Distances: Tel Aviv to Jerusalem 63 kms
Tel Aviv to Haifa 95 kms

Source: Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th edition - Sir Martin Gilbert;
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2002;
ISBN: 0415281172 (paperback),
0415281164 (hardback); Map: NPR Online




Click here for prior news from December 28th, 2008

Click here for news since July 29th, 2009


Feature article - A fractious alliance
Israel's new Government is one of the shakiest coalitions imagineable, writes
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
The Australian
Monday, April 06, 2009

EVERY so often, amid the grinding pessimism of Middle East politics, comes a story that makes you think perhaps there is hope after all. Such a story appeared from nowhere last week, and was like a ray of sunshine through the fog of despair that hangs over this place. The reason it was so different from most stories you read in the Middle East is that it was about civilised contact between Israelis and Palestinians. So bad have relations between Israelis and Palestinians become that any contact that is not violent or nasty provides some cause for hope.

The story was about Palestinian teenagers who played a concert for Holocaust survivors in Israel. The youths were from Strings of Freedom, a group from a refugee camp in Jenin, on the West Bank. Jenin was the scene of deadly battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in 2002.

The event was seized on by the Israeli media. Most of the youths had not seen an Israeli citizen before, it was reported, except for "gun-toting soldiers in military uniforms manning checkpoints, conducting arrest raids of wanted Palestinians, or during army operations". When the old people at the Holocaust Survivors Centre were told the youths were from the Jenin refugee camp, there were gasps from the audience. When they were told the youths would sing for peace, one woman responded "Inshallah", Arabic for "God willing". Arabian drums were played and Arabic songs performed. Then, spontaneously, two of the survivors performed a song in Hebrew.

But in the Middle East if you see or hear some good news, it's best to wait for a few days. Just in case something goes wrong.

Five days later, the follow-up story appeared. On their return to the camp Strings of Freedom were disbanded, the conductor was barred from the camp and the apartment where she had taught the young people was boarded up. Palestinian authorities in the West Bank claimed the youths had been dragged into "a political issue". And those officials are moderates compared with their Hamas rivals in the Gaza Strip.

It is in this climate that Benjamin Netanyahu this week became leader of Israel's 32nd Government: that makes it 32 governments in 61 years. It has been 20 years since an Israeli government completed its full term, and the challenges for this one are as great as they've been for years. Israel today is deeply divided. Netanyahu takes his place at the head of one of the shakiest coalitions imaginable. Netanyahu has had to make so many deals to put together this Government that he's ended up with 30 ministers and seven deputy ministers, the largest ministry in the country's history.

"This is an unnatural coalition with a great many faultlines running across it," says Jonathan Spyer from the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Israel. Two of the key foundations are Yisrael Beiteinu's leader Avigdor Lieberman and Labour's Ehud Barak, respectively the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister, who will need to work well together.

Lieberman has already displayed a propensity to behave in decidedly undiplomatic ways. On his first day in office he unilaterally ditched the two-year-old Annapolis peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Then late last week, Lieberman was questioned by police for seven hours about money laundering allegations.

The animosity between Barak and Lieberman is legendary. Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier, while Lieberman, a former bouncer from Moldova, migrated to Israel and never served in the army. The hostility became public during the election campaign, when Barak asked of Lieberman: "When has he ever shot anyone ' When has he ever held a rifle ?" Lieberman hit back: "Is that a criterion ' This is the leader of the Left ?"

And if Lieberman avoids eye contact with Barak, he may also be inclined to do the same with another senior cabinet colleague, Eli Yishai: he is the head of Shas, the party whose spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef said during the campaign: "Whoever votes for Lieberman gives strength to Satan." What had angered Yosef was Lieberman's opposition to the religious monopoly over marriages and divorces, and support for civil marriages. This has been a particular problem for Lieberman's power base: immigrants from the former Soviet Union who seek a better life in Israel but in many cases appear not to have the inclination to formally convert to Judaism.

Lieberman is no satan but will probably become something of a lightning rod: he is under investigation for possible bribery, money laundering, falsifying corporate documents and fraud. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that Netanyahu and Lieberman had agreed that if the latter is charged with any crime, the portfolio will go to Likud. Yisrael Beiteinu's response was fascinating: it didn't try to play down the prospect of Lieberman being charged, but said that should Netanyahu take the foreign ministry away from the party, it would leave the coalition.

Lieberman is the unlikeliest of foreign ministers. Last year he told the elder statesman of the Arab world and Israel's strongest ally in the region, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, that he could "go to hell". It appears that diplomacy is not his strong suit. He caused a furore in his first public address last week in his new role as Israel's chief diplomat. He made the traditional goodwill visit to the Foreign Ministry. Instead of goodwill, Lieberman dropped a bombshell by announcing that Israel no longer was bound by the historic Annapolis agreement — brokered by the US in 2007 which had led to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — without informing the US or, it appears, his own Prime Minister.

Only the night before, Netanyahu had told the Knesset that he would pursue "a permanent settlement" for the Palestinians, the centrepiece of the Annapolis agreement, which former British PM Tony Blair and others have been using as their framework for the last two years. Lieberman added that the only agreement Israel was bound by was the "2003 road map", but added "and I voted against it".

Not that the other "foundation" of the Government, Barak, is having an easier time. Barak is in open warfare with his own party machine because of his decision to join Netanyahu's coalition. He woke last week to read a remarkable front-page attack on him by the secretary-general of his party, Eitan Cabel. "Our main disadvantage is that we are playing against someone who doesn't abide by the rules and doesn't keep promises. He can murder, rape and steal and get away with it," Cabel said of Barak. Barak pushed his desire to join Netanyahu's Government through party delegates. The scenes of Labor delegates shouting at each other could have been from a conference of the Victorian ALP in the mid-1980s.

Netanyahu himself is under attack from within. He also woke to a hostile front-page headline this week: "Shalom supporters in Likud to declare war on Netanyahu." The powerful Silvan Shalom had wanted to be appointed foreign minister, finance minister or vice-prime minister. Instead, he was given "regional co-operation". By all accounts Shalom is not the sort of enemy you want, particularly when you hold one of the most difficult jobs in the world based on a shaky coalition. Shalom is the second most powerful man in Likud, Spyer says, but as powerful as he is Netanyahu felt stronger pressures: to include both Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu in the coalition, which meant giving them many of the top portfolios; and he was determined to keep control of the finance portfolio by giving it to one of his closest allies, Yuval Steinitz.

Joining in the new sport of Netanyahu bashing, outgoing foreign minister Tzipi Livni added her five shekels worth by describing the new Government as "ugly and bloated". All of these problems are before Netanyahu even looks towards the real challenges: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is facing a pincer movement from the Obama administration on the one side, and the European Union on the other - both are pushing hard for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One of the early flashpoints with them could be the controversial issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Inside the new Government there is a strong support for settlements. Indeed, Lieberman lives in one, which may well make him the world's only foreign minister who does not live inside his country's recognised borders. And one of the coalition partners is Habayit Hayehud - the Jewish Home Party - whose political identity is about preserving Jewish settlements. Israel's army radio last week reported that Netanyahu and Lieberman had reached a secret deal - not mentioned in the coalition papers they signed - that in return for Lieberman joining the coalition Netanyahu would approve another 3000 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim. The reason this is seen as a particularly sensitive expansion is that it is between Ramallah and Jerusalem and could cut that area off from any future Palestinian state.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, reflected a growing despair among Palestinians when he wrote in The Washington Post that Israel needed to implement an immediate freeze on all settlement activity. "Without a settlement freeze there will be no two-state solution left to speak off," he wrote. In his corner he has a powerful ally on this point: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The inevitability of working toward a two-state solution is inescapable," she says. But Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh says any discussion about a two-state solution today is "almost laughable". "We already have a two-state solution - one in Gaza and one in the West Bank. Before we worry about peace between Israel and the Palestinians we need peace between the Palestinians and the Palestinians."

There is some dangerous revisionism going on at the moment. While Lieberman declares that Israel is no longer bound by Annapolis, a key Palestinian Authority official says his side of politics is not bound to recognise Israel. Mohammed Dahlan, recently appointed a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, told Palestinian television two weeks ago: "We acknowledge that the PLO did recognise Israel's right to exist, but we are not bound by it as a resistance faction."

Journalist Abu Toameh says he is worried about the radicalisation of both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, such as the comments by Dahlan and the ban on the orchestra. "They (the Palestinian Authority) see that Hamas is becoming more popular and want to copy them," he says. "And on the Israeli side you have Netanyahu and Lieberman and everything Israel is doing with the security fence and the settlements. It's not looking good."


Old City home to growing tension
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, April 11, 2009

TENSIONS in Jerusalem's historic Old City are increasing after Israeli authorities this week demolished a Palestinian home and a group of armed Jewish settlers moved into another Palestinian home, changed the locks and refused to leave. The 2am takeover of the house in the Old City last week has led to clashes between the family who was living in the house and police, as the police bring food and other supplies to the settlers inside. The home demolition was the first in the Old City since the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a recent visit to Jerusalem that they were "unhelpful" to finding peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the case of the house demolition, Israeli authorities left a notice on the door of the home at 3pm the previous day warning them to evacuate the property and advising them to seek the advice of a lawyer. The following morning at dawn a team of about 80 police, security officials and demolition workers arrived and began demolishing the home that Sayara Fakhouri has lived in for eight years. The police sealed off all surrounding laneways through the Old City and warned neighbours that if they came near they would be arrested. Ms Fakhouri's son, Abed, said this week: "We knew it didn't matter whether or not we contacted a lawyer - the house would be demolished." The home was built on a block of land near Jerusalem's famous al-Aqsa Mosque - "the Dome of the Rock" - that the Fakhouri family has lived on for almost 100 years. The authorities claimed that the home that Ms Fakhouri had built - on top of the original family home - was illegal. Ms Fakhouri told The Weekend Australian that she had tried to get a building permit but that it was almost impossible for Palestinians to get building permits from Israeli authorities.

House demolitions have become one of the most sensitive flashpoints of the conflict. The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. The US State Department has long expressed concern about them and Ms Clinton spoke of them when she was in Jerusalem last month. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband yesterday expressed his concerns about proposed house demolitions on a visit to neighbouring Jordan.

Jerusalem authorities recently sent eviction notices to 90 families in Arab East Jerusalem - just near the Old City - telling them their homes had been built without proper council approval and would be demolished. The Jerusalem municipal officer in charge of the latest demolition refused to answer any questions about the demolition. Ms Fakhouri said she did not know where she would now live. After the demolition, boys from the neighbourhood cleaned up rubble. Authorities had told the Fakhouri family they would impose a fine of 600 shekels ($200) a day for every day the rubble was not cleaned up.

A short distance away, still in the Old City, a tense stand-off is being played out after a group of seven Jewish settlers took over the home of Palestinian businessman Nasser Jaber. Mr Jaber runs a tourism agency in West Jerusalem. A neighbouring Palestinian woman was woken about 2am on Thursday last week by the sound of the seven men breaking into the house. Once inside they changed the locks before Mr Jaber was able to return to the house from his parents' house, where he had been staying while his house was being renovated and painted. It is believed that the settlers knew the house was empty. The case went to court on Tuesday this week but was adjourned. The settlers claimed they have bought the property, while Mr Jaber said he had not sold it and knows nothing about any sale. "I have all the papers," Mr Jaber said. The settlers remain in the property, and each time they are brought food by other settlers and the police it leads to tension in the crowded part of the Old City.

In the court, Mr Jaber's lawyer asked one of the settlers: "If you say you already own the house why do you keep making offers to buy it ?" After the case was adjourned, the lawyer for the settlers said outside the court: "We're staying." Asked by The Weekend Australian who actually owned the house, at first the lawyer said "it's ours", but then added: "That's up to the judge to decide." The property is attractive to the settlers because it adjoins a house that is seen as a base for settlers who visit from outlying towns, particularly Hebron. When The Weekend Australian knocked on that door this week a man carrying a gun over his shoulder opened the door but said he had no comment. Mr Jaber said he was concerned the settlers may break down the wall to create one larger space that they will then refuse to leave. The court ruled that until it is able to hear the case in detail that the "status quo" should hold - that the settlers be allowed to stay.


Strike at tourists foiled: Egypt
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
The Australian
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

EGYPT appears to have foiled a terrorist attack by Hezbollah against Israeli tourists, leading to a renewed round of hostility between Egypt and Hezbollah. Egyptian cabinet minister Mufed Shehab said yesterday Egyptian authorities had found explosives belts and bomb-making materials and had detected a plan to bring other terrorist weapons and ammunition into Egypt. Although he did not name Israeli tourists, Mr Shehab said the Egyptian authorities believed a group of Hezbollah agents were "observing and locating the tourist groups who repeatedly come to south Sinai resorts and residences, paving the way to target them".

Separately, on a rare positive note, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday telephoned Israel's new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wish him a happy Passover, in the first phone call between the two men since Mr Netanyahu took office two weeks ago, and the first high-level contact between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since the Gaza war in January. After the call, Mr Netanyahu's office said the Prime Minister had told Mr Abbas the two had worked together in the past to achieve peace and would do so again.

The hostility between Egypt and Hezbollah reflects growing tension in the Middle East between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other. The Gaza war deepened that division, with Egypt blaming Hamas for the war, and Saudi Arabia remaining largely silent, while Iran and Syria blamed Israel. In relation to Hezbollah's alleged activities in Egypt, the authorities have charged nine men with spying for Hezbollah and aiming to harm Egypt's security.

Mr Shehab's comments came as Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah denied his group was planning any attack in Egypt but admitted that a man detained by Egyptian authorities, Sami Chehab, was a member of Hezbollah and said he was trying to help move weapons into Gaza for use against Israel. In a video address, Nasrallah said of Chehab: "The brother Sami is a member in Hezbollah, we do not deny this matter. "What he was doing on the Egyptian border was logistical work to help the Palestinian brothers in moving military equipment and members to help the resistance. The Egyptian regime is the one that should be condemned because it is the one working day and night to destroy the tunnels which are the one artery which supplies Gaza with life."

Egyptian and Israeli authorities have been on alert for a possible attack on Israeli targets by Hezbollah since the killing last year of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was killed in a car bombing in Damascus, and Hezbollah blames Israel for the assassination, although Israel denies involvement. Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders vowed to avenge the killing. Israel has warned its citizens against going to tourist resorts in Egypt this northern summer, due to a possible attack.

Relations between Egypt and Hezbollah have deteriorated rapidly in recent months. That deterioration was obvious yesterday with the state-aligned Egyptian newspaper Al-Gomhouria running a front-page editorial calling Nasrallah a "Monkey Sheik". "We do not allow you, Oh Monkey Sheik, to mock our judiciary, for you are a bandit and veteran criminal who killed your countrymen, but we will not allow you to threaten the security and safety of Egypt," the editorial says. "If you threaten its (Egypt's) sovereignty, you will burn."

Nasrallah's confirmation at the weekend that one of his members was involved in moving weapons into Gaza was seen as significant. Many security analysts in the Middle East had believed that with an election in Lebanon, in which Hezbollah is expected to make a strong showing, due in June, Hezbollah would at least publicly attempt to appear more mainstream. Hezbollah is the major partner in the "March 8 alliance", which has a strong chance of defeating the "March 14 alliance" led by Saad Hariri, the son of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb in 2005.

The British Foreign Office recently told a parliamentary hearing in London that Britain would begin talks with Hezbollah, with the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations. The US and Australia refuse any official contact with Hezbollah.


Envoy to promote two-state solution
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, April 17, 2009

PRESIDENT Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel last night to begin his first official push to convince the new Israeli Government of Benjamin Netanyahu that it should accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Mitchell made his proposed message clear when he said on the eve of his arrival: "In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we believe that the two-state solution, two states living side by side in peace, is the best and the only way to resolve this conflict."

The visit is seen as preparation for a meeting between the key players and Mr Obama. Both Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to separately visit Mr Obama in Washington next month. Should those meetings be regarded as successful, it is possible Mr Obama would then seek a summit between the two.

Upon his arrival last night, Mr Mitchell visited the Tel Aviv home of Defence Minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak. Mr Mitchell then met Israel's President Shimon Peres, who was reported to have told Mr Mitchell that any suggestion of a possible attack by Israel on Iran was "nonsense".

Mr Netanyahu has previously said he believes the economy of the Palestinian territories needs to improve before any political solution can be reached, and he is prepared to examine a program where this can happen. He has also said Israel cannot allow a new independent state to be established next to it that will endanger its security. His Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Israel is not bound by the Annapolis agreement of 2007 brokered by George W. Bush but will instead follow the "road map" of 2003. Mr Lieberman is concerned the agreement goes straight to "final status talks" about the boundaries of any Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem, while the road map sets out a list of conditions that must be met prior to such talks, including the renunciation of violence.

The US is placing pressure on Israel to pursue a two-state solution. Mr Obama has said he will actively pursue such a solution, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly urged this during a recent visit.


US, Israel far apart on peace policies
Weekend Australian
Saturday, April 18, 2009

JERUSALEM: Stark differences between US and Israeli policy towards peace talks with the Palestinians emerged in the first meetings between Barack Obama's Middle East envoy and top leaders of the new Israeli Government. George Mitchell stated clearly that Washington wanted the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Israeli side avoided mention of Palestinian statehood and said past Israeli concessions had led to violence, not peace.

Mr Mitchell met yesterday (AEST) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has yet to unveil his policy on peace efforts but has spoken of shifting the emphasis towards stimulating the Palestinian economy, away from negotiations towards a full peace treaty. Mr Netanyahu's office said his message to Mr Mitchell had been that Israel would not risk the creation of another Hamas-controlled entity on its border. The premier's office said he also told Mr Mitchell that "Israel expects the Palestinians to recognise the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people". The Palestinian Authority promptly rejected the demand. "This is an obstacle on the path to peace and the creation of two states," Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman said.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman questioned the basic premise that compromises by both sides would eventually lead to a peace accord. "The historic approach has so far not brought any result or solution," he said. "The new Government will have to come up with new ideas and a new approach." Mr Lieberman reinforced his public position that a year of apparently fruitless peace negotiations - which began after a US-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November 2007 under previous prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni - were misdirected. "Past prime ministers were prepared to make wide-ranging concessions, and the result of the Olmert-Livni government was the second Lebanon war, the operation in Gaza, severance of relations with Qatar and Mauritania, Gilad Shalit (a soldier captured in 2006) still in captivity and the peace process at a dead end," Mr Lieberman said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said this meant Israel would not conduct peace talks. "It's very obvious that this Government rejects a two-state solution and the agreements (already) signed," he said.

Mr Mitchell has also met President Shimon Peres, who tried to ease concerns that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities. "Talk of a possible Israeli attack on Iran is not true," Mr Peres told him. "The solution to Iran is not military."


Ahmadinejad sparks racism meet walkout
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DELEGATES from Western countries last night (Australian time) walked out of the UN anti-racism summit in Geneva after Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his keynote speech to attack Israel as racist. Mr Ahmadinejad criticised the formation of a "racist government" in the Middle East, in a clear reference to Israel. "They sent migrants from Europe, the United States ... in order to establish a racist government in the occupied Palestine," he said on the opening day of the five-day conference known as Durban II.

Three protesters from the French Union of Jewish Students dressed as clowns and shouting "racist, racist," were expelled from the conference as Mr Ahmadinejad began to speak. One of them threw a soft red object — a false nose — at the Iranian President, hitting the podium and interrupting his speech. Shortly afterwards a stream of Western diplomats, including from Britain and France, walked out. France condemned Mr Ahmadinejad's "hate speech" delivered on the same day as Holocaust Memorial Day, saying "no compromise was possible" with his UN racism stance.

The Iranian President had ignored entreaties from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that a UN resolution states Zionism cannot be equated with racism. Mr Ahmadinejad - who has called the Holocaust a myth and for Israel to be wiped off the map - had before his arrival in Geneva launched a broadside against the Jewish state, saying "the Zionist ideology and regime are the flag-bearers of racism".

The conference opened soon after Germany and New Zealand joined the US, Israel, Australia, Italy, Canada and The Netherlands in boycotting the follow-up to the original anti-racism conference in South Africa in 2001, during which the US and Israel walked out over what they said were anti-Semitic attacks directed at Israel. Mr Ban appeared to attempt to repair the damage to the summit by saying in his opening address that the world should condemn "anti-Semitism and Islamophobia" and by saying the world could not forget the Holocaust.

The Durban Review Conference is intended to examine efforts to overcome racism in the eight years since the first gathering in South Africa. Frantic efforts have been made in recent weeks to change the wording of the draft mission statement for the summit so it was not an attack on Israel, and although Israel was not referred to in the final draft, the boycotting countries believed the conference could become an outlet for anti-Semitic attacks.

Australia announced its boycott on Sunday, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying: "Regrettably we cannot be confident the review conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views." Barack Obama said yesterday the US had boycotted the summit because Washington did not want to put "an imprimatur" on a conference it did not believe in. The US President said the South African conference had become "a session through which folks expressed antagonism towards Israel in ways that were oftentimes completely hypocritical and counter-productive".

The conference has increased the tensions between Iran and Israel, which are already engaged in verbal hostilities over Iran's ambitions to develop a nuclear program. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the fact that Mr Ahmadinejad was a keynote speaker justified Israel's decision to boycott the conference. "The fact that a racist like Ahmadinejad is the main speaker proves the true aim and nature of the conference," he said yesterday. Mr Lieberman said Israelis could not ignore the fact that the conference began on the same day as Holocaust Memorial Day.

Part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address, Monday

FOLLOWING World War II, they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering. They sent migrants from Europe, the US and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine. It is all the more regrettable that a number of Western governments have committed themselves to defend those racist perpetrators of genocide. What are the root causes of US attacks against Iraq, or invasion of Afghanistan ' Wasn't the military action against Iraq planned by the Zionists and their allies in the then-US administration ' In the beginning of the third millennium, the word "Zionism" personifies racism that falsely resorts to religion, and abuses religious sentiment to hide their hatred and ugly faces.

Mark Steyn in the National Review online, Monday:

PRESIDENTS (Hans-Rudolf) Merz (of Switzerland) and (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad dined together last night in Geneva, and apparently very sociably. The mainstreaming of Mahmoud by Merz and co is worse than what Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax did. It is in the face of far more public and more explicit eliminationist threats. And, unlike Chamberlain's generation, this crowd will not be able to plead that what was being planned was so unprecedented it was beyond their capacity to imagine: every time Ahmadinejad denies the reality of the last Holocaust, he reminds the Merzes of the world that the apologists for those planning its sequel won't have the excuse that they didn't know it was coming.

Swiss authorities said in a statement that "various unresolved cases of consular protection were discussed, including the sentencing of the American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi." Swiss officials could not be reached for further details. Switzerland has represented US consular interests in Iran since 1980 and acted as a mediator after Tehran and Washington ended diplomatic relations. Saberi was sentenced by an Iranian revolutionary court to eight years in jail on charges of spying for the United States during a closed trial, in a verdict revealed Saturday. US President Barack Obama earlier Sunday denied she was a spy and demanded her release. According to Swiss officials, Merz "expressed Switzerland's concern relating to human rights in Iran" during the meeting with his Iranian counterpart "in particular concerning corporal punishment, stonings and the execution of minors." The Swiss president also expressed the hope that the conference against racism would take place "in a constructive atmosphere and one of mutual respect."


Extract - Iran chief likened to Hitler
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

IRANIAN leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has unleashed international condemnation of his speech to the UN anti-racism conference, with Israeli President Shimon Peres likening him to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. And despite a walkout during the speech by 23 EU delegates, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "the world sounds a weak voice against those who advocate erasing Israel".

Mr Ahmadinejad defied UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who had urged the Iranian President before he took to the podium not to use his address on the opening day of the conference to attack Israel. Mr Ban said the speech had been a manipulation of the forum and "I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian President to accuse, divide and even incite". "It is deeply regrettable that my plea to look to the future of unity was not heeded by the Iranian President."

The speech coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, Mr Netanyahu told those who gathered at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for a service broadcast nationally: "We will not allow the Holocaust deniers to carry out another Holocaust against the Jewish people. This is the supreme duty of the state of Israel. This is my supreme duty as Prime Minister of Israel." Mr Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, said earlier that "among those who collaborated with the Nazis, and those who stood by and let the Holocaust happen, there are those who criticise the one state that rose to grant refuge to Holocaust survivors, the one state that will prevent another Holocaust.

"It is hard to fathom why despots such as Hitler the Nazi, Stalin the Bolshevik and Ahmadinejad the Persian chose the Jews as the main target for their hatred, their madness and their violence. Perhaps they targeted the Jewish people because of its spiritual power - a nation poor in material possessions, but rich in values - for he who is infected with megalomania fears the power of the spirit.

British Foreign Secretary David Milliband condemned the Ahmadinejad speech as "inflammatory and utterly unacceptable", but defended Britain's decision to participate in the conference.


Egypt-Iran war of words flares
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, April 25, 2009

TENSION between the two major Muslim powers in the Middle East have resulted in unprecedented rhetoric, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warning Iran of Cairo's wrath if it tries to undermine Egyptian security interests. Mr Mubarak did not name Iran in his speech but his point was clear when he said he would not tolerate the intervention of regional powers hostile to peace and aiming to drag the region into the abyss.

Two weeks ago, Egypt announced the arrest of 49 people described as agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group regarded as a proxy for Iran. Egyptian officials said the men were seeking to destabilise Egypt by carrying out attacks on Israeli tourists, firing on ships in the Suez Canal and smuggling armaments from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. Cairo newspapers, which often reflect government views, attacked Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

To widespread surprise, Mr Nasrallah confirmed the Lebanese national accused by Egypt of heading the planned operation in Egypt was a Hezbollah representative. However, he said, Hezbollah had done nothing to compromise Egyptian sovereignty and intended only to assist the Palestinians in Gaza. Mr Nasrallah attacked Egypt for not trying more vigorously to stop the Israeli attack on Gaza in January and for trying to block the smuggling of weapons from its territory into Gaza, at the urging of Israel and the US.

Egyptian officials say Cairo has no intention of engaging in provocation that could lead to another war with Israel. The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reports that Iran, according to an Egyptian source, is trying to foment instability in Egypt to divert international attention from Tehran's nuclear program. The state-owned daily al-Gomhouria called Mr Nasrallah a monkey sheik. The editorial addressed Mr Nasrallah: "Every Egyptian knows you are an Iranian agent. Are there instructions from Iran to drag Egypt into a conflict ?"

Egypt and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat hosted the deposed Shah after the Islamic revolution in Iran. To Egypt's fury, a main street in Tehran was named, a few years later, after Sadat's assassin.


Tensions rise after West Bank clashes and Gaza air strike
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, May 04, 2009

TENSIONS in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are worsening after the arrest of four Jewish settlers, including two Israeli soldiers, for firing towards a Palestinian village and the death of two Palestinians in an Israeli air strike on the Gaza Strip.

The clash involving the settlers came on the West Bank between the Palestinian village of Khirbet Safa and the Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin.

Last month in Bat Ayin, a Palestinian with an axe killed a 13-year-old boy and wounded a seven-year-old. Flare-ups between the two groups have continued since. Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet has said it captured the man who carried out the axe attack, claiming he was from Khirbet Safa. Verbal confrontations between the two groups took place before the two soldiers from the settlement, on leave, were believed to have used army weapons to fire towards the village as they entered it with a large group of settlers. Israeli army units quickly arrived and arrested the two soldiers for illegal use of firearms, and the two other settlers. They forced the settlers out of the village.

Clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have been increasing in recent weeks, with several Palestinians shot dead. Israel has said after some of the recent shootings that they believed the Palestinians were approaching checkpoints to attack. The air strike followed the firing of rockets by militants from inside Gaza on Friday.

The heightened strife comes as Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for his first meeting since becoming Israeli Prime Minister with US President Barack Obama in Washington on May 18. That meeting will be the first clear indication of which approach Mr Netanyahu intends to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US has stressed it believes a two-state solution - an independent Palestine alongside a secure Israel - is the only answer.

While Mr Netanyahu is not opposed to a two-state solution, he is known to want limitations for Israel's security, including that any Palestinian state would not be permitted to have its own army. Sources familiar with Mr Netanyahu's administration say he is focusing heavily on preparation for the May 18 meeting, regarded as crucial for both sides. Since his election in February, Mr Netanyahu has made few public indications of his Government's position.


Israel commits to two-state solution
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, May 05, 2009

ISRAEL has given its strongest signal yet that it will pursue a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict as new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to meet US President Barack Obama. Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said yesterday that Israel would abide by all the commitments made by previous governments and that the new administration understood that Middle East "stability will entail a two-state solution". The comments were significant because Mr Ayalon, a former ambassador to Washington, is a key confidant of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and both are leading figures in the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The remarks came as Mr Lieberman began a week-long visit to Europe, his first trip as Foreign Minister. Israeli President Shimon Peres is due to meet Mr Obama in Washington tomorrow.

Israeli and Palestinian politicians have begun posturing in the lead-up to Mr Netanyahu's May 18 talks at the White House. His first meeting with Mr Obama is likely to be dominated by the drive for an agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that "a two-state solution is the only solution". Mr Netanyahu, while not opposed to a two-state solution, has put a number of qualifications, including that any Palestinian state should not be allowed to have an army.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday outlined his main requirements to resume peace talks with Israel. "Our conditions and vision are part of the two-state solution, which also involves halting settlement building and the policy of house demolitions," Mr Abbas said after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah.

King Abdullah is emerging as a key figure in the peace talks as he begins a tour of the Middle East to win support for a two-state solution among Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. After yesterday's meeting, King Abdullah and Mr Abbas issued a joint statement: "The two Arab leaders demanded a halt for all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly Jerusalem, and rejected all Israeli steps that seek to change the nature of the holy city through encroachment on its holy places and emptying the city of its population either by deportation or demolition of houses."


Israel makes its case for peace
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, May 06, 2009

ISRAEL's leadership yesterday began an international drive to sell the message that they are prepared to resume peace talks with Palestinians, but not necessarily on the terms being pushed by the US. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said peace was possible but that it required a "fresh" approach. Speaking from Jerusalem by satellite to the annual conference in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr Netanyahu said: "The fresh approach that I suggest is pursuing a triple track toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians: a political track, a security track and economic track."

His address followed Israel's President Shimon Peres, who said Mr Netanyahu, his one-time political rival, wanted to make history. "And in our tradition, making history is making peace," Mr Peres said. "I am sure that peace is his real and profound policy." Neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Peres used the words the US is pushing so hard - "two-state solution". Asked about the two-state issue, Mr Peres said: "We'll deal with it."

The speeches came as Israel's new Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, continued his European visit with a central message that while the international community saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the major issue, Israelis believed Iran would be a threat to their country's existence if it obtained nuclear weapons. Fierce posturing is occurring in the lead-up to Mr Netanyahu's all-important summit with Barack Obama in Washington on May 18 when Mr Netanyahu will detail what Israel is prepared to do in terms of resuming peace talks with the Palestinians and Mr Obama will outline what he believes should occur and its timetable.

Hamas leader Khalid Meshal joined the posturing, saying yesterday that Hamas would support a two-state solution. Mr Meshal told The New York Times in an interview from his home in Syria: "I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution." While he said Hamas had ceased firing rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, he added: "There is only one enemy in the region, and that is Israel."

Mr Meshal's pitch to an American audience reflected a similar one being made by Israel's leaders. Mr Peres told the AIPAC conference that Mr Obama had the capacity to turn the crisis in the Middle East into an opportunity. In a direct address to Mr Obama, he said: "You are young enough to offer hope to the world and great enough to bring it to life." Mr Peres reaffirmed Israel's commitment to previous agreements made with the US - a direct contradiction of Mr Lieberman's comments on his first day as Foreign Minister, when he said the Annapolis agreement signed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the US in 2007 had "no validity". "The present Government of Israel will abide by the commitments of the previous governments of Israel," he said.

The comments appeared to be part of a planned strategy to walk away from Mr Lieberman's earlier comment, which caused concern in Washington. The day before, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Daniel Ayalon, one of Mr Lieberman's closest allies, also said Israel would abide by previous agreements.


Israel savages UN report on Gaza attacks
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
Thursday, May 07, 2009

ISRAELI officials lashed out yesterday at a UN report accusing the Jewish state of "negligence or recklessness" in attacks on UN facilities in the Gaza Strip during its war with Hamas in January. "The spirit of the report and its language are tendentious and entirely unbalanced," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who reportedly accused Israel of lying about the damage it caused to UN facilities in the three-week conflict, nevertheless rejected the report's call for a full and impartial investigation into the war. He tempered the report's findings by telling a press conference that Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip "faced and continue to face indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas and other militant groups".

The five-man inquiry commission was led by Ian Martin, a Briton who is a former head of Amnesty International. Its brief was to investigate casualties or damage involving UN facilities in Gaza but its conclusions touch on broader humanitarian issues regarding Israel's use of massive firepower in the densely populated strip. Mr Ban refused to publish the complete 184-page report but released his own summary of it. The report accused Israel of "varying degrees of negligence or recklessness" towards UN facilities in its Gaza operation and said the deaths of civilians should be investigated under international humanitarian law. At his press conference, Mr Ban said there would be no further investigations.

The report's demand for financial compensation for damage to UN facilities could amount to $11million, Israeli officials said. The Palestinians place their death toll in the war at 1400 and say the bulk were civilians. Israel says about 1200 Palestinians were killed and that more than 700 were fighters. Ten Israeli soldiers were killed in the operation. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the report ignored the fact that Hamas and other militants had fired about 4000 rockets and mortar shells at Israel. "After eight years, we said 'enough'. We have the most moral army in the world. Responsibility lies solely with Hamas."

A central issue in the UN inquiry was a much-publicised incident at the Jabaliya refugee camp, where more than 40 civilians were reported killed inside a UN school compound by Israeli mortar fire, according to the Palestinians. UN officials in the area initially lent credence to the report. In response, Israeli officials said the army was responding to Hamas mortar fire from the compound.

It eventually emerged that no Hamas fire had come from the compound and that no Israeli shells had hit the compound. Instead, Palestinian mortarmen several hundred metres from the compound had fired at Israeli positions and Israeli counter-fire had hit the Palestinian position. An Israeli investigation determined that three civilians and nine militants had been killed in the exchange.

The first of the commission's 11 recommendations was that the UN seek "formal acknowledgment by the Government of Israel that its public statements alleging Palestinians fired" from within the UN school compound "were untrue and regretted". The report, however, apparently made no mention of the initial claims that Israeli shells had hit the school, causing more than 40 civilian casualties - a claim supported at the time by a UN agency - which were also untrue.

The UN report cited an air attack that hit the compound of the Asma elementary school in Gaza City, where hundreds of Palestinians were sheltering. Three young men were killed in the compound. The report said they were going to the toilet and not engaging in military activity. Also cited were the killing of two children by shell fragments inside the UN school at Bait Lahiya and damage caused to the UN's main headquarters by Israeli shells.

Israeli officials termed Mr Ban's summary "objective", but expressed fears that other UN officials would use the report to smear Israel. "When we saw the summary of the report, we were appalled," said an Israeli official to the news agency YNet. "It was written as if they didn't listen, didn't understand, maybe didn't want to understand."

While, same day

US cranks up pressure for two-state Mid-East solution
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies

THE US has delivered its bluntest message yet to the new Israeli Government - work towards a two-state solution, stop expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, dismantle existing outposts and allow the free movement of Palestinians. The message was delivered by US Vice-President Joe Biden to the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington. He also delivered a message directed at the Palestinian Authority: "combat terror and incitement against Israel".

Mr Biden's messages came the same day Israeli President Shimon Peres warned of Iran's nuclear ambitions in a meeting with President Barack Obama. Mr Peres told Mr Obama: "If Europe had dealt seriously with Hitler at that time, the terrible Holocaust and the loss of millions of people could have been avoided. "We can't help but make the comparison."

The public statements were made in the lead-up to the May 18 summit in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Obama. It will be the first meeting between the two since they were elected. Mr Netanyahu is planning to present Mr Obama with his plan to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Netanyahu is not opposed to the US's preferred option - a two-state solution with a newly created Palestine alongside Israel - but the crucial matter will be the qualifications he and his Government want to place on any Palestinian state. Key Israeli figures are meeting leaders around the world to put Israel's general position while US officials, in turn, are repeating their view that negotiations towards a two-state solution should begin immediately.

Mr Biden yesterday told the AIPAC conference: "Israel has to work for a two-state solution. You're not going to like my saying this, but do not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement." He described US support for Israel as "not negotiable". "With all the change you will hear about, there is one enduring, essential principle that will not change and that is our commitment to the peace and security of the State of Israel."

An estimated 230,000 Jewish people live in settlements on the West Bank. Most of the settlements were constructed with the support of Israel. Outposts, however, are considered illegal by the Israeli government and while exact figures are difficult to obtain, Israeli academics say they are believed to be home to "a few thousand" settlers. Palestinians say both settlements and outposts are illegal. Under any peace agreement, the outposts would almost certainly be dismantled and some settlements would probably close. Larger settlements - such as Maale Adumim and Gush Etsyon - would almost certainly remain since they are considered by Israel to be long-established, legal suburbs.

President Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel also addressed key AIPAC delegates yesterday, reaffirming the White House's view that a two-state solution was crucial. He told them he believed Iran was "the No1 threat" to the Middle East and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said "this is the moment of truth for Israel and the Palestinians".

Visiting Europe, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, reaffirmed yesterday to France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that Israel believed Iran was the most urgent issue for the international community to deal with. Mr Kouchner echoed the US, saying France believed Israel should support a Palestinian state and agree to a complete halt to building of new settlements in the West Bank. At an earlier meeting in Rome, Mr Lieberman told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Iran should be given a deadline of three months to respond to questions about its nuclear program or "action must be taken".


Israeli nuclear ambiguity under threat
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday, May 08, 2009

A CALL by a US official for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has raised fears in Jerusalem that the Obama administration may be seeking to block the Iranian nuclear threat by sacrificing Israel's reported nuclear arsenal. US Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said this week: "Universal adherence to the NPT, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, remains a fundamental objective of the United States."

The US has quietly accepted Israel's nuclear ambitions over the years because the Jewish state's perceived vulnerability in the Middle East lent legitimacy to its desire for a "doomsday" weapon that could deter its enemies. "In the past, there was an informal agreement by which the Americans looked the other way (regarding Israel's nuclear program)," said Uzi Even, a former Knesset member and a scientist who was involved in the program. "Now the US is breaching this agreement." A senior official in Israel's Foreign Ministry said the ministry was "trying to verify" Ms Gottemoeller's statement, apparently meaning it was attempting to determine whether it meant a departure by the new US administration from previous policy. "In any case, it's baffling."

Under the treaty, only five nations are allowed to hold nuclear weapons - the US, Russia, Britain, France and China. All other signatories are obliged not to develop nuclear weapons. Those that already have nuclear weapons are required to gradually rid themselves of them. The only non-signatories in the world are the four countries cited by Ms Gottemoeller. India, Pakistan and North Korea have tested nuclear devices. Israel has not but is reported to have up to 200 nuclear warheads.

Under a 40-year-old understanding reportedly achieved between then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and then US president Richard Nixon, Washington has refrained from pressuring Israel to sign the NPT. Israel, for its part, maintained ambiguity about its nuclear program and refrained from any nuclear test. It was Israeli President Shimon Peres who formulated Israel's public position in the 1960s when he was deputy defence minister - "Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East".

This formula was put to the test in the 1973 Yom Kippur War when the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a successful surprise attack and for a few days Israel's survival appeared at stake. Whatever thoughts may have gone through the minds of the leadership, Israel did not threaten to use nuclear weapons. Eventually, its ground forces succeeded in turning the tide.

By choosing nuclear ambiguity, Israel has been able to maintain its deterrent posture while reducing the pressures that would have come with an open declaration of nuclear capability. However, with the rapid advances Iran is making in its nuclear program, Tehran's complaint of a double-standard towards Israel is being given increasing attention. Israeli officials have in the past said they would be willing to sign the NPT but only after all Middle Eastern nations, including Iran, have acknowledged Israel's right to exist and signed peace treaties.


Most Israelis 'want two-state conflict solution'
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, May 09, 2009

ONE of Israel's key negotiators on any peace agreement with the Palestinians yesterday said he believed 75per cent of the Israeli public now wanted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon also said Israel would go into any talks with Palestinians with no preconditions - and that while he insisted Israel had the right to continue building settlements on the West Bank on the basis of "4000 years of Jewish life", whether Israel did would depend on any peace agreement.

Speaking at a briefing of foreign media in Jerusalem yesterday, Mr Ayalon, who was one of Israel's negotiators at the Camp David meetings, said successive Israeli governments since 1993 had educated the Israeli public about a two-state solution. "If you take a poll today about a two-state solution I would grant you 75 per cent of Israelis would say yes," he said. "Back in '93, 75 per cent at that time would have said no. So we moved on all the fronts and we didn't see a similar reaction, unfortunately, on the other side." Asked why, if most Israelis wanted a two-state solution and US President Barack Obama was pushing so hard for one, Mr Netanyahu had avoided using such a term, Mr Ayalon said: "First of all, this is his prerogative as Prime Minister. Secondly, I think, in the midst of the (current) policy review, I certainly wouldn't want to pre-empt the resolution which will be I guess presented to President Obama when the meeting takes place in Washington."

Speaking to The Weekend Australian after the briefing, Mr Ayalon said he "very much hoped" that a peace agreement could be struck between the Israelis and Palestinians during the term of the Obama Government. We have a strong Government politically, we have a credible Government and always ... governments from the right side of the aisle are more effective in achieving peace," he said. "We intend to do that." Asked whether the freezing of settlements was part of any peace deal, Mr Ayalon said: "Israel will have no preconditions in the dialogue with the Palestinians."

The comments came as former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is a key negotiator for the Middle East Quartet, said he believed Mr Netanyahu could be a peacemaker and that it was possible for the Palestinians to be given control of their own territory. Mr Ayalon said it needed to be emphasised that whatever negotiations produced, "Israel should stay as a Jewish state". "Let's say, just like others have the right to self-determination, so do we," he said. Mr Ayalon said Israel would be "the darlings of the international community" if it agreed to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. "But can we do it at the expense of our survivability here," he asked. He quoted Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a settlement, who said that for real peace with security he was willing to leave his home.

Asked if he believed Israel had the right to continue expanding settlements on the West Bank, Mr Ayalon said: "If you look at 4000 years of Jewish life, yes we have the right. Whether we will do it or not, this is a different question. For the political concessions that Israel has been making, and is still willing to make, whether it's accepting the road map and other things, including the PA and everything that was progressively moving, we would like to see payment in kind by the Palestinians," he said. "For instance, are they willing to give up this right of return, especially if there is to be a Palestinian state ' Is there any logic to bring Palestinian refugees to a neighbouring state and not to gather them into the Palestinian state, in order to have a home for them with their identity, with everything they need. We don't see anybody asking that from the Palestinians."


Pope in appeal to Mid-East Catholics
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, May 11, 2009

POPE Benedict has started his historic visit to the Middle East with a message for Christians in the troubled region to stay true to their roots.

"I have long awaited this opportunity to stand before you as a witness to the risen saviour, and to encourage you to persevere in faith, hope and love," he said yesterday at an open-air mass for 50,000 Christians from across the region. "The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East. May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world. Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the church's mission in the Holy Land, demands of each of you a particular kind of courage: the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition."

Earlier. at the largest mosque in Jordan, Pope Benedict said the "ideological manipulation of religion" was behind the division and violence in the modern world. He told the audience in the mainly Muslim country that he had "deep respect" for Islam, but he stopped short of making an apology some Muslims had wanted for a speech three years ago in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor saying Islam was violent. Soon after he delivered that speech in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict said he had been misunderstood and regretted that it had caused offence to Muslims.

In a separate message on the eve of his visit to Israel, he said during a visit to Mount Nebo in Jordan: "May our encounter today inspire in us a renewed love for the canon of sacred scripture and a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews in mutual respect and co-operation in the service of that peace to which the word of God calls us." Mount Nebo is the place, according to Biblical legend, where Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land, Israel, for the Jews.

The pontiff's visit to the Middle East is one of his most sensitive - over the next four days he will be walking through the sensitivities of a decades-old conflict when he visits Israel and the Palestinian territories.


'57-state solution' for Mid-East
The Australian
Richard Beeston and Michael Binyon, Amman
The Times, AFP
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

WASHINGTON is putting the final touches to a hugely ambitious peace plan for the Middle East, aimed at ending more than 60 years of conflict between Israel and the Arabs, according to Jordan's King Abdullah, who is helping to bring the parties together in a "57-state solution". The Obama administration was pushing for a comprehensive peace agreement that would include settling Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and its territorial disputes with Syria and Lebanon, King Abdullah II said. The Israeli Government has rejected any moves that would lead to a two-state solution, the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, but the king insisted that what was being proposed was a "57-state solution", whereby the Arab and entire Muslim world would recognise the Jewish state.

"We are offering a third of the world to meet them with open arms," said the king. "The future is not the Jordan River or the Golan Heights or the Sinai; the future is Morocco in the Atlantic and Indonesia in the Pacific. That is the prize." In a direct appeal to the Israeli public, the king said they could either do a deal that would lead to peace or they could maintain "Fortress Israel" for another 10 years, which would be a calamity. "If we delay our peace negotiations, then there is going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12 to 18 months," he said.

Details of the plan are likely to be thrashed out this month, chiefly at US President Barack Obama's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington next Monday. The initiative could form the centrepiece for Mr Obama's much-anticipated address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4. A peace conference could then take place involving all the parties as early as July or August. Such an ambitious project has not been attempted since 1991, when the first Bush administration assembled all the parties for a peace conference in Madrid.

"What we are talking about is not Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the table, but Israelis sitting with Palestinians, Israelis sitting with Syrians, Israelis sitting with Lebanese," said the king, who hatched the plan with Mr Obama in Washington last month. If Israel procrastinated on a two-state solution, or if there was no clear American vision on what should happen this year, Mr Obama's "tremendous credibility" in the Arab world would evaporate overnight. "All eyes will be looking to Washington," the king said. "If there are no clear signals and no clear directives to all of us, there will be a feeling that this is just another American government that is going to let us all down."

As an incentive to Israel to freeze the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a key step in any peace process, Arab parties may offer incentives, such as the right for El Al, the Israeli airline, to fly over Arab air space and visas for Israeli tourists to Arab states. Mr Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet on Sunday, however, that he had no intention of leaving the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. Syria, which only last week was accused by Washington of being a state sponsor of terrorism, presents a huge challenge. King Abdullah, who visited Damascus yesterday, insisted that the Syrians could be brought in from the cold.

Last night, after a meeting with the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Mr Netanyahu said he hoped "in the coming weeks" to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. "We would like to extend peace first of all with our Palestinian neighbours," he said. "We would like Israel and the Palestinians to live with prospects of peace, security and prosperity. The three things go together, and not one at the expense of the other."

King Abdullah said he was prepared to believe what Israelis have told him -- that a right-wing government in Israel is better able to deliver peace than the Left. He sidestepped reports he had been asked by the US to clarify the Arab proposals on making East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state and the Palestinian right of return, the two most contentious issues in Israel. Mr Netanyahu has said these are not negotiable.

"I was very specific in carrying a letter on behalf of the Arab League highlighting the Arab peace proposal, their desire to work with President Obama to make this successful, their commitment in the peace proposal in extending the hand of friendship to the Israelis," the king said. Jerusalem was not an international problem but an "international solution", he insisted. A symbol of conflict for centuries, it was desperately needed to become a symbol of hope. And hinting at the Arab demand for international control of the old city, he said that Islam, Christianity and Judaism should make it a "pillar for the future of this century". He said he sensed a lot more understanding in these times of cultural and religious suspicions that "Jerusalem could be the binder that we need".

While, same day

Pope to honour six million dead
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP

THE Pope denounced anti-Semitism as "totally unacceptable" and pleaded for Middle East peace as he began his first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. "Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world," Pope Benedict XVI said last night after he touched down in Israel in an eight-day Holy Land pilgrimage. "This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism where ever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe."

He pleaded for Israelis and Palestinians to do everything to resolve their conflict, which has caused decades of bloodshed in the land sacred to the world's three major monotheistic faiths. "The hopes of countless men, women and children for a more secure and stable future depend on the outcome of negotiations for peace between Israelis and Palestinians," he said at the welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion airport. "I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties so that both people may live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognised borders."

Israel is laying on stringent measures for the trip under Operation White Robe, with tens of thousands of law enforcement officers deployed, entire sections of Jerusalem shut down and Israeli air space closed. During his five-day pilgrimage, the Pope will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and visit Jewish and Muslim holy sites. But the visit comes at a delicate time, with Israel-Vatican ties strained and the peace process stalled. Israel is angered over Benedict's backing of the beatification of controversial Nazi-era pope Pius XII and lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British bishop. His trip is a mainly pastoral visit aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian population to stay in the Holy Land, as well as promoting peace.

The Pope will meet senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders, top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious officials, and Palestinian refugees living in the shadow of Israel's controversial separation barrier near the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem. The Israelis and the Palestinians have tussled over whether the Pope would attend a concert by young Palestinians inside Bethlehem but in the shadow of the barrier. The Palestinians wanted to use the Pope's visit to highlight the wall. They planned a concert near the wall, but the Israelis objected, saying it would portray Israel as the aggressor. The Vatican pulled out of the concert.

Among the Pope's first stops in Israel will be the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he will lay a wreath in memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II. "It is right and fitting that during my stay in Israel I will have the opportunity to honour the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah and pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude," he said. But he will not visit the area of the memorial where a caption under a photo of Pius XII says the war-time pope failed to protest against the Holocaust. There is also concern over the Pius beatification and Benedict's membership of the Hitler Youth, although he has said he was enrolled against his will after membership became compulsory in 1941.

Israeli President Shimon Peres hailed Benedict's visit, saying it "brings a blessed understanding between religions and spreads peace near and far."


Extract - Israel weighs peace with all Muslims
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

As reports surface this week that Arab leaders were looking to offer Israel a "57-state solution" involving peace with the entire Muslim world, Mr Netanyahu met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and said the Jewish people wanted "harmonious relations" with the Muslim world. "Israel yearns to reach peace with its Palestinian neighbours and with all the Arab nations," he said. "We all live in this region and we are all the sons of Abraham."

While, same day

Pope Benedict walks out over Gaza attack
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

POPE Benedict's visit to the Holy Land has angered Jewish leaders after his failure to mention Germans or Nazis in a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The Pope also walked out of an inter-faith meeting yesterday after a Palestinian cleric told him Israel had "slaughtered women, children and senior citizens in Gaza".

Officials from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem expressed concern after the speech by the German-born Pope, who was expected to ease Jewish anger over his decision in January to overturn the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop. Jewish leaders were upset at the speech's failure to mention the toll of Jews in the Holocaust. The Pope referred to "millions" rather than six million, and used the word "killed" rather than murdered. The chairman of the Yad Vashem council, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau said, "something was missing". "There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret," he said. Another Yad Vashem official, Avner Shalev, said "this is certainly no historical landmark". "I had expected a historic speech from the German Pope at the site, which is a memorial altar for the victims of Nazi Germany," he said. Israeli historian Tom Segev wrote: "There is nothing easier than expressing real horror when talking about the Holocaust than identifying with its suffering, pain and grief. If that is not done, it is a sign there was a deliberate decision not to do so."

The Pope walked out of the inter-faith dialogue when Palestinian cleric Sheik Tayseer al-Tamimi urged him to help end "the crimes of the Jewish state", including "killing Gaza's children," "destroying mosques" and "bulldozing Palestinian homes". He described the separation barrier built by Israel as the "racist wall", which had "turned it (the West Bank) into a giant prison and keeps Muslims and Christians from praying in their churches and mosques". He told the Pope: "I call on you in the name of the one God to condemn these crimes and pressure the Israeli Government to stop its aggression against the Palestinian people." Sheik Tamimi spoke in Arabic. When the translation was made Pope Benedict left the meeting early.

The controversies highlight the tightrope that the Pope is walking on his visit to the Holy Land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a difficult issue for anyone, but even more so for a pope who was a Hitler Youth member, an affiliation however denied last night by Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. While Pope Benedict did not criticise Holocaust deniers, he made a passing reference to those who denied the misery of Holocaust victims: "May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten." While some were unhappy with the Pope's performance at Yad Vashem, others were satisfied, such as US Holocaust survivor Ed Mosberg. Mr Mosberg was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp, lost all his family, and almost his own life. Outside Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance, Mr Mosberg showed his concentration camp number of 85454 which he wears to this day as a bracelet. He said of the Pope: "I don't look upon him as a German, I look at him as a human being."

Snipers scanned the area from atop minarets as Israeli police swarmed the plaza that overlooks the sacred Wailing Wall, where the Pope headed next. "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family," the Pope wrote on a piece of paper he stuck in the cracks of the ancient wall.


Pope Benedict and Palestianian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
Picture: AFP
Extract - Pope's support for Palestinians
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday, May 14, 2009

THE Pope late last night expressed "solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians" and described the separation barrier built by Israel as "tragic". In a remarkably strong speech written for his visit to a refugee camp near Bethlehem on the West Bank, the Pope said it was understandable Palestinians often felt frustrated. "My visit to the Aida refugee camp this afternoon gives me a welcome opportunity to express my solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birth place or to live permanently in a homeland of their own," the Pope said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier slammed the Israeli occupation as he received the Pope in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. "In this Holy Land, there are those who continue to build separation walls instead of bridges and seek by the forces of the occupation to compel Muslims and Christians to leave the country," Mr Abbas said, as he greeted the Pope in Bethlehem.

Speaking after passing through an imposing checkpoint in the 8m-high wall that surrounds a section of Bethlehem, the Pope said: "I know that many of your families are divided -- through imprisonment of family members or restrictions on freedom of movement -- and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. My heart goes out to all who suffer in this way. Please be assured that all Palestinian refugees across the world, especially those who lost homes and loved ones during the recent conflict in Gaza, are constantly remembered in my prayers."

The Pope told the gathering they were living in precarious and difficult conditions with limited opportunities for employment. "Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state, remain unfulfilled," he said. "Instead you find yourselves trapped, as so many in this region and throughout the world are trapped, in a spiral of violence, of attack and counter-attack, retaliation and continual destruction. The whole world is longing for this spiral to be broken, for peace to put an end to the constant fighting. Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached -- the wall," he said.

The papal visit has already been engulfed in controversy when his spokesman on Tuesday said that the Pope had "never, never, never" been a member of Hitler Youth but was forced to retract that claim a few hours later. As Jewish leaders condemned the Pope's speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Vatican's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, criticised the media for saying the Pope had been a member of the Hitler Youth. When the media pointed out that in a 1996 book the Pope talked about the Hitler Youth, Lombardi was forced to retract the claim.

Jewish leaders criticised the German-born Pope for making no reference to Germans or Nazis in his speech at Yad Vashem. The Speaker of Israel's parliament, Reuven Rivlin, said the Pope had spoken at Yad Vashem "like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn't happen. But what can you do ?" Mr Rivlin said. "He was part of them."


Bibi in deal with Arab moderates
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, May 16, 2009

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made broad agreement on key Middle East security issues with two of the moderate Arab nations in the region, Jordan and Egypt, ahead of his first meeting with US President Barack Obama on Monday. Mr Netanyahu yesterday travelled to Jordan to meet King Abdullah in preparation for his all-important meeting in the White House with Mr Obama at which it is likely to become clear whether Israel will accept the US and European Union's calls for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting in Jordan suggests Mr Netanyahu is prepared to offer compromise on his previous positions when he meets Mr Obama - he described the meeting as "excellent" even though King Abdullah told him he needed to accept a two-state solution, lift Israel's embargo of Gaza and withdraw from "all occupied Palestinian lands".

Since becoming Prime Minister in February, Mr Netanyahu has been focused on preparing for the meeting with Mr Obama. This has included trying to pull together a broad coalition of agreement between Israel, Jordan and Egypt - who are united in concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday: "I wanted the first meetings in my first month as Prime Minister to be with our peace partners, Egypt and Jordan, before going to our biggest friend, the US, with the goal of making this circle strong and expanding it. I am pleased that I can go to Washington after we had this triangle of talks - between Israel, Egypt and Jordan - and I think it will help us in the future."

King Abdullah appeared less certain after the meeting that common ground had been reached. In a statement, he rejected Mr Netanyahu's stated view that "an economic peace" needed to be established with the Palestinians before any lasting political solution could be reached. "Any notion of economic empowerment, outside a political solution leading to an independent and viable Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel, was rejected since it would not bring peace and leave the region hostage to further crises and conflicts," King Abdullah said. He warned that "missing the current opportunity" to end the conflict would threaten the security of the entire region and that Israel would not enjoy security and stability "unless the Palestinians gain the right to establish their state and live in peace and security". King Abdullah is emerging as a key figure in the renewed search for peace in the Middle East - he was one of the first world leaders to meet Mr Obama in the White House and one of the few Arab leaders who can talk to both Israel and Arab countries.

After his meeting in Jordan, Mr Netanyahu said there was "a wide agreement" between the three governments regarding "the strategic threat that threatens us all" - a clear reference to Iran. Israel clearly places the issue of Iran developing a nuclear program as a higher priority for urgent action than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the Obama administration has made it clear it wants the new Israeli Government to make a peace settlement with the Palestinians a priority. It appears Mr Obama will guarantee to seek to resolve the Iranian issue - by trying to convince Tehran to allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear program or else face tougher economic sanctions - if Israel commits to immediately resuming peace talks aimed at the development of a two-state solution that would see the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.

These differing priorities between Israel and the international community were highlighted again yesterday when Mr Netanyahu met Pope Benedict in the final day of the Pope's Middle East trip. Although it was only a 15- minute meeting, Mr Netanyahu brought up Iran while the Pope brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Netanyahu said later: "I asked him as a moral figure to make his voice heard loudly and continuously against the declarations coming from Iran. I told him it cannot be that at the beginning of the 21st century there is a state which says it is going to destroy the Jewish state, (yet) there is no aggressive voice being heard condemning this."


Fight on focus of US-Israel summit
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

THE long-awaited summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama overnight was likely to be a battle of priorities, with Mr Netanyahu determined to make Iran the key issue while Mr Obama remains determined to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in a concession to US demands about halting Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Mr Netanyahu was believed to be preparing to suggest to Mr Obama that Israel and the US establish a joint committee to oversee the slowing of settlement expansion.

In the lead-up to the summit, which was scheduled to be held in the White House overnight, the chairman of Israel's National Security Council Uzi Arad said: "The way things are planned, the focus of Netanyahu's words will be the Iranian issue." Mr Arad warned that "there may be differences of opinion but the practical approach of both parties will determine what happens".

Israeli officials were pleased with the focus given by Mr Obama in an interview published yesterday in which he said he understood Israel's concern about Iran. Mr Obama told Newsweek: "I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why." On the subject of any possible military action against Iran, Mr Obama said: "I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don't take options off the table when it comes to US security, period."

Two weeks ago, CIA chief Leon Panetta flew to Jerusalem to tell Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak the White House did not want to be surprised by any air strike on Iran. Mr Panetta was given those assurances, but Mr Netanyahu has consistently made it clear that an air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, similar to one conducted by Israel on Syria two years ago, remains an option. Mr Netanyahu's desire to focus in his meeting on Iran was emphasised yesterday by Mr Arad, who said the Iranian nuclear issue was "an existential issue as far as the security of Israel is concerned" and that Iran was "progressing all the time" towards nuclear military capability.

On the eve of the summit, Israel's President Shimon Peres said negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians should resume immediately. Mr Peres has emerged as something of an elder statesman adviser to Mr Netanyahu and is believed to have told him over the past week he needed to go into the summit prepared to make concessions and to avoid a confrontation with Mr Obama. Mr Peres yesterday described as "tremendous" a plan outlined last week by Jordan's King Abdullah to convince the 57 members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to recognise Israel in return for Israel halting Jewish settlements and for Israel to withdraw to the boundaries it had before the 1967 war. Mr Peres suggested Mr Netanyahu would be prepared to commit to a two-state solution in his meeting with Mr Obama.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said at the weekend that he believed Mr Netanyahu was "ready for a process whose end is two states for two people".


Frank talk at summit
Obama calls for two-state solution
The Australian
Geoff Elliott and John Lyons
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

BARACK Obama has bluntly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he wants a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank must stop. In their first face-to-face meeting as leaders, the US President yesterday called on Mr Netanyahu to "seize this moment" in the Middle East peace process, while Mr Netanyahu said Israel wanted the Palestinians to govern themselves "absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel". The meeting confirmed divisions between the new US and Israeli governments over the search for peace.

While Mr Obama made a concession in setting a deadline of the end of this year to see progress with Iran about its nuclear ambitions, Mr Netanyahu appeared to make no concessions to Washington. At a press briefing in the Oval Office after the three-hour meeting, Mr Netanyahu avoided any reference to a "two-state solution" - the repeatedly stated aim of the US and the European Union. He gave no ground on Mr Obama's view that Israel needed to lift its 18-month embargo on the Gaza. Mr Netanyahu also failed to address Mr Obama's statement that "settlements have to be stopped".

While Mr Obama did not specifically mention a military option against Iran, he said: "We are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious."

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu offered frank insights on their respective positions. The President told his counterpart that it was in everyone's interest to "achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side by side in peace and security" and that Mr Netanyahu should start engaging immediately. He added that the so-called road map for peace agreed with the US in 2003 meant the building by Jewish settlers on Palestinian land should stop. "We have to make progress on settlements," Mr Obama said. Some are calling this the Obama administration's "tough love" for Israel, but others worry, particularly in Jerusalem, that it could prove to be a weak point in the alliance between the US and Israel. Mr Obama was at pains to affirm the "special relationship". "I have said from the outset that when it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East that Israel's security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu," he said. "It is in US national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained."

Mr Netanyahu, regarded as a hardliner, emphasised the threat from Iran and its nuclear weapons. On that score he may have won a diplomatic point when Mr Obama hinted at a timetable on his outreach to Tehran. "We're not going to have talks forever," Mr Obama said, adding he was not taking anything off the table if Iran failed to co-operate, including stiffer international sanctions. The form of words is also intended to signal that the US never precludes military action. Mr Obama said there should be a "fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress, and that there's a good faith effort to resolve differences".

Mr Netanyahu said the issue of Iran "consumed most of our private one-on-one meeting. It was clear that he understands the extent of the problem, for the world as well as for us, and he is committed to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Mr Netanyahu said. On the issue of settlements, Mr Netanyahu said: "We decided that this is something that needs to be implemented through commitments on both sides." In relation to a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Netanyahu said: "Let's go. I'm ready."


Obama to unveil peace plan in Cairo
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday, May 22, 2009

US President Barack Obama is expected to outline a far-reaching proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement in Cairo next month that will flesh out the Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Plan proposed in 2002 in a way that makes it more palatable to Jerusalem but also requires the Jewish state to make major concessions.

Under the Obama proposal, Palestinian refugees would not be permitted to return to Israel, but they would be permitted to return to the Palestinian state that would arise on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those who continue to reside in Arab countries where they have been largely confined to refugee camps for 60 years would be given citizenship of those countries, ending their refugee status.

On the critical question of Jerusalem, Mr Obama will support the Arab demand that Palestinians be permitted to establish their capital in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967. However, the walled Old City at the heart of Jerusalem, where the principal holy sites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are located, would become an international enclave and fly the UN flag.

The Palestinian state would be demilitarised, maintaining a significant police force to keep order but not an army that might pose a security threat to Israel. The pre-Six Day War borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories would be modified, but only by mutually agreed territorial exchanges, not unilateral annexation.

The proposal was reported by the prestigious Arab-language newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, which is published in London. The paper said the plan would be unveiled by Mr Obama when he gives his much-touted address to the Muslim world in Cairo next month. According to the newspaper, Mr Obama's plan was drawn up in consultation with Jordan's King Abdullah, who was the first Arab leader to be invited by the President to Washington. The two had first met in Amman last year during Mr Obama's tour of the Middle East as part of his presidential campaign. After returning from Washington three weeks ago, the king spoke to other Arab leaders in the region, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a rapid shuttle.

He then gave an interview to The Times of London in which he said Israel was in a position to win recognition from all 57 Muslim countries if it came to terms with the Palestinians. He said that a peace deal to be brokered by the Americans would be the most comprehensive since the Madrid peace conference in 1991. To sweeten the deal, Israel would be offered immediate benefits such as entry visas to all Arab countries and the right of El Al, Israel's national carrier, to overfly Arab territory.

Acceptance of Israel by all Arab states would, the thinking goes, give Israel the confidence to make concessions to the Palestinians, something more difficult to do when it faces a sea of hostile faces around it. Should Israel choose, however, to procrastinate instead of accepting a two-state solution, it would be likely to find itself at war within 12 to 18 months, the king said.

Israeli officials said yesterday that the details of the Obama plan outlined in Al Quds Al Arabi had not been given to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he met Mr Obama on Monday. But they did not deny the report's plausibility. It is a measure of the new relationship between Washington and Jerusalem since Mr Obama assumed office that such a far-reaching plan would be run by an Arab leader before it was shared with an Israeli leader. No less noteworthy is Mr Obama's decision to visit Cairo on his first presidential trip to the Middle East, without visiting adjacent Israel.

Mr Obama has put more distance between himself and Israel than previous US leaders. But his moves are perceived in Israel as understandable - many would even say praiseworthy - attempts to restore US credibility in the Arab world. A US administration acceptable to the Arab world has a far greater chance of using its good offices to bring about peace in the region. Mr Obama's speech in Cairo on June 4 will be a major address to the entire Muslim world, and will not focus exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It will aim to rebuild US relations with the Muslim world that were knocked askew following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Same day

Israel surprises with offers to talk to Palestinians and Syria, and to close illegal outposts
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

ISRAEL'S leadership appears to be responding to pressure from the US to resume peace efforts, saying it was to begin talks not just with the Palestinians but also with Syria and ordering the evacuation of illegal outposts on the West Bank. Speaking at the airport upon his return to Jerusalem after his meeting with President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to open peace talks without preconditions.

"I am willing to open peace talks with the Palestinians, by the way with the Syrians as well, of course without preconditions, but I made it clear that in any peace agreement there must be a solution to Israel's special security needs," he said. While the resumption of talks with the Palestinians was not a surprise following his meeting with Mr Obama, Mr Netanyahu's addition of Syria was unexpected. So too was the announcement that such talks would resume without condition - Mr Netanyahu has until now insisted he would not resume talks with the Palestinians unless they specifically recognised Israel as a Jewish state.

Another surprise was an announcement by Defence Minister Ehud Barak that Israel would begin dismantling the illegal outposts, many of which have sprung up next to settlements in the West Bank over the past 15 years. Mr Barak warned that if those living in outposts did not leave after dialogue, the Government would take swift action. "We will dismantle the outposts," he said. "If it won't be through understanding it will be done quickly and by force".

Three weeks ago, US Vice- President Joe Biden bluntly told the annual conference of the American-Israel Political Action Committee that the outposts needed to be dismantled, settlements frozen and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pursued. In Monday's Oval Office discussion before reporters, Mr Obama said settlements needed to be stopped. Mr Netanyahu did not respond. Politically, dismantling outposts is a far easier option than freezing settlements as outposts are illegal under Israeli law.

Although Mr Barak made no reference to Mr Netanyahu's meeting with Mr Obama, he did say the outposts were damaging Israel's international reputation. Mr Netanyahu had given indications that he would not continue talks with Syria initiated by Ehud Olmert. Those talks folded when the Gaza war began in January.


Extract: Jerusalem 'not negotiable' as outpost demolished
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, May 23, 2009

TWO days after pledging to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, the Israeli Prime Minister has made it clear that the most sensitive issue between Israelis and Palestinians - the status of Jerusalem - is not negotiable. "United Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," Mr Netanyahu said yesterday. "Jerusalem has always been and always will be ours. It will never again be divided or cut in half."

Jerusalem's status has always been fiercely contested. Most foreign embassies, including Australia's, locate themselves in Tel Aviv as their countries say they should not move to Jerusalem until it is clarified whether it will be the capital of Israel, a Palestinian state or both. Instead, most countries have missions rather than embassies in Jerusalem, whose function is to liaise with the Palestinian Authority, which is based in Ramallah on the West Bank. Australia's embassy in Tel Aviv, for example, liaises with the Israeli Government; and its mission in Ramallah, rather than Jerusalem, liaises with the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem's status would be one of the most important issues to be decided in any "final status negotations" between Israelis and Palestinians in any peace deal. Both Israelis and Palestinians say Jerusalem should be their capital.

Immediately upon his return from the US, Mr Netanyahu announced he would resume peace talks with Palestinians and Syria. And Mr Barak told a group of settlers that same day that Israel would dismantle the outposts, preferably after dialogue and understanding - but if not, then "quickly and by force". Israeli security forces arrived the next morning at the outpost of Maoz Esther on the West Bank and demolished the mobile homes lived in by five families and several youths. But the settlers returned in the afternoon and by nightfall had rebuilt the outpost. Their defiance illustrates the practical problem the Israeli Government will have if it attempts to dismantle the estimated 100 outposts built through the West Bank. Such outposts are often attached to more established settlements which they use for water, electricity and security.

Meanwhile, Israel's media is still trying to establish exactly what was said by each party during the three hour meeting on Monday between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama. Israel's largest newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said Mr Netanyahu had promised Mr Obama no new settlements would be built but that construction would continue in existing settlements and in "the settlement blocs of Judea and Samaria" - which is a major part of the West Bank. The paper said Mr Netanyahu revealed on his return to Israel that he told Mr Obama that, while there would be no new communities in Judea and Samaria, "it is impossible to build in the air in those communities where there is natural growth". Mr Obama told Mr Netanyahu he wanted Israel to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he wanted the growth of settlements to cease.


Extract - US, Israel clash on the path to peace
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ISRAEL and the US now appear to be on a collision course after the announcement yesterday by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel would continue expanding its existing settlements. Mr Netanyahu said to his colleagues at yesterday's cabinet meeting: "The demand for a total stop to building is not something that can be justified and I don't think that anyone here at this table accepts it. We won't establish new settlements, but there's no logic in not providing an answer to natural growth."

A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu, Mark Regev, told The Australian yesterday that it was wrong to see the settlement issue as "the be-all and end-all of the peace process. Only four years ago, some 20 settlements in the Gaza Strip were closed. The settlers who didn't want to leave voluntarily were forcibly removed," he said. "Since then we had more violence and terrorism from the Gaza." Mr Regev said existing settlements would ultimately be discussed during peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians "but until then normal life in those communities will continue".

Speaking at the same cabinet meeting yesterday, Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would not agree to return to pre-1967 borders as is often called for. "A return to the borders of 1967 today, as we are being pressured to do, would not end the conflict, would not guarantee peace or security," Mr Lieberman said. "It would simply move the conflict to within (the) 67 borders." While Israel is not agreeing to Mr Obama's request to halt all settlement activity, it is clearly keen to be seen to be offering some concession - the cabinet yesterday agreed that illegal outposts on the West Bank should be dismantled. Mr Regev said: "Israel is a country where there is a rule of law. If outposts are built outside the framework of law they will be coming down."

On the issue of Jerusalem, Mr Regev said Israel made a distinction between Jerusalem and the West Bank. "Jerusalem is our capital," he said. "No Israeli government has ever agreed to limit sovereignty in Jerusalem."


US confronts Israel as rabbis rebel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, May 29, 2009

BARACK OBAMA has increased pressure on Israel to cease activity in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories as leading rabbis urged defiance of the Israeli Government's attempts to dismantle illegal outposts. The rabbis said any soldiers who take part in dismantling Jewish outposts or settlements should refuse as such an order goes against "Torah values".

"We call on all security personnel to refuse expulsion orders," a statement from the rabbis said. The statement added: "A soldier or a policeman who is asked to take part in an uprooting operation is obligated to refuse this order, which goes against Torah values. The holy Torah prohibits taking part in any act of uprooting Jews from any part of our sacred land." Those who signed the statement included rabbi Yaacov Yosef, son of the spiritual leader of the Shas ultra orthodox political party. As many soldiers live in settlements and are religious, the call for disobedience forces them to choose between their military and religious leaders.

The Obama administration yesterday confronted the decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow "natural growth" in Jewish settlements to continue. While Mr Netanyahu has said Israel would dismantle illegal outposts dotted through the West Bank, he has rejected the US President's call for an end to activity in more established settlements housing about 400,000 people.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Mr Obama had made it clear in his meeting with Mr Netanyahu last week that there would not be "natural growth exceptions". "He (Mr Obama) wants to see a stop to settlements," Ms Clinton said. "Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. "We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease."

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was preparing to meet Mr Obama in Washington overnight. Mr Obama is expected to tell him that the US requires Palestinians to renounce violence against Israel and recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Mr Abbas is expected to tell Mr Obama that Palestinians will not resume peace talks with Israel without a halt to settlement activity.

Meanwhile, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, yesterday passed the first reading of a bill that would make prison mandatory for anybody in Israel who calls for the end of Israel as a Jewish state. A second bill is being prepared, which would make it illegal to mark Israel independence day as a day of mourning. Many of Israel's Arab community, which makes up 20 per cent of the country's population, mark the event as "the Nakba" or "catastrophe". But that bill, proposed by the Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is generating much debate inside Israel, with many arguing it denies freedom of expression. Under Mr Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu became the third-largest party in Israel at February's election.

One of Israel's most high-profile supporters in the US, Abe Foxman, entered the row yesterday. "It's one thing to legislate allegiance to the state, but it is discrimination to target one population group for loyalty," he told The Jerusalem Post. Mr Foxman, the US national director of the Anti-Defamation League, added: "That means demanding allegiance to Zionism rather than to the state itself."


Obama resolute over settlements
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, May 30, 2009

BARACK Obama has refused to back down on a confrontation with Israel, insisting that the Jewish state stop all building activity in its settlements and restating his support for a Palestinian state. Speaking yesterday during a White House meeting with the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the US President said he had been "very clear about the need to stop settlements" in his meeting last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Obama repeated his commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict - a position that Mr Netanyahu refused to support in Washington. "I am a strong believer in a two-state solution," Mr Obama said. He told Mr Abbas that Palestinians needed to ensure security forces on the West Bank performed their functions properly and that Palestinians eased anti-Israel "incitement" in schools and mosques. "All those things are impediments to peace," he said. The peace process needed to be restarted, he said. "We can't continue the drift, with the increased fear and resentment on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now," Mr Obama said. "We need to get this thing back on track."

Israel rejected Mr Obama's call for a halt to settlement activity, saying that while it would not begin building new settlements in the West Bank, it would allow "natural growth". "Normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue," Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly rebutted Mr Netanyahu's view that it would be illogical to stop "natural growth": "He (Mr Obama) wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," she said on Thursday. Yesterday Mr Obama would not be drawn on what he would do if Israel continued to refuse to halt settlement activity. "If Israel keeps declining to accept the two-state solution and to freeze the settlements, well, I think it's important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best," he said.

But in an apparently conciliatory tone to Israel, Mr Obama said: "Obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has to work through these issues in his own Government, in his own coalition, just as President Abbas has a whole host of issues that he has to deal with." Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from the Right of his coalition Government to continue settlements - the main push is coming from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a settlement.

Mr Abbas is in a weak position in Palestinian politics. Rival faction Hamas, which runs Gaza, is hostile to his Palestinian Authority Government in the West Bank, and part of his own Fatah faction has said the Government he announced last week is illegitimate. Technically, Mr Abbas's mandate expired four months ago but he and his supporters are reluctant to go to an election, fearing Hamas would win control of the West Bank.

Mr Abbas presented Mr Obama with a document based on the 2002 Saudi Arabian-brokered peace plan - in which Israel would give up land taken in the 1967 war, including the West Bank and part of Jerusalem, in return for the 22 Arab countries recognising Israel's right to exist and renouncing any violence against Israel. Mr Abbas said after the meeting that the main purpose of giving the document to Mr Obama was to help him find a mechanism to implement the Arab peace initiative. "I believe that if the Israelis would withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be ready to have normal relationships with the state of Israel," he said.

Mr Obama said he would continue to work "aggressively" towards finding peace in the Middle East. "I am confident that we can move this process forward if all the parties are willing to take on the responsibilities and meet the obligations that they've already committed to," he said. Mr Obama will travel to Egypt next week to make a speech about how he sees the US relationship with the Muslim world. While it will probably mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is unlikely to lay out any further detail on how he wants to address that issue.


Israeli settlements drive wedge between allies
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Monday, June 1, 2009

TENSIONS between the US and Israel are spilling into the public arena, with Israeli media and supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing Washington of favouring Palestinians. They claimed yesterday that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had adopted a strategy to "sit back and watch while US pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli Prime Minister from office". Mr Netanyahu is also being blamed in his country's media and from the Opposition because of what they describe as his refusal to present a political plan to US President Barack Obama.

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, who is close to Mr Netanyahu, said Israel would not agree to US demands to freeze all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. "I want to say in a crystal clear manner that the current Israeli Government will not accept in any fashion that legal settlement activity in Judea and Samaria be frozen," Mr Katz told army radio, using the Israeli term for the West Bank. "The Government will defend the vital interests of the state of Israel."

It was the first high-level reaction to a call by Mr Obama on Thursday during a meeting with Mr Abbas that Israel stop settlement activity, a key obstacle in the Middle East peace talks. Although the international community considers all Israeli settlements illegal, Israel makes a distinction between those the Government authorised and so-called wildcat outposts, set up by settlers without state approval. Mr Netanyahu has said his Government will dismantle the outposts, but has argued that expansion of existing blocks should be allowed to continue.

Another theme in the Israeli media yesterday was that Mr Obama was trying to win favour with the Muslim and Arab worlds in the lead-up to his speech on Thursday in Cairo. After two days of political calm thanks to the absence of media during Israel's Shabbat observation, commentators re-emerged with claims of improper motivations from Mr Abbas and Washington. Israel appears to be caught by surprise at the strong insistence that settlements in the West Bank need to be stopped.

The pressure came as violence increased in the West Bank. Six Palestinians died yesterday when Palestinian Authority policemen from the Fatah faction of Mr Abbas and figures loyal to the rival Hamas faction clashed in a gun battle near the West Bank town of Qalqilya. The three policemen, two Hamas identities and one bystander were killed. And in a separate incident near the West Bank town of Hebron, Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas leader, Abdel Majid Doudin.


Obama's opportunity for Middle East peace
The Australian, Lead Editorial
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The threat of a nuclear armed Iran can kick-start talks

WHAT looks like a familiar diplomatic ritual is beginning in the Middle East, as US president Barack Obama follows his Oval Office meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu by visiting the region this week. The Israelis and Palestinians agree they need to talk, but about what is, in itself, enough to start an argument. And while Mr Obama has already encountered Israeli intransigence over American demands for an end to new Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the other side will shortly explain why the Palestinians cannot compromise on their demands. But while prospects for peace appear as awful as ever, Mr Obama is dealing with a different situation to that faced by the past five American presidents, a situation which is much more dangerous, but one which could, paradoxically, create a dynamic for a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The threat, and opportunity, which Mr Obama could turn to his advantage is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The prospect of a second Islamic bomb delights Iran's Palestinian proxies, the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organisations, who take Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's promise to destroy Israel seriously. But it worries governments of Sunni states across the Arab world, who fear the Persian Shi'ites of Iran would use their ownership of weapons of mass destruction to impose hegemony across the Middle East.

The challenge for Mr Obama is to unite Arabs and Jews against the common threat. This will not be easy. Certainly the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia coexist with the Jewish state. But after 60 years of governments all over the region reviling Israel as the persecutor of the Palestinians, Arab public opinion will not easily accept peace. Nor will Palestinian politicians and their private armies want to make peace. The Fatah regime of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (whose term expired in January but who shows no sign of standing down) maintains an uneasy truce with Israel on the West Bank. While the shooting has stopped Israel's frontier wall separates some Palestinians from the fields and factories where they work. Mr Abbas will need something to show for a permanent agreement. But his Fatah faction will accept the need for peace far faster than Hamas, which runs Gaza as a small garrison state and responded to Israel's evacuation of the urban enclave by using it as a base for rocket attacks. That the Israelis responded in January by returning in strength to stop the attacks, inevitably leading to civilian casualties, obviously did not bother Hamas which exists to fight Israel rather than govern for ordinary Palestinians. The last thing wanted by Hamas and Hezbollah, which runs southern Lebanon as a military fiefdom, is peace with Israel, because it would mean the end of their authority over the Palestinian people. Their Iranian paymasters are equally keen to maximise the power they wield by keeping Jews and Arabs just one step from war. But nor is Israeli public opinion inclined to accept peace at any price. A majority of Israelis support a separate Palestinian state, but they are suspicious of any arrangement that would improve Hamas's opportunities to attack their country.

While these ancient animosities are strong they pall into insignificance, for Arabs and Israelis both, compared to the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran. And this is President Obama's opportunity to convince all sides to make peace in the face of the common threat. Israel can deal with any danger, except a nuclear-armed Iran. While the Israelis argue they can knock out Iran's weapons program the Iranians have built multiple nuclear facilities, making a single surgical air strike very difficult. Only the US has the air power to definitively end an Iranian bomb. While Mr Netanyahu conceded nothing to President Obama, Israel needs US engagement as never before. The Arab powers similarly need US support to deal with the theocratic regime in Tehran, which sees Jews, and Muslims on the other side of the doctrinal divide, as enemies. The challenge for Mr Obama is to make peace between the Palestinians and Israel the price of US help for the whole region. Unless Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan accept the need for a permanent peace with Israel, and bring the Palestinians with them, US assistance against Iran may not be forthcoming. Brokering a deal that sees Israel's right to exist accepted and creates a homeland for the Palestinian people will be difficult but Mr Obama has a new and persuasive argument.


Palestinians attempt to prevent their crops from burning following fires set by Jewish settlers near the West Bank city of Nablus. Picture: AFP
President renews call for West Bank freeze
Obama gets tough on Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

BARACK Obama has indicated he will take a much tougher line in negotiations with Israel, describing the direction of events in the Middle East as "profoundly negative" and claiming a new "realism" is needed in relations between Washington and the Jewish state. "Part of being a good friend is being honest," the US President said yesterday. "I think there have been times when we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also US interests."

Making the comments on National Public Radio in the US, Mr Obama used the interview to repeat his demand that Israel should freeze settlement activity in the West Bank. "I believe that, strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israel's security," he said. "Over time, in the absence of peace with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems on its borders." He also had a message for the other side of the conflict. In an interview with the BBC, he said there had been insufficient gestures from Arab states and Palestinians that might deal with some of Israel's security concerns.

As public posturing increased in the lead-up to Mr Obama's address to the Muslim world in Cairo this week, The New York Times reported that Washington was considering withdrawing its previously consistent support for Israel at the UN in an effort to pressure Israel to stop activity in Jewish settlements. The report quoted an unnamed Obama administration official saying the US could consider "things that could get the attention of the Israeli public".

US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said: "I'm not going to comment on this New York Times report but I think the President and Secretary (of State Hillary Clinton) have spoken very clearly to where we are with regard to the settlement question. "The United States lives up to its obligations - right now, we are focused on trying to get both sides to adhere to the road map so that we can move forward toward that two-state solution and it's not going to be easy, as you know." Mr Wood added that Israeli and US officials were having "intensive discussions". "We've long worked to ensure that Israel is treated fairly at the United Nations. That will continue," he said.

Internally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dealing with two major problems. The first is the cloud over his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is being investigated for corruption, money laundering and fraud. The second is growing unrest among settlers on the West Bank.

Yesterday, Israel's highest ranking law officer, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, criticised the Netanyahu Government for appointing Mr Lieberman to a senior cabinet position, given it was well known that Mr Lieberman was under investigation. Speaking to the Israel Bar Association, Mr Mazuz, who holds a position similar to Australia's federal Solicitor-General, said Mr Lieberman would never have been appointed in "a properly run country".

Mr Netanyahu's other problem is the outbreak of rebellion among some Jewish settlers. In the past two weeks, settlers have been rebuilding outposts the same day that Israeli security officials demolish them, and yesterday settlers blocked roads through the West Bank and threw rocks at Palestinians. The problems began after about 100 settlers blocked a road used mainly by Palestinians trying to get to Jerusalem. Six Palestinians workers driving past in a van were injured and another Palestinian was hit in the head with a rock. Palestinians responded with rocks. Some settlers set fire to Palestinian fields and farms in the northern West Bank.

A separate group of settlers blocked another road in the West Bank while a third group blocked the entrance to Jerusalem and began burning tyres during peak-hour traffic. Police said the actions by the settlers were in protest at the Government's attempts to dismantle illegal outposts on the West Bank. Settlers said the burning of the fields was "the price for harming our sacred land".


Man on a mission: Barack Obama is greeted by King Abdullah of Saudi
Arabia during the arrival ceremony for Mr Obama at King Khalid
International Airport in Riyadh last night.
Picture: AP
Bin Laden bid to stop Obama tour
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Additional reporting: AFP
Thursday, June 4, 2009

US President Barack Obama last night began a landmark Middle East mission to reach out to the world's Muslims, but earned a swift rebuke from Osama bin Laden in a new audiotape. Mr Obama arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to a red-carpet welcome and a kiss on both cheeks from Saudi King Abdullah, a key regional powerbroker who serves as protector of the two holiest shrines in Islam.

But minutes after Air Force One touched down, Al-Jazeera television aired a new tape from the al-Qa'ida chief, hot on the heels of a statement from his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who lashed out at Mr Obama's "bloody messages". Joining a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world, bin Laden accused Mr Obama of perpetuating former president George W. Bush's policies of "antagonising Muslims". "He has followed the steps of his predecessor in antagonising Muslims ... and laying the foundation for long wars," bin Laden said, referring to clashes between the US-backed Pakistan Government and Islamist militants. "Obama and his administration have sowed new seeds of hatred against America. Let the American people prepare to harvest the crops of what the leaders of the White House plant in the next years and decades."

Mr Obama and King Abdullah held talks at the monarch's sprawling farm outside Riyadh, with Mr Obama making his first foray into tricky personal diplomacy in the region, after a flurry of talks with Middle East leaders in Washington. Mr Obama will tonight travel to Egypt, another pillar of the Arab world, to deliver a personal appeal for reconciliation to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and hold his first talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

King Abdullah has been seeking to relaunch a 2002 Arab-backed Middle East peace initiative, which has been praised by the Obama administration. The Saudi initiative calls for normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel, a full withdrawal by Israel from Palestinian land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an "equitable" solution for the Palestinian refugees.

But it was unclear whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tough stand on Jewish settlements in Palestian areas would scupper US hopes of convincing the Arab world to make concessions to Israel to put momentum into the peace process. The US President's trip comes amid a confrontation between his administration and the Israeli Government over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Mr Netanyahu's refusal to publicly endorse a two-state solution.

Speaking in Washington yesterday before his departure, Mr Obama gave Mr Netanyahu an ultimatum to change his stance on the West Bank settlements and a two-state solution with the Palestinians within four to six weeks. Mr Obama issued the declaration to the Israeli leader via Mr Netanyahu's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak. Mr Obama made a surprise appearance at a meeting Mr Barak was holding in Washington with US National Security Adviser General Jim Jones. Mr Obama was not scheduled to meet Mr Barak but spoke with the former Israeli leader for about 15 minutes. Reports said he told Mr Barak he was giving Mr Netanyahu four to six weeks to provide an "updated position" regarding construction in West Bank settlements and the two-state principle.

Mr Netanyahu is concerned Mr Obama's bridge-building with the Muslim world will necessarily come at Israel's expense. The differences between the new US administration and Mr Netanyahu's Government have thus far been largely confined to one issue - settlement expansion. But there is fear in Jerusalem that the differences in mindset will eventually extend to more critical issues such as Jerusalem and final borders. Israel has long since stopped building new settlements, but under an agreement with the previous Bush administration it continued to build within existing settlements to accommodate "natural growth". However, the Obama administration has made it clear that it wants a halt to all construction. For Washington, the issue is whether it can persuade the Arab world it is serious about creating a new dialogue with it. Moderate Arab leaders with whom Mr Obama has met since taking office have emphasised that the growth of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land makes a moderate position untenable for them. In preparing his pitch to the Muslim world, Mr Obama has said he is not abandoning the Jewish state as an ally. But he has made it clear he is reordering his priorities to be an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs.


Barack Obama reaches out to Muslim world
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP, AP
Friday, June 5, 2009

BARACK Obama vowed last night to forge a "new beginning" for Islam and the US in a landmark speech to Muslims around the world, evoking a vision of peace after years of "suspicion and discord". In what may be a defining moment of his administration, the US President laid out a new blueprint for US Middle East policy, vowing to sweep away mistrust, forge a state for the Palestinians and defuse a nuclear showdown with Iran. In the domed Great Hall of Cairo University, Mr Obama warned that the US bond with Israel, the source of much Arab distrust of Washington, was "unbreakable". And he rejected "ignorant" rants by those who deny the Nazi Holocaust.

But in a sharp break from the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, Mr Obama - who was greeted with a standing ovation as he stepped up to the podium - rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. "I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world," Mr Obama said in a speech targeting the globe's 1.5billion Muslims on television, the internet and on social networking sites. So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace." Letting divides fester would "promote conflict rather than the co-operation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity".

The US President called on Muslims to confront extremists in their ranks at the same time as saying Americans should not negatively stereotype Muslims the way some had in the past. Mr Obama said "a small but potent" group of extremist Muslims had exploited tensions between the Muslim world and the US and this had resulted in many Americans being hostile to Islam. "The cycle of suspicion and discord must end," he said.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Obama called on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, to renounce violence. However, Mr Obama repeated his call for Israel to cease building in settlements in the West Bank and to agree to an independent Palestinian state. "Too many tears have flowed," the President said. "Too much blood has been shed. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own." He called on both sides to live up to obligations under the stalled road map for Middle East peace. "Israelis must acknowledge that, just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's," Mr Obama said. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

The speech was watched with intense interest by Israel, which is concerned Mr Obama has visited four of its neighbours - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq - but has not visited Israel nor announced plans to do so.

In his address, Mr Obama said: "America and Islam are not exclusive - they do not need to be in competition." He said Islam was a part of America's history and that "there is a mosque in every state of our union". The first nation to recognise the US, he said, had been the Muslim nation of Morocco. "America is not and never will be at war with Islam," he said. Referring to Islam's 1.5 billion adherents worldwide, Mr Obama said: "The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the hatred of a few." But he warned that, faced with Islamic extremism, the US would "never tolerate" violence, citing the trauma of the September 11 attacks in 2001, though saying his country lost its way with a harsh war on terror tactics. "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer," Mr Obama said.

Three times the President quoted from "the Holy Koran", including that "the Holy Koran preaches that whoever kills an innocent is as if they have killed all mankind". Mr Obama said his country did not want to keep its troops in Afghanistan. "Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there," he said. "We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case." Mr Obama, however, said his country's commitment to fulfil its role as part of a 46-country coalition "will not weaken", despite the costs involved. "It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict," he said. "We also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan." He added that the US planned to invest $US1.5 billion ($1.8billion) each year over the next five years in construction and aid money to the displaced in Pakistan, and $US2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy.

Specifically targeting young Muslims, perhaps not bound to past traditions, Mr Obama said: "I know there are many - Muslim and non-Muslim - who question whether we can forge this new beginning. "Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort - that we are fated to disagree, and civilisations are doomed to clash. There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward."

The US President also renewed his offer for dialogue with arch foe Iran, after a decades-long Cold War-style conflict. "It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve," Mr Obama said. "But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."


Was that Barack Hussein Bush speaking in Egypt
Wall Street Journal editorial
Weekend Australian
Saturday, June 6, 2009

One benefit of the Obama Presidency is that it is validating much of George W. Bush's security agenda and foreign policy merely by dint of autobiographical rebranding. That was clear enough yesterday in Cairo, where President Obama advertised "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." But what he mostly offered were artfully repackaged versions of themes President Bush sounded with his freedom agenda. We mean that as a compliment, albeit with a couple of large caveats.

So there was Mr. Obama, noting that rights such as "freedom to live as you choose" and "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed" were "not just American ideas, they are human rights." There he was insisting that "freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together," and citing Malaysia and Dubai as economic models for other Muslim countries while promising to host a summit on entrepreneurship.

There he was too, in Laura Bush-mode, talking about the need to expand opportunities for Muslim women, particularly in education. "I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles," he said. "But it should be their choice."

Mr. Obama also offered a robust defense of the war in Afghanistan, calling it "a war of necessity" and promising that "America's commitment will not weaken." That's an important note to sound when Mr. Obama's left flank and some Congressional Democrats are urging an exit strategy from that supposed quagmire. On Iraq, he acknowledged that "the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein" and pledged the U.S. to the "dual responsibility" of leaving Iraq while helping the country "forge a better future." The timeline he reiterated for U.S. withdrawal is the one Mr. Bush negotiated last year.

The President even went one better than his predecessor, with a series of implicit rebukes to much of the Muslim world. There would have been no need for him to specify that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis if Holocaust denial weren't rampant in the Middle East, including Egypt, just as there would have been no need to name al Qaeda as the perpetrator of 9/11 if that fact were not also commonly denied throughout the Muslim world. There also would have been no need to insist that "the Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems," if that were not the modus operandi of most Arab governments.

Mr. Obama also noted that "among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's," a recognition of the supremacist strain in Islamist thinking. He also included a pointed defense of democracy, including "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed" and "confidence in the rule of law." We doubt the point was lost on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, now in his 29th year in office. All of this will do some good if it leads to broader acceptance among Muslims of the principles of Mr. Bush's freedom agenda without the taint of its author's name.

As for the caveats, Mr. Obama missed a chance to remind his audience that no country has done more than the U.S. to liberate Muslims from oppression -- in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and above all in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 50 million people were freed by American arms from two of the most extreme tyrannies in modern history. His insistence on calling Iraq a "war of choice" is a needless insult to Mr. Bush that diminishes the cause for which more than 4,000 Americans have died.

He also couldn't resist his by now familiar moral self-indulgence by asserting that he has "unequivocally prohibited the use of torture" and ordered Guantanamo closed. Aside from the fact that the U.S. wasn't torturing anyone before Mr. Obama came into office, his Arab hosts can see through his claims. They know the Obama Administration is "rendering" al Qaeda detainees to other countries, some of them Arab, where their rights and well-being are far less secure than at Gitmo.

The President also stooped to easy, but false, moral equivalence, most egregiously in comparing the U.S. role in an Iranian coup during the Cold War with revolutionary Iran's 30-year hostility toward the U.S. He also compared Israel's right to exist with Palestinian statehood. But while denouncing Israeli settlements was an easy applause line, removal of those settlements will do nothing to ease Israeli-Palestinian tensions if the result is similar to what happened when Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza. We too favor a two-state solution -- as did President Bush -- but that solution depends on Palestinians showing the capacity to build domestic institutions that reject and punish terror against other Palestinians and their neighbors.

Same Day
US push to shore up ties with Israel
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

WASHINGTON is trying to lower tensions with Jerusalem after US President Barack Obama's landmark address to the Muslim world in Cairo, with White House officials reportedly insisting: "There is no crisis in our relationship with Israel." After several weeks of rising tensions over Israel's refusal to halt the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, US and Israeli officials are attempting to reduce perceptions of a public disagreement to ensure the previously solid relationship does not deteriorate. Reports yesterday said senior White House officials had declared there was no crisis in the US relationship with Israel and said: "We will succeed in reaching understandings on the matter of settlements."

The newspaper Haaretz reported that while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly praised Mr Obama's speech in Cairo, he privately expressed disappointment at what he saw as a soft stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions. After the speech, Mr Netanyahu met key cabinet colleagues to decide Israel's response. The Prime Minister's office released a statement that said: "The Government of Israel expresses its hope that this important speech in Cairo will indeed lead to a new period of reconciliation between the Arab and Muslim world and Israel. We share President Obama's hope that the American effort heralds the beginning of a new era that will bring about an end to the conflict and lead to Arab recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, living in peace and security in the Middle East. Israel is committed to peace and will make every effort to expand the circle of peace while protecting its interests, especially its national security."

While the statement addressed Mr Obama's call for a secure Jewish homeland, it did not mention that he had called for a Palestinian state. Mr Obama used the speech to again call for Israel to halt its settlement building. He said: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

Reaction in the Arab and Muslim worlds was mainly positive. One of the few negative reactions came from the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. But Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority, welcomed the speech as a fresh start and said it was "a clear and frank message to the Israelis". Militant group Hezbollah, which has the possibility of taking power in Lebanon's parliament in elections being held this weekend, criticised the Obama speech as "a moral sermon".

In Israel, suggestions grew that the Netanyahu Government had decided it needed to clarify its position on what it was prepared to offer the US in terms of settlements and outposts. Mr Netanyahu has rejected Mr Obama's call that all building activity in the Jewish settlements should halt, saying it would be illogical for "natural growth" to be stopped. But there are clear signals from the Government that while its rhetoric is firmly against any compromise on the settlements, this is because some of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners are telling him he cannot compromise on the issue. Sources say that behind the scenes he is prepared to make some compromises and is closer to the position of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, than is realised.

Mr Obama, asked by reporters after the speech what the US would do if Israel refused to stop building settlements, said: "It's only been five months for me; Netanyahu has only been in office for two months; we've been waiting 60 years. So maybe we should try out a few more months before everybody starts looking at doomsday scenarios." Inside Israel, there is unease about rejecting outright the US President's repeated call - given that in the past the two countries have been united publicly on most issues. Israel Radio yesterday reported that the Government had decided after Mr Obama's speech that the time had come to make a clear statement about what it was possible to do. It reported that this weekend Mr Netanyahu would meet Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has just visited the US. It is likely they would decide to dramatically increase their efforts to dismantle the illegal outposts in the West Bank, which have been built near the settlements.


A fragile democracy
The Australian editorial
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The election shows the Lebanese want peace and prosperity

NOBODY underestimates the potential threats posed to Saad Hariri's new government or to peace in Lebanon by Hezbollah guerillas re-arming, with or without the support of Syria and Iran. But as a victorious Mr Hariri, 39, a Sunni Muslim, said after his weekend victory: "The Lebanese have proved today their commitment to freedom and democracy."

Voters appear to have been attracted by the prospect of a relatively normal life under Mr Hariri's "March 14 bloc", named after the date of a huge rally in 2005 against Syria's military presence in Lebanon. Mr Hariri, the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, enjoys the backing of the US, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mr Hariri won 70 seats in the 128-member assembly, as against 58 for the opposition, a peculiar Iranian-backed alliance headed by Hezbollah, regarded as a terrorist organisation by the US and Australia. The opposition alliance also included Shi'ite and Christian allies, the latter seeming ill-suited to belong to such a grouping.

The peaceful conduct of the election was encouraging. And as Israeli cabinet minister Yisrael Katz acknowledged yesterday, the victory of pro-Western forces "signals important tidings for the region and Israel". But as Lebanese citizens hold their breath and hope their fragile country can avoid renewed instability and sectarian violence, it is time to paraphrase Ronald Reagan's famous comment about the once-Soviet dominated Poland and "let Lebanon be Lebanon".

Ongoing support from Iran or Syria for any new wave of aggression by Hezbollah, either within Lebanon or towards Israel, would spell disaster. Dealing with Hezbollah, and stopping the organisation's arms build-up, will be Mr Hariri's hardest challenge, even with whatever support his backers, especially moderate Islamic nations, can offer. An effective, viable national security strategy will be vital.

In 2006, Israel fought a devastating war with Hezbollah, which was formed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. More than 1200 Lebanese, predominantly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers were killed.

Ominously, just two days after the elections, Hezbollah showed it had not changed its spots, warning the victorious coalition that the Hezbollah weapons arsenal was not open to discussion. Displaying utter contempt for democracy, Hezbollah official Mohamed Raad said: "The majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state. The results indicate that the crisis will continue, unless the majority changes its attitude."

While Saturday's election result was a vote for peace, democracy and normality, the menacing aggression of Hezbollah, and its preparedness to switch from the ballot box to the battlefield, make Lebanese security a fragile proposition.


Israel dust-up 'would suit US'
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fears US President Barack Obama is deliberately seeking a political confrontation with Israel in order to boost America's standing in the Arab world, according to Netanyahu aides. In Mr Netanyahu's opinion, the Americans believe an open controversy with Israel would serve the Obama administration's main objective of improving US relations with Arabs, according to the daily Haaretz.

There has been a drumbeat of pressure in recent weeks from Washington concerning Israel's settlement policies in the West Bank. Mr Obama's speech in Cairo last week, in which he called for a settlement freeze and advocated the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, boosted Washington's image among Muslims worldwide. In a telephone conversation yesterday, Mr Netanyahu informed Mr Obama of his intention to outline his peace proposals in a major policy address next Sunday. Mr Obama promised to listen closely. A White House spokesman said Mr Netanyahu expressed his willingness to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and renew negotiations.

The Israeli leader has appeared rattled by the distance Washington has put between itself and his four-month-old right-wing government. He is also having trouble mustering support for his settlement policy from the normally pro-Israel US congress and even from the influential American Jewish community. The previous Bush administration had accepted construction in most of the 120 Israeli settlements on the West Bank as long as it did not involve expansion on to Palestinian land. The Obama administration is demanding a total freeze. It is also pressuring Mr Netanyahu to declare his readiness for a two-state solution. In preparation for his policy address next week, Mr Netanyahu is consulting with coalition parties in order to create a "consultative atmosphere" that he hopes will soften opposition to concessions he will make and thwart any ideological revolt.

Washington's point man on the Israel-Palestinian peace process, special envoy George Mitchell, held talks yesterday in Jerusalem with Mr Netanyahu and other leaders. Indicative of the tensions between Jerusalem and Washington was a statement issued by Mr Mitchell on the eve of his arrival yesterday, forcefully denying press reports that he had accused Israel of "lying" to the US for years about the extent of settlement activity. It is Mr Mitchell's task to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table and ensure that talks remain on track. From Israel, he will continue to Syria to explore the possibility of resuming Israeli-Syrian peace talks as well. Damascus informed Israel yesterday of its readiness to resume the indirect talks begun under previous prime minister Ehud Olmert through Turkish government intermediaries.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who visited Washington last week, says the Obama administration has no personal problem with Mr Netanyahu and that the Americans do not not seek to undermine the Israeli coalition and topple the government, the Haaretz report said. Mr Barak said Mr Obama's positions were guided by strategic considerations: he has undertaken to withdraw from Iraq and is striving to end the war in Afghanistan and needs the moderate Arab states' support. This, rather than "political persecution", was behind the administration's attitude towards Israel, he told the paper.

Israel yesterday welcomed the results of the Lebanese elections. Even military intelligence, which had expected a victory for the militant Shia group Hezbollah, was surprised. But Israeli officials have warned that the restraint Hezbollah imposed on its military activities prior to the elections in order not to lose electoral support may give way now.


A new cold war in the Middle East
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
Thursday, June 11, 2009

WAS the surprising Lebanese election result, in which the pro-Western government won a clear victory over the Hezbollah-led opposition, the first flower of Barack Obama's new spring for the Muslim and Arab worlds ' Were enough Lebanese voters won over by the charm and eloquence of the handsome young American President to give the fading Western power one more try ' I am tempted to write a wholly optimistic column. I want to declare "Let Lebanon be Lebanon", as Ronald Reagan at the height of the Cold War so famously and effectively declared "Let Poland be Poland". Lebanon, its sons and daughters will tell you, used to be the best country in the world. Beirut was the Paris of the east. It was the cradle of much civilisation. Its offspring have been magnificent citizens of Australia, from the last Victorian premier to the incumbent NSW Governor. Can this glory come again ' Well, sadly, it is better to tell the truth.

This election result is good news, but it is very modest good news. Hezbollah won all the seats it contested. The alliance it leads will have just under a half of the parliament. Hezbollah is a devoutly Shi'ite terrorist group controlled by Iran. It will continue to wield by far the most powerful army in Lebanon. It will continue to receive weapons and financial support from Syria and Iran at will. It will continue to possess 50,000 rockets deployed on Israel's border. It will continue to exercise dominance within Lebanon whenever it wants to by force of arms.

The best piece of writing on Lebanon in recent months was a brilliant cover story in the May 20 issue of The New Republic. In it, journalist David Samuels recounts an interview with former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel, in which he outlines Hezbollah's strategic value to Iran. Gemayel says: "In the form of Hezbollah, they (Iran) get a brigade on the Mediterranean and on the border with Israel. So $100 million a year they spend here is nothing."

In 2007, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah made a famous speech in which he answered directly the charge that Hezbollah was not complying with UN resolutions that forbade it from bringing armaments into Lebanon. Nasrallah said: "We are being very clear and we have arms. We have arms of all shapes and sizes. The resistance (Hezbollah often refers to itself as the resistance) has arms. It is saying it in public, adding that it is rearming and increasing the scope of its armaments in order to get more dangerous arms ... We are transporting the arms secretly and in straw trucks so as not to embarrass you (the Lebanese government). I am saying we will remain on the border, in Beirut and everywhere in Lebanon."

You've certainly got to hand it to Nasrallah and Hezbollah generally: they say what they mean, even if a thousand Western commentators try to find some other meaning in their words. One of the most striking features of Samuels's long essay is his description of his interview with Saad Hariri, son of Lebanon's assassinated former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and the leader of the winning coalition in the recent election. Hariri, the successful and just-elected senior politician in Lebanon, lives behind a fortress, seldom leaving his stockade, with street traffic kept at least a block away so no car bomb can kill him as it killed his father. If he wants to go out for an evening meal at a restaurant, he goes overseas.

Of course, much normal life goes on in Lebanon. The Lebanese have a national genius for making the most of what normality is afforded to them. But giant, convulsive and violent forces are at work within their society, and from outside. In one sense, the Lebanese election was the latest episode in what is becoming a fairly clear cold war in the Middle East. On one side of this cold war are the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, despite Arab unease with them, the Israelis. On the other side are Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Communal, ethnic, religious and national identities and loyalties are infinitely more complex than these cold war divisions, naturally, but the strategic competition between the US and Iran is a central axis around which the region revolves.

This was reflected in the alliances in the Lebanese election. Hariri's group was called the March 14 alliance. It consists of the main Sunni parties, the Druze group led by Walid Jumblatt and some Christians who were associated with the old Phalangist Party. They got strong political support from the US and a lot of money from Saudi Arabia.

The Hezbollah group is called the March 8 coalition and involves Hezbollah, another Shia group called Amal and the Christian forces of former general Michel Aoun. Aoun's forces were the big losers in the election. The inherent madness of Lebanese politics and the sheer desperate scramble to survive is evident in Aoun's electoral alliance with Hezbollah. This is an alliance against nature and against conviction. Aoun was once the hero of Lebanese resistance to Syrian hegemony. One of Aoun's election posters featured a dazzlingly beautiful, bare-armed young woman wearing saucy orange lipstick and with plucked eyebrows. The caption urged women to "be beautiful and vote". Yet Aoun's allies, Hezbollah, are Islamic fundamentalists who want an Islamist state. Go figure.

Samuels argues that Lebanon offers a taste of the future of the Middle East, once Iran has a nuclear weapon and can operate anywhere without fear of military retaliation. For Iran and Syria today operate with a virtually free hand in Lebanon. The UN has been investigating for a very long time the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but the UN's various actions and inactions have put no serious curb on Damascus or Tehran. Hezbollah has accepted the election result but it has also said clearly and repeatedly that it is never giving up its arms, that it requires its arms for anti-Israeli resistance. Hariri wants Hezbollah to join the government. There is no force in Lebanon that can disarm Hezbollah. Thus Lebanon is a state that cannot exercise sovereignty over its own territory.

One reason American strategic players are so keen to push an Israel-Syria peace deal is the hope that this could be a process by which Syria is strategically reoriented away from Iran. Middle East expert Martin Indyk argues this position with particular eloquence. But how realistic is it ' For Syria to cut off its assets in Hezbollah, to betray its other proxies in Lebanon, to earn the hostility of Tehran, which everyone in the region believes will soon enough possess nuclear weapon: all this for what from the Syrian point of view ' So that the Americans can bring them into the disciplines of the World Trade Organisation and lecture them about the virtues of democracy '

People of goodwill everywhere should wish the Lebanese government good fortune, and we should do what we can to help it build its state and deliver as normal a life as it can for as many of its citizens as possible. But strategic matters in the Middle East are seldom solved by elections. This was a good election result, but it doesn't much change the Lebanese status quo, which is pretty grim. Perhaps we'll have better luck in tomorrow's presidential election in Iran. But I wouldn't bet the house.


Two-state solution the only way: Benjamin Netanyahu
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday, June 12, 2009

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted that he has no alternative but to bow to US insistence on a two-state solution for the Palestinians. Urged by fellow Likud members to reject the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Mr Netanyahu told the right-wing representatives yesterday: "There are considerations you aren't aware of." Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly declared that Israel's main concern is the Iranian nuclear threat. Since his meeting in Washington with US President Barack Obama last month he has indicated that Israel may have to make concessions on the Palestinian front to focus international attention on Iran.

When the Knesset members at yesterday's meeting said concessions to the Palestinian Authority would not bring peace, Mr Netanyahu said: "And what's your alternative ?" One parliamentarian advocated a Palestinian autonomous entity "but not a state". Mr Netanyahu declined to reveal what he would say in Sunday's policy address on the Palestinian issue but he hinted that the Iranian threat justified adjustments to his hardline position to retain US support. "There are strategic threats facing Israel that require us to balance them out," he said. "I will be considering a lot of challenges coming from different directions. We must act to ensure Israel's existence as a Jewish nation for the generations to come."

One of the most forceful arguments against a Palestinian state was made by Knesset member Benny Begin, son of former prime minister Menahem Begin. "The Palestinians aren't interested in a two-state solution," he told a meeting of Likud supporters. "They want a two-stage solution whose final stage is one state: Palestine. They will never accept Israel as a Jewish nation." Palestinian insistence on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, he said, was intended to destroy Israel demographically. Every concession made by Israel in the past 15 years, he said, including withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, had been met by an increase in Palestinian violence.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on Wednesday that he had told Mr Netanyahu there was no alternative to a two-state solution and that the Israeli Prime Minister had not tried to argue otherwise. "Israel will agree to a two-state solution," the Egyptian leader said.

US special envoy George Mitchell met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday and reiterated Mr Obama's pledge that the US would not turn its back on legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Mr Mitchell held a four-hour meeting with Mr Netanyahu. In a statement afterwards, Mr Mitchell said Washington remained Israel's close ally and was committed to its security. "We come here to talk not as adversaries and in disagreement but as friends in discussion," he said.

Netanyahu aides have hinted that in his talk on Sunday the Prime Minister would reject as "unreasonable" Washington's demand that Israel impose a total building freeze in West Bank settlements. However, he is expected to signal his government's readiness to uproot 24 settlement outposts built in recent years without government authorisation. The fate of 120 authorised settlements is being left to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Same day

Extract - Cleric warns on Ahmadinejad 'lies'
Correspondents in Tehran, AFP

CAMPAIGNING for Iran's presidential election took a dramatic twist yesterday when a powerful cleric issued a rare warning to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying the supreme leader's silence over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "lies" could trigger social upheaval. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and head of the Expediency Council - Iran's top political arbitration body - protested to Ayatollah Khamenei over a remark by Mr Ahmadinejad accusing Mr Rafsanjani's family of corruption. Mr Ahmadinejad, seeking a second term in today's election, made the accusation during a stormy debate on state television with his main rival, the moderate former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mr Ahmadinejad accused Mr Rafsanjani of stealing billions of dollars of state money and called him "the main puppet master" behind the campaign against him. The televised debates between the candidates have become public platforms for mudslinging, allegations and counter allegations, underscoring deep differences ahead of today's poll.

Israeli analysts yesterday said Iran's presidential vote would not ease tensions with Israel as Tehran was unlikely to halt its nuclear drive or tone down its rhetoric against the Jewish state. The election comes at a key moment after US President Barack Obama broke away from his predecessor's approach by offering direct dialogue with Tehran to try to end the standoff over its nuclear drive. But Israeli analysts said even the election of a moderate president would not bring major change, as Iran's strategic policies are ultimately decided by the Ayatollah Khamenei.

"The key decisions in the nuclear field are taken by the spiritual leader Khamenei, so it doesn't matter who is elected president," said Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs research group. "All of the candidates support continuing the nuclear program," said Mr Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN.

The Jewish state has come to consider Iran's nuclear bid as an existential threat after Mr Ahmadinejad repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel during his four years in office. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the threat posed by the Islamic republic was the biggest Israel has faced since its founding in 1948. Israel also accuses Iran of funding, training and supplying weapons to radical groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the Palestinian Hamas movement, both of which have fought wars against Israel.

Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state, suspects Iran is using its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons, a charge Tehran has long denied. The Jewish state has refused to rule out launching military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites and the Islamic republic has, in turn, vowed retaliation.


Israeli tacticians want Ahmadinejad win
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, June 13, 2009

A SENIOR Israeli official said yesterday the consensus among his colleagues in Jerusalem was that a victory for the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian elections would be in Israel's best interest. "His extremism and his calls for Israel's destruction have pushed the international community to try to head off Iran's nuclear program," he said. A victory by the relatively moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi would not stop the nuclear program, the official said, but it could lull the international community into thinking the threat was over.

Since Mr Ahmadinajad's election in 2005, he has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and denied the Holocaust happened. And he has argued that the Israelis were punishing the Palestinians because of what the Germans did to the Jews in World War II, and called on European leaders to provide the Jews with territory so they could move their state to that continent. This extreme aggressiveness combined with Mr Ahmadinajad's flaunting of Iran's nuclear program has clearly marked him as Israel's leading enemy. However, in the run-up to the Iranian polls, Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election has come to be seen as a strategic advantage. "There is no one who has served Israel's information program better than him," wrote columnist Ben Caspi in the daily Ma'ariv yesterday.

Israeli security officials note that decisions regarding major issues such as the nuclear program are made in Iran not by the president, regardless of who he is, but by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a small group of senior clerics. "From an operational point of view, it doesn't make a difference who wins," said one official. And a Foreign Ministry official who deals with the Iranian issue said: "From an informational point of view, he (Ahmadinejad) is the best thing that's happened to us."

The head of the Iranian desk at Israel Radio, Menashe Amir, said there was no basic difference between the four candidates for the Iranian presidency. "The difference is in their style of speech," he said. "Ahmadinejad is blunt. The others try to cloak their real thoughts with ingratiating words. At least with Ahmadinejad his words reflect what he thinks. I'd be very happy if he's elected again." Amir, who monitors the Iranian media closely and is in telephone communication with many Iranians, said Ayatollah Khamenei might have ordered the Republican Guard to fix the election results to ensure an Ahmadinejad victory. "If these elections were truly free, Ahmadinejad wouldn't get more than 15per cent of the vote, mostly from rural areas," he said.

Another reason some Israelis are hoping for an Ahmadinejad victory, while holding their nose, is that the unprecedented level of passion that has been revealed by the Iranian election campaign during the past few weeks, particularly among young voters, may be a signal that the long-awaited social explosion against clerical restrictions may be close, even imminent. The emotional engagement of voters is seen as higher than that in the 1997 elections, which brought reformer Mohammad Khatami to power. If Mr Ahmadinejad is chosen for another four years, particularly if the victory is seen to be the result of ballot manipulation, the country could erupt.

Israel officials have noted the warning by a senior figure in the Republican Guard that his forces would confront any attempt at a "velvet revolution" by Mousavi supporters similar to the street demonstrations that brought down the Czech government in 1989. There is concern that a Mousavi victory would make it more likely that Washington would arrive at an agreement with Tehran permitting Iran to build nuclear energy reactors for peaceful purposes, as US President Barack Obama suggested in his Cairo speech this month. This would put Iran only a few months away from achieving a nuclear weapon, if it wanted to build one.

Israelis have no ill-feelings towards Iran and admire its culture. The two countries have no common border and have never engaged in a war, although the Islamic Republic actively supports Hezbollah and the Palestinian militants. Israelis have never understood the virulence that Iranian leaders, particularly Mr Ahmadinejad, express towards Israel. Iran has the largest community of Jews in the Muslim world, and they are permitted to practise their religion freely, and are represented in the Iranian parliament. A large number of former Iranian Jews live in Israel, among them two ex-chiefs of staff, a former air force commander and a former president. In contrast to the sophisticated assessments of Israeli strategists, however, the bulk of the public would feel reassured by a victory for the Iranian moderates.

Same day

Rudd's nephew signs human rights petition
Gillard defiant on Israel
Patricia Karvelas, Political correspondent

MORE than 170 eminent Australians, including Kevin Rudd's nephew, artist Van Thanh Rudd, have signed a petition calling on Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard to cancel her planned visit to Israel. Ms Gillard will later this month lead a delegation to the inaugural Australia Israel Leadership Forum, but there is mounting pressure on her not to go because of what critics say is Israel's poor human rights record. The delegation will include former treasurer Peter Costello, Liberal frontbenchers Chris Pyne and George Brandis, and Labor backbenchers Mike Kelly and Mark Dreyfus.

Canberra-based academic Ned Curthoys, a research fellow at Australian National University, is behind the petition. He told The Weekend Australian the "temperature is rising" over the planned delegation, with other Labor MPs and ministers, including Tanya Plibersek, lobbying Ms Gillard to cancel the trip immediately. The petition will be sent to Ms Gillard on Tuesday. Names on the petition include Greens MPs Ian Cohen and Lee Rhiannon, journalists John Pilger and Antony Loewenstein, Jewish actress Miriam Margolyes, Jewish Australian writer Sara Dowse, and academics such as sociologist Raewyn Connell, Associate Professor Jake Lynch, director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict studies at the University of Sydney, and retired CSIRO scientist Bill Snowden. Also on the petition is Van Thanh Rudd, the artist son of the Prime Minister's brother, Malcolm.

The petition says: "We consider this trip a dreadful affront to the many Palestinians left maimed, wounded, traumatised and homeless by Israel's devastating assault on the Gaza Strip in late 08/early 09. We reject the oft-touted cliche that Israel is a democracy like Australia; rather we remind those intent on strengthening cultural and political exchange between Israel and Australia that Israel is not a state for all its citizens but a state that explicitly advances the interests of one ethnicity alone, a state of affairs that is simply unthinkable in modern Australia. Every parliamentarian ought to think seriously about the moral implications of Australia normalising relations with a state that is still under investigation for war crimes committed during Israel's Cast Lead operation," the petition reads.

Ms Gillard has argued the visit will highlight both the strength and potential of the Australia-Israel relationship. "It will provide an excellent opportunity to build stronger ties between our two nations and their people," she said. "I know from my previous visit the intensity and diversity of Israel's people, how their situation encourages innovation, commitment and lively democratic discussion of the issues facing the country and the world."

Ms Gillard will meet senior members of the Israeli government during her visit. "I intend to reaffirm Australia's ongoing support for Israel's right to live in peace and security within defined borders," she said. "I will also reiterate that a just and lasting peace in the Middle East must be based on a two-state solution to the conflict." She will also visit Ramallah and meet leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Ms Gillard will visit the US before going to Israel.

Editorial Comment
A trip worth taking

In visiting Israel, Julia Gillard assists the cause of peace

JULIA Gillard's roots may be in the left of the Labor Party, but she does not mind confounding the comrades by ignoring ideology. Last week she stared down ACTU conference delegates demanding she abolish the agency charged with stopping standover tactics in the building industry. And this week she is upsetting Israel's enemies by announcing a visit to the Jewish state. Good for Ms Gillard. In ignoring fanatics who see people who do not agree with them as enemies to be beaten rather than fellow citizens to be convinced, the Deputy Prime Minister is governing for all Australians, rather than loud lobbies with no interest in compromise. Even though Ms Gillard has rolled back the industrial relations reforms of the Howard, Hawke and Keating eras the unions demand ever more. And her plan to visit Israel this month is opposed by those who believe any contact with Israel betrays the Palestinians, that the Jewish state should be treated like a pariah.

Both demands are irrelevant to the way the world works. Australia has always supported Israel's right to exist and the Labor right in particular has a long tradition of links there. It is entirely appropriate for Ms Gillard to express solidarity with the only democracy in the Middle East. And it is worth Israel's opponents understanding that Ms Gillard also intends to meet leaders of the Palestinian Authority on her trip, giving weight to the Rudd government's support for a two state solution. It is all very well for Israel's enemies to continue their chorus of complaints, to suggest that the Jewish state has brought the terror attacks on itself. For every such allegation Israelis can point to concessions ignored by Hamas and Hezbollah and the terrorists' oft stated intention to destroy Israel. As Barack Obama made clear in Cairo last week, it is time for all sides to the debate to accept negotiations as the only answer. And in expressing Australia's support for a two state solution Ms Gillard goes to Israel with a declared position, one that may, in some small measure, encourage both sides to act on Mr Obama's urging.

And what is the alternative to diplomacy ' While it is easy for extremists to rant against Israeli evils, the reality is no other nation in the region has the means to beat Israel on a conventional battlefield. And the Jewish state is far more likely to listen to friends like the US and Australia than to countries which are its inveterate enemies. Just as the ACTU needs to understand the private sector will not go away and should be respected for employing millions of workers so supporters of the Palestinians need to accept Israel. In deciding to visit Israel Ms Gillard is making a principled decision - one in line with Labor Party tradition and Australian practice. In talking of a two state solution she is making a pragmatic contribution to peace. While political amateurs prefer uncompromising ideology, professionals understand that principled pragmatism is as good as it ever gets.


Netanyahu's small step on Palestinian state gives US room to move
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crossed an ideological divide yesterday when he declared for the first time his readiness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Mr Netanyahu, who in the past said the creation of a Palestinian state would mark the demise of Israel, offered a vision of the two peoples living alongside each other in peace and mutual respect. "Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other."

But his vision has conditions, including the Palestinians accepting limitations on their sovereignty by agreeing to demilitarisation, leaving their airspace open to Israeli military overflights and refraining from entering into treaties with hostile foreign bodies such as Iran and Hezbollah. Mr Netanyahu said he would seek international guarantees ensuring "ironclad" security arrangements precluding the smuggling of armaments into Palestinian territory. Another condition was that Palestinians clearly recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people, a demand Palestinians have rejected in the past since it would effectively mean giving up their demand for the return of refugees to Israel. He also rejected Palestinian demands for sovereignty over Arab sections of Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu's terms were swiftly rejected by Palestinian spokesmen. "Netanyahu will have to wait 1000 years for a Palestinian leader willing to accept these terms," said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority. Mr Erekat called on US President Barack Obama to intervene. But initial reaction from Washington to the speech was positive. A White House spokesman said Mr Obama "welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech".

Mr Netanyahu rebuffed the Americans on one critical point, saying that construction within existing settlements on the West Bank would continue despite Washington's demand for a total freeze. "The residents must be able to live normal lives," he said. No new settlements would be built, he said, and the boundaries of existing settlements would not be expanded. There was no immediate White House reaction on the settlement issue.

The speech, at Bar-Ilan University, was Mr Netanyahu's response to the address in Cairo by Mr Obama in which he called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In bowing to Mr Obama's call, Mr Netanyahu risked the wrath of the right-wing parties on which his governing coalition rests. But apart from low-key grumbling, it caused no serious unrest in political ranks.

Mr Netanyahu's delivery seemed hesitant, but he nevertheless was able to muster the words "Palestinian state". Although Mr Netanyahu's acceptance of that notion was a step forward for him, it was not on the face of it a step forward in the peace process. Most of his predecessors, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert who came from the same right-wing political camp, had made the same declaration and actually embarked on detailed negotiations. What gives Mr Netanyahu's statement significance, beyond what it reveals about his own ideological journey, is that there is now a US president who clearly intends to press the two sides towards a two-state solution. Having extracted a key concession from Mr Netanyahu, Washington now has room to manoeuvre on the details.

The conditions stipulated by Mr Netanyahu are mostly within the broad Israeli political consensus and are not beyond the bounds of negotiation with the Palestinians if the Americans play a determined role. Palestinian leaders have in the past indicated acceptance of demilitarisation. Despite Mr Netanyahu's insistence on an undivided Jerusalem, many Israelis, including hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, favour relinquishing the Arab parts of the city for demographic reasons. It is clear the Americans would have to keep up relentless pressure if progress is to be achieved, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David before winning agreement between Israeli leader Menahem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. By gaining Mr Netanyahu's acceptance of territorial compromise and the notion of a Palestinian state, Mr Obama has the basic tools with which to begin the task.

Editorial Comment
Give peace a chance

Denying Israel's right to exist is no basis for a settlement

NOT everybody got the message in Barack Obama's Cairo speech, that Middle East peace requires compromise. The Israelis did, demonstrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech on Sunday proposing a new peace process. In return for accepting Israel as a Jewish nation he offered the Palestinians a two-state solution. But Israel's opponents are not having any of it. The Palestinian Authority says Mr Netanyahu's speech "torpedoed" peace initiatives. This was a pointless, posturing response which reflects the mentality of those members of the Palestinian political elite who prefer nihilism to negotiation and are happier denouncing Israel than dealing with it. And it reflects the mindset of those who want Israel treated as a pariah and who attempt to intimidate any individual or organisation that accepts the Jewish state's right to exist. It is a mindset that shapes the belief that Israel is an enemy to be destroyed, held in the Hezbollah terrorist training camps in the south of Lebanon, the Fatah government offices on the West Bank and in the Hamas arsenals of the Gaza Strip. And it is a mindset which permeates perceptions of Israel adhered to by people all over the world who want the Jewish state gone. Including people in Australia who abhor The Australian's commitment to the survival of the state of Israel.

On Saturday this newspaper published an editorial supporting Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard's plan to visit Israel as an opportunity to express Australia's support for a two-state solution. This outraged members of pro-Palestinian groups who responded with emails that less debated the newspaper's position than demanded it change.

It didn't work. The Australian is pleased to publish well-argued opinion pieces and letters from all sides of the Middle East debate that are temperate in tone. But it has not, does not and will not, ever surrender to intellectual intimidation. The sheer venom of Israel's enemies this reflects demonstrates how hard it will be for President Obama to broker a deal. Israel wants peace, albeit not at any price. Mr Netanyahu will only accept a deal which acknowledges the country as a Jewish state and which ensures its security against terror attack, outright invasion or obliteration by Iran, where the re-elected Ahmadinejad regime makes no secret of its nuclear ambitions. And Mr Netanyahu will only accept a peace he can sell to an electorate in no mood for surrender after Hamas used Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 to create a new base for terror attacks. And there is no doubting the Israeli Prime Minister will bargain hard on all sorts of issues - from the exchange of land for settlements Israel should give up on the West Bank to the strength of Palestinian police force.

But he is prepared to bargain, just as Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was in Oslo in 1993, just as his successor Ehud Barak was at Camp David in 2000. On both occasions Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat backed away from a two-state solution, but in talking at all he did more than his heirs in the Palestinian factions appear prepared to do now. In rejecting Mr Netanyahu's proposal, the Palestinian leadership is betraying its people who need a permanent peace and functioning economy. Perhaps this is an opening gambit - or perhaps it reflects a permanent Palestinian orthodoxy, baldly stated in the Hamas Charter that Israel should not exist. Whichever it is The Australian will continue to publish news and opinions, regardless of who we offend.


Riots will die down: Israel's spy boss
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday, June 18, 2009

THE head of the Israeli Mossad has predicted that the riots in Iran will peter out this week. The intelligence chief, Meir Dagan, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee yesterday that it was unlikely the unrest would escalate into a revolution. "The reality in Iran is not going to change because of the elections," he said. "Election fraud in Iran is no different than what happens in liberal states during elections."

Mr Dagan appeared to push back the deadline for possible action against Iran's nuclear program when he told the committee that Iran would have its first nuclear weapon ready for action in five years. "If the project has no technical glitches and if the program is not interrupted in any way, Iran will have a bomb to launch by 2014," he said. Mr Dagan said the Iranian nuclear threat remained an existential one for Israel and demanded continued attention. If international sanctions against Iran were sufficiently harsh, he said, they could halt the program.

Referring to the election uproar in Iran, he reminded the committee that reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had launched Iran's nuclear program when he was prime minister. "If Mousavi had won (the elections), Israel would have a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat. Mousavi is perceived internationally as a moderate element (compared to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad)," he said.

Recent statements by officials in Israel and abroad have suggested that Iran could achieve its nuclear objective this year or soon thereafter. Mr Dagan said in 2006 that Iran needed at least three years to achieve "nuclear capability". Yesterday he spoke of their producing an actual bomb. The apparently revised calendar would provide US President Barack Obama with more time to pursue dialogue with the Islamic leaders to halt Iran's nuclear development short of a bomb. Washington has made clear to Jerusalem that it will not countenance an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, at least until the diplomatic avenue has been explored.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent years placed the Iranian nuclear threat at the top of his agenda and hinted that Israel will be obliged to use military force if the international community fails to stop Tehran. Before Washington's warning to Israel to stay its hand, there was a widespread belief in Jerusalem that the cabinet would be asked to decide on an aerial attack this year. However, Mr Netanyahu did not make any threat towards Iran during his policy speech on Sunday, a possible reflection of Mr Obama's firm warning or the Mossad's reassessment of Iranian nuclear progress.

The Mossad is credited with delaying Iran's nuclear program by years. Defective equipment and defective plans sold to Tehran through straw companies in Europe have reportedly set back the Iranian nuclear program substantially. Reports have attributed mysterious deaths among key figures in the program to the Mossad. The struggle over the election results were unconnected to Iran's strategic aspirations, including its nuclear program, Mr Dagan said.

Editorial Comment
Extract - Don't pin hopes on change in Tehran
Greg Sheridan

It is probably a good thing that Barack Obama wants to charm and negotiate Iran out of its nuclear weapons ambitions. But sooner or later Obama will face a moment of truth with Tehran. In one particular respect Ahmadinejad resembles Adolf Hitler. Certainly he is not Hitler's equivalent. He has not committed genocide, nor invaded Poland, nor started a world war. But, like Hitler, he makes extravagantly violent and extreme statements with all apparent conviction which otherwise shrewd heads determine not to take seriously.

But perhaps Ahmadinejad means what he says when he declares that Israel should be wiped off the map. Perhaps when he attends a UN conference on racism and attributes all the problems of the world to US power, and says that US power is controlled by the Jews, he actually believes what he says.

When the dust clears from the protests and the Iranian election result is confirmed, the US will intensify its efforts to talk Iran out of its nukes. If this has not borne real fruit by September or so, there is likely to be a move for very tough financial sanctions against Iran. Sanctions in this case would not be an escalation necessarily leading to military conflict but the most likely way to avoid military conflict.

However, I don't think sanctions will succeed in preventing Iran from getting nukes. Some analysts, desperate to avoid a confrontation with Iran, believe Tehran will be satisfied with a nuclear industry that gives it a break-out capacity. That is the ability to quickly manufacture nuclear weapons if it wants them.

These analysts believe the break-out capacity would produce a condition of strategic ambiguity about Iran's nuclear capabilities that would effectively give Iran the deterrent benefits of nuclear weapons without having to produce them. But history shows us that regimes that crave nukes for reasons of national prestige and the psycho-military benefits they confer, especially paranoid regimes that seek regional dominance, invariably want a full suite of real nukes.

So contemplate that:Ahmadinejad, in all his demented extremism, with a full hand of nukes. Ask yourself just what that means and whether the world should let it happen.


No middle ground as Israel, US clash on settlements
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Friday, June 19, 2009

THE Israeli Foreign Minister said "we can't", but the US Secretary of State said "we think you must" as the open clash between Washington and Jerusalem over Israeli construction in West Bank settlements sharpened yesterday. Facing reporters after meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "We cannot accept this vision of an absolute freeze on building in the settlements." He repeated Israel's position that "natural growth" must be allowed for. "We don't want to change the demography of the West Bank, but babies are born and young people marry and we have to accommodate them," he said of the area where 2.5 million Palestinians and 300,000 Israeli settlers live.

Mrs Clinton, standing next to him, remained firm. "We want to see a stop (to construction) in the settlements," she said. "That is an important part of pursuing a comprehensive peace agreement." She rejected Israel's claims about understandings reached with the previous US administration whereby "natural growth" construction could continue in large settlement blocs that would likely remain Israeli territory after a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Any such understandings were not binding on the new administration, she said.

The unusual head-to-head disagreement in public between the two officials is a reflection of the new, even-handed tack taken by US President Barack Obama since coming to office. By clamping down on Israeli building in the settlements, he hopes to gain credibility among Palestinians and other Arabs, which would permit the US to serve as an effective arbiter.

Israel's Channel Two Television said last night that current building in the settlements was not aimed just to accommodate natural growth within the settlements, but also to provide housing for people moving to the West Bank from Israel proper or for new immigrants. The report showed extensive construction and empty apartments.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has risked a clash with Washington over the settlement issue in order to mollify his right-wing supporters and offset his declaration this week of readiness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Some far-right parties have indicated they might leave Mr Netanyahu's coalition if construction in settlements is halted. Both American and Israeli officials suggested yesterday that there may be an imminent softening of positions - by the other side - to resolve the dispute.

Mrs Clinton said Israel's opposition to a building freeze was likely to evolve into a stance that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. "There have been prime ministers going back to the beginning of Israel's statehood who have staked out positions which have changed over time," she said. "I have known some. Israeli leaders have moved to positions they never would have thought they could have advocated."

Israel's ambassador-designate to Washington, Michael Oren, said he expected the dispute to end soon. "Some progress has been made over the past few days," he said. "Some novel ideas have been proposed." Other Israeli sources said that Washington would agree that building projects already started or for which contracts have been signed be completed. Understandings along this line were reportedly reached in meetings between US and Israel officials last week.


Mohsen Makhmalbaf urges the international community not to recognize Ahmadinejad.
'Listen to voice of people in the streets'
The Australian
Foreign Policy
Saturday, June 20, 2009

With opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi unable to speak to the press, his external spokesman, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, interviewed in Paris, describes this week's events in Iran as another revolution

Foreign Policy: You were involved in the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a young man, and your films have touched on it extensively. What parallels do you see between then and today's situation '

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: There are some similarities and some differences. In both situations, people were in the streets. In the [earlier] revolution, there were young people in the streets who were not as modern as the people are today. And they were in the streets following the lead of a leader, a mullah -- in those times Ayatollah Khomeini. Now, the young people in the streets are more modern: They use SMS; they use the Internet. And they are not being actually led by anyone, but they are connected to each other.

These young people who are in the streets are looking for peace and democracy. The previous revolution was a revolution of traditionalism against modernism; but now this is a revolution of modernism against traditionalism. The previous revolution had a frown; this one has a smile on its face. The previous revolution was red; this one is green. We can say that this is a 21st-century revolution, but the other was a 20th-century revolution. That revolution was led by the people who were educated by the epoch of the shah, and this generation was brought up by the mullahs inside the Islamic Revolution. We have many young people, and maturity is killing the fathers. In each generation, we kill our fathers. And our fathers [today] are the mullahs.

FP: There has been growing criticism here in Washington that U.S. President Barack Obama hasn't said or done enough to support those demonstrating in the streets of Iran. Do you think Obama is being too careful ' Or even that he is helping Ahmadinejad by being cautious '

MM: Obama has said that there is no difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Does he like it himself [when someone is] saying that there is no difference between Obama and [George W.] Bush ' Ahmadinejad is the Bush of Iran. And Mousavi is the Obama of Iran.

FP: Would Mousavi pursue a different foreign policy than Ahmadinejad '

MM: As you may know, former President Mohammad Khatami, who is supporting Mousavi at the moment, was in favor of dialogue between the civilizations, but Ahmadinejad talks about the war of the civilizations. Is there not any difference between the two '

We [Iranians] are a bit unfortunate. When we had our Obama [meaning President Khatami], that was the time of President Bush in the United States. Now that [the United States] has Obama, we have our Bush here [in Iran]. In order to resolve the problems between the two countries, we should have two Obamas on the two sides. It doesn't mean that everything depends on these two people, but this is one of the main factors.

FP: In meeting with European officials in Brussels Wednesday, what did you ask from them, and what response did you get '

MM: I asked the European Parliament to listen to the voice of the people of Iran who are in the streets. They don't want Ahmadinejad. They don't want nuclear bombs. They don't want atomic bombs. They want peace in the world and democracy in Iran.

In the two previous elections, one last week and one four years ago, Ahmadinejad was elected with massive fraud. At those times, nobody knew Ahmadinejad. Four years ago, people boycotted the election, and Ahmadinejad was voted the president by a minority. This time, everybody decided to vote to change Ahmadinejad. But when he didn't have the votes [that his supporters in the government] were looking for, they had a coup d' 'tat. Friday night, there were attacks to the principal headquarters of Mousavi. People working there were attacked and injured. They destroyed the systems: the faxes, computers, telephones, everything -- all the means of communication. And when Mousavi was informed after counting the votes that he had the majority, the army commanders went to him and announced the coup d' 'tat to him. He didn't accept it and said that people would be going to the streets.

The secret police have been watching him all the time this week. They do not let him speak on Iranian television. Nobody can contact him. The people active in his campaign have been arrested -- all. But as long as people are in the streets, they cannot arrest Mousavi himself. People are still in the streets. They want another election with the observation of the international community.

The people of Iran do not want Ahmadinejad for three reasons. First is the economic reason -- because he has made the economy worse during his presidency. The oil money has been many, many times more than the oil money during the time of Khatami's presidency. But the inflation has been two-and-a-half times more than the inflation rates at the time of Khatami. The second reason is the social freedom. People have been injured; people have been under pressure in their social lives during the time of Ahmadinejad. And the other reason is the face -- the international image -- of Iran, which has been destroyed. In the time of Khatami, people talked about dialogue and peace. But now, the people of Iran have the same image as Ahmadinejad: They are terrorists and they are looking for wars. These are the three reasons that people want Ahmadinejad out.

FP: What are your hopes for the partial vote recount that the Guardian Council is conducting '

MM: We don't think that the Guardian Council is legitimate itself. They are supporters of Ahmadinejad. We don't recognize them.

FP: What's your end goal ' When will the demonstrations stop '

MM: If they act rationally, [regime leaders] should accept people's opinion. Otherwise, there would be repression, which would make the country go another way. Up to now, the regime has [only] been [confronted by] groups of people, but now it is confronting everybody in the country.

FP: Would Mousavi be willing to accept some sort of power-sharing arrangement ' Say, Ahmadinejad remains as president but Mousavi becomes prime minister once again '

MM: This is not a solution, because people do not want Ahmadinejad at any level. He is so illiterate that -- the millions of people in the street -- he called them trash. And now, people are telling him: You are trash.

FP: Does Mousavi have a message that he'd like to deliver to the international community '

MM: [He asks] that the governments [of the world] pay attention to the people in the streets and do not recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as the representative of Iran -- [that they] do not recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as a legitimate government. Iran is a very important country in the region, and the changes in Iran could have an influence everywhere. So as a result, it's not only an internal matter -- it's an international problem. If Iran could be a democratic Islamic country, that would be a pattern, a role model, for other Islamic countries. And even if Iran has a terrorist image [today], it would be a model for other countries [in the future].


Egypt pushes pact for Mid-East peace
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, June 22, 2009

A "MEGA-TRUCE" proposal to end Gaza's isolation, restore Palestinian unity and expedite the stalled prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas has been put forward by Egypt. The proposal has been presented to both sides with a July 7 take-it-or-leave-it deadline, the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Achronot reported, as Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak arrived in Cairo yesterday for talks with Egyptian leaders. Drawn up by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the proposal is the first comprehensive attempt to resolve the internal Palestinian dispute while securing the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas three years ago.

Under the proposals, the Hamas government in Gaza would be replaced by a unity government with representatives of all major Palestinian groups. This body would rule until elections are held in January in the West Bank, which is run by the moderate Fatah faction, and Gaza. All parties would agree to accept the results of the vote. Israel and Hamas would agree to the exchange of Corporal Shalit for about 1000 Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis. This would open the way for Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The provisional administration in Gaza would be under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, even though Hamas has denied his legitimacy. The international community has pledged $US5 billion ($6.1bn) to restore the damage inflicted on Gaza during Israel's attack in January but will only channel the money through Mr Abbas. The West views Hamas as having seized control of Gaza through an armed putsch two years ago. International supervisors would ensure that concrete, iron and other materials arriving in Gaza for reconstruction and for the civilian economy would not be siphoned off by militant organisations to build bunkers or for weapons. This would also apply to fertilisers and other chemicals that could be used for explosives. Egypt would open its crossing point to Gaza. This would be monitored on the Palestinian side by Fatah, not Hamas, and Israel would observe the crossing through cameras as it did before Hamas's takeover of the strip.

If both sides accept the proposal, the primary beneficiaries would be the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip, who have been living at a virtual subsistence level for more than two years. The promised handover of foreign funds would help to restore the strip's infrastructure and revive its stagnant economy. Although Hamas has succeeded in suppressing opposition to its authority in Gaza, Israeli analysts believe the organisation's leaders understand from the current unrest in Iran that suppression has its limitations. Although Hamas would have to waive its present rule in Gaza, the proposal offers the group the opportunity to win control of all Palestinian territory, including the West Bank, in the election to be held in January.

Fatah would welcome the chance to resume at least a partial and temporary role in Gaza's administration but has reservations about the looming elections and the possibility that Hamas could defeat it in the West Bank as well. Under Mr Abbas's leadership, Fatah has not yet carried out reforms that would win it the respect of Palestinian voters.

Israel also fears the prospect of a Hamas election victory since the Islamist organisation remains dedicated to Israel's elimination. However, Jerusalem might support the Egyptian initiative, since it would hasten Corporal Shalit's release and bring stability during which political attitudes in the Palestinian areas might shift. The US is likely to encourage Israel in this direction.

Same Day
Weakened regime best result for US
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

THE Iranian regime will almost certainly reassert full control over the country in the next few days, but it will emerge from this crisis seriously weakened. One objective consequence of the uprising of democratic protest and frustration among Iran's population is that the regime has lost a great deal of legitimacy, internally and internationally. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently the strutting peacock of the Middle East exuding arrogance and self-confidence, will be a vastly diminished figure, plainly at odds with his own society. In many ways, a savagely weakened Iranian regime is the best result Israel and the US could have wished for.

David Menashri of Tel Aviv University believes the election of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is as committed to Iran's nuclear program as Ahmadinejad, would have earned Iran an extra 12 or 18 months, at least, of grace from the international community while Iran continued to work on the development of nuclear weapons. This election shows once more the extreme danger an authoritarian regime runs when it seeks to legitimise its rule through popular elections. Although Iran's ruling mullahs vetted the potential candidates so that only orthodox figures ran, Mousavi became the symbol of disgust with corrupt, repressive and economically disastrous clerical rule. The situation became far more challenging for Ahmadinejad and his clerical allies because of a clear split within the country's ruling establishment. There was simultaneously pressure from below and conflict at the top.

One certain long-term consequence is a weakening of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Although his final authority will be essentially maintained, he is now a diminished and partisan figure. He no longer resides above politics as did the late Ruhollah Khomeini. "Khamenei made a mistake by identifying too closely with Ahmedinijad," Menashri told me. "Perhaps this was to compensate for his lack of religious authority. Khamenei may not have been free to abandon Ahmadinejad if he wanted to." It is unclear whether Khamenei or Ahmadinejad now retains ultimate control of the Revolutionary Guard. Menashri, who was born in Iran and studied there as a young man, is one of the world's foremost authorities on Iran.

The sheer brazenness and size of the Iranian electoral fraud becomes clearer every day. Leaked Iranian Interior Ministry documents allegedly show Mousavi winning 58 per cent of the vote and Ahmadinejad coming third. Menashri is mildly critical of US President Barack Obama for not expressing stronger solidarity with Iran's democratic demonstrators. However, he gives some credit for the election result to Obama's inspiration. "The US has been very important in this Iranian uprising," he told me. "In a way, this movement took its inspiration from Obama. Obama gave them hope."

This may be a brave judgment, but Iranians are traditionally more sophisticated, better educated and more cosmopolitan than their Arab neighbours. And they have a long tradition of participating in their own political affairs. Despite the democratic uprising of recent days, there is a broad national consensus in Iran in favour of its nuclear program. Contradicting this, there is a popular desire for better relations with the West.

If either the US or Israel finds it necessary to carry out a limited military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities later this year, or more likely to impose tough financial sanctions, they will now face a much weakened Iranian government, whose true nature is much clearer to everyone. These are 10 days or so which certainly shook the world.


Settlement row ends date with Netanyahu
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Thursday, June 25, 2009

WASHINGTON kept up its unrelenting pressure on Israel over construction activities in West Bank settlements by calling off a scheduled meeting today between a senior American envoy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The Americans were saying, in effect: 'When you finish your homework on ending construction, call us,' said an Israeli official quoted by the daily Yediot Achronot. "Until then, there's no point to the meeting." Mr Netanyahu was to have met today in Paris with Washington's special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, the point man in efforts to hammer out an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

In order to establish his credentials in the Arab world as a fair arbiter, and not simply a patron of Israel, US President Barack Obama has been insistent on Israel completely halting construction in settlements. Jerusalem says it had arrived at understandings with the previous Bush administration, oral and written, whereby Israel would be permitted to accommodate "natural growth" in settlement blocs likely to be within Israel's boundaries in a final peace settlement. However, the Obama administration says those understandings are non-binding. Yediot Achronot quoted the senior official as saying that until Mr Netanyahu accepts a settlement freeze, Washington will not encourage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations. The Palestinians see Israeli settlement activity as a land grab aimed at blocking the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Mr Netanyahu, on his first trip to Europe since assuming office three months ago, said in Rome yesterday that the post-election turmoil in Iran had revealed the Islamic regime's true nature. "The courage shown by the people of Iran in facing bullets for the sake of freedom deserves the salute of free men and women everywhere," he said. Mr Netanyahu had earlier said that if a moderate regime assumed power in Tehran, it was possible to envision resumption of relations between Israel and Iran. Defence Minister Ehud Barak will fly to Washington at the weekend to meet Mr Mitchell in an attempt to find a way out of the settlement imbroglio. Mr Barak was accused this week by an Israeli civil rights organisation of having recently authorised the construction of 300 homes in a West Bank settlement.

Same Day
Authority wants Diggers in Gaza
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

RAMALLAH: The Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority has called for Australian troops to be deployed to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Riad Malki told The Australian the Palestinian Authority was willing to "go the extra mile" in assuring Israel that its security needs would be met, in the event of a peace agreement, or even substantial peace negotiations. In this context, the Palestinian Authority would welcome Australian troops into Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians' first preference is for Arab troops, but they would be happy to accept Western, specifically Australian, troops as peacekeepers and peace monitors.

"We have said repeatedly we are against all rockets launched (into Israel) from Gaza," Dr Malki said in his Ramallah office. "How will we solve this ' We believe Arab forces, deployed by Egypt, should come into Gaza, and not allow any Israeli incursions into Gaza or any rockets to be fired from Gaza. Then the Palestinian security forces should be professionalised. We are willing to accept an international force." Dr Malki said such a force could be sent by NATO, or consist of US or Australian soldiers.

At the moment there are no foreign forces, apart from Israelis, deployed on security tasks in the Palestinian territories. Some US and other military personnel have been involved in aid projects in the Palestinian territories. Australian military personnel in extremely small numbers have occasionally been involved in UN missions in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Also Same Day
US acts to restore Syrian relations

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama has decided to restore an ambassador to Syria after a four-year absence, in a sign of the deepening engagement between his administration and Damascus. "A decision has been made to send an ambassador back to Damascus. The process, however, will take some time," a State Department official said last night. The State Department had informed Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, of the decision.

The administration's decision was first reported on CNN's website. Officials told The New York Times it was a logical step in Mr Obama's pursuit of normal relations with Syria. "It's a reflection of Syria being a pivotal country in terms of achieving a comprehensive peace in the region," a senior official told the paper. "There is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that, it helps to have a fully staffed embassy."

The State Department had twice sent Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary for the Near East, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official, to Damascus for exploratory meetings, the report says. Two weeks ago, the administration's special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what Mr Mitchell later described as "serious and productive discussions", the paper said.

The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest against the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. Washington suspected Syria of being involved in the attack. The Washington Post said the loss of US diplomatic leverage in the Middle East -- because of opposition among many Arabs to the Iraq war and perceived US favouritism towards Israel -- has left a vacuum in recent years, filled in large part by Iran. The decision to return a US ambassador to Syria represents the restoration of a sustained US diplomatic presence in a secular Arab country central to many US interests in the region, officials said.

By returning a senior US envoy to Damascus, the Obama administration is seeking to carve out a far larger role for the US in the region as the President works to rehabilitate US relations with the Islamic world and the Arab Middle East, the paper said. "It did not make any sense to us not to be able to speak with an authoritative voice in Damascus," a senior administration official said. "It was our assessment that total disengagement has not served our interests. "We're determined to engage in a comprehensive way in the region," the official said. "This is an important step we are taking as part of that strategy."

Syria's ruling clique is a sect of Shia Islam, and has close relations with the Shia leadership of Iran. Iran and Syria support the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, which the US labels a terrorist organisation.

Also Same Day
Britain in tit-for-tat envoy expulsions
AFP, The Times

LONDON: Britain has ordered the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats in a tit-for-tat spat after Tehran ordered two British diplomats to leave Iran. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the diplomats' expulsion from London yesterday, while at least five EU countries called in Iranian envoys to protest against the Tehran government's crackdown. France had earlier summoned Iran's envoy for the second time in a week to condemn what it called the "brutal repression" of protests. The Czech Republic, Finland, The Netherlands and Sweden also summoned Iranian envoys in their capitals.

The Iranian government has not liked the coverage of the disputed presidential poll by the British media - the BBC in particular - and has loathed Mr Brown's criticism of the election. Iran has 27 diplomats in Britain, compared with Britain's 22 in Tehran. If the war of words between Tehran and London gets worse, the stakes look higher for Iran than for Britain.

Britain has some commercial interests at stake in Iran, but they are slight, shrunken by years of uncertainty about sanctions, and skewed towards either big companies in the energy sector with hopes of future deals, or tiny ones with British-Iranian family ties. Banks have been deterred from financial links both by sanctions and by the US and EU governments. In contrast, the Iranian regime and leading Iranians have significant assets in Britain.

The British government revealed last week in a written statement to parliament that it had frozen a total of $US1.6 billion ($2bn) of Iranian assets under three layers of UN sanctions since 2006, and separate EU sanctions last year. The UN sanctions freeze the assets of companies and people alleged to be engaged in or supporting nuclear work or Iran's ballistic missiles program. These include the state-run Bank Sepah and companies controlled by leading members of the Revolutionary Guards. Separately, in June last year, the EU froze the assets of Iran's biggest bank, Bank Melli, a conduit for the Revolutionary Guards accused of handling the transactions for purchases of sensitive technology.

The US has taken a much more aggressive line on its own, for far longer, and with rising frustration at the lack of EU response. In October 2007 it unilaterally slapped sanctions on banks Melli, Saderat and Mellat. The EU's refusal to target the latter two (partly because of German opposition) has been a thorn in the US-EU relationship. Congress is now considering the Iran Refined Petroleum Act, which would penalise companies and people directly for helping Iran's petroleum industry.

If the insults and threats from Tehran worsen, Iranians can be expected to move their money in anticipation of more curbs. Last year, the Tehran press reported that Iranians, fearing new sanctions, moved $US75bn out of Iran. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2005 election victory, Iranians moved assets to Dubai, helping to fuel its property boom. A new war of words between London and Tehran could be a boon for that financially stricken city-state.


Freeze on activity vital for Mid East peace
Stop settlements, Gillard urges
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent, Jerusalem
Saturday, June 27, 2009

DEPUTY Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday backed the Obama administration's call for a freeze on settlement activity by Jewish settlers on the Palestinian West Bank. She also restated Australia's long-standing commitment to "a two-state solution with secure borders" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Speaking at a news conference in Ramallah on the West Bank with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyed, Ms Gillard said Australia supported a Palestinian state next to a secure Israel. She backed the position of the Obama administration that Israel needed to freeze all new settlement activity as a prerequisite for lasting peace in the Middle East. "The position of the Australian government has been quite clear," Ms Gillard said. "We have called for a freeze on settlement activity. Obviously President Obama has made a very significant speech, including making some very significant statements about settlement activity. We have talked today about these issues, and about the prospects for a further process for dialogue leading to a lasting peace."

Ms Gillard said Australia had expressed humanitarian concerns on behalf of the Palestinian people. She used the meeting to announce that Australia would be providing $10 million additional funding for assistance to the Palestinian Authority, particularly for health and education. Ms Gillard said this aid "shows that we are concerned about the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people. We do have concerns about humanitarian issues and we're acting on those concerns."

Asked what action should be taken if Israel did not halt settlements, she said: "I believe what President Obama is calling for and what the world is looking towards is to have a real dialogue that leads to progress. I think that there is a sense of urgency about that, and I think that sense of urgency was expressed by President Obama."

Asked whether Australia would accept the Hamas faction, which controls the Gaza Strip, having a role in any Palestinian government, she said: "Australia has made consistently clear that our view is that Hamas should accept the principles laid down by the (Middle East mediating) Quartet (the US, Russia, EU and UN) - in particular, and most significantly, it must renounce violence." She said there was reason to believe there were people of good will on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who wanted to see an acceleration of dialogue.

Ms Gillard has been in Israel for five days, during which time she has met the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Before visiting Ramallah, she visited the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem. Bethlehem is separated from Jerusalem by the separation barrier, or wall.


Shalit 'to Egypt' in plan for free Gaza
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Monday, June 29, 2009

CAPTURED Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will shortly be transferred by Hamas to Egyptian custody as the first step of an ambitious plan to lift Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, restore Palestinian unity and free about 1100 Palestinian prisoners, an Arabic report says. The report in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper comes in the wake of similar claims last week from European diplomatic sources, the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority and other sources.

Israeli security officials said they were unaware of any progress on the matter and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said yesterday that the reports did "not reflect reality". Despite these reservations, the sense that something major is afoot is widespread in the region. According to the Asharq al-Awsat report, Corporal Shalit, who has been held in Gaza for three years without any visits by the Red Cross, will be visited by his family once he is transferred to Egypt. He will be held on "deposit" until Israel releases Palestinian prisoners.

The number of prisoners to be released has been the main point of contention since Corporal Shalit's capture. Hamas has demanded the release of 450 hard-core prisoners, some of them serving multiple death sentences for involvement in the detonation of buses and other terror attacks. Israel has reportedly agreed to release only 175 persons on Hamas's list. Egyptian intermediaries have proposed a compromise figure of 325. The newspaper said Israel would release 400. In addition, Israel has already agreed to release about 600 other prisoners of lesser security weight, including women and youths.

Under the mooted deal, Israel would ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has permitted entry of little more than food and humanitarian aid to the area's 1.5million residents for two years and paralysed the economy. The Egyptian-brokered initiative, which reportedly has the blessings of Washington, goes well beyond a prisoner exchange and the lifting of the blockade. The release of Corporal Shalit would be the first step in a process aiming at achieving Palestinian unity as well as an overall peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world.

As a first step, the Egyptians are attempting to promote a prisoner swap between Hamas and Fatah.


Israel defiant on home building
The Australian
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

JERUSALEM: Israel has approved the construction of 50 new houses in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, army radio reported yesterday, despite weeks of pressure from its closest ally, Washington. The decision to build the houses in the Adam settlement north of Jerusalem comes despite repeated calls from the US for Israel to halt all settlement activity in order to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians.

The houses will be built for 200 settlers being moved from nearby Migron, one of the largest of the so-called outpost settlements, which are illegal under Israeli law, army radio reported. But the 50 houses would be part of a larger project to build about 1450 new housing units in the settlement, army radio said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his right-wing government will not build new settlements in the occupied territories but will not halt the so-called "natural growth" of existing settlements. That position has put Israel on a collision course with President Barack Obama's administration, which has demanded a complete halt to settlements and vowed to vigorously pursue the Middle East peace process.

The approval was given shortly before Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was to fly to New York to meet US Middle East envoy George Mitchell today, after a meeting between Mr Mitchell and Mr Netanyahu was cancelled last week. On Sunday, Israeli media reported that Mr Barak planned to offer a three-month building freeze in the settlements, excluding existing projects that are nearly finished, as a compromise. Mr Barak declined to confirm or deny such a plan, saying the issue had not been finalised and that settlements were one of several topics he planned to discuss with the US envoy.

The possible freeze would not apply to settlements in mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and annexed in 1967 and which the Palestinians have demanded as the capital of their future state. It would also not cover 2000 buildings in West Bank settlement blocs that were at an advanced stage of construction, mainly public buildings, Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported on Sunday. The paper recently reported that about 3200 new housing units were being built in the West Bank at the end of last year.

The presence of more than 280,000 Israelis in more than 100 settlements scattered across the West Bank has long been one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old conflict. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not hold talks with Israel until it halts all settlement activity. The international community considers all settlements built on land occupied in the 1967 Six Day War illegal.


Israel has right to attack Iran's nuclear facilities: Biden
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, July 07, 2009

US Vice-President Joe Biden said yesterday that Israel had the "sovereign right" to attack Iran and claimed Washington would not stand in the way of the Jewish state in its dealings with Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The statement was welcomed in Israel yesterday for turning the spotlight back on Iran's nuclear program after long focusing on election turmoil in the country.

In an interview on the US's ABC yesterday, Mr Biden said three times that Israel had the right to act in its perceived interest. "Israel can determine for itself what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." He added that Washington's policy remained the pursuit of diplomatic means in an attempt to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program.

Mr Biden's statement came little more than two months after he declared an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be "ill advised", a statement in a co-ordinated series of warnings by US officials against a pre-emptive Israeli attack. But the post-election turmoil in Iran and the violent suppression of the political opposition has at least temporarily knocked awry Washington's timetable for engaging Tehran in dialogue. With Iran continuing to enrich uranium, Israel has been pressing Washington to begin drawing up explicit plans for "paralysing sanctions" if diplomacy fails.

By loosening the bonds on Israel, at least rhetorically, Mr Biden was signalling to Tehran that a military option had not been discounted. Israel itself sent a similar signal when it dispatched one of its submarines for the first time through the Suez Canal last week for an exercise in the Red Sea. Israel's submarine fleet is reportedly armed with cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, thus providing a second-strike capability should Iran launch a nuclear strike against it. Israel has three Dolphin class submarines and two more are being built in Germany.

Israeli submarines have reportedly operated in the Indian Ocean, which they reached from the Mediterranean after travelling around Africa, a 7250km journey that takes weeks and requires refuelling. The Israeli navy has in the past preferred this long but discreet route for submarines rather than a quick passage through the 190km canal, which is made on the surface, visible to all. Last week's passage through the canal can be seen as a reminder to Tehran of Israel's military muscle. It is also seen by some analysts as a sign of strengthened ties between Israel and Egypt, which controls the canal and shares Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear program. The submarine went back through the canal on Sunday.

The Sunday Times reported that Saudi Arabia has given its tacit consent to Israeli warplanes overflying Saudi territory if they staged a raid on Iran's nuclear facilities. The paper said the agreement was given by Saudi officials in a meeting with Mossad officials. The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the report was "completely false and baseless". John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, told the newspaper Saudi co-operation was "entirely logical". He said Arab states would condemn an Israeli attack in the UN but would be relieved if it succeeded.


Extract - No green light to attack Iran: US
The Australian
AFP, The Times
Wednesday, July 08, 2009

WASHINGTON: The US has denied giving Israel the green light to attack Iran or that it is reconsidering plans to engage diplomatically with the Islamic republic. Iran's parliamentary Speaker, Ali Larijani, formerly the country's top nuclear negotiator, warned that Tehran would hold Washington responsible for any such strike after Vice-President Joe Biden said the US would not dictate how Israel dealt with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But State Department spokesman Ian Kelly poured cold water on suggestions that Mr Biden could be seen as clearing the way for the Jewish state to attack Iran, which it views as an existential threat. "I certainly would not want to give a green light to any kind of military action," Mr Kelly said yesterday. But he echoed Mr Biden's point that Washington considered Israel a "sovereign country" with a right to make its own military decisions. He rejected any idea that Mr Biden was signalling a move by the Obama administration to drop its policy of diplomatic engagement with Iran. "I wouldn't read into it any more than what you see," he said.

Ayatollah Khamenei attacked "meddling" Western leaders in a bid to rally his fractured people. "We warn the leaders of those countries trying to take advantage of the situation: beware. The Iranian nation will react," he declared in a televised speech. "The leaders of arrogant countries, the nosy meddlers in the affairs of the Islamic republic, must know that even if the Iranian people have their differences, when your enemies get involved, the people ... will become a firm fist against you."


Israelis to shun bid for peace
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ISRAEL has given its strongest signal to date that it has no intention of resuming peace talks with the Palestinian Authority in the near future as US President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders in Washington that Israel needs "to engage in serious self-reflection".

In comments certain to be met with concern in the US, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday said the legitimacy of the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas - the man with whom any negotiations would be held - was "doubtful". Referring to Mr Abbas's Palestinian name, Abu Mazen, Mr Lieberman said: "The more Abu Mazen's authority and legitimacy decline, the more he increases his demands and the more rigid he becomes in his attitude." He said that while Israel signed the Oslo accords 16 years ago with an administration that represented all Palestinians, "today you have Fatah-land in Judea and Samaria and Hamastan in Gaza".

Mr Lieberman also dismissed criticism of him by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Sarkozy criticised Mr Netanyahu for appointing Mr Lieberman as Foreign Minister, given Mr Lieberman's comments towards Arabs in Israel, which his critics say are racist. Mr Lieberman said he regarded such comments by Mr Sarkozy as "a compliment". His attack on Mr Abbas's legitimacy adds to the view that Israel is not intending to resume talks with Palestinians in the near future.

After the meeting in Washington between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama earlier this year, Mr Netanyahu suggested he would resume talks with Palestinians immediately and without preconditions. But Israel is now imposing conditions on any talks, including that the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a Jewish state, that the right of return of Palestinians to what is now Israel is not an issue and that the status of Jerusalem - which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital - is not negotiable.

Mr Obama yesterday held his first meeting with US Jewish leaders - a meeting that marked a possible changing of the guard of Jewish leadership in the US. Groups which under George W. Bush enjoyed good access to the White House - including the Lubavitch movement and the Zionist Organisation of America - were not included on the keenly contested list, while more liberal groups such as Americans for Peace Now and the newly formed J Street Lobby met Mr Obama. The umbrella lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee retained a position on the list for the White House meeting. The Israeli government has been caught by surprise by the strength of calls by Mr Obama and the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Israel to halt settlement activity.


Israeli minister probed on graft
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, July 16, 2009

THE investigation of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman over criminal matters including bribery continued yesterday when police met Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz to finalise what they call a strong case against him. Any indictment of Israel's top diplomat would create instability in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Lieberman leads the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, the key partner of Mr Netanyahu's Likud coalition. After the meeting with Mr Mazuz, Israel's media was briefed by those close to the investigation that police were confident of indicting Mr Lieberman on charges of money-laundering, bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The Jerusalem Post said Mr Lieberman was suspected of laundering millions of dollars through a consultancy firm registered in his daughter's name and a company he owned. Mr Lieberman allegedly ran the business while holding his ministerial post, the newspaper said. Officers of Israel's organised crime unit conducted about 18 hours of interviews with Mr Lieberman under oath. In one, they questioned him for up to six hours about companies linked to him in which they say money was deposited. Mr Lieberman has denied any wrongdoing, saying payments from his daughter's company relate to his time working with the company and to agreed payments after he left. Supporters say the investigation has lasted almost nine years and intensified in recent months for political reasons.

Mr Mazuz's meeting was to allow Israel's senior law officer to review the material gathered by the police. While a final decision to prosecute would be made by state prosecutors, Mr Mazuz has criticised Mr Netanyahu's decision to appoint Mr Lieberman Foreign Minister while he was under investigation. Israeli newspapers, radio and television report on the Lieberman case as if a prosecution and his guilt are assumed.

There appears to be an air of resignation in Yisrael Beiteinu. Officials say that if the minister is prosecuted, the party should retain the foreign affairs portfolio for whoever replaces Mr Lieberman as leader. The party would probably put forward deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli diplomat in Washington. Any forced resignation of Mr Lieberman could alter the tone of the Netanyahu government. He has a large following among Russian immigrants. He was born in Moldova in the former Soviet Union, and has lifted Yisrael Beiteinu from a marginal party to one more popular than Labour by trying to force the 20per cent Arab population in Israel, both Muslim and Christian, to take an oath of allegiance to the Jewish state.


Cairo consents to Israeli warships using Suez
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem
Friday, July 17, 2009

IN nautical muscle-flexing clearly aimed at Iran, Israel has sent two of its most advanced missile boats through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea. The move from the Mediterranean came only 10 days after an Israeli submarine, believed to be capable of firing cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, passed through the canal into the Red Sea. The submarine, and two small warships that reportedly accompanied it, returned to Mediterranean waters a few days later.

Israeli warships have passed through the canal in the past but infrequently. The recent concentration of such sailings plainly goes beyond operational considerations into the realm of strategic signalling. To reach the proximity of Iranian waters surreptitiously, Israeli submarines based in the Mediterranean would normally sail around Africa, a voyage that takes weeks. Passage through the Suez could take about a day, albeit on the surface and therefore revealed.

An apparent party to these signals is Egypt, in whose territory the canal lies. Anticipating protests from hardliners in the Arab world at the passage of Israeli warships through the canal, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Cairo was obliged by international treaty to permit warships to pass through the canal if they did not threaten Egypt itself. Nevertheless, Israel is unlikely to have requested this concentration of crossings without prior consultation with Cairo.

Egypt and other moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia have formed an unspoken strategic alliance with Israel on the issue of Iran, whose desire for regional hegemony is as troubling to them as it is to the Jewish state. There were reports in the international media that Saudi Arabia had consented to the passage of Israeli warplanes through its air space in the event of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities but both Riyadh and Jerusalem have denied it.

Despite US President Barack Obama's expressed desire to persuade Iran through diplomatic dialogue to halt its nuclear program before it reaches weapons capability, Israel continues to gear up for the possibility that in the end military action will be necessary. In addition to honing its air-attack potential, including the staging of long-range exercises, Israel has been shoring up its missile-defence system as a major element in its security posture. The US announced this week that an advanced Arrow missile designed by Israel and the US to protect against ballistic missiles will be soon be tested on a US missile range in the Pacific. The Arrow is seen by Israel as a first-line defence against Iranian missiles, including possible nuclear missiles. Israeli officials yesterday announced the first successful test of an anti-rocket system, Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets with ranges of five to 70km.


Israelis reject US over new housing
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

TENSIONS between Israel and Washington have deteriorated after the Jewish state rejected another US attempt to resolve the Palestinian conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed the US call to halt a major Jewish development in a predominantly Arab area, declaring: "Israel will not agree to edicts of this kind in east Jerusalem." Israeli media reported yesterday that Mr Netanyahu had made a private comment about US President Barack Obama: "What does (he) think to himself ' That after I built 20,000 homes in Jerusalem during my last term I'm going to stop the building of 20 more ?"

At the beginning of a cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said: "I read the newspaper headlines today about the construction of a neighbourhood in Jerusalem and I would like to re-emphasise that the united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the state of Israel. "Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged; this means -- inter alia -- that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city."

Israel's new ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was told by State Department officials over the weekend that a planned 20-apartment development in east Jerusalem should not go ahead. The site for the development in the Sheik Jarrah neighbourhood is owned by US millionaire Irving Moskowitz, who has financed the group Ateret Cohanim, which helps to establish Jewish people in east Jerusalem and in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. The same scenario has played out for other properties in east Jerusalem owned by Mr Moskowitz, including one adjacent to the Mount of Olives cemetery where Ataret Cohanim is hoping to complete a 100-apartment development in two years.

Mr Netanyahu said yesterday his view that Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem cannot be challenged had been the policy of all Israeli governments. "I can only describe to myself what would happen if someone would propose that Jews could not live in certain neighbourhoods in New York, London, Paris or Rome. There would certainly be a major international outcry," he said. "Accordingly, we cannot agree to such a decree in Jerusalem."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue of east Jerusalem with Israeli authorities two months ago, urging them to stop the demolition of Palestinian houses in the area. Israeli officials have earmarked about 90 Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem and have begun demolishing them. They say the houses are illegal. Palestinians say that if any are illegal, it is because it is almost impossible for a Palestinian to gain approval for a development or renovation.


US draws anger on Jerusalem
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Thursday, July 23, 2009

THE disagreement between Israel and the US over the terms for any Middle East peace talks intensified yesterday, with a senior Israeli minister saying it was "unfortunate" the US had introduced the status of Jerusalem as an issue. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said: "It is unfortunate that the issue of Jerusalem's status has been raised, not by the Arabs but by the Americans who have become so focused on it." His comments came as key US officials prepared for a crucial round of talks in Israel next week.

It was announced yesterday that senior White House adviser and Middle East veteran Dennis Ross would join President Barack Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones in what may be the most important week of meetings between the two countries for years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is known to be keen to be seen making some concessions to Washington and is expected to tell the US officials his government is planning to dismantle Israel's illegal outposts. But the real point of negotiation for the US will be whether Israel will agree to freeze all building activity in settlements in the West Bank, while the Israeli side will seek guarantees from the US about a date for a commitment from Iran to allow international inspectors to examine its nuclear program.

The talks come as tensions in the West Bank reached dangerous levels. A group of settlers near Nablus yesterday cut down about 40 olive trees grown by Palestinians and threw rocks at cars driven by Palestinians. Elsewhere, 52 people were wounded yesterday in Hamas-run Gaza after a blast ripped through a wedding of a relative of Mohammed Dahlan, an ex-strongman with the rival Fatah group. The bomb exploded under a street stage set up in the southern town of Khan Yunis for the marriage of Mr Dahlan's nephew, Mahmud, Palestinian medics said. Dahlan was not present at the festivities.


Minister's order on Hitler photo embarrasses Israel
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Friday, July 24, 2009

ISRAEL'S colourful Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has sparked another controversy with an order to all Israel's overseas missions that they draw attention to a picture taken in Nazi Germany in 1941 showing Adolf Hitler with a Palestinian religious leader of the time.
Unhelpful: Husseini with Hitler in 1941

The order has been greeted inside the Israeli Foreign Ministry with derision, with one source telling The Australian it was met with "laughter, scepticism and a sense of misplaced communication that this doesn't help one bit the real argument". It was intended to counter the US argument that Israel should not allow a 20-apartment development on the site of a former hotel in the predominantly Arab East Jerusalem previously owned by the family of the mufti photographed with Hitler, the late Haj Amin al-Husseini.

The controversy came as Israel's new ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, insisted there was no breakdown in the relationship between Israel and the US, and that any differences would be resolved "with camaraderie". In his first interview since presenting his credential to President Barack Obama this week, Mr Oren told Israel Radio: "We do not feel tension. There is no breakdown in the relationship. We are dealing with this on all levels and we will reach an agreement with camaraderie and co-operation. We have no ally like the US. It is a strong bond and I'm sure it will be resolved."

Mr Oren's comments came as US and Israeli officials prepared for talks next week in Jerusalem which are promising to be among the most important held between the two countries for many years. The US officials are hoping to extract guarantees from Israel to freeze building activity in Jewish settlements, while Israel will try to focus the talks on what they see as a looming threat from Iran if it develops a nuclear program.

But Mr Oren's comments were overshadowed by Mr Lieberman who sparked his second controversy in two weeks. Last week he attacked the credentials of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yesterday he instructed Israel's diplomats to distribute a 68-year-old photograph of Husseini sitting next to Hitler in Berlin during the war. A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed to The Australian that the order had been given by Mr Lieberman "without any argumentation because it was deemed to be self-explanatory".


US warns against settlement link-up
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, July 25, 2009

THE US has issued a new warning to Israel not to link Jerusalem to one of the largest Jewish settlements on the West Bank, reports said yesterday, as both countries prepare for talks next week that could determine the future of the peace process.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the US administration had warned Israel that linking Jerusalem with one of the largest settlements on the West Bank, Maaleh Adumim, would be "extremely damaging" and even "corrosive". The report said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was committed to the development but opposition from the US went back to President Barack Obama's predecessor, George W.Bush, who opposed it on the basis it would sever East Jerusalem from the West Bank and deprive any future Palestinian state of territorial contiguity. Mr Netanyahu said during his recent election campaign: "I will link Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim via the Mevasseret Admumim neighbourhood E1. I want to see one continuous string of built-up Jewish neighbourhoods."

Washington's new warning came as key US officials prepared to travel to Jerusalem next week for what could be decisive talks in the Obama administration's push to kick-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. In recent weeks, both the US and Israel have been marking out their demands. The US said it wanted a freeze on all building activity in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and on Israeli developments in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, an end to Israel's demolition of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem and an agreement that an independent Palestinian state be formed. Israel has said it is prepared to demolish illegal Jewish outposts, which often attach themselves to the larger settlements, but that "natural growth" of settlements must continue.

Israel also wants to extract from the US a deadline by which Iran must have allowed international inspectors to examine its nuclear program. Mr Netanyahu yesterday raised the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as a possible guide, saying "this spirit can create an atmosphere in which a comprehensive peace is possible". Under that initiative, the 22 members of the Arab League would recognise Israel in return for it handing back land it took in the 1967 war, the creation of a Palestinian state and a "just" solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees. Speaking at a function at the home of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel in Tel Aviv, Mr Netanyahu pointed to Israel's peace agreement with Egypt as "our cornerstone for peace with our neighbours".

There were also indications yesterday that Israel wanted Turkey to resume its role as broker in peace talks between Syria and Israel. In the year leading up to January's war in Gaza, Syrian and Israeli officials had been involved in peace talks in Ankara. Previous prime minister Ehud Olmert was determined to try to reach a peace deal with Syria that would have meant Israel had normal relations with three of its neighbours -- Egypt, Jordan and Syria. His argument was that this was in Israel's interests as it would then be at war with only two of its neighbours, Hamas in Gaza to the west and Hezbollah in Lebanon to the north.

The other benefit for Israel would be to try to isolate Iran, which has a close relationship with Syria. Syria is also home to some of Hamas's leadership. When the Gaza war broke out, Syria withdrew from the talks but is known to be interested in resuming them to achieve the possible return of the Golan Heights and a guaranteed water supply, which would be part of any deal with Israel. The US would be crucial to any deal -- it would almost certainly offer Syria trade access to US markets and considerable amounts of funding. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday: "We hope in the months ahead to forge peace with the Palestinians and to expand that into a vision of a broader regional peace."

Click here for news since July 29th, 2009

** End of article