Truce kicks in but dying continues

The Australian FRONTPAGE
Martin Chulov, Beirut
August 15, 2006

A YOUNG Lebanese girl killed by a leftover cluster bomb last night and two dead Hezbollah fighters have underscored the difficulty of holding the ceasefire that went into effect across Israel and Lebanon yesterday. The girl, who died in the village of Habbouche, 15km inside the border, was among the 15 casualties of leftover Israeli shells as thousands of refugees streamed back to their homes alongside aid convoys carrying desperately needed food and medicine.

The guns of war fell silent at 8am (3pm AEST), but not before a furious last stand from both sides, with Hezbollah firing an unprecedented 250 rockets at northern Israel and Israeli jets battering southern Lebanon and Beirut with more than 100 airstrikes. Six hours into the truce, two Hezbollah fighters - one who aimed his rifle at Israeli troops just south of the strategic Litani River, and another who opened fire on them further south - had been shot dead.

Up to 20,000 Israeli troops remained in southern Lebanon, defying Hezbollah's demands that they immediately withdraw or face attacks that would plunge the Holy Land back into war.

The deployment of Lebanese troops to the south - a prerequisite for an Israeli withdrawal - was in chaos last night, with the Lebanese Government baulking at suggestions its troops could be forced to confront Hezbollah militants, who were refusing to disarm.

Dozens of ruined roads and bridges, which would take several weeks to rebuild, were preventing the Lebanese Army from moving south and posed serious obstacles to the deployment of an expected 15,000-strong international stabilisation force, another prerequisite for an Israeli withdrawal.

After agreeing to UN Security Council resolution 1701, which drafted the terms of the ceasefire, Hezbollah had decided that calls for it to surrender its weapons and withdraw from the south would cast it as losers in the 33-day war.

The Lebanese Government said yesterday its forces would not be ordered to confront Hezbollah, or Israel, insisting that enforcing the UN resolution would be solely the responsibility of the international force. Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general, said: "Sending 15,000 troops south is a political solution, not a military one. It's more a PR stunt. The army needs the international force to help it."

Widespread doubts about the viability of the ceasefire existed throughout Lebanon and Israel. Minutes before the ceasefire came into effect, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over central Beirut warning that Israel would react with fury if Hezbollah again attacked its soil. "If it turns out that the elements involved in the agreement violate it, Israeli Defence Force soldiers will have no restriction to operate in order to defend their lives," said Defence Minister Amir Peretz. "There will be no situation in which IDF soldiers will be hurt and we will not retaliate. We will retaliate with all means."

The best-case scenario was that Israeli forces remained on the ground for seven to 10 days. However, Lebanese government figures said it was highly unlikely that the international force could be mobilised by then.

So far, Indonesia, Malaysia, Greece and Italy had agreed to send troops. The Australian Government was continuing to weigh its options, but said any contribution it made would be limited.

No, the other side won
Stunning sight of militant mea culpa
COMMENT
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
The Australian
August 29, 2006

DESPITE the inclination in Israel to accept the verdict of the Muslim world that Hezbollah came out on top in the recent war, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in his stunning interview yesterday, in effect handed the victory to Israel. In acknowledging that he had erred in estimating the likely Israeli reaction and that he had not foreseen the devastating consequences for Lebanon, he asserted that Israel's deterrent power had not been eroded by the war, but enhanced.

It has been widely mooted in the Muslim world, and to a large extent in Israel itself, that Israel's inability to stop Hezbollah's rocket fire into northern Israel in a month of warfare - and its failure to complete the capture of southern Lebanon - had shattered the image of the Israeli army as virtually invincible and exposed it as vulnerable to militants. The thrust of Nasrallah's remarks, however, was that the punishment inflicted by Israel had been too great a price for Hezbollah and Lebanon to bear. "There has not been a war like this in the history of wars," he said, a view that reflected his stunned appearance in a taped interview in a Beirut bunker at the war's beginning after Israeli warplanes had begun to level an entire Hezbollah neighbourhood above his head.

In contrast with the aggressive way in which he spoke of Israel in the past, Nasrallah's tone during this interview was markedly restrained. Gone was the taunting nature of his famous speech several years ago in which he said Israel was a cobweb that would be swept away by the first strong wind. He had demonstrated this dismissiveness by authorising periodic cross-border raids and recurring rocket attacks on Israeli army positions along the border in the six years since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. In saying now that he would not have carried out last month's raid in which two Israeli soldiers were captured if he had known the consequences, he was clearly implying he would not do something like that in the future - for fear of similar consequences.

That is deterrence, something Israel had lost against Hezbollah in recent years.

Nasrallah's remarks apparently reflect a growing reassessment within Lebanon of the war's balance sheet as south Lebanon residents return to mauled villages that Hezbollah had turned into military strong points and that were pummelled by Israel in the fighting. Hezbollah has not reacted thus far to the killing of a dozen of its fighters by Israeli soldiers since the ceasefire went into effect. Hezbollah's lack of response on the ground can be seen as reflecting the reduced legitimacy it now has in Lebanon in the wake of the war's devastation and its reluctance, at least for now, to revive hostilities.

More than 1300 Lebanese were killed in the war, mostly civilians. Hezbollah has admitted to the deaths of a few score of its fighters but Israel says that up to 800 Hezbollah fighters were killed. Israel says it has the names of 430 dead fighters, presumably taken from identity cards. Israel itself has lost about 160 soldiers and civilians. The piles of war-related rubble are also higher in Lebanon.

However, it is not the statistics of death and destruction that determine who won the war, if there be a winner, but perception, particularly the perception of the man who inadvertently started it.

Following Day
Hamas in cry from the heart
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
August 30, 2006

HAMAS Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad has called on fellow Palestinians to cease blaming the Israeli occupation for their troubles and find a way to stop the thuggery and violence that have shattered their dreams of an independent state. "The chaos, pointless murders, the plundering of lands, family feuds ... what do all of these have to do with the occupation?" Dr Hamad wrote in an article published on Palestinian news websites. "Gaza is suffering under the yoke of anarchy and the sword of thugs. We've been attacked by the bacteria of stupidity and don't know where we're headed."

As government spokesman, Dr Hamad, a former newspaper editor, has often attacked Israel since Hamas was elected to office earlier this year. But his heart-cry reflected growing despair among the Palestinian elite at the direction life in Gaza has taken since Israel's withdrawal a year ago.

"In the past, we said we are in favour of the liberation of every inch of land. Today we have thousands of inches - 365 square kilometres (the size of the Gaza Strip)," he wrote. "I remember the day Israel withdrew. Then, Palestinians celebrated what many of us regarded as the Israeli defeat or retreat. We heard a lot about a promising future. "When you walk the streets of Gaza City today, you cannot but close your eyes because of what you see there: indescribable anarchy, policemen nobody pays attention to, youths strutting with weapons, mourning tents set up in the middle of main streets. Clans carry weapons in tribal wars against other clans. Gaza has turned into a garbage dump."

Dr Hamad did not refer to the West Bank, where Israeli security forces remain active and where violence has been suppressed. Instead of engaging in constructive state-building, he said, Palestinian society had been tearing itself apart. The Palestinians had suffered 500 dead and more than 3000 wounded in pursuing the conflict with Israel after the pullout from Gaza, he said. "This in addition to the destruction of the infrastructure, the bridges, the power plants. The number of Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets is no more than three or four. Would it not have been possible to limit our losses and maximise our achievements if we had only used our minds? "Isn't the building of the homeland part of resistance? Isn't cleanliness, order and respect for the law part of resistance?"

Europeans blink first in standoff
The Weekend Australian ANALYSIS
Bronwen Maddox, The Times
September 02, 2006

SO, what now? Iran has defied the UN order to stop its most controversial nuclear work. It looks as if there will be a fudge by the European Union, dragging the US along behind. At yesterday's deadline, which was supposed to be the climax of this long-running standoff, Europeans blinked first.

Germany and Italy, in particular, have taken the view that more talks would be preferable to sanctions, even at the cost of blurring the force of the UN Security Council demand. That has played into the hands of Russia and China, who never much wanted sanctions.China has contracts with Iran to buy oil and gas, which it badly needs, while Russia has lucrative work building Iran's first nuclear power plant.

It has left the US, Britain and France, who favoured an immediate move to sanctions, frustrated on the sidelines.

Why the change since the aggressive brinksmanship of a few months ago? Lebanon, in a word. In the strained attempts to muster a UN force to keep the peace between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, few want to pick a new fight with Tehran. Iran has accurately gauged the limited appetite for confrontation among its adversaries and divided them.

There have been three signs this week of the fudge. First, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he and Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, would meet soon, after a phone conversation yesterday. Second, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that although "we cannot act as if nothing had happened" in Iran's refusal, "we will not slam the door shut". Third, the new Italian Government of Romano Prodi has made it clear that it wants a bigger say than its predecessor in determining Europe's relations with Iran.

Italy, which is Tehran's leading commercial partner in the EU, with trade worth $US4.7 billion ($6.15billion), has also taken the lead military role in Lebanon, backed up by France. Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said Italy would use its seat on the Security Council from January "to make the UN hear the voice of the EU better and with more force".

 

Israel ends blockade as UN ships move in
AFP
The Australian
September 09, 2006

BEIRUT: Israel ended its crippling eight-week blockade of Lebanon last night as a UN-backed flotilla of international naval ships began patrolling the coast, in line with a truce that halted Israel's war on Hezbollah. "The sea and air blockade has ended," said Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, whose country is leading a force including French and Greek vessels meant to stop arms-smuggling to the Shia militia.

The move followed Israel's lifting of an air embargo on Thursday, finally ending a blockade that had remained in place despite a UN-brokered ceasefire that brought to a halt the 34-day war.

Israel slapped the cordon around Lebanon on July13, a day after launching its massive offensive following the capture of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in a cross-border attack by Hezbollah.

The war - in which more than 1200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed - also shattered Lebanon's economy.

 

The Times, AFP
The Australian
September 12, 2006

Mr Blair arrived in Lebanon last night for his first visit, and is likely to face protests over his stance on Israel's month-long war with Hezbollah. Unable to bring peace to his own party, the British leader is hoping instead to be remembered for bringing peace to the Middle East.

Mr Blair arrived in Beirut after a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he pushed for a resumption of the stalled Middle East peace process and for the Palestinians to try to end their internal divisions by forming a national unity government.

Security was tight in the Lebanese capital for Mr Blair's visit, with police cordoning off a large section of the city. On the eve of his visit, Lebanon's top Shia religious leader called on the Government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to declare Mr Blair "persona non grata", describing him as a "key accomplice" in Israel's onslaught against Lebanon.

 

 

We'll recognise Israel, vows Abbas

AP AFP Correspondents in New York
The Weekend Australian
September 23, 2006

ANY new Palestinian government will recognise Israel, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has told the UN General Assembly. "I would like to reaffirm that any future Palestinian government will commit to all the agreements that the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority have committed to," he said.

Mr Abbas has been negotiating to form a national unity government between his Fatah movement and Hamas, which last night rejected the possibility of recognising Israel. But an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said the Palestinian government would be prepared to back a 10-year truce with the Jewish state. "The national unity government does not recognise Israel in its political program. The Government and the Hamas movement will be against recognising Israel," Ahmed Yussef said. "Our position to solve the crisis is a 10-year truce which will be good for stability and prosperity."

However, in his speech to the assembly, Mr Abbas referred in particular to letters exchanged in 1993 by then Palestinian and Israeli leaders Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin that recognised each other for the first time. "These two letters contain a reciprocal recognition between the PLO and Israel, reject violence and call for negotiations to reach a permanent settlement with the creation of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last night he could release Palestinian prisoners to Mr Abbas and meet the moderate leader before Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit was freed. Corporal Shalit was snatched by gunmen in a cross-border raid from Gaza on June 25. "Since I know he (Abbas) is making efforts to bring about the soldier's release, I sent messages recently that I am ready to meet with him even before Shalit is freed," Mr Olmert told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

The Middle East Quartet - the US, the European Union, the UN and Russia - said yesterday that any Palestinian unity government should "reflect" demands to recognise Israel, renounce terrorism and abide by peace deals. Mr Peres said Mr Abbas was a "leader of peace" and a reliable man. But he added that Hamas "unfortunately is continuing to fire rockets throughout Israel, which makes their participation in anything almost impossible".

In Gaza yesterday, soldiers killed three teenagers who Palestinians said were shepherds and the Israeli army said were tinkering with a rocket launcher. Two rockets were earlier launched from the area, damaging an Israeli apartment building.

Mr Abbas did not speak to reporters after the meeting but chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Abbas had reiterated his commitment to attempt every effort to achieve the soldier's release, as well as that of Palestinian prisoners. Hamas welcomed the quartet's statement endorsing efforts to forge a Palestinian unity government that could help end an international ban on most aid.

 

AFP Oct 1: Eight people die when violence erupts between Hamas and Fatah sparked by talks on unity government.

 

Iran to EU: you could get hurt
The Australian
Richard Beeston , The Times
October 23, 2006

IRAN has launched an unprecedented verbal attack on Europe, warning that US allies "could get hurt" unless they stopped supporting Israel. As millions of Iranians took to the streets of the main cities to mark Jerusalem Day, the annual day of protest against Israel, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the occasion to round on his detractors abroad.

Describing Israel's leaders as a "bunch of terrorists", he issued the US and its Western allies with an ultimatum. Unless the West distanced itself from the Jewish state, he predicted that the Middle East would "take revenge".

"You should believe this regime (Israel) cannot last and has no more benefit to you," Mr Ahmadinejad said. "What benefit have you got in supporting this regime, except the hatred of the nations? We have advised the Europeans that the Americans are far away, but you are the neighbours of the nations in this region. We inform you that the nations are like an ocean that is welling up, and if a storm begins, the dimensions will not stay limited to Palestine, and you may get hurt."

According to British diplomats, officials from Britain, France and Germany were putting final touches to a joint draft resolution to be presented to the UN Security Council this week. The draft will call for curbs on the transfer of ballistic missile technology and some nuclear equipment to Tehran unless it halts parts of its nuclear program. The sanctions would be mandatory under Chapter 7 of the UN charter. They could be augmented by tougher measures if Iran continued with its enrichment work, which many in the West fear is a cover for acquiring fissile material needed to build an atomic bomb.

Anticipating the move, Mr Ahmadinejad called the UN Security Council illegitimate and said Tehran would ignore any moves made against it. "The Security Council lacks legitimacy. Its decisions are illegitimate. You (the council) want to be the judge, the prosecutor and the executor at the same time? Those times are gone," the Iranian leader said.

 

Blair's secret bid for Middle East peace
The Australian
Peter Wilson, Europe correspondent
November 02, 2006

TONY Blair has made a secret attempt to restart the Middle East peace process by sending a top envoy to Damascus to reach out to the Syrian Government after years of frosty relations. The British and Syrian governments yesterday confirmed the British turnaround, saying the Prime Minister's most senior foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, had met President Bashar al-Assad on Monday.

The US has broken off relations with Syria and accused it of fomenting trouble in Iraq and arming Israel's enemies Hezbollah and Hamas. Most European nations have also shunned senior contacts with the Syrians in recent years. Mr Blair's unannounced initiative came a month after he vowed to devote much of his energy during his remaining months in office pursuing Middle East peace. Any breakthrough would be one of his most important diplomatic legacies.

Despite Washington's public belligerence towards Damascus, US and European diplomats privately agree that it would be a strategic coup to convince Syria to back away from its cosy ties with Iran and adopt a less hardline attitude towards Israel. An advisory committee headed by former secretary of state James Baker is tipped to recommend after next week's congressional elections that the US should mend ties with Syria to improve the situation in Iraq.

The British initiative may be a first step towards a US turnaround on Syria, as Mr Blair has expressed his willingness to do diplomatic legwork in the region for US President George W.Bush. By testing the ground on whether the Syrians were open to a new peace drive, Mr Blair could make it a lot easier for Mr Bush to soften his stance.

London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat first reported Sir Nigel's visit, saying he probably discussed the crisis in the Palestinian territories, unrest in Iraq and the poisonous relations between Israel and its neighbours. A Syrian official confirmed the British diplomat had met separately with Mr Assad and his Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem. "Sheinwald left Damascus this morning," the Syrian official said. "There is no denying that his has been a significant visit, proving that a Syrian role is key to Middle East stability."

In recent months, Mr Assad has renewed calls for new peace negotiations with Israel and on a return of Syria's Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. Mr Assad told the BBC the two nations could live in peace and recognise each other's right to exist. Israel has dismissed Mr Assad's comments as unconvincing and Washington shared the Israeli wariness. A delegation from the European Parliament visited Syria last month and warned that Damascus could not be ignored in any regional peace efforts, but US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once again left Damascus off the itinerary of her recent tour of the region.

Mr Blair yesterday held the line in his domestic political battles over the Iraq war, putting down a rebellion by Labour backbenchers who supported a call by other parties for an immediate inquiry into the conduct of the conflict in Iraq. Despite a dozen Labour defections, the motion was defeated 298 to 273 after Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told the House of Commons such an inquiry would undermine the morale and achievements of the 7000 British soldiers in Iraq.

* Six Palestinians and one Israeli were killed last night as the Israeli army launched a massive operation in the Gaza Strip and seized a town. An army spokesman said the raid was aimed at stopping rocket fire and "30 armed Palestinians were hit".

 

Be afraid, Israel's PM warns Tehran
The Australian
Stephen Farrell and Tom Baldwin, The Times
November 14, 2006

ISRAEL and Iran traded threats after Ehud Olmert arrived in the US for talks with George W.Bush yesterday, warning Tehran it should "start to fear" the consequences of trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran responded swiftly that it would retaliate if attacked, escalating the tensions over an issue that, along with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is likely to dominate the talks between the Israeli Prime Minister and the US President.

Mr Olmert has said Iran's nuclear ambitions will be the main item on his agenda in the discussions with US officials in Washington. He met US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday and was to meet Mr Bush overnight.

Before the talks, Mr Olmert delivered a stark warning to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, branding him as "a man who is ready to commit crimes against humanity, and ... has to be stopped". He told Newsweek magazine he would support any deal under which Iran stopped short of crossing the technological threshold into full nuclear capability. "But I don't believe Iran will accept such compromise unless they have good reason to fear the consequences of not reaching a compromise," he said. "In other words, Iran must start to fear."

Israeli officials have hinted that the Jewish state may try to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities as it did to Iraq in 1981, when it bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor to destroy Saddam Hussein's atomic program. This threat prompted an immediate reply from Iran. Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Ali Hosseini said: "If the Zionist regime commits such stupidity, the response by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard will be swift, strong and crushing. Iran will take no longer than a second to respond."

On the Palestinian front, Mr Olmert has backed away from his plan to withdraw isolated Jewish settlements from the West Bank in return for annexing larger ones near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Admitting to "second thoughts", Mr Olmert said: "It is definitely not dead but it has to be re-examined. One thing I can promise: under no circumstances am I going to withdraw from the need to engage in a serious dialogue with the Palestinians."

Hopes that Mr Bush and Mr Olmert could make progress on the stalled Middle East peace process rest on expectations that the two war-damaged leaders need a breakthrough to counter domestic political difficulties. Mr Olmert, whose approval ratings are about 20 per cent, has been weakened by domestic criticism of Israel's conduct of its war in Lebanon, which led yesterday to the resignation of senior Israeli general Gal Hirsch. Mr Bush's approval ratings are little better, at slightly more than 30 per cent, and the Republicans were thrown out of power in mid-term elections for both houses of Congress. One acerbic Israeli commentator deemed the talks a meeting between "two empty suits".

Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo at the weekend called for a fresh international peace conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. They pledged to break the economic sanctions imposed by the West on the Palestinian Authority after the Islamist Hamas party won the Palestinian elections in January.

Israeli analysts have predicted the US will urge Israel to restart negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if he can forge a unity government with Hamas. But the US administration is thought to be sceptical about the prospects for success, to the frustration of British diplomats in Washington, who say privately that Mr Bush appears to take scant interest in the subject. A Democrat-controlled Congress is unlikely to challenge the pro-Israel orthodoxy of Washington politics, which on Saturday led to the US vetoing a UN resolution condemning Israel's military offensive in Gaza.

 

Israelis target Hamas leaders
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
November 20, 2006

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ordered his forces to attack the political leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in an attempt to halt the rocketing of Israeli towns. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that Israel has decided the Hamas leaders will "no longer escape responsibility" for the rocket attacks from Gaza, which killed a woman in the town of Sderot last Wednesday.

Two years ago, Israel killed the supreme Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and other Hamas political figures in the Gaza Strip in a series of rocket attacks by helicopter gunships. But since Israel's withdrawal from the area last year, it has confined its attacks to armed Islamic elements. This has meant that the political leaders of Hamas, who won power in the Palestinian elections in January, have been able to govern openly without fear of assassination. In response, Hamas has ceased all attacks inside Israel.

A call for Israel to renew its attacks on the political leaders of Palestinian was made on Saturday by Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing politician who joined the Olmert cabinet last month as Minister of Strategic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister. "The leadership of Hamas has to disappear, to go to paradise," he said on Israel radio. "There can be no compromise on this."

Mr Lieberman said it was of little value to attack Palestinian militants in the refugee camps, who had nothing to lose. "The focus should be on those who have something to lose -- the entire leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad," he said.

The latter organisation is smaller than Hamas but even more militant.

Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, who had been one of the more dovish leaders in Jerusalem, is also pushing for attacks on the Hamas political leaders, The Sunday Times said. In last Wednesday's rocket attack on Sderot, where Mr Peretz lives, a security guard was hit outside his home and lost both legs.

Despite intensive efforts, Israel has been unable to stop the firing of rockets from Gaza on an almost daily basis. Israeli forces have killed hundreds of Palestinians in the past four months, 98 since the beginning of this month, during armed invasions and air attacks, but the rocketing goes on. The rockets have caused few casualties but have made life unbearable for many in Sderot and other communities within their range.

The head of Israel's Shin Bet secret service, Yuval Diskin, warned a Knesset committee this month that Gaza was turning into "the biggest terrorist compound on earth" as explosives and armaments, including longer-range rockets, are brought in across the border from Egypt's Sinai peninsula. He said Israel should make efforts to strengthen moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose declared opposition to violence is regarded in Israel as sincere. But if this fails, Mr Diskin said, Israel should be prepared to undertake a major offensive aimed at destroying the militant infrastructure in Gaza.

Meanwhile, a planned Israeli airstrike on a house in the Gaza Strip on Saturday night was called off by the Israeli command when hundreds of Palestinians formed a human shield around the building. The house belonged to a leader of the Popular Resistance Committee who, according to Israeli officials, commands a cell responsible for firing rockets. Instead of fleeing, the owner of the targeted house, Mohammedweil Baroud, called on neighbours and others to form a human shield around the house.

In recent months, Israeli security forces say they have regularly telephoned houses about to be attacked from the air with a half-hour notice to permit residents to get out and avoid civilian casualties. The buildings targeted were allegedly used to store rockets or were used as bases by Palestinian rocket teams.

 

Iraq, Syria restore ties after 25 years
The Australian
from correspondents in Baghdad
AP, AFP, Reuters
November 22, 2006

IRAQ and Syria agreed to restore full diplomatic relations yesterday after a break of nearly a quarter of a century, a move Iraq hopes may help stem what it says is Syrian support for militants. The diplomatic breakthrough came after Iran invited the Iraqi and Syrian presidents to Tehran for a weekend summit with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss ways to jointly curb the violence that has taken Iraq to the verge of civil war.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, making the first visit by a Syrian minister to Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, signed in Baghdad an accord with Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari agreeing US troops should stay in Iraq for now. Mr Moualem had earlier called for the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of 140,000 US troops. The document contained wording used by the Iraqi and US governments, saying troops should gradually withdraw once they were not needed.

Syria and Iraq agreed to restore full diplomatic ties, reopening their embassies in Damascus and Baghdad. An agreement in principle was struck some months ago. Ambassadors with full rank would be named and flags raised over embassies shortly.

Saddam Hussein and Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad, leaders of rival wings of the Arab nationalist Baath party, severed ties when Syria sided with Shia, non-Arab Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. US and Iraqi officials have long accused Damascus of doing too little to stem the flow of foreign Islamist fighters and weapons across its long, porous border. Syria says sealing the border is impossible and Iraq must do more to patrol its side. The US military said yesterday that between 70 and 100 foreign fighters were still crossing the border each month.

After meeting officials, including Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has used harsh language about Syria's alleged role in the insurgency, Mr Moualem pledged co-operation in tackling violence. Syria was prepared to work "hand in hand to achieve the security of brother Iraq". The White House last night called on Syria to show commitment to "constructive engagement" with the Maliki Government to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Amid calls for President George W. Bush to open talks with US adversaries Syria and Iran to help stabilise Iraq, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani accepted the invitation from Mr Ahmadinejad and will fly to the Iranian capital on Saturday. The Iranian diplomatic gambit appeared designed to upstage expected moves from Washington to include Syria and Iran in a wider regional effort to clamp off violence in Iraq.

Mr Bush's allies have recently urged the US President to open the door to talks with Tehran and Damascus to seek their help in stabilising Iraq. More civilians are believed to have been killed in Iraq in the first 20 days of November than in any other month since April last year. The Iranian move was also a display of its strengthening role in the Middle East, where it already has established deep influence over Syria and Lebanon.

But the US expressed scepticism that the talks would lead to progress on the ground. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said senior Iraqi and Iranian officials had met in the past "and we haven't seen much by way of follow-up on it"

 

Rockets blast Gaza peace pact
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
November 27, 2006

PALESTINIAN militants fired several rockets at Israel from Gaza last night, just hours after the start of a ceasefire aimed at ending five months of bloodshed in the coastal strip. The truce between Israel and the Palestinian militants, which has raised the possibility of Middle East peace efforts being revived, is designed to end rocket attacks and halt a crushing Israeli army offensive in Gaza.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for firing three rockets at southern Israel and said it would not agree to a ceasefire unless Israel ended its military actions in the occupied West Bank. No one was hurt in the attacks. "There is no way to talk about a truce as long as aggression continues on any of our land," Islamic Jihad, one of the larger Palestinian militant organisations, said in a statement. The armed wing of the governing Hamas Islamist movement also said it fired two rockets at Israeli targets, arguing that Israeli troops were still in Gaza despite a statement from the Israeli military that all had been withdrawn.

The attacks drew immediate threats by Israel to resume its assaults on the Gaza Strip. Defence Minister Amir Peretz warned that Israel would resume its attacks if Palestinian rockets continued to fall on southern Israel.

However, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would show restraint in responding to violations of the fledgling ceasefire. "We will show restraint and patience in order to give the ceasefire a chance," said Mr Olmert, speaking at the opening of a school in the Bedouin town of Rahat in southern Israel.

Israel radio reported shortly after the truce came into force that troops in the northern part of the strip had pulled out during the night.

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Mr Olmert said the truce did not apply to the West Bank. "Whether this is the last act before the ceasefire or whether it means they are not participating in the ceasefire, we don't know yet," Ms Eisin said.

Under the pact, the Palestinian militants agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel and halt all other violence, including suicide bombings. They must also stop digging tunnels which Israel says they use for the transfer of arms from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. In return, Israel has agreed to withdraw its forces from Gaza, where it has staged repeated invasions since the capture of an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, by Hamas in June.

The bulk of the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, are party to the ceasefire agreement. But the unwillingness of Islamic Jihad to sign up could be a major setback to peace hopes.

The ceasefire - if it holds - could pave the way for a long-awaited summit between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Mr Olmert on ways to restart the peace process. Peace talks collapsed in 2000, after which a Palestinian uprising erupted.

The truce might speed up efforts to arrange a swap of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in return for Corporal Shalit, whose capture by gunmen in a cross-border raid from Gaza in late June sparked the Israeli assault. The release of Corporal Shalit was not included in the ceasefire agreement but is part of a separate package proposed by Hamas, which wants more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange. A Hamas official said at the weekend that Israel had agreed on an exchange of prisoners, but Jerusalem made no comment on the deal.

Israel spurned a ceasefire offer from the militants on Friday, but accepted the deal on Saturday when it was delivered through Mr Abbas, in a phone call to Mr Olmert. Mr Olmert told Mr Abbas that Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip, from which it had pulled out its settlements and soldiers last year, saying it had returned "in response to the (Palestinian) violence".

Israel claims to have killed close to 300 Palestinians in Gaza since Corporal Shalit's capture, and 25 in the past four days alone. The Palestinians say Israel has killed almost as many civilians as fighters. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting. The relentless Israeli pressure prompted the militants to seek the ceasefire.

Israel is under pressure from the accuracy of the Gaza-produced rockets, which have killed two residents of Sderot in the past two weeks and made life difficult in the town. But the ceasefire agreement does not extend to the West Bank, where Israeli security forces have clamped down on militant activity.

A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, Abu Abir, said representatives of the groups involved in the rocketing had met Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday night. They had agreed on a ceasefire deal under which Israel "stops its aggression against the Palestinian people", including assassinations and destruction of Palestinian houses.

Meanwhile, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal indicated, reportedly for the first time, readiness for a two-state solution in which a Palestinian state would arise alongside Israel. "We give six months to open real political horizons," he said at a press conference in Cairo. "We (the Palestinian factions) agreed to establish a Palestinian state within the (pre-Six Day War) June 4, 1967 borders." However, Mr Mashaal warned that unless an agreement with Israel was reached within six months, a "third intifada" would erupt. "Hamas will become stronger and the resistance will resume."

The first intifada, or uprising, broke out in 1987 and ended when the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, calling for a Palestinian state. The second intifada broke out in 2000 and continued until Israel suppressed the uprising in the West Bank and pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders have frequently said that any truce would be at a time of the Palestinians' choosing.

An Israeli spokesman declined to comment on Mr Mashaal's statement. Israel has expressed readiness to see the creation of a Palestinian state but insists that such a state must recognise the legitimacy of Israel and declare its readiness to live peacefully alongside it.

Additional reporting: Reuters, AFP

 

Olmert puts peace on table to free soldier

The Australian
AFP
November 28, 2006

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last night he was prepared to release Palestinian prisoners and unblock frozen Palestinian funds in exchange for the release of a captured Israeli soldier. The concession, to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, followed the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip after a five-month offensive triggered by the capture of the 20-year-old tank corporal. "In exchange for Gilad Shalit, Israel is ready to release many Palestinian prisoners, including some who have been sentenced heavily," Mr Olmert said at a ceremony in the desert to mark the anniversary of the death of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.

It was the first time that Mr Olmert had spoken specifically of exchanging prisoners for Corporal Shalit. Palestinian militants have demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners. Corporal Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants on June 25 in a cross-border raid claimed by three Palestinian groups, including the armed wing of the ruling Hamas movement .

Mr Olmert said Israel was prepared to withdraw from considerable Palestinian territory in exchange for peace, 24 hours after a shaky ceasefire went into effect in Gaza, handed back to the Palestinians last year. He used the speech at Sde Boker, in the Negev Desert, to offer the Palestinians wide-ranging concessions if they turned away from violence, saying they would be able to achieve an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians stood at a "historic crossroads" and could choose to continue on the path of either violence or peace.

If they chose the peace path, Israel would ease checkpoints and release frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority. "We will agree to leave large territories and dismantle settlements we established," he said. "We will be willing to do this in exchange for real peace."

 

Bush Sr breaks as one son's troubles recall another's - Excerpts

The Australian
Sarah Baxter December 11, 2006

IT was an emotional moment for former president George H.W. Bush. His son Jeb was soon to step down as Florida's Governor, and he was recalling some rough moments during his boy's first campaign. There was some "unfair stuff", he recalled in a speech last week, but "Jeb didn't whine about it, he didn't complain".

Then the former president began to sob. As he struggled to continue, he said haltingly, "a true measure of a man is how you handle victory and how you handle defeat", before breaking down in tears again.

No one who knows George H.W. Bush thinks that moment (when he cried) was only about Jeb," said Peggy Noonan, one of his former speechwriters. "It wasn't only about some small defeat a dozen years ago. It would more likely to have been about a number of things and another son."

It is a measure of desperation that the prospect of an Arab-Israeli agreement is being touted as a path to peace in Iraq and the wider Middle East. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to arrive in the region soon to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and, it is believed, President Bashar Assad of Syria.

There is a hope of reviving an "Arab initiative", advanced by the Saudis, whereby Israel would withdraw from Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement with most Arab states. But the pieces in the Middle East jigsaw would require a formidable combination of diplomatic skills and great perseverance to be patched together.

In a snub to Bush, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at the weekend Tehran was expanding its uranium program. As well, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya vowed that his Government would never recognise Israel.

 

Abbas poll bid a declaration of civil war, Hamas claims
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
December 18, 2006

THE Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called for Israeli help to defeat Hamas in a snap election aimed at ousting the militant group and ending the devastating economic siege of Gaza and the West Bank. In the most pivotal call of his troubled presidency, Mr Abbas on Saturday flagged the new poll less than 12 months after Hamas won Western-backed democratic elections in the Palestinian territories.

The call was followed by a fresh wave of violence that claimed four lives and injured dozens more in Gaza, where a training camp run by Mr Abbas's Presidential Guard was overrun by gunmen late yesterday. Mr Abbas's 3500-strong forces have been armed and backed by the West and are a key component of his plan to wrest power from Hamas, but their firepower has also made them a key target of militants who have vowed outright civil war over being usurped from office.

Hamas has angrily denounced Mr Abbas's plan as an attempted coup and a declaration of civil war and vowed to defy any preparations for an election. The besieged President has not announced a poll date and has left open the option to reopen crippled talks on a national unity government that could end the international boycott of the Palestinian Authority and rekindle peace hopes. But in a speech that set plans for a snap poll in motion, Mr Abbas said: "The people are the source of our authority. I will return to the people and let them decide."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ordered his cabinet not to comment on the dramatic developments, fearing expressions of support for Mr Abbas could damage Fatah's fortunes.

Palestinian officials loyal to Mr Abbas yesterday said they needed something significant to take to voters, such as a negotiated diplomatic agreement, or they faced being defeated by the incumbent government in what would be a devastating blow to both Fatah and Israel. Late yesterday they urged a deal on a Palestinian state along similar boundaries to those before the 1967 war that reshaped Israel and the territories. Israeli officials have suggested throughout the year the Jewish state might agree to such a deal as part of a full settlement to the 58-year Middle East conflict.

Hamas won the January elections on the back of a strong anti-corruption message and by sticking to its implacable position of not recognising Israel and any prior peace agreements. Despite indications earlier in the year, it has not renounced its views and has pledged to sweat out the financial and aid boycott and to shift its support base away from Europe and the UN to the Arab world and Iran.

"The key is still in the Israelis' hands," an Abbas loyalist said yesterday. "Without a real diplomatic solution, we will not be able to fight against Hamas, which will be happy to claim that also recognising Israel did not get us anywhere."

Hamas's hardline positions have won renewed support from large sections of the Palestinian populace, which has been battered by the aid boycott and the seizure of funds for their salaries that pass through the Israeli banking system. Ahmed Yousef, one of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniya's key advisers, said that "what we heard from Abbas is a call for civil war, which we are trying to avoid. These remarks will lead to an internal conflict, which may bring about many losses and bloody attacks on both sides."

Demonstrators took to the streets of Gaza and the Palestinian administrative capital Ramallah in huge numbers throughout the weekend and gunfire sounded throughout many neighbourhoods.

Fatah and Hamas have been trying unsuccessfully since June to negotiate the formation of a national unity government.

 

Hamas and Fatah agree to new truce
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
December 21, 2006

HAMAS and Fatah agreed yesterday to a new ceasefire in the Gaza Strip after the collapse of the previous truce, announced 48hours earlier. Under the new agreement, arrived at under Egyptian mediation, both Palestinian factions are to keep their gunmen off the streets, with only uniformed police bearing arms publicly. Since the police in Gaza are appointed by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, this was a concession by the Fatah movement. A shootout two hours after the new agreement was signed close to midnight local time killed at least one person, but that was the only infringement reported in the first eight hours.

In the day before the new pact, six people were killed in fighting between the two groups, bringing casualties for the week to 14 dead and dozens wounded. In addition to shootouts, both sides kidnapped leading opponents and in some cases executed them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas issued desperate calls for restraint as the situation threatened to spin out of control. "I call on all, without exception, to adhere to the ceasefire to end the killings and all other operations in order to maintain our national unity," Mr Abbas said yesterday. Mr Haniya appeared on television to make an identical appeal. "This nation, this people, will stand united against the (Israeli) occupation and aggression, and will not engage, despite the wounds of the past few days, in internal fighting." Mr Haniya repeated his offer to Israel of a truce "that could last as long as 20 years" during which the Palestinians would make do with a state within the pre-Six Day War boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Al-Qa'ida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, yesterday said he opposed early elections in the Palestinian territories, saying in a videotape broadcast on al-Jazeera that voting would lead only to defeat and the right policy was armed struggle. "Any way other than holy war, will lead us only to loss and defeat," Zawahiri said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a brief visit to Amman on Tuesday to meet Jordan's King Abdullah, who fears the intra-Palestinian violence may spill over into his country, whose population is largely of Palestinian origin. The king offered to host talks between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas to begin a political process to ease tensions. Mr Olmert's aides said "efforts are being made to co-ordinate a meeting".

 

Israel floats prisoner release
The Australian, AFP
December 26, 2006

JERUSALEM: Israel may release some Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill towards Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian leader and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met at the weekend for the first time in six months, renewing hopes for the peace process. Mr Olmert's office said the leaders had "expressed their will to co-operate, as true partners, in an effort to advance the peace process" and repeated support for a two-state solution.

At an Israeli cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Olmert raised the possibility of freeing several Palestinian prisoners before the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by militants in June. Israel has previously insisted Corporal Shalit must be freed before any Palestinian prisoners are released. Several ministers backed the plan, including Defence Minister Amir Peretz and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, who said: "We have done this in the past and we should do it in a measured fashion if it strengthens Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas)."

Observers say a release of prisoners would strengthen Mr Abbas in his stand-off with the Hamas-led Government by showing he can obtain concessions from Israel through talks. The Israeli cabinet also approved transferring $US100 million ($127.6 million) in Palestinian customs taxes it has withheld since Hamas was elected in March.

While Israel played up the importance of the meeting between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas, observers warned against expectations of a breakthrough. Hamas said the talks had produced nothing concrete. The Israelis "always quickly backtrack on their promises and try to forget the main point, which is their occupation and aggression", the Hamas Government said.

 

Mid-East summit planned
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
January 05, 2007

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was expected to agree last night to an Egyptian proposal for a regional summit at a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sinai. The four-way summit with Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would aim to infuse life into the floundering peace process.

A spokesman for Mr Mubarak, Suleiman Awad, said yesterday the four-way meeting could help break the diplomatic impasse. A spokesman for Mr Olmert said: "We have no fundamental problem with a summit." Mr Olmert was expected to ask Mr Mubarak at last night's meeting to have Egyptian forces clamp down harder on the smuggling of weapons by Palestinian militants through tunnels beneath the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

Mr Mubarak was expected to ask Israel to extend the ceasefire with Hamas from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. The two men have met once since Mr Olmert's election last year.

Meanwhile, fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen flared again yesterday in Gaza, threatening the uneasy truce reached by the two factions last month. Four members of Fatah were killed in two separate shootouts and a 22-year-old woman was killed in the crossfire. Twelve people were wounded.

 

Israeli raid mars Egyptian summit
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
January 06, 2007

AN Israeli commando raid on the West Bank early yesterday in which four Palestinians were killed soured a summit meeting in Egypt a few hours later between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr Mubarak expressed anger over the Israeli raid at a tense press conference held after his meeting with Mr Olmert, warning: "Israel and all the people in the region will achieve peace only by refraining from all practices which obstruct its course." The two men made no mention of progress on the two issues that were supposed to top their agenda: an exchange of prisoners between Israel and the Palestinians, which the Egyptians are attempting to promote, and a proposed summit that would include Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A former Israeli defence minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, criticised the timing of the attack. "An operation like this should not have been carried out on a day when the Prime Minister is to meet the leader of a country in which Israel has a supreme strategic interest," he said.

Mr Mubarak, who met Mr Olmert in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai peninsula, was visibly angry. At the press conference, Mr Olmert told Arab reporters who asked about the raid that it had developed in an unforeseeable way. "If innocent people were hurt, this was not our intention," he said. Mr Mubarak said the firing of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip was no reason for Israel to refrain from negotiating with Palestinian leader Mr Abbas.

 

Israel 'preparing N-tipped bunker busters' to attack Iran
The Australian
Correspondents in London - AFP, The Sunday Times
January 08, 2007

ISRAEL has drawn up plans to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment facilities in a tactical nuclear strike using low-yield atomic "bunker busting" bombs.

The Sunday Times has quoted several Israeli military sources as saying that two of the Jewish state's air force squadrons are training to use the weapons for a single strike on Iran. It said the plans involved sending conventional laser-guided missiles to open up "tunnels" in the targets, before "mini-nukes" with a force the equivalent of one-15th of the Hiroshima bomb are then fired in.

The Sunday Times reported that Israel would focus on three prime targets - the enrichment plant at Natanz, a uranium conversion facility near Isfahan and a heavy water reactor at Arak, all south of the capital Tehran. "As soon as the green light is given, it will be one mission, one strike and the Iranian nuclear project will be demolished," an unnamed Israeli source was quoted as telling the newspaper. The nuclear option is being considered because Israeli military commanders believe conventional strikes might not be effective in destroying the well-defended facilities, the newspaper said. The atomic weapons would explode deep underground to minimise the risk of radioactive fallout, it reported.

The Sunday Times said the Israeli plan was designed to prevent a "second Holocaust". US and Israeli officials had met several times to consider military action against Iran, it reported. The newspaper said military analysts assessed that disclosing the plans could put pressure on Iran to halt enrichment. It could also be designed to persuade the US to act, or to "soften up" world opinion ahead of an Israeli nuclear strike. Israeli pilots are said to have flown to Gibraltar in recent weeks to train for the 3220km round-trip to the Iranian targets. Three possible routes have been mapped out, including one over Turkey, the report said.

The attack would be the first strike with nuclear weapons since 1945, when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The plan is similar to one said in a report in The New Yorker magazine last April to have been considered by the US. The White House dismissed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's article as "ill-informed" at the time.

Iran responded last night by warning it would make any foe "regret" an attack. "Any action against the Islamic republic will not go without a response, and the aggressor would regret the action very quickly," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said.

A senior Israeli official last night dismissed the report. "This is absurd information coming from a newspaper that has already in the past distinguished itself with sensationalist headlines that in the end amounted to nothing," the official said.

 

Israel, US plan talks with Abbas
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
January 16, 2007

ISRAEL and the US last night flagged an imminent three-way summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a high-stakes bid to revitalise the dormant Middle East peace process. Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the move after a three-hour meeting at Mr Ohlmert's Jerusalem home, in which he pledged "unprecedented" steps if a looming Palestinian national unity government recognised the Jewish state.

The meeting, which a senior US official said would take place in three to four weeks, is aimed at shoring up support for Mr Abbas, whom both sides are heavily backing in a showdown with the Hamas-led Government of Ismail Haniya.

Hamas and the Fatah party of Mr Abbas have for almost three months been locked in a deadly power struggle in Gaza and the West Bank that has left scores dead and threatens to escalate to open war. A key driver has been the makeup of a power-sharing government that could circumvent aid and economic boycotts imposed on the Palestinian Authority since Hamas was elected to office 12 months ago. Ever since, Hamas has stood by its mandate of not recognising Israel or the legitimacy of past peace accords, nor agreeing to denounce violence.

While offering sweeping moves towards Palestinian sovereignty if a unity government shifted ground on these themes, Mr Olmert last night also warned he would abandon support for Mr Abbas if he failed to deliver. Officials linked to Mr Abbas said he was not intending to immediately depart the West Bank for the Syrian capital of Damascus for talks with Hamas Politburo leader Khaled Meshaal, as Palestinian administrators had announced on Sunday.

A summit with Mr Meshaal, who directs Hamas from exile, was on the drawing board but had not yet been finalised, the officials said. The hardline Hamas supremo declared in an interview with Reuters late last week that the existence of "a state called Israel was a reality", the first clear sign that he is prepared to moderate the group's charter, which calls for Israel's destruction. However, he and Mr Haniya had previously accused Mr Abbas of attempting to mount a US-sponsored coup against Hamas's democratically elected Government and pledged to fight an overthrow by Fatah.

Dr Rice last night left Israel for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where she hopes to use renewed peace efforts in the Holy Land to leverage support for the US troop surge in Iraq and its hardline stance against Iran.

The Israeli Defence Force had been ordered to tone down its activities in the West Bank and Gaza for the duration of Dr Rice's visit after an unannounced operation in the West Bank administrative capital Ramallah jeopardised talks last week between Mr Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

 

Israel releases tax cash
The Australian
January 20, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israel has freed a promised $US100 million ($127million) in frozen tax funds and transferred the money to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The transfer yesterday gives the moderate leader a boost ahead of crucial weekend talks in Damascus with the top Hamas leader and is the first such Israeli payment since the militant Islamic Hamas won control of the Palestinian Government last March. In another fillip for Mr Abbas, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz rescinded a decision to authorise a new West Bank settlement.

Mr Abbas is to travel to Syria today for talks with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, aiming at forging a coalition government and ending a punishing international aid boycott. Talks have sputtered for months amid clashes between each side's loyalists that have killed 35 people.

The financial transfer to Mr Abbas was part of tax money Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority under partial peace accords. Israel halted payment of the revenues when Hamas won parliamentary elections and set up its cabinet. Israel, the US and the European Union define Hamas as a terror group and has frozen foreign aid that has kept the Palestinian Authority afloat since it was created in 1994.

An official in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said last night the money would be transferred directly to Mr Abbas for use in humanitarian efforts and to boost his security force. The official said Israel was satisfied by assurances that the money would not go to the Palestinian Finance Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas.

Mr Peretz ordered plans for the Maskiot settlement frozen indefinitely "in order to look carefully at the implications", Defence Ministry officials said last night. The officials said Mr Peretz had ordered the freeze "several weeks ago".

AP

 

President denounces rape 'lies'
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Additional reporting: AP
January 26, 2007

ISRAEL'S parliament was considering last night whether to suspend or impeach President Moshe Katsav, who is facing rape charges, after the embattled leader, shaking with fury, rebuffed the accusations against him as "poisonous, horrible lies". Mr Katsav asked the parliament to temporarily suspend him from office while he fought to clear his name. But momentum was building for politicians to open unprecedented impeachment proceedings against the President, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he must leave office.

In a speech tinged with rage, Mr Katsav yesterday attacked the police, the state prosecution and the media as he declared his innocence of the charges of rape and sexual harassment levelled against him. "Citizens of Israel, don't believe the accusations," he declared in a televised appearance at the presidential residence. "I am the target of one of the worst witch-hunts in the history of the state."

The remarkable outpouring of emotion from a hitherto soft-spoken, low-profile political figure came after a highly publicised police investigation that culminated on Tuesday with a statement from Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz that he planned to indict the President for rape of one former employee and sexual assault against three others. Before the indictment is presented, however, Mr Katsav is to have a hearing before Mr Mazuz after the President's lawyers have examined the evidence gathered from 100 witnesses.

Mr Katsav, whose seven-year term was to end in July, announced he would voluntarily suspend himself until his hearing, expected in three months. However, the suspension must be approved by the Knesset House Committee, and several of its members said yesterday they would reject the request and seek his ouster instead. If the committee votes to dump him, the issue would be put to the Knesset plenum where a vote by 90 of the 120 Knesset members would be needed to dismiss him.

The speech, which lasted 45 minutes, stunned viewers both because of the intensity of emotion and the breadth of Mr Katsav's accusations and because of the total denial of wrongdoing. Since the first alleged sexual assault was publicised last year, nine other former female employees complained to police of similar attacks over the years, although the statute of limitations rendered most of these complaints irrelevant. It has been almost universally assumed by the Israeli public that this amount of testimony must bear at least seeds of truth.

Mr Katsav, however, insisted that the allegations were no more than acts of vengeance by women employees he had dismissed or refused to promote over the years. "There is no truth in the allegations against me," he said. Addressing the media representatives in the room, he said: "You didn't stop for a moment to consider that it might not be true. None of you has seen any evidence. I promise you that none exists. When the truth comes out, you will be shocked."

When a reporter from Channel 2 interrupted his speech, the President lost his self-control. "Channel 2 has spilled my blood. If you don't want to hear the truth, get out. Get out." Behind him on the podium were members of his family, including his wife, Gila. When he mentioned her name he sobbed, then regained his composure.

Mr Katsav, who was born in Iran and lived as a child in an immigrant tent camp, appeared to hint that his humble background and his Sephardi (non-European) background had made him a target by an "elitist clique" born "with a silver spoon in their mouths". In a bitter attack on arms of the state he had always praised in his presidential role, Mr Katsav accused the police of "wanting to destroy my honour" and "trampling the parameters of justice" and said the Attorney-General had participated in a "media lynching" against him.

While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is himself the target of police investigations on alleged corruption, deviated from a prepared speech on Iran to call on Mr Katsav to resign, media comment on Mr Katsav's speech was scathing. "We discovered yesterday that (he) is a paranoid consumed by inferiority complexes," wrote commentator Gideon Levy in Ha'aretz. Vice-Premier Shimon Peres, whom Mr Katsav narrowly defeated in a Knesset vote for the presidency seven years ago, told reporters that he could have exposed sexual harassment allegations against Mr Katsav at the time but didn't.

And, on the same day

Iran can't hurt us, says Olmert
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent

IRAN would not develop the capability to attack Israel with nuclear weapons in the near future, the Jewish state's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has claimed. In his clearest statement yet on the Iranian nuclear program, Mr Olmert said there was still time to prevent Iran from going nuclear and preparing for a weapons program that could threaten Israel's existence.

"There is no near threat of a nuclear attack on Israel," Mr Olmert said at a high-powered conference of Israeli policy-makers. "(But) there is not one among us that does not feel the threat, which is not only against Israel, but also against the whole region. There is no force in the world that can destroy us, and neither will there be one. We refuse to be dragged into an atmosphere of fear. We have much strength and nothing to fear, and we won't fear. We can stand against nuclear threats, and thwart them."

Mr Olmert's comments came on the back of Iran's decision to refuse entry to 38 UN nuclear inspectors who the US and European states have insisted be allowed to look for evidence of a uranium enrichment program. Washington is also intensifying efforts to force Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to back down from his nuclear program, which he said was being tailored for peaceful purposes as part of a civil energy program. However, as Iran's nuclear program has continued to develop, Mr Ahmadinejad has made repeated recent speeches threatening Israel's destruction.

"At the stage we are in, there is still time - though not unlimited amounts, to stop Iran from going nuclear," Mr Olmert said. "We are not apathetic. We can't afford to be apathetic. We are addressing the Iranian threat. The Jewish nation is scarred with the Holocaust and won't allow itself to again face a threat to its existence. In the past, the world was silent, and the outcome is known. Our role is to refrain from making this mistake again. When the leader of state publicly announces his intentions to wipe a country off the map, and is busy creating the weapons to do so, we must act with all force against the plot."

"We have nothing against Iranian people. We are not the enemy of the Iranian people," Mr Olmert added. "Our desire for peace should not be seen as weakness but a source of strength. Those who threaten our existence (should know) we have the ability to defend ourselves. We won't endanger the lives of our nation. We have the right to fully act to defend our vital interests. We won't hesitate to act. No one should confuse our restraint with hesitancy to act."

Jordan this week announced it, too, would pursue a nuclear program for civil energy in a move many Middle Eastern observers see as a direct response to Iran's determination to press ahead with its research and development. The Jordanian move has sparked fears of a regional nuclear race developing in response to Iran. Israel is the only nuclear-capable state in the region. It refuses to confirm the existence of its nuclear arsenal, which has been a powerful component of the Jewish state's military deterrence for at least 25 years.

Reports yesterday from Tehran said Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was suffering from a severe bout of flu, denying persistent rumours about his illness and even reports that he had died. The semi-official Fars news agency said: "The Supreme Leader, just like anyone else, can become ill. For some time he has been suffering from flu so severe that it can be heard in his voice. He has therefore cut back on his official program on doctors' advice."

 

Leaders promise Muslim summit
Extracts - The Australian
Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta correspondent
February 01, 2007

PAKISTAN President Pervez Musharraf and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, have pledged to host an international convention of Muslim scholars charged with plotting a course towards Middle East peace. General Musharraf, on a whirlwind visit to Jakarta and neighbouring Malaysia, yesterday called on "like-minded, strong and credible" Muslim nations to join forces in an attempt to resolve crises of violence and leadership across the Islamic world. He said he and Dr Yudhoyono would put the proposal to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah - like the two Asian leaders, a key US ally in its war on terror - "in order to consult on how to get this group together".

King Abdullah this week offered to broker peace talks between the warring Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, whose attacks have left 30 dead in recent days.

Walking a fine line between accusing outside forces of responsibility for the Middle East's troubles and acknowledging the viciousness of power contests and civil wars wrenching apart various polities, General Musharraf warned that time was running out "to bring harmony" to the worst-affected areas. "The time has come for action - there is no room for complacency," he urged, calling for "resolution to the disputes which are festering within the Muslim world".

Indonesia, whose roughly 200million Muslims largely follow the faith's Sunni stream, remains largely untroubled by the Sunni-Shia violence that plagues large parts of the Islamic world, including Iraq and Pakistan.

Political scientist Ikrar Nusa Bhakti said Pakistan and Indonesia could bring particular weight to bear on emergencies such as the expanding Palestinian internal conflict "because neither country has a close connection with the problem, so the players there may be more willing to accept assistance".

 

Olmert testifies over Lebanon war
The Australian
AFP
February 02, 2007

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was fighting for his political life last night as he was questioned over his handling of the Lebanon war. Mr Olmert, whose approval ratings have slumped to unprecedented lows following a series of scandals, became the last in a string of about 70 senior political and military officials to testify before a government commission since it was set up in September. The panel was established amid public criticism of the country's leadership over the 34-day war against the Hezbollah militia that failed to achieve its main goals of freeing two captured soldiers and halting rocket fire.

Many observers said Mr Olmert's future depended on the outcome of the commission and that if directly blamed for any failures, he could be forced to resign, in keeping with growing public calls for his head to roll.

Last night's session, which was expected to last several hours, was conducted behind closed doors. The commission, headed by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, is due to present its findings in the coming weeks. Its members were expected to question Mr Olmert on his reasons for going to war, rather than opting for more limited reprisals to the Hezbollah raid in mid-July that led to the soldiers' capture. He was also likely to be asked about Israel's decision to launch a massive ground offensive on Lebanon two days before the end of the war when it was clear combat would cease under UN pressure. His choice of former trade union leader Amir Peretz as Defence Minister could also face scrutiny.

Mr Olmert has sought to minimise the fallout from the military campaign, pointing to the benefits of having Lebanese and UN soldiers now deployed in southern Lebanon, while admitting "problems and failures".

An opinion poll this week found 77 per cent of respondents wanted the commission to recommend that Mr Olmert and Mr Peretz resign. Last month, army chief Lieutenant General Dan Halutz set a precedent for top-level departures when he stepped down after an army investigation found him responsible for leadership failings. Officials say Mr Olmert is determined to remove Mr Peretz to restore public confidence.

Mr Olmert also faces corruption allegations. He is suspected of intervening to help a friend while acting finance minister in 2005 during the privatisation of Israel's second-largest bank. He has denied any wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, a court found former justice minister Haim Ramon, the mastermind in Mr Olmert's Kadima party, guilty of sexual harassment by forcibly kissing a woman soldier on the day the war broke out. Other scandals include a looming rape indictment against President Moshe Katsav, a corruption investigation into the tax authority, which has implicated Mr Olmert's personal secretary, and graft allegations against Finance Minister Avraham Hirshson.

The Hezbollah-Israel war resulted in the deaths of more than 160 Israelis and more than 1200 Lebanese, mostly civilians. While Mr Olmert has given the five-member commission the same powers as a state commission, Israel's most powerful type of public inquiry, its chairman was named by the Government, not the Supreme Court.

 

Treaty falls short of Israeli hopes
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
February 10, 2007

ISRAEL has reacted cautiously to the announcement of a Palestinian unity Government that returns moderates to the power base and commits Hamas to a stance it had vowed never to take - recognising Israel. The deal, announced early yesterday in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is seen by the Palestinian Authority as a way of lifting a devastating international aid boycott and addressing rampant poverty in the occupied territories. Powerbrokers linked to the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will now take key cabinet positions in the Palestinian Government. They are banking on the concessions being enough to convince international backers to renew aid flows and deal with the administration.

Mr Abbas, along with Hamas politburo chief Khalid Meshaal and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, left Mecca with a pledge of $US1billion ($1.3billion) from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who convened the talks. Mr Haniya will retain the prime ministership. Other ministers will be announced within five weeks.

If Israel recognises the new Government, another $US500 million could also soon flow to the Palestinian Authority - the proceeds of tax and customs duties were withheld since Hamas was elected in January last year. However, Israeli leaders last night suggested the deal fell short of expectations. "We expect the international community to stick to its own requirements that were stated after the elections which Hamas won," said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in reference to three demands imposed by the so-called Quartet of international backers.

The new administration feels it has satisfied the first two points by signing peace deals sanctioned by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the 1990s, which explicitly recognised Israel after four decades of militant activity. However, the Mecca agreement did not address another key point: renouncing violence as a means to achieve political ends.

After the deal, which followed months of fraternal bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza, Mr Meshaal pledged that the agreement would not be broken. "I tell those who fear that the fate of this agreement will be the same fate of the old ones, we have pledged our allegiance to God from this sacred place ... and we will go back to our country fully committed to it," he said after emerging from the meeting room, which overlooked Islam's most holy site, the Black Rock of the Kaba'a. "I say to our young people that this is an agreement of the leadership of the biggest groups and none of you should accept any order from others to fire," Mr Meshaal added.

Mr Abbas, who had threatened to call early elections if a unity government were not formed, said: "Recent days have been very black and may God not allow them to return. It has been a catastrophe that must not be repeated. We don't want blood spilt."

Several key militant groups, in particular Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for all the suicide bombings inside Israel over the past two years and most of the Qassam rocket attacks, are not signatories to the new deal and their stance is not yet clear.

The pact is likely to lay the groundwork for progress during a coming tripartate summit between Mr Abbas, Ms Livni and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on February 19. The summit was called to advance moves towards a Palestinian state, which had been dormant for the past two years.

 

Mid-East deadlock as Rice departs
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
February 20, 2007

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Jerusalem yesterday, having made no progress towards the peace road map, and leaving Palestinian observers fearing a dangerous stalemate until the Bush administration leaves office. The summit between Dr Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ended with little optimism.

"The President and Prime Minister agreed they would meet together again soon. They reiterated their desire for American participation and leadership to overcome obstacles, rally regional and international support and move forward toward peace. In that vein, I expect to return to the region soon," Dr Rice said last night in a statement released after the meeting in Jerusalem's David Citadel Hotel. "All three of us affirmed our commitment to a two-state solution, agreed that a Palestinian state cannot be born of violence and terror, and reiterated our acceptance of previous commitments and obligations, including the road map."

Dr Rice and Mr Olmert had repeated to Mr Abbas that they would not deal with the incoming Palestinian administration, which will be led by a joint Hamas-Fatah unity government, unless it explicitly recognises Israel and puts down its weapons. Ahead of the meeting in Jerusalem, Dr Rice had twice attempted to lower Palestinian expectations, insisting that key nation-building issues were not on the table. Mr Olmert's aides had stressed to their counterparts in Mr Abbas's office that this position would quickly change if the new Palestinian Government directly acknowledged a right for Israel to live in peace alongside a Palestinian state.

Dr Rice defended her trip to the Holy Land, her ninth to the Middle East since taking office, despite its failure to lead to a breakthrough. She insisted the ties between Israel and Mr Abbas must remain intact despite the imbroglio, and said she had not given up hope of a peace deal before her term in office expires. In an interview with Israeli English-language daily Ha'aretz, Dr Rice said: "Even in this complicated time, it is important to deal with those Palestinians who do accept the Quartet's conditions", referring to the US, EU, Russia and the UN. She said Mr Abbas "not only accepts them, he just reiterated them a couple of days ago, and I think it is a good time to reiterate that that relationship is going to remain intact".

Dr Rice said the US was reserving its position on the new unity government until it was sworn in in three weeks. However, US President George W. Bush has reportedly already pledged to Mr Olmert that his administration would continue to refuse to deal with the Palestinian Authority until it meets international demands. "I am not going to ask anyone to run when we really need to walk for a while, because, as I said, I think if we ask everybody to run somebody is going to fall down," Dr Rice said. "So let's just take this one step at a time. The road map has all of the issues that need to be resolved before a Palestinian state can be established. But the road map does not say it is not possible to talk about the destination even if you have many, many conditions on both sides that need to be fulfilled before you can get there."

Mr Abbas yesterday pressed Israel and the US for a start to negotiations on issues such as refugee return, the capital of a Palestinian state, linking Gaza to the West Bank and the release of prisoners. He said he had no option but to sign on to the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which was brokered by Saudi King Abdullah to end escalating infighting between the Palestinian groups in Gaza.

The Mecca deal committed Hamas to indirectly recognising Israel by agreeing to respect peace deals signed in the 1990s between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. It was the furthest Hamas had moved from its mandate calling for Israel's destruction. Hamas leaders have since said they would go no further.

Mr Abbas said the world was obliged to recognise the new administration and end the aid boycott of the Palestinian territories, which had left tens of thousands without pay and sharply increased poverty levels.

Mr Olmert has previously said any final status deal must be preceded by an interim agreement that established whether both sides could live alongside each other in peace.

 

Hope springs eternal: Optimism on great global challenges spurs markets
Extract from The Australian
Robert Gottliebsen
February 24, 2007

WITH the ASX 200 index around 6000, the Australian stock market is pricing shares on the basis that the great challenges facing local and world business will be overcome and that prosperity and strong growth will continue ....... The tensions in the Middle East are an entrenched part of daily news. If the Israel/Palestine impasse can't be resolved, the prospect of vicious civil wars erupting in the region are enhanced, which will almost certainly lift oil prices.

Most daily press comments say that the Israel/Palestine situation has little hope of solution. But at the World Economic Forum - January 24th 2007, I sat at a table with about eight people and listened to the PLO's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and a key negotiator on the Israel side, Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh, discuss the "in principle" agreement they had reached. Both declared that their leaders were prepared to deal on the basis of the 1967 boundaries with a little give and take to make them appropriate to today's situation. The Palestinian refugees would return.

The two men had me spellbound as they explained that the negotiations had to be undertaken without third parties (like the US). The Jewish leader Sneh made this astounding claim: "We cannot defeat terrorism by military means. We believe poverty and despair support the extremists. This is a point of great opportunity and I hope this time we won't miss it."

To have the agreement basically done is a huge step. Since the forum, the Saudis have managed to forge a very fragile Government of national unity in Palestine. The next steps may be too hard and cause the opportunity to be lost. Israel will only give up the land if they have clear recognition of their state and other security assurances. Palestine is split and may not be able to deliver but PLO negotiator Erekat believes that it should be possible to win a Palestine referendum on the subject, if a clear endgame was agreed with stages to get there. In addition, there is the avalanche of money that would follow. There are no certainties in the Middle East and moderates have been badly mauled, but there is still hope that the share market might be right.

 

We can deal with Iran, boasts Israeli minister
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
March 02, 2007

ISRAEL can deal with the Iranian threat on its own if the international community fails to do so, tough-talking Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman claimed yesterday. Mr Lieberman warned that if Iran were permitted to acquire non-conventional weapons, "the entire Middle East will enter into a mad race to achieve similar capabilities". Appearing before the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, Mr Lieberman said: "Israel has the capability to deal with the Iranian threat even in the worst-case scenario in which our friends throughout the world stop dealing with the threat and we are left on our own."

It was his first appearance before the committee since taking the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party into the governing coalition in November. Mr Lieberman said Iran was more vulnerable than the image it attempted to project. "Sixty per cent of the population lives in shocking poverty, there are a million and a half students with no prospect of jobs, 900,000 women working in prostitution and three million drug addicts," he said. It would be easier for the international community to pressure Iran on the nuclear question, he said, than it was with North Korea since Tehran's economy was in the hands of a small number of businessmen - "50 to 60 families" - who were vulnerable to travel restrictions and limitations on bank transactions. "Sanctions should be directed mainly against them," he said.

The 49-year-old minister, who has just returned from an official visit to his native Russia, said Moscow's attitude towards Iran was changing. "Russia and Israel are on the same side of the barricades," he said. He noted that Moscow recently held up shipments of nuclear fuel to the nuclear power plant it was building at Bushehr in Iran.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces yesterday killed a senior Islamic Jihad operative and two other Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jenin. An army spokesman said a commando unit dressed as Arabs had trailed a taxi containing Asraf Sa'adi, who took over command of Islamic Jihad in Jenin only last week. The militant spotted the car tracking him and opened fire, the spokesman said. The soldiers returned fire, killing him, an armed aide and the driver. Palestinians sources said the Israelis had opened fire first. One soldier was slightly wounded in the exchange.

Sa'adi, 28, had been on Israel's wanted list for several years. He was suspected of having dispatched suicide bombers into Israel. Sa'adi's predecessor was killed in Jenin last week, Israeli officials said, a day after sending a suicide bomber to Tel Aviv. The would-be bomber was seized in a suburb of the city.

In response to the Jenin killings, Islamic Jihad fired five rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The rockets caused no injuries and little damage. Almost nightly arrests have enabled Israel's security agencies on the West Bank to effectively head off attacks by Palestinian militant groups. There were 25 such arrests on Wednesday. In Nablus, an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed when troops opened fire on stone-throwers.

 

Saudi-Iran talks end in confusion
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
March 06, 2007

A MEETING between the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia aimed at easing tensions between the neighbouring Shia and Sunni states ended with contradictory statements yesterday. Saudi Arabia's official news agency reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had agreed in his talks with Saudi King Abdullah to support a Saudi peace initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proposed in 2002. But Mr Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped out, made no reference to the Saudi initiative or peace with Israel when he spoke about the meeting to reporters after returning to Tehran. A few hours after the Saudi news report, Mr Ahmadinejad's spokesman issued a statement denying any agreement and said no peace deal had been discussed at the summit.

The Saudi initiative calls for the Arab world to normalise relations with Israel if it pulls back to the pre-Six Day War borders. Mr Ahmadinejad had arrived in Riyadh on his first state visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday. He and King Abdullah clasped hands and smiled to the cameras in a demonstrative show of friendship. But close to midnight it was announced that Mr Ahmadinejad was returning to Tehran, leading some Israeli analysts to speculate the talks had run aground. "It's strange for Ahmadinejad not to have stayed at least a night on such an important visit," Israeli Middle East Affairs analyst Guy Bechor said.

No joint statement was made by the two leaders to sum up their talks. Nor was there any announcement of further talks. Mr Ahmadinejad told the Iranian news agency, IRNA, that he and the Saudi King had discussed the Palestinian situation and developments in Iraq. "We have good relations with Saudi Arabia," he said, "and it was necessary to discuss current developments in the world of Islam with officials of the country."

Relations, in fact, are increasingly tense, with Saudi Arabia leading a coalition of Sunni states that have voiced concern over Iran's nuclear program and its spreading influence in the region, including Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

 

Hamas to hold sway in coalition
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
March 19, 2007

AFTER years of rivalry culminating in near-civil war, Fatah and Hamas formed a unity Government at the weekend, reshaping the political equation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Although the new Palestinian Government nominally represents a compromise between the two movements, Hamas is seen by observers as having emerged as the dominant force in Palestinian society - although embracing partnership with Fatah to present a more moderate face to the world.

Palestinian officials in both groups expressed the hope that the crippling economic and political boycott imposed by the international community after Hamas's election to power last year will now be lifted. There were strong signs this would happen. Norway announced it would establish relations with the new Palestinian Government, while the European Union and Russia issued statements welcoming the formation of the coalition.

However, the EU declared that its readiness to resume funding for Palestinian government activities would depend on "the platform and actions of the new government and its ministers". The US, which refuses to recognise Hamas, has indicated it will deal with Fatah ministers in the new administration.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last night ruled out peace talks with the new Government, saying contacts would be limited to humanitarian issues until it explicitly renounced violence, recognised Israel's right to exist and accepted previous Palestinian agreements with Israel. "We can't maintain contact with the Government or its ministers when you consider this is a government that does not accept the conditions of the international community and sees terror as a legitimate goal," Mr Olmert told his cabinet. The Prime Minister said he would maintain contact with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was separately elected and is not a member of the unity Government. But Mr Olmert said the discussions would be limited to issues such as improving living conditions for Palestinians.

The Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly endorsed Mr Olmert's position by 19 votes to two, Israeli radio stations reported.

The platform of the new Government contains ambiguities that permit the Palestinian leadership to say the Israelis' terms have been met implicitly, while leaving the door open to a different interpretation at some future date. The platform calls for a "comprehensive and mutual truce" but also stresses the legitimacy of the use of force to resist against occupation. Although agreeing to "respect" past agreements with Israel that accept the existence of the Jewish state, Hamas leaders have said there is a difference between respecting agreements and pledging to fulfil them.

The Palestinian unity Government will be headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who headed the previous Hamas administration, but many of the ministerial posts are now held by Fatah members and independent personalities recognised even by Israel as moderates.

There were suggestions by some Israeli politicians that if Hamas speedily returns Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured last year, and halts the firing of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip by militant organisations such as Islamic Jihad, which is not part of the governing coalition, Israel might be willing to consider reciprocal gestures, such as the release of $US500million ($628million) in Palestinian funds it is holding.

The formation of the unity Government is a victory for the Palestinian people in that it heads off a civil war, which was becoming increasingly likely. The new administration also promises to crack the international boycott that has emptied the Palestinian coffers.

But Israeli observers see it legitimising Hamas as a political entity and thereby increasing theIslamic nature of Palestinian society. Ramallah, the political capital and most secular city in the Palestinian territories, has seen the number of mosques almost double in the past seven years. As Israel sees it, this development does not bode well for the prospects of peace, even though the level of violence may taper off in the near future to permit Western funding to resume.

 

Arab leaders to offer Israel peace for territories
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
March 29, 2007

ARAB leaders last night urged Israel to embrace a renewed regional peace plan as the Jewish state confirmed a commitment to fresh political discussions with the Palestinians that could lead to final-status talks.

In what looms as the most pivotal Arab world gathering since the Palestinian uprising in 2000, the leaders of 14 Arab states opened a two-day summit aimed at offering Israel normalisation with the Arab world in return for key concessions on issues it rejected five years ago. As the leaders gathered in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: "This initiative simply says to Israel 'leave the occupied territories and you will live in a sea of peace that begins in (Mauritanian capital) Nouakchott and ends in Indonesia'."

In a day of sudden developments, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced that Jerusalem would begin direct talks with the Palestinian Authority focusing on political horizons for both sides, in particular the Palestinians, who have demanded a framework for a sovereign state. Separately, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would respond favourably to an invitation from moderate Arab leaders to attend a summit to build on any initiatives from Riyadh. And US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed that senior Palestinian and Israeli officials would from now on meet every two weeks to lead both sides towards implementation of the dormant road map for peace that was conceived before the outbreak of the intifada.

The flurry of diplomatic activity emerged from Dr Rice's 10th visit to the Middle East since she took office. Dr Rice and Mr Olmert handed messages to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - who is attending the Riyadh summit - which said Israel also needed a diplomatic horizon. "Now, at this critical moment, we look for our friends and partners of long standing to build on this important initiative," Dr Rice said. "Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel. New thinking and action will be necessary on behalf of Israel's neighbours."

In a clear sign that Washington is expecting a significant breakthrough in the 59-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dr Rice's office yesterday indicated she was planning to travel to the Holy Land on average once a month for an indefinite period. Washington fears a vacuum appearing because Mr Abbas cannot deliver a unified position from the deeply factionalised Palestinian Government and Mr Olmert is politically diminished within Israel.

Dr Rice spent two days earlier this week deeply engaged in negotiations with Ms Livni, who said last night Israel could not yet commit to final-status talks with the Palestinian Authority. She told a meeting of officials from the Kadima party yesterday that a hold-up in the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is being held in Gaza, was stalling progress in talks and confidence-building measures. "(Mr) Abbas is disappointing us, especially with regard to the issue of Gilad Shalit's release," she said. "He had a chance to condition the establishment of the unity Government on the kidnapped soldier's release, but he chose not to."

Crucial to such discussions would be the touchstone issues being tabled in Riyadh, which centre on the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, many of whom have been in refugee camps in the occupied territories, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, since the state of Israel was formed. The issue of refugee return caused the collapse of the 2002 Arab League proposal, which has been reinvigorated by Saudi monarch King Abdullah. Mr Olmert has maintained Israel's position that the refugees are a redline issue, but has softened considerably on his predecessor Ariel Sharon's outright rejection of the Arab League package. Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem suggested Mr Olmert, or senior members of his staff, last week met senior Saudi figures to establish Israel's position ahead of the summit and also to reaffirm its willingness to compromise on many of the issues to be tabled in Riyadh.

Hamas, which has entered a power-sharing arrangement with Mr Abbas's Fatah party, last night said it would reserve its position on the Arab initiative.

 

Olmert praises Saudi peace plan
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
March 31, 2007

ISRAEL has ramped up its support for the Saudi-sponsored plan to end its six-decade conflict with the Palestinians, describing this week's summit as the start of a "revolutionary" change in thinking in the Arab world. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday praised the Saudi initiative and said the region now realised that the existing Middle East order faced significant threat from other conflicts, such as the standoff with Iran. He renewed a call he made this week for direct talks with Saudi leaders and other Arab states that backed the peace bid.

At the same time, Defence Minister Amir Peretz warned that Israel must not be seen as the party that rejected the plan, tabled by 14 Arab leaders in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Its centrepieces were two issues Israel had previously rejected: a return to the pre-1967 war borders and the more significant sticking point of the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to lands they inhabited before the state of Israel was formed.

"The Middle East is going through a serious change, which has been sharpened since the Second Lebanon War," Mr Olmert said. "This process has brought about a change in the Arab frame of mind. Israel is no longer considered their biggest problem. This is a revolutionary thought. We are not deluding ourselves: they want us to return to the 1967 borders and implement the right of return. This did not surprise us ... Saudi Arabia is the country that will eventually determine Arabs' ability to reach a compromise with Israel. Its willingness to lead and intervene is very interesting."

Mr Peretz said the plan was "an important initiative", and warned that it would be "a mistake" for Israel "to ignore it and leave the arena for others".

Arab leaders urged Israel not to forsake the opportunities the summit offered it. "I reiterate the sincerity of the Palestinian will in extending the hand of peace to the Israeli people," said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We should not waste more chances in the history of this long and painful cause."

Saudi Arabia warned of dire consequences if peace were not embraced. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Israel would subject "not only the region but itself to dangers with unpredictable repercussions" if it ignored the offers. The push for peace has been widely viewed as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to shore up its position as the pre-eminent power-broker among the Sunni Arab world in the face of a perceived threat from the Shia Islamic Iranian regime.

 

Merkel's Holocaust tribute in peace bid
The Australian
AFP, AP
April 02, 2007

JERUSALEM: Sombre and visibly moved, German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid homage yesterday to the victims of the Nazis during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Dressed in a black pant-suit, Ms Merkel stood with her head bowed as a children's choir sang during a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance, where the Chancellor laid a wreath. "Humanity grows out of the responsibility of the past," the 52-year-old German leader wrote in the museum guest book. Six million Jews are estimated to have died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

In her first Middle Eastern visit as EU president, Ms Merkel offered Europe's help in bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, trying to build on a new round of international efforts to restart the peace talks. Ms Merkel, who was meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday, said the Europeans were ready to offer support but ultimately the two sides must resolve their own differences. "The Europeans must not assume they could force a solution," she said in her speech. "We can't, and I don't want to do it. Within my abilities, I would like to support the sides to walk the path toward peace."

Ms Merkel's visit came after the Arab world renewed a land-for-recognition offer to Israel last week. Since then, the quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, EU, UN and Russia - has said it hopes to arrange a meeting with moderate Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians before mid-year. As EU president, Ms Merkel plays an important quartet role.

However, several obstacles are blocking progress.

Much of the Western world is reluctant to deal with the new Palestinian Government, a coalition of the Islamic militant group Hamas and the Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, because it has failed to explicitly recognise Israel or renounce violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he will not talk to Mr Abbas about any provisions of a final peace deal, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, until Palestinian militants halt rocket fire from Gaza and release an Israeli soldier who has been held captive in Gaza for nine months.

Mr Olmert, while praising the Arabs' readiness to offer recognition, has been cool on the price Israel is being asked to pay for it - a withdrawal from the lands it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, including the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, and recognition of the right of return of Palestinian refugees driven from their homes by Israel. Israel has said that while it is willing to give up some land, it will not return to the 1967 borders. And it flatly rejects the return of the refugees.

In a visit to the area last week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured a promise from Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas to meet fortnightly.

Ms Merkel is expected to ask the two leaders to make good use of these conversations - no date has been set for the first round - but her aides said she was not carrying an action plan. She urged Middle East nations last night to seize the moment and revive the peace process. "We are going through a period where we feel things are moving," Ms Merkel said in a speech at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she received an honorary doctorate. "There is a window of opportunity ... The Arab world is ready to talk about the Mid-East conflict and its solutions. There is a real chance of reaching a breakthrough, and we must grasp it."

Receiving the Chancellor at an official ceremony, Mr Olmert said he hoped Ms Merkel and other leaders "will be able to help us and our neighbours to reach a breakthrough while taking into consideration maximum sensitivity to security issues".

 

Israel PM calls for talks on peace
The Australian
AFP
April 16, 2007

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday Israel was ready to hold talks with Arab nations on a plan for comprehensive Middle East peace. "We are ready to hold talks with any combination of Arab states on their ideas and I would be glad to hear their ideas on the Saudi initiative," Mr Olmert said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "I'll be glad to hear their ideas and for them to listen to ours."

He was referring to a five-year-old peace plan that the Arab League revived during its summit last month. The blueprint offers Israel peace and normal ties with Arab countries in exchange for withdrawing from Arab land occupied during the 1967 Six Day War, allowing the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of refugees. Israel rejected the plan when it was unveiled in 2002, but has recently said it could provide a basis for talks provided there are amendments to the refugee issue - something the Arab countries have refused to do.

US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones and other American officials have termed a dialogue between Israel and the league of "historic significance". The league has traditionally been the flag bearer of Arab hostility to Israel. At a summit meeting in 1967 in Khartoum shortly after the Six Day War, the league declared that there would be no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel and no negotiations with Israel.

Mr Olmert's comments come before Wednesday's planned meeting in Cairo between 12 Arab foreign ministers to discuss the Saudi-drafted initiative.

The Israeli PM spoke ahead of a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, the first of what are due to be regular meetings between the two leaders aimed at jumpstarting the dormant peace process. Mr Olmert said the talks would not focus on core issues, but "the possibility to promote a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict by creating a Palestinian state". "We will not touch on core issues but we will discuss substantial issues such as legislative administration and security bodies in the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Discussions will also touch on talks over a possible Palestinian prisoner release in return for an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants last June. "We will discuss topics including the PA's fight against terror and the commitment the chairman of the PA gave me to immediately release Corporal Gilad Shalit," Mr Olmert said.

 

Olmert refuses to step down
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
May 05, 2007

ISRAEL'S leader, Ehud Olmert, has defied the wishes of most Israelis by clinging to power, but his Government still faces collapse in the wake of a threatened revolt from its key coalition partner, the Labour Party. Mr Olmert was refusing to resign yesterday despite a 100,000-strong demonstration in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, which demanded he quit in the wake of a scathing report into his conduct of the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And in a bid to shore up his weakened administration, Mr Olmert is understood to have decided against sacking his rebellious Foreign Minister and likely candidate for his job, Tzipi Livni. Ms Livni told Mr Olmert on Wednesday he should consider resigning after the condemnation he received from the Winograd Commission report into the 34-day war fought last summer. The report said he had demonstrated a "severe failure" in judgment as leader of the campaign and had failed to exercise due caution and responsibility. Mr Olmert's aides said that as long as Ms Livni fell into line on policy issues, the Prime Minister would not move against her.

Mr Olmert refused yesterday to address the demands of the demonstrators, who took to the streets near the Yitzhak Rabin Peace Park in numbers not seen in Israel for up to five years. Instead, he praised the demonstrators for conducting a civil protest. "The protesters were citizens who were behaving in a legitimate and democratic manner," he said. "I appreciate that citizens behaved legitimately and democratically, without needless violence."

Mr Olmert is likely to face a no-confidence motion in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Monday, which he should easily defeat with the votes of fellow Kadima MPs and an assortment of party allies.

However, his biggest test is likely to come on May 13 when a Labour minister, who quit the cabinet in protest after the report was handed down, plans to call a meeting of other Labour MPs to discuss withdrawing from the coalition if Mr Olmert stays on as leader. The withdrawal of Labour would significantly weaken Mr Olmert and the centrist Kadima party he inherited from stricken former leader Ariel Sharon. To continue to govern, Kadima would then need to secure the support of a number of smaller political parties in the parliament.

Israeli analysts said any broader issues, such as resuming peace talks with the Palestinians or attempting to engage the moderate Arab world, would be stalled for as long as the Government remained unstable. The Tel Aviv rally was addressed by parents of many of the Israelis slain during the war as well as a cross-section of the Israeli political scene. Protesters chanted "Olmert, go home" and demanded he quit immediately.

Mr Olmert's approval ratings have plunged to desperately low levels, according to media polls published during the week. Up to 68 per cent of Israelis believe he should quit, while one poll showed no respondents thought he was doing a good job. Defence Minister Amir Peretz is also determined to hold on to his job, despite the criticism he also received in the Winograd report.

 

Sarkozy could lead France to a new renaissance - Extract
The Australian
Stephen Morris
May 08, 2007

Having faced terrorism at home since the 1960s, France has always recognised that on this issue the West is under common threat and must work together. But Sarkozy, in a break with some European allies, has flagged his recognition that Hamas and Hezbollah are not to be excluded from economic sanctions or moral opprobrium until they renounce policies of terrorism and liquidating Israel, in both word and in deed.

Second, Sarkozy is not likely to waver on the growing danger of Iran. He recognises that Iran's undemocratic leadership is driven mainly by an anti-Western totalitarian ideology that most Iranian people reject. French soil has more than once been the site of Tehran-sponsored assassinations of the mullahs' opponents in exile. And in Lebanon, a nation with which France retains a special relationship, Tehran-sponsored Hezbollah is trying to bring down the pro-Western democratic Government. Polls show French people are as opposed as Americans are to Iran getting a nuclear weapon: 92 per cent in each country. Sarkozy will be resolute on this.

Iran feels heat on three fronts - Extract
The Australian
AP, AFP
June 12, 2007

A senior official close to the IAEA said Iran had more than 1300 centrifuges enriching uranium at an underground facility in Natanz as of May 13 and could reach its goal of industrial-scale production, with 3000 centrifuges running, by the end of June.

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