- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) — Insider Notes from United Press International for Jan. 27 …

Is Syrian President Bashar Assad building up a dangerous rival for his throne? Bashar's appointment last month of his brother-in-law, Gen. Assaf Chawkat, to be deputy head of military security was seen as solidifying Bashar's political control. But now the rumor in Damascus is that Bashar has instructed current security chief, Hassan Khalil, to retire on schedule later this year, paving the way for Chawkat to take over. Chawkat, an anti-Israeli hawk who urges more arms for Hezbollah, is a big and burly figure, and married to Bashar's older sister, Bushara. He helped ensure Bashar's succession following the death of his father, Hafez Assad, nearly three years ago, and has been highly influential behind the scenes ever since. But the family has its problems. Not long before Bashar succeeded, Chawkat was hospitalized with a gunshot wound, allegedly inflicted by Bashar's younger brother, Maher.

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Now Israel has a whole new problem with Egypt — its sewage. Egypt's Ministry of the Environment claims that the water supply of its border towns and their beaches have been polluted by Israel's dumping of raw sewage. After an angry media campaign, Egypt's parliament demanded that Environment Minister Mamdouh Riyad do something, and the subsequent investigation by Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency found Rafah's sea-water and its fresh-water wells polluted way above safety levels. North Sinai Gov. Ahmed Abdel-Hamid has complained to parliament of "Israel's uncivilized acts that jeopardize public health, biodiversity and the ecosystem of the town of Rafah."

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Likud Party strategists are delighted with Ariel Sharon's successful recovery from the vote-buying and bribery scandal that has beset the prime minister's political campaign. In the closing days of the campaign, Sharon stopped the slippage in the polls and went on the offensive. Weekend numbers showed Likud gaining 32 seats Labor 19, Shinui — the upstart secular right wing party, picking up nine seats for a total of 15. Shinui is threatening to replace Labor as the second-biggest party in the Knesset.

Part of Sharon's strategy was to act tough in the West Bank and Gaza, and keep mum about the peace process. He had President George W. Bush to thank for a helping hand on that key issue. When the quartet (comprising the U.S. secretary of State, the Russian foreign minister, the U.N. Secretary-general, and the foreign minister of the EU) sent to the White House their latest Middle East peace road map — a modest proposal for the region — a month ago Bush requested that the plan should not be made public until after the Israeli elections, thus giving the candidates no new peace initiative to talk about, and providing no new ideas for dovish Labor candidate Amram Mitzna's political platform.

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Meanwhile, Natan Sharansky, who spent 9 years in Soviet prison camps before being allowed to emigrate to Israel, is battling hard to retain the vote of Russian Jewish immigrants for his YBA party in this week's Israeli elections. But a lot of them — he reckons up to 142,000 — are not recognized as Jews under halachic (Orthodox) rules. It's driving Sharansky crazy: "They have came here and are very loyal; they make up 25 percent of soldiers fighting in Jenin. What is this soldier doing between the battles? Talking to his mother on the phone and telling her to hide from the police so she won't be deported. This is a terrible situation," he says. Worse still for Sharansky, the real beneficiary look like being Shinui…

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At least, there will be one agreement signed when Tony Blair flies back from his Washington talks with President Bush to see that other president across the Channel, France's Jacques Chirac. With France and Germany at loggerheads with Britain and the United States over Iraq, and France and Britain battling over farm reform in the European Union, it promises to be a tense and wintry summit next week at the French seaside town of Le Touquet — a place where the English used to go for a gamble at the casino. But there is a document to sign on cooperation in education, with more school and teacher exchanges. Even that has its limits. French Education Minister Xavier Darcos was startled last week to find that Britain's new curriculum reforms could stop at age 14 the current compulsory study of foreign languages. "We would find it very difficult in France to imagine stopping teaching foreign languages," he said, a careful diplomatic phrasing that seems to elude his president and foreign minister.

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