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Stark choice: Is it to be peace or war '
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, September 20, 2010

Like a squabbling couple venting their frustrations on trivia rather than substance, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have launched into their latest round of peace talks under a cloud of marginalia that obscures the core issues they have to deal with. The Palestinian warning that they will break off the talks if Israel renews construction of settlements is countered by Israel's insistence that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state. These demands are only distantly related to the issue at hand — making peace — and justify the role the US has taken upon itself to bring its troublesome charges to an agreement even if it has to wring their necks.

In order to keep the militant settlers off his back and his right-wing coalition intact while he pursues peace talks, Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to let the settlement freeze defrost. As a concession to the Palestinians, he said last week that construction would be limited to 2000 units in the coming year, a tenth the number of units in the planning pipelines. If the Palestinians walk out over this issue, they will not stop construction. On the contrary, they will remove Netanyahu's reason for self-restraint. In addition, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will make Washington unhappy, with possibly serious economic and political consequences for the Palestinians. On the other hand, Netanyahu has clouded the waters by injecting an explosive new issue into the dialogue, the demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state. "I don't hear the other side saying 'two states for two nations'," he said at a cabinet meeting. "I hear two states but I don't hear two nations."

Netanyahu has made the issue top priority. "We are ready to recognise Palestinian statehood," he told Abbas at the ceremonial opening of the talks in Washington. "But we expect you to recognise Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. Mutual recognition is necessary in order to signal to both of our nations that the conflict is over." At a pragmatic level, the Israeli demand is aimed at heading off future demands for autonomy by Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, or demands by Palestinian refugees to return to land that is now part of Israel. At a deeper level, Palestinian acquiescence could be interpreted as acceptance of Israel as a legitimate presence rather than an entity that might be won back for the Palestinians in the future through demography or other means.

At either level, the Palestinians forcefully reject the demand. "We don't deny that there is a Jewish majority in Israel," says Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath. "But we deny the requirement that we recognise that Jewishness when there are a million and a half Palestinian Christians and Muslims who are citizens in Israel today." Abbas has dismissed Israel's demand out of hand. "It is not my job to give a description of the state," he said. "Call (it) the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business," he said, according to Reuters. While many Israeli Jews support Netanyahu's demand, many others agree with Abbas. "It's not for the Palestinians to define who we are," said former Labor Party minister Haim Ramon on Israel Radio. Israel has in fact been recognised as a Jewish state by the international community through UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, the founding document which called for partition of Mandatory Palestine into "Jewish and Arab states".

Coming at the beginning of the talks, both the settlement freeze and the "Jewish state" issues are diversions from the task at hand — hammering out the framework for a peace agreement within the year-long time frame set by Washington. Reasonable solutions on the core issues separating the two sides — borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security — have been proposed over the years by groups of Israeli and Palestinian politicians and academics informally working together. However, given the powerful domestic opposition in both camps — Hamas and its allies on one side, the Israeli Right on the other — it would take a high degree of political courage by Netanyahu and Abbas to choose the hard compromises necessary rather than manoeuvre back to the status quo. The Israeli right has been relatively quiescent thus far, apparently in the expectation that the Palestinians will torpedo the talks at some point.

The most important man at the negotiating table in the coming months will be US Special Envoy George Mitchell. His task will be to keep the parties' feet to the fire, to deprive them of the emotional pleasure of slamming the door and to keep reminding them that the choice they face is not between peace and a not intolerable status quo, but between peace and an ugly war.

For the first time in Netanyahu's political career, he has become unpredictable. In startling reversal of his own long-held right-wing positions, he is acting like a man who is determined to see the rise of a Palestinian state, albeit demilitarised, alongside Israel. Thus far, at least, he has avoided temptations to gain propaganda points at the expense of the Palestinians and his rhetoric is that of a man acting from his own strong convictions.


Israel wary of Russian weapons
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ISRAEL has warned it might sell arms to Caucasus enemies of Russia following the revelation that Russia has agreed to sell cruise missiles to Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was preparing to provide "a technological response" to the news. "We must prepare for a new threat of rockets and missiles and we are working to provide a technological response to this issue through new military supplies," he said. Political officials quoted in Israel's media also suggested there could be a reassessment of whether Israel should consider selling arms to some of Russia's enemies, such as Georgia, which Israel has in recent times refused to do due to an understanding with Russia.

The understanding with Russia about not selling to its enemies appears to be finished following news that Russia has agreed to a new military contract with Syria to sell advanced P800 cruise missiles and anti-ship rockets. The fact the announcement came the day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Damascus meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad only heightened Israeli fears.

Retired Israeli general Yaakov Amidror was quoted in Israel Hayom newspaper saying Russia's decision was "a slap to Washington's face and to no less an extent a slap to Israel's face". And Yedioth Ahronoth also quoted one unidentified Israeli political official saying the supply of such weaponry to Syria, a supporter of Hezbollah, just as peace talks with Palestinians were beginning was "a reward to the extremist countries" and another saying that "if that deal is executed, we will no longer be considerate of Russian requests not to send advanced weapons systems to areas that are of strategic importance to them, such as Georgia, for example". Mr Netanyahu said yesterday: "There were discussions at all echelons, including the highest echelon. Unfortunately, it is being carried out in stages and it is problematic. We are facing threats of a new kind, mainly missiles and rockets."

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman played down reports Israel would sell weapons to places that were of "strategic importance" to Russia, such as Georgia and the Caucasus. "Israel behaves in a responsible manner in the entire international arena, not just in the context of Georgia or the Caucasus," he said. In an apparent criticism of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Mr Lieberman said: "The Defence Minister handled the matter, but regrettably things did not work out."

The apparent criticism of Mr Barak reflects differences about how Israel should approach Palestinians and Syrians. On Syria, Mr Barak believes Israel should seek a peace agreement, while Mr Lieberman has employed far more hostile rhetoric. Mr Barak believes a peace deal with Syria is achievable and would break Syria from Iran's influence. The key source of tension between Israel and Syria is the Golan Heights. Israel took the area in the 1967 war and has said the region is vital for its security as it looks over Syria and Lebanon. Syria wants the Golan back for several reasons, including that it is a major source of water.


Same Day
Lieberman calls for exchange of people
John Lyons

ISRAEL's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday raised the prospect of the transfer of large Arab towns in Israel into a newly established Palestinian state as the new Middle East peace talks entered their most sensitive week. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had so far avoided the issue, Mr Lieberman showed no such diplomatic caution, saying talks needed to deal not with the issue of land for peace "but an exchange of land and people". "This is a subject that we've run away from until now but we can't go on like this," Mr Lieberman said. "It's as if someone were selling you an apartment on the condition that his mother-in-law continue living there."

He was largely restating the policy that helped his party Yisrael Beiteinu become the third-largest party last February. Since then he has rarely discussed the policy, which critics — among both the 20 per cent Arab population in Israel and Jewish Israelis — brand as racist. Mr Lieberman insists no Arabs would lose their homes but boundaries would be redrawn so that towns with large Arab populations would become part of a new state while large Jewish settlements would become part of Israel.

Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman slammed Mr Lieberman: "The damage he is causing Israel in the world, and the delicate fabric between Jews and Arabs, is unbearable." Meanwhile, former prime minister Ehud Olmert has revealed that the US under George W. Bush had agreed to give 100,000 Palestinian refugees US citizenship. Speaking to promote his new autobiography, he also claimed Defence Minister Ehud Barak had undermined certain security operations for political reasons and was "perhaps the worst (PM) in the history of the country". Mr Barak described the claims as "pathetic statements".


Calls on Israel to extend freeze
The Australian
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NEW YORK: Israel is facing a new surge of calls to extend a freeze on Jewish settlements on the eve of a meeting of four key diplomatic players trying to boost fledgling Middle East peace talks. The UN and the European Union — which along with the US and Russia make up the diplomatic quartet on the Middle East — made the fresh calls yesterday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her quartet counterparts were to meet in New York overnight to discuss new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are threatened by the expiration at the end of the month of the settlement freeze.

In his meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres yesterday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated that the Palestinians "will not negotiate for a single day" if the 10-month moratorium lapses, sources close to Mr Abbas said. However, the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given no sign that it will continue the freeze.

Meanwhile, in his own talks with Mr Peres, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed the importance of extending the moratorium, a UN spokesman said. Mr Ban and Mr Peres "spoke of the need to maintain calm on the ground and to create an environment that is propitious" for the success of negotiations with the Palestinians, the spokesman said.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's chief diplomat, issued a similar appeal after talks with Mrs Clinton in a New York hotel. "It's clear that there is a momentum potentially within the talks," Ms Ashton said. "But there is also clarity that there is the need to extend the moratorium on settlements, in order that the talks can continue." The quartet meeting "will be the chance to review where we've got to, to look at how we can support the process going forward", Ms Ashton said. "For the EU that's about helping the Palestinian Authority to continue to build, to put in place the instruments" of a Palestinian state, she said.

The deadline for the end of Israel's freeze on settlement construction is widely accepted as September 26, exactly 10 months and a day after the original cabinet decision. But the Israeli military order regarding the moratorium states that it will only close at midnight on September 30.


Extract - Bomb kills 11 at Iran parade
The Australian
Thursday, September 23, 2010

TEHRAN: A bomb tore through a military parade in Iran yesterday, killing 11 people as the Islamic republic showcased its weaponry at events marking the start of the devastating Iran-Iraq war 30 years ago. Among the dead were the wives of two commanders, an official said, while medics reported 47 people wounded, 15 seriously. The bomb, placed just 50 metres from the podium at the parade in the ethnically Kurdish northwestern town of Mahabad in West Ajarbaijan province, exploded about 10.20am (4.50pm AEST). Western Iran has seen deadly clashes between the Iranian security forces and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, which operates from bases in neighbouring Iraq. Governor Vahid Jalalzadeh blamed the US and counter-revolutionaries for the attack.

The bombing came as Iran showed off its military hardware at anniversary parades across the country to commemorate the 1980-88 war with Iraq in which an estimated one million people died. The longer-range Sejil, Shahab-3 and Ghadr-1 missiles were the star attraction at the main parade in Tehran. The missiles, with a range of 1800km to 2000km, are capable of hitting Israel. Also on display were five of Iran's Karar unmanned bombers, which were unveiled in August and have a range of 1000km.

The US and Israel accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons and have not ruled out military action to prevent it acquiring them. Iran denies any such aim, and says its nuclear program is for energy. Iranian officials have vowed a crushing response in the event of an attack, targeting Israel and US bases in the region and the passage of oil through the Gulf. Speaking in New York on Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could spark a war with "no limits".

Iran is subject to four sets of UN sanctions over its failure to heed US-backed Security Council ultimatums to suspend uranium enrichment — the process that can produce the fuel for nuclear power stations or, in highly extended form, the fissile core of an atomic bomb. Russia's chief of general staff Nikolai Makarov said last night that Moscow had dropped plans to supply Iran with long-awaited S-300 missiles because of the UN sanctions. Israel and the US had strongly opposed delivery of the missile system because it would have made any strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities far more complicated.


Same Day
Blood if talks fail, Israeli general warns
John Lyons

ISRAEL'S military chief has warned of a resurgence of violence between Israelis and Palestinians if the new round of peace talks fails. Speaking days before the moratorium on Jewish settlement is due to expire on Sunday, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi told Israeli legislators yesterday that violence was not expected to reach the levels of the second intifada, which began in 2000. "If the talks with the Palestinians fail, we don't plan to find ourselves in a situation like in September 2000," he said. "The Palestinians are expecting the talks to progress and the settlers are abiding by the construction moratorium directive, but there is an expectation on their part for the freeze to end."

His comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to consider a referendum for any agreement in the talks. "It's clear to me that any agreement I secure would be presented to the people to decide, and there are several methods for that," Mr Netanyahu said. "Such decision requires a national verdict, and I therefore said I would consider it."

The push for a referendum reflects hardline Israeli concern Mr Netanyahu may be secretly agreeing to the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, then presenting it as a fait accompli. Even members of his cabinet have expressed anger they are not being briefed — but the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have asked for strict confidentiality on the talks. Mr Netanyahu would not give details when asked whether he would extend the freeze on Jewish settlements. But he restated his call for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.


Israel kicks back at lashing over flotilla
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Friday, September 24, 2010

ISRAEL has attacked a UN committee that found it acted with "an unacceptable level of brutality" and engaged in "wilful killing and torture" when its soldiers boarded a flotilla bound for Gaza in May. An inquiry for the UN Human Rights Council says Israel's actions "constituted grave violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law". It found there was clear evidence to support prosecutions against Israel.

Nine activists — eight Turks and an American Turk — were killed when Israeli commandos raided the flotilla which was in international waters bound for Gaza. Israel maintains its soldiers fired in self-defence after activists attacked them. Israel and Egypt have blockaded the Gaza Strip since 2007 when Hamas came to power. Israel called the report "biased, politicised and extremist".

The inquiry was conducted by international judges from Britain and Trinidad and a human rights campaigner from Malaysia. "Despite requests, the mission has not received any medical records or other substantiated information from the Israeli authorities regarding any firearm injuries sustained by soldiers," it said. "Further, the mission finds the Israeli accounts so inconsistent and contradictory with regard to evidence of alleged firearms injuries to Israeli soldiers that it has to reject it." The inquiry said forensic analysis showed two passengers killed on the top deck of the Mavi Marmara received "wounds compatible with being shot at close range while lying on the ground". "There is clear evidence to support prosecutions of the following crimes within the terms of article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: wilful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hailed the report as "extremely unbiased and based on sound evidence". "It meets our expectations," he told reporters in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. "I hope the Israeli side will . . . from now on act within international law."

Meanwhile, rioting broke out yesterday in East Jerusalem after a security guard for Jewish settlers shot dead a Palestinian man. Israeli police stormed the Temple Mount after Palestinians barricaded themselves in the al-Aqsa Mosque. The security guard said he had shot the man in self-defence after Palestinians surrounded his car and began throwing rocks at it. But Palestinians said the guard had re-enacted the shooting for police at three different locations in Silwan, proving he had chased the 32-year-old man before shooting. About 1000 people attended the man's funeral, during which an Israeli man was stabbed in the back, though not fatally.

The tensions come at a crucial point in the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The US has called on Israel to extend the settlement freeze that ends this Sunday, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said this will not happen. The Middle East Quartet, led by Tony Blair, this week joined the call for the freeze to be extended.

On the new UN report, Israel said last night that it had already established its own inquiry on the incident — the Turkel committee. "In view of all this, as well as the biased, politicised and extremist approach of the same Human Rights Council that had initiated the skewed Goldstone report, Israel sees no reason to co-operate with this commission," it said. The Goldstone report found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the Gaza war last year — a claim both reject.


Arabs 'must work for peace'
Weekend Australian
Brad Norington, New York
Saturday, September 25, 2010

BARACK Obama has called on Arab states to fall behind his bid for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and to "stop trying to tear Israel down". The President used his annual address to the US General Assembly yesterday to ask the strongest backers of a Palestinian state to do more to promote peace in the Middle East. "I know many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians," he said. "But these pledges of friendship must now be supported by deeds."

The comments by Mr Obama follow his attempt to renew the peace process this month with direct talks between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Apart from Israel's enemy Iran, Saudi Arabia and Arab states — other than Egypt and Jordan — have proved to be obstacles in the peace process. Mr Obama has set an ambitious 12-month timetable for achieving a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians after it has eluded a generation of his predecessors. There is still a strong risk that talks could collapse if Israel ends a moratorium on settlements in the West Bank, though there were reports last night that Israel was working on a compromise.

The President yesterday urged that those who spoke out for Palestinian self-government should help Mr Abbas's Palestinian Authority politically and financially. "And those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down," Mr Obama said. He reaffirmed Israel's existence as a sovereign state, saying it was the historic homeland of the Jewish people. "It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel's legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States. And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people," the President said. He praised Mr Abbas for standing up for his people before the world in difficult circumstances.

In his second address to the UN since becoming President, Mr Obama also took a tough line yesterday against Iran's rogue nuclear program, but declared the door was still open to diplomacy. After winning UN Security Council support for a range of economic sanctions, Mr Obama said: "Iran is the only party to the (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences." The President also made a case for democracy, urging freedom and openness as the foundation for human progress. Mr Obama's comments appeared geared towards repressive regimes including Iran and some African states but also appeared to contain oblique references to practices in China, which the US claims is a partner. The President said civil society was the conscience of communities, and declared that the US would "call out" those who suppressed ideas. "We will support a free and open internet, so individuals have the information to make up their own minds," he said. After the Bush administration's strained relationship with the UN, Mr Obama has pledged that the US will re-engage and work through its official authority and processes.


Same Day
US and Iran edging back to nuclear talks

US and Iranian leaders have signalled a new desire to revive talks to end the standoff over Tehran's nuclear aims, despite a US-led walkout. In separate speeches at the UN General Assembly yesterday, presidents Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said their governments were prepared for talks, four months after Washington obtained harsh new UN sanctions against Tehran. In an interview, Mr Ahmadinejad said the talks would probably begin in October. But he infuriated Washington when he suggested the US government was involved in 9/11. The US delegation led a Western walkout over remarks the EU called "outrageous and unacceptable". Mr Ahmadinejad said there was a theory "some segments within the US government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order to save the Zionist regime". He attacked Israel and accused the West of trying to monopolise nuclear arms power. Mr Obama, who had spoken before Mr Ahmadinejad, "found the comments to be outrageous and offensive, particularly given how close we are to Ground Zero", a US official said.

In his speech, Mr Obama sounded positive but cautious about Iran's nuclear program. "Let me be clear once more: the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it," Mr Obama said. "But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program," the US President said. Washington fears Iran's nuclear energy program masks a drive to build a nuclear weapon, while Iran insists it is for purely peaceful power purposes. In his speech, five hours after Mr Obama's, Mr Ahmadinejad said Iran had long been ready for negotiations and dismissed any suggestion Tehran was caving in to US pressure. "We have never submitted to illegally imposed pressures, nor will we ever do so," he said.

Palestinian and foreign activists struggle with Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Beit Omar. Source: AFP

Peace talks on verge of collapse
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: AFP
Monday, September 27, 2010

ISRAEL is bracing for a new round of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank as the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks hover on the brink of collapse. Key negotiators were attempting last night to find a way to prevent the new talks from collapsing only weeks after they resumed. Israel's security forces were on high alert in the West Bank and Jerusalem in case clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinian escalated. Hundreds of Israeli police have been stationed inside the Old City in Jerusalem and nearby Arab neighbourhoods.

An Israeli official told The Australian the possibility of violence in coming days was high because of the expectations of settlers who want the freeze on construction to end and Palestinians who want it to continue. "Over the next two or three days, there's a high probability that settlers will bring in bulldozers and clash with the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces), or settlers will clash with Palestinians, or Palestinians will hold demonstrations that could turn into clashes," said the official, who asked not to be named.

US, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were holding meetings in Washington, Jerusalem and Paris to try to ensure the talks continued beyond the end of Israel's freeze on building in Jewish settlements, due to expire overnight. Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak sounded a more optimistic note than many when he told the BBC the chances of a compromise on the settlement construction were "50-50" and the chance of a peace deal was "much higher".

But settlers invited the media to watch yesterday as they positioned bulldozers to resume the building that has been on hold for 10 months. As the clock ticked, the settlers planned a high-profile ceremony to lay the cornerstone for a new neighbourhood at Kiryat Netafim, in the Ariel settlement block in the northern West Bank. Thousands of right-wing activists from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party were to attend, before heading to the nearby Revava settlement for a countdown to the end of the ban.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas flew to Paris yesterday to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He had told the UN earlier that "Israel must choose between peace and the continuation of settlements" but appeared last night to be moderating his position that he would walk away from the talks if Israel resumed building. He told al-Hayat newspaper if the moratorium were not extended, he would consult the Arab League as well as his Fatah party. The US has urged Israel to extend the freeze but has also urged both sides to continue the talks.

The Jerusalem Post reported that a range of options was being considered by Israel. These included extending the moratorium by three months but excluding 2000 units whose permits had already been granted; allowing all building in the large settlements but limiting it to "public buildings and natural growth" in smaller settlements; or allowing building for housing in the large settlements but only public building in other settlements.

As many as 400,000 Jewish settlers are estimated to be living in settlements and outposts in the territories, which Palestinians say should form a Palestinian state. The settlements are illegal under international law but not under Israeli law. The outposts are illegal under Israeli law also. Clashes have been occurring since a security guard for a Jewish settlement in the Silwan neighbourhood shot dead a Palestinian man on Thursday, who he said was throwing rocks at him. Influential Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth yesterday that all three key players had erred in the current process — President Barack Obama by making the settlement freeze a demand that needed to be met in full, Mr Netanyahu by giving the construction freeze a timeframe, and Mr Abbas by withholding his consent for direct negotiations for a year.


Same Day
Hamas and Fatah on road to reconciliation

DAMASCUS: Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah say they have agreed on steps to end their division and share power, and will hold more talks before signing a final deal in Cairo. The deal came during a four-hour meeting at the weekend between two delegations headed by Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed. A joint statement issued after the talks said the two sides had reached an understanding on "the majority of points of difference". It gave no details, but the sides have differed over control of Palestinian security forces and the date for parliamentary and presidential elections.

They have been bitterly divided since Hamas militants violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in control only of the West Bank. Reconciliation between the Palestinian factions is important because Mr Abbas's Palestinian Authority needs a unanimous stance to back its newly begun peace talks with Israel. The militants of Hamas oppose peace with Israel and have threatened to spoil the talks with violence.

Hamas official Izzat Rashaq said the next meeting was expected during the first week of next month. The two groups will then travel to Cairo to sign a reconciliation agreement. That step would clear the way for new Palestinian elections. Egypt has been trying to reconcile the rivals and hosted several rounds of power-sharing talks in Cairo last year.

A construction site in the Jewish settlement of Beitar Ilit outside
Jerusalem, where building was set to resume at midnight after Israel
decided to end its freeze. Picture: AP Source: The Australian

Israel snubs US settlements plea
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

ISRAEL has refused requests by the US, the EU and the Middle East quartet to extend the freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, leaving recently resumed Middle East peace talks struggling. Shortly after sunrise, bulldozers and other heavy machinery lumbered into action at a handful of small settlements across the West Bank. Earthmovers were hard at work in the settlement of Adam, north of Jerusalem, where about 30 homes are due to be built.

Despite last-minute efforts by the US to strike a compromise and calls in the lead-up from quartet special envoy Tony Blair, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended the 10-month freeze at midnight (8am AEST). Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded angrily, saying: "Without freezing the settlements, the entire negotiations are just a waste of time." But Mr Abbas did not make an immediate decision on whether to continue the talks, saying he would consult the Arab League in Cairo next Monday. "We are in continuous contact with the US administration and US efforts are continuing, but we are waiting for a final Israeli position so that we can form a clear and final response," said spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina before Mr Abbas met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.

The US was desperately trying to broker a compromise that Mr Abbas could take to the Arab League, under which the freeze would be extended for up to two months. "We remain in close touch with both parties and will be meeting with them again in the coming days," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Mr Netanyahu called on the settlers to show "restraint" as Israeli forces remained on alert in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Tensions are already high — civil rights groups in Israel are demanding an inquiry into whether teargas fired by Israeli police for two days in the Silwan area of Jerusalem last week caused the death of an asthmatic one-year-old Palestinian baby. The riots broke out after the security guard of a Jewish settlement in the area shot dead a 32-year-old Palestinian man the guard claimed had been throwing rocks at him. Separately, the third drive-by attack in a month was made on a car with Jewish settlers driving in the West Bank. The first attack, for which Hamas claimed responsibility, killed four Jewish settlers. One of those in the car last night was a pregnant woman who was taken to hospital, where she gave birth.

Although Mr Netanyahu instructed his ministers not to give interviews about the end of the settlement freeze, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz announced a fund of 20 million shekels ($5.7m) to upgrade the road from the settlement of Hebron to that of Kiryat Arba. The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said the US was working on a deal under which Israel would extend the freeze for up to two months, during which time it was hoped Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas could agree on the borders of a Palestinian state. Building could then resume in the settlements that remained part of Israel. In return, US President Barack Obama would promise Washington would not seek another extension and would give Israel a letter guaranteeing its security. And he would give the Palestinians a letter of commitment to support a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with land swaps.


Same Day
Holocaust survivor joins flotilla to run Israel's blockade

FAMAGUSTA, CYPRUS: A boat carrying eight Jewish activists from Israel, Europe and the US left Cyprus yesterday bound for Gaza, in a bid to run Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory. Holocaust survivor Reuven Moskovitz, an 82-year-old passenger on the Irene, said he felt duty-bound to attempt the voyage. "It is a sacred duty for me, as a survivor, to protest against the persecution, the oppression and the imprisonment of so many people in Gaza, including more than 800,000 children," Mr Moskovitz said. "The state of Israel was a big dream, and it has become reality. We have to make sure it does not become a nightmare. I still believe I have a right to be here, but not to rob Palestinians from their land and steal the rights of 1.5 million people."

Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli former military pilot and crew member on the British-flagged boat, said they were not seeking confrontation. "We have a policy of non-violence and non-confrontation. If the Israeli army stops the boat, we will not help them to take it to Ashdod," the southern Israeli port where other blockade runners have been taken. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has repeatedly warned that Israel will intercept any ship nearing Gaza, which is run by the Islamist group Hamas. In May, Israeli forces intercepted a six-ship flotilla heading for Gaza but the raid went badly wrong and nine Turkish activists were killed. Last week, a UN Human Rights Council report concluded there were grounds for prosecutions against Israel.

A statement from the organisers, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, said the cargo included symbolic aid in the form of children's toys, textbooks, fishing nets and prosthetic limbs. Organiser Richard Kuper, said the boat was to show that not all Jews supported Israeli government policy. Activist Rami Elhanan, who lost his daughter in a 1997 suicide bombing, said: "We are banging our head on a very hard wall of hatred. Our hope is to make little cracks on that wall, so that in the end it will fall."


Abbas urges freeze during talks
The Australian
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

PARIS: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas says Israel should impose a new moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank for as long as peace talks continue. Mr Abbas said yesterday Israel's decision to allow the construction freeze to expire endangered the Middle East peace process. "We demand a moratorium for as long as there are negotiations, because (while) there are negotiations there is hope," he told a French radio station. He has said the Palestinians will give their official response to the end of the freeze next week once he has met the Palestinian executive and representatives of major Arab governments.

The US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was heading to Israel last night to rescue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks brought to the brink of collapse by the resumption of West Bank settlement building. His trip follows talks by telephone between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley described the talks as "very significant, very detailed, very direct". He said the discussions centred on the expiry on Sunday of the 10-month moratorium on building new settler homes in the West Bank. "The Prime Minister understands what our policies are. We understand his ongoing political difficulties," he said. "We believe he's sincerely interested in the process (and) recognises its importance."

Mr Netanyahu's refusal to renew the moratorium has drawn widespread international criticism, including from the US, Britain, the European Union, France and the UN. As bulldozers across the West Bank roared to life on Monday, Mr Abbas said he would consult his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organisation this week and meet with Arab foreign ministers on Monday. The Palestinians have called on Israel to extend the moratorium for up to four months so the sides can reach an agreement on final borders that would clarify where Israel can keep building.

Mr Netanyahu has refused to renew the partial freeze, urging Mr Abbas to stick with the talks. Hardline Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Palestinian negotiators had "wasted time" during the settlement moratorium, but added it was important to "keep the political process alive". For "nine months the Palestinians wasted time and completely refused to accept this gesture and accused Israel that it's a fraud, it's not serious," Mr Lieberman said after meeting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "And today they are exerting pressure to maintain the same moratorium that they previously rejected."

Hamas, which rules Gaza, called on Mr Abbas to stand by his threat to end the negotiations, which the Islamist movement has always rejected.

Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas chairs the start of a meeting
with the PLO and Fatah leadership. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

Mid-East talks on brink of collapse
The Australian
Wall Street Journal, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

RAMALLAH: Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appeared on the brink of collapse Saturday after the Palestinian leadership ruled out further negotiations until Israel halts building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"The leadership confirms that the resumption of talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after the three hour meeting of about 35 top-ranking Palestinian officials, representing the leadership of both the Palestine Liberation Organization, an umbrella body including most Palestinian political factions, and the Fatah Central Committee, the top decision-making body of Mr. Abbas's party. "The Palestinian leadership holds Israel responsible for obstructing the negotiations," Mr. Abed Rabbo added. The PLO said in a statement: "The Palesinian leadership holds the Israeli government responsible for foiling the international efforts and the peace process in the region because it is determined to combine negotiations with settlements."

Still, Palestinian officials stopped short of announcing their withdrawal from all further talks. That final decision will probably be made only after a meeting of the Arab League planned for Friday in Libya. Meanwhile, White House peace envoy George Mitchell is pressing on with a regional tour to broker a last minute agreement to save the talks. Mr. Mitchell left Israel for Egypt over the weekend, following several days of talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders that failed to produce a breakthrough. "Peace in the region and an independent viable state for the Palestinian people realistically will be achieved through direct negotiations between both parties," he said. "Both parties … have asked us to continue our discussions with them and with other interested governments on how best to achieve this goal."

Israeli officials appeared to hold out hope a compromise was still possible to salvage the four-week-old direct talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement late Saturday night calling on Mr. Abbas not to quit the peace talks. "For 17 years, the Palestinians negotiated while construction continued" in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, he said, and expressed the hope "that they will not now turn their backs on peace." "The way to achieve an historic peace agreement between our two nations is to sit around the negotiating table, seriously and continuously, and not to leave it, because that is the place where the divisions between us will be resolved," Mr. Netanyahu said. But he said nothing to suggest he might be willing to accept Palestinian demands he extend the restrictions on building new settlements. He pointed out that peace negotiations between the two sides have historically always continued despite continuing construction in Jewish settlements.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said in a statement her centrist Kadima Party would support Mr. Netanyahu if he took the necessary decisions to save the peace talks and his pro-settlement coalition fell apart as a result. "Netanyahu must choose to act in the real, long-term interest of Israel (rather) than in his own personal political interest," Ms. Livni said.

The Palestinians have long viewed the presence of about 500,000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements across the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem as an obstacle to the establishment of a viable state. The international community considers all the settlements illegal.


Ill-timed oath may torpedo talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, October 8, 2010

ISRAEL'S Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the Right of Israel's cabinet have achieved a major victory by gaining support for changing the oath of allegiance from pledging loyalty to "the state of Israel" to "a Jewish and democratic state". Despite warnings from some ministers and reservations of his own, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed yesterday to the new oath.

The move was hailed by Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, but opposition party Kadima and coalition partner Labour joined Arab members of the Knesset in condemnation. The minister responsible for Israel's Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the population, Labour's Avishay Braverman, warned: "This is an infuriating, irresponsible decision which will only fuel the fires of delegitimisation against Israel worldwide. This decision will bear no benefits for Israel. All it does is send a negative message to Arab citizens."

The law will apply only to non-Jews; it will not apply to Jews who migrate under Israel's Law of Return or to people who have citizenship. It would apply most often to Palestinians from the West Bank who marry Israeli Arabs. The move comes at a sensitive time as the US tries to convince Palestinians to continue peace talks after Israel decided it would not continue the freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Kadima's Nahman Shai said: "Netanyahu apparently wants to torpedo direct talks with the Palestinians and lose the trust of Israeli Arabs." Former Jewish Agency head and now Kadima member Zeev Bielski said the move was "sad" and "stems from the need to please radical coalitional elements". Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi said the move would "sanction discrimination against Arabs" and would deepen "the exclusion and deprivation of the Arab minority".

It appears Mr Netanyahu had promised Mr Lieberman support for the oath when trying to convince Yisrael Beiteinu to help him form government last March. Yisrael Beiteinu said yesterday: "Every citizen is obliged to preserve Israel as a Jewish democratic state — all the more so an individual who is not a citizen but desires to become one."

Last July, Mr Netanyahu rejected a form of words virtually identical to the one he agreed to yesterday, and suggested a pledge to "the nation state of the Jewish people which grants full equality to all its citizens".

The decision comes as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians grow; Jewish settlers are believed responsible for attacking a mosque in the West Bank, burning Korans and spray-painting words in Hebrew. This week, a video was posted on YouTube of an Israeli soldier performing a belly dance around a blindfolded Palestinian woman. Last month, there was an international backlash after another video showed an Israeli soldier posing for photographs in front of blindfolded Palestinian men.

Yesterday, Israel's Environment Protection Minister, Gilad Erdan, announced he would consider preventing a new Palestinian city if he was not satisfied with its environmental standards. Jewish settlers have begun a campaign to have construction of the city stopped. Mr Erdan said: "We have a situation where one side (settlers) can't build a single room … but the other side (Palestinians) can build 4000 apartments in a city that perhaps doesn't have to be built in the first place."


Bibi uses vote to pursue limits on settlements
Weekend Australian
Charles Levinson, The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, October 9, 2010

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to put a controversial loyalty oath law to a cabinet vote on Sunday, a surprise move that appears to be aimed at securing the support of his coalition for an extension of restrictions on Jewish building in West Bank settlements.

In another strategic move that may be related to settlements, Israeli defence officials have signed a $US2.75 billion ($2.79bn) deal to buy 20 latest-generation F-35 fighter jets from the US. The deal has long been in the works, but the timing suggested it may be aimed at swaying Mr Netanyahu to extend the building restrictions. The US has offered Israel security guarantees and a package of other enticements in exchange for a freeze extension, but Mr Netanyahu has so far refused.

The fate of Israeli-Palestinian direct peace talks appears to hang on an extension of the 10-month moratorium that expired last week. The 23-member Arab League was expected to vote on whether to support the talks in a meeting in Libya overnight (Friday their time). Palestinian officials said they expected the league to stop short of voting to torpedo the talks and instead to leave the door open for peace talks to resume if Israel agreed to suspend settlement building down the road. Palestinian leaders refuse to resume direct peace talks while settlement building continues on land they claim for their future state. "There will be no serious political process while Netanyahu's government pursues settlements," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Palestine Radio. "I can go further still and say that there will be no serious political process with Netanyahu's government."

The right-of-center pro-settlement parties that dominate Mr Netanyahu's coalition say they won't support another building moratorium. Among the most outspoken opponents of any further restrictions on building is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu Party, the second-largest party in Mr Netanyahu's coalition. Mr. Lieberman is a leading proponent of the bill to amend the citizenship oath. The proposed law, which will be sent to the Knesset for a final vote after the cabinet vote tomorrow, would require non-Jewish immigrants to swear loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish and Democratic state".

The Labor Party, which is the lone left-of-centre coalition member, human rights groups and representatives of Israel's Palestinian minority oppose the law. They call it racist and undemocratic and say it singles out Israel's Palestinian citizens and forces them to pledge allegiance to a Zionist ideology that many reject. "This is another way to impose political Zionist values on the Arab minority who do not have such values," said Israeli human rights lawyer Sawsan Zaher.

Labor Party officials speculated that the move was aimed either at securing Mr Lieberman's support for a freeze extension, or at shoring up Mr Netanyahu's support on the Right. A source close to the Foreign Minister said the oath was irrelevant to whether Mr Lieberman would come to support a renewed freeze. "The Foreign Minister's position remains not to extend the freeze. If that changes and they work some agreement, it will not be because of this law," the source said. Spokesman Mark Regev said the bill reflected only Mr Netanyahu's demands that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state as part of any final peace deal.


Abbas turns to Arab leaders
The Australian
Monday, October 11, 2010

SIRTE, LIBYA: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sought Arab backing for fallback options in case troubled peace talks with Israel collapse, including urging the US to unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state. Yesterday, the Obama administration was still trying to salvage the negotiations.

The Arab League, meeting in Libya over the weekend, gave the Americans another month — just past mid-term elections in the US — to try to break the deadlock over Israeli settlement expansion. Mr Abbas has said he would not resume negotiations unless Israel extends the freeze on settlement construction that ended last month. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected an extension, but is considering compromises. The Palestinian leader's options appear limited. Discussions about alternatives, including at the Arab League summit, appear to be largely aimed at pressuring Israel and spurring the US into action. Mr Abbas told Arab leaders he did not expect Israel to budge on the settlement issue and that, in the meantime, opposition to continuing the talks was building among the Palestinians.

Abbas aide Nabil Shaath said the Palestinian leaders had withdrawn their support for a proposed US compromise to extend the settlement curb for 60 days. Mr Shaath said last week the Palestinians were willing to consider the idea, provided the final borders were negotiated within that period. "We are not willing anymore to consider 60 days," he said in Ramallah yesterday. "When you see nothing but hardened positions, you really have to meet it with the same tactic."

In recent months, some of Mr Abbas's advisers have floated the idea of asking the UN Security Council for a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. But Arab League undersecretary-general Ahmed bin Helli said Arab leaders preferred instead to give the US more time to try to rescue the negotiations.


Same Day
Portraying Palestinians as victims who can do no wrong is one-eyed
Benny Morris

First published in Haaretz Sep 29, 2010

CHRISTOPHER Hitchens, one of the most important journalists in the English-speaking world, is of two minds about the Islamic Arab world. Or, rather, for him it is divided in two — the Palestinians and all the rest. About "the rest" he is fairly clear (as in his just published book, Hitch-22: A Memoir): It is a world riddled by corruption, violence and brutal autocracy, gradually falling into the grip of a nihilistic or medieval Islamism that is challenging the core values of the West — liberalism, democracy, tolerance and equal rights for women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

Hitchens broke ranks with his leftist colleagues and famously supported both of the Gulf wars: in 1991 and 2003. He has condemned the Sudanese Arabs for murdering their Christian and animist kinsmen in southern Sudan and in Darfur, and the Iraqi Arabs (and Muslim Turks) for killing and oppressing the Kurds. Indeed, he has written books on the Kurdish struggle for independence and on Cyprus, in which he was critical of the 1974 Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing of the northern third of the island. Most recently, Hitchens has expressed sympathy for a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities (calling it an act of self-defence).

Yet he still has a soft and blind spot for the Palestinians, who can apparently do no or little wrong (similar to the attitude of Western leftists towards the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, despite their occasional massacres of Catholics, the internal purges by communists of liberals and POUM supporters, etc).

In Hitch-22, Hitchens approvingly cites (and expands) a metaphor coined (I think) by Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic: a man (the Zionist Jew), to save himself, leaps from a burning building (in anti-Semitic and Holocaust Europe) and lands on an innocent bystander (a Palestinian), crushing him. To which Hitchens adds — and the falling man lands on the Palestinian again and again (the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, the suppression of the intifadas, the construction of settlements in the territories, etc). But the metaphor is disingenuous, and it requires amplification to conform to the facts of history.

In fact, as the leaping man nears the ground he offers the bystander a compromise — let's share the pavement, some for you, some for me. The bystander responds with a firm "no" and tries, again and again (1920, 1921, 1929, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and the 1947-48 War of Independence), to stab the falling man as he descends to the pavement.

So the leaping man lands on the bystander, crushing him. Later, again and again, the leaping man, now firmly ensconced on the pavement, offers the crushed bystander a compromise ("autonomy" in 1978, a "two-state solution" in 2000 and in 2008), and again and again the bystander says "no". The falling man may have somewhat wronged the bystander, but the bystander was never an innocent one; he was an active agent in and a party to his own demise.

In Hitch-22, this is somehow omitted. Rather, the often-enlightened Hitchens (who provided a roof and haven for his friend Salman Rushdie when he was under an Islamist death sentence, and who speaks quite forthrightly about "Islamist murderers" and cowardly, naive or deluded Western liberals bent on appeasing these "murderers"), fails to note the continuous, powerful religious impulse underlying the Palestinian national struggle since its inception in the 1920s. (What other national liberation movement in modern times, with the exception of that of the Greek Cypriots, was led by a cleric ') Who, if not the Islamists, won the Palestinian general elections in 2006 '

Moreover, throughout Hitchens seems to accept the Palestinians' definition of themselves as "natives" struggling against an "imperialist" foreign enemy. But what of Jewish residence in the Land of Israel between the 12th century BC and the late Byzantine period (5th and 6th centuries AD) ' And what of Jewish residence and "nativeness" in Palestine since 1882, nearly 130 years ago ' If residence grants rights, surely Jewish residence counterbalances Arab residence in Palestine since 636AD. And if it is conquest that affords a claim to territory, then how is the Arab conquest in the 7th century, by blood and fire, any more morally cogent than the Jewish conquests of 1200 BC or 1948/1967 ' Hitchens needs to take a long, hard look at Palestinian history and at the nature, behaviour and aims of the Palestinian national movement.


"I declare that I will be a loyal citizen to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and I obligate myself to respecting its laws" - the new wording of Israel's citizenship and entry law, as amended and passed by the country's cabinet on Sunday.

Israelis split on oath of loyalty
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The approval by Israel's cabinet of a new Jewish loyalty oath has unleashed fierce debate in the country, with supporters saying the oath is a reflection of the state of Israel, and critics saying it is a racist measure that will alienate the country's 20 per cent Arab population and damage Israel internationally. The approval of the new oath by 22 votes to eight was a victory for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose party, Yisrael Beiteinu, had made the oath part of its election campaign last year. The oath will now go before the Knesset for approval.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to change the wording of the oath but yesterday he agreed to the expression pushed by Mr Lieberman, which means all non-Jews who want to become citizens must now pledge loyalty to Israel as "a Jewish, democratic" state. The oath will not apply to Jews who migrate to Israel nor affect current citizens, including Israeli Arabs. It is expected mainly to affect Palestinians living in the West Bank who want to marry Palestinians who live in Israel, known by the Israeli government as Israeli Arabs. Mr Netanyahu said after the vote: "Democracy is the soul of Israel and we cannot do without it. No one can preach democracy or enlightenment to us. Zionism established an exemplary national state, a state that balances between the national needs of our people and the individual rights of every citizen."

Another supporter of the new oath, Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union party, said the approval vindicated Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose party, Kach, was banned by Israel for its racist views against Arabs. "Twenty years have passed since the assassination of Rabbi Kahane and today Likud admits he was right," Mr Ben-Ari said. "It's a refreshing change to see the Likud government, which persecuted the rabbi over his call to have Arabs sign a loyalty oath, admit today that what Kahane said 20 years ago was correct."

All five Labour Party ministers, including leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, voted against the oath, as did Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan from Likud. Mr Barak said: "Critics of the bill fear it embodies ulterior motives destined to be aimed against new citizens who are not Jewish, like Arabs, and that it will be used as a tool for … racism." Minority Affairs Minister, Labour's Avishay Braverman, said Mr Netanyahu had supported the bill to appease the hardline Mr Lieberman. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said: "We have seen today politics at its worst. The sensitive issue of Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state has become subject to political horse-trading."


Middle East peace talks close to collapse over 'Jewish state' controversy
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

THE Middle East peace talks were in danger of collapse last night after Palestinians ruled out acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state in return for an extended freeze on West Bank construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, that if Palestinians agreed to recognise a Jewish state, he would ask his ministers to endorse another "limited construction hiatus".

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority "forcefully rejects all these Israeli games". "The racist demands of Netanyahu cannot be tied to the request to cease building in the settlements for the purpose of establishing a state," he said. Another Palestinian negotiator, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, said: "Our position is clear — we recognise the state of Israel … as for the issue of Israel's Jewishness, we have nothing to do with this matter."

Mr Netanyahu's move came a day after Israel's cabinet approved a change of oath of allegiance for new citizens from loyalty to the state of Israel to a "Jewish and democratic state." Politically, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas would have difficulty acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state because of the 1.5 million Palestinians, known as Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of Israel's population. The vote to change the oath has sparked an emotional debate inside Israel with claims it is racist. Eight members of cabinet — all five Labor ministers, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak and three members of Likud — voted against the oath. The Minister for Minority Affairs, Avishay Braverman, said: "(Israel's first PM) David Ben-Gurion would be turning over in his grave if he saw this stain on Israel."

The oath was pushed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday: "There is no doubt that such a move by the Palestinian Authority would serve as a confidence-building step, one that would open up a new horizon of hope and trust among broad sections of the Israeli public who, in light of the events of the past decade, have lost their confidence in the Palestinians' desire to end the conflict." President Shimon Peres said: "There are sceptics among us and externally, also among our friends, who argue that there is a contradiction between a two-state solution and continued settlement construction. "I believe the correct conclusion is to move quickly to an agreed map."

Much of the reaction in the Israeli media to Mr Netanyahu's call for Palestinians to recognise a Jewish state suggested he was attempting to ensure Palestinians would be blamed for any collapse in talks.


Ahmadinejad's visit divides the Lebanese
The Australian
Thursday, October 14, 2010

BEIRUT: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been welcomed by thousands of Lebanese — mostly Hezbollah supporters — in a visit that underscores the deep divisions between the Shia militant group and the country's pro-Western factions. Mr Ahmadinejad is making his first state visit to Lebanon at a time when tensions have mounted between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and US-backed parties. The growing crisis has raised fears over the fate of the fragile unity government that includes both sides and has managed to keep a tenuous calm in the conflict-torn nation.

Hezbollah's opponents in Lebanon often brand it a tool of Iran and fear the movement — which boasts widespread support among Shi'ites and has the country's strongest armed force — is seeking to impose control over the country. Hezbollah and its allies, in turn, say their political rivals are steering Lebanon too far into the US camp. The visit by the leader of Hezbollah's most powerful ally, Iran, throws Lebanon's divisions into sharp relief.

Thousands of Lebanese lined the main highway into the capital from Beirut's airport, where Mr Ahmadinejad arrived. Many waved Lebanese and Iranian flags, and giant posters of the President towered over the road, while loudspeakers blasted anthems and women in the crowd sold Hezbollah flags and balloons to onlookers. The crowd broke into cheers and threw sweets as the motorcade slowly passed, and Mr Ahmadinejad stood and waved from the sunroof of his SUV.

But Hezbollah's rivals expressed concern over the message sent by the Iranian leader's visit. A group of 250 politicians, lawyers and activists sent an open letter to Mr Ahmadinejad, criticising Tehran's backing of Hezbollah and expressing worry Iran was looking to drag Lebanon into a war with Israel. Iran funds the group to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed to provide much of its arsenal. "One group in Lebanon draws power from you … and has wielded it over another group and the state," the letter said, addressing Mr Ahmadinejad. "Your talk of 'changing the face of the region starting with Lebanon' and 'wiping Israel off the map through the force of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon' … makes it seem like your visit is that of a high commander to his front line," it said.


Fighting words excite crowds
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Friday, October 15, 2010

TENSIONS between Israel and Iran heightened last night as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad headed for the Israeli border after declaring Israel a "fabricated regime" and Lebanon a "university for jihad". The Iranian President received a rapturous welcome on his first visit to Israel's neighbour Lebanon as he toured strongholds of the militant organisation Hezbollah. "Lebanon is an example and school for unwavering resistance to the world's tyrants and a university for jihad," he told a rally.

The visit was condemned by the US and had Israel on military alert on its northern border, where only weeks ago there was a firefight between Israeli and Lebanese troops. Washington and other Western countries called on the Iranian leader not to tour the border area. Mr Ahmadinejad was planning to visit two towns there that had been bombed by Israel during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the visit as "provocative". "I think it suggests that Hezbollah values its allegiance to Iran over its allegiance to Lebanon," he said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "We reject any efforts to destabilise or inflame tensions within Lebanon. We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country."

The most sensitive part of the tour was a planned overnight visit to two Shia villages near the Israeli border, Bint Jbeil, which Hezbollah calls "the capital of resistance", and Kfar Kana. Both were bombed by Israel in the 2006 war with Hezbollah and rebuilt with Iranian money. Early reports had suggested Mr Ahmadinejad was planning to throw rocks across the border but Lebanese media later reported that this was not likely to happen.

Although Mr Ahmadinejad received a rousing reception in Hezbollah areas, elements of Lebanon's majority pro-Western alliance of Prime Minister Saad Hariri were known to be uneasy with the visit. The group, known as the March 14 Alliance, holds the parliamentary majority. But under an agreement made in Doha in 2008, as long as Hezbollah can deliver support from one-third of the parliament, it has a power to veto legislation. This means Mr Hariri, aligned with Iran's rival Saudi Arabia, is trying to govern with the knowledge that Hezbollah can veto any proposed changes. While Mr Hariri yesterday met Mr Ahmadinejad, he is known to be concerned the visit may set off tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Two years ago, Hezbollah fighters took to the streets to oppose changes proposed, then abandoned, by the government.

Mr Ahmadinejad told a rally: "The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them … we will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime. "(Israel) feels it has reached a dead end and may stage new treacherous acts to rescue its existence and to create opportunities for itself. I announce here and now that any new treacherous act will merely shorten this fabricated regime's disgraceful life."


Israel 'destined to disappear'
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AP, AFP
Saturday, October 16, 2010

IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has travelled within 4km of Israel to tell a rally of Lebanese supporters in the south of Lebanon Israel was "destined to disappear". In an address to supporters of the militant Shia group Hezbollah, Mr Ahmadinejad declared "Defeat to the Zionists" as Israeli helicopter gunships patrolled Israeli airspace nearby. "The occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin," he said. Mr Ahmadinejad was in the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbail, which was bombed by Israel and rebuilt by Hezbollah. "You are Lebanon's first line of defence, you are heroes, you are those who protect Lebanon's independence," he said.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah did not appear. Convinced Israel will try to assassinate him, he rarely appears in public. Sheik Nasrallah met Mr Ahmadinejad later and presented him with a gun reportedly seized from an Israeli soldier during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. "The Zionists planned to destroy this community (Bint Jbail) but it stood strong against the occupiers," Mr Ahmadinejad said. "The entire world should know that the Zionists are destined to disappear from the world, while Bint Jbail will remain alive. And the sons of Bint Jbail will know how to defeat the Zionist enemy."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the formation of the state of Israel answered the comments. "The best response to the hateful verbal aggression from across the border was given here 62 years ago," he said. The Jerusalem Post quoted him saying: "Unfortunately, Lebanon is quickly turning into an extension of the Iranian ayatollah regime. This is a tragedy for Lebanon, but Israel knows how to protect itself from this development."

Earlier, Mr Ahmadinejad met Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The new pro-Western leader is close to Saudi Arabia, one of Iran's rivals. Mr Hariri won last year's election against the Hezbollah-led opposition but resigned later after he decided it would not be possible to run a government in which Hezbollah had so much influence. He flew to Saudi Arabia, where he was convinced to try to manage that influence. One of the issues Mr Ahmadinejad discussed with him was the international tribunal into the 2005 assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal, due to report in December, may implicate officials of Hezbollah. Hezbollah — the Party of God — and Iran are known to be concerned about this, and observers say such a finding could unleash new violence. Mr Ahmadinejad announced a $US450 million ($452m) loan for water infrastructure, putting Lebanon in the unusual situation of receiving funds from Iran and the US, which contributes $US100m to Lebanon's army. The US congress wants to review this.


Same Day
Peace efforts suffer as Netanyahu approves new settler homes

JERUSALEM: Israel has unveiled plans for more than 230 new homes for Jewish settlers in Arab east Jerusalem, it was reported yesterday, in a move likely to damage US attempts to revive the peace process. The move to build about 240 new housing units in the Jewish settlement areas of Pisgat Zeev and Ramot, was approved late on Thursday, local time, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ynet news website reported yesterday. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are facing collapse in the face of the dispute about settlement building on occupied land, which Israel restarted on September 26 after its freeze expired. Although the 10-month freeze did not cover construction in Arab east Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu had quietly avoided approving any such projects in order to avoid the political fallout, Ynet said.

Settlement watchdog Peace Now said the announcement was likely to further damage efforts to salvage peace negotiations, already on the rocks over settlement building. "The fact is that someone — either the Housing Minister or the Prime Minister — is trying to make a point: they want to make it harder on peace efforts," said Peace Now's Hagit Ofran. "Such a decision is going to be a problem for the continuation of the talks, and this is exactly what they were trying to achieve." Ms Ofran said it was the first time such a plan had been approved since March, when Israel gave the green light to plans for the construction of 1600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden, prompting a crisis in relations with Washington.

Israel captured Arab east Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 and annexed it shortly afterwards in a move not recognised by the international community or the Palestinians, who consider it the capital of their promised state. The Palestinians see the Israeli settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel's peace intentions.

Young Palestinians in Arab East Jerusalem near a tent set up to
protest against Israeli plans to destroy 22 homes to make way for
a tourist park in the area. Picture: AFP Source: The Australian

Abbas to cede historic claims
The Australian
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK: The Palestinians were ready to end all historic claims against Israel once they established their state in the lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Sunday, addressing a long-standing Israeli demand. In an interview with Israel TV, Mr Abbas also said negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained his preferred choice, but that he would consider other options if talks broke down over Israel's continued settlement expansion. He warned against a rise in extremism if the peace process failed. "Desperation will feed extremism," he said, adding that he hoped US efforts to end a deadlock in peace talks would succeed.

But Mr Abbas also reaffirmed that the Palestinians did not have to recognise Israel as a "Jewish state" as demanded by Mr Netanyahu in return for a possible settlement halt. He said the Palestine Liberation Organisation had recognised Israel's right to exist in 1993 in the Oslo accords, and that it was not up to the Palestinians to determine the nature of the state. "It's enough that we have recognised Israel … but do not ask us to recognise it as a Jewish state," he said. "Every day you (Israel) come up with a new demand. It's enough."

Negotiations were relaunched by the Obama administration last month but quickly faltered over Israel's refusal to extend a curb on Jewish settlement construction. Mr Abbas has said there is no point negotiating as long as settlements take over more land claimed by the Palestinians. The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967. Israel has withdrawn from Gaza but about half a million Israelis have settled in the other war-won areas. A 10-month-old moratorium on West Bank housing starts expired late last month and Mr Abbas has said he will not return to negotiations without an extension.

"When (President Barack) Obama came to power, he is the one who announced that settlement activity must be stopped," Mr Abbas said. "If America says it and Europe says it and the whole world says it, you want me not to say it ?" However, in an apparent attempt to reach out to Israeli public opinion, Mr Abbas said that once the Palestinians had established their state in the 1967 borders, "there is another important thing to end … and we are ready for that, to end the historic demands". He did not elaborate on which demands he was relinquishing — but traditionally Palestinians have demanded the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands in Israeli territory.

Asked about options if talks collapsed, Mr Abbas said the Palestinians might turn to the UN Security Council to seek recognition of their state. "All the options are open, but we don't want to use all of them right now. We are focusing on resuming direct talks," he said.

Mr Abbas said that since the start of negotiations, he had spent about 25 hours talking to Mr Netanyahu directly, and that they spoke freely. He said that when he appealed to the Israeli Prime Minister to halt settlement building, the Israeli leader told him that his government would fall. Mr Netanyahu heads a precarious centre-right coalition with several pro-settlement parties. Mr Abbas said that for the time being, he had not considered resigning or dissolving the Palestinian Authority.


Same Day
Israel restarts talks on prisoners

JERUSALEM: Israel has resumed indirect talks with the Hamas rulers of Gaza on swapping hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for a captive soldier held for more than four years. Hamas-linked militants captured Sergeant Gilad Shalit in a June 2006 raid across the Gaza-Israeli border. He has received no outside visitors, and little is known about his whereabouts or condition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the German mediator who has been working to broker a deal to bring home the soldier for about a year has returned to the region. "We are operating at all times, in different and various ways to bring him back. One of these ways, even the main way, is this negotiation, which resumed a few weeks ago," Mr Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio.

Secret negotiations over a swap, mediated by Egypt and more recently by Germany, have repeatedly broken down, and talks have been stalled for months. Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, has no official relations with the nation. Deals proposed in the past would have entailed Israel swapping about 1000 Palestinian prisoners for Sergeant Shalit.

The most recent talks broke down over Israel's refusal to release a number of prisoners who carried out deadly attacks on civilians. Hamas insists these prisoners be part of any deal. Last October, Hamas released a short video of the soldier that appeared to show him in good health. Before that, the only signs he was still alive were three letters and an audiotape.


Extract - Saudis up in arms over Iran
The Australian
Adam Entous, Wall Street Journal
Friday, October 22, 2010

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration has notified Congress of its biggest arms deal — the planned sale to Saudi Arabia of up to $US60 billion ($61.1bn) in military aircraft, including F-15s equipped with bunker-buster bombs — as part of an effort to contain Iran. The package "supports our wider regional security goals in the Gulf" without undercutting ally Israel's military edge, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro said yesterday. "We want to make sure that they have the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves," he said of Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally.

The package includes upgraded attack helicopters that US officials say could be used by the Saudis to bolster border security with Yemen — home to an al-Qa'ida affiliate of concern to the US — and protect oil installations.

New York Democrat Anthony Weiner — a leading critic of arms sales to the Saudis — accused the administration of trying to slip the Saudi deal through Congress while legislators were in recess. "It's bad policy that now is further tainted by a shameful process," he said. "This deal would destabilize the Middle East and undermine the security of Israel, our one true ally in the region."


West Bank occupation unacceptable: Vatican
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Monday, October 25, 2010

THE Vatican has issued one of its strongest condemnations yet of Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank and has rejected the use of biblical texts by Jewish settlers to justify "injustices". Releasing a strongly worded document by the synod of bishops for the Middle East, a senior Archbishop also challenged the notion of Jews as "the chosen people", saying such a concept no longer existed.

After a two-week conference, which ended with a meeting with the Pope, the bishops called on the international community to pressure Israel to end the occupation. "Recourse to theological and biblical positions, which use the word of God to wrongly justify injustices, is not acceptable," the statement said. At a news conference, the head of the committee, Greek-Melchite Archbishop Cyrille Bustros, said: "The Holy Scriptures cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands. We Christians cannot speak of the promised land as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people — all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people."

The bishops called for a two-state solution, saying this would allow Jerusalem to acquire its "proper status — which respects its particular character, its holiness and the religious patrimony of the three religions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim."

Only 2.1 per cent of those living in Israel are Christian — the Vatican says there is a slow decline but Israel says while the percentage is low in absolute numbers, Christians are growing but being outnumbered because of Jewish and Muslim birthrates.

Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Australian he was surprised by the strength of the Vatican statement and that it was both theological and political. "The debate over who holds the correct interpretation of the scriptures was something debated in the Middle Ages and it would seem unwise to try to revisit that," he said. Asked about the criticism of the use of the Bible to justify Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, Mr Palmor said: "Firstly, this has not been any official policy in Israel by any government and, secondly, he who has not sinned should cast the first stone — that is something they should understand."

7 Comments on this story

Alena Posted at 3:28 AM Today
Are you kidding!!!!!! ' ' ' Since when can we pick and choose what is applicable in the WORD of GOD. Amazing - Choose this day whom you will serve - as for me and my house - we choose the Lord.
Comment 1 of 7

Nancy in Canberra of Canberra Posted at 7:40 AM Today
The Pope should mind his own business. How active was his predecessor, Pius XII in speaking out against Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust ' Pius XII resolutely ignored Jewish cries for help, and what assistance the Papacy offered was much too little, much too late. For shame!
Comment 2 of 7

Simple Simon of Docklands Posted at 8:35 AM Today
After millions of Jews were murdered by Christians in the name of Christ over the centuries (ie Crusades, Massacre at York, The Inquisition, Pogroms, Cossacks, Russian Pale of Settlement, The Holocaust etc, etc - the Vatican is not in the best position to dictate to Jews how the should behave when their main crime is building housing estates in 'disputed' land.........
Comment 3 of 7

Loretta Didricksen Posted at 8:44 AM Today
Jesus himself said that "salvation is of the Jews" John 4:22. The Apostle Paul stated: "Hath God cast away his people ' God forbid. For I (Paul) also am an Israelite... God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew." Rom 11:1, 2 "I the Lord have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back... neither will I repent" Ezekiel 24:14 The Catholic synod has set aside the bible in favor of their own personal views. Their position is doctrinally unsupportable.
Comment 4 of 7

Margaret of Queensland Posted at 9:36 AM Today
The Catholic Church should butt out and mind its own business. One would think that there was enough controversy and turmpoil in the Church to keep them busy for decades.
Comment 5 of 7

Trudy Posted at 9:42 AM Today
If the Vatican says so,so it must be. After all, wasn't it the Vatican who nearly burnt Galileo at the stake for saying that the earth went round the sun & not the other way around ' If Jesus will 'nullify' his people's chosenness (by God to bring his message,especially the 10 Commandments, to the world) then he cannot be the Messiah & thus not chosen by God. If the Bible nullifies the Jewish people's Chosen status then Jesus's claim to be descended from King David of the Royal Tribe of Judah and thus the promised Messiah is false. Then the Vatican must nullify David, who like Jesus was born and bred in Bethlehem of Judea and thus Jesus is nullified. The days of the Vatican are drawing to a close as are the days of Islam, the 2 offspring of the original monotheistic faith, Judaism, who've never stopped (and continue) slandering, misrepresenting and physically attacking the People of the Book as well as the 'Old Testament' the Tanach itself. The Vatican & Mecca are playing a dangerous game for,if the Tanach's prophecies come true, they'll wipe each other out when they attack the patriarchs' descendants and none will sit at the Messiah's Right hand when he rules from Jerusalem.
Comment 6 of 7

Dan of USA Posted at 10:26 AM Today
Duh. This is not 'the Vatican' this is the dhimmi clergy of the Middle East who have beeen kissing Islamic rear ends for 1,400 years while Muslims systematically drive their flocks out of the so-called West Bank. Eagerly and with extraordinary cowardice they tell their 'Islamic Masters' exactly what they want to hear.
Comment 7 of 7


Same Day
Record number of pollies to join tour of Israel
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

THE largest ever Australian parliamentary delegation to visit Israel will travel to Jerusalem in December as part of a dialogue hosted by the privately funded Australia Israel Leadership Forum. Julia Gillard has given approval for six ministers and parliamentary secretaries to be part of the trip led by Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. They will be part of a record 17 members of the House of Representatives and Senate who will take part in the visit.

The other Labor MPs are Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Industry Minister Kim Carr, Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Mike Kelly, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles and MPs Michael Danby and Anthony Byrne. Bill Shorten, the Assistant Treasurer, is expected to sign up. The Liberal Party plans to send nine members and senators — deputy leader Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, George Brandis, Kevin Andrews, Brett Mason, Mitch Fifield, Steven Ciobo and Guy Barnett. And the ABC will break with long-held tradition and allow a journalist, political editor Chris Uhlmann, to attend. AILF is the project of Melbourne property developer Albert Dadon and is modelled on the Australian American Leadership Dialogue begun by businessman Phil Scanlon.

Mr Dadon said the record number of participants "is testimony of the goodwill that exists between Australia and Israel". Asked who was paying for the 17 members of parliament, Mr Dadon said: "The general rule for parliamentarians taking part in the leadership forum is that they pay their own way to Israel and we take care of all expenses on the ground except for ministers, who are also paying for their expenses." Five journalists are expected to attend, Uhlmann, Greg Sheridan from The Australian, Steve Lewis from News Limited, Tony Walker from The Australian Financial Review and Lenore Taylor from The Sydney Morning Herald.

On the trip, a ceremony will be held at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum to honour William Cooper, the Aborigine who led a protest to the German consulate in Melbourne in 1938 after Kristallnacht (On November 9, 1938, the Nazis launched their first anti-Semitic attack on German Jews, to become known as the Night of Broken Glass). While various organisations protested after Kristallnacht, Cooper is the only known individual to have organised a demonstration. Funding for a "chair" dedicated to studying resistance during the Holocaust will be formalised. "It's fitting that the study chair at Yad Vashem that will be researching the resistance against the Nazi occupation during the Holocaust be dedicated to the memory of the only man in the world who had the courage to protest and stand up against Kristallnacht," Mr Dadon said.


Extract: Clinton vows to inject life into Mid-East peace
The Australian
Friday, November 5, 2010

WELLINGTON: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the US next week in a bid to keep the Middle East peace talks alive. Speaking yesterday on a visit to New Zealand, Mrs Clinton said she believed the talks that began in September would continue, despite Palestinian threats to quit them over Israel's refusal to halt settlements in the West Bank. "I want to reiterate that we are working on a non-stop basis with our Israeli and Palestinian friends to design a way forward in the negotiations" Mrs Clinton said in the New Zealand capital, Wellington.

Mr Netanyahu said he would fly to the US this coming weekend for talks on the Middle East peace process and to speak of the need to combat international terrorism. Mrs Clinton said details of her meeting with Mr Netanyahu were still being finalised. "I'm convinced that both (Israeli and Palestinian) leaders are committed to pursuing the two-state solution and it is clear that that can only be achieved through negotiations," she said.


Extract: Islamic religious chauvinism drives Christians out
Weekend Australian
Eden Naby and Jamsheed K. Choksy
Saturday, November 6, 2010

Eden Naby is a cultural historian of the Middle East. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian and international studies at Indiana University and a member of the National Council on the Humanities

SCREAMING "Kill! Kill! Kill!", suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organisation connected to al-Qa'ida in Iraq, stormed a Chaldean church in Baghdad last Sunday. A spokesman later claimed they did so "to light the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians". The assailants' more immediate grievance seems related to a demand that two Muslim women, allegedly held against their will in Egyptian Coptic monasteries, be released. When Iraqi forces attempted to free about 120 parishioners who had been taken hostage, the terrorists — who had already shot dead some of the churchgoers — detonated their suicide vests and grenades, slaughtering at least half the congregation.

But the massacre in Baghdad is only the most spectacular example of mounting discrimination and persecution of the native Christian communities of Iraq and Iran, which are now in the middle of a huge exodus as they confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy and religious chauvinism sweeping the region. Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in both Iraq and Iran, with roots in the Middle East that date back to the earliest days of the faith. Some follow the Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church. Others subscribe to the 2000-year-old Syriac tradition represented mainly by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and by Aramaic speakers, widely known as Assyrians, in both Iraq and Iran.

In Iraq, Chaldean and Assyrian Christian communities have witnessed increasing violence by militant Muslims against their neighbourhoods, children and religious sites since the US invasion. Even pastors are not safe — two died in Sunday's Baghdad bombing and many have been killed by Sunni and Shia Iraqis since 2003. "Many Christians from Mosul have been systematically targeted and are no longer safe there," said Laurens Jolles, a UNHCR representative, in 2008, after Chaldean women were raped while their men, including Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, were tortured and killed in warnings to Christians to abandon their homes and their livelihoods.

In Iran, other clergymen, including members of the Armenian, Protestant and Catholic churches, have been arrested, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured or even summarily executed during the past three decades — Tateos Mikaelian, senior pastor of St John's Armenian Evangelical Church in Tehran, was killed in 1994, as was Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, head of the evangelical Assemblies of God Church.

Why Christians ' Of the many justifications offered by al-Qa'ida and other fanatical groups in Iraq, and by hard-line mullahs in Iran, one is repeated most often: these indigenous Christians are surrogates for Western "crusaders". As early as 1970, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa accusing Christians in Iran of "working with American imperialists and oppressive rulers to distort the truths of Islam, lead Muslims astray and convert our children". The number of Assyrian Christians in Iran has dwindled from about 100,000 in the mid-1970s to about 15,000 today, even as the overall population of the country has swelled from 38 million to 72 million.

In Iraq, Christians are fleeing in droves. UN statistics indicate that 15 per cent of all Iraqi refugees in Syria are of Christian background, although they represented only 3 per cent of the population when US troops entered in 2003. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 Christians have been forced out of Iraq since 2003. And Christians have left because the message from Sunni militants and Shia ayatollahs is clear: You have no future here.


Israelis 'sabotaging peace talks'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"If you want to live peacefully next to us, come and negotiate peace with us,"

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced accusations of sabotaging the Middle Peace talks yesterday after Israel announced 1300 new homes in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem. The announcement was made while Mr Netanyahu was in the US to discuss the talks. Washington said it was "deeply disappointed", the UN expressed concern and the Palestinians lashed out at what they saw as another attempt to "destroy the talks". The US had urged Israel to refrain from building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to ensure the new talks continued. A 10-month moratorium on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank imposed by Mr Netanyahu ended in September, and Palestinian negotiators have refused to continue talks while building in the settlements continued.

Israeli group Peace Now, which monitors settlements, said building in the settlements, which are illegal under international law, was now four times faster than before the freeze. US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said yesterday: "We were deeply disappointed by the announcement of advance planning for new housing units in sensitive areas of East Jerusalem. It is counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties."

The announcement came a day after Mr Netanyahu met US Vice-President Joe Biden. A similar announcement in March angered the US because it was made while Mr Biden was in Israel for peace efforts. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Mr Netanyahu, expressing "concern at the resumption of the settlement activity and recent announcements of further settlement construction in East Jerusalem".

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has called earlier decisions to expand settlements "a systematic policy to destroy the peace process". Speaking of yesterday's announcement, he said: "We thought that Netanyahu was going to the US to stop settlement activity and restart negotiations but it is clear to us that he is determined to destroy the talks."

Mr Netanyahu suggested yesterday that Palestinians negotiate without conditions. "If you want to live peacefully next to us, come and negotiate peace with us," he said at the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans. "Palestinian leaders who genuinely want peace should stop placing preconditions and start negotiating peace."

The settlement that will get the biggest boost is Har Homa, near Jerusalem, which was strongly supported by Mr Netanyahu in his first stint as prime minister in the late 1990s and which at the time led to tensions with the US. An estimated 978 apartments will be built in Har Homa and 320 in Ramot. An extra 800 homes are planned for the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Tensions in the Middle East are growing. Palestinians were angered this week with the revelation the new Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast train will twice cut through the West Bank. The Jerusalem Post reported the first instance was because it was a short cut and the second "to appease Israelis who objected to tracks in their backyard". The paper also reported the Israeli government had sold or leased property in Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem at exceptionally low prices, helping them to cement a Jewish presence there.

And the Supreme Court this week approved a Jewish-only apartment block in Jaffa. Arab residents had argued this was discriminatory. Supreme Court president Dorit Beinish ruled that in future, such discrimination would be forbidden.


Same Day
Extract: Obama and SBY seal closer ties
Peter Alford, Jakarta correspondent

BARACK Obama arrived in Indonesia last night for a visit both administrations hope will inaugurate a deeper, more stable political relationship. Mr Obama and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed a Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, a broad-ranging framework for economic, security, environment, education and science co-operation. Mr Obama lived in Jakarta as a boy from 1967 to 1971 and his return for the first time in almost 40 years is often described in the Indonesian news media as a "homecoming". Dr Yudhoyono, a former army general and Indonesia's first directly elected president, also has firm political and personal affiliations with the US, having studied there three times.

En route from India, Mr Obama was told of Israeli plans to build apartments in disputed East Jerusalem, which he criticised last night in a press conference with Dr Yudhoyono. "This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations."

Mr Obama described his administration's efforts to improve relations between Muslim nations and the West as "earnest and sustained" but incomplete. "What we're trying to do is make sure that we are building bridges and expanding our interactions with Muslim countries," he said. An estimated 85 per cent of Indonesia's 238 million people are officially Muslim and Mr Obama's visit and conciliatory attitude to their religion has been welcomed by the nation's mainstream Islamic organisations.


Arab blazes new trail as an officer for Israel
Weekend Australian
James Hider, Ramla, The Times
Saturday, November 13, 2010

IN his home town, he is branded a traitor.

HISHAM Abu Rayya has wanted to defend his country since he was a boy. He has achieved that ambition and, in doing so, has become an object of hatred in his home town. Although the burly 26-year-old looks like any other soldier at the military base in Ramla, close to Tel Aviv, he is not. He is an Arab Israeli, and the first member of his community to make officer grade in the six decades of the Jewish state's existence.

While other members of the Arab Israeli minority, who make up a fifth of Israel's population, serve in the army, most are uneducated school-leavers merely looking for a job. Lieutenant Abu Rayya, who has a degree in Hebrew, sees himself as a trailblazer for integrating his community at a time of heightened tensions.

"This is an important thing for me, this is my duty to my country," he said at his office at the Home Front Command base in Ramla. "It was a brave decision I had to take. I believe in co-existence and equality in Israel." Arab Israelis - descendants of Palestinian Arabs who did not leave their homes in the war of 1948-49 that led to the birth of Israel - have generally shunned the army, complaining that, while they are loyal citizens of Israel, they suffer from discrimination.

Lieutenant Abu Rayya was cautioned against delving into Israel's political minefield by an army spokesman who accompanied him throughout the interview, but made clear his disdain for Arab Israeli politicians who "get a salary and a car from the Knesset (parliament) and then talk against the Knesset". In interviews with the Israeli press, he has criticised the Arab community for behaving like a herd. "It doesn't think on its own, and is influenced by all sorts of extremist movements," he said.

"For the most part, youngsters haven't got anything to do with themselves. They roam the streets, waste time, and that's if they finished school. Service in the army is instructive, it gives you a framework, order - exactly what youngsters here are so lacking in."

The Arab officer admitted that there was discrimination against his community, but said that serving in the army was the way to break out of the cycle of distrust, and forge a new identity. "The Arabs who don't join the army because of discrimination, it's not true," he said, holding himself up as an example. "The army encourages Arabs to join … It all depends on us as citizens. We can hold out our hands in peace and get rid of the discrimination, or let it go on and on."

As for guarding the country, he noted that "rockets don't discriminate" between Jews and Arabs, and said that he guarded all Israel's citizens against attack. He does not question his orders. He has even served in the West Bank, protecting a Jewish settlement and joining in Passover celebrations. He, in turn, observes Muslim feast days. "I feel I am example to anyone who wants to join the army," he said.

Lieutenant Abu Rayya's job is to recruit more soldiers from the Arab community. "The Arab sector never believed there'd be an Arab officer, they never believed they would accept us, and they do," he said.

In the streets of his home town of Sakhnin, a large Arab community near Nazareth, mention of the lieutenant's name prompted only scorn. "The redhead ' He's a traitor," Ali Ghnamey, a 24-year-old student, said. "He's even declared he'd fight in Gaza or the West Bank. That shows the values they are putting into him." "He doesn't have values, or any friends," said Ibrahim Shawahneh, who sells falafel in a fast-food shop. "We wouldn't serve him if he came here."


Same Day
Extract: John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent

In New York yesterday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr Netanyahu held talks but failed to break an impasse that has stalled Middle East peace negotiations. As the meeting began, Mr Netanyahu said Israel was "quite serious" about finding a way to peace with the Palestinians. But the seven hours of meetings produced little sign that talks, on hold since mid-September in a dispute over Israeli settlement building, might resume soon.


Extract: Israelis reminded of strong leadership
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, November 15, 2010

ADRIFT politically in the absence of decisive leadership, Israelis were wistfully reminded this week that one of the most forceful leaders in Israel's history was still in their midst — unfortunately someone who has been in a coma for the past five years. The transfer of former prime minister Ariel Sharon at the weekend from a hospital outside Tel Aviv to a bed in his ranch in southern Israel was a poignant reminder of the momentum Israel lost when Sharon succumbed to a stroke in January 2006. Sharon was felled only five months after he pulled Israeli settlers and troops out of the Gaza Strip, ending 38 years of occupation.

When his own Likud — a party he had created — objected, he broke with it and formed a new party, Kadima, in order to push the plan through. To counter violent demonstrations that were anticipated from the powerful settler movement and their right-wing supporters, he massed troops and police when the Gaza evacuation got under way. After the Gaza evacuation, he then pulled out of three West Bank settlements at Washington's behest in order to win from president George W. Bush a letter offering US support for Israel's retention of major settlement blocs.

Decisiveness, sometimes morphing into ruthlessness, was Sharon's measure ever since he was a young commando leader directing cross-border raids. As a general in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it was his division that led the way across the Suez Canal. As defence minister in 1982, it was he who initiated the controversial Israeli drive on Beirut in the Lebanese war. As prime minister, he authorised the construction of a barrier on the West Bank to keep out suicide bombers but also tentatively delineating a future border with the Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has talked the talk about reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, but has yet to walk the walk. Citing the fragility of his right-wing coalition, he ignores the obvious option of offsetting any right-wing walkout by inviting Kadima into his government on a peace platform.


Same Day
Israeli building freeze

JERUSALEM: Israel's cabinet was expected to discuss overnight a US proposition to impose a new settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank for 90 days, but the proposal did not include East Jerusalem, a source said. The proposed moratorium would be backed by US security measures, a source close to the dossier said yesterday. The potential freeze would cover not just future construction but work undertaken since September 26, when the previous 10-month government moratorium called by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expired, the source added.

The US had promised Israel it would not ask for an additional settlement freeze after that 90-day period. Mr Netanyahu has so far opposed any extension of the 10-month freeze. But it was the end of the freeze on settlement building that led to the suspension of US-brokered talks with the Palestinians, relaunched on September 2. Palestinians have insisted that settlement building must be frozen — not just in the West Bank but in East Jerusalem — before talks with Israel can resume.

The source said that Washington had agreed to veto any move in the UN Security Council or any other international body designed to pressure Israel over the issue. US President Barack Obama's administration would also seek approval from the US congress to deliver an extra 20 warplanes, worth $US3 billion, to help Israel keep its military edge in the region, the source added.


Also Same Day
Obama vows to pass arms-control treaty
The Wall Street Journal, AP

YOKOHAMA: Barack Obama has promised Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a "full-court press" to ratify their nuclear arms accord this year, before a Republican-dominated Senate makes passage much tougher. In a private meeting yesterday, where both men were attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the US President told Mr Medvedev ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by December was his top priority for the lame-duck session of Congress, which begins today.

The Democratic majority will be down to 58. Ratification of a treaty requires 67 Senate votes, a tall order which will be taller still next year when the Democratic majority is down to 53. "I reiterated my commitment to get the START Treaty done during the lame-duck session, and I've communicated to Congress that it is a top priority," Mr. Obama said. A senior administration official said worries were rising that a failure to ratify the treaty could harm other outreach efforts to Moscow, including cooperation on Afghanistan and efforts to get Russia into the World Trade Organization. Mr. Medvedev will attend next week's NATO summit in Lisbon, and his presence could be an irritant as NATO leaders discuss expansion eastward. "We think the START treaty is important for what it does as an arms control treaty, but we also think that symbolically for this to linger on would begin to bleed into other aspects of US-Russian relations," a senior administration official said, describing the "full-court press under way right now" in the Senate.

The White House is eager to demonstrate to the world that Mr. Obama will still be able to legislate and secure achievements in the new world of Washington where Republicans will control the House of Representatives and Democrats are on their heels. The New START treaty would trim the arsenals of the largest two nuclear nations by nearly a third and limit the number of nuclear weapons delivery systems, land-based missiles, submarine launchers and bombers. Each side would have to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to 1550 over seven years. Perhaps more urgently, it would restore a system of arms-control verification that lapsed when the last START treaty, negotiated by President George H.W. Bush, expired over a year ago.

Earlier, Mr Obama made a final push to sell more US goods to the rest of the world as he closed out a 10-day tour of Asia in the land where the continent's "economic miracle" was born. Fresh from a disappointing summit of the world's key economies in South Korea, where leaders rejected his call for quick action to fix trade and currency imbalances, Mr Obama warned that other nations should not assume the road to prosperity will be "simply paved with exports to America." "One of the important lessons the economic crisis taught us is the limits of depending primarily on American consumers and Asian exports to drive economic growth," the President told a gathering of business leaders.


Also Same Day
China tries to ease fears in the region
AFP, The Wall Street Journal

YOKOHAMA: Chinese President Hu Jintao has given assurances that the Asian powerhouse is committed to being a good neighbour in the Asia-Pacific region, as a dispute with Japan thawed. "China remains committed to the regional policy of building good-neighbourliness and friendship," Mr Hu said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama yesterday.

China's increasingly assertive stance on territorial rows with a number of nations over potentially resource-rich islands in the East and South China seas has triggered nervousness across the region. These fears came to the fore when a bitter diplomatic row erupted between China and Japan after Tokyo arrested a Chinese trawler captain in disputed waters more than two months ago. But in a move that substantially eased tensions between the two nations, Mr Hu met Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the weekend on the APEC sidelines. In their first talks since the dispute, the leaders pledged to improve relations and Mr Hu said he believed the two countries should "follow a road of peace, friendship and cooperation".

US President Barack Obama had urged Tokyo and Beijing to resolve the dispute, which was seen as undermining regional stability. "The United States, China and Japan represent the world's three largest economies and, thus, we all share an interest in promoting security and prosperity with each other and throughout the region," he told Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

Mr Hu's speech came as the 21 APEC members gathered under the cloud of tensions between its biggest economies. The Chinese leader warned that "protectionism in various forms has risen notably" in the region. "We need to take concrete measures against protectionism in all its forms and renew and fulfill our pledge to refrain from setting new barriers to goods, investment and services", he said.

Mr Kan signalled to Mr Obama his government's strong desire to deepen the bilateral security alliance, saying recent territorial scuffles with China and Russia had made Japan reaffirm the importance of US military presence in the nation.


PM wins peace a chance with temporary freeze on settlements
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The struggling Middle East peace talks appear to have been given at least another three months of life, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent success by just one vote to win support for a new freeze on Jewish settlements. Following pressure from Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mr Netanyahu spent the past two days trying to win a majority from his security cabinet. It appeared he had despite opposition from the Right of his coalition government, particularly Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-orthodox Shas party.

The US hopes that during the 90-day period Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can agree on what the borders for a new Palestinian state would be. The new moratorium would be for the West Bank, but not East Jerusalem, which Palestinians regard as "occupied" and their desired capital. Israel insists it is "not a settlement" but its capital. Israeli media reported last week that the Israel Lands Administration was transferring properties in East Jerusalem and the Old City of Jerusalem to right-wing groups for low prices and without issuing tenders.

The US is believed to have offered a $US3 billion ($3.05bn) package to secure the freeze — including 20 new fighter jets, a commitment for greater support in UN forums and a commitment not to ask for another freeze. Last night, Mr Obama welcomed Mr Netanyahu's apparent success. "It's not easy for him to do, but I think it's a signal that he is serious," he said.

However, reports in Israel last night suggested Mr Netanyahu was still attempting to guarantee he wins a formal vote on the matter this Wednesday. Since the last moratorium, which lasted 10 months, expired on September 26, resumption of building has begun in earnest. Ynet news agency reported settlers building "with frenzy" and quoted a senior official at the settler group the Yesha Council saying: "It was obvious to us all that this was a temporary recess and that Netanyahu, who is prone to being pressured, will not be able to maintain it for long." Israeli group Peace Now, which monitors settlements, says building has resumed at four times its previous pace.

The level of resistance even within his own Likud party was shown yesterday with comments by Vice-Premier Moshe Yaalon: "Extending the freeze is a honey trap which will lead us down a slippery slope and into another crisis with the American administration after three months or perhaps even sooner." Mr Yaalon is one of the security cabinet of 15 expected to vote against a new freeze. The seven members likely to support it are: Mr Netanyahu and three fellow Likud ministers, Dan Meridor, Gideon Saar and Yuval Steinitz, Labor members Ehud Barak and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and unaligned Yaakov Nieman. Shas is likely to abstain.


Same Day
Israel opens its door to about 8000 Ethiopians

JERUSALEM: The Israeli cabinet yesterday voted to bring to the country about 8000 Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent, saying they are living in conditions of disease and hunger. "There are about 8000 women, men and children living in the most severe humanitarian conditions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet session. "We have a moral commitment as Jews, as the People of Israel, to find a solution."

Israel began bringing Ethiopia's Jewish community to Israel in 1984 under the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews. That operation was largely completed by 1991. Yesterday's decision refers to another group, known as the Falash Mura, who are not considered to be Jewish and therefore are not eligible under the law. They are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, many of them under duress, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of them have relatives among the Ethiopian Jewish community living in Israel. While awaiting permission to resettle in Israel, many of them moved into a squalid compound in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, where Jewish groups provide them with some social services.

Critics fear that tens of thousands of Ethiopians could claim connection to this group, many of them just seeking better financial conditions. But Mr Netanyahu said he hoped the decision would provide a humanitarian solution and end the claims. Mr Netanyahu said the proposal under consideration would bring 600 Falash Mura to Israel during the initial months of its implementation, followed by about 200 each month over the following three years. Once all the camp's 8000 residents have been brought to Israel, it would be shut and immigration ended, hopefully preventing more camps from springing up.

Israel organised its first airlift — known as Operation Moses — of 15,000 Ethiopians in 1984. Tens of thousands more were flown in during Operation Solomon in 1991.


Netanyahu urges building freeze for peace
The Australian
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

JERUSALEM: Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday asked his Likud Party to support a 90-day settlement freeze to keep alive the possibility of a peace agreement. The Israeli Prime Minister said there would not be another freeze after this one. "I have a responsibility that includes making the best decision for the state of Israel, its national interests and its security," he said at a meeting with legislators of the Likud Party, most of whom are against the proposal. He said the freeze would be put to a vote of his cabinet only if it came as a written document from Washington. "If we receive a written agreement, I will bring it to the cabinet and I am sure that the ministers will approve it because it is what's best for the state of Israel," Mr Netanyahu said.

The meeting followed a demonstration by settlers outside his office in Jerusalem. The demonstration was a "warning" strike against accepting the freeze, settler leaders said. Mr Netanyahu said a few hours later that compensation would be paid to all settlers inconvenienced by the freeze.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that peace talks will not resume until and unless Israel renews the freeze. Mr Abbas, who is visiting Cairo, said yesterday that the freeze should also include East Jerusalem which has been excluded from past Israeli agreements to stop constructions. "If settlement construction is not halted in all Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem, we will not accept it," he said, after meeting President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Israel was to begin work on building a barrier along its southern border with Egypt overnight in an attempt to curb illegal immigrants. "Tomorrow, dozens of heavy engineering vehicles will be deployed at points along the Israel-Egypt border and will begin construction of the physical barrier," the Defence Ministry said in a statement on Sunday. The Israeli government approved the construction of the 250km border fence in March. It is expected to cost $US365 million ($369m) and will comprise fencing and other unspecified technological measures.

At the time Mr Netanyahu called the influx of thousands of migrants across the border a major threat to "the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel." The Israel-Egypt border has become a major transit route for economic migrants, asylum-seekers and drug smugglers, and Israel has urged Egypt to clamp down on the traffic. Egyptian border guards often shoot at African migrants who pay smugglers for passage into the Jewish state to escape poverty and look for work, and many have been killed. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch last month urged Egypt to stop shooting migrants, saying its security forces have killed at least 85 migrants trying to cross into Israel since 2007.


Israeli bill complicates peace bid
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Netanyahu welcomes a vote for a referendum

EFFORTS to reach a peace deal in the Middle East were complicated yesterday with a vote by Israel's Knesset to require a referendum and an attack by the opposition leader on Benjamin Netanyahu as "a weak Prime Minister". The bill requiring a referendum means any agreement reached between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators must achieve a two-thirds majority of the Knesset or face a referendum.

Mr Netanyahu welcomed the bill. "The Israeli public is involved, aware and responsible, and I trust that when the day comes it will support a peace agreement that answers the national interests and security needs of the state of Israel," he said. But opposition leader Tzipi Livni said: "We have here a weak Prime Minister for whom it is convenient that he is hindered. We're not talking here about a desire to listen to the will of the people but about setting up a veto on decisions of the government." It had been thought possible that if Mr Netanyahu was having trouble convincing some of his right-wing coalition partners to agree to a peace agreement that he could form a new coalition with Kadima, but yesterday's comments by Ms Livni cast doubt on that possibility.

From now, any peace deal involving Israel conceding land in the Golan Heights to Syria or East Jerusalem to Palestinians would require a two-thirds majority. It would not require a referendum for any deal involving the West Bank, which, unlike the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, was not formally annexed after the 1967 war but continues to be occupied by the Israeli military.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "With the passage of this bill, the Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law. Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum." The new law presents another complication for the US — talks are on hold while the US tries to convince Israel to accept a $US3 billion ($3.06bn) package of 20 new fighter jets to agree to extend for three months a freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu has said he was waiting to see the offer in writing.

One of the key parties in his coalition, the ultra-orthodox Shas, said the negotiations with the US had reached "a dead end". Shas leader Eli Yishai said: "There are demands that Israel cannot, in my mind, give in to, American demands that Israel cannot answer." Meanwhile, several members of the Knesset have petitioned President Shimon Peres to overturn the conviction of two Israeli soldiers who forced a nine-year-old Palestinian boy to open a bag they thought might contain explosives during last year's Gaza War. A military court gave the soldiers a suspended sentence and demoted them. Human rights group Defence of Children International says it has documented a further three cases of children being used as human shields by the Israeli army since this case and 15 cases since Israel's High Court banned the practice in 2005.


Israel says 'I told you so' on Iran
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

ISRAEL may well be the only country in the world delighted by WikiLeaks — jubilant, in fact. Officials can barely contain their glee that, finally, what they say repeatedly — that Iran's nuclear program is a problem for the entire Middle East — is acknowledged. "The documents show many sources backing Israel's assessments, particularly of Iran," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Association of Tel Aviv Journalists yesterday. Indeed, one of the first comments a government official made to The Australian at the event was: "Israel has been saying this for years, and now it's in black and white."

The documents show three Arab countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan — privately urging the US to attack Iran.

There are some awkward documents for Israel — the US makes a gloomy assessment of Israel's political situation under the previous Olmert government. In January 2007, a US diplomat wrote to then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice saying: "Internal tensions among GOI (government of Israel) leaders have intensified since your last visit and have reached the point that there appears to be little co-ordination or even dialogue among the key decision-makers." And Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak is quoted as saying Mr Netanyahu is charming and elegant "but never keeps his word".

Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu was concentrating on Iran, which Israel has been trying to push ahead of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for two years. "The greatest threat to peace is the Iranian regime's arming race, and what is most important is that many leaders and governments in the Middle East realise this threat," he said. "There is a gap between what is said publicly and what is said behind closed doors. Leaders realise there is a new threat and a new understanding. I don't remember there was such understanding in the Middle East. I hope leaders will have the courage to tell their people what they said about Iran publicly."

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday dismissed the cables divulged by WikiLeaks as US "mischief" aimed at destabilising an already volatile region. "These documents are prepared and released by the US government in a planned manner in pursuance of an aim. It is part of an intelligence warfare and will not have their desired political impact," he said.


Same Day
Cable reveals US fear of Turkey's leaders
Abraham Rabinovich

AMERICAN concerns about a Middle East country other than Iran are revealed in WikiLeaks documents that point to a shift by Turkey, a long-time US ally, towards Islamic fundamentalism. The American ambassador in Ankara last year, James Jeffrey, relayed a conversation with the Israeli ambassador, Gaby Levy, in a secret cable to the State Department. Mr Levy attributed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly virulent attitude towards Israel to "hatred" of the Jewish state, not political calculations. Mr Jeffrey said he shared Mr Levy's assessment. "Our discussions with contacts both inside and outside the Turkish government on Turkey's deteriorating relations with Israel tend to confirm Levy's thesis that Erdogan simply hates Israel," wrote Mr Jeffrey, who has since become US ambassador in Iraq.

Other cables from American diplomats expressed scepticism about the reliability of Turkey under Mr Erdogan as a NATO ally. Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO, and Incirlik air base is a key logistical hub for the US military in Iraq. According to WikiLeaks documents published on the website of the German magazine Der Spiegel, American diplomats depicted the present Turkish leadership as divided and permeated by Islamists. Advisers to Mr Erdogan, one cable said, "have little understanding of politics beyond Ankara". Mr Erdogan himself got his information almost exclusively from newspapers with close links to Islamists. One cable said that Mr Erdogan had surrounded himself "with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisers".

Particular concern was expressed about Mr Erdogan's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was described in one cable as "exceptionally dangerous". Mr Davutoglu is seen as wishing to restore the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched across much of the Middle East and North Africa for four centuries before collapsing in World War I. According to another document, a Turkish official said, in apparent jest, that Turkey wanted "to take back Andalusia (in modern Spain) and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683".

Even though Mr Erdogan has not openly rejected the notion of a secular state imposed by modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the American diplomats noted that he was showing increasing Islamist tendencies. Many leading figures in his Justice and Development Party, in power since 2002, are members of a Muslim fraternity and Mr Erdogan was appointing Islamist bankers to influential positions.


Israeli PM 'didn't want to rule West Bank'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, December 2, 2010

NEW diplomatic cables show that, soon after becoming Prime Minister last year, Benjamin Netanyahu assured the US he did not want to "govern" the West Bank. In a document released by WikiLeaks, a US diplomat reported to Washington: "Netanyahu expressed support for the concept of land swaps, and emphasised that he did not want to govern the West Bank and Gaza but rather to stop attacks from being launched from there." Mr Netanyahu's alleged comments, as told to a US congressional delegation last year, reflect a strong view among Israelis that, given what occurred after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, they are suspicious of a withdrawal from the West Bank.

After the Gaza withdrawal and election of Islamic militant group Hamas, thousands of missiles were fired at civilian targets in southern Israel. Mr Netanyahu is quoted as saying his concern is the West Bank could become "another Iranian base". Instead, he supports a "refined" Palestinian sovereignty — a reference to his view that any Palestinian state should not be allowed to have an army. He has told colleagues this would make it much easier to persuade the public to agree to a Palestinian state.

After publication of the "land swap" reference yesterday, Mr Netanyahu's office said he was only expressing his willingness to accept a territorial compromise under a final deal. The document says Mr Netanyahu suggested three options: "withdrawing to the 1967 borders (that would "get terror, not peace"); doing nothing ("just as bad"); or "rapidly building a pyramid from the ground up". Mr Netanyahu suggested a rapid move to develop the West Bank economically.

The documents also reveal that Germany was privately taking a tougher line than the Obama administration against Israel's expansion of settlements in the West Bank. A German diplomat urged the US to make sure the UN Security Council supported Israel's opposition to the Goldstone report into the Gaza War in return for Israel agreeing to a halt of settlements. The US rejected this. The German diplomat said he could not "fathom" why Mr Netanyahu did not understand why it would be "suicide" for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to engage in peace talks when Palestinians were getting notices that their houses in East Jerusalem would be destroyed.

Another document reveals that former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice requested details of Palestinian leaders — including credit card numbers and frequent flyer numbers.

A new survey yesterday by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 per cent of Jewish Israelis believe the government is entitled to encourage Arabs to leave.


Hamas open to a vote for peace
The Australian
Friday, December 3, 2010

GAZA CITY: Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya yesterday said the Islamist group would accept a peace deal with Israel if the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum. His statement appeared to signal a shift in the group's longstanding policy of refusing to accept either Israel's legitimacy or any peace treaty negotiated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas "will respect the results of a referendum even if the results conflict with Hamas's positions", Mr Haniya said at a rare press conference. "We accept a Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the land occupied in 1967 with Jerusalem as its capital and a solution to the issue of refugees."

However, an Israeli government official pointed out that Mr Haniya did not explicitly say Hamas would be prepared to end its conflict with Israel in such a case. "They never say that a Palestinian state living alongside Israel will be enough for them, but rather that they will accept it," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Notice that he never says that they will then be willing to live with Israel after that. Ultimately, they are committed to an Islamist Palestinian state that will replace Israel."

Mr Abbas restarted direct talks with Israel in September with the aim of reaching a peace agreement within a year. But negotiations broke down three weeks later after Israel refused to renew a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank that expired on September 26.

Meanwhile, the coalition government in Britain published an amendment to a law that puts visiting officials at risk of arrest for alleged war crimes, sparking outrage from rights groups. Foreign Secretary William Hague said the change would ensure private arrest warrants for offences under international laws, including the Geneva Conventions, would first have to be approved by the chief prosecutor. The move was welcomed by Israel, whose politicians and officials have been targeted by warrants brought by pro-Palestinian groups, but Amnesty International said it gave war criminals a "free ticket to escape the law". Ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni reportedly cancelled a trip to Britain after a British court issued a warrant for her arrest over Israel's war on Gaza, following an application by Palestinian activists.

Last month, Israel postponed all strategic dialogue with Britain in protest at the law, prompting Mr Hague to promise action. "The UK is committed to upholding international justice and all of our international obligations. Our core principle remains that those guilty of war crimes must be brought to justice," Mr Hague said. "This government has been clear that the current arrangements for obtaining arrest warrants in respect of universal jurisdiction offences are an anomaly that allow the UK's systems to be abused for political reasons. The proposed change is designed to correct these and ensure that people are not detained when there is no realistic chance of prosecution." The existing law empowers courts to issue warrants against people accused of offences including certain war crimes, torture and hostage-taking, even if they were committed outside the country by someone who is not a British national. The amendment is yet to be debated in parliament.


Middle East's real odd man out
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, December 4, 2010

The WikiLeaks cables show Arab support for a strike on Iran

IT wasn't quite a case of the world shaking, but in the Middle East it certainly has been a week when long-held perceptions were turned upside down. For years, Israeli diplomats have been insisting Israel was not the only country worried about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Suddenly, as a result of the private views of various Arab leaders being released by WikiLeaks, the "Israeli line" on Iran — that many Arab countries also fear Iran — has been bolstered. The documents show that the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have all railed against Iran. Israel could not believe its luck.

"The bottom line is that the WikiLeaks documents reveal more than anything the rifts and lack of uniformity in the Arab world," the Nana10 website said. "Everyone is looking after himself, everyone is worried about the American boss, and above all Israel gains. WikiLeaks is 'good for the Jews', because it only strengthens Israel's deterrence." The Jerusalem Post declared: "What is also now clear is that some American foreign policy experts, who may have had significant influence on the Obama administration, were wrong to single out Likud-led Israel and the neocon 'cabal' in America as the sole driving force behind the military option for Iran."

For Israel, the "smoking gun" is Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah urging the US to make a military strike on Iran to "cut off the head of the snake". One of the biggest rivalries in the Middle East is between the ruling Sunni Islam leadership of Saudi Arabia and the Shia Islam leadership of Iran. Saudi Arabia is aligned to the US and Egypt, while Iran is aligned to Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Then there was Qatar's Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, saying Israel could not be blamed for not trusting Arabs. The cable said: "The Israeli leaders need to represent the people of Israel, who themselves do not trust Arabs. "The Emir said this is understandable and 'we can't blame them' because the Israelis have been 'under threat' for a long time." The Emir urged that Israel and Syria restart peace talks. "The Syrian government can help Arab extremists make tough choices," he is quoted as saying.

The cables shed light on Israel's thoughts about a strike on Iran. Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, is quoted in May last year as saying there was only a six- to 18-month window for "a military solution", and after that "any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage". Barak said the fate of the region depended on preventing Iran gaining nuclear weapons and "as such, the standards for determining guilt should be lower as the costs are higher". Barak's comments, when taken alongside Washington's views about an Iranian strike, are significant. They suggest the chances of a strike have lowered considerably. Barak said Israel had a window for a strike over the 18 months up to last month.

But through that time the US has insisted there be no strike. Israeli officials familiar with negotiations have told The Weekend Australian the US has consistently told Israel there should be no strike on Iran while the US has combat troops in Iraq. When the US became concerned last May that Israel was planning an attack, CIA chief Leon Panetta flew to Israel to argue against it. Most US combat troops will be out of Iraq by February, but there is a new development. "It has been made absolutely clear to us that (Barack) Obama does not want a strike on Iran," said one Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. For Israel, this means if it wants to strike in the next two years, it will probably be going it alone.

On the Palestinian side, leader Mahmoud Abbas escaped a political bullet from WikiLeaks. One cable said that when Israel asked whether his Palestinian Authority would replace Hamas in Gaza if Israel forced Hamas from power, he said "no". Had he even left open this suggestion of Israeli-initiated regime change, his credibility with Palestinians would have been destroyed.

Amid all this, Hamas, his rival, did something unprecedented — its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said it would accept a Palestinian state on 1967 borders. He left himself in a bizarre situation: he accepted a Palestinian state but did not accept the country on the other side of those borders, Israel. Many will, of course, not give credence to such statements from Hamas, given its charter commits it to the destruction of Israel. Nonetheless, it was the first indication for years that Hamas may be feeling marginalised in the discussions about a Palestinian state.

But away from all the diplomatic cables, the "facts on the ground" give little cause for optimism. Israel this week announced yet more plans for housing in East Jerusalem, despite US opposition. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded: "It's time for the American administration to tell the world that Israel holds the responsibility for the collapse of this peace process." And a new poll found 53 per cent of Jewish Israelis believed their government should "encourage" Israel's Arab population to leave Israel and 65 per cent of religious Jews opposed equal rights for Arabs. It was a dramatic week in the Middle East when many things were revealed. Few of the revelations gave much cause for hope.

Israeli fire-fighters battle a raging inferno near Tirat Hacarmel
in northern Israel. Picture by AP Source: The Australian

Same Day
Pentagon readies National Guard as Obama vows more emergency aid
UPDATED Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem, with AFP

THE biggest inferno in Israel's history claimed 41 people overnight as the Pentagon mobilised the National Guard to help fire-fighters. At the same time, the US said it would send 45 tonnes of fire retardant in emergency steps.

US President Barack Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call that the US is also dispatching 12,000 litres of class A foam, in addition to technical assistance teams with specialised expertise and equipment, said White House aid Ben Rhodes. The Pentagon was mobilising National Guard troops at time of publication, and readying assets equipped with targeted fire-fighting systems, while the White House was seeking further private resources to help with the effort. The fire-retardant chemicals are due to arrive this weekend and the first of several technical teams is scheduled to land in Israel today.

The US President 'expressed his deepest condolences on behalf of the American people for the tragic loss of life resulting from the fires in northern Israel ', a White House statement said, adding that Mr Obama had called Netanyahu as he headed home from an unannounced visit to US troops in Afghanistan. 'We are pursuing a 'full court press ' to help and have the Israeli people in our thoughts and prayers, ' it said. The statement added that Mr Obama vowed to work hard in identifying 'a variety ' of fire-fighting aircraft to help Israel. Mr Rhodes said the two leaders did not discuss any other topics and agreed that US and Israeli officials would stay in touch.

Australia also offered help. 'Australia knows directly the devastating impact inflicted by bushfires, ' Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said. 'Australia stands ready to offer assistance to Israel, ' he said.

Mr Netanyahu, appearing on television, said earlier that Spain, Greece and Cyprus had responded to his call for assistance and that he would soon make a similar request of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A major surprise was an offer of two aircraft from Turkey, whose relations with Israel have deteriorated sharply in the past two years, particularly after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks in a clash last May aboard a vessel attempting to break the Gaza blockade.

The first fire-fighting aircraft to arrive was a helicopter from Bulgaria. Israel has one of the most powerful air forces in the world, capable of reaching targets more than 1500km away, but few aircraft are able to fight fires at home. Almost all the fatalities were prison guard trainees on a bus coming to help evacuate a prison threatened by the fire. The flames overwhelmed the bus on a narrow forest road. The police chief of Haifa, Ahuva Tomer, suffered burns over most of her body when the fire, borne by wildly shifting winds, overtook her car as she inspected the scene.

The fire was by far the largest Israel has experienced. It broke out on the edge of the Druze villages of Isfiyeh and spread rapidly over more than 8sq km, helped by strong winds and tinder-dry brush. It consumed much of the Carmel Mountain Range Nature Reserve, the largest in the country and a major centre for wildlife.

The US was 'standing by to provide additional assistance ', US Agency for International Development official Nancy Lindborg told reporters, adding that a three-member technical assistance team was on its way. Thousands of Israeli rescuers and firemen from every district in the country backed by fire crews from around the globe meanwhile battled the fire, as high winds drove flames towards the northern port city of Haifa. Four people were still missing and officials warned the death toll could rise. Police reported another 17 people injured, including three in serious condition and one listed as critical. By nightfall yesterday, more than 17,000 people had been evacuated from their homes, including 600 inmates of two prisons and patients from a mental hospital and the fire had incinerated more than 4000 hectares of land, with flames reaching the southern outskirts of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city.

A Russian firefighting plane sprays fire-extinguishing material
over the blaze in Ein Hod, northern Israel on Saturday AP

Turkey's help with Israeli fires calms hostilities
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, in Jerusalem
Additional Reporting: AFP
Monday, December 6, 2010

AS Israel opened its skies to an international air fleet of 33 aircraft to fight fires raging out of control for three days in the country's north, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the disaster to shore up shaky political ties. To Israel's surprise, Turkey sent two planes at the weekend without being asked. Relations between the former allies had turned hostile after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on a vessel attempting to break Israel's blockade of Gaza last May. Mr Netanyahu made a point of being televised thanking the Turkish air crews and telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him.

Mr Erdogan said afterwards that the humanitarian gesture did not negate his demands that Israel apologise for the killings and compensate the families of the victims. Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu sent a representative to Geneva to meet a Turkish Foreign Ministry official in an attempt to draft an agreement that would end the diplomatic crisis.

Mr Netanyahu called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday to brief him on the situation and thank him for the dispatch of three fire trucks. "Neighbours should always help each other," said Mr Netanyahu. He added that Israel intended to build up its own firefighting air fleet that would be available to assist the Palestinians and other neighbours in a similar situation. The two leaders had not spoken since September, when peace talks stalled in a spat over Jewish settlement construction. Israel also welcomed the arrival of teams from Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries with which it has peace agreements but often strained relations.

Australia is sending a team of fire experts including Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment chief fire officer, Ewan Waller, who jointly led efforts to battle bushfires that killed 173 people in February last year. Julia Gillard yesterday said she had spoken to Mr Netanyahu to confirm Australia's assistance and convey her condolences. "A team of air base managers and air attack controllers with expertise in controlling or directing firefighting aircraft are being deployed to Israel within the next 24 hours," the Prime Minister said. "Arrangements are also under way to transport chemical fire retardant if this is required by Israel."

Israel had only a dozen crop dusters, which quickly proved inadequate. Among the planes to arrive early were two Russian Ilyushin aircraft capable of dumping 40,000 litres of water. They were joined yesterday from the US by a modified Boeing 747 supertanker, with a capacity of more than 80,000 litres. Craft have also been sent by Greece, France, Cyprus, Britain, the US, Spain and Switzerland. The operation is being co-ordinated by the Israeli air force, which has placed crews alongside the foreign crews. The fire, which has taken 42 lives, has ravaged 5000ha.


Extract - Massive air assault tames forest fire
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A forest fire that burned out of control for more than three days and threatened Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, was brought under control yesterday after a massive air assault from tanker aircraft from nine countries. Officials said on Sunday night the forests were still smouldering and that strong winds might whip up new fires. But rainfall that began yesterday morning — the first rain since last winter — lent assurance that the ordeal was over.

About 4000ha of forest, including five million trees, were consumed. Haifa's police chief and Israel's most senior policewoman, Ahuva Tomer, who suffered burns to more than 80 per cent of her body, died last night. The fire forced the evacuation of thousands of Haifa residents.

Officials attributed the swift suppression of the blaze to the aerial attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was credited for having taken the initiative to request assistance from foreign countries. "It was a game-changing decision," wrote Nahum Barnea, the Yediot Aharonot columnist often critical of Mr Netanyahu as a posturing and indecisive leader. Mr Netanyahu made his decision after fire officers said they could not control the fire being spread by powerful winds across tinder-dry forests. He came upon the idea earlier this year during a lunch in Greece with his counterpart, Prime Minister George Papandreou. "There was a forest fire across the bay and we saw planes dumping water on it," said Mr Netanyahu. "He said that's the way they put out large fires, not from the ground."

Hamas militants march in the Gaza Strip as Israeli
and Turkish diplomats continued their efforts to heal the rift.
Picture: AFP Source: The Australian

'Israel to apologise for flotilla killings'
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

THE rift between Israel and Turkey may be on the way to resolution, according to a report yesterday on the US-sponsored Arabic-language television network al-Hura. The report said an Israeli negotiator, meeting this week with a senior Turkish diplomat in Geneva, had agreed to Istanbul's demands that Israel apologise for the killing of nine Turkish activists last May when a flotilla of civilian vessels attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Israel had also agreed, the report said, to Turkey's demand that it pay compensation to the families of the dead. Both sides have confirmed a meeting of their representatives in Geneva. The Tel Aviv daily Ha'aretz quotes Turkish diplomatic sources as saying the discussions have been "very positive". Jerusalem has not commented on the talks.

The Geneva meeting is an odd fallout from the forest fire that ravaged Israel in recent days. Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had summoned home his ambassador to Israel six months ago and has spoken scathingly of Israel since, dispatched two firefighting planes as part of an international effort to subdue the Israeli blaze. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Mr Erdogan the same day to thank him and expressed the hope that this "will be a gateway to improving relations between our two countries". Mr Erdogan, however, appeared to brush aside this attempt at reconciliation by declaring that sending the planes was a humanitarian act in accordance with Islamic morals and there would be no reconciliation unless Israel apologised for the killings and paid compensation.

Nevertheless, Turkey sent Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, a former ambassador to Israel, to meet in Geneva on Sunday with Israeli representative Yosef Ciechanover. An Israeli official told CNN the diplomats were attempting to find ways to diminish the tension between the countries. "We regretted the deterioration of the relationship and we, of course, would like to see an improvement."

Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey and former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, yesterday said the departure of Turkey from the moderate Muslim camp left Israel more isolated than ever in the region as it confronts a bloc of enmity stretching from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Turkey has also been hurt by its rift with Israel. While it has gained standing in the Muslim world, its image has been tarnished in the West. "Many are beginning to see it as just another Muslim country," Mr Liel said on Israel radio, rather than a unique Muslim country with feet as firmly planted in the West as in the East and with something positive to say to both. A hostile relationship with Israel, he said, undermined Turkey's longstanding desire to position itself as a mediator between Israel and the Arab world.


Middle East peace talks collapse
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, December 9, 2010

NEW direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed last night after the US abandoned efforts to convince Israel to impose a new freeze on building in Jewish settlements. The move came after a two-month effort by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to convince Israel to halt growth in Jewish settlements for another three months to ensure Palestinians remained at the negotiating table. The US had offered Israel a $US3 billion package to halt settlement growth for three months — including 20 new fighter jets and a commitment the US would veto any resolutions against Israel that came before the UN Security Council.

Although the US said it would meet Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the next week, the development meant "direct talks" begun with much fanfare at the White House three months ago were over. Israel now faces the prospect of a collapse in the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week raised the possibility that if peace talks collapsed he would dissolve the body that has day-to-day administration of the two million or so Palestinians who live on the West Bank under Israeli military rule — and hand administration to Israel.

Mr Abbas told Palestine TV: "If all efforts fail, I will tell the Americans and the Israelis come and put an end to all this. I can't continue like this. We have an occupation and we don't. No, keep it all and release me." In a recent briefing attended by The Australian, one of Israel's most senior intelligence officials warned that if peace talks collapsed Mr Abbas might "walk away" and the stable security situation could be jeopardised. The official, who praised attempts by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Mr Abbas to set up government institutions and to renounce violence, said Mr Fayyad would probably not survive if Mr Abbas resigned.

Israeli media last night quoted an Israeli official saying "conditions are not ripe" for successful negotiations, even with a freeze. "After consultation with the parties, we have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations." A month ago, Mrs Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after a five-hour private meeting, agreed to the $US3bn deal. But it appears Mr Netanyahu was unable to get agreement from key elements in his coalition.

The settlements are illegal under international law. Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the ultra-orthodox Shas, led by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, have made it clear they have opposed any settlement freeze or any imminent peace deal. Israeli media said US officials were highly disappointed by Israel's refusal to reach an agreement on the freeze and that after the agreement with Mrs Clinton Mr Netanyahu had raised new demands.

On the diplomatic front, Israel is concerned about moves by various countries to unilaterally declare their support for a Palestinian state. This week, President Cristina Kirchner announced that Argentina was recognising "a free and independent Palestinian state" based on pre-1967 borders. There is a momentum among some countries, particularly in South America, to recognise a Palestinian state. Argentina's move follows recognition by Brazil and an announcement by Uruguay it will do likewise.

Meanwhile, controversy erupted yesterday when 50 of Israel's leading rabbis said Jews should not sell or rent properties to "gentiles". The rabbis, many of who are state-funded municipal rabbis and have drawn on the views of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual adviser to Shas, said renting to non-Jews would raise the risk of inter-marriage and lower property values. Mr Netanyahu condemned the views.


Extract: US urged to recognise Palestine
The Australian
Friday, December 10, 2010

CAIRO: As Israeli and Palestinian officials prepared to travel to Washington to try to rescue peace talks in crisis, the chief Palestinian negotiator said he was hoping to secure US recognition of an independent Palestinian state. "Israel's defeat of US efforts places the region at a real crossroads," Saeb Erakat said in Cairo of Israel's refusal to extend a settlement freeze. "We hope that the American administration would recognise the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders as a response to Israel's settlement diktats and other unilateral measures."

"If the United States wants to safeguard the two-state solution, it must recognise the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders," he said. The Plan B of getting other countries to recognise a Palestinian state is taking shape after months of intense lobbying. Brazil and Argentina have recognised "Palestine" and are expected to be followed by Uruguay next month. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is setting his sights on Europe and plans to ask increasingly influential Turkey to serve as a go-between.

But to secure US recognition is by far the most optimistic aim yet. One frequently raised option is to seek UN recognition. Securing a majority in the UN General Assembly would be the easier task, but winning over the Security Council would be the bigger prize. That would mean overcoming a probable US veto. Mr Erakat is to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington today or tomorrow, while Mr Abbas is to hold separate talks this week with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Arab leaders. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is also heading to Washington for meetings with senior defence and administration officials.

Washington said it was still holding out hope a peace deal could be reached within its 12-month target set in August. "We believe that's still achievable," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said. "It's not going to be easy, but we haven't changed our objective." A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Washington's announcement on settlements. "We said from the outset that settlements were not the root of the conflict and that it was only a Palestinian excuse for refusing to talk," Nir Hefetz said.

But Mr Crowley stressed that Washington "does not accept the legitimacy" of new Israeli construction in the occupied territory. The EU also reiterated its opposition. "The EU position on settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace," foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, said the US failure to secure any concession from Israel vindicated its opposition to the policy pursued by Mr Abbas's Fatah party. "Fatah has lost its gamble of counting on Washington as the US position on the Palestinian question is always utterly dependent on Israel," spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.

Kevin Rudd lays a wreath in Jerusalem last night at the
Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre.
Picture: AP

Extract: Rudd calls for inspections of Israel's nuclear facility
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

FOREIGN Minister Kevin Rudd has arrived in Israel with a blunt message: allow international inspectors into your nuclear facility. He has also called on Israel to stop building in Jewish settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In an interview with The Australian before he arrived in Israel last night, Mr Rudd staked out strong positions on both issues.

On settlements, which have been at the centre of the collapse of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr Rudd said: "The position of the Australian government has long been clear. We do not support new settlement construction and the reason is that it undermines the prospects of the successful prosecution of peace negotiations." Mr Rudd said the Australian government fully understood Israel's security concerns from Gaza, but that settlements were "a different matter". He expressed concern after comments by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that if the peace talks achieved nothing he might dissolve the Palestinian Authority and hand over day-to-day running of the West Bank to Israel. Mr Rudd warned that there may be serious consequences if the peace process collapsed. "All of us, if we are any students of the history of the last decade or so, have a grasp of what can go wrong, and what can go wrong big time if the Palestinian people don't have a stake in a negotiated outcome," he said.

Israel refuses to confirm that it even has nuclear weapons, but foreign intelligence analysts familiar with the program believe Israel has just over 200 nuclear warheads at its facility in Dimona in southern Israel. Israeli officials have confirmed to The Australian that Israel has nuclear weapons but will not place a figure on them.

Mr Rudd told The Australian: "Our view has been consistent for a long period of time, and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the NPT, and that includes Israel." But it is what he added next by referring to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that has caught Israeli officials by surprise: "And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to IAEA inspection."

Israeli officials were not surprised by Mr Rudd's call for Israel to sign the NPT but were taken aback by his call for IAEA inspections. One high-ranking Israeli official said: "I don't remember any Australian minister saying (Israel's) facilities should be put under inspection." Another Israeli official, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said: "It is very surprising; first of all, as we are not signatories to the NPT we are not bound by its obligations; and, secondly, the NPT has proven to be ineffective. Its signatories include Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq, which should speak for itself. Unlike Iran, we haven't cheated on any of our obligations."

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd with the parents of kidnapped Israeli
soldier Gilad Shalit, Noam and Aviva. Picture: Sylvie Le Clezio

Rudd offers support for captured Israeli
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

FOREIGN Minister Kevin Rudd yesterday visited the parents of a young man who is probably the most valuable prisoner in the world — captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After visiting Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Mr Rudd dropped in on the tent where Noam and Aviva Shalit keep a daily vigil to try to maintain public awareness of the plight of their son. Shalit was captured by Hamas during a cross-border clash in 2006 and has been held, presumably in the Gaza Strip, since then. He has been denied all visits, including from the Red Cross — a breach of international humanitarian conventions which insist that a prisoner should be given access to medical care.

Sitting in the tent yesterday and looking up at one of the posters of Shalit on the wall, Mr Rudd remarked: "Good looking boy." "He used to be," Shalit's father said. "We are not sure now." Mr Rudd said he had visited the tent to express Australia's solidarity for the plight of Shalit and for his release. Across the road from the tent is a massive counter board adjusted each day for the number of days Shalit has been in captivity — 1632 as of yesterday. Noam Shalit told Mr Rudd this was a human rights issue on which every leader of the free world should speak out. Mr Rudd said Shalit had much support in Australia.

Shalit has become a household name in Israel. Many cars carry bumper stickers with his image and fly yellow ribbons around their mirrors. As an indication of the importance placed on Shalit, Israel released 20 Palestinian prisoners in return for a video proving the soldier was still alive. A German mediator has tried for two years to do a deal for his release — Hamas wants 1000 of its prisoners freed from Israeli jails before agreeing to Shalit's release. Last year, both sides agreed on 980 prisoners but negotiations broke down when they could not agree on the final 20.

Same Day
Australia a close friend, says PM
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hailed Australia's friendship with Israel, describing Australians as "real colleagues" on the question of how to achieve peace. "Australia," he said yesterday, "is far away but it's a very close friend." The Prime Minister, speaking in his Knesset office in Jerusalem, was addressing a group of about 50 Australian politicians, business figures and journalists in a delegation led by Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. The group is visiting Israel for the third Australia Israel Leadership Forum, organised by Melbourne businessman Albert Dadon. Industry Minister Kim Carr and opposition frontbenchers Christopher Pyne and Kevin Andrews also participated in the meetings.

In answer to a question from The Australian, Mr Netanyahu implicitly rejected Mr Rudd's recent criticism of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. "I think it (settlements) is one of the issues that will need to be negotiated, but is it the source or the root of the conflict ' No," Mr Netanyahu said. "The conflict went on for decades before there were any settlements. I don't think in its heart this is a territorial conflict — it's an existential conflict about the acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state."

Mr Netanyahu lavished praise on Mr Rudd for his stand on Iran. "I think Kevin Rudd has been one of the world leaders who saw the danger posed by Iran," he said. "The issue of terrorism is a huge problem but it is not the biggest problem," he said "The biggest problem is the marriage of weapons of mass death with a militant Islamic regime. That's … Iran."

Also, same Day
Commentary Extract: US to bridge Mid-East gap
Abraham Rabinovich

Palestinians and Israelis face new tactics

DESPITE widespread speculation that a frustrated American government is backing away from its Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts, indications are that the US has lost only its patience, not its determination. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on Friday that the US was now prepared to bridge the gaps between the two sides in negotiations — the first time the Obama administration has indicated a readiness to make bridging proposals. Washington's tactical shift comes as international support for the Palestinians, and implied slaps at Israel, reach dramatic proportions. Last week, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay announced their recognition of an independent Palestinian state. At the same time, 26 former ranking officials of the EU called for sanctions against Israel on the settlement issue and urged the international community to come up with a peace package of its own if Israel and the Palestinians do not.

Washington is clearly not pulling out of the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian squabble, despite annoyance at its client. Clinton wasted no time in dispatching special envoy George Mitchell, who met Netanyahu on Monday. The Prime Minister said he hoped a framework agreement with the Palestinians could be achieved within a few months. Netanyahu has reportedly outlined little of Israel's position except for security aspects. These include a demand for a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, separating the West Bank from the kingdom of Jordan, in order to guard against smuggling of rockets into the West Bank and to defend against a possible ground attack from the east.

Before negotiating with the Palestinians on Jerusalem, however, Netanyahu will have to negotiate with his own Defence Minister, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. In a television interview last weekend, Barak advocated turning over Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu wants to retain all of East Jerusalem, including Arab neighbourhoods.

Netanyahu put a positive spin on the new American approach to negotiations, saying it permitted the vital core issues to be tackled immediately instead of wasting months discussing a marginal subject like the settlement freeze.


Israel rejects Rudd's call for nuclear inspections
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kevin Rudd and Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman,
during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem yesterday   AP

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday rejected Kevin Rudd's call that its nuclear facility should be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Standing alongside Mr Rudd during a press conference in Jerusalem, Mr Lieberman said what was important was not whether any country was a member of the Non- Proliferation Treaty but that it was responsible. He made it clear Israel did not regard any such inspection as necessary as it was a responsible country "and we have proved this for many years".

Mr Rudd, in an interview with The Australian this week, had said Israel's nuclear facility should be subject to inspection by the IAEA. The comment shocked Israeli officials, who could not recall an Australian minister suggesting that their facility at Dimona should be subject to inspection. Mr Rudd had said: "Our view has been consistent for a long period of time, and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the NPT, and that includes Israel. And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to IAEA inspection."

But Mr Lieberman said yesterday: "I think that we have a very clear position — we are a very responsible country and a responsible government and we have proved this for many years." He said in his view, the question was not the NPT but whether a country and its government was responsible or not. "Iran joined with the NPT and is part of the NPT and we see every day cheating and many attempts to waste time (allowing in inspectors) and, of course, they're part of the NPT but the reality is completely different."

While Mr Rudd had made his comment in an interview in Cairo, in Jerusalem yesterday he softened his position, saying Australia recognised Israel's "unique security circumstances". He concentrated much more on Iran's nuclear program than Israel's. Mr Rudd said Australia was "deeply concerned" about Iran's nuclear weapons program and while its stated aim was nuclear energy for civilian purposes, it found itself in defiance of provisions of the NPT.

"Therefore Iran has obtained from us and from other countries … universal condemnation, secondly sanctions and thirdly, in the case of Australia, autonomous sanctions over and above those which are required under the UN Security Council," he said. "Iran's nuclear weapons program and nuclear program in general represents a fundamental threat to security across the wider region. On the question of other regional states, including Israel, the position of the Australian government has long been reiterated by governments of both political persuasions in Australia that all states, including Israel, should become accessories to the NPT and its associated obligations. We recognise … Israel's unique security circumstances … but in terms of our fundamental position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as it applies to this region … all states should be in, including Israel."

Same Day
Commentary: That's no way to treat a precious friend, Mr Rudd
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

No previous foreign minister has called for the inspection of Israel's nuclear facilities

THIS has been a remarkable week for Australia in Israel, made just a bit perplexing by a baffling little sequence from Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. This week the third meeting of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a day in Ramallah talking to Palestinian leaders. There is no doubt Rudd is well regarded in Israel and his authentic leadership on Iran is appreciated. However, there was one episode of policy freelancing, or innovation, or just downright oddity, that has no honourable explanation and has perplexed, to put it mildly, his many Israeli admirers.

In an interview with this paper's John Lyons in Cairo on Saturday, Rudd said: "Our view has been consistent for a long time and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that includes Israel. And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection." Lyons was prompted to ask the question because Rudd had made very similar remarks at a press conference with the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, in Cairo the day before. In fairness to Rudd, he had strongly pressed the case that Iran's nuclear program must be contained. However, the de facto equating of Israel and Iran is bizarre. Rudd may as well have demanded that India open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA.

But Rudd's words in Cairo were extremely welcome to his Arab interlocutors. No Australian foreign minister in history has previously called for Israel's nuclear facility to be open to IAEA inspection. Israel, not being a signatory to the NPT, has no legal obligation to submit to IAEA inspections. Iran, a member of the NPT, is in clear violation of NPT and IAEA rules. Israel has never threatened anybody with nuclear weapons, Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is a democracy, Iran is a clerical-military dictatorship. Israel does not sponsor terrorism, Iran is the chief international sponsor of terrorism. Israel has never proliferated any nuclear material, Iran has been intimately involved in nuclear technology proliferation with North Korea and Syria.

Israel does not officially admit to having any nuclear weapons, but most experts believe it probably has about 200 nukes. As Rudd has acknowledged many times, Israel faces existential challenges no one else faces. There are areas of deliberate greyness in international diplomacy. No serious Western foreign minister ever demands that Israel submit to IAEA inspection. Everyone knows that Israel, like India, will never give up its nuclear weapons and a repeated demand for inspections would become just another sterile, anti-Israel agitprop slogan, of no utility to nuclear non-proliferation but very helpful to those who hate Israel and wish to demonise it.

So, presumably Rudd would not take such a radical and fateful step unless this prefigured some new and profound Australian policy objective, right ' But, dear reader, the truth is that when Rudd got to Israel he did not raise the NPT and IAEA inspections even once in his lengthy meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, or in his speech to a gala dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Indeed, the timing of the publication of Lyons's story was such that Rudd's most senior Israeli interlocutors were not even aware that he had made these remarks when they saw him on Monday.

At a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Rudd did repeat his statement that Australian policy wanted Israel to join the NPT but by then he had abandoned any reference to inspections. On a smaller note, all through the Arab world Rudd had denounced Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, but in his talks with Netanyahu and in his public speech they didn't get a mention.

Now, in politics you can support policy A or its opposite, policy B. What you cannot credibly do is support policy A in Cairo and policy B in Jerusalem. In a sense Rudd let down both the Arabs and the Israelis. If the Arabs thought he was sincere in wanting the Israelis to submit their nuclear facility to inspection, then they would be bitterly disappointed to know he didn't mention it to the Israelis. If the Israelis thought he was sincere in his presentation of himself as Israel's best friend, they would have a right to be bitterly disappointed that he was espousing much more robust anti-Israeli opinions than the consensus view among even Israel's habitual critics in Western governments.

One interpretation is that Rudd could not resist telling the Arab audience in Cairo what it wanted to hear, then telling the Israeli audience in Jerusalem what it wanted to hear. This is a common interpretation of Rudd, but one this column has resisted, regarding Rudd as a figure of singular substance in foreign policy. But you cannot have it both ways. Indeed, and this is a conclusion this column would be extremely reluctant to reach, Rudd's famous leaked comments to Hillary Clinton, saying that he wanted China to develop peacefully and fruitfully as a fully responsible member of the international community, but that if it didn't the US and Australia would have to have the option of force in reserve, could also be interpreted in this way: that Rudd was telling the Americans what he thought they wanted to hear.

The ongoing tragedy with Rudd is that his ability could never remotely be in doubt. He knows more about foreign policy than anyone on either side of the Australian parliament. But these strange quirks seem to get in the way. Rudd's performance in Israel overall was impressive, but there were times when he seemed to strain just that bit too much to connect with the audience. At the speech at the King David Hotel, for example, he remarked: "From the 1930s, this hotel became the British field headquarters for what was then British Palestine, until Menachem Begin undertook some interior redesign." Rudd was referring to the incident in which Israeli independence activists blew up the hotel. I accept that they were not the equivalent of modern terrorists. But people died in that incident. I don't think such a joke was in good taste, although many in the audience appreciated it.

I remain convinced that Rudd has made a prodigious contribution to Australian foreign policy. His self-confidence on the international stage is a great asset. But he would do well to turn the volume down, stick a bit closer to conventional government positions, be a little less adventurous. Now everyone in the Australian foreign policy debate is bound to explore whether this demand for IAEA inspections of Israel's nuclear facility is a serious government policy. As for myself, I confess considerable confusion about Rudd's purpose in this episode.


Israel slams its critics for hypocrisy
The Australian
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

JERUSALEM: Benjamin Netanyahu has lashed out at an aid group's "hypocrisy", after a report found Palestinians in the West Bank lack basic amenities and are being forcibly displaced by discriminatory Israeli policies. The Israeli Prime Minister accused New York-based Human Rights Watch of bias, after it called on Washington to penalise Israel by withholding from its massive annual aid a sum equal to the amount the Jewish state gives in subsidies to West Bank settlements.

The 166-page report, released yesterday, accuses Israel of depriving the Palestinians of services that are offered to Jewish settlers, who live in communities considered illegal under international law. "Palestinians face systematic discrimination merely because of their race, ethnicity and national origin, depriving them of electricity, water, schools and access to roads," HRW representative Carroll Bogert said. "While Israeli settlements flourish, Palestinians under Israeli control live in a time warp, not just separate, not just unequal, but sometimes even pushed off their lands and out of their homes."

Israel denied the findings: "We must expose the hypocrisy of human rights organisations that turn a blind eye to the most repressive regimes in the world — regimes that stone women and hang gays — and instead target the only liberal democracy in the Middle East." A government spokesman, Mark Regev, charged "that Human Rights Watch has allowed an anti-Israel agenda to pollute its objectivity". He said there had been "unprecedented levels of growth and development on the part of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank" over the past two years. "Anyone who looks at objective data can see this. Israel is committed to working with the Palestinian Authority upon this path that is beneficial to all."

But the report's author, Bill Van Esveld, said the study exposed a two-tier system enforced by a network of discriminatory laws and military orders. He said settlers had easy access to planning committees whereas Palestinians were not allowed to serve on the same committees, and it had become virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain permits to build homes. "Israeli policies are so harsh in their discrimination against Palestinians that, in a number of cases, Palestinians have been forced to leave because they have no access to water, they have no access to electricity." The report called for the US to "suspend financing to Israel in an amount equivalent to the costs of Israel's spending in support of settlements, which a 2003 study estimated at $US1.4 billion".

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking yesterday to a delegation of about 100 Israeli politicians and activists, said Mr Netanyahu had chosen settlements over peace. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the first for nearly two years, began in Washington on September 2, but stalled when a 10-month Israeli settlement freeze expired on September 26. "The peace process is in a deep coma," Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said at the weekend. "There's no more credibility to this negotiation process. This is an exercise in futility."

Same Day
Palestinian dead join the land-claim cause
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem

PALESTINIANS are hoping to mobilise their dead, past and future, to their national cause by burying them in new cemeteries on West Bank territory coveted by Israeli settlers. A grassroots organisation based in Hebron, the Popular Palestinian Committees, has launched the initiative in order to create facts on the ground that will influence the future border with Israel. Calling their program Intifada (Uprising) of the Graves, the organisation has urged West Bank residents to open cemeteries outside their villages on land administered by the Israeli military. Distributing Arab cemeteries throughout the West Bank, the group believes, will undermine any Israeli attempt to take permanent control of the area.

In addition to fresh burials, according to Israel Army Radio, the Palestinian organisation, an advocate of non-violent political activity, has also proposed reburials to these new cemeteries. Several Palestinian Authority ministers have reportedly endorsed the group's initiative. An Israeli settler leader, Danny Dayan, called the initiative "an alarming phenomenon" and urged the Israeli government to head it off.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hosting a delegation of left-wing Israeli politicians and peace activists in Ramallah yesterday, asked them to relay to the Israeli public that he was serious about peace. The Palestinians, he said, have been transformed since the intifada, which broke out in 2000 and led to thousands of deaths. "We changed the culture of terror and violence to a culture of peace and stability here in the West Bank in the last four years," he said. Palestinians, he said, would not again turn to violence.

Mr Abbas said he and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had come closer to a political agreement than was generally known. In eight months of talks, he said, progress was made on numerous issues, although differences remained about the amount of land to be swapped between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Mr Olmert wanted 6.5 per cent of West Bank territory to be transferred to Israel to retain its major settlement blocs. In return, Israel would cede a similar amount of territory to the Palestinians. Mr Abbas said he was willing to swap only 1.9 per cent of the West Bank. The talks were suspended when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip two years ago.

"We don't want to miss this opportunity for peace," Mr Abbas told his Israeli visitors. "I have eight grandchildren. I want a peaceful life for them." Speaking for the Israeli delegation, former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna said most Israelis understood that the Palestinians must have their own state. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayad, who has been praised for building up the infrastructure of an independent state on the West Bank, said at the weekend that his plan for establishing a Palestinian state next year, announced two years ago, remained on course.


Anti-tank missiles added to Gaza arsenal
The Australian
James Hider Jerusalem, The Times
Thursday, December 23, 2010

GAZA militants have deployed advanced Russian-made anti-tank missiles against Israeli armour for the first time. That is according to the head of the army, who warned that the situation along the border with the Hamas-run enclave was volatile and could explode again at any time.

Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi's report to parliament came after Israeli warplanes had launched eight co-ordinated airstrikes overnight (late Monday night) against Hamas and other militant targets inside the Gaza Strip. The militants fired their missiles again yesterday (Tuesday morning), narrowly missing an Israeli nursery school near the southern city of Ashkelon. A 16-year-old girl was lightly wounded in the attack.

The deployment of the Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile, capable of piercing 119cm-thick armour at a range of almost 5km, may have emboldened militants inside the Gaza Strip, which has been under a strict Israeli blockade for more than three years. "On December 6, for the first time, a Kornet missile was fired and hit an Israel Defence Forces tank, penetrating its armour," General Ashkenazi told parliament. "Fortunately, it did not explode within the tank. It is a heavy missile that is among the most dangerous that we have seen on this front. It was not used, even during the Lebanon war."

In that conflict in 2006, about three dozen Israel tanks were crippled or destroyed by Hezbollah's agile deployment of anti-tank missiles, shaking the Israeli army's confidence in its heavily armoured Merkava tanks. In response, the army has developed Trophy, a anti-missile defence system mounted on its tanks. Only one battalion has been equipped so far with the system, which detects and shoots down incoming missiles. The Israeli media announced this week that the battalion was being moved to the Gaza border. The general said the situation on the border was "frail and explosive", and warned that a direct hit on a school or nursery school could trigger a new round of violence.


Commentary: Decision time on Iran approaches
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Friday, December 24, 2010

THE world is moving towards a decision point on Iran and a key player in any decision will be the government of Israel. I have just spent 10 days in Israel and every discussion there — almost every thought — is infused with Iran.

Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to Washington, thinks some decisions will be made in a matter of weeks. Everything is in the balance. The possible consequences are stark and enormously disquieting. They include: a nuclear-armed Iran, an explosion of global terrorism and a new war in the Middle East. All are possible.

I met Ayalon for a long discussion in a small ante-room in Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, oddly enough over haddock and mayonnaise. The central question asks itself: will the world succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons ' "I would say it's touch and go," Ayalon says. "Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but to Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the (Persian) Gulf countries, countries in North Africa. A nuclear Iran would have a disastrous effect on the entire world order."

Ayalon, steel-grey-haired, sober, judicious and diplomatic of demeanour, then lists some of the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran: "Iran could control the oil supply and dictate oil prices. Anyone who says don't rock the boat because it will jack up oil prices should try and imagine what will happen under a nuclear Iran." The Iranians "will also have complete protection in their aggressive actions in terrorism around the world. They are increasingly penetrating into Latin America through Venezuela. They are influential in Lebanon through Hezbollah, in Syria, among the Palestinians through Hamas, in Africa, where they are looking for uranium."

It is impossible to get Israeli government figures to say what the red line is for Israel with Iran, whether Jerusalem would take pre-emptive military action to destroy or at least retard Iran's nuclear program. Both Jerusalem and Washington have studied intensely both the risks and the opportunities of striking Iran's nuclear program. And there are endless reports, which Israelis will never comment on, of Israeli and US efforts to sabotage and disrupt Iran's nuclear program by non-military means. In Israel these are life and death matters. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has famously called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Ayalon offers a measured and mixed assessment of the effectiveness of efforts, especially sanctions, to constrain Iran. "Probably in a matter of weeks we will have to sit down and reflect on how effective the sanctions have been," he says. "Notwithstanding the technical problems Iran has, it's touch and go. The sanctions were effective on the Iranian economy, and in undermining the self-confidence of the Iranian leadership. But these efforts have not yet changed the Iranians' behaviour. The Iranians were surprised by the UN resolution (on sanctions) and by the extra measures a number of nations, such as Australia, took. This is the first time the Iranians are paying a price for their international defiance."

"Iran is not without its vulnerabilities. Certainly, we have not exploited all of them. Realistically, there will have to be radical change in Iran's behaviour. They continue to enrich uranium, to develop new generations of centrifuges, and new missiles. Those who say 2011 is going to be an important year may be right." So, how close is Iran, really, to nuclear weapons ' "They have not yet reached the technical capability for a nuclear weapon, but if left to their own devices they will within one to three years."

There is no doubt Iran is overwhelmingly the most important issue today for Israel (as it is for Washington, North Korea notwithstanding). But it is not the strategic issue the world most often says it wants Israel to solve. That is the future of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute seems as ever far away from peaceful solution. The Palestinians are refusing to engage in face-to-face negotiations with the Israelis. The Israelis rebuffed a US request for a further freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. Yet Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, on a recent visit to Israel, spoke of an "historic opportunity" to get a full peace deal.

"There is a window of opportunity," Ayalon concedes politely in response to Rudd's statement, but Ayalon's subsequent words seem to offer very little encouragement for this view. "But right now we are sitting at the table all alone. The centre-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a big change of heart. Two years ago, at this university, Netanyahu accepted a Palestinian state." Previously this was a position of the centre-left in Israel. Now there is a consensus among Israelis for a Palestinian state. "The Palestinians don't want to come to the table right now mainly because of their internal disputes. We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, however. Even if we cannot reach an end-of-claims and end-of-conflict agreement, at least we should get a series of interim agreements. "We need security and they need independence."

Ayalon argues that Jewish settlements on the West Bank are not an obstacle to peace. He says Jewish settlements outside East Jerusalem take up about 3 per cent of the the West Bank, a figure also used by Rudd during his visit. "We are not building new settlements. We are not extending the boundaries of existing settlements. And there are no government incentives for people to live on the West Bank. We made a down-payment on the settlements issue in 2005. Under Ariel Sharon we evacuated 21 settlements in Gaza and four more in the West Bank. Settlements should not be used as an excuse. But just as we do not want the Palestinians to pre-judge an agreement, so we say also for ourselves that settlements won't pre-determine the outcome."

Ayalon says the Israeli view of the Palestinians' future has been transformed over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, he says, there was an Israeli consensus against a Palestinian state. Then came the Oslo Accords, the return of Yasser Arafat to the West Bank, and prime minister Ehud Barak's 2000 offer of all of Gaza, almost all the West Bank, and other land from Israel in compensation and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. This offer was rejected and followed by the violence of the second intifada, yet the Israelis came up with an even more extensive offer under Ehud Olmert.

In contrast, Ayalon argues, "the Palestinian position has not budged one iota in 17 years". "Their maximalist position has continued. And they also continue to look for solutions far away."

By maximalist positions Ayalon means the insistence, for example, that the several million descendants of anyone who ever lived in any part of Palestine be allowed to live in Israel proper — the so-called right of return — and the refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

By seeking solutions far away, Ayalon means the apparent belief of Palestinian leaders that they can get more concessions from Israel by international pressure than through direct negotiation. That was evident in recent decisions of Argentina, Brazil and a number of other Latin American nations to recognise a Palestinian state. Such international moves also play into what Israelis see as a concerted international campaign to delegitimise the state of Israel.

"This is a serious concern," Ayalon tells me. "There are real networks, some in Ramallah, also Islamist forces based in Tehran and elsewhere, and also a network of non-government organisations in the West which are being manipulated and fooled by the Islamists. The best way for us to answer that campaign is to be more pro-active and more fully engaged in the international community."

Israel's diplomatic establishment believes it needs to refocus on traditional diplomacy. It has joined the OECD and other international organisations. Jerusalem has a portfolio of booming relationships across Asia. Israel, with its buoyant economy and prodigious human talent, is much more than just the sum of its military and strategic challenges. "We have a lot to offer in know-how and technology," Ayalon says.

He also expresses heartfelt appreciation for Australia's strong stand against the delegitimisation of Israel. Rudd recently told me the international campaign to boycott trade and investment with Israel was wrong in principle and it also hurt the Palestinians. Ayalon says Australia's support has been "very important" to Israel. "Australia and Israel are like-minded countries sharing values and interests and facing common threats." So it would make sense that there would be no better partner than Australia for Israel's renewed interest in traditional diplomacy, always assuming, of course, that the situation with Iran allows anything approaching traditional diplomacy to continue.

Comment from dagworth of nsw Posted at 6:51 AM Today

It is impossible to separate the looming inflection point in relations with Iran from the crisis between the two Koreas. North Korea and Iran share atomic weapons and missile technology and both are proxies of China. A nuclear armed Iran able to dominate the Gulf oilfields would quickly 'out' itself as a Chinese ally. Loss of hegemony in the Gulf would be a strategic disaster for the West. It may not be a coincidence that both US Houses have just ratified START, which helps to keep Russia either neutral or on side.


Amid the tensions, messages of conciliation
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, December 28, 2010

WHILE Israeli troops and Palestinian militants traded threats over the Gaza border, surprising messages of conciliation issued from the Middle East over the Christmas weekend. The new head of Israel's Mossad spy agency reportedly apologised to British officials for the use of cloned passports in the assassination of a Hamas member in Dubai in January. Despite escalating tensions with Israel, the dominant Hamas political figure in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Zahar, said Hamas wanted to maintain calm with Israel, saying this was "not a sign of weakness, but strength". And Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, who has criticised Israel since its forces killed nine Turkish militants trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza in May, said: "We have the intention of making peace with Israel."

Tamir Pardo, who took over command of Mossad this month, was reported by Britain's Daily Telegraph to be planning to meet his British counterparts in MI5 and MI6 when he visits London next month. As well as apologising over the faked passports — 12 of the 26 used were British — Mr Pardo will reportedly promise that Israel will never do it again. The Mossad station chief in London was expelled after then British foreign secretary David Milliband said Israel had shown a "profound disregard" for British sovereignty by faking the passports. The aim of Mr Pardo's visit will be to rebuild relations.

In Gaza, Mr Zahar's moderate statement followed the firing of dozens of rockets and mortar shells into Israel, to which Israel responded with airstrikes that killed at least five militants. A discordant note was struck by the head of Hamas's military wing, Ahmed Ja'abari, who said that in the end Israel would face two choices: "Death or getting out of Palestinian lands." Members of Gaza's small Christian community were permitted to pass through Israeli territory to attend Christmas services in Bethlehem on the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who met them, told reporters that when a Palestinian state is established "it would have no Israeli presence in it". He was referring to Israel's demand that its troops continue to be deployed in the Jordan Valley after the creation of a Palestinian state.

In Turkey, the ferry that was attacked by Israel got a rapturous welcome from thousands yesterday as it returned to Istanbul. Crowds waving Turkish and Palestinian flags lined the quay, chanting "Allah is Great". The Mavi Marmara will be part of a new flotilla that will leave for Gaza on May 31, the anniversary of the raid, its owner said. Mr Davutoglu, while declaring Ankara's intention to pursue peaceful relations, could not withhold a jab at Israel. Repeating Turkey's demands for an apology for the nine flotilla deaths and compensation for the families, he noted Turkey's swift dispatch of fire-fighting aircraft to help quell a forest fire in Israel this month. If the situation were reversed, he said, it would have taken Israel days to act. Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, gave an angry response. Terming Mr Davutoglu's remarks "lies" and "beyond chutzpah (impertinence)", he said that if there was an apology to be made it should come from Turkey.
Turks wave a giant Palestinian flag yesterday during the arrival in
Istanbul's port of the Mavi Marmara, one of the flotilla of aid ships
sailing to Gaza that was raided by the Israel navy in May. AFP

Same Day
Obama could 'abandon' Israel
The Times, AFP

JERUSALEM: The US may throw its weight behind a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood if Israel does not resume Middle East peace talks, an Israeli minister has warned. In the first admission by a senior Israeli official that a rift with its key ally threatened a shift in US policy, Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer urged the resumption of talks with the Palestinians — even if it meant bowing to their demands for a renewed freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. "We must do everything possible to get to dialogue with the Palestinians, even if it costs us a settlement freeze for a few months," the Labour minister told a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "I wouldn't be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we'll ask where we were and what we were doing."

In recent weeks, four Latin American states, led by Brazil, have officially recognised a Palestinian state inside the borders as they were before the 1967 Six Day war. Some European nations have upgraded diplomatic relations with the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership walked out of peace talks revived by the US three months ago in anger at Israel's refusal to extend a halt on building in the settlements, which are viewed as illegal by the international community. The Palestinians have said that if there is no renewed negotiation effort they will go to the UN Security Council with a unilateral declaration of statehood.

Israeli diplomats have been rushing to ascertain the possible response of key countries to such a resolution amid fears that US President Barack Obama, having been thwarted in his peace efforts, might concentrate on other regions for the remaining two years of his term. So far, Washington has said it would not back the anti-settlement resolution, but other countries such as Britain may offer some support. Mr Ben-Eliezer's warning is also likely to increase tensions in the Israeli coalition as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strives to satisfy hardliners and pro-talks factions.

Representing the hardliners, Israel's fiery Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday (Sunday) Israel should not sign a peace deal with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority because it was illegitimate. He said it had lost control of the Gaza Strip to rival Hamas and postponed elections after its term had expired. "It is a government that has postponed elections three times, that lost elections, that does not hold elections, does not plan to hold elections and there are no guarantees that next time they do hold elections, Hamas won't win again," Mr Lieberman said. He also said the Palestinians would reject any deal from Israel, no matter how generous, and that there were unbridgeable gaps on Israeli security issues. "Even if we offer the Palestinians Tel Aviv and go back to the 1947 borders, they would find reasons not to sign a peace deal with us," he said.

There were fresh clashes in and around Gaza on the eve of the second anniversary of the Israeli offensive Cast Lead. Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships opened fire on Islamic Jihad members trying to plant bombs close to the Israeli-controlled border fence with Gaza, killing two people. More rockets were fired out of the Gaza Strip into Israel, despite some of the heaviest air strikes from Israel in two years.

Israel has admitted that one of its tanks was hit by an advanced, Russian-made anti-tank missile that had been smuggled into the besieged strip by Hamas. "I hope there is no need for another operation like Cast Lead," Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Silvan Shalom, said. "But if this situation continues, then obviously we will have to respond and respond with all our force." Abu Obeidah, a Hamas military spokesman, said his forces were also ready for another bout of bloodletting. "If there is any Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, we will respond strongly," he said.


US halted push for Israeli ban
The Australian
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says talks to secure a new settlement freeze ground to a halt when the US stopped pressing for the ban, not because Israel rejected it. Israeli media quoted him yesterday as telling parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee that Washington initially asked Israel to extend a 10-month building freeze, which expired in September. "The truth is that we were prepared to do this but contrary to what was reported, Israel did not refuse to extend the freeze," Maariv daily's "NRG" website quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying. "In the end, the US decided not to take that path — rightly in my opinion."

Haaretz daily's website quoted Mr Netanyahu as saying he told US President Barack Obama he would ask his cabinet to back a three-month extension. "I told Obama that I am prepared to go with this to the cabinet and that I will be able to enforce the move, but then I received the surprising phone call from the Americans, who said they no longer demand that Israel extends the freeze," the paper quoted him as telling the committee. Mr Netanyahu said in November he would put the US request to a cabinet vote if incentives from Washington were put in writing, among them finance for advanced warplanes and a promise to veto any UN Security Council resolution against Israel's interests. That letter apparently never came.


Extract from World Commentary: Optimistic Morocco reaches out to the West for friendship
Weekend Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Saturday, January 8, 2011

With 35 million people, Morocco is the fourth-largest Arab nation, after Egypt, Sudan and Algeria. It has free elections and two houses of parliament. The King, Mohammed VI, whose portrait adorns every official building and many public places, retains, however, immense authority and executive power. Morocco's critics accuse it of arbitrary arrest and some censorship. Nonetheless, Morocco has a better claim to democratic practice than any of its neighbours in North Africa.

It is a major non-NATO ally of the US and co-operates intimately with Washington and the EU on security matters. Its government holds orthodox Arab positions on Middle East issues — but they are moderate orthodox positions, and it holds them in a moderate fashion. Thus for a time, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was in full bloom, Morocco opened diplomatic relations with Israel. When the peace process collapsed, Morocco's capital Rabat suspended, but did not revoke altogether those diplomatic relations. In Casablanca I visit the home of one of the leaders of Morocco's still vibrant Jewish community. The home, though not ostentatious, is beautiful. I could be in an elegant apartment in Double Bay.

And yet the future is not assured in Morocco. Its people are young and socially divided. Millions live below the poverty line. Rural poverty is extreme and there are urban shantytowns.

Rabat, an hour's drive away, is not as pushy as Casablanca, but it's more elegant. The city's ancient casbah sits perched on a tall hill, the views are stupendous: green expanses punctuate clusters of tiny laneways and elegant Moroccan architecture. The national government buildings are grand, especially the palace, though none as grand as the huge Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.

Mohammed Cheikh Biadillah, the distinguished looking president of the House of Councillors, the Moroccan equivalent of the Senate, welcomed me and a small group of Australians into a lavish meeting room in the parliamentary building in Rabat.

Like every official I met in Morocco, he was very positive about Australia, but his opening remark contained a barb: "We are very happy to have an embassy in Canberra, and not to be represented from Jakarta, or from Paris." This was an obvious reference to Moroccan annoyance that Australia, which is always willing to lecture the Middle East about its failings, is happy to spend many tens of millions of dollars of aid there and even more in military deployments, yet has no embassy in Morocco, nor indeed in most of North Africa. Morocco is nonetheless supporting Australia's bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

Then there is a plea for Australian investment: "We know Australia is very interested in (mineral) exploration. You are very welcome to come to our country and do so. There are some security problems. Al-Qa'ida is active in the region. Our border with Algeria is totally closed. We do have a security concern with the Sahara region. Al-Qa'ida has conducted kidnappings in the northern part of Mauritania. Some French have been kidnapped in Niger".

Biadillah's counterpart in the House of Representatives, Abdelwahed Radi, somewhat shocks me later in the day by saying he thinks the Israel-Palestinian dispute is the main cause of Islamist terrorism internationally.

I take this up later in the day with Ouzzine Mohammed, the sleek, smooth Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who meets me and some others in the appropriately less grand foreign affairs department building in Rabat. Surely, I ask, this view is hard to sustain when you consider the vast multiplicity of issues and disputes, from Western pornography to Kashmir to Iraq to American troop presence in the Middle East to the murderous sectarian Sunni-Shia disputes and a million other things that have been used to justify Islamist violence '

Moreover, Osama bin Laden himself barely mentioned Israel in his first several years of terrorist operations. His chief initial grievance was the presence of US troops on sacred Islamic soil in Saudi Arabia. Ouzzine replies, in part, "Just because Osama bin Laden says something is no reason to believe it". That surely is true enough, but must be the oddest argument yet for the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to global terrorism. Instead I take these Moroccan sentiments to mean that that is more or less what an Arab government has to say these days, even if it knows how analytically weak the proposition is.

Ouzzine is nonetheless a very persuasive advocate for his nation: "The common belief in Morocco today is the project of democratisation which His Majesty has launched. Moroccans are very much open to the world. Islam is the religion of the state but we believe in the right of free worship and in freedom. There is a tendency in Morocco to adopt peaceful methods. There is some Islamist influence in Morocco but it is moderate. We do have an Islamic Party but it is open and moderate and accepts participation in democratic life." The Moroccan officials I interviewed, like government officials everywhere, may be a little over-optimistic. But the direction they want to take Morocco is surely the right direction. We have an interest in their success, or their failure.


Netanyahu swats off Clinton criticism
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

ISRAEL last night shrugged off sharp international criticism of its razing of a historic east Jerusalem hotel to make way for settler homes, saying it was a perfectly legal private deal. "Actions undertaken yesterday at the Shepherd Hotel were conducted by private individuals in accordance with Israeli law," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, stressing "the Israeli government was not involved". The US accused Israel of undermining peace efforts following the demolition of the landmark building in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem for luxury Jewish apartments. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "This disturbing development undermines peace efforts to achieve the two-state solution. In particular, this move contradicts the logic of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties on the status of Jerusalem."

At dawn yesterday, bulldozers began demolishing the hotel, which was bought in 1985 by US billionaire Irving Moskowitz, who has been funding Jewish building in annexed East Jerusalem. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been conducting a public relations campaign on the peace process while "rapidly moving to prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state". "What is happening today is part of the program of the Israeli government to pre-empt any solution on Jerusalem," he said. Mr Netanyahu has insisted "Jerusalem is not a settlement" and says Israel has a right to build anywhere in the city. Peace talks have collapsed after the US abandoned efforts to convince Israel to impose a new freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The demolition comes as tensions increase and as Israel launched airstrikes yesterday on the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli Defence Force admitted it made a mistake when it shot dead a 67-year-old Palestinian man who was in his bed in Hebron. The man's son said when the IDF entered the apartment, they locked his mother in one room then opened fire on his father, who was asleep. "They murdered him in cold blood with 13 bullets in the head without even checking his identity," the son told the media. "After they killed him, they asked for his identity card." The IDF admitted they had mistaken the man for a Hamas identity and expressed regret for the death.

In another incident, an unarmed Palestinian man, 21, was shot eight times by three soldiers, who were behind protection barriers at a checkpoint, when he did not stop when told to. One of the soldiers told his superiors the man had been carrying a bottle and he felt threatened. There is a growing expectation in Israel that another war in Gaza is looming. Israel's Infrastructure Minister, Uzi Landau, said yesterday Israel must consider "a fresh policy of zero tolerance, exert a heavy price, not let this situation deteriorate."


Fraught coalition collapses in Beirut
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Friday, January 14, 2011

LEBANON is bracing for a new round of violence after militant Shia group Hezbollah forced the collapse of the government after resigning from cabinet. The 11 Hezbollah ministers and allies resigned while the nation's Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, was in the US for meetings with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mrs Clinton accused Hezbollah of engaging in a transparent effort "to subvert justice". "We view what happened today as a transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon, as well as interests outside Lebanon, to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress," she said.

The crisis comes despite efforts by Saudi Arabia and Syria to manage tensions arising from an upcoming UN tribunal report investigating the assassination in 2005 of Mr Hariri's father, Rafik. Mrs Clinton said the US believed the work of the tribunal must continue. Mr Hariri was rushing home to Beirut last night.

Hezbollah has asked President Michel Suleiman to form a new government. Hezbollah claims the US has sabotaged the Saudi-Syria deal under which Mr Hariri was to agree that no Hezbollah figures would be indicted in return for Hezbollah remaining part of the government.

Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, was killed along with 22 others when his convoy was hit by a massive bomb in Beirut. Many Lebanese, including Saad Hariri, believed Syria may have played a role in the assassination. Leaks suggest Hezbollah figures may be indicted by the tribunal. Saad Hariri is closely aligned to Saudi Arabia and the US while Hezbollah is funded and supported by Iran and Syria. Since being elected in 2009, Mr Hariri has tried to co-exist with Hezbollah, which, after an agreement in 2008, has a blocking veto on government decisions. That blocking veto was given to Hezbollah after clashes lasting several days in 2008. Hezbollah had opposed moves by the government to close its private communications system and wind back the group's control of Beirut airport. In recent months, Hezbollah has blocked the budget, effectively crippling the government.


Barak quits Labour to start new party, remains minister
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

ISRAELI politics was thrown into uncertainty last night with the resignation of Defence Minister Ehud Barak as leader of the Labour Party. Mr Barak, who will remain Defence Minister in the coalition government of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, will attempt to form a new party called Atzmaut, or Independence. The former prime minister said Atzmaut would be "centralist, Zionist and democratic".

Mr Barak took with him four other MPs, splitting the party that had reduced to only 13 of the 120 Knesset seats at the last election. Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilani, Trade and Labour Minister Orit Noked, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and Einat Wilf joined Mr Barak, the former defence force chief and Israel's most decorated soldier. "We are creating a new faction and we will call on everyone who believes in our path to join," Mr Barak said. Explaining his reasons to quit Labour, Mr Barak, prime minister from July 1999 to March 2001, pointed to a "a shift towards the Left" as well as the "endless infighting" that had left the party weak and divided. Ms Wilf made reference to recent threats by Labour figures to quit the coalition unless progress was made on the peace process.

Mr Barak's announcement was widely seen as co-ordinated in advance with Mr Netanyahu in a move that would most likely "strengthen" the Prime Minister, army radio said, pointing out he could now count on a "stable majority" of 66 MPs. Mr Barak, 68, reputed to have offered the late Yasser Arafat more concessions than any other Israeli leader, believes not achieving a peace deal represents a threat to Israel's survival as a Jewish state. But his position has been under threat by Labour MPs who believe he has not pushed Likud hard enough for a deal.

The Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday that Mr Netanyahu clashed at Sunday's cabinet meeting with Labor's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who said that it was a "pity" that there were no achievements in the diplomatic realm. Mr Netanyahu replied: "It's because of statements like that of yours that the Palestinians aren't returning to the talks."

Leadership possibilities for Labour include Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman. Unlike Mr Barak, neither has the sort of military credentials regarded as important in a country that faces constant threats. Mr Herzog, the son of a former president and considered the frontrunner, became the first Labour minister to quit the government. "It is a personal resignation but I have talked about it with my friends, the ministers Benjamin Ben Eliezer and Avishay Braverman. They understand the reality very well and want, with me and others, to save the Labour Party," he said. Mr Braverman also said he would resign but would stay with Labour. "A government which has decided not to advance the peace process is a government in which I have no place, therefore at the end of this news conference I shall submit my resignation to the Prime Minister," he said. Mr Ben-Eliezer was expected to outline his position early today.


Ehud Barak exit strategy boosts Israeli PM
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

ISRAEL'S right-wing coalition government appears to have been strengthened by the dramatic manoeuvre that saw Defence Minister Ehud Barak resign as leader of the Labour Party but remain in the cabinet. Although public recriminations in the embattled Labour Party began immediately, it appeared the deal guarantees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu long-term support from Mr Barak and his four fellow defectors. Mr Barak will remain Defence Minister and, along with the four members of the Knesset, form a new party, Atzmaut, or Independence.

It became clear yesterday that the eight other members of the Labour Party in the Knesset who are not defecting may have walked out of the government at their conference next month because of the lack of progress in the peace process. Shortly after Mr Barak announced he was forming the new party, three of Labour's ministers resigned from the government: Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog; Trade, Industry and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer; and Labor and Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman. They will remain in the Labour Party.

Mr Herzog, son of the late president Chaim Herzog and who has strong connections with Australia and New Zealand, is seen as the frontrunner to lead Labour. He said yesterday: "The time has come to stop lying to ourselves and leave the government which has brought us to a dead end and forced upon us (Foreign Minister) Avigdor Lieberman and his party (Yisrael Beiteinu) with its unacceptable racist discourse, which threatens our democracy." Mr Ben-Eliezer said the late Labour leader Yitzhak Rabin would be "turning over in his grave" at the current state of the Labour Party, which for much of Israel's history has been the governing party. Mr Braverman said: "(Ehud) Barak forgot that he put the peace process at the top of his agenda. This new party (Atzmaut) would be 'Likud A' at best and 'Lieberman B' at (worst)."

Political analysts were divided about whether the change would assist or set back the peace process. Gil Hoffman in The Jerusalem Post said the government could now operate without "the artificial deadline" of the next Labour convention and that the strengthening of the coalition sent a message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack Obama that "they are stuck with him for the foreseeable future, so they will have to deal with him now". "Netanyahu will now want to prove to Barak that he made the right decision to stay. And that means that serious diplomatic concessions are likely on the way," Hoffman wrote.

The Hebrew-language media strongly attacked Barak. The largest-selling paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, ran a page one headline: "Ehud Ran Away". The paper's top analyst, Nahum Barnea, wrote that while Barak's actions had saved the Netanyahu government from near-certain dissolution, "in a certain sense Barak turned yesterday from a partner into a collaborator". "The settlers are going to eat him alive," Barnea wrote. "They will make it hard for him to continue to enact the policies he has enacted to date, restricting construction for Jews and scaling back the restrictions on Palestinians."


Misquote fires Palestinian fury
Weekend Australian
Saturday, January 22, 2011

BEIT HANOUN: A crowd of angry Palestinians protesters mobbed the car of French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie as she arrived in Gaza yesterday. Carrying signs reading "Get out of Gaza" they surrounded her car after it passed through a Hamas checkpoint in the northern town of Beit Hanoun. Some protesters hurled shoes and one jumped on the car, furious at a statement wrongly attributed to the French minister when she met the parents of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Jerusalem a day earlier.

Father Noam Shalit had asked her to press the EU to "condemn as a war crime" the detention of his son. Shortly afterwards, Israel's public radio posted a story on its Arabic-language website mistakenly quoting Ms Alliot-Marie as saying the EU "must condemn the war crime that Hamas is committing by keeping Gilad Shalit in captivity." As the demonstrators shoved toward the car, two terrified children were flung to the ground in front of the lead vehicle in the convoy of jeeps, and stayed there for several minutes before being hauled away by their families.


Turkish fury as Israel clears itself of Gaza boat raid
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TURKEY was "surprised, appalled and dismayed" by an Israeli report clearing the military and government of any wrongdoing in last year's deadly raid on a flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade. While attempts have been made to repair relations between the two allies, Turkey's own commission of inquiry reacted angrily at the first of two reports to be released by former Israeli Supreme Court judge Jacob Turkel. "Our commission is surprised, appalled and dismayed that the national inquiry process in Israel has resulted in the exoneration of the Israeli armed forces despite all the facts that have also been confirmed by the international fact finding mission," said the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. "Israel's attack against the humanitarian aid convoy, which violated both wartime and peacetime international law, has also trampled all international principles, rules and norms with the manner in which it was conducted."

In May last year nine Turkish activists were killed after Israeli commandos boarded the ferry Mavi Marmara to prevent it from breaking the blockade to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip. The report released on Sunday by Mr Turkel's six-member panel, found Israel was entitled under international law to board the vessel and cleared the military of any wrongdoing. The two international members of the panel — Canada's former chief military prosecutor Ken Watkin and Northern Ireland Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble — endorsed the report's findings. The inquiry concludes that "the actions taken were found to be legal pursuant to the rules of international law".

Last year the UN Human Rights Council found Israel had used "an unacceptable level of brutality". The UN is to prepare another report.

The Turkel report paints a picture of commandos who did not expect to confront violence when they boarded the Mavi Marmara. The report, which looked at hundreds of hours of video and took statements from commandos, found the takeover began at 4.26am. Those aboard the boat fell into two categories — the largest group, peace activists, and a second group of about 40 activists from the Turkish organisation IHH. The first attempt to take the vessel by speedboats was thwarted when metal and bottles were thrown at the soldiers.

It was decided the boat would be boarded by 15 soldiers "fast-roping" from a helicopter. At 4.29am, they threw two "flash-bang grenades" before they descended. When the rope was tied by IHH activists to the roof of the ship, a second rope was lowered and another grenade thrown. The 15 soldiers were attacked with wooden clubs, iron rods, slingshots, knives and firearms. Three soldiers were taken below deck. The soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat and with flash-bang grenades, Tasers and live ammunition. The commander testified he felt his life and that of other soldiers was in danger and he withdrew his mini-Uzi. An armed group ran towards him and he let off two shots before it was grabbed from him.

At 4.46am, the order was given for a third helicopter crew to board the Marmara. This team was ordered to shoot towards the ship's body into a clear area to deter the activists and, in the event of any danger to the commandos, to shoot at the threat. As they entered the ship they were fired upon with marbles and screws. The commander gave the order that, if shooting continued, to shoot at the legs of participants holding slingshots.

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