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Distances:Tel Aviv to Jerusalem 63 kms
Tel Aviv to Haifa 95 kms
Source: Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th edition - Sir Martin Gilbert;
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2002;
ISBN: 0415281172 (paperback),
0415281164 (hardback); Map: NPR Online



Jitters in Washington over threat of airstrikes
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE US has told Israel that its efforts to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear programs are "not open-ended", setting September as a deadline for agreement from Tehran on international inspections of its atomic sites. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates yesterday told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US and Israel saw "eye to eye" on the Iranian nuclear threat. The September ultimatum is significant, as President Barack Obama has previously referred to "the end of the year" as the deadline for Iran to open its facilities for inspection. In return, Mr Netanyahu said Israel would utilise "all available means" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — an apparent reference to an airstrike, which Israel insists is an option.

The exchange came before Mr Netanyahu and US special envoy George Mitchell last night held a three-hour meeting to discuss Washington's desire for a resumption of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The meeting appeared not to resolve any issues, with both men afterwards reluctant to go into details. "We look forward to continuing our discussions to reach a point that we can move forward to reach a comprehensive peace," Mr Mitchell told reporters. Mr Netanyahu said they had made progress towards achieving "the understanding that will enable us to continue and complete the peace process established between us and Palestinian neighbours and the countries in the entire region". The US has told Israel it wants an immediate freeze on building activity in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem to ensure talks resume. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Mr Mitchell yesterday he wanted a six-month freeze before resuming talks.

A large section of the Israeli public appears to support an airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The model often cited is the air attack on a nuclear facility in Syria two years ago. Government sources in Israel make it clear that such a strike would be sold to the public as setting back Iran's nuclear facility several years — and causing minimal civilian casualties. But several of Iran's nuclear research facilities are near civilian areas and some are believed to be underground, making any "surgical strike" difficult. Two months ago, CIA director Leon Panetta flew to Israel to seek an assurance that Tel Aviv was not about to launch a strike on Iran without the US's knowledge.

While Vice-President Joe Biden recently made it clear any decision about Iran was for Israel, US officials are known to fear that an Israeli strike could start a new conflict in the Middle East. Iran, unlike Syria, would be almost certain to respond, possibly through its ally Hezbollah. The Obama administration's attempt to find broad support for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was evident in the revelation that Mr Mitchell raised with Syria the possibility of the US lifting export bans on computer software and hardware, and aircraft. Mr Obama has also written to several Arab countries to urge "confidence-building measures" in relation to Israel. Yediot Ahronoth newspaper reported that Mr Obama had written to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco saying that if they took such measures it would make it easier for the US to put pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction.

Mr Netanyahu has succeeded in pushing through the Knesset a bill he hopes will strengthen his coalition government, but which many analysts believe adds instability to the already fragile system of government. Dubbed "the Mofaz law", the bill allows any group of seven members from any party or faction to form their own organisation and still receive full party funding from the taxpayer. The move was designed to encourage Shaul Mofaz, the former Likud heavyweight and defence force chief, to break away from Kadima and bring six other members with him into Mr Netanyahu's coalition. But it backfired, with Mr Mofaz voting against the bill and calling Mr Netanyahu "a lowly political wheeler-dealer" in the Knesset. Mr Netanyahu's coalition is frail, and to make concessions to either Palestinians or Syrians for peace he needs a stronger base.


Iran boycott plan comforts Israelis
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, August 1, 2009

THE US will move swiftly to impose severe sanctions against Iran if Tehran continues to ignore US President Barack Obama's offer of dialogue, Israeli officials said yesterday after briefings from senior American officials. According to Israeli reports, the brutal response of Iranian authorities to the protests after the disputed June elections has made the US more sceptical about the chances of negotiating an agreement that would halt Iran's nuclear program. The briefings in Jerusalem this week from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones indicated "that the Americans are for the first time showing more understanding for Israel's view of events", the Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday.

Riots erupted in Tehran again on Thursday when protesters gathered at the grave of Neda Soltan, the young woman shot dead during demonstrations 40 days ago. Riot police used teargas and batons to disperse the thousands who arrived at the cemetery, including opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims his loss to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the elections was a transparent fraud perpetrated by the government. Mr Gates and General Jones, on separate visits, met during the week with the senior Israeli leadership, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, in a series of meetings devoted largely to Iran.

Both visitors said Washington had given Tehran until the UN General Assembly meeting in the last week of September to respond to Mr Obama's offer of talks. On the initial assumption that Tehran would express willingness to talk, Washington had planned to hold a policy review with its allies towards the end of the year before deciding whether to proceed with sanctions. But given Tehran's failure to respond, and the Iranian regime's behaviour since the elections, the reassessment might begin sooner, the American officials reportedly said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed doubt last week that the Iranian government had the "capacity" at present to respond to the American offer of talks.

The nature of American-sponsored sanctions was spelled out publicly for the first time yesterday by Israeli officials who had taken part in the meetings. The sanctions would focus at first on curbing Iran's ability to import petrol. Although the country has one of the largest oil deposits in the world, it has limited refining capacity. General Jones said 67 US senators had so far signed on to such sanctions. The Americans are also proposing financial sanctions, including the banning of insurance on trade deals with Iran which would make it difficult for Iran to conduct trade. Sanctions may also be imposed on any company in the world that trades with Iran. If these steps do not work, Washington may go to the next stage, which includes banning Iranian ships from Western ports and Iranian planes from landing at Western airports.

Washington is forging its list of sanctions with Germany, France and Britain. Russia and China have rejected such steps. General Jones reportedly told the Israelis that Mr Obama would soon visit China and try to persuade its leaders to join in.

Washington has been cautioning Israel against any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, at least while the US is pursuing the diplomatic option. A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week conveyed that the US would in any case provide Israel and the Arab states with a protective nuclear umbrella against Iran. The statement was intended to comfort Israel but it had the opposite effect, sounding to Israeli ears as if Washington was reconciled to the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Israel has not taken the possibility of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities off the table although it has accepted that the US's diplomatic efforts must be allowed to run their course.

If diplomatic efforts fail and sanctions fail too, the question is whether the US will permit Israel to strike or whether Israel would strike even without permission. John Bolton, the hardline former US ambassador to the UN, said Israel would have to make up its mind on the issue in the coming months. "Absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran," he said. Mr Bolton said he would not be surprised if Israel attacked before the end of the year.

Same Day
Extract - Fix Tehran issue
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

While President Barack Obama and European leaders such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as their No 1 foreign policy concern, inside Israel it is dwarfed by the Iranian issue. Much of this week's meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell, one source said, was taken up with Israel's desire to discuss an option it is serious about — a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The source said the US response to Netanyahu was loud and clear — there can be no attack on Iran while the US still has troops in Iraq. The Americans believe the response from Iran through proxies in Iraq would be "murderous" in US lives. Washington still has 130,000 troops in Iraq and there will be a significant US presence for two years, so the White House would not want to see any strike on Iran for at least two years. The US will inevitably face a backlash from any Israeli attack; Israel would require not just US intelligence and support but the US-backed Iraqi regime would need to allow Israeli warplanes to fly over Iraq.

It's clear that while the international headlines are about differences between the US and Israel on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the main game is whether Israel and Iran, the Middle East's two most bitter enemies, may be at war with each other within a year. This is a prospect weighing heavily on Washington: a war between Israel, a nuclear power, and Iran, a would-be nuclear power, has dreadful implications. The US is nervous about what Israel might do to Iran. Two months ago, Obama sent CIA chief Leon Panetta to Israel when suggestions reached Washington that Israel was preparing to attack Iran. The new administration in Washington was wondering whether Israel would act in secrecy, but Israel assured Panetta there was no imminent attack.

Israelis see the Iran issue as urgent — a matter of survival that needs to be dealt with within two years, before Tehran's nuclear program nears completion.


International fury as Israel evicts Palestinians
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ISRAEL made it clear yesterday it is not going to follow calls by the US to back away from settlement activity in East Jerusalem, when more than a hundred police arrived at dawn to evict 53 Palestinians and move Jewish settlers into the houses. The eviction of the Palestinians, some of whom had lived in the houses since the 1950s, came the week after key US officials, including Middle East special envoy George Mitchell, had been in Jerusalem to discuss a range of issues, including Washington's sensitivity about developments in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem.

The Israeli action led to immediate international condemnation, with the British government saying it was appalled by the evictions, which it said were "incompatible with Israel's professed desire for peace". "We urge Israel not to allow extremists to set the agenda," Britain said. A representative of the US consulate in Jerusalem arrived at the scene as the eviction of the Palestinians was taking place. US officials sent a letter of protest to Israel, saying the evictions went against the spirit of the Middle East road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The US was expected to lodge a higher-level protest today.

Two weeks ago, US State Department officials told Israel's new ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, they did not want a planned Jewish development for 20 new apartments in East Jerusalem to go ahead. The US argues that for peace to be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank must cease and that disputed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians say should be the capital of Palestine, and the Israelis say is part of Israel, should not be built in until any final agreement. Israel has announced plans to demolish about 90 Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem that it says have been illegally built. The Palestinians say it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian to get a building permit from the Israeli authorities.

Two extended Palestinian families had lived in the housing complex, which included nine family units. Among the 53 people evicted were 19 children. The evictions followed a lengthy legal battle. Some of the Palestinians were refugees who had been placed in the houses by the UN refugee agencies. A Sephardic Jewish community claimed they were the original owners of the houses, and the Israeli courts ruled that one of the houses had belonged to the community but placed protected tenant status on the houses. The Jewish community then claimed the Palestinians had breached a condition of the status agreement that rendered the protected invalid. A legal complication was the fact that what had originally been two large houses had been divided into seven houses, so there was doubt about whether the court ruling that "the house" originally belonged to the Sephardic Jewish community applied to only one of the sub-divisions or all seven. On entering yesterday, the Jewish settlers broke down walls to remove any legal doubt. One of those evicted, Majhad Ganun, told the media: "We were dragged out of our beds."


Abbas urges a new direction for Fatah
The Australian
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

BETHLEHEM: Fatah last night kicked off its first congress in 20 years with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urging his party to seek "a new start" and admitting a litany of past errors. Listing where Fatah went wrong, Mr Abbas mentioned "the impasse in the peace process, some of our attitudes which the public rejects, our weak performance, our losing touch with the pulse of the street, and our lack of discipline". The Palestinian Authority President said these faults were to blame for the long-dominant party's upset defeat at the polls and its routing from the Gaza Strip.

Fatah, which is at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, exercised undivided power among Palestinians before it was trounced by its rival the Islamist Hamas movement in the 2006 legislative election. Longstanding Hamas-Fatah tensions boiled over in 2007 when the Islamists seized control of Gaza after a week of deadly street clashes, confining Mr Abbas's powerbase to the West Bank.

"We also almost lost what was left of the Palestinian Authority, but we resisted, held firm and took initiatives," Mr Abbas said. Mr Abbas, who has led Fatah since the 2004 death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, urged the 1900 delegates to use the three-day congress as "a platform for a new start, consolidating our struggle to achieve our main goals: liberation and independence". The congress in the West Bank city of Bethlehem is due to adopt a new political program and replace some of the top leaders of Fatah. It is only the sixth conference since the party was founded by Arafat in the late 1950s.

Internal disputes that have significantly weakened the movement flared in recent weeks, with secretary-general Faruq Kaddumi publicly accusing Mr Abbas of plotting with Israel to get rid of Arafat. Over the years, Fatah has moved away from armed struggle and its pledge to eradicate Israel but has been losing credibility as peace efforts have failed to produce tangible results.

In a document obtained by Agence France-Presse, Fatah expresses its determination to regain the initiative in peace efforts. But it also reiterates the Palestinian leadership's refusal to resume talks until Israel halts settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The document stresses that under international law, the Palestinians have the right to resist occupation, "including through armed struggle" and reaffirms Fatah's refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

In his opening address, Mr Abbas stressed Fatah had worked tirelessly to restore security in the West Bank "at a time when this task appeared impossible". Many Palestinians blame Fatah for the chaos and corruption that reigned in the Palestinian territories before the Palestinian Authority, set up under the 1993 Oslo accords, set out to restore order over the past years. The Fatah delegates are due to renew both the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, the party's main governing bodies.


We must accept US peace plan: Barak
The Australian
The Times, agencies
Thursday, August 6, 2009

THE Obama administration is close to presenting its plan for peace in the Middle East to Israel and the Palestinians, senior officials said yesterday. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak recommended that Israel should accept the proposals from its most important ally, with whom it has endured strained ties recently. "In the coming weeks, their plan will be formulated and presented to the parties," Mr Barak told the parliamentary foreign and defence committee. "I believe that Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan."

No details were released in Washington, although it is thought the plan is based on an Arab initiative whereby Israel would gain recognition from the Arab world in return for the creation of a Palestinian state. It is thought that the plan will have a broader regional approach than previous peace efforts, and will include the participation of Syria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.

The Palestinian leadership refuses to resume negotiations until all settlement construction ceases. One idea US Middle East special envoy George Mitchell discussed with the Israelis has been for Israel to agree to a temporary halt in settlement construction to get both parties to the negotiating table. Israel has demanded that the Palestinians should officially recognise it as a Jewish state. The more moderate Fatah leadership refuses to do so. Fatah opened its first party congress in 20 years in Bethlehem yesterday. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, urged his people to back renewed peace talks. "We have to continue this way, for the interest of the people," he said.

Washington issued another diplomatic protest over Israeli conduct in East Jerusalem yesterday, its second in as many weeks. Haaretz reported that US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman summoned Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington, to tell him that the US views Sunday's eviction of two Palestinian families from homes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood as a "provocative" and "unacceptable" act that violates Israel's obligations under the road map peace plan. Mr Oren responded by saying the buildings in question had been Jewish-owned since before Israel's founding, and that a court ordered the families' evictions because they had violated the terms of their leases.

Same Day: Hezbollah threat 'stronger than ever'
Richard Beeston and Nicholas Blanford, The Times

THREE years after Israel fought a bloody war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, there are fears that hostilities could erupt again. This time it would be with the militant group better armed than ever.

According to Israeli, UN and Hezbollah officials, the Shia Muslim militia is stronger than it was in 2006 when it took on the Israeli army in a war that killed 1191 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians. Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets and is training its forces to use ground-to-ground missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv, and anti-aircraft missiles that could challenge Israel's dominance of the skies over Lebanon.

Brigadier-General Alon Friedman, the deputy head of the Israeli Northern Command, told The Times that the peace of the past three years could "explode at any minute". His concerns were due partly to threats from Hezbollah's leadership. Last month, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, warned that if the southern suburbs of Beirut were bombed as they were in the last war, he would strike back against Tel Aviv, the largest Israeli city. "We have changed the equation that had existed previously," he said. "Now the southern suburbs versus Tel Aviv, and not Beirut versus Tel Aviv."

Hezbollah's rearming is in the name of resistance against Israel. The real reason, however, probably has more to do with its ally Iran. If Israel carries out its threat to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, the main retaliation is likely to come from Hezbollah in Lebanon. All sides agreed that the threat was not a bluff.

Last month, the scale of the Hezbollah build-up was revealed after an explosion at an ammunition bunker in the village of Khirbet Slim, 20km from the Israeli border. Surveillance footage obtained by The Times showed Hezbollah fighters trying to salvage rockets and munitions from the site. Obstructions were placed in the way of Unifil peacekeepers going to investigate. Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, told the Security Council last month that the explosion amounted to a serious violation of UN Resolution 1701, which imposed a ceasefire and arms ban after the war. "A number of indications suggest that the depot belonged to Hezbollah and, in contrast to previous discoveries by Unifil and the Lebanese Armed Forces of weapons and ammunition, that it was not abandoned but, rather, actively maintained," he said. Unifil's mandate is due to be renewed by the Security Council this month and Israel is pressing for the peacekeepers to be more robust in stopping Hezbollah and other armed groups from infiltrating the UN-patrolled region south of the Litani river. Hezbollah, which is armed, trained and financed by Iran, has been engaged in a recruitment, training and rearmament drive since the end of the 2006 war.

Although basic training on firing weapons is taught at camps in the mountains flanking the Bekaa Valley, specialised courses are carried out in Iran. Hundreds of fighters have travelled to Iran since 2006 to learn about bomb-making, anti-tank missiles, sniping and firing rockets. Military sources close to Hezbollah said the group wanted to increase the number and effectiveness of its air defence systems. Hezbollah is believed to have acquired large numbers of SA18 shoulder-fired missiles that could mount a challenge to Israeli helicopters and low-flying jets. According to Western intelligence sources, Hezbollah fighters were receiving training in Syria on the SA8 system. The radar-guided SA8 missiles are launched from tracked vehicles and have a maximum altitude of 11,000m, which would pose a serious threat to Israeli jets and drones. Israel said that Hezbollah's acquisition of advanced anti-aircraft missiles could prompt a military response to destroy the systems. Israeli warnings relayed to Syria appear to have forestalled the entry of the SA8 system into Lebanon, the sources said. Israel claims that Hezbollah has tripled the number of surface-to-surface rockets since 2006, to about 40,000.

Same Day: Extract - Mullah mutiny
John Lyons

IRANIANS play politics hard. When the Shah of Iran died in exile in Egypt in 1980, the Islamic regime announced the news on radio with words that, it's fair to say, showed something of a bias: "The bloodsucker of the century is dead."

Today, Iranians are playing it just as hard, except this time it's the Islamic regime of the ayatollahs that is facing wrath from within its ranks. Iran is unravelling; the regime is splitting open. The present course — with the regime clinging to power by using its security apparatus to crush gatherings in the streets while foreign capital flees — is unsustainable.

Even the most carefully scripted set-pieces are starting to go wrong. The awkwardness was clear this week as Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his second term. Compared with the same event four years ago — when Ahmadinejad kissed his leader's hand and Khamenei hugged him — this time neither man seemed to want to show too much affection. Both men are fighting for survival and may need to cut the other loose very shortly.

Of all the battles at the moment, the most decisive will be that between Khamenei and Rafsanjani. If anybody can unseat Khamenei it is Rafsanjani, head of the Assembly of Experts, which consists of 86 leading clerics who appoint the supreme leader and, more significantly, every so often reaffirm his leadership. It's not clear exactly how often. Iran has only had two supreme leaders since the 1979 revolution, the ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei.

But Rafsanjani may now use his considerable political skills — he was twice elected president — to move against Khamenei. Rafsanjani is not the sort of man you would want to antagonise. He has enormous stature as one of the leaders of the revolution and it was he who anointed Khamenei.

However, he is known to have always had reservations about Khamenei: he was unimpressed with his theological credentials. Put bluntly, Rafsanjani felt Khamenei was no Khomeini. It was in this context that Khamenei delivered a shot across Rafsanjani's bows following the June uprising: the regime ordered that Rafsanjani's daughter be arrested for attending anti-regime rallies. She did not suffer the fate that many in custody appear to have met: bashings, rapes and killings. But it was intended as a reminder that nobody was beyond the regime's reach. Rafsanjani, one of the wealthiest men in Iran, is also a foe of Ahmadinejad, who claimed during the election that the Rafsanjani family had amassed its wealth corruptly.

The regime's brutality since the election has touched not just the middle classes but also the families of insiders. Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's main challenger in the election, is another heavyweight striving to bring down his rival as well as Khamenei; as prime minister in the 1980s, he helped steer the regime through the Iran-Iraq war and ran the security apparatus now being used against his supporters. Larijani is undermining the regime more subtly than most: he took on the powerful Interior Ministry by publicly demanding an investigation into a massacre of students in their dormitories at Tehran University. His comments were masterful in their understatement: "A large portion of the people perceive the election result to be different from the one officially announced." But the dark horse among those challenging the regime is Karroubi, one of the four candidates in the June election. He is a popular figure who won five million votes in the previous presidential election four years ago, and his popularity has grown. His campaign team of 400,000 fanned out across Iran. You can imagine his surprise when on election night officials announced his vote: 300,000. This led to his memorable remark: "Did 100,000 of my campaign workers sleep in ?"

The regime is collapsing under the growing weight of its enemies. One of the reasons for the discontent is the oppressive nature of the regime, particularly its attitude towards women. As riots were breaking out across Tehran in June and students were gathering in the streets, I asked one what she thought of the election result. She began crying: "I just don't want to live under Islamic fascism," she said. One of her companions kept asking: "What can we do ?" He said Israel was considering bombing Iran because of its nuclear program, yet ordinary Iranians had no say in determining the government's actions.


Israel to blame for Arafat death: Fatah
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle-East Correspondent
Saturday, August 8, 2009

THE ruling faction of the Palestinian Authority has formally blamed Israel for the "assassination" of Yasser Arafat, one of the founders of the Fatah party. At the party's conference in Bethlehem yesterday, delegates unanimously passed a resolution blaming Israel for Arafat's death and setting up a committee to investigate the death. The committee will be led by Arafat's nephew, Nasser el-Kidweh. Israelis seized on the resolution saying it suggested Palestinians were not serious about negotiating with Israel for a two-state solution.

Arafat died in Paris in 2004 after having lapsed into a coma. The reason for the death was never made public, with the hospital refusing to release Arafat's medical records — which has led to speculation ever since about the cause of death. Possible causes have since been reported as flu, gallstones, a blood disorder, a stomach virus and AIDS. Some delegates at this week's conference claimed Israel was responsible for Arafat's death because it had prevented him leaving his West Bank compound to receive medical treatment, while others claimed Israel had actually poisoned him. Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported in 2005 that an analysis of the confidential medical report on Arafat's death revealed three main possibilities — poisoning, AIDS or an infection.

In 2007, The New York Times reported that it had obtained the first independent review of Arafat's medical records from the hospital, which showed that despite extensive testing his doctors could not determine the underlying disease that killed him. "But the records dispel one significant and widespread rumour that Arafat died of AIDS," the newspaper reported. "The course of his illness and pattern of his symptoms make AIDS highly unlikely, according to independent experts who have reviewed the records at the request of the Times. They also suggest that poisoning was highly unlikely, although senior Palestinian officials continue to allege that Arafat, who died on November 11 at age 75 after an illness lasting a month, was indeed poisoned."

Meanwhile, one of the most powerful Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, bluntly told the Palestinian leadership this week that it would never achieve its ambition of an independent Palestine unless it resolved the bitter differences between the rival Fatah and Hamas factions. In an open letter to the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Saudi King Abdullah said: "Even if the whole world agreed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with all the needed support and backing, it will not be established as long as the Palestinian house is divided." And referring to Israel as "the criminal enemy", King Abdullah wrote: "I'll be honest, brothers. The criminal enemy could not over long years of continued aggression have inflicted as much damage to the Palestinian cause as did the Palestinians themselves in a matter of a few months."

The division between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, was highlighted by the fact that Hamas would not allow Fatah delegates who live in Gaza to travel to Bethlehem to attend the conference. Both sides have supporters of the other side in prison, and acts of violence between the two sides have occurred in the past year. The BBC earlier this year broadcast pictures of Hamas supporters in Gaza smashing the kneecaps of Fatah supporters. Fatah is under pressure from both within its own ranks and from Hamas. A new, younger guard in Fatah is opposed to Mr Abbas and his team, claiming they are not the right group to help form a Palestinian state. Fatah this week tried to appeal to Palestinians who want a more hardline response to Israel by reaffirming its option for "armed resistance" against Israel.

This puts the US in an awkward position — to be backing a political group which continues to have as part of its formal charter armed resistance. Mr Abbas was the first world leader US President Barack Obama telephoned upon taking office, and Washington is investing a great deal of hope in him as the man who can anchor the Palestinian side of negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution.

Same Day: Obama narrows war on terror
Correspondents in Washington, AFP, The Wall Street Journal

PRESIDENT Barack Obama is replacing the "global war on terror" with a new US strategy more narrowly focused on al-Qa'ida and relying more on a broader effort to engage the Muslim world, a top aide says. John Brennan, Mr Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser, said yesterday that al-Qa'ida remained a "persistent and evolving threat" to the US and was being aggressively targeted by the new administration. "But describing our efforts as a 'global war' only plays into the warped narrative that al-Qa'ida propagates," Mr Brennan said. "It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the US is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world."

Mr Brennan said the administration was folding measures to combat terrorists into its broader effort to engage other countries and improve social conditions overseas. In a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, he suggested that the administration was prepared to reach out to groups such as the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah that moved away from their "terrorist core".

The US was "willing to engage in a dialogue with any organisations or groups that are dedicated to realising peaceful solutions to existing problems", he said. "Those elements within Lebanon, be they Hezbollah or others, know the US has tried to be a very honest broker there regarding support for Lebanese institutions, and those who shun terrorism will in fact gain favour with the US. The same thing with the Palestinian community: those Palestinians who are really going to ensure that they pursue a path towards peace that does not bring terrorism to bear are going to be partners of the US."

He said Mr Obama was bringing to the issue "a fundamentally new and more effective approach" by attacking the longer-term problem of Muslim extremism through diplomacy and political and economic strategies. Mr Brennan also indicated that the administration might not make its January deadline for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. "I don't have a crystal ball that I can say with certainty" that the prison at Guantanamo Bay would be closed on time, he said.


Consul slams Netanyahu for 'undermining' US-Israeli relations
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, August 10, 2009

THE Israeli consul-general in Boston has been summoned home for "clarifications" after sending the Foreign Ministry a memorandum saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attitude towards the administration of President Barack Obama is causing Israel strategic damage. "There are political elements in America and Israel who oppose Obama on ideological grounds and are ready to sacrifice the special relationship between the two countries for the sake of their own political agendas," wrote the consul, Nadav Tamir.

The memorandum, described as a confidential internal document, was leaked to Israel's Channel Ten last week. The decision to summon Mr Tamir to Jerusalem was made over the weekend by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Ministry officials said he wanted to know why the document received wide circulation among Israeli legations in the US and within the ministry itself, and how it reached the media, despite its supposedly confidential character.

Mr Tamir is a well-regarded veteran diplomat described by some diplomatic colleagues as "highly intelligent" but by others as "too ivory tower". From his post in Boston, he is in close contact with the academic elite in the northeast US.

Titling his memorandum, "Sad passing thoughts on Israeli-US relations", Tamir wrote that Israel's refusal to accept Mr Obama's demands for a halt in construction within West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem had caused Israel to be lumped together in the minds of many Americans with nations on Washington's hardline list. "Nowadays," he wrote, "there is a sense in the US that Obama is being forced to deal with obduracy from the governments of Iran, North Korea and Israel. The (Washington) administration is making an effort to play down the disagreements, and we are the ones who are actually making the differences public."

This "image of a conflict" between the two governments, he said, was more harmful to Israel in terms of US public opinion than Israel's highly criticised incursion into Gaza earlier this year or the devastation wreaked on Lebanon during the war with Hezbollah three years ago. Mr Netanyahu's policy, wrote the diplomat, was also causing US Jews to distance themselves from Israel. "The atmosphere of confrontation between the Israeli government and the Obama administration puts the American Jewish community, which is so important to us, in a difficult position."

While diplomats are expected to provide an analysis of pervading political sentiment in the areas where they are posted, some diplomats said Mr Tamir's blunt criticism of a prime minister's polices was unusual, or as one termed it "out of bounds". Mr Netanyahu's office issued a statement yesterday saying Mr Tamir's memorandum "was not worthy of comment". A senior official in Jerusalem said the memo was "unprofessional" and suggested that its title, and the fact that it was leaked to the media, show that it was intended to make Mr Tamir's views public. "It is unfortunate," he said, "that an Israeli diplomat launched this type of an attack on Israeli policies, attempting to cause deliberate harm".

The Boston consulate issued a statement saying that Mr Tamir's memorandum was an internal document not intended for publication.

In reply to Washington's call for a halt in Israeli building in East Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu has issued defiant statements on Israel's right to continue building in the area, which had been entirely Arab before its annexation following the Six Day War. He has also rejected any territorial compromise with the Palestinians in Jerusalem


Fatah in turmoil after 'rigged poll'
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, August 15, 2009

THE ruling faction of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, appeared to be in chaos yesterday amid reports of mass resignations and claims this week's election was fraudulent.The allegation of fraud in the election of Fatah's new central committee was made by Ahmed Qurei, a former prime minister in the Palestinian Authority, who suggested the election was rigged to ensure that candidates who were close to Israel were elected.

In an interview in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, Mr Qurei, who was an unsuccessful candidate this week for the central committee, said: "There are many big question marks about the election, the way it was conducted and the way the votes were counted. There were behind-the-scenes arrangements that removed some names and added others to the list." He described three successful candidates who he said were close to Israel as "rubber stamps" — Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Tawfik Tirawi. "Was it by coincidence that these men won ?" he said.

The claim of fraud came amid reports of large-scale resignations in protest at the outcome of elections held at this week's conference. The Jerusalem Post reported that every member of Fatah's higher committee in the Gaza Strip had submitted their resignations in protest at what one of them described as "massive fraud" in the election for the central committee. It said the resignations were seen as a serious embarrassment for Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. "The Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip reject the results of the vote," a senior Fatah official, Ahmed Abu Nasr, told the paper. "These elections have damaged Fatah's reputation." The paper said many Fatah members were shocked when they discovered that one of Mr Abbas's old-time colleagues, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, was added to the list of winners "at the last minute".

The allegations and ructions in the wake of the Fatah conference, its first in 20 years, have done little to heal divisions that make it almost impossible at present for the Palestinians to present a united position in any new peace negotiations with Israel. Firstly, the bitter divisions between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, appear to be as deep as ever; Hamas refused to allow Fatah delegates based in Gaza to travel to the Fatah conference, which was held in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Both sides have prisoners from the other side in jail and in the past year there have been fatal clashes between the two groups from shootouts in the West Bank.

And in Fatah, the division between the old guard led by Mr Abbas and a new guard remained. Members of the new guard expressed anger at this week's conference that party officials refused to present to the conference an audit of Fatah's finances. Fatah has been dogged for years by allegations that many of the funds donated by foreign countries for health, education and infrastructure projects in the West Bank are corruptly diverted to some Fatah identities. It has been this perception of corruption in Fatah in recent years that has helped increase the popularity of rival group Hamas.

For the Israeli side, the most interesting outcome of the conference was the election of Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian who is in an Israeli prison serving a life sentence after being convicted of organising the killing of Israelis.


Hamas battles hardline Gaza rivals
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Monday, August 17, 2009

DIVISIONS within the Palestinian side of politics reached crisis point yesterday after 24 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a seven-hour shoot-out in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and hardline Islamists linked to al-Qa'ida. Security officers from Hamas, which runs Gaza, moved against Jund Ansar Allah - also known as Jihadi Soldiers of God, or Soldiers of the Partisans of God - after its leader Sheik Abdel-Latif Moussa, declared Gaza was "an Islamic emirate". "We will set up the Gaza emirate on our dead bodies, and we will apply the laws and edicts of sharia," he told his followers, many of whom were armed.

Over the next several hours, a gun battle ensued between the two sides, with the majority of the 24 killed being from Jund Ansar Allah. Moussa himself was killed. It appeared that heavily armed followers of the Sheik had helped him escape from the mosque where he had delivered the sermon back to his nearby house, where he was killed in the gun battles that followed. Hamas claimed Moussa had blown himself and others up in a suicide action when trapped in the house, but Hamas would not allow journalists to enter Rafah to independently verify the claims.

Tensions had been growing between Hamas and Jund Ansar Allah for several months, with the latter trying to impose a strict sharia law upon the coastal strip. While Hamas is considered a militant Islamic group, it is divided over whether sharia law should be mandatory for the 1.5million Gazans. In his speech to his followers at Friday prayers, Moussa criticised Hamas and is reported to have unilaterally declared that Gaza was being remade into "an Islamic emirate loyal to Osama bin Laden". It appears the fiery sermon was too much for Hamas, whose police surrounded the mosque within 30 minutes. The mosque is on the Gaza side of the town of Rafah, in the south of Gaza, on the border with Egypt.

One of the problems now for Hamas is that it is believed scores of followers of the group who have a significant supply of weapons continue to live in Gaza and may try to avenge the death of their leader. Following the deaths, the group issued a statement declaring that "war is on its way". In a warning suggesting a campaign to target Hamas leaders, particularly the group's Gaza leader Ismail Haniya, the group warned Gazans to stay away from courthouses, the parliament and mosques attended by the "infidel" Mr Haniya.

In response, Mr Haniya, in a reference to Jund Ansar Allah's connections to al-Qa'ida, said the government of Gaza would not permit "foreign soldiers" in Gaza. Hamas officials said Jund Ansar Allah had been responsible in recent years for bombings against targets such as restaurants and internet venues. The weekend violence adds to the internal divisions among Palestinians that make any meaningful negotiations with Israel on new peace talks at present almost impossible. Hamas's rival, Fatah, which runs the West Bank, said the violence showed that Gaza was deteriorating. Saeb Erekat, a leading member of Fatah, told Associated Press: "Gaza is going down the drain in chaos and lawlessness."

Not only are Fatah and Hamas bitterly opposed, but Fatah itself is riven with divisions, with leading Fatah figures claiming that last week's election of a new Fatah central committee was rigged to ensure the election of candidates who are "close to Israel". One of the key disaffected groups in Fatah is a younger "new guard" who claim that the "old guard" of Fatah has allowed corruption to flourish while ordinary Palestinians live without adequate water, housing and health facilities.


Israel to offer deal on settlers, but not Jerusalem
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ISRAEL is believed to be considering a compromise deal on Jewish settlements in the West Bank but will refuse to back down over Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in London yesterday for talks with US special envoy George Mitchell and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Detailed talks between Israeli and US officials have continued since President Barack Obama and Mr Netanyahu met in May. Although Israel publicly refuses to stop activity in its settlements, arguing "natural growth" needs to continue, Israeli officials say privately they would like to make some compromise to the US, which is trying to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. It is believed this could involve a freeze for up to a year on all settlement activity.

Mr Netanyahu surprised many this week when he said it was possible he could be sitting down for renewed talks next month with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "Israel, the US and others are interested in resuming direct talks with the Palestinians," he told his cabinet meeting on Sunday. "This can possibly be done in late September, but will first require reaching understandings with the Americans and the Palestinian Authority." He said areas of disagreement between the US and Israel had been reduced.

The US suggested yesterday that the resumption of peace talks was getting closer. Israel's preparedness to compromise follows the US bringing forward its deadline for Iran to commit to allowing international inspectors into its nuclear facilities. Mr Obama had said he wanted this commitment by "the end of the year" but US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has said since that the deadline was the end of next month. Israel has made clear to US officials that although it is prepared to address the Palestinian issue, the problem of Iran is more urgent.

The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that a source in the Prime Minister's office had said on Mr Netanyahu's aircraft before taking off that Israel would not accept any limitations on its sovereignty in the capital. "Likewise, the official said the Prime Minister would continue to insist in his talks with Mitchell - in a meeting that will deal with how to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiation table - that normal life in the settlements continue to be accommodated," the report said. The report added that Mr Netanyahu's officials in the entourage to London had continued to lower expectations in advance of the meeting with Mr Mitchell, saying that although there had been progress, a "breakthrough" was not expected. Mr Netanyahu has said he is prepared to accept a Palestinian state as long as it is not militarised and does not control its airspace.

Mr Abbas has said he would not resume peace talks until Israel halts all activity in the West Bank settlements.

Same Day
Palestinians to set up own state to end the occupation
James Hider, Jerusalem, The Times

THE Palestinian Authority intends to bypass failing peace talks and establish its own de facto state within two years, says its Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. Speaking ahead of talks in London last night, between Benjamin Netanyahu and Gordon Brown, his Israeli and British counterparts, Mr Fayyad said the idea was to "end the occupation, despite the occupation". He told The Times: "After 16 years (of failed peace talks), why not change the discourse ' We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly."

He said if a functioning de facto state existed - with or without Israeli co-operation - including competent security forces, functioning public services and a thriving economy, it would force Israel to reveal whether it was serious about ending the 42-year occupation of the West Bank. He hoped this goal could be achieved by mid-2011. "It is empowering to even think that way," said Mr Fayyad, a respected economist.

He has spent the past two years - since the Islamist group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force - wooing investors to the West Bank and building up professional security forces, trained under British and US supervision. He said the days of mutual recriminations were over and both sides must commit to the 2003 "road map" whereby Israel would implement a comprehensive settlement freeze and the Palestinians curb the activities of militant groups. "What is required is greater clarity and greater accountability," he said, noting the vastly improved Palestinian security forces showed his Palestinian Authority was holding up its end of the bargain. He said it was time for the Israelis to do the same, and he rejected Mr Netanyahu's attempts to secure a compromise on allowing settlement construction already under way to be continued.

Israel wants work to be completed on about 2500 housing units in the West Bank, arguing the "natural growth" of the settler population demanded it. Mr Fayyad said it was vital for all such building to stop, and that the international community considered all settlement of civilians on land occupied during war, such as the West Bank, to be illegal. Israel was attempting to divert attention from the central issue of Palestinian statehood and mire the debate in details, he said.


Hopes rise for Middle East peace talks resuming
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday, August 27, 2009

KEY parties have expressed optimism that the Middle East peace process may be about to resume, amid reports that US President Barack Obama is preparing to announce a deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and officials in the US all said yesterday that a resumption of peace talks was near. Mr Netanyahu said he had a "winning formula" that would satisfy US demands over Jewish settlements on the West Bank but allow settlements to continue. He was speaking in London after meeting Mr Brown, who repeated his call for a halt to settlement activity but also expressed optimism. Describing Mr Netanyahu as "a courageous leader", Mr Brown said he had told Mr Netanyahu that settlement activity was "a barrier to a two-state solution".

Mr Netanyahu said after the talks: "What we are trying to achieve with the US is to find a bridging formula to enable us to launch the process but enable those residents (of the West Bank) to continue to lead normal lives. They need kindergartens and houses for their families. This is very different from grabbing land. I made clear that we are not going to expropriate new land." Mr Netanyahu repeated his position that Jerusalem would not be part of any negotiation. "Jerusalem is not a settlement and Israel will not accept constraints on its sovereignty there."

Briefing reporters travelling with him, Mr Netanyahu said "the question of the settlements is a problem, but the main problem is the (Palestinian) refusal to recognise Israel as the Jewish state." At the start of his meeting with US special envoy George Mitchell, Mr Netanyahu said talks were "making headway" and expressed hope that "we will shortly be able to resume normal talks" with the Palestinians, according to his spokesman Mark Regev. Mr Netanyahu also said "the common goal" was to end the decades-old Israeli-Arab conflict and reach regional peace.

First launched in 1993, the last round of Middle East peace talks was halted last December after Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The comments came as The Guardian reported that Mr Obama was planning to announce a deal that would lead to a resumption of the Middle East peace talks next month. The newspaper said a crucial point for Israel would be a promise by the US to take a much tougher line with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program. The report said details of the breakthrough would be hammered out today in London and that negotiations had reached such an advanced stage that France and Russia had approached the US offering to host a peace conference. It said Mr Obama was planning to announce the breakthrough while flanked by Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, along with the leaders of as many Arab states as he could muster, in the week beginning September 23.

In recent days, key parties, apart from the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, have spoken optimistically about peace talks. Mr Netanyahu yesterday gave an indication of the pressure he had faced inside Israel when he said it "wasn't easy for me" to agree to a Palestinian state - even with the qualifications he places upon one. He said he now expected the Palestinian side would give ground. Mr Netanyahu has called on Mr Abbas to acknowledge Israel as "a Jewish state". Mr Abbas has refused to do. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday: "We (Israel) moved both in statements and on the ground. I spoke about a demilitarised Palestinian state, and it wasn't easy for me, but I did it. Now I expect similar movements on the Palestinian side."

Should Israel agree to any halt on settlement activity - even a temporary halt - it would be almost impossible for Mr Abbas not to resume talks. Any final-status deal would almost certainly involve some of the larger settlements such as Gush Etzyon and Maale Adumim being declared part of Israel but smaller settlements further from Jerusalem being evacuated. Two of the most difficult final issues would be the status of Jerusalem. Israel insists it should have sovereignty over Jerusalem whereas Palestinians claim it should be the capital of any Palestinian state.


I'll talk on core issues, says Bibi
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, August 28, 2009

MOMENTUM to resume the Middle East peace talks has gathered after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was prepared to discuss core issues with the Palestinian Authority immediately. Speaking on his tour through Europe yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said he was ready to renew talks and the most sensitive points - the final status issues - would not be left until the end of negotiations, as had been previously thought.

The comments came as Israeli reports said the US had agreed to Israel's request to remove East Jerusalem from talks on a settlement freeze. The Haaretz newspaper reported that according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats, US envoy George Mitchell had "recognised the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot announce a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem". Officials said the US would not endorse new construction in the area, but would not demand Jerusalem announce a freeze, the newspaper reported. It said Israeli officials would put a proposal to Washington next week that would exclude about 2500 Jewish housing units in the West Bank on which construction had started, and that "normal life" in the settlements would be exempted to allow facilities such as kindergartens and schools to be built.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday gave up his position that he would not sit down with Mr Netanyahu to resume peace talks until conditions were met. It appears likely Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas will meet at the UN in New York next month, with US President Barack Obama to announce a preliminary deal that would probably involve Israel freezing most building in settlements in the West Bank for six months so peace talks could be held. Should an agreement be reached, some settlements would be considered part of Israel, while others could be evacuated. After European, US and Israeli officials suggested this week that peace talks were achievable, Mr Abbas agreed yesterday to join talks without preconditions. He had previously refused to talk unless the settlements were stopped.

Mr Netanyahu responded: "If Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas) really means what he has said, then this is a positive step. I've been saying for a while that I'm ready to renew negotiations." In a surprise development, Mr Netanyahu said he would be prepared to immediately discuss "final status issues" should the talks resume. Under the Middle East roadmap to peace, final status issues were considered the last that would be broached in any talks. The fact Mr Netanyahu has said he would be prepared to discuss them immediately opens the possibility for a peace deal to be reached in the three-year timeframe Mr Obama has set.

But those issues go to the heart of concerns on both sides - Israel and the Palestinians, for instance, both say Jerusalem should be their capital. The Palestinians regard right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced from Israel as a core issue. The Israeli government has ruled that out. An opinion poll published yesterday found two-thirds of Israeli respondents opposed a settlement freeze. The poll by Maagar Mohot found only 39 per cent of Jewish Israelis polled supported a freeze as long as they were accompanied by concessions from Arab negotiators. Mr Netanyahu said he would add core issues of his own to the negotiations, including that Palestinians recognise Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people and a commitment that any peace deal meant the end of the conflict. "We can't only talk about things that interest them," he said.


Netanyahu ministers threaten to protest
Fury at settlement offer
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Saturday, August 29, 2009

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a revolt from within his own ranks over concessions he is prepared to make to enable the Middle East peace talks to resume. As an indication of the extraordinary political juggling act he will be required to perform in coming months, it was revealed yesterday that two rallies are planned for his return to Israel this week, to protest against any concession on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It highlights Mr Netanyahu's dilemma - strong pressure from US President Barack Obama and European leaders on one side to halt all settlement activity, and pressure on the other side from a powerful constituency inside his own right-wing Likud party to allow the settlements to continue growing. The protests are likely to be attended by some of his own ministers.

The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that the first of the rallies, planned for Tel Aviv this Tuesday, was being organised by one of his ministers, Yossi Peled. The paper reported that while the rally was being presented as a "pro-Jerusalem event", members of the Knesset who attended were "expected to bash the deal the Prime Minister is negotiating with the Americans". The paper said three ministers - Gilad Erdan, Moshe Kahlon and Yuli Edelstein - had told the organisers they would attend, and organisers were still hoping to attract two others, Moshe Ya'alon and Bennie Begin.

It quoted Pinchas Wallerstein from the the settlers' council as saying: "When Netanyahu talks of a Palestinian state, I hate it, but I'm not worried because there will be no peace deal. When Netanyahu speaks about a settlement freeze, it's a death sentence for the settlement enterprise." Mr Netanyahu has rejected a total freeze, insisting on the need to guarantee "normal life" in the settlements, which are home to 500,000 Jewish Israelis. The Post carried an opinion poll yesterday that found only 4 per cent of the Jewish Israelis surveyed regarded Mr Obama as "pro-Israel".

The growing signs of opposition to a settlement freeze came as Mr Netanyahu ended his trip through Europe, during which he met the US special envoy George Mitchell, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the start of the talks with Mr Mitchell - renowned for his role in Northern Ireland's peace process - Mr Netanyahu said he hoped "we will shortly be able to resume normal talks" with the Palestinians, according to his spokesman. All three leaders restated their views that Israel should halt all settlement activity in the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu gave no commitments, but it appears a deal is being brokered behind the scenes under which Israel would agree to halt settlement activity for a set period - probably six months - during which talks would resume with the Palestinian Authority. But Mr Netanyahu received strong rhetorical support from Ms Merkel for a tougher approach to pressure Iran to allow international inspectors to examine its nuclear program. After meeting Ms Merkel, Mr Netanyahu called for "crippling sanctions" to be imposed against Iran.

Meanwhile, South Africa's Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said in Jerusalem yesterday: "In South Africa, they tried to get security from the barrel of a gun. They never got it. They got security when the human rights of all were recognised and respected." In an interview with Haaretz newspaper, Archbishop Tutu said the West was consumed with guilt and regret towards Israel because of the Holocaust, "as it should be. But who pays the penance ' The penance is being paid by the Arabs, by the Palestinians. I once met a German ambassador who said Germany is guilty of two wrongs. One was what they did to the Jews. And now the suffering of the Palestinians." Archbishop Tutu said South Africa was different from Israel because "we didn't have collective punishment. We didn't have the demolition of homes because of the suspicion that one of the members of the household might or might not be a terrorist."

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted in recent days that the heart of the decades-old conflict was not the settlements but the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. "The core issue is for them to recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people," he said. "This is what started the conflict, what stokes it and what will end it."


Tehran makes U-turn on nuke talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Thursday, September 3, 2009

IRAN made a dramatic reversal on its position on its nuclear policy yesterday with an announcement it would agree to immediate talks about the status of its program. As a US-imposed deadline approached, Iran surprised many with a change from its previous position that its nuclear program was its own concern and not an issue for the rest of the world. It remained unclear exactly what the announcement would mean, and it was greeted with scepticism in several countries that do not believe Tehran will give full access to its nuclear facilities to international inspectors.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was quoted telling Iranian state television: "Iran has prepared an updated nuclear proposal and is ready to resume negotiations with world powers." In a reference to concerns that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program that could create a new crisis in the Middle East, Mr Jalili said Iran was prepared to "remove common concerns" about its program. He said without elaborating that the package would be directed at the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - plus Germany.

The so-called P5+1 are to meet near Frankfurt tomorrow to look into harsher UN sanctions against Iran. Iran's nuclear program is of particular concern to Israel, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to "wipe off the map". Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have made it clear that a pre-emptive strike against Iran's facilities is an option for Israel. The US is known to be concerned about such an outcome as Iran would almost certainly respond, leading to a new war in the Middle East.

Iran's nuclear ambition is also of concern to two of its regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia recently revealed it was beginning its own nuclear program although, like Iran, it insisted it was for energy rather than military purposes. In talks with the US in recent months, Israel has urged the US to set a deadline by which Iran must begin a dialogue to allow international inspectors to visit its nuclear research facilities. Soon after taking office, US President Barack Obama said he would give Iran until "the end of the year" to agree to grant access to its facilities, but that deadline was brought forward to this month on a recent visit to Israel by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates.

Yesterday's announcement by Mr Jalili suggests Iran has taken note of that deadline but the next step will be crucial - how quickly Iran allows inspectors to visit its facilities and what level of access they have. Until now, Iran has insisted its program is for peaceful purposes and has said its program is a matter for Iran and not the international community.

The White House said yesterday it had received no official notification from Iran on a new package. "We have seen the reports, though we have not heard anything conclusively from the Iranians on that," spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "It has always been our hope and goal that the Iranians will live up to their international obligations and give up their nuclear weapons program," he said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said "crippling sanctions" should be considered if Tehran does not allow access.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned this week of further sanctions against Iran if it failed to negotiate. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi denounced as "unacceptable" a remark by Mr Sarkozy that Iran's people deserve better leaders than the ones they have. Mr Sarkozy said: "The people of Iran deserve better than their current leaders. I want to say how much we admire the courage of the Iranian people."

Meanwhile, the retiring chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, said he believed any threat about Iran's nuclear program had been "hyped." In an interview with US magazine The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mr ElBaradei said: "Yes, there's concern about Iran's future intentions, and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and international community. "But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far." Israeli media last week reported that Israeli officials believed the IAEA was keeping secret part of a report that confirmed Iran was in the process of developing nuclear weapons capability.

Same Day
Iranian 'bomber' in line for cabinet post
Catherine Philp, The Times

A FORMER Revolutionary Guard commander wanted by Interpol for orchestrating the worst terrorist attack in Argentina looks set to become the new Iranian defence minister after parliament signalled it would confirm the provocative choice. General Ahmad Vahidi is alleged to have planned the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 when he commanded the Quds force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guard responsible for foreign operations. He is one of five Iranians sought over the bombing in which 85 people died. Iran denies it was involved.

Israel and Argentina reacted with outrage at his nomination - which came as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to get his new cabinet approved by MPs - with Buenos Aires calling it "an affront to Argentine justice and to the victims of the brutal terrorist attack". US President Barack Obama called General Vahidi's inclusion in the cabinet "disturbing".

International opposition, however, seems only to have strengthened his chances, despite a tough fight for Mr Ahmadinejad to push through his chosen candidates in the face of conservative and reformist disquiet. One member of parliament, Hadi Qavami, interrupted General Vahidi's speech to say he had initially opposed the nomination but changed his mind after "the Zionists' allegations" and would now vote for him. The comment drew praise and chants of "Death to Israel!" from other deputies. The chairman of the Iranian foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said the allegations "will not have any negative impact on the assessment" of General Vahidi's suitability for the job. "Rather, it may increase his vote," he told Iran's state news agency. Not one MP voiced opposition during Tuesday's hearing.

The vote overnight on the full cabinet line-up of 26 ministers was expected to be a key test of remaining support for Mr Ahmadinejad after the bruising election dispute. He has faced opposition even from within the hardline camp on several of his choices, with accusations that he is favouring slavish loyalty over qualifications for the job. Analysts said the cabinet would eventually be approved, but a stormy process could damage Mr Ahmadinejad politically at a time when Iran is embroiled in a row with the West over its nuclear program.

Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, sounded a more conciliatory note to the international community yesterday, saying Tehran was ready to present a new package of proposals to foreign governments in the hope of restarting talks on its nuclear program. US officials said they had yet to receive any official notification from Tehran and it remained unclear whether the new proposal was substantively different from the one rejected by Western powers last year. Efforts to restart talks have repeatedly floundered over Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. Representatives of Britain, the US, France, Germany, China and Russia were to meet in Frankfurt overnight to discuss tougher sanctions targeting the Iranian energy sector.

Mr Jalili said Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election had given the country a powerful mandate to put forward a new proposal - a surprising interpretation of the disputed victory that has thrown the country into its worst crisis since the Islamic revolution. The power struggle triggered by the elections has opened cracks even among the conservative establishment and led to unprecedented criticism of Mr Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Mr Jalili's comments are timed to dampen down that row as Iran grapples with the increasing prospects of punishing new sanctions on the import of refined petroleum products. China and Russia are reluctant to agree to such sanctions but the other key Western governments have reached agreement to impose tougher measures.


Rules of the game change as Israel gets tough on corruption
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Saturday, September 5, 2009

TWO former Israeli ministers heard the prison gates slam shut behind them this week as they began serving substantial sentences for corruption, while in a Tel Aviv court rape charges began to be heard against a former president. But overshadowing these events was the indictment issued against the man who was the country's most powerful figure until five months ago, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, for repeated acts of corruption in his previous public offices.

Israel has had its share of scandal, but never with this intensity. And now police have recommended an indictment be issued against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of bribery and laundering about $3.5 million over the past decade through front companies he set up abroad. Many see in the flurry of charges a sign of a sound judicial system, a vigorous press and courageous state prosecutors and police prepared to confront the mightiest in the land.

Shortly after Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz took office five years ago, he shied away from pressing charges against then prime minister Ariel Sharon for suspicious relations in past ministerial positions with a land developer who paid an enormous salary to Sharon's son for little visible work. Since then, however, Mazuz has pressed corruption charges against about 15 ministers, directors-general of government corporations and judges. Eight have been convicted and none acquitted. "At the end of the day," wrote columnist Ari Shavit, "Mazuz deterred the agents of corruption and restored the rule of law."

At the day-to-day level, Israel is not a corrupt country. One would be ill-advised to try to bribe a traffic cop or a government clerk. But in recent decades a growing sense of entitlement has taken hold in public life, particularly its higher reaches. Skirting the law to raise money for political parties gave an opening to some for skirting the law for their own benefit. The founders of the state, a generation ago, were an ideologically driven, modest-living group, many members of spartan kibbutz communes. Men sent abroad on secret arms-purchasing missions would be given satchels full of cash without fear any would go amiss.

A leading member of the Labor Party in the 1950s lost his position when it was discovered he had purchased a second home, even though he did so with money received from an inheritance. When a housing minister was accused of pocketing public money in the 1970s, he insisted on his innocence but committed suicide nevertheless. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1977 dropped his plan to run for re-election when a newspaper revealed his wife had a small account in a Washington bank, then a violation of Israel's currency laws that was largely ignored. It would be 15 years before he made his comeback.

The blatancy and scale of public corruption would increase with changing times and the country's increasing prosperity. One of the two politicians jailed this week, former finance minister Abraham Hirschson, was sentenced to five years' jail for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from a trade union he headed before entering government. The other jailed politician was former welfare minister Shlomo Benizri, sentenced to four years for penny-ante but flagrant bribe-taking. Former president Moshe Katsav is accused by secretaries who worked for him as president or in previous ministerial positions of sexual harassment and, in two cases, of rape.

Olmert has been bolder and cleverer in advancing his own interests but a long police investigation has produced enough allegations to keep the three-judge panel that will hear his case busy for an extended period. Dubbed an "insatiable hedonist", he is accused of conspiring with a travel agency to double- and triple-bill institutions sponsoring his trips abroad as minister, including charitable institutions, for $US92,000 in extra payments he used for personal trips abroad and stays in luxury hotels for him and his family. He is also accused of accepting $US600,000 from a US businessman.

Ironically, Olmert is rated a good prime minister - efficient, decisive and with a clear strategic view. However, his ethics have made him a disastrous leader in terms of personal example. In the Yom Kippur War, when peers with a background similar to his were engaged in a life-or-death struggle on Israel's borders, he had a cushy job on a military magazine. His climb up the political ladder was often accompanied by whiffs of scandal but he always managed to best his accusers. Until now. For a country such as Israel, living on an existential fault line, public trust in the political leadership is vital. Human nature has not changed but this spate of corruption cases suggests the rules of the game have changed.

Same Day
Anger the spitting image of Jerusalem
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

THERE'S a lot of spitting going on in Jerusalem these days. It's as if it reflects rising tensions in this city - long hot days of summer, traffic jams and increasing hostilities between the Haredi, who make up about 10 per cent of Israel's population, and secular communities. This week, the issue of spitting made front-page news - The Jerusalem Post carried a story on Thursday in which leaders of the ultra-orthodox Haredi sect called on their followers to refrain from "blocking roads, throwing rocks and spitting".

When you live here, it's easy to be caught in the middle of it all. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were walking into the Old City through the Damascus Gate when a Palestinian boy on a bike sped down a ramp and spat in the face of the six-year-old boy with our son. A few streets away, spitting is becoming a weekly event. We copped it recently - or at least our car did. Two weeks ago, we were driving past the Mamilla shopping centre, where every Saturday afternoon hundreds of Haredi protest against a carpark that opens on Shabbat, the Jewish time of rest, family and prayer on Friday nights and Saturdays. The Haredi are protesting against both the carpark and people driving. One of the Haredi fixed his gaze on us as our car approached, took aim, then let fly - his spit made a direct hit on the front passenger's door.

ABC Middle East Correspondent Anne Barker copped it much worse than us. On July 4, a Saturday, Barker turned up to cover a Haredi demonstration in an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood. She took out her recorder and turned it on. What happened next she described in a blog. "Suddenly the crowd turned on me, screaming in my face. Dozens of angry men began spitting on me. I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting - on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions - hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me - I didn't see him - a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me. I wasn't even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist ' Or a woman ' Because I wasn't Jewish in an orthodox area ' Was I not dressed conservatively enough."

Two Haredis agreed to come together with Barker and The Weekend Australian to answer those questions. Shmuel Pappenheim, a spokesman for the Haredi, listened to the account. "It's very sad, they should not have acted this way," he tells Barker. "I apologise. Also, in the name of our rabbis, I apologise." Pappenheim seeks to explain possible reasons - it was probably unplanned with a "rage of emotions" from the demonstration. And Barker was a woman among men, she may not have been dressed conservatively enough, they may have thought she was Jewish and therefore breaking Shabbat, perhaps it was because she had begun recording or she may have looked frightened so the crowd thought she was angry.

He moves to the heart of the Haredis' dispute with the authorities of Jerusalem, particularly new Mayor Nir Barkat, and why this "rage of emotions" is breaking out. "This was a protest of people who were in pain, and afraid of the desecration of Jerusalem," he says. The weekly Saturday battle is not just over whether a carpark should operate: it reflects a bigger battle between ultra-orthodox and secular, a battle that could almost be described as one between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The ultra-orthodox see Jerusalem as the place they can live according to ancient Jewish traditions while Tel Aviv is the throbbing beachside city where nightclubs and restaurants open as if Shabbat is something from another era.

Pappenheim gives a hint of how the Haredi see this as a war when he uses the word "collaborators". "There's fear of police, fear of collaborators, and people do things that are undesired, that are not wanted." Despite the rabbis' call this week for an end to violence and spitting, the battle for "our Jerusalem" looks set to go on for many years.


Benjamin Netanyahu chooses to toe party line over appeasing the West
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

ISRAEL has officially decided on new construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank despite a six-month effort by the Obama administration and the EU to convince it to freeze all settlement activity. Weeks of speculation about such an increase ended yesterday when Transport Minister Yisrael Katz made the confirmation in an Israel Radio interview: "The Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) will decide in the coming days on the building of hundreds of additional housing units in order to solve existing problems in various settlements." The new settlement activity is expected to precede a temporary halt by Israel to settlement activity to try to appease the US, which has been arguing that a halt to activity is an important element in resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The announcement of the new construction was made at the start of a week in which the Obama administration's special envoy on the Middle East, George Mitchell, will arrive in Jerusalem to try to finalise an agreement with Israel that would allow US President Barack Obama to meet in New York this month with Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. It sets the scene for an interesting meeting this week between Mr Mitchell and Mr Netanyahu. Mr Mitchell arrives to the reality that rather than freeze all settlement activity over the next year, Israel is set to build about 3000 housing units in the West Bank. About 2500 of these are units whose construction has begun or is due to begin, and about 500 are the new units Mr Netanyahu will approve this week.

As speculation has grown that Israel has been preparing to announce new settlement construction, US and European leaders have widely condemned Israel as jeopardising any chance for peace. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband has been among the most vocal of those condemning Israel. He said recently: "Our position is absolutely clear and that settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace and that obviously anything in east Jerusalem is particularly difficult."

Mr Netanyahu is in a bind - the confirmation of the new units will anger US and European leaders while the announcement of the moratorium expected after the increase will anger the right wing of Israeli politics, particularly in his own Likud party. Mr Netanyahu had an insight yesterday into the opposition within his own party when Vice-Premier Silvan Shalom joined other Likud ministers and hundreds of supporters in Tel Aviv "to save the path of the Likud". "I think paying the price of freezing settlements to get a meeting with Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas) is not the right thing to do right now," Mr Shalom said.

While the Vice-Premier led what amounted to an open revolt against his long-time rival, Mr Netanyahu, Defence Minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak gave Mr Netanyahu much-needed support when he argued that the US initiative was in Israel's interests. "We are on the brink of a sensitive and important period," Mr Barak said. "The security-related challenges have not gone away, and we are committed to safeguard Israel's existential security interests in the face of any threat. It is our duty to support the American initiative aimed at resolving (the conflict). This agreement will include components of normalisation of ties with the moderate elements of the Arab world and will also provide a tailwind for a significant process with the Palestinians and, in the future, with the Syrians as well."


Israel PM offers best chance of peace
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

BENJAMIN Netanyahu is dying a death by a thousand cliches. But he's not dead yet and, remarkably, may live to write himself into the history books as the Israeli Prime Minister who brought peace with the Palestinians. The Israeli media is gunning for their PM. But they're also gunning for the man he's trying to do business with - Barack Obama. The papers of the Right are filled with daily attacks on Obama - he's already on the wane, he doesn't understand the Middle East. There was even one leak, apparently from one of Netanyahu's officials, of an assessment by Israeli officials that Obama was unlikely to be re-elected.

The only person copping it harder than Obama is Netanyahu. Even The Jerusalem Post - which tends to be the strongest supporter of the establishment - has noted the extraordinary balancing act being performed by Netanyahu. This week, in an editorial, it compared Netanyahu's position on settlements to the line attributed to Harry Truman - "If you can't convince them, confuse them." There would be few leaders anywhere facing the difficulty Netanyahu is facing.

On one side, he has a US President who has staked his foreign policy credentials on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Obama's major domestic initiative, healthcare, comes under serious challenge, the last thing Obama wants is for his major foreign policy initiative to collapse. And from the other side comes pressure from inside Israel - some of his own ministers are in open revolt, most notably his senior Likud colleague (and rival) Silvan Shalom who led hundreds of Likud followers on Sunday in railing against any move to slow settlements. Internationally, Netanyahu is being pounded for going ahead with 455 new units in the West Bank. The policy is like a version of George W.Bush's Iraq strategy - a surge before a pullout.

For all the Israeli media's love of kicking Netanyahu - it's like a bloodsport as they seek to outdo each other - they rarely suggest an alternative. The papers of the Left are kicking Netanyahu for not agreeing to a freeze on settlements while the papers of the Right are kicking him for even thinking of slowing down any settlements. But they rarely mention that without some sort of concession Netanyahu will not last five minutes. So fragile is his coalition that should he announce tomorrow an immediate freeze on all settlements, as requested by Washington, his government would collapse.

This may bring shouts of joy from about half the Israeli population who did not vote for Netanyahu, and many in the international community, but it's the last thing the peace process needs right now. Israel's political system is so complicated that it takes months to form a new government. Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni was unable to form one the last time she had the chance. A collapse of the Netanyahu government would paralyse Israeli politics. Given the scepticism about the peace process, it is probably now only a leader from the Right, someone seen as a hawk, who has any chance of convincing Israelis to accept an agreement with the Palestinians. They want reassurance that if a withdrawal from some settlements leads to rocket attacks, as happened in the Gaza, Israel will respond.

To understand what's going on with Israel and the Obama factor it's vital to understand the political reality facing Netanyahu. The next few months present the best chance in years for peace - the chances are not good, but it's still the best chance.

A big problem is that many people - on all sides - do not want peace. On the Palestinian side, there is little evidence that Hamas wants peace. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, if peace suddenly broke out in Gaza - Hamas would have rendered itself irrelevant. As a self-styled "resistance movement" - if Hamas has no reason to resist then it has no reason to exist. Few analysts believe Hezbollah would be able to run Lebanon while even before Israel's blockade of Gaza, Hamas was clearly not up to being a government. I've met no one in Gaza who argues that Hamas is a good government. The appeal of Hamas, for those who support it, is that they are fighting Israel.

On the Israeli side, there are also those who do not want peace, including some in the fanatical right-wing settlement movement who see it as a religious duty to continue claiming land in what they call Judea and Samaria and the rest of the world calls the West Bank. They use the Bible to claim tracts of land that are not in Israel.

But Netanyahu does not fit into that category - or so it appears. One Israeli official who has known him for years told me recently that Netanyahu has a very keen eye on history and a big ambition to write himself into it. This official said both the foreign and Israeli media were wrong to underestimate Netanyahu's desire to find peace. I put to him that in terms of political survival Netanyahu - who has tasted once the bitterness of losing the prime ministership - would be safer stalling the Americans and trying to outlast Obama. The official responded by saying that Netanyahu was as aware as anybody of "the rot" in the heart of Israel's psyche. The rot ' This was, he explained, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As suspicious as Israelis were about offers of peace, the official said most Israelis would jump at the chance of real peace.

The difficulty now is that three of the key parties in the conflict need to make giant leaps. Israel needs to acknowledge that if it wants long-term security it can't keep rolling bulldozers and settlements across land that is not theirs; Fatah needs to acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist; and Hamas needs to renounce violence, stop firing rockets at kindergartens in southern Israel and, for the sake of the desperate 1.5 million Gazans, join with Fatah to form a unity government. It may well be beyond all three to take these leaps. But if one of them does then the other two would feel real pressure. In a region battered by wars and distrust, not one of these parties can yet bring themselves to take that leap. Netanyahu, for all the political obituaries being written about him at the moment, may well be the first to take a giant leap.


Bibi's secret trip a big mistake
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, September 12, 2009

ISRAELI Prime Ministers don't just disappear.

For all the intrigue and jumping at shadows that's going on in the Middle East at the moment, a new mystery has just been added to the list - what exactly was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing when he went missing for 12 hours this week ' In an extraordinary episode, which has outraged the Israeli media and led to open warfare among the PM's advisers, Netanyahu set off on a secret mission on Monday morning. Journalists calling the Prime Minister's office were told he was on "a military trip".

Mistake No 1: in this part of the world, few words are more likely to raise the interest of reporters than "military trip". Right now, Israeli troops are on alert on the border with Lebanon with the possibility of war with Hezbollah at any time. And there are ongoing skirmishes between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza border - along with speculation that after three years of being unable to bring captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit back from Gaza the hawkish Netanyahu may authorise a rescue mission if Israeli intelligence can find out where Shalit is being held.

The media was edgy but as the hours went by curiosity turned to frenzy when Netanyahu's press secretary, Nir Hefetz, admitted to journalists he had no idea where his boss was. Mistake No2. If you think nature abhors a vacuum, spend some time with the Israeli media pack. By now it was all spinning out of control.

Mistake No 3: to try to quell the frenzy, the PM's office drafted a statement. "The Prime Minister is on a visit to a security facility in Israel," it read. Hefetz refused to put his name to it, arguing he could not vouch for the statement as no one in the office who knew where Netanyahu was would tell him. It was a wise decision not to put his name to it, as his credibility would have been battered. The statement was a lie. Netanyahu's military secretary, Major General Meir Kalifi, put his name to it instead.

Mistake No 4: why was an army major general issuing a statement and not the press secretary ' That set off speculation that Netanyahu was having a secret meeting with a leader of a neighbouring Arab country at a military facility in Israel.

It appears that Netanyahu had secretly boarded a private jet leased from a businessman and had flown to Russia to discuss arms sales. The supply of weapons is a continuing issue between Israel and Russia. Israel is concerned about any sale of weapons by Russia to Iran, while Russia is concerned Israel will sell weapons, such as ground-to-ground missiles and tanks, to Georgia.

An Israeli government official explained to The Weekend Australian this week that the two countries were concerned the other might supply "tie-breakers" to their enemies - weapons that would "change the balance on the battlefield". And although Israel would not confirm it, reports that its intelligence service, Mossad, recently intercepted a ship from Russia to Iran carrying weapons appeared to be true and would only heighten Israel's concerns.

In the wake of this week's debacle, Netanyahu's office has taken a hiding. Newspapers have been full of questions along the lines that if the office cannot protect the secrecy of such a trip, how safe are real matters of national security ' In an article headlined "Secrets and Lies" in Maariv, one source was quoted as saying: "What is liable to happen in the case of more complex security issues, such as a strike on Iran ?" The full brutality of the internal politics inside the PM's office is being laid bare for all to see.


Netanyahu seeks Mubarak's help in restarting peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Monday, September 14, 2009

MOMENTUM for a resumption of Middle East peace talks increased yesterday as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Cairo to enlist the support of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to establish talks with the Palestinian Authority. The trip came amid reports that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would resume next month on the basis of an understanding that the establishment of a Palestinian state would be announced in two years.

Haaretz newspaper reported that Palestinian and EU sources had said talks would initially focus on determining the permanent border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. It said that due to the Palestinians' reservations over the establishment of a state with temporary borders, this step would probably be defined as "early recognition" of Palestine. The paper said it was understood that this would be accompanied by a public US and European declaration that the permanent border would be based on the borders of 1967 - and that both sides might agree to alter the border based on territorial exchanges.

Mr Netanyahu's surprise trip to Cairo - he normally meets Mr Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh as Cairo is regarded as more difficult to secure - was expected to focus on peace talks and a possible deal with Hamas over the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The visit led to the extraordinary situation that Mr Netanyahu would be in the same city as Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal - visiting from Damascus from where he controls the Hamas government in Gaza. It is believed to be the first time both men have been in the same city and led to suggestions they were both in Cairo so Egyptian officials could finalise a deal to release Corporal Shalit in return for the release of hundreds of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. US President Barack Obama wants to meet Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York on September 23 and while Mr Netanyahu is prepared to attend such a meeting, there is a reluctance by Mr Abbas, who has said he will meet Mr Netanyahu only if Israel agrees to an immediate freeze of all Jewish settlements.

US special envoy George Mitchell was due back in Israel this week to finalise an agreement over settlements - likely to be that Israel will agree to a temporary moratorium after the approval of about 450 new units. Although Mr Obama had called for a complete freeze, it is likely the US will accept Israel's offer given the political pressure Mr Netanyahu is facing inside Israel against any slowdown in settlement activity. Some of his own ministers have publicly opposed any slowdown of settlement activity.


US envoy set to pressure Abbas
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell will put extraordinary pressure on Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas today to meet Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York next week. The meeting between Mr Mitchell and Mr Abbas in the Palestinian city of Ramallah today is one of several crucial talks to be held in the Middle East to determine whether the US President can restart the peace process. Mr Mitchell must convince Mr Abbas to attend the New York meeting, while in Jerusalem he must try to reach a deal with Mr Netanyahu to limit the settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Mr Mitchell said yesterday: "While we have not yet reached agreement on many outstanding issues, we are working hard to do so - and, indeed, the purpose of my visit here this week is to attempt to do so. The suggestions that we have finalised and reached an agreement on a range of issues, while inaccurate because they are premature, we hope they will be accurate." His comments were made after a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who said it was in the interests of all sides "not to let September pass without renewing the negotiations". Mr Mitchell responded: "I agree with you on the target date, and share your feeling of urgency. The goal is to address disagreements before the end of the month in order to move on to more important topics."

Mr Netanyahu flew to Cairo on Sunday to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mr Mubarak's spokesman said the President requested during the meeting that Israel halt "its efforts to Judaise Jerusalem". Israel radio said Mr Mubarak had called on Israel to halt all settlements and warned that construction of new Jewish homes in Jerusalem was thwarting efforts to restart the peace process. Mr Netanyahu is believed to have called on Mr Mubarak to use his influence to convince Mr Abbas to agree to a resumption of peace talks and to assist in the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in the Gaza strip.

Egypt and Germany have been brokering indirect talks on a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas that would bring the release of Corporal Shalit, seized by militants more than three years ago. Mr Abbas has refused to sit down for talks with Mr Netanyahu until Israel agrees to halt all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. Mr Netanyahu faces growing opposition in Israel for considering a slowing of the settlement growth. To appease his critics, he approved last week the construction of 455 new units in the settlements.

It appears the deal he will offer Mr Mitchell today will be a six-month moratorium on new construction activity in the West Bank settlements. But public buildings such as schools and hospitals would be exempt, as would be any new construction in East Jerusalem and 2500 new units in the West Bank, which Israel has approved but are yet to be completed. If Mr Mitchell accepts this deal, his challenge would be to convince Mr Abbas a temporary moratorium on the settlements is better than nothing at all.

Just as Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from his right-wing Likud party, so is Mr Abbas under pressure from those within his own Fatah party and the militant Hamas group, which believes he should accept nothing short of a complete freeze on settlements. One of Mr Abbas's problems is that at a Fatah conference in recent weeks he agreed that a complete freeze must be a precondition for any peace talks.


Abbas has to go to New York, Peres says
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ISRAELI President Shimon Peres has held a secret meeting to try to ensure that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN in New York next Wednesday.

Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday that Mr Peres met chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat at the President's residence in Jerusalem last week to stress the importance of next week's meeting to restarting the Middle East peace process. The paper said Mr Peres told Mr Erekat: "This opportunity must not be allowed to pass. I am asking that you tell Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas) this. He needs to attend the meeting at the UN." It said Mr Peres made clear he believed it was possible for Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a number of issues in the short term, particularly those pertaining to borders.

Mr Peres's reported intervention came as US special envoy George Mitchell was due last night to meet Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Mr Abbas in Ramallah. Israel appeared to be preparing for a possible meeting next week, with its National Security Adviser, Uzi Arad, already in Washington. Mr Abbas has set as a precondition a complete freeze on expansion of Jewish settlements before he will meet Mr Netanyahu.

But Israel has ruled this out, as Mr Netanyahu tries to prevent a revolt from within his own Likud ranks by members, including some ministers, who oppose any slowdown in settlement activity. "Abu Mazen has decided to sit on the sidelines and is posing preconditions for talking to us," Mr Netanyahu said. "We are not posing any conditions."

Mr Netanyahu yesterday told the foreign affairs and defence committee of the Knesset: "There will not be a complete settlement construction freeze in Judea or Samaria (West Bank) ... We informed (the US) that we could not do this and that we would continue to build 2500 housing units whose construction has already begun and also approved the construction of another 450 housing units in Judea and Samaria." Mr Netanyahu also said Israel would not accept any restrictions on construction in East Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is not a settlement and construction there will continue as usual, among other reasons, because of a housing shortage," he said.

Just as Mr Netanyahu is trying to deal with pressure from his right wing, who strongly support settlements, so too is Mr Abbas trying to survive pressure from both Fatah and Hamas, who say he should not meet any Israeli leader before a complete freeze on settlements. Palestinian officials yesterday said Mr Abbas would make a decision about whether he would meet Mr Netanyahu after his next meeting with Mr Mitchell.


Mid-east summit prospects fading
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Thursday, September 17, 2009

BARACK Obama's hopes of hosting a summit next week of Israeli and Palestinian leaders faded last night as his special envoy, George Mitchell, appeared unable to make deals with either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that would pave the way for such a meeting. Mr Mitchell last night met Mr Netanyahu for the second time in two days to try to find an agreement on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The US President has called for a complete freeze of new construction in the settlements; Mr Netanyahu has rejected this. Mr Abbas has said he would meet Mr Netanyahu only if Israel agreed to a complete halt of settlement activity.

This week, Mr Mitchell has been shuttling between meetings with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and Mr Abbas in Ramallah to try to find a sufficient level of agreement to convince them both to meet Mr Obama in New York on Wednesday. It is believed the key sticking point between Mr Mitchell and Mr Netanyahu is that the latter is prepared to agree to a six-month moratorium on new settlement activity while Mr Mitchell insists it should be at least 12 months.

If they are able to come up with an agreement, Mr Mitchell would then put this deal to Mr Abbas, who is under pressure from both his Fatah faction and the rival Hamas faction not to agree to anything short of a complete freeze. Mr Netanyahu, for his part, is under pressure from many in his Likud party to not agree to any freeze.

Same Day: Israel bid to scuttle war crime report
Abraham Rabinovich

ISRAEL last night launched a massive diplomatic campaign aimed at ensuring Israeli officials were not brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, following the publication of a UN report accusing the Jewish state of committing war crimes during its incursion into Gaza in January. The report drew a furious reaction yesterday from Israeli officials who called it "nauseating" and a victory for terrorism. The report also called the firing of rockets and mortars by Palestinian groups into Israeli cities in the years leading up to the incursion a war crime.

Reports said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and Defence Minister Ehud Barak would telephone many of their counterparts around the world in an attempt to blunt the report. They will stress that the report is one-sided, that it rewards terrorism and that it sets a precedent that will make it difficult for any country in the world to defend itself against terror, Ha'aretz reported. Israel's diplomatic efforts would focus on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - but would also give priority to members of the European Union, because of their influence in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the paper said.

The Israeli leadership fears one recommendation in particular - that the UN Human Rights Council submits the report to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which could lead to charges being brought against senior Israeli officials involved in the war. The report by a commission headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone warned that both Israel and the Palestinians might be brought before the International Criminal Court unless they carried out credible investigations of the charges raised in the 575-page document. Palestinian spokesmen welcomed the findings regarding Israel but said it was unjust to blame the Palestinians. Both sides said the report failed to distinguish "between aggressor and victim", each citing itself as the victim.

Despite its seemingly even-handed findings, the weight of the report falls more heavily on Israel which, as a state, could suffer serious political damage. It also may find itself inhibited in the future if it wishes to carry out military action that would involve civilian areas, such as another round in Gaza, or its attack three years ago in south Lebanon in response to a Hezbollah incursion into Israel.

"A country considering attacking the nuclear reactor in Iran," wrote political commentator Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz, "and thereby opening itself to rocket fire from Lebanon and Gaza in response, will have to take into account whether the world will give Israel another opportunity for a severe, crushing response." Israel had refused to co-operate with the UN commission established by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a body dominated by Third World countries and accused by Israel of consistent anti-Israel prejudice. In calling in January for an investigation, the original HRC resolution blamed Israel for "massive violations of human rights", a determination before the investigation had even begun which, Israel said, exposed the council's bias.

Justice Goldstone, an eminent jurist, refused to accept the HRC invitation to head the investigation until its mandate had been expanded to include the firing of rockets and mortars by the Palestinians into Israel. Justice Goldstone would appear to be immune from charges of anti-Israel bias since he is Jewish and has personal ties in Israel. By refusing to participate in the investigation, Israel offered no response to the charges against it made by Palestinians before the commission. Unlike Israel, Hamas co-operated with the UN body.

Among the instances of alleged Israeli war crimes cited in the report was the targeting of a mosque where 15 people were killed in prayer, an "intentional" attack on a hospital and seven instances of civilians being shot while waving white flags. Israel maintains that its troops often put themselves at risk to help Palestinian civilians out of the line of fire. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yossi Levy, termed the report "nauseating and one of the most disgraceful documents in the long collection of shameful documents put out by the United Nations".

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that by equating terror and the response to terror, the commission was making a mockery of international law. It is not clear if Israel will investigate the allegations against it in order to avoid having them brought before the International Criminal Court. In any case, it hopes that the US will exercise its veto if need be to prevent the charges being passed on to The Hague.


Extract - Street battles erupt in Tehran
Weekend Australian
Correspondents in Tehran, AFP, AP
Saturday September 19, 2009

IRANIAN opposition supporters fought running battles with riot police and hardliners last night as tens of thousands mounted the first protest in two months against the re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Protesters defied dire warnings from top officials against demonstrating during the annual mass display of solidarity with the Palestinians that is one of the set pieces of the Islamic regime. As Mr Ahmadinejad gave the keynote speech at Tehran University, renewing comments about Israel and the "myth" of the Holocaust that have sparked an international outcry, tens of thousands chanted "Death to the dictator" in nearby streets. Shouting slogans in support of the hardliner's main challenger in the June 12 election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the protesters gathered in major squares around the capital before joining the annual march to the university. Hardline supporters of the regime among the more than 100,000 people who joined the Quds (Jerusalem) Day rally, mounted counter-demonstrations leading to repeated scuffles between the two sides, witnesses said.

The opposition leader was forced to abandon his plans to take part in the rally after an angry crowd of hardliners shouting "Death to the hypocrite Mousavi" attacked his car, the official IRNA news agency said. Former president Mohammad Khatami, a key supporter of Mr Mousavi whose 1997-2005 term of office saw a thaw in relations with the West, was also assaulted by hardliners before being rescued by riot police. Mr Khatami's brother Mohammad Reza Khatami said the former president was "not hurt". "Some people shouted slogans against him," the brother said. "He is home now. He is not hurt and he is fine."

In his Quds Day address, the hardline President again described — in his usual hysterically inaccurate and grossly insulting way — the mass extermination of Jews during World War II as a "myth" and said Israel was on its way to collapse. "They (Western powers) launched the myth of the Holocaust. They lied, they put on a show and then they support the Jews," he said to chants of "Death to Israel" from his supporters among the crowd. "The pretext for establishing the Zionist regime is a lie ... a lie which relies on an unreliable claim, a mythical claim, and the occupation of Palestine has nothing to do with the Holocaust. This regime's days are numbered and it is on its way to collapse. This regime is dying."

Similar comments made by Mr Ahmadinejad shortly after his first election as president in 2005 sparked an international outcry and prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to describe Iran as an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. Then Mr Ahmadinejad said Israel was "doomed to be wiped off the map".


US calls surprise Mideast meeting
The Australian
Correspondents in Washington, AFP, AP
Monday September 21, 2009

BARACK Obama will intervene in deadlocked Middle East peace talks tomorrow when he hosts a surprise meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. The US President's announcement came yesterday amid few indications of movement on key disputes, and after US Middle East envoy George Mitchell returned empty-handed in his attempt to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

A US administration official cautioned against any expectations of a breakthrough coming out of tomorrow's meeting, which will be held ahead of the UN general assembly. The three-way meeting in New York will be "immediately preceded" by bilateral talks between Mr Obama and the two leaders, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. It will seek "to lay the groundwork for the relaunch of negotiations, and to create a positive context for those negotiations so that they can succeed", Mr Gibbs said.

Mr Obama has set the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as a major goal of his young presidency, and handed Mr Mitchell a mission to soften the ground. Mr Mitchell has had a hard go, with a new hawkish Israeli leader on one side and an increasingly dispirited Palestinian leader on the other. Over four days, Mr Mitchell met twice with Mr Abbas and four times with Mr Netanyahu, including twice on Friday. Shortly after yesterday's announcement, Mr Netanyahu's office said the Prime Minister "responded positively" to the invitation.

Mr Obama thought it was important to get all three leaders together in a room to "continue to try to bridge gaps and bridge divides", the official said, in line with the President's vow to engage in the Middle East peace process at the beginning and not the end of his presidency. The official argued that a trilateral meeting being held so soon after Israel's devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip in December and the formation of a new Israeli government was significant in and of itself.

As recently as Friday, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said Washington could not set a date for a three-way meeting. Mr Mitchell wrapped up a mission to the Middle East after failing to secure an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion that would pave the way for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. The former senator, who helped broker peace in war-torn Northern Ireland in the 1990s, said tomorrow's talks were a sign of Mr Obama's "deep commitment to comprehensive peace".

Israelis and Palestinians blamed each other for the lack of progress made during Mr Mitchell's visit. In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levi insisted that "the Palestinian Authority is the one that is preventing the resumption of the peace process by making conditions that it has not made in the past". Palestinians have demanded a halt to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem, as a condition for resuming talks with Israel. But Mr Netanyahu has rebuffed US calls to freeze settlement construction, leading to a rare diplomatic spat between the Jewish state and its closest ally. Mr Abbas blamed Israel for Mr Mitchell's failure to secure a breakthrough. "The road is now blocked," Mr Abbas said. "The focus has to be on the Israeli side."


Obama delivers tripartite meeting
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Tuesday September 22, 2009

THE leaders of the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will meet tonight for their first three-way meeting, which US President Barack Obama hopes will mark the resumption of Middle East peace talks. While all three sides yesterday tried to lower expectations of the meeting, portraying it as a photo opportunity, it amounts to an early success for Mr Obama in trying to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It followed a week of shuttle diplomacy by US Special Envoy George Mitchell, who had meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

After Mr Mitchell left on Friday, it appeared he had failed to secure the three-way meeting in New York that Mr Obama had wanted, and Israeli and Palestinian officials immediately began blaming each other for that meeting not occurring. Only hours before the White House's announcement of the tripartite meeting, Mr Abbas said: "The road is now blocked." He continued to insist he would not meet Mr Netanyahu unless Israel agreed to a complete freeze on activity in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr Mitchell was unable to come to an agreement on settlements with Mr Netanyahu, who said the most he could do was agree to a six-month freeze while Mr Mitchell continued to push for a year-long moratorium. Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from within his own coalition government not to agree to any slowdown in settlement activity.

But the White House announced after Mr Mitchell left the Middle East that the New York meetings today would "continue the efforts of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell to lay the groundwork for the relaunch of negotiations". As the UN general assembly will be proceeding at the UN headquarters in New York, Mr Obama will meet separately with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas, then hold a meeting with the two of them a few streets from the UN at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials clearly believed Mr Netanyahu had handled the negotiations with Mr Mitchell more smartly than Mr Abbas. "In the end, Abu Mazen blinked first," Maariv newspaper reported, referring to Mr Abbas's Arabic name. "Officials in Jerusalem welcomed with the requisite politeness Abu Mazen's acceptance of the invitation. In closed talks, they voiced great satisfaction with the fact the Prime Minister had come out of these indirect negotiations a winner." The paper said there was great anger in the Palestinian side at the American move for the three-way meeting, putting them in a position where they could not refuse a US request: "Most of the fire is now being directed at US envoy George Mitchell, who is perceived as having failed in making the Israeli side bend."

The difficulty of the path ahead has been highlighted by the experience of Mr Mitchell - he has spent months getting both sides to agree simply to be in the same room rather than to begin negotiations on any of the more difficult issues such as borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Given where relations were between Israel and the Palestinians in January - the Gaza war - that they are meeting at all is to a diplomatic breakthrough for the Obama administration.

It was reported in Israel yesterday that Mr Netanyahu paid a visit to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, the religious party that is part of his coalition, to mark the Jewish New Year. Haaretz newspaper reported that Rabbi Yosef blessed Mr Netanyahu and told him "to remain steadfast before American pressure".

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has described any attack by Israel on Iran as "the worst thing that can be imagined". In an interview, he said Israeli officials had told him privately they did not intend to attack Iran. He said of any Israeli attack: "What would happen after that ' Humanitarian disaster, a vast number of refugees, Iran's wish to take revenge - and not only upon Israel, to be honest, but upon other countries, as well."

Far from gripping: Barack Obama watches as Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in New York during talks to discuss the possibility of peace talks
Picture: AP

Frustrated Obama warns opportunity won't last
Icy Mid-East meeting stalls
The Australian
Brad Norington, New York
Thursday, September 24, 2009

DIRECT pressure applied by Barack Obama on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to set aside fundamental problems and restart the peace process has failed to get a result. The US President used the gathering of world leaders in New York yesterday to bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together.

It was already past time to talk about starting negotiations, Mr Obama said, before a tripartite meeting. "Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward," he said. "We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering. We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back."

Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, last night declared the meeting a victory for the Jewish state because it took place even though Israel refused demands to freeze settlements in the West Bank. Israel agreed only to slow settlement construction in the Palestinian territory for a limited time. Mr Obama did not explicitly demand a freeze at the meeting, an omission that rankled with Palestinians. Mr Abbas immediately dismissed a resumption of talks unless Israel agreed to a halt to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. He also demanded Israel agree to observe all agreements on borders that he claimed were made last year with Mr Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert. These borders dated back to the Israeli capture of territory in 1967. Mr Netanyahu blamed Palestinians for the stalemate, demanding they recognise the state of Israel and insisting the issue of settlements should be "discussed within these talks, not before".

Mr Obama met both leaders separately yesterday before bringing them together. Afterwards, he oversaw an official handshake but the mood was cold. Neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Abbas spoke to the media. The Jerusalem newspaper Haaretz later reported Mr Obama had told both leaders he was dissatisfied with their recent "foot-dragging" on restarting talks and had strongly expressed his impatience. According to a White House source, the meeting was business-like but not cordial. Mr Obama reportedly told Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas: "We've had enough talks. We need to end this conflict. There is a window of opportunity but it might shut."

The US President had been optimistic about future talks, after signs from Israel of a halt to construction of further settlements on the West Bank this year. But his hopes were dashed after approved construction got the go-ahead and his envoy to the region, George Mitchell, failed last week to gain any undertaking on further settlements. Yesterday's failed diplomatic effort left Mr Obama in an awkward position after he had declared Mr Mitchell would meet Israeli and Palestinian negotiators next week. He said he had also asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report back to him on the status of the talks.

Clearly frustrated, Mr Obama said yesterday everyone had worked tirelessly, but not enough had been done. He said "permanent status negotiations" between the Israelis and Palestinians must begin soon, and restated his aim of wanting to see Israel and Palestine as two states. Mr Obama had wanted a cessation of further settlements to help kick-start negotiations. "All of us know this will not be easy," he said. "But we are here today because it is the right thing to do ... it is absolutely critical that we get this issue resolved. It's not just critical for the Israelis and the Palestinians, it's critical for the world. It is in the interests of the United States. And we are going to work as hard as necessary to accomplish our goals." Yesterday's meeting took place in New York after Mr Obama had addressed the UN on the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Mr Mitchell said Israel had made some concessions, such as a willingness to relax travel restrictions at its borders to allow movement of Palestininan workers. It had also removed some illegal settlements, despite refusing to stop expansion. Mr Netanyahu told Fox News he was glad Mr Obama had called yesterday's meeting. In a statement, Mr Abbas said he remained committed to the "road map" and demanded Israel fulfil its commitments on settlements. "As for resuming talks, this depends on a definition of the negotiating process that means basing them on recognising the need to withdraw to the 1967 borders and ending the occupation, as was discussed with the previous Israeli government when we defined the occupied territories as the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem," he said. Mr Netanyahu said Israel could work in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mr Abbas. But it could never make peace with Hamas, which controls Gaza. As Israel declines to give ground on West Bank settlements, Mr Obama's test will be to stand by his request that they cease if he wants talks to resume.


Extract - Tehran scientists offered for talks
The Australian
Friday September 25, 2009

WASHINGTON: Iran is open to a meeting of its nuclear scientists with their counterparts from the US and other countries to dispel any unease about Tehran's nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared. At talks with world powers next week about its nuclear program, Iran will offer to purchase enriched uranium from the US for medical purposes, the Iranian leader told The Washington Post newspaper and Newsweek magazine yesterday. Iran has not previously allowed its scientists to meet experts from the West.

Meanwhile, the major global powers stepped up their pressure on Iran to fully disclose its nuclear program or face another round of sanctions, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a seeming about-face in backing sanctions against Tehran as "in some cases ... inevitable". Mr Ahmadinejad said the new Iranian proposals would be presented by a senior diplomat when he meets his counterparts from the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in Geneva on October 1.

His offer came as France led a walkout of delegations to protest against Mr Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN General Assembly yesterday. Delegations from Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and the US left the room as Mr Ahmadinejad began to rail against Israel. Israel had called for a boycott of his speech, and its delegation was not present when the Iranian leader began his address. Canada said it would also support the boycott.

In his address, Mr Ahmadinejad again took aim at Israel, without mentioning the country by name, referring only to the "Zionist regime". The Iranian President, re-elected in disputed voting in June, accused Israel of "inhumane policies in Palestine". "How can the crimes of the occupiers against defenceless women and children be supported unconditionally by certain governments," he asked. Suggesting there was a Zionist conspiracy in international politics, Mr Ahmadinejad said: "It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks."

He accused Israel of seeking to "establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the US, to attain its racist ambitions". Outside the building in New York, thousands of demonstrators protested that Mr Ahmadinejad had stolen Iran's election.

Same Day
Gender not frontline issue in Israel
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

FOR women pushing to take combat roles in the Australian Defence Force, it may be a case of being careful what you wish for. The Israeli Defence Forces have had women in combat roles since the 1980s, leading to situations such as that which 21-year-old Maya Melamed found herself in recently.

Under fire from Hamas during this year's Gaza war, Melamed spent a week inside a tank as the only woman. "You're stuck in a tank for a week with men and you don't shower and you need to live with them 24/7 for a long period of time," she says. "It's hard because, as women, we have our needs, we need our privacy sometimes." During that week, Melamed realised that if they turned the tank's gun in a certain direction, it gave her a private area inside where she was free to attend to her needs. "For a week we haven't stepped outside the tank," she says. "We need to do everything inside the tank. We find all kind of original ways to do whatever we need to do, funny ways to shower, and I think they really saw me as one of them and that helped, but it wasn't easy at all."

After three years in a frontline role, mainly in the West Bank, Melamed insists women can make better soldiers. She says that, in modern warfare, mental toughness is more important than physical strength.

Defence Personnel and Science Minister Greg Combet recently floated the possibility of removing gender restrictions for specialised categories in the ADF, including the SAS and commando units. In Israel, the debate over whether women should serve at the front line seems decades in the past. More than 90 per cent of jobs in the IDF are open to women and, in combat units open to women, 17 per cent of the fighters are female. One unit on the Israeli-Egyptian border almost entirely comprises women. More than 40 per cent of officers in the IDF are women. Israel does not release details on how many men or women have been killed on duty, saying the information is classified.

Melamed has a message for anyone opposing combat roles for women: "Every army needs people who have the motivation and who really want to serve there and if a woman got to the point that she wants to ... be there, I think they'll only benefit from that." She adds: "You see strong, big men who just break down and fall, while women who look fragile and small keep going on because I think, in the end, what matters is how much you want this."

In a country with a population of about 7.5 million, Israel has embraced men and women, young and old, for its defence forces. Although the process began earlier, the walls came down in 1994 after a woman called Alice Miller petitioned the High Court that she should be allowed to join a men's pilot course. Nineteen women have now graduated from that course, one serving as a deputy squadron commander and one flying an F-16. The last woman killed in action was a flight mechanic in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Melamed says that despite "a macho thing about the Israeli army", men have treated her equally and expect her to do what they do. "If you would have asked a man, an Israeli soldier, nine or 10 years ago, would you go into battle with a woman, I'm sure he would tell you not at all," she says. "Today, it's changed. I see people who trust me, they trust me that if something happens to them, I take care of them. The only time that I felt there was a difference was when we were attacked. We went into an Arab village (on the West Bank) to treat a Palestinian who got hurt by a car, got hit by a car, and the people in the village were throwing stones at us and were basically attacking us, and that's the first time when I saw all my team was crowding around me to protect me because I was taking care of the patient."

Every 18-year-old in Israel is required to go into national service or the army. Religious women usually choose national service while others go into the IDF for two years. Melamed chose three years because she wanted a combat and paramedic role. She estimates that of those she has treated, 70 per cent have been Palestinian and 30 per cent Israeli. She has sometimes treated Palestinian militants who have been injured during clashes with IDF troops.

The Israeli army, along with its combatant Hamas, have spent recent weeks at the centre of controversy after a UN report accused them of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the Gaza war. Melamed rejects accusations of war crimes. "We know that the press and the world and everybody else is looking at us and checking what we do," she says. "We don't want to see people that are not involved getting hurt."


Disgrace: Benjamin Netanyahu AP
Netanyahu fires broadside at Iran
Weekend Australian
Wall Street Journal
Saturday, September 26, 2009

NEW YORK: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a blistering attack on Iran's president at the UN yesterday (Thursday, U.S. time) saying the hearing granted to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the previous night amounted to a "disgrace of the U.N. charter."

Mr. Netanyahu held up copies of minutes of the meeting of Nazi officials in 1942 at which plans were made for the extermination of the Jews, as well as construction plans for Nazi concentration camps. "Are these protocols lies ?" he said, waving them in his hand. "Are the successive German governments that have kept these documents for posterity all liars ?"

The previous day, from the same podium, the Iranian president accused "a small minority" of enslaving much of the world. "It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the U.S. to attain its racist ambitions," the Iranian leader said. Last week, Mr. Ahmadinejad told a rally in Tehran that, "After the Second World War, [Jews] created the story of Holocaust...and then they made hundreds of films and wrote hundreds of books to argue they have suffered and need a home.... This is a myth, and Zionists are criminals."

Mr. Netanyahu criticized delegates who had remained in their places in the General Assembly Hall as Mr. Ahmadinejad spoke. "To those who refused to come and to those who left in protest, I commend you," he said. "But to those who gave this Holocaust denier a hearing, I say.... have you no shame ' Have you no decency ?"


Iran fires long-range missiles able to reach Israel
The Australian
Tuesday September 29, 2009

TEHRAN: Iran yesterday test-fired two long-range missiles which it says could hit targets in Israel, as the Revolutionary Guards staged military exercises for the second straight day. The war games coincided with heightened tension with the West, after the UN nuclear watchdog revealed on Friday that Tehran had confirmed it was building a second uranium enrichment plant. Western countries suspect Iran of seeking to make nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies.

On Sunday, the Guards launched the missiles during manoeuvres to mark Sacred Defence week, which commemorates the start of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Guards air force commander Hossein Salami said the force had test-fired the Sejil and Shahab-3 versions of Iran's long-range missiles. "An improved version of Shahab-3 and the two-stage Sejil, powered by solid fuel, were fired," Mr Salami was quoted as saying by the state-owned Arabic-language Al-Alam television channel.

Iran's Fars news agency said the Sejil was test-fired for the first time during missile manoeuvres. Iran's state-owned English-language Press TV channel broadcast footage of Shahab-3 lifting off in a thick ball of fire from desert terrain. Iran says both missiles have a range of about 2000km, which would put Israel, most Arab states and parts of Europe, including much of Turkey, within their range.

On Sunday, the Guards fired several short- and medium-range missiles, some with multiple warheads, state media reported. The medium-range Shahab-1 and Shahab-2, with a range of between 300km and 700km, were successfully launched, Mr Salami said. "The missiles shot have precisely hit the targets," he said. Earlier the Guards test-fired three short-range missiles - the Tondar-69, Fateh-110 and Zelzal. All three weapons, powered by solid fuel, have a range of between 100km and 400km.

Mr Salami yesterday issued a stern warning to Iran's foes. "Our response will be strong and destructive to those who threaten the existence, independence, freedom and values of our regime. They will regret it," the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying. He said the missile exercise was aimed at practising for "long wars, moving the missile installations from one point to another, as well as simultaneous and non-simultaneous shots at convergent and divergent targets".

On Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had confirmed it was building a second enrichment plant. Iranian officials say the second plant is also intended for peaceful nuclear energy, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with CBS network, said: "We don't believe they can present convincing evidence that it's only for peaceful purposes, but we are going to put them to the test on October 1." Iran and world powers will meet in Geneva on Thursday to discuss Tehran's disputed nuclear program.


Iran in deadly warning to Israel
The Australian
Correspondents in New York and Washington, The Times, AP, Wall Street Journal
Wednesday September 30, 2009

ON the eve of talks with the international community about its nuclear aspirations, and only hours after a "provocative" missile test, Iran has issued a warning to Israel that it would face destruction if it attacked the Islamist nation. "If this (an Israeli attack) happens, which, of course, we do not foresee, its ultimate result would be to expedite the last breath of the Zionist regime," Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said on state television.

His comments came after Western leaders called a second day of rocket launches by Iran a "reprehensible" distraction from talks this week that will determine whether Tehran is ready to negotiate over its nuclear program, or face biting new sanctions. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the missile tests "provocative". He added: "This is an important day and an important week for Iran." Mr Gibbs demanded unfettered access to a new nuclear facility that Iran admitted to last week.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to tomorrow's talks in Geneva, the administration of US President Barack Obama and its Western allies were working up new ways to impose sanctions on Iran if it does not comply with demands to come clean about its nuclear program. American officials said the US would expand its own penalties against Iranian companies and press for greater international sanctions against foreign firms, largely European, that do business in the country unless Iran can prove that its nuclear activities are not aimed at developing an atomic weapon. Among the ideas being considered were asset freezes and travel bans.

The proposed sanctions would largely focus on investment in Iran's energy infrastructure and development, the officials said. But some economic giants are less enthusiastic about sanctions. China and Russia are still seen as only half-hearted partners in any effort to push penalties through the UN Security Council. And France and Germany are skittish about targeting Iran's oil imports.

European officials stressed yesterday that they were likely to seriously consider new sanctions on Tehran only at year-end, citing a December deadline - replacing Mr Obama's September deadline - that has been set to see whether diplomacy with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad works. While Iran is a major oil exporter, its lack of refining capacity requires it to import about 40 per cent of its petrol and other petroleum-based fuels. A total embargo on Iranian oil - which Israeli officials have suggested - seems unlikely. US law already forbids American firms from buying Iranian oil, but Europe, Japan and China are big customers.


Shalit one step closer to home
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday October 2, 2009

CAPTURED Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit may have become the most valuable prisoner in the world when Israel agreed to release 20 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a one-minute video showing he is alive and in reasonable physical condition. The deal was the first time since Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in March that Israel has agreed to any prisoner release, and it was seen in Israel as a possible precursor to a deal for the 23-year-old soldier to return home after being captured three years ago by Hamas fighters during a clash on the Gaza-Israel border. The deal, brokered by German and Egyptian mediators, was the first the new Israeli government has done with Hamas - even though only one of the prisoners will be released into Hamas-controlled Gaza. The rest will be released into the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

Shalit's case has huge resonance in Israel. The Israeli Defence Forces has a long-standing tradition of doing whatever it can to see the return of captured or killed soldiers, and in Jerusalem a large marquee has been set up on the footpath next to the Prime Minister's residence in Rehavia which each day shows the number of days Shalit has been held. His face is commonly seen on bumper stickers on cars around Israel. Last year, the previous Olmert government considered the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, but Israel refused to release about 120 of those on the Hamas wish-list because of their involvement in terrorist acts.

Announcing the deal, Mr Netanyahu said: "It is important that the entire world know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well, and that Hamas is responsible for his health and state." A government statement said the deal came ahead of "the decisive stages" in negotiations for Shalit's release "and on the basis of the government of Israel's determination to bring him back home quickly while upholding Israel's vital interests".

The 20 prisoners are all women and none has been involved in any acts of terrorism. While 14 of them were in prison after being convicted of attempted murder, they were deemed not to be a continuing threat to Israel. Under the system of prisoner release, the Israeli public now has 48 hours to check the list and lodge any complaints. Given that the prisoners proposed for release are not regarded as terrorists, and that the Israeli public is craving news of Shalit, there are not expected to be any complaints. If that is the case, the video will be handed over at the weekend.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was quoted by The Jerusalem Post saying the deal demonstrated Hamas's "moral, religious and national obligation to end the case of the prisoners in Israeli jails". He said Hamas had insisted that the 20 prisoners be from different Palestinian groups, not just Hamas.


Women free after Shalit video
Weekend Australian
Correspondents in Ramallah, AFP, AP
Saturday October 3, 2009

NINETEEN Palestinian women prisoners were released last night in a breakthrough swap for a video of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas militants since 2006. An Israeli official who saw the video of tank sergeant Shalit said the 23-year-old looked good and spoke lucidly about something from his past. It was the first glimpse of Sergeant Shalit since his capture by Hamas fighters nearly 3 ' years ago. Before yesterday, the only signs of life had been three letters and an audio tape.

Sergeant Shalit held up an Arabic language newspaper dated September 14, 2009 - Hamas's proof the footage was taken recently. It was not clear if Sergeant Shalit was reading from a text or speaking spontaneously, although no notes could be seen in the video. The release of the Palestinian women came after Israel's military Chief-of-Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, assessed the footage. About 200 people waving Palestinian flags greeted vans carrying 18 of the women into the West Bank. One prisoner, Fatima Yunes al-Zaq, returned to her home in Gaza and was to be followed to the Hamas-controlled territory by another woman tomorrow.

The prisoners, wearing the headscarves of devout Muslim women, blew kisses to the crowd through the vehicles' open windows. The prisoners were greeted by President Mahmoud Abbas in his walled compound, as elated relatives through handfuls of sweets in the air. "To exchange one minute of Gilad Shalit for 20 women is a big victory," said Qiffah Afanah, who served nine months for assaulting an Israeli soldier.

The prisoners' triumphant return home to a flag-waving and cheering crowd, together with the video's arrival in Israel, gave hope to each side that a long-awaited wider prisoner swap is now in the offing. Hamas is demanding freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as their price for Sergeant Shalit, whose capture in a bloody cross-border raid has touched a raw nerve in a country where most families have loved ones in the military. The deal yesterday could herald an end to the crippling Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel's war on the area. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in Gaza two years ago. Israel has said it will not ease the embargo before the serviceman is freed.

As part of a three-stage deal, Israelis ensured the video of Sergeant Shalit met established criteria before they gave the green light for the women to be freed. The DVD was sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Lieutenant General Ashkenazi analysed it. It was not immediately clear whether the brief footage would be made public.

The deal was a major breakthrough after nearly three years of on-again, off-again Egyptian-brokered negotiations between Israel and Hamas. German mediators joined the talks in July. It was the first time Israel has released prisoners as part of the negotiations.

France last night called for the soldier, who holds French nationality, to be freed after the video showed him alive. Cairo has been trying to broker a deal under which hundreds of Palestinian prisoners would be released in exchange for Sergeant Shalit, who has been held in Gaza since he was captured in the deadly cross-border raid in June 2006. He was seized after Gaza militants, including Hamas, tunnelled out of the Palestinian territory and attacked an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers.

Mr Netanyahu's office stressed that the latest development did not herald Sergeant Shalit's imminent release, but was meant as a confidence-building measure ahead of "decisive stages in the negotiations", and warned that the talks were still expected to be "long and arduous". All but one of the Palestinian women released come from the West Bank, and none has been implicated in killing Israelis.

A total of 7200 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons, and those freed yesterday were among 60 women prisoners. The Israeli prison service says 320 of the detainees are under 18. The freed women include members of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Same Day
A deafening Israeli silence
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

SOMETHING extraordinary is happening in Israel's approach to Iran, its most bitter enemy: silence.

Over the past year, it was almost impossible to hear an Israeli politician speak without Iran being mentioned. It has been Israel's main message to the world - Iran is a threat to our existence from the moment it gains a nuclear weapon. Now, since the beginning of this week, try getting an Israeli politician or official to say the word "Iran" - journalists who call Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comments about the developments in Tehran's nuclear program will be met with a firm "no comment". So what's happened '

In recent days, Israel has made a dramatic change in its approach to Iran - it has decided it needs to alter perceptions around the world that any nuclear program by Tehran is a problem only for Israel. It all began after the confirmation by Iran last weekend that it had developed a second nuclear facility, this time near the holy city of Qom. Iran insists it is developing only a civilian program for nuclear energy.

No country monitors Iran as closely as Israel. While many Israelis cannot understand international interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israelis regard Iran as their primary concern. Repeated denials by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Holocaust and his pledge to "wipe Israel off the map" has understandably made Israelis nervous about Tehran gaining nuclear weapons. For the past two years, Israel has been frustrated that the international community did not regard Iran as a top-level issue, but in recent weeks this has changed.

While French President Nicolas Sarkozy has placed huge pressure on Israel over the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Israeli blockade of Gaza - Mr Sarkozy described Gaza as "an open-air prison" - Israel could not contain its delight over the strong speech on Tehran's nuclear program he gave to the UN recently. Mr Sarkozy called on the international community to support punishing sanctions to stop Iran developing a nuclear program.

Israel's gratitude came quickly. Mr Sarkozy had been pushing Benjamin Netanyahu to allow France to help rebuild a hospital in Gaza destroyed by Israeli forces in the January war. No progress was being made, but after Mr Sarkozy's speech, Mr Netanyahu agreed this week to allow the hospital to be rebuilt. Israel's strategic decision on the Iranian nuclear issue in recent days has been to withdraw from the debate - for the moment - in the hope of giving more air to leaders such as Mr Sarkozy, the US's Barack Obama and Britain's Gordon Brown. Israel wants the Arab world to take some of the heat - Iran certainly has some enemies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The initial instinct of Israeli officials after the news of the Qom uranium-enrichment facility was to wait. Mr Netanyahu was out of the country. Returning from the US on Saturday night, Mr Netanyahu asked what Israeli officials had been saying about Qom. "Nothing much," one of them is said to have responded, explaining that they felt it was better for the European, US and Arab leaders to make the running on the issue. Mr Netanyahu agreed. It became policy - the word was put out to government departments and embassies that they were to maintain silence. Israel is quietly watching the six-power talks in Geneva. The US, France, China, Russia and Germany and Britain are pressuring Iran to allow international inspectors. It seems some are pressuring harder than others - Russia and China are pragmatic, clearly wanting a stable Iran that supplies them oil and buys their merchandise. They have made it plain they want neither of these to be upset. But the US, France and Britain have made it equally clear that even if they cannot get the UN Security Council to back tough sanctions, they can bring about US and European sanctions. Mr Obama said after this week's meetings that Iran must provide "unfettered access" for inspection of its nuclear facilities.

The big question is what happens if sanctions fail to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear push. Public opinion in Israel appears to be strongly behind an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. A poll by the American Jewish Committee this week found 66 per cent of Jewish Americans supported an Israeli strike on Iran. It's clear from talking to Israeli officials familiar with the negotiations with the US over recent months on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran that Washington has one absolute condition it wants Israel to observe before launching any attack on Iran: to wait until the US troops are out of Iraq.

The US is withdrawing its forces from Iraq where its combat mission is due to be over by August next year. The remaining troops - between 35,000 and 50,000 - would all be out by December 31 next year. Any air strike on Iran would require flying over either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Although Saudi Arabia is Iran's great regional rival, politically Saudi Arabia would take major hits in the Arab world if it facilitated an Israeli attack.

That leaves Iraq. US negotiators repeatedly tell their Israeli counterparts that if the US assisted an Israeli attack on Iran at the moment, then Iran through its proxies would make the withdrawal of US troops disastrous - they would be withdrawing under enemy fire. Once the US forces are out of Iraq, Israel would have a clear run. It is clear it would not ask Iraq for permission to fly over its airspace.

The mission would be launched in great secrecy, with only a handful of people knowing beforehand. It would be similar to two previous Israeli attacks on foreign nuclear facilities - on Baghdad in 1981 and on Syria in 2007. After the Syrian attack, Israel resorted to the tool it has now begun using again - silence. To this day, it has made no confirmation, but it is openly accepted in Israel that it carried out the bombing raid. For Israel's regional enemies, the real time to worry is not when Israel is denouncing them - but when it stops talking about them.


IAEA fears Iran can make A-bomb
The Australian
Correspondents in Tel Aviv and Washington, AFP
Monday October 5, 2009

A CONFIDENTIAL analysis by the International Atomic Energy Agency indicates Iran has acquired "sufficient information to be able to design and produce" a workable atom bomb. The IAEA report stresses in its introduction that its conclusions are tentative and subject to further confirmation of the evidence, which it says came from intelligence agencies and its own investigations, The New York Times reported yesterday.

The report emerged along with answers to the secrecy surrounding the Israeli Prime Minister's unannounced trip to Russia on a private jet last month. Israeli sources told The Sunday Times of London that Benjamin Netanyahu gave Moscow a list of Russian scientists who were suspected of helping Iran to build a nuclear warhead. "We have heard Netanyahu came with a list and concrete evidence showing Russians are helping the Iranians to develop a bomb," a source close to the Russian Defence Minister told The Sunday Times. "That's why it was kept secret. The point is not to embarrass Moscow, rather to spur it into action." Mr Netanyahu flew in with national security adviser Uzi Arad, and named the suspected scientists at a tense meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, The Sunday Times said.

The New York Times's claims go well beyond the public positions taken by several governments, including the US. In 2007, US intelligence agencies reported that Iran had halted its efforts to design a nuclear weapon in 2003. But in recent months, Britain joined France, Germany and Israel in disputing that conclusion, saying the work has been resumed. A senior US official said Washington was re-evaluating its 2007 conclusions, the paper said.

The IAEA report presents evidence that improving on bomb-making information gathered from rogue nuclear experts around the world, Iran has done extensive research and testing on how to fashion the components of a nuclear weapon. But the document does not say how far that work has progressed. The IAEA report, titled Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's Nuclear Program, was produced in consultation with a range of nuclear weapons experts inside and outside the agency. The report presents a picture of a complex program run by Iran's Ministry of Defence, "aimed at the development of a nuclear payload to be delivered using the Shahab 3 missile system", which can strike the Middle East and parts of Europe. The program reportedly began in early 2002.

IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei last night obtained agreement for an inspection on October 25 of Iran's new uranium enrichment plant at the holy city of Qom. His visit to Iran comes after Washington and its allies demanded rapid progress at the revived talks in Geneva last week on Iran's nuclear program. Speaking after talks with the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, Dr ElBaradei said concerns remained over how Iran would use its nuclear technology in future. "There are concerns about Iran's future intentions and this is not a verification thing. It's an issue of building trust and that is why we now have six-party talks," he said at a joint press conference with Mr Salehi. "Iran has mastered enrichment technology. Iran has fuel cycle, has research facility and will have a nuclear plant. But there are still some questions about Iran's intentions, and thus the inspections are ongoing. We need transparency on the part of Iran and we need co-operation on the part of the international community," he said, describing a "shifting of gears" in relations between Iran and the Western powers.

The disclosure by Iran before the Geneva talks that it is building a second nuclear enrichment plant inside a mountain at Qom prompted Western outrage. US President Barack Obama after last Thursday's talks in Geneva demanded swift and constructive action by Tehran. Mr Obama said the Geneva negotiations, which included the highest-level direct talks between the US and Iran in three decades, marked a constructive start to defusing the nuclear standoff. But he warned that his patience for dialogue was limited, and hinted that Washington would press for further UN sanctions if Tehran failed to take quick action.

On Saturday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended the nuclear program, including the Qom plant, saying it was for peaceful purposes and that the IAEA had been informed of the development. "Iran's actions are based on honesty. We did not have any secret nuclear work because we gave the information ahead of time" to the IAEA, he said.


Mid-East future is bleak
Weekend Australian
John Lyons
Saturday October 10, 2009

BARACK Obama clinched the photo opportunity he wanted at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York two weeks ago, but in the Middle East a different reality is taking hold as people ask an uncomfortable question: is this the beginning of the third intifada ' On the Israeli and Palestinian sides that question was asked this week as clashes took place around Jerusalem.

Monday morning looked like a war zone. The newspapers were full of conflict, and an Israeli surveillance blimp hovered over the Old City as clashes continued. Israel uses these blimps for major operations. They are a regular feature along the Gaza border, and one was used recently to fly along the route the Pope took in Israel. On Monday, the blimp hovered over East Jerusalem while a police helicopter flew in circles. You could tell where the clashes were by where the helicopter was circling.

By Thursday, the comments of an Israeli official in The Jerusalem Post, talking about the possibility of "several dead Palestinians", brought home the grimness of the situation. The paper quoted the official: "We are closely following the events and understand that many wounded or several dead Palestinians could trigger additional violence in the West Bank." The two sides have opposite versions of what is happening.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat claimed Israel was "lighting matches in the hopes of igniting a big fire" by allowing the Jews to visit the al-Aqsa Mosque. But Israel laid the blame for the clashes on figures such as the Islamic Movement's Sheik Raed Salah. After rumours ran through Arab-dominated East Jerusalem that a "Jewish takeover" of the Temple Mount was in the offing, Salah called on Arabs "to shield the Aqsa Mosque with their bodies". He said he would "pay any price" to defend the mosque, one of Islam's holy sites that is also sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount. The right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party moved to ban the Islamic Movement, but others argued it was better to have the organisation out in the open, where the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet could watch it.

One of Judaism's leading authorities, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, this week repeated his view that under Jewish law it was forbidden for Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount.

The second intifada began nine years ago. Israeli civilians were targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers in cafes, buses and shopping centres. I asked the Palestinian who sold me a coffee in the Old City whether we could be witnessing the beginning of a third intifada. "Of course," he said. "They want to take Jewish people to our mosque. This is our fight. Stones are our weapon." As the tensions escalated, the Israeli police decided to let only Muslims visit the al-Aqsa mosque - and only men older than 50, and women. And as usual in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two sides cannot even agree on language. While Jews insist on calling it the Temple Mount, Muslims only refer to it as al-Aqsa.

It was a visit to the site in 2000 by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon that sparked the second intifada. Our landlord remembers watching smoke from the Old City soon after Sharon's visit, and thinking that things were about to turn bad. The property developer has taken his family to live by the beach for two reasons: "The Arabs and the ultra-orthodox Jews." He feels there are too many of both in Jerusalem. He says that before the second intifada he employed many Palestinians, and when he would visit nearby Bethlehem he would be treated like a king. Someone would kill a goat, and a feast would be prepared in his honour because he had given so many jobs to the Palestinians. After the second intifada began, he remembers feeling unwelcome in Bethlehem, and felt intimidated as a Jew. As he drove out, he vowed never to return. He has never been back, and now employs few Palestinians.

Recently he pointed to the promenade near our place and predicted that one day there would be fighting along it between Jews and Arabs. This is the sort of gloom taking hold in Jerusalem. As far as I can see, the only optimistic people are foreigners. One of the only things I can find agreement on between Jews and Palestinians is that the future looks bleak. "Unsolvable" is a word often used. When you ask about "the peace process", people look as if you're from another planet.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke for many Israelis this week when he said he did not expect any peace agreement to be reached in the next few years and that anyone who did "doesn't understand the situation and is spreading delusions". In Lieberman's world, Jordan's King Abdullah is presumably spreading delusions. He told the newspaper Haaretz this week he had a message for the Israeli public: the status quo could not be maintained, and if the current impasse continued: "We are sliding back into the darkness."

Meanwhile, the Palestinians continued to tear themselves apart in the wake of the Goldstone report into the Gaza war. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is believed to have withdrawn support for taking a resolution endorsing the report to the UN Human Rights Council. His rivals in Hamas accused him of treason, but in a bizarre twist - apparently to try to get himself out of a political bind - Abbas announced an inquiry into who had authorised the decision to withdraw support. Is there a phantom running the Palestinian Authority ' It seemed that whoever spoke this week was a world away from Barack Obama and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Same Day
Report on Gaza has chiefs in a spin

NEW YORK: The Palestinian leadership has backtracked on a UN report which accuses Israel of possible war crimes in Gaza, in what its top diplomat acknowledged was becoming a "clear crisis" for its people. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki failed to name who was responsible for the crisis, but said yesterday at UN headquarters the militant Islamist group Hamas was trying to take cynical advantage of the report to court favour with the Palestinians. "This clear crisis about the report proves that the Hamas position is really trying to exploit it, to its own favour, trying to take advantage of it, and really score points, rather than having a genuine principled position regarding the report," Mr Malki said. The report also accuses Palestinian armed groups of possible war crimes in the Israeli-Hamas conflict early this year. Hamas, the Palestinian Authority's main rival, controls Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority initially pushed for the UN Human Rights Council to forward its commissioned September 15 report to the Security Council. Then it agreed last week under US pressure not to push the issue at the UN. That brought harsh criticism, including angry protests at home and condemnation around the Arab world. On Wednesday, the Palestinian leadership again switched gears. It reversed itself by strongly backing Security Council member Libya's push to hold the 15-nation council's monthly debate on the Middle East a week earlier than planned and provide a high-profile forum for the explosive report to be discussed.

Mr Malki said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement - which lost power in Gaza when it was overrun by Hamas militants in 2007 - remains "far apart" in any potential deal with Hamas to reconcile and hold Palestinian elections. The Egyptians hope to broker a deal in Cairo this month. "When it comes to the principal issues, we feel that we are close to reaching an agreement between the Palestinian Authority, between Fatah and Hamas, and that's why everybody talks about the possibility of signing that agreement in the next couple days," Mr Malki said. "But when we start looking deeper into the details, and the positions of each party regarding the different issues, we discover we are very far apart."

Mr Malki said the Palestinian leadership supported "all the recommendations" contained in the UN report on Gaza and had dispatched him to New York to press the case for having the Security Council or other arms of the UN take up the findings. He left the UN yesterday but plans to return for the October 14 debate, originally scheduled for October 20. The 575-page Goldstone report accused Israel of using disproportionate force and failing to protect civilians, while calling Hamas's firing of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel a war crime.


Mark Regev upbeat on Middle East peace
The Australian
Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
Thursday October 15, 2009

ISRAEL'S international spokesman, Australian Mark Regev, has identified progress towards Middle East peace, including the economic takeoff in the Palestinian West Bank and Arab unity against Iran. Mr Regev, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry diplomat in Beijing and Washington, was asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay on as his spokesman, after working for his predecessor Ehud Olmert.

Back home in Melbourne, he said US President Barack Obama was "uniquely positioned to make a difference, because of his credibility in the Arab-Muslim world". He added: "We think multilateral action is required on Iran. Its leadership should be given a crystal clear instruction: you can't have business as usual and a nuclear program at the same time. But if it proves impossible to get a UN Security Council resolution with enough teeth to make a difference" he raised the prospect of enlisting "enough countries which do agree, who are important players in the world, to do so". Iran, he said, was "weaker than it looks" - politically, following the demonstrations, and economically, because it remains dependent on oil, the price of which has halved.

Mr Regev denied making a decision to lose his Australian accent, now barely traceable. But he did consciously work on speaking clearly for global TV and radio, and speaks Israel's main language, Ivrit, at home to his wife and three children. Australia was viewed as a longstanding friend by Israel, he said. During a recent visit to New York for the UN General Assembly, Mr Netanyahu held meetings with just four other government heads besides the US and Palestinian leaders: those of France, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Kevin Rudd, he said, made a favourable impression, with his firm grasp of the Middle East.

The International Monetary Fund is projecting 7 per cent growth for the West Bank this year. "This is no accident," Mr Regev said. "It is because its policies are in line with Israel and the international community."

Israel's own hi-tech-focused economy was recovering in parallel to Australia's. Checkpoints that were perceived as barriers to commerce were being taken down, or opened for longer hours, he said, projecting double-digit growth there next year. "It creates a political climate that's better for a peace process. If people have hope, that is one of the strongest antidotes to extremism." The benefits on the security front, he said, included that the Palestinian president and prime minister could move more comfortably within their own cities and towns, increasingly free from threats from criminal, theological and political gangs.

Same Day
Fatah loses faith in Barack Obama mission
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

DESPAIR over the deterioration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deepening, with the ruling Palestinian faction in the West Bank declaring that hopes it had in the Obama administration to make a difference had "evaporated". A leading official from Fatah, which forms the Palestinian Authority, has written in an internal memo: "All hopes placed in the new US administration and President Obama have evaporated." It claimed that US President Barack Obama "couldn't withstand the pressure of the Zionist lobby, which led to a retreat from his previous positions on halting settlement construction and defining an agenda for the negotiations and peace."

The memo was written by one of Fatah's most senior officials, Mohammed Ghneim, for Fatah's Office of Mobilisation and Organisation and leaked to the Associated Press. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week that no peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians was likely in the next few years, and anyone who thought differently was being "delusional".

The growing pessimism in the Middle East presents an increasing challenge for Mr Obama - his recent Nobel Peace Prize was met with a range of emotions from puzzlement to anger here as tensions between Israel and Palestinians increase. In the first weeks of his presidency, Mr Obama nominated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of his priorities. He also spent months calling for Israel to halt all settlement building in the West Bank, but appears to have backed away from that following Israel's refusal to agree.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered a possible moratorium on settlement building - of six months - but only after agreeing that 3000 new housing units in Jewish settlements be approved. Neither the US nor the Palestinian Authority is happy with that offer, but Mr Netanyahu has made it clear he will not agree to any halting of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

The new tension centres on the push by Palestinians to pursue the Goldstone report into the Gaza war to the ultimate possibility that some Israeli political and military figures may be charged for war crimes. The Goldstone report accused Israel and Hamas of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the Gaza war in January. Israel has expressed anger that it has been placed on the same level as Hamas, which it says is a terrorist organisation against whom it was defending itself. Israel is concerned that some of its key political and military officials face the possibility of being arrested while abroad.

While Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas last week deferred a move to pursue the Goldstone report, apparently under US and Israeli pressure, he has reversed that position. Haaretz newspaper reported that due to Palestinian pressure, the UN Human Rights Council's deliberations over the Goldstone report will be broadened to examine tensions in Jerusalem, which last week led to riots and "the siege of Gaza". It said Israel's Foreign Ministry was bracing itself for a diplomatic battle ahead of the vote, which is scheduled to take place Monday.


Gaza report endorsed by UN commission
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday October 17, 2009

BARACK Obama's attempts to resume Middle East peace talks looked doomed last night after a UN committee endorsed the Goldstone report into the Gaza conflict, which accuses Israel and Hamas of war crimes. The UN Human Rights Council approved a Palestinian-backed resolution after two days of debate on the report, which it commissioned following the December 27 to January 18 conflict in which almost 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. The resolution passed 25-6, with developing countries mostly in favour and the US and five European countries opposing. Eleven mostly European and African countries abstained, while Britain, France and three other members of the 47-nation body declined to vote.

US diplomat Douglas M. Griffiths told the council Washington was disappointed with the vote. The US had wanted the report to stay in Geneva, and is likely to veto any action in the Security Council. The resolution - which also condemns recent Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem - endorses the report's recommendation that both sides in the conflict should show the Security Council within six months that they are carrying out credible investigations into the claims of abuse.

Before the vote, Israel warned that any endorsement of the report would endanger the Middle East peace process. Israel engaged in an intense last-minute effort, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to stop the report's endorsement. Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak telephoned world leaders to ask their countries to vote against the report. In one conversation, described as "robust", Mr Netanyahu was reportedly rebuffed by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who told him Israel could avoid being criticised by the UN if it held its own independent inquiry. (South African judge Richard Goldstone held an inquiry into the Gaza war, and his report said Israel and Hamas might be guilty of crimes against humanity).

Last night's vote means the Goldstone report can now be passed to the UN General Assembly and possibly the International Criminal Court, where charges could be brought against Israeli politicians or military officials in charge of the war. In the Israeli parliament, Mr Netanyahu named the three key political leaders of the time — prime minister Ehud Olmert, Mr Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni — as possible targets for charges. Mr Barak is the only one still holding the same position (i.e. who was and still is the Defence Minister).

Mr Netanyahu yesterday telephoned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and reportedly challenged him to publicly declare Israel's right to defend itself. Mr Ban is believed to have replied that he had taken note of Mr Netanyahu's comments, but could not take action that ran contrary to the human rights council. According to Haaretz newspaper, Mr Barak spoke several times to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who telephoned British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to lobby him for London to vote against the Goldstone report.

Mr Netanyahu said once the "automatic majority" at the UN was mobilised, Israel usually lost any vote. "It is important that responsible countries say we will not lend a hand to this, we know Israel is right," he said. "Some, like the US, say this clearly. Some say it in a whisper. It is important on this matter not to whisper it. If this report will move forward in a serious manner, it will harm the peace process." UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay condemned Israel and Hamas for "a culture of impunity" in relation to international law.

The Palestinian Authority has changed its position on the report in recent weeks — initially Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed, under US and Israeli pressure, that any vote should be deferred until next year, but a backlash from his Fatah party led him to change his stance to endorsing the vote.


Choose your first president wisely, European Council
The Australian
Giles Merritt
Project Syndicate
Monday October 19, 2009

Whoever steps into Europe 's new top job as President of the European Council will set the mould. If it is someone of worldwide renown, the presidency will be established as a post of global importance. If the first incumbent is not a household name, it will be doomed as just another of the EU 's plethora of senior positions that are neither valued nor understood outside Brussels. The key point here is that Europe won 't be able to upgrade the job later. If the presidency goes to a politician who lacks charisma, it will forever be low in the international pecking order.

Of the half-dozen candidates to become Europe 's president, only Tony Blair needs no introduction. All the other names in the ring have to be accompanied by a description ' the former Finnish this or Austrian that.

Nobody knows whether the prime ministers of the EU 's 27 member countries will choose Blair. There is considerable ill will over his role in backing the invasion of Iraq, and the inconvenient fact that he is from Euro-sceptic Britain, and many on the left view him as a leader whose 'Third Way ' betrayed socialism.

But choosing a president for Europe is not about Blair the man, or the political records of the others who are on offer. It is about the job. Europe 's problem is that it lacks a clearly identifiable leader. As a result, despite the EU 's many successes, it still speaks with too many voices.

This was one of the problems the EU 's controversial Lisbon treaty was designed to fix. It is now in the final stages of its long and difficult birth, and by the new year should be using new mechanisms to streamline European decision-making. The jewel in its crown is to be the appointment for a 30-month term of a full-time president of the European Council, which groups the heads of the EU governments, along with a foreign policy chief backed by an embryonic EU diplomatic service.

Now that more than two-thirds of Irish voters have reversed their country 's earlier opposition to the Lisbon treaty ' with only the Czech Republic 's Europhobic President V 'clav Klaus holding out against it ' the focus is on who will fill these two jobs. And that, in turn, has triggered a round of bitter political squabbling that threatens to negate the idea of a more powerful European voice on the global stage.

The three Benelux countries - Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg - along with a few smaller EU nations, are opposed to the new European president being from a large country. And there are those who fear that a political heavyweight in the job might eclipse the European Commission 's President, former Portuguese prime minister Jos ' Manuel Barroso, who has just been confirmed for a second five-year term, and devalue the role of the foreign policy chief whose authority Lisbon is due to beef up.

These are specious arguments. The EU 's external relations involve two different types of politics. The first is the politics of world relations, where a political figure of global stature could do much to raise the EU 's profile and ensure it has a major say in reordering the post-crisis global economic rulebook. The second is the politics of detail, where the new foreign policy chief 's role is to create a single EU stance on the wide range of issues about which European governments still have wildly different national positions.

Europe has an international image problem that in part stems from the complex institutional structure that non-EU countries find baffling. It is over-represented at the G20 world summits, for instance, but the presence of four European national leaders, plus EU representatives such as Barroso, weakens rather than strengthens its political hand. The same is true of other global bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The result is that the EU 's achievements in recent years ' its expansion to create a single economic market of 500 million people and its creation of the euro as a currency that is challenging the US dollar ' are not accompanied by significantly greater global standing. World leaders from Barack Obama to Hu Jintao address themselves to Berlin, Paris, and London, rather than to Brussels. The result is that EU policy proposals that could do much to advance the economic and geopolitical interests of Europeans are not as influential as they could be.

The text of the Lisbon treaty is studiously vague in its job description of the president 's role ' an approach that prevented trouble for the treaty 's framers, but merely postponed the disagreements. The argument now taking place between Europe 's national governments is about the authority the EU president should have. The risk is that Europe 's squabbling politicians will opt for a figurehead and miss this golden opportunity to create a global leader.

Giles Merritt is Secretary-General of the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, and Editor of the policy journal Europe 's World.


Israel accuses report's UN backers of anti-Semitism
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ISRAEL has responded to the UN endorsement of the Goldstone report with pressure on countries which supported the report and claims of anti-Semitism. Anger grew among Israeli politicians and media outlets yesterday led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who targeted two of the countries which voted to endorse the report, China and Russia. Mr Lieberman boycotted a function he was due to attend as a guest of the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv, while his deputy Danny Ayalon cast doubt on a Russian initiative to host a Middle East conference.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said it "to a certain degree anti-Semitic to say that what is permitted for the US in Afghanistan, for Russia in Chechnya and also for Turkey in northern Iraq is forbidden for Israel in defending itself from Gaza". "We will not co-operate with this," Mr Steinitz said. "Jews will not again be led like lambs to slaughter."

The sentiment was reflected in much of the Israel media with one paper, Israel Hayom, running an article headlined A Typhoon of anti-Semitism. The article, by Dan Margalit, attacked the author of the UN report, South African judge Richard Goldstone, as an "assimilated and gentile-grovelling Jew", "a retrospective collaborator with the Arab bloc" and "a deceived collaborator". Nonetheless, Margalit went on to urge Israel "as a matter of urgency" to reach an agreement with the US regarding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and with Britain and France over establishing an independent internal investigation into Gaza.

But amid the attacks on Goldstone (one paper recently referred to him as "the criminal") came a growing counter-opinion that perhaps Israel may have made mistakes in its approach to the Goldstone report, which looked into allegations of war crimes against Israel and Hamas after the January war. Israel decided from the outset not to co-operate with the inquiry, claiming it was always going to be anti-Israel, but some commentators are now suggesting Israel should have opened itself to questions.

Yesterday Kadima MP Nachman Shai said Israel had to make "a brave decision" to establish its own judicial investigation. So far Israel has only agreed to military investigations, and doubts have been expressed about the credibility of the military investigating itself. "The time has come to put an end to the government's misgivings concerning the Goldstone report and to conduct a judicial inquiry into Operation Cast Lead (Gaza war)," Mr Shai said. "As time goes on, it is becoming clearer that this is the only way to save Israel from the dead end into which the government has forced us and that disrupts Israel's foreign affairs."

Israel is also trying to save its souring relationship with Turkey, which has been one of its few regional allies. Last week Turkey refused to proceed with a joint military exercise. Prime Minister Recep Ergodan said yesterday Turkey had "never been on the side of the tyrants".

Same Day
UN rights vote ends hope of Mid-East peace
Barry Rubin, © The New Republic

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs

NOW the UN Human Rights Council has endorsed the Goldstone report, there are important implications to the decision that could make it a global turning point. It is the first make-or-break test for Barack Obama's foreign policy. There is no easy way out. The US President must either block this disastrous resolution through effective diplomacy at the UN, accept a bad resolution to avoid a confrontation or veto the resolution and accept the price in world unpopularity.

Oh, it also marks the end of the Middle East peace process era that began in 1993, showing both sides why they can't accept a compromise deal.

This says a great deal about the nature of international affairs nowadays. What does it say about the UN that it condemns Israel but does not act against Hamas, which is guilty of aggression, terrorism, seizure of power by force, calls for genocide, anti-Semitism, indoctrination of children to become suicide bombers, oppression of women, systematic use of civilians as human shields and a range of war crimes, as the report makes clear.

Trying to present the Goldstone report in a more favourable light, the Western media overstated its even-handedness, playing up its few mentions of Hamas to pretend that both sides in the conflict were condemned. The UNHRC drops this pretence and speaks only of Israel, totally removing the factors that forced a reluctant Israel to launch its attack on the Gaza Strip.

This is not merely another of the many ritual condemnations of Israel but a demonisation. Israel is accused of massive war crimes on a remarkably flimsy basis. Of course it is all political, but this is a step toward delegitimisation. The Arab-speaking, Muslim-majority nations and the left-wing governments that supported the resolution see this as a step not towards a compromise peace but towards an elimination of Israel altogether.

I am not saying this is going to happen, or that the resolution will have any negative impact on Israel. But what is most important is that having tasted blood, these forces will not be interested in getting anything less. Why should they — including the Palestinian Authority — settle for a stable two-state solution when they believe they can get far more without giving up anything '

It is an accident but not a coincidence that the Palestinian Authority signed a unity agreement with Hamas in the same week the UN resolution was passed. The two groups will not actually co-operate but the document they reluctantly signed for reasons of organisational rivalry symbolises the fact that their strategies, although not their tactics, now coincide to a large degree.

This is the first reason why the passage of the resolution is an important development. It marks not only the end of the peace process but also the end of the peace process era. The Arab-speaking Muslim-majority nations, and some countries governed by left-wing administrations (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua in Latin America, for example, and others), seek a one-state solution in which Israel no longer exists. It marks a return — in thinking but not in military practice — to the pre-1993 period, when there was nothing to talk about.

The most important country that voted to pass the Goldstone resolution in the UNHRC, Russia, does not think that way, and nor does China. The European countries also do not support such a development. Loud sectors in intellectual life and the media do, but these do not set policy. The point is these countries will not act to stop the resolution. The many abstentions on the vote are symbolic of the fact that most Western democracies and countries that do not directly endorse this campaign are at best bystanders, and at worst appeasers.

The second reason why this development is so important is what it tells us about US policy. Remember that the Obama administration joined the UNHRC based on the explicit argument that it could moderate the radical-dominated group. This strategy has failed. And so, on a larger-scale, has the concept that Obama's "popularity offensive" — in which he distanced himself from Israel, lavished devotion on the Palestinian cause, extolled the glories of Islam and apologised for past US misdeeds — would have some beneficial effect. The policy has done worse than fail — it has, predictably, backfired. The question is whether this will be recognised, much less reversed, by the Obama administration.

But there's more. The US now faces more tests.

Test 1: can it stop the progress of this resolution and report into their implementation through judicial decisions and sanctions against Israel, or not ' Certainly, the US will work to water down the ensuing resolutions. To do so, it will need to use leverage and even threats to succeed. A "nice guy" strategy could fail miserably here.

Test 2: the next possible failure would be if the US government accepted a resolution that was somewhat watered down but still too extreme. In other words, Washington would buy off immediate trouble in exchange for longer-term woes.

Test 3: if the resolution is still too far-out, the Obama administration may have to veto it. The European countries know they can afford to be cowardly and leave it to the US to stop the madness. If Washington does veto the resolution, it will have to brave international condemnation and unpopularity. Does Obama have the guts for this '

Finally, there is the lesson for Israel. Let's cut away all the obvious points about relying on itself, mistrusting the world and so on. There is one item of overriding importance. Israel knows that if it yields territory and is attacked from that territory, no matter how great the provocation, it cannot depend on international support but instead knows it will face international condemnation.

What does this say about a two-state solution ' Suppose Israel pulls out of the West Bank and a Palestinian state is created, either on the West Bank or that plus the Gaza Strip, and that state then either attacks Israel or allows and encourages terrorists to do so across the border. Israel has no response to defend itself that isn't highly costly. Bottom line: no Israeli government will make such a deal, and the Israeli people will not support such a deal.

Along with a myriad other reasons, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas can now argue persuasively that they enjoy broad international support for wiping out Israel. They have no incentive — since both are indifferent to the welfare of their people — to make any compromise for peace.

Good-bye, hopes for peace. I now declare the window of opportunity that seemed to open in the late 1980s, which met and failed the test of the Oslo process, and yet which continues to inspire false hope for many people, to be fully and officially closed.


Israel coalition teeters as faction chief quits
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ISRAEL'S fragile coalition government was made even more precarious yesterday when the Labour party's key faction chief in parliament resigned, saying that if peace talks were not resumed within two weeks, Labour should withdraw from the Netanyahu government. Daniel Ben-Simon resigned in protest, claiming that "we haven't done anything" that the coalition partners had told the public they would do in relation to dismantling illegal outposts in the Palestinian West Bank.

Writing yesterday in Haaretz newspaper about why he resigned as Labor's senior political official in the parliament, Mr Ben-Simon said he had told Labor's leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak: "Look, Ehud, there is no peace process, there are no negotiations, there's no settlement freeze or outpost evacuation. We haven't done anything we promised the public. What will we tell the Israeli public ' To my astonishment, he said we have no partner, that there's no one to talk to. I remembered that nearly a decade before, when we heard similar lines from Barak, they sank the country into despair and brought a series of misfortunes in their wake."

Meanwhile, South African judge Richard Goldstone has hit back at Israel's claims that his Gaza report had endangered the peace process. Mr Goldstone yesterday said there was no peace process because Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, did not want one. Speaking by telephone conference to American rabbis, Mr Goldstone said: "If the Israeli government set up an open investigation, that would really be the end of the matter, as far as Israel is concerned."

Mr Barak and armed forces chief Gabi Ashkenazi are leading the resistance to any independent inquiry, arguing that the army's own inquiries are sufficient and that an independent inquiry would play into the hands of Israel's enemies.

Mr Goldstone, who said as a South African Jew he had supported Israel from an early age, told the rabbis, who are fasting to protest against Israel's two-year blockade of the Gaza strip, he had been surprised by how venomous and personal the attacks against him had been. Two weeks ago, he was described in one newspaper in Israel as "the criminal" and this week was described in Israel Hayom as "this assimilated and gentile-grovelling Jew" and "retrospective collaborator with the Arab bloc". He said if Israel agreed to conduct an independent inquiry, it would put huge pressure on Hamas to do the same and he did not know whether Hamas was capable of carrying out such an inquiry.


Turkey embraces its Islamic friends
The Australian
Daniel Pipes
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University

"THERE is no doubt he is our friend," Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says of Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as he accuses Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of threatening to use nuclear weapons against Gaza. These outrageous assertions point to the profound change of orientation by Turkey's government, for six decades the West's closest Muslim ally, since Mr Erdogan's AK party came to power in 2002.

The foreign ministers of Turkey and Syria met in Aleppo this month, and three recent events reveal the extent of the change. The first came on October 11 with the news that the Turkish military - a long-time bastion of secularism and advocate of co-operation with Israel - abruptly asked Israeli forces not to participate in the annual "Anatolian Eagle" air force exercise.

Mr Erdogan cited "diplomatic sensitivities" for the cancellation and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of "sensitivity on Gaza, East Jerusalem and al-Aqsa mosque". The Turks specifically rejected Israeli planes that may have attacked Hamas (an Islamist terrorist organisation) during last winter's Gaza Strip operation. While Damascus applauded the disinvitation, it prompted the US and Italian governments to withdraw their forces from Anatolian Eagle, which in turn meant cancelling the international exercise.

As for the Israelis, this "sudden and unexpected" shift shook to the core their military alignment with Turkey, in place since 1996. Jerusalem immediately responded by reviewing Israel's practice of supplying Turkey with advanced weapons, such as the recent $US140 million ($152.4m) sale to the Turkish Air Force of targeting pods. The idea also arose to stop helping the Turks defeat the Armenian genocide resolutions that regularly appear before the US congress. Barry Rubin of the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya not only argues that "the Israel-Turkey alliance is over" but concludes that Turkey's armed forces no longer guard the secular republic and can no longer intervene when the government becomes too Islamist.

The second event took place on October 13, when Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, announced that Turkish and Syrian forces had just "carried out manoeuvres near Ankara". Thirdly, 10 Turkish ministers, led by Mr Davutoglu, joined their Syrian counterparts on October 13 for talks under the auspices of the just-established "Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Co-operation Council". The ministers announced having signed almost 40 agreements to be implemented within 10 days; that "a more comprehensive, a bigger" joint land military exercise would be held than the first one in April; and that the two countries' leaders would sign a strategic agreement in November.

In brief, Mr Davutoglu envisions reduced conflict with neighbours and Turkey emerging as a regional power, a sort of modernised Ottoman Empire. Implicit in this strategy is a distancing of Turkey from the West in general and Israel in particular. Although not presented in Islamist terms, "strategic depth" closely fits the AK party's Islamist world view.

As Barry Rubin notes, "the Turkish government is closer politically to Iran and Syria than to the US and Israel". Caroline Glick, a Jerusalem Post columnist, goes further: Ankara already "left the Western alliance and became a full member of the Iranian axis". But official circles in the West seem nearly oblivious to this momentous change in Turkey's allegiance or its implications. The cost of their error will soon become evident.


Israel wins US support on freeze
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, November 2, 2009

ATTEMPTING to jolt the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks into life, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last night accepted Israel's position that a total freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank should not be a precondition for a resumption of talks, as the Palestinian side is insisting. Standing alongside Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference during a brief stopover in Israel, she agreed with the Israeli Prime Minister's contention that in 16 years of talks with the Palestinians a settlement freeze had never been raised as a precondition. She also praised as "unprecedented" Mr Netanyahu's pledge not to build new settlements and to undertake a limited period of "restraint" in construction within existing settlements in order to permit negotiations to get off the ground. She urged the two sides to begin talking.

Palestinian officials said Washington had been backtracking regarding settlements since President Barack Obama declared shortly after taking office that a total settlement freeze should precede the resumption of talks. Mr Netanyahu rejected that approach. He said Israel would be willing to halt settlement activity for nine months but excluded from that freeze the construction of 3000 units said to be already in the pipeline. Mr Obama subsequently softened his call for a total freeze, calling instead for "restraint".

Mrs Clinton's statements in Jerusalem were the clearest indication yet that Washington was backing off from its insistence on a freeze before talks resumed. Mr Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to enter into peace talks immediately and without preconditions. He said the Palestinian demand was "a pretext — an obstacle that prevents the re-establishment of negotiations". Earlier in the day, Mrs Clinton had met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Abu Dhabi. Palestinian officials termed the meeting "hard", with Mrs Clinton failing to persuade Mr Abbas from dropping his precondition.

Palestinian officials expressed deep disappointment at Washington's inability to persuade Israel to freeze construction. A spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudainah, said there could be no change in the Palestinian position. "It is not possible to accept justification for settlement activity on lands occupied (by Israel) in 1967, including Jerusalem." In what some saw as a slight softening in Mr Abbas's position, he said later he was not insisting on an Israeli pledge for a permanent halt in settlement activity but one for "a limited time" in order for talks to get under way.

Mrs Clinton noted that all American presidents had challenged the legitimacy of Israeli settlements built in the West Bank on captured Palestinian land after the 1967 Six Day War. Final resolution of the issue, however, must be left to negotiations, she said. She continued on from Jerusalem to Morocco to attend a conference of Muslim states.

The Israeli news agency, YNet, quoted an unnamed Palestinian official as saying pressure from Washington and "Arab elements", a clear reference to Egypt, which has been strongly pushing for peace talks, will in the end persuade Mr Abbas to change his position. "The renewal of negotiations will probably be announced at the end of the current round," he said. The situation presented Mr Abbas with an uncomfortable dilemma, said the official. "If renewed negotiations don't bring results, this will harm Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. If negotiations are not renewed this, too, will harm us, but less."

Mr Abbas, who has called for Palestinian elections next year, has recently adopted a hard line towards Israel in an apparent attempt to shore up his image as a strong leader. In addition to the settlement issue, the normally moderate Mr Abbas has assailed Israel for the way it suppressed Arab disturbances on Jerusalem's Temple Mount recently. At American urging, Israel has made some moves on the West Bank as concessions to Mr Abbas in order to shore up his position. These include the removal of hundreds of earthen barriers and roadblocks that impeded movement and helping the Palestinian Authority to upgrade its economy.


Middle East talks 'doomed to fail'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

THE Obama administration's quest to restart Middle East peace talks looks increasingly doomed after the influential Arab League yesterday said there was a sense of failure around the US efforts. Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa said "failure is in the atmosphere" following Israel's refusal to bow to calls from Washington to halt growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His comment was made in Morocco during a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sought before an Arab audience to soften her weekend praise of Israel that the Netanyahu government had made an "unprecedented" effort by agreeing to a temporary halt to new settlements.

While Israel is prepared to resume peace talks, Palestinian leaders insist they will not unless there is a complete freeze of settlements. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had restated this to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell. "We do not put conditions for resuming negotiations, but we want the talks resumed on the basis of the provisions of the road map, which stipulates the cessation of all forms of settlement activity in the Palestinian territories," Mr Erekat said. Mrs Clinton's "unprecedented" comment in praise of Israel led to a backlash in the Arab world, which she tried to address yesterday.

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama and Mrs Clinton repeatedly stated that the US wanted Israel to halt all settlement activity. Israel refused to do this, saying such a policy would prevent "natural growth" of the settlements in which about 300,000 Jewish people live. The US has now clearly accepted that Israel will not agree to their request and is trying to salvage the peace process by crafting a new deal under which Israel will agree to a moratorium — most likely for nine months — to new settlement activity apart from 3000 new housing units already approved. Without the support of the bulk of the 22 Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, any peace agreement with Israel, which would give Israel landing rights and normalised relations with most of these countries, would be unlikely to hold.

Mrs Clinton said yesterday: "The Obama administration's position on settlements is clear, unequivocal and it has not changed. "As the President has said on many occasions, the US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." While the Israeli offer of a temporary halt to new settlements "falls far short of what we would characterise as our position or what our preference would be", she said she would support any moves towards a two-state solution. "I will offer positive reinforcement to either of the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective reaching a two-state solution," she said.

Clearly seeking to appear to all sides to be balanced, Mrs Clinton yesterday used the same word — unprecedented — to praise the Palestinian Authority for improved security in the West Bank. But her balancing act does not appear to be working: Mr Abbas is under enormous pressure from his own ranks to refuse negotiations with Israel without a freeze on settlements. Since Mr Obama first called for a halt to building activity in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced Israel will proceed with 3000 new houses that had already been approved. Both major Palestinian factions — Mr Abbas's Fatah faction and the militant Hamas faction that runs the Gaza Strip — are strongly opposed to any talks without a freeze on settlements.


Israel seizes Iranian arms shipment
The Australian
Correspondents in Jerusalem, AFP
Thursday, November 5, 2009

ISRAELI commandos and warships yesterday intercepted a ship carrying weapons from Iran to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia in a raid dozens of miles off its coast. The pre-dawn seizure near Cyprus was a rare interception of a suspected arms shipment by Israel, which has long accused Iran of arming its enemies. "During the night a special marine force intercepted a ship that was supposed to be carrying cargo around 100 miles from our shore," a military spokeswoman said last night. Photographs of the ship being searched in Israel's Ashdod port identified the vessel as the Francop, sailing under an Antigua flag. "We suspected it was carrying weapons and when we inspected it that turned out to be true," the spokeswoman said. President Shimon Peres said it appeared to be ferrying weapons from Iran to Lebanon. "The IDF successfully seized a boat that apparently came from Iran and was heading to Syria and Hezbollah," Mr Peres said. "All those involved deny involvement, but the world is witness today to the huge gap between what Iran and Syria say and their actions."

Local media reported that the vessel was carrying a shipment of several tonnes of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, and Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told army radio that Katyusha rockets were among the cache. Defence Minister Ehud Barak hailed the operation, calling it a "new success in our struggle against weapons smuggling aimed at reinforcing terrorist organisations that are threatening the security of Israel". Mr Vilnai told military radio that the crew apparently did not know about the weapons, which were sealed in cargo containers. Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that the ship set out from Iran and later docked in Yemen and Sudan before passing through the Suez Canal en route to either Syria or Lebanon.

Israel has long accused arch-foes Syria and Iran of supplying weapons to Hezbollah and to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement since June 2007. On Tuesday a senior Israeli general warned that Hamas had successfully test-fired out to sea a rocket that was capable of reaching Tel Aviv from Gaza. The rocket, believed to be Iranian-made, has a range of about 60km, putting Israel's major population centres in range, said Major General Amos Yadlin, head of military intelligence.

Hamas called the claim a "fabrication" designed to mobilise world opinion against the Islamist group before the UN General Assembly, which was today due to discuss a controversial report on the Gaza war. The UN report by respected South African jurist and former international war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone accused both Israel and Palestinian militants of committing war crimes during the December-January Gaza war. About 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the three-week war launched by Israel on December 27 and aimed at halting rocket attacks, which have been mostly confined to communities a few kilometres from the Gaza border.

Israel has in the past seized shipments of weapons allegedly bound for Gaza, including in May 2003, when it intercepted a ship off its northern coast loaded with bomb-making material it said was from Hezbollah. On January 3, 2002, Israel intercepted a 50-tonne shipment of weapons destined for the Palestinians aboard the Karine A in the Red Sea. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat admitted responsibility for the smuggling attempt, and the affair seriously eroded his standing with Washington. In May 2001, the navy intercepted the Santorini, which was packed with 40 tonnes of arms sent to Gaza by a Palestinian faction based in Syria.


Syria, Iran deny weapons claim
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Friday, November 6, 2009

TENSIONS between Israel and Iran escalated last night as Israel claimed a shipment of weapons it intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea was Tehran sending weapons to "hornets' nests of terrorists" intended to kill Israeli citizens. Iran and Syria denied Israel's claim that a ship intercepted off Cyprus with "hundreds of tonnes" of weapons had originated in Iran and was destined to be delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria.

Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, and Iran's Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, jointly denied Israel's claim. Mr Muallem would not acknowledge that the shipment on board the Francop was weapons but rather were Syrian-made "items" destined for Iran. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor last night challenged Syria's claim. "It is absurd that Syria should supply Iran with weapons and ammunition," he said. "It's always going the other way. Since the ship was stopped travelling from an Egyptian port to Syria, this contradicts the Syrian claim."

Hezbollah's reaction was also predictable: "Hezbollah staunchly denies any link to the weapons that the Zionist enemy has seized from the Francop ship. At the same time Hezbollah denounces Israel's piracy in international waters."

Israel linked the shipment to the Goldstone report into the Gaza war, now being debated at the UN, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying the ship's interception highlighted the folly of the Goldstone debate. "The navy's seizure of the ship illustrates the great absurdity," he said. "On the one hand, Iran is sending weapons to hornets' nests of terrorists in order to kill our civilians. On the other hand, the Goldstone report points the finger at Israel." Mr Netanyahu said those who needed further proof Iran was supplying weapons to terror organisations were given it in "a clear and unequivocal manner".

Israeli intelligence is believed to have tracked the ship as it sailed through the Mediterranean. Israeli naval commandos boarded the Francop, which was flying an Antiguan flag, in the early hours of Tuesday and met no resistance. The interception adds to a growing nervousness in Israel that preparations for war are being made by two of its neighbours - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. On Tuesday, Israel's head of military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, told a Knesset committee Hamas last week had test-fired a missile with a 60km range into the Mediterranean.

The increasing level of alert comes as attempts by the Obama administration to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks look doomed. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat yesterday said Palestinians were considering giving up any ambition for a two-state solution that would see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and were coming to terms with "a one-state solution". A "one-state solution" implies that demographically Palestinians would over time become the majority inside Israel, forcing major changes to the nature of the Jewish state by increasing the Israeli Arab population from its current 20 per cent to a majority.

Some Israeli politicians such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni have argued in favour of a two-state solution by saying a one-state solution, or binational state, would alter Israel's character. Mr Erekat said: "Successive Israeli governments have destroyed any chance of reaching a two-state solution. The Palestinian Authority must start searching for other options. A Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital would be meaningless. The Palestinian people haven't excluded other options, including the option of a one-state solution."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has faced a backlash from Arab and Palestinian leaders since her comments last weekend praising Israel for the "unprecedented" effort it has made on the issue of Jewish settlements. Israel has agreed to a temporary freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank apart from 3000 new housing units which have been approved but not yet completed. But Israel rejected US President Barack Obama's calls that all settlement activity should be halted. Arab and Palestinian leaders are increasingly saying that attempts by the Obama administration to resume peace talks have failed.


Departure of Abbas hits hopes for peace
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Saturday, November 7, 2009

BARACK Obama's push to restart talks in the Middle East was in tatters last night as the man the US had backed to lead a new Palestinian state announced he was walking away from politics. Mahmoud Abbas shocked leaders across the Middle East when he announced he would not contest elections in January.

Mr Abbas made clear his anger at Israel's refusal to agree to US calls for a freeze to Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and last weekend's praise by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Israel's "unprecedented" efforts on the settlement issue. "The problem is Israel and its position," Mr Abbas said. Referring to the US, he said: "We were surprised by their favouring the Israeli position." He also attacked his Palestinian rivals, Hamas, saying the rulers of the Gaza Strip had engaged in "destructive practices". But while he said "many dangers" existed in the two-state solution, he held out hope that this was achievable. He restated the removal of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a necessary condition for peace.

The resignation leaves in disarray Mr Obama's repeatedly stated ambition to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Abbas was the first world leader he telephoned on taking office this year and he was seen as the only real option as a negotiator. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying last week: "Of the existing alternatives, if we want an agreement with the Palestinians then Abbas is the best partner."

Mr Abbas, 74, succeeded Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader five years ago. During his term he has been criticised as a puppet of the US and Israel, as not being tough enough on corruption inside Fatah, on not confronting Hamas and of not being able to unite Fatah. But his experience, support from the Bush and Obama administrations and his connections on the international stage had singled him out as the best available candidate to run the Palestinian Authority. No candidate is seen as an obvious successor. Prime Minister Salam Fayyed, while respected for his international economic credentials, is regarded with hostility by Hamas and has alienated large sections of his own Fatah party for his attempted crackdown on corruption.

Mrs Clinton's praise of Israel's settlements stance caused a backlash in the Arab and Muslim worlds, leading to the Arab League saying attempts to restart the peace talks now had an atmosphere of failure around them. She spent much of the last week trying to convince Arab leaders that the US had not changed its opposition to Jewish settlements. Regional leaders telephoned Mr Abbas to try to convince him to remain as leader. Israeli President Shimon Peres, who enjoyed a close relationship with Mr Abbas, told him: "If you leave, the Palestinians would lose their chance for an independent state", according to Haaretz newspaper.

Same day

Israel rejects UN vote on Gaza

JERUSALEM: Israel last night rejected a UN resolution calling on it and the Palestinians to probe suspected war crimes committed during the Gaza war. "Israel rejects the resolution of the UN General Assembly, which is completely detached from realities on the ground that Israel must face," the foreign ministry said in a statement. Israel said during the 22-day war it "demonstrated higher military and moral standards than each and every one of this resolution's instigators".

On Thursday, the 192-member assembly approved an Arab-sponsored resolution that endorsed a UN report accusing both Israel and Palestinians of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the war, which killed about 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The vote was 114 in favour and 18 against, with 44 abstentions. As well as Israel, the US, along with Australia and a few European countries voted against. A majority of EU countries, including Britain, France, Spain and Sweden abstained.


Don't give up, Peres urges Abbas
The Australian
Monday, November 9, 2009

TEL AVIV: Israeli President Shimon Peres has used a speech honouring slain premier Yitzhak Rabin to urge Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to stay in power despite frustrations over the peace process. "We both signed the Oslo accords and I address myself to you (Abbas) as a colleague would: 'Don't give up'," Mr Peres said at a mass rally at the weekend in a Tel Aviv square where Rabin was gunned down in 1995. He was referring to the deal that gave Palestinians autonomy, which Mr Peres and Mr Abbas signed at a 1993 White House ceremony overseen by then US president Bill Clinton, Rabin and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At the time, Mr Peres was Israel's foreign minister and Mr Abbas represented the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Rabin is revered as a national hero, both for his legendary career as army chief and for peace efforts in the 1990s that earned him a Nobel peace prize shared with Mr Peres and Arafat in 1994, a year after the Oslo accords.

Mr Abbas announced on Friday he would not seek re-election in January, voicing annoyance at Washington's failure to press Israel to halt settlement constructions. His decision has been seen as a major blow to Washington's efforts to re-launch Middle East peace talks frozen since Israel's devastating offensive on the Gaza Strip at the turn of the year.

"I know the sufferings that your people have endured for the past 50 years . . . I know my people and the Israeli government and I tell you that Israel wants real peace," Mr Peres said. "Maybe next year will bring independence for the Palestinian people . . . Next year could be decisive, it depends on you and on us."

About 20,000 people massed in the square where Rabin was killed by a Jewish extremist on November 4, 1995 after attending a peace rally. In a recorded video message beamed on a giant screen, US President Barack Obama reaffirmed his administration's support for "two states living side by side in peace and security. America's bonds with our Israeli allies are unbreakable," Mr Obama said, adding however that "Israel will not find security as long as Palestinians are in despair. We will never lose sight of our shared purpose for a just and lasting peace in Israel, in Palestine and in the Arab world."


Obama, Netanyahu hold strained talks
The Australian
Correspondents in Washington, AFP
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

US President Barack Obama hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for closed-door talks yesterday, amid friction between the two allies as US efforts to revive Middle East peace talks flounder. Mr Netanyahu left the White House after spending an hour and 40 minutes inside, without making the customary public appearance with the US President. A brief White House statement said the two leaders discussed a number of bilateral issues, including Iran and "how to move forward on Middle East peace". Ahead of the meeting, Mr Netanyahu said he was ready to immediately engage in peace negotiations, but prospects of renewed talks appear dimmer than ever. The summit was announced late on Sunday only after Mr Netanyahu had arrived in Washington, forcing officials on both sides to deny the last-minute invitation reflected US frustration with the hawkish premier.

Israeli prime ministers hardly ever go to Washington without meeting the US president, usually holding a high-profile press conference. Israel's ties with the Obama administration had been strained over Mr Netanyahu's refusal to heed the US demand for a full settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank ahead of a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

The White House appeared anxious not to present yesterday's end-of-day meeting as a backing of Mr Netanyahu's stance. Mr Netanyahu yesterday urged moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, who last week announced he would not run for re-election in January, to renew the peace negotiations. Mr Abbas said he was "very close" to reaching a peace agreement with Israel before Mr Netanyahu's government assumed power at the end of March.


Dr Bibi should stop trying to scare people
The Australian
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Originally published in Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, on Sunday November 8th.
Written by Gideon Levy, a radical left-wing journalist

THE entire world is against us. Yes, it's true.

Yet there is no respectable entity in the world that casts doubt on Israel's right to exist, in contrast with the line that is parroted in Israel. Iran strives to attain nuclear capability. Yes, that is true. But Iran is not about to drop a bomb on Israel, in contrast to the scaremongering directed at us. There was a Holocaust. Yes, that is true. Yet there is no second holocaust waiting to suddenly befall us. Hezbollah and Hamas are trying to arm themselves. Yes, this is true. But they have no chance against Israel. The Arabs of Israel are multiplying. Yes, this is true. But there is no danger there.

Crime is on the rise, swine flu is claiming more victims, road accidents are still deadly, poverty is increasing and corruption is extending its tentacles. This is all true, but life in Israel is wonderful, better, healthier, flourishing and at times it's even safer here than in most countries in the world.

Level-headed politicians seek to calm the public. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing everything in order to frighten it. This can be explained in one of two ways: Either this is a cynical, calculated ploy by a man who believes scaremongering is a good way to stay in power, much like the strategy used by insurance companies, which would only be a minor worry; or this is simply the product of the Zeitgeist - which would then be cause for concern about the judgment of an individual motivated by fear. Such a person is destined to take desperate measures.

If in Jerusalem sits a leader whose hallucinations bring him to believe that the state is facing an existential threat, this is a recipe for disaster. There is no existential threat - political or military - facing Israel, and a prime minister who conjures such a threat in his imagination is liable to pose a great danger. Because these are our leaders: either they stupefy us with their delusions ("time is on our side") or they terrorise us.

Dr Bibi and Mr Netanyahu - the Prime Minister is a split personality. There is Netanyahu the economist, the one who is calming, promising, who instils hope, proposes reforms and plans of action, ranging from the closure of balconies, to a train line to Eilat, to vaccines for the swine flu. The Netanyahu handling politics and security is the opposite: scaremongering, despairing and threatening, as long as hope will not be ignited here, God forbid.

Take, for example, the foreign policy arena. Rather than talk to us about anti-Semitism, hatred of Israel and the imaginary threat to its existence, he could have taken confidence-building steps that would alter the picture. He could have established a committee of inquiry to probe Operation Cast Lead, offered bold initiatives to promote human rights in the territories while pledging to completely freeze settlement construction without any bargaining involved. It is all in our hands. Instead, the Prime Minister brandishes the blueprints for Auschwitz. And, really, what is the harm in frightening us a bit with the spectre of another holocaust '

In tandem with his ideological twin, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Prime Minister is doing everything he can to further abase Israel's standing. There's the vulgar reprimand of Norway over Knut Hamsun, the literary giant and Nazi sympathiser whose 150th birthday was officially marked in the Scandinavian country; the ridiculous threats against Sweden because of the organ-harvest article which appeared in Aftonbladet; and the silly tongue-lashing directed at Turkey because of some marginal television series.

Rather than reduce the flames, pyromaniac Israel is doing all it can to fan them. We are also provoking President Barack Obama, trying American patience to the extreme, while abusing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the point of collapse. Netanyahu the economist would have acted differently. He would have sought to calm tensions and he would have proposed reforms.

We have seen the same type of behaviour on the domestic front. Netanyahu has said in the past that the "demographic threat" posed by Israeli Arabs is the worst threat facing us. Let's put aside the fact that the Prime Minister views citizens of his country as a threat. What is he doing to neutralise this imaginary threat ' He's intensifying the Arabs' sense of humiliation while pushing them even further towards the extremist elements. A number of nationalist laws have been proposed in the Knesset - from the citizenship law to the Nakba law to the loyalty law - as if the intent is to realise the prophecies of doom. Netanyahu the economist would certainly have conducted himself differently. He would have suggested reforms.

History is rife with examples of leaders who came to power and entrenched their rule by sowing terror and intensifying the threats. Netanyahu the historian is certainly aware of these examples. Now Netanyahu the statesman needs to take a lesson from Netanyahu the economist: Rectify rather than ruin, soothe instead of scaremonger and, most of all, instil hope.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy greets Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Elysee Palace in
Paris yesterday
Israel ready for peace talks with Syria
The Australian
Friday, November 13, 2009

Netanyahu says he won't impose any conditions

PARIS: Israel is ready to restart peace talks with Syria immediately and without conditions, a senior Israeli official said yesterday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Paris. Following talks in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a senior Israeli travelling with the Prime Minister said: "Mr Sarkozy raised the issue of the Syrian track. The Prime Minister said he is willing to meet with the Syrian President at any time and anywhere to move on the peace negotiations on the basis of no pre-conditions."

Telephone talks arranged by Turkish mediators between the arch foes were broken off last year during Israel's offensive in Gaza, closing a promising diplomatic channel towards a broader Middle East settlement.

A short statement from Mr Sarkozy's office made no specific mention of Syria, whose President, Bashar al-Assad, is due in Paris today, but said the French and Israeli leaders had discussed ways to restart the peace process. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Sarkozy did not speak to reporters after their two-hour meeting in the Elysee Palace, and the Israeli leader set off for the airport immediately afterwards. The statement from Mr Sarkozy's office said the talks had included only the leaders and one senior adviser each.

Earlier, in Damascus, Mr Assad told a meeting of Arab political parties Syria would not "put forward conditions on making peace" but warned that it had "rights that we will not renounce", SANA news agency reported. The Paris meeting produced no sign of progress on peace between Israel and the Palestinians. On the eve of the visit, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said a "real political difference" separated Mr Sarkozy and Mr Netanyahu on Israel's continued building of settlements on Palestinian land. "We think that a freeze on settlements — that's to say, no more colonisation while talks are ongoing — would be absolutely indispensable," Mr Kouchner said. "We need talks and the peace process to restart."


President Mahmoud Abbas to benefit from poll axing
Weekend Australian
Wall Street Journal
Saturday, November 14, 2009

JERUSALEM: Palestinian election officials say they cannot hold planned elections in January, which could give President Mahmoud Abbas a way to stay in office despite his threat to stand down — but could further roil Palestinian and Israeli politics. Mr Abbas's threat, and a wider breakdown of US-led peace efforts, are taking a toll in the Palestinian territories and on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Israel. The Israeli premier is coming under fire for not making headway towards peace.

Speaking at a televised news conference in Ramallah, Palestinian election officials said yesterday that Hamas's opposition to polling was the main obstacle. Hamas has rejected new elections until reaching a long-stalled reconciliation accord with Mr Abbas's Fatah. "We planned to go to Gaza to figure out how we can conduct elections there," said Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian Elections Commission. "We received an answer from Hamas that we are not welcome in Gaza. It is clear now that we cannot hold an election in Gaza."

If Mr Abbas accepts the commission's recommendation to cancel elections, it could allow the Palestinian leader to stay in office. He has threatened not to stand for re-election, blaming frustrations over the stalled peace process.

Calling off elections could present a mixed blessing for US-led peace efforts, analysts say. A Palestinian government that remains in power without scheduled elections could appear to have less legitimacy to make concessions in peace negotiations with Israel. Still, there is no obvious candidate to replace Mr Abbas at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, and were he to stand down, it could throw the US's peace efforts into further disarray.


Palestinians to ask for UN approval of separate state
The Australian
John Lyons Middle East correspondent
With agencies
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TENSIONS between Israel and the Palestinians have heightened after a suggestion by Palestinian leaders that they would seek international support to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders yesterday announced that they would proceed with a proposal to approach the UN seeking recognition of a Palestinian state.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told news agency AFP: "We have reached a decision . . . to go to the UN Security Council to ask for recognition of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and with June 1967 borders. We're going to seek support from EU countries and Russia and other countries."

The proposal was immediately met with concern by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said if the Palestinians acted unilaterally, then Israel could likewise act this way. "Any unilateral path will only unravel the framework of agreements between us and will only bring unilateral steps from Israel's side," he said, but he did not detail what those steps might be. "I want to begin negotiations immediately," Mr Netanyahu said. "These negotiations should be a good faith effort to reach a final peace agreement. My government is prepared to make generous concessions in exchange for a genuine peace that protects Israel's security."

Palestinian leaders, at least publicly, are abandoning the pursuit of a two-state agreement with Israel and are increasingly talking about a one-state solution or the unilateral declaration of a state within the borders which were in place before the 1967 war. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has raised the possibility of such a unilateral declaration within two years and over the weekend both Mr Erekat and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas repeated calls for a unilateral declaration. The change in rhetoric reflects a growing view on the Palestinian side that attempts by the Obama administration to restart peace talks have failed following Israel's refusal to agree to Barack Obama's request to freeze building activity in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Former US president Bill Clinton, in Jerusalem for a conference, yesterday re-entered the Middle East debate when he called on both sides of the conflict to resume negotiations, saying "you cannot get a divorce and move to another planet". He urged Israelis not to see the new US administration as against it and not to over-analyse the relationship between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu. "You should not think that President Obama is your enemy," he said. "No American president can serve in good conscience and not be committed to the security of Israel."

He sounded a warning to Israelis that for two reasons — demographics and technology — it was in their interests to reach an agreement. In a reference to the high birth rate of Palestinians, he told Israelis: "If you want to be a democracy and a Jewish state, you have to cut a deal." He also said "the trajectory of technology is not your friend" — a reference to the possibility that with improving technology, Israel's enemies, such as Hamas in the Gaza strip, would be able to develop more accurate missiles.

Addressing Palestinians, he bluntly said they would achieve a far better outcome through negotiations than by any unilateral declaration of a state. He echoed the view of his wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently praised Israel for an "unprecedented" concession regarding slowing the growth of settlements in the West Bank. "This is the first time that any Israeli government has said we will not issue new permits and not have any new settlements and that should be enough to open the door and start talking," he said.

Israeli Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein said Mr Erakat's comments "prove that among the Palestinian leaders, there are many who still believe that they can achieve their goals through violence and terrorism". "I hope the international community will not co-operate in this project and will speak out clearly in favour of the only possible approach, namely direct negotiations," Mr Edelstein said.


US anger as Israel approves housing
The Australian
John Lyons and Brad Norington
Thursday, November 19, 2009

RELATIONS between the US and Israel have again been set back with a reprimand by Washington over a plan by Israel to build 900 housing units in a sensitive suburb of Jerusalem. The White House said yesterday it was "dismayed" by a decision to proceed with the project - reportedly a day after US special envoy George Mitchell asked Israeli negotiators not to go ahead with the project. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the decision "in the strongest possible terms". "It shows that it is meaningless to resume negotiations when this goes on," Mr Erekat said.

But Israel insisted that the suburb, which was captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war, was as much a part of Israel as any other suburb in Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu's office issued a statement defending the decision to proceed in Gilo: "This concerns a routine procedure of the district planning commission. The neighbourhood of Gilo is an integral part of Jerusalem." Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said the US statement showed a double standard. "Israeli law does not discriminate between Arabs and Jews, or between east and west of the city," he said. "The demand to cease construction just for Jews is illegal, also in the US and any other enlightened place in the world. It is inconceivable that the US government would demand a construction freeze in the US based on race, religion or sex, and the attempt to demand this from Jerusalem constitutes a double standard and is unacceptable."

Gilo is a southern suburb of Jerusalem about a 20-minute drive from the centre of the city. Established after the 1967 war, its population in 2007 was about 32,000, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. It is sensitive as it is beyond the Green Line - the ceasefire line that prevailed between Israel and Jordan between the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the war in 1967.

After 1967, Gilo, which had been mainly vacant land, became one of Israel's major immigration centres but in the past 15 years has become a middle-class , almost exclusively Jewish, suburb. As an established Jewish suburb, it is considered by many Israelis and Palestinians as likely to remain part of Israel under any peace agreement in exchange for predominantly Palestinian suburbs and towns. Unlike outposts, which are illegal under Israeli law, suburbs such as Gilo have been incorporated into the Jerusalem municipal authority. The US believes that until any peace agreement is signed Israel should not develop such disputed land. Being part of the Jerusalem municipal authority means that should they be evacuated under a peace deal, the residents would be compensated by the Israeli government.

"At a time when we are working to re-launch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. The White House also took the opportunity in its statement to object to "other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes". Israel's decision to press ahead with the Gilo project is a direct snub to US President Barack Obama, who had made a settlements freeze a condition for negotiations to proceed in good faith with the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also declared after a meeting in New York in September with Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu that peace negotiations with Israel could not resume without a complete freeze of settlements.

Mr Mitchell was reported in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to have made a late attempt on Monday to prevent the Gilo decision going ahead during discussions with Israeli officials in London. "We are dismayed at the Jerusalem Planning Committee's decision to move forward on the approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem," the White House statement said yesterday. It added that neither side should take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations. This last point was as much a warning to the Palestinians that they should not unilaterally seek recognition for an independent state without negotiations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel's decision, referring to Gilo as a settlement built on land "conquered from the Palestinians in 1967".


Extract - Israel on dangerous path: Obama
The Australian
John Lyons and Brad Norington
Friday, November 20, 2009

US President Barack Obama has warned Israel that its policy of ignoring US pleas and continuing to expand housing in sensitive areas of Jerusalem could end up being "very dangerous". Israel yesterday rejected the condemnation of the Obama administration and other world leaders and proceeded to demolish two Palestinian homes — bringing to seven the number of Palestinian homes demolished this week in east Jerusalem. Mr Obama, in his strongest condemnation yet, warned that the development of 900 new houses in the disputed Jerusalem suburb of Gilo could "embitter Palestinians". He said it made it difficult to resume any peace talks. Israeli authorities said the Palestinian buildings it demolished yesterday had been illegally built.

Within Israel, the political leadership locked behind the decision to develop Gilo, a southern suburb captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who rarely supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: "Gilo is part of the Israeli consensus." However, Ms Livni reportedly criticised the Netanyahu government's broader direction. According to Haaretz newspaper, Ms Livni said: "Israel has been de-legitimised and its position has been eroded." Urging Mr Netanyahu to begin negotiations with Palestinians, Ms Livni was reported to have said the government had "hurt Israel's ability to receive legitimacy for justified military operations".

As part of his quest to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, Mr Obama had made it a condition of relaunching peace negotiations that no further settlements should proceed. But the Israeli government claims Gilo is part of Jerusalem and does not consider it West Bank land, where much dispute over Jewish settlements has occurred. US negotiators argued that when the US is trying to convince Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, such an announcement would be seen as provocative and possibly end any chance of peace talks.

The latest rebuff to the US marks a further deterioration in relations between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. Speaking on Fox News, Mr Obama stressed he believed it was in Israel's interests not to build the settlements. The President said Israel's security was a vital national interest to the US, and reaffirmed that the US would make sure Israel remained secure. But he added: "I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel's security. "I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbours."


Let's share power, says moderate Arab
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, November 21, 2009

AS the shock departure of Mahmoud Abbas sinks in for Palestinians, Ahmad Aweidah is rising fast in the new generation of leaders. Mr Aweidah, 39, insists he is not interested in politics, though he's rarely shy about entering the major debates. He argues that Mr Abbas's successor be Nasser al-Qudwa, nephew of the late PLO chief Yasser Arafat, rather than the contender who polls highest among Palestinians, the jailed Marwan Bargouti.

As head of the Palestine Securities Exchange - responsible for $US7 billion ($7.6bn) in deposits and $US2bn in loans - Mr Aweidah refuses to join a political party and abhors Hamas's militant outlook. He says Arafat's major achievement was to give the Palestinians independence from countries such as Iran and Syria. He voted last election for Mr Abbas. On all these measures, he is a moderate, which is why it is ominous that someone like Mr Aweidah reflects a growing view among the Palestinian elite that the pursuit of a two-state solution is over. "In terms of one state, I think we should go with the Martin Luther King call of one man one vote," he said.

Palestinians, he said, should focus on a single state in which Palestinians were the majority. It would be a federal system under which the Israel Defence Forces would retain responsibility for defence. "Under one state, Jews and Arabs would share power at a local level for things like education and health, while things like water would be decided at a national level," he said. "The Jews would have their own canton and the Arabs would have their own canton. It would be a federal structure. The Palestinian canton would not be responsible for the defence of the country. I am happy for the Jewish canton to remain in charge of defence through the IDF. Not a single Palestinian would serve in the IDF. Jerusalem would be everybody's. Jews would be able to live in Hebron not as settlers but as full citizens. The Irish and the English resolved their conflict. The English and the Scots. There have been many other conflicts that have seemed as intractable as this one. It's better than continued conflict, is it not ?"

In two recent interviews - one with foreign journalists and one with The Weekend Australian - Mr Aweidah argued that the possibility of a Palestinian state passed with the growth of Jewish settlements. Palestinian politician Mustafa Bargouti said this week that international pressure had encouraged Palestinians to seek a two-state solution - an independent Palestine alongside Israel - but that this was no longer realistic. Mr Aweidah agreed: "The two-state solution is no longer viable," he said. "I think the only solution now is one state where the Palestinians are the majority and the Jews are a protected minority, just like the whites are now in South Africa. Time and demographics are on our side. In 15 years' time, Palestinians will be the majority."

Mr Aweidah claims the Palestinians have a birth rate of 4.3 per cent. As with everything in this conflict, this is disputed. Israeli analyst Yoram Ettinger described it as "a fairytale". "We have come up with documented data, mostly Palestinian material, which determines that the trend is exactly the opposite," Mr Ettinger, head of research group Second Thought, told The Weekend Australian. He found the number of Arabs in Judea and Samaria had been inflated by 66 per cent, and the number of Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza had been overestimated by 43 per cent. "The demographic tailwind is Jewish - the Arab birth rate is coming down in a free dive," he said. However, prominent Israelis such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni continue to sound the demographic alarm for the Jewish population.

As Washington's push to resume peace talks sinks, Palestinians more frequently are speaking about a unitary state. "What have we got from 15 years of negotiating since Oslo ?" Mr Aweidah said. "Today we're sitting behind a wall with 500,000 Jewish settlers. So what will we get from another 15 years of negotiations - one million settlers ' The Jews say `never again' about the Shoah. We say `never again' about losing more years negotiating for nothing."

Asked of Israelis who would resist his vision out of fear for the end of the Jewish state, he said: "But it would be the birth of the Jewish canton. Don't worry, we will be good to them. They will be treated as a protected minority. We are not interested in oppressing them. Historically, we don't have a problem with Jews. Anti-semitism is not an Arab or Muslim thing, it's primarily been a Christian thing." Mr Aweidah says his views are typical today. The question is, if the moderates are speaking like this in public, how are the hardliners speaking in private '

Same day

Israel can't take US support for granted
ANALYSIS: Bronwen Maddox, The Times

ISRAEL has surely lost more this week in support abroad - in the US, above all - than it has gained in asserting its right to build houses around Jerusalem. This is an incomplete list of those who condemned the plans to build 900 new housing units in Gilo, in East Jerusalem: China, Russia, the European Union, Britain and France, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan. US President Barack Obama expressed dismay and the White House issued a stinging second blast.

It takes something to unite your friends and enemies against you. Israel is taking to a reckless level the indifference it shows to foreign opinion, even that of the US. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, is wrongly assuming two things will never change. The first is that the US will always veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel. Obama is not about to make an historic switch to abstention, but his officials say it's no longer taboo. Nor, for now, is the council about to recognise a unilateral declaration of statehood that some Palestinian leaders want to make. But again, it's not unthinkable.

Netanyahu's officials have wheeled out arguments for Gilo, which they present as decisive, but these ring hollow. One is that the 40,000-strong town is part of Jerusalem, and will be part of Israel under any Palestinian deal. That ignores the disputes since its creation. Gilo sits east of the 1967 line on land Israel captured in that war, and divides Bethlehem from East Jerusalem, still largely Arab, which Palestinians want as their capital.

A second claim is that there is a huge consensus for building in Jerusalem, and no leader could ignore that, nor move to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. Indeed, Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima party, has backed Netanyahu on Gilo. But popularity does not confer legitimacy.

Israel makes light of the diminution of support abroad. Its best, urgent call on that support stems from its justified fears of terrorism and attack. Obama rightly said Israel needed security, and the US would uphold it. But Israel's weakest claim is that settlements have much to do with security. Netanyahu should take note of Obama's warning to Hamid Karzai, sworn in on Thursday as Afghan President: no one should take US support for granted.


Iran flexes military muscle
The Australian
Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Iran launched a five-day air-defense exercise Sunday, flexing its military might amid Western pressure over its nuclear program, and threatening retaliation against Israel if it were to target Iran.

Israeli officials have warned they would take military action against Iran to prevent it from making a nuclear weapon. The Iranian military exercise follows a large-scale air-defense exercise by Israel, conducted with U.S. troops, last month. On Sunday, a senior Revolutionary Guard officer warned Israel of retaliation should it target Iran. "If the enemy tries its luck and fires a missile into Iran, our ballistic missiles would zero in on Tel Aviv before the dust settles on the attack," the Guard official, Mojtaba Zolnour, was quoted as saying, according to state-run English-language media outlet Press TV.

In Israel, Iran's apparent rejection of the draft nuclear deal and its air-defense drill were seen as another belligerent signal from Tehran. "It is clear that this is now the time for the international community to act and send a crystal-clear message to Tehran that there are consequences for its actions," a senior Israeli official said.

In Tehran, Brigadier-General Ahmad Mighani, in charge of Iranian air defense, said the exercise was being conducted with both Iran's conventional armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, across a swath of northern, southern and western Iran. General Mighani said the drill was aimed at preventing attacks on Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

The move comes as the West is increasing pressure on Tehran following Iran's refusal so far to accept a nuclear energy deal hammered out last month between Iranian negotiators and their counterparts from the US, France, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The deal called for Iran to ship out the bulk of its low-enriched uranium, which would be further enriched in Russia and returned for use in a medical-research reactor. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said last week that Iran would not ship its enriched uranium out of the country, but indicated that it was open to talks about some sort of uranium exchange. Western powers interpreted his comments as the clearest indication so far that Iran will not accept the proposal without changes to which the US and its allies are unlikely to agree.

Western officials have taken Iran's refusal to ship out uranium as a rejection of the pact. US officials and allies say they will continue to leave the door open for talks. President Barack Obama has suggested a year-end deadline for Iran to show good-faith efforts at nuclear negotiations. The US and its allies fear Iran is building nuclear weapons, but Tehran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful energy and medical research. Following Mr. Mottaki's statement, Mr. Obama again warned that Washington would push for tougher economic sanctions against Iran if the US was not satisfied with the talks with Tehran.

Same Day
Building halt 'rests with Palestinians'
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

ISRAEL has made its strongest public concession yet on settlement growth, as President Shimon Peres yesterday declared the country would halt establishing any new Jewish settlements "the minute" any peace talks with the Palestinians resume. Mr Peres delivered the message after a meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a two-hour briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before leaving Jerusalem.

The meeting with Mr Netanyahu suggested Mr Peres was taking to Mr Mubarak a position authorised by the Israeli Prime Minister. It appeared to be an attempt by Israel to indicate it was prepared to make concessions to get the peace process back on track. Mr Peres said: "The minute we shall start to negotiate there won't be new settlements, there won't be confiscation of land. There will be no financial investment in new settlements, there will be a dismantling of the settlements that were established without authorisation." And he added: "We do not want the Palestinians' suffering to continue."

Before Mr Peres's arrival, Mr Mubarak claimed Israel was responsible for the failure of attempts to resume peace talks. "I will use words that are not open to interpretation," he said. "Israel is destroying the opportunity for peace, with its plans to populate Jerusalem with Jews and excavate around the al- Aqsa Mosque." At a news conference yesterday following the talks with Mr Peres, Mr Mubarak said: "I expressed my concern to President Peres that peace talks have not progressed since our last meeting in July, and that Egypt is looking forward to an Israeli response, such as halting the building of settlements in east Jerusalem."

While Mr Peres said Israel would halt new settlements as soon as any peace talks resumed, he added: "Unfortunately, it's a marginal issue. "It is some building of houses that became a central issue for the wrong reasons - my answer is even this issue can be settled by negotiations and agreement." Mr Peres addressed the issue raised by Mr Mubarak regarding the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is part of the Temple Mount area of Jerusalem's Old City. "I want to send a clear message to the Arab world - we have no intention of building on the Temple Mount. We respect the Muslims, and I am sorry for the frequent rumours and lies."

The two also discussed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, now 22, who was captured by Hamas during a cross-border clash in June 2006 and is being held in Gaza. Speculation is growing about an imminent release of the captured soldier. Mr Peres said progress had been made but he declined to go into detail.

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