Israel News since November 27th 2009

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Click here for prior news from July 29th, 2009

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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



Under Pressure, Israel halts building
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, November 27, 2009

East Jerusalem exempt from building freeze

ISRAEL has agreed to a 10-month moratorium on new approvals in Jewish settlements in the West Bank following six months of unrelenting pressure by the Obama administration to freeze housing developments in the disputed territory. The move received immediate support from the US yesterday, but was rejected by Palestinian negotiators as inadequate and by Jewish settler groups as an abandonment of the principles of Zionism.

Announcing the move after a four-hour cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was "a far-reaching and painful step", which he hoped would lead to the resumption of peace talks with Palestinians. Referring to the international pressure Israel has been under, particularly from the US and European Union, Mr Netanyahu said: "We have been told by many of our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful step towards peace, the Palestinians and the Arab world would respond in a positive cycle that would be a cycle of good will." Mr Netanyahu said: "Regarding Jerusalem, our sovereign capital, our position is well known. We don't put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital."

Under the deal, public buildings in settlements such as medical centres, schools and synagogues will be exempted. Work will begin or proceed on 3900 new houses in the settlements - 3000 of these had been announced but were yet to be built when US President Barack Obama first made his call for a complete settlements freeze, and last week Jerusalem municipal authorities approved 900 new houses to be built in the southern Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war and is considered beyond "the Green Line". Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Netanyahu had a choice between settlements and peace and chose settlements. He said before the cabinet made its decision but on the basis of leaked information about the decision: "This is not a complete freeze of settlement construction because Israel will continue to build 3000 housing units in the West Bank and won't stop the work in Jerusalem."

US special envoy George Mitchell described the announcement as "significant" and said he hoped it would resume peace talks and lead to a two-state solution. "While they fall short of a full freeze, we believe the steps announced by the Prime Minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground," he said. "For the first time, an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all new construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. That's a positive development." US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines . . . and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognised borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."

An insight into the pressures on Mr Netanyahu came when settlers and their supporters in the Knesset, or parliament, reacted to the announcement far more angrily than Palestinians. Israeli media described the decision as anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, patently illegal, the government stabbing settlers in the back and Mr Netanyahu "spitting in the faces" of those he promised he would support in the settlements.

Not Settled

Source: Peace Now


Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Sydney. Picture: Sam Mooy
How Middle East peace wasn't given a chance: Ehud Olmert
Weekend Australian
EXCLUSIVE: Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Saturday, November 28, 2009

IT was the moment the Palestinians might have had a state, with a capital in East Jerusalem. For a single moment, the dove of peace hovered hopefully over the Middle East. On September 16 last year, the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the most far-reaching and comprehensive peace deal any Israeli prime minister has ever offered. Mr Olmert recalls his pleas to Mr Abbas to accept the deal: "I said to him, do you want to keep floating forever - like an astronaut in space - or do you want a state ' I told him he'd never get anything like this again from an Israeli leader for 50 years."

Mr Olmert, who as a rule avoids the media these days, has undertaken hours of discussion and interviews with The Weekend Australian and provided unprecedented detail of his peace offer to Mr Abbas. The interviews took place amid growing tension over West Bank settlements. Palestinians appealed to the US yesterday to raise pressure on Israel, saying an Israeli plan to halt new construction in the West Bank was insincere. Presidential adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo urged US envoy George Mitchell to bring about "a real peace process" that would halt all settlement construction.

Mr Olmert says such disputes could have been resolved with his deal. He recalls meeting Mr Abbas more than 35 times for "intense, serious" negotiations, in the two years leading up to the September 16 offer last year. Mr Olmert says his offer to Mr Abbas included a Palestinian state occupying 94 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza. This would have allowed Israel to keep the major Jewish population areas in the settlements in the West Bank.

But in return he would have given the Palestinians an equal parcel of land from Israel proper in compensation. He offered Palestinian sovereignty over all the Arab areas of East Jerusalem, so that it could function as a capital for the new Palestinian state. Dividing Jerusalem is an explosive issue in Israeli politics. Mr Olmert recalls his own struggle to come to grips with his offer on Jerusalem: "This was a very sensitive, very painful, soul-searching process. While I firmly believed that historically and emotionally Jerusalem was always the capital of the Jewish people, I was ready that the city should be shared."

Perhaps Mr Olmert's most radical and audacious proposal was for an international administration of the sites in Jerusalem holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Mr Olmert proposed forming an area of "no sovereignty" to be administered jointly by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the new Palestinian state, Israel and the US. He offered to build a tunnel, under Palestinian control, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Mr Olmert says every European leader, and senior Americans, who knew of the plan acknowledged it as the most far-reaching and extensive peace offer Israel has made.

Mr Olmert still regards Mr Abbas as a peace partner for Israel. "I think he's genuine in his desire to achieve a Palestinian state and he recognises the right of Israel to exist," he says. Mr Olmert speculates that Mr Abbas didn't accept the deal because he felt he could not deliver the Palestinian commitment to it, or perhaps because he feared the outcome of approaching Israeli elections. But nor did Mr Abbas directly reject the deal. Instead he said he wanted to bring experts back with him the next day. But the next day, the Palestinians' chief negotiator postponed the meeting. "I never saw him again," Mr Olmert says.

Click here for the whole interview.


Jewish settlers up in arms over settlement freeze
The Australian
John Lyons Middle East correspondent
Friday, December 4, 2009

ISRAEL'S leadership is attempting to quell a growing revolt by Jewish settlers in the West Bank angry about the government's freeze of new construction for 10 months. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet leaders from the settlements overnight to try to convince them to support the moratorium, which he announced following US calls for a settlement freeze. In the face of the revolt, Mr Netanyahu has said building in the settlements would resume as soon as the 10 months had passed.

And Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday told settlers that their communities, which have been built in disputed territory that Palestinians want as part of any future Palestinian state, would remain part of Israel in any final agreement. "Settlement blocs will be an integral part of Israel in any future negotiations with the Palestinians," he said. Mr Barak added: "I know that this step is a difficult one but this is a step essential to the state of Israel today."

He made the comments at what was intended to be a meeting of key leaders of the settlements. However, as a protest, only four representatives attended the meeting and the rest boycotted it. There were more clashes in settlements yesterday between police, who have been asked to enforce the settlement freeze, and settlers, some of whom have vowed to prevent inspectors from gaining access. Five settlers were arrested, including Beit Aryeh council leader Avi Naim. Mr Naim was later taken to hospital after telling police he was feeling chest pains. Before leaving for hospital, he said: "I was arrested for no reason, and had done nothing. The police delayed my evacuation to hospital. This was despite the demand of the Magen David Adom (ambulance) personnel in the intensive care ambulance to take me to Tel Hashomer immediately."

The government has been branded as anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist, and many settlers have said they feel abandoned. Among the protests is a strong hostility towards the administration of US President Barack Obama. Many settlers blame Mr Obama for pressuring Israel into the moratorium. Mr Obama had wanted a complete and permanent freeze on expansion of Jewish settlements to allow peace talks with Palestinians to resume. While the US has said the moratorium does not go as far as it wanted, it has also described it as a significant development towards peace talks.

While the government is facing an on-the-ground revolt, about 50 key Likud party figures and mayors yesterday met Mr Netanyahu to express support for his decision on the freeze. They also said they would not tolerate any Likud figures using the decision to undermine him. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, also defended the decision. But he said Israel would not continue to make concessions to Palestinians.

Palestinian leadership has dismissed the moratorium as inadequate — they say its limited time-frame and the fact that construction in disputed East Jerusalem will continue means it is insufficient. Politically, while the anger from Jewish settlers creates a problem for Mr Netanyahu inside elements of his own right-wing coalition government, it also serves to send a message to Washington, the international community and the Palestinians that the moratorium is a real concession.

Same day

Australia a 'leader of the free world'
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

SILVAN Shalom, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, has a higher estimation of Australia than perhaps even most Australians do - he believes Australia is a leader of the free world and as such its strong support for Israel is critically important. Mr Shalom is leading a delegation of 30 from Israel, the most high-powered and influential Israeli delegation to visit Australia, for the second Australia Israel Leadership Forum. At a lunch in Sydney attended by Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, Mr Shalom thanked Australia for two recent acts of solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people.

One was to reject the one-sided Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes in the Gaza Strip. The other was to boycott the UN Anti-Racism Durban 11 conference, at which Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his usual anti-Israel rant.

"Australia is one of the major leaders of the free world," Mr Shalom told The Australian in Sydney. "There is the US, the EU, Japan, Canada and Australia that people always look to. "With Australia leading with such a line which is supportive of Israel, with the US and Canada, this is tremendously important. I really believe there is a friendship between the peoples of Israel and Australia, based on common values of democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law (and) Western culture."

He urged the Palestinian Authority leadership to resume negotiations with the Israeli government. Asked why he believed the Palestinians were refusing to do this, he said: "The Palestinians really believe the Americans might bring concessions from Israel without them having to make any concessions of their own." This is an implicit rebuke to the Obama administration for its decision early on to demand a freeze on all Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, even within Jewish areas of Jerusalem. The Palestinians then made this a condition of resuming talks, but the Americans have been unable to deliver this freeze.

However, Mr Shalom would not make any direct criticism of the Obama administration: "I know this demand (for a total freeze on building within settlements) was never made of any other prime minister of Israel and yet they made far-reaching offers and concessions to the Palestinians." Mr Shalom said the Palestinians were deeply mistaken if they thought it represented a weakening of US solidarity with Israel: "The Obama administration is very friendly to Israel and committed to Israel's security."

Mr Shalom said he was greatly encouraged by Barack Obama's decision this week to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. "It shows the US administration is committed to bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. It also shows other extremists that the US is really serious about their intention to fight extremists and terrorists."

Also, Same day

Ex-Israeli spy chief warns about Iran
Cameron Stewart

THE escalating war in Afghanistan must not distract Australia and the US from dealing with the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions, according to one of Israel's foremost security experts. Avi Dichter — former head of Israel's domestic spy service, Shin Bet, and a leading figure in the opposition Kadima party — said the West could no longer afford to ignore Iran's growing defiance of international efforts to curb its suspected nuclear program. "I think the United States has a scale (of priorities) and Iran is not first or second on that scale," Mr Dichter said. "I think the threat in Iran should be promoted on that (priority) scale."

Mr Dichter, who has been touted as a possible future Israeli prime minister, spoke with The Australian shortly before meeting Kevin Rudd as part of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum in Sydney. The former Israeli minister for internal security and the head of Shin Bet from 2000 to 2005, said the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran was directly relevant to Australia's interests. "Iran is a global threat,' he said. "A threat like Iran is like a disease: you know when it starts but never when it stops." He said Australia had shown its credentials as a nation willing to combat terrorism and it was important that Australia's voice in international forums be heard on the issue of Iran.

Iran was condemned this week for escalating its nuclear program by announcing it would build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities. Tehran maintains the facilities would be used only for civilian purposes, but Western intelligence agencies believe they would be used to assist Iran's suspected clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iran's announcement was seen as provocative and has prompted one of its allies, Russia, to declare that it is ready to back sanctions against Tehran's nuclear program.

Mr Dichter said Iran's behaviour was not surprising, "because if we expect them to behave in a rational way we are simply wrong". "It is well known to all intelligence services that Iran is determined to have a nuclear bomb," he said. "It is not a question of 'if', it is a question of 'when' — whether it is going to be in two years or in five years."

Mr Dichter was coy about whether Israel, which regards Tehran's nuclear ambitions as a direct threat, might take unilateral military action against Iran, saying he believed it was up to the US to take the lead in international efforts to confront Iran on the nuclear issue. "This should be a role for superpowers and Israel is not a superpower," he said. Mr Dichter said he fully supported the West's campaign to combat terrorism in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, but he warned that these campaigns must not blind the West to the urgency of dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Click here for the whole interview.


Right-wing Israelis demonstrate in Jerusalem against the government 's decision to freeze construction on West Bank settlements. Picture: AFP
Bibi's plan to appease settlers
The Australian
John Lyons Middle East correspondent
Friday, December 11, 2009

BENJAMIN Netanyahu is preparing to announce major new concessions to Jewish settlers in the West Bank after up to 10,000 people closed off streets near the Israeli Prime Minister's Jerusalem residence to protest against the 10-month freeze on new construction activity. Mr Netanyahu will take a redrawn map of "priority areas" to Sunday's cabinet meeting, which would bestow "national priority status" for employment, education and infrastructure on 110,000 settlers not covered by government concessions.

According to briefings given by the Prime Minister's office to Israeli media yesterday, the new concessions will cost 110 million shekels ($32m) and are designed to "encourage population dispersal in the state of Israel and increase the population of the periphery and of areas near the border" and "to preserve and bolster national security stamina". The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said under the national priority status, every minister in the government would be obliged to allocate more resources, in relative terms, to communities inside national priority areas than those outside, such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The paper reported: "The Education Ministry, for example, is obliged to allocate a greater number of teaching hours, the National Infrastructure Ministry is obliged to allocate a supplementary sum for paving roads and laying train tracks and the Housing and Construction Ministry is obliged to grant discounts on the allocation of lands from the Israel Lands Administration."

Upgrading the status of the settlers, most of whom are in smaller settlements outside the main settlement blocs, is an attempt to defuse the anger reflected by demonstrators in Jerusalem who targeted US President Barack Obama, Mr Netanyahu and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who they blamed for the moratorium. "The message from here is very clear," said National Union politician Michael Ben-Ari. "The Jews have been exiled enough. If there is a people that has to be evacuated and should not be here, it is not the Jewish people." Speakers vowed not to allow a repeat of 2005 when settlers in Gaza were forcibly withdrawn as part of a "disengagement" from Gaza. National Union politician Arieh Eldad told the rally: "We are giving a simple Zionist response to the freeze: this will be our miracle of rebellion, we will build everywhere, everywhere."

One figure from Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, Tzipi Hotovely, said the real battle was over Jerusalem rather than Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank. Referring to a resolution this week by the European Union — which said the status of Jerusalem should be negotiated as part of any final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians — Ms Hotovely said: "When the European Union wishes to declare Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, it's not a struggle over Judea and Samaria but over Jerusalem."

The resettlement of those who left Gaza for Israel continues to be a political issue in Israel, with claims that many of them have not been provided the housing or support they were promised at the time of the withdrawal. In the lead-up to the election in February, Mr Netanyahu criticised the disengagement from Gaza, saying that in return all Israel received was rockets from Hamas.

Same day

Egypt to block tunnels under Gaza
Correspondents in Cairo, Agencies

EGYPT has enlisted American help to begin constructing a huge metal wall along its border with the Gaza Strip as it attempts to cut smuggling tunnels from the Palestinian territory. Reports last night said the wall would be 10-11km long and would extend 18m below the surface. The Egyptians are being helped by American army engineers, who the BBC reported had designed the wall. The plan has been shrouded in secrecy, with no comment or confirmation from the Egyptian government, the BBC report said.

Israeli media reported yesterday that Egyptian engineers were carrying out major excavation work at the Gaza border and that an anti-smuggling barrier was under construction. Workers were placing 20m-long pipes every 4m or so along the border with the Palestinian territory, which Israel has long complained has been vulnerable to arms smuggling. The Israelis say the tunnels are used to smuggle people, weapons, and the components of the rockets that are fired at southern Israeli towns by Hamas. Security forces prevented journalists from getting nearer than 200m away from the works but residents said that heavy construction equipment had been deployed the length of the fence that separates the two sides of the divided border town of Rafah.

Municipal official Suleiman al-Bair said residents whose property had been affected had received compensation but he said he could not confirm the purpose of the work. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the aim was to construct a massive underground iron wall the whole 9-10km length of the border. The newspaper cited Egyptian sources as saying that the barrier would extend 20-30m underground in an attempt to block all but the most determined smuggling. "It will be impossible to cut or melt," the newspaper said, although it added: "It is not expected to stem smuggling completely."

Israel has repeatedly complained that Egypt has not done enough to prevent trafficking into Gaza, including arms smuggling by its Islamist Hamas rulers. But in recent months, Cairo has destroyed large numbers of tunnels, using detection equipment provided by Washington. Israel has closed off Gaza to all but very limited basic supplies since Hamas seized it from loyalists of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. The territory has since been dependent on smuggling for all but those supplies and the border is honeycombed with tunnels, which often collapse, sometimes killing the smugglers.

The wall would reportedly take 18 months to complete. The BBC reported the wall was manufactured in the US, that it fits together in similar fashion to a jigsaw, and that it has been tested to ensure it is bomb-proof. Intelligence sources in Egypt told the broadcaster 4km of the wall had already been completed north of the Rafah crossing, with work now beginning to the south.


Extract - Tehran is testing bomb components
The Australian
Catherine Philp, The Times, Washington
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CONFIDENTIAL intelligence documents show that Iran is working on testing a key final component of a nuclear bomb. The notes, from Iran's most sensitive military nuclear project, describe a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, the component of a nuclear bomb that triggers an explosion. Foreign intelligence agencies date them to early 2007, four years after Iran was thought to have suspended its weapons program.

An Asian intelligence source last week confirmed that his country also believed that weapons work was being carried out as recently as 2007 — specifically, work on a neutron initiator. The technical document describes the use of a neutron source, uranium deuteride, which independent experts confirm has no possible civilian or military use other than in a nuclear weapon. Uranium deuteride is the material used in Pakistan's bomb, from where Iran obtained its blueprint.

"Although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, there is no civil application," said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, which has analysed hundreds of pages of documents related to the Iranian program. "This is a very strong indicator of weapons work." The documents have been seen by intelligence agencies from several Western countries. A senior source at the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed they had been passed to the UN's nuclear watchdog. A British Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokeswoman said yesterday: "We do not comment on intelligence, but our concerns about Iran's nuclear program are clear. Obviously this document, if authentic, raises serious questions about Iran's intentions." Responding to the findings, an Israeli government spokesperson said: "Israel is increasingly concerned about the state of the Iranian nuclear program and the real intentions that may lie behind it."

Same day

Israeli Prime Minister faces explosive decision
James Hider, The Times, Jerusalem

THE moment is fast approaching when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have to make the most difficult decision of his career — whether to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and risk triggering a conflagration that could spread across the Middle East. Israeli experts believe the point of no return may be only six months away when Iran's nuclear program will have — if it has not already — metastasised into a multitude of smaller, difficult-to-trace facilities in deserts and mountains, while its main reactor at Bushehr will be online, and bombing it would send a radioactive cloud over the Gulf nations.

Mr Netanyahu has consistently called Iran the most serious threat that Israel faces. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for Israel to be obliterated, and his Revolutionary Guards supply training, money and weapons to both Hezbollah in Lebanon, on Israel's northern border, and to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, whose missiles are believed to be capable of reaching Tel Aviv. In the run-up to his election this year, Mr Netanyahu promised that "under my government, Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear". Yet Mr Ahmadinejad has promised to produce 20 per cent enriched uranium: a big step towards weapons-grade fuel.

With the Iranian threat at the front of his strategic thinking, Mr Netanyahu has surrounded himself with old comrades from Israel's most prestigious military unit, the Sayeret Matkal, or General Staff Reconnaissance. Mr Netanyahu served in the elite unit in the 1970s under Ehud Barak, who went on to become Israel's most decorated soldier and later prime minister. When Mr Netanyahu came to power, he made great efforts to recruit his former commander as defence minister. Mr Barak serves with another former leader of the unit, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon. The Israeli Prime Minister has hard-wired his core cabinet with so much military experience for a good reason. Striking Iran's nuclear facilities will be a huge military and political gamble. Although Russia has delayed supplying Iran with S300 anti-aircraft missiles, which could weaken any Israeli attack, the air force would have to mount one of its largest long-range attacks to have a chance of disabling Iran's nuclear installations.

Earlier this year a report by Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warned that "a military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible . . . (but) would be complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate". In 2007, in what is often seen as a trial run for an attack on Iran, an Israeli squadron flew undetected through Turkish airspace and over Syria's border to destroy what was thought to be a nuclear facility under construction with Iranian and North Korean support. In June last year, the air force staged exercises over the Mediterranean, with dozens of fighters, bombers and refuelling tankers flying roughly the same distance as between Israel and Iran. Earlier this year, Israeli jets again carried out a long-range bombing mission, hitting trucks in Sudan that were believed to be bringing Iranian weapons to Hamas via Egypt.

In the immediate term, the threat of a strike has receded. Israel is satisfied that Iran's hostile stance towards the international community has increased the chances of serious, crippling sanctions. Officials noted that for the first time Russia seemed to be serious about isolating Tehran. But that international front could easily crack, and then Mr Netanyahu would be faced with the decision on whether to order his bombers into action. Iran has already threatened to bomb Israel's cities with its long-range missiles should its nuclear facilities come under attack, but that is only one of its many options. It could also, in stages, order Hezbollah to launch rockets across the northern border. Or both sides may choose to do nothing. Some analysts believe that Israel might tolerate Iran as a "threshold nuclear state", capable of building a bomb but not testing it.

Iran could well opt for the path chosen by Syria in 2007, if Israel strikes at isolated facilities far from an urban areas, where the only casualties would be technicians and guards. After a similar strike against Syria, neither side admitted what had happened, thereby avoiding a war and saving face.


Iran's bomb work hardens US hearts
The Australian
The Times, Washington
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

REVELATIONS that Iran has been working secretly on a trigger for a nuclear bomb urgently underscore the case for tough new sanctions against Tehran, the Obama administration says. Referring to a report in The Times that suggested Iran had been working on testing a key final component of a nuclear bomb, a senior US official said: "Now that work may have been done on a trigger mechanism, this certainly gives urgency, in the absence of any meaningful response from Tehran . . . in terms of additional pressure on sanctions." The official added: "The revelations that work has been done (on a nuclear trigger) do add a sense of urgency and these revelations certainly don't hurt." The reaction from Washington comes as the US begins a push to get China and Russia to back a tough new set of sanctions against Iran after a year in which Tehran has snubbed President Barack Obama's overtures to open a diplomatic dialogue over its nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Israel — described by a Saudi source as a "huge obstacle" in freeing the region of nuclear weapons — used increasingly aggressive rhetoric over the threat from Iran. Making clear that Israel reserves the right to launch a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned "all players not to remove any options from the table", adding: "We do not remove it . . . There is a need for tough sanctions, something that is well and coherently co-ordinated to include Americans, the EU, the Chinese, the Russians (and) the Indians."

At the same time, Middle Eastern diplomats warned of a regional nuclear arms race and demanded greater involvement in diplomatic efforts to force an Iranian climbdown.

The revelations about work on the nuclear trigger, contained in confidential intelligence documents obtained by The Times and which foreign intelligence agencies date to early 2007, come as the Obama administration enters a new phase over Iran's nuclear ambitions. After months of largely fruitless efforts to establish a dialogue with Tehran, the administration now hopes to get meaningful sanctions out of the UN, something that requires the co-operation of Russia and China. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday that world powers would soon impose "significant additional sanctions" on Iran. At a news conference with the Spanish Foreign Minister, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signalled that a push for sanctions may be coming soon. She said US concerns "have been heightened already".

Same day

Israeli leaders 'harassed' on Gaza records
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent

ISRAEL claims political and military leaders are being "harassed" by anti-Israeli groups who are using the international legal system to seek arrest warrants for war crimes over the Gaza conflict. The latest incident came yesterday after a court in London reportedly issued an arrest warrant against Israel's foreign minister during the Gaza war, Tzipi Livni, now opposition leader. Ms Livni's office denied her planned trip to London was cancelled because of any legal threat, citing her inability to secure a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown because of his schedule. But it appears the court issued the warrant believing she would be in Britain for the trip.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Australian there had been a great deal of confusion whether the arrest warrant had been issued. He said the Israeli embassy in London confirmed reports that one had been issued. The details of the warrant were unclear. "But it appears that anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups are filing suits in a number of countries in order to harass Israeli political and military leaders," Mr Palmor said. "These suits never materialise into anything, and for good reason, but they're very annoying. What the law allows, the law allows. But if it allows for people to harass foreign leaders, then there is a problem, and they should be able to find a way to stop this."

The British Foreign Office issued a statement saying: "The UK is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East and to be a strategic partner of Israel. To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case."

British reports said it was the second time in months that lawyers had gone to a magistrates court in London after a warrant for the arrest of an Israeli politician. The Guardian reported yesterday that in September the court was asked to issue a warrant for the arrest of Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases. It said Mr Barak, attending a meeting at the British Labour Party conference in Brighton at the time, avoided arrest when the Foreign Office told the court he was a serving minister who would be meeting his British counterparts, which gave him immunity.

Ministers hoping for private visits to Britain now asked the Israeli embassy in London to arrange meetings with British officials to ensure legal protection. But the newspaper said Ms Livni, no longer a minister, could not enjoy such immunity nor could Ehud Olmert, then prime minister and now a private citizen. Israeli media said the legal situation may deter Israeli politicians from travelling to Britain. Ms Livni's office said she was "proud" of the decisions she made during the Gaza war and would "continue presenting her view everywhere around the world".


Peace possible within six months: Abbas
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, December 17, 2009

PALESTINIAN leader Mahmoud Abbas has declared that a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians can be completed within six months if Israel freezes all construction in Jewish settlements and in East Jerusalem. In the most optimistic timeframe given by any key player in the Middle East in recent times, Mr Abbas said he had put a fresh proposal to Israel's Defence Minster, Ehud Barak. Mr Abbas made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israel has announced a 10-month freeze on new construction in the West Bank but Palestinians say it is inadequate because it fails to include Arab-dominated East Jerusalem and allows for at least another 3000 new houses and public buildings to be built. The Abbas comments suggest that East Jerusalem — the most sensitive issue of all as both Israelis and Palestinians want Jerusalem as their capital — is the major obstacle to new peace talks.

"I suggested to him (Mr Barak) three weeks ago that Israel freeze all construction in the settlements for six months, including East Jerusalem," Mr Abbas said. "But I demanded that construction stop . . . during this time, we can get back to the table and even complete talks on a final-status agreement. I have yet to receive an answer. They tell me I had not previously demanded a construction freeze in the settlements. True, in 1993 we didn't do so, but then there were no agreements about a freeze. Now there is the road map."

The road map was an agreement brokered in 2003 by the Middle East Quartet — the UN, US, Russia and the European Union — and backed by former US president George W. Bush. With the aim of a formal agreement by 2005 leading to a two-state solution, Israel agreed to halt all settlement activity and gradually withdraw from the West Bank while Palestinians agreed to cease all terrorist activities and incitement to violence against Israel and to improve security in the West Bank.

"So come and see what we did," Mr Abbas said in the interview. "The security situation throughout the West Bank is excellent. But what steps have you (Israel) taken so far ' You have not met a single clause in the road map. You removed a few roadblocks and there are still 640. Every day there are arrests, house demolitions. I don't understand why. We have security co-ordination, so why do this ?"

Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Australian yesterday that in a speech Mr Abbas gave in Arabic yesterday to a Palestinian conference, he included preconditions that he did not include in the interview. "What is of concern to us is that yesterday in the speech in Arabic, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) placed more reasons why we can't start negotiations," Mr Regev said. "Up until now, he was talking about a settlement freeze. Now he is adding (a return to) 1967 borders. It's like we have to accept the outcome of negotiations before negotiations start. We are concerned that they are trying to avoid negotiations. The reason we haven't been negotiating is the Palestinians have been placing new preconditions on talks."

Asked about Mr Abbas's claim that he had put a proposal to Mr Barak and had not received any response, Mr Regev said: "Let's be fair: the 10-month cessation of new housing in the West Bank is unprecedented and has been called as such internationally. No Israeli government has ever gone so far. Internally in Israel, groups such as Peace Now have called it historic. Yet he (Mr Abbas) ignores it. It doesn't make sense to me."


US warns Chinese on Iran nuclear threat
The Australian
Friday, December 18, 2009

JERUSALEM: US President Barack Obama has warned his Chinese counterpart that Washington would not be able to keep Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear installations for much longer, reports said yesterday. Israeli officials told Haaretz Mr Obama warned Chinese President Hu Jintao during the US President's visit to Beijing a month ago as part of the US attempt to convince the Chinese to support strict sanctions on Tehran if it does not accept Western proposals for its nuclear program. The Israeli officials said the US had informed Israel about Mr Obama's meetings in Beijing on Iran. They said Mr Obama made it clear to Mr Hu that at some point the US would no longer be able to prevent Israel from acting as it saw fit in response to the perceived Iranian threat, the report said.

After the Beijing summit, the US administration thought the Chinese had understood the message — Beijing agreed to join the condemnation of Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency only a week after Mr Obama's visit. But in the past two weeks the Chinese have maintained their hard stance on the West's wishes to impose sanctions on the Islamic republic.

The Israeli officials told the paper the Americans now understood that the Chinese agreed to join the condemnation announcement only because Mr Obama made a personal request to Mr Hu, not as part of a policy change. The Chinese have even refused a Saudi-American initiative designed to end Chinese dependence on Iranian oil, which would allow China to agree to the sanctions, the Israeli officials told the paper. Saudi Arabia, which is also worried about the Iranian nuclear program and keen to advance international steps against Iran, offered to supply the Chinese the same quantity of oil the Iranians now provide, and at much lower prices, Haaretz said. But China rejected the deal.

Since Mr Obama's visit, the Chinese have refused to join any measures to impose sanctions. The Israeli officials told the paper Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was showing a greater willingness for sanctions on Iran, despite hesitations by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Western governments yesterday united to denounce Iran's test-firing of a long-range ballistic missile, warning it would only increase international determination to press for more sanctions if Tehran refused to negotiate over its nuclear program. Britain, the US, France and Germany condemned the rocket launch. Germany called the test alarming, and France described it as "a very bad signal to the international community".

The first test of an improved version of the Sejil-2 missile, which is capable of reaching Israel and US bases in the Gulf, was reported on Wednesday in a one-sentence announcement on Iranian state television. The extended range of 1930km puts not only targets across the Middle East within striking distance, but also reaches southeastern Europe.


'Paralysing force' to remove Israeli settlers
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

IN what settler spokesmen called a declaration of war against them, the Israeli army has drawn up a plan to employ "paralysing power" to enforce demolition of structures built in defiance of the 10-month construction freeze declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A 17-page document leaked to the press over the weekend calls for employment of overwhelming force to overcome anticipated resistance by the settlers. Reading like a battle order, the document calls for surprise raids on targeted settlements, deployment of forces in an outer ring to prevent reinforcement from other settlements, reconnaissance flights by the air force, shutdown of mobile phone service to the affected area and closure of the operation to press coverage. All intelligence agencies, including military intelligence and the Shin Bet security service, would be involved.

The tone of the document, suggesting an unprecedented toughness in dealing with settler resistance, reflects Mr Netanyahu's aim of demonstrating to US President Barack Obama and the international community that he is serious about the construction freeze he announced last month. Mr Obama had called for a total freeze in order to open the way to negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has so far declined to reopen negotiations, saying the freeze does not go far enough in that it does not apply to East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as their future capital, and also does not apply to more than 2000 housing units "in the pipeline". Still, Washington is hoping that vigorous enforcement of the partial freeze will persuade Mr Abbas to drop objections.

Previous attempts by Israel to remove unauthorised structures built by settlers in the West Bank have frequently been half-hearted. When pressed home, they have met violent resistance by settlers from the affected settlements and others who came to their assistance. The air force has been overflying settlements since the freeze was announced to monitor violations. Demolitions will be carried out by the Israeli civil administration in the West Bank under protection of the police and the paramilitary border police. The army is to provide troops but only in an outer ring to avoid direct involvement of the soldiers, some of whom themselves are from settler families, in the demolitions.

There have been two incidents in recent weeks in which such soldiers have held up placards during ceremonies decrying the destruction of houses in settlements. The soldiers involved were sentenced to several weeks in military prisons. The document says that soldiers will be brought into the settlements to deal with resistance only in the case of "extreme violence". Army commanders have been ordered to prepare for cases of insubordination. "There is no concrete intelligence about intention (of settlers) to take up arms but this scenario cannot be discounted," says the document.

Prepared by the army's Central Command, which is responsible for the West Bank, the document notes that settlers are likely to resist demolitions forcefully, since they fear the action heralds plans for a large scale evacuation of entire settlements, such as in the Gaza Strip four years ago. Physical force would likely have to be used against the settlers, it says.


Tehran leaders lose touch but protesters lack organisation
The Australian
Friday, January 1, 2010

PARIS: Iran's regime has lost touch with the aspirations of its people but it is still far from certain that the opposition protest movement is ready to seize power, experts say. The street battles that rocked Tehran and other major cities over the Ashura holiday show the demonstrations have entered a new phase, with increased state repression and more violent incidents. But unlike the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah, Iran's latest uprising is not led by a well-organised opposition in exile.

The largely spontaneous protest movement does not appear poised to take over. Former Iranian legislator Ahmad Salamatian said the civic revolt was "not organised and non-hierarchical" and warned that "it should not fall into the trap of violence, because it's not clear that the middle classes would follow". "Meanwhile, the agents of repression will do everything to trigger a violent showdown," he said in Paris, describing the battle for representative government as "a marathon, not a boxing bout".

Several Iran experts said the response of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's government to the protests triggered by June's disputed election reminded them of the last days of the shah. The mounting anger on the streets, where protesters are increasingly taking on the police and members of the Basij militia, shows the frustration of a public that is more in tune with the modern world than are their leaders.

Francois Nicoullaud, French ambassador in Tehran between 2001 and 2005, said protests had now spread beyond the capital to the city of Tabriz in the northwest, a centre of opposition to the shah during a revolution in 1905, and considered a political bellwether. "Ironically, the current regime now faces the same dilemma as the shah," he said. "It is toughening its stance and in doing so, it runs the risk of making martyrs of its victims and giving its detainees a passport into politics." He described the revolt as spontaneous and said opposition flag-bearers such as former prime minister and defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi were following events rather than leading them.

Thierry Coville, who studies Iran at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, said former regime insiders such as Mr Mousavi "are being dragged along behind a civil society which is racing ahead". "It wasn't they who led Sunday's demonstrations," he said, while also dismissing the influence of Iranian opposition movements in exile such as Maryam Radjavi's National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Ayatollah Khamenei's failure to address the anger caused by Mr Ahmadinejad's dubious re-election has destroyed his own legitimacy and that of the Islamic Republic brought to power in the 1979 revolution, observers said. That opposition supporters - some of them at prayer - were attacked by the security forces during the religious holiday of Ashura, a celebration of one of Shia Islam's greatest martyrs, was particularly shocking to Iranians. "The regime has turned an electoral crisis into a political crisis, then into a systemic crisis and, since Sunday, into a religious and security crisis," Mr Salamatian said. "The citizens' Iran that is being born is a more and more individualist, molecular, urban society, vastly different from that of 1978-79," he added, noting the many means of communication open to protesters. They want to change the behaviour of an "archaic system of power", he said.


Commentary - Iran hasn't won the cold war yet
The Australian
Jonathan Spyer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel.

THE salient strategic fact in the Middle East today is the Iranian drive for regional hegemony. This Iranian objective is being promoted by a rising hardline conservative elite within the Iranian regime, centred on a number of political associations and on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards corps. This elite, which is personified by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has received the backing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Their aim is a second Islamic revolution that would revive the original fire of the revolution of 1979. They appear to be aiming for the augmenting of clerical rule with a streamlined, brutal police-security state, under the banner of Islam. Building Iranian power and influence throughout the Middle East is an integral part of their strategy.

The Iranian nuclear program is an aspect of this ambition. A nuclear capability is meant to form the ultimate insurance for the Iranian regime as it aggressively builds its influence across the region. This goal of hegemony is being pursued through the assembling of a bloc of states and organisations under Iranian leadership. This bloc, according to Iran, represents authentic Muslim currents within the region, battling against the US and its hirelings. The pro-Iranian bloc includes Syria, Sudan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas among the Palestinians, and the Houthi rebel forces in northern Yemen.

A de facto rival alliance is emerging, consisting of states that are threatened by Iran and its allies and clients. This rival alliance includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. Israel, despite lacking official diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, is also a key member of this camp. Unlike the pro-Iranian bloc, which has a simple guiding ideology of resistance to the West, the countries seeking to counter Iran are united by interest only.

The rivalry between these two camps now informs and underlies all-important developments in the Middle East. It is behind the joint Israeli-Egyptian effort to contain the Iran-sponsored Hamas enclave in the Gaza Strip. It is behind the fighting in north Yemen, as Saudi troops take on Shia rebels armed and supported by Iran. The rivalry is behind the face-off between pro-American and pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon. The insurgencies in Afghanistan and in Iraq are also notable for the presence of weaponry traceable to Iran in use by insurgents against Western forces.

Who is winning in this ongoing Middle East cold war ' The rhetoric of the Iranians, of course, depicts their advance as unstoppable. The reality is more complex, and the past year has seen gains and losses for both sides. First, within Iran the electoral victory of Ahmadinejad and the subsequent backing given to him by Khamenei represented a major advance for the Iranian hardline conservatives. Ahmadinejad subsequently confirmed his victory by forming a cabinet that is packed with conservatives and Revolutionary Guardsmen. But the refusal of large sections of the Iranian people to accept the possibly rigged election and the unprecedented scenes of opposition in the streets of Iranian cities in recent weeks have severely tarnished this achievement.

The ongoing unrest in Iran probably does not constitute an immediate danger to the regime. But it surely indicates that large numbers of Iranians have no desire to see their country turned into the instrument of permanent Islamic revolution and resistance envisaged by the hardline conservatives. The domestic unrest thus hits significantly at the emerging regime's legitimacy, and their ability to promote their regime as a model for governance to the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Iran made major advances in Lebanon last year. The formation of the new Lebanese government in November in essence confirms Hezbollah's domination of the country. Hezbollah is the favoured child of the Iranian regime and its partner in subversive activity globally. There is now no serious internal force in Lebanon able to oppose its will.

In Gaza, the Iranian-sponsored Hamas regime is holding on. The Iranian investment is central to Hamas's ability to stay in power. The movement just announced a budget of $US540 million ($590m) for 2010. Of this, just $US55m is to be raised through taxes and local sources of revenue. The rest is to come from "aid and assistance". Hamas does not reveal the identity of its benefactors. But it is fairly obvious that the bulk of this funding will come from Iran. The Palestinian issue remains the central cause celebre of the Arab and Muslim world. The Iranian regime's goal is to take ownership of it.

But there have been setbacks here too. The Iranian resistance model failed in a straight fight with the Israeli Defence Forces in the early part of the year. Hamas's 100-man "Iranian unit" suffered near destruction in Gaza. The Hamas regime in Gaza managed to kill six IDF soldiers in the entire course of Operation Cast Lead. This is a failure, recorded as such by all regional observers.

In addition, someone or the other appears to be trying to demonstrate to the Iranians that the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy is a two-way street. Hence the killing of 29 Revolutionary Guards in a bombing in October near the Iran-Pakistan border, and the mysterious explosion in Damascus last month that killed a number of Iranian pilgrims.

So at the beginning of 2010, the lines are clearly drawn in the Middle East cold war, and the contest is far from over.

Ultimately, like other totalitarians before them, the Iranian hardline conservatives are likely to fail through overreach. The inefficient, corruption-ridden and oppressive state they are coming to dominate is likely to prove an insufficient instrument to sustain their boundless ambition. Still, this process probably has a long way to run yet. Much will depend on the sense of purpose, will and resourcefulness of the Western and regional countries that this regime has identified as its enemies.

This is a contest for the future of the region. It has almost certainly not yet reached its height.


Iran's nuclear sites 'can be bombed'
The Australian
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

WASHINGTON: The top US military commander responsible for the Middle East and the Gulf region says Washington has developed contingency plans to deal with Iran's nuclear facilities, insisting that they "can be bombed".

"Well, they certainly can be bombed," General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, said yesterday as he commented on suggestions that the Iranian nuclear facilities are heavily fortified. "The level of effect would vary with who it is that carries it out, what ordnance they have, and what capability they can bring to bear," he added. General Petraeus did not elaborate on the plans, but he said the military had considered the impacts of any action taken in Iran. "It would be almost literally irresponsible if Centcom were not to have been thinking about the various `what ifs' and to make plans for a whole variety of different contingencies," he said.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the US and other Western nations fear Tehran wants to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel has called Iran's nuclear program the major threat facing its nation. General Petraeus declined to comment about Israel's military capabilities or reports that it may attack Iran.

The US is leading efforts to slap a fourth round of UN sanctions on Iran after it failed to meet an end-of-year deadline to accept a deal offered by five permanent UN Security Council members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - plus Germany. In response, Tehran gave the West until the end of this month to accept its own proposal. General Petraeus said he thought there was still time for the nations to engage Iran in diplomacy, noting there was no deadline on the enactment of any US contingency plans. But he added that "there was a period of time, certainly, before all this might come to a head, if you will".


Same Day
Israel hits back at US loans threat
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

TENSIONS between Israel and the Obama administration have increased after a strong response from politicians to suggestions by a key US negotiator that loan guarantees to Israel might be withheld to pressure it over the stalled peace process. Speaking after a cabinet meeting yesterday, Israel's Finance Minister, Yuval Steinitz, said: "We don't need to use these guarantees. We are doing just fine. But several months ago, we agreed with the American treasury on guarantees for 2010 and 2011 and there were no conditions."

The response came as tensions increased in the Gaza Strip after three members of Islamic Jihad were killed in an Israeli air strike. Israel said the strike was in response to militants preparing to fire missiles from the position. Amid growing expectation of another war between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, The Jerusalem Post yesterday reported that in the event of future conflict, the Israeli Defence Forces may take control of the Philadelphi corridor, the strip along the border between Gaza and Egypt that features a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons, many of which are believed to have originated in Iran, into Gaza.

The change in Israel's military strategy would be due to the fact that in last year's war with Hamas, Israel heavily bombed the tunnel network but much of it survived and continues to be used. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday said his government would respond more harshly than the previous government to rockets from Gaza. "We will not repeat the mistake of the Kadima government, which practised restraint and received a flood of rockets in the end," he said.

Meanwhile, reactions continued to President Barack Obama's special envoy on the Middle East, former senator George Mitchell, who last week raised the possibility of withholding the loan guarantees in relation to pressure on Israel. Israeli politicians attacked the threat and visiting US senators predicted any move would not pass the US congress. Speaking in Jerusalem, one of Israel's strongest supporters in congress, senator Joe Lieberman, said: "Any attempt to pressure Israel, to force Israel to the negotiating table by denying Israel support will not pass the congress of the United States." Senator Mitchell is due back in the Middle East in coming days to try to restart the peace talks.


Same Day
Africans blocked as Jerusalem acts to guard 'Jewish character'
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

ISRAEL yesterday announced plans for a new border fence, this one aimed at keeping out African migrants rather than Palestinian bombers. Construction of the fence, to be built along the border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, is aimed at stemming the inflow in recent years of thousands of Sudanese and other Africans across the open frontier seeking work. Residents of southern Israeli towns such as Eilat and Arad have complained of what they term an overwhelming influx that has hurt their quality of life. In approving construction of a fence along the more accessible stretches of the 170km-long border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed it "a strategic decision to secure Israel's Jewish and democratic character".

Although the border has often been tested by Bedouin drug-smugglers and, more recently, by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip attempting to carry out attacks inside Israel, army patrols have been deemed sufficient to cope with the problem. However, the mounting tide of economic migrants has proven a more difficult challenge. Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch last week said that up to 200 African infiltrators were caught every week on the border. Many others reach Tel Aviv, where they often sleep rough while they seek work. Israel has been loath to close the border to political refugees because of the memory of Western countries barring entry to German Jews on the eve of World War II.


Israel tries to calm Turkish row
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday, January 14, 2010

ISRAEL'S Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon offered an indirect apology yesterday for having deliberately humiliated a Turkish diplomat after Ankara threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel amid escalating tensions between the countries. Mr Ayalon triggered the fresh row when he summoned the ambassador, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, to be rebuked for an anti-Israel television series in Turkey depicting the Mossad as baby-snatchers and for attacks on Israel by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Departing from diplomatic protocol, Mr Ayalon invited Israeli television cameras to record the beginning of the meeting at which the ambassador was seated on a couch a few centimetres lower than the chairs on which Mr Ayalon and two colleagues were seated. Mr Ayalon told the cameramen in Hebrew, which the Turkish envoy does not speak: "Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table (and no Turkish flag) and that we are not smiling." The conversation that ensued in English between the diplomats after the cameramen left was polite, both sides reported, and it was only after learning of Mr Ayalon's remark to the cameramen that Mr Celikkol realised an attempt had been made to humiliate him.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Israel's ambassador to Ankara, Gaby Levy, to demand "an explanation and an apology" for Mr Ayalon's behaviour. The ministry issued a statement calling for "corrective steps to be taken with respect to the treatment shown our ambassador" and an official warned that without an apology, the ambassador would be withdrawn. In Israel, criticism of Mr Ayalon's behaviour was widespread, even among serving diplomats, several of whom called it, anonymously, "an embarrassment" and "childish".

Mr Ayalon initially defended his action. "Others will respect us only when we protect our honour," he said. Yesterday, however, he issued a statement aimed at terminating the episode. "My protest of the attacks against Israel in Turkey still stands," he said. "However, it is not my way to insult foreign ambassadors and in the future, I will clarify my position by more acceptable diplomatic means." There was no immediate indication from Ankara as to whether this was considered adequate apology.

Mr Ayalon, a professional diplomat who served as Israeli ambassador to Washington, began displaying hardline views after being chosen by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last year to serve as his deputy. Mr Lieberman has called upon Israeli diplomats to make a forceful response to perceived diplomatic insults and not to seek favour. In a statement issued earlier this week, Israel condemned Mr Erdogan's "unbridled tongue-lashing" of Israel for its incursion into Gaza last year. The Turkish Prime Minister has repeatedly accused Israel of disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians. The Israeli statement, alluding to Turkey's actions against its own Kurdish militants, and perhaps to its massacre of Armenians in World War I, said "Turkey is the last country that can preach morality to Israel".

The falling-out is of significance to both countries. The close ties that have existed for decades between them bear far-reaching political and security resonance.

Following Day
Israel apologises for Turkish dressing down
The Australian
Friday, January 15, 2010

JERUSALEM: Israel has issued a second apology to Turkey over its envoy's treatment, bowing to Ankara's ultimatum to defuse a spat over a TV show that marred ties between the two allies. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that Ankara had received the apology it "wanted and expected".

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon apologised to Turkish ambassador Oguz Celikkol for giving him an angry dressing down in front of cameras to protest a Turkish television series portraying Mossad agents as baby-snatchers. A statement from Mr Ayalon's office said that "out of respect" for a request by President Shimon Peres, the deputy minister sent the envoy an apology. "I had no intention to humiliate you personally and apologise for the way the demarche was handled and perceived," Mr Ayalon wrote in the apology letter.

Ankara, a key Muslim ally to Israel, was infuriated and demanded "an explanation and apology" after Mr Ayalon made Mr Celikkol sit on a low couch and had the Turkish flag removed from the table at their meeting on Monday. Mr Ayalon issued a initial apology on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the "protest to the Turkish ambassador was just in its essence but should have been conveyed in an acceptable diplomatic manner". But Turkish President Abdullah Gul threatened to recall the ambassador if there was no formal apology. Following the second, formal apology, Mr Netanyahu hoped the two allies would now put the crisis behind them.


Party of God on war footing
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, January 21, 2010

HEZBOLLAH says it has regrouped since the 2006 conflict with Israel and is in a stronger position for a new war between Israel and Lebanon. The group's international spokesman, Ibrahim Mousawi, told The Australian yesterday that if Israel and Lebanon returned to war, "we will do something that they will regret."

"If they (Israel) attack again, Hezbollah is in a position to defend and liberate," Dr Mousawi said in his Beirut office. "Hezbollah is stronger now than in 2006. Hezbollah has been training thousands and thousands and thousands of people to defend their country. Hezbollah is ready."

The comments followed last weekend's speech by Hezbollah's Lebanon-based chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in which he said the organisation would "change the face of the region" in any war with Israel. Nasrallah made the comments to a conference attended by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and delegates from about 30 countries, who gathered to discuss "the resistance" against Israel. Nasrallah told the delegates: "I promise you, in view of all the threats you hear today, that should a new war with the Zionists erupt, we will crush the enemy, emerge victorious and change the face of the region."

Dr Mousawi, who has a PhD in political science from Birmingham University, would not go into detail when asked whether Hezbollah would deploy its weaponry on Lebanon's southern border with Israel in the event of any Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities of Iran, Hezbollah's ally. Asked what Nasrallah had meant by "changing the face of the region", Dr Mousawi said: "Israel has always been viewed as an army that cannot be defeated . . . Israel is looked upon now as the policeman of the region, the superpower, the one that can do what it wants. This will change. It will not have the same capacity to carry out its aims."

Hezbollah was the leading partner in the "March 8 alliance", which was defeated in last year's Lebanese elections by the pro-Western "March 14 alliance", led by Saad Hariri. However, Hezbollah retains significant power in the new government via a blocking veto over any major government decision. Hezbollah - the Party of God - holds its "resistance" against Israel as central to its identity. "Hezbollah views Lebanon as under attack from Israel and needs to have all Lebanon united against the Israeli threat," Dr Mousawi said.


Netanyahu rejects freeze on settlements
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Prime Minister reaffirms his commitment to 'greater Jerusalem'

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday gave his most public and comprehensive rejection of Washington's call for all activity to cease in Jewish settlements, telling a group of settlers: "The settlement blocs are an indisputable part of Israel forever."

On a tour of the largest settlements hours after meeting US President Barack Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, Mr Netanyahu gave his strongest rejection to any permanent freeze in settlement activity and reaffirmed a commitment to "greater Jerusalem". He told settlers during one tree-planting ceremony: "The message is clear: we are here and will remain here. The settlement blocs are an indisputable part of Israel forever.

"This is acceptable to the great majority of Israel's citizens and is gradually being instilled in international consciousness." In the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, Mr Netanyahu said: "We will build here as part of greater Jerusalem. "I came here from Gush Etzyon, which is Jerusalem's southern gate. Now we're in Maaleh Adumim, which is Jerusalem's eastern gate."

Mr Netanyahu recently announced a 10-month freeze on new construction in the settlements, which he said was a show of goodwill to convince Palestinians to resume peace negotiations. But both the US and Palestinians had called for a complete and permanent freeze on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank to help the resumption of peace talks. Mr Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called for a complete freeze, but when Israel rejected this and announced the 10-month freeze, Mrs Clinton said Israel's moratorium was "unprecedented". Palestinian officials point to the fact that during the moratorium, 3000 houses already approved were still being built.

Palestinian officials last night responded to Mr Netanyahu's comments by saying they were undermining efforts to resume the peace process. An aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, told Haaretz newspaper: "This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by Senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table."

Mr Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, himself Jewish, is increasingly being targeted in Israel as responsible for the administration's approach, which has been far more challenging of Israel than that of its predecessor. Two right-wing activists in Israel have written to Mr Emanuel saying they will protest when he visits Israel for the bar mitzvah of his son. Army Radio said the two activists, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Gvir, told Mr Emanuel: "You are like the Hellenists who acted against the Israel nation. You advise President Obama against Israel and incite and instigate against us. You are a traitor against the entire Jewish people."


Iran menace hangs over Holocaust day
The Australian
The Times
Friday, January 29, 2010

OSWIECIM, Poland: In the biting cold of the Polish winter, warnings of the renewed rise of anti-Semitism and the threat posed to world peace by a nuclear-armed Iran marked Holocaust Memorial Day, the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In the death camp where 1.1 million Jews were murdered, politicians and religious leaders from Poland and Israel gathered to urge that the lessons of the Holocaust be learned and passed on to future generations. In the shadow of a replica of the iconic Auschwitz sign, Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free), elderly survivors met the last few Red Army liberators still alive. Speakers said last month's theft of the camp's wrought-iron sign served as a reminder that memories of the Holocaust and its victims remained under threat. "From this place, I swear as the leader of the Jewish people, never again shall we allow evil to hurt our people," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Warnings about Iran were led by Israeli President Shimon Peres. Addressing the German parliament in Hebrew in Berlin, he said the Iranian government was a "fanatic regime" and sponsor of international terrorism. To applause from the 622 German deputies, he said Tehran's nuclear program "threatens destruction" and represented "a danger to the entire world". "This day not only represents a memorial day for victims, not only the pangs of conscience of humankind in the face of the incomprehensible atrocity that took place, but also of the tragedy that derived from the procrastination in taking action," he said. "Never again ignore bloodthirsty dictators, hiding behind demagogical masks, who utter murderous slogans."

At a memorial event in Cracow, near Auschwitz, Tel Aviv chief rabbi Meir Lau said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "threatening the very existence of a neighbour". "I see the headlines every day," Rabbi Lau said. "Within two years he will have an atomic weapon, so it means there is a threat." World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, who was saved from the gas chamber aged seven, when his mother shoved him into a different queue, said: "I believe another horror is coming to our world. I am talking about what is happening in Iran. We have a man who denies the Holocaust. We have a man who talks about the destruction of Israel."


Islamic revolution a failure: Mousavi
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, February 4, 2010

IRAN's internal crisis looks set to worsen after an extraordinary attack by opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, who branded the Islamic revolution of 1979 a failure. Pushing his criticisms of the ruling Islamic regime further than he has before, the former prime minister said the revolution had failed to eradicate "the roots of tyranny and dictatorship" that marked the reign of its predecessor, the Shah. "Stifling the media, filling the prisons and brutally killing people who peacefully demand their rights in the streets indicate the roots of tyranny and dictatorship remain from the monarchist era," he said. "I don't believe that the revolution achieved its goals." He added: "Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind."

Mr Mousavi's comments came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to make a concession in relation to Iran's nuclear program. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that his government would accept a nuclear fuel-swap agreement overseen by the UN. It said the announcement on Iranian television was immediately greeted with scepticism by Western diplomats who had watched Iran "flip-flop"on the fuel-swap issue since it was proposed in October. Mr Ahmadinejad told state TV: "We have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad. If we send our enriched uranium abroad and then they do not give us the 20 per cent enriched fuel for our reactor we are capable of producing it inside Iran."

The US is leading the push for harsher sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama said if Iran did not comply with international requirements it would face harsh consequences. While he did not raise military action, Israel has repeatedly said that it is keeping "all options on the table" in relation to Iran. The most likely course of any military action would be that the US would not be directly involved in flying aircraft itself but would provide support for an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mr Mousavi's comments are likely to incense the regime, which is already bracing for more demonstrations next Thursday, the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The regime warned yesterday that it would "firmly confront" any demonstrators who attempt to turn official rallies to commemorate the revolution into anti-government protests. While the regime has tried to discredit Mr Mousavi, inside Iran he has authority having been prime minister under Ayatollah Khomeini and leader of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

The regime yesterday made clear it was not softening in its attitude to opposition protesters with the announcement that it was preparing to execute nine more protesters who were detained during the uprising in June. The protesters were charged with "waging war against God". Millions of Iranians protested in June claiming that the election result which saw Mr Ahmadinejad returned to power had been rigged. An Iranian official yesterday told Fars news agency: "Nine others will be hanged soon. The nine, and the two who were hanged on Thursday, were surely arrested in the recent riots and had links to anti-revolutionary groups."


New diplomacy for Damascus
The Australian
Giles Whittell, Washington, The Times
Friday, February 5, 2010

IN an effort to loosen the gridlock that is blocking progress towards peace in the Middle East, the US State Department has appointed one of its foremost Arabists as its new ambassador to Syria. Robert Ford, whose appointment has yet to be confirmed by the Syrian government, would be the first US ambassador to Damascus since his predecessor was withdrawn in 2005 because of apparent Syrian involvement in the death of Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

A former ambassador in Algiers with experience in Iraq, Mr Ford's task will be to try to coax the government of Bashar Assad away from Iran and its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestinian territories. He will also press urgently for a peace deal between Israel and Syria, which Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday was the only alternative to a slide to war. "In the absence of a deal with Syria, we could reach an armed conflict that could develop into a full-fledged war," he told Israeli army officers.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem responded by warning Israel to "stop being the neighbourhood bully" and said if war broke out, it would be "all-out and (would) take place inside your cities". Syria has never acknowledged any role in the Hariri assassination but has been seeking ways to avoid diplomatic isolation over the incident.

Mr Ford's name was mentioned in talks last week between Mr Assad and George Mitchell, the US Special Envoy to the Middle East. Mr Moallem confirmed yesterday his name had been submitted. The US had nominated an ambassador, he said: "This is an American sovereign issue and it is Syria's right to study the nomination." An official at the US embassy in Damascus said Washington hoped Mr Ford's appointment, if approved, would "help change Syria's attitude in the region to ensure stability and security. Washington hopes Syria will play an essential role in eliminating US concerns regarding its attitude in the region."


Iran in warning to street protesters, clashes expected
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Thursday, February 11, 2010

IRAN is facing crises internally and externally as the regime prepares for clashes today with opposition supporters at the same time as the US has vowed to pursue tougher sanctions. The regime has warned it will deal harshly with protesters who plan to use today's anniversary of the Islamic revolution to renew demonstrations over last June's presidential elections, which it claims fraudulently returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office. Hundreds of protesters have been detained, killed or executed since then. Demonstrators have used the cover of any government-endorsed events to bring supporters to the streets. Police last night said several people had been arrested while preparing for anti-government protests.

US President Barack Obama yesterday increased his rhetoric in response to Iran's declaration that it has begun enriching uranium to 20 per cent, a major step on the path to the 90 per cent required to make a nuclear bomb and further than the 3 per cent previously acknowledged. Mr Obama said that despite Iranian "posturing" that its nuclear program was for civilian use, "they, in fact, continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponisation and that is not acceptable to the international community". He said the US would support tougher sanctions within weeks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday called for "crippling" and immediate sanctions against Iran. "Iran is racing forward to produce nuclear weapons in brazen defiance of the international community," he said. "And the international community must decide if it is serious about neutralising this threat to Israel, the region and the entire world. I believe that what is required right now is tough action from the international community. This means not moderate sanctions or watered-down sanctions. This means crippling sanctions and these sanctions must be applied right now."

Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel told Israel's Army Radio: "We're sure that the President of Iran, the world's No 1 Holocaust denier, plans to destroy and annihilate the Jewish state and bring disaster to the entire world." Mr Wiesel has organised a petition signed by about 50 Nobel prize winners warning about Iran.

One of Israel's leading writers, A.B. Yehoshua, said Iran might be dragged into the same "mad aggression" as Nazi Germany. Writing in Haaretz newspaper, he said: "But for all the differences (with Nazi Germany), the Iranian regime has adopted the same total opposition to Israel's existence. It is therefore liable to slip into the same human mechanism that created the infinite hatred for Jews of the Holocaust era. And when Iran has nuclear weapons, it might be dragged, as Nazi Germany was, into mad aggression."

Mr Yehoshua said one way to neutralise the Iranian threat was a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. He drew on a recent speech by the Palestinian minister of the Waqf religious trust, Mahmoud Habash, who said Iran was making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worse by encouraging Hamas and provoking a harsh response from Israel.


US in diplomatic push against Iran
The Australian
Tim Reid in Washington, The Times, AFP
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

THE Obama administration started an intense diplomatic push yesterday to achieve global isolation of Iran over its nuclear weapons program. The move was spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who landed in the region to confer with Arab allies. The diplomatic effort involves a team of US officials fanning out across the Middle East, and it began as the White House said for the first time China was close to backing a new round of UN sanctions against the regime.

As the US's top four diplomats landed in the region, Barack Obama's National Security Adviser, James Jones, said the US would press the UN to impose new sanctions this month. Russia and China, who have veto power as permanent members of the Security Council, have appeared cool to the idea of punitive action against Tehran. General Jones, however, offered a rare expression of confidence in Moscow's willingness to help. "Russia is supportive and on board," he said.

US Vice-President Joe Biden said the US expected to win support from China to impose sanctions but did not give the reason for his optimism. "We have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe," Mr Biden told NBC's Meet the Press. "And I believe we'll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them." The comments came as the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he was concerned about the consequences of any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. "The outbreak of a conflict will be a big, big, big problem for all of us, and I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike," he said in Jerusalem.

The American diplomats, including Mrs Clinton, will visit Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will feature in the talks, the main issue will be Iran. The offensive comes after a year of failed attempts by the Obama administration to engage with Tehran. It carries significant risk. If it fails to bring China, or even Russia, on board, Mr Obama will have few options left to deal with the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran, which is consuming Israel and threatens a nuclear arms race in the region. The diplomats must convince Sunni Arab nations the US is serious about tackling the threat from Iran and to enlist other countries to back new sanctions. Central to the effort is Mrs Clinton, who arrived in Qatar yesterday and spoke at the US-Islamic World Forum before a visit to Saudi Arabia. "We don't want to be engaging (with Iran) while they are building their bomb," she said.

The diplomatic push came as major powers made a new offer to supply Tehran with nuclear fuel, in return for it shipping out most of its stocks of low-enriched uranium, said Iran's atomic energy organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi. Iran last week said it had started enriching uranium itself after rejecting an earlier Western offer.


Clinton talks tough on Iran
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

THE US and Israel have begun a major campaign throughout the Middle East and Europe to enlist support for immediate sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. In the toughest comments yet about the regime in Tehran, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Iran as becoming a "military dictatorship" that had been captured by the Revolutionary Guards. "We see the government of Iran, the Supreme Leader, the President, the parliament is being supplanted and Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship," she said yesterday. The comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to lobby the Russians to use their vote on the UN Security Council to support "crippling" sanctions against Iran.

The US and Israel appear to have decided to put aside the disagreement of recent months over the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank to focus on Iran. High-level political, intelligence and military figures from the US visited Israel in recent weeks and Vice-President Joe Biden will visit Israel shortly. The flurry of US visitors has added to a sense that Israel has made it clear to the US that it is seriously considering a strike against Iran's nuclear targets. The head of the US military, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned this week of "unintended consequences" for any Israeli strike on Iran but also that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, it would amount to "a big, big problem for all of us".

Israeli officials have told The Australian that US officials stressed to Israel that any military strike against Iran should wait until all US combat troops are out of Iraq — which would be the beginning of next year. US soldiers are withdrawing from Iraq, but US officials fear that as they leave, they could confront brutal retaliation from elements loyal to Iran, should Israel strike Iran.

Mrs Clinton said in Qatar that she feared the rise of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard "poses a very direct threat to everyone". The US administration has said publicly that it wanted to target businesses owned by key figures in the Revolutionary Guard. "Certainly, we don't want to be engaging while they're building their bomb," Mrs Clinton said. She continued her tough line while speaking at a woman's college in Saudi Arabia last night, saying "evidence doesn't support" Iran's claim it is pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. Mrs Clinton also said if Iran got a nuclear weapon it could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

Iran continues to give mixed signals about its nuclear program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at the weekend Iran could develop a bomb if it wanted to, but a few days earlier insisted its program was for civilian purposes.


Opinion: Tehran on path to our destruction
The international community is standing by as Iran goes nuclear
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Thursday, February 18, 2010

STAND by for some bad news. No, I mean really bad news. The world is not going to apply crippling sanctions to Iran. Even if it did, Iran would not be deterred from developing nuclear weapons. The only way that Iran can be significantly delayed in its pursuit of nuclear weapons is through an Israeli air strike on its nuclear facilities. I think the chances of an Israeli attack are somewhat less than 50-50. Even with an air strike, the likelihood is you would delay rather than prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons. Don't get me wrong, a delay is much better than no delay, but the balance of probabilities is that Iran will ultimately have a nuclear arsenal.

Even sanctions would only have an outside chance of working. But the world is not even going to try them. China, and to a lesser extent Russia, are going to make sure that doesn't happen. This is a tragedy far beyond Copenhagen, but like Copenhagen it illustrates the complete breakdown of the multilateral system.

The US could strike Iran's nuclear facilities far more effectively than Israel could, but to do so would be foreign to every instinct of the Obama administration. It would also be hugely risky. But the risks of not acting are even greater. Nonetheless, the portents are strong that the Obama administration will dither. More than 12 months ago, just after his inauguration, Obama said: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." Since then Obama has done everything an American president could possibly do to engage and entice Iran. He has made countless statements about the genius of Persian civilisation, the wonders of Islam as a religion, the sweetness of the Iranian people, the potential reasonableness of the Iranian government. And in response he has received contemptuous game playing from the Iranians.

I come to my conclusion that Iran will ultimately get nuclear weapons with great reluctance, but it follows ineluctably from the facts. Consider the main players: Iran, the US, China, the UN, Russia, Israel.


Hamas vows revenge for hit
The Australian
Friday, February 19, 2010

JABALIYA, GAZA STRIP: Thousands of Hamas supporters have vowed revenge at a rally in honour of a commander assassinated in Dubai. "The decision to avenge the martyr Mahmoud al-Mabhouh has been taken, and it will be equal to the crime," Abu Obeida, a masked spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, told the crowd. "All you killers can do now is wait. We are the ones who will decide the tools suitable to carry out our promise. We will not tell you how or where or when, but only to prepare to receive the hellfire of our anger."

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gave a televised address from Damascus, blaming the killing on Israel's Mossad spy agency. "The time for promises and talk of revenge is done. Now is the time for action," he said. A masked marching band trampled a long Israeli flag before other fighters in military fatigues glided down on ziplines from the surrounding buildings. "We do not cry tears, but bullets and bombs," shouted the master of ceremonies from a lit-up stage with a flaming banner as a backdrop.

Mabhouh, a senior commander in the armed wing of the Islamist group, was assassinated last month in Dubai by a professional hit squad of at least 11 people carrying forged European passports. The killing of Mabhouh while on an apparent weapons-purchasing trip has widely been blamed on Mossad, which has refused to comment on the affair.

A vague comment from Israel's Foreign Minister only added to the spy-novel-like mystery surrounding the slaying. "Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies," Avigdor Lieberman said in Israel's first official comment on the affair. He added: "I don't know why we are assuming that Israel, or the Mossad, used those passports."

But senior Israeli security officials not directly involved in the case said they were convinced it was a Mossad operation because of the motive — Israel says Mabhouh supplied Gaza's Hamas rulers with their most dangerous weapons. The officials characterised the operation as a significant Mossad bungle that could hurt the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Same Day
Mossad blasted at home over killing in Dubai
Israelis assume their secret service was responsible for the assassination of a Hamas commander and view it as an operational failure.
Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem

HAILED last month for the daring and efficiency displayed in the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai, Israel's Mossad, widely blamed for the killing, has been pilloried at home for what is seen as an operational failure. Israelis, including perhaps the Mossad hierarchy, were astonished at the efficiency of the Dubai police in sifting through reams of airport and hotel videotapes to come up with photographs and assumed names of at least a dozen men and women holding European passports who were allegedly part of the hit team. All had left the country within hours of the killing.

The slaying of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his hotel room was intended, according to some Israeli commentators, to be made to seem as death by natural causes. The Dubai authorities held off for more than a week before announcing their conclusion that Mabhouh had been murdered. Israel has not acknowledged involvement in the killing of Mabhouh, said to be responsible for transporting arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza. But the publication by Dubai of the names of the hit team stunned at least five Israelis, who found that their names had been used on the forged passports. This could open them to the possibility of arrest as suspected terrorists anytime they travel abroad.

"I just don't understand how something like this could happen," said John Keeley, a British-born repairman who emigrated from Britain a decade ago and lives on a kibbutz. "I am worried for my family." A former senior Mossad official, Rafi Eitan, said those whose identities had been used would not be exposed to any danger travelling abroad except perhaps for "a technical difficulty or two", but it is questionable whether that proves reassuring to those involved. Security officials say Mossad, and all intelligence agencies, will have difficulty travelling under false identities in the future when passports will include biometric measures that cannot be forged.

Beyond the question of identity theft, critics have begun asking whether Mossad and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is responsible for the agency, had considered the political ramifications. "Did the goal justify the risk of carrying out a hit in a moderate Arab country ?" asked an editorial in Haaretz newspaper yesterday. Similar flaps about the use of false foreign passports by Mossad agents have arisen before in New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere and, like those, this imbroglio is expected by Israeli officials to eventually be contained.

But the press has demanded the resignation of Mossad chief Meir Dagan, whose term was recently extended by Mr Netanyahu to an eighth year. He is regarded by critics as too quick on the trigger but as long as things went smoothly for the spy agency, he was the subject only of praise.

A series of killings in Arab countries has been attributed to Mossad. In December, an explosion aboard a bus in Damascus reportedly took the lives of three Hamas operatives returning from training in Iran, as well as six members of the Iranian Republican Guard. Three weeks later, a bomb exploded beneath a car in Hezbollah's security zone in Beirut, killing two Hamas officials. Two years ago, Hezbollah's security chief, Imad Mugniyah, was killed in a car-bomb explosion in Damascus.


Netanyahu met with Dubai hit squad
The Australian
Monday, February 22, 2010

LONDON: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met members of a hit squad at Mossad headquarters shortly before they went to Dubai to kill Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel. Mr Netanyahu was welcomed to the Midrasha - the intelligence agency's headquarters, in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv - by Mossad chief Meir Dagan in early January and briefed on plans to kill Mabhouh, The Sunday Times reported yesterday. The Prime Minister authorised the mission, which was not seen as complicated or risky. "Typically on such occasions, the Prime Minister intones: `The people of Israel trust you. Good luck'," the paper added. It also quoted a source saying burns from a stun gun were found on the body of Mabhouh and that there were traces of a nose bleed, possibly from being smothered. The hit squad allegedly trained for the mission by secretly rehearsing in a Tel Aviv hotel.

The methodical stalking of Mabhouh by a team of people using fake European passports was captured on CCTV cameras in the Dubai hotel. Dubai police have blamed Mossad and named 11 suspects who apparently travelled to Dubai on the European passports. Interpol has put the 11 suspects on its top watch list but said those whose identities were stolen should be able to travel as usual though may face more scrutiny. Two Palestinians also are being held in Dubai on suspicion they helped the assassins.

The case has spread across several continents with investigators probing possible credit card links to US-based banks and European officials grilling Israeli envoys over the fraudulent British, Irish, French and German passports used by the hit squad. The German media have reported that the intelligence services of the country are certain Mossad was involved in the killing and that the German Foreign Minister demanded that Israel explain why it used a German passport in the operation.

Hamas at the weekend said Mabhouh exposed himself to attack when he breached security protocol by talking about his trip over the phone and making hotel reservations on the internet. Hamas politician Salah Bardawil said Mabhouh unwittingly led his attackers to him by openly planning his travels - a move that would make him easily traceable. "Al-Mabhouh called his family by phone before he travelled to Dubai and told them of his plan to stay in a specific hotel, and he booked his travel through the internet. This undoubtedly created a security breach in the movements of al-Mabhouh," Mr Bardawil told reporters in Gaza. Mabhouh's brother Fayek denied the phone leak, saying the slain operative didn't reveal any details regarding his reservations or other travel plans. "I am the last one who received a call from Mahmoud," the brother said. "He didn't tell me that he was going to Dubai and he never told anyone of the family the details of his work or his movements."

Israel has declined to confirm or deny Mossad's involvement. The assassination has also triggered accusations between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and its rival Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Hamas and Fatah alleged that the other group had collaborated with the spy agency but both hold Israel responsible for the assassination itself.


Holy plan sparks unrest
The Australian
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

HEBRON: Palestinians yesterday clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron amid outrage over a plan to restore two flashpoint Jewish holy sites in the occupied territory. Dozens of youths hurled rocks at an Israeli checkpoint as troops fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Shops and schools shut down as a strike was declared.

On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped to include the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem in a $US100 million ($111m) plan to restore 150 national heritage sites. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called on the international community to consider the move illegal. Palestinian Islamic courts head Taysir al-Tamimi said it amounted to a declaration of war against "the Islamic holy sites in Palestine".

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham is believed buried, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. A few hundred settlers under Israeli military protection have converted part of the Ibrahimi mosque above it into a synagogue. Rachel's Tomb is surrounded by 8m-high concrete walls. The decision to include the two sites was made at the last minute following protests from right-wing ministers. A spokesman insisted the list of 150 sites was not final.


Biden's Israel visit a kickstart
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, March 6, 2010

THE US is about to begin another push to restart the Middle East peace talks with the highest-level visit to Israel by the Obama administration. Vice-President Joe Biden arrives in Israel on Monday with two aims: to restart the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and to discuss possible responses to Iran's nuclear program. The visit comes as US mediators try to bring together key ministers from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to foster goodwill. The aim would be that these talks would be a step towards leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas resuming talks.

Mr Abbas has said he would resume talks with Mr Netanyahu if Israel agreed to a three-month freeze in new building activity in the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu has agreed to a 10-month freeze in the West Bank, now in place, but will not include Jerusalem, which he says is "the undivided and eternal capital of Israel" and has exempted 3000 homes in the West Bank that had already received approval. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell returns to the region this weekend to try to start the proximity talks — but he is believed to have lost hope that he can bring about a peace agreement.

While both sides continue to say they hold out hopes for resumption of talks, privately they admit that while they were enthusiastic in the first months of the Obama presidency, they believe that window has shut. Also, privately, they say they fear an increase in violence and tension. It was reported recently that Mr Mitchell had offered to resign but that US President Barack Obama asked that he continue. The growing sense of despair was echoed yesterday by the departing UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, John Holmes, who said Israel's blockade of Gaza was encouraging "a smuggler-gangster economy, which, incidentally, benefits Hamas financially".

Same Day
Spy fears shake Hamas to the core
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

HAMAS'S reputation as a tight-knit, ideologically firm and politically coherent group has been shaken since the assassination of a top operative in Dubai raised the spectre that Mossad has penetrated its inner-most workings. To deny that possibility and preserve morale, a senior Hamas official summoned a hasty press conference to say that murder victim Mahmoud al-Mabhouh had violated basic security precautions by booking his flight online and calling his family in Gaza from Damascus to tell them which hotel he was staying in. But Dubai's police chief, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan, said Mabhouh's travel plans had apparently been leaked to his killers by a Hamas member. It subsequently emerged that Mabhouh had been under lengthy surveillance by the organisation that killed him. Rather than just being a target of opportunity, he had been stalked by a team of 27 or more agents in a carefully planned operation.

If this were not enough to keep Hamas leaders from looking over their shoulders and wondering who around them might be a mole, an even more shocking event took place this month when the son of one of Hamas's founders revealed he had worked for Israel's Shin Bet security service for a decade. Mosab Hassan Yousef, whose father, Sheik Hassan Yousef, is in an Israeli prison, told Ha'aretz he had played a key role in the destruction of many of Hamas's militant cells on the West Bank during the intifada, a claim supported by a former Israeli security official.

Yousef fingered top members of Hamas's military wing who were subsequently killed or arrested. He said he had intended to be a double agent on Hamas's behalf until, serving a brief prison sentence as a cover for his activities, he saw how Hamas members tortured fellow prisoners. The possibility that the son of a revered leader like Sheik Yousef was a turncoat working on behalf of the Israelis was initially dismissed by many Palestinians as "Zionist propaganda". However, the younger Yousef, who converted to Christianity and moved to the US several years ago, was soon confirming the story in interviews with CNN and other media outlets. A political science professor at al-Azhar University in Gaza, Mkhaimar Abusada, said the revelation was "a catastrophe for Hamas". A former Israeli intelligence officer, Brigadier General Shalom Harari, said Yousef's revelation coming on the heels of the Dubai assassination made Hamas appear vulnerable.

Vulnerability had not been a Hamas hallmark since its emergence in Gaza in 1987 as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Focusing initially on building a social base, it set up clinics, schools and mosques and won wide popularity. It soon formed its own underground militia. During the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that broke out in 2000, Hamas was perhaps the most militant faction, employing numerous suicide bombers. The uprising was suppressed by Israel but Hamas shifted deftly to the political arena. In January 2006, the Islamist movement participated in Palestinian parliamentary elections and — to the surprise of everybody, including itself — scored a huge victory, taking 76 of the 132 seats. Its principal rival, the Fatah movement, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had been mired in corruption and inefficiency. Hamas was seen as not corrupt but efficient while its role in the intifada won wide respect. The election victory was Hamas's high-water mark. Two more coups followed, but both would prove double-edged. In a daring operation in June 2006, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner and Hamas demanded the release of more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for him. A year later, Hamas seized exclusive control of the Gaza Strip after defeating Fatah in a bloody coup.

However, retribution followed. In the wake of Shalit's capture, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip, permitting entry only of humanitarian goods. It launched limited military incursions to force Shalit's release. It did not succeed but hundreds of Palestinians were killed. As for the Gaza takeover, it severed Hamas from the Palestinian Authority, increasing its isolation in the Arab world and beyond. Its leaders expected the massive release of Palestinian prisoners, which appeared imminent a few months ago, would restore its image within the Palestinian camp but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted hard-core prisoners not be returned to the West Bank and Hamas baulked.

Its biggest mistake would prove to have been firing thousands of rockets at Israeli communities bordering Gaza. Israel's massive incursion last year left about 1400 Palestinian militants and civilians dead and much of Gaza in rubble. Abbas would say Hamas's rocketing and the capture of Shalit had cost the lives of 2500 Gazans. Hamas has refrained from firing rockets since.

The pressures on Hamas have inevitably led to divisions at the top, particularly between the political leadership based in Damascus and local leadership in Gaza. Arab affairs expert Avi Issacharoff wrote this week in Ha'aretz that the more pragmatic leaders in Gaza favoured acceptance of an Egyptian draft agreement for patching up the differences with the Palestinian Authority and reknitting a coalition government that could enter into negotiations with Israel. However, he wrote, the Damascus group, headed by Khalid Meshaal, "preferred instead to travel to Tehran for a show of solidarity with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad". Given Egypt's deep discomfort about Iranian regional ambitions, Meshaal's pro-Iranian policy could perpetuate Gaza's misery since Egypt controls the only entry to the strip outside of Israel.

Last week, one of the senior Hamas leaders in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, publicly resigned from the team negotiating the prisoner exchange. He blamed Israel for the breakdown in talks but Israeli observers believe his move was aimed at Damascus, not Jerusalem. "It's a sign," says Issacharoff, "that Zahar, along with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and others who make up the group's pragmatic wing, are shocked by the radicalisation of Meshaal's faction in Damascus." Hamas followers in besieged Gaza can only wonder where it can take them from here.


Hamas losing its grip, military chief says
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, March 8, 2010

IN the first indication from a Hamas leader that the Islamic organisation is in danger of losing control in the Gaza Strip, the commander of its armed wing has warned the movement's political leader that the area is descending into anarchy. A letter by Ahmed Jaabri, the powerful military chief, to Khaled Mashal in Damascus was reported in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat and the Palestinian news agency PalPress.

"The situation is deteriorating," he wrote. "The Strip is witnessing explosions and chaos and operatives from (Hamas's military wing) are being killed." The letter did not blame Israel for these troubles and A-Sharq said Jaabri was referring to extremist "jihad" groups that had emerged in Gaza. These groups have been blamed for bombings and a number of assassinations of Hamas officials in the past year.

Since last year's Israeli incursion into Gaza, Hamas has cracked down on hardline groups that attempt to ignore the ban Hamas has imposed on any further firing of rockets into Israel. Some Palestinian sources claim the assassinations reflect internal strife within Hamas. In his letter, Jaabri said Hamas was guilty of errors in its governing of Gaza, which it seized in a bloody coup three years ago. He indicated the existence of a deep rift between the military wing he heads and the local Hamas government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

"We began to lose control of the internal situation after you asked us to transfer control to the government and not to interfere in order to allow it to direct the affairs of Gaza," he wrote. The government, he said, had ignored the military wing's achievements during the incursion and instead focused criticism on its assassination of operatives of the rival Fatah movement, who were accused of collaborating with Israel. The military wing "may have made a few stupid mistakes", he admitted, when some of its operatives killed members of the Palestine Authority's security services. "But the security of the movement was always vastly more important than a death here and there." Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida denied any such letter had been written.


Iran strengthens naval power with home-made cruise missile
The Australian
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

TEHRAN: Iran announced yesterday it had started a new production line of highly accurate short-range cruise missiles, adding a new element to the country's arsenal. Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi told state television the cruise missile, called Nasr 1, would be capable of destroying targets up to 3000 tonnes in size. General Vahidi said the missile could be fired from ground-based launchers as well as ships, and would eventually be modified to be fired from helicopter gunships and submarines.

Western powers are already concerned about Iran's military capabilities, especially the implications of its nuclear program. The US and some of its allies, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, fear Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies. The West is considering stiffer sanctions against Tehran to try to force it to halt uranium enrichment, a process that has civilian uses but can be used for nuclear arms if the uranium is enriched more than 90 per cent.

Iran has an array of short-range and medium-range missiles capable of hitting targets in the Middle East and nearby, including Israel, US military bases in the region and much of Europe. Tehran frequently makes announcements about advances in military technology that cannot be independently verified. General Vahidi said the production of the cruise missiles, which took two years to develop, showed the Western sanctions against Iran had failed. He said the cruise missiles would strengthen Iran's naval power.

Cruise missiles are highly advanced, usually subsonic, rocket-powered weapons that can hug the ground and hit targets with great precision. The US used large numbers of cruise missiles in its attack on Baghdad in 2002, launching most of them from warships in the Persian Gulf. Iranian state TV showed footage of boxes containing several missiles in a warehouse, and broadcast images of Iran's cruise missile test in 2007. That missile was reportedly imported.

Tehran began a military self-sufficiency program in 1992, under which it produces a range of weapons, including tanks, missiles, jet fighters, unmanned drone aircraft and torpedoes.

Same Day
Extract - US persuades Israel and Palestinians to talk
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

THE Obama administration has made a rare breakthrough in the Middle East peace process, as clashes between Israelis and Palestinians become more frequent and more violent. It was announced yesterday that ministerial talks to be brokered by the US will begin soon between key figures from the Israeli government and officials of the Palestinian Authority. As US Vice-President Joe Biden was about to arrive in Israel, it was announced that "proximity talks" would begin as part of a strategy to enable discussions on the boundaries of any future Palestinian state to begin between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. The talks were seen as some sort of breakthrough for the Obama administration, which until now has been unable to achieve its aim of bringing the Israeli and Palestinian leadership together.

On Friday, clashes continued for hours in Jerusalem's Old City. Israeli security forces stormed the site of the Al Aqsa mosque after several Palestinians locked themselves inside the compound and threw rocks at the Israeli forces. Since the heritage announcement, clashes have broken out in the Old City of Jerusalem and in Hebron near the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday both sides of the conflict needed to seize the new opportunities of the proximity talks. "Now, more than ever, I believe it is the Israeli leadership's duty to make certain we do not miss another opportunity, and this means a willingness to make some difficult decisions that will require support from all corners of the political establishment," he said. "(Mahmoud) Abbas will also have to make some difficult decisions regarding his own people. Peace is in the interests of all sides." Mr Barak said he hoped the talks would facilitate "actual negotiations on the core issues and eventually lead to an agreement".


US ignores Olmert's concessions
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

THE Obama administration yesterday discarded far-reaching offers made to the Palestinians by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert as it announced the two parties had agreed to resume peace talks that have been frozen for more than a year. Reports last night said US special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the understandings reached following the 2007 Annapolis Conference were non-binding in the current round of negotiations.

Haaretz reported that Mr Mitchell's deputy David Hale said the negotiations after Annapolis and the understandings reached would not be binding. Mr Olmert had gone further in offering concessions than previous leaders, proposing an Israeli withdrawal from 94 per cent of the West Bank with the remaining 6 per cent swapped for an equivalent swath of Israeli territory. In addition, he proposed international governance of the holy sites in Jerusalem and the symbolic acceptance of about 5000 Palestinian refugees into Israel. Mr Abbas never responded to Mr Olmert's offer, but the Palestinians insisted the negotiations resume from where they stopped during Mr Olmert's term as prime minister. But the report last night said the US accepted Israel's position on the matter, which was to ignore everything that was not signed as part of an agreement.

The US will play an active role in the indirect negotiations about to get under way and will "act accordingly" if the sides fail to make progress. Palestinian officials said yesterday Mr Mitchell would not simply be a messenger shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators but would be proposing ideas as well. According to the Palestinians, an American official has told them that "the US expects both sides to behave seriously, with honesty and in goodwill, because if one of the sides, in our judgment, does not fulfil our expectations, we will make our concerns clear and we will act accordingly in order to overcome every obstacle". The Palestinians have been seeking such assurance from Washington for fear that the more powerful Israelis might attempt to ride roughshod over them.

The announcement of the resumed talks came as US Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Israel, the highest-level American visitor since Barack Obama became President. Although the Israeli-Palestinian talks are certain to figure in his meetings with Mr Netanyahu, the fact that Mr Mitchell will not attend suggests that the focus of Mr Biden's trip will be the Iranian nuclear threat. Mr Biden is the latest high-ranking American to have visited Israel in an apparent effort to ensure that it does not undertake a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities on its own. Jerusalem has become increasingly concerned at the failure to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot before his visit, Mr Biden said: "I can promise the people in Israel that we will confront as allies every security challenge that we will face."


US condemns Israeli plan
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, March 11, 2010

US attempts to restart the Middle East peace process were in serious doubt last night after Israel announced 1600 new homes in sensitive East Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden. Only hours after Mr Biden said an opportunity to renew peace existed, he issued a statement condemning Israel. The White House, the UN, the Palestinian leadership and large sections of the Israeli media joined his denunciation of Israel's plan and its timing. The move was even panned by Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak. "The entourage of Defence Minister Ehud Barak expresses its anger after the unwarranted announcement, which affects peace negotiations with the Palestinians - negotiations of the highest interest for Israel," a statement said.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was already under fire from his constituency for agreeing to "proximity talks" between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr Biden was 90 minutes late for his dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he was working on a statement about the announcement. "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units," Mr Biden said in the statement. "The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need . . . and runs counter to the constructive discussions I've had in Israel."

Israeli media debated whether Mr Netanyahu knew the announcement was coming or whether it was released by a committee responsible to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is also leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party and a proponent of expanding Jewish populations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu reportedly told Mr Biden the announcement was confirmation of an earlier decision and was not intended to embarrass him. But an article in Maariv newspaper said: "The closest man to Netanyahu in Washington (the two have indeed known each other for many years) suffered the usual treatment here, following which the guest returns to his capital angry, humiliated, agitated and seeking revenge. It's always `technical', the timing is always `coincidental', and the Prime Minister is `surprised' when his aide brings in the note with the report on the new construction tenders in East Jerusalem, but somehow it always happens. With the precision of a Swiss clock."

Mr Yishai told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper he did not know the decision on the 1600 homes would be submitted the day Mr Biden was in Jerusalem. But a Jerusalem city councillor, Meir Turjeman, said Mr Yishai had known the committee was going to convene yesterday and had instructed his representatives on the body to work towards approving the decision. Mr Yishai denied this.

Mr Abbas agreed to the talks four days ago, but the day after Israel announced it would build 112 new apartments in a West Bank settlement. Yesterday's announcement brings to almost 5000 the number of new apartments Israel has flagged in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since it announced a 10-month freeze on settlement growth, although Israel says Jerusalem is its "undivided and eternal capital" and is not part of any freeze. Mr Abbas has said he would begin direct peace talks with Mr Netanyahu if Israel agrees to a three-month freeze of new buildings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But under pressure from the US he has agreed to the proximity talks under which Mr Mitchell will meet Israeli officials in Jerusalem then relay what they say to Palestinian officials.


netanyahu government in crisis over east jerusalem development
Israel 'wrecks' Mid-East peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, March 12, 2010

THE Middle East peace process was in tatters last night and Israel's coalition government faced crisis after it announced a huge new housing development in the Arab area of East Jerusalem. Israeli Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said the Labour Party was considering quitting the coalition government, and Palestinian negotiators said they were pulling out of the US-brokered "proximity talks".

The crisis erupted during the visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden to Israel to support the talks. Mr Simhon said: "Members of the Labour Party have more and more difficulty in taking part in a coalition government that they joined with the purpose of relaunching the peace process with the Palestinians. The anger of Biden is justified. A grave error has been committed, and there is a price to pay."

The Arab League, which pressed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to accept renewed talks even though Israel had not agreed to freeze Jewish settlements, withdrew support for the discussions. Mr Biden condemned Israel, saying the Netanyahu government had "inflamed tensions" by announcing 1600 housing units would be built in Arab East Jerusalem. On Mr Biden's first day in Jerusalem, Israel announced plans for the development in East Jerusalem, a mainly Arab area prized by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

For the second day running, Mr Biden, this time standing alongside Mr Abbas in Ramallah, condemned Israel. "The decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermined the very trust, the trust we need right now to begin, as well as have profitable negotiations," Mr Biden said. The US would hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions "that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did".

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were withdrawing from the talks unless Israel cancelled the East Jerusalem development, Agence France Presse reported. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported Mr Biden had said privately Israel's decision to build in East Jerusalem was liable "to set the Middle East on fire". It said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent three officials to tell the US delegation he did not know the announcement was coming, but "US administration officials didn't buy the explanation" and "officials in both the White House and the State Department accused Israel of having set Biden up".

Haaretz quoted Israeli officials as saying 50,000 new housing units beyond Jerusalem's "Green Line" (the division between Jewish and Arab areas of the city) were ready for planning and approval. The paper said Israel, through the Israel Lands Administration and the Housing and Construction Ministry, was the main force behind the new projects, which were supported by private businesses and political organisations, including settler groups. The green line is the armistice line that existed from 1948 until 1967, when Israel captured much of the land, including East Jerusalem, in a war with Arab nations.

Same Day
Anyone for tennis, or murder ' Ad mocks Mossad
Sophie Tedmanson, The Times

MOSSAD mania continued in Israel this week when a supermarket chain filmed a marketing campaign inspired by the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai by a 27-strong hit squad. The TV commercials for the Mahsaney Kimat Hinam (Almost Free Warehouse) supermarket chain shows actors carrying tennis rackets, and wearing hats, glasses and wigs - the same disguises worn by the alleged killers in surveillance images released by Dubai police - as they make their way through store aisles.

The actors are seen through the supermarket security cameras surreptitiously slipping products into their shopping trolley. One actor wearing a tennis outfit browses the frozen food section while an actress wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat mimicks Israel's policy of neither confirming nor denying involvement in the assassination, saying she "couldn't admit to anything". The advertisement even carries the tongue-in-cheek slogans: "Eliminate the prices" and "We offer killer prices".

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founder of the military wing of the Islamist Hamas movement which controls Gaza, was found dead in his room in the al-Bustan Rotana hotel near Dubai airport on January 20. Mabhouh had been drugged and then suffocated. Dubai police have released extensive surveillance camera footage they say shows the team of 27 suspects from the hit squad they have linked to Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

Advertising executive Sefi Shaked said the campaign was inspired by the footage released by Dubai police. He dismissed any accusation the advertisement was in bad taste, saying the firm hoped to capitalise on the huge amount of media attention generated by the Dubai killing. "It's a funny take of this event," Mr Shaked said. "We were fascinated by the technique of using surveillance cameras instead of (expensive) high-production commercial cameras, and the latest events in Dubai gave us a great opportunity. All the Israeli television comedy shows have done it, so why shouldn't we ?"

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in Mabhouh's death - despite increasingly confident announcements by Dubai police that they have linked Mossad to the killing. In the wake of the murder, the spy agency has become popular again in Israel, with stores selling out of the agency's memorabilia and a soaring number of people visiting its official website interested in applying to become agents. Opticians also reported a rise in sales of the horn-rimmed glasses in the style worn by some of the suspects, while T-shirts with Mossad logos were also selling out at stores.

Ilan Mizrahi, a former deputy director of the agency, declared that "Mossad has been restored to its glory days". Meanwhile on Monday, the international police agency Interpol issued arrest notices for a further 16 suspects wanted by Dubai in connection with the killing, on top of 11 already issued.


Clinton lashes Israel
Fury at settler homes
Sunday Mail
Matthew Lee in Washington, AP
Sunday, March 14, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has delivered a stinging rebuke to Israel after last week's announcement that 1600 new homes for Jewish settlers would be built in East Jerusalem. The State Department said Clinton spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Friday to vent US frustration with the move, which cast a pall over a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden. It also endangered peace talks with the Palestinians that the Obama administration had announced just a day earlier. The unusually blunt tone of Mrs Clinton's call underscored the administration's concern about prospects for the negotiations and its anger over Israel's refusal to heed US appeals not to make provocative gestures.

Yesterday, Israel sealed off the West Bank as tension in Jerusalem escalated. Israeli police also barred men under the age of 50 from prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque — holy to both Muslims and Jews. Four young Palestinians were arrested after several youths hurled stones near Jerusalem's Old City, where the mosque is situated, police said.

Mrs Clinton's criticism and condemnation by the White House and Mr Biden comes ahead of a trip to the region by US Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell and a meeting in Moscow next week of the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers. The Quartet — the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia — yesterday condemned Israel's plans to build new settler homes and said unilateral actions would not be recognised by the international community.

Mr Netanyahu has apologized for the timing, though not the substance, of the announcement. The international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians see that part of the city as their own future capital.


Israeli PM moves to placate furious US
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, March 15, 2010

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has summoned his inner cabinet to an unusual late-night meeting to order a probe after furious American reaction to the announcement of housing construction in East Jerusalem during US Vice-President Joe Biden's visit. Mr Netanyahu's move yesterday came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at the housing announcement, calling it "insulting" to Washington. "It was just really a very unfortunate and difficult moment for everyone - the United States, our Vice-President, who had gone to reassert our strong support for Israeli security - and I regret deeply that that occurred and made that known," Mrs Clinton said. She "made it known" directly to Mr Netanyahu in a 45-minute telephone conversation in which the Prime Minister mostly remained quiet and listened to Mrs Clinton's scathing criticism.

At President Barack Obama's direction, Mr Biden condemned the announcement. The Israeli ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department. Mr Netanyahu has said he was unaware of the housing announcement before it was made. Although the American protest was linked to Mr Biden's presence in Jerusalem, which made it seem that the US was complicit in the announcement, Washington has made it clear that it objects not just to the timing but to Israeli construction itself in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Authority wishes to create the capital of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

A State Department spokesman said Israel had "undermined trust and confidence in the peace process, and in America's interests" and had endangered an agreement to revive peace talks with the Palestinians in the coming days. Some Israeli commentators believe that Mr Netanyahu will now be obliged to accept a de facto freeze on Israeli housing construction in East Jerusalem. In announcing a 10-month freeze last year on settlement construction on the West Bank he specifically excluded East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. Unlike the rest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem was formally annexed by Israel, which argues that no one can dispute Israel's right to build on what is now its sovereign territory.

The announcement during Mr Biden's visit of plans to build 1600 more housing units in East Jerusalem, in addition to the tens of thousands already built, was denounced by Israeli media as grossly provocative, an assessment much of the Israel public agreed with. During Mr Biden's speech to students at Tel Aviv University following the incident the largest hand went not to his warm words about Israel but to his mention of the condemnation he had issued of the building project.

Mr Netanyahu, who last year declared for the first time his readiness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel and to impose a de facto freeze on settlement construction, has been attempting to offset the impact of these concessions on his right-wing coalition partners by building projects in East Jerusalem. Over the weekend, he called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian President Silvio Berlusconi to express regret at the incident. "I even apologised to Vice-President Biden," he said. "But I was not in any way aware of the building plan ahead of the announcement."


Furious US turns up heat on Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

THE US is turning up the heat on Israel as relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate in the wake of last week's disastrous visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden. As Israel's ambassador to the US Michael Oren was reported as saying this was the worst crisis in relations between the two countries in 35 years, the US was believed to be demanding that Israel overturn the announcement that triggered the crisis - a new development of 1600 apartments in East Jerusalem.

Israeli media yesterday carried reports of new conditions the US is set to put to Israel to ensure peace talks with the Palestinian Authority resume. US special envoy George Mitchell returns to Israel this week as US officials continue to condemn Israel. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the announcement of the housing development in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem, made during Mr Biden's visit to Israel, "an insult" to the US while senior White House official David Axelrod escalated the row yesterday, saying it was "an affront".

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set up a committee to ensure that such an incident does not occur again, the US is making it clear it regards the problem as the policy of expanding Jewish populations in sensitive areas rather than the timing of any announcements. Israel's Channel Two reported that Mrs Clinton has asked Mr Netanyahu to cancel the new development and to ensure "proximity talks" include substantive issues rather than procedural matters.

Haaretz newspaper said Mr Oren told Israel's diplomats over the weekend that the two countries faced their worst crisis for 35 years. It reported that Mrs Clinton told Mr Netanyahu in a 43-minute phone call that there were four things Israel needed to do to restore confidence in the US-Israel relationship: investigate whether the announcement during the Biden visit was deliberate; reverse the decision to approve the 1600 apartments; make a substantial gesture to Palestinians, such as the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from additional areas of the West Bank; and declare that the proximity talks will deal with core issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water and settlements. The row comes as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalate.

Clashes have been breaking out, particularly in Hebron and Jerusalem, since Mr Netanyahu announced three weeks ago that two Jewish holy sites would be heritage-listed. The sites, Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, are in the West Bank and various international and Palestinian figures have said the announcement's timing, as the US was trying to restart peace talks, was provocative. Israel sealed off the West Bank on Friday and is likely to continue the lockdown as up to 3000 security personnel have positioned themselves around Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, in anticipation of more clashes.

Meanwhile, Israel announced it had captured in the West Bank Maher Ouda, a founder of the military wing of Hamas.


Extract - US envoy cancels trip over Israeli building defiance
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

US special envoy George Mitchell last night cancelled his Middle East trip in an escalation of Washington's worst row in decades with Tel Aviv. Mr Mitchell had planned on coming to wrap up preparations for relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But now it is not clear when the indirect talks, to be mediated by Mr Mitchell, will begin. "When Mrs Clinton outlined what she thought appropriate actions would be to the Prime Minister, she asked for a response by the Israeli government. We wait for the response," a State Department spokesman said. US senator Joe Lieberman, a supporter of Israel, said: "Let's cut the family fighting, the family feud. It just doesn't serve anybody's interests but our enemies."

Mr Netanyahu told his parliament yesterday that no Israeli government in the past 40 years had agreed to limit building in East Jerusalem and that nearly half the population of Jerusalem now lived in neighbourhoods beyond the 1967 borders. "Building these Jewish neighbourhoods did not harm the Arabs of East Jerusalem in any way and were not built at their expense," Mr Netanyahu said. "Nearly half of the Jewish population in Jerusalem now lives in these neighbourhoods. These places are not far away. They are a few minutes' drive from here, they are less than 6km from the Knesset."

An estimated 3000 Israeli security officers were positioned around East Jerusalem yesterday and Israel sealed off the West Bank for the fifth consecutive day. Last night clashes broke out in Jerusalem between scores of Palestinians and Israeli security officers. PLO executive member and former prime minister Ahmed Qureia warned of a third intifada. "If matters remain at this level, regardless of whether we take the decision or not, it is coming. If Israel continues these practices, it is coming."

The Wall Street Journal reported that the US-Israel row was threatening the Obama administration's campaign to achieve new sanctions against Iran. In Gaza, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar used the occasion of the re-dedication of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem to make a firebrand, anti-Semitic speech. "You who are opening Hurva are heading towards ruin," he said. "Wherever you have been you've been sent to your destruction . . . you're destined to be destroyed. You've made a deal with the devil and with destruction itself - just like your synagogue."

Israel declared two scenes of demonstrations against the security barrier, Bilin and Naalin, as military zones until August.


Extract - Clinton backs Israel as mobs riot
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Thursday, March 18, 2010

HILLARY Clinton has tried to ease tensions with Israel as the top US commander in the Middle East warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was stirring anti-US sentiment in the region. Amid clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters around Jerusalem yesterday, the US Secretary of State said the row between Washington and Israel would not change their "unbreakable bond". Mrs Clinton rejected reported comments by Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, that relations were the worst for 35 years. "I don't buy that," she said. "We have an absolute commitment to Israel's security. We have a close, unshakeable bond between the US and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."

The head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, told the US Senate armed services committee yesterday the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fomented anti-American sentiment "due to a perception of US favouritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples," he said. The conflict increased Iranian influence in the Arab world through "clients" such as Hamas, the Palestinian militant faction that runs the Gaza Strip, and the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, he told the committee. General Petraeus said the conflict was undermining US interests in the Middle East by presenting "distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests".

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Mrs Clinton's remarks. "In the past year, the government of Israel has proven its commitment to peace in both word and deed, including PM Benjamin Netanyahu's Bar Ilan speech, the dismantling of hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks in Judea and Samaria, and the decision to suspend new construction starts in Judea and Samaria for 10 months, which Secretary of State Clinton defined as `unprecedented'," the office said. "By contrast, the Palestinians have raised preconditions for the resumption of the diplomatic process, such as they have not done in the past 16 years. They are waging an assault to delegitimise Israel in international institutions via the Goldstone report. "They are also continuing to incite towards hatred and violence; included in this is the decision to dedicate a square in Ramallah to the woman terrorist responsible for murdering 38 Israelis."

But Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "Israel is lighting matches in the hope of sparking a fire, deliberately escalating tensions in occupied East Jerusalem rather than taking steps to placate the situation. This is an explosive situation. These are Netanyahu's policies, which are tantamount to pouring oil on fire."

Israeli forces fired stun grenades and teargas as Palestinian protesters threw rocks and what appeared to be molotov cocktails in yesterday's clashes. In one incident, someone appeared to fire live bullets at an Israeli police patrol. The clashes occurred in about five suburbs of East Jerusalem, near the Old City. About 3000 Israeli security forces sealed off the Old City. The Palestinians claimed 91 protesters were injured, while Israel claimed 15 police were hurt. About 60 rioters were arrested.


Extract - Netanyahu, aides in desperate effort to appease US
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, March 19, 2010

ISRAEL'S inner cabinet is trying to formulate a response that will satisfy the Obama administration as a way to restart the Middle East peace process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held marathon meetings with the six most powerful ministers to come up with a course of action that will satisfy the US, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The deliberations with the six ministers - Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai, Ehud Barak, Moshe Yaalon, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin - came as US President Barack Obama denied a crisis, saying: "We and the Israeli people have a special bond that's not going to go away. But friends are going to disagree sometimes . . . there is a disagreement in terms of how we can move this peace process forward," he said, urging Israelis and Palestinians to rebuild trust.

Palestinian official Mohammed Dahlan, a leading figure in the Fatah faction opposed to the Hamas faction, called on Hamas to "join a collective battle rather than settle for calling on the Palestinians to prepare for an intifada in the West Bank".

Israel's media yesterday had conflicting reports about the reception Mr Netanyahu is likely to receive next week when he travels to the US to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a Jewish lobby group. The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that US officials had refused to schedule any key meetings for Mr Netanyahu unless they received "satisfactory" answers from Israel to the demands by Mrs Clinton. The paper said the US might arrange key meetings for Israel's opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who will address AIPAC, as "revenge" on Mr Netanyahu. Yedioth said some ministers saw this as an attempt by the US to guarantee an extension of the 10-month freeze in the West Bank while others believed the US wanted to drive a wedge between Mr Netanyahu and the right wing of his government in the hope to see his administration fall.

As relations with the US remained rocky, Israel reported the first death from a rocket fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for more than a year.


Barack Obama's stand puts Mid-East in danger
Weekend Australian
Yossi Klein Halevi, Jerusalem
Saturday, March 20, 2010

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor of The New Republic

SUDDENLY my city feels like a war zone again. Since the bomb attacks ended in 2005, life in Jerusalem has been relatively calm. The worst disruption has been the traffic jams from construction of a light rail, just like in a normal city. But now there are groups of helmeted border police near the gates of the Old City, smoke from burning tyres in the Arab area outside my porch, young men marching with green Islamic flags toward my neighbourhood, and ambulances parked ready for the city's ultimate nightmare.

The return of menace to Jerusalem is not because an Israeli bureaucrat announced stage four of a seven-stage process in the construction of 1600 extra apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighbourhood in northeast Jerusalem. Such announcements and building of Jewish projects have become so routine over the years that Palestinians have scarcely responded, let alone violently.

In negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, the permanence of Ramat Shlomo and other Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, has been a given. Ramat Shlomo, between the Jewish neighbourhoods of French Hill and Ramot, will remain within the boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem, according to every peace plan. Unlike the small Jewish enclaves inserted into Arab neighbourhoods, on which Israelis are strongly divided, building more housing in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem defines the national consensus.

So why the outbreak of violence now ' Why Hamas's Day of Rage over Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Authority's call to gather on the Temple Mount to save the Dome of the Rock from non-existent plans to build the Third Temple ' Why the outrage over rebuilding a synagogue, which was destroyed by the Jordanians in the 1948 war, in the Old City's Jewish quarter, when dozens of synagogues and yeshivas were built without incident '

The answer lies not in Jerusalem but in Washington. By placing the issue of building more Jewish housing in East Jerusalem at the centre of the peace process, US President Barack Obama has inadvertently challenged the Palestinians to do no less.

Astonishingly, Obama is repeating the key tactical mistake of his failed efforts to restart the Middle East peace talks over the past year. Although Obama's insistence on a freeze on Jewish settlements to help restart negotiations was legitimate, he went a step too far by including building in East Jerusalem. Every Israeli government over the past four decades has built in the Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, and no Israeli government, let alone one headed by the Likud party, could possibly agree to a freeze.

Obama made the resumption of negotiations hostage to a demand that could not be met. As a result, Palestinian leaders were forced to adjust their demands. Obama is responsible for one of the most absurd turns in the history of the Middle East peace negotiations. Although Palestinian leaders negotiated with Israeli governments that built Jewish settlements in the West Bank, they now refuse to sit down with the first Israeli government to agree to a suspension of building. Obama's demand for a freeze on Israeli building in Jerusalem led to a freeze in negotiations.

Finally, after intense efforts, the Obama administration produced the pathetic achievement of "proximity talks", setting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations back a generation to the time when Palestinian leaders refused to sit with the Israelis.

That Obama could be guilty of such amateurishness was perhaps forgivable because he was an amateur. But he has now taken his failed policy and intensified it. By demanding that Israel stop building more Jewish housing in Ramat Shlomo and elsewhere in East Jerusalem - and placing that demand at the centre of US-Israeli relations - he is ensured the Palestinians won't show up, even to proximity talks. This is no longer amateurishness; it is pique disguised as policy.

When the announcement about building in Ramat Shlomo was made, Israelis shared US Vice-President Joe Biden's humiliation and were outraged at their government's incompetence. The widespread sense here was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserved the US condemnation, not because of what he did, but because of what he didn't do - he failed to convey the need for caution during Biden's visit, symptomatic of his chaotic style of governing generally.

But not even the Israeli opposition accused Netanyahu of deliberate provocation. These are not the days of Yitzhak Shamir, the former Israeli prime minister who used to greet a visit from US secretary of state James Baker with an announcement of the creation of another Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Netanyahu has placed the need for strategic co-operation with the US on the Iranian threat ahead of the right-wing political agenda. That's why he included the Labour Party in his coalition, and why he accepted a two-state solution - a historic announcement that set Likud, however reluctantly, within the mainstream consensus supporting Palestinian statehood. The last thing Netanyahu wanted was to embarrass Biden during his goodwill visit and trigger a clash with Obama over building in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish area.

Nor is it likely there was a deliberate provocation by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which runs the Israeli interior ministry that oversees building. Shas, which supports peace talks and territorial compromise, is not a nationalist party. Its interest is providing housing for its supporters, like the future residents of Ramat Shlomo, and provoking international incidents is not its style.

Finally, the ordinariness of the building procedure - the fact construction in Jewish East Jerusalem is considered routine by Israelis - is the best proof there was no intentional ambush of Biden. Apparently no one in the interior ministry could imagine a long-term plan over Ramat Shlomo would sabotage a US state visit.

In turning an incident into a crisis, Obama has convinced many Israelis he was merely seeking a pretext to pick a fight with Israel. Netanyahu was inadvertently shabby, Obama deliberately so. According to a banner headline in the newspaper Maariv, senior Likud officials believe Obama's goal is to topple the Netanyahu government by encouraging those in the Labor Party who want to quit the coalition.

The popular assumption is that Obama is seeking to prove his resolve as a leader by getting tough with Israel. Given his ineffectiveness against Iran and his tendency to break his own deadlines for sanctions, the Israeli public is not likely to be impressed.

Israelis' initial anger at Netanyahu has turned to anger against Obama. According to an Israel Radio poll, 62 per cent of Israelis blame the Obama administration for the crisis, while 20 per cent blame Netanyahu. Another 17 per cent blame Shas leader Eli Yishai.

In the past year, the US has not once publicly condemned the Palestinians for lack of good faith - even though the Palestinian Authority media has been waging a months-long campaign denying the Jews' historic roots in Jerusalem.

Just after Biden left Ramallah, Palestinian officials held a ceremony naming a square in the city after a terrorist responsible for the massacre of 38 Israeli civilians. To its credit, the Obama administration did condemn the Palestinian Authority yesterday for inciting violence in Jerusalem.

Obama's one-sided public pressure against Israel could intensify the atmosphere of open season against Israel internationally. The European Union has reaffirmed it is linking improved economic relations with Israel to the resumption of the peace process - as if it is Israel, rather than the Palestinians, that is refusing to come to the negotiating table.

If the Obama administration's main tactical error in the Middle East negotiations was emphasising Israeli building in Jerusalem, its main strategic error was assuming a two-state solution was within easy reach. Shortly after Obama took office, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was quoted in the Israeli press insisting a Palestinian state would be created within Obama's first term.

Instead, a year later, we are in the era of suspended proximity talks. Now the US is demanding that Israel negotiate over final status issues in the proximity talks, as a way of convincing the Palestinians to agree to those talks - as if Israel would agree to discuss the future of Jerusalem when Palestinian leaders refuse to even sit with them.

To insist on the imminent possibility of a two-state solution requires amnesia. Biden's plea for Israel to consider a withdrawal to the pre-war 1967 borders in exchange for peace with the Palestinians ignores the fact that Israel made that offer twice in the past decade: first when prime minister Ehud Barak accepted the Clinton proposals of December 2000, and then more recently when prime minister Ehud Olmert renewed the offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert says Abbas never replied.

The reason for Palestinian rejection of a two-state solution is because a deal would require the Palestinians to confine the return of the descendants of the 1948 refugees to Palestine rather than Israel. That would prevent a two-state solution from devolving into a bi-national, one-state solution. Israel's insistence on survival remains the obstacle to peace.

To achieve eventual peace, the international community needs to pressure Palestinian leaders to forgo their claim to Haifa and Jaffa and confine their people's right of return to a future Palestinian state, just as the Jews will need to forgo their claim to Hebron and Bethlehem and confine their people's right of return to the state of Israel.

That is the only possible deal: conceding my right of return to Greater Israel in exchange for your right of return to Greater Palestine. A majority of Israelis - along with the political system - has accepted that principle. On the Palestinian side, the political system has rejected it.

In the absence of Palestinian willingness to compromise on the right of return, negotiations should not focus on a two-state solution but on more limited goals.

There have been positive signs of change on the Palestinian side in the past few years. The rise of Hamas has created panic in Fatah, and the result is, for the first time, genuine security co-operation with Israel. And the emergence of Salam Fayyad as Palestinian Prime Minister marks a shift from ideological to pragmatic leadership, although Fayyad still lacks a power base. Finally, the West Bank economy is growing, thanks in part to Israel's removal of dozens of roadblocks. The goal of negotiations at this point in the conflict should be to encourage those trends.

By focusing on Israeli building in Jerusalem, Obama has undermined that possibility too. To the fictitious notion of a peace process, Obama has now added the fiction of an intransigent Israel blocking the peace process.

The Obama administration, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth , is making an even more insidious accusation against Israel. During his visit, said Yedioth Ahronoth , Biden told Israeli leaders their policies are endangering American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report has been denied in the White House. Whether or not the remark was made, what is clear in Jerusalem today is that Obama's recklessness is endangering Israeli and Palestinian lives.

As I listen to police sirens outside my window, Obama's political intifada against Netanyahu seems to be turning into a third intifada over Jerusalem.


Pressure on Israel - Call to freeze settlement plan
Sunday Mail
Christophe Schmidt, Moscow
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Israel is under increasing international pressure to stop building settlements and set a bold target for a final deal with the Palestinians. The Middle East Quartet - the United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia - made the plea as it tried to kickstart the stalled process yesterday (Friday). But Israel's foreign minister — whose country angered the international community by announcing last week the construction of 1,600 new settler homes — swiftly condemned the statement as harming the chances of a peace accord.

"The Quartet urges the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. He said at the meeting in Moscow that Israel should also halt natural settlement growth, dismantle outposts erected since March 2001 and refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem. The Israeli plan to build more homes in annexed East Jerusalem led the Palestinians to halt peace talks and caused the worst crisis in US-Israeli ties in years. East Jerusalem is the mainly Arab half of the Holy City which was captured and then annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War.

Condemning the new settlement plan, the Quartet noted Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem was not recognised by the international community and the city's status had to be resolved through negotiations. With the peace process stagnant, the Quartet also urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks on final status issues with the aim of finding a settlement "within 24 months", Mr Ban said. Such a settlement would end "the occupation which began in 1967 and result in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel".

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave the statement a frosty reception and appeared particularly irked by its explicit target of a peace deal in two years. "Peace cannot be imposed artificially and with an unrealistic calendar," he said.

Meanwhile, Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during anti-settlement protests after the Muslim Friday prayers. In Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, troubles broke out in the Shuafat Palestinian refugee camp, where youths threw stones at police who responded with massive volleys of tear-gas grenades.


Netanyahu will front Obama
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is tonight scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama for crucial talks at which he is expected to reaffirm his determination to continue building Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, but will offer some concessions to enable the resumption of Middle East peace talks. In a meeting that both sides appear to want to use to ease tensions, Mr Netanyahu is expected to agree to begin indirect or "proximity" talks with Palestinians in the next three weeks that will address "final status issues" including the possible borders of a future Palestinian state and the future of Palestinian refugees.

But hours before Mr Netanyahu left for Washington, a key political figure in Israel made it clear the Prime Minister should not make concessions to the US. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said Mr Netanyahu's Likud party won last year's election on a platform that included support for settlements. "They (the international community) told the Prime Minister to recognise the two-state solution, then to freeze construction, then to start negotiations," Mr Shalom said. "There are no negotiations. There was a party (Kadima) that took that road - it's now in the opposition."

The Netanyahu-Obama meeting comes as tensions are rising dramatically in Israel and the West Bank. Four Palestinian youths have been killed in clashes in the West Bank in recent days, and Jerusalem remains tense. Clashes have also been occurring in Hebron since the Netanyahu government announced that the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem - both in the West Bank - were to be included on Israel's heritage list.

Mr Netanyahu will meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden before his talks with Mr Obama. The Israeli media had reported the possibility that Mr Netanyahu's visit to the US to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee might be cancelled if Mr Obama, Mr Biden or Mrs Clinton refused to meet him. Tensions have been high after Mr Biden was embarrassed by an announcement hours after he arrived in Jerusalem of 1600 new apartments for Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in and around Israel in recent days as part of an attempt to resume the peace talks. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited Gaza at the weekend, and called on Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza, saying it caused "unacceptable suffering". He called on the people of Gaza, which is run by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, to choose "the path of non-violence". Mr Ban said following a meeting of the Middle East quartet - the UN, European Union, the US and Russia - that Israel should freeze its settlement growth. And the quartet called on Israel to stop demolishing houses in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem.

But at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said: "Our policy towards Jerusalem is the same policy of all Israeli governments in the past 42 years and it has not changed. From our point of view, construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv. "These are things which we have made very clear to the American administration."


Netanyahu asserts right to build in Jerusalem
The Australian
AFP, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

WASHINGTON: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a pro-Israel lobby last night that "Jerusalem is not a settlement" but is Israel's capital, asserting the Jewish state's right to build in the city following a row with the US over the issue. "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital," Mr Netanyahu told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He said he was simply following the policies of all Israeli governments since 1967, when Israel won a war with its Arab neighbours and seized East Jerusalem, which it later annexed. His remarks triggered a rousing standing ovation from the 7500 delegates at the annual policy conference of AIPAC in the Washington Convention Centre.

Israel's March 9 announcement of 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem triggered a rare US condemnation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the settlements undermined newly agreed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Palestinians have threatened to pull out of indirect talks Washington took months to arrange after the Palestinians refused direct negotiations with Israel because of its settlement policies. Mr Netanyahu confidently rebuffed US pressure to halt building in disputed East Jerusalem, even as he toured Washington to ease his country's worst diplomatic standoff with the US in decades.

Mr Netanyahu and Mrs Clinton gave competing speeches to the powerful pro-Israel lobby yesterday and outlined very different views on the importance to the future of Middle East peace talks of an Israeli freeze on building in territories jointly claimed by Israelis and Palestinians. Mrs Clinton took the dais first and said the future of Israel's stability very much depended on Israel's government establishing the conditions for successful negotiations with the Palestinians, specifically a cessation of building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu followed in an evening speech by telling AIPAC's annual policy conference that building in East Jerusalem was his government's sovereign right and Israel could ultimately depend only on itself to ensure its security. "The future of the Jewish state can never depend on the goodwill of even the greatest of men. Israel must always reserve the right to defend itself," he said.

The strategic divergence between Mr Netanyahu and the Obama administration left both governments struggling to find an exit strategy to ease the conflict between the two allies. Mr Netanyahu and Mrs Clinton had an afternoon meeting and then dined with US Vice-President Joe Biden. Both camps described constructive meetings, but gave no specifics on how the moribund Middle East peace process can be revived. They pressed the Palestinians to return immediately to indirect talks brokered by the US.

Democrat and Republican politicians, as well as pro-Israel lobbyists such as AIPAC, have been pressuring the White House to tone down its public dispute with Israel. Senior US officials yesterday acknowledged the two governments would have to agree to disagree as they sought to both address the Arab-Israeli dispute and the rising threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. "Our focus remains creating an atmosphere of trust so that the parties can begin to address the core issues and move to direct negotiations to create a Palestinian state," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, in describing Mr Netanyahu's meeting with Mrs Clinton. "We continue to make progress towards that end."

Mrs Clinton, in her address, stressed the strength of the US-Israel alliance, even as she reaffirmed her position of the need for a construction freeze. "New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the peace process," she said.


Extract - Blackout over Israel-US meeting
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Thursday, March 25, 2010

HOPES for a breakthrough between the US and Israel over the resumption of Middle East peace talks rose last night Tuesday night in Washington after a bizarre visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House. Conducted under an almost unprecedented news blackout, Mr Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama first met for about 90 minutes in a meeting in which advisers were not permitted. Mr Obama then went to his residence in the White House while Mr Netanyahu met with his key advisers and Defence Minister Ehud Barak in the nearby Roosevelt Room that they had set up as their temporary office. Mr Obama was then called back to the Oval Office for a second meeting with Mr Netanyahu, which lasted about 30 minutes.

It is almost unprecedented for the White House not to allow even a photograph of a visiting foreign leader shaking the hand of a president. The snub was seen as the White House's way of wanting to reinforce to the Israeli team that relations between the two countries are not as warm as they were, despite a softening of previously harsh rhetoric last week. Israel's strained relations with the US come as its relationship with Britain also reached a low, the UK yesterday Tuesday announcing it was expelling an Israeli diplomat following "compelling" evidence that Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad, had used fake British passports in the January assassination in Dubai of a Hamas commander.

That Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama had a second meeting last night suggested that Mr Netanyahu needed to consider with his advisers a proposal he and Mr Obama had discussed. Adding to the possibility of a breakthrough, Mr Netanyahu's office released a statement saying the advisers of both leaders continued to discuss ideas raised in the one-on-one meetings and would continue to discuss those ideas today.

In interviews with Israeli media, Mr Netanyahu said if the US supported demands by Palestinians for a freeze on building Jewish settlements, it might push back the peace process. "If the Americans support the unreasonable demands made by the Palestinians regarding a freeze on settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the peace process risks being blocked for a year," he said. "Relations between Israel and the United States should not be hostage to differences between the two countries over the peace process with the Palestinians."

The Washington Post reported that the White House meeting was held amid high tensions and in a virtual news blackout. It quoted a US official saying the two leaders met in the Oval Office from 5.34 pm to 7.03pm. Mr Obama then went to the residence while Mr Netanyahu conferred with his aids in the Roosevelt room. Mr Netanyahu then requested another meeting and the two leaders returned to the Oval Office from 8.20 to 8.55.

Shortly before Mr Netanyahu's first meeting, it emerged that Jerusalem authorities had granted final approval for redevelopment of the controversial Shepherd Hotel site in East Jerusalem for 20 more apartments. Last year, the US State Department summoned Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, to protest against plans to develop the site in the Arab part of East Jerusalem. The Shepherd Hotel property, once home to the late grand mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, was bought in 1985 by US millionaire Irving Moscowitz, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements.


Same Day
Israel expects Canberra to expel diplomat over forged passports used in murder
John Lyons and Peter Wilson

ISRAEL is bracing itself for the possibility that Australia will follow Britain and expel an Israeli diplomat in response to the use of four forged Australian passports in the assassination of a Hamas commander. Israeli government sources last night told The Australian that of the countries whose passports were stolen, Australia was the most likely to follow Britain's lead.

In the immediate aftermath of Britain's decision, Israeli officials thought Australia was unlikely to follow suit. But that assessment changed distinctly last night. It appears that Israeli officials have received indications in Canberra that Australia is preparing to expel a diplomat. They would not comment.

Forged passports from Britain, Ireland, Germany, France and Australia were used in the assassination in January of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. At the time, Australia called in the Israeli ambassador to Canberra, Yuval Rotem, to question him about the use of the passports of the four Australians, who all have dual Australian-Israeli citizenship and who live in Israel. Kevin Rudd said afterwards that Australia was not satisfied with the answers given by Mr Rotem. Israel has maintained there is no proof the operation was carried out by Israel's secret service Mossad, as suspected.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband telephoned his Australian counterpart, Stephen Smith, to explain London's decision to expel the Israeli, who has been described by the British press as Mossad's London station chief. Yesterday, Mr Smith would not say if Australia would follow suit, saying the Australian Federal Police had yet to finalise its own report into the affair. But he said the AFP would have access to the report of Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency, whose investigation found it was "highly likely" Israel was behind the forgeries. That formed the basis of Britain's decision to expel the diplomat.

"Obviously, the AFP have been liaising with their British counterparts," Mr Smith said. Mr Smith said Canberra took the misuse of Australian passports very seriously and said that had been conveyed to Israeli authorities. "Obviously, we'll take into account what other countries have done, and the United Kingdom is not the only country caught up in this. Regrettably there's also France, Ireland and Germany," he said.

Mr Miliband said any country in Britain's position would have no choice but to take serious action to protect its sovereignty and the safety of its passport-holders. "Given that this was a very sophisticated operation, in which high-quality forgeries were made, the government judges it is highly likely that the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service," he said. In a further snub to Israel, Britain amended its official travel advice to warn its citizens that if they travelled to Israel, they were at risk of identity theft.


Israelis lost for words in peace impasse
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, March 26, 2010

ISRAEL is attempting to come up with a formal set of words that the Obama administration says it requires to ensure the resumption of Middle East peace talks. After three days of meetings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Washington to return home last night while key Israeli advisers stayed on in the US to work on a formal declaration with US negotiators. Mr Netanyahu held two meetings with President Barack Obama, which ended without a deal. The US is asking Israel to stop building Jewish housing in disputed East Jerusalem, while Mr Netanyahu rejects limits to any Jewish development there.

Another Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem was revealed yesterday. The Jerusalem Post reported the Interior Ministry had approved 200 homes in the suburb of Sheikh Jarrah. This follows the 20 additional homes that will be part of the redeveloped Shepherd Hotel site and the 1600 apartments announced this month during the visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Mr Netanyahu stayed in Washington a day longer than expected and cancelled all interviews with US media following what are believed to have been two tense meetings with Mr Obama lasting two hours. As an indication of the strained relations between the pair, the White House allowed no photos of the handshake or meetings, a highly unusual move. The White House waited until 15 hours after the meetings before press secretary Robert Gibbs commented: "There are areas of agreement. There are areas of disagreement and that conversation is ongoing."

One Israeli media report said Mr Netanyahu had been given "the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea". Israeli media said Mr Obama had asked for concessions from Mr Netanyahu, including an extension of the 10-month freeze in settlement growth, which ends in September and expansion of that freeze to East Jerusalem.


Relations sour as Netanyahu rebuffs the US
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, March 27, 2010

THE Mayflower Hotel is a grand old building in one of the best parts of Washington, and Benjamin Netanyahu had one of its grandest suites. So why would the Israeli Prime Minister not hold meetings in the suite during his visit this week ' The Israeli media said he feared the Americans had bugged the room, so his key talks were held in the "secure room" of the Israeli embassy. How did it come to Israel wondering if its closest ally had planted bugging devices to spy on its leader '

Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said: "The last time something like this happened was 12 years ago. The PM's name back then was Benjamin Netanyahu as well. The US President was called Bill Clinton. "No amount of American political correctness can conceal any longer what has happened in Washington in the past 48 hours: there is a profound distrust between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama."

Netanyahu's visit became a diplomatic version of Upstairs, Downstairs. The White House decided there would be no photographs. Apparently they did not want the Israelis to see two smiling men and assume all was well. That fuelled strong anti-Obama feeling in Israel. One commentator said Netanyahu received "the treatment reserved for the president of Equatorial Guinea", while another said it was more like that for "the last of the wazirs from Lower Senegal".

The two met for 90 minutes in what was described as a tense and at times hostile encounter. Obama wanted Netanyahu to make concessions and put them in writing. Verbal commitments were seen as insufficient. Netanyahu said he needed to consult his advisers. So Obama went upstairs to the residence while Netanyahu met his aides in the Roosevelt Room.

While this drama was playing out, the influence of the two coalition partners who can destroy Netanyahu's government - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party - was evident. Both are committed to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the US sees as the major impediment to a peace agreement. Netanyahu telephoned Lieberman, who told the Prime Minister not to sign anything. Netanyahu asked if Obama could come back downstairs. When the US leader returned, Netanyahu reportedly told him he could not commit to any form of words until he returned to Israel and consulted his ministers. The US President was unimpressed, and the meeting ended.

Back home, Yishai was making it clear the controversy over new Jewish developments in East Jerusalem would not daunt him. Yishai's Interior Ministry is driving the expansion of Jewish housing in disputed East Jerusalem, announcing three new developments in three weeks just as the US is trying to convince Palestinians to return to the peace negotiations. Yishai told the ultra-orthodox newspaper Yom Leyom: "I thank the Lord I have been given the privilege to be the minister who approves the construction of thousands of housing units in Jerusalem."

Maariv newspaper reported: "Netanyahu knows he is on a collision course . . . the PM will have to decide now which side he is on: the side of Avigdor Lieberman . . . or the side of the rest of the world . . . Courage is called for, nerves of steel are called for, the ability to reinvent oneself is necessary. He doesn't have it."

Israel is feeling isolated. It is also dealing with an angry Britain, which expelled a diplomat after compelling evidence that Mossad used British passports in the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai. That led one Israeli politician to call the British "dogs". But the National Union's Aryeh Eldad was quick to say he meant no offence to dogs: "The British are behaving hypocritically and I don't want to offend dogs on this issue, since some dogs are utterly loyal." Loyalty is discussed a lot in Jerusalem and Washington these days - but both sides seem to be loyal to different aims.


Same Day
Tony Abbott calls for restraint on Israel
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

TONY Abbott has called on the Rudd government not to expel an Israeli diplomat over allegations the Israeli secret service, Mossad, used forged Australian passports in the assassination of a Hamas terrorist in Dubai. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found dead in his hotel room in Dubai on January 20 this year. The Dubai authorities later established he had been murdered. The Opposition Leader wants the Rudd government to ignore the precedent set by Gordon Brown's government in London, which expelled an Israeli diplomat as punishment for the use of British passports in the Dubai killing.

While stressing that he did not condone the misuse of Australian passports, and while it is not yet known whether Israel was involved in the assassination, Mr Abbott pleaded for understanding for the Jewish state. "We can never forget that Israel is a country under existential threat in a way Australians find difficult to understand," Mr Abbott told The Weekend Australian. "It's also the only pluralist democracy in the Middle East. We have to understand that Israel sometimes has to do something which mercifully other countries are spared the necessity of doing. It strikes me that it would be an overreaction to expel an Israeli diplomat."

The Rudd government is in the midst of considering how it will handle a report on the passports affair from the Australian Federal Police. The AFP group sent to Israel to investigate whether Mossad was involved in the misuse of Australian passports left Israel to return to Australia on March 8. Its report has not been finalised. The British government gave Canberra a copy of its report, which found it "highly likely" that Israel was involved in the misuse of British passports. Kevin Rudd told ABC radio yesterday that the government had yet to make up its mind on how it would react to the AFP report. The Prime Minister said: "It's currently with the Australian Federal Police and others . . . those investigations are ongoing."

Sources have also told The Weekend Australian that Australian intelligence agencies use forged passports in their clandestine work. Analysts believe the agency most likely to do this is the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which runs secret operations in numerous countries. Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop told The Weekend Australian: "It would be naive in the extreme to believe a foreign power never used a forged passport. The Australian government would have to be very careful to ensure that Australian agencies never used forged passports." She said expelling an Israeli diplomat would be an "extreme step" and that she would "not want to see Kevin Rudd politicise this case in an election year".

Sources told The Weekend Australian that the Rudd government was having a vigorous internal debate about what action, if any, to take. Some members of the government believe that it has already done enough to vent its anger with the Israelis. Unless the AFP report comes up with some definitive proof of Israeli culpability that was not in the British report, these people believe the government's strong statements, the calling in of the Israeli ambassador, Yuval Rotem, for a dressing-down, and the effective subsequent isolation of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Canberra, along with a changed Australian vote concerning Israel at the UN, constitutes more than enough action on Australia's part. This is especially so, in this group's view, given the anti-Israel hysteria that is building as a result of the spat between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli building projects in East Jerusalem.

Others in the government prefer aligning more closely with the Gordon Brown strategy and with Mr Obama's evident anger towards Israel. Mr Rudd said there would be "a full and comprehensive statement from the government" once the AFP investigation had been completed. He also said he and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith were not satisfied with the answers they had received from the Israeli government.

Another option government strategists are believed to be examining is asking the Israelis for a public assurance that no Australian passport will be misused in the future. Israel's government could give this assurance without admitting its involvement in Dubai. The French, German and Irish governments, whose passports were also misused in Dubai, have not expelled any Israeli diplomats. Analysts believe the Brown government may have been motivated by a desire to move domestic scandals out of the news agenda and to seek the votes of anti-Israeli Britons in the forthcoming British election.


Same Day
Red faces over Fatah field
Cameron Stewart

CHARITY group World Vision Australia has been embarrassed by a plan by Palestinian authorities to name a sporting complex containing an Australian-funded soccer field in the West Bank after a former militant PLO leader. World Vision Australia funded the recently completed field in Jenin as a community project to help young Palestinians. However, this month the authorities in Jenin announced plans to build additional sports facilities on the site and to call the planned sporting complex the Abu Jihad Youth City. Abu Jihad, or Khalil al-Wazir, was the former commander of Fatah's armed wing. He was considered a high-profile terrorist by Israelis for plotting numerous attacks inside that country during the 1970s and 1980s.

A World Vision Australia spokeswoman said yesterday it had played no part in the naming of the proposed new complex. "Subsequent to our work establishing the soccer field, the governor of Jenin and the ministry of youth and sport have embraced it and determined they will build additional sports facilities on the site," she said. "This blueprint for the future they have named Abu Jihad Youth City -- a name they came up with after consulting with the local communities. The Abu Jihad Youth City is a separate initiative by the ministry, Governor and community. It was initiated after our funding of the soccer field had been completed."

The spokeswoman denied reports by Palestinian Media Watch that World Vision had financed the youth centre itself. "World Vision Australia has just completed a two-year construction project to build a soccer field in Jenin, which has been named the Palestinian Youth Vision Soccer Field," the spokeswoman said. "The aim of the soccer field is to involve young people in this region of the West Bank, who are frequently dealing with psychological trauma and stress, in soccer training and competition, and in sport generally, as a positive community activity . . . There is no other facility like it."


Extract - Israel fears US shift in peace policy
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ISRAELI officials fear that the US government, in a radical shift of policy, is planning to impose a permanent peace settlement on Israel and the Palestinians within the next two years. The public snub of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to the White House last week is seen in Jerusalem as a shot across the bow as President Barack Obama's administration gears up for a head-on confrontation with Israel over the long-stalled peace process.

The Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday that Mr Obama and his aides made 10 demands of Israel during Mr Netanyahu's visit that reveal Washington's intention to move off the sidelines and become an active player. Several of the demands focus on neutralising the free hand Israel has permitted itself in East Jerusalem since annexing it in 1967. According to Haaretz, Washington is also demanding that Israel halt the razing of structures in the Arab neighbourhoods in the city. Over the years, many structures have been demolished because they had been built without a permit. Palestinians cite the difficulty of obtaining a permit.

Washington is also asking Israel to permit the opening of a Palestinian commercial office in East Jerusalem, something that Israeli officials suspect may be a foot in the door for a Palestinian political presence aimed at redivision of the city. In the past, Israel has forced out Palestinian institutions that it accused of being a shadow Palestinian political representation in East Jerusalem.


Israel threatens new offensive in Gaza
Weekend Australian
Saturday, April 3, 2010

JERUSALEM: Israel last night threatened a widescale military operation against the Gaza Strip after a string of Israeli airstrikes that injured three Palestinian children following rocket attacks from the enclave. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Silvan Shalom, warned that the military would soon launch a new offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip unless the rocket fire was halted. "If this rocket fire against Israel does not stop, it seems we will have to raise the level of our activity and step up our actions against Hamas," Mr Shalom told public radio. "We won't allow frightened children to again be raised in bomb shelters and so, in the end, it will force us to launch another military operation. I hope we can avoid it, but it is one of the options we have, and if we don't have a choice, we will use it in the near future."

Three Palestinian children - aged two, four and 11 - were hit by flying glass in one of Israel's six overnight raids, said Moawiya Hassanein, head of the Palestinian emergency services in Gaza. There were no other reports of casualties. The head of the Islamist Hamas movement's government in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniya, reacted by blaming the Jewish state for the increase in tensions. "We call on the international community to intervene to stop this escalation and Israeli aggression," Mr Haniya said in a statement.

Britain yesterday expressed concern at the escalation in and around Gaza, calling for restraint and the launch of US-backed indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. "We are concerned by today's strikes and the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel over the past week. We call on all parties to show restraint," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said. "We encourage Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks."

The airstrikes came after a rocket fired by Palestinian militants landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon late on Thursday, causing damage but no casualties. Nearly 20 rockets have been fired into Israel in the past month, including one that killed a Thai farm worker, in the worst spate of violence since the end of Israel's 22-day assault on the territory launched in December 2008. Since the war, which killed some 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, Israel has routinely responded to sporadic rocket fire with air raids against smuggling tunnels and workshops which it says are used to make rockets.

Three of the Israeli strikes overnight targeted an area near Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza. Two missiles hit a guard post of Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. A fourth raid destroyed a workshop in the refugee camp of Nusseirat, in central Gaza, according to Hamas and witnesses. In the other airstrikes, a small dairy factory was destroyed in western Gaza City. The military said it hit "a weapons manufacturing site in the northern Gaza Strip, a weapons manufacturing site in the central Gaza Strip and two weapons storage facilities in the southern Gaza Strip". "The (army) holds Hamas as solely responsible for maintaining peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip," it said.

The rise in rocket fire came as it emerged high-profile former US officials, some with close ties to the Obama administration, have met leaders of Hamas in recent months, raising hopes inside the group that its views are being heard at the White House, The Wall Street Journal reported. White House officials and participants in the talks emphasised the meetings were not sanctioned by Washington. US officials said there had been no change to Washington's insistence that Hamas take a number of steps before official dialogue can begin.


Benjamin Netanyahu insists building to go on
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has restated his government's intention to build new Jewish homes in disputed East Jerusalem despite US opposition. His statement came as Defence Minister Ehud Barak said it would be impossible for Israel's occupation of the West Bank to continue because of the views of the international community. Both men used Israel's memorial and independence days to make the declarations yesterday.

Mr Netanyahu dismissed a demand for Israel to stop building in East Jerusalem, saying construction had been going on since 1967. "This demand that they've now introduced, the Palestinians, to stop all construction, Jewish construction in Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, is totally, totally a non-starter because what it does is prevent peace," he said on the US ABC News. He said it was wrong that Israel should have to accept such a precondition for peace negotiations to resume when Palestinians would not accept preconditions. "I say: let's remove all preconditions, including those on Jerusalem," Mr Netanyahu said. "Let's get into the room and negotiate peace without preconditions. That's the simplest way to get to peace."

US President Barack Obama asked Mr Netanyahu in their last meeting to submit in writing a list of commitments Israel was prepared to make to help the resumption of the peace talks. Despite several meetings of his inner cabinet, Mr Netanyahu has yet to formulate that list. Mr Netanyahu used his Memorial Day address to warn that terrorism presented the new threat to Israel. "Terrorism is not a new phenomenon," he said. "It has been accompanying us since the first days of Zionism, since the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel was resumed in the late 19th century. Today, terrorism is supported by radical Islamist regimes, led by Iran, which have turned the call to destroy Israel into their daily bread."

Mr Barak, one of Mr Netanyahu's most influential ministers but the leader of the Labor Party rather than Mr Netanyahu's more right-wing Likud, said it was in Israel's interests to see the creation of a Palestinian state. "There is no other way, whether you like it or not, than to let them rule themselves," he said. In terms of Israel's control over the West Bank, Mr Barak told Israel Radio: "The world isn't willing to accept - and we won't change that in 2010 - the expectation that Israel will rule another people for decades more." He hoped Israel and the US could quickly restore their relations, which had been strained in recent weeks. "The growing alienation between us and the US is not good for the state of Israel."


Same Day
Syrian envoy hauled in over Scuds to militants
JAY SOLOMON, The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON: The US State Department has summoned Syria's top envoy in Washington to express concerns about intelligence indicating Damascus transferred long-range guided missiles to the militant Lebanese organization Hezbollah. The department's announcement late Monday that it had summoned the Syrian acting ambassador, Zouheir Jabbour, reflected US fears that the alleged arms transfer could destabilize the Middle East and potentially lead to conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied the transfer of Scud "D" missiles since Israeli President Shimon Peres first made the charge public last week.

"The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the SCUD, from Syria to Hezbollah," the State Department said. "The transfer of these arms can only have a destabilizing effect on the region, and would pose an immediate threat to both the security of Israel and the sovereignty of Lebanon." The State Department said Monday's action marked the fourth time in recent weeks that Syrian diplomats in Washington had been summoned to discuss alleged arms shipments to Hezbollah, which receives most of its weapons and funding from Syria and Iran. US and Israeli officials fear the introduction of long-range Scuds into Lebanon risks shifting the military balance in the Middle East and placing almost all of Israel within Hezbollah's military capabilities.

The Syrian government in recent days has accused Israel and the US of manufacturing the Scud information as a pretext for an Israeli strike on Lebanon. President Bashar Assad's government has said the charges were meant to divert world attention from Israel's nuclear program and arms buildup.

The Scud "D" missiles are believed to have a range of more than 700 km, which would place Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear installations at Dimona within range of Hezbollah's military forces.


Israeli officials weigh up unilateral attack on Iran
The Australian
CHARLES LEVINSON, The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, April 22, 2010

JERUSALEM: The Israeli security establishment is divided over whether it needs Washington's blessing if Israel decides to attack Iran, as relations with the US sour and the campaign for sanctions drags on. Senior Israeli officials say in interviews that, as Tehran steadily develops more nuclear capability, they see signs Washington may be willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, an eventuality that Israel refuses to accept. Compounding Israeli concerns were US statements at the weekend that underscored US resistance to a military option. Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday (US time) discussed a memo to National Security Adviser James Jones warning the US needed new strategies, including how to contain a nuclear Iran — suggesting Iran could reach nuclear capability without any foreign military force trying to stop it. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated the US position that a military strike against Iran was a "last option."

Israel says it supports the US-led push for new economic sanctions against Iran. But Israeli officials have increasingly voiced frustration over the slow pace of diplomatic efforts to get sanctions in place. Relations between the two allies have soured in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government pushing back against US pressure to freeze building in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem, which Washington says is counter-productive to its Middle East peace efforts.

In another sign of a split, Israeli officials say they believe Iran — whose President has called for the destruction of Israel — could develop a warhead to strike the country within a year if it decides to, though outside experts say such capability is years away.

Such divisions have played into fears in Israel that if Washington's sanctions effort fails, the Israeli and American positions on Iran could rapidly diverge — and Israel, if it chooses to attack Iran, would have no choice but to do so on its own. US commanders say an attack would invite retaliation by Iran against American military interests in the region, or wider terrorist attacks by Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. A senior US official said the US had stated to Israel its opposition to unilateral Israeli action, but there were still fears within the Obama administration that Israel could strike Iran despite Washington's objections.

Some Israeli officials worry a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran. Israel's track record of co-ordinating such strikes with the US is mixed. The country caught the US by surprise with its attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. When Israel attacked a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, Washington was given advanced warning, according to US officials at the time.

The decision of whether to strike Iran ultimately rests with Mr Netanyahu. In the past, however, senior military commanders have had significant say in such decisions. A spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Defence declined to comment on internal deliberations concerning Iran. There are a number of routes Israeli jets can fly to attack Iran. They all would require Israeli planes to fly through US-controlled airspace in Iraq or through the airspace of US allies such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, which could cause serious political consequences for Israel.

Many Israeli military experts say Israel can easily cope with any military retaliation by Iran in response to a strike. Iran's medium-range rockets would cause damage and casualties in Israel, but they aren't very accurate, and Israel's sophisticated missile-defence system would most likely knock many out mid-flight. Israel has similarly proved it can handle attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas.

More worrying to Israeli strategic planners examining possible attack scenarios is the possibility that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by ramping up support to groups battling US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to recently retired officials familiar with the military's thinking on Iran. If American soldiers start dying in greater numbers as a result of an Israeli unilateral attack, Americans could turn against Israel. Iran could also disrupt the world's oil supply by cutting off exports through the Persian Gulf, roiling international oil markets. "What will Americans say if Israel drags the US into a war it didn't want, or when they are suddenly paying $10 a gallon for gasoline and Israel is the reason for it," says retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, former director of the Israeli army's strategic planning division.


Same Day
Extract - Lib Dem leader queries US ties
Peter Wilson, Europe correspondent

NICK Clegg, the party leader dominating the British election campaign, has refused to rule out a push to be foreign secretary in a coalition government. And in unusually strong language for a prominent British politician, the Liberal Democrat leader also urged greater independence from US foreign policy and a more demanding European attitude towards Israel yesterday. Mr Clegg said Britain should no longer be "joined at the hip with our American friends", arguing that Britain's involvement in the Iraq invasion "was a war about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown doing America's bidding". He said Israel had used disproportionate force in Gaza and kept Palestinians in poverty so Europe should use its "economic muscle", including arms embargoes, to change the Israeli government's policies.

"I think, as a European, as a British politician, we can't only leave it to the US to exert influence in the Middle East," he said. "There is nothing wrong with just acknowledging that there are . . . in recent years very profound differences between ourselves and US administrations, particularly at the height of the George Bush-Dick Cheney orchestrated war on terror." Mr Clegg called for united sanctions against Iran but denied military action would stop its nuclear ambitions. Mr Clegg described the EU as an "economic giant and a political pygmy in the Middle East".


'Freeze' on East Jerusalem building
The Australian
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

JERUSALEM: Israel has imposed a de facto freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public insistence it would not be stopped by US pressure. The apparent freeze, revealed Monday by Jerusalem councillors, probably reflects Mr Netanyahu's need to mend a rift with the US over construction on land the Palestinians claim for a future state, and to bring them back to the negotiating table. However, it remained unclear if the slowdown constituted a moratorium or how long it would last.

An Israeli government official claimed a weeks-long delay in reviewing plans for new construction was a bureaucratic issue and not evidence of a freeze. But the fact that new plans are not going ahead dovetails with signs that the Palestinians might ease their demand that the construction stop before they resume peace talks.

Councillor Meir Margalit of the Meretz Party said Jerusalem officials involved with construction projects told him Mr Netanyahu's office ordered a freeze after Israel infuriated Washington last month by announcing an East Jerusalem housing development during a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden. "The government ordered the Interior Ministry immediately after the Biden incident to not even talk about new construction for Jewish homes in East Jerusalem," Mr Margalit said. "It's not just that building has stopped: the committees that deal with this are not even meeting anymore."

Another councillor, Meir Turujamen, who sits on the Interior Ministry committee that approves building plans, said his panel had not met since the Biden visit, after previously meeting weekly. "I wrote a letter about three weeks or a month ago asking (Interior Minister Eli) Yishai why the committee isn't convening," he said. "To this day I haven't received an answer." Mr Turujamen said the last time his committee met was to approve the 1,600-apartment Ramat Shlomo project, the announcement of which on March 10 Washington described was an insult to Mr Biden. He had received no official word of a de facto freeze order, "but based on the situation, those are the facts. We used to meet once a week, and now for several months we haven't met. It's clear there's an order."

A separate municipal planning committee, which answers to the city, has met only once — last week, giving preliminary approval to a synagogue and kindergarten in East Jerusalem. An engineer who oversees residential construction in a Jewish district in East Jerusalem said requests for proposals to build hundreds of apartments had not gone out. "I think it's related to the political situation," he said, adding that he knew of no official order to block construction. Mr Netanyahu has said that he was taken by surprise by the approval of the Ramat Shlomo project, and aides announced he would make sure he would be kept in the loop in the future before any decisions were taken on controversial construction.

Asked about the freeze-order claims, government spokesman Mark Regev replied: "Following the Biden visit and the mishap, the Prime Minister asked that a mechanism be put in place to prevent a recurrence of this kind of debacle." He would not elaborate, and stopped short of saying Netanyahu had ordered a freeze. A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said this mechanism explained why planning committee meetings were being delayed, because now multiple ministries had to be involved in the co-ordination. "There is no freeze, there is bureaucracy," she said. Mr Netanyahu has said repeatedly that East Jerusalem will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any peace deal, a position the Palestinians reject outright.


Same Day
Israel kills top Hamas fighter

JERUSALEM: ISRAELI security forces yesterday killed a senior Hamas militant on the West Bank who had been on Israel's wanted list for the past eight years. The man, Ali Sweiti, was said to have exchanged fire with the troops after they laid siege to the house in which he was holed up in the village of Beit Awa, south of Hebron. Reports said Sweiti had refused to surrender and opened fire on soldiers. The IDF returned fire and Sweiti was killed in the gun battle. An Israeli bulldozer was then brought up to demolish part of the structure. Israeli officials said Sweiti had been involved in a number of terror attacks over the years, including the killing of a border policeman six years ago. Agents of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, who led troops to Sweiti's hiding place, also arrested five other Hamas suspects on the West Bank during the night.

The killing came as the Palestinian Authority announced it had uncovered several Hamas caches in the West Bank city of Nablus containing hundreds of kilograms of explosives, ammunition and weapons, the largest store of Hamas weaponry yet uncovered by the authority. A Palestinian security official said the storehouses had been uncovered after the arrest of a senior member of Hamas's armed wing. The official said Hamas was apparently intending attacks in the West Bank and in Israel, at least one of them a large-scale attack, with the object of undermining peace talks being mooted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The almost parallel operations against Hamas by Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces on the West Bank suggest co-operation between their security forces. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a common interest in suppressing Hamas on the West Bank and have not hidden their security co-operation in the past. Reports yesterday said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told US special envoy George Mitchell he was willing to discuss the core issues of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, namely Jerusalem, borders and security arrangements, as part of the talks with the Palestinian Authority.

In the Gaza Strip yesterday, the military wing of Hamas released an animated short film showing Noam Shalit, the father of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, growing old and discovering that his son is finally returning, but in a coffin. Mr Netanyahu termed the video "crude" and said: "It is another despicable action aimed to help the Hamas leadership avoid making a decision regarding our offer for a prisoner swap which it has not responded to for many months." Israel has agreed to release almost 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sergeant Shalit but not several leaders.


Building freeze revives peace bid
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, April 29, 2010

THE Middle East's stalled peace process looks set to resume following what appears to be a new understanding between the US and Israel for a temporary halt to new building in Jerusalem. The key players — the US, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League and Egypt — expressed optimism that peace talks were about to resume.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas requested a weekend meeting of the Arab League, which is set to endorse the "proximity talks" the US wants. While Washington has pressured Israel to make concessions, Egypt has pushed the Palestinian Authority to drop its insistence on a freeze on Jewish building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday he would visit Cairo on Monday to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key figure in the peace process. Mr Netanyahu said: "We ask for real peace in which we work on the basis of Israeli interests of mutuality, on a solution regarding return (of Palestinian refugees), on recognising the state of Israel as Jewish and holding negotiations without preconditions." Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "The Palestinians, with the support of the Arab League monitor committee, are likely to agree to renew the negotiations even if Israel quietly undertakes to stop construction in the settlements and East Jerusalem and doesn't make a public declaration about it."

The Netanyahu government has put a 10-month freeze on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank but has refused to include East Jerusalem, saying "Jerusalem is not a settlement." Mr Netanyahu might not survive politically if he announced a halt to Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Two of his coalition parties, the ultra-orthodox Shas and ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, would object. This is why it appears a quiet agreement has been made. However, The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Israel had no intention of dismantling settlements in the West Bank.


Reports of Scuds stir talk of war
Weekend Australian
James Hider, The Times
Saturday, May 1, 2010

WHEN Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said on Wednesday that Hezbollah now had "far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world", he appeared to be referring to Israeli intelligence reports that Syria had supplied the Lebanese militia with the latest generation of long-range Scud missiles. The alleged transfer of the missiles would, if true, make Hezbollah, as Israeli intelligence officials pointed out, the only guerilla organisation in the world to be equipped with long-range ballistic missiles, in this case with a range of more than 640km and a 700kg payload.

The accuracy of the latest generation of Scuds is far greater than those fired by Saddam Hussein at Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf War, which caused minor damage and few deaths. Senior Israeli defence officials say the deployment alters the strategic balance in the region, given that the next war - which King Abdullah II of Jordan has warned could erupt as soon as the northern summer - will be one waged principally with rockets rather than tanks and ground forces. The new Scuds could potentially reach any target in Israel, and officials fear their accuracy could allow them to target military installations with far greater effect than the Katyushas fired more or less blindly in the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. In response to the transfer, Washington summoned the senior Syrian diplomat in the US to discuss the issue, while the Jewish state has reportedly sent a message to Damascus warning that should a new war break out with Lebanon, the Israeli Air Force will target infrastructure inside Syria itself.

Gates added, during a meeting with Ehud Barak, the visiting Israeli Defence Minister, that Hezbollah's significant missile capacity was "obviously destabilising for the whole region and we're watching it very carefully". Hezbollah, which is closely allied to Iran and Syria, has called the reports of the missile deployment a "hoax" designed to trigger another war that could reshape the balance of power in the Middle East, although a Hezbollah MP said that "our choice remains to secure all the arms of resistance that we can". Israel also accuses Iran of supplying missiles with a range of up to 64km to its ally Hamas in the blockaded Gaza Strip, putting Tel Aviv within its sights. Some senior officials fear that if war breaks out with Iran over its nuclear program, Tehran will unleash not only its own long-range Shihab missiles - capable of hitting anywhere in Israel - but also its proxies' arsenals into its densely populated coastal cities.

The reports of the Scud deployment emerged earlier in April in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai and were later confirmed by Israeli sources, although some Western agencies have reservations about the accuracy of the information. The same Kuwaiti newspaper reported on Sunday that US officials had leaked the intelligence in order to "lay the groundwork for a proposal to the UN Security Council, to put together a resolution on the deployment of UN forces along the Syrian-Lebanese border".

That would cut off supplies coming to the militia from Syria, the main hub for Hezbollah munitions, and lessen the likelihood of a renewed conflict, the paper said. But a source close to Hezbollah insisted Lebabon would never agree to such a deployment along the Syrian border, Al Rai said. The situation was further confused when Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's Foreign Minister, said during a visit to Beirut that the missile deployment was a "big lie" although Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, assured Lebanon Israel had no intention of attacking it.


Israeli peace talks to resume
The Australian
The Times
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

JERUSALEM: Israel and the Palestinians are expected to renew peace talks this week for the first time since negotiations broke down 16 months ago — but exactly when and where the indirect exchanges will take place is likely to be a last-minute decision. "The truth is, everybody is talking about these proximity talks, from the Arab League to the Prime Minister to Hillary Clinton, but nobody knows when exactly it's going to begin, and exactly how they're going to do it," an Israeli official said.

Mrs Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said the talks would probably begin early this week. The US push for renewed talks received a boost this weekend when the Arab League — without whose backing the weakened Palestinian leadership would be unable to sign up for negotiations — gave its approval during a meeting in Cairo. Amr Moussa, the League's General-Secretary, gave his blessing but cautioned that "there will be no change from indirect talks to direct talks until after the outcome of indirect talks has been assessed". Israel is pushing for direct talks and has denounced the Palestinian demand for a total end to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a precondition for negotiations.

Even as he welcomed the new talks, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that any return to the construction of Israeli buildings on land conquered by Israel in the 1967 war would doom the initiative. Benjamin Netanyahu's office said the Prime Minister "praises the progress made in renewing the peace talks," and Israel was ready to negotiate with the Palestinians "at any time and in any place".

However, as late as yesterday there was still no agreement on a time or place, officials said, because the final approval was needed from a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation later this week. Israeli officials said they still did not know whether US envoy George Mitchell would shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, conveying messages, or whether the two sides would convene in separate suites of a hotel in Jerusalem. "If somebody knows, they are not saying. It's all a big mystery," one Israeli official said. "We are on the eve of actually launching the talks and no one knows how it's going to happen." The talks are expected to be led on the Israeli side by Mr Netanyahu's two closest aides, Uzi Arad and Ron Derma, because the Foreign Ministry — which co-ordinated the last round of talks in 2008 — is headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a West Bank settler. Officials said Mr Lieberman had voluntarily sidelined himself from the negotiations.

If the talks do resume, it will be the first sign of progress for Barack Obama's administration, who pledged to tackle the protracted conflict when he took office in January last year. However, his policy ran into trouble when Mr Netanyahu's government was sworn in two months later and refused to bow to US demands for a total freeze on settlements. The Palestinians deem this necessary because settlement growth continued throughout almost two decades of peace talks with Israel. The Obama administration has been putting more pressure on Israel since it won its healthcare reform victory recently, and appears even to have forced Mr Netanyahu to have frozen, or at least slowed, Jewish construction in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital. While the government has denied publicly that it is implementing any such freeze, which would cause revolt in Mr Netanyahu's far-right coalition, officials admit there has been a marked slowdown.


Same Day
Iran threatens to hijack UN nuclear show
Catherine Philp, Washington, The Times

MAHMOUD Ahmadinejad was to seize a rare appearance on the world stage overnight to cast himself as the champion of the non-proliferation movement as Western leaders struggle to gather support for sanctions over Iran's clandestine nuclear weapons program. The 11th-hour decision by Mr Ahmadinejad to attend the UN conference on reviewing the Non-Proliferation Treaty prompted condemnation in Western capitals, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning the Iranian President against trying to hijack the conference for an act of political theatre. "If Iran is coming to say, 'We are willing to abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty' that would be very welcome news," Mrs Clinton said. "I have a feeling that's not what they're coming to do. I think they're coming to try to divert attention and confuse the issue. And there is no confusion. They have violated the terms of the NPT."

Mr Ahmadinejad's presence is a clear challenge to US President Barack Obama's attempts at leadership on global nuclear disarmament. Mr Obama chaired a session on nuclear non-proliferation at the UN General Assembly in September and last month signed a deal with Russia on reducing nuclear arsenals.

Mr Ahmadinejad said he would push for changes to the treaty, which he said had failed to check nuclear proliferation since its inception 40 years ago. "The biggest threat to the world today is the production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons," Mr Ahmadinejad said in Tehran. "For more than 60 years, the atomic threat has influenced world relations. We have no disarmament or non-proliferation and some countries have even procured the nuclear bomb during this period. If this meeting is successful in making fundamental reforms to the NPT, it will be a big stride forward towards world security."

The NPT was drawn up four decades ago as a bargain between the five original nuclear powers — the US, Britain, France, China and Russia — to move towards eventual disarmament. Another 185 non-weapon states, including Iran, renounced the bomb in return for access to nuclear energy. Since the treaty came into force in 1970, Israel, India and Pakistan, who did not sign it, have acquired nuclear weapons capability, and North Korea, which did sign it, withdrew in 2003 to work towards building a bomb.

Iran continues to claim it is enriching uranium for civilian nuclear power despite having no reactors for that purpose.


Barack Obama restates US duty to Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

US President Barack Obama has restated his commitment to Israel's security on the eve of the resumption of Middle East peace talks. In a sign of easing tensions, Mr Obama telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assure him that Washington had an "unshakeable" commitment to the security of Israel as it enters the first peace negotiations with Palestinians for more than a year. An Israeli minister said the opportunity being presented by the "proximity talks" to begin today should not be missed. Israel's Minister for Industry, Trade and Labour, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said: "A historic opportunity has opened up, which people will cry about for generations if it's missed."

The US decided on proximity talks when it was clear direct talks were not possible — the Palestinian Authority had insisted on a freeze on new building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before direct talks. While Israel has imposed a 10-month freeze on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, it was not prepared to halt building in East Jerusalem, which it says is not a settlement. It appears the Netanyahu government has quietly agreed to slow building in East Jerusalem to enable talks to resume, but does not want to announce this because of the political backlash that might ensue. Under proximity talks, US envoy George Mitchell will hold discussions in Jerusalem with Israeli negotiators then shuttle to Ramallah to relay Israel's positions to Palestinian negotiators.

In a separate development, the White House has invited Eli Yishai, the leader of the ultra-orthodox party Shas, for a visit. Mr Yishai, the Minister of the Interior, is a strong supporter of settlements and it was his department that announced a major new development in East Jerusalem during the recent visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Israel had agreed to place all core issues on the table during proximity talks but said they can be resolved only through direct negotiations.


Same Day
Clinton ups ante by revealing size of nuclear arsenal
The Times, The Wall Street Journal

NEW YORK: The US has revealed the size of its nuclear arsenal in an unprecedented attempt to galvanise efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, as Washington and Tehran duelled for international backing. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the declassification of one of the Pentagon's most closely guarded secrets yesterday at the opening of an international meeting on global disarmament. It shows that the US stockpile consists of 5113 nuclear warheads and "several thousand" more retired warheads that await dismantling. The Pentagon said the arsenal had been reduced by 84 per cent from a high of 31,225 warheads in 1967. "Beginning today, the United States will make public the number of nuclear weapons in our stockpile and the number of weapons we have dismantled since 1991," Mrs Clinton said. "So for those who doubt that the United States will do its part on disarmament, this is our record, these are our commitments and they send a clear, unmistakable signal."

The declaration comes after months of wrangling between the White House and security officials over the wisdom of disclosing such sensitive information. President Barack Obama argued that the revelation would place Washington at the head of global efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons by demonstrating how much of its arsenal it has sent for dismantling. The last time countries gathered to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, five years ago, the meeting collapsed in conflict, partly over the perceived failure of the US to follow through on the disarmament commitments underpinning the treaty.

The 1970 NPT was built on a global deal in which the five original nuclear powers — Britain, the US, China, France and Russia — agreed to begin dismantling their arsenal in exchange for a promise from non-nuclear states that they would not build a bomb but would be permitted nuclear technology to produce energy. The treaty has been placed under strain by the refusal of India, Pakistan and Israel — all now nuclear states — to sign, and North Korea's unilateral withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 before building a nuclear bomb. The most current threat, however, comes from Iran, which despite having signed the treaty is believed to be pursuing a clandestine weapons program.

Mrs Clinton and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to define the other nation's nuclear capability as the principal threat to international stability. Mr Ahmadinejad accused Washington of leading a skewed international system that seeks to deny peaceful nuclear power to developing nations while allowing allies to stockpile atomic arms. "The first atomic weapons were produced and used by the United States," Mr Ahmadinejad said in a 35-minute speech. "This seemed to provide the United States and its allies with the upper hand. However, it became the main source of the development and spread of nuclear weapons."

Mrs Clinton followed with the revelation of the US's arsenal. She dismissed Mr Ahmadinejad's speech as "the same tired thoughts and sometimes wild accusations against the United States" aimed at diverting attention from Iran's own program. "We will all be judged not for our words but for our actions, not how assertively we claim our rights but how we uphold our obligations," Mrs Clinton said.

The arsenal declaration is the most dramatic of recent initiatives to give weight to Mr Obama's vow to work for a world free of nuclear weapons — a goal he first committed to as a graduate student. Last month, he signed a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that plans to slash the countries' respective arsenals to a historic low of no more than 1500 deployed warheads each. Yesterday's announcement will show how far Washington has already gone to achieving that but analysts said its real significance was as an unprecedented act of transparency, lifting the veil on information that has remained classified for more than half a century. Mrs Clinton said Washington would continue to increase funding and technical support for countries pursuing civilian nuclear power while adhering to safeguards that prevent the development of military applications. She said the Obama administration supported a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East once progress was made in pushing forward the Arab-Israeli peace process. The US would support such zones in Africa and the South Pacific, she added.


Extract - Key Israeli concession may aid peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THE US claims Israel has agreed to halt a major project for Jewish housing in East Jerusalem for two years, to help restart Middle East peace talks. As the indirect or "proximity talks" between Israelis and Palestinians began yesterday, the US said Israel had agreed to halt the Ramat Shlomo program for two years - the construction project that caused controversy when it was announced in the middle of a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden in March.

But as a sign of the sensitivities of every utterance by key parties, Israel denied there was a freeze. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mark Regev, told The Australian: "The government of Israel has refused to accept the Palestinian demand that a freeze in building in Jerusalem is a necessary pre-condition for peace talks." Nevertheless, Mr Netanyahu's critics seized on the announcement to attack him - an opponent from his own Likud party, Moshe Feiglin, said Mr Netanyahu had misled his party when he had insisted there would be no freeze in Jerusalem.

After the controversy during the Biden visit, Israel told US officials that given the lengthy planning process, there would not be any building in Ramat Shlomo for at least two years. It appears the US interpreted that as a commitment to freeze the project for two years - either misunderstanding the planning process or wanting to portray the Israeli position to the Palestinian side as a freeze to encourage Palestinians to resume negotiations.


Day of carnage in Iraq
The Australian
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

HILLA, Iraq: Three car-bombs at a factory, followed by a fourth targeting emergency workers, and co-ordinated blasts aimed at security forces killed 102 people in Iraq's bloodiest day this year. Almost 350 people were wounded in about two dozen attacks.

In the deadliest attack, two suicide car-bombs were detonated simultaneously in the car park of a textiles factory in the central city of Hilla. The bombs exploded as workers boarded buses to go home on Monday night. Minutes later, a third car bomb exploded. About an hour later, a fourth explosives-packed vehicle exploded, engulfing the area as emergency workers treated victims at the scene. Ihab al-Dhabhawi, a doctor at Hilla's hospital, said the explosions, the first of which struck the State Company for Textile Industries at 1.30pm local time, killed 50 people. In the southern port city of Basra, three car-bombs at two markets killed 20 people, according to police.


Peace push sees Israeli ministers told to bite their tongues
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, May 15, 2010

DIVISIONS have emerged in Israel's coalition government, with influential Defence Minister Ehud Barak urging colleagues to cease "provocative" statements that may endanger the Middle East peace process. Tensions rose in the West Bank yesterday after Jewish settlers shot dead a 14-year-old Palestinian, who they said had thrown stones at their car. Palestinians denied the youth was among the stone-throwers, adding he was found some distance away under an olive tree with a bullet wound in his back.

Mr Barak called on his colleagues to avoid statements that could lead to Israel being portrayed as "a peace objector". Several ministers had insisted the building of Jewish developments would continue in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem despite US calls to help restart peace talks by slowing such construction. "These words hurt Israel's interests with the US and the entire world," Mr Barak said. "They can present Israel as a peace objector and thus cause its global status to deteriorate."

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week it was not the time for peace talks and that he was not interested in comments from Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch foreshadowed demolition of more homes in East Jerusalem in coming days, despite the resumption of peace talks. The Obama administration this week brought about the resumption of the first peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians since the Gaza war last year.

Mr Barak said yesterday that the peace process was at a delicate stage and he called on his ministerial colleagues to "act responsibly and avoid harsh or provocative statements on Jerusalem".

One of his other colleagues, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, told a newspaper this week: "We will build everywhere in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of our homeland, and this is my clarification to our allies and friends the Americans."


Extract from commentary - Iran's goal of regional hegemony
The Australian
Christopher Hitchens
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate and the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution

On May 15, we were subjected to a tirade by Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Kharrazi, leader of Iran's Hezbollah party and proprietor of the newspaper of the same name, which carried his incendiary article. The need of the hour, intoned the ayatollah, was for a "Greater Iran" that would assume hegemonic control over much of the Middle East and Central Asia (stretching from Afghanistan to Palestine, according to the broad-brush ambitions disclosed by his polemic). This new imperialism would, he urged, possess two very attractive attributes. It would abolish the Jewish state, and it would assist in the arrival of the long-awaited Mahdi, or hidden imam, whose promised reign of perfection has been on hold since his abrupt disappearance in the 9th century.

Just as the Revolutionary Guard is actually the embodiment of a vicious counter-revolution and an unstable dictatorial status quo, so is Ayatollah Kharrazi's call for a Shia imperialism profoundly reactionary. (Nothing, however, will stop our media from referring to him, and to people like him, as "radical".) His call for the abolition of Israel is what one might call routine in nature - as is his ardent wish for the advent of the Mahdi - but what's of more immediate interest is his railing against the "cancerous tumors" of Sunni Islam, especially as represented by Iran's Arab neighbours in the Gulf.

Nor is this a new noise, or something to be explained away by mere crowd-pleasing demagogy. It isn't very long since the quasi-official Tehran newspaper Kayhan declared that the nearby island state of Bahrain was in reality a province of Iran, a position more or less openly held by several members of the hardline wing of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime. It is true that a large proportion of Bahrain's population is ethnically Persian or Shia, or both. But it is also true that a large proportion of Iran's Kurdish population is Sunni and by definition not Persian.

These war-like statements from the ultra-Right in Tehran, then, invite a possible carnival of sectarian warfare, instigated by Iran both at home and beyond its borders. One might dismiss it as raving, were it not for the fact that any future Iranian government - and Ahmadinejad has said he expects that his successors will be "10 times more revolutionary" - will have possession and control of nuclear weapons and of the means to deliver them.

Almost all comments about this appalling outcome, which we seem to have sleepwalked our way into half-accepting, are focused on the "existential" threat to Israel. Not to discount this, or the anti-Jewish paranoia and Holocaust denial that goes along with it, but there are three insurances possessed by Israel that are not possessed by, say, Bahrain or Lebanon or the United Arab Emirates.

The most obvious is Israel's own nuclear arsenal. The second most obvious, but very seldom emphasised, is the existence of the Palestinians. It will not be possible for the Iranian mullahs to devise a weapon of mass destruction that kills only Jews but that spares, for example, the al-Aqsa mosque. It might be possible for them to devise a fatwa that licenses the mass slaughter of Sunni Arab Muslims - the Palestinian majority - and leaves it to Allah to welcome his own to paradise, but this seems far-fetched even in Kharrazi's terms.

To come to the third assurance, then, the US is committed to the defence of Israel. Are we sure that this would be equally true of Bahrain and the UAE ' Suppose that the Iranian armed forces storm the smaller statelets of the Gulf and then ask, "Want to guess how many nukes we have ?" It would be as if Saddam Hussein had not made the mistake of invading Kuwait before his reactors and missiles were ready.

When the day comes that Tehran can announce its nuclear capability, every shred of international law will have been discarded. The mullahs have publicly sworn - to the UN and the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency - that they are not cheating. As they unmask their batteries, they will be jeering at the very idea of an "international community". How strange it is that those who usually fetishise the UN and its inspectors do not feel this shame more keenly. In the meantime, the very force in Iran that holds the keys to the secret nuclear sites is also the force that rapes its prisoners, humiliates its women, represses its "voters", empties its universities, and murders its national minorities.

The urgent task of statecraft is to evolve a policy that synchronises the disarmament demand with the idea that all Iranians, Kurdish and Azeri as well as Persian and Armenian and Jewish, can have a say in their own "internal affairs". No sign of such statecraft exists. Welcome, then, to a world in which we will have to be fawningly polite to men like Ayatollah Kharrazi.


Hezbollah uses Syrian bases to ferry weapons
Weekend Australian
Richard Beeston, The Times
Saturday, May 29, 2010

HEZBOLLAH is running weapons, including surface-to-surface missiles, from secret arms depots in Syria to its bases in Lebanon, security sources say. The Times has been shown satellite images of one of the sites, a compound near the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, where militants have their own living quarters, an arms storage site and a fleet of lorries reportedly used to ferry weapons into Lebanon. The military hardware is either of Syrian origin or sent from Iran by sea, via Mediterranean ports, or by air, via Damascus airport. The arms are stored at the Hezbollah depot and then trucked into Lebanon. "Hezbollah is allowed to operate this site freely," a security source said. "They often move the arms in bad weather when Israeli satellites are unable to track them." Most of the weapons are sent from depots like the one near Adra and then stored at Hezbollah bases in the Bekaa Valley or southern Lebanon.

The revelation adds to growing fears in the West that the regime of Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, is becoming increasingly close to Hezbollah and its main supporter, Iran. Syria has long backed the Lebanese militant group, but until now most of those contacts have taken place on Lebanese soil. There are fears that if Israel and Hezbollah clash again — as happened in August 2006 — Syria could become directly embroiled in the conflict.

Israel reportedly planned recently to bomb one of the arms convoys as it crossed the border into Lebanon, but the operation was called off at the last minute. Western intelligence sources say that the Israelis have yielded, for now, to US efforts to persuade Syria to stop the arms transfers. However, the apparent lack of success is increasing the chances that Israel may send a "calibrated signal" to Hezbollah and Syria by launching an airstrike against an arms depot or weapons convoy.

Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London, insisted that all military sites in Syria were exclusive to the Syrian military. "Syria and Israel remain in a state of war as long as Israel refuses to implement UNSC (UN Security Council) resolutions to end the occupation of Arab lands; therefore if these military depots really exist it would be for the exclusive use of the Syrian Army to defend Syrian soil, and it is definitely nobody's business," Mr Makdissi said.

Arming Hezbollah was banned under the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought an end to the 2006 war. Since then, however, Hezbollah has replenished its military stocks and the group is thought to have amassed more than 40,000 rockets and missiles. Yossi Baidatz, an Israeli intelligence officer, told the Knesset this month that the amount of arms being sent to Hezbollah by Syria and Iran could no longer be described as "smuggling". He said it was an "organised and official transfer" of weapons and that the Scuds were "only the tip of the iceberg".

Syria has denied arming Hezbollah with Scuds, but the US and Israel insist they have hard intelligence to the contrary.

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