It took barely an hour following the start of this week’s Knesset (Israel’s parliament)Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting to figure out that its guest speaker, Israel Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, had quickly become the least popular person in the room. Mofaz was blasted equally by both left and right wing MK’s committee members for his decision not to extend the tenure of IDF Chief of staff Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon past July of this year, just days before the Gaza disengagement plan is slated to be carried out.

In a rare and fleeting moment of unity, Meretz MK’s Yossi Sarid and National Union MK Professor Aryeh Eldad both accused Mofaz of endangering Israel’s security by turning Yaalon into a “floor rag to serve the immediate needs of Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”. Oppositon head and Shinui party Chairman Tommy Lapid also said that Mofaz had made a mistaken decision in firing Ya’alon. MK Eldad even called for Mofaz’ resignation.

Committee chairman Dr Yuval Steinitz said he was too dissatisfied with Mofaz’ answers and that the committee would seek specific clarifications from him, Prime Minister Sharon and even the Chief of Staff due to the seriousness of the matter.

Likud MK Ehud Yatom pointed to Yaalon’s public warnings and disapproval (as well as those of General Security Service Chief Avi Dichter) regarding Sharon’s disengagement plan as the real reason for Yaalon’s unexpected dismissal.

But, according to a credible security source, the main reason for Yaalon’s ouster is more closely tied to the City of Jericho in the West Bank than it is to Gaza.

The source revealed that Ya’alon was critical of the recent set of security meetings between Mofaz and Mohammed Dahlan, Senior Advisor to Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and former PA Gaza Preventative Security Chief. The Chief of Staff reportedly warned Mofaz against turning over Jericho to PA security control at this time. Ya’alon reportedly told Mofaz. “What can Dahlan give you? He will not be able to secure the city.” Mofaz rebuffed the chief of staff reportedly telling him that “the issue is a political one and not military.”

According to a source close to the Palestinian Authority, Ya’alon’s fierce opposition to relinquishing IDF security control over Jericho at this time and Mofaz’ and apparently Sharon’s displeasure with Yaalon’s warnings, may also lead directly to the doors of the Jericho Casino and back to some senior offices in Israel.

The source noted that Yaalon and other senior security figures have expressed concern in the past that Jericho’s casino profits –that have been estimated at more than one million dollars per day even after the start of the Al Aksa terror war in 2000- had also been used as a prime funding source for Palestinian terror activity against Israel. As recently as this month on Channel One’s Friday evening program with Amnon Zichroni, journalist Uri Dan, a close associate of Sharon, said that the Jericho casino is a source of funding for Palestinian terror groups and should not be reopened now. Dan also said the Israeli underworld and their Palestinian counterparts are cooperating in the Jericho Casino racket.” The problem, Dan added “is that the Palestinian underworld is also part of the current leadership of the PA.”

Israeli concerns aside, Palestinian sources confirmed this week that returning Jericho to PA hands and its casino to full operation is now “at the top of the Palestinian agenda.” West Bank strongman Jibril Rajoub and former senior Arafat financial advisor Mohammed Rashid, who is known to control Arafat’s several billion dollar portfolio -top the list of Palestinians believed to have among the heaviest financial interests in the casino. It was also reported on radio Palestine in Arabic this week that Dahlan has been appointed Palestinian Minister for Local Government Affairs– a post that would logically include responsibility over Jericho.

It is also well known in Israel that MK Omri Sharon, the Prime Minister’s son and closest confidante, and Former Sharon Bureau Chief Dov Weissglass have been long time associates of Rashid. The younger Sharon and Weissglass were reportedly Rashid’s guests at his swank Tel Aviv Apartment on the night of Sharon’s election victory in February 2001 according to Israeli journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff in their 2004 book, The Seventh War.

An Israeli source with close ties both to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan noted this week that some Israelis and Europeans may also be interested in reopening the Jericho casino as soon as possible. A very senior Israeli security source said this week that he and others in the IDF remember “with a cynical smile the repeated approaches Weissglass made to the IDF and security establishment after the closing of the Jericho Casino in 2001 to convince them to reopen the casino.”It was well known to us that Dov Weissglass had personal interests in the Jericho Casino, the senior security source added this week. The source added that he does not understand Mofaz’s role in the matter.

Of equal interest is the fact that Weissglass is still actively associated with his law firm Weissglass-Almagor that until recently was the law firm of record representing the Jericho Casino and other interests of the Palestinian Authority, facts that were reported in Makor Rishon and as recently as September 2004 by investigative journalist David Bedein in the American Magazine According to Bedein, the law firm Weissglass -Almagor is today listed as representing the interests of Casino investor and European financier Martin Shlaff whose alleged financial contributions to Prime Minister Sharon’s 1999 and 2001 campaigns are under criminal investigation.

Prime Minister Sharon’s office responded angrily to Makor Rishon’s request for clarification regarding the reported Mofaz -Ya’alon discussion and the statements by separate senior security sources regarding Dov Weissglass’ connection to the Jericho Casino.

The unsigned response from the office of the Prime Minister’s media advisor read as follows:

“The arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians was signed between Defense Minister Mofaz and his Palestinian counterpart. Mofaz is soley responsible for transferring (security control of Palestinian) cities and he and only he will decide when to transfer them. In addition, even if the city of Jericho is transferred there is no intention of allowing Israeli citizens to enter the city, in accordance with the standing orders of the Head of IDF Central Command. The hinted charges in your request for clarification are not only a complete lie but they also contain intentional slander. “

Makor Rishon has not responded to the veiled threat made by the Prime Minister’s media Advisor.

Dov Weissglass himself issued a similarly angry response some years ago against Mendy Orr, former Coordinator of Israel’s activities in Judea and Samaria,. During the 1990’s. At that time, Weissglass, who was not in Government service but represented the Jericho Casino, threatened to sue Orr for slander for his public charges that that the casino funded Palestinian terror groups. Following Orr’s statements that he made while in uniform, Weissglass sent him a warning that if Orr did not take back his charges against the casino, Weissglass would sue him for slander. Orr ignored Weissglass’ warnings.

Late last week it was also reported that Omri Sharon is expected to be indicted by Attorney General Manny Mazuz for breach of trust and illegal campaign contributions for misappropriating funds for his father’s 1999 Likud primaries campaign and Sharon’s 2001 campaign for Prime Minister. The Omri Sharon indictment is part of the ongoing investigation into his connection to various illegal funding sources including Martin Shlaff, reportedly a source of illegal campaign contributions to Sharon. Shlaff’s loan to Sharon is believed by many to have been wired into the account of Sharon’s South African connection and friend Cyril Kern before being transferred to Sharon’s account in Israel. All these issues are still under criminal investigation.

Austrian financier Martin Shlaff is also well known as a major investor in the Jericho Casino, together with Sharon longtime friend Cyril Kern.

So perhaps even IDF chief of Staff Ya’alon did not realize how raw the political situation was that he touched when he told Mofaz that Jericho should not be transferred so quickly to Palestinian control.

Published in the weekly Israeli paper, Makor Rishon, 25.2.05