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by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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December 24, 2012

In-Depth Issues:

Report: Poison Gas Kills 7 in Homs (Ynet News)
    Seven people were killed in Homs' rebel-held neighborhood of al-Bayyada when they inhaled poison gas sprayed by Syrian Army forces, opposition activists told Al-Jazeera on Monday.
    Scores of others suffered from nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties.
    "Medics are saying it's something similar to sarin gas," said Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs.
    In a video posted online, a man who inhaled the gas said, "I felt something within a few seconds. I felt my throat block up as I tried to breathe. I couldn't see; I was blinded. I felt that my muscles were relaxed. I was paralyzed. People had to carry me here."

White House Wavers on Hagel, Considers Others for Defense - Michael Hirsh (National Journal)
    Chuck Hagel's candidacy for defense secretary appears to be losing altitude in Washington.
    A senior administration official told National Journal on Sunday that Obama is considering candidates other than Hagel.

Constitution "Yes" Gives Egypt's Islamists Foundation to Create More Religious State (AP-Washington Post)
    The Muslim Brotherhood claimed Sunday that Egypt's new constitution was approved in a two-stage vote with a 64% "yes" vote overall, with official results to be announced Monday.
    See also Support for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Erodes in an Islamist Bastion - David Kirkpatrick (New York Times)
    In a working-class neighborhood in Giza across the Nile from Cairo, both loyal supporters and critics of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood described a deep erosion in the group's street-level support.
    The damage to the Brotherhood's popularity reflects a consistent trio of complaints: confusing economic policies of the government, a near-monopoly on power, and civilian supporters' use of force against opponents in a street battle two weeks ago.
    Even so, many say the Brotherhood remains the most potent political force, in part because of the incoherence of the opposition.

House Letter Calls on Obama to Shut PLO Office (JTA)
    239 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have called on President Obama to shut down the PLO office in Washington in response to its elevation at the UN last month to non-member observer state status.
    "One important way of expressing U.S. disapproval would be to send the message that such actions are not cost-free and that, at a minimum, they result in setbacks to U.S.-Palestinian relations," said the letter sent Dec. 21, initiated by the incoming and outgoing leaders of both parties on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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News Resources - North America, Europe, and Asia:
  • Palestinian Officials Warn Israel of Retaliation If Netanyahu Re-elected - Robert Tait
    Palestinian officials have warned they will take retaliatory steps, including joining the International Criminal Court (ICC), if Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is re-elected next month. They have also raised the possibility of mass demonstrations, encouraging international sanctions against Israel and ending security coordination. "We are going to pursue this policy to reach a point of having the international community impose sanctions on Israel," said Qais Abdelkareem, a Palestine Liberation Organization official. (Telegraph-UK)
  • Tougher EU Sanctions Against Iran Come into Force - Barbara Lewis
    Rigorous new sanctions against Iran's banking, shipping and industrial sectors, agreed upon in October, took effect on Saturday, as part of EU efforts to force Tehran to scale back its nuclear program. They include bans on financial transactions, sales to Iran of shipping equipment and steel, and imports of Iranian natural gas. (Reuters)
  • Russia Won't Host Syria's Assad, Foreign Minister Says - Vladimir Isachenkov
    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Moscow would welcome any country's offer of a safe haven to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but Russia itself has no intention of giving him shelter. "If there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome!" Lavrov said. "We would be the first to...say: 'Thank God, the carnage is over!' If it indeed ends the carnage, which is far from certain."
        Lavrov also said: "The Syrian government has concentrated the [chemical weapons] stockpiles in one or two centers, unlike the past when they were scattered across the country."  (AP-Huffington Post)
        See also Syrian Airstrike Said to Kill Dozens in Bread Line - Kareem Fahim and Hwaida Saad (New York Times)
  • Netanyahu Lauds Kerry Nomination for U.S. Secretary of State - Ori Lewis
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday welcomed the appointment of his personal friend John Kerry as U.S. secretary of state. "I congratulate John Kerry on being chosen for the position of U.S. Secretary of State. Kerry is very experienced and is a known supporter of Israel's security." "John Kerry and I are friends for many years and...I look forward to cooperating with him," he added. (Reuters)
  • Christianity Close to Extinction in the Middle East - Edward Malnick
    Christianity faces being wiped out of the "biblical heartlands" in the Middle East because of mounting persecution of worshippers, according to a new report, entitled Christianophobia, by the Civitas think tank. The report quotes estimates that between half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left the region or been killed in the past century.
        It says the most common threat to Christians abroad is militant Islam, claiming that oppression in Muslim countries is often ignored because of a fear that criticism will be seen as "racism." It warns that converts from Islam face being killed in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran and risk severe legal penalties in other countries across the Middle East. (Telegraph-UK)
News Resources - Israel and the Mideast:
  • Palestinians in Gaza Fire Rocket at Israel
    Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket at Israel on Sunday evening. The IDF said the rocket did not reach Israel. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Palestinians Retract Claims that IDF Killed Two at Gaza Border
    IDF soldiers fired warning shots at Gazans approaching the security barrier on Sunday but did not hit anyone, military sources confirmed Sunday. Gazan medical sources said that IDF fire killed two Palestinians late Sunday night, Palestinian media reported. A Gazan Health Ministry official later denied that anyone had been killed, the Palestine Today news agency reported. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Record Number of Tourists Visited Israel in 2012
    The Ministry of Tourism on Sunday reported that 3.5 million people visited Israel in 2012, an increase of 4% over 2011. (Jerusalem Post)
        See also Tourism in Israel 2012 (Israel Ministry of Tourism-IMRA)
Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis (Best of U.S., UK, and Israel):
  • Will Syria's Dwindling Reserves Bring Down the Regime? - Vivienne Walt
    Economists say President Bashar Assad's regime has effectively gone broke, and is running out of ways to raise revenues and keep most of its soldiers properly fed and paid. Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist who fled last year, said, "If the government cannot finance the army, they [soldiers] will simply go away."
        That tipping point, in which the government faces all-out financial collapse, seems to be drawing near - between three to six months from now, according to Seifan and others. Already, Assad has abandoned about 40% of the country to rebel forces. The government's official foreign reserves have dwindled from about $20 billion in early 2011 to between $2 and $4 billion now. The regime has been operating for months on outside help from Iran and Russia. In recent months Russia flew eight plane-loads of Syrian banknotes, printed in Russia, to Damascus, in a kind of rescue package. (TIME)
        See also Tipping Point in Syria Edges Closer - Amos Harel
    Western intelligence agencies believe that Assad effectively controls no more than 25% of the country - parts of Damascus and Aleppo, and a coastal strip in the country's northwest. (Ha'aretz)
        See also Syrian President Hell-Bent on War of Attrition - Zvi Bar'el
    Turkey and the U.S. presented Russia with a plan whereby Assad would agree to resign within three months, during which there would be an orderly transfer of power to the Syrian National Coalition. If Assad accepts the proposal, he will receive political asylum, and Syria will enjoy massive Western aid in its reconstruction. For the moment, however, Assad is refusing even to meet with the UN envoy, Al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi, and appears to have made a strategic decision to continue fighting. (Ha'aretz)
  • Gaza: Palestinian Rockets Unlawfully Targeted Israeli Civilians
    Palestinian armed groups in Gaza violated the laws of war by launching 1,500 rockets toward population centers in Israel between Nov. 14 and 21. The rocket attacks killed three Israeli civilians, wounded at least 38, several seriously, and destroyed civilian property. Rockets that fell short of their intended targets killed at least two Palestinians in Gaza and wounded others, Human Rights Watch said.
        "Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. "There is simply no legal justification for launching rockets at populated areas." Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians and civilian structures may not be subject to deliberate attacks or attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets. Anyone who commits serious laws-of-war violations intentionally or recklessly is responsible for war crimes.
        In addition, armed groups repeatedly fired rockets from densely populated areas, near homes, businesses, and a hotel, unnecessarily placing civilians in the vicinity at grave risk from Israeli counter-fire.
        [Iran] supplying weaponry to a party to a conflict knowing that it is likely to be used to commit war crimes constitutes the aiding and abetting of war crimes. (Human Rights Watch)
  • Palestinians Burning their Bridges - Jonathan S. Tobin
    The Palestinians have spent the last 20 years converting a strong Israeli majority in favor of the peace process into one that regards the whole concept as a dangerous fantasy. But rather than attempt to restart peace talks or to convince Israelis that the Palestinian goal is to end the conflict rather than to merely continue it on more advantageous terms, the Palestinians are planning on doubling down on their negative image. The PA plans to use its enhanced status at the UN to pursue specious charges of war crimes against Israelis in the International Criminal Court and advocate for sanctions and boycotts against the Jewish state.
        While heightening Israel's isolation may seem like a smart thing to do in Ramallah, it won't do a thing to give the Palestinians a better life or to get them closer to peace or independence. By choosing to avoid the obvious path to peace, the Palestinians are burning their last bridges to the Israeli people. They shouldn't expect the U.S. to dig them out of the hole they are placing themselves in. (Commentary)

Will 2013 See Action on Iran's Nuclear Program? - Jackson Diehl (Washington Post)

  • There's a good case to be made that next year will finally bring a break in the Iranian standoff - by means of a military confrontation, the appearance of an Iranian bomb or a diplomatic deal of some kind. One of the people making that case is President Obama's first-term adviser on Iran, Dennis Ross.
  • His reasons that next year will be different boil down to three: an approaching Iranian "breakout" capacity; Obama's stated determination to prevent it; and the slow emergence of an economic and political climate in Iran that could prompt Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to change course.
  • Obama himself defined "breakout capacity" in the third presidential debate in October. It "means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program." Ross contends that statement reflected a carefully-drawn red line.
  • In his first year in office, Obama presided over an internal debate about whether an Iranian nuclear bomb could be tolerated and contained; he eventually decided that it must be prevented, by military action if necessary. Ross says that Obama's definition of "breakout capacity" may have contributed to Israel's decision to postpone military action of its own.
  • It's hard to imagine Obama explaining to the nation that another Middle East war is necessary because Iran's uranium stockpile has grown a few kilograms too large. But that's not the scenario Ross envisages. He says Obama will likely first present Khamenei with a final offer, allowing Iran a civil nuclear power program under tight restrictions. "He will make some unmistakable demonstration that he is going the extra mile," Ross says.
  • For the moment, Ross says, the Iranians "are not convinced we are prepared to use force." Consequently, he says, "at this point I would still put the prospects for diplomacy at less than 50-50." And: "If by the end of 2013 diplomacy hasn't worked, the prospects for use of force become quite high."

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