US President Barack Obama met with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overnight in unusually low-profile White House talks; their first since a row over plans to build homes in occupied East Jerusalem. The pair held two private meetings which were off-limits to the media. US and Israeli officials have not divulged the topics of discussion at the meetings, except to say that 'the atmosphere was good.' The two leaders are expected to hold further talks on Wednesday.
The meetings come a fortnight after the Israeli government's announcement that it planned to build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, which coincided with a visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden. Despite US anger over the timing of the announcement, Netanyahu has insisted throughout his latest three-day tour in America that he will not back down on the issue. In a speech addressed to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu struck a defiant tone. He insisted that the 'connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied', adding that 'Jerusalem is not a settlement, it's our capital.'
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed Washington's commitment to Israel as 'rock solid' and met with Netanyahu at his hotel suite on Monday. Yesterday, Netanyahu received a warm welcome at the House of Representatives and Senate where the Democrat leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi avowed that ‘we in Congress stand by Israel’ and ‘speak with one voice on the subject of Israel.’
On Wednesday, Israel confirmed further plans for settlement construction in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem. Although Israeli city officials say the latest announcement is part of a plan that has been advancing for months, it is likely to anger Palestinian residents who have staged anti-settler demonstrations since their eviction from the area. They say the plan to build over 100 homes in Sheikh Jarrah will divide an important Arab neighbourhood. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat described the move as antagonistic and said of Netanyahu: 'When we say peace or settlements, it seems he goes for the settlements.'
In a separate development yesterday, Britain expelled a senior Israeli diplomat over the use of forged British passports by a suspected Mossad hit-squad that killed a Hamas commander in the United Arab Emirates. Britain's foreign minister, David Miliband, told parliament on Tuesday that there were 'compelling reasons' to believe that Israel was responsible for the targeted killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Miliband stressed that the misuse of British passports by Israel's spy agency represented 'a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom' and a 'hazard' to the safety of British nationals in the region. Britain's foreign office website consequently issued advice to travellers visiting Israel warning them to remain vigilant with their passports and to 'only hand their passports over to third parties including Israeli officials when absolutely necessary.'
The openSecurity verdict: Analysts are suggesting that the lack of press coverage and official public statements made during Netanyahu's visit to Washington indicate lingering tensions between the two countries on the settlement issue. Last week, the Quartet of middle east mediators, consisting of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, held a meeting in Moscow and called on Israel to freeze settlement activity. This call has clearly been ignored given the Jerusalem municipality's latest approval for settlement construction in east Jerusalem and Netanyahu's defiant speech at AIPAC.
Yesterday, Netanyahu told US congressmen that if Palestinians did not withdraw the request for a total freeze on Israeli settlements, peace talks in the middle east could be delayed by one year. Israel has accused the Palestinians of seeking a pretext to block negotiations so that Israel is further delegitimized internationally.
The Palestinian Authority now finds itself stuck in an unenviable position. Should it revoke its request that Israel freezes settlement construction, the move will be highly unpopular among the Palestinian populace who already feel marginalised and unrepresented. Such a move could effectively delegitimize and undermine the Palestinian Authority's already waning credibility and could spark a third Intifada in which Fatah would be sidelined. East Jerusalem has been a significant flashpoint between Israeli troops and Palestinian protestors. Over the course of the last few weeks, Palestinian youths have responded to Israeli announcements by hurling stones at Israeli armoured personnel carriers and bulldozers. Restrictions and lockdowns have so far kept large-scale violence at bay in Jerusalem, though anger, despair and frustration could very well manifest themselves in mass street-to-street fighting.
In spite of US condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, critics say the Obama administration's rhetoric does not extend to actual action, which should hinge on bringing Israel into compliance with international law through the threat of economic and arms embargos. Many have pointed to Obama's infamous statement that Jerusalem 'will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,' which he made in his speech to AIPAC the very morning after he secured the Democratic nomination as a presidential candidate in 2008. These remarks, though played down at the time, have been dubbed by critics as biased since Jerusalem is not recognised internationally as Israel's capital.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached a critical point and the outcome of the current crisis will have lasting implications. If Israel can win the silent consent of the US, a crucial player in the Quartet, over its approval of 1,600 housing units then it will have little problem consolidating its hold of East Jerusalem and building further housing. Though considerable media attention has focused on the construction of 1,600 housing units, on 11 March, Ha'aretz reported that in fact these housing units are only part of a broader plan comprising of some 50,000 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem.
The implications of the current crisis have the potential to destabilise regional security given the significance of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque for Muslims around the world. Excavation work being carried out below the area surrounding the al-Aqsa mosque has spurred rumours that a planned deliberate destruction of the mosque is underway. The reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue near the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque have sparked new tensions between the two sides and has done little to allay fears that the al-Aqsa mosque is being enveloped by Israeli expansion in Jerusalem. Whilst Israel denied any intention to destroy the mosque, Palestinians claim that it has adopted a soft approach towards hard-line Jewish groups that act with near-impunity.
Reports suggest that the Palestinian Authority will be notified by the Obama administration later today about whether Israel has agreed to halt settlement construction. It seems however that any agreement for further negotiations will rest on semantics, and whether the halt on construction will be a ‘temporary restriction’ or a ‘formal freeze.’ Netanyahu's visit to the US and his speech at AIPAC suggest that a permanent freeze including East Jerusalem, which he and many others consider integral to the state of Israel, is highly unlikely. For now, the resumption of middle east peace talks is in jeopardy and rests very much on whether strong condemnation by the Obama administration will manifest itself in concrete action that diffuses tension.
US-Pakistani talks seek better ties
The United States and Pakistan are to hold high-level talks on Wednesday aimed at improving ties and cooperation between the two countries. Ahead of the talks, Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that Pakistan wants 'this dialogue to be a results-oriented dialogue.' Already Pakistan has presented a 56-page wish-list to the US, including requests for greater nuclear cooperation and military equipment including pilotless drones and more helicopters. The document also requests better access to US markets and outlines the problems Pakistan faces due to its electricity and water shortfalls, which have disrupted the economy and led to public unrest in some areas.
Washington however is playing down the prospect of a civilian nuclear accord with Pakistan given recent allegations that the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, shared nuclear secrets with Iran. Speaking to Pakistan's Express TV, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan on the lines of the one with India is not on the cards. The issue is likely to be a contentious one given that last night Pakistan's foreign secretary, Salman Bashir, said 'what is good for India, should be good for Pakistan.'
For now, Washington hopes to focus on the 'trust deficit' between the two countries and work on improving cooperation with the Pakistani military, given that Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is in Washington for talks. Regional security is likely to dominate discussions given that Pakistan is a frontline state in the Global War on Terror. Analysts say Pakistan is concerned that the US may vacate the region leaving Islamabad in the lurch.
Amnesty International urges Malaysia to protect migrant workers
A report released by Amnesty International on Wednesday urged Malaysia to end migrant abuse and reform labour laws in order to better protect foreigners working in the country. The rights group said that many migrant workers are being forced to work long hours in harsh conditions and are subject to rape, abuse and unpaid labour. The rights group says these conditions amount to little short of 'bonded labour', adding that laws that allow employers to hold workers' passports prevented them from leaving abusive workplaces for fear of arrest.
The report entitled 'Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia' accuses the Malaysian authorities of extortion, exploitation, arbitrary arrest and facilitating human trafficking of migrant workers through 'loose regulation of recruitment agents and through laws and policies that fail to protect workers.' More than 200 migrant workers, both legal and illegal, were interviewed for the compilation of the report. Amnesty has called on the Malaysian government to investigate abuses in the workplace and by police. Migrant workers constitute more than a fifth of the Malaysia's work force.
Somali pirates seize ships in long-range attacks
Somali pirates have seized two ships in waters outside the zone patrolled by Navfor, the European Union's naval force fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden. On Tuesday, a Turkish ship was hijacked in the Indian Ocean whilst a British Virgin Islands vessel was seized off Oman. Navfor says the hijacking of the Turkish ship is the longest-range attack to date and took place some 1,850km east of the Somali coast. The attack was reportedly closer to India than Somalia, adding to fears that the pirates are beginning to broaden their range of operations.
On Wednesday, a suspected pirate was shot dead as guards on board a cargo ship fought off an attempted hijacking. The Panamanian-flagged cargo ship Almezaan was sailing towards Mogadishu when it came under attack by a group of seven pirates. Navfor says it found one body on board the ship and took six suspects into custody.
US pledges support for Mexico drug war
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged support for Mexico in an effort to broaden the war against drug cartels. Leading the largest and highest-level US delegation to Mexico, Clinton announced yesterday that a joint US-Mexico response against violence, drugs and trafficking will not be limited by 'borders or bureaucratic divisions.' The talks on Tuesday centered on efforts to disrupt drug cartels, to strengthen judicial bodies, to secure the border that divides both countries without disrupting trade and to build 'stronger, more resilient communities that can resist the influence of cartels.'
The joint effort will not merely rely on law enforcement alone, rather, the US has pledged to aid impoverished border towns and engage in social efforts to strengthen civil society. US and Mexican officials are reviewing the Merida Initiative, a $1.6bn programme to fight organised crime in central America, with President Barack Obama already asking Congress for more than $300 million for the fiscal year that starts 1 October 2010 to further anti-drug assistance. In the past four years, an estimated 18,000 people have been killed across Mexico in incidents relating to the narcotics trade.