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Palestinian interior minister quits
The Australian
Correspondents in Gaza City - AFP
May 15, 2007

INTERIOR minister Hani al-Qawasmeh resigned from the Palestinian unity Government last night after the deadliest factional feuding in two months. It is the worst crisis for the Fatah-Hamas administration since it took office on March 17.

Mr Qawasmeh, an independent whose appointment was the subject of marathon talks between the coalition partners, said he had not been granted adequate authority and that security was not being dealt with seriously. "I resigned from my position because I am not willing to be a purely decorative interior minister without authority," said Mr Qawasmeh, voicing frustration at difficulties in uniting the myriad security forces.

He submitted his resignation to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya late on Sunday and had been informed through his advisers that it had been accepted last night, he told a news conference. He denied that his decision to quit was because of the violence. "I reached the conclusion the whole (security) situation is not being dealt with seriously ... The combined (security) force that has been agreed are opposing forces that are fighting as we speak," Mr Qawasmeh said.

The Government was created in a landmark power-sharing deal, precisely in order to end infighting that killed about 100 Palestinians in two months.

Mr Qawasmeh - the first minister to quit - announced his departure after six Palestinians were killed in the worst 24 hours of faction fighting in the Gaza Strip since the new Government took office. Two Fatah activists were killed in northern Gaza City yesterday, despite both sides agreeing on a truce after four other Palestinians were killed on Sunday. More than 30 people have also been wounded in the clashes over the past 24 hours.

The Prime Minister convened a weekly cabinet meeting with the agenda dominated by security. Mr Haniya's chief spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, urged everyone to abide by a truce, saying the clashes threatened the very purpose of the Government.

"We call for a truce for everybody and to use the language of dialogue to solve the internal issue," he said. "This is a big problem for the unity Government because the Government came about as the result of national agreement and our purpose is to control the internal situation."

Despite repeated promises from Palestinian leaders, security services have proved incapable of imposing law and order in the increasingly chaotic territory where kidnappings, clan clashes and factional feuding are rife. A spokesman for Fatah, the secular movement headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, blamed the resumption of hostilities on Hamas, accusing its supporters of killing a Fatah bodyguard and sparking retaliatory fire.

Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha insisted the Islamist movement had stuck to the truce and that efforts were under way with Fatah to end the hostilities. "There has been some distress and escalation in Gaza but we are going to continue with Fatah today and we will solve all the problems," he said.

Moin Rabbani, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the new Government was in jeopardy unless it acted more decisively to exert control and overcome factionalism. "This Government has proven unable to overcome endemic factionalism on one of the key issues that it's meant to resolve, namely the security situation," he said. "Basically you're having members of the two main movements in the coalition Government shooting and killing each other. "Unless there is a real effort to resolve these issues, it could be the beginning of the end of this experiment and, should this Government collapse, the situation could get very much worse."


Dangerous new ferocity to Palestinian violence
The Australian
Ibrahim Barzak, AP
May 18, 2007

I have been covering the Gaza Strip as a journalist for more than 10 years, but I've never seen factional fighting so bad. This is my account of a nerve-racking four days in Gaza City.

WITH battles raging outside my building and my windows blown out by bullets, I sit in a dark hallway outside my apartment with my wife and baby. It's dangerous inside and outside.Today I have seen people shot before my eyes, I heard the screams of terrified women and children in a burning building, and I argued with gunmen who wanted to take over my home.

I have seen a lot in my years as a journalist in Gaza, but this is the worst it's been.

Much of the fighting is taking place right here in my neighbourhood. I went outside a few times to report, just around the house. I saw a building on fire after Hamas gunmen attacked, and I heard the screams of people who could not get out because of the gunbattles. I saw Hamas gunmen going in and out of the building, and they were exchanging fire with Fatah forces. There has been another battle going on all day at a nearby 12-storey building.

My building is across from a Palestinian government complex, and both sides are fighting for control of the area. They're taking over rooftops. My apartment is on the top floor of this five-storey building. This morning some Fatah gunmen tried to force their way into my apartment so they could shoot from my windows, overlooking the Palestinian government compound. I had an argument with them, and they left.

There have been clashes between Hamas and Fatah before, but there are dangerous new elements this time. Now they are arresting or even shooting people for the way they look. If you have a beard, you might be arrested by Fatah security for looking Islamic. If you have a chain around your neck or on your arm, Hamas gunmen might shoot you because you look secular.

The random use of weapons and explosives is out of control. People who consider themselves the elite, the politicians, sit with the Egyptian mediators at night and then come out with statements about a truce, and in the morning we see the opposite has occurred. These people are not controlling anything. I saw several people shot right in front of my home today. I'm preparing myself for even worse violence.

Right now there are three couples, neighbours, sitting here on the floor. It's dark because there is no electricity. We are chatting, trying to calm ourselves over the crazy clashes and the sounds of heavy gunfire and explosions which have not let up since 2am in our neighbourhood.

Each of us has a baby, and they're playing. My baby, Hikmet, is nine months old. I'm astonished by his behaviour. In the morning he was scared by the gunfire and he cried and called "mama", which is his first word. Then he fell asleep for three hours. Since he woke up, he's been calm despite all the shooting.


Abbas 'plot' as Israel hits Gaza
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
May 19, 2007

ISRAELI warplanes struck Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip yesterday as security forces loyal to Fatah accused the Islamist group of plotting to assassinate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Tanks and infantry moved several hundred metres across the border in preparation for an escalated confrontation, after the Israeli town of Sderot, adjacent to the strip, was hit by dozens of rockets.

Following a six-month ceasefire, the Israeli air force resumed attacks on Hamas targets yesterday, reportedly killing at least 12 Palestinians and wounding dozens in six air attacks on buildings and vehicles. Israeli officials said most of the dead were Hamas operatives, including a senior commander. Palestinian sources said two of the dead were brothers aged 10 and 12.

Even as the explosions from Israeli air attacks resounded in Gaza, the clatter of small-arms fire could be heard in the streets of the city as Hamas and Fatah continued their battles. Four Hamas and Fatah personnel were killed in street battles yesterday and 15 were wounded, bringing the toll since the beginning of the week to 47 dead and 210 wounded.

Mr Abbas, who was to visit Gaza yesterday from the West Bank in an attempt to end the fighting, called off his trip after a report that Hamas gunmen were planning to attack his convoy. "The President has been advised not to travel to the Gaza Strip because of these warnings," said a Palestinian Authority spokesman.

According to Palestinian sources, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, nominally the Hamas leader in Gaza and the West Bank, has been sidestepped by more militant elements within the organisation who have ignored his repeated calls for a ceasefire. Mr Haniya's political adviser, Ahmed Yusef, said yesterday that the Prime Minister was exploring the idea of inviting an Arab peacekeeping force to separate Hamas and Fatah forces. "We are holding contacts with some Arab countries to discuss an Arab security force that would help impose law and order and reconstruct the Palestinian security forces," he said. Mr Yusef said the security forces commanded by Fatah were responsible for the prevailing anarchy and were collaborating with Israel.

The Israeli airstrikes did little to reduce the number of rockets fired from the Strip yesterday. Some 40 rockets hit Sderot and other locations, including a regional high school where two people were wounded. About 2500 residents of Sderot, close to 10 per cent of the town's population, were evacuated to hotels around the country during the day.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Sderot for several hours and promised angry residents to reduce the rocket attacks by military action. He had opposed evacuation, which he saw as encouraging Hamas to step up rocket attacks, but bowed to pressure from residents. Defence Minister Amir Peretz, himself a resident of Sderot, said the residents deserved a "break" from the constant rocket threat. Three rockets struck the town shortly after Mr Olmert left.

Mr Olmert had initially also opposed a strong response to the rocket attacks, fearful of Israel being drawn into the Gaza quagmire. But public opinion in the country did not permit him to maintain a passive stance, even though Israeli officials believe that Hamas is deliberately provoking Israeli action in order to unite the Palestinian camp against a common enemy and to re-establish Hamas's image by leading the fight against Israel rather than against fellow Palestinians.

The Palestinian fighting has aroused despair and anger in the Arab world. A leading Egyptian columnist, Ahmed Ragab, addressing the Hamas-Fatah conflict, wrote: "May God curse you all." An official of a Gulf state noted that Arab states have been trying to draw Israel into negotiations with the Palestinians based on an Arab League peace plan -- "But how effective can we be when Palestinians are killing each other?"


Olmert nominates Peres for president
The Australian
May 29, 2007

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced that Israel's elder statesman, Shimon Peres, would be his party's candidate for the largely ceremonial post of president.

"I indicated yesterday to Peres that I will put forward his candidacy for the presidency and I will do everything in my power for him to be elected and become the next head of state," Mr Olmert told members of his Kadima party last night. "The personal history of Peres is linked to that of Israel, which he helped shape ... no one is identified with the state as much as him."

The nomination of the 83-year-old to the country's top ceremonial post came after Mr Olmert gave the army approval to broaden its ground operations against Gaza Strip militants who had been barraging Israeli border towns with deadly rocket fire. The military - which has been primarily relying on airstrikes in the past two weeks - would be able to increase the number of forces it sent into Gaza to carry out pinpointed raids, officials said. But no widespread campaign was expected at this time, they added.

The decision to nominate Mr Peres for the presidency comes at a crucial time for Mr Olmert, who faces a leadership tussle overnight that could seal his fate. The election primary of the Labour Party has been described as "the most important moment in the party's history" in 15 years.

The two front-runners for the centre-left party's leadership mantle both have a strong security background - ex-prime minister Ehud Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier and Ami Ayalon is a former chief of the Shin Beth internal security agency. Both have warned they would pull Labour out of Mr Olmert's coalition unless he steps down in the wake of a biting report of his handling of last year's Lebanon war. If Labour and its 19 MPs bolt, it will leave Mr Olmert's Kadima-led coalition short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Mr Peres must officially present his candidacy for the post of president by June 3, but he has not formally announced whether he would run. The Israeli parliament is due to vote for the new head of state on June 13 to replace the disgraced Moshe Katsav, who is facing a looming indictment on charges including rape. So far, only MP Reuven Rivlin from the main right-wing opposition Likud, and Colette Avital, of the Labour party, have announced their intention to run. Mr Peres, a Nobel peace laureate and former Labor leader before his defection to Kadima last year, lost the contest for the presidency in a shock election to Mr Katsav in 2000.


Peres for president
The Australian
May 31, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israel's senior statesman and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres yesterday announced he would run for president next month, his second try at the largely ceremonial post.


4Jun - Iran
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in front of portraits of Iran's late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, right, and his son Ahmad Khomeini during the 18th anniversary of the death of Khomeini at his mausoleum in Tehran. Picture: AFP
Clock ticking to Israel's destruction: Ahmadinejad
The Australian
June 05, 2007

IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has launched a new verbal attack on Israel, saying a "countdown" had begun that will end with Lebanese and Palestinian militants destroying the Jewish state. In a speech to mark the 18th anniversary of the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the president said the war last year between Israel and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah started the process.

?In Lebanon, the corrupt, arrogant powers and the Zionist regime did all they could in an unfair 33-day war. But after 60 years, its (Israel's) greatness fell apart,? Iranian media quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. ?The countdown to this regime's destruction started through the hands of Hezbollah's children,? he said in a speech to visiting foreign guests in Tehran. ?We will witness the destruction of this regime in the near future thanks to the endeavours of all Palestinian and Lebanese fighters,? he added.

Ahmadinejad sparked outrage abroad shortly after coming to power in 2005 for saying Israel should be ?wiped from the map? and then repeatedly predicting the state would disappear. Iranian officials have expressed bewilderment over the uproar caused by the comments, saying he was merely restating one of Khomeini's central beliefs, that the Jewish state was doomed to destruction.

The president went on to court further controversy when he labelled the Holocaust a ?myth? and invited several researchers who have played down the mass slaughter of Jews in World War II to a conference in Tehran.

But in recent months - until now at least - Ahmadinejad has largely avoided rhetorical outbursts against the Jewish state amid public criticism from moderate quarters over his provocative comments.

In a later speech at Khomenei's shrine, Ahmadinejad accused Israel of planning a new war against Lebanon over the past year but warned of the consequences for the Jewish state. ?I warn the Zionist regime and its protectors,? he said. ?If you want to launch a new war against the Lebanese people, this time the people's ocean of anger will become stormy and will carry away your decayed roots from this region.?

Despite having no borders with Israel, Iran has become one of the most vocal backers of militant groups fighting the Jewish state and its leaders pepper their speeches with attacks against the ?Zionist regime?.

Iran openly cheered on Hezbollah in its 2006 war with the Israeli army but vehemently denies that it provides military or financial support to the Shi'ite militant group. It maintains a similar position towards Palestinian groups such as Hamas, denying that its support for them is anything other than moral in nature. But Iran has also helped rebuild bridges in war-ravaged Lebanon and sent millions of dollars in aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government to help it overcome drastic aid cuts from Western countries.

Iran's policy of non-recognition of Israel was a direct result of the Islamic revolution of 1979 that was led by Khomeini. Before then, the US-backed regime of the shah was one of the Jewish state's strongest supporters in the region and there was considerable trade between the two countries.


Israeli tanks roll into Gaza
The Australian
June 05, 2007

GAZA CITY: Israeli tanks and troops last night pushed into the outskirts of the southern Gaza town of Rafah in search of militant infrastructure, for the first time since the renewal of violence last month. Soldiers took over two buildings and military bulldozers ripped open roads during the incursion around Rafah, about 2km inside Palestinian territory. "Armoured and infantry forces are searching the area for terrorist infrastructure. Several Palestinians have been detained for questioning," an army spokesman said.

It was the first time the Israeli army has carried out an extensive ground operation in Gaza since resuming strikes in the densely populated territory on May 16 following a sharp increase in rocket fire towards southern Israel after a six-month truce.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier vowed to continue strikes against Palestinian militants, despite a reduction at the weekend in the number of rockets fired by militants. "In view of what appears to be a drop in Qassam fire, I would like to make it clear that we are not negotiating," Mr Olmert said at the weekly cabinet meeting, referring to the homemade rockets. "We will continue to take action against terrorist elements ... in the Gaza region and the West Bank without letting up. These activities are yielding results and will continue as they contribute to protecting Israeli citizens."

The violence around Gaza, which has also included deadly factional clashes between the rival Fatah and Hamas factions, has sparked international concern and threatened to torpedo efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum denied that two days of relative quiet at the weekend represented a change of strategy. Hamas was demanding a truce to apply to Gaza and the West Bank before it would stop its fire.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, due to meet Mr Olmert on Thursday, has called for a renewal of the truce.


Scars of '67 spark fears of new war
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
June 07, 2007

THE 40th anniversary of the Six Day War was marked yesterday by warnings from Israeli military sources of war preparations in Syria and warnings from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that his people were on the verge of civil war. Both warnings reflected unfinished business from the 1967 war, which left Israel in control of the Golan Heights and the Palestinian issue unresolved.

The Israeli security cabinet was to meet overnight to hear intelligence assessments of Syria's rapid military build-up and the rearming of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is expected to join in any new round of fighting.

The militant tone of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has warned that Syria has "other options" if Israel rejects his bid for peace talks, is taken seriously in Jerusalem in view of the rearming in recent months of the Syrian armed forces, which has reinforced its deployment opposite the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel is also concerned that Mr Assad has entered into a strategic alliance with Iran.

Damascus has recently received from Russia shipments of ground-to-ground missiles, advanced anti-tank rockets and new anti-aircraft systems that have reportedly upgraded its long-neglected armed forces into a modern army. Israeli officials said Syrian troops have been involved in the most intensive training in years.

Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said yesterday that the Israeli army was preparing "for possible deterioration on the northern front". He was speaking at an Israeli training exercise in the Negev desert in which troops attacked a mock-up of what officers called "a Syrian village".

A senior officer said Lieutenant General Ashkenazi apparently viewed a war in the north this northern summer as "highly likely". The head of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, claimed Syria was "more than ever in the past ready for war".

There was speculation in Jerusalem that Syria might attempt a limited attack on the Golan that could serve as a catalyst for negotiations leading to Israel's pullback from the heights. Other senior security sources, however, described the Syrian deployment as defensive and said there was no definitive indication that Syria intended war. They warned that excessively heated rhetoric could itself lead to war.

Mr Abbas, speaking on the occasion of the Six Day War anniversary, said that Palestinian society was "on the verge of civil war", which he said was a greater danger than the Israeli occupation. He called on Hamas and other militant groups to halt the rocketing of Israel from the Gaza Strip, saying it was ineffective and provided Israel with an excuse for launching military strikes.

Mr Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called off a summit planned for early today, dealing a new setback to efforts to halt weeks of fighting between the Israeli army and militants in the Gaza Strip before restarting peacemaking.


Quartet steps up Mid-East peace bid
The Australian
June 08, 2007

JERUSALEM: The "Quartet" of international Mid-East mediators has stepped into the void, signalling it will invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for talks in Cairo, after a summit was called off at the last minute. Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas were to meet yesterday in the West Bank town of Jericho, but Palestinians cancelled the summit, charging that Israel was rejecting all their proposals.

Shortly after that announcement, Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr said the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - was inviting the two leaders to Egypt for talks on June 25. Representatives of the 22-member Arab League, which is pushing a plan for comprehensive peace with Israel, also would attend, Mr Abu Amr said. He said EU diplomats were preparing the gathering. Mr Abu Amr said the Cairo talks would "make the Quartet see by itself who is responsible for hindering any of the issues being discussed".

US and Egyptian officials confirmed the planned gathering in Cairo. Mr Olmert's office said it had yet to receive a formal invitation. In a newspaper article published on Wednesday, Mr Olmert said he was ready to discuss the Arab League peace plan, but only if the Arabs were willing to be flexible.

The peace plan, first proposed in 2002 and recently revived, offers a comprehensive peace deal with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel has welcomed the plan, but said some aspects, such as an apparent call for resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel, were unacceptable. "I am ready to discuss the Arab peace initiative in an open and sincere manner," Mr Olmert wrote in British newspaper The Guardian. "But the talks must be a discussion, not an ultimatum."

The article coincided with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim all three areas for an independent state. A five-month truce collapsed last month when Hamas militants began firing barrages of crude rockets into southern Israel. More than 60 Palestinians - most of them militants - and two Israeli civilians have been killed.

The renewed violence had been expected to top the agenda of Mr Olmert's meeting with Mr Abbas. Mr Abbas has proposed a truce that would commit Gaza militants to halt rocket fire for a month, before expanding the ceasefire to the West Bank.

Hamas, which shares power with Mr Abbas's Fatah and other militant groups, has said a truce is out of the question as long as Israel keeps up its attacks and refuses to include the West Bank. Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas government spokesman, said Israel would bear responsibility for refusing the truce offer. "They will not achieve any victory," he said. "They will not stop the resistance."

Palestinian officials said another key sticking point in the summit's preparations was Israel's refusal to release hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money it collected on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel froze the payments last year after Hamas was elected to power, demanding the militant group accept international calls to renounce violence and recognise the Jewish state. Hamas rejects the conditions.


Iran feels heat on three fronts
The Australian
June 12, 2007

TEL AVIV: International pressure on Iran was stepped up several notches yesterday as Israel launched a spy satellite aimed at keeping track of the rogue nation and a US senator called for a military strike against Tehran in retaliation for its alleged backing of Iraqi insurgents.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was also due to meet last night for talks that could bring Iran one step closer to a third round of sanctions against its nuclear program. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei will deliver a report to the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog confirming that Iran is expanding uranium enrichment work, the process that makes fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but that can also produce atom bomb material.

Following last week's G8 summit, at which Western powers stepped up their rhetoric against Iran, Israel's Defence Ministry announced yesterday that it had launched its Ofek-7 satellite, which has a resolution high enough to detect objects of 70cm in length on the ground. The chief of the Defence Ministry's space program, Haim Eshed, suggested the satellite could be used to counter Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. When asked if the Ofek-7 could be used to strike Iran, Mr Eshed said: "Intelligence is intelligence and you can do with the intelligence what the leaders decide."

The crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions is escalating. Iran warned on Sunday that it would use its missiles to strike US military bases in neighbouring Gulf states if they were used as staging posts to attack the Islamic republic over its nuclear program. A senior official close to the IAEA said Iran had more than 1300 centrifuges enriching uranium at an underground facility in Natanz as of May 13 and could reach its goal of industrial-scale production, with 3000 centrifuges running, by the end of June. That number could make enough enriched uranium for a bomb in a little less than a year. Washington has always said it wants to resolve the crisis through diplomacy but has never ruled out using military action.

Adding to the tensions between the two nations is US military intelligence that the Iranians are training Iraqi Shia extremists in Iran. Iran has denied the allegations. Last month, the US and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq held landmark talks on security in Iraq, and Iran indicated yesterday that it was prepared to "view positively" the prospect of further talks with the US. But US independent senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000, said Washington had to "be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq".

US and Israeli air forces on Sunday began week-long joint exercises in southern Israel, simulating bombing targets on the ground.


Peres to become Israeli president
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
June 14, 2007

ISRAEL'S elder statesman Shimon Peres was virtually assured of being elected the nation's president last night after the two other contenders for the post pulled out of the race. Reuven Rivlin of the right-wing Likud and Labour's Colette Avital withdrew from the contest after Mr Peres fell three votes short of the 61 needed in the 120-member Knesset. Mr Rivlin (37 votes) and Ms Avital (21 votes) then declared their support for the veteran politician, who secured 58 votes in the first round. Parliament was to hold a second round on the largely ceremonial post last night.

The expected victory of the 83-year-old former prime minister came only hours after the Labour Party he once led returned another former prime minister, Ehud Barak, as its leader. Mr Barak won the primary race for the Labour leadership, bringing back to the political stage an ex-general and strategic thinker many Israelis have been pining for since Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke 18 months ago. Mr Barak defeated a former navy chief, Ami Ayalon, by 53 to 47 per cent, according to still-incomplete figures.

Mr Barak, 65, is expected to be named defence minister in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition Government, succeeding Amir Peretz, who was defeated as Labour leader in an earlier primary round.

His victory represents a remarkable comeback for a man who absented himself from public affairs after being roundly defeated six years ago by Mr Sharon in his bid for re-election as prime minister. When prime minister, Mr Barak was accused of arrogance in ignoring the opinion of others while making far-reaching decisions, including an attempt in 2000 to reach a comprehensive peace settlement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. This effort collapsed at Camp David talks presided over by US president Bill Clinton.

Mr Barak's unpopularity grew when he devoted the subsequent years to becoming a millionaire as a business consultant overseas instead of remaining to lead his party in opposition. His victory yesterday, despite these negatives, reflects a widespread longing in the Israeli electorate for a decisive leader capable of coping with Israel's manifold challenges, which could include another war in the near future.

Mr Olmert has been criticised for his conduct of last year's war in Lebanon and for his lack of political initiatives regarding the Arab world.

Mr Barak entered the Labour leadership tussle asking voters to "think hard about who you want in times of war" - a reference to his background as army chief of staff and as Israel's most decorated soldier. He also argued he was better suited than Mr Ayalon, a neophyte politician, to lead Labour to victory against Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, at present the frontrunner in opinion polls, in the next general elections.

Mr Barak has called for Mr Olmert's resignation because of his flawed leadership in last year's war, but has also made clear his desire to serve as defence minister until Mr Olmert does step down. Serving in that key position will allow Mr Barak to build his public image after his long absence and prepare for another bid at prime minister.

Mr Olmert is given little chance of surviving as prime minister after the final report of the Winograd Commission investigating the war in Lebanon is handed down in two months.


Hamas PM defies Fatah President
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
June 16, 2007

AFTER conquering Fatah in battle, Hamas has vowed to defy its rival politically, with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniya refusing to recognise President Mahmoud Abbas's decree to sack him and dissolve his Government.

Calm returned to the streets of Gaza yesterday after four violent days that rewrote the political landscape in the Palestinian territories. Gaza is now completely under the control of Hamas forces after the Islamic group's fighters captured all key civilian and security installations by Thursday night.

The fallout from the ousting of Fatah was being assessed across the Middle East last night, with some commentators in Israel and the Arab world foreshadowing Gaza becoming a self-governing entity. The implications for the stalled peace process are not yet clear. However, key backer the US was quick to support Mr Abbas's decision to walk away from the unity Government.

Israel was considering releasing Customs duties to the Palestinian Authority that it had withheld for more than a year because Hamas held the reins of power in the territories. The Jewish state and the US have pledged to act quickly to consolidate Mr Abbas's weakened standing and to prevent the fighting from spreading to the West Bank.

A state of emergency is expected to remain in force indefinitely across the West Bank, where some Hamas members have been detained by Palestinian security officers. The West Bank remains a Fatah stronghold. Hamas is comparatively weak outside of Gaza.

Mr Haniya yesterday insisted it was business as usual in Gaza, claiming Mr Abbas had acted hastily in sacking him. "The Hamas presence in the Government is the decision of the Palestinian people," he said. "Unilateral decisions, made without co-operation or co-ordination, do not suit the current situation. Therefore, the present Government will continue operating and will not give up its position and responsibility towards the Palestinian people." Mr Haniya said he would lead a process of appeasement among nervous Arab neighbours and other Palestinian factions.

But of more pressing concern is getting basic infrastructure up and running again in Gaza, where hospitals have been overrun and electricity has been cut. Essential supplies are running low for many of Gaza's 1.2 million residents. Israel says it will consider providing humanitarian relief.

Hamas has been accused of summarily executing some Fatah members during the four days of battle. Hamas's armed wing admitted it had "executed" Samih al-Madhoun of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an ally of Abbas security aide Mohammad Dahlan. His body was dragged through a refugee camp. Hamas fighters were also condemned for executing Fatah-linked security officers when they overran the last Abbas-linked stronghold. Hamas leaders have denied the claim.

Hamas yesterday denied it would run Gaza under Islamic law, after key military wing leaders took to the airwaves to announce what amounted to an Islamic revolution.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was watching the situation in Gaza with concern. He said he would not cancel a scheduled trip to Washington on the weekend where he is expected to urge President George W.Bush and the UN to deploy an intervention force to monitor Gaza's porous border with Egypt.

Israel controls the freight crossing into Gaza and the border crossing point to its territory. It also plays a close monitoring role at the Rafah crossing in the south of the Strip with Egypt. All crossings have been closed for much of the past three weeks, but Israeli officials said they would probably open the goods crossing and allow lorries to commute between the West Bank and Gaza to help get aid moving.


Israel sees chance for a peace deal
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
June 19, 2007

ISRAEL is intensifying efforts to capitalise on the sacking of Hamas, pledging to engage the new Palestinian regime on touchstone issues that could clear the way for a permanent peace deal. In his first remarks after landing in the US for a round of meetings in Washington, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to move quickly to normalise ties with Fatah after a steady deterioration over the past seven years.

The European Union said last night it would resume direct aid to the new Palestinian Government of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and urged Israel to restore the transfer of tax revenue to his West Bank administration. The aid was frozen more than a year ago after Hamas came to power. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the 27-nation bloc would bypass the Hamas leadership to deliver aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush will add Washington's weight to the new peace push, which gained new impetus after Gaza fell to Hamas last week.

The surprising and rapid moves towards normalisation are driven as much by an attempt to marginalise Hamas as they are by attempts to consolidate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's shaky leadership. Israeli officials are saying they want to send a message to all Palestinians, but particularly to Gaza's 1.4 million residents, that rewards await if they are prepared to renounce violence and recognise the Jewish state.

Ahead of a series of speeches in New York and Washington, Mr Olmert said: "We will be ready to discuss with Abbas the political horizon for what will eventually become the basis for a permanent agreement between us and the Palestinians." He pledged to renew regular contacts with Mr Abbas "to resolve the outstanding daily issues and move forward to finding ways to solve grander issues". "We will fight the terrorists and make peace with the others. That is my new agenda," he said.

In a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr Olmert said: "We can expect a dramatic change in access and movement of Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel will be a serious partner if there will be a serious partner in the West Bank. Israel will give tax money to a serious and responsible government."

An immediate economic fillip of up to $US700 million ($830million) in withheld tax revenues is set to be passed on to the Palestinian Authority as early as tomorrow, with US backing.

Israel has pledged not to turn its back on the humanitarian suffering of the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is facing a continued aid boycott. Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann said the Government had to do more to help Palestinians trying to flee Gaza for the West Bank, fearing they would be persecuted, or killed, for links to the vanquished Fatah movement. To get to the West Bank, the Gazans must cross through Israel, where the one passenger border crossing has remained sealed since Thursday. Only a small number of aid officials and key Fatah personnel have so far been allowed to enter Israel. A spokesman for the new Government warned that only two weeks of many essential foods and supplies sourced from Israel remained in Gaza.

Inside the West Bank, where the newly sworn-in Government is led by Western-friendly Mr Fayyad, Israel has vowed to lift travel restrictions that have led to lengthy delays for Palestinian workers at Israeli army checkpoints. The Israeli company that provides fuel to the Gaza Strip also resumed normal deliveries to the territory yesterday.

The international community, including some Arab states, has rushed to back the new regime, which Hamas has defiantly labelled as illegitimate. The deposed Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, has set up an autonomous administration in Gaza, but has also made overtures to Mr Abbas, who dissolved the three-month-old coalition Unity Government on Saturday. Mr Abbas has refused to meet with Hamas officials since the coup of last week, but has warned security forces not to launch reprisal attacks on Hamas institutions or offices in the West Bank.

Mr Fayyad told the BBC yesterday his Government faced a "credibility problem" and said its main priority was restoring law and order. "I think we do have a serious credibility problem and that ... emanates from the fact that there is total breakdown here ... particularly in the security sphere," Mr Fayyad said. He said peace talks would only work if everyone understood "there's one legitimate Palestinian national authority". "Unless that's understood fully, and that may require some kind of mind shift ... I'm afraid we can go from one round of dialogue to another round of dialogue endlessly," he said. "I'm not interested in that."


Leaders' summit to fast-track Middle East accord
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent in Gaza
June 22, 2007

THE leaders of Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority will meet next week for a high-powered summit aimed at promptly restarting a regional peace push. As the four leaders made preparations for the summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh on Monday, Syria also flagged its readiness to enter into talks, announcing it was now prepared to negotiate with Israel without preconditions. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told a European diplomat: "Syria is more than ready to renew peace talks with Israel, without preconditions by either side," the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported.

The sudden and significant events followed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's blistering attack on Hamas yesterday, a week after the Islamic group conquered the Gaza Strip. Mr Abbas called the group he shared government with until last Friday "murderous terrorists" and claimed Hamas had plotted to blow him up during a recent trip to Gaza. He accused Hamas of usurping the "'national project" with a "project of darkness" and vowed not to deal with them again. "There is no dialogue with those murderous terrorists," Mr Abbas said. "Our main goal is to prevent sedition from spreading to the West Bank ... to prevent violations by any party, and to deal (with everyone) equally, based on the law."

"The coup seekers, through their madness, have given a golden opportunity to those who want to separate Gaza from the West Bank," he said, after claiming to be in possession of a video, which shows Hamas militants digging a tunnel under a road, on which he was due to pass. Mr Abbas claimed the tunnel was to be packed with 250kg of explosives. "I have sent these tapes to all the Arab countries, to show how much this dark movement is acting," he said.

Mr Abbas has sacked Hamas from the Palestinian Authority and declared its fledgling regime in Gaza illegitimate. He has been eager to seize the moment after last week's unexpected events prompted the US and Europe to immediately resume aid links to the Palestinians, and Israel to move towards formal recognition of the PA. He has demanded that the talks in Sharm el-Sheikh lead to quick improvements in the quality of life for West Bank Palestinians, with Israeli checkpoints lifted and frozen funds released so they can be used to pay salaries.

The summit was called by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, one of the two moderate leaders, along with Jordan's King Abdullah, whose countries have peace treaties with Israel. Both Jordan and Egypt are concerned about the potential rise of Islamic radicalism in the western Middle East and have long been wary of Hamas because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Israel said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would attend the summit. The Jewish state has said it was willing to consolidate on diplomatic ties, while building trust in security and economic issues.

Senior Palestinian Authority figure Saad Erekat said only concrete results from the summit could succeed in creating a buffer against Hamas in Gaza. "The most important thing to realise is that time is of the essence," Mr Erekat said. "We need to deliver the end of occupation, a Palestinian state. If we don't have hope, Hamas will export despair to the people."

Hamas reacted angrily to Mr Abbas's attack, describing it as distortions and lies and claiming to have never plotted to kill the President. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: "What he said was disgusting and not appropriate for the Palestinian President. The President has harmed himself with his words."


Egypt tears strips off Tehran for Gaza rout

CAIRO: Egypt has reinforced its border with the Gaza Strip and accused Iran of threatening its security after Islamist militants of Hamas violently seized control of the territory. Fearing an influx of thousands of refugees from the tiny but densely populated coastal strip, dozens of extra police had reinforced the 750 paramilitary troops guarding the border fence, officials said.

Egypt's Foreign Minister accused Iran of having encouraged Hamas to seize Gaza in factional fighting with the secular Fatah movement in which more than 110 people were killed last week. "Iran's policies encouraged Hamas to do what it has done in Gaza and this represents a threat for Egypt's national security because Gaza is a stone's throw from Egypt," Ahmed Abul Gheit said in comments reported by the Al-Masri Al-Yom newspaper yesterday. "The Iranian influence in Iraq also represents a threat for Egyptian and Arab national security."

Egypt condemned the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, which drove out security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and announced its support for Mr Abbas's new Western-backed emergency Government in the West Bank. Cairo has also decided to transfer its diplomatic representation with the Palestinian Authority from Gaza City to the West Bank political capital of Ramallah, where Mr Abbas's new Government is based.

Hamas's routing of Abbas loyalists in Gaza has left the Islamists in complete control of the territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, and sparked an exodus of about 400 asylum-seekers to Egypt. Amid fears of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza after Israel closed the borders to normal imports, an official said Egypt would allow essential supplies across its border with the territory if necessary. Since Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2005, Egyptian border guards have been responsible for securing the border.


Hamas rejects bomb plot charges
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent in Gaza
June 23, 2007

HAMAS has angrily denied Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's allegation that its militants plotted to kill him with a giant bomb and claimed the speech he gave this week was "emotional and full of lies". In a provocative step, the militant group's military wing staged a press conference at the front door of Mr Abbas's Gaza home, before leading journalists through the house in a bid to prove it had not been damaged, as exiled Fatah officials had claimed.

A spokesman for the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, Abu Ubaidah, said documents recovered from the Fatah-run spy headquarters and police base proved that the Palestinian Authority in Gaza was providing Israel with precise details on Hamas positions and had deployed teams to tail key militant cells. Displaying documents under the banner of the intelligence service, he said: "This is part of the proof that Preventative Security was providing security information to the Israeli enemy."

Mr Abbas's speech on Wednesday, in which he described Hamas as "murderous terrorists" and vowed not to deal with them again, has left Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip outraged and calling the Fatah leadership collaborators. A post on the Hamas website replicated the US Army's deck of cards by labelling four Fatah leaders as wanted criminals and superimposing their faces on playing cards. Among them was strongman and Abbas confidant Mahmoud Dahlan, whose house in Gaza was ransacked. Death threats were spray-painted on the perimeter walls.

Hamas denied another claim on seized documents -- and used as evidence against them by Israel -- that 25 per cent of its military wing received training in Iran.

Meanwhile, the embattled Islamic group received some support at the UN Security Council yesterday, with four nations defying a UN-sponsored bid to support the regime of Mr Abbas and the newly appointed Prime Minister, Salaam Fayyad. Security Council member states South Africa, Indonesia, Russia and Qatar opposed the bid because it meant condemning Hamas.

Two large convoys carrying food aid rolled into Gaza yesterday, one from Jordan and the other from Egypt. The Jordanian trucks passed through Israel and entered a small crossing in eastern Gaza that is not normally used for freight deliveries. Gaza's three main crossings, the Rafah border to Egypt, Erez checkpoint to Israel and the Karni goods crossing remain closed, with Israel refusing to reopen them because it will not deal with Hamas members.

Hamas is yet to establish a functional civil administration in Gaza after its coup last week led to the collapse of all Fatah-linked security elements and the coalition Unity Government. Security has returned to formerly lawless streets but the new regime has been isolated by its former partners, which means the fate of Gaza's 1.4 million residents is again uncertain.

The US and Israel have pledged not to ignore Gaza's humanitarian needs, but the Palestinian Authority has not committed itself to distribute the aid money it is receiving to employees of the new Gaza regime.


Israel frees tax funds for Abbas
The Australian
AFP, Reuters, Correspondents in Jerusalem
June 25, 2007

ISRAEL agreed last night to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's emergency government, a measure designed to undercut Hamas Islamists controlling the Gaza Strip. The money, Palestinian tax revenues withheld by Israel since Hamas came to power in an election last year, is part of an initial package to bolster Mr Abbas that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is likely to announce at a summit in Egypt tonight.

Israel wants to isolate Hamas economically, diplomatically and militarily in Gaza, which the Islamist group seized control of more than a week ago, while allowing funds to flow to Mr Abbas's Fatah administration in the West Bank. The boost to Mr Abbas before tonight's summit at the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh came as Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfiq al-Tirawi said Iran had played a "big role" in Hamas's seizure of Gaza.

The withholding of the tax receipts over the past 15 months - now totalling $US700 million ($827million) - sparked a financial crisis for the Palestinian Authority, leaving it largely unable to pay its staff or contractors. "We have taken a decision in principle to release the money," Mr Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin said. "We will discuss with the Palestinian President tomorrow, and with the Palestinian Government in the summit's aftermath, how we release the funds."

Mr Abbas and the other Arab participants in tonight's summit, Egypt and Jordan, have been pressing for Israel to be generous in its support for the Palestinian leadership. An Israeli government official said Mr Olmert's cabinet had approved the transfer of about $US350 million, short of the $US700 million. Israel says courts have frozen some of the funds to cover Palestinian debts. The money will be given to the emergency administration in stages once a mechanism is in place to ensure it does not reach Hamas. "The Israelis should release all our money," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide. "These are Palestinian, not Israeli, funds."

Mr Abbas has previously accused "foreign elements from the region" of orchestrating Hamas's bloody takeover, but Major General Tirawi's claim last night was the first time a senior official explicitly blamed Iran. "According to our information, Iran has played a big role in what happened in Gaza. Dozens of members of Hamas have been trained in Iran, and Hamas smuggled in weapons through tunnels not to fight Israel but against the Palestinian Authority," he said. "The whole plan has been carried out in co-ordination with Iran, and Iran has been informed of every step."

Hamas swiftly dismissed Major General Tirawi's accusation as "lies" and accused the Ramallah-based Fatah leadership of obstructing the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who has been held hostage in Gaza by the Army of Islam for 105 days. "There have been contacts through special channels from Ramallah with the kidnappers that we have been able to intercept to prevent the release," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. Hamas raised hopes after its defeat of Fatah in Gaza on June 15 that Johnston, who spent his 45th birthday in captivity, might be released quickly.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit last week accused Iran of encouraging Hamas to Gaza. Iran hit back against the comments yesterday, insisting that it, unlike Egypt's Western allies and Israel, had been careful not to fan the factional conflict. Iran is one of the most vocal backers of Hamas and pledged millions of dollars last year to help its government through a funding drought caused by Western aid cuts. Tehran has insisted its support for Palestinian militant groups is moral in nature and does not extend to arming or training fighters.


Blair's Mideast posting a done deal
The Australian
The Times, AFP
June 27, 2007

TONY Blair's nomination for the post of international envoy in the Middle East was likely to be confirmed today despite grumbles from Europe over the British leader's role in the Iraq war and last-minute wrangles over his job description. Mr Blair would work from an office in Jerusalem and possibly another in the West Bank.

The Financial Times reported yesterday that the so-called Quartet - America, Europe, Russia and the UN - that oversee the Middle East peace process would agree on Mr Blair as their new envoy during a meeting in Jerusalem.

Mr Blair said yesterday he was ready to help bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but would not confirm or deny the report when asked about it at a news conference at his Downing Street residence with visiting California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I think that anybody who cares about greater peace and stability in the world knows that a lasting and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential," he said.

Mr Blair's nomination has been pushed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and - to a lesser extent - the White House, in behind-the-scenes negotiations over recent months. The prospects of Mr Blair being confirmed in a new post before he leaves Downing Street tonight have hardened in recent days. But critics say the haste with which Mr Blair scripted his own sequel as the world's envoy to the Middle East gave the impression of self-absorption.

The rush by his team to try to announce some kind of role by today, the last day of his premiership, seemed designed to ease the sting of surrendering high office more than to solve the problems of the Middle East, reports said. Yesterday his farewell continued with his last Commons statement, a report on the EU Brussels summit, and his final appearance as Prime Minister before the parliamentary Labour Party.

Last week British diplomats expressed irritation over premature leaks from the State Department about the likelihood of Mr Blair taking up the envoy job. A close ally also claimed that he was reluctant to do it unless there was a real prospect of a "political process" in talks that would give him the opportunity to use his "mediation skills set".

The Quartet's previous envoy, Australian James Wolfensohn, a former World Bank head, focused on economic issues in Gaza and resigned in frustration last year. Mr Blair's role will be "political", rather than economic. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has emphasised that Mr Blair's "job description" would be an expansion of the "very discrete, circumscribed way" in which Mr Wolfensohn had been forced to operate. He said that the envoy's role "would also be important to help the Palestinians build up political institutions".

Mr Blair is understood to be keen to take on the role this year because he views finding a solution to the Middle East crisis as central to tackling global extremism. He may feel that the paralysis in the peace process plays to his strengths. The success of talks in Northern Ireland, arguably his greatest achievement, sprang from his skills as a broker. He has always been convinced, officials say, that if you lean over the table, in shirt sleeves, looking the other side in the eyes, you can extract a deal.

The role would also offer him a second chance with many Muslims in the region who loathe him for being ally-in-chief to US President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq. Speculation that Jonathan Powell, Downing Street's chief of staff, could accompany him in the new position was yesterday discounted by sources in No10.

Although Russian and EU leaders are unlikely to block Mr Blair's appointment, they view him as a tainted figure for having led Britain into the Iraq war, as well as failing to call for a ceasefire in Israel's conflict in Lebanon last year. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, is said to be particularly sceptical about Mr Blair's appointment, while former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is known to have favoured Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, for the job. Berlin says it was not informed about the sensitive appointment, even though Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier represents the EU in the Quartet.


Mixed welcome for new envoy
The Australian
The Times, AFP
June 28, 2007

JERUSALEM: The main international players in the Middle East gave a mixed response yesterday to the prospects of Tony Blair becoming the region's peace envoy. Israeli officials said that Mr Blair would be welcome in the post, vacated more than a year ago by James Wolfensohn, the Australian former World Bank head who quit in frustration at a lack of progress.

Palestinian officials said any serious attempt to inject new life into the stalled peace process would be welcome, but worried about Mr Blair's close ties to Washington and Israel. Some Palestinians said they would prefer former French president Jacques Chirac or Bill Clinton for the post, while admitting that Mr Blair, in his favour, does have an intimate knowledge of the region's problems.

Envoys from the so-called Quartet - the US, UN, European Union and Russia - met in Jerusalem to discuss ways of helping Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian President, shore up his secular Government in the West Bank, and to consider the appointment of Mr Blair. Mr Blair has often inspired anger in the Arab world for his role in the Iraq war and for backing Israel's attack on Lebanon last year.

Hamas, the Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip earlier this month, reacted with scorn to reports of his new role, accusing the Quartet of being pro-Israel and Mr Blair of being even more so. "When it comes to the Quartet, whoever heads it will be taking their orders from the United States," said spokesman Salah al-Badawil.

Not all Arab responses were so negative, however. In Jordan, King Abdullah welcomed the news, and had said in a phone conversation with Mr Blair three days ago that he would support his mission, officials said. "If the mandate will be real peacemaking, real negotiations leading to a two-state solution, and real international involvement in pushing the peace envelope, then something positive will come out of his appointment," a Jordanian cabinet minister said. "But if his mandate is like Wolfensohn's, who focused more on economic issues in Gaza and on building up the institutions of a Palestinian state, then he'd better keep his jacket and coat hanging close to the door. If the focus is just on building institutions, then this is reversible in the absence of real and meaningful negotiations leading to a two-state solution," he said.

Mr Blair was keen to stress his commitment to seeking a solution to the crisis yesterday as he prepared to leave office. "I think that anybody who cares about greater peace and stability in the world knows that a lasting and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential," he said. "And I will do whatever I can to help such a resolution come about."


Israeli President 'a rapist and a pervert' - extract
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
June 30, 2007

A FORMER secretary to outgoing Israeli President Moshe Katsav labelled him yesterday "a pervert and serial sex offender" who raped her in the presidential office several times. The woman, identified only as A., the initial of her first name, was speaking at an emotional press conference after Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz announced that rape charges in this and other cases against Katsav had been dropped in a plea bargain agreement.

Katsav submitted his resignation last night as part of the plea bargain. His successor will be former prime minister Shimon Peres, 84, one of the best-known Israelis abroad and one of the most respected at home. Mr Peres was defeated in the Knesset vote for president seven years ago by Katsav, who had won support through back-room dealings.

A. said Katsav had become increasingly bold with her as he promoted her into closer physical proximity to his office until he finally made her "a sex slave". ..... A., a single woman aged about 30, said she had neither the physical nor mental ability to stop him. She said the lesson to be drawn from from the leniency shown Katsav was: "Go to a psychologist but don't go to the police. Especially if the attacker is a public figure." Her outrage was shared by almost every political and legal figure who spoke out yesterday against the plea bargain. Knesset members called for his retirement benefits of about $US200,000 ($235,000) a year to be withheld.

Katsav will plead guilty to one felony count of "forcible indecent assault", sexual harassment and harassing a witness. None of these charges are linked to the allegations of A., whose testimony prosecutors termed "problematic". He will receive a suspended sentence under the agreement and pay modest compensation. Mr Mazuz said it would have been difficult to prove many of the charges. He also said the "national interest" would have been ill served by having an ex-president put on trial for rape.


Hamas misses out on wages of peace with West
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
July 06, 2007

PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas's emergency Government has paid Palestinian Authority workers - excluding 23,000 who report to Hamas - their first full wages in 17 months, amid warnings that the Gaza economy has been destroyed. The Government made the payments yesterday following the decision by Israel, the US and other Western powers to end an economic embargo of the Palestinian Authority after Hamas seized Gaza last month and Mr Abbas sacked the government led by the Islamist group.

Dozens of workers formed long lines in front of banks in the Hamas-controlled strip to withdraw money the Government had deposited in their accounts. In the occupied West Bank, where Mr Abbas's Fatah faction is dominant and the standard of living is higher, lines at the banks were thinner.

The release of the wages showed that despite riding high after rescuing kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston in Gaza, Hamas now has to contend with serious economic spokes in its wheels placed by Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The Gaza economy has been wrecked and the strip's 1.4 million residents are close to being charity cases because Israel has shut down the main crossing point into the strip, according to Gisha, an Israeli human rights organisation.

Israel is permitting the transfer of humanitarian goods through small crossing points, a Gisha report said, but closing the large Karni crossing has severed Gaza's primary artery for importing and exporting commercial items. Seventy-five per cent of Gaza's factories and workshops have been shut down because of the closure, and the rest will close when their stocks of raw materials are exhausted. Eighty-five per cent of Gaza's population is already dependent on food aid from international organisations.

Gisha, which is made up of Israeli Jews and Arabs, said that Israel's new policy was aimed at bringing Hamas to its knees. That objective is shared by the PA, which paid 140,000 civil servants but excluded 23,000 workers hired by Hamas. A Hamas official called the salary exclusion "shameful" and asked PA officials to reconsider.

The payment of salaries was made possible by Israel's transfer of nearly $US120 million ($140million) to the PA this week in frozen Palestinian tax and customs revenues. Israel has promised to transfer the remaining $US500 million of frozen revenues in instalments. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday that the freeing of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held by Hamas, was only "a matter of days" away. Hamas officials have urged Israel to hasten negotiations for the exchange of Corporal Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.


Abbas calls for foreign force in the Gaza Strip
The Australian
July 11, 2007

RAMALLAH: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last night called for an international force in the Gaza Strip, which is now controlled by the rival Hamas movement. "We have insisted on the necessity of deploying an international force in the Gaza Strip to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid and to allow citizens to enter and leave freely," Mr Abbas said at a joint news conference in Ramallah after talks with visiting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

The call threatened to widen the gulf between Mr Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas as the latter has warned that it would not accept any foreign troops in Gaza and would treat them as an occupying power. Militants from Islamist Hamas overran forces loyal to the moderate Mr Abbas in Gaza on June 15, effectively splitting the Palestinians into two entities, the President controlling the occupied West Bank and Hamas running Gaza.

Following the Gaza takeover by a group whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel closed off the overcrowded territory, although it has allowed limited humanitarian aid to enter. The closure has sparked warnings of a humanitarian crisis in the territory, one of the most densely populated places on earth, where more than 80 per cent of the 1.5 million residents depend on aid.

Mr Abbas's call came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not believe it possible for Hamas and Fatah to reconcile. Mr Olmert told Spain's leading newspaper, El Pais, in an interview published yesterday that Hamas was a "destructive, extremist force" with the sole aim of violent confrontation with Israel. Mr Olmert said Mr Abbas told him that he would never make peace with the militant group and would always combat it. "Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas's nickname) himself has been a witness of how they were preparing to kill Palestinians with such brutality that I've never seen in my life," the Prime Minister said.


Peres sworn in as president
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
July 17, 2007

IN a final riff on a dynamic, six-decade-long political career, Shimon Peres was sworn in yesterday as president of Israel, one month short of his 84th birthday. Israelis, still reeling from the sexual scandals surrounding outgoing president Moshe Katsav, warmly welcomed his accession to office in the expectation that he would restore dignity to the presidency and elevate Israel's status abroad. He has long been Israel's most respected political figure, even in the Arab world.

An imaginative policy initiator during his public life, Mr Peres was widely expected to defy presidential tradition by turning the symbolic and politically neutral office into a platform for pursuing the major goals he pursued as a politician: peace with the Arabs and technological innovation to keep Israel strong enough to make peace. This anticipated activism was already hinted at in an interview he gave to Associated Press on the eve of his inauguration to a seven-year term. "We have to get rid of the territories," he said, a reference to the West Bank. "(Holding the Palestinian areas) is against our moral assumptions." This drew immediate fire from right-wing politicians, who said that he was violating the requirement that a president represent Israelis of all viewpoints by remaining above politics.

For most Israelis, Mr Peres is a reassuring link to the country's founding fathers - a group attributed with honesty, wisdom and resoluteness, in contrast to the image of most contemporary politicians. Paradoxically, despite his age, he is also regarded as a symbol of hope for the future because of his unceasing optimism and his ability to churn out creative proposals for almost any problem. He is expected to travel abroad frequently to meet world leaders, Arab leaders and the Jewish diaspora.

Born in Poland, Mr Peres came to the country as a child and lived for several years on a communal kibbutz. During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, he served as a close aide to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, becoming deputy minister of defence at 29. It was Mr Peres who initiated contacts with France that led to Israel's secret acquisition of a nuclear reactor in the 1950s, paving the way for a nuclear arms program. He served two truncated terms as prime minister and held numerous other ministerial positions.

As foreign minister, he pushed through the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993 that envisioned a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for that effort, which in the end collapsed. Nevertheless, he promoted a vision of a "New Middle East" that has echoes in ties that Israel enjoys with a number of Arab countries. Asked this week by reporters whether he could still make a contribution despite his age, he said: "If you're healthy and clear-minded, what's wrong? As I promised my opponents and my friends, the day will come when I will not forget to pass away. I'm in no hurry."


Bush vow to back Blair
The Australian
Tom Baldwin and James Hider, The Times
July 18, 2007

US President George W. Bush launched a fresh effort to kick-start the Middle East peace process yesterday by backing his old ally, former British prime minister Tony Blair, with promises of American diplomatic and financial support. Mr Bush pledged an extra $US80million ($91.6million) in aid to the Palestinian Government of President Mahmoud Abbas, and announced plans for an international peace conference involving Israel and its Arab neighbours this northern autumn.

His intervention came as Mr Blair prepared to begin his new job tomorrow, when he will meet the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the US, European Union, UN and Russia - who appointed him as their special envoy to the region. Before that meeting in Lisbon, Mr Blair is expected to embark on a whistle-stop tour of European capitals, including Brussels, Rome and Madrid, to foster support for the initiative.

He is known to have spoken to Mr Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent days amid rising optimism about securing US backing for the peace process that he had long sought - but never achieved - while still in Downing Street. Dr Rice yesterday cancelled a trip to Africa to concentrate on the Middle East and this week's meeting in Portugal. She will travel to the region next month with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Mr Bush, in a speech at the White House, said Dr Rice would lead the autumn conference, which will be one of the few times in recent years that Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with neighbouring countries, have met to work out their differences.

The new strategy appears to be built around isolating Hamas, which the West regards as a terrorist organisation, after what Mr Bush described yesterday as its "lawless and violent takeover" of the Gaza Strip. Mr Abbas's moderate Fatah has fled to the West Bank, where it has been given access to US and European aid frozen since Hamas won parliamentary elections last year.

Mr Bush said the events in Gaza provided a "moment of clarity for all Palestinians". On one side, he suggested, were the nightmarish scenes of "murderers in black masks, summary executions and men thrown to their death from rooftops". On the other, there was the "vision of a peaceful state called Palestine and a homeland for their people". Palestinians, he said, "must decide they want a future of democracy and hope, not a future of terrorism and death".

The plight of Palestinians in Gaza was underlined yesterday by Palestinian Federation of Industries president Bassim Khoury, who said the flow of goods into Gaza had almost dried up since Hamas took control and that almost 3200 businesses and factories had been temporarily closed because of the lack of imports and exports. "If we don't do something immediately we'll have another Mogadishu on our hands," Mr Khoury said.

Mr Bush said Mr Blair's job would be to repair and develop Palestinian government and economic institutions in preparation for eventual negotiations with Israel on the formation of a separate Palestinian state. He made clear there was responsibility on both sides to create peace. The Palestinians must renounce violence and arrest terrorists, while the Israelis must remove unauthorised outposts on the West Bank and end settlement expansion.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talked for several hours yesterday with Mr Abbas about Israel's measures to bolster the Government in the West Bank but ruled out negotiations "at this stage" over the boundaries of a future Palestinian state. Israel yesterday approved a list of 250 Fatah prisoners to be released in the next two days as a goodwill gesture towards the Palestinian Authority President. The vast majority of the prisoners belong to the Fatah party and include 11 minors. The rest are adults who have at least a year left to serve on their sentence. Mr Olmert resisted calls by his security chief to release only minor offenders. In return, 200 Fatah fighters have pledged to end their attacks on Israel.


Olmert did not protect civilians
The Australian
July 19, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israel's latest inquiry into last year's Lebanon war last night blasted Ehud Olmert for "intolerable" failures in protecting civilians during the conflict, dealing yet another blow to the Prime Minister. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said Mr Olmert, along with government and army top brass "failed severely in the decision-making process, their assessment and their treatment of the home front during the Lebanon war". "The severe failures, unfortunately, reached intolerable levels," he said.

Mr Olmert's office condemned the comments as unfounded personal views by the government watchdog.

Aside from Mr Olmert, Mr Lindenstrauss pointed the finger of blame at former defence minister Amir Peretz, former army chief Dan Halutz and home front commander Yitzhak Gershon. "The leaders of the country invested most of their time in the war efforts, and not in treating the home front, which was exposed to extensive attack from the outset of the war," says the 582-page report, which Mr Lindenstrauss presented to the Speaker of parliament.

In Israel, the government and army are responsible for providing services to civilians in time of war, from maintenance of public shelters, to rescue, medical and basic administrative services.

During the 34-day war with Hezbollah, the Shia militia fired more than 4000 rockets into northern Israel, forcing a million residents to flee, paralysing the northern part of the country and catching controllers of the public shelters system unawares. During and after the war, there was fierce criticism of Mr Olmert and his Government for the lack of support to civilians, from inadequate bomb shelters to non-existent support for those fleeing the fighting.

Last night's report comes 2 1/2 months after interim findings by the Winograd inquiry into the war, which accused Mr Olmert of "serious failure," and Mr Peretz and Lieutenant General Halutz of failing in their duties. The Winograd commission is due to publish its final findings later this year, and they are expected to pile up the pressure on Mr Olmert to resign over his part in the conflict that many in Israel consider a failure.

Lieutenant General Halutz resigned from his post in January, while Mr Peretz lost his position after he was ousted as leader of the Labour Party in June. But Mr Olmert has resisted the pressure to quit, arguing that he should first address the mistakes exposed during the war.


Blair 'content' with Mid-East role
The Australian
James Hider, Jerusalem, The Times
Additional reporting: AFP
July 21, 2007

FORMER British prime minister Tony Blair met the leaders of the Middle East Quartet for the first time yesterday, mapping his future role and strategy as the international community's frontman in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. At a meeting in Portugal, Mr Blair sat down with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Washington has limited his role as Quartet chief to rebuilding the shattered Palestinian infrastructure and economy, rather than addressing negotiations between regional players, which will remain Dr Rice's task.

Mr Blair embraced his new role, sidestepping concerns that his mandate was too narrow and did not involve direct engagement with Hamas militants. "I'm of course very content to take on the responsibilities that have been offered to me by my Quartet colleagues," he said.

Earlier, some European foreign ministers, and reportedly the Palestinians, had called for Mr Blair's remit to be widened to include discussions with Hamas. While the Palestinians wanted his role to be broader than the one US President George W. Bush has given, and for him to have the power to steer Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israel has made it clear that it is not ready to discuss issues of final status. "There are mixed feelings in the Bush administration about how much rope Tony Blair should get," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst.

En route to the meeting, Dr Rice reiterated that Mr Blair would not be encroaching on her role as peace negotiator. "His mandate was made clear by the Quartet when we met," she said. "I think that there is not any larger objective than having a viable Palestinian state."

White House sources dismissed suggestions of a turf war between Mr Blair and Dr Rice.

On the surface, the reaction to Mr Blair's appointment has been positive. Palestinian and Israeli officials are keen to show that they are willing to make progress on the long-stalled peace process. But his credibility in the Arab world has been undermined seriously by the bloodshed of the war in Iraq and his backing for Israel's bombing campaign against Lebanon last summer.

On the ground, the situation has rarely been more complicated. The Palestinians are now divided between the Fatah-led administration in the West Bank, run by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and the Gaza Strip, which was overtaken by hardline Islamists Hamas five weeks ago. The West and Israel back Mr Abbas, although that backing has often been a poisoned chalice as Palestinians regard backing from Israel as tantamount to collaboration with the enemy.

Hamas lashed out again at Mr Abbas yesterday, who a day earlier had called fresh elections to overrule those won by Hamas last year. "Abbas has lost all credibility as President of the Palestinian people," senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said. "Can a man who allies with the enemy against his people remain the president of these people?"


Iran 'pays Syria to spurn Israel'
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
July 23, 2007

IRAN has pledged to provide Syria with $US1 billion ($1.13billion) for arms acquisitions in return for a pledge from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to drop peace overtures to Israel, reports said yesterday. Citing an Iranian source, the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mr Assad signed the arms agreement at a meeting in Damascus last Thursday. The report said that Iran agreed to assist Syria in developing a nuclear research program -- a detail Israeli commentators were sceptical about -- and to advance its chemical weapons potential.

The Iranian leader's visit to Damascus came two days after Mr Assad publicly called for peace negotiations with Israel. The mooted peace accord revolves around the return of the Golan Heights -- captured by Israel in 1967 -- to Syria.

Israeli political figures at the weekend expressed alarm at the reported Syrian-Iranian pact. Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman said: "The strengthening of the relationship between Assad and Ahmadinejad demands that Israel reorganise its political and military strategies." He called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to consider formation of a national unity government embracing opposition parties.

Knesset member Arye Eldad said the reported Damascus agreement was reminiscent of agreements signed by Arab states with each other on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War. "This will lead to attacks on Israel from Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Iran," said Mr Eldad, a member of the foreign affairs and defence committee.

An official in Mr Olmert's office yesterday expressed reservations about the newspaper account. "We are doubtful about the credibility of the report in al-Sharq al-Awsat," he said. The official said Israel was attempting to learn through its own sources the purpose and actual results of the Damascus meeting. But he said the fact that the meeting with Mr Ahmadinejad took place despite Israel's declared readiness for talks with Mr Assad showed that the Syrian leader was still aligned with "the axis of evil".

During his day-long visit, Mr Ahmadinejad also met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups funded by Iran.

An Israeli military analyst, General Giora Eiland, said that Mr Assad's intention was apparently to signal in two directions. "He's saying, I want peace but if I can't get it I have a military option."

The newspaper report said that Iran had agreed to fund the purchase by Syria of 400 Russian T-72 tanks, 18 MiG-31 warplanes, eight Sukhoi fighters, helicopters and other equipment. Iran also agreed to help Syria build factories for missiles and to provide it with Iranian-made tanks and armoured personnel carriers. In addition, the newspaper said that Iran agreed to support Syria's political objectives in Lebanon, including the toppling of the moderate Government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

During his visit to Damascus, Mr Ahmadinejad declared that his country and Syria "will remain allies". But he did not speak publicly about a new agreement. Asked at a press conference whether he expected this northern summer to be "hot" like last summer, which witnessed a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, he said: "We hope the summer will bring victories to the region's nations and failure to their enemies."

Ephraim Sneh, who served as deputy Israeli defence minister until last month, said that moderate Arab states share Israel's worries over efforts by Iran -- a Muslim but non-Arab country -- to spread its influence far beyond its borders through political-military pacts, including with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. It was precisely because of this, he said, that the Arab League was this week for the first time sending a delegation -- including the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan -- to Jerusalem to discuss with Israeli officials the league's proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. "This is a signal from Arab moderates who are as concerned as we are at Iranian aggression," Mr Sneh said. To encourage the moderates, he said, Israel had to engage in serious talks with the Palestinians.

Mr Olmert at the weekend reiterated his call for peace talks with Syria.


Blair snub for Hamas
The Australian
James Hider, Jerusalem
The Times, AFP
July 24, 2007

SPECIAL Middle East envoy Tony Blair last night ruled out any talks with Hamas, despite an offer by the hardline Palestinian group to meet him.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza last month, said for the first time yesterday that it would be willing to speak to Tony Blair as a mediator with Israel. "We will not say no to anybody, including Tony Blair," said Sami Abu Zuhri, spokesman for the Islamic resistance movement, which fought last month to drive its secular rivals Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. "We are willing to have contact with whoever, as long as it's not the occupier (Israel)," he told London's The Times. But a spokesman for Mr Blair last night ruled out any talks or meetings with Hamas.

Hamas reacted angrily when Mr Blair's appointment was announced this month, saying his mission would fail if he did not talk to the group.

Mr Blair is due to hold talks with Israeli officials in Jerusalem and then with Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah later today. Mr Blair is working as head of the Middle East Quartet -- made up of the United Nations, the US, the European Union and Russia -- which has opted to isolate the radical Islamists and instead support the administration of Mr Abbas in the West Bank. There have been increasing calls for contact with Hamas, including from Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, and 10 European foreign ministers, including those of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, which holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Israel refuses to hold any political dialogue with Hamas, which has offerred a prolonged ceasefire but whose charter still calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Mr Blair made a brief stop in Amman last night to hold talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdel Ilah Khatib. "It was a very positive and constructive meeting in which the Jordanian side welcomed Mr Blair's appointment," his spokesman, Matthew Doyle, said. Mr Doyle declined to discuss the substance of the talks between Mr Blair and Mr Khatib.

Mr Khatib described Mr Blair's visit as "vital for the Palestinians, Israel and the entire region", and said he pinned high hopes on the mission.


Israel deputy backs pullout from West Bank
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Abraham Rabinovich
Additional reporting: AFP
July 28, 2007

ISRAELI Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has backed a withdrawal from most of the occupied territories in the West Bank as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the first such public comments from a top member of the current Israeli Government. It was in Israel's interest to "leave the majority of the territory of Judea and Samaria while maintaining the large settlement blocs", Mr Ramon told public radio in an interview last night. "We should not insist on keeping territories when their continued occupation threatens our national existence and harms our position in the world."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima party was elected last year on a ticket of withdrawing from most of the West Bank while effectively annexing the largest Jewish settlements, but the project was shelved after the Lebanon war. "The whole idea of unilateralism was based on the fact that we had no partner and now we have a partner," Mr Ramon said, referring to Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Mr Abbas has also suggested for the first time a time frame for peace with Israel, claiming a defining deal could be signed within 12 months. Mr Abbas made his remark in the West Bank city of Ramallah late on Wednesday as the US ramped up its flurry of attempts to boost his Government through targeted economic aid, announcing a $246 million package for Palestinian businesses. His comments came hours after he received the resignation of Palestinian strongman Mahmoud Dahlan, a sworn enemy of Hamas, who had been a pivotal figure in his fledgling administration. Mr Dahlan quit citing ill health less than two months after Fatah forces capitulated in the face of a Hamas assault in Gaza, which saw the Strip fall to the Islamic group within four days.

Hamas last night celebrated Mr Dahlan's exit, which it said would create an opportunity for a rapprochement with Mr Abbas, who sacked the Hamas-led government in the wake of the coup and appointed Mr Fayyad. "It should be a step forward towards cleansing the Fatah movement so that it can take its place in the national struggle in partnership with the people and Hamas," said Hamas spokesman Farzi Barhoum. Mr Abbas had already dismissed a dozen other Fatah officials who were blamed for the Gaza humiliation.

Mr Abbas told a visiting Israeli member of parliament, Yossi Beilin, that he hoped to achieve a peace agreement with Israel within a year. He said US President George W.Bush had told him that he would push for such an agreement before the end of his term in office in 2009.

Mr Abbas said he did not intend to stand for re-election when his term ends in 18 months. He told journalists he intended to call early elections that would include the West Bank and Gaza, and said he would amend the electoral law before then so that Palestinian voters would choose from only one national list of candidates and not, as in last year's election, from national and local lists.


There's a new mood for peace in the Holy Land

The time seems right for a major breakthrough in talks between Israel and the Palestinians

Martin Chulov
The Australian
July 30, 2007

TONY Blair will lead an ensemble cast of envoys back to the Middle East this week as the West attempts to build on its best - and maybe last - attempt to deliver peace to the region. Arriving around the same time will be US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Both are expected to arrive with a package of sweeteners for the new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salaam Fayyad, who they have entrusted to forge a lasting peace with Israel.

As talks step up over moves for a two-state solution, openings have also emerged on normalising relations with regional pariah Syria. Adding impetus to hopes of at least one groundbreaking deal, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is also sending an emissary, former BBC reporter and senior adviser Michael Phillips. The Turks and the Norwegians -- two of the handful of nations to have maintained contacts with Hamas -- also say they are ready to send delegates. The Arab League, under whose name the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers dined in Jerusalem with Israeli leaders last week, are similarly backing the talks.

For the first time since the failed talks in 2000 between the then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the late Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat, the Holy Land is poised for something profound. Yet no one is sure what it will be.

The thorn in the side of the Palestinian front is the fact that neither the newly appointed Mr Fayyad nor the other man in whom the West places great trust, President Mahmoud Abbas, can deliver a Palestinian state, with about 40 per cent of all Palestinians -- those living in Gaza -- not represented by their Government. Gaza remains isolated from the rapidly building ties between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank after an armed Hamas coup overthrew the Fatah-led forces of Mr Abbas, many of whom Hamas leaders claimed were in turn trying to overthrow them.

Hamas's leadership, sacked in the aftermath, is now running Gaza, home to 1.4 million people, as a giant town council, focusing on service delivery, law and order and other basic tenants of administration. It is effectively a state within a state -- and the US and Israel have demanded it stay that way for now. But criticism and concern is mounting in diplomatic circles about what to do with Gaza -- a potential deal-breaker in any final solution. Key Western diplomats contacted over the past fortnight say that by empowering a weakened and militarily defeated Mr Abbas in the West Bank only, they are denying him the chance to deliver the far more profound prize of a signed and sealed Palestinian state representing its entire people. The position has been described as a policy at war with itself.

Israeli leaders have adopted the position that Gaza can wait. Much more pressing for them is relations with the Arab world. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said at the weekend that the Arab League, the body that represents the interests of the Arab World, awaited an Israeli reply to a proposal put by him and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib last week. The deal offered Israel full recognition in the Arab world in return for Israel pulling back to the pre-1967 borders with Jordan and Syria and facilitating a solution for Palestinian refugees and their families living in camps around the region.

"There is a feeling in Israel for the need to push the peace process forward," said the two foreign ministers, who met the full spectrum of Israel's leadership, arriving in Israel for the first time under the Arab League banner.

"There exists an opportunity that must be utilised," said Mr Aboul Gheit, outlining to an Egyptian newspaper his meetings with the Israelis, including right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. "We presented to him the Arab position. Netanyahu focused on the importance of economic co-operation between Israel and the Palestinians to benefit the Palestinians. We also spoke about the need to revive the peace process. In general, I can say that Netanyahu does not express opposition to the Arab initiative although he wanted to check some points, especially in relation to the Palestinian refugees. He wanted to know the principles of the initiative. In a general manner he did not rule out the initiative."

Egypt and Jordan have long been at peace with Israel and the Jewish State has asked for members of other Arab states, which do not recognise it, to join any further delegations. Israel has not given a time frame for its response to the Arab League proposal, which was first tabled in late-May. But Israeli Government officials say they are focusing first on the Palestinian front, which for now offers the best chance for progress.


Steep decline in Hamas support
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
July 31, 2007

A PALESTINIAN poll published this week shows Hamas winning only 15 per cent of the vote if elections were held now, compared with 42 per cent for the secular Fatah movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The surprising decline in Hamas support since its victory in last year's elections would seem to be related to the international boycott of the Islamist organisation and its forcible takeover of the Gaza Strip last month, though the poll itself did not attempt to pinpoint causes. The poll was conducted among 1400 people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the research centre of al-Najjah University in Nablus.

In the elections held in January last year, Hamas won 44 per cent of the popular vote but 56 per cent of the seats in parliament. The government formed by Hamas was boycotted by most of the international community, which designated Hamas a terrorist organisation for its use of suicide bombers and its declared intention of destroying Israel. International funding on which the Palestinians were dependent was largely cut off, leading to severe economic problems.

In March, Fatah agreed to join Hamas in a unity government. But this failed to end the feuding between the two movements, which peaked in June with the Hamas takeover of Gaza in brutal fighting. Mr Abbas, who remained on the West Bank, dissolved the unity government and appointed political independent Salam Fayyad to head an emergency government. Hamas termed that West Bank-based government illegal and retained its own government in the Gaza Strip.

The current poll shows an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, 68 per cent, favour early legislative and presidential elections in order to resolve the political crisis. Mr Abbas has called for early elections but Hamas has rejected his bid. No elections could be held in the Gaza Strip without Hamas's consent. Israel is relating to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as two separate political entities. While engaging Mr Abbas in dialogue and offering concessions on the West Bank, it is maintaining military and economic pressure on the Gaza Strip.

Mr Fayyad, a US-educated economist regarded as an honest but grey bureaucrat, has emerged proven to be a bold reformist determined to seek a peaceful settlement with Israel. A government platform he published last week dropped the call issued by the previous Hamas-led government for "armed struggle" against the Israeli occupation, calling instead for "popular resistance". He also attacked militant Islam as represented by Hamas.


Rice in Israel to push for peace
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
August 02, 2007

CONDOLEEZZA Rice has arrived in Israel for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders after adding the Bush administration's support to the Arab League plan for peace between the two protagonists. The US Secretary of State touched down in Jerusalem along with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates after meeting key Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

US support for the plan, which addresses a range of Arab grievances in return for full diplomatic recognition of Israel, is considered crucial to its chances of success. Central to the plan is that Israel return to the pre-1967 borders with Jordan and Syria, a move that would most likely cede Arab East Jerusalem to a newly formed Palestinian state.

The plan also calls for Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Middle East to be entitled to return to the land of their ancestors. However, the right of return looms as an insurmountable obstacle for Israel, which has instead been working with the US on a compensation package for refugees who choose to stay where they are now and allowing the remainder to migrate to a new Palestinian state.

Ahead of the latest round of meetings, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a pitch for Saudi Arabia to send a representative to a regional peace summit planned for later this year. The summit was called in July by US President George W. Bush and looms as a pivotal point in his administration's foreign policy.

The Saudis responded favourably to the request yesterday, with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal claiming "we are interested in the peace proposal. When we get an invitation from the minister (Dr Rice) to attend, when this takes place, we will discuss it and we will make sure that we attend the conference," he said.

Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and a conference attended by both countries would be hailed as a significant breakthrough. As custodian of the two holiest Islamic shrines, Saudi Arabia's endorsement of a regional peace plan is considered a likely trigger for broader acceptance across the Arab and Islamic world. Israeli officials, including Mr Olmert, and the Saudis have met secretly over the past year in backroom discussions brokered by Jordan, but have never held a public meeting.

Egypt, which is spearheading a push for a Palestinian state on the back of the ousting of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority Government, said high priority must be given to fast-tracking a two-state solution. "This settlement ... will be presented to the Palestinian people. If we wait, I believe this will have a negative impact on the general situation in dealing with the Palestinian issue," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.


Olmert to step up push for Palestine
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
August 08, 2007

MEETING with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Jericho yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would push for the creation of a Palestinian state "as soon as possible". The meeting was the first in a planned series in which the two leaders are to draw up an agenda to be presented to a Middle East peace conference to be held in Washington in November.

At the Jericho meeting, Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas agreed on greater co-operation between their respective security services. The once-close security relationship was shattered with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip two months ago, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces on the West Bank have been co-operating in an ad hoc manner to keep Hamas and other militant groups from attempting a similar coup there. Israel has agreed to stop hunting men on its wanted list from the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade if they hand in their weapons and pledge to adhere to orders from the PA.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a committee of West Bank and Israeli businessmen to explore economic co-operation, which was similarly severed with the intifada. The Palestinians are expected to ask Israel to reopen its borders to workers from the West Bank.

Mr Abbas did not repeat earlier requests for Israel to pull out of some West Bank cities and entrust their security to the Fatah-affiliated PA, which he heads. Israeli officials see this as an acknowledgement that the PA is not yet strong enough to suppress Hamas and other militant organisations, even on the West Bank.

The meeting between the two leaders was held at the urging of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited the region last week. Washington is eager to achieve concrete movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track before President George W. Bush's term ends in a year and a half so as to rack up at least one Middle East success.

Israel is reluctant to commit itself to far-reaching concessions, particularly a significant pullback from West Bank territory, when the PA is seen as a frail reed. Such a pullback in the near future, Israel fears, would expose the adjacent Israeli heartland to rockets and terror attacks. Nevertheless, Mr Olmert is eager to achieve at least an appearance of progress towards a two-state solution in order to encourage Palestinian moderates and fence-sitters.

Mr Abbas's aides say the Palestinian leader intends to raise core issues such as final borders, refugees and Jerusalem in his meetings with Mr Olmert. The latter, according to Israeli officials, will insist that these issues be left for discussion at the Washington conference. Until then, Mr Olmert intends to focus the talks instead on ways to strengthen the PA's governing and economic institutions.

Israeli officials hope the atmosphere created in the talks between the two and the prospect of a Palestinian state raised by them will persuade the broad Palestinian public that the avenue of negotiations offered by Fatah is preferable to the prospect of armed confrontation offered by Hamas. At the Jericho meeting, Mr Olmert received a commitment from Mr Abbas not to seek reconciliation with Hamas despite pressure to do so from some Arab countries and even from some officials within the PA. But a Hamas spokesman in Gaza dismissed the Abbas-Olmert meetings as "a gimmick that will lead to nothing".

Yesterday's meeting was the first time since the intifada that an Israeli leader visited a city under Palestinian control.


Peres ditches politics of peace, looks to economic goodwill
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
August 24, 2007

ISRAEL'S elder statesman has had enough of the politics of peace and believes the only way forward for the Palestinian cause is through economic goodwill. From his office in Jerusalem, Shimon Peres, the newly appointed President of the Jewish state, this week said he was very hopeful Israel and the Palestinians would within the next 18 months secure the peace deal that had eluded him through a 60-year political career.

In an interview with The Australian, Mr Peres, now cast into the role of an adviser rather than political player, said he had become "disillusioned with the political process". "Creating, then managing, goodwill is the way forward, through mobilising the goodwill of the nation and the goodwill of the global community," he said. "We hang too much on the promise of (political negotiations) and we ignore, almost completely, the economic potential. That is my main concern, because I believe economies are about relations and politics are about borders. We have to act in a parallel manner, on two tracks, one economic, one political."

Mr Peres's comments follow two months of rapidly warming ties between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is determined to establish a Palestinian state before the next presidential elections in 18 months, which he will not contest. They also precede a summit to be chaired in Washington later this year by US President George W.Bush, which aims to set in place a declaration of principles for a Palestinian state. "I believe that the economic plan is ripe and ready," Mr Peres said. "Generally, foreign aid is very problematic, because what you do is take the money from the poor people in rich countries and give it to the rich people in poor countries."

The West Bank stronghold of Mr Abbas and newly appointed Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is set to prosper from the willingness of Israel and the US to again engage politically, following seven years of minimal dealings after the outbreak of the Palestinian-led intifada. All three stakeholders are banking on economic boom times overcoming a major stumbling block to statehood -- the continued isolation and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Gaza, home to 1.4 million people, has been run autonomously by a Hamas administration since Mr Abbas sacked the democratically elected government of Ismail Haniya, whom he accused of forcing a coup in early July. Israel, the US and Mr Abbas, have pledged to continue Gaza's isolation as long as Hamas remains in power. Hamas has said it will not renounce the mandate it won in January 2005. And, in the absence of a popular revolt, the Islamic group's tenure looms as yet another deal-breaker in the Palestinian people's tortured quest for nationhood.

Mr Peres conceded that stakeholders so far had no answers and touched on the greatest stumbling block to bringing Gaza into the fold: "Their ambitions are religious, not national. The world is not ready to pay for terror. And now the Gazan people have got to decide whether they are going to produce missiles, or provide food for their children. The Israelis can't understand why the hell they are shooting. What do they want? They have the land and they have the borders. The night is dark without electricity, the day is long without food and the only light they have is the light of the rockets."

Despite the formidable roadblock of Gaza, Mr Peres revealed that talks with Palestinian leaders had progressed to a point where permanent borders had been tabled and, for now, rejected. "The Palestinians themselves don't feel they can protect their cities (at this stage)," he said. Israel would not withdraw all its settlements from the West Bank and would negotiate a percentage of land "to solve the problem of the settlers through a trade-off".

Mr Peres suggested Jordan would play a significant role in any deal with the Palestinians -- a notion rejected so far by Jordanian monarch King Abdullah, 60 per cent of whose country's population of four million are former Palestinians. "The West Bank (currently) suffers from a very poor economic situation. Before we wake up we have to pay the salaries of 160,000 people, who for the time being don't produce anything. But a modern economy changed Europe. And goodwill is more powerful than power itself."


Syrians report Israeli attack
The Australian
September 07, 2007

DAMASCUS: Syrian air defences opened fire on Israeli aircraft that violated Syria's airspace yesterday, a military spokesman said. The Israelis broke the sound barrier and dropped ammunition over deserted areas of northern Syria, the spokesman was quoted by the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

"We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act, and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way," the Syrian spokesman said. It was not clear if Syria was accusing the Israelis of using warplanes or some type of other aircraft such as drones.

"Israeli enemy aircraft infiltrated into the Arab Syrian territory through the northern border, coming from the Mediterranean heading toward the eastern region, breaking the sound barrier," he said. "Air defence units confronted them and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage."

Israel's army said it was looking into the report.

Over the past few months, Israeli and Syrian leaders have both said their countries do not want a war but were preparing for the possibility. Each side has accused the other of arming for a conflict. Syria and Israel technically remain at war — peace talks broke down in 2000 over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

At the beginning of last year's war against Lebanon, Israeli warplanes buzzed the palace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in what analysts called a warning to Damascus. Later in June, they flew over Mr Assad's summer home, after Syrian-backed Palestinian militants in Gaza captured an Israeli soldier.


Israeli jets obliterate missile base
The Australian
September 13, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israeli planes last week bombed and destroyed a northern Syrian missile base that was financed by Iran, an Arab Israeli newspaper reported. Citing anonymous Israeli sources, the Assennara newspaper said Israeli jets "bombed in northern Syria a Syrian-Iranian missile base financed by Iran ... It appears that the base was completely destroyed".

Syria, on Tuesday, lodged a formal complaint with the UN over the "flagrant violation" of its airspace last Thursday, during which it said its air defences opened fire on Israeli warplanes flying over the northeast of the country. Israeli officials have refused to comment on the report, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "instructed ministers not to talk about the incident related to Syria at all", a senior Israeli government official said.

A US defence official said on Tuesday that Israel had launched an air strike well inside Syria, apparently to send Damascus a message not to rearm Shia Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The official did not know the target of the strike: "The Israelis are trying to tell the Syrians: 'Don't support a resurgence of Hezbollah in Lebanon'." CNN said the strike, which could also have involved ground forces, was believed to have targeted weapons either coming into Syria or moving through Syria from Iran to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.


Extract - Refugees hope for return home
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
September 17, 2007

NOT a day has gone by in the past 59 years when Zeki Nassir has not dreamt of the olive groves and orange trees he left behind. With his parents, grandmother and eight siblings, he fled north to Lebanon in the spring of 1948, as warplanes strafed the hillsides around the family home near the village of Akkar. Home, back then, was a hamlet on the northern fringe of what is now Israel.

The family moved to southern Lebanon, then to the north where they lived until late June in the Nahr al-Bard refugee camp outside of Tripoli. When Islamists over-ran the camp and the army responded with relentless artillery, Mr Nassir, 85, found himself a refugee for the second time. He fled to Beirut, where Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camp took in him and two of his daughters.

Beside a bullet-pocked wall inside Lebanon's most infamous Palestinian camp, Mr Nassir spoke sceptically of slow moves in Israel and the West Bank towards the formation of a Palestinian homeland - a plan many hope will take root during peace talks, planned for late November in Washington.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will tomorrow return to Jerusalem and the Palestinian administrative capital of Ramallah to assess progress the two sides have made during three high-level meetings during the northern summer. When Dr Rice was last in town, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were working towards a declaration of principles for a Palestinian state. The move would be the most substantive step towards Palestinian sovereignty since the failed 2000 summit.

But optimism in the power base is not matched by the mood on the street. The people of Sabra and Shatila are having none of the talk of forsaking their right to go back to their homeland in return for compensation and Lebanese citizenship. Across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, refugees have long loomed as the key sticking point in any regional peace deal. The 1948 evacuees and their families have ever since been a pawn in Lebanon, blamed indirectly for the outbreak of the devastating 15-year civil war, as well as for sheltering in Nahr al-Barad the Islamists who launched the bloody summer insurgency.


Peace talks must get results, Rice warns
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
September 22, 2007

JERUSALEM: With a planned Middle East peace conference only two months away, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ended a two-day preparatory visit to the region with a call for substantive results. However, there was little indication yesterday that the Israelis and Palestinians were prepared for a breakthrough.

The multi-nation conference initiated by George W. Bush was not intended merely as a photo opportunity, Dr Rice said. "A successful meeting has to be one that is substantive and advances the cause of a Palestinian state."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a meeting of his Kadima party council that he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had established trust in talks in recent months. "For many years we (Israelis) made do with declaring there is no partner for peace, but now all signs indicate there is," Mr Olmert said. "We can't be blind to the fact that the elected leader of the Palestinian people believes, as we do, the solution to the conflict is only through negotiations." But he noted that the split between Mr Abbas's Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which has taken over the Gaza Strip, made a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians difficult.

Israel is reluctant to withdraw from the West Bank until assured that a strong Palestinian government could prevent terrorism. Mr Abbas cannot credibly give such assurances, critics say. Israeli authorities yesterday announced the capture on the West Bank of a man who allegedly intended to carry out a suicide bombing in an Israeli city, perhaps on the Yom Kippur holiday today. Two others who were allegedly to guide him to the target were seized by Israeli troops in Nablus after an intensive manhunt. An Israeli soldier was killed in the operation.


Israeli pledge to isolate Gaza Strip begins to bite
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent

GAZANS last night endured longer-than-usual power cuts and the few among them with permission to enter Israel were turned back at locked crossings as Israel's pledge to declare the Strip a "hostile entity" began to bite. The escalating steps began after a Qassam rocket fired by Islamic Jihad from northern Gaza landed in Israeli territory early yesterday.

Israel's security cabinet during the week unanimously approved the new classification for Gaza, which authorised officials to scale back remaining contacts with the Hamas-run territory and block all exits for 48 hours following a rocket attack. Israel said that "except for humanitarian needs", it would no longer supply anything to the residents of Gaza.

The move was endorsed by visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but the European Union and UN urged Israel to reconsider and to avoid further cuts to already struggling essential services. "Our first reaction is one of deep preoccupation," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. "We think the Gaza people should not be deprived of basic necessities." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that cutting vital services would violate international law and punish the already suffering 1.4million population. "Such a step would be contrary to Israel's obligations towards the civilian population under international humanitarian and human rights law," he said.

Hamas, which took control of Gaza in late June after ousting the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from a short-lived power-sharing deal, said it had urged militant factions to stop firing Qassams. Hamas denounced the new sanctions as a "declaration of war". Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said: "We must unite the ranks to come together in the conflict with the cruel enemy. There will be implications in the long term. This is another attempt to force us to surrender to agreements."

Yesterday's escalation came as reports surfaced in an Arab-Israeli newspaper of an overture made by Israel to Hamas to negotiate directly on Gaza-related issues. The report said Norwegian mediators relayed a message to the Hamas leadership that Israel would be willing to start the first direct talks with its sworn enemy to secure the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Israeli officials refused to confirm the reports.

Inside the Gaza Strip, Hamas and other militant factions were yesterday fortifying positions ahead of an anticipated large-scale Israeli assault. The Israeli Defence Force has made increasing incursions into the Strip since June, mainly targeting rocket-launching units and sites. Youths threw rocks at Israeli battle tanks east of the southern town of Rafah yesterday and Israeli artillery thudded into barren fields in the northern town of Beit Hanoun.

A small number of students who had won acceptance to study at universities outside of Gaza, and been given approval to transfer through Israel, were turned back at the Erez crossing for a second consecutive day as the new sanctions took hold. Hospitals and schools warned they could not continue to function if the power cuts intensified. And strawberry farmer Bassam al-Makhoul said: "We have not planted crops this year, while our neighbours have decided to take the risk. We could not guarantee that there would be water to grow and harvest them, let alone a market to sell to."


Israelis grab nuke material
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
September 24, 2007

ISRAELI commandos seized nuclear material of North Korean origin during a daring raid on a secret military site in Syria before Israel bombed it this month, according to a report. The Sunday Times, citing sources in Tel Aviv and Washington, reported yesterday that the US gave the nod to Israel to carry out the air strike only after it was shown the evidence, and confirmed that the samples indeed derived from North Korea. Israeli intelligence had been keeping an eye on the site near Dayr az-Zawr in northern Syria.

According to the report, commandos from the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), the most elite of Israel's special forces, were able to infiltrate the site undetected and extract the relevant material. The operation was said to be supervised personally by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who had himself been commander of the unit during his military career. He is said to have focused on developments at Dayr az-Zawr since assuming the defence portfolio three months ago.

Reconnaissance forays deep into hostile Arab countries have been carried out by Israeli commando units over decades, almost always undetected.

The significance of the Syrian site and its alleged nuclear connection has been the subject of widespread speculation - but neither Israel nor the US has offered any authoritative reading. John Bolton, Washington's former ambassador the UN, suggested last week that North Korea might be intending to use Syria as a "safe haven" for its nuclear materials on the eve of talks aimed at ending its own nuclear weapons program in return for aid and security guarantees.

There have also been suggestions that the alleged material is destined for transshipment to Iran, or even for development of a Syrian nuclear program, despite that country's backward industrial infrastructure. A central question is whether North Korea was trying to transfer some of the 55kg of weapons-grade plutonium in its possession, enough for several rudimentary bombs.


Extract - Israel frees prisoners to prop up Abbas
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
October 02, 2007

ISRAEL last night released dozens of Palestinian security prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to a peace conference in the US. Israel has sought to boost Mr Abbas in his power base in the West Bank since Islamist Hamas seized control of Gaza in mid-June. Palestinians welcomed the release when it was first announced, but said Israel must do more to support Mr Abbas, through steps such as lifting the more than 500 roadblocks in the West Bank.

Israel's High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected a petition by relatives of terror victims to prevent the release. Before walking free, the prisoners were obliged to sign a document in which they pledged not to resume attacks against Israel.


Olmert pledges pullback for peace
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
October 10, 2007

JERUSALEM: In his most forceful pledge yet to seek progress towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Israel must be prepared to pay a high price. "The peace process involves relinquishing the full realisation of dreams that fed our national ethos for many years," he said at the opening of the Knesset's winter session yesterday.

Earlier in the day, two senior ministers expressed readiness to give up Israeli control of Arab sections of Jerusalem, a big shift from the national consensus since the Arab part of the city was captured by Israel in 1967. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, a left-wing stalwart, and right-wing minister Avigdor Lieberman advocated giving control of parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority in a final settlement.

Mr Olmert avoided specifics in expressing his readiness for concessions, but said his meetings with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had created a positive atmosphere for dialogue. "Under no circumstances should Israel miss an opportunity that could bring an improvement in relations with the Palestinians," he said.

His remarks brought sharp rejoinders from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and words of caution from Mr Olmert's most important ally in the governing coalition, Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Both see Mr Abbas as too weak to impose his will on Palestinian militants. Mr Netanyahu warned that any pullback on the West Bank would be followed by Hamas rockets on Tel Aviv. "If Israel leaves, it will open the door to al-Qa'ida," he said. "Handing over half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians would render the other half uninhabitable."

Mr Barak expressed support for dialogue with the Palestinians. "We have to consider the risks if there is no peace process," he said. But he said Israel must consider the risk of striking a deal with someone who cannot deliver. "In the Middle East, one must keep one hand on the trigger while the other is outstretched for peace." In 2000, when he was prime minister, Mr Barak offered far-reaching concessions to then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The failure of those negotiations led to the Palestinian intifada.

Mr Olmert alluded to Mr Barak's reservations when he said: "'The sense of failure experienced by many of those who tried to take large, courageous steps often places constraints on their ability to manoeuvre today." Mr Olmert compared himself to former prime minister Menachem Begin, who withdrew Israeli forces from the Sinai peninsula in return for a peace agreement with Egypt. Opposition Likud parliamentarians heckled Mr Olmert, noting that he had voted against the peace agreement with Egypt in the Knesset almost 20 years ago.


Extract - Israelis targeted Syrian reactor
The Australian
Correspondents in Washington - AFP, Reuters October 15, 2007

THE air raid on Syria by Israel last month targeted a site that Israeli and US intelligence specialists believe was a partly constructed nuclear reactor that may have been modelled after one in North Korea. Citing unnamed US and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports, The New York Times said it appeared Israel carried out the September 6 raid to demonstrate its determination to snuff out even a nascent nuclear project in a neighbouring state.

The administration of President George W.Bush was divided about the strike, and some senior policymakers still regard it as premature. The facility that the Israelis struck in Syria appears to have been much further from completion than the Osirak nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in Iraq in 1981. Officials said it would have been years before the Syrians could have used the reactor to produce the spent nuclear fuel that could, through a series of additional steps, be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium. The reactor was apparently modelled on one in North Korea used for stockpiling nuclear weapons fuel.

The officials did not say that the Bush administration had ultimately opposed the Israeli strike, but that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates were particularly concerned about the ramifications of a pre-emptive strike in the absence of an urgent threat. US officials said the partially constructed Syrian reactor was identified earlier this year in satellite photographs. Those officials also suggested Israel brought the facility to US attention. The internal Bush administration debate over a possible Israeli attack on the reactor began last (northern) summer.

It remained unclear how far Syria had progressed with the plant before the attack, what role North Korea might have played and whether a case could be made it was intended to produce electricity. US and foreign officials refused to be drawn on whether they suspected North Korea of having sold or given the plans to Syria, but some officials said it was possible a transfer of technology occurred several years ago.

Israel confirmed earlier this month it had carried out an air strike on Syria, but the two countries have given little information on the target. Information on the raid has been under under tight wraps in both Washington and Israel, the newspaper said, restricted to a handful of officials, and Israeli media have been barred from publishing information about it. But a senior Israeli official said the attack was meant to "re-establish the credibility of our deterrent power".

In his only public comment on the raid, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, acknowledged this month that Israeli jets dropped bombs on a building that he said was "related to the military" but which he insisted was "not used". North Korea has long provided assistance to Syria on a ballistic missile program, but any assistance towards the construction of the reactor would have been the first clear evidence of ties between the two countries on a nuclear program.


Rice to Palestinians: lower your hopes
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
October 16, 2007

CONDOLEEZZA Rice last night told the Palestinians to lower their expectations ahead of the White House-sponsored peace conference and to drop demands for a timetable to implement final status agreements. The US Secretary of State's latest round of shuttle diplomacy has emerged as her most crucial yet as gaps start to become entrenched between both sides ahead of the meeting late next month, to be chaired by US President George W.Bush in Annapolis. The conference had been labelled as the best chance since the turn of the century to end 59 years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. However, Palestinian negotiators and key Arab states have warned they will not attend unless substantive agreements are tabled.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and two of his senior ministers warned Dr Rice during a meeting on Sunday that the ruling coalition Government would probably fall if Israel moved towards a deal involving the separation of Jerusalem, or other red-line issues, such as refugee return. The influential Arab League has also drawn a line in the sand under the final status of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, which includes the most sacred site to Judaism - the Western Wall of the ruined second Jewish Temple - and the third most holy site to Islam, the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock. The Arab League insists the site must in the future be under Muslim control. However, orthodox Jewry in Israel has pledged to use all its political clout to oppose such a move.

Member states of the Arab league have threatened to stay away en masse if the future of al-Aqsa is not clarified. Palestinian officials have told Israeli media the mosque is a deal breaker for Palestinians and Arabs across the region. "The Israeli public still doesn't understand how important the issue of al-Aqsa is," one official said. Another complained the talks were imperilled by the inexperience of Israeli negotiators. "They weren't at Camp David or Taba (earlier summit venues) and do not know or want to know what was agreed on there. They want to start from zero, which is unacceptable to the Palestinian side."

Dr Rice told Mr Olmert and other Israeli ministers that the US expected tough decisions to be made before the meeting. "Decisions must be made without running away from the issues," she said. "Only dealing with the core issues will bolster the diplomatic process." Both the Israeli and Palestinian public fear that neither of their leaders is strong enough to lead either side to a resolution. The time has come for a Palestinian state," Dr Rice said. "I agree that the partners are weak, but we must bolster them."

Same Day - Olmert faces more graft probes
Abraham Rabinovich

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, already under two criminal investigations by Israeli police, became the subject of two more at the weekend when Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz ordered a probe into alleged corruption during a previous ministerial stint. The new investigations, considered the most serious for Mr Olmert, come as he prepares for a major peace conference with the Palestinians and oversees the military's plans for possible war against Hezbollah and Syria in the north and with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Opposition politicians and non-governmental organisations called on him to resign or suspend himself, arguing that he cannot adequately devote himself to affairs of state while undergoing hours of police questioning. Mr Olmert's office rejected these demands, saying the probes would not prevent him from being fully devoted to his governmental responsibilities. Legally, Mr Olmert is not obliged to step down unless convicted. Political observers believe his relative upflappability and Israel's current political balance will probably keep him in office at least well into next year.

The new investigations concern Mr Olmert's tenure as minister of trade and industry in 2003-5. One concerns allegations of political appointments to government agencies, using improper procedures. The other involves the granting of millions of dollars worth of government benefits to firms represented by Mr Olmert's former law partner and close friend.

Of the two earlier investigations, one involves Australian billionaire Frank Lowy, a friend of Mr Olmert. The latter is suspected of trying in 2005, when finance minister, to rig the Government's sale of a controlling interest in Israel's second-largest bank, Bank Leumi, to Mr Lowy and an associate. The fourth investigation concerns Mr Olmert's purchase of a house in Jerusalem at a substantial discount from a real estate developer, allegedly in return for helping the developer obtain building permits from the Jerusalem municipality, which Mr Olmert had previously headed as mayor.

Legal commentators have recently suggested that Mr Olmert has a reasonable chance of emerging from these two investigations without indictment. The new allegations, however, are seen as easier to prove. Mr Olmert's popularity, which sank to single-digit levels after last summer's war in Lebanon, has recently begun to climb. The new probes, however, are likely to send it plummeting again.


Rice fails to make progress in Mid-East talks
The Australian
The Times
October 20, 2007

LONDON: After five days of shuttle diplomacy US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned home empty-handed yesterday, having failed to pin down participants, an agenda or a firm date for a planned Middle East peace conference. At the end of a punishing round of talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders, Dr Rice said she was "encouraged" by her mission but that serious obstacles remained. "The teams are serious, the people are serious, the issues are serious, and so I am not surprised that there are some tensions," she said before a meeting in London yesterday with King Abdullah of Jordan.

US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley will travel to the Middle East next week to take up where she left off. Dr Rice is expected back in the region before the end of the month. By then the Bush administration hopes to be able to invite participants to a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to be held by the end of next month or the beginning of December.

The initiative, regarded as the most serious attempt in seven years to tackle the core issues between Israelis and Palestinians, could pave the way for the creation of a Palestinian state. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must agree first on the wording of a joint declaration.


Role for Diggers in West Bank
The Australian
Ean Higgins
October 25, 2007

AUSTRALIA could send troops to the Middle East as part of an international buffer force to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and prevent a takeover by terrorist-linked organisations, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said last night.

In a speech to Jewish leaders in Sydney, Mr Downer expressed doubts that Palestinians as a whole would support a peace settlement between Israel and West Bank leaders. He said the concern was that the Hamas organisation would, because of its backing by Iran, never truly accept Israel's right to exist. "If the Israeli defence forces withdrew from the West Bank, Hamas will just take over," Mr Downer said. "In the end, there has to be some international force to prop up a Palestinian State. If the international community was looking for troops to support a peace agreement which provided for the security of Israel and a Palestinian state, we would be prepared to send some troops to help," he said.

Mr Downer also attacked the UN, and more particularly the non-aligned bloc of countries that makes up a large part of its membership, for taking an irrational anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist line. Mr Downer gave his speech to a gathering of the top echelon of Sydney's Jewish community, including 20 rabbis. He was invited by Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is trying to woo the large Jewish community in his marginal seat of Wentworth in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.

Mr Turnbull and Mr Downer yesterday engaged in a whirlwind lobbying exercise of Jewish institutions in the electorate. The pair visited the Orthodox Jewish Moriah College, where Mr Downer addressed students, proclaiming his Government's absolute commitment to Israel. Later, he held an interview with the influential Australian Jewish News before moving to the elite venue of the Royal Motor Yacht Club to deliver his address last night to a rapturous audience.

Both Mr Turnbull and Mr Downer sought to draw a distinction between what Mr Turnbull called the Coalition's "rock solid" backing of the Jewish state and what they presented as Labor's more ambivalent position. Speaking to journalists earlier in the day, Mr Turnbull homed in on one of the few sharp contrasts in policy between the two major parties - the commitment of troops to Iraq, which Labor opposes. Using a similar message sheet to that employed by US President George W.Bush, Mr Turnbull said any move to "cut and run" from Iraq would be a disaster for Western interests and a victory for al-Q'aida.


Lighthorse descendants ready to charge again
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Jerusalem
October 27, 2007

TOM Edgar hasn't been on a horse for 40 years, but when he saddles up next week in the deserts of southern Israel he will be renewing the legacy of perhaps the most famous family of Australia's horseback warriors.
Descendants of soldiers of the Lighthorse Regiment in Jerusalem with a picture of the charge of Beersheba. Picture: Amit Shabi
Ninety years to the day on October 31, Mr Edgar's father, Sergeant Ian Swan Edgar, joined the charge of the 12th Australian Lighthorse Regiment -- a death-defying gallop across the sands of Beersheba, now known as Beersheva, that was to change the course of World War I in the Holy Land.

On Wednesday, Mr Edgar and 50 descendants of the original Lighthorse men will don the 1917 period costume of their forebears and re-enact their gallantry at the site of the original charge. Another 90 Australians have made the journey to Israel ahead of the unveiling next April of a life-sized bust of a Digger on horseback, to be erected at the new Park of the Australian Soldier, a $3 million project funded by Australian businessman Richard Pratt.

The Light Horse legacy prompted the chief executive of the Pratt Foundation, Sam Lipski, to set up a theme park alongside the bust of the Digger, catering for the needs of children with and without physical disabilities. It will be unveiled on April 28, three days after Anzac Day. The 3m-high bronze horseman, crafted by Melbourne sculptor Peter Corlett, who designed the Australian War Memorial's statue of Simpson and his donkey, will be the first memorial dedicated to the Australian victory in Beersheva. The memorial will include panels explaining Australia's role in the Middle East in World War I, World War II and current missions.

The Beersheba commemoration this year has taken on a spirit of celebration, with representatives of the Turkish and New Zealand governments set to attend along with participants from Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland as well as large numbers of Australians resident in Israel.

The 12th Lighthorse was no stranger to the Turks, with most of the men who took part in the charge having landed at Gallipoli two years earlier. But unlike the gruesome campaign in the Dardanelles, the Australians routed the Ottoman soldiers that October afternoon.

The surprise attack by 800 horsemen was one of the last great cavalry charges.

Just after 4.30pm in the desert heat of late autumn, the men set off, first in a canter, but soon breaking into a strong gallop. The 4th Lighthorse took the right flank and the 12th the left. They rode north across flat ground towards entrenched Turkish positions defending Beersheba and then onwards to the town. It was a pivotal seizure hailed as one of the most heroic in Australian military history.

Casualties during the charge were low, with 31 Australians killed and 36 wounded. More than 1000 Turkish prisoners were captured on the day, with the help of British forces who took substantial casualties in earlier softening-up battles, with up to 1300 dead and wounded.

Mr Edgar will not be attempting quite the same rigour, nor will the other 50 riders. Sergeant Edgar's three brothers were all Light Horsemen, of the 8th, 9th and 10th regiments. All four soldiers were wounded in the war, but Sergeant Edgar recovered to live a long life, dying in 1984 at the age of 95.

Bill Hyman, whose grandfather Major Bill Hyman joined the charge, said he was travelling to Beersheva in a bid to "find out what it was like for him. I understand the bigger picture of what happened, just not how it happened," he said at a function in Jerusalem's Old City at which the Australians were presented with goodwill certificates by an Israeli tourism official.

Most of the Diggers shared little of that afternoon with their families, as was the custom of men of that generation. "All we heard was that it was pretty much a desperate measure," said Grant Pike, whose great-uncle Harold Seale survived the charge. "They had 20 minutes to form up and get going."

Even today in Beersheva, now a bustling and modern desert city, the legend of the Australians is still remembered, particularly the rapport they struck up with the local children.


Olmert in early stages of cancer
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Jerusalem
October 30, 2007

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been diagnosed with the early stages of prostate cancer, in a development that casts further doubt on his capacity to drive a regional peace summit scheduled for late next month. The embattled leader made the announcement last night after a routine check-up last week detected a microscopic tumour in his prostate gland. Mr Olmert said the cancer had been detected early and claimed it would not affect his leadership.

At a surprise press conference in Jerusalem, he said doctors had told him his condition was not necessarily life-threatening. "I will be able to fulfil duties fully before my treatment and hours afterward," Mr Olmert said. "My doctors told me that I have full chances of recovery." Mr Olmert said he would soon undergo surgery, but would not need chemotherapy, or radioactive treatment.However, the 62-year-old fitness fanatic's medical condition comes as he faces a cabinet table full of contentious and difficult issues.

First among them is the US-sponsored regional peace conference in Annapolis, which the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority hope will lead to a renewed framework for a two-state solution and moves towards a lasting regional peace. Mr Olmert has met regularly over the past three months with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He has told both of his continuing difficulties in driving through a hostile parliament touchstone issues such as the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Israel's 11th prime minister is also dealing with the fallout from the Winograd Commission into his handling of last year's Lebanon war, as well as corruption allegations and the escalating crisis in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops were late yesterday engaged in fierce fighting with Palestinian militants. Mr Olmert came to power in January last year, when then-prime minister and political strong man Ariel Sharon suffered a second, devastating stroke that rendered him comatose. Mr Sharon remains in a long-term care facility until this day.

Reaction to Mr Olmert's announcement was measured, with analysts contacted by The Australian saying it was unlikely to diminish him further and could instead lead to a rise in sympathy for his leadership as the conference drew near. Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said: "He has done the proper thing to defy the expected impact of the rumours and he has made a precedent by coming out early on this matter."

However, Professor Ezrahi said the announcement would not necessarily embolden the Prime Minister in his bid to stare down the Israeli Right, which is strongly opposed to many of the Palestinian preconditions for peace, such as handing over East Jerusalem as capital of a new Palestinian state. "He has so many political hurdles that he has to face," he said. "If there will be an indictment (on the corruption charges) and especially if the conference does not produce dramatic results, demonstrating that there is a serious peace process in play,then he is just as weak as he was."

Mr Olmert had previously indicated to colleagues that he would consider standing down if his Government and the Palestinians were unable to produce a framework for the Annapolis summit that would set both sides along a long-stalled road towards peace. Israel and the US have been watering down expectations before the summit, which Mr Abbas has insisted must produce substantive results.

A solution to the 59-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict was seen as key to establishing relations with other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and perhaps Syria and Lebanon. Leaders of the Arab states that have refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel have so far not committed to sending delegates. Syria has said it will not attend unless the future of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, is included in the conference agenda.


Sack UN nuclear chief for appeasing Iran: Israel
The Australian
November 09, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday called for Mohamed ElBaradei to be removed as head of the UN nuclear watchdog, saying he had turned a blind eye to arch-foe Iran's nuclear ambitions. The call for Mr ElBaradei's dismissal came just days before the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to publish a new report on Iran's nuclear program, to serve as a key part of further discussions at the UN on whether to impose a third set of sanctions on Tehran. The UN Security Council has imposed two sets of sanctions against Iran over its failure to heed ultimatums to suspend uranium enrichment.

"The policies followed by ElBaradei endanger world peace," Mr Mofaz told Israeli public radio from Washington. "His irresponsible attitude of sticking his head in the sand over Iran's nuclear program should lead to his impeachment." Mr Mofaz, who heads the "strategic dialogue" between Israel and its main ally the US, held talks on Wednesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mr ElBaradei raised the ire of many Israeli officials after telling France's Le Monde newspaper that Iran would need between three and eight years to develop a nuclear bomb and that there was no immediate threat. "I want to get people away from the idea that Iran represents a clear and present danger and that we're now facing the decision whether to bombard Iran or let them have the bomb," he said. "We're not in that situation at all."

Mr Mofaz retorted that there was no excuse for such complacency in the face of intelligence estimates. "ElBaradei says he has no proof regarding Iran's nuclear program when he has intelligence reports gathered by several countries and he heads an organisation responsible precisely for that," Mr Mofaz said. He said nevertheless that he believed Iran had yet to cross the point of no return in its nuclear program: "The development of the necessary infrastructure for enriching uranium is slower than the Iranians say it is."

A day earlier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again boasted his country had reached a key target of 3000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Israel, which belongs to the UN nuclear watchdog but is not a signatory to its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is widely considered to have the Middle East's sole - if undeclared - nuclear arsenal. It considers Iran its chief enemy after repeated statements by Mr Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be wiped off the map.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday that for Israel "all options remain on the table", including military action, to prevent Iran developing an atomic bomb. Senior army intelligence officer Yossi Beidetz told parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee that Iran could acquire the bomb within two years. In 1981, Israel bombed a French-built nuclear reactor in Iraq, which under the rule of executed dictator Saddam Hussein was then its biggest enemy. The raid was heavily criticised by the US and UN Security Council.


Five killed during Arafat rally
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 13, 2007

JERUSALEM: Hamas forces were last night accused of killing five demonstrators and wounding 100 more at a rally in Gaza City in memory of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose political movement it ousted in June. Gunfire scattered the rally of at least 200,000 people after some demonstrators started shouting "Shi'ite, Shi'ite" -- accusing the Islamic group of being a proxy for Iran and Syria. The rally marked the biggest challenge to Hamas's rule in Gaza and was the first serious test of the militant group's vows to allow political dissent.

Gaza City, usually shrouded in the emerald green flags of Hamas, was alive with the billowing yellow standards of Fatah from mid-morning until the first gunshots rang out just after midday (9pm AEDT). Hamas executive force members were then seen running through sections of the crowd beating some flag-bearers and detaining others. Medics reported at least 100 people were injured, many with gunshot wounds. Gaza hospitals were providing mounting tolls throughout the day.

Hamas maintained an uneasy alliance with Arafat during the last years of his life but has been determined ever since his death, on November 11, 2004, to ensure Palestinians do not view him as a symbol of nation building. Fatah and Hamas briefly formed a power-sharing government in Gaza and the West Bank in March after Israel and the international community boycotted the Hamas regime, which seized power in March last year, three months after winning democratic elections. However, Hamas forces ousted Fatah MPs and security chiefs three months later, accusing them of collaborating with Israel and the US to mount a Trojan Horse-like coup. Arafat's replacement as President, Mahmoud Abbas, then sacked Hamas from Government and committed his Government to talks with Israel. Gaza's borders have been sealed ever since and its 1.4million residents subjected to an ever-increasing economic and aid boycott.

Arafat's legacy has undergone a renaissance during the three years since his death, during which many Palestinians have slipped further away than ever before from their dreams of sovereignty and prosperity. Israeli and US efforts to bolster the West Bank have coincided with a rapidly growing divide between it and Gaza, where unemployment and poverty rates are reported to have risen sharply since June. Hamas had pledged to deliver law and order to the chaotic strip, where Fatah forces were once largely responsible for providing security. Hamas had accused Fatah chiefs and apparatchiks of embezzling tens of millions of dollars and failing to cater for the Gaza Strip's basic needs. It remains implacably opposed to talks with Israel, which it refuses to recognise and has vowed to violently oppose once again. Polling in Palestinian and Arab media shows few hold high hopes of a breakthrough in US-sponsored talks with Israel mooted for later this month. The US expects the talks will rekindle substantive negotiations that were shelved in 2000, leading to a bloody intifada.

In the West Bank administrative capital of Ramallah, Mr Abbas, in a speech delivered at the tomb of Arafat, called on Hamas to return control of Gaza to him. "You will not hide the truth of what you have created, the establishment of an isolated entity controlled by a faction that rejects democracy and the values at the heart of our modern struggle," he said. Fatah chief in the Gaza Strip Zachariah al-Agha, speaking in Gaza before violence broke out, said in a statement prepared by Mr Abbas's office: "We say to Hamas and these armed militias, stop your crimes. These crimes will not shake our determination. We call on Hamas, which made a putsch, to reverse course, and to end these criminal activities on the ground."

Hamas nevertheless praised Arafat. "We often agreed with the president Abu Ammar (Arafat) and we often disagreed with him, but in spite of this we consider him a symbol of the Palestinian nation," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said. Although Palestinians revere Arafat as the father of their cause, many in Israel considered him a corrupt dictator responsible for the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising.


Middle East's future at stake in talks: Rice
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 15, 2007

CONDOLEEZZA Rice has turned up the heat ahead of a White House-sponsored regional peace summit, declaring "what is at stake is nothing less than the future of the Middle East". The US Secretary of State's boldest statement on the meeting comes as key stakeholders remain sceptical about its chances of success and fear failure would create regional chaos.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have reported goodwill between the two sides but only limited progress in negotiations ahead of the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, mooted for the last week of November. Dr Rice said both sides must be prepared for "difficult and painful sacrifices to some of their longest-held aspirations". She did not spell out the nature of the concessions, but US and Israeli officials have previously said the core Palestinian demand of the right of refugees to return to Israel could never be delivered.

Dr Rice, who has taken on an activist role since moderates linked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ousted militant group Hamas from a power-sharing government in June, will return to Jerusalem this week for a final round of pre-summit talks.

"Some think that this focus on democracy backfired with the election of Hamas," she said. "I disagree with that conclusion. Hamas always had power. What it never had was responsibility for power." Dr Rice said a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians was more urgent than ever because of the threat from groups violently opposed to Israel in the region, specifically Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran.

The summit holds high hopes on the attendance of Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Syria. The US had hoped to consolidate the Sunni Arab world as a buffer against what it sees as a fast-growing threat from the Shia Islamic regime of Iran.

Palestinian leaders are demanding that redline issues, such as refugee return, the future of Jerusalem, and Palestinian sovereignty are thrashed out at the conference. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that those key issues will only be determined during post-summit talks.

Both leaders have been criticised as too weak to deliver a negotiated outcome which they can sell to their electorates. Mr Olmert has been under increasing pressure from the Israeli Right to not yield to key Palestinian demands.


Indonesia's peace role
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Jakarta
November 17, 2007

INDONESIA will become a substantial player in Middle East politics by being invited to the Annapolis conference to be convened by the US this month. In an exclusive interview with The Weekend Australian, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had requested Indonesia participate at the conference when he visited Jakarta recently.

"I told him that I would always be willing to be helpful to the peace process," Dr Yudhoyono said. "There is a small window of opportunity now that must be harnessed. I hope that the Annapolis meeting will be able to revive the peace process in the Middle East that we desperately need. We have not received any invitation to attend the Annapolis conference: I don't think the Americans have issued an invitation yet."

However, Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Hasan Wirajuda, said Jakarta anticipated being invited to Annapolis.


Saudi king set to pull out of summit
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 19, 2007

US President George W. Bush's Annapolis summit faced a setback last night with reports that Saudi King Abdullah may pull out of the Maryland meeting. King Abdullah has been touted by the US as a possible deal-maker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Saudi Arabia's attendance at the conference had been mooted as a triumph in itself.

The custodians of the two most holy Islamic shrines and most powerful Sunni Arab voice in the region had been implacably opposed to Israel since the state was established. Months of low-key contacts and meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and key Saudi regime figures in Jordan had raised hopes for acceptance of a Jewish state and, eventually, full diplomatic relations. But last night, the state-run Saudi news agency was flagging a likelihood that King Abdullah would not turn up to Annapolis and nor might any Saudi officials.

Also on the "maybe not" list is Syria, which has insisted that any summit that fails to table the future of the Golan Heights is not serious about solving the region's problems.

The Israeli cabinet was due to vote today on a demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state before any negotiations are held. President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian legislators remained opposed to the bid, which they see as an attempt to derail the tabling of items long at the top of their sovereignty checklist.

The Annapolis summit in Maryland - the pinnacle thus far of the Bush administration's attempts to mediate the 59-year-old Holy Land conflict - is starting to look like little more than a bilateral show of support for the two sides, rather than a leap forward with long-dormant core issues.

The morning of November 27 is looming as a likely date for Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas to meet at the White House with Mr Bush. The summit proper is due to take place that afternoon, with the world and the regional nations who end up attending finally hearing the fruits of the three sides' six months of backroom talks.

Mr Abbas spent the weekend in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, holding talks with King Abdullah. Mr Abbas is reportedly pessimistic. His aides say the negotiation rooms have been brimming with goodwill, though they have criticised the Israeli side for not giving ground on the issues they hold dear, such as the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and movement towards core statehood items, including the return of refugees, final borders and the future of Jerusalem.

Mr Olmert's aides said yesterday that substantial negotiations would start immediately following Annapolis, which would re-orientate both sides towards the "road map for peace". The road map is a prescriptive series of steps designed to lead to a two-state solution, which won the support of both sides during the blazing intifada but has remained dormant ever since. The first phase of the road map stipulates that Israel must stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and the Palestinians must stop all terror groups and militant-faction activity. Both sides have failed in their initial obligations, but US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week said those shortcomings would be set aside for now, to get the bigger picture back on track.

The Israeli Arab Higher Monitoring Committee was yesterday drafting a document that refuses to recognise the demand, led by right-wing Israeli politicians, that it recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Israel is home to a sizeable Arab minority, split between Christian and Sunni Muslim communities. "This is the last thing we will consider, nor do we need, ahead of the meeting, which was already imperilled," said committee official Raja Agabaria.

Ahead of the meeting, the mood in Israel and the West Bank remains subdued, with few on either side talking at all about it, let alone what it may produce. In Jerusalem yesterday, businessman Moshe Levi said: "We have seen it all before with Oslo, Barak and Arafat, the Beirut conference (sponsored by the Arab League in 2002) and now this. Only when it leads to something will I start reading the newspapers." In nearby Ramallah, accountant Ashraf Mouallem said: "All this is a photo opportunity for the Americans and Israelis who want to appear in the world papers standing alongside a Saudi or a Syrian official. We know it and the Saudis know it. No wonder they are wary."


Blair aid package focuses on jobs
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 20, 2007

TONY Blair was due last night to take his first significant steps as Middle East envoy by jointly releasing an aid package that aims to create tens of thousands of jobs in the West Bank on the back of moves towards peace. The former British prime minister said he was committed to finding "quick-impact" solutions to dormant economies in the territories by creating hubs of investment and jobs.

The package showcases new industrial parks and agricultural centres in the West Bank and also directs aid towards the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which has been under international boycott for 19 months. The announcement was due to be made with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who are key lieutenants of a White House plan to re-engage the West Bank and Palestinian Authority after it sacked Hamas from a power-sharing administration in June. A centrepiece of the new plan is expected to be a trade park and trade corridor from the desolate West Bank town of Jericho to nearby Jordan.

British Foreign Minister David Miliband arrived in the region at the weekend flagging a $560million aid package aimed at reinforcing the Palestinian Authority. The cash infusions, both mooted and actual, represent the biggest aid boost to the Palestinian economy since the outbreak of the intifada seven years ago. They come ahead of a US-backed Middle East summit, scheduled to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, early next week, which aims to kickstart the road map for peace - a series of prescriptive steps towards a final two state solution.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mr Barak last night said the conference would focus only on Palestinian-Israeli issues, dampening Syrian hopes that the future of the Golan Heights would be discussed. The US and Israel had held high hopes that Arab states with no diplomatic links to Israel would attend. But by last night none had committed and all were set to fall in behind an Arab League line, which was due to be determined later this week.

Mr Olmert again stressed that Syria would be welcome to attend the summit. Damascus has said it will not show up unless the future of the Golan Heights is discussed at high levels. However, last night Syrian officials were showing signs of backing away from their stance, raising hopes of Syria's belated attendance.

The US and Israel have made overtures recently to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of attempts to steer Damascus away from its alliance with Iran and the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. However, both hold grave reservations over Syria's role in Lebanon, where a string of political assassinations have seen the legislature slide towards the control of the Hezbollah-led opposition. Most observers say that if Hezbollah won control of the levers of power in Lebanon, it would return the war-torn nation to Syrian tutelage.

Ahead of Annapolis, Mr Olmert has announced plans to release 400 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The number falls well short of the 2000 demanded by the Palestinian Authority. But it marks the most significant prisoner release for several years.

Israel also said yesterday it would freeze settlement expansion and the construction of outposts in the West Bank. Settlement expansion has been a key sticking point for the Palestinians.


Mubarak, Olmert work on getting Assad to summit
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 21, 2007

EGYPTIAN leader Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last night met for sudden talks to square off positions ahead of the peace summit in Annapolis. The Egyptian elder statesman invited the Israeli leader to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, in what analysts believe was a move to clarify stances on issues to be tabled at the summit, especially tentative moves towards Palestinian sovereignty.

The leaders were also expected to discuss ways to convince Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to send a senior official to the US, despite no guarantee that the future of the Golan Heights would be discussed. In recent weeks, Syria has emerged as a key player in the conference agenda, with Israel, the US and a host of Sunni Arab states making overtures to Damascus to attend. After years of treating Syria as a regional pariah, the US has taken decisive steps to re-engage Mr Assad's regime to drive a wedge between Damascus and Iran.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will still take centre stage, with both sides saying they are optimistic that the first serious dialogue between them in seven years may pave a way towards lasting agreements. Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the US have ruled out groundbreaking announcements, dampening expectations that the summit may achieve what four other summits in the past 25 years had failed to do. Instead, the three leaders appear likely to commit to regular meetings to take steps towards the dormant road map for peace, agreed to by all sides four years ago. The White House was yesterday preparing to send invitations to Annapolis to all stake-holders, as well as Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Gulf States - none of whom hold diplomatic relations with Israel.

Mr Olmert on Monday committed the Israeli Government to fulfilling its obligations under the first leg of the road map by freezing settlement expansion in the West Bank and removing new outposts. "Let us admit to ourselves: we have promised not to build new settlements, and we will not build," he said. "We have promised not to expropriate land, we will not expropriate. We promised to remove illegal outposts, and we will remove them. We will not deviate from our principles, and we will meet our commitments. Israel is not being dragged into the process, and no one is forcing us. We are coming to Annapolis of our own free will."

The influential Arab League is to thrash out a co-ordinated position for its 13 member states on Friday. It is expected to focus on rapid moves towards core Palestinian demands, such as the fate of refugees, the future of Arab East Jerusalem and final borders. US President George W.Bush is expected to attend the summit and host a formal dinner welcoming the participants. In the restive Gaza Strip, controlled by a Hamas administration, four gunmen were killed by the Israeli army on Tuesday night near the northern border with Israel. The Israeli Defence Force said several of the militants had been attempting to lay explosives along the security barrier. In the West Bank, an Israeli man was killed in a drive-by shooting yesterday. Israeli security agencies have been on high alert ahead of the meeting.


Olmert, Abbas in harmony on talks
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 22, 2007

PALESTINIAN and Israeli officials have agreed on a joint statement to deliver at the end of the Annapolis peace conference, raising hopes the meeting may help pave a way towards a two-state deal. Invitations to the US-backed conference have been received by 40 nations, including Australia.

Saudi Arabia and Syria also received invitations, as part of a White House play to empower both Arab powerbrokers as key stakeholders in solving the 59-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Israeli Government said last night that agreement on a joint statement had been reached during final pre-summit talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The statement is believed to be about shared principles as a starting point in discussions and is not likely to amount to a breakthrough on issues that have divided the sides since the first public peace talks more than two decades ago.

However, Palestinian negotiators said more work was needed before Mr Abbas was prepared to deliver the statement alongside Mr Olmert at the end of the meeting on Tuesday. Polling in the Palestinian territories has indicated a slight fall in scepticism towards Annapolis over the past two months. However, most Palestinians and Israelis still hold little hope that it will lead to a solution to the conflict.

Public discussion on the streets of Jerusalem has been mute and Israeli newspapers have until this week largely kept coverage of the lead-up off the front pages. Across the Arab world, pre-summit negotiations have been received with deep suspicion, with many commentators claiming Annapolis would amount to little more than a photo opportunity for Israeli officials alongside delegates from Arab states with whom it holds no diplomatic relations.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon cautiously backed the summit yesterday, calling it a credible beginning to substantive negotiations. But he appeared to prod both sides towards turning their attention to more thorny issues. "This international conference in Annapolis will be a good beginning of a credible process to resolve all these issues," Mr Ban said in New York. "At the same time, I'd like to see that the participants ... base their expectations on a more practical and realistic assessment."

The Islamic movement Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, containing more than a third of the Palestinian population in the territories, remains opposed to Annapolis, calling it a sellout of the Palestinians. However, Hamas and other regional Islamic groups have cancelled a meeting that was due to run in conjunction with the US conference in Damascus. Syria has yet to announce whether it will attend the conference. It is expected to fall in line with an Arab League position to be thrashed out during a meeting of the 14-member group tomorrow.


Israelis send weapons to bolster Abbas
The Australian
Agencies, The Times - Correspondents in Jerusalem and Washington
November 23, 2007

ISRAEL has stepped up efforts to boost Mahmoud Abbas before next week's US peace summit, approving a long-delayed transfer of 25 armoured personnel carriers to the Palestinians. The Russian-made vehicles, 1000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition will be transferred to the Palestinian Authority President's forces in the West Bank, where his Fatah party is in control.

In another gesture of support, Israel, which controls the Gaza Strip's borders, announced yesterday that strawberry and flower exports from the Palestinian territory could resume. The decision follows an appeal by Palestinian farmers to save the $US12 million-a-year ($13.75 million) industry.

Since the Islamist Hamas group took control of Gaza in June, Israel has blocked almost all exports from the area, severely damaging the Gaza economy. All exports from Gaza must pass through Israel. Gaza's 40,000 farmers have repeatedly pushed for the removal of the blockade on their exports. On Tuesday, farmers fed flowers to their cattle rather than let them go to waste.

An Israeli government spokeswoman told The Times of London that the moves were a show of goodwill before the US summit in Annapolis, Maryland, on November 27. Israel would deliver an additional 25 vehicles if Mr Abbas succeeded in curbing the militant groups in the West Bank, she said. But a spokesman for Hamas, Sami Au Zuhri, said the Israeli decision proved that Mr Abbas was working "hand in hand with the occupation against the Palestinian resistance".

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert overruled his military and security services in allowing the shipment to Mr Abbas's forces, prompting criticism from the Israeli Security Council and right-wing MPs, who fear the military vehicles will fall into the hands of Palestinian militants.

In June, when Hamas overran Gaza and routed Fatah forces loyal to Mr Abbas, the group captured large quantities of weapons from pro-Abbas forces. "It is inconceivable that we are considering delivering these," Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said. "As soon as we do, we will see the terrorists of Hamas firing at our troops."

The Middle East conference called by US President George W.Bush is due to open on Monday with a dinner in Washington and then proceed with two days of talks in Annapolis and Washington. Mr Abbas and Mr Olmert are expected to have widely publicised meetings with Mr Bush to boost their domestic support. The two sides are to present a joint statement on resuming peace talks, drafted during pre-summit talks this week. The talks are intended to mark an end to the seven-year freeze on negotiations after the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week she hoped to close a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians before Mr Bush's term in office ended in January 2009. But Israeli President Shimon Peres said yesterday that such a timeline for a deal was "practically impossible". "Nobody has hopes for its outcome, but it will be the beginning of new peace negotiations," he said. More important discussions on major disputes, such as the status of Palestinian refugees, would come after the conference, Mr Peres said.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was the first Arab leader to announce his country's participation in the summit. He met former British prime minister Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy, yesterday to discuss ways of reviving the peace process. The two agreed to meet King Abdullah of Jordan and Mr Abbas in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh before a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo.

But many in the Arab world question the Bush administration's ability to forge a peace settlement. The two sides remain far apart on how to deal with the most intractable issues of the conflict, including borders, Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees.


Lebanon faces power vacuum
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 24, 2007

LEBANON'S feuding politicians were last night poised to miss their last chance to elect a new president before the incumbent's term expired, exposing the strife-torn nation to a constitutional crisis and a dangerous security vacuum. The day of reckoning came at the end of a 12-month opposition-driven political boycott, which has led Lebanon to the brink of renewed sectarian fighting and crippled its fragile economy.

The opposition bloc, led by Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran, had refused to turn up to the last session of parliament before President Emile Lahoud was due to resign at midnight. The boycott would deny legislators the two-thirds quorum needed to elect a replacement and stymie months of shuttle diplomacy from France, the US, Spain, Italy and the UN, which have desperately tried to ward off a crisis that many fear would lead to bloodshed.

Mr Lahoud, who is strongly backed by Damascus, hinted at taking a decisive unilateral step as he leaves the Presidential Palace, which many observers interpreted as asking the military to assume responsibility for governing the country. "This Government is illegitimate and unconstitutional," he said. "If it thinks it can go on without the election because of outside backing, it will bring catastrophes on the country sooner rather that later. Therefore, even if I stand alone, there are duties I must perform."

Mediators were downbeat ahead of the scheduled parliamentary session. "We wait for tomorrow without much hope," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, in Beirut. The selection process to replace Mr Lahoud had already been delayed four times during the past year. During that time, three government politicians have been assassinated, whittling away the slim majority of the Western-backed government of Fouad Siniora. The selection of a president is crucial to determining who controls Lebanon, with most observers claiming the nominee will either orientate the country back towards Syria, which left the country in mid-2005, or towards the West, which sees it as vital to its bid to install democracy in the Middle East.

The post of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's constitution. The Maronite political base effectively split in the wake of last year's war between Hezbollah and Israel, with the largest faction aligning with the Shia militia and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Straight afterwards, Hezbollah launched a bid to gain greater say in the parliament, claiming its performance in the war showed it was a party based on nationalistic, not sectarian, principles.

Politicians on both sides of the divide have spent much of the past year in hiding, choosing to emerge from barricaded homes only to engage in political horse-trading. However, assassins' bullets and bombs have felled only government politicians, leading the ruling bloc to accuse the Syrians of targeting its members as a crude way of getting its hands on the levers of power.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again rebuked Syria, demanding it stop interfering in the election process and allow Lebanon to choose a president without intimidation. "The Lebanese need to be able to carry out their constitutional processes here," she said. "It really ought to be decided without any foreign interference and certainly without any foreign intimidation. Those messages have been very clearly sent," Dr Rice said. "You hear all the time that Syria says that it wants to improve relations with the Arab world, wants to improve relations with the US. Well, stepping back and letting the Lebanese choose a president for Lebanon would be an awfully good start."


Hopes for Mid-East talks lie in common threat
The Australian
ANALYSIS: Abraham Rabinovich
November 26, 2007

A GAMBLER might be forgiven if his antennae twitch at the odds being given for the Annapolis peace conference this week succeeding. With even most participants betting against that outcome, a modest sum might reasonably be risked on a contrarian hunch that something useful will emerge. The participants, frog-marched to the meeting by Washington, have agreed to play the role of peacemakers until the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse permit them to return to a more familiar mode of confrontation. There is, however, a chance that the goodwill gestures they will be asked to make by President George W.Bush, relatively bearable at first, might set in motion a dynamic that will alter the region.

Some concessions are already in the works. Israel has reportedly dropped its position that the Palestinians make do for a lengthy period with a provisional state and provisional borders before creation of an independent state. For its part, the Palestinian Authority has begun deploying forces in the West Bank, purportedly to restrain militants. Arab states, in turn, have hinted at diplomatic relations with Israel if it freezes building activity in the West Bank.

Neither the Israelis nor Palestinians had been prepared for a peace effort until the current American initiative. Absent psychologically was an overarching trauma that would prod the sides to the negotiating table as the Yom Kippur War had done to Israel and Egypt. Absent politically was a sense that a peace agreement was workable. Israel regards Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as too weak to hold up his end of a deal and the Palestinians think the same of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was sufficient, however, for the Bush administration, weakened though it is, to flex its diplomatic muscle to have close to 50 nations agree to send high-ranking delegations.

In 1978, the Camp David negotiations between Egyptian and Israeli leaders saw both sides pack in a huff and prepare to bolt before they were swept up by the dynamics of the talks. Dynamics played a similar role 15 years later in forging the Oslo accords, despite irreconcilable Israeli and Palestinian positions.

Unlike those occasions, this time there are no charismatic leaders to propel the talks. There is, however, a new element that significantly lowers the barriers between Israel and Arab states, a common adversary - namely, Iran and the jihadists. A previously unthinkable commonality of interests has thus been formed, even if it does not constitute an alliance. There is a realisation by all parties at Annapolis that failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute fuels the increasingly dangerous extremist cause and that the dispute will not be resolved without "painful concessions" by all. To translate this recognition to a sense of urgency will require all the political savvy the mediators can muster.

It would be easy, as Olmert himself has noted, to find plausible reasons why talks will fail and why he should not make concessions that undermine his political standing at home. But he has come to see the status quo as too perilous to cling to. Peace such as that envisioned during the euphoria of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement is not on the minds of Israelis as Annapolis looms. Given Abbas's fragile status and the Hamas factor, the most that is hoped for at this stage is an accommodation with Palestinian moderates.

If Israel cuts back on West Bank roadblocks, freezes construction in Israeli settlements and makes other conciliatory gestures, Palestinians are likely to increasingly join the peace camp. In such a dynamic of cumulative steps and slowly shifting perspectives lies the hope of Annapolis. Peace today is not made by heroes but by exhausted politicians who can't think of anything else to do.


Late rush to Mid-East summit
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
November 27, 2007

A LATE surge of Arab support for the Middle East summit has raised hopes that the meeting, which starts in Annapolis tonight, will help stymie a seven-year regional decline and pave a way for peace talks with Israel. Support in the Palestinian territories for the meeting was running yesterday at 72 per cent, according to local media. All Arab League states, with the exception of Bahrain, have agreed to send delegates - most at a senior minister level - marking the first time most of its members have publicly sat at the same table as an Israeli delegation. Ahead of their arrival in Annapolis, in the northeastern US state of Maryland, Arab ministers were warned that the conference would deal solely with the 59-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

However, a late concession that delegates can raise whatever issues they want has sparked hope that progress can be made in other imbroglios, such as the future of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in1967. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a late clause in the summit agenda to allow a broader forum to debate nation-state concerns was enough to lure arch enemy Syria to turn up. "As a result of the inclusion of this phrase, I believe Syria ... decided to attend the conference," she said.

Saudi Arabia has also flagged its attendance, a move that consolidates months of back-channel diplomatic contacts, and several high-level meetings, between the desert kingdom and the Jewish state. "There isn't a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement with Israel without the support of the Arab world," Ms Livni said. "This is one of the lessons we learned seven years ago. We are going to an event in which the whole Arab world is participating, which is meant to support the process between Israel and the Palestinians."

The Israeli and Palestinian delegations stuck to their positions before the conference opening: that it would not produce concrete steps towards a two-state solution. Both sides also offered conflicting views on whether a joint statement would be delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the conference's conclusion late tomorrow.

A joint statement of principles had been seen as an important confidence-building prelude to direct talks on Palestinian sovereignty issues. However, Mr Abbas had been increasingly pessimistic about making the joint declaration in recent days, while the Israeli delegation said it was no longer important. US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said: "If we get something, if they can agree on some things as an input to the negotiations, that would be fine. But I think it is really no longer on the critical path to a successful conference."

US President George W. Bush, who has invested much foreign policy capital in the summit, said he strongly backed a two-state solution. "I remain personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," he said. "The Israelis and Palestinians have waited a long time for thisvision to be realised, and I call upon all those gathering in Annapolis this week to redouble their efforts to turn dreams of peace into reality."

Iran remains steadfastly opposed to the meeting, accusing many countries who plan to turn up of being ignorant. "Those attending the meeting and giving concessions to the Zionist occupiers will not be remembered in history as having a good reputation," he said.

Up to 40 nations have agreed to attend, with the world's most populous Muslim state, Indonesia, also taking a prominent seat at the conference table.


Source: Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th edition - Sir Martin Gilbert;
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2002;
ISBN: 0415281172 (paperback),
0415281164 (hardback); Map: NPR Online

Following a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the Sinai - but not the Gaza strip - was returned to them 1980-1982.

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.


Compromise for peace, urges Bush
The Australian
Geoff Elliott, Washington correspondent
November 28, 2007

US President George W. Bush warned Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday "difficult compromises" would be required on the road to peace, as Saudi Arabia made clear it expected an aggressive attempt to broker a final deal. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that the much-anticipated Middle East peace conference, which opened last night in Annapolis, Maryland, was not a time for theatrics, and said Saudi Arabia had largely agreed to attend because of the determination of its ally, the US, to advance the peace process. But Prince Faisal vowed neither to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, nor talk to him, during the meeting. On the eve of his departure for the US, Prince Faisal had said in Riyadh: "I think this is really a turning point. The next conflict will be very dangerous." He told Time magazine the Bush regime was capable of driving moves towards a lasting deal in the Middle East. "We have confidence in that. I hope we are proven right," he said. "Israel has to make a choice ... It is time for them to try a different policy, a policy of accepting to live with the Palestinians."

Central Washington was in lockdown at times yesterday as top Israeli and Palestinian officials gathered for what the Bush administration hopes will be one of the biggest breakthroughs in Middle East peace negotiations in more than a decade. As Washington streets filled with security personnel, Mr Bush held private meetings with Mr Olmert in the Oval Office before moving on to separate afternoon talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. While doing so, the US leader voiced typical optimism, despite the odds. "I'm looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the President of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or not peace is possible," Mr Bush told Mr Olmert. "I'm optimistic, I know you're optimistic, and I want to thank you for your courage and your friendship," he said.

The high-level meetings in Washington came as key players from the Middle East and around the world gathered ahead of today's talks in Annapolis, which is about an hour's drive outside the US capital. The crucial talks come as Mr Bush, Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas all face trouble on the home front, with low opinion poll ratings and domestic controversies - a factor that could motivate the three leaders to push harder for a settlement to help shore up their political legacies.

Mr Olmert said he was pleased with the international community's support for the conference. The gathering includes foreign ministers and top officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and about four dozen other countries and organisations. Syria, in a last-minute decision, is sending a deputy foreign minister. "The international support is very important for us," Mr Olmert said. He thanked Mr Bush for helping the parties reach a "point wherefrom we and the Palestinians will sit together, in Jerusalem, and work out something that will be very good to create a great hope for our peoples".

Mr Bush thanked Mr Abbas in the Oval Office for "working hard to implement a vision for a Palestinian state". "We want to help you," he told Mr Abbas during a brief photo opportunity. "The United States cannot impose our vision, but we can help facilitate. And the process will begin tonight at the State Department, and then on to Annapolis tomorrow."

In 2002, Mr Bush was the first US president to declare support for a Palestinian state, but he has been criticised for taking a back seat in the Middle East peace negotiations since. Mr Abbas described Mr Bush's Annapolis conference as a "historic initiative". "We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce ... expanded negotiations over all permanent status issues (and lead) to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people, an agreement to secure security and stability," he said through an interpreter.

But Mr Bush ignored questions from reporters about how an agreement could be reached without the involvement of Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamic movement that controls the Gaza Strip.

US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Mr Bush would open the conference today with a speech that would indicate a peace deal was one of the top priorities of his final year in office. The peace conference will be held at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. But the negotiations will be kept out of sight, amid extraordinary security - boats will not be allowed within 3.7km of the academy. All non-commercial and non-emergency flights will also be barred from the skies over Annapolis today.

28 Nov - Western Wall
Jewish men pray during a special prayer against the U.S. sponsored Annapolis meeting at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Picture: AP

Same Day: Hamas warning to Abbas: don't give ground

Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent

THE Hamas rulers of Gaza and their backers in Iran have launched strong condemnations of the regional peace summit at which Palestinian and Israeli leaders last night took centre stage. Hours before the meeting was due to begin in Annapolis, near Washington DC, Hamas warned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to give ground on core issues for Palestinians around the region, particularly the claim of right of return of refugees to homes they fled in 1948. Deposed Palestinian prime minister and senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya warned from Gaza that Mr Abbas could not claim to speak for all Palestinians. He flagged an uprising if Mr Abbas gave ground in negotiations without first consulting the electorate.

Mr Olmert also faced protests at home, with right-wing activists insisting he had no right to do deals on Jerusalem or the West Bank, and was leading Israel to disaster by taking part in the talks.

Iran mounted the most intense diplomatic offensive, claiming Annapolis was a failure before it had begun. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Arab states that took part in the meeting ran a risk of being seduced by a "Zionist" stunt. The summit is being seen by regional observers as an attempt to drive a wedge between Iran and key Arab states, by encouraging them to forge relations with Tehran's arch-enemy, Israel. Israeli and Palestinian officials have been trying to hammer out a document outlining a framework of the peace negotiations that the White House hopes will lead to a Palestinian state, perhaps before US President George W.Bush leaves office in January 2009.

After months of disinterest in the summit, the mood on the Palestinian and Israeli street appears to have brightened. "The attendance of the 16 Arab states was a turning point for me," said Faisal al-Turk, an East Jerusalem resident. "If they are there, they want to get things done. They now can't afford to walk away without a result because they have something invested in it as well." At a nearby coffee shop, Jerusalem resident Moshe Ben Ariv said both sides were nearing a last chance to solve the conflict and that a new phase of regional violence could erupt if the meeting was deemed a failure. "We had seven years of not being able to sit in cafes like this," he said. "Now we can, but if this goes down the drain it won't be just the suicide bombers we fear."

The talks between the two sides are the first for seven years and the participation en masse of the Arab states is unprecedented.


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 blas? 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."

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