I miss Yemen


I miss Yemen.

That may come as a surprise since whenever the country makes headlines — as it has over the past few weeks — the overwhelming themes are war, violent radicalism, the impending doom of failed statehood and whatever other ominous sounding crisis (water shortages, national drug addiction) can be thrown into the mix.

I find that most Americans assume that the country is seething with anti-American sentiment. Yet, that is far from the truth, and I miss Yemen, my home from 2009 to early 2012. I’m not alone. Most foreigners who have been fortunate enough to experience the warmth, humor and kindness of Yemeni people miss it too. 

I miss waking up in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen’s 3,000 year old capital. I would slowly make my way across uneven stone floors that cooled the soles of my feet and into my mafraj, a square room with blue-patterned low cushions lining its perimeter. I would take a moment to stare out into the narrow alleyway below through a green, blue, and red stained glass window, the kind that decorate nearly every building in Sanaa. 

I lived on the top floor of a skinny, four-story, brown brick abode with white gypsum outlining its edges. Many have likened these structures in the old city to gingerbread houses. Out the window, I saw men walking to work, elbows linked, donned in long white robes that hung to their ankles, suit jackets, and a curved dagger secured right at their waistline. There were also the elderly women draped in red and blue intricately patterned blankets overtop their black abayas and carrying puffy loaves of bread in clear plastic bags. They’d chat so quickly in clipped sharp Arabic that I could never understand them—even though I’m comfortable in the language. My ears would then catch the sound of the gas merchant who strolled the neighborhood banging with a wrench on a large cooking gas canister. The harsh dinging warmed me in the same way the sounds of Manhattan must warm someone who’s happy to call that city home.

At about 8 am, I would make my way down the incongruent steps of the house and past the doors of apartments where other foreigners lived, and then I’d pull a small metal lever that opened the heavy wooden slab on the ground floor to the outside world. The sun would be strong and the air bone dry at 7,500 feet. I would walk the 10 steps or so to a hole-in-the-wall canteen, a Yemeni bodega, known here as a bagala, and buy a tub of plain yogurt for about 50 American cents that I would mix with Yemeni honey (some of the best in the world!) for breakfast. This was in lieu of the typical Yemeni breakfast of lamb kabob sandwiches or stewed fava beans. The two young guys at the bagala would light up upon our daily meetings. 

“Good morning, Laura!” they’d say.

“Good morning! How’s it going?”

“Praise be to God! Did you watch the president’s speech?” Mohamed, the older, would ask, or otherwise comment on the political happenings du jour, which were many since part of my time living in Sanaa covered the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

“I did. What do you think?” I would ask. 

“Everything will be fine, God willing. We want stability for Yemen,” he’d answer. Then another friend whose face I recognized from the neighborhood would rush up, give me a nod, and shove approximately 10 cents at Mohamed so he could bring back piles of pita bread for his family.

I would head back home, comforted to know that if anything ill ever befell me, these friends would have my back, as happened when they cornered a cab driver who was requesting $200 to give me back the phone that I had left in his taxi (I got it back free, thanks to my neighbors). You give Yemenis a smile, and they give you so much more in return, always bending over backwards for guests of their country. It was an unfair transaction that benefited me most of all.

I miss walking through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city and seeing faces I recognized. We waved hello along the way, and perhaps shared a sentence or two about the day. My mood always brightened when I passed the old men who sipped creamy tea sitting outside one tiny cafe, who wore thick glasses that magnified their eyes, turbans round their heads, and held canes in their hands. They laughed and told jokes to pass their days. They’d seen it all—including war worse than the current one. They knew the ebbs and flows of time.

Despite that one greedy cabbie who tried to keep my phone, one of the things I miss most of all are the discussions with taxi drivers, waiting stalled in traffic due to the post-lunch market rush. Yemenis love to talk—and so do I. They often gave me a handful of soft green qat leaves, the mild narcotic widely consumed in the country. I remember when one driver explained that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was like Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat cake!” the driver exclaimed. 

A different cab driver once told me he had worked at the Yemeni embassy in Cuba as a driver and missed the rum like you wouldn’t believe. Alcohol is available in Yemen, at Chinese restaurants that double as brothels, or from Ethiopian smugglers who get their bottles on boats from Djibouti. Of course, getting it involves risks—the social shame of being caught with alcohol for an average Yemeni would be damning not only of his reputation, but of his family and his tribe. I took that taxi driver’s number and the next time I left a diplomat’s party in the fancy part of town where sheikhs and foreigners live behind tall walls, I called him to pick me up. I snuck him a beer, which he uncapped with his teeth and drank during our drive back to the old city.

There are things I don’t miss, like the lack of electricity. Or wading through a foot high of muddy, trash-strewn water because the drainage system wasn’t working fast enough for the rainstorm. I certainly don’t miss needing to flee my home in the old city because the war came too close in September 2011, when Yemen’s divided armed forces began to fight one another. I didn’t want to live alone when random artillery fire had fallen nearby. And then there was the gnawing guilt that came with remembering that my suffering was nothing compared to Yemenis who couldn’t afford a generator or the rising prices for basic goods, and who didn’t have another home to which they could flee. But the good always outweighed the bad for me in Yemen, and that’s why I stayed for nearly three  years. I left when I realized that reporting during wartime, being so close to explosions, death and violence, had clouded my thoughts so that I was incapable of making safe decisions.

As the country, now leaderless, fractures with little hope of reconciliation, I watch with a breaking heart. Yet, I am confident in this: if the Yemeni government fails to restructure itself into a sustainable organization, and rather continues to mirror a scenario from an apocalyptic future, Yemen will not be a land where every man is for himself. There is a social contract in Yemen more ancient than the one that exists in the United States, and the ties that bind people to one another can step in when the government fails. As an outsider who was fortunate enough to have called Yemen home, I put my hope in that. 

Laura Kasinof is an author and freelance journalist. Her book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: an Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, is about her time reporting for The New York Times during Yemen’s Arab Spring. This post originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

Lots of listening, no grand initiatives expected on Obama’s Mideast trip


When President Obama visits Israel next week, Gavriel Yaakov wants him to jump-start the peace process.

“I’m excited,” said Yaakov, 67, sitting in a Tel Aviv mall. “I want negotiations to get to an agreement on a long-term peace with the Palestinians.”

Yaakov said he trusts Obama, but his friend, Yossi Cohen, is more skeptical.

“I’m not excited,” said Cohen, 64, who charged that the president supports Islamists and “hasn't done anything” to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No one has helped,” Cohen said. “Whoever thinks there will be peace, [it will take] another 200 years.”

Their views reflect two of the president's overriding concerns as he prepares to embark on a three-day trip to Israel next week.

Obama remains deeply unpopular in Israel, with approval ratings of about 33 percent last year, and Jewish leaders and local analysts are urging him to try to improve his relationship with the Israeli public. But the president also is seen as wanting to promote a renewed effort at Middle East peace, though administration officials, wary of a top-down push for peace, have emphasized that the president is leaving such initiatives up to the parties there.

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama conceded that the short-term outlook for a peace agreement is “bleak,” but that prospects could improve in the coming months. Instead, the president was focused on how best to reach out to Israelis, participants said, asking for input about what he should say and whom he should try to reach.

Obama held a similar meeting with Arab-Americans, soliciting their input about his trip and expressing his “commitment to the Palestinian people” and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to establish “a truly independent Palestinian state.”

“It creates an opportunity not only for a new beginning between the president's second term and the prime minister of Israel, who is beginning a new term — assuming he puts together a government, which I think he will,” Dennis Ross, Obama's top Iran policy adviser in his first term, said at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, before Netanyahu had established his coalition.

“But I think it also is a chance to create a connection with the Israeli public and to demonstrate unmistakably when the president says that he's determined to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, he isn't saying that from a distance. It's not an abstraction. He can go and he can address the Israeli public directly.”

Obama will land at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 20. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Peres will present Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor.

His itinerary includes a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery, the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After departing Israel on March 22, Obama will travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.

The night before his departure, he will address thousands of Israeli students at Jerusalem's convention center. The speech is consistent with Obama's history of directly addressing the public during his trips abroad, and specifically young people.

“I think this is consistent with his town squares,” said Alan Solow, a top Obama fundraiser and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He recognizes that in the future, the world will be flatter than today and it's essential that future leaders understand the good intentions of the United States to promote a better and more peaceful world.”

Obama's engagement with Mideast peacemaking was turbulent in his first term. His relationship with Netanyahu has been rocky at best, and his previous attempt to restart the peace process, in 2010, failed after three weeks.

The president's low approval rating in Israel is likely only to complicate matters. The 33 percent rating is actually a significant improvement over his first term, when pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank helped push his approval numbers below 10 percent.

“Obama needs to reestablish a relationship of trust with the Israeli public,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Whether Obama likes it or not, Netanyahu is the elected leader of the State of Israel, and whether Netanyahu likes it or not, Obama is the elected leader of the U.S. It’s time for the two leaders to accept the inevitable and learn to work together.”

U.S. administration officials have aimed to lower expectations for any concrete outcome to the Obama trip, denying recent reports in the Israeli media that the president is preparing a major peace initiative and emphasizing that he intends to do a lot of listening. Analysts say in order to make progress on the peace front or the Iranian nuclear threat, another issue much on the minds of Israelis, Obama needs to be more candid about past failures.

“For a game-changing speech, you need to speak realistically,” said Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor who is also a Hartman fellow. “You can’t pretend it’s the start of the Oslo peace process. You need to move forward based on the failures. I think Israelis are primed for it.”

Klein Halevi said a similar honesty should be evident in Obama's treatment of the Iran issue. Israelis are doubtful of the president's repeated assertion that all options are on the table in addressing the nuclear threat, he said, and urged the president to speak directly to the Iranian leadership in his convention center address.

“When Obama speaks on Iran, he shouldn’t be speaking only to the Israeli public,” Klein Halevi said. “He should be directly addressing the leadership of Iran from Jerusalem.”

Despite the caution coming from the White House, Israelis are anything but unified in their skepticism of a new peace push. On Facebook, 23,000 people have “liked” a push to have Obama address the masses at Rabin Square, the emotionally charged plaza where the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords was assassinated in 1995.

“We want to send the message that there’s a public desire to turn the page and strive for peace,” said Amit Youlzari, 31, the lead organizer.

With Obama set to speak in Jerusalem, Youlzari has helped arrange for the speech to be shown on large projection screens in the square.

“We want to tell the U.S. that we support Obama and the messages we hear from him,” Youlzari said. “And we want to send the world a picture of a full plaza of people who want peace.”

Ben Sales reported from Tel Aviv and Ron Kampeas from Washington.

Romney blames Obama for ‘daylight’ with Israel in second debate


Mitt Romney accused President Obama of putting “daylight between us and Israel” in the second presidential debate.

Responding to Obama's pledge to investigate the circumstances of an attack that killed four U.S. diplomats in Libya last month, Romney assailed Obama's overall foreign policy record, and pivoted to the president's at-times strained relationship with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East. Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya,” Romney said at the Hofstra University debate in Long Island, N.Y., on Tuesday night. “Consider the distance between ourselves and — and Israel, the president said that — that he was going to put daylight between us and Israel.”

Obama, in a meeting in July 2009 with Jewish leaders, was asked whether he would preserve the policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations of “no daylight,” or keeping disputes with Israel private.

At that meeting, Obama replied that the practice of not making public disputes with Israel did not advance the peace process.

During the debate, Obama did not engage on the Israel question, instead pushing back against Romney's claims that he was not fully engaged in the wake of the Libya attack.

Other than that segment, much of the debate focused on domestic issues like education, jobs creation, tax policy and immigration.

On energy policy, each leader outlined different paths to energy independence, with Obama focusing on alternatives to fossil fuels and Romney embracing these as well, but urging greater exploitation of oil, coal and gas.

Asked to distinguish his policies from those of President George W. Bush, Romney said: “We can now, by virtue of new technology actually get all the energy we need in North America without having to go to the — the Arabs or the Venezuelans or anyone else. That wasn’t true in his time, that’s why my policy starts with a very robust policy to get all that energy in North America — become energy secure.”

Obama had the last word in the debate. He used his final remarks to take aim at Romney's suggestion at a fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans would never vote for him because they do not pay income taxes and are dependent on government.

“I believe Gov. Romney is a good man — loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors, that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims, who refuse personal responsibility — think about who he was talking about,” Obama said, citing retirees on Social Security, veterans, active-duty soldiers and workers who do not earn enough to have to pay income taxes.

Romney has previously said that he misspoke at the fundraiser.

Romney’s triumph eases GOP Middle East policy rhetoric


The Republican primaries are effectively over, and gone with them is the sharp-edged rhetoric and departures from past U.S. policy on the Middle East.

Gone is Rick Santorum’s pledge to strike Iran and his suggestion that West Bank Palestinians should be referred to as Israelis. Gone is Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that the United States is engaged in a “long struggle with radical Islamists” and reference to the Palestinians as an “invented” people.

Instead we are left with Mitt Romney, the candidate who has tended to be relatively cautious in his foreign policy pronouncements, emphasized the importance of America’s international alliances and drawn his foreign policy advisers from past Republican administrations.

Supporters say his hands-on, problem-solving approach would clear away the hesitancy and lack of resolve that they say has marked Barack Obama’s presidency.

Noam Neusner, a George W. Bush administration policy adviser who helped shape Romney’s foreign policy during his 2007-08 run for the GOP nomination, said Romney was more assertive than Obama and less inclined to rely on rhetoric as a diplomatic tool.

The candidates have had their policy differences. Romney had called for comprehensive sanctions targeting Iran’s economy months before Obama said he was ready to embrace them late last year. And Romney blasted Obama’s call for Israel and the Palestinians to use the 1967 lines as the basis for their negotiations, saying the president had “thrown Israel under the bus.”

But on their overall goals there is common ground. Both Romney and Obama are publicly committed to preventing Iran from going nuclear, using pressure and diplomacy while emphasizing that a military strike as a last resort is definitely an option. Both favor a return to Israeli-Palestinian talks without preconditions, and adamantly oppose Palestinian efforts to obtain statehood recognition without the talks.

That has left the opposing sides to define their foreign policy differences along lines of personality and governing style. Romney’s backers describe a can-do, successful businessman who revels in solving problems. Obama’s team depicts a leader who has restored the American credibility they say was eroded by George W. Bush.

Romney has portrayed Obama as a sellout and as weakly deferring to lesser powers. Most recently, referring to a failed North Korean rocket launch, Romney’s campaign accused Obama of trying to “appease” that country through food aid and of “undermining” U.S. security.

Some, however, think that Romney’s criticism is more about campaign rhetoric than genuine differences in policy approaches.

“What drives Romney’s rhetoric right now is the basic reality that the president is not vulnerable on foreign policy, the American public is not interested, so he has not found a sure footing, so he tries to draw contrived or hyperbolic differences,” said Aaron David Miller, a negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations who also has been critical of Obama’s approach to the Middle East.

Miller, now a scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said he didn’t expect to see much of a lurch in policy from Romney.

“He’s articulating policies he wouldn’t follow,” Miller said, noting the preponderance of centrist Republicans among Romney’s foreign policy advisers. “He inherits the same options and limited American choices” that every president does.

Romney, while hitting hard at Obama throughout the primaries, also sought to distinguish himself from the more aggressive rhetoric of his Republican rivals. He would not be drawn into mimicking a pledge by Santorum to strike Iran, and chided Gingrich for saying that the Palestinians were an invented people. He also has told Jewish leaders that he would not pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Instead, at least when it comes to the Middle East, the Romney team has mounted a campaign that implicitly acknowledges that he and Obama share similar policies — but that Romney came about them honestly, while Obama did so reluctantly.

A Romney campaign sheet distributed last month after Obama addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee set up a narrative in which Obama instituted hard-hitting sanctions, but only after being led to this approach by Congress and by Europe.

“The Obama administration lagged behind the United Kingdom, Canada and France in calling for and imposing sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank,” it said. “The United Kingdom and Canada imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and other financial institutions in late November 2011, and France also urged such sanctions. On the same day, the United States declined to impose such sanctions.”

Obama’s supporters have touted his work in pressing the U.N. Security Council to pass the resolution in 2010 that created the framework for such sanctions. The administration worked with Congress to time the sanctions so they would not harm world oil markets. It instituted the bank sanctions last month.

Romney’s critics say that Obama’s deliberate approach has paid off and that the Republican nominee-apparent had yet to articulate clear alternatives.

On Iran, Romney would not be as patient with Tehran as Obama, Neusner said. “Mitt Romney would be less likely to take the time Obama has,” he said.

For Mideast foes’ Oscar films, family trumps flag


As their nations warn of war, the Israeli and Iranian directors facing off at next week’s Academy Awards share a reluctance to see politics read into their movies, both of which are portraits of troubled families.

Joseph Cedar, director of Israel’s “Footnote,” and Asghar Farhadi, maker of Iran’s “A Separation,” stress that their works are about human issues and not conflicted governments that seem to be slipping into ever deeper diplomatic isolation.

Yet, even as the filmmakers put art before politics in competing for the Oscar in the foreign language film category, neither man can escape the fact he hails from a country that is vigilant about its portrayal at home and abroad.

Farhadi created his delicate, Golden Globe-winning divorce drama “A Separation” under Iranian censors who impose strictures in the name of Islamic morality and national morale.

“Footnote”, a comedy of errors about a father and son who are Talmud scholars locked in acid rivalry, has been remarked upon in, and welcomed in, Israel for what it lacks—any mention of the military or of regional enemies.

Cedar’s last movie, “Beaufort”, also was nominated for the foreign language film Oscar, but its depiction of Israeli troops under fire in Lebanon and the director’s anti-war rhetoric were denounced by some countrymen as defeatist.

“I learned not to interpret my own films,” Cedar said.

But, in an interview with Reuters, he described “Footnote” as an examination of a debate central to Jewish scholarship.

“The son is all about interpretation and commentary. The father is all about fact and verifiable empiric data. And sometimes I feel like the father, sometimes I feel like the son,” Cedar said.

He shied from offering a metaphor to the Jewish state itself, where pragmatism and ideology often clash and whose secular founding principles have been challenged by increasingly assertive religious minorities.

“There is something about this film that has allowed lots of audiences to see something different,” Cedar said.

LET AUDIENCES DECIDE

Farhadi has been similarly reluctant to entertain theories that his film is a parable for the struggle between Iran’s young dissidents and its paternalistic mullahs, and he told Reuters it is up to audiences to take from the movie what they will.

“I think in every story there are many hidden themes and it depends on which ones you choose to highlight. I included themes that mattered to me … and it depends on the viewer which of the themes emerge more strongly for them.”

“A Separation,” has earned critical acclaim around the world at film festivals and other events with its tale of an Iranian couple on the verge of divorce whose problems grow ever more complicated when other people become involved in their lives.

When asked recently by the Washington Post whether one bedridden old man weighing in on the couple’s issues represents the state, Farhadi chided the reporter, “if you have a political discourse about him, you are belittling this character.”

While Iran is notorious for its film censors – award-winning director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to jail in 2010 and banned from making films – it has remained cautious in its remarks about “A Separation.”

“Sometimes we see those who run these festivals grant precious awards to films whose main theme is centered on the poverty and hardships of a country’s people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told Reuters after “A Separation” won its Golden Globe Award in January.

“This should not lead our artists to ignore the glaring positive points and features of our nation, and instead illustrate the kind of things welcomed by such festivals’ organizers,” he said.

Farhadi has acknowledged adopting a non-partisan tone to get the film made in Iran but not because of problems with censors.

“No, I wasn’t confronted with any censorship,” he told Reuters. “Some countries did ask me, in order to show the film, that I should change the film’s title from what it is right now and I didn’t agree.”

Cedar said he had briefly met Farhadi and looked forward to seeing him again in the “cultural arena” of Hollywood’s Oscars.

“Putting aside all of these geopolitical sides, it (“A Separation”) is a film that really raises the level of the whole competition,” he said.

Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

Rice: ‘No shortcut’ to Mideast peace


The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told a Jewish group that there is “no shortcut” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Achieving a Palestinian state “can only come through direct negotiations and a negotiated two-state solution,”  Rice emphasized during a conversation with American Jewish Committee President David Harris Monday before a crowd of AJC members in New York.

Rice also noted the uncertainty with the Palestinians’ intentions and that “nobody knows for sure what the Palestinians will choose to do, if anything, in the coming weeks or months.”

The Palestinians are adhering to the Middle East Quartet deadline of Jan. 26 for direct negotiations to resume between the parties, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that there could be a possibility of a resumption of contacts between the parties after he consults with Arab League officials on Feb. 4.

In addition, Rice argued that the U.S. spends “an enormous amount of time defending Israel’s right to defend itself” and that it reflected poorly on member nations that continue to use the United Nations “as a venue in which they can attack and harass Israel.”

No breakthrough on Mideast peace, talks to go on


Israeli and Palestinian negotiators made no breakthrough during their first high-level discussions in more than a year on Tuesday, but agreed to hold further talks in Amman on a confidential basis, Jordan’s foreign minister said.

Tuesday’s talks were aimed at agreeing terms under which the two sides’ leaders – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could resume talks.

Negotiations foundered in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as demanded by the Palestinians.

Nasser Judeh, who hosted the talks, reported no significant progress but added: “The important thing is the two sides have met face to face.”

“We held today a serious discussion that aims at launching peace talks at the earliest possible opportunity over final status issues.”

The Jordanian foreign minister added that from here on the sides would keep details of the meetings secret. That could boost the chances of progress by easing immediate pressure from Israeli or Palestinian public opinion not to make concessions.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land it captured in a 1967 war and on which they intend to establish an independent state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

Abbas said before Tuesday’s talks that Palestinians could take unilateral steps if Israel does not agree to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and recognize the borders of a future Palestinian state.

“If they don’t … there are measures that we could take. But we will not declare them now because they have not been finalized. But we will take measures that could be difficult,” Abbas told a group of judges in Ramallah.

The Jewish state said in November it would accelerate settlement building activity the day after the Palestinians won recognition as a state by the U.N. cultural body UNESCO.

Judeh said the two sides had until January 26 to make progress and that meetings would take place in Jordan “on a continual basis, without prior announcement of time and date”.

U.S. HOPES FOR FRESH IMPETUS

The Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations – set a three-month deadline last October for the two sides to make proposals on issues of territory and security, with the aim of reaching a peace deal by the end of this year.

The Amman talks brought together Quartet representatives, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has stepped up attempts to broker talks in recent months after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration failed to revive peace talks.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was hopeful the Amman meeting “can help move us forward on the pathway proposed by the Quartet”.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has strongly backed Abbas, is worried that the failure to address issues at the heart of the conflict could renew violence that could endanger its own security.

The majority of Jordan’s population are Palestinians descended from those displaced during successive Arab-Israeli wars since the Jewish state’s foundation in 1948.

Most countries deem Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal, in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George Bush.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government also criticises Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent co-existence with Israel. Abbas has balked at Israel’s demand that he recognize it as a Jewish state.

Additional reporting by Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah and Alister Bull in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Ben Harding

Iran threatens to cut off Mideast oil


Iran will close the Strait of Hormuz if its oil exports are subjected to foreign sanctions, the Islamic Republic’s official news agency reported.

“If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Straits of Hormuz,” IRNA quoted Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Iran’s first vice-president, as saying, referring to Western countries.

Oil from Persian Gulf countries travels through the Straits of Hormuz on its way to oil-importing countries around the world. The strait is the Persian Gulf’s only outlet and is bordered by Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Egypt vote tests troubled political transition


Egyptians vote on Monday in the first big test of a transition born in popular revolutionary euphoria that soured into distrust of the generals who replaced their master, Hosni Mubarak.

In the nine months since a revolt ended the ex-president’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into bloody protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June, much sooner than previously envisaged.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

It is not clear whether voters will punish them for that or whether the Brotherhood’s disciplined organization will enable its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party to triumph over the welter of lesser-known parties and individuals in the race.

Free elections are an intriguing novelty in a nation where the authorities and security forces rigged polls for decades in favor of Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party.

A high turnout among Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters could throw up surprises, perhaps revealing whether a silent majority favours stability or the radical overhaul demanded by the youthful protesters who overthrew Mubarak.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the parliamentary vote phased over weeks until January 10 was the first real benchmark of progress in Egypt’s transition.

“It will also tell us how much Egyptians are invested in this political process. If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said the new assembly would have no right to remove a government appointed by the council using its “presidential” powers—a stance the new parliament may try to challenge.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee a transition to democracy.

Ganzouri said on Sunday that any parliamentary majority that emerged from the elections may move to install a new government.

The military had envisaged that once upper house polls are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

The faster timetable agreed under pressure from the street has thrown up many questions about how the process will unfold and how much influence the army will retain behind the scenes.

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing them as causing, not curing instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

Egypt votes in first post-Mubarak election


Egyptians voted on Monday in their first election since a popular revolt ousted Hosni Mubarak, amid fears the generals who replaced the deposed leader would try to cling on to power.

In the nine months since the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into violent protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July.

In Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, voters stood patiently in long queues, many of them debating Egypt’s political future that for the first time they believed they could shape.

“Aren’t the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution? What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?” one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City.

“Those in Tahrir are young men and women who are the reason why a 61-year-old man like me voted in a parliamentary election for the first time in his life today,” one man replied politely.

About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house, which will be completed on January 11.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

“We are at a crossroads,” Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said on Sunday.

“There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt toward safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow.”

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing their grip on power as provoking instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Tents of protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule still stood in Tahrir Square, but after heavy overnight rain, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt was far from crowded.

There were no reports of serious election-day violence. But scuffles among women voters erupted at one Alexandria polling station that opened late because ballot papers had not arrived.

At least 1,000 people were queuing outside one polling station in Cairo’s Zamalek district when it opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT). “We are very happy to be part of the election,” said first-time voter Wafa Zaklama, 55. “What was the point before?”

In Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, men and women voted in separate queues. Campaign posters for Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafi Nour Party and the moderate Wasat Party festooned streets. Troops outnumbered police guarding polling stations.

“This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history,” said Walid Atta, 34, an engineer waiting to vote at a school on his way to work in Alexandria.

The segregated voting for men and women in Alexandria and many other places was a reminder of the conservative religious fabric of Egypt’s mainly Muslim society, where Coptic Christians comprise 10 percent of a population of more than 80 million.

A host of parties have been formed since the removal of Mubarak, who routinely rigged elections to ensure that his now-dissolved National Democratic Party dominated parliament.

Under a complex electoral system, voters pick both party lists and individual candidates.

In the Nile Delta city of Damietta, some voters said they would punish the Brotherhood for its perceived opportunism.

“I think the Brotherhood has lost more in the past three months than it built in the last three decades,” said tour operator Ayman Soliman, 35, adding that his vote would go to the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has formidable advantages that include a disciplined organization, name recognition among a welter of little-known parties and a record of opposing Mubarak long before the popular revolt that swept him from power.

Brotherhood organizers stood near many polling stations with laptops to help people find where they should vote, printing out a paper with the FJP candidate’s name and symbol on the back.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the vote was the first benchmark in Egypt’s transition.

“If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”

But Egyptians seemed enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.

“We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation, as evidenced by long lines at polling stations, and it appears to be a genuine contest,” said Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

The army council has promised civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June – much sooner than previously envisaged.

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said on Sunday the new assembly would have no right to remove an army-appointed government using its “presidential” powers.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice quickly rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee the transition to democracy.

The military had envisaged that once upper house elections are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry in Cairo, Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta, Yusri Mohamed in Port Said and Jonathan Wright in Fayoum; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Maria Golovnina

French Jewish groups call country’s UNESCO vote a betrayal


French Jewish groups said they feel betrayed by their country’s vote in favor of extending UNESCO membership to the Palestinians.

“President Sarkozy broke his word and betrayed the ties of friendship that link France and Israel,” said the UPJF, a Jewish group of business professionals and CEOs, in a statement issued shortly after Monday’s vote.

The UPJF and the Jewish umbrella group, CRIF, both said in statements that France’s position did not correlate with recent declarations by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued that the Palestinian bid for membership was premature.

As a result, “France has judicially legitimized an authoritarian, racist regime in an international organism without respecting conditions for admission,”the UPJF said.

The CRIF said it “strongly deplored” France’s vote, which came while “several significant European states voted against” the Palestinian bid.

French officials told reporters that the decision to admit Palestine into UNESCO was a difficult one that was hacked out over the weekend amid stiff tension.

Granger warns UNESCO: Admit Palestinians, lose funding


A top congressional appropriator, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, warned UNESCO that granting the Palestinians full membership could mean a cutoff in U.S. funding for the cultural body.

The Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations on Wednesday allowed to go ahead a full vote later this month on whether to admit the Palestinians as a member.

“Since April, I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations,” Granger (R-Texas) said in a statement. “Making a move in another U.N. agency will not only jeopardize our relationship with the Palestinians, it will jeopardize our contributions to the United Nations. As chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, I will advocate for all funding to be cut off. This is consistent with current law and I will consider additional actions as needed. 

“There are consequences for short-cutting the process, not only for the Palestinians, but for our longstanding relationship with the United Nations,” the statement concluded.

Granger’s statement cited U.S. law that bans funding of any institution that grants member-state status to the Palestinians.

The United States, Germany, Latvia and Romania opposed the vote. Forty countries voted in favor and 14 abstained.

Israel rejected the approval of the UNESCO vote. “Israel believes that the correct and only way to advance the peace process with the Palestinians is through direct, unconditional negotiations,” said a statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “The Palestinians’ actions at UNESCO negate both the bilateral negotiations route and the Quartet’s proposal for continuing the diplomatic process. Their actions are a negative response to Israel’s and the international community’s efforts to promote the peace process.”

“UNESCO’s responsibilities address culture, science and education. UNESCO has remained silent in the face of significant change across the Middle East yet has found time during its’ current meeting to adopt six decisions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The decision to grant the Palestinians membership of UNESCO will not advance their desire for an independent state whatsoever,” teh ministry’s statement said.

The Anti Defamation League called the decision to bring the Palestinian request to a vote “woefully premature and dangerously inappropriate.”

“The Palestinians have unduly politicized this body, and if this action is approved by the full membership, it risks undermining the truly important work of UNESCO,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman in a statement.

“UNESCO, or any international organization for that matter, is not the place to grant recognition of a Palestinian state. Seeking such recognition ignores and delays the necessary discussions about what shape proposed borders would take; the very recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; security concerns, and many other issues,” said B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs. “All such determinations can only be made directly between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Is rift looming in U.S.-Israel ties?


In recent months, the tensions that have characterized relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government have largely receded into the background.

The Obama administration is preparing to stand virtually alone with Israel at the United Nations in opposing the Palestinians’ statehood push. A consensus is emerging within the administration that Turkey is more to blame than Israel for the crisis in their relations. And officials in the United States and Israel are basking in the afterglow of Obama’s intervention with Egypt to facilitate the rescue of six Israelis during the storming of their Cairo embassy earlier this month.

Yet amid this flowering of good feelings, some observers are pointing to what they see as deeper undercurrents of disquiet in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a respected Washington think tank that has been consulted in the past by officials of both countries, published a paper last week suggesting that their ties may be changing — and not for the better.

“The United States and Israel have changed and continue to change, but the two countries’ relationship has not kept pace,” said the report by Haim Malka, deputy director of the CSIS’s Middle East program. “For years the growing differences have been papered over, but continuing to do so is both unsustainable and counterproductive.”

The strains transcend any single administration, Malka says, and have resulted in deep-seated disagreements, particularly over the necessity of arriving at an agreement with the Palestinians, with Israelis skeptical of the likelihood of an accord and Americans seeing such a settlement as vital to the interests of both countries.

Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in Republican administrations who also is deeply involved in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, also expressed concern about the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“The biggest problem Israelis have: Israelis think they know the United States — they really do, especially the ones with American accents,” he said at the Sept. 16 release event for Malka’s report, in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was educated in the United States.

“This peace process is a major priority for the United States across the board,” Zakheim said. “It is not just realist Republicans, not just liberals, but the national security community. Israelis are having difficulty coming to terms with that.”

Indeed, discontent with the current state of the Israel-U.S. relationship has been in evidence increasingly in the last couple of years in Washington’s defense establishment — usually a redoubt of pro-Israelism.

David Makovsky, a top analyst at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he does not believe there is a major rift on the horizon, but added that the Middle East’s current volatility introduces an element of uncertainty into the alliance.

“The Arab spring is the new X factor,” he said, referring to the unrest sweeping the region.

A top European diplomat who is charged with monitoring the U.S. Middle East posture dismissed talk of a U.S.-Israel rift as “very theoretical.” The diplomat, who asked not to be further identified, said the United States was “covering” for Israel at the United Nations, which is its “traditional role.”

Mark Quarterman, who spent 12 years as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and now directs the CSIS’s Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation, said “there has been very little change between the Bush administration, the Obama administration and generally across administrations” in voting against resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and trying to keep it off the Security Council’s agenda.

The Obama administration has said it will veto the Palestinian statehood bid if it comes to a vote in the Security Council, and the United States will likely stand alone with Israel and a handful of other countries should the Palestinians seek enhanced status through the General Assembly. As the General Assembly began its session Wednesday, Obama was slated to meet with Netanyahu but not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States also has tried to help Israel in its increasingly acrimonious diplomatic fight with Turkey. Sources in frequent contact with the Obama administration say that while officials express frustration with Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for the deadly May 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged ship aiming to break Israel’s Gaza blockade, they are quick to acknowledge that such an apology would not have changed the Islamist Turkish government’s determination to ratchet up confrontation with Israel.

Netanyahu and his team, for their part, have been sounding positive notes about the administration lately. The prime minister lavished praise on Obama for his Cairo intervention, saying that Israel owed Obama “a special measure of gratitude.”

“We’ve enjoyed a period over the last four months of very close coordination with the administration, probably the best coordination that we’ve had over the last two-and-a-half years over the range of issues,” Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer told Politico. “I think that we’re definitely in a good place, with the U.S. administration and us seeing a lot of things eye to eye.”

Obama to UN: Consider Israel’s security


President Obama appealed to the United Nations to recognize Israel’s security concerns in considering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day,” Obama said in his address Wednesday to the U.N. General Assembly plenary.

Obama repeated his administration’s calls on the Palestinians not to use the United Nations as a vehicle for achieving statehood, and called for Israel and the Palestinians to return to talks based on the parameters he outlined May.

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations,” he said.

“Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than 8 million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, and persecution, fresh memories of knowing that 6 million people were killed simply because of who they are,” he said.

“Those are facts. They cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.”

Obama also called for U.N. Security Council sanctions on Syria. Unlike his references to insurgencies in Bahrain and Yemen, he did not repeat his earlier calls for a democratic transition in Damascus, a sign that his administration has given up on trying to broker a transition with Syria’s current ruler.

Obama rejects Palestinian U.N. statehood bid


U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday rejected Palestinian plans to seek U.N. blessing for statehood and urged a return to peace talks with Israel as he tried to head off a looming diplomatic disaster.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Obama—whose earlier peace efforts accomplished little—insisted Middle East peace “will not come through statements and resolutions” at the world body and put the onus on the two sides to break a yearlong impasse.

“There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work,” Obama told an annual gathering of world leaders.

Grappling with economic woes and low poll numbers at home and growing doubts about his leadership abroad, Obama is wading into Middle East diplomacy at a critical juncture for his presidency and America’s credibility around the globe.

He faced the daunting test of Washington’s eroding influence in the region in his last-ditch bid to dissuade the Palestinians from going ahead with a push for statehood in the U.N. Security Council this week in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.

Obama attempted to strike a delicate balance as he took the U.N. podium. He sought to reassure Palestinians he was not abandoning his pledge to help them achieve eventual statehood while also placating any Israeli concerns about Washington’s commitment to their security.

Members of the General Assembly, where pro-Palestinian sentiment is high, listened politely but had only a muted response to Obama’s 36-minute speech.

There was widespread skepticism about Obama’s chances for success—not least because of deeply entrenched differences between the two sides—and he may not be able to do much more than contain the damage.

The Obama administration says that only direct peace talks can lead to peace with the Palestinians, who in turn say almost two decades of fruitless negotiation has left them no choice but to turn to the world body.

Obama followed his speech with a round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who echoed the president’s assertion that renewed negotiations were the only path to a peace deal but offered no new ideas how to get back to the table. He said, however, that the Palestinians’ U.N. statehood effort “will not succeed.”

Signalling European patience was also wearing thin after years of halting U.S.-led diplomacy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed an ambitious timetable to resume peace talks within a month and achieve a definitive deal in a year.

STATEHOOD DRAMA

The drama over the Palestinian U.N. bid is playing out as U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders all struggle with the fallout from Arab uprisings that are raising new political tensions across the Middle East.

It also comes as Israel finds itself more isolated than it has been in decades and confronts Washington with the risk that, by again shielding its close ally, the United States will inflame Arab distrust when Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is already faltering.

Taking note of deep frustrations over lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, he said: “Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.”

He was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later on the U.N. sidelines.

With the looming showdown overshadowing the rest of Obama’s U.N. agenda, failure to defuse the situation will not only mark a diplomatic debacle for Obama but also serve as a stark sign of the new limits of American clout in the Middle East.

Obama also used his wide-ranging speech to tout his support for democratic change sweeping the Arab world, urge further U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and call on Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations—twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution.

Senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators—were scrambling for a compromise but with little sign of a breakthrough.

The speech offered no new prescriptions for Israeli-Palestinian peace from Obama, who laid out his clearest markers for a final deal in May and angered Israel by declaring its pre-war 1967 borders as the starting point for any future negotiations.

Obama will urge Abbas face-to-face against going through with his plan to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a membership application on Friday, setting the stage for a Security Council vote that the United States says it will block.

In separate talks, Obama had been expected to ask Netanyahu—who has had strained relations with the U.S. president—to help coax Abbas back to negotiations and also curb dangerous new tensions with Egypt and Turkey, two of Washington’s top regional partners.

But Obama was considered unlikely to lean too hard on the hawkish Israeli leader for concessions to the Palestinians, mindful he cannot afford to alienate Israel’s broad base of support among American voters as he seeks re-election in 2012.

Most analysts remain skeptical that the latest diplomacy by Obama and others will be enough to spur serious negotiations after earlier efforts hit a dead end.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn, Lou Charbonneau, Alistair Lyon; Editing by Doina Chiacu

France’s Sarkozy proposes 1-yr Mideast peace map


French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed on Wednesday that the United Nations give the Palestinians status as a U.N. observer state while setting out a roadmap for peace within one year.

In an impassioned speech at the U.N. General Assembly devoted entirely to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sarkozy warned that any veto against Palestinian efforts to seek full statehood in the Security Council “risked engendering a cycle of violence” in the Middle East.”

“We can no longer wait … Let us cease our endless debates on the parameters and begin negotiations,” he said. “The moment has come to build peace for Palestinian and Israeli children.”

France has grown increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress on the peace process, saying that negotiations should be widened to include a more hands-on role for Europe amid an ongoing impasse in U.S.-led efforts.

Calling for a change of method, Sarkozy said negotiations should begin within one month, an agreement on borders and security should happen within six months and a definitive agreement be reached within a year.

“Today we are facing a very difficult choice. Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of United Nations member state,” Sarkozy said. “But who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?”

Sarkozy said the General Assembly should consider offering the Palestinians a status like that held by the Vatican, which would restore hope and mark progress to a final status.

“Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state? This would be an important step forward. Most important, it would mean emerging from a state of immobility that favors only the extremists.”

The Palestinians have said that as an alternative to the Security Council, where the United States has promised to veto any full membership vote, they could ask the General Assembly to approve upgrading their membership from “entity” to “non-member observer state.”

Sarkozy met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday and will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. He called on the Palestinians to reaffirm Israel’s right to exist and have security, while cautioning that Israel should show restraint.

A spokesman for the Palestinian president said Abbas would study Sarkozy’s proposals.

“The ultimate objective of peace negotiations must by the mutual recognition of two states for two peoples, based on the 1967 parameters with the exchange of agreed and equivalent territories,” Sarkozy said.

A Western diplomatic source said the time frame announced by Sarkozy was “one of the elements of a package” that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has been working on and which she presented to EU foreign ministers on Tuesday.

Paris has upped its diplomatic push over the last six months on the issue as the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, fearing that failure to revive the peace process could undermine that momentum.

Sarkozy also has an eye on presidential elections next year with the repercussions of an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict potentially spilling over at home, where there are more than 5 million Muslims and a Jewish community of between 600,000 and 700,000.

He warned on Tuesday that if there was no break in the impasse it could poison Arab countries’ evolution to democracy.

After a hesitant response to the Arab Spring, Sarkozy has been an outspoken defender of the changes in the region, leading international efforts to help Libyan rebels in their uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

France has previously offered to convene negotiators in Paris to discuss ideas for a Palestinian state, but Israel has traditionally been reluctant to embrace a major European role in Middle East peacemaking, preferring to have its main ally, the United States, take the lead.

Sarkozy proposed a Palestinian donor conference in Paris this fall. “Let’s stop believing that just one country or one small group of countries can resolve a problem of such complexity,” he said.

Editing by Doina Chiacu

France Mideast envoy: Opposition to Palestine bid cost my job


France’s special envoy to the Middle East said she was fired because she opposed a Palestinian plan to ask the United Nations for statehood.

Valerie Hoffenberg learned over the weekend from a French Foreign Ministry announcement that she had been dismissed. Hoffenberg had been in Israel the previous day and told an Israeli official that she was against the Palestinian statehood declaration expected to come later this month, according to Haaretz. She said a Palestinian state should be formed through bilateral negotiations.

Hoffenberg, who is Jewish, has been in the position since 2008. She is a close political ally of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

She told Haaretz that she had been planning to step down from her post in order to run for Parliament.

U.S. lawmakers talk Palestinian statehood, Iran at Mideast confab


U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said supporters of Israel must be prepared for a U.N. General Assembly vote recognizing a Palestinian state in September, saying the Palestinians have “the upper hand” in pushing through such a resolution.

The Palestinians have a solid bloc of allies in the General Assembly, whereas the measure likely will not pass if brought before the U.N. Security Council, Cardin (D-Md.) said June 22 during a speech at a conference here on the Middle East sponsored by The Israel Project.

“We have to be prepared for a U.N. vote that is negative,” Cardin said. “There will be consequences.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) echoed Cardin’s sentiments, stating flatly that a unilateral resolution recognizing a Palestinian state “absolutely cannot happen.”

Berkley said she has been assured privately and through public statements by the Obama administration that the United States will stand with Israel if such a vote occurs.

“It would be very helpful to us and to Israel if we were not standing there alone,” she said.

Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) said the issue of Iran is chief among the Middle East turmoil, calling it “the greatest threat to our own national security in the United States.”

“We cannot lose sight of Iran,” Dold said. “A nuclear-armed Iran is absolutely unacceptable.”

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, also speaking at the conference, said Iran would be a “game changer” if it were to develop nuclear weapons. Kristol likened the possibility to the Cold War, saying it would put Israel and Iran in a “perpetually Cuban Missile Crisis” situation.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said liberals suffer from “the David and Goliath inversion” regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Liberals always root for David, never Goliath,” and automatically believe Israel is the aggressor, Sherman said. “Just because the IDF wears uniforms doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”

Opinion: Obama’s morally confused Mideast policies endanger Israel


Israel and America are at a dangerous crossroads in which the survival of Israel and the safety of the United States both hang in the balance.

Year after year, the forces of terrorism become stronger, and the claims of terrorists become more acceptable to our European allies and more powerful in the United Nations. Year after year the Iranian dictatorship, with its openly stated desire to annihilate Israel and defeat the United States, moves closer to having nuclear means to do so. Year after year, Hamas grows stronger in Gaza and Hezbollah grows stronger in Lebanon.

Today the greatest obstacle toward achieving a real and lasting peace is not the strength of the enemy or the unwillingness of Israel to make great sacrifices for the sake of peace. It is the inability on the part of the Obama administration and certain other world leaders to tell the truth about terrorism, be honest about the publicly stated goals of our common enemies and devise policies appropriate to an honest accounting of reality.

Moral confusion that cannot see for what they are attacks that fit into a carefully defined ideology of radical Islamist terrorism is sadly typical of this administration’s elevation of political correctness above common sense. The Obama administration’s policy towards Israel has been a victim of this dangerous confusion.

In his May 19 State Department speech, President Obama rightly stated that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization that denies its right to exist. But he then went on in the same speech to pressure Israel to do exactly that.

President Obama wants Israel to enter into negotiations with a Palestinian Authority that is now in league with the terrorist organization Hamas. The president said that applying this pressure on Israel was not the politically savvy thing for him to do, and that the safe thing to do in an election year is nothing.

He is essentially telling us that he is doing the brave thing by pressuring Israel to negotiate with terrorists who want to destroy it. President Obama and his State Department should recall some basic facts.

Hamas was founded as a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Its charter openly calls for Israel’s destruction and instructs its followers to kill Jews wherever they find them. Hamas goes well beyond words in its effort to destroy Israel. In 2010, more than 200 missiles were fired into Israel from Gaza.

No country can be expected to conduct peace negotiations with a terrorist organization dedicated to its destruction, or with a Palestinian governmental authority that joins forces with such a terrorist organization.

Twenty years of hopes for the modern peace process cannot change this fundamental reality.

It also means that entering into peace negotiations with any organization that includes Hamas is a fool’s errand.  It is something that no friend of Israel should ever ask Israel to do. I certainly hope this administration doesn’t resort to the meaningless exercise of trying to artificially distinguish between the military and political wings of Hamas as a way of justifying pressure on Israel to negotiate with the latter.

In his recent speeches, President Obama also called for Israel to accept the 1967 lines as the beginning of peace negotiations. He went to great lengths to have us all believe that what he said at the State Department and later at AIPAC was no different than what other American presidents have declared as official policy.

Unfortunately, that’s just not true. President Obama has in fact called for a remarkable shift in U.S. policy regarding the peace process. He wants Israel to accept the indefensible lines of 1967 as the starting point of negotiations.

Accepting such a proposal would be a suicidal step for Israel. Fortunately for Israel, that proposal is a non-starter with the American people.

Like Israel, we are committed to seeing a peace agreement that protects Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state. After all, it has only been under Jewish authority that religious freedom, including access to holy sites, for people of all faiths—Christian, Jewish and Muslim—has been protected.

Meanwhile, we must readily see the president’s policies for what they are: the dangerous accommodation of Middle East dictators, and worse, the accommodation of terrorist groups like Hamas.

President Obama’s policies represent a sharp break from the post-World War II American political consensus of providing unwavering support to the State of Israel.

The decision to adopt a policy of accommodation, using the political objectives and code words of those who wish to drive Israel into the sea, affirms the administration’s radicalism in its headlong flight from the legacy of U.S. presidents—from Truman to Bush—and is leading Israel and the Western democracies toward ever increasing danger.

President Obama’s focus on Israel as the obstacle to peace is particularly disturbing considering the existence of a true threat to the peace of the world: the threat from Iran. Today Iran is watching whether the United States keeps its promises with its ally Israel and how we deal with Iran’s proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Iranian regime will also be watching how America and our allies treat Israel at the U.N. General Assembly this September.

We need to acknowledge that 20 years of trying to negotiate peace with evil regimes and organizations dedicated to the destruction of Israel—and in many cases our own destruction—has been a failure, and the time has come to clearly and decisively take the offensive against them.

This begins with a firm and consistent commitment by the United States—in the Reagan tradition—to speak plainly and truthfully about the nature of our enemies.

Next, our policies must reflect the fact that there is no moral equivalency between terrorist regimes and a legitimate self-governing country that abides by the rule of law.

We must reverse the Obama administration’s dangerous policies of incoherence and accommodation and implement instead a foreign policy that is clear about the evil that we face and committed to the actions necessary to overcome it.

(This Op-Ed was adapted from a speech Newt Gingrich, a Republican candidate for president, delivered to the Republican Jewish Coalition on June 12, 2011.)

Poll: Americans’ views on Mideast largely unchanged


Americans’ views on Middle East issues have not changed in recent months, despite major headlines from the region, according to a new poll.

The Pew Research Center poll, conducted during the end of May, found that Americans still sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians in their ongoing conflict by 48 percent to 11 percent. Those numbers are on par with an April survey that found Americans supporting Israel over the Palestinians 49 percent to 16 percent.

The unchanged support for Israel also comes after escalating tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship, including President Obama’s declaration that a two-state solution should be based on the 1967 border lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

As a group, self-identified conservative Republicans had the most sympathy for Israel at 75 percent, compared to 32 percent who identified as liberal Democrats.

According to the May poll, 50 percent of Americans said they believe Obama is striking the right balance in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, 21 percent said he is favoring the Palestinians too much and 6 percent said he is favoring Israel, with the rest unsure. Those numbers are nearly identical to the Pew poll in April.

Regarding the Arab Springs events, 23 percent said they thought the changes will be good for the United States and 26 percent said they will be bad. Thirty-six percent said the Arab Spring will have no effect on the U.S., and the rest were undecided.

Views about whether the events would lead to lasting improvements in the region dipped slightly: 37 percent said they believed they would, down from 42 percent who thought so two months earlier.

The poll had a sample size of 1,509 adults and a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

A separate poll commissioned by the Israel Project found that a majority of U.S. voters would oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated he will seek from the United Nations in September.

Fifty-seven percent polled June 5-7 said they would oppose such a move, up from 51 percent in April. One-quarter of voters said they would support the declaration, down from 31 percent in April.

The Israel Project survey polled 800 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

Obama and the quest for Mideast peace


So, why was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steaming when he came out of his tête-á-tête with President Barack Obama on May 20? The president’s inherently pro-Palestinian, con-Israeli stance may have been another rude awakening for the prime minister, but the handwriting’s been on the wall for some time now.

Take, for example, candidate Obama’s statement in March 2007 that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people.”  How about the Israeli people, who have had to live with the daily threat of terrorist attacks and bombings and hostile Arab armies on their borders since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948?   

Netanyahu was clearly disconcerted when he heard the president refer to Hamas as “an organization that has resorted to terror” during his press conference with the prime minister.  The imagery conveyed is of desperate Palestinian freedom fighters committing the occasional act of terror as a last resort to drive their Israeli oppressors from their rightful home, not of the coldblooded killers who routinely murder innocent civilians, as they did when they used a laser-guided anti-tank missile last April to specifically target an Israeli school bus, killing 16-year-old Daniel Viflic.

The president’s characterization of Hamas was particularly surprising as the organization has been responsible for the murder of more than 40 U.S. citizens since its formation in 1988 and was declared a terrorist group by the Clinton administration in 1995.  Netanyahu believed the United States and Israel stood shoulder to shoulder on the longstanding policy for both countrie — which, in the case of America, dates back to 1981 and the Reagan administration — that forbids negotiating with terrorists.  Yet Obama, in his Mideast policy address on May 19, soft pedaled the recent political accord between Fatah and Hamas, saying it raised “profound and legitimate questions for Israel” that Palestinian leaders will have to credibly address “… in the weeks and months to come.” 

But that’s far from the only reason Netanyahu was upset with the president.  Why is it that this administration feels compelled to set preconditions for Middle East peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and that those preconditions always require Israel to make the first concessions before negotiations begin?  In 2009, negotiations ran aground because Obama insisted on a moratorium on all new settlement activity in the West Bank that Israel rebuffed. Now, the principle he has set forth as a “foundation for negotiations” is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that … the Palestinian people [can] govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

In his speech to AIPAC on May 22, the president misled the 11,000 American Jews in the audience — 78 percent of whom had voted for him — when he stated that his framework for peace talks has “… been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton administration.”  The truth is that the president’s so-called “even-handed” policy strongly favors the Palestinian position and represents a major change in American policy, with dire implications for Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace.

No U.S. president, from Lyndon Johnson (who was in office during the Six-Day War) through George W. Bush, has ever asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that the Palestinians have a right to 100 percent of the West Bank and the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders. Johnson said a return to pre-1967 borders “is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” Reagan stated that “in the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point.  The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies.  I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”  And Bush:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” None of the prior eight American presidents since 1967 have said anything about returning to the 1967 borders or land swaps.  By stating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Obama is asserting that (i) Palestinians are entitled to the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders and that (ii) should those borders differ, Israel must compensate the Palestinians with other land from the 4,000-year-old ancestral Jewish homeland.  This is a concession Israel is to make before negotiations begin?  What bargaining power would Israel have left?  And, since “mutually” entails the agreement of both parties, what if one party — the Palestinians — doesn’t agree?  Then you’re back to the indefensible 1967 borders.   

Why does this president consistently set Israel up to take the fall?  Netanyahu journeys to Washington to meet with the president at Obama’s request in March 2010 only to be presented with a list of ultimatums for restarting peace talks, including freezing settlement activity in East Jerusalem, and then, when Netanyahu hesitates, the president walks out of the meeting, snubbing him for dinner and the customary photo session for heads of state.  On the eve of last month’s summit with the prime minister, he again ambushes Netanyahu by unveiling a major change in U.S. policy that favors the Palestinians. During the first six months of his presidency, Obama journeyed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt; halfway through the third year of his term, he has yet to visit Israel, America’s staunchest, most democratic and most stable and reliable ally in the region.  Does anyone see a pattern here? 

If Obama wants to set preconditions for peace talks, then why not adopt the most logical, most fundamental and most simplistic one set forth by Netanyahu in his address before Congress on May 24?  Just as Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime ministers before him dating back to Menachem Begin in 1978, have stated that they will accept a Palestinian state, why doesn’t the president join him in calling for the Palestinian leadership to declare that they will accept a Jewish state?  How can there ever be peace if there is no meeting of the minds on this basic premise?  Why wasn’t that the framework for peace negotiations put forth by the president instead of dancing around the issue of having Hamas at the bargaining table? 

The last time Israel swapped land for peace —the Gaza Strip in 2005 — the direct consequence was to have less land and less peace.  With Hamas governing Gaza, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and terrorist strikes against Israeli civilian targets increased markedly, Hamas’ charter (Article 7) advocates the killing of all Jews (not just Israelis, mind you) by Muslims and it has never accepted Israel’s right to exist, stressing its commitment to “obliterating” Israel (preamble to Hamas charter).  Hamas is no friend of America, either.  FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose tenure Obama wishes to extend another two years, cited in testimony before the U.S. Senate that “there is a … threat of a coordinated terrorist attack in the U.S. from Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.” According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hamas and another terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have joined with Iran in fomenting “subversive activity” in Latin America. 

So, if the president is bound and determined to set preconditions for negotiations between Israel and the newly united Fatah-Hamas Palestinian Authority, why did he not insist — in firm, clear language — that Hamas first renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and affirm the previous agreements between the PA and Israel?  Why does the first olive branch always have to come from Israel, and how can it when the party across the table is aiming a gun at its heart?  Although the president took a tougher stance on Hamas in his speech to AIPAC — clearly appealing for the Jewish vote — why didn’t he do so during his national address, when the entire Arab world was listening?  Modified messages for different audiences brings to mind imagery of Yasser Arafat’s pro-peace remarks in English for Western audiences and his pro-violence oratory in Arabic for Muslims.

In his Mideast policy address, Obama also referenced two “wrenching and emotional issues” that remain: “the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”  But his avowed two-state solution with “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people” is illusory if you give any credence whatsoever to a so-called Palestinian “right of return.” The Jewish state ceases to exist if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their former homes in Israel. Hamas knows this, Fatah knows this, and the president knows this. Hamas has never agreed to the permanent (as opposed to “transitional”), peaceful, side-by-side coexistence of a Palestinian state with a Jewish state — not when Hamas chieftain Khaled Meshaal met with ex-President Jimmy Carter in 2008 and not now.  In the words of another Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, “Israel is an impossibility.  It is an offense against God.”

If he was going to mention refugees, why didn’t the president raise the issue of the 3,000-year-old Jewish communities in Arab lands that were ethnically cleansed between 1948 and the early 1970s?  Commencing with Arab League retaliation for the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, 1 million Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and personal property, forfeiting 62,000 square miles of land (nearly five times Israel’s 12,600 square miles) and assets worth approximately $300 billion.  What of their “right of return”?  No one believes Jews will ever be allowed to once again peacefully coexist in Muslim lands where they lived for centuries, so why should Israelis think they can survive in a Muslim-majority Israel?

Instead of bringing the parties closer to the bargaining table, Obama has pushed them farther apart.  President Bush gave voice to what has been understood by every American president since Johnson when he observed in 2004 that “an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” By reintroducing the Palestinian refugee issue, Obama has further emboldened Fatah and Hamas, leading them to take yet another negotiating position that is a nonstarter for Israel.  After all, you can’t expect Palestinians to take a less pro-Palestinian stance than the president of the United States …

Hamas is no more America’s friend than is al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. Israel may be Hamas’ immediate target, but Jews everywhere and all of Western culture — those who “have closed [their] ears to the Messenger of Allah” (Rayyan) — is in their crosshairs. The president had a golden opportunity to send a strong, unequivocal message that there is no place for a defiant Hamas to be a part of the Middle East peace process, and he didn’t take it, a fact that is troubling for any number of reasons, not the least of which is why the president used a speech that was billed to be a major policy pronouncement on the Arab spring to instead put Israel once again on the chopping block.

The Arab spring movement is not about Arabs rebelling against Israelis; it’s about the Arab street rebelling against repressive Arab rulers in Iran (June 2009), Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria.  So why divert attention away to once again scapegoat the Jews?  Osama bin Laden did it when, post-9/11, he adopted the mantle and “justification” of Palestinian freedom fighter. Bashar al-Assad did it when he orchestrated having Palestinian refugees storm the Syrian border with Israel on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence.

When Obama remarked in April 2010 that the Middle East conflict ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he drew an explicit link between Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.  This is not the first time the president has expressed this distorted view that blames Israel for the threat of Islamic terrorism facing Western countries.  In October 2007, he asserted that “our neglect of the Middle East peace process has spurred despair and fueled terrorism.” This outrageous blood libel accepts the narrative of al-Qaeda and speaks volumes about this president’s beliefs and thought processes. Perhaps the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel preachings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who was Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children, gave him the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and served as his “sounding board” and spiritual mentor, have had more of an influence on Obama’s world view than people realize.

If the president is endeavoring to curry favor in the Muslim world by pressuring Israel back to the bargaining table with (i) a seemingly irreconcilable partner, (ii) a new, “zero-sum” game tied to 1967 borders with “swaps” that means Israel has to give up some of its own pre-1967 territory to get West Bank settlements, (iii) a contiguous Palestinian state that borders Israel, Jordan and Egypt that could connect Palestine while dividing Israel and does nothing to ensure Israel’s security, (iv) a potential “right to return” for Palestinian refugees — despite their now getting their own sovereign country, and (v) a divided Jerusalem, then the Obama administration has for the second time in three years doomed peace talks before they can even start.  Is it any wonder Netanyahu is steaming and this president has the lowest approval rating among Israelis of any sitting American president?  Now, if only American Jews would wake up … 

Lloyd Greif, the son of Holocaust survivors, is president and CEO of Greif & Co., a member of the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce and benefactor of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California.

European rabbis urge religious tolerance in Mideast


Senior European rabbis urged the European Union to ensure that the burgeoning democratic movements sweeping across the Arab world also guarantee religious freedom in the region.

During a meeting Monday at the European Commission in Brussels, the four-member Conference of European Rabbis delegation stressed the importance of reversing decades of dictatorship and human rights abuses in some Middle Eastern countries.

“The quest for freedom, the most basic human right, is all-encompassing because, without it, human beings cannot enjoy all the blessings which life can give which brings out the presence of God in every person,” said Conference of European Rabbis Chairman Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, also the chief rabbi of Moscow.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders attended the meeting, which was hosted by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. It was the seventh such meeting hosted by Barroso since 2005.

Barroso said after the meeting that Europe’s growing challenges can be solved only with the active participation of the continent’s religious communities.

“Our task and ambition is to promote democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights and social justice not only in Europe but also in our neighborhood,” he said. “Today’s discussion confirmed our common commitment to the promotion of democratic rights and liberties, including freedom of religion and of belief.”

Prior to the meeting, the rabbis joined with several European Muslim leaders to issue a joint statement condemning “increasing manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in countries across Europe.”

“We must never allow anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia or racism to become respectable in today’s Europe,” their declaration read. “In that regard, we call upon all political leaders not to pander to these groups by echoing their rhetoric.”

Peres: Israel needs to formulate its own Mideast peace plan


Israel needs to draft its own Mideast peace initiative if it wants to avoid international pressure over a reported U.S peace plan, President Shimon Peres said on Friday, following a report claiming Washington was working on a plan to restart stalled peace talks.

Peres’ comments came in the wake of a New York Times report claiming that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was drafting a new peace plan which included a Palestinian state within 1967 borders and which rejected Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Speaking during a visit to southern Israel, the president referred to reported U.S. plans to present a new outline for Mideast peace, accusing those reports as being “all speculation.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

UN urges bold steps to relaunch Mideast peace talks


The United Nations called on Thursday for “bold and decisive steps” to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the region awaits a possible new initiative by U.S. President Barack Obama.

UN political chief Lynn Pascoe and ambassadors of key Security Council countries said it was important to break the deadlock soon as a proclaimed September deadline for reaching an agreement draws closer.

Peace talks opened last September with the aim of an accord in one year but quickly broke down after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Peres to Clinton: Israel is ready to assist in Mideast transition


Shimon Peres told Hillary Rodham Clinton that Israel was ready to do what it could to facilitate transition among its neighbors to democracy.

“We see this occasion as an occasion for better and for good will to cooperate in every possible way to enable this change to take the course into the 21st century for all the Middle East people and escape their poverty and problems and wants,” the Israeli president told the U.S. secretary of state before their meeting Monday afternoon.

Peres is in Washington to meet with President Obama on Tuesday. Statements from some Israeli leaders have suggested that they believe the Obama administration is moving too fast in encouraging some nations to transition to democratic governments as a result of the “Arab Spring,” the tumult now sweeping the region.

U.S. officials, in turn, have suggested that Israel and the Palestinians could help ease the process by resuming peace talks.

Clinton told Peres that it was an honor to host him in Washington and that “President Obama is very much looking forward to seeing you and discussing the issues that you have raised and your perspectives and the way forward, which will hopefully realize the better outcomes that we all wish for.”

“Our task together is to deepen and broaden our friendship, our relationship, our partnership to look for ways that we can work toward the kind of future that you have always believed in and that you have held out as a promise for the children of Israel and the children of all the countries of the Middle East,” Clinton said.

Obama: Changes in Mideast make Israel-Palestinian peace more urgent than ever


United States President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that with the winds of change sweeping the broader Middle East it was “more urgent than ever” to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama was speaking to reporters after holding White House talks with President Shimon Peres.

Following the meet, Peres gave a press conference during which he reiterated Obama’s message, saying “both ourselves and the Palestinians think that what is happening in other Arab countries will have a big influence on us and on the Palestinians.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Warren Christopher, overseer of Mideast talks, dies


Warren Christopher, the U.S. Secretary of State whose intensive shuttling shepherded talks with Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians in the mid-1990s, has died.

Christopher died March 18 at home in Los Angeles of complications from cancer. He was 85.

As secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Christopher traveled to the Middle East 18 times in an effort to bring peace to the region.

Christopher pressed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and oversaw the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in 1993.

Christopher also shepherded negotiations between Israel and Jordan, and attended the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries in 1994. He also worked to achieve peace between Israel and Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Christopher a “dear friend” in a statement released over the weekend.

“Warren was a diplomat’s diplomat—talented, dedicated and exceptionally wise,” she said. “As well as anyone in his generation, he understood the subtle interplay of national interests, fundamental values and personal dynamics that drive diplomacy. America is safer and the world is more peaceful because of his service.”

President Obama called Christopher a “resolute pursuer of peace,” as well as “a skillful diplomat, a steadfast public servant and a faithful American.”

Christopher “brought his strong intellect to bear on such pressing problems as the Iran hostage crisis, Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiations, the Bosnian war, and racial tensions in Los Angeles,” said U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

First Tunisia, then Egypt: Which Mideast autocracy will be next to fall?


With popular uprisings having toppled two Arab dictators in the space of just a few weeks and unrest reverberating across the Middle East, are other regimes likely to fall, too?

Nearly everywhere in the region, autocratic leaders seem to be on the defensive. Using carrots or sticks, and sometimes both, they’re struggling to curb growing protest movements.

In Jordan two weeks ago, amid spreading protests, King Abdullah II dismissed his prime minister and Cabinet, promising reforms. In the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, police countered protesters’ “Day of Rage” this week with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the king tried to defuse opposition by promising a $2,650 payment of “appreciation” to every Bahraini family. In Kuwait, too, the ruling emir announced cash grants to every citizen.

In Iran this week, government forces used violence to block demonstrators from massing in main squares, despite Tehran’s rhetorical support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen and Algeria, protesters and police battled in the streets. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections by September, and this week the PA prime minister dismissed his Cabinet.

Long a mostly impotent force in Arab politics, the Arab street suddenly has discovered its power, and it’s ushering in change from Tunis to Amman—not to mention fraying nerves in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Activists in other countries are trying to use the example of Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize large numbers of people to the streets,” said David Siddhartha Patel, a political scientist at Cornell University.

Despite the spreading protests, experts cautioned against predicting the collapse of additional regimes. While the Arab street has drawn lessons from Egypt and Tunisia, so have their autocratic rulers.

“Will people demonstrate and protest? Yes,” said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s program of Global Research in International Affairs. “Will people overthrow governments? I think the answer is no.”

In Israel, the sudden change in Egypt has ignited a sharp debate along partisan lines about lessons to be learned and the efficacy of peacemaking with the Arab world.

“The right wing says you cannot really negotiate agreements with Arabs because the agreements will not be kept because their states are not stable,” said retired Israeli Brig.-Gen Shlomo Brom, an expert on Arab politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The left will say, the lesson is that because of the instability of the Middle East, we should be interested in minimizing friction between us and the Arab world by having ongoing negotiations for peace.”

The calculus for every country is different, and the elements that made for the success of Egypt’s uprising were a uniquely combustible combination that may not transfer elsewhere.

High unemployment, a yawning rich-poor gap, widespread government corruption and deteriorating quality-of-life metrics made Hosni Mubarak almost universally despised in his country, uniting Islamists and secularists in opposition. Egypt faced a looming succession crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the 82-year-old president, who wanted to hand over power to his son, Gamal.

Once the protests began in earnest, Egypt’s government, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, was subject to American pressure on how to confront the demonstrators. Perhaps most significant, the Egyptian army opted to side with the protesters over the regime, declining to use violence against the people and essentially turning what had begun as a popular uprising into a military coup.

That stands in stark contrast to Iran, which put down mass protests a year-and-a-half ago following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The key state security forces did the government’s bidding at the time, and with gusto: They beat and shot demonstrators, jailed dissenters and executed organizers.

This time, the regime is making sure that mass protests never materialize by choking off main arteries leading to central squares, deploying hundreds of riot officers and banning marches in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Already pariahs in the West, Tehran’s rulers have little to hold them back from unleashing the full might of their security apparatus to stay in power.

“The Iranian regime acted decisively early on, using security forces ruthlessly against the opposition, unlike Mubarak who hesitated and vacillated,” said Manochehr Dorraj, an Iran expert at Texas Christian University. “In Iran, the use of the security forces put shivers in the heart of the demonstrators who knew that they might be killed or executed. And because Iran has oil and gas reserves, it could afford to act autonomously and ignore public opinion and take that defiant posture.”

Likewise in Syria, the state security services moved firmly to stifle budding protests, scaring potential opponents into submission through arrests, intimidation and a zero-tolerance policy even for small protest gatherings. Furthermore, the broad popular discontent that fueled the Egyptian protests is less salient in Syria, where quality-of-life measures have improved in recent years under Bashar Assad.

Syria and Iran have another card to play when it comes to staunching opposition.

“Their anti-U.S. and anti-Israel posture lends them the claim that whoever rises against them are agents of the U.S. and Israel,” Dorraj said. “This was not available to Mubarak.”

Algeria in many ways looks similar to Egypt, with broad disaffection for the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, youth-led protests gaining steam and widespread strikes. But Algeria’s army is unlikely to side with the people against the regime, many analysts say. The same goes for Algeria’s neighbor to the east, Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya, where dissidents called for a protest to take place Thursday in Tripoli.

Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel, is seen to be in a more vulnerable position. Its ruler hails from a minority group in a country whose population is mostly Palestinian. In recent weeks, even the native Jordanian tribes in the minority that comprise the king’s traditional power base went public with charges of corruption against Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania. Also, the painful domestic effects of the global economic crisis have increased popular discontent in Jordan.

As protests—a recurring presence in the kingdom—gained steam following the unrest in Egypt, Abdullah moved quickly to announce political reforms, firing his government and installing a new, conservative Cabinet designed to placate Jordan’s powerful tribes. The moves, and the king’s relative popularity compared with Mubarak in Egypt, weigh in Abdullah’s favor.

“Here we see a difference between Jordan on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other: Jordan made some concessions, where the governments of Iran and Syria will not give an inch,” Rubin observed.

“In Jordan, it’s different from Egypt and Tunisia—everybody likes the king,” Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian culture minister and now a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told JTA in an interview from Amman.

“There is no problem with the king, but with the corrupted government and corrupted people,” Al-Rfouh said. “We need to change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy under the leadership of His Majesty the King.”

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country most vulnerable to revolution is Yemen, which like Mubarak’s Egypt is plagued by high poverty, unemployment, discontent with the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, until a few days ago, a looming succession crisis.

Saleh has tried to use both sticks and carrots to quell protests, dispatching his security forces to put down protests while offering a host of concessions, including a pledge to relinquish power in 2013 and not install his son as successor.

Long ravaged by internal conflicts, Yemen is seen as a key front in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. If Saleh goes, it’s not clear that Yemen’s government will remain allied with the West against Islamic extremism.

The future of Yemen, like so much in the Middle East, remains uncertain.

“There is one lesson we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases,” Brom said. “That is that nobody is immune and there are strong limitations to our ability to make forecasts.”

Battle over Mideast transit ads heating up across U.S.


With public bickering over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already having spilled over into university student senates, corporate pension boards and even local farmers markets, the latest battlefield in the debate over the conflict is municipal transit systems.

In several major U.S. cities, advertisements on public buses and municipal rail stations are designed to galvanize public opinion to end U.S. military aid to Israel or to pressure Palestinians to end anti-Jewish incitement. In some cases, the ads have been deemed so inflammatory that local authorities have tried to restrict or ban them outright, leading to frustration on both sides and, in one case, a federal lawsuit.

A group calling itself the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, with the help of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, filed a lawsuit in Seattle last month charging that the group’s First Amendment rights were violated when the local transit system reneged on an agreement to carry its ad opposing aid to Israel.

The ad, which featured a group of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli war crimes: Your tax dollars at work,” was slated to start running on Seattle buses in late December. But after local officials were besieged with complaints and at least two counter groups proposed ads of their own, the officials suspended all non-commercial bus advertisements.

One of those ads, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, featured a digitally altered image of Hitler and a man in Arab headdress under the headline, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

A judge is due to rule on a temporary injunction that would restore the initial ad next week.

“Israel’s accountability for the ongoing conflict is a part of the story that gets silenced more in this country,” Ed Mast, a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, told JTA. “So our purpose is education.”

Across the country, public advertising is emerging as a new front in the public debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine launched a campaign on trains and platforms in Chicago in October in which Israeli and Palestinian faces were depicted under the banner, “Be on our side. We are on the side of peace and justice.”

Below the smiling faces, the tagline urged an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. The campaign already has run in San Francisco and is slated for expansion to other U.S. cities.

Caren Levy-Van Slyke, a member of the steering committee of the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, said the campaign was “inclusive” of both Israelis and Palestinians and was intended to draw taxpayer attention to the 2007 deal providing $30 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over 10 years.

“We are the side of peace and justice,” Levy-Van Slyke said, echoing the Chicago ads.

Pro-Israel activists contest that assertion. In San Francisco, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine ad triggered a response from the Los Angeles-based pro-Israel group Stand With Us, which is sponsoring ads beginning this week urging the Palestinian leadership to stop teaching hatred and to “Say Yes to Peace.”

An earlier version of the ad, which Stand With Us attempted to place in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, showed a masked terrorist under the headline, “Stop Palestinian Terrorism.” Transit officials reportedly rejected the ad after people complained. The new ad features only text.

“Right now, we’re watching and we’re asking our members to let us know when these kinds of things come up, and we will directly respond,” said Roz Rothstein, national director of Stand With Us.

Pamela Geller, who writes the conservative blog Atlas Shrugged and who is the executive director of the group that tried to run counter ads in Seattle, said she submitted a similar ad in San Francisco that BART officials rejected. She has vowed to pursue a lawsuit if the officials fail to approve her revision. On her website, Geller describes the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine spots as “Jew hating” and “annihilationist ads supporting jihad.”

“If the ACLU prevails in their lawsuit, I expect my ads to run as well,” Geller wrote in an email to JTA. “If they refuse my ads, I will pursue legal recourse.”

Much of the inspiration for the ads appears to have originated with a billboard erected in early 2009 in Albuquerque, N.M. That ad, which called for an end to military aid to Israel, was sponsored by a group calling itself the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel.

In 2007, Rothstein’s group responded to a similar campaign in the Washington, D.C., Metro criticizing the Israeli occupation. The Stand With Us ad featured an armed man holding a child, with the tagline, “This Child Could Grow Up To Be A Terrorist.”

Rothstein said her group had no desire to be dragged into the ad wars, but would not allow material critical of Israel to go unanswered.

“This is not something that we’re interested in,” she said. “We are really only doing it as a reaction.”

Egyptian unrest stokes oil fears, but Mideast markets relax


Investors began separating the losers and the gainers from Egyptian unrest on Wednesday, as fears the turmoil would interrupt the world oil trade lifted petroleum prices to their highest level in more than two years while share markets in the Middle East rebounded.

The price of North Sea Brent crude futures held above $100 a barrel on Wednesday and just below the 28-month high they reached a day earlier, amid concerns the standoff between Egypt’s government and the opposition might close the Suez Canal. Investors also remained jittery about the risk of unrest spreading to the Middle East’s oil exporters.

But the bad news for oil consumers was greeted joyfully in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which sit on top of the world’s largest reserves. Investors also assessed that the protests that have shaken Egypt and Tunisia would probably not spread to the Gulf. GCC share prices rebounded.

“There were obviously some concerns of the region due to Egypt, but I think those are relatively limited,” Giyas Gokkent, chief economist at National Bank of Abu Dhabi, told The Media Line. “The overall impact of the turmoil in Egypt on the GCC economies will be relatively limited. Investors have come back. They’re saying, ‘We were being premature. Let’s reconsider.’”

The Dubai Financial Market General Index posted its largest gain in ten months, rising 3.3%, while Abu Dhabi’s ADX General Index jumped 1% and Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index closed up 2.2%, the highest in a week. Gokkent said it was local investors who were the most bullish.

“From what we’ve seen so far, it’s mostly local investors mostly participating in the current uptick,” he said. “In terms of foreigners, they probably want to see things settle
While protests continued in Egypt on Wednesday, Gulf investors were cheered by President Husni Mubarak’s decision not to seek another term in office, a move some said may go far enough in the direction of change to bring about an end to the unrest, which marked its ninth day on Wednesday.

In a televised address late on Tuesday, the Egyptian leader said he would not seek re-election in September. The move failed to satisfy the opposition, which continued to demand that he step down immediately, but in the first show of support in the street for the government, some 20,000 Mubarak supporters marched on Tahrir Square on Wednesday, swamping the opposition presence.

Even in Israel, which regards the Egyptian leader as one of its closest friends in the Middle East and a bulwark against Islamic radicalism, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s TA-25 index closed 0.9% higher.

But not everyone was convinced that the threat from Egypt is over. Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Beirut’s Byblos Bank, told The Media Line that investors were unnerved by the sudden eruption of the protests in Egypt, and weeks before that in Tunisia. Even though the contagion they feared hasn’t occurred, they fear further surprises.

“Egypt has been a stable country for many years. Frankly, with this kind of rapid and unexpected change it’s normal to have investors squeamish because the level of uncertainty,” he said. “After what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, investors will definitely take into consideration more political risk than they had done previously.”

In Egypt, the economy remained at a standstill. The Central Bank refused again on Wednesday for the third day to allow banks to open for fear they might be looted. Most automatic teller machines are empty of cash. Even the shut-down of the Internet, aimed at disrupting the opposition, has hurt business. Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, the world two biggest credit rating agencies,  downgraded Egypt this week.

Egypt’s newly appointed finance minister, Samir Radwan, told BBC Radio 4 that the country’s economy had been damaged by unrest, but he denied it had been plunged into chaos. “There is a crisis; there is no doubt about it. Certainly I wouldn’t deny that the economy has suffered,” he said.

Oil traders are concerned about the impact Egypt’s closing the Suez Canal would have because the transit route carries 7% of world trade, including some 1.8 million barrels of oil daily. Without the Suez shortcut, the price of shipping oil from the Gulf to markets in Europe and North America would rise, adding to energy costs.

In addition, Arab investors have considerable investments in Egypt, including real estate, banks, Byblos’ Ghobril said. Egypt is the Arab world’s third-largest economy, counting for 11.5 of its gross domestic product.

But most analysts said the main threat Egypt poses is political. At $188 billion in current dollars in 2009, Egyptian economic output is about the same size as that of Alabama. “It doesn’t have the same magnitude as a political event that impacts on the GCC directly would have,” Gokkent said.