Islamist leaders vow unity against Israel

At a conference that drew a roll-call of the Islamist leaders who have gained influence in the wake of Arab Spring revolts, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal won a noisy welcome and pledges of support on Thursday.

A day after Israel assassinated Hamas's top commander in the Gaza Strip in a new offensive, hundreds of delegates at the conference in Sudan burst into applause and cheers as Meshaal, dressed in a suit and open-necked shirt, entered Khartoum's hangar-sized Friendship Hall.

“Khaybar, Khaybar,” the crowd chanted as Meshaal shook hands with other Islamist leaders, in a reference to a battle in Arabia where the Prophet Mohammad and his followers defeated Jewish defenders in the 7th century. “The army of Mohammad has started to return.”

Although most attendees were Sudanese, some came from as far as Indonesia and Senegal.

Among the delegates were the leaders of the Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia that have come to power through the ballot box in the wake of the Arab Spring, a regional shift towards the Islamists that has also helped embolden Hamas.

Israel has bombed targets in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for two days, saying its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Fifteen Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the flare-up.

Condemnation of the Israeli offensive has been led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, from the now dominant Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, told the conference in Khartoum: “The blood of our brothers who were martyred yesterday, just yesterday, in Palestine, in Gaza, this is what waters the tree of Islam.”

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party, said: “In truth, the mother of the revolutions was the blessed Palestinian revolution.”

Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country where a long serving strongman was unseated through popular protest.

Sudan's own Islamist government, headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, came to power in a 1989 coup. Vice President Ali Osman Taha said Israel had no respect for international law. “This madness is a danger to international peace,” he said.

Last month, Sudanese officials blamed an Israeli air strike for a blast at an arms factory in Khartoum that killed four people. Israel has not commented on the accusations, but Israeli officials have accused Sudan of funneling weapons from Iran to Hamas in Gaza.

Meshaal, who spoke just before Bashir, was greeted with chants of “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas” as he climbed onto the stage, flanked by two bearded, thickset bodyguards. Hamas has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

“Our enemy is your enemy,” Meshaal said, interrupted several times by cheering and chanting. “Our hands are with you.”

Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Matthew Tostevin

Iranian warships dock in Sudan, report says

Two Iranian warships docked in Sudan on Monday, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported, less than a week after Khartoum accused Israel of attacking an arms factory in the Sudanese capital.

Two people were killed after fire broke out late on Tuesday at the Yarmouk arms factory in the south of Khartoum. Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said four military planes attacked the Yarmouk plant and Israel was behind it.

Asked by Israel's Channel Two News about Sudan's accusations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: “There is nothing I can say about this subject.”

IRNA said the helicopter carrier Khark and the destroyer Shahid Naqdi were carrying: “the message of peace and friendship to neighbouring countries and were ensuring security for shipping lanes against marine terrorism and piracy”.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said that the vessels docked in Port Sudan on the Red Sea and the fleet's commanders were scheduled to meet Sudanese navy commanders.

Sudan, with close ties to Iran and Sunni jihadis, has long been seen by Israel as a conduit for weapons smuggled to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, via the Egyptian Sinai desert.

In May, Sudan's government said one person had been killed after a car exploded in the eastern city of Port Sudan. It said that explosion resembled a blast last year it had blamed on an Israeli missile strike.

Israel declined to comment on the May incident or the 2011 blast, which killed two people. It also neither admitted nor denied involvement in a similar incident in eastern Sudan in 2009.

Iran said in June it had plans to build more warships and increase its presence in international waters, particularly to protect its cargo ships around the world.

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden in January hijacked an Iranian ship carrying 30,000 tonnes of petrochemical products to a North African country.

Report: Israel hit Sudan twice in two months

The Israeli army has declined to comment on a report that it had launched two air strikes in Sudan over the past two months.

Israel Radio reported that the IDF spokesperson would not respond to its query regarding a Reuters asserting that Israeli aircraft struck targets in Sudan in September and then again Oct. 23.

The September strike, according to unspecified “foreign intelligence sources” quoted Thursday by Reuters, was conducted by a drone and targeted a weapons convoy south of Khartoum. The strike destroyed 200 tuns of munitions, including Gaza-bound rockets, the report said.

On Tuesday, a “huge explosion” ripped through a weapons factory near the Sudanese capital Khartoum, killing two people, Reuters reported. Sudan, the report added, swiftly accused Israel of sending four military planes to take out the complex.

The speaker of the Sudanese parliament, Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Tahir, declared that the “Israeli attack on the Al-Yarmook arms factory will not deter Sudan from continuing its support to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas,” according to the Sudan Tribune, an online news site.

Sudan accused Israel of attacking a weapons convoy traveling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip last December and of a similar attack in 2009, as well as targeting a car carrying a high-ranking Hamas official last spring and carrying out other targeted attacks on vehicles.

Sudan threatens to ‘strike back’ at Israel

A Sudanese government minister threatened to strike Israel, and the country called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Israel, over the bombing of a weapons factory in Khartoum.

Sudan “reserves the right to strike back at Israel,” Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said Wednesday, hours after the attack on the arms factory which left two dead.

Osman told reporters that the four military planes that attacked the plant belonged to Israel, and were seen entering the country's airspace from the east.

He said that the factory made “traditional weapons.”

Sudan on Wednesday asked the Security Council to condemn Israel.

“We reject such aggression and expect your esteemed council to condemn this attack because it is a blatant violation of the concept of peace and security,” Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, the Sudanese envoy to the U.N. reportedly said. .

Sudan accused Israel of attacking a weapons convoy traveling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip last December and of a similar attack in 2009, as well as targeting a car carrying a high-ranking Hamas official last spring and other targeted attacks on vehicles.

Sudan reportedly is a transit spot for weapons smuggling, particularly to Gaza through Egypt, and a center for al-Qaida terrorists.

Israeli officials on Wednesday and Thursday would neither confirm nor deny involvement in the attack.

Saudi Plan Marks Change

When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser swept into Khartoum for an Arab summit less than three months after the Arab debacle in the 1967 Six-Day War, he was greeted like a hero.

Newsweek ran a cover story titled, "Hail to the Conquered!" The summit passed the notorious "three no’s" defining future relations with Israel: No negotiations, no recognition and no peace.

In July the following year, Nasser took a young Yasser Arafat, traveling on an Egyptian passport under the name of Muhsin Amin, with him to Moscow on an arms shopping spree.

In the war against Israel, Nasser told Arafat, "You can be our irresponsible arm."

Nasser’s pan-Arabism meant mobilizing Arab power to defeat Israel — and support for Palestinian terror was part and parcel of the package.

Palestinian terror today may be more intense than it was then, but the political context is totally different. Part of the importance of the recent Saudi Arabian peace initiative is that it re-emphasizes, at a time of crisis, how far the Arab world has moved since Nasser’s day.

For moderate Arab states, Palestinian terror is no longer an "irresponsible arm" of policy but an embarrassment, undermining their relations with the West and encouraging radicals opposed to their regimes.

Whatever the final nuances, the Saudi initiative envisages an Arab world at peace with Israel and conducting normal relations with it — though the definition of normalcy may differ from country to country.

Some Israeli commentators see that as a conceptual breakthrough on a par with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.

Others are more skeptical. They say the Saudis launched their initiative to improve their image with the United States and quiet Muslim radicals, and that it offers no mechanism for ending Israeli-Palestinian violence or renewing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Moreover, they point out that the Saudis played a similar gambit with an eight-point peace plan presented at two Arab summits in Fez, Morocco, in the early 1980s. Nothing came of that, the skeptics say, and nothing will come of the current initiative, because when Arab countries finish watering it down for the sake of consensus, there will be nothing left for would-be peacemakers to latch onto.

Until the last minute, Israel and the Palestinian Authority kept sparring over whether Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, would be allowed to attend the summit, with Israel demanding that Arafat first call for an end to Palestinian violence and take some steps to put his words into effect. That, in turn, led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to threaten that he also would not attend.

Still, the Arab leaders said they were likely to discuss the Saudi initiative whether or not Arafat is present.

Even if the Saudi initiative is not another Sadat-like breakthrough, it is important, not least because of its timing. It fills a void, presenting an Arab vision of peace when there are no others; it comes in the midst of a vicious cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence and suggests Arab backing to help end it, and, because of the similarities, it seems to imply an Arab readiness to accept the main principles of the American peace plan announced by President Bill Clinton in December 2000. That could be crucial for future peacemaking.

The fact that the initiative has been put forward at this time is a subtle critique of Palestinian violence. It offers the Palestinians a way out of their politically barren standoff with Israel and a way to achieve, through diplomacy, the national goals they have failed to attain by terror.

It also affords the Palestinians a wider context for peacemaking with Israel and suggests that matters of war and peace go beyond Palestinian decision making.

There is, of course, another side to the Saudi coin: The Arabs are laying down conditions for peace and displaying little willingness to negotiate.

If Israel doesn’t accept the conditions, could it be the beginning of a slippery slope to regional war? Some Arab leaders describe the Saudi initiative as Israel’s "last chance." Coming generations, they warn, may be less amenable to the notion of peace with Israel.

They have a point. Younger Arabs across the Middle East are becoming more, not less, militant toward Israel. The hope was that better communications in the global village would spur modernization, commerce and peace.

But 18 months of one-sided intifada pictures broadcast on Al Jazeera, the independent Arab satellite TV station that reaches hundreds of millions of viewers across the Middle East, have fanned widespread street anger against Israel and the United States.

Vice President Dick Cheney was exposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment during his March tour of the region, which led the Bush administration to intensify its efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. The administration now sees Israeli-Palestinian quiet as essential for the promotion of American interests in the region, including a possible attack on President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

That is where the Saudi initiative and American policy might just meet. If the Americans back the Saudi initiative as part of a major international effort to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace, interesting things could happen.

Israel’s former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, long has urged a U.S.-led international conference to impose a settlement on the Israelis and Palestinians, using the Clinton proposals as the basis. Should the administration actually try something along those lines, the Saudi initiative could be an important adjunct.

If, as is more likely, the international community does not impose a deal but encourages the parties to move ahead on the basis of the Clinton and Saudi proposals, the United States still would have to play a vital mediating role.

When negotiations bogged down at Camp David in July, Clinton appealed to the Saudis and Egyptians to help the Palestinians make concessions on Jerusalem. They refused. Now they seem willing to do so — even intimating to the United States that they might be willing to back Palestinian flexibility on an Israeli tie to the Temple Mount.

But is the Bush administration ready to make the supreme effort Clinton did? When Nasser took Arafat with him to Moscow, the Soviet Union was still a great power. The Americans could not then have made a Pax Americana even if they wanted to. Now perhaps they can.