Mideast Report

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel has welcomed the historic peace agreement for Northern Ireland.

Calling the pact reached on Friday of last week a "breakthrough," Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the agreement would hopefully end decades of bloodshed and terror in which "thousands of innocent people lost their lives."

The agreement, brokered by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, calls for power sharing between the region's Protestant majority and Catholic minority and for increased ties with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

Israeli peace activists hailed the accord, saying it should serve as inspiration for the deadlocked Middle East peace process.

Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid pointed to the extensive mediation efforts of the United States, which has also been pressing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to break their stalemated negotiations.

"This proves that the role of the United States in making peace is indispensable," Sarid said.

Netanyahu's habit going up in smoke

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fire for fancy cigars has been squelched.

In response to public outrage, Israel Radio said Monday that Israel will no longer buy cigars for visiting dignitaries.

Light was shed on the price of his high-society habit when the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot reported recently that government spending on cigars costs taxpayers $40,000 a year.

Netanyahu's spokesman, Shai Bazak, said that "it's an item for hosting purposes, which was acceptable practice with former prime ministers."

But former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said, "I don't remember such a thing…If someone likes smoking cigars, let them, but at their own expense."

Labor MK Dalia Itzik demanded that Netanyahu return the cigar money, estimated at $67,750 since the elections, to the state.

Tourists' Pesach jaunt almost ends with bang

JERUSALEM (JPS) — The Israel Defense Force and cabinet members blasted vacationers — although not literally — for entering a firing zone Monday in the Negev where IDF soldiers were training with live ammunition.

Two groups of dozens of civilians on motor bikes were touring in Nahal Znifim, in the southern Arava. According to army radio, the bikers did not coordinate their visit as required by the IDF. No one was injured.

Ezri Eilon, head of the Eilat region of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, said most of the bikers knew the firing zone was not fenced off, although it was clearly marked. He added that they knew the procedures necessary for touring there, but "simply disregarded them, took a needless risk and, in this instance, came close to a bad ending."

The IDF said it ordered its troops to cease firing immediately and halted all live-fire exercises in the area until a proper sweep could be conducted to make sure no other tourists were on the grounds.

The army said it has opened up some training grounds for tours during Pesach, but stressed that all visits must be coordinated with the IDF or local field schools.

Dollar to become legal Israeli currency

JERUSALEM — The dollar is expected to become legal currency in Israel in a matter of weeks.

Under a plan to liberalize the country's currency regulations, Israelis would be able to purchase any amount of dollars and use them in transactions, including the purchase of homes.

Under the plan, Israelis will be able to take out of the country any sum of money, in any currency, and will be able to open foreign bank accounts.

The liberalization would also allow Israelis to make unlimited investments abroad and end restrictions on the use of credit cards overseas.