Obama: Less than 50 Percent Chance of Israeli-Palestinian Peace - David Remnick (New Yorker)
Obama told me that in all three of his main initiatives in the region - with Iran, with Israel and the Palestinians, with Syria - the odds of completing final treaties are less than 50-50.
"On the other hand," he said, "in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn't roll back on us."
Russia Steps Up Military Lifeline to Syria's Assad - Jonathan Saul (Reuters)
In recent weeks Russia has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria.
"Dozens of Antonov 124s (Russian transport planes) have been bringing in armored vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters, and various weapons including guided bombs for planes," a Middle East security source said.
"Russian advisers and intelligence experts have been running observation UAVs around the clock to help Syrian forces track rebel positions, analyze their capabilities, and carry out precision artillery and air force strikes against them."
"Russia is either bringing it in themselves or sourcing supplies from Black Sea areas like Bulgaria, Romania or Ukraine, where there is surplus stock floating around," an international arms industry source said.
Israel Plans "Iron Beam" Laser Interceptor for Short-Range Rockets (Reuters)
Israel plans to deploy a new missile shield known as "Iron Beam" next year which would use a laser to blow up short-range rockets and mortar bombs.
The system is designed to deal with threats with ranges of up to 7 km. that cannot be engaged efficiently by the Israeli Iron Dome interceptor.
Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. will unveil the Iron Beam at next month's Singapore Air Show.
Wounded Syrian Couple Treated in Israel - Danny Brenner (Israel Hayom)
Israel Defense Forces troops brought a wounded Syrian couple to Poriah Hospital near Tiberias Thursday night with gunshot wounds in their legs.
The woman said, "We were surprised by the treatment and dedicated medical care we got in Israel. We hesitated coming to Israel because we were taught to hate it."
"We were taught this is a brutal enemy state, but we learned that reality is different. People here have a conscience. Our enemy is in Syria, not in Israel. If only we could stay here."
Israeli Minister Attends International Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi (Ha'aretz)
Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom attended a meeting on Saturday of the International Renewable Energy Agency in the United Arab Emirates, together with over 1,000 delegates from 150 countries.
See also Kuwait Boycotts Conference to Protest Israeli Presence - Joshua Davidovich and Spencer Ho (Times of Israel)
Palestinian Opens Fire on West Bank Security Guard - Yaakov Lappin (Jerusalem Post)
The IDF arrested a Palestinian gunman on Saturday evening who opened fire at a security guard at the entrance to the community of Migdal Oz in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank. There were no injuries.
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- Netanyahu Slams UNESCO Delay of Jewish Exhibit - Daniel Estrin
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday criticized the UN's cultural agency for postponing an exhibit on Jewish connections to the Holy Land following objections from Arab countries. The exhibit was to show 30 illustrated panels showing the long history of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, from the days of the biblical patriarch Abraham to modern day Israel. Netanyahu rejected the claim that the exhibit would harm peace negotiations. "It would not harm the negotiations. Negotiations are based on facts, on the truth, which is never harmful." (AP-ABC News)
See also U.S. Chides UNESCO for Putting Jewish Exhibit on Hold - Louis Charbonneau
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, on Friday urged UNESCO to rethink its decision to postpone an exhibition about Jews and the Holy Land due to complaints from Arab member states. "UNESCO's decision is wrong and should be reversed," she said. (Reuters)
- UN Invites Iran to Syria Talks, Raising Objections from the U.S. - Somini Sengupta and Michael R. Gordon
The announcement by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, that he had invited Iran to a peace conference to end the war in Syria drew strong objections on Sunday from American officials, who suggested that Iran had not met all the conditions for attending and that the invitation might need to be withdrawn.
American officials pointed out that Iran had not publicly accepted the formal mandate for the conference: to establish "by mutual consent" a transitional body to govern Syria. Iran has long insisted that it will participate in talks only if there are no preconditions and has not accepted that President Assad must leave office.
"Given that Iranian forces and their Shia militias are deployed on the ground backing up Assad, it means another Assad backer will be present at this meeting," said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Syria's political opposition said that it would not attend "unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran's invitation." (New York Times)
- Syria's Assad: "Significant" Chance I'll Seek New Term - Sammy Ketz
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad told AFP on Sunday there is a "significant" chance he will seek a new term this year, and dismissed the prospect of an opposition premier. Speaking at the presidential palace in Damascus, days before the beginning of the Geneva II peace talks, Assad said he expected his country's bloody conflict to drag on, calling it a "fight against terrorism."
He dismissed the opposition as having been "created" by foreign backers.
And he described the possibility of appointing key opposition figures to the post of prime minister as nothing more than "a good joke." (AFP)
Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis (Best of U.S., UK, and Israel):
- Israel Welcomes Visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday praised his visiting Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper as "a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people."
He hailed Harper's "moral leadership" on terrorism, anti-Semitism, Iran and the peace process.
"You and Canada stood unflinchingly on the right side of history," Netanyahu said, touching on the Iranian nuclear issue.
See also Prime Minister Netanyahu Welcomes Canadian Prime Minister Harper (Prime Minister's Office)
- Kerry Expected to Unveil Framework Peace Plan This Month - Herb Keinon and Khaled Abu Toameh
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will present a framework paper by the end of the month that will serve as a basis for further negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Palestinian sources said on Saturday. The sources told the London-based Al-Hayat that the Palestinians were opposed to the U.S. plan.
See also Israeli Negotiators to Meet Kerry in Washington to Discuss Framework Agreement - Barak Ravid
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and special envoy Isaac Molho will meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Monday to discuss the draft framework peace agreement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Kerry on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later in the week. Palestinian negotiators will arrive in Washington next week for their own talks with Kerry.
See also Palestinian Foreign Minister: We Will Never Recognize Jewish Character of Israel - Michel Abu Najm
With the talks appearing to stall in the first weeks of January, both sides have been keen to stress that they are not discussing a final settlement, but only an agreement on principles on which to take future talks forward. In an interview, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Asharq Al-Awsat that what is being negotiated is only a "framework" for further negotiations - negotiations that, in his view, may not happen. (Asharq Al-Awsat-UK)
- Ya'alon: Jordan Valley Is Vital to the Security of Israel - Gavriel Fiske
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Thursday that although he "strongly supports" the use of "technological developments" in Israel's defense, "sensors and drones are no substitute for the physical presence of soldiers," Maariv reported on Sunday. "The Jordan Valley is vital to the security of Israel, and we cannot assent to third parties being there in our stead. Security in the valley must remain in our hands for an extended period," he added.
Ya'alon said that "the U.S. and Europe are mistaken and don't understand the Middle East and the processes taking place there."
He noted that the West was focused on the Palestinian issue, even though it wasn't the main problem facing the region.
(Times of Israel)
- IDF Targets Palestinian Terrorist Behind Rocket Fire on Ashkelon - Yoav Zitun
The Israel Air Force seriously wounded Islamic Jihad terrorist Ahmad Saad in Gaza City on Sunday as he was riding a motorbike.
Saad "has been engaged in recent days in firing rockets at Israeli communities, and planning further rocket attacks," the IDF Spokesperson said, adding that the IDF had "acted to eliminate an immediate threat to Israel's citizens." "Saad was personally responsible for the rocket fire on Ashkelon on Thursday." (Ynet News)
- Region Boiling, Israel Takes Up Castle Strategy - Jodi Rudoren
While Israeli leaders continue to see Shiite Iran and its nuclear program as the primary threat to Israel, the mounting strength of extremist Sunni cells in Syria, Iraq and beyond that are pledging to bring jihad to Jerusalem can hardly be ignored. As the chaos escalates, Israeli officials have embraced a castle mentality, hoping the moat they have dug - in the form of high-tech border fences, intensified military deployments and sophisticated intelligence - is broad enough at least to buy time.
"What we have to understand is everything is going to be changed," said Yaakov Amidror, who recently stepped down as Israel's national security adviser. "What we see now is a collapsing of a historical system, the idea of the national Arabic state. It means that we will be encircled by an area which will be no man's land at the end of the day."
Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli general and former peace negotiator, said that the regional chaos "highlights the need for solid security arrangements."
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who recently rejoined Mr. Netanyahu's team as a foreign policy adviser, said, "The most important lesson from the last few weeks is that you cannot rely on a snapshot of reality at any given time in order to plan your strategic needs....You shouldn't be intimidated by people saying, 'Well, that's a worst-case analysis,' because lately, the worst is coming through." (New York Times)
- Harper Has Injected Moral Principle into Canadian Diplomacy - Martin Goldfarb
When Stephen Harper became prime minister, he was determined to change the way the Canadian government makes decisions. Harper chose to support the principle that countries - including Israel - have a right to act in their own interest. While Israel often is criticized for protecting itself, even if its decisions are ethical and legal, Canada now would support these decisions on principle.
At the UN, Canada had often abstained on resolutions condemning Israel. Harper changed that.
Support for Israel is cited as the reason why Canada did not win a two-year term on the UN Security Council in 2010, the first time Canada had lost a bid for a Security Council seat.
This may be true. Yet no Arab country has refused to do business with Canada because of Canada's support of the Jewish state.
Egyptian Army Gaining Against Terrorist Militias in Sinai - Ehud Yaari (Washington Institute for Near East Policy)
- Over the past year, Israel and Egypt have used the "Agreed Activities Mechanism" of their 1979 peace treaty to bypass restrictions on the number and type of Egyptian forces permitted in much of the Sinai. Considerable Egyptian army forces are now deployed in central and eastern Sinai in a manner and scope never envisaged by those who negotiated the treaty. This new reality on the ground is unlikely to be reversed.
- Israel has agreed to allow the introduction of Egyptian troops into "prohibited" regions in central and eastern Sinai, and to a steady expansion in the size and quality of military equipment. Today, Cairo regularly employs Apache attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and commando battalions in these areas, as well as occasional F-16 overflights, one or two tank companies, and more. The Egyptian Second Army has based its headquarters in al-Arish, in northern Sinai, while units from the Third Army have deployed in southern Sinai.
- The Egyptian army's new configuration in Sinai has helped it gain the upper hand against terrorist militias that have found safe haven there. After isolating and largely clearing the populated northeastern Sinai - sometimes using scorched-earth tactics against the Bedouin living there - the army put many terrorist factions on the defensive, most notably Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Around twenty top terrorist commanders have been killed thus far.
- A spring offensive is expected against the main terrorist stronghold in Jabal Halal, also known as "Sinai's Tora Bora," where a thousand armed militiamen are now sheltering. A secondary objective would be the Jabal Amer area close to the Israeli border.
- Israel has an obvious interest in the success of Egypt's campaign, since Sinai terrorists have attacked several Israeli targets across the border. The level of coordination and exchange of information is at an all-time high, and top commanders from both countries are now in almost daily communication.
The writer, a Fellow with The Washington Institute, is a Middle East commentator for Israel's Channel Two television.
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