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The truce that spells trouble
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday June 14, 2008

FOR a leader facing the wrath of the Western world and sanctions that could slow even Iran's blue-sky growth, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week looked perfectly at ease on the global stage. The Iranian President chose a meeting with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to showcase just how readily and strongly he has taken to his self-anointed role of regional kingmaker, and again the Arab world and the West are left second-guessing his next move.

As Washington's hawks squirmed, the two Shia Muslim leaders sat down in the presidential palace in Tehran for a bonding session that could go a long way towards determining the shape of a security pact that's being nutted out between Baghdad and Iraq's conqueror turned saviour, the US, or whether it goes ahead at all. US attempts to get the pact in place before the end of the presidency of George W. Bush and ahead of the expiration of the UN mandate that legally underpins the coalition occupation were troubled before Maliki flew to Tehran for his third trip since taking office in 2006.

Iran has been deeply suspicious of what it sees as US attempts to consolidate military bases on Iraqi soil within easy striking distance of the Islamic republic, describing the move as a new "Cuban missile crisis" in reference to the Soviet Union-US stand-off that nearly turned the Cold War baking hot in 1962. As Maliki broke bread with US State Department heavyweights during the past month, Ahmadinejad was looking at ways to scupper the deal.

US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker accused Tehran of throwing a monkey wrench into the security discussions. Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani also weighed in to the talks, denouncing them as an evil conspiracy, a stance that has Iraq's Shia MPs ready to walk away from any deal. Again, Iraq resembles a push-me-pull-me doll as the US and Iran compete for a legacy, not just on the ancient soil of Mesopotamia but across the Middle East and beyond. A running scoresheet, at this early stage, may make uncomfortable reading for the departing Bush regime.

Wherever Bush looks, especially in the Arab world, Iran's apparent bid for influence is doing well. Ahmadinejad was reportedly delighted at the deal done by Lebanese leaders to include the Shia militia Hezbollah in a power-sharing government and give it veto over laws and appointments. The Lebanon deal came after an 18-month showdown with the heavily US-backed Beirut Government, and the change in political dynamic is a significant blow to the White House's aspirations to democratise the Middle East.

Elsewhere, Hamas in the Gaza Strip continues to enjoy funding and training from the Iranian military, which has been more than willing to set aside theological differences - Hamas and the vast majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims - in the name of taking the fight to Israel.

Syria also remains strongly aligned to Tehran despite fledgling peace talks with the Jewish state. And, after two years of solidarity, the European alliance with the US on Iran is showing signs of cracking. Russia is considering engaging Ahmadinejad before things get uglier. Another European heavyweight, Germany, is vexed over how to quell rising tensions.

The horrific spectre of a mushroom cloud over the region, combined with skittishness about again going to war on an apparent false premise, has left many leaders gun-shy about the Persian state. The US's grave reservations about Iran's steadily growing nuclear program have done nothing to slow its rapidly warming ties with Iraq, to which it supplies electricity as well as know-how for the construction of power plants and oil extraction, as well as fuelling powerful Shia militias.

The 20 years of bitterness that followed the devastating Iran-Iraq War, which claimed more than one million lives, disappeared with the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and were all but forgotten by the time Ahmadinejad, a former Tehran mayor, took the leadership reins in late 2005. Ever since, the pious and unpredictable leader has used Iraq as ground zero in what many analysts in the US, Israel and Europe view as a full-throttle bid for a Persian resurgence, as well as a push to ensure that Iraq is not steered towards the Sunni Arab bloc, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Shi'ites of Iraq, unshackled from Saddam Hussein's 30 years of tyranny, are enjoying increasingly golden times, not just from the elevated status they hold but in the lingering promise of an even rosier future under the tutelage of Ahmadinejad. This blossoming nexus strikes more uncertainty into the hearts of Arab leaders than even a nuclear-capable Iran. Saudi Arabia, in particular, sees a subversive threat from its small but vocal Shia minority, which it fears would not need much encouragement to join a mushrooming Shia revolution.

Maliki, a leader in whom the US has had varying degrees of faith, spent the best part of the Saddam years in exile in Iran, both before and after the Islamic revolution of 1979. He knows the people and their culture and is a student of Persian history. But he does not know Ahmadinejad well. Few do outside the Supreme Council of Mullahs, which acts as the nation's theological heart and as the sage guiding the President and policy. "The reality is, we do not know what he wants or what he intends to do," an Israeli intelligence official says. "We invest a lot of time trying to find out, and so do the Americans and the Europeans. One thing is for sure in our minds, his nuclear program is not benign. It is a central plank of his expansionism and he is more than willing to use it to hold the region to ransom."

Ahmadinejad is at once a nation builder and a torchbearer of the Islamic revolution, a man who appears not to fear a collision course with Israel or the Sunni Arab world and who resents the sort of empire building that he is also accused of trying to achieve. He has railed against the British and French mandates that carved the region into nation-states after World War I, and has laid blame for many of the region's woes at the feet of the Ottoman Empire, which reigned for more than three centuries from Beirut to what is now eastern Iraq.

As Ahmadinejad and Maliki were this week pledging closer ties, the European Union and the US were pledging sharper sanctions, especially on Iranian banks, if Iran doesn't agree to stop sensitive plutonium-enrichment work. In a move to stay ahead of any freezing of Iranian assets, Tehran quickly began withdrawing cash from European banks and depositing it in its own treasury coffers, which are already overflowing from oil revenues.

"Bush's time is up and he was not able to harm even one centimetre of our land," state-run news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as saying in retort. Then, in response to Maliki's visit and the delicate issue of Iraq dealing closely with his greatest detractor, the US, he added: "Iraq must reach a certain level of stability so that its enemies are not able to impose their influence." Maliki was quick to play down Iranian fears of consolidated US bases. He insisted his Government would "not allow Iraq to become a platform for harming the security of Iran", according to official reports of the leaders' meetings.

The US is aiming for negotiations with Iraq to be completed before July 31. But again Iran appears to be outmanoeuvring Washington. Iraqi MPs are reportedly going increasingly cold on the idea, preferring that the UN mandate be extended, which would mean US troops staying on en masse, denying Bush the politically valuable chance to claim Iraq was stable enough for them to return home. Bush this week told Maliki he was prepared to be flexible, especially on preconditions that US forces could launch missions without prior consent, could control Iraq's air space and would not guarantee Iraq's defence if it came under attack. Despite Iran's nuclear program and its intransigence on the US, Ahmadinejad is well aware that if the US were to depart Iraq suddenly, the ensuing vacuum could destroy all of its strategic gains there by again imperilling the Shi'ites.

"Their goal is to gradually get us out of there, but they're smart enough to know that Iraq is dependent on the US for good reason," says a senior US military officer in Jerusalem. "There is a real need for military protection there, and it serves the Iranians' interests to have us around. They just want everything on their terms. And at the moment they're working what leverage they have in the region quite well."

Iran's substantive push for regional influence started 25 years ago in Lebanon when, on the back of the Islamic revolution, it raised Hezbollah as a dedicated militia to take on Israel. Its role in Lebanon has remained deliberately understated, even more so in Gaza. Even now in the Shia heartland of south Beirut there is little more than the occasional Iranian flag on a roundabout and a cultural centre here and there. The petro-dollars are flowing abundantly, though, and the political win Ahmadinejad enjoyed in Beirut in May is certain to keep money coming in.


Brown delivers on Iran for Bush
The Australian
Correspondents in London
Tuesday June 17, 2008

BRITISH Prime Minister Gordon Brown last night announced new troops for Afghanistan and tougher sanctions on Iran, delighting visiting US President George W. Bush. Mr Brown said he would boost British troops in Afghanistan to the highest level — expected to increase to 8000 with 230 extra engineers, logistical staff and military trainers — at the meeting between the two leaders on the last day of Mr Bush's farewell tour of Europe. "It is in the British national interest to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan would come to us," Mr Brown said at a joint news conference with Mr Bush at the Foreign Office in London.

Mr Bush thanked Mr Brown for the troop announcement, saying there was a duty to "protect ourselves and help others". "You've been strong on Afghanistan and Iraq, and I appreciate it. But more importantly, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq appreciate it," he said.

Mr Brown said Europe was to agree on new sanctions against Iran, including freezing assets of the country's biggest bank, after weekend talks by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Tehran. "We will take action today that will freeze the overseas assets of the biggest bank in Iran, the Melli Bank, and secondly action will start today for a new phase of sanctions on oil and gas," he said. Mr Bush reiterated that "all options" remain on the table against Iran, although stressing he would prefer a diplomatic solution to the West's standoff with Tehran over its suspect nuclear program. He earlier rejected any suggestion of a rift between the trans-Atlantic allies over troop withdrawals after a meeting with former prime minister Tony Blair.

The meetings came a day after Mr Bush met the Queen for tea in Windsor Castle and, later, Mr Brown for dinner in Downing Street, as protesters scuffled with riot police nearby. Ten police officers were injured and 25 demonstrators were arrested after protesters tried to breach police lines sealing off Whitehall.

Mr Bush dismissed talk that his ties to Mr Blair — a good friend and perhaps his staunchest ally in the war to topple Saddam Hussein — were stronger than those with Mr Brown. He met Mr Blair, now the envoy for the quartet of powers trying to forge Middle East peace, for breakfast talks. "It's different people, different times, and yet the same important relationship," he said. "Frankly, they're both unique relationships, and both of them honest relationships, and both of them forged at different times. Blair's and my relationship was forged in fire."

Mr Bush was due last night in Belfast, and along with Mr Brown and Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen, will meet Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson, and his deputy Martin McGuinness. Mr Bush hopes Northern Ireland, once a scene of chronic sectarian strife, can provide an object lesson for bringing peace to other trouble spots, notably in the Middle East. In recent months, Mr Bush has increasingly cited the success of the Catholic-Protestant accord that emerged from US-backed negotiations in the late 1990s. He has asked leaders of the two sides in Northern Ireland to conduct seminars for clashing Sunnis and Shias in Iraq as well as other places in the Middle East that have suffered from ethnic and sectarian conflicts.

Since Mr Bush's visit to Paris at the weekend, commentators have made much of the new warmth in US ties with France, and what are seen to be the cooler relations between Mr Bush and Mr Brown, at least compared with those between the President and Mr Blair. But US aides were at pains to underline the enduring close ties between Britain and the US.


Gaza truce: guns to fall silent today
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday June 19, 2008

ISRAEL and Hamas tentatively have declared a truce aimed at ending more than two years of soaring violence inside Gaza, securing the borders for both sides and easing the crushing blockade of the strip. The blazing guns of the insurgents and the Israeli military were due to fall silent at 6am Gaza time today (1pm AEST) with some border checkpoints to be gradually reopened and aid supplies increased if calm persists.

Israel signed on to the deal late on Wednesday after senior defence officials returned from talks with Egypt, which had mediated often fraught discussions between the Jewish state and the Islamic movement over the past three months. Both sides made last-minute compromises to seal the detente, with Hamas dropping its demand that Israel also cease all its military operations in the West Bank and Israeli leaders accepting that captured soldier Gilad Shalit would only be freed after trust-building steps. The ceasefire includes a pledge by Israel not to attack targets anywhere in the Gaza Strip, and a pledge by Hamas to prevent any strike against Israel, including rocket attacks. Other militant factions, which often act as a law unto themselves, have not signed on to the truce but have strongly hinted they will not defy it.

Before the truce announcement, an Israeli attack helicopter fired missiles at a car travelling in central Gaza, killing five members of one such group, a nascent al-Qa'ida-linked cell of Gazans, which called itself the Army of Islam. The group was responsible for kidnapping BBC reporter Alan Johnston early last year, and was vehemently opposed to any conciliation with Israel. The Israeli Defence Force alleged the organisation's leaders were planning a terror strike, which could have jeopardised the truce. A barrage of rockets was fired into southern Israel in what appeared to be a retaliation and the fuel terminal that supplies Gaza was attacked by gunmen shortly afterwards, but a tense calm last night appeared to be holding.

After three days of calm, Israel has pledged to ease Gaza's economic siege by allowing a large transfer of much-needed raw materials and merchandise through the border crossings. If the relief supplies are delivered without incident, Egypt has vowed to intensify talks with Hamas about the release of Corporal Shalit, who was captured on the Israeli side of the Gaza border fence in June 2006.

Hamas has demanded the return of 350-450 Palestinians imprisoned inside Israel in return for Corporal Shalit. The progress of attempts to free the captured soldier will in turn influence Israel's attitude towards whether the Rafah passenger crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt is reopened. Hamas has conditioned the truce holding on Rafah reopening. It has been bolted shut since the militant group ousted Fatah from a brief power-sharing government 12 months ago.

A cottage industry of tunnellers has set up a network of passages under the Egyptian border, providing desperately needed supplies of merchandise, but it has also been used to rearm militant groups, especially Hamas. The Israeli domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, will assess whether a Hamas commitment to cutting arms smuggling is being met, before agreeing to Rafah reopening. If the borders do swing open, aid is expected to flow into the Strip and trade begin to blossom with the Arab world. Gaza is currently reliant on Israel for all imports, except those smuggled in through tunnels, and Hamas has vowed to reorientate the Strip's crippled economy towards the East.

Confirming the deal last night, an Israeli official said: "We want to make the most of any opportunity to bring peace and quiet to residents of the south, but no one here is cracking open the champagne and declaring Hamas has beaten its swords into ploughs". "Gilad is part of this deal, no matter what Hamas says," the official added. "As far as we're concerned, this is a de facto truce agreement, and the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the Gaza terror groups. If they maintain it, we can move ahead. If not, then Israel will have to consider its next move," said another official from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.

Israel and Hamas remain sceptical about the truce holding, with both sides accusing the other of ruining past attempts to halt violence. More than 440 people have been killed, the majority of them Palestinian militants, since the US attempt to usher in new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority last November. The talks have not included Gaza. With the talks faltering, there are increasing signs that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is looking to reconcile with Hamas to form a new power-sharing government. Mr Abbas was yesterday due to travel to Gaza for the first time since his loyalists were violently ousted last June. Hamas has welcomed recent overtures from Mr Abbas's Fatah movement, claiming peace talks with Israel counted for little without Gaza's 1.4 million people - around 25 per cent of the total Palestinian population - being represented.

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers play a game of volleyball near parked tanks at a base on the border with the Gaza Strip. Picture: AP

Lebanon rejects Israeli peace bid
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Friday June 20, 2008

LEBANON has rebuffed a second Israeli bid in recent weeks to launch bilateral peace talks, denying Prime Minister Ehud Olmert his wish to transform the Jewish state's fragile borders into an arc of security. As a truce with militants in Gaza last night appeared to be holding, Mr Olmert's office made its most direct overture yet to the incoming Lebanese regime, tabling a disputed parcel of land on the Israeli border as a potential peace offering.

The land, known as the Shebaa farms, has been a key plank of Hezbollah's armed resistance against Israel, with the militia group turned government powerbroker vowing to liberate the area through the use of force. The UN has indicated the land belongs to neighbouring Syria, to which Israel is also making peace overtures, through indirect talks brokered by Turkey.

In what looms as a diplomatic breakthrough between the two foes, Mr Olmert is due to sit at the same table as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a conference about a Mediterranean zone to be held in Paris in July. Mr Olmert has pushed hard for a peace pact with Syria and has claimed significant progress in trust-building measures - as talks on a separate track with the Palestinians have faltered.

Israel has been determined to avoid a perception that the brokered truce with Hamas in Gaza legitimises the militant group, which is proscribed as a terror organisation by many Western states. Mr Olmert and defence officials are highly sceptical about the truce holding. Meanwhile, Hamas, which signed on to the deal after months of Egyptian mediation, has vowed to crack down on any militant group that attempts to defy it.

Hamas's military wing has pulled all its members back from combat zones along the southern and eastern border of the Strip and has instructed Islamic Jihad to do likewise. If the truce takes hold, Israel will agree to gradually ease its economic boycott of Gaza, by allowing in a mass delivery of relief supplies. If guns from both sides of the border remain silenced, Hamas has said it will move to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, while Israel has agreed to consider supporting the reopening of Gaza's main passenger crossing to Egypt. Senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad, who has led talks with Egypt on the terms of the truce, said: "Unless Gilad Shalit is released, Rafah crossing will not be reopened." An envoy of Mr Olmert will head to Egypt on Tuesday to discuss the prisoner swap, while the Israeli Prime Minister will also travel to Egypt next week for talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

Reaction inside Israel to doing a deal with Hamas has been mixed, with a right-wing bloc accusing Mr Olmert of legitimising the militant group. Rival Palestinian political power Fatah, which runs the West Bank under the leadership of the Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, also criticised the deal, accusing Hamas of acting solely in its own political interests. A spokesman for Mr Abbas, who no longer has a power base in Gaza after Fatah was violently ousted by Hamas 12 months ago, said Hamas did not represent the will of Palestinians. Fatah officials have felt threatened by the deal, which comes as their bid to secure a comprehensive peace pact with Israel increasingly appears doomed. As hopes of a declaration of Palestinian statehood by January have ebbed away in recent months, Fatah has moved to reconcile with Hamas and again establish a power-sharing regime. "We will not accept Hamas being in a position to lock down a deal in Gaza which makes the nominated Government in the West Bank look impotent," one senior Palestinian Authority figure told The Australian.

The mood in Gaza had by last night warmed considerably, as almost 1.4 million people prepared for the arrival of the much-anticipated aid shipment to restock desperately low supplies of fuel, gas and building materials. Many in the Strip have been living a subsistence existence for much of the year and have resorted to donkey carts for deliveries and transport. On the Israeli side of the border, combat troops have stood down, but remain stationed to defend against any rocket or sniper attack.

Same Day: Old rules rewritten amid sudden peace hopes

ANALYSIS: Richard Beeston, The Times

FOR the past four decades, two unshakeable principles have decided the fate of the tortuous search for peace in the Middle East. As any veteran diplomat of the "peace process" will tell you, no progress can be achieved without the full weight of the White House and the commitment of a strong Israeli government prepared to make painful territorial concessions. This was true at Camp David, when Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat penned the first land-for-peace deal. It was true a decade later when Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on their deal at the White House.

Until only a few days ago, the chaos in the Middle East illustrated perfectly why these rules still applied. Israel, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's crumbling coalition Government, was locked in a bloody cycle of violence with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group controlling Gaza. Many expected an Israeli punitive ground attack. To the north, Israel and Hezbollah, the extremist Shia Muslim militia, exchanged regular threats. Many observers predicted another round of violence. Behind these tensions lay Israel's implacable foe Syria, which was attacked last year by Israeli aircraft after intelligence suggested Damascus was trying to build a nuclear facility. Despite US President George W.Bush's push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal this year, few believed his weakened administration would be able to deliver anything concrete.

Yet the region has been transformed. Israel and Hamas will implement an agreement brokered by Egypt for a six-month truce in Gaza. If the ceasefire holds, Israel has agreed to ease its blockade over the enclave. The breakthrough, after a year of fighting, was soon followed by two more important moves.

France, which under President Nicolas Sarkozy has worked hard to rebuild ties with Damascus, announced a meeting might take place between President Bashar Assad of Syria and Olmert. The rapprochement follows weeks of Turkish mediation between Israeli and Syrians officials. Simultaneously, Israel offered to begin peace talks with Lebanon to resolve a border dispute. The peace overture coincided with reports of an imminent prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, brokered by Germany.

There is suddenly hope that some of the thorniest issues in the region could be resolved. The prize could mean an end to the Israeli-Syrian struggle. The impact could be enormous. Any peace moves between the two neighbours would immediately help rehabilitate Syria and isolate its militant ally Iran, regarded by many as the major threat to peace in the region.

Whatever the outcome, the old rules will have to be rewritten. Egyptian, Turkish, German and French officials were instrumental in this process. They have succeeded where the Bush administration so far has failed. As for Olmert, he faces serious corruption allegations and could even be charged and stand trial. His Government may only have days before it collapses. Some suspect that making peace is the only way he can cling to power. Whatever his motivation, he has demonstrated that peace can be forged from a position of weakness as easily as from a position of strength.


Extract - Israel trains for possible Iran strike
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Saturday June 21, 2008

ISRAELI fighter jets have recently conducted a large-scale training operation that simulated an attack on an Iranian nuclear reactor, US media reports claim. The apparent operation follows months of escalating rhetoric from the Israeli defence establishment and politicians, who insist a military strike against the nascent nuclear capabilities of Iran is on strategists' drawing boards. Up to 100 advanced Israeli combat jets were reported to have taken part in the drill over Greece and other areas of the eastern Mediterranean. The exercise was tailored to prepare for long-range strikes and focused on air-to-air refuelling and target assessment, Pentagon officials told The New York Times. The paper reported that more than 100 Israeli jets staged the manoeuvre. It said the aircraft flew more than 1440km, roughly the distance from Israel to Iran's Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility.

Asked to comment on the report, the military issued a statement saying only that the Israeli air force "regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel". Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he preferred that Iran's nuclear ambitions be halted through diplomacy, but he does not rule out military action. The allegations have surfaced as the Jewish state's powerful military is on the move across Israel; defence chiefs yesterday suggested they would move forces from the Gaza border if a planned six-month truce with Hamas held over the medium term.

Calm continued last night along the Gaza border as Israel and Hamas each vowed to hold their fire to ensure that trust-building measures aimed at diplomatic breakthroughs began to take hold. Both sides remain deeply sceptical about the tenure of the truce. Israeli officials yesterday warned Hamas that it would suffer a painful blow if pledges made during brokered talks with Egypt - such as a long-term hold on rocket fire and the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit - were not honoured. "They know this is their last chance," one senior Israeli official told The Weekend Australian. "They are trying to position themselves as the heroes of the day, so they have invested a lot into making this work. There's no question this is a test for them that they don't want to fail."

Meanwhile, on a separate peace track, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday ruled out a discussion with Mr Olmert if both end up attending a conference in Paris in mid-July. The Syrian President has reiterated his opposition to direct talks with Israel until at least early next year, when US President George W.Bush leaves office. Syrian and Israeli officials continue to hold indirect talks in Turkey. Both sides claim talks are progressing well. However, Syria says it will not advance to a direct dialogue without US involvement. The Bush White House has persistently accused Mr Assad's regime of undermining its interests across the Middle East and refuses to engage Damascus.

Last night, French President Nicolas Sarkozy signalled support for Israel ahead of a trip to the region, but said it was crucial for peace that it freeze building settlements in the occupied West Bank. Mr Sarkozy, who arrives in Israel on Sunday, said that France "will always be by Israel's side when its existence and security are at stake". "Those who call, in a outrageous way, for the destruction of Israel will always find France facing them and blocking their path," he said. But he said Israel had a role to play in securing peace. "As I've said it on several occasions, freezing settlements, which are the main obstacle to peace, is crucial."


Extract - Nuclear chief warns of 'ball of fire'
The Australian
Monday June 23, 2008

DUBAI: The UN nuclear watchdog chief yesterday predicted that any military strike on Iran could turn the Middle East into a "ball of fire" and lead Iran to a more aggressive stance on its controversial nuclear program. The comments by International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei came in an interview with an Arab television station, a day after US officials said they believed recent large Israeli military exercises might have been meant to show Israel's ability to hit Iran's nuclear sites. "In my opinion, a military strike will be the worst. It will turn the Middle East to a ball of fire," Mr ElBaradei said on Al-Arabiya television. Such an attack could prompt Iran to press ahead with plans to develop a nuclear weapons program and would force him to resign, he said.

Iran strongly criticised the Israeli military exercise. The official IRNA news agency quoted a government spokesman as saying that the exercises clearly demonstrate that Israel "jeopardises global peace and security". US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to comment on the Israeli exercise in an interview with National Public Radio aired on Saturday, but said: "We are committed to a diplomatic course." One Israeli politician urged caution yesterday, saying the international community should first do more to toughen and broaden the sanctions against Iran to persuade its leaders to halt the nuclear program. The chairman of the powerful foreign affairs and defence committee in Israel's parliament, Tzahi Hanegbi, suggested measures including banning Iranian planes, ships and sports delegations from entering Western countries. In Dubai, the government-owned Khaleej Times newspaper warned in an editorial that an attack on Iran by Israel or the US would have disastrous consequences for the region. "A nuclear Iran is in nobody's interest, but military action and armed rehearsals will not be tolerated," the paper said.


Syrian presence essential to peace, Sarkozy tells Israel's elder statesman
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday June 24, 2008

PEACE in the Middle East will remain elusive without engaging Syria, and Israel's interests are being damaged by ongoing settlement construction, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last night in Jerusalem. Hours after Mr Sarkozy arrived in the Holy Land - the first French leader to do so in 12 years - he reiterated calls for a sovereign Palestinian state, claiming it would provide security for Israel and sharply ease tensions across the region.

Mr Sarkozy added his weight to the sharp rebuke given to Israeli leaders last week by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said settlement building, particularly in east Jerusalem, was "harmful" to floundering peace negotiations. "You have made some bad decisions, like the expansion of settlements and east Jerusalem, where the construction is not good for Israel," Mr Sarkozy said during his visit to President Shimon Peres's residence in Jerusalem. "The best and only guarantee for the state of Israel is an independent, democratic Palestinian state at its side."

Before his visit, which is seen as boosting sometimes troubled bilateral ties between the two states, Mr Sarkozy had been attempting to take a leadership role in the region, particularly by re-engaging Syria. He has asked both leaders to sit at the same table during a conference in Paris about Mediterranean states scheduled for July 13. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have indicated they will accept the invitation, but Mr Assad claims the meeting will not transform current indirect talks between the two sides into a face-to-face cure-all.

"If we do not talk with Assad, there will not be peace in the Middle East," Mr Sarkozy said. "In addition to negotiations, there needs to be a change of mentality in Syria." In return, Mr Peres, who acts as Israel's elder statesman, said: "I do not know if Assad and Olmert will sit at the same table but this is an important process. Tell Assad that he needs to learn from (former Egyptian president Anwar) Sadat and come to Jerusalem for face-to-face talks with Olmert. "I believe in peace, and two successes to learn from are Egypt and Jordan. We paid full price and, despite the problems, many lives were saved due to these agreements. I would be glad if you could transfer the message to Assad: there is no substitute for peace. But leaders that want to make peace must do it themselves." After signing a peace deal with Israel, Sadat was assassinated by an Egyptian soldier in Cairo. However, the peace pact with Egypt has held.

Also holding firm last night was a truce struck last week between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli army, in which both agreed to down weapons for up to six months if trust-building measures continued to be implemented. Israel was yesterday scheduled to allow a large shipment of aid supplies into the Gaza Strip following four days of calm. Hamas is under mounting pressure to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, for whom it has demanded a trade of up to 350 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Confusion last night surrounded a second prisoner-release plan. Hezbollah is reported to have baulked during advanced talks with a German mediator over plans for an imminent swap of two Israeli soldiers captured at the outset of the second Lebanon war for the remains of dead Hezbollah fighters and terrorist Samir Kuntar, who has served a 30-year sentence in Israel. The Hezbollah prisoner swap was mooted to go ahead as early as this week.

Same Day: Attack steels rebels' plans to reform Anglican church

Ruth Gledhill, Jerusalem, The Times

THE Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria accused the Western church of apostasy last night and attacked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for leading it into error. Peter Akinola told more than 1000 conservative delegates at the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem: "We must rescue what is left of the church from the error of the apostates."

His comments added to the crisis facing the Anglican Church as a result of innovations such as gay blessings and the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the US. Several of the bishops in the audience in Jerusalem are drawing up plans to form a "church within a church" in an attempt to counter Western liberalism and reform the church. Senior sources said the most likely outcome of the divisions over homosexuality and biblical authority was an international "Anglican fellowship" that would provide a home and structure for conservative Anglicans.

Dr Akinola compared the Episcopal Church in the US and its liberals to those who enslaved Africans in the 19th century. "Having survived the ... physical slavery of the 19th century, the political slavery called colonialism of the 20th century, the developing world economic enslavement, we cannot, we dare not, allow ourselves and the millions we represent to be kept in religious and spiritual dungeon," he said. And the Nigerian leader warned: "We will not abdicate our God-given responsibility and simply acquiesce to destructive modern cultural and political dictates." Addressing signs of disunity within the ranks of conservatives, Dr Akinola accused the Archbishop of Canterbury and the US church of a policy of "divide and rule" and said they had used "money and other attractions to buy silence and compromise from some gullible African and global south church leaders".

In a section of the prepared speech that was omitted from his delivery, Dr Akinola had also raised the issue of Dr Williams's recent controversial speech on Islamic law. "In the face of global suspicion of the links of Islam with terrorism, Lambeth Palace is making misleading statements about the Islamic law - sharia - to the point that even secular leaders are now calling us to order. We can no longer trust where some of our communion leaders are taking us," he said.

The speech was greeted with applause and whistles by the delegates, who included 300 bishops, about 200 of whom are boycotting the official Lambeth conference organised by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Kent University next month.

The new fellowship for orthodox Anglicans would have a leadership of six or seven senior conservative bishops and archbishops, such as the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bob Duncan, who chairs the US Common Cause partnership that acts as an umbrella for American conservatives, Archbishop Henry Orombi, Primate of Uganda, and the Church of England's Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali.

The aim is not to split with the worldwide Anglican communion, which counts 80 million members in 38 provinces, but to reform it from within. Formal ties will be maintained with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but fellowship members will consider themselves out of communion with provinces such as the US and Canada. Members of the fellowship could attempt to opt out of the pastoral care of their diocesan bishop and seek supervision from a more conservative archbishop.


Germany, Poland baulk at EU treaty
The Australian
Correspondents in Brussels
Tuesday July 02, 2008

THE presidents of Poland and Germany said yesterday they would not sign the European Union's reform treaty after its defeat in an Irish referendum last month, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy took over the leadership of the EU declaring "something isn't right" with the bloc. Poland's President, Lech Kaczynski, said it would be "pointless" to sign the Lisbon treaty, even though Poland's parliament had ratified it. All 27 EU members must ratify the document. "For the moment, the question of the treaty is pointless," he said. Although the Polish parliament ratified the treaty in April, it still needs the President's signature. The BBC reported that Mr Kaczynski appeared to have joined his Czech counterpart in opposing treaty ratification. Czech President Vaclav Klaus and many Czech politicians are cool on ratification.

There was another blow for the Lisbon treaty yesterday from German President Horst Kohler, who refused to complete his country's ratification. Mr Kohler decided not to sign the documents until a legal challenge was heard by the country's constitutional court - a process that could last until the northern autumn. Although the German head of state is a symbolic figure mainly, he has the power to delay legislation and can use that bought time to generate a national debate. The move is a serious embarrassment for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, with Mr Sarkozy, wants to keep the ratification process moving. The pair have threatened that there will be no further enlargement of the EU until the treaty is signed and sealed. Ms Merkel declared: "Europe cannot afford any pause for reflection."

Mr Sarkozy yesterday assumed the rotating presidency of the EU for the next six months and vowed to save the bloc's reputation by showing that it could improve people's lives. Since the Irish rejection of the treaty "Super Sarko" has recast himself as would-be saviour of the EU during the six-month French presidency of the 27-nation group. He wants to rekindle trust in the EU and put the treaty - which he helped to broker a year ago - back on track by the end of his tenure. He will visit Dublin on July 11 to sound out options from Prime Minister Brian Cowen.

Mr Sarkozy opened his stint with promises to make Europe work for its people with measures on immigration, the cost of living and pollution. "The question is how we give Europe a way of protecting its citizens in their daily lives," he said on France3 television. "There is no shame in talking about protection." Europe needed to be protected against the effects of globalisation, he added, warming to one of his favourite themes. "Europe worries people and, worse still, citizens are asking if it is not the nation state that protects them better than the union."

Mr Sarkozy's 26 colleagues, whom he summoned to a summit on the Mediterranean on July 13, had mixed feelings about his ambitions for the first presidency for France since 2000. They were pleased that the union would be chaired by one of its boldest and most energetic leaders but were nervous of his Bonapartist way of throwing his weight around. His recent attacks on the Brussels commission and European Central Bank raised questions about his promises to act as a consensus builder. Ms Merkel, who was chairwoman of the union a year ago, was said to have warned him about his ambition. "In Paris, Nicolas, you are the Sun King. But Europe is like Germany, a coalition of diverging interests. You need a lot of patience and skill," she was quoted as saying in Le Telegramme newspaper.

It was Ms Merkel who forced Mr Sarkozy to dilute his grand scheme for a French-led Mediterranean Union. She objected to the creation of a new club of EU-financed southern nations, including much of the Arab world. The project has now been folded into the existing but moribund EU program for promoting development in the North African and Middle East nations on the Mediterranean.

Same Day Editorial - The Iran dilemma

Negotiation is favoured but time is running out

THE clock is ticking on whether military action will become the last available option to prevent Iran building an atomic bomb, potentially sparking a regional arms race in the Middle East and putting Israel under immediate threat of nuclear attack. The compelling logic that has so far stopped a military strike by either the US or Israel is that the threat of a nuclear armed Iran is not immediate. Until that point arrives, it is preferable that a negotiated solution be found. Even hard-line observers acknowledge the later an attack takes place, the greater the setback it will pose for Iran. In the meantime, the opportunity for a peaceful settlement exists. This includes the possibility of regime change in Iran through civil unrest that unseats Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An essay published in New Yorker magazine by journalist Seymour Hersh says the US Government has stepped up covert operations to promote political instability in Iran.

As Paul Kelly reports today, the trajectory of confrontation between the US and Iran has been building since the 1979 revolution in Iran and is most likely to peak during the term of the next US president. Having de-fanged North Korea's nuclear program using diplomatic and financial pressure, the prevailing argument in Washington is that the same multilateral approach be used with Iran. This would involve China, in particular, taking a much more forceful role to persuade Iran to back down.

In the twilight of its reign, the Bush administration is preoccupied with Iran's nuclear ambitions. The issue has polarised senior Bush officials. Public comments by President George W.Bush in favour of a diplomatic, multilateral approach confirm that the power in Washington currently favours Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rather than Vice-President Dick Cheney. With sentiment running against US military action, Iran looks set to become a key issue of unfinished business for the next president, whether that be Republican senator John McCain or Democrat senator Barack Obama. US public opinion is running three-to-one in favour of a negotiated settlement.

Military action cannot be ruled out, however. And Israel has recently undertaken military exercises that are widely considered to be a practice run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Shabtai Shavit, a deputy director of Israel's intelligence service Mossad when Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981, was quoted this week as saying that the worst-case scenario was that Iran may have a nuclear weapon within "somewhere around a year". This contrasts with the view in the US that Iran's nuclear capability is at least three years away. Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for civilian and not military purposes, has said it will dig 320,000 graves in border districts to allow for the burial of enemy soldiers in the event of any attack on its territory.

Former Labor leader Kim Beazley told Kelly that if Iran were not prevented from securing nuclear capability, either through force or negotiation, it would spark a regional arms race involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, at least. For Israel, geography makes it impossible to tolerate the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. For the US, an immediate attack would complicate the already difficult military task under way in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would expose the 150,000 US troops in the region to direct threat from Iran and greatly complicate plans for the withdrawal of US forces.

For the world economy, Iran has said it would retaliate against military action against its nuclear facilities by blocking oil movements through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula through which 40 per cent of the world's oil is shipped. This would throw world markets into turmoil, with potentially disastrous consequences for inflation and economic growth. The commander of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet, Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, said Iran would not be allowed to close the seaway. Nonetheless, the potential for military conflict against Iran has already underpinned speculative buying on world oil markets, driving the price up past $US140 a barrel.

The best hope appears to be that the direct talks and multilateral negotiations that led to progress in winding back nuclear programs in the rogue states of Libya and North Korea can succeed in Iran. But the circumstances are different, the stakes are much greater in Iran and time is running out.


Extract - Three killed in Jerusalem bulldozer rampage
The Australian
Martin Chulov and Matthew Clayfield, AFP, AP
Thursday July 03, 2008

JERUSALEM: A Palestinian terrorist drove a bulldozer on a deadly rampage through central Jerusalem last night, killing three people and wounding 45, before being shot dead by police. The driver rammed at least two buses, overturning one, and crushed several cars in a five-minute spree just after midday (7pm AEST) in west Jerusalem. He was identified as an Arab resident of East Jerusalem, who held an Israeli identification card, with full access to all parts of the country.

The terrorist was named as Hossam Dawiath, 31, from the village of Dur Bahar. He lived near the same neighbourhood as a gunman who shot dead eight students in a Jewish religious school in suburban Jerusalem in March -- the last attack on the holy city. The little-known group that claimed responsibility for the March shooting, calling itself The Liberators of the Galilee, also put its name to last night's attack.

The attack on Jaffa Street caused panic throughout the city. The midday traffic was halted, and hundreds of people fled through the streets as medics treated the wounded. Yeroham Mendola, a spokeswoman for the Magen David Adom emergency services, said at least five people had died, including the driver. A Melbourne woman was among the 45 wounded. Police were attempting to establish whether the driver had access to a construction site near the scene of the attack, or whether he had commandeered the bulldozer, which was used in the building of a tram line.

After taking control of the bulldozer, the driver set off on a 300m rampage. He was killed by an anti-terrorist officer, who boarded the bulldozer and shot him at point-blank range.

The attack came at a highly sensitive time in intra-Palestinian politics, with Hamas struggling to hold together the truce with Israel, which has seen limited supplies allowed into the Gaza Strip in return for a stop to rocket fire on Israeli settlements. Egypt immediately locked the Rafah crossing into the Strip, which had been due to open around the time of the attack. Hundreds of Palestinians on either side rioted in response. Israeli security forces were last night interrogating the terrorist's family, amid calls by enraged members of parliament for them to be deported en masse to Gaza.


Jerusalem fears Arab enemy within
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Friday July 04, 2008

FOR the second time in four months, a terror strike on Jerusalem has been carried out by a resident of the Holy City, leaving Israelis confronting the potential nightmare that terrorists have found a new front line. One day after a resident of the Palestinian half of the city drove a bulldozer on a deadly rampage through the city heart, security officials were trying to establish whether he was sent on a mission by an established militant group, or acted alone.

For the past two years, Israeli police have pointed to trends that indicate a sharp fall in terror attacks since the height of the intifada in 2002-03, with officials attributing the success to the controversial security wall separating Israel from the West Bank. The Israeli domestic security service, the Shin Bet, claims most would-be suicide bombers hail from a West Bank region comprising the towns of Tulkarim, Nablus, Jenin and Qalqilya, all of which are now completely cut off from Israeli communities.

But East Jerusalemites are behind no such barriers. While not holding Israeli citizenship, they enjoy, by and large, the same benefits as Jews on the west side of the city. They pay taxes to the Jewish state, mingle freely - though sometimes uneasily - with Jewish citizens, and are better off financially than West Bank Palestinians. But tension and resentment still ferment here. Many believe their tax dollars get them nowhere near the same services as west-siders, while some residents claim their lack of access to passports makes them second-class citizens.

The bulldozer attacker, named as Hossam Dawiath, 30, a resident of the Sur Bahar village in Jerusalem's southeast, was described by neighbours as a renegade with no links to political or militant causes and no obvious hostility to Jews. Like Alaa Abu Dheim, the perpetrator of the March shooting in a suburban religious school that killed eight students, Dawiath had full access to all parts of Israel and most of the West Bank. He worked for an Israeli construction company and had Jewish friends and colleagues - among them a former girlfriend, for whose rape he reportedly served two years in prison.

Since March, Israeli officials have been trying to pin down whether Abu Dheim - outwardly more pious and militant than Dawiath - was linked to political causes. The day after his attack, flags of Hamas and the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah flew above his family home. An unknown group, calling itself the Liberators of the Galilee, claimed the attack - and security chiefs have since been trying to assess the claim's veracity. The same group was quick to put its name to Wednesday's strike. And again officials have been left scrambling for clues. One theory gaining prominence in Shin Bet and police meeting rooms is that existing groups are using a new front from which to lure Jerusalem Arabs to militancy. Another is that Hezbollah, which has no more than a toehold in the Sunni Muslim West Bank, is trying hard to gain a foothold within striking distance of Jerusalem.

The Holy City's Arab population offers a tempting recruitment pool for both.


Israel ready to toughen collective punishments
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday July 05, 2008

ISRAELI MPs are to consider sharply toughening punitive measures against the families of Jerusalem Arabs who carry out terror attacks, reigniting debate over collective punishment. The Jewish state's Attorney-General, Menachem Mazuz, said there was nothing legally blocking the calls to demolish the family home of Hossam Dawiath, the man responsible for the bulldozer rampage on Wednesday, which police have called a terror attack. While ruling such a move legal, Mr Mazuz foreshadowed a judicial challenge to that and other planned demolitions, including on the home of terrorist Alaa Abu Dheim, who shot dead eight students inside a Jewish seminary in March.

The families of both men have been intensively questioned by Israeli security officers after the attacks, and some politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, have demanded a wall be built to divide the Arab east of the city from the Jewish west. Israel has regularly demolished the family homes of West Bank or Gaza-based terrorists. But it is battling with ways to impose the same sort of deterrent against Israeli residents, subject to the safeguards of law. Demolitions in the West Bank have drawn sustained legal challenges in Israel's highest court and in the international arena, and led the Israeli Government to look to other means of punishing terrorists.

"Previous High Court rulings on the matter do not offer explicit legal impediments against the tearing-down of houses," Mr Mazuz said. But there were "substantial legal difficulties", he said.

Dawiath's family have been anxious to portray his attack, which killed three people and left several dozen wounded, as a killing rampage, rather than a politically motivated act. He was reportedly eating lunch with colleagues on a nearby construction site, before commandeering the bulldozer and setting off on a 300m car-crushing rampage through central Jerusalem at noon on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the two-week truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza continued tentatively last night, despite the sixth rocket launch by militants since a ceasefire was declared. The ruling Hamas regime has insisted renegade factions linked to the West Bank Government of President Mahmoud Abbas are firing rockets in a bid to break the truce, thereby denying any claim to legitimacy Hamas could gain by delivering on a negotiated deal. Up to 80 trucks carrying desperately needed supplies were allowed into Gaza on Thursday before a rocket was fired towards Israeli communities. The border crossings were closed immediately.

Hamas claimed last night a deal had been struck to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for 300 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

The Holy City's Arab population offers a tempting recruitment pool for both.


Iran fires new test missiles
The Australian
Correspondents in Tehran and Washington, AFP
Friday July 11, 2008

IRAN test-fired more weapons last night as it continued war games in defiance of global concern over its launching of missiles capable of reaching Israel. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded to the tests and threats to "set fire" to Israel by warning Iran that Washington had strengthened its military presence in the Gulf and would not hesitate to defend its allies in the region, including Israel.

Iranian state television said the weapons fired in the Gulf by the naval section of the national Revolutionary Guards included shore-to-sea, surface-to-surface and sea-to-air missiles. The war games included the firing of the Hoot (Whale) torpedo that Iran unveiled in April 2006, which it described as a super-fast weapon capable of hitting enemy submarines. Iran on Wednesday test-fired its Shahab-3 longer-range missile, which is capable of reaching Israel and US military bases in the Gulf, and eight other more medium-range missiles. The move caused major concern in Western governments, which fear Iran's nuclear drive is aimed at making atomic weapons.

Following a threat made by an aide of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to "set fire" to Israel, Dr Rice warned that the US would defend its interests and those of its allies. "In the Gulf area, the United States has enhanced its security capacity, its security presence and we are working closely with all our allies ... to make (sure) they are capable of defending themselves," Dr Rice said at the close of a brief visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. "These are all elements of America's intention and determination to prevent Iran from threatening our interests or the interests of our friends and allies. I don't think the Iranians are too confused either about the capabilities and power of the United States to do exactly that."

Iranian state television reported last night that more longer-range and medium-range missiles were fired in night-time land manoeuvres than those reported yesterday. The White House, which has not ruled out military action against Iranian atomic facilities, condemned the missile tests as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and "completely inconsistent with Iran's obligations to the world". US Defence Secretary Robert Gates denied the tests brought the US and Iran closer to war, but said they highlighted the need for the US to expand its anti-missile system into Europe.

Iran's Shahab-3 missile tested on Wednesday has a 2000km range. The test was believed to be in response to recent military exercises conducted by other nations in the region. A US intelligence official told CNN the Shahab-3 was believed to demonstrate previously known conventional weapons capability. The longer-range Shahab-4 ballistic missile, still in development, would have the capability to hit parts of Europe, he said. In Israel, 1000km from the Iranian border, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said yesterday: "Israel seeks neither conflict nor hostilities with Iran, but no one in the international community should remain indifferent to Iran's nuclear program and Iran's ballistic missile program."


Club Med claims Beirut-Damascus deal as first Mid-East success

Peace now ‘closer then ever’

Abbas Sarkozy and Olmert
‘Learn how to love each other’: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, with French President
Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after a press conference in Paris
Picture: AP
The Australian
Monday July 14, 2008

PARIS: Israel and the Palestinians "have never been this close" to a peace deal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last night following talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris and before a diplomatic breakthrough with arch-foe Syria. Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas were among 43 leaders in Paris for the launch of a new Union for the Mediterranean, which aims to boost co-operation in one of the world's most volatile regions. "We have never been as close to an accord as we are today," Mr Olmert told a press conference following talks hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy at the French presidential palace. "We are approaching the moment when we will have to make decisive choices," he said.

The declaration of optimism came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to make history and seal detente with Europe by attending the launch of the French-inspired union alongside Mr Olmert overnight. The diplomatic breakthrough — the first time Israeli and Syrian leaders would have been in the same room — enables Mr Assad to emerge from Western isolation three years after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a murder that many believe was orchestrated from Damascus.

On Saturday, Mr Assad held talks with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who agreed to normalise relations between Damascus and Beirut. This was an early success for Mr Sarkozy, who hosted the talks. Mr Olmert said last night that while he hoped indirect peace talks launched with Syria, via Turkey, would "soon become direct", the peace process with the Palestinians remained Israel's utmost priority. Mr Abbas and Mr Olmert called on Mr Sarkozy, as President of France, chair of the European Union presidency and host of the new Mediterranean Union, to take a front-seat role in steering peace negotiations.

Though the two sides have met regularly since the relaunch of the process last November, after a seven-year hiatus, talks have stalled over the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Mr Abbas said that Mr Sarkozy's "friendship" with both Israelis and Palestinians "enables you to play an important role to help the peace process succeed in a few months". "We have started an in-depth negotiation with Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni," Mr Abbas said. "We will pursue this effort. We are quite serious."

Mr Sarkozy has been stepping up France's Middle East diplomacy for the launch of the Mediterranean Union, bringing friends and foes together around the same table, and pushing to advance peace in the region. The French leader said union between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbours would help countries in the region "learn to love each other". "It doesn't mean that all of the problems are resolved of course," Sarkozy said. "But the goal of the summit ... is that we learn how to love each other in the Mediterranean, instead of continuing to hate and wage war."

Heads of state and government from the 27 European Union nations and an arc of countries running from Morocco to the Balkans — representing 756 million people — will endorse the new forum at the Grand Palais on the Champs Elysee. The summit aims to revitalise co-operation between the EU and Mediterranean countries, although it may be richer in symbolism than substance.

The new organisation aims to pursue practical projects with EU and private sector funding such as cleaning up the Mediterranean, using North Africa's sunshine to generate solar power, and building road and sea highways. "What we need is a new political impulse, a new revitalisation, a new dynamism," EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.

France and Egypt will co-chair the new body for two years, but the location and powers of its secretariat remain to be resolved, and the Middle East conflicts that have bedevilled past EU-Mediterranean co-operation are still looming large. While Mr Sarkozy said after the Syrian-Lebanese meeting on Saturday that Mr Assad and Mr Suleiman had come to an historic decision to open embassies in each other's countries for the first time, the Syrian leader was more cautious, saying the sides must "define the steps to take to arrive at this stage". Syria and Lebanon have not had fully fledged embassies in each other's countries since Lebanon became independent in 1943 and Syria in 1945. Mr Assad, long accused by France of meddling in Lebanese politics, said: "We can say that Lebanon has moved from being a zone of turbulence, a war zone, to a more pacified zone where the Lebanese, and only the Lebanese, have the right to determine their own future."

al-Assad and Sarkozy
United: Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes Syria's Bashar al-Assa, left, Lebanon's Michel Suleiman
and Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
Promises have put Assad back in French good books
ANALYSIS: Martin Chulov

FOR the past four years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a pariah in the West and much of the Arab world, which blame his totalitarian regime for many of the region's woes. Nothing has changed, yet state ceremonies and overtures from enemies have suddenly replaced bids at shame and isolation. Without trying, Syria has lurched into some unlikely good books. By playing little more than a waiting game, Assad now finds himself anointed as a would-be kingmaker, with the potential to calm four regional troublespots and douse a few more.

The red-carpet reception he received in Paris over the weekend seemed an age away from the blackout he experienced under France's former president, Jacques Chirac, who blamed Syria for the 2005 assassination of his friend, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. And if Assad's new patron, incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy, gets his wish, many more new doors will soon open for him across the European Union and in the Middle East.

Assad took with him to Paris two things the French saw as important to new beginnings -- a willingness to sit at the same table as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a summit of 13 Mediterranean states, and a pledge to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon. The latter is held particularly dear by France, which has maintained close ties with Lebanon throughout the turbulent 61 years since it was granted full sovereignty in 1943. Syria's role in Lebanon has been pervasive ever since, with a succession of leaders well before the 40-year dynasty of Hafez al-Assad and his Western-educated son, running roughshod over its fragile neighbour's attempts at self-determination.

In the eyes of many, including France, Syrian intervention was at its most damaging during the past three years, when the Lebanese parliament ceased to function under an opposition boycott, backed by Damascus; a war broke out with Israel, which Syria helped to facilitate by supplying weapons to the Hezbollah militia; and anti-Syrian politicians and journalists were picked off, one by one, under a climate of slow-burn terror. At last count, 11 so-called dissidents had been killed or maimed since the assassination of Hariri in February 2005. And as the ranks of the MPs thinned, so did Lebanon's tourist dollars, with plummeting revenues bringing an already fragile nation to its knees by the time a deal was done in May to bring the opposition into a power-sharing government, giving it a veto over laws and appointments and the effective reins of power. Through it all, Assad maintained the Sergeant Schultz defence of "I see nothing, I hear nothing".

The turnaround on recognising Syria is, at face value, significant. The opening of a Syrian embassy in Beirut, where none has existed for 65 years, could rightly be perceived as an acceptance that Lebanon is no longer under the tutelage of Syrian spy chiefs and regime heavyweights. In the eyes of sceptics, primarily in the US, it could also be the perfect Trojan horse from which a new takeover of Lebanese institutions could be launched. France's new open-door policy has not been received well by the administration of George W. Bush, which has pledged to shun Syria. To Washington, Assad remains a backer of Hezbollah, a facilitator of the insurgency in Iraq and a fellow traveller of Iran.

As Assad prepared for the Mediterranean conference, he was not missing a chance to talk up the symbolism of his visit to France. "This is for me a historic visit — an opening up to France and to Europe," he said. Assad's audience with the French leader reflects a dramatic divergence in views between Paris and Washington on three fronts. While France gives Syria credit for helping to douse the Lebanese crisis, Washington claims Syria has manoeuvred itself into a more dominant position. France sees the talks between Damascus and Jerusalem as a constructive bid to cool the region's most enduring flashpoint, while the US sees it as a ruse to gain false legitimacy.

However, Iraq sears deepest into the Bush administration's psyche. Washington is convinced the guns of the Iraqi insurgents blazed longest and loudest from 2004-06 because Syria had allowed its borders to be used as turnstiles for jihadis, at the behest of its patron Iran, which aimed to bog down the US military.

Assad and Olmert will be seated alphabetically around a long table today and are unlikely to meet, even in private. But Assad has given France what it wanted: a willingness to respond to overtures and some signs he will bend on touchstone issues. Sarkozy has made a naked bid to try to lure his counterpart from the "dark side" to causes he insists will better the Middle East. In doing so, he has openly recognised Assad's potential influence — a welcome ego-boost for a leader now in from the cold.

The French President, whom many compatriots have labelled as more than a touch Napoleonic, has cast himself as intermediary in a two-track peace process — Israel and Syria, and Israel and the Palestinians. The US will watch on from the sidelines as Sarkozy leads the way. Syria, rightly or wrongly, has been happily marking a two-pronged victory: the success of a waiting game and the fact it has re-emerged with an improving name among the neighbours.


Leaders agree on nuclear-free Mediterranean
The Australian
Correspondents in Paris
Tuesday July 15, 2008

FORTY-THREE nations, including Israel and the Arab states, have agreed to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction in launching an unprecedented Union for the Mediterranean aimed at securing peace across the restive region. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stole the show at the Paris summit, serving notice that Damascus is central to solving the problems of the Middle East. Once banished for his supposed "destabilising" role, Mr Assad, in a series of meetings over the weekend, resumed diplomatic ties with Lebanon and held indirect talks through Turkey with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, ending an eight-year freeze in relations.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday he had high hopes that face-to-face peace negotiations between Syria and Israel would happen soon. But Mr Assad scotched those hopes, saying such talks were unlikely to occur before the election of a new US president. Mr Assad placed himself firmly at the centre of future peace moves, saying: "Syria is an integral part of the solution to Middle East issues. Any country that wants to resolve the Middle East's problems must hold talks with Syria."

Mr Olmert proclaimed that Israel and the Palestinians "have never been as close to the possibility of an accord as we are today", following talks on Sunday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Deep divisions still slice through the region and its population of 800 million, and some surfaced during the summit, highlighting how hard it will be to parlay the meeting's goodwill and friendly words into real progress. Mr Assad refused to shake hands with Mr Olmert, and Morocco's king snubbed the meeting attended by the president of rival Algeria.

But the summit host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, revelled at having brought so many leaders to the same table for the first time. "We dreamed about a Union for the Mediterranean, and now it is a reality," Mr Sarkozy said in closing the summit. He called it an "extremely moving, very important moment".

In a final declaration, the nations represented at the summit -- including Israel, Syria, the Palestinian Territories and countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa -- agreed to "pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction". It was unclear, however, how the signatories would enforce the pledge. Israel is widely believed to have a stockpile of nuclear weapons. There are rising tensions between Israel and Iran, and the US and its allies believe Tehran is seeking nuclear arms, while Iran maintains its uranium enrichment program is aimed at producing nuclear power. Israeli warplanes destroyed what US intelligence officials said was believed to be a nuclear reactor in Syria last year, although Syrian officials said it was a non-nuclear facility.

The summit declaration condemned "terrorism in all its forms" and announced six major projects, from a common university and easier travel visas for students to depolluting the Mediterranean sea and promoting solar power. The meeting represented an end to the diplomatic isolation of Mr Assad, who has been ostracised for his alliance with Iran, his support for Palestinian groups classified as terrorist by the US and the EU, and allegations his country was involved in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Despite Mr Assad's triumphant showing at the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after meeting the Syrian leader: "We want to see actions now, because enough words have been exchanged." Mr Assad's invitation to watch last night's Bastille Day parade in Paris has angered some in the French military, who have been deployed at times in Lebanon, France's former colony and a traditional ally.

Same Day Editorial - New approach welcome

Nicolas Sarkozy has brought fresh credibility to the EU
ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's optimistic statement that Israel and the Palestinians "have never been this close" to a peace deal gives renewed hope of a lasting breakthrough in the Middle East. Based on past experience, translating this tantalising prospect into reality will require delicate negotiations, vast patience and eons of goodwill on all sides. Most of all, it will require far greater discipline and common sense on the part of Palestinians than has been shown at other promising junctures.

In 2000, after the Clinton administration brokered an agreement in which then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak proposed a deal that would have set up an independent state in Gaza and 90 per cent of the West Bank, PLO leader Yasser Arafat rejected the offer and Palestinians launched a four-year suicide-bombing campaign directed at Israeli civilians. Again, when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas launched a bombing campaign on Israel and a brutal takeover of the territory, with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah attacking Israel from Lebanon. In both instances, it was the ordinary Palestinian people who paid the price for bloody-minded Islamic extremism.

Current hopes of a settlement are due to the energy and vision of French and European Union President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Mediterranean summit. In recent decades, despite significant expansion of its membership, the EU has been reluctant to take a leading role on the world stage, leaving the onus in the war on terror and the Middle East peace process to the US. But the EU and north African nations have a significant interest in Middle East peace, and the new body, to be jointly chaired by Egypt and France for two years, offers a worthwhile forum in which accords can be struck and built upon.

If the summit, being dubbed "Club Med", leads to an effective two-state solution, Mr Sarkozy will have earned himself a place in history as an international statesman and the most influential Frenchman on the world stage since Charles de Gaulle.

That said, the hard work starts now. In a gesture of amity, Israel has promised to release more Palestinian prisoners as a statement of goodwill to the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is struggling to hold together a fragile truce with Israel, which has allowed limited supplies into the Strip in return for a stop to rocket fire on Israeli settlements. Nothing would undermine progress more than ongoing, provocative repeats of the aggression displayed by the Palestinian terrorist who earlier this month drove a bulldozer through central Jerusalem, killing two people and wounding 22 others.

Despite the ever-present difficulty of simmering feuds between Middle East neighbours, Mr Sarkozy's summit has already notched up an important achievement in terms of drawing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the fold. Such are the background hatreds that this is the first time Israeli and Syrian leaders have been in the same room. On Saturday, the fact that Mr Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman held weekend talks and agreed to normalise relations between Damascus and Beirut also removes a significant cause of Middle East instability.

As Mr Olmert acknowledged, Syria is an integral part of the solution to Middle East tensions. While some EU leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel, remain to be convinced, Mr Sarkozy has shrewdly made the most of Mr Assad's presence at the summit. Being afforded the place of the president's honoured guest at the Elysee Palace, Mr Assad appears to have responded to the onus put upon him to be co-operative by holding a series of important bilateral meetings and agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with Beirut. Most promising of all was Mr Assad's pragmatic acknowledgement that "From the very start of the peace process, we have been speaking of normal relations" with the Jewish state. For long-term results, this attitude must be replicated across other recalcitrant Islamic nations. Progress depends on their recognising Israel's right to exist.


Contrast of triumph and despair
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Friday July 18, 2008

AS Israel buried its two slain soldiers yesterday, the streets of Beirut were being hosed down after a rapturous night of celebrations to mark the return of Samir Kuntar, who killed two Israeli men and a child, and four freed guerillas. The scenes on either side of the Lebanon-Israeli border could not have been more contrasting, with the Israelis forced to abandon a two-year dream that at least one of their captured soldiers could still be alive, while tens of thousands of Lebanese celebrated what they saw as a victory for their resistance.

The body of Sergeant Major Ehud Goldwasser was laid to rest near his home in northern Israel at 10am Israeli time. Master Sergeant Eldad Regev, the second soldier kidnapped in the cross-border Hezbollah raid that sparked the devastating 2006 war, was due to be buried shortly afterwards at a military cemetery. Both soldiers were posthumously promoted. In Beirut, Kuntar and the four freed guerillas were reunited with their families, hours after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a rare public appearance to welcome them back to Lebanon. Dressed in Hezbollah uniforms, the five men were greeted on stage by the robed cleric in front of a huge cheering crowd in central Beirut. The Israeli Government was seething at the hero's reception given to Kuntar, who had served 29 years in prison for killing an Israeli policeman, a father and his daughter during a cross-border raid in 1979. A second infant was killed during the attack when her mother inadvertently smothered her while trying to muffle her cries.

Late yesterday, the five freed militants prayed at the grave of slain Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, pledging to follow in his footsteps and continue fighting Israel. Mughniyeh, a shadowy figure Israel and the West accuse of masterminding terrorist bombings in the 1980s and 90s, was killed in a car bomb in neighbouring Syria in February. Hezbollah and its supporters regard him as a hero of almost mythical stature. "We swear by God ... to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that God bestowed on you," said Kuntar.

Israelis appear to accept that the state has paid a high price for the return of the dead soldiers, while media commentators and a straw poll of residents indicate most feel the cost was necessary. The Israeli Government last night released a video in Arabic on YouTube saying why Kuntar was convicted and jailed. The video was tailored for Lebanon, in particular, where many people appear unaware of his crime.

As her son was buried yesterday, Ehud Goldwasser's mother, Miki, said Israel should cast aside the two years of recriminations that have been continually aired since the war with Hezbollah ended, and should start to see her son's abduction as a victory that had brought out the nation's strength and resolve. Goldwasser's widow, Karnit, said: "For the past two years, I have been speaking for two — Eldad and Udi, Regev and Goldwasser. For the first time, today I let myself speak only of you."

In Beirut, Nasrallah defended the two years of silence about Regev and Goldwasser's fate as a tactical necessity, which forced Israel to finally agree to the prisoner swap. Nasrallah hinted that more operations might be launched, claiming Hezbollah's "only concern" was to defend Lebanon's land, water and people. After greeting the returnees, he returned to his hideout. Nasrallah lives under constant threat of being assassinated by Israel and has appeared in public only three times since the end of the war.


Extract - No price too high for Israel to bring home its soldiers
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday July 19, 2008

Before agreeing to the prisoner swap, Israel was acutely aware of the chance it would bolster Hezbollah and perhaps tempt other enemies to try to strike a blow. But the prevailing view was that sands of allegiance and perceptions in the Middle East shifted quickly and could soon be aligned differently, despite the strategic dent Israel was experiencing. "This war didn't go very well from our point of view, but we have done a lot of soul-searching since and, God forbid, there will be another round," foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel says. "I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of Hezbollah." Addressing the nagging question in some Israelis' minds of why so much has been offered up for so little, Mekel adds: "It was a total must for us to give these soldiers a Jewish burial."

Israel's elder statesman, President Shimon Peres, who throughout his career signed off on prisoner swaps, though none as comprehensive as this, also has been keen to douse Hezbollah's gains and pitch as righteous Israel's willingness to compromise. "Decision-makers had principles in mind, not prices, when the prisoner swap deal with Hezbollah was cemented," he told Army Radio. The same decision-makers will turn their minds to Gaza, where another soldier, a very much alive Gilad Shalit, is a far more valuable bargaining tool than he was before Wednesday. "Truly, it won't be easy," Peres continued. "But we have done it in the past because we want all of our sons and daughters home, alive or dead."

Hamas, which has held Shalit for more than two years, has acknowledged in the wake of the Hezbollah swap that it found the deal instructive to its own aspirations. "We want a just and fair deal that would give us what we want," says the group's leader in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan. "This deal gives us a chance to ask for more. I can't say that we will up our demands today, but we will certainly not accept anything less than what we have asked for." Hamas is demanding that Israel release 1000 security prisoners, in stages, in a trade for Shalit.

However, not all Israeli decision-makers believe the deal sets a foreboding tone for the volatile region. Eyal Zisser, from the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African studies at Tel Aviv University, believes Hezbollah and Hamas will soon have to face reality and set aside the celebrations of the past few days. "The fact is the northern border has been very quiet since the end of the war and this is because (Hezbollah does) not want to risk another round," he says. "Lebanon has not yet recovered from the war. It paid a terrible toll after Hezbollah flared things up last time and it remains unlikely that there will be another clash. "My view is that, generally speaking, the issues in the region are much more positive now that some of the issues on the agenda have been removed."

First among them, according to Zisser, is tensions with Syria, which have been at least partially defused by four months of indirect talks with Israel. With the Palestinian peace track faltering, the Israeli leadership is pinning much on a deal being locked down with Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has convinced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he is serious about locking down an agreement. But, at the same time, Assad has said that no deal will be done to bolster Olmert or to see off the departing George W. Bush with a significant victory in the Middle East.

"The Syrians are reluctant to move to direct talks because the Prime Minister (Olmert) is finished," Zisser says. "However, successive Israeli governments cannot ignore what has been achieved. Where to from here will depend on the new administration here and in America, and how eager they both are to promote the peace process."

Same Day Extract- Barack Obama goes offshore for home votes
Tim Reid, Washington

BARACK Obama embarks on a tour of Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan this weekend - a feverishly anticipated audition on the world stage that includes the unprecedented spectacle of a US presidential candidate addressing a huge crowd in a foreign city.

In Jordan, King Abdullah is expected to get a promise from Senator Obama that he would place a high priority on invigorating Arab-Israeli peace talks. Senator Obama will then step into the minefield of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Israelis have been uneasy about Senator Obama amid perceptions that he is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and because of his willingness to talk with the Iranian leadership. In a recent speech to a US Jewish lobbying group, Senator Obama, seeking to prove his pro-Israel credentials, declared Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel, which alarmed Palestinians and appeared to pre-judge final-status talks. He has since backtracked and is likely to seek to clarify it when he meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday.

In Jerusalem, he will meet Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. He is expected to visit the Wailing Wall.


Brown overshadowed on his trip to Holy Land
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday July 21, 2008

GORDON Brown will meet today in Jerusalem with Israeli and West Bank leaders whom his predecessor, Tony Blair, last week admitted were struggling to advance peace amid simmering distrust. But the British Prime Minister's short stop in the Holy Land was overshadowed by the imminent arrival of US presidential candidate Barack Obama, who will land in Jerusalem on Tuesday on the second phase of a fact-finding mission. The Democratic candidate is on a whistlestop tour of the region central to his detractors' claims that he is underdone on foreign policy and national security and is unsuited to the role of commander-in-chief.

On a tour of an American military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, Senator Obama was refusing to make public statements - a position he will find hard to maintain in Israel, where right-wing politicians, think tanks and commentators are demanding he declare his hand on touchstone issues such as Jerusalem and Iran. Senator Obama says he is in the region to listen and learn. However, much of the Israeli political establishment and influential Jewish Americans remain wary of him and appear to be far more comfortable with Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The Vietnam War veteran has twice visited Israel over the past 18 months and has made clear his strong support for the regime of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and its policies towards Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the perceived threat from Iran's nuclear program.

Senator Obama has already adjusted a statement he made during the campaign for the Democratic nomination, in which he said Jerusalem should be an undivided city. Jerusalem is divided into Arab and Jewish sectors and the future make-up of its citizens is central to faltering negotiations, which are aimed at paving the way for a future Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Mr Brown will become the first British leader to address the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, an honour not afforded to Mr Blair, who was considered a cornerstone of US policy in the region and a key backer of Israel's sometimes controversial policies in the West Bank and Gaza during the darkest years of the intifada. Britain was the colonial power here from the end of World War I until the state of Israel was established in 1948. Relations between the two nations have at times been uneasy in the subsequent six decades.

Since Mr Blair made way for Mr Brown last year, he has been acting as Middle East envoy for the quartet of the UN, the European Union, the US and Russia. Mr Blair remains a strong backer of Israeli policy and has centred his energies on transforming the West Bank into a viable economic entity, through tailored aid dollars and investment hubs. However, he said in an interview with an Arabic newspaper last week that a two-state deal was unlikely to be achieved within the US-prescribed time frame of January next year.

Mr Brown will follow through on his predecessor's efforts, meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to revitalise the sluggish peace process and push his version of an "economic road map". Mr Brown is expected to announce an extra ?60 million ($100 million) in aid to the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Britain and the US sponsored an investment summit in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in May, during which investors pledged close to $US1.4 billion ($1.44 billion) in projects.


Gordon Brown blasts Ahmadinejad over 'totally abhorrent' aims
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday July 22, 2008

BRITISH Prime Minister Gordon Brown last night used his address from the floor of Israel's parliament to launch a scathing verbal attack on Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On the second day of his visit to Israel, Mr Brown described Iran's stated aim to destroy Israel as "totally abhorrent" and demanded the would-be Middle East superpower forsake its nuclear program. At the same time, Britain has flagged more sanctions against Iran, this time against its oil and gas programs, which have underpinned the Iranian economy's growth and are seen as pivotal to deterring a regional nuclear race.

Mr Brown has used his visit to reinforce Britain's credentials in the Middle East, in the wake of former prime minister Tony Blair's resignation and with US President George W. Bush also soon to leave the scene. Britain was a colonial power here until the state of Israel was established in 1948, and its relations with Israel have been at times tense in the 60 years since. However, Mr Brown has been determined to reaffirm Britain's links to Israel and to fall in behind its key concerns, such as the threats to its borders from Hamas and Hezbollah.

"To those who question Israel's very right to exist and threaten the lives of its citizens through terror, we say: the people of Israel have a right to live here, to live freely and to live in security," Mr Brown said during his Knesset address. "And to those who believe that threatening statements fall upon indifferent ears, we say in one voice that it is totally abhorrent for the President of Iran to call for Israel to be wiped from the map of the world. "Iran now has a clear choice to make: suspend its nuclear program and accept our offer of negotiations or face growing isolation and the collective response not of one nation but of many nations."

Mr Brown was the first British leader to address the Knesset. He held subsequent meetings with politicians from across the Israeli spectrum, among them the leader of the hard-right Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu. He also travelled briefly to the West Bank, where he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and sharply criticised Israel's continuing settlement construction in the West Bank, which he said was detrimental to the peace process.

The construction of settlements, even within blocs in which Israeli courts had said construction could continue well before hopes of peace were rekindled last November, is seen by the Palestinians as a fatal blow to hopes that a two-state deal could be struck by January. "We want to see a freeze on settlements," Mr Brown said. "Settlement expansion has made peace harder to achieve. It erodes trust, it heightens Palestinian suffering, it makes the compromises Israel will need to make for peace more difficult." Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he had tried to convince Mr Brown of the need for settlement expansion to cater for natural population growth.

Mr Olmert said he still felt confident of locking down an agreement with the Palestinian Authority by the end of the year, which would clear the way for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.


Barack Obama vows to strengthen Israel ties
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Thursday July 24, 2008

COMMITTING the US to even closer ties to Israel, Barack Obama yesterday wrapped up a campaign-style sweep through the Jewish state and the West Bank in one of the most politically high-risk stops of his run for the White House. The Democratic nominee followed a path well worn by high-profile visitors - including his Republican rival John McCain - going first to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, then the battered Israeli border town of Sderot. The Illinois senator also met almost a full house of Israeli politicians, many of whom were sceptical about his positions on sensitive issues, such as the future of Jerusalem and his attitude to the Palestinian Authority.

Senator Obama started his tour at his Jerusalem hotel, only 200m from the scene of a bulldozer rampage on Tuesday, meeting first Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. He later visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, something Senator McCain did not do during his visit in March. His courtesy call at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah went some way to offsetting Palestinian resentment at a comment Senator Obama made during his Democratic campaign, in which he said Jerusalem should remain undivided.

The Holy City is split into Arab and Jewish sectors and Palestinians saw the remarks as a prejudgment on final-status talks in which Arab East Jerusalem is enshrined as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israeli politicians also turned up the heat on their most sensitive foreign policy issue, Iran, forcing Senator Obama to again declare his hand on his stance towards the hardline state if he won the presidency.

"I want input and insight from Israeli leaders about how they see the current situation," he said. "I will share some of my ideas. The most important thing for me to share is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel, one that cannot be broken. One that I have affirmed throughout my career and one that I will intend to not only continue but strengthen in an Obama administration." As Senator Obama took to the streets, Senator McCain hit the airwaves, trying to deny his rival political mileage, while attempting to assert himself as a stronger candidate on national security and foreign policy.

Jordan's King Abdullah told Senator Obama that ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and achieving a just settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict "tops the priorities of the people of the Middle East" and would bolster US credibility. In an interview with a US television network, Senator Obama supported a pre-emptive Israeli airstrike on an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor last September, claiming Israel was often forced to make difficult judgments. "The Israelis live in a very tough neighbourhood where a lot of folks publicly proclaim Israel as an enemy and then act on those proclamations," he said. "I think that there was sufficient evidence that they were developing a site using a nuclear ... or using a blueprint that was similar to the North Korean model."

Eight hours before he landed in his presidential campaign jet, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem commandeered a bulldozer, which he used to attack cars and buses in a 200m rampage. Up to 16 people were wounded, but no one was killed in the second such attack in three weeks. Senator Obama said the attack was "a reminder of what Israelis have had to courageously live with on a daily basis for far too long". He pledged to use his administration - if elected - to reinvigorate the moribund peace process. However, he took a cautionary tone, saying: "I think it's unrealistic to expect that a US president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region."


Extract - Obama pledges to restore frayed European relations
The Australian
Correspondents in Jerusalem and Berlin
Friday July 25, 2008

BARACK Obama kicked off a European tour in Berlin last night, saying he aimed to give a fresh start to trans-Atlantic ties. The Illinois senator arrived to a rapturous welcome amid a deep yearning in Europe for change in Washington. "He is awaited like a magician who can clear away the clouds of a troubled world," the influential German news magazine Der Spiegel wrote in a cover story. "Obama is the hope of a Western world with a lot of worries."

Senator Obama, who arrived from Israel, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel while a crowd of supporters cheered outside. He was due to meet Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier before holding a major foreign policy speech in front of what was expected to be a cheering crowd of tens of thousands. Ms Merkel had criticised Senator Obama's initial interest in speaking at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity, as inappropriate, in a flap widely covered in the German and US press. Ms Merkel said yesterday she represented the "perhaps a bit old-fashioned" view that the landmark should be reserved for sitting presidents, recalling historic appearances by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Senator Obama will instead speak at the 19th-century Victory Column.

The Democrat senator arrived in Europe after picking his way through the tricky currents of Middle Eastern politics on the latest leg of his high-profile international campaign swing meant to assuage fears among US voters that he lacks experience on the global stage. Senator Obama has admitted to visiting Israel, in part, to overcome Senator McCain's stronger support among Israeli Jews.

Before leaving Israel, Senator Obama made a pre-dawn visit to the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism, where he was heckled by an Orthodox Jew. Senator Obama bowed his head in prayer and observed traditional custom by placing a folded piece of paper into the crevice of the wall. Orthodox men interrupted their morning prayers to catch a glimpse of the Illinois senator, reaching out to shake his hand as he passed them by. But not all were taken by the Democrat. One yelled out: "Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale!" before Senator Obama was whisked away to his waiting plane.

Senator Obama had earlier vowed to forge an "unshakeable" bond with Israel if he became the next US president and warned a nuclear Iran would pose a "grave threat". He reiterated his vow to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but defended his offer to talk with leaders from the Islamic republic, promising to use "big carrots and big sticks". "A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Senator Obama said, as he visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, long in the firing line of rockets from Gaza. However, he refused to budge on his offer to talk to Iranian leaders, which has sparked consternation among some in Israel, and drawn charges of naivety from Senator McCain.

The Democratic White House hopeful hailed Israel as a "miracle" as he courted Jewish voters at home, taking pains to stress that he understood the security fears of the Jewish state and would not push it into a peace deal. "I bring here an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security," Senator Obama said, after meeting top Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, opposition Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Shimon Peres.

The senator also tried to convince the Palestinians, during a short trip to see the conflict from the other side, on the occupied West Bank, that he would sponsor a vigorous peace effort if elected. Senator Obama held just over an hour of talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after sweeping into heavily-guarded Ramallah in a motorcade.


Israeli MPs jockey to fill Olmert breach
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Friday August 01, 2008

ISRAELI leaders have called for immediate general elections in the wake of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge to resign, which has placed regional peace talks on ice and threatened to usher in a new right-wing regime. Jockeying for nominations started immediately after Mr Olmert's surprise announcement from the balcony of his Jerusalem home yesterday when he said he would not contest the primary elections for his Kadima party, when they take place on September 17.

Right-wing Likud Party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu led the calls for an urgent national election as media polls showed he would probably win the prime ministership if a vote were held now. Mr Netanyahu was a staunch critic of Mr Olmert and a resolute opponent of the departing leader's two-tracked peace initiative with Syria and the Palestinians. "This Government has reached an end and it doesn't matter who heads Kadima - they are all partners in this Government's total failure," he told Israeli radio. "National responsibility requires a return to the people and new elections."

Mr Olmert's likely departure date as Prime Minister is September 17, when he will be replaced by either Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. But he might be forced to stay on as leader for months while his successor cobbles together a new coalition. Mr Olmert has pledged to use his remaining time to nail down both peace deals. However, the Israeli Right yesterday said he no longer had a mandate to negotiate on the state's behalf and warned him to stay away from the process.

The White House last night said it was still expecting peace talks with the Palestinians to be finalised by January. However, Mr Olmert, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have said that goal was unattainable. The separate track that Mr Olmert initiated with Syria over the past year is now also in limbo after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would not offer departing US President George W. Bush a reward before he left office in January. Both Mr Assad and Mr Abbas were widely anticipated to wait to see who became Israeli leader before recommitting to peace talks. Neither man reacted publicly to Mr Olmert's planned departure, but Syria's ambassador to the UN said it could have a negative effect.

Announcing his imminent resignation, Mr Olmert said: "As a citizen in a democratic state, I have always believed that when a person is elected prime minister in Israel, even those who opposed him in the ballot box would want him to succeed. But instead of enjoying this basic level of faith, I found myself, immediately upon being elected, subjected to a wave of investigations, probes and criticism. Almost from my first day in the Prime Minister's office, I was forced to repel personal attacks, even as I was busy making fateful decisions regarding Israel's security and existence. At the same time, I was forced to defend myself against relentless attacks by self-styled fighters for justice who sought to oust me from my job and saw all means as justifying of that end," he said.

"Things have gone out of all reasonable proportion. Have I made mistakes over the many years of my activities? I certainly have. And I regret them, and I am sorry," he said. "But does the picture presented to the public fairly reflect the reality? Absolutely not. To my profound sorrow ... correct procedure does not take place in (our country)," he said. "Maybe I today, in my personal decision, have opened a portal to a more appropriate reality."

Mr Olmert's departure has created chaos in the Israeli political scene. There is no set timetable for the election of a new leader. Defence Minister Ehud Barak, head of the left-of-centre Labor party and Mr Olmert's largest coalition partner, said it was "not yet clear whether there will be an election in three or four months from now".


Poll boosts Livni's hopes of becoming PM
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday August 02, 2008

ISRAELI Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's bid to replace outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has received an early boost with a poll showing she would lead the centre-right Kadima party to an election win over arch-rivals Likud. The poll conducted for an Israeli newspaper showed the ambitious 49-year-old would be the only Kadima candidate who could roll hard-right Likud stalwart Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be aiming for a second term as Israeli leader when a general election is called some time late this year. Mr Netanyahu has dominated media polling since January, on the back of Mr Olmert's ailing premiership and his hardline stance against Iran, as well as opposing peace talks with Syria and refusing to cede East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Mr Olmert's decision to resign as Prime Minister after the primary nominations for the Kadima leadership in September is seen as an invigorating tonic to the Israeli political scene. However, Palestinian leaders yesterday also decried it as a mortal blow to the peace process. Several Palestinian leaders, among them chief negotiator with Israel Saeb Erekat and President Mahmoud Abbas said Mr Olmert no longer had a mandate to strike a deal with the Palestinian Authority. They also said that only Ms Livni among his mooted replacements had the political impetus and commitment to pick up the reins of the peace process.

Before Mr Olmert's surprise announcement on Wednesday, Ms Livni had continued to lay down her credentials as a leader by revealing for the first time her past as a Mossad officer in the early 1980s. "I served in Mossad from 1980 to 1984 and worked overseas in several postings with them," she said. "But when I got married, I quickly found service like that wasn't compatible with married life."

National security credentials are considered essential to holding high public office in Israel and Ms Livni's remarks follow strategic media leaks several months ago that briefly outlined her past as an intelligence officer. The Weekend Australian has learned through independent sources that Ms Livni served mainly in Paris with a Mossad support unit, which took care of the organisation's assets and ran its safehouses. "She was tasked with doing things like turning up to safe houses, turning the lights on and off, doing the dishes and generally making sure that the neighbours thought all was normal in the apartment next door," said a former intelligence official familiar with the Foreign Minister's past. "She also played a support role in operations against Palestinians in Paris, but was never a trigger person."

Ms Livni is close to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and has reaffirmed in the past few days that she is keen to drive the peace process with the Palestinians if she is elected leader. "We have made efforts this year to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and we will continue to do so," she said. "I am here now as Israel's Foreign Minister and I can promise you that I also intend to represent Israel's interests in future."


Prize of peace recedes with unrest in Israel
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Monday August 04, 2008

AS Condoleezza Rice yet again talked peace with Israel's Foreign Minister in Washington last week, her diplomats in Jerusalem were creating some uncomfortable moments for their hosts. Hours before the US Secretary of State met Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia, a diplomat attached to the US consulate in the holy city turned up at the site of an East Jerusalem house being demolished by Israel because of building irregularities. The official did not intervene, or cause a fuss. He didn't have to. His presence made a point that registered throughout the corridors of power in Tel Aviv. So did an earlier missive dispatched by the consulate to East Jerusalem Arabs, offering a phone number to call to explain any grievances they felt they had experienced at the hands of Israeli authorities.

The US stances are far from outright rebellion against their hosts and closest partner in the Middle East, but they do make clear a position of dissatisfaction with progress towards peace as prescribed by Washington that is not being reflected in public discussions. "The Americans have clearly shifted their stance on this as the Bush era draws to an end," said one senior Western diplomat in Tel Aviv. "It started about three months ago when announcement after announcement was being made about construction in West Bank settlements. It was very hard at the time for the Secretary of State to sell the concept of a viable peace process to the Europeans, and particularly the Palestinians. The unfortunate thing for Israel is that these announcements came just at a time she was trying to ramp things right up. To say she was personally slighted is probably too strong, but she certainly wasn't happy. From then on, the Palestinians were telling them it was game over. The other thing about this is that the Americans would hardly be taking this stance so publicly unless Washington not only knew about it, but had sanctioned it."

Rice has invested much political capital in securing a lasting and credible peace deal in the Holy Land. She, more than anyone in the Bush administration, had been convinced such an elusive goal could be locked down. Rice has spoken privately of her dissatisfaction with the progress of the key US strategic goal across the region - to implement democracy - in the hope of quelling resurgent pan-Arabism, and dousing the coals of global jihad. But she had high hopes that her 19 trips to Jerusalem, many of them since the Annapolis conference of last November, would amount to something substantive. While she hasn't closed the door on her ambition, many in the Palestinian Authority had done so, well before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week fell on his sword.

Lamenting that peace was now a pipe dream, at least in the short term, chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erakat said none of Olmert's mooted replacements could claim a mandate to negotiate until the jockeying for power, first in party primaries and then in a national election, was out of the way. This may take up to six months - as much time as is left under George W.Bush's notional deadline of January 2009. "It's true that what's happening is an internal Israeli affair, but we shouldn't be the ones to pay with our blood," Erakat said. "The political crisis in Israel may translate into more killings and bloodshed."

Just as worrisome to the Palestinians is the belief that Israeli politics will lurch to the Right, reflecting a new dynamic in Israeli society, which has empowered the settler bloc and is steadily leading an increasing number of citizens to disavow the notion of trading land for peace. "There have been seven different announcements about settlement construction since Annapolis," said a second Western official. "The Israeli position is that any building is being done within existing boundaries and that no new blocks of West Bank land are being carved up for new projects. That may be so, but it is not a good look."

Israel has consistently said that the new construction does not amount to development. It claims the building is a result of development applications sought well before the Annapolis process kicked in, in some cases up to a decade ago. "The bottom line is that if the Government of Israel tried to stop this construction going ahead, the developers would take us to court and they would win," said a senior Israeli official linked to the departing Olmert.

Last week, Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced 20 former Gaza settlers would be given homes in a new settlement in the Jordan Valley, a site the Palestinian Authority says is "unambiguously a new development". Mr Barak denied this, saying the settlers would move into an abandoned Army base. However, the latest claims have done nothing to re-instil confidence in a process that some in Israel are beginning to think has gone badly wrong. Olmert said he will use his remaining weeks in office to lock down as much of the overall agreement as he can. In perhaps a sign of things to come, the right-wing candidate to replace him as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has angrily claimed Olmert has no mandate to do any such thing and should instead busy himself with handling the ongoing fraud investigation, which proved the catalyst to drive him from office.

In what looms as a bitter irony for Olmert, the best chance for peace to limp along appears to be if Livni ends up taking his job. Olmert and Livni were close during the early months of his 2? year premiership. Their relationship, however, has been in tatters since Livni first moved against him nine months ago. She is a backer of continuing talks with the Palestinians, even on the big ticket items of refugees and the future of Jerusalem, both of which are proving ever more difficult to agree on. She is not a supporter of Olmert's pet project of talking with Syria as a potential one-stop shop for many of Israel's woes. "The Syrians are playing us to get off the hook with the Americans," Livni said at a recent cabinet meeting.

For now, she is readying herself for a run at the country's top job, by securing the nomination for the centre-right Kadima party. Her trip to Washington during the week was also pivotal in ensuring she had the confidence of Israel's key patron to make something out of the false starts and confusion of the nine months since Annapolis. Livni's first comments in the wake of Olmert's announcement were aimed at assuring the West - and the US in particular - that a lurch to the political Right is not on the horizon.

"I believe that the internal divisions we have become accustomed to and the idea that different parties have such extremely different ideologies and agendas is a thing of the past and is no longer the case," she said. "There is a common agenda that every party can put forward, on political issues and also on dealing with the threats we face. We have made efforts this year to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and we will continue to do so ... I also intend to represent Israel's interests in future." Israeli officials have said the parallel peace tracks remained energised. But politicians, including Barak and Olmert, said otherwise. Barak said there was little chance of a deal being done this year. Olmert lamented there was now next to none. "I think the Americans now know that the peace process will be overshadowed by the political process of finding a replacement for Olmert," said the senior Tel Aviv diplomat.


Fleeing Gazans granted refuge
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday August 05, 2008

GAZA STRIP: Close to 150 Fatah members who fled Gaza after heavy fighting with Hamas at the weekend were yesterday allowed to pass through Israel to the West Bank — a move that further polarises the two Palestinian factions and crushes Western plans for a resurgent moderate voice in the Strip. The fleeing Gazans will join other Fatah members in exile in the West Bank town of Jericho. They were originally slated to be returned to Gaza to join about 30 others who had sought refuge in Israel on Saturday. However, the group was given a reprieve after many of those who had earlier been sent back were detained by Hamas after crossing the border.

More than 20 fugitives, including Ahmed Helis, the head of a powerful pro-Fatah clan, who were hospitalised for wounds inflicted in the fighting, will remain in Israel until they recover. Others were being questioned by the Israeli army. As The Australian crossed into Gaza on Sunday, two Fatah men, clad in blue overalls given to them by Israeli soldiers after they were strip-searched, were hiding behind a barrier in the 1km wide no-man's land between the Erez crossing and the first Palestinian checkpoint inside Gaza. Both were refusing to move any further until after nightfall, fearing they would meet the same fate as other loyalists who had already been arrested. A Hamas police spokesman said that of the 35, 10 were arrested and the others fled. The Israeli turnaround followed pleas from the Fatah men and a petition to the High Court from Israel's Human Rights Association, which said their lives would be in mortal danger if they were forced to return.

It also came as a report by Physicians for Human Rights Israel claimed Israeli security officers had been pressuring Gazans who had been granted medical permits to enter Israel for treatment either there or abroad into informing on relatives before being allowed medical care. The report details testimonies that describe security agents appearing to make the entry of patients from Gaza into Israel conditional on providing information useful to the state. "You have cancer, and it will soon spread to your brain, as long as you don't help us," security agents told one man. The group also claimed that the proportion of people denied urgent medical permits had increased from 10 per cent at the start of last year to 35 per cent during the first half of this year.

Gaza has been under an Israeli-led siege backed by international sanctions for the past 14 months since Hamas ousted Fatah from a brief power-sharing government, sensing the latter was about to mount a Trojan Horse-like coup. Their mutual enmity boiled over last week after a car bomb killed five Hamas men and a six-year old girl, which was immediately blamed on Fatah operatives being sheltered by the Hilles clan. Hamas attempted to storm the compound on Sunday. Nine people died in fierce battles that followed and up to 25 were wounded. All the wounded were being treated in Israeli hospitals after urgent pleas by the Egyptian Government and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Since Hamas's outright takeover of Gaza, the US and Israel have been trying to position the West Bank as a pillar of economic prosperity, while at the same time squeezing Gaza, in a bid to force a revolt among its 1.4 million residents. The siege of Gaza has been gradually lifted recently in response to a Hamas-initiated truce with Israel, mediated by Egypt, which promises a six-month end to rocket fire and militant attacks from Gaza in response to a staged increase in the number and types of goods being allowed into the Strip. Imports of some commodities, such as building materials, livestock, electricity, food and clothes, has increased. But fuel and gas supplies are still desperately low. Many shortfalls are being made up for by smuggling from tunnels in Egypt.


Death of general escalates tensions
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday August 06, 2008

THE slaying of a mysterious Syrian general, who was shot dead as he sat on the foredeck of a yacht, has sharply raised tensions in Damascus and led to speculation that cracks are appearing in President Bashar al-Assad's iron-fisted rule. Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman was little known in Western or Israeli intelligence circles until he was killed by a sniper in a Syrian port on Saturday. He was, however, a critical go-to man for Mr Assad and a loyalist who personally kept most of the regime's secrets and knew the origins of the rest.

The general is understood to have been among the closest of Mr Assad's confidants and a key player in regime strategy since Syria was forced to leave Lebanon in March 2005. The death of the general has not been reported in Syrian state media and is being carefully treated elsewhere in the region. General Suleiman was Mr Assad's personal conduit between the various arms of the intelligence groups that are pervasive throughout Syrian society. He was also a link between the Syrian Defence Force and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in neighbouring Lebanon, prompting speculation that he may have been taken out by Israeli operatives.

However, sources in Jerusalem yesterday claimed Israel had not been behind the death, which they blamed instead on an intra-regime power play, or possibly organised crime. "There will be a lot of speculation about this in the wake of (assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad) Mugniyeh," said the Israeli source, who is linked to the Jewish state's intelligence agencies. "While there may be a lot more truth to the Mugniyeh theory, this man Suleiman is not someone we targeted. He was taken out by a sniper, which is the last in a long list of ways to assassinate someone. It's very dangerous and could easily lead to a catastrophic failure.

"Also, killing a Lebanese terrorist inside Syria is one thing, but slaying a Syrian general on their own soil is an act of war. He was a man who knew a lot, probably too much. We have seen people like him taken out in Syria before. When you know where all the bodies are buried, you will eventually join them."

Hezbollah has claimed that Mossad was behind the assassination of Mugniyeh in Damascus in February and has vowed to avenge his death. Israel has warned its citizens to be cautious in west African states in a warning directly related to Hezbollah's threatened reprisals.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's parliament has passed a resolution allowing the militant group to maintain control of its large arsenal of weapons. The decision had been widely anticipated.


Olmert plan gives Palestinians 93pc
The Australian
Wednesday August 13, 2008

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered the Palestinians a peace plan giving them 93 per cent of the occupied West Bank, the Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday. The proposed border is at the heart of a broader plan that would compensate the Palestinians with the equivalent of 5.5 per cent of the West Bank adjacent to the Gaza Strip and a route connecting Gaza to the West Bank itself. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would only receive the land and the overland connection once his forces retake Gaza from the Islamist Hamas movement, which won power in the territory elections in June last year.

The proposal has been offered in the context of US-backed peace talks relaunched in November with the goal of resolving the decades-old conflict by the end of the year. The proposed accord would be a "shelf agreement" to be implemented in the coming months and years, and would not immediately include the thorny issue of the future status of Jerusalem, Haaretz said. The Palestinians have demanded mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and annexed in the 1967 Six Day War, as their capital, while Israel considers the entire city its "eternal, undivided" capital - a claim not recognised by the international community.

The agreement would include a complex solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, allowing some refugees from the 1948 war to return to Israel while settling most of the 4.5 million refugees in the Palestinian state. The 7 per cent of the West Bank annexed by Israel would include the major settlement blocs around Jerusalem - home to most of the 250,000 Israeli settlers in the territory - and some settlements in the northern West Bank. The final Palestinian state would be demilitarised.

Mr Olmert's spokesman declined to comment on the report but said "negotiations ... are making progress". The talks were dealt a further blow last month when Mr Olmert announced he would resign later this year. He has been dogged by corruption probes in recent months and had faced widespread calls to resign. Mr Olmert will step down after his centrist Kadima party chooses a new leader in a vote set for September 17.

Three views of Georgia - 1. In the South-East

Three views of Georgia - 2. North of Iraq

Three views of Georgia - 3. In the Centre with Chechnya


Five eastern leaders rally to back the Georgians
Extracts - The Australian
Thursday August 14, 2008

TBILISI - AFP, AP: Thousands of Georgians poured into Tbilisi's central square yesterday to rally against Russia, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili and the heads of five former Soviet bloc states. The leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine, all allies of Georgia, appeared with Mr Saakashvili yesterday.

At the rally, Mr Saakashvili told the crowd: "This is the new Europe. Georgia is a European country that will defend its integrity." The five invited leaders joined hands and held them aloft to cheers from the crowd. "This country (Russia) seeks to restore its dominance, but the time of dominance is over," Poland's President Lech Kaczynski said. He later told reporters; "Our visit is a sign of the solidarity of our five countries with the Georgian nation, which has been a victim of aggression." Poland, which broke from Moscow in 1989, joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, while the Baltic states became members of both in 2004, and back Georgia and Ukraine to do likewise.

Fighting between Georgia and Russia erupted last week after the Georgian army launched an offensive against South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgian rule in the early 1990s. Russian troops poured into Georgia on August 8 to repel this attempt to regain control of the region. After smashing Georgia's small US-trained army, Russian troops fanned out through Abkhazia, another pro-Moscow breakaway region in the west, and pushed far into Georgian territory. Russia says it is protecting its citizens, since most residents of South Ossetia received Russian passports during the province's years of de facto independence from Georgia after the 1992 war.

MOSCOW - Bronwen Maddox, The Times: THE body language said it all. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, meeting his French counterpart in Moscow yesterday, looked tense and subdued, a pale face above a white shirt, sitting cramped in one of the Kremlin's gilt chairs as French President Nicolas Sarkozy took up the airspace with expansive hand gestures. In contrast, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- the role he chose when appointing Mr Medvedev as his successor -- was relaxed, leaning back in his chair, using long answers to shut out other speakers in chairing his cabinet and in public appearances.

He has loathed the Georgian President since the two met in 2004. He made the crushing of Chechen separatists his own mission. And he found the recent Western rebuff to Russian wishes over the Kosovo dispute enraging. Mr Putin's fury over Kosovo may explain the scale of Russia's response to the attack on South Ossetia. Russian officials have compared the two, saying they are doing no more in protecting their citizens in South Ossetia than the West did by its military assault to repel Serb forces from Kosovo.


200 released as goodwill
The Australian
Monday August 18, 2008

JERUSALEM: Israel's cabinet voted yesterday to release about 200 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to President Mahmoud Abbas, in a bid to bolster slow-moving US-backed peace talks. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, called the move a "confidence-building measure" towards Mr Abbas, saying "we hope the release will help strengthen the peace process." A senior government official said the list, which would be considered for final approval by a ministerial committee today, includes two veteran prisoners implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis in the 1970s. The two are an exception to Israel's general long-standing refusal to release those with "blood on their hands", but the official said the security establishment "believes the risk of the release is very low".

Israel first announced the move on August 6 following a face-to-face meeting between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas, the latest in a series held since they relaunched peace talks at a US-hosted conference in November. Once the ministerial committee approves the decision, Israelis will have several days to appeal against the release of individual prisoners before the actual release takes place on August 25. There are more than 11,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel, according to the Palestinian Authority. The gesture is widely seen as a way of boosting Mr Abbas against the rival Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement.


Poll says Livni best to lead Israel's Kadima
The Australian
Friday August 22, 2008

JERUSALEM: As Israel's centrist Kadima party prepares to elect a successor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, an opinion poll released last night suggested it would fare better against the right-wing opposition if led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The poll published in the Haaretz daily found that a Livni-led Kadima would win 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament, tying with the opposition Likud. But under the leadership of her main rival, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, it would win only 22 seats against 30 for the Likud, the poll found.

The party leadership election is to be held on September 17 after Mr Olmert's announcement earlier this month that he was stepping down amid corruption allegations.

Speaking to foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, Ms Livni expressed confidence she would become prime minister, whether as head of the existing coalition or if snap elections were held. She said she would also be willing to form "a national unity government" with other parties if the centre-left Labour Party or the religious Shas party decided to quit the governing coalition. "I believe when it comes to different ideas, also when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we can find a common ground between different parties," Ms Livni said.

The poll was bad for Labour, Kadima's main partner. It found Labour would be reduced to 13 seats in a snap election.


Rice downplays threat of new Cold War with Moscow
The Australian
Tony Allen-Mills, Sunday Times, New York
Monday August 25, 2008

FOR most of the week she had seemed to be presiding over yet another fiasco for US foreign policy, yet US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looked surprisingly chirpy as she toasted Polish officials at the signing of a new defence deal in Warsaw on Friday. Her hosts provided a bottle of Georgian wine for a dinner with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Dr Rice leapt at the opportunity to express solidarity with the victims of Russian aggression in the Caucasus.

Despite widespread criticism of the US's failure to curb Moscow's advance, and its apparent lack of options for a punitive response, Washington appeared quietly confident that Russia's short-term gains in Georgia would turn into a long-term diplomatic headache for Moscow, which the US might be able to turn to its advantage. "I don't think this is a new Cold War," Dr Rice declared after signing an agreement to deploy part of the US's long-range missile shield on Polish soil. "It's a difficult time but I think we shouldn't overstate the depth of the difficulties." Her confidence was based in part on the continuing refusal of Russia's former communist neighbours to be cowed by the Georgian conflict - Poland, Ukraine and Georgia have all shown readiness to continue co-operating with the West - and partly on the US State Department's assessment that long-term Russian economic interests would eventually force Moscow to negotiate.

Yet several US analysts warned that Moscow still held the upper hand in any future diplomatic showdown. There might be no return to Cold War-era nuclear threats of what used to be known as MAD - mutually assured destruction - but East-West relations seemed certain to stay in cold storage for a time. "The events of the past two weeks have been a disaster for US foreign policy," said Daniel Benjamin, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Russia's invasion of its neighbour is a clear demonstration that the US-led effort to integrate post-Soviet Russia into the West has failed."

His Brookings colleague Johannes Linn agreed there was a risk that "a Cold War mentality will strengthen on both sides ... the Georgians' hope to integrate quickly with Europe and NATO ... has been, at best, set far back". Military analyst Frederick Kagan said: "We are de facto in an escalation game with the Russians that they appear to be winning."

Experts on Russia noted that a weapons-buying trip to Moscow last week by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be a harbinger of conflict. Washington's need for Moscow's co-operation in the international war on terrorism could easily be confounded if Russia started shipping weapons to Syria, Iran, Venezuela or any other anti-US states. With its UN Security Council veto, Moscow can also obstruct the US on issues from nuclear proliferation to the Middle East peace process. It has already vetoed sanctions against Zimbabwe, to the dismay of both Washington and London.

Mr Kagan believes Moscow is trying to drive a wedge between the US and Europe and that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still regarded as the ultimate source of Russian power, is banking on European distaste for confrontation to ensure that Moscow will get its way. After a NATO foreign ministers' summit last week failed to produce any significant measures, Moscow's ambassador derided the meeting as "a mountain that gave birth to a mouse".

US foreign policy hawks are already sniping at Europe for failing to enforce an agreed ceasefire in Georgia. Sally McNamara, a senior Europe policy analyst at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, said: "By allowing Russia to contravene the ceasefire, the EU has sent Russia the message that the worst it can expect is a slap on the wrist and that its actions will likely go unpunished."
Gareth Evans, Yoriko Kawaguchi and Yasuo Fukuda
Joint effort: Gareth Evans and Yasuo Fukuda


New broom in US could help nuke disarmament: Evans
The Australian
Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent
Tuesday August 26, 2008

THE next Washington administration could bring a historic US commitment to "serious nuclear disarmament", Gareth Evans, Australia's co-chairman of a new international nuclear disarmament commission, said yesterday. Mr Evans said the world faced major proliferation challenges - the leakage of weapons material from the increasing adoption of civilian nuclear energy, terrorism, and nuclear weapons states standing outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime - but also a large opportunity from US politics.

He cited a changed atmosphere in Washington, led by a bipartisan alliance on disarmament of former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former defence secretary William Perry and former Senate armed service committee chairman Sam Nunn. "(They are) making over the past two years a hard-headed, realistic case for the first time in US history for serious nuclear disarmament and the prospect that will flow through into the new US administration - particularly Obama but also a McCain administration."

Mr Evans was Australia's foreign minister from 1988 to 1996. Now president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, he launched the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament yesterday with co-chair Yoriko Kawaguchi, also a former foreign minister.

The commission was proposed by Kevin Rudd to Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, aiming to produce fresh anti-proliferation and disarmament proposals for a NPT review conference in 2010. Mr Evans, who met the Japanese Prime Minister yesterday with Ms Kawaguchi, said he was "very impressed by Prime Minister Fukuda's personal commitment and support for this exercise". "He sees this as both a way of cementing the very strong and long-standing bilateral relationship between Australia and Japan but also, of course, making a major contribution together on a central global issue," Mr Evans said.

Former prime minister Paul Keating, who with Mr Evans established the Canberra Commission on nuclear disarmament in 1995, warned at the weekend that the NPT regime was near collapse. Mr Evans said the 2010 review needed to create a "global regime that picks up the best of the NPT, that makes it stronger and applicable universally", including to "the elephants in the room" India, Israel and Pakistan - states outside the NPT that had no intention of joining it. Mr Evans hoped the commission could convene in October.


The light shines on Damascus
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, September 06, 2008

BASHAR al-Assad, Syria's President, had not long returned from spending up at a Moscow arms fair when he hosted French leader Nicolas Sarkozy this week, catapulting his quest for relevance to heights that have staggered friend and foe. Sarkozy was the first Western-aligned heavyweight politician to visit Damascus in the past three years and one of only a handful to have made the journey since the turn of the century. As he flew back to Paris, Syrians were already hailing the end of their isolation.

Now the next stage of the Syrian resurgence is fast taking shape. Syria's interests and those of its key allies, Iran and the radical party Hezbollah, appear to be converging on many fronts and lining up with Russian agendas. One senior figure in the Assad regime confirms to Inquirer that the fallout from Russia's brief war with Georgia has emboldened Damascus to capitalise on recent gains in Lebanon and setbacks for the US in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is regrouping, and in the Palestinian territories, where peace talks are failing to match up to the Bush White House's expectations.

In short, Moscow is challenging the US take on the post-Cold War and post-9/11 world order. And Syria, despite slightly differing motives, wants to ride sidecar. "Russia is on the front foot with the Americans after the experience in Georgia and it is fair to think that others who have not prospered at the hands of the outgoing (George W. Bush) administration are also looking to press home an advantage," the Syrian official says.

In the main market place of Damascus's old city, the nuances of regional politics and strategies are lost on few. This week's events were debated vigorously around news stands selling state-run papers and the odd out-of-town Arab title. Under pain of imprisonment, few Syrians would dare to offer anything other than praise for their leader. Most think Assad has successfully sweated out his enemies and is about to lead them to better times. Change has been a dirty word in Syria, which for 30 years was - and in many ways still is - a paranoid, totalitarian state where political opposition was ruthlessly repressed and conformity to state policies demanded.

However, there are signs that Assad has moved away from the uncompromising ways of his father, former president Hafez al-Assad, and is paying far more attention to the mood on the street, at least in the capital. Automatic teller machines are everywhere, customer feedback forms are on display in government offices, police no longer use giant sticks to whip order into hordes crossing the road and public works projects seem to be moving along steadily.

Reforms have not been so dramatic on foreign policy. By making only slight changes to policy positions that have cemented him as a pariah in the eyes of the US and its allies since the September 11 attacks, the Syrian leader is enjoying a revival that has delivered what many critics believe he has long coveted: a conductor's role in Middle Eastern affairs. Syria repeatedly has been accused of playing a leading hand in many of the regional trouble spots that have tied down US and Israeli interests. Allegations that Syria allowed foreigners into its border areas to fuel the jihadist insurgency in neighbouring Iraq have rankled with Washington for the past five years. So has Damascus's ongoing role in Lebanon, where a new power-sharing Government has delivered veto power to the Hezbollah-led Opposition and, by proxy, its two key patrons, Iran and Syria.

South of the border in Israel, Assad's open backing of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank has been another source of displeasure. Add to that his abiding ties to Tehran and there seems little reason to believe things will change.

Western policy towards Syria for the past three years has been almost unanimously one of isolation. The US will not talk to Damascus, which it has black-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. Recently a US State Department spokesman reaffirmed that unless the Assad regime decides "to play a positive role, stay out of the internal affairs of Lebanon, stop supporting terrorists and be a productive player on the world scene, it will continue to isolate itself".

Israel has sung from an identical song sheet, claiming that all its foes - Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad - are rooted in Damascus. The position is starkly at odds with the decision by the outgoing Government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to sit down with Syria for another crack at peace talks. The latest round of talks was postponed by Syria during the week, ostensibly because of the ongoing political torpor in Israel and the resignation of the Jewish state's chief negotiator. The Israeli decision to break bread in April was a tectonic shift away from the policy of isolating terrorists and their backers and instead trying to rehabilitate them. The policy reversal has been vigorously opposed by the Israeli Right and by Washington, both of which insist it has validated Syrian policies in return for nothing.

Writing last week in The Jerusalem Post, Uzi Dayan and Jonathan Spyer, from the Centre for Global Research in International Affairs, said: "We have taken an active role in ending the isolation of the hostile regime in Damascus. "The price Syria has paid for this assistance has been minimal. There is no direct negotiation taking place in Turkey. Rather, Turkish representatives engage in delivering messages between the delegations. In return for receiving messages in an Istanbul hotel, the Assad regime has broken out of the isolation that enveloped it following its suspected involvement in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005."

As Sarkozy sat down publicly with Assad, the latter seemed comfortable on the international stage. Regarding the tricky indirect peace talks with Israel, Assad said the brokered talks had not matured enough to warrant the two countries' leaders sitting together to work out a deal. Despite good intentions on both sides, he added, crucial issues remained deadlocked. Sarkozy also rejects the isolationist track. "I prefer another route," he said before arriving in Damascus. "More risky, it is true, but more promising: open dialogue leading to tangible progress."

Syria has sat at the centre of Arab affairs throughout the ages, a fact never lost on the political dynasty of the Assad family, led by strongman Hafez al-Assad until his death in mid-2000. Bashar al-Assad was bolstered recently by Lebanon's new President, Michel Suleiman, who released a statement calling for more international lawmakers to make pilgrimages. "The international community must open up to Syria, following the example set by France, because Syria plays a fundamental role at the regional level," Suleiman said in the wake of Syria's decision to open an embassy in Lebanon, notionally recognising its unstable neighbour's sovereignty for the first time. Suleiman was Damascus's choice as president and had been widely expected to add his voice to calls for an end to Syrian isolation. There are widespread fears in Israel and elsewhere in the Arab world that Syria will use official cover to regain the influence in Lebanon it lost in the wake of the Hariri slaying.

Already Hezbollah effectively calls the shots in the Lebanese Government, a fact that has led to pointed warnings from Israel aimed at deterring Hezbollah from carrying out its threat to avenge the assassination in February of its military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. "The moment the Lebanese Government confers legitimacy on Hezbollah, it must understand that the entire Lebanese state will be a target in the same way that all of Israel is a target for Hezbollah," says Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra, echoing warnings given by Olmert earlier in August.

Israel believes Hezbollah is close to finalising a plan to avenge Mughniyeh's death with an attack against Israeli interests in a fragile state, possibly in North Africa. Its barbs have been tailored to warn the militant group that, as part of the Government, its actions have a bigger knock-on effect. "It will be very interesting indeed to see what their next move is," a senior Israeli military intelligence official says. "If they take their lead from the Syrians, things will get very ugly, very quickly."


Police say Ehud Olmert should be charged
The Australian
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, September 09, 2008

ISRAELI police have recommended that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert be indicted for bribery, money laundering and fraud, after an 18-month investigation credited with driving him from office. Investigators have accused Mr Olmert of wrongfully receiving $US150,000 for political campaigns over 10 years from one-time benefactor Morris Talansky, as well as free luxury hotel rooms and air tickets. They also claim he used a friend's travel agency to double-bill non-profit organisations to help provide his family with free trips abroad. Police are also considering attempting to indict Mr Olmert for a third alleged scandal, said to have taken place during his time as industry minister, in which he is accused of funnelling government money to an associate, Uri Messer.

The move to indict Mr Olmert had been widely predicted in legal circles. State prosecutors must now decide whether there is sufficient evidence with which to charge him. A final decision on laying charges will then be left to the Jewish state's Attorney-General.

Mr Olmert had been haunted for the past five months by the Talansky investigation and had claimed he was being hounded from office by a far-right wing conspiracy. The Israeli Right is vehemently opposed to Mr Olmert's moves to engage Syria in peace talks and his apparent willingness to trade parts of Jerusalem and West Bank settlements, as well as the Golan Heights, for sworn peace deals and Palestinian statehood. Mr Olmert's lawyers vigorously accused the Manhattan-based millionaire of being a proxy for their client's political enemies one month after he made his bombshell allegations to police in April. However, police have consistently maintained that Mr Talansky's claims are credible.

Battered by police probes and diminished by criticism about his leadership during the second Lebanon war of 2006, Mr Olmert's Government had struggled to push through its big-picture agenda, such as a two-pronged peace track with Syria and the Palestinians. He announced in early August that he would not contest the primaries for his Kadima party on September 17. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to replace Mr Olmert as prime minister when the leadership ballot is held on that day. Early polling suggests Kadima will lose the next general election, due to be held early next year. Right-wing Likud leader and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is tipped to return to power. Mr Olmert's lawyers yesterday said the police recommendation was not significant. "We will wait patiently for the decision of the Attorney-General. Unlike the police, he is aware of the heavy responsibility he holds," they said in a statement.


Extract - Israeli President set to ask Livni to form new government
The Australian
AFP, AP, The Times
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

JERUSALEM: Israeli President Shimon Peres was expected to ask Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last night to form a new government, a day after scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stepped down. Ms Livni, 50, who replaced Mr Olmert as head of the centrist Kadima party in a leadership vote last Wednesday, is hoping to become the second female prime minister in the nation's history after "iron lady" Golda Meir, who served from 1969 to 1974.

Mr Peres was expected to formally ask Ms Livni to form a government before he headed to New York for the UN General Assembly. She will have 42 days to form a governing coalition in order to avert snap elections that could bring the right-wing Likud party of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Traditionally, the task of forming a government goes to the party with the most seats in the Knesset, in this case Kadima, which has 29 MPs in the 120-member parliament. Ms Livni was yesterday also meeting party leaders to set up a new coalition government. She supports Mr Olmert's efforts towards a peace accord with the Palestinians. Mr Olmert decided to step down because of corruption cases against him. At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr Olmert notified ministers of his intention to resign, pledging to help Ms Livni "with all my might to form a government".

Reports emerged yesterday that her main coalition partner, Labour Party leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak had met opposition leader Mr Netanyahu to discuss the option of forcing Ms Livni into early elections. Neither Kadima nor its coalition partners appeared eager for a new election, fearing they would be ousted from power. Polls show that in the event of a parliamentary election, Kadima would be in a tight race with the hawkish Likud, headed by Mr Netanyahu. As prime minister, Ms Livni would be expected to pursue a moderate and pragmatic course in peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria. Mr Netanyahu takes a tougher line in peace talks, and Israel's relations with the Arab world suffered when he was prime minister in the late 1990s. Any accords that might emerge from talks with the Palestinians and recently renewed, indirect negotiations with Syria would benefit from broad-based parliamentary backing.

Over the weekend, Ms Livni met potential coalition partners, including two small factions that are not part of the current government, which controls 67 of parliament's 120 seats. But the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which could be key to building a new coalition, has already said it would not join a government willing to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. As lead peace negotiator, Ms Livni is committed to discussing all the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians. The fate of Jerusalem, whose eastern sector the Palestinians claim for a future state, is at the core of the conflict.


George Bush says so long to world leaders
The Australian
Robert Lusetich, Los Angeles correspondent
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Thumbs Down
Sept. 23: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, makes a 'thumbs-down' gesture during President Bush's address to the United Nations General Assembly. Picture: AP

Tuesday morning (New York time): GEORGE W. Bush gave his farewell speech to the UN to tepid applause from an organisation he has long ridiculed as irrelevant, and even received a thumbs-down gesture from Iran's recalcitrant leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian President, who has been everywhere in the US media during his trip to New York - even improbably appearing on CNN's Larry King Live interview program Tuesday night - made the gesture after hearing Mr Bush accuse Iran, along with Syria, of sponsoring terrorism.

Mr Bush used his last UN address to rake over familiar ground, warning of the danger of terrorism and the need to promote democracy throughout the world, though the delivery was rote, and hardly the fire-and-brimstone that he brought to the chamber in the days after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Although he conceded that fewer states were now supporting terrorism, Mr Bush warned that the danger - which many within the UN believe he has consistently overstated - has still not been eradicated.

"As the 21st century unfolds, some may be tempted to assume that the threat has receded," Mr Bush said. "This would be comforting. It would be wrong. The terrorists believe time is on their side, so they've made waiting out civilised nations part of their strategy. We must not allow them to succeed." In keeping with his past disdain for the UN, Mr Bush reiterated that the world body needed to deal with "inefficiencies and corruption" and "bloated bureaucracies", but he said the organisation was now "needed more urgently than ever".

With his administration nearing its end and haunted by missteps on both the international and - with the latest Wall Street meltdown - domestic fronts, Mr Bush also sought to allay the concerns of world leaders that the US economic crisis would be controlled with his proposed $US700 billion ($834billion) bailout plan. "I can assure you that my administration and our Congress are working together to quickly pass legislation approving this strategy," he said, "And I'm confident we will act in the urgent time frame required."

Several world leaders expressed their concerns about the fallout of the Wall Street disaster and called for global political action. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that the Group of Eight - a grouping of the world's leading industrialised nations - invite China and a number of other developing countries to a November summit to discuss what action could be needed outside of the Bush plan. "No country, however powerful it may be, can bring an effective answer to the financial crisis on its own," Mr Sarkozy said. He also said the G8 needed to be expanded to allow for the rapid changes in the world economy and backed the UN's decision to consider expanding the 15-member Security Council.

Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva echoed Mr Sarkozy's sentiments, which segued to Mr Ahmadinejad declaring that the "American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road".

Mr Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly clashed with the US over support of Islamic extremism and Iran's nuclear ambitions, called on the next US president to "limit their interference to their own borders". Iran is under sanctions by the UN Security Council for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, though Mr Ahmadinejad - who insists Iran wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes - vowed that his country would not be intimidated by "a few bullying powers".

He also attacked the Bush administration for its support of Israel - which he again pilloried, and predicted would be destroyed - and for the continued occupation of Iraq, six years after Saddam Hussein's regime was ousted. "Millions have been killed or displaced, and the occupiers, without a sense of shame, are still seeking to solidify their position in the ... region and to dominate oil resources," he said.

Click here to read a full copy of his speech.

A fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran appeared unlikely yesterday after Russia - still smarting from a blistering attack by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - refused to participate in discussions. China, too, is baulking at the push from the US and its Western European allies, Britain, France and Germany. "We do not see any fire that requires us to toss everything aside and meet to discuss Iran's nuclear program in the middle of a packed week at the United Nations General Assembly," said a statement from the Russian foreign ministry issued in Moscow.


Car bomb near Damascus shrine kills 17
The Australian
Monday, September 29, 2008

DAMASCUS: Counter-terrorist officers in Syria yesterday hunted for those responsible for a car bomb attack that killed 17 people in Damascus, one of the deadliest attacks in the country in more than a decade. The bombing on Saturday near a Shia shrine in the Syrian capital, which left 14 people wounded, drew condemnation from around the world, including the US, which has repeatedly accused Syria of fuelling unrest in Iraq.

The car, packed with 200kg of explosives, blew up near a checkpoint on a road to Damascus airport in what Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majid described as "a terrorist act". All the casualties were civilians, he told state television. He said a counter-terrorism unit was tracking down the perpetrators. The rare attack in a country known for its iron-fisted security struck the teeming neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab, the state-run SANA news agency said. The district draws tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon each year to pray at the tomb of Zeinab, daughter of Shia martyr Ali, and granddaughter of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. "It felt like an earthquake. The force of the explosion threw me out of bed," one man who lived near the scene told state television. "Thank God this was Saturday. The catastrophe would have been bigger if the attack had taken place on Sunday when schools were open." Another man said the blast was heard some 10km away.

The attack prompted the US State Department to announce it was temporarily closing its consular section in Damascus for all but emergency services for American citizens. The Damascus Community School was also shut. The facilities would be closed "in light of heightened security", but would reopen on October 5 following the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, spokesman Rob McInturff said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the bombing as "concerning". "This attack is particularly abhorrent as it comes during the holy month of Ramadan. We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. The blast comes just a day after Dr Rice met her Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, in New York to discuss Middle East peace efforts despite renewed criticism from Washington over Syria's policies. During the meeting Dr Rice is said to have expressed optimism over the resolution of the longstanding deadlock between pro- and anti-Damascus factions in Syria's smaller neighbour Lebanon.

Lebanon also condemned the bombing as did the UN Security Council, Arab and European states, and Syrian allies Iran and Russia. The blast was the deadliest since a spate of attacks in the 1980s blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, which left nearly 150 dead. In 1996, 13 people were killed in a Damascus bombing.

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