Pro-Israel News

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Tuesday, December 3, 2013
12/03/2013 00:27

“There appears to be general relaxation of sanctions, and a rush to accommodate Iran,” PM warns.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Rome, December 1, 2013.Photo: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s criticism of the world powers’ interim agreement with Iran went from warning the accord would lead to an unraveling of the sanctions regime, to stating in Rome on Monday that this is already happening.

“There appears to be general relaxation of sanctions, and a rush to accommodate Iran, and to make it legitimate as if Iran has changed anything of its actual policies,” Netanyahu said after meeting Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

Netanyahu continued speaking out against the agreement even as he faced criticism of this tactic from home and as US Secretary of State John Kerry, a champion of the deal, was set to arrive on Wednesday for a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

If the sanctions regime against Iran collapses, Netanyahu said, that would signal the end of chances to peacefully stop Iran’s nuclear program. And the program, he stressed, will be stopped.

Netanyahu flew home Monday evening after two days in Rome, which included a meeting with Pope Francis and an annual government- to-government meeting, along with five other Israeli ministers, with their Italian counterparts.

While Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert ripped into Netanyahu Sunday for his vocal criticism of the Iran deal, and Netanyahu responded by saying he will not remain quiet in the face of significant security dangers, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Monday on the CNBC US cable news network that Israel has “earned the right” to be listened to on the Iranian issue.

“When people wonder why we have been so loud against this agreement with Iran it is because for us it is not academic or theoretical, it is existential,” he said. “Here is a regime that has been loud, not about a dispute with Israel, but rather about its wish and commitment to the destruction of Israel.”

Lapid added that in his view the most important strategic asset Israel has is its intimate relationship with the US throughout the years.

“This is an asset that we don’t want to lose,” he said.

“We are going to be out loud, maybe blunt about out concerns, but we understand that the US means well and is doing its best under very complicated circumstances, and we think we have earned the right to be listened to.”

Asked how much damage has been caused to US-Israel relations as a result of the very public difference over Iran, Lapid said it was “OK to have disputes within the family, as long as we keep it in the family. I think we are still within the frame of the family.”

Iran was one of the topics discussed when Netanyahu met for some 25 minutes in the Vatican earlier Monday with Pope Francis, whom he formally invited to Israel.

It was the first time the two leaders met face to face, and in addition to Iran they discussed the Syrian civil war, the welfare of Christians in Israel as well as the pope’s expected visit to Israel. If Francis does make such a trip, he will be the third pope to visit the country since the Vatican established diplomatic ties 20 years ago, following a visit from John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Paul VI briefly visited Jerusalem in 1964.

Several news sources reported the visit would take place May 25-26, but Vatican officials said the trip has not been officially confirmed.

According to political experts in Italy, Netanyahu’s trip was important for all sides: for Netanyahu as he tries to rally support for his position against Iran, for Italy as it seeks to play its traditional role as a bridge builder in the Middle East, and the Vatican as it looks to reassert its role as a global player after several years in which that role was reduced.

“During John Paul II’s declining years, and throughout Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Vatican was more quiet,” said James Walston, a political scientist with the American University of Rome. “Francis is starting to show he’s willing to be a lot feistier.”

Retired church historian Fr. Alistair Sear said “the Vatican has traditionally played an important behind-the-scenes role in international politics, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years.”

This was Netanyahu’s first meeting with Francis and he brought him two gifts: a hanukkia and a Spanish translation of his father Benzion Netanyahu’s seminal work on the Spanish Inquisition, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth- Century Spain. Netanyahu wrote a short inscription inside the book: “To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage


Monday, November 25, 2013
Updated Nov. 24, 2013 11:03 p.m. ET

GENEVA—The U.S. and five other world powers struck a historic accord with Iran on Sunday, agreeing to ease part of an economic stranglehold in exchange for steps to cap Tehran's nuclear program and ensure the Islamist government doesn't rush to develop atomic weapons.

The agreement calls for Iran to stop its production of near-weapons-grade nuclear fuel—which is uranium enriched to 20% purity—and for the removal of Tehran's stockpile of the fissile material, which is estimated to be nearly enough to produce one nuclear bomb.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, center, leaves the Intercontinental Hotel prior to talks over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov.23.Jean-Christophe Bott/Associated Press/Keystone

Iran, in return, will gain relief from Western economic sanctions that U.S. officials believe will provide between $6 billion and $7 billion in badly needed foreign exchange for Tehran over the next half-year.

The agreement reached in Geneva is an interim deal for about six months that will allow international powers to try to strike a permanent pact, an effort that experts said would be the true test of Iran's new government, headed by revitalization-minded President Hasan Rouhani.

President Obama said that the agreement reached with Iran on easing economic sanctions in return for steps capping Tehran's nuclear program marks "the most significant and tangible progress" on the issue since he took office. Photo: AP

Secretary of State John Kerry details the main points of an agreement with Iran that eases economic sanctions in return for halting progress on its nuclear program. Photo: AP

President Barack Obama called the agreement "an important first step toward a comprehensive solution" of the Iranian nuclear dilemma and credited his administration's push for diplomacy and its adoption of stern economic sanctions for "a new path toward a world that is more secure."

"The first step that we have taken today marks the most significant and tangible progress that we have made with Iran since I took office," he said, adding that the next steps "won't be easy."

While U.S. officials argued that the deal will roll back Iran's nuclear program, critics of the diplomacy are likely to seize on key Western concessions, including a signal that Washington ultimately will agree to accept Iran's enrichment of uranium and would leave open for now the future of Tehran's plutonium-producing reactor in Arak.

Israel, which has been a strong opponent of U.S. efforts to negotiate with Iran, was quick to criticize the development. "This is a bad agreement. It gives Iran exactly what it wants: both substantial easing of sanctions and preservation of the most substantial parts of its nuclear program,'' said a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office on Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried Sunday to rally support for the deal in the face of lukewarm reaction from U.S. congressional allies and hostility from critics. "We make sure that these sanctions don't get lifted in a way that reduces the pressure on Iran," Mr. Kerry said on CNN's "State of the Nation." "The Iranian nuclear program is actually set backward and is actually locked into place in critical places."

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, center, flanked by members of her delegation. Fabrice Coffrini/Press Pool

The first test will be whether Congress presses ahead with a new round of broader sanctions, despite the administration's entreaties. The U.S. House of Representatives has already voted for such an effort. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) last week said he was prepared to hold a Senate vote when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess, citing skepticism about the trustworthiness of Iran. A spokesman didn't reply to questions about whether the new diplomatic deal would change those plans.

U.S. lawmakers took to the airwaves Sunday morning to question whether the deal would work, with some suggesting that the Obama administration had made a strategic miscalculation. "Instead of easing them, now is the time to tighten those sanctions," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) on ABC's "Face the Nation." He predicted that "you're going to see a strong movement in the United States Senate to move ahead to tighten sanctions," even if the new deal meant that legislation would have to be worded in a way that accounted for the six-month deal. He said the Obama administration can proceed with the deal without Congress's approval.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee," expressed skepticism about the deal on "Fox News Sunday, saying "I think we all greet it with skepticism." He said that the arrangement suggested that Iranian officials "view this administration as weak," and "see this as their window of opportunity to negotiate with an administration that has shown that it really doesn't have a lot of the intestinal fortitude that other administrations have had."

In a sign of the tension with Congress, the Obama administration's Democratic allies offered only tepid support for the deal. Many Democrats left open the possibility that Congress should still tighten sanctions. In general, Congress believes that the current sanctions are what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, and lawmakers recall how the Obama administration fought off the last round of sanctions in 2011.

"I think this is a marginal improvement," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), the House minority whip, on CBS's "Face the Nation." Mr. Hoyer said that he believed the Senate should still move ahead with a vote on tougher sanctions on Iran that mirrored legislation already passed in the House, but that the U.S. should hold off implementing them for six months so that they could serve as a warning to Iran and an incentive to reach a final deal.

The first-stage deal also takes no steps to force Iran to ship out or destroy the roughly 19,000 centrifuge machines it has amassed to produce nuclear fuel.

U.S. lawmakers and key American allies have said Iran will abandon its nuclear program only if international pressure is increased.

"This deal appears to provide the world's leading sponsor of terrorism with billions of dollars in exchange for cosmetic concessions," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) a leading proponents of increasing sanctions on Iran during the talks.

The deal was completed during three exhaustive negotiating sessions over the past month in Geneva involving Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, a diplomatic bloc called the P5+1.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center. Fabrice Coffrini/Press Pool

Mr. Kerry and the foreign ministers of the other members of the P5+1 states traveled to the Swiss lakeside city over the weekend to push through the final agreement—their second such visit in two weeks.

American and Iranian officials called the deal a potential turning point in Tehran's relations with the international community and an important "first step" in ending the decadelong standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

"The agreement creates the time and space for a comprehensive solution," said Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who leads the P5+1.

Switzerland's Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, left, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif before talks about Iran's nuclear program on Saturday. Associated Press

U.S. and European officials said the six months that the interim agreement covers will be used to forge a broader accord that permanently ends the threat posed by Tehran's nuclear work. Iranian officials stressed this week that the nuclear program only had civilian uses.

France played a major role in the negotiations, with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisting publicly during a previous round of talks two weeks ago that a draft agreement being discussed wasn't strong enough. In a statement early Sunday, Mr. Fabius acknowledged that the discussions were long and difficult but said the Geneva accord "amounts to a first major step" to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Mr. Fabius said the deal includes strict oversight of Iran's commitments and that "we will have to be vigilant on their implementation."

Speaking to reporters after the deal was signed, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed Iran would win sanctions relief under the accord affecting its gold and precious metals trade, its petrochemicals sector and including the unfreezing of assets by U.S. officials.

American, European and Iranian officials described on Saturday a testy three days of talks that were needed to forge the final deal. The question of what to do with Iran's heavy water reactor nearing completion in the city of Arak nearly killed an agreement in the later stages of the diplomacy, said these officials.

France was pushing for a complete dismantling of the reactor on the grounds that there exists no nonmilitary rational for building the facility. The U.S. government shared this position.

Under the deal, Iran agreed to significantly increase inspections of Arak by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency and agree not to start the facility or lead it with nuclear fuel.

Iran also agreed to cap its enrichment of uranium to levels only usable as fuel for a reactor, which is a purity of 3.5% to 5%.

Iran committed to maintaining its total stockpile of the low-enriched nuclear fuel at its current level, which is around six tons, during the six-month period.

Iran and the P5+1 also forged a compromise over the issue that over the past few days looked as though it could squelch a deal—Tehran's demand that the international community accept its "right" to continue producing nuclear fuel domestically.

Tehran cites the U.N.'s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as affording every signatory that legal right to enrich uranium, provided it is used for civilian purposes. Successive U.S. administrations have denied this right exists and have supported multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring Tehran to suspend its enrichment activities.

In a compromise, the P5+1 agreed to a text that says Iran will enjoy all the rights of treaty signatories, provided Iran satisfies all of the IAEA's questions about the alleged military dimensions of Iran's program. But the U.S. and its partners won't be forced to formally accept that Iran will be allowed to enrich.

Still, the compromise is seen as a victory for Iran, which has campaigned for a decade on this issue. U.S. officials on Saturday acknowledged that Iran will likely be allowed to maintain some enrichment capacity on its soil as part of a final deal.

"We're interested in exploring how Iran might end up with a limited and tightly controlled facility to enrich," said a senior U.S. official.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif touted the deal as vindicating Tehran's position. "Iran enjoys that right and its important to recognize that right. This recognition is there," Mr. Zarif told reporters. "We believe that to be our right."

U.S. officials said the agreement will provide sanctions relief of between $6 billion to $7 billion over the next six months, a number far below estimates made by critics of the agreement, including the government of Israel. The Obama administration also stressed that any easing of the sanctions could be quickly reversed if Iran is found not complying with the agreement.

U.S. officials said the P5+1 immediately will begin helping Iran repatriate about $4.2 billion in oil revenues that it hasn't been able to access overseas as a result of the sanctions. Iran is estimated to have $50 billion in these revenues overseas, which its government has been unable to access. The funds will be returned to Iran in monthly installments of $600 million.

The agreement also calls for the U.S. and European Union to ease the ban on Iran's trade in petrochemicals, precious metals, automobiles and airplane spare parts. U.S. and European officials said they didn't believe that such commerce could derive more than a few billion dollars in revenues for Tehran over the next six months. But they said some of the trade—such as access to airline parts—is critical to Iran, which has increasingly found its jetliners grounded because of safety concerns.

U.S. officials stressed that the sanctions relief would still be dwarfed by the revenue Iran is still losing because of the pervasive sanctions that remain in place.

These diplomats estimated that Iran still is likely to lose around $25 billion over the six months to the U.S. and European embargo against oil purchases. They also believed Tehran will continue to find itself unable to repatriate the earnings from the oil its does sell in Asia and the Middle East, because of sanctions. One official said Iran was likely to find itself unable to access another $14 billion to $16 billion in oil earnings over the next six months.

"The pressure of the sanctions will continue to grow," said a second American official involved in the Geneva talks.

U.S. and Iranian officials both said the agreement had potentially profound implications for global security and stability in the Middle East.

Before Mr. Rouhani's August inauguration, diplomatic engagement between Washington and Tehran was largely frozen, as it had been since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Over the past three months, however, Mr. Obama has held a phone conversation with President Rouhani, and Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Zarif have held hours of negotiations in Geneva.

"I think this is potentially a significant moment," Mr. Kerry said following the negotiations. "But I'm not going to say this is an end unto itself."

Mr. Rouhani tweeted after the agreement was signed Sunday: "We are confident that the agreement between Iran and the West will have a positive impact on other regional and global issues."

—Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.


Friday, November 22, 2013
By  | Nov. 22, 2013 | 8:20 PM
A suspect in the killing of Col. (ret.) Seraiah Ofer, being arrested, October 2013. Photo by Gil Eliahu

A cartoon by Haaretz’s Eran Wolkowski, which was published in the paper several weeks ago ‏(on October 25‏), has since made regular appearances in presentations of GOC Central Command. The illustration depicts an Israel Defense Forces officer showing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz a map of the West Bank. On it are a series of dots indicating the spots where terror attacks have been perpetrated recently. “They're all isolated incidents,” the officer says. But a closer look at the map reveals that the points connect into the likeness of a tiger with jaws open and teeth bared.

The fact that senior IDF officers are willing to laugh at themselves ‏(up to a point‏) doesn’t mean that the joke isn’t at their expense, or that the army and Shin Bet security service are somehow close to finding a solution to the problem.

Since the current wave of terrorism started in mid-September, there have been at least 12 such attacks, or attempted attacks − all of them in the West Bank, apart from one inside the Green Line. Four Israelis have been murdered in these incidents: three soldiers and a retired officer. In none of the cases has a known and systematic terrorist organization been clearly involved. Many of the cases were the result of a concatenation of the perpetrator’s very difficult personal circumstances, criminal intent and the broader background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Only the attacks that ended with loss of life on the Israeli side − most recently, the murder last week of soldier Eden Attias while he was asleep on a bus in Afula − appear to have drawn much attention from the public and the media.

Actually, it’s some of the failed attempts that can perhaps provide more information about the nature of the renewed awakening in the West Bank. About two weeks ago, a Palestinian came from the Jenin area to Tapuah Junction, south of Nablus. When darkness fell, after a few hours of roaming around in the vicinity of the junction the man pulled out a pistol and shot at a few Israeli cars as they passed by. Two infantry soldiers and a border policeman who were posted at the junction, charged at the terrorist and killed him. ‏(The nature of protection at the site was changed a few months ago in the wake of a terror attack in which Evyatar Borovsky, from the settlement of Yitzhar, was murdered.‏)

The IDF’s investigation of the latest incident found that the security forces had responded properly. In the circumstances, there was no way of knowing that the assailant was using a nonlethal weapon ‏(a flare pistol‏). The three put a stop to the danger faced by Israeli travelers on the road. The terrorist had no prior record of security offenses. However, he was suffering from depression and taking antidepressants. A few hours before the incident, he had written on his Facebook page that he was “going to Paradise.”

It’s not clear why he availed himself of the flare pistol rather than a real weapon, which can be readily found in the West Bank.

In another recent incident, a Palestinian who tried to attack soldiers was shot to death. An inquiry by army intelligence found that the man had been exposed as a homosexual not long before and was under intense social and family pressure.

A few months ago, two young Palestinians were arrested when they climbed onto the separation barrier near Jenin. They said they were on their way to carry out a terrorist attack in a nearby Israeli settlement. When asked what their motive was, they explained that they were musicians but that their parents had forbidden them to go on studying music.

The alleged murderers of Col. ‏(ret.‏) Seraiah Ofer, in mid-October, originally came to his isolated farm in the Jordan Rift Valley to steal metal objects. Ofer was murdered when he confronted them. The different accounts they gave their Shin Bet interrogators finally merged into one version: True, we came to steal, but the murder of a former senior officer was “a gift to Hamas and to the Palestinian people.”

Economic advantage

The common denominator of many of the recent terror attacks is familiar from the period of the first intifada ‏(which began in December 1987‏). Personal problems intertwine with the broader political picture. It is also impossible to ignore the considerable economic advantage that accrues to the terrorist’s family. If the young depressive from Tapuah Junction had simply chosen to commit suicide, it would have been an embarrassment for his family. But a death in the name of the national struggle guarantees the family monthly support from the Palestinian Authority.

Just this week, it was reported that the PA is paying huge sums, in Palestinian terms, to the veteran prisoners whom Israel released when the political negotiations resumed.

Is the defense establishment capable of coping more effectively with the recent wave of attacks, which have put an end to three years of relative quiet in the West Bank? In a notably hawkish speech this week, delivered at the annual conference in memory of Moshe Dayan held at Tel Aviv University, Ya’alon stated that the Israelis killed recently are “victims of the political process.” In other words, according to him, the resumption of the talks with the Palestinians has radicalized the atmosphere in the West Bank and is inducing more individual terrorists to take an initiative.

But the IDF and Shin Bet are looking for more practical answers. Their working assumption is that such attacks are liable to continue at a fairly high frequency for the next few months. The number of victims is low compared with the suicide-bombing attacks of the previous decade, but every slaying of a soldier is considered a success in the territories, and every attack triggers copycat attempts.

A systematic examination of the latest incidents shows only minimal involvement by the veteran terror organizations. Hamas is still in retreat, under the dual pressure being exerted by Israel and the PA security units. The few Hamas military squads that are now active are engaged in planning more complex attacks, such as shootings and abductions of soldiers and settlers.

In general, they are acting under the directives of the organization’s headquarters in Gaza and in several neighboring countries, to which ranking Hamas members who were released in the Gilad Shalit exchange deal two years ago were sent. Because planning of that type leaves a more meaningful intelligence “signature” than the actions of individuals, most of those attempts have been thwarted. If someone rents an apartment in which to hide and rents a car or obtains a weapon, he leaves clues that can lead to his capture. There are also occasional cases of Fatah members reverting to terrorism on their own, without PA encouragement.

Impossible to detect

The difficulty faced by the security forces is clear. It is almost impossible to detect the intensions of a lone individual in advance, especially if he has no prior security record, when all that is required of him is an instantaneous decision and availing himself of whatever means are available, ranging from a knife to a bulldozer.

The Palestinian who was shot to death a month ago when he tried to crush soldiers under a bulldozer, in a base north of Jerusalem, was on his way ‏(with his brother‏) to bring back two bulldozers from the family business. At one point he “disappeared,” without saying a word to his brother, and drove to the base. The terrorist’s mobile phone rang for some time after he had been killed: His brother had heard about the incident and suspected it might be him. The two had a third brother, who was killed when he carried out a similar attack with a bulldozer four years ago.

Israeli intelligence officials are racking their brains in an effort to make surveillance more effective. Would it have been possible, for example, to intercept the announcement of the Tapuah Junction terrorist on his Facebook page that he was on the way to “Paradise,” locate him and prevent the attack?

It’s no secret that Israel is monitoring social networks in the neighboring countries − and even more intensively since the start of the Arab Spring − in order to better gauge the public mood. But in cases such as these, countless specific details need to be assimilated in order to produce real-time deterrence.

The other element is the correct tactical deployment of forces in the field and the meticulous maintenance of a high level of alertness over time. “I am on the soldiers’ case, so as to ensure that they keep up the readiness level at checkpoints and in patrols,” says the commander of a sector in the West Bank. “Better they should grumble about my toughness than leave weak points that could cost lives.”

Since the resurgence of the terrorist attacks, Israeli officials − Ya’alon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz − have been heard leveling two major complaints against the PA: the ongoing incitement against Israel in the media and the education system, and the impotence of the Palestinians’ security units in dealing with terrorists.

The first complaint has been a favorite of Netanyahu’s since his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. There is no dispute that under the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as previously, the Palestinian leadership is doing very little to deal with the phenomenon. Still, the incitement issue looks mostly like a card Israel can play in arguments with the Palestinians and in meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry − who, according to what a senior Israeli cabinet minister told Haaretz last week, can no longer be considered an honest broker in peace negotiations between the two sides.

However, in the face of Israel’s massive construction in the settlements and the ploy of announcing new building tenders by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel last week, the Americans are probably not overly impressed by Netanyahu’s complaints.

When it comes to the question of the PA’s handling of terrorists, experts in Israel are divided. Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen tends to underscore the failures of the Palestinian security units in arresting wanted individuals about whom Israel has passed on warnings. Cohen also plays up the problems faced by the Palestinian authorities in imposing law and order in the refugee camps − notably the Jenin, Balata and Qalandiyah camps − where fear of the PA has faded.

In contrast, sources in the IDF tend to praise the day-to-day security coordination and note the dozens of occasions in which the Palestinian security forces have safely extricated Israeli civilians who mistakenly entered Palestinian territory. As for governance, a senior General Staff officer tells Haaretz, “We, too, do not necessarily excel everywhere − not in Lod and not in Yitzhar.”  


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tehran's chief negotiator downplays hopes of a deal to end long-running nuclear dispute, saying there are 'major differences' between Iran and world powers.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (2nd-R) and his deputy Seyyed Abbas Araghchi (R) meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (C), Helga Maria Schmid, deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and James Morrison (L), head of Ashton's cabinet, during talks over Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva Photo: EPA


9:24AM GMT 21 Nov 2013

Iran will only sign up to an international deal on its nuclear programme if it is guaranteed the right to continue enriching uranium "from start to finish", the country's chief negotiator at talks in Geneva said on Thursday.

"No deal that does not include the right to uranium enrichment from start to finish will be accepted," Abbas Araghchi said ahead of negotiations in the Swiss capital aimed at ending the decade-old nuclear dispute. Iran could discuss volumes, levels and locations but "the principle of enrichment is not negotiable", he insisted.

As representives of Iran and six world powers - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - prepared for the two days of talks, the negotiator downplayed hopes of agreement. He said there were "major differences" between Iran and world powers, adding: "There is a chance of a deal by tomorrow (Friday) but it's a difficult task."

Mr Araghchi told state television that the main obstacle to agreement was a "lack of trust because of what happened at the last round" - referring to November talks when world powers toughened up the terms of a draft deal - insisting that "as long as trust is not restored, we cannot continue constructive negotiations".

In the run-up to the talks, the key players, including Iran, have expressed optimism that an agreement is within reach. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said on Wednesday that the remaining differences between the parties were small. "It is the best chance for a long time to make progress on one of the gravest problems in foreign policy," he said.

But Washington and Tehran reverted to a tougher tone on the eve of the talks on Wednesday, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, delivered a bellicose speech insisting there would be no retreat on the country's nuclear "rights" and Washington warned it would be "very hard" to produce a deal.

Ayatollah Khamenei also stoked the ire of two of Iran's negotiating partners, saying America "considered itself superior to mankind" and denouncing France for "kneeling" before Israel – a reference to the fact that French calls for a tougher deal, as demanded by Israel, reportedly scuppered agreement at the last round of talks.

The Ayatollah's tirade drew an angry response from Francois Hollande, the French president, who demanded Iran "provide answers and not provocations" over its disputed nuclear programme.

"It is clear that Khamenei's proposal's could not lead to calm and understanding. Iran must provide answers and not provocations," Mr Hollande said.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, sounded a more conciliatory note, saying nuclear development was not "about joining a club or threatening others" and insisting the country's programme was for peaceful energy purposes only.

But it was perhaps partly in response to the Ayatollah's bullish rhetoric that a senior Obama adminstration official warned last night that a deal would be difficult.

"We will have to see because it is hard," the official said. "It is very hard... If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago."

Diplomats say a deal has already been outlined that would freeze Iran's nuclear programme in return for some sanctions relief, a "first step" agreement that would establish a six-month diplomatic window for a long-term settlement to be negotiated.

But it faces vehement opposition from Israel, whose prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday flew to Moscow to lobby President Vladimir Putin to tighten up the terms of the deal, as well as conservative US congressmen who have defied President Obama to push for fresh economic sanctions against Iran.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

(Reuters) - An exiled opposition group said on Thursday it had obtained information about a secret underground nuclear site under construction in Iran, without specifying what kind of atomic activity it believed would be carried out there.

The dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) exposed Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water facility at Arak in 2002. But analysts say it has a mixed track record and a clear political agenda.

In 2010, when the group said it had evidence of another new nuclear facility, west of the capital Tehran, U.S. officials said they had known about the site for years and had no reason to believe it was nuclear.

The latest allegation comes less than a month after the election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran's new president raised hopes for a resolution of the nuclear dispute with the West, and might be timed to discredit such optimism.

The Islamic Republic says its nuclear energy program is entirely peaceful and rejects U.S. and Israeli accusations that it is really seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.

But its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear activity, and its lack of full openness with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, have drawn tough Western sanctions and a threat of pre-emptive military strikes by Israel.

The NCRI said members of its affiliated People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) inside the country had "obtained reliable information on a new and completely secret site designated for (Iran's) nuclear project".

The NCRI, which seeks an end to Islamist theocratic rule in Iran, is the political wing of the PMOI, which fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.


The NCRI said the site was inside a complex of tunnels beneath mountains 10 km (6 miles) east of the town of Damavand, itself about 50 km northeast of Tehran. Construction of the first phase began in 2006 and was recently completed, it said.

The group released satellite photographs of what it said was the site. But the images did not appear to constitute hard evidence to support the assertion that it was a planned nuclear facility.

A spokesman for the dissidents said he could not say what sort of nuclear work would be conducted there, but that the companies and people involved showed it was a nuclear site. The group named officials it said were in charge of the project.

"The site consists of four tunnels and has been constructed by a group of engineering and construction companies associated with the engineering arms of the Ministry of Defense and the IRGC (Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards force)," the NCRI said.

"Two of the tunnels are about 550 meters (600 yards) in length, and they have a total of six giant halls."

Asked about the report, International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in Vienna: "The agency will assess the information that has been provided, as we do with any new information we receive."

A Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA told Reuters: "I have heard nothing. My first suspicion is that it is like the 2010 revelation - a tunnel facility the Iranians are keeping quiet, but no known link to the nuclear program."

Iran said in late 2009 that it planned to build 10 more uranium enrichment sites on top of its underground Natanz and Fordow plants, but has provided little additional information.

Refined uranium can provide fuel for nuclear power plants, which is Iran's stated aim, but can also be used to make atomic bombs, which the West fears may be Tehran's ultimate goal.

(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur and Leigh Thomas; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Robin Pomeroy/Mark Heinrich)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, (r.), is offering assurances to Israelis that America has her back. (Reuters)

HAIFA, ISRAEL –  America's ambassador to Israel has been in damage control mode after his boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, wondered rhetorically if Jewish opposition to peace negotiations with Palestinians was driven by a desire for "a third Intifada."

The flap comes amid diplomatic tension between the two allies. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly lobbied against a U.S.-backed resolution to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons last week. And this week has seen U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro doing his best to smooth things over and assure Israel that the U.S. still stands with her in the wake of Kerry’s controversial recent remark in a joint Palestinian-Israel TV interview.

“The alternative to getting back to the [peace] talks is the potential of chaos," Kerry said. "Does Israel want a third Intifada?"

The remark was seen as giving Palestinian factions a green light to go on the offensive should the foundering Kerry-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians fail to make any progress.

"Does Israel want a third Intifada?"

- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Intifada is an Arabic word for uprising and was the term given to intensified Israeli–Palestinian violence from 1987-1993 and again from 2000 to 2005. In each, hundreds of Israeli soldiers and citizens were killed by Palestinian terrorism and rocket attacks, and thousands of Palestinians were killed in reprisals by Israeli security forces.

Speaking earlier in the week in Jerusalem at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, Shapiro moved to calm rising tensions.

“It is as close as it has ever been and at its heart is an iron-clad American commitment to Israel’s security,” Shapiro said of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “The U.S. is proud to stand with Israel. President Obama underscored this fact during his historic visit to Israel last March. We know that in doing so - because we face common threats in the Middle East from terrorism to proliferation to instability that effect both of us - it means we are enhancing our own security as well.

“That commitment includes strongly supporting Israel’s achieve a two states for two people resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have no illusions about the challenges, but we will not be daunted in pursuit of this goal.”

Kerry’s “third Intifada” remark came on the day when two Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces at the scene of two separate attacks on Israelis in the West Bank. The following day an Israeli mother and daughter were lucky to suffer only minor injuries after their car was firebombed while driving near Bethlehem.

Despite Shapiro’s comments, tension in Israel and the Palestinian territories appears to be rising, fueled anew by the Israeli Housing Ministry’s announcement on Tuesday of the construction of as many as 20,000 new homes in the disputed West Bank. That figure included a proposal for 1,400 homes in the contentious E1 district that Netanyahu’s office moved quickly to annul in an apparent attempt to dampen international criticism. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, announced Wednesday in an interview on Egyptian TV that his negotiating team had resigned.

Earlier Wednesday, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier was stabbed to death by a 16-year-old Palestinian passenger on a bus in the northern Israeli town of Afula. The murder of Eden Attias has sparked a series of demonstrations around Israel against negotiations with the Palestinians which have been taken place as Israel has continued releasing scores of convicted Palestinian murderers and terrorists as a gesture of good faith. It transpired that the teenage murder suspect is the cousin of a convicted Palestinian murderer.

“There is an atmosphere in the [Palestinian] territories that the tactic that [Yasser] Arafat encouraged in the being given the nod by the Palestinians even while the talks have been continuing,” regional analyst Zvi Yehezkeli said on Israel’s Channel 10 in response to the murder of the young soldier.”

The Obama Administration's reaching out to Iran, America's cold shoulder policy to the interim Egyptian regime and Kerry’s “third Intifada” comment, have left many in Israel pondering the true direction of U.S. policy in the region. They are already wondering if the backlash from such policies and statements is already being felt, thanks to newly emboldened Palestinian militants.

“This isn’t an Intifada yet, this is something new," Israeli political commentator Alon Ben David observed Wednesday. "There is an atmosphere that appears to be encouraging these incidents.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @ paul_alster and at


Wednesday, November 13, 2013
JERUSALEM — A Palestinian teenager fatally stabbed a 19-year-old Israeli soldier on a bus in northern Israel on Wednesday, according to the police, shocking Israelis who have grown unused to such killings in their cities and further clouding a peace process that was already severely strained by Israeli settlement plans in the West Bank.

Infuriated by news of long-term planning for more settlement housing, the Palestinian leadership is expected to meet on Thursday to discuss the future of the American-backed negotiations, which began this summer and were supposed to continue for nine months.

The latest crisis was set off by reports on Tuesday that Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, had initiated planning for about 20,000 new settlement homes. But some officials suggested that talk of a possible collapse of the negotiations amounted to posturing, especially after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Mr. Ariel to “reconsider” his new settlement plans, essentially putting them on hold.

“If the Palestinians want to create an artificial crisis, that’s unfortunate,” a senior Israeli official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the peace talks in public. Dismissing Mr. Ariel’s plans as having no legal standing or practical significance, the Israeli official said the Palestinians were “going through the motions.”

Arik Ben-Shimon, an aide to Mr. Ariel, said on Wednesday that the new settlement planning was “frozen” but not canceled. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, who offered his resignation two weeks ago, said Mr. Ariel “needs to revoke the orders,” indicating that the issue was far from resolved.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, confirmed in an interview with Egyptian CBC television this week that the Palestinian negotiating team had resigned. He said he was trying to convince the negotiators to continue, adding, “If they don’t accept, I will form another team.” The interview was recorded two days before the Palestinians learned of the new settlement plans, according to Mr. Erekat.

The stabbing of the soldier on Wednesday also prompted calls for a rethinking on the Israeli side. Right-wing Israeli politicians have demanded a re-examination of Israel’s agreement to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons in four batches as part of a deal to resume peace talks. Two of the four groups have already been released.

In a post on her Facebook page, Tzipi Livni, the minister leading the negotiations for the Israeli government, wrote: “I wrote here earlier and harshly criticized the damage in announcing settlement construction, but I took the post off because the profound political debate about the future of our life here will certainly continue, but not now. Now I would like to pay my respects to the memory of the soldier and express sorrow to the family and to clarify one more thing: violence will not bring political achievements. And we will fight terrorism and extremists decisively and without compromise.”

The stabbing took place when the bus, traveling from upper Nazareth to Tel Aviv, pulled into a station in the northern town of Afula.

The Israeli military said that the recently conscripted soldier, Eden Atias, 19, was in uniform at the time of the attack and that he had been on his way to an army base. He was stabbed several times in the upper body, according to Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the police. Mr. Rosenfeld said that a 16-year-old Palestinian, from the Jenin area of the West Bank, was apprehended at the scene and that he told security personnel under questioning that he had acted to avenge at least one relative serving time an Israeli prison.

The Palestinian news media identified the suspect as Hussein Ghwadreh and said he had two cousins serving terms in Israeli prisons, one of them a life term.

The attack came after a string of violent episodes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in recent months that ended a period of relative calm. Since September, an Israeli soldier has been killed in Hebron, apparently by a Palestinian sniper; an off-duty soldier has been killed by a Palestinian acquaintance who had lured him to the West Bank; and a retired colonel has been bludgeoned to death outside his home in the Jordan Valley.

In the last week, an Israeli couple escaped from a burning car after it was hit by a firebomb on a West Bank road and a Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli soldiers after he opened fire at a bus stop with a homemade handgun.

Israeli security officials have attributed the rise in attacks to unrelated individuals rather than an orchestrated campaign backed by militant groups. A number of Palestinians have also been killed recently in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Three were killed in one arrest raidthat turned violent in August.

Mr. Netanyahu and several of his ministers have blamed incitement against Israelis and Jews in the Palestinian Authority-sponsored news media and schools for the violence. Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, said Wednesday that the main obstacle to peace was “a culture of hatred sponsored by the government, sponsored by the Palestinian Authority.”

“Israelis find it more and more difficult to believe that even if they will make concessions what they will get in return is a genuine peace,” he added.

A Palestinian official involved in the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss them publicly, accused the Israeli government of “playing games.” The attack on the soldier was “an isolated incident by an individual,” he said, adding, “Those trying to torpedo the negotiations on the Israeli side are in the government.”

Jodi Rudoren and Said Ghazali contributed reporting.


Friday, November 8, 2013


The Obama administration began softening sanctions on Iran after the election of Iran’s new president in June, months before the current round of nuclear talks in Geneva or the historic phone call between the two leaders in September.

While those negotiations now appear on the verge of a breakthrough the key condition for Iran—relief from crippling sanctions—began quietly and modestly five months ago. 

A review of Treasury Department notices reveals that the U.S. government has all but stopped the financial blacklisting of entities and people that help Iran evade international sanctions since the election of its president, Hassan Rouhani, in June.

On Wednesday Obama said in an interview with NBC News the negotiations in Geneva “are not about easing sanctions.” “The negotiations taking place are about how Iran begins to meet its international obligations and provide assurances not just to us but to the entire world,” the president said.

But it has also long been Obama’s strategy to squeeze Iran’s economy until Iran would be willing to trade relief from sanctions for abandoning key elements of its nuclear program.

One way Obama has pressured Iran is through isolating the country’s banks from the global financial sector, the networks that make modern international commerce possible. This in turn has led Iran to seek out front companies and cutouts to conduct routine international business, such as selling its crude oil.

In this cat and mouse game, the Treasury Department in recent years has routinely designated new entities as violators of sanctions, forcing Iran to adjust in turn. In the six weeks prior to the Iranian elections in June, the Treasury Department issued seven notices of designations of sanctions violators that included more than 100 new people, companies, aircraft, and sea vessels.

Since June 14, however, when Rouhani was elected, the Treasury Department has only issued two designation notices that have identified six people and four companies as violating the Iran sanctions.

When an entity is designated as a sanctions violator it can be catastrophic. Banks and other investors almost never take the risk of doing business with the people and companies on a Treasury blacklist because of the potential reputational harm and the prospect they could lose access to U.S. financial markets.

“Sounds like Obama decided to enter the Persian nuclear bazaar to haggle with the masters of negotiation.”

A Treasury spokesman contacted by The Daily Beast said the effectiveness of sanctions should be measured by their results and not the number of entities designated. (A White House spokesman declined to comment, directing inquiries to the Treasury.) The Treasury spokesman also said that the significant financial pressure on Iran in recent years changed the calculus of the country’s leaders and led to the election of Rouhani, who is a former nuclear negotiator and is considered more moderate than his predecessor.

“In the months since the Iranian election we have continued to pursue our unwavering goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the spokesman said. “We have not let up on vigorous sanctions enforcement one iota. This includes new designations of sanctions evaders as well as other steps to address potential sanctions evasion.”

But the enforcement of sanctions, experts said, is very different than the process of designating new violators. To start, sanctions enforcement means the levying of fines or other legal measures against those people and entities already designated by the Treasury Department as a violator.

The designation process is more proactive. “The designations are important because they identify illicit actors that are abusing the international financial sector in addition to signaling the U.S. intention to isolate Iran’s economy,” said Avi Jorisch, a former U.S. Treasury official who has worked closely on Iran sanctions and has advocated for toughening these sanctions since leaving government.

Advocates of sanctions relief also acknowledge that the administration has pursued a policy of quietly lessening financial pressure on Iran. They argue that was a logical policy when married to the process of renewing diplomatic negotiations with Iran, which according to the Wall Street Journal this week, has been going on for several months.

“Before the election there were a lot of these designations,” said Trita Parsi, the executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for ending sanctions on Iran since. “Their impact was probably not decisive, but it was a way for the White House to signal to the Iranians and Congress they were going forward with the sanctions train.” Parsi continued: “After the election [the Obama administration] wanted to give the opposite signal, a pause. The last thing you would want to do is let the sanctions train go forward and potentially scuttle an opportunity that could have been there.”

Following the Iranian elections, there were also a lot of changes inside the Iranian government, making the task of designating officials and entities a bit more tricky, Parsi said. But a significant part of the administration’s decision, in Parsi’s opinion, was the belief that continuing a high pace of designations would “undermine the signal that they were trying to send, that there was an opening.”

Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an organization that has worked closely with Congress and the administration on devising the current Iranian sanctions, said the slow pace of designations was only one kind of sanctions relief Obama has been offering Iran.

“For five months, since Rouhani’s election, the United States has offered Iran two major forms of sanctions relief,” Dubowitz said. “First there’s been a significant slowdown in the pace of designations while the Iranians are proliferating the number of front companies and cutouts to bust sanctions.”

The second kind of relief Dubowitz said the White House had offered Iran was through its opposition to new Iran sanctions legislation supported by both parties in Congress.

By Dubowitz’s estimates, Iran is now selling between 150,000 and 200,000 barrels of oil per day on the black market, meaning that Iran has profited from the illicit sale of over 35 million barrels of oil since Rouhani took office, with little additional measures taken by the United States to counter it.                                                            

“Sounds like Obama decided to enter the Persian nuclear bazaar to haggle with the masters of negotiation and has had his head handed to him,” Dubowitz said.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013
By  and 

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Secretary of State John Kerry, seeking to quell a dispute over Jewish settlements that threatens to poison peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, pressed the Israeli government on Wednesday to limit its approval of new construction.

Mr. Kerry’s efforts to steady the talks got off to a bumpy start, with the Palestinians seething over recent building announcements and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel bluntly criticizing Palestinian leaders for inciting trouble and evading tough decisions.

The prime minister’s comments, which came days after the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, lamented the lack of progress, underscored the depth of the challenge facing Mr. Kerry as he tries to prevent the latest round of talks from slipping into a familiar cycle of recrimination.

Adding to the potential hurdles for diplomacy was the acquittal Wednesday on corruption charges of Israel’s former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose hard-line views and polarizing style could disrupt the talks. Mr. Lieberman, who is expected to return to the foreign minister’s post, has said he views a peace deal with the Palestinians as being “decades away.”

Mr. Kerry, who thrust himself back into the talks to recapture momentum, instead found himself dealing with anger on both sides. Under pressure from Mr. Abbas, he declared that the Palestinians had not agreed to the continued building of settlements in the West Bank as a condition for resuming direct negotiations with the Israelis.

“That is not to say that they weren’t aware, or we weren’t aware, that there would be construction,” Mr. Kerry said here after meeting Mr. Abbas. “But that construction, importantly, in our judgment, would be much better off limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively.”

In Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu aired his dissatisfaction with the state of the talks even before the start of his meeting with Mr. Kerry, saying, “I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are necessary to make a genuine peace.”

At the heart of the current tempest is whether the Palestinians accepted that Israel would announce new settlement construction as it released Palestinian prisoners. The Israelis say it was understood; the Palestinians reject that. On Tuesday, officials said, the dispute led to a shouting match between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Some analysts said that the public display of outrage by Palestinian leaders, including an offer of resignation last week by the chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was more likely about appeasing the Palestinian street than a reflection of what is happening inside the negotiating room. But that need to show steadfastness, on both sides, is a hint of the broader hurdles Mr. Kerry faces in bridging the significant gaps.

For his part, Mr. Kerry professed to be undaunted. “There are always difficulties, always tensions,” he said. “I’m very confident of our ability to work through them. That’s why I’m here.”

Standing in a sun-splashed square next to the Church of the Nativity, Mr. Kerry announced that the United States would contribute an additional $75 million in aid to a Palestinian Authority fund to build roads, hospitals and schools in the West Bank — a program that is designed to create jobs and build Palestinian support for the peace process.

Anat N. Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the statements by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas, as well as a series of negatives leaks, indicated the talks were at a nadir. But that, she said, could present Mr. Kerry with an opening.

“If I want to be optimistic, I would say that in the face of the crisis, maybe the administration will step in,” said Ms. Kurz, whose current research focuses on the conflict. “That would force the two sides to come up with something realistic.”

Still, Palestinian leaders continued to accuse Israel of sabotaging the talks with leaks and settlement announcements, and they have taken strong positions on core issues that make a deal seem like a distant dream. Nimr Hamad, a political adviser to Mr. Abbas, said on Voice of Palestine radio that “any proposal that doesn’t include full withdrawal from East Jerusalem” — something Mr. Netanyahu has said will never happen on his watch — means “there will not be a peace agreement.”

Wasel Abu Yousif, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Mr. Abbas planned to tell Mr. Kerry that “we can’t continue with the negotiations with what Israel is doing” with settlements, and that continued construction would lead the Palestinians to pursue sanctions against Israel in international forums.

In his remarks, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that he viewed nuclear talks with Iran, which resume Thursday in Geneva, as his top priority. He called for the United States and other major powers to tighten, not reduce, sanctions against Iran while the talks are underway.

Mr. Kerry repeated his pledge that the West would not make a bad nuclear deal with Iran, saying no deal was preferable. Some analysts said the parallel negotiations could strengthen Mr. Kerry’s hand to the extent that he is able to use pledges of American resolve on Iran to entice Mr. Netanyahu into making concessions in the peace talks.

But there is little sign of that, and the return of Mr. Lieberman to the government raises questions about whether Mr. Netanyahu will instead take a harder line in the negotiations with the Palestinians.

“The sense of urgency is less acute than it was,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “I’m not saying negotiations are doomed to fail; I’m saying I’m not surprised that there is no progress. It definitely will take more time and will require not just tenacity but also ingenuity on the part of the secretary of state.”