Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017. Photo via REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

When will the UN Human Rights Council follow its own mission?


Editor’s note: This opinion tackling the United Nations Human Rights Council is the “con” argument published in conjunction with the “pro” argument written by David Kaye, “Reform, but don’t leave UN Human Rights Council.

In a recent letter to a group of nine non-profit organizations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a “biased agenda against Israel” and urged that “considerable reform” would be needed for the US to continue its involvement.

This was an important development, and one that echoes a growing chorus of voices who believe that the UNHRC must be pressured to change. As currently constituted, the Council discriminates against Israel and whitewashes oppression all over the world, violating its own mission and ultimately doing far more harm than good to the cause of human rights.

The UNHRC’s failure has been evident for many years now. In 2006, when the Council was founded, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was already expressing concerns about a “disproportionate focus on violations by Israel.” Unfortunately, Annan and his successor, Ban Ki Moon, were unable to hold the UNHRC accountable. According to UN Watch, between 2006 and 2015 the Council condemned Israel 62 times, compared with just 55 against all other countries combined.

The UNHRC’s discrimination and bigotry against Israel do not simply end at the disproportional condemnations. In 2008, the Council appointed extremist Richard Falk to a six-year term as “Special Rapporteur” on “human rights in the Palestinian territories.” Falk has publicly endorsed the “The Wandering Who?a book that has been widely condemned for anti-Semitism; praised leading 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin, and been accused of being “a partisan of Hamas” by the Palestinian Authority. The UNHRC has thoroughly discredited itself as a judge of right and wrong when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

While the UNHRC has criticized some human rights violations in Syria and elsewhere, it has also strenuously ignored the suffering of countless people living under some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Women continue to suffer brutal oppression in Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are subjected to modern day slavery in Qatar, people are executed at a higher rate in China than in any other country, and political opponents in Venezuela face prosecution for merely criticizing the government.

Yet the UNHRC has not passed a single resolution condemning those responsible for these abuses. Far from facing criticism, these regimes and others like them have actually been rewarded with membership in the UNHRC again and again. The UNHRC has become a place where the worst human rights abusers go to shield themselves from accountability, in part by scapegoating the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.

In December, during one of his final statements as Secretary General, Moon summed up the situation well: “Over the last decade I have argued that we cannot have a bias against Israel at the UN. Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel. In many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.”

These candid remarks were a step in the right direction, but they also served as a reminder of how unrealistic it is to expect the UN to fix its problems from within.

Indeed, history has shown that even such criticism from the UN’s own leading officials has not led to necessary changes in the UNHRC and other UN bodies that have been similarly compromised. While withdrawing from the Council may or may not be the answer, Secretary Tillerson’s demands for reform are clearly justified. Billions of US tax dollars are invested year after year as the UN continues to prove that it is incapable of self-improvement.

The US government is right to examine all options to ensure accountability, including cutting off its voluntary funding to the UNHRC and reducing its contributions to the UN’s overall budget. After over a decade of discriminating against Israel and undermining the cause of human rights around the world, it is clear that increased pressure is needed for the UNHRC to finally start following the mission it was created to fulfill.

Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs
Max Samarov, Director of Research & Campus Strategy for StandWithUs

Europe should hire Israel, not condemn it


Do you know what European honchos were doing in Geneva recently even as the Islamic State was planning another terror attack on their continent? They were preparing yet another condemnation of Israel, this time with an ironic twist.

They were targeting Israel for its actions in the Golan Heights, the same region where the Jewish state has set up field hospitals to care for Syrian rebels maimed by the venomous weapons of the Islamic State.

You read that right. The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council circulated a draft resolution on Israel’s “systematic and continuous violation” of the rights of “Syrian citizens in the occupied Golan Heights,” in addition to four other draft resolutions censuring Israel.

Hypocrisy on steroids.

When we talk about the proper response to terror attacks like the one we just witnessed in Brussels, we have to start with eradicating the malignant European hypocrisy towards the Jewish state. 

How many thousands of hours have been squandered at the European Union in Brussels discussing the labelling of Israeli products made in Judea and Samaria instead of developing an anti-terror strategy?

How much time has been spent at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands discussing the prosecution of Israeli leaders while ignoring murderous dictators and genocidal war criminals?

How many visits to the Middle East have been initiated by European diplomats to pressure Israel to make peace with terrorists rather than confront a region in violent meltdown?

In other words, when will the powers that be in Europe realize that the Islamic terrorism threatening their continent has nothing to do with Israeli tomatoes being grown in Judea and Samaria or Jewish apartments being built in Jerusalem?

In the wake of the latest atrocity in Brussels that killed 34 people and wounded more than 200, it looks like the reality of evil may have interrupted, at least for now, Europe’s obsession with Israel.  

“We are at war,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. 

“These attacks mark another low by the terrorists in the service of hatred and violence,” said European Union Council President Donald Tusk.

“We realize we face a tragic moment. We have to be calm and show solidarity,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. 

Cutting to the chase, HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher wondered if “Europe will have a little more sympathy for what Israel goes through” instead of being “real a**holes” to them.

Well, that would be nice– I’m also hoping Europe will have more sympathy for Israel, a country that has endured the scourge of terrorism since its very inception.

But what I’m really hoping for is that Europe will come to its senses and realize that the Jewish state is its #1 ally against the Islamic State. I’m hoping Europe will not only stop condemning Israel but will actually hire Israel to help protect and defend the continent against Islamic terrorism.

It’s not just because of the obvious—that no country has more experience fighting this kind of war, and that Israel has developed the most advanced techniques to fight terror at all levels and prevent attacks. 

No, the real reason Europe should hire Israel is because Israel has been winning its long war against terror while maintaining a civil society that protects human rights and the pursuit of happiness.

Faced with a primitive and medieval violence that respects no boundaries, Israel has managed to fight back while maintaining boundaries of law and decency and nurturing a vibrant and creative culture that is the envy of the world. Most countries would have turned into an emergency police state as a mere matter of survival.

In fact, as Eli Lake reports on Bloomberg.com, this is already happening in France: “Since the attacks in Paris last November, the socialist government of President Francois Hollande has placed his country under a state of emergency. France's national guard has been deployed to protect sensitive religious sites and other ‘soft targets.’ The country of Voltaire, Diderot and Camus is in 2016 the police state that critics warn Cruz or Trump would bring about if given the chance.”

Of course, there’s one major caveat to Europe hiring Israel. The continent’s obsession with condemning Israel has resulted in a culture of hatred towards the Jewish state. This means that European leaders would have to be very discreet about any partnership with Israel.

We can only hope that, with time, Europeans everywhere will realize that a good relationship with Israel is in their best interest and they'll be open about an anti-terror alliance with the Jewish state.

After all, if there’s one thing we know civilized Europeans care about, it’s the pursuit of happiness.

Swiss see ‘terrorist threat’ in Geneva, hunt for suspects


The Swiss city of Geneva raised its alert level on Thursday and said it was looking for suspects who, according to national officials, had possible links to terrorism.

A security guard at the United Nations' European headquarters told Reuters that Swiss authorities were searching for four men believed to be in or near the city.

Another guard said the U.N. compound was on maximum alert, and Geneva prosecutors said they were investigating the preparation of criminal acts. 

Separately, the Swiss attorney-general said it opened an a criminal inquiry on the basis of a “terrorist threat in Geneva” against unknown persons suspected of belonging to a criminal organisation and of violating the ban on al-Qaeda or Islamic State operating in the country.

The Geneva daily Le Temps reported that a friend of Salah Abdeslam, the latter wanted in connection with the deadly Paris attacks on Nov. 13, was in a van spotted by Geneva police on Tuesday after a tip from French authorities that the two men in the car were strongly suspected of ties to radical Islam. 

The van, which had Belgian plates, crossed the border into France, the paper said. Geneva officials could not confirm the report.

A French police source said Swiss authorities had been in touch to ask for information, about some suspects, including photographs.

Swiss federal police in the capital Berne said they had passed on information about people with possible links to terrorism, but were not connecting them to Islamist militant attacks in Paris last month in which 130 people were killed.

Earlier, the newspaper Le Matin said a Belgian-registered car that drove through a police check prompted police to examine a photograph of four suspected Islamist militants provided by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The paper said it had obtained a document describing the men as “armed and dangerous”.

Two sources confirmed that the CIA had provided the photo, which shows the four bearded men seated, with their faces blurred but index fingers raised in the air. A CIA spokesman in Washington declined to comment.

Swiss television said the city's Jewish community had been told to be vigilant. 

“Sensitive sites have been alerted,” a Swiss official said.

The guards stationed at vehicle entry points to the U.N. grounds were, unusually, carrying Mp5 sub-machine guns on Thursday. One guard said the U.N. premises had been evacuated for a time late on Wednesday night “as a precaution”.

The sprawling complex sits at the heart of “international Geneva”. The headquarters of the World Health Organization, the U.N. human rights office, the refugee agency UNHCR, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross are a short walk away.

“The heightened security affects the entire Geneva area, and the U.N. is taking measures that are commensurate with those taken in the host country,” U.N. spokesman Rheal LeBlanc said.

Senior U.S. and Russian diplomats are set to hold talks on Syria in Geneva on Friday, but the United Nations said the location would be kept secret.

Swiss and French officials say they have been working closely together since the Paris attacks. The Swiss Attorney General's office is currently conducting 33 criminal proceedings linked to Islamist militancy, and opened nearly a dozen new investigations in October and November, a spokeswoman said.

Kerry to fly home on U.S. military plane after breaking leg


A U.S. military aircraft from a base in Germany will transport Secretary of State John Kerry to Boston from Geneva for medical treatment for a broken leg, his spokesman said on Monday.

Kerry, 71, broke his right leg on Sunday in an accident while cycling a portion of the Tour de France route in the Haute Savoie region. He remained in Geneva's main hospital overnight for observation.

“Secretary Kerry will be transported (from Geneva) to Boston aboard a U.S. military C-17 transport aircraft. The aircraft, based in Ramstein, Germany, will be staffed by additional military medical personnel in keeping with standard practice,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement.

A doctor from Massachusetts General Hospital who has performed previous hip surgery on Kerry was expected in Geneva on Monday to evaluate the secretary's fractured femur.

“I can confirm that Dr. Dennis Burke, Secretary Kerry's orthopedic surgeon, will accompany the Secretary on the flight back to Boston to monitor the Secretary's condition and ensure he remains comfortable,” Kirby said in a separate statement.

Kerry, who was in Geneva for negotiations on Saturday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has canceled planned visits to Madrid and Paris this week following his fall.

He was brought to Geneva hospital by helicopter on Sunday morning and was initially expected to return to the United States that evening but stayed on as a “precaution” as his medical evacuation was planned, officials said.

Kerry spoke by telephone with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius by telephone on Monday, assuring him that he would return to cycle again in France, French officials said.

Kerry also told Fabius he would participate by telephone in a summit on Tuesday that France is hosting of 24 countries in Paris to discuss the U.S.-led coalition's strategy against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

International Red Cross chief slams group’s WWII record


The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross attacked his organization’s World War II record, saying it “lost its moral compass.”

Peter Maurer, presenting the keynote address Tuesday at a Geneva commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camps, said the ICRC “failed to protect civilians and, most notably, the Jews persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime.” Maurer said his group “failed as a humanitarian organization because it lost its moral compass.”

The commemoration event, jointly sponsored by the ICRC and World Jewish Congress, was attended by 200 senior members of Geneva’s diplomatic corps. It featured a panel discussion with Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University Jewish history and Holocaust studies professor, and James Orbinski, the former international president of Doctors Without Borders, according to a WJC news release.

During World War II, the ICRC, headquartered in Geneva, was the principal humanitarian institution maintaining communications with both the Allied and Axis powers. While the ICRC provided assistance and protection to Allied prisoners of war held by Nazi Germany, it did not do the same for Jewish deportees because the Nazis refused all humanitarian requests to help Jewish victims. At the same time, the ICRC did not publicly denounce the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

“The ICRC did not see Nazi Germany for what it was,” Maurer said. “Instead, the organization maintained the illusion that the Third Reich was a ‘regular partner,’ a state that occasionally violates laws, not unlike any army during World War II, occasionally using illegal means and methods of warfare.”

The ICRC president said that his organization had learned from past failures.

“We have chosen to confront our past and to embrace transparency,” Maurer said. “Our public archives are proof of our acknowledgment of the past and our continued effort to confront uncomfortable truths.”

Ronald Lauder, the WJC president, in his speech commended the ICRC for learning from its mistakes.

“You have already proven your moral authority because you have opened up your historical records,” Lauder said. “You have admitted that you could have and should have done more.”

How not to bomb Iran


Oh, to be in Geneva right now, facing the Iranians across a long polished table in a quiet hotel room–  because everywhere else the debates over their nuclear ambitions are raging, and the anxiety, accusations and intrigue are exasperating. Never have so many weighed in on so much while knowing so little.

After a dramatic lead-up worthy of a political thriller, or at least a reality show, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will finally step in front of Congress on March 3 and do his best to convince the House of Representatives, the Senate and the American people that the deal President Barack Obama is currently negotiating with Iran over its nuclear development will be a bad one.

The negotiators in Geneva, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are telling the press that productive talks may lead to a historic agreement by their self-imposed March 31 deadline. They won’t say what the particulars of the agreements are, only that Bibi’s criticisms of them are inaccurate.

We are all bystanders to this political showdown, a tense two-hander all but guaranteed to produce a winner and a loser.  

Will Bibi pull off a speech of such eloquence, power and insight that he will win over the majority of Americans? Enough even to convince Democrats to snub Obama and support Bibi’s point of view?

Or will his speech be met by an equal and opposite reaction from the Obama administration, which even now could well be developing plans to undercut the Israeli prime minister with facts they’ve withheld to render his objections impotent?

Will Bibi’s Hail Moses enable him to inch in front of his rivals in the Israeli elections?  Or will a bad showing here seal his doom back home?

Will Americans perceive Bibi as forcing the president out of a deal and into a military conflict on Israel’s behalf?

Or will they come to thank this man who rode in from out of town for saving them from an agreement that could lead to a nuclear Iran and a Shiite/Sunni nuclear arms race?

Even though I think Bibi made a huge mistake by going behind the president’s back in speaking to Congress — he could have given the same speech on the same trip to AIPAC without the blowback — my mind remains wide open to his arguments, as well as to those of Obama and the negotiators.

It seems to me that’s only honest position: We don’t know the substance of the deal, or Bibi’s specific disagreement, or something else — the alternatives.

Because lost amid the grogger-like chorus of dissent is the sound of a better idea. 

We know there are some really bad ones still kicking around. The people who brought us the Iraq war have for years been pushing for a military strike against Iran, though there’s barely a credible military or intelligence expert in America or Israel who thinks that’s the best possible course. 

As for the argument that military threats and tougher sanctions alone will convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, it’s easy to make the case that the effect has been and will be the exact opposite. If you’re constantly being threatened by a far superior power, you can be sure those threats lose their power the second you get the N-bomb. Nobody’s talking about invading North Korea these days.

There’s another group, especially within the Jewish community, that decries any concessions to Iran as capitulation. But ever since the Bush administration allowed Iran to spring forward with its nuclear program while we were busy invading Iraq and Afghanistan, the non-nuclear ship sailed. Negotiations will never bring back the shah, though anything short of that elicits cries of “Munich!”  from too many otherwise-smart people. Negotiations mean carrots, not just sticks.

Finally, there is the “No deal is better than a bad deal” mantra. That’s something we’ve also tried in the past, only to discover that there’s no such thing as the status quo in Tehran. When we walk away, they build.

So, let’s put aside these far worse or unrealistic alternatives. The question we should ask after Bibi speaks and Obama or his people respond is this: Is there any possible deal that can bridge American and Israeli differences? Or, to put it another way, is there a simple cure for what ails Bibi?

The answer, I think, is one word: verification.

Beyond all the posturing and speechifying, the bottom line is this: Israel doesn’t trust Iran, and it shouldn’t. That’s only partly because Iran, like enemies in the past, has threatened to destroy Israel. It’s also because Israel knows well how countries can lie, deceive and connive their way to a bomb — because back in the 1960s, Israel did just that.

So the best alternative to a bad deal, or no deal, is a deal that has stringent, intrusive and long-lasting inspections of all nuclear facilities. As Ambassador Dennis Ross has pointed out, the verification regime has to be accompanied by clear consequences, spelled out in advance, if Iran breaches any part of the agreement.

Such a deal, Ross wrote in the Washington Post, “just might also bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.”  

That’s what I’ll be looking for as the drama unfolds in the coming weeks — a way short of bombing to thwart Iran — and bridge the gap.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Anti-Israel protesters target synagogue in Geneva


Anti-Israel protesters demonstrated outside Geneva’s main synagogue.

A Swiss watchdog group said the weekend protests in front of the Beth Yaakov, or Grande, Synagogue were the first public displays of hostility in Switzerland toward Israel since the conflict with Gaza began in early July.

A veiled woman carried a sign reading “Every synagogue is an Israeli embassy” and waved a Palestinian flag on Saturday morning, according to the Intercommunity Coordination Against Anti-Semitism and Defamation watchdog organization, or CICAD. The same protester returned that night accompanied by three men, the group said.

A second woman wearing a Palestinian flag around her neck tried unsuccessfully to enter the synagogue, according to the watchdog. The protesters told police that they have a right to protest and threatened to return the following Saturday.

“With this first public demonstration of hostility towards the Jewish community in Geneva since the beginning of the conflict in Gaza, an unacceptable step was taken,” CICAD said. “Synagogues should not become the new places of expression of hatred against Israel.”

CICAD called on local politicians, including those who support the Palestinian cause, to denounce this kind of action against the Jewish community and for authorities to take action to protect the Jewish community.

Ukraine separatists reject diplomatic deal to disarm


Armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said on Friday they were not bound by an international deal ordering them to disarm and would not move out of public buildings they have seized until the Kiev government stepped down.

The agreement, brokered by the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in Geneva on Thursday, seemed to be the best hope of defusing a stand-off in Ukraine that has dragged East-West relations to their lowest level since the Cold War.

Ukraine's acting president and prime minister offered some of their strongest pledges yet to strengthen constitutional rights to use the Russian language to try and defuse the protests but Kiev also said its efforts to root out the separatists would continue.

The Geneva agreement requires all illegal armed groups to disarm and end occupations of public buildings, streets and squares, but with the separatists staying put in the east and Ukrainian nationalist protesters showing no sign of leaving their – unarmed – camps in the capital's Maidan Square, it was not clear that either side would be willing to move first.

Enacting the agreement on the ground will be difficult, because of the deep mistrust between the pro-Russian groups and the Western-backed government in Kiev. This week has already seen several people killed in violent clashes.

The fact a deal was reached in Geneva came as a surprise, and it was not clear what had happened behind the scenes to persuade the Kremlin, which had shown little sign of compromise, to join calls on the militias to disarm. It rejects Ukrainian and Western accusations of orchestrating the gunmen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia had a right to intervene in neighboring countries and by annexing Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

That move followed the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich after months of street protests prompted by his rejection of a trade deal with the EU.

In Slaviansk, a city that has become a flashpoint in the crisis after men with Kalashnikovs took control last weekend, leaders of the pro-Russian groups met inside one of the seized buildings to decide how to respond to the Geneva agreement.

Anatoly, one of the armed separatists who have taken over police headquarters, said: “We are not leaving the building, regardless of what statements are made, because we know what is the real situation in the country and we will not leave until our commander tells us to.”

Two Ukrainian military aircraft circled Slaviansk several times on Friday. In front of the mayor's office, men armed with automatic rifles peered over sandbags that had been piled higher overnight. Separatists remained in control of the city's main streets, searching cars at checkpoints around the city.

In a joint televised address, acting President Oleksander Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk called for national unity, urged people to refrain from violence and said they would support constitutional change, decentralizing more power to local councils, including over their official language – a key demand of Russian-speakers.

Kiev also said the government was preparing a law that would give the separatists an amnesty if they backed down.

NO SURRENDER

The self-declared leader of all the region's separatists said he did not consider his men to be bound by the agreement.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, told journalists in Donetsk, the regional capital, that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “did not sign anything for us; he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation”.

First, he said, the prime minister and acting president who took power in February should quit their offices, as they took them over “illegally”.

But Alexei, another separatist in Slaviansk, acknowledged that the Geneva talks had changed the situation: “It turns out Vova doesn't love us as much as we thought,” he said, using a diminutive term for Putin, who is viewed by many of the separatist militias as their champion and protector.

In the capital, Kiev, people on the Maidan, the local name given to Independence Square, which was the centre of protests that eventually toppled Yanukovich, said the barricades would not come down until after the May 25 presidential election.

“People will not leave the Maidan. The people gave their word to stay until the presidential elections so that nobody will be able to rig the result. Then after the election we'll go of our own accord,” said 56-year-old Viktor Palamaryuk from the western town of Chernivtsi.

“Nobody will take down our tents and barricades,” said 34-year-old Volodymyr Shevchenko from the southern Kherson region. “If the authorities try to do that by force, thousands and thousands of people will come on to the Maidan and stop them.”

Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group whose violent street tactics in support of the Maidan helped bring down Yanukovich in February, saw the Geneva accord as being directed only at pro-Russian separatists in the east.

“We don't have any illegal weapons, and so the call to disarm will not apply to us,” said Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky. “We, the vanguard of the Ukrainian revolution, should not be compared to outright gangsters.”

ORDER RESTORED?

President Barack Obama said the meeting in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine and Western powers was promising but that the United States and its allies were prepared to impose more sanctions on Russia if the situation fails to improve.

“There is the possibility, the prospect, that diplomacy may de-escalate the situation,” Obama told reporters.

“The question now becomes, will in fact they use the influence they've exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election and move forward with the decentralization reforms that they've proposed,” he said at the White House.

Ukraine's government promises to devolve power to the regions and protect people's rights, notably in the east, to use the Russian language in public life. But it rejects calls for a federal structure that it says could lead to permanent Russian interference in the east and eventually break up the country.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Geneva that if by the end of the weekend there were no signs that pro-Russian groups were pulling back, there would be costs for Moscow, a reference to further EU and U.S. sanctions.

Russia said the threat of new sanctions against Moscow by Washington was “completely unacceptable”.

The Foreign Ministry accused U.S. officials of seeking to whitewash what it said was the use of force by the Ukrainian government against protesters in the country's mainly Russian-speaking eastern provinces.

The Geneva deal did not mention Russia's annexation of Crimea, though Western diplomats said they remained firm that Russia acted illegally and denied they had dropped the issue.

The fact the agreement did not address Crimea could put pressure on Ukraine's interim government from its own supporters, who are adamant that everything should be done to bring the peninsula back under Kiev's control.

The United States and EU have so far imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of Russians, a response that Moscow has openly mocked. Western states say they are now contemplating measures that could hurt Russia's economy more broadly.

Some EU nations are reluctant to press ahead with more sanctions, fearing that could provoke Russia further or end up hurting their own economies, which rely on Russian gas.

The Moscow-led South Stream undersea gas pipeline project to bring gas to southeast Europe is still under way, and Russia has been discussing its implementation with Europe, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Friday.

He also said cooperation between Russian companies and international oil and gas majors was continuing despite Western sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine.

Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said he had told Putin at a meeting on Friday that the company was committed to expansion in Russia, and plans to expand Russia's only liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant with Russian partner Gazprom.

NOT LEAVING

Pro-Russian militants control buildings in about 10 towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their operation on April 6.

In Luhansk, a militia member called Andrei said his group had no plans to withdraw: “Everything on the ground is the same as it was yesterday and the day before and the day before that. We're not leaving.”

Seeking to reassure its eastern allies, NATO announced it was sending warships to the Baltic, while the United States approved more non-lethal military support for Ukraine.

Speaking on Russian television before the Geneva agreement, Putin accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an “abyss”.

Kiev fears he will use any violence as a pretext to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian forces.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Tom Miles, Arshad Mohammed and Catherine Koppel in Geneva, and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow; Writing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Anna Willard, Alastair Macdonald and Will Waterman

Anti-Semitic fliers in Ukraine: Who is responsible?


Secretary of State John Kerry condemned as “grotesque” on Thursday the distribution of leaflets in eastern Ukraine that appeared to call on Jews to register with separatist, pro-Russian authorities.

Though purported authors of the flier described it as a crude attempt to discredit them, Kerry said: “Notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews … or suffer the consequences.

“In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable,” he said in Geneva, where he met Russian, Ukrainian and EU counterparts to draw up a four-way agreement to work to defuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

Kerry said Russian Orthodox Church members in Ukraine had also received threats “that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was somehow going to attack them in the course of the next days.”

“That kind of behavior, that kind of threat, has no place,” he said.

Kerry said all parties at the Geneva meeting had condemned such threats and intimidation.

The origin of the leaflets in Donetsk was unclear.

On Wednesday, local news site Novosti Donbassa quoted unidentified members of Donetsk's Jewish community as saying three masked men handed them out near the city's synagogue on Monday, when Jews were celebrating the start of Passover.

Purporting to be issued by the Donetsk People's Republic, a pro-Russian group which last week took over public buildings and wants to end rule by the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, the leaflet said all Jews aged over 16 must register with a “commissar” at the regional government headquarters by May 3.

Failure to comply would lead to deportation and the “confiscation of property”.

Its preamble explained that action was being taken because Jewish leaders had supported the “junta” which took power in Kiev after the overthrow of the Moscow-backed president.

Kirill Rudenko, a spokesman for the People's Republic of Donbass, said the statement was “complete rubbish”: “We made no such demands on Jews,” he said. “We have nothing against Jews.

“This is just another attempt to tarnish our image … It is a crude forgery.”

Once home to a large Jewish population that was devastated by the Holocaust, Ukraine has seen a rise in attacks on Jews and on synagogues since unrest began five months ago.

Some Ukrainian nationalist groups which took part in the uprising in Kiev have been blamed for fanning anti-Semitic sentiment. Anti-Semitism is also apparent among some Russian nationalists.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington that the United States was still trying to determine who was behind the leaflets and added: “We take any anti-Semitism very seriously.”

An influential U.S. congresswoman called the leaflet episode

“an unacceptable escalation of the crisis in Ukraine and cause for both grave concern and immediate action”.

Nita Lowey, the senior Democrat on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said in a letter to Kerry that the singling out of Jewish communities for scrutiny and possible punishment “reeks of age-old anti-Semitic policies”.

“All of the parties involved in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine must understand in no uncertain terms that the world community will not tolerate such contemptible and atrocious behavior,” she said.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said Russian President Vladimir Putin “has accused the Ukrainians recently of being anti-Semitic, but now it is pro-Russian forces that are engaged in these grotesque acts”.

He urged Putin to denounce the anti-Semitic acts and use his influence to stop them.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Geneva, Gabriel Baczynska in Donetsk, Alastair Macdonald in Kiev and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Eric Walsh

Israel becomes full member of scientific council CERN


Israel became a full member of the prestigious European nuclear physics lab CERN.

In an official ceremony held Wednesday in Geneva, Israel became the 21st country to join and the first non-European member state of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

“Israel is committed to the advancement of science and technology for the good of mankind,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said in an address at the ceremony, according to Haaretz. “As such, it is committed to being part of the international scientific community and to contributing to cooperation among the developed countries.”

The laboratory, known for its giant underground atomic collider, the Large Hadron Collider, is located in Switzerland. Israeli scientists have collaborated with CERN for many years, including on projects involving the collider.

Israel became the first associate member of CERN in September 2011 after the council voted to expand its membership. Israel’s formal association with CERN began in 1991, when the country was granted observer status in recognition of the major involvement of Israeli institutions in the lab’s OPAL experiment, and to the running of the Large Electron Positron accelerator.

After Geneva, Iran’s nuclear deal remains a conundrum


Last month’s nuclear deal with Iran has set off a cacophony of pro and con acrimony pitting public officials, academic experts and pundits against one another.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim accord a “historic mistake.” The Wall Street Journal headlined columnist Bret Stephens’ commentary that Geneva was “Worse Than Munich.”  Proponents took quite a different view.  Speaking to the country the evening of the deal, President Barack Obama declared “diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.” Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the accord “realistic” and “practical.”

The divide is no sanctimonious dust-up, but a genuine difference of opinion over the best strategy to halt Iran’s suspect nuclear program. The president’s stance — the hope that good-faith negotiation, however difficult, coupled with the continued application of the most onerous sanctions can resolve the issue — butts against the argument that negotiations and minimal sanctions relief simply oxygenates a regime on its last legs and riddled by economic and political dysfunction. In this latter view, now is not the time to sit with the Iranians. As famed human rights activist Natan Sharansky put it in the Wall Street Journal, now is the time to be firm and resolute. Both attributes, he argues, brought down the Soviet Union and can bring down Iran as well. 

However, history finds that both positions don’t quite compute. The fact remains, all courses of action mark a bet. Contrary to Sharansky’s portrait, Washington’s effort to bring down the Soviet Union marked a mixture of engagement and isolation. Even as Moscow’s union began to crack, the United States kept the lines of communication open. In the end, talking did not prevent collapse.    

But then there remains the other talk history. Here is where North Korea becomes the Iran-like poster child Netanyahu repeatedly reminds the international community about. And, indeed, the story is unsettling. In 1994, Washington and Pyongyang entered into an understanding known as the Agreed Framework. Under the accord, North Korea consented to freeze nuclear operations and eventually dismantle the suspect Yongbyong nuclear reactor. In return, the United States assisted in the provision of heating oil for North Korea, while assembling an international consortium to build two nuclear power plants. Then, in 2005, Pyongyang agreed to go further and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A year later, it exploded its first nuclear device.    

This rather poor precedent for diplomatic success has multiple antecedents. Israel proved to be the first. During years of construction, the Israeli government represented to Washington that it intended the Dimona reactor to be a civil nuclear research enterprise. President John Kennedy didn’t buy it and committed himself to stop it. Correspondence between the young president and the wily David Ben-Gurion became testy, only to fall away with the assassination of the American leader.    

In South Asia, the United States went beyond talk to stop two nuclear programs by applying economic and military sanctions against both India and Pakistan, only to find that it had to shelve the effort against Islamabad as a greater priority — Pakistan’s importance in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan — took precedence. For India, U.S. sanctions proved more a nuisance and were entirely lifted during the George W. Bush administration. 

Cases where diplomacy proved more effective — Taiwan and South Korea toyed with the nuclear weapons option — reflected the heavy reliance each placed on the American security blanket. Washington’s clear message: Alliances will be in jeopardy if allies proliferate.

Clearly, Iran is no South Korea or Taiwan, but neither is it North Korea. As Wendy Sherman, Washington’s lead Iran negotiator, put it, Iran is “a different time, different culture, a different system.” The result: Where North Korea sees isolation necessary for regime survival, Iran sees trouble. Evidently the goods of the good life attract many Iranians, and the leadership sees them as necessary for regime survival. But the good life is not sustainable if oil exports, accounting for three-quarters of the country’s total, shrink under the pressure of sanctions from 2.3 million barrels a day to 1 million barrels. Nor is there a good life for many with inflation running at 50 percent and unemployment at 25 percent.  While international sanctions are not the sole cause of Iran’s economic malaise, they evidently have been onerous enough to bring Iran to the bargaining table to sign on to the Geneva Accord.

It is worth noting what a change this is. Although the recent bargaining has drawn much attention, it was not a de novo but the culmination of a decade-long effort that commenced in earnest in 2003, when European negotiators attempted to talk Iran out of enrichment. While there remains debate about possible missed opportunities in these and later talks, the dragging of time the negotiations allowed permitted Iran — like North Korea — to expand its nuclear venture dramatically. The question today is whether the costs of this effort have now come home to roost to force Iran to curtail its nuclear activities.

Implementation of the interim agreement will be the first test. True, it does not eliminate Iran’s weapons breakout capacity, but it does curtail the known enterprise. Significant is the rollback of Tehran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, something the international community has been striving to achieve for years. Iran also will cap its low-enrichment stocks and limit operation of its 19,000 centrifuges to the 10,000 operating today. While not ideal — ideal would be the cessation of all enrichment mandated by the Security Council — it is better than the alternative, continued unabated operations.

Arguably less impressive is Iran’s commitment not to commission the Arak reactor during the next six months, an objective it was not likely to fulfill in any event, although the agreement to halt production, testing or transfer of fuel or installation of reactor components will slow the plant’s completion.

Finally, the interim agreement expands the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) verification, allowing daily visits to enrichment sites. But here the news looks better on paper than it actually is. The IAEA already monitors Fordow and Natanz with cameras and periodic visits. However, “managed access” to centrifuge production and storage sites mark a first, giving international inspectors a far better overview of Iran’s future centrifuge capacity. Other concessions granted IAEA in separate negotiations — allowance to visit a uranium mine, heavy water production plant, access to information on all research reactors, plans for additional enrichment plants and laser enrichment — still do not get to the core of the nuclear watchdog’s effort to unravel what Iran is up to.

So what does Iran get out of this? The benefits seem rather modest — a waiver in trade of petro chemical, gold and precious metal, automobile and civil airline parts in addition to the repatriation of some $7 billion held abroad that Tehran may attempt to leverage, still a relatively small sum considering the country’s economic needs.  

As we look forward, Iran’s compliance with the spirit and letter of Geneva’s interim accord will be a test. If Tehran fails the test, the more ambitious permanent agreement will never advance to signature. But even fidelity offers no guarantee, as U.S. and allied demands in the next round of talks reportedly will be much tougher: Closure of the heavily bunkered Fordow enrichment plant and dramatic reductions of operations at Natanz, allowing it just to produce enough low-enriched uranium to meet the country’s minimal civil nuclear needs. Dismantlement or conversion of the Arak nuclear plant to a far less threatening light water reactor. Granting the IAEA unfettered access to the totality of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Should these talks fail, waiting in the wings will be the Sharansky template to isolate Iran further. But it, too, promises no certainties of anything. Still, it may force the mullahs to make a difficult choice: One, accept the costs of economic sanctions, believing the country will adapt if it believes that maintaining a nuclear weapons breakout capability best assures national survival. The other, bend as little as necessary to P5+1 demands, hoping that tension relaxation will be sufficient to support the regime’s tottering economic foundation without undermining the hostility to the West and Israel the regime needs to justify its rule.

In the interim, the next round of negotiations will have to play out.  

Stay tuned.


Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst in the Department of State, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. His academic appointments included positions at Princeton and UCLA. The author of three books on international politics and editor of three others, Ramberg is best known for what many believe is the classic treatment of the consequences of military strikes on nuclear installations, “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy” (University of California Press).

Delay in launch of nukes deal gives Iran an edge, some say


There’s the six-month interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that trades some sanctions relief for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. And then there’s the interim before the interim begins.

Little noticed in the wake of the historic pact reached last month by Iran and the major powers is the fact that technically, the deal is not yet underway. A commission of experts from the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain, China and France, working with Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, first must work out the technical details before the deal officially goes into effect.

The commission is not scheduled to meet until January. And even then it’s not clear how long it might take to reach an agreement.

“Obviously, once that’s — those technical discussions are worked through, I guess the clock would start,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a news briefing on Nov. 27.

Under the terms of the deal reached in Geneva last month, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium to 5 percent, freeze most of its centrifuges and halt construction on its plutonium reactor. In exchange it would receive sanctions relief totaling approximately $7 billion.

President Obama strongly supported the deal, which was intended to provide a six-month window in which to conclude a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Critics, foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saw the agreement as a historic blunder, arguing that it would advance Iran toward the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Some critics say the uncertainty over when the deal kicks in also works in Iran’s favor.

“Every day that goes by where Iran is not bound to roll back its nuclear program but still can benefit from a shift in the market psychology from fear to greed puts money in the regime’s pocket without doing anything to address their growing nuclear weapons capacity,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has helped shape many of the tough sanctions passed in recent years by Congress.

Dubowitz’s colleague, Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Jonathan Schanzer, on Tuesday tweeted links to Arab media reports that some European oil companies already are considering new business with Iran. The French oil giant Total reportedly said last month that it would resume dealings with Iran if sanctions are revoked.

Ron Dermer, the new Israeli envoy to Washington, also has cast the argument as one of momentum. In briefings to members of Congress and Jewish groups, Dermer has argued that before the deal, tough sanctions and the likelihood of more to come had Iran on the ropes. With a deal in place, however, the momentum could reverse direction — companies that once feared being cut off from the U.S. economy might consider deals with Iran.

Obama administration officials adamantly deny the scenario. The principal sanctions targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors will stay in place even during the interim deal, they say.

“Right now our sanctions remain in place,” John Sullivan, spokesman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury section that monitors sanctions compliance, told JTA. “More guidance on the relief package will be forthcoming from Treasury and our interagency partners.

“What we agreed to is clear and limited. We will continue to enforce our sanctions aggressively.”

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the U.S. defense establishment, said that even those nations and companies eager for sanctions relief would not bust sanctions now for fear of alienating the United States. India and China, he said, would risk U.S. waivers granted them on some dealings with Iran should they be seen as planning new business with the country.

“Most countries are still wary of having normal energy ties with Iran,” he said.

Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the congressionally funded Wilson Center, acknowledged that the momentum argument has merit. But he noted that provisions in the deal that would resume sanctions should Iran not comply ultimately are enough to scare companies away from resuming business with the country.

“To say that it will lead to Total resuming contracts with Iran is wrong,” Adler said. “You can be concerned you’re changing from a tightening mode to a lightening mode, but the deal is structured in such a way that all the sanctions are reversible and the money they’re getting is a drop in the bucket.”

Poll: Plurality of Americans support Iran deal, half say U.S. should defend Israel


A plurality of Americans support the newly brokered deal with Iran, and half believe that the United States should defend Israel militarily, a new poll found.

Some 44 percent of Americans support the interim agreement on Iran‘s nuclear program reached between Iran and six world powers in Geneva last weekend, and 22 percent oppose it, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday showed.

The survey also showed that 49 percent of Americans want the United States to increase sanctions if the Iran deal fails and 31 percent think it should pursue further diplomacy, according to Reuters. Twenty percent believe U.S. military force should be used against Iran.

The poll found that 63 percent of Americans believe that Iran’s nuclear program is developing a nuclear bomb. Iran says the project is for civilian purposes only.

Meanwhile, 65 percent of those polled said that that the United States “should not become involved in any military action in the Middle East unless America is directly threatened;” 21 percent disagreed with the statement.

Fifty percent of the Americans polled believe that the United States “should use its military power to defend Israel against threats to its security, no matter where they come from,” and 31 percent disagreed with the statement.

The poll of 591 Americans was conducted from Sunday through Tuesday with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the six-month interim agreement with Iran has not yet started, saying that the next step is “a continuation of technical discussions at a working level so that we can essentially tee up the implementation of the agreement.”

She said the U.S. is “respecting the spirit of the agreement in pressing for sanctions not to be put in place” and expects that the same is coming from Iran’s end.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iran’s Parliament on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic would continue to build the Arak heavy water plant, in contravention of the announced agreement. The previous day, Iran said that the United States had not distributed an accurate account of the agreement.

Netanyahu: Deal with Iran a ‘historic mistake,’ Israel not bound by it


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling an interim deal with Iran on its nuclear program a “historic mistake,” said Israel “has the right and the obligation to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

“What was agreed to last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, it is a historic mistake,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the regular Cabinet meeting, several hours after the agreement was announced. “Today the world has become much more dangerous because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step to getting the most dangerous weapon in the world.”

President Obama reportedly was scheduled to call Netanyahu on Sunday to discuss the deal, under which Iran will freeze some nuclear activity in exchange for some sanctions relief.

The United States and five other world powers signed the deal late Saturday night with Iran.

“Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction, and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself by itself against any threat,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is not obligated by this agreement. I want to make clear we will not allow Iran to obtain military nuclear capability. ”

According to a White House statement, Iran will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, but will be able to continue enriching to 5 percent. Iran will neutralize its existing stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium and will not install or build any new centrifuges, except to replace damaged machines.

Five percent is well below the enrichment level needed for weaponization. But Netanyahu has warned that allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium even at low levels brings it too close to a breakout capacity for nuclear weapons.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the agreement “a new reality in the whole Middle East,” and “the Iranians’ greatest victory” during an interview Sunday morning with Israel Radio in the hours after the agreement was announced.

In terms of the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear sites, Lieberman said, “As always, all options are on the table.”

He said Israel would look to other allies in deciding how to deal with Iran.

“Israel must look into new directions in addition to the U.S.,” he said. “We must take responsibility regardless of the stance of the Americans or of others. We must make our own independent decisions.”

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Ynet, “This is a terrible deal that will threaten not only us but the entire world.” Livni, the lead negotiator in talks with the Palestinians, said Israel must work with the United States and other allies to make sure the final deal offers better terms.

Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Jewish Home party and a government minister, also came out against the deal.

“If a nuclear suitcase blows up five years from now in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook. “Israel,” he added, “will not be committed to a deal that endangers its very existence.”

Iranian officials reportedly welcomed the agreement, saying it confirmed the country’s right to enrich uranium and that “all plots hatched by the Zionist regime to stop the nuclear agreement have failed,” the state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement:  ”The success or failure of the deal will be judged by results, not by words. I would like to say to the Iranian people, you are not our enemies and we are not yours. There is a possibility to solve this issue diplomatically. It is in your hands. Reject terrorism. Stop the nuclear program. Stop the development of long-range missiles. Israel like others in the international community prefers a diplomatic solution.”

Knesset lawmaker Isaac Herzog, the newly elected chairman of the opposition Labor Party,  said “the deal that was struck between the world powers and Iran is a fact and Israel must adjust itself to the new situation.”

“Netanyahu must do everything in order to fix the damage that was caused from the public clash with the U.S. and return to an intimate relationship with President Obama and other world leaders,” he said.

Kerry to join Iran nuclear talks in bid to reach deal


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join talks on Iran's contested nuclear program in Geneva on Saturday, as Tehran and six world powers appeared to be on the verge of an elusive breakthrough in the decade-old dispute.

The French, British and German foreign ministers, Laurent Fabius, William Hague and Guido Westerwelle, were also due to take part in intense negotiations on a deal under which Iran would curb its atomic activity in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.

The announcements came after diplomats in the Swiss city said a major sticking point in the talks, which began on Wednesday, may have been overcome.

Kerry left for Geneva “with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The decision was taken after consulting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, Psaki said.

Later, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Kerry decided to travel to Geneva “in light of the progress being made” and with “the hope that an agreement will be reached.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Geneva on Friday evening and met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and with Ashton, a Russian spokeswoman said.

Diplomats said a compromise over Iran's insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be internationally recognized has been proposed, possibly opening the way to a long-sought breakthrough.

Fabius expressed hope that a deal could be made. France has taken a harder line than other Western powers and repeatedly urged the six-power group not to make too many compromises with Tehran.

“You know our position … it's a position based on firmness, but at the same time a position of hope that we can reach a deal,” Fabius said in Paris.

The United States and other Western powers say there is no such thing as a right to enrich – a process that can yield both electricity and nuclear bombs – but Iran views it as a matter of national sovereignty and crucial to any deal that would resolve the standoff over its nuclear intentions.

The Islamic Republic also wants relief from economic sanctions in return for any nuclear concessions it makes that could allay the West's suspicions that its nuclear fuel-making program has military rather than its stated civilian goals.

Foreign ministers from the six nations negotiating with Iran waded into the previous talks on November 7-9 and came close to winning concessions from Iran, which they count on to reduce the risk of Iran achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

POLITICALLY CHARGED DETAILS

In the days running up to the talks, policymakers from the six powers said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could be within reach to start a cautious process of detente with Iran and banish the specter of a wider Middle East war.

Under discussion is Iranian suspension of some sensitive nuclear activities, above all medium-level uranium enrichment. Sanctions relief offered in return could involve releasing some Iranian funds frozen in foreign bank accounts and allowing trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.

The United States might also agree to relax pressure on other countries not to buy Iranian oil. Tehran has made clear it wants more significant diluting of the sanctions blocking its oil exports and its use of the international banking system.

Diplomacy on Tehran's nuclear aspirations has revived remarkably since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as president in June on promises of winning sanctions relief and diminishing Iran's international isolation.

The sides have struggled to wrap up a deal, however, bogged down in politically vexed details and hampered by long-standing mutual mistrust.

In Geneva, last-minute discussions wrapped up around midnight on Friday as diplomats from the six powers, the EU and Iran sought to work out an agreement.

Diplomats said new, compromise language being discussed did not explicitly recognize a right to produce nuclear fuel by any country. “If you speak about the right to a peaceful nuclear program, that's open to interpretation,” a diplomat told Reuters without elaborating.

No other details were available, but Zarif, Tehran's chief negotiator, said earlier in the day that significant headway had been made even though three or four “differences” remained.

The fate of Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor project – a potential source of an alternative bomb material, plutonium – and the extent of sanctions relief were among the other stumbling blocks, diplomats said.

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is covertly trying to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

SENATE SANCTIONS PUSH

A senior European diplomat told reporters earlier that foreign ministers of the six states would come to Geneva only if there was a deal to sign. “We have made progress, including core issues,” the diplomat said.

Zarif and Ashton met throughout the day on Friday to try to narrow the remaining gaps.

Israel continued its public campaign of criticizing the offer of sanctions rollbacks for Iran, voicing its conviction that all it would achieve would be more time for Iran to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

“I think right now the international community … has all the leverage to roll back its (Iran's) nuclear making capacities,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Channel Rossia in Moscow.

“It's a pity, just when they have this maximum leverage, that they're backing off and essentially giving Iran an unbelievable Christmas present – the capacity to maintain this breakout capability for practically no concessions at all,” he said.

For the powers, an interim deal would mandate a halt to Iran's enrichment of uranium to a purity of 20 percent – a major technical step towards the bomb threshold, more sweeping U.N. nuclear inspections in Iran and an Arak reactor shutdown.

The United States has only limited flexibility during the talks, however, because of skepticism in the U.S. Congress about the benefits of cutting any deal with Tehran.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday he was committed to pursuing a tougher Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returns from a recess early next month – even though President Barack Obama has warned that could derail diplomacy in Geneva.

If a preliminary agreement is reached for a six-month suspension of some of Iran's most sensitive nuclear activity, the six powers and Tehran will use that time to hammer out a broader and longer-term accord.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Fredrik Dahl and John Irish in Geneva, Marcus George in Dubai, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem, Hortense de Roffignac in Paris, Arshad Mohammed and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Giles Elgood, Jackie Frank and Eric Walsh

Iranian Jews hold pro-nuclear rally in Tehran


Iranian Jews holding Torah scrolls demonstrated in Tehran in support of Iran’s nuclear program.

Demonstrators, who also held signs in English, Hebrew and Farsi, rallied Tuesday in front of the United Nations office in Tehran, according to The Jerusalem Post. They denounced Zionism and threw their support behind the country’s nuclear talks negotiating team.

The rally was held a day before the resumption in Geneva of negotiations between Iran and world powers over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Also in advance of the meetings, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday announced in broadcast remarks that his country wants friendly ties with the world community, including the United States, but that Israel is “doomed to extinction.”

He said France, which has taken a hard-line stance during the negotiations, is “not only succumbing to the United States, but they are kneeling before the Israeli regime.”

Israel has objected fiercely to the current deal reported to be on the table, under which crippling sanctions on Iran would be eased if it stops enriching uranium to more than a minimum percentage.

Iran: World powers should seize an “historic opportunity” to clinch nuclear deal


The protracted dispute over Iran's nuclear program can now be resolved, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in remarks released on Tuesday, and world powers should seize an “historic opportunity” to clinch a deal.

Iran is to meet the six powers on Wednesday for the third round of negotiations in a month, nearly two weeks after the sides neared an initial accord that would curb Iran's nuclear activity in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

Zarif on Sunday offered a possible way around one of the most stubborn sticking points in the negotiations, saying Tehran has the right to enrich uranium but does not now insist others recognize that right.

In a five-minute Foreign Ministry video released on Tuesday, Zarif said there was a chance to end the stand-off as long as Western powers dealt with Iran on an “equal footing” and did not seek to impose their will.

He later told reporters in Rome before flying to Geneva for the talks that there was “every possibility” of a successful conclusion to the talks provided there was good faith and the political will to resolve problems by all sides.

“I'm willing to accept serious progress instead of an agreement but I'm certain that, with the necessary political will, we can make progress and even reach an agreement,” he said.

The election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani as president earlier this year opened a diplomatic window to try to untangle the decade-long deadlock that has at times edged towards open conflict in the Middle East.

“This past summer, our people chose constructive engagement through the ballot box, and through this, they gave the world a historic opportunity to change course,” Zarif said in the video posted online with subtitles in several languages.

“To seize this unique opportunity, we need to accept an equal footing and choose a path based on mutual respect,” added Zarif, who heads Iran's delegation at the Geneva talks.

The goal is an interim deal to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would provide assurances to the six powers that Iran's atomic program will not eventually produce bombs.

Iran denies that it wants to develop a nuclear weapons capability and insists its program is limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and medical research.

The November 7-9 round of talks stumbled over Iran's insistence that its right to enrich uranium be explicitly recognized in the draft text, and demands from the French delegation that the Arak heavy-water reactor be shut down.

Western powers say the right to enrich is not explicitly set out in areas of the Non-Proliferation Treaty governing member states' use of peaceful atomic energy.

Many import low-enriched fuel from a few foreign suppliers and the powers say Iran should do the same to ensure no escalation to high, weapons-grade enrichment on its soil.

But on Tuesday Iranian parliamentarians gathered signatures to demand the government continue enriching uranium to levels of 20 percent, a higher level whose stated purpose is medical reactor fuel, and finish building the Arak reactor, which is a feared potential producer of plutonium, another bomb material.

“RIGHT TO ENRICH”

Rouhani has repeatedly said Iran will never give up its right to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes, a message the Islamic Republic's parliament, dominated by conservatives, appears to want to hold him to.

“The government is obliged to protect the nuclear rights of Iran in the forthcoming negotiations,” Mehr news agency quoted member of parliament Fatemeh Alia as saying.

While it has limited powers in Iran's complex political system, parliament would likely vote on any nuclear deal. However, it would be very unlikely to go against the wishes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rouhani's approach to the talks, which he says is the best way to get sanctions hobbling Iran's oil-based economy lifted, has Khamenei's public backing. Rouhani succeeded hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August.

Iranian political figures have lined up to accuse France of jeopardizing chances to reach a deal after Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned against accepting “a fool's game” – that is, what he considered lopsided concessions to Tehran.

On Monday, French President Francois Hollande set out a tough stance during a visit to Israel, saying he would not give way on nuclear proliferation with respect to Iran.

His remarks came in for criticism on Tuesday from an Iranian parliamentary official.

“We advise the president of France to comment on the basis of facts, not assumptions, and beyond that, not to be the executor of the Zionist regime's (Israel's) plan,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the assembly's national security and foreign affairs committee, told Iran's official news agency.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iran on Monday to finalize an agreement proving to the world its nuclear work is peaceful but said he had “no specific expectations” for this week's Geneva talks.

Reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel’s Peres warns against feud with U.S. over Iran


President Shimon Peres urged Israelis on Friday to show respect for the United States, seeking to soothe relations with the country's most powerful ally that have been strained over Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned a proposal, endorsed by Washington, to reduce sanctions if Iran suspends parts of its nuclear program. Several ministers have also harshly criticized Washington, prompting Peres to intervene.

“We must not underestimate the importance of this friendship. There can be disagreements, but they must be conducted with a view to the true depth of the situation,” Peres said in comments released by his office.

“If we have disagreements we should voice them, but we should remember that the Americans also know a thing or two. We are not the only ones,” he said.

Although Peres's position as president is largely ceremonial, he is a widely-respected elder statesmen and his comments will be welcomed by Washington.

Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama have often tussled over Tehran, but tensions flared last week when Israel discovered the terms of a deal that world powers are due to discuss again with Iran in Geneva next Thursday.

Israel says tough sanctions must remain until Iran dismantles its entire uranium enrichment program, arguing that anything less would enable it to develop nuclear bombs.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and accuses Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear armed state, of hypocrisy.

Backers of the nuclear talks see the diplomatic push as a way to resolve a decade-long nuclear standoff that both Israel and Washington have said could lead to war.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said Netanyahu was over-reacting to the proposed deal and a State Department spokeswoman dismissed an Israeli estimate of its impact on sanctions as “inaccurate, exaggerated and not based in reality”.

Netanyahu has said he would not be bound by the terms of the Iran deal and reiterated that Israel would take military action if it thought Iran was close to getting an atomic bomb.

Relations with Washington have also been strained over the lack of progress in peace talks with Palestinians, with Kerry calling Israeli settlement building “illegitimate”.

A minister in Netanyahu's inner security cabinet, Naftali Bennett, flew to Washington this week to urge members of Congress, many of whom are very close to Israel, to reject the proposed Iran deal.

“I think more and more members of the House and Senate understand now … that the deal being formed is a deal that removes the sanctions without dismantling the Iranian nuclear machine,” Bennett told Israel Radio on Friday.

Some Israeli analysts have warned Netanyahu not to try to play Congress off against the U.S. president, and Peres made a point of praising Obama's efforts on behalf of Israel.

“There has not been an Israeli request which the Obama administration has not responded to,” he said.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Kerry tells senators to disregard Israeli reports on Iran


Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told U.S. senators to disregard Israeli reports of Iran’s progress in developing a nuclear weapon.

Also, his spokeswoman dismissed an Israeli Cabinet minister’s account of a proposed deal with Iran as “inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality.”

Kerry’s tense meeting Wednesday with senators and Jen Psaki’s unusually blunt dismissal of claims by Yuval Steinitz, the strategic affairs minister, were signs of increasing tensions between Jerusalem and Washington over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Kerry met with senators privately in a bid to persuade them not to advance a U.S. House of Representatives bill that would intensify existing sanctions targeting Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favors enhancing the sanctions, as do a number of leading senators.

Afterward, senators attending the meeting said Kerry advised them to ignore Israeli warnings that Iran was on the cusp of being weapons capable.

“I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told Buzzfeed.

Netanyahu and his government have intensified their advocacy for new sanctions since reports from talks over the weekend between Iran and the major powers suggested that the powers were willing to ease sanctions on Iran should agree to drop uranium enrichment to 3.5 percent.

Most experts say that level is well below weaponization, but Israel has argued that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is advanced to the point that even at that level, it could advance its weapons program.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday held a hearing on the talks, which will be resumed Nov. 20, and members of both parties said Iran should at the minimum abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions and suspend all enrichment.

“Let’s be clear – none of us here today were at the negotiating table, and as far as I know, none of us have yet been briefed on the details,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the committee. “So I think it would be wise for all of us to speak with some degree of caution until all the facts are known. Having said that, I’m deeply troubled by reports that the proposed agreement would not have required Tehran to stop all enrichment.”

The Obama administration has pushed back hard against reports it says are not based on the actual offer proposed at the Geneva talks, which has not been made public.

Steinitz said this week that the sanctions relief offered in Geneva could relieve Iran up to $40 billion of the $100 billion impact currently affecting Iran’s economy. Psaki  was unusually blunt in dismissing that number.

“Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality,” she told reporters Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Obama on Wednesday consulted on the Iran talks with French President Francois Hollande.

Of the six major powers negotiating with Iran – also including Britain, Germany, China and Russia – France has emerged as the hardest line in insisting on Iranian disarmament, according to reports.

The White House’s account of the call pushed back against claims that France was the sole holdout over the weekend against inking a deal.

“The United States and France are in full agreement regarding the P5+1’s unified proposal to Iran and the approach to negotiations,” said the statement, using the abbreviation for the six major powers. “They consider the P5+1 proposal to be a sound step toward assuring the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”

Netanyahu urges Kerry to reject rumored deal with Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the United States to reject a deal that reportedly would ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for limiting uranium enrichment to 3.5 percent purity.

Netanyahu said Israel “utterly rejects” the deal, details of which were reported Thursday in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

“Israel is not obliged by this agreement and will do everything it needs to defend itself, to defend the security of its people,” he said prior to a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry cut short a Middle East trip to travel to Geneva Friday in a bid to “narrow the difference in negotiations” between the major powers and Iran.

According to the Telegraph, the deal under discussion would require Iran to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and turn its existing stockpile into harmless oxide. But it would be permitted to enrich to the 3.5 percent purity needed for nuclear energy.

In exchange, Iran would reportedly receive limited sanctions relief.

Netanyahu said Friday that he told Kerry during a meeting in Israel that “no deal is better than a bad one” ahead of Kerry’s departure for Geneva, where the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany are negotiating with Iran.

“The deal being discussed in Geneva is a bad one, a very bad deal,” Netanyahu said. Under the deal

“Iran is not required to dismantle even a single centrifuge, yet the international community is easing sanctions for the first time in many years. Iran is getting everything it wanted at this stage but is giving nothing in return at a time when it is under heavy pressure,” Netanyahu added.

“I call on Secretary Kerry not to rush and sign but wait and re-evaluate to get a better deal,” Netanyahu said.

An unnamed U.S. Senate aide, citing briefings from the White House, the State Department and sources in Geneva, told the Telegraph that in addition to the 3.5-percent limit, Iran would agree to limit the number of centrifuges being used for this purpose.

Iran would also agree not to use its more advanced IR-2 centrifuges, which can enrich uranium between three and five times faster than an older model, but would be under no requirement to remove or disable any other centrifuges.

Additionally, under the deal Iran would agree to a six-month freeze in some activities at its reactor at Arak.

A deal with Iran can strengthen U.S.-Israel relationship


The beginning of talks with Iran this week in Geneva follow dramatic developments at the United Nations General Assembly last month that culminated in a phone call between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani. But the new atmosphere of at least minimal dialogue has created apprehension in Israel and some Arab states that the United States needs to alleviate. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media blitz in the United States and the reported Saudi decision not to speak at the U.N. demonstrate the depths of this worry.

The issues in dispute are so complex and the domestic suspicions so intense that it may not be possible to achieve any agreements at all. However, some kind of Iranian-American bargain seems a possible outcome. For Iran, an American attack is a credible possibility, but perhaps more important are the international sanctions that are clearly working. Tehran cannot overcome its current economic malaise until many are lifted, and that requires a deal with the United States. As for the Obama administration, there is currently little stomach for a military attack on Iran, but there is clear preference for an accommodation that would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The American global and regional position could thereby be resurrected and a dangerous confrontation could be avoided.

This rosy scenario is saddled with pitfalls, however, not least from Iran’s neighbors — Israelis and several Arab states, especially in the Gulf — who share the belief that the Iranians are trying to reduce sanctions and continue their nuclear weapons program secretly even as they pretend to moderate their policies. These states and many Americans would likely believe that the United States has been duped, even with a negotiated agreement.

If — and only if — the United States and Iran unexpectedly conclude and sign an accord in which the United States is satisfied that an Iranian nuclear weapon had been prevented, this skepticism would continue, possibly forming an obstacle to final acceptance in the United States. Washington should, therefore, take a step to further reassure these apprehensive regional states that if Iran tried to cheat, it would be deterred and stopped: Conclude NATO-like treaties with Israel and separately with those Arab states that wished to join under an American umbrella. The treaty arrangements should provide an American commitment to protect each of these states against a sudden Iranian nuclear breakthrough in violation of its agreements with the United States, the Europeans and even the U.N. Incorporation into NATO or stationing American troops in these countries as was done during the Cold War are other options. Such an arrangement should give a clear signal to Iran that it would suffer egregiously if it violated the agreement, and that a nuclear attack on any of these countries would be treated as an attack against the United States — the NATO formula.

For the Obama administration to actually reach a deal with Iran, which would necessarily include safeguards and inspections, it will undoubtedly be convinced that Iran would abide by the agreements or at least not be allowed to violate them. Therefore, providing a protective umbrella over neighboring states that are skeptical and require further assurances should not be onerous; American action should not be necessary. If the administration is not convinced that Iran is serious enough so that Washington can offer these guarantees, then an agreement with Iran should not be concluded.

Of course, the Arab states or Israel might reject a treaty with the United States, but if an American-Iranian agreement had been reached, even Israel would gain from relinquishing some flexibility. A treaty with Jerusalem would have to be negotiated carefully to address unpleasant contingencies, but the United States would also be losing flexibility inherent in its own guarantees — making the treaty more attractive. The Arab states would also be receiving more locked-in assurances from the United States than they are accustomed to gaining, but it would be worth the price for the United States. Through such a network of defense treaties, all parties would be trading some diminished flexibility of action in favor of intensified security — a good deal for all should a viable U.S.-Iranian treaty be reached.

Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion initially raised a possible defense treaty between Israel and the United States during the first Eisenhower term. It was much discussed in the last 18 months of the Clinton administration in anticipation of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and would undoubtedly be raised again if such a deal were to be consummated under the current talks with Secretary of State John Kerry. But the danger to Israel from an Iranian nuclear force looms incomparably larger, and a codicil to the treaty could always be added regarding Israeli-Palestinian matters. As part of the necessary assurances, this would be the wrong time to discuss a nuclear-free zone in the region.

Whether the Obama-Rouhani phone call will turn out to be the equivalent of the Nixon era’s breakthrough with China remains to be seen. But, as in the case of China, such a dramatic turn of events requires assuring neighbors that their vital security interests will be protected. We have the means to concretize these assurances. We can and should take them.


Steven L. Spiegel is director of the Center for Middle East Development and professor of political science at UCLA. 

Obama administration warns: Gov’t shutdown undermining Iran sanctions


Is the U.S. government shutdown undermining the sanctions that helped bring Iran to Geneva this week for talks aimed at ending the standoff over its nuclear program?

Top administration officials have been emphatically making the case that it is.

Wendy Sherman, the third-ranked official at the State Department, said in Senate testimony on Oct. 3 that the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury department that monitors international trade to ensure compliance with the sanctions regime, “has been completely, virtually, utterly depleted at this time.”

“Our ability to do that, to enforce sanctions, to stop sanctions evaders is being hampered significantly by the shutdown,” Sherman said.

It’s not clear how many Foreign Assets Control staffers have been sent home because of the shutdown. A number of reports have suggested the Treasury department overall has furloughed 90 percent of its staff.

But the Foreign Assets Control office isn’t completely inoperative. Since the shutdown went into effect earlier this month, the office has issued one list of entities and individuals designated as terrorists.

The lone employee of Treasury’s communications staff still on the job did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Republicans are skeptical that the shutdown is undermining sanctions, suggesting that the Obama administration is using an initiative with rare bipartisan support to bash the Republicans who brought the government to a standstill.

One GOP staffer said that if a real threat to national security were to emerge, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew could recall furloughed workers just as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had done.

“If Secretary Lew were to get briefed that certain people are hurting national security, he has the prerogative to bring them back,” the staffer said.

Still, the warnings from the administration have prompted some concern on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism and nonproliferation, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat, wrote President Obama urging him to return Office of Foreign Assets Control staffers to the job.

“The administration is engaging in its first diplomatic negotiations with Iran under Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, and whether or not we agree with the outreach, we believe that furloughing nearly all of OFAC’s employees makes the U.S. negotiating position weaker,” the letter said.

Rouhani, elected this summer on a platform of reform and outreach to the West, has acknowledged that the devastation wrought by 30 years of U.S.-led sanctions — intensified over the last five years during the Obama administration — helped bring him to the negotiating table.

Wendy Sherman is leading the U.S. team in talks in Geneva this week aimed at arriving at a verifiable agreement that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon. Also participating in the talks are Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Joel Rubin, a former Democratic congressional aide and a former U.S. diplomat, said it was unlikely that banks and oil companies adhering to sanctions would start cheating just because the monitoring mechanisms are not operating at full capacity. But the absence of staff is problematic if new issues arise, he said.

“You don’t want to be in a situation where something happens but you could have prevented it because the staff’s not in,” said Rubin, the director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation advocacy group.

Pro-Israel officials who monitor sanctions noted that the Office of Foreign Assets Control is not the only arm of the U.S. sanctions monitoring apparatus. Other relevant agencies — including intelligence agencies and the State Department — are running at almost a full complement.

“From what I’ve heard, folks that have active intelligence functions are being asked to continue to serve,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group that has taken a lead in advising Congress and the administration on the shape of sanctions.

Colin Kahl, a deputy defense secretary in Obama’s first term who is now a senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, said the ability of the Obama administration to implement sanctions, or to waive some of them in the event of progress in Geneva, would not take an immediate hit because of the discretion afforded Obama in existing law and his executive powers.

“At least for some period of time, the administration probably has enough discretion to do something on the sanctions front without Congress,” Kahl said in an address Monday to the annual conference of the National Iranian American Council.

Rubin said the shutdown’s bigger hit was long-term — to the U.S. reputation.

“The Iranians are not in a position to worry about whether the U.S. government is in crisis because they’re the ones under pressure, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “But it makes allies nervous and creates an opening for adversaries” such as China and Russia — countries that have only reluctantly joined the pressure on Iran.

“If the shoe were on the other foot and there was a government in turmoil every few months,” Rubin said, “how would the United States relate to that government?”

U.S. slams UNHRC for ‘disproportionate’ Israel focus


The Obama administration refused to participate in a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting on Israeli settlements and slammed the body for its “disproportionate” focus on Israel.

The council, based in Geneva, on Monday debated a January special report on the settlements that called for Israel to immediately withdraw from the West Bank and suggested that Israel may be liable for war crimes if it does not.

U.S. delegates would not speak during the debate, according to DPA, the German news agency, and in separate comments Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the body, said that “the United States remains extremely troubled by this council's continued biased and disproportionate focus on Israel.”

Israel no longer associates with the Human Rights Council, in part because of last year's fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements that culminated in the report. Israel did not cooperate with the countil on the settlements report.

The council repeatedly singles out Israel for criticism and has ignored major human rights abusers, some of which are members of the council.

The Obama administration reversed its predecessor's policy of not participating in the council, and has noted some progress in getting it to address abuses in countries like Iran.

B'nai B'rith International's representative at the United Nations in Geneva, Klaus Netter, said in a statement to the council that the report was counterproductive.

“Far from advancing the peace process between the two main parties, the fact-finding mission report has only reinforced Israel’s doubts about returning to active participation in this council and produced yet another source of conflict that may occupy this council’s attention for months or years to come,” he said.

Nobel Peace Laureate David Trimble addresses UN debate on settlements


Nobel Peace Laureate David Trimble, member of the British House of Lords, will be taking the floor shortly in this morning's UN Human Rights Council debate on a new report by a fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements, to deliver the following statement on behalf of the Geneva non-governmental organization UN Watch.

_________

Statement by United Nations Watch delivered by The Right Honourable David Trimble
Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey
18 March 2013

Thank you, Mr. President.

On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize 15 years ago, I cited Edmund Burke. My experience in Northern Ireland underlines his insistence that every idea or proposal derives its merit from circumstance, which carries more weight than abstraction and ideology.

I am a firm believer in a two-state solution, which will require difficult compromises.

This report, however, does not help. By urging the removal of all settlers living beyond the green line, the report is inconsistent with Security Council Resolution 242, endorsed by the Council decision establishing this commission.

It could lead to the utterly grotesque consequence that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem should be returned to the desolate condition that existed between 1948 and 1967.

The Report’s conclusions address one of the issues in a high handed and one-sided manner. It is not the necessary comprehensive agreement; nor is it part of one. It amounts to a unilateral measure of the sort opposed by the international community.

I have to say that the very idea of this inquiry is wrong. Negotiations can only be by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Others at best can play a helpful role. But outside bodies purporting to make authoritative pronouncements on major issues over the heads of the parties can only undermine and subvert the peace process.

This report abandons principles established in the Clinton Camp David talks, and applied in the Road Map and the Olmert-Abbas talks.

The United Nations and its human rights bodies should all be working with others to advance the cause of peace, not to hinder it.

I regret to say that the Council displays the same selectivity that led to the abolition of the earlier Commission. I urge you to heed the criticism by successive UN secretaries-general of this Council’s habit of singling out only one specific country, to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Fewer anti-Semitic attacks recorded in Switzerland last year


The number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in Switzerland has dropped from 36 in 2011 to 25 incidents last year.

The figures were reported in the annual analysis on anti-Semitism by the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities. The report states that unlike the previous year, no physical attacks against Jews were recorded in Switzerland in 2012 and that hostilities in Israel did not serve as “trigger events,” as has been observed in previous years.

Most incidents last year were hate mail cases or graffiti, the report said. Online content was not included in the report.

Monitor reports showed a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2012 and a 30 percent increase in Belgium, which watchdog groups said were linked to a wave of attacks that followed the slaying of four Jews at a school in Toulouse by a radical Muslim.

Erdogan at UN forum: Zionism is ‘crime against humanity’ [VIDEO]


Amid rampant hate speech against Jews published in newspapers in Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said at a United Nations meeting that anti-Semitism, Zionism and Islamophobia were all “crimes against humanity.”

Speaking Wednesday at the “Fifth Alliance of Civilizations Forum” in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, Erdogan said: “Just like Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it becomes unavoidable that Islamophobia must be regarded as a crime against humanity,” Anatolia News Agency and other Turkish media reported.

The event was a United Nations summit for tolerance.

UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group, has called on Erdogan to apologize for his “shocking” statements and urged Ban Ki-moon — the secretary general of the United Nation who, according to UN Watch, was present on the stage and did not react to Erdogan’s words — to speak out and condemn the speech.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said the prime minister's remarks were particularly disturbing against a backdrop of increased Eurpoean anti-semitism.

“Frankly… we are deeply disappointed that the UN Secretary General, the world’s leading diplomat, sat through the attack in silence,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement.  “We note that the US, UK, Canada and Australia declined to attend in the first place, but that both Germany and France were in attendance. We urge the leaders of those two countries along with all NATO members to publicly denounce this hate-mongering.”

Cooper also criticized Erdogan, saying he “is exactly the type of bigoted politician he bemoaned in his speech. It has been clear for some time that President Erdogan has chosen to walk in the hateful footsteps of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and use the denigration of Israel and the millions of proud Zionists around the world to establish his credentials with the Islamist street. His anti-Semitic bombast is degrading 500 years of relations with the Jewish people and putting Turkey’s Jewish community at risk of attack from extremists.”

“With the upsurge of anti-Semitism raging across Europe, such a slander, left unchallenged will only further embolden anti-Semites everywhere,” the Wiesenthal Center official concluded.

Erdogan’s words came on the heels of the Feb. 25 publication of a report on xenophobia in the Turkish media which said that Jews and Armenians are exposed to hate speech more than any other group in Turkey.

The report by the Hrant Dink Foundation, a human rights watchdog, is based on material that appeared in 16 national circulation newspapers and another 1,000 local publications between September 2012 and December 2012, according to an article about the report which appeared on Thursday in Hurriyet, a Turkish daily.

The researches found 39 instances of hate speech against Jews in Turkish newspapers during that period, which accounted for 25 percent of the total of hateful articles found. Hate speech levels against Armenians was slightly lower, according to a diagram from the research. The third most targeted group was Christians with 18 percent of all hateful content.

The top three Turkish dailies that featured hate speech content are Yeni Akit, Milli Gazete and Yeni Mesaj, respectively, the report said, adding that in the local media, Istanbul, Gölcük Postası, and Yozgat Hakimiyet were the top three dailies that used hate speech the most.

U.N.: Israel must withdraw from settlements immediately


A U.N. report on the impact of Jewish West Bank settlements on Palestinians said Israel immediately should begin withdrawing all settlers from the territory.

The report issued Thursday by the U.N. Human Rights Council based in Geneva said that settlements violate the 1949 Geneva Conventions and that failure to withdraw could lead to a finding of war crimes at the International Criminal Court. The Palestinians have threatened to take Israel to the ICC after the Palestinian Authority was recognized as a non-member state at the U.N. General Assembly last November.

The Human Rights Council's investigation began last March. Israel did not cooperate, barring investigators from entering the West Bank and charging the council with anti-Israel bias. The council has issued more resolutions regarding Israeli human rights violations than resolutions for all other countries combined.

Israel's Foreign Ministry called the report counterproductive.

“The Human Rights Council has sadly distinguished itself by its systematical, one-sided and biased approach towards Israel. This latest report is yet another unfortunate reminder of such approach,” the ministry said. The report “will only hamper efforts to find a sustainable solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” and “the only way to resolve all pending issues between Israel and the Palestinians, including the settlements issue, is through direct negotiations without pre-conditions.”

Investigators interviewed about 50 Palestinians in Jordan for the report, which found that Palestinians are prevented by settlements from reaching their farming lands and water resources.

Israel “must, in compliance with article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, cease all settlement activities without preconditions,” the report said. “It must immediately initiate a process of withdrawal of all settlers from the OPT,” U.N.-speak for “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

An estimated 520,000 settlers live in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem in some 250 settlements, which “prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” the report said.

Israel boycotts scheduled U.N. review of human rights practices


Israel boycotted a United Nations review of its human rights practices, becoming the first country to do so.

Israel did not send representatives to its review session on Tuesday at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The council was conducting its Universal Periodic Review process in which the 193 U.N. member states have their human rights record reviewed every four years.

In March, Israel stopped cooperating with the council after it set up a committee to investigate Israeli settlements and their effect on Palestinian human rights. Israel last took part in a human rights review in 2008. Israel is not a member of the council, which is comprised of 47 U.N. member states.

The reviews first began in 2007. Israel's absence on Tuesday was the first time that a country under evaluation did not show up without an explanation. Haiti is the only other country to delay its review, in 2010 following a devastating earthquake.

At Tuesday's meeting, the council decided to postpone its review until no later than November. The statement said it “regretted” Israel's decision to boycott the session.

The Human Rights Council has been accused of singling out Israel, passing more resolutions against Israel than all other countries combined and by having an agenda item dedicated to it at every council meeting.

Eight Israeli human rights organizations said in a statement that with the council's decision to postpone the session on Israel's human rights review, “Israel now has a golden opportunity to reverse its decision not to participate.”

The statement also said, “It is legitimate for Israel to express criticism of the work of the Council and its recommendations, but Israel should do so through engagement with the Universal Periodic Review, as it has done in previous sessions.”

Dutch police nab suspected stabber of French Jew


Dutch police reportedly arrested and extradited to Switzerland a 22-year-old Briton suspected of stabbing a Jewish man in Geneva.

The suspect is a member of extreme right circles, according to CICAD, a Swiss watchdog on anti-Semitism, and was arrested last month in the Netherlands. DNA evidence linked him to the stabbing, according to Johanne Gurfinkel, secretary general of a CICAD, an institution of the Swiss Jewish community.

According to the CICAD website, the suspect was arrested following “a long investigation by the police department of Geneva and an international arrest waarant issued.”

The attack occurred last December in the car park of Geneva’s Natural History Museum as the victim, a haredi Orthodox Jew, was putting a baby carriage in the trunk of his car. His attacker allegedly stabbed him four times in view of the victim’s family.

The victim, a French national from Aix les Bains, some 40 miles from Geneva, sustained serious injuries and was hospitalized for more than a week.

He was visiting friends in Geneva along with his wife and five children, the oldest of whom was 9. The children were in the car and his wife was at the wheel when the man was attacked and stabbed from the back, according to a report on the incident by SPCJ, the security unit of France’s Jewish communities. 

The attacker seemed “particularly determined to kill the victim,” according to SPCJ. The victim, however, managed to hit the attacker in the face and fend him off with the baby carriage. The victim suffered lacerations on his back and face; the knife also penetrated one of the victim’s lungs.

The attacker fled but left some DNA, which the Swiss police collected and filed with the European wanted persons database, leading to his arrest and extradition, Gurfinkel of CICAD told JTA.

U.S. wins re-election to U.N. Human Rights Council


The United States succeeded on Monday in its bid for re-election to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council, a Geneva-based watchdog that has been criticized by Washington and Israel for singling out the Jewish state for criticism.

The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly also elected 17 other countries for terms beginning in January. The United States won the most votes of the regional group “Western Europe and Others,” followed by Germany and Ireland.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice welcomed Washington's re-election, saying that the Human Rights Council “has delivered real results” since the United States first joined it in 2010 after running for a seat on it in 2009. She cited council action on Syria as a positive example of its work.

However, she criticized the rights council's “excessive and unbalanced focus on Israel.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Rice's comments.

“We pledge to continue to work closely with the international community to address urgent and serious human rights concerns worldwide and to strengthen the (rights) council,” Clinton said in a statement.

The United States had boycotted the Human Rights Council until 2009, when the administration of President Barack Obama reversed U.S. policy and ran for a seat on the body in an effort to reform it from within.

Greece and Sweden failed to secure spots on the council in the “Western Europe and Others” category, the only regional group that had a competitive slate. Other regional groups had uncompetitive slates that assured victory for those in the running as there were enough seats for all candidates.

Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, and Sierra Leone were elected from Africa, and Japan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates from the Asia Group.

Estonia and Monte negro were elected from Eastern Europe, while Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela secured seats on behalf of the Latin America and Caribbean Group.

DUBIOUS RIGHTS RECORDS

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the vote, saying it fell far short of a bona fide election.

“To call the vote in the General Assembly an 'election' gives this process way too much credit,” said Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch. “Until there is real competition for seats in the Human Rights Council, its membership standards will remain more rhetoric than reality.”

Votes for seats on U.N. bodies, including the Security Council, often have uncontested regional slates.

Freedom House, a Washington-based rights watchdog, said that seven of the countries that secured seats on the council – Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, UAE, and Venezuela- are unqualified for membership on a body that requires members to uphold the highest standards regarding human rights.

Freedom House said that the qualifications of three other new members – Brazil, Kenya, and Sierra Leone – were questionable.

Earlier this year, Sudan had announced plans to run for a seat on the Human Rights Council but withdrew after it was criticized by rights groups. Khartoum instead secured a seat on the U.N. Economic and Social Council, one of the world body's principal organs, which coordinates economic and social issues.

Syria had attempted to run for a seat on the rights council last year but withdrew due to pressure from Western and Arab states. Syrian President Basher al-Assad's government, which has led a 20-month mil itary cam paign against an increasingly militarized opposition, plans to run for a rights council seat next year.

Rights advocates have successfully mounted similar campaigns against previous candidates for the Human Rights Council, including Belarus, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Iran.