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Israel

Prudent optimism: Turkish Ambassador. The Defence Viewpoints interview by Nick Watts

Turkey sits at the nexus of a region beset with geopolitical issues. Developments in Syria; the prospects for the Middle East Peace Process; developments in the north and south Caucasus; the continuing tensions with Iran and the situation in Iraq. Reflecting on these matters and on its relationship with the EU Turkey’s Ambassador to London HE Mr Ahmet Ünal Çeviköz characterized his outlook as being based on “prudent optimism.”

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By Nick Watts, Great North News Services

The Middle East is described by commentators variously as a powder keg, a region on a precipice and other dramatic metaphors. From the standpoint of a policy practitioner from the region, it seems like a three dimensional chess puzzle. Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London yesterday, Dan Meridor gave his reflections on recent changes in the region, and on continuing uncertainties. Meridor combines the role of Israeli Deputy Prime Minister along with the posts of Minister of Intelligence and of Nuclear energy. This and his long experience in Israeli politics gives him a very good perspective.

 

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Abridged by Alex Shone , Research Associate in Residence, U K Defence Forum, from an article, originally published by the New York Times on January 15th 2011, written by William J Broad, John Markoff and David E Sanger

The Dimona complex in the Negev desert is famous as the heavily guarded heart of Israel's never-acknowledged nuclear arms program, where neat rows of factories make atomic fuel for the arsenal. Over the past two years, according to intelligence and military experts familiar with its operations, Dimona has taken on a new, equally secret role — as a critical testing ground in a joint American and Israeli effort to undermine Iran's efforts to make a bomb of its own. They say Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive programme that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran's ability to make its first nuclear arms.

Many mysteries remain, chief among them, exactly who constructed a computer worm that appears to have several authors on several continents. In early 2008 the German company Siemens cooperated with one of the United States' premier national laboratories, in Idaho, to identify the vulnerabilities of computer controllers that the company sells to operate industrial machinery around the world — and that American intelligence agencies have identified as key equipment in Iran's enrichment facilities.

The worm itself now appears to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran's nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. Another seems right out of the movies: The computer programme also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart. The attacks were not fully successful: Some parts of Iran's operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. Nor is it clear the attacks are over: Some experts who have examined the code believe it contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults.

Officially, neither American nor Israeli officials will even utter the name of the malicious computer programme; much less describe any role in designing it. But Israeli officials grin widely when asked about its effects. In recent days, American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity have said in interviews that they believe Iran's setbacks have been underreported. The project's political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. President Obama, first briefed on the programme even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration's Iran strategy. Israel has long been seeking a way to cripple Iran's capability without triggering the opprobrium, or the war, that might follow an overt military strike of the kind they conducted against nuclear facilities in Iraq in
Perhaps the most secretive part of the Stuxnet story centres on how the theory of cyber-destruction was tested on enrichment machines to make sure the malicious software did its intended job. The account starts in the Netherlands. In the 1970s, the Dutch designed a tall, thin machine for enriching uranium. As is well known, A. Q. Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist working for the Dutch, stole the design and in 1976 fled to Pakistan. The resulting machine, known as the P-1, for Pakistan's first-generation centrifuge, helped the country get the bomb. And when Dr. Khan later founded an atomic black market, he illegally sold P-1's to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

How and when Israel obtained this kind of first-generation centrifuge remains unclear, whether from Europe, or the Khan network, or by other means. But nuclear experts agree that Dimona came to hold row upon row of spinning centrifuges. By early 2004, a variety of federal and private nuclear experts assembled by the Central Intelligence Agency were calling for the United States to build a secret plant where scientists could set up the P-1's and study their vulnerabilities. The resulting plant, nuclear experts said last week, may also have played a role in Stuxnet testing.

In November, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, broke the country's silence about the worm's impact on its enrichment programme, saying a cyber attack had caused "minor problems with some of our centrifuges." Fortunately, he added, "our experts discovered it." The most detailed portrait of the damage comes from the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington. Last month, it issued a lengthy Stuxnet report that said Iran's P-1 machines at Natanz suffered a series of failures in mid- to late 2009 that culminated in technicians taking 984 machines out of action. The report called the failures "a major problem" and identified Stuxnet as the likely culprit.

Stuxnet is not the only blow to Iran. Sanctions have hurt its effort to build more advanced (and less temperamental) centrifuges. And last January, and again in November, two scientists who were believed to be central to the nuclear program were killed in Tehran. The man widely believed to be responsible for much of Iran's programme, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a college professor, has been hidden away by the Iranians, who know he is high on the target list. Publicly, Israeli officials make no explicit ties between Stuxnet and Iran's problems. But in recent weeks, they have given revised and surprisingly upbeat assessments of Tehran's nuclear status.

 

Dr. Saeb Erakat, Chief Palestinian Negotiator, held a press conference on the 23rd August to discuss the Palestinian positions in advance of direct negotiations with Israel, set to begin on September 2 in Washington, DC.

During the press conference, Dr. Erakat highlighted the Middle East Quartet statement as a turning point in the PLO's decision to enter direct negotiations. The statement, given on August 20, 2010, noted the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting point for this new round of negotiations. The PLO considers these principles be the basis for the direct talks.

Dr. Erakat went on to say that any successful peace talks must lead to a sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just and agreed solution to the refugee issue, in line with UNGAR 194.

Dr. Erakat stressed the Palestinian commitment to the peace talks, yet mentioned their serious reservations regarding Israel's intentions and commitment to a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. This skepticism, he said, is a result of Israel's continued settlement activities, home demolitions and other illegal practices in the occupied Palestinian territory. Israel's commitment to a negotiated agreement and a two-state solution will be evident on the ground. If new construction tenders are issued (a plan which has already been announced by the Netanyahu government) during the negotiation process, it will be a clear affront to peace and Palestinians will be pushed out of the negotiations process.

Dr. Erakat stated that President Abbas sent a series of letters to President Obama, Lady Ashton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and President Medvedev. In these letters, President Abbas expressed his commitment to peace and demanded that the international community take a strong and unequivocal position regarding Israel's obligation to freeze all settlement activity, without exceptions. President Abbas also reiterated the PLO's position: if settlements, house demolitions and evictions continue, Palestinians will not continue negotiating.

Dr. Erakat also mentioned that even before the direct negotiations have began, Israel has already made their preconditions known – a demilitarized Palestinian state, a security buffer in the Jordan River Valley and a Palestinian recognition of a "Jewish" state. Palestinians enter these negotiations, which have been called for alongside Israel, in good faith and without preconditions and ask to have an Israeli partner willing to accept the long-established and internationally-accepted terms of reference of our negotiations.

 

By George Friedman

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting Washington for his first official visit with U.S. President Barack Obama. A range of issues — including the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israeli-Syrian talks and Iran policy — are on the table. This is one of an endless series of meetings between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers over the years, many of which concerned these same issues. Yet little has changed.

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In an eight-minute video clip titled "Onward, Lions of Syria" disseminated on the Internet Feb. 12, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri expressed al Qaeda's support for the popular unrest in Syria. In it, al-Zawahiri urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to aid the Syrian rebels battling Damascus. This analysis by Kamran Bohkari discusses the ramifications not just for Syria but for other Middle East countries

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Extract from speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton 29 September 2009

"The heroism of our fighting men and women is unsurpassed and we owe them a debt we can never fully repay.

"The British armed forces truly are the finest in the world. All British forces will always have all the equipment they need and the best support we can give.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly delayed his March 23 trip to Moscow following a bombing at bus stop in central Jerusalem that injured as many as 34 people. The bombing follows a series of recent mortar and rocket attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip reaching as far as the outskirts of Ashdod and Beersheba, as well as the March 11 massacre of an Israeli family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar.

Netanyahu, already facing a political crisis at home in trying to hold his fragile coalition government together, now faces a serious dilemma. There were strong hints that Netanyahu may hold a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow to restart the peace process and avoid becoming entrapped in another military campaign in the Palestinian territories, but that plan is now effectively derailed. Though the precise perpetrators and their backers remain unclear, a Palestinian faction or factions appear to be deliberately escalating the crisis and thus raising the potential for Israel to mount another military operation in the Palestinian territories.

Attacks in Jerusalem, while rare, raise concerns in Israel that a more capable militant presence is building in Fatah-controlled West Bank in addition to Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Even before the Jerusalem bombing, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israeli citizens in a March 23 Israel Radio broadcast that "we may have to consider a return" to a second Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. He added, "I say this despite the fact that I know such a thing would, of course, bring the region to a far more combustible situation." The past few years of Palestinian violence against Israel has been mostly characterized by Gaza-based rocket attacks as well as a spate of attacks in 2008 in which militants used bulldozers to plow into both civilian and security targets in Jerusalem. Though various claims and denials were issued for many of the incidents, the perpetrators of these attacks — likely deliberately — remained unclear.

The names of shadowy groups such as the "al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade-Imad Mughniyah" also began circulating, raising suspicions of a stronger Hezbollah — and by extension, Iranian — link to Palestinian militancy. (Imad Mughniyah, one of Hezbollah's most notorious commanders, was killed in February 2008 in Damascus.) The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades-Imad Mughniyah group claimed the March 11 West Bank attack, which Hamas denied. Palestinian Islamic Jihad's (PIJ) armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, has meanwhile claimed responsibility for the recent rocket attacks launched from Gaza that targeted Ashkelon and Sderot. PIJ spokesman Abu Hamad said
March 23 prior to the Jerusalem bus bombing that his group intends to begin targeting cities deep within Israeli territory as it enters a "new phase of the resistance." This is notable, as PIJ, out of all the Palestinian militant groups, has the closest ties to Iran.

The wider regional context is pertinent to the building crisis in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Iran has been pursuing a covert destabilization campaign in the Persian Gulf region to undermine its Sunni Arab rivals, particularly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis reacted swiftly to the threat with the deployment of troops to Bahrain and are now engaging in a variety of measures to try to suppress Shiite unrest within the kingdom itself. The fear remains, however, that Iran has retained a number of covert assets in the region that it can choose to activate at an opportune time. Iran opening another front in the Levant, using its already well-established links to Hezbollah in Lebanon and its developing links to Hamas and other players in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, remains a distinct possibility and islikely being discussed in the crisis meetings under way in Israel at this time.

(C) www.stratfor.com All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission

 

By Dominic C. MacIver

Barely addressed by Western media, over recent months Lebanon has seen an escalating political crisis that threatens regional stability. Confrontation continues between the two major political blocs. Put simply, one is the broadly pro-Saudi faction led by Saad Hariri whilst their opponent in the fragile power-sharing agreement is the broadly pro-Iranian faction led by Hassan Nasrallah. Nonetheless Lebanese politics are fluid, complex and unpredictable as regional and international powers ally with internal factions to gain advantage.

The argument between the two camps focuses on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which is strongly opposed by Hizbullah. Their covert armed strength is growing, and is balanced only by assorted national and regional actors uniting to act as a counterweight to them and their Iranian patron. Notably included in these united powers balancing Hizbullah have been Syria and Saudi Arabia, who have not seen eye-to-eye for a long time. Their cooperation is central to the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel-Palestine and must not be jeopardized.

The STL is an impartial UN Tribunal with Lebanese and international prosecutors cooperating to bring the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to justice. Hizbullah protest that it is compromised, calling it an Israeli plot because it refused to investigate the possibility that Mossad organized the assassination. Meanwhile the son of the assassinated Hariri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, withdrew his former accusation of Syrian involvement. It is now expected that Hizbullah operatives will be indicted. Hizbullah have vetoed the funding that the STL receives from the Lebanese government, splitting the Cabinet and returning Lebanon to paralysis and crisis.

If this internal argument results in communal violence, with Hizbullah taking their arms to the streets (as they did in 2008) or provoking Israel into war (as they did in 2006), it would adversely affect many issues important to Western interests in the region. Although there are vastly too many variables to solidly predict outcomes, the list of endangered elements would feasibly include the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, the Israel-Palestine peace track, and US-led attempts at Iranian containment, not to mention the precarious existence of the pro-Western governments in Lebanon and elsewhere.

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By Alex Shone, Research Associate, U Defence Forum

Syria has been described by some US analysts as a 'low hanging fruit' in the Middle East; a potential partner for resolving some entrenched obstacles to an eventual peace resolution. This fruit many argue is 'ripe' for strategic realignment; a move that would generate new and potentially crucial opportunities.
Syria will become an increasingly important player within the affairs of the Middle East. A comprehensive appreciation of the country and its internal dynamics is a clear requirement and shall form the basis for a new UK Defence Forum country series on Syria.


Syria is a country that bridges military, political and social divides between several key Middle East countries. As a result, a perception lingering over Syria is that of contradiction and 'double-standard games' with the West. Syria's stated aim is peace with Israel and yet they have allied themselves with partners whose stated aim is the destruction of Israel. Syria is a bastion for secularism and yet they promote a common cause with numerous political Islamist groups. Syria simultaneously supports Iraqi Sunni insurgents and Lebanese Shi'ite armed groups.


These glaring and controversial actions have played no small role in obstructing diplomatic progress between Syria and the US. Western perception is that Syria has yet to take the first, genuine steps towards redressing these areas. The other and problematic side of this coin is that Syria believes it has taken these first steps, demonstrated as they see it by their cooling of relations with Hezbollah and warming of relations with Turkey.


Consequently, an impasse exists whereby the US waits for a show of commitment by Syria to rethinking its alliances with such undesirable partners as Hezbollah, Palestinian armed political groups and critically, Iran. Syria in turn waits for a greater show of commitment by the US for support if these entrenched status-quos are to be uprooted. Syria simply does not have the motivation to do so until they feel that the steps they have taken are appreciated; Syria is weary of what Damascus sees as a one-way show of commitment.


Equally, there is undoubtedly safety and comfort for Syria in preserving its current position. The Syrian regime, itself a Shi'ite minority within a Sunni majority nation, has been described as one that must preserve certain instabilities in order to survive. Its relations with such countries as Iran are fraught, and indeed perhaps governed, by parallel shared and competitive interests. Damascus manoeuvres between Ankara, Riyadh and Tehran, pursuing the bilateral relations it has with each whilst holding the others at bay with the 'stick' that it does have at its disposal.


Each side tends to view their own "gestures of goodwill" as holding enormous significance while dismissing the others' as insignificant. Resolution of contradictions on Syria's part will likely require a slow-but-sure start rather than sweeping and dramatic changes. Gambling with their future is clearly not something the Syrian regime can do. The regime is, for the medium term relatively secure. Economics is central, and while the country is faring well in terms of macroeconomics, underlying problems will in the longer term become increasingly problematic for the current regime's survival.


Syria can indeed be described as a low hanging fruit among potential Middle East partners for the West. However, progress in improving relations will have to be seen if it is to be 'plucked' or flipped towards a new regional status quo of power. Not simply normalisation but instead an expansion of dialogue shall be required to discuss the relevant issues and problem areas in order to determine a new regional role for Syria.

 
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