Low expectations for latest IAEA visit to Iran

A senior delegation of officials from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will head to Iran later this month for urgent meetings meant to defuse tension over the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program. "I doubt very seriously it will lead to anything," one diplomat frankly admitted, giving voice to a widespread belief in the West that Iran is merely using such meetings to buy time. Elsewhere, Olli Heinonen, former IAEA inspections chief, published an article in Foreign Policy magazine on Thursday in which he estimated that Iran is now within a year of having enough highly enriched uranium to produce a crude nuclear device. He cautioned, however, that it would take further engineering work in order to produce a deployable atomic weapon. "If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20-percent enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90 percent of the enrichment effort required," Heinonen wrote. "What remains to be done is the feeding of 20-percent uranium through existing, additional cascades to achieve weapons-grade enrichment ... This step is much faster from earlier ones."

In related news, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the security agencies tasked with protecting Israeli diplomats overseas announced on Thursday that they will be tightening up procedures to guard against retaliation by Iran for the assassination earlier this week of one of its top nuclear scientists. Iran immediately blamed Israel and the US for the hit, with an editorial in the regime-linked Kayhan newspaper openly declaring that Iran “should retaliate against Israel for the martyring of our young scientist. These corrupted people are easily identifiable and readily within our reach... assassinations of the Zionist regime’s military men and officials are very easy.”

Meanwhile, the White House issued a statement on Thursday that US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spoken by phone and "discussed recent Iran-related developments."

Elsewhere, US allies in Europe and Asia expressed support for harsher diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran on Thursday, although worries about the impact on the global economy seemed to have a dampening effect on their enthusiasm.

"We expect a slow and gradual implementation of what will eventually become a full embargo," said Mike Wittner from Societe Generale. "Europe has the same concerns about its fragile economy and an oil price spike as the US, probably even more."

As if to prove the point oil prices edged up in late trading on Thursday.

Palestinian Authority declares deadline for talks

Palestinian Authority officials declared late Wednesday that exploratory talks recently launched in Amman Jordan will be discontinued on 26 January unless Israel agrees to a full freeze in construction in West Bank settlements. “The Amman talks are intended to obtain a settlement freeze and the use of the 1967 lines as a reference for any future talks, and will be given a chance to succeed until January 26,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told AFP. “If the Amman talks under the auspices of Jordan and the Quartet do not succeed by the 26th then it will not be possible to resume negotiations with Israel.”

Erekat went on to declare that 2012 “will be the year that the Palestinians go to the United Nations and all of its organizations. We will seek full membership in the United Nations for the state of Palestine and full membership in all the UN organizations, without exception. This is our right and [it] fully complements the peace process.”

Meanwhile, PA president Mahmoud Abbas will travel to London, Berlin and Moscow in the coming days to “garner support for the Palestinians and enlighten the leaders of the respective countries on developments”, his spokesperson said on Wednesday.

“In the case that we achieve anything in the dual meetings, we will sit with his Majesty King Abdullah and we will discuss all these elements and agree on all the steps,” Abbas said in Amman on Tuesday after talks with the Hashemite Monarch. “We must not be pessimistic or optimistic... we have to use this opportunity and opportunities regardless of how hopeless they seem. There will be more meetings until January 26. We hope that we will be able to return to a legal basis that would allow us to return to negotiations.”

“The 26th of January remains a decisive day,” said Hanan Ashrawi, former negotiator with Israel and top official of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) executive committee. “The Americans are busy with their upcoming elections and have left the issue of peacemaking to the Quartet, to manage the conflict rather than resolve it. And the Quartet hasn’t really produced any new approach or innovative ideas.”

US declares it will stay in the Middle East

US Navy Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert told a Center for New American Security forum on Wednesday that the US has no intention of leaving the Persian Gulf, despite an Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz if another aircraft carrier attempts to enter it. “There won’t be a taking of my eye off the ball,” he said. “Our folks that transit in and around that area, I want to make sure that they’re able to deal with the things that they need to deal with.” Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Press Secretary George Little said the United States has been very clear “that we seek to lower the temperature on tensions with Iran, and we think that things have calmed down a bit in recent days.” He was joined by Navy Capt. John Kirby, who gave a background briefing which included assurances that the current deployment of naval assets to the region was nothing unusual. “I don’t want to leave anybody with the impression that … we’re somehow ‘zorching’ two carriers over there because we’re concerned about what happened … today in Iran,” he said. “It’s just not the case. The US Navy has and will continue to remain a force in that region to help protect the free flow of commerce in international waters.”

To read the latest Strategic Assessment of Israel’s position in the Middle East, click HERE (PDF)

US official meets with Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood
US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met with Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) on Wednesday, but refused to meet with leaders of the more extreme Salafi al-Nour party, despite the latter’s gaining nearly 20% of the seats in recent elections for Egypt’s lower house of parliament. It was the most high level meeting ever between the US and the Brotherhood, which has been shunned by Western governments for decades but which now, because of its status as the largest party in the new parliament, is impossible to ignore. "From our perspective it was an opportunity to hear from them and to reinforce our expectation that all the major parties will support human rights, tolerance, rights of women and will also uphold Egypt's existing international obligations," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

EU criticizes Israeli policy
The Independent (UK) published excerpts from an internal European Union memo on Thursday, indicating that the EU is  not satisfied with Israel’s efforts to coordinate the establishment of a Palestinian State. According to the report, the population of Jewish settlers in Area C of the West Bank is increasing while the population of Palestinians is shrinking. "If current trends are not stopped and reversed, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders seem more remote than ever," the report laments. An Israeli Foreign Ministry statement reacting to criticism of Israel’s settlement activities late last year declared that if the EU kept focusing on Israel and ignoring massive problems elsewhere in the region it is “bound to lose their credibility and make themselves irrelevant."

Israel and the PA hold agricultural seminar
The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture’s chief of Veterinary services recently met with a delegation of professionals from the Palestinian Authority to discuss various issues, including information-sharing and other joint projects. The PA’s animal doctors presented the numbers of vaccines they plan on requesting from Israel in the coming year for the large herds of goats, sheep and camels, as well as other domestic animals used by Palestinian farmers and shepherds in the West Bank. They also discussed plans for joint workshops to teach agricultural/horticultural methods and to share information, part of a regular series of meetings held to maintain cooperation in agriculture between the two sides.

For the latest intelligence report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, click HERE (PDF)

Hamas members to be allowed back into Jordan
Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh recently told TIME magazine that his government will allow operatives from the Islamist terror militia Hamas to join their families in Jordan, where they have not been permitted for several years. He insisted that the plans are being made out of mercy, adding that they will not be allowed to set up terrorist infrastructure in the Hashemite Kingdom.  "We will be finding modalities to bring back members of Hamas and their families to come," Khasawneh said. "We don’t want them to establish another organization here. The idea is not to bring them back as a launching pad for jihad against Israel or whatever. But as individuals they should be allowed to come back."

Iranian officials in a rage over scientist’s assassination

Iranian officials were in rare form on Wednesday, lashing out at Israel, the US, the UK and various other Western powers for the assassination earlier in the day of prominent nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan. Iran’s parliament erupted with cries of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” after news of the attack was announced, and Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi angrily declared in a televised statement that “They [Israel and the US] should know that Iranian scientists are more determined than ever in striding towards Iran’s progress.” A laconic White House statement denied any involvement in the bombing attack which killed Roshan and the driver of his vehicle. Several other US government agencies issued similar statements. Meanwhile, IDF spokesperson Yoav Mordechai said on his Facebook page “I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding any tears.”

Roshan was a deputy director at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, as well as being a member of the Basij militia, an auxilery of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps which is responsible for foreign terrorist operations as well as quelling internal dissent. Reports in the Iranian media broadly hinted that his assasins received information which led to his death from the International Atomic Energy Agency, leading to speculation that the Islamic Republic’s already uneasy relationship with the IAEA might be about to become toxic. For its part, the Iranian nuclear agency issued a defiant statement that “the futile actions by the criminal Israeli regime and America will not disrupt the path the Iranian people have chosen.”

Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee appealed to Ban and the 15-nation council "to condemn, in the strongest term, these inhumane terrorist acts and to take effective steps towards elimination of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Based on the existing evidence collected by the relevant Iranian security authorities, similar to previous incidents, perpetrators used the same terrorist method in assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Furthermore, there is firm evidence that certain foreign quarters are behind such assassinations."

“They are not keeping to the schedules they would like to keep to,” former Mossad spymaster Meir Dagan said in a recent television interview, smilingly crediting the apparent sabotage spree to “God, who controls everything.”

“It’s not that we’ve been seeing mass resignations, but rather a sense of spreading paranoia given the degree to which their security has been compromised,” an Israeli official, who has extensive Iran expertise, told Reuters. “It means they have to take more precautions, including, perhaps, being a little less keen to stand out for excellence in their nuclear work. That slows things down.”

Meanwhile, France, Britain, Germany and the US on Wednesday met in a closed-door session of the UN Security Council to condemn Iran’s decision to begin enriching uranium at the underground Fordow facility on Wednesday. However, diplomats reported having little hope for new UN sanctions on Teheran due to continued resistance by Security Council members China and Russia, despite their own misgivings.

“I think several players, not only Israel, are active [in Iran],” former Mossad deputy director Ilan Mizrahi said on Wednesday. “It’s not only countries, it is movements. You have the Iranian opposition, which is very strong. They have their own capabilities inside Iran.”

IDF Intelligence chief warns of Iranian assistance to Syria’s Assad

IDF Chief of Defense Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, addressed the graduation ceremony of the 145th Intelligence Officers Course on Wednesday, warning them of the dangers facing the Jewish State, especially from Iran and its main ally, the Assad regime in Syria. "The radical axis operates to preserve its strength,” Kohavi said. “As time passes, Iran and Hezbollah persist in their efforts to prolong Assad's regime by providing him with the know-how, arms and additional means, lately doing so through active involvement. Simultaneously, the Middle East, with the highest global rate of arming, is a changing landscape as we have previously not known. Although the winds of change may bring with them hope and opportunity, in the short to medium term there are increasing risks. Learning from our experience, we must prepare for the developing threats."

For his part, Assad continued his longstanding policy of using massive violence against Syrians protesting his policies and blaming “foreign conspirators” for instigating the protests and causing the thousands of resulting deaths. “I belong to this street,” said Assad, 46 during a rare public appearance in Damascus. “We will make this phase the end for them and their plans. We are going to win without any doubt.”

Meanwhile, France 2 TV reporter Gilles Jacquier became the first journalist killed in the Syrian revolt on Wednesday. His employer announced his death “with a great deal of sorrow” but was unable to provide any details other than to say that he had been invited into Syria by the regime to cover the uprising. Syrian state television reported that eight other people were killed in the incident in Homs and blamed a “terrorist group.”

“Gilles Jacquier was just doing his journalist job by covering the violent events in Syria resulting from the regime’s unacceptable repression of the population,” declared French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Elsewhere, the Arab League, which suspended Syria in November because of the regime’s ongoing violence against civilians, has decided to delay the deployment of further monitors after 11 monitors were attacked and lightly wounded earlier this week in the port of Latakia. Also on Wednesday, Algerian Arab League monitor Anwar Malek told Al Jazeera that he had resigned from the mission because it was a “farce” which only served the regime’s efforts to continue to use violence against civilians.

“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled,” Malek said. “The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime. The regime isn’t committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people.”

Indian foreign minister visits Israel

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday, bringing a message of friendship and eagerness for increased military and economic ties between his country and the Jewish State. He also conveyed his government’s position that Iran has the right to develop a civilian nuclear energy industry, but stressed it would need to be done according to the guidelines and under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines. India imports 14% of its oil from the Islamic Republic, and is reluctant to criticize it for a clandestine nuclear program that shares many characteristics of India’s own atomic activities.“I think we will have to work out a strategy as to how we address ourselves to the scourge of international terrorism, which has become the curse for the entire humanity,” he added. “I think our efforts should be to checkmate and ultimately eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth.”

Assad vows to fight ‘terrorism’ with an ‘iron fist’
Gantz warns of possible trouble on Golan Heights
Syrian president Bashar Assad gave a speech on Tuesday, blaming “terrorism” for the violence in his country and vowing to fight the conspiracy against him with “an iron fist.” He added criticism of the Arab League, questioning what right governments who were not democracies had to lecture him about political reforms. During Assad’s speech, UN Assistant Secretary General B. Lynn Pascoe reported to the UN Security Council in New York that 400 people have been killed since Arab League observers entered Syria late last month and around 40 more people are being killed in Syria each day. Elsewhere, League chief Nabil Al Arabi denounced attacks on Arab observers in Syria on Tuesday, declaring that he would hold Assad accountable. Elsewhere, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz told a Knesset committee on Tuesday that Assad’s fall could fracture the so-called ‘resistance axis’ against Israel, but he also warned that Assad could lash out at Israel to try and deflect anger away from his regime. Gantz added that his troops “are preparing to receive Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights," when Assad’s regime falls, although most analysts dismissed this as an attempt to embarrass Assad. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities announced on Tuesday that they had intercepted four trucks enroute from Iran to Syria and carrying military equipment in violation of the arms embargo.

Egyptian Christian on trial for cartoon
A well known Christian media mogul in Egypt, Naguib Sawiris, is on trial for insulting Islam after posting a cartoon on his Twitter account showing a bearded Mickey Mouse and a veiled Minnie. The cartoon sparked a boycott of Sawiris’ telecom companies by Islamist groups and on Monday lawyer Mamdouh Ismail filed a formal complaint against him. The trial is scheduled for 14 January, and if convicted he faces up to a year in prison.

Violent crime rates fall in Israel
Israel’s Public Security Ministry has released figures which show a dramatic decline in the level of violent crime in Israel, as the number of assaults, robbery, sexual attacks, and street violence fell by 17% from 2007 to 2011. According to a recent Public Security Ministry poll, 74% of Israelis feel a high sense of personal security, placing Israel fourth out of OECD countries surveyed.

Israel and Greece expand ties
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared with his Greek counterpart, Defense Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos for a joint press conference on Tuesday, pledging to support one another and cooperate in military matters with the hope of improving regional stability. "We are committed to work together to deepen our relations in defense and security," said Barak. "We have to be prepared for many kinds of developments. ... We must think ahead of time and work together." Avramopoulos agreed, stressing Greece's "commitment to deepening the alliance with Israel ... in the name of friendship, peace and stability for all the peoples of the region.”

Ahmadinejad welcomed in Nicaragua

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Nicaragua on Tuesday to attend the inauguration of newly re-elected president Daniel Ortega, who he called a “revolutionary brother.” Ahmadinejad is in the middle of a tour through Latin America, visiting some of his few remaining friends in the world, including Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who accompanied him to Nicaragua after his stopover in Caracas earlier this week. During a joint press conference on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad declared that he, Chavez and Ortega were part of a dwindling number of world leaders willing to stand up for what was right in the face of tyranny and injustice. Ortega used his remarks to, among other things, urge Israel to dismantle its alleged nuclear arsenal in the interests of regional peace, denounce the US “occupation” of Iraq and Afghanistan, declare the death of ousted Libyab dictator Muammar Gaddafi and offer a tribute to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Simply by starting to push for talks in the region in which the steps are laid down for Israel to give up and destroy these nuclear arms, I'm certain this would bring about great peace in the region," Ortega solemnly intoned. "Christ never said: Israel arm yourself, arm yourself to the teeth." He concluded by regretting the fact that Western countries were ignoring Israel’s weapons and pestering Iran, which he said obviously only wanted nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

For a closer look at Ahmadinejad’s trip to Latin America, click HERE

Meanwhile, a US Coast Guard cutter rescued another Iranian fishing boat in the Persian Gulf, some 50 nautical miles southeast of the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr on Tuesday, adding to the embarrassment of Iranian officials who have ordered the US to leave the area.

The Coast Guard cutter Monomoy responded to flairs deployed by the six man crew of the small dhow Ya-Hassan after its engine room had become flooded. The Coast Guard gave the Iranians food, blankets and other supplies. The Pentagon issued a statement quoting Hakim Hamid-Awi, the owner of the Ya-Hassan, as telling the crew "without your help, we were dead. Thank you for all that you did for us."

Later in the day, the Coast Guard transferred the crew to the Iranian Coast Guard vessel, the Naji 7, whose commander also offered his regards to his U.S. counterparts and "thanks us for our cooperation."

Iranian nuclear scientist killed as tension escalates

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a university professor and department head of a uranium enrichment at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in the Isfahan province in central Iran, was killed by a bomb placed on his car by a motorcyclist in Tehran on Wednesday in what appeared to be the latest assassination of someone working on the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program. Various reports indicated that two men on a motorcycle rode up next to Ahmadi-Roshan’s vehicle and attached a bomb to it, which then exploded, killing the scientist and a bystander, as well as wounding two others inside the vehicle. "The bomb was a magnetic one and the same as the ones previously used for the assassination of the scientists, and is the work of the Zionists (Israelis)" FARS quoted Deputy Governor Safarali Baratloo as saying. Ahmadi-Roshan is the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist to die under violent circumstances since 2007.

The apparent assassination comes a day after the European Union, Japan and other consumers of Iranian crude oil took further steps towards boycotting. The EU voted to bring forward a meeting at which it is expected to vote on joining the Obama Administration in boycotting Iran’s Central Bank, while Japanese diplomats quietly met with officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, asking them to increase their production to make up for the oil Japan would like to stop buying from Iran. Perhaps most ominously for Teheran, the Chinese foreign ministry announced on Tuesday that Premier Wen Jiabao will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates this week in an apparent effort to follow Japan’s example of shoring up oil supplies in case Iran can’t deliver.

For a closer look at the effect on the world economy from Iran oil sanctions, click HERE

The latest new was largely in reaction to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s confirmation on Monday that Iran has activated a new enrichment site inside a mountain at Fordow, near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, south of Teheran, in violation of IAEA protocols and Iranian treaty obligations.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a chorus of Western leaders who blasted the decision on Tuesday, declaring "this step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime's blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country's growing isolation is self-inflicted. The circumstances surrounding this latest action are especially troubling. There is no plausible justification for this production. Such enrichment brings Iran a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium."

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, dismissed Western criticism of the Fordow facility as "politically motivated,” but it was joined by others.

"Moscow has met reports on the start of uranium enrichment at an Iranian plant near Qom with regret and concern," Itar-Tass quoted a Russian foreign ministry official as saying. "We should recognize that Iran is continuing to ignore the demands of the international community that it respond to their concerns regarding its nuclear program. Moscow calls on all the sides engaged in the process ... involving Iran and its nuclear program to abstain from ill-judged and violent steps."

"The United States and its 'P5+1' partners - China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom - should continue to prepare for and more energetically pursue additional talks with Iran and continue to highlight constructive proposals they are prepared to discuss," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the nonprofit Arms Control Association. "A near-term goal should be to test Iran's recent publicly stated offer to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent levels if it could have access to fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor. A stockpile of 20 percent would allow Iran to shorten its time frame to produce weapons, if it chose to do so. We should not forgo any realistic opportunities to reduce that risk."

"Israel, which has already warned Iran that it could take military action against installations, is very, very worried by this facility... We are moving into dangerous territory," added Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We urge all relevant nations to... refrain from taking actions that will intensify the situation and make common efforts to prevent war," Chen Xiaodong, a top Chinese diplomat on Middle East affairs said in an online interview with his country's state press. “Once war starts in this region not only will the relevant nations be affected and attacked, it would also... bring disaster to a world economy deep in crisis."

New threat from Sinai threatens Eilat bound aircraft

After a long, violent 2011 in which thousands of portable anti-aircraft missiles have been looted from government arsenals in North Africa, civilian airliners headed for the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat from Europe are beginning to look for alternative routes which will allow them to bypass the Sinai Peninsula, which has slipped from the control of the Egyptian government and is rapidly turning into a lawless no-man’s land. A missile was fired at Israeli Air Force helicopters in August during a terrorist attack launched from the Sinai, and the development has spurred interest in building a new airport north of Eilat around Timna Park. Engineers estimate it would take three years and cost NIS 1.6 billion to build the new airport, which was first proposed decades ago.

Erdogan warns of civil war in Syria
Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara on Monday that the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad is forcing the country to the brink of civil war, and he hoped Turkey would lead an effort to prevent this. "The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented," Erdogan said. "Turkey has to take on a leadership role here, because the current situation poses a threat to Turkey." Erdogan’s fears echo what many other regional governments have expressed and several options have been discussed, with general agreement that a Libya-style military intervention would be a last resort. Meanwhile, clashes between protesters and security forces loyal to Assad continued on Monday, even as Christian and Moslem leaders joined in a rally in the capital demanding an end to violence. Assad gave his first televised speech on Tuesday, defending his actions and dismissing his critics.

Israel helping Palestinian farmers
The IDF Civil Administration recently decided to supply pesticides to agricultural areas in the Palestinian Authority and in Judea and Samaria.  "A large budget was approved to fund the project - specifically treating palm tree pests," explained Mr. Eiman As'ad, senior coordinator for finance and marketing at the Civil Administration agriculture office. The Administration has also held several educational programs for Palestinian farmers. "The Civil Administration approved funding for pest-control, enabling us to implement what we've learned at the conferences," As’ad continued. "It's crucial that they [the Palestinians] know how to deal with natural pests, and we hope to convey this knowledge."

Hormuz bypassing oil pipeline nearly completed
As the price of oil hovered above $100 a barrel on Monday due to escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf Mohammad bin Dhaen al-Hameli, Energy Minister of the United Arab Emirates, one of OPEC’s largest producers, told reporters that a pipeline his country is building to bypass the strategic Strait of Hormuz is nearly completed and will be operational “by May or June.” The 360-kilometre (225-mile) Habshan-Fujairah pipeline will have the capacity to pump 1.5 million barrels per day of oil from fields in Abu Dhabi on the Gulf to Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman, easing, but not ending, concerns about a disruption in oil supplies in the event of a military conflict in the Gulf.

Ugandan pastor attacked by Moslems being treated in Tel Aviv
Pastor Umar Mulinde, 38, of Uganda, is being treated at Tel Aviv's Sheba Medical Center after arriving last week suffering from a severe acid burn. The evangelical pastor, who converted from Islam and recently began teaching his followers to support Israel, was set upon during a public event in Kampala on Christmas Eve. His attackers, shouting “Allah Akbar” (God is great) poured acid on him, severely burning his face and torso.

Announcements shake up Israeli political scene
Israel’s lively political scene received two big surprises on Monday. Popular TV personality Yair Lapid, son of former MK Tommy Lapid, announced that he was quitting his post as a commentator for a popular TV news show and forming his own political party. Shortly thereafter, Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich announced that Noam Schalit, father of recently released Hamas hostage Gilad Schalit, would be running on the Labor list in the next election. “After years of public struggle, in which I was privileged to get to to know the moral and beautiful sides of Israeli society, I have decided to join the public service,” Schalit said in a statement released by Labor. “This is out of desire to serve the public, and to be in a place from which I can influence Israeli society’s image.”

Israeli meeting with the PA kept quiet

Israeli officials held a second round of talks with their Palestinian Authority counterparts in Amman, Jordan on Monday, although the media was locked out and the officials did not make a statement to the press following the meeting. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, who hosted the event, also declined to make a statement to the press following the meetings, unlike last week when he made a brief statement. Officials have indicated that the less attention brought to bear on the meetings, the more likely they were to produce results. Despite this, the meetings have been criticized by officials from both Israel and the PA, although not by officials who actually attended.

In related news, the PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recently announced that in order to close a budget gap brought on by the suspension of grant money from the US government following PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ quest for recognition at the UN, as well as a slowdown in donations from other countries, it will have to raise taxes on the Palestinian population, as well as trimming costs.

"We have prepared a package of measures aimed at reducing the deficit ... and reduce the likelihood of the crisis continuing in 2012," he said late on Sunday, adding that some of the 153,000 people employed by the PA might have to be let go.

The Palestinian Workers Union immediately threatened to fight such measures.


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