Israel says car bomb defused at shopping mall

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday an explosives-laden car parked at a shopping mall in northern Israel, and defused by police, was an attempted Arab attack aimed at causing mass casualties.

Israeli media reported a little-known armed faction called Liberators of the Galilee claimed responsibility for planting the bomb in Haifa on Saturday.

The group’s name — the Galilee is in Israel — suggested it could be comprised of Israeli Arabs, who make up some 20 percent of the population of the Jewish state. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Bombs that don’t explode don’t interest the media, but the political significance of this attempted bombing is arguably just as great as it would have been had the bombers succeeded.

In speculation about who is behind this, links to outside groups have quickly been suggested. Palestinian Authority sources are pointing fingers in the direction of Iran and previous reports on the Galilee Liberators have linked this little-known group to both Hezbollah and Hamas.

In the only report I’ve come across that references any motive it said: “The ephemeral organization said the attacks, and many more to come soon, are in retaliation for the destroying of Arab homes in East Jerusalem.”

The one recurring element in most of the reports is that whatever assistance the perpetrators may have received from outside Israel, the likelihood is that this was an Israeli Arab operation.

Avigdor Lieberman has long been drumming up racist fear directed at the population he describes as Israel’s “enemy within”. Now that fear is going to be ratcheted up several more notches.

Israel can erect walls to seal out the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza. It can fire missiles at terrorist suspects. It can bomb government buildings in Gaza. It can bulldoze Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but if in widening numbers Israeli Jews hold fast to the idea that Israeli Arabs — who are Israeli citizens — are the enemy within, the Jewish state will end up ripping itself apart.

Israel’s allies might be able to satisfy themselves with vigorous hand wringing while Gaza gets bombed, but if the Lieberman vision turns into a plan of action, Israel’s international isolation — its universal recognition as a pariah state — becomes unavoidable.

Is the US talking to Iran, or dictating?

… the persistent flaw in the Obama approach that might prove to be fatal is a lingering streak of arrogance that is reflected in both the tone and the substance of his message. This is most obvious (after telling the Iranians that they are a great culture with proud traditions, which is presumably something they already knew, experienced and felt on their own) in his lecturing Iran about the responsibilities that come with the right to assume its place in the “community of nations,” and then linking Iran’s behavior with “terror of arms” and a “capacity to destroy.”

It is difficult to see how Washington can reconcile the positive gesture of reaching out with Obama’s irrepressible need to lecture others about the rules of righteous nationhood. One of the principal complaints that Iran has against the US – and this is mirrored in widespread Arab and Islamist resistance to the US and its allies – is the lingering colonial tendency by the leading Western powers to feel that they write the rules for the conduct of other nations. [continued…]

From Tehran to Tel Aviv

A senior Israeli official told me Iran has 1,000 kilos of low-enriched uranium and will have 500 more within six months, enough to make a bomb. It could then opt for one of three courses.

Rush for a bomb by shredding the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, adapting its centrifuges and producing enough highly enriched uranium within a year.

Move the process to a secret site, in which case getting a bomb would take longer, perhaps two years.

Or continue making low-enriched uranium so that “it would have enough for 10 bombs if it decides to rush at a later stage.”

And where, I asked, is Israel’s red line? “Once they get to 1,500 kilos, nonproliferation is dead,” he said. And so? “It’s established that when a country that does not accept Israel’s existence has such a program, we will intervene.”

I think there’s some bluster in this. Israel does not want Obama to talk, talk, talk, so it’s suggesting military action could happen in 2009, within nine months.

Still, this much is clear to me: Obama’s new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s about time. America’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel’s long-term security. [continued…]

Hamas leader welcomes Obama’s “new language” – report

President Barack Obama is using a “new language” in relations with the Middle East and an official overture towards Hamas is only a matter of time, the Islamist group’s leader Khaled Meshaal said in a newspaper interview.

“A new language towards the region is coming from President Obama. The challenge for everybody is for this to be the prelude for a genuine change in U.S. and European policies. Regarding an official opening towards Hamas, it’s a matter of time,” Meshaal told Italian daily La Repubblica in an interview published on Sunday. [continued…]

Gaza war crime claims gather pace as more troops speak out

An investigation by a group of former Israeli soldiers has uncovered new evidence of the military’s conduct during the assault on Gaza two months ago. According to the group Breaking the Silence, the witness statements of the 15 soldiers who have come forward to describe their concerns over Operation Cast Lead appear to corroborate claims of random killings and vandalism carried out during the operation made by a separate group of anonymous servicemen during a seminar at a military college.

Although Breaking the Silence’s report is not due to be published for several months, the testimony it has received already suggests widespread abuses stemming from orders originating with the Israeli military chain of command. [continued…]

The China syndrome

The late historian Barbara Tuchman was an accomplished writer, but her reputation rests more properly on her insights. Her seminal work, August 1914, was so filled with them that few historians can write of “the war to end all wars” without mentioning it. Its silver binding stands glimmering, even now, on the shelves of every Tuchman wannabe whose dream it is to write about the past. But August 1914, while influential, is not Tuchman’s greatest book: that accolade is reserved for Stilwell and the American Experience in China — her tale of American General Joseph Stilwell’s World War II relationship with Chinese “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek.

Tuchman’s tale is not about China, not really: it’s about America. Released the year before Richard Nixon announced he would visit Beijing, the between-the-lines subtext of “Stilwell” is America’s jaw-dropping support for the self-seeking and unscrupulous Chiang, a Chinese Vito Corleone and one of the twentieth century’s prized narcissists. What was so shocking about our support for Chiang is that we knew better: Chiang refused to fight the Japanese, pocketed large amounts of the money we gave his army, and spent his time conspiring against his colleagues. Stilwell described him as a curse on the Chinese people. Never mind. Five successive American presidents extolled him as “a defender of freedom” and “the future of China”. Any Taipei cabbie could have told us otherwise. Tuchman’s conclusion? “Between policy-makers in the capital and realities in the field lies an eternal gap whitened by the bones of failed and futile efforts.” [continued…]

US will appoint Afghan ‘prime minister’ to bypass Hamid Karzai

The US and its European allies are ­preparing to plant a high-profile figure in the heart of the Kabul government in a direct challenge to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, the Guardian has learned.

The creation of a new chief executive or prime ministerial role is aimed at bypassing Karzai. In a further dilution of his power, it is proposed that money be diverted from the Kabul government to the provinces. Many US and European officials have become disillusioned with the extent of the corruption and incompetence in the Karzai government, but most now believe there are no credible alternatives, and predict the Afghan president will win re-election in August. [continued…]

Obama ponders Afghan ‘exit plan’

President Barack Obama has said that the US must have an “exit strategy” in Afghanistan, even as Washington sends more troops to fight Taleban militants.

He was speaking in a CBS interview, as the White House prepares to unveil a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. [continued…]

The monarch who declared his own revolution

The night of September 11, 2001, had come and gone in Saudi Arabia, and the dawn prayers had been said in Jidda. But at midmorning, when a visitor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud found him in one of the vast rooms of his palace, the de facto ruler of the country was still bent on the floor. “He was alone,” remembers the visitor, insisting on anonymity. “He prayed long, long, long—much longer than I have ever seen.” At last the man who is now the king of Saudi Arabia (he would inherit the throne in 2005) arose and spoke. He seemed stunned. “I am sure our good people did not do these things,” he said. Yet word had already come from the United States that most of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. “He could not put this within a context that he understood,” recalls the visitor. “Not in an Arab context or a Muslim context or a Saudi context.” In the years since, when Abdullah has talked of Al Qaeda and its allies, he uses words that translate as “the deviant group,” or “the miscreants,” as if it is impossible that they could have been his subjects.

For years the pace of reform in Saudi Arabia has reflected what seemed to be denial. Change has been almost imperceptibly slow, like a dune moving across the desert, even as the kingdom’s festering problems nourished extremism. In the past few weeks, however, things have suddenly accelerated as the king has moved to show the ultraconservative Saudi religious establishment quite literally who’s boss. He sacked the head of the feared religious police and the minister of justice, appointed Nora al-Fayez as deputy education minister, making her the highest-ranking female official in the country’s history, and moved to equalize the education of women and men under the direction of a favored son-in-law who has been preparing for years to modernize the nation’s school system. “Abdullah waited,” says Robert Lacey, who wrote “The Kingdom,” the classic 1981 study of Saudi Arabia, and is now working on a sequel. “He bided his time until it was appropriate for him to make the changes he wanted.” Whatever the reason, the 85-year-old monarch has begun acting like a leader whose vision is becoming clear just as time is running short. [continued…]

Are we home alone?

If you want to guarantee that America becomes a mediocre nation, then just keep vilifying every public figure struggling to find a way out of this crisis who stumbles once — like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner or A.I.G.’s $1-a-year fill-in C.E.O., Ed Liddy — and you’ll ensure that no capable person enlists in government. You will ensure that every bank that has taken public money will try to get rid of it as fast it can, so as not to come under scrutiny, even though that would weaken their balance sheets and make them less able to lend money. And you will ensure that we’ll never get out of this banking crisis, because the solution depends on getting private money funds to team up with the government to buy up toxic assets — and fund managers are growing terrified of any collaboration with government.

President Obama missed a huge teaching opportunity with A.I.G. Those bonuses were an outrage. The public’s anger was justified. But rather than fanning those flames and letting Congress run riot, the president should have said: “I’ll handle this.”

He should have gone on national TV and had the fireside chat with the country that is long overdue. That’s a talk where he lays out exactly how deep the crisis we are in is, exactly how much sacrifice we’re all going to have to make to get out of it, and then calls on those A.I.G. brokers — and everyone else who, in our rush to heal our banking system, may have gotten bonuses they did not deserve — and tells them that their president is asking them to return their bonuses “for the sake of the country.” [continued…]

Financial policy despair

Over the weekend The Times and other newspapers reported leaked details about the Obama administration’s bank rescue plan, which is to be officially released this week. If the reports are correct, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, has persuaded President Obama to recycle Bush administration policy — specifically, the “cash for trash” plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.

After all, we’ve just been through the firestorm over the A.I.G. bonuses, during which administration officials claimed that they knew nothing, couldn’t do anything, and anyway it was someone else’s fault. Meanwhile, the administration has failed to quell the public’s doubts about what banks are doing with taxpayer money. [continued…]

I think Paul Krugman is wrong

1. The half empty-half full factor: I see the Geithner Plan as a positive step from where we are. Paul seed it as an embarrassingly inadequate bandaid.
2. Politics: I think Obama has to demonstrate that he has exhausted all other options before he has a prayer of getting Voinovich to vote to close debate on a bank nationalization bill. Paul thinks that the longer Obama delays proposing bank nationalization the lower it’s chances become.
3. I think the private-sector players in financial markets right now are highly risk averse–hence assets are undervalued from the perspective of a society or a government that is less risk averse. Paul judges that assets have low values beceuse they are unlikely to pay out much cash. [continued…]

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