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Pressure grows for Syria strike as Damascus vows to defend itself
The Australian Online
Wednesday, August 28, 2013 9:48AM

MOMENTUM appears to be building for Western military action against Syria, with the US and France saying they are in position for a strike, while the government in Damascus vowed to use all possible measures to repel it. The prospect of a dramatic US-led intervention into Syria's civil war stemmed from the West's assertion — still not endorsed by UN inspectors — that President Bashar Assad's government was responsible for an alleged chemical attack on civilians outside Damascus on August 21 that the group Doctors Without Borders says killed 355 people. Assad denies the claim.

The Arab League also threw its weight behind calls for punitive action, blaming the Syrian government for the attack and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament to hold an emergency vote on his country's response. It is unlikely that any international military action would begin before then. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke yesterday with US President Barack Obama, and today with Mr Cameron. Australia is due to take over the presidency of the UN Security Council on Sunday.

During the phone call Mr Rudd and Mr Cameron "agreed that it was increasingly certain that the (Syrian) regime was responsible for the attack, particularly since the regime had refused to give the UN immediate access to the site, which demonstrated that they had something to hide," a Downing Street spokesman said.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said US military forces stand ready to strike Syria at once if Mr Obama gives the order, and French President Francois Hollande said France was "ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents." Mr Obama is weighing a response focused narrowly on punishing Assad for violating international agreements that ban the use of chemical weapons. Officials said the goal was not to drive Assad from power or impact the broader trajectory of Syria's bloody civil war, now in its third year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the West should be under no illusion that bombing Syrian military targets would help end the violence in Syria, an ally of Moscow, and he pointed to the volatile situations in Iraq and Libya that he said resulted from foreign military intervention. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country would use "all means available" to defend itself. "We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone," he said.

At a news conference in Damascus, al-Moallem challenged Washington to present proof to back up its accusations and he also likened the allegations to false American charges in 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the US-led invasion of that country. "They have a history of lies — Iraq," he said.

The White House dismissed as "fanciful" the notion that anyone other than Assad could be to blame. "Suggestions that there's any doubt about who's responsible for this are as preposterous as a suggestion that the attack did not occur," spokesman Jay Carney said. A US official said some of the evidence includes signals intelligence — information gathered from intercepted communications. The US assessment is also based on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed, and witness accounts. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.

The United Nations said its team of chemical weapons experts in Syria had delayed a second trip to investigate the alleged attack by one day for security reasons. On Monday, the team came under sniper fire.

If Mr Obama decides to order an attack against Syria, it would most likely involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military and communications targets. Mr Hagel said the US Navy had four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea positioned within range of targets inside Syria. US warplanes were also in the region, he told BBC television during a visit to the southeast Asian nation of Brunei. In Cyprus, Defence Minister Fotis Fotiou said naval traffic in the eastern Mediterranean was very heavy with vessels from "all the major powers." He also said Cypriot authorities were planning to deal with a possible exodus of foreign nationals from Syria.

US military intervention in Syria was running into fierce opposition from some members of Congress. A growing chorus of Republican and Democratic lawmakers demanded that Mr Obama seek congressional authorisation for any strikes against the Assad regime.

Charles Heyman, a former British officer who edits The Armed Forces of the UK, said the lack of a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against the Syrian government greatly complicates matters for the West. He said that may make it difficult for Mr Cameron to win parliamentary backing. "It's clear the governments want some form of military operation, but if the Security Council doesn't recommend it, then the consensus is that it's plainly illegal under international law," Mr Heyman said. "The only legal way to go to war is in self-defence and that claim is difficult to make."

Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, has steadfastly opposed any international action against Syria. Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said her country would not back any military action against Syria unless it was authorised by the Security Council — even though it considers a chemical attack to be a war crime.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that if the Syrian government were proven to have been behind the gas attack, then Germany would support "consequences." But with less than four weeks until national elections, it is unlikely Germany would commit any forces. Centre-left opposition parties have rejected military intervention without UN proof that the Syrian government was behind the attack. And a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party said the German military was already at "the breaking point" due to commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Support for some sort of international military response is likely to grow if it is confirmed that Assad's regime was responsible.

The UN confirmed its chemical weapons team's mission faced a one-day delay on Tuesday to improve preparedness and safety after unidentified snipers opened fire on the team's convoy on Monday. In Geneva, UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said the UN inspection team might need longer than the planned 14 days to complete its work. She said its goal is to determine what chemical weapons might have been used in the August 21 attack.

The Obama administration is making a legal argument for undertaking a military response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, but said any action against the Syrian regime is not intended to depose Assad. Mr Carney said the United States and 188 other nations are signatories to a chemical weapons convention opposing the use of such weapons. Those countries have a stake in ensuring that international norms must be respected and there must be a response to a clear violation of those norms, he said.

In a veiled allusion to difficulties in getting any strong action through the Security Council, France's Mr Hollande said that "international law must evolve with the times. It cannot be a pretext to allow mass massacres to be perpetrated." He then went on to invoke France's recognition of "the responsibility to protect civilian populations" that the UN General Assembly approved in 2005.

Mr Obama discussed Syria on Tuesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, a NATO ally, and in recent days with Mr Cameron, Mr Hollande and Mr Rudd. Mr Harper's office said he agreed with the assessment that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, and called it an outrage that requires a "firm response," without defining what that might entail.

In supporting calls for action against Syria, the 22-member Arab League, which is dominated by Gulf powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provides indirect Arab cover for any potential military attack by Western powers. At an emergency meeting, the Arab League also urged members of the Security Council to overcome their differences and agree on "deterrent" measures. "The council holds the Syrian regime totally responsible for this heinous crime and calls for all involved in the despicable crime to be given a fair international trial like other war criminals," the Arab League said in a statement.

Mr Heyman predicted a possible three-phase campaign, with the first step — the encirclement of Syria by Western military assets by air and sea — already underway. "Phase two would be a punitive strike, taking out high-value command and control targets and communications centers," Mr Heyman said. "That could be done easily with cruise missiles from ships and aircraft. Phase three would be a massive takedown of Syrian air defenses. That would have to be done before you could take out artillery and armour, which is the key to long-term success."

Syria had 'better not' use weapons again, Barack Obama warns
The Australian Online
Thursday, August 29, 2013 9:10AM

US President Barack Obama says he has not yet decided whether to attack Syria, but that any US action will be a warning that "it better not" use chemical arms again. Mr Obama said his government had concluded that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was behind the horrific attack on civilians in a Damascus suburb last week that killed hundreds of people.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says there's now overwhelming evidence the Syrian regime was behind a deadly chemical attack on its own people, and has warned it could do it again. Mr Rudd said Syria had committed what was arguably a crime against humanity. "Our belief is that the Syrian regime is responsible for these chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian people," he told reporters in Melbourne. "We are confident of those conclusions. The evidence in our judgements is now overwhelming."

The US had ruled out a last-minute bid for UN Security Council action over chemical weapons attacks in Syria, heightening expectations of a Western military strike. Britain proposed a resolution to other UN Security Council permanent members — the United States, France, Russia and China — calling for "all necessary measures to protect civilians" in Syria after the alleged chemical weapons attack last week. The resolution could give a legal basis to any military action.

But the United States quickly dismissed any hope of success because of Russia's staunch opposition to any UN move to pressure the Syrian government, a close ally of Moscow. "We see no avenue forward, given continued Russian opposition to any meaningful Council action on Syria," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington. "We cannot be held up in responding by Russia's continued intransigence at the United Nations, and quite frankly the situation is so serious that it demands a response." Ms Harf said "no decision" had been taken on how to respond to the chemical attack, which if confirmed would be the most deadly use of such weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

Mr Obama clearly signalled that expected US punitive strikes would be limited in scope, and would not be an attempt to tip the balance between Assad's forces and rebels who have waged a bloody two-year civil war. "I have not made a decision," Mr Obama told PBS NewsHour, when asked how close he was to signing off on US military action against Syria. Mr Obama said however that he had concluded that "direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria, would not help the situation on the ground."

Given that limited vision for US military action in the country, Mr Obama was asked what would be the strategic rationale behind a US assault, likely to take place with cruise missiles fired from US and allied ships and submarines. He said that by the end of the engagement, the Syrian government "will have received a pretty strong signal that it better not do it again."

Britain said it will not take military action against the Syrian regime before UN inspectors report back on evidence of chemical weapons attacks, according to a motion published by the government that is set to be put to a parliamentary vote. Parliamentarians are due to vote on Britain's response to the attacks today but any military action will require a further vote of parliament's lower House of Commons after the UN experts confirm their findings in the coming days. "Before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place," the motion said. The opposition Labour party had threatened to vote against the motion unless lawmakers were promised a second vote on the basis of the UN evidence — which had left Prime Minister David Cameron facing possible defeat in his bid for targeted strikes against the Syrian regime.

The United Nations says the inspection team needs two more days to finish their work. But it has given no deadline for reporting on whether chemical weapons have been used. The inspectors went to the Ghouta district east of Damascus on Wednesday to collect blood, urine and hair samples from victims of an August 21 attack in which hundreds of people are said to have died.

In the US, defence secretary Chuck Hagel has said American forces are ready to act if Mr Obama gives the order. Meanwhile Syria's nervous neighbours are stepping up their preparations for conflict as a strike appeared imminent. Israel authorised a partial call-up of army reservists, Turkey said its forces were on heightened "vigilance," and New York oil hit the highest level — $US112.24 per barrel — for more than two years. "The region is like a gunpowder depot," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in a condemnation of the West's reported military plans.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague that the international community must wait for the UN inquiry to finish before taking any further steps, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The Syrian government has meanwhile defiantly shrugged off the growing military threat. Prime Minister Wael al-Halki accused the West of inventing excuses to intervene and warned that the country would become the "graveyard of the invaders."

UN leader Ban Ki-moon called on the international powers to head off conflict, and made a new plea for the Security Council to overcome its divisions on Syria. "Syria is the biggest challenge of war and peace in the world today. The body entrusted with maintaining international peace and security cannot be missing in action," he said.

Extract: UK vote a blow to plans for a military strike on Syria
The Australian Online
Friday, August 30, 2013 10:16AM

BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron has lost a vote endorsing military action against Syria by 13 votes, a stunning defeat that will almost guarantee that Britain plays no direct role in any US attack on Bashar Assad's government. The defeat has dealt a major blow to Barack Obama's efforts to build an international coalition for a military strike against the Syrian government, although the White House said the President would be guided by America's best interests, suggesting the US may act alone if other nations won't help.

A grim-faced Mr Cameron conceded after the House of Commons vote — lost by 285 votes to 272 — that "the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action." The Prime Minister said that while he still believed in a "tough response" to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime, he would respect the will of parliament. The defeat was as dramatic as it was unexpected. At the start of the week, Mr Cameron had seemed poised to join Washington in possible military action against Assad.

"The video footage illustrates some of the most sickening human suffering imaginable," Mr Cameron told MPs before the vote, arguing that the most dangerous thing to do was to "stand back and do nothing." But the push for strikes against the Syrian regime began to lose momentum as questions were raised about the intelligence underpinning the move. During a debate with MPs, he conceded that there was still a sliver of uncertainty about whether Assad truly was behind the attacks. "In the end there is no 100 per cent certainty about who is responsible," Mr Cameron said, although he insisted that officials were still as "as certain as possible" that Assad's forces were responsible.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed that British forces would not be involved in any potential strike, something he said would doubtless upset Washington — and please Assad. "It is certainly going to place some strain on the special relationship," Mr Hammond told BBC radio. "The Americans do understand the parliamentary process that we have to go through … Common sense must tell us that the Assad regime is going to be a little bit less uncomfortable tonight as a result of this decision in parliament."

In Washington, the White House said Mr Obama would be guided by America's best interests. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the President believed there are core US interests at stake in Syria. She said countries who violate international norms about chemical weapons must be held accountable.

Mr Obama was already facing deep resistance to plans for a possible military strike against Syria, with US lawmakers demanding more proof that Assad's government perpetrated the chemical attack. But even before the vote in London, the US was preparing to act without formal authorisation from the United Nations, where Russia has blocked efforts to seek a resolution authorizing the use of force, or from Congress. Still, the White House sought to ease growing concerns among congressional lawmakers by deploying a bevy of top administration officials to brief lawmakers on US intelligence assessments.

France has announced that its armed forces "have been put in position to respond" if President Francois Hollande commits forces to intervention against Syria. Mr Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months. Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, has vowed his country "will defend itself against any aggression."

Extract: Syria's axis allies mulling over retaliation for any attack
Weekend Australian
The Times, The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, August 31, 2013

IRAN and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah were debating yesterday whether to retaliate on behalf of Syria in the event of a strike on their close ally, while warships began massing off the Syrian coast in a face-off reminiscent of the Cold War. The Syrian allies, which contribute to an "axis of resistance" against the West, are discussing whether to deploy long-range missiles against Israeli and US warships or military bases in the region, sources close to the discussions said.

The commander-in-chief of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohamad Ali Jaffari, said this week an attack on Syria would prompt the "destruction of Israel" and "flames of war would not be limited to Syria". Mohammed Obeid, a prominent Shia political analyst close to the Hezbollah leadership, said: "This is a regional war. Hezbollah won't allow the (Syrian) regime to be removed by force." Al-Mukhtar's leader Wathiq al-Battat yesterday told Iran's Fars News Agency that his militia "will deliver painful blows to any place where Americans are present in Iraq".

Russia, while supporting Assad politically and with military aid, has signalled it would not participate militarily in any conflict. Nevertheless, Russia said yesterday it was sending an additional missile cruiser from the Black Sea fleet and an anti-submarine vessel to the region, where it already has 16 warships. Within hours, the US announced that it was adding a fifth destroyer, the USS Stout, to its already substantial fleet. Britain flew six Typhoon air defence fighters to one of its sovereign air bases in Cyprus.

"What we may be seeing is an example of gunboat diplomacy rather than a deliberate attempt to interfere directly in any coalition strike militarily," Lee Willett, editor of IHS Jane's Navy International, said. "The presence of any ships will have an impact politically, and that is the primary intent."

Australia always keeps a frigate stationed in the Persian Gulf, and the HMAS Melbourne is on its way there now, but it is not being deployed for action on Syria. Kevin Rudd said yesterday Australia had not been asked to assist in any military action, and Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ruled out any such involvement.

If it comes to reprisals, Israel and Lebanon are the most vulnerable to the wrath of a wounded regime. The Israeli Defence Ministry says Hezbollah has 60,000-70,000 rockets capable of striking Israel and could be used as a proxy force by Syria. The Syrian military has also been ordered to prepare missiles capable of striking inside Israel. Israel's cabinet has authorised its army to call up about 1000 reservists to bolster the ranks of Israel's missile defence systems and the air force. A group of Iranian militia youth, meanwhile, volunteered to be dispatched to the Golan Heights, along Syria's southern border, to fight Israel, Fars reported yesterday.

Observers say inaction by Iran and Hezbollah in the face of a US-led strike would be perceived by their supporters as a sign of weakness, but a fight against the US and Israel could leave both vulnerable. Iran is attempting to project a new, more moderate foreign policy following the election of President Hasan Rowhani. Iran's economy is in shambles due to mismanagement and Western sanctions, constraining Tehran's ability to help its Syrian ally.


Later Same Day
Extract: Obama flags 'limited' strike on Syria over gassing in Damascus
AFP 8:42AM

BARACK Obama has insisted that war weariness cannot excuse world powers from their duty to respond to the gassing to death of hundreds of Syrian women and children. While noting that he had made no "final decision" on striking Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime, he gave his clearest indication yet that the United States would indeed act.

His remarks came after the United States released an intelligence report expressing "high confidence" that the regime had launched a chemical onslaught in the suburbs of Damascus last week that killed 1429 people, including at least 426 children. "This kind of attack is a challenge to the world," Obama said in brief remarks at the White House. "We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale," he said, calling the attack a threat to US "national security interests." "I have said before, and I meant what I said, that the world has an obligation to make sure we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons."

He slammed the "incapacity" of the UN Security Council to act and said his administration and the military were looking at a "wide range of options" but had ruled out "boots on the ground" or a "long-term campaign." "We are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act," he said.

France gave its backing to the US plans, but British MPs voted against any involvement in military action and other close allies, including Germany, said they would not sign up. Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, has meanwhile questioned US intelligence on the August 21 gas attacks and has warned against any military strikes without UN backing.

In Damascus, UN experts completed their investigation into the attacks east of the capital and said they would "expedite" a report on whether chemical weapons had been used there. The team is due to leave the war-battered country today and report back immediately to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who has appealed to the West to allow time for their findings to be assessed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry cited "multiple streams of intelligence" indicating that the Syrian government had carried out the attack and that Assad himself is the "ultimate decision maker" for the country's chemical weapons program. Kerry said failure to act would not only erode the nearly century-old norm against the use of chemical weapons, but would embolden Syrian allies Iran and Hezbollah.

But, faced with an impasse at the Security Council and the British parliament's shock vote, the United States has been forced to look elsewhere for international partners. While Germany and Canada ruled out joining any military strikes, French President Francois Hollande, whose country was a strident opponent of the US-led war on Iraq, said the British decision would not affect his government's stance. "France wants firm and proportionate action against the Damascus regime," Hollande said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the White House was still seeking an "international coalition that will act together" against Assad's regime.

Extract: Obama seeks Congressional tick on Syria
The Australian Online
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Sunday, September 1, 2013 8:15AM

POSSIBLE US military action against Syria has been postponed at least until September 9 while President Obama seeks approval from the US Congress. In an announcement last night, Mr Obama said he had decided military action against the Assad regime should be taken but had also decided to seek approval from "the American people's representatives in Congress."

This means any military strike on Syria is unlikely before September 9 when Congress returns from its summer recess.

As commander-in-chief, Mr Obama could have unilaterally authorised military action but he has chosen a highly-unusual route for a president — to allow a debate in Congress before deciding on a military decision. It was not known whether he would proceed with military action if the Congress rejected his desired course, as the British Parliament on Thursday rejected the wishes of Prime Minister David Cameron.

The US had moved five destroyers off the coast of Syria, raising expectations that a military strike was imminent. United Nations investigators left Syria yesterday after a two-week investigation into whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.

Mr Obama said: "After careful consideration I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This should not be an open-ended intervention, we would not put boots on the ground, instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope but I am comfortable we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons to deter this kind of behaviour and degrade their capacity to carry it out."

But then he added that having made his decision as commander in chief based on national security interests "I'm also conscious that I'm leader of the world's oldest constitution democracy."

Russia yesterday repeated its opposition to any military intervention against Syria, its main ally in the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin challenged the US to take its evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons to the UN Security Council. In his first reaction since the US said the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, Mr Putin said the US argument was "utter nonsense". "The evidence should be presented and if the evidence is not presented there is no evidence."

Extract: Sarin gas named as weapon used in deadly Damascus attack. Congress mulls strike on Syria
The Australian Online
Monday, September 2, 2013 8:38AM

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington has proof the Syrian regime used sarin gas in a deadly Damascus attack, as he backed the US administration's call for Congress to approve military strikes. After President Barack Obama asked Congress to vote for punitive military action against the Syrian regime, Mr Kerry warned the world cannot turn a blind eye to chemical weapons use.

Hair and blood samples from the emergency workers who rushed to the scene of last month's attack in Damascus and given independently to the United States have shown signs of the powerful sarin nerve gas, Mr Kerry said in interviews with US television channels. "In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in East Damascus, (that) hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin," Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press.

The top US diplomat blitzed the Sunday morning talk shows, upping the momentum in the Obama administration's push to build the case for US military strikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

But Assad has derided Obama's decision to hold off on strikes, while taking precautions by moving troops and military equipment to civilian areas. As the US referred potential action to Congress, Assad, in turn, tried to project confidence in his escalating showdown, saying in comments carried by state media that Syria is "capable of confronting any external aggression, just as it faces up to internal aggression every day, in the form of terrorist groups and those that support them".

In a sharply worded front-page article, the state-run newspaper Al-Thawra, expressing official thinking, said Mr Obama's turn-about on military action was "the start of the historic American retreat." Yet despite the official hubris, there were signs the regime was taking precautions.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said the army moved troops as well as rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons inside residential neighbourhoods in cities nationwide. The coalition said Assad ordered detainees to be moved to military targets for use as human shields against US strikes.

Pupils at a Gaza City school last week; the Palestinian Authority's school curriculum
includes a number of favourable references to martyrdom. Source: AFP
Row over curriculum in East Jerusalem schools
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Tuesday, September 3, 2013

AS the school year begins in Jerusalem, a new controversy typifies the intractability of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. At least four large Arab schools in East Jerusalem will offer students the Israeli curriculum for the first time. Previously, students at these schools could only take lessons approved by Palestinian authorities.

Israeli officials say they are responding to demands from parents and students who believe this will boost their opportunities at Israeli universities and workplaces. Palestinian officials say the curriculum has been imposed by "an occupying power".

Israel took control of Arab-dominated East Jerusalem during the 1967 war and later annexed it — an annexation not recognised by the international community. Most countries, including Australia and the US, refuse to have embassies in Jerusalem until the status of the city is clarified in a peace agreement. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital, so it is a delicate issue.

The two sides cannot even agree on how many schools it affects — the Israelis say four, the Palestinians say five. The office of Jerusalem's mayor Nir Barkat told The Australian: "Due to the repeated requests of residents, community leaders and education administrators from schools in East Jerusalem, the municipality has partnered with four local schools to offer the Israeli Bagrut matriculation exam, in conjunction with the Palestinian matriculation exam. These four schools will join six schools (that) already (are) providing students this opportunity."

The office said each student could choose to matriculate in the Israeli system and schools that requested to participate in the Israeli system would receive "assistance, guidance and additional classroom hours from the education officers in the municipality".

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has issued a list of features from the Israeli curriculum he says are inappropriate for Palestinians — including maps showing the West Bank as part of Israel, the use of Hebrew names for Palestinian cities and references to Jerusalem as Israel's capital, "although this is not recognised by any country".

His list included one textbook depicting Arab students praising a development Israel brought to a Palestinian city and concluding with the students singing Israel's national anthem "in gratitude for all Israel has done for them".

Asked by The Australian why parents should not be able to choose the Israeli curriculum if they thought it was best for their children, a spokesman for Mr Erekat, Xavier Abu Eid, said: "Would you impose the French curriculum on schools in Germany '

"We have different schools in Palestine — government, Christian, Islamic. We do have a choice for Palestinian parents but there is a big difference between the right to choose and an occupying power imposing a curriculum. They want to rewrite our history, they want our kids to thank Israel for what they have being doing to us."

A study of 118 Palestinian Authority textbooks found Grade 10 students were taught that martyrdom was a noble death and that "hearing (weapons) clash is pleasant to my ear and the flow of blood gladdens my soul". Grade 7 students were taught "the rank of shahid (martyr) stands above all ranks", while Grade 12 students heard that "if the jihad fighter is killed in sublime God's cause he is granted martyrdom and God forgives him his sins … and lets him enter paradise".

John Kerry AFP
Same Day
Extract: John Kerry toughens up as Bashar al-Assad angst grows
Jay Solomon, The Wall Street Journal

Mr Kerry, in his appearances on all five television interview shows yesterday, said he believed that a congressional debate on military action in Syria would strengthen US policy and build greater international support for a military strike aimed at degrading Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. In the interviews, Mr Kerry also showed a growing level of personal enmity for Assad, particularly after the Syrian regime said Washington was too weak to exact damage on Damascus. "Assad has said a lot of things in the course of this (conflict)," said Mr Kerry on ABC's This Week. "I think the more he stands up and crows, the more he will help this decision to be made correctly."

Mr Kerry, who chaired the Senate foreign relations committee during Mr Obama's first term, was extremely active on the global stage on issues ranging from economic aid to Pakistan to the US war in Afghanistan. But in Syria he used his very personalised brand of diplomacy to try and woo Assad in roughly a dozen meetings and telephone calls with the Arab strongman, say current and former US officials.

Mr Kerry has said he believes his outreach to Assad was warranted and prudent, as the Syrian leader had expressed an openness to engage in peace talks with Israel. The Obama administration also was seeking to split Syria from its military alliance with Iran, which is used to funnel arms to Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups.

Aides to Mr Kerry acknowledge that this experience has only heightened his belief that the US and its allies must act forcefully to stop Assad's military onslaught, and eventually unseat him. "He believes Bashar is delusional, and thinks you have to do something that forces him to change his calculation," a US official said of Mr Kerry. "He also saw firsthand Bashar's ability to lie and he called him on it in some tough conversations."

Congress offers 90 days for Syria strike
The Australian Online
Wednesday, September 04, 2013 12:40PM

MEMBERS of the US Congress have begun rallying behind Barack Obama's plan to launch military strikes against Syria to warn the regime and nations like Iran that the world will never condone chemical weapons. After a passionate plea by US Secretary of State John Kerry not to succumb to "armchair isolationism" after last month's attack in a Damascus suburb, lawmakers drafted a bipartisan measure imposing a 90-day deadline for any US military intervention. It would also ban the deployment of any US troops on the ground in the war-torn nation, where fighting now in its third year has claimed more than 110,000 lives.

The dramatic developments came as the UN refugee agency released grim new statistics revealing more than two million people had now fled the violence in Syria. "This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence," Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He warned that other countries such as Iran and North Korea, under fire for its suspect nuclear programs, were closely watching. "They are listening for our silence," Mr Kerry intoned, during a sometimes heated debate with his former Senate colleagues.

His words were echoed by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said a US refusal to act after Mr Obama had clearly set chemical weapons use as a "red line" would undermine America's credibility abroad. "The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments," Mr Hagel stressed. Both men are due back at the Congress on Wednesday for a further slew of both public and classified briefings.

At earlier White House talks with congressional leaders, Mr Obama said he hoped for "prompt" Congressional votes next week on authorising "proportional" and "limited strikes" against Syria. He was speaking before he left late Tuesday for Sweden and a G20 summit in Russia, where he will lay out the US case for strikes.

After the nearly four-hour hearing, the Senate committee re-worded the resolution put forward by the White House to restrict it to "limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria, according to a copy of the draft obtained by AFP. The authorisation provided by the resolution "shall terminate 60 days after the date of the enactment of this joint resolution, except that the president may extend, for a single period of 30 days, such authorisation" if he deems it necessary. It did "not authorise the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations."

House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — leading Republicans who have had frosty relations with Mr Obama on domestic policy — have now both said they would support his plan. "This is something that the United States as a country needs to do," Mr Boehner said, calling on Republican colleagues to follow his example.

But in a sign of the deep public misgivings over wading into another foreign conflict, the hearing was interrupted several times by protesters. Two polls released Tuesday showed strong opposition to a US military intervention in the crisis. Some 48 per cent of Americans told a Pew Research Centre survey that they opposed "conducting military air strikes" with only 29 per cent in favor. A poll by the Washington Post-ABC found a similar margin of nearly six in 10 Americans opposed to missile strikes.

The Syrian opposition meanwhile said it feared a fresh chemical attack by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after spotting three convoys of vehicles believed to be filled with such arms. The Syrian army had also retaken control of the strategic town of Ariha in northwest Syria after 10 days of intense bombing and clashes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

An influential Republican Senator John McCain lambasted the administration for delaying its response for so long, before now signalling its intent. "You tell the enemy you're going to attack them, they're obviously going to disperse and try to make it harder," he said.

Mr Obama said the August 21 attack, which Washington says involved the use of sarin gas, posed a serious national security threat to the United States and its allies. "As a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable," he said, while assuring Americans he would not use ground troops.

Mr Kerry stressed the aim of any strikes would be to degrade Assad's military capabilities. But he seemed to indicate that the administration would like to preserve the option of sending in troops "in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands" of al-Qa'ida-linked fighters.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon meanwhile warned that a western military strike could make things worse. "We must consider the impact of any punitive measure on efforts to prevent further bloodshed," Mr Ban said.

Extract: Syria strike closer after Senate committee vote
The Australian Online
Thursday, September 5, 2013 8:26AM

BARACK Obama's plan to conduct military strikes on Syria has passed its first congressional hurdle, paving the way for a full Senate debate on the use of force. A divided Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved an amended resolution 10-7, that would authorise US military intervention with a 90-day deadline and bars American boots on the ground for combat purposes.

Senate leaders have said the full chamber will debate and vote next week on authorisation of the use of force in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people. The House of Representatives, where a tougher vote is expected, will begin consideration next week but its leaders have not announced timing of a vote.

The White House commended the panel for "moving swiftly" to approve the measure. "We will continue to work with Congress to build on this bipartisan support for a military response that is narrowly tailored to enforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and sufficient to protect (US) national security interests," the White House said. The Senate text was modified to include language sought by Republican Senator John McCain, who had threatened a no vote unless the measure was toughened up. The committee debated and ultimately approved his amendment, which declared it is "the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria," and urges a comprehensive US strategy boost the fighting capabilities of "elements of the Syrian opposition."

Moscow, meanwhile, is warning that any US Congress approval for a military strike against Syria without UN approval will represent an "aggression" and that such action could have far-reaching nuclear security implications. The Kremlin's stark language came as it demanded "convincing" proof that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says it will be unacceptable for the West to go ahead with military action against Damascus without UN Security Council approval, according to Russian news agencies. "Only the UN Security Council can give approval for the use of force against another state," Mr Putin told members of the board of human rights in the Kremlin prior to a meeting of the G20 in St Petersburg. "Any other ways to justify the use of force against another sovereign and independent state are unacceptable and cannot be qualified as anything other than aggression. "But Syria, as we know, does not attack the United States, it can therefore be no question of defence."

Earlier, the Russian president suggested Russia could approve military strikes against Syria — if the West presented watertight evidence of chemical weapons crimes. Mr Putin says the West needs to put forward cast-iron proof of the circumstances of the attack, which some Russian officials have previously blamed on rebels seeking to discredit the regime.

"If there is evidence that chemical weapons were used, and by the regular army, … then this evidence must be presented to the UN Security Council. And it must be convincing," Mr Putin said. If there is clear proof of what weapons have been used and who used them, Russia "will be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way", he said.

In another development, Washington is weighing expanding support for Syrian rebels by having the Pentagon take charge of arming the opposition instead of a clandestine effort by the CIA. "It's under consideration," said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If and how (it would be done) are both questions being discussed," the official said.

After concluding in June that the Syrian regime used sarin gas in a small-scale attack, Mr Obama's administration decided to start supplying weapons to the rebels through the Central Intelligence Agency. But after another alleged chemical weapons attack on a larger scale — and as lawmakers debate whether to endorse Mr Obama's call for military action against the regime — the administration is looking at ratcheting up support for the rebels, two US officials said. Lawmakers have complained that promised weapons have yet to arrive, putting the opposition at a disadvantage against Assad's heavily-armed forces.

Bob Carr sits at host President Vladimir Putin's right after organisers decided to separate Mr Putin and US President Barack Obama.
Source: AP
Defiance on the streets as Damascus braces for airstrikes
Weekend Australian
Saturday, September 7, 2013

AS the prospect of US-led strikes looms high over Syria, many residents of the capital have packed up and fled, some are leaving it to fate and others defiantly insist their city will not fall. Dima, a painter, says she is sure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "will defend us".

Sitting in a restaurant in the popular central souk of Salhiyeh with a plate of chicken kebab, Dima says she is wholly on Assad's side, despite Western accusations that he is behind a suspected chemical attack on August 21. She expresses a widely held view that the aim of a possible strike is to crush "the axis of resistance" (against Israel) formed by Damascus and its allies Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah. "Damascus is a fortress, a thorn in the foot of the Americans," says Dima. "Damascus will not fall."

Assad's regime, playing up the nationalistic sentiments of the people, has said it is ready to confront a Western military attack. "If there is a strike, I will volunteer to fight alongside the army, to help, whatever," says Dima. "Had I been afraid, I would have left a long time ago."

Aid groups in Lebanon say 80-120 Syrian families have been scrambling across the border each day since the chemical attack, twice as many as before. Those who remain have left it to fate.

"I profoundly believe that what is written will happen," says Hanan, a veiled woman choosing a new pair of shoes. "I have a wedding to go to, so I am not worried." Booms of shellfire can be heard intermittently in the distance, but in the souk it is business as usual. Young girls are window shopping, a street peddler is hawking corn and a crowd is gathering around a fresh-fruit vendor.

"Of course we are afraid that there will be deaths, that the infrastructure will be destroyed," says Umm Hassan, her eyes shielded by dark sunglasses. "But we will stay here and we will resist." Many are thinking of their national hero, who fought French colonial powers. "Yussef al-Azmeh had only a few rifles and he never ceded to the French. We will do the same," says Abu Firas.

Yussef al-Azmeh was the Syrian Minister of War 1918-1920. Born in 1883, he graduated from the Ottoman Military Academy in Istanbul in 1906. Became a general in their army in the First World War. Joined the Arab Revolt at the close of the war. Died in 1920 as part of a small band who fought the French after Damascus reluctantly disbanded its troops in order to submit to French control.

Today, France is the only nation in the Group of 20 major economies to have committed to punishing Assad. "Shame on France for being dragged that way behind the United States," shouts a passer-by.


Same Day
Russia 'holding UN hostage' on Syria
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies

WORLD leaders at the G20 summit have failed to bridge their divisions over planned US military action against the Syrian regime, as Washington slammed Moscow for holding the UN Security Council "hostage" over the crisis. Syria was not even on the original agenda of the meeting hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a former imperial palace outside St Petersburg — they were supposed to talk about stimulating growth and fighting tax avoidance. Yet there was talk of little else as the leaders discussed the possible Syrian intervention over dinner until well into the night.

Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr had been positive at the start of the two-day forum but was more downcast after Thursday night's talks. "All countries expressed their views, there was no consensus and there was no hope of movement from the UN Security Council," he said. "Hence we're back in the position, the pre-existing position, namely to enforce a global norm. (That) is an expectation from countries like Australia."

As the leaders were setting out their arguments at the dinner, the new US ambassador to the UN in New York launched a lacerating attack on Russia for its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities," Samantha Power told reporters. Last night a White House official said Russia did not have "anything to add" to the political debate on Syria, and criticised Moscow for avoiding "the core issues".

Mr Putin has implacably resisted any punitive measures against his ally Assad over an alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21, saying any such move without UN blessing would be an aggression — while remaining the main holdout at the UN. He has rallied the support of the powerful Brics nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — releasing a statement on their behalf saying a military strike could drive up oil prices and "have an extremely negative effect on the global economy".

China made its own early warning about the economic impact. "Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price," China's deputy Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said. "It will cause a hike in the oil price."

France is the only G20 country to have committed to military action. Germany has ruled out military intervention, saying it would instead consider increased humanitarian aid. British Prime Minister David Cameron had wanted to join a US-led operation, and argued for it at a sitting of the House of Commons, but Labour and some of his own MPs voted it down.

Barack Obama used his first meeting, with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to lobby for support. He said the US and Japan agreed the use of chemical weapons was a violation of international law. But it was not disclosed whether Japan supported action.

The summit comes at a low point in US-Russia relations. Mr Obama cancelled a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was to precede the summit, after Moscow offered asylum to the fugitive former NSA security contractor Edward Snowden. Apart from a handshake upon arrival, the only communication the men are likely to have will be in group sessions. Even the seating plan was reportedly changed by the Russians to put distance between Mr Putin and Mr Obama — to the apparent benefit of Senator Carr, who sat at the right hand of Mr Putin.

Syria is Russia's main ally in the Middle East. Russia has been the regime's major supplier of weapons and has a deep-water naval base in Syria.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis, also weighed into the Syria debate. He wrote to Mr Putin, as host of the summit, urging the G20 leaders to "help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution".

Europe backs Syria response as the US warns against inaction
The Australian Online
Sunday, September 8, 2013 1:27AM

EUROPEAN Union nations have called for a "strong" response on Syria but stopped short of endorsing military action, as US President Barack Obama warned of the dangers of turning "a blind eye" to chemical attacks. Fresh from a G20 summit in Saint Petersburg where he failed to win over world leaders to his cause, Mr Obama urged Congress to authorise an intervention over President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we've seen out of Syria," Mr Obama said in his weekly address. "That's why I call on members of Congress, from both parties, to come together and stand up for the kind of world we want to live in." Congress reconvenes tomorrow and Mr Obama is set to address the nation on Tuesday about a possible US response to the August 21 attack that left hundreds dead on the outskirts of Damascus.

Washington meanwhile sought to muster support from its divided allies in Europe, with US Secretary of State John Kerry holding protracted talks with the EU's 28 foreign ministers in the Lithuanian capital before leaving for France, after which he will visit Britain. Split between Paris and London, who are hardline supporters of US-led military action, and smaller nations reluctant to act without a UN mandate and fearful of "day-after" consequences of an attack, the EU ministers managed to hammer out a compromise in Vilnius.

A statement read out by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton dubbed last month's suspected chemical weapons attack "a war crime and a crime against humanity". There was "strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible," the statement said, echoing earlier claims made by Washington, London and Paris but strongly rejected by key Syria ally Moscow. "The international community cannot remain idle," the statement added. "A clear and strong response is critical to make clear that such crimes are unacceptable and that there can be no impunity."

On heading to Paris, Mr Kerry welcomed the "strong statement about the need for accountability … that support the efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable for what he's done." In Riyadh, the Gulf Cooperation Council urged the international community to intervene immediately to "rescue" the Syrian people from "oppression."

Meanwhile, Catholics worldwide held a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria joined by Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, with Pope Francis set to host a mass vigil. The Vatican has warned military strikes could escalate the conflict and cause it to spill over into the region.
"Peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs all of humanity prayforpeace," Pope Francis wrote in one tweet, with another saying simply: "Never again war! War never again!"

Faced with a war-weary US public and little international support, Mr Obama is bracing for an uphill battle to convince American lawmakers to back military action against Assad's regime. According to a Washington Post survey, 224 of the current 433 House members were either "no" or "leaning no" on military action as of Friday. A large number, 184, were undecided, with just 25 backing a strike. The Senate and the House are expected to vote on the issue within the next two weeks.

In France, the sole EU nation determined to join a US-led strike, the latest public opinion poll showed 68 percent of people opposed to military action, an increase of nine percentage points since late August. The EU statement said there could be no end to the Syrian war without a political solution and urged the UN Security Council "to fulfill its responsibilities", a reference to Russia and China's refusal to sanction Assad.

Ms Ashton meanwhile said the EU welcomed French President Francois Hollande's decision to await the release of a UN investigation into the August attack before taking action against Syria. But Mr Kerry made clear that Washington had not decided to postpone a decision on military action until the release of the UN report, though several EU ministers said he had pledged to make their case to Obama.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged the UN to publish its chemical weapons report "as quickly as possible". Germany also announced it has signed on to a global statement, separate from the EU one, calling for "a strong response" to the alleged chemical weapons attack. That made Germany the fifth EU member to back the statement issued at a G20 summit in Saint Petersburg on Friday and signed by 11 other countries — including the US, Britain, France, Italy and Spain.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that any intervention in Syria without the UN's blessing would be "outside the law". Washington meanwhile is evacuating non-essential embassy staff from Beirut and urging Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon and southern Turkey.

Extract: US warms to Syria chemical amnesty plan
The Australian Online
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 9:48AM

US President Barack Obama has said a Russian plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons was "potentially positive" and pledged to take it seriously.

But, in a CNN interview, Mr Obama warned against any stalling tactics from Syria, and said the fact there was any talk of a diplomatic way out of the crisis was only down to his administration's threats of military action. "It is a potentially positive development," Mr Obama said of the Russian plan, as he gave interviews to six television anchors as part of a fierce push to win backing from Congress on strikes against Syria. "I have to say that it's unlikely we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat," Mr Obama told CNN.

The president said he had asked his Secretary of State John Kerry to work with Russia to see if Moscow's suggestion of a deal, which would see Syrian chemical weapons placed under international supervision, was possible. "This is a continuation of conversations I've had with President Putin for quite some time," Mr Obama told PBS, and told Fox he had first discussed the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putin at last year's G20 summit in Mexico. "If we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I'm all for it."

Washington's European allies gave a similarly cautious welcome to the plan, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued his own plea for a mission to secure and dispose of the weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Syrian counterpart and urged Damascus to "place chemical weapons under international control and then to have them destroyed."

Tony Blinken, deputy US national security adviser, said Washington would consult Russia over the initiative but expressed doubt about the trustworthiness of Syria's leadership. "We would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons," he said, but adding that Syria's "track record to date, doesn't give you a lot of confidence."

The day had begun with confusion, when US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to suggest that Assad could avoid a military strike by agreeing to give up chemical arms. This led to speculation after that Washington and Mr Lavrov had discussed the plan beforehand, but Mr Kerry's aides denied this, insisting he had no forewarning of the Russian offer.

Nevertheless, Mr Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton, speaking after meeting Mr Obama at the White House, linked the two statements. "If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step," she said.

Speaking in Moscow, Syria's Foreign Minster Walid al-Muallem welcomed the Russian move, though it was not immediately clear if a still defiant Assad would give his assent. "I note that Syria welcomes the Russian initiative based on the Syrian leadership's concern about the lives of our nationals and the security of our country," Muallem told the Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS.

The rebels battling Assad, who saw hope in the United States' threat to bomb the regime, denounced the idea as a plot by Russia's President Vladimir Putin to protect Assad.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron also expressed concern that the plan might be "a distraction tactic" but broadly welcomed it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Kremlin's proposal as "interesting" but added that she hoped it would be put into place quickly and not simply be used to "buy time." And France, the only Western ally to have offered to take part in a US-led strike, said Assad must commit "without delay" to the elimination of his chemical arsenal.

UN leader Mr Ban, meanwhile, called for the creation of UN supervised zones in Syria where the country's chemical weapons can be destroyed. He told reporters he may propose the zones to the Security Council if UN inspectors confirm banned weapons were used and to overcome the council's "embarrassing paralysis" over Syria.

For his part, Assad warned in an interview with US television that the United States will "pay the price" if it attacks Syria.

Mr Obama was due to give no less than six US television interviews to defend his strike plan to the American public and lawmakers, before giving a major national address Tuesday. In the meantime, US cruise missile destroyers are idling in the Eastern Mediterranean, preparing for what American officials described as an extremely limited, precise punitive strike.

Assad's comments did not rise to the level of a precise threat, but will do nothing to calm fears that Syria and its allies Hezbollah and Iran could act to destabilize its neighbors. A White House spokesman responded that the United States is ready for any move by Assad. "He has no interest in escalating this conflict, frankly," Ben Rhodes, spokesman for Obama's National Security Council, said of the Syrian leader.

Destroy chemical weapons now or risk our wrath, US tells Assad
The Australian Online
James Bone, The Times
Thursday, September 12, 2013 9:00AM

THE UNITED STATES will demand swift access to President Assad's chemical arsenal as the price of shelving planned missile strikes on Syria. John Kerry, the Secretary of State, will challenge Russia to deliver Syria's agreement at a hastily arranged meeting in Geneva today with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

A French proposal envisages Damascus providing an "exhaustive, complete and definitive" list of its chemical weapons and locations within 15 days of a United Nations resolution. UN inspectors should be allowed immediate access to the sites, providing an initial report within ten days. Today's meeting will be the first test of how far Russia is prepared to strip its ally of its weapons of mass destruction. Russia countered France's draft resolution with its own proposals, which were handed to US diplomats last night.

Mr Obama had used his nationwide television address on Tuesday night to insist that he was ready to use force against the Assad regime if diplomacy failed. Russia's diplomatic gambit of offering to put Assad's chemical weapons out of use raises the prospect of weeks of diplomatic deadlock at the UN. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, would not be drawn on how much time the US will give the diplomatic process, but said that it was important to see a "demonstration of sincerity" from Russia and Syria. It was put to him that the process of making Assad's arsenal safe could take years. He accepted that it would be a complex operation and would take some time, but said its implementation could begin soon.

In Damascus, Ali Haidar, a Cabinet minister, said that Syria's chemical weapons, which he described as "the nuclear weapon of the poor", were meant to achieve strategic balance against Israel, "an enemy that we've been fighting for more than 60 years". However, a senior government official said that Syria was nevertheless ready to sign a chemical weapons convention, provided such a move was imposed by foreign powers. It is not clear how this fits in with the French draft UN resolution, which is backed by Britain and the US.

The White House continued to press for a tight timetable following Mr Obama's primetime address on Tuesday. The speech was generally well received as a return to authority and coherence after days of White House missteps and changes of direction. However, his warnings that national security was at risk if the use of chemical weapons went unanswered did little to persuade a sceptical public. A snap CNN poll showed a marginal move — 30 per cent believed air strikes would achieve US goals, rising to 36 per cent after the 15-minute speech.

The President's speech convinced 39 per cent of Americans that US involvement in Syria would be in the national interest — up nine points — but 60 per cent still oppose action.

After telling Americans he had asked Congress to postpone the crucial votes on authorisation for a military strike, Mr Obama did not disclose how long he was prepared to wait to see if the diplomatic path could be effective. He said he was still ready to resort to targeted military action, even though he shared Americans' deeply-held desire to avoid another war. "America is not the world's policeman," Mr Obama said. "Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."

A group of US Senators yesterday continued to work with the White House on a new draft resolution in Congress that would authorise US military action against Syria, should the latest diplomatic efforts fail. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said he would not take the threat of military action against Syria off the table and that he would be ready to call for a vote on military action if it became clear that the Russians were just stalling. "Talking and action are two separate things," he said.

Russia was also hedging its bets. Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma committee on international affairs, suggested that Moscow should consider expanding its supply of defensive weapons to Iran if the US continued to threaten military action against Syria. "If the US chooses to escalate the situation and chooses a military scenario over diplomacy, I consider such measures absolutely justified," he said.

President Putin is due to meet President Rowhani of Iran tomorrow to discuss the possibility of Russia supplying the country with S300 air defence missile systems as well as building a second reactor at the Bushehr nuclear plant, the Kommersant daily reported.

Syria moving around its chemical weapons: Wall Street Journal
The Australian Online
Friday, September 13, 2013 2:25AM

SYRIA has scattered its stockpile of chemical weapons to as many as 50 sites in a bid to complicate US efforts to track them, the Wall Street Journal says. A secretive Syrian military unit had been given responsibility to shift the arsenal of poison gases and munitions, raising questions about the viability of a Russian plan to secure the weapons, the report said, citing US and Middle Eastern officials.

Officials also told the paper it could complicate a possible US military strike on Syria over the Damascus regime's alleged use of chemical weapons. Washington alleges that about 1400 people, including more than 400 children, were killed in an August 21 attack involving poison gas.

The Journal is reporting that the Syrian military's "Unit 450" has been moving the stocks around for months and as recently as last week, according to officials and politicians. Starting about a year ago, the deadly weapons — traditionally kept at several sites in western Syria — began being dispersed to nearly two dozen major sites, it reported. According to the Journal, the unit has also started using dozens of smaller sites, with Washington now believing that the weapons have been dispersed to as many as 50 spots in the country's west, north and south, as well as new sites in the east.

Despite the redistribution, both US and Israeli intelligence agencies still believe they know where most of the weapons are situated, according to the Journal. However, it quoted one official as saying "we know a lot less than we did six months ago about where the chemical weapons are". While Washington is employing satellites to track vehicles used by the unit, the pictures don't always indicate what they are carrying, the paper reported.

President Bashar al-Assad confirmed for the first time yesterday that Syria plans to give up its chemical weapons as the US urged him and his Russian allies to quickly make good on his promise. But the longtime leader cast fresh doubt on how committed he is to a hastily hatched plan to secure his country's poison gas stocks by demanding that Washington first drop its threat of military action against his regime.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov address the press after reaching an agreement on a framework
for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons Source: AP
US, Russia agree on Syria's chemical weapons
The Australian Online
Sunday, September 15, 2013 7:30AM

THE United States and Russia have agreed on an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by the middle of next year and left the door open to sanctions if Damascus failed to comply. The landmark deal was hailed by the West, but rejected by rebels who warn that it would not halt the bloodshed in the conflict which has killed more than 110,000 people and displaced millions in two and a half years.

Under the accord drawn up after talks spanning three days between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now has a week to hand over details of his regime's stockpile. Mr Kerry said Mr Assad's regime must also provide "immediate and unfettered" access to inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

"The inspectors must be on the ground no later than November … and the goal is to establish the removal by halfway through next year," said Mr Kerry, flanked by Mr Lavrov. The pressure is now on Mr Assad to deliver, with Barack Obama warning that "the United States remains prepared to act" if Damascus failed to comply. "While we have made important progress, much more work remains to be done," Mr Obama said. Echoing Mr Obama's warning, Mr Kerry said that there must be "no games, no room for avoidance of anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime".

But while Britain, France and the OPCW welcomed the deal, the rebels fighting Assad's regime greeted it with dismay, fearing it has scuppered any chance of Western intervention on their side. "We cannot accept any part of this initiative," General Selim Idriss, the head of the Free Syrian Army, told reporters in Istanbul. "Are we Syrians supposed to wait until mid-2014, to continue being killed every day, and to accept (the deal) just because the chemical arms will be destroyed in 2014."

Mr Kerry said the steps agreed last night would be encapsulated in a UN Security Council resolution drawn up under Chapter Seven of the organisation's charter, which provides for enforcement through sanctions including the possible use of military force. But with Russia strongly opposed to the use of military threats against its long-term ally, and wielding a veto on the Security Council, Mr Kerry acknowledged it was "impossible to have a pre-agreement" on what would happen in the event of non-compliance. Mr Lavrov signalled that Moscow would back some form of sanction, saying the Security Council would act under Chapter Seven if Syria fails to meet its demands.

Mr Kerry said that Syria's bloody civil war could only be ended through negotiations. That was another nod to Russia's opposition to military intervention and could be interpreted as the United States backing away from providing support for the rebels to help them force Mr Assad from power. For Mr Lavrov, the accord was an "excellent" agreement "whose significance is hard to overestimate".

Washington and Moscow hope to revive plans for peace talks in Geneva that would bring together the two Syrian sides to agree a political transition to end the conflict that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against the Assad regime and quickly turned violent following a brutal government crackdown of the demonstrations.

Russia's surprise announcement that Syria could hand over its chemical arsenal prompted Mr Obama to put on hold military strikes the United States and France had threatened in response to an August chemical attack near Damascus, which Washington blames on the regime and says killed about 1400 people.

The United States has estimated that Syria possesses around 1000 metric tonnes of various chemical agents, including mustard and sarin gas, sulphur and VX. The Russian estimates had been initially much lower, according to US officials, but Mr Kerry said the two countries had reconciled their different assessments.

US officials said there were around 45 sites that inspectors would have to check out and Mr Kerry said it would be feasible to do that, despite the fighting. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton offered the bloc's help with "securing sites and in dismantling and destroying certain chemical agents".

Spotlight falls on Israel's arsenal
The Australian
Jay Solomon, Geneva, The Wall Street Journal
Monday, September 16, 2013

THE joint US-Russian push to dismantle Syria 's chemical weapons is starting to have ripple effects, focusing attention on the suspected arsenal of Israel. By forcing Syria to admit to its stockpiles of the weapons of mass destruction and take tentative steps towards their elimination, Washington and Moscow could coax Syria 's neighbors into eventually following suit, said Western and Arab diplomats.

A frequent complaint among Arab countries in the region — that Israel has an undeclared but presumed nuclear-weapons program — has already resurfaced. Syria 's government has hinted it could raise Israel 's suspected arsenal of nuclear and other weapons as an international issue and potentially a precondition for Damascus moving ahead on the destruction of what the US estimates is at least 1,000 tons of chemical agents.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Syria 's program was only necessary as a defence against Israel 's vastly superior firepower. This position could place the Obama administration in a diplomatic corner. The US has held to a decades-old policy of neither publicly acknowledging nor denying Israel 's capabilities, which are believed to include nuclear warheads.

It also could undermine the White House 's efforts to counter weapons proliferation and contain Iran 's nuclear program. The US has repeatedly stated that American efforts to reduce its own weapons stockpiles, and those of its allies, diminished the needs of other countries to seek atomic bombs. "The main danger of WMD is the Israel nuclear arsenal," Syria 's ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja 'afari, said on Friday.

Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny the Syrian claims. Similarly, Israel doesn 't acknowledge having nuclear weapons.

The debate over Syria 's weapons programs is also drawing attention to Egypt. Egypt 's government was accused of using chemical weapons when it intervened in Yemen 's civil war in the 1960s, under former strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser. Cairo hasn 't signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997. Israel and other regional governments believe Egypt maintains an arsenal equipped with mustard gas and some nerve agents.

A senior Egyptian official on Thursday would not comment on the current state of Cairo 's weapons programs, but he said all countries in the region, particularly Israel, needed to disarm if the international community hoped to see a region free of weapons of mass destruction. The Egyptian official said it was hard to tell if there would be ripple effects from Syria. "It depends upon how the Arab governments decide to play it."


Later Same Day
Obama, Iran leader Rowhani become pen pals in bid for diplomacy

BARACK Obama has revealed an exchange of letters with Iran's new President Hassan Rowhani but warned his reluctance to strike Syria should not devalue US threats of force to thwart an Iranian nuclear bomb. The US president, in an interview aired Sunday, publicly confirmed the outreach to Mr Rowhani for the first time, and said he believed the Syria chemical arms drama showed that diplomacy could work if backed by threats of military action.

The exchange of letters will add to the notion that the election of Mr Rowhani offers a new opening to test the possibility of a diplomatic way out of the showdown over Tehran's nuclear program. But some analysts have questioned whether Mr Obama's decision to hold off on military action against Syria will lead the Islamic Republic's leadership to conclude US threats against Tehran are empty. In fact, Mr Obama's top aides used a variation of that argument themselves, warning to members of Congress that blocking military action in Syria could send Iran the wrong message.

But in his interview, Mr Obama said that the outcome of the Syrian deal offered Iran a "lesson" in the benefits of diplomacy. Mr Obama was asked on the ABC News "This Week" program whether he had reached out to Mr Rowhani, a moderate conservative elected in June. "I have. And he's reached out to me. We haven't spoken— directly," Obama said. Asked by interviewer George Stephanopoulos whether the contact was via letters, Mr Obama replied: "Yes."

The president was careful to draw a distinction between US behavior over Syria — which ended in a deal with Russia to secure Damascus's chemical arms — and Washington's approach to Iran as a nuclear showdown reaches a critical point. "I think what the Iranians understand is that — the nuclear issue — is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue," Mr Obama said. "The threat against … Israel, that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests. "A nuclear arms race in the region— is something that would be profoundly destabilising. "My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn't draw a lesson — that we haven't struck (Syria) — to think we won't strike Iran." Mr Obama said that on the other hand, the lesson from the showdown over Syria's chemical weapons, should indicate that "there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically."

Washington has repeatedly warned Iran that it has the option of military action, if diplomacy and crippling sanctions do not convince the Islamic Republic to stop short of building nuclear weapons. Iran denies that its nuclear program has a military use. Mr Obama's letter to Mr Rowhani had been reported in the regional media though was not publicly confirmed by the White House. It has not previously been clear whether Mr Rowhani had also written to Mr Obama.

Mr Rowhani last week warned that Tehran will not give up "one iota" of its nuclear rights and said the time for negotiation was limited. He spoke ahead of a meeting later this month between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on restarting negotiations on the Islamic republic's disputed nuclear ambitions.

Previous openings for US dialogue under Mr Obama with Tehran foundered over domestic politics in both nations and tensions exacerbated by the rule of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Revelations about Iran-US contacts came after Mr Rowhani on Friday urged Moscow to help solve Tehran's nuclear crisis as he met President Vladimir Putin at a security summit in Kyrgzystan.

Mr Putin, who met Mr Obama at the G20 summit in Russia earlier this month, was a key cog in the deal reached in Geneva on the Syria chemical arms crisis. But the role played by Mr Putin — a key ally of the Assad regime — has been viewed with suspicion in the United States and sparked a debate about whether Mr Obama had been played.

On Sunday, one influential US lawmaker called the Syria agreement "a big win" for the Russian leader. "I do think Putin's playing chess and we're playing tic-tac-toe," Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's "State of the Union" program. "Think about where he is and what he wanted out of Syria. He got everything he wanted," he said. "Indecisiveness" in Washington gave the Russians a diplomatic advantage, Mr Rogers said. "They saw it. They stepped in. This is a Russian plan for Russian interests. And we should be very, very concerned about that …"

Time needed to destroy arms: Bashar al-Assad
The Australian Online
Thursday, September 19, 2013 10:51AM

DEFIANT strongman Bashar al-Assad has promised to surrender Syria's chemical weapons but warns it will take at least a year to do so and cost more than $1 billion. The Syrian leader's latest appearance came as UN envoys debated a draft resolution that would enshrine a joint US-Russian plan to secure and neutralise his banned weapons in international law.

In a confident interview with US network Fox News, Mr Assad insisted that Syria was not gripped by civil war but was the victim of infiltration by foreign-backed al-Qa'ida fighters. He also insisted his forces had not been behind an August 21 gas attack on the Damascus suburbs that left hundreds of civilians dead, but vowed nevertheless to hand over his deadly arsenal.

It was Mr Assad's second interview this month with US television, and one of a series of meetings with Western journalists to counter mounting political pressure from Western capitals. After last month's barrage of sarin-loaded rockets, which Western capitals say was clearly launched by the regime, US President Barack Obama called for US-led punitive military strikes. But with US politicians and the Western public not sold on the virtues of another Middle East military adventure, Mr Assad's ally Russia seized the opportunity to propose a diplomatic solution. Pushed by President Vladimir Putin, the White House agreed to hold fire while Russia and the international community — with Mr Assad's agreement — draws up a disarmament plan.

Mr Assad reiterated his pledge to cooperate, but insisted he had not been forced to do so by US threats of US action. "I think it's a very complicated operation, technically. And it needs a lot of money, about a billion," he told Fox. "So it depends, you have to ask the experts what they mean by quickly. It has a certain schedule. It needs a year, or maybe a little bit more.

"Asked why he had used force to repress a popular uprising and triggered a two-and-a-half year war that has claimed 110,000 lives, Mr Assad insisted Syria was a victim of terrorism."What we have is not civil war. What we have is war. It's a new kind of war," he said, alleging that Islamist guerillas from more than 80 countries had joined the fight. "We know that we have tens of thousands of jihadists … we are on the ground, we live in this country," he said, disputing an expert report that suggested 30,000 out of around 100,000 rebels were hardliners. "What I can tell you is that … 80 to 90 per cent of the underground terrorists are al-Qa'ida and their offshoots."

Mr Assad admitted that at the start of the uprising there were non-jihadist rebels, but alleged that since the end of 2012, Islamic extremists had become a majority. He added that "tens of thousands of Syrians" and 15,000 government troops had been killed "mainly because of the terrorist attacks, assassinations and suicide bombers."

While Mr Assad pursued his media counterattack, the five UN Security Council powers held new talks on a resolution backing the Russia-US plan to destroy the chemical weapons. Western nations, who said they are not looking for an immediate threat of force against Assad, could seek a Security Council vote this weekend if Russia agrees.

UN envoys from the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China held two hours of talks at the US mission.Britain, France and the United States have prepared a draft resolution that would invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter but would not explicitly threaten force or sanctions.

Iran's President Hasan Rowhani says he's ready to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition.
Picture: AFP Source: AFP
Iran president offers to broker Syria talks
The Australian Online
Friday, September 20, 2013 11:44AM

IRANIAN President Hassan Rowhani says his government is ready to "help facilitate dialogue" between the Syrian government and the opposition. "We must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates," Mr Rowhani wrote in a column in The Washington Post.

In his latest bid to reach out to the international community since becoming president in August, Mr Rowhani said he wanted to pursue a policy of "constructive engagement." The Iranian leader, speaking on NBC television, also refused to rule out what would be a historic first meeting with US President Barack Obama, saying "anything is possible."

Speculation is mounting that the two leaders could engineer an informal encounter when they are both at the UN General Assembly in New York next week. Asked whether he had plans to see Mr Obama, Rowhani told NBC in the interview recorded in Tehran that he had nothing scheduled — mirroring US comments on a possible meeting. But Mr Rowhani said he was open to talks so long as the "necessary conditions" are met. "Anything is possible in the world of politics," he said. "It depends on the necessary conditions."

White House officials say Mr Obama currently has no plans for a meeting with the Iranian leader when he is in New York on Monday and Tuesday, but they have declined repeated invitations to rule out such an encounter.

Mr Rowhani, who has asked to meet with French President Francois Hollande on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly new week, said his counterparts should "seize the opportunity presented" by his election. "I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government's efforts to engage in constructive dialogue."

The new Iranian president's offer is likely to be eyed warily in Washington, where the Obama administration has repeatedly accused Iran of helping to prop up the Syrian regime in the brutal civil war by providing weapons, manpower and money.

Mr Rowhani insisted that "a constructive approach to diplomacy doesn't mean relinquishing one's rights. "It means engaging with one's counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives," he wrote. "A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone's loss," he said, adding that in many places, "unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructive approaches."

"The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism," insisted Mr Rowhani, a moderate on Iran's political scene. "My approach to foreign policy seeks to resolve these issues by addressing their underlying causes. We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart."

The Iranian president said he believed "at their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries' identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world." This was also true of Tehran's pursuit of what he called its peaceful nuclear program, which was as much about "who Iranians are as a nation" as about diversifying energy resources. "To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country's nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher," Mr Rowhani wrote. "Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better."


Same Day
Israel warns not to be 'duped' by Iran

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the world not to be "duped" by conciliatory remarks and apparently liberalising gestures by Iran's new president, Hassan Rowhani. The world should "not let itself be duped by the untrustworthy declarations of the Iranian president," Mr Netanyahu said, according to a statement issued by his office. "This same Rowhani has deceived the international community in the past" in discussions over the country's disputed nuclear program," an apparent reference to the time when he was Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator.

Israel, along with the United States and other major world powers, suspects Iran of using its nuclear energy program as a cover for developing an atomic bomb, allegations Tehran roundly denies. A series of international sanctions have been slapped on Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium, a process that, in more advanced stages, could yield the fissile core of a bomb.

Netanyahu said Iran is "pursuing its nuclear program. They are engaging in a media campaign while continuing to turn the centrifuges" that enrich the uranium. In an interview with US television network NBC, Mr Rowhani reached out to the United States, Iran's long-time foe.

The gesture was seen as past of a cautious game of diplomatic rapprochement as Tehran and Washington — deadlocked over several key issues including Iran's controversial nuclear ambitions — appear to be seeking to resolve their differences.

But he also described Israel as an "occupier" which has brought instability to the Middle East.

Extract Commentary: Iranian window is Obama's moment of truth
The Australian
Andrew Sullivan, The Sunday Times
Monday, September 23, 2013

FROM the beginning of his highly unlikely candidacy for president, Barack Obama promised something radically new in US foreign policy. Against the conventional wisdom and breaking with long-standing US policy, Obama said he would be prepared to talk to anyone in the world, however vile, to achieve a credible peace. In particular, he said he would not rule out talking directly to the rulers of Iran — a country branded by his predecessor as part of an "axis of evil".

He began his presidency with a private letter to the Iranian leaders offering an open hand. But Iran's theocratic fists remained firmly in barbed boxing gloves. What little hope there was evaporated after the despicable crackdown on the Green Movement uprising, which had galvanised Iranians and the world in 2009. There followed truly crippling sanctions against the regime, combined with an attempt to keep the Israelis from a unilateral attack on Iran's main nuclear sites.

This was the stalemate that persisted through Obama's re-election and the surprising victory of the more pragmatic but still orthodox Hassan Rowhani as Iranian President in elections this year. Obama again reached out privately in a diplomatic exchange of letters that both he and Rowhani have now acknowledged.

Rowhani seems willing to curtail and control Iran's nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions that have isolated and brought misery to the country in many ways. This may be a realist view but it is worth noting that Rowhani wants his new engagement with the world to be more elevated than just the lifting of sanctions. In The Washington Post last week he wrote: "To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country's nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher. Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better."

His words sound like those of Obama and are probably designed to. Rowhani keeps reiterating the need for "win-win outcomes" and a way out of a "zero-sum game". He also notes something obvious about the formal positions of Iran and the US: both say they want Iran's nuclear program to be entirely civilian. Rowhani has repeatedly insisted on this.When two powers are in public agreement over a goal, the question is not who will win but how both can verify their common agreement in good faith.

Can the two men pull it off ' It may be that they have very limited time. In Washington, the Israel lobby and Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a neoconservative, are urging an authorisation of force against Iran to pre-empt any agreement. Congress will try to sabotage a peace agreement, just as the Revolutionary Guards will try in Iran.

The leading neoconservative William Kristol called for an Israeli strike against Iran last Friday to pre-empt any notion of peace. "Despite imprecations from the Obama administration, Israel will act," he wrote. "One prays it will not be too late." The window, in other words, will not be open for long. It will take real courage to press forward and see how open it genuinely is. But that is why Obama was elected. And this is his moment of truth.

Deal in doubt as Lavrov blasts US
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Tuesday, September 24, 2013

FRESH tensions between Russia and the US have effectively dashed any hopes of a new deal on Syria as world powers meet this week. In the lead-up to what was expected to be a week of frantic manoeuvrings at the UN General Assembly in New York, relations between Russia and the US have taken a new dive. This follows a blistering attack by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who accused the US of trying to "blackmail" Russia. The accusation endangers the agreement between the two countries to eliminate all chemical weapons in Syria by the middle of next year.

The war of words came as Russia's embassy in Damascus was hit by a mortar attack, wounding three employees. The attack was believed to be a rebel response to Moscow's support for the Assad regime.

Mr Lavrov made his criticisms of the US during an interview on Russian television. "Our American partners are beginning to blackmail us — if Russia won't support a resolution under Chapter VII in the UN Security Council, then we will stop the work in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," he said. Mr Lavrov was referring to moves by the US, Britain and France for a Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against the Assad regime.

On Friday, Syria met the deadline imposed by the US and Russia to present a list of its chemical weapons. The deal, made under the threat of US military action against the Assad regime, was the first area of agreement on Syria between the US and Russia since the civil war began in March 2011.

Russia and China have repeatedly refused to agree to any UN Security Council resolution authorising force against the Assad regime. Russia is the main supplier of weapons to the Assad regime and has a naval base in Syria.

The new rhetorical attack by Russia on the US comes at a time when Iran has offered to mediate a solution to the Syrian conflict. Iran's new President, Hassan Rowhani, a relative moderate, has exchanged letters with President Barack Obama, ending decades of diplomatic hostility between the two countries.

Mr Rowhani and Mr Obama will both address the UN General Assembly in New York tonight, leading to the possibility that they may hold a historic meeting on the sidelines. Washington's primary concern with Iran is its nuclear program while Mr Rowhani last week said he was prepared to facilitate peace talks between the Syrian regime and the rebels. While Mr Rowhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was strongly supportive of the Assad regime, Mr Rowhani last week praised the Arab uprisings. However, it is still unclear how much power he has and whether his views really differ from those of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Barack Obama used his speech to the UN General Assembly to make overtures
to Iran's new leadership. AFP
No meeting, Obama and Rowhani offer hope
Tim Witcher at Yahoo News
Wednesday, September 25, 2013

US President Barack Obama and Iran's new leader have made very tentative moves to end decades of hostility between their countries, but could not break the deadlock enough to organise a meeting. Obama said a "meaningful" accord was possible if Iran ends concerns over its nuclear program, while Iranian president Hassan Rowhani called on the US leader to ignore "war-mongering pressure groups" to make a deal.

The long-standing gap between the US and Iran was evident in Obama and Rowhani's speeches to the UN General Assembly and the failure to orchestrate even a symbolic handshake. Obama said the mistrust between the United States and Iran has "deep roots" and Tehran's "pursuit of nuclear weapons" would remain a US foreign policy priority. But a "meaningful agreement" between the arch-rivals is possible, he added. "I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicion runs too deep," said Obama.

"But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect." "To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable" on the nuclear program. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said, adding that he had ordered US Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue diplomatic efforts.

Rowhani said Iran poses "absolutely no threat to the world," in his speech, and he condemned international sanctions against Iran and also hit out at the use of drones, without naming America. If Obama rejects "the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences," the Iranian leader said, insisting that his country's nuclear drive is "exclusively peaceful."

"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defence doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions," Rowhani said. He added that the international community had to accept Iran's nuclear activity, which Western nations say hides an attempt to reach a nuclear bomb capacity.

The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran over its uranium enrichment. But Rowhani said it is "an illusion, and extremely unrealistic, to presume that the peaceful nature of the nuclear program of Iran could be ensured through impeding the program via illegitimate pressures."

There had been speculation that Obama and Rowhani could meet at a lunch organised by UN leader Ban Ki-moon, but Rowhani was not present. A senior US official said an encounter had proved "too complicated" for the Iranian side.

US, Russia agree landmark UN resolution on Syria
The Australian
Friday, September 27, 2013

THE United States and Russia have agreed the outline of a draft UN Security Council resolution on destroying Syria's chemical weapons. While the resolution does not propose immediate measures over a chemical attack near Damascus one month ago, it allows for eventual sanctions if there are breaches of a disarmament plan, diplomats said.

The 15-member Security Council has been called to a meeting today for first discussions on the text. No date for a vote has been set. But if agreed, the resolution would be the first to be passed by the council since the start of the Syria conflict in March 2011.

The accord was announced after new talks between Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. Neither gave details of the text. Mr Lavrov told reporters "an understanding" with the United States had been reached on a draft resolution and a disarmament plan which must be approved by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Mr Kerry said the international community "can now move forward and give life hopefully to the removal and destruction of chemical weapons from Syria."

Russia, which with China has vetoed three western proposed resolutions that sought to increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, has steadfastly refused to allow any UN sanctions over the war. But a US threat of a military strike after an August 21 chemical weapon attack forced Russia and the West to overcome their differences. The United States blames Mr Assad's forces for the attack, which it says saw more than 1,400 people gassed to death. The Syrian government, and Russia, have blamed opposition rebels. After Mr Lavrov and Mr Kerry agreed a disarmament blueprint to head off the threatened US military strike it took two weeks of tense negotiations to agree the resolution.

"This is a breakthrough arrived at through hard-fought diplomacy," said a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is historic and unprecedented because it puts oversight of the Assad regime's compliance under international control." A draft of the new resolution states that the council would take sanctions action if a breach of a Russia-US plan to disarm Mr Assad's poison arms is reported. The draft says the council "decides in event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorised transfer of chemical weapons or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter."

So, though no immediate action would be allowed, the UN Security Council would have to take some measures if the OPCW or UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reports a breach of the disarmament plan, analysts said. Chapter VII of the UN Charter can allow sanctions or military force. But diplomats said that there would have to be a new vote for any action and predicted there would be a fierce new debate with Russia, Assad's last major backer.

The resolution says only that the Security Council would "promptly" consider any reported breach. European nations had also wanted the Syria conflict referred to the International Criminal Court. But the draft resolution says only that the council "expresses strong conviction that those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria should be held accountable."

Today's meeting will only be the first talks on the resolution but with Russia and the United States behind the text it is certain to be passed "very soon," diplomats said. The OPCW executive council will have to meet first to approve the disarmament plan. Diplomats said the Security Council vote will then make the plan binding under international law.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union
foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attend a meeting at the UN. Source: AP
Kerry upbeat on lifting sanctions
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
With Agencies
Saturday, September 28, 2013

THE US has said sanctions on Iran could be lifted within months, following a dramatic change in Tehran's position on its nuclear program. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was possible an agreement might be reached within months if Iran agreed to a "verifiable process".

In an interview on the US 60 Minutes program, Mr Kerry said: "The United States is not going to lift the sanctions until it is clear that a very verifiable, accountable, transparent process in in place, whereby we know exactly what Iran is going to be doing with its program." Asked whether Iran's President, Hassan Rowhani, was correct when he raised the possibility that a deal could be achieved in three months, Mr Kerry said: "Sure it's possible. It's possible to have a deal sooner than that depending on how forthcoming and clear Iran is prepared to be."

In his first appearance as Iran's new president before the UN General Assembly this week, Mr Rowhani abandoned the policy of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to refuse inspectors access to Iran's nuclear program. He offered to begin negotiations and said he hoped a deal over the program could be struck within three months. It appears the new willingness for negotiations is due to the devastating effects sanctions are having on Iran's economy. Iran agreed to immediate talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As part of Tehran's change of heart, Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, became the first senior Iranian official to meet a US official Mr Kerry yesterday. The Secretary of State described Mr Zarif's presentation to a meeting involving the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany as "very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect of the possibilities of the future".

Mr Kerry added: "Needless to say, one meeting and a change in tone — which was welcome — doesn't answer those questions yet and there's a lot of work to be done." Mr Zarif said Iran had agreed to "jump start the process" so progress could be made. "Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so we can move forward," he said.

Mr Rowhani this week called on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. "Israel should join without any further delay," he said.

The warm reception in New York this week enjoyed by the Iranian delegation has been greeted with great concern in Israel. Yuval Steinitz, the head of the Israeli delegation at the General Assembly and Israel's minister for strategic and intelligence affairs, yesterday said Mr Rowhani was trying "to smile his way to the bomb". "The man is an expert with tricks," Mr Steinitz said.

Next week, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will urge caution regarding Iran. Israel Radio News reported that when he appears on Tuesday before the UN General Assembly, Mr Netanyahu will say that obtaining nuclear weapons is a central objective of the regime. It said he would call for increasing pressure on Tehran and that there should be four conditions for any agreement with Iran: stopping the enrichment of uranium, removing all enriched uranium from Iranian territory, closing the nuclear reactor in Qom, and halting Iran's plutonium project. Israel Radio News said: "Netanyahu's aides know they will have a harder time this year, in light of what they called the 'barrage of smiles' and the ostensible moderation demonstration by the Iranian president."

US-Iran talks anger Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Monday, September 30, 2013

ISRAEL will urge the US to impose tougher sanctions on Tehran despite President Barack Obama's historic phone conversation with Iran's President Hassan Rowhani. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Mr Obama in Washington today to convince him to resist Mr Rowhani's "blitz of smiles".

Israeli media said Mr Netanyahu would present Mr Obama with intelligence that proves Iran is continuing to advance its nuclear program. Tomorrow Mr Netanyahu is set to address the UN General Assembly, where he will argue for harsher sanctions until a verifiable agreement is reached with Iran. "I will speak the truth," Mr Netanyahu said at Tel Aviv airport before flying to the US. "Facts must be stated in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles."

While Mr Obama and Mr Rowhani did not meet during the Iranian leader's visit to the UN, Mr Obama telephoned Mr Rowhani as he was driving to the airport to leave New York and return to Tehran. "I was informed President Obama wanted to speak to me for a few minutes," Mr Rowhani said. They spoke for about 15 minutes. "I said during that phone call that not only do the Iranian people have a right to nuclear energy, not only does our country have a right to develop, but the bigger issue at stake is the pride of the Iranian people," Mr Rowhani said later. "And President Obama agreed that we have a right to nuclear energy."

Mr Obama said after the phone call: "I reiterated to President Rowhani what I said in New York — while there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution. The test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place."

During his week in New York, Mr Rowhani broke from long-standing Iranian policy by offering negotiations on his country's nuclear program. While official Iranian media supported Mr Rowhani's change of approach clearly some Iranians disagreed. On his return home, as he stood up in his motorcade to wave to a waiting crowd, someone threw a shoe, some threw eggs and others chanted "Down with America". Arguments broke out in the crowd between those supporting Mr Rowhani's more conciliatory approach and hardliners who want no contact with the US.

Mr Rowhani made two appearances before the UN General Assembly. In the first he offered negotiations and in the second he called on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif conducted an extraordinary week of meetings and briefings, including a session with leading US editors and commentators. Mr Rowhani said he hoped an agreement on his country's nuclear program could be reached within three months — a clear sign that sanctions are hurting Iranians. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the three-month timetable was achievable.

Mr Rowhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would not allow any negotiations with the West or access by international inspectors to Iran's nuclear facilities.The International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that Iran is engaged in secret activity consistent with developing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes.Publicly, the White House is saying it believes Mr Rowhani has the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei.


Later same day
Israel makes Iran spy claims ahead of US visit

ISRAEL'S Shin Bet domestic security service said yesterday it has arrested a Belgian citizen of Iranian origin whom it claims was sent by Iran to spy on Israel while posing as a windows and roofing salesman. The claim coincided with a trip by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the US aimed at casting doubt on Iran's recent overtures to the West.

The Shin Bet said the accused spy, identified as Belgian-Iranian businessman Ali Mansouri, had admitted to interrogators that he was recruited by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force last year and sent to Israel to set up business ties as a front for spying on Israeli and Western targets. For his services, the Shin Bet said, Mansouri's Iranian handlers promised him $1 million.

The Shin Bet said Mansouri entered Israel on September 6 with a Belgian passport under the name Alex Mans, and that they arrested him five days later at Israel's international airport as he was to board a flight to Europe. He was found with photos of sites throughout Israel "that interest Iranian intelligence," including the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Shin Bet said. The security service released amateurish photographs it said Mansouri took of a cafe next to the US Embassy, a rooftop view of the embassy taken from a nearby building, and the baggage claim hall of the airport. Another photograph shows Mansouri posing on the Tel Aviv seaside boardwalk in a tight white polo shirt and short jeans shorts, clutching a map.

A lawyer for Mansouri could not immediately be located. The Shin Bet, the Israel Police, and Israel's Justice Ministry said they did not know who is representing him. There was no official Iranian comment on the spy, but Iranian state TV called the arrest an attempt at "anti-Iranian propaganda" by Israel before Netanyahu's meeting with Obama. The Shin Bet denied the timing was linked to the Netanyahu's trip to the US, where he will visit the White House today and address the UN General Assembly tomorrow.

Israel has grown alarmed about the recent conciliatory moves between Iran and the US. Israel believes Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon and is reaching out to the West as a tactical move to ease international sanctions and buy time. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Before boarding a plane to the US, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the purpose of his trip was to "tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles", a reference to Iran's recent diplomatic overtures to the West. It was the Israeli government's first reaction to last week's telephone call between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, the first such phone call between US and Iranian presidents in three decades.

Arch-enemies Israel and Iran have been engaged in intense mutual espionage efforts in recent years. Israel has convicted several Arab citizens of spying for Iranian proxy Hezbollah. It also has accused Iran of being behind a series of attacks on Israeli targets around the world. Iran has accused Israel of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, and Israel and the US are widely believed to be behind a computer virus that disrupted Iranian nuclear facilities.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told the Belga news agency yesterday that Ali Mansouri married a Belgian woman in 2002 and quickly obtained Belgian citizenship, and had changed his name to Mans as allowed by law. The couple later divorced and he remarried an Iranian woman. "We learned immediately about his arrest, and our consulate in Iran informed his second wife," Reynders was quoted as saying. Belgian diplomats in Israel have been in contact with the suspect, and both Mansouri and his lawyer have declined comment, according to Belga.

Extract: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: Holocaust a 'Heinous Crime' and a 'Genocide'
Yahoo News
Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In an exclusive interview this morning (Sunday) on "This Week," Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the Holocaust as a "heinous crime" and a "genocide," dismissing as a poor translation the appearance of the word "myth" about the Holocaust on the Iranian Supreme Leader's English website. "The Holocaust is not a myth. Nobody's talking about a myth," Zarif told George Stephanopoulos when asked about the quote.

Zarif used his condemnation of the Holocaust to segue into a critique of Israel, which he characterized as the aggressor in the Middle East. "We condemn the killing of innocent people, whether it happened in Nazi Germany or whether it's happening in Palestine," Zarif said. "[The] Holocaust was a heinous crime, it was a genocide, it must never be allowed to be repeated, but that crime cannot be and should not be a justification to trample the rights of the Palestinian people for 60 years."

Zarif told Stephanopoulos that Iran is "prepared to start negotiating" on its nuclear program, while maintaining that the country is not seeking nuclear weapons. "We know that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon," Zarif said. "Having an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons is not just your goal. It's first and foremost our goal."

While saying "our right to enrich is non-negotiable" of Iran's efforts to enrich uranium for nuclear power purposes, Zarif said the country will not seek weapons-grade uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. "We do not need military grade uranium. That is a certainty and we will not move in that direction," Zarif said. Zarif also hit back at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dismissal of Iran's diplomatic efforts at the U.N. General assembly as "a smile attack."

"A smile attack is much better than a lie attack," Zarif said. "Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues have been saying since 1991… that Iran is six months away from a nuclear weapon. And we are how many years, 22 years after that ' And they are still saying we are six months away from nuclear weapons." "We are not seeking nuclear weapons, so we're not six months, six years, sixty years away from nuclear weapons," Zarif added.


Same day
Obama tells Netanyahu he has clear eyes on Iran
Stephen Collinson (AFP)

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama promised Benjamin Netanyahu Monday he would enter talks with Iran with clear eyes and demand verifiable concessions, following the Israeli leader's warnings about "sweet talk" from the Islamic Republic. Netanyahu and Obama held talks at the White House, days after Obama's historic call with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani spurred hopes for a breakthrough in the 30-year estrangement between Washington and Tehran.

Netanyahu warned that sanctions must be maintained against Tehran and even strengthened if necessary, and said the only outcome of diplomacy Israel would accept would be a dismantling of Iran's "military nuclear program." But in a sign of an easing of the once-tense relations between the leaders, Netanyahu was restrained in his public press appearance with Obama, after warning before he left home that he would speak out against the "sweet talk" and "charm offensive" coming from Tehran.

Obama told Netanyahu that he had no option but to "test" Iran's willingness to embrace diplomacy.

Netanyahu warned that Iran was committed to Israel's destruction and that its words and actions should be judged with that in mind. "The bottom line is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program," he said, during a four-hour stay at the White House. The Israeli Prime Minister argued that economic sanctions must be kept in force through the evolving diplomacy with Iran, which resumes in mid October in Geneva. "In fact, if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened," he said.

There is no current move to ease the crippling set of sanctions which Washington credits for damaging Iran's economy and forcing a rethink of diplomatic strategy on the nuclear program in Tehran. But Iran would likely expect some reciprocal lifting of economic pressure in return for concessions during the negotiating process — a demand that could cause Obama problems with both the Israelis and hawks on Capitol Hill in both parties.

Netanyahu also laid out a clear red line for Iran's nuclear program, which appears to have the potential at least to conflict with both Iran's aspirations and concessions other international powers may be prepared to make to Tehran. "What's the bottom line ' The bottom line … is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program," Netanyahu said.

Obama has argued that Iran must take verifiable steps, and actions and not just words to prove it is meeting "international obligations fully and that they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon." But he has also said that after signing up to such a regime, Iran should retain the right to a "peaceful" civilian nuclear energy program. Mindful of Netanyahu's political position, Obama told his guest it was specifically because of its past threats that Iran had to take actions that restored confidence in the international community.

"We have to test diplomacy," Obama said. "But we enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed. They will not be easy, and anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for." But Obama also indicated that despite soaring hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough, he would not withdraw the threat of force if diplomacy fails. "We take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran," Obama said.

Israel has also warned it may be forced to take unilateral military action if diplomacy fails to ease what it sees as an existential threat from Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu's skepticism about Rowhani's motives is being followed and adopted by some of Obama's hawkish critics in Congress, who could complicate any eventual effort by the president to ease sanctions on Iran should a deal be reached.

While Iran was the dominant issue in the talks, Obama and Netanyahu also discussed the effort to identify and dispose of Syria's chemical weapons, and US-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Obama commended Netanyahu for his "courage" in entering "good faith" negotiations on the most divisive final status issues between the two sides. Netanyahu said he was hoping the talks would produce a "historic transformation" in relations between Israel and its neighbors.

The talks were relaunched in late July after US Secretary of State John Kerry spent months shuttling back and forth to bring the two sides back to the table. But few details have leaked after seven rounds of discussions, owing to Kerry's call for a strict news blackout to avoid poisoning the atmosphere.

Kerry later hosted Netanyahu at the State Department and said that though peace talks were always "difficult and complicated" he was confident Netanyahu was committed to the process. Netanyahu is expected to address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.


Same day
US federal government shuts down for first time in 17 years
Yahoo News (AFP)

WASHINGTON: The United States federal government shut down for the first time in 17 years on Tuesday, as Congress failed to end a bitter budget row after hours of dizzying brinkmanship. Ten minutes before midnight, the White House budget office issued an order for many government departments to start closing down, triggering 800,000 furloughs (i.e. leave without pay) for federal workers, and shutting tourists out of monuments like the Statue of Liberty, national parks and museums.

Prospects for a swift resolution were unclear and economists warned that the struggling US economic recovery could suffer if the shutdown drags on for more than just a few days. Only workers deemed essential will be at their desks from Tuesday onwards, leaving government departments like the White House with skeleton staff. Vital functions like mail delivery and air traffic control will continue as normal, however.

On a day of dysfunction and ugly rhetoric in the divided US political system, Republicans had repeatedly tied new government funding to attempts to defund, delay or dismantle President Barack Obama's signature health care law. But each time their effort was killed by Obama's allies in the Democratic-led Senate, leaving the government in limbo when its money ran out at the end of the fiscal year at midnight Monday.

"This is an unnecessary blow to America," a somber Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor two minutes after the witching hour.

A few hours into the shutdown, Republicans in the House appointed delegates, or conferees, to try to negotiate with the Senate later Tuesday on a spending plan to get the government up and running again. But if they still want to tinker with Obamacare, the Senate will not negotiate, an aide to Reid said. "If the House follows through with their current plan, the Senate will vote to table the House 's conference gambit shortly after convening. And we will be back at square one," the aide said.

Obama, heralding the first government shutdown since 1996, told US troops in a video that they deserved better from Congress, and promised to work to get the government reopened soon. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Obama's budget director, said agencies should execute plans for an "orderly shutdown", and urged Congress to swiftly pass bridge financing that would allow the government to open again.

Obama earlier accused Republicans of holding America to ransom with their "extreme" political demands, while his opponents struck back at his party's supposed arrogance. House Speaker John Boehner rebuked Obama in a fiery floor speech after an unproductive call with the president. "I didn't come here to shut down the government," Boehner said. "The American people don't want a shutdown, and neither do I."

Republicans accuse Obama of refusing to negotiate in good faith, but the White House says Obamacare is settled law and says there is no way to stop it from going into force, with a goal of providing affordable health care to all Americans.

The crisis is rooted in the long running campaign by "Tea Party" Republicans in the House to overturn or disable Obamacare — the president's principal domestic political achievement — key portions of which also come into force on Tuesday. More broadly, the shutdown is the most serious crisis yet in a series of rolling ideological skirmishes between Democrat Obama and House Republicans over the size of the US government and its role in national life.

"One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to re-fight the results of an election," Obama said, referring to his own re-election. He spoke in a televised statement from the White House. Obama warned that a government shutdown could badly damage an economy which has endured a sluggish recovery from the worst recession in decades. "A shutdown will have a very real economic impact on real people, right away. Past shutdowns have disrupted the economy significantly," Obama said.

Consultants Macroeconomic Advisors said it would slow growth, recorded at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter. A two-week shutdown would cut 0.3 percentage point off of gross domestic production. It would also have a painful personal impact on workers affected — leaving them to dip into savings or delay mortgage payments, monthly car loan bills and other spending.

Stocks on Monday retreated as traders braced for the shutdown. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 128.57 points (0.84 percent) to 15,129.67. Markets are likely to be even more traumatized if there is no quick solution to the next fast approaching crisis.

Republicans are also demanding Obama make concessions in the health care law to secure a lifting of the current $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, without which the United States would begin to default on its debts for the first time in history by the middle of October.

Netanyahu warns west against Iranian president Rowhani's charm offensive
Ed Pilkington in New York
Thursday 3 October 2013

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, launched a sustained attack on the new Iranian president Hassan Rowhani on Tuesday, deriding his recent charm offensive with western leaders as a "ruse and a ploy" that was designed to fool the international community into dropping its guard against Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

At the end of a week of intense diplomacy at the UN compound in New York in which the overriding focus has been the growing hope of meaningful negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, Netanyahu sounded a starkly conflicting note in his address to the UN general assembly. He pounded the Iranian regime and its newly elected president, accusing them of sponsoring terrorism and lying repeatedly over their nuclear weapons ambitions, and exhorting the rest of the world not to be hoodwinked into lifting sanctions on Tehran.

Rowhani's strategy, he said, was to "smile a lot because smiling never hurts; pay lip-service to peace, democracy and tolerance; offer meaningless concessions in exchange for lifting sanctions; ensure Iran retains sufficient nuclear material and infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time that it chooses."

He went on: "You know why Rowhani thinks he can get away with this ' This is a ruse, a ploy. Because he's gotten away with it before. He fooled the world once, now he thinks he can fool it again. He thinks he can have his yellow cake and eat it too."

Israel has been watching the green shoots of improving relations between Iran and the US with growing alarm. Signs of a changing direction were capped by the 15-minute historic phone conversation between presidents Obama and Rowhani last week.

A year ago, Netanyahu stood at the same podium at the UN general assembly and presented a cartoon-like representation of a Iranian nuclear bomb, with a red line drawn near its peak. At that time, talk of a possible unilateral Israeli air strike on Iran was a dominant subject of diplomatic conversation.

Now Israel is in danger of being sidelined by the rapidly moving sense of detente between the new Iranian government, the US and other western countries. Netanyahu used his UN address, the final speech of the 2013 general assembly, to try and regain some of the initiative and disabuse his fellow leaders of what he considers their mistaken trust in Iran's intentions.

Since Rowhani's election as president, he said, Iran has continued unabated its "vast and feverish effort" to develop the capability to produce an atomic bomb. Last year alone the country had enriched three tonnes of uranium to 20% and added thousands of nuclear centrifuges, including advanced ones. "It's not hard to find evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme, it's hard to find evidence that it doesn't have a nuclear weapons programme," he said.

Netanyahu said the only way to prevent Iran from pressing ahead with its ambitions for the bomb was to maintain, and even strengthen, the international sanctions that are now biting deeply into the Iranian economy. Sanctions should only be lifted after Iran had ceased all uranium enrichment, removed from its territory its stockpiles of already enriched material, close its Fordo enrichment facility and discontinue its heavy water facility in Arak.

Netanyahu's uncompromising speech, in which he portrayed Rowhani as a "loyal servant" of the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, underlines the delicate path that President Obama must travel in the pursuit of negotiations with Tehran. He has made clear that he wishes to pursue the hope of meaningful talks with the new Iranian government, but is also aware that he must not alienate the Israeli government in the process.

When Obama met Netanyahu in the White House on Monday, he said that he was "very clear-eyed" about the chance of negotiations with Rowhani. Netanyahu told Obama in return that Iran was committed to Israel's destruction and only a full dismantling of its military nuclear programme would suffice.

Netanyahu went further in front of the UN on Tuesday, making explicit the threat that underpins the Israeli position: "Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue regime that persistently threatens to wipe us off the map. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."

The Israeli prime minister devoted barely a few minutes of his speech on the renewed talks with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the search for peace in the Middle East. He said Israel was still committed to seeking "an historic compromise with our Palestinian neighbours".

But he said it would only happen if the Palestinians "fully recognise the Jewish state, and Israel's security needs must be met. I am prepared to make an historic compromise for an enduring and genuine peace, but I will never compromise the security of my people."


Later Same Day
'Israel's sword has gone blunt,' says Iran's Rowhani
Iranian president says Tehran "happy" about Israel's aggressive discourse toward Tehran.
Reuters contributed to this report

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani said Wednesday that Israel's military threat has little substance, referring to it as a "sword" which has gone "blunt," Iran's Fars news agency reported. "Israel is upset to see that its sword has gone blunt and Iran grows more powerful day by day," he said after a cabinet meeting in Tehran. Rowhani also told reporters that Israel's aggressive discourse with regard to Iran "is the cause of our happiness."

Iranian Chief-of-Staff Hassan Firouzabadi said Wednesday that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's threat of a unilateral Israeli military strike on Iran "lacks stability," and stems from desperation, Fars reported. After Netanyahu warned Iran against advancing its nuclear program in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, the Iranian military chief told Fars that the use of a military threat is a method which is "rusted, old and blunt," and that Tehran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. "Such remarks stem out of desperation," he added.

Firouzabadi also told Fars that Netanyahu's remarks had only served to "increase the threat against the Zionists." Referring to Netanyahu as a "warmonger," Firouzabadi said "Iran will be the winner in this case for its revolutionary stance of heroic flexibility." Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Netanyahu and "the Zionist lobby" were trying to hinder negotiations. "We will not let Netanyahu determine the future of our talks," Zarif wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday.

The next round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers is to take place in Geneva on Oct. 15-16.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas MK Eli Yishai, and PM Netanyahu
Photo: Amos Ben Gershom GPO
Netanyahu, Peres remember 'Torah giant '
Jerusalem Post Online
Herb Keinon, Greer Fay Cashman, Gil Hoffman
Tuesday, October 8, 2013

PM mourns "one of the great Torah sages of our generation"; Lapid, Bennett praise Yosef but Sarid says he won 't forgive him.

Below is one of his more controversial remarks regarding gentiles published in Wikipedia

In an October 2010 sermon, Yosef stated that "The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews". He said that Gentiles served a divine purpose: "Why are Gentiles needed ' They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why Gentiles were created."

In the same article on the Jerusalem Post, according to the journalist who interviewed him, Yosef compared Gentiles to donkeys whose life has the sole purpose to serve the master: "In Israel, death has no dominion over them… With gentiles, it will be like any person — they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why ' Imagine that one's donkey would die, they'd lose their money. This is his servant… That's why he gets a long life, to work well for this Jew. Gentiles were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world — only to serve the People of Israel."

The American Jewish Committee condemned Yosef's remarks, stating that "Rabbi Yosef's remarks — suggesting outrageously that Jewish scripture asserts non-Jews exist to serve Jews — are abhorrent and an offense to human dignity and human equality … Judaism first taught the world that all individuals are created in the divine image, which helped form the basis of our moral code. A rabbi should be the first, not the last, to reflect that bedrock teaching of our tradition." The remark was also condemned by the Anti-Defamation League.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed his "profound grief" at the passing Monday of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, calling him one of the "great halachic authorities of our generation."

Within minutes of the announcement of Yosef 's death, Netanyahu — who a couple hours later visited Yosef 's family at the Shamgar funeral home in Jerusalem — issued a statement expressing his deep sorrow, and calling Yosef "among the greatest rabbis of our generation."

"Rav Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Halacha and a spiritual leader for tens of thousands," Netanyahu said. "He worked hard to enhance Jewish heritage, and at the same time his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel. He was imbued with a love of Torah and his people. I very much appreciated his warm personality and his direct manner."

Netanyahu said that he always learned "very much" from him in their meetings. "The Jewish people lost one of the sages of the generation," Netanyahu said, sending condolences to his family, students and "many devoted followers."

Later in the day, Netanyahu told reporters that he told Yosef 's sons that his death was a tremendous loss to the Jewish people. "When I think of the chain of generations of scholars from Babylonia, to Spain, to Rabbi [Joseph] Karo, that is Rav Ovadia 's legacy — another link in the chain of love and learning of Torah throughout the generations," he said.

President Shimon Peres, who was among the last non-family visitors to Yosef in his final moments, kissed his hand and his forehead, embraced his sons and offered words of comfort to other close relatives.

Peres and Yosef had a very long and affectionate relationship. Peres visited Yosef in his home every year to bring him personal greetings for Rosh Hashana and Passover. He was the only person who dared to slap the president in the face without fear of apprehension by the president 's bodyguards. The face slapping, really a flip, was Yosef 's trademark way of demonstrating affection.

Peres was among the first to eulogize Yosef at the funeral home soon after his passing and some three hours before the funeral ceremony. The president regarded Yosef not only as a treasured friend but as his teacher and his rabbi.

Speaking about his final encounter with Yosef, Peres said that his throat had been constricted with tears as he squeezed Yosef 's hand. "The hand that was still warm and I kissed his forehead which to me looked more noble than ever. When I squeezed his hand, I felt that I was squeezing the hand of history and when I kissed his forehead, I thought that I was kissing the majesty of Israel," he said. Though Israel is a small country, Peres observed, it has been blessed with people with giant minds and hearts and Yosef was one such person.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky called Yosef one of the greatest rabbinic authorities who built the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. He said entire Jewish communities returned to Israel thanks to Yosef 's rulings. "His rulings on conversion reflected first and foremost the importance of building the nation in an era of ingathering the exiles," Sharansky said.

On a visit of Knesset members to Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the delegation to send condolences in the name of the Palestinian people to Yosef 's family.

Although Yosef had a history of criticizing Israeli politicians, nearly all of them praised him on Monday, including Netanyahu, who Yosef called a "blind goat;" Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who Yosef called a scoundrel; and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Bayit Yehudi party was called a "house of goyim" by the rabbi.

"The religious-Zionist public and the entire Jewish nation mourns the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef," Bennett said in a statement. "He blazed trails with wisdom and sensitivity and united people with one another and Israel with the Creator. The rabbi was one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our people this past generation. He was a symbol of halachic sensitivity and he had the privilege of making Halacha accessible to the masses while being one of the leaders of the Jewish people for 70 years."

Lapid said Yosef was "one of the molders of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and one of the great religious adjudicators," and said his absence leaves a great hole in the world of Torah.

Only former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who Yosef called Haman and Amalek in 2000, had anything negative to say about Yosef on the day of his death. Sarid derided the Jewish tradition of not criticizing people after their death and referring to the recently deceased as saintly. "We don 't believe in saints, so it is all right to say other things about him too," Sarid said. "We won 't hold a party the way he said he would after [former Meretz leader] Shulamit Aloni dies. We are not happy about his death but we don 't forget and we don 't forgive."

Israel destroying peace process with new housing, Palestinians say
The Australian Online
Thursday, October 31, 2013

THE Palestinians have accused Israel of trying to wreck peace talks with plans to build 1500 new settler homes in east Jerusalem, hours after the Jewish state freed 26 Palestinian prisoners. A spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said the move "destroys the peace process and is a message to the international community that Israel is a country that does not respect international law".

Plans to build the homes in the city's Arab sector emerged in Israeli media almost immediately after Israel freed 21 prisoners to the West Bank and another five to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Later a senior Israeli official confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gideon Saar had "agreed on four building plans in Jerusalem". The sequence was almost a mirror image of August 13, when a first tranche of 26 prisoners was freed and Israel announced construction of more than 2000 new settler homes, mostly in east Jerusalem.

The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, called on Abbas's western-backed Palestinian Authority to break off the talks, saying they encouraged Israeli settlement. "It is … the PA's negotiations with the occupation that are now providing (Israel) with a cover for these crimes," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. UN chief Ban Ki-moon joined protests, although he welcomed the prisoner release. "The Secretary-General deplores the announcements today of further Israeli settlement plans in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem," his office said. "Settlement activity is contrary to international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace," it added. "The Secretary-General understands that Israel took a difficult step … in the face of deep domestic opposition, and appreciates this gesture." Jordan also condemned Israel's settlement plan, with government spokesman Mohammed Momeni saying "it is a direct threat to the peace process."

In the West Bank and Gaza there were celebrations to welcome home the prisoners, who were tasting freedom for the first time in 20 years or more. There were tearful reunions and a formal ceremony held at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah attended by thousands of cheering people. Many ex-prisoners were carried through the crowds on people's shoulders. "There will be no (peace) agreement if so much as one Palestinian prisoner remains behind bars," Abbas said, referring to the 5000 or so inmates still held by Israel.

In the northern West Bank village of Burqa, Muayyad Hijjeh, 46, arrived home at 3.30 am (12.30am AEDT) after serving more than 21 years of a multiple life sentence for the May 1992 killing of an Israeli security guard in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Despite the late hour, dozens of locals came onto the streets decked with flags to greet the man they call "the hero of Eilat." "This is the happiest moment of my life" Hijjeh said. "I feel like someone who was lost in the desert for a really long time and just found water." In Gaza, the five ex-prisoners were met by hundreds of relatives and well-wishers as they emerged through the Erez crossing and celebrations continued late into the night.

The move to ramp up settlements was mooted last week by a senior Israeli official who said it had been coordinated in advance with the Palestinians and the Americans. But Abbas flatly denied that. "There are some living among us who say that we have a deal (to release prisoners) in exchange for settlement building, and I say to them, be silent," he said. All 26 prisoners were convicted of killing Israelis, mostly before the 1993 Oslo accords, which granted the Palestinians limited self-rule but failed to bring about an independent state.

Earlier this year, Netanyahu agreed to release 104 prisoners, a move that facilitated a return to direct talks in late July, ending a three-year hiatus. The first group was freed on August 13, and a third release of another 26 inmates is planned for December, Palestinian officials said. The final group is to be freed in March.

The prisoner release has sparked tensions within Netanyahu's coalition, with the premier describing the decision to free them as "one of the most difficult" he had ever made. Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon urged the United States to sideline the peace talks in favour of dealing with the Iran nuclear issue as a priority. Danon, a hardline member of Netanyahu's Likud party, said an agreement with the Palestinians by the target date of May 2014 was "wishful thinking."

Israeli warplanes attack shipment of Russian missiles in Syria stronghold
The Australian Online
Friday, November 1, 2013 10:15am

ISRAELI warplanes have attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials say, a development that threatens to add another explosive layer to regional tensions from the Syrian civil war. An Obama administration official confirmed the Israeli airstrike overnight, but provided no details. Another security official said the attack occurred late on Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the attack.

There was no immediate confirmation from Syria. The revelation came as the government of President Bashar Assad met a key deadline in an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria's entire chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 and avoid international military action. The announcement by a global chemical weapons watchdog that the country has completed the destruction of equipment used to produce the deadly agents highlights Assad's willingness to cooperate, and puts more pressure on the divided and outgunned rebels to attend a planned peace conference.

Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, but has struck shipments of missiles inside Syria at least twice this year. The Syrian military, overstretched by the civil war, has not retaliated, and it was not clear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time. Assad may decide to again let the Israeli attack slide, particularly when his army has the upper hand on the battlefield inside Syria.

Israel has repeatedly declared a series of red lines that could trigger Israeli military intervention, including the delivery of "game-changing" weapons to the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group. Israel has never officially confirmed taking action inside Syria to avoid embarrassing Assad and sparking a potential response. But foreign officials say it has done so several times when Israeli intelligence determined that sophisticated missiles were on the move.

In January, an Israeli airstrike in Syria destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, according to US officials. And in May, it was said to have acted again, taking out a shipment of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles at a Damascus airport. The Fateh-110s have advanced guidance systems that allow them to travel up to 300km/h with great precision. Their solid-fuel propellant allows them to be launched at short notice, making them hard to detect and neutralise. Israel has identified several other weapons systems as game changers, including chemical weapons, Russian-made Yakhont missiles that can be fired from land and destroy ships at sea, and Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Israel's January airstrike is believed to have destroyed a shipment of SA-17s.

Syrian activists and opposition groups reported strong explosions on Wednesday night that appeared to come from inside an air defence facility in Latakia. They said the cause of the blasts was not known. The announcement that Syria had completed the destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons came one day ahead of a November 1 deadline set by the Hague-based watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But while some experts portrayed the step as a milestone, others said it has little impact as long as Syria still has its entire remaining stockpile of functioning chemical weapons. "Only after those weapons have been destroyed or removed from Syrian control will the state be demilitarized," said David Reeths, director at HIS Jane's Consulting.

With the initial stage of verification and destruction of weapons machinery completed, the hard task now begins. The executive committee of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has until November 15 to decide how best to permanently destroy Syria's chemical weapons program and its stockpile of deadly mustard gas, sarin and precursor chemicals. It's not yet clear how and where the arsenal will be destroyed, but carrying out the work in Syria or transporting the chemical weapons out of the country for destruction elsewhere are both fraught with risks amid the ongoing civil war. The country is believed to have around 1000 metric tons of chemical weapons.

Assad has so far met all required deadlines according to the strict timeline, demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to avoid international military action. "This is a clear indication of the Syrian government's wish to cooperate and abide by its commitments," said Syrian lawmaker Issam Khalil. He said Syria knows "full well that the US has not ceased its hostile policies toward Syria and will attempt to exploit any excuse — however small and inconsequential — to carry out a military strike against Syria." The US-Russian deal to destroy Syria's stockpile averted a US military strike against the Syrian government that appeared certain in August, following a chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds the US blamed on Assad.

By making him a partner in implementing the disarmament deal, the agreement appears to have restored some of Assad's legitimacy while angering his opponents, who now balk at attending political transition talks the US hopes will begin in Geneva in November. No final date has been set for the talks, and there have been disagreements among opposition groups on whether to attend or not, and the conditions for taking part. Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, postponed its general council meeting in Istanbul from today to November 10, pending further discussions on the highly divisive talks. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, currently in Damascus, has urged both sides to come to the talks without preconditions. But both have placed seemingly unrealistic conditions for attending.

At a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday, Sen. John McCain said Assad, who was about to be toppled a year ago, has "turned the tide" while continuing to slaughter innocent civilians. Fighting continued at a high pace across many parts of the country, including in the town of Safira, in northern Aleppo province. Experts say the town is home to a chemical weapons production facility, as well as storage sites. Activists said troops were advancing Thursday in the town, capturing several neighborhoods and causing casualties on both sides.

Also on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based Syria watchdog, said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the country's conflict nearly three years ago. In July, the UN estimated 100,000 have died in the conflict since March 2011. It has not updated that figure since. The violence underscored the dangers the chemical weapons' inspectors face as they race against tight deadlines in the midst of an ongoing civil war.

Earlier this week, the inspectors said they had completed their first round of verification work, visiting 21 of 23 sites declared by Damascus. They were unable to visit two sites because of security concerns, the inspectors said. On Thursday, the chemical weapons agency said the two locations were, according to Syria, "abandoned and … the chemical weapons program items they contained were moved to other declared sites, which were inspected." It was not immediately clear if the facility in Safira was one of the two sites. Commenting on the two sites, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said, "it was just deemed too risky." He told the AP that Syrian authorities were not able to offer the necessary security guarantees for inspectors to visit those sites. He added, however, that the Syrian side provided "quite compelling documentary evidence" that equipment in one of the sites was moved to another location that inspectors did visit.

New wave of demolitions in Jerusalem
The Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, November 2, 2013

MORE than 15,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem will be left homeless in a new round of house demolitions by Israel, according to a Palestinian official from the area. Jamil Sanduqa, chair of a local residents committee in East Jerusalem, said officials from the Jerusalem municipality, escorted by Israeli soldiers, this week delivered the demolition orders through the Ras Khamis and Ras Shahada neighbourhoods. He told Palestinian news agency Maan that the demolition orders were posted on 200 residential apartment blocks and that the owners were given 30 days to submit objections.

Demolitions of Palestinian homes occur regularly in Jerusalem and the West Bank but this would be one of the largest. "The orders came very shortly after incumbent mayor Nir Barkat (was) elected for a new term," Mr Sanduqa said. "The municipal council of Jerusalem is a racist council founded to demolish Palestinian residential buildings and to displace us from Jerusalem and al-Aqsa mosque."

An adviser to Mr Barkat, David Koren, told The Weekend Australian: "It just means the court orders the owners of the buildings to come to the courts." He said he did not know how many buildings were affected. Shortly afterwards, a spokeswoman for Mr Barkat said the order affected 11 structures.

Meanwhile, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel was about to advance construction plans for 5000 new housing units in Jewish settlements. Haaretz said they would involve projects in large and isolated settlements and while some would begin immediately others would take several years. The paper said the announcements were an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "offset" the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, part of a four-stage process to release 104 prisoners.

US Secretary of State John Kerry extracted the commitment as part of a new peace process. Mr Kerry had insisted from the start that there should be no leaks, which have destabilised such talks in the past. Reports in Israeli and Palestinian media suggest the talks are collapsing. Both sides are facing strong internal opposition. On the Israeli side, right-wing elements in the Knesset, led by the Minister for the Economy, Naftali Bennett, have made clear their opposition to any Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, argues Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party administers parts of the West Bank, should not take part in talks.

Settlement spat looms large over John Kerry's Middle East visit
The Australian Online
Thursday, November 7, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry has reaffirmed American opposition to Israeli settlements after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of creating "artificial crises" over the issue. Kerry spent all day shuttling between the Israelis and Palestinians and after a late dinner with Netanyahu the two dismissed their teams and again huddled alone for private talks.

The top US diplomat is due in Amman later today for talks with King Abdullah, before once again meeting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, this time in the Jordanian capital. Kerry, who has single-mindedly fought to put the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations back on track, was seeking to keep them from derailing amid recriminations on both sides.

He first met Netanyahu, who denounced the Palestinians for threatening to quit the talks over Israel's continued settlement construction on land they want for their future state. The Israeli leader told Kerry, who is on his seventh visit to Israel and the West Bank since February, he was "concerned about the progress" of the talks, accusing the Palestinians of fabricating reasons to avoid making tough decisions. "I see the Palestinians … continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace," Netanyahu said.

After nearly three hours of talks with Netanyahu, Kerry went by motorcade to the West Bank city of Bethlehem where he sought to play down the dispute. "As in any negotiations, there will be moments of up and moments of down. It goes back and forth," he told crowds gathered outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus's birth. But following more than two hours of talks with the Palestinians, including 40 minutes one-to-one with Abbas, he was quick to reiterate US opposition to the settlements.

"We consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate," Kerry said. "I want to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree, as a matter of going back to the talks, that they could somehow condone or accept the settlements," he added. "That is not to say that they weren't aware — or we weren't aware — that there would be construction. "But that construction, importantly, in our judgment, would be much better off limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively."

His remarks related to a bitter row that has erupted over Israeli moves during the past week to push ahead with construction of more than 3700 new settler homes. Talks between the two negotiating teams which took place on Tuesday broke down over the issue, a senior Palestinian official told AFP. Several Israeli officials have claimed the settlement announcements were in keeping with tacit "understandings" between the two sides linked to the release last week of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners. Their comments sparked furious denials from the Palestinians. "The Palestinian delegation reiterated to the American side its absolute rejection of these claims. But the Israeli side insists on continued settlement building, and we can't continue talks in light of this unprecedented settlement attack," the Palestinian official said.

Israel denies its construction is a violation of the terms which brought the two sides back to the table. "We agreed three months ago on certain terms. We stand by those terms, we abide scrupulously by the terms of the agreement and the understanding which launched negotiations," Netanyahu said early Wednesday.

Despite the row, Kerry later told Israeli President Shimon Peres that the peace process "is not mission impossible. It can happen". During his stopover in Bethlehem, Kerry unveiled $US75 million in new US aid for Palestinian infrastructure projects in the West Bank.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, attends a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh
in the capital Amman yesterday. Kerry told reporters he believed "we made significant progress" as he seeks to put
the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations back on track. Source: AFP
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapse may spark new intifada: Kerry
The Australian Online
Friday, November 8, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry has delivered a grim warning to Israel that failure to make peace with the Palestinians could trigger a new, bloody uprising. "The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos," Kerry said in a joint interview with Israel's Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. "I mean, does Israel want a third intifada ?" the top US diplomat asked, using the Arabic word for uprising. The first intifada against the Israeli occupation ran from 1987 to 1993. It was followed by a second one from late 2000 to 2005 in which rights groups estimate some 3000 Palestinian and 1000 Israeli civilians and troops died.

Kerry was speaking before he was due to return to Jerusalem later today for breakfast with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is on his seventh trip to Israel and the West Bank as he seeks to put the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations back on track. Kerry, who has made finding a peace deal a personal quest, said he had made "significant progress" in more than 10 hours of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Wednesday. But there are growing fears that many issues, including Israeli settlements, could derail the peace process.

Kerry pledged he "absolutely" believed a final agreement on all the most difficult issues could be reached, but he did not rule out the possibility of first striking an interim deal. "We made significant progress in our discussions about a couple of the areas of concern in the panorama of the concerns that exist," Kerry told reporters after arriving in Amman to meet Jordanian King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Direct talks broke down on Tuesday amid a bitter row over Israeli moves during the past week to push ahead with construction of more than 3700 new settler homes. "The Palestinians knew that Israel would make some announcements. They knew it, but they don't agree with it, and they don't support it," Kerry said in the TV interview, before he left for Amman. "We didn't negotiate a freeze. So there's a difference here between knowing something may happen and objecting to it." However, he insisted that "the good side of it is during the time that we are negotiating, the planning will not translate into building and construction."

Abdullah praised Kerry for winning international trust and said his assurances were critical to ensuring the success of the Middle East peace process. Kerry later held another round of talks over dinner with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, this time in Amman. Kerry also announced that he was returning to Jerusalem today, for a previously unscheduled meeting with Netanyahu. It was not immediately clear if he will fly back to Jordan where he had been due to spend the night before leaving as planned for the United Arab Emirates tomorrow.

Israeli media reported this week that Israeli negotiators told their Palestinian counterparts the separation barrier that cuts through the West Bank should serve as the border of a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians insist the borders be based on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel seized Gaza, the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem. Israeli press reports also mooted a new US approach that would see Washington presenting the sides with a proposal for an interim agreement — something Kerry has already emphatically denied.

Earlier today, Kerry told reporters an interim agreement would not be out of the question. It "might be a step along the way," he said, but "only if it embraces the concept of a final status." "But you cannot just do an interim agreement and pretend you are dealing with the problem. "We've been there before. We've had interim agreements, we've had road maps. But if you leave the main issues hanging out there, mischief makers will make the most of that and bad things will happen in the interval that then make it even harder to get to the final status."

Israel's fury as Kerry flies to Iran talks
Weekend Australian
Saturday, November 9, 2013

TEL AVIV: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned John Kerry last night that he was offering Iran the "deal of the century" as the US top diplomat headed to landmark talks in Geneva seeking a nuclear agreement. Mr Netanyahu vowed that Israel would not be bound by any international agreement on Iran's nuclear program and reserved the right to do whatever was necessary to defend itself — a clear allusion to a pre-emptive military strike. Meeting with the US Secretary of State on the tarmac of Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, the Israeli leader, who fiercely opposes any let-up in sanctions, lashed out at the world powers' cautious rapprochement with Iran and denounced the proposed agreement being hammered out in Switzerland.

Mr Kerry flew in from Amman for a brief stopover in Tel Aviv where he held a two-hour, one-to-one meeting with Mr Netanyahu in a bid to soothe Israeli anger ahead of his arrival in Geneva. His plane took off last night for Switzerland, where he was to be joined by his British, French and German counterparts. Mr Kerry was to hold a landmark three-way meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is chairing the nuclear talks.

"Iran got the deal of the century and the international community got a bad deal, this is a very bad deal. Israel utterly rejects it," Mr Netanyahu told reporters. "Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to defend itself and the security of its people." Israel, which has the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal, staunchly opposes any easing of sanctions on a country whose leaders in the past have denied the Holocaust and said the Jewish state should cease to exist. It views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat and has consistently refused to rule out a pre-emptive military strike to prevent that from happening.

"I understand that the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything and paid nothing. "They wanted relief of sanctions after years of a gruelling sanctions regime — they got that — they are paying nothing because they are not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability," he said, speaking in the past tense even though the deal had not yet been hammered out. Washington has made clear that Mr Kerry's arrival in Geneva does not signal that there is a done deal with Iran.

"In an effort to help narrow the differences in negotiations, Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland, today at the invitation of EU High Representative Ashton to hold a trilateral meeting with High Representative Ashton and Foreign Minister Zarif on the margins of the P5+1 negotiations," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. The P5+1 groups UN Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the US with Germany. Western governments — and Israel — suspect Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability under cover of its civilian program. Tehran denies any such ambition and, since President Hassan Rowhani took office in August, has suggested it is prepared to scale back its enrichment in return for the easing of crippling Western sanctions.

Washington, which has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for three decades, has repeatedly said it is going into the talks with eyes wide open, seeking to explore the diplomatic possibilities of bringing its suspect nuclear program under international control. US President Barack Obama told NBC News yesterday that a deal would keep the bulk of sanctions on the Islamic republic in place, and relief could be reversed. "We don't have to trust them. What we have to do is to make sure that there is a good deal in place from the perspective of us verifying what they're doing," he said.

So far, Western officials have described the current talks as "substantive" and "productive". "There is a window of opportunity now that has been created by the Iranian people … and that opportunity needs to be seized," said Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif after the first day of talks. Iran is anxious for relief from crippling Western sanctions that have cut oil revenues by more than half, caused the rial to plunge and pushed inflation above 40 per cent. The West is keen to seize a rare chance to build bridges with Iran after decades of hostility, opening the door to engaging on issues such as the conflict in Syria, where Iran has backed President Bashar al-Assad against insurgents.


Same Day
Swiss tests revives Arafat polonium 'murder' theory

RAMALLAH: Palestinian investigators have accused Israel of being the "only suspect" in Yasser Arafat's death, a day after Swiss laboratory experts said tests suggested he was killed by polonium poisoning. The Palestinian president died in Paris in 2004. The Palestinian government in Ramallah demanded France send it the results of a probe launched there over a year ago as soon as possible.

"We say that Israel is the one and only suspect in the case of Yasser Arafat's assassination, and we will continue to carry out a thorough investigation to find out and confirm all the details and all elements of the case," said Tawfiq Tirawi, the head of the Palestinian Authority's inquiry into the death. Mr Tirawi said Palestinian investigators had studied the findings of Swiss scientists released this week which "moderately" supported the notion that Arafat was poisoned. "This is the crime of the 21st century," Mr Tirawi said. "The fundamental (goal) is to find out who is behind the liquidation of Yasser Arafat."

There has never been any proof for the popular rumour that Arafat was murdered. He died aged 75 after a month-long illness, but doctors were unable to specify the cause of death and no post-mortem was carried out at the time. In November last year his remains were exhumed and samples taken, partly to investigate whether he had been poisoned with polonium — a suspicion that grew after the assassination in that manner of Russian ex-spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

The Swiss team said the test results neither confirmed nor disproved that polonium was the actual source of his death, although they provided "moderate" backing for the idea he was poisoned by the rare and highly radioactive element. They said the quantity of the deadly substance found on his remains pointed to the involvement of a third party. "We can't say that polonium was the source of his death … nor can we rule it out," said Professor Francois Bochud of the Lausanne Institute of Applied Radiophysics.

Professor Bochud's lab measured levels of polonium up to 20 times higher than it is used to detecting. Some 60 samples were taken from Arafat's remains last November and divided between Swiss and Russian investigators and a French team carrying out a probe at his widow's request. So far, there has been no word on the French or Russian results.

Extract: After acquittal, cabinet paves way for Avigdor Lieberman's return to power
Haaretz online
Jonathan Lis
Monday, November 11, 2013

The cabinet approved Sunday Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman 's reinstatement as foreign minister following his acquittal last week on charges of fraud and breach of trust, despite calls from the left to keep him out of the minister 's seat. Lieberman will be sworn in Monday in the Knesset.

Labor 's Isaac Herzog and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On called on the cabinet over the weekend not to reinstate Lieberman as foreign minister. "Lieberman has proved that he is the worst foreign minister in the history of Israel, a person who is not accepted in any Western country," said MK Isaac Herzog, who heads the Labor Party 's Knesset faction. "I don 't understand why he should be returned" to power.

Speaking of MK Zeev Elkin of Likud, who has been deputy foreign minister in Lieberman 's absence, Herzog called Lieberman and Elkin "the wrong duo in the wrong place," saying they will isolate Israel and impair the country 's efforts to explain its actions to the rest of the world.

Lieberman served as foreign minister in Netanyahu 's previous term, between March 2009 and December 2012, five weeks before the election for the current government. He left office after he was indicted over allegations that he promoted an ambassador who handed over information about a police investigation, which was being conducted in Belarus, into Lieberman and failed to report the ambassador 's actions.

He was acquitted by unanimous decision of a three-judge panel at the Jerusalem magistrate 's court last week, which ruled the state prosecution did not offer sufficient proof of its charges.

Gal-On, meanwhile, said reinstating the hard-line Lieberman would send the wrong message to the Palestinians. "Lieberman 's appointment poses a danger to the State of Israel and to its foreign relations, particularly during period of a crisis in talks between Israel and the Palestinians," she said. "An appointment like this is like putting a bomb in front of the peace talks and signals that Israel is not heading in the direction of a peace agreement."

Israel PM cancels plan to build 20,000 settler homes in W.Bank
Yahoo online
Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Tuesday cancelled plans to build 20,000 new settler homes in the West Bank, hours after their announcement sparked US and Palestinian criticism. Netanyahu ordered Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel "to reconsider all of the steps for evaluating planning potential (for the settler homes) that he distributed without any advance coordination," a statement from Netanyahu's office said.

Netanyahu told Ariel the plan was "meaningless" legally — "and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran," according to the statement. Ariel was said to "accede" to Netanyahu's "request".

The prime minister's order came after Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned the construction plans, announced earlier Tuesday by Ariel's ministry, would prompt him to declare the peace process over if they went ahead. Netanyahu made it clear the housing ministry's call for tenders for the homes threatened to distract from his efforts to convince world powers to not sign a deal with Iran, over its nuclear programme, he considered inadequate. "At this time, the attention of the international community must not be diverted from the main effort — preventing Iran from receiving an agreement that will allow it to continue its military nuclear program," Netanyahu said, according to the statement.

Iran and the world powers it is negotiating with over its nuclear programme came close last weekend to agreeing a preliminary accord opening the way to a more comprehensive pact. But differences prevented a breakthrough, and the two sides are scheduled to meet again in Geneva on November 20.

Shia Muslim boys bleed after gashing their foreheads with swords during the Ashura festival in Lebanon
Iran nukes program frozen: UN
Weekend Australian
The Wall Street Journal, The Times, AFP
Saturday, November 16, 2013

WASHINGTON: Iran has virtually frozen the expansion of its vast nuclear program since President Hassan Rowhani took office in August, the UN has reported, potentially aiding diplomacy between Tehran and global powers that resumes next week. After installing thousands of new centrifuge machines earlier this year, Iran added only four at its two uranium-enrichment sites during the past three months, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tehran put in place no major new components at the heavy-water reactor it is constructing in the city of Arak. Once completed, the facility will be capable of producing plutonium usable in nuclear weapons within a year.

"This report indicates that Iran has made the political decision to pause the expansion of its enrichment capabilities," said the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank, in a report released yesterday. "It could quickly reverse course and nearly double its numbers of operating centrifuges." Mr Rowhani's government has kept its stockpile of near weapons-grade nuclear fuel at below 250kg, the amount required for one nuclear weapon, according to the IAEA. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if Tehran crosses this red line.

Yesterday, Israel's Economy Minister, Naftali Bennett, on Mr Netanyahu's behalf castigated the US for gambling with Israel's security by negotiating with Iran. The five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany will resume talks with Iran next week in Geneva that aim to prevent Tehran from eventually developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for a loosening of international sanctions. In a speech to the Brookings Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Mr Bennett urged against moves that would apparently allow Tehran initially to halt but not dismantle its nuclear program. "While I yearn for peace I do not believe that now is the right time to gamble with our security," said Mr Bennett, the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party. With the Iranian economy squeezed, "now is the precise time to tell them, 'either or'. Either you have a nuclear weapon program, or you have an economy, but you can't have both."

At the same time the leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah warned there would be a regional war if Israel blocked a nuclear deal between the US and Iran. Hassan Nasrallah's remarks came in two rare public appearances in Beirut, in the lead-up to the Ashura festival, which commemorates the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Nasrallah also promised that his Iranian-backed militia would continue to fight on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a key ally for Tehran. "Our presence in Syria is to defend Lebanon, Palestine, the Palestinian cause and Syria, which is the backbone of resistance," said the black-turbanned cleric, surrounded by bodyguards.

A negotiating round this month nearly reached an accord, but broke down in the final stages because of continued concerns about the status of the Arak reactor and the numbers and capacity of Iran's centrifuges, according to US and European officials who took part in the talks.

US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials cautioned US politicians against imposing new sanctions on Iran's oil exports and banks while the diplomacy gathers momentum. "If we're serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there is no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place," Mr Obama said at a news conference at the White House. "Now, if it turns out they can't deliver … and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up."

Extract: Iran links Beirut embassy bombing to nuke deal
The Australian online
Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A DOUBLE suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut has killed at least 23 people, in an attack claimed by an al-Qa'ida-linked jihadist group. The army said a motorcyclist blew himself up moments before a suicide bomber driving a four-wheel-drive detonated his payload in the southern Beirut stronghold of Hezbollah, an ally of both Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The mid-morning attack, which the health ministry said also wounded 146 people, was the first time the Iranian mission has been targeted. The blasts ripped the facades off surrounding buildings, strewing rubble and glass on streets that were stained with blood. Residents walked dazed past charred cars and trees, as soldiers and Hezbollah security men tried to secure the area.

The attack follows two other bombings this year in Hezbollah bastions in Beirut, amid rising tensions over the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Iran is one of Syria's closest allies, and is the key sponsor of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite movement that has dispatched thousands of fighters to bolster the regime in the 32-month uprising. Iran linked the bombing to talks on a nuclear deal in Geneva, accusing Israel of trying to sabotage them and of stoking Mideast tensions, following bomb attacks on its embassy in Beirut.

"I think there is every possibility for success," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said after meeting his Italian counterpart Emma Bonino in Rome. "I go to Geneva with the determination to come out with an agreement at the end of this round," Zarif said. But he said that Israel was trying to undermine the talks, after an Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman accused Tel Aviv of being behind the attacks on Iran's embassy — a charge immediately denied by Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he called the "senseless and despicable" bomb attacks against Iran's embassy in Beirut, urging all parties to back Lebanon's probe. "The United States knows too well the cost of terrorism directed at our own diplomats around the world, and our hearts go out to the Iranian people after this violent and unjustifiable attack," Kerry said in a statement. The blasts were claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a jihadist group linked to al-Qa'ida that has previously fired rockets at Israel from Lebanese territory. "This is a double martyrdom operation carried out by two heros from the heroic Sunnis of Lebanon," Sirajeddin Zreikat, a member of the group, wrote on Twitter.

Syrian state television said the "government firmly condemns the terrorist attack carried out near the Iranian embassy in Beirut." It said an "odour of petrodollars comes from all the terrorist acts against Syria, Lebanon and Iraq," an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back Syria's uprising. Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham accused Israel and its "mercenaries" of responsibility. Speaking in Rome, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said "the tragedy today … should be an alarm for all of us that we need to deal with and unless we deal with it seriously, it will engulf all of us." Asked about Afkham's claim about Israel, he said "we have reason to be suspicious of every move they make."

For his part, a Hezbollah MP blamed a "Western-Israeli alliance" and regional powers that back radical Sunni "takfiri" groups for the attacks. "The aim (of the attacks) is to advance the program of murder, sabotage and chaos, threatening national unity and targeting stability," said Mohammad Raad. "The program is being followed by a Western-Israeli alliance, whose interests intersect with those of regional powers and takfiri groups," he added, referring to radical Sunni extremists. Britain and France issued swift statements of condemnation, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged restraint.

Iranian Ambassador Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadi said all staff inside the embassy at the time escaped unharmed. But officials in Tehran said the cultural advisor, Ibrahim al-Ansari, was in critical condition after the blast. By early evening, a medical official confirmed Ansari had died of his injuries. Coincidentally, Lebanon and Iran's football teams were due to play in Beirut on Tuesday, and the match went ahead, but with fans banned from attending.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech last night to members of the paramilitary Basij force
at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran. AP
Supreme leader stands firm: Tehran to play hardball on nukes
The Australian online
Thursday, November 21, 2013

GENEVA: Iran's supreme leader vowed last night no retreat from Tehran's nuclear "rights", as negotiators from world powers seeking an elusive breakthrough readied for high-stakes talks in Geneva. Predicting the demise of "doomed" Israel, which Iran has accused of trying to "torpedo" a deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the powers must respect the Islamic republic's "red lines".

"I insist on stabilising the rights of the Iranian nation, including the nuclear rights," the 74-year-old told militiamen of the Basij force in Tehran, in a rare, live televised address. "I insist on not retreating one step from the rights of the Iranian nation." Iran's negotiators "must respect these limits, and not fret about the hullabaloo of the enemies and those opposed" to these talks. The comments came amid heightened Middle East tensions after twin suicide bombings that Tehran blamed on Israel's "mercenaries" killed at least 23 people outside Iran's Beirut embassy on Tuesday.

The election of moderate Hassan Rowhani as President this year has raised hopes for an end to the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program after a decade of failed initiatives and rising tensions. But Israel, widely assumed to have a formidable nuclear arsenal itself although it has never admitted it, has expressed alarm at the mooted deal on the table in Geneva. Instead of stopping all uranium enrichment, as multiple UN Security Council resolutions have demanded, the powers appear to be happy with a suspension of enrichment at medium levels. Along with other steps, this would be a "first-phase" deal while a long-term accord is hammered out by Iran and the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, known collectively as the P5+1.

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to take his campaign against the deal to Moscow today, this leaves intact Iran's ability to make a nuclear bomb. "You are not really dismantling any capacity to make fissile material for nuclear weapons," he said in an interview published in top-selling German daily Bild on Tuesday. Israel has refused to rule out bombing Iran, which says its program is peaceful. Uranium enrichment is the main worry for the international community since enriched uranium has civilian uses but also can go into a bomb. Iran already has enough for several bombs if it chose to enrich further to weapons-grade, a breakout that — for now — would be detected by the International Atomic Energy Agency UN watchdog.

It remains to be seen whether Iran, seeking an easing of UN, US and EU sanctions that have more than halved the country's lifeblood oil exports, will accept what it is being offered in return. On the table in the third meeting since Mr Rowhani took office is "limited, temporary, targeted and reversible" relief that a senior US official said "will not come anywhere near helping Iran escape the hole that we've put them in". "We will maintain the sanctions as long as we are not certain that Iran has definitively and irreversibly renounced its military program to obtain nuclear weapons," French President Francois Hollande said in Israel on Monday.

If his charm offensive fails, Mr Rowhani risks losing the support of Ayatollah Khamenei. Nevertheless Iran's Foreign Minister was upbeat about the prospects of reaching a deal in Geneva, 10 days after a high-drama gathering in the same Swiss city came close but ultimately failed. "I think there is every possibility for success," Mohammad Javad Zarif said on a stopover in Rome.

But US President Barack Obama, fresh from seeking to dissuade congress from imposing new sanctions on Iran, was more cautious: "I don't know if we will be able to close a deal this week or next week." British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said on Tuesday after he phoned Mr Rowhani — the first such contact in a decade — that both leaders agreed it was "important to seize the opportunity".

Iran, world powers agree nuclear deal
The Australian online
Sunday, November 24, 2013 2:28pm

WORLD powers have agreed a landmark deal with Iran halting parts of its nuclear program in what US President Barack Obama called "an important first step". According to details of the accord agreed in Geneva provided by the White House, Iran has committed to halt uranium enrichment above purities of five per cent. In exchange the deal will afford the Islamic republic some $7 billion in sanctions relief and the powers promised to impose no new sanctions for six months if it sticks by the accord.

In a statement on the pact the White House said Iran would also dismantle "technical connections" allowing such enrichment. The statement also said that Iran has "committed to neutralise its stockpile of near-20 per cent uranium" by diluting it to below five per cent within six months. The White House stressed the six-month deal is temporary and Iran must do much more to end the sanctions it is under and convince the world it is not seeking a nuclear bomb.

"With respect to the comprehensive solution, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," it said. "Put simply, this first step expires in six months, and does not represent an acceptable end state to the United States or our P5+1 partners," it added. Iran, the White House said, has agreed not to install any new enrichment centrifuges at its Fordow plant and to leave those it has in Natanz inoperable. It has also promised not to commission its reactor in Arak and to grant daily access to Fordow and Natanz to inspectors from the IAEA nuclear watchdog.

The announcement came after more than four days of talks in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council members plus Germany. "The first step actually rolls back the programme from where it is today," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters after talks wrapped up. Heading off criticism by Israel of a thaw with Tehran Mr Kerry said: "The comprehensive agreement will make the world safer … and Israel safer." British Foreign Secretary William Hague called it "good for the whole world, including Middle Eastern countries and the people of Iran themselves".

It was the third meeting in Geneva since Hassan Rowhani became Iranian president in August. The reputed moderate has raised hopes for an end to the decade-old standoff over Iran's nuclear work. Numerous diplomatic initiatives have failed over the past 10 years to persuade Iran to rein in its programme, which Tehran insists is peaceful but which Western countries suspect is aimed at crafting atomic weapons. Foreign ministers from the six powers including US Secretary of State John Kerry had jetted into Geneva for the second time in two weeks on Saturday morning after negotiators made good progress. This "first phase" interim deal is meant to build trust and ease tensions while negotiators push on for a final accord to end once and for all fears that Tehran will acquire an atomic bomb.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the deal, once the details are known, will go down with hardliners in the United States and the Islamic republic, as well as Israel. Iranians, many of whom see the nuclear programme as source of national pride, are impatient to see a lifting as soon as possible of sanctions that have more than halved Iran's vital oil exports since mid-2012. Iran's currency, the rial, has been depreciated by more than half since late 2011, while inflation has soared to more than 40 percent, according to questionable official figures.

Many in Israel strongly believe that the only aim of Iran — an ally of Hezbollah and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — is to develop a nuclear arsenal. Many hardliners in the United States agree, believing that Mr Obama, who in September held an historic phone call with Mr Rowhani, is being too soft on Iran.

As a result Mr Obama will likely find it hard to persuade lawmakers to roll back any of the oil and financial sanctions and trade restrictions imposed by Congress. Israel, itself widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed nation, has refused to rule out military action against its arch rival. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed Mr Rowhani's overtures to the international community as an empty charm offensive. He has campaigned tirelessly against the mooted deal, believing that it still leaves Iran with the capability to make nuclear weapons.


Earlier same day
Turkey and Egypt at odds over fate of Morsi
November 24, 2013 5:07AM

AS tension rose between military-ruled Egypt and democratic Turkey, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said yesterday his government would never respect military-installed rulers, in remarks made after Egypt's expulsion of Ankara's ambassador. "I will never respect those who come to power after coups," Mr Erdogan told reporters. Egypt announced earlier that it was downgrading its diplomatic relations with Ankara, and expelled the Turkish ambassador over Erdogan's "provocative" criticism of Cairo, in the latest escalation of tensions between the two countries. In return, Ankara declared the Egyptian ambassador "persona non grata" and downgraded diplomatic relations to the level of charge d'affaires.

Both Turkey and Egypt had recalled their respective envoys in August for consultations but, while the Turkish ambassador eventually returned to Cairo in September, Egyptian Abderahman Salah El-Din stayed home. The August 14 police and military crackdown on supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi sparked a storm of international condemnation and strained relations between Turkey and Egypt. Mr Erdogan, a supporter of Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, angered Egypt's new rulers after calling the July ouster of Mr Morsi an "unacceptable coup".

The Turkish Premier said yesterday his government backed democracy movements in the world, adding: "We never respect those who do not respect the people's sovereign rights." Mr Erdogan flashed the "Rabaa" salute during a rally in the northern Turkish city of Trabzon yesterday. He has often used the gesture during his ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) rallies to show solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Julie Bishop says Australia's shift on Israel UN resolutions is a bid for balance
The Australian online
Ben Packham
Monday, November 25, 2013 11:49am

AUSTRALIA has recalibrated its position on Israel and Palestine to ensure only "balanced" UN resolutions receive its support, says Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. Australia this month abstained from two UN General Assembly resolutions; one condemning the expansion of Jewish settlements and another calling for the Geneva Convention to apply in the occupied Palestinian territories. Under Labor, Australia had supported the resolutions.

Ms Bishop said the shift "reflected the government's concern that Middle East resolutions should be balanced". "The government will not support resolutions which are one-sided and which pre-judge the outcome of final status negotiations between the two sides," she said through a spokeswoman.

The resolution to end "all Israeli settlement activities in all of the occupied territories" was supported by 158 nations. Australia was one of only eight nations to abstain. Australia was one of only five countries to abstain from calling for Israel to "comply scrupulously" with the 1949 Geneva Convention. The resolution was supported by 160 nations.

3 terror suspects killed by police, Shin Bet near Hebron
The Times of Israel
Adiv Sterman
Yifa Yaakov contributed to this report
Tuesday, November 26, 2013 9:32pm

Three Palestinians suspected of planning to carry out terror attacks against Israeli civilians were killed Tuesday during a joint Shin Bet and Israel Police operation in the West Bank town of Yatta, south of Hebron, the army said. The operation marked a sharp departure from the disorganized, home-grown terror of recent weeks.

Two of the suspects, whom the army said were members of a 'Salafist jihadi ' group, were shot dead in their car after they refused to surrender themselves to security forces. They were carrying 'explosive devices and 2 handguns, ' the army said in a statement. A third man was killed in a gun battle 'following a hot pursuit, ' IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said.

No Israeli soldiers were injured in the incident.

The IDF said the organization to which the two belonged had over the past months attempted to set up an extensive military infrastructure across the West Bank. The organization had planned to target Palestinian Authority structures and personnel, in addition to Israeli soldiers and settlers, the statement said. The operatives had allegedly prepared hideout apartments, bought weapons, and produced explosives.

Israeli security forces learned of the planned attack after arresting several of the organization 's members near Nablus and the West Bank settlement of Yatir over the past few weeks. 'This terrorist network is just a sample of those who try to harm Israeli civilians and undermine the existing security stability, ' Lerner said. 'Operational access combined with quality intelligence gives us the upper hand on these evildoers and their beastly intentions, ' he added. 'It is our obligation to prevent them from fulfilling their detestable fantasies. '

Israeli defense officials and analysts have warned in recent weeks that the West Bank may be heading for another violent uprising, citing a rise in the number of rock-throwing and Molotov cocktail attacks. Earlier this month, a couple driving along a road in the West Bank near the settlement of Tekoa were hurt after their car was attacked with a Molotov cocktail. A day earlier, a Palestinian man was killed at a checkpoint in Abu Dis near Jerusalem after he tried to stab a Border Police guard, Army Radio reported, and another Palestinian man was shot to death at Tapuah Junction, near the West Bank city of Ariel, when he fired a flare gun toward Israelis at a hitchhiking post.

The recent rise in violence was not confined to the West Bank, as terror attacks crossed over the Green Line and into major Israeli cities. In mid-November, a Palestinian teenager stabbed 19-year-old soldier Eden Atias multiple times in the neck on a bus at the central bus station in Afula. The assailant, 16-year-old Hussein Rawarda, had entered Israel illegally in search of work and apparently decided to carry out the deadly attack after failing to be hired by an Israeli employer.

Slightly before the attack, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said the Palestinians were ripe for a Third Intifada. However, Defense Minister Moshe Ya 'alon said that recent attacks were isolated incidents, insisting that 'there is no sign of a popular uprising or so-called Third Intifada. '

Hezbollah Accuses Israel of Assassinating a Leader in Beirut
Bloomberg online
Donna Abu-Nasr & Glen Carey
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 10:29pm

Lebanon 's militant Hezbollah group accused Israel of assassinating one of its senior commanders outside his home in a Beirut suburb. Hassan Laqees was killed at midnight in Hadath, the group said in an e-mailed statement that described him as a resistance leader in the Shiite Muslim militant group. The Associated Press cited unidentified Lebanese and Hezbollah officials as saying that the Hezbollah man was struck by five bullets in the head and neck fired by a gunman using a pistol fitted with a silencer.

'The Israelis have not sent gunmen to conduct assassinations since the 1980s, ' Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East and North Africa analysis at IHS Country Risk, said in an e-mail. 'It 's very likely that a Sunni group in Lebanon was used to conduct the assassination; it is somewhat likely that the killers received intelligence support from either the Israelis or the Saudis, or both. ' Blaming Israel was an automatic Hezbollah response, said an Israeli official who asked not to be identified, saying he didn 't wish to dignify the accusations with an on-the-record response.

Violence has surged in Lebanon in the past six months since Hezbollah acknowledged it had joined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad 's side in that country 's civil war. The Iranian-backed group is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel.

Two weeks ago, suicide bombers killed 23 people in an attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut, with an al-Qa'ida-linked group saying it organized the blasts because of Hezbollah 's involvement in Syria. Yesterday, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, accused Saudi Arabia 's intelligence agency of responsibility for the embassy attack. 'I believe, and this is my conviction and analysis, that Saudi intelligence was behind the bombing, ' he said in an interview yesterday with Lebanon 's private OTV network. 'Saudi Arabia does not dare to go to war with any other country. All that they do is pay money. '

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have backed Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple Assad in a two-year civil war that 's claimed more than 125,000 lives, according to estimates by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Shiite guerrillas belonging to Hezbollah and Iraq 's Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade have bolstered Assad 's forces, while al-Qa'ida-linked militants control parts of Syria 's north. Saudi Arabia recently signalled that its support for the opposition wouldn 't be constrained by US efforts to keep money from Islamists. The problem with Saudi Arabia is 'of a political nature rather than sectarian, ' Nasrallah said. He said the civil war in Syria could only be resolved through political talks.

Israel's security 'a top US priority'
Weekend Australian
Saturday, December 7, 2013

JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday insisted Israel's security was a top priority for Washington, both in nuclear talks with Iran and peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr Kerry was in the region for a day of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders aimed at driving forward peace negotiations which appear to have made little headway since they began under his patronage in late July. Iran was also high on the agenda when he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for more than three hours in their first face-to-face meeting since political fallout over the Iran nuclear deal.

"I can't emphasise enough that Israel's security in this negotiation (with Iran) is at the top of our agenda," Mr Kerry said at a joint news conference in Jerusalem. "The US will do everything in our power to make certain that Iran's nuclear program of weaponisation possibilities is terminated." Mr Kerry stressed the two men had spent "a very significant amount of time" discussing the peace talks with the Palestinians. "Israel's security is fundamental to those negotiations," he said.

The US top diplomat reiterated the importance of security after a three-hour meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank city of Ramallah later. Mr Kerry said their discussions on security had made "progress". "The interests are very similar, but there are questions of sovereignty, questions of respect and dignity, which are obviously significant to the Palestinians, and for the Israelis very serious questions of security.

Mr Abbas made no appearance after the meeting, but Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said peace talks with Israel were "difficult". "The situation is still very difficult and matters are complicated," he said. "Abbas met Kerry for four hours and discussed issues including security. We hope Israel will stick to its commitments and be forced to stop settlement building. Settlements are the reason for the difficulties in negotiations."

US special envoy on security General John Allen also briefed Netanyahu, Mr Kerry said, including "potential threats to Israel (and) to the region". US and Israeli media reports have suggested Allen was to present Netanyahu with an outline of how Israel's security arrangements might look under a peace deal; a State Department official denied Allen had a ready-made plan.

Mr Netanyahu said that under any peace agreement, Israel "must be able to defend itself, by itself, with our own forces" — an allusion to the reported debate over security in the Jordan Valley, which separates the West Bank from neighbouring Jordan. Israel has always insisted that in any final agreement, it would have to maintain a military presence there, and has rejected outright the idea of any third party involvement. According to a report in the newspaper Maariv, Allen was to have outlined a "bridging proposal" that would enable Israel to reduce, as much as possible, its military presence in the Jordan Valley. Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon insisted Israel would not compromise on security in the valley and "not outsource its basic security needs to the Palestinians".

Israel's rhetoric on Iran, which commentators said deliberately sidelined the Palestinian issue, was heavily criticised by a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service on Wednesday. "The consequences of not having a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more existential than the Iranian nuclear project," Yuval Diskin told a conference in Tel Aviv. "Israel must freeze settlement building immediately" in order to reach a much-needed agreement with the Palestinians, he said.

Obama says security guarantees possible for Israel
The Australian online
Sunday, December 8, 2013 11:32am

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has said it is possible for a two-state Middle East peace solution to include sufficient guarantees to preserve Israeli security. Mr Obama said the determination had been made by the US special envoy on security, General John Allen, who has been briefing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on possible security arrangements following any final peace deal.

"He has arrived at the conclusion that it is possible to create a two-state solution that preserves Israel's core security needs," Mr Obama said at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum in Washington. "That's his conclusion, but ultimately he's not the decision maker here, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli military and intelligence folks have to make that determination." Gen. Allen, who has been working with Secretary of State John Kerry on his Middle East peace push, briefed Mr Netanyahu on Thursday.

Mr Kerry and Gen. Allen, who has been working on the security issue with Israeli defence experts, provided Mr Netanyahu and his top brass "with some thoughts about … security challenges that we're going to be facing, that the Israelis are facing," said deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. Mr Netanyahu said that under any peace agreement, Israel "must be able to defend itself, by itself, with our own forces" — an allusion to the reported debate over security in the Jordan Valley, which separates the West Bank from neighbouring Jordan.

Israel has always insisted that in any final agreement it would have to maintain a military presence there, and has rejected outright the idea of any third party involvement. Mr Obama also warned that, in the event of a final agreement, the Palestinians would have to accept Israel would require a "transition period" to ensure that the West Bank did not become a security threat akin to Hamas-ruled Gaza. "This transition period requires some restraint on the part of the Palestinians as well. They don't get everything they want on day one," he said.

The State Department, meanwhile, said that Kerry would meet Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday morning in Washington.

Snow covers the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city.Getty Images
Massive snowstorm cripples Middle East
The Australian
Monday, December 16, 2013

JERUSALEM: The heaviest snowfall in decades blocked roads across Israel and the West Bank and flooded the Gaza Strip yesterday after shutting down much of the Middle East. The snow, which stopped falling yesterday, prompted Israeli authorities to interrupt the Jewish sabbath to lay on relief trains.

About 30,000 households were without electricity, nearly 9000 of them in Jerusalem, the Israel Electric Corp said. Jerusalem-based meteorologist Boaz Nechemia said up to 60cm of snow had accumulated in the Holy City over the weekend. "We haven't had such a snowfall in some 70 years," he said. With road travel almost impossible, authorities laid on free trains to Tel Aviv and Haifa on the coast, interrupting for the first time the shutdown of public transport on the Jewish day of prayer and rest, which runs from sundown on Friday to Saturday night. The army said it was using armoured vehicles to distribute aid to areas cut off by the bad weather. Channel 2 television said an initial estimate put the damages at $US85 million ($95m).

Access to West Bank cities such as Ramallah were blocked by heavy snowfall, with the only source of power in many cases being private generators. Low ground on the coast was spared the snowfall, but torrential rains left areas of the Gaza Strip submerged. The territory's Hamas rulers said 5500 people had been rescued and sheltered after their homes were flooded. Gaza health services said a man died from asphyxiation trying to heat his home, and hundreds suffered weather-related injuries. In some places, security forces and rescue workers were evacuating residents using small boats.

The frigid weather had earlier stretched to war-ravaged Syria, Iran and Egypt. A Syrian child and a baby were said to have died from the cold last week as snow interrupted aid shipments. As residents elsewhere in the region hunkered down and motorists navigated blinding flurries and icy roads, Egyptians took to social media to share rare photos of snow in their normally balmy country. "The whole garden was white," Karim Kheirat told AFP by telephone from the new town of Medinati northeast of the capital. "It's the first time in my life that I have seen it like this." Other suburbs of the capital also saw light snow showers, residents said.

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