Israeli diplomat who plotted against MPs also set up political groups

The Guardian reports: An Israeli embassy official who plotted to “take down” MPs regarded as hostile has also set up a number of political organisations in the UK that operated as though entirely independent.

Shai Masot was filmed covertly as he boasted about establishing several groups, at least one of which was intended to influence Labour party policy, while appearing to obscure their links to Israel.

The disclosure comes as Labour demanded the government launch an immediate inquiry into “improper interference in our democratic politics”. A former Tory government minister also called for an inquiry into the Israeli embassy’s links with two organisations, Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).

Meanwhile, Masot is being sent back to Israel in disgrace, and a civil servant and Conservative official who was also filmed discussing ways to discredit MPs has resigned from her post. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli diplomat caught on camera plotting to ‘take down’ UK MPs

The Guardian reports: An Israeli embassy official has been caught on camera in an undercover sting plotting to “take down” MPs regarded as hostile, including foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan, an outspoken supporter of a Palestinian state.

In an extraordinary breach of diplomatic protocol, Shai Masot, who describes himself as an officer in the Israel Defence Forces and is serving as a senior political officer at the London embassy, was recorded by an ­undercover reporter from al-Jazeera’s investigative unit speaking about a number of British MPs.

The Israeli ambassador, Mark Regev, apologised to Duncan on Friday. An Israeli spokesman said Regev made clear that “the embassy considered the remarks completely ­unacceptable”.

The Israeli embassy said Masot “will be ending his term of employment with the embassy shortly”. Masot declined to comment or to elaborate on what he meant when he said he wanted to “take down” a number of MPs. [Continue reading…]

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The right is emboldened but it’s not in the ascendancy

Gary Younge writes: When there’s a cloud this large and foreboding no lining, silver or otherwise, will suffice. This was a year in which vulgarity, divisiveness and exclusion won – a triumph for dystopian visions of race, nation and ethnicity. Those thought dangerous and marginal are now not only mainstream, they have power. Immigrants and minorities are fearful, bigots are emboldened, discourse is coarsened. Progressive alternatives, while available, have yet to find a coherent electoral voice. You can polish this turd of a year all you like – it won’t stop it stinking to high heaven.

But while the prospects for hope are scarce there is, none the less, one thing from which we might draw solace. The right is emboldened but it is not in the ascendancy. The problem is that the centre has collapsed, and liberalism is in retreat. There is nothing to celebrate in the latter but there is much to ponder in the former. It suggests that this moment is less the product of some unstoppable force than the desperate choice of last resort.

Americans did not turn their backs on a bright new future but on a candidate offering more of the same at a time when the gap between rich and poor and black and white is growing. Nor did most of them vote for Donald Trump. Not only did he get fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but he got a lower proportion of the eligible vote than Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 – all of whom lost.

Britain did back Brexit – no sugarcoating that. But voters didn’t reject the case for the EU because it was never really made. Nor was it a rejection of the case for immigration, because that was never made either. I don’t know whether remain would have prevailed if those cases had been made. Probably not. But since they weren’t made they could hardly have been defeated. Instead people were fed a diet of fear of the unknown from a political class that has failed them and gagged.

The right did not win the arguments: they won electoral contests because their principal opponents were too arrogant, complacent or contemptuous (and sometimes all three) to make an argument beyond “at least we’re not them”.

We are not set for an ideological assault like the early 80s, when Thatcherism provided a sharper understanding of the forces shaping our society than the left did. On both sides of the Atlantic, the right is deeply divided, intellectually incoherent and set to fail on its own terms. [Continue reading…]

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Europe in 2016 and beyond

Judy Dempsey writes: Throughout 2016, Europe has lurched from one crisis to another. The British voted to leave the EU. Russia stepped up its interference in domestic politics in several European countries by planting false news stories and financing populist, right-wing movements. Terrorist attacks and the refugee and eurozone crises divided the EU’s 28 member states.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president on a ticket promising to make the United States great again. Trump professes little interest in what has kept the West together: the transatlantic relationship.

All the above crises have one thing in common. They are having a profound effect on Europe’s future. As 2016 draws to a close, the EU’s extreme vulnerability and growing instability are exposed.

The Brexit decision has weakened Europe. If they chose to do so, European leaders could mitigate the political fallout of Britain’s exit. But instead of using Brexit to push for further integration or a two-speed Europe — or even as a chance to get out of their bubble to explain why Europe matters — most leaders are engaged in petty institutional or domestic power games. As they do so, they seem to underestimate how the roles of Russia and the United States are planting the seeds of Europe’s destruction. [Continue reading…]

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From Rwanda to Aleppo — non-intervention has consequences too

Lindsey Hilsum writes: Every few hours I check my WhatsApp feed from the doctors in East Aleppo. They post videos of injured children and a combination of eyewitness news and desperate messages: “Iran militia shot the convoy,” “The regime forces are still angry, I may die tens times now,” “Warplane with heavy machine gun attacking right now.”

Injured boys at a field hospital after airstrikes on the rebel held areas of Aleppo, Syria November 18, 2016.
It takes me back to April 1994, when I sat, terrified, in my house in Kigali listening to Rwandan friends who called to tell me about the slaughter in their neighbourhoods. Monica dictated to me her last words to pass onto her husband, Marcel, who was travelling. As it happened, she survived, but their five children, who were staying with their grandparents, were murdered. These are not easy memories.

A few years later, Samantha Power, then Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Governance, published a book called A Problem from Hell; America and the Age of Genocide. Her thesis, simply put, was that in the face of mass slaughter the USA has a moral and legal obligation to intervene. America did nothing when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halabja, nor during the genocide in Rwanda nor the massacre of 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia the following year.

Last week, Power, now US Ambassador to the UN, made an impassioned and futile speech in the Security Council. [Continue reading…]

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Paddy Ashdown on Aleppo: ‘There must not be another Srebrenica’

 

The New York Times reports: Artillery shelling resumed early Wednesday on besieged eastern neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Aleppo, delaying a promised evacuation of thousands of civilians and medical staff members who had been expecting to leave under the aegis of a deal announced at the United Nations.

Buses that were supposed to evacuate some of the last holdouts in the heavily bombed neighborhoods left, empty, after waiting for hours, the Lebanese television station Al Manar, which is affiliated with the militant Shiite group Hezbollah reported — a sign that the evacuation process might not happen on Wednesday as planned.

The Pan-Arab television network Al Mayadeen showed buses idling at a prearranged evacuation point, waiting to take 5,000 fighters and their families to Atareb, a town west of Aleppo.

The opposition says that Iran, one of the Syrian government’s main allies, and its Shiite militia proxies were obstructing the deal; witnesses said that the militias had prevented a convoy of about 70 wounded people — mostly fighters and their relatives — from departing, despite the supposed deal announced at the United Nations. The militias, observers said, insisted that they would not allow anyone out until rebel groups had ended their siege of Fouaa and Kfarya, two encircled Shiite enclaves in Idlib Province.

Osama Abu Zayd, a legal adviser to Syrian opposition factions, told The Associated Press that the evacuation deal was being resisted by Iran’s field commander in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said it believed that Iran — a major ally of the Syrian government — had balked at the deal, annoyed that Russia and Turkey had not consulted it.

But the Russian Defense Ministry blamed the rebels for the impasse, saying on Wednesday that they had “resumed the hostilities” at dawn, trying to break through Syrian government positions to the northwest.

The impasse could be the sign of a stalling tactic by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. His government has often skillfully played its backers — Iran, Russia and others — off one another. The disagreement could provide cover for what the Syrian government has wanted to do all along: finish off the enclave with force. As one Syrian military officer told Reuters in Aleppo recently, rebels must “surrender or die.”

Malek, an activist who has repeatedly moved around eastern Aleppo for his safety, and who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear that he would soon find himself in government territory, said he had looked forward to the evacuation, but that “nothing happened.”

Interviewed over the messaging service WhatsApp, he added, using a mournful idiom, “We didn’t taste the flavor of life.”

Troubles carrying out the accord were not surprising, as there was no international monitoring — United Nations officials said the Syrian government refused their repeated pleas to observe the process — and no mechanism to enforce the agreement. That has been a problem with other deals reached during the conflict.

Within eastern Aleppo, residents were alarmed as Russian news agencies broadcast remarks from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who said he expected the rebels to “stop their resistance within two, three days.” Those remarks alarmed observers, as the evacuation deal says rebels already agreed to stop fighting in exchange for being allowed to leave.

“They are planning to slaughter us all,” said Monther Etaky, a civilian activist who had been hoping to evacuate.

Salem, a dentist who had kept his clinic open until last week, and who finally moved to one of the last rebel neighborhoods when his own was taken by government forces, said he could hear heavy shelling.

“We slept a quiet night, but sadly the shelling is back,” he said Wednesday morning, asking to be identified only by his first name. “Please share my message: The cease-fire collapsed. The situation is bad again.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: British MPs are deceiving themselves if they believe they do not bear some of the responsibility for the “terrible tragedy” unfolding in Syria, the former chancellor, George Osborne, said on Tuesday during an often anguished emergency debate in the House of Commons on the carnage being inflicted in eastern Aleppo. In one of his first speeches in the Commons since losing office, Osborne said there had been “multiple opportunities to intervene” in Syria as he cited parliament’s decision in 2013 not to take military action after the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“Let’s be clear now: if you do not shape the world, you will be shaped by it. We are beginning to see the price of not intervening,” Osborne said.

The Commons voted by a majority of 13 in 2013 to reject military action after Labour combined with Tory rebels to deliver David Cameron his single biggest Commons rebuff. [Continue reading…]

Janine di Giovanni writes: Depending on your personal view, Aleppo has now fallen, or been retaken, or been liberated. But my interest is not with any political side. It’s with victims of state terror, and all the civilians whose lives have been shattered by a war that has been raging for more than five years. It is the most cynical conflict I have seen in 25 years of war reporting. Both the regime and opposition are guilty of war crimes, though one much more than the other.

What I’m considering now, from the comfort of my Paris home, is how a city falls. I am thinking of people cowering in basements and struggling with whether they flee from their city now, or wait. Who is coming to save them, or kill them? I know how that scenario goes. I lived through Sarajevo during the Bosnia war, and was in Grozny when it fell to (or was “liberated” by) Russian forces. I remember hiding in those basements waiting for the Russian tanks to come into the village, and wondering if I would be dead in a few hours.

I am thinking about the civilians – all of those people with whom I sat for hours while writing my book, or writing reports for the UN high commissioner for refugees – and what they are doing to survive. [Continue reading…]

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The IP Act: UK’s most extreme surveillance law

Jim Killock writes: The Investigatory Powers Act will come into force at the start of 2017, and will cement ten years of illegal surveillance into law.

It includes state powers to intercept bulk communications and collect vast amounts of communications data and content. The security and law enforcement agencies – including government organisations such as HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) – can hack into devices of people in the UK.

Under this law, the intelligence agencies can use bulk hacking powers to hack devices and networks outside the UK. They can also access and analyse entire databases, whether they are held by private companies or public organisations – even though they have admitted that most people on them will not be suspected of any crimes.

One of the new and most intrusive powers is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can be compelled to collect a record of our web browsing activity and this can be accessed by the police and 48 government departments, including the Food Standards Agency and the HMRC. [Continue reading…]

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Jo Cox’s murder was followed by 50,000 tweets celebrating her death

The Guardian reports: More than 50,000 abusive and offensive tweets were sent celebrating Labour MP Jo Cox’s murder and lauding her killer, Thomas Mair, as a “hero” or “patriot” in the month following her death, prompting calls for the government to do more to tackle hate speech online.

According to researchers on the social media site, the tweets were sent from at least 25,000 individuals and have been interpreted by hate crime campaigners as a sign of an emboldened extreme rightwing support base.

On Wednesday, Mair, a white supremacist who resented immigration, was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life for the murder of Cox on 16 June during the lead-up to the EU referendum.

Academics examined more than 53,000 tweets sent over the month after the MP’s murder and found that among the top 20 words used to describe Mair and Jo Cox were the terms “hero”, “patriot”, “white power”, “rapists” and “traitor”. [Continue reading…]

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John Major: Case for second Brexit referendum is credible

The Guardian reports: Sir John Major has become the second former prime minister within 24 hours to question the Brexit process, saying there is a “perfectly credible” case for a second referendum on leaving the European Union.

Speaking shortly after Tony Blair argued in an interview that Brexit could be reversed if the public changed its mind, Major said that the 48% of voters who wanted to remain should not be subject to the “tyranny of the majority”.

The former Conservative prime minister said in a speech at a private dinner on Thursday that the opinions of remain voters should be heard in the debate about how Britain left the EU, the Times reported.

In his first intervention over the issue since the 23 June referendum, Major said he accepted the UK would not remain a full member of the EU, but hoped any Brexit deal would mean the UK remained as close as possible to EU members and the single market, which he described as “the richest market mankind has ever seen”. [Continue reading…]

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Britain’s far right in 2016: fractured, unpredictable, dispirited … and violent

The Guardian reports: After years of austerity, and at a time of rising concern about immigration and uncertainty about the future direction of the UK, the political and economic conditions appear to be ideal for the far right. Across Europe – particularly in France, Denmark and the Netherlands – it is animated and resurgent, scenting electoral success just over the horizon.

In the UK, however, the extreme right is fractured, leaderless, confused and dispirited. It is also highly unpredictable and, on occasion, violent. Rather than one party or group – such as the British National party (BNP) or the English Defence League (EDL) – dominating the stage, a couple of dozen smaller groups vie for attention.

Some continue to contest local elections, but the growing popularity of Ukip in recent years has presented former supporters of the BNP and other far-right parties with an opportunity to vote for an anti-immigration party that is not considered disreputable.

Other groups favour so-called direct action, such as picketing mosques, invading halal abattoirs and harassing staff at Muslim-owned restaurants. Others still prefer to stage rallies and marches, bringing them into conflict with anti-fascist campaigners and, frequently, the police.

Each confrontation ensures that future events attract more people seeking violence. A handful of groups have started organising martial arts training and survivalist boot camps, and recent months have seen an increase in hate crimes. There has, in the words of the Met police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, been a “horrible spike” in such crime.

In many respects, racial nationalism in Britain in 2016 resembles that of the late 1990s, before the BNP was reorganised by its then leader, Nick Griffin. After taking control of the party in 1999, Griffin rid it of what he called “the three Hs: hobbyism, hard talk and Hitler”. Members focused more on a new enemy – Muslims and Islam. Activists swapped their boots for suits, grew their hair a little and began winning council elections. In 2009 the party won two European parliament seats.

Now the far right is back where it was almost 20 years ago, a series of micro-groups struggling to be seen and heard. Many of these groups have members in West Yorkshire, where Jo Cox’s killer, Thomas Mair, lived, although it appears he was not a member of any of them.

Paul Meszaros, the county’s coordinator for the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, says: “The far-right scene in West Yorkshire is no different to the rest of the country at the moment, which is unusual, because it used to be the BNP’s capital.”

Many veterans of the right are unsurprised by the waning of their fortunes, saying success has always been cyclical. At some point in the future, they predict, they will again be something of an electoral force.

Jim Lewthwaite, a former member of the National Front and a former BNP councillor in Bradford, says: “We’re going back to the same cyclical position as we were before 2001. The right is totally fragmented and on its back, waiting for something to happen.

“But remember how fast it went when it did take off? If things did happen, if Ukip were to fold, or if significant fragments of Ukip were to say we want a tougher line, and there were somebody leading it in our direction, or someone on our side that they trusted … we wouldn’t have to rebuild the organisation a second time.

“There are experienced people out there who are simply taking a back seat. They haven’t ceased to be nationalists, they don’t need to be reconvinced. They have concluded that nothing is happening right now, so there’s no point in doing anything. But if something caught on, and it started snowballing, they would get involved.”

The “things” that could happen, and which Lewthwaite and others believe could lead to the far right becoming an energised and coherent force in British politics, include, of course, serious Islamist terrorist attacks. [Continue reading…]

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The worrying rise of Britain’s modern day ‘Hitler youth’

The Daily Mail reports: Neo-Nazi referrals to the government’s deradicalisation programme are overtaking Islamist extremism cases in parts of the UK.

Security minister Ben Wallace highlighted the increase in far-right radicalisation amid new figures showing almost 300 children were referred to officials.

The worrying statistics show 16 of the 300 flagged up for neo-Nazi links were under the age of 10.

Mr Wallace, Tory MP for Wyre and Preston North, told collegues in the Commons: ‘The Prevent strategy is seeing a growth in far-right referrals.

‘In some areas of the country, these Prevent referrals outnumber those about the other parts we are worried out.’

Parts of Wales are reporting figures of above 50 percent for far-right referrals to the Prevent strategy programme, senior fellow in extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Rashad Ali told The Times.

The landscape is similar in Leicestershire, according to the paper, who report far-right extremism makes up half of all cases. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s leaders to force Britain into hard Brexit

The Observer reports: European leaders have come to a 27-nation consensus that a “hard Brexit” is likely to be the only way to see off future populist insurgencies, which could lead to the break-up of the European Union.

The hardening line in EU capitals comes as Nigel Farage warns European leaders that Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, could deliver a political sensation bigger than Brexit and win France’s presidential election next spring – a result that would mean it was “game over” for 60 years of EU integration.

According to senior officials at the highest levels of European governments, allowing Britain favourable terms of exit could represent an existential danger to the EU, since it would encourage similar demands from other countries with significant Eurosceptic movements.

One top EU diplomat told the Observer: “If you British are not prepared to compromise on free movement, the only way to deal with Brexit is hard Brexit. Otherwise we would be seen to be giving in to a country that is leaving. That would be fatal.”

The latest intervention by Farage will only serve to fuel fears in Europe that anti-EU movements have acquired a dangerous momentum in countries such as France and the Netherlands, following the precedent set by the Brexit vote. Ukip’s interim leader, who predicted both the vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s US victory, told the Observer that while Le Pen was still more likely to be runner-up to an establishment candidate next May, she now had to be taken seriously as a potential head of state. [Continue reading…]

Toby Helm writes: From Paris to Brussels, and Berlin to Warsaw and Bratislava, there is much sadness that the British are leaving. In the central and eastern European member states in particular, governments will fight tooth and nail to ensure their people can still travel to, and work in, the UK post-Brexit.

The right to move around the EU has symbolised, more than anything else, the break from their pre-1989 past under Soviet influence.

From his office in Bratislava, Slovakia’s state secretary at the foreign ministry, Ivan Korcok, can see Austria and speaks of the “emotional” importance of the EU to all Slovakians. “Our people are buying their apartments and building their houses across the border over there in Austria. Slovakia is a very pro-European country. People are concerned about the British situation [if it means they will no longer be able to move to and work in the UK]. The older generation here see their kids travelling abroad, and thinking differently to how they did. If one day a child in Slovakia decides to study elsewhere in Europe, including in the UK, and they can afford to, they go, they just go! This is such an emotional thing in positive terms about the EU.”

Marek Prawda, Poland’s former ambassador to the EU and now head of the European commission in Warsaw, says: “For us, being an EU member is the inverse of what was said in your referendum campaign about ‘taking back control’. To us, being a member of the EU has been about gaining back control, about freedom, about security, about being able to run an economy in a modern way. EU membership was a chance to shape our own life. We are able to borrow and invest in our economy. We are part of a rational world.” [Continue reading…]

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