Israel at Annapolis Peace Conference Nov 29 2007

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November 29, 2007
Sixty years ago today, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a plan to partition the troubled British mandate of Palestine into two distict nations to accommodate its Jewish and Arab populations. The vast majority of the Jewish community accepted this compromise while the Arab residents rioted.

A simple shake or shaking history?
The Australian
Geoff Elliott, Washington correspondent

THE Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday pledged to seek a peace deal by the end of next year as they relaunched negotiations at the US-sponsored conference in Annapolis.

29 Nov - Olmert-Bush-Abbas
US President George W. Bush, centre, Israel's PM Ehud Olmert, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Picture: Reuters
Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, George W. Bush read out their pledge to the representatives of 50 countries and organisations gathered at the Annapolis Naval College in Maryland. The US President shook hands with both men, who then shook each other's hands. In a memorable image, the three went through the gestures again and Mr Bush stepped back and raised his hands to encourage the other two to come together for a handshake, which they did. The image echoed that of former president Bill Clinton when he encouraged Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands on the White House lawn 14 years ago at the launch of the Oslo accords.

But Mr Bush was quick to temper expectations. Achieving a two-state solution, he said, was "not going to be easy. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago. To achieve freedom and peace, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to make tough choices. Both sides are sober about the work ahead, but having spent time with their leaders, they are ready to take on the tough issues."

In a statement read by Mr Bush, Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas pledged to start substantive negotiations by December 12. They will meet fortnightly after that, with a deadline of the end of next year for a peace settlement and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

"We express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples; to usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition; to propagate a culture of peace and non-violence; to confront terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis," they said. "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues."

The agreement was reached after weeks of negotiations, and White House aides said it went to the wire until just before Mr Bush made his way to the podium. With the biggest gathering of nations ever assembled to discuss peace in the Middle East as his witness, Mr Abbas said to Mr Olmert: "Neither we nor you must beg for peace from the other. It is a joint interest for us and you. It is time for the circle of blood, violence and occupation to end. It is time for us to look at the future together with confidence and hope. It is time for this tortured land that has been called the land of love and peace to live up to its name."

He was followed by Mr Olmert, who promised: "The negotiations will address all the issues which thus far have been evaded. We will not avoid any subject." Mr Bush said the purpose of the conference was to launch negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Our job is to encourage the parties in this effort."

Same Day: Hopes for bi-weekly Mid-East talks

Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent

THE Arab world has reacted cautiously to Israel's signal that bi-weekly peace talks with the Palestinians would centre on a core Arab demand of the return of territory captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 war. Addressing the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Saudi Arabian, Syrian and Lebanese delegates stuck to speeches written before Israeli leader Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pledged intense bilateral moves towards a two-state deal within 12 months.

The stances underscored the deep divide between Israel and the Arab world and seemed to confirm the predictions of Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas that the planned 12 months of negotiations would be difficult. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal urged US President George W.Bush to continue to take a proactive role in talks, warning of disaster if Annapolis failed to lead to a two-state deal. Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister said Israel's pledges needed to be quickly backed by confidence-building measures.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders came to Annapolis with the mood on their home streets blasť at best and the atmosphere in the conference room of Arab delegates heavy with scepticism. But after each had left the podium, they had persuaded growing numbers of doomsayers that this bid for peace might finally help lead the Middle East from despair. "Memory of failure in the near and distant past weighs heavily on us," said Mr Olmert in a key message to his Arab audience, most of whom refuse to meet him. "We are prepared to make a painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realise these aspirations. The negotiations will address all of the issues which we have thus far avoided dealing with. I am convinced that the reality that emerged in our region in 1967 will change significantly."

All three leaders offered bold predictions. Mr Abbas said the tortured timeline of the Middle East peace process could henceforth be split into pre- and post-Annapolis periods. Mr Olmert said the "post-1967 reality will change". Mr Bush trumped them, announcing bi-weekly talks from mid-December aiming for a two-state solution within 12 months. They were the most profound predictions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made in the past seven years. Each speech seemed tailored to touch a chord with factions in the audience.

Diaspora Palestinians were the focus of Mr Abbas's most heartfelt pitch. "Don't lose confidence and hope, because the whole world today is reaching out its hand in order to help us," he said. "Wherever you are, have confidence in the future, because help is coming."

In Jerusalem, the ghosts of summits past were quickly invoked. Palestinian-Israeli gatherings had ended before with bonhomie, but no tangible realities. Promises made in Madrid, Oslo, and twice at Camp David had all melted away. Each failure had left both sides worse off. And this time, said some Jerusalemites, failure could herald disaster. Cafes and bars in the central city tuned into television coverage of the speeches. Many people said the relative weakness of the three key players doomed the meeting to despair. Others felt that weakness meant Annapolis was destined to succeed. "The reason it will lead to something is that all three are not strong leaders," said accountant Oran Finklestein. "None of them can afford for this to fail."

Pundits in the West Bank capital of Ramallah said the Arab League presence had transformed a photo opportunity for Israel into a gathering of substance. "They are sending a message to Gaza, in particular, that negotiation works and that it's in their interests to get on board," said Ibrahim al-Hamed, a member of the ruling Fatah party. Hamas, now the de facto rulers of Gaza after ousting Fatah from a power-sharing Government in June, remain opposed to the gathering and marshalled a rally in Gaza City on Tuesday.

Annapolis was initially called to reward Hamas's opponents - so-called moderate Palestinians and Arabs from other nations - who flagged a willingness to come to the table. It was intended to drive a wedge between the 1.4 million residents of Gaza, most of them impoverished, and their hardline leaders, who disavow any contact with Israel and hold out for a long-term ceasefire.

Analysts in Israel and the Arab World say the lessons of history show Mr Bush will need to be much more hands-on as direct negotiations begin. "Condoleezza Rice has been the driving force behind this in the past year," said former Palestinian negotiator Hannan Neshrawi. "But now it's the President's turn to get his hands dirty."

Source: CIA World Factbook 2001; Map: NPR Online

Following a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the Sinai was returned to them 1980-1982. In September 2005 Israel withdrew the last of its troops from the Gaza Strip.

The contentious issues between the Israelis and Palestinians

BORDERS OF A PALESTINIAN STATE Possible solution: Modify the ceasefire line and compensate Palestinians by handing over some Israeli territory


Possible solution: Share control of the city


Possible solution: Compensate most and allow a token number to live in Israel


Possible solution: Israel gets its main West Bank settlements and Palestinians are given a part of Israeli land

The dispute between Israel and Syria centres on the Golan Heights

Location: A plateau in the southwestern corner of Syria overlooking the sea of Galilee and northern Israel
History: Syrian soldiers shelled northern Israel from the Golan Heights between 1948 and 1967. Israel captured the territory in 1967 and annexed it in 1981, but no country officially recognises that
Population: Most of the 100,000 Syrian residents of the Golan Heights fled during the 1967 war and were not allowed to return. About 17,000 remain
Dispute: Israel has offerred to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights down to the international border in exchange for full peace. However, Syria insists on recovering land it captured in 1948, including the eastern shore of the sea of Galilee.


Israel lost if plan fails: PM
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 30, 2007

IN his most strident bid to drive the rejuvenated peace process, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has claimed Israel will be "finished" if moves towards a two-state solution collapse. The Israeli leader based his remarks on the scenario of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza being given equal voting rights across what is now Israel, a move that would demographically destroy the Jewish state, with superior numbers of Arabs.

Speaking to Israeli media at the conclusion of the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, he said: "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished. "The Jewish organisations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us," Mr Olmert said. "Because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents."

Mr Olmert will return to Jerusalem in the next few days and start selling the key theme of Annapolis - a two-state solution by the end of next year - to a wary coalition Government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will return separately to Ramallah, where a warmer reaction is anticipated from his fledgling administration in the West Bank.

Mr Olmert was keen to praise Saudi Arabia for joining the conference, at a Naval Base outside Washington DC. "I saw (Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal) sitting there and clapping his hands; this indicates that the Saudis see themselves as contributors to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians," he said. However, most Arab states present refused to meet or speak with the Israeli leader, or his Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. Mr Olmert exchanged pleasantries with delegates from Bahrain, Morocco, Pakistan and Qatar, but was ignored by the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. Ms Livni was successful only in meeting the Foreign Minister of Jordan, with whom Israel has held full diplomatic relations for more than a decade.

Arab reaction to the summit, in which both sides committed to bi-weekly meetings from mid-next month, has remained muted. All Arab League member states have fallen in behind a position that reserves judgment on the process until results are produced and says normalisation with Israel will not happen until it returns to borders it held before the 1967 Six Day War. Other Arab League nations present included Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Non-Arab Muslim states that turned up were Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey.

As he returned to Jerusalem, Mr Olmert told the reluctant right-wing of his coalition Government that the site Israel calls the Temple Mount, which takes in the Western Wall of the second Jewish Temple as well as Islam's third-most holy shrine, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the adjoining Dome of the Rock, would not be handed over to Palestinian control. Custody of the Temple Mount has been a core concern of the right-wing and orthodox religious groups. Mr Olmert was keen to talk down the summit as a "historic, or dramatic" event and instead pitch it as a kick-start to a moribund process.

Opinion polls in Israel were yesterday still showing that popular support for the peace process was running at close to 70per cent. Mr Olmert, besieged by domestic crises and fallout from the Lebanon War, appears to have returned in a slightly stronger position and his tenure as Prime Minister is increasingly seen as pivotal to a negotiated settlement. Earlier in the year, in the wake of the heavily critical first report by the Winograd Commission into his handling of the war, his approval polls were running at between zero and 10per cent. The release of a second Winograd report, due next month, could cast a further cloud over his tenure.

However, Israeli analysts speculated that if Mr Olmert survives part two of Winograd, he could emerge emboldened enough to call an election to change the coalition dynamic, then hold a referendum of all Israelis, which could secure a mandate for the two-state solution. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will hold their first post-summit meeting on December 12. A follow-up summit is due to be held next year in Moscow.


Extract - Peace talks in hushed tones
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 01, 2007

At traffic lights across the central city on Thursday, Orthodox youths and children handed out yellow ribbons inscribed in Hebrew with the words "Jerusalem one city undivided forever". In East Jerusalem, youths, merchants and worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest in Islam but off limits to most of the Arab world, are eager to offer their views on the future while probing foreigners for an independent take. "They talked a lot in Annapolis, but much of it, all of it, we have heard before," says fruit vendor Shahadeh Rabiyah. "I don't believe they will ever split this city, and if they do, what will happen to me and others who do business with the Jews? Will they put a wall through the city like in the West Bank, or around Gaza? I tell you, this is like putting your hand in a bees' nest. No one can sort it out."

Despite the gradual movement back to two large encampments, formally splitting Jerusalem seems as fraught as splitting the atom. The coveted old city, now technically in the east, is a Mr Squiggle-like doodle of ancient laneways that would prove a riddle to apportion to both sides' satisfaction. Access between several Arab villages is possible only through what is now Israel.

Public opinion polls in Israel continue to back the peace process but slightly more than 50 per cent of respondents said Annapolis had failed to kick-start the process. The post-summit mood on the Arab street appeared a little more upbeat, with several Palestinians saying Olmert's explicit recognition of Palestinian suffering had been an important confidence builder. "Because of our history, because of the wars, the terrorism and the hatred towards us -- a suffering that has always been part of our lives in our land -- your people, too, have suffered for many years, and there are some who still suffer," Olmert said in a speech at the conference. "Many Palestinians have been living for decades in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew up, wallowing in poverty, in neglect, alienation, bitterness and a deep, unrelenting sense of humiliation. This pain and this humiliation are the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos of hatred towards us. We are not oblivious to the tragedies that you have experienced."

Palestinian taxi driver Abu Khalil, 27, told me afterwards: "This is what we wanted to hear. They were only words, but they had meaning. This is the first time I have heard this from a Jewish leader. All I've ever heard from them is fighting talk."

Olmert has two major fights ahead: managing the peace negotiations, especially the politically impossible Palestinian demand of allowing refugees to return to Israel, and appeasing his Knesset coalition. The right wing, which helps him hold power, has taken a hardline stance on his Kadima party's land-for-peace ethos, insisting it either be binned or replaced by a territorial exchange that would give Israel a predominantly Jewish character. Right-wing cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday said that moving most Arabs out of Israel and into a sovereign Palestinian state was the only solution.

The voices from the margins have been the loudest. But it is the softer voices in the secret meeting rooms that will eventually prove the worth of Annapolis.

Same Day Extract - Israeli police shelve Olmert corruption inquiry

ISRAELI police have shelved an investigation into allegations Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acted corruptly by encouraging Melbourne billionaire Frank Lowy to tender for a majority stake in a government bank. Police said there was not enough evidence to proceed against Mr Olmert, removing a cloud over his leadership as post-Annapolis negotiations with the Palestinians get under way.

The key claim was that Mr Olmert, then finance minister, intervened in the bank sale to rig the bidding. The Israeli Attorney-General's office will have the final say on whether the investigation will be dropped for good. Investigators had tried to establish whether Mr Olmert favoured Mr Lowy by contacting him about the Bank Leumi sale. Detectives flew to Australia to interview witnesses. Mr Lowy's Israeli representatives bought tender documents for the bank sale but they were not submitted.


Israel hedges on Annapolis deadline
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 04, 2007

ISRAELI leaders are refusing to commit to December next year as a deadline for squaring off peace with the Palestinians, claiming the time frame agreed to in the Annapolis summit was a guideline only. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both raised Annapolis during lengthy addresses at a cabinet meeting yesterday. The meeting was the first since the pair returned from Washington with a commitment from US President George W. Bush to drive difficult negotiations towards a resolution late next year.

Deal-making within Mr Olmert's coalition Government is looming as just as fraught a process as finalising a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The right-wing political bloc in Israel yesterday continued its hardline opposition to many of the principles tabled in Annapolis.

Ms Livni reiterated that all bets will be off unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's regime can fulfil security obligations under the peace road map. "An effort will be made to hold accelerated negotiations in the hope that it will be possible to conclude them in 2008," Mr Olmert said. "However, there is no commitment to a specific timetable regarding these negotiations. Israel will not have to carry out any commitment stemming from the agreement before all of the road-map commitments are met."

Continuing his post-summit criticism, hard-right leader Avigdor Lieberman said: "Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas) represents the Palestinians like I represent the Norwegians. His chances of controlling Gaza - as is demanded at Annapolis - are very weak."

Finalising a deal by the end of next year is considered important to the Bush regime, which leaves office in January 2009. Mr Bush has empowered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to drive negotiations until then in the hope of finally ending the 59-year-old conflict and leaving a lasting legacy in the region.

As part of an attempt to bolster Mr Abbas, Israel yesterday released 429 prisoners, most of them only several months ahead of scheduled release dates. Israel claims to be holding about 9000 West Bank or Gaza prisoners in its jails, while the Palestinian Authority claims the number is closer to 11,000. "The release (of Palestinian prisoners) tomorrow is a joke," jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti said. "The majority of the prisoners would have been released anyway in the next few months. It is possible to release thousands of prisoners and not just 400. "Abu Mazen asked for more, but they wouldn't let him have any more."

At the same time, Israel's security cabinet prepared to implement the first phase of power cuts to the Gaza Strip - a punitive measure in reaction to incessant rocket and mortar fire by militants. Power and fuel cuts have been debated by Israel's defence establishment and judiciary for the past three months after the plan to scale back supplies from Israel, on which Gaza is totally dependant, were first raised by Defence Minister Ehud Barak.


Israel's fear and loathing
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, foreign editor
December 08, 2007

THE US intelligence assessment that the Iranians have abandoned, for the moment at least, their nuclear weapons program has burst like a clap of biblical thunder over troubled Israeli skies. Frankly, there is hardly a senior Israeli who believes the US.

One sceptic is Shabtai Shavit. He was for seven years the head of Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad. Now in his late 60s, he has a range of commercial affiliations but just recently has been called back by Israel's security ministry to advise the Government on Iran. I spent a morning this week at his modestly sized but beautiful Tel Aviv villa. He was frankly shocked at the American assessment, which he does not believe is correct, and at its public release.

The new US view, that Iran is acquiring the nuclear technology that could produce weapons but has given up its specific weapons program, and in any event probably could not produce a weapon until 2015, is the opposite of the Israeli assessment. Jerusalem believes Iran will have enough nuclear fuel for a weapon by 2010 at the latest. Says Shavit: "I believe we should be very hesitant in accepting this (US assessment). First, intelligence exists to err. Second, American intelligence time and again has made mistakes in the past. Three, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that often intelligence is being used for political purposes and hidden agendas."

This is a perfect circle of irony and history. The international Left believes the Bush administration misused intelligence to justify striking Iraq. Now Israelis suspect the Bush administration may be misusing intelligence because it doesn't want to strike Iran. Other Israeli sources tell Inquirer the new US assessment contradicts not only Israel's intelligence judgments but also those of the Germans, the French and the Dutch.

Shavit echoes this point. "There were differences in emphasis. One party would tell you that Iran will have the first bomb in 2009. Another will say 2010 or 2011. But no one in the West said anything similar to the (American) statement," he says.

Shavit outlines some of the difficulties in scrutinising the Iranian program: "Countries all over the world, when they go for a nuclear capability, they at first put civilian agencies in charge, not the military. These agencies pursue scientific capabilities, not military ones, such as enriching uranium, producing plutonium. It's always in civilian hands. When a country then decides to use nuclear technology for military purposes, a military body comes and does it on a separate track. From an intelligence point of view, following any country's nuclear program, you have to look for research and development to enrich uranium. To know if they are going for the bomb you have to look in other places, especially in defence infrastructure. It is far harder to track the military track than the civilian track. The Iranians say every day, yes, they are pursuing the civilian track. The military track is entirely hidden: geographically, financially, it's somewhere else."

Other Israeli sources tell Inquirer that Israel has identified Iran's military nuclear track and it is active. They point out how often the CIA has made fundamental mistakes in this kind of assessment. When Robert Gates, now US Defence Secretary, was deputy director of the CIA, it substantially overestimated Soviet strength. It did not know about India's or Pakistan's nuclear weapons in advance. It first underestimated, then overestimated, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

For Israel, an Iranian nuclear weapon is a far deadlier proposition than for the Americans. Says Shavit: "Israel cannot live with the threat of Iran with a combination of a nuclear weapons capability and the present regime. It means to live under the threat of a leadership which is extremely religious, fundamentalist in its views, that believes its No1 duty, which came straight down from heaven, is to fight the infidels, and infidels is everyone who is not the right kind of Muslim, and to create the new world caliphate. It sounds like a fairytale but this is true. They say it, they believe it, they educate their kids about it.

"Israel is only 20,000sqkm. Most of its population is around Tel Aviv. What I am describing is an unbearable threat. So we should do everything we can to build an international coalition to deal with this. The threat is not only against Israel but against Europe, and soon, when Iran acquires ballistic missles, against the US. The international coalition should deal with it, first diplomatically. If that doesn't work, then through sanctions. If sanctions don't work, then it must deal militarily."

Yet, on first blush, most analysts believe the public release of the US assessment effectively rules out military action for the rest of the term of the Bush administration. Shavit readily acknowledges that neither he nor other Israelis know all the answers about Iran. It is still an open question, he believes, whether the messianic or pragmatic tendency will triumph within the Iranian Government. He says: "The core question is whether we are talking about a regime (that) is messianic and ideology driven or, when push comes to shove, it will be pragmatic."

One example he cites is the end of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The introduction of chemical weapons by the Iraqis led to such heavy Iranian losses that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was prepared to make peace on unfavourable terms, though he said at the time the decision was like poison to him. This is an example of a regime that was, in extremis, pragmatic rather than messianic. However, Shavit warns, Iran's supreme religious leader today, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is more extreme in his view than was Khomeini.

Another vital line of Western policy, Shavit believes, should be to exacerbate Iran's internal contradictions: "Iran is very divided ethnically. The biggest minority is Azeris and beyond the border are also Azeris. Azeris in Iran undergo all sorts of persecutions and discrimination. But I don't see the West in general taking any advantage of these objective elements." Shavit believes Iranian students, and those Iranians who have spent time in the West, are also sources of opposition to the regime in Tehran.

Some sources dolefully point out that Iran is far more active in Iraq than any Western country is in Iran. Shavit says that the Iranian-made explosive devices, which have taken so many allied lives in Iraq, have also been found in Lebanon and even in the Gaza Strip. Other Israeli sources suggest that, in the time frame available before Iran gets nuclear weapons, it is the contradictions within the Iranian leadership that are most important.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most extreme. And he has a political, theological and even military power base that even Khameini may be reluctant to test. Other key figures, especially a former president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, hold extreme views but are pragmatic in their methods and also have big business interests and want Iran to be able to relate to the rest of the world.

Shavit believes Iran has rebuilt the Hezbollah force in southern Lebanon to act as a deterrent to an Israeli or US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Any such attack would bring an immediate rain of Hezbollah missiles on to Israel. He strongly supports Kevin Rudd's proposal to bring Ahmadinejad to trial for incitement to genocide for his comments about wiping Israel off the map.

Shavit believes that the moment Iran declares it has a nuclear weapon, the Middle East will be transformed much for the worse. Like most Israelis, he is determined that such a moment not come about. But this week, most amazingly, he is wondering whether the Americans have helped him or hindered him.


Tense start to Middle East talks
The Australian
Martin Chulov
December 14, 2007

THE first post-Annapolis talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders got off to a rocky start, with Palestinian negotiators threatening to boycott discussions because of a plan to build a Jewish settlement in an area of Jerusalem slated as capital of a Palestinian state. The meeting was to take place in the highly symbolic King David Hotel in central Jerusalem, a stately building with grand views of the Old City. However, it was moved to a smaller meeting hall after the Palestinians threatened to stay at home.

Israel had also been dissatisfied with the start of the post-summit talks, with senior Israeli figures insisting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition.

The talks yesterday were the first of a planned 12 months of bi-weekly discussions outlined by US President George W.Bush, as part of a bold bid to secure a two-state solution to the 59-year-old conflict by January 2009. The meetings are due to be held mainly between senior bureaucrats and negotiating teams, but will be sometimes joined by the leaders of both sides.

The Israeli settlement plan in East Jerusalem is in a contested neighbourhood, called Har Homa. The Israeli Government announced on Monday approval to build 300 new Jewish homes there. They are the first block building approvals in the Arab east of the city for many years.

Since the 1967 Six Day War, Jerusalem has been a city of two halves, with the Palestinians to the East and Jewish neighbourhoods to the west. Both populations keep largely to themselves and only a handful of mixed neighbourhoods still exist in the city.

The moved attracted swift condemnation from lead Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat and reportedly led to a rebuke from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Palestinians are demanding that Israel include the expansion plans in a block-ban of settlement work announced by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his speech in Annapolis. Israel says the settlement freeze does not apply to East Jerusalem, which it annexed after its victory during the Six Day War.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, considered a key link to the future of negotiations, criticised the plan. "The kingdom strongly condemns Israel's decision to expand settlement building in East Jerusalem, which contradicts the bases and principles of the Annapolis peace conference," he said. "We stressed the importance of standing up against settlement activity which empties the peace process of any meaning."


Interview with Tzipi Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister
The Australian
Greg Sheridan
December 15, 2007

TZIPI Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister, wants the world to know that if peace is not reached between Israel and the Palestinians, it will not be because the Israeli Government is unwilling to take risks or make painful concessions.

I meet Livni on Thursday in her Tel Aviv office for a rare exclusive interview. It is the day after the first session of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as part of the Annapolis peace process. She is, understandably, a little late for our appointment and at first seems a bit stressed, rushing her words, interrupting her own sentences.

But who in the world has more of a right to be stressed than the Israeli Foreign Minister? It takes only a few minutes for her to settle into the interview and her tone becomes determined but realistic. She and her Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, are going to give the Annapolis peace effort their best shot.

"We need the international community to understand we've passed the period when our international image is that we are trying to gain more time, to gain more control over the (Palestinian) territories," she says. "At the same time, we can't just throw the keys to the other side if there's no one responsible there."

The Annapolis process calls for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the core issues within a year. These core issues include the boundaries of a Palestinian state, the status or possible division of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and their dependants, and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The process also requires the implementation of the road map, which means the Palestinian Authority putting an end to terrorism against Israel and implies the PA retaking authority over the Gaza Strip from Hamas.

All of this looks not so much a tall order as an impossible dream. But most analysts agree that so long as expectations are not unrealistic, it is better for the two sides to be talking than not. At the same time, Israel, with the backing of the international donors' conference in Paris on Monday, of which Australia will be part, will try to improve the quality of life for ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank.

For all that, the first day of talks, which Livni as her Government's chief negotiator led on the Israeli side, were tense and difficult. But no one said they would be easy. "In the Middle East it's not a matter of days," Livni says. "I don't describe my views as optimistic or pessimistic. There's a goal to reach: the vision of two states for two peoples. We are serious. We know what kind of concessions we are willing to make. I don't know yet if the Palestinians really understand the true meaning of two states for two peoples."

Livni offers one example in particular. This is the so-called right of return, the right for all Palestinians who once lived in Israel and all their descendants to return to Israel rather than to a new Palestinian state. "The creation of Israel as a Jewish state according to a UN resolution was to end a conflict in the land of Israel, or the land of Palestine, whatever you want to call it, between Jews and Arabs," Livni says. "The idea was to create states to give meaning to the national aspirations of the two peoples. The Palestinians are demanding a Palestinian state but also demanding the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. This is against the nature of two states. Israel cannot be part of the solution for these refugees because the creation of the Palestinian state is the only solution to their national aspirations."

It is fair to say that this is not even the most difficult issue the two sides face as no one seriously expects Israel to embrace its annihilation as a Jewish state by embracing several million new Palestinians. Livni instead identifies what many see as the crucial issue: "Nobody wants to create a terror state and Israel cannot afford it. The question is less about the territorial concessions needed from Israel and more about whether we can achieve security - I don't even use the word peace - in terms of the West Bank, and Gaza, which is now controlled by Hamas. We believe the two-state solution is the best option and in the Middle East you have to choose between bad options."

But if you talk to many Israelis, they place the Palestinian question, intractable as it is, second to a much bigger threat: a nuclear-armed Iran. I ask Livni whether she believes the Iranians are working towards a nuclear weapon. Her response is unequivocal: "The clear, simple answer is yes."

Israeli government leaders have been publicly polite and privately bewildered by the bizarre US intelligence report that concludes that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons program. Significantly, Livni agrees that the US report has made more difficult the international campaign to mount effective sanctions against Iran over its illegal uranium enrichment program. However, she says, she does not know why the US released that report the way it did. Nor will she speculate on it.

Without revealing any classified information, Livni makes an irrefutable case that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, based on the evidence contained within the report. "In a strange way, saying the Iranians stopped their nuclear activity towards this goal in 2003 also is evidence of what they actually want to reach," she says. "Now, it's a matter of one plus one equals two. The Iranians continue the uranium enrichment in violation of the (UN) Security Council resolution and in violation of the non-proliferation treaty.

"They're talking in violent terms even though they could easily work with the international community if their intentions would have been only civil or energy for useful purposes. The problem with Iran is partly ideology. It's not a political vision, in reference to Israel, it's only an excuse. The way they see their destiny is to change the region. These Shia extreme Islamic ideas, they transcend borders and affect neighbours.

"It (Iran) is not a state that only wants a weapon for self-defence or to become a regional player; they really act. They act in Lebanon through Hezbollah. They act in the Palestinian territory supporting Hamas and other terrorist organisations in terms of weapons, money and training. They work with radical elements in other Gulf states. Most Arab leaders, they understand better than the Western world the meaning of this ideology. This is a combination that is the most risky: in a national conflict, or a conflict on borders, you can reach an understanding, but this conflict is a conflict of ideology.

"Their ideology is to deprive others of their rights. This is the nature of the threat and I'm not sure that other parts of the world understand it because usually we judge the other according to our own values and this is totally different. I don't think they (the West) really understand the nature of the threats in terms of their own interests. Let's imagine that the Israel-Palestine conflict will be solved today. It won't change Iran's ideology. Their ideology is not connected to Israel."

Like most senior Israeli politicians and officials, Livni followed Australia's election. Olmert phoned Kevin Rudd to offer congratulations. Senior Israelis appreciate that Rudd is a friend of Israel, strong on terror and solidly committed to the US alliance. At the same time they are deeply appreciative of the support the Howard government gave them during the past 12 years. Olmert also rang John Howard and former foreign minister Alexander Downer, not only to thank them for this support but to tell them Israel will always regard them as friends.

Livni says Australia's support is important to Israel: "I believe it is about friendship, but it is also about values. We need to know there are places in which Israel is understood. It's not only a matter of Israel's interests or supporting Israel but supporting the interests of the free world. We believe we are in the front line representing the interests of the free world in the region."

Referring to Australia, Livni says: "When you see the kind of leaders that can see straight and have this understanding between what is right and what is wrong, it is immensely important." Livni is not quite the charismatic charmer that her American counterpart Condoleezza Rice is, but if anything she has the tougher job. Every day is full of life and death decisions. And in that life and death struggle she thinks of Australia as a friend.


Billions in aid for peaceful Palestine
The Australian
December 18, 2007

PARIS: Delegations from the world's powers were poised last night to agree to an aid package worth billions of dollars to stabilise the Palestinian economy and give political impetus to the newly relaunched peace process with Israel. Ninety international delegations attended the one-day Conference of Donors for a Palestinian State, the biggest of its kind since 1996, which aims to shore up the process jump-started in the US city of Annapolis last month.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said before the summit he hoped to win pledges for $US5.6 billion ($6.5 billion) to underwrite a Palestinian state and stave off severe hardship in the territories. The amount the Palestinians needed for next year was "around $1.6 to $1.7 billion", US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told journalists accompanying her on the plane to Paris. The US has pledged to shoulder one-third of the financial burden next year by paying out $US550 million. The German Government, meanwhile, has promised to pay $US200 million by 2010. "This is an historically large figure. I think this is the largest assistance package that we have ever done for the Palestinians," a US official said.

Among the delegates gathering at a conference centre by the Arc de Triomphe are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Conference members were expected to urge Israel - which operates 550 checkpoints in the West Bank - gradually to lift restrictions on movement between Palestinian towns and villages, while asking the Palestinians for a big push to improve security conditions. Before the conference, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said: "The creation of a Palestinian state and the modernisation of the Palestinian economy are in the interests of Israel, just as stopping terrorism is in the interests of the Palestinians."

At the US-sponsored meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, last month, Israel and the Palestinians pledged to seek a peace deal by the end of next year, relaunching negotiations frozen for seven years. The pledges will support a plan drawn up by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Mr Fayyad said his Government had undertaken important economic reforms, which should reassure donors that their money will not be wasted. "The reforms are not abstract slogans but concrete actions which he has taken," he said. "I can say with certainty that Palestinian financial management is no longer a cause for concern." Some 70 per cent of pledged funds will go to stabilising the Palestinian budget, and the rest on development projects.

The US praised Mr Abbas's Government before the opening of the conference. "You have the best Palestinian government since Oslo," a senior US official said.


Extract - $8.6bn aid pledges bolster Abbas
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 19, 2007

THE US and Israeli bid to strengthen the Palestinian Authority has received a filip with international donors pledging $US7.4 billion ($8.6 billion) in aid to the new regime, more than 25 per cent higher than expected. The pledges, made at an international donors' conference in Paris, appear certain to consolidate the regime of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but deepen the divide between the West Bank, ruled by his Fatah party, and Gaza, which is dominated by militant group Hamas.

Main contributions pledged

Source: AFP

Barriers erode life for Palestinians
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

TO understand something of the frustration of Palestinian life in the West Bank, it is only necessary to negotiate one of the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints that impede movement there. These checkpoints are a huge barrier to the resumption of routine economic life, much less development, which all analysts agree is essential to normalising life on the West Bank - and any peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Last week, I visited the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Getting in was easy enough - lots of tourists go there, after all. But coming out was tedious. There was a long system of passages and locked turnstiles, and a substantial queue. Each Palestinian leaving Bethlehem had to show their permit to enter Israel. Each tourist had to show their visa. Like many journalists, I had chosen not to have my passport stamped on entry at Tel Aviv Airport. So I could not show the guard at the checkpoint an Israeli visa. After a little talking, I was let through. This experience is repeated daily for countless Palestinians. The Israelis say the checkpoints are necessary to stop terrorist attacks. That is true, but there is no doubt the quality of Palestinian life has suffered as a consequence.

To hear more of the Palestinian viewpoint, I went to meet Saman Khoury, a member of the Palestinian National Congress and the chief of the Peace and Democracy Forum, in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem. Khoury, a former Marxist and activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, spent several years in Israeli jails, but now opposes all violence. He believes Israeli policy needlessly harms Palestinian life: "Israel could definitely run a security system with less impact on Palestinian life.

"If you look at the last 40 years, I think Palestinian life is definitely worsening. The blow to the peace process from 2000 (when the last attempt at a negotiated settlement failed) has pushed things back beyond 40 years ago. When accessibility of many sorts is blocked, including access to areas of worship, this pushes people back. In the last seven years, things have drastically deteriorated. How necessary are 500 road blocks in the West Bank and Gaza ... It hurts commerce and people can't sell what they grow. The prisoners issue is another big one. Israelis have to stop collective punishments. They have to rethink this policy of going into a village and taking 20 men when really they only want two. And of course the situation in Gaza, held by the extremist Hamas movement, is far worse than the West Bank.

I raise with Khoury the rather vexed question of how the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, can claim to represent the Palestinians when it lost the election in Gaza to Hamas. His answer is that the PLO is the internationally recognised body that represents all the Palestinian people, eight or nine million around the world. As a result of negotiations with Israel, the PA represents those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and Hamas should obey the authority of the PA. He believes that Fatah, which supports the PA, and Hamas, should solve their disagreements by negotiation. Nonetheless, all this seems to count Palestinian elections for very little.

Khoury is a strong supporter of the peace process begun at the Annapolis conference: "The end game is almost clear. There will be two states along the lines of the 1967 borders. Jerusalem will be the capital of both states, which will enjoy good neighbourly relations. This is supported by two thirds of the populations on both sides. "I do remain hopeful. I do believe that before the departure of George W.Bush from the White House there should be a clear date for the end of this conflict."

Israel strikes Islamic Jihad in Gaza
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

ISRAEL killed the commander of Islamic Jihad's armed wing and nine other fighters in a series of strikes on the Gaza Strip yesterday. Six passers-by, three of them children, were wounded in the attacks, Palestinian medics said. The Islamic Jihad commander, Majed al-Harazin, had directed the almost daily rocketing of the town of Sderot and other targets inside Israel, according to Israeli officials. He was on the wanted list of Israel's Shin Bet security service for nine years. Israeli sources said Harazin rarely travelled by vehicle for fear of being targeted by Israeli warplanes, which are believed to be alerted by agents on the ground. But on Monday night, he was riding with five other Islamic Jihad guerillas in Gaza City when their vehicle was hit by a missile fired by an Israeli aircraft. Three of the men, including Harazin, were killed and three wounded.

A few hours later, a similar attack on another vehicle in Gaza killed three other Islamic Jihad members said by Israel to be involved in producing missiles. Three more were killed in a third attack before dawn when they were on their way to launch rockets, Israeli officials said. A 10th member of the organisation, said by Palestinian sources to be a senior commander, was killed in the West Bank in a night attack by Israeli special forces.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Hamza said Israel would pay for the killings and that the organisation was contemplating a return to suicide bombings in reprisal. "The blood of our comrades will fuel the rockets that will bring death and destruction to the Zionists," he said. Islamic Jihad's first response was a barrage of 10 rockets and mortar shells early yesterday. An Israeli expert on the Palestinians, Shalom Hariri, said the group had never stopped trying to launch attacks on the West Bank, but had been frustrated by almost nightly arrests by Israeli forces. And the militants have been unable to get into Israel from the Gaza Strip, which is surrounded by troops and fences.

Islamic Jihad is a relatively small and secretive organisation that is even more radical than Hamas and has rejected Hamas's declared readiness for a short-term truce with Israel. Hamas has not fired rockets into Israel for some time, but Islamic Jihad has never stopped. The successful attacks on Monday suggest Israel has managed to penetrate the organisation. Residents of Sderot have been demanding an Israeli raid into Gaza to stop the rocketing, and senior military officers have said a raid is inevitable. But analysts say that with US President George W. Bush due next month, it is unlikely Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will authorise major action before then.

The chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, Tzahi Hanegbi, said yesterday there was no contradiction between the attacks on Islamic Jihad on the same day that the international community was pledging billions in Paris to support the Palestinian Authority. "We have to strengthen the pragmatists while continuing to attack the terrorists," he said.


Jihad threat hangs over festivities
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 20, 2007

THE start of the holiest feast on the Muslim calendar Eid al-Adha — the festival of the sacrifice was a subdued affair in Gaza last night, with Islamic Jihad vowing to bypass festivities to avenge the assassinations of 13 of its members - including its key rocket engineers.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, up to five million Muslims, among them Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrapped up their Haj pilgrimage to the sacred Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. His pilgrimage is significant because of the sometimes rocky relations between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, a calm descended on Palestinian West Bank cities, where tensions with the Israeli army have gradually eased over the past two months as both sides busy themselves with preparations for peace negotiations.

But Gaza was once again in a state of high alert. Many in the isolated Strip say they cannot afford to celebrate the festival this year. Others say they are in no mood for festivities after a series of targeted assassinations by the Israeli Air Force on Monday, which devastated the senior ranks of Islamic Jihad. The strikes killed the commander of rocket firing operations and at least two of the engineers who manufacture the makeshift Qassam rockets that have been fired into Israel on an almost daily basis for the past year. Islamic Jihad mosques in central Gaza seethed yesterday with balaclava-clad Islamic Jihad mourners, many waving the black banners of the militant group and vowing to attack Israel.

Israeli intelligence officials suggested to local media yesterday that some of the estimated 300 Gazans allowed out of the besieged Strip to attend the Haj in Mecca could be taken to Iran to receive paramilitary training.

Eid al-Adha is known as the festival of the sacrifice and Muslim families customarily sacrifice a goat or sheep and share the meal with Muslims who cannot afford it. The have-nots in Gaza this year have grown dramatically, with a tripling in the price of livestock making it impossible for many families to take part. Goats have jumped in price to 250 Jordanian dinars ($500), putting them well out of the reach of most people.

'Australianist' sees barriers to peace
Greg Sheridan, Tel Aviv

IN so far as you can have one, Isaac Herzog is an Australianist in the Israeli Government. He is the Minister for Labour, and a key Labour Party figure in keeping Ehud Olmert's coalition Government together. He believes Australia's diplomatic and political support for Israel has been important, and he hails Australia as "highly respected, a very important state in world politics because of its worldwide involvement. It's also a donor country to the peace process."

As chairman of the Australia-Israeli parliamentary friendship association, Herzog hosted Kevin Rudd on both his visits to Israel. "I took him (Rudd) to a Tel Aviv pub. He was very impressive. He knew the (Middle East) situation intimately. We (Israel) also had a high regard for Mr Howard and Mr Downer."

I meet Herzog for an after-dinner coffee in a cafe near his home in an upmarket suburb of Tel Aviv. The cafe is called, appropriately, Matilda's and, despite the relatively advanced hour, is full of families with kids and other families with dogs. Herzog is a friendly, easygoing guy, but he is part of Israeli political royalty. His father, Chaim Herzog, was president of Israel. An uncle, Abba Eban, was a legendary foreign minister.

The Israeli Labour Party has an institutional bias towards a peace deal with the Palestinians. It is always the party of the peace process. Herzog outlines Labour's view of the shape of a likely peace deal with the Palestinians. He believes this view will ultimately gain acceptance from both parties to the dispute. Labour's vision involves Israel retreating mostly to its 1967 borders, but retaining the main Jewish settlement blocks around Jerusalem plus one other big Jewish settlement. The Palestinians would have a contiguous state on the West Bank and would also have the Gaza Strip. The Jewish settlements Labour believes Israel should retain account for about 4 per cent of the disputed land and Israel would compensate a Palestinian state with an equivalent land transfer from Israel proper. There would be special arrangements for Jerusalem, which would presumably function as the capital of both states. There would be a right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to the Palestinian state but not to Israel.

But Herzog, who is no hawk in Israeli terms, is nonetheless conscious of the obstacles to such an agreement. "There are some prerequisites," he says. "There must be security. The Palestinians must build up their institutions, especially their security institutions. Israelis demand security. The Palestinians are much weaker than they were in 2000. Hamas must be countered. They must return our (kidnapped) soldiers, they must stop the rocket attacks. In 2000, we had a Palestinian partner (Yasser Arafat) who was capable, but not willing. Now we have a partner (the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas) who is honourable and willing, but it is not clear if it's capable."

Herzog says the withdrawal of Israeli settlements - and of a military presence - from Gaza in 2005 was not a mistake. But he is, he says, "bitterly disappointed" with the way Gaza has turned out, with the terrorist group Hamas in control and daily rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. "We want to be optimistic, but we are sober," Herzog says.

Many Israelis express similar sentiments. They would make big territorial and other concessions for peace, but they are bitterly disappointed with the results in the Gaza Strip and in southern Lebanon. It may well be that the impasse, and the conflict it leaves unresolved, will continue for many years yet.

Extract - Peace impossible without will
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

There are two short-term factors that will tend to keep a lid on the conflict, and one that will tend to make it explode, but all the long-term trends are unhelpful.

The Israelis will want to keep things as quiet as possible until at least after George W. Bush makes his first visit to Israel as President in early January. Given the closeness of the US-Israel alliance, presidential visits are remarkably rare. The Israelis won't want it cancelled. Second, Abbas's position is pathetically weak. Hamas won the elections in Gaza but it has also won many municipal elections on the West Bank. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was infamously corrupt even by Middle East standards. Fatah is a busted flush of ageing cronies and local war lords. It has not produced a new generation of leaders and it has very little support among the Palestinian people. It is difficult to gauge Palestinian public opinion, but perhaps a third seriously support the religious agenda of Hamas. Among the remaining two thirds, the corruption of Fatah is a byword. No one believes Fatah could remain in power even in the West Bank without the heavy presence of the Israeli Defence Force, constantly arresting and suppressing the worst extremists, who in this context are also Fatah's enemies. Remove the Israelis and the estimates of how long Fatah would remain in power range from two weeks to two hours.

The short-term trend that could cause a blow-up any day is the Qassam rockets being fired daily from Gaza at Israeli civilians in Sderot and increasingly near the sizeable Israeli city of Ashkelon, with its vital and vulnerable power station. Every day half a dozen of these rockets are fired. On one day when I was there recently 20 were fired. These are not fired at military targets. Their intent is to murder civilians. Luckily, these rockets are crude, short-range and inaccurate. But they are becoming longer-range as outsiders, especially Iran, provide weaponry. Eventually one of these rockets will hit a school bus or a classroom and kill 20 Israeli children. When that happens the Israeli political process will demand a huge operation in Gaza to clean out the rocket factories. No Israeli wants to go back to Gaza. But they will if necessary and such an operation would be bloody and terrible. Many people would die. Amid all the criticism Israel would face, one question would be unanswerable: which democratic country would not respond if its civilians were being daily fired upon by rockets? There is no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli military action. The Israelis do not aim at civilians and would stop all military action tomorrow if the terrorism stopped.

This is where the long-term trends come in, all of which, as I say, are dolorous. The Annapolis negotiations are all about territory: where will the borders of a new Palestinian state lie, what is the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank? These are entirely secondary questions. If the Israelis actually had a peace partner in the Palestinians I have no doubt they would be extremely generous about territory. But there is not the slightest indication that they have such a partner.

While I was in Israel a young Israeli father, in his 20s, was shot and killed in his car by two Palestinian terrorists. He was shot for no more substantial reason than that he happened to be driving along while the terrorists were waiting by the side of the road. And the identity of the terrorists? They were policemen in the PA. Allegedly, and this is very convenient, they did not use weapons provided by the international community as part of its plan to bolster the PA. The question is whether the PA can ever get to a stage where it can govern Palestinian society, and whether the PA has any genuine interest in peace. Until very recently PA school text books contained traditional anti-Semitic propaganda against the Jews. Due to international pressure that has largely been removed. But still the text books, and the Palestinian media, are full of incitement to terrorism and no suggestion that Israel will be a peace partner, or even a state Palestinians will have to live with. Instead maps of Palestine are routinely printed which simply erase Israel altogether. This means the peace talks, and the media commentary around it, are rigged against Israel because they don't discuss the one real obstacle to peace: the refusal of the Palestinian leadership, and much of the Middle East Islamic leadership, to genuinely accept Israel's right to exist.


Rice shores up peace process
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 22, 2007

WASHINGTON has welcomed Israel's decision to abandon plans for a new Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem, but maintains the recent approval of another development could undermine the reborn peace process. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Israel had taken "a good step" by dropping plans to develop the Atarot area in the east of the disputed city, which the Palestinian Authority has demanded as a capital of a future state of Palestine.

However, Palestinian anger simmers over invitations for building tenders in the nearby area of Har Homa, which had been slated in the early 1990s as Israeli land, despite a competing claim on a portion of it by nearby Arab villagers. The Har Homa announcement was also criticised by the US and EU. Some land inside the existing area of Har Homa, a hillside opposite Bethlehem, had been left undeveloped until the Israeli Government approved plans for the development of 300 homes after the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has defended the development in the face of Arab world anger since claiming his Government was powerless to stop it. A senior Israeli Government official said during the week that land-owners in Har Homa had all rights at law and that the development would not mean the settlement's borders would encroach into East Jerusalem, or the West Bank.

Speaking about the decision to cancel the expansion of Atarot, Dr Rice said: "I think it's a good step. I don't know the calculations that went into it, but obviously it's helpful that you don't have that decision to contend with," she said, referring to the first round of post-Annapolis talks, which the Palestinians last week almost boycotted, largely because of the Har Homa announcement. "I think that the Israelis understood that what had happened with Har Homa had had an effect of undermining the confidence in the very fragile and brand new peace process."

Israel's core obligation under the first phase of the White House-sponsored road map for peace is to stop all settlement expansion. However, Israel considers East Jerusalem to be exempt from the demand. Dr Rice met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Brussels this month to discuss Har Homa. "I made it clear that we are in a time when the goal is to build maximum confidence with the parties," she said. "This is not going to build that confidence."


Israel, Hamas scramble to find grounds for ceasefire
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
December 24, 2007

A FLURRY of mixed signals from Israeli and Hamas sources over the weekend indicate frenetic behind-the-scenes discussions aimed at seeing whether common ground can be found for a ceasefire. A London-based pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that his organisation was seriously considering declaring an unconditional truce with Israel. "There is a debate within Hamas and between Hamas and other factions and we hope we will succeed," the official was quoted as saying.

Apparent confirmation came from Ahmed Yusuf, political adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, who told the Palestinian news agency Maan that Hamas would cease firing rockets into Israel if Israel halted its attacks and lifted its siege of the Gaza Strip. However, Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said: "We can not talk about a truce at a time when Israel is stepping up its attacks." Similar statements came from spokesmen for Islamic Jihad.

The conditional, rather than inflexible, nature of most of these statements - along the lines of "We will stop but only if the other side stops first" - was repeated by Israeli leaders. The office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement saying Israel would not regard Hamas as a partner for negotiations unless it renounced violence and recognised Israel. Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Mr Olmert might consider a long-term truce with Hamas if it stopped the rocket attacks from Gaza, halted the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip and opened talks for the release of a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been held for more than two years.

The fate of Corporal Shalit may be a pivotal factor. Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in a coup last June, is in desperate straits because of the Israeli economic siege and ground and air attacks which last week alone killed 20 Palestinian militants. Hamas has two cards it might play. One is to step up its attacks on Israel. Hamas has for several months refrained from rocket attacks, leaving them to Islamic Jihad and other small groups. Last week, Hamas warned that if Israel did not cease its attacks, it would resume massive firing of rockets. But if that happens, Israel would resume targeting of Hamas military, and probably political, leaders. Last week, an Israeli rocket killed the head of Islamic Jihad's military arm and other commanders. This success apparently serves as a strong deterrent. The other card Hamas holds is Shalit, whose release could be a sweetener in a ceasefire package.


Extract - Israel absolves troops on bomb use
The Australian
December 26, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israel's use of cluster bombs in last year's war against Hezbollah was legal and conformed to international conventions, a long awaited army investigation has reported. "The Israeli Army in most cases used cluster bombs in uninhabited sectors where there were no civilians and from where Hezbollah forces operated," according to the inquiry by legal counsel to the army.

Cluster munitions spread bomblets over a wide area. The bomblets often do not explode on impact, but can do so later at the slightest touch, making them as deadly as anti-personnel landmines.

The probe, carried out by Brigadier General Avihai Mandelblit, was due to be published in August but was postponed after extra submissions were requested. "When these weapons were used in urban areas, they were responses of a defensive nature against rocket attacks from villages which had been evacuated by most of their inhabitants," the inquiry stated. The report, ordered by former chief of staff General Dan Halutz, said cluster bombs were "aimed at stopping rocket fire against the towns and communities of northern Israel". At least 38 people have been killed and 217 wounded by cluster bombs in the region since the end of the conflict, according to the UN.

General Halutz, who resigned over perceived failures of the war, was decorated yesterday for his role in the conflict. He received a medal along with all other military leaders in office during the 34-day war.


Extract - Israel lacking proof on nukes
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
January 08, 2008

ISRAEL'S dire intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear intentions will be delivered to US President George W. Bush during his three-day visit which begins tomorrow, but it will not entirely refute an American intelligence finding that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. In an interview with Israel's Channel Two television at the weekend, Mr Bush said if he were an Israeli he would take seriously Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threat to wipe the Jewish state off the map. "If Iran did strike Israel," he said, "we will defend our ally - no ands, ifs or buts."

Reports yesterday said Israeli officials in Jerusalem were to deploy more than 10,000 police officers in a vast security operation ahead of Mr Bush's arrival, the first US president to visit in a decade. For the Palestinian Authority indications of progress are particularly important since the $US7.2 billion ($8.3 billion) in aid promised at a recent international conference in Paris was unlikely to be forthcoming if there were no signs of movement toward a peace settlement.


Extract - President seeks to save Mid-East peace process
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Additional reporting: AFP
January 09, 2008

JERUSALEM: US President George W. Bush arrives in Israel today in an attempt to breathe life into the still-moribund peace process he launched at a conference in Annapolis six weeks ago. During his three-day visit, Mr Bush will meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose negotiators have not yet gone beyond procedural discussions to substantive issues. The Palestinians have called on Mr Bush to press Israel to freeze settlement activity during his visit.

Violence simmered ahead of Mr Bush's arrival, with Israeli troops killing three armed Palestinians, including a woman, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni saying operations against militants would continue even during peace negotiations. Mr Bush has declared his hope of seeing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that lays the foundation for a Palestinian state alongside Israel before his term ends in a year. Few others see this as a likelihood.

Jerusalem will be the first stop on an eight-day Middle East swing aimed at shoring up America's relations with moderate leaders in the area and encouraging them to stand together against a perceived threat from a militant Iran. Mr Bush will visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several Gulf countries. In Kuwait, he is to meet for the first time in four months with General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, who has achieved an apparent turnaround in the fortunes of the US and its allies in that country. "Part of the reason I'm going to the Middle East," Mr Bush told an Israeli newspaper before his departure, "is to make it abundantly clear to nations in that part of the world that we view Iran as a threat."

Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas were to meet last night to discuss "core issues" - such as refugees, Jerusalem and borders - on the eve of the Bush visit. Although he will be staying in Israeli Jerusalem, Mr Bush will also visit Palestinian territory on the West Bank. High on the agenda of his talks with Mr Olmert will be the subject of settlements, particularly "unauthorised" West Bank outposts that Israel has failed to remove despite pledges by Mr Olmert and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, to do so.

Mr Bush's visit comes against a background of escalating fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. In an unusual development yesterday, an Arab couple approached an Israeli position on the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, the woman dressed in a traditional black cloak. When Israeli troops spotted a gun on the man, they opened fire and killed him. The woman then pulled a pistol and opened fire before she herself was killed. A bomb she was carrying blew up in the exchange. Troops also shot dead a Palestinian gunman in the West Bank.


Bush tells Abbas to walk the walk
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem
January 11, 2008

GEORGE W. Bush last night warned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he must choose between statehood or chaos and that he would not hesitate to pull out of the Middle East peace process if either side's commitment waned. In only the second visit to the Palestinian territories by a US president, Mr Bush yesterday travelled to the administrative capital, Ramallah, for meetings aimed at driving moves towards peace that had become weighed down since a summit he hosted in the US in November. The journey to Ramallah came at the midpoint of a three-day trip to the Holy Land, which is seen as a defining point in a path towards a two-state solution to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.

Mr Bush hopes progress towards peace in the Middle East before his term as President ends next January will form part of his foreign policy legacy after eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. "I believe it's going to happen that there's going to be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office," Mr Bush said last night at a press conference with Mr Abbas. "I am confident that, with proper help, the state of Palestine will emerge. And I'm confident that when it emerges it will be a major step towards peace." The Palestinian President and his full cabinet rolled out a red-carpet welcome mid-morning in the rebuilt presidential compound, which stands alongside the tomb of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The two leaders walked arm in arm.

Palestinian negotiators reacted warmly to Mr Bush's strong opposition to Israel's mooted expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Mr Abbas and Arab states had branded as a deal-breaker. Mr Bush told the Israelis that "illegal" outposts in disputed land must go. He also backed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's earlier stance against settlement expansion, including construction within areas that had been claimed in past years. Mr Abbas was expected to go one step further by asking Mr Bush to order a freeze on all settlement expansion, especially in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope one day to claim as the capital of a sovereign state. Palestinian officials welcomed Mr Bush's willingness to table other critical issues such as the future of more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, many of whom claim the right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.

Negotiators upped the ante in their dealings with Mr Bush, telling him they would consider reunification with Hamas if a peace deal with Israel collapsed, or if the next 12 months failed to provide significant progress. Hamas remains opposed to the peace process and to Mr Bush's visit to Israel, which it claims only advances the interests of "the occupation".

Earlier, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr Bush said he would stop short of dictating an agreement, but said both sides must reach positions on core issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and borders. "My trip here is a sufficient push," Mr Bush said. "But an agreement that we dictate will not hold. We are willing to help, but the two sides must reach an agreement on their own."

The Palestinian Authority, which is loyal to Mr Abbas, must do more to stop militants from Gaza firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns, he said. No part of the Palestinian territories could be a "safe haven for terrorists". However, the Palestinians told him they were powerless to stop the rockets without a presence in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, which is not a party to the current negotiations.

Israeli officials said Mr Bush appeared to be both eager and impatient during his first round of talks with them and implored his audience not to let the peace process be weighed down by domestic political impasses.


Bush in a hurry for two-state solution
The Australian
Agencies, Correspondents in Ramallah and Jerusalem
January 12, 2008

US President George W. Bush made a bold prediction yesterday that Israel and the Palestinians could sign a peace treaty within the year to establish a Palestinian state and end 40 years of Israeli occupation.

Bush with Greek Orthodox Patriarch and priests
Positive Tone: George W. Bush with Greek Orthodox priests, including Patriarch of Jerusalem Theofilos III, right, in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity yesterday.

Picture: Reuters

Mr Bush outlined in the clearest terms so far a two-state peace treaty he hopes to broker between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of his term. After an historic visit to Ramallah in the West Bank, Mr Bush said he understood the frustrations felt by Palestinians caught at Israeli military checkpoints across the West Bank. The Palestinian state would have to be contiguous territory, he insisted, and not a "Swiss cheese" of isolated cantons. "There should be an end to the occupation that started in 1967," he said, spelling out blunt terms to his Israeli hosts. White House officials said the President planned to return to the region this year to push for the deal.

In the face of deep scepticism from both sides, Mr Bush expressed confidence that a final treaty would be signed during his last year in office. "I'm on a timetable," he said when he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, only minutes after saying he would not impose timetables on the negotiators for both sides. "I've got 12 months left in office."

Mr Bush did not offer specific prescriptions for the core issues he addressed: where to draw new borders, how many Israeli settlements in the West Bank will have to be uprooted in a final deal, or how to compensate a Palestinian diaspora numbering in the millions now for homes and lands lost long ago - let alone how to pay for it. Many of the issues Mr Bush addressed have been at the centre of previous peace talks that ultimately failed, and reflected American policy long pursued by Mr Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

But having faced criticism for speaking of peace only in the broadest way, Mr Bush then publicly addressed what are known as the core issues, even if those remain subject to intense negotiations. By endorsing compensation for refugees, Mr Bush sided, at least indirectly, with an Israeli view that the return of Palestinians to Israel was unacceptable since it would change the identity of Israel as a Jewish state. Similarly, he endorsed the notion of Israel as "a homeland for the Jewish people", and "Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people".

At the same time, he emphasised a new Palestine would have to be "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent", a stance somewhat at odds with Israeli desires to retain some security controls even after a treaty. "Achieving an agreement will require painful political concessions by both sides," he said.

On Jerusalem, the city each side claims as its capital, he endorsed no view, calling its status "one of the most difficult challenges on the road to peace". "But that is the road we have chosen to walk," he said.

Mr Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said Mr Bush would return to Israel and the region at least once, in all likelihood for the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding in 1948, to be commemorated in May. Mr Bush was quick to emphasise that he also understood Israeli security concerns. Mr Bush went by road to Ramallah from Jerusalem after fog prevented his scheduled helicopter trip, allowing his convoy to pass through Israeli checkpoints and see sections of the huge security barrier erected along the boundary with the West Bank.


High-level talks begin in Jerusalem
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
January 15, 2008

ISRAELI and Palestinian negotiators, spurred by a visit by US President George W. Bush, were to open the most serious peace talks in seven years overnight. Officials said the chief negotiators, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei, would meet in Jerusalem for their first talks meant to tackle the thorniest issues - statehood borders, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

It took nearly seven weeks to start so-called final-status talks, announced at a US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, underscoring the hurdles facing Mr Bush in getting a statehood agreement in his final 12 months in office. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have authorised Ms Livni and Mr Qurei to begin final-status talks, but the leaders remain at odds over the scope of the deal they are trying to reach.

In his first presidential visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank last week, Mr Bush set the goal of signing a peace treaty this year. Israeli officials said Mr Olmert was seeking a deal that would outline a "framework" for a future Palestinian state, with implementation delayed until the Palestinians could ensure Israel's security. Mr Abbas wants a final peace treaty enabling him to declare a Palestinian state by the end of this year. But substantive talks on issues such as Jerusalem could put Mr Olmert's coalition government in jeopardy. The right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party has threatened to pull out, possibly this week.

The first final-status talks since 2001 were supposed to start soon after the peace conference in Annapolis in late November. But the Palestinians demanded Israel first commit itself to ceasing all settlement activity, as called for under the long-stalled roadmap peace plan. Under US pressure, Mr Olmert responded with a de-facto halt to new construction in settlements in the West Bank. But he has not called off plans to build hundreds of new homes in an area near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim.

The talks came as Israel's security service reported to cabinet that Israeli attacks in Gaza had killed 1000 Palestinians in two years, including 200 civilians. The human rights organisation B'Tselem said the dead included 150 minors. The Israeli Air Force, which carries out most of the attacks in Gaza, said it had adjusted tactics in order to sharply reduce the "collateral damage" to civilians. In the past month, it said, 40 militants had been killed, with no civilian deaths. After the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, the air force showed less restraint. In one instance, a one-tonne bomb was dropped on a Gaza house, killing the head of Hamas's military arm but also 15 civilians, including his wife and daughter. Most of the "targeted assassinations" are carried out in air strikes against vehicles known to be carrying militants or against rocket crews firing into Israel.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, himself a former Shin Bet head, told the cabinet that about 5 per cent of militants in the Gaza Strip had been killed. The attacks, however, have failed to end the firing of rockets into Israel, at the rate of about 110 a month. Mr Dichter has called for a massive ground incursion into Gaza. He said about 3000 residents had left the Israeli town of Sderot, which had been hit almost daily by rockets for years. Three militants were killed yesterday in a missile attack on a car near the home of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.


Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
January 18, 2008

The head of Israel's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that his 11-man faction was leaving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition. The politician had warned he would walk if Mr Olmert began to negotiate substantive issues with the Palestinian Authority.


Israel blocks Gaza supplies to halt rockets
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday January 19, 2008

ISRAEL barred shipments of supplies into Gaza yesterday and Hamas fired more than 40 rockets at Israeli communities as both sides vowed to step up their pressure until the other asks for a ceasefire. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the closure of the crossing points used for much of Gaza's supplies. Even medicine and humanitarian aid would be allowed through only in "exceptional circumstances", a defence spokesman said. Israel declined to spell out the length of the block. Fuel supplies are also to be reduced, although not completely halted.

The order reflects the urgent need felt in Jerusalem to protect the town of Sderot, where rocketing has reached unprecedented levels this week. Hamas had fired 130 rockets in 72 hours since Israel killed 19 Palestinians, mostly Hamas fighters, in an incursion into Gaza on Tuesday. Spokesmen for the militant group said the focus would soon shift from Sderot, with a population of 20,000, to Ashkelon, a coastal city five times that size, which it can hit with larger rockets. The rocketing had caused few casualties but intense stress.

Palestinian sources said yesterday that Hamas, which for the past six months had left the rocketing to smaller organisations, had decided to fire massively to make Israel pay for its incursions. Technical problems that previously prevented Hamas from stockpiling rockets had been overcome, the sources said, and it had accumulated thousands of rockets, which it intended to use to force Israel into a ceasefire. A Hamas spokesman said the organisation's attacks were only a response to Israel's actions, not a change in policy.

Israel has been reluctant to launch a long-planned, multi-divisional attack on Gaza aimed at recapturing the strip and uprooting Hamas infrastructure. However, Israel would have little choice if the rocketing continued, observers said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Sderot yesterday and pledged to keep up the pressure on Gaza. Also yesterday, a missile fired from an Israeli aircraft hit a car in Gaza, killing a senior militant and his wife. In a similar attack later, an Islamic Jihad operative was killed but so were a mother and child riding on a donkey cart, which the car was passing.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was considering resigning if the Israeli attacks continued, a senior aide said yesterday. The aide said Mr Abbas was enraged that the Israeli attacks followed the visit of George W.Bush, making it appear he had colluded with the US President and Mr Olmert over the Gaza attacks. While Mr Abbas is a political enemy of Hamas, he cannot ignore the fate of the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza. Palestinian officials called on Washington to pressure Israel to halt its attacks so peace talks can resume.

A Hamas spokesman yesterday refuted the threat of another senior Hamas official that the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, might "disappear" if Israel's attacks continued. "I can say with certainty that Gilad Shalit is safe and we have no intention of hurting him," said the spokesman, Abu Obeida.

Meanwhile, Israel tested a long-range ballistic missile yesterday. The launch of the two-stage missile was seen from much of the country. According to foreign reports, Israel, which has warned of the Iranian nuclear threat, is upgrading its Jericho missile, with a capacity for a nuclear warhead, to a range of 5000km. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reacting to the launch, said: "Israel doesn't have the courage to attack Iran. The Iranian response would make them regret it and they know this very well."


Border breach lets Hamas re-arm
The Australian
James Hider, Rafah Border Crossing, The Times, Agencies
Friday January 25, 2008

THE US and Israel have warned that Gaza militants may have taken advantage of a spectacular breach of the strip's border with Egypt to re-arm, as clear evidence emerged yesterday that Hamas was behind the blockade breach. As tens of thousands of Palestinians clambered between the Gaza strip and Egypt, border guards revealed details of the operation that brought down a hated wall and handed the Islamist group Hamas perhaps its greatest propaganda coup.

Gaza Border
A view of the border area between the Gaza Strip and Egypt after it was destroyed in a series of explosions. Picture: AP
Hamas, which took control of the coastal territory last June after a standoff with Fatah, has denied its men set off the explosions that brought down two-thirds of the 12km wall in the early hours.

But a Hamas border guard told The Times Hamas had been involved for months in slicing through the metal wall using oxy-acetylene cutting torches. When the explosive charges were set off in 17 different locations after midnight the night before last, the 12m-high wall came tumbling down, leaving it lying down the middle of no-man's land as an estimated 350,000 Gazans flooded into Egypt.

"I've seen this happening over the last few months. It happened in the daytime but was covered up so that nobody would see," said Palestinian guard Abu Usama. Asked whether he had reported it, he replied: "It was the Government that was doing this. Who would I report it to?" Mr Usama, who normally works from a small guard cabin in no-man's land, added: "Last night we were told to keep away from the wall. We were ordered to stay away because they were going to break the blockade."

Almost a quarter of the entire population of Gaza have entered Egypt in the past two days to stock up on goods made scarce by the blockade Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip following last week's rocket bombardment of the Israeli border town of Sderot. Thousands of people herded back cows, sheep and even camels from Egypt into the strip while Egyptian security forces looked on. Others brought back motorbikes and fuel. Many women lugged back cans of olive oil.

Yesterday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya called for an urgent meeting with his rivals in Fatah and with the Egyptian authorities to work out a new border arrangement. He called for the border crossing to be reopened "on the basis of national participation", indicating Hamas might cede some control to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah-led Government in the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called on Israel to lift the blockade, saying the rush to Egypt was proof of the "difficulties Palestinians face and the need to reopen border posts". Jordan's King Abdullah II warned Israel should not expect "serious" peace talks with the Palestinians if it continued its Gaza blockade.

Israeli officials voiced fears that Egypt's decision to allow Gazans to cross the border unhindered would allow militants to rearm. "We are worried, as these breaches not only permit Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip, but also permit Hamas to easily infiltrate arms and terrorists from Egypt," Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said. The US expressed concern to Egypt yesterday. "One of our concerns, and one of the Egyptians' concerns, as well, is that Hamas will use this ... as a cover for additional activities designed not to bring in consumer goods, but to allow fighters and others to get weapons and other kinds of supplies," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

Fatah and Hamas blamed Israel for the breakout. "Israel is responsible for what has happened -- this is the consequence of the blockade imposed on Gaza," a Fatah spokesman said. But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "The blame for this problem can be laid squarely at the feet of Hamas." The UN Security Council was to meet overnight to finalise a statement calling for "an immediate end to all acts of violence" in the region.


Extract - Israel lifts blockade on Gaza fuel
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday January 29, 2008

ISRAEL agreed to allow the supply of fuel to Gaza City's power plant, and Egypt invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard to resume supervision of the Egyptian-Gaza border yesterday in the first tentative moves to end the chaos that followed the breach of the border fence by Hamas last week. However, Hamas demanded a role in control of the crossing and said it would not permit a return to the previous arrangement under which Israel monitored the border terminal with cameras.

The Israeli decision to resume limited supplies of industrial-use diesel to Gaza was revealed in the High Court when government lawyers responded to an appeal by the Israeli-Arab human rights group Adalah, which argued that Israel was carrying out collective punishment of the Palestinians in violation of international law. Government lawyers said fuel supplies to Gaza would be resumed "to meet basic humanitarian needs" but that Israel would consider cutting supplies again if rocket attacks resume on Israel.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said in Cairo yesterday that Egypt had agreed that Palestinian security forces should take control of the Rafah crossing into Egypt. With Israel's pullout from Gaza in 2005, the crossing was handed over to the PA, backed by foreign observers. Israel was able to monitor the crossing with cameras and by accessing the terminal's computers. Following Hamas' forcible takeover of the Gaza Strip from the PA last June, the crossing was closed on the Egyptian side.

Mr Malki said Hamas would be excluded from the border control arrangements. "Hamas will be told about this agreement and they will have to accept the presence of the (PA's) presidential guard at the border," he said. "This is the Egyptian position as delivered to us by (Egyptian) Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. If Hamas rejects the agreement, they will be held responsible for the protracted closure of the border."

The Egyptian foreign ministry declined to comment but a senior Egyptian diplomat was quoted as saying: "We want to end this crisis through the takeover of control of the border crossing by the legitimate Palestinian Authority of President Abbas." Arab League foreign ministers backed returning control of the crossing to Mr Abbas.


Hezbollah rejoices at war report
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday February 2nd, 2008

AN official Israeli report castigating the performance of the nation's army in the war against Hezbollah in 2006 was greeted with elation in Lebanon yesterday, with the guerilla group claiming the report should encourage the Arab world to fight the Jewish state rather than establish ties with it. "The report proves that the resistance (Hezbollah) won, something that people tried to deny," said a former Hezbollah minister, Muhammed Fneish. Hezbollah politician Mohammed Khider said that the report by the Winograd Commission, which was appointed by the Israeli Government to investigate the army's performance in the war, confirmed the Shia militant group had seized the initiative from the Israelis. The report should encourage the Arab world "to favour the (military) option rather than establishing ties (with Israel)", he said.

Some Lebanese commentators praised the ability of Israel to publicly examine its own failures, a trait, they said, that was almost non-existent in the Arab world. Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan termed the report "an honest admission of defeat" by Israel - and one that reflected a victory "which had never been achieved by an Arab nation since the establishment of (Israel) on Palestinian land". But Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had a somewhat different take on the report's findings. "The report calls for preparation for the next war, which shows that Israel has not learned the appropriate lesson from its defeat."

Retired Israeli Supreme Court judge Eliyahu Winograd, who headed the five-man commission, told a press conference that Israel must strive for peace but had better prepare for future conflicts because peace would only come through a position of strength. The publication of the report stirred the Israeli political scene as various leaders sought to interpret the commission's findings to their own advantage.

Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu said the report demonstrated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was unfit to lead. "No government in Israel has ever decided to go to war with such an advantage over the enemy," he said. "But as the Winograd Commission wrote, for the first time Israel fought a war it didn't win." Mr Netanyahu called on Labor Party leader Ehud Barak to pull his party out of the governing coalition so as to trigger new elections. Mr Barak, who last year called on Mr Olmert to resign, is expected to announce his intentions early next week. Sources said Mr Barak would probably choose to remain in the Government, at least for now, in view of the relatively mild criticism of Mr Olmert's performance in the report.

Had the commission issued a harsh appraisal, political analysts believe that members of Mr Olmert's Kadima faction in the Knesset might have tried to replace him with Foreign Minister Zipi Livni - who also called on Mr Olmert to resign after a preliminary report by the Winograd Commission last April. But yesterday she told a party meeting that the party must fall in behind Mr Olmert in implementing the report's recommendations.

The commission's conclusions regarding the army's operational unpreparedness and the poor functioning of senior commanders shocked Israelis. One of the Winograd report's most troubling findings was the frequent failure to press home attacks for fear of taking casualties. "It is reasonable to assume that weakening of norms relating to discipline, readiness and adherence to mission are part of a broader cultural phenomenon in Israeli society," the report said. In the 19 months since the war, the once-mighty army has undergone extensive retraining under a new commander-in-chief and has been restored, say senior commanders, to its old self.


Gazans travel to Egypt for last time
The Australian
Monday February 4th, 2008

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Egyptian troops closed the last breach in Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip yesterday, ending 11 days of free movement for Palestinian residents of the blockaded territory. The troops were allowing Gazans and Egyptians to cross the border to return to their homes but prevented any new cross-border movement, according to witnesses and Hamas security officials in the border town of Rafah. Egyptian soldiers patrolled in armored personnel carriers and stood on nearby rooftops. Dozens of Gazans looked on as the Egyptians resealed the border, the Hamas officials said. No violence was reported.

Israel issued no immediate comment on the closure.

Hamas militants blew up section of the Gaza-Egypt border wall on January 23 to end a seven-month blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel with Egypt's co-operation. The move allowed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to stock up on supplies. Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said on Saturday, after meeting Egyptian officials, that Egypt would close the border in co-ordination with the militant group, which seized control of the territory in June. But Mr Zahar said the closure would be temporary while the Egyptians searched for a way to reopen the border. Egyptian officials were not available for comment on the Hamas claims.

Any role for the Islamic militants on the border would be sure to anger the international community and Hamas's archrival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, because it would amount to tacit recognition of Hamas rule. Hamas's violent seizure of the tiny seaside territory, home to 1.5million Palestinians, left Mr Abbas controlling only the West Bank.

Hamas thwarted repeated attempts by Egypt to reseal the frontier as Palestinians flooded over the border. On Saturday, Egyptian security forces arrested two Palestinians carrying a bomb in el-Massoura, a village about 4km west of the border with Gaza, a Sinai security official said. A police official in Cairo said the two had been trying to reach beach resorts in the southern Sinai. On Friday, a Sinai intelligence official said Egyptian security forces were looking for four Palestinians who slipped into the country from Gaza and were suspected of planning suicide attacks against resorts. It was not clear if the two men arrested Saturday were those Egypt had been tracking. At least 17 Palestinians have been arrested in the past days carrying weapons and explosives near the border and other remote parts of the Sinai desert.

Mr Zahar said Egyptian officials told him they would restore order at the crossing. The Hamas leader, widely seen as the mastermind of Hamas's Gaza takeover, said the Islamic group would co-operate with Egypt in its efforts. According to Mr Zahar, Egypt agreed to co-ordinate with Hamas on some border issues and to enable thousands of Palestinians stuck in Egypt to go to third countries for which they had visas or residency permits. In an interview with AP Television News, Mr Zahar suggested the Egyptians planned to reopen the border after talks with European officials arriving in the region. "Tomorrow they (the Egyptians) are going to start dialogue with the European people in order to make an end for our sanctions and to allow opening of the gates freely and without preconditions," he said.


Extract - Bomber strikes near Israeli reactor
The Australian
Correspondents in Jerusalem, AP, AFP
Tuesday February 5th, 2008

A SUICIDE bomber last night blew himself up in the southern town that houses Israel's secret nuclear reactor, killing one Israeli and wounding six others, one critically, in the first such attack on Israeli soil in a year. Police said they killed a second attacker in the Negev desert town of Dimona before he had a chance to detonate his explosives belt. Officials were investigating whether the attackers came in through Egypt after Palestinian militants breached the Gaza-Egypt border last month.

The first suicide bombing since the US relaunched the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in Annapolis in November came after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reversed his longstanding opposition to freeing Palestinian prisoners behind deadly attacks in exchange for a soldier seized by Gaza militants. At a ministerial meeting yesterday, Mr Olmert voted to ease the criteria to allow the release of people with "blood on their hands" - those implicated in attacks that have killed Israelis. The move is aimed at paving the way for an eventual Palestinian prisoner release in exchange for Gilad Shalit, who was seized in June 2006 by Gaza militants, including Hamas fighters.

Government officials last night dismissed the notion that the heavily guarded Dimona nuclear reactor was the target of the attackers. The explosion took place at 10.30am (7.30pm AEDT) in a shopping centre about 10km from the reactor site. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the "martyrdom operation in Dimona". Hamas, sworn enemy of Fatah, and which kicked Mr Abbas's Government out of the Gaza Strip last year, called the attack a "heroic act".

At Sunday's cabinet meeting, the heads of security services warned that because of the anarchy on the Gaza-Egypt frontier, Palestinian militants might enter Israel through Gaza's Sinai desert to attack a civilian Israeli target. And Mr Olmert's backing of the proposals to release prisoners with blood on their hands defied the advice of the head of the Shin Bet internal intelligence agency, Yuval Diskin. Mr Diskin told cabinet that since Hamas breached the border with Egypt on January 23, advanced weaponry and dozens of trained militants from Iran, Syria and Egypt had poured into the Gaza Strip. He said the weapons included long-range rockets capable of hitting Israeli towns that were previously beyond Hamas's reach, anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft missiles, and materials used in rocket production.

Southern Israel has been on alert against militant attacks since the Gaza Strip's Islamic Hamas rulers breached the border with Egypt, which it only managed to reseal on Sunday. The breach made Israel's Negev desert more vulnerable to penetration by Palestinian militants, who could enter through Egypt's porous border. Dimona is about 60km northeast of Egypt. Last week, Israel closed a number of hiking areas in the south for fear of militant attacks.

Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha rejected suggestions that the bombing would hurt Hamas's chances of reopening the border with Egypt. "The suicide bombings were there before the closures and the resistance used every opportunity to make these glorious acts," he said. The last suicide bombing in Israel occurred on January 29 last year, when a Palestinian attacker killed three Israelis at a bakery in the southern Israeli city of Eilat. That suicide bomber entered Israel via Egypt. Dimona is home to Israel's nuclear research centre. It is widely believed atomic weapons were developed at the plant.


Israelis seek Egyptian troop boost
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday February 6th, 2008

ISRAEL has asked the Egyptian army to help secure its southern border, fearing more would-be suicide bombers who crossed into the Sinai desert from Gaza last month were plotting to strike Israeli cities. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was reportedly prepared to drop Israel's long opposition to Egypt's bid to double troop numbers along the 300km border separating the two countries, as a hunt for further infiltrators intensified within Israel.

Successive Israeli leaders have vetoed Egypt's repeated requests to bolster its military presence in the Sinai from 750 to 1500 troops since both sides struck a peace treaty three decades ago. But the Israeli reluctance looks set to be shelved at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, which will thrash out a response to the suicide attack in the city of Dimona late on Monday, which killed one woman and wounded nearly 40 others.

Hamas's military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades was alleged to have added its claim of responsibility for the attack - the first suicide bombing inside Israel in more than a year. Several news organisations, backed by the Fatah political party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas claimed the two bombers entered from the West Bank city of Hebron and not Gaza. However, the Hamas politburo later denied the claim, insisting both terrorists were natives of Gaza, hailing from two groups loosely linked to Mr Abbas, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The mother of one of the bombers told Gaza-based media that her son had crossed into Egypt three times after militants blew holes in the security fence along the southern Gaza border in late January. She was pictured sobbing as she held a photo of her son outside his funeral tent, which was draped in the yellow flags of the al-Aqsa Brigades. The Israeli security service, Shin Bet, said it was looking into the conflicting claims and had not determined the terrorists' origins.

Mr Abbas and Fatah were keen to distance themselves from the attack, which came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators thrashed out strained moves towards a lasting peace between both sides. Several MPs from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition called for a suspension of talks in the wake of the attack, which they blamed on Mr Abbas's failure to curb militancy. Mr Abbas lost almost all his influence in Gaza when loyalists and security chiefs fled battles with Hamas last June, which led to the militant group seizing control of the restive strip.

Israeli security officials yesterday closed a road along the Egyptian border and warned Israeli tourists to leave the Sinai Peninsula. In recent days, Egyptian officials claimed to have arrested several Palestinian militants who had slipped into the Sinai and were planning attacks. The Israeli army on Monday night killed a senior member of the PFLP, alleged to have been behind a string of rocket attacks against southern Israeli towns. In a separate incident, Israeli soldiers killed two Hamas men in southern Gaza during an incursion into the town of Rafah.

Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin last week claimed dozens of Palestinian militants trained in Iran had crossed back into Gaza during the two-week free-for-all that followed the breach of the security wall. Several dozen more were alleged to have fled Gaza, possibly for training abroad.


Israel kills Hamas agents after suicide blasts
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday February 7th, 2008

ISRAEL has struck back hard against arch-enemy Hamas, killing nine loyalists in Gaza after the militant group claimed its first suicide bombing inside the Jewish state in more than three years. The operatives were killed yesterday by missile strikes on Hamas sites inside the turbulent strip after the two suicide bombers who carried out Monday's attack in the Israeli city of Dimona were traced to Hebron in the West Bank.

The attack was earlier thought to have been carried out by members of two other militant groups who fled Gaza last month after the security wall with Egypt was breached. The bombing led to a massive security crackdown along Israel's southern border. Revelations the bombers came from elsewhere have not lowered the threat levels, with Israel fearing the two Gazans shown in martyr videos after the attack may still be alive and could have infiltrated Israel to plot further strikes.

Militant groups aligned to the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas continued to claim the bombers were theirs. However, the Israeli army and security service Shin Bet raided homes of the two suspects in Hebron and were preparing to ramp up retaliatory strikes against Hamas's military wing. Mourning tents for both the Gazan suspects were still receiving visitors yesterday as militant leaders continued to quibble over responsibility for the attack.

Tensions remained high along Gaza's southern border with Israel, where Palestinians clashed with Egyptian forces on Monday night, killing one person on each side and wounding dozens more. Egypt has secured its border with Gaza after it was blown up last month by militants who temporarily broke an economic blockade, allowing hundreds of thousands of Gazans to cross the frontier. The breach is believed to have also facilitated the crossing of militants and would-be bombers. Palestinians, including Hamas's political wing, are demanding that the passenger crossing point, locked since last June, be reopened immediately, which they say was a key condition of agreeing to reseal the border this week. Egypt has so far refused to budge on the demand and Israel is strongly resisting such a move.

The Israeli cabinet will today vote on an Egyptian bid to double troop presence along the southern side of the border from 750 to 1500, the first rise in Egyptian troop numbers since a peace treaty was struck more than three decades ago. Hamas last night ordered all its buildings in Gaza evacuated, fearing further strikes. Groups linked to its military wing fired at least three barrages of homemade rockets into southern Israel in response to the Israeli attacks.


Breach 'let jihadis flood into Gaza'
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday February 9th, 2008

THE Palestinian Authority claims the two-week breach of the border between southern Gaza and Egypt last month allowed up to 2000 global jihadi militants to infiltrate the restive strip to take up the fight against Israel. Security sources in the West Bank say the men, many of whom battled coalition forces in Iraq, brought with them weapons and explosives to add to an already formidable arsenal controlled by Hamas. The men have begun tours of Hamas training camps throughout Gaza and have vowed to step up attacks on the Israeli side of the security barrier, say key figures among forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza during infighting last June.

The reports are yet to be confirmed, but if proved indicate the possibility of a sharp escalation in six months of steadily building clashes between the Israeli army and Gaza-based militants. Aside from its confrontation with Hezbollah in the north, Israel has not before been under threat by organised and battle-hardened global jihadi extremists holed up so close to its borders.

Hamas has been at pains to differentiate itself from the global jihadi movement, which is inextricably linked to the anti-Christian, anti-Jewish world view of al-Qa'ida founder Osama bin Laden. Hamas, and to a lesser extent Islamic Jihad, say their jihad remit extends only to fighting Israel in the Holy Land. Both groups have been violently opposed to the Jewish state since they were formed 20 years ago, but have in the past denounced terror attacks elsewhere in the region, claiming they were not justified.

"Hamas has turned the Gaza Strip into an international centre for global jihad," one official said. Another told Israeli media: "Most of the men who entered the Gaza Strip through the breached border are now being trained in Hamas's camps and schools. They brought with them tonnes of explosives and various types of weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. "What's happening in the Gaza Strip is very dangerous not only for Israel, but for many Palestinians as well."

Palestinian Authority officials have in the past falsely claimed Iranian academics and regime figures had infiltrated Gaza using an organised tunnel network, which runs under the southern border. Iran is a known backer of Hamas, despite their sectarian differences - Iran being Shia and Hamas strictly Sunni Muslim. Up to 300,000 Gazans are believed to have used the breaches in the border to replenish dwindling supplies in neighbouring Egypt. A small number are also believed to have used the opportunity to flee the strip for the Sinai Desert, where they are believed to be planning to enter Israel to carry out terror strikes.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday reaffirmed the military's commitment to entering Gaza en masse in a bid to curb rocket fire, saying the day was not far off. His comments followed footage released by the military showing rocket silos inside Gaza that could be used to fire longer-range homemade missiles into Israeli territory.

Israeli and Egyptian forces are still hunting two Gaza youths who are thought to be planning attacks inside Israel, both of whom were depicted in martyrs' videos released within hours of this week's suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Dimona. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had earlier mistakenly claimed responsibility for the Dimona strike. Egypt has warned it will break the legs of any further infiltrators into its territory, after resealing the border earlier this week. It has also broken off ties with Hamas, despite an earlier commitment to reopen the passenger crossing point.


Car bomb kills Hezbollah terrorist
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday February 14th, 2008

IMAD Mughnieh, one of the world's most wanted terrorists implicated in a series of infamous attacks against American, Israeli and Jewish targets, was killed yesterday in a car bomb in Damascus. Hezbollah blamed Israeli agents for the assassination of one of its top commanders - the second attack in Syria in less than six months following Israeli warplanes destroying a suspected nuclear site in September deep in the desert. The explosion in the Syrian capital was also thought to have killed a key member of Hezbollah's political wing.

The killing is set to increase tensions inside neighbouring Lebanon as government and opposition groups prepare to take to the streets today to mark the third anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Mosques across the Shia quarter of Beirut, known as Dahiyah, were last night broadcasting long tributes to Mughnieh, who was listed as No 12 on the US Government's most wanted list.

Mugnieh, in his 40s, had a $US 5 million ($5.6 million) bounty on his head and had been directly implicated in a string of terror attacks, including the bombing of the US marine barracks and embassy in Beirut in 1983, which killed more than 300 people. He was also accused of hijacking TWA flight 847 in Beirut in 1985, in which a US navy diver was killed. He is also believed by Israel to have been involved in planning the 1992 bombing of Israel's embassy in Argentina in which 29 people were killed, and the blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish centre two years later that killed 95.

Mughnieh was killed late on Tuesday night, Syrian time, by a large car bomb that exploded in a residential neighbourhood of Damascus, where he had been protected by the Syrian regime for much of the past seven years. He had previously been living in Tehran. According to informed sources quoted by the Tehran-based Press TV, Mughnieh was leaving his house in the suburb of Kafar Soussa and about to get into his car when it exploded. However, Lebanese television station LBC said Mughnieh was attending a ceremony at the Iranian school in Damascus and was killed as he left the function. Mughnieh's body was last night being driven to Beirut where he will be buried today at a funeral expected to be attended by tens of thousands of Shia Muslims.

Across town, pro-government supporters, mainly Sunni Muslims and Druze are planning a rally calling for the end of a political boycott led by Hezbollah, which has left the volatile nation without a president and a functional parliament for more than four months.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who has been in hiding since the end of his militia's war with Israel in 2006, is expected to give a speech at Mughnieh's funeral. Both men were among the key founders of Hezbollah in 1982 and have been instrumental in its evolution since. Sheik Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, said the assassination had struck a heavy blow at the heart of the group. "With Mughnieh's killing, the jihad way has lost one of the pillars in the fights against its enemies," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office last night denied any involvement in the killing, which came at a particularly sensitive phase in dealings between the Jewish state and long-time foe Syria. Israel had earlier made several attempts to target Mughnieh, whom many in the intelligence community had long regarded as the state's key foe.

Mughnieh's assassination was the first major attack against a leader of Hezbollah since the 1992 Israeli helicopter strike that killed Hezbollah secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon. Mughnieh was Hezbollah security chief during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Little has been known about him since the end of the 15-year conflict and Hezbollah has refused to talk about him, with last night's announcement of his assassination the first mention of him in years.

But American intelligence officials have described Mughnieh as Hezbollah's operations chief and he was believed to have moved among Lebanon, Syria and Iran in disguise. Despite Israeli jets destroying a Syrian military site in the north of the country, which US officials claimed was a fledgling nuclear reactor, both sides have been sounding each other out about diplomatic recognition that may pave a way towards an end to 60 years of hostilities. However, tentative moves towards peace have always been blighted by mutual distrust. The strike is likely to exacerbate tensions between the two sides. Syria is a key patron of Hezbollah and many of its commanders and politburo have long enjoyed the backing of the regime. The US and Israel had offered to return to Damascus the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967 if Syria dropped its backing of Hezbollah and Hamas.


Israel braces for Hezbollah reprisal
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday February 16th, 2008

THE death of arch-terrorist Imad Mughnieh has sparked euphoria and confusion within the corridors of power in Jerusalem. By first light on Wednesday, nine hours after the Hezbollah commander was blown up in Damascus, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office had been briefed on events and his media team told to prepare a response.

The line was curt and emphatic. "There will be no Israeli response on any level," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arieh Mekel said. "Israel is not commenting," Mr Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said.

But former intelligence chiefs were more forthcoming. Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom said Mughnieh's death was "a great achievement for the free world in its fight on terror". "Mughnieh was one of the most dangerous and cruel terrorists of all time," said the spy-lord turned MP. "There are numerous intelligence agencies and countries that have been pursuing him, and the one that was successful in reaching him (has proven itself) to have a high intelligence and operational capability."

Mr Yatom said Mughnieh's demise could have only been caused by a group with extensive operational experience that had penetrated the inner sanctum of Hezbollah, or the network that protected him. Mr Yatom should know. For all of his troubled tenure as Mossad chief in the late 1990s, Mughnieh was the organisation's No 1 target for assassination — even more important than the man Mr Yatom's regime eventually tried, and failed, to kill, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal.

Assassinations, such as the hit on Meshaal, must be directly approved by the prime minister after the Mossad chief personally spells out the case against the target and presents a cost-benefit analysis of the operational risks. It is left to the prime minister to weigh up the political fallout of the operation going ahead.

There had been no indication that Mughnieh had decreased in relevance since the botched Meshaal operation forced Mr Yatom to turn to politics. Mughnieh was thought to have increased in relevance in the decade since. The Israeli Defence Force believed his fingerprints were all over the capture of the two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006, which led to the second Lebanon War.

"This will be a very hard blow not only to the Hezbollah, but also to their self-confidence because, in fact, whoever can get to Imad Mughnieh can in fact get to anyone of Hezbollah's leaders, including those who are more immune," said Mr Yatom. "It will take some time before someone can reach the dimensions of the ability and experience which Mughnieh garnered during many years."

By day's end, the Israeli Government's position had gone from a blanket "no comment" to a denial of involvement. "We are reading the coverage in Damascus and Beirut with great interest and learning from it," a statement said. The official line has remained the same since. "The coverage was starting to get some heat and we felt we had to say something, because a denial might have been construed as an admission of guilt," explained one official.


Extract - Fast track to Middle East peace slows up
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday February 21st, 2008

PALESTINIAN and Israeli negotiators are increasingly gloomy about the peace process fast-tracked by the White House last November and expected to be finalised by early next year. Three months into bilateral talks, both sides are reporting slow progress on core issues and a reluctance to tackle so-called deal-breaking agenda items, such as the future of Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met again in Jerusalem yesterday to drive forward issues such as borders, security, resources and environmental concerns. But after two hours of civil discussions, both sides walked away reporting little progress. Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei said: "We agreed that the negotiations should be accelerated. "I can't say that there is progress, but at the same time, I can't say that it's hopeless."

Israel has privately complained to the US, which continues to push the process despite the persistent hurdles, that the Palestinian Authority has not done enough to introduce transparency into its financial dealings, especially in the face of up to $US 7 billion ($7.6 billion) in aid starting to flow into the treasury coffers. It says progress has been slow on reforming security establishments loyal to Mr Abbas, despite months of US-funded retraining.

The PA yesterday lodged a complaint with Israel over a settlement in the West Bank, near the administrative capital, Ramallah, which it says Israel is continuing to expand despite a commitment to freeze all new building work inside occupied areas.


Extract - Abbas clears himself in Gaza
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday February 25th, 2008

A REPORT commissioned by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip last June has exempted himself and his strongmen from blame, but slated mid-level officers for military trials.


Extract - Toll rising as Hamas faces military fury
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday March 3rd, 2008

JUST after sunrise last Wednesday, an Israeli rocket slammed into a van in central Gaza, killing four of the men inside and critically wounding another. The airstrike and its chaotic aftermath seemed little different to a spate of similar attacks in recent weeks.

But then came the wrath of Hamas's response, which quickly told Israeli military chiefs what they knew already: the missile had hit paydirt. The five passengers were members of Hamas's military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, an organisation in which the militant group holds the highest of hopes. The brigade fighters returned to Gaza in mid-January after a prolonged period in Iran training for the rapidly developing full-scale urban war that Hamas now finds itself locked into with Israel, its mortal enemy. Israeli military chiefs insist the five were skilled paramilitary trainers who had returned to prepare other militants for a major operation, either storming an Israeli settlement close to Gaza, or capturing a second Israeli soldier to join Sergeant Gilad Shalit somewhere inside his war-ravaged prison.

The four days of fighting since the missile attack have crossed red lines on both sides and threaten to spiral into full-scale war - and imperil the already fraught White House-sponsored peace process. As the death count from four days of fierce fighting reached 99 on the Palestinian side - 66 since Saturday alone - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday suspended peace talks with Israel and threatened to pull out of the US-backed dialogue.

Israel said it was prepared to intensify combat operations inside Gaza to stop long-range rockets being fired at the strategically important city of Ashkelon, which was hammered on Saturday by six more of Hamas's upgraded weapons. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak defied a reproach from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who yesterday criticised Israeli army chiefs for using "excessive force" in Gaza, taking a heavy toll on civilians. He also condemned the Hamas rocket attacks. More than 150 rockets fell on southern Israel over three days, in an unprecedented barrage that shows little sign of slowing.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting on Saturday in Gaza's northeastern flank, on the border of a refugee camp that is now ground zero for the Hamas rocket launchers, and the scene of the most serious fighting between the two sides in at least the past five years. Israeli security sources confirmed on Saturday that up to 1000 troops were now inside Gaza, but said that the rapidly escalating conflict was "not the big one yet".

Three Israeli missiles yesterday destroyed the Gaza headquarters of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, days after the Interior Ministry building, which housed one of his offices, was felled. Hamas said in response: "The Zionist enemy's fire crossed all red lines." The Israeli military said all the targets hit so far had been suspected of being used to make or store Qassam rockets. An Israeli security source accused Hamas of storing some rockets in the basements of northern Gaza homes, the residents of which had been killed or wounded by missile strikes.

Fighting appeared to be centred on the Jabaliya refugee camp, a maze of narrow laneways and prefabricated concrete homes from where Hamas and other Gaza militant factions were yesterday still managing to launch rockets and snipe at Israeli forces to the east. From inside Jabaliya, Palestinian media reported several instances of clashes between locals and Hamas militants who were attempting to set up rocket-firing sights. Some locals have reportedly been shot by Hamas, and others arrested for attempting to drive them out of their neighbourhoods, but it was difficult to gauge whether a groundswell of resistance was building against the group. Cannons from Israeli attack helicopters hovering over Gaza thundered through the skies throughout Saturday, and the dull thud of missile strikes increased during the afternoon.

A squad of at least 15 ambulances sat ready in the centre of the virtually deserted Israeli city of Sderot, which was again peppered by rockets over the weekend, none of which caused injuries or damage. A Sderot student was killed last Wednesday in the barrage that followed the Israeli airstrike on the Hamas trainers. Six more Israelis were wounded by direct hits on Ashkelon on Saturday afternoon.

Mr Abbas, who remains hostile to Hamas after the group ousted his party from a brief power-sharing government in June, urged Gazans not to give Israel a "pretext to reoccupy Gaza". He announced the suspension of the peace talks, just before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in Jerusalem to try to re-energise the White House-backed peace process. The US yesterday urged Israel to consider the consequences of the military operation against Gaza ahead of the Rice visit.

The Israeli cabinet was meeting in Jerusalem last night to consider ordering the full-scale invasion of Gaza it has threatened since it withdrew Jewish settlements and military bases in August 2005 in a bid to curb the rocket fire. Israeli security sources said the invasion order was closer than ever to being given.


Extract - Israel warns Gaza: stop bombs or we'll return
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday March 4th, 2008

ISRAEL has pulled its forces back to the northern borders of Gaza after the bloodiest week of fighting with Palestinian militants in seven years, but has vowed to return with an invasion force if rocket fire does not stop. More than 110 Gazans were killed during the fighting, most of them militants, and dozens of cars, homes and buildings across the turbulent Strip were destroyed. Gazan hospitals, already low on essential supplies, were yesterday overflowing with casualties.

Egypt offered last night to ease the burden by removing 150 seriously wounded patients through the Rafah crossing into Egyptian hospitals. During five days of escalating violence, Israeli towns and cities were also pounded by rockets, both homemade models and the more deadly Grad rockets, which were still being fired at the southern city of Ashkelon even as the Israeli forces withdrew. Hamas was last night debating whether to order a suspension of rocket fire and press for a truce with its mortal enemy as Egyptian mediators attempted to persuade both sides to stay away from the battlefield.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is today due in Jerusalem in a bid to restart peace talks, which were suspended at the weekend by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as casualties in Gaza mounted. The lull in Israel's operation was widely seen as a necessary precursor to the Rice visit after the US last week urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, which is reeling under the effects of an eight-month economic blockade.

Mr Olmert's aides said he was planning to tell Dr Rice that Israel reserved the right to act freely inside Gaza and would return en masse if Ashkelon were struck again. "Israel will not consent to the equation that Hamas wants to dictate in the Gaza Strip by firing on Ashkelon. We will be the ones to create the equation, not Hamas," he said at Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting.

The northern Gaza city of Jabaliya was ground zero, with most of the Palestinian dead and wounded falling in the area. Before the Israeli withdrawal, young, hooded militants from all factions, but predominantly the Islamic Jihad, were patrolling the streets with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Roadside bombs were stored in waiting for Israeli tanks. "If anything comes down this street, we will kill it," said a faction commander as he pointed out the trip wire. Israeli cannons fired repeatedly throughout the evening trying to stop militants from entering what they called the Qassam zone to fire rockets.


Rice clings to peace hopes in Israel
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday March 5th, 2008

CONDOLEEZZA Rice has refused to concede the ailing peace process is over, claiming Israel and the Palestinians can still make bold steps towards a treaty by the time George W. Bush leaves office as US President. Ahead of her return last night to Israel, the US Secretary of State was more guarded in her optimism than during her previous attempts to shepherd both sides towards a deal, declining to recommit to a White House deadline of January next year. Dr Rice arrived in Jerusalem as parts of Gaza were still smouldering after a five-day Israeli incursion that claimed more than 100 Palestinian lives. The rocket fire that Israel said had prompted the deadliest clash between its armed forces and militants in more than eight years had slowed last night.

However, Hamas vowed to fire more of its new long-range rockets towards Israeli cities to avenge the loss of its members. In a surprise move, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas to prevent them from returning to the brink of full-scale war. Mr Abbas, who rules the West Bank while Hamas leads a separate administration in Gaza, had earlier disavowed all contact with the militant group after it ousted his party from a fledgling power-sharing government last June. Mr Abbas had described Hamas members as traitors and accused them of plotting to kill his party members. He also last week accused the group of harbouring al-Qa'ida-linked terrorists, who had slipped into Gaza during the breach of the Egyptian border wall in January, or who had emerged as home-grown loyalists of Osama bin Laden.

Before her arrival in Israel, Dr Rice stopped in Egypt in a bid to resecure Gaza's border with Egypt and improve aid supplies to Gaza, which had been crippled by an international boycott led by the US and Israel. During the Israeli incursion, several Palestinian ambulances were pulled out of action because they had run out of fuel. Gas and fuel supplies are desperately low throughout Gaza and many basic goods and medical supplies are scarce. Israel insists the two-week breach of its border with Egypt led to a flood of weapons and money entering Gaza. It also says weapons continue to be smuggled through tunnels under its southern border.

Protesters in the West Bank administrative capital of Ramallah yesterday hurled stones and burned effigies of Mr Abbas, accusing him of being an Israeli collaborator. Mr Abbas angered Hamas and other Gaza-based militant factions by accusing them of being "stupid" for giving Israel a pretext to invade by incessantly firing rockets at Israeli towns.


Extract - The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday March 6th, 2008

Israeli troops yesterday re-entered central Gaza, killing an Islamic Jihad commander and three other gunmen. A 20-day-old baby was also killed during fierce fighting near the eastern Gaza border. Several rockets were fired by Palestinian militants into Israel, but none caused damage or injuries. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was yesterday still refusing to recommit to peace talks with Israel in the wake of the weekend incursion, which claimed 119 Palestinian lives, most of them gunmen.

His earlier offer to mediate in a truce between Hamas and Israel was yesterday rejected by the militant organisation. "How can he be a mediator?" said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, in an interview with The Australian. "He is part of the problem."

Visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday promised to boost aid to Gaza, as food trucks entered the strip for the first time since the breach of the southern border seven weeks ago.


Talks promised as Gaza at worst 'since 1967 war'
The Australian
Friday March 7th, 2008

JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has secured a promise from Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks as a new report warned of the worst humanitarian crisis in Gaza since the 1967 war. "I've been informed by the parties that they intend to resume the negotiations," Dr Rice said at the end of a two-day trip aimed at mending peace efforts hobbled by a deadly Israeli blitz on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Her comments came as the Israeli army confirmed that one of its soldiers was killed and several others wounded in a blast late yesterday at a military post near the Gaza Strip border. Dr Rice said the two sides "are in contact with each other over how to bring this about".

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed he would resume the talks he froze at the weekend to protest against the Gaza attacks. Israel has insisted talks carry on despite the strikes.

A coalition of human rights groups yesterday released a report claiming Gaza's humanitarian crisis was more acute now than at any time since Israel took control of the territory in 1967. About 1.1 million Gazans (80 per cent of the population) are dependent on food aid, hospitals suffer the longest power cuts yet experienced, record levels of raw sewage are being pumped into the sea and the economy has never been worse, the report said. Prepared by aid groups including Oxfam, Amnesty International and Care International UK, it is the most definitive assessment of conditions in the territory produced for years.

Israel has faced international criticism for its strikes against militants in Gaza, which have killed more than 120 in the past week, including many civilians.


Extract - Jerusalem braces after gun rampage
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday March 8th, 2008

ISRAELI police were last night bracing for clashes between Jews and Palestinians after terror returned to Jerusalem for the first time in four years when a gunman attacked a Jewish college. Tensions were heightened by the fact that the gunman, who killed eight students - most of them 15- and 16-year-olds - and wounded eight more in the library of the Jewish religious college on Thursday night local time, was an Israeli resident of east Jerusalem, with full access to the city.

The lone attacker walked in to the Mercav Harav Yeshiva in the heart of west Jerusalem just after 8.45pm. Neatly dressed, and wearing a coat that concealed a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and a weapons belt, he shot dead the security guard inside the opened front gate before walking into a first-floor library and opening fire. More than 80 students were gathered in the crowded library for religious studies when the gunman burst through the door, spraying automatic fire in all directions. Some students jumped out of the window to avoid being shot during the 10-minute barrage, which ended when a student and former Israeli army officer shot the gunman twice in the head.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who this week persuaded Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace negotiations, condemned the Jerusalem attack as an "act of terror and depravity". US President George W. Bush said he had called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to convey his condolences and told him the US "stands firmly with Israel in the face of this terrible attack". Mr Abbas issued a statement condemning "all attacks that target civilians, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli". UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned what he called a "savage attack". But an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council failed to agree on a statement after Libya demanded support for a resolution condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Israeli police last night banned men under 45 from attending Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine, and riot police were on alert in the Arab east of the city. The Mercav Harav Yeshiva is popular with Jewish West Bank settlers and is hailed by settler groups who live in Palestinian areas as one of the most important Zionist learning centres.


Extract - Hezbollah linked to school shootings
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday March 10th, 2008

ISRAELI security officials believe Hezbollah was connected to the terrorist attack in Jerusalem last Thursday that left eight religious students dead and further imperilled the peace process. The Lebanese militia is thought to have dealt directly with the exiled politburo of Hamas in Damascus, bypassing the group's leadership in Gaza, which appears to have played no direct role in sending the gunman to the West Jerusalem school.

Hamas at the weekend briefly claimed responsibility through a non-official spokesman. But the claim was renounced 30 minutes later. Hamas now officially says it did not co-ordinate the attack. Hezbollah had vowed to avenge the death of its military commander, Imad Mugnieh, and blames Israel for killing him with a car bomb in the Syrian capital in early February. However, the Shia group is not known to have loyalists inside Israel and its attempts to send proxies to the Jewish state have in the past been foiled.

The family of the gunman, East Jerusalem resident Alaa Dhaim, 25, was yesterday pleading with Israel not to destroy their home and insisting they had no inkling that he was plotting anything. On Friday morning, 12 hours after the attack, a young male from the family home was erecting Hamas flags outside the house, as well as the yellow standard of Hezbollah. The family was later ordered by police to remove the flags immediately. Eight family members were arrested as part of a security sweep on Friday, but none have yet been directly linked to the attack.

Jerusalem's 200,000-plus Arab residents are bracing for reprisals from the Israeli Government, which has long seen a terror attack perpetrated by the holder of an Israeli identity card as a red line.

Same Day Extract: Olmert approves settler expansion


JERUSALEM: Israel last night announced plans to build up to 750 new homes in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in a move the Palestinians denounced as another blow to US-brokered peace talks. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved new building in Givat Ze'ev, which, unlike other sites where developments have been announced lately, lies just outside the city boundaries Israel has drawn for Jerusalem. Mr Olmert has said any building beyond the municipal limits require his personal authorisation.

Israel Radio said the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key partner in Olmert's coalition, had threatened to quit the government unless the construction was approved. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the construction plan dates back nearly a decade. "This is not a new decision. This decision predates this government," Mr Regev said. But he added: "We have approved it. It is consistent with our policy of building within the large settlement blocs, which will remain in Israel in any final-status agreement."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the decision. "This will undermine the talks," he said of the announcement, four days before a US general was to convene the first meeting of a special committee to assess whether Israel and the Palestinians are meeting their commitments under the long-stalled peace road map. The road map calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity and on the Palestinians to rein in militants.

Eran Sidis, a spokesman for Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim, said the decision was taken after consultations with Mr Olmert, who had barred ministries from going ahead with new Israeli construction in the West Bank without his approval. Mr Sidis said a plan to build 750 housing units in Givat Ze'ev, about 8km north of central Jerusalem, was approved in 1999 but suspended two years later after the start of a Palestinian uprising led to a shortage of construction workers. The current plan calls for building 200 units initially and another 550 in the future, he said.

Israel has said it intends to keep Givat Ze'ev, home to about 10,000 Israelis, in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. It also wants to retain several other major settlement enclaves in the West Bank. Mr Olmert's restrictions on building in West Bank settlements did not apply to areas Israel defines as part of Jerusalem.


'Surge' of two-state diplomacy
The Australian, The Times, AFP
James Hider, Jerusalem
Tuesday March 18th, 2008

WITH the Middle East peace process at its lowest ebb since being revived last year, a diplomatic "surge" is to take place in the coming months, culminating in US President George W. Bush's return for a second visit to join the May celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Some Western diplomats fear that failure to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority - which has already lost the Gaza Strip to Hamas - could irrevocably strengthen the hand of extremists.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived yesterday. She will be followed this week by US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who both made stop overs in Iraq yesterday. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to make two trips in the coming month, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy is scheduled to visit later in the spring. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is also expected. International conferences are to be held in London, Berlin, Bethlehem and perhaps Moscow to draw more investment into the Palestinian economy and shore up security.

The next two months are regarded as being a key period in building Palestinian confidence that Israel really is serious about a two-state solution. But the bloodshed of recent weeks, and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, strain the fragile process. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were set to meet this week, an Israeli official said yesterday. The two teams have not met since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut off contacts with Israel two weeks ago after a massive Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 130 Palestinians.


Merkel tells Knesset of Germany's shame
The Australian, Reuters
Thursday March 20th, 2008

JERUSALEM: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, addressing Israel's parliament in German and a smattering of Hebrew, said yesterday she bowed in shame to Holocaust victims and spoke of the danger of a nuclear Iran. Five legislators in the 120-member Knesset stayed away in protest, saying they did not want to hear German — the language of the Holocaust — spoken. But those who heard Ms Merkel open and close her speech in Hebrew applauded her.

"To speak to you in this honourable assembly is a great honour for me," Ms Merkel said in Hebrew. "I thank you all that I am allowed to speak to you in my mother tongue today," she continued in German. "The Shoah fills us Germans with shame," she said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, in which six million Jews died. "I bow to the victims. I bow to all those who helped the survivors."

Ms Merkel, 53, the first German chancellor to be born after World War II and the first to be invited to speak to Israel's parliament, was ending a symbolic three-day visit to mark the country's 60th anniversary year. Iran's nuclear program was high on the agenda of her discussions with Israeli leaders.

"Germany is setting its sights on a diplomatic solution, together with its partners. The German Government will, if Iran does not give in, continue to resolutely defend sanctions," Ms Merkel said in her speech, broadcast live in Israel and Germany. Iran denies it is seeking atomic weapons, and insists its nuclear program and uranium enrichment is for power generation. Iran's President has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map". Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has described Tehran's nuclear program as a threat to the existence of the Jewish state.

"The threats the Iranian President is launching against Israel and the Jewish people are without doubt a particular cause for concern," Ms Merkel told the parliament. "His repeated vilifications and the Iranian nuclear program are a danger to peace and security. If Iran gained access to the atomic bomb, this would have devastating consequences ... This must be prevented."

Israel, which is thought to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, believes Iran could have a nuclear bomb by 2010. "It's not the world that must prove to Iran that Iran is building the nuclear bomb. Iran must convince the world it does not want the nuclear bomb," Ms Merkel said. Mr Olmert has previously said Israel would consider "all options" to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but Israeli leaders have stopped short of direct threats of military action against Iran.


Saudi king plans interfaith talks
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday March 28th, 2008

SAUDI King Abdullah has stunned Middle East watchers by announcing his intention to hold an interfaith conference in Riyadh with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim participation. The King said the three faiths had to work together "to defend humanity" from harm. What makes the King's proposal extraordinary is that Saudi Arabia is the most religiously conservative of Muslim countries and bans public prayer by non-Muslim religions, even the import of crosses or Stars of David. The unprecedented outreach is seen as part of the monarch's efforts to mitigate the influence of hard-line Islamic scholars in his country who teach hatred of the "infidel". Such teachings produced a pool of Saudi jihadists who provided 15 of the 19 terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US.

King Abdullah, 84, said top clerics backed religious dialogue. He hinted at a desire for interfaith dialogue last November during a historic visit with the Pope in the Vatican when he said talks were needed "to get rid of violence and achieve peace and security for all people". At the time, his remarks were regarded as rhetoric. The King referred to the meeting with the Pope in his talk this week. He said he intended to ask representatives of the three great monotheistic religions "to sit together with their brothers in faith as we all believe in the same God". Decrying the weakening of the family system and an increase in atheism, he said "that is unacceptable to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible". His respectful allusions to Judaism and Christianity were unusual in a country where fundamentalist clerics heap scorn on them.

The King gave no indication of when such a conference would be held but suggested he would first discuss the idea with Muslim leaders in other countries. His initiative may also have a political dimension. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other moderate Arab Sunni countries fear the ascendancy of non-Arab Shia Iran as a dominant force in the region. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, referring this month to Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip and the infusion there of Iranian ideology and weaponry, reportedly said: "I now have Iran on my border". Arab moderates see peace with Israel as a step in building a counterforce to Iran in the region.


Extract - US's Arab allies snub Syria talks
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday March 29th, 2008

MIDDLE Eastern heavyweights have stayed away from this weekend's Arab League summit in Damascus, depriving Syria of the chance it wanted to take centre stage in the latest effort to solve the region's problems. The partial boycott of the summit, led by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, has widened the split in the region along Arab and Iranian lines. All member states aligned with the US have sent lower-level officials, in a clear slight to Syria, and Lebanon is boycotting the summit altogether. Angry Syrian officials have said Lebanon is missing a "golden opportunity" to help end its political deadlock — which Lebanon blames on Syria — but Syrian Foreign Minister Waled Mouallem has accused the US of orchestrating the boycott in a bid to diminish Syria's influence.

The summit starts in Damascus today. Member states will try to advance on three regional flashpoints: Lebanon, relations with Israel and the crisis in the Palestinian territories. Lebanon looms largest over delegates from the 22 member states; the US and Saudi-aligned countries are determined to remove Syrian influence from civil and military life in the fragile nation, which they fear is inching towards Iranian tutelage.

Sporadic talks between the two sides have been mired in four decades of enmity since Israel captured the strategically important Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War. A proposal to return the Golan to Syria in return for a peace deal, was tabled in Israel yesterday by a senior cabinet minister who said the Government recognised the price it must pay for relations with Damascus.

But any advance in negotiations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to prove difficult, as the US and much of the Arab world are convinced Damascus is now aligned to Iran and sliding away from any interest in closer links with the West. In the lead-up to the summit, the US made clear it would be happy if the Washington-aligned Arab states stayed away from Damascus. The US has adopted a hardline stance against Syria, which it accuses of links with Hezbollah and Iran, destabilising Lebanon, using its borders to channel insurgents into Iraq and of harbouring Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal. Lebanon's pro-Syrian parliamentary Speaker, Nabil Berri, last week again delayed a move to convene parliament to elect a president. The delay is seen as a bid to ensure the pro-Syrian opposition gets a veto over key votes and appointments.


Arab summit fails to advance peace
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday March 31st, 2008

THE Arab League summit in Damascus has wound up without making progress on Lebanon, or the Middle East peace process, as Israel claimed to have initiated more than 20 contacts with Syria during the past year. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak affirmed at the weekend the Jewish state's vital interest in facing up to what it sees as its arch-enemy, warning "In the end, Israel will meet Syria either in the field of battle or at the negotiating table".

At the same time, the Israeli media, citing government sources, claimed senior cabinet ministers had been unimpressed with the response from Damascus to its overtures, which they believed showed Syria was inextricably aligned to Iran. In a briefing to foreign diplomats in Israel, Mr Barak said: "Syria is a weak country with many problems, but under certain conditions Israel will be willing to open the door to it. Israel considers negotiations with Syria and removing Syria from the circle of extremists as central to its policy."

His remarks followed claims from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Israel was not serious about advancing peace. Mr Assad at the weekend met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and senior members of Islamic Jihad on the sidelines of the conference he had hoped would help to re-establish Syria as a powerbroker in Arab affairs. However, the decision by 10 US-aligned Arab states to send only lower-level figures to the conference, as well as criticism from Saudi Arabia over Syria's stance on Lebanon, has left Mr Assad with nothing new to trumpet from the talks.

Israeli military officials say tensions in the region have spiked during recent months to their highest levels since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Mr Barak said the Israeli military was ramping up its readiness, but at the same time was trying to square off a peace deal with Syria and the Palestinians. "We are following what is going on in the north, the growing strength of Hezbollah with Syrian backing and the developments over the border in Syria. Israel is the most powerful country in the region and this is what enables it to stand on guard but also try to seek agreements," Mr Barak said. "It would not be a good idea for someone to try something against us at this time."

After talks last night between Mr Barak and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the US State Department said Israel had agreed to remove about 50 roadblocks across the occupied West Bank. "Israel has pledged to reduce impediments to access and movement in the West Bank, and this will begin with the removal of about 50 roadblocks and immediate steps to upgrade checkpoints," the State Department said in a statement.

Dr Rice met Mr Barak before holding a three-way meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to hammer out an agreement on ways to improve the life of Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel agreed to take steps to ease movement around and into the northern West Bank city of Jenin, where Mr Barak last week authorized the Palestinians to deploy 600 police officers.


Former president renounces deal on rape charges
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday April 10, 2008

NINE months after signing a plea bargain to escape prosecution for serious sex crimes, former Israeli president Moshe Katsav stunned his countrymen yesterday by renouncing the deal in court and demanding a trial "to prove my innocence". Several legal experts said that Mr Katsav was "committing suicide" by opening himself to charges not only of harassment or indecent acts but also of rape, and risking a heavy jail term. Under the plea bargain in which he had admitted to lesser sexual crimes, he would have escaped prison or even a suspended sentence.

Mr Katsav had been accused of sexual crimes by eight women who worked for him when he held various ministerial positions and as president. In agreeing to the request by Mr Katsav's lawyers for a plea bargain last year, the Attorney-General, Meni Mazuz, is believed to have been motivated at least in part by a wish to spare the country the spectacle of a former president being dragged through sleaze. He will be the first Israeli president or prime minister to stand trial. After Mr Katsav's announcement yesterday, Mr Mazuz issued a statement hinting that he would seek to indict Mr Katsav "for the most serious offences", an apparent reference to rape. He said the reasons for Mr Katsav's move were hard to fathom but added "the implications of this move are probably clear to Moshe Katsav".

The disgraced president, accompanied by his wife, looked haggard when he appeared in court and avoided eye contact with the press. He arrived half an hour late, having driven in circles around the courthouse area during that time. To some, it seemed he was making up his mind about what he was going to do.

Opposite the courthouse were women's groups chanting denunciations of Mr Katsav and waving placards. The women had condemned the plea bargain and upon learning of Mr Katsav's decision to scrap it, declared themselves happy the case would go to trial. One of Mr Katsav's accusers, a woman identified only as A, who had worked for him when he was tourism minister, said yesterday that Mr Katsav's decision "stems from denial and a world view devoid of morals. "This is (his) suicide, but I welcome his decision." One of the women who worked with Mr Katsav said he had turned her into his sex slave. Political observers suggested Mr Katsav was simply unable to accept the denigration and was determined to prove himself innocent, whatever the risk involved.


Gaza militants kill then die after raid
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday April 11, 2008

PALESTINIAN militants from the Gaza Strip cut through the border fence into Israel yesterday and killed two civilians in the first penetration of Israeli territory since the capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit two years ago. Israeli troops killed two of the four militants as they retreated into Gaza. A third raider was among two armed men killed when an Israeli aircraft fired rockets at a car in Gaza City later in the day on the basis of intelligence information, Israeli officials said.

The raiders attacked a small fuel depot on the Israeli side of the border through which fuel is supplied to the Gaza Strip's lone power station. Although Israel has imposed sanctions since Hamas's takeover of Gaza last year, fuel supply continues on a limited basis.

Two Israeli workmen were killed by the gunmen but the quick arrival of troops prevented further casualties among other employees. Israel Radio reported that "a Palestinian source" had alerted Israel to the pending raid moments before it occurred, enabling a rapid response by troops. An Israeli army spokesman said the four militants were apparently planning to attack a nearby kibbutz or to kidnap a soldier and take him hostage in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. "It could have been much, much worse," he said.

Corporal Shalit is still being held prisoner in Gaza. Israel has agreed to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for him but it has rejected Hamas's demands for the release of men Israel regards as hard-core terrorists.

The raid yesterday was not carried out by Hamas but by Islamic Jihad and two smaller groups. However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel held Hamas responsible. "Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip and is responsible for every terror attack that originates there," he said. "It will bear the consequences when the time comes."

The depot, which also supplies cooking gas to the strip, was shut down after the raid but officials said it would be reopened in several days. Although Israel has warned of a major ground attack into Gaza to end the almost daily firing of rockets and sniping from there, such action is considered unlikely before the end of the country's 60th anniversary celebrations next month. Hamas threatened last week to blow open its border fence with Egypt, as it did several months ago, if Israeli sanctions were not lifted.


Hamas's strength growing: Israel
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday April 12, 2008

HAMAS in the Gaza Strip has morphed in the past three years from a guerilla/terrorist group into a formidable military force with 20,000 fighters organised along conventional military lines, according to an Israeli think tank. A report issued yesterday by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre suggests that uprooting Hamas's infrastructure in Gaza would require an effort by the Israeli Defence Forces similar in scale to its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago. "Hezbollah's success in providing an asymmetric response to the IDF's might during the second Lebanon war made it a role model for Hamas," the report says. The IDF's failure to subdue Hezbollah in that war led to a revision of tactics to help it cope with the challenge posed by Hamas.

The think tank, closely associated with Israel's intelligence community, said Hamas had received arms from Iran and Syria, smuggled in across, or under, Gaza's 11km border with Egypt. In addition to locally made Qassam rockets with a short range, Hamas now has dozens of "imported" rockets capable of hitting the city of Ashkelon and beyond, and anti-aircraft weaponry and anti-tank missiles that proved deadly when Hezbollah used them against Israeli tanks in Lebanon.

Based on information received from the Shin Bet security agency, the report named the commanders of Hamas's six regional brigades that have been established in the 40km strip along the Mediterranean coast between Israel and Egypt. In the event of a large-scale Israeli incursion, says the report, Hamas, joined by 3000 to 4000 fighters from smaller organisations, would seek to channel the fighting to built-up areas that would be heavily mined. The report warns that the present period of relative calm is being used by Hamas to build up its military infrastructure. Hamas has in the past claimed to have 50,000 fighters and 400 suicide bombers who would go into action against any Israeli invasion force.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Hamas bore responsibility for Thursday's attack on a fuel depot on the Israeli side of the Gaza border fence in which two Israeli workers were killed.


Same Day Extract - Friends of Convenience
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent

FOR the past 12 months, Turkish envoys have been shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus, carrying missives aimed at peace, not war, in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed last week that he had dispatched 20 letters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, almost all of them through the Turks, which the Jewish state has long seen as the safest hands in the region. More than at any time in the past 30 years, the strategic ties between the two unlikely allies are proving crucial. And, five months into a new regime in Ankara, which introduced an Islamic flavour into the staunchly secular Turkish body politic, fears in Jerusalem of a chill in the relationship have been dispelled.

In November, soon after the election of Abdullah Gul as Turkish President, Israeli President and elder statesman Shimon Peres was the first foreign head of state invited to address the new parliament, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Peres travelled to Ankara with an Israeli trade delegation, which cashed in on new defence contracts and consolidated longstanding strategic ties between senior spies and military chiefs on both sides. Peres's address was the first by an Israeli leader in the heart of the national powerhouse and the invitation went a long way towards appeasing sections of the defence and military power base in Jerusalem that feared the emergence of an Islamic regime within its most important regional ally.

Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both of whom have wives who wear hijabs, seemed an odd fit in a nation where secular principles enshrined by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are doggedly defended. But Peres and Gul were keen to send a message that being religiously observant did not mean being fundamentalist.

The sigh of relief has been palpable among some doomsayers in the defence and intelligence establishment in Tel Aviv who were prepared to scale back ties with their Turkish counterparts if even a hint emerged of political Islam placing a hand on the levers of power in Ankara. The price for any cooling of ties would have been significant for Israel, which makes up to $US600 million ($643 million) a year selling defence hardware to the Turkish military. The deals include contracts to sell the Turks unmanned aerial drones that are used to keep track of Kurdish rebels from the Kurdish Workers Party in the mountains to the southeast bordering Iraq.

In return for the hardware and know-how, Israel gets almost open access to Turkish air bases, airspace and ports, which enables training exercises away from the confines of Israel's tiny airspace. There is also the possibility of Israeli jets being able to use Turkish airspace in any attack on Iran. On the civilian front, water-starved Israel regularly receives enormous Turkish water tankers. A series of pipelines supplying water, gas, oil and electricity from Turkey to northern Israel is also planned. More important than the know-how for Turkey and money in the bank for Israel is the intelligence sharing, on Iran and Syria in particular, seen by each of them as their greatest strategic threats.

Throughout successive Turkish regimes there has been a prevailing view that the military and intelligence establishments act as an ever-ready counterbalance to the rise of political Islam. While not quite autonomous, both groups would present a formidable adversary to any regime that attempted to wind them in.

The Turkish take on the Westminster-style separation of powers began at about the same time as the origins of its ties with Israel, during the David Ben-Gurion years of the late 1950s. Then, the Israeli leader and founder of the Jewish state formed an agreement with the US that aimed to build alliances with non-Arab states in or near the Middle East as a bulwark against Soviet-inspired pan-Arab nationalism. Turkey, which had not had great relationships with the Arab world, particularly through the years of the Ottoman Empire, was quick to sign up. The foundations of the relationship with Israel were soon put in place on the basis of a shared interest. The alliance remained mild for the next four decades, fully maturing in the early '90s. And Israel has a lot invested in keeping it that way.

"When the shah left Iran (in 1979), Israel had been selling a lot of weapons to the Iranians," intelligence expert Klein says. "That came back to haunt us in 2006 (during the capture by Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers on the border with Lebanon). Hezbollah left behind a heavy machinegun, which was Israeli-made and sold to Iran in 1981 through any number of intermediaries. If Turkey fell into a revolution the way Iran did, we could face some very big problems. They have a lot of our hardware and expertise."

After a nervous start, Israeli decision-makers seem convinced that history won't be repeated in Turkey. Ataturk can rest comfortably.


Egypt cuts fuel supplies to Gaza
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday April 17, 2008

EGYPT has shut off fuel supplies to the Sinai Desert south of Gaza to deter Hamas from again blowing up the border wall and allowing a mass infiltration of Palestinians seeking supplies. The ruling Hamas authority in the besieged Gaza Strip has vowed in recent days to cause a large explosion somewhere in Gaza, a threat widely interpreted to mean members of its military wing are planning a repeat of the operation that blew up a kilometre-long section of the wall in January.

Hamas officials say they have been betrayed by their Egyptian counterparts, who reportedly pledged to reopen the Rafah crossing, which has been closed for 10 months, in return for the militant group agreeing to reseal the border. The two parties have been holding talks since then, with Israel sending a delegation to Cairo in a bid to negotiate a truce in Gaza, which again erupted in violence yesterday. Nine Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in Gaza after Israeli forces attacked the area in a fresh bid to target militants involved in firing rockets.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has long denied the Jewish state has made any contacts with its sworn enemy, but reports out of Egypt and Gaza are increasingly adding weight to the view that a brokered deal is close. Hamas has told Egypt it will rein in rocket fire from all militant groups in Gaza in return for the reopening of the Rafah crossing and an end to Israeli incursions. But the opening of Rafah poses a security nightmare for Israel, which has always insisted on having a say over who comes and goes from the restive Gaza Strip.

Israel has been reluctant to allow an increase in the number of Egyptian troops in the Sinai, fixed at 750 since the Camp David agreement in 1979, which enshrined a peace pact between the two neighbours. Egypt has asked to double its Sinai deployment to 1500 to protect its borders from any incursion from Gaza, and to mount a more intensive effort to combat smuggling through tunnels into Rafah or into adjoining Israel.

The increasing moves towards Rafah's reopening have led to fears in Tel Aviv and Washington that the Gaza Strip, tightly sealed for more than a decade, will become a magnet for militants from across the Islamic world. In the wake of the January border breach, at least 2000 militants from around the Arab world arrived on the Egyptian side of Rafah, with many asking to join forces with Hamas in fighting Israel. The Hamas military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, has denied allowing the foreigners to join its ranks, saying it asked the would-be volunteers to send money and weapons.

Tensions over Rafah have led US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a number of Washington heavyweights to travel to Cairo seeking assurances that Israel's security demands will not be set aside in any deal with Hamas. The US is aiming to shore up a seamless succession for veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is now 81 and has been hospitalised twice in the past six months.

Mr Mubarak's autocratic regime has ruled Egypt for 27 years. The US-Israeli view is that his place will eventually be taken by intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who is leading the current discussions with Hamas and Israel. The other option is the establishment of a dynasty with the ascension of Mr Mubarak's son Jamal. Both men would be competing for power in Egypt with Hamas's key Arab patron, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has vowed to revoke the peace treaty with Israel.


Global effort will foil Tehran on nukes: Olmert
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich and Martin Chulov
Friday April 18, 2008

IN the most unqualified declaration yet by an Israeli leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Iran will not attain nuclear weapons capability, thanks to international community. "I want to tell the citizens of Israel: Iran will not have nuclear capability," Mr Olmert said in interviews published in several Israeli newspapers on the eve of the Passover holiday.

It is the most categorical declaration by an Israeli leader that the Iranian threat, regarded in Israel as existential, will not come to pass. Mr Olmert told Ha'aretz that the international community was making enormous efforts to prevent Iran from attaining non-conventional weapons capability. "I believe, and also know, that the bottom line of these efforts is that Iran will not be nuclear." His declaration differs from the concern expressed in the West, and in Israel, about the progress being made by Iran in its nuclear development, whose success is widely regarded as inevitable.

In an interview with Ma'ariv, Mr Olmert said that when the President of a country such as Iran declares publicly that Israel must be erased from the map, or that its citizens should be transferred to Alaska or Germany, "apart from the maliciousness, it is a direct threat". However, the Iranian threat, he said, was not against Israel alone but against Western civilisation. The Prime Minister said that while Israel was a "very important" part of the international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear thrust, it was not the spearhead. In the Ma'ariv interview, Mr Olmert said: "On the basis of all I know and read, I believe that the international effort, which includes all relevant means, will succeed and Iran will not become a nuclear power."

Israel has stepped up claims that Hamas is being armed, funded and organised by Iran, claiming several thousand members of Hamas's military wing have trained in Iran. Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu claimed there was mounting evidence that Iran wanted to use Hamas to open a battlefront to the south of the Jewish state, with Shia militia Hezbollah already entrenched along the northern border.

The comments came as residents of Gaza and southern Israel were last night readying for a fresh surge of violence in the wake of deadly clashes inside the turbulent strip that killed 19 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers. Israeli commanders have vowed to continue to take the fight to Hamas as far as 3km inside Gaza despite falling into an ambush on Wednesday that led to their heaviest combat losses since the Second Lebanon War. Most of the Palestinian casualties came during reprisal raids that followed, with Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, a farmer and three children among those killed. The death toll was the highest daily figure since the end of an Israeli incursion six weeks ago, which claimed close to 110 lives, many of them militants.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said there would be no let-up in operations inside Gaza.


Hamas hints at peace talks with Israel
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday April 21, 2008

EXILED Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was last night hinting at a strategic shift in the militant group's stance towards Israel, which could see the outlawed organisation brought into the imperiled Middle East peace process. An aide to Mr Meshaal, speaking from the Hamas politburo's base in the Syrian capital, Damascus, said he would tacitly approve a series of proposals aimed at a truce with Israel, put forward by former US president Jimmy Carter during two controversial meetings last week.

The moves stopped short of Hamas dropping its refusal to recognise Israel's existence -- which has in turn led successive Israeli governments to refuse to talk. However, Mr Meshaal was expected to announce significant progress on brokered negotiations about a prisoner exchange. Hamas was also expected to drop its opposition to troubled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority led by its President, Mahmoud Abbas, who runs the West Bank. At the same time, Hamas leaders were likely to agree to rein in rocket fire into Israel by militant groups under their influence in Gaza, in return for the lifting of a crippling economic blockade.

Militants from Hamas's military wing on Saturday -- ahead of Mr Meshaal's expected announcement -- launched their most ambitious attack against Israeli forces since Israel pulled out of Gaza almost three years ago. The militants detonated two bombs against crossing points in southern Gaza, injuring 13 soldiers. Four militants were killed during fighting that followed. A further seven militants were killed, and eight more wounded, by Israeli airstrikes yesterday, as Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak vowed to make Hamas pay for the attacks.

Hamas has become increasingly focused on getting the border crossing points reopened, 10 months into a devastating blockade that has seen the Gazan economy shudder to a halt. UN reports show fuel shortages have cut the energy supply in Gaza by 31 per cent. The reduced energy supply means up to 280,000 Gazans currently receive water for only three to five hours every four days. A lack of fuel has led to the suspension of garbage collection in Gaza City for the past two weeks, and to regular backups of sewerage ponds in the north of the Strip. Prices of staple foods such as vegetables have also risen sharply in recent weeks, with shortages leading to spikes of 40-80 per cent.

Hamas, and some of the group's stakeholders, are increasingly seeing its capacity to break the blockade as a test of its legitimacy. It won outright power over Gaza last June, after ousting Mr Abbas's Fatah movement from a brief power-sharing Government it had formed under international pressure three months earlier. Since then, the Palestinian territories have been split, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Fatah running the West Bank.

Attempts at a reconciliation have been vehemently opposed by Israel and the US, which are trying to bolster the West Bank while at the same time squeezing Hamas. Until now, support in Gaza for the militant group has remained strong. However, some in the Hamas politburo fear the support base will soon crumble without a reprieve in the boycott.


Bush hosts Middle East leaders in fresh bid for regional harmony
The Australian, AFP
Wednesday April 23, 2008

WASHINGTON: US President George W. Bush hosts Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week, ramping up Middle East peace efforts before returning to the region next month. Mr Bush, who travelled to the Middle East in January, is heading back to attend ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the modern state of Israel as well as to push the parties towards a peace deal he wants before his term ends in January 2009.

Palestinian sources say the US President will meet Mr Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at an Egypt-hosted summit in May. White House aides say a world economic forum, not joint peace talks, are on the agenda in Egypt. US officials also say they are watching US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's ongoing trip to the Middle East.

In the meantime, Mr Bush hosts King Abdullah tomorrow for talks on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and efforts to deal with the political crisis in Lebanon, according to a White House statement. The next day, Mr Bush welcomes Mr Abbas to the White House as part of efforts "to work with both the Palestinians and the Israelis, as well as other countries in the region, in realising a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel," a Bush spokesman said.

The meetings are part of a sustained US diplomatic campaign to try to revive the flagging peace process, after a US-sponsored November conference in Annapolis, Maryland, where Israel and the Palestinians agreed to restart talks but have made little progress since. US officials privately have been playing down expectations for Mr Bush's May trip, saying they don't expect a formal joint peace summit and that the visit chiefly aims to recognise modern Israel's six decades of existence.

The talks also come as the White House has been criticising a trip to the region by former US president Jimmy Carter, who reported the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, might agree to conditionally recognise Israel's right to live in peace. "We take it with a grain of salt," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We have to look at public comments and we also have to look at actions. And actions speak louder than words."

Mr Carter made the comments following two meetings in Damascus with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal that angered Israel and the US, which consider Hamas a terrorist organisation and shun contacts with the group. Israel said last night that Mr Carter's mission to work out a ceasefire with Hamas had failed. Mr Carter's talks with Hamas threw a spotlight on a big headache for the Bush administration - the group has controlled Gaza since forcing out Mr Abbas's loyalists in June, cleaving the Palestinian territories.

The US says a Palestinian state must comprise Gaza and the West Bank, but it won't talk to Hamas.


Hamas signals possible truce
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday April 24, 2008

JERUSALEM: In a possibly significant shift in policy, Hamas voiced readiness yesterday for a ceasefire with Israel that would apply to the Gaza Strip and not to the West Bank. The Islamic organisation had previously demanded that any ceasefire include a halt to the almost nightly detention of militants on the West Bank by Israeli security forces. Israel has rejected this on the grounds that a halt to these sweeps would lead to Hamas's takeover of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.

The significance of this policy shift, as well as expressions this week by Hamas officials of a readiness to see an "interim" period of co-existence with Israel if it pulls back to the pre-Six Day War border, is that it suggests flexibility and a recognition of Israel's strength rather than adherence to Hamas's traditional hardline ideology.


Israel offers to give up Golan: Syria
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday April 25, 2008

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has notified Damascus of his readiness to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights in return for peace, a Syrian cabinet minister declared yesterday. Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban said Mr Olmert had delivered his message to Damascus via Turkish intermediaries. "Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria," she declared. Israeli officials declined to confirm or deny the report.

The statement by Ms Shaaban, who frequently serves as spokeswoman for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, was preceded earlier by two Syrian press reports along the same line. Following Ms Shaaban's comments, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said in Tehran that if Israel was prepared to return to the pre-Six Day War borders, "there is nothing preventing a renewal of negotiations". Israel captured 1200sqkm on the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War.

Mr Olmert has in the past declined to respond to reports that secret peace negotiations with the Syrians were under way. However, he indicated "messages" had passed between Jerusalem and Damascus. "They know what I want from them and I know what they want from us," Mr Olmert said last week. "What I can say is that I'm very interested in peace with the Syrians and I hope my efforts will ripen into significant progress."

Previous Israeli prime ministers have negotiated, both directly and indirectly, with Damascus and reportedly come to broad agreement on most issues. Among the proposals examined were a lease by Israel of the heights, perhaps for 25 years, before final withdrawal and development of a large Golan nature preserve to which Israelis would have access even after it returned to Syrian control. The Syrians reportedly agreed to a demand by Israel that the heights, which overlook Israeli towns, be demilitarised.

But there was no Israeli agreement to Syria's demand that it be permitted to return to the northeast corner of Lake Kinneret, the biblical Sea of Galilee, to which it had access before the Six Day War. It is not at all clear that Mr Olmert would be willing to concede to the Syrians what his predecessors had refused. Apart from the Kinneret issue, Israel is certain to hinge any peace agreement on Syria's severing of its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Complicating the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian accord is Washington's stern attitude towards Damascus, which it accuses of supporting terrorist organisations.

In Washington, the Senate and house intelligence committees were scheduled to be briefed overnight by the CIA on an Israeli air strike in Syria last September. Although Israel has declined officially to acknowledge the strike, US intelligence officials would reportedly tell the politicians that Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean nuclear reactor that was being built in northeastern Syria. Reports yesterday said a video taken inside a secret Syrian facility last year convinced the Israeli Government and the Bush administration that North Korea was helping to construct a reactor similar to one that produces plutonium for Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal. US officials said the video of the remote site showed North Koreans inside. Sources familiar with the video said it also showed that the Syrian reactor core's design was the same as that of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, including a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for fuel rods.

An Israeli defence official said yesterday public disclosure of the Syrian plan would embarrass Mr Assad and force him, at the least, to desist from pursuing negotiations with Israel. Right-wing Israeli politicians reacted sharply to the Syrian report and called on Mr Olmert to refute it.


Israel suspicious of Gaza truce plan
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday April 26, 2008

ISRAEL has reacted dubiously to Hamas's readiness to announce a six-month truce in Gaza, claiming the militant group will use the time to rearm and take stock after six months of combat losses. The Hamas regime in Gaza is set to announce late next week that all militant factions in Gaza will agree to the truce, meaning rockets will no longer be fired into southern Israel and the smuggling of weapons will stop. The deal, brokered by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, is the latest in a series of attempted detentes over the past five years and comes after four months of intensive talks - none of which has involved direct discussions between Israel and its sworn enemy.

In return for suspending attacks, Hamas has insisted on all crossing points into Gaza being reopened, particularly the Rafah checkpoint with Egypt, the main thoroughfare out of Gaza, which has been closed since June. Israel would also agree to stop all assassinations and commando raids inside the strip, where more than 420 people, many of them militants, have died during clashes with Israel forces in the past eight months.

The deal would also mean the Karni goods crossing into Israel would reopen, giving Gazan exporters and traders a much-needed lifeblood. A central plank of the arrangement is that forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party will be responsible for administering the checkpoints and keeping militant groups away from them.

Israeli Defence officials have cautiously accepted moves towards a truce, with their centre-point being the stopping of all rocket fire. However, underlying their acceptance is a fear that Hamas remains implacable in its opposition to Israel and has aligned itself strongly with Iran. Hamas has also said it is prepared to hand over captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as part of a prisoner exchange that could see up to 400 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails.

"Hamas is biding time in order to rearm and regroup," said a statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office. "There would be no need for Israel's defensive actions if Hamas would cease and desist from committing terrorist attacks on Israelis. To Israel's dismay, Hamas is not serious. It's playing games, trying to buy time."

Mr Suleiman has summoned leaders from all Palestinian militant groups to Cairo next week in a bid to lock them into a commitment to sticking to any deal. In the past, attempted truces have quickly dissolved after factions inside Gaza have decided to act unilaterally. During earlier discussions with Egypt, Hamas had insisted on a ceasefire that included the West Bank, where operations by Israeli forces are conducted daily, particularly in and around the towns of Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem. The Israeli Army entered Tulkarem en masse yesterday after two Israeli security guards were killed inside an industrial zone in Israel, in what was believed to be a terror attack carried out by at least one gunman from the West Bank.

Israel has said it will take time to formulate its response to the Hamas proposal, which comes in the wake of a series of escalating clashes between both sides inside Gaza. Tensions have reached breaking point this year, with repeated assassinations, military operations and rocket fire.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak is likely to drive Israel's position and is understood to prefer attempting a truce, believing that the only other way to stop rocket fire - an invasion of Gaza - is politically untenable, and potentially disastrous. Mr Barak has said in the past that if rocket fire from Gaza stopped, life on the ground inside the strip would change dramatically.

Gaza has been under siege since Hamas won elections there in January 2006. The blockade intensified in June 2006, when Corporal Shalit was captured inside Israel by gunmen who tunneled under the security wall. A full closure of all crossing points and a rationing of essential services, such as fuel and power, was announced late last year following a violent operation in which Fatah was violently ousted from a brief power-sharing Government. Hamas has said ever since that it acted to prevent a coup backed by Israel and the US to overthrow its regime. Mr Abbas sacked Hamas from the Government immediately following the operation. Since then, Hamas has been de facto ruler of Gaza while the West Bank has been administered by Fatah.

A park in Israel has been dedicated to Aussie soldiers.
Governor General Michael Jeffery and Israeli president Shimon Peres have dedicated a park to Aussie soldiers.
Light Horseman takes a stand in Beersheba
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Beersheba
April 29, 2008

AN Australian Light Horseman returned to the deserts of the Holy Land last night, 90 years after his famous forebears created the stuff of legend. A bronze bust of an Australian Light Horseman was unveiled as the centrepiece of an Australian peace park just outside Beersheba in southern Israel, near the scene of the cavalry charge on October 31, 1917, that changed the course of World War I. The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade charged across the desert, overrunning the Turkish trenches and capturing Beersheba.

The park, named the Park of the Australian Soldier, was opened by Governor-General Michael Jeffery and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Five years in the planning, the park is an initiative of the Melbourne-based Pratt Foundation, which has worked with the City of Beersheba council in an effort to produce a facility that taps into the legacy of the Australian campaign and builds on what Mr Peres described as a bilateral relationship "without any bad weather".

Major-General Jeffery, who visited Australian troops in Afghanistan and Iraq before travelling to Israel, said: "Some 773 of the 100,000 Australians who have fallen in the defence of freedom across two world wars have fallen here." He praised the Desert Mounted Corps, among them the 4th and 12th Light Horse that fought in the Holy Land, as being among history's finest warriors, renowned for "courage, initiative and a pervasive sense of humour".


Israel links Holocaust to Iran threat
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Friday May 2, 2008

ISRAELI leaders marked Holocaust Remembrance day by stridently linking the horrors of Nazi Germany to the gathering storm of the Iranian regime. More than six decades after the Hitler-led genocide of the Jews of Europe, policy-makers mooted the fate of the surviving Jews if the Nazi dictator had had access to a nuclear weapon.

At the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "Sixty-three years have passed since the Satanic factories of death of the Nazis and their collaborators ceased to operate, yet with the passing of time, the dimensions of the Holocaust still remain beyond comprehension, unfathomably shocking, unacceptably chilling. "Who would have believed that 63 years later, hatred of Jews and Israelis would rear its ugly head in so many different places around the globe, provocatively and venomously, inciting hatred?" he said.

The Jewish state's elder statesman, President Shimon Peres, implored the world to stop the eruption of a nuclear war before it began, saying turning a blind eye to Hitler in the 1930s had been a grave mistake. "In my heart I am terrified when I recall there existed the possibility that Hitler might obtain a nuclear weapon," he said. "A leader who destroyed masses with a weapon of mass destruction, combined. What would have been left of our world then?"

Trade Minister Shaul Mofaz went further than any senior Israeli figure, or analyst on the nuclear threat, by claiming that Iran could have in place the technology to make a bomb by later this year. Earlier intelligence-based assessments have suggested Iranian scientists need at least 18 months to produce a bomb.

Meanwhile, Hamas television marked the 63rd anniversary of the Holocaust by suggesting it was orchestrated by Jews to wipe out the disabled among them in preparation for the creation of the state of Israel. According to the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Media Watch, the head of the Palestinian Centre for Strategic Research, Amin Dabur, said: "The Israeli Holocaust - the whole thing was a joke, and part of the perfect show that (Zionist leader and future Israeli prime minister) Ben Gurion put on". The "young energetic and able" were sent to Israel, while the handicapped were sent "so there would be a Holocaust".

A two-minute siren sounded across Israel at 10am yesterday in memory of the estimated six million Jews who died in the Nazi death camps. People stopped where they were and cars came to a standstill.

Mr Olmert condemned revisionists, among them Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed the Holocaust either did not happen or had been largely over-hyped as a means to justify Israel's creation. "There is no force in the world stronger than the spirit of this people that emerged from the abyss of annihilation to the summits of creation, success, building and might of the State of Israel," he said.


Israelis fearing war as independence day looms
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday May 7, 2008

ISRAELIS are approaching their 60th year with their Prime Minister under threat of arrest, peace talks with the Palestinians increasingly fraught and most expecting war with the Arab world within five years. However, their confidence in the longevity of the state remains strong and many believe the darkest days of the Palestinian-led intifada that started the century could still be replaced by tangible improvements in relations with West Bankers.

Jerusalem is bedecked in blue-and-white Stars of David ahead of Israeli Independence Day tomorrow and air force jets have been rehearsing ceremonial fly-overs. Tens of thousands of cars have at least one flag flying from their roofs and hotels are brimming with Zionist tourists, who have flocked back to Israel in record numbers in the past year. Celebrations are planned across the state tomorrow, six days shy of the date on which David Ben Gurion declared independence on May 14, 1948. US President George W.Bush will arrive in Jerusalem next week to commemorate the actual date.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is likely to mark tomorrow's celebrations under questioning by fraud squad detectives who launched a new investigation into his conduct last week. Revelations of the probe have overshadowed festivities, with many in government and the media predicting the Government could fall within weeks.

Mr Olmert's renewed woes follow improvements on two trouble fronts: the seething conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and stalled talks with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's aides and Israeli officials reported significant progress in negotiations on Monday after months of stagnation. Both sides were reportedly 8km apart on the issue of final borders between Israel and the West Bank, with the Palestinians offering an additional 2km of the West Bank and Israeli officials asking for 10km. Both positions were ambit, though, and the sides emerged encouraged by the opening rounds of talks. In Gaza, which remains firmly under Hamas control, Hamas and the other militant factions say they expect an answer from Israel within days to their proposal for a six-month truce, which would mean a temporary end to rocket fire and militant attacks.

A survey released on Sunday showed more than 70 per cent of Israelis thought war with a neighbouring Arab state was likely within five years. Mr Olmert has been at the forefront of attempts to calm both fronts, particularly the West Bank, which is seen as crucial to the chances of establishing a long-term relationship with the Arab world. But he has been fighting an increasingly hostile rearguard from the Israeli Right. Hardline political and religious groups remain opposed to US-led plans to negotiate on final borders, the future of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which is again on the table in return for diplomatic relations with Syria.

Little detail is known of the new allegations against Mr Olmert. However, they apparently involve an American who approached police last week with information about Mr Olmert's conduct as mayor of Jerusalem.


Bush scraps tripartite talks ahead of Israel visit
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Friday May 9, 2008

US President George W. Bush's decision to cancel tripartite talks with Israel and the Palestinians next week, and a criminal probe into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have cast a shadow over Israel's 60th birthday celebrations. Nation building and consolidation of the many gains made by the Jewish state in its first six decades had been key themes of preparations for yesterday's festivities, but the key goal of peace with its closest neighbour appears as elusive as ever.

Mr Bush, who is due to arrive in Jerusalem to mark the date of the declaration of independence on May 14, will meet only Mr Olmert while in Israel - a decision that has irked the Palestinian leadership. He will instead meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas several days later at a summit with Arab allies in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, in between sit-downs with leaders from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan. "This did not seem the time for a big, high-level, three-way event," said US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley ahead of the visit. "It just doesn't feel right as the best way to advance the negotiation."

Mr Bush's trip to the Holy Land is almost certainly his last as President and many here on either side of the negotiating table claim his reluctance to take a strong personal stake in the renewed push for peace he started last November augurs poorly for its chances of success. Mr Bush had launched the latest bid for peace amid great fanfare at a US navy base in Annapolis last year. Many in his administration saw it as a bid to leave a historic legacy in the Middle East, which over the past eight years has become ever more volatile on three fronts: Iraq, Lebanon and in the Holy Land. Both sides have struggled to implement trust-building measures throughout the year and an earlier wish-list of substantive steps towards the ultimate goal of two co-existent states has been replaced by hopes for a declaration of principles.

Mr Abbas recently returned from Washington admitting to have failed in his bid to re-energise the talks and address key Palestinian grievances, such as settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. However, ahead of official engagements to mark the 60th birthday, Mr Olmert said the two sides had never been closer to a deal.

Israeli officials were yesterday preparing to lift a gag order banning local media from reporting details of a criminal probe involving the troubled Prime Minister that stemmed from allegations made last week by a New York-based businessman. The allegations relate to Mr Olmert's time as mayor of Jerusalem. Investigators say they are taking the claims seriously. Despite his perennially poor poll figures and perceived weakness as leader, Mr Olmert is still seen as central to any chance of a peace deal emerging in the Bush-prescribed time frame, by early next year. Many pundits predict Israeli politics would lurch to the right if Mr Olmert were forced to stand down, dooming any mooted detente for years to come.

Under blue skies, Israelis flocked to nature reserves and the Mediterranean shoreline to mark the holiday. The young nation's powerful military was in full display as air force jets thundered through the skies and navy ships steamed in an armada along the coast.


Peace talks at risk in Israel scandal
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent, Jerusalem
Saturday May 10, 2008

ALREADY troubled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians appear doomed after the Israeli Prime Minister vowed to resign next week if indicted for fraud offences. Mr Olmert's removal from the political stage would be unlikely to lead to a replacement leader as committed as him to sealing a substantive deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas within the White House-prescribed timeframe of early next year. Another failed round of peace talks would probably be a serious setback to long-held ambitions by both sides to form co-existent sovereign states and end modern history's most intractable stalemate.

Speaking moments after a gag order on a new police investigation was lifted early yesterday (AEST), Mr Olmert said: "Even though the law does not require me to do this, I will resign from my job if the Attorney-General decides to issue an indictment against me. "I never took bribes, I never took a penny for myself," he said, claiming he was confident that the investigation would not reach an indictment.

The investigation involves a New York-based political fundraiser and activist, Moshe Talansky, who has alleged he passed bribes to Mr Olmert over a decade spanning his rein as mayor of Jerusalem until his appointment as a junior minister in the government of former leader Ariel Sharon. Two other figures, both personally close to Mr Olmert, his attorney Uri Messer and aide Shula Zaken, have also been implicated. Both are alleged to have been the bagmen in the alleged bribe scam, which is thought to have involved several hundred thousand dollars.

Mr Olmert has admitted receiving money from Mr Talansky, whom he met 20 years ago. However, he has vehemently claimed the money was used for political purposes and that he did not pocket a cent. All four players have been repeatedly interviewed by fraud squad detectives. Mr Talansky was contacted after arriving in Jerusalem for Jewish Passover celebrations. Mr Olmert's lawyer and aide were contacted last week. The former has reportedly been co-operating with police but Ms Zaken has maintained her silence. Nothing has yet emerged to indicate what Mr Olmert allegedly did in return for the bribes.

"In these days we are in the midst of a critical process for the country's security and future," Mr Olmert said. "I have served the Israeli public in different positions for more than 30 years, out of a faith in it, its past and its future." He added that he hoped the crisis would pass "as swiftly as it came".

Mr Talansky is active in right-wing Israeli politics, leading some observers to speculate that the allegations might be a politically motivated attempt to unseat Mr Olmert, who has remained unpopular even within his ruling coalition for all of his two years as Prime Minister.

Coalition partners, including the Labour Party, threatened to walk away from the Government if Mr Olmert was indicted, meaning fresh elections would be held in Israel - a move that would probably radically reshape the political landscape. The Israeli Right remains opposed to renewed peace talks with the Palestinians in their current form. Mooted replacement leader Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to negotiate on touchstone issues, such as the future of Jerusalem, and West Bank settlements.

In a further sign of the ebbing enthusiasm for peace talks, US President George W. Bush has cancelled tripartite talks with the Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas planned to be held in Jerusalem next week. Mr Bush will now meet only Mr Olmert and will sit separately with Mr Abbas one week later during a gathering with Arab leaders in Egypt.


Rebels call the shots
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent in Beirut
Saturday May 17, 2008

JUST before midnight on Wednesday, Beirut erupted in gunfire that locals briefly thought heralded a long-dreaded new sectarian war. Perhaps worse than that, it was the beginning of phase two in the takeover of Lebanon that the Government and the West seem unable to stop. It also marked a sharp escalation in a creeping proxy war that is reshaping the region. As tracer rounds lit the downtown sky, news quickly spread that the shots were fired not in anger but joy. The gunmen were Hezbollah followers who had held the country to ransom for a week and whose demands had been met by a Government that could no longer defy them. Bar patrons in the nearby swanky Christian neighbourhood of Gemmayze retreated to their drinks and flat-screen televisions showing MPs trying to sell the backdown to their heartland. Less than 100m away, Shia Muslims, who had camped out for a year along what was once the civil war green line demarcating Christian east Beirut from the Sunni Muslim west of the city, continued firing into the night, their rapture subsiding only when their ammunition ran out.

The Government had just given way on two issues that a week earlier it had considered bastions of sovereignty. The first was a move to sack the airport security chief, a senior Hezbollah man whose allegiances did not lie with the law-makers. The second was to dismantle a communications network used by Hezbollah to avoid the electronic eavesdroppers of Israel and the West. Hezbollah, in turn, had viewed both issues as crucial to its influence. It barely missed a minute to use both as leverage to break an 18-month logjam that until then had been confined to the political arena.

Iranian-trained and armed Hezbollah gunmen, more accustomed to the forests and banana groves of southern Lebanon, were soon snaking through the streets of west Beirut and the centre of government power. They took the neighbourhood with ease, stopping only to shoot at security cameras. West Beirut fell as Lebanon's stakeholders in Tehran, Washington, Damascus, Riyadh and Jerusalem looked on. Next came the mountain stronghold of Druze leader and government loyalist Walid Jumblatt, whose militiamen were no such pushovers. Rockets thundered into the Druze neighbourhoods, fired from launchers positioned near the coast.

The previous time Hezbollah had used such rockets was in its war with Israel two years ago. It had vowed never to turn the weapons on compatriots. But the rules of the game have changed in Lebanon. Also changing are world views on what to do next.

Watching perhaps more closely than any other nation is the US, which has invested a hefty slice of political capital in trying to transform Lebanon from the ruins of a sectarian hell to a budding Arab democracy it can showcase to the region. US gains in the Middle East have been scant during the past six years and its bid to spread key democratic themes of prosperity and nation-building have been slow to take hold.

The US foothold in Lebanon has been shaky at best during the past 18 months, when Hezbollah and its allies, which command the political Opposition in Lebanon, have prevented parliament from convening and have demanded veto over appointments and laws. Hezbollah's main backer, Iran, has been accused of using Lebanon as a strategic enclave to undermine the US's position region-wide and of setting up a proxy commando army on the northern fringe of Israel. Hezbollah's new willingness to enforce its agenda through the barrel of its guns and the Government's inability to stop it adds a dangerous dimension to what until now has been a battle of wills between the two foes.

"I think the US is more affected than Israel," says Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre. "The Iranians, and many in the Arab world, see the current struggle as a zero-sum game. If Tehran backs its allies and they advance, and the US - and let's not forget the Europeans - do nothing, this signals they are winning. People in the Arab world watch and draw conclusions. "The key thing is that Hezbollah has a list of demands. The main one is that they get veto power in the Government. "Another is that the investigation into the assassination (of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri) be stopped. So they aren't biding their time but pressing their demands. They also have a big problem: how are they going to get what they want?"

In many observers' eyes, the past week's events give a good indication. "Hezbollah made its move as soon as it detected a weakness in the US position in the Middle East, thereby effecting a drastic change in the power balance in Lebanon," says Jumblatt, who was rattled by the guerilla group's move against him. "Now we are waiting for Hezbollah, Iran and Syria to determine the rules of the game."

Like Jumblatt, Saudi Arabia was not mincing words. Speaking to a Lebanese newspaper, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said: "The legitimate Government in Lebanon is facing a large-scale war (and) we cannot stand idly by. Iran has undertaken to run that war and Hezbollah intends to forcibly (transform) Lebanon into a state with a 'rule of the jurisprudent'. "We must do everything in our power to end this war and to save Lebanon, even if this would involve forming an Arab force to rapidly deploy throughout Lebanon, to restore its security and defend the current legitimate Government."

The Saudi candour is a dramatic change in tack from the shuttle diplomacy and quiet coercion it has preferred during the past year, in which it has boosted Lebanon's treasury coffers to the tune of $US1 billion, thanks to soaring oil revenues. Saudi Arabia fears the rise of Iran perhaps more than the US. Its wariness extends beyond a perceived nuclear threat to a religious and cultural dynamic; the Sunni Arab state and keeper of two holy Islamic shrines sees a subversive threat from the rise of the Shias and a cultural challenge posed by Iranian ascendancy.

"This past week was a milestone for Iran in its pursuit of regional hegemony and its defiance of the West," says Middle East expert Eran Lerman, of the American Jewish Council. Lebanon's Shias have been an Iranian project since the early days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which tapped into the resentment they felt as Lebanon's dispossessed and the threat they came under during the Israeli invasion three years later. "The real story is no longer about the Shia being disenfranchised like they were in the '70s," Lerman says. "It's (now) about external allegiances." As Israel marked its 60th year of independence this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again hammered his anti-Zionist rhetoric, declaring that the end of the "counterfeit nation" was not far off.

Israel is watching from Lebanon's borders with mounting concern, even in the wake of an Arab League delegation's efforts to stop the slide. On Friday, the Arab League boldly predicted a new president would finally be anointed in Beirut by Sunday after 19 delays caused by the Opposition. The league also suggested a national unity government would soon be formed, with all sides finally finding common ground. It is hard to see how that will happen, Western observers insist, with neither the Government nor Opposition willing or able to budge from their positions on who has veto power, and the form and nature of the UN tribunal to try the suspects in the 2005 assassination of Hariri.

"From Israel's standpoint, this is bad in the long run, but the immediate question is: will Hezbollah be more likely to attack Israel because of this development?" Rubin asks. "I think that Hezbollah is still bogged down in Lebanese politics and precisely because they think they can win, they are more likely to spend the next year focused on internal struggles."

Lebanon's role as a client state appears to have been consolidated during the past week. Also likelier is that it will soon be an arena for another round of conflict, which is at a serious risk of drawing in the heavy guns of the puppet-masters. The cold war of the Middle East is getting rapidly hotter. And, given the intransigent positions of foreign parties, a military confrontation of some sort seems likelier than not.


Lebanese rivals in talks
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday May 19, 2008

RIVAL Lebanese political leaders yesterday attempted to tackle their differences, including a disarming of Hezbollah, as Arab nations attempted to stop what many in Beirut believe is a slide towards war. The Lebanese factions met in the Gulf state of Qatar in what the Arab League hailed as a breakthrough gathering. However, Hezbollah, which commands the opposition bloc, insisted its powerful weapons arsenal was not up for discussion. It also refused to budge on its insistence that it have a greater say in Lebanese affairs and that a tribunal to try those accused in the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri be blocked.

Speaking from Doha to a Lebanese radio station, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said: "The impression, thank God, from the session, shows the desire among all the factions to reach an understanding ... that will bring us to the beginning of a solution to this crisis."


Gaza peace deal depends on fate of captured Israeli soldier
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday May 20, 2008

ISRAEL was last night holding last-minute talks about the future of captured soldier Gilad Shalit before agreeing to a brokered agreement to usher in a six-month truce in the Gaza Strip. The fate of the corporal, imprisoned by Palestinian militant factions inside Gaza for almost two years, was central to the peace deal going ahead.

The talks follow an apparent backdown by Hamas, which runs Gaza. Hamas leaders now say they are prepared to trade Corporal Shalit in return for a number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. All Gaza's restive factions have signed on to a truce offer put together over the past month during talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who negotiated on behalf of Israel and the Hamas leaders. Mr Suleiman said last night the implementation of the truce, which would end Palestinian rocket fire into Israel and stop the constant Israeli ground and air attacks in Gaza, was waiting only on the approval of Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

If the deal goes ahead, Gaza's deadlocked passenger and goods terminals would be opened, ending the 11-month blockade Israel imposed after Hamas ousted rivals Fatah from a brief power-sharing administration last June. The crossings would be manned by forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and would act as a buffer zone between the two sides. All attempts at introducing ceasefires in Gaza over the past seven years have collapsed, with militants and Israeli forces accusing each other of violations. But there is optimism in Gaza that the latest truce could hold if implemented.

Hamas has provided a list of 300 prisoners it wants released, among them dozens convicted of playing a role in attacks on Israel. The Israeli media reported last night that Israel had agreed to free 71 of the prisoners "with blood on their hands" but was holding out on releasing an unknown number of others. "Were Israel to agree to the list of prisoners Hamas wants to see free, we would include the release of Gilad Shalit as part of the ceasefire agreement. But since Israel has rejected most of the names, it will be necessary to negotiate," said Mr Suleiman at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has been meeting Israeli leaders, including Mr Barak.

Leaders from across the Arab world attended the summit, with Jordan's King Abdullah reportedly demanding of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority must be delivered by year's end. After much fanfare last November when the US launched the latest push for peace, enthusiasm for securing the deal appears to have been weighed down by complexities and distrust. Mr Abbas reportedly told Israeli politician Moshe Beilin over the weekend that he would probably resign if a peace deal were not signed before next January, as promised by outgoing US President George W. Bush.


Israel's gamble on Syria isolates US
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday May 24, 2008

WASHINGTON is still reeling from two strategic defeats this week in its regional showdown with arch-foe Iran, and several key policy-makers have claimed the hardest blow came from staunch ally Israel. The Jewish state's decision on Wednesday to restart peace talks with Syria came at a particularly difficult time for the Bush administration. It followed a decision by Lebanese leaders hours earlier to cede veto power to the Iranian-backed Opposition, consolidating the rising influence of the radical regime and its key partner, Damascus. Both hardline nations emerged emboldened by the two moves, while the US saw them as a slap in the face, a senior US official was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

The Israeli decision to re-engage Syria exposes a significant strategic division between Jerusalem and Washington, both of which rarely diverge on Middle Eastern policy. The announcement of indirect talks between Syria and Israel, to be brokered by Turkey, did not come as a surprise to Washington, which had been briefed on contacts between the two sides over the past two years. However, the forewarning did not mitigate the shock of the decision being made at such a pivotal point in the showdown between the hawkish Bush White House and the equally hardnosed leadership of Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr Bush had invested much of the remainder of his foreign policy political capital in a peace track with the Palestinians - one he personally tried to rejuvenate last November. Discussions between the three sides have, at best, inched along throughout the year and have been marred by a mutual reluctance to usher in trust-building measures. As talks with the Palestinians continued to falter, Israel increasingly felt there was a better chance of reaching an agreement with Syria. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office also believes there is a much better chance of any deal signed with the Syrians being implemented because the issues to be discussed relate mainly to territory. The Palestinian peace track is a tangle of more complex issues, which involves moving hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians and dispersing billions of dollars in compensation as part of a final-status settlement.

Syria has long been a key player in Palestinian politics. Current President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the totalitarian state for more than 30 years until his death in 2001, have backed several outlawed groups, including Hamas, as well as sheltering their leaders. But Mr Assad Jr's strong alliance with Iran since the turn of the century, and particularly since the election of Mr Ahmadinejad in late 2005, has put Washington on almost a cold war footing with both Syria and Iran. Mr Bush has disavowed any high-level contact with either country for the past three years, claiming both have eagerly fuelled the insurgency in Iraq, which has US forces pinned down five years after the 2003 invasion. The White House also accuses the two allies of attempting to gain control of Lebanon, a goal that was advanced on Wednesday when the US-backed Government of Fouad Siniora capitulated to Opposition demands.

While in Jerusalem for Israel's 60th anniversary just over a week ago, Mr Bush used a speech in the Israeli parliament to warn against appeasing regional strongmen and those prepared to use force for political gain. "He isn't home a week and the dictators and forces of violence have triumphed," said former US national security official Bruce Reidel, quoted in a US newspaper.

Israel says the key reason for kick-starting talks with Syria is to try to peel it away from its links to Iran. This is also a main aim of Mr Bush. However, the US has doggedly stuck to a policy of punishing Damascus by isolating it economically and attempting to force it to the negotiating table by attrition. Israel had previously marched arm-in-arm with the US on its approach to Syria, and continues to enforce a hardline stance against two of Syria's key patrons, Hezbollah and Hamas. However, Mr Olmert's office said it had received a missive from Damascus within the past fortnight, which convinced it that such a dramatic divergence from the US was a worthy gamble.

Same Day Report
Israeli PM Ehud Olmert faces new grilling on graft

JERUSALEM: Israeli police last night questioned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a second time in a corruption case that threatens his political survival and Israel's efforts to advance moves towards peace with Syria and the Palestinians. The police were seeking to establish whether Mr Olmert did any favours in exchange for the allegedly illegal funds he received from millionaire US financier Morris Talansky during the 13 years before he became prime minister in 2006. The state prosecutor believes Mr Olmert received $US100,000 in cash from Mr Talansky, and the police are looking at money transfers that could have been used to finance private trips when Mr Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, and later the trade and industry minister. A court was to decide last night whether to grant a request by Mr Olmert's lawyers to delay the court deposition of the chief witness in the case.

The Israeli PM has denied any wrongdoing but admitted he received money from Mr Talansky to help finance his election campaigns in 1999 and 2003. Mr Olmert was first questioned in the case on May 2, and state prosecutors plan to have Mr Talansky testify under oath before a judge tomorrow. No charges have been laid against Mr Olmert and he has pledged to resign if indicted.

Police last night interrogated the Prime Minister for an hour in his Jerusalem residence. It is the fifth police investigation of Mr Olmert's conduct since he became prime minister two years ago. All of the cases involve activities that took place before he became Israel's leader. No charges have been filed and one of the cases has been closed. But the multiple investigations have led to demands that the unpopular Mr Olmert resign and have called into question his ability to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians by a year-end target, or pursue the recently arranged peace talks with Syria.

Also Same Day Report
Judge me by my actions, Barack Obama urges Jews
Reuters, AFP, AP

BOCA RATON, Florida: Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has explained the roots of his name, listed some of his Jewish friends and voiced support for Israel during a synagogue visit to shore up Jewish support for his US presidential bid. Senator Obama, the frontrunner for his party's White House nomination, has battled concerns among some Jewish Americans about his views on Israel, his religion and his race.

His visit came as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain was forced to hose down links with a fiery evangelical pastor backing his White House bid who, it was revealed, believed the Nazis did God's will by chasing Jews from Europe. Texas pastor John Hagee was quoted as saying that Adolf Hitler was a "hunter" sent by God to herd Jews to the land of Israel. The Huffington Post website carried audio from a 1990s speech by Mr Hagee: "Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel'." Senator McCain was quick to distance himself: "Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," he said.

Yesterday, Senator Obama addressed Jewish concerns during a nearly two-hour session. "There is not a single trace of me ever being anything more than a friend of Israel and a friend of the Jewish people," Senator Obama said. "Judge me by what I say and what I've done. Don't judge me because I've got a funny name. Don't judge me because I'm African-American." Senator Obama said he was distressed by strains between blacks and Jews in the US, two groups "who have been uprooted and been on the outside".

Critics have raised doubts about his commitment to the Jewish state, floating rumours that he was a Muslim and linking him to Louis Farrakhan, a prominent black Muslim leader known for his anti-Israel rhetoric. Senator Obama is a Christian, has denounced Mr Farrakhan, and has vowed not to change staunch US support of Israel. When asked about his name, Senator Obama said it had the same roots as a similar Hebrew one meaning "one who's blessed". One questioner asked the Illinois senator to name close friends who were Jewish and pro-Israel. "I hesitate to start listing them out," Senator Obama said, cautioning against a stereotype that having acquaintances in a minority group meant you did not behave in a prejudiced way. He then identified three of his close Jewish friends.

Questioners also drilled him on his willingness to meet with US foes such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denounced Israel and denied the Holocaust occurred. Senator Obama, while critical of the Iranian President, said direct diplomacy with Iran would be more effective in advancing US and Israeli interests.He said he would not talk to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas or Lebanon's Syrian-backed opposition, Hezbollah. Some said Senator Obama had allayed their concerns. "I think today convinced me," said Aaron Levitt, 32, a rabbi and Democrat. "I feel like he made it very clear that Israel ... would be a very important ally in his presidency."


New Lebanese President faces big hurdles but gives West hope
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday May 27, 2008

THE inaugural speech of Lebanon's new President has raised hopes among sceptical Western leaders that the incoming Government will move away from its regional sponsors and build a sovereign state. With Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem watching on from the parliamentary gallery, President Michel Suleiman immediately tackled the most sensitive issues confronting him. They included enforcing Lebanon's borders and establishing a tribunal to try the alleged conspirators in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, and a string of other anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

A sizeable group in the audience chose not to applaud as Mr Suleiman flagged each intention - a sign that he faces a struggle to implement his mandate. Under a deal struck in Qatar, the Opposition bloc will hold the levers of power, including a veto vote, in the soon-to-be appointed cabinet of national unity. Syria, a key backer of the Opposition, along with Iran, is strongly opposed to the tribunal, claiming people belonging to its regime, who have been incriminated by UN-backed investigators, will not get a fair hearing.

Mr Suleiman, whose appointment was endorsed by Damascus, also attempted to address the issue of Hezbollah's formidable arsenal of weapons that easily outgun the Lebanese army, which the former general commanded before resigning to take up his new role. He expressed admiration for the militia group, which controls the Opposition political bloc, but also called for dialogue about the future of its weapons.

The swearing-in of the new President, six months after Lebanon's former leader Emile Lahoud left office, ushered in a new era in the war ravaged nation, shifting the balance of power in favour of the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah. Lebanon had been a key plank of US-led plans to introduce democracy to the region, and the change in dynamic is a major setback for Washington's ambitions.

In a swipe at the Bush regime, Speaker of the parliament Nabil Berri, who had 19 times delayed the vote to elect Mr Suleiman, said: "I thank the US nonetheless, seeing that it seems to have been convinced that Lebanon is not the appropriate place for its New Middle East plan. This plan will not find any place in the entire Middle East."

President George W. Bush later released a statement congratulating Mr Suleiman's appointment. "I am confident that Lebanon has chosen a leader committed to protecting its sovereignty, extending the Government's authority over all of Lebanon, and upholding Lebanon's international obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions," he said. "We look forward to working with President Suleiman in pursuit of our common values of freedom and independence."

Arab leaders watched on from the audience, as did senior delegates from France and other European states. A US congressional group was present, but in a private capacity. The White House did not send an official.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose pro-Western government had been crippled by an opposition boycott of parliament for the past 20 months, resigned in the wake of Mr Suleiman's appointment. A new prime minister will be elected in coming weeks.


Extract - Prisoner swap rumours grow
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday May 28, 2008

ON the mountains of Israel's border with Lebanon, reports of an imminent prisoner swap with Hezbollah seem as unlikely as the large guerilla group's flag that soars next to an Israeli army watchtower. Just down the valley from the strange scene is the point on the border road where the two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were taken captive by Hezbollah militants close to two years ago.

After two years of silence, Beirut and Jerusalem were swirling with rumours yesterday that the fate of the two Israeli soldiers would soon, finally, be revealed. Dead or alive, they would be sent back to their families within one month, in return for at least four Hezbollah captives imprisoned in Israel and the bodies of 10 slain fighters. The claims were fuelled during a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and given extra impetus by reports from Lebanon of a breakthrough in deadlocked talks about the terms of a long-mooted swap. Israeli sources last night refused to douse the rising hopes, adding weight to a likelihood that one of the Israeli army's most-enduring mysteries would soon be solved.

Since the end of the devastating month-long war in July 2006, Nasrallah has refused to provide any clue about the soldiers' welfare, or to allow Red Cross access or communication with their families. The absence of signs of life, together with a belief that both men were badly wounded during the abduction, has led army chiefs to believe that at least one captive was killed when two rocket-propelled grenades thudded into their humvee.

Israeli officials were last night refusing to publicly add weight to claims of an imminent deal. However, in an apparently related development, convicted Lebanese spy Nasim Nassir is due to be released on Sunday after serving six years for spying for Lebanon. Nassir is a Lebanese national and convert from Judaism, who was allowed entry to Israel under right-of-return laws. Israeli officials suggested the army's apparent readiness to go for a swap, largely on Hezbollah's terms, indicates its prevailing view that the soldiers are dead. A third captured soldier, Gilad Shalit, who is being held by Hamas in Gaza, is alive and considered more of a bargaining chip by Hamas who have demanded as many as 600 Palestinian prisoners be released in return for his freedom.

Same Day Report
Israel has 150 N-bombs: Carter

LONDON: Former US president Jimmy Carter says Israel has at least 150 nuclear weapons - the first time a US president has publicly acknowledged the Jewish state's atomic arsenal. Asked at a news conference at a Welsh literary festival yesterday how a future US president should deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, Mr Carter put the risk in context by listing the atomic weapons held globally.

"The US has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union (Russia) has about the same, Great Britain and France have several hundred, and Israel has 150 or more," he said. "We have a phalanx of enormous weaponry ... not only of enormous weaponry but of rockets to deliver those missiles on a pinpoint accuracy target."

While Israel's arsenal of nuclear weapons is widely assumed, Israeli officials have never admitted their existence and US officials have stuck to that line in public for years. Mr Carter, a Nobel peace prize winner, called for Washington to talk directly to Iran to press it to drop its nuclear program, which Tehran claims is for peaceful energy purposes but the West fears is for weapons.

Years of US action, including sanctions and discussion on the possibility of military strikes, have not persuaded Iran to abandon its program to produce enriched uranium. US President George W. Bush recently branded calls for negotiations with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as comparable to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler before World War II.

A former Israeli military intelligence chief yesterday criticised Mr Carter for his comments, saying they would do more harm than good. "It seems to me that in his last tour of the country and the region, he was apparently so offended he thought it proper to say things which I think are irresponsible," Aharon Zeevi-Farkash said. "The problem is that there are those who can use these statements when it comes to discussing the international effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons."

Mr Carter toured the Middle East last month, including a visit to Israel. In Syria, he met the leader of the Islamist group Hamas to try to move a peace process forward between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to meet Mr Carter, who has been critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, during his regional visit, which began on April 13. Mr Carter was US president from 1977 to 1981, when he helped negotiate the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and concluded a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union.


Olmert vows to fight on as 'brown paper bag' cash scandal rocks Israel
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
With Reuters, AP
Friday May 30, 2008

Beseiged Israeli leader Ehud Olmert has asked for time to clear his name and vowed to stay on as Prime Minister, despite dwindling support within his party and ruling coalition in the wake of the "brown paper bag affair". The political reaction to Wednesday's dramatic courtroom revelations was seismic in Israel, with Mr Olmert forced to work the phones to keep his coalition together and stop his Government sliding into crisis.

All three Arab stakeholders in the three trouble fronts Mr Olmert is trying to deal with said yesterday they feared his status had been diminished in the court hearing, in which businessman Morris Talansky revealed he had handed over $US150,000 in cash over 15 years to his one-time political hero. Syrian officials, who last week agreed to a resumption of peace talks, said Mr Olmert's troubles might imperil further developments. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he feared for the future of already troubled talks aimed at striking a lasting peace.

Meanwhile, the Hamas rulers of Gaza said they were preparing for an escalation in hostilities, instead of a six-month ceasefire and prisoner swap they had hoped would be signed by now. Mr Olmert will not get the chance to respond to Mr Talansky's testimony until July 13, when the Manhattan businessman and rabbi returns to Jerusalem. He is insisting he is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

However, political leaders, headed by a key coalition partner, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, are continuing to call for Mr Olmert to stand aside, claiming the allegations will preoccupy him and paralyse his Government. Mr Barak had called on Mr Olmert to "detach himself from the day-to-day leadership of the country". The right-wing Likud Party went further, demanding a resignation and new elections before year's end.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz are known to be interested in a tilt at the leadership, were it to become vacant. Others placed themselves on an election footing, believing the weight of the allegations would soon make the Prime Minister's position untenable. During a meeting of community chiefs from southern Israel, Mr Olmert again strongly denied he had done anything wrong by accepting money from Mr Talansky, which he said was used solely for political purposes. "I have been done an injustice, and it is illogical that a prime minister should be brought down because of something like this," he said. "Some people think that every investigation requires a resignation. I do not agree, and I do not intend to resign."

Same Day Report
Erratic bird Israel's new symbol

JERUSALEM: Steering clear of both the dove and the hawk, tens of thousands of Israelis chose the colourful hoopoe as the Jewish state's national bird. In a ceremony at his Jerusalem residence, President Shimon Peres announced last night the winner of a contest that drew more than 150,000 people to vote for their favourite of among 10 local birds.

The hoopoe, distinguishable by its erratic flight and its orange feathered crest, emerged as the winner with 35 per cent of the votes, well ahead of the warbler and the goldfinch, which each won 10 per cent. The hoopoe is now an emblem of the celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversary. The six-month election campaign stirred a well-publicised public debate over which bird best represents Israel's character.

The hoopoe boasts deep roots in the region's culture. The Bible mentions it among the group of birds which are not allowed to be eaten, and the Koran tells the tale of King Solomon, who spoke to animals and told the hoopoe of his visit to the Queen of Sheba's land. But the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which initiated the contest, also noted that the hoopoe's nest stinks - a protection against predators.


Extract - Former spy has Olmert's political assassination in her sights
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday June 02, 2008

Ms Livni yesterday ramped up her campaign to force primary elections in the ruling Kadima party of Ehud Olmert, as the incumbent left for talks in Washington with one of his few remaining allies, US President George W. Bush. After last week urging the troubled Mr Olmert to consider standing aside in the wake of a corruption inquiry, Ms Livni's once uneasy relationship with the Prime Minister is in ruins. Mr Olmert's aides have described her act as a political assassination bid, and claimed her move against him was the most damaging of many betrayals to have dogged his past year in office.

Ms Livni was the first to break ranks from the ruling coalition, and has since focused on shoring up the party faithful for a tilt at the top job. She has had little faith in Mr Olmert's capacity to deliver on his plans. Ms Livni has often said Israel is best served in the region by a stance towards its foes of a steel fist in a velvet glove. Her backers say the Jewish state has displayed neither since the end of the Lebanon war. Ms Livni, a 50-year-old mother of two, has always been slated for big things in Israeli politics. Her mother was a leader in the Jewish guerilla movement that fought the British army before Israel was established in 1948, and Ms Livni has spoken privately of her wish to leave a similar legacy through her public life.

Hours before his departure for Washington yesterday, Mr Olmert cancelled a meeting of the security cabinet at which he was expected to discuss the mounting calls for early party nominations, and demand that he be given time to clear his name. The primaries are proposed for September, with elections to be held as early as November. Ms Livni told confidants over the weekend that she preferred holding an immediate election after the primary because of new polls that put her within striking distance of Mr Olmert's office.

She said the clean slate may help her avoid having to form a government within the current parliament, which, with its unruly coalition, is perpetually on the edge of rebellion. Appeasing the right wing and the religious bloc of the Shas Party has damaged much of the Kadima mandate that Mr Olmert inherited from the party's founder, Ariel Sharon, when he suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2006. However, a new parliament may finally allow an Israeli leader to break from the shackles of minor groups that provide the numbers to govern.

Israeli papers reported yesterday that a critical mass of Kadima MPs were demanding early primaries, meaning that Mr Olmert will have no choice but to agree when he returns from Washington next week. Ms Livni's main rival, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, is trailing in early polls for the party leadership, but is scheduling a fortnight on the hustings in an effort to recruit the Kadima heartland to give him the party reins.

Ms Livni is also planning an intensive grassroots campaign, as well as a media blitz that positions her as the only alternative leader to Mr Olmert. Ms Livni has slowly consolidated links with some of the Gulf State Arab leaders and has impressed visiting leaders with sincerity and poise. She falls short on a regional track record but has played a part in restoring a key pillar of Israel's military policy - deterrence. She was a key figure in the decision last September to bomb what Israel and the US insist was an almost-finished Syrian nuclear reactor - a move that was calibrated to send a brutal message to Damascus and its backers, but avoid war. With peace talks resuming last month after an eight-year gap, the strategy appears to have worked. Ms Livni is sceptical of Syria's willingness to negotiate an agreement in indirect talks brokered by Turkey. She believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is attempting to use Israel to get closer to the US, and has no intention of breaking ties with the Jewish state's chief foe, Iran.

Ms Livni's four years in the Mossad secret service from 1980 exposed her to many of the intelligence agency's frontline roles. She has never detailed her short career with the spy organisation, but she was deployed in Europe at a time when Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian Liberation Organisation leaders, and members of the Black September group behind the Munich Olympic massacre, was in full swing. One report yesterday said she played an indirect role in at least one assassination in Athens. Ms Livni stayed silent, preferring to focus on her more active takedown of her leader.


Gazans stock up as Israel threatens war
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday June 7, 2008

AS ISRAEL gave its strongest warning yet that war in Gaza was imminent, many Gazans were stockpiling meagre supplies and continuing to blame the Israelis and their allies for the crushing two-year siege. Support for the ruling Hamas administration has not waned noticeably over the past year, despite the ever-tightening boycott Israel put in place when Hamas seized power last June. However, Israel blames the militant Islamic group for the suffering of Gaza's 1.3 million people, and has been trying to force a revolt of the popularly elected Government.

The siege is now biting harder than ever. Petrol prices have risen to $8 a litre, with car owners given coupons limiting them to 20 litres a week. Gas prices are more than triple what they were in March, and the price of most staple vegetables has doubled. Despite this, there are few outward signs of dissent against Hamas leaders or administrators. A straw poll of Gaza locals - even in areas where yellow flags of Fatah still fly above the homes - reveals immense frustration, but little willingness to blame the Government. But anger towards the West is palpable.

"I didn't vote for Hamas and I wish they'd just leave," said Azmi al-Baharadi, who runs a mobile phone shop on the waterfront that reeks of raw sewage. "It's true they do not like criticism here, but they are more open than even I thought they would be, and they did beat us in the elections, after all. The siege is not their fault, and we know this in Gaza." There are indications throughout Gaza that Hamas has benefited from the boycott, by being able to demonstrate it has stood firm against Israel, as well as the quartet of Russia, the European Union, the US and the UN. "The whole world hates us," said Hanefah Chamali. "They think Gaza is a zoo and everyone wants to break out and kill everyone around us."

As The Weekend Australian spoke to the Gazan police chief Tawfiq al-Jabr - a one-time Fatah loyalist - a senior Hamas delegation paid a courtesy visit, pledging support with traffic management and community policing. All had been senior members of Hamas's military wing and carried burn marks and sleeves hanging loose over armless torsos to prove it. "We are now operating at 15 to 20 per cent of our capacity," said Mr Jabr. "And that's because we cannot afford the petrol for our patrol cars, or to pay salaries. But even with such a disadvantage, Gaza is a much safer place than it was a year ago. I have had more than 200 applications from former Fatah-aligned officers to rejoin the police after they left last June. If Gaza was splitting along political lines, this would not be happening."

The Israeli air force attacked a house in northern Gaza early yesterday believed to be linked to a mortar strike inside Israel on Thursday that killed a resident of a kibbutz. Fifteen people were wounded in the Israeli air attack. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned yesterday that a large-scale military operation in Gaza "is closer than ever, and it will likely precede a ceasefire".


Record price surge shows crude as volatile as Middle East itself
The Australian
David Nason, WALL STREET
Monday June 9, 2008

LET'S hope John McCain and Barack Obama were watching on Friday when oil soared nearly $US11 to a new record close of $US138.45 a barrel. The spike, the biggest one-day rise in history, has been blamed on Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz saying Iran will be attacked if it continues to pursue nuclear weapons. The hardline Mofaz didn't mince his words: "If Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it. Other options are disappearing. The (UN) sanctions are not effective. There will be no alternative but to attack."

This was more than enough for oil traders who responded to Mofaz on Friday with a frenzy of speculative buying. It demonstrated just how significant the geopolitical risk factor is for oil prices in the post-9/11 world.

That's something McCain and Obama need to appreciate as they settle down to slug out the US election. McCain, in particular, has been ramping up his anti-Iran rhetoric. Unwilling to be cast as a dove, and anxious to appeal to Jewish voters in the battleground state of Florida, Obama is being dragged along. But the world is a much different place than in 1967 when Arab nations cut off oil supplies to the US after Israel flogged its neighbours in the Six Day War. Back then, the US and its oil-producing allies just upped production and everything was okay. Today, the US doesn't have any spare capacity, its oil allies are not as pliable as they once were and competition for oil supplies is fierce. A breakout of hostilities with Iran would be catastrophic.

Iran is the second-biggest producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- behind Saudi Arabia -- producing an estimated 4.2 million barrels per day, about 5 per cent of the world total. It has 136 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, about 10 per cent of the world's total, ranking third behind Saudi Arabia and Canada. The US doesn't get any oil directly from Iran but any interruption to its contribution to world supplies would have an immediate upward effect on price. The impact would be even greater if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to any attack by blocking oil shipments from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia leaving the Strait of Hormuz.

Given what's happened to oil since the 9/11 terror attacks, the last thing that's needed is hairy-chested political rhetoric getting out of hand. Prior to 9/11, oil was trading in the $US20-$US30 a barrel range. After 9/11, it went above $US31 before falling back to less than $US20. But from the time of George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address branding Iran, Syria and North Korea an "axis of evil", oil has been heading north at a rate once thought inconceivable. Today, it has reached a stage where there is serious talk of the price hitting $US300 a barrel within the next five years.

Last month, Goldman Sachs released a forecast saying the $US200 mark could be reached in 6-24 months. How would the world look with oil at $US200 a barrel? It's not a pretty picture. The cost of everyday goods and services would soar. Cars would almost become a luxury. At $US200 a barrel, General Motors would fold. Ford would probably not be too far behind.

McCain and Obama need to temper their national security language in the election campaign. And once the poll is over, the winner needs to do everything possible to bring common sense and moderation to the Middle East's oil politics.


Extract - Israelis split on Hamas truce
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday June 11, 2008

ISRAELI decision-makers are divided over how to proceed with a proposed Gaza truce, with a bloc led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak urging a large-scale operation be launched ahead of any deal. Israel's security cabinet met last night in Jerusalem, hours after Hamas allowed a handwritten letter from captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to be delivered to his father. But the apparent goodwill gesture was cloaked in a threat; earlier in the day, the militant group had claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings in 2002, in a move seen as a warning that it would resume terror attacks if the mooted truce collapsed.

Mr Barak has strongly advocated a large incursion ahead of any truce. The fate of Corporal Shalit, who was captured two years ago, is central to any deal. Hamas has previously said it was willing to trade him for up to 400 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. But Corporal Shalit's fate again appears in doubt, with Hamas leaders in Gaza now trying to broker a deal without him.

A truce has been delayed for two months, despite mediation from Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has regularly travelled between Tel Aviv and Gaza, carrying demands from each side. Israel refuses to directly engage Hamas, which does not recognise its right to exist as a nation. There are signs Egypt is growing impatient with the stalled deal, which is proving to be a key test of Israel's alliance with the Arab League heavyweight - and its commitment to policing the 14km border it shares with southern Gaza. The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-led international siege for the past 2 1/2 years.

Egypt's interest in securing the border stems from its fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, a hardline group of Islamists with strong links to Hamas. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sees a threat to his three-decade rule and is determined to keep the group at bay. Egypt remains opposed to any broad Israeli campaign inside Gaza, which carries a high risk of Israeli military and Palestinian civilian casualties. Since the renewal of peace talks in Annapolis last November, 492 people have been killed, the vast majority of them Palestinians and at least 100 civilians.

The Israeli Defence Force estimates at least one division of soldiers would be needed inside Gaza to achieve Israel's goal of crippling Hamas and Islamic Jihad and stopping the groups' ability to fire rockets.


Syrians push Israel for talks on Golan
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday June 12, 2008

SYRIA claims it will not move to hold direct talks with Israel unless the Jewish state publicly puts the Golan Heights on the table as a peace offer. Ahead of the resumption next week of indirect talks in Turkey between the two long-term enemies, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister has added new uncertainty to hopes of a detente by insisting that the Golan area should be handed back before any face-to-face meetings. The statement was interpreted in Jerusalem as posturing ahead of the latest round of exchanges between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's senior staff and key officials from Damascus.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, and has since annexed the militarily strategic plateau, which it uses as a holiday destination for Israelis, and a prime cattle-breeding and farming zone. Also believed to be on the agenda next week is the strip of land in southern Lebanon known as the Sheeba Farms, which Israel continues to occupy despite decades of international pressure. Lebanon and Hezbollah claim the land is Lebanese, while Israel believes it could belong to Syria and wants to include wrangling over its ownership in the negotiations with Damascus.

Mr Olmert has said anyone who believes Israel can keep the borders it has now is "hallucinating" and has joined every Israeli leader since Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s in acknowledging that returning the Golan Heights is the price Israel must pay for peace with Syria. Both sides have claimed 80 per cent of the deal was done the last time they tried to resolve the Golan's fate, when former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak sat down with former US president Bill Clinton in 2000. However, the attempted deal fell over, first when Mr Barak baulked at what was on offer and later when Mr Assad - embarrassed over leaks about the discussions - demanded more access to the eastern foreshore of Lake Tiberias.

Syria is anxious to be seen to have entered into peace talks with Israel only as a means to winning back its territory. News of the discussions with Israeli officials was not well-received by Iran when it was reported in April, and Damascus has since attempted to play down the moves towards a summit. "I think it's too early to resume direct talks. There are conditions," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad said this week. The talks were "in their infancy", he said. "I hope Israel responds to the requirements of peace, which are the end of the occupation of Palestine and the establishment of a Palestinian state, restoration of the Syrian Golan and to pull out of remaining occupied Lebanese territory," he said.

In the Golan village of Majd al-Shams along the Syrian-Israeli border, local Druze were this week collecting the last of the cherry harvest and rounding up cattle. Many of those who spoke to The Australian said they were nervous at the prospect of again becoming Syrian citizens, saying they preferred the benefits of a democratic state and were worried about their future under a totalitarian regime. "I have no great love for Israel," said Rabiah Abdul Khalek, as he sat in the village square. "But I know what I am going to get here, and overall my family have been treated fairly."

The Golan Druze have minimal contact with their relatives on the Syrian side, and often resort to shouting to each other with megaphones across the valley that divides them.

Same Day Report
Extract - Bush wants to leave legacy of peace
Tom Baldwin and Gerard Baker, Air Force One

US President George W. Bush has admitted his gun-slinging rhetoric made the world believe he was a "guy really anxious for war" in Iraq and said yesterday his aim now was to leave his successor a legacy of international diplomacy for tackling Iran. In an exclusive interview on Air Force One, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the US war in Iraq, and said he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric." Phrases such as "bring them on" or "dead or alive", he said, might have "indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace". Mr Bush said he found it very painful "to put youngsters in harm's way". He added: "I try to meet with as many of the families as I can. And I have an obligation to comfort and console as best as I possibly can. I also have an obligation to make sure those lives were not lost in vain."

The unilateralism that marked the first Bush term in the White House has been replaced by a push for tough multilateralism. He said his focus for his final six months in office was to secure agreement on issues such as establishing a Palestinian state and to "leave behind a series of structures that makes it easier for the next president". Mr Bush is concerned that Democratic nominee Barack Obama might open cracks in the West's front towards Iran's nuclear program. At the EU-US summit in Slovenia yesterday, he pressed for tougher sanctions against Iran unless it agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program verifiably. "Now is the time for there to be strong diplomacy," Mr Bush said. "They can either face isolation, or they can have better relations with all of us. We'll find new sanctions if need be." Mr Bush and his European counterparts announced in a communique they were prepared to go beyond UN sanctions to pressure Iran not to develop nuclear weapons. The US and European countries have worked to increase the pressure on Iran, often facing resistance at the UN from Russia and China.

A hardline Israeli minister, Shaul Mofaz, has suggested that a Western military strike on Iran is "unavoidable". But Mr Bush said: "We ought to work together, keep focused. His comments really should be viewed as the need to continue to keep pressuring Iran."

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