U.S. Senators Seeking Tougher Economic Sanctions on Iran - Indira A.R. Lakshmanan (Bloomberg)
A group of U.S. lawmakers is proposing to intensify the economic pressure on Iran by drafting the harshest penalties to date. A draft Senate bill would penalize foreign countries that do business with any Iranian entity controlled by the government.
It also would bar Iran from using earnings from oil exports to purchase anything other than food and medicine.
In an effort to stop Iran from evading existing sanctions on oil exports, the bill would penalize companies that provide ship insurance and reinsurance for Iran and punish entities involved in vessel-to-vessel transfers of Iranian oil.
The measure also would require the Islamic Republic to release political prisoners, respect the rights of women and minorities, and move toward "a free and democratically elected government."
The bill would further require the president to report every 60 days on how long it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear weapon.
Report: At Least 4,300 Syrians Killed in Airstrikes - Barbara Surk (AP)
The Syrian regime has carried out indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians that have killed at least 4,300 people since last summer and that amounts to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
The international human rights group said Syrian fighter jets have deliberately targeted bakeries, breadlines and hospitals in the country's northern region.
Report: Israel Aiding Wounded Syrian Rebels in Syria - Noga Tarnopolsky (Salon)
Israeli military personnel may have entered Syrian territory to identify wounded Syrians and administer basic medical care.
A senior Israeli source said that wounded Syrian rebels who have received medical care in Israel "are transported across the border only once they are positively identified and receive initial emergency medical treatment while still on the other side," meaning on Syrian soil.
UN: Libya Arms Fueling Conflicts in Syria, Mali and Beyond - Michelle Nichols (Reuters)
Weapons from Libya are fueling conflicts in Mali, Syria and elsewhere and boosting the arsenals of extremists and criminals in the region, according to a UN report published on Tuesday.
The report by the UN Security Council's Group of Experts said the North African state had become a key source of weapons in the region.
Israel Set for Mega Defense Deal with India (Times of India)
Israel may equip all 356 infantry battalions of the Indian Army with third-generation "Spike" anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).
The $2.76 billion project will involve an initial direct acquisition of the man-portable "tank killers" with a strike range of 2.5 km., followed by the transfer of technology for large-scale indigenous Indian manufacture.
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- Kerry Leaves Israel with Hopes, But Few Results - Edmund Sanders
Wrapping up his first solo visit in a renewed Obama administration campaign to restart peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Tuesday with few signs of progress and a vow to keep trying. After talks Monday and Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry expressed optimism, calling the discussions productive and constructive. "This effort is not just about getting the parties back into direct negotiations,'' Kerry said. "It's about getting everybody in the best position to succeed."
Kerry said he was leaving Israel with "homework" and would return to the region to continue the process and the talks. "Doing it right is more important than doing it quickly,"' he said.
Israeli and Palestinian officials say Kerry is expected to make monthly trips to the region.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said Tuesday that "foremost in our minds [are] the questions of recognition and security." His government has insisted that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" and allow an Israeli military presence along the Jordan Valley.
(Los Angeles Times)
- U.S. to Open Wallet in Mideast Peace Bid - Jay Solomon and Joshua Mitnick
The Obama administration is mapping out an economic strategy in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, using both U.S. government funds and private-sector involvement, in a bid to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Obama administration is betting that economic improvements will encourage Palestinians to view peace talks positively. "Economic growth will help us be able to provide...greater confidence about moving forward," Secretary of State John Kerry said in Tel Aviv.
The U.S. economic package would come amid a two-year economic slowdown in the Palestinian territories. Though the West Bank experienced strong growth from 2008 to 2011, a shortfall in international donor funding has spurred a liquidity crisis in the Palestinian Authority. (Wall Street Journal)
See also Kerry to Unveil New PA Economic Initiative - Tovah Lazaroff
A new economic initiative to improve life for the Palestinians will be unveiled in Washington next week in an effort to reignite the stalled negotiations with Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Tuesday. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas have agreed to promote Palestinian economic development, remove barriers to commerce and increase business expansion and private sector investment in the West Bank, Kerry said. Palestinian economic development "is not in lieu of, or an alternative to, the political track. It is not a substitute. The political track remains the primary focus," Kerry added.
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- Israeli Official: Turkey Against a Nuclear Iran - Atilla Somfalvi
The head of the diplomatic-security bureau at Israel's Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, said Tuesday that the reconciliation agreement with Turkey was important for Israel due to the Iran nuclear situation. "Turkey has been enemies with Iran or Persia for 1,000 years; it (Turkey) cannot allow them to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Turkey is not ready for Iran to go nuclear." Gilad also emphasized that even if Israel's relations with Turkey did not return to their previous level, the reconciliation agreement stopped the deterioration of relations between the two countries. He added that further crises, unknown to the public, had been averted.
- Poll: Hamas Loses Popularity among Palestinians - Khaled Abu Toameh
Support for firing rockets from Gaza into Israel has dropped sharply, from 74% in December 2012 to 38% now, according to a survey conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center and published on Wednesday. At the same time, 80% back non-violent "resistance" against Israel.
The proportion of Palestinians who support military operations against Israel dropped from 50% in December 2012 to 31%. In terms of overall support, Hamas' popularity dropped from 28% in December 2012 to 20%. (Jerusalem Post)
- In Syria, Some Brace for the Next War - Liz Sly
In northeastern Syria, Syrians are bracing for a war between the relatively moderate fighters who first took up arms against the government and Islamist extremists. Schisms are emerging among rebel groups over ideology, the shape of a future Syrian state, and control of significant resources.
The provinces of Raqqah, Deir al-Zour and Hasakah - between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers - are home to the bulk of Syria's economic wealth, including all of its oil fields, as well as its gas reserves, and most of its agriculture.
Jabhat al-Nusra, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. because of its suspected ties to al-Qaeda, is among several groups advancing in the region, but it is emerging as the strongest. Last week, a Saudi and two Tunisian fighters were killed when tribal leaders sought to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from entering the village of Misrib in Deir al-Zour. In Shahadi, an oil town in Hasakah province, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters opened fire on demonstrators protesting the group's presence in the town.
Jabhat al-Nusra has seized control of nearly 90% of Syria's oil wells, its granaries and its stores of cotton, and it is selling these stocks to raise money. (Washington Post)
See also Al-Qaeda Reveals True Role in Syrian Insurgency Through Al-Nusra - Shaun Waterman
The Syrian extremist militia Jabhat al-Nusra is a branch of al-Qaeda's coalition in Iraq and has been all along, the umbrella group Islamic State of Iraq acknowledged Tuesday. "It's now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and world that Jabhat al-Nusrah is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it," said an audio message from the emir of the Iraqi coalition group, Abu Bakr al-Hussayni al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi.
"This is major news," declared Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
"It means al-Qaeda is confident enough about its position in Syria to go public," said Aaron Zelin, editor of the blog Jihadology.
- Real Passports, Fake Drivers' Licenses - How Hizbullah Slowly Infiltrated Europe - Alexandre Levy
On March 28, a Cyprus court condemned a Swedish-Lebanese man, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, 24, to four years in prison for helping plan attacks against Israelis. The Hizbullah member was a scout, tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of Israeli tourists on the island, in order to organize a terrorist attack. Cyprus police said he was particularly meticulous, taking notes on flight schedules, bus license plates, the numbers of security guards, hotels, and kosher restaurants.
"Taking advantage of the leniency of some European capitals, Hizbullah has strengthened its network in Europe, recruiting and positioning agents all across the continent. Bi-nationals with ties with Lebanon have the ideal profile," says Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
It was the same for the men who operated in Bulgaria: one was Canadian, the other Australian. Both had entered the country legally and rented cars and booked hotel rooms with fake U.S. drivers' licenses. "The documents were made by a forger in Lebanon, known by our colleagues from Western intelligence services," explained Bulgaria's organized crime czar, Stanimir Florov. Money transfers from Lebanon, as well as a photo on which relatives of one of the terrorists posed with high-ranking Hizbullah militants, convinced Bulgarian officials that all the tracks lead back to Beirut.
Counter-terrorism experts also noted a "professionalization" of Hizbullah agents abroad. They used fake IDs, spoke foreign languages, used coded communications, and maintained secrecy between members, explained a European police official.
Palestinians: Why Salam Fayyad Stands No Chance Against Fatah - Khaled Abu Toameh (Gatestone Institute)
- PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah leaders see U.S.-educated Salam Fayyad, who was appointed PA prime minister in 2007 at the request of the U.S. and EU countries, as a threat to their control over the Palestinian Authority and its finances.
- Some Fatah leaders, such as Tawfik Tirawi and Najat Abu Baker, are even convinced that Fayyad is plotting, together with the U.S. and other Western countries, to replace Abbas. Were it not for U.S. and EU intervention, Abbas and Fatah would have removed Fayyad from his job several years ago.
- Each time Abbas considered sacking Fayyad, U.S. and EU government officials stepped in to warn that such a move would seriously affect foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority.
- Yet these efforts have been counterproductive and have further discredited Fayyad in the eyes of many Palestinians.
Fayyad's enemies have cited these efforts as "proof" that he is a "foreign agent."
- Fatah's main problem with Fayyad is that he has almost exclusive control over the PA budget.
Fatah does not like the idea that its leaders can no longer steal international aid because of Fayyad's presence.
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