Archive for December, 2015

Israel’s Olmert to become first leader to go to prison

December 29, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who claimed to be on the cusp of a historic peace deal with the Palestinians just a few years ago, now is set to become the first Israeli leader to go to prison after the Supreme Court upheld a bribery conviction against him Tuesday.

The decision capped a seven-year legal saga that severely undermined the last serious round of peace talks and propelled hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power. In some ways, Tuesday’s decision was a success for Olmert. The five-judge panel dismissed the most serious bribery charge against him and reduced his original prison sentence from six years down to 18 months. He is set to report to prison on Feb. 15.

“A stone has been lifted from my heart,” a visibly relieved Olmert told reporters. “I said in the past, I was never offered and I never took a bribe. And I say that again today.” But it nonetheless served as a reminder of what might have been had he managed to complete his term before the scandal forced him to step down in early 2009.

Olmert was a longtime fixture in Israel’s hawkish right wing when he began taking a dramatically more conciliatory line toward the Palestinians as deputy prime minister a decade ago. He played a leading role in Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

He became prime minister in January 2006 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke — and subsequently led their newly formed Kadima Party to victory in parliamentary elections on a platform of pushing further peace moves with the Palestinians.

In a recent interview broadcast on Channel 10 TV, Olmert said his political transformation began while he was mayor of Jerusalem during the 1990s and early 2000s. He said the wide gaps between the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods led him to conclude that the continued occupation of millions of Palestinians was unsustainable.

A gifted orator, Olmert broke a series of taboos while in office — warning that Israel could become like apartheid South Africa if it continued its occupation of the Palestinians and expressing readiness to relinquish control of parts of the holy city of Jerusalem under a peace deal.

He led his government to the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007 — launching more than a year of ambitious, but unsuccessful U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians. Olmert enjoyed a warm relationship with then-President George W. Bush.

Olmert has said he made unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians during those talks — including a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank and an offer to place Jerusalem’s Old City under international control — and was close to reaching an agreement at the time of his resignation.

In last month’s TV interview, Olmert described presenting his offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, Olmert was enveloped in scandal and had already announced his intention to step down, but elections were still some five months away.

“I told him, ‘Remember my words, it will be 50 years before there will be another Israeli prime minister that will offer you what I am offering you now. Don’t miss this opportunity,'” Olmert said. In the same documentary, Abbas confirmed Olmert’s offer. But he said Israeli leader pressured him to sign the deal without allowing him to study a proposed map, and that the offer did not adequately resolve the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.

Still, he described the talks as serious and estimated a deal could have been wrapped up in “four to five months” had Olmert not been engulfed in his legal problems. Olmert’s departure cleared the way for the election of Netanyahu, and subsequent Mideast peace efforts have failed to get off the ground. Netanyahu rejects Olmert’s territorial concessions, and with gaps so wide, the Palestinians say there is no point in resuming talks.

Despite his ambitious agenda, Olmert’s term was clouded by the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier who was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid and an inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Both occurred in 2006 shortly after he took office. Olmert also reportedly destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor — and his government launched a military invasion of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in late 2008 that drew heavy international criticism.

Olmert was convicted in March 2014 and sentenced to six years in a wide-ranging case that accused him of accepting bribes to promote a controversial real-estate project in Jerusalem. The charges pertained to a period when he was mayor of Jerusalem and the country’s trade minister, years before he became prime minister.

Olmert denied any wrongdoing and was allowed to stay out of prison pending the appeal. In their 948-page ruling, five Supreme Court judges reversed Olmert’s previous conviction for accepting a 500,000 shekel ($130,000) bribe to help promote the project. The money was earmarked for Olmert’s debt-strapped younger brother, but four of the five justices ruled it could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Olmert was involved.

But the top court upheld a lesser conviction against Olmert of taking a 60,000 shekel ($15,000) bribe. The ruling essentially ends any hopes of a political comeback. Tuesday’s conviction included a ruling of “moral turpitude,” barring him from politics for an additional seven years after leaving prison.

Yohanan Plesner, a former legislator with Olmert’s Kadima party, said Olmert’s legacy was ability to form a “relationship of trust” with the Palestinians at a time when the Israeli public, disillusioned by the second Palestinian uprising a few years earlier, was skeptical.

Plesner, who now heads the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said Olmert’s efforts ultimately were stymied by his legal troubles before they could bear fruit. “There was still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “And since (the Palestinians) knew he was leaving, there was no incentive to deliver their compromises to Olmert at that point.”

Advertisements

Saudi Arabia to host Syrian opposition ahead of peace talks

December 04, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Saudi Arabia is hosting Syrian opposition groups and many of the main rebel factions next week in an effort to come up with a unified front ahead of peace talks with representatives of the government in Damascus, scheduled to begin early next year.

The meeting is the first of its kind in the Sunni kingdom, which is a main backer of the Syrian opposition, underscoring how the internationally backed effort is the most serious yet in attempts to end the nearly five-year civil war. The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

The rebel factions’ participation points to the evolution in the position of many of them that long rejected any negotiations with Damascus as long President Bashar Assad was in power. Now they are on board to attempt a process that the United States and its allies say must eventually lead to Assad’s removal — but with no timetable for it.

At the three-day gathering that starts next Tuesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the factions will try to form a unified opposition delegation and a platform regarding what is meant to be a transitional period in Syria, officials who were invited said.

“We will be negotiating Assad’s departure,” said Mustafa Osso, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. “If this regime stays, violence will continue in Syria and there will be no stability,” he said, speaking from Turkey. Osso will be part of what he said will be a 20-member delegation from the coalition at the Riyadh meeting.

A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad’s government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad’s future, but states that “free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.”

Among the nations that took part in the Vienna meeting were the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been Assad’s strongest supporters since the crisis began in March 2011 while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed factions trying to remove the Syrian president from power.

In Tehran, Iran’s deputy foreign minister denounced the planned gathering in Saudi Arabia, the official IRNA news agency reported. “The action will divert Vienna political efforts on Syria from its natural path and will drive the Vienna talks toward failure,” Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

Most of the main rebel factions have been invited to the Riyadh talks, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Also among the invited are two of the biggest — Jaysh al-Islam and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group that has been for months trying to improve its image and market itself as a moderate faction, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.

Spokesmen for Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham did not respond to requests for comment on whether the groups would attend. “The time for serious negotiations to find a solution has begun,” Hamidi said.

But in a sign of the splits within Assad’s opponents, no Kurdish factions have been invited, including the main Kurdish militia known as the YPG. The YPG has been the most successful group fighting the Islamic State group and captured scores of towns and villages from the extremists over the past year.

Saleh Muslim, the president of the largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, said his group has also not been invited. He said Turkey, which has broad fears of Kurdish ambitions, likely pressured Saudi Arabia not to invite them or the YPG.

“We would love to participate. The conference is related to Syria’s future and we are a main part of Syria and its future,” Muslim said. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. There are Kurds, including Osso, in some other factions that will attend.

Among those invited is Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change. He said that his group will enter talks with the Syrian government “without pre-conditions.”

“The fate of the Syrian president will be decided during the negotiations,” Abdul-Azim said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that the Syrian government has already put forward to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the makeup of its delegation to the upcoming negotiations. Lavrov last week said peace talks cannot go ahead until all parties involved agree on which groups should be listed as terrorist and which as Syria’s legitimate opposition.

Also ahead of the peace talks, Jordan is to oversee a process identifying which militant groups in Syria should be considered as terrorists and thus should be prevented from participating in any negotiations. That is to be completed by the time the political process between the government and opposition begins in January.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the world body is working to launch talks between Syria’s warring parties and start a nationwide cease-fire in the country in early January. He also said he expects the third round of talks on the “Vienna process” to take place in New York but wouldn’t confirm a Dec. 18 date, though that date is being considered, according to U.N. diplomats.

Also Thursday, Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary general of the world’s largest body of Muslim nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, appealed to the Syrian opposition leaders to “close ranks and make the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for change, reform and reconstruction of institutions.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Greek Parliament calls on country to recognize Palestinians

December 22, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek lawmakers have unanimously approved a resolution calling on the country’s left-led government to formally recognize Palestinian statehood.

Tuesday’s vote, which has no binding effect on the government, was held in the presence of visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who later addressed Parliament. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has declined to say when Greece could adopt the parliamentary resolution.

Tsipras’ government is trying to balance improved relations with Israel with his party’s longstanding support for a Palestinian state. Tsipras visited Israel last month, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also met with Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank.

Israeli missile interceptor passes final test

Jerusalem (AFP)

Dec 21, 2015

Israel’s David’s Sling missile defense system has passed final tests and should be ready for deployment next year as part of the country’s efforts to defend against regional threats, officials said Monday.

The medium-range interceptor, developed with United States backing, is due to be handed to the Israeli air force “at the end of the first quarter of 2016,” said Yair Ramati, head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization.

David’s Sling is designed to fill the gap between the longer-range Arrow missile defense system and the shorter-range Iron Dome interceptor.

It was developed by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and US company Raytheon.

Earlier this month, Israel also announced that it successfully tested the Arrow 3 interceptor, designed to shoot down missiles above the atmosphere.

The tests come with Israel saying it faces threats from regional enemies including Iran and Hezbollah.

Monday’s announcement also followed the killing of a Lebanese militant in Syria at the weekend in what Hezbollah described as an Israeli air strike. Israel has not claimed responsibility.

In an apparent response, at least two rockets were fired into Israel from Hezbollah’s south Lebanon heartland, with no casualties reported. The Israeli military said it responded with “targeted artillery fire”.

Officials stressed that Monday’s David’s Sling announcement was not linked to the weekend incidents, with the program long in development.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Israeli_missile_interceptor_passes_final_test_999.html.

German-made submarine heads to Israel for delivery

Washington (UPI)

Dec 18, 2015

The latest German-built Dolphin-class submarine INS Rahav is en route to Haifa to be delivered to the Israeli Navy.

INS Rahav, given the Hebrew name for Greek god of the seas Poseidon, is one of the Israeli Defense Force’s most expensive weapons. The vessel’s voyage to Haifa comes roughly a decade after the Israeli government placed the order to German defense contractor Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft.

The company unveiled the submarine in April 2013, however more work was needed to ensure the vessel was fully operational. Rahav is the fifth submarine of its class to be delivered to the Israeli Navy, The Times of Israel reports.

Rahav is the second new-generation, air-independent propulsion submarine built after Israel’s INS Tanin, which entered service in 2014. The submarines are capable of staying submerged for longer periods of time, according to IHS Janes. Rahav cost an estimated $2 billion to build.

“Submarines are a strategic tool in the IDF’s defense arsenal. Israel is prepared to act at any time in any place to ensure the safety of Israel’s citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said when Rahav was unveiled in 2013.

Rahav is expected to reach its home port in Haifa in mid-January. After its arrival, the vessel will undergo a series of system installation programs before officially entering service later in 2016.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/German-made_submarine_heads_to_Israel_for_delivery_999.html.

German Cabinet OKs military mission against IS in Syria

December 01, 2015

BERLIN (AP) — The German Cabinet has approved plans to commit up to 1,200 soldiers to support the international coalition fighting against the Islamic State group in Syria.

The mandate, which requires parliamentary approval, was endorsed by ministers Tuesday, news agency dpa reported. It isn’t yet clear when lawmakers will consider it, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition has a large majority and approval looks assured.

Following the Paris attacks, Merkel agreed to honor a request from France to provide support for its operations against IS in Syria. Germany plans to send reconnaissance aircraft, tanker planes and a warship to the region in support roles, but won’t actively engage in combat.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the daily Bild that he doesn’t expect Germany to have 1,200 soldiers participating at any one time.

Britain launches airstrikes on IS in Syria

December 03, 2015

AKROTIRI, Cyprus (AP) — British warplanes carried out airstrikes in Syria early Thursday, hours after Parliament voted to authorize air attacks against Islamic State group targets there.

Four Royal Air Force Tornados took off from a British air base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, shortly after the 397-223 vote by lawmakers in the House of Commons. A Ministry of Defense spokesman told the AP the planes had conducted strikes in Syria, and details about their targets would be provided later Thursday.

He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with British policy for government spokespeople. The RAF has been launching strikes against IS targets in Iraq since 2014. The decision to expand the campaign to Syria came after an emotional 10 1/2-hour debate in which Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain must strike the militants in their heartland and not “sit back and wait for them to attack us.”

Opponents argued that Britain’s entry into Syria’s crowded airspace would make little difference, and said Cameron’s military plan was based on wishful thinking that overlooked the messy reality of the Syrian civil war.

Cameron has long wanted to target IS in Syria, but had been unsure of getting majority support in the House of Commons until now. He suffered an embarrassing defeat in 2013 when lawmakers rejected a motion backing attacks on the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The mood has changed following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, claimed by IS, that killed 130 people. Both France and the U.S. have urged Britain to join their air campaign in Syria, and Cameron said Britain should not let its allies down.

He said Britain was already a top target for IS attacks, and airstrikes would reduce the group’s ability to plan more Paris-style carnage. “Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people?” he said. “Or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?”

He said that attacking IS was not anti-Muslim but “a defense of Islam” against “women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters.” Cameron was backed by most members of his governing Conservative Party — which holds 330 of the 650 Commons seats — as well as members of the smaller Liberal Democrat party and others.

Labor, the main opposition, was divided. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn — who represents the left wing of the party — spoke against what he called a “reckless and half-baked intervention.” But more than 60 Labor lawmakers, including senior party figures, voted in support of airstrikes, a move likely to make fissures between the right and the left of the party even worse.

Labor foreign affairs spokesman Hilary Benn said Britain could not “walk by on the other side of the road” when international allies were asking for help against IS “fascists.” Britain already conducts airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq, and in August launched a drone strike that killed two British IS militants in Syria.

British officials say Royal Air Force Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets, armed with Brimstone missiles capable of hitting moving targets, would bring the campaign highly accurate firepower and help minimize civilian casualties.

President Barack Obama welcomed the British vote to join the air campaign in Syria, saying the Islamic State group “is a global threat that must be defeated by a global response.” Critics claim British airstrikes will make little practical difference, and that ground forces will be needed to root out IS. Britain has ruled out sending troops, and critics of the government have responded with skepticism to Cameron’s claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels on the ground.

Cameron stood by that claim Wednesday, though he conceded, “I’m not saying that the 70,000 are our ideal partners.” Karin von Hippel, who was chief of staff to U.S. Gen. John Allen when he was the United States’ anti-ISIS envoy, said force alone would not defeat the militants — but neither would diplomacy by itself.

“The Brits have expertise and capabilities,” she said. Their involvement “brings moral authority and legitimacy to the fight.” The British vote came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said NATO members were ready to step up military efforts against the Islamic State group — and held out hope of improved cooperation between the West and Russia to end Syria’s four-year civil war.

A day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States would deploy a new special operations force to Iraq to step up the fight against the militants, Kerry said other countries could provide assistance that did not involve combat. He said the effort to expand operations would require more medical facilities, intelligence-gathering, military support structure, refueling operations, aerial defenses and other action.

The German Cabinet has approved plans to commit up to 1,200 soldiers to support the anti-IS coalition in Syria, though not in a combat role. Despite talk of increased international cooperation, tension has soared between Russia and Turkey after the shooting down of a Russian military jet by Turkish forces last week.

On Wednesday, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, accused Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of benefiting from illegal oil trade with Islamic State militants. Erdogan called the claim “slander” and said Turkey would not “buy oil from a terror organization.”

Russia and the United States also disagree about tactics in Syria, with Moscow backing Assad and Washington saying he must go. But Kerry, speaking after NATO meetings in Brussels, said that if Russia’s focus on fighting IS was “genuine,” it could have a constructive role in bringing peace. He didn’t say whether the U.S. might be willing to bring Russia into its military effort against the group, as some members such as France have proposed.

The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said the bulk of Russia’s air operations in Syria are still directed against moderate anti-Assad opposition forces, not Islamic State positions.

U.S. officials had hoped Russia would change its bombing focus after the Oct. 31 attack on a Russian airliner over Egypt, which killed 224 people. Asserting that the “vast majority” of Russian sorties targeted moderate groups, Breedlove said coalition forces were “not working with or cooperating with Russia in Syria” but had devised safety routines to make it easier for both groups.

The British debate was sometimes bad-tempered as opposition lawmakers demanded Cameron apologize for remarks, reportedly made at a closed-door meeting, in which he branded opponents a “bunch of terrorist sympathizers.”

Cameron did not retract the comments but said “there’s honor in voting for, there’s honor in voting against” the motion to back airstrikes. From the passionate speeches in the House to the anti-war protesters outside Parliament, the debate recalled Britain’s divisive 2003 decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on what turned out to be false claims about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Many lawmakers came to regret supporting the war and ensuing chaos, and blamed then-Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair for lacking a plan for post-war reconstruction.

Labor leader Corbyn said that “to oppose another reckless and half-baked intervention isn’t pacifism. It’s hard-headed common sense.” Labor’s Shabana Mahmood — one of the few Muslim lawmakers in Parliament — called IS “Nazi-esque totalitarians who are outlaws from Islam,” but said she opposed the strikes because “we cannot simply bomb the ground, we have to have a strategy to hold it as well.”

But Cameron said doing nothing was a worse option. “The risks of inaction are greater than the risks of what I propose,” he said.

Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writers Danica Kirka and Gregory Katz in London, Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Deb Riechmann in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Brussels and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.