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Israel 'won't warn US' on any strike
The Australian Online
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

ISRAELI officials say they won't warn the US if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, setting a tense tone ahead of high-level meetings in the coming days in Washington. A US intelligence official says Israel warned that it will keep the Americans in the dark, to decrease the likelihood that Americans would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel's potential attack.

Israel's prime minister and defence minister delivered the message to top-level U.S. visitors to Israel in recent weeks, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic talks. The White House and Israeli Embassy both declined comment.

Commitment to Israel is sacrosanct: Obama
Weekend Australian
Saturday, March 3, 2012

NEW YORK: Barack Obama has called US support for Israel "sacrosanct", and said he wanted the country to maintain its "military superiority" as he prepares to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The leaders are expected to make talks about Iran's nuclear development program a priority during their planned meeting at the White House on Monday.

The US President spoke yesterday during a re-election campaign fundraiser in New York, discussing geopolitical changes created by popular uprisings in the Arab world. "One of our long-term goals in that region is to make sure that the sacrosanct commitment that we make to Israel's security is not only a matter of providing them the military capabilities they need, not only providing the sort of qualitative military edge that they need in a very tough neighbourhood," he said.

The US should co-operate with Israel "to try to bring about a peace in the region that can be lasting", Mr Obama said. "And that is a challenge." He recommended reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a step towards lasting peace in the Mid-East. Better relations with Palestinians have become a lesser issue for Israel as its leaders consider a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Mr Netanyahu said earlier that Iran's nuclear program would be "at the centre of our talks" in Washington.

White House press spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday that "all options are on the table" with Iran, but said the Iranians had not started building nuclear weapons. A day earlier, the Pentagon revealed it had handed the White House a list of military options for a strike against Iran's nuclear sites. General Norton Schwartz, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, said plans had been drawn up outlining how Washington could join a potential Israeli air offensive against Iran should the Jewish state make good on its threat to strike.

They are reported to include everything from the US refuelling of Israeli jets in mid-air to plans for American strikes on the pillars of the clerical regime, including the Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force, along with Iranian military bases and installations of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. General Schwartz added that the latest version of a key US bunker-busting bomb was now "operational", hinting at its potential deployment against passive Iranian defences such as the 76m granite mountainside that shields a nuclear reprocessing plant outside the holy city of Qom.

Obama counters Netanyahu sabre-rattling on Iran with push for sanctions
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

BARACK Obama vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but warned against "loose talk of war" ahead of a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. The US President called yesterday for patience to allow tough economic sanctions against the Islamic regime in Tehran to work as a counter to Mr Netanyahu's believed preference for military action to knock out its nuclear facilities — possibly as soon as next month.

In a speech to the most influential Israeli lobby group in the US, Mr Obama said he firmly believed diplomacy backed by the pressure of sanctions could persuade Iran not to develop a nuclear bomb. "I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues, the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world," Mr Obama told an audience of 13,000 gathered for the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington. He said talk of war in the past few weeks had only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, upon which it depended to fund its nuclear program. For the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the world's security, now is not the time for bluster."

Mr Obama, who has had a tense relationship with Mr Netanyahu, was expected to discuss tactics with the Israeli leader today based on US intelligence that Iran does not currently intend to go a further step in the enrichment of uranium to produce a nuclear weapon. Mr Netanyahu views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat from Israel's sworn enemy. He argues that Tehran's regime could have a rudimentary nuclear device within months and a warhead in three years that could target Israel. Israel's other concern is that Iran is close to burying its nuclear facilities so deep underground that bunker-busting bombs could not destroy them.

Complicating the matter for Mr Obama is the US presidential election. He is under sustained verbal attack from Republican presidential contenders for not offering Israel sufficient public support and for appeasing Iran. At the least, Mr Obama appears to want an assurance from US ally Israel of no military action until after the US election in November.

Mr Obama sought in his AIPAC speech to counter notions of weakness, making it clear he would not wait for Iran to develop a weapon and that military action was a last resort. "I do not have a policy of containment," he said. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I've made clear time and again … I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." In a personal pledge of support, Mr Obama said to big applause: "There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel's back."

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, who will address the AIPAC conference tomorrow, said he believed Iran would obtain nuclear weapons if Mr Obama was elected to a second term, and pledged to take a tougher stand if elected. "It's pretty straightforward in my view," Mr Romney said on the campaign trial in Georgia. If Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and the world will change if that's the case."

Mr Romney's Republican rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who will also address the AIPAC conference — on the day of the "Super Tuesday" party nomination votes in 10 states this week — have also blasted Mr Obama and called for tougher warnings of military action. Another Republican candidate, congressman Ron Paul, believes the US should forget about Iran's nuclear ambitions and leave Israel to its fate.

Mr Netanyahu said yesterday Iran should be made to dismantle its nuclear facility in Qom, stop uranium enrichment and move existing enriched material out of the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington on Monday. AP
Decision to strike Iran is ours: Israel
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reserved the right to take unilateral military action to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, declaring his nation's right to "defend itself, by itself". Joining US President Barack Obama for talks in the Oval Office, Mr Netanyahu insisted yesterday that his supreme responsibility as Prime Minister was to ensure Israel remained the master of its fate.

US officials came away from the meeting with the impression — after two hours of discussions between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama — that the Israeli leader and his government had made no decision yet on a military strike targeted at Iran's nuclear facilities. But speculation has run rife about a possible Israeli attack on Iran as soon as next month because of growing concerns about Tehran's intentions as it enriches uranium to the level that would allow development of a nuclear bomb. One reason to strike early, despite the risk of starting a Middle East war with widespread human carnage and economic ruin, is a fear that Iran is advanced in plans to bury its nuclear development facilities deep underground, out of reach of bunker-busting bombs.

Mr Obama yesterday reiterated his desire for more time to allow tough economic sanctions against Iran to work before moving to the last resort of a military strike. But he repeated his position of a day earlier in addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential lobby for Israel in the US, that his policy would not be one of containment. "Iran's leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment," Mr Obama said. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

After previous tensions between the pair over the fraught issue of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu were drawn together as inseparable allies yesterday. The Israeli Prime Minister drove home the point by highlighting terms used by Iran's Islamic leaders to label the US as "Great Satan" and Israel as "Little Satan". "At last, on this last point, I think they are right," Mr Netanyahu said. "We are you, and you are us. We are together."

While Mr Obama and his administration appeared more confident that a unilateral Israeli attack was less likely in the next few months, Mr Netanyahu took heart yesterday from the US President's openly tough stand acknowledging Israel's sovereign right to defend itself and warning of US military force if necessary to guarantee Israel's security. Differences between the pair remain over Iran's intentions, and the point at which its nuclear program would become a potential deadly threat. For Israel, Iran's capability to build a nuclear bomb in possibly three months is sufficient to justify a pre-emptive strike to ensure national security. Based on US intelligence, Obama officials doubt Iran's progress and want more time.

Mr Netanyahu openly doubts sanctions can work against an Iranian Islamic theocracy sworn to the destruction of Israel. Yet he did appear positive yesterday about not only Mr Obama's strong support but also the recognition of the international community that Iran posed a "real threat and danger". The Israeli Prime Minister said his nation had a sovereign right to make its own decisions. After all, that's the very purpose of the Jewish state — to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that's why my supreme responsibility as Prime Minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its destiny."

Speaking later to the AIPAC conference in Washington, Mr Netanyahu said Israel had waited patiently for diplomacy and sanctions to change Iran's direction. "None of us can afford to wait much longer," he said. "As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."

US arms offer to Israel to delay hit
The Australian
AFP, Wall Street Journal
Friday, March 9, 2012

JERUSALEM: The US offered Israel advanced weaponry in return for it committing not to attack Iran's nuclear facilities this year, according to an Israeli report last night. Citing unnamed Western diplomats and intelligence sources, the report in the Maariv daily said that during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington this week, the US administration offered to supply Israel with advanced bunker-busting bombs and long-range refuelling planes. In return, Israel would agree to put off a possible attack on Iran until next year, after the US elections in November.

The issue of Iran was top of the agenda at talks between Mr Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in Washington this week. The US and Israel are at odds over just how immediate the Iranian threat is. Mr Netanyahu said on Monday that sanctions against Iran had not worked, and "none of us can afford to wait much longer".

A key difference between Washington and Israel has emerged on the timeline available for a strike against Iran, with the Jewish state warning that the weaponry available to it gives it a shorter window for action. In response, the report said, the US administration offered to give Israel weapons and material that could extend its window to act against Iran. In particular, it would offer bunker-busting bombs more powerful than those currently possessed by Israel, which could target Iranian facilities even under rock.

The report came shortly after world powers known as the P5+1 — five UN Security Council members plus Germany — offered to resume long-stalled talks with Tehran over its nuclear program, but said talks must be "serious", without preconditions and produce "concrete results". Israel has cautiously welcomed the talks, but warned it must be prepared for the potential failure of any new dialogue with Iran.

Earlier yesterday, a top Hamas official said it would not join a regional war on the side of Iran should Israel launch a pre-emptive strike against nuclear targets there, a stance that would limit the scope of Tehran's expected counterstrike.

"What can Hamas do ' I don't think we would be able to do anything. This is between two countries," Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, said yesterday. "Does Iran need us ' Iran is a big country … they can get revenge however they like."

The statement by Mr Yousef — a former adviser to Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is close to Hamas's political leadership — appears to underscore a shift in a fundamental Middle East alliance. Hamas has received support from the Shia leadership of Iran and its ally, Syria. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Hamas has moved away from that axis and is reaffirming older ties with regional Sunnis.

Later same morning
Extract: White House denies Obama weapons offer to Israel
The Australian Online

THE White House has said that President Barack Obama did not this week personally offer hi-tech weaponry to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suitable for use against Iran. White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was neither agreement on or discussion of such an offer during talks between the two leaders on Monday, but did not rule out such a conversation in lower level talks with the Israelis. Earlier, Israel's Maariv newspaper quoted sources as saying the Obama administration offered bunker busting bombs and refueling planes if Israel agreed not to attack Iranian nuclear sites this year.

"In the meetings the president had, there was no such agreement proposed or reached," Mr Carney said. "We have obviously, as we've discussed, high-level cooperation between the Israeli military and the US military and at other levels, with other agencies within their government and our government. We have provided material to the Israeli military in the past, and I'm sure we will continue to do that as part of our cooperation with and partnership with the Israeli military."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "I do not believe that conversation has taken place," when asked whether State Department officials and their Israeli counterparts had discussed offers of hi-tech weaponry. But she added: "I don't think anybody should doubt the commitment that we've made to Israel's security, to Israel's qualitative military edge."

A rocket is launched from the Israeli anti-missile system known as Iron Dome in order to intercept a rocket fired by
Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip in Ashdod, Israel. AP
Israeli air strikes on Gaza will go on, Netanyahu warns
The Australian Online
Monday, March 12, 2012

ISRAELI war planes have carried out new air strikes on Gaza, wounding 35, after Israel's premier vowed no let-up against rocket-firing militants. Hamas emergency services spokesman Adham Abu Selmiya reported at least six air strikes across the Gaza Strip, including two in Jabalia refugee camp that left 33 people injured, "mostly children." Two strikes hit east of Gaza City, injuring two, and two more raids hit open fields, one in Beit Lahiya in the north, and a second in central Khan Yunis.

An Israeli spokeswoman confirmed the strikes saying they "targeted a weapons storage facility and four rocket launching sites in the northern Gaza Strip, as well as a rocket launching site in the southern Gaza Strip." The renewed strikes came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned raids would continue "as long as necessary" and Hamas officials said efforts to broker a ceasefire through Egypt were not bearing fruit.

Violence has spiked since Friday when Israeli jets raided the Gaza Strip, killing the head of a militant group and prompting barrages of rocket fire into the Jewish state. On Sunday, the death toll in Gaza hit 18 and Israel said more than 120 rockets had landed in its territory, wounding four. And Mr Netanyahu warned that operations "will continue as long as necessary. I have given orders to strike all those who plan on attacking us," he said during a tour of southern Israel, public radio reported. "The Israeli army has already dealt heavy blows to the terrorist organisations," he added.

Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for most of the rocket fire into Israel since Friday, quickly issued a statement in response, vowing that "operations will continue whatever the price. Escalation will be met with escalation, and what is coming is even greater," the group said. Israel's top military officer said there would be no end in sight while rocket fire continued. "The IDF (Israel Defence Force) has been responding, and will continue to do so with strength and determination against any firing of rockets at Israel," said Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz.

Both sides called for action from the UN Security Council on Sunday, as the international peacemaking Quartet was to hold its first top-level meeting in six months on Monday. Israel criticised international "silence" over rocket fire from Gaza, while the Palestinians accused the Jewish state of "crimes of aggression against the Palestinian people." On Sunday, Israel carried out four air strikes killing three Palestinians, including 12-year-old Ayub Asaliya, killed on his way to school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

And Israel's defence ministry said Gaza militants had fired at least 124 rockets at the Jewish state since Friday, including 68 Qassams and 44 longer-range Grads, with Israel carrying out 26 air strikes on Gaza. In Israel, four people were injured on Saturday, and several others were treated for shock after two Grads hit Beersheva on Sunday afternoon, medics said.

The violence erupted on Friday afternoon when an Israeli strike killed Zuhair al-Qaisi, the head of the militant Popular Resistance Committees group. Additional strikes brought the death toll in Gaza to 15, including five PRC militants and 10 from Islamic Jihad, in the deadliest 24-hour period in and around Gaza in more than three years. In response, armed groups lobbed a barrage of rockets into Israel, most of them claimed by Islamic Jihad's armed wing. The Israeli army said Qaisi was involved in planning a deadly August 2011 attack in which militants sneaked across the border from Egypt's Sinai and killed eight in Israel's southern Negev desert. And it said he was planning a similar attack "in the coming days."

The violence prompted concern from the United States and the European Union but there was no sign that a truce was on the horizon. Hamas officials said on Sunday that intensive efforts were under way with Egypt to reach a mediated truce, but that they expected Israel to hold fire first. "The Israeli aggression started this three days ago and before any talk about a truce, the Israeli side should stop," spokesman Taher al-Nunu told AFP.

Israeli battering negates Hamas
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

WITH its new anti-rocket defence system tilting the strategic balance in its favour, Israel's leadership yesterday rejected Hamas's call for a ceasefire and said it would continue its attacks on militant Palestinian organisations in Gaza. Up to 20 Palestinians have been killed since last Saturday.

The Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepted 41 Palestinian rockets heading for cities in southern Israel, Israeli officials said yesterday, permitting residents to sit out the attacks without loss of life. In a series of targeted attacks last weekend, Israeli aircraft killed at least 17 Palestinian militants in Gaza, most of them in the course of firing rockets. Planes hit buildings where weapons and ammunition were manufactured or stored.

In a meeting of the Israeli General Staff on Sunday, chief-of-staff General Benny Gantz said intelligence information about planned attacks by militant organisations based in Gaza justified intensification of Israel's attacks. The efficacy of Iron Dome is permitting Israeli forces to continue these attacks without pressure from home for a ceasefire. The pressure on the Palestinian militants is aimed at offsetting the advantage they have gained since Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell a year ago, loosening Cairo's grip on the Sinai Peninsula abutting Israel. Palestinian groups established footholds in Sinai from which they have launched strikes into Israel.

Palestinian militants have fired more than 130 rockets since the current round of violence began after an Israeli aircraft killed the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees on Friday. However, 40 of these rockets fell short and exploded within the Gaza Strip itself, according to Israeli sources. Of the remainder, the bulk hit in open areas inside Israel. Iron Dome intercepted 90 per cent of those that would have hit populated areas, particularly the cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod. A malfunction of a battery yesterday permitted two rockets to explode inside Beersheba, causing some damage, but residents heeded warnings to keep close to shelters; there were no casualties.

Israel, militants accept ceasefire
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

EGYPT has stepped in to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza after the worst cross-border fighting in three years left 25 Palestinans dead. Israel, which has celebrated the success of its Iron Dome missile defence system during the four-day crisis, confirmed yesterday that "an understanding" had been reached with militants in Gaza. Islamic Jihad, the organisation responsible for most of the rocket fire in recent days, said it had accepted the ceasefire. Twenty-five Palestinians were killed and up to 80 injured over the last four days after Israel assassinated a Palestinian militant in Gaza.

Fighters from Islamic Jihad responded with a barrage of up to 200 missiles fired into southern Israel. Several Israeli citizens were injured but there were no fatalities. Israel gave credit for this to its new Iron Dome system, which the Israeli military said had intercepted up to 80 per cent of the missiles fired. It was the first major test for the new system and was seen in Israel as a rehearsal for any missile attacks from Iran which may follow an Israeli air strike on Iran.

Israeli Home Front Defence Minister minister Matan Vilnai confirmed that an "understanding" had been reached. In Gaza city, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, Daud Shehab, said: "We accept a ceasefire if Israel agrees to apply it by ending its aggressions and assassinations." However, schools across much of southern Israel near the Gaza border remained closed as a precaution against any more rocket attacks. The schools that remained closed were in the main target area within 40km of Gaza and included Beersheva, Sderot, Netivot, Ashdod, Gedera, Yavne, Lakiya and Kiryat Malachi.

Israel claimed that 19 of the 25 Palestinians killed were militants. Israel Radio News reported an Israeli security official saying Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, was not party to the rocket fire on Israel. According to Israeli media, one of the rockets fired landed near Gan Yavne, setting a new record for distance for a rocket from Gaza. This news would unnerve residents of Tel Aviv, in the centre of Israel.

While Hamas periodically fires rockets into Israel, since the Gaza war in 2009 there has been relative quiet between Hamas and Israel. However, Islamic Jihad and several other Salafist groups in Gaza are less inclined to observe any "understandings" with Israel not to fire rockets. There is also a split within Hamas itself. Many of the Hamas leadership who live in exile are stronger advocates of rocket attacks on Israel than the leaders in Gaza who have to live with the inevitable Israeli retaliation.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) will continue to protect Israeli citizens and will strike all those who rise to attack us." Israeli defence officials have made it clear to The Australian that they are prepared to undertake another war in Gaza if rocket fire continues. They say that there is a strong view in both the defence and political establishments that Israel did not "finish the job" in the 2009 Gaza war, that is, that Israel should have continued the war until the Hamas regime fell.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel was being careful at present not to push Hamas into any involvement in the confrontation and was trying to avoid obvious Hamas targets in Gaza in its airstrikes.

Commentary: Iran Nukes Netanyahu's Cross to Bear
The Australian
Jeffrey Goldberg, Bloomberg
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A couple of years ago, Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Israel, offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a piece of advice. He shared something his father often said: "There 's no sense dying on a small cross."

Few US politicians would think it wise to invoke crucifixion in a conversation with the leader of the Jewish state (though the Jerusalem setting was apt), and fewer still would get away with it. But Netanyahu, who considers Biden his closest friend in the Obama administration, laughed. What he didn 't do was take the advice in the way it was intended.

What Biden meant was for Netanyahu to quit offering partial and ephemeral freezes in West Bank settlement-building, and to try instead for a dramatic compromise with the Palestinians, even if he had to pay a high political price. Instead, Netanyahu applied Biden 's aphorism to a different issue: what to do about Iran 's nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu has been warning about Iran 's nuclear program since the 1990s; now, as prime minister, he is in a position to act. The lesson he took from Biden is that Iran is an issue crucial enough on which to risk everything.

There are a few reasons why this episode is so important. I visited Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this month, and I was struck, in conversations with Israeli officials and ex-officials, by the number of best-case scenarios they offered up about the potential fallout from a strike on Iran 's nuclear sites. They seemed dangerously overconfident that they could manage the aftermath of a strike, and this has led them to contemplate what seems to me — at this moment, at least — a precipitous and premature attack.

I also went to Israel to test a notion I 've often heard: that Netanyahu might be engaged in an enormous bluff. I doubted this theory (and certainly President Barack Obama and his secretary of defence, Leon Panetta, doubt it), but it seemed worth testing, in part because Netanyahu 's campaign to focus the world 's attention on Iran has worked so well without his having to resort to military force.

I came away from this visit certain that Netanyahu isn 't bluffing. I disagree with Panetta 's view that an Israeli attack could come by June, but I do think, if conditions prevail, there is a good chance Israel will strike by year end.

Which brings me to another belief of the Israeli leadership I heard during my visit. This one might surprise Obama 's critics among right-wing Israel supporters (and among Republican presidential candidates): Israelis don 't see Obama as an adversary. Especially after the air-clearing meeting between Obama and Netanyahu this month at the White House, the Israeli leadership is fairly confident Obama will side with them if they launch an attack, and they are also fairly confident the President is serious when he suggests the US might one day use force to stop Iran.

That 's almost beside the point. For the two men who matter most in the Israeli decision-making process — Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak — US promises are somewhat immaterial. Because it is imprinted on the Israeli DNA that Jews, post-Holocaust, should not rely on the kindness of non-Jews to bail them out. In other words, no matter how strong Obama 's rhetoric, Israel 's leaders will not subcontract out their defence to the US or any other party. US officials are confident they could destroy Iran 's nuclear facilities next year or in 2014 if they needed to. The Israelis seem to believe that because of their more modest offensive capabilities, they either strike this year or don 't strike at all.

There are two reasons Israel 's leaders haven 't struck already. First, they believe there is still some time before Iran enters the "zone of immunity" in which its nuclear sites are so hardened or spread so widely that a strike would be ineffective. And second, because Iran has not yet approached the zone of immunity, Israeli leaders believe they can still pay heed to Obama 's request to hold off. (Ultimately, they will make their own decision about a strike, but they believe they should heed the wishes of Israel 's key ally while they can.)

When Israeli leaders conclude that Iran has reached the threshold of the zone of immunity, there 's a strong likelihood they will act. Which brings us back to Biden 's cross. Netanyahu is a cautious man, who seems intent on preserving his ruling coalition. But Netanyahu 's father, Benzion Netanyahu, a renowned scholar of the Spanish Inquisition, taught his sons that the Jewish people are constantly threatened by extinction-level plots, and the PM has internalized this understanding of Jewish history.

Another family story may have even more salience: the martyrdom of Netanyahu 's brother, Yonatan, during a 1976 operation to free Israeli hostages in Uganda. Yonatan died in the act of rescuing Jews. His brother understands that whatever hardship he experiences by taking action against Iran, the price he pays will not be the price his brother paid in pursuit of what he sees as the same goal: protecting Jews.

In other words, Iran 's nuclear program, to Netanyahu, is Biden 's very large cross.

North Korea rocket ready to launch
Weekend Australian
Saturday, March 31, 2012

SEOUL: North Korea is pushing ahead with a planned satellite launch by long-range rocket despite Western condemnation, satellite images show, as Japan vowed yesterday to shoot down the rocket if it poses a threat. Images taken yesterday show work to prepare the launch pad appears under way, according to the 38 North site (, which published images taken by US firm DigitalGlobe.

The nuclear-armed North Korea insists it will go ahead with what it calls the peaceful launch of a scientific satellite from its Tongchang-ri site in the northwest next month. The US and other nations say the exercise is a disguised long-range missile test, calling the plan a provocative breach of UN resolutions and of a US-North Korean agreement reached last month. South Korean newspapers said the North had test-fired two short-range missiles off its west coast this week. The 38 North website said the images it took showed a mobile launch pad on tracks next to a gantry tower. A crane appeared to have been loading equipment on to the gantry, and small objects and people could be seen on the pad, it said. At the two propellant storage buildings to the right of the pad, which contain tanks to supply the Unha-3 rocket's first stage, trucks could be seen delivering fuel and oxidiser.

38 North said preparation for the launch "seems to be progressing on schedule" and the next step would be moving the first stage to the pad, probably this weekend. This would be followed by the second stage a day or two later, with the third stage and payload probably following by Monday or Tuesday. "Unless some major setback occurs, the North Koreans will be able to launch during the declared launch window starting April 12," the site said.

Pyongyang has said it will launch the satellite some time in the morning between April 12-16 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founding president, Kim Il-sung. It says the satellite will estimate crop yields and collect weather data, among other tasks. Japan fears the rocket may pass over its southern island chain of Okinawa. Defence Minister Naoki Tanaka said he had ordered troops to shoot it down if it threatened Japanese territory.

North Korea fired off long-range missiles in 1998, 2006 and 2009. After the two most recent launches it swiftly followed up with an underground nuclear test, and some analysts see a similar scenario unfolding.

Coalition to send millions to bribe military to defect to Free Syrian army
The Australian Online
Monday April 2, 2012

A COALITION of more than 70 partners, including the United States, has pledged to send millions of dollars and communications equipment to Syria's opposition groups, signalling deeper involvement in the conflict amid a growing belief that diplomacy and sanctions alone cannot end the Damascus regime's repression. The shift by the US and its Western and Arab allies toward seeking to sway the military balance in Syria carries regional risks because the crisis there increasingly resembles a proxy conflict that could exacerbate sectarian tensions. The Syrian rebels are overmatched by heavily armed regime forces.

The summit meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People" follows a year of failed diplomacy that seems close to running its course with a troubled peace plan led by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other participants at the conference in Istanbul uniformly expressed concern that Mr Annan's plan might backfire, speculating that Syrian President Bashar Assad would try to manipulate it to prolong his hold on power.

Ms Clinton said she was waiting for Mr Annan's report to the UN Security Council on the status of his peace plan. "There cannot be process for the sake of process. There has to be a timeline. If Assad continues as he has, to fail to end the violence, to institute a cease-fire, to withdraw his troops from the areas he has been battering … then it's unlikely he is going to ever agree," she said. "Because it is a clear signal that he wants to wait to see if he has totally suppressed the opposition. I think he would be mistaken to believe that. My reading is that the opposition is gaining in intensity, not losing." Ms Clinton said the United States is providing communications equipment to help anti-government activists in Syria organise, remain in contact with the outside world and evade regime attacks.

The Syrian regime agreed last week to Mr Annan's plan, which calls for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian access to besieged civilians and a political negotiation process led by Syrians. Since then, there have been daily reports of violence, including shelling in the central city of Homs that activists said killed more than two dozen people.

The uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring with peaceful protests calling for political reforms. Mr Assad's regime sent tanks, snipers and thugs to try to quash the revolt, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The United Nations says more than 9000 have died.

Conference participants in Istanbul said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a fund to pay members of the rebel Free Syrian Army and soldiers who defect from the regime and join opposition ranks. One delegate described the fund as a "pot of gold" to undermine Mr Assad's army. Participants confirmed the Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out. One said the fund would involve several million dollars a month. It is said to be earmarked for salaries, but it was not clear whether there would be any effort to prevent the diversion of money to weapons purchases, a sensitive issue that could prompt stronger accusations of military meddling by foreign powers.

The delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria's beleaguered civilians is a key provision of Mr Annan's plan. Ms Clinton announced $12 million in additional aid for Syria's people — doubling the total US assistance so far. The Saudis and other Arab Gulf states have proposed giving weapons to the rebels, while the U.S. and other allies have balked out of fear of fueling an all-out civil war. Washington hasn't taken any public position on the fund, but it appears that it has given tacit support to its Arab allies.

Mohammed al-Said, a Syrian activist in the town of Duma, northwest of Damascus, said salaries might encourage further defections, but that only arms would turn the tide against Mr Assad. "What is clear to us is that only fighting can make this regime leave," he said via Skype, adding the opposition wanted arms more than military intervention so they could topple Mr Assad themselves. Fayez Amru, a rebel who recently defected from the military and is now based in Turkey, welcomed the decision as a "humanitarian step in the right direction" but also said weapons were needed. "We feel let down by the international community. I don't know why there is hesitation by the West … maybe this will help at least keep the rebels on their feet," Mr Amru said.

In Damascus, Syria blasted the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country. A front-page editorial in the official Al-Baath newspaper said the meeting was a "regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state, and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria."

Russia and China have twice protected the Mr Assad regime from censure by the UN Security Council, fearing such a step could lead to foreign military intervention. Syria's international opponents have no plans to launch a military operation similar to the Libya bombing campaign that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, especially without UN support, but they are slowly overcoming doubts about assisting scattered rebel forces.

The debate over arming or funding the rebels is being driven partly by the sectarian split in the region. The upheaval in Syria presents an opportunity for the Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf to bolster their influence, consolidate power and possibly leave regional rival Iran, led by a Shiite theocracy, without critical alliances that flow through Damascus. Mr Assad's regime, which counts Iran among its few allies, is led by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Last year, Saudi Arabia sent tanks to help fellow Sunni leaders in Bahrain crush a largely Shiite rebellion there, indicating that sectarian interests sometimes trump calls for democratic change in the Middle East. Turkey hosts 20,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army defectors, and has floated the idea of setting up a buffer zone inside Syria if the flow of displaced people across its border becomes overwhelming. Parts of the southern Turkish region near Syria are informal logistics bases for rebels, who collect food and other supplies in Turkey and deliver them to comrades on smuggling routes.

Delegates to the Istanbul meeting talked of tighter sanctions and increased diplomatic pressure on Mr Assad, and Syrian opposition representatives promised to offer a democratic alternative to his regime. Yet the show of solidarity at the conference was marred by the absence of China, Russia and Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said military options might have to be considered if Syria does not cooperate with Annan's plan and the UN Security Council does not unite against Assad. "If the UN Security Council fails once again to bring about its historic responsibility, there will be no other choice than to support the Syrian people's right to self-defence," Mr Erdogan said.

Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as "security corridors" in Syria, a reference to internationally protected zones on Syrian territory that would allow the delivery of aid to civilians. However, the nations meeting in Istanbul failed to agree on such an intervention, which could involve the deployment of foreign security forces. "No one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer maneuvering area," he said, reflecting fears that Mr Assad would try to use the Annan plan to prolong his tenure. "It's enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change."

The Syrian National Council said weapons supplies to the opposition were not "our preferred option" because of the risk they could escalate the killing of civilians, but it appealed for technical equipment to help rebels coordinate. "For these supplies to be sent, neighboring countries need to allow for the transfer via their sea ports and across borders," the council said.

The one-day meeting followed an inaugural forum in Tunisia in February. Since then, Syrian opposition figures have tried to convince international sponsors that they can overcome their differences and shape the future of a country whose autocratic regime has long denied the free exchange of ideas. In Istanbul, police used tear gas and batons to disperse a group of about 40 Assad supporters who tried to approach the conference building. Many held portraits of the Syrian leader. One man waved Chinese and Russian flags.

Syrian refugees rush Turkish border
The Australian Online
Martin Fletcher, The Times
Friday April 6, 2012

SYRIAN refugees flooded across the border into Turkey yesterday as President Assad's forces stepped up their efforts to crush the opposition before next week's deadline for implementing a UN-backed peace plan. More than 1600 Syrians have fled to Turkey in the past two days. Opposition activists said they were escaping the bombardment of nearly a dozen rebellious towns and villages near the northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib. Syrian forces also mounted what activists described as their most violent assault yet on the town of Douma, near Damascus, and other opposition strongholds as western governments expressed doubts that the regime would honour the peace plan devised by Kofi Annan, the UN envoy.

The regime is supposed to withdraw troops from population centres by Tuesday. Thereafter both sides are supposed to cease violence within 48 hours. A team has arrived in Damascus to negotiate the deployment of about 250 unarmed UN soldiers to Syria to monitor the ceasefire if it happens. The International Committee of the Red Cross said the regime had agreed to allow it to expand its work in Syria and visit detention centres.

The Syrian authorities also claimed that they had begun withdrawing troops from some populated areas. "They have specified three cities: Deraa, Idlib and Zabadani," Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for Mr Annan, said. Mediators were trying to verify that claim, he added, but activists in Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, said it was untrue. "They are complete liars. They fired on the city this morning, like they do every day," said one.

Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, doubted the UN peace plan would end the conflict, saying he thought Mr Assad is "cheating us". Mr Annan will fly to Tehran on Wednesday to seek support for his peace plan. Western governments say the Iranian regime has supported Mr Assad from the start of the uprising.

Extract: Israel's settlement lobby wins stealth war house by house
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Analysis
Saturday April 7, 2012

THE extraordinary political drama in Israel this week highlighted the crucial fault-line in Israeli politics: settlements. Anyone interested in a crash course in where Israel is going politically needs only to observe this week's events.

Far-right elements of the government led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are furious at Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, for opposing the expansion of a Jewish settlement in Hebron by one building. Mr Lieberman said Mr Barak's decision was "designed to inflame passions" and the only way to stabilise the government was to strip Mr Barak of any authority over the West Bank. The week began with a battle between Mr Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Fifteen Jewish settler families in Hebron moved into a building in a Palestinian part of the city without a permit. They said they bought it from Palestinians but the Palestinian mayor said they had forged documents. Whatever the truth, the settlers did not have a permit to move in, so the Israeli defence forces, which oversees Israel's military occupation of the Palestinian territories, issued an eviction order, backed by Mr Barak. The IDF said moving in at the moment could endanger public order. Mr Barak stood firm.

But Mr Netanyahu — whose party, Likud, has recently had a drive to recruit settlers and who is overseeing a major growth of settlements — tried to overturn the eviction. Mr Netanyahu announced three of the largest outposts would be legalised. In regard to the outpost of Ulpana, he said: "The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria."

Under pressure from the US, which sees Israel's support of settlements as an obstacle to peace, Mr Netanyahu froze new building in settlements for 10 months. Since then, growth has been dramatic. Documents show that about 10 per cent of the total area of the West Bank has been earmarked for settlements.

This is the world's slowest war and it is being fought, and won, by Israel — house by house, settlement by settlement. This week, Ehud Barak delayed the expansion of one settlement by one building — and was told by Mr Lieberman that he was jeopardising the government and should, in effect, be sacked.

Syrians fire into Turkish camp as truce sinks, again
The Australian
Tuesday April 10, 2012

KILIS, TURKEY: Syrian forces fired across the border last night into a refugee camp in Turkey, killing two and wounding five as a UN-brokered plan to end a year of violence this week all but collapsed. The Syrian soldiers were believed to be firing at rebels who tried to escape to the refugee camp after ambushing a military checkpoint. Turkey shelters thousands of refugees who have fled Syria as the government tries to crush a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. Last night's shooting bolstered fears that the uprising could spark a broad conflagration by sucking in neighbouring countries. There have been similar cross-border attacks into Lebanon, but last night's shooting was believed to be the first inside Turkey.

The truce plan, devised by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, was due to take effect tonight with a withdrawal of Syrian forces from population centres, followed within 48 hours by a ceasefire on both sides in the uprising against four decades of repressive rule by the Assad family. But on Sunday Syria's Foreign Ministry said that before any troop pull-back, the government needed written guarantees from opposition fighters they would lay down their weapons.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin called on both sides to honour their commitments, and said the international community should "be patient" and give Mr Annan more time. "China urges the Syrian government and parties concerned in Syria to seize the important opportunities, to honour their commitment of ceasefire and withdrawal of troops," he said. Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Assad said while his group was ready to abide by a truce, it did not recognise the regime "and for that reason we will not give guarantees". Russia, an Assad ally that supports the ceasefire plan, may now be the only one able to salvage it. The rest of the international community, unwilling to contemplate military intervention, has little leverage over Syria.

In recent days, instead of preparing for a withdrawal, the regime's troops have stepped up shelling attacks on residential areas, killing dozens of civilians daily in what the opposition described as a frenzied rush to gain ground. "Mortar rounds are falling like rain," said activist Tarek Badrakhan, describing an assault in the city of Homs on Sunday. The regime was exploiting the truce plan "to kill and commit massacres", he said.

Just as Mr Annan complained on Sunday that the escalation was "unacceptable", Syria said its acceptance of the Annan deal last week was misunderstood and suggested it would not be able to withdraw its troops under current conditions. As well as demanding written guarantees from the opposition, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said Syria wanted assurances from Mr Annan that Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — Mr Assad's most active critics — would stop "financing and arming of terrorist groups". Qatar and Saudi Arabia were said to be creating a multi-million-dollar fund to pay rebel fighters while Turkey had floated the idea of creating buffer zones for refugees in Syrian territory near the Turkish border.

While Mr Annan's plan called for eventual negotiations between the government and the opposition over Syria's political future, anti-regime activists said huge numbers of protesters would probably flood the streets and quickly topple Mr Assad if he were forced to halt his year-long crackdown. The UN said more than 9000 people had been killed since the uprising erupted 13 months ago.

10 Questions:
Daniel Pipes, Director, Middle East Forum, 62
Weekend Australian Magazine
Greg Callaghan
Saturday April 14, 2012

Founded in 1990, the Middle East Forum has been an independent nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia since 1994.

In Egypt, Islamist parties now hold about 80 per cent of the seats in parliament. Given the majority of demonstrators in Tahrir Square were liberal secularists, has Egypt's Arab Spring been hijacked '

No, because the liberals of Tahrir Square did not force Mubarak from power. The military took advantage of their mass demonstrations to dispatch a president it had had enough of, in large part because of his intent on handing power to his son, Gamal.

Is the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood bad news for Egypt's Coptic Christians and secularists '

Yes, but the Copts have fared badly under the military as well, which engaged in a pogrom against them a half year ago. I doubt the Muslim Brotherhood has had a victory but rather see the parliamentary elections as basically fraudulent.

Is there a risk that the major beneficiaries of the mass demonstrations in the Middle East will be well-organised Islamic parties '

Yes, well-organised Islamic parties are in a position to seize power in a number of countries including Libya, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. But I see this less the result of fleeting economic tribulations than the consequence of a deep frustration about the weakness of the umma, the Muslim community, over the past two centuries. I call this the trauma of modern Islam.

Had the US not gone to war in Iraq, would Saddam Hussein have been toppled by his own people anyway '

No, because Saddam Hussein's regime was unique in its brutality and in his determination to hold on to power. The Syrian regime is probably the closest parallel to it. I doubt whether the Iraqis would have revolted against Saddam; if they did, I doubt whether they would have succeeded. Remember, Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people in 1988.

Is Iran's regime weakening '

It's certainly feeling the heat. The European oil boycott is having an effect and the current struggle between President Armadinajad and Supreme Leader Khamenei reflects serious internal divisions between the clerical elite and military veterans like Armadinajad. I see Iran as comparable to the Soviet Union in the 1970s: a powerful and bellicose state but a hollow one because most of its subjects are alienated.

What is the likelihood of a US and/or Israeli air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities '

I can't answer that but I do sense that the Iranians will be prevented from acquiring nuclear arms. Tehran is as dead set on building nuclear weapons as the North Korean leadership.

Wouldn't a military strike against Iran galvanise the population behind the theocratic regime '

Perhaps, but it might cause them to turn in anger against the government. This is hard to predict.

You're more pessimistic about Turkey than Iran, aren't you '

Yes. When the Islamist party, the AKP, came to power in 2002, it trod carefully around the military and did little to overturn the secular principles established by Ataturk in the 1920s. When it was re-elected in 2007 the AKP's Islamisation project became much more evident, especially weakening the military's political power. Since its re-election last year the AKP's gloves have come off and the bullying has increased.

Can Syria's President Bashar al-Assad survive '

No. Increasing resistance from the soldiers, growing economic problems and burgeoning international opposition doom the regime.

Is fundamentalist Islam increasing or decreasing in influence '

It is peaking about now. The collapse of the Islamic regime in Iran would be a key event in its decline.

A deal in the works with Iran '
The Australian Online
David Ignatius, Washington Post Writers Group
Thursday April 19, 2012

THE nuclear talks with Iran have just begun, but already the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal. That piece of intelligence comes from the Tehran stock index, which on the day after the talks opened posted its largest daily rise in months and closed at a record high. Tehran investors may be guilty of wishful thinking in their eagerness for an agreement that would ease the economic sanctions squeezing their country. My guess is that they probably have it right. So far, Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don't seem eager to jump.

The mechanics of an eventual settlement are clear enough after Saturday's first session in Istanbul: Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 per cent level, and would halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 per cent, for use in medical isotopes. In the language of these talks, the Iranians could describe their actions not as concessions to the West, but as "confidence-building" measures, aimed at demonstrating the seriousness of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's public pledge in February not to commit the "grave sin" of building a nuclear weapon. And the West would describe its easing of sanctions not as a climb down, but as "reciprocity."

The basic framework was set weeks ago, in an exchange of letters between the chief negotiators. Catherine Ashton, who represents the "P5+1" group of permanent UN security council members and Germany, proposed a "confidence-building exercise aimed at facilitating a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach." The Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, responded that because the West was willing to recognise Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy, "our talks for cooperation based on step-by-step principles and reciprocity on Iran's nuclear issue could be commenced." Jalili's status as personal representative of the supreme leader was important, too. "Step-by-step" and "reciprocity" are the two guideposts for this exercise. They mark a dignified process for making concessions, much like the formula that President Obama used in his January 2009 inaugural address when he first signaled his outreach to Iran: "We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played his expected role in this choreography, criticising the negotiators for agreeing to another round of talks on May 23 in Baghdad without getting concessions in return. "My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie," Netanyahu said. "It has got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition." A perfect rebuff — just scornful enough to keep the Iranians (and Americans, too) worried that the Israelis might launch a military attack this summer if no real progress is made in the talks.

The Iranians seem to be preparing their public for a deal that limits enrichment, while preserving the right to enrich. In an interview Monday with the Iranian student news agency, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi explained that "making 20 per cent fuel is our right," but that "if they guarantee that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need, then that would be another issue." Salehi seemed to be reviving a 2009 Turkish plan to export Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad, and receive back 20 per cent fuel for its Tehran research reactor, supposedly to make the isotopes. That earlier deal collapsed because of opposition from Khamenei, who apparently is now ready to bargain.

Jalili struck the same upbeat tone in comments printed in the Tehran Times. "We witnessed progress," he said, explaining that the supreme leader's religious edict renouncing nuclear weapons "created an opportunity for concrete steps toward disarmament and non-proliferation." He said "the next talks should be based on confidence-building measures, which would build the confidence of Iranians."

Translation: The Iranians expect to be paid, in "step-by-step" increments, as they move toward a deal. At a minimum, they will want a delay of the US and European sanctions that take full effect June 28 and July 1, respectively.

That timetable gives the West leverage, too — to keep the threatened sanctions in place until the Iranians have made the required concessions. It's a well-prepared negotiation, in other words, and it seems likely to succeed if each side keeps to the script and doesn't muff its lines.

Russia to stonewall US bid for tougher sanctions on Syria
Weekend Australian
Brad Norington, Washington Correspondent
Additional Reporting: AP
Saturday April 21, 2012

THE US is pushing for tougher sanctions against Syria to stop President Bashar al-Assad perpetrating more violence against his own people — but its path is being blocked by Russia in the UN.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday urged the UN Security Council to back measures, including an arms embargo and financial sanctions, to pressure the Assad regime to heed a peace plan laid out by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Mrs Clinton was speaking after a "Friends of Syria" meeting of Western and Arab diplomats in Paris that was apparently boycotted by Russia. Mr Assad has failed to meet conditions of a peace plan intended to take effect a week ago. At least 9000 people have been killed in Syria following government assaults on the city of Homs and other areas in the nation's south after a popular uprising that started in March last year.

Mrs Clinton stopped short of proposing international military action similar to the NATO-led operation in Libya last year that led to the ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but she said tougher measures were needed. "We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan," she said. The resolution proposed by Mrs Clinton, if accepted by the UN Security Council, could be backed by military force.

She acknowledged that such a proposal was likely to be vetoed at this stage by Russia. Moscow and Beijing have used their Security Council votes twice to block stronger sanctions against Syria. Russia's position, led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has been to put responsibility on the Syrian opposition as well as the government to cease hostilities. The US hopes Russia will accept that conditions have deteriorated to the point where more decisive intervention is the only hope of saving lives. Mr Lavrov was yesterday optimistic the Annan plan could succeed and urged his counterparts to "abandon the rhetoric of self-fulfilling prophecies" about failure.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Mr Assad was not meeting his commitment to a ceasefire, and sought support for sending at least 300 UN observers into Syria to oversee a ceasefire meant to take effect on April 12. "Despite assurances from the government, there has been no meaningful progress on the ground," Mr Ban said.

The Pentagon confirmed the US was providing "non-lethal aid" in the form of communications and medical equipment to the Syrian opposition forces, as well as humanitarian relief. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the US was willing to help the Syrian people but would stop short of unilateral military support. Giving evidence to the US House of Representatives armed services committee, Mr Panetta said: "Our policy is very clear. We support a political and democratic transition that fulfils the Syrian people's aspirations."

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee the US military's role so far was limited to sharing information with its partners in the region, but he confirmed its responsibility was to provide "options" to Mr Panetta and President Barack Obama. Mr Obama has said Mr Assad should leave office to allow a democratic transition in Syria. While the US is in no mood for more fighting in the Middle East, Mrs Clinton said: "We have to keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table."

Deal sees Israel PM call off elections
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Wednesday May 9, 2012

ISRAELI politics has been turned on its head after a deal by the major opposition party to join the government made Benjamin Netanyahu one of the country's most powerful prime ministers. Planned early elections for September 4 were immediately cancelled after the deal between the Kadima party and Mr Netanyahu's Likud, which caught the media by surprise yesterday. "I didn't want to go to elections," Mr Netanyahu said. "But having detected rifts, I decided to go ahead."

The announcement followed talks until 2am between Mr Netanyahu and the new leader of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, who becomes Deputy Prime Minister. The deal gives Mr Netanyahu insurance against threats by the right-wing members of his coalition, such as the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to walk out of the coalition if unhappy about any policies. Until now, Yisrael Beiteinu had extraordinary power as it could effectively have brought down the government at any time. Only last week, Mr Lieberman said his support for the coalition was not guaranteed.

The deal means the government will continue until October next year. It also gives Kadima responsibility for finding an alternative to the Tal Law, under which ultra-orthodox men are able to permanently defer service in the army, a point of discontent for many secular Israelis. The deal will strengthen Mr Netanyahu's ability to make a peace agreement with the Palestinians, should that be one of his priorities, as Kadima is far more inclined to agree to a Palestinian state than Yisrael Beiteinu would have been. Mr Lieberman is supportive of the settlement movement and himself lives in a small settlement in the West Bank, Nokdim, so any deal would probably involve him having to leave his own home.

Kadima received the most number of votes of any party at the 2009 election, but the "Right bloc" — led by Likud and including the Yisrael Beiteinu party — had more votes than the centre-left bloc led by Kadima. This dramatic development in Israeli politics followed the resignation of Tzipi Livni, the leader of Kadima, after a challenge led by Mr Mofaz a week ago. Ms Livni is more popular with the public than her colleagues. She has made little impact on the Netanyahu government and has twice been unable to form a coalition government when she had the chance.

One of Mr Netanyahu's inner circle told The Australian recently: "The public likes Tzipi but she doesn't have the people skills with her colleagues. She just cannot relate to them well. In the end, that's what brought her down." After his election in 2009, Mr Netanyahu made overtures to Ms Livni to join the government but she said it was more important for Kadima to be an opposition.

The deal means the new leader of the opposition is Shelly Yacimovich, herself a new leader of the Labor Party. Ms Yacimovich denounced the deal. "This is a pact of cowards and the most contemptible and preposterous zigzag in Israel's political history," she said. "The Labor Party has been given a rare and important opportunity to lead the opposition, and it will do so energetically and faithfully."

Iran is stalling for time over weapons: Israel
The Australian
John Lyons
Friday May 11, 2012

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has wielded his enhanced authority to warn that Iran must cease all enrichment of uranium and give up any existing supplies. He also said a clear timetable should be set under which Iran must demonstrate it has taken action to curtail its nuclear program.

The demands were presented late on Wednesday by Mr Netanyahu in a meeting with the EU's Catherine Ashton, who flew to Israel for a day to discuss Iran in the lead-up to a six-nations meeting in Baghdad on May 23. The US, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain will meet to decide whether the raft of sanctions in place against Iran are likely to succeed in allowing inspectors into its facilities.

Mr Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak share a view that Iran is stalling so it can develop a nuclear weapon. Mr Netanyahu told Ms Ashton: "Iran is using these talks to play for time. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that the Iranian government has any intention to cease its aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons." The Prime Minister said he wanted the Baghdad meeting to insist that Iran halt all uranium enrichment, that it surrender all current supplies and that it close the Fordo facility.

In January, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had evidence Iran had begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent — the level required for weapons-grade use. The IAEA found this was occurring at Iran's underground Fordo facility. The evidence alarmed many in the international community as civilian use requires enrichment only to 3 per cent.

Apart from the issue of Iran, yesterday's meeting was interesting for whom Mr Netanyahu took along. He was accompanied by Shaul Mofaz, his new deputy who only two days before brought his party, Kadima, into the coalition government. Mr Netanyahu also brought Mr Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The deal with Kadima gives Mr Netanyahu's coalition 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset — one of the largest majorities in Israeli history — leaving the Prime Minister with enormous power to pursue his agenda.

Mr Mofaz has also joined the "security cabinet", which would be involved in recommending whether Israel launches any military strike on Iran.

Relatives of Palestinians held in detention celebrate in Gaza City after a deal was reached
to end the prisoners' hunger strikes and secure release for some. AFP
Palestinian hunger strikers' deal
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ISRAELI and Palestinian negotiators yesterday reached a deal for nearly 1600 Palestinian prisoners to end a hunger strike, amid signs of other breakthroughs. Two of the Palestinians were into their 77th day of the strike and in hospital and more than 1000 were into their 27th day. Many of the Palestinians are in prison for terrorism-related charges.

The main target of the hunger strike was Israel's policy of "administrative detention" under which they can be held without charge and without knowing the evidence against them. The administrative detentions are often for six months and can be rolled over indefinitely. The Israelis argue that if they reveal the evidence against the detainees they would be revealing their sources of information. The prisoners were also protesting against the use of solitary confinement. Human rights lawyers say Israel keeps not just adults, but also teenage boys in solitary confinement and that one boy was kept in solitary for 65 days. Others had been kept in solitary with lights on for 24 hours a day.

Under yesterday's deal, which was brokered by Egypt, the 300 Palestinians currently under administrative detention will be released when their term expires if no new evidence is presented against them. According to Israeli media, the Palestinians in turn agreed not to operate terror organisations from inside prison. The breakthrough comes in the wake of the first face-to-face meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to try to restart peace talks.

Israel's chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas last weekend and is believed to have told him Israel would make three goodwill gestures: concessions on prison conditions, returning the bodies of 100 Palestinians it says were terrorists and releasing some prisoners. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Palestinians should use the fact that the centrist Kadima party has joined his government to resume peace talks. Palestinians have refused to continue peace talks while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank that are widely regarded as illegal under international law.

Meanwhile, the European Union yesterday called on Israel to halt the "forced transfer of population" of Palestinians from Area C in the Palestinian territories. Area C is the largest of the designated areas in the territories under Israeli military occupation. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel was given temporary civil and security responsibility over Area C until a final status deal could be agreed.

The report said: "The EU calls upon Israel to meet its obligations regarding the living conditions of the Palestinian population in Area C, including by accelerated approval of Palestinian master plans, halting forced transfer of population and demolition of Palestinian housing and infrastructure, simplifying administrative procedures to obtain building permits, ensuring access to water and addressing humanitarian needs." It said Israel's "marked acceleration of settlement construction" threatened to make a two-state solution impossible and expressed concern about evictions and house demolitions in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem, changes to the residency status of Palestinians, the worsening living conditions of Palestinians in Area C, plans for the forced transfer of Bedouin and "the prevention of peaceful Palestinian activities".

In reference to the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, the report said: "The EU is appalled by recurring rocket attacks."

Hands off Syria and Iran: Russia
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Saturday May 19, 2012

RUSSIA has made clear it will not support any Western military intervention in Syria or Iran, warning that such a course could lead to nuclear war. In Moscow's strongest declaration to date, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev said the two countries should be allowed to sort out their own affairs, signalling that the Kremlin's resistance to any intervention was hardening. "Hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power," he said. "At some point such actions, which undermine state sovereignty, may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons."

Mr Medvedev issued the warning before departing for this weekend's Group of Eight meeting in the US, which will discuss Syria and Iran. The comments came as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said al-Qa'ida may have been behind the two mass bombings in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people and wounded hundreds. "Very alarmingly and surprisingly, a few days ago there was a huge serious massive terrorist attack," he said. "I believe there must be al-Qa'ida behind it."

The US is expected to argue at the G8 summit that tougher action needs to be taken against Syria and that Iran was not responding to pressure to allow access to its nuclear facilities. Russia has steadfastly refused to support a resolution at the UN Security Council calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. And Moscow has rejected calls by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to provide weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army, which developed out of the protest movement, to try to overthrow the Assad regime.

Russia's publicly stated reason for refusing to back intervention in Syria is that the UN resolution on Libya, which it reluctantly supported, was abused. The UN supported a no-fly-zone against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but NATO began months of bombing, which it said was necessary to disable Libya's military forces before it could enforce the no-fly-zone. Russia claimed Britain and France turned the operation from defensive to offensive, and Moscow frequently cites Libya as a reason why the UN Security Council cannot be trusted with any sweeping resolution.

Russia is also profiting from the crisis, and its sales of weapons to Syria are estimated to have risen about 20 per cent, to $US1.5 billion ($1.52bn), in the past year. Britain's UN ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, has criticised Russia for continuing to export arms to Syria: "It is glaringly obvious that transferring weapons into a volatile and violent situation is irresponsible and will only fuel the bloodshed."

More than 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in May last year. In recent months, the crisis has changed from a protest movement to a civil war, with the rebel Free Syrian Army trying to overthrow the Assad regime.

Tel Aviv race riots shock Israel
The Australian Online
Friday May 25, 2012

VIOLENT race riots that shook south Tel Aviv overnight have sparked shock in Israel, but also prompted top-level calls for the immediate arrest and expulsion of tens of thousands of African migrants. The latest unrest to sweep the impoverished neighbourhoods around Tel Aviv's central bus station erupted when a demonstration of around 1000 people who were protesting against the rising number of Africans moving into the area, turned violent.

"Shock, violence and hatred of foreigners in Tel Aviv" was the headline in the Maariv daily, which described scenes of chaos as demonstrators went on the rampage with sticks and stones, attacking African-run shops and smashing up a car driven by two African men. "Blacks out!" shouted demonstrators in the crowd, while others yelled: "Send the Sudanese back to Sudan," several news reports said, as other protesters derided the "bleeding-heart leftists" working to help them.

Most reports said the rally turned nasty after the crowd was whipped up by several racist speeches by right-wing MPs, several of them from the ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The infiltrators are a cancer in our body," Likud MP Miri Regev told the crowd, as fellow MP Danny Danon shouted: "The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!" Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 20 people had been arrested on suspicion of vandalising shops and attacking cars driven by Africans, but added that there were no reports of anyone being injured. The police have also extended the remand of seven Israeli minors accused of attacking African immigrants earlier this week, he said.

Interior ministry statistics show there are more than 60,000 African immigrants living illegally in Israel. Some are refugees fleeing persecution back home, while others are economic migrants. The issue of illegal immigration from Africa has thrown into relief sharp divisions within Israel, with many top officials, including Mr Netanyahu, warning that the growing number of "infiltrators" poses a major threat to the security and identity of the Jewish state.

There was no official response to the violence until last night when Netanyahu issued a statement promising to resolve "the problem of the infiltrators" by sending them back to their home countries in a process which he said would start "soon." "I want to make clear that there is no place for the statements nor the actions which we saw last night," he said. "I am saying this both to public figures as well as to residents of south Tel Aviv, whose pain I understand. We will resolve the problem and we will do it responsibly."

President Shimon Peres said that "hating foreigners is against the foundations of Judaism." "I'm well aware of the difficulties encountered by south Tel Aviv residents and the harsh reality they have to deal with, but violence is not the solution to the problem," he said in a statement released by his office.

And in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, hundreds took to the streets in anti-racism rallies. Some 200 people carrying signs saying: "Racism is a cancer in the body of the Israeli nation,":"Enough to incitement" and "I am also a refugee" marched a short distance to the premier's residence. In Tel Aviv, a similar number of men and women strode through the city's streets, starting near the central bus station. The demonstrators had signs stating "we are all refugees" and "united against racism," and chanted slogans against Mr Netanyahu and other right-wing lawmakers.

But Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has frequently tried to expel non-Jewish immigrants sparking accusations of racism, demanded that all Africans living illegally in Israel be put "behind bars." "We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centres, then send them home because they come and take work from Israelis," he told army radio. Unless the government took urgent action, there would "soon be half a million to a million, and we cannot lose our country to this," he said.

The violence made headlines in all the Israeli media, with army radio denouncing it as a "pogrom." Residents of south Tel Aviv accuse the immigrants of bringing a wave of theft and violent sex crimes to the area, and have expressed fury over what they see as government inaction. In a move sure to further raise tensions, a Tel Aviv court indicted two African migrants from Sudan and Eritrea on suspicion of raping a woman near the central bus station last week. And last week, an Israeli was charged with arson after hurling Molotov cocktails at the homes of African migrants in a move reportedly connected to the arrest of three Eritreans in connection with another rape involving a 15-year-old Israeli girl.

In a bid to halt the influx, Israel has been building a 250km fence along the Egyptian border. It has also built a vast detention centre near the border to house anyone caught crossing the frontier.

Israel hands over Palestinian militants' bodies
The Australian
Additional Reporting: AFP
Friday June 1, 2012

IN an attempt to get the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to peace talks, Israel yesterday handed over the bodies of 91 militants killed either in suicide bombings or other attacks on Israeli targets. Several bodies related to an attack in the 1970s.

Mr Abbas, who has not indicated whether the gesture would persuade him to return to talks, was to appear overnight at a rally honouring the militants, in Ramallah, on the West Bank. "Today, we received the remains of 91 martyrs, 79 from the West Bank and 12 from Gaza who had been buried (by the Israelis) in an inhumane and unethical fashion in numbered graves in the Jordan Valley," the head of the Palestinian general committee for civil affairs, Hussein al-Sheikh, said. "They will all be wrapped in a shroud and the Palestinian flag, they will be identified and have the last rites performed."

Several days ago, the Palestinian Authority had named the 91 "martyrs", which include eight members of a commando unit who were killed in March 1975 in an Israeli assault on the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv.

The hotel attack was planned by Palestinian leader Khalil al Wazir (Abu Jihad) in retaliation for an Israeli attack in which several Palestinian leaders were killed. Abu Jihad operatives sailed from Lebanon to Israel and landed in dinghies on Tel Aviv beach at around 11pm on March 4, 1975. They captured the Savoy Hotel and took its residents hostage, threatening to execute their captives if 20 Palestinians in Israeli jails were not freed. The next morning, Israeli commandos counter-attacked, killing some Palestinians and capturing others. Some hostages also died. In 1988, Abu Jihad was murdered in his home by Israeli agents.

Israeli West Bank move tipped
Weekend Australian
James Hider, Tel Aviv, The Times
Saturday June 2, 2012

ISRAEL might have to consider a unilateral withdrawal from the occupied West Bank if peace talks fail, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday. "Inaction is not an option," he said after almost two years in which negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership have been on ice. "We must try and achieve a comprehensive agreement. If this appears to be impossible, we need to think of an interim agreement and even unilateral actions."

The Palestinians have refused to return to talks until Israel agrees to halt the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal by the world but have about half a million people living in them.

Mr Barak, who as prime minister almost a decade ago came close to agreeing on the basis of a Palestinian state, said in an address to Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies that with one of the largest coalition governments in history it was time to tackle the thorny issue again. "We are a coalition of 94 MKs (Members of the Knesset). This is the time to lead a diplomatic process," he said. But he warned that if the talks that have stretched on for more than two decades proved fruitless once again, "we must consider an interim arrangement or even a unilateral move. We are on borrowed time. We will reach a wall and we'll pay the price," Mr Barak said.

His comments drew the anger of the Israeli Right and the Palestinians. "One wonders how there are people willing to toy with such a dangerous idea after the utter failure of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza," Gideon Sa'ar, the Education Minister, told the Israeli media, recalling Israel's unilateral withdrawal from that territory, now under the control of the Islamist movement Hamas.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, a top aide to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, said that "Israeli unilateral moves will lead to the formation of a Palestinian state in temporary borders, to which we object. This policy will lead to the conflict's continuation and not to a solution, burying the two-state solution." The Palestinian Authority remained committed to "a final agreement in which a Palestinian state will be formed with Jerusalem as its capital. Without Jerusalem, we won't agree to anything," he said.

Israel fitting nuclear missiles on German supplied sumarines, reports Der Spiegel
The Australian Online
Monday June 4, 2012

ISRAEL is arming submarines supplied and largely financed by Germany with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, influential German news weekly Der Spiegel reports. The magazine said in a cover story that Berlin had until now denied any knowledge that German submarines were being used as part of an Israeli atomic arsenal. But former high-ranking officials of the German defence ministry told Der Spiegel that the government always assumed Israel was putting nuclear warheads on the Dolphin-class vessels.

The article, based on a months-long probe, cited files from the foreign ministry in Berlin indicating the West German state was aware of the practice as early as 1961. In Israel, foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said only: "I can confirm that we have German submarines. It's no secret. As for the rest, I am not in a position to talk about their capacity," he said. Israel is the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed power.

Germany has already supplied Israel with three of the submarines in question, footing most of the bill, and another three are to be delivered by 2017 under a recently signed contract. Meanwhile Israel is weighing whether to order three more, according to the report."The Germans can be proud to have ensured the existence of the state of Israel for several years to come," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was quoted by Der Spiegel as saying.

The opposition Social Democrat Party called on Chancellor Angela Merkel's government for an explanation. "The federal government must provide information so that we know if the submarines delivered by Germany can be potentially equipped with nuclear warheads," party spokesman Rolf Muetzenich told Der Spiegel. Ms Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said all submarines had been delivered unarmed. "The federal government will not speculate on subsequent arming," he said.

The report said Germany hoped to see Israeli concessions on settlements on Palestinian land and approval for the completion of a sewage treatment plant in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the assistance. Israel sees its existence under threat if its arch-foe Iran goes nuclear. Like the United States, it has refused to rule out bombing Iranian nuclear sites.

Germany, bearing the historical guilt of the Holocaust, is Israel's closest ally in Europe. But it has sharply criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-settlement policies in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem as undermining peace efforts with the Palestinians. Tensions between Germany and Israel flared in April when Nobel prize-winning German author Gunter Grass published an inflammatory poem warning that a nuclear-armed Israel "could wipe out the Iranian people (with a) first strike."

Settlers ordered out by Israel PM
The Australian
Joshua Mitnick, Tel Aviv, Wall Street Journal
Friday June 8, 2012

ISRAEL'S leader has set the stage for a battle with settlers and hardline allies in his government, backing a Supreme Court decision to evacuate several apartment buildings on Palestinian property in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged members of his government yesterday to honor a Supreme Court ruling that five buildings on private Palestinian land — in the Ulpana Hill neighbourhood of the Beit El Settlement, and home to 30 families — must be evacuated by next month.

Mr Netanyahu was responding to a challenge by hardline allies in Israel's legislature, who introduced a draft bill that sought to legalise the five buildings in defiance of the court. After an emotionally charged debate in the Parliament in which right-wing MPs split over loyalty to the settlers and loyalty to Israel's legal system, the proposal was defeated 69-22.

The outcome, which would mark the first time Mr Netanyahu will have dismantled permanent homes in a settlement, was greeted with rage by settler activists, who burned tyres and blocked traffic at the entrance to Jerusalem. To mollify settlers worried the move sets a precedent that could lead to evacuations of homes on other disputed properties, Mr Netanyahu vowed to add 300 new houses to other areas of Beit El, north of Ramallah. "This is definitely something that the government does not enjoy doing, but the court ruled what it did and we respect its decision," Mr Netanyahu said. "In parallel, Beit El will be expanded. The 30 families will stay in Beit El and they will be joined by 300 new families."

The decisions appeared to undermine the already moribund land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians. "This is a very grave development," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Associated Press. "This undermines all efforts to revive the peace making between the two sides." The US said the move to add homes undercut peace efforts. "We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. Both parties should "refrain from these kinds of actions and get back into negotiations", he said.

Seeking to avoid the politically potent images of the buildings being razed with bulldozers, Mr Netanyahu floated a plan to move the five buildings to public lands nearby. Mr Netanyahu's gesture to add homes to Beit El failed to impress settlers. "I understand your pain," Mr Netanyahu said. "There is no other government that has supported settlements more than the one headed by myself. We will continue to strengthen the settlements and continue to strengthen democracy."

Members of parliament loyal to the settlers, including many in Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party, tried to sidestep the court by introducing a bill to compensate Palestinians for the land and transfer its ownership to Israel. Mr Netanyahu, concerned the law would injure the standing of the Supreme Court and hurt Israel diplomatically, quashed support in his coalition by threatening to fire cabinet ministers who supported it. Zevulun Orlev, a sponsor of the bill from the far-right Jewish Home party, vowed to withdraw from the coalition.

Syria linked to Iran sanction breaches
The Australian Online
Wednesday June 13, 2012

SYRIA is involved in nearly all breaches of UN sanctions against Iran, the UN Security Council has been told as international powers raised new concerns over Tehran's nuclear program. The United States said UN sanctions experts had built up "substantial evidence" of Syria's role in arms transfers with Iran. France's UN envoy told the council that Damascus was also implicated in breaches of sanctions against North Korea. The UN sanctions panel on Iran has prepared a report which outlines three illegal arms shipments, two of which involve Syria, diplomats have said. The report has not yet been published.

"Over the last two years, the panel has assembled substantial evidence proving Syria's role as a repeat violator of UN sanctions on Iran," the deputy US ambassador to the UN, Rosemary DiCarolo told a council meeting on the Iran sanctions regime. "Syria's refusal to implement its UN obligations should be a matter of central concern to this council," she added.

"Syria, which brutally represses its people, is implicated in most of the cases of violations of the arms embargo notified to the committee," France's deputy UN ambassador, Martin Briens, said. "The scope confirms the existence of a deliberate and continued policy of illicit transfers of arms and connected material between Iran and Syria," he added. "Syria is also implicated in numerous cases notified to the North Korea sanctions committee. These are grave violations by the country," Mr Briens said.

The United States and its European allies say they want tighter sanctions against Iran over its nuclear drive, which they say hides an attempt to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran denies the charge but has been repeatedly accused of blocking attempts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the Iranian program.

Iran and the international powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — are to hold new talks next week in Moscow on the nuclear showdown. But the US envoy told the council: "We have said repeatedly that the window for diplomacy is not open-ended. We have sought to impress upon Iran the urgency of the situation and have made clear that we will not engage in an endless process of talks that do not produce concrete results."

US and Russia clash on arms to Syria
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Thursday June 14, 2012

THE US has accused Russia of lying over Syria in what amounts to a serious escalation of tensions between the two superpowers. As Syria sinks further into civil war, tensions between the US and Russia changed from diplomatic language to a blunt accusation yesterday by the US that Russia was not telling the truth. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said Russia's claim that weapons it was shipping to Syria were unrelated to the conflict were "patently untrue". She said Russia would be "escalating the conflict quite dramatically" if it proceeded with exports of attack helicopters to Syria.

The comments came after the UN acknowledged for the first time that Syria was in a civil war. Until now, the UN has said Syria was "sliding" into civil war but the UN's under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, made the admission yesterday. "Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas," he said.

Amnesty International yesterday issued a damning report on human rights abuses by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The report said children were being used as "human shields" and that Syrian authorities were engaged in "a sustained, widespread and brutal attack against the civilian population". It said the UN Security Council had "dithered while a human rights crisis unfolded". Amnesty's International's Donatella Rovera said: "This disturbing new evidence of an organised pattern of grave abuses highlights the pressing need for decisive international action to stem the tide of increasingly widespread attacks against the civilian population, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed by government forces and militias with utter impunity."

Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton intensified US pressure on Russia. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria," she said. "They have from time to time said that we shouldn't worry, (that) everything they're shipping is unrelated to their actions internally … That is patently untrue. And we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

A push by France for consideration of military intervention was rejected yesterday by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is visiting Australia. "A foreign military intervention is not the right path in Syria," he said. Russia and China have been the major opponents of military intervention. The NATO chief's position ends any possibility of such a course, and Mr Rasmussen left no doubt of his views on the violence in Syria: "It is absolutely outrageous what we are witnessing and (there is) no doubt that the regime in Syria is responsible for violations of the international law," he said.

The International Committee for the Red Cross warned that conditions were worsening. State TV said last night that regime forces had taken control of the town of Haffa after rebel troops pulled out following eight days of fierce shelling and clashes. UN observers' earlier attempts to reach the town, where scores of civilians were said to be trapped, failed when they came under fire. The 300 unarmed observers are the only part of the ceasefire plan — developed by Kofi Annan — to be observed. The main element — that Syrian troops withdraw from population centres — has been flouted repeatedly. The observers have faced hostility and gunfire. After they have visited certain areas, regime forces have reportedly then attacked people who may have spoken to them.

Same Day
Israeli PM lashed for raid on Gaza flotilla
The Australian Online

PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision-making was badly flawed as he oversaw a deadly Israeli naval raid on a Gaza-bound ship two years ago, according to a government report released last night. The findings by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss are an embarrassing assessment of Mr Netanyahu's handling of a military operation that sent Israel's relations with ally Turkey plummeting and drew widespread international condemnation.

"Substantive and significant deficiencies were discovered in the decision-making process … that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led and oversaw," Judge Lindenstrauss wrote in his report. "The Prime Minister's decision-making process took place without orderly, co-ordinated and documented team work, even though the senior political, military and intelligence ranks were aware that the Turkish flotilla was different from other flotillas." Mr Netanyahu, the report continued, "did not internalise that the forcible stopping of the flotilla was liable to spark a violent confrontation on the decks of the Mavi Marmara".

Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed on May 31, 2010, when naval commandos stormed the ferry, which had set out from Turkey at the head of a six-vessel flotilla trying to breach Israel's Gaza blockade.

As harsh as Judge Lindenstrauss's findings are in his 153-page report, they are unlikely to hurt Mr Netanyahu's domestic standing. The Prime Minister is popular and leads a coalition that controls three-quarters of the Knesset's seats. Moreover, many Israelis think the commandos opened fire in self-defence after pro-Palestinian activists attacked them and believe Israel has a right to keep ships from reaching the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas militants.

Mr Netanyahu has argued that Israel behaved responsibly in its handling of the affair and praised the performance of his troops. "Israeli citizens enjoy a level of security they did not have for many years," he said in response to the report, calling that "a direct result of responsible administration and resolute policy".

Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on Gaza in 2007 to block the flow of weapons after Hamas seized control of the strip. But the blockade drew widespread criticism for hurting civilians. At its height, Gaza suffered from shortages of many basic consumer goods, and its economy ground to a standstill.

The flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara tried to break through the blockade despite Israeli warnings that it would not be allowed to sail to Gaza. When commandos stormed the ship, they were attacked with clubs and metal rods, and opened fire in response. The deaths of the Turkish citizens battered relations with Turkey, which had once given Israel a strong ally in the Muslim world. Ties had already frayed over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of Israel, which grew scathing after Israel's 2009 war in the Gaza Strip. The war was meant to halt daily rocket fire from Gaza. Mr Erdogan attacked Israel repeatedly for the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Turkey cancelled joint military exercises with Israel. Ties grew icier when Israel rejected Turkey's demands for an apology for the flotilla killings.

The raid raised international awareness of the plight of Gazans, forcing Israel to ease its land embargo. It maintains its naval blockade. A UN probe of the raid upheld the legality of the embargo and said the flotilla participants "acted recklessly" in attempting to breach the blockade. But it called the activists' killings "unacceptable" and faulted Israel for failing to use "non-violent options". A separate report conducted by the UN Human Rights Council said the blockade and raid were both "unlawful". Israel has said the report was deeply biased, noting the council's long history of criticising Israel.

Supporters celebrate the victory of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi in Cairo's Tahrir Square yesterday.
Source: Getty Images
Egypt in turmoil as military tightens grip
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Tuesday, June 19, 2012

EGYPT'S ruling military council pledged last night to honour its promise to hand over power to the newly elected president by the end of the month, hours after Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed victory. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will transfer power to the new president, who will swear his oath before the constitutional court, by "June 30, this month," one of the ruling generals, Mamduh Shahin, said at a news conference. General Mohammed al-Assar said the new president will have the authority to appoint and dismiss the government and that the military council has no intention of taking away any of the president's authorities.

"The elected president of the republic will be vested with all the powers given to the president," General Assar said, amid a furore from activists and the Muslim Brotherhood over what they describe as a military coup.

But the SCAF issued an interim constitution just as polls were closing late on Sunday night that gave the generals sweeping authority to maintain their grip on power and subordinate the nominal head of state.

Though official results have not yet been announced, the Brotherhood released a tally that showed its candidate Mr Morsi took nearly 52 per cent of the vote to defeat Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik with about 48 per cent in a very close race. But Mr Shafik refused to concede defeat. "We reject it (the result) completely," said Shafik campaign official Mahmud Barakeh. Mr Morsi told cheering supporters he would build a "modern democratic state" for all Egyptians. "We are not seeking vengeance or to settle accounts," he said.

In its ruling on Sunday, the SCAF took the powers the parliament had until it was dissolved late last week. Egypt's Constitutional Court, whose judges were appointed by Mubarak, dissolved parliament on the claim that the parliamentary elections in January were illegal. The court said a third of the members of the parliament should have been independent candidates and this had not been the case. It angered many Egyptians by ruling on the same day that Mr Shafiq could contest the election even though the law said no one associated with the former regime could stand for office.

SCAF's constitutional amendment said the council would have power of veto over any part of a new constitution "contrary to the supreme interests of the country". "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces shall exercise the powers referred to under the first clause of article 56 (on legislative power)," the announcement said. The council would retain these powers "until the election of a new people's assembly". Such an election cannot be held until a new permanent constitution is written and adopted by a referendum.

The new constitution will be written by a "constitutional commission representing all segments of the society" that will have three months to complete its work, the council says. The SCAF declaration appears to put the military on a collision course with the Brotherhood, which yesterday called the decision "null and unconstitutional". Egypt's security forces have been put on full alert following the elections.

The voting was conducted over the weekend amid widespread claims that the army, through SCAF, was engineering a counterrevolution. A group of organisations issued a statement yesterday: "This series of measures shows the SCAF, the head of the counter-revolution, is adamant to bring back the old regime, and the presidential elections are merely a show."

The decision to dissolve the parliament angered the Brotherhood, which won 47 per cent of the seats up for election in the parliament. But the move alienated more than just Brotherhood voters — about 30 million Egyptians voted in the election. All their ballots have now been cancelled.


Update Thursday June 21
Hosni Mubarak 'dead', Egypt on edge
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

EGYPT'S election commission has delayed the announcement of presidential results, amid claims former president Hosni Mubarak is "clinically dead".

"Egypt's election commission, headed by Judge Faruq Sultan… has decided to delay the announcement of the presidential election run-off," the official MENA news agency said, without giving a new date. The run-off, which took place on June 16 and 17 pitted Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi against Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, with both candidates claiming victory. The election commission said it was looking into appeals from lawyers of both candidates into alleged campaign violations and disputed vote counting. The commission said it would "continue examining the appeals… which will require more time before the final results are announced."

Supporters and opponents of Mubarak, 84, gathered outside his military hospital following reports of his death by state news agency Mena. However, after the army strongly disputed the reports, state television changed its headline to "Mubarak in a coma and is not clinically dead". Earlier, the state TV agency said: "Hosni Mubarak is clinically dead. Medical sources told Mena his heart had stopped beating and did not respond to defibrillation." Mubarak was jailed this month for life over his role in the killing of hundreds of protesters in the uprising that ousted him in February last year. His death may trigger a new round of confrontations between his supporters and opponents.

The Muslim Brotherhood has called on its supporters to take to the streets to protest the dissolution of the new parliament, in which it had the largest number of members. An estimated 15,000 supporters set themselves up in central Cairo's Tahrir Square yesterday in response. The demonstrators were in the square as the conflicting details of Mubarak's condition filtered in. "It's divine retribution," said Saber Amr, a teacher. "God doesn't forgive those who do wrong to their people. God doesn't forgive those who kill innocents." Nearby, Abdel Mottaleb offered a more conciliatory tone. "We are Muslims. We respect the dead regardless," he said. "God will judge him."

The situation is volatile: the army does not want to give up power, the Brotherhood does not want to give up its parliamentary win and the protesters who drove last year's "revolution" against Mubarak feel they have been marginalised. Mubarak's successor will inherit a struggling economy, increased insecurity and the challenge of uniting a nation divided.

Iran deadlock signals the start of sanctions
The Australian
Alan Cullison, Moscow, The Wall Street Journal
Thursday June 21, 2012

SANCTIONS aimed at punishing Iran will begin in two weeks after another round of talks with world powers ended without an agreement by Tehran to curb its nuclear program. The lead negotiators for both sides said yesterday that the ball was in the other's court after the end of talks. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Saeed Jalili, the lead Iranian negotiator, used similar words, saying the other had "a choice" to make to get negotiations restarted.

Iran had hoped the talks might forestall the looming sanctions. With new penalties now a certainty, the long-running international dispute has entered an unpredictable new phase that will test past Iranian threats to retaliate, including a vow to choke off a key global oil channel, the Strait of Hormuz.

In the absence of talks, sanctions may be the last barrier to a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, a step that US officials fear could spark a wider conflict.

Iran's economy is already suffering shocks because of a combination of government mismanagement and sanctions that have driven up the cost of staple goods by as much as 50 per cent. Upcoming penalties will up the ante by targeting Iranian oil exports, its main source of revenue. An EU embargo on all Iranian oil sales takes effect on July 1, a move that could endanger as much as a third of Iran's revenue.

Before that, from June 28, the White House will impose sanctions on firms doing business with Iran's central bank, another tool to drain Tehran of its oil revenue. The US congress is likewise poised to push for more sanctions after the failure of talks in the past two months in Istanbul, Baghdad and now Moscow.

US officials underscored their determination to enforce sanctions with a warning to Venezuela on Tuesday over a plan to cooperate with Iran to develop surveillance drones. "All countries, including Venezuela, have an obligation to comply with international sanctions against Iran," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "We're committed to ensuring that if we see violations of Iran sanctions, that we will call them out and that we will seek appropriate action."

Iran and the world powers agreed to extend the negotiations by planning some lower-level technical meetings on July 3 in Istanbul. No higher-level meetings are yet scheduled. Compounding the setback, Iran recently backed out of a tentative deal with the UN's nuclear watchdog to provide its inspectors with greater access to scientists, sites and documents believed to be tied to Tehran's nuclear work.

Underscoring the rising stakes, the US House Armed Services Committee was expected to hold a hearing overnight on military options for addressing Iran's nuclear program.

Under the new US sanctions, any foreign state bank processing oil transactions through Iran's central bank, Bank Markazi, could be punished. Non-state institutions doing business with Bank Markazi could also be hit.

The State Department has granted waivers in recent months from these sanctions to countries that have shown a willingness to reduce their Iranian oil purchases. But China and Singapore could still be targeted after June 28, US officials said.

Additional US sanctions could target Iranian energy and financial sectors and shipping and insurance businesses, said Senator Mark Kirk who has advanced new sanctions legislation. "After three rounds of meetings, Iran remains in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions ordering it to halt all its uranium enrichment activities," Senator Kirk said.

Diplomats called the two days of talks in Moscow "intense and tough" but said the two sides remained far apart on how to unwind Iran's uranium enrichment program, which Tehran called an "inalienable right" of the Iranian people. Western officials had expressed hope that the talks would bear fruit, in part because of heightened pressure from the Kremlin, which has traditionally maintained a closer relationship with Iran than most of the other Security Council members that are pressuring Tehran to scale back its nuclear program. Russian officials dined with the Iranian delegation, and met with members in an effort to push along negotiations. But US and European officials said the talks remained deadlocked over Iran's program.

As in previous talks in Baghdad last month and in Istanbul before that, Iran demanded a lifting of sanctions before it would back off on its enrichment of uranium to 20% purity, which Western officials call perilously close to weapons grade. But world powers have insisted that Iran take the first conciliatory step and have been proposing a step-by-step program in which Iran would be rewarded for putting a halt to its high-grade nuclear enrichment, ship out the highly enriched fuel that it has amassed, and shut down a nuclear facility situated deep in a mountain that is impervious to an airstrike.

Israel to hold fire on Iran strikes
The Australian
Joshua Mitnick, Tel Aviv, The Wall Street Journal
Friday June 22, 2012

ISRAEL is unlikely to launch a strike on Iran as long as sanctions on Tehran intensify and diplomatic efforts continue, despite the failure of international talks in Moscow this week, Israeli officials and security experts say. That puts Israeli leaders in a bind: while lack of progress on diplomatic attempts to curb Iran's nuclear program bolsters Israel's position that Tehran won't compromise, it needs to wait for diplomacy and sanctions to be exhausted so it can better persuade others to join it in taking tougher measures, analysts said. "As long as the international community is willing to continue, Israel won't say, 'Stop'. That's unthinkable," an Israeli official said. "If the negotiations don't bring Iran to concessions, at least there will be a clear-cut case showing that Iran does not want to cooperate."

The failure of the Moscow negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, heightened pessimism in Washington for diplomacy and fuelled talk of military options. A group of former US and international officials testified before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that the military threat against Iran is "at this point, underdeveloped" and must be reinforced through more intensive US preparation and stronger messaging. "We don't think that Iran is sufficiently persuaded that military force really is in prospect should they fail to come to an acceptable agreement to the problem," said Steven Rademaker, who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

The Obama administration, holding to a two-track strategy of pressure and diplomacy, pointed to a coming round of talks in Istanbul as the next milestone in attempts to persuade Iran to wind back its nuclear program. "If following this July 3 session we are still not making progress, we're going to continue to work together on what more pressure we can bring to bear, including on the sanctions track," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Israeli officials worry that Iran will eventually offer an 11th-hour compromise that will split the international negotiators, a group known as the P5+1. Spokesmen for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on the latest round of talks. Several weeks ago, Mr Netanyahu expressed concern that negotiators might accept a compromise that would permit Iran to continue with low-grade uranium enrichment. No such deal appears to be on the agenda.

"My feeling is there's a kind of relief on part of the government of Israel about the P5+1's resistance to compromise," said Ephraim Kam, a fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank with close ties to Israel's security establishment. Israel was unlikely to launch a strike in the immediate future, Mr. Kam said. "The military will be delayed for some time. The Americans and Europeans will tell Israel, 'You have to wait,' and we have to wait and see what the impact of the sanctions are."

Iran's rial lost value against the US dollar and gold yesterday on the news of the failed talks and anticipation of US sanctions on firms doing business with Iran's central bank beginning on June 28 and a European embargo on Iran's oil exports set to take effect July 1. Iran is offering price reductions for its oil to retain customers. Iranian Finance Minister Shamsedin Husseini denied a link between Iran's economic woes and its approach in talks. "This is a ploy to make our economy look weak," he said. Iran denies accusations that it is pursuing development of a nuclear weapon.

Israeli experts are divided on what approach would prompt Iran to change course. Some say only a credible threat of military action by the West would work. "Sanctions are known to take a very long time to have an impact on the country you are targeting," said Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the UN. "It's important to put in place, but the clock is ticking."

Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi vows to bring peace and unity to Egypt
The Australian Online
Monday June 25, 2012

EGYPT'S Mohammed Morsi, the first Islamist to be elected to the presidency, has said he will be a leader "for all Egyptians" and called for national unity after a polarising race. "I will be a president for all Egyptians," Morsi said just hours after he was declared president following a deeply divisive race against Ahmed Shafiq, the last premier to serve under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. "I call on you, great people of Egypt … to strengthen our national unity," he said, adding that national unity "is the only way out of these difficult times."

The United States has voiced caution after the announcement that Mr Morsi had been named Egypt's new president, urging the Islamist leader to respect the rights of women and keep the peace with Israel. US President Barack Obama called Mr Morsi to congratulate him on his victory, and to pledge US support for Egypt's democratic transition. They promised to stay in close touch, the White House said. "We believe it is essential for the Egyptian government to continue to fulfill Egypt's role as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, in a veiled reference to hopes for continued cooperation with Israel. Egypt is one of only two Arab countries — the other is Jordan — to have made peace with the Jewish state. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed in 1979.

Mr Morsi won 51.73 percent of the vote, with 13,230,131 ballots. The election has polarised the nation, dividing those who feared a return to the old regime under Mr Shafiq from others who wanted to keep religion out of politics and who fear the Brotherhood would stifle personal freedoms. Mr Morsi, who resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood to take the top job, thanked the "martyrs" of the uprising for the victory and stressed "the revolution continues." The 60-year-old engineer also vowed to honour international treaties. "We will preserve all international treaties and charters … we come in peace," Mr Morsi said. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

The election comes after 18 months of a tumultuous military-led transition from Mubarak's rule, marked by political upheaval and bloodshed. "The winner of the election for Egyptian president on June 16-17 is Mohamed Morsi Eissa al-Ayat," said the head of the electoral commission, Faruq Sultan earlier. Morsi won with 13,230,131 votes against Shafiq's 12,347,380, Sultan said. The election, in which more than 50 million voters were eligible to cast their ballot, saw a 51.8 percent turnout. The announcement saw hundreds of thousands of Morsi supporters erupt in celebration in Cairo's Tahrir Square, waving flags and posters of the Islamist leader, who was jailed during the uprising that overthrew Mubarak early last year. "God is greatest" and "down with military rule" they chanted, as fireworks went off over the square. Across Cairo, cars sounded their horns and chants of "Morsi, Morsi" were heard.

Losing candidate Shafiq, who was widely perceived as the military's candidate, joined the country's military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in congratulating Morsi. "General Ahmed Shafiq sent a message to Mohamed Morsi congratulating him on his victory," the official MENA news agency reported. Earlier state television said Tantawi had congratulated Morsi.

Morsi resigned from his posts in the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, which he headed, after he was declared the winner, the Brotherhood announced. And the interim head of the Coptic Church, many of whose faithful have feared the rise of Islamists, also congratulated Morsi.

Shafiq supporters who had gathered to hear the result with his campaign team in the suburbs of Cairo were devastated by the result. Some women screamed and others cried as several men held their heads between their hands in despair. "It's a very sad day for Egypt. I don't think Morsi is the winner. I'm very sad that Egypt will be represented by this man and this group," Shafiq supporter Maged told AFP.

The capital was tense before the announcement, with the city's notoriously busy streets deserted and shops and schools closed. Extra troops and police were deployed as military helicopters flew overhead. The road to parliament was closed to traffic, and security was tightened around vital establishments as Egyptians waited nervously for the result.

The election has polarised the nation, dividing those who feared a return to the old regime under Shafiq from others who wanted to keep religion out of politics and who fear the Brotherhood would stifle personal freedoms. Shafiq ran on a strong law-and-order platform, pledging to restore security and stability. He is himself a retired general, but as a Mubarak-era minister he is reviled by the activists who spearheaded the 2011 revolt. President-elect Morsi was the Islamists' fallback representative after their deputy leader Khairat El-Shater was disqualified. In campaigning he sought to allay the fears of secular groups and the sizeable Coptic Christian minority by promising a diverse and inclusive political system.

Both Morsi and Shafiq had claimed victory in the election for a successor to Mubarak, and tensions heightened after the electoral commission delayed announcing the official outcome. The delay in announcing the result of the June 16-17 run-off, initially scheduled for Thursday, had raised suspicions that the outcome of the election was being negotiated rather than counted. On Friday, the SCAF warned it would deal "with utmost firmness and strength" with any attempts to harm public interests. The Brotherhood warned against tampering with the election results, but also said it had no intention of instigating violence.

It has rejected a constitutional declaration by the military that strips away any gains made by the Islamist group since the popular uprising which forced Mubarak to stand down in February last year. The document dissolves the Islamist-led parliament and gives the army a broad say in government policy and control over the new constitution. It was adopted just days after a justice ministry decree granted the army powers of arrest.

Syria in a state of war, says Assad
The Australian Online
Wednesday June 27, 2012

SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad has said his country was in a state of war and ordered his new cabinet to crush the anti-regime uprising as Turkey vowed to retaliate the downing of one of its jets. Rebel forces and Syrian army units, meanwhile, engaged in deadly combat around elite Republican Guard posts in the suburbs of Damascus, as 116 people were killed across the country, a monitoring group said.

Amid mounting tensions in the anti-regime uprising now in its 16th month, Assad admitted that Syria is in a "real situation of war." "When one is in a state of war, all our policies and capabilities must be used to secure victory," he told the new cabinet, the official SANA news agency reported. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday's death toll comprised 68 civilians, 41 soldiers and seven rebels. "Violent clashes are taking place around positions of the Republican Guard in Qudsaya and Al-Hama," just miles away from central Damascus, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP in Beirut. He said it was the first time that artillery was used "so close to the capital."

The United States said a "desperate" Assad was slowly losing his grip on power, citing defections and fighting raging increasingly close to Damascus, and offered new support to its NATO ally Turkey after Syrian forces shot down one of its fighter planes last week. "Clearly, Bashar al-Assad has been slowly — too slowly — losing his grip over his country," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to a campaign event in Atlanta. "I would note that recent high-level military defections to Jordan and Turkey are another testament to the regime's loss of control over the situation in Syria. It is clear, however, that Assad is desperate to hang on to power at all cost, as evidenced by his continued use of air power and Shabiha gangs," Mr Carney said, refering to the pro-regime militia in Syria.

Washington also pushed back on Russia's insistence that Iran should take part in a planned international conference on Syria in Geneva on Saturday. "It is better to involve Iran in the settlement (of the Syrian crisis)," Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference in Jordan on Tuesday. "In any case it would complicate the process (if Iran is ignored)."

In Ankara, meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country had changed its rules of engagement and would now treat any Syrian security threat as a military target after Friday's incident. The shooting of the Phantom F-4 fighter jet has split Moscow and the West, with NATO condemning Syria and voicing its solidarity with member state Turkey while Russia saying the incident should not be seen as intentional. "We believe it is important that the incident is not viewed as a provocation or an intentional action, and that it does not lead to destabilising the situation," the Russian foreign ministry said.

Mr Erdogan raised the heat on the Assad regime by accusing it of shooting down the jet while it was in international airspace, without warning. "This is a hostile act … a heinous attack," Mr Erdogan said. "Turkey will exercise its rights, born out of international law, with determination, and take the necessary steps by determining the time, place and method by itself."

Mr Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad, has become one of the Syrian leader's biggest critics and his reaction to the downing of the jet is his fiercest outburst to date. Mr Erdogan admitted the Turkish plane had violated Syrian airspace but said it was only for a short time and "by mistake," insisting that it was not in Syrian airspace when it was shot down. Damascus has defended the downing of the jet, saying it was a response to "a gross violation" of its sovereignty.

After a request from Turkey, NATO's secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen hosted talks with ambassadors of the alliance's 28 members in Brussels. "Allies have expressed their strong support and solidarity with Turkey," Rasmussen said after the 90-minute meeting. We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms. It is another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life," he said as the jet's two-man crew remain missing. Let me make this clear. The security of the alliance is indivisible. We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity."

Turkey requested the consultations under Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty, enabling any of the allies to call for talks should they consider their territorial integrity, political independence or security to be under threat. But NATO has so far been notably reluctant to get sucked into the conflict in Syria.

The former chief of the main opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, meanwhile, told AFP he visited Syria for a few hours on Tuesday to "boost the morale" of rebels. Mr Ghalioun, a senior SNC executive board member, spoke to AFP in Beirut by telephone after his first visit to Syria in more than two years, and said he entered the country secretly and had "discussions with revolutionaries." "The visit was also a bit to offer compassion to our people who have been killed, massacred and slaughtered" by regime forces, he added.

Meanwhile Amnesty International said on Tuesday three medics were tortured and killed in Syria a week after their arrest in the city of Aleppo in what it said was an "appalling disregard" for the profession. All three men were students at Aleppo University — Basel Aslan and Musab Barad were fourth-year medical students and Hazem Batikh was a second-year English literature student and a first-aid medic, Amnesty said. "The discovery of the charred and mutilated bodies of three young medical workers a week after their arrest in Aleppo city is yet further evidence of the Syrian government forces' appalling disregard for the sanctity of the role of medical workers," a statement said.

Mossad accused of Hamas killing
The Australian
Friday June 29, 2012

DAMASCUS: A senior member of Hamas has been killed in a suburb of the Syrian capital, a member of the group said yesterday, accusing Israel's spy agency, Mossad, of being behind the attack. Israel's Defence Minister responded coyly to the suggestion, telling army radio: "I'm not sure that that's necessarily right."

Hamas said Kamal Hussein Ghannaja was killed on Wednesday. "A group of people entered his home in Qudsaya … where he was liquidated," the official said. "According to our information, Mossad was behind the assassination." Ghannaja was one of the deputies of Mahmud al-Mabhuh, a senior Hamas military commander found dead in a Dubai hotel room in 2010. Investigators in the Gulf emirate accused Mossad of that murder. In Israel, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said it was not "necessarily true" that Mossad was behind Ghannaja's assassination before adding he would not mourn the Hamas member because he was not "one of the righteous of his generation".

Syria has long allowed Hamas to keep offices in Damascus but in recent months the Palestinian group has quietly moved most of its operations elsewhere, with the country in turmoil. The situation in Syria has been a key concern for Israel, and topped the agenda of talks between Israeli officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited the Jewish state this week. Mr Barak expressed hope yesterday that no new arms would be sent to Syria, adding that Mr Putin "listened perfectly to what we said", particularly on the delivery of S-300 missiles.

Technically, Israel remains at war with Syria, but the armistice line separating the countries has been quiet in recent years, leading some to suggest that the fall of President Bashar al-Assad could be bad for the Jewish state. However, in recent months, after initially declining to make public comment, Israeli leaders have condemned Mr Assad. "The Assad family is losing control over Syria," Mr Barak said. "Assad will fall, the forces of the opposition control significant parts of Syria. But the longer it takes, the more difficult it will be to stabilise the situation."

Meanwhile, UN envoy Kofi Annan has proposed setting up a Syrian transitional government that could include followers of Mr Assad and opposition members in a bid to end the war. The major powers — the US, Britain, France, China and Russia, a key Assad ally, generally back the plan, which will be discussed at a meeting tomorrow. The blueprint says the interim government could include members of Mr Assad's government and opposition groups, but not officials "whose presence could harm the transition and jeopardise the credibility of the government or undermine efforts to bring reconciliation", according to a summary by a UN diplomat. The Geneva meeting will involve the permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq.

Clinton's Israel visit calms fear on Egypt
The Australian
Tuesday July 17, 2012

JERUSALEM: Hillary Clinton last night held top-level talks with Israeli leaders expected to focus on changes sweeping the Middle East, as well as Iran and the stalled peace process. On the last leg of a 12-day, eight-nation tour — perhaps her last to the region as US Secretary of State — Mrs Clinton was also to brief Israeli leaders on a weekend trip to Egypt when she spoke to newly elected President Mohammed Morsi and military leader Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

Mrs Clinton wanted to have "a broader strategic conversation about more than a year now of great change and transformation across the region", a State Department official said. It would be a "comparing of strategic notes", he said, and she would also bring Israeli leaders "up to speed" on what was happening on the diplomatic front to end the bloodshed in Syria. Mrs Clinton would tell Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that their counterparts in Cairo had reaffirmed support for Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace accord with Israel in 1979, and Mrs Clinton has repeatedly referred to it as "the cornerstone" of regional security. Fears have been raised that Mr Morsi, who emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood to be sworn in as Egypt's first democratically elected president, might seek to renegotiate the treaty. "Israel has a deep stake in Egypt's role as a leader in regional peace and security and Egypt's commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty of peace," the US official said.

Travelling with Mrs Clinton are US Middle East envoy David Hale and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who represents Washington at the talks between world powers and Iran. Mrs Clinton met first Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. She was also to meet Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad after talks on July 6 at the start of her trip in Paris with PA President Mahmud Abbas.

Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have been on hold since late September 2010 following an intractable dispute over Jewish settlements. And the US has sought, so far in vain, to bring the two sides closer together. "Obviously, every day that goes by where there is not a peace agreement is a day that leaves us unsatisfied," the State Department official said. "Of course we would have liked to have been coming on this trip to sign a peace deal. We would have liked to have done that two years ago. The fact that we have been unable to do so is a testament to the difficulty of the challenge. But the fact that we're still at it is a testament to just how important the issue is to us, and to Mrs Clinton personally."

The Palestinians are demanding that Israel halt construction on land they want for a future state and accept a framework for talks on borders. Mr Abbas has said Israel must release 123 Palestinians it has held since before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, claiming Israel committed to free them but has yet to do so. However, Israel wants an immediate return to talks without preconditions.

Iran is also a major issue on the agenda, with the US seeking to "compare notes" with Israel both on Tehran's suspected nuclear program and "its activities in the region". Western nations and Israel have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian uranium enrichment program, charges adamantly denied by Tehran. The US has also accused Tehran of actively aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his brutal crackdown on opposition forces seeking to oust him.


Same Day
Syria civil war status crucial
Main Editorial, The Australian

THE decision by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has responsibility for applying the Geneva Conventions, to formally categorise the conflict in Syria as a civil war is a watershed development in the crisis that the Assad regime and its patrons in Moscow will be foolish to ignore.

Now that the bloodbath in Syria has been declared a "non-international conflict", the conventions apply and those contravening them are liable to face prosecution for war crimes. With UN estimates that 16,000 men, women and children have been killed, this could have major consequences for President Bashar al-Assad and those carrying out his orders. It also shows up Moscow's support for this murderous regime in a more unsavoury light. The bloodbath is being carried out principally through the use of Russian-supplied heavy artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships. Without such resources, Assad would have been driven from power. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Special Envoy Kofi Annan, on their current Moscow visit, should leave President Vladimir Putin in no doubt about the extent to which the Kremlin has damaged its own interests by its conduct over Syria.

A few days ago, it appeared to announce it was suspending the delivery of new weapons but soon we heard old orders would still be supplied. Simultaneously, 11 Russian warships were despatched to Russia's big Syrian naval base at Tartus, on the Mediterranean, in a move aimed at forestalling any potential Western attempts to interdict arms shipments. Foreign Minister Bob Carr has rightly pinpointed Russia as the key to the crisis. The mandate for the UN Syrian observer mission expires on Friday. Western nations want it renewed with a stronger resolution threatening the Assad regime with sanctions if it fails to end the violence and form a transitional administration. Russia is opposing that, too. Moscow should rethink its Syrian policy to help end the killing and before it is irredeemably tarnished by the odium surrounding Assad.

Nuclear Tehran firmly on Washington agenda
The Australian
Wednesday July 18, 2012

JERUSALEM: Washington will use "all elements of its power" to prevent Iran going nuclear and is working in "close consultation" with Israel over how to do so, Hillary Clinton says. The US Secretary of State also said yesterday talks between Israel and the Palestinians would resume only if the parties "do the hard work for peace".

Speaking at the end of a whirlwind 24-hour visit to Jerusalem, Mrs Clinton said Iran had yet to curb its nuclear ambitions, and warned that the US would stop at nothing to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb. "We will use all elements of American power," she said in remarks that carried an implied threat of military action — a course of action never ruled out by Washington. Thanks to US efforts to rally the international community to tackle the Iranian nuclear threat, Tehran was "under greater pressure than ever before", she said, indicating that the Obama administration was "pressing forward in close consultation with Israel". "We are on the same page… trying to figure our way forward to have the maximum impact on affecting the decisions Iran makes."

Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed confidence in the tough stance on Tehran. "The coalition we have built, and the measures you have taken, are beginning to have their impact," he told Mrs Clinton.


Same Day
Pentagon acts to foil Iranian threat
Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, The Wall Street Journal

The Pentagon is building a missile-defence radar station at a secret site in Qatar and organising its biggest-ever minesweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf, as preparations accelerate for a possible flare-up with Iran, according to US officials. The radar site will complete the backbone of a system designed to defend US interests and allies such as Israel and European nations against Iranian rockets, officials said. The minesweeping exercises, in September, will be the first such multilateral drills in the region, and are expected to be announced by US officials today.

The Pentagon's moves reflect concern that tensions with Iran could intensify as the full weight of sanctions targeting the country's oil exports takes hold this northern summer. Though US officials described the radar site and the naval exercises as defensive in nature, the deployments likely will be seen by Iran as provocations.

The latest measures also could help the US reassure Israel and other anxious allies that the Pentagon is taking steps to counter Iran after months of seemingly fruitless negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program. Top US officials have privately voiced concern that Israel might strike Iran's nuclear sites. Iran denies its nuclear program is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

The US moves are intended to address the two Iranian offensive capabilities Pentagon planners most worry about: Tehran's arsenal of ballistic missiles and its threat to shut down the oil-shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz by mining them. Underscoring concerns, the Pentagon said Monday it is sending an aircraft carrier, the John C. Stennis, to the Middle East several months early to ensure two carriers are present in the region at all times. One of two aircraft carriers now in the area was scheduled to leave before its replacement arrived, prompting the Pentagon to send the Stennis.

The rising tensions in the Persian Gulf were apparent Monday when the USNS Rappahannock, a Navy refueling ship with a mostly civilian crew, fired on a small boat in the waters off the United Arab Emirates, killing one fisherman, according to a UAE official.

The Pentagon chose to place the new radar site in Qatar because it is home to the largest US military air base in the region, al-Udeid Air Base, analysts say. More than 8000 troops are stationed there and at another US base in Qatar.

Qatari officials in Washington and Doha did not respond to requests for comment. Qatar has taken on roles in conflicts in Libya and Syria, winning US praise. Qatar guards a more neutral stance when it comes to Iran, maintaining close relations with Tehran, which shares ownership with Doha of the region's largest natural gas field.

The radar base in Qatar is slated to house a powerful AN/TPY-2 radar, also known as an X-Band radar, and supplement two similar arrays already in place in Israel's Negev Desert and in central Turkey, officials said. Together, the radar sites form an arc that US officials say can detect missile launches from northern, western and southern Iran. Those sites will enable US officials and allied militaries to track missiles launched from deep inside Iran, which has an arsenal of missiles capable of reaching Israel and parts of Europe. Intelligence agencies believe Iran could have a ballistic missile as early as 2015 that could threaten the US.

The radar installations in turn are being linked to missile-interceptor batteries throughout the region and to US ships with high-altitude interceptor rockets. The X-Band radar provides images that can be used to pinpoint rockets in flight. Officials said the US military also wanted to deploy the army's first Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile-interceptor system to the region in the coming months, possibly in the United Arab Emirates.


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