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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at his election campaign headquarters
after being re-elected for a third term. Source: Getty Images
Israel's top priority is stopping Iran gaining nuclear weapons says Netanyahu
The Australian Online
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

THE top priority of the new Israeli government will be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said shortly after his Likud-Beitenu list won a narrow election victory. In a stunning setback, Mr Netanyahu's hard-line bloc fared worse than expected in a parliamentary election, exit polls showed, possibly forcing the incumbent Israeli leader to invite surprisingly strong moderate rivals into his government and soften his line toward the Palestinians.

But that did not stop Mr Netanyahu from outlining his post-election priorities for Israel. "The government that we shall form will be based on five principles," he told supporters at a victory speech. "The first challenge … to prevent a nuclear Iran," he said, referring to Tehran's civilian nuclear program, which Israel and much of the West sees as a guise for developing a weapons capability.

Throughout his nearly four-year term as premier, Mr Netanyahu has consistently said that preventing a nuclear Iran was his top priority. At the official launch of his reelection campaign last month, he reiterated that his "first mission as prime minister" would be that. At a speech before the UN's General Assembly in September, Mr Netanyahu warned that if Iran continued work at the current pace, it could have the necessary material for a first bomb by mid-2013. Israel has refused to rule out a military strike to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, although analysts doubt it has the military capability to carry out an effective strike alone.

Mr Netanyahu noted the other principles of a new government he would form as stabilising the economy, striving for peace, leading to more egalitarian military and civilian service, and reducing the cost of living.

TV exit polls showed the hard-liners with about 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, a bare majority, and the counts could change as actual votes are tallied. The unofficial TV results had Mr Netanyahu winning only 31 seats, though he combined his Likud Party with the far-right Yisrael Beitenu for the voting. Running separately four years ago, the two won 42 seats. If they hold up through the actual vote counting, the unexpected results could be seen as a setback for Mr Netanyahu's tough policies. The coalition-building process could force him to promise concessions to restart long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

Addressing cheering supporters earlier, Mr Netanyahu pledged to work for a broad-based government. Also he said, he would show "responsibility in striving for a genuine peace." Mr Netanyahu made a quick phone call to a newcomer on Israel's political stage, Yair Lapid, whose centrist party debuted with a strong showing of 19 seats, making it the second-largest party after Mr Netanyahu's.

Nearly 67 per cent of Israel's 5.5 million eligible voters took part, more than in previous elections — apparently giving boosts to the centrists, especially Mr Lapid's new "Yesh Atid" or "There is a future" party. Mr Lapid's surprise showing could make him a key Cabinet minister should he decide to join Netanyahu's government. A Likud official said Mr Netanyahu phoned Mr Lapid after the results and told him, "We have the opportunity to do great things together."

Mr Lapid and other centrist parties have said they would not join Mr Netanyahu's team unless the prime minister promises to make a serious push for peace with the Palestinians. The moderates also want an end to the generous subsidies and military draft exemptions given to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. "We have red lines. We won't cross those red lines, even if it will force us to sit in the opposition," said Yaakov Peri, a former security chief and one of Yesh Atid's leaders, told Channel 2 TV.

The conflicting positions of the various parties point up the difficulties facing anyone who tries to set up a coalition government in Israel. If Mr Netanyahu relies only on the religious and hard-line parties, it means constant fights with the opposition over social programs. If he tries to team up with the centrists, it means battles with the ultra-Orthodox over subsidies, as well as internal sniping over concessions to the Palestinians.

Some predicted Mr Netanyahu might even fail to form a government. "Netanyahu's victory is a pyrrhic victory, and it is not clear he will be the next prime minister," said Israeli political analyst Yaron Ezrahi. "Netanyahu will face difficulty in constructing a viable coalition," Mr Ezrahi said, estimating the life span of the next Israeli government at no more than 18 months.

Mr Netanyahu has won praise at home for drawing the world's attention to Iran's suspect nuclear program and for keeping the economy on solid ground at a time of global turmoil. But internationally, he has repeatedly clashed with allies over his handling of the peace process. Peace talks with the Palestinians have remained stalled throughout his term, in large part because of his continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu himself has only grudgingly voiced conditional support for a Palestinian state, and his own party is now dominated by hard-liners who oppose even this. A likely coalition partner, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, which won 12 seats, has called for annexing large parts of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.

Palestinians viewed the election results grimly, seeing it as entrenching a pro-settlement government. "Even if Netanyahu brings some centre-left parties to his coalition, he will continue building in the settlements, he said that clearly and that is what we expect him to do," said Mohammed Shtayeh, an aide to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In all, 32 parties ran in the election, and 11 won enough votes to enter parliament, according to the exit polls. Israelis vote by putting a slip with a party's initials into an envelope and dropping the envelope into a ballot box, so the process of counting all the votes by hand takes many hours. Two hours after the polling stations closed, the official Election Commission had published results of only 60,000 votes out of about 3.5 million cast. In a sign of the times, many Israelis advertised their voting choice by photographing their ballot slips and uploading them to Facebook.

Coalition key to Benjamin Netanyahu holding on in Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, January 24, 2013

BENJAMIN Netanyahu will attempt to cling to power by trying to form a new coalition after a 60-60 dead-heat between Israel's right-wing and centre-left blocs. In the closest result in Israeli history, voters dealt a surprise setback to Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, which polls had consistently predicted would win easily. The big winner of the election was Yesh Atid, the new centrist party of former TV journalist Yair Lapid, which has became Israel's second-biggest political force.

The Prime Minister claimed victory, but Israel's Elections Committee declared a 60-60 result. Mr Netanyahu told supporters that he had already begun working on a coalition government "as broad-based as possible". He immediately called Mr Lapid and told him: "We have an opportunity to do great things for Israel. The election campaign is behind us and we can now focus on action for the benefit of all of Israel."

A triumphant Mr Lapid told his supporters: "I call on political leaders to work with me, together, to form the widest possible government, which will include moderate elements from the Left and the Right to bring about real change." He said the result showed Israelis had rejected "extremism and hatred".

In the 120-seat Knesset, Mr Netanyahu's Likud, which ran a joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu, won 31 seats — 11 fewer seats than the two parties won in 2009. Yesh Atid — There is a Future — won 19; Labor 15; Jewish Home 11; Shas 11; United Torah Judaism 7; Tzipi Livni's HaTnua 6; Meretz 6; Raam-Taal 5; Hadash 4; Balad 3; and Kadima 2. At the last election, in 2009, Kadima won 28; Likud 27; Yisrael Beiteinu 15; Shas 11; Labor 13; and Jewish Home 3.

Under Israel's system, the close result means President Shimon Peres must make the final judgment as to which bloc is best able to form a stable government. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lapid now have six weeks to present to Mr Peres potential coalition governments. As leader of the biggest election ticket, Mr Netanyahu has an advantage. However, if Mr Peres decides that his coalition is unlikely to be stable he can order fresh elections.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich immediately declared she would attempt to form a coalition with Mr Lapid. "Tomorrow morning the hard political work begins," she told supporters. She would seek to form "a social and peace-seeking coalition, a coalition that is not led by Benjamin Netanyahu". Even if Mr Netanyahu remains Prime Minister, it leaves him in a weaker position than at any time in the past four years and sets the scene for unstable government.

Mr Lapid has fashioned Yesh Atid as a centrist party committed to improving living standards for the middle class. The performance of Mr Lapid, who supports a peace deal with the Palestinians, largely offset the influence of Jewish Home's ultranationalist leader Naftali Bennett, who said during the campaign that he was "vehemently" opposed to a Palestinian state.

Mr Netanyahu began the campaign strongly on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Voter turnout was strong at about 66 per cent, which appears to have helped the centre-left bloc. Israel's proportional representation system means governments are inevitably coalitions in which small parties can extract benefits in exchange for their support.

Jewish Home performed worse than polls had predicted, but much stronger than previously. Mr Bennett told supporters the party had returned to the centre stage of Israeli politics and that it had become a new home for those wanting "a proud, non-servile Zionism".

Analyst Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in Maariv: "The real and biggest winner of the elections is indeed Yair Lapid." He said several factors contributed to Mr Lapid's success, including the "disgust" with existing politicians, the flight from Mr Netanyahu and Likud, and the continuing impact of the social protests of 2011.


Same Day Commentary
Israelis vote for status quo on West Bank
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

THE two-state solution has been given a late stay of execution. The extremist pro-settler Right did not triumph in yesterday's Israeli election, as the polls had suggested it would. With 99.5 per cent of the vote counted, the right-bloc had 60 seats and the centre-left bloc 60.

In recent weeks, the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel has taken a pounding, led by the pro-settler party Jewish Home. Under Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home ran on a "Greater Israel" vision, saying it was "vehemently opposed" to a Palestinian state and in favour of annexing 60 per cent of the West Bank. But another charismatic figure, a leather jacket-wearing television journalist, has spoilt the settlers' party. Yair Lapid, 49, a centre-left commentator who has frequently spoken out against Jewish settlements and in favour of a Palestinian state, became a major new force in Israeli politics yesterday, winning 19 seats, while Jewish Home won only 11 or 12.

Lapid did not run hard on peace issues. The only leader who did, the HaTnua party's Tzipi Livni, won only seven seats. Lapid's focus was on pressures on the middle class: the high cost of living, particularly housing. Lapid has followed in the footsteps of his father, Tommy, also a journalist who became a politician. Tommy Lapid was a Holocaust survivor who became justice minister and a strong supporter of peace efforts.

His son will come under significant international pressure, particularly from the US and Europe, to push for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year he formed his own party, Yesh Atid. His 19 seats more than offset the seats gained by Jewish Home. Israeli commentator David Landau highlighted Lapid's new role. "Yair Lapid is now carrying the burden of the two-state solution," he told the BBC.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to pull together a coalition. But if Lapid takes his 19 seats to Labor's Shelly Yachimovich, who won 15, he may attempt to form his own coalition — changing the entire political landscape.

Kingmaker Yair Lapid endorses Benjamin Netanyahu
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Friday, January 25, 2013

ISRAEL's new political kingmaker, Yair Lapid, has endorsed the Likud-led government, guaranteeing that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as Prime Minister. After a day of speculation that he might try to form a "preventive coalition", Mr Lapid rejected overtures from the Labor Party to form a Centre-Left government. Speaking outside his Tel Aviv home, he said: "I heard talk about establishing a (Centre-Left) bloc — I want to take this option off the table."

Mr Lapid, a 49-year-old former television anchorman, this week dramatically changed Israel's political landscape. In Tuesday's election, he won 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset after starting Yesh Atid — There is a Future — only last year. While opinion polls had suggested a dramatic swing to the Right under Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett's pro-settler party, Mr Lapid instead added a strong centrist element to a third Netanyahu government.

Mr Netanyahu began negotiations with various parties to try to build the coalition. He has three weeks to present a new coalition to President Shimon Peres. If he cannot, Mr Peres can give him an additional three weeks and if, after that, he still is unable, Mr Peres can order fresh elections.

Mr Netanyahu yesterday appeared to be setting the groundwork for Mr Lapid's entry into the coalition. He nominated the issue of drafting ultra-orthodox Israelis, or Haredim, into the army as one of the top priorities of his new government. Mr Lapid, whose support base is largely secular Israelis, campaigned on the Haredim having to "share the burden" of military service. His late father, Tommy, a Holocaust survivor who also left journalism and became Israel's justice minister, was also a strong believer that the Haredim should make the same contributions to Israeli society as non-Haredim. Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, decreed that a Jewish state should financially support religious students — but at the time there were only a few hundred. Today, there are an estimated 60,000 ultra-orthodox students with military exemptions.

In contrast to the apparent embracing of Mr Lapid's agenda, the pro-settler paper Makor Rishon-Hatzofe reported that Mr Netanyahu had so far left Mr Bennett out of coalition talks.

Jostling began yesterday for key positions in the new government. Amid much speculation that Mr Lapid would be offered the foreign minister's portfolio to help improve Israel's international image, Avigdor Lieberman, the man who has held the position until corruption charges sidelined him, suggested an alternative. "I think Lapid, who speaks about the middle class and the socio-economic protests, should naturally focus on domestic issues and take the finance portfolio," he said.

The international community, particularly the US and Europe, is likely to make a renewed effort to push for a two-state solution. As Israel went to the polls on Tuesday, Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: "If we do not make progress in the coming year, people will increasingly conclude that a two-state solution has become impossible." The US made a similar call.

The Palestinian Authority's Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Malki, was reported as saying the Israeli election result could lead to a resumption of peace talks on the condition Israel complied with last November's resolution upgrading the Palestinians to a "non-member observer status". Israel Radio News reported that he said if Israel continued to expand construction in settlements, the Palestinians would have no choice but to lodge a complaint with the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has become the first non-Arab head of government to visit Gaza as an official guest of Hamas.
Source: PerthNow
Anger over Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak's visit to Gaza
Weekend Australian
Rowan Callick, Asia-pacific Editor
Saturday, January 26, 2013

MALAYSIA'S Prime Minister Najib Razak has become the first non-Arab head of government to visit Gaza as an official guest of Hamas, provoking storms of controversy in Kuala Lumpur, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement bitterly opposes Hamas despite sporadic moves towards reconciliation, issued a statement saying he "rejects and denounces the visit" by Mr Najib. Mr Abbas "believes the visit undermines the representation of the Palestinian people. It enhances division and does not service Palestinian interests," his office said.

An Israeli government official described the visit as an "aberration", saying that virtually the entire international community — with Malaysia now a prime exception — refused to engage with Hamas until it gave up terrorism, recognised Israel, and accepted the agreements made so far between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Mr Najib faces national polls in Malaysia this year. His surprise gesture of solidarity with Hamas was attacked at home by the Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS) — Malaysia's most vociferously and successfully Islamic party — which derided the visit to Gaza as "hypocritical".

At a joint press conference with Hamas's Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, Mr Najib said: "I came here to express my solidarity with the Palestinian people." This was a message he was also sending back to Malaysia, where before June 27 he has to hold an election at which his UMNO party faces its biggest challenge since coming to power in 1957.

The resurgent opposition is led by popular Anwar Ibrahim, and includes political and religious moderates as well as the PAS. Nasrudin Hassan Tantawi, head of PAS's youth division, attacked Mr Najib's visit to Gaza as "hypocritical" — claiming its goal was domestically targeted.

But Khairy Jamaluddin, head of UMNO's youth division, responded that "Nasrudin should have set aside political expediency by fully backing the visit, which reflects Malaysians' support for the Palestinian cause". He said it was Mr Nasrudin who had "dragged politics into a humanitarian struggle to free Palestine and its people from the decades-long repression by the Zionist regime".

Mr Najib, who was accompanied by ministerial colleagues, said in Cairo following his visit: "Israel's brutality in Gaza was heart-rending for the people of Malaysia … It was only apt for me to visit the Palestinian enclave to express our support for their struggle." Mr Najib entered Gaza from Egypt, at Rafah. He was accompanied by his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor; Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman; and the junior minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom.

About 62 per cent of Malaysia's 29 million population are Muslims. Malaysia does not recognise Israel diplomatically, but trade has grown rapidly in recent years, to almost $1 billion a year.

Israel admits it carried out Syria raid
The Australian Online
Monday, February 4, 2013

ISRAEL'S defence minister has strongly signalled that his country was behind an airstrike in Syria last week, telling a high profile security conference that Israeli threats to take pre-emptive action against its enemies are not empty."We mean it," Ehud Barak declared.

Israel has not officially confirmed its planes attacked a site near Damascus, targeting ground-to-air missiles apparently heading for Lebanon, but its intentions have been beyond dispute. During the 22 months of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed concern that high-end weapons could fall into the hands of enemy Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militants. For years, Israel has been charging that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006.

US officials say the target was a convoy of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Deployed in Lebanon, they could have limited Israel's ability to gather intelligence on its enemies from the air. Over the weekend, Syrian TV broadcast video of the Wednesday attack site for the first time, showing destroyed vehicles and a damaged building identified as a scientific research centre. The US officials said the airstrike hit both the building and the convoy.

In his comments in Munich, Mr Barak came close to confirming that his country was behind the operation. "I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago," Mr Barak told the gathering of top diplomats and defence officials from around the world. Then he went on to say, "I keep telling frankly that we said — and that's proof when we said something we mean it — we say that we don't think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon." He spoke in heavily accented English.

While Israel has remained officially silent on the airstrike, there seemed little doubt that Israel carried it out, especially given the confirmation from the US, its close ally. Israel has a powerful air force equipped with US-made warplanes and has a history of carrying out air raids on hostile territory. In recent years, Israel has been blamed for an air raid in Syria in 2007 that apparently struck an unfinished nuclear reactor and an arms convoy in Sudan believed to be delivering weapons to Hamas.

Israel has not confirmed either raid, but military officials routinely talk about a "policy of prevention" meant to disrupt the flow of arms to its enemies. In the days preceding the airstrike, the Israeli warnings were heightened. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a series of dire comments about the threat posed by Syria's weapons. Israel considers any transfer of these advanced weapons to be unacceptable "game changers" that would change the balance of power in the region.

Israel has grown increasingly jittery as the Arab Spring has swept through the Middle East, bringing with it a rise of hostile Islamist elements. While Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel's northern front with Syria has remained quiet for most of the past 40 years. If Assad is toppled, the threat of al-Qa'ida forces operating along Israel's frontier with Syria would pose a new and unpredictable threat. Israel has been racing to reinforce its fences along its northern frontiers with Lebanon and Syria. In addition, Israel fears that its arch-enemy Iran, the close ally of Syria and Hezbollah, is moving closer to developing a nuclear weapon. Israeli leaders have vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, making veiled threats to use force if international diplomacy and sanctions fail.

Israeli defence officials tried to play down Mr Barak's comments, saying that he was voicing a general policy that Israel is ready to defend its interests and not discussing a specific incident. They also noted that he was not speaking in his native Hebrew. Even so, it seemed that Mr Barak, a former prime minister, military chief of staff and regular participant on the world stage, was sending a message that Israel's warnings are not hollow and that further military action should not be ruled out.

Obama peace agenda urgent on Israel visit
The Australian Online
Ian Deitch, AAP
Wednesday, February 6, 2013

PRESIDENT Barack Obama will bring an "urgent" peacemaking agenda to Israel during his upcoming visit, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro says. The White House says Obama will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Obama's previous term in office saw relations with Netanyahu deteriorate in part over failed talks with the Palestinians but also due to the two leaders' different world views. The visit will be Obama's first as president. No date has been released for the trip but Israel media suggest Obama will begin his visit on March 20.

Shapiro gave several interviews to Israeli media on Wednesday morning, with the same message. "We have a very urgent agenda," Shapiro told Army radio. "We have a very complex agenda about Iran, Syria and the need to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, so it's important to begin as fast as possible," he said. The White House has not released the date of Obama's trip or details about Obama's itinerary, but Israel's Channel 10 reported it had been scheduled for March 20. The visit raises expectations that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which collapsed about four years ago, can be rekindled.

Palestinians refuse to resume the talks unless Israel stops building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, although the Jewish state has stepped up construction in the territories since the UN recognised a de facto state of Palestine there in November. Israel says all issues, including territorial disputes, must be resolved through negotiations. It has frequently called for talks to be restarted.

Shapiro said that Obama will meet with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank along with the King of Jordan, who has had a role in peacemaking efforts, during his visit. "President Obama is not coming with conditions or demands. He is coming to confer with all our partners about problems and challenges we are dealing with in the region," Shapiro told Israel radio. He said that Obama isn't "seeking a specific result" but wants to confer about ways of "bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiation table."

Although Obama visited Israel and Jordan while running for president in 2008, he hasn't been back since, drawing intense criticism from some pro-Israel groups who have claimed he is insufficiently supportive of the United States' closest Mideast ally. Other top administration officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have visited, and Clinton's replacement, John Kerry, is expected to travel to Israel on his first Mideast trip.

Shapiro said Obama will visit after Israel's new government has been formed. The announcement of the visit comes at a time of uncertainty for Netanyahu, who left January's election weakened. The emergence of a new centrist party in Israel's election offered hope to those urging the hawkish Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians a higher priority. Shapiro shrugged off questions about relations between Obama and Netanyahu. "The personal chemistry between them is excellent. They know how to work together," he said. Obama will also discuss Iran's nuclear program, the danger of Syrian chemical weapons reaching militants and other regional issues, Shapiro said.

Israel's Lapid comes out fighting
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ISRAEL'S new political kingmaker has laid out his priorities for the next government, making clear the ultra-orthodox will have to "share the burden" and insisting on new peace talks with Palestinians.

Yair Lapid, in his first speech to the Knesset since the recent election, echoed the platform his party ran on in the recently concluded election. He also made a scathing assessment of the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation. "This is not a democracy, it is anarchy," he said. The comments came as the Israeli government gave final approval for a further 90 settler homes in Beit El.

Mr Lapid, a former television presenter, stunned analysts by leading his new party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), to win 19 seats. This gives him control of the second-largest bloc of votes in the Knesset and puts him in a strategic position to influence the new government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yesterday, Mr Lapid reinforced the major issue of his campaign that the ultra-orthodox should perform national service, including in the army, the way other Israelis do. "We must not be alarmed by the fact that this debate has again caused voices to be raised, threatening us with civil war," he said. "There will be no civil war here. Ten per cent of the population cannot threaten the other 90 per cent with civil war. A civilised society does not resort to threats, and if this house avoids taking action because of threats, this empties the whole democratic idea of content."

Reports suggest Mr Lapid will be offered the job of foreign minister. But the last foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Mr Lapid will not be offered the position.

Under Israel's electoral system, the leader of the largest bloc of votes has six weeks to convince the President, Shimon Peres, that he can form a stable government. Mr Netanyahu must be able to prove that 61 of the 120-member Knesset will support him. If he cannot do this, Mr Peres has the power to call a new election.

While Mr Netanyahu has embraced Mr Lapid since the election, he has shown less warmth towards Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party. Israeli media have reported Mr Netanyahu's coldness towards Mr Bennett has been due to hostility from his wife, Sara, towards Mr Bennett. They reported that Mr Bennett yesterday apologised to Mr Netanyahu for disparaging remarks he made about Mrs Netanyahu during the election campaign.

Iran trying to 'greatly expand' nuclear capability
The Australian Online
Friday, February 15, 2013

IRAN tried to smuggle thousands of specialised magnets through China for its centrifuges, in an effort to speed its path to reaching nuclear weapons capability, according to a new US report. The report, by a renowned American nuclear scientist, said the operation highlighted the importance of China as a transit point for Iran's nuclear program, and called for sanctions against any Chinese firms involved.

The Institute for Science and International Security report said an Iranian front company used a Chinese commercial website to try to acquire 100,000 ring-shaped magnets, which it is banned from importing under United Nations sanctions, in late 2011. Two magnets were needed for each of 50,000 first-generation centrifuges used to enrich uranium at Iran's nuclear plants, in a process that Western powers say is designed to build nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

The ISIS report by US scientist David Albright suggested that the operation meant that Iran was trying to "greatly expand" its number of first-generation centrifuges even as it builds more advanced machines. "China needs to do more to show that it is a responsible member of the global economy," the report said. "In particular, it should crack down on the efforts of Iranian smuggling networks." The ISIS said it could not establish whether Iran found a Chinese supplier willing to provide the ring magnets.

The Washington Post, which first reported the ISIS report, quoted a European diplomat with access to intelligence as saying Iran was positioning itself to make swift progress on its nuclear program. "Each step forward makes the situation potentially more dangerous," the unnamed diplomat was quoted as saying.

The White House would not comment explicitly on the ISIS report but said that it was aware of Iran's "aggressive" efforts to avert UN sanctions. "The unprecedented international sanctions put in place against Iran are not only designed to crystallise the choice for the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program, but also to deter and disrupt Iranian procurement of components to support its nuclear program," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The report will raise new concerns about the extent of progress in Iran's nuclear program, despite international sanctions, which will be at the top of the agenda when President Barack Obama visits Israel next month. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Iran was now closer to crossing the "red line" after which it would be able to build a nuclear weapon but had not yet reached that stage. It will also raise the stakes for the latest round of talks between world powers and Tehran, due to take place in two weeks.

Kim Yong-Nam arrives at NAM conference in Tehran
Photo: REUTERS/Handout
Iranian nuclear chief observed Korean nuke test
Monday, February 17, 2013

The alleged father of Iran's nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, is believed to have been present in North Korea last week in order to observe its third nuclear test, Britain's The Sunday Times reported citing Western intelligence sources. According to the sources, Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi was responsible for the development of a warhead "small enough to fit on to one of the ballistic missiles developed by Iran from North Korean prototypes," the report stated. North Korea said its test on Tuesday had "greater explosive force" than the 2006 and 2009 tests, which were widely seen as small-scale.

The report echoes comments made earlier in the week by a security expert that the nuclear test may have also been carried out on behalf of Iran, and in the presence of Iranian atomic scientists.

North Korea is making progress both in its nuclear weapons capabilities and its ICBM missile research, Dr. Alon Levkowitz, coordinator of Bar-Ilan University 's Asian Studies Program and a member of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, told The Jerusalem Post. "The most disturbing question is whether the Iranians are using North Korea as a backdoor plan for their own nuclear program. The Iranians didn 't carry out a nuclear test in Iran, but they may have done so in North Korea," Levkowitz said. "There is no official information on this … but Iran may have bypassed inspections via North Korea. If true, this is a very worrying development."

Speaking to the Post in April, sources highly familiar with North Korea said a nuclear test was imminent, and that Iranian scientists could be present at the explosion site. During North Korea 's previous two nuclear detonations, Iranian nuclear scientists were present, according to several indicators, Levkowitz said.

It remains unclear whether the North Koreans detonated a plutonium- based nuclear device or one that was based on enriched uranium on Tuesday. The latter option would further suggest increased cooperation with Iran, he added. "There is regular cooperation, since the 1980s, between North Korea and Iran. North Korea also helped set up a plutonium nuclear facility in Syria, which was bombed by Israel in 2007, according to foreign sources," he said.

The feeble response by the international community to North Korea was due to China and Russia 's refusal to pass harsher binding UN Security Council resolutions, Levkowitz said, adding that this sent a worrying message to Iran. Tehran was learning that the international community would fail to monitor and prevent nuclear proliferation, and that consequences for blatant transgressions were mild, he added.

In April 2012, Iranian officials from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group observed a failed North Korean rocket launch, according to a report by the South Korean Yonhap news agency. Although Seoul has neither confirmed nor denied the report, it believes that a delegation of a dozen Iranian scientists may have been technically involved in North Korea 's failed long-range missile launch, which was disguised as a satellite launch. North Korea has tested two atomic bombs in recent years, once in 2006 and again in 2009 — both times after it carried out failed missile tests.

The North 's nuclear weapons program is mainly based on plutonium, while Iran is mostly relying on uranium in its efforts to build a bomb. Yet some analysts believe that Tehran may be pursuing a parallel, secret plutonium nuclear program. Similarly, North Korea is also known to have enriched uranium through spinning centrifuges, a process Pyongyang has recently made much progress in, Levkowitz said.

Responding to the North Korean test, Iran 's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday called for the destruction of all nuclear weapons in the world. The statement said countries had a right to use "peaceful" nuclear technology.

Iran also confirmed on Tuesday reports that it was diverting a portion of its enriched uranium to the Tehran Research Reactor, where it will be converted into nuclear fuel rods that cannot be used for weapons construction. Iran exercises this option whenever it wishes the international community to believe that it is moving away from a nuclear breakout stage. It is widely believed that Israel defines this breakout stage as having 240 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent.

In recent weeks, Iran sent a very different signal, by announcing that it was installing faster, more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at Natanz.

Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report

Extract: Be wary of rising China, says Lee Kuan Yew
The Australian
Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific Editor
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

LEE Kuan Yew, 89, the retired Singapore leader whose son Lee Hsien Loong is the Singapore Prime Minister, and who himself remains hugely influential in Asia, in a new book expresses concern about China's rise.

He says "America's core interest requires that it remains the superior power" in the region, which is subject to a 21st-century "contest for supremacy" with China. The very name China, he says — Middle Kingdom — recalls a region in which it was dominant, "when other states related to them as supplicants to a superior. Will an industrialised and strong China be as benign to Southeast Asia as the US has been since 1945 ' Singapore is not sure. Neither is Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand or Vietnam." He says "many small and medium countries in Asia are concerned. They are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries, and have misgivings as being treated as vassal states".

"China tells us that countries big or small are equal, that it is not a hegemon (i.e. a chief)," Mr Lee writes. "But when we do something they do not like, they say you have made 1.3 billion people unhappy. So please know your place."

He says "the Chinese must avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars. The Russian mistake was that they put so much into military expenditure and so little into civilian technology that their economy collapsed. I believe the Chinese leadership has learned that if you compete with America in armaments, you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So keep your head down, and smile for 40 or 50 years."

He anticipates that "China will inevitably catch up to the US in absolute gross domestic product. But its creativity may never match America's because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas". China is not going to become a liberal democracy, he says. "If it did, it would collapse. If you believe there is going to be a revolution of some sort in China for democracy, you are wrong." To achieve modernisation, he says, "China's communist leaders are prepared to try every method except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multi-party system." For the party believes it needs a monopoly on power for stability. It fears a loss of control by the centre over the provinces.

Mr Lee says of the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping: "He is reserved — not in the sense that he will not talk to you but in the sense that he will not betray his likes and dislikes. There is always a pleasant smile on his face, whether or not you have said something that annoyed him. He has iron in his soul."

Bashar al-Assad regime 'ready to talk'
The Australian Online
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

THE Syrian regime is ready for talks with armed rebels and anyone who favours dialogue, President Bashar al-Assad's Foreign Minister said in Moscow last night in the first such offer by a top Syrian official. Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was in Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country is one of the few big powers to still maintain ties with Assad's regime. Russia has renewed calls for rebels and the regime to engage in direct negotiations to end the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, warning that pressing for a military victory risked destroying Syria.

"We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms," Mr Muallem said at the talks with Mr Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the Assad regime. Pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the "external and internal opposition", Mr Muallem, added: "We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem."

Mr Lavrov said alongside Mr Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks. "There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition," said Mr Lavrov. "The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention."

Mr Lavrov added the situation in Syria was "at the crossroads" but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found. "There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society," he said. "But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement. The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing."

He warned there was no point for the sides trying to fight towards a "victorious end" and warned the Assad regime not to give into what Mr Lavrov termed "provocations". "The need for the Syrian leadership not to allow provocations to prevail has increased manyfold," he said. Mr Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

Russia has been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

Obama will find an Israel adrift
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, March 2, 2013

SOMEONE important must be coming. Suddenly, after months of calm, a frenzy has gripped both Israelis and Palestinians. Political deals are being made, confrontations in the occupied West Bank are escalating and for the first time in three months a rocket has been fired from Gaza into Israel.

It's the US President. Some on the Right in Israel criticised Barack Obama for not visiting in his first term. It was proof, they said, that he did not support Israel. Now he's being criticised for coming and meddling in Israel's affairs.

Strange things are happening. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to form a government after the January election, has just appointed bitter rival Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister with a special mandate to negotiate a peace settlement with the Palestinians. "Impressing the Americans is the only reason he would take her," Hebrew University's Gideon Rahat told The Weekend Australian. "Livni is quite useful to Netanyahu to try to show he's moderate." According to Israeli commentator Uri Dromi, Ms Livni's appointment is meant to signal to the US and to Europe that Mr Netanyahu means business. "Having said that, all Netanyahu is doing is political survival, so the leash she gets might be very short."

Mr Obama's visit later this month comes as the 65-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens. Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote this week that despite the boredom of Israelis with the conflict, a third intifada, or uprising, "looms more threateningly than usual". Israeli defence journalist Alex Fishman said to cool tempers in the West Bank Israel had begun to fill "the Obama basket" of goodwill. "A few prisoners will be released, a few restrictions will be eased, a little bit of money will be released and other assorted goodies," he wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth. But he cautioned: "One of the things feeding the Palestinian frustration and greasing the wheels of the next intifada is the fact that while Israel does as it fancies in the territories, the Arab world has simply lost all interest in the Palestinians. It has bigger problems to deal with."

The Obama visit comes in the extraordinary context that there may not be a government ready by then. Mr Netanyahu is having trouble forming a government for two reasons — Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.

Mr Lapid's Yesh Atid scored a spectacular debut, winning 19 of the Knesset's 120 seats, making it the second-biggest force in Israeli politics, while Mr Bennett's pro-settler Jewish Home won 12. Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett have formed a rock-solid alliance — they're either both in or both out — and Mr Lapid has said he will not join a government with the ultra-orthodox party Shas. Without Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett, Mr Netanyahu's majority would be precariously small.

While the new partners disagree over a Palestinian state — Mr Lapid supports one while Mr Bennett is not only opposed but wants Israel to annex the majority of the West Bank — they insist the ultra-orthodox (the Haredim), should do national service. "Yair Lapid believes that a middle class that works, pays taxes and serves in the military should not have to support others," says Professor Rahat. "For Naftali Bennett and the national religious, serving in the military is an important part of their ethos and they are an important force in the army."

Mr Lapid's popularity keeps growing. A new poll says he would win 24 seats in any new election, making him a possible prime minister and giving him every reason, now, to negotiate hard. "Did anyone imagine … Bennett would refuse to join a coalition with the Haredim only because Lapid … had refused to join a coalition with them ?" political analyst Sima Kadmon asked in Yedioth Ahronoth.

The election saw a major change. There are now more "national religious" in the Knesset than "ultra-orthodox". Professor Rahat says the difference is huge. "The national religious are people who see a synthesis between religion and state," he says. "Israel is the fulfilment of their religious vision. For the ultra-orthodox, the state is threatening their way of life."

On the Palestinian impasse, columnist Uri Dromi says it is unfair Mr Netanyahu is given all the blame. "The Palestinians might have made a strategic decision to stall, while gaining world support, and they take it all through one, bi-national state," he said. He says an Obama announcement of new peace talks would be meaningless "unless he bangs heads together, which I doubt". "Therefore, I believe he will try to speak to both peoples above the heads of their leaders. Except for symbolic meaning, I don't think it will produce something tangible."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Same Day
Kerry: Erdogan's Remarks On Zionism 'Objectionable'
Based on reporting by Reuters, AP & AFP

US Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States finds recent comments on Zionism by Turkey's prime minister "objectionable."

Speaking at a UN-organized conference in Vienna on February 27, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Islamophobia ought to be considered a crime against humanity "just like Zionism, anti-Semitism, and fascism."

Speaking on March 1 at a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Kerry said, "We not only disagree with it, but we find it objectionable." Kerry stressed the "urgent need to promote a spirit of tolerance, and that includes all of the public statements made by all leaders." He said he raised the remarks "very directly" with Davutoglu and would do the same when he met Prime Minister Erdogan later on March 1. "Turkey and Israel are both vital allies of the United States and we want to see them work together in order to be able to go beyond the rhetoric and begin to take concrete steps to change this relationship," Kerry added.

Israel's prime minister has called Erdogan's comments "dark and mendacious." The White House issued a statement condemning them. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described them as "unfortunate, hurtful, and divisive."

Turkey was once Israel's only Muslim ally, but relations have deteriorated sharply in recent years.

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with The Sunday Times in Damascus on Thursday.
Picture: Sunday Times via AP video Source: The Times
Extract: I'm not going anywhere: Assad
The Australian
Hala Jaber in Damascus, The Sunday Times
Monday, March 4, 2013

AFTER 23 months of a conflict that has ripped his country apart, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was in no mood to contemplate giving up the fight and going into exile. "No patriotic person will think about living outside his country. I am like any other patriotic Syrian," he said in an interview last week, when I asked if he would leave to improve the prospects for peace. In any case, he said, it was nonsense to suggest that the conflict was about the president and his future. "If this argument is correct, then my departure will stop the fighting. Clearly this is absurd, and recent precedents in Libya, Yemen and Egypt bear witness to this."

The interview was timed to coincide with Kerry's first foreign tour as secretary of state. Kerry met Syrian rebels in Rome last Thursday and announced that $US60 million of "non-lethal" US aid would go directly to them for the first time. "The intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal," Assad countered, pointing out that "non-lethal" technology had been used to deadly effect in the 9/11 attacks.

Describing Syria as "a melting pot of religions, sects, ethnicities and ideologies", he added: "We should be worrying about the majority of moderate Syrians who, if we do not fight this extremism, could become the minority — at which point Syria will cease to exist. If you worry about Syria, you have to worry about the Middle East, because we are the last bastion of secularism in the region. If you worry about the Middle East, the whole world should be worried about its stability."

WITH the conflict about to enter its third year, a change of attitude on both sides towards peace talks has brought a glimmer of hope, albeit a tiny one. Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the opposition alliance Syrian National Coalition, was reported last month to have dropped his insistence on the departure of Assad before any talks could take place. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, said Khatib's proposal had challenged the government to show it was ready for a peaceful settlement. However, rifts in the opposition have since emerged, with some saying Assad must step down.

Assad himself said he wanted to include many groups in talks. "The dialogue is about the future of Syria. We are 23 million Syrians and all of us have the right to participate in shaping the country's future," he said. He criticised the West for promoting the rebel Free Syrian Army as a unified entity when in reality it consisted of "hundreds of small groups".

The fear of many in the Middle East since the conflict began has been that it would draw in surrounding countries. I asked Assad if he would retaliate against Israel for last month's airstrikes on the research centre. Some reports have said the dead included an Iranian general working with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Assad said Syria had always retaliated for Israeli actions, "But we retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced." He refused to elaborate. Nor would he discuss claims that Syria has been moving its chemical weapons, apparently to prevent them from falling into the hands of extremists. "We have never, and will never, discuss our armaments with anyone," he said.

He denied reports that Russia, Hezbollah and Iran had sent soldiers to Syria, saying: "Russia has been very constructive, Iran has been very supportive and Hezbollah's role is to defend Lebanon, not Syria. "We are a country of 23 million people with a strong national army and police force. We are in no need of foreign fighters to defend our country."

In conclusion, Assad warned of grave consequences if the West armed the rebels, directly or indirectly. "You know the crime is not only about the victim and the criminal but also the accomplice providing support, whether it is moral or logistical support," he said. "Syria lies at the fault line geographically, politically, socially and ideologically. So playing with this fault line will have serious repercussions all over the Middle East. Any intervention will not make things better. It will only make them worse. Europe and the United States and others are going to pay the price sooner or later with the instability in this region. They do not foresee it."

Same Day
Sanctions only harden Iran's nuclear drive
Shlomo Ben Ami, Project Syndicate

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

NO one really believed that the latest round of international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program would produce a breakthrough. So it was no surprise that it did not, despite the concessions that were made at the meeting in Kazakhstan by the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, Britain and the US, plus Germany). America's belief that a harsh sanctions regime could coax Iran into a deal has proved — at least so far — to be unrealistic.

Despite being isolated and ostracised, Iran has managed to gain some strategic breathing room with the help of countries such as China, Russia, India, Syria and Venezuela, allowing it to resist Western pressure. More important, even though the severe sanctions regime led by the US is bound to be imperfect, it only hardens further Iran's resistance to "America's designs". To be sure, Iran's alliances are vulnerable to erosion and, in the case of staunch allies Syria and Venezuela, to outright collapse. The end of Chavismo would threaten Iran's vast interests in Venezuela and its considerable presence in the Andes, while the fall of the Assad dynasty would be a devastating blow to Iran's regional strategy.

Even so, Russia and China continue to take a much more lenient approach to Iran than Europe and the US have since the International Atomic Energy Agency's report in November 2011 described in detail Iran's activities in pursuing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The Western powers have embraced ever-harsher sanctions, but Russia and China view Iran as a tool in their global competition with the US.

China's Iranian interests boil down to economics. Bilateral trade stands at about $US40 billion ($39.2bn) a year, and China is not only Iran's largest customer for crude oil but also a colossal investor — somewhere between $US40bn and $US100bn — in its energy and transport sectors. True, China cannot entirely overlook US pressure and the staunch opposition of its top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, to Iran's nuclear program. But while China has supported the mandatory sanctions set by the UN Security Council, it has rejected the West's unilateral measures.

With bilateral trade worth only about $US5bn annually, Russia's economic interests in Iran are fairly modest. But it fears Iran's ability to cause trouble, particularly by stirring up unrest among Russia's Muslim citizens. Moreover, America has refused to pay the Kremlin's high price — curtailment of congressional human-rights legislation, repeal of Cold-War-era restrictions on Russia-US trade, and abandonment of plans for ballistic missile defence in Europe — for Russian support on Iran (or, for that matter, on any other trouble spot, such as Syria).

The problem with the US drive to have key stakeholders join its anti-Iran crusade is that some of them live in neighbourhoods where Iran is an important factor. India is a case in point. India is certainly alarmed at the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, not to mention its concern at the possible effects of Iran's fundamentalism on Kashmiri Muslims. But its $US14bn in annual bilateral trade, and dependence on Iranian oil — many of India's refineries have been built to run solely on Iranian crude — are key strategic considerations.

Moreover, India needs Iran as an alternative trade and energy conduit to Central Asia, bypassing rival Pakistan, and also as a hedge against an uncertain future in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal in 2014. As a result, India's policy mirrors China's: it has aligned itself with mandatory international sanctions, but has abjured voluntary Western financial restrictions. The best one can expect is that India continues to act on the margin — for example, by reducing dependence on Iranian oil while increasing imports from Saudi Arabia, already its largest supplier of crude.

The equivocal nature of Iran's alliances, however, can be a mixed blessing. A harsh sanctions regime might still gain additional supporters, but an Iran with its back against the wall would probably be even more obstinate in its nuclear drive. After all, Iraq was an easy target in the first Gulf war precisely because it had abandoned its nuclear program and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi exposed himself to a NATO onslaught by relinquishing his WMDs.

By contrast, North Korea shows that defiance, rather than accommodation, is a strategy that works. That is why Syria, with North Korean assistance, tried to develop a nuclear program (presumably destroyed by Israel's officially unacknowledged Operation Orchard in 2007). Iran will not consider abandoning its nuclear insurance policy unless a broad agenda is agreed upon that addresses its concerns as a regional power and secures the immunity of its Islamist regime from American actions.

Albert Einstein's definition of insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" could be applied to the US's Iran policy. The diplomacy of sanctions, ostracism and brinkmanship has failed resoundingly. As Iran's uranium-enrichment and other weapons-development activities continue unabated, the US needs to make a break with the old rules of engagement.

Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during his
address to the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly last September. Picture: AP Source: AP
Netanyahu: Iran closer to nuclear 'red line'
The Australian Online
Wednesday, March 5, 2013

FACED with "faster and faster" centrifuges spinning in Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Tehran's nuclear program was getting closer to crossing a crucial "red line." Speaking via satellite link from Jerusalem to an influential pro-Israel lobby group, the remarks reiterated Mr Netanyahu's apparent impatience with the policy of leading nations to use sanctions to suppress Iran's atomic ambitions. Instead, the comments seemed to underscore Mr Netanyahu's desire to see Tehran face a more robust military threat, in the wake of talks last week between the world's top powers and Iranian negotiators on the disputed nuclear program.

"Iran enriches more and more uranium, it installs faster and faster centrifuges," Mr Netanyahu told American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States. "We have to stop its nuclear enrichment program before it's too late," he said, asserting that Iran is "running out the clock" on the international community's efforts to prevent the country from obtaining an atomic weapon.

The Israeli prime minister warned that leaders in Tehran had opted to "just grit their teeth" through punishing international sanctions and pursue their plans, come what may. "It's still not crossed the red line I drew with the United Nations last September," Mr Netanyahu said, referring to the point at which Israel believes arch foe Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb. "But Iran is getting closer to that red line, and it is putting itself in a position to cross that line very quickly once it decides to do so."

Last week's talks in Almaty saw the the UN Security Council's five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — and Germany offer Iran a softening of non-oil or financial sector-related sanctions. In return, the P5+1 powers asked Iran for concessions over its sensitive uranium enrichment operations. A senior US official said Iran "appeared to listen carefully to the offer" and its chief negotiator Saeed Jalili issued rare praise for the world powers, noting that the Almaty meeting may later be viewed as "a milestone."

However, ahead of his talks with US President Barack Obama later this month, Mr Netanyahu stressed that Iran's leaders have "used negotiations, including the most recent ones, to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program." There must be "a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail," the Israeli leader said.

Mr Netanyahu won re-election earlier this year but has so far struggled to stitch together a coalition. He told the AIPAC audience that "I intend to form a strong and stable government in the days ahead." One of its first duties he said would be hosting Mr Obama on an official visit — his first as US commander in chief. The two leaders would discuss Iran as well as Syria, where a civil war is raging against strongman Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Mr Netanyahu said his own struggle to cobble together a government prevented him from traveling to Washington for AIPAC, as he has done in the past. But the political strain in Israel is not expected to affect Mr Obama's trip, the White House said, with spokesman Jay Carney saying there were "no scheduling changes to announce." The Iran crisis is likely to take centre stage, and ahead of his visit to Israel, Mr Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden to the AIPAC conference today to assuage concerns among Israel's backers that the US administration was not as closely allied with Israel as previous presidents.

"Israel's legitimacy and our support for it is not a matter of debate. There is no light" between the two countries, Mr Biden insisted. Republican critics including Senator John McCain, who also spoke at AIPAC, have criticized the administration for appearing weak in the face of continued Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit. "The latest efforts at conciliation… have failed," McCain said, referring to last week's talks in Kazakhstan. "It's very clear they are on the path to having a nuclear weapon," McCain said of Iran. "I don't think it's a question of whether, it's obviously a question of when."

But a stern-faced Biden was insistent that Washington's aim was "to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period, end of discussion."

"President Barack Obama is not bluffing," Mr Biden added, pointing at the crowd of several thousand.

Syria rebels seize UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights border with Israel
The Australian Online
Thursday, March 7, 2013

SYRIAN rebels have abducted more than 20 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights ceasefire zone pushing back the frontier of their war with President Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations said it is trying to negotiate the release of the Philippines soldiers. But a spokesman for the rebels said in a video that the UN troops would be held until Assad's forces pull back from a village in the Golan.

About 30 armed fighters stopped a UN Disengagement Force (UNDOF) convoy in the ceasefire zone, where the UN has had peacekeepers monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974, UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters. "The UN observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity, at Al Jamlah," he added. There has been fierce fighting around Jamlah village, which is held by opposition forces.

The UN Security Council released a statement which said "armed elements of the Syrian opposition" had abducted the group of more than 20 peacekeepers and demanded their "unconditional and immediate" release. "Negotiations are going on and the matter is mobilizing all our teams," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council on the abduction. "It is a very serious incident."

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who read the Security Council statement, said the rebels have made demands directed at the Syrian government but did not give details. "We hope they are going be released immediately," Churkin told reporters. Syrian rebels are also believed to be holding an UNDOF staffer who was seized last month. The staffer is from Canada, according to diplomats.

UN diplomats and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said the peacekeepers were from the Philippines. Rahman released two videos in which a rebel group, the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade, set out their demands for the release of the peacekeepers.

In one, a man identified as Abu Kaid al-Faleh, a spokesman for the brigade, said the peacekeepers would not be freed until Syrian government forces pull back from the area. "We call on them to withdraw all their troops to their bases. If they do not withdraw, these men (UN troops) will be treated as prisoners," he said. In a second video, the same spokesman accused the UNDOF of working with the army to try to suppress the insurgency and help regime forces enter Jamlah. "The Syrian regime, the UN and the European countries are all collaborators with Israel," he said.

The United Nations has reported a growing number of incidents in the Golan zone over the past year. It has already reinforced security for the peacekeepers by sending extra armored vehicles and communications equipment. Shells from the Syrian side have landed in the ceasefire zone and on Israeli territory. Syrian government tanks have entered the zone several times, according to the UN.

Up to the end of February there were about 1,000 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines operating in the ceasefire force. But Croatia announced last week that it is withdrawing its 100 troops from UNDOF. The Croatian government said it feared for the soldiers' safety after reports that Saudi Arabia had bought arms from Croatia and then provided them to the Syrian rebels. Canada and Japan have also withdrawn their small contingents in recent months because of security fears.

Manila committed to Syria role
The Australian
Monday, March 11, 2013

BEIRUT: Philippine military officials say their country remains committed to deploying peacekeepers despite the brief hostage-taking of 21 Filipino soldiers, who crossed into Jordan yesterday after being held by rebels for three days in southern Syria. The peacekeepers, who were held hostage for four days, were driven to the border with Jordan after accusations from Western officials that the little-known group that abducted them had tarnished the image of those fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The abduction and the tortured negotiations that ended it highlight the disorganisation of the rebel movement, which has hindered its ability to fight Mr Assad and complicates vows by the US and others to provide assistance. It has also raised concerns about the future of UN operations in the area. The Filipino peacekeepers were abducted on Wednesday by one of the rebel groups operating in southern Syria near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where a UN force has patrolled a ceasefire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

Activists associated with the group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, gave different reasons for seizing the 21 men. First they demanded that all government forces leave the area. Then they suggested the peacekeepers were human shields against government attacks. Then they declared them "honoured guests" held for their own safety. They also released videos online, including one on Saturday of a bearded rebel commander with his arms around two peacekeepers' shoulders, flashing a V for victory sign.

After negotiations that the top UN official in Damascus described as "long and difficult", the rebels changed the plan to deliver the peacekeepers to a UN team, instead taking them to the Jordanian border. Video broadcast by Arab satellite channels yesterday showed them sitting at a round conference table in Amman, their bright blue helmets in front of them.

The release of the 21 peacekeepers serves as a case study in rebel disorganisation. As the days passed and the captors' terms changed, international indignation rose. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blasted the Syrian government on Friday for shelling the area while also warning the rebels the kidnapping was "not good for their reputation and that they need to immediately release these people".

The men were held in the village of Jamlah, less than 2km from the Jordanian border. A UN team tried to retrieve the hostages on Friday but abandoned the plan because of government shelling. On Saturday, another UN team reached the area and stopped in a village less than a mile away to wait for the captives, said Mokhtar Lamani, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria. Mr Lamani said the team was "surprised" when rebels took the peacekeepers directly to Jordan.

Islamic scholar supports Najib Razak
The Australian
Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ONE of the most famous — and controversial — Islamic scholars, Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has sought to burnish the crucial religious credentials of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on the eve of his announcing the election. Mr Qaradawi had previously been supportive of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim during his visits to Malaysia, but he has realigned himself with the growing tide of international Islamic backing for Mr Najib, following the Prime Minister's recent visit to Gaza as a guest of Hamas — the first non-Arab leader to travel there.

Mr Qaradawi has been refused entry to Britain and France, but his "Sharia and Life" broadcasts on al-Jazeera have reached audiences of 60 million. His return from exile to Egypt in 2011 following the downfall of president Hosni Mubarak has been compared with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979.

Aged 86, Mr Qaradawi prayed in introducing his letter commending Mr Najib for visiting Gaza that "Allah may shower his blessings and mercy upon Najib in discharging his responsibilities to pursue the goals of progress, stability and security for the people in Malaysia and worldwide". He prayed that "Malaysia may always be the best place for Muslims and their civilisation".

He wrote: "Your visit has nourished the hope of millions of Palestinians who have been seeking freedom for decades. For them, Malaysia is recognised as the principal Islamic nation that consistently gives serious attention to supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people." Malaysia and its people, he wrote, are crucial in the struggle for Jerusalem — of which Mr Qaradawi is the chairman of the council of international trustees of the Muslim holy sites.

As the UMNO-led coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 55 years has come under increasing pressure, its campaigning thrust has begun to focus more heavily on the two-thirds of the population who are Muslims. Clive Kessler, emeritus social sciences professor of the University of NSW, whose research has focused on Malaysia and Islam, said: "Najib, until recently seen as 'the great moderate', is now finding that his political salvation lies in demonstrating Islamic zeal."

Thus the visit to Hamas in Gaza, he said, "has become Najib's potentially game-changing trump card. If he and UMNO end up winning the electoral game, it will be through a script that was written and a deal that was sealed in Gaza."

For UMNO, he said, the non-Malay third of the electorate — chiefly Chinese and Indian — does not feature centrally in its campaign strategy. Instead, he said, its strategy was to dominate the Malay vote, to stigmatise Mr Anwar's People's Justice Party and to drive a wedge between the moderates and hardliners in the Islamic PAS party which is allied to the PJP, in the hope of winning Muslim Malays back to the UMNO fold.

Iranian jet in clash over US drone
The Australian Online
Friday, March 15, 2013

AN Iranian fighter jet tried to intercept a US Predator drone over the Gulf but backed off after encountering two American military aircraft, the Pentagon says. No shots were fired in Wednesday's confrontation, officials said, but the United States renewed a vow that it would protect its forces in the region. The Pentagon initially said one of the US aircraft discharged a flare as a warning to the Iranian plane but officials later said no flare was let off.

The incident, which the Pentagon said took place over "international waters," highlighted the tensions between the two arch-foes and the risks of an accidental clash escalating into a serious crisis. At one point the Iranian F-4, an old US-built warplane dating from the Vietnam War era, was within 25 kilometres of the unmanned Predator drone, spokesman George Little said.

The unarmed Predator, the workhorse of America's fleet of robotic planes, was carrying out "a routine classified surveillance flight" over the Gulf when it was approached by the Iranian warplane, he said in a statement. In November, an Iranian fighter jet fired at a Predator plane, provoking a strongly-worded protest from the United States. As after the November incident, the Pentagon warned it would keep up surveillance flights over what it deems international waters and to safeguard US forces in the region. Mr Little said that "we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so going forward."

In December 2011, the Iranians captured a sophisticated Sentinel spy drone after it crashed on Iranian territory, in an embarrassment for Washington. The United States expanded its military presence around the Gulf over the past year, deploying minesweepers and F-22 fighters to the area. This came after Iran threatened to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for tough international sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.

US officials and military commanders worry that a misunderstanding or accident involving the two countries could snowball into conflict. But they are also keen to maintain a robust American military role in the region to counter Iran and to monitor its naval deployments.

In an interview with Israel's Channel 2 television, US President Barack Obama repeated his warning that all options remained "on the table" should diplomacy fail to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Mr Obama also said it would take "over a year or so" for Tehran to develop an atomic weapon but that "we don't want to cut it too close."

Agreement reached for Benjamin Netanyahu to form new coalition government
The Australian Online
John Lyons
Saturday, March 16, 2013

KEY parties signed coalition agreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night, clearing the way for him to inform President Shimon Peres that a new government has been formed, a statement from his office said. "The prime minister welcomes the coalition agreements that have been signed between the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu (on one side) and the Yesh Atid party and the Jewish Home," the statement said. "On Saturday evening, the prime minister will inform President Shimon Peres that he has completed the task" of forming a government. The announcement came after frantic political horse-trading in the final hours before the deadline.

In fact, Mr Netanyahu had two deadlines hovering over him going into this weekend — not only did he need to present a new government by tomorrow and he is due to host a visit by US President Barack Obama, who arrives on Thursday (Australian time). Even after weeks of sometimes bitter public statements and talks, two key coalition players — Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett — continued to delay the signing of a coalition government agreement.

The latest hitch came when Mr Netanyahu withdrew an earlier promise to give them both the title of deputy prime minister. Israeli media, including Army Radio, reported that Mr Netanyahu's wife, Sarah, had vetoed the title for Mr Bennett. Mrs Netanyahu is widely reported to have a bad relationship with Mr Bennett, who was her husband's chief-of-staff for two years from 2006. David Shimron, chief negotiator for Mr Netanyahu's party, Likud, yesterday branded those reports as "simply ugly spin". "Mrs Netanyahu has nothing to do with this matter," he said.

Israel Radio News reported that Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett had agreed to give up their demands for the title "out of respect for the Prime Minister". However, most of Mr Lapid's other demands have been met. Despite enormous resistance from Likud, he won the all-important portfolio of education, which will go to one of his members, Rabbi Shay Piron. One of Mr Lapid's other main campaign promises, that the government should be limited to 20 ministers, will also be met.

Israel's new government is set to be the first for many years without any representation of the ultra-orthodox, or Haredim. Mr Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party stunned observers with its success at the January election, insisted through negotiations that he would not sit in a government with the Haredim. Mr Lapid's key mantra through the election was "share the burden" — a slogan popular with many secular Israelis who argue that the ultra-orthodox should have to perform national service like all other Israelis. The ultra-orthodox are exempt and they also receive welfare to allow them to study full-time rather than work or serve in the army.

Mr Lapid has been supported in this by Mr Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home Party and a key figure in the national religious movement, who believes all citizens should contribute to Israel's security. Mr Lapid and Mr Bennett made a pact after the election that they would approach negotiations for the coalition with a united front — a unity Mr Netanyahu has been unable to break.

While united on the issue of Haredim, the two men disagree over any Palestinian state. Mr Lapid supports one while Mr Bennett, a supporter of Jewish settlements, is "vehemently opposed" — but Mr Bennett is reported not to oppose negotiations for a Palestinian state as he believes they will lead to nothing. The settler movement will be strongly represented in the new Knesset. Dana Weiss, a presenter with Israel's major television network Channel 2, told The Weekend Australian that the coming Knesset would have the largest number of settlers ever — at least 12.

Mr Lapid will become finance minister while Mr Bennett will take the economics and trade portfolios. Moshe Yaalon is set to become defence minister while the foreign ministry will be held open for its current tenant Avigdor Lieberman, who is facing corruption charges.

Mr Lieberman is leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, which joined with Likud for the election. Together they won 31 seats, down 11 seats on the last Knesset. Yesh Atid won 19 seats, Jewish Home 12, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah won six and Kadima two. The biggest political losers are the two main ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have been forced out of the government.

Same Day
Iran, Hezbollah build Syria militia
Richard Beeston, The Times

IRAN and its ally Hezbollah are building a new paramilitary force of tens of thousands of Syrian fighters, Israeli officials have warned, as the Syrian government army withers under the strain of a two-year civil war. Major General Aviv Kochavi, the head of Israeli military intelligence, says Iran and Hezbollah are preparing the force to protect their interests in a chaotic post-Assad Syria. As Syrian rebels close in on the country's main cities and military installations, he said President Bashar al-Assad had made "advanced preparations" for his chemical weapons but had not given the order to use them.

The warning came as the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a leading British defence think tank, said the Syrian army could now rely on only 50,000 effective troops, out of a former force of 220,000. The institute warned of a potential next phase to the conflict in which the Assad regime would become "just the strongest faction among many", while regional states were sucked in to deal with the threat of weapons proliferation and heavily armed militias. "There is a considerable risk that a rapid end to the conflict is likely to be as destabilising as its prolongation," it said.

General Kochavi said that Tehran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese-based Shia militia ally, were repositioning for such a conflict. "Iran is losing a sole ally in the region surrounding Israel," he said. "It will lose the ability to transfer weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah are both doing all in their power to assist Assad's regime. "Most recently, they are establishing a popular army, trained by Hezbollah and financed by Iran, currently consisting of 50,000 men, with plans to increase to 100,000. Iran and Hezbollah are also preparing for the day after Assad's fall, when they will use this army to protect their assets and interest in Syria."

Shia Alawites comprise the bulk of the armed forces and are equipped with modern weaponry, including Russian warplanes, and sophisticated surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft missiles. It also has a large chemical weapons stockpile scattered at 30-40 sites. Israeli military sources said they would intervene militarily to prevent munitions passing to either Hezbollah or al-Qa'ida-linked Sunni militants who oppose Israel.

"If Assad falls and Hezbollah tries to put its hands on Syrian weapons, we will bomb Hezbollah," an Israeli military source said. "Israel cannot allow advanced military systems to fall into the hands of terrorists in Lebanon." Western diplomats in Israel said they feared that another war between Israel and Hezbollah was "inevitable".

Meanwhile, Britain and France are joining to push for a way to arm the Syrian opposition. British Prime Minister David Cameron indicated this week that he and French President Francois Hollande would go it alone if they could not persuade the EU to lift the arms embargo that prevents provision of weapons to either Syria's government forces or rebels. Speaking at a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels overnight, on the second anniversary of the uprising, Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande were to argue that the embargo unwittingly favours the regime, which receives support and equipment from Iran and Russia. "There is a perversity about the arms embargo," a Downing Street official said. "It does not stop those aiding Assad but it does stop EU countries aiding the people against whom Assad is waging a brutal and terrorising war."

Israelis dismal on peace prospects
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ISRAEL'S new Defence Minister, Moshe Yaalon, opposes key gestures that could lead to new peace talks with the Palestinians, according to Israeli media. Two days before Barack Obama's first visit to Israel as President, Israeli newspapers and broadcast media have said the chances of any renewed peace talks are low. Israel Radio News reported that at a time when Mr Obama's visit offered the possibility of jump-starting negotiations, Mr Yaalon was opposed to gestures such as a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or transferring more territories to the security control of Palestinians.

Mr Obama arrives in Israel only days after the formation of a new government that key figures in the Israeli media have said will not be receptive to a peace agreement. On Sunday, the new Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, from the Jewish Home party that opposes a Palestinian state, said the new Israeli government would continue the policy of expanding Jewish settlements.

In January, Australia and Britain issued a statement saying all Jewish settlements were illegal under international law and settlement activity undermined the prospects for peace. Leading defence writer Alex Fishman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth: "The Americans will not find a partner in him (Mr Yaalon) for a settlement freeze or far-reaching concessions." Prominent political journalist Shimon Shiffer said Mr Yaalon, along with the Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and most of the members of the Knesset from the Likud-Beiteinu coalition, believed a two-state solution could not be implemented.

The editor of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name Judea and Samaria, wrote: "The third Netanyahu government has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of 'a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria'. This magic number will thwart the division of the land and prevent once and for all the establishment of a Palestinian state". Mr Benn wrote that in the new Knesset "the radical right wing is strengthened and united" and that those who would claim the Netanyahu mantle needed the settlers' support "and will do everything in order to bribe them and make them happy".

The Jerusalem Post yesterday carried an article about Mr Yaalon headlined "Yaalon's priorities: Iran first, Palestinians last."

Some political analysts say the appointment of Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and now leader of the centrist Hatnua party, is seen as an attempt at balance. Ms Livni will be both Minister for Justice and the leader of any new peace negotiations.

Same Day
Editorial: Obama's Middle East mission

Israel's reassertion of its settlements policy is provocative

EXPECTATIONS of Barack Obama's historic first visit to Israel as US President were never high. On the eve of his arrival, those expectations look even less promising. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his new coalition government, with key posts going to powerful proponents of the settlements policy that lies at the heart of strained relations with the Obama White House.

Despite this, Mr Obama has a vital mission with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in seeking common ground for the resumption of stalled Middle East peace talks. In pursuing that goal, he would be wrong to become bogged down in the settlements issue.

An Israeli commentator's description of the new government as "of the settlers, by the settlers, for the settlers" may be an overstatement but the cabinet's composition — with former armed forces commander and settlers' favourite General Moshe Yaalon as Defence Minister, the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party that rejects Palestinian statehood, Naftali Bennett, in a senior post and a member of his party, Uri Ariel, as Housing Minister responsible for new settlements — reasserts the policy that has rankled with Mr Obama.

Despite international criticism, this is a clear signal Israel is not going to retreat and if Mr Obama seriously wants to end Washington's protracted neglect of the Middle East peace process, he must find other ways of persuading the two sides to resume talking. The principal roadblock to negotiations remains, as always, Palestinian opposition to talks without preconditions and Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist. Mr Netanyahu, by contrast, has long been willing to talk without preconditions. In meeting Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama must convince him that statehood can be achieved only by negotiating directly with Israel, however provocative the resettlements policy.

Mr Obama must also do whatever it takes — including the use of force — to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons, and to work hand in glove with Mr Netanyahu to thwart Tehran. Strained relations with Israel in Mr Obama's first term ill-served US strategic interests and seriously undermined what should be an intimate bilateral relationship, able to confront issues such as Iran. The President must seize the opportunity to restore the relationship and get talks over a two-state solution restarted.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by the coalition of ministers who will make up the new
cabinet. Picture: Getty Images Source: Getty Images
We can end conflict: Benjamin Netanyahu
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the conflict with the Palestinians could be ended "forever" as the parliament voted 68 to 48 for a new governing coalition yesterday. The pledge about searching for a peace deal came two days before the arrival of US President Barack Obama and as several key positions went to strong advocates of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Defence Ministry has been given to Moshe Yaalon, a hardline supporter of settlements, and the Housing Ministry went to Uri Ariel, who has said settlements would continue to expand under the new government. In recent days, Mr Ariel has restated the opposition of his Jewish Home party to a Palestinian state. "There can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea, Israel," he told Yedioth Ahronoth, adding that he wanted "many, many more" settlers in the West Bank.

The Defence Ministry is ultimately in charge of all matters in the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation, while the Housing Ministry decides how much money is spent on construction in the settlements. Jewish settlements in the West Bank are regarded as illegal by the Australian government and under international law.

The new government was sworn in ahead of Mr Obama's arrival tomorrow night to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Speaking to the Knesset, Mr Netanyahu said: "With a Palestinian partner who is willing to conduct negotiations in good faith, Israel will be prepared for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians forever." The new government is a coalition of Likud-Beiteinu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (12) and Hatnua (6). Both Likud-Beiteinu and Jewish Home are supporters of settlements while Yesh Atid and Hatnua are regarded as more ambivalent.

The new opposition leader, Labor's Shelly Yacimovich, portrayed the new government as privileged. "You are all capitalists," she told the Knesset. "It's the opposite of the Zionist vision." The leader of the left-wing Meretz party, Zahava Gal-On, criticised the government over the issue of settlements. "This right-wing government is going to continue to waste billions of shekels on the settlements," she said.

There is much anticipation in Israel for the Obama visit — apart from the Palestinian issue. The two other main areas of focus will be Iran's nuclear program and Syria. On the eve of the visit, an influential US journalist rejected a view by some in Israel that Mr Obama was anti-Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg, regarded as close to the White House, described the President as "probably the most Jewish president the US has ever had". In an interview with Haaretz newspaper, Mr Goldberg said: "When he ran for congress against an ex-Black Panther candidate, he was accused of being the candidate of the Jewish community. "He has been influenced by reform rabbis and liberal Jewish lawyers and his intellectual influences include many Jews, both people he met at Harvard and in Chicago, as well as writers he admires." He added: "Like many liberal American Jews, when he looks as Netanyahu he sees a conservative Republican and he fails to understand how a Jew can be a conservative Republican."

Barack Obama vows 'eternal' defence of Israel during talks with Benjamin Netanyahu
The Australian Online
Thursday, March 21, 2013 8:27AM

US President Barack Obama has pledged an "eternal" alliance with Israel in the face of the Iranian threat, saying he accepted the Jewish state would not defer to Washington on the question of how to handle it. At the start of a historic trip aimed at easing past tensions over Iran, Mr Obama reached out with a message of reassurance about his commitment to Israel's security in a bit to offset scepticism over his strategy for confronting Iran.

Both he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be making a visible effort to turn a new page in their personal relationship, which has been marred by several public spats. "The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend," Mr Obama said at a lavish welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport after Air Force One rolled to a halt to a peal of military trumpets. "Our alliance is eternal, it is for ever," he said, as hundreds of US and Israeli flags snapped loudly in the wind.

The long-awaited visit, the first foreign tour of Mr Obama's second term, comes just days after the installation of a new right-wing Israeli government which faces key challenges of how to handle Iran's nuclear drive, the growing threat from Syria and peace with the Palestinians. "It's good to be back in The Land (Israel)," Mr Obama said in Hebrew after being greeted on the red carpet by Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

Before leaving the airport, the US leader came face-to-face with Israel's preoccupation with security, visiting a mobile battery of the US-funded Iron Dome missile defence system. He then headed to Mr Peres's residence and met by a troupe of flag-waving children, five of whom serenaded him with a rendition of the hit-musical number "Tomorrow" in Hebrew, English and Arabic. After a quick tour of Peres's garden, the two got down to business with an hour-long meeting which Mr Obama later said had focused on Iran, the peace process and the turmoil in the Middle East.

Mr Obama then went into several hours of talks with Mr Netanyahu, later telling a news conference he did not expect Israel to defer to Washington on the question of how to handle Iran. Asked if he had pressed the Israeli leader to hold off on threats to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, he said: "I would not expect the prime minister to make a decision about his country's security and defer that to any other country." He said there was no greater decision for a leader than to give the "awesome" decision to order military action, but said he did not know what Israel was planning to do.

It was not immediately clear whether the two men had narrowed their differences over when Iran was likely to cross the point of no return and acquire the ability to build a weapons capability. Mr Obama has said Iran will not be able to build a nuclear weapon for "over a year or so" but Mr Netanyahu believes it could have the capacity to produce a bomb within months.

Mr Peres said he was confident that Mr Obama would make good on his pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran. "We trust your policy which calls first to try by non-military means with a clear statement that there are other options on the table," he said, expressing a confidence rarely voiced by Israeli officials.

Mr Obama also issued a stark warning to Syria about using chemical weapons against its civilians, saying it would be a "grave and tragic mistake" and a "game-changer." "The Assad regime must understand they will be held accountable," he said in remarks a day after the regime of Bashar al-Assad traded accusations with rebel forces over the use of chemical agents in an attack in the northern province of Aleppo which killed 31. So far, Washington says it has seen no evidence that such weapons were used, but Mr Obama said he was "deeply sceptical" of any claim that opposition forces were involved.

Mr Peres also warned about chemical arms falling into the wrong hands. "We cannot allow those weapons to fall into terrorists' hands — it could lead to an epic tragedy," he said.

Mr Obama's arrival comes after a two-and-a-half year deadlock in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, although Netanyahu insisted that his newly-inaugurated government remained committed to the two-state solution. "Israel remains committed to the solution of two states for two peoples."

Mr Obama is expected to hold talks in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Thursday, although he has made clear that he is here "to listen" to both sides rather than launch any new peace initiative. The Palestinians are hoping he will help broker the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel and also free up $700 million in blocked US aid.

US President Barack Obama affirms two-state solution between Palestinians and Israelis
The Australian Online
Friday, March 22, 2013 7:59AM

IN a powerful direct appeal to Israelis, US President Barack Obama has insisted a two-state peace with the Palestinians can still be forged and is their only hope of true security. In a trademark soaring address, Mr Obama also built on his vow of an "eternal" defence of the Jewish state in the face of Iran's nuclear program, which has been the centrepiece of his first trip to the country as US president.

Mr Obama declared that "Israel is at a crossroads" as he sought to convince young Israelis to reshape the internal political dynamics which have seen peace talks frozen for two years. "Peace is necessary. Indeed it is the only path to true security," Mr Obama told an exuberant audience at a Jerusalem conference centre. "You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream," Mr Obama said, warning that a two-state solution was the only way to ensure Israel remained a Jewish state amid changing demographics.

Hours after taking a helicopter ride into the West Bank, over barbed wire fences and the walls of Israel's anti-militant barrier, Mr Obama urged his young Israeli audience to "look at the world through (Palestinian) eyes". At a state dinner later in his Jerusalem residence, President Shimon Peres told his guest that he was "moved by the way in which you spoke to the hearts of the young Israelis".

Earlier, Mr Obama's edgy news conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah reflected Palestinian disappointment with his failure to live up to first-term vows to help forge a Palestinian state. The frosty atmosphere lacked the bonhomie of the bonding session he held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, as the two leaders, both setting off on new mandates, sought to prove their prickly relationship was a thing of the past.

In Ramallah, Mr Obama condemned the "continuing threat" of attacks from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip after two rockets hit southern Israel, near the town of Sderot. The United Nations also joined the condemnation: "We condemn all rocket fire and call for it to stop," it said in a statement.

In front of Abbas, Mr Obama said the two-state solution was still a possibility, despite claims that Israeli settlement building had crushed Palestinian dreams of a contiguous state. Although he singled out Israeli settlements on lands Palestinians see as part of their future state as a major impediment to reviving peace talks, Mr Obama did not call for a new construction ban.

Mr Abbas was less hazy on the question in private talks with Mr Obama, according to his political adviser Nimr Hammad. "A resumption of negotiations is not possible without an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem," Hammad told AFP.

Obama brokers end to diplomatic freeze between Israel, Turkey over Gaza flotilla deaths
The Australian Online
John Lyons Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Saturday, March 23, 2013 9:34AM

ISRAEL has apologised for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens in a flotilla that attempted to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza in 2010. Following the apology, Turkey immediately agreed to resume diplomatic relations. The end of the three-year diplomatic freeze between two of the key countries in the Middle East was brokered by President Obama.

The breakthrough came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday morning Australian time telephoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr Netanyahu apologised for the deaths of the nine Turkish activists who were killed after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) boarded the Mavi Marmara, a boat in the Gaza flotilla. After that incident, claims and counter claims were made — Turkey argued that the IDF had used excessive force that led to the deaths in international waters while Israel argued that the soldiers were ambushed when they boarded the boat and the nine were killed in self defence. Both sides used video from the event to support their claims.

After Mr Netanyahu made the apology, Turkey immediately responded by announcing it would resume full diplomatic relations. Mr Netanyahu made the phone call about the same time that Mr Obama flew from Tel Aviv to Jordan after a three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank. It is understood Mr Obama stressed to Mr Netanyahu that with the deterioration in Syria — which both Israel and Turkey border — that the two countries needed to end the freeze.

The resumption of diplomatic relations means Israel and Turkey can plan together for any contingencies that may occur as Syria's civil war worsens. The two possible occurrences that both countries need to prepare for are an increased flow of refugees and the possible use of chemical weapons.

A statement by Mr Netanyahu's office said he apologised to the Turkish public for "any error that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete an agreement to provide compensation to the families of the victims." Mr Erdogan, in return, said Turkey would drop all legal actions against the IDF and any of the soldiers or commanders involved in the boarding of the Mavi Marmara.

An undated picture of Ben Zygier, a reported Mossad spy who died in 2010 in Israel's Ayalon Prison.
Source: Supplied
Mossad spy Ben Zygier reportedly spilled secrets to Hezbollah leading to his imprisonment
The Australian Online
Additional reporting: AAP
Monday, March 25, 2013

THE Australian-Israeli Mossad agent found hanged in a Tel Aviv jail, Ben Zygier, had passed secrets to Hezbollah before his death, an influential German magazine has reported. News weekly Der Spiegel said Ben Zygier, a man known as "Prisoner X" who died in 2010 in an allegedly suicide-proof cell, had handed tips to the Lebanese militant group that led to the arrest of at least two people spying for Israel.

After conducting its own "internal investigations", the report found that Zygier had started working for Mossad in 2003, investigating European companies doing business with Iran and Syria. It said Zygier — who was raised in Melbourne but moved to Israel about a decade before his death — was ordered back to Israel in 2007 because his bosses were unhappy with his work.

In 2008 he took a leave of absence, Spiegel said, and returned to Melbourne to finish his studies after trying to recruit new agents for Israel in a bid to restore his standing with his bosses. In the process he came in contact with Hezbollah supporters, Spiegel said, and while trying to convince them to work for Mossad, disastrously spilled highly sensitive information. This included the names of Lebanese nationals Ziad al-Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh, who were arrested in May 2009 on charges of spying for Israel and later sentenced to several years of hard labour.

The report said Israeli security authorities had told Zygier after his arrest that they wanted to make an example of him and demanded a prison sentence of at least 10 years. Zygier was found dead in his cell in December 2010 at the age of 34.

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said the allegations were internal matters of national security for Israel's intelligence agency. But the coalition still had unresolved questions about how Mr Zygier's case was handled by consular staff in Australia. Ms Bishop said no effort was made to contact his family or to offer consular assistance to Mr Zygier, an Australian in prison overseas.

It "beggars belief" that Stephen Smith could still claim he recalled nothing of the case despite being foreign minister at the time and the matter relating to national security and intelligence. "This minister Stephen Smith didn't even bother to find out if the family or indeed Mr Zygier required assistance" she told Sky News on Monday. It was time for "frank and honest answers" from the government about this matter.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, second from right, walks towards his plane at Baghdad airport
Isolated Tehran furious as Barack Obama heals Israel-Turkey rift
The Australian
The Times
Additional reporting: AFP, AP
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

TEHRAN: Iran has accused Barack Obama of playing "a new game" to isolate Tehran after he brokered a reconciliation between Turkey and Israel last week. The Iranian government was caught off guard by the US President's diplomatic coup on Friday, when Israel and Turkey agreed to restore diplomatic ties after a three-year dispute. It provides a platform for greater co-operation on Syria, where Iran is propping up the Assad regime with cash and weapons. Turkey is a key player in the effort to overthrow the Syrian President, and Israel could now be drawn closer into the loose coalition of powers seeking to depose Iran's closest ally in the Middle East.

Voicing Tehran's concerns, General Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy head of Iran's armed forces, denounced Mr Obama's initiative as "a US game to undermine the anti-Israel resistance". Attacking Turkey as a US stooge, he said Washington was seeking to usurp Iran's place in the Muslim world and corrupt the purity of Islam with an "American Islam". Tehran's discomfort will be viewed with some satisfaction in the White House as Mr Obama returned home yesterday following his first visit to Israel last week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologise for the killing of nine Turkish peace activists by Israeli special forces during a raid on a protest flotilla to Gaza in 2010. Intelligence ties between the two nations have remained intact despite the diplomatic freeze.

The US diplomatic push continued after Mr Obama left the Middle East. US Secretary of State John Kerry stayed in the region to try to kick-start peace talks between Israeli and the Palestinian leaders. "Kerry began the US administration's real intervention," a high-ranking Palestinian official said yesterday. "The US push for finding a solution has begun." Mr Kerry confronted Baghdad yesterday for continuing to grant Iran access to its airspace and said Iraq's behaviour was raising questions about its reliability as a partner.

Speaking during an unannounced trip to Baghdad, Mr Kerry said he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had had "a very spirited discussion" on the Iranian flights, which US officials believe are ferrying weapons and fighters intended for the embattled Syrian government. Mr Kerry said the plane shipments — along with material being trucked across Iraqi territory from Iran to Syria — were helping President Bashar al-Assad's regime cling to power by increasing its ability to strike at Syrian rebels and opposition figures demanding Assad's ouster.

"I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold … anything that supports President Assad is problematic," Mr Kerry said at the US embassy in Baghdad after meeting Mr Maliki at his office. "And I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime."

Iraq and Iran claim the flights are carrying humanitarian goods, but US officials say they are confident the planes are being used to arm the Assad regime. The administration is warning Iraq that unless action is taken, Iraq will be excluded from the international discussion about Syria's political future.

Mr Kerry arrived in Baghdad from Amman, where he had been accompanying Mr Obama on his tour of Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.

Extract: Israel 'agrees' to Gaza easing
The Australian
John Lyons Middle East correspondent
Thursday, March 28, 2013

TURKISH Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has revealed that Israel has agreed to ease restrictions on Gaza as part of a deal to restore diplomatic relations. The revelation came as Mr Erdogan announced he was preparing to visit Gaza next month to assess whether Israel had adhered to its commitments.

Israel, meantime, said easing restrictions on Gaza will depend on the security situation in the Hamas-controlled enclave. The head of Israel's National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror, told Army Radio: "We did not agree to promise that under any condition we would continue to transfer all the things into Gaza and ease up on the residents of Gaza if there is shooting from there. "We do not intend to give up on our right to respond to what happens in Gaza because of the agreement with the Turks."

On Friday, President Barack Obama brokered an end to a three-year freeze between Israel and Turkey which followed the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010. At the urging of Mr Obama, who was standing next to him on the tarmac at Tel Aviv airport last Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Mr Erdogan with an apology. Mr Erdogan accepted the apology and agreed to encourage families to drop legal actions.

But it was only yesterday that other details of the agreement emerged. In a series of interviews in Turkey, Mr Erdogan said Mr Netanyahu had agreed to ease restrictions on Gaza. "We will monitor the situation to see if the promises are kept or not," Mr Erdogan was quoted in Hurriyet newspaper. The paper said he had laid out three conditions for a resumption of relations: an apology, compensation to the families and lifting of Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Mr Erdogan was under pressure from the US not to visit Gaza at a time when relations between Israel and Turkey were only beginning to thaw. It said that a preferred US plan was for Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to visit Israel and Gaza.

Veteran Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was elected for a new term as head of the Palestinian Islamist movement
Source: AFP
Hamas re-elects Meshaal as leader for new term
The Australian Online
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

VETERAN Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was elected for a new term as head of the Palestinian Islamist movement, a party official has said. There had been speculation that Mr Meshaal, who is based in exile, would be forced aside by the movement's powerful leaders in the Gaza Strip, which it has controlled since 2007. Mr Meshaal himself had said last year that he would not seek a new term.

But a Hamas official said that the party's governing shura council re-elected him for another four years at a meeting in Cairo late on Monday. "The leaders of Hamas chose Meshaal," the high-ranking official told AFP via telephone from the Egyptian capital, requesting anonymity. Another Hamas official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier Monday: "The elections take place in total secrecy, but it's widely known that Meshaal's term will be renewed."

Hamas officials were in Cairo on Sunday and Monday for the vote, and to discuss with Egyptian leaders reconciliation with the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Mr Meshaal will be aided by Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, who heads the movement internally in the Palestinian territory, and the movement's number two Mussa Abu Marzuq, responsible for the exiled section of Hamas. Mr Haniya was also in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials.

Ties between Hamas and Cairo have been tense after Egyptian forces closed down dozens of smuggling tunnels on the Gaza border. Mr Haniya is seeking to "clear the air" after Egyptian allegations of Hamas involvement in a deadly attack on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula last year, Hamas sources said.

Abu Marzuq would have been favoured for leadership had Mr Meshaal not run for another term. A brilliant orator, Mr Meshaal has used the freedom of movement that is denied to Hamas leaders in Gaza to criss-cross the Arab and Muslim world. Developments in the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 "pushed Hamas to choose Meshaal… who has given the movement a national face… and has good relations in the Arab world," a third Hamas official said Monday.

It was only last December that Mr Meshaal made his first ever visit to Gaza. He was propelled to the movement's leadership in 2004 after Israel assassinated the movement's founding leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi in the Gaza Strip.

Mr Meshaal himself survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997 when agents of the Mossad secret service disguised as Canadian tourists bungled an attempt to poison him on a street in Amman. Three of the attackers took refuge at the Israeli embassy, but two were captured by Jordanian authorities. Mr Meshaal fell into a coma and a furious King Hussein demanded Israel hand over the antidote if it wanted the captured agents to be freed. The episode compelled then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — re-elected in 2009 and again this year — to release Yassin and 19 others from prison.

After Hamas won a landslide victory in a January 2006 Palestinian general election, the West mounted a boycott of the movement. Bickering with the Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas culminated in the formation of a unity government in 2007 but that collapsed in bloody street fighting in Gaza only months later.

Hamas militants seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Abbas and undermining the power of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas members hunted down in the West Bank in retaliation. Fatah and Hamas signed an Egypt-mediated reconciliation agreement on April 27, 2011 in Cairo. But most of its clauses went unheeded and deadlines were constantly postponed.

The two sides responded positively to a proposal by Qatar at an Arab League summit late March for a mini-summit aimed at Palestinian reconciliation.

Tehran bows on nukes - for now
The Australian
Jay Solomom, Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, April 3, 2013

SUPREME Leader Ali Khamenei has decided to keep Iran's nuclear program within limits demanded by Israel for now, say senior US, European and Israeli officials, in a move they believe is designed to avert an international crisis during an Iranian election year. With a vote set for June, Ayatollah Khamenei is eager to place a leader more aligned with his positions than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without sparking a repeat of the nationwide unrest that followed a 2009 vote, the officials said.

US and European officials have worried that Ayatollah Khamenei might challenge Israel and the US over the nuclear issue to consolidate his political position, but instead of pressing an agenda that could heighten tensions between Tehran and the international community, the opposite is happening, for the time being, these officials said.

Ayatollah Khamenei's approach is placing the Obama administration and its allies in a delicate strategic position, possibly constraining their response to Iran's nuclear program. US, European and Israeli officials have described 2013 as the "critical" year in Iran's nuclear program, which has been seen as a reference to the possible use of military force. The US is also facing the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program, with Washington and Pyongyang engaged in heightened military threats. The North held its third nuclear weapons test in February.

International negotiations aimed at containing Iran's nuclear program resume on Friday in Kazakhstan and involve the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. It is likely to be the last round of diplomacy with Tehran until after the June elections, US officials believe.

Seeking to ward off international pressure, Iranian nuclear officials have kept the country's stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity below 250kg. Iran would need such an amount — if processed further into weapons-grade fuel — to produce one atomic bomb, experts believe. It is also the amount Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN in September that the world should prevent Iran from amassing, through a military strike if necessary.

The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in late December Tehran had amassed 232kg of uranium enriched to the 20 per cent level but almost 100kg of that amount was being converted into fuel plates to power Tehran's research reactor. Fissile material in this form was difficult to use in a weapons program, US officials said. "Based on the latest IAEA report, Iran appears to be limiting its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium by converting a significant portion of it to oxide," said a senior US official. "But that could change at any moment."

US and Israeli officials believe Iran's moves represent a delay, rather than a change of heart, and that other actions are accelerating the pace at which the country could create weapons-grade fuel. It has installed thousands of new centrifuge machines at an underground site in the holy city of Qom, the IAEA reported. The site is seen as largely immune to US or Israeli military strikes.

Iran also has been adding advanced centrifuge machines that are seen as capable of tripling the pace at which it enriches uranium. If Ayatollah Khamenei decides to breach Israel's mark later this year, US and Israeli officials said, Iran could move more rapidly to produce the weapons-grade fuel required for a bomb. "There is a good point to be made that Iran has accepted 250kg as the red line," said Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US, but its moves would "enable Iran to cross the red line clandestinely in … weeks".

US Secretary of State John Kerry aims to give peace a chance in Middle East
The Australian Online
Monday, April 8, 2013

TOP US diplomat John Kerry has met Palestinian leaders on a fresh mission to forge a new path forward after a years-long impasse in Middle East peace negotiations. Flying in from Istanbul, the first stop on a 10-day overseas trip, the US secretary of state's convoy sped directly to the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank.

Kerry said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul that he saw Ankara as "an important contributor to the process of peace," adding it could help with building up the shaky Palestinian economy. But Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's newly appointed lead negotiator for peace talks, played down the idea of Ankara's immediate involvement, saying it was "interesting, but it could take time." Washington's top diplomat also urged Turkey and Israel to fully normalise their relationship two weeks after the Jewish state's US-brokered apology for a deadly 2010 raid on a Gaza aid flotilla organised by a Turkish charity.

Kerry, President Barack Obama's new pointman on the Middle East, is leading a renewed US effort to coax Israel and the Palestinians back to negotiations which have been frozen since September 2010. He held talks with Abbas for the third time in a little over a month, in what a top State Department official called "a constructive meeting."

First the two leaders met for about 20 minutes flanked by several top Palestinian and US officials, focusing on economic development and how to tap into resources and the private sector. The Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas, is facing a huge budget deficit and economic crisis. Kerry and Abbas then met for a one-to-one lasting almost an hour during which they "agreed to continue working together to determine the best path forward."

Abbas said the release of prisoners held by Israel was a "top priority" for resuming peace talks. "President Abbas stressed that the release of the prisoners is a priority that creates an appropriate climate for the possibility of moving the peace process forward," his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP. The US diplomat insisted however that the specifics of their solo talks "be kept in the room in order to keep moving forward in a positive direction."

As the talks got under way, militants in Gaza fired a rocket which crashed into an uninhabited part of southern Israel without causing casualties or damage, police said. The Gaza-Israel border has been largely quiet for the last four months since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ended a deadly eight-day confrontation in November.

When Abbas hosted Obama in Ramallah last month, the Palestinian leader made clear there would be no return to negotiations without a settlement freeze. But he has also made it known he would suspend for two months all unilateral efforts to seek international recognition to give US-brokered efforts a chance, a Palestinian official told AFP last week.

Abbas also wants Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present a map of the borders of a future Palestinian state before talks can resume. "Any return to negotiations requires Netanyahu to agree on 1967 borders," his political adviser Nimr Hammad told AFP referring to the lines that existed before the Six Day War when Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu has on several occasions said he would not accept a return to the 1967 lines.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu said Israel cannot rely on any other country, even an ally, when it comes to facing up to the perceived nuclear threat from Iran. "We appreciate the efforts of the international community to halt Iran's nuclear programme," Netanyahu said on the eve of Holocaust Day. "But at no stage will we abandon our fate into the hands of other countries, even our best friends," he said, in an apparent reference to the United States.

Kerry will Monday join a ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day before meeting Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad and then Israeli President Shimon Peres. He will meet Netanyahu on Tuesday morning before leaving for London for a meeting of G8 foreign ministers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli President Shimon Peres discuss peace prospects.
John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu hope for peace talks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Wednesday, April 10, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have ended a meeting in Jerusalem optimistic about the prospects of further peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr Kerry told reporters yesterday he was pursuing a "quiet strategy" to rekindle trust between the two sides, whose last round of talks broke down in September 2010.

"I think it's fair to say we made progress," he said. Measures such as building up the Palestinian economy "could be critical to changing perceptions and realities on the ground, all of which can contribute to forward momentum". Praising Mr Netanyahu for his "good faith efforts", he said the two leaders had agreed "to do some homework" over the next few weeks "with a view to seeing how we can really pull all of the pieces together".

Mr Netanyahu said, "I'm determined not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians, but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all."

Earlier, after meeting with President Shimon Peres, Mr Kerry made it clear that the issue had been a priority when he took over his role from Hillary Clinton. He said that if he had not believed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved, he would not have taken on the job. Palestinian officials are reported to have told the US they would take part in a peace initiative if Israel released Palestinian prisoners.

This is Mr Kerry's third visit to the Middle East since he became Secretary of State in February - suggesting that the Obama administration is serious about attempting to resolve the conflict. When President Barack Obama visited Israel and the Palestinian territories himself last month, he urged Israelis to "Put yourself in (the Palestinians') shoes, look at the world through their eyes". Mr Peres said yesterday at a joint news conference: "The two-state solution is the best solution and the parameters for that agreement already exist."

It appears that Mr Kerry's plan is to begin four-party talks in Jordan attended by the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported that Mr Kerry would visit the region every few weeks for six months. He would then brief Mr Obama "for him to decide whether he sees a real chance for an agreement between the two sides and, as a consequence, declares a 'presidential initiative' or, alternately, the US opts to give up and let the process die".

Mr Kerry also said "no option is off the table" regarding Iran's nuclear program. "Our eyes are open and … the clock is moving and no one will allow the diplomatic process to stand in the way of whatever choices need to be made to protect the world from yet another nuclear weapon in the wrong hands."

A blow for peace as Fayyad quits
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Monday, April 15, 2013

PROSPECTS for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been dealt a blow with the resignation of the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad. Despite enormous pressure in recent days from the US and the EU, Mr Fayyad submitted his resignation yesterday. The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said: "The President (Mahmoud Abbas) told Dr Salam Fayyad he accepted his resignation and asked him to conduct the work of the government until a new government is formed."

Mr Fayyad, 61, a US-educated economist, had been the preferred liaison in recent years for US officials, particularly former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. A fluent English speaker, Mr Fayyad was a former senior official from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. His resignation comes just days after the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced a new economic-led initiative to resume the peace process. In a visit to Jerusalem last week, Mr Kerry asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, which is under Israeli occupation.

Mr Fayyad was seen as an important part of any economic changes in the West Bank. He argued it was impossible for the Palestinian economy to reach its potential while it was under the taxation and other restrictions imposed by occupation. He outlined his philosophy early in his term as PM: "The roughness of this neighbourhood can be reduced if not eliminated if occupation comes to an end. I do not believe that there can be permanent peace unless the concept of Palestinian statehood is accepted."

Mr Fayyad was widely credited with a crackdown on corruption in the Palestinian Authority. The crackdown was a source of reassurance to the largest Western donors, the US and EU. A political moderate, Mr Fayyad was seen as a political enemy by the militant group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. Hamas welcomed Mr Fayyad's departure. "Salam Fayyad is leaving a government that is drowning Palestinians with huge debt and the Fatah movement is responsible for this," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Israel had no official reaction. Israel's spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Australian: "This is part of domestic politics on the Palestinian side and we do not side with this politician or that politician." But one Israeli official who asked not to be named said it was "regrettable" to see more instability on the Palestinian side. "He was professional and dedicated to his work and not to political intrigue," the official said. "It doesn't bode well." Israeli security officials had credited the duo of Mr Fayyad and Mr Abbas as having delivered the best security situation in the West Bank for years. One of the reasons the two are disliked by Hamas is that they have imprisoned scores of Hamas figures in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Ma'an news agency quoted a senior Palestinian official as saying Mr Fayyad had had his resignation letter prepared since March 23, but held off submitting it until after the visit of US President Barack Obama. The letter said the Palestinian Authority was in financial crisis, partly as a result of the non-disbursement of promised funding, although the US congress had "quietly" unblocked $US500 million in aid last month.

Over the past two years, Mr Fayyad has had a difficult relationship with Mr Abbas. Unlike Mr Abbas, who is a key figure in Fatah, Mr Fayyad is not a member of Fatah but an independent who has never had widespread support among Palestinians. After taking over as prime minister in 2007 he declared a mission of reforming institutions so that the Palestinian Authority would run the West Bank as if it were a sovereign state. This involved targeting corruption and patronage, which were notorious under previous leader Yasser Arafat. Over the past year, Mr Fayyad has become the focus of protests by Palestinians who have blamed his tight economic management for financial difficulties.

Editorial: UN bid has dire consequences
Tuesday, April 16, 2013

THE resignation of Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad underscores the folly of President Mahmoud Abbas's quest to achieve statehood through the UN General Assembly.

A US-educated former International Monetary Fund economist, Mr Fayyad has, in his six years in office, enjoyed international respect.

The architect of "Fayyadism", a reformist blueprint for an efficiently run Palestinian government, he was seen as a symbol of sound administration and, most importantly for international aid concerns, intolerance of corruption. The US, EU and Israel felt confident doing business with him. He defied the odds to transform the administration of the West Bank, declining to remit PA funds to Fatah party members. After months of wrangling with Mr Abbas, Mr Fayyad has quit, undone by political intrigue that has cynically used the dire state of the Palestinian economy to undermine him. The economic mess is not Mr Fayyad's fault, however; it is largely the consequence of the UN's overwhelming vote in favour of recognising Palestinian statehood, an outcome Mr Abbas was warned about.

Israel, as it said it would, has been refusing to give the PA the $100 million a month it collects for it in taxes. The US has cut back aid. Mr Fayyad was unenthusiastic about the UN bid. He warned that it was a symbolic gesture that would bring risks with no benefit. A moderate, Mr Fayyad was seen by the US, EU and Israel as pivotal in getting negotiations over a two-state solution restarted. As prime minister, his was a voice of reason and common sense. No wonder the Hamas terrorist thugs in Gaza are celebrating his removal. He was a bulwark against their extremism and ambitions. Mr Fayyad's resignation is a big blow to prospects for resumed negotiations. It is a pity more countries, including Australia, didn't foresee the consequences and do more to block Mr Abbas at the UN.

Delay Gaza talks, Kerry urges Turkish PM Erdogan
The Australian Online
Monday, April 22, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called on Turkey's prime minister to delay a visit to Gaza in talks aimed at putting Israeli-Turkish relations back on track as part of efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. "We have expressed to the prime minister (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) that it would be better to delay," Mr Kerry told reporters in Istanbul, urging him to wait for the "right conditions".

Mr Erdogan announced last week that he was planning to visit the impoverished Palestinian territory at the end of next month after a key trip to Washington on May 16. Mr Erdogan said his visit would be aimed at pushing for the lifting of Israel's embargo on the Gaza Strip but Washington fears such a trip could hurt a fresh US-brokered rapprochement between the former allies after a three-year rift.

Mr Kerry also met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to continue talks "about how to get both sides (the Palestinians and the Israelis) back to the table," a State Department official said. Mr Kerry is working on a plan to try to boost the Palestinian economy as part of efforts to restore trust between the two sides. Peace negotiations have been suspended since the latest ground to a halt shortly after their resumption in September 2010, largely over Israel's settlement construction on occupied land. Mr Kerry had warned that time was slipping away to reach a peace deal, stressing for the first time that there may only be a year or two left.

The top US diplomat also said he was "confident" Mr Abbas would find a successor to replace his prime minister Salam Fayyad, who resigned earlier this month. Mr Kerry said Mr Fayyad, whose authority was never recognised by Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, was a personal friend and a "good man who has worked incredibly hard" for the development of the Palestinians. "That said, this initiative, this dream, this effort we are working towards is bigger than one man," he said. "It does not just depend on one person within a structure," he said. "President Abbas made very clear that he understands the international concerns about accountability, about transparency," he added.

Mr Kerry's talks with Mr Erdogan focused mainly on restoring predominantly Muslim Turkey's once-close ties with Israel. Israeli and Turkish officials were to meet on Monday for talks on compensation over a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship, which if successful could put the two countries' rocky relations back on sound footing.

A State Department official said the United States was "continuing to encourage" attempts at a rapprochement and that efforts needed to be made "one step at a time," starting with the compensation issue. A strong ally for both Turkey and Israel, Washington has been trying to repair the ties which collapsed after the botched Israeli raid killed nine Turkish activists on the Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010. After long refusing Ankara's demand for a formal apology, Israel last month finally made the gesture at the urging of US President Barack Obama. But for the full restoration of ties and reappointment of its ambassador to Israel, Ankara insists the Jewish state pay compensation for the raid victims and lift its punishing restrictions on Gaza.

Mr Abbas's West Bank-based nationalist Fatah movement, a long-time rival to Hamas, has said Erdogan's plans to visit Gaza would foster intra-Palestinian divisions.

Mr Kerry was in Istanbul mainly to attend talks among the 11-member core group of the pro-opposition "Friends of Syria", including the United States, European nations and Arab countries. After more than six hours of talks that ended early Sunday, Mr Kerry said US assistance to the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad would double to $250 million. He said the United States would expand deliveries of military equipment to rebel fighters to include new types of "non-lethal supplies", but ignored opposition demands for weapons and drone strikes on Assad regime positions.

League's plan for peace has support
The Australian Online
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday, May 2, 2013

MOMENTUM is growing behind the Arab League's revised Middle East peace plan, with 52 members of Israel's Knesset signing a petition calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the issue. After meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week, Arab League nations agreed land swaps could be on the table in any deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Kerry said the preparedness of the Arab League to recognise changes in the West Bank was "a very big step forward". "If the Palestinians and Israelis reach a final status agreement between them then — 22 Arab countries and 57 Muslim countries — all of them have agreed, No 1, that they would consider the conflict ended," Mr Kerry said.

Previously, Arab League nations have insisted any Palestinian state must be in the boundaries that existed before the 1967 war. In recent days, they have said there needs to be flexibility, an apparent suggestion that consideration should be given under any final status deal for Israel to retain established Jewish settlement blocs such as Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel. This was their first formal acknowledgement that Jewish settlements in the West Bank had altered the reality of any peace agreement.

However, Mr Netanyahu yesterday told a meeting of foreign ministry officials "the root of the conflict is not territorial — it started a long time before 1967. You saw what happened when we left the Gaza Strip. We evacuated the last settlers and what did we get ' Missiles," he said of Israel's withdrawal of all troops and settlers from the coastal enclave in 2005. "The Palestinians' lack of will to recognise the state of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people is the root of the conflict."

The petition by members of Israel's opposition parties was led by the leader of Meretz, Zehava Gal-On, who said: "The new, promising version of the Arab League's proposal for peace with Israel and dozens of Arab states is at our doorstep and the government cannot turn its back on negotiations." The petition gained sufficient numbers to require the Prime Minister to make an address to the Knesset on the issue.

The Arab League's revised proposal builds on a plan devised in 2002 by Saudi Arabia under which all 22 Arab countries would normalise relations with Israel in return for a Palestinian state along the lines that existed before the 1967 war.

Yesterday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Palestinians might consider "minor" border modifications to the 1967 lines, but qualified his statement: "This is not something new. The Arab delegation presented the official Palestinian position: upon Israel's unequivocal acceptance of the two-state solution on the 1967 border, the state of Palestine as a sovereign country might consider minor agreed border modifications equal in size and quality, in the same geographic area, and that do not harm Palestinian interests." However, Mohammed Shtayeh, a member of the Fatah leadership, told Israel Radio News that Palestinians did not intend to modify the Arab initiative as proposed by Qatar.

Meanwhile, about 2000 Israeli reservists have been called up as part of a drill on the Lebanon border. This followed the downing by Israel of a drone near Haifa at the weekend.

Source: The Australian
Israeli airstrikes raise stakes in Syria
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Monday, May 6, 2013

ISRAELI warplanes attacked in and around Damascus yesterday, targeting Iranian-made missiles bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group in a dramatic turning point for Syria's two-year civil war. In what is believed to be Israel's second strike on the troubled country in three days, Syrian TV said rockets launched in the early hours hit sites including a military research centre at Jamraya, northwest of the capital, about 15km from the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based.

Israel and the US refused to publicly confirm Israeli involvement in the latest attack on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose war on rebels has killed an estimated 70,000 people since March 2011. A day earlier, Washington sources confirmed that Israel had hit a storage depot for missiles, also believed to be on the way to Hezbollah, on Friday. The target of all the strikes was Fateh-110 missiles, which have precise guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah has in its arsenal, an official told The Associated Press.

"We are under very strict instructions not to confirm anything," one Israeli official told The Australian last night. But news agency AFP quoted an Israeli official saying it was carried out by Israel and that "any time Israel learns about the transfer of weapons from Syria to Lebanon it will attack".

The Institute for National Security Studies, which has close ties to the government, also suggested the attack was by Israel. The director of the INSS, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, told Israeli Army Radio: "Iran is testing the determination both of Israel and the US regarding red lines, and what it sees in Syria is that at least some of the players take the red lines seriously."

Israeli legislator Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister and a former chief of staff, declined to confirm the airstrike but said Israel feared weapons falling into the hands of the Islamic militant group amid the chaos in Syria. "We must remember the Syrian system is falling apart and Iran and Hezbollah are involved up to their necks in Syria helping Bashar Assad," he told Israel Radio. The BBC quoted a Damascus-based journalist as saying it was the biggest blast in the capital since the Arab Spring-inspired civil war began. He said the army was likely to have suffered major casualties.

Residents said they felt "a mild earthquake" just before the explosion, suggesting the rockets may have hit an underground facility, BBC reported. The latest incident comes only days after US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington was re-thinking its opposition to providing arms to Syria's rebels.

Washington is considering how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Barack Obama has described the use of such weapons as a "red line", and the administration is weighing its options — including possible military action.

Israel has said it wants to stay out of the brutal Syria war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in mid-2006 that ended in a stalemate. If Israel was involved in the latest attack at Jamraya it would be the third intervention this year. In January a convoy with weapons leaving Jamraya was attacked from the air — Israel's then defence minister, Ehud Barak, confirmed it was an Israeli operation, and proof that "when we say something we mean it".

Mr Obama has said Israel is justified in trying to prevent weapons being transported to Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

The Assad regime is using reports of Israeli involvement to try to curb support for the rebels. The state-run Sana TV network last night said: "The new Israeli aggression is a clear attempt to alleviate the pressure on the armed terrorist groups after our army beat them back in several regions and after the army's victories on the road to recovering security and stability in Syria."


Extract: Later same day
Israeli warplanes strike Syria

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "grave concern", his spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "The secretary general calls on all sides to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict," Mr Nesirky said.

Egypt condemned the strikes as a "violation" of international law and the Cairo-based Arab League demanded UN Security Council intervention to stop such Israeli attacks. Iran's Defence Minister General Ahmad Vahidi said "the assault, which was carried out with the US green light, unveils the links between the terrorist mercenaries and their masters of the Zionist regime."

Britain warned of the "increasing danger to the peace of that entire region from the Syria crisis just getting worse and worse." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, delivered his harshest attack yet against President Bashar al-Assad, calling him a "butcher" and warning he will "receive his judgment in this world" for the deaths of thousands of Syrians. "If God permits, we will see this butcher, this murderer receive his judgment in this world … and we will praise (God) for it," Mr Erdogan said after the Israeli strikes. More than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria in just over two years.

Sunday's strike came around 48 hours after a reported Israeli raid on a weapons storage facility at Damascus airport. Residents of the upscale Damascus neighbourhood of Dumar said the strike turned night into day. "It was like an earthquake, the sky was yellow and red," said 72-year-old Najwa. Video footage on YouTube appeared to show missiles lighting up clouds, blazing fires, and an explosion producing a massive orange fireball.

Israel reportedly targeted the Jamraya facility earlier this year, in a January 30 raid that Israeli officials have implicitly acknowledged. The Jewish state has frequently warned it would act to stop the transfer of advanced weapons systems or chemical weapons to Lebanon's Hezbollah, with which it fought a devastating war in 2006. Hezbollah and Iran, Israel's regional arch-foes, have steadfastly backed the Assad regime since the uprising erupted in March 2011.

The rebel Free Syrian Army reacted cautiously, saying the country was already under daily attack by regime aircraft, while the opposition National Coalition said Israel had "taken advantage" of the conflict. Israel boosted security measures, deploying two batteries of the Iron Dome missile defence system to the north and closing airspace there until May 9, the military said.

A senior Israeli source said the air force was on "high alert" and media reports said security was boosted at Israeli embassies worldwide.

The strikes came after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the bodies of at least 62 people had been found on Saturday in a Sunni district of the port of Banias after a regime assault, and warned of fresh "massacres". At least 35 people were killed in violence on Sunday, the Observatory said, adding that rebels also seized part of the Minnigh military airport where a regime general was killed on Saturday.

Barack Obama urged to arm 'right people' in Syria
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Tuesday, May 7, 2013

US President Barack Obama is under growing pressure to directly intervene in Syria after Israel went on high alert following Sunday's airstrike on Damascus. Influential Republican senator John McCain called for the US to create a "safe zone" and to supply weapons to "the right people".

The call came yesterday as the UN announced that an investigation had found that the deadly nerve agent sarin had been used in Syria — by rebel forces. UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte said: "According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas." The finding complicates the situation for the US. Mr Obama had said the use of chemical weapons would be "a red line", but he was speaking on the assumption any such use would be by the regime, which has large stockpiles.

Response later that morning: AFP

The United States said it was "highly skeptical" of an assertion that Syrian rebels had used chemical weapons. "We are highly skeptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime. And that remains our position," Mr Carney said.

A senior US official separately said that Washington had no information to suggest Syrian rebels had "capability or the intent to deploy or use such weapons." The senior official also noted that "Ms Del Ponte does not work on the same expert team, which the United Nations has assembled to go into Syria as they are two different parts of the United Nations organisation."

Mr Carney also reiterated President Barack Obama's statement at the weekend that Israel was within its rights to safeguard its security, though would not directly comment on Israeli military reaction.

End response.

Syria described the latest airstrike by Israel as "a declaration of war" while Israel went on high alert near its border with Lebanon. The Israeli Defence Forces moved Iron Dome anti-missile defence systems to Haifa and Safed and closed its airspace in the north to civilian traffic. The Israeli Air Force patrolled the area. The Iron Domes were used extensively in the war between Israel and Hamas in November, when they intercepted a large percentage of missiles from Gaza. Lebanese media reported that Syria had moved missile batteries towards the border with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed for a trade mission to China — a trip he would be unlikely to take if his country were about to conduct another attack or if his intelligence services rated the chances of a military response as high. Israel Radio News reported: "The (Israeli) security establishment assumes that Syria will not respond to the strikes because Damascus is preoccupied with preserving its regime. That said, the IDF is examining all the scenarios, including a response from Hezbollah or even Iran."

Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Israel had used diplomatic means to tell Syrian President Bashar al-Assad it did not intend to intervene in Syria.

Israel has not made any official comment about the Jamraya strike — a strategy apparently designed so that Syria and Hezbollah avoid a position where they feel forced to respond militarily.

Senator McCain called for Mr Obama to reconsider policy. "We need to have a game-changing action, and that is no American boots on the ground (but) establish a safe zone and to protect it and to supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting, obviously, for the things we believe," he told Fox News. "Every day that goes by Hezbollah increases their influence … and the situation becomes more and more tenuous."

Russia, US agree to push negotiated Syria solution
The Australian Online
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

THE United States and Russia have agreed to push both warring sides in the Syria conflict to find a negotiated solution and to hold an international conference in search of peace. Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry held hours of talks with President Vladimir Putin and then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lasting late into the night in a bid to narrow the differences between Moscow and Washington on the conflict.

"We agreed that Russia and the United States will encourage both the Syria government and opposition groups to find a political solution," Mr Lavrov told reporters at a concluding news conference that ended after midnight. Mr Lavrov added they agreed on the need to hold "as soon as possible" an international conference on Syria to convince both rebels and the regime to accept the terms of the Geneva accord agreed by world powers last June for a peaceful solution in Syria. He said the conference should take place "if possible by the end of this month."

The Geneva agreement, which was reached by world powers on June 30, set out a path toward a transitional government without ever spelling out what President Bashar al-Assad's fate should be. Mr Kerry said the conference should be held as "soon as is practical." "Its specific work will be to bring members of the government and the opposition together to see how we can implement the language of the communique," said Mr Kerry. He added: "A negotiated settlement is the essential means to ending the bloodshed in Syria."

Mr Lavrov said both the United States and Russia were ready to use all their capacities to bring "the government and opposition to the negotiating table."

Mr Kerry had earlier told Mr Putin in talks lasting over two hours at the Kremlin that his visit was aimed at finding "common ground" with Moscow over Syria. "The United States really believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria," Mr Kerry told Putin at the talks. He cited these interests as "stability in the region, not letting extremists create problems in the region and elsewhere."

Mr Putin did not specifically address the differences between Washington and Moscow over Syria but said the Kremlin was preparing a response to a message on bilateral ties that US President Barack Obama sent in April. The visit coincides with the first anniversary of Mr Putin's return to the Kremlin for a historic third term on May 7, 2012, which heralded a new chill in relations between Moscow and Washington. Mr Kerry, who was earlier seen chatting animatedly to Mr Lavrov while walking in the garden of the foreign ministry guesthouse, added he was grateful to Mr Putin for "the significant amount of time he devoted to our discussion".

Russia has long accused the West of worsening the Syria conflict by seeking to topple the Assad regime, and says Moscow is solely interested in seeing a peaceful solution to a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011. The US and other Western states have in turn accused Russia of failing to use its influence with the regime to halt the bloodshed and keeping up military deliveries to Assad.

Mr Kerry's visit is taking place at a time of particular tension after Israel launched air strikes in Syria which Israeli sources said targeted Iranian weapons destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The Russian foreign ministry said it was "especially" concerned by the attacks, warning that the violence threatened neighbouring Lebanon.

There were a host of other issues on the agenda of the talks, including last month's Boston Marathon bombings blamed on two brothers of Chechen descent. "I'm very happy that our professionals are working together now to work to deal with some of the issues of the bombing that took place in Boston," Mr Kerry told Putin at their meeting. More contentious dossiers include American missile defence and rows over a ban by Moscow on American adoptions of Russian children and the Russian authorities' harassment of NGOs.

Anger as Israel boosts settlements
The Australian
Additional reporting: AP
Friday, May 10, 2013

ISRAEL has given the go-ahead to build nearly 300 homes in the settlement of Beit El near Ramallah in a move likely to spark tensions as Washington seeks to rekindle peace talks. A spokesman from the Defence Ministry, which administers the West Bank, said: "The Civil Administration has given the green light for 296 housing units at Beit El, but this is only the first stage of a process before actual construction can begin." He said the construction plans were part of a compensatory measure for settlers who were evicted last year from Ulpana, an unauthorised outpost on the outskirts of Beit El, which was evacuated after a High Court ruling.

Hagit Ofran, of Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog, denounced the move. "This initiative proves Netanyahu is deceiving the world," she said. "On the one hand, he lets us believe that he is putting the brakes on settlement, and on the other, he gives the go-ahead for an enormous building project."

Direct peace talks broke down in September 2010 because of an intractable dispute over Israel's settlement-building, which is widely accepted as a violation of international law. The Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations unless Israel freezes construction on land they want for a future state.

Meanwhile, Israeli police detained the top Muslim cleric in the Holy Land yesterday in a rare crackdown on a leading religious figure, questioning him for several hours before releasing him without charge. The detention of the mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, followed recent unrest at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem. An Israeli official said the Muslim cleric was issued a warning and told to lower tensions a day after Muslim worshippers threw rocks and chairs at tourists visiting the hilltop compound that houses the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hezbollah, Iran, Syria vow revenge on Israel
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Saturday, May 11, 2013

HEZBOLLAH, Syria and Iran have vowed retribution against Israel over last weekend's airstrike on a military facility in Syria. Hezbollah declared it was now ready to receive "game-changing weapons" from neighbouring Syria. Using the term Hezbollah prefers for itself — the resistance —— the organisation's leader Hassan Nasrallah made his warning in a televised address in Lebanon.

"You Israelis say your objective is to stop the capability of the resistance from growing," he said. "But Syria will provide (Hezbollah) with game-changing weapons it has not had before." Mr Nasrallah said such weapons could "break the equilibrium" in the Middle East and that Hezbollah would provide support to "liberate the Syrian Golan". Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 war.

Mr Nasrallah's comments followed an airstrike last weekend by Israel on a Syrian military facility at Jamraya, 15km from the border with Lebanon. It was Israel's third airstrike on Syria this year.

The Hezbollah warning came as the US pressured Russia not to proceed with a sale to Syria of S-300 ground-to-air missiles. US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said: "I think we've made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance." White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US had consistently called on Russia not to provide further weapons to Syria, including air defence systems that were particularly destabilising to the region.

Israel has said it was reluctant to become involved in Syria but would intervene if it received intelligence that weapons were about to be transported to Lebanon, Hezbollah's base.

Iran, Hezbollah's major sponsor, joined the warnings. Its spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pledged "full and unlimited support from Iran politically, militarily and economically to the Syrian leadership and people against the takfiris, terrorists, Israel, the US and all who dare attack this country". Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper quoted Iranian sources saying one of the responses to the airstrike would be "blows under the belt in several locations".

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said Syria wanted "strategic revenge" on Israel for the last weekend's attack "by opening the door of resistance and turning the entire Syria into a resistance nation". He said Syria had decided to give Hezbollah "everything".

Civil war in Syria has become a proxy battle in the larger Shia-Sunni fight inside Islam. The Shia forces include Iran, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah while the Sunni side is led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are supplying weapons and funding to rebels in Syria. Most Syrians are Sunni but the Assad family and many of the ruling elite are Alawites, an offshoot of Shia.

The US wants to see the fall of Assad but is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some of the militias who have joined the anti-Assad forces — particularly the al-Nusra Front, a Sunni group aligned to al-Qa'ida. The US is now attempting to use Jordan, a Sunni neighbour of Syria's, to broker a political solution to the conflict.

Russia boosts fleet off Syria
Weekend Australian
Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, May 18, 2013

RUSSIA has sent a dozen or more warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Syria, a build-up that US and European officials see as a new, aggressive stance meant partly to warn the West and Israel not to intervene in Syria's bloody civil war. Russia's expanded presence in the eastern Mediterranean, which began attracting US officials' notice three months ago, is one of its largest sustained naval deployments since the Cold War. While Western officials say they don't fear an impending conflict with Russia's aged fleet, the presence adds a new potential source of dangerous miscalculation in an increasingly combustible region.

"It is a show of force. It's muscle flexing," a senior US defence official said. "It is about demonstrating their commitment to their interests."

The build-up is seen as Moscow's way of trying to strengthen its hand in any talks over Syria's future and buttress its influence in the Middle East. It also provides options for evacuating tens of thousands of Russians still in Syria. Russian navy and foreign ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Moscow and Washington have worked publicly in recent days to assemble an international conference involving Damascus. But expectations are low that the meeting could lead to a political transition, with tension high across the region, and with the US and Russia backing opposing camps. Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled this week that he will proceed with the sale of an advanced air-defence system to Syria, according to US intelligence reports, over Israeli and US objections.

Hezbollah and its chief sponsor, Iran, also have rallied around President Bashar al-Assad, sharing Russia's interest in keeping the regime in place. Recent Israeli airstrikes inside Syria have targeted missiles believed to be from Tehran and bound for Hezbollah.

US officials said yesterday that another round of Israeli airstrikes could target a new transfer of advanced missiles in the near future. Israeli and Western intelligence services believe the missiles could be transferred to Hezbollah within days. Russia has strongly protested previous Israeli strikes in Syria.

Western defence officials say Russia appears to be trying to project power to deter a Libya-style intervention in Syria. The port of Tartus is Russia's only remaining military outpost outside the former Soviet Union. Consisting of a pair of piers staffed by about 50 people, according to Russian data, the base provides a toehold in the region that has grown in strategic and symbolic importance for Moscow. "It's not really a base," said Andrei Frolov, an analyst at CAST, a Moscow military think tank. "It's more like a service station." US officials believe Russia has plans to expand the base, which it negotiated with Assad.

Mr Obama yesterday held out some hope that the coming conference with Russia would help achieve a consensus. "There's no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria's," Mr Obama said at a news conference in Washington with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians may yield results."

Moscow's diplomacy notwithstanding, US officials believe that in addition to the naval deployments, Russia is moving more quickly than previously thought to deliver S-300 surface-to-air defence systems to Syria. US officials say the S-300 system, which is capable of shooting down guided missiles and could make it more risky for any warplanes to enter Syrian airspace, could leave Russia for the port of Tartus by the end of the month.

Russian officials first announced the navy was deploying ships to the eastern Mediterranean near Syria starting late last year. In January, the Russian navy used these and other ships to conduct what it billed as some of the largest exercises in recent years in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. Before the start of the Syrian civil war, Russian ships stopped at the port only irregularly. But in the past three months, 10 to 15 ships have been near the Syrian port at all times.

Extract: I won't resign, says defiant Bashar al-Assad
The Australian
Additional reporting: The Sunday Times
Monday, May 20, 2013

SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad has insisted he will not resign before the end of his mandate next year as a car bomb exploded in the capital yesterday, killing at least three people. "To resign would be to flee," Assad said in an interview with the Argentine newspaper Clarin when asked if he would consider stepping aside as called for by US Secretary of State John Kerry. "I don't know if Kerry or anyone else has received the power of the Syrian people to talk in their name about who should go and who should stay. That will be determined by the Syrian people in the 2014 presidential elections."

He nevertheless welcomed a US-Russian peace initiative to end Syria's civil war. The US and Russia are trying to convene a peace conference in Geneva that would bring together members of the regime and the rebels fighting to oust Assad and end a rebellion that has killed an estimated 94,000 since March 2011.

"We have received the Russian-US approach well and we hope that there will be an international conference to help Syrians overcome the crisis," Clarin quoted Assad as saying. He added, however, that "we do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria. And we don't think the forces that support the terrorists want a solution to the crisis."

State television accused "terrorists" of detonating a car bomb in a north Damascus neighbourhood, saying it killed at least three people and wounded five others. Syria calls the rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the regime "terrorists". The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the bombing but gave a higher toll of eight dead and 10 wounded. A statement said the bombing targeted "the cars of government forces, killing four regular troops and four civilians". No one had claimed responsibility for the bombing, which followed weekend reports that gunmen kidnapped the father of deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad, apparently in retaliation for the arrest of relatives of one of their comrades. A government source said the gunmen stormed into the Muqdad family home, "beat up" the 84-year-old man and fled with him to Daraa, south of Damascus.

In the interview with Clarin and the Argentine news agency Telam, Assad spoke at length and also denied his government had used chemical weapons against civilians. "The accusations against Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons or my resignation change every day. And it is likely that this is used as a prelude to a war against our country," he said. The use of chemical weapons "would mean the death of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Who could hide something like that ?" he asked Telam.

Meanwhile, Syria has put its most advanced missiles on standby with orders to hit Tel Aviv if Israel launches another raid on its territory. Reconnaissance satellites have been monitoring preparations by the Syrian army to deploy surface-to-surface Tishreen missiles.

An Israeli official told The New York Times that Israel, which has launched three recent attacks on Syria, was considering more and warned Assad that his government would face "crippling consequences" if he hit back at Israel.

The deployment of the Syrian-made Tishreen missiles, each of which can carry a half-tonne payload, marks a significant escalation of tension in a region in which the US and Russia appear to be preparing for a Cold War-style stand-off. In a signal of its continued support for Assad, Russia last week sent a dozen warships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean close to its Syrian naval base in Tartus.

Talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win any assurances that Israel would stop its raids.

Fire on Golan and you'll take the consequences, Israel warns Syria
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Thursday, May 23, 2013

ISRAEL has warned Bashar al-Assad he will "bear the consequences" if Syria continues to fire into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Yesterday's warning followed several clashes in recent days between Israeli and Syrian troops as the border between the two becomes increasingly volatile.

Syrian state TV claimed Syrian forces had destroyed an Israeli army vehicle in the Golan Heights. Israel denied this but said an Israeli army patrol had been fired on. The Israeli army said that in response it made a direct hit on the source of the gunfire, believed to have been a Syrian army position. The warning came as the Assad regime and opposition groups indicated they were prepared to attend a conference being organised by the US and Russia.

The EU opened the door to adding the military wing of Lebanon's Hezbollah to its list of international terrorist groups, EU diplomats said. A formal request to blacklist Lebanon's most powerful political and military group was filed by Britain and is to be discussed at June 4 talks by a committee overseeing the EU list of people and groups subject to its asset-freezing regime. "We hope to have an agreement by the end of June on Hezbollah," said a diplomat close to the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. Hezbollah fighters are believed to have died this week in fighting against Syrian in the crucial town of Qusayr.

Tensions between the Syrian regime and Israel have heightened since Israel attacked a convoy at the Jamraya military facility two weeks ago. This was Israel's third airstrike on Syria since January. At the time, the White House said Barack Obama believed that, as a sovereign government, Israel had the right to take "the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people".

Yesterday the head of Israel's armed forces, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, issued a direct warning to Assad: "If he disturbs the Golan Heights he will have to bear the consequences. We cannot and shall not allow the Golan Heights to become a comfort zone for Assad." Israel has said it is reluctant to get involved in the Syrian civil war but that it would intervene if it believed weapons were being moved, or were about to be moved, towards Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Golan Heights is a particularly sensitive area, taken by Israel from Syria during the 1967 war. Syria has wanted it back ever since because of its strategic importance and because it is one of the area's most reliable water supplies, water that has made the Golan a major source of Israel's food.

Fighting continues around Qusayr, which sits on a highway linking Damascus to Homs. In recent months rebels have taken control of Qusayr, cutting off a corridor along which the regime was able to move weapons and fighters from its stronghold on the coast to Damascus. As both sides claimed to be winning the battle for Qusayr, the UN said 20,000 civilians were trapped in the town by the fighting.

Overnight, leaders of the Friends of Syria group were to meet in Jordan to discuss the US-Russia brokered conference in Geneva next month.

Extract: Syria rebels hit Hezbollah heart
The Australian
AFP, The Sunday Times
Monday, May 27, 2013

BEIRUT: Two rockets slammed into the Hezbollah heartland of south Beirut yesterday as fighters from the Lebanese Shia group battled alongside regime forces against rebels in a key town in neighbouring Syria. The attack came as Syria's fractured opposition began an unscheduled fourth day of meetings on a peace conference proposal and after Hezbollah pledged "victory" in Syria over the rebels.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said it was in the militant anti-Israel group's own interest to defend President Bashar al-Assad's regime. "I have always promised you a victory and now I pledge to you a new one" in Syria, he said in a speech marking 13 years since his arch-foe Israel withdrew from Lebanon. Hours after he spoke, two Grad rockets hit the al-Shayyah area of south Beirut, a security source said, wounding four Syrian workers at a car dealership. It was the first time the Lebanese capital's mainly Shi'ite southern suburbs have been targeted during the more than two-year-old conflict in Syria. An AFP photographer said the second rocket damaged an apartment block, but no casualties.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which Interior Minister Marwan Charbel denounced as "an act of sabotage". "We hope that what is happening in Syria will not spill over into Lebanon," he said. Over the past week 30 people have been killed in clashes in Lebanon's northern port of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. The army found two abandoned rocket launchers in Aitat, southeast of Beirut's southern suburbs, the security source said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government had agreed "in principle" to take part in a US- and Russian-sponsored conference aimed at ending violence in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an announcement on Friday. Moscow learnt of the decision during a visit by Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. There was no immediate confirmation from Syria.

But with the violence in Syria raging and spreading, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem confirmed that his government would take part in a peace conference that Washington and Moscow were hoping to hold in Geneva next month. "We think … that the international conference represents a good opportunity for a political solution to the crisis in Syria," Mr Muallem said during a surprise visit to Baghdad. Syria would attend "in principle", he said. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris would this week host a three-way meeting with Russia and the US to prepare for the Geneva conference. Mr Fabius also condemned the Beirut rocket attacks, saying it was crucial to "avoid the war in Syria becoming a war in Lebanon".

Kuwait urged its citizens to leave Lebanon "as soon as possible" and urged those planning a visit to postpone their trips "due to the unstable situation". Jordan, which also shares a border with Syria and hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, said it was in talks "with friendly countries" to deploy Patriot missiles on its territory after a similar move by Turkey. "Jordan wishes to deploy Patriot missile batteries in order to boost its defence capabilities and help protect the country," Information Minister Mohammad Momani said in Amman.

The main opposition Syrian National Coalition also urged hundreds of Hezbollah fighters in Syria to defect. Hezbollah's intervention has given Assad the upper hand in Qusayr, a strategic central town in Syria, which provides an important rebel supply line from Lebanon and serves as a link to Assad's Alawite heartland further west.

In Istanbul, the Coalition met for a fourth day to try to overcome deep divisions over the Geneva peace conference. The opposition's long-standing position is that, after more than two years of devastating conflict which has killed more than 94,000 people, it will not negotiate until Assad agrees to leave. Delegates said efforts to reach an agreed position on the conference were being delayed by pressure from some of the opposition's Gulf Arab backers for an overhaul of its membership. "You have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushing to include up to 30 new members in the National Coalition," a coalition member said on condition of anonymity. "Their goal is to downsize the Muslim Brotherhood's influence over the group."

The Coalition, wrong-footed by Moscow's announcement that regime representatives had agreed to attend next month's planned peace conference, urged Damascus to give concrete evidence of its readiness for a transition of power.

Meanwhile, Russia will not fulfil a deal to sell advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria for fear they could fall into the wrong hands and be used to attack civilian aircraft at Tel Aviv's main airport, according to a senior Russian official. In return, he said, the Russians expected Israel to refrain from further attacks on Syria. "We are very much concerned about this, the large Russian community in Israel is a major factor in our attitude to Israel, and we will not let this happen," the official said.

Israeli infantry soldiers take part in unit exercises in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights near the border with Syria
amid growing regional tensions. Source: AFP
European Union to lift arms embargo on Syria's opposition
The Australian Online
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

BRITISH Foreign Secretary William Hague says the European Union has decided to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition while maintaining all other sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime after June 1. Mr Hague said after the 12 hour meeting that the decision "sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime". "The European Union has agreed to bring to an end the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition and to maintain other sanctions on Syria, all the other existing sanctions on the Syrian regime," Mr Hague said. "This is the outcome that the United Kingdom wanted," he said, adding that the decision had been ``difficult" for those EU nations staunchly opposed to delivering arms they believed would serve only to fuel the conflict. "I think it is the right decision," he added. "It will support political progress on Syria and our attempts to bring together a Geneva conference.

The all-day meeting laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after it won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr Hague insisted that Britain has "no immediate plans to send arms to Syria. It gives us flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate".

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted it would not be easy to organise Syria peace talks. Speaking after talks in a Paris hotel with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr Lavrov said ensuring the success of the proposed peace conference was "not an easy task, it's a very tall order."

The two men have been working to organise the talks under the aegis of the United Nations to bring together the Syrian regime and the opposition in a bid to end a bloody conflict that has raged for more than two years. The push to bring the warring sides together is ever-more pressing in a conflict that has claimed more than 94,000 lives, amid reports of "horrific" rights violations and mounting evidence that chemical weapons are being used.

Mr Lavrov said the aim was to try to stop the bloodshed in the war. No date or venue has yet been agreed for the talks, which aim to build on a similar initiative called "Geneva 1" held in June last year. "Both of us, Russia and the United States, are deeply committed, remain committed to trying to implement the Geneva 1 principles which require a transitional government by mutual consent," Mr Kerry said.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers struggled to hammer out an agreement on whether to supply weapons to Syria's rebels when an arms embargo expires this week. The talks had been "difficult," agreed Mr Hague, though "the discussion was constructive".

These international diplomatic efforts come against a background of growing divisions within the Syrian opposition, as fighting rages on the ground between rebels and regime troops now aided by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. While the Syrian regime has agreed "in principle" to attend the so-called "Geneva 2" peace initiative, the key opposition Syrian National Coalition is still divided over whether to participate. Russia and the US back opposite sides in the conflict, with the United States expressing growing concern over Russian arms sales to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

But Mr Kerry has warned that unless the two sides come to the table, the world will witness "the continued tragic disintegration of a country that will go down further into more violence and more bloodshed and more destruction." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was to host a dinner later with Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov, said there were "mounting suspicions" that chemical weapons were being used in Syria, as UN human rights chief Navi Pillay decried the "horrific" level of rights violations. And with the much-publicised involvement of Hezbollah threatening to pull Lebanon deep into the conflict, peace talks are becoming increasingly pressing.

Mr Lavrov said he believed those who took part in the first Geneva talks — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Iraq, Turkey and others — would be invited to the next session. "We believe that this circle could be extended to involve all key outside players who have interest in the situation," he added. He did not mention any countries by name. Russia has been pushing for Syria ally Iran to be included, but many Western nations remain wary of the idea.

As the talks and negotiations rumbled on, opposition fighters on the ground battled regime troops aided by Hezbollah for control of the key rebel stronghold of Qusair.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow has a contract for the delivery of the S-300s to the
Syrian regime. Source: AP
Israel warns on missiles for Syria
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Thursday, May 30, 2013

ISRAEL joined Syrian rebels in warning that Syria's civil war could escalate after Russia delivers S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu muzzled his cabinet last night, reports said, after several ministers condemned the arms deal and warned of a response from the Jewish state if the government felt threatened.

And Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, warned Hezbollah of reprisals if it continued to assist President Bashar al-Assad's regime. "If the attacks of Hezbollah against Syrian territory do not stop within 24 hours, we will take all measures to hunt Hezbollah, even in hell," he told Al Arabiya news channel.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon echoed government fears that the S-300 intercepting missiles could be used to shoot down Israeli fighter jets if they became involved in a war with Hezbollah. "The (missile) deliveries have not taken place and I hope they do not," he said. "But if, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do."

The developments stoked tensions after the EU decided to lift an embargo on supplying weapons to Syria's rebels, in a move the opposition reacted to with caution. Britain and France indicated they would not immediately provide weapons — holding off at least until a conference on Syria is held in Geneva next month.

Mr Netanyahu flew to Russia two weeks ago to urge President Vladimir Putin to cancel the missile sale, reportedly saying that if Assad's regime acquired the weapons it was "likely to draw us into a response and could send the region deteriorating into war". Israel has intervened in Syria three times this year with airstrikes against weapons that it believes were in the process of being transported to Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, yesterday defended the missile sale. "We consider these supplies a stabilising factor and believe such steps will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces," he said.

Although Lebanon is riven with sectarian tensions, most groups do not want a return to internal conflict after the 15-year civil war from 1975. But as Syria's conflict worsens so do sectarian tensions. Hezbollah is a Shia group while the Free Syrian Army is mainly Sunni. Sunni-Shia tensions have been breaking into violence in Jabal Mohsen, a suburb of the Lebanese city of Tripoli made up of about 50,000 Alawites — an offshoot of Shia and the sect of the Assad family. The Alawites in Jabal Mohsen are surrounded by up to one million Sunnis.

Hezbollah's involvement this month in trying to retake the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr has led to renewed violence in Jabal Mohsen — at least 29 people have been killed this month. Lebanese media estimate that more than 120 people have been killed in Sunni-Shia fighting in Jabal Mohsen since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

The UN Security Council was preparing to meet overnight to discuss a motion condemning the presence of foreign fighters in the conflict. Syria has become a proxy war for outsiders, with Russia and Iran providing weapons to the regime and Saudi Arabia and Qatar arming the rebels. Fighting has continued to rage, including at the central prison in northern Aleppo, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog saying at least 86 people were killed across the country yesterday.

'Confident' Assad in warning to Israel
The Australian Online
Friday, May 31, 2013

SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad has raised the prospect of opening a front against Israel on the Golan and says Russia is committed to supplying his regime with advanced missiles. Washington said such a move by Moscow would only prolong the conflict between government forces and Assad's foes in Syria, where activists say more than 94,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

'There is clear popular pressure to open a new front of resistance in the Golan, ' Mr Assad told Al-Manar television of his close ally, Lebanon's Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside his forces. 'There are several factors, including repeated Israeli aggression, ' he said, referring to reported Israeli air strikes on Syria. We have informed all the parties who have contacted us that we will respond to any Israeli aggression next time, ' he said.

There was no immediate comment on Mr Assad's remarks from Israel, which seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, since when the armistice line has remained calm, despite some spillover from the Syrian conflict. Mr Assad, whose forces are battling alongside Hezbollah fighters to recapture the key town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon, said he was 'very confident ' of victory. 'There is a world war being waged against Syria and the policy of (anti-Israeli) resistance … (but) we are very confident of victory, ' he said in the interview.

Earlier, Syrian state television said the Arjun district in northern Qusayr, one of the few remaining rebel strongpoints, had been taken, leaving rebels there little chance to escape. Mr Assad, who belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, appeared to imply in the interview that Russia has already delivered some of the promised ground-to-air S-300s.

US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on Mr Assad's suggestion that S-300s have been delivered. But she says providing additional weapons to Mr Assad, including air defence systems, 'will only prolong the violence in Syria and incite regional destabilisation. '

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon on Tuesday said his country 'will know what to do ' if the missiles were delivered. But yesterday, another minister indicated Israel would only act to prevent the missiles being used against it.

On the diplomatic front, the United Nations said a preparatory meeting for a proposed international conference on the Syrian conflict will take place in Geneva next week. Syria's opposition National Coalition, meeting in Istanbul, earlier said it would not take part in the peace initiative dubbed Geneva 2 'so long as the militias of Iran and Hezbollah keep up their invasion '.

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