Nationwide strike looms in Israel as unions demand pay hike


Israel is bracing for its first nationwide strike in four years on Wednesday in a battle over public sector wages that could damage the economy as it is starting to bounce back from a weak first half of the year.

Officials from the finance ministry and the Histadrut – the umbrella organisation for 700,000 public sector workers – were meeting to try to avert a strike, with negotiations likely to run well into the evening.

If a strike goes ahead, Israel's main airport, seaports, trains, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, government offices, hospitals and schools will probably be closed. Flag carrier El Al moved up 18 flights to New York and Europe scheduled for Wednesday morning by as much as 4 hours.

Business leaders estimate direct economic damage at about 300 million shekels ($77 million) a day while the government sees total damage at 1 billion to 3 billion shekels daily.

Israel's economy grew slower than expected in the first half of 2015 before posting an annualised 2.5 percent growth rate in the third quarter.

The Histadrut is demanding an 11 percent pay raise for civil workers, saying many Israelis have trouble making ends meet. That would cost the state about 11 billion shekels and likely require budget cuts elsewhere.

Negotiations have gone nowhere to date due to a government insistence that lower salaried workers receive more while those earning higher wages get less of a raise.

Israel's Manufacturers' Association and Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce have asked the labour court to prevent any strike.

The finance ministry has asked the court to prevent teachers from striking since their union earlier signed a contract that forbids them from walking out until August 2017.

Uriel Lynn, president of the chambers of commerce, noted that the public sector has grown sharply in the last decade to 1.26 million workers from 722,000.

The last strike, which lasted three days in early 2012, cost the economy some 6 billion shekels and ended with a new wage package for low-earning contract workers. A strike was averted last December when the Histadrut signed a deal with private sector employers to raise Israel's minimum wage.

($1 = 3.8953 shekels)

With deal struck, pro-Israel groups suspend lobbying for Syria strike


Pro-Israel groups suspended their high-profile lobbying effort for a strike on Syria now that the United States and Russia have struck a deal to strip the Assad regime of its chemical weapons.

A spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which organized a Capitol Hill blitz last week aimed at persuading Congress to back a strike, confirmed Monday that lobbying has been suspended for now.

The American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which also had been involved in the lobbying, said they would suspend lobbying, too.

“We sent many messages over the last week and a half; we are not formulating new letters to the Hill,” Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s director of international affairs, told JTA. “Our message is out there should it be required.”

Jewish groups had hesitated at first to sign on to the lobbying effort, fearful that their support would be construed as a pro-Israel initiative. But they dove in after President Obama called for a strike last month and senior administration officials solicited their help in persuading Congress to sign off on the military action.

AIPAC sent 250 of its members for personal meetings with Capitol Hill lawmakers, a show of strength the lobby reserves for major initiatives. The group kept up its effort even after Obama called last week for Congress to delay a vote while he explored the Russian proposal for international monitors to take over and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

The AJC in a letter Sept. 12 to Congress members said the threat of credible military action must be maintained even as the United States looked at the Russian plan. Leading pro-Israel figures echoed the view.

“Every day that goes by without congressional authorization, it undermines the vitality of the threat,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said in an interview Friday.

By Monday, however, the groups had changed their tune, suspended their lobbying and endorsed the putative deal brokered in Geneva over the weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Under the terms of the agreement, Syria would be stripped of its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. If it refuses to comply, the situation would be referred to the U.N. Security Council.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has yet to formally give its assent to the deal, though government officials have indicated a willingness to approve it.

“While we remain cautious about President Assad’s true commitment to disarmament, we welcome this agreement as an ambitious but hopeful first step to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria,” the ADL said in a statement Monday.

Martin Raffel, the senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which had advocated for a strike, said his group would now “take its lead from the administration.”

“We hope military force won’t be necessary,” Raffel said. “The point of the military force was not just to engage in the military operation, it was to try and prevent Assad from using chemical weapons. We’re cautiously optimistic this thing will all work out.”

The flurry of activity followed an attack on Aug. 21 in which a rebel stronghold near Damascus was hit with chemical weapons that are believed to have killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the attack was likely perpetrated by opposition forces, but the United States maintains it was almost certainly launched by Assad.

After sealing the deal with Lavrov in Geneva, Kerry flew to Israel, where he appeared at a joint news conference Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We have been closely following — and support — your ongoing efforts to rid Syria of its chemical weapons,” Netanyahu said. “The Syrian regime must be stripped of all its chemical weapons, and that would make our entire region a lot safer.”

Netanyahu cast Israel’s investment in the deal in the same terms that pro-Israel groups had framed their support last week for strike authorization: as a message to Iran.

“What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time — that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat,” Netanyahu said. “What is true of Syria is true of Iran and, by the way, vice versa.”

Republican Jewish Coalition endorses Obama’s Syria call


We hear a lot of rhetoric about putting country above politics, but the Republican Jewish Coalition comes through this week with a robust endorsement of President Obama’s call for congressional backing for a Syria strike.

The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) issued an Action Alert today to our 45,000 members, calling on them to reach out to their elected officials in the House and Senate, to ask them to support the upcoming resolution authorizing the use of military force against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria.

The Action Alert stressed the moral threshold that has been crossed by Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.

We also emphasized that it is in America’s vital national interests that we continue to be able to project – in Syria and elsewhere – a credible military deterrent.

The RJC believes that this not a Republican or Democrat issue. We encouraged our members to reach out in a bipartisan fashion to Republican and Democrat officials to ask for their support of the resolution.

Okay, so the statement does not mention Obama (the action alert does), and the use of “Democrat” as an adjective remains as absurd as ever.

And let me caveat, naturally, that I can’t enter into whether a strike is the right or wrong way to address the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

But what is salient here is that the RJC makes a case that goes against its partisan mission in two ways: It endorses a Democratic president’s legislation (I remember generic praise from Jewish Democrats for past GOP presidents, but I don’t remember a specific endorsement of a legislative initiative.) More significantly, the RJC is wading forcefully into an emerging internecine struggle within its own party. Opposition to a Syria intervention is not confined to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). A number of establishment mainstreamers (including Liz Cheney) are opposed as well.

The debate we should be having on Syria


On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One, departed for Sweden and left behind a looming political disaster. Despite the endorsement of Republican and Democratic House leaders, many members of Congress remain deeply skeptical about the president's proposal to carry out cruise missile strikes in Syria. And they should be.

A few dozen missile strikes will not alter the military balance in Syria's civil war. They will not punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the point where it moves him to the bargaining table. The Syrian autocrat is engaged in a ruthless fight for survival. Obama is not. As long as that dynamic continues, limited military action will have a limited impact.

Tomahawk cruise missiles are the latest wonder weapon to be used to lull Americans into thinking they can have war without cost. (For now, they've replaced drones.) In a sign of just how limited the American effort will be, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted a resolution Tuesday night that would limit any military action to sixty days, with one thirty day extension.

Under the best-case scenario outlined by administration officials, American destroyers will lob a few dozen missiles at Syria late next week. Washington's credibility will be magically restored. And there will be little pain, risk or casualties for Americans.

That is wishful thinking.

At the same time, opponents of military action on the left and right argue that we can ignore what is happening in Syria. The Sunnis who make up 70 percent of Syria's population and their Gulf backers will give up, some argue. Or if Assad wins, a magnanimous Hezbollah and Iran will not be emboldened by his successful use of chemical weapons.

In truth, Syria is on a path to become a failed state split between Sarin-wielding Alawites and Sunni jihadists. The largest refugee crisis in the world since Vietnam will destabilize Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and potentially ignite a regional war. And America's true red lines – Israel's security and the steady flow of Middle Eastern oil into the global economy – will be threatened.

A gaping hole in the president's response to Syria is that it does not grapple with the core question: what should America's role in the Middle East be? Defender of chemical weapons bans? Defender of oil flows? Defender of Israel and no one else?

Political realities, of course, limit what type of military action Obama can propose. War weary Americans want no part of another conflict in the Middle East. But they deserve a realistic, clear-eyed strategy in the region. President George W. Bush's invasion-centric approach to countering militancy clearly failed. But Obama's hands-off approach is not working either.

For six years, Obama has successfully struck a middle ground in foreign policy, using drone strikes and a time-limited troop surge in Afghanistan to appear tough but anti-war. His plan to strike Syria could be the straw that breaks the back of Obama's split-the-difference approach.

Barring a major personal lobbying effort by the president, a skeptical House is likely to reject Obama's request for an authorization. An ABC News poll released Tuesday found that 60 percent of Americans oppose a unilateral US missile strike on Syria.

To be fair, an array of factors beyond Obama's control have come together to turn Syria into the administration's perfect storm. Assad's depravity, Russian President Vladimir Putin's cynicism and a fractious Syrian opposition make up a rogue's gallery of stubborn opponents and unappealing allies. And the war in Iraq – which Obama opposed – has created sweeping isolationism.

Obama also has himself to blame. Traits that have been steadily building in his administration for the last several years have made Syria harder to solve.

First, it is unclear how deeply Obama, in fact, wants to act in Syria. A famously detached president seems half-engaged. Instead of Obama making impassioned speeches last week to the American people, Secretary of State John Kerry did. After making a surprise announcement on Saturday that he would seek a congressional authorization to strike Syria, Obama went golfing.

Tracking the president's personal involvement in the debate ahead will show his true intent. If Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others remain the primary administration voices lobbying Congress, it is a sign of Obama's ambivalence.

In an ominous sign for the White House, opposition to the strikes is growing on the far right and left. Lead by Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, libertarians say no vital U.S. interests are at stake in Syria. Citing Iraq, liberals who enjoy generous security and rights at home blithely dismiss the idea of enforcing international norms abroad.

As historian Douglas Brinkley noted, one of the oddest things about the American response to Assad's chemical weapons attack is the lack of moral outrage. Beyond Kerry, few Americans have expressed anger at a barbaric attack that killed 1,400 people, including 400 children. Yes, we must not repeat the mistakes of Iraq. But that does not absolve us from seriously grappling with the nightmarish scenarios that are emerging in the Middle East.

There are no quick or easy solutions in Syria. Even if the U.S. acts, it will not stabilize the country. But we need a comprehensive strategy.

At this point, the best of several bad options is to mount extensive U.S. strikes, arm the moderate opposition and try to negotiate a political settlement with Russia and Iran. A Tomahawk-created peace is a fantasy.


David Rohde is a Reuters columnist.

Jewish groups set to back Obama on Syria


Jewish groups backing President Obama’s call to strike Syria are citing moral outrage and U.S. national security as primary considerations — but concern for Israel, however muted, also looms large in their thinking.

A lingering sensitivity over misrepresentations of the role of the pro-Israel community in the leadup to the Iraq War in 2003 kept the groups from weighing in on Syria until it was clear that President Obama was determined to strike, and is now leading them to downplay any mention of Israel.

Officials of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, finishing up a conference call Tuesday afternoon with top security advisers to Obama, waited until the White House staffers were off the call, and then urged constituent organizations not to make their statements “Israel-centric” because of the sensitivities.

Notably, Israel was not mentioned in any of the three statements that emerged immediately following on the conference call, which was convened to solidify support for Obama’s call for a strike. These came from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Of the three statements, only AIPAC’s even alluded to Israel.

“America’s allies and adversaries are closely watching the outcome of this momentous vote,” said the AIPAC statement. “This critical decision comes at a time when Iran is racing toward obtaining nuclear capability. Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country’s credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies.”

Instead, the statements focused on the need to contain a nation tat has crossed a red line by using chemical weapons against its citizens.

“Those who perpetuate such acts of wanton murder must know that they can not do so with impunity,” said the Presidents’ Conference statement. “Those who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, must see that there is accountability.”

Israel nonetheless loomed large in the off the record conference call between Jewish officials and two top national security advisers to Obama, both in the questions and in how the White House officials cast their replies. One Jewish official asked whether the United States would assist militarily should Syria attack Israel. (The answer: Yes, but it is the U.S. assessment that Syrian President Bashar Assad is not that reckless.)

One of the White House officials repeatedly emphasized that acting to keep Syria from using chemical weapons was a critical step to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — a key Israeli demand.

The White House staffers made clear why they were reaching out to the Jewish community; they sought its influence in garnering the congressional support for a strike that Obama says he wants before going ahead.

Obama on Tuesday met with top congressional officials and repeated his appeal to support limited strikes on Syria to degrade its chemical weapons capability. The meeting came on the heels of the president’s decision over the weekend to seek congressional approval prior to any military move.

“This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences,” Obama said before the meeting.

As he has done repeatedly since first indicating his intention to strike Syria, Obama cited the potential threat to Israel, among other American allies, as one of his concerns.

“This norm against using chemical weapons that 98 percent of the world agrees to is there for a reason,” he said. “Because we recognize that there are certain weapons that when used cannot only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors; can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey; and unless we hold them into account, also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don’t mean much.

A number of officials close to Jewish organizations said a full endorsement was a natural for a community that was among those who were reviled by the suspected chemical weapons attack last month by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. The attack near Damascus killed an estimated 1,400 people, including 400 children.

“It’s hard to imagine there’s a rabbi alive who has a High Holiday service who is not going to talk about a Syria,” said one Jewish official who often brokers relations between the White House and the Jewish community.

Until Obama declared over the weekend that he was ready to strike, however, Jewish groups had been reluctant to weigh in on American intervention, in part because of the hangover from unwarranted attacks in the last decade blaming Jewish lobbying for the Iraq War. Foxman said such hesitations were obviated by Obama’s explicit call for a strike.

“The president has made his decision and we’re not ahead of it,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, told JTA. “He’s not doing this for Israel. This may have serious ramifications for Israel which are negative.”

Administrations have traditionally sought Jewish community support for foreign policy initiatives, but in this case, congressional insiders the influence of AIPAC and other Jewish groups may be limited.

The Tea Party caucus among Republicans, which has an isolationist streak, has since its 2010 elections triumph resisted AIPAC pressure to back a robust foreign assistance program, without repercussions. Among Democrats, the insiders said, the progressives who are wary of another foreign war, are likelier to heed anti-war voices than the pro-Israel lobby. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who is Jewish and has been a pro-Israel and progressive stalwart, has been a leader in expressing skepticism about a strike.

Other Jewish lawmakers have robustly backed a strike, preeminent among them Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and one of the highest profile Jewish lawmakers, invoked the Holocaust over the weekend in making such a case.

“As a Jew, the concept of ‘Never Again’ has to mean something,” she told CNN.

Some groups have already been lobbying for several weeks. An official in a Florida lawmaker’s office said the office had already been flooded with calls and emails from Jewish federations and constituents urging the lawmaker to back Obama’s plan.

Obama this week won the backing of Republican leaders, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House Speaker and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority leader, and the most senior Jewish lawmaker.

Cantor cited a key Israeli concern, that an Assad emerged unscathed from the use of weapons of mass destruction would embolden its sponsor, Iran.

“America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States,” he said in a statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has remained silent on the Syria matter, in part, its officials have told interlocutors because it sees no good outcome.

Such a posture is markedly different from the one assumed bhy then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in late 2005, when Israeli officials urged U.S. Jewish groups to talk the administration of President George W. Bush from considering regime change in Syria, arguing then that as bad as Bashar Assad’s government was, the alternatives were worse.

As Israelis mob gas mask distribution centers, army urges calm


Daniela Hayoum arrived at a Tel Aviv post office at 7 a.m. and took a number.

The line of people waiting for gas masks was long and Hayoum stepped away to run errands. She returned in the afternoon to find hundreds of Israelis crowding under a hot sun on the building’s wide steps, some holding umbrellas and others food.

On the street below, medics treated a woman suffering from the heat. On the sidewalk, men sold cold water and bagels. Hayoum began to push her way through.

“They want me to stand for four hours here,” said Hayoum, of nearby Ramat Gan. “I don’t trust the government or the army. They say we’re prepared, but the Home Front Command won’t answer the phone.”

For two days, Israelis have been descending on centers like this to receive free government-issued gas masks in preparation for a possible Syrian chemical weapons attack. On Thursday, citing the long lines, the government extended the hours of distribution.

The gas mask frenzy signifies a striking mood change here. An alleged chemical weapons attack last week by the Syrian government and subsequent murmurings of a possible U.S. strike have focused Israeli attention on the Syrian civil war like never before.

U.S. officials had harsh words following the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a “moral obscenity” and accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of attempting a cover-up after carrying out the attack. The White House reportedly has begun preparations for a strike on Syria in coordination with European allies.

Although the United States appeared to tone down its rhetoric on Thursday, the fear in Israel is that Assad will respond to an American strike by bombing Israel. On Monday, a government official in Iran, which backs the Assad regime, told an official state news agency that “the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”

The Israel Defense Forces called up nearly 1,000 reservists this week. Following his third security consultation in as many days — a rare occurrence — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure Israelis.

“There is no reason to change daily routines,” Netanyahu said Wednesday. “At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario. The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and to respond strongly against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens.”

Still, the IDF is urging calm and says the chances of a Syrian attack are low. An IDF source told JTA that the Home Front Command has not issued any special instructions to civilians and that “what you’re seeing now is a response from the public.”

“Right now there isn’t any sense of panic,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “There isn’t a freakishly high concern. Everybody is relatively calm. If it was clear that there could be a chance that something would happen, we’d see the consequences of that in terms of Home Front Command instructions to the public.”

Daila Amos, a spokesperson for the Golan Regional Council, said life is continuing normally on the Golan Heights, where stray shells from the fighting across the Syrian border have fallen several times in the past year and where residents are used to a heightened troop presence.

“Unfortunately, during this last year the idea that something could happen has been on our minds,” Amos told JTA. “We hear the bombs almost every day. To think that a number of meters from us these terrible things are happening is not easy.”

Several Israeli analysts say that Assad will likely refrain from attacking Israel even in the case of a U.S. strike. Bombing Israel would draw the IDF into the Syrian civil war, which would weaken Assad and could turn the tide of battle decisively against him, they say.

But Meir Elran, director of the Homeland Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says he no longer believes Assad is acting rationally.

“I wouldn’t attack Israel,” Elran said. “But I also wouldn’t use chemical weapons against my own people.”

The timing of a U.S. strike also remains unclear. There is some question over whether Assad himself ordered the attack and United Nations inspectors are still collecting evidence from the site. They are expected to report to the U.N. secretary-general over the weekend.

Still, Israelis aren’t taking any chances.

Hila Kostinsky, who returned to Israel two weeks ago after 12 years in the United States, said she felt a responsibility to get gas masks for her two children.

“We’re still trying to protect them,” she said. “It’s what you expect when you move back to Israel.”

Ross, Abrams and Jeffrey see strike by ‘14 if Iran does not comply


Three former high-ranking U.S. foreign policy advisers agree that if Iran does not halt its suspected nuclear weapons program by the end of 2013, the United States or Israel will act militarily.

Dennis Ross, until a year ago President Obama’s top Iran policy adviser, and Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, spoke at an event in their honor held Dec. 6 in New York by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Times of Israel reported.

Asked by Washington Institute director Robert Satloff if they believed either America or Israel would use their military against Iran’s nuclear program before the end of 2013 if it is not stopped by that time, Ross and Abrams said yes.

Ross and James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser and the current ambassador to Iraq, predicted a U.S. strike in that case.

“I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails,” force will be used, Ross said.

Jeffrey agreed, saying, “I think if we don’t get a negotiated settlement, and these guys are actually on the threshold as Obama said during the campaign, then the president is going to take military action.” He predicted the decision would come halfway through 2013.

GOP senators plan resolution promising support should Israel strike Iran


Republican senators plan to introduce a non-binding resolution pledging military, economic and diplomatic backing for Israel should it strike Iran.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told JTA on Tuesday that he and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) were drafting the resolution for introduction next month in the Senate.

Graham, attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week, said he was seeking Democratic co-sponsors.

The resolution would underscore the Senate’s hopes for peace and for sanctions to force Iran to make its nuclear program more transparent, he said.

“But in the event Israel had to take preventive action, we would have their back,” Graham said, in terms of military, economic and diplomatic support.

Israel strike on Iran would be disaster, Shaul Mofaz says


A former deputy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday a pre-emptive military strike against Iran over its nuclear program could embroil Israel in a “disastrous war”.

Shaul Mofaz, a parliamentary opposition leader who quit Netanyahu’s cabinet last month where he served as vice premier, said on Israeli television he thought Israel was “planning a hasty, irresponsible event”.

The former general and defense minister said he thought Israel could not do anything to force a strategic change in Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Tehran says it is for peaceful purposes.

As a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet for two months, Mofaz was privy to deliberations on Iran’s nuclear program.

He told Channel 2 television in a studio interview that any Israeli military action “can at the most delay it (Iran’s program) by about a year, and it can bring upon us a disastrous war”.

Naming both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he said he was “very worried at what they are preparing”. He added: “I hope very much we don’t reach such a war because it would be a disaster.”

Days after he quit the cabinet late in July in a dispute about military conscription policy, Mofaz, who heads the centrist Kadima party, cautioned he would not back any Israeli military “adventures”.

His comments echoed those of other former Israeli security officials who have spoken against any unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with some saying such an assault could spur Tehran to speed up uranium enrichment.

Some officials have also voiced concern that any strike could prompt Iran’s proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, to launch rocket attacks on Israel.

Israel, widely believed to be the only atomic power in the Middle East, views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, citing threats made by leaders of the Islamist nation to destroy the Jewish state.

There has been an upsurge in rhetoric from Israeli politicians this month suggesting Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities ahead of U.S. presidential elections in November.

Netanyahu is frustrated that Western diplomacy to try to force Iran to rein in its program has so far proved fruitless. Reported intelligence leaks that Tehran has been accelerating rather than scaling back its program have added to tensions.

However senior Israeli officials have said that a final decision about whether to attack Iran has not yet been taken, with ministers disagreeing over the issue and the military hierarchy unhappy about the prospect of going it alone without full U.S. backing.

Romney would support Israel strike on Iran, senior aide says


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would support an Israeli decision to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, a senior aide said on Sunday.

Romney met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on the second leg of a trip show display his foreign policy credentials in his race to unseat President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.

Shortly before talks with Netanyahu, Romney’s senior national security aide, Dan Senor, told reporters travelling with the candidate:

“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.”

The comment seemed to put Romney at odds with Obama’s efforts to press Israel to avoid any preemptive strike before tough Western economic sanctions against Iran run their course.

Senor later expanded on his remarks, saying Romney felt “we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course”.

It was Romney’s “fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so” and “no option should be excluded”, Senor said, adding that “Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it”.

Standing beside Netanyahu at the Israeli leader’s office, Romney said only that Iran’s effort to become a nuclear power “is one which I take with great seriousness”.

The failure of talks between Iran and six world powers to secure a breakthrough in curbing what the West fears is a drive to develop nuclear weapons has raised international concern that Israel may opt for a go-it-alone military strike.

Netanyahu issued his customary call for stronger measures behind the sanctions to curb Iran’s programme, which Israel sees as a threat to its existence. Iran says its project is for peaceful purposes.

“STRONG MILITARY THREAT”

“We have to be honest that sanctions have not set back the Tehran program one iota and that a strong military threat coupled with sanctions are needed to have a chance to change the situation,” Netanyahu said.

Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, has warned it is only a matter of time before Iran’s nuclear programme achieves a “zone of immunity” in which bombs will not be able to effectively strike uranium enrichment facilities buried deep underground.

Though Washington has been pressing Israel not to launch a solo strike on Iran, Obama has not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to curb Iran’s nuclear drive.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Sunday that Obama’s national security adviser had briefed Netanyahu on a U.S. contingency plan to attack Iran. A senior Israeli official denied the report. [ID: nL6E8IT0P2].

In an effort that appeared timed to upstage Romney’s visit to Israel, Obama signed a measure on Friday to strengthen U.S.-Israeli military ties and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to visit Israel later this week.

Romney’s overseas tour got off to a rocky start, when he angered the British by questioning whether London was ready for the Olympics, a statement he was forced to clarify after a rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron.

His visit to Israel gives him the opportunity to appeal to both Jewish voters and pro-Israel evangelical voters and contrast himself with Obama, who has a strained relationship with Netanyahu.

Romney has sharply criticised Obama’s handling of Iran as not being tough enough.

According to excepts of a speech Romney was to deliver on Sunday evening, the former Massachusetts governor planned to say that an aggressive approach to Tehran was needed to protect against a threat to the very existence of Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the turbulent Middle East.

“When Iran’s leaders deny the Holocaust or speak of wiping this nation off the map, only the naïve – or worse – will dismiss it as an excess of rhetoric,” the text of the speech included.

“Make no mistake: the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences. They want to know who will object, and who will look the other way.”

“My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away; and neither will my country,” the text said.

After his meeting with Netanyahu, Romney met with President Shimon Peres, opposition head Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He then headed to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most revered site.

Wearing a black Jewish skullcap and surrounded by a determined throng of security personnel who cleared a path for him, Romney carefully navigated his way through hundreds of worshippers, some of whom shouted out cries of support.

Romney ends his trip on Monday with a fundraiser for a crowd of mostly Jewish Americans who live in Israel.

The Romney campaign initially had declared the fundraiser off limits to reporters, but on Sunday said it would allow press coverage after journalists complained the campaign was reneging on a prior agreement to open more of its finance events.

Peres says Israel can’t go it alone in Iran, trusts Obama


Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday came out against any go-it-alone Israeli attack on Iran, saying he trusted U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

His comments appeared to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who have both raised the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike, despite assurances from Washington it will not let Iran get the atomic bomb.

“I am convinced this is an American interest. I am convinced(Obama) recognizes the American interest and he isn’t saying this just to keep us happy. I have no doubt about it, after having had talks with him,” Peres told Channel Two television.

“Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can delay (Iran’s nuclear program). It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”

[Related: Israel minister: Possible war with Iran could be month-long affair]

A flurry of comments by Israeli officials and media reports over the past week have put financial markets on edge by appearing to suggest an attack could be launched before the U.S. presidential election in November.

An unidentified top “decision maker”, widely believed to be Barak, told Haaretz newspaper last Friday that Israel “cannot place the responsibility for its security and future even in the hands of its greatest ally”, a reference to the United States.

Peres said in the interview that he did not believe Israel would launch an attack on Iran before November.

As president, Peres, 89, has little political power in Israel. But he has won the respect of many Israelis while serving in the post and his opposition to any unilateral action poses an additional challenge to Netanyahu.

A political source close to Netanyahu issued an angry response to Peres’ comments shortly after the president’s interview was aired.

“Peres has forgotten what the role of Israel’s president is. He has forgotten that he made three major mistakes in regard to Israel’s security … his greatest mistake was in 1981 when he thought bombing the reactor in Iraq was wrong and, to the fortune of Israel’s citizens, Prime Minister Begin ignored him,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In 1981 Israeli warplanes destroyed the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad.

Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, had cautioned that a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state and ignored then opposition leader Peres’ warnings against the strike.

AMERICAN PRESSURE

At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was important that military action be the “last resort”, adding that there was still time for sanctions and diplomatic pressure to work.

“I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Panetta said.

During a visit to Jerusalem at the start of the month, he made some of his strongest comments yet on curbing Tehran’s nuclear project. “We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period,” he told reporters.

In parliament on Thursday, Barak said Israeli deliberations on a course of action were continuing.

“There is a forum of nine (ministers), there is a (security) cabinet, and a decision, when it is required, will be taken by the Israeli government,” Barak said.

“This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. The issue is complicated, but the issue is being deliberated,” he added.

Israeli officials have told Reuters that the prime minister’s cabinet was split on the issue, while the top military leadership was believed to be opposed to any mission that did not have full U.S. support.

“Over the past several months, a wide-ranging and unbridled public relations campaign has been conducted in Israel. Its only aim has been to prepare the ground for premature operational adventures,” said opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, who pulled his Kadima party out of the ruling coalition in July.

Iran rejects Israeli and Western allegations that its nuclear program is aimed at producing atomic weapons, and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked – retaliation that could draw the United States into the conflict.

Additional reporting by Maayen Lubell; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams

Securing Syria chemical weapons may take tens of thousands of troops


The United States and its allies are discussing a worst-case scenario that could require tens of thousands of ground troops to go into Syria to secure chemical and biological weapons sites following the fall of President Bashar Assad’s government, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

These secret discussions assume that all of Assad’s security forces disintegrate, leaving chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria vulnerable to pillaging. The scenario also assumes these sites could not be secured or destroyed solely through aerial bombings, given health and environmental risks.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to explain the sensitive discussions, said the United States still had no plans to put boots on the ground in Syria. President Barack Obama’s administration has, in fact, so far refused to provide lethal support to the rebels fighting to oust Assad’s regime and the Pentagon has played down the possibility of implementing a no-fly zone anytime soon.

“There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worst-case scenario,” the official said, adding U.S. forces would likely play a role in such a mission.

Two diplomatic sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said as many as 50,000 or 60,000 ground forces may be needed if officials’ worst fears are realized, plus additional support forces.

Even a force of 60,000 troops, however, would not be large enough for peacekeeping and would only be the amount required to secure the weapons sites – despite some of the appearances of a Iraq-style occupation force, the diplomatic sources cautioned.

It is unclear at this stage how such a military mission would be organized and which nations might participate. But some European allies have indicated they are unlikely to join, the sources said.

The White House declined comment on specific contingency plans. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said that while the U.S. government believes the chemical weapons are under the Syrian government’s control, “Given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime’s increasing attacks on the Syrian people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.

“In addition to monitoring their stockpiles, we are actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors – and our friends in the international community – to underscore our common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them,” Vietor said.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

POTENTIALLY DOZENS OF SITES

While there is no complete accounting of Syria’s unconventional weapons, it is widely believed to have stockpiles of nerve agents such as VX, sarin and tabun.

The U.S. official said there were potentially dozens of chemical and biological weapons sites scattered around the country.

Securing them could not be left to an aerial bombing, which could lead to the dispersion of those agents, the official said.

“There could be second-order effects that could be extremely problematic,” the official said of aerial bombing.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that it was important that Syrian security forces be held together when Assad is forced from power, citing, in particular, their ability to secure chemical weapons sites.

“They do a pretty good job of securing those sites,” Panetta said in an interview with CNN in July. “If they suddenly walked away from that, it would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area.”

The United States, Israel and Western powers have been discussing the nightmarish possibility that some of Assad’s chemical weapons could make their way to militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, might try to get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

Precise quantities and configurations of chemical weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tons of agents annually.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are several suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible production site for biological weapons.

Editing by Warren Strobel

Israel hits Gaza weapons facilities


Israel’s Air Force attacked what it said were two weapons storage facilities in the Gaza Strip.

Direct hits were identified in the early Wednesday morning attacks, according to statement from the Israel Defense Forces spokespersons’ office.

The statement said that the sites were targeted in response to rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israeli communities. So far in 2012, over 270 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, including at least two this week.

Last weekend, the Air Force struck three weapons production sites in central Gaza, and two terror tunnels.The Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported that the strikes hit a poultry farm and a naval police post.

Israel wary of expected Iran nuclear deal


Israel expressed deep suspicion on Tuesday about an expected deal between the U.N. nuclear agency and Iran, suggesting Tehran’s aim was to wriggle out of sanctions rather than make real concessions ahead of wider atomic talks with world powers.

“Iran has proven over the years its lack of credibility, its dishonesty. Telling the truth is not its strong side and therefore we have to be suspicious of them all the time and examine the agreement that is being formulated,” Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said on Israel Radio.

He and other cabinet members spoke after the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he expected to sign an agreement with Tehran soon to unblock an IAEA investigation into suspicions Iran has worked on designing nuclear arms.

Iran meets six world powers in Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss what the West and Israel suspect is its drive to develop the means to make atom bombs.

Tehran has returned to talks, after a hiatus of more than a year, under tighter western sanctions and constant Israeli and U.S. threats of military strikes on Iran, which says its often secretive projects are for purely peaceful ends.

“It appears that the Iranians are trying to reach a ‘technical agreement’ which will create the impression of progress in the talks, in order to remove some of the pressure before the talks tomorrow in Baghdad (and) put off the intensification of sanctions,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.

Asked whether war on Iran was still a possibility given apparent progress on the diplomatic track, Vilnai said: “One shouldn’t get confused for even a moment – everything is on the table.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that “the leading nations of the world must show force and clarity, and not weakness” in their dealings with Iran.

Netanyahu has demanded that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, remove enriched material and dismantle its underground, bunkered nuclear facility near the city of Qom.

Widely assumed to be the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal, Israel is determined to stop hostile neighbors acquiring weapons that it fears could be used to wipe out the Jewish state.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, predicted that Iran would take a conciliatory tack at the Baghdad talks while not abandoning its goal of becoming a nuclear power.

“They will be willing to show what appears to be flexibility as long as it doesn’t affect their strategic direction, meaning that they will be able to develop nuclear weapons if that decision is made,” Gilad told Army Radio.

“Today they have enough uranium, raw material, for the bomb, they have the missiles that can carry them and they have the knowledge to assemble a warhead on a missile,” he said.

“They have not yet decided to do this because they are worried about the response.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Israel’s Air Force strikes tunnel in northern Gaza


Israel’s Air Force fired on a tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip that the military said is used for terrorist purposes.

A direct hit on the tunnel was confirmed early on Wednesday morning, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit said in a statement.

The strike was in retaliation for a Kassam rocket fired from Israel on northern Israel Tuesday evening, according to the IDF. No injuries or damage was reported from the rocket.

Since the beginning of 2012 more than 265 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have hit southern Israel, according to the IDF.

In a separate incident on Tuesday, shots were fired at IDF soldiers performing what the military spokesman said was “routine operational activities” near the security fence in central Gaza.

No injuries were reported, but two armored vehicles sustained light damage during the incident. The IDF said that Israel Air Force aircraft and armored forces opened fire at “suspicious targets” in response.

IDF chief: Other countries are prepared for possible Iran strike


Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said on Thursday that other countries have readied their armed forces for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear sites to keep Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.

Gantz did not specify which nations might be willing to support or take direct action against Iran. Still, his comments were one of the strongest hints yet that Israel may have the backing of other countries to strike the Islamic Republic to prevent it from developing nuclear arms.“The military force is ready,” Gantz said. “Not only our forces, but other forces as well.”

“We all hope that there will be no necessity to use this force, but we are absolutely sure of its existence,” he told The Associated Press, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of any other nation.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Clinton: Strike on Iran is ‘not in anyone’s interest’


A unilateral strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not the best course of action, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

“It’s our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone’s interest for them to take unilateral action,” Clinton said in an ABC News interview on Tuesday.

Clinton noted the intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel, and she reiterated that “the U.S. has worked very hard with Israel on all levels from the military, intelligence, strategic, and diplomatic level to make sure we were sharing information.”

Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will strike Iranian nuclear installations and the U.S. response to such an action continue to be topics of wider discussion in many policy circles.

Obama: ‘Premature’ strike on Iran would have consequences for U.S.


A premature Israeli strike on Iran would have consequences for the United States, President Barack Obama said.

“Israel is a sovereign nation that has to make its own decisions about how best to preserve its security,” Obama said Tuesday in a press conference.

But, he added: “This is not just an issue of Israeli interests, it is an issue of American interests. It is not just an issue of consequences for Israel if action is taken prematurely, there are consequences for the United States as well.”

He cited economic repercussions, as well as the potential cost to the lives of U.S. troops in the region.

Obama was responding to a reporter’s question at a press conference that was schedueld to discuss housing policy.

Obama’s remarks came a day after a long meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that sought to coordinate Iran policy. At Tuesday’s press conference, Obama said that he had given “unvarnished advice” to Netanyahu during their meeting.

Obama said at the press conference that the idea that a decision to strike Iran must be made within two months “is not borne out by the facts,” explaining that there was still a window of opportunity to stem Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program through diplomacy.

Reports have said that Israel may be contemplating a strike as early as the spring, and Israeli leaders have said that the country has until the autumn to launch a strike that could cripple Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama has stressed that all options are on the table for dealing with Iran. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered an explicit warning of possible military action.

“Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,” Panetta said, addressing the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “But make no mistake, if all else fails, we will act.”

Iran election highlights deepening power struggle


Iran’s parliamentary election this Friday is a potentially decisive battle in the struggle between political and religious hardliners, but it is unlikely to alter Tehran’s stand on its deadlock with the West over its nuclear program.

It will be the first poll since the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009, which led to eight months of bloody street protests by Iranians demanding reform.

The ballot takes place as the dispute with the West over Iran’s nuclear program is growing alongside concerns that Israel might attack it over suspicions of developing atomic weapons. Tehran says the nuclear work it to generate power.

With leading reformists snubbing the vote and with the outcome unlikely to force a nuclear re-think, its main significance is the contest between two rival hardline factions, loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Both sides have put their fingers on the triggers and are ready to fire. They will lay their guns on the ground if they reach a compromise,” political analyst Hamid Farahvashian said.

The result will demonstrate which camp is stronger and will have a bearing on a presidential election next year.

The clerical establishment needs a high turnout to show its legitimacy and popularity, badly damaged after the 2009 election and ensuing anti-government unrest.

“Not leaving anything to chance, Khamenei loyalists need a majority in parliament to obstruct the likely chances of Ahmadinejad’s allies winning the 2013 vote,” Farahvashian said.

A critical assembly could weaken Ahmadinejad and his supporters for the rest of his term, he said.

Analysts say Khamenei supporters are sure to win the majority as he has around 20 million backers around the country.

“My prediction is that we will have an assembly dominated by Khamenei loyalists and a minority made up of Ahmadinejad supporters,” political analyst Babak Sadeghi said.

HEIRARCHY CHALLENGED

Supporters of both leaders portray their leaders as the most capable of defending the legacy of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

The struggle began when Ahmadinejad tried to supersede Khamenei in Iran’s complex political hierarchy in which the Supreme Leader has held total authority since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is Iran’s second Supreme Leader.

Since Ahmadinejad’s re-election to a second term in 2009, which Khamenei initially endorsed, the growing influence of his circle has alarmed the Supreme Leader and his supporters.

Khamenei loyalists accuse Ahmadinejad of trying to undermine his position by involving himself in theocratic issues, traditionally the Supreme Leader’s own preserve.

An alliance of establishment groups – the Revolutionary Guards, powerful clerics, influential merchants and hardline politicians – have united to block Ahmadinejad’s allies from winning the vote.

Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or dismissed from their posts for being linked to a “deviant current” that his rivals say aims to weaken the role of the clergy.

“For the Supreme Leader, preserving the integrity of the clerical establishment is of utmost concern,” said a relative of

Khamenei, who asked not to be named.

The volume of verbal threats has also increased against Ahmadinejad, with Khamenei threatening to eliminate the position of president.

But Ahmadinejad has ways to fight back. The interior ministry, in charge of conducting the elections, can declare the results null and void, analysts say.

Whatever the outcome, real power on vital issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States remains solely in the hands of the Supreme Leader.

SURVIVAL

Some argue that the establishment ultimately needs Ahmadinejad to survive, particularly when Iran is under international pressure over its nuclear activities and faces a tightening web of sanctions and threats of U.S. or Israeli military action against its nuclear sites.

“His dismissal could increase pressure on Iran and also encourage the opposition to take to the streets. It will weaken the establishment,” political analyst Sadeghi said.

Meanwhile, Western sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions on the nuclear issue have started to hurt energy and food imports. Many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad’s policies for soaring prices.

Rivals say he has left Iran internationally isolated and a victory for his camp would bring more pressure on the economy.

Critics say cuts in food and fuel subsidies, replaced by direct monthly payments of around $38 per person since 2010, have fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

Concerned by economic difficulties, many Iranians are hesitant to vote for candidates allied to the president.

“I can no longer afford my family’s expenses. Even the price of bread has tripled. Ahmadinejad promised to bring the oil money to our tables but instead he has taken away even bread,” said teacher Reza, 57, a father of three.

The son of a blacksmith whose humble image still scores well with Iran’s poor masses, Ahmadinejad still enjoys support in small towns and villages in Iran, particularly because of his handouts of petrodollars.

But his image has been tainted by the country’s biggest banking scandal, which was made public with Khamenei’s approval.

Some politicians have linked Ahmadinejad’s close advisers to the lead suspect in the $2.6 billion scam, claiming part of the money had been earmarked for the election campaign of Ahmadinejad allies. He denies any government wrongdoing.

“I voted for Ahmadinejad in 2009 because I thought he was decent. But with this fraud I will not trust any politician again and I will not vote,” said shop-keeper Habib, 28, in the central town of Damavand.

The election is unlikely to herald a change in fortune for the reform movement.

Pro-reform political parties have been banned since the 2009 election, which the opposition says was rigged.

Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011 and many reformists have either been jailed or banned from political activities.

Iranian authorities, while publicly hailing the Arab Spring revolts, are concerned that they could spill into Iran and have warned against any revival of the unrest of 2009.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

Israel public sector strike ends


An Israeli public sector strike that has disrupted public transportation and closed banks, the stock market and government offices ended on Sunday with a new wage package for low-earning contract workers.

The Finance Ministry announced the deal with the Histadrut labour federation, which declared the strike that began on Wednesday was over.

The Histadrut had demanded the government hire 250,000 contract workers, such as cleaners and security guards, whose conditions are inferior to those directly on government payrolls.

Under the deal, those workers will not be hired by the state. Instead, they will get pay rises, be eligible for merit bonuses and their pension plans will be improved, according to the ministry statement. (Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ari Rabinovitch

Israel public sector strike headed for third day


Israel’s banks, ports and stock market were closed in the second day of a general strike on Thursday that threatened to drag on for another 24 hours after negotiations between unions and government hit new obstacles.

The strike called by the Histadrut labor federation, an umbrella organization for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, also halted trains and closed Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv for more than an hour.

The Treasury estimated economic damages from the strike as totaling as much as $500 million a day.

Histadrut wants the government to hire about 250,000 contract workers, such as cleaners and security guards, saying their employment conditions are inferior to workers directly on the public payroll.

The Finance Ministry said it cannot take on that many new workers but has offered to improve conditions by raising salaries by at least 20 percent and giving them more holiday.

Talks, which many hoped would settle the dispute, hit problems on Thursday afternoon when the union said Treasury negotiators asked it not to strike again for another four years.

“There is not a chance I would agree to that,” Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini told Israel’s Channel 10 television.

Eini said the strike may stretch into Friday, when most government offices are normally shut. Israel’s air and seaports would operate normally, Israel Radio said.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Israeli workers launch massive strike


Israeli workers launched an open-ended general strike.

The strike launched Wednesday by the Histadrut, Israel’s main labor union, closed down the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, stopped trains across the country and caused major delays at Ben Gurion Airport. The crippling strike also affected hospitals, government offices and banks.

Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini and Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met until late Tuesday in order to avoid the strike. Talks between the union and the government failed to reach agreement on including contract workers in labor agreements.

“A strike will not solve the problem of contract workers,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “It is possible to improve the conditions of contract workers without striking the economy and disrupting citizens’ lives. There is no magic solution to the employment problems that have been created here over decades; it is possible to resolve the issue through dialogue.”

Ben Gurion Airport was closed from 6 a.m. until noon under the Israel Labor Court’s conditions for allowing the strike to go forward. Most airlines rearranged their schedules to accommodate the closing times.

Fear, speculation in Iran over military strike


The threat of military strikes on Iran has upturned the quiet and comfortable lives once enjoyed by many Iranians, ushering in a new era of struggle and fear.

Like many Iranians, Maryam Sofi says the West and Iran are locked in a dangerous game. “I don’t think we can know just yet if war will break out, but I am concerned for my family and my country,” says university teacher Sofi, 42, a mother of two.

“I cannot sleep at night, thinking about destruction and bloodshed if Israel and America attack Iran.”

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over a program they suspect is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

In Washington on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States was considering all options on Iran and would work with allies to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“No options off the table means I’m considering all options,” he said.

Sanctions and diplomatic pressure still appear to be Washington’s preferred course of action. But Israel has been sending mixed signals, unnerving Iranians.

Shouting above the clanking hammers of coppersmiths in Tehran’s busy bazaar, nut seller Ali encouraged his customers to hoard his wares: “Buy and store! War is looming!”

Tensions with the West rose after hardline students stormed two British diplomatic compounds in Tehran last week in protest against new sanctions imposed after the U.N. nuclear agency suggested that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons.

Britain closed its embassy and France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands recalled their envoys.

The diplomatic exodus, swollen by some foreign businessmen based in Tehran, has heightened nervousness in the capital to a level not felt since the outbreak of war with Iraq in the 1980s, or the turmoil that preceded the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

“Foreigners are leaving Iran … Isn’t it obvious that they want to attack Iran?,” said a teacher named Mina.

Jane Heshmatzadeh, 59, among many Western women married to Iranians, is torn between fear of attack and loyalty to Iran. “My home is here. It’s not easy to just walk away and leave everything behind,” said the Swede, who has lived in northern Iran for 21 years since marrying an Iranian businessman.

And Iranians have been stoking their own fears with speculation about what would happen if war broke out.

“In case of an attack … we will be imprisoned inside the country … the borders will be closed,” said Zahra Farzaneh, 82, whose son lives in the United States. “I will die without seeing my grandchildren again.”

ATTACKS IN THE GULF

Tehran denies that its nuclear program is anything but peaceful. It says it is developing the technology to generate electricity, not to create an atom bomb.

Analysts say Tehran could retaliate against any military strike by launching hit-and-run attacks in the Gulf and by closing the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of all traded oil leaves the Gulf region through the strategic waterway.

Iranian citizens, already feeling the impact of international sanctions, are starting to take precautionary measures. On social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, exiled Iranians talk about their concerns, exchanging ideas about how to help their relatives in case of an attack on Iran.

“We have survived a revolution, the (Iran-Iraq) war … Our people cannot tolerate another crisis,” Mitra, and Iranian in Brussels, said on her Twitter page.

“It will be a terrible war … After the first strike the country and then the whole region will turn into a war zone,” said Hossein Alaie, a shopkeeper in central Tehran.

“They will destroy everything. I am stockpiling goods and have told my relatives to do so.”

Analysts say the closure of Western embassies, by cutting off communication channels, will complicate finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute.

ISRAELIS LESS PREOCCUPIED

Iran has warned Israel and the United States that Tehran’s response will be tough should they launch a military strike.

But Israelis seem not to be worried about a possible conflict and life goes on as before. A December 1 poll by the Saban Center for the Middle East Policy at the U.S. think-tank Brookings found that 43 percent of Israeli Jews backed attacking Iran, while 41 percent opposed.

“Israeli people are divided among themselves. Just as there are fears of an attack, there are also no less heartfelt fears of not taking a preemptive strike at the proper time,” columnist Israel Harel wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

However, regularly scheduled siren tests are being carried out in different parts of Israel, a common phenomenon in a country whose southern areas often come under rocket attack from Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

“One just sounded in Jerusalem and shoppers in the parking lot of the city’s main indoor mall across the street didn’t even break stride as they headed toward its entrance or their cars,” a witness said.

But in Tehran, the heavy demand for hard currency reflected war jitters.

“People are converting any assets they can. Some are selling jewelry or withdrawing their cash from savings accounts and selling stock market shares to buy dollars,” said Hamid, a currency dealer on a busy street in southern Tehran.

But fear was mixed with defiance.

“America has economic problems and wants to resolve it by attacking Iran … I am ready to sacrifice my blood for my country,” said a member of the hardline Basij militia, who refused to give his name.

The cost of many basic necessities like bread, meat and transportation has shot up, sometimes by over 50 percent in recent months, painful in a country where the average monthly wage is around $600. Despite sharply climbing prices, most grocery stores and markets are still well-stocked.

But many factories in Iran are facing closure because of deteriorating economic conditions, and hundreds of thousands of workers are have taken wage cuts, inflation is surging, and shortages are spreading.

“We do not have even enough money to buy staples let alone stockpiling them … I am very worried,” said unemployed worker Ali Tavangar, 45, a father of four.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Israel’s Iran strategy: Bombs? Bluff? Both?


If Washington is perplexed by Israeli “opacity” on whether it might attack Iran, that is no accident, since Israel’s leaders are themselves torn – but also content to let fears of bluff and double-bluff play to their advantage.

Aware of daunting military difficulties and potential for diplomatic and domestic backlash should they try to hit Iran’s nuclear programme, Israelis have been giving out mixed verbal signals that they hope may both encourage their U.S. ally to up the pressure on Tehran, and unnerve their Iranian enemies.

While a senior U.S. security official has told Reuters that Washington has a “sense of opacity” on what might prompt Israel to strike, few experts doubt Israel’s well-funded forces could dent an Iranian atomic development program in which it sees the makings of a mortal threat to its existence.

However, many in Israel and abroad question whether its leaders would take the risk of plunging an already volatile region into war without the full support of its U.S. ally.

Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may think it is a risk worth taking. Ever a big-picture thinker, the U.S.-educated premier gave a speech this week commending Israel’s founding premier David Ben-Gurion for making fateful decisions at a “heavy price”, despite protests heard at home and abroad.

Commentators, on the alert these days for any clue about a possible strike on Iran, spotted a subtext – that Netanyahu, too, was ready to take lonely action in Israel’s interest.

He could hope for a repeat of the 1981 attack on Iraq’s atomic reactor and a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, when the anger of Washington’s initial reactions quickly faded.

“In the two previous experiences, even an American public, that may not have been persuaded, subsequently found out that the Israelis probably did what was necessary to be done,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

“So there’s a huge public relations issue here: Can you make a credible case over the head of the administration, and get the American public to buy into the pain that is going to follow—Americans being killed in terrorism, oil shock, whatever it is.”

For now, Kurtzer estimated, Obama administration warnings against unilateral Israeli strikes on Iran would account for “5 percent” of Israeli deliberations, with the Netanyahu government’s military calculations taking the lion’s share.

Its priorities include fending off Iran’s promised missile reprisals and containing potential knock-on border wars with the Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas who are allied to Tehran.

Former Mossad spymaster Meir Dagan has predicted that Syria, Iran’s key Arab ally and now beset by a bloody domestic uprising, might also choose to join in the foreign conflict.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said last week that an Israeli attack on Iran was not imminent. He has also said there were several months left in which to decide on such action, and described Israel and the United States as coordinating closely.

But senior figures in Washington say things are less clear, with rhetoric playing an important role in the confrontation at this stage: “I don’t think the administration knows what Israel is going to do. I’m not sure Israel knows what Israel is going to do,” Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told Reuters. “That’s why they want to keep the other guys guessing. Keep the bad guys guessing.”

Ordinary Israelis, their isolation deepening as the Arab Spring undermines U.S.-allied regimes in the region, are divided on whether to open a front with Iran. Memories of rocket salvoes from the Lebanon and Gaza wars of 2006 and 2008 still hurt.

Public reluctance has been galvanized by the unusually vocal questioning by Dagan and some other retired security chiefs of Netanyahu and Barak’s secret strategizing.

These critics have urged U.S.-led sanctions on Tehran be given more time. Israel and its Western partners are also widely believed to have been sabotaging Iran’s uranium enrichment and ballistic arms projects, though Barak said any such covert campaign cannot be relied upon to finish the job.

A Dec. 1 poll by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the U.S. think-tank Brookings found that 43 percent of Israeli Jews backed attacking Iran, while 41 percent would be opposed.

By a ratio of two to one, respondents said they would agree to stripping Israel of its own atomic arsenal as part of a regional disarmament deal. Ninety percent predicted Iran, which says its nuclear project is peaceful, would obtain in time become a nuclear military power.

Slowing its progress toward that point, however, may be enough of an objective for Israel, which Barak assessed last month stood to lose “maybe not even 500 dead” to Iranian retaliation.

Should it end up worse, “there are international mechanisms that would curtail the war between Iran and Israel”, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said last month.

But Yadlin, who was among the eight F-16 pilots who carried out the 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, sounded circumspect about Israeli military capabilities against Iranian targets that are numerous, distant, fortified and on the alert for attacks – in contrast to Saddam Hussein’s sole installation near Baghdad.

Israel, he said, should “open lines of dialogue with those who have superior operational abilities than we do”—effectively, shelving unilateralism in favor of cooperation with the United States and its NATO allies.

Dan Schueftan, head of the National Security Studies Centre at Haifa University, said Israel’s recent hawkish talk could be meant for foreign ears: “Because they (Netanyahu and Barak) fear that if it is believed that there is no possibility of Israel attacking Iran, the United States won’t consider taking action.”

Even Dagan publicly dangled the possibility that he has been playing into a propaganda ruse, telling Israeli television: “If Dagan is arguing against a conflict, then the Iranian conclusion is … ‘Listen, these Jews are crazy. They could attack Iran!’”

But posture can also be self-realizing. Before launching his surprise attack on Israel at Yom Kippur in 1973, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat repeatedly issued mobilization orders to his forces while also saying he was willing to consider peace negotiations, lulling Israelis into believing Cairo was not a serious threat.

“Sadat came to be seen as desperate. But he was not bluffing,” said Abraham Rabinovich, author of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East”.

“He clearly intended his militant statements as a signal to Israel, and the United States, that he would go to war if there was no diplomatic solution. And so it was.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei warns U.S., Israel on atom site attacks


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned the United States and Israel on Thursday not to launch military action against its nuclear sites, saying it would be met with “iron fists,” state television reported.

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program has increased since Tuesday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret research to that end.

Speculation has heightened in the Israeli media that Israel may strike Iran’s nuclear sites and there is speculation in the Western press about a possible U.S. attack.

Iran denounced the United Nations watchdog’s report as “unbalanced” and “politically motivated.” There were concerns on the oil market that the standoff could escalate militarily.

In the strongest comments by the Iranian authorities in recent days, the country’s most powerful figure, Khamenei, said Iran would retaliate against any attack by “the enemies,” but added that Iran had no intention of starting a “bloody war.”

“Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime (Israel), America and its allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking about any (military) action will be firmly responded to,” Khamenei said on state television.

“The Revolutionary Guards and army and our nation…will answer attacks with strong slaps and iron fists,” he added.

Israel, which Iran refuses to recognize, and the United States say all options are on the table in confronting Tehran, including military if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute.

Israel reacted to the report by urging the international community to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, saying its pursuit of such arms endangered “the peace of the world.”

A close strategic ally of Western powers, Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East region’s only nuclear arsenal, dating back decades. It has never confirmed or denied its existence under a policy of ambiguity designed to deter attacks.

Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak atomic reactor in 1981 and carried out a similar strike in Syria in 2007.

Khamenei said Iran would “respond to threats by threats.”

“The firm Iranian nation is not one to sit back and observe threats by fragile and material-minded powers,” Khamenei told a gathering at Iran’s Army Academy.

Western powers have called for heavier sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But gaining agreement on more U.N. Security Council sanctions appears difficult, with Russia saying it will not back new sanctions.

The United States and its European allies accuse Iran of trying to build bombs under cover of a civilian nuclear program. The major oil-producing state denies this, saying it needs nuclear technology to improve its electricity supply for a rapidly growing population.

So far, a world power strategy of increased diplomatic pressure and international sanctions has not induced Iran to halt its sensitive nuclear activities.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that Iran “will not pull back one iota from its (nuclear) path,” but expressed Tehran’s readiness for talks with major powers.

Talks between the P5+1 powers—a grouping of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—and Iran over its nuclear ambitions have failed in the past.

Iran’s announcement last year that it had escalated uranium enrichment from the low level needed for electricity production to 20 percent, alarmed many countries that feared it was a key step toward making material potent enough for a nuclear bomb.

Tehran says the fuel is needed to make isotopes for cancer treatment.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Roddy

Israeli workers strike cut short by court


Israel’s main labor union ended a brief strike that shut down major sectors of the economy on Monday, following a labor court injunction that limited the action to just four hours.

The Histadrut Labour Federation, the umbrella body for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, was looking to strike for as long as it took to reach an agreement with the government over the status of contract workers.

The union had threatened to shut down Israel’s airports, ports, banks and the stock market indefinitely, but accepted the court decision and limited the strike to Monday morning.

Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv was closed for two hours and about a dozen flights were delayed or canceled. An airports authority spokesman said operations were swiftly returning to normal.

The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange started trading about an hour late and will stay open an extra half hour.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called on the Histadrut to cancel the strike, which also affected trains, buses, universities, government ministries and municipalities.

The disagreement focused on the status of contract workers.

The Histadrut wants the government to provide full benefits to 250,000 contract workers—such as cleaners and security guards—who have worse terms than staff directly on government payrolls.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has said he was willing to accept “models from developed welfare states like Sweden, Finland and Holland” where he said such workers are employed through contractors, but they have better conditions.

The labor court instructed the parties to hold intensive talks to find a solution and report on progress by Thursday.

“We hope that the government and employers will use the days allotted by the court to hold real and serious negotiations to reach agreements,” Histadrut leader Ofer Eini said in a statement.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Israel union goes on strike, court limits scope


Israel’s main labor union declared a general strike on Monday, shutting down major sectors of the country’s economy, but a labor court intervened issuing an injunction that limited the strike to just four hours, officials said.

The Histadrut Labour Federation, the umbrella organization for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, was looking to strike for as long as it took until an agreement was reached with the government over the status of workers employed through employment agencies.

The union had threatened to shut down Israel’s airports, ports, banks and the stock market indefinitely, but the group’s leaders said they would abide by a court decision to limit the strike to Monday morning. It would end at 10 a.m. (0800 GMT), local media reported.

Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv was supposed to be closed from 8 a.m. the Histadrut had said, leaving just a two hour window for disruptions. Other shutdowns began at 6 a.m. and will end at 10 a.m, following the ruling.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday had called on the Histadrut to cancel the planned strike, which would also include trains, buses, universities, government ministries and municipalities.

Last ditch efforts have failed to find an agreement over the status of contract workers supplied by employment agencies.

The Histadrut wants the government to hire some 250,000 contract workers, who have inferior working conditions than those directly on government payrolls. The Finance Ministry has agreed their employment terms need to improve.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch

Iran warns against rumored Israeli military strike


Iran’s top military chief warned that his country would retaliate harshly against an Israeli strike on its nuclear sites, as Israel successfully test fired a new ballistic missile.

Responding to reports that Israel was preparing to launch an attack against Iran, the Islamic Republic’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hassan Fairouz Abadi on Wednesday reportedly told Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency that Iran would strike back hard against Israel and the United States.

“America knows that a Zionist military strike in Iran would cause it major damages in addition to the damages caused to this regime,” Abadi said.

A report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is due next week, and reportedly will offer new details about Iran’s nuclear program.

Also on Wednesday, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview on Israel Radio that most reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran “have no connection to reality.”  Reports to that effect had surfaced the previous day in the Israeli and international media and have caused “tremendous damage,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman also said that Iran continues to pose a dangerous threat to the entire world and that Israel expects the international community to do “much more” regarding Iran, including imposing sanctions.

Saying that the test of a new ballistic missile was preplanned and had no connection to a possible attack on Iran, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile Wednesday from Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.

Foreign media believe Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Doctors in Israel end strike amid economic protests


Doctors in Israel ended a strike on Thursday that had hamstrung the public health sector for nearly half a year, relieving some pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who faces an unprecedented wave of cost of living protests nationwide.

The doctors strike, which focused on low wages and a shortage of positions, played a big part in drawing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in recent weeks to demand from the government sweeping economic reforms.

Israeli media said the public sector strike had been the longest in Israel’s history and perhaps peaked when hundreds of medical residents threatened to quit their jobs.

The finance ministry said in a statement the deal it signed with the Israeli Medical Association (IMA) included significant pay increases and a thousand new spots for doctors in the public sector.

“This agreement addresses all the real and serious problems in the health sector,” said Leonid Eidelman, head of the IMA who had gone on a hunger strike for over a week when negotiations with the government hit a dead end. “Today, the health sector embarks on a new path.”

Leaders of the broader protest, who have a list of demands from the government that includes it acts to lower housing prices and increase competition in the economy, are planning further demonstrations throughout Israel this weekend.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch

Israeli protesters join general strike


Municipal employees throughout Israel went on a one-day strike in support of social justice.

The Union of Local Authorities in Israel authorized the municipal workers to close their offices in support of a Facebook-organized general strike on Monday. There was also no garbage collection or street cleaning. The local authority in Jerusalem declined to join the strike.

More than 23,500 Israeli Facebook users indicated that they would participate in the strike.