Neda in Palestine, sentenced to die alone

For over a week, major American news outlets have broadcast on a virtual loop the video of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, an unarmed 26-year-old Iranian woman, by Iranian security services. The poignant footage of Neda dying before a throng of grief-stricken bystanders crystallized the vulnerability experienced by the millions of demonstrators who have filled cities across Iran to confront authoritarian forces determined to suppress their voice through brutal means. When the mainstream American press chose to broadcast the graphic video — as moving as the footage is, it is difficult to watch — it made a commendable decision that nonetheless highlighted its hypocritical attitude towards Palestinians who resist Israeli occupation on a daily basis, and who often meet the same fate as Neda. [continued…]

Israel’s man of conscience

My name is Ezra Nawi. I am a Jewish citizen of Israel.

I will be sentenced on the first of July after being found guilty of assaulting two police officers in 2007 while struggling against the demolition of a Palestinian house in Um El Hir, located in the southern part of the West Bank.

Of course the policemen who accused me of assaulting them are lying. Indeed, lying has become common within the Israeli police force, military and among the Jewish settlers.

After close to 140,000 letters were sent to Israeli officials in support of my activities in the occupied West Bank, the Ministry of Justice responded that I “provoke local residents.”

This response reflects the culture of deceit that has taken over all official discourse relating to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

After all, was I the one who poisoned and destroyed Palestinian water wells?

Was I the one who beat young Palestinian children?

Did I hit the elderly?

Did I poison the Palestinian residents’ sheep?

Did I demolish homes and destroy tractors?

Did I block roads and restrict movement?

Was I the one who prevented people from connecting their homes to running water and electricity?

Did I forbid Palestinians from building homes? [continued…]

The settlers defying Obama

At first glance, the dusty dunes of the South Hebron hills appear splendidly frozen in time. Small encampments of nomadic farmers are dotted across the landscape, sparse groves of olive and fruit trees surrounding the ramshackle tents huddled together in their midst. Flocks of sheep and goats graze on the scrubby foliage under the watchful eye of teenaged shepherds; the silence of the plains is breathtaking, the only noise an occasional cautionary bark from the villagers’ ever-vigilant guard dogs.

But the glorious isolation in which the rural communities seem to dwell is an illusory facade. A closer look at the way their camps are arranged reveals the true picture of modern life on the land they’ve tended for generations. Soldiers stand guard in pairs at strategic spots on the hillside, enforcing the no-entry zones surrounding the rash of settlements spread across the region, the mini-towns growing bigger by the month, swallowing up more and more of the Palestinians’ land in the zero-sum game eternally stacked in the settlers’ favour. [continued…]

Israel’s settlements are on shaky ground

The debate over Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is often framed in terms of whether they should be “frozen” or allowed to grow “naturally.” But that is akin to asking whether a thief should be allowed merely to keep his ill-gotten gains or steal some more. It misses the most fundamental point: Under international law, all settlements on occupied territory are unlawful. And there is only one remedy: Israel should dismantle them, relocate the settlers within its recognized 1967 borders and compensate Palestinians for the losses the settlements have caused.

Removing the settlements is mandated by the laws of the Geneva Convention, which state that military occupations are to be a temporary state of affairs and prohibit occupying powers from moving their populations into conquered territory. The intent is to foreclose an occupying power from later citing its population as “facts on the ground” to claim the territory, something Israel has done in East Jerusalem and appears to want to do with much of the West Bank. [continued…]

Israel OKs West Bank construction

Israel said Monday it authorized the construction of 50 new residential units in a West Bank settlement, defying rising pressure from the U.S. and the international community for a building freeze in territory claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state.

The expansion of Adam, a settlement near Jerusalem surrounded by three Palestinian villages, is part of a defense ministry plan to relocate 300 residents of the unauthorized hilltop outpost of Migron. [continued…]

Iran: The whole world is watching

Four decades ago, when police and national guardsmen attacked protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching.”

However arresting those images were, they could not possibly compare to the flood in recent weeks of YouTube videos, Flickr photos, Twitter tweets, Facebook pages, and blogs dedicated to events in Iran. Today, the world is not only watching — in an important way it is participating, as observers dig down for their own raw footage, reporting, and analysis pouring out of Iran.

It is easy to be swept up by all of these images coming out of Iran and think that the days of dictatorship — in Iran and the rest of the world — are numbered. Overnight, normally innocuous social networking tools swiftly turned political, and local events found international audiences mere instants after they occur.

That prompted Verizon’s CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, to exult on the Charlie Rose Show this week that Iran’s efforts to manage public sentiments via restricting Internet access was a losing proposition. “The power of the people will override that without any question,” he said. “And it’ll happen sooner than they think, because the technology is just too pervasive.”

If only that were true. The way the outside world sees Iranian protests is markedly different from the way Iranians themselves do, and the government is increasingly asserting its authority over the information space in the country. While many in the West see a potential revolution in Technicolor, the green banners of opposition activists from the election campaign are quickly fading to black. [continued…]

Why do Arabs not revolt?

The stark contrast between the street demonstrations in Iran in the past two weeks and the absence of any such popular revolts in the Arab world during the past half-century is more than just fascinating in terms of political anthropology. A major question that hangs over the Arab world like a ton of bricks is: Why do the top-heavy, non-democratic political control and governance systems of the Arab world persist without any significant popular opposition or public challenge?

The events in Iran — the second major popular rebellion in the past 30 years — accentuate the relative quiescence in the Arab world, but this is not for lack of grievances among Arabs. The same pressures and indignities that annoy many Iranians and push them to openly challenge their rulers are prevalent throughout much of the Arab world: [continued…]



Is Khamenei controlled by the Revolutionary Guards?

There are many different ways to look at the developments in Iran. One perspective that seems to have been ignored is what I regard as the cardinal role of the Revolutionary Guards.

Over the 20 years that Ayatollah Khamenei has been the rahbar, or leader, he has allied himself ever more closely with the Revolutionary Guards—to such an extent that it is no longer apparent to me who is leading and who is following. The Revolutionary Guards have been granted extraordinary influence over all functions of the Islamic republic—military, political, economic, and even Islamic. Technically, they take their orders from the leader, but has he ever dared to contradict them? On the contrary, he seems always to court them by granting them ever-greater influence and responsibilities. [continued…]

Iran Revolutionary Guards amass power while backing Ahmadinejad

The 125,000-strong Guards Corps was created by Iran’s clerical rulers after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Its influence has grown under Ahmadinejad, himself a guards veteran, said Michael Eisenstadt, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Eight of the 21 posts in the president’s cabinet are held by former members, according to Ali Alfoneh, an analyst at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute. Among them are Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, whose agency ran the election, and Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar.

Another five places are occupied by past Basij commanders. The state broadcasting arm is headed by Ezzatollah Zarghami, a former guard. At least one-third of Iran’s parliament members are former guards, according to Nader.

Under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, 65, only three ministers had belonged to the guards or Basij. [continued…]

The Islamic Revolution faces the classic dilemma of all revolutions

Between 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution, and 1999, Iran’s population doubled to 65 million, two-thirds of them under 25 years of age. Those young Iranians had no direct experience or memory of the pre-Islamic regime of the Shah — its inequities and injustices, and its subservient relationship with Washington. Therefore, their commitment to the Islamic regime was less than total. Moreover, the post-revolutionary educational system had proven inadequate when it came to socializing them the way the republic’s religious leaders wanted.

During those two decades, Iran’s student body increased almost threefold, to 19 million. The overall literacy rate jumped from 58% to 82%, with the figure for females — 28% in 1979 — tripling. There was a remarkable upsurge in the enrollment of women in universities. Nationally, their share of university student bodies shot up to 60%. At prestigious Tehran University, they were a majority in all faculties, including science and law.

The total of university graduates, which stood at 430,000 in 1979, grew nine-fold in those years. As elsewhere in the world, university students and graduates would become a vital engine for change. [continued…]

Khamenei uses the Cheney torture methods

With the distressing news of so many democracy activists being rounded up by the Iranian regime, the specter of torture for false confessions emerges. The confessions “prove” that the demonstrations were entirely a function of a foreign plot. And, more to the point, the torture techniques include those adopted and championed by the neocon right in the US. Among the Cheney techniques that are used by the Khemenai regime are sleep deprivation, forced nudity, beatings, solitary confinement, and stress positions. [continued…]

Torture in Iran – 60 Minutes, April 9, 2009

Will Iran take the heat off Israel over settlements?

Iran has now forced its way back to the top of the White House agenda, as a result of Tehran’s violent crackdown on its own citizens protesting claims of election fraud. The domestic political pressure on the Administration to take a tougher stand against Iran’s regime may actually help Netanyahu resist pressure for a settlement freeze. After all, the President may find it difficult, in Washington, to muster pressure on Israel over settlements at a moment when he’s being berated for speaking too softly on Tehran’s crackdown. Members of Congress are now proposing new sanctions legislation and even demanding hearings on U.S. policy toward Tehran. And that’s exactly the conversation that Netanyahu wants dominating the nation’s capital. [continued…]

Israel May Shift an infinitely short distance on settlements freeze amid broader effort

Israel would be open to a complete freeze of settlement building in the West Bank for three to six months as part of a broad Middle East peace endeavor that included a Palestinian agreement to negotiate an end to the conflict and confidence-building steps by major Arab nations, senior Israeli officials said Sunday.[…]

The officials who spoke of the prospect of a temporary freeze said the issue was explosive in Israel, so they were not prepared to have their names publicly associated with the idea at this stage. But they spoke with clear authority. They calculated that about 2,000 buildings were going up in West Bank settlements now and said that they would be completed under their proposal, but nothing new would start. They also said that if broader peace efforts came to naught, the building would start up again. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — There comes a point where clear language has been so thoroughly and persistently abused and avoided that the only means left for communication are non-verbal. If Barak is actually on his way to Washington with this as his offer, then the White House should turn the humiliation dial up a few more more notches from the recently canceled meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell in Paris. At that point the Israelis were told there was no point sending Mitchell until Netanyahu had “finished his homework” on halting settlements. This time around perhaps Barak’s meeting should be canceled while he’s midway across the Atlantic.

What a freeze can’t do

[Rahm] Emanuel’s view is that settlements are not a security issue for Israel but a domestic political problem. According to a senior White House official, Emanuel has argued that if the Israelis insist on expanding settlements, “You’re doing it on your own dime. We don’t want our credibility to be compromised as you work out your domestic politics. We’re not going to pay for that one.”

What has surprised the Israelis, says the White House official, is that “for umpteen years, they’ve been trained to hear one thing from America on settlements but see us do another. It takes some adjustment.”

The White House believes that if it comes to a showdown, Netanyahu will compromise. His coalition government, the administration reasons, is too weak to sustain an open break with its key ally, the United States. If Netanyahu defies the United States, his coalition will splinter. The administration is already talking with Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader and defense minister, who might form a new government if Netanyahu falls.

It’s a hardheaded strategy, but it has one big flaw: The Obama team is assuming that if it can pressure Israel into a real settlements freeze, the Arabs will respond with meaningful moves toward normalization of relations — which will give Israel some tangible benefits for its concessions. But that hope appears to be misplaced. [continued…]

Walking miles in Palestinian feet

What is a world where you cannot go for a walk, cannot assemble to read and discuss literature in public, cannot be certain of visiting your grandmother in a neighboring city? What is a world where you cannot lose your temper, cannot laugh in the wrong place? (Imagine, if you will, living your entire life in the security line at the airport, on a bad day.) For us, the French and British consulates opened their doors; but they can’t always do so for the Palestinians. [continued…]

Gaza residents ‘live in despair’

The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza as people “trapped in despair”.

In a report, it said that a main cause was the continuing Israeli blockade.

The report comes six months after the end of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza in which at least 1,100 Palestinians died. [continued…]



What will be the legacy of the Green Revolution?

Exiled opposition groups, whose political agenda sharply differs from that of the protesters in Iran — indeed, many of these groups urged people not to vote in the elections — have sought to fill the vacuum left by a beheaded and directionless indigenous movement. Though the outrage of these exiled groups against the Iranian government’s brutal violence is genuine, their efforts to impose themselves on the political scene have caused great frustration among opposition elements inside Iran. At a time when the movement in Iran is paralyzed, efforts by exiled groups — groups that scorned the protesters only weeks ago for choosing to participate in the elections — to fill the leadership vacuum are viewed as nothing less than a maneuver to hijack the movement.

This is playing right into the hands of the Ahmadinejad government, precisely because it would weaken, if not eliminate, the indigenous movement’s trump card: its ability to attract the Iranian swing-voters back to its side. If the exiled opposition groups and their neo-conservative backers in the United States prevail in aiding the Ahmadinejad government, what started out as the largest Iranian mass movement since 1979 may end up as little more than the student demonstrations of 1999. Which is to say, an instance of hopes raised, then dashed. [continued…]

Mousavi reportedly under house arrest

The government crackdown in Iran has moved so quickly and brutally the protests have been forced into near silence.

The Web site reports that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi is under house arrest, although that claim could not be verified.

The well-known Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf, who has become an unofficial spokesman for Mousavi outside of Iran, told ABC News that Mousavi is being highly controlled and is limited in whom he can meet with and where he can go.

On his Facebook page Mousavi, who analysts say is under intense pressure, posted a message in Farsi, English and French telling his followers: “All my communication with the people and you has been cut off, and people’s peaceful objections are being crushed.”

He also urged his supporters to protest using only “legal channels” and to remain “faithful to the sacred system of the Islamic Republic.” [continued…]

Night raids terrorize civilians

A middle-aged resident from Vanak neighborhood gave Human Rights Watch an overview of his participation each day in the protests. He explained that by June 22, virtually the only form of protest still available to him wasto shout slogans from his rooftop at night. But then the Basiji came to attackhis neighborhood.

“On June 22, while we were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ from the rooftops, the only form of protests we could still undertake, the Basiji entered our neighborhood and started firing live rounds into the air, in the direction of the buildings from which they believe the shouting of ‘Allahu Akbar’ is coming from. I didn’t see any rounds hitting our buildings. Shortly thereafter, my cousin arrived at our apartment. He was very shaken. The Basijis had entered their house in Yousef Abad neighborhood,and they had destroyed their doors and destroyed cars in the street.

“There are many things happening that aren’t being reported [in the media]. In every neighborhood of Tehran, people are talking about how the Basijis and other security services are coming into their houses and are terrorizing people for shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ from the rooftops, and for congregating.” [continued…]

Role of women in Iran protest kindles hope

Over the past two weeks, Marcelle George has watched with amazement as legions of Iranian women, most wearing black, full-length Islamic garments, defiantly protested Iran’s leadership.

Even in her native Egypt, where some opposition to the government is permitted, most women would never dare cross that line.

“To actually see Iranian women fight for their rights is inspiring,” said George, a college student in jeans and a long-sleeve blouse. “I never imagined that it could happen there.” [continued…]

U.S. grants support Iranian dissidents

The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, records and interviews show, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President Bush.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which reports to the secretary of state, has for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran,” according to documents on the agency’s website. The final deadline for grant applications is June 30.

U.S. efforts to support Iranian opposition groups have been criticized in recent years as veiled attempts to promote “regime change,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian-American advocacy group. The grants enable Iran’s rulers to paint opponents as tools of the United States, he said. [continued…]

What will happen when U.S. combat troops withdraw?

So, is all hell about to break loose in Iraq?

By June 30, all U.S. combat troops are scheduled—in fact, they’re required—to be withdrawn from all of Iraq’s cities, towns, and villages.

Many Americans and Iraqis fear that the progress achieved in the last couple of years—the dramatic reduction of violence and casualties, the growing sense of security in areas that were once soaking with dread and bloodshed—will be eroded and reversed, perhaps completely.

The rise in spectacular suicide bombings in the last few weeks—as U.S. soldiers have stepped up their retreat to large bases in the outskirts—is widely seen as the shape of things to come. [continued…]



The revolution will not be digitized

What happened in Baharestan Square on Wednesday? According to a woman who called in to CNN, Iranian security forces unleashed unimaginable brutality upon a few hundred protesters gathered in central Tehran. “They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood, and her husband, who was watching the scene, he just fainted,” the anonymous caller screamed into the phone. “This was—this was exactly a massacre. You should stop this. You should stop this. You should help the people of Iran who demand freedom. You should help us.”

Clips of the phone call ricocheted across the Web and cable TV. The message was corroborated on Twitter, where a post by @persiankiwi brought horrific news from Baharestan Square: “we saw militia with axe choping ppl like meat – blood everywhere – like butcher – Allah Akbar.”* News organizations around the world told of a brutal crackdown—Iran’s Tiananmen. But at the same time, other reports suggested the rally was a far tamer encounter. A reader on the New York Times’ Lede blog wrote in to say that the protest had been cleared by security forces with minimal violence. The blog of the National Iranian American Council, which has been closely following all the news out of Tehran, published a report from a “trusted source” who said that while the rally was “tense,” it didn’t match the CNN caller’s account. “The moment we stood in one place, they would break us up,” the source wrote. “I saw many people get blindfolded and arrested, however it wasn’t a massacre.”

Over the last couple of weeks, those who believe in the transformative powers of technology have pointed to Iran as a test case—one of the first repressive regimes to meet its match in social media, the first revolution powered by Twitter. Even in the early days of the protest, that story line seemed more hopeful than true, as Slate’s Jack Shafer, among many others, pointed out. Since last week, though, when the state began to systematically clamp down on journalists and all communications networks leading out of the country, hope has become much harder to sustain. The conflicting accounts about what happened at Baharestan Square are evidence that Iran’s media crackdown is working. The big story in Iran is confusion—on a daily basis, there are more questions than answers about what’s really happening, about who’s winning and losing, about what comes next. The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced. [continued…]

How quarreling Ayatullahs affect Iran’s crisis

One leading conservative ayatullah declared, during Friday prayers at Tehran University, that people protesting Iran’s election are waging war on God. Ayatullah Ahmad Khatami demanded that those calling for demonstrations be “ruthlessly and savagely” punished. Yet, just a day earlier, one of the country’s most senior mullahs, Grand Ayatullah Hussein-Ali Montazeri — a longtime liberal critic of the regime — branded the authorities’ response to the electtion protests un-Islamic. And a second leading conservative theologian, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, called for the dispute over the election to be resolved through “national conciliation.”

To an outside world accustomed to viewing Iranian politics as a conclave of like-minded mullahs, the current turmoil within Iran’s political and religious establishment defies explanation. The conflict between two regime insiders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has created the most profound political crisis in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history. Both men proclaim their fealty to the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution; both claim the backing of senior clergy; and both appeal to Iranians’ sense of Shia justice to rally support.

The fact that such discord is possible among factions who all claim allegiance to the principle of guidance by the clergy is rooted in the distinct nature of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ism differs from the Sunni tradition in a handful of important ways — not only in its belief in who was the legitimate heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s leadership of the community of the faithful after his death, but also in its attitudes toward political authority and devotion. But one of the most important differences is the Shi’ite tradition’s unique practice of ijtihad — the use of independent reasoning to pass new religious rulings. While Sunni Islam effectively abandoned ijtihad in the tenth century, the practice remained an essential core of Shi’ism. The result is that virtually every aspect of Shi’a doctrine, from the principle of clerical rule to minute matters of religious observance, is open to differing interpretation, and has been debated throughout history. [continued…]

A deal to save Iran?

Reliable sources in Iran are suggesting that a possible compromise to put an end to the violent uprising that has rocked Iran for the past two weeks may be in the works. I have previously reported that the second most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts (the body with the power to choose and dismiss the supreme leader) is in the city of Qom—the country’s religious center—trying to rally enough votes from his fellow assembly members to remove the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from power. News out of Iran suggests that he may be succeeding. At the very least, it seems he may have gained enough support from the clerical establishment to force a compromise from Khamenei, one that would entail a runoff election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The rumor that the Assembly of Experts might play a decisive role in forging a compromise or even unseating Khamenei has been floating around for some time.

Ahmad Ghabel, an exiled dissident, scoffs at the suggestion:

…do really think that members of the Council of Experts, who have had to pass through the extreme filter of the Guardian Council, particularly the exceptionally harsh filtering that is exercised in case of the Council of Experts, have the ability or courage to question the competence of the supreme leader? Given how brutally they [the coup makers] have been able to crackdown on everyone under current circumstances, with such a high turnout in the elections, what do you expect from a few senile men without any serious public backing?

Mir-Hossein Mousavi slams Iran’s leaders

After days of relative quiet, the candidate defeated in Iran’s disputed presidential election launched a broadside Thursday against the nation’s leadership, an indication that the country’s political rift is far from over.

In his statement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi issued a rare attack on supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accusing him of not acting in the interests of the country, and said Iran had suffered a dramatic change for the worse. [continued…]

NSC names Ross senior director

The White House sought for the first time Thursday to answer basic questions about a key player in President Barack Obama’s approach to what the administration is calling the “Central Region” of foreign policy, a vast tract of the globe spanning from Pakistan to Israel.

The National Security Council announced that Dennis Ross would serve as its senior director, and as a special assistant to the president, with responsibility for developing a coherent strategy across a region whose dynamics have been scrambled by the violent aftermath of a contested election in Iran.

Some of Ross’s more hawkish allies suggested that his arrival at the White House implied a rightward turn for the administration, but several government officials suggested that the shift is more subtle, and that Ross’s main addition will be a clearer sense that the broad region’s many problems are deeply connected. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — An earlier report by Time said: “With his proximity to the President, Ross will probably supersede special envoy George Mitchell as the most powerful voice in the Administration on Middle East peace talks.”

Politico‘s sources indicate otherwise, saying that Mitchell’s stance on pressuring Israel will continue to “hold sway.” “Mitchell’s much closer to the president on the subject matter than Dennis is,” the White House official said.

Want to stop Israeli settlements? Start with Americans

This month, both at Cairo University and from the Oval Office, President Obama has called on the Israeli government to stop the expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He should send the same message to the Americans who are funding and fueling them.

There are more than 450,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Peace Now, an Israeli organization that opposes the settlements. Some of them are Americans. And some of the most influential, militant figures in the settler movement have been Americans, too. Among them were Baruch Goldstein, the doctor from Brooklyn who fired 100 shots at worshiping Muslims in Hebron in 1994, killing 29; Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in Israel in 1988 on the grounds that it was racist; and convicted terrorist Era Rapaport, a member of the Land Redemption Fund, which coordinates the acquisition of Palestinian land in areas targeted for settlement expansion.

Before the settlers were removed from Gaza in 2005, I visited a group of them while shooting my last film. Some of the settlements’ most passionate advocates spoke about their deep roots in the Gaza Strip even though they were actually Americans. Years earlier, while working as a human rights advocate, I had received reports from colleagues who had been threatened or physically attacked by young settlers as they tried to protect Palestinian farmers during harvest. The attackers often included North American Jews, my colleagues said. [continued…]

Palestinian violence overstated, Jewish violence understated

The Israel Project hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict — and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called themselves pro-Israel. Now, it’s only 49%. In September, the same 69% wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.

How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, “a narrative is the key to everything.” Last year the old narrative about the Middle East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today, that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.

Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S. government to take such a position. [continued…]

Arab activists watch Iran and wonder: ‘why not us?’

Mohamed Sharkawy bears the scars of his devotion to Egypt’s democracy movement. He has endured beatings in a Cairo police station, he said, and last year spent more than two weeks in an insect-ridden jail for organizing a protest.

But watching tens of thousands of Iranians take to the streets of Tehran this month, the 27-year-old pro-democracy activist has grown disillusioned. In 10 days, he said, the Iranians have achieved far more than his movement has ever accomplished in Egypt.

“We sacrificed a lot, but we have gotten nowhere,” Sharkawy said. [continued…]

Secret voices of the new Iran

For reasons best not explained, I’ve come to know a former member of the Revolutionary Guards really well.

He’s done some pretty dreadful things in his life, from attacking women in the streets for not wearing the full Islamic gear to fighting alongside Islamic revolutionaries in countries abroad.

And yet now, in the tumult that has gripped Iran since its elections last week, he’s had a change of heart.

He’s become a backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate who alleges fraud in the elections. He’s saved up the money to send his son to a private school abroad, and he loathes President Ahmadinejad.

He’s not the only one. [continued…]

Iranians pay respects at Neda Agha-Soltan’s grave

Security was tight around the bare grave of Neda Agha-Soltan on Thursday. Militiamen and police stood nearby, witnesses said, and it was difficult for visitors to hold a conversation within sight and hearing of the glaring officers.

But the visitors come nonetheless to pay their respects to Agha-Soltan, who was fatally shot by an unknown assailant during the protests Saturday over Iran’s disputed presidential election. Her dying moments were captured in a video that made its way onto the Internet and the international airwaves.

“I read the news on the Web, and I saw the picture of the grave,” said one man, hovering near the burial site. “I figured out the location of the grave and came.” [continued…]

Rare show of unity by Lebanese politicians

Lebanon took the first step yesterday towards forming a new cabinet with the re-election of Nabih Berri to his fifth term as speaker of the parliament in a vote that showed widespread political support for the opposition figure from the majority.

Mr Berri and his Amal Movement played a large role in the opposition’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat the majority in elections this month, but his close ties to some majority parties – not to mention a dearth of alternatives acceptable to Lebanon’s Shiite community – all but ensured his re-election. Under an unofficial tradition that divvies up power among Lebanon’s various confessions, the speaker must be a Shiite Muslim, while the president is Christian and prime minister a Sunni.

Mr Berri saw some opposition from Christian parties in the majority, who argued that his role in the political battles that paralysed the most recent parliament should exclude him from returning, but with the endorsement of Saad Hariri, the Future Movement MP and the man many expect to be named prime minister tomorrow, he was able to win 90 of 128 votes. A total of 28 MPs from the Christian majority parties refused to vote in the election, only offering blank ballots. [continued…]



Burning silence in Iran

Silence seems to have rolled over Iran’s burning landscape, not because the situation has calmed, but because we know it less and less. Reporters have been banned, communications slowed, and civic organizations that might aggregate information in ordinary times have ceased to function. One exile who usually has an inside line to events unfolding in his country complained to me yesterday that he knows nothing, because all of his friends have been arrested. A normally outspoken analyst inside Iran told me that, as much as he would love to talk, he was in hiding, having been threatened by the office of Tehran’s chief prosecutor. But over here, the conversation must go on, and it has adopted a new, increasingly speculative, trope. The struggle in Iran, we are hearing, really comes down to a fight among the élites inside the power structure.

It is clearly true that Iran’s élites are disunited, but to place great emphasis on this fact is misleading. Factional differences have riven the Iranian political establishment since the Islamic Revolution itself, and sometimes quite dramatically, as during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, from 1997 through 2005. As for Rafsanjani, about whose possible role much has been made, he has been a rival of Ahmadinejad since losing the presidency to him in 2005; this has increasingly driven him toward the reformist camp, where he has been accepted only partially and reluctantly. None of these cleavages are new. In a country that does not tolerate political parties or associations in its civil society, the contest for power, and over the future of the political system, has been largely confined to the establishment itself. Khamenei has spent much of his twenty years in power checkmating his rivals inside the system and discrediting them with their supporters outside the system. [continued…]

Iran opposition leader blasts rulers; 70 professors arrested

Iran’s leading opposition figurehead, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, launched a lengthy broadside against the Iranian leadership and state-owned media in comments published today on his website as authorities arrested 70 university professors who had met with him.

The former prime minister, in comments apparently delivered Wednesday to the arrested social scientists and posted on one of his websites today, accused Iran’s supreme leader of not acting in the interests of the country and said a dramatic change for the worse had taken place in the country. [continued…]

Ahmadinejad assails Obama as opposition urges defiance

As Iran’s embattled opposition leader said he would “not back down for a second” in challenging the disputed elections, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told President Obama on Thursday to avoid interfering in Iran’s affairs and demanded an apology from the American leader for purportedly striking the same critical tones as his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The sharp words offered no prospect of eased tensions between Washington and Tehran at a time of profound differences over issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which the United States calls terrorist organizations.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments, quoted on the semi-official Fars news agency, came as at least three Iranian newspapers reported that only 105 of 290 members of the Iranian Parliament invited to a victory party for him Wednesday night actually attended the event, suggesting a deep divide within the political elite over the election and its aftermath. [continued…]

Neda Soltan’s family ‘forced out of home’ by Iranian authorities

The Iranian authorities have ordered the family of Neda Agha Soltan out of their Tehran home after shocking images of her death were circulated around the world.

Neighbours said that her family no longer lives in the four-floor apartment building on Meshkini Street, in eastern Tehran, having been forced to move since she was killed. The police did not hand the body back to her family, her funeral was cancelled, she was buried without letting her family know and the government banned mourning ceremonies at mosques, the neighbours said.

“We just know that they [the family] were forced to leave their flat,” a neighbour said. The Guardian was unable to contact the family directly to confirm if they had been forced to leave. [continued…]

Behind the protests, social upheaval in Iran

In essence, the more Nedas the Basij silence the more difficult it will be for them to maintain their monopoly over the symbolism of martyrdom. At this critical juncture of history, I am reminded of my own father, executed at the notorious Evin prison in 1982. Regarded by many as a martyr, I wonder how he would have reacted to the fallen men and women, who gave up their lives for what he also sacrificed his life for: freedom from tyranny. [continued…]

Tehran dwellers enter twilight zone

Many universities postponed exams and some came under brutal assault by the basij . But most businesses stayed open, though the days became shorter, as people rushed home before the scheduled start of opposition protests, anxious about the crackdown that would follow.

“Life is not normal any more, I’m afraid to go out after 6pm,” says Atousa, a 38-year-old electronic engineer. “I don’t take my daughter out as much and I don’t want her to see so many police in the streets,” she adds.

“I feel disappointed and depressed. I don’t want an unstable country . . . but I cannot tolerate the continuation of this government.” [continued…]

In Iran, family members wait and worry outside Evin Prison

The mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters wait.

They sip tea, amble around, look at their watches and stare at the posted lists of names, about 700 or 800 of them.

They arrived early outside Evin Prison, the notorious complex of buildings in northern Tehran where most of the Iranians arrested in the recent unrest have been locked up. [continued…]

Iran supreme leader’s son seen as power broker with big ambitions

There are few anecdotes about him, and pictures, at least ones that have appeared in public, are scarce. But Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Iran’s supreme leader, wields considerable power and is a key figure in orchestrating the crackdown against anti-government protesters, analysts say.

The younger Khamenei operates tucked behind an elaborate security structure, an overlapping world that stretches from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard corps to the motorcycle-riding Basiji militiamen.

Analysts and former dissidents describe him as the gatekeeper for his father, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a reclusive son whose political instincts were sharpened in a post-revolutionary Iran where affiliations with security and intelligence services were just as important as Islamic ideology. [continued…]

Israeli activist on West Bank says, I identify with Tehran protesters trying to change their country

There is a minority in Israel that is willing to risk life and limb to stand up to the occupation at its core. Multiple times a week, groups of Israelis venture through checkpoints into the West Bank in order to meet with Palestinian counterparts and help them maintain the basic necessities of livelihood and hold on to what little land they still legally own. We are continually attacked by settlers and harassed by Israeli authorities, which try to restrict our efforts and often use excessive force. Despite the constant obstacles and fear of arrest, court dates and injury, we continue to fight the occupation with nonviolence.

As an Israeli actively contesting the overt and covert policies of my government, I have been struck with a feeling of familiarity and identification with the events that have been unfolding in Iran. The images of young people flooding the streets, confronting the authorities and standing up for the rule of law is similar to the Israelis who confront the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank. I see students in Tehran, of the same age as myself, using twitter and blogs to communicate information from the ground in the face of great censorship. I have been watching the YouTube videos from the front line and it conjures up the same feelings as the videos that we are making in the West Bank. It is a different situation in Tehran but one cannot ignore the common determination to challenge governmental policies, take risks and get the word out. In both countries, the only way to do that is to make your presence known in the most corporeal way. [continued…]

Open letter of support to the demonstrators in Iran

Needless to say it is up to the people of Iran to determine their own political course. Foreign observers inspired by the courage of those demonstrating in Iran this past week are nevertheless entitled to point out that a government which claims to represent the will of its people can only do so if it respects the most basic preconditions for the determination of such a will: the freedom of the people to assemble, unhindered, as an inclusive collective force; the capacity of the people, without restrictions on debate or access to information, to deliberate, decide and implement a shared course of action.

Years of foreign-sponsored ‘democracy promotion’ in various parts of the world have helped to spread a well-founded scepticism about civic movements which claim some sort of direct democratic legitimacy. But the principle itself remains as clear as ever: only the people themselves can determine the value of such claims. We the undersigned call on the government of Iran to take no action that might discourage such determination. [continued…]

Baghdad bombing kills at least 78, injures 145

A bomb in a sprawling Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad killed at least 78 people Wednesday and wounded 145, highlighting the danger of Iraq slipping back into violence after the deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave its cities — now less than a week away.

It was unclear who was responsible for the bomb, which was hidden in a motorcycle with a vegetable cart attached. Some blamed Sunni Muslim insurgents with Al Qaeda in Iraq or remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, but others raised the possibility that the bombing was the result of disputes among Shiite factions. [continued…]

Stand firm on settlements

Rightly or wrongly, Obama has made the settlement issue a test of his credibility, and if he backs down then all the progress he has made will wash away instantly. That makes this a pivotal moment, whether or not an Obama administration focused on Iran wants it to be one. Most Palestinians, with their well-earned skepticism of American policy, expect Obama to back down. Most Israelis probably do as well. And that would be tragic, because without much publicity Obama’s pressure has already started generating some important results on the ground — not just Netanyahu’s carefully hedged uttering of an emasculated two state formula, but the significant easing of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, the lifting of some of the more ludicrous parts of the blockade of Gaza, the release of Hamas prisoners (including its Parliamentarians) by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and reports that the Egyptians are planning an unveiling of a Hamas-Fatah unity government agreement on July 7. [continued…]

Palestinian groups round up rivals

On June 14, Fatah and Hamas, the estranged main Palestinian factions, seemingly moved a step closer to reconciliation when representatives met in Ramallah and Gaza City and agreed to begin releasing prisoners held by both sides.

But 10 days later, with a security sweep in the West Bank that netted more than 100 Hamas members, and the closing of a Gaza newspaper and the arrest of its editor, the rivals appear instead to have taken two strides backward.

These developments do not bode well for a happy conclusion to the Egyptian-mediated unity talks, for which exasperated Egyptian officials have set a July 7 deadline. Officials from both factions, as well as independent observers, agree that successful intra-Palestinian reconciliation cannot be achieved if the prisoner issue is not successfully resolved. [continued…]



Bet on Neda’s side

We are watching the first innings of what will be a long game in Iran. President Obama has recognized that with his gradually escalating rhetoric. Yesterday, he was using powerful language to describe the “timeless dignity” of the protesters and the “heartbreaking” images of Neda. He suggested that the mullahs cannot win a war of repression against their own people. “In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests,” he said.

Behind Obama’s cool but confident talk is a judgment that, as one senior White House official puts it, the mullahs “can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” The official explained: “Iran will never be the same again. You don’t have to know how this will end to know that. The regime has been challenged. They are now back on their heels.”

A weakened Iran may seek the validation and legitimacy that would come from negotiations with the United States, presenting a diplomatic dilemma for Obama. Several American officials have told me that before the June 12 election, Tehran signaled Washington that it was ready for talks. Obama has tried to keep this door open, stressing at his news conference yesterday: “We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage and become part of international norms.” But as long as the Basijs are clubbing and shooting protesters in the streets, negotiation will be a nonstarter.

As the mullahs’ grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies. The United States is moving quickly to normalize relations with Syria, and there’s talk of working with the Saudis to draw elements of the radical Palestinian group Hamas away from its Iranian patrons, toward a coalition government that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel. Observes a White House official: “Iran’s allies in the region have to be wondering, ‘Why should we hitch our wagon to their starship?’ ” [continued…]

The Arabs’ forlorn envy of Iranians

Most Arab governments dislike the current Iranian regime, so you would think they would be pleased to see it toppled, or tempered by its own people. Yet, if such change were to occur through street demonstrations choreographed via a web of digital communications, whispered messages, and rooftop religious chants in the middle of the night, Arab leaders of autocratic regimes would be unhappy — because they would sense their own vulnerability to similar mass political challenges. The fact is not lost on anyone that the Iranian regime effectively withstood and defied American-Israeli-European-UN pressure, threats and sanctions for years, but found itself much more vulnerable to the spontaneous rebellion of many of its own citizens who felt degraded by the falsification of election results by the government. [continued…]

Iran’s crisis: The opposition weighs its options

Despite fantasies of insurrection in some of the more fevered Western media assessments of the confrontation, the balance of forces appears to militate against a knockout blow by either side. U.S.-based Iran scholar Farideh Farhi, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that Ahmadinejad and the Supreme leader may not have the majority of the people behind them, “but they do have support. They also have the resources of the state — both financial and military. So that makes them quite robust.”

At the same time, Farhi notes, the opposition coalition includes some very powerful figures from within the regime, who together command the support of a large section of the population. Thus, she warns, “To assume that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of tremendous violence.” More likely, she argues, is the pursuit of some sort of compromise that allows the regime to back down to some extent, without necessarily surrendering. [continued…]

The end of the beginning

Iran’s 1979 revolution took a full year to gestate. The uprising of 2009 has now ended its first phase. But the volatility ushered in by the June 12 ballot-box putsch of Iran’s New Right is certain to endure over the coming year. The Islamic Republic has been weakened.

During one of the violent clashes here in recent days, I saw a member of the riot police confront a protester holding a cell phone. “Don’t take a photograph of me!” he yelled at the young man.

“Why?” the man shouted back. “You’re not naked.”

But the Islamic Republic is. Everyone knows where everyone stands; it isn’t pretty. All the fudge that allowed a modern society to coexist with a theocracy inspired by an imam occulted in the 9th century has been swept away, leaving two Irans at war. [continued…]

Diplomatic relations begin to show strain

Iran’s Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, called on European countries to refrain from holding talks with Iran until it ends violence against protesters and fresh elections are held.

The call came as Iran’s relations with Europe soured considerably yesterday.

“I don’t believe in economic sanctions because they will hurt the people, not the government,” Ms Ebadi told the BBC Persian television. “I believe in political sanctions. European countries can reduce their relations with Iran to charge d’ affaires level.” [continued…]

Clerics join Iran’s anti-government protests

A photo showing Iranian clerics prominently participating in an anti-government protest speaks volumes about the new face of Iran’s opposition movement.

In a blatant act of defiance, a group of Mullahs took to the streets of Tehran, to protest election results that returned incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. [continued…]

The “Neda video,” torture, and the truth-revealing power of images

The single most significant event in shaping worldwide revulsion towards the violence of the Iranian government has been the video of the young Iranian woman bleeding to death, the so-called “Neda video.” Like so many iconic visual images before it — from My Lai, fire hoses and dogs unleashed at civil rights protesters, Abu Ghraib — that single image has done more than the tens of thousands of words to dramatize the violence and underscore the brutality of the state response.

For the last question at his press conference yesterday, Obama was asked by CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux about his reaction to that video and to reports that Iranians are refraining from protesting due to fear of such violence. As Obama was answering — attesting to how “heartbreaking” he found the video; how “anybody who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust” about the violence; and paying homage to “certain international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression” — Helen Thomas, who hadn’t been called on, interrupted to ask Obama to reconcile those statements about the Iranian images with his efforts at home to suppress America’s own torture photos (“Then why won’t you allow the photos –“). [continued…]

U.S. remains firm on settlements

The ongoing dispute between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the US administration over construction in the settlements resulted in the cancellation of the meeting that had been scheduled to be held tomorrow in Paris between the prime minister and US special envoy George Mitchell.

Yitzhak Molcho, the prime minister’s special adviser, held secret talks this past weekend with senior US officials in Washington in an attempt to bridge the gaps that have had such an inimical impact on Israeli-American relations. Molcho’s interlocutors in Washington said once again that the United States was opposed to continued construction in the settlements and in the settlement blocs, even if the rationale for that construction was to meet the needs of “natural growth.”

Given that situation, Molcho and his American interlocutors agreed that there was no point holding a meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu, and that talks needed to be pursued in an attempt to find a compromise solution.

A high-ranking political source said that the White House sent Netanyahu the following stern message: “Once you’ve finished the homework we gave you on stopping construction in the settlements, let us know. Until then, there’s no point in having Mitchell fly to Paris to meet you.” [continued…]

Barak authorizes construction of 300 new homes in West Bank

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the building of 300 new homes in the West Bank, defying U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth.

Activists for Bimkom association, which works for justice and human rights in planning and knows a thing or two about the situation in the territories, have discovered that Barak recently authorized the Civil Administration to submit a plan for the construction of 300 housing units in the unauthorized outpost of Givat Habrecha, near the community of Talmon. [continued…]

Netanyahu: Settlements debate is a waste of time

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that international “arguing” over Israel’s stance on settlements was impeding progress on the Middle East peace progress.

In an interview with Italy’s RAI TV, Netanyahu insisted that settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank must be viewed as separate issues, as Jerusalem is an inseparable part of Israel.

He also said that Israel has been forthcoming with its intentions to halt construction while still allowing for natural growth in existing communities, which he called “an equitable position which reflexes our willingness to enter immediately in peace negotiations and get on with peace.” [continued…]

Ross’s expanded portfolio riles Iraq, Middle East teams

The Cable has learned that deputy national security advisor Thomas Donilon, among others, is positioning Ross to assume an uber-senior NSC position overseeing Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East. The Iraq portfolio formerly assigned to holdover war czar Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute will be shifted to Ross, leaving Lute to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Puneet Talwar, the NSC’s senior director for the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Iran, will report to Ross, as will Daniel Shapiro, the NSC’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Under the new NSC structure, there will be no dedicated senior director for Iraq and there will be only two or three directors for Iraq, reporting to Talwar.

In January, when the new administration took office, Lute supervised two senior directors just for Iraq and six Iraq directors. Over the past few months, the size of the group has been reduced, and it now appears it will be further downsized as the Iraq portfolio shifts from Lute to Ross.

Sources worry that with the drop in manpower, and with Talwar and Ross both more focused on Iran, Iraq policy will suffer at a delicate transition time when Washington plans to draw down combat forces over the coming year. [continued…]

Israel frees a top Hamas figure

Israel freed the most senior Hamas leader in its prisons Tuesday after prosecutors failed to persuade a military court to prolong his three-year sentence.

The release of Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian Authority parliament, fed speculation that Israel was on the verge of a deal to secure the return of a captured soldier in exchange for hundreds of Hamas prisoners. Such a swap has been the aim of sporadic negotiations mediated by Egypt, but Israeli and Hamas officials said they had no information about a breakthrough. [continued…]

U.S. drone strike said to kill 60 in Pakistan

An airstrike believed to have been carried out by a United States drone killed at least 60 people at a funeral for a Taliban fighter in South Waziristan on Tuesday, residents of the area and local news reports said.

Details of the attack, which occurred in Makeen, remained unclear, but the reported death toll was exceptionally high. If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft to fire remotely guided missiles at members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The United States carried out 22 previous drone strikes this year, as the Obama administration has intensified a policy inherited from the Bush administration.

Before the attack on Tuesday, the Pakistani Army and Air Force had begun operations in South Waziristan against the forces of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The group’s suicide bombings in major cities have terrorized Pakistanis for years. [continued…]

Documents back Saudi link to extremists

Documents gathered by lawyers for the families of Sept. 11 victims provide new evidence of extensive financial support for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups by members of the Saudi royal family, but the material may never find its way into court because of legal and diplomatic obstacles.

The case has put the Obama administration in the middle of a political and legal dispute, with the Justice Department siding with the Saudis in court last month in seeking to kill further legal action. Adding to the intrigue, classified American intelligence documents related to Saudi finances were leaked anonymously to lawyers for the families. The Justice Department had the lawyers’ copies destroyed and now wants to prevent a judge from even looking at the material.

The Saudis and their defenders in Washington have long denied links to terrorists, and they have mounted an aggressive and, so far, successful campaign to beat back the allegations in federal court based on a claim of sovereign immunity. [continued…]



Israelis to Obama – “Save us from ourselves!”

On June 5, when several hundred Israelis marched from Tel Aviv’s Yitzhak Rabin Square to the Israeli Defense Ministry to protest the anniversary of the Six Day War, I was able to meet some of the country’s most vociferous cheerleaders of Barack Obama. In complete contrast to the characters who appeared in my video report, “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem,” those I interviewed at the demonstration (organized by the Israeli left-wing party Hadash) were invigorated by Obama’s speech in Cairo, and excited by the prospect of an American president who would pressure Israel into making meaningful concessions towards peace. As one demonstrator remarked to me, “[Obama] must save us from ourselves.”

Whether the two-state solution Obama proposes is possible is another story. Israelis view Obama’s policies towards Israel with extreme negativity, and consider him biased towards the Palestinians, though they simultaneously believe Benjamin “Yahoo” Netanyahu should bend to Washington’s will.

“You see how few we are,” said a demonstrator holding a sign reading “Obama, Yes-U-Can.” “This is about all the Israelis who really oppose the Occupation — it’s very small. Most of the Israelis don’t care about the Occupation and what goes on in the Occupied Territories and about the suffering of the Palestinians. I think it must come from the — the pressure must come from the outside… From here, there’s not enough.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The Dahaf poll that Max links to here needs to be carefully parsed. First comes the progressive headline: majority of Israelis support Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze. 56% say Netanyahu should acquiesce to Obama’s demands. The problem is, 54% support “natural growth” in settlements. The headline should really be: Israelis think they can have their cake and eat it. They think they can make Obama happy and allow the settlements to grow. They can carry on with business as usual — a settlement freeze that’s melting at the edges.

There should be something instructive for America’s “pro-Israel, pro-peace movement” about witnessing the realism of peace protesters in Tel Aviv. The protesters have no illusions about the sentiment of most Israelis. They don’t pretend they’re speaking for a silent majority. Their blunt message is that Israel can’t save itself. They know that if there remains any possibility that a two-state solution will get implemented, it’s not going to happen by gently coaxing Israel in the right direction. If it’s going to happen, there’s going to be a lot of kicking and screaming and maybe even worse violence.

Can Netanyahu repair the rift with the U.S.?

When an Israeli cabinet minister proposes that his country impose sanctions on the United States, his government is clearly in a state of distress. Pressure from the Obama Administration to freeze Israeli settlement construction and move toward a two-state peace with the Palestinians has reportedly spurred Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled (who belongs to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party) to recommended that Israel shop outside the U.S. for aircraft and military hardware, sell sensitive technology to clients disapproved of by Washington, and invite America’s rivals to play a greater role in the Middle East. And if that sounds like chutzpah given the continued U.S. direct aid to Israel — $2.5 billion in military aid this year alone — two Israeli newspapers reported Wednesday that Peled had even proposed that Israel use its influence with some Democratic donors in the U.S. as leverage against Obama’s positions. [continued…]

Commander maps new course in Afghan war

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in his first interview since being named the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said his front-row seat for the wars there and in Iraq has altered the view of combat he has held since training as a Green Beret to kill enemies quickly and stealthily.

After watching the U.S. try and fail for years to put down insurgencies in both countries, Gen. McChrystal said he believes that to win in Afghanistan, “You’re going to have to convince people, not kill them.

“Since 9/11, I have watched as America tried to first put out this fire with a hammer, and it doesn’t work,” he said last week at his home at Fort McNair in Washington. “Decapitation strategies don’t work.” [continued…]

US senator opens Iran nuclear debate

One of the most senior Democrats in Washington has dismissed a key element in the west’s long standing strategy on Iran’s nuclear programme as “ridiculous”. His comments throw open the debate about how far the US and its partners should go in seeking a compromise with Tehran after on Friday’s presidential election.

John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, told the Financial Times in an interview that Iran had a right to uranium enrichment – a process that can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material.

The US and the world’s other big powers have repeatedly demanded that Tehran suspend enrichment – a policy pioneered by the former Bush administration that has since been given the force of international law by successive United Nations Security Council resolutions. [continued…]

Some in Qaeda leave Pakistan for Somalia and Yemen

American officials say they are seeing the first evidence that dozens of fighters with Al Qaeda, and a small handful of the terrorist group’s leaders, are moving to Somalia and Yemen from their principal haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In communications that are being watched carefully at the Pentagon, the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the terrorist groups in all three locations are now communicating more frequently, and apparently trying to coordinate their actions, the officials said.

Some aides to President Obama attribute the moves to pressure from intensified drone attacks against Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, after years of unsuccessful American efforts to dislodge the terrorist group from their haven there.

But there are other possible explanations. Chief among them is the growth of the jihadist campaigns in both Somalia and Yemen, which may now have some of the same appeal for militants that Iraq did after the American military invasion there in 2003. [continued…]

Sentence reduced for Pentagon analyst who leaked to AIPAC officials

A former Pentagon analyst who pled guilty to passing secret information to two former AIPAC staffers had his sentence drastically reduced.

Larry Franklin was sentenced to probation and 10 months of “community confinement,” or a halfway house, along with 100 hours of community service. In 2005, he had received a sentence of 12 and 1/2 years in prison but was free pending his cooperation with prosecutors in the case against the two formers AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman.

The charges against those two men for passing classified information were dropped by federal prosecutors last month who said that restrictions the judge had placed on the case made the government unlikely to prevail. [continued…]



Cart blanche for McChrystal

The new American commander in Afghanistan has been given carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates, including many Special Operations veterans, as he moves to carry out an ambitious new strategy that envisions stepped-up attacks on Taliban fighters and narcotics networks.

The extraordinary leeway granted the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, underscores a view within the administration that the war in Afghanistan has for too long been given low priority and needs to be the focus of a sustained, high-level effort.

General McChrystal is assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years. That kind of commitment to one theater of combat is unknown in the military today outside Special Operations, but reflects an approach being imported by General McChrystal, who spent five years in charge of secret commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When Gen McChrystal told senators last week that “the measure of effectiveness will not be the number of enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” these were lines surely delivered in the spirit that he would simply tell his audience exactly what it wanted to hear. It was a salable statement happy to be bought by the Senate and the New York Times. And if any skeptics remained before his confirmation vote passed, it turned out that they could easily be steamrolled by the melodramatic claim that the general was “literally waiting by an airplane” ready to head off on his mission.

That a general of whom it is said that “his nature isn’t to be second fiddle to anyone” now appears to have been granted unprecedented power, is disturbing in and of itself. But that that power is likely to be exercised in secrecy should be of even greater concern.

As Tom Hayden wrote recently:

The mystique of secrecy may come to shroud all public inquiry about Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are questions to be answered, however.

One is framed on page 380 of Bob Woodward’s book The War Within, in which the author describes a top-secret operation in 2006 that targeted and killed insurgents with such effectiveness that it gave “orgasms” to Derek Harvey, a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus and longtime tracker of Iraqi dissidents. The secret program was led by McChrystal, then a lieutenant general, using signals intercepts, informants and other tools of what McChrystal calls “collaborative warfare” through Special Access Programs (SAPS) and Special Compartmented Information (SCI.) McChrystal, according to the New York Times, conducted and commanded most of his secret missions at night. These missions were consistent with the proposals of Petraeus’s top counterinsurgency adviser at the time, David Kilcullen, to revive the discredited Phoenix Program used in South Vietnam.

This expanding secret war is crucial to understand for three reasons. First, according to Woodward’s claim, it was “more important than the surge” in reducing insurgent violence in Iraq. Second, the Special Ops units served as judge, jury and executioner in hundreds of extrajudicial killings. The targeted victims were from broad categories such as “the Sunni insurgency” and “renegade Shiite militias” or other “extremists.” Third, and most important, the operation was kept secret from the American public, media and perhaps even the US Congress.

Iran awakens yet again

They’re calling it the “green tsunami,” a transformative wave unfurling down the broad avenues of the Iranian capital. Call it what you will, but the city is agog at the campaign of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the reformist candidate seeking to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 10th post-revolution election.

Iran, its internal fissures exposed as never before, is teetering again on the brink of change. For months now, I’ve been urging another look at Iran, beyond dangerous demonization of it as a totalitarian state. Seldom has the country looked less like one than in these giddy June days.

I wandered in a sea of green ribbons, hats, banners and bandannas to a rally at which Ahmadinejad was mocked as “a midget” and Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, sporting a floral hijab that taunted grey-black officialdom, warned the president that: “If there is vote rigging, Iran will rise up.” [continued…]

In Iran race, ex-leader works to oust president

In a makeshift campaign war room in north Tehran, two dozen young women clad in head scarves and black chadors are logging election data into desktop computers 24 hours a day, while men rush around them carrying voter surveys and district maps.

This nerve center in the campaign to unseat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s hard-line president, is not run by any of the three candidates who are challenging him in a hotly contested election on Friday.

Instead, it is part of a bitter behind-the-scenes rivalry that has helped define the campaign, pitting Mr. Ahmadinejad against the man he beat in the last election, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-term former president and one of Iran’s richest and most powerful men. [continued…]

AIPAC wall beginning to crack

For years, AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has helped to stonewall the Middle East peace process by building a solid wall around the Israeli government, protecting it from criticism in the US. Senators and representatives have feared the wrath of AIPAC come Election Day, even in states and districts where the Jewish vote is negligible. Whatever they may have thought privately about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, they’ve remained silent.

I got a first-hand glimpse of the process shortly after last year’s election, when I talked to an aide of a newly elected House member. The new member, who represents a district with hardly any organized Jewish community, knew very little about the Middle East when the campaign began. The representative had been “educated” on the issue, the aide told me, by a handful of wealthy Democrats – none from the member’s district, all generous contributors to the campaign, and all staunch supporters of the AIPAC line. That’s how it works, all over the country.

Or at least that’s how it used to work. Now, for the first time, there are signs of a crack in AIPAC’s vaunted political edifice. The wedge issue is the Obama administration’s public demand that Israel stop all new construction in its West Bank settlements, including what the Israelis call expansion to accommodate “natural growth.” [continued…]

Netanyahu speech may endorse Palestinian state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt to narrow a growing divide with the Obama administration when he delivers a major policy speech in the coming days, his aides say _ perhaps even endorsing the concept of a Palestinian state at the risk of alienating his hawkish coalition.

In one curious twist, Netanyahu’s message _ and his room to maneuver _ could be at least partially linked to the outcome of Friday’s election in Iran.

Painted into a corner by his right-wing coalition and an American president bent on progress toward peace, Netanyahu is facing a moment of truth when he will have to decide between the two. For now, it seems his all-important American allies will be the focus of his efforts, though it’s unclear if he will go far enough for Washington. [continued…]

Obama inspires possible shift in Hamas

The Arab world translates Obama’s Cairo speech as a change in American policy, and so does Hamas.

Hamas Political Bureau Director Khaled Mashal: “Hamas will not be an obstacle to a peace agreement in the 1967 borders, Hamas will be a positive element helping to reach a solution that is fair to the Palestinians and will enable them to realize their rights.”

In response, high-ranking Hamas figure Salah Bardawil told Makor Rishon-Hatzofe, “Mashal disclosed the first details of Hamas’s new policy, as a factor that will act in the framework of a Palestinian government, after there is Palestinian unity, and in the framework of the Mecca agreement.” [continued…]

Jimmy Carter visits Lebanon

Over the past month, a rumor made its way around journalistic circles here in Beirut: last Sunday’s parliamentary vote in Lebanon would be former President Jimmy Carter’s last stint as an election observer. It sounded plausible enough—after all, Carter is getting on in years and, through his organization, the Carter Center, he has participated in dozens of elections around the world.

And yet, last night, at a farewell reception for the Center’s observers at the Hotel InterContinental Phoenicia, Carter was looking enthused and animated, a glass of white wine in his hand, as he greeted friends and fellow observers. The rumor of his retirement from retirement, he said with a grin, was bunk.

“I hope it’s not the last one. I’m eighty-four-years-old, and I may be coming to my, you know…” he said. “But I hope I can have another one in Palestine in January. And I’ll be going to Bolivia in December.” [continued…]

The Mitchell visit: why it is important

George Mitchell is due to arrive in Syria on Friday for what promises to be a crucial visit. Syria wants a place in any emerging Obama peace plan for the region. Washington would be short sighted not to include Damascus. The Lebanon has been a leading factor in Syria’s isolation and Washington’s dominant concern in the Levant for five years very much to Syria’s detriment. Because of the election results, Lebanon can now take a back seat to other regional considerations.

The Lebanon elections produced results confirming the political status quo among Lebanon’s competing factions. The Doha, power-sharing agreement that resolved the Lebanon question last year – or something closely approximating it – is likely to be reformulated for the new government. All sides seem to be in agreement about the general outlines of a new government, eliminating the temptation on the part of all sides, including the US and Syria to renegotiate the regional balance of power. Lebanon has effectively been placed in deep freeze.

Obama has yet to speak the word Syria. He has spoken clearly and emphatically about the Palestinian track in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not about the Syrian track. [continued…]

Was detainee’s death a suicide?

To the prisoners at Guantánamo, Mohammed Ahmed Abdullah Saleh was simply known as Wadhah al-Abyani (Wadhah meaning ”one who clarifies” and Abyan the place where he came from in Yemen). Last week, it was announced that he had apparently committed suicide in his cell. After almost eight years in U.S. custody, Wadhah came home to his native Yemen in a coffin. He was no more than a few months older than I. He was born in 1978. Coincidentally, he was numbered 078 by the U.S. military.

At 5’10” in height, his weakened body weighed no more than 104 pounds the last time I saw him. Wadhah had, like many prisoners still held in Guantánamo, been on a hunger strike before I left, protesting the conditions, abuses and absence of justice we were all subjected to.

We were force-fed together, transported to the chair willing or unwilling, strapped to it according to the doctors orders. A sympathetic-looking nurse would ask which nostril we would like to have the tube inserted in. While the 25-inch of hard tube is forced through your nostril down to your stomach, your eyes swell with tears and run down your cheeks. It’s always comforting to hear the nurse say, ”Oh don’t worry. It’s OK, that happens to everyone,” as she wipes off your tears for you. And as the tube goes through the throat, you get the sensation of choking. Coughing is a norm but some start vomiting blood. With the years of hunger-striking, very few can keep what’s being pumped into them down. [continued…]



Netanyahu failed to build bond of trust with Obama

Three weeks after Benjamin Netanyahu returned from his visit to Barack Obama, there is no longer any doubt that the prime minister has failed in his most important mission – to build a bond of trust with the U.S. president. The signs are clear: Israel and the United States are trading messages through speeches and headlines instead of through discrete consultations. Netanyahu is convinced that Obama is seeking a confrontation with Israel, while the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are publicly demanding that the prime minister change his political stripes, just as his predecessors Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert did.

A photo released by the White House, which shows Obama talking on the phone with Netanyahu on Monday, speaks volumes: The president is seen with his legs up on the table, his face stern and his fist clenched, as though he were dictating to Netanyahu: “Listen up and write ‘Palestinian state’ a hundred times. That’s right, Palestine, with a P.” As an enthusiast of Muslim culture, Obama surely knows there is no greater insult in the Middle East than pointing the soles of one’s shoes at another person. Indeed, photos of other presidential phone calls depict Obama leaning on his desk, with his feet on the floor. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Oy vey! So the Muslim-loving US president is out to insult Israel’s prime minister!

Obama’s feet are actually pointing towards White House photographer Pete Souza, not Netanyahu. Somehow, however finely tuned the president’s multicultural sensibilities might be, I doubt that while based in Washington DC he feels obliged to follow Middle Eastern etiquette — especially when speaking on the phone to a thoroughly Westernized Benjamin Netanyahu.

No doubt the White House intended to send a message here, but rather than it being a calculated insult, I’d venture to say it was this: we haven’t forgotten the impression you made on Bill Clinton. Just in case you’re in any doubt: we’re the superpower.

As “an American official” (Rahm Emanuel, most likely) said: “We are going to change the world. Please, don’t interfere.”

You got that Bibi?

No we can’t, Israeli hardliners tell Obama as he pushes for peace

President Obama’s push for peace in the Middle East has provoked the ire of right-wing Israelis, who have launched a campaign against his initiative with the slogan “No you can’t”.

The words are a play on the “Yes we can” campaign that propelled Mr Obama into the White House.

As George Mitchell, the US President’s special envoy to the Middle East, arrived in Jerusalem yesterday he was confronted by a growing campaign against Mr Obama’s push for a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. One poster depicted Mr Obama in a Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf; others made sure his full name — Barack Hussein Obama — was highlighted. One activist condemned Mr Obama as America’s most anti-Semitic president. [continued…]

Hamas political chief: Israeli settlement freeze essential

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal said Tuesday that United States President Barack Obama’s pressure on Israel to freeze construction in West Bank settlements was an essential step toward restarting peace efforts.

The militant group – which is eager to win international acceptance of its rule in Gaza though it is shunned by the U.S. and others as a terrorist organization – has tried to sound more pragmatic since Israel’s Gaza offensive early this year.

Meshal’s endorsement of Obama’s push also included an appeal for the international community to consider Hamas a positive element in the search for Middle East peace.

“There is a new language from President Obama, but we expect real pressure on Israelis,” Meshal said. “There are demands Israel stop the settlements but this is not the price we are after … although it’s an essential step.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Funny how if Hamas shows signs of moderation, reporters insinuate they’re faking it: Hamas isn’t being pragmatic; it wants to sound more pragmatic.

Imagine if Meshaal’s statement was defiant. Would AP be reporting that Hamas is trying to sound defiant?

Here’s the rule: treat every hostile statement as literal and charged with dire implications. Treat every positive statement as a ruse — an attempt to deceive a naive audience.

“I’m just a reporter,” says the wily journalist as he twists another story. Right!

Hamas: Fatah raids in West Bank hampering Palestinian unity

Egyptian efforts to heal a rift between rival Palestinian factions are being hampered by West Bank raids launched by Fatah against Hamas targets, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said on Tuesday.

Damascus-based Meshal spoke on his first visit to Cairo for many months after Egyptian officials met leaders from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, which launched the raids last week. Nine people were killed in ensuing violence in the West Bank city of Qalqilya.

The raids, whose casualties included members of both factions, had stoked fears of a wider showdown and highlighted tensions within Palestinian society over Abbas’ efforts to rein in militants under a long-stalled U.S.-backed peace “road map.” [continued…]

Palau to take Chinese Guantánamo detainees

The United States has won an agreement to transfer up to 17 Chinese Muslims from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Palau, a sparsely populated archipelago in the North Pacific, according to a statement released by Palau to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The president of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, said his government had “agreed to accommodate the United States of America’s request” to “temporarily resettle” the detainees, members of the Uighur ethnic group, “subject to periodic review.” Palau, the president said, would be “honored and proud” to take them in a “humanitarian gesture.”

The agreement opens the door to the largest single transfer of Guantánamo prisoners and is the first major deal on detainees since President Obama pledged soon after taking office in January to close the prison within a year. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — So, while 306 million Americans tremble at the thought that a few men who didn’t even garner the label “enemy combatant” might be too dangerous to allow into the US, the fearless Palauans –all 21,000 of them — are willing to take the risk.

London’s Metropolitan Police accused of waterboarding suspects

Metropolitan Police officers subjected suspects to waterboarding, according to allegations at the centre of a major anti-corruption inquiry, The Times has learnt.

The torture claims are part of a wide-ranging investigation which also includes accusations that officers fabricated evidence and stole suspects’ property. It has already led to the abandonment of a drug trial and the suspension of several police officers.

However, senior policing officials are most alarmed by the claim that officers in Enfield, North London, used the controversial CIA interrogation technique to simulate drowning. Scotland Yard is appointing a new borough commander in Enfield in a move that is being seen as an attempt by Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met Commissioner, to enforce a regime of “intrusive supervision”. [continued…]

CIA stance on torture tape docs suggests Obama’s new open government era won’t materialize

It’s looking more and more like Barack Obama’s pledge to usher in a new era of openness in government may well go unfulfilled.

Yesterday, administration lawyers cited national security concerns to argue that Bush-era documents detailing the videotaped interrogations of detainees should not be released. And in the wake of that news, open-government advocates are reluctantly acknowledging that, despite Obama’s campaign promises, his approach to secrecy on issues of national security will likely not depart significantly from that of George Bush. [continued…]

Now Obama must include Iran in an axis of respect

Was it coincidence that Barack Obama scheduled his speech to Muslims last week on the eve of two closely fought regional elections ­– in Lebanon last Sunday and Iran this Friday? Now the “pro-western” coalition has won a narrow victory in Lebanon, some of the US president’s supporters are suggesting his timing was indeed calculated.

If so, it was disingenuous. Under Lebanon’s complex constitution the seats reserved for Sunnis and Shias were fixed, and Sunday’s result turned on the way Christians rather than Muslims voted. A majority showed their disappointment and anger with the senior Christian politician, General Michel Aoun, who aligned himself with the Shias. After the usual weeks of negotiation Lebanon is likely to continue with a national unity government, and the real task for Obama is not to discourage the victorious Sunni-Druze-Christian alliance from inviting the Shias, and in particular Hezbollah, into their cabinet. [continued…]

Iran’s new revolution

Every four years, in what has become a ritual of the country’s election season, Iran’s public broadcaster allots a half-hour of primetime to each of the country’s presidential candidates, to use as they see fit. Anticipation was highest for reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s film. Not only had Mousavi earned the devotion of much of the country’s youth and its urban middle and upper classes, but it was widely considered a coup that his campaign had signed one of Iran’s most beloved directors, Majid Majidi, to direct his campaign documentary. The film — inspiring set pieces from around the country and selections from the candidate’s life devoted to service, all deftly woven with religious undertones and nationalist music — didn’t disappoint.

There were also plenty of visual reminders that Mousavi has become a vessel for the hopes of the country’s fervent population of university students — the film didn’t lack for shots of chicly-dressed, flatteringly lit young people. But as Ali, a student at University of Tehran who supports Mousavi, put it, “You get the feeling that the filmmaker was more impressive than the star.” Ali shook his head contemplating all the mistakes his preferred candidate had made in the single half-hour of footage. Recounting a scene in the film where a young man together with his toddler boards Mousavi’s campaign bus to complain about the country’s lack of equality, Ali shrieked in despair: “Why didn’t he kiss that baby?” [continued…]

At least 40,000 civilians in Pakistan’s Swat: Red Cross

Some 40,000 civilians remain in Pakistan’s troubled Swat region where they lack access to electricity and water amid a military assault against the Taliban, the Red Cross said on Tuesday.

“Every time we entered a village, hundreds of people asked for help,” said Michael von Bergen, an International Committee of the Red Cross representative who was part of a convoy delivering aid in the region last weekend.

“Those who did not leave are now desperate. They need food, clean water and working medical facilities,” he added in a statement. [continued…]



The battle over what a “settlement freeze” means

When Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington last month, Israeli media reported he was quite shocked at the reception he received in his closed-door meetings with Congress. It appeared the Obama administration had lined up fellow Democrats to make sure Netanyahu heard the same message as Obama had conveyed with respect to Israeli settlements and support for the two-state solution.

By last Monday, however, reports of cracks in the Democratic solidarity started to appear. Politico’s Ben Smith filed a report under the headline “Democrats pressure Barack Obama on Israel.” Smith’s article suggested Israeli supporters in the Congress were pushing back against the administration’s tough talk. Smith began with Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat from Nevada, who manages to represent libertine, if not liberal, Las Vegas, while at the same time serving as the strongest ally in Congress of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America.

“My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute. I think it would serve America’s interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.”

“When Congress gets back into session the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me.”

It is not surprising that Berkley was among the first to spring to the Netanyahu government’s defense. According to Ha’aretz’s Akiva Eldar, Berkley once reprimanded Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for using the term “occupation.” After all “this [Israel] is our country” and “we” won the war. When Erekat responded, “So what am I, if I am not a person living under occupation?” Berkley answered, “War booty.” [continued…]

What exactly was U.S.-Israel agreement on settlements?

West Bank settlements have long been a bone of contention between Israel and the United States, which views them as an obstacle to peace. Over the past few years, however, Israel tried to reach a tacit understanding with Washington on settlement expansion, which is now put to the test: President Barack Obama demands a complete and utter construction freeze, whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on building in settlement blocs, as his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert during George W. Bush’s term in office.

The settlement controversy reached its zenith at the twilight of Yitzhak Shamir’s government in 1992. Israel had asked for loan guarantees to help fund the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the recently collapsed Soviet Union. Then U.S. President George H.W. Bush conditioned the aid on a complete settlement freeze. Shamir was defiant, and Bush remained firm.

Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded Shamir as prime minister, reached an oral agreement with Bush on the loan guarantees. Rabin promised that Israel would complete the housing units that were under construction and limit future construction in all settlements in the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem area, which Rabin dubbed “security areas.” The New York Times reported that the construction would be for “natural growth” purposes, and would amount to building additional rooms in existing houses and infrastructure. In practice, Israel went far beyond that. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It seems fitting if — as this report seems to imply — that it was the Times that coined this pernicious, contrived and utterly misleading phrase, “natural growth”. They borrowed some well-tested Madison Avenue wisdom that it’s easier to see any piece of crap if you call it “natural”. But as The Forward noted in an editorial last week, there is in fact nothing “natural” here:

    The Israeli government’s defense of “natural growth” masks its true intent. Ministers say that families deserve the right to stay in their communities as their broods increase, and that is why settlements should be allowed to add homes, schools and synagogues. That’s a “right” enjoyed by no one else in Israel, or the United States, for that matter.

Israel ministry wages settlement war against U.S.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has begun to make good on a pledge to exploit all the resources of his ministry, “its branches and its influences over local government” to expand settlements in the territories.

Yishai, who is also chairman of Shas, made the promise last Thursday to the heads of the Yesha Council of settlements. His party is concerned by the freeze on construction that has been in effect since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office, which Yishai said is “drying out” the settlements. [continued…]

Gas discovery changes Israel’s energy picture

A huge natural gas discovery 50 miles off the Israeli coast at Haifa could potentially meet Israel’s energy needs for 20 years once it eventually comes online. In January 2009, a consortium led by U.S. energy exploration company Noble Energy announced the discovery of three massive gas fields, with one of the group’s partners calling the find “one of the biggest in the world” that represented a “historic landmark in the economic dependence of Israel.”…

The huge Tamar prospect has almost certainly averted a major energy crisis for Israel within the next decade. Israel currently imports 85 percent of its energy. With no oil of its own, it must import supplies from as far afield as Russia, Norway, Mexico and West Africa. A deal cut with Egypt in 2005 guaranteed natural gas imports from the Nile Delta for 15 years, starting from last summer.

But the only other natural gas field of significance in the region is the 1.4 trillion cubic feet field discovered by the British Gas Group off the coast of Gaza in 2000. Any hope of gas from that source continues to be paralyzed by the Israeli-Palestinian political stand-off. Both BG and the Palestinians, to whom the field mostly belongs, are anxious to start pumping gas, but Israel refuses to buy it for fear that the proceeds will ultimately finance Hamas’ arms purchases. A recent bid by the BG Group to direct the Palestinian reserves to Egypt was blocked by Israel….

A potential hitch has arisen, however, in the claim by Lebanese authorities that at least part of the Tamar gas field might lie within a common basin straddling the two countries’ territorial waters. Lebanese Energy Minister Alain Tabourian wants the Tamar project formally registered with the United Nations and a study of the extent of the basins carried out.

One of the partners in the U.S.-Israeli consortium denied those claims, saying “the entire area of the license was within territorial waters of the state of Israel.” But with more than $15 billion of energy resources at stake, and with at least three years before the gas comes online, the huge find could prove yet another flashpoint for local conflict. [continued…]

Obama, the Holocaust and the Palestinians

The line in last Friday’s New York Times summed it up: Some Israelis and their American supporters are furious with President Barack Obama, the Times reported, because they saw his Cairo speech as “elevating the Palestinians to equal status.” And those who would be threatened by Palestinians being viewed as equal human beings to Israelis may have reason to be concerned. That’s because whatever its policy implications — and the jury is very much still out on those — Obama’s Cairo speech marked a profound conceptual shift in official Washington’s discourse on the nature and causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of America’s obligations to each side. So much so that one as prone pessimism as I was before the speech was forced to note that the reason Israel’s more right-wing supporters are worried is that, rhetorically at least, Obama was trying to move the U.S. position towards one of an honest broker. [continued…]

Netanyahu convinced Obama seeks clash with Israel to appease Arabs

Political sources close to Netanyahu say that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Obama’s senior political consultant David Axelrod are behind the clash between the administration and Israel.

Israel historically has depended on the White House to balance the consensus of officials in the state and defense departments; this consensus usually leans toward the Arab side.

Israeli officials say that under Obama, the White House has become the main problem in relations. [continued…]

Jews gone wild: Why camcorders and booze don’t mix

The night before Barack Obama thrilled Cairo, two cameramen strolled through downtown Jerusalem and filmed a handful of drunken American kids doing their best David Duke impressions. Forty-eight hours later, the video has gone viral, linked from a hundred political blogs, and is circling the internet at a critical velocity on a mission to humiliate the Jewish people.

As someone who lives on and off in the American bubble in Tel Aviv and came to Israel on a Birthright tour like some of the kids in the video may have, this is embarrassing, shocking, bizarre, but familiar. And as someone who spent many nights grimacing at similar overheard conversations from American Jews in town for the week from Long Island, the booze-fueled hubris and uber-Zionism is not so strange at all. In the Jewish homeland for the first time, on a free trip, fleetingly experiencing a place gripped by a visceral realism and powerful sense of purpose, it’s easy to let the beer overtake you. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Editors of the PEP Huffington Post should take note: Max Blumenthal’s video might have been too provocative for the tender sensibilities of HuffPo’s staff and readers but apparently Israelis and other readers of Haaretz were deemed capable of handling it even while being told that the video was on “a mission to humiliate the Jewish people.”

Should the Jewish people be humiliated by the video? Of course not. It’s not the video, stupid — it’s the people in it!

As for the acronym I just used — PEP — although I generally loathe acronyms, this one needs to be repeated far and wide. PEP stands for “Progressive Except for Palestine” and Philip Weiss has been doing a great job of pinning the label on the guilty.

Huge campaign rallies snarl Tehran

A pair of sprawling demonstrations here brought the capital of Iran virtually to a standstill on Monday, with followers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main electoral challenger struggling to demonstrate their street following ahead of presidential elections on Friday.

The demonstrations were the largest gatherings here in more than a decade, veteran political observers said.

Iranian elections always bring a loosening of the rules on public speech and behavior, but many say this year’s election is different, in part because of the social crackdown of the past four years under Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“What’s happening now is more than what should happen before an election,” said Mashalah Shamsolvaezin, a political commentator and former director of several reformist newspapers. “This is an expression of protest and dissatisfaction by people. They are venting their frustration and feeling very powerful.” [continued…]

Lebanon’s election surprise

After a victory for the Hizbollah-led opposition had been widely anticipated, a constellation of factors tipped the balance in the March 14 coalition’s favour bringing an end to the jinx of Western support, at least for now.

An election-eve warning from Lebanon’s Maronite Christian patriarch who warned that the country faced a threat to its existence may also have been decisive in promoting fear of the Islamist group and its allies.

As The New York Times noted: “for the first time in a long time, being aligned with the United States did not lead to defeat in the Middle East. And since Lebanon has always been a critical testing ground, that could mark a possibly significant shift in regional dynamics with another major election, in Iran, just four days away. [continued…]

Al Qaida plays key role on both sides of Pakistan-Afghan border

When a wave of 11 suicide bombers attacked this Afghan provincial capital in mid-May — among them several men dressed head to toe in blue burqas — panicked residents fled into their homes to avoid the street battles between the killers and local security forces. Twenty locals died in the melee.

That so many bombers could slip into town from North Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan on a single operation testified to the rising level of violence in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military said that al Qaida is playing a critical role in financing suicide bombings and other attacks on U.S. and NATO forces.

However, the relatively low death toll in the Khost assault indicated that the attackers’ preparation was deficient, at least by comparison with far more devastating suicide bombings in Iraq. [continued…]

North Korean labor camps a ghastly prospect for U.S. journalists

North Korea’s sentencing of two American TV journalists to 12 years of hard labor Monday could imperil the Obama administration’s already difficult goal of curtailing the authoritarian nation’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

If no deal is reached, the two women face a grim future in a brutal prison system notorious for its lack of adequate food and medical supplies and its high death rate.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, were convicted by the nation’s top Central Court of an unspecified “grave crime” against the hard-line regime after they were arrested in March along the Chinese-North Korean border while reporting a story on human trafficking. [continued…]

CIA urges judge to keep Bush-era documents sealed

The Obama administration objected yesterday to the release of certain Bush-era documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees at secret prisons, arguing to a federal judge that doing so would endanger national security and benefit al-Qaeda’s recruitment efforts.

In an affidavit, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta defended the classification of records describing the contents of the 92 videotapes, their destruction by the CIA in 2005 and what he called “sensitive operational information” about the interrogations.

The forced disclosure of such material to the American Civil Liberties Union “could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security by informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed,” Panetta argued. [continued…]



Lebanese voters prevent Hizbollah takeover

There will be no Islamic Republic of Lebanon. Nor will there be a pro-Western Lebanese republic. There will, after yesterday’s vote – for the Hizbollah-Christian coalition and for the secular Sunni-Christian alliance – be a government of “national salvation” in Beirut, run by an ex-army general-president with ever-increasing powers.

Washington would have preferred that Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated ex-prime minister, came out with a clear win. But out of the shadows will come the same crippled, un-healable Lebanon; delightful, unworkable, poor old Lebanon, corrupt, beautiful, vanity-prone, intelligent, democratic – yes, definitely, democratic – and absolutely outside our powers to reform. [continued…]

March 14 bloc wins Lebanon election

Official results have confirmed the victory of Lebanon’s March 14 coalition over the opposition Hezbollah-led alliance in the country’s parliamentary elections.

Ziad Baroud, the interior minister, announced the figures on Monday, confirming what had already been predicted by the country’s newspapers.

The results showed the Sunni-led March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated former prime minister, winning 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament, while the Hezbollah-led alliance took 57. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Even though there will not now be a Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon, the “Hezbollah lost” narrative is a bit misleading. All eleven Hezbollah candidates won their elections. It was Michel Aoun’s Christian party that lost — and thus Hezbollah lacks the coalition partner it would have needed to lead a new government — but since most Americans haven’t heard of Aoun, the media is much happier to ride with its favorite Islamists vs the West narrative. Add to that the “democracy wins” narrative and we can also expect to hear little about voting irregularities such as those The Guardian mentioned: widespread reports of vote-buying before the poll, with some Lebanese expatriates being offered free air tickets home. Just imagine the outcry if there had been any cases in which Hezbollah had been doling out hundreds of dollars to secure individual votes!

Report from Gaza: ‘We are a human experiment’

A few days ago, I left Gaza with Medea Benjamin (above, as we came through the Sinai) and four other members of her Code Pink delegations. I wasn’t really able to write about Gaza while I was there. We had so many wrenching meetings and encounters over nine days that it was all I could do to drag myself back into my room at 1 in the morning and then rise at 6 or 7 the next day to begin the cycle again.
When I said that I was witnessing bondage out of the Bible, a friend I made in Gaza, Mond Mishal, a would-be graduate student, (right), shook his head. Mond
“Don’t talk about the bible, or an old story. You must find a new metaphor. We are being experimented on. This is a human experiment,” he said.

The other friend I made there, Reem Abu Jaber, echoed the point: “This is beyond books and fairytales. Sometimes I think that words are not made for what we are going through.” [continued…]

House hunting in the West Bank

It’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s fault. Because of his insistence on allowing for “natural growth” of West Bank settlements, I decided to go real-estate shopping. I called Amana, the settlement-building organization, and said I was interested in homes in Binyamin, the name used by settlers and Israeli officialdom for the piece of the West Bank directly north of Jerusalem.

The sales rep was so helpful I could hear her smile. At Shilo, a 30-year-old settlement north of Ramallah, construction has recently begun on a new development. For about $160,000, she said, I could get a 1,200-square-foot house. To American ears, that sounds small, but for a Jerusalem apartment-dweller, it would be a step up. Besides, that’s a starter home; I could add a second floor now or later, she said.

At Eli, just up the road from Shilo, she offered homes in the center of the settlement and in outlying “neighborhoods.” In Hayovel, for instance, she had a house for $115,000, with a completed first floor and the outer shell for the second floor. She didn’t mention that the “neighborhood” of Hayovel is an illegal outpost, built partly on private Palestinian land. She offered me a similar house at a settlement called Ma’aleh Mikhmash. I thanked her and said I’d talk to my wife. [continued…]

What the new Jim Comey torture emails actually reveal

The New York Times was provided 3 extremely important internal Justice Department emails from April, 2005 (.pdf) — all written by then-Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey — which highlight how the Bush administration’s torture techniques became legally authorized by Bush lawyers. As Marcy Wheeler documents, the leak to the NYT was clearly from someone eager to defend Bush officials by suggesting that Comey’s emails prove that all DOJ lawyers — even those opposed to torture on policy grounds — agreed these techniques were legal, and the NYT reporters, Scott Shane and David Johnston, dutifully do the leakers’ bidding by misleadingly depicting the Comey emails as vindication for Bush/Cheney (Headline: “U.S. Lawyers Agreed on the Legality of Brutal Tactic”; First Paragraph: “When Justice Department lawyers engaged in a sharp internal debate in 2005 over brutal interrogation techniques, even some who believed that using tough tactics was a serious mistake agreed on a basic point: the methods themselves were legal”).

I defy anyone to read Comey’s 3 emails and walk away with that conclusion. Marcy has detailed many of the reasons the NYT article is so misleading, so I want to focus on what the Comey emails actually demonstrate about what these DOJ torture memos really are. The primary argument against prosecutions for Bush officials who ordered torture is that DOJ lawyers told the White House that these tactics were legal, and White House officials therefore had the right to rely on those legal opinions. The premise is that White House officials inquired in good faith with the DOJ about what they could and could not do under the law, and only ordered those tactics which the DOJ lawyers told them were legal. As these Comey emails prove, that simply is not what happened. [continued…]

Recently released Gitmo detainee talks to ABC News

For 7½ years, Lakhdar Boumediene was known simply by a number: “10005.”

These were the digits assigned to him when he arrived at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, swept up in a post-Sept. 11 dragnet and accused of plotting to blow up the U.S. and British Embassies in Sarajevo.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Boumediene said the interrogators at Gitmo never once asked him about this alleged plot, which he denied playing any part it.

“I’m a normal man,” said Boumediene, who at the time of his arrest worked for the Red Crescent, providing help to orphans and others in need. “I’m not a terrorist.”

The 43-year-old Algerian is now back with his wife and two daughters, a free man in France after a Republican judge found the evidence against Boumediene lacking. He is best known from the landmark Supreme Court case last year, Boumediene v. Bush, which said detainees have the right to challenge their detention in court.

That decision was a stunning rebuke of the Bush administration’s policies on terror suspects. It set up a ruling by District Court Judge Richard Leon, a former counsel to Republicans in Congress appointed to the bench by Bush, that there was no credible evidence to keep Boumediene detained.

After what Boumediene described as a 7½ year nightmare, he is now a free man. Boumediene: “I don’t think. I’m sure” about torture. [continued…]

America’s political paralysis over torture

If, like me, you’ve been following America’s torture policies not just for the last few years, but for decades, you can’t help but experience that eerie feeling of déjà vu these days. With the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from Washington and the arrival of Barack Obama, it may just be back to the future when it comes to torture policy, a turn away from a dark, do-it-yourself ethos and a return to the outsourcing of torture that went on, with the support of both Democrats and Republicans, in the Cold War years.

Like Chile after the regime of General Augusto Pinochet or the Philippines after the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Washington after Bush is now trapped in the painful politics of impunity. Unlike anything our allies have experienced, however, for Washington, and so for the rest of us, this may prove a political crisis without end or exit.

Despite dozens of official inquiries in the five years since the Abu Ghraib photos first exposed our abuse of Iraqi detainees, the torture scandal continues to spread like a virus, infecting all who touch it, including now Obama himself. By embracing a specific methodology of torture, covertly developed by the CIA over decades using countless millions of taxpayer dollars and graphically revealed in those Iraqi prison photos, we have condemned ourselves to retreat from whatever promises might be made to end this sort of abuse and are instead already returning to a bipartisan consensus that made torture America’s secret weapon throughout the Cold War. [continued…]

TV debates electrify Iranian presidential campaign

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now traded bare-knuckled verbal blows with both of his reformist challengers in American-style live televised debates that have electrified the atmosphere before Thursday’s watershed elections.

On Saturday night he and Mehdi Karrubi, a septuagenarian former speaker of parliament, accused each other of corruption, scorned each other’s foreign policy and clashed over Iran’s troubled economy. Each swatted aside his opponent’s allegations as self-serving attempts to win votes.

Mr Ahmadinejad, 52, was left reeling against the ropes by an early body-blow from the white-bearded reformist, who is the only cleric among the four presidential contenders. Mr Karrubi mocked the president for claiming that a halo-like, celestial green light had descended on him when he addressed the UN General Assembly four years ago. World leaders were supposedly so transfixed by Mr Ahmadinejad that they sat unblinking – literally – for nearly 30 minutes as he spoke. The president’s opponents have long used the tale to portray him as a hallucinating zealot who appears to believe he is on a divine mission. [continued…]

In Iran, harsh talk as election nears

The leading candidates are accusing each other of corruption, bribery and torture. The wife of the strongest challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to sue him for defaming her. And every night, parts of the capital become a screaming, honking bacchanal, with thousands of young men dancing and brawling in the streets until dawn.

The presidential campaign, now in its final week, has reached a level of passion and acrimony almost unheard-of in Iran.

In part, that appears to be because of a surge of energy in the campaign of Mir Hussein Moussavi, a reformist who is the leading contender to defeat Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election, set for Friday. Rallies for Mr. Moussavi have drawn tens of thousands of people in recent days, and a new unofficial poll suggests his support has markedly increased, with 54 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him compared with 39 percent for Mr. Ahmadinejad. [continued…]

A relative unknown leads challenge in Iran

The main challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday’s presidential election is a relatively unknown candidate who says he joined the race to save Iran from his opponent’s “destructive” policies.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, who served as prime minister in the early years of the Islamic revolution, had stayed away from politics for the past 20 years. But he entered the race on a main promise to stand up to Ahmadinejad, which has earned him the support of influential clerics, politicians and young people alike.

Each night, tens of thousands of youths gather in Tehran’s main squares to cheer their support for a man who just a month ago they barely knew by name. Mousavi has emerged as the only serious alternative for those who oppose the policies of Ahmadinejad, who has the support a small group of hard-line clerics and some influential members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. [continued…]

Why the Taliban won’t take over Pakistan

It has become the statistic heard round the world. The Taliban are within 60 miles of Islamabad. Just 60 miles. Every dispatch about the insurgents’ recent advance into the Pakistani district of Buner carried the ominous number.

Washington quivered, too. A top counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, reiterated that Pakistan could collapse within six months. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said flatly if the country were to fall, the Taliban would have the “keys to the nuclear arsenal.” On a visit to Islamabad, Sen. John Kerry – the proctor of $7.5 billion in Pakistani aid as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – warned bluntly: “The government has to ratchet up the urgency.”

The Pakistani military did launch a major counteroffensive that has sent 2 million people fleeing their homes. For now, both the US and many Pakistanis appear to be relieved that the military has drawn a line at least somewhere, in this case in the fruit orchards of the Swat Valley and the city of Mingora, north of Islamabad.

Yet Pakistani analysts and officials here caution that the casus belli of all the commotion – the infamous 60 miles and the threat of an imminent Taliban takeover – is overblown. The Visigoths are not about to overrun the gates of Rome. Bearded guys with fistfuls of AK-47s are not poised to breeze into Islamabad on the back of white Toyota pickups. [continued…]

Pakistan military campaign has broad support, but for how long?

Cradled in his father’s arms, 8-month-old Maaz Ayaz appeared listless and underweight.

A smudge of dirt marked the boy’s face. His father, Mohammed Ayaz, anxiously talked of how he and his wife could feed Maaz only tea and biscuits — the only food they could get their hands on at the refugee camp.

“We’ve asked for milk, but there’s none available,” Ayaz said. “We’re worried about our boy.”

Such moments of anguish abound at the Sheikh Yaseen camp in this chaotic, sun-baked city that has become the hub for Pakistanis fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley, about 30 miles to the north.

Support for the military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest has been widespread, cutting across economic and ethnic lines. But that support hinges precariously on how Pakistan manages the massive humanitarian crisis created by the war’s displacement of an estimated 3 million Pakistanis. [continued…]



Livni: Netanyahu endangering U.S. support for Israel

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni warned Sunday that Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to declare support for a two-state solution may cause the United States to withdraw its support for Israel.

“In the past it was clear that Israel wanted to accept the peace process,” Livni told Army Radio. “The government today is not prepared to advance the process and set future borders, and the feeling in the world is that all Israel is trying to do is gain time.” [continued…]

Key U.S. Jews wary of Netanyahu’s unbending policy on settlements

For the first time in America’s decades of jousting with Israel over West Bank settlements, an American president seems to have succeeded in isolating the settlements issue and disconnecting it from other elements of support for Israel.

It is a disentanglement now seen most clearly in Congress, which in the past served as Israel’s stronghold against administration pressure on the issue. But when Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu came to Capitol Hill for a May 18 meeting after being pressed by President Obama to freeze the expansion of West Bank settlements, he was “stunned,” Netanyahu aides said, to hear what seemed like a well-coordinated attack against his stand on settlements. The criticism came from congressional leaders, key lawmakers dealing with foreign relations and even from a group of Jewish members.

They included Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee; California Democrat Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and California Rep. Henry Waxman, a senior Democrat.

The Jewish lawmakers among them believed “it was their responsibility to make him [Netanyahu] very, very aware of the concerns of the administration and Congress,” said a congressional aide briefed on the meeting. The aide, who declined to be identified, stressed that despite the argument on settlement issues, members of Congress remained fully supportive of Israel on all other issues, including the need to deal with Iran and the concern over Hamas and Hezbollah’s activity. [continued…]

Censored by the Huffington Post and imprisoned by the past: why I made ‘Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem’

On Wednesday, I walked around central Jerusalem with my friend, Joseph Dana, an Israel peace activist who has lived in the country for three years. We interviewed young people on camera about the speech President Barack Obama planned to deliver to the Muslim world the following day in Cairo. Though our questions were not provocative at all – we simply asked, “What do you think of Obama’s speech” – the responses our interview subjects offered comprised some of the most shocking comments I have ever recorded on camera. They were racist, hateful, and incredibly ignorant, and were mostly couched within a Zionist context – “this is our land, Obama!” The following day, we edited an hour of interviews into a 3:30 minute video package and released it on Mondoweiss and on the Huffington Post.

Within a few hours, I received an email from a Huffington Post administrator informing me he had scrubbed my video from the site. “I don’t see that it has any real news value,” the administrator told me. “For me it only proves that one can find drunk people willing to say just about anything. Especially drunk, moronic people.” For the first time, the premier clearinghouse for online news and opinions had suppressed one of my posts. [continued…]

U.S. lawyers agreed on the legality of brutal tactic

When Justice Department lawyers engaged in a sharp internal debate in 2005 over brutal interrogation techniques, even some who believed that using tough tactics was a serious mistake agreed on a basic point: the methods themselves were legal.

Previously undisclosed Justice Department e-mail messages, interviews and newly declassified documents show that some of the lawyers, including James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general who argued repeatedly that the United States would regret using harsh methods, went along with a 2005 legal opinion asserting that the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency were lawful.

That opinion, giving the green light for the C.I.A. to use all 13 methods in interrogating terrorism suspects, including waterboarding and up to 180 hours of sleep deprivation, “was ready to go out and I concurred,” Mr. Comey wrote to a colleague in an April 27, 2005, e-mail message obtained by The New York Times. [continued…]

Iran has centrifuge capacity for nuclear arms, report says

A week before Iran’s presidential election, atomic inspectors reported Friday that the country has sped up its production of nuclear fuel and increased its number of installed centrifuges to 7,200 — more than enough, weapon experts said, to make fuel for up to two nuclear weapons a year, if the country decided to use its facilities for that purpose.

In its report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that it had found no evidence that any of the fuel in Iran’s possession had been enriched to the purity needed to make a bomb, a step that would take months.

But it said that the country had blocked its inspectors for more than a year now from visiting a heavy-water reactor capable of being modified to produce plutonium that could be used in weapons. It also said that Tehran had continued to refuse to answer the agency’s questions about reports of Iranian studies obtained by Western intelligence agencies that suggest that its scientists had performed research on the design of a nuclear warhead. [continued…]

Uranium found at second Syria site – IAEA

The UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, says traces of undeclared man-made uranium have been found at a second site in Syria, at a reactor in Damascus.

The IAEA is investigating US claims that a Syrian site destroyed in a 2007 Israeli raid was a nuclear reactor that was not yet operational.

Separately, the agency says Iran is continuing to enrich uranium in defiance of the UN Security Council.

Both Iran and Syria deny allegations of illicit nuclear activities. [continued…]



Obama to tell Israel: Form new peace policy by July

United States President Barack Obama intends to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu four to six weeks to provide an “updated position” regarding construction in West Bank settlements and the two-state principle.

Obama made a surprise appearance on Tuesday at a meeting Defense Minister Ehud Barak was holding in Washington, shortly before the U.S. leader was set to leave on a five-day trip to the Middle East.

Obama spoke for about 15 minutes with Barak, who was meeting with National Security Adviser General Jim Jones at the time. While Obama’s official schedule did not include a meeting with Barak, he has in the past dropped into other officials’ meetings with international figures.

According to an official Israeli source, Obama wants to complete the formulation of a preliminary six-month plan for progress toward a Middle East peace agreement and to present it in July. [continued…]

U.S. demands Israel halt construction in East Jerusalem market

Washington is furious over the Interior Ministry’s anticipated approval of a plan to build a new hotel in East Jerusalem, just 100 meters from the Old City’s walls. The plan, which would see the demolition of a wholesale market and kindergarten, is slated to be approved today.

In conversations with Israeli officials, senior American officials have made it clear that they want Israel to freeze all plans for expanding the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, and especially in the Holy Basin – the area adjacent to the Old City.

The regional planning and building committee for Jerusalem will discuss the plan Tuesday. It was submitted by the Jerusalem municipality, which owns the land on which the hotel is slated to be built, and the state-owned Jerusalem Development Authority, which will actually construct it. The site in question is in the wholesale market, just east of the Rockefeller Museum. [continued…]

Likud: Obama has crossed the line

US President Barack Obama’s administration’s criticism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policies has crossed the line into interfering in Israeli politics, top Likud ministers and MKs said Tuesday.

Kadima officials responded to the allegations by disagreeing that the US was meddling but expressing concern that such a perception by the Israeli public would harm their party and end up strengthening the prime minister. They accused Netanyahu’s associates of portraying Obama as an enemy of Israel in order to unite the public behind him.

The charges of American interference began April 16 when Yediot Aharonot quoted Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel telling an unnamed Jewish leader: “In the next four years there is going to be a permanent-status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn’t matter to us at all who is prime minister [of Israel].”

Likud Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled said Tuesday that the statement was inappropriate and was just one of many examples of American interference in Israeli politics since Netanyahu’s election in February. [continued…]

Can Obama offer change the Muslim world can believe in?

Obama’s openness to engagement and his legacy of opposition to the Iraq war has gone down well in the Middle East, with opinion polls showing the President having a remarkably high approval rating for a U.S. leader. But it’s hardly majority support, and even those who approve of Obama seem to retain a negative view of the United States. Here lies the rub: Obama has actually raised expectations that he will substantially change the policies that have antagonized much of the Middle East and beyond — expectations that, on current indications, he is unlikely to even come close to satisfying.

And that considerably raises the political peril of his planned speech to “the Muslim world” — I use quote marks in deference to the fact that the singularity of that noun may be more a figment of the jihadist imagination than a reality, but I’ll leave that conversation to others. The greater danger lies in the fact that Obama has no new policies to offer in Cairo. As his Deputy National Security Adviser Dennis McDonough told the Wall Street Journal, the Cairo speech will, instead, attempt to “change the conversation”. Said McDonough, “We want to get back on a shared partnership, back in a conversation that focuses on the shared values.”

The problem, of course, is that the breakdown between the U.S. and “the Muslim world” is not a misunderstanding of values, or a communication failure; it’s entirely about U.S. actions and policies, rather than the rhetoric in which they’re wrapped. People in Muslim countries understand American values, or the values America professes to uphold, and many are passionately attached to some of those same values. What they expect of America is that it apply its own values when dealing with the Middle East. They would like very much, for example, the U.S. to act on that basis of Lincoln’s “self evident truth” that Palestinian men and women were created equal to Israeli men and women — an approach Obama’s own Administration has yet to demonstrate, as my friend Rami Khouri notes. [continued…]

Can admitting a wrong make it right?

… there is a body of evidence to suggest that the most vital element in Middle East peacemaking may lie in questions of language and symbols–what social anthropologist Scott Atran calls a “moral logic” based on “sacred values.” And sometimes what that boils down to, essentially, is saying you’re sorry. As Atran sees it, this is not really a theological question. It’s more fundamental than fundamentalism. The need for dignity and respect—a craving for recognition and vindication—is at the heart of the region’s most intractable conflicts.

Such issues defy conventional notions of cost and benefit, says Atran, who holds distinguished posts at the University of Michigan, John Jay College in New York and the National Center for Scientific Research in France. Working with fellow scholar Jeremy Ginges, Atran has interviewed Israelis and Arabs, leaders and followers, throughout the region. And he has found that among the hardliners who now tend to dominate the debate and dictate stalemate on all sides, the offer of money or other material benefits not only is rejected, it increases their anger and their recalcitrance. “Billions of dollars have been sacrificed to demonstrate the advantages of peace and coexistence,” Atran and Ginges wrote earlier this year at the height of fighting in Gaza. “Yet still both sides opt for war.”

Even when ballots replace bullets, these factors that Atran calls “intangible” remain important. An obvious reason that extremists have done so well in the region’s elections in recent years, whether among the Arabs, Iranians or Israelis, is that they have addressed emotional and moral questions head on. Hamas’s essential message when it won the Palestinian elections in 2006 was one of resistance and dignity in the face of occupation and corruption. If a Hizbullah-led coalition wins at the polls in Lebanon this weekend, as many predict, its Kalashnikov-emblazoned banner of pride and defiance will have been key. And if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets a second term out of voters later this month, his refusal to bow to international demands that Iran give up nuclear enrichment, along with his own demands that the United States apologize for its past actions toward Iran, will have helped to put him over the top. [continued…]

Obama says U.S. could be seen as a Muslim country, too

As President Obama prepared to leave Washington to fly to the Middle East, he conducted several television and radio interviews at the White House to frame the goals for a five-day trip, including the highly-anticipated speech Thursday at Cairo University in Egypt.

In an interview with Laura Haim on Canal Plus, a French television station, Mr. Obama noted that the United States also could be considered as “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He sought to downplay the expectations of the speech, but he said he hoped the address would raise awareness about Muslims. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Not surprisingly, the rightwing blogosphere is all over this. Did Obama mean to say “America is one of the largest countries with a Muslim population”? Maybe that’s how Robert Gibbs will be trying to spin this. But here’s the quote in context:

    …I think that the United States and the West generally, we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam. And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there’s got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples.

Over to you Mr Gibbs: “Well, I think you should take note that the president did say ‘we have to educate ourselves’ and this is for him, as for everyone else, an ongoing process. There are more Muslims in America than Kuwait, but yes indeed, we do know that Kuwait is not a large Muslim country and neither is the US.

Obama faces a chasm in Mideast

The dirt overturned to bury some of the 24 people killed by U.S. Marines here in 2005 has turned to dust. The graves where women were interred with their children along the Euphrates River are bereft of tombstones. Weeds mark the passage of time, though not the pain of memories.

“No one cares whether an Iraqi dies,” said Yassin Salem, whose brother and uncle were killed here in their homes on a single day that year, Nov. 19. He looked down with bitterness at the plastic bottles and newspaper that now litter the cemetery. “What does it matter?”

When President Obama delivers his address to the Middle East on Thursday from Cairo, he will face the legacy of names like Haditha, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, places that have become more symbol than geography over nearly a decade of perhaps the most traumatic chapter in America’s relationship with the Muslim world.

More than any other president in a generation, Obama enjoys a reservoir of goodwill in the region. His father was Muslim. His outreach in an interview with an Arabic satellite channel, a speech to Turkey’s parliament and an address to Iranians on the Persian New Year have inclined many to listen. Just as important, he is not George W. Bush.

But Obama will still encounter a landscape in which two realities often seem to be at work, shaped by those symbols. There is America’s version of its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, defined in recent years by the legacy of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. There is another reality, from hardscrabble quarters of Beirut and Cairo to war-wrecked neighborhoods of Baghdad, where distrust of the United States runs so deep that almost anything it pronounces, however eloquent, lacks credibility, imposing a burden on Obama to deliver something far more than the unfulfilled pledges of Bush’s speeches. [continued…]

U.S. releases secret list of nuclear sites accidentally

The federal government mistakenly made public a 266-page report, its pages marked “highly confidential,” that gives detailed information about hundreds of the nation’s civilian nuclear sites and programs, including maps showing the precise locations of stockpiles of fuel for nuclear weapons.

The publication of the document was revealed Monday in an online newsletter devoted to issues of federal secrecy. That set off a debate among nuclear experts about what dangers, if any, the disclosures posed. It also prompted a flurry of investigations in Washington into why the document had been made public.

On Tuesday evening, after inquiries from The New York Times, the document was withdrawn from a Government Printing Office Web site. [continued…]

Another Club Gitmo guest kills himself

Some of the most cartoonish pseudo-tough-guy, play-acting-warrior-low-lifes of the Right — Rush Limbaugh, The Weekly Standard, National Review’s Andy McCarthy — have long referred to Guantanamo as “Club Gitmo.” Many leading national Republican politicians have (as usual) followed suit. Recently, some key Democrats have begun actively impeding plans to close it.

Today, Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih — a 31-year old Yemeni who has been in a Gitmo cage since February, 2002 (more than seven years) without charges — became the latest Club Gitmo guest to successfully kill himself: [continued…]

Cheney edges away from claim that CIA docs will prove torture worked

There’s a very revealing moment buried in an interview that Dick Cheney gave to Fox News last night that really gives away his game plan on torture.

Specifically: Cheney seemed to edge away from the claim that the documents he’s asking the CIA to declassify will prove unequivocally that torture worked.

The key moment came when his interviewer said: “You want some documents declassified having to do with waterboarding.” Cheney replied:

    “Yes, but the way I would describe them is they have to do with the detainee program, the interrogation program. It’s not just waterboarding. It’s the interrogation program that we used for high-value detainees. There were two reports done that summarize what we learned from that program, and I think they provide a balanced view.”




Gambling with conflict: How a neocon casino king from California funds the Israeli settler movement

The Israeli government has repeatedly announced plans to forge ahead with plans to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank in direct opposition to President Barack Obama’s demand for an absolute settlement freeze. On May 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leveled strong criticism at Israeli policy, telling reporters that President Barack Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev responded by declaring that “normal life” in the settlements would continue, using a phrase that is code for continued construction. [continued…]

Obama talks of being ‘honest’ with Israel

President Obama indicated on Monday that he would be more willing to criticize Israel than previous administrations have been, and he reiterated his call for a freeze of Israeli settlements.

“Part of being a good friend is being honest,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with NPR News. “And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests.

“We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace,” he added. “I’ve said that a freeze on settlements is part of that.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Honesty is good but it’s not enough. Obama and Netanyahu are now in a power struggle. If the US does not back up its position on settlements in some kind of punitive way, then in the eyes of the world in spite of all the fine talk and refreshing honesty, nothing will actually have changed in the US-Israeli dynamic — the Israelis will have demonstrated yet again that their ability to be unyielding and the fact that they suffer no consequences for their obstinacy, continues to be an effective political tactic.

UN: Israeli buffer zone eats up 30 percent of Gaza’s arable land

Israel’s warning came from the sky, as it often does in the Gaza Strip. But this time warplanes dropped neither bombs nor missiles on the impoverished Palestinian territory, but thousands of tiny leaflets warning Gaza’s residents to keep away from the 30-mile-long border they share with Israel.

Stay at least 300 meters (1,000 feet) from the border, the May 25 pamphlets advised Palestinians, or risk being shot by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Once a plush scene of rolling olive, citrus, and pomegranate groves, much of the border region is now just a barren landscape, marked only by the presence of IDF tanks, military watchtowers, and the occasional pop of gunfire. [continued…]

Hezbollah spices up Israel-Iran mix

Where Iran has Hezbollah, Israel has Jundallah, given Israel’s apparent efforts to destabilize Iran by playing an “ethnic card” against it. This, by some reports, it is doing by nurturing the Sunni Islamist group Jundallah to parallel Tehran’s support for Lebanon’s formidable Shi’ite group, Hezbollah, that is favored to win parliamentary elections on June 7.

Should the Hezbollah-led coalition win as anticipated, the result will be even closer military-to-military relations between Iran and Lebanon, reflected in Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrollah’s recent statement that he would look to Tehran to modernize Lebanon’s army.

Rattled by the prospect of an even-stronger Iranian influence in Lebanon in the near future, the Israeli government, which is on the defensive internationally over its stance on the Palestinian issue, has gone on the offensive. It is upping the ante against Iran by focusing on covert activities inside Iran, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, to “disrupt Iran’s nuclear program” – so far without much success. [continued…]

Inside Lebanese Hezbollah militia

Ahead of key elections in Lebanon, BBC News has gained rare access to a fighter of the powerful military wing of Hezbollah, which stands a strong chance of making political gains via the ballot box.

As President Barack Obama prepares to address the Arab world in Cairo this week, one dilemma that his administration will face is the growing political clout of Hezbollah.

In the US and Britain, the group is proscribed, but in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies stand a strong chance of winning the upcoming parliamentary election. [continued…]

Pakistan releases ‘top militant’

Pakistani court has ordered the release of the leader of an Islamic charity suspected of being a front for a group accused of the Mumbai attacks.

The court ruled the continued house arrest of Jamaat-ud-Dawa founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed was unconstitutional.

The charity is accused of being a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group India says was behind the attacks. Jamaat-ud-Dawa denies any links with militants. [continued…]

No winner seen in Somalia’s battle with chaos

Somalia is once again a raging battle zone, with jihadists pouring in from overseas, preparing for a final push to topple the transitional government.

The government is begging for help, saying that more peacekeepers, more money and more guns could turn the tide against the Islamist radicals.

But the reality may be uglier than either side is willing to admit: Somalia has become the war that nobody can win, at least not right now.

None of the factions — the moderate Islamist government, the radical Shabab militants, the Sufi clerics who control some parts of central Somalia, the clan militias who control others, the autonomous government of Somaliland in the northwest and the semiautonomous government of Puntland in the northeast — seem powerful enough, organized enough or popular enough to overpower the other contenders and end the violence that has killed thousands over the past two years. [continued…]



U.S. weighs tactics on Israeli settlements

As President Obama prepares to head to the Middle East this week, administration officials are debating how to toughen their stance against any expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The measures under discussion — all largely symbolic — include stepping back from America’s near-uniform support for Israel in the United Nations if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel does not agree to a settlement freeze, administration officials said.

Other measures include refraining from the instant Security Council veto of United Nations resolutions that Israel opposes and making use of Mr. Obama’s bully pulpit to criticize the settlements, officials said. Placing conditions on loan guarantees to Israel, as the first President Bush did nearly 20 years ago, is not under discussion, officials said.

Still, talk of even symbolic actions that would publicly show the United States’ ire with Israel, its longtime ally, would be a sharp departure from the previous administration, which limited its distaste with Israel’s settlement expansions to carefully worded diplomatic statements that called them “unhelpful.” [continued…]

Death and devastation in Gaza neatly filed and documented

We have a way of codifying the consequences of conflict. We collect the dead into lists and tidy ruins into databases. We map gravesites and calculate the cost. It is a process that produces sums and totals, graphs and tables, which in the end are far less meaningful than the reality of what occurred. It numbs and dehumanises even as the gathering is done.

In Gaza the shells of buildings have been labelled and collated, exhibits from a violent event already passing into history after only half a year. G1086-01 designates the parliament building, a collapsed grey ribcage of concrete. The site of the ruined ministries in the Tal al-Hawa district of Gaza City is recorded as G10177-01, green and grey towers gutted by the bombs dropped from Israeli F-16s.

The numbers are entered in the book of Gaza’s destruction. There are houses – more than 1,300 of them – and police stations, apartment blocks and offices, schools and hospitals, each labelled with neat spray-painted letters. Tagged fetishistically in blue and green.

In a Hamas-run ministry Dr Ibrahim Radwan attempts to log on to the recently completed database of damage. “Problems, problems,” he mutters at his screen. This being Gaza, he explains, the network will not work, and so his colleague, Mohammed al-Ostaz, the director of urban planning, comes bearing armfuls of questionnaires that correspond to each number. [continued…]

Israel begins its biggest civil defense drill

Irael is holding the biggest civil-defense drill in its history.

Amid growing tensions with Iran, Israel is training soldiers, emergency crews, and civilians for the possibility of all-out war. Major Chezi Deutch is an officer in Israel’s Home Front Command.

“It is part of the overall plan to increase preparedness and readiness in the country, dealing with civil defense and with emergencies in the civilian population,” Deutch said. [continued…]

In Pakistan, an exodus that is beyond biblical

The language was already biblical; now the scale of what is happening matches it. The exodus of people forced from their homes in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and elsewhere in the country’s north-west may be as high as 2.4 million, aid officials say. Around the world, only a handful of war-spoiled countries – Sudan, Iraq, Colombia – have larger numbers of internal refugees. The speed of the displacement at its height – up to 85,000 people a day – was matched only during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This is now one of the biggest sudden refugee crises the world has ever seen.

Until now, the worst of the problem has been kept largely out of sight. Of the total displaced by the military’s operations against the Taliban – the army yesterday claimed a crucial breakthrough, taking control of the Swat Valley’s main town, Mingora – just 200,000 people have been forced to live in the makeshift tent camps dotted around the southern fringe of the conflict zone. The vast majority were taken in by relatives, extended family members and local people wanting to help.

But this grassroots sense of charity is slowly starting to show real strain. In a week when the relentless danger of the militants was underlined by a massive car bomb in the city of Lahore that killed at least 30 people and injured hundreds more, aid groups have warned that the communities taking people in – already some of the planet’s poorest people – could themselves be displaced as they desperately sell their few assets to help the homeless. [continued…]

Mysterious ‘chip’ is CIA’s latest weapon against al-Qaida targets hiding in Pakistan’s tribal belt

The CIA is equipping Pakistani tribesmen with secret electronic transmitters to help target and kill al-Qaida leaders in the north-western tribal belt, in a tactic that could aid Pakistan’s army as it takes the battle against extremism to the Taliban heartland.

As the army mops up Taliban resistance in the Swat valley, where a defence official predicted fighting would be over within days, the focus is shifting to Waziristan and the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud.

But a deadly war of wits is already under way in the region, where tribesmen say the US is using advanced technology and old-fashioned cash to target the enemy. [continued…]

Al-Qaeda seen as shaken in Pakistan

Drone-launched U.S. missile attacks and Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive in and around the Swat Valley have unsettled al-Qaeda and undermined its relative invulnerability in Pakistani mountain sanctuaries, U.S. military and intelligence officials say.

The dual disruption offers potential new opportunities to ferret out and target the extremists, and it has sparked a new sense of possibility amid a generally pessimistic outlook for the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although al-Qaeda remains “a serious, potent threat,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said, “they’ve suffered some serious losses and seem to be feeling a heightened sense of anxiety — and that’s not a bad thing at all.”

The offensive in Swat against its Taliban allies also poses a dilemma for al-Qaeda, a senior military official said. “They’re asking themselves, ‘Are we going to contest’ ” Taliban losses, he said, predicting that al-Qaeda will “have to make a move” and undertake more open communication on cellphones and computers, even if only to gather information on the situation in the region. “Then they become more visible,” he said. [continued…]

General Rick Sanchez calls for War Crimes Truth Commission

In front of a packed audience tonight at the Times Center in New York City, General Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of all coalition forces in Iraq, called for a truth commission to investigate the abuses and torture which occurred there.

The General described the failures at all levels of civilian and military command that led to the abuses in Iraq, “and that is why I support the formation of a truth commission.” [continued…]

Is Halliburton forgiven and forgotten?

The Houstonian Hotel is an elegant, secluded resort set on an 18-acre wooded oasis in the heart of downtown Houston. Two weeks ago, David Lesar, CEO of the once notorious energy services corporation Halliburton, spoke to some 100 shareholders and members of senior management gathered there at the company’s annual meeting. All was remarkably staid as they celebrated Halliburton’s $4 billion in operating profits in 2008, a striking 22% return at a time when many companies are announcing record losses. Analysts remain bullish on Halliburton’s stock, reflecting a more general view that any company in the oil business is likely to have a profitable future in store.

There were no protestors outside the meeting this year, nor the kind of national media stakeouts commonplace when Lesar addressed the same crew at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston in May 2004. Then, dozens of mounted police faced off against 300 protestors in the streets outside, while a San Francisco group that dubbed itself the Ronald Reagan Home for the Criminally Insane fielded activists in Bush and Cheney masks, offering fake $100 bills to passers-by in a mock protest against war profiteering. And don’t forget the 25-foot inflatable pig there to mock shareholders. Local TV crews swarmed, a national crew from NBC flew in from New York, and reporters from the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal eagerly scribbled notes. [continued…]



Lebanon’s intelligence war with Israel

Israel’s ability to wage another war against the militant Shia movement Hezbollah may have been compromised by an unprecedented wave of arrests of people in Lebanon alleged to have been spying for the Israelis.

Experts say the arrests appear to add up to a major strategic blow to Israel.

Mobile phone footage circulating in Beirut shows one of the suspected agents being slapped and insulted as he was manhandled out of his house and into the boot of a car.

Lebanese newspapers have reported that more than 40 members of more than a dozen spy networks have been detained so far in a campaign that has gathered pace over the past six weeks, and shows no sign of stopping. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In the next couple of weeks, the Obama administration is likely to face the same Middle East challenge that proved too great for the Bush administration: demonstrating that its support for democracy is more than an empty slogan. At issue is whether Washington can respect the choice of Lebanese voters if Hezbollah ends up leading a coalition government. And, if Iranian voters favor reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi over the Israelis favorite nemesis, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, can the administration respond appropriately and thus defuse Netanyahu’s ticking time bomb?

In this context, the fact that Israel has suffered a strategic setback in what might have been its chosen combat ground through which it could incite a pretext for a direct attack on Iran, is highly significant.

Israel is rapidly running out of excuses for avoiding dealing with the core political issue that will determine the Jewish state’s viability: whether it can accept a just resolution to the 60-year old Arab-Israeli conflict.

Obama’s bold settlements unsettledness

Freezing settlements is seen in Washington as critical to kick-starting an Arab-Israeli negotiating process; but any negotiations that hope to succeed will have to tackle the much more difficult issue of the status and rights of the Palestinian refugees. The danger is that so much political muscle and negotiating time will be expended on achieving a settlement freeze that prospects for getting the concessions needed on the refugees issue will lessen significantly.

Israel’s strategy is to make it seem that its concessions on settlements are so huge that the Palestinians have to make counter-concessions on the refugee issue. The trade-off Israel seeks is to drop its right to expand settlements in return for the Palestinians dropping their demand to offer the refugees a full range of options in a permanent peace accord, including the right of return for some refugees to their original homes and lands in Israel today. This is a dangerous approach because it equates Israeli settlements – an illegal, criminal act that is widely condemned by the entire world – with the legitimate rights of the refugees, which are widely recognized in law and many United Nations resolutions. [continued…]

Israel to U.S.: ‘Stop favoring Palestinians’

Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem are growing after the U.S. administration’s demand that Israel completely freeze construction in all West Bank settlements. Israeli political officials expressed disappointment after Tuesday’s round of meetings in London with George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Middle East.

“We’re disappointed,” said one senior official. “All of the understandings reached during the [George W.] Bush administration are worth nothing.” Another official said the U.S. administration is refusing every Israeli attempt to reach new agreements on settlement construction. “The United States is taking a line of granting concessions to the Palestinians that is not fair toward Israel,” he said. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The US-Israeli tussle over freezing settlements makes for good political theater. Obama gets to look tough. The Israelis can wallow in the histrionics of making yet another heart-wrenching “major concession” and yet in this display that the press is so enthusiastically lapping up, little if anything is being noted about the fact that freezing settlements is not in fact a major concession.

It’s not a minor concession. It’s not even the most miserly of concessions. If it happens it will be nothing more nor less than a demonstration that Israel has a good faith intention to facilitate rather than obstruct the creation of a Palestinian state. In other words, right now it is a test to see whether after all these years Israel can finally demonstrate that its word is not worthless. If it passes the test, it’s allies can let out a small sigh of relief but it would be no occasion for the kind of congratulations that might mark a major step towards peace.

Obama offers olive branch of ‘respect’ to Middle East

President Barack Obama will offer his personal commitment to “change the conversation” with the Muslim world in a long-awaited speech in Cairo this week.

White House advisers vowed that Obama would “take on the tough issues”, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and offer to bridge differences with Muslims based on “mutual interests and mutual respect” – the same words used in his address to the Turkish parliament last month.

Administration officials say privately that Obama has given himself two years for a diplomatic breakthough on a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite the opposition of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to America’s minimum demand for a freeze on all settlement building in disputed territory. [continued…]

Netanyahu: “What the hell do they want from me?”

Last night, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists that the Obama administration “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a confidant. Referring to Clinton’s call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, “What the hell do they want from me?” according to his associate, who added, “I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [U.S.] congressional delegations this week.”

In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama’s call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.

“This is a sea change for Netanyahu,” a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. The official said that the basis of the Obama White House’s resolve is the conviction that it is in the United States’ as well as Israel’s interest to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We have significant, existential threats that Israel faces from Iran and that the U.S. faces from this region. It is in our mutual interest to end this conflict, and to begin to build new regional alliances.” [continued…]

Threat of the ‘thought police’ alarms Israel’s Arab minority

Israeli Arab leaders have called an emergency meeting today to discuss their growing alarm over a series of “racist and fascist” bills being promoted by right-wing members of the country’s parliament. One of the bills has already brought fierce accusations from two prominent Jewish Knesset members that its backers are trying to create a “thought police” and “punish people for talking”.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee – the main umbrella body of Arab political and civic leaders in Israel – cited special concern over another bill which would outlaw the commemoration of the Nakba or catastrophe on Israel’s Independence Day. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 is celebrated annually as the foundation of the state, Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and in refugee camps abroad mark the expulsion and flight of some 700,000 Arabs during the war of that year.

But the Committee is also protesting at another bill, which was given its first reading in the Knesset this week, that would make it a crime to negate Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish and democratic state”. [continued…]

Change in the air in Iran

… the fact that Mousavi is mounting a strong challenge illustrates the political ferment in Iran. Westerners often imagine that country as an Islamic boot camp with everyone marching in lock step, but there’s a surprisingly open debate in the Iranian media. Mousavi’s supporters have loudly criticized Ahmadinejad for Iran’s rising unemployment and inflation and for its growing international isolation.

Mousavi argued in a speech a week ago in Isfahan that Ahmadinejad’s fulminations are “disgracing” Iran. “The president . . . jeopardized the stature of the Iranian nation with thoughtless policies,” Mousavi said, referring to his rival’s anti-Israel diatribe at the United Nations conference on racism in Geneva in April. All Iranians share in the country’s prestige, he explained, and Ahmadinejad’s administration “undermines that prestige,” according to Xinhua.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters seem to be getting nervous. They burned Mousavi election banners at a rally in Isfahan on Wednesday and used tear gas to break up a Mousavi rally in the city of Malard two weeks ago, according to Iranian news reports. These are isolated incidents, but they demonstrate Ahmadinejad’s ability to use intimidating tactics as Election Day nears. [continued…]

Iran president’s rivals slam his foreign policy

In a political race most analysts predicted would hinge on domestic bread-and-butter issues, foreign policy has emerged as a major battleground — and a potential Achilles’ heel for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With campaigns for the June 12 presidential election in full swing, none of the three challengers have shied away from publicly criticizing Ahmadinejad on topics long considered off-limits for debate in Iran, such as his stance on the country’s nuclear program and his vitriol for Israel. [continued…]

Iran reformist candidate wants end of US sanctions

The leading reformist challenger to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidential race said Friday his country’s ties with the U.S. could improve if Washington were to halt economic sanctions against Iran.

A suspension of the U.S. sanctions imposed since 1995 would be a “positive sign” and inspire optimism, Mir Hossein Mousavi said at a press conference in Tehran. [continued…]

Pakistan army claims control of main Swat town

Pakistan’s military said Saturday that it had taken full control of Mingora, the most populous city in the Swat Valley, scoring a significant victory against Taliban forces three weeks after the start of an offensive in the area.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, said at a news conference that the army was able to flush out militants, in part with the help of locals who showed soldiers Taliban hiding places in hotels and other buildings. The military estimates it has killed more than 1,000 militants since the campaign began on May 8. [continued…]

Pakistani cities are new battleground for Taliban

Only a week ago, the military said it was expecting a long, hard-fought battle with Pakistani Taliban militants who had fortified themselves in the city’s hotels and buildings. It now appears that, after initially putting up stiff resistance, many militants chose to flee.

“When they realized that they were being encircled and the noose was tightening, they decided not to give a pitched battle,” Abbas said.

But the militants may have decided to fight another way: seeding fear in other parts of the country through well-coordinated bombing attacks. [continued…]

Amateurs use Google Earth to uncover Kim’s sinister secrets

For all the billions of dollars worth of surveillance technology directed at North Korea as it breathes fire this weekend, its closed society is so impervious to spying that diplomats in Asia are forced to admit that they might as well rely on Google Earth.

A set of images – “North Korea Uncovered”, released by Curtis Melvin, a keen American amateur – includes a tantalising view of the site where the North Koreans detonated a nuclear device last week that diplomatic sources say may have been based on a Chinese design.

Melvin’s satellite map of the country, collated from Google Earth, reveals palaces, labour camps, mass graves and the entrance to the subterranean test base in the remote northeast of the country. [continued…]

Who is to blame for the next attack?

After watching the farce surrounding Dick Cheney’s coming-out party this month, you have to wonder: Which will reach Washington first, change or the terrorists? If change doesn’t arrive soon, terrorists may well rush in where the capital’s fools now tread.

The Beltway antics that greeted the great Cheney-Obama torture debate were an unsettling return to the post-9/11 dynamic that landed America in Iraq. Once again Cheney and his cohort were using lies and fear to try to gain political advantage — this time to rewrite history and escape accountability for the failed Bush presidency rather than to drum up a new war. Once again Democrats in Congress were cowed. And once again too much of the so-called liberal news media parroted the right’s scare tactics, putting America’s real security interests at risk by failing to challenge any Washington politician carrying a big stick.

Cheney’s “no middle ground” speech on torture at the American Enterprise Institute arrived with the kind of orchestrated media campaign that he, his boss and Karl Rove patented in the good old days. It was bookended by a pair of Republican attack ads on the Web that crosscut President Obama’s planned closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center with apocalyptic imagery — graphic video of the burning twin towers in one ad, a roar of nuclear holocaust (borrowed from the L.B.J. “daisy” ad of 1964) in the other. [continued…]

The trauma of 9/11 is no excuse

Top officials from the Bush administration have hit upon a revealing new theme as they retrospectively justify their national security policies. Call it the White House 9/11 trauma defense.

“Unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans,” Condoleezza Rice said last month as she admonished a Stanford University student who questioned the Bush-era interrogation program. And in his May 21 speech on national security, Dick Cheney called the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a “defining” experience that “caused everyone to take a serious second look” at the threats to America. Critics of the administration have become more intense as memories of the attacks have faded, he argued. “Part of our responsibility, as we saw it,” Cheney said, “was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America.”

I remember that morning, too. Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, I burst in on Rice (then the president’s national security adviser) and Cheney in the vice president’s office and remember glimpsing horror on his face. Once in the bomb shelter, Cheney assembled his team while the crisis managers on the National Security Council staff coordinated the government response by video conference from the Situation Room. Many of us thought that we might not leave the White House alive. I remember the next day, too, when smoke still rose from the Pentagon as I sat in my office in the White House compound, a gas mask on my desk. The streets of Washington were empty, except for the armored vehicles, and the skies were clear, except for the F-15s on patrol. Every scene from those days is seared into my memory. I understand how it was a defining moment for Cheney, as it was for so many Americans. [continued…]



Obama calls for swift move toward Mideast peace talks

Administration officials have not said whether there is an “or else” attached to their demand for a settlement freeze.

Mr. Obama said Thursday that it was not yet time for that. “In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear of the need to stop settlements, stop the building of outposts,” he said. “I think we don’t have a moment to lose, but I don’t make decisions based on a conversation we just had last week.”

Administration officials are trying to elicit support for Mr. Obama’s stance from pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress, including Senator John Kerry, the Democrat of Massachusetts who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

If they can expand that support to include House members like Gary Ackerman and Nita M. Lowey, both Democrats of New York, then Mr. Netanyahu could find himself on the defensive at home for allowing Israel’s relationship with its most powerful backer, the United States, to sour, foreign policy experts said.

“This approach is predicated on the assumption that an Israeli prime minister needs a tough American president to justify tough decisions to an Israeli public,” said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former United States ambassador to Israel. “People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed.” [continued…]

Mr. Abbas goes to Washington

If the Oval Office guest list is an indicator, President Obama is making good on his commitment to try to revive the long-dead Arab-Israeli peace process. On May 18 President Obama received Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; today he met with Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

As this process gets under way, the United States–Israel’s main arms supplier, financier and international apologist–faces huge hurdles. It is deeply mistrusted by Palestinians and Arabs generally, and the new administration has not done much to rebuild trust. Obama has, like President Bush, expressed support for Palestinian statehood, but he has made no criticisms of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip–which killed more than 1,400 people last winter, mostly civilians–despite evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN investigators of egregious Israeli war crimes. Nor has he pressured Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are refugees, are effectively imprisoned and deprived of basic necessities. [continued…]

Somalia: one week in hell – inside the city the world forgot

Mogadishu’s best barometer of ­violence is the little blackboard on which Dr Taher Mahmoud daily records the number of patients in his hospital. For the last 20 years the tall surgeon with huge hands has been operating on the victims of the city’s civil war.

“It’s good times now,” he told me when we met a few weeks ago. “We are only getting four to six gunshot casualties a day. That’s very good.” He pointed at the blackboard covered with his neat white handwriting: it recorded that 86 patients were undergoing treatment. “During the Ethiopian war [2007-08] we had 300 in this hospital.”

… with the exception of the latest pirate drama, Somalia is the country the world forgot, a state so broken that scenes which would elsewhere dominate international news bulletins are barely noted on the foreign pages of major newspapers. Last year Foreign Policy magazine ranked Somalia as the state most at risk of total collapse, a verdict some might have considered flattering.

Yesterday I spoke to Mahmoud again. The hospital was full and around 40 patients were having to sleep under the trees outside. “We need tents to shelter the patients from rain, and medicine is running very low. If the fighting continues we will be without medicine.” The number on his blackboard was 167. [continued…]

As military advances, Taliban threat rises

Ongoing military operations in Swat Valley are expected to provoke more revenge attacks like the one that killed at least 20 people in Lahore this week, analysts and security experts say, urging the intelligence agencies to step up their monitoring of militant cells.

“I don’t believe the terrorists’ claim that they can mount attacks across Pakistan but they will certainly target the major cities,” said Lt Gen Kamal Matinuddin, a retired army officer and military analyst.

“What is the requirement of the moment is that the intelligence agencies must more effectively penetrate their training facilities – they must know where they are as it is established they are in the madrasas,” he said. [continued…]

Taliban’s foreign support vexes US

U.S.officials recently concluded that the Afghan Taliban may receive as much money from foreign donors as it does from opium sales, potentially hindering the Obama administration’s strategy to rehabilitate Afghanistan by stopping the country’s drug trade.

Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in a recent interview that the Taliban has three main sources of funding: drug revenue; payments from legitimate businesses that are secretly owned by the armed group or that pay it kickbacks; and donations from foreign charitable foundations and individuals.

“You have funds generated locally, funds that come in from the outside, and funds that come from the illegal narcotics business,” he said. “It’s a hotly debated topic as to which is the most significant and it may be that they are all roughly around the same level.” [continued…]



After Iraq, it’s not just North Korea that wants a bomb

The big power denunciation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons test on Monday could not have been more sweeping. Barack Obama called the Hiroshima-scale ­underground explosion a “blatant violation of international law”, and pledged to “stand up” to North ­Korea – as if it were a military giant of the Pacific – while Korea’s former imperial master Japan branded the bomb a “clear crime”, and even its long-suffering ally China declared itself “resolutely opposed” to what had taken place.

The protests were met with ­further North Korean missile tests, as UN ­security council members plotted tighter sanctions and South Korea signed up to a US programme to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang had already said it would regard such a move as an act of war. So yesterday, nearly 60 years after the conflagration that made a charnel house of the Korean peninsula, North Korea said it was no longer bound by the armistice that ended it and warned that any attempt to search or seize its vessels would be met with a “powerful military strike”.

The hope must be that rhetorical inflation on both sides proves to be largely bluster, as in previous confrontations. Even the US doesn’t believe North Korea poses any threat of aggression against the south, home to nearly 30,000 American troops and covered by its nuclear umbrella. But the idea, much canvassed in recent days, that there is something irrational in North Korea’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is clearly absurd. This is, after all, a state that has been targeted for regime change by the US ever since the end of the cold war, included as one of the select group of three in George Bush’s axis of evil in 2002, and whose Clinton administration guarantee of “no hostile intent” was explicitly withdrawn by his successor. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In the original conception of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, non-proliferation and disarmament were clearly recognized as two sides of the same coin, but in subsequent years non-proliferation came to be seen as a realistic goal while disarmament was dismissed as the stuff of dreams.

What turns out to have been a fantasy was that the two goals could be decoupled. This suggests that the self-described realists are having a hard time grasping reality, or, that in some Hobbesian sense they feel comfortable with the idea of a fully nuclearized world.

In such a world, nuclear weapons will inevitably be used.

Is that the dividend of the end of the Cold War? That the supreme expression of state power can be put to use without destroying the world — merely a few hundred thousand people here or there?

The choice ultimately is not between a global system through which nuclear arms can be managed and one in which proliferation runs out of control; it is between one in which nuclear annihilation occasionally takes place and one in which such a risk has been eradicated.

Alone at the table

Kim Jong Il has always been pretty wacky, with his bouffant hair and awkward habit of kidnapping actresses, but at least the diminutive Dear Leader was someone you could talk with now and then. Today, with a stroke-damaged Kim apparently in eclipse and North Korea erupting out of control again, Barack Obama has a serious problem. As much as he might like to, it doesn’t look as if the president has anyone to engage with, even in North Korea’s traditional language of blackmail.

The puzzle in Pyongyang is bad enough for Obama, but it’s just one part of a larger problem now facing Washington.

On a number of perilous fronts—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Mideast—this most diplomatically oriented of American presidents, who came into office four months ago eager for “engagement,” has few responsible or dependable parties with whom he can negotiate. As a result, despite Obama’s best intentions, each of these foreign-policy problems is likely to grow much worse—possibly disastrously worse—before it gets any better. [continued…]

Tests point to spread of weapons trade

Signs of growth in North Korea’s nuclear program and the country’s increasing isolation are renewing fears about Pyongyang’s ability and need to smuggle weapons of mass destruction around the world, said U.S. and United Nations officials.

North Korea’s arms trade has focused on Iran and Syria, countries Washington views as state sponsors of terrorism, as well as Libya. Officials say North Korean arms have also been sold to nations allied with the U.S., such as Egypt and Pakistan, and to the military regime in Myanmar.

The concerns about North Korean weapons proliferation were heightened this week with Pyongyang’s underground test of a nuclear weapon and several short-range missile launches. Sales of short- and medium-range missile systems remain among North Korea’s largest export earners, part of an arms trade that generates $1.5 billion annually for Pyongyang, say North Korea analysts.

With the international community looking to punish the regime for the nuclear test, U.S. and U.N. officials say Pyongyang could try to increase exports of its nuclear and missile technologies as it gradually loses its ability to obtain hard currency from foreign aid and exports to markets such as Japan and South Korea. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — This should amount to stating the utterly obvious (but unfortunately doesn’t): if the chosen method for punishing unacceptable behavior turns out to promote unacceptable behavior, then it’s an ill-conceived form of punishment.

North Korea is attached to its isolation. Engagement isn’t a “reward” (as the neocons would have everyone believe); it should and can be the antidote for the regime’s pathological tendencies.

Leadership mystery amid North Korea’s nuclear work

In dealing with North Korea, American officials are reduced to studying two-month-old photographs of its reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, to calculate how long he is likely to live. The new administration’s North Korea team includes a special emissary who works part time as an academic dean and a State Department official who has yet to be confirmed by Congress.

And as President Obama tries to find a way to punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test and missile launchings, his senior aides acknowledge that every policy option employed by previous presidents over the past dozen years — whether hard or soft, political or economic — has been fruitless in stopping North Korea from building a nuclear weapon.

“As much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,” Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said of Mr. Obama and his advisers. “They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.” [continued…]

Obama in Netanyahu’s web

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, won the first round over President Barack Obama. That’s not good for American interests or for Israel’s long-term security.

All the overblown reciprocal compliments could not hide evident tensions — over Iran and Israel-Palestine and how the two are linked. In the end, Obama blinked.

The president ceded to Israeli pressure for a timetable on any Iran talks, saying a “reassessment” should be possible by year’s end (Israel had pressed for an October deadline). Obama talked of the possibility of “much stronger international sanctions” against Iran, undermining his groundbreaking earlier overture that included a core truth: “This process will not be advanced by threats.”

Obama also allowed Netanyahu to compliment him for “leaving all options on the table” — the standard formula for a possible U.S. military strike against Iran — when he said nothing of the sort. The president did, however, use that tired phrase in a Newsweek interview this month — another mistake given the unthinkable consequences of a third U.S. war front in the Muslim world.

In return, what did Obama get? Not even acknowledgment from Netanyahu that Palestinian statehood, rather than some form of eternal limbo, is the notional goal of negotiations.

Score one for Netanyahu, who, in the words of one former American official who knows him well, “is the kind of guy who negotiates the time he will go to the bathroom.” [continued…]

Israel rebuffs U.S. call for total settlement freeze

Israel will press ahead with housing construction in its West Bank settlements despite a surprisingly blunt demand from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that all such building stop, an Israeli official said Thursday.

The Israeli position could set the stage for a showdown with the U.S. on the day President Barack Obama meets his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House. Abbas has said the freeze of the Israeli settlements will top his agenda in the talks.

Israel contests that new construction must take place to accommodate for expanding families inside the existing settlements, which the U.S. and much of the world consider an obstacle to peace because they are built on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

When asked to respond to Clinton’s call for a total settlement freeze, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue. Pressed on whether the phrase normal life meant some construction will take place in existing settlements, Regev said it did. [continued…]

Knesset okays initial bill to outlaw denial of ‘Jewish state’

The Knesset plenum gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to publicly deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, punishable by a sentence of up to a year in prison.

The measure was the latest of several introduced in the past week by right-wing lawmakers and denounced by critics as an assault on free speech, particularly for Israeli Arab citizens, most of whom are of Palestinian origin.

It would outlaw the publication of any “call to negate Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, where the content of such publication would have a reasonable possibility of causing an act of hatred, disdain or disloyalty” to Israel. [continued…]

Israelis get four-fifths of scarce West Bank water, says World Bank

A deepening drought in the Middle East is aggravating a dispute over water resources after the World Bank found that Israel is taking four times as much water as the Palestinians from a vital shared aquifer.

The region faces a fifth consecutive year of drought this summer, but the World Bank report found huge disparities in water use between Israelis and Palestinians, although both share the mountain aquifer that runs the length of the occupied West Bank. Palestinians have access to only a fifth of the water supply, while Israel, which controls the area, takes the rest, the bank said.

Israelis use 240 cubic metres of water a person each year, against 75 cubic metres for West Bank Palestinians and 125 for Gazans, the bank said. Increasingly, West Bank Palestinians must rely on water bought from the Israeli national water company, Mekorot. [continued…]

Israel destroying Gaza’s farmlands

On the morning of 4 May 2009, Israeli troops set fire to Palestinian crops along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that 200,000 square meters of crops were destroyed, including wheat and barley ready for harvest, as well as vegetables, olive and pomegranate trees.

Local farmers report that the blaze carried over a four-kilometer stretch on the Palestinian side of the eastern border land. Ibrahim Hassan Safadi, 49, from one of the farming families whose crops were destroyed by the blaze, said that the fires were smoldering until early evening, despite efforts by the fire brigades to extinguish them.

Safadi says he was present when Israeli soldiers fired small bombs into his field, which soon after caught ablaze. He explained that “The Israeli soldiers fired from their jeeps, causing a fire to break out on the land. They burned the wheat, burned the pomegranate trees … The fire spread across the valley. We called the fire brigades. They came to the area and put out the fire. But in some places the fire started again.” According to Safadi, he lost 30,000 square meters to the blaze, including 300 pomegranate trees, 150 olive trees, and wheat. [continued…]

Iraq redux? Obama seeks funds for Pakistan super-embassy

The U.S. is embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, another sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.

The scale of the projects rivals the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was completed last year after construction delays at a cost of $740 million. [continued…]

Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’

Photographs of alleged prisoner abuse which Barack Obama is attempting to censor include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse, it has emerged.

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube. [continued…]

In Iraq, assertive parliament emerges under new speaker

In a test of wills that could shape Iraq’s turbulent politics for years to come, the country’s parliament has moved decisively against a minister accused of corruption and has threatened to summon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to answer lawmakers’ questions.

The struggle over Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudani in recent days is more than just the typical debate between legislative and executive powers. The newly elected speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarraie, a Sunni Arab, is attempting to reshape the institution ahead of crucial elections scheduled for January, eight months before the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw most combat troops from Iraq.

“The government kept parliament weak for the past three years,” Wael Abdel Latif, an independent lawmaker, said Monday. “But now, with Samarraie in power, it’s becoming stronger, and it’s assuming its rightful place.” [continued…]