During a meeting in Paris Wednesday, one of the leaders of Libya's transitional government thanked French President Nicolas Sarkozy for his support as battles continued against troops loyal to Moammar Kadafi and talked about plans to draft a new constitution.
Mahmoud Jibril said regional representatives from across Libya would be convened to draw up a "constitutional project" that would be put to a referendum.
A year and a bit after the ill-fated interception of the Mavi Marmara that headed last year's flotilla to Gaza, Israel is bracing for another one. This time around, say authorities, they are more prepared, having learned the lessons from operations to public relations and media. (We'll get back to that second point later.)
Israel launched a diplomatic, legal and bureaucratic offensive to prevent the flotilla well in advance and for months has been appealing to governments to block their citizens' efforts to participate, with a certain degree of success. Easing restrictions on goods entering Gaza certainly helped, as has the recent Egyptian decision to open the Raffah crossing, which Israel did not like but quickly recognized as advantageous in this context.
The ships are supposed to rendevous in the Mediterranean and then sail to Gaza but some of the likely candidates in the region are dropping out. Cyprus has announced it will not let the ships in, Greece will let them in but is stalling them with red tape at Israel's request, activists complain. Greece has its own issues this week and will have limited energy to spend on this, one way or the other.
Elsewhere in Europe, delegations met with problems as insurance companies were reluctant to issue policies for the ships and their passengers, after an Israeli legal group, Shurat Hadin, sent letters to the world's leading marine insurance companies advising them they could be held accountable for damages and complicit to violating the law. Other initiatives seek to block satellite communications services to the ships.
The Turkey-based IHH was to be the biggest contingent of the flotilla, its massive passenger ship the largest by far of the dozens of vessels originally slated to sail. Last week the organization announced the ship was staying home.
With Syria's troubles spilling into its backyard, Turkey may have bigger fish to fry at this time -- and both countries seem keen to work things out in advance of the United Nations report on the 2010 flotilla. Turkey was not impressed with the early draft and Israeli media suggest the final report, currently due early July, is still pretty critical of Turkey. And Israel, for its part, always needs all the friends it can get.
In recent weeks, the military completed a series of comprehensive drills for intercepting the next flotilla. Netanyahu is determined to uphold the naval blockade, which Israel says aims only to prevent gunrunning to Hamas-ruled Gaza and not against Palestinian civilians. On Monday, the security cabinet approved the operational plan presented by the army.
Israel has reached understandings with Egypt about the ships docking in El Arish and inspecting the cargo before transfer to Gaza by land in case participants decline Israel's invitation to dock at its Ashdod port -- as expected. There's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, repeat Israeli spokespeople, who call the flotilla a provocation.
The organizers and activists are equally determined to sail for Gaza and are undeterred by the difficulties. And if Israel has eased up some on Gaza, well, if anything, this just proves flotillas work, says the Free Gaza movement . At a news conference in Athens on Monday, organizers said the 10 ships taking part in the voyage would gather at sea toward the weekend before heading to Gaza.
Meanwhile, until any encounter at sea, the skirmish is being waged on YouTube and all sides are uploading fast and furious -- some straightforward, others kind of clever.
And back to that media lesson learned. One of the main problems Israel had getting its message across last time (besides the message) was the long delay in releasing timely visual images and information from the scene while the operation was still ongoing, leaving the media stage to activists and semi-professionals and an anti-Israeli angle. For weeks, Israeli officials have been stressing the importance of the media battlefield and assuring outlets that professional and credible material will be much more timely.
That's good. Less good was the letter from Government Press Office director Oren Helman on Sunday, warning foreign press they could be deported and banned from working in Israel for 10 years if they participated in the flotilla. Besides infuriating both local and international media, the move seems to have embarassed Netanyahu, who ordered the directive be rethought.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Video, from top: An Israeli Defense Forces video explains the Gaza naval blockade from the official Israeli perspective; activist Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli combat pilot who has become an outspoken critic of his county's policies, discusses his reasons for joining the flotilla. Credit: YouTube
The Palestinian race to September is going at full force, in spite of international initiatives to persuade them to change their minds.
The latest such initiative came from France.
On a visit to Ramallah on Thursday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe revealed his government’s plan to invite Palestinians and Israelis to an international peace conference late this month or in early July in Paris.
The purpose is to restart the moribund Palestinian-Israeli negotiations before September, when the Palestinians want the United Nations Security Council to vote in favor of a resolution admitting the State of Palestine as a full member of the U.N., with recognized borders within the June 1967 armistice line.
“We are convinced that if nothing happens between now and September, the situation will be difficult for everyone,” Juppe said at a news conference after meeting Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Juppe stopped short of saying his country would support the Palestinian effort if Israel turns down the French initiative, which is expected to happen, emphasizing that “if nothing happens until September … all options will be open.”
Though Juppe’s plan is based mainly on President Obama’s Mideast initiative, which calls for resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations based on the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, it goes a couple of steps further, which make the Israeli rejection likely.
While Obama talked about security for Israel, Juppe talked about security for the two states, and while Obama said the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees would be negotiated at a later stage without giving a timeline, the French minister said these issues should be resolved within one year.
The French expansion on the Obama plan seems to have struck a positive note with the Palestinian Authority, but apparently not strongly enough to agree to attend the proposed Paris peace conference, let alone resume negotiations with Israel before it stops all settlement activities and agrees that the talks will eventually lead to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
Fayyad, speaking at the press conference with Juppe, said that the French initiative could succeed “if it had the right parameters that clearly state the 1967 borders and that reject the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, which will be the capital of the Palestinian state.”
Juppe said the French plan has the backing of the European Union and the United States. All that is left is to have the backing of Israel and the Palestinians.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement late Friday while traveling in Rome, condemning the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters who took to the streets as part of the ongoing uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
"I am deeply troubled that the Syrian Government chooses to continue to use force and intimidation against the Syrian people," Clinton said. "The United States condemns in the strongest terms the Syrian Government’s actions over the past five weeks and calls on it to immediately cease the killing, arrest, and harassment of protesters, activists, and journalists."
Clinton said she was "particularly troubled" by reports that at least 30 people had been killed when Syrian security forces "again opened fire" at "peaceful protesters" Friday.
Britain is working with European allies to impose limited sanctions on Syrian leaders in response to the ongoing government suppression of pro-democracy protesters, Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Tuesday.
“We are now working with our European partners on targeted sanctions, on asset freezes and travel bans,” Hague said in comments broadcast by the BBC. He promised further discussions with the French foreign minister during an evening meeting and with United Nations Security Council members.
"Syria is a difficult issue at the U.N. Security Council and some of the members, including the permanent members, require a good deal of convincing that the U.N. should be taking any action," Hague said.
Hague, during meetings with the Egyptian foreign minister in Cairo on Monday, had spoken of the "grave and unacceptable situation in Syria."
"What the Syrian authorities are doing is wrong, it is counter-productive and it is against the interests of stability in Syria," he said. "The international community must send a firm message to that effect."
Earlier Tuesday, French and German officials announced plans to urge the European Union to impose sanctions on Syrian leaders including President Bashar al-Assad.
"We are trying to act through the European Union," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a Tuesday statement to reporters. Asked if Assad should be included among targets of sanctions, he said: "That's what France wants."
German Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer also said it was time for action.
"The Syrian government's continuing brutal actions leave the European Union no choice but to press firmly ahead with targeted sanctions against the regime," Hoyer told Reuters.
The 27-member European Union agreed Friday to impose an arms embargo on Syria and is considering added measures.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday called on Syria to lift restrictions on the aid organization's ability to access those injured during the ongoing clashes between police and anti-government protesters.
A new bill passed Monday in parliament obliges Israeli non-governmental organizations to report funds received from foreign governments. The NGOs will have to provide updated information on a quarterly basis, post the information on their websites and state such funding in any public campaign.
The logic behind the new law, which enjoyed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support, is the need for transparency, according to lawmaker Zeev Elkin, coalition chairman and co-sponsor of the bill. Elkin told Israel Radio it is the right of a democratic country and its public to know when foreign governmental elements pour money into groups with the intention of influencing policy and internal politics. It is also the right of the other countries' citizens to know whether their own tax money is going too, he said. According to NGO Monitor, governmental bodies such as the European Union pour millions into various Israeli groups. The money doesn't always go where it should and groups often overstep their stated missions.
As an example, Elkin said nearly all the Israeli bodies that provided "the false materials" for the Goldstone report received money from foreign governments, which were then quick to adopt the report they in fact funded. The Goldstone report resulted from South African jurist Judge Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. His report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, found strong evidence that Israel had committed war crimes in the Gaza strip. The report was fiercely rejected and bitterly denounced in Israel.
However, the Israeli Defense Force itself has recognized on occasion the contribution of rights organizations to investigating misconduct
The law doesn't oblige NGOs to expose their private foreign funding, allowing private donors to remain private. Most hospitals, universities and charities rely on generous support. This comes from well-known philanthropists but also from people who do not want the publicity -- perhaps in keeping with the Jewish principle of matan baseter, or giving discreetly. But many wealthy individuals make considerable donations to other organizations that also seek influence on Israeli policy, and these will not be revealed.
Elkin said the bill is not political and the law will apply equally to NGOs from the right and left in Israeli politics. But critics balk at he apolitical claim, noting that most NGOs receiving funding from foreign governmental sources are liberal and left-leaning, while many bodies enjoying funding from private donors overseas are conservative or right-wing.
Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, said this new transparency will only apply to left-wing organizations, some of which are supported by foreign governments, but not to right-wing organizations like the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella group. "The logic behind the new bill is simple, to de-legitimize the left-wing organizations and portray them as foreign agents. But no one will ever know who's pulling the strings of foundations receiving far bigger support from evangelical organizations in the U.S. or tycoons like Irwin Moskowitz," Oppenheimer said in a radio interview. This is an attempt to use the right-wing domination of the Knesset "to silence political public debate," Oppenheimer said.
The controversial law obviates an even more controversial proposal. A few weeks ago, lawmakers pushed for a parliamentary investigation committee to look into the funding of Israeli rights organizations. The proposal, in mid-approval, was tabled by legislators from Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Israel's hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and drew sharp criticism from both inside Israel and out. The opposition decried the move as a witch hunt against left-wing organizations and warned of deepening McCarthyism, but government elements sounded alarm bells too. Senior Likud ministers such as Benny Begin denounced the move. "It's dark here," said Begin, a vanishing breed combining a political hawk with a liberal democrat. Lieberman dismissed him and other Likud seniors ministers such as Dan Meridor as "feinschmeckers", a term he borrowed from Yiddish and meaning (in this case) finicky, high-browed fusspots.
But as more feinschmeckers presented themselves, the vote on the parliamentary investigation was postponed until it was side-swiped by Monday's vote on a bill that had been long in the pipeline. Earlier this week, Netanyahu reportedly told Likud faction members the parliamentary investigation bill would cause Israel more harm than good. Political commentators note that Netanyahu's support of the new law also plays into an ongoing political power struggle between him and Lieberman, as the two are increasingly locking horns on different issues. Many of the more controversial legislative initiatives in parliament this year -- on sensitive issues such as conversion, citizenship and loyalty -- have come from Lieberman's party, causing Israel no small amount of embarrassment.
According to media reports, the attorney general may decided in coming days to indict Lieberman -- subject to a hearing -- in a corruption investigation that has been dragging on for years. To this, a columnist in Yisrael Hayom, a free daily Hebrew newspaper, recently noted that a decision by the attorney general in Lieberman's case would have a calming effect on the legislative hyperactivity.
Egyptian expatriates joined their countrymen celebrating the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on Friday.
In London's upscale Mayfair neighborhood, about 200 people celebrated Mubarak's departure outside the Egyptian Embassy, where they beat drums, danced the conga, hugged and chanted ”Bye bye, Mubarak” before marching through the streets, Reuters reported.
"This is the beginning of a new chapter for Egypt, for human rights, for democracy, and dignity in Egypt and the Middle East," 30-year-old student Basim al-Bahalwan told Reuters.
Egyptian barber Mohammed Zayed, 28, told Reuters that Egyptians were the happiest people in the world. "Our dignity has returned now this dog has gone."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Egyptian leaders Friday to take steps toward free elections following Hosni Mubarak's resignation.
“France ardently hopes the new Egyptian authorities will take steps that lead to establishment of democratic institutions through free and transparent elections,” Sarkozy said in a statement issued by his Elysee Palace office, according to Reuters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also praised Mubarak's departure on CNN, saying, “It is necessary that this development is irreversible and that it leads to a freer Egypt," and adding, "At the end of this process, there must be free elections."
British Prime Minister David Cameron told Reuters that Friday was "a remarkable day, particularly for those people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, who have spoken out so bravely and so peacefully for change in their country."
"Egypt now has a really precious moment of opportunity to have a government that can bring the country together, and as a friend of Egypt and the Egyptian people, we stand ready to help in any way that we can," Cameron said.
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said the EU also supports Mubarak's resignation.
"By standing down, he has listened to the voices of the Egyptian people and has opened the way to faster and deeper reforms," Ashton told Reuters. "It is important now that the dialogue is accelerated, leading to a broad-based government which will respect the aspirations of, and deliver stability for, the Egyptian people."
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Photo: Egyptians celebrate the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, in front of the Egyptian museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press
The French prime minister's office has confirmed that France has suspended sales of arms and tear gas to Egypt.
The decision was made by the prime minister's office at a Jan. 27 meeting, an aide to Prime Minister Francois Fillon told Agence France Press on Saturday, confirming a report on the website of the French daily Le Monde.
Export permits to send police equipment to Egypt, such as tear gas grenades, were suspended Jan. 25, the aide told AFP.
European Union leaders urged dialogue and an end to violence in Egypt in a joint statement at the conclusion of a one-day summit in Brussels on Friday, ignoring calls by Britain's prime minister to take a stronger stance against a teetering regime, the Associated Press reported.
The EU has been criticized for lagging behind President Barack Obama in distancing itself from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
EU leaders called on all parties to show “restraint” and said Egypt should start its transition process “now.” The cautious statement reflected long-standing divisions in Europe over how to deal with the Middle East and autocrats in allied nations.
An Israeli citizen was arrested Tuesday in connection with a 1995 massacre in Bosnia, and Israel’s Justice Ministry launched extradition proceedings against him.
A Sarajevo court issued a warrant for Alexandar Cvetkovic's arrest in April, stating that he was wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity. In August, Bosnia-Herzegovina filed a formal request to Israel for his extradition to stand trial at a war-crimes tribunal.
According to the documents, Cvetkovic was a soldier in the 10th Sabotage Unit belonging to the Vojska Republike Srpske, the Bosnian Serb Army that seized control of the Srebrenica enclave in 1995. The unit of trained commandos and snipers participated in the "systematic, wide and planned campaign against the Bosnian-Muslim population with the intent of exterminating them," the Israeli Justice Ministry says in a petition to declare the man extraditable.
The material provided by authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the ministry's reveal the "chilling facts" of the massacre of Muslim civilians at the Branjevo Farm on July 16, 1995, the petition says.
For 10 hours that day, busloads of civilians -- many blindfolded and bound -- were driven to the farm. The people were removed from the bus, lined up around 10 at a time, and shot from behind by a firing squad of eight. Some witnesses testified that approximately 700 people had been killed that day. But Bosnian authorities, relying on United Nations experts and mass graves discovered around the farm, believe the number of victims was 1,000 to 1,200.
Cvetkovic allegedly was a member of that firing squad and actively participated in the Branjevo massacre, one of several in which about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in the bloodiest atrocities on European soil since World War II.
When 26-year-old Iranian demonstrator Neda Agha-Soltan died on video in the streets of Tehran during the wave of post-election protests that rocked Iran in 2009, France reacted with fury and was quick to denounce crackdowns by security forces on demonstrators.
And when Tunisia, a former French colony, began to violently repress protests against the reign of a long-ruling autocrat, France took a strong stance as well -- in tacit support of the oppressor.
In the North African country, ruled by Paris' longtime ally President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who departed from office Friday, escalating violence and police crackdowns on demonstrators have claimed scores of lives in recent weeks. The turmoil and repression there, however, have so far only triggered muted reactions and cryptic media statements from Paris.
"Rather than issuing anathemas, I think our duty is to make a calm and objective analysis of the situation," French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was quoted by French media reports as telling Parliament this week when she came under criticism from the opposition over France's restrained reaction to the riots and crackdowns in Tunisia.
Alliot-Marie reportedly even cited a possible "security cooperation" deal between Tunisia and France, something for which she was scorned by top French Socialist Party member Jean-Marc Ayrault on Thursday. He said her remarks were of a low character and that the departure of Tunisian President Ben Ali from power was inevitable.