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    Tuesday
    Dec012009

    Hezbollah defies moderates in Lebanon and continues arms build-up

    BEIRUT — Hezbollah's leader said Monday that the Lebanese militant group will improve its weapons capabilities to face off any Israeli threat and that armed struggle was the only way to regain Arab lands captured by the Jewish state.

    Hassan Nasrallah's remarks signaled the group has no intention of meeting a United Nations resolution requiring it to give up its weapons. That position that has generated division among the country's fractious political groups as well as concern in Israel, which says it is preparing to deploy a defense system to shoot down rockets from Lebanon.

    Nasrallah gave no details on the weapons plans, but Hezbollah has said it has tens of thousands of rockets.

    Israel's military says that since its 2006 war with the group, Hezbollah has tripled its prewar arsenal to more than 40,000 rockets, some of which can strike virtually anywhere in Israel — a dramatic improvement over the short-range missiles fired in 2006.

    Nasrallah said the buildup was necessary.

    "The continuation of Israeli threats against Lebanon ... force the resistance to seek more power in order to improve its capabilities," Nasrallah told reporters via video link from a secret location. He has rarely appeared in public since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, fearing Israeli assassination.

    His comments came during a news conference to announce the group's new political manifesto, the second since Hezbollah was founded in 1982 to fight Israel's invading military.

    While the group remains determinedly anti-Israel, its manifesto showed some signs of moderation on the Lebanese political scene, where Hezbollah holds sway with two members in the Cabinet and 11 or parliament's 128 seats.

    The Shiite Muslim group's first manifesto in 1985 called for establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, but the new manifesto did not mention an Islamic state and underscored the importance of coexistence among Lebanon's 18 religious sects.

    The U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war calls on the group to disarm, but Hezbollah says it must keep its weapons to fight off any Israeli threat in the future.

    Israel's defense industry said last week it is close to deploying a system known as the Iron Dome that will use cameras and radar to track incoming rockets and shoot them down within seconds of their launch.

     

    Tuesday
    Dec012009

    Israel rejects plan to divide Jerusalem

    JERUSALEM — Israel's foreign ministry said today that a Swedish-led push for the European Union to call for the division of Jerusalem and the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state would trip up Europe's own efforts to play a role in Middle East peacemaking.

    "We would like to see the Europeans more involved and playing a role," but it will be more difficult for them to do so if they press ahead, says Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "The Swedish initiative does not contribute to promoting the peace process, and all it can do is to marginalize the European role."

    "It will only convince the Palestinians that they can remain the trenches," he adds.

    Israeli diplomats have been working overtime across Europe to stop the document from being adopted when European foreign ministers meet Dec. 7 to set a Middle East policy statement.

    Greater European role
    Several individual European countries have taken a more active role in the peace process in recent weeks. France's Nicolas Sarkozy has been facilitating Israeli-Syrian communication, and German mediators are playing a role in negotiations over a prisoner deal, in which Israel would win the release of its captive soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who has been held for more than three years by Hamas, in exchange for up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

    But European policy as a whole has been more of a concern, Israeli officials say. Sweden is at the forefront because it holds the rotating EU presidency through January. Relations between Jerusalem and Stockholm have been chilly since a Swedish tabloid ran a report in August suggesting that the IDF [the Israel Defense Forces] harvested organs from Palestinians held in Israeli custody. Israeli officials asked that the Swedish government officially publicly criticize the sensationalist report, but it declined to do so.

    More recently, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt canceled a planned trip to Israel, Israel's foreign ministry announced over the weekend, apparently due to reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might refuse to meet with him.

    Israel: Swedish draft one-sided
    Quotes from the draft under Sweden's authorship have been sourced by the Israeli press, but no official copy is being provided because it is an internal document, an official at the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv told the Monitor.

    "We see no reason to comment on an internal draft document. And if there is a comment to be made, it will be made on behalf of the 27 member states and not just Sweden," says Annika Ben David, counsellor at the Swedish Embassy to Israel.

    Israel's problem with the draft is that it is one-sided, a senior Israeli official says.

    "If Europe is thinking of going public on what is final status, why only support one side of the issue?" The official continues, "If you say in your position paper that Israel will have to compromise on Jerusalem, why not come out publicly and say what the Palestinians will have to compromise on? Why not say that Palestinian refugees will have to go back to the state of Palestine, not Israel?"

    EU official: Support for Palestinians
    One European official in Tel Aviv, speaking on background, says that the EU position on Jerusalem does not represent a radical change, but is rather an attempt to show the Palestinians that they have international support for their claim to East Jerusalem as their future capital. In so doing, they hoped to draw Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, despite the fact that the settlement freeze that Netanyahu announced last week did not include East Jerusalem - a prerequisite to peace talks that Mr. Abbas has insisted on.

    "This might be a way to encourage the Palestinians to enter the negotiating process," said the European official. "But I don't think Europe is interested in the recognition of a Palestinian state now, ahead of negotiations. It's more saying, if and when it comes to it, we will recognized East Jerusalem as a capital of a Palestinian state."

     

    Monday
    Nov302009

    Do the Arab states really care about the Palestinians?

    For all their talk of standing by the Palestinians, the Arab regimes sure have a strange way of showing it. Despite reaping an oil-driven windfall last year of unprecedented proportions, few Arab states seem willing to dig very deep into their own pockets to back up their concern with cash.

    Indeed, the hollowness of their pro-Palestinian pronouncements was unambiguously on display last week in Amman, at a meeting of the Advisory Commission of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, better known by its acronym of UNRWA.

    Among the central topics discussed at the gathering was the growing financial crisis confronting the organization, which relies on voluntary contributions from governments to fund its activities on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

    In her remarks, Karen Abu Zayd, UNRWA's commissioner-general, bemoaned the group's financial state, describing it as "my most worrying preoccupation."

    She told those assembled that the agency is facing a deficit of $84 million this year, and that it projects a budget shortfall of $140m. in 2010. "UNRWA's weak financial situation," Abu Zayd said, "hinders our ability to discharge our responsibilities to the standards Palestinian refugees deserve."

    FOR THE past several years, it seems, UNRWA has been in increasingly dire straits. Indeed, on Tuesday of last week, the group's 16,000 employees in Judea, Samaria and Gaza held a one-day strike to demand better pay.

    Why, you might be wondering, have the UN agency's troubles been mounting of late? After all, fuel prices surged last year, with oil peaking in July 2008 at a high of $150 a barrel, so the coffers of Arab treasuries throughout the region were hardly lacking for funds with which to aid their Palestinian brethren.

    I wondered too, so I did some research and discovered a few surprising facts about the colossal gap between Arab rhetoric and Palestinian reality.

    Consider the following: In 2008, 19 of the top 20 donors to UNRWA's general fund were from the West, with the EU contributing over $116m., and the US more than $94m. Others, such as Sweden and the UK, each gave over $35m.

    Just one Arab country - Kuwait - appeared among UNRWA's top 20 benefactors. The Kuwaitis came in last on the list, having coughed up just $2.5m.

    Given that Kuwait's oil revenues last year surged by 44 percent to nearly $78 billion, you would think that if they really, truly cared about the Palestinians, this would have been reflected in the size of their donation to UNRWA.

    Nonetheless, when compared to the other five Arab states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - the Kuwaitis come out looking generous.

    In 2008, the combined revenues of the GCC states from oil production amounted to a whopping $575b. Yet their joint contribution to UNRWA's regular budget was a little more than $3.6m., signifying less than one one-thousandth of a percent of their total petroleum income! Bahrain gave a miserly $50,000, Oman forked over just $25,000, while Saudi Arabia coughed up zero.

    I've been to Hadassah dinners where more money was raised in an hour than the Arab states seem willing to part with in an entire year.

    In fact, over the past two decades, Arab regimes have been providing a steadily decreasing percentage of UNRWA's funding. In the 1980s, their contributions amounted to 8% of the group's annual budget, whereas now they comprise barely 3%.

    As a result, Western states are currently providing more than 95% of the funds behind UNRWA's ongoing programs.

    Now don't get me wrong - I am not shedding any tears over UNRWA's difficulties. The organization has long been a vehicle for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem as a lever for pressuring Israel, and it has not shied away from working closely with Hamas in Gaza, or serving as a vehicle for anti-Israel and anti-Western indoctrination.

    But UNRWA's woes lay bare the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Arab states. They lambaste Israel at every opportunity over the condition of the Palestinians, even as they themselves do very little to alleviate the problem.

    Sure, some Arab countries have kicked in funds to various UNRWA emergency appeals, while others provide aid to Palestinians via other channels.

    But the numbers above lead one to wonder: do the Arab states really care about the Palestinians?

    If UNRWA's ledger is any guide, the answer is a clear and resounding "no."

    --- from the November 26 Jerusalem Post

     

    Monday
    Nov302009

    Can Iran be trusted?

    Christain Science Monitor-London – In the run-up to talks with Iran last month, many in Europe and the United States asked whether Iran would, or even could, come clean on its nuclear activities.

    Should the West trust Iranian promises? The short answer is "no." But the underlying question is "Why not?"

    The answer lies in Iranian belief systems – notably the doctrine of taqiyya, a difficult concept for many non-Muslims to grasp. Taqiyya is the Shiite religious rationale for concealment or dissimulation in political or worldly affairs. At one level it means that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime can tell themselves that they are obliged by their faith not to tell the truth.

    This doctrine has not been discussed much in the West, but it should be. How should the world deal with taqiyya in Shiite Islam in the context of Iran's nuclear file?

    Can Iran be trusted?
    In Iran, the teachings of Shiite Islam govern all aspects of society. And taqiyya – dissimulation and concealment – is one of the key elements of the Shiite faith. While many outsiders are surprised by Iran's concealment of its nuclear installations, those who study the Shiite faith and recognize the signs of taqiyya are not.

    Many governments lie about strategic secrets, especially secrets about nuclear weapons. Witness Israel's concealment of its nuclear capabilities. And former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping counseled his country to "hide its brightness" – for strategic reasons.

    Iran's approach to its nuclear ambitions, however, is a different form of deception and denial. Certainly states do not need a religious edict to lie or obfuscate. But it helps if a state has one already in place.

    What can the West do?
    Western negotiators must be mindful, not only of the technical side of Iran's nuclear program, but the historical evolution of taqiyya. Such context sheds critical light on the insecurities of the Iranian regime and that of the Shiite community at large.

    Taqiyya doesn't mean the West should give up all negotiations with Iran, or that Iran can never be trusted. Tehran's concealment is a means to an end: It wants nuclear weapons to provide security for the clerical regime and the Shiite community. So long as Iran feels threatened, it will deceive. But if the West can ease Tehran's anxiety with strong assurances, then negotiations will be more truthful.

    How a doctrine of deceit developed
    Taqiyya requires the faithful to be deceitful at times of weakness. The history of Shiites in their conflict with Sunnis is a history of the downtrodden. They have been the underdogs in Islamic history, and have had to protect both their communities and their faith from being overrun by the more numerous Sunnis. Taqiyya emerged as a response.

    Taqiyya offers a license to violate the strict rules of the faith in cases of extreme pressure or threat of extinction – something not unusual in Sunni-Shiite history. The doctrine allows dissimulation in the service of self-preservation, practiced by the faithful.

    The teachings of Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shiite imam, emphasise taqiyya as a political tool. "Befriend people on the surface, and keep your grudges and intentions hidden," he advised. He also defined the relationship between the Shiite and other Muslims: "[B]eing double-faced with one's own takes one outside the bounds of faith, but with others [with non-Shiites] is a form of worship."

    The words of Shiite imams are viewed as having the authority of the prophet Muhammad, and they entail obligations. Taqiyya is one component of the faith, and the Shiites are instructed to practice it until the time the Mahdi returns. The Mahdi is the figure who, like the Messiah in Christianity, will return and spread justice on earth.

    Until that moment occurs, the Shiite faithful are obliged to practice taqiyya in their dealings with other Muslims, as well as with non-Muslims.

    Opposing value systems
    While the policies of the West and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are driven by the concept of transparency as a key doctrine of modernity and modern states, those who are negotiating withIran must question the extent to which the Shiite regime in Tehran is driven by the concept of concealment. There are two different value systems at work here, making common ground exceedingly difficult to find.

    Today the West may rightly be obsessed with nuclear installations in Iran, or the number of centrifuges it has, or even uranium-enrichment levels.

    Last month, Iranian officials allowed IAEA officials to inspect a nuclear facility near the city of Qom. But they won't reveal everything: that would violate their faith. Shiites are obliged by their religious teachings to protect both the faith and the community until the return of the Mahdi. From Tehran's perspective, "nuclear" taqiyya is a must, because strategic nuclear weapons are the only means to protect the Shiite community in these modern times.

    The West must understand that Iran's nuclear guile is a function of regime insecurities. And its insecurity is rooted in reality: Iran feels squeezed by the tens of thousands of US troops who brought regime change to its west, in Iraq, and to its east, in Afghanistan.

    If Washington wants a breakthrough in its negotiations with Iran, it should make fewer threats and more assurances. Only when the Iranian regime feels safe will it negotiate in good faith.

    Mamoun Fandy is the director of the Middle East program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. He's also the author of the forthcoming book, "The Shia-Sunni Divide and the Coming Middle Eastern Cold War."

     

    Sunday
    Nov292009

    "Bin Laden was in our grasp" -US Senate

    Osama bin Laden was unquestionably within reach of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora when American military leaders made the crucial and costly decision not to pursue the terrorist leader with massive force, a Senate report says.

    The report asserts that the failure to kill or capture bin Laden at his most vulnerable in December 2001 has had lasting consequences beyond the fate of one man. Bin Laden's escape laid the foundation for today's reinvigorated Afghan insurgency and inflamed the internal strife now endangering Pakistan, it says.

    Staff members for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic majority prepared the report at the request of the chairman, Sen. John Kerry, as President Barack Obama prepares to boost U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

    The Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate has long argued the Bush administration missed a chance to get the al-Qaida leader and top deputies when they were holed up in the forbidding mountainous area of eastern Afghanistan only three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    Although limited to a review of military operations eight years old, the report could also be read as a cautionary note for those resisting an increased troop presence there now.

    More pointedly, it seeks to affix a measure of blame for the state of the war today on military leaders under former president George W. Bush, specifically Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary and his top military commander, Tommy Franks.

    "Removing the al-Qaida leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat," the report says. "But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide. The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism."

    The report states categorically that bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora when the U.S. had the means to mount a rapid assault with several thousand troops at least. It says that a review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants "removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora."

    On or about Dec. 16, 2001, bin Laden and bodyguards "walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area," where he is still believed to be based, the report says.

    Instead of a massive attack, fewer than 100 U.S. commandos, working with Afghan militias, tried to capitalize on air strikes and track down their prey.

    "The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines," the report said.

    At the time, Rumsfeld expressed concern that a large U.S. troop presence might fuel a backlash and he and some others said the evidence was not conclusive about bin Laden's location.
    It's all Bush's fault!