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Israel all at sea over Gaza
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Click here for a clearer Word document of the above image

Israeli commandos, wounded when they stormed a convoy of ships attempting to break the Gaza blockade, arrive in Tel Aviv for treatment. Source: AFP

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


SO who won ' In the short run, at least, Hamas was the clear winner of the naval confrontation off Israel's coast on Monday. The dramatic clash focused world attention on the almost forgotten Gaza Strip and the three-year-old Israeli blockade (partnered by Egypt) that restricts imports to Gaza to humanitarian goods such as food and medicine. The public relations victory was the biggest success for Hamas since its forcible takeover of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority three years ago.

It was a victory, too, for foreign supporters of the Palestinian cause, particularly the Turkish government, which was an unofficial sponsor of the flotilla. The protests from across the world at the Israeli action will have achieved the Turkish aim of internationalising the Gaza issue rather than leave it as a cause that primarily concerns Muslim nations. For Israel, the maritime confrontation was an extremely embarrassing event that played out in a way no one expected despite the war games the navy staged before the flotilla arrived, running through different scenarios. The sight of naval commandos being clubbed to the deck as they landed on the Turkish vessel Marmari, mother ship of the six-vessel flotilla, was a shock for Israelis.

The naval commando unit is one of Israel's most elite military forces and its exploits are renowned. It has been extensively used to thwart arms smuggling and terror operations in neighbouring countries and was reported last year to have been involved in the long-range interdiction in Sudan of an arms convoy bound from Iran to the Gaza Strip. It is, however, not a unit that normally deals with hostile civilians. Other units that have such experience were considered less suitable for boarding a moving vessel at sea. What was considered to be a fairly routine policing mission, however, quickly turned out to be something else.

Aware of the foreign observers aboard the vessel, including MPs from several countries, the Israeli planners went to great lengths to make the takeover of the vessel, ostensibly on a humanitarian mission, as non-violent as possible. Members of the boarding party were all equipped with pistols but were told to keep them out of sight. The weapon slung over the shoulders of most of them was a paintball rifle, which could be mistaken for something more serious if pointed at somebody but would not normally be the weapon of choice in a combat situation. The navy had provided the men with other non-fatal "crowd control" equipment, which it admitted later was insufficient. A few of the soldiers carried regular rifles just in case.

However, sliding down the rope from the helicopter, the commandos wore asbestos gloves, which make it impossible to fire any weapon until removed. When they landed on the deck they did not have time to remove the glove before they were set on by a frenzied mob. In the dismal aftermath of the incident, numerous questions are being asked, including why the operation was permitted to proceed when it was clear that the commandos were being lowered, one by one, into a lion's den where they were being overwhelmed. The initial response was that violent resistance was not expected and that once the first commandos had been knocked down — one of them knifed, then thrown on to a lower deck — it was necessary to send in the others on the helicopter in an attempt to rescue them.

At some point, in fact, the commandos managed to clear a space from which they could fight and commanders in an adjacent naval boat called out over loudspeakers to use their pistols "if you have to". The development of the fight from that point is not yet clear. Nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed and several dozen wounded. Seven commandos were also wounded, two of them by gunfire. The other five ships in the flotilla were taken over without incident by commandos boarding from rubber boats.

As messy as the operation was, however, in the long run, and perhaps even the not-so-long run, the incident may reinforce Israel's deterrent image, a keystone of its security structure. Israel made clear that it would enforce its declared policies — in this case regarding Gaza — regardless of the price it had to pay in the form of international goodwill.

There is much similarity with Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon four years ago and its incursion into Gaza to fight Hamas last year, both operations being roundly condemned by the international community. In Lebanon, Israel reacted to an attack on a border patrol and the kidnapping of two soldiers — actions undertaken by Hezbollah, and not for the first time — by launching a bombing campaign against Hezbollah targets. Since the targets were located mostly in Shi'ite villages, including rocket launchers inside houses, much of southern Lebanon was devastated. A self-contained Hezbollah neighbourhood in Beirut was blitzed. Protests were staged in the Muslim world and elsewhere, and even friendly countries denounced Israel's aggression.

Since then, however, the Lebanese border has been totally peaceful for the first time in many years and farmers till the land up to the border fence.

Likewise with Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip in January last year. For eight years, thousands of locally made rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel by Hamas and other militant organisations. In time, longer range rockets brought sizeable Israeli cities into range. Israel staged periodic raids and frequent air attacks in an effort to stem the rocketing but without success. The government of then prime minister Ehud Olmert warned Hamas that if the rocketing did not cease Israel would invade, but the rocketing continued. Finally, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in which more than 1000 Palestinians, militants and civilians, were killed and thousands of homes destroyed. Condemnation of Israel was universal. The UN's Goldstone report was a devastating indictment of Israel for alleged war crimes although Israel and many outside observers would find the report hypocritical in paying no more than lip service to the Hamas provocations that preceded the incursion. The report also dismissed Israel's unprecedented efforts to limit civilian casualties, including tens of thousands of telephone calls made to residents during the three-week war warning them to leave targeted areas.

For some weeks after Israel withdrew, Hamas continued a symbolic firing of rockets but then ceased altogether when Israel responded forcefully. Now, Hamas even attempts to prevent smaller organisations from firing rockets since Israel has made it clear that it will hold Hamas responsible as the ruling authority in Gaza. Life in Israeli towns and villages abutting the Gaza Strip has returned to normal after years of trauma.

The lesson for Israel, one relearned periodically through the years, is that in the Middle East, at least, a credible projection of strength is basic to peace. Had Israel reacted forcefully to previous Hezbollah provocations, including earlier cross-border kidnappings of soldiers, peace would likely have been achieved on the Lebanese border without need of the 2006 war. If Israel had carried out a significant incursion into Gaza years before, Operation Cast Lead would probably have been unnecessary.

If the Marmari flotilla had been permitted to reach Gaza, it could have opened the way to regular maritime shipping, including war materiel, to the Hamas port. It also would reveal Israel as a paper tiger unable to enforce its own blockade. Paper tigers do not last long in this region.

It can be expected that the unpleasantness over the Marmari incident will likewise subside, particularly after the Israeli videos of the commando operation are digested by public opinion, at least in the West. As Israeli officials note, the violent behaviour of the activists on the boat's deck were not those of humanitarians bringing aid to a beleaguered population, as the flotilla's organisers depicted the mission, but of anti-Israel provocateurs. The diplomatic fallout may prove more serious this time than in the Lebanon and Gaza cases because of the serious threat to diplomatic ties with Turkey, but Israel has factored in that possibility.

The flotilla organisers can take credit for stirring a debate inside Israel over the efficacy of the Gaza embargo, which was imposed three years ago after Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel continued to permit entry into Gaza of humanitarian goods such as as food, medicine and clothing. But it refused entry of supplies that could build up Gaza's economy. It also banned building materials such as concrete on the grounds that Hamas could use the material for building bunkers.

Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas refuses to recognise Israel and is publicly committed to its demise. Cairo, which is leery of Hamas because of its ties to the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, also has closed its entry to the Gaza Strip. The furore over the blockade has raised questions in Israel as to whether the embargo is politically cost-effective. Defence Minister Ehud Barack says there will be a change in Israel's embargo policy if Hamas frees the captured Israeli soldier it holds, Gilad Shalit, and terminates all terrorist activity.

Meanwhile, two more vessels are sailing towards Gaza with the declared intention of running the Israeli blockade in the coming days. It appears likely that Israel will move to stop them, too, despite the widespread condemnation it is sure to reap. Officers say the tactics employed will be different next time. There were suggestions among commando veterans that the navy simply foul the rudders of blockade runners and leave them to drift for a while. But naval commandos are unlikely again to undertake a military operation again carrying paintball guns as their primary persuader.


Same Day
John Lyons and Paul Maley
Additional reporting: agencies

A NEW high-seas confrontation between Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters is looming after the Free Gaza Movement yesterday announced another two boats will attempt to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. The move came as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last night Israel should be punished for its "bloody massacre" on Monday of the six aid ships bound for Gaza, warning the Jewish state not to test Turkey's patience. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last night ordered the opening of the Rafah border crossing to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

The diplomatic escalation came as it emerged that an Australian man was injured in the bloody confrontation between Israeli commandos and activists that killed at least 10 people and injured up to 30 on the flotilla's flagship, the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara. Ahmed Talib, 20, who was on Mavi Marmara when it led the blockade-busting attempt, was in Rabin Medical Centre in Petah Tikva yesterday after having what medical authorities described as "general surgery" and being "lightly injured". Mr Talib has been visited by Australian consular officials and is believed to be recovering. There are four other Australians from the flotilla in Beersheba prison in Israel who are likely to be deported over the next week. They include Fairfax journalist Paul McGeough and photographer Kate Geraghty, and two activists, one of whom is understood to be the wife of Mr Talib.

Kevin Rudd yesterday joined a chorus of international criticism of Israel over the attack. The Prime Minister called on Israel to conduct an independent inquiry and forward the conclusion to the UN Security Council. "The Australian government condemns any use of violence under the sorts of circumstances that we have seen," Mr Rudd said. "Furthermore, we are deeply concerned about the loss of life which has occurred."

The UN Security Council yesterday called for "an immediate and impartial inquiry" into the raid. Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza Movement said another cargo boat was off the coast of Italy en route to Gaza. A second boat carrying about three dozen passengers is expected to join it. She said the two boats would arrive in the region late this week or early next week. "This initiative is not going to stop," she said from the group's base in Cyprus. "We think eventually Israel will get some kind of common sense. They're going to have to stop the blockade of Gaza, and one of the ways to do this is for us to continue to send the boats."

News of the new boats bound for Gaza came as recriminations began in Israel following the bungled interception in international waters of the flotilla on Monday. Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, yesterday focused its attack on Defence Minister Ehud Barak over the Israeli raid on the flotilla, running the words "Barak, Resign" on its front page. Israel radio yesterday quoted "military sources" saying that in future Israel would handle such operations in a different manner. The Jerusalem Post, normally very supportive of the Netanyahu government, carried a front-page analysis yesterday saying: "The damage this operation has caused the IDF and Israel cannot be underestimated."

Demonstrations were held in several cities around the world, particularly in Turkey and Greece. About 50 of the estimated 680 protesters on the boats have agreed to leave Israel voluntarily but the majority — about 600 — have refused and are being held in Israeli jails. About 30 of the protesters remain in hospital while at least 10 are confirmed dead.

Despite cancelling a meeting in Washington with Barack Obama on the struggling peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that this had been a case of Israeli commandos defending themselves when attacked by protesters as they boarded the ships. Israel has imposed a media blackout on those who were on the boats, and any access to the soldiers they say were shot or stabbed. Israel has denied access to any of the protesters on the flotilla and has taken all communications equipment from them. The anger inside Israel is directed heavily at the political level rather than military. A strong public sentiment is that commandos should never be put in a position of such uncertainty.

Also Same Day
Grotesque theatre succeeded brilliantly
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

THIS may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the Middle East. Not because of the loss of life, which was tragic, but alas not uncommon in the Middle East. Not because of the public relations disaster for Israel. The Jewish state was sucker-punched by demonstrators determined to provoke an ugly Israeli reaction and international PR disaster. By beating Israeli sailors nearly to death as soon as they landed, the protesters made a violent reaction inevitable. You cannot attempt to kill armed soldiers without suffering casualties. Nor is the real significance of this incident that there will be another global round of Israel-bashing. That happens all the time. No, the real strategic significance of the violence off the northern coast of Israel lies in Turkey.

It is in Ankara and Istanbul, and on the vast Anatolian plains, that we may be witnessing a profound reshaping of the Middle East strategic order, and therefore the global strategic order. It's too early to call it definitively, but the evidence is disturbing.

In the melee of the Gaza ships, real violence occurred on only one ship, the Marmara. It was a Turkish vessel and its activists came from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). The IHH is a pro-Hamas Islamist terror group implicated in numerous al-Qa'ida operations. They took clubs, steel bars, knives and perhaps guns on board. But their object was not to kill Israeli soldiers — though they would have been happy for that to happen. The aim was a kind of grotesque theatre, which is what all terrorism is really about, in this case to carry out enough violence to ensure a violent Israeli reaction. It succeeded brilliantly.

For weeks before the flotilla set off, the Israelis were constantly nagging the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv to help them manage the situation. We can do nothing, the Turkish government said, adding the matter was being carried out by non-government organisations. The flotilla never had any interest in getting aid to Gaza. The Israelis offered to route the aid through the Israeli port of Ashdod. Or the flotilla could have landed in Egypt and sent the aid in by road. No, the flotilla existed only to make political theatre and the IHH activists were determined to make deadly theatre, for the more deadly the performance is, the bigger the theatre becomes.

The Turkish government seized on the incident to damn Israel in every way, to accuse it of piracy and banditry and murder.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to office in 2002. The AKP was formed out of old Islamist parties but it trod warily in its early years in office. Previous Islamist governments had been turfed out by the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guardian of Kemal Ataturk's secular republic. Over the years the AKP has neutered the military, silenced much of the independent media and slowly weakened secularism. Recently it has hosted Hamas visits and its leaders make frequent visits themselves to Iran and Syria. Erdogan joined with Brazil in offering to reprocess Iran's nuclear fuel to avoid UN sanctions on Iran.

Turkey is a member of NATO and it had traditionally been Israel's only Muslim ally. A decade ago, Turkey's agenda was liberalisation, European Union membership and close military co-operation with Israel. Now its agenda is hostility to the West, denunciation of Israel and creeping Islamisation. The way its government has used this incident to polarise its people against Israel is skilful and speaks of deep planning.

The flotilla tragedy reaped all kinds of other benefits for global Islamists as well. It knocked off course the planned meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. Such meetings are critical counters to the international effort to delegitimise Israel. And it made a new intifada much more likely within the occupied territories.

This was a bad day not only for Israel, but for the collective West. Hamas and its friends are sanguine about the loss of a few lives in pursuit of strategic gains.


Extract - Egypt breaks blockade on Gaza Strip
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Thursday, June 3, 2010

EGYPT has undercut Israel by breaking its three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, as the international community heightened condemnation of Israel over its attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. Egypt said it was opening its border with Gaza for the first time in more than a year to allow in humanitarian aid, setting off a mad rush to the crossing by thousands from both sides of the frontier.

Following a call by NATO for the immediate release of the 600 protesters being held in Israeli jails, Israel began a major operation yesterday to deport them all. Five Australians were on boats in the aid flotilla — four were held in prison in Beersheba, including two from the Australian media who were believed to have the option to leave overnight, but only if they signed an agreement to stay out of Israel for 10 years. A fifth Australian, a man shot in the leg during the Israeli commando raid, was expected to leave once he had recovered.

The Israeli military confirmed that the bulk of cargo on the flotilla was medical equipment and humanitarian aid, and no guns or weapons were found. The Israelis displayed some of the seized cargo, including boxes of medicine, wheelchairs, hospital beds and wheelchairs, but claimed Gaza had enough of these. "The equipment we found is all equipment we have regularly allowed into the Strip over the past year," said Colonel Moshe Levi, commander of Israel's Gaza Strip administration unit.

Angry recriminations escalated in Israel, with Yossi Sarid, a former minister and leading figure in the Labor and Meretz parties, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner cabinet as "seven idiots". "As preparations for the big sea confrontation proceeded, it became increasingly clear it would end badly," he wrote on the front page of Haaretz. "After all, the troops were being prepared by seven idiots and their subordinates — people who cannot see beyond the ends of their noses."

Israeli officials said about 300 Turkish protesters were bused to Tel Aviv airport yesterday, while about 150 Arabs and Muslims from countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations were taken to the Allenby land crossing, to go to Jordan. The departures came as Israel faced growing condemnation in major international organisations including NATO, the European Union and the UN.

But Mr Netanyahu rejected calls by the UN Security Council for an independent investigation into what occurred. Israel maintains the commandos acted in self-defence after being attacked as they were lowered onto one of the boats from military helicopters. And Mr Netanyahu defended the blockade of Gaza, which Israel has maintained for three years since Hamas was elected in the Gaza Strip. "It's important to understand this is essential to protect Israel and its right to defend itself," he said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected calls to abandon the indirect talks with Israel that began recently, with the US as mediator. Mr Abbas is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington next week. And a meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, cancelled over the crisis, is to be held soon.


Same Day
Extract - Israel expects split with Turkey
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

ISRAEL has evacuated the families of its diplomats in Turkey in anticipation of a severing of diplomatic relations by Ankara. With anti-Israel sentiment sweeping Turkey, Israeli officials said concern for the security of the families prompted their speedy evacuation yesterday. Israeli diplomats remain in Turkey but the embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul have been closed.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken an increasingly antagonistic line towards Israel as he moves his country closer to ties with Arab countries and Iran, called the killings aboard the ship a "bloody massacre" and said "Israel has shown once again how good it is at killing people". In what is regarded in Jerusalem as a possibly menacing tone, he said: "No one should test Turkey's patience. Turkey's hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable." There is some concern in Israel that Mr Erdogan might order Turkish warships to accompany future convoys bringing aid to the Gaza Strip.

Israel is bracing for the arrival of two more vessels in the coming days seeking to break its naval blockade of Gaza. The chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, Tzahi Hanegbi, said yesterday the vessels would be invited to enter Ashdod Port in southern Israel so their cargoes could be examined to ensure they contained no materials that could be used by Hamas for military purposes. The cargoes would then be transported by truck to the Gaza Strip. "We must not deviate an iota from our (blockade) policy," he said. Asked about the possibility of Turkish military escorts for future convoys, he said: "I don't think this . . . is being planned." A senior Israeli naval officer said the vessels would be seized if they did not agree to dock in Ashdod.


Extract - Protest ship Rachel Corrie turns back as support vessels 'sabotaged'
The Australian Online
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, June 5, 2010, 12:00am

THE pro-Palestinian protest ship Rachel Corrie will return to Ireland instead of pushing on to Gaza, a spokeswoman said yesterday, after two auxiliary vessels that were to accompany it suffered engine breakdowns as a result of sabotage. The spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement told Israeli Army Radio that Israel was behind the breakdown. The small Irish-flag vessel is carrying 15 passengers, Irish and Malaysian. Since it was too small to accommodate journalists, two smaller vessels had been leased, but both broke down at sea.

An Israeli intelligence officer briefing the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee earlier in the week said some of the boats that were to have joined the Gaza-bound flotilla intercepted by the Israeli navy this week had been "dealt with" by covert means and would not be joining the others. Audrey Bomse, legal adviser to the Free Gaza Movement, said the two passenger boats intended to carry journalists sustained such serious technical damage while docked in Greece last weekend that they would not be able to sail for weeks.

The Israeli navy has boarded and taken control of Gaza-bound MV Rachel Corrie without incident
Source: AFP

Different story emerges
'Gaza stand-off over'
declares Netanyahu
as Rachel Corrie crew co-operate
AdelaideNow Online
Staff Writers, NewsCore
Saturday, June 5, 2010 11:35PM

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the peaceful ending to a stand-off between the navy and Gaza-bound foreign aid ship the Rachel Corrie, which concluded without violence. "We saw today the difference between a ship of peace activists, with whom we don't agree but respect their right to a different opinion from ours, and between a ship of hate organised by violent Turkish terror extremists," the premier's office cited him as saying.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed the Navy boarded the boat and took control without meeting "any resistance" from the crew or the passengers. "Everything took place without violence," she added.

In Sydney, protesters burnt an Israeli flag after observing a minute's silence at Sydney's Town Hall yesterday to acknowledge those killed in Gaza since the state of Israel was formed 62 years ago. More than 40 police looked on as about 2000 angry protesters from Sydney's Middle Eastern communities gathered for the second time in a week at Town Hall to express their outrage over Israel's blockade of Gaza.

And thousands more people took to the streets across Europe as protests against Israel's actions stepped up in cities across Turkey, Ireland, the UK and France. Swedish dockworkers also revealed they planned to launch a week-long blockade of Israeli ships and goods arriving in the Nordic nation in protest against the raid. Swedish Port Workers Union spokesman Peter Annerback said workers will refuse to handle Israeli goods and ships during the blockade which will take place from June 15-24.

Meanwhile the Israeli military confirmed the Irish-owned 1,322-ton vessel Rachel Corrie was escorted safely back to the port at Ashdod after taking control of the aid ship. The Israeli army said the ship was carrying 11 pro-Palestinian activists and eight crew while organisers say there are five Irish citizens on board, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, and six Malaysians.

The boat was carrying around 1,000 tons of aid and supplies, half of which was reportedly cement — a substance barred by Israel for fear it could be used for building fortifications. The goods on board would be inspected and then transferred to Gaza via land, the IDF said.

The Rachel Corrie crew initially refused to respond to four requests from the navy to head for the southern port of Ashdod and stayed its course for the Gaza Strip, which is under an Israeli naval blockade. Activists on board the ship previously indicated they would not heed Israeli calls to change course and would continue to head for their destination — although they were prepared to let their cargo be inspected. However, the ship was intercepted by the Israeli Navy in international waters shortly after dawn, with troops holding back from boarding the vessel for several hours. It later entered Ashdod five hours after it was commandeered by Israeli forces.

But the takeover prompted a furious response from the Dublin-based Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. "For the second time in less than a week, Israeli forces stormed and hijacked an unarmed aid ship, kidnapping its passengers and forcing the ship toward Ashdod port," it said.

The Irish government, which had urged Israel to allow the ship to reach Gaza, was kept informed of developments as the situation unfolded. In a statement, the Israeli Defence Forces defended their actions under international law. "The rules of warfare allow the capturing of naval vessels prior to their actual violation of a naval blockade," it said. "This is dependent on the vessels being on their way to a blockaded area, being outside the territorial waters of neutral states and when there is a substantial likelihood (based on credible evidence) that the vessels intend to violate the blockade. Declarations by the flotilla 's organisers and their reactions to the messages that were transmitted to them during their approach clearly show that they had intended to break the naval blockade, thus allowing for the steps taken by IDF forces."

Post Mortem extract - Israel moves swiftly to expel Rachel Corrie activists, crew
Sunday, June 6, 2010, 5:42pm

ALL activists and crew on board the Rachel Corrie aid ship which tried to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza would be expelled from Israel today, an Israeli immigration official told AFP. "Everyone on board the boat will be expelled on Sunday after they signed a waiver renouncing their right to appeal to an Israeli judge," said Sabine Haddad.

She said six Malaysian nationals and a Cuban would leave Israel through the Allenby crossing into Jordan, while the remaining 11 people would fly out of Israel from Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv. Immigration officials earlier said the process had been delayed after the five Irish nationals, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, had initially refused to sign the waiver. The activists and crew were taken to the Holon immigration centre near Tel Aviv for questioning.

Front page extract - Turkish leader may join ship
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, June 7, 2010

ISRAEL would allow Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to sail through the Gaza blockade if he honoured a pledge to join protesters in the aid flotilla, the Israeli Foreign Ministry told The Australian last night. Mr Erdogan said at the weekend he was considering boarding an aid boat and asking the Turkish navy to escort other boats that sailed for Gaza from Turkey. Both moves would be a dramatic escalation of the crisis.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official told The Australian Israel would allow Mr Erdogan to sail. "Of course, the Turkish PM would not be stopped or towed to Ashdod, but it would mean he had decided to clearly join the camp of Hamas," the official said.

Same Day
Palestinian divers killed by Israeli navy
The Australian Online

ISRAELI forces killed four Palestinian commandos at sea off Gaza today. The Israeli military said it had foiled a terror attack and that the commandos were on their way to attack targets in the Jewish state.

In a text message sent to reporters in Gaza, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — the remnants of a violent offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction — said the four men killed were members of its marine unit who were training in Gaza's sea. Palestinian witnesses said they saw Israeli helicopters and naval forces firing on a vessel off the coast of Nusseirat, south of Gaza City, at around 4.00 am local time. Two hours later, four bodies in diving suits were pulled from the water and taken to hospital, medical sources and witnesses said. Searches were under way for another two people still believed to be missing after the pre-dawn attack.

The Israeli military said a naval force in the area had attacked a boat carrying "a squad of terrorists wearing diving suits on their way to execute a terror attack". "The force fired and hit the terrorists,'' a military spokesman said, without giving any further details of the operation. Several hours later, there was an Israeli air strike in northern Gaza, which injured an armed Hamas militant, Palestinian medical and security sources said. The strike occurred just east of Jabaliya, they added.


New threats to Gaza blockade
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

THE coast off Gaza is becoming the Middle East's new flashpoint, with Iran and Hezbollah declaring intentions to break the Israeli blockade and international strategy focusing on "new ways" to settle Palestinian concerns.

Arab solidarity deepened with the announcement that the secretary-general of the 22-nation Arab League would make a groundbreaking "solidarity" visit to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip this week. The visit, the first trip of its kind by the Arab League, is aimed at showing solidarity with Palestinians and emphasizing the need for inter-Palestinian reconciliation. On cue, the leader of the Palestinian group Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas said he would send a delegation to Gaza to seek reconciliation with the Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement. "The best answer to (the raid) ... is for Palestinian groups to reconcile and resist Israel hand-in-hand," Mr Abbas said.

US Vice-President Joe Biden, in Egypt for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, refused to be drawn into direct US condemnation of Israel's bloody attack on a peace flotilla to Gaza last week but said, significantly, that Washington was seeking "new ways" to deal with Gaza. "We are consulting closely with Egypt, as well as our other partners, on new ways to address the humanitarian, economic, security and political aspects of the situation in Gaza," he said. He warned against Iranian "destabilisation" in the Middle East as Iran's Revolutionary Guard declared its readiness to provide a military escort to ships that sought to take humanitarian aid to Gaza. As well, Iran's Red Crescent ambulance organisation plans to send three aid ships to Gaza. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also urged a new flotilla to Gaza.

Nine activists, all Turkish citizens, were killed last week and about 30 injured when Israeli commandos boarded a protest flotilla in international waters as it was sailing towards Gaza with humanitarian aid in defiance of the Israeli blockade.

A group of former Israel naval commanders sent a letter yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejecting government claims that it was merely a public relations and intelligence failure. "We believe that the operation ended in disaster on a military and diplomatic level," they said. "We do not agree with the claims that there was an intelligence gap that caused the outcome. In addition, we do not accept the claim that there was a PR failure and we believe that the formula chosen ahead of time was doomed to fail."

Israel's biggest selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth carried a front-page article yesterday by one of the country's leading journalists, Nahum Barnea, saying Israel should lift the blockade of Gaza and support the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. He wrote: "As of now, Israel has no leader and it has no leadership."

Israel is under pressure to agree to a committee of inquiry with international representatives to examine exactly what occurred during the flotilla confrontation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has spoken to Mr Netanyahu to urge him to agree to an investigation headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer.


Same Day
Activists were trained thugs: Bibi

JERUSALEM: Israel's Prime Minister yesterday said the Turkish activists who battled Israeli naval commandos in a deadly clash last week had prepared for and instigated the fight. Benjamin Netanyahu's charges highlight Israel's frantic efforts to portray the activists as terrorists and counter a wave of international condemnation that has left the Jewish state isolated and at odds with some of its closest allies. Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet that "dozens of thugs" from "an extremist, terrorism-supporting" organisation had readied themselves for the naval commandos. "This group boarded separately in a different city, organised separately, equipped itself separately and went on deck under different procedures," he said. "The clear intent of this hostile group was to initiate a violent clash with (Israeli) soldiers."

The ship was organised by the IHH, a Turkish Islamic charity that Israel has outlawed because of alleged ties to Hamas. IHH head Bulent Yildirim said yesterday all passengers had boarded the ship in the Turkish port of Antalya, and rejected suggestions that the activists were trained militants. "Take a look at who was killed. They had pot bellies. They were old. They were young. Who would believe that they received special training ?" he said. Muslim outrage over Israeli violence showed strongly in Asia yesterday as the Malaysian Prime Minister condemned Israel as "world gangsters". "The Israeli commandos shot the activists point-blank and even from the back, and this is an act of a coward which cannot be forgiven," Najib Razak told Malaysia's parliament. A vessel in the second protest flotilla to Gaza, the Rachel Corrie, was sponsored by a Malaysian foundation and had six Malaysians on board when it was seized by Israel last weekend.


Israel set to probe raid on aid flotilla
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

BENDING to international pressure in the wake of the fatal storming last week of a Gaza-bound convoy by the Israeli navy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proposing to set up a panel of jurists to investigate the incident. The panel would consist of Israeli jurists with recognised expertise in maritime law who would examine whether Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and its boarding of an aid convoy on the high seas were legal. Two international jurists, at least one of them American, would be invited to participate as observers.

Israel's most respected political analyst, Nahum Barnea of Yediot Achronot, dismissed the proposed panel as toothless. "At best, this would be a learned seminar on an aspect of international law," he wrote yesterday, not a serious investigation. Although the broad outlines of the investigation were leaked by the Prime Minister's office, the panel will not be appointed until Washington has given its approval of the proposal. If the type of panel and its mandate are not acceptable to the Obama administration "there is no point in establishing it", Israeli officials said.

The probe would not include the political decision-making process that led to the order to the navy to board the six-vessel convoy billed as a humanitarian flotilla. Nor would it address the broader question of whether the blockade of Gaza was justified and whether it was effective.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last night signalled that Moscow would press for greater scrutiny of Israel's actions. "We will raise the issue at the United Nations, we're working at it", said Mr Putin, adding that he had discussed the raid with the Turkish President "in detail". "We are deeply worried by such a crude violation of the universally recognised norms of international law", the Russian leader said.

Addressing similar criticism yesterday, Mr Barak said almost none of Israel's numerous military operations against the convoy had sufficient intelligence beforehand and almost none went entirely according to plan. A legal analyst, Boaz Okun, noted that the proposed panel would not be empowered to call witnesses or to issue findings regarding the performance of people involved in the episode. Some ministers have expressed uneasiness at the delay in responding to international demands for a transparent investigation. "We must finish this quickly," said one quoted anonymously in the local press yesterday. "We've already dragged it out for too long." US President Barack Obama was reported to have expressed his impatience at the delay at the weekend.

A separate investigation, into the operational side of the convoy boarding, was ordered yesterday by Israeli Chief of Staff General Gabi Ashkenazi. It will be a closed, internal investigation aimed at detecting errors made and drawing conclusions about future operations. Heading the probe will be a former head of the National Security Council, General Giora Eiland. The developments came as a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hussan Zaki, told the BBC Arabic channel that last week's events might lead to an opening of free access to Gaza from Egypt — but only if Hamas ceded control to the Palestinian Authority. Israel and Egypt began the blockade of the Gaza Strip three years ago in an effort to cripple Hamas after it seized Gaza by force. Israel defends the blockade as a way to prevent Hamas from arming. But Western officials, aid agencies and analysts have criticised the policy as a form of collective punishment that is doing little to weaken the group.

A senior Egyptian security source was quoted on Israel Radio as saying Israel was prepared to ease its blockade of Gaza and permit the import of cement and iron, but only if responsibility for their use were taken by international agencies and not Hamas. Israel fears that Hamas would use such materials to rebuild fortifications destroyed in last year's Israeli incursion. The Egyptian source said Egypt's long-closed crossing into Gaza, which was opened after last week's events, would remain open as long as Hamas did not create disturbances. In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority officials said there was concern about Turkey's increased support for Hamas. An official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post the PA leadership was "unhappy" with Turkey's policy on Hamas, especially with the pressure to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip unconditionally.


Israel points finger at Turkish PM
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday, June 11, 2010

ISRAELI intelligence sources claim Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan knew in advance that a group of militants aboard the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara would violently resist an Israeli boarding. Mr Erdogan had earlier denied the use of violence against Israeli naval commandos who took over the vessel, accusing them of wantonly murdering nine pro-Palestinian activists without provocation. He was reported to have been furious when Turkish newspapers published photographs taken by passengers of wounded Israelis, lending indirect support to Israel's claim that its soldiers had been attacked first.

According to a report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, described by Haaretz yesterday as an unofficial branch of Israel's intelligence community, the Turkish government supported the militants who were recruited by a charitable organisation, IHH. Israeli sources describe IHH as having a "radical Islamic, anti-Western orientation". The report said files found on laptops belonging to the militants indicated strong ties between IHH and Mr Erdogan. Some of the activists allegedly told the interrogators that Mr Erdogan was involved in the flotilla's preparations. The object of the sailing, they said, was "to expose Israel's true face to the world".

Basing itself largely on testimony taken from the 500 passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Israeli intelligence group — known by its Hebrew acronym Malam — said the 40 IHH militants had boarded the vessel in Istanbul without undergoing security checks. They allegedly carried with them communication equipment, flak jackets embroidered with Turkish flags and gas masks. The other passengers boarded later in Antalya and underwent security checks. During the voyage, the 40 militants kept apart from the other activists who came from more than a score of nations. Two hours before the Israeli navy intercepted the six-ship humanitarian convoy, the head of IHH, Bulent Yildirim, briefed the militants. The mission given the group, according to Malam, was to prevent the Israelis from seizing control of the ship before it reached Gaza.

The militants used small, hand-held saws to cut metal bars from the ship's railings and to shape knives. They also gathered knives from the ship's cafeterias and armed themselves with fire axes. As the confrontation neared, the group took over the upper deck, displaying a clear command hierarchy. They ordered passengers to remain below decks, permitting only journalists and the ship's security officers to remain with them. According to the report, a journalist affiliated with IHH said during his interrogation that "the Turks set a trap for you and you fell straight into it".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to shift the world's focus yesterday from Israel to the forces who recruited the militants on the ship. "We have to establish who stood behind this extremist group, who financed its members," he said. He did not mention Mr Erdogan or the Turkish government. In the aftermath of the killing of the nine activists, Mr Netanyahu ordered officials not to respond publicly to the charges being hurled at Israel by Mr Erdogan and other Turkish leaders. Turkey appeared about to break diplomatic relations and there was talk Turkish warships might escort the next convoy to Gaza.

As passions subside, Mr Netanyahu has apparently decided to counter-attack, although with restrained rhetoric. According to Israel Television, the inquiry commission into the Mavi Marmara affair that Israel is in the process of forming is to hold hearings in Europe to receive testimony about Turkey's involvement in the affair. Outspoken Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was less circumspect than Mr Netanyahu about relations with Turkey. "Turkey doesn't interest Israel," he said to Israel Radio yesterday. "Israel has no intention of giving in to Ankara's demands." He was apparently referring to Turkey's demand that Israel apologise for the deaths on the Mavi Marmara.


Same Day
Obama sends aid and urges easing of blockade
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent

BARACK Obama has committed the US to easing Israel's blockade of Gaza and pledged an extra $US400 million ($477m) in American aid, declaring the present situation is "unsustainable". Mr Obama used a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington yesterday to urge a rethink of the Israeli blockade of the territory. "It seems to us that there should be ways of focusing narrowly on arms shipments, rather than focusing in a blanket way on stopping everything, and then in a piecemeal way allowing things into Gaza," Mr Obama said. The new approach urged by the US President indicates the Israeli military raid on a Turkish aid flotilla heading to Gaza last week was a political and public relations breakthrough of sorts for Palestinians — despite nine activists being killed in the incident.

Mr Obama yesterday seized on the "tragedy with the flotilla", saying it had drawn attention all around the world to the continuing problems in Gaza. Repeating his condemnation of acts that led to the tragedy and his demand for a full investigation, he said: "What we also know is that the situation in Gaza is unsustainable. I think increasingly you're seeing debates within Israel, recognising the problems with the status quo." The $US400m offered in US aid — in addition to $US500m already provided to the Palestinians — is to go towards housing, rebuilding schools, constructing a sewerage system and assisting business development in Gaza and also in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the Gaza blockade is necessary to prevent arms shipments into Gaza for the territory's government, controlled by Hamas, which Israel and the US consider a terrorist organisation. But the US President's position demonstrates his belief that the measure started in 2007 after the Israeli military conflict with Gaza has proved overly harsh, coming at too great a cost to the territory's civilian population. Critics who regard the Turkish flotilla as a manipulated stunt intent on bringing violence will interpret Mr Obama's position as encouraging further such operations and as appeasing Hamas.

The President said Mr Abbas agreed that Israelis had the right to prevent arms from entering Gaza that could be used to launch attacks on Israeli territory. He stressed, however, that the flotilla tragedy should become an opportunity to directly improve lives in Gaza "so we can have goods and services and economic development". Despite its continued tough talk, Israel appears to have relaxed the blockade by allowing basic food and humanitarian necessities into Gaza. Israel has reportedly allowed new items into Gaza in recent weeks, including shoes, clothing, jam and a sweet sesame paste called halva. Any materials that could be used by Hamas for weapons are seized.

During yesterday's meeting with Mr Abbas, the White House allowed journalists and photographers to witness greetings, and afterwards Mr Obama and the Palestinian leader held a joint press conference. Their session was in marked contrast to the meeting out of public view between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu earlier this year at the White House, which was obviously strained after disagreement over Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem that contributed to the latest stalling of peace talks with the Palestinians. After cancelling a further meeting with Mr Obama in Washington last week so he could deal with the flotilla crisis, Mr Netanyahu is now expected to go to Washington later this month to hold discussions that both sides hope will be more cordial.


Turkey dismisses claims of turn to East
Weekend Australian
Wall Street Journal
Saturday, June 12, 2010

ISTANBUL: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed as propaganda suggestions his government is abandoning the Western alliances to turn East. Addressing the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum in Istanbul yesterday (Thursday), Mr. Erdogan said his government remained committed to taking Turkey into the European Union, but accused the EU of using delaying tactics on Ankara's membership negotiations, according to a translation of his speech by Anadolu Ajansi, the Turkish state news agency.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey had voted against further sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council this week because it "did not want to be part of a mistake". "Those who allege that Turkey has broken away from the West are the intermediaries of an ill-intentioned propaganda," Mr. Erdogan said, arguing that such claims had been used for a century to keep Turkey and the Arab world apart. The Ottoman Empire ruled much of the Arab world until its collapse in the international realignment after World War I.

Mr Erdogan's comments came a day after US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said any drift to the East by Turkey could be due to the EU's resistance to the Muslim nation's membership of the 27-nation bloc. Mr Erdogan said he was aware some EU nations opposed Turkey's membership but Turkey paid them no attention. Opposing the Iran sanctions, which were backed by 12 of 15 Security Council members, Mr Erdogan said nothing could be achieved "with weapons, embargoes and alienation." His remarks appeared to be directed at least in part at the US. "We are still paying a price in Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of people have been killed, aged from 7 to 70. There are hundreds of thousands of widows in Iraq. Who is responsible for this figure ' We have to answer this," Mr Erdogan said.

The West has accused Iran of developing enrichment technology to make fuel for nuclear weapons, which Iran denies, insisting it wants peaceful energy. As a further round of sanctions approached, Turkey and Brazil produced an agreement under which Iran would transfer part of its existing nuclear fuel stockpile to Turkey in exchange for fuel rods for a medical reactor. Turkey and Brazil voted against sanctions at the UN Security Council this week, while Lebanon abstained.

Mr Erdogan said he would counsel Iran to keep negotiating, despite Tehran's warnings it would walk away if further UN sanctions were imposed. The Turkish deal was based on a US-backed proposal last year, but other nations on the Security Council suspected Tehran's sincerity when it agreed to the Turkish proposal, as it said it would continue making reactor fuel.

The Turkish Prime Minister received warm backing from Thursday's Turkish-Arab conference for his stance against Israel after last week's killing by Israeli commandos of Turkish aid activists on their way to Gaza. On the sidelines of the meeting, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria agreed to establish a free-trade and visa-free zone open to "all brotherly nations" in the region. Trade between Turkey and Arab League countries rose to $US37 billion ($43.8bn) in 2008, from $US7bn in 2002, Mr Erdogan said. It slipped to $29bn last year as a result of the global financial crisis.

The Prime Minister said Turkey's goal was to become one of the world's biggest economies by 2023. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said Turkey's economy could grow by up to 6.8 per cent this year. The International Monetary Fund estimate is for 6.25 per cent growth.


Abbas and Egypt want naval blockade to stay
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, June 14, 2010

THE Palestinian Authority and Egypt oppose lifting Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip but both call for easing the overland flow of goods to Gaza's 1.5 million residents. PA President Mahmoud Abbas made his position known to US President Barack Obama at a meeting in the White House last Wednesday. According to European diplomatic sources quoted in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Mr Abbas said the blockade should remain in place to avoid bolstering Hamas, which has ruled the coastal strip since seizing it from the PA three years ago. Hamas at the weekend rejected an offer by Mr Abbas to send a PA delegation to Gaza to discuss ways of ending their power struggle and recreating a single Palestinian political entity. Mr Abbas stressed the need for easing the restrictions of goods into Gaza in ways that would not boost Hamas's prestige.

Israel in recent days has relaxed its embargo on consumer goods but refuses to bow to Hamas's demand for free flow of cement, iron, aluminium and other building materials. Hamas says the material is needed for restoring 60,000 housing units damaged or destroyed in last year's Israeli incursion. Israel says the cement could easily be diverted for construction of tunnels and bunkers and the metals for use in building rockets.

Egypt has told the US and European countries that the maritime blockade should not be lifted because it would be too difficult to inspect ships entering Gaza port to ensure they do not carry weaponry. Egypt regards Hamas as a dangerous neighbour and fears the Islamic group's contacts with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt. It has attempted without success over the years to persuade Hamas to merge with the moderate PA. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is scheduled to make his first visit to Gaza this week to resolve Hamas-PA differences. However, the support won by Hamas in the wake of Israel's takeover of a Gaza-bound convoy bearing humanitarian supplies has augmented Hamas's self-confidence.

Despite Israel's declared readiness to hold a formal probe into the events surrounding the takeover of the convoy, in which nine people were killed, it has been unable to come up with a proposal regarding the mandate and composition of a committee of inquiry that satisfies the US and European countries. Washington has agreed to Israel's insistence that the committee be headed by an Israeli, despite a call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a committee headed by a neutral party. However, Washington has rejected Israel's proposed committee make-up and has insisted it be headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to give it more substance. Israel has agreed that two foreign jurists, one American and one European, participate as observers but Washington is reportedly demanding at least two European observers.

Later Monday morning
Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble to monitor Israel's Gaza flotilla inquiry
AFP, The Australian Online

ISRAEL has announced that "an independent public commission", including two foreign observers, will investigate its naval raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Israel, which had rejected calls for an international probe into the May 31 incident, said retired Israeli supreme court judge Yaakov Tirkel would chair the commission. In an apparent bid to boost the credibility of the probe, Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian armed forces, were named as observers. "In light of the exceptional circumstances of the incident, it was decided to appoint two foreign experts who will serve as observers," said a late-night statement from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Mr Trimble and Mr Watkin "will not have the right to vote in relation to the proceedings and conclusions of the commission," the statement added. And the two could also be denied access to documents or information if it was "almost certain to cause substantial harm to national security or to the state's foreign relations".

Earlier, Mr Netanyahu told senior members of his right-wing Likud party that the composition and mandate of the commission was being coordinated with the United States. Government ministers at the Likud meeting said the Israeli leader had spoken by telephone with US President Barack Obama late on Saturday and updated him on the commission. The US welcomed the announcement as "an important step forward," but said it expected the investigation to be carried out promptly. "While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly," said a statement by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community."

The UN Security Council had called for an "impartial" investigation into the incident, stopping short of calls by Turkey and other countries for an independent, international investigation. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had said that Israel should accept an international inquiry if it wanted to restore Israeli-Turkish ties. The announcement came as Israel faced mounting pressure to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip in the wake of the botched commando raid on the aid flotilla.

Mr Netanyahu said yesterday he had been looking at how to meet Gaza's humanitarian needs while keeping weapons out of the Hamas-run coastal strip before the latest crisis. "Before the flotilla set sail for Gaza, we discussed, in various forums, the continuation of our policy toward the Gaza Strip," Mr Netanyahu said. He said he had held talks on the issue with Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who represents the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia. In a statement, Mr Blair welcomed Mr Netanyahu's latest comments, saying they made a clear distinction between Israel's security concerns and the need to let Gazans live a normal life.

The Israeli statement said the commission would examine Israel's naval blockade of Gaza and its legality under international law and the "actions taken by Israel to enforce the naval blockade in the incident of May 31, 2010 with the rules of international law". It would also examine "the actions taken by the organisers of the flotilla and its participants, as well as their identity". Mr Netanyahu planned to seek the approval of his cabinet later today for the proposed commission.


Israel eases its blockade on Gaza
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP, AP
Friday, June 18, 2010

ISRAEL eased the Gaza blockade last night, bowing to international pressure, but Palestinian authorities roundly rejected the move, calling it a public relations ploy. European countries reacted with muted enthusiasm to the Israeli move. "We're looking with great interest to what the Israeli cabinet has said this morning," the EU high representative for foreign and defence matters Catherine Ashton said last night.

The Israeli security cabinet changed the terms of the three-year blockade so a list of items would be prohibited from entering the Gaza Strip. The plan is reportedly based on understandings reached in recent days by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair that call for switching from a list of allowed items to a list of banned goods. It would also allow the entry of more construction materials for UN projects to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed during the devastating 22-day Gaza war, launched by Israel in December 2008 to halt rocket attacks. Currently thousands of products — some as banal as toilet paper and ginger — are listed by Israel as constituting a "security" risk and prevented from reaching Gaza.

Blair had negotiated on behalf of the Middle East peace Quartet consisting of the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia. Mr Netanyahu has insisted that Israel's naval blockade remain in place. The border closures came under renewed criticism following Israel's deadly raid on an aid flotilla trying to run the blockade on May 31, in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead by Israeli forces.

Hamas senior leader Ismail Radwan last night swiftly dismissed the Israeli move as an attempt to "relieve the pressure" following the flotilla incident. "We in Hamas reject the Zionist decision, which is an attempt to obscure the international decision to completely lift the siege," he said. "We want a real lifting of the siege, not window dressing," said Hamas legislator Salah Bardawil.

In the West Bank, the rival pro-Western Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas also rejected the move. Negotiator Saeb Erakat demanded the end of the closure. "The siege is collective punishment and it must be lifted." He called the Israeli move a "public relations ploy."

The EU's Ashton stressed that Israel must also hold a credible inquiry into the events of May 31.


Turks threaten to cut ties with Israel
The Australian
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

ANKARA: Turkey warned Israel Monday it would cut ties unless it got an apology for the deadly raid on Gaza-bound aid ships, but Tel Aviv said it would never say sorry for defending itself. Ankara had already closed its airspace to all Israeli military aircraft in reaction to the May 31 bloodshed on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara in which nine Turks were killed, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the daily Hurriyet. The Israelis have three options, Mr Davutoglu said in remarks published Monday. "Either they apologise, or accept an international (inquiry) commission and its report, or relations will be broken," he said.

Turkey has called for an international probe into Israel's interception of the flotilla, but Mr Davutoglu said Ankara would not reject Israel's own inquiry if it resulted in an apology and compensation of the victims' families, according to Hurriyet. "If their own commission concludes that the raid was unjust and if they apologise, that will be sufficient," he said, although he insisted on compensation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already ruled out any apology on Friday and a senior government official said yesterday that Israel would never say sorry for defending itself. "Israel will never apologise for defending its citizens," he said. "Of course, we regret the loss of life but it was not the Israeli side that initiated the violence." Foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor slammed Turkey's harsh rhetoric. "When you want an apology, you don't use threats or ultimatums," hr said. "Everything leads us to believe that Turkey has another agenda in mind."

Mr Davutoglu said he had presented Turkey's position during talks in Brussels on Wednesday with Israeli Trade Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, the first high-level contact since the crisis erupted. "We will not wait for eternity for an Israeli answer," he said. "If they do not make any move, the process of isolating Israel will continue." He said the decision to close Turkey's airspace to Israeli military aircraft "was not taken for only one or two airplanes," hinting the sanction could be extended to civilian flights as well. "There is no decision yet for the airspace ban to cover civilian flights. It will be reviewed according to developments," he said while flying back from a visit to Kyrgyzstan.

Last week, Turkey said it had denied overflight permission to two Israeli military planes, but authorities said it was not a generalised ban. The boarding by Israeli marines of the Marmara, one of a number of boats trying to take aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, killed eight Turks and a dual US-Turkish citizen. The attack prompted Ankara to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv and cancel three planned joint military exercises. Relations between the one-time allies were already strained over Israel's invasion of Gaza last year, which triggered vehement Turkish criticism. The Islamist-rooted government in Ankara has also irked the Jewish state with its close contacts with Iran and for hosting in 2006 the leader of Hamas, the rulers of Gaza.

Mr Davutoglu denied reports he and Ben Eliezer met under US pressure. He said US President Barack Obama had been told of the talks when he met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Toronto in late June. Washington had said earlier it was working to heal the rift between its two main allies in the Middle East, alarmed also over concerns that Mr Erdogan's government is taking Turkey, NATO's sole Muslim member, away from the West. Turkish-Israeli ties had flourished after the two countries signed a military co-operation accord in 1996.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama,
in the Oval Office yesterday, had a markedly warmer meeting
than their previous one three months ago. Source: AP

Bibi will "take risks for peace"
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Thursday, July 8, 2010

BARACK Obama says he believes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to take risks to achieve peace in the Middle East, and expects direct negotiations with the Palestinians to restart in a matter of weeks. The US President delivered his upbeat assessment yesterday after a meeting with Mr Netanyahu at the White House that was billed as a significant fence-mending exercise in the wake of obvious strains in the relationship.

Gushing in his praise of the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Obama made a point of declaring the bond between their two countries was "unbreakable", and he dismissed reports of a rift as "wrong". He also acknowledged Israel had unique security needs, saying the US would never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine its security interests. "Our relationship is continuing to improve, and I think a lot of that has to do with the excellent work that the Prime Minister has done," Mr Obama said. "So I'm grateful."

The atmosphere was in marked contrast to the pair's last meeting at the White House, three months ago. Mr Netanyahu received an icy reception then, with no official photo or media statement. Mr Obama even left the Israeli Prime Minister alone while he interrupted their talks to have dinner elsewhere in the building. The White House was clearly upset at the time about the Netanyahu government's treatment of Vice-President Joe Biden, who had just returned from a visit to Israel that became a diplomatic disaster when authorities announced a new housing project for disputed territory in East Jerusalem. That Netanyahu rebuff also appears to have reflected the White House's broader impatience, after doubts the Prime Minister was serious about a peace settlement with the Palestinian leadership.

All those tensions were gone yesterday. Mr Obama said he had an "excellent" tete-a-tete with Mr Netanyahu, including extensive discussion about the prospect for Middle East peace. He commended his guest for progress in allowing more goods through the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Declaring his unfailing trust in the Israeli Prime Minister, the President said: "I believe Mr Netanyhu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace. And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians." He said the time had come to seize on the vision of Palestinians having a sovereign state. Under questioning from reporters, the President avoided discussing whether or not Israel should extend a partial freeze on settlements in the West Bank past its expiry in September, saying he expected peace negotiations to move from indirect to direct talks before then. His hope was to create "a climate where everybody feels a greater investment in success".

Mr Netanyahu also dodged a question about whether Israel would continue to build settlements after September, referring instead to concrete steps that could be taken to restart direct negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He said Israelis were prepared to do a lot to win peace with the Palestinians, but only if it were secure. "We don't want a repeat of the situation where we vacate territories and those are overtaken by Iran's proxies, and used as a launching ground for terrorist attacks or rocket attacks," he said. Israel has held no direct negotiations with the Palestinian leadership since late 2008, when then prime minister Ehud Olmert ended discussions with Mr Abbas, and the Gaza war against Hamas ruled out any hope of talks resuming. Palestinians have argued that direct talks cannot restart if Israel continues with settlements.

Mr Netanyahu borrowed from author Mark Twain yesterday, saying reports of the demise of the special historical US-Israeli relationship "aren't just premature - they're just flat wrong". He also united with Mr Obama in condemning Iran, rating the prospect of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons as the greatest new security threat on the horizon.

Mr Obama said his policy was unchanged on requiring countries to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But he appeared to offer a special dispensation to Israel's "very complex situation in a very tough neighbourhood", in an oblique reference to Israel's undeclared possession of nuclear weapons. Israel needed to be able to respond to any threats, he said. Mr Obama said Israel had shown restraint over the past few months that was conducive to restarting direct talks with the Palestinians. This comment appears to have been directed at Israel's handling of the West Bank, not the Israeli commando raid on boats trying to break through the Gaza blockade in late May that resulted in the deaths of nine men.

In an embarrassing incident, four guns were believed to have been stolen from Mr Netanyahu's security detail after American Airlines lost luggage containing the weapons, NBC reported. It said the guns had been mistakenly sent from New York to Los Angeles.


Netanyahu seeks peace 'miracle'
The Australian
Friday, July 9, 2010

UNITED NATIONS: BUOYED by an upbeat meeting at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "miracles" were possible if all sides came together for a peace deal. He pledged to address the thorny issue of settlements as a priority in any talks with the Palestinians.

Heading to New York for talks with UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Mr Netanyahu told ABC television he wanted to reach an agreement acceptable to Israelis with the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas. He said he was confident that a Middle East peace deal, which has eluded Israeli, Palestinian and US leaders for decades, could be struck. "Don't be so sceptical," Mr Netanyahu said. "Raise your hopes. It's summer time and we can perform miracles if we set our sights to them."

Later in an interview on CNN, he accepted Larry King's proposal to talk to Mr Abbas in a three-way television hook-up with Jordan's King Abdullah if the other parties agreed. He also declared that the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank would be among the first issues to be negotiated if the Palestinians resumed direct peace talks. Mr Netanyahu's coalition government leans heavily on hawks, bitterly opposed to any limits on settlement in the West Bank, on land which the Palestinians claim for a future state.

The UN chief was not expected to be quite as warm as President Barack Obama. Mr Ban said before the meeting that while Israel's easing of its four-year blockade of the Gaza Strip was welcome, more needed to be done to ease Palestinian hardships. The secretary-general has demanded Israel lift its blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip, imposed in the wake of the election victory by Hamas militants, who now control the Palestinian territory. Israel has so far given the go-ahead for the international community to import construction materials into Gaza. And Mr Netanyahu said yesterday further steps were under consideration. The change in policy was triggered by the international condemnation of an Israeli commando raid on an aid flotilla trying to break the blockade that led to the deaths of nine Turkish activists on May 31.

After the White House meeting on Tuesday, local time, Mr Obama said he hoped for direct peace talks to start before the end of September, when an Israeli freeze on settlement building is due to expire. "I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace," Mr Obama told reporters.

Mr Abbas responded coolly to the Washington summit, saying he would like more progress on issues including borders and security before any direct negotiations.


Israeli inquiry admits mistakes made in deadly Gaza flotilla raid, but use of live fire "justified"
The Australian Online
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

AN internal Israeli inquiry has found mistakes were made at a "relatively senior" level during Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid boat. However it found the use of live fire was justified in the operation which left nine Turks dead, officials said. "Mistakes were made in the various decisions taken, including within relatively senior ranks, which contributed to the result not being as we would have wished," retired general Giora Eiland told journalists in Tel Aviv, presenting the results of the military probe. "In this inquiry we found that there were some professional mistakes regarding both the intelligence and the decision-making process," said General Eiland, who chaired the panel tasked with examining how the operation unfolded.

The Eiland committee began its work on June 7, exactly a week after Israeli commandos launched a pre-dawn raid on a Turkish ferry carrying more than 600 activists. In the resulting fracas, nine Turks, including a US national, were shot dead and dozens of other people injured, including nine Israeli commandos. The raid, conducted in international waters, provoked a global backlash against Israel and prompted widespread calls for an international probe. The Israeli government rejected the demands and instead ordered the military to launch an internal investigation, and it set up a separate panel to look into the legality of the raid.

Chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said the military report had found no evidence of "negligence". "Neither I nor the investigating team detected any omission or negligence, but certainly, in an investigation as thorough as this, errors were found which must be corrected for the future," General Ashkenazi said in a statement. Details in the 150-page report also concluded the use of live fire was "justified" and that troops who boarded the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara had behaved in a "very professional and courageous way. The report ... determines that the use of live fire was justified and that the entire operation is estimable," a military statement said. "They only used force when they were under immediate danger to their lives," General Eiland said.

Video footage showed the commandos being beaten with sticks as they boarded the Mavi Marmara ferry and Israel says its commandos only used force after they were attacked. General Eiland said the committee had found evidence at least one firearm was on the ship and that guns were taken off some of the troops. He said it appeared that the first shot fired targeted the second soldier to rappel onto the ship from a helicopter. "There were at least four events when people who were on the ship shot at our soldiers." The activists on board the Mavi Marmara insist that the troops opened fire as soon as they landed.

Investigators also found flaws in intelligence gathering and said the navy failed to sufficiently consider the possibility the troops could encounter violent resistance during the operation. "The team concluded that not all possible intelligence gathering methods were fully implemented and that the coordination between navy intelligence and the Israel defence intelligence was insufficient," the military said. The anticipated level of violence used "was underestimated," it said, noting that the troops had not prepared any alternative course of action.

Israel has consistently argued in favour of its right to stop vessels travelling to Gaza since they could be carrying weapons for Hamas, an Islamist movement which controls that Palestinian territory. It has vowed to prevent any future attempts to breach the naval blockade, including the latest bid by a Libyan-chartered freighter, which currently appears to be heading to Gaza despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to divert it to Egypt. The team "on the vessel has said morale on board is high and that they are preparing to enter Gaza on Wednesday," according to the organisers, the Gaddafi Foundation charity run by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son, Said al-Islam.

Same day
Extract - Israel set to block new Gaza aid boat
The Australian
James Hider, Jerusalem, The Times, AFP

ANOTHER confrontation over Gaza loomed yesterday as Israel warned it would stop a Libyan aid ship, dispatched by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, from breaking the blockade. The Gaddafi foundation, which is headed by Said al-Islam Gaddafi, sent a freighter with 2000 tonnes of food and medicine from a Greek port on Saturday, local time. The Moldovan-flagged ship, Hope, could reach Israeli waters as early as today. "We are heading for Gaza. We will not change direction," said Mashallah Zwei, a representative of the foundation on board with a dozen crew and nine aid activists.

Israel said it would intercept the ship and divert the goods to the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of the Gaza Strip, to prevent weapons being smuggled. Israel has maintained strict control over all goods going into the Palestinian territory for three years, although it was forced to allow in food and aid after the May raid drew international condemnation of its blockade. The Libyan leader's eldest son said the aid ship was destined for Gaza and would not be diverted, despite Israeli efforts to have it sent to the Egyptian port of El Arish to unload its cargo. "I am not deterred by the threats," he said. "Our mission is humanitarian and this is not a military operation or an act of terror."

But Israel insisted its blockade would not be breached. "I say very clearly, no ship will arrive in Gaza," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the goods on the ship could be taken to Gaza through land crossings from Israel or Egypt. "However, we will not allow the entry of arms, weapons or anything which will support fighting into Gaza. We recommend that the organisers either let the ship be escorted by Israeli navy vessels to Ashdod port, or that it sails directly to the port of El Arish."

Same day
Netanyahu on road to talks
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

THE smiles last week that marked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit with US President Barack Obama were not just cosmetic, as was generally presumed, but marked the first significant move by Netanyahu down the road towards negotiations with the Palestinians since he assumed office 17 months ago.

Netanyahu brought with him commitments to Washington to undertake a series of concessions in the coming weeks aimed at persuading the Palestinian Authority to enter into direct peace talks. These steps, according to Israeli analysts, include handing over to full Palestinian control parts of the West Bank that are at present under partial Israeli control, permission for a major road link to the first modern Palestinian city being built north of Ramallah and removal of more roadblocks that have inhibited movement on the West Bank.

None of these steps touch on the core issues separating Israel and the Palestinians, such as final borders, refugees and Jerusalem, but they constitute meaningful, up-front concessions. The Palestinians have been demanding more far-reaching steps, including Israeli commitment to the pre-Six Day War borders, but Washington appears confident it can persuade the Palestinians to make do with what Israel is now offering. One Israeli analyst, Alex Frishman, of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, said that if the talks proved fruitless, the Americans would put a peace plan on the table in the northern autumn.

Netanyahu's invitation to the White House last week had been widely seen as an attempt by the President to appease Israeli supporters in the US prior to November's mid-term elections. On Netanyahu's previous visit in March, Obama received him at night and the White House released no pictures or statement following the meeting in order to demonstrate the President's displeasure at Israel's construction activities in East Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements. Since then, new construction has virtually halted.


Gaza aid ship avoids confrontation with Israel's blockade, docks instead in Egypt
The Australian Online
Thursday, July 15, 2010

A LIBYAN ship, initially bent on breaking Israel's Gaza blockade, has docked in Egypt and will deliver its aid cargo through Egyptian territory. The news ended fears of a new confrontation between activists and the Israeli navy, which had threatened to use force if the ship did not either turn back or head for Egypt. The Libyan charity which chartered the vessel, the Gaddafi Foundation, said it had obtained guarantees from Cairo and from a "European mediator" that Israel would allow the ship's cargo of 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine into Gaza. Libya has also received the green light to "spend 50 million dollars towards housing construction in the Gaza Strip by winter," the charity's executive director, Yusef Sawan, said, adding that the foundation would also provide 500 prefabricated houses.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Cairo had received a request for the Amalthea to get its cargo of aid to Gaza through Egyptian territory. "As soon as the ship arrives in El-Arish, Egyptian authorities will unload its cargo and hand the aid to the Egyptian Red Crescent, which will deliver it to the Palestinian side," he said. Port officials said they expected the Amalthea to be unloaded today. Eight Israeli warships shadowed the freighter through the day, four on either side, to prevent it from heading to the Gaza coast, Mr Sawan said. "Out of concern for the security of everybody on board, the foundation decided to head for El-Arish," he added. A senior Israeli military official had told the Maariv daily that the navy was not expecting any problems from those on board the Libyan-chartered vessel but they were prepared to respond if it became necessary. "We do not expect any resistance," he said. "But if our soldiers do encounter problems, they will not hesitate to use force."

Earlier yesterday Tony Blair, the representative of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, urged "all sides to act with restraint. The most important thing is to avoid confrontation, which is why the established channels for delivering aid to Gaza should be used in accordance with the new policy we have been working on," the former British prime minister said. After news of the docking, Richard Miron, spokesman for UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry, said "we are pleased that the ship has got to El-Arish so that the cargo can be transferred by established channels. We have sought to avoid any confrontation and we continue to call on those involved to exercise calm and restraint."


Egypt bid to end Mid-East stand-off
The Australian
Monday, July 19, 2010

CAIRO: THE Israeli and Palestinian leaders were due in Cairo overnight for separate meetings with the Egyptian President, to be joined by the US Middle East peace envoy in his quest to get the men to relaunch direct talks. No encounter between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was foreseen, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's office stressed, despite efforts by US envoy George Mitchell to end an 18-month hiatus in direct talks.

Mr Netanyahu met Mr Mitchell in Jerusalem yesterday ahead of their departure for Cairo, the Israeli leader's spokesman Mark Regev said. After a meeting between the US envoy and Mr Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Saturday, the Palestinian leadership renewed its conditions for a resumption of direct talks, broken off after Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo called for greater clarity from Washington about its position on new negotiations, insisting that the Palestinians were not ready to join talks for talks' sake, but wanted to address the core issues of the Middle East conflict. "Until now there is no clarity in the (US) position on a number of issues, especially those related to moving into final status talks," Mr Abed Rabbo said. "The three-hour meeting between Abbas and Mitchell was important but there are several issues, most important among them the settlements and the situation in Jerusalem, that need more clarity."

The Palestinians have long demanded a complete freeze on Israeli settlement expansion ahead of face-to-face talks and accused Israel of undermining the process by approving new settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians view as their capital. In recent weeks, Mr Abbas has appeared to back away from his demand for a full settlement freeze as a condition for opening direct talks, instead insisting on "progress" on the issue of borders and security. In an interview published over the weekend, he said he would meet Mr Netanyahu if Israel agreed in principle to a Palestinian state based on the borders before Israel's occupation of the West Bank during the 1967 war, with equal land swaps and the presence of an international security force.


Extract - Still too many options for a strike on Iran
The Australian
Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why hasn't Israel bombed Iran yet ' It's a question I often get from people who suppose I have a telepathic hotline to Benjamin Netanyahu's brain. I don't, but for a long time I was confident that an attack would happen in the first six months of this year. Since it didn't, it's worth considering why.

What gives ' Here are four theories in ascending order of significance and plausibility.

The first is that Israeli military planners have concluded any attack would be unlikely to succeed (or succeed at a reasonable price). Maybe. But this analysis fails to appreciate the depth of Israeli fears of a nuclear Iran, and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to stop it. A successful strike on Iran may be at the periphery of Israel's capabilities, but senior Israeli military and political leaders insist it is not beyond it.

A second theory is that Israel is biding its time as it improves its military capabilities on both its offensive and defensive ends. Yesterday (July 19th), Israel completed tests of its "Iron Dome" missile defence shield, designed to guard against the kind of short-range rockets Hamas and Hezbollah might use in retaliation against an Israeli strike on Iran. The system will begin coming on line in November. Israel is also mulling the purchase of a semi-stealthy variant of the F-15 as an alternative to the much more expensive F-35, delivery of which has been delayed until 2015. What Israel decides could be a telling indicator of what it intends.

The third theory concerns the internal dynamics of Israeli politics. Netanyahu may favor a strike but he will not order one without the consent of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and perhaps also Mossad chief Meir Dagan. This inner cabinet is said to be uniformly against a strike, with the wavering exception of Barak. But Ashkenazi and Dagan are to step down within a few months, and who Netanyahu chooses to replace them will have a material bearing on the government's attitude towards a strike.

Finally, Israeli leaders are mindful of history. Put aside the routine comparisons between a prospective military strike on Iran with Israel's quick and effective destruction of Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. As I'm reminded by Michael Doran, a Middle East scholar at NYU, Israel's leaders are probably no less alert to the lessons of the Suez War in 1956. Back then, a successful military operation by Britain, France and Israel to humiliate Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser (in many ways the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his day) fell foul of the determined political opposition of the Eisenhower administration, which mistakenly thought it could curry favor with the Arabs by visibly distancing itself from Israel and its traditional European allies. Sound familiar '

Israel may be willing to attack Iran once it reckons it has run out of other options, as it did prior to the Six Day War. But its tactical margin for error will be slim, particularly since an effective strike will require days not hours. And the political risks it runs will be monumental. As Doran notes, in 1956 it could at least count on the diplomatic support of two members of the UN Security Council. Today, the US is its last significant friend.

This is an unenviable position. Iran is not Israel's problem alone. It should not be Israel's problem alone to solve, to its peril.


Extract - Obama must prepare for Iranian nukes
The Australian
R. James Woolsey, Rebeccah Heinrichs
Friday, July 23, 2010
From an article published in The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2010.

R. James Woolsey is a former director of central intelligence and a board member at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, where Rebeccah Heinrichs, a former manager of the house Bipartisan Missile Defence Caucus, is an adjunct fellow

Three months ago the Defence Intelligence Agency reported that by 2015 Iran, with help from North Korea or Russia, could field an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US. This is by no means far-fetched. Early last year, the Iranians successfully launched their first homegrown satellite into orbit. If you can launch a satellite into orbit, you are very close to being able to hit a target half way across the world. That's why the Soviet launch of Sputnik so shocked the US intelligence community in 1957. When a country is the most active state sponsor of terrorism, and its leaders routinely endorse slogans such as "Death to Israel", we should take it seriously when they pursue the capabilities to make their dreams a reality.

Iran has already obtained the ability to reach Israel. Given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's and other Iranian leaders' millenarian fanaticism, it would be most imprudent to rely on nuclear deterrence alone to protect the US. If Tehran were to achieve a nuclear missile capability, it could hold American cities hostage — unless, that is, the US builds a robust and comprehensive ballistic missile defence.

That's why the Bush administration proposed building a missile-defence site in Europe in addition to those already in place in Alaska and California. This would provide cities on the east coast, US troops abroad and US allies in Europe protection from an Iranian missile attack.

But last September the Obama administration scrapped the Bush plan and replaced it with one called the Phased Adaptive Approach, which is less capable of dealing with threats against US territory. This plan entails deploying mobile systems to Europe to intercept short-range missiles. The Defence Department would gradually upgrade these systems, but the plan offers no added protection for the US until 2020. That's almost certainly too little too late. If Iran were to launch a nuclear-armed missile from a ship near the US coast, there would be very little warning and no protection. Defence against this threat would require a substantial deployment in and near the US of the type of mobile systems that the administration plans in Europe.

Further, if the Iranians were to detonate even a primitive nuclear warhead over the US, it could send out an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) destroying the electric grid and electrical systems across a wide swath of US territory. Iranian military writings show the mullahs recognize the potential of this kind of attack. Depending on where it occurred and how large the warhead was, an EMP attack could cause large-scale fatalities and unimaginable economic devastation. Defending against this kind of threat requires systems that can intercept an attacking ballistic missile while it is still ascending. But the Obama administration has no specific plans to develop and deploy ascent-phase interceptors in Europe.

Same Day
Israel strike may backfire

An Israeli aerial strike against Iran's nuclear program would most likely lead to long-term regional and global consequences, according to a study by the Oxford Research Group. The study said any Israel strike would be focused not only on destroying military real estate nuclear and missile targets, but also would hit factories and research centres in order to do as much damage as possible to the Iranian expertise that underpins the program.

It would also involve the direct bombing of targets in Tehran in an attempt to kill those technocrats who manage Iran 's nuclear and missile program. It would be viewed across the Middle East "as having been undertaken with the knowledge, approval and assistance of the US, even if carried out solely by Israel".

Rather than stopping Iran 's nuclear program, such an attack could have the opposite effect. "An Iranian administration under attack would experience considerable national unity and would work rapidly to redevelop its weapons programs, withdrawing from the NPT and prioritising nuclear weapons," the report said.


Attack on Iran 'almost certain'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TENSIONS over Iran are ratcheting up, with a former CIA chief saying he believes a US airstrike is becoming inevitable, while Iran has warned it will "make many troubles" for the US and Israel should any attack occur. The warnings came as Turkey said Iran was prepared to begin discussions with the EU after the end of Ramadan in September. But that was seen by many analysts as another stalling tactic by Iran, which insists it has a right to develop a nuclear program despite the UN Security Council imposing a fourth round of sanctions last month.

Former CIA chief Michael Hayden said that while he served under president George W. Bush the option of a military strike was given a low priority, but it now "seems inexorable". "In my personal thinking I have begun to consider that that may not be the worst of all possible outcomes," he told CNN.

Israeli media yesterday carried reports that the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, had visited Saudi Arabia to discuss any Israeli airstrike on Iran. Israel would need to fly over Saudi Arabia or Iraq to carry out an airstrike. Saudi Arabia would be concerned about a backlash if it assisted Israel. US negotiators have told Israel there could be retribution against its own departing soldiers in Iraq should the US be part of any attack. Israeli officials have told The Australian that once all US combat troops had left Iraq early next year it would be easier for Israeli jets to fly over Iraq.

Turkey and Brazil have tried to broker a deal with Iran, but the US and France have convinced other members of the Security Council the Turkish-mediated agreement is not reliable.

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (centre) tours the West Bank yesterday with members of his Yisrael Beiteinu faction.

New settlements to build tension
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

ISRAEL has given the strongest indication yet that it will resume building in Jewish settlements when the current 10-month freeze expires in September, setting the scene for renewed tensions with the US and the EU. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday declared not only that building should resume in all West Bank settlements, but also gave his support to outposts that are illegal under Israeli law. Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, but Israel considers them legal. Outposts, which are often small communities attached to larger settlements, are considered illegal under Israeli law.

Speaking during a tour of settlements, Mr Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post: "From September, we must resume normal life here. We do not have any intention to change the demographic situation or to create a provocation, but only to provide a normal life for the people that came here under the policies of government." He said settlers "were sent here as emissaries of the government and their rights need to be respected".

Settlements have emerged as a huge stumbling block for new peace talks — Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he cannot resume direct talks until Israel permanently freezes settlements. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a 10-month freeze on new settlement activity, but a large number of exemptions has led even some in the government to question it.

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz last May said: "In any case, I know that as far as I am concerned, there is no freeze." At the time, Maariv newspaper reported that the West Bank was seeing "an expansion enterprise which appears to have no end". "Minister Katz himself inaugurates roads there costing tens of millions of shekels as if there were no tomorrow, he renovates access roads and builds traffic circles in the style that he appears to have inherited from (former prime minister) Ariel Sharon," it said.

Mr Lieberman's comments came four days before Mr Abbas appears before the Arab League to assess whether he will join direct talks with Israel. Mr Netanyahu yesterday backed Mr Lieberman, saying the freeze had had a set period and "it has not changed". Politically, Mr Netanyahu is in a bind — unless he can convince the centrist Kadima party to join his government, he relies on two parties fiercely committed to settlements: Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-orthodox Shas party.

Several clashes broke out in the West Bank yesterday. Israeli Defence Forces destroyed one settler's house in an outpost, after which settlers attacked a Palestinian truck driver with rocks. Some settlers have a "price tag policy" — if one of their houses is destroyed by the IDF, they take retribution against Palestinians.


US plan to shield Europe from Iran
The Australian
Monday, August 2, 2010

THE US is close to activating a missile shield over southern Europe in the face of a missile threat from Iran. Citing unnamed Pentagon officials, The Washington Post said yesterday the US Defence Department was nearing a deal to establish a key radar ground station, probably in Turkey or Bulgaria. Installation of the high-powered X-band radar would enable the first phase of the shield to become operational next year.

In September last year, US President Barack Obama scrapped a missile shield project, which had been pushed by his predecessor George W. Bush and would have installed a powerful radar in the Czech Republic and 10 long-range ballistic interceptor missiles in Poland by 2013. The shield plan had enraged then Russian president Vladimir Putin, who called it a security menace on Russia's doorstep. Washington insisted the aim was to ward off a potential long-range missile threat from Iran. But according to the Post, a plan to protect southern Europe from missiles is still being implemented.

The US military was also working with Israel and allies in the Persian Gulf to build and upgrade their missile defence capabilities, the report said. The US installed a radar ground station in Israel in 2008 and was looking to place another in an Arab country in the Gulf region, the paper said. The radars would provide a critical early warning of any launches from Iran, according to the Post.

The missile defences in Europe, Israel and the Gulf were technically separate and in different stages of development, the newspaper said. But they are all designed to plug into command-and-control systems operated by, or with, the US military. The Israeli radar was operated by US personnel, and it was already providing information to US navy ships in the Mediterranean, the paper noted. The backbone of Mr Obama's European shield will be provided by the US navy's Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers, equipped with ballistic missile defence systems, which have been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea since last year. The Obama administration planned to nearly double the fleet Aegis ships with ballistic missile defences, to 38 by 2015, the Post said.

US Secretary of State Robert Gates told a congressional hearing in June: "If Iran were actually to launch a missile attack on Europe, it wouldn't be just one or two missiles, or a handful. It would more likely be a salvo kind of attack, where you would be dealing potentially with scores or even hundreds of missiles."

The first element of Mr Obama's "phased, adaptive approach" to a shield goes into action next year, when the Aegis ships start working with the radar planned for southern Europe. Phase two, a land-based Aegis combat system on Romanian territory, kicks off in 2015. A land-based Aegis system in Poland, along with SM-3 interceptors and additional sensors, starts in 2018. The arrival of more advanced SM-3s in 2020 will complete the shield.


Pentagon has plan to attack Iran over nuclear pile
The Australian
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

WASHINGTON: The top US military officer says he has a plan to attack Iran if necessary to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons, but is "extremely concerned" about the possible repercussions of such a strike. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says military action against Iran could have "unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is an incredibly unstable part of the world". Speaking yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press, Admiral Mullen said allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon was also unacceptable. "Quite frankly, I am extremely concerned about both of those outcomes," he said. Asked whether the military had a plan to strike Iran, he said, "We do". He did not elaborate.

Admiral Mullen said he hoped a combination of international diplomatic efforts and sanctions would lead Tehran to suspend a nuclear enrichment program that many believe is a clandestine attempt to develop nuclear arms. At the same time, "the military options have been on the table, and remain on the table". "I hope we don't get to that, but it's an important option and it's one that's well understood," Admiral Mullen said. Iran insists its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes only.

Also yesterday, the US military took the unusual step of refuting Iraqi figures released a day earlier showing last month was the single deadliest month in the war-torn country since May 2008. The US decision to release its own toll came after the Iraqi figures showed a sharp surge in the level of violence. This comes almost five months after parliamentary elections that have yet to result in the formation of a new government — and as the US carries out a significant troop withdrawal.

The US does not usually contest tolls compiled by Iraq's ministries of health, interior and defence. "USF-I (United States Forces-Iraq) refutes the reported figures of violence that claims that July 2010 is 'the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008'," a statement said. It said 222 people had been killed in Iraqi violence last month — less than half the Iraqi figure — and 782 people had been wounded. Asked why the US military contested this month's tolls in particular, Major General Stephen Lanza, spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said the figures released by the Iraqi ministries did not "reflect the security situation this past month". Weekend figures from the Iraqi government put the death toll at 535 overall: 396 civilians, 89 policemen and 50 soldiers, with 1043 wounded.

There are about 65,000 US soldiers stationed in Iraq, but that is set to drop to 50,000 by September 1. All US troops must withdraw by the end of next year. The two groups that won the most seats in the March 7 election are still bickering over who should be the next prime minister.


Same Day
Israel will deport 400 children
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

ISRAEL has decided to deport 400 children of foreign workers, including some born in Israel, in a decision that has divided the cabinet. After a 13-10 decision, Israel will deport 400 rather than the 1200 originally on a government list. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a balanced decision but some ministers disagreed.

"This is not the Jewish state that I know, that expels children from it," the Industry Minister, Labor's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said. "This is definitely not the right time for Israel to be seen doing something like this." Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, also Labor, said: "I didn't vote in favour because despite the improvements, which I supported, I could not accept deporting a group of five-year-old children." But Eli Yishai, Interior Minister and leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, said the decision allowed too many children to remain. "Those who allow these children to stay in Israel are allowing the parents to pull one over on the state of Israel and stay in the country," he said. Mr Yishai was appointed to head a committee for any children whose parents wished to appeal.

Under the decision, only children who can speak Hebrew, whose parents arrived legally, who attend an Israeli school and who were either born in Israel or entered before age 13 can stay. They must have lived in Israel for five consecutive years — which means children born in Israel but who returned for a period to their country of origin would be expelled and possibly children younger than five. A government committee recommended expelling 1200 children, but Mr Netanyahu asked for a review. The move will mainly involve Filipinos, Thais and Colombians. Hundreds of these workers are brought to Israel each year as carers and cleaners.

Mr Netanyahu said: "It calls for allowing those children, who have largely become Israelis, who are here, have been educated here, have studied Hebrew and whose identity has already been formed, to stay here." He said Israel was committed to resolving a sensitive issue in a considered and balanced way and the decision was influenced by two major considerations — "the humanitarian and the Zionist".

That prompted Haaretz to run a page-one article that said: "In our naivete, we thought they were one and the same, but it turns out these are two separate, and even contradictory, considerations. You don't deport children who were born here and grew up here, who are perched on the threshold of kindergarten, who have no other country, who have no other language, who have no other friends". It said new migrant workers would arrive tomorrow "and they, too, would be exploited before being banished".

The group Israel Children welcomed the reprieve for 800 children but said: "It is time for Israel to decide on a permanent immigration policy so we don't reach these nerve-racking decisions. The state must remember that every time it brings foreign workers here, it is bringing in human beings." The UN Children's Fund said: "The government's policy constitutes a gross violation of the International Children's Rights Agreement which Israel has signed."


Extract - Israel to join Turkey at UN probe
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

ISRAEL has agreed for the first time to take part in a UN inquiry into one of its own military operations to improve its relationship with Turkey. Israel agreed to a representative on the four-person panel, to be headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, an expert on maritime law. The panel includes outgoing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. It means an Israeli representative will sit alongside a Turkish one to examine the events that led to the killing of nine Turkish activists by Israeli soldiers aboard a flotilla headed for Gaza on May 31.

Israel has claimed the soldiers were acting in self-defence, while Ankara has claimed it was a criminal act as Israel was boarding boats in international waters. Israel has for two months resisted the UN inquiry, arguing that the two inquiries it has set up are sufficient to establish the truth and that no other country would hand over control of an investigation into its affairs to a UN body. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Israel's involvement in the inquiry an "unprecedented development" and thanked the leaders of Israel and Turkey. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had agreed to ensure the panel was balanced and fair.

Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint damaged during a deadly border clash with Israel. Picture: AP Source: AP
Israeli soldiers sit on top of their tank near the site. Picture: AP Source: AP

Same Day
Extract - Tree pruning operation triggers deadly clash on Israel's border with Lebanon
The Australian, AFP, Australian Online

AN attempt to cut down a tree on Israel's border with Lebanon has triggered the most serious clash between the two nations since 2006. Two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli officer were killed in the fighting on one of the most tense frontiers in the world. Each side blamed the other for sparking last night's incident, which Lebanon said wounded 15 people. The Lebanese army acknowledged that it had fired first.

Following the deadly clash, Hezbollah warned against future Israeli "aggression". The United States, the United Nations and the European Union urged restraint on both sides. Tension in the region has been mounting in recent months following reports Hezbollah was stockpiling weapons in preparation for a new war.

The Lebanese army said troops opened fire on the Israelis after a patrol crossed the technical fence at the border. "The patrol did not stop despite UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) attempts to stop it, and the Lebanese army confronted the troops with gunfire and RPGs," an army statement said. A spokesman said the Israelis were attempting to uproot trees on the Lebanese side that were obstructing their view. "The Israelis wanted to cut a tree down inside Lebanon. The Lebanese army fired warning shots at them and they responded by shelling," a security source in Lebanon told The Times newspaper. A photograph shows the Israeli standing on a crane reaching over the border fence to cut the tree. The Israeli army could be heard calling in Arabic for an immediate ceasefire over loudspeakers.

The incident erupted soon after noon on Tuesday (7pm AEST) near kibbutz Misgav Am, which lies just across the border from the Lebanese town of Adaysseh. Two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist were killed, Lebanese officials said. An Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed and a captain critically wounded, Israeli officials said.

Lebanon said it would file a complaint with the UN Security council, whose members met for private consultations on the incident. Afterwards, the council expressed "deep concern" and urged the parties to show "utmost restraint ... observe the cessation of hostilities and prevent any further escalation."

Meanwhile, General Said Eid, chief of Lebanon's top defence council, said following an emergency meeting that the council had "given instructions to face all aggression on our territory, army and people by all available means and no matter the sacrifices". Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is on vacation in Italy, called various world leaders to discuss the Israeli "aggression". Mr Hariri "condemns the violation of Lebanese sovereignty and demands ... the United Nations and the international community bear their responsibilities and pressure Israel to stop its aggression," his office said.

The Israeli foreign ministry responded with equal force. "Israel sees the government of Lebanon as responsible for this grave incident and warns of the consequences in the event that disturbances of this kind continue," it said. The Israeli military said the Lebanese army had opened fire on its troops as they were carrying out routine maintenance inside Israeli territory and that the operation was "pre-coordinated with UNIFIL". The head of Israel's northern command, Major General Gadi Eisenkot, said his troops had been caught in a "premeditated ambush by a squad of snipers".

The Lebanese army said there had been discussions with UNIFIL in recent days about an Israeli request to remove some trees along the border. "There was also talk of UNIFIL carrying out this operation but the Israelis insisted on doing it on their own," a spokesman said. "These trees are on Lebanese territory and we are free to keep them or remove them," he added.

The clashes marked the deadliest incident along the border since the devastating war between Hezbollah and Israel. Large swathes of southern Lebanon were destroyed in the war, which killed 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley expressed extreme concern over the violence. "We deeply regret the loss of life. We urge both sides to exercise maximum restraint to avoid an escalation and maintain the ceasefire that is now in place," he said. "The last thing that we want to see is ... this incident expand into something more significant. And that's why ... we and others have been in contact throughout the day and are trying to make sure that it goes no further." In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on both sides to exercise "utmost restraint."

Reuters ' Lebanese soldiers take up position
as U.N peacekeepers (in blue berets)
gesture towards Israeli soldiers

Growing fears of a third war between Israel and Lebanon
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fears of a new war between Israel and Lebanon escalated last night, a day after four people were killed in a border clash that led to threats of a new round of military action. Israeli soldiers returned last night to cut down the tree that allegedly triggered the worst border clash since the second Lebanon war, in 2006, reports said. Two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli military commander were killed in the clash, which went on for more than two hours on Tuesday and brought claims by both sides that the other had provoked it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "I see the Lebanese government as directly responsible for this violent provocation against Israel. Israel responded, and will respond aggressively in the future, to all efforts to disturb the quiet on the northern border and harm the citizens of the north and the soldiers protecting them."

The UN yesterday confirmed that several trees cut down by Israel were on Israeli territory. "UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) established the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side," a statement said. Lebanon, however, contests ownership of that territory. "In this area, the Lebanese government had some reservations concerning the Blue Line, as did the Israeli government at some other locations," it said. Earlier, Lebanon's militant Islamic group Hezbollah vowed to join forces against Israel. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a fiery televised address: "The hand that targets the Lebanese army will be cut off."

Israel claimed it had informed UNIFIL that it had wanted to do routine maintenance by cutting down a tree to give it a better view of the border. It says UNIFIL requested a three-hour delay during which it informed the Lebanese army, as was standard procedure, that the Israeli soldiers would be entering the "enclave" between Israel's security fence and the "blue line" or internationally recognised border. Israel claimed the Lebanese army used that time to bring in journalists to document the attack on the Israeli soldiers, which Lebanon had planned. Lebanon, claimed Israeli soldiers violated Lebanese territory — that the tree was on its side of the border.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he had ordered the army "to confront any violation of Lebanese territory or against our people and army, using any available means and whatever the sacrifices are." Fears of escalating tensions increased after Syria's official news agency reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had told Mr Suleiman that Syria would provide whatever support it needed in any confrontation with Israel.

Tensions are high in Lebanon — an international inquiry investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri is about to hand down its report, which is believed to implicate Hezbollah. Only last Friday, Mr Assad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah travelled to Beirut to calm tensions many fear could lead to a new round of civil war between Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, and Lebanese army forces, backed by Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday's clash means Israel is dealing with conflict on three fronts. On Monday, five rockets were fired by militants in the Sinai, in Egypt, towards Eilat, in Israel, and Aqaba, in Jordan, killing a taxi driver who was outside a hotel in Aqaba. And rockets have been fired from Gaza into Ashkelon in southern Israel.


Israeli threat to use 'great force'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, August 6, 2010

ISRAEL has put its neighbours on notice that it will "hit with great force" anyone who fires at it, apparently anticipating a new round of attacks from both its north and south. In a clear attempt to discourage Hamas militants based in Gaza from entering Egypt to fire rockets from there, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a strong warning that Hamas would be held responsible for further rocket attacks from Egypt. He also warned the Lebanese government, following this week's firing on Israeli soldiers, that "Israel responds and will continue to respond forcibly to every attack against its citizens and soldiers".

The warning reflects a growing view in Israel that coming months are likely to see an escalation in attacks against Israel — Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Hezbollah, which has a powerful presence in the government of Lebanon to the north, both oppose any peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. While Hamas has not claimed responsibility for firing five rockets towards Israel and Jordan on Monday, Mr Netanyahu said Israel had established "beyond any doubt" that Hamas was behind the rockets. His view was supported by security sources quoted in Egyptian media.

It is expected that as direct talks may begin in coming weeks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hezbollah will try to sabotage the process by provoking a new war. "We will reach, and hit with great force, anyone who shoots at Israeli citizens, no matter from where," Mr Netanyahu said. "I want it to be clear to Hamas, as well as to the Lebanese government, which we hold responsible for the violent provocations against our soldiers: do not test our determination to protect Israeli citizens and soldiers."

His words followed a finding by the UN Interim Force in Lebanon that Israeli soldiers had been on their territory when Lebanese soldiers fired at them on Tuesday. Lebanon initially claimed the Israelis had entered Lebanese territory. Lebanon also admitted yesterday that it had fired first.

As the US State Department described the firing by Lebanese soldiers as "wholly unjustified", Mr Netanyahu called for international condemnation. "For years many in the international community have remained silent when rockets have been fired at Israeli civilians and when unprovoked attacks have been launched against our soldiers," he said. "Expressions of outrage have largely been reserved for Israel's response to those attacks. Firing missiles on civilians is a war crime, and unprovoked attacks on soldiers are blatant acts of aggression."

Yesterday, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon brought together Israeli and Lebanese commanders to try to reduce tension. A UNIFIL commander said later: "Both parties renewed their commitment to the cessation of hostilities." Meanwhile, the organiser of the May flotilla to Gaza which was intercepted by Israeli commandos announced yesterday they were planning an even larger flotilla. Musician and activist Dror Feiler told AFP: "We'll set off before the end of 2010 and we are sure the flotilla will be bigger, with more vessels." Israel has agreed to join a UN investigation into the flotilla incident.

A Hezbollah supporter holds a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a rally
marking the fourth anniversary of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Tuesday, Aug. 3. Associated Press

Lebanon a powderkeg ready to blow
The Australian
Ronen Bergman, Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Published 5th August, Wall Street Journal. Ronen Bergman, a senior military and political analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, is the author of The Secret War With Iran (Free Press, 2008)

Last Tuesday afternoon, several hours before a highly anticipated televised speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Lebanese army snipers fired at an Israeli military detail that was trimming trees on the Israeli side of the border. The premeditated attack came exactly four years after the end of the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The question now is whether this incident could spark a chain reaction that results in another war.

Despite its overwhelming military might, Israel emerged badly bruised from its confrontation with the Shia militia in 2006. Since then, the Jewish state has repeatedly threatened that any act of aggression on the Israel-Lebanon border would be met with a punishing response. It claimed it would hold the Lebanese government — in which Hezbollah is a key player — responsible, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators.

The initial reaction of senior Israeli military figures to the attack was to urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak to implement contingency plans to bomb Lebanese Army camps, Hezbollah strongholds and Beirut's power stations. Instead, under pressure from the US and France, Israel opted for a small-scale response that killed two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist. Sources in the Israeli intelligence community and in UNIFIL (the U.N. peacekeeping force at the border) I spoke to believe that the incident was instigated by a Lebanese army brigade commander who is a Shi'ite and a Hezbollah supporter.

The Lebanese government is in a bind. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister, detests Hezbollah and would like nothing better than to see his father's killers brought to justice. But Hezbollah is a key partner in his government, and is effectively able to veto any action he might take. The Prime Minister is also aware of the widespread support that Hezbollah enjoys among Shi'ites and Sunnis, and he is careful to avoid being seen as too closely aligned with the West. His control over the predominantly Shia Lebanese Army is limited at best, particularly in the south of the country.

The more interesting question is whether the brigade commander at the border received prior approval from Hezbollah's political chain of command. It's hard to believe that the highly symbolic timing of the incident was coincidental. It was also convenient for another reason: The report of the international inquiry into the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri is expected to be published in a matter of days.

It is widely believed that the UN panel will indict senior Hezbollah officials. As far as Nasrallah is concerned, a limited flare-up between Israel and regular Lebanese forces without his direct involvement would help divert domestic attention away from the indictments.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is also concerned about the panel's report, since an initial investigation, released by the UN Security Council in 2005, implicated his country. Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon following Hariri's assassination. Yet it remains intimately involved in that country's affairs through its intelligence agents and the large bribes it doles out to Lebanese politicians. To the extent that the panel's final report is hostile to its interests, Syria might benefit from an Israeli-Lebanese border conflict. Intensification of almost any type of hostilities would enable Syria to further strengthen its hold on Lebanon.

Both Nasrallah in his Tuesday speech and Assad, who also gave a speech last month, threatened that the entire region would erupt in flames if indictments were issued against them. These are not empty threats: Conflicts within Lebanon have an unfortunate tendency of affecting wider trends in the Middle East. Whether it was the struggle between Iraqi and Iranian supporters in Beirut in late 1980 that presaged the Iran-Iraq war, or the appearance of Hezbollah on the Lebanese political scene in 1983-84 that heralded the dramatic rise of the jihadist movement in the Middle East long before Osama bin Laden, the political fault lines of the region pass through Beirut.

What of the Islamic Republic, striving to become the Middle East's hegemon ' According to intelligence reports obtained by the Israeli military and Mossad, Iran doesn't want Hezbollah to start a major war against Israel at this time. Tehran prefers that the organization hold its forces in reserve in case they are needed by Iran to retaliate for an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. At the same time, however, Iran also has a clear interest in preserving Hezbollah as a central force in Lebanon. To the extent that Hezbollah's political clout might be weakened by the indictments, Iran — like Syria and Hezbollah — might support a low-key conflagration as a diversion.

For its part, Israel has little interest in a war in Lebanon. It's central concern remains the Iranian nuclear project. However, by promising to respond strongly to any provocation, it might find itself forced to act aggressively.

What's more, in the past two weeks, after a long period of relative calm, Hamas has repeatedly fired rockets at Israeli towns from the Gaza Strip and even from Sinai, which is Egyptian territory. Although there is no direct link between the incident on the Lebanese border and the rocket attacks in the south of the country, senior Israeli officials see them all as reflecting Iran's desire to prevent direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Such Iranian involvement may increase Israel's resolve to respond to these attacks.

Lebanon is a tinderbox. Whoever gave the command to the Lebanese snipers was playing with fire.


Israel to reject new peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

ISRAEL has decided to reject a proposal by the Middle East quartet for new direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as it claims the terms of reference are unacceptable. Israel's security cabinet made its decision before the expected release of the quartet's proposal this week. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was surprised Israel would reject the quartet's proposal before it was even released. Although all the details of the proposal are not known, what is known — and what Israel objects to — is it sets preconditions that the current settlement freeze continues, that a Palestinian state be established along the pre-war 1967 borders by next year and that East Jerusalem be recognised as the capital of the new state.

Israel's security cabinet is split over whether the settlement freeze should end — the two who are known to be opposed to it ending are Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. Those strongly in favour of a full resumption of building activity include the Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a settlement. Although the Palestinian leadership initially described the freeze as meaningless, they are now saying should it end while direct talks are being held, they will pull out of those talks. The quartet is led by former British prime minister Tony Blair and consists of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN. Israel is now expected to wait for a proposal from the US for direct talks. This could delay talks, which would have resumed next week, for at least several weeks.

Israel's decision to reject the proposal came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also over-ruled Israel's Justice Ministry and approved the erection of 23 new mobile classrooms for 600 students in 12 settlements, despite the freeze in new activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Justice Ministry rejected the classrooms on the basis that they violated Israel's planning law. The Defence Ministry also opposed the classrooms. Haaretz newspaper said the Defence Ministry opposed the classrooms on the basis that "the educational needs of the settlers could not trump the law".

The freeze in new building activity expires on September 26. Mr Yishai has signalled that the government will continue the freeze in more remote settlements and outposts but allow building to resume in the major settlements.

In another development, the Israeli army yesterday began dismantling a wall between the settlement of Gilo, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian village of Beit Jala. The wall was built in 2002 — at the height of the second intifada — to protect residents from sniper fire from Beit Jala. The decision to knock it down indicates the dramatically improved security situation in the West Bank. This appears to be the result of four things: the security barrier, which has prevented potential terrorists entering Israel; improved security assessments by Israel's security service Shin Bet; improved security by the Palestinian Authority, who are trained by US and Jordanian trainers; and a desire by most Palestinians in the West Bank to seek a path other than violence. Some residents, however, said it exposed them, should hostilities resume.

Meanwhile, Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Prime Minister, has asked Mr Yishai to reconsider his decision to expel 400 children of foreign workers. She said as a mother and employer of foreign workers she felt the move was unfair. He has agreed to meet Mrs Netanyahu to discuss it.


Same Day
Turkish aid flotilla victims were 'ready for violence'

LONDON: Activists on a Gaza-bound aid boat that was boarded by Israeli commandos were determined there would be violence, the head of an Israeli military investigation into the deadly raid said yesterday. "They (the activists) were committed to kill and be killed," retired Israeli general Giora Eiland told the BBC's Panorama television program. General Eiland led an inquiry into the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara ferry on May 31, which left nine Turks, including a Turkish-American citizen, dead and dozens of others injured, including nine Israeli commandos. The raid in international waters provoked a global backlash against Israel and led to the easing of a four-year blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. General Eiland said the resistance from the activists on the aid boat "was huge, much above expectation" and said it was surprising there were not more deaths. "Under the circumstances in a very complex area like a ship, the results — the deaths — are surprisingly low," he told the program.

The military inquiry concluded last month that there were "professional mistakes regarding both the intelligence and the decision-making process" but said the commandos' use of live fire was justified. Israel has set up another investigation into the raid, led by a retired Supreme Court judge, and the UN has also launched an inquiry.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second left, at the bomber's unveiling. AP

Iranian drone bomber guards nuke sites
The Australian
Giles Whittell, The Times AFP
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

IRAN has unveiled a high-speed bomber drone with a range of more than 1000km, described by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "messenger of death". A day after Israel denounced as "unacceptable" the supply of Russian uranium rods for Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor, Mr Ahmadinejad personally presented a pilotless, jet-powered bomber Iran says can air-launch guided missiles or deliver two 100kg bombs. The weapon's purported range would not reach Israel from Iran, but would vastly increase the threat posed to Israeli targets if supplied to Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Lebanon or Syria.

Mr Ahmadinejad seldom wastes a chance to combine showmanship and barely coherent rhetoric, and yesterday was no exception. "This jet, before it heralds death for enemies, is a messenger of salvation and dignity for humanity," he told an invited audience. He later made it clear that the Karar (Assailant) drone was intended to deter attacks on his nation's nuclear infrastructure. Iran, he said, should "reach a point where we can cut off the aggressor's arm before he acts, and if we miss, we should destroy him before he hits the target".

An Israeli defence official called the announcement "another sign of Iran's so-called 'peaceful' initiatives. They are making a mockery of the diplomatic options on the table." The unveiling came amid intensifying debate in the US and Israel on whether a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities may become inevitable — and, if so, when.

Mr Ahmadinejad's defence minister earlier claimed that Iran's home-grown defence industry had "reached a point where it does not need any aid from other countries". The boast has limited credibility, given growing optimism in Western capitals that sanctions are beginning to bite — in particular, by cutting off the supply of parts needed to repair Iran's ageing nuclear centrifuges. However, it was clearly intended to signal that Iran wants to be thought of as militarily self-sufficient, despite Russia's support for sanctions. Moscow has resisted fresh sanctions until this year, partly because of its lucrative arms trade with Tehran. Under the terms of a $1 billion deal signed in 1995, it is also the exclusive supplier of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor in the south of the country.

As Iran celebrated the insertion of the first fuel rods into the Bushehr reactor at the weekend, Israel said it was "totally unacceptable that a country that so blatantly violates resolutions of the Security Council should enjoy the fruits of using nuclear energy".

An article in next month's Atlantic Monthly magazine, based on interviews with senior policymakers in Israel and Washington — including one with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before he took office — claims "a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 per cent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July". In an interview broadcast yesterday by Al-Jazeera, Mr Ahmadinejad ruled out an Israeli or US attack against the Islamic republic. "I reject the possibility of an attack by Israel. Israel is too weak to face up to Iran militarily," he said.


Same Day
Netanyahu plans a surprise for direct peace talks

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he wants to "surprise the sceptics" by reaching a settlement with the Palestinians at revived US-sponsored direct peace talks next month. "I know there is a lot of doubt after the 17 years which have passed since the start of the Oslo (peace) process," Mr Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting yesterday. "We are seeking to surprise the critics and the sceptics, but in order to do this we need a real partner on the Palestinian side. It is possible to succeed with a hand extended in peace, but only if someone on the other side likewise extends one."

Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have accepted a US invitation to relaunch direct peace negotiations in Washington on September 2 following a 20-month hiatus. It will be the latest in a series of attempts since secret talks in Oslo produced a 1993 Declaration of Principles on autonomy with the goal of a peace agreement.

The Palestinians insist talks should lead to the creation of an independent state, and sought an Israeli freeze on settlement activity for the talks to resume. Mr Netanyahu has made it clear there should be no preconditions, and welcomed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement on Friday.

A series of interim agreements since the 1993 Oslo accords gave the Palestinians limited autonomy pending a "final-status" settlement have failed to bear fruit. Mr Netanyahu said a settlement must safeguard "Israel's national interests, foremostly security. Security, recognition of the national state of the Jewish people and the end of the conflict. There are the three components that will ensure us a real and lasting peace agreement," he said.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation has accepted the US invitation but the Islamist Hamas, rulers of the Gaza Strip, have rejected the planned talks. Nevertheless, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has warned that if Israel pursues settlement activities in the occupied West Bank and annexed Arab east Jerusalem, the negotiations will founder.


Netanyahu to be hands-on in peace process
Weekend Australian
Saturday, August 28, 2010

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to personally lead peace talks that start next week, and hopes to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas every two weeks. A senior Israeli official said Mr Netanyahu considered it vital that negotiations be conducted between leaders and in the greatest possible secrecy. Speaking at a meeting of Israeli ministers on Thursday night, the hawkish Prime Minister said "serious negotiations in the Middle East (require) direct, discreet and continuous talks between the leaders on key issues", the English-language Jerusalem Post reported. He told the ministers he hoped to meet Mr Abbas every two weeks to talk on key issues, which would then be fleshed out by the negotiating teams.

Media reports said Mr Netanyahu told the ministers the Israeli negotiations would be led by his trouble-shooter on Palestinian affairs Yitzhak Molcho, a longtime friend who served as his adviser and emissary during Mr Netanyahu's first term as prime minister in the 1990s. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a firebrand ultra-nationalist, will not be part of the Israeli delegation. US officials were informed of Mr Netanyahu's proposals ahead of a ceremony in Washington next Thursday to mark the relaunch. Thursday's meeting will be the first direct talks between the two sides since the Palestinians broke off talks in December 2008 after Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip.

Late on Thursday, veteran US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross arrived in Israel for a final round of shuttle diplomacy ahead of the Washington meeting, army radio said. He will be seeking to narrow the differences between the two sides, in particular over the future of the Israeli freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, outside annexed Arab east Jerusalem, which is due to end on September 26. The Israeli government faces strong pressure at home not to renew the freeze on new settlement construction, while Mr Abbas has warned "If Israel resumes settlement activities, including in east Jerusalem, we cannot continue with negotiations". The international community considers the settlements in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, illegal. They are home to about 500,000 Israelis.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is to meet French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy next week on his way to the Washington summit, which he will attend, Egypt's flagship Al-Ahram newspaper said. It said Mr Mubarak and Mr Sarkozy would discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Jordan's King Abdullah II is also due to join the inaugural session in Washington. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states that have signed peace treaties with Israel.


Peace given little chance at summit
The Australian
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders face huge political obstacles to a deal

JERUSALEM: Israeli and Palestinian leaders head to Washington this week to relaunch direct peace talks, but with neither side expecting the negotiations to produce a long-elusive breakthrough. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have both spoken of their willingness to compromise. When they meet on Thursday to renew talks officially, each knows he will have a tough time overcoming domestic political obstacles to a deal.

The talks represent a big risk for US President Barack Obama, who personally helped to coax Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas to take part in a ceremonial initiation of negotiations at the White House tomorrow, to be followed by a resumption of peace talks on Thursday. Some advisers have questioned the wisdom of linking Mr Obama so visibly with such an intractable conflict. Mr Obama will hold one-on-one meetings with Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu in the Oval Office tomorrow, followed by a White House dinner that includes former British prime minister Tony Blair, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Mr Netanyahu, a hawk who recognised the internationally backed principle of a two-state solution only last year, yesterday said he hoped to reach "a peace based on recognition, security, stability and economic prosperity … that will endure for us and our children". Mr Abbas has urged Israel "not to miss this historic opportunity for peace", saying that "if there is only a 1 per cent chance of achieving peace we will strive for it".

The first challenge will be on September 26, when a 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlement construction expires. Mr Abbas has threatened to walk out of talks if construction resumes, and Mr Netanyahu has vowed not to extend the moratorium. Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition includes settler and religious parties that would probably quit the government rather than agree to territorial compromise.

The head of one of Mr Netanyahu's key coalition allies sparked anger yesterday for damning Mr Abbas and Israel's enemies, calling on God to "strike them down". "May all the nasty people who hate Israel, like Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), vanish from our world," ultra-Orthodox Shas party head Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said in a sermon. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat asked: "Is this how the Israeli government prepares its public for a peace agreement ?" Mr Netanyahu's office said the remarks did not reflect the government's views. Mr Abbas also faces internal Palestinian challenges that limit his scope to make concessions.


Missiles possible in peace package
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington last night for meetings that could decide whether a peace agreement for the Middle East is made or whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict descends into a new round of violence. While all sides remained sceptical that the decades-old conflict would be resolved in the near future, Mr Netanyahu's departure occurred amid reports that Israel was considering the possibility it would receive an arms package as compensation from the US in the event it reached a peace deal with the Palestinians. The Jerusalem Post reported that such a package could include additional funding for missile defence systems that Israel was planning to deploy throughout the country and F-35 joint strike fighter jets.

The newspaper reported that, in the lead-up to the new peace talks, the Israel Defence Forces had prepared a plan that included three key conditions for any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. They were a commitment that rockets would not be smuggled into the West Bank, a commitment that Palestinians would not resume terrorist attacks against Israel and a commitment that if Iraq were one day to pose a new threat to Israel, Palestinians would not allow it or any other country to deploy military forces in the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu will be the first of the leaders visiting Washington to meet President Barack Obama. Mr Obama will then hold a private meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. In the evening, Mr Obama will host a dinner for Mr Netanyahu, Mr Abbas and two Arab leaders, who will play the role of mediators in the new round of talks — Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Reports in Israel yesterday suggested Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak had been playing a crucial lead-up role in recent days. Israel Radio News reported that Mr Barak met secretly on Monday in Jordan with Mr Abbas and then King Abdullah. It said he had also recently met Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the US has condemned remarks by the spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that Palestinians should "perish". Rabbi Ovadia is the spiritual adviser to Eli Yishai, Israel's highly influential Interior Minister and a key supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Referring to Mr Abbas and other Palestinians, Rabbi Ovadia said in his weekly sermon: "All these evil people should perish from this world … God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians." US State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said: "These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace."

Israeli police with the killed settlers' car,
which was sprayed with bullets by Hamas militants. Source: AFP

Four Israelis shot dead in West Bank by Hamas in bid to derail Washington peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday, September 2, 2010

The slayings are condemned but negotiations continue


VIOLENCE in the West Bank escalated yesterday after Palestinian militant group Hamas shot dead four Israeli civilians in an apparent attempt to sabotage peace talks in Washington. Two couples, including a pregnant woman, were killed by militants in a passing vehicle, who riddled their car with dozens of bullets as they drove on Tuesday night in the Kiryat Arba settlement, near Hebron. Yizhak and Talia Aimes, aged 45 and 47 respectively, Avishai Shindler, 24, and Kochba Even-Chaim, 37, were settlers who left seven children.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington for the talks, condemned the violence but vowed to resume negotiations with Palestinians after a dinner with President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Mr Abbas, from the Fatah faction, which governs the West Bank, also denounced the killings but his Palestinian rivals, Hamas, who control the Gaza Strip, claimed responsibility.

Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle
East special envoy Senator George Mitchell, at the White House.
Picture: AFP Source: AFP
Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Picture: AFP

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "this kind of savage brutality has no place in any country under any circumstances". She reaffirmed security assurances after a meeting with Mr Netanyahu. "It is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister is here today, to engage in direct negotiations with those Palestinians who themselves have rejected a path of violence in favour of a path of peace," she said. "We pledge to do all we can always to protect and defend the state of Israel and to provide security to the Israeli people." Mr Netanyahu said seven orphans had been added to the "circle of grief" in Israel. "We will not let the blood of Israeli civilians go unpunished. We will find the murderers, we will punish their dispatchers," he said.

However, Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said his country was "committed to peace" and the attack would not prevent the talks from going ahead. Hamas opposes any peace talks. It refuses to renounce violence against Israel and says Mr Abbas does not represent the majority of Palestinians. The US has refused to allow Hamas any role in the peace process until it renounces violence.

As a response to the shootings, the settler movement announced an immediate resumption of building in the West Bank. "For 120 years of Zionism, when our people were killed, the answer was always to build," said settlers leader Naftali Bennett. Last November, Mr Netanyahu announced a 10-month moratorium on new construction in the West Bank following US pressure. Palestinians argue there should be no more building in settlements until the status of the West Bank is decided under any peace agreement and that if it continues, it will be impossible for a Palestinian state to be formed. Israel argues that any indefinite freeze is impracticable as the 300,000 or so Jews who live in the three main settlement blocs need to accommodate "natural growth".

Jewish settlements began after Israel took control of the West Bank in the 1967 war and Mr Netanyahu is the first prime minister to have brought in any sort of freeze. That freeze expires on September 26 and Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from his government partners to lift that ban.

Mr Obama was expected to host separate meetings not only with Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu, but also with key regional powerbrokers King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the White House before dining with the five leaders and diplomatic Quartet representative Tony Blair. The meetings were designed to help launch direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders tonight.

Barack Obama holds a working dinner with King Abdullah, Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, Tony Blair and Hosni
Mubarak at the White House. Picture: AP Source: AP

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Picture: AFP
Source: The Australian

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas reach for a lasting peace
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Friday, September 3, 2010

BARACK Obama says a lasting Middle East peace deal is possible within a year after Israeli and Palestinian leaders recommitted to finding a two-state solution. Raising hopes of a result that has eluded his predecessors, the US President today convenes the first direct talks between the two sides in almost two years. Before the meeting in Washington, Mr Obama acknowledged both sides faced enormous risks and the hard work was only beginning to reach a "final status" agreement. But he warned: "This moment of opportunity may not soon come again — they cannot afford to let it slip away."

Mr Obama held separate bilateral meetings yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the leaders of Egypt and Jordan. Despite scepticism from many observers who argue that unresolved complications and lingering animosity make a peace deal remote, Mr Obama has promoted an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as a cornerstone of his first-term foreign policy agenda.

Mr Netanyahu struck a positive note yesterday, calling Mr Abbas his "partner in peace" and declaring he had come to Washington to find a historic compromise. "Our goal is to forge a secure and durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians," he said. "We don't seek a brief interlude between two wars. We don't seek a temporary respite between outbursts of terror. We seek a peace that will end the conflict between us once and for all." Mr Netanyahu indicated he was willing to press ahead with talks, despite further violence in the West Bank with the killing of four Israeli civilians by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in an attempt to sabotage talks. "I will not let the terrorists block our path to peace, but as these events underscore once again, that peace must be anchored in security," he said.

Mr Abbas joined the Israeli Prime Minister in condemning the violence by Hamas. He said he had come to Washington — despite earlier reluctance over Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and a possible resumption in the West Bank — to relaunch "permanent status" negotiations for the creation of a Palestinian state. "We also reiterate our commitment to carry out all our obligations, and we call on the Israelis to carry out their obligations, including a freeze on settlement activities," Mr Abbas said.

Peace negotiations were suspended in 2008 during conflict between Israel and Hamas-led Gaza. Israel's continuation of settlements has remained a stumbling block for Mr Abbas's governing Fatah movement in the West Bank but he was persuaded to return to talks by Mr Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US special envoy George Mitchell. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, invited to participate in the Washington talks, said Mr Obama's determined involvement had revived hopes for peace and he hoped for an agreement within a year.

Mr Mubarak said he had listened to Mr Netanyahu's calls for peace, but insisted that Israel's security depended on a complete freeze on settlements. He also supported creating a Palestinian state that retrieved land occupied since 1967 and with East Jerusalem as its capital. King Abdullah of Jordan said negotiators needed Mr Obama as a mediator, honest broker and partner. "Time is not on our side," he said. "That is why we must spare no effort in addressing all final-status issues with a view to reaching a two-state solution."

Mr Netanyahu said the Jewish people were not strangers in their ancestral homeland and recognised that "another people shares this land with us". But after conflict had followed Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, he did not want a repeat. "We want to ensure that territory we'll concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel — and, may I add, also aimed at everyone of us sitting on this stage."

An early test for negotiations will be Israel's position on settlements in the West Bank when a moratorium expires later this month. With security a prime consideration for Israel, there are already reports that backing for a settlement could be conditional on the US providing extra funding for a missile defence system. Mr Obama said both sides had indicated "these negotiations can be completed within one year".

Same Day
Netanyahu fears right-wing reprisals for peace bid
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

THE most intriguing comment on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intentions in the peace talks stems from his request that the security services provide protection to former PMs for 15 years, not five as at present. Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus hinted that Mr Netanyahu was less worried about a future attack on him by Arabs than by right-wing Israelis unforgiving of anyone who gives up any of the West Bank, heart of biblical Israel. Perhaps for the first time in Mr Netanyahu's career, there was mystery about the position he would take on a major national issue. As recently as his election campaign last year, he told closed meetings he opposed a Palestinian state. He reversed that publicly a few months later under extreme pressure from US President Barack Obama, but his lack of enthusiasm was palpable.

But as the prospect of peace talks loomed, Israeli journalists who had one-on-one access to Mr Netanyahu came away with the impression that his long-held nationalism, which made him the darling of the Israeli Right, was doing battle with a desire to leave his mark on history by making peace with the Palestinians. To do so might require ideological somersaults, but he was better placed politically than almost any of his predecessors to pull it off. He not only has a large majority in the Knesset, but also if any of his right-wing allies choose to leave his coalition, the opposition Kadima Party, headed by Tzipi Livni, would be happy to take their place.

Mr Netanyahu reportedly did not inform his cabinet of the position he would take in the negotiations. Although he would have to bring any agreement to them for approval, the ministers granted him virtual autonomy. "The (cabinet) has not the slightest clue as to how Israel's borders will look if Netanyahu gets his way," wrote analyst Reuven Pedatzur.

Mr Netanyahu said he would bring creative new proposals to the table that would surprise everybody. Notably, he has not tried to dodge or belittle the peace talks by pointing out that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas represents less than half the Palestinians and has no standing in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Mr Netanyahu has refused to extend the construction freeze on Jewish settlements beyond the end of this month to keep the settlers from exploding during the scheduled year-long negotiations. He has attempted to mitigate the impact by hinting that the number of new buildings will be modest.

But the Palestinians have warned they will break off the talks if Israel resumes settlement building, and it is not clear how this issue will be resolved. The settlements also figure in a reported understanding Mr Netanyahu reached with Mr Obama, under which Israel would curtail settlement building as Washington steps up pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear development.

Also same Day
Barak hints at likely Israeli concessions
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

WHILE Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been standing alongside US President Barack Obama talking about peace in vague terms, his Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, back in Israel, hinted with little fanfare at what Israel was likely to offer. Although Mr Netanyahu's official position on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem has been that it is "the eternal and undivided" capital of Israel, Mr Barak revealed that Israel was prepared to cede parts of Jerusalem. And he outlined other possible concessions, such as establishing a "special regime" to manage Jerusalem's holy sites, withdrawing settlers in remote outposts to Israel, and handing over several "Arab neighbourhoods" to Palestinians. He detailed some of Israel's demands, including retaining a military presence along the Jordan Valley. "West Jerusalem and 12 Jewish neighbourhoods that are home to 200,000 residents will be ours. The Arab neighbourhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinians live will be theirs," Mr Barak told the Haaretz newspaper.

Mr Barak is not just a politician thinking aloud, he's Israel's most decorated soldier, a former prime minister, leader of the Labour Party and Defence Minister responsible for the Israeli army in the West Bank. In recent weeks, Mr Netanyahu sent Mr Barak to do much of the negotiations leading up to the Washington peace talks. He made a secret trip to Jordan, where he met Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah, and he met Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem. Much of the knowledge Mr Netanyahu took into this week's series of meetings with Mr Abbas, King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has undoubtedly come from Mr Barak.

There is no shortage of people who want these talks to fail (for differing reasons they profit from the status quo of conflict) as Hamas showed this week with its gangland-style murder of four Israeli civilians who were in a car when it was sprayed with bullets. That killed a pregnant woman and left six children as orphans. But after more than 20 years as a public figure, Mr Barak appears to be someone who believes the current situation is unsustainable.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands across Hillary Clinton. Source:AFP


Hamas tries to derail peace deal
Weekend Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Saturday, September 4, 2010


FRESH threats from the Palestinian militant group Hamas are jeopardising Barack Obama's push for a Middle East peace deal within 12 months. As the first direct talks in almost two years between Israelis and Palestinians began in Washington yesterday, Hamas refused to accept Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a representative negotiator.

During a first round of discussions, Mr Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday agreed to meet face-to-face again this month for two days in Egypt. They will then meet every two weeks in the hope of reaching a settlement. George Mitchell, the US President's special envoy to the region, said afterwards that the two leaders had agreed to start work on a "framework agreement for permanent status" to secure lasting peace. According to Mr Mitchell, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas had approached negotiations in good faith to resolve all core issues in the quest for a two-state solution. While confirming both leaders had canvassed issues that would be central to a comprehensive treaty such as borders, treatment of refugees and the future of Jewish settlements, Mr Mitchell said: "They also agreed that for these negotiations to succeed, they must be kept private and treated with the utmost sensitivity."

Hamas has already emerged as a spoiler, claiming Mr Abbas has no right to represent the Palestinian people as Fatah Party leader in the West Bank. The rival Hamas, which is regarded internationally as a terrorist group and does not recognise the state of Israel, controls the Gaza Strip. Its leadership says no peace settlement can be valid without its support on behalf of Palestinians who live in the separate territory. The other Hamas threat to peace negotiations is violence after hit-squads this week killed four Jewish settlers and wounded two others. The attacks were obvious attempts to derail the Washington negotiations. The top Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, said Mr Abbas was wasting his time in negotiations. "Our resistance is continuous," he said.

US analysts suggested the absence of Hamas and separation of Gaza from negotiations could be positive for Mr Abbas in reinforcing his authority and allowing greater flexibility. But Mr Abbas has dismissed any suggestion of a partial deal that granted state independence to the West Bank and put off Gaza to another time. He knows such a deal would destroy his credibility among Palestinians. Mr Abbas's alleged trump card against Hamas, in the event of an agreement reached with the Israelis, is to put the deal to a national referendum of Palestinians that would include those in Gaza. He hopes a "yes" vote would pressure Hamas to accept it.

Mr Obama, who persuaded Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas to meet at talks he hosted in Washington, has rated a Middle East peace deal a key foreign policy initiative of his administration, after a series of his predecessors failed to yield a result. Sceptics argue that lingering mistrust and an array of complicated issues still to be resolved make Mr Obama's 12-month timetable unrealistic. A day after Mr Obama welcomed the two sides, a series of meetings yesterday began with an opening ceremony and talks involving Mr Netanyahu, Mr Abbas, Mr Mitchell and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her State Department office. Mrs Clinton and Mr Mitchell then left the room so Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas could talk privately.

Describing the relationship between the two men as cordial, Mr Mitchell said later: "These men have known each other for a long time … and I felt that it was a very constructive and positive mood, both in terms of their personal interaction and in terms of the nature of the discussion." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr Obama was encouraged by the "serious attitude" of the two leaders in seeking long-term peace, but accepted there were deep divisions. Asked directly about obstacles posed by Hamas, Mr Gibbs declined to answer and deferred to Mr Mitchell.

The Israelis and Palestinians are sticking with positions that present difficulties. Mr Netanyahu insists Palestinians recognise Israel "as the nation state of the Jewish people" and wants assurances on security before any deal. It is unclear what concessions he would give on territory. Mr Abbas has joined in condemning attacks on Israelis claimed by Hamas but insists his side recognised Israel years ago. He wants an independent state with East Jerusalem as the capital and demands Israel freeze all settlements in the West Bank in the meantime.

The settlements issue will be an early test for peace negotiations as an Israeli moratorium in the West Bank is due to expire on September 26. Mr Netanyahu, who is holding together a potentially fragile coalition government, has not given final confirmation on what will happen on settlements.

Same Day
Armed Palestinian groups will unite to fight Israel
AFP, Wall Street Journal

GAZA CITY: Thirteen armed Palestinian groups, including the militant Islamist movement Hamas, say they have set up a centre to co-ordinate operations against Israel. The threat, together with violence this week, raised tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed in Washington to continue direct peace talks.

"We have decided to create a co-ordination centre for our operations against the (Israeli) enemy," said Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, Hamas's military wing, speaking on behalf of the 13 groups. He pledged to hit "the Zionist enemy in any place at any time", adding that "all options are open" in response to a question on the possibility of firing rockets at Tel Aviv from Gaza. Four Israelis have been shot dead and two others wounded since Tuesday in a pair of Palestinian attacks targeting Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Both shootings were claimed by Hamas, which opposes the peace talks.

But Israeli and Palestinian officials and analysts familiar with Hamas said the attacks' true target appeared to be the Palestinian Authority, the more moderate Palestinian government of the West Bank, which is headed by Mr Abbas. Mr Abbas has spearheaded a tough crackdown on Hamas for the past two years, shuttering Hamas-linked charities, arresting thousands of Hamas members and banning its peaceful political activities in the West Bank. This week's shootings follow a period of relative quiet, during which Hamas appeared to have retrenched from violent acts against Israel. The group claimed responsibility for the fatal shooting of an Israeli policeman in the southern West Bank in June. In the weeks leading up to the peace talks, Palestinian forces intensified its crackdown on Hamas. Palestinian security forces banned Hamas-linked preachers from speaking in mosques.

Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas politician based in the West Bank, said this week's attacks were probably calculated to cause a rift between Palestinian Authority security forces and Israeli forces and show Hamas is still a vibrant force that cannot be ignored. "This proves that the only way to deal with Hamas is for the Palestinian Authority to … make a reconciliation deal to build a common strategy. "Hamas is a reality," he said. "The US and the Palestinian Authority have to sit and talk with it."

Hamas's political leaders, such as Mr Ramahi, say they are not privy to discussions within the group's military wing. That apparent division underscores the diffuse power structure the group cultivates.

Also Same Day
Co-exist first, then pact can follow
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

THE Palestinian refugee question, the most emotionally charged issue in the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, seemed a simple humanitarian matter when an Israeli official named Avraham Biran first encountered it in the early 1950s. Biran, the chief administrator of the Jerusalem district, would meet periodically with his Jordanian counterpart in no man's land under UN auspices to resolve problems that cropped up in the divided city and its environs. The two men knew each other well from having been senior civil servants together in the British mandatory administration a few years before, and their relationship was that of old colleagues.

On one occasion, Biran broached the problem of the Latrun salient, west of the city, where a broad swath of no man's land had ill-defined borders that led to frequent exchanges of gunfire. In an interview 20 years ago, Biran told me he suggested to the Jordanian official, from the well-known Nashashibi family in Jerusalem, that they redraw the border at Latrun. "I proposed to him that we divide no man's land between us and establish clear demarcation lines," he says. But Nashashibi baulked. "He said, 'I know what you're after - restoring the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road'," says Biran. The old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road had been cut at Latrun by no man's land, obliging Israel to build a lengthy bypass. "I conceded I was interested in that," said Biran. "But I made him an offer. There were a couple of abandoned Arab villages in that zone and they would be able to settle some of their refugees there in exchange for us opening the road. He said: 'My friend, you don't understand what it's all about. We don't want to solve the refugee problem. We want it to fester until we get rid of you.' He said it in a friendly way. We were not enemies personally." And fester the refugees did, generations of them dependent largely on UN aid.

The refugees initially consisted of the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out of the territory captured by Israel during its war of independence. With their descendants, who have been granted refugee status by the UN, the number today is 4.6 million, with about a third living in crowded refugee camps. The Arab League instructed its member states to deny citizenship to the refugees "to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland".

In Israel, about 600,000 Jews who fled or were driven out of Arab countries after the creation of the Jewish state - almost the same number as the initial number of Palestinian refugees - were fully absorbed into the nation's life after a brief period.

It is clear to many Arab leaders that Israel with its six million Jews cannot survive as a Jewish state if it accepts significant numbers of Palestinian refugees, and that it will accept only a small symbolic number, if any at all. Yet the right of return remains a central Palestinian demand, part a wish fantasy for the refugees, part a political club with which to beat Israel.

The refugee issue has succeeded in keeping the broader Palestinian cause alive internationally and it would be very difficult for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, himself a refugee, to abandon it. It is a basic Israeli assumption that even moderate Arabs such as Abbas who shun violence seek Israel's eventual demise due to demographics or geopolitics.

If by some diplomatic legerdemain the two sides sign an agreement within a year, as called for by Washington, it may be labelled a peace treaty but it is unlikely to resolve all the outstanding issues or heal the Palestinians' festering wound. But what is possible is the creation of a new dynamic. A respite from the confrontation with Israel, even if deep down the Palestinians consider it only temporary, would permit their society to explore for the first time the heady potential of independence and normality. There is no telling where that might lead. For Israel, which has thrived on adversity, the need to keep its guard up will continue to give it the edginess it needs for its continued vitality and security.


Progress of peace talks 'a surprise'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, September 6, 2010

KEY Palestinian and Arab leaders have been surprised by what they now see as the possibility the new round of peace talks may lead to an end to the decades-old conflict. The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, told Arab leaders over the weekend that the talks could work, while Palestinian leaders were clearly surprised by the progress made at the first meeting in Washington on Friday.

But Hamas warned again it would continue attacks against Israeli civilians, and Israeli jets bombed smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border in retaliation for the drive-by killings last week of four Jewish settlers near the West Bank town of Hebron. Hamas claimed responsibility. Other extremist leaders in the region, including Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, predicted the talks would fail.

However, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas hit back at Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, was quoted by the official PA news agency Wafa as saying Mr Ahmadinejad had engaged in forged elections last year and did not represent the Iranian people. "We did not repress our people as did Iran led by Ahmadinejad," he said. The Jerusalem Post reported that chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said agreement had been reached in Washington that the new talks would resume where they were abandoned two years ago. The paper also quoted Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, as saying that Israel was attempting to find concessions in the event Israel ends the freeze on settlement growth on September 26. It said these could include greater Palestinian control of West Bank territory, removing extra checkpoints and the release of Palestinian security prisoners.

Palestinian negotiators have said they would walk away from talks if building resumes. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from settlers and two of the parties in his fragile coalition not to renew the moratorium. Mr Abbas told associates he would be prepared to have an international force deployed anywhere Israel demanded within a Palestinian state. Mr Abbas had had a positive sense Mr Netanyahu was serious about a peace agreement and the US might find "a creative solution" to the issue of the construction freeze, the report added.

In Washington, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas agreed to meet every two weeks, starting next week in Egypt. While many commentators in Israel had been sceptical that Mr Netanyahu wanted to be put in a position to sign a peace deal, given the opposition from elements of his own coalition, the picture has changed somewhat with the major opposition party, Kadima, signalling it would be prepared to join his government should it be required.

Another factor is that Israel wants full US support to confront Iran's developing nuclear capacity and in Israel it is seen as likely that the US would be more supportive should Israel sign a peace deal, on which President Barack Obama has staked much of his foreign policy credentials.

Palestinian Muslims pray at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City on the 27th day of the fasting month of Ramadan yesterday. AP


Netanyahu facing cabinet revolt
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, September 7, 2010


ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to fend off anger from his own cabinet about his handling of renewed peace talks while also seeking a compromise over a partial extension of the freeze on Jewish settlements. Mr Netanyahu's balancing act came as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, would prevent any extension of the freeze.

"Yisrael Beiteinu has enough power in the government and in parliament to ensure that no such proposal succeeds," Mr Lieberman told Army Radio. He publicly attacked the peace talks yesterday and said they would lead to "a dead end"; Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom also confronted Mr Netanyahu in a meeting yesterday, saying the way he was conducting the process was "inappropriate". According to Israeli media, Mr Shalom told him: "There was not as much as one meeting that dealt with government policy ahead of negotiations with the Palestinians. I cannot recall such a situation in which things are done without discussion — this is inappropriate and not right." It was reported Mr Netanyahu responded: "When it becomes necessary to reach decisions, I will convene a meeting."

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a major supporter of the peace process, said it was unlikely the government's 10-month freeze on building in settlements in the West Bank, which expires on September 26, would be continued in its current form. Palestinians have said they will walk away from talks if that freeze ends. It is understood US negotiators are trying to come up with a compromise that will enable Mr Abbas to argue that he should remain at the table. Mr Barak said he did not think it was reasonable that a complete freeze continue but that Israel would attempt to convince Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to "a partial renewal of construction". It is believed Israel is considering that growth in smaller settlements and outposts continue to be frozen but that in major settlement blocs it resume. Some settlers have resumed construction following the killing of four Jewish settlers by Hamas in the West Bank last week.

The sensitivity of the talks was highlighted yesterday when Israel cancelled a meeting between its head negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, and his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, after details of the planned meeting became public. Mr Erekat surprised many observers yesterday when he told Israel Radio Hamas might be willing to accept a peace agreement if "the core issues" were resolved.

While there was scepticism about the new talks, a flurry of planned meetings has made many commentators consider that perhaps they might succeed. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will fly to Egypt on Friday to meet Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. The following day, the three will meet in Jerusalem — the first official visit to Jerusalem by Mr Abbas for two years.

Same Day
Peace unachievable: Israeli foreign minister
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

ISRAELI Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who prides himself on being undiplomatic, lashed out yesterday at the peace negotiations with the Palestinians launched last week in Washington and criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for trying to whip up enthusiasm for something that was "unachievable". "There will be no peace, not next year and not for the next generation," Mr Lieberman said in a meeting with 1000 members of his Yisrael Beitainu (Israel is Our Home) Party. The Palestinian Authority was incapable, he said, of signing a peace agreement that met Israel's needs. "No historical compromise and no painful concessions will do," he said, phrases Mr Netanyahu used in Washington last week in promoting the peace process. What Israel should strive for instead, Mr Lieberman proposed, was a long-term interim agreement aimed at avoiding an outbreak of violence.

A number of senior Israeli analysts also believe the most realistic goal Israel should strive for at present is an interim agreement, particularly because the division of power between Fatah and Hamas makes any agreement with the Palestinians unstable. However, it is highly unusual for a foreign minister to be at the head of the anti-peace camp and to indirectly mock his own prime minister for seeking a peace agreement. Mr Lieberman derisively referred to peace conferences with the Palestinians as "grandiose productions of the international peace industry" fuelled by cocktail parties and television appearances. "We are not averse to a peace agreement," he said, "just not adventures and illusions." Israel had suffered enough, he said, "from the adventures and experiments of irresponsible politicians." He did not name Mr Netanyahu but didn't have to.

An unnamed Israeli minister quoted in the Israeli media last night noted that foreign ministers are usually to the left politically of their prime ministers. "Imagine how we would react if a Palestinian foreign minister said peace was impossible," he said. "We would jump down his throat." A Palestinian government spokesman, Ghassan Khatib, said that even if Mr Lieberman had little influence on Israeli government policy, "he is still the Foreign Minister" and, together with like-minded ministers, a major impediment to the peace process.

Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to confront Mr Lieberman at this point since his party is his major coalition partner. However, if a draft agreement with the Palestinians becomes realistic, the replacement of extreme-right coalition partners with the moderate Kadima party, now in opposition, is inevitable.

Mr Lieberman, 52, immigrated to Israel in 1978 from the former Soviet Union where he was a nightclub bouncer as a young man. He established his party a decade ago as a political base for fellow Russian-speaking immigrants but it has since drawn other Israelis attracted by his hardline attitude towards the Arabs, particularly Israeli Arabs who support the Palestinian cause.


Extract: Early blow to Middle East peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to go into new peace talks tomorrow with the announcement that he will not continue the current freeze on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank but will try to slow down activity. In what will be the first major obstacle for the renewed peace process, Palestinian negotiators will either accept the news as the best possible compromise Mr Netanyahu could extract from his own cabinet or will walk away from the talks, which have only just started after a year's efforts by the Obama administration.

But a watchdog group yesterday said Israel had approved the construction of more than 13,000 new homes for Israeli settlers in the West Bank and that work would proceed when a partial moratorium expired this month. The anti-settlement Peace Now group said ground had already been broken on 2066 units and that another 11,000 had received final government approval. "This means that if the government decides on a de facto tacit freeze, and commits to not approve any new construction but without renewing the freeze order, the settlers can still build 13,000 housing units," Peace Now said. An Israeli government official confirmed on condition of anonymity that construction of about 2000 homes could proceed without any further approval.

Mr Netanyahu yesterday told his cabinet there were "midway options" between a complete freeze on building in the settlements and pushing ahead with the 20,000 new housing units that have been approved by Israel. "I don't know if there will be a comprehensive freeze but I also don't know if it is necessary to construct all of the 20,000 housing units waiting to be built," he said. It appears the Netanyahu position will be that building will continue in the three major settlement blocs with building in the smaller settlements delayed by red tape.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will fly today to Sharm El-Sheikh for the new round of talks with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. Tomorrow, the three will fly to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Mr Abbas's Palestinian Authority yesterday intensified its criticism of Iran which, like Hamas in Gaza, is attempting to derail the new peace talks by claiming Mr Abbas does not represent Palestinians. Following criticisms by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, Fatah's central committee — which controls the Palestinian Authority — issued a statement saying Ayatollah Khamanei's comments were "evidence of Iran's desire to use the Palestinian cause for its own hegemonic greediness".

Same Day
Israeli forces kill three after rocket fire from Gaza

GAZA CITY: Israeli tank forces killed three Palestinians, including a teenage boy and his grandfather, at the border with Gaza yesterday, after a rocket was fired across the border. The victims were 91-year-old security guard Ibrahim Abdullah Abu Said, his grandson Hossam Khaled Abu Saeed, 17, and a man named as Ismael Walid Abu Audeh, 20. The military wing of the Popular Resistance Committees in Palestine claimed responsibility for rocket and mortar fire into Israel that preceded the tank fire.

"A group of the al-Nasser Salahaddin Brigades succeeded in firing two rockets and one mortar shell. Our heroes who implemented the mission are safely back in their base," the group said, saying the action was in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Gaza civilians. Israel said troops "identified a number of suspects attempting to fire an RPG in their direction. The soldiers returned fire towards the suspects, who were apparently hit".


Extract: Clinton keeps talks on track
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, September 16, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has shepherded the new Middle East peace talks through their first crisis as she appears to be brokering a compromise on the pace of growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Amid threats by Palestinians that they would walk away from talks if Israel resumed settlement growth on September 26, Ms Clinton succeeded yesterday in pushing ahead with negotiations over the most serious issues, including the borders of a new Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem. In a sign of the seriousness of the efforts to reach some kind of compromise, Mr Netanyahu was expected to travel to Washington at the weekend for another round of talks with US President Barack Obama, Israeli media reported.

Mr Peres, awarded the Nobel Peace prize with Mr Abbas's late predecessor Yasser Arafat and assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin for the ground-breaking Oslo Accords of 1993, said the need to find peace was "profound and urgent". Speaking at the presidential residence of Beit HaNassi. Mr Peres said the region was changing because of the emergence of Iran as a threat. "The dangers are not simple and I don't think that we can solve all the problems just by saying some nice things, but on the other hand I do believe it can be achieved — it must be achieved," the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said. He said the opening of talks in Egypt on Tuesday was "much better" than sceptics had predicted. "Talking to our own Prime Minister and some of the other leaders, the sense is, 'Let's do what can be done for the better and easier and earlier for all parties concerned'," he said. "I think we have to act with great dynamism and determination. I want to say as an old hand in the Middle East that nobody has a better alternative."

The sensitivity of the situation was apparent when US special envoy George Mitchell refused to give a single detail about any matter discussed, saying both sides had requested "the strictest confidence". While Mr Netanyahu leads a coalition government including parties with a religious commitment to settlements in the West Bank, the main opposition party, Kadima, has indicated that should the coalition look like collapsing over the talks, it would be prepared to join the government. In this sense, Mr Netanyahu's hand is much stronger than many suggest. Opinion polls in Israel consistently say Israelis would support a deal establishing a state of Palestine — but only if it leads to real security and does not resemble what occurred in Gaza, where Israel "disengaged" and was replaced by a hardline Islamist government, Hamas, which for years has fired missiles at Israel.

While Mr Mitchell restated the US view that the freeze on settlements should be continued, he acknowledged the "political sensitivity" of this in Israel and called on Mr Abbas to make concessions that may make it easier for Mr Netanyahu to keep some form of freeze. Mr Netanyahu returned to Jerusalem yesterday amid threats from the Left they would quit the coalition if he did not make a peace deal while some on the Right said they would go if he extended the freeze.


US urges Syria, Lebanon to talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, September 17, 2010

THE US has decided to broaden the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in an attempt to enlist Syria and Lebanon into a regional Middle East peace deal. The ambitious proposal was revealed yesterday by US special envoy George Mitchell when he announced he would fly to Damascus for talks overnight with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, before flying to Lebanon today. While the US has been increasing contacts with Syria in recent months, the trip to Lebanon — where the chief mediator will meet Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Suleiman and Speaker Nabih Hariri — caught observers by surprise. Whereas Syria considered a peace deal with Israel in talks brokered by Turkey before the Gaza war last year, Lebanon and Iran are considered Israel's most implacable enemies.

Lebanon is being cultivated by various parties — last week Iran announced that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would make his first visit to Beirut as leader and will meet the same three leaders next month. But unlike Mr Mitchell — who will not meet Hezbollah officials because the US lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation — Mr Ahmadinejad will meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He revealed his trip during the talks in Jerusalem between Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Mitchell, a key figure in brokering peace in Northern Ireland, yesterday favourably compared the new Middle East talks. He said while parties had not engaged on key issues until well into the Irish talks, in the Middle East talks the leaders had gone to them almost immediately. "Within a matter of literally days since this process began, the leaders have engaged directly, vigorously, with what are among the most difficult and sensitive issues that they will confront," Mr Mitchell said.

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