Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israeli peace activist says Hamas’ Jabari received truce document—and Israel knew


Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin said that hours before Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military leader received a draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel.

The draft also included mechanisms for maintaining a cease-fire during upticks in rocket fire between Gaza and Israel, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported Thursday, citing Baskin. He reportedly had a relationship with Hamas leaders after he helped negotiate a deal to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.

Israeli officials ordered the hit on Jabari despite knowing about the truce draft, Baskin told Haaretz.

Baskin met Jabari when he was mediating between the Hamas leader and the Israeli representative to the Shalit negotiations.

Baskin told Haaretz that he showed Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak a draft of the permanent truce agreement, and said that an interministry committee on the issue was established on the basis of the document.

Barak: Current episode with Gaza ‘not over’


Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the current episode of rocket fire from Gaza is not over, during a visit to the border with Gaza.

Barak on Tuesday held a security analysis with the Israel Defense Forces chiefs in the area, including Gaza Division Commander Brig. Gen. Mickey Edelstein; Commander of the Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo; and Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh.

“Hamas and the other terrorist organizations are suffering as a result of intense strikes [by the IDF] in Gaza. But it is certainly not over and we will decide how and when to act if necessary.  I do not want to address either timing or means [of operation]; it would not be right to provide this information to the other side,” Barak said, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.

“We do not intend to allow – in any shape or form – the continued harming of the day to day life of our citizens.   And we intend to reinforce the deterrence – and strengthen it – so that we are able to operate along the length of the border fence in a way that will ensure the security of all our soldiers who are serving around the Gaza Strip.”

Barak added that even if other Gaza terrorist organizations are shooting some of the rockets, that Israel holds Hamas, which is in charge of Gaza, responsible for all of the attacks. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the security cabinet on Tuesday morning to discuss possible responses to the attacks from Gaza.

A long-range Grad missile fired from Gaza on Tuesday morning struck Ashdod, but did not cause any injuries or damage. Early Tuesday morning, Israel Air Force aircraft fired at and struck a weapon storage facility in the central Gaza Strip, and two launching sites in the northern Gaza Strip, according to the IDF.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Gaza terrorists for the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. He also called on Israel to be restrained in its response.

“The secretary-general reiterates his call for an immediate cessation of indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian militants targeting Israel and strongly condemns these actions,” Ban’s spokesman said in a statement. “Both sides should do everything to avoid further escalation and must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of civilians at all times.”

At least 160 rockets have been fired at southern Israel from Gaza since Saturday night, according to reports.

Barak after clear-the-air meeting with Bibi: We ‘see eye-to-eye’


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “see eye to eye” on the Iran threat and U.S.-Israel ties.

Barak made his remarks in a statement on Oct. 6 following a 90-minute meeting with Netanyahu at which they agreed to continue working together to overcome Israel’s security threats, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Netanyahu reportedly called in Barak for the meeting to reprimand him over recent meetings with U.S. officials.

Barak’s statement said that he and Netanyahu “see eye to eye” on every aspect of the Iranian threat, as well as “the relationship with the United States under the prime minister’s leadership,” according to the Post.

Barak met several weeks ago with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who remains close to President Barack Obama after serving as his chief of staff, and U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. 

Panetta to meet Barak, Netanyahu, Peres in quick trip to Israel


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel to discuss United States-Israel defense ties and the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Panetta will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

“We are a friend, we are a partner, we have — as the defense minister has pointed out — probably the strongest US-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history,” Panetta told reporters before the meeting, according to the Associated Press and Times of Israel. “What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future.”

Panetta did not go into specifics on the Iran discussions, but said that he and Israeli officials would be “discussing various contingencies and how we would respond.”

On Tuesday, President Obama announced tougher sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and banks, according to the AP.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 News that he had not yet made a decision on whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, but urged military and security officials to keep the debate over such a strike out of the public sphere.

Amid new Iran nuke rumors, Barak and Panetta to meet


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington amid reports that Iran may have achieved the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

Israel has said that such a capability is a “red line” that could trigger military action.

The defense chiefs are scheduled to meet Thursday.

The Associated Press reported this week that it had obtained a drawing of an explosives containment chamber said to exist on an Iranian military site. The chamber’s only known use would be to test nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied reports that it is seeking a nuclear weapon. Western experts have said the Islamic Republic appears to be moving closer to such a capability.

The Obama administration has endeavored to keep Israel from striking while it pursues sanctions and diplomatic pressure as a means of getting Iran to retreat from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

OPINION: President Obama’s diplomacy has been given a chance


According to Jewish tradition, prophecy ceased with the end of the Biblical era, but it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that Israel will not be attacking Iranian nuclear installations, at least not for a while.

The conventional wisdom had been that the Israelis had a window of opportunity to attack Iran prior to the American election. Electoral politics would force President Obama to support and Israeli attack, whether he would have wanted to or not and the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party Mitt Romney has already come out in support of such an attack should Israel so decide.

But there will be no such attack, at least not until October and perhaps far beyond.

My reasoning is simple. With an impending election this fall, the Netanyahu government will become a lame duck government and it would be unwise for the Prime Minister to risk his reelection on the unknown outcomes of an attack on Iran.

Were such an attack a failure, it would undermine his reelection campaign. Were such an attack successful but were it to trigger attacks on Israel from the North and the South, Israel might find itself besieged by rocket fire and the Israelis might feel themselves insecure and might hold the Prime Minister responsible for miscalculating the consequences of his government’s actions. Netanyahu well remembers that his first election as Prime Minister was assisted in no small part by terrorist attacks from the North that undermined Israel’s confidence in the Oslo Accords and sunk Shimon Peres’ hopes to election on his own following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Peres’ poll numbers dropped precipitously and the rest was history.

Were Netanyahu to miscalculate, there is enough domestic opposition from security heavyweights such as the former heads of the Mossad. the Shin Bet and the IDF and sufficient caution from the current Chief of Staff of the IDF to place the full burden of responsibility of Netanyahu’s shoulders.  It is highly likely that Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not be a major factor in the next government.

If Israeli elections are held in September, a new government will not be formed and functioning until after the holidays in October, just on the eve of the Presidential elections. The Prime Minister is quite skilled at reading the American political landscape. Were President Obama to win reelection and were he to oppose the bombing in private, a newly reelected President entering his second term and not having to face the voters again, might not quite appreciate the October surprise and his rocky relationship with the Prime Minister might only become more strained.

Were Mitt Romney to be elected, Netanyahu would be sorely tempted to wait the lame duck President out and see if over US support or a US initiated attack might be forthcoming under a new President who administration would not have its people fully in place and functioning until well after a January 20th 2013 inauguration It would take time to coordinate, time for a Secretary of Defense to work with his Generals for a National Security team to be in place and ready to attack. Were a October surprise to have unintended and unanticipated anti-American consequences, a newly sworn in President Romney would also not appreciate the circumstances in which he found himself.

So we are left to ask several questions:

I understand that all politics are local, but if Iran is truly an existential threat to Israel, then why are Israeli politicians not behaving as if it were such a threat?

Why do coalition politics and the opportunity or a significant electoral triumph trump a problem of such national urgency?

A skeptic might argue that the threat has been exaggerated. I frankly do not know enough to render a judgment, but wonder if the treat is as real why can’t unity be achieved within the government itself?

With this new time framework, we shall see if international sanctions, sabotage and targeted assassinations coupled with diplomacy will actually halt Iran’s march to develop nuclear weapons. Ten months if a far longer window of opportunity than 10 to 20 weeks? That is a significant challenge to American policy but an even more serious opportunity.

If the Netanyahu-Barak strategy to bringing Iran front and center and the purpose of raising the prospect of an imminent attack has been to focus the world’s attention of the problem of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, it has been brilliant. If it is but a prelude to an actual attack then too much has been said to too many people and they would have been wiser to follow the advice of our sages: say little and do much – as Menachem Begin did in 1981 and Ehud Omert did in 2007 when they destroyed the nuclear capacities of Iraq and Syria—or follow what Vice President Joseph Biden said recently describing President Obama and quoting Teddy Roosevelt “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

South Sudan president makes lightening visit to Israel


The president of the new country of South Sudan arrived in Israel for a short working visit during which the possibility of repatriating Sudanese infiltrators to the country set to be discussed.

Salva Kiir met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered to send a government delegation to South Sudan to assess how Israel can help the new country, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Kiir also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and visited Yad Vashem.His visit lasted less than 24 hours.

“I am very moved to be in Israel and to walk on the soil of the Promised Land, and with me are all South Sudanese people,” Kiir told Peres, according to a statement from the president’s office. “Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan and we are interested in learning from your experience. As a nation that rose from dust, and as the few who fought the many, you have established a flourishing country that offers a future and economic prosperity to its children. I have come to see your success. Both Israel and South Sudan champion coexistence and peace. We have shared values. We have waged similar struggles and we will go hand-in-hand with Israel in order to strengthen and enhance bilateral strategic relations.”

“Israel has supported, and will continue to support, your country in all areas in order to strengthen and develop it. We know that you courageously and wisely struggled against all odds to establish your country and for us, the birth of South Sudan is a milestone in the history of the Middle East and in advancing the values of equality, freedom and striving for peace and good neighborly relations,” Peres told Kiir. He also presented Kiir with an antique menorah, in honor of the start of Chanukah.

Barak: No strike on Iran anytime soon


Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday an Israeli attack on Iran is not imminent but all options remain open to stop what Israel sees as an Iranian bid to develop nuclear weapons.

“We have no intention, at the moment, of taking action, but the State of Israel is far from being paralyzed by fear,” Barak told Israel Radio. “It must act calmly and quietly—we don’t need big wars.”

Iran says its nuclear energy program is wholly peaceful.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog, citing intelligence reports, said last month Iran appeared to have worked on designing an atom bomb and may still be pursuing secret research to that end.

Barak was interviewed a day after the top U.S. military officer said he did not know whether Israel would alert the United States ahead of time if it decided to strike Iran, the Jewish state’s arch-adversary in the Middle East.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also acknowledged differences in perspective between the United States and Israel over the best way to handle Iran and its nuclear program.

Dempsey said the United States was convinced that sanctions and diplomatic pressure were the right ways to take on Iran, along with “the stated intent not to take any options off the table”—diplomatic language that leaves open the possibility of future military action.

“I’m not sure the Israelis share our assessment of that. And because they don’t and because to them this is an existential threat, I think probably that it’s fair to say that our expectations are different right now,” Dempsey told Reuters.

Iran is facing new sanctions following the U.N. report.

In the radio interview, Barak said “Israel would be very glad if sanctions and diplomacy could bring the Iranian leadership to a clear decision to abandon its nuclear military program.”

But, “unfortunately, I think that is not going to happen.”

Asked about Dempsey’s remarks, Barak said Israel “greatly respects the United States” and maintained a continuous dialogue with its main ally on security issues.

“But one must remember that ultimately, Israel is a sovereign nation and the Israeli government, defense forces and security services—not others—are responsible for Israel’s security, future and existence,” Barak said.

“Certainly, a non-diplomatic option is the last option, and I think everyone agrees with the fact that all options are on the table,” the Israeli defense chief said.

Dempsey, asked directly whether Israel would alert the United States ahead of time if it chose to go forward with military action against Iran, replied flatly: “I don’t know.”

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta raised American concerns about the unintended consequences of any military action against Iran during talks with Barak at a security forum in Canada.

Those include U.S. fears about fallout on the world economy and that a strike would only delay—not derail—an Iranian nuclear program whose known sites are widely dispersed and fortified against attack.

The Islamic Republic has warned that it will respond to any attacks by hitting Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, and U.S. interests in the Gulf.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Netanyahu trying to persuade cabinet to support attack on Iran


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are trying to muster a majority in the cabinet in favor of military action against Iran, a senior Israeli official has said. According to the official, there is a “small advantage” in the cabinet for the opponents of such an attack.

Netanyahu and Barak recently persuaded Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who previously objected to attacking Iran, to support such a move.

Although more than a million Israelis have had to seek shelter during a week of rockets raining down on the south, political leaders have diverted their attention to arguing over a possible war with Iran. Leading ministers were publicly dropping hints on Tuesday that Israeli could attack Iran, although a member of the forum of eight senior ministers said no such decision had been taken.

Western intelligence officials agree that Iran is forging ahead with its nuclear program. Intelligence services now say it will take Iran two or three years to get the bomb once it decides to (it hasn’t made the decision yet ).

Netanyahu did not rule out the possibility of the need for a military action on Iran this week. During his Knesset address on Monday, Netanyahu warned of Iran’s increased power and influence. “One of those regional powers is Iran, which is continuing its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would constitute a grave threat to the Middle East and the entire world, and of course it is a direct and grave threat on us,” he said.

Barak said Israel should not be intimidated but did not rule out the possibility that Israel would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I object to intimidation and saying Israel could be destroyed by Iran,” he said.

“We’re not hiding our thoughts. However there are issues we don’t discuss in public … We have to act in every way possible and no options should be taken off the table … I believe diplomatic pressure and sanctions must be brought to bear against Iran,” he said.

Former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said he feared a “horror scenario” in which Netanyahu and Barak decide to attack Iran. He warned of a “rash act” and said he hoped “common sense will prevail.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Obama calls for keeping pressure on Iran


President Obama called for keeping up international pressure on Iran amid news reports that Israel may be preparing for war with the Islamic Republic.

The president’s comments, made Thursday at a joint news conference in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy, were delivered several days before the scheduled release of a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program.

“We had the opportunity also to talk about a range of security issues,” Obama said of his conversation with Sarkozy. “One in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

Obama added that “President Sarkozy and I agreed on the need to maintain the unprecedented international pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”

The comments came as the Israel Defense Forces held a drill in central Israel simulating missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israeli defense officials said the drills were scheduled months ago.

The Home Front Command drill Thursday was a simulation of a rocket attack on a civilian area. The drill included opening evacuation centers and handing out gas masks.

The drill was held following several days of reports in the Israeli media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Israeli Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman strenuously denied the reports in an interview Wednesday on Israel Radio.

Also Wednesday, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile from the Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. It is widely believed that Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Israel test-fires ballistic missile: Israel Radio


Israel test-fired a ballistic missile on Wednesday, Israel Radio said, amid a heightened public debate over the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel today carried out the test-firing of a rocket propulsion system from the Palmachim base (in central Israel),” a Defense Ministry statement said.

“This had been planned by the defense establishment a long time ago and has been carried out as scheduled.”

A Defense Ministry official declined to comment on the type of rocket tested. But Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent, who is regularly briefed by top officers on defense matters, said a ballistic missile was launched.

Israel, considered to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, successfully test-fired a two-stage, long-range ballistic missile in 2008.

It is widely believed to have Jericho missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, civilian “Shavit” rockets used to launch satellites and the Arrow missile interceptor.

The launch coincided with mounting speculation in Israel that its leaders could be preparing a military attack on Iran to curb a nuclear program they say is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful.

The public debate was sparked at the weekend when a newspaper commentator suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have decided, without seeking wider cabinet approval, to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

In a policy speech opening parliament’s winter session on Monday, Netanyahu again voiced his view that a nuclear Iran would pose a serious threat to Israel and to the world.

But he stopped short of making any direct threat of Israeli military action. Israel has said repeatedly that all options are on the table in trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche

Turkey suspends defense, trade ties with Israel


Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country has suspended defense industry ties with Israel and halted trade pending a decision on permanently suspending all trade.

“Trade ties, military ties, regarding defense industry ties, we are completely suspending them. This process will be followed by different measures,” Erdogan said Tuesday, according to news agencies.

Erdogan also said that Turkish Navy ships will have a heightened presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli diplomats who have not yet left Turkey have until Wednesday to do so, the prime minister said. Israel’s ambassador to Turkey had finished his term and had planned to return to Israel. No replacement had been named.

Erdogan also said that he may visit the Gaza Strip through Egypt after a visit to Cairo later this month, according to Reuters. 

Many of the sanctions already had been announced by Turkey’s foreign minister on Sept. 2, the day that the United Nations released the Palmer report, an investigation into Israel’s May 2010 boarding of the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara in which nine Turkish nationals were killed. The report found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is legal but that Israeli commandos used excessive force in confronting the passengers.

Israel has refused to apologize for the raid but has expressed “regret” for the deaths.

“Trade ties, military ties, regarding defense industry ties, we are completely suspending them. This process will be followed by different measures,” Erdogan said Tuesday, according to news agencies.

Erdogan also said that Turkish Navy ships will have a heightened presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Israeli diplomats who have not yet left Turkey have until Wednesday to do so, the prime minister said. Israel’s ambassador to Turkey had finished his term and had planned to return to Israel. No replacement had been named.

Erdogan also said that he may visit the Gaza Strip through Egypt after a visit to Cairo later this month, according to Reuters. 

Many of the sanctions already had been announced by Turkey’s foreign minister on Sept. 2, the day that the United Nations released the Palmer report, an investigation into Israel’s May 2010 boarding of the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara in which nine Turkish nationals were killed. The report found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is legal but that Israeli commandos used excessive force in confronting the passengers.

Israel has refused to apologize for the raid but has expressed “regret” for the deaths.

Ehud Barak: Final status talks within months


After meeting with U.S. leaders, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that comprehensive talks with the Palestinians on all final status issues would begin within months.

“We will have a serious discussion in coming months on security, borders, Jerusalem and refugees,” Barak told reporters Monday, ending a visit in which he met with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others.

Clinton, in an address Dec. 10 at the Saban Forum, urged the sides to address those core issues, just days after the United States abandoned its efforts to renew direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians walked out of the talks in October after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial settlement freeze.

Barak did not say how the talks would proceed, if not directly.

“The mechanics will be resolved in the coming weeks,” he said. Netanyahu has insisted on direct talks, and has preferred to focus only on borders and security for now.

Barak also dismissed the controversy subsequent to his remarks at the Saban Forum following Clinton’s address in which he said a final status plan would include a Jerusalem shared with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials within hours said that Barak’s position was not that of the government’s.

Speaking to reporters, Barak acknowledged as such, saying it was his personal view that Jerusalem is necessarily a topic to be considered in talks.

Netanyahu Made an Offer Barak Couldn’t Refuse


From Haaretz.com

There is no debate over two of the achievements of the Labor-Likud coalition agreement that was initialed on Tuesday morning: It was reached after negotiations unprecedented in their brevity – taking less than 24 hours – and it grants Labor a scandalous package of positions for its mere 13 Knesset seats, almost out of generosity. The deal gives the party five cabinet posts, including two of the most senior – Defense Minister and Trade and Industry Minister – and another two deputy ministerial positions.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s package of temptation for Labor was so bountiful that it is not clear whether the party will have enough people to man all the positions. Labor chairman Ehud Barak’s camp, as of Tuesday morning, consisted of Ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon, Isaac Herzog and deputy ministers Matan Vilnai and Orit Noked. Vilnai will be upgraded to minister without portfolio and Noked will serve as a deputy minister.  Click here to read the rest of the article on Haaretz.com.

LABOR JOINING BIBI: Kosher Stamp or Fig Leaf?


Depending on one’s interpretation, Labor’s decision to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition grants Israel’s incoming government either a kosher seal of approval or a fig leaf to disguise a right-wing agenda.

Either way, Labor’s move will make Netanyahu Israel’s next prime minister.

After a contentious meeting of the Labor Central Committee on Tuesday, members voted 680-570 to join the coalition, which already includes the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties. The vote provides Netanyahu the Knesset majority he needs to form a new government.

Labor’s decision has important implications for the country and the party.

Arguing in favor of joining the government, Labor leader Ehud Barak told party members that Labor’s participation in the coalition was necessary to counteract right-wing forces, ensure that Israel remains committed to the peace process and help the country face uniquely grave threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

“We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel,” Barak told the Central Committee. “We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

In exchange for Labor joining the coalition, Netanyahu agreed to commit the government to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, the pursuit of regional peace and enforcement of the law when it comes to illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank. The deal also allows Barak to stay on as defense minister and makes him a full partner in the diplomatic process.

For Barak—and perhaps for many of Israel’s international partners—the Netanyahu-led government is now palatable.

For Netanyahu, the partnership with Labor, historically a center-left party, burnishes the image of an incoming government that until Tuesday risked being comprised solely of right-wing and religious parties. While such a government would have been a welcome change in some corners of Israel, it likely would have been ill received by Israel’s allies overseas.

Some European officials already had expressed public misgivings about Netanyahu’s coalition, especially the prominence of controversial Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was promised the portfolio of foreign minister. While the Obama administration was careful publicly to maintain a neutral stance on the composition of Israel’s government, Israeli observers have predicted that a right-wing coalition would be on a collision course with Washington.

Netanyahu himself expressed a preference for avoiding a narrow coalition even before the Feb. 10 vote, which saw significant gains for Israel’s right wing. All along the Likud leader said he’d like to see a national unity government comprised of his party, Labor and the current ruling party, Kadima—and led by him. Like Barak, Netanyahu says the seriousness of the threats Israel is facing mandates a strong, stable government.

Critics, including some in Labor who spoke out before the committee vote Tuesday, say what Netanyahu really seeks is diplomatic cover to pursue a right-wing agenda.

“We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that,” Labor Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before Tuesday’s vote. “There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor.”

Following Tuesday’s vote, the “honor” appeared to be reserved for Kadima. Despite Netanyahu’s entreaties, the party has refused to join the coalition. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said she would not join the new government unless Netanyahu committed to the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agreed to a rotating premiership that would make her prime minister for two years.

By staying in the opposition Livni—whose party captured 28 seats in the Feb. 10 vote, one more than Likud—believes she will be able to solidify Kadima’s position as an alternative to the Likud-led government.

Livni is betting that Netanyahu will run into trouble—with allies abroad, if he pursues a right-wing agenda, or within his own government, if he follows policies that anger his right-wing partners. That, she figures, would set the stage for Kadima to lead the next government.

Livni’s critics say she is putting party before country at a time when Israel can ill afford an unstable government. Iran is pushing forward with its nuclear program, Hezbollah in Lebanon now has missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Hamas in Gaza continues to fire rockets deeper and deeper into Israeli territory.

With Barak, the opposite is true. He can claim he is putting country before party by helping Israel’s government deal with these threats and mitigating any right-wing tendencies, but the upshot may be the collapse of the Labor Party.

Labor and its predecessor, Mapai, dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, leading every government from 1948 to 1977. Though its representation in the Knesset suffered somewhat in ensuing elections, Labor remained the voice of the center-left until 2005, when Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party.

Kadima’s establishment pulled supporters from Labor, and in last month’s national election Labor fell to an all-time low of fourth place, capturing just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

While Labor’s decision to join Netanyahu’s coalition gives Barak a personal boost—keeping him in the important post of defense minister—it erodes Labor’s place in Israel’s political spectrum as the party of the center-left.

Kadima arguably can now claim that mantle. If Netanyahu succeeds, Likud will gain rather than Labor. And if Netanyahu fails, Kadima stands to gain, not Labor.

For a related story, click here.

Who will succeed Olmert?


Though the political jockeying to succeed Ehud Olmert began long before his announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election, the prime minister’s would-be successors face a tenuous political landscape.

In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office as a lame duck until his Kadima Party elects a new leader—either Sept. 17, when the primary is held, or a week later, when a runoff, if necessary, takes place.

Olmert then will tender his resignation to Israel’s president; however, by law Olmert will remain prime minister until Kadima’s new leader assembles a coalition government. Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections—for the Knesset and for prime minister. Otherwise, the next general elections are scheduled for 2010.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders to win the Kadima primary, but it’s not clear how long either of them—or anyone else in Kadima—would last as prime minister.

Livni, the Olmert administration’s lead negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, is widely perceived as free of the corruption problems that have plagued other members of Olmert’s Cabinet. But her limited national security experience at a time when Israel faces the crucial question of whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is seen as a significant weakness.

Mofaz, conversely, as a former defense minister and former army chief of staff, has substantial security experience. He is the Olmert administration’s point man on strategic negotiations with the United States, which have been focused on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

But Mofaz is seen as an uncharismatic politician, and he hasn’t been able to close the gap in polls against his rivals in Kadima nor other parties. Were he to win, the Iranian-born Mofaz would be Israel’s first non-Ashkenazi prime minister.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter is also likely to run for the leadership of Kadima, but trails both Mofaz and Livni in party polls.

Regardless of who emerges as the winner to succeed Olmert, new general elections for prime minister—and, by extension, the entire Knesset—may not be far away.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads the Labor Party, could trigger new general elections by pulling Labor out of the governing coalition. He has threatened to make that move before and repeatedly has called on Olmert to resign, but low popularity ratings have kept him from bolting the government. Barak, a former prime minister, has attributed his staying to Israel’s security needs.

Were Barak to pull out and the coalition to fall apart, Labor likely would lose Knesset seats in the general election to Likud, whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to win the next general election.

That likelihood may be enough to keep Labor in the government, extending the term of Olmert’s successor.

Notably, Olmert chose to announce his resignation when Barak, Livni and Mofaz all were out of the country. Livni was in Washington meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Barak was on a plane from the United States on his way back to Israel, and Mofaz was in New York on his way to Washington.

Olmert said Wednesday that he would not mettle in the Kadima primary and that he wants to engender a respectful and fair political transition.

In any case, by leaving the political stage in this way, Olmert is able to give his Kadima successor the incumbency advantage in the next general election whether it comes in the next few months or in 2010, as scheduled.

It also means that only Kadima members, and not the general electorate, will have a say in who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.

This will be the first primary for Kadima, which was founded in late 2005 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. Olmert became Kadima’s leader by default after Sharon’s debilitating stroke in January 2006 left the one-time Jerusalem mayor in charge of the party and the country.

Politics aside, another scenario that may extend the term of Olmert’s successor would be the approach of a make-it-or-break-it juncture for Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program is seen as on the cusp of bomb-making capability, Israel’s political parties might coalesce around a national unity government and respond with force to the threat.

Netanyahu already has said he would try to form such a government, and Mofaz has warned several times in recent weeks that an eventual Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is inevitable.

Now that Obama is in Israel, what should we expect?


Latest:

Barack Obama arrived in Israel and stressed the historic ties between the United States and the Jewish state.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is on a Middle East and European tour aimed at shoring up his foreign policy credentials.

“I want input and insight from Israeli leaders about how they see the current situation,” Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, said Tuesday night at Ben Gurion International Airport. “I’ll share some of my ideas. The most important idea for me to reaffirm is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel, one that cannot be broken and one that I have reaffirmed throughout my career.”

Obama will meet Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Earlier Tuesday in Jordan, Obama said as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters in Amman before heading to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace,” Obama said.

“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Obama was careful to point out that peace would not come about overnight and that a U.S. president could not “suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace.”



NEW YORK (JTA)—It’s not quite as big a stage as the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, but plenty of pundits and Jewish observers will be paying attention Wednesday as Barack Obama visits Israel (the first half of the sentence was a joke … I think).

Obama spoke at the AIPAC parley back in early June, the morning after the final Democratic primaries came to a close and most everyone in the country (except Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton and a few loyalists) had recognized him as the party’s presumptive nominee.

That speech was supposed to be the final word—it was going to put to rest any doubts among Jewish voters about Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. And not a moment too soon, with hawkish Jewish Democrats starting to think about their options in the fall and a Gallup poll showing Obama winning a bit more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in a hypothetical matchup in the general election against John McCain—five points worse than Clinton and about 15 points below John Kerry’s numbers in 2004.

To be sure, judging from the applause, the AIPAC speech was well received by the 5,000-plus in attendance, but the subsequent flap over Obama’s call for a “united Jerusalem”—culminating with one aide saying Obama had misused the term and the candidate himself blaming “poor phrasing”—took some wind out of Team Obama’s sails. It also raised some legitimate questions about whether the campaign was ready to handle the prime-time balancing act required in navigating the domestic and international politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So here we go again: Now the Obama campaign is facing yet another key moment with Jewish voters. And again it comes on the heels of a poll—this one commissioned by J Street, the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group—showing Obama stuck at about 60 percent.

With that in mind, here are a few things to watch during Obama’s day in Israel and the West Bank, which is scheduled to include visits with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.

MESSAGE: The challenge is for Obama to reassure AIPAC types about his commitment to Israel’s security, without angering his base, which sees the Democratic nominee as someone willing to break from President Bush’s neocon foreign policy. Already feeling testy following Obama’s vote in favor of the FISA bill, many of his most enthusiastic supporters will not take well to an AIPAC-sounding Obama in Israel.

So does Obama focus on the need for an end to Palestinian violence? Israeli settlements and restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank? The goal of achieving a Palestinian state? Will Obama and his advisers be sure to avoid additional poor phrasings?

JERUSALEM: Representatives of Orthodox and right-wing organizations are holding a press conference and a rally in Jerusalem Tuesday night, during which organizers say they will ask for clarification on Obama’s views on Jerusalem. Organizers say they were spooked by Obama’s comment to Fareed Zakaria that the Clinton parameters from 2000—which included the idea of assigning the Israelis and the Palestinians control over different parts of Jerusalem—“provides a starting point for discussions between the parties.” Obama did go on to stress that the “parties are going to have to negotiate these issues on their own, with the strong engagement of the United States.” The “let the parties decide” position puts him in the same boat as McCain, but if Obama sticks to the idea that Clinton’s proposal is a good starting point, then he can expect some pushback from some Jewish and Israeli corners.

DENNIS ROSS: The Republican Jewish Coalition took aim at Obama when it mistakenly thought that he was bringing Chuck Hagel with him to Israel, noting that Joe Lieberman was McCain’s wing man during his trip in May to the Jewish state.

Well, as Time noted, Obama is bringing Dennis Ross with him to Israel. In Ross, Obama has a tour guide with more hands-on experience in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders than Lieberman, and possibly commands more respect across a wider range of the political spectrum. Ross is a longtime proponent of an active U.S. peacemaking role with ties to the think tank most associated with AIPAC and has logged time as a commentator for FOX News (and unlike the liberals who get brought on to serve as a punching bag, Ross is often on by himself, and the hosts seem to listen to him).

The Jewish Agency for Israel tapped Ross to chair its think tank about the future of the Jewish people. In short, it’s hard to imagine a better person for Obama to hang out with in Israel if the goal is to say, “Yeah, I’m for a two-state solution—but relax, I come to it from the pro-Israel perspective, not the Mearsheimer-Walt worldview.”

MAHMOUD ABBAS and SALAAM FAYYAD: The meetings with Palestinian leaders could prove to be the most challenging part of the trip, at least politically. Never mind that Bush has repeatedly made clear that Abbas and Fayyad are his guys, or that McCain says he shares the president’s positive view of them—conservatives will be waiting to pounce on any word or image suggesting that Obama is at home with Palestinians.

At the same time Obama, like Bush and McCain, believes the U.S. should be doing whatever it can to help Fatah in its struggle with Hamas. So how does he manage to signal strong support for Abbas and Fayyad without providing too much ammo to Republican Jewish Coalition and the right-wing blogosphere. Another wrinkle: The Abbas meeting comes amid reports that the P.A. leader reportedly congratulated Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar on his release from an Israeli prison. (It doesn’t help Obama in some circles that McCain passed on meetings with Palestinian leaders during his May trip, though he made a point of praising Abbas.)

EHUD OLMERT: Last year, the Israeli prime minister ruffled some Democratic feathers at the AIPAC conference by overtly siding with Bush on the Iraq war. During his speech at this year’s gathering, he made several on-the-fly departures from his prepared text, all seemingly aimed at striking a more bipartisan tone than he did the year before.

With Obama ahead in the polls, and Israel in need of U.S. leadership on Iran, will Olmert continue to do a better job of hedging his (and by extension his country’s) bets? The Democratic candidate doesn’t need Olmert to undercut Bush and McCain, as the Iraqi prime minister did Tuesday by essentially endorsing Obama’s idea of a timetable for a withdrawal of American troops. Just a decent photo op without any grumblings about Obama from unnamed sources in the Prime Minister’s Office could provide a boost.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Bibi, the Likud opposition leader, has never been shy about making common cause with neocons and Christian conservatives (ask Bill Clinton). And Obama has objected to the “strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”

Netanyahu and Obama are a sharp contrast in styles and worldviews. Polls suggest that come next year they will be leading their respective countries, so now would be a good time to start playing nice—or to start positioning for the upper hand in what could prove to be a bumpy relationship.