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.

Jewish settlers to move into contested Hebron building


Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has reportedly ordered authorities to allow the Jewish owners of a building in Hebron to move into it.

According to Haaretz, Barak on Thursday ordered the Civil Administration — a military body responsible for civilian matters in Israeli-controlled West Bank territory — to transfer the eastern Hebron building known locally as “the brown house” over to its Jewish owners in accordance with a court ruling last month.

The Jerusalem District Court ruled that the building’s Jewish owners had legally purchased the building from Palestinians.

The building’s owners bought the building in 2004 from its previous Palestinian owners, Faiz Rajbi and Abed Elkader, through an Arab middleman for about $500,000, Haaretz reported. However, in 2007 Rajbi changed his mind about selling. The settlers then filed to have the Rajbis evicted.

According to the Haaretz report, the Civil Administration prevented the Jewish owners from moving in until the case was settled in court.

Army Radio reported on Friday that leaders of the Jewish settlers in Hebron were preparing to move several Jewish families into the building within weeks or even days.

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.

Barak orders haredi Orthodox conscription


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to draft haredi Orthodox men as it does other Jewish Israelis.

Barak has allowed a month for officials to formulate regulations on haredi conscription, according to reports.

The order came as the Tal Law, which allowed haredi men to defer army service, expired on Wednesday. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the law in February.

Israeli law mandates that Jewish Israelis enter the army at age 18. Some Israelis legally defer army service for a year or more to study and prepare for the army. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army.

Since the Tal Law was overturned, the debate over Israel’s mandatory conscription has been at the center of the country’s political discourse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a unity government in May with the centrist Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, to draft new legislation on mandatory service that would address haredi and Arab youth, but Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz quit the coalition in July after failing to reach an agreement with Netanyahu.

Israel: Syria Government Still in Control of Chemical Weapons


The Syrian government is still in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, a senior Israeli defense official said on Tuesday.

Israel’s foreign minister warned separately that the Jewish state would act decisively if Syria handed over any chemical or biological weapons to its Hezbollah enemies.

“The worry, of course, is that the regime will destabilize and the control will also destabilize,” the defense official, Amos Gilad, told Israel Radio.

But he added: “At the moment, the entire non-conventional weapons system is under the full control of the regime.”

Western countries and Israel have voiced fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erodes.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said Israel would consider military action to ensure those weapons did not reach Assad’s Hezbollah guerrilla allies in Lebanon. Israel says Hezbollah has some 70,000 rockets in its arsenal.

But Israel appeared to harden its line on non-conventional weapons reaching Hezbollah when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday that decisive action would have be taken against such a move.

“The moment we see Syrians transfer chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah this is a red line for us. And from our point of view it is a clear casus belli. We will act decisively and without hesitation or restraint,” Lieberman said.

On Monday, Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign nations intervened in the 16-month-old uprising against Assad’s rule.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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.”

Iranian national believed responsible for Thai blasts


Bombs that exploded in a Bangkok house being shared by an Iranian national were being prepared for a large-scale attack against an Israeli target, unnamed Israeli officials are quoted as saying.

The unnamed officials made their remarks to the Israel media on Tuesday.

The Iranian national, who shared the home in a residential neighborhood of the Thailand capital with two other non-Thais, was seriously injured by a bomb he was carrying shortly after the house exploded Tuesday morning. He had thrown a hand grenade at police as they pursued him following the home explosion, but did not throw it far enough and was caught in the blast, which tore off his legs, according to reports.

At least four Thai citizens also were injured in the blasts, which occurred several blocks from the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.

The explosions came a day after Israeli diplomats were targeted by bombs in New Delhi and Tbilisi; the India blast injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat. Israel has blamed the attacks on Iran.

“The attempted attack in Bangkok proves once again that Iran and its proxies are continuing to perpetrate terrorism,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement from Singapore. “The recent attacks are yet another example of this.”

Barak, who spent a few hours in Bangkok on Sunday, also said that “Iran and Hezbollah are elements of unrelenting terrorism and are endangering the stability not only of the region but of the entire world.”

Last month, 400 boxes of bomb-making material were found hidden in boxes for electric fans in a shop near Bangkok. Police learned of the cache from a Lebanese man arrested Jan. 13 who was alleged to be working with Hezbollah to plan a bombing attack. He told Thai police that the material was to be smuggled out of Thailand and used in an attack in another country.

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.

Obama to meet with Ehud Barak


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with President Obama on Friday morning, according to sources.

The meeting will come shortly before President Obama’s address Friday afternoon to the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which is being held in nearby National Harbor, Md.

In an address Thursday night to the organization, Barak said it’s important not to remove any option from the table when it comes to Iran. Barak also praised Obama for opposing Iran’s quest for nuclear capability and said U.S.-Israel defense cooperation is stronger than ever.

“The unshakable bonds between Israel and America and their respective defense establishments under the guiding hand of President Barack Obama are stronger and deeper than ever and we are very thankful and appreciative of that,” he said.

Barak also alluded to the controversy over proposed Knesset bills that critics say would undermine Israeli democracy by targeting certain NGOs and minority groups.

“Homefront peace includes the maintenance of our liberal democracy where the rule of the majority will never be at the expense of the rights of the minority,” Barak said.

“I will stand rock solid against any attempt to curb freedoms or undermine our democracy,” he said. “The only Jewish democratic state in the world must remain exactly that, a Jewish and a democratic state.”

He also said American Jews should not shy away from expressing their opinions about internal Israeli matters. “Your presence and voice is essential to our decision-making. It gives us all one more perspective,” Barak said. “We welcome the debate and highly value your input in our internal debate in Israel.”

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

Iran: Explosion occurred during research on weapons that could strike Israel


A massive explosion that killed 17 troops including an officer regarded as the architect of Iran’s missile defenses last week took place during research on weapons that could strike Israel, the Islamic Republic’s military chief said on Wednesday.

Iran has insisted the blast at a military base on Saturday, which rattled window and nerves in parts of the capital Tehran 45 km (28 miles) away, was an accident and denied speculation of possible sabotage by Israel or the United States.

“This recent incident and blast has no link to Israel or America but the outcome of the research, in which the incident happened as a consequence, could be a strong smack to the mouth of Israel and its occupying regime,” armed forces chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA.

Asked on Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday about the scope of damage from the blast, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he did not know, but added: “May there be more like it.” There was no indication that the explosion was a deliberate attack.

Iranian officials had previously said the accident happened while munitions were being moved at the base, without linking it directly to weapons research.

Brigadier General Hassan Moqaddam, hailed as the founder of Iran’s missile program, was the most senior casualty.

Iran already has missiles, the Shahab-3, first tested in 1998, that it says could reach Israel, which has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites if diplomacy and pressure fail to stop it getting the bomb.

Iran denies its nuclear work is aimed at developing atomic weapons but doubts about that were reinforced by a report published by the United Nations nuclear agency last week, a few days before the explosion.

The U.N. report further strained Iran’s relations with the West and the Iranian parliament is debating ending cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a prospect that Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sought to play down.

“Our response to this report is the one of patience and vigilance,” Salehi told state broadcaster IRIB on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting.

“Westerners like to push us toward a hasty reaction and they like to hear that Iran says it would withdraw from the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).”

Salehi said Iran would soon send a detailed and analytical rebuttal of the concerns raised in the report, which he called “unstudied and unjust.”

He also said Iran remained open to resuming the talks with world powers concerned about its nuclear program that stalled in January, and that he had presented a counter-proposal to Russia about how those talks might be structured.

“We presented another proposal and informed the Russian officials of that proposal and all our efforts are to find a way out of the faked nuclear issue,” he said.

Russia has sought to revive he talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany (P5+1) that stalled in January.

Reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; 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.

Teen injured critically when Gaza rocket hits bus, Israel retaliates


An Israeli teen was critically injured when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the school bus in which he was riding.

The driver of the bus, which had dropped off all the schoolchildren except for the injured teen, also was wounded by shrapnel in Thursday afternoon’s attack, Haaretz reported.

It is unclear whether the bus, traveling near Kibbutz Sa’ad, located next to the Gaza border, was struck by a mortar or an anti-tank missile.

The teen, who was resuscitated at the site of the attack, was airlifted to a hospital in Beersheba.

A barrage of 16 rockets and mortars struck southern Israel following the bus attack. Roads near the area of the attack were closed to prevent further injury, according to reports.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered an immediate retaliation for the attack. The Israel Defense Forces reportedly launched an attack on targets east of Gaza City less than an hour later, killing one and wounding five, according to Palestinian officials, Ynet reported.

A statement issued from Barak’s office said he ordered the strike on a Hamas target in Gaza because “he holds Hamas responsible for all terrorist attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip.” No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Earlier Thursday, Israeli airstrikes hit two smuggling tunnels in northern Gaza.

On Tuesday, Israeli tanks killed an armed Palestinian as he approached the border between Gaza and Israel at the same time that three mortar bombs exploded in southern Israel.

Barak’s new faction receives ministerial positions


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the four other lawmakers that split from the Labor Party will remain in the government with ministerial positions.

The Labor lawmakers who joined Barak in forming a new faction on Monday are Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon; Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai; Deputy Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Orit Noked; and freshman Knesset member Einat Wilf.

The new ministerial positions were announced Tuesday.

The new party is expected to be called Atzmaut, or Independence.

“We are creating a faction, a movement and eventually a party that will be centrist, Zionist and democratic,” Barak told reporters Monday.

Following Barak’s split with the party, three Labor government ministers announced that they would leave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government coalition: Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog; Minister for Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman; and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Barak’s exit from the Labor Party was facilitated by Netanyahu and his officials, several Israeli media outlets charged, citing unnamed sources.

Netanyahu began negotiations Monday to keep the new faction in his government, allowing him to maintain a parliamentary majority, of 66 out of 120, despite the exit of other Labor ministers from the government. Barak will keep his job.

It is not clear who will succeed Barak as chairman of the Labor Party.

Several Labor lawmakers in recent weeks have threatened to quit the coalition over the lack of progress in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, called on Netanyahu to call for new elections, saying that “The Netanyahu government lost its legitimacy today and is living off small political maneuvers. The only way for political opportunism is elections, and Kadima is reiterating its call for elections.”

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.

Barak, Obama’s favored warrior, assumes diplomatic posture


Fifteen years after Ehud Barak walked into politics wearing the warrior’s mantle, he is easing into the diplomat’s lapels.

The former military chief of staff, whose 1999-2001 premiership was dogged by his reputation as cerebral and remote, in his current role as defense minister is emerging as the Netanyahu government’s most accessible and conciliatory figure, according to watchers of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“There’s no doubt that Barak has emerged as a de facto go-to person at a time that some of the other bilateral relationships have proven to be contentious,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is close to some of the Obama administration’s top Middle East policy figures. “We know about the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. Barak has proven the one channel who has proven most durable. He’s viewed in this administration as a moderating force.”

Barak’s visit to Washington last week could not have contrasted more starkly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip here in late March.

Netanyahu couldn’t get a photo op with his counterpart, President Obama; Barak received a red carpet and a Pentagon honor guard from his counterpart, Robert Gates. Netanyahu practically had to bang down the White House door to get some Obama face time; the president “popped in” on a meeting between Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones and stayed for 40 minutes.

For the Obama administration, the former warrior Barak is the favored diplomat and the former diplomat Netanyahu is the suspect street fighter.

The warm words for Barak are a matter in part of timing: Barak’s visit came after the administration launched a charm offensive on Israel and the Jewish organizational leadership to reverse the bad feelings arising from the smackdown of Netanyahu over what the administration saw as his humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden during an early March visit when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem.

But it is clear, too, that the Obama officials simply like Barak much better than Netanyahu. Dennis Ross, who now runs Iran policy for the White House, wrote in “The Missing Peace,” his 2004 account of his Clinton-era peace brokering, that Barak “did not play games or tricks,” clearly a relief after three years of Netanyahu, whom he called a “leader who had two legs walking in different directions.” Ross, in his rare public moments, jokes that the White House will not permit him to discuss his books.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shared the stage with Barak at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Washington conference last week and appeared genuinely pleased to embrace “my longtime friend Ehud Barak, who has had nearly as many incarnations in public service as I have.”

Clinton continued in terms that one might ascribe to a loving, faithful partner.

“Ehud and I had a wonderful meeting the other day here in Washington and covered a lot of ground,” she said. “And as friends do, much was said and much didn’t need to be said. So I’m delighted that he is here with us as well.”

Barak returned the love, making clear that as far as he was concerned, the bad blood was gone.

“These differences, the slight disagreements, are behind us,” he told the AJC.

Again, the contrast: Clinton’s last major interaction with Netanyahu was a 43-minute March 12 dressing-down over the phone in which she made clear that the Jerusalem announcement was an “insult.”

Some Jewish leaders are leery of appearances of favoritism and wonder whether the Obama administration is replaying Bill Clinton presidency tactics of making it clear to the Israeli electorate which leader it prefers; President Clinton’s icy relationship with Netanyahu then helped Barak win the 1999 elections.

“The Obama administration would like to dump Netanyahu,” said Tom Neumann, who directs the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “They’d much rather deal with Ehud Barak or” opposition leader “Tzipi Livni because they’re not so hawkish.”

If that’s the strategy it might backfire, warned Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director.

“They need to deal with it very carefully,” he said. “If they overplay it, they will undermine the role that Barak plays. You can’t fix insulting the prime minister by being nice to his defense minister.”

Israelis are not as likely this time around to perceive such favoritism as meddling, if only because Barak’s chances of becoming prime minister again are virtually nil. His Labor Party won only 13 seats in the 2009 elections, making it the fourth-largest bloc in the Knesset, and he can barely control his own caucus, which chafes at its association with an otherwise rightist government.

In fact, the abandonment of higher ambitions—at least for now—may have helped liberate Barak from the constraints that kept him from effective diplomacy in the past.

The notion of favoritism “doesn’t apply to this government, he’s not the leader of anything,” said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations who advised Barak when he was prime minister. “He’s not a politically heavyweight person, but he’s serious” as Netanyahu’s partner in shaping policy. “If the politics are absent, it allows you to do that. He’s liberated by not having a political future.”

Barak, 68, appears as energetic as ever. On a recent Washington visit he defied a flashing red pedestrian traffic signal, striding confidently across Connecticut Avenue while security agents and aides half his age trotted to keep up with him.

If Barak indeed has given up his ambitions for winning back the leadership, he appears unbothered by it—a sharp change from what some saw as his unfettered ambition in the 1990s, when Barak alienated colleagues by cutting them off.

Then he was much more warrior than diplomat. One of his first Cabinet votes when he joined the Rabin government in 1995 was against the second component of the Oslo accords; he never overcame his distrust for Yasser Arafat. While Arafat’s intransigence is seen as mostly to blame for the failed 2000 Camp David talks, it did not help that Barak refused to personally meet with the Palestinian leader.

Barak and Netanyahu, 60, work closely and well together, say those who know them. Their alliance sustains the prophecy of a front-page story in the supplement to the now defunct Hadashot newspaper in 1986.

“Within 10 years, one of these men will be prime minister,” the paper said, a bold prediction considering their relatively low positions: Netanyahu was U.N. ambassador, Barak headed the Central Command.

Yet within a decade, Netanyahu indeed was prime minister—and Barak would take the job from him.

Now their positions are reversed: Barak, the nation’s most decorated soldier, who commanded Netanyahu in the successful 1972 raid on a hijacked airliner, defers to Netanyahu in public and private. Barak repeatedly describes Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution last summer as courageous. In meetings Barak eyes Netanyahu, waiting until he is sure that the prime minister has made his point before adding his insights.

It is also true, though, that Barak pushes the dovish agenda more than any other Cabinet minister. Netanyahu may have embraced the possibility of two states, but it is only Barak who repeatedly invokes what he sees as the doomsday alternative. Continued control of the West Bank will mean Israel “will become inevitably either not Jewish or not democratic,” he told the AJC, invoking the specter of intractably intertwined enemies in Belfast and Bosnia. “Neither is the Zionist dream.”

Barak has pushed for Israel to launch a major peace initiative. He also gently reminds Netanyahu of the potential benefits of peace.

In recent meetings, when Netanyahu would defiantly announce that he had rebuffed a Syrian overture to resume Turkish-brokered peace talks with the precondition that Israel ultimately would return the whole of the Golan Heights, Barak would add that Israel sees peeling away Syria from Iranian influence as a long-term strategic goal.

The Labor Party leader is clearly frustrated by the absence of others left of center in the government. Barak would like stronger support from his own party, and wants Livni to come in to balance—or even drive out—the far rightists. Barak likens the government to one of national unity, but with a limping left leg. And he tells an old army joke to describe his feelings about leftists who won’t support him in supporting Netanyahu: The young soldier who fails the pilot course is asked where he wants to transfer. “Anti-aircraft,” he says. His officer is surprised—the young man has promise, why would he select such grunt status? “Because if I can’t fly, I’m going to make sure no one can.”

Other factors promoting Barak’s centrality to the process include the absence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman from any serious role in the U.S.-Israel relationship while he beats back a major corruption investigation; the centrality of Israel’s defense strategies in framing its foreign policies; and the fact that the defense aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship has emerged as stronger despite the tensions in other areas.

U.S. and Israeli officials repeatedly note that the military relationship has gone from strength to strength, with increased intelligence sharing, joint maneuvers and cooperation on developing anti-missile systems.

Defense News reported Monday that Israel was upgrading its fighter jets with U.S.-manufactured “bunker duster” systems, precision-guided weapons that can penetrate reinforced concrete—a facility that would be key to any strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites.

The officials especially emphasize the closeness as it pertains to the suspected Iranian nuclear threat. Iran and its backing, through Syria, of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was a focus of a rare joint Pentagon news conference Gates hosted with Barak last week.

“Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability,” Gates said. “And we are at a point now when Hezbollah—where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world. And this is obviously destabilizing for the whole region, and so we’re watching it very carefully.”

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Makovsky said the security relationship is closer than ever.

“You have to be an air traffic controller,” he said, “to keep up with the number of high-level visits between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran.”

And Barak, more than anyone else, appears to be benefiting most from the diplomatic frequent flier points.

Obama to Barak: U.S. committed to Israel’s security


President Obama told Israel’s defense minister that the United States is committed to Israel’s security.

Obama spoke with Ehud Barak at the White House, where the defense minister had arrived on Monday to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones.

Obama also told Barak that he is determined to bring about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Also Monday, Jones apologized for telling an off-color Jewish joke last week during a 25th anniversary celebration for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The joke told the story of a Jewish merchant who had tricked a Taliban terrorist searching for water into buying a tie.

“I wish that I had not made this off-the-cuff joke at the top of my remarks,” Jones said.

“It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: That the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”

Barak asks court to delay outpost home demolition


Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked the Israeli Supreme Court to delay discussion on the demolition of homes in a West Bank outpost.

Barak, in a letter sent Wednesday to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish, pointed out that Maj. Eliraz Peretz, who was killed in a confrontation on the Gaza border last month, was a resident of the Givat Hayovel outpost near the Eli settlement.

Peretz, his wife and four children were neighbors of Maj. Roi Klein, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War after jumping on a grenade to save his platoon. The families of the soldiers still live in their homes at the outpost.

“The shock and tragedy which hit this small community require a sensitive and humane treatment of the house demolition issue,” Barak wrote. “Dealing with the demolition dates at this time should be postponed to a later date.”

Also Wednesday, army Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi placed an Israeli flag on Peretz’s grave ahead of the national observance of Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers.

Peretz’s grave was chosen since he is Israel’s most recently fallen soldier.

Ashkenazi said that Peretz “always led from the front and fell first in line. The loving father and husband, the bereaved brother who chose to walk the path of his sibling Uriel, may he rest in peace, and who kept to his brother’s values—the values of Zionism, service in the IDF, camaraderie and faith—and who was buried, sadly, next to his brother.” Uriel Peretz was killed in Lebanon in the 1990s.

Peace Now, which had appealed to the court to demolish the outpost’s homes, reportedly also plans to ask the court to delay an order on the homes’ demolitions, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Ehud Barak: Settlement freeze is a national necessity


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday called a freeze in West Bank settlements a ‘national necessity,’ a day after he approved building permits for nearly 500 new housing units in six separate blocs.

“We extent our hand in peace to all of our neighbors,” Barak said during a toast held to mark the upcoming Jewish New Year, adding that he hopes Israel, the Palestinians and the international community “realize that the time has come and we must not miss this opportunity.”

Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Barak to Settler Leaders: Evacuate Outposts


Some 23 unauthorized outposts will be evacuated, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told settler leaders. Barak met with leaders of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria Monday at the main Israeli army base in Tel Aviv.

He said the outposts, which the governments of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu have said should be evacuated, will be emptied.

“A law-abiding state cannot accept a situation in which every person does what he wants,” Barak told settler leaders during the 90-minute meeting, which he called. Asked by the leaders to end the de facto construction freeze in the West Bank, Barak said construction in the settlements had slowed, according to Ynet, which quoted settler leaders.

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.

Analysis: New Hamas Gaza rocket attacks pose dilemma for Israel


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The renewal of intense Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilian areas has put Israelis in a somber mood during the usually festive week of Chanukah.

The new fighting erupted Friday — the day a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel expired and the Islamist group declared it would not renew.

Since then, Hamas has allowed Islamic Jihad militants to bombard Israelis in the towns near the Gaza Strip, including Sderot. The barrages slowed down only on Monday, when Hamas announced that Palestinian factions in the strip were observing a 24-hour lull requested by Egyptian mediators.

Israeli officials are calling for sharp retaliation. The Israeli Cabinet already has voted to hit back, leaving the timing and scope of the nation’s response to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The rocket attacks are a reminder of the Israeli government’s inability to resolve the Gaza problem. Coming in the midst of an election campaign, the deterioration of the situation around Gaza has prompted many Israelis to ask why the government has not yet struck back in a serious way.

Cabinet ministers and leading members of the coalition have jumped into the fray, questioning Barak’s apparent restraint.

Barak, however, refuses to be hurried. He dismisses calls for immediate action as political grandstanding, saying that for the sake of its standing in the region, Israel must retaliate the right way. Barak insists he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Complicating matters, Hamas’ rockets have increased their range from six months ago, before the cease-fire.

Yuval Diskin, chief of the Shin Bet security agency, told the Cabinet on Sunday that Hamas now could target Israeli population centers within a radius of 25 miles from the Gaza Strip. That includes Beersheba, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat and a host of smaller cities and towns.

As the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot put it in a screaming headline, “One of every eight Israelis is in range of the rockets.”

Hamas used the truce to smuggle in tons of new weaponry, including upgraded Katyusha rocket launchers with a 25-mile range. Israeli military planners estimate that in the event of a showdown in Gaza, Hamas would be able to fire hundreds of rockets a day at Israeli civilian centers — much the same way Hezbollah did in 2006.

Hamas also has built Hezbollah-style fortifications and brought anti-tank weapons into the strip.

“For Israel, invading Gaza will not be a walk in the park,” warned Moussa Abu Marzuk, deputy head of Hamas’ Damascus-based leadership.

Israel has several military options in Gaza, all of them problematic. The Jewish state could strike at rocket-launching crews and military installations from the air, but that alone would not be enough to stop the rocket fire.

Israel’s army could target Hamas leaders, but most them already have gone underground. The army also could fire artillery shells at the sources of rocket fire, but since the Palestinian militiamen operate mainly from built-up civilian areas, this likely would cause many civilian casualties and invite international condemnation.

Israel could undertake limited ground operations against rocket launchers and capture the territory from where the rockets are being fired, but this would put Israeli troops at risk in the heart of Palestinian territory.

A large-scale ground operation likely would be more effective, but it would require an exit strategy Israel does not have — or leave Israel responsible for Gaza and the needs of its estimated 1.5 million Palestinians.

For its part, Hamas has much to lose from an all-out war. Its goal in the current crisis is to get Israel to ease its siege on Gaza and lessen the pressure on Hamas militants in the West Bank. But if Israel invades and overruns Gaza, it could lose everything — including its hold on power in Gaza.

On Monday, Hamas showed signs of stepping back from the brink. It ordered a 24-hour suspension of rocket fire to give Egyptian mediators another chance to negotiate a new cease-fire on terms more favorable to Hamas.

Israel, however, shows no sign of backing down.

The standoff with Hamas goes far beyond Gaza, and the outcome will reverberate across the region. It is part of the regional power struggle between Iran and its proxies and between fundamentalists and the moderate pro-Western camp, including countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

While Arab moderates in public have expressed alarm at the escalation, in private some reportedly have hinted to Israel that they would not be sorry to see Hamas and its leaders hit hard. The Egyptians even have hinted publicly that Iran has been fanning the flames from behind the scenes.

Indeed, the Gaza standoff is part of the showdown between Israel and Iran. A powerful Israeli response will send a strong message to Tehran and its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. A failed action or a perceived retreat could encourage the Iran to step up its challenges of Israel.

Barak is keenly aware of what’s at stake and is insisting on detailed planning and thinking through all the strategic implications. This way, if Israel does launch a major operation, it will achieve an overwhelming victory and have a clear strategy for the political aftermath.

But there is still no agreement among Israel’s three major prime ministerial candidates on what to do about Hamas in the long term. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu say the Hamas government should be toppled. Barak advocates the more modest goal of restoring quiet after dealing a heavy blow to the organization’s military wing.

The way the goal is defined will determine the nature of the military operation and set the tone for the political aftermath.