in Israel, the casino concept has recently been endorsed by Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Tourism Minister Abraham Hirschson and all current owners of hotels in Eilat.