Click here for prior news from January 29th, 2011

Click here for news since September 17th, 2011


Israeli border breach on Golan Heights to continue
The Australian Online
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Demonstrators flee from teargas fired from Israel at the Syrian border yesterday. The Palestinians say they were protesting against
44 years of occupation. Picture: Getty Images Source: Getty Images

ISRAEL faces a new attempt to breach its border with Syria after weekend confrontations on the Golan Heights left several people dead and scores injured. Protesters who tried yesterday to break through the border were preparing for their third attempt in three weeks. Syrian state television claimed 20 protesters were killed and the Israel Defence Forces said the figure was more likely to be 10. It said thousands were making their way towards the border and many were sleeping at the site in preparation for another attempt tonight. Clashes also occurred yesterday for several hours between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Israel Radio News reported Syrian opposition figures saying people who participated in yesterday's demonstration received $US1000 ($931) each while the state had offered $US10,000 to the family of anyone killed trying to cross the border. Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria after the Six-Day War in 1967 and says it fired only after warnings. The Palestinians said they were protesting against 44 years of "occupation".

On May 15, hundreds of protesters caught the IDF by surprise and broke through the border to mark "Nakba" day — an Arabic word for "catastrophe", which some Palestinians say marks the plight of Palestinian refugees following the establishment of Israel in 1948. Yesterday, Israeli soldiers prevented protesters from breaking the border.

Israeli officials said attempts to breach the border appeared to have been orchestrated by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as a diversion against his own uprising, in which 70 people were killed on Friday alone. They said the fact there was no attempt by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to breach the border with Israel supported this.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, said Syria was using Palestinian refugees as "cannon fodder" and Israel had a responsibility to protect its sovereignty. Leading Israeli commentator Alex Fishman reflected the mood in Israel when he wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth: "The Palestinians continue to be pawns in the hands of the regimes in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. "If these regimes will it, they use them, and if they will it, they prevent them from taking any action. In Lebanon, the government decided, and Hezbollah approved, for there not to be demonstrations, and so there weren't."

The Palestinians said the protesters were Palestinians trying to return to their homes. Fatah official Hossam Zomlot said there had been resolutions stating that under international law, the border at the centre of the confrontation was not Israel's border but rather occupied Syrian territory. "These are very peaceful, marching people to try to break into their own homes, back to their occupied territories that have been denied, to go back despite the fact they have been granted such a right by successive international resolutions," he told the BBC.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he "condemns the use of violence and all actions intended to provoke violence". He said yesterday's events and those of May 15 put the long-held ceasefire along the border in jeopardy.

Israeli soldiers patrol the border with Syria on Monday
Clinton gives Middle East peace a push
The Australian
Jay Solomon - Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

THE Obama administration held talks on Monday to jump-start stalled Middle East peace discussions, its first high-level meetings with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in months. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had successive meetings at the State Department with top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Saeb Erekat represented the Palestinians, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his close aide, Yitzhak Molcho. The talks were not made public beforehand, but word leaked out during the day.

Officials from the three sides offered little evidence of significant progress, and Mr. Erekat said that, because of the stalled talks, the Palestinian side remained committed to pursuing a UN vote on statehood in September.

Mrs Clinton offered little support on Monday for French President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to host a Mid-East peace conference in Paris in coming weeks. "We strongly support a return to negotiations, but we do not think that it would be productive for there to be a conference about returning to negotiations," Mrs Clinton said following a meeting with her French counterpart, Alain Juppe. "There has to be a return to negotiations, which will take a lot of persuasion and preliminary work in order to set up a productive meeting between the parties." US officials said privately that Mr Sarkozy's plan offered little hope for success, given the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians on core issues.

There are concerns in the Obama administration a split with Europe over Middle East policy could widen as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pushes for the UN vote. France and Britain suggested they might support Mr Abbas if peace talks remained frozen, while the US said it would oppose the UN measure.

Mr Juppe said France was promoting the talks to head off a UN vote. He recently visited the Middle East and received support from Mr Abbas for the initiative, but no pledge from Israel. "We have the feeling that if nothing happens before September the situation will be very difficult for everybody when the General Assembly will discuss a resolution about the Palestinian state," Mr Juppe said. "It will not be easy for us Europeans, for Palestinians, for Israelis, and the only way to avoid such a situation is to boost or to encourage a resumption of the negotiation."

US President Barack Obama last month tried to breathe life into the peace process by setting out parameters for the talks during an address on the Middle East. He said the US saw talks on a future Palestinian state, based on Israel's borders before the 1967 Six Day War, with some territorial adjustments. But Mr Netanyahu publicly rebuked Mr Obama during a White House visit, and even many Democrats opposed the President's proposal.

Differences between the Obama administration and Palestinian side also appeared on Monday. Mrs Clinton restated Washington's position that it would not support a resumption of peace talks until the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which recently rejoined Mr Abbas's government, renounced violence and recognized Israel's right to exist. Mr Erekat said the unification of the Palestinian factions was crucial for the success of any peace process. "This is not a power-sharing government," Mr. Erekat said. "This will be a government for elections, and reconstruction of Gaza, and a government that runs Abbas's program."

US officials fear that a failure to relaunch peace talks could further inflame a Mid-East already churning from uprisings that have swept the region. In recent weeks, Palestinian demonstrators in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have marched on their borders with Israel, with dozens shot by Israeli security forces guarding the frontiers. With such wide differences, few Middle East analysts are optimistic the White House will prevent the September vote. "There's a mad scramble ahead of September to create an alternative diplomatic approach," said Scott Lasensky of the US Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank.

Syrian government soldiers enter the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour over the weekend. Reuters
Assad allies drop off as troops take over town
The Australian
The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

DAMASCUS: Syria's military took control of a northwestern town on Sunday after surrounding it for days, as President Bashar al-Assad's regime appeared to close ranks in the face of growing international condemnation, alienating a key ally and retreating into isolation. The 45-year old Mr. Assad — once widely revered by Syrians as young, dynamic, and pragmatic — has sunk out of view for almost two months, as protests continue to roil and a brutal crackdown has killed more than 1400 civilians. Mr. Assad was last seen on state television addressing his new cabinet on April 16, only his second public appearance during Syria's three-month-old uprising.

This week, the President's office stopped taking calls from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after several telephone conversations in which the secretary-general urged restraint from Syria's strongman, a spokesperson for Mr Ban said on Friday. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has built a strong personal relationship with Mr Assad, on Friday accused Syria's regime of cruelty and said several telephone calls with the president indicated the regime was "taking it all very lightly." Mr Assad appeared to have lost a longtime ally.

A regime crackdown on restless cities has involved a military operation focused in the north-western town of Jisr al-Shoughour this weekend, where the government vowed to root out armed gangs it said killed 120 police and security force members a week ago. On Sunday morning, residents of Jisr al-Shughour said about 160 tanks moved into the town after shelling it from the outskirts over the weekend. Syria's state news agency on Sunday said two "gunmen" and one soldier were killed in clashes, after which the army took complete control of the town. The state agency also reported the discovery of a "mass grave" in the town, which it said contained bodies of security force personnel killed by the armed groups. The deployment of attack helicopters on Jisr al-Shughour and the burning of hectares of fields and hilltops in the area, as reported by residents of several towns, have represented an escalation in the attacks.

Across the border with Turkey, where thousands of refugees are being hosted in camps, a 27-year-old man who identified himself as Ali said "dissidents from the army blew up two bridges in the city." Jamil Saeb, a resident of Jisr al-Shughour and an activist, said military tanks couldn't move into the town on Saturday because of "some defectors who were trying to resist."

Elsewhere in Syria yesterday, residents reported heavy gunfire in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, and in Lattakia on the Mediterranean coast.

Army defections remain key to a potential showdown between the Assad core and the Sunni community, which dominates the rank and file of the army, analysts say. Every day this week, testimonies by defected army conscripts have emerged. A 21-year-old conscript who fled to Jisr al-Shughour from Damascus earlier this week said troops live in near isolation, with no televisions or telephones, and had no information on the protests in Syria's streets until they are deployed. "They tell us we're going to fight armed criminals, and we get to the streets and see kids, and elderly men, and just normal people with no weapons," he said.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said "The weak spot here are the rank-and-file and mid-officer corps breaking away." This was probably the scenario developing in Jisr al-Shughour, he added.

Palestinian prime minister
Salam Fayaad
Same Day
Hamas blocks Fatah's man

GAZA CITY: Hamas rejected the rival Fatah movement's nominee for prime minister yesterday, complicating plans to unify the governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and jeopardising aid for the Palestinians. Hamas's opposition to Salam Fayyad's nomination marked a setback in the reconciliation process, which aims to form a caretaker government until elections are held next year. Mr Fayyad, Prime Minister of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, was nominated by the Western-leaning Fatah over the weekend. A US-educated economist, he enjoys the respect of foreign aid donors. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has said Mr Fayyad's reappointment would ease Western concerns over donor money falling into the hands of Hamas, which the West considers a terrorist organisation. Mr Fayyad is an independent, but Hamas believes he is a political figure. Hamas official Salah Bardawil said: "We will not agree to grant Salam Fayyad the confidence to run the national unity government."

Officials close to Mr Abbas believed Hamas's announcement was not final and expressed hope they would be able to get Mr Fayyad's appointment approved. Hamas has floated several names but has not yet announced a candidate.

Fatah and Hamas have been at loggerheads since the Islamic militant group won parliamentary elections in 2006. A short-lived unity government disintegrated in 2007 and Hamas routed forces loyal to Mr Abbas and overran the Gaza Strip. Since then, Mr Abbas has governed in the West Bank only. Reconciliation is essential for the Palestinians to establish an independent state, but the factions are divided over how to deal with Israel: Fatah favours peace, while Hamas has rejected demands to renounce violence and recognise Israel.

King Abdullah II
Same Day
Bottles or bouquets ' It's King Abdullah

AMMAN: King Abdullah II was met by either tossed bottles and stones or a warm welcome on a visit to Jordan's south last night, according to conflicting reports from government officials. A security official said a crowd of youths flung objects at the monarch's motorcade in two incidents in the town of Tafila, 200km south of Amman, just a day after he bowed to popular demands for an elected prime minister. This official said King Abdullah was unharmed. If confirmed, however, this would be the first violence aimed directly at him in the constitutional monarchy.

Government spokesman Taher Edwan denied the report. "This news is totally baseless," he said. "There was no attack whatsoever with empty bottles and stones. What happened is that a group of young Jordanians thronged the monarch's motorcade to shake hands with him." When police "pushed them away, there was a lot of shoving". A palace official who accompanied King Abdullah gave a similar account: "It was a gesture of welcome, not an attack."

The king was on a fact-finding trip to inspect infrastructure projects and hear his subjects' demands. While violence has rocked other authoritarian countries across the Arab world, it has been rare in Jordan, where pro-democracy protests in recent months have generally been confined to relatively small demonstrations.

On Sunday, King Abdullah announced he would accept elected cabinets in the future, replacing a system under which the king appoints the prime minister and other ministers. He did not give a timetable, saying sudden change could lead to "chaos and unrest" in Jordan. It was the first time the king has made such a concession to Jordanians, who have taken to the streets in six months of pro-democracy protests to demand a greater political say in this key US Arab ally.

Political analyst Labib Kamhawi said the king's remarks were a "step forward, but we have to wait and see the final outcome". "The speech was positive on critical issues like electing a prime minister in the future," added Mr Kamhawi, an outspoken critic of the king's policies. "But we want to see more being done for wider civil liberties and less security interference in the affairs of the state."

The king also promised further changes without elaborating, saying that a royal commission was exploring "possible amendments" to the constitution appropriate for Jordan's "present and future".

When King Abdullah took the throne in 1999, he floated the idea of a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain's, but little has been said since. A protest movement in Morocco is calling for reducing the powers of that country's monarchy and strengthening the prime minister's position.

Jordan has lifted restrictions on public assembly, allowing people to demonstrate freely. At the outset of protests, King Abdullah sacked his prime minister in February, responding to demands he was insensitive to their economic hardships. While Jordan's protests have been relatively small and generally peaceful, one person has been killed in the unrest.

Najib Mikati
Hezbollah tightens its grip on Lebanon
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

HEZBOLLAH has strengthened its grip on Lebanon, taking the majority of cabinet positions in the new government. At a time when the Middle East is wracked with instability, the Iranian-backed "Party of God" and its allies have taken 16 of the 30 cabinet positions in the new government led by Najib Mikati — an increase of six positions. The new cabinet, announced late on Monday, does not include any member from the pro-Western "March 14" coalition of the immediate past prime minister Saad Hariri.

Mr Hariri's government was brought down in January by Hezbollah, which demanded he disown the UN special tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former president Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah fears some of its key identities face indictment when the tribunal hands down its investigation. Many Lebanese believed Syria, a close ally of Hezbollah, was involved in the assassination and a public backlash forced the Syrian military from Lebanon.

Yesterday, Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, engaged in a brutal crackdown against his own people, telephoned Mr Mikati to congratulate him.

The fragility of the government was highlighted when one of the new cabinet members, Talal Arslan, resigned, unhappy with his ministry. Mr Arslan, a Druze, said: "I cannot participate in a government in which Najib Mikati says the Druze do not have the right to a key ministry." The new government further entrenches Hezbollah's power over government decisions.

Mr Mikati tried to reassure doubters yesterday by saying the new government would be "a government for all Lebanon". But his soothing words were undercut by incoming Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Safadi, who said: "We are going into precarious times and would like everyone to be represented in the new government."


Conflict can't be solved, says Bibi
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday, June 16, 2011

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "insoluble", casting a new note of pessimism over attempts to restart peace talks. In an interview with Haaretz newspaper, Mr Netanyahu was asked what his government's peace initiative was and what was the plan to end the conflict with the Palestinians. "This is an insoluble conflict because it is not about territory," he replied. "It is not that you can give up a kilometre more and solve it. The root of the conflict is an entirely different place. Until Abu Mazen (Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas) recognises Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no way to reach an agreement."

The comment comes as the US, Britain and France are trying to convince Mr Netanyahu to resume direct negotiations with Mr Abbas to head off a vote at the UN in September to create a Palestinian state. Israeli and Palestinian officials fear a new round of violence in September, with predictions of a "third intifida". Both sides fear rising expectations about the UN vote and the two scenarios emerging as the most likely possible outcomes could lead to new violence: that if the UN votes for a Palestinian state, and Israel does not implement it, then violence is likely to follow; or that if the vote is defeated Palestinian youths who have been leading the push for a state will take to the streets.

Israel's media this week ran photos of Israeli security forces training for a possible uprising in September. Palestinian youth groups are using social media to organise rallies and demonstrations in the lead-up to September.

On March 15, about 10,000 people demonstrated in Gaza City against the Hamas government and called for it to join with Fatah to present a united negotiating position. Egypt is trying to broker talks between Fatah and Hamas to form a unified Palestinian government. About 130 countries are expected to support a Palestinian state in September, although Israel has begun a major diplomatic effort to defeat the vote.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on a recent visit to South America that he believed he had convinced several countries to vote against it. While Israel expects a majority will support the vote, it is trying to convince countries such as Britain and France to vote against it. Britain and France have indicated that if peace talks have not resumed by September they may support the vote. While Israel would not be bound to implement such a vote, it could have major implications under international law and allow Palestinian officials to join international forums.

Meanwhile, a new UN report adds weight to suggestions Syrian forces turned a blind eye to Palestinian refugees attempting to breach the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel — to stir border strife and divert attention from the crackdown on the popular uprising in Syria. The report obtained by the Agence France-Presse news agency notes that 27 people were killed as they attempted to breach the ceasefire line on May 15 and June 5. The report says "despite the presence of the Syrian police" about 300 people moved towards the ceasefire line and crossed an unmarked minefield.

"Despite the presence of Syrian security forces, protesters attempted to breach the ceasefire line in both locations," it said. The report stressed that Israel and Syria had "generally" co-operated with the UN. But it said "anti-government demonstrations in Syria spread to several villages" on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line. Since late April — as protests mounted — UN observer teams had been denied access to six villages "ostensibly for reasons of safety and security of the military observers", the report said.

UN goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie talks with Syrian refugees at the Altinozu camp in Turkey.
Picture: AFP Source: AFP
Syria opens fire on protestors
The Australian Online
Saturday, June 18, 2011

SYRIAN security forces opened fire on protesters overnight, killing at least 12, activists said, as international pressure swelled to toughen sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime. France urged tougher EU sanctions against Syria while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed UN action with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Rights activists said protests broke out after the main weekly Muslim prayers as the army pressed its campaign against northern towns and the number of refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey neared 10,000.

A senior US administration official put the toll at around 19 dead. The US is weighing whether war crimes charges can be brought against Syria to pressure its regime to an end to a bloody crackdown on dissent, the official said. Other measures, including sanctions targeting the country's oil and gas sector, are being considered as part of a broader diplomatic campaign to increase pressure on the Syrian president.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by telephone with Lavrov about a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, the State Department said, declining to comment further. Russia joined China this week in boycotting UN Security Council talks on a draft resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on dissent despite mounting calls for stronger sanctions.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, said five people were killed in the northern flashpoint city of Homs, two in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor and two in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. Two other people were killed in Dael in the restive southern province of Daraa and one in the Damascus suburb of Douma, other activists told AFP by telephone. Several others were injured across the country. According to Mr Abdel Rahman "there was intense firing to disperse the demonstrations in Banias and there were casualties" but the head of the London-based Observatory was unable to give a breakdown. About 5000 protesters gathered in Homs, he said, adding demonstrations gripped several other cities and towns including Jableh in the west and in Suweida in the south, where club-wielding forces dispersed hundreds.

Protests also hit Latakia, Maaret al-Nooman and the countryside outside Damascus, activists said, as thousands took to the streets in the northwestern of Qamishli, Amuda in the north. Witnesses told AFP that a gunman opened fire on a police station in Rikn al-Deen, in Damascus, during a protest, killing a policeman and wounding at least four. State news agency SANA also reported casualties among the ranks of the security forces. "A member of the security forces was martyred and more than 30 were wounded by gunfire in Homs," the agency said. It added two officers and four members of the security forces were wounded when gunmen attacked a recruitment centre in Deir Ezzor while three policemen were hit by gunfire in the Qabun neighbourhood of Damascus.

The military pressed ahead with its crackdown, sending tanks and troops into the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhun and surrounding villages, activists and witnesses said. The Syrian army also attacked Janudiyeh, a few kilometres from the Turkish border, a Syrian activist helping the displaced people on the other side of the border told AFP by phone.

Nearly 10,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey fleeing a crackdown by the Damascus regime, an official source said. About 1200 arrived yesterday, raising the number of refugees to 9700. The refugees are being settled in camps run by the Red Crescent in Turkey's southern Hatay province. Some refugees began a hunger strike last night to protest against restrictions imposed by Turkish authorities, hours before Hollywood star and UN goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie toured the camp, a Syrian rights group source said.

On the political front, France is seeking tougher EU sanctions against Assad's regime. Discussions are underway with fellow EU states before a meeting on Monday of the bloc's foreign affairs committee. said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, adding that Syrian banks and private firms linked to regime figures could be hit. The EU to date has slapped two sets of sanctions against Assad's regime, with EU foreign ministers in late May adding Assad to a blacklist of 23 Syrian officials hit by an assets freeze and travel ban.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday the violence has claimed the lives of nearly 1300 civilians and 340 security force members since it began in mid-March.


Syria 'at crossroads of pain and hope'
The Australian
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad last night said Syria was at a "turning point" after "difficult days", and promised it would emerge stronger in the face of the "plotting" against it. In his third major speech since protests against his rule erupted in March and buoyed by a Russian pledge to block Western moves against him at the UN, Mr Assad said there could be no reform amid "sabotage and chaos". Offering his condolences to the families of "martyrs" from the unrest rocking the country since mid-March, Mr Assad said there could be "no development without stability, no reform in the face of sabotage and chaos".

"Today we stand at a decisive moment in the history of our country, a moment that we want through our determination and our will to mark the turning point between a yesterday full of troubles and pain in which innocent blood was shed … and a tomorrow full of hope," he said. "We make a distinction between those (with legitimate grievances) and the saboteurs who represent a small group which has tried to exploit the goodwill of the Syrian people for its own ends. I don't think there has been a single day when Syria has not been the target of plotting, whether that be for geopolitical reasons or because of its political positions."

The speech came as European foreign ministers, frustrated by Russia's threat to use its veto in the UN Security Council, gathered in Luxembourg to discuss tougher sanctions of their own against Mr Assad's government as its deadly crackdown intensifies. Britain's William Hague insisted "Assad should reform or step aside". To step up the pressure on Mr Assad to deliver real change, Western governments have been circulating a draft resolution at the Security Council that would condemn his crackdown on dissent.

But President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday said Russia was ready to use its veto to block any such move. Speaking with the Financial Times, Mr Medvedev said he feared the text would be used as cover for Libya-style military action. "What I am not ready to support is a resolution (similar to the one) on Libya because it is my deep conviction that a good resolution has been turned into a piece of paper that is being used to provide cover for a meaningless military operation," he said.


Later Tuesday morning
The Australia Online
Obama tells Jewish donors he backs Israel
Correspondents in Washington, AP

US President Barack Obama is seeking to reassure Jewish donors that he strongly supports Israel, pledging to devote all his administration's "creative powers" to bringing about peace in the Middle East. Mr Obama made the comments at a high-dollar fundraiser at a Washington hotel Monday evening hosted by Americans in Support of a Strong US-Israel Relationship.

The appearance came a month after he clashed publicly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the road to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That handed ammunition to Republican presidential hopefuls who accused Mr Obama of insufficient support for Israel. Mr Obama assured donors that his goals are the same as theirs — a secure Jewish state living in peace with its neighbours — even if there might be what he called "tactical disagreements" along the way.


Rafiq Hariri
Beirut on brink as warrants issued
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Saturday, July 2, 2011

LEBANON is poised for a new round of violence after arrest warrants were issued for four key figures from Hezbollah over the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri and Lebanon's prime minister until last January, called on his successor yesterday to execute the warrants issued by the UN-backed tribunal investigating his father's killing. "The era of the murderers is over and the time for justice is close," he said. Hezbollah forced out Saad Hariri and his government, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, after he refused to disown the tribunal and end its funding. He had to choose between Hezbollah support, which would have kept him in power, and backing the tribunal investigating his father's killing.

Although the tribunal did not release the names of the four people against whom arrest warrants have been issued, they were soon leaked to Lebanese media. The men were named as Mustafa Badreddine, Assad Sabra, Salim Ayyash and Hassan Ainessi. Badreddine is a well-known Hezbollah identity whom the tribunal has reportedly identified as one of the key planners of the assassination. He is also brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, the military commander of Hezbollah who was killed by a car-bomb in Syria three years ago. Mughniyeh is regarded as the mastermind of several terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a US marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 people. Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper said Salim Ayyash was head of the "assassination cell" that killed Hariri.

Rafik Hariri and 22 others were killed by a bomb hidden in a truck in 2005. Syria, an ally of Hezbollah, was blamed by many in Lebanon and millions protested. Syrian military and intelligence personnel were forced to leave Lebanon. The backlash forced a political retreat by Hezbollah but three weeks ago the group gained a majority of cabinet members in the new government of Najib Mikati, whom they anointed to replace Hariri as prime minister.

Hezbollah, which is also aligned to Iran, used its television network in Lebanon, al-Manar, to play down the importance of the warrants. In an editorial, Hezbollah leaders said the four names had been leaked before and that there was no surprise. Last July, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned the group would "cut off the hands" of anyone who tried to deliver warrants from the tribunal.

Mr Mikati said yesterday: "Today we are facing a new reality that we must be aware of, bearing in mind that these are accusations and not verdicts. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty." He now must choose between following the processes of the tribunal, which the world and many in Lebanon want him to do, or to ignore it, as Hezbollah, his support base, wants him to do. Lebanese prosecutors have 30 days to act on the arrest warrants.

Political analysts in Lebanon said it was possible the Hezbollah-backed government would claim it was not able to track down the individuals. But Saad Hariri said: "Today, we witness together a distinctive historic moment in the political, judicial, security and moral life of Lebanon. I feel the beats in my heart embracing the hearts of all the Lebanese who defended the cause of justice and refused to bargain on the blood of martyrs. The Lebanese government is invited politically, nationally, legally and ethically to implement its commitments towards the tribunal. It is time to put an end to the episodes of killing."

Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Jonathan Sacks in London. Picture: Sylvie Le Clezio Source: Supplied
Same Day
Chief UK Rabbi warns of racism risk in Israel
John Lyons

WHILE rabbis and their views are at the centre of a bitter debate in Israel, one rabbi whose words are listened to with great respect by all sides is Jonathan Sacks. In an interview with The Weekend Australian in Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom outlined his views on the peace process and even predicted "the endgame" in the Middle East.

Lord Sacks watched from London as 50 of Israel's leading rabbis — 39 who were on, and remain on, government payrolls — urged Jews not to rent properties to non-Jews. "I was distressed by it, seriously," he says. "And I think a people who have been subjected over the centuries to racism have to be doubly careful never to practise it themselves."

Growing divisions in Israel were highlighted recently when police revealed Jerusalem's Mea Shearim suburb had become a no-go zone. The Jerusalem Post reported that every time police enter "they encounter violence from ultra-orthodox extremists". "That is why they failed to arrest a criminal suspect for over a month despite knowing exactly where in the neighbourhood he was," the newspaper said.

But a no-go zone was not the reason a prominent rabbi avoided arrest for his support of King's Torah, a book that explains when it is acceptable for a Jew to kill a non-Jew.

Police summoned two rabbis, Yaakov Yosef and Dov Lior, for advocating the book, which has sold so well it is about to be reprinted. Both refused, saying they were being persecuted. Then came the extraordinary situation when Rabbi Yosef turned up to a swearing-in of a new police commander — though wanted for questioning, he sat with guests of honour. When The Weekend Australian asked Israel's police spokesman why Rabbi Yosef was not detained, he said: "It was only afterwards it was realised there was a problem with that issue." This week, police detained, then released, Rabbi Lior, prompting riots by his supporters. Now 20 members of the Knesset have demanded retribution against the official who authorised the detention.

Lord Sacks says he hopes there are enough "internal correctives within Judaism" to deal with problems such as the letter by the 50 rabbis.

Israel's most successful author, Amos Oz, spoke at the same conference that Lord Sacks just attended. Oz said Israel's "ongoing occupation" of Palestinians in the West Bank was immoral and that "the expulsion of Palestinians" from their houses in Jerusalem to be replaced by Jewish settlers was also immoral. Asked if he agreed with Oz, Lord Sacks says: "I think that this situation (occupation) cannot continue endlessly without our paying a very high price." That price would be "exercising dominance over another people". "It (Israel) has to say to the Palestinians, 'Let me be perfectly frank with you. You don't like me and maybe I don't like you very much. But … do not deprive your grandchildren of the possibility of peace, of freedom, of prosperity, of the ability to live their dreams as much as is given to us in the world. Do not allow them to be paralysed by hate, hate for a people among whom they are fated to live."

Lord Sacks describes life in Israel today as "pretty dangerous". "Israel is quite isolated internationally and that's very difficult," he says. "These are the times when the pilot makes the announcement 'turbulence ahead, fasten your safety belts'. That's how I feel about the entire international arena — what is going to happen in Egypt, in Syria, in Libya ?"

And a prediction: "I'll tell you how I see the endgame. Right now in the Middle East I see deeply unfinished business — the Arab street has come to have access to the world through the new information technology media. The Arab street has realised that they have missed out on many of the blessings of modernity and they are now no longer turning against Israel but they are turning against their own rulers. That is going to be a very turbulent period, but in the long run the power of this information technology is that it leads to greater democratisation and greater freedom, exactly as printing did for the West in the 15th century. It took a couple of centuries. I think it is going to take 50 years in the Middle East. But in the long run individual citizens on Israel's borders are going to come to say: we can see that there is another way of living which is very tolerant."


Palestinian children in Gaza wave flags to support the aid ships. Picture: AFP Source: AFP
Israeli envoys and frogmen halt flotilla
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, July 4, 2011

STILL smarting from the backlash over the botched raid by its naval commandos on a Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla last year, Israel is using diplomatic pressure to delay the sailing of a new fleet aiming to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel has also resorted to underwater warfare, according to organisers of the 10-ship international aid flotilla, using naval frogmen to put two of the ships out of commission by sabotage.

The Greek authorities, reportedly in response to requests from Israel, have for the past week prevented eight of the flotilla's ships docked in its ports from sailing to aid the Gaza Palestinians, citing "bureaucratic problems". A US-flagged vessel from the flotilla that attempted to sail from Piraeus without permission on Saturday was stopped a few kilometres out to sea by Greek naval commandos and forced to return. The boat contained 36 passengers, mostly American, and 10 members of the media. The captain, a US citizen, was detained by the Greek police.

Two of the boats have had their propellers damaged and require repairs. Flotilla organisers accused Israeli Mossad agents of sabotage. One of the damaged boats is an Irish vessel docked in the Turkish port of Gocek. "Israel is the only party likely to have carried out this reckless action," said Fintan Lane, one of the organisers. "It's important the Irish government insist that those who ordered this act of international terrorism be brought to justice." An Israeli spokesman, Yigal Palmor, called the accusation "James Bond conspiracy theories". The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted a Turkish official as saying, after the vessel was inspected, that the damage had occurred outside Turkish territorial waters and did not necessarily involve sabotage.

Nine Turkish aid activists were killed by Israeli commandos last year in a confrontation after they raided the flotilla flagship, the Mavi Marmara. The violence led to a near break in relations between Israel and Turkey. The Mavi Marmara, a large passenger boat, was set to sail this year as well but the voyage was suddenly cancelled last month because of "technical difficulties", organisers said. The Turkish press has suggested the real reason is low-profile efforts in Jerusalem and Istanbul to improve relations.

The flotilla last year focused international attention on the siege of Gaza by Israel, and led to a significant easing by Israel of its restrictions on Gaza. The quartet of Middle East mediators — the UN, US, EU and Russia — declared on Saturday the siege had been eased, saying: "There is a marked increase in the range of goods and materials in Gaza." The flotilla organisers want to end Israel's blockade of Gaza altogether. Israel says it is willing to transfer humanitarian cargos, after inspection in its ports, to Gaza overland. However, Israel declared its determination to prevent vessels from reaching Hamas-controlled Gaza uninspected, for fear that they might carry rockets.

Same Day Commentary
Israeli PM lets slip an insoluble truth
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

IT was, in a manner of speaking, a state secret of the most sensitive nature — an insight into the bottomline calculations of a national leader — but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed it off-handedly recently to a non-journalist interviewing him about the Israel-Palestinian dispute. "This is an insoluble conflict," said the Israeli leader (as reported in The Australian 16th June).

In his decades in politics, Netanyahu has adopted hardline positions towards the Palestinians but always as part of a political dialogue that assumed a solution was in the end possible through compromise, particularly by the other side. However, in his recent interview with Israeli writer Etgar Keret, Netanyahu appeared to give vent to his own inner truth by suggesting the Palestinians were unable to make the core compromises necessary and that there was therefore no solution. "This is an insoluble conflict because it is not about territory," he said. "It is not that you can give up a kilometre more and solve it. The root of the conflict is in an entirely different place. Until (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) recognises Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no way to reach an agreement."

Although the last sentence indeed suggested a way out, the bluntness of the first sentence has never been heard publicly from Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader. It would explain the seeming lack of focus and drift, almost indifference, in Netanyahu's attitude towards the peace process.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who served as foreign minister under prime minister Ariel Sharon, wasted little time in taking Netanyahu to task. "In a relaxed conversation with an author," she said from the Knesset podium after Keret's article was published in the daily Ha'aretz, "you dropped for a moment your pose and spoke your true position that the conflict cannot be resolved." Livni added: "Who are you to tell the citizens of Israel that they and their children and their grandchildren will continue to live by the sword forever ' Who are you to bury the chances of a normal life here ?"

Keret, who writes novels and short stories, had been asked by Ha'aretz to interview Netanyahu for a special edition of the daily marking Hebrew Book Week last week in which most of the articles on the news pages were written by well-known authors rather than the paper's staff of journalists. Keret flew to Rome to join the press corps covering Netanyahu's visit and was granted a separate interview there by Netanyahu. His article was the lead story on Ha'aretz's front page the next day with a headline: "Netanyahu: There's no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict". "Sitting across from me," wrote Keret of Netanyahu, "looking me in the eye and explaining with endless patience, it suddenly sounded like the truth. Not my truth, but his."

Two days later, President Shimon Peres, who is dovish, issued a statement about the frozen peace process without referring to the Keret interview. "I'm concerned that Israel will become a bi-national state. We're galloping full speed towards a situation where Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state. We're about to crash into the wall."

More surprising criticism of Netanyahu came from a long-time ally, Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. In the past, Lauder, an American whose mother created a cosmetics empire, has carried out diplomatic missions on Netanyahu's behalf, including meetings with the Syrian leadership in Damascus. Addressing a meeting in Jerusalem of Jewish parliamentarians from around the world, Lauder chastised Netanyahu for isolating Israel by not pursuing a peace process more vigorously.


Israel on alert for arrival of activists
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional Reporting: AFP
Friday, July 8, 2011

ISRAEL is bracing for the arrival of up to 1000 activists from around the world who are intending to travel to the West Bank and East Jerusalem to demonstrate in support of a Palestinian state. Last night, hundreds of police were deployed at Ben Gurion airport to spot activists and deny them entry. The "aerial flotilla" is part of a campaign to increase support for a Palestinian state in the lead-up to a vote in the UN in September. The activists are believed to be joining 50 flights from Europe, the US and Canada.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "We must act firmly against attempts to create provocative incidents, but we should also avoid undue friction." Police commander Bentsi Sao said: "We are aware that the whole point of the protesters is to create a media buzz aimed at embarrassing the state of Israel."

But some figures in the government and media questioned Israel's response. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "We can't lose our sense of proportion." A front-page analysis in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said: "Let us state with all due respect: the state of Israel has taken leave of its senses. How is the wind blowing, and where has the Jewish wisdom gone ' How does it happen that once again we are playing right into the hands of a few bands of miscreants who are trying — and succeeding — in making Israel look bad around the world, if it still looked reasonably well until now ?"

Maariv newspaper reported that officials had decided to empty the airport's holding cells, which until now had been used for foreign workers and their children, in preparation for the activists. It said in the past two months, 31 parents had been arrested with their children and all, except one, had been deported. According to the paper, officials of Israeli Children said because of the arrests, many children of foreign workers were afraid to leave their homes during the summer holiday. "Now, at least for a few days, they will be able to walk around with a little bit more freedom," Maariv said.

The fly-in activists are expected to try to travel to East Jerusalem, which has become a flashpoint with demolitions and evictions of some Palestinian homes.

Meanwhile, a French yacht carrying activists hoping to run the Israeli blockade on Gaza was blocked in Crete by the Greek coast guard when it stopped to refuel, an organiser said. The boat, which is carrying 12 pro-Palestinian activists, had sneaked out of a Greek port on Tuesday in defiance of a ban on any ships setting sail from Greece in an attempt to run the Israeli blockade on Gaza. All the other boats that had been expected to participate in a 10-vessel international aid flotilla to Gaza were blocked from leaving ports in Greece, while an Irish boat, which organisers say was sabotaged, was being repaired in Turkey.


Israel to deport foreign activists
The Australian
Monday, July 11, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel hopes to expel within 72 hours 118 pro-Palestinian foreign activists who were jailed over the weekend after being denied entry. The timing of the deportation will depend on the ability of foreign airlines to fly the activists home, Israeli Interior Ministry official Sabine Haddad said. "The point is to fly them all out as quickly as possible."

The activists were among hundreds who planned to fly to Israel at the weekend to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for independence and protest at Israeli travel curbs on the Palestinian territories. Israel, its image tarnished by past deadly run-ins with foreign activists, tried to block the protest, claiming some of the foreigners would engage in violence. It compiled a blacklist of 340 potential troublemakers and asked foreign airlines to stop them from landing in Tel Aviv.

Only 20 on the list arrived, Israeli officials said. But others who had not been tagged beforehand did land, and of 400 foreigners stopped for questioning, 130 were detained. Eight were sent home and four were granted entry after promising not to take part in violent activities, Ms Haddad said. Some activists who were granted entry travelled to the West Bank, where they joined Palestinian demonstrators who cut through a section of Israel's separation barrier.

Critics in Israel accused the government of overreacting to the perceived threat of the foreign activists and creating unnecessary hysteria. Israel's push to hamstring the fly-in protest coincided with the failure of other foreign activists to breach Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. Ships experienced mechanical problems and Greek officials barred them from setting sail for Gaza.


Beck's Right too Left for Knesset
The Australian
John Lyons
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Glenn Beck

RIGHT-WING US television host Glenn Beck yesterday endured an experience that must have been a new one for him: it was made clear to him he was not right-wing enough. On a visit to Jerusalem to express his support for Israel, the Fox presenter addressed a committee of the Knesset, where he said: "I'm not against a Palestinian state."

But as The Jerusalem Post reported, "some seemed to think he was not right-wing enough when it comes to Israel". It said several committee members challenged Beck, including National Union member Arye Eldad, who said: "I believe in a two-state solution, because I remember there is already a Palestinian state in Jordan."

Beck also upset Mr Eldad when he said Arabs and Israelis were all "people who want to live their lives and raise their kids". Mr Eldad told him of an Arab suicide bomber he had known of.

Beck was on less controversial ground when he said: "Israelis may like to see and hear that you're not alone. There are millions of people that you don't see (who support Israel) because the media doesn't want to tell their story, either."

Meanwhile, the Knesset passed the "boycotts bill", which will mean that anyone who advocates a boycott against products made in Israel or its settlements may be prosecuted. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz supported the bill: "Boycotts are aggressive and wrong." But the Kadima opposition accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a "total capitulation to the extreme Right".

Prominent columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv: "When this law is also applied to private people, and when the determination as to what is a boycott is taken away from the court and given to bureaucrats and when private citizens can be convicted for voicing their opinion … this is fascism … Fascism at its worst is raging."


Syrian missiles arm Hezbollah
Weekend Australian
Richard Beeston, Nicholas Blanford and Sheera Frenkel, The Times, AFP
Saturday, July 16, 2011

DAMASCUS: Syria has accelerated its supply of weapons, including advanced ballistic missiles, to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon in a move that could further inflame an already destabilised region. According to intelligence sources in the West and the Middle East, the unrest facing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has not halted its build-up of military hardware. With the help of experts from Iran and North Korea, Damascus is pressing ahead with its development of sophisticated missiles at a secret site nicknamed "missile city" built into Jabal Taqsis, a mountain near the opposition stronghold of Hama.

The missile program is allegedly run by the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Damascus, an organisation that is already on a US sanctions list. With financial and political support from Iran, the Syrians have also stepped up their military assistance to Hezbollah, which must now rank as the most powerful non-state military force in the world.

The Times reported last year that Hezbollah had taken delivery of two advanced Scud D surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 700km. Since then, the Syrians have handed over eight more of the ballistic weapons, which have been assembled with the help of North Korean experts. The projectiles, which carry one-tonne warheads, are accurate to within tens of metres and bring all of Israel, Jordan and large parts of Turkey within Hezbollah's range. Hezbollah has also been given M600s — surface-to-surface missiles based on the Iranian Fateh-110 — with a range of 250km and 500kg warheads.

"A new reality has dawned," an intelligence report seen by The Times said. "This is the first time that a terror organisation has obtained a missile of this type, which … is considered 'strategic'. In the past, this type of missile has been held only by national armies."

The key to the production of the Scuds is expertise from North Korea, which is one of the world's biggest proliferators of missile technology. "North Korea has transitioned from selling full missile systems to licensed production and assembly of missiles (in third countries)," said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies non-proliferation and disarmament program.

Sources close to Hezbollah said the flow of weapons entering the Bekaa Valley from Syria had accelerated in March when protests erupted against the Assad regime. One Hezbollah fighter joked that the scale of the arms shipments into Lebanon was so great that "we don't know where to put it all". Another said that it was only a contingency measure. "We can send it all back when things calm down in Syria," he said.

Although the land border is believed to be the main channel for smuggling weapons, Hezbollah is also thought to receive weapons via sea and air routes. In 2009, three suspected Iranian arms shipments were intercepted en route to ports in Lebanon and Syria. The cargo of tank shells and explosives found on one ship, the Monchegorsk, which was seized by the US Navy in January 2009 and stored in a naval base near Limassol in Cyprus, blew up on Monday, killing 12 people.

Israeli military intelligence also confirmed that Hezbollah was engaged in a serious arms build-up. "They moved some weapons before the uprisings in Syria, when the situation in Egypt was starting. But now that they see Syria as possibly unstable we are seeing the movement of a lot of weapons into Lebanon," an Israeli military intelligence source said. "We have never had a more quiet border with Lebanon but the threat from there has never been greater."

A spokesman for the Syrian embassy in London said that he had no knowledge about the allegations of arms shipments to Hezbollah. In a stern warning yesterday to the Syrian regime to move faster on reforms, US ambassador Robert Ford said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine: "I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protesters. If it doesn't start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."


Editorial: Hezbollah armed by evil Assad
The Australian
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

THE villainy of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad knows no bounds. Just when it seemed reasonable to assume the dictator in Damascus had his hands full in ruthlessly suppressing the democratic aspirations of his blighted people, it has been disclosed his regime is accelerating weapons supplies — including missiles that bring Israel, Jordan and Turkey within range — to Hezbollah terrorists in neighbouring Lebanon.

Unsurprisingly, Iran's thumbprints are all over shipments that make Hezbollah's the most powerful non-state military force in the world. The Shia group's new arsenal includes Scud missiles with a range of 700km. Tehran is Assad's closest ally and they work hand-in-glove to support Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza. Syria's and Iran's are not the only thumbprints on the build-up — so, too, are those of madcap North Korea, currently and ludicrously chairing the UN Conference on Disarmament.

No other terrorist organisation is known to have weaponry of the type being supplied to Hezbollah. And nothing better underlines the sheer evil of Assad and his Iranian co-conspirators than this build-up. Their Machiavellian motivation is clear. Assad's Baathist regime is minority Alawite, a Shia sect, but most Syrians are Sunni — if Assad is forced out and replaced by a Sunni, this would end the close ties to Shia Iran. With instability in Syria, Shia Hezbollah is being armed to confront Israel and any new Sunni regime emerging in Damascus.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Assad has lost his legitimacy, a fact underscored by the weekend formation by Syrian oppositionists of a National Salvation Council to take over if and when his regime collapses. But the toll of the unrest — nearly 2000 dead — is evidence of the extent to which Assad retains a capacity to create destruction.

Compared with its action on Libya, the international community has not been as active as it should have been on Syria. Shamefully, Russia and China have not even allowed a resolution condemning Assad through the UN.

Now that the Obama administration has finally concluded that the Baathist regime has no legitimacy, that must change. The time for pussyfooting over Syria has passed. Developments such as the weapons shipments to Hezbollah militants are potentially far too dangerous. Assad must be stopped before he does more damage.


UN vote violates accords: Israel
The Australian
The Times, AP
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel could cancel the historic Oslo accords in response to the planned attempt to ask the UN to recognise Palestinian statehood. The 1993 accords helped to create the Palestinian Authority that governs the Palestinian West Bank territories, and established a framework by which the Israelis and Palestinians could reach a final agreement.

According to Israeli officials working under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have been asked to explore a multitude of options to respond to the planned Palestinian move, a unilateral declaration of statehood through the UN would violate the accords. "They would be violating the agreement themselves, we have to acknowledge that," one Israeli official said.

Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have long sparred over reported violations of the accords. They were the result of the first direct face-to-face agreement between Israeli and Palestinian officials and were, in part, intended to provide a guideline for negotiations. By establishing the Palestinian Authority to oversee and govern its population, the agreement gave Israel an official partner for peace talks. The accords also called for Israel to withdraw its military from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

When signed, the accords were intended to be in force for five years, by which time a permanent treaty could be reached. "It was supposed to be a temporary deal leading to a final peace deal. It was never meant to last all these years," a Palestinian official said. "Now Israel is threatening to cancel it because they are looking for any threat they can make against the PA." Israel has opposed the Palestinian Authority's attempt to take its statehood battle to the UN since it was announced this year.

According to Palestinian officials, who have worked on drafting the resolution, they will ask the UN to recognise a state along 1967 borders, including the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The vote will probably happen in the UN General Assembly, rather than the Security Council where the US could use its veto to block the move. "Israel has pulled every diplomatic string to try and get us not to go forward with the resolution in September. But we are stubborn, too, and it will go forward," the Palestinian official said.

Meanwhile, a UN panel's report on Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine Turkish activists is being delayed until late next month amid renewed tension between Israel and Turkey. The report by the panel, which includes representatives from the two countries, was expected to be delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month. But UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said yesterday that "the members of the flotilla panel have agreed to delay finalising the report". He said the decision was made after consultations between the Secretary-General, the panel members and the Turkish and Israeli governments.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled out a normalisation of ties with Israel over the weekend until the Jewish state "officially apologises" for the raid. He said relations could not be improved unless Israel also paid compensation to the families of those killed, and lifted its embargo on Gaza. Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon insisted last week that Israel would not apologise.

Mr Nesirky said: "The Secretary-General continues to encourage the parties to reach a political resolution."


Global outrage at Assad as 140 protesters die
The Australian
AFP, The Times
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

DAMASCUS: The West has expressed revulsion at the latest government crackdown in Syria, where almost 140 protesters were killed on the eve of Ramadan, prompting calls for UN Security Council emergency talks.

On one of the deadliest days in Syria since anti-government demonstrators took to the streets on March 15, security forces killed 136 people on Sunday, including at least 100 when the army stormed the main protest city of Hama. Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, said: "One hundred civilians were killed on Sunday in Hama by gunfire from security forces who accompanied the army as they stormed the city." The head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the crackdown on Hama came after more than 500,000 anti-government demonstrators rallied in the city on Friday after Muslim prayers, during which a leading cleric told worshippers: "The regime must go."

Activists also reported deaths from sniper fire in Deir Ezzor, Syria's gas and oil production hub in the east, which has become another rallying point for protesters. A video posted on YouTube showed men hurriedly carrying a body across a street to the sounds of explosions and machinegun fire. Other footage showed chaotic scenes and dead bodies in a hospital in Hama. "We were all wondering what would be President Bashar al-Assad's strategy during Ramadan," said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian opposition activist based in Beirut. "Now we know. What they are doing in Hama is a clear message: they are going to fight to keep their power. Bashar is willing to destroy Syria to keep his position."

Germany and Italy called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, while US President Barack Obama said he was "appalled" and vowed to further isolate Mr Assad. Mr Obama praised the demonstrators and said Syria "will be a better place when a democratic transition goes forward". "I am appalled by the Syrian government's use of violence and brutality against its own people. The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime," he said. "The US will continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people." Senior Republican senator John McCain accused the Syrian forces of carrying out a "massacre".

Any talks at the UN are likely to reopen bitter divisions in the Security Council, which has not been able to agree on a statement about Mr Assad's four-month crackdown on opponents. The US, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have been pressing the UN for a condemnation of the violence, but Russia, China, South Africa, India and Brazil — which are angry at the NATO bombing campaign in Libya — have refused to support the move, and Russia and China have threatened to veto any resolution against Mr Assad.


Israel proposes new peace talks to head off Palestinian UN bid
The Australian
Wednesday, August 3, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel is willing to begin new peace talks using the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations if the Palestinians drop their UN membership bid, an Israeli government official confirmed yesterday. The official confirmed Israel had been working with Washington and members of the international peace-making Quartet to draw up a new framework that could relaunch stalled talks. The package of principles is intended to draw Palestinians back to the negotiating table and head off their plan to seek UN membership for a Palestinian state on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

The framework negotiations were first reported by Israeli media on Monday night, but an Israeli government official confirmed the details yesterday. "Over the last few weeks there has been an attempt to restart the process to allow for the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians," he said. "The assumption is that if this process succeeds the Palestinians will withdraw their proposal for unilateral action at the UN."

The framework being discussed is based on a speech made by US President Barack Obama to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC earlier this year. In that address, Mr Obama called for the negotiations that would create borders for "Israel and Palestine … based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps".

He said he was not asking Israel to return to the lines that existed before the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, and that he expected a final deal to take account of "new demographic realities," a reference to Israel's settlement-building since that time. "The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people … That is the sort of language that we can live with," the Israeli official said.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been on hold for nearly a year, grinding to a halt soon after they began last year over the issue of settlement construction. Israel has declined to renew a partial settlement freeze that expired just after the talks began, and the Palestinians have said they will not negotiate while Israel builds on land they want for a future state. With talks on ice, they have instead pushed forward with a plan to seek UN membership for a Palestinian state this September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas has insisted the plan does not rule out the possibility of new peace talks, but said the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table only if settlement building was frozen and a clear set of parameters for new talks was agreed upon early.


Extract: Israel pushes big new Jerusalem settlement
Weekend Australian
The Times, AFP
Saturday, August 6, 2011

JERUSALEM: The Israeli government yesterday allowed the construction of 900 new homes in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, reviving a damaging dispute with the US. The initial announcement that Israel would expand the Har Homa settlement was made during a visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden (on March 10, 2010), and was widely seen as an attempt to embarrass the Obama administration as it tried to restart the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Washington responded angrily to the announcement, and relations between the two allies soured.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Housing Ministry, which approved the construction, yesterday said only technicalities had held up the project. But the Palestinians and anti-settlement Israeli groups said the expansion of Har Homa would occupy a key area, effectively cutting off access between the Palestinian neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The new construction will take place on formerly private Palestinian land. Palestinian officials said the Har Homa expansion would harden their resolve to seek statehood at the UN next month.

Fearing unrest after the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, more than 2000 Israeli police and guards were deployed in Jerusalem's Old City after cutting access to the al-Aqsa mosque.


Same Day
Warning as Syrians 'slaughtered like sheep'
John Lyons

SYRIA deteriorated further into violence yesterday, with a resident of the worst-hit city Hama saying people were being "slaughtered like sheep". The intensifying violence in Hama and other Syrian cities prompted the US and Russia to warn that the chaos must end.

In the strongest US statement since the uprising began in March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said President Bashar al-Assad had "lost his legitimacy to govern". Announcing a toughening of sanctions against Syria, she said the Assad regime was responsible for the deaths of more than 2000 people during the uprising. Mrs Clinton said "the incredible tragedy" unfolding on the streets was "numbing". "The shooting death of a one-year-old boy by the Syrian regime's tanks and troops is a very stark example of what is going on," she said.

The Obama administration sent its ambassador back to Damascus. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Robert Ford, the ambassador who returned to Washington this week for his Senate confirmation hearing and consultations with the administration, would head back to Damascus. "It's very important for him to get back on the ground where he can go back to his vital work to outreach to the Syrian opposition, as well as to continue to press our concerns with the Syrian government," Mr Toner said.

Mr Ford will convey the toughening attitude from President Barack Obama's administration — one reinforced by a UN Security Council statement condemning attacks on civilians and calling for those responsible to be held "accountable". The ambassador, who infuriated the Syrians with a visit to Hama last month, told the US-based ABC News that he would continue travelling around Syria even as he was "personally nervous about the fate" of people he met. He said that while he would be careful to avoid endangering people, it was important to show solidarity with the Syrians.

Forces loyal to Mr Assad escalated their assault on Hama, with witnesses reporting carnage. "People are being slaughtered like sheep while walking in the street," a man told news agency Associated Press. "I saw with my own eyes one young boy on a motorcycle who was carrying vegetables being run over by a tank." Another resident was quoted as saying people were being forced to bury their dead in their gardens or roadside pits "because we fear that if we go to the cemetery we will end up buried along with them".

Residents reported plain-clothes men, believed to be working with soldiers, wandering the streets shooting randomly. Images of men throwing bodies off a bridge as they chanted "Allahu Akbar" — "God is great" — were posted on the internet but it was impossible to verify whether it was protesters throwing security forces or security forces throwing protesters. Other videos taken with mobile phones showed bodies lying on the streets.

Syrian tanks, soldiers and snipers have fired throughout the week on Hama, the city where up to 20,000 people were slaughtered in 1982 by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the President's father.

The US made its strongest call yet for Mr Assad to leave office. "It has become very clear around the world that Assad's actions place Syria and the region on a very dangerous path," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We all need to be thinking about the day after Assad as Syria's 23 million citizens already are. It is very safe to say that Syria will be a much better place without President Assad."

Even Russia, one of Syria's strongest allies and reluctant throughout the revolt to put public pressure on Mr Assad, toughened its position yesterday. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev said he had written to Mr Assad warning him to "urgently conduct reforms" and negotiate with the opposition.

Western diplomats told The Weekend Australian that while Mr Assad had harboured reformist tendencies since he took over from his late father in 2000, a hardline clique of defence and intelligence figures around him refused to make any meaningful reforms for fear of losing influence. Many of those remained in positions of influence from the time of his father. On Thursday, Mr Assad issued a decree to immediately allow parties other than his own Baath party to contest elections. While this was an original demand of the protesters three months ago, its announcement this week did nothing to quell the unrest. The pattern set by Mr Assad in recent months has been to resist any reforms as long as possible and then announce piecemeal concessions as the situation has deteriorated.

Some of the massive crowd who marched through the streets of Tel Aviv at the weekend to protest at the high cost of living. Source: Getty Images


Israelis rage against the regime over costs
The Australian
Monday, August 8, 2011

JERUSALEM: More than a quarter of a million Israelis, fed up with the mounting cost of living, poured into the streets of the country's major cities yesterday to demand that their leaders address their plight — and proving by their tremendous numbers that they will not go away. The snowballing protest, which started three weeks ago with a few 20-somethings pitching a tent encampment on a posh Tel Aviv street, has swiftly become a big headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seen by many middle-class Israelis as too friendly to big business.

Mr Netanyahu last night tried to defuse the protests by forming a panel of ministers and economists to draw up a plan by next month to reduce the cost of living, but he sought to rein in expectations. "We cannot take all the lists of problems, and … demands, and pretend we will be able to satisfy everyone," Mr Netanyahu said. "We need to be fiscally responsible, while making some socially sensitive amendments." An aide to the Israeli leader earlier said the government would soon devise a program to break the monopolies and cartels he blames for Israel's economic ills.

Protesters appeared to have a more sweeping agenda on their minds. Travelling by car, bus, train and foot, 230,000 Israelis, according to police estimates, descended on Tel Aviv to mount the largest social protest in the country's history. Young, old and middle-aged, they beat drums and waved flags, some chanting "Social justice for the people" and "Revolution!". In Jerusalem, more than 30,000 protesters gathered outside Mr Netanyahu's residence. Other protests took place in remoter cities in Israel's north and south, drawing about 10,000 people. Similar demonstrations last week drew 150,000 people across this country of 7.7 million.

Moshe Levy and his wife Naama are middle-aged Jerusalemites who have a combined monthly income of about $5700 but are overdrawn at the bank by $8500. They said they seldom went to demonstrations. "But I think this one is important," Mr Levy said. He said he worried for his four children. "I hope their future will be better than mine," he said. Ehud Rotem, 26, a Jerusalem student and barman, sees a bleak future for his generation. "It's hard to live in this country. We go to the army, work and pay high taxes and still don't earn enough (to make ends meet)," he said.

The protests initially targeted soaring housing prices, but broadened to include the cost of food, petrol, education and wages. Taxes are high, market competition is low, and salaries have trailed the price rises, despite the economy thriving in a way most developed countries would envy.

The protests have stunned the government, which had been preoccupied by stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians. Polls last week showed Mr Netanyahu's approval ratings had plunged. He has announced reforms, including freeing up land for construction and offering tax breaks, but these have only angered the protesters further.


Israel approves settler dwellings
The Australian
Friday, August 12, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel's interior minister has given final approval for the construction of 1600 settler homes in east Jerusalem and will approve 2700 more shortly, his spokesman said last night. The move is likely to anger the Palestinians, and the international community as it struggles to find a way to relaunch peace talks in an attempt to head off a Palestinian plan to seek UN membership.

Spokesman Roei Lachmanovich said Interior Minister Eli Yishai had given final approval for the construction of 1600 units in the Ramat Shlomo neighbourhood in northern east Jerusalem. "He has approved 1600 homes in Ramat Shlomo and will approve 2000 more in Givat Hamatos and 700 in Pisgat Zeev," Mr Lachmanovich said, referring to two additional Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem.

The 1600-house construction in Ramat Shlomo has already caused a diplomatic rift between Israel and Washington. Mr Yishai's Interior Ministry first announced the project in March last year, as US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Israel and the Palestinian territories to lay the groundwork for direct peace talks between the two sides. The announcement was criticised by Washington, leaving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu red-faced as he sat down for talks with Mr Biden and prompting a mini-crisis in ties between the allies.

But Mr Lachmanovich said the final approvals were "economic" not political, linking Mr Yishai's decision to demonstrations over housing prices and the cost of living that have rocked Israel in recent weeks. "These are being approved because of the economic crisis here in Israel — they are looking for a place to build in Jerusalem, and these will help," he said. "This is nothing political, it's just economic."

Last week, the Interior Ministry issued a similar green light to the construction of 900 units in the east Jerusalem settlement neighbourhood of Har Homa, which lies in the southwest of the city, neighbouring Bethlehem. Mr Yishai, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also linked that construction project to the protest movement, saying it would help address the "real estate crisis". Israeli news site Ynet quoted him as saying he had directed his staff to promote the construction of small housing units in the settlement neighbourhood "in an effort to enable all Israeli citizens to purchase an apartment". The approval of that project was condemned internationally, including by the US and the EU.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, annexing it later in a move never recognised by most of the international community. It claims both sides of the Holy City as its "eternal, indivisible" capital, and does not view construction in the east to be settlement activity.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was "profoundly disappointed" by the Har Homa announcement, and its timing was regrettable. The EU is working with other members of the international peacemaking quartet, which includes the US, UN and Russia, to draft a new framework for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Quartet members hope that the potential relaunch of negotiations could sway the Palestinians to drop their bid to seek UN membership for a Palestinian state next month. But the Palestinians have said they would not return to the negotiating table without a halt to Israeli settlement construction and a clear framework for talks. And they insist their UN ambition is not incompatible with new negotiations and they have no plans to drop the bid, even if talks resume.

Soldiers shout pro-Assad slogans as they withdraw from Hama after an operation to quell protestsAFP

Same Day

West defied as Syrian toll rises

DAMASCUS: Syrian security forces have shot dead 17 people in a protest hub and sent tanks into two more towns, activists said, while Western nations ramped up calls for action after a "chilling" UN Security Council briefing. As a defiant President Bashar al-Assad pledged this week to pursue a relentless battle against "terrorist groups", activists yesterday said regime forces shot dead 17 people in the city of Homs, wounding a further 20.

Foreign correspondents on a government-sponsored tour confirmed reports of a military pullout from the flashpoint west-central city of Hama, but there were signs elsewhere of an intensifying crackdown by the regime. Rami Abdel Rahman, of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said troops were conducting a vast operation in the northwestern town of Sermin, where a woman was killed. Explosions and heavy gunfire also echoed in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor, he said. The rights group said tanks, troop carriers and buses transporting security force members sped into Saraqeb in northwestern Idlib province yesterday.

Western nations, meanwhile, stepped up demands for UN measures against Mr Assad after a top UN official told the Security Council how the Syrian leader had ignored calls for an end to bloodshed in his country. But Security Council battlelines were drawn when Russia's envoy said calls for sanctions did not help end the Syria crisis, in which rights groups say more than 2000 civilians have died.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco briefed the Security Council behind closed doors about events in Syria in the week since the council called for an "immediate" halt to the violence. Mr Taranco was quoted as saying there had been no let-up in the deaths of protesters while UN officials had met Syrian diplomats to get accurate information. Mr Taranco's briefing had been "depressing and chilling", said Philip Parham, Britain's deputy UN ambassador.


Palestinians zero in on UN membership
The Australian
Monday, August 15, 2011

RAMALLAH: The Palestinians are to present their bid for UN membership on September 20, despite Israeli and US opposition. "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will personally present the request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon … at the opening of the 66th session," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said at the weekend. Mr Abbas would "insist on this historic initiative and Ban Ki-moon will present the request to the Security Council". A senior Israeli official, who requested anonymity, criticised the Palestinian decision. "Apparently Mahmoud Abbas has decided to refrain from conducting direct negotiations; this was expected and it's a shame," he said. "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to believe that the peace process can only progress through direct and real negotiations."

Mr Malki said the Palestinian Authority chose September because Lebanon, holding the rotating presidency of the Security Council, would be in a strong position to push the bid forward. "Lebanon will hold the presidency of the Security Council in September and this will help us because the president of the council has special prerogatives, which is crucial," he said.

Following the collapse of direct peace talks with Israel last year, the Palestinians have adopted a diplomatic strategy of looking to secure UN recognition for a state along the frontiers that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. Mr Abbas has revealed he held four secret meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres to try to find a compromise, but that Mr Netanyahu scuppered the efforts. The Palestinians had previously expressed their intention to ask the Security Council for UN membership in September, in the absence of negotiations with Israel before the UN General Assembly. But the US threatens to derail the Palestinian bid through its Security Council veto.

To circumvent the veto, the Palestinians could turn to the General Assembly, asking it to "raise (their) status to UN observer and non-member state". That formula would allow them to become a full member of all UN agencies, such as WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF, where the Palestinians have no presence. Mr Malki said he expected "more than 130 countries would recognise the state of Palestine" along 1967 borders. To resume talks, Palestine insists on a moratorium on new Jewish settlements, including in east Jerusalem. Despite international pressure, Israeli this week said it intended to continue building settlements in east Jerusalem.


Syrian troops pound flashpoint province
The Australian
Friday, August 12, 2011

DAMASCUS: Syrian troops backed by tanks clamped down yesterday on the flashpoint province of Homs, a day after gunboats joined an assault that killed more than 20 people in Latakia city. "The community of Hula is under siege … The army is carrying out raids and arrests under the cover of heavy gunfire," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, as the uprising turned five months old. "Security agents encircled all the entrances to Hula and they started shooting to terrify local residents. Then the army went in to make raids and arrests," said the Observatory.

The day before, gunboats had joined the pounding of the port city of Latakia that killed 26 people in the first attack from the sea since the anti-regime revolt erupted on March 15, according to activists. It was reported yesterday that Spain sent a special envoy to Damascus last month to convince Mr Assad to accept a plan to end the violence. Madrid was also "ready to offer asylum to Assad and his family in Spain", leading Spanish daily El Pais said. About 2200 people have died in the uprising since March. The UN Security Council is to meet tomorrow to discuss the humanitarian emergency in Syria.

Same Day

Iraq's bloodiest day leaves 66 dead

KUT: Attacks in more than a dozen cities across Iraq yesterday killed 66 people, including 40 in twin blasts in the southern city of Kut, in the country's bloodiest day so far this year. The surge of violence raises questions over the capabilities of Iraq's forces, after its leaders agreed to open talks with the US over a military training mission to last beyond a projected year-end withdrawal of American troops. The attacks, which took place in 17 cities and wounded more than 230 people, were condemned by the Iraqi parliament's Speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, who blamed security leaders for unspecified "violations".

In the worst attack, a roadside bomb in the centre of Kut, 160km south of Baghdad, at 8am was followed minutes later by a nearby car bomb. "I was on my way to my shop in the market and suddenly I felt myself being thrown to the ground," said 26-year-old Saadun Muftin, speaking from the city's Karama hospital. "After that I found myself in the hospital with wounds all over my body."

Ghalid Rashid Khazaa, health spokesman for Wasit province, of which Kut is the capital, put the toll at 40 dead and 65 wounded. Women and children were among the dead and injured. The Kut attack is the worst single act of violence in Iraq since March 29, when al-Qa'ida commandos staged a massive assault on provincial government offices in former dictator Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, killing 58 people.

The violence yesterday shattered a relative calm in Iraq during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began at the start of August. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks in cities that also included Baghdad, Najaf, Kirkuk, Ramadi, Mosul, Baquba and Karbala. US and Iraqi commanders say that, while al-Qa'ida and other insurgent groups are much weaker compared to the peak of Iraq's sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, they are still capable of carrying out massive co-ordinated attacks.


Israel retaliates with deadly Gaza airstrikes
The Australian Online
Wednesday, August 17, 2011

ONE Palestinian was killed and seven wounded in at least four overnight Israeli airstrikes across the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medics said yesterday. The Israeli military said its aircraft had targeted four areas in the Gaza Strip in response to the firing of a Grad rocket from the Palestinian territory into southern Israel. Adham Abu Selmiya, spokesman for the Hamas-run emergency services in the Gaza Strip, said the strikes had killed one Palestinian and wounded seven. "We learned of the martyrdom of the youth Musa Shtawe, 29, who died of his injuries after a strike east of Gaza City," he said. "The outcome of the Israeli aggression during the past 24 hours is now one martyr and seven injured."

The Israeli military did not specify which sites it had targeted, but Palestinian sources said they counted five airstrikes in Gaza. Further south, two more raids were carried out east of Khan Yunis and on a tunnel under the border with Egypt near Rafah, they said. "The raid in Rafah left three people injured, including a child," Abu Selmiya said.

The military said the strikes were "in response to the firing of a rocket from the Gaza Strip at the city of Beersheva". "In a separate incident, IDF soldiers identified a squad of terrorists planning to fire rockets at Israel. IAF (Israel Air Force) aircraft thwarted the attempt, confirming a hit," it said. The rocket that hit near Beersheva did not cause any damage or injuries, the military said. Israeli public radio said a second rocket had been fired at Beersheva, but it was not immediately clear where it landed. Since last month there has been an increase in the number of rockets fired from Gaza, which are usually followed by retaliatory air raids.


Libyan chaos feared if rebels win
The Australian
Additional reporting: The Times
Thursday, August 18, 2011

BENGHAZI: Libya's rebels were bolstered by fresh battlefield advances yesterday, as leaders claimed the six-month-old civil war had entered a decisive phase and could end within weeks. But diplomatic and military sources have warned that the collapse of the Gaddafi regime now would lead to a dangerous power vacuum in Libya, with the Western-backed rebel leadership in disarray and not ready to take control.

Revitalised rebel forces pushed further to isolate Tripoli and turn the screws on Muammar Gaddafi, moving toward a western town that links the capital and Sirte — Gaddafi's hometown and a stronghold for his military. "The scouting teams of the revolutionaries reached the outskirts of al-Heisha after expelling Gaddafi forces," the rebel military command said yesterday. Al-Heisha is about 70km south of Misratah and 250km from Tripoli, near two key crossroads that link loyalist-held territory in the west with that in the oil-rich Sirte basin.

Mansur Saif al-Nasr, the National Transitional Council's envoy to Paris, said the rebels also had full control of Zawiyah, a vital oil port just west of Tripoli that links it with Tunisia. "We are entering a decisive phase. We hope to celebrate the final victory at the same time as the end of (the Muslim holy month of) Ramadan," he said.

The rebels' military turnaround has come at the time of its greatest crisis, with a fractured leadership since the murder of their military commander and the confirmed presence of hardline Islamists in their ranks. A Western diplomat based in Benghazi described the prospect of Tripoli falling to the rebels as the "worst-case scenario". Signalling the extent of NATO's concerns amid speculation that the endgame is in sight, officials from the alliance said victory against the regime would result in a "catastrophic success". "This is the phrase now being generally used in NATO, that we are facing a catastrophic success in Libya," said a senior NATO official. "And even if it's not catastrophic it will be chaotic success because the opposition is not ready to govern and there will be a vacuum if Gaddafi goes."

Last month's murder of rebel army chief General Abdel Fatah Younis, by one of his own militia groups, remains unsolved and has led to the National Transitional Council's cabinet being dissolved. "With the killing of Younis and the possible fall of Tripoli now, the planning has gone with the wind," said the Western diplomat. "There's no NTC structure at all, the executive committee is gone, nothing has taken its place. I think it'd be the worst-case scenario if Tripoli falls right now — there'd be nobody to take charge." He warned that the West had seriously underestimated the growing influence of Islamists and the "significant" role played by Libya's tribes, instead focusing on Western-educated liberals who "said the right things".

NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil promised yesterday to hand over power to an elected assembly within eight months of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. "The NTC will continue for no more than eight months" after Gaddafi's 42-year reign came to an end, he said, seeking to draw a line under questions about the intent and the legitimacy of his unelected council.

But a senior anti-regime fighter from the Western Mountains, a force that led the Zawiyah assault, called on Mr Jalil and other senior NTC members to resign. "What happened with Abdel Fatah Younis, the way they managed that file, it is a poor reflection of our deeds," said the senior rebel. "It proves perfectly well how these guys are incompetent — you do not deal with such a guy in that way and then you do not try to hide the truth about the way you handled it. They are heading the council and are trying by all means to keep their positions. This is a revolution. We are not going through thousands of dead people just to have this kind of politician running our affairs."


Gunmen kill six (later adjusted to eight-Editor) in Israel attacks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, August 19, 2011

EIGHT people were killed and as many as 26 injured last night in a co-ordinated series of attacks in southern Israel. The attacks occurred near the border with Egypt, when gunmen in a car drove alongside a bus carrying Israeli troops and then opened sustained fire with automatic weapons. It is understood about 10 Israeli soldiers, who were travelling to Eilat for leave, were injured in the attack. A second bus was also fired on by gunmen soon afterwards on the same road. Israeli officials say that about an hour later, (in a third attack-Editor) also on the same road, several people in a car were injured when the vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device on the road. Israeli television reported last night that a fourth attack had taken place in the area (killing five-Editor).

An Israeli official told The Australian last night that the attacks were indiscriminate. "These are passenger buses which carry everybody — Jews, Arabs, soldiers, tourists, everybody," he said. The official said that at the time the attacks were carried out, mortar shells were fired from across the Egyptian border.

The attacks took place north of the coastal town of Eilat on a road that runs parallel to Israel's border with Egypt. In some places the road is only a few kilometres from the border. The border has large gaps and it was believed the gunmen may have crossed from Egypt through one of those gaps. An Israeli anti-terrorist group pursued some of the gunmen and were believed to have killed three of them. A massive Israeli military and police presence fanned across the area after the attacks trying to apprehend other gunmen.

Eilat, on the Red Sea, is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Israelis because it is one of the country's few coastal resorts. Some Israelis venture across the border into Egypt and holiday at resorts in the Sinai, and others visit the casino in Taba. But for the past two years Israeli authorities have warned about possible attacks on Israeli citizens in the area.

Israel has been specially concerned that since the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, security conditions in Sinai would deteriorate. There have been specific warnings of terrorist cells operating in Sinai, and reports that some of them have been planning attacks against Israeli targets. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said last night: "This terror attack originated from Gaza. We will exhaust all measures against the terrorists."

One diplomatic source told The Australian the early suggestion from Gaza was that those behind the attacks may have been Bedouin Islamic fundamentalists with extremist support in Egypt, rather than the ruling Hamas. Retaliatory attacks by Israel against Gaza are considered to be likely.

Same Day

Turkish leader clashes over Gaza flotilla apology
John Lyons, Agencies

TENSIONS between Israel and Turkey rose last night after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of wanting to "undermine Israel's legitimacy". The accusation against one of Israel's traditional allies came after Mr Lieberman won a debate in Israel's security cabinet about whether Israel should apologise for its interception last year of a flotilla sailing to Gaza.

Nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli commandos boarded the flotilla in international waters. Turkey has claimed the killings were crimes and that Israel should apologise and pay compensation. Israel has claimed it had a legal right to prevent the blockade of Gaza being breached and that the commandos used force only when their lives were endangered.

Some Israeli diplomats and ministers have argued that at a time of upheaval in the Middle East it was vital the relationship with Turkey be restored. Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak has led the argument that Israel should find a form of words to apologise to Turkey. He argued that Israel could express "sorrow" for the deaths and meet Turkey's compensation demand by contributing to a fund. But Mr Lieberman resisted any apology and this week won the majority in the cabinet.

Same Day

Obama demands Assad must quit power

WASHINGTON: The United States last night barred trade with five Syrian energy companies as part of broad sanctions to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down as President Obama sternly criticised a failure of leadership in Damascus. The US Treasury Department said Mr Obama had ordered sanctions against General Petroleum Corporation, Syrian Company for Oil Transport, Syrian Gas Company, Syrian Petroleum Company, and Sytrol.

"The United States has been inspired by the Syrian people's pursuit of a peaceful transition to democracy. They have braved ferocious brutality," Mr Obama said. "They have spoken with their peaceful marches, their shaming of the Syrian regime, and their courageous persistence in the face of brutality — day after day, week after week. The Syrian government has responded with a sustained onslaught. I strongly condemn this brutality, including the disgraceful attacks on Syrian civilians in cities like Hama and Deir Ezzor, and the arrests of opposition figures who have been denied justice and subjected to torture at the hands of the regime."

As President Obama spoke, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron jointly urged Syria's embattled leader to step down. "We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people," they said in a joint statement.

The US President said Mr Assad had demonstrated a lack of leadership and that it was time for him to depart office — but that the transition should be handled by the Syrian people. "The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside. The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement."

The West's calls for action came as Syrian activists said Syrian troops had shot dead nine people in the city of Homs even after President Assad was quoted as telling the UN chief the military crackdown had ended. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committee, which documents anti-government protests, said most of the shooting had occurred in the central city yesterday after Muslims attended prayers marking the month of Ramadan. Mr Assad was said to have told UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon that operations against the rebels had stopped. Mr Ban spoke to Mr Assad by phone ahead of last night's UN Security Council meeting, when the human rights chief was set to call for the international war crimes court to investigate the Syrian crackdown.


Egyptian cops die in Israeli raids of revenge
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Saturday, August 20, 2011

EGYPTIAN security officials said last night that five policemen were killed the previous day near the border with Israel as Israeli and Egyptian forces searched for gunmen behind a deadly attack in the Jewish state on Thursday. The officials said the policemen were killed by unknown gunmen, but a military official told the state MENA agency the night before they were killed by Israeli fire.

Israel carried out sustained bombing attacks on the Gaza Strip and raids along the border. This came as 10 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel towards cities such as Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba. Two fired at Ashkelon were intercepted by Israel's new Iron Dome system. Israeli police said one person in Ashdod had been seriously wounded by a rocket and a school and synagogue damaged. The Israeli bombing raids followed a co-ordinated series of terror attacks in southern Israel near the border on Thursday, which killed eight Israelis, including six civilians, and wounded 30. At least seven gunmen armed with explosives, grenades and other weaponry sneaked into southern Israel and fired at cars and buses, killing six Israeli civilians, a soldier and a policeman. Israeli police and soldiers pursued some of the gunmen and engaged in gunbattles in which seven were killed. Israel said six of the Negev gunmen were shot dead on Thursday, while a seventh blew himself up. Others are believed to have fled across the Egyptian border.

Israel blamed the attacks on the Popular Resistance Committee, one of a number of Islamist groups based in Gaza. Diplomatic sources confirmed to The Weekend Australian that the attacks had originated in Gaza but were not able to confirm the identity of the group. Hamas, which governs Gaza, denied any involvement in the attacks. However, the Israeli Defence Forces issued a statement saying: "The IDF holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip."

Israeli warplanes targeted what officials said was a PRC building, and said they had killed four members of the group, including a military commander. Palestinians said a 13-year-old boy was killed in the bombings and 17 people injured.

In a televised address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "If terror organisations think they can harm our citizens and get away with it they will soon learn how wrong they are. We will make them pay a price, a very heavy price." Israel bombed 12 targets across the Gaza Strip, including the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. It is through these tunnels the gunmen and their weapons are believed to have made their way into Egypt, across the Sinai desert and then through gaps in the Israeli border.

IDF spokesman Yoav Mordechai said the construction of a fence along the border with Egypt had been accelerated, and that in the meantime the solution was to reinforce the area with "technological means". The Sinai has become increasingly lawless since the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, and appears to be coming increasingly under the control of Bedouin gangs and Islamic extremists.

Hamas official Ismail Radwan was reported to have called on all Palestinian factions in Gaza to respond with all possible force to the Israeli bombings. For the past year, while some of the Palestinian militant groups based in Gaza have been engaging in rocket fire into Israel, there has been a ceasefire of sorts between Israel and Hamas. But while Hamas says it cannot stop some of these groups firing rockets, Israel has made it clear it will hold Hamas responsible for any rockets fired into Israel from Gaza. The Israeli police and army were on full alert across the country last night, particularly in East Jerusalem and the Old City of Jerusalem.

World leaders were quick to condemn the violence, with the White House denouncing the "brutal terrorist attacks", and UN chief Ban Ki-moon expressing grave concern about an "escalation" of violence in the region.

Later that day
The Australian Online
Egypt to withdraw ambassador to Israel
From correspondents in Cairo, AP

EGYPT says it will withdraw its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths of five Egyptian security forces in what it called a breach of a peace treaty, sharply escalating tensions between the two countries after a cross-border ambush that killed eight Israelis. The Egyptian troops were killed as Israeli soldiers pursued suspected militants from the Gaza Strip who crossed the border from the Sinai Peninsula into southern Israel, killing eight Israelis on Thursday. It was the deadliest attack on Israelis in three years.

There were conflicting statements about how the Egyptians were killed, but the Egyptian Cabinet said it held Israel "politically and legally responsible for this incident," which it deemed a breach of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. It demand an immediate investigation. In strong language, it said Israel was to blame because lax security from its side allowed the ambush to take place. "The Egyptian ambassador to Israel will be withdrawn until we are notified about the results of an investigation by the Israeli authorities, and receive an apology from its leadership over the sad and hasty remarks about Egypt," the Cabinet said today.

The decision came after Egypt's official news agency blamed the Israelis for shooting and killing the five while chasing militants who killed eight Israelis in Thursday's ambush across the border in southern Israel. The Cabinet did not repeat that claim but accused Israel of trying to "shirk responsibility for the recklessness of Israeli security forces in protecting the borders". Israeli officials did not immediately comment on the decision.

Monday 8:24am
The Australian Online
Gaza militants agree to cease-fire
From correspondents in Jerusalem, AP

GAZA militants have agreed to a cease-fire with Israel to stop three days of violence, a Hamas official says after a deadly attack on Israelis near the Egypt-Israel border set off a round of Israeli airstrikes and rocket barrages from Gaza.

The sudden flare-up also threatened Israel-Egypt relations, after Egypt said five of its policemen were killed by Israeli fire as Israel's troops and aircraft pursued the militants responsible for killing eight people on Thursday. Egypt complained strongly as thousands demonstrated in Cairo, and Israel apologised.

The senior Hamas official said Sunday afternoon that militant groups in Gaza agreed that the truce would go into effect Sunday evening. Hamas security personnel would enforce the agreement brokered by Egypt, the official said. He said Egypt told the groups that Israel would agree to halt its airstrikes only if the Palestinians stopped the rocket fire first. A spokesman for Israel's government would not comment, and it was not clear if the cease-fire indeed had the backing of all of Gaza's armed factions. Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes continued hours after the cease-fire was to take effect at 9pm local time. Earlier on Sunday, a salvo of rockets from Gaza struck an empty school and sent thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters. Israel responded with airstrikes and diplomats scrambled to limit the violence.

The diplomatic efforts were also aimed at limiting the damage from the deaths of the Egyptian policemen. On Sunday morning, an Israeli envoy arrived at Cairo's international airport and was whisked off in a convoy of four waiting cars, airport officials said. Israel's government would not comment on the envoy's identity or the details of his mission. A second unidentified envoy arrived later today, the Egyptian officials said. France and Germany were also working with the Israelis and Egyptians to end the diplomatic spat, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing diplomatic efforts. US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman also arrived to help mediate, according to an official at the American Embassy in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.

Alongside the diplomacy, Israel threatened to intensify its attacks if the rocket barrages continue. Speaking to Israel Radio, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said Israel "will not hesitate" to widen its military operation if necessary. Diplomats scrambled to try to prevent the violence — the deadliest since Israel went to war against Gaza militants 2½ years ago — from spiraling out of control.

Large-scale Israeli military operations in Gaza would create new friction with the Muslim world at a time when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to ask the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state. Pictures of a major Israeli offensive in Gaza could hurt the Jewish state's efforts to minimise world support for the Palestinian statehood bid. A spokesman said Abbas' Palestinian Authority planned to use the renewed violence to bolster its case for statehood at the United Nations next month. "An independent Palestinian state is the remedy for violence," Husam Zomlot said. "It would control its borders and prevent such deterioration from happening."

Abbas, who wields limited power in the West Bank under Israel's overall security control, asserts no such control at this time. Hamas routed his loyalists from Gaza in a violent 2007 takeover, and a reconciliation pact the two sides signed in May has stalled. Hamas, backed by Iran, opposes both peacemaking with Israel and Abbas' statehood bid. Under Hamas rule, Gaza's militants have increased the quality and range of their rocket arsenals and now target the largest city in Israel's south — Beersheba, about 35 kilometres from Gaza. Most of the rockets launched since Thursday have been military-grade Katyushas smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

Since Thursday's ambush, militants have fired some 100 rockets and mortars into Israel. Yesterday, rockets killed an Israeli man in Beersheba and seriously wounded two others.

Monday 11:40am
The Australian Online
Extract: Libyan rebels overrun capital

MUAMMAR Gaddafi's regime is on the verge of collapse, as the military unit in charge of protecting him surrenders and rebels enter the capital. Mahmoud Shammam, the rebel minister of information, has told the Associated Press that the unit commander "has joined the revolution and ordered his soldiers to drop their weapons". When the unit dropped its arms, it essentially opened the way for the rebels to enter the city with little resistance. The rebels' surprising and speedy leap forward, after six months of largely deadlocked civil war, was packed into just a few dramatic hours.


World Commentary Extract: Gaddafi may go, but that's no guarantee Assad will follow
The Australian
Yaroslav Trofimov, Jay Solomon, Nour Malas, Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The violence that erupted in Libya in February ended what initially seemed a wave of largely peaceful uprisings pushing for democracy. In neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, armies refused orders to shoot unarmed protesters in January, leading to the downfall of their presidents. But in Syria, as in Libya, troops had no such qualms. In Bahrain, a Saudi-led military intervention helped quash the protests in March. In Yemen, meanwhile, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has resisted calls to step down, pushing his country to the brink of civil war. NATO's military muscle made the path different for rebels in Libya.

"The success of the Libyan uprising shows that the change of Western policy is the deciding factor when it comes to freedom in the Middle East," says Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who heads the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington. At this stage, at least, no such Western intervention is in the cards for Syria, a country with more than three times Libya's population, a volatile mix of religions and ethnicities, and an unresolved conflict with neighboring Israel. "Having NATO getting involved with Syria could also drag it much deeper into the quagmire of all quagmires, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," cautioned Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defence University.


Truce fails as Israeli airstrikes kill six
The Australian
Friday, August 26, 2011

GAZA CITY: A series of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza over the past 24 hours have killed six Palestinians and injured 30, according to Gaza's emergency services, as a tentative truce declared by the militants on the weekend crumbled. Adham Abu Selmiya, a spokesman for Gaza's emergency services, said five people had been killed in a series of raids which ended before dawn on Thursday, local time, and a sixth person succumbed to injuries hours later. Of the six dead, two were Islamic Jihad militants.

The first attack on Wednesday, local time, hit a car in the southern city of Rafah, killing 34-year-old Islamic Jihad militant Ismail al-Ismar. Later, medics found the body of Ismail Amum, a 65-year-old who was killed during an earlier raid in central Gaza. The air force struck a target in Gaza City, killing another Islamic Jihad militant, 20-year-old Atiya Muqat; another strike on Rafah killed Hisham Abu Har, who was working inside the cross-border smuggling tunnels. An airstrike on a sports hall in the northern town of Beit Lahiya killed civilian Salam al-Masri, and injured a further 20.

Over the same 24 hours, Gaza militants fired 19 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, slightly injuring an infant, the military said. Israeli Home Front Defence Minister Matan Vilnai warned that Israel would keep hitting Islamic Jihad if it continued its "terrorist activities". "We will continue to hit those who hit us. Islamic Jihad, which has an itchy trigger finger, is starting to pay the price," he told army radio. "We have hit those who deserved it and we will continue to do so as long as there is terrorism against Israel." He indicated that Gaza's Hamas rulers were not engaged in the escalation.


Militants call for truce with Israel
Weekend Australian
Saturday, August 27, 2011

GAZA CITY: Gaza militants have called their second truce in less than five days in an attempt to keep more than a week of hostilities with Israel from escalating. A leader of the Islamic Jihad faction, Mahfez Azzam, said Egypt had mediated the ceasefire, which was to go into effect at 1pm local time yesterday (8pm AEST).

The factions had called a ceasefire late last Sunday, but it dissolved almost immediately in a volley of rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israel and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes in which some two dozen Palestinians and one Israeli were killed. The violence began with a militant attack that killed eight Israelis on the Egyptian border.

"The Hamas government calls on all factions of the Palestinian resistance to give the Israeli occupier a last chance to stop its aggression," Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said, adding that they should "prepare to choose the right moment to give the enemy a lesson". Another Hamas official said that all key factions agreed to the truce and that the Gaza government and Egypt were trying to get tiny factions on board, too. Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, said it was trying "to keep the situation calm". "We want a national consensus but some of the factions work alone. It is a big problem," he said.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor said Israel was ready to respect the tacit ceasefire as long as there was calm along the border with Gaza. Hours earlier, an Israeli airstrike killed two militants in Gaza following a salvo of rocket attacks on Israel. Palestinian officials said the two were members of Islamic Jihad. The Israeli military confirmed the air attack, saying the two were targeted after they fired mortar shells towards an Israeli border crossing, damaging it. More than 15 rockets and mortar shells were fired towards Israel yesterday, the military said. An Israeli security source said militant groups were planning attacks along the Israeli-Egyptian border to damage ties between the two countries.


Turkey warns Assad as tanks enter town
The Australian
AFP, AP, The Times
Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DAMASCUS: Syrian troops last night rolled into a town on the Lebanese border and surrounded another in central Syria, hours after erstwhile ally Turkey said it had "lost confidence" in the Assad regime and dissidents called for international assistance. Troops backed by tanks and personnel carriers rumbled into the village of Hit bordering Lebanon early on Monday morning, local time, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Security forces simultaneously surrounded the central Syrian town of Rastan, which has become a hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad's regime. Heavy machinegun fire was reported in both towns. The local co-ordination committee's activist network said the heavy deployment around Rastan had sent residents fleeing out of fear the town would be stormed.

Earlier yesterday, Turkish leaders warned that the Assad government could become the Arab Spring's next casualty. "(The situation) has reached a level that everything is too little, too late. We lost our confidence," President Abdullah Gul said, quoted by the Anatolia news agency. "Everyone should know that we are with the Syrian people … What is fundamental is the people."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan echoed the comments. "A regime cannot survive by force, brutality, by shooting and killing unarmed people taking to the streets. The only solution is to silence arms immediately and listen to the demands of the people," he said in a televised address to the nation. "We saw the end of those who did not choose this way in Tunis and Egypt; now we observe with sorrow what is being lived in Libya."

Mr Erdogan, who stopped short of calling for Mr Assad's departure, made a similar call to authorities in Yemen. "We remind the Syrian and Yemeni governments of this truth, as we did before with the administrations in Egypt and Tunisia," he said.

Meanwhile, a young dissident who fled to Lebanon last week told The Times that without international help, Syria could slide into civil war. "The regime is going to do more killing, so the only way we can win is to have neutral observers and lots of them in Syria to monitor what's happening," said Ahmad, who spent months evading army checkpoints and security forces, dodging from one safe house to another. "We don't want to go for the option of an armed struggle against the regime. But if the international community does not step in, we are afraid that it will lead to civil war."

Intervention in Syria has been all but ruled out by the US and EU, leaving diplomatic pressure and sanctions as the sole means of squeezing the Assad regime.


Turkey expels Israel envoy, suspends ties
Weekend Australian
Saturday, September 3, 2011

ANKARA: Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador last night and suspended military ties with its one-time ally after a United Nations report slammed the "excessive" force used by Israel in a raid on a Gaza aid flotilla. A day after leaked extracts of the report into last year's commando raid appeared in the media, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the government in Ankara had decided on a series of steps as a mark of protest. Although the report has yet to be released, Turkey's President, Abdullah Gul, said Ankara would reject it, regarding it as "null and void". The Israeli government indicated it would accept most of the findings, but claimed vindication over its right to impose a blockade on the Palestinian territory run by Hamas.

Turkey pulled its ambassador out of Tel Aviv immediately after the raid in May last year, and Mr Davutoglu said last night ties would now be further eroded. "All officials over the level of second secretary, primarily the ambassador, will turn back to their country at the latest on Wednesday," he said. "Second, all the military agreements between Israel and Turkey are suspended." Mr Davutoglu said Ankara also planned to challenge Israel's right to impose a blockade on the Gaza Strip before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the UN's highest court.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last night holding consultations about how to respond to Ankara's moves. A senior Israeli official, quoted by public radio, said "relations between the two countries have been set back by years".

The measures announced by Turkey came after a leaked copy of the UN-mandated report criticised Israeli troops for using "excessive" and "unreasonable" force when boarding the ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010. The report's official release has been delayed several times because of the failure of Turkey and Israel to agree a final version. A UN spokesman said, however, that it was expected to be handed to secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in coming days.

Turkey had been Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world and the two countries held regular joint military exercises, but ties have been deteriorating since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Relations between the two countries went into crisis when eight Turks and an American of Turkish descent were killed on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of the six-vessel convoy, after Israeli special forces boarded it in international waters. It added, however, that the flotilla "acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade" and the Israelis "faced significant, organised and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, requiring them to use force for their own protection". The inquiry called on Israel to make "an appropriate statement of regret" for the raid and pay compensation to the families of the dead.

A senior Israeli official indicated that Mr Netanyahu's government would accept the findings but with some reservations. "We will announce our acceptance of the report after its official publication, with specific reservations," said the official, who declined to be identified.

Same Day
BBC forced off air as protests hit the Proms
The Times

LONDON: A Proms performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was disrupted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators at London's Royal Albert Hall yesterday, forcing a BBC broadcast off the air. About 30 protesters were removed from the concert after groups shouted, sang and unfurled a flag over one of the galleries. BBC Radio 3, which was broadcasting the concert live, was forced to come off air, the first time disturbances have forced it off air in its history. It twice had to interrupt its show and revert to recorded music. The BBC said four groups of "very organised" protesters started singing or shouting before each of the four pieces. "It was obviously very carefully orchestrated," a spokesman said.

The protest was co-ordinated by a number of pro-Palestinian groups including the BDS, a coalition of human-rights activists who campaign for an independent Palestine, and the Boycott Israel Network. Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a pro-Palestinian activist in the first group removed, said they had targeted the IPO because the orchestra was used as "a propaganda method by the Israeli state". "The boycott movement acted because for six decades the Palestinians have been subjected to endless oppression and illegal settlement of their land," she said.

But the protest caused outrage among other audience members, who shouted "Out! Out! Out!" as the demonstrators were removed and clapped loudly in support of the orchestra. Prommers in the audience shouted: "This is nothing to do with music." Michael McCulloch, a board member of the BBC World Service Trust, said he was "absolutely devastated" by the protest. "We spend a lot of time promoting free and independent media around the world and it's pretty shameful to have this kind of experience in our own country," he said. "It is quite wrong to bring political views into a music festival of this kind."

The concert — Prom 62 — was conducted by Zubin Mehta and featured the American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham. It was part of the 75th anniversary celebrations for the Israel Philharmonic. Earlier this week 24 musicians, including a number from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, said in a letter to The Independent newspaper they were "dismayed" the IPO had been invited to the Proms. They asked the BBC to cancel the concert, saying "Israel deliberately uses the arts as propaganda to promote a misleading image of Israel".

The BBC rejected calls for a boycott, saying the invitation was "purely a musical one". It said in a statement yesterday: "We regret that as a result of sustained audience disruption within the concert hall, which affected the ability to hear the music, tonight's Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Prom was taken off air. "The invitation to the orchestra was a purely musical one, offering the opportunity to hear this fine orchestra in conductor Zubin Mehta's 75th year, so we are disappointed that BBC Radio 3 audiences were not able to enjoy the full performance."


Regret, but Israel not sorry over Gaza flotilla
The Australian
Monday, September 5, 2011

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel has no reason to apologise for a deadly raid on a Turkish-led flotilla that tried to break his country's blockade of Gaza last year. But in his first public remarks since Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador on Friday over the flotilla affair, Mr Netanyahu expressed regret yesterday for the loss of nine Turkish lives in the confrontation and said he hoped ties with Ankara could be mended. Turkey wanted Israel to apologise for the deaths and lift the Gaza blockade. Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel did not have to apologise for "acting to defend our civilians, our children and our communities." He added that Israel "expresses regret at the loss of life."

Hours earlier, Turkey's Foreign Minister said his government was preparing to challenge the Gaza blockade at the International Court of Justice. Ahmet Davutoglu's comments came a day after Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador and severed military ties, angered over its refusal to apologise for last year's deadly raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed nine pro-Palestinian activists. Mr Davutoglu dismissed a UN report into the raid that said Israel's naval blockade of Gaza was a legal security measure.

Mr Davutoglu told Turkish state-run television the report — prepared by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and presented to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — was not endorsed by the UN and was therefore not binding. "What is binding is the International Court of Justice," he said. "Let the International Court of Justice decide. We are starting the necessary legal procedures this coming week." Mr Davutoglu said the UN report released on Friday contradicted an earlier report on the incident, which found the Israeli raid violated international law. He warned Israel that it risked alienation among Arab nations by resisting an apology. "If Israel persists with its current position, the Arab Spring will give rise to a strong Israel opposition as well as the debate on the authoritarian regimes," Mr Davutoglu said.

On Friday night, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic ties with Israel to the level of second secretary and gave the ambassador and other high-level diplomats until Wednesday to leave. In other measures, Turkey suspended military agreements, promised to back legal actions against Israel by the raid victims' families, and vowed to take steps to ensure freedom to navigate in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish officials refused to elaborate on the latest move, but analysts suggested Turkey could send navy vessels to escort aid ships in the future.

Meanwhile, the US launched a last-ditch drive to persuade Palestinians to scrap their plan to seek UN recognition as a state. But the move may be too late, The New York Times said yesterday, citing unnamed senior US officials and foreign diplomats. The Obama administration has circulated a proposal for renewed peace talks with the Israelis in the hope of persuading Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his bid for recognition at the UN General Assembly, which opens on September 20. Israel has opposed the Palestinian membership bid. The US argues the Palestinians will only achieve meaningful statehood through a revival of direct peace talks with Israel and has warned it will veto the bid in the Security Council.


Erdogan cuts all ties with Israel
The Australian
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Recep Erdogan

ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last night announced a total freeze of military and trade ties with Israel and threatened to visit Gaza. Only hours after Israel said the presence of its defence attache at the embassy in Ankara indicated there was no definitive break with Turkey, Mr Erdogan declared a suspension of all military and commercial relations. Despite pleas from top diplomats at the weekend to end the row between the two countries over last year's attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, Mr Erdogan berated the one-time ally for behaving like "a spoiled child".

Last week, Turkey said that Israeli ambassador Gaby Levy was being expelled and all military agreements were suspended, as it angrily rejected the findings of a UN probe into the deadly flotilla raid. In his first official reaction since that announcement, and on the eve of the expulsion, Mr Erdogan went even further. "We are totally suspending our trade, military and defence industry relations," he said. "Further sanctions" against Israel would follow.

Once Israel's closest friend in the Muslim world, Turkey has been increasingly critical since Mr Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. There was widespread outrage in May last year when eight Turkish nationals and an American of Turkish descent died on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of the six-vessel convoy taking aid to the Palestinian territory of Gaza, in a raid by Israeli special forces in international waters. A UN review led by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer has criticised the "excessive" force in the raid, but upheld Israel's right to impose a naval blockade on Gaza to prevent arms reaching Hamas.

Unlike other European countries which regard Hamas as a terrorist group, Turkey has refused to blacklist the Islamists, who are the rulers of Gaza, and Mr Erdogan said he may pay a visit to the territory, entering via neighbouring Egypt next week. "We are talking with the Egyptians on this matter … A trip to Gaza is not finalised yet," he said. Such a visit would infuriate Israel, but Mr Erdogan seemed in no mood for diplomacy. "Israel has always played the role of a spoiled child," he said in reference to its attitude towards the Palestinians.

Earlier, a senior Israeli defence official had sounded a warning to Turkey while saying that the military attache would remain in place in Ankara. "There's no break with Turkey: the proof is that our military attache in Ankara will remain in his office, and that consular services there will continue to function," Amos Gilad told public radio. "A solution to this crisis must be found." Major General Gilad said Israel should seek to resolve the crisis through its European, NATO and US connections.

In response to Mr Erdogan's comments, a senior official said the Jewish state did not want the relationship to deteriorate any further. "Over the past few months there have been numerous attempts to create a positive dynamic in keeping the relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara, but so far those efforts have not succeeded," he said.

Another official said the government was doing everything it could to prevent the relationship worsening by getting into a war of words with Ankara. But he admitted there was concern over the measures announced by Mr Erdogan. The official said Israel was talking with various parties about the possibility of containing the situation, without elaborating, adding the government had not yet decided how it would react if it judged the situation to be beyond repair.

Egyptian army officers arrest a suspected demonstrator at the site
of clashes between protesters and anti-riot policemen near the
Israeli embassy in Cairo. Picture: AP Source: AP
Israel eases tensions over embassy assault
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, September 12, 2011

JERUSALEM: The assault on the Israeli embassy by an enraged mob in Cairo over the weekend and the threatened lynching of six embassy personnel marked the first direct impact of the Arab Spring on Israel since revolution began sweeping the Arab world last December.

At least three Egyptians were killed and 1000 injured in daylong clashes between security forces and rioters during the attempts to break into the Israeli embassy building that ended on Saturday morning local time.

Both sides sought to ease tensions yesterday after Egypt cracked down on the unrest. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Saturday's siege as a "serious incident", but said his country was "committed to preserving peace with Egypt, which is in the interests of Egypt and Israel". The six Israeli security personnel were rescued after the intervention of US President Barack Obama prompted the military council ruling Egypt to send commandos to the embassy, 12 hours after the siege began.

The rescue, which ended shortly before dawn, was monitored in the Israeli Foreign Ministry's operations room in Jerusalem by Mr Netanyahu and senior ministers as well as the heads of all the Israeli security agencies. They were able to follow developments live via the security cameras in the embassy and telephone contact with the security guards. Efforts by Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak to telephone the head of the Egyptian Supreme Military Council, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, failed after officials in Cairo said they were unable to locate him. Mr Barak then telephoned his counterpart in Washington, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who got through to Field Marshal Tantawi. Mr Netanyahu, who called the White House, said he received a promise from Mr Obama "to do all I can".

The Egyptian commandos, in plain clothes, infiltrated the mob of protesters, who had made their way up to the 18th floor of the embassy building. By then, two heavy security doors on that floor had been smashed and the Israeli security guards had pulled back to an inner room, with only one metal door between them and the mob. Israeli officials said the security guards estimated it would take about half an hour before the door gave way, and they were authorised from Jerusalem to open fire if the mob broke in. They prevented the rioters from breaking in through the windows.

When the Egyptian commando leader estimated his men were in sufficient strength, they seized the rioters in the stairwell. Contact was made with the trapped Israeli guards, who were outfitted with Arab headwear and cloaks, and taken down to armoured vehicles parked at the entrance. They were whisked away to Cairo airport, where they boarded an Israeli air force plane along with ambassador Yitzhak Levanon and about 80 other Israelis, including the families of diplomats, and flown to Israel. A single Israeli diplomat, consul Yaakov Dvir, remains in Cairo to maintain an Israeli presence in the Egyptian capital.

Mr Netanyhahu refrained from criticising the Egyptian authorities for the attack in order not to exacerbate relations with Cairo, and praised the commando force that rescued the trapped embassy personnel. "The Middle East is undergoing an earthquake of historical proportions," he said, comparing the fallout from the Arab Spring with the reordering of the region after World War I. Responding to accusations he had aggravated the Arab unrest by blocking the Palestinians' demands, Mr Netanyhahu said the Arab world was being rocked by "deep undercurrents" that had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The assault on the embassy was embarrassing for the Egyptian authorities and elicited statements of regret from senior officials. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf offered his resignation, and that of his cabinet, for failure to protect the embassy but the offer was rejected by the military council. Information Minister Osama Hassan Heikal issued a sharp rebuke to the rioters, saying they had injured Egypt's pride and its international standing. "One cannot call the perpetrators of this act brave or patriotic," Mr Heikal said. Those involved would be tried before an emergency state security court, he said. "Egypt affirms its full commitment to respect international conventions, including the protection of all foreign missions."

Same Day Editorial
Egypt must support peace

GIVEN the enduring importance of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty as the bedrock of what passes for peace in the Middle East, events in Cairo that have seen the Israeli ambassador forced to flee in the middle of the night as mobs stormed his embassy could hardly be more ominous.

Both sides have recommitted to the treaty but the disgraceful assault, which saw Egyptian security forces stand by while protesters broke down a security wall, provides little confidence in the intentions of the military junta that has replaced president Hosni Mubarak. Led by Mr Mubarak's veteran defence minister Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, it is showing itself spineless in reining in extremists from the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-nationalist groups that have taken control of Egypt's revolution. These extremists, united in their hatred of Israel, are in charge of the mobs on the street, with the junta apparently too fearful to confront them.

As the world marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, whose perpetrators included Egyptians, the need to act decisively against the sort of extremism manifested in the assault on the Israeli embassy should be clear to Field Marshal Tantawi and his junta colleagues. So, too, should they not lose sight of the reality that as much as the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty has been useful to Israel, so has it provided enormously beneficial stability to Egypt. It is in their interests, as much as Israel's, that Egypt's new rulers defend the treaty and hold out against blandishments from Turkey, which is seeking support for a broad-based confrontation with Israel over the Gaza peace flotilla.

Egypt's interests will be served not by confronting Israel but by maintaining the treaty that has served both countries so well for so long. Ganging up with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is seeking support for his imminent quest for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, will ill-serve Egypt.

For Israel, too, the stakes could hardly be higher. The emergency evacuation of its ambassador from Cairo recalls the no less historic 1979 flight of its embassy staff from Tehran after the takeover by extremist ayatollahs. For both sides — and the entire Middle East and beyond — any similar triumph of extremism in Cairo would be disastrous. Now is the time for cool heads. Otherwise there could be a tragic replay of Tehran in 1979.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is embraced by his Egyptian counterpart, Essam Sharaf, in Cairo
Picture: AP
Erdogan gets Spring in his step
The Australian
Marc Champion, Matt Bradley, The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, September 15, 2011

CAIRO: The standing ovations, chants and fist pumping from the audience began even before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood to speak in Cairo's opera House on Tuesday. When he threatened retribution for Israel's refusal to apologise over the killing of Turkish citizens on an aid ship last year, the audience roared.

Mr. Erdogan was on the first stop of an Arab Spring tour that will take him to Tunisia and Libya this week, as he seeks to extend Turkey's influence in the region using his popularity and a tough line on Israel to draw support. Vendors distributed posters of Mr Erdogan and his face looked down from giant billboards in the city centre. "People in Egypt see him as the new Gamal Abdel Nasser," Mohamad Mosalam, a banker from Societe Generale in Egypt, said Tuesday, referring to Egypt's revered post-colonial president. "For 40 years (after Nasser), Arab people felt they had no leader."

Speaking just blocks from where President Barack Obama sought to persuade Arabs to trust the US again in a speech on the Middle East two years ago, Mr. Erdogan chided Washington. He called on the US to rethink its plan to oppose the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN next Tuesday. That stance, said Mr. Erdogan, "does not fit the understanding of justice in US foreign policy." He went on to warn Arabs against adopting ideas from outside the region, without specifying what or whose ideas.

Mr Erdogan sought to make common cause between Arabs and Turks. He stressed their common faith and history (during the Ottoman Empire), their desire for democracy and above all, their common opposition to Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Earlier, in an address to Arab League foreign ministers, he said Israel was "going to lose in the end." Israeli officials have said they believe Mr Erdogan's recent downgrading of diplomatic relations with Israel and sharp rhetoric are designed specifically to boost his stature in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. Turkish officials say the moves are linked solely to Israel's refusal to apologise for the deaths of its citizens on the ship.

Turkey's leader called for a close partnership — including military — between Egypt and Turkey, two of the region's most populous Muslim countries. He said he would boost trade to $US5 billion from $US3 bn within five years. And he signed 11 agreements with Egypt's transitional government, covering areas from energy to the creation of a new joint high security and co-operation council.

However, there were signs of the potential limitations to Mr Erdogan's bid for leadership in the Arab world. His visit comes at a sensitive time for Egypt's interim military leaders, who have reached the nadir of their post-revolutionary prestige. In the past week, the military has announced a wider remit for Egypt's 30-year old emergency law while cracking down on media groups it considered to be inciting disorder.

So far, the military has acted as a conservative counterweight to those Egyptian voices who would like to see a bolder foreign policy. That triggered popular anger, in particular, when the military tried to protect Israel's embassy rather than expel its diplomats after Israeli forces killed six Egyptian border guards this month. "They don't want to go into clashes with the US and Israel so I don't think that there will be a good and solid feedback from Erdogan's visit with Egypt," Bashir Abdel Fattah, a Turkey expert at the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said. In his Cairo speech, Mr Erdogan called for democratic forms not to be held back.

Mr Erdogan had to tread carefully with regard to Syria, which he did not mention in his address to the Arab League foreign ministers. Outside the building, Syrian activists protested against his stance, which they see as too accommodating to President Bashar al-Assad.

Same Day
When a man's fancy turns to the East
Bruce Loudon

IT is hardly the sort of rhetoric expected from a country that is a key member of NATO, is an aspiring member of the EU and has long served as a "bridge" between East and West. Nor does it accord with Turkey's long-standing foreign policy determination to have "zero problems with neighbours".

But as Ankara's powerful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a moderate Islamist, ramps up his attacks on Israel and seeks to take advantage of the Arab Spring to assert Turkish regional influence in a way not seen since the Ottoman empire, what is clear is that a country long seen as a crucial Western ally is moving in a new direction that has potentially far-reaching strategic and political implications.

Unapologetically, Erdogan, buoyed by his big election win last June and the absolute authority he now exercises after reshuffling the military high command, is taking advantage of the regional power vacuum created by the Arab Spring, the war in Iraq, and upheavals elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. In so doing he is not only creating headaches for Israel and concern among Western countries that have long taken Turkey for granted as an ally, but also showing himself to be a loose cannon whose actions are increasingly out of sync with those of Washington and its allies.

He has ended years of important military co-operation with Israel. In Cairo, he has set himself on a collision course with Washington, supporting the bid by the Palestinian Authority for statehood to be launched at the UN next week, declaring it to be "not an option but an obligation".

He has showered praise on Hamas militants, terming them "resistance fighters", and called the Israeli blockade of Gaza a "crime against humanity". He has angrily expelled Israel's ambassador over last year's Gaza peace flotilla, declaring the Jewish state's action "grounds for war" and warning that the powerful Turkish navy will escort future flotillas wanting to run the blockade. Across the Arab and Muslim world, Erdogan is seeking not just to assert Turkish influence and leadership, intervening as far afield as the Horn of Africa, where he is trying to mediate between Somalia's al-Qa'ida-linked al-Shabab terrorists and the Western-backed government.

He has cultivated warm relations with Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He has been quick off the mark in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, seeking to influence events following the overthrow of their respective regimes and build on admiration for Turkey's moderately Islamic and secular government. And he has won more applause by turning on Syria, formerly a close ally, siding with the protest movement trying to bring down president Bashar al-Assad.

But it is Erdogan's unrelenting pursuit of Israel that is causing most controversy as, stung by its refusal to apologise over the flotilla, he has terminated years of close ties and insisted that he will pursue action in the World Court and also deploy the navy in the eastern Mediterranean.

Notions of possible conflict seem fanciful, but the Turkish leader has the bit firmly between his teeth over Israel and is exploiting it to the full to burnish Turkey's image. This should come as no surprise. Two years ago, Erdogan gained hero status across the Arab world, storming out of the World Economic Forum at Davos after snarling at Israeli president Shimon Peres: "You know very well how to kill."

In confronting Israel, Erdogan sees himself as being in a strong position. Turkey's economy is booming. And, having brought the generals to heel, he is politically more powerful than any other modern Turkish leader. He has made his priorities plain. In his election victory speech, he hinted at neo-Ottoman aspirations, claiming that Turks, Bosnians, Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians would benefit.

But there is concern about his perceived neo-Ottoman pretensions, just as in Washington and elsewhere there is anxiety about his anti-Israeli militancy. Erdogan has clearly jettisoned the "no problems with neighbours" policy. Despite that, the hope must be that he has not sacrificed Turkey's "bridging" role between East and West.


Diplomats battling to curb Palestinian push
The Australian
Friday, September 16, 2011

JERUSALEM: A high-level US team kicked off a new round of shuttle diplomacy yesterday in a last-ditch effort to contain the diplomatic fallout from the Palestinian statehood push, but the odds of a breakthrough appeared slim as the Palestinians pledged to go ahead with mass rallies to draw world attention to their bid.

US diplomats Dennis Ross and David Hale arrived for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They were also due in the West Bank last night to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Washington is trying to persuade the Palestinians to drop their plan to ask the UN to recognise an independent Palestinian state, but so far without success. The Palestinians are turning to the UN after peace talks with Israel broke down, hoping a UN bid would boost their statehood drive. Both Israel and the US oppose the campaign, saying there is no substitute for negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu said he would address the UN next week to set out Israel's objections to the Palestinian bid. An Israeli official said there was "a very intensive effort" under way in hopes of finding a formula that would allow negotiations to resume. There was no immediate Palestinian comment. Officials have said they remain determined to go to the UN unless Israel accepts their demand for a freeze on West Bank settlement construction and commits to a Palestinian state based on the ceasefire lines that mark the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — areas captured in the 1967 Mid-East war. With the odds of a breakthrough slim, the Palestinians plan to submit a resolution during the UN General Assembly, which begins on Tuesday.

Same Day
Recognition of Palestine would inflame violence
Alan M. Dershowitz, Wall Street Journal

AS Egypt and Turkey increase tensions with Israel, the Palestinian Authority seeks to isolate the Jewish state even further by demanding that the UN recognise Palestine as a "state" without a negotiated peace with Israel. President Mahmoud Abbas described his playbook for seeking UN recognition while bypassing the step of negotiating a two-state solution: "We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years."

What exactly happened 63 years ago ' The UN recommended partitioning the former British mandate into two states: one Jewish, the other Arab. Israel and most of the rest of the world accepted that partition plan, and Israel declared itself the nation-state of the Jewish people. The US, the Soviet Union and all the great powers recognised this declaration and the two-state solution that it represented.

The Arab world unanimously rejected the UN partition plan and the declaration of statehood by Israel. The Arab population in Israel and the area set aside for an Arab state joined the surrounding Arab nations in taking up arms.

In defending its right to exist, Israel lost 1 per cent of its population, many of them civilians and survivors of the recent Holocaust. Yet the current Palestinian leadership still insists on calling the self-inflicted wounds caused by its rejection of a two-state solution the "nakba," meaning the catastrophe.

By claiming that the Palestinians "have been under occupation for 63 years" (as distinguished from the 44 years since the Arab states attacked Israel in 1967 and Israel occupied some lands of the invading nations), the Palestinian Authority president is trying to turn back the clock to a time prior to Israel's establishment as a state based on the UN's two-state proposal. In other words, the push for recognition by the UN of Palestine as a state, based on Mr Abbas's complaint that the Palestinians have been under occupation for 63 years, is an attempt to undo the work of the UN that resulted in Israel's statehood 63 years ago.

Mr Abbas's occupation complaint explains why he is so adamant in refusing to recognise Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Every Arab state is officially a Muslim state and yet, as in 1948, none of them is prepared to accept the permanent existence of a state for the Jewish people in the Middle East. Certainly some, including the Palestinian Authority, are prepared to mouth recognition of Israel as a state, so long as the so-called right of return remains for 4 million so-called refugees who, if they were to return in mass, would soon turn Israel into yet another Arab state.

Abbas is a reasonable man, generally. Many of the things he has said about the need for the two-state solution are also reasonable, but he talks out of two sides of his mouth: one for the international community, the other for consumption by the Palestinian street. His complaint about a 63-year occupation is clearly designed to signal to his constituents that he won't give up on the ultimate goal of making Israel a Palestinian state.

If the General Assembly recognises Palestine as a state without negotiating with Israel, it will, in effect, be undercutting many of its own past resolutions, as well as many bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Such recognition would set back prospects for a negotiated peace and would encourage violence by frustrated Palestinians who will gain nothing from the UN's hollow action but will expect much from it. We saw what happened when the Palestinians came close to achieving statehood in 2000-01 — a prospect shattered by Yasser Arafat's rejection of the Clinton-Barak peace plan.

That rejection, which even the Saudi ambassador to the US at the time, Bandar bin Sultan, later called a "crime" against the Palestinian people, resulted in a bloody uprising among Palestinians in which thousands of Palestinians and Israelis died. The UN will be responsible for any ensuing bloodshed if it inflames violence by raising Palestinian expectations while reducing the prospects of a negotiated peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged Palestinians to return immediately to the negotiating table without preconditions. Everything would be on the table for negotiation, including borders, the right of return, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the settlements and anything else the Palestinians would seek.

Instead of discouraging negotiations by promising recognition, the UN should be demanding that the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government begin negotiating.

Alan Dershowitz is a law professor at Harvard. His latest book is "Trials of Zion".


Click here for news since September 17th, 2011

** End of article