TIME Middle East

Palestinian Unity Deal Met With Skepticism

From left: Fatah movement Leader Azzam Al-Ahmad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014.
Fatah movement leader Azzam al-Ahmad, left, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014 Mustafa Hassona—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have been here before. They've buried the hatchet with "historic pacts" that fizzled twice since 2011. There's skepticism — but also a glimmer of hope — that this time could be different

There’s no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the reconciliation agreement signed on Wednesday between Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian political factions that split the Gaza Strip and the West Bank between them seven years ago — ending any practical semblance of Palestinian national unity. Twice since 2011, the parties have grandly announced similar “historic pacts” that would supposedly end the rift, and neither has amounted to much: the militant Islamists of Hamas still govern Gaza, the moderate nationalists of Fatah hold sway in the West Bank.

“No, it’s not real,” says Abdullah Zeud, 28, who owns a computer store in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “It’s just like every meeting these guys have held in the past, which ends up with them fighting and not agreeing on anything. They continue to hold their meetings, bring the Palestinian people’s hopes up, and then it all ends up with them disagreeing over everything”

“It is becoming a joke,” says Im Issa, 52, a Ramallah housewife. “Why is this happening now? Is it because they have found themselves going nowhere with the negotiations and want to try and put pressure on Israel?”

It could be. The timing of the announcement, six days before the April 29 deadline for U.S.-sponsored peace talks, suggests Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, may have chosen to push back against pressure from Israel and the U.S., which Palestinians see as insisting on new concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was angered by the latest announcement, declaring, as he did after the previous pacts, that Abbas “must choose. Does he want reconciliation with Hamas, or peace with Israel?”

By appearing to choose Hamas, Abbas wins points with the Palestinian public (which strongly opposes the factional rift), while perhaps also driving a wedge between the Americans and Netanyahu. “Is he hoping this will raise alarm bells in Washington, and they’ll go back to the Israelis and say, ‘We’ve got to offer him something’?” asks Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “Yes, the timing is suspicious.”

But Rabbani also sees evidence that the new pact may well be more credible than those that came before. Both factions, he notes, have lately been weakened — Fatah by the trajectory of the peace talks, Hamas by a cascade of political bad news. First Hamas lost its headquarters in Syria, triggering a sharp drop in financial support from Iran. Even worse was the military’s July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which largely sealed off Gaza’s last remaining open border; the new Egyptian regime declared Hamas a terrorist group.

There’s also the photos of the signing ceremony, which took place in Gaza City. The earlier pacts were inked in Cairo and Doha, and championed by Hamas’ chairman, Khaled Meshaal, who travels the Middle East as a kind of roving ambassador. Both pacts were opposed by Hamas leaders trapped in Gaza — the very Hamas officials beaming with their arms in the air on the dais on Monday.

“The opposition in the past was from the Gaza-based leadership,” Rabbani says, “and this time those are the ones who are signing.”

Significantly, the pact is structured to avoid forcing together the rival parties. It calls for installing a technocratic government in five weeks’ time, which will prepare elections in six months. Meanwhile, Fatah will continue to govern the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas will rule Gaza. In theory, at least, it could work. And some even believe it will.

“From the things I’ve been hearing on the news today, it really sounds as though the two parties are really serious this time,” says Mohammad Ali, 35, a construction worker in the West Bank city of el-Bireh. “I think that the two parties have realized that they don’t have any more options, the negotiations have not achieved anything, and they need to unite with one another in order to confront Israel as one people united with common goals and objectives.”

But as Rabbani points out, and as the last two pacts announced with no less fanfare made clear, “Signing is one thing, and implementation is another.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah

TIME Saudi Arabia

Fears Rise Over MERS Outbreak While Saudis Fumble

The deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has neither no definitive origin, nor a known cure, so global public health officials are becoming increasingly concerned by the Saudi government's sluggish response as the number of human cases continues to rise

The sudden spike in cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in Saudi Arabia came soon after camel-racing events at the Jenadriyah Festival in Riyadh. That suggested the surge in the incurable coronavirus, which resembles pneumonia but is fatal to 1 in 3 who contract it, confirmed what scientists already knew of the disease: that camels seem to be reservoirs for the virus, and transmit it to humans more easily than humans do to one another.

But with the number of cases picking up, there are worries that may be changing. And if the virus has mutated to increased person-to-person contagion, it has potentially catastrophic implications for another annual festival: the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina known as hajj. More than a million Muslims from around the globe gather in the western Saudi cities during the first week of October, then return to their home countries, which last year numbered 188. In an age when international travel has dramatically exacerbated the spread of new viruses like SARS, virologists say the mounting concern is only too clear.

The worries are aggravated by the performance of the Saudi government, which has failed to confirm whether the virus is, in fact, mutating. The Saudis have either not performed tests that would reveal the changes, or have not shared them with international authorities, virologists complain. On Monday, Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabiah was fired amid mounting criticism of the kingdom’s handling of the budding crisis.

“It’s frustrating,” says Ian Mackay, an associate professor at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre at the University of Queensland, who compared the Saudi handling of MERS with China’s response to the 2013 outbreak of bird flu. “With the H7N9 virus, China provided almost too much information. You worried about the privacy of some of the patients, given the level of detail that China was providing.

“But we’re seeing the complete opposite extreme in Saudi Arabia, where you can’t even get the sex of the patient in some cases,” Mackay tells TIME. “And the WHO doesn’t seem to be getting that information either.”

Indeed, the World Health Organization as good as confirmed it did not have the latest information from Riyadh in declining to comment on the outbreak on Tuesday afternoon. “Kindly be advised that we cannot comment on latest MERS figures since we do not have the latest case count,” the WHO’s media office says in an emailed reply to questions from TIME. “And we can only communicate and comment on the cases that we have been officially notified of by a member state, namely Saudi Arabia.”

Concerns that the virus may have mutated are focused on two clusters of cases among health care workers: one cluster is in Jeddah, the western Saudi city through which pilgrims pass en route to nearby Mecca. The other cluster is among paramedics in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

Mackay, who noted the clusters in his blog, says he can see two possible explanations: “One is a fairly bad but widespread breakdown of infection control and prevention protocols” among the health care workers — that is, nurses or doctors failing to use gloves, surgical masks or other standard measures designed to prevent infection while working with a MERS patient. Such a breakdown would be possible even in a well-equipped and prosperous Gulf nation, Mackay noted, but for both outbreaks to take place at the same time “would be fairly coincidental.”

The other, more alarming possibility? “The other avenue is the virus has changed and become more easily transmitted between humans,” Mackay said.

That is cause for concern way beyond the Middle East. “When humans readily transmit to humans, that’s what will cause a worldwide outbreak,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told National Public Radio. “We are very concerned that … with what we’ve seen over the last two weeks … we may be at that point now.”

Whether the virus has, in fact, mutated dangerously cannot be known until the Saudis examine the genome of the latest samples of the virus and share the results. The WHO has said it is “working closely” with the kingdom, but has not issued any conclusions. Another way to find out if the virus has mutated would be if the number of cases were to skyrocket. But with only 344 cases worldwide so far — a decade ago, SARS infected at least 8,000, and killed 775 — the count remains low, and awareness is growing.

In 2013, concerns over MERS kept many as a million people away from hajj, an obligation that the Koran imposes upon any Muslim who can afford the trip. Saudi authorities discouraged attendance by the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and people already suffering from chronic illness, a major risk factor for the virus. Still, more than 3 million people circulated at the holy sites for five days, at close quarters. With the risk of mass contagion in the air this year, the world may be hoping for a better reaction from Saudi Arabia than it has got so far.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the institution that scientist Ian Mackay belongs to. He works for the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre.

TIME Abdullah Gul

Turkey’s Gul Rules Out Putin-Style Job Swap With Erdogan

Abdullah Gul - Uhuru Kenyatta meeting
Turkish President Abdullah Gul speaks during a press conference in Ankara, April 8, 2014. Aykut Unlupinar—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The future of Turkish President Abdullah Gul is linked to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made clear his interest in running for the presidency when the post opens in August. But Gul appeared to cast the idea of a Putin-style job swap

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul deepened a mystery surrounding the future of the country’s political leadership on Friday, apparently closing off one much-discussed scenario involving a job swap with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but in terms so murky and conditional that it only served to fan speculation about his intentions.

Both Gul and Erdogan belong to the Justice and Development party that has ruled Turkey since 2003. The latter is serving his third term as premier and is barred by internal party rules from seeking a fourth. But he has made clear his interest in running for the presidency when the post opens in August, sparking speculation that he could swap jobs with Gul, who co-founded the party him.

A similar dilemma presented itself to Vladimir Putin in 2008 in Russia, where the constitution barred him from a third consecutive term as president. Putin instead backed his former campaign manager, Dmitry Medvedev, for the job, and when Medvedev won, he appointed Putin prime minister. Putin returned the favor four years later, when he won the presidency again. But on Friday, Gul appeared to cast the idea of a taking part in similar swap.

“I believe that the Putin-Medvedev formula wouldn’t be a completely suitable model in Turkey,” he told reporters.

In nearly the same breath, however, Gul added, “I don’t have any political plan for the future under today’s circumstances.”

The cryptic remark had analysts scrambling to decipher Gul’s intentions. Some spun the remark as a surprise declaration of retirement from public life, “signaling an earlier-than-expected departure from politics when his term ends in August,” as Turkey’s Cihan news agency put it.

Most others focused on “under today’s circumstances,” hearing in the conditionality of the phrase the grinding of gears turning behind the scenes. “The first impression is that Gul wants to be candidate for the presidency again, but I don’t think that it’s possible without an agreement with Erdogan, because Gul always says he’ll speak to Erdogan about this issue,” the Hurriyet Daily News quoted columnist Yalçın Doğan as saying.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed. “The Putin-Medvedev inversion is just not possible in Turkey,” he tells TIME. “Gul is not Medvedev right? He’s got his own base. Gul will not be No. 1 but act like he’s No. 2. If Erdogan wants to become president, which he does, he’ll have to appoint a caretaker prime minister, someone he can influence a great deal.”

In Gul’s apparent rejection of a Putin-style job swap, others heard the sound of the President opening the door for Erdogan to remain as prime minister. Indeed, in a meeting last week, Justice and Development lawmakers reportedly were polled both on their views about who should be president and on the three-term limit.

“This might be a signal that they have already decided to stay with the status quo,” Ali Carkoglu, a political scientist at Koc University in Istanbul, tells TIME. Carkoglu discounts rumors that Gul would split the party, either by running against Erdogan for president or challenging him for leadership of a party they founded together.

“If they are divided, then I think they will both lose,” Carkoglu added. “They have all the incentives to work together. And I think they have a camaraderie so far. They’ve been in this sort of risky politics for 25-30 years. We are underestimating the tradition from which they come.”

Cagaptay concurs. “I think their relationship is marked more by collegial competition than by rivalry.”

But other questions loom, including what powers each office will hold. Unlike Russia (or the United States), the presidency is largely a ceremonial post; most political power rests with the parliament, with the prime minister typically chosen from the ranks of the largest party. But Turkey is drafting a new constitution, which Erdogan has said should embrace a presidential system, with a strong executive. “I think the order will probably be that he becomes president and then change the constitution, not the other way around,” says Cagaptay.

There’s also the matter of corruption allegations leveled against Erdogan and other party leaders. Erdogan has worked hard to thwart a judicial probe, dismissing hundreds of police officers and prosecutors, and even banning Twitter and YouTube after the social media sites linked to allegedly incriminating leaks. He took a victory in local elections held last month as a referendum on his leadership, but as long as he remains prime minister he enjoys immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament. Were he to become president, he could be vulnerable to courts that, for instance, have declined to enforce the Twitter ban.

Carkoglu says that, as president, Erdogan would have immunity for anything he does while he holds the post. But, he adds, “for anything he’s done prior to coming into office, there’s uncertainty. We’re not sure. So that would be a legal battle. Is it worth taking all those risks?”

TIME Terrorism

Bangkok Terrorism Arrests Could Mark Latest Setback for Hizballah and Iran

A senior U.S. official once called Hizballah "The A-Team of terrorists" but the Lebanese militia and its Iranian sponsors are struggling

The arrest of two Lebanese men in Thailand, allegedly for plotting to target Jewish tourists on a busy Bangkok street on behalf of the Lebanese Shiite group Hizballah, could mark the latest failed effort by the militia to resume terror attacks overseas. The latest plot, revealed in the Thai press on Friday, ended almost before it began. The two men reportedly arrived in Bangkok April 13 and were detained by Thai police on information supplied by Israeli intelligence. Both men allegedly carried passports of third countries (Philippines and France); Hizballah has previously shown it prefers its operatives to carry second passports. Media reports say one of the men admitted a plot to detonate explosives on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a nexus for international backpackers, including young Israelis. The suspect also agreed to lead investigators to “bomb-making equipment” in the province of Rayong, southeast of the capital, the Bangkok Post reported.

Police were seeking third man, and The Post quoted an unnamed investigator as saying nine Hizballah agents are thought to be somewhere in the country.

The incident serves to underscore the apparent gap in operational abilities of the Iranian-backed Hizballah’s covert forces – which lately have shown little of the disciplined success that built the organization’s reputation as the “terrorist A-team” – and its uniformed militia. The troops are fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad in the civil war in Syria, and making a significant impact. Meanwhile, except for the 2012 bombing of a tourist bus carrying Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria – a “soft target” – Hizballah has suffered a number of setbacks that reveal what one analyst called “an atrophying of the group’s operational capabilities.”

“What I had been hearing from numerous sources is they just did not have the bandwidth to keep up the pace of the attacks because of Syria,” says Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department and FBI terrorism specialist, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “They are all in Syria. And once that started in Syria in earnest, then [covert operations] became something that was less critical, it wasn’t their priority.”

One reversal came in Bangkok in January 2012, when a Hizballah agent (with a Swedish passport) led authorities to a 8,800 pounds of chemicals being assembled into explosives, apparently for shipment abroad in bags labeled as kitty litter. And Bangkok was the scene of the group’s biggest fiasco, a debacle in February 2012 that involved an Iranian agent blowing off his own legs while trying to escape a safe house where the roof had just blown off by a bomb-making accident. Three agents of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps that operates overseas, were detained in the safe house incident. Inside the building, investigators found magnetic “sticky bombs” like the kind Israeli agents had attached to the cars of Iranian nuclear scientists. The Quds Force agents apparently intended to do the same to Israeli diplomats.

Phone records and other evidence gathered by four governments in a joint report detailed by the Washington Post link the Bangkok plan to Iranian plots against Israeli targets in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and India, all of which ended in failure and arrests. Other plots were thwarted in Kenya, South Africa, Cyprus and Bulgaria – and Texas, where an Iranian-American used car salesman tried to plot the assassination by bomb of Saudia Arabia’s ambassador in Washington D.C.

From Iran’s perspective, the flurry of attacks was intended both to avenge the death of the Iranian scientists and to demonstrate what in the way of “asymmetrical warfare” the West might face if there were a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Levitt wrote in a paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But neither Quds nor Hizballah proved as formidable in the field as they had had been before 9/11, when they drew back from terrorist strikes. When they resumed, the world had become more security-conscious, and both Hizballah and the Quds Force were both rusty and hasty, mounting 20 plots in the 15 months from May 2011 to July 2012.

Since then, Iran appears to have reduced terror operations once again – scaling back as Iran and Western powers began talking seriously about launching diplomatic negotiations addressing Iran’s nuclear program. (Israel has restrained its covert operations, as well.) Hizballah, however, appears to be constrained only by the need to concentrate on Syria. Levitt says the group remains committed to striking Israeli targets to avenge the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, its talented terrorist leader, whose death was what prompted Hizballah to re-activate its covert operations. In addition, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to strike Israel in retaliation for its most recent airstrike on a convoy carrying advanced weapons; the Feb. 24 attack was the first such airstrike inside Lebanon.

Nasrallah later took responsibility for a March 14 roadside bomb attack on an Israeli patrol that wounded three soldiers. But he called the ambush on the Israel-Lebanon border only “part of the reply” to the airstrike. It’s possible another “part” was what the two Lebanese men were allegedly planning in Thailand, Levitt says.

“The Israelis in particular are very sensitive to any civilian loss,” he notes. “It’s possible the message is let them know there is pressure on every front.”

TIME diplomacy

Israel and Palestinians Look For Way Out of Talks Crisis

Palestinian women walk near Israeli border policemen after Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City
Palestinian women walk near Israeli border policemen after Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City April 4, 2014. Amir Cohen—Reuters

Peace talks hit another road bump with Israel announcing it would no longer release 26 Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians signing international treaties Israel opposes. Both sides, however, expressed hopes of saving the peace process

The trajectory at least appeared to continue downward Friday for the future of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. Before heading back to Washington from Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the American commitment to the talks he has personally championed is not “open-ended,” and said it was “reality check time.” Israel dug in its heels, announcing it was cancelling the proposed release of 26 Palestinian prisoners—the final batch in a promised string of releases whose delay last week prompted the Palestinian leadership to retaliate by signing international treaties Israel regards as threatening.

“Peace Process Crisis” read the headline in Friday’s Sof Hashavua, a Hebrew weekly. And yet, no one was calling it over. Weeks remain before the April 29 deadline for talks originally set to last nine months, and an extension remains a real possibility, according to officials on both sides.

“I would not say that everything collapsed. I don’t think so,” says an Israeli knowledgeable about the negotiations, who spoke on condition of not being identified any more precisely. “I don’t think either party has an interest in collapse. But the question is how can we avert escalation given the dangerous point that we’re at right now.

“We still have till the end of April.”

A face-to-face meeting at midweek was “very tense, but we talk to each other,” the Israeli says. Voices were not raised, the source says, and despite reports in both the Palestinian and Israeli press, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made no overt threat of pursing Israel in international courts for “war crimes.”

But that is precisely the threat implied by the Palestinians adopting international treaties. And though none of the 15 agreements signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday directly involved the International Criminal Court, the Israelis complained of being blind-sided by the abrupt move, which the Israeli source said altered the “context” of the talks.

The Palestinians–who ordinarily complain that the status quo in the conflict favors Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967–pretend a certain amount of dismay at Israel’s outrage.

“It’s a non-violent, diplomatic step,” said a Palestinian official close to the negotiations, who also spoke anonymously, citing the sensitivity of the situation. “We are not joining al-Qaeda. We are talking about joining international treaties.”

And the treaties carry obligations for Palestine as well as for Israel, especially in the realm of human rights. On Thursday, right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition were researching grounds to charge Abbas’ government at The Hague, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, the best-selling Israeli daily.

But if cooler heads do prevail, it remains unclear just how the two sides will find a way to extend the negotiations both privately indicated they prefer to see continue. One route might run through the deep thicket of UN bureaucracy, which the 15 treaties and conventions officially entered shortly after Abbas signed them. The Palestinians say prompt delivery proves they are serious, but the Israeli source appeared to suggest that the action was not yet final, saying, “If those letters of ascension reach their destination and the fact becomes irreversible, then we’re in a different ballgame and I don’t think that will allow us to go back and discuss the terms of an extension.”

A middle ground might be provided by slow, deliberate (or deliberately slow) processing at the U.N., which in accepting the Palestinian documents stated that its priority is to “salvage the two-state solution.”

At the same time, the Palestinians appeared to be making the most of their newly discovered leverage. They expanded their list of demands of Israel as the price for extending the talks, including the release of high profile prisoners and lifting “the siege” on the Gaza Strip, controlled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

At the same time, the Palestinian official who spoke to TIME suggested that, if Israel is serious about negotiating a final pact, talks could continue even as Palestine pursues its diplomatic track with sympathetic international bodies.

“What’s the problem with negotiating and going to the United Nations?” the official asks. “Because for the Israelis there seems to be no problem with negotiating while building settlements.”

Still unaddressed, amid the rolling controversies, are the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, and other issues at the heart of the conflict.

TIME Middle East

Middle East Peace Talks Hang by a Thread

Palestinian scouts hold posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a Fatah rally in support of Abbas in the West Bank city of Nablus on April 2, 2014.
Scouts hold posters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a Fatah rally in the West Bank city of Nablus on April 2, 2014 Abed Omar Qusini—Reuters

The U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations still have life, but few expect any real progress after both sides up the ante

What Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intended on Tuesday when he abruptly signed a raft of international treaties was not to sink the peace talks with Israel, but rather to aim a shot across its bow. Israel had failed to live up to its promise to release 26 Palestinian prisoners on Saturday, a goodwill gesture vowed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the talks in July. The Palestinians entered the talks with a promise of their own: to abstain, for as long as negotiations continued, from joining U.N. agencies that might give Palestinians leverage over Israel in international courts.

So by abruptly signing 15 U.N. treaties and conventions — and doing it on television — Abbas was reminding Israel that a deal’s supposed to be a deal. Even if the deal at hand involves only how to continue talks that so far appear to have gone nowhere.

“We don’t want to confront anyone,” says Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations unit. “It’s not a step against the Americans. But Israel was not abiding by its obligations, and therefore we decided we were not obliged to keep ourselves from our rights.”

Abbas made as much clear in his remarks on Tuesday, praising U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “superb efforts” and vowing to continue the talks. Still, a sense of crisis ensued. The news cycles had been humming with reports that, in order to keep the talks moving beyond the April 29 deadline — and the Palestinians away from the U.N. — President Barack Obama might release Jonathan Pollard, the American sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel. When Abbas picked up his signing pen, Kerry called off his plans to fly in to consult with the Palestinians. And after a dozen trips to the region and 39 meetings with the Palestinians alone, a canceled session will qualify as news.

Still, there were signs on Wednesday that Abbas’ move would bear fruit. Danny Danon, a hawkish senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the Prime Minister was now prepared to proceed with the release of the 26 prisoners — a move that Danon had vowed would prompt him to step down as Deputy Minister of Defense in protest.

“Now, the only reason you don’t see the prisoners boarding the buses and me resigning is Abu Mazen is trying to get more,” Danon tells TIME, referring to Abbas by his commonly used kunya, an Arabic honorific. “What we see today is Abu Mazen trying to blackmail more trade-offs.” Danon said in order to continue the talks, the Palestinian leader seeks the release of high-profile prisoners like Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader of Abbas’ secular Fatah party serving multiple life terms on terrorist convictions. Earlier in the week a senior Palestinian official privately hinted that Barghouti’s release may be imminent.

A spokesman for Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment.

There’s ample time to cobble together the terms of an extension: four weeks remain on the official clock, and both sides have an interest in overtime. Embracing the “peace process” shields Israel from international criticism for its continued occupation of territories captured in 1967. In a conference call arranged on Tuesday by the Israel Project, a nonprofit that promotes Israel’s position, Udi Segal, a diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s leading news station, Channel 2, called the talks “a strategic Israeli weapon against international pressure, especially from Europe.”

And on the Palestinian side, Abbas has long promoted achieving a Palestinian state through negotiations. Most Palestinians think he will agree to an extension, according to a poll released on Wednesday by the well-regarded Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and almost two-thirds think he should if more prisoners are released. The extension-for-prisoners trade is supported even if it means delaying the diplomatic confrontation in the U.N., the strategy that has the broadest support among the Palestinian public, most of whom have given up on negotiations.

Israelis harbor the same reservations. Polls consistently show Jewish Israelis support talks in principle but do not believe they will produce an agreement. And their pessimism appears to be justified by the current contretemps: none of the bargaining is around issues of borders, or refugees or the status of Jerusalem — the core issues of a final pact. Rather, the debate has been about what it would take to keep the talks going, peripheral issues known in the shorthand of the peace process as CBMs, or “confidence-building measures.”

“But they’re not even CBMs because I don’t think anybody is expecting them to build confidence,” says former Israeli negotiator Pnina Sharvit-Baruch. “All these kinds of external elements are a way of gaining time, I guess.”

If there actually has been progress on the core issues, Sharvit-Baruch, now a law professor at Tel Aviv University, says she’s been impressed by the secrecy that both sides maintained since the talks began in late July. But, she adds, “maybe they’re good at keeping secrets because there’s nothing to reveal. I’m not optimistic, unfortunately.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah

TIME Middle East

Israelis See Pollard as Hero and Hostage

Sentenced to life in 1987 for spying against the U.S., Jonathan Pollard may become a bargaining chip for U.S. in mediating continued peace talks now even more complicated after a meeting between top diplomats and leaders was called off

The “Free Pollard” signs go up whenever an American official visits Israel, lining the sidewalks on the motorcade route. When President Obama stepped onto the tarmac at Ben Gurion International a year ago, one of the first things he heard was “Please free Pollard.” Two Cabinet ministers in the reception line buttonholed the guest of honor on behalf of the American imprisoned for spying for Israel, giving voice to a popular cause that until this week appeared hopeless.

Jonathan Pollard was a U.S. citizen when he was sentenced to life in 1987 for espionage, but he petitioned for Israeli citizenship while in prison, was granted it, and as the decades passed his incarceration gradually took on the qualities of a vigil. Held by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the Butner, N.C., Federal Correctional Complex, Pollard was invoked among Israelis in the terms of a captured pilot held by Hizballah in an unknown location — that is, as a hostage. Now it appears that the Obama Administration may be bargaining the terms of his release in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Millions of Israelis would celebrate his release and inevitable arrival in Israel.

Pollard was not working for Mossad when he handed secret U.S. Navy documents to his Israeli handler. He was an agent in a brand new branch of Israeli intelligence, dubbed the Bureau of Scientific Relations and run by a former Mossad agent named Rafi Eitan. But Pollard’s capture was a traumatic event in relations between Israel and the U.S., offending Washington so deeply and obviously that Israeli officials solemnly foreswore any future intelligence operations inside U.S. borders.

By all accounts, the ban has held, even for a Mossad that regards as one of its most potent assets its reputation as omniscient puppet master — the hidden hand behind every unexplained event. Even amid reports that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on Israeli officials, “we are still extremely cautious on this issue,” Dov Weisglass, who was Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told me after the Edward Snowden leaks last fall. “We’re still licking our Pollard wounds very strongly.”

Within Israel, meanwhile, Pollard became a household name. His status moved from prisoner to captive to, as reports that his health was failing, potential martyr. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, on the slope below the holy high ground Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims know as the Haram al-Sharif, Jewish settlers dubbed their home Beit Yonatan, or House of Jonathan, in honor of Pollard.

The righteousness of his release became a matter of national consensus, endorsed by politicians ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the right to President Shimon Peres, who was Prime Minister when Pollard was recruited. On Monday, a leading Hebrew daily reported that Gilad Shalit, the former soldier held for five years by Hamas, had written Netanyahu urging Pollard’s release — noting his 29 years in prison is “five times longer than my period of captivity, and this is the United States, our great friend.”

And so the bargaining proceeds. Netanyahu freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. He agreed to release another 104 as part of the deal struck with Secretary of State John Kerry to commence the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The 104 would be released in four batches. In the three batches completed to date, 78 have walked free. But the talks are due to end on April 29, and absent an extension, Netanyahu has been reluctant to absorb the domestic criticism that will accompany release of the final group.

Winning freedom for Pollard, however, would be at least as popular a move domestically for Netanyahu as the 104 were for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or the 1,027 were for Hamas. And domestic politics appears to be what the peace talks are actually about — precious little negotiating actually having gone on. The fly in the ointment, at least by some reports, is that the U.S. may make Netanyahu pay a premium for Pollard’s release, obtaining a freeze in the expansion of the Jewish settlements that Palestinians complain are gobbling up much of the West Bank that they hope will become home for their state.

That would explain why Uri Ariel, the minister who told Obama “Please free Pollard” was backtracking on Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday. Ariel is in the staunchly pro-settler Jewish Home party; his portfolio is housing. He called it “abuse of a man who is ill” to make Pollard’s release a bargaining point in peace talks. “I was told by people close to him,” Ariel said, “that he is personally opposed to being part of such a shameful deal.”

TIME Saudi Arabia

Obama Meets Saudi King in Bid to Mend Fences

Barack Obama, King Abdullah
President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khuraim, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

President Obama added a stop in Riyadh to his tour of Europe to reassure the Saudis that their desert kingdom still matters, even as recent moves he made in the Middle East has irked the House of Saud, especially talking to its archenemy Iran

By the time photographers were ushered into the room where U.S. President Barack Obama was meeting Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday, both men were seated in armchairs, tucked safely behind a table laden with bouquets and sweets. The leaders had greeted one another in private, avoiding any possibility of repeating the awkwardness that ensued the last time they met in 2009, when the new American President’s deep dip from the waist was interpreted as an obsequious act of deference to a Muslim monarchy Washington has assiduously cultivated for 80 years.

This time, the problem was exactly the opposite. Obama added a stop in Riyadh to his tour of Europe expressly to reassure the Saudis that their desert kingdom still matters. “It’s an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of the relationship,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, told reporters on the flight from Rome.

For the House of Saud, affirmation is needed on several fronts. In Syria, Obama has declined to back the Sunni Muslim rebels that Saudi Arabia supports with arms and cash, and infuriated Riyadh by failing to order threatened air strikes after hundreds were killed by an alleged Syrian government chemical weapons attack.

In Egypt, the American President both backed away from President Hosni Mubarak faster than Riyadh found comfortable, and offered support to the government elected to replace him, even though it was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement the Saudis loathe.

But what most concerns the Saudis is Obama’s courtship of its archrival, Iran. “At the heart of the problem is the White House’s new fondness of Iran,” Fasial J. Abbas, a senior official at the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite news network, wrote in Gulf News this week. The Saudis regard Obama’s diplomatic efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy as naïve, as well as Obama’s desire to perhaps even coax Tehran back into the “community of nations.”

As the center of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch, Riyadh fought proxy wars against Shiite Iran for decades before the deterioration of state authority in Iraq and Syria brought sectarian identities brutally to the foreground. The Saudis are in deep in Syria, and continue to lobby Obama to supply more formidable weapons to the rebel side, including the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles also known as man-pads. But the administration fears that, given the number of extremists, including al-Qaeda, operating on the rebel side, such weapons could end up bringing down civilian airliners.

“We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria,” Rhodes reiterated in advance of the leaders’ meeting. “We continue to have those concerns.”

The king and the President spoke for two hours in a palatial hall in Rawdat Kharaim, the monarch’s desert “camp” outside Riyadh. Neither leader made a public statement afterward, but senior Obama administration officials said Iran and Syria dominated the meeting, which one described as “excellent.” Obama emphasized that, whatever their recent differences on tactical approaches, the strategic interests of the two countries remain aligned. There was (unspecified) progress on how best to support the “moderate opposition” in Syria, the officials said, and straight talk on Iran.

“It was important to have the chance to look him in the eyes and explain how determined the president is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” one senior U.S. official said after the meeting, ” and how determined the president is to continue to counter Iran’s other destabilizing activities, and that the president and the United States are going into this eyes wide open, there’s no naivete.” .

Abdullah, who is 89, appeared to breathing with the assistance of oxygen, photographs capturing a translucent hose under his nose. The visible infirmity recalled the circumstances of another fence-mending visit by an American President, in the early, still- fragile days of the alliance. In the waning months of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to northern Africa to receive King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who founded the modern kingdom, on the USS Quincy, in a section of the Suez Canal called the Great Bitter Lake. The monarch was too ill to manage a gangplank and had to be hoisted aboard in a lifeboat.

FDR was failing as well, and the leaders sparred over American support for the Zionist effort that would become Israel. Yet historians judged the meeting a success, noting that the alliance only grew stronger. The verdict on Friday’s session is still out.

TIME Middle East

Shadow World of Israel’s Palestinian Informants Spawns Three Acclaimed Films

Bethlehem
Haitham Omari as Badawi in Bethlehem Adopt Films

Three acclaimed movies—The Green Prince, Bethlehem and Omar, which was nominated for an Academy Award this year—explore the dark stories and tangled loyalties that make up Israel's shadow network of Palestinian informants through different perspectives

It’s been a decade since suicide bombs exploded inside Israel with anything approaching regular frequency. Attacks on Israeli soldiers remain rare enough that, when they do happen, they generate international headlines. But the “quiet” in the conflict between Palestinians and Israel has always been relative. In the realm of intelligence, the contest has ground on, sometimes ferociously, but almost entirely out of sight.

Three new movies bring the struggle into the open. All three are set in the interrogation rooms where Israeli agents coerce Palestinians to reveal plans for attacks. Each has won acclaim, and each approaches the matter from a different perspective.

Omar, an Oscar finalist for Best Foreign Film, unfolds from the vantage of a young Palestinian arrested after helping to kill an Israeli soldier, and pressured mercilessly by his captors to turn informer.

The Green Prince, winner of an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, is a sleek documentary about the unlikely real-life relationship between an Israeli intelligence officer and his marquee source, the trusted eldest son of a founder of Hamas.

Bethlehem, currently in theatrical release in the United States, is a thriller. Set in the Palestinian city adjoining Jerusalem, the story is propelled by the fraught relationship between an Israeli agent and a Palestinian teenager who informs on his older brother, the leader of a suicide bombing cell during the Second Intifada (which ended around 2005). Co-written by its director, a Jewish Israeli, and a Palestinian journalist who is also an Israeli citizen, Bethlehem galvanized Israeli audiences by focusing not on one side of the conflict, but on the morally hazardous middle ground where intelligence is gathered.

“The atmosphere reminded me of my life,” says Gezer, a retired field officer with Israel’s internal intelligence agency, Shin Bet, who saw Bethlehem with a TIME reporter but was interviewed on condition only his nickname be published. “I mean the tension, the tempo, the stress.”

The attention to realistic detail in Bethlehem is such that Shin Bet arranged to screen the film for its agents. Indeed, all three films are profoundly authentic.

“Both Omar and Bethlehem, which are wonderful films, are fiction, but fiction based on events like The Green Prince,” says Nadav Schirman, who directed the documentary, which opens in U.S. theaters this fall. “The relationship between handler and source is at the root of all three of these movies. It dates back to forever, in a way to Judas and the Romans. There’s always a relationship between the conquered and the conqueror.”

Director Hany Abu-Assad found the inspiration for Omar in a newspaper story about a love triangle fatally complicated by the involvement of Shin Bet. But the director traced his interest in distrust and paranoia to a feeling that came over him while making his acclaimed 2005 feature Paradise Now—that he was being watched.

“You start becoming insane,” Abu-Assad recalls. “You start not to trust anybody, because this feeling became so intense.” At one level, he found himself harking to the words of a former Shin Bet director, who described the agency’s ultimate goal as leaving Palestinians uncertain they could trust anyone. At another level, he realized that in his new film, Omar’s ardent love for the sister of a friend would prove his greatest vulnerability.

“The worst paranoia you can get as a human being is also from love,” says the director, a native of Nazareth. “When you are in love and you don’t trust your lover, every look, every SMS, is suspect. Nothing is worse.”

And that, all three filmmakers agree, is also the reality facing most informants. Some 800,000 Palestinians have been in Israeli custody since 1967, and in the name of preventing attacks, every one might have been pressured to turn informant by men trained to find a weakness and exploit it. “The phenomenon itself makes you want to recoil from it,” says Yuval Adler, who directed Bethlehem. “What we are trying to do is find ways to access it without recoiling.”

The solution was making the informant in Bethlehem a kid: Sanfur, slang for “Smurf,” was 15 when he was recruited by a Shin Bet field officer, who assumed the of surrogate father. Two years later the handler had grown genuinely protective, at the crucial point in the film putting his own career in jeopardy to steer the youth away from danger.

That situation mirrors the history related by The Green Prince. The Israeli agent running Mosab Hassan Yousef grew so attached to the Hamas informant that he was drummed out of Shin Bet. Among the rules he breached was one barring meeting a source unless accompanied by bodyguards.

“The thing we tried to get in the movie is this duality of intimacy and exploitation,” says Adler. “The handler oscillates between the needs of the asset and the organization. They always have to manage the betrayal of the asset.”

But, always, the asset will be betrayed. Even Yousef—who volunteered as an informant after recoiling from the brutality of Hamas—ends up in tears describing being abandoned by the intelligence institution for which he had risked his life.

And his case was as good as it gets. Most informants work for money, or because their Israeli handlers exercise brutal leverage over them—perhaps a permit that allows them to quadruple their daily wage by working inside Israel; perhaps just that they have worked for them, a fact that could easily get them killed as a traitor.

It’s a morally unpleasant transaction that is driven by “interests,” Gezer says. “How am I supposed to fall in love with a guy I see for an hour once a month?” the former field officer asks. “I loved a source when at the end of the meeting I had a few pages of good material. I hated him when at the end of the meeting, I didn’t. After all, the source is a tool. And everybody has to remember it.”

TIME Israel

Hamas in Gaza Takes War Against Israel Underground, Literally

An Israeli soldier looks at a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, just outside the southern Gaza Strip, Oct.13, 2013.
An Israeli soldier looks at a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, just outside the southern Gaza Strip, Oct. 13, 2013. Amir Cohen—Reuters

Israeli officials have discovered yet another tunnel reaching into their country from Hamas' territory in Gaza, the fourth such find in 18 months, raising fears the organization is planning ambushes from yet-undiscovered passageways under their feet

The discovery of yet another concrete tunnel reaching into Israel from the Gaza Strip has alarmed the Israeli military, now increasingly fearful of an ambush by militants attacking from underground. The latest tunnel, discovered late last week, was revealed on Tuesday to be the longest yet, reaching almost half a mile into Israeli territory.

It was also the fourth discovered in the last 18 months, and was unearthed, like others, by chance —in this case after heavy rains washed away topsoil, exposing concrete noticed by an Israeli farmer. Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs Gaza, acknowledged ownership and military intent. Lined with concrete and outfitted with electric lights and ventilators, the passage was tall enough to allow dozens of fighters to emerge inside Israel in a matter of minutes, perhaps to swarm nearby kibbutzim, overrun lightly manned military posts and kidnap local residents or soldiers.

“The possibility of a multi-pronged attack is the nightmare of every commander along the Gaza fence,” a senior officer in the Israel military’s southern command tells TIME.

Israeli officials acknowledge they have no firm idea how many other tunnels may be in place under the 24-mile southern boundary of the Palestinian enclave. Efforts to detect tunnels using technology have so far failed. Under Hamas, more than 1,000 tunnels were dug beneath Gaza’s six-mile western border with Egypt, mostly for the transfer of goods. Since the overthrow of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, the tunnels have been mostly shut down. But on the Israeli border, Hamas is increasingly looking underground for a military advantage, especially since the 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit. He was seized by militants who emerged from a tunnel that came out behind the tank where Shalit and two others soldiers (both killed in the encounter) were stationed, facing toward Gaza. After being held for five years, he was exchanged for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners by Israel–the single unvarnished triumph scored by Hamas in seven years in power.

“The tunnels we are inaugurating today are the new Hamas strategy in the war against Israel—the strategy of the tunnels,” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya announced on Sunday at a rally marking the ten-year anniversary of Israel’s assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.”From below ground and above ground, you, the Occupiers, will be dismissed. You have no place in the land of Palestine… What the resistance forces are preparing secretly for the next confrontation with Israel is beyond imagination for Israel.”

Israeli officials say they take the threat seriously. The Israel Defense Forces are working from scenarios that range from kidnapping a soldier to the armed takeover of a nearby kibbutz, and everything in between, including combined and parallel attacks. The military operates on the assumption that Hamas would not waste the element of surprise by using the tunnel in a small scale skirmish, but rather with a significant, spectacular ambush.

“If as a result of an attack by fifty Hamas combats coming out of the tunnels, twenty five people, among them children, will get killed in one of the Israeli villages close to the borders, that is going to be an event that will strike the Israeli society in shock,” says one Israeli military source. “This will be the Hamas achievement.”

The understanding is based in part on the fact that Hamas would only act boldly if it chose to discard the cease-fire it has enforced in Gaza since November 2012, when Israel carried out an offensive dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense.” In the logic of “resistance,” the group would need something substantial — numerous Israel casualties, for instance – in order to claim victory in the face of what would surely be massive retaliation from Israel.

With that in mind, Hamas has taken great pains to keep the underground channels secret from the prying eyes and ears of Israeli intelligence, always substantial in Gaza. In October, after Israeli troops discovered a mile-long tunnel, Haniyeh said “thousands of heroes have been working in silence, below ground, to prepare for the coming battles in Palestine.” But an Israeli official says that in the interests of operational security in fact only about 100 fighters are involved, carefully vetted from Hamas’ military wing. Precautions around the digging itself sound like scenes familiar to prison escape movies: The work is slow, in order to prevent detection by Israeli surveillance. In any given moment only between five to seven people work underground, says the Israeli official. The waste and dirt are evacuated in sacks and boxes in order not to raise suspicion.

The official says the tunnel typically starts a few hundred meters from the fence, inside a house or chicken coop owned by Hamas supporters, who give their consent and receive compensation. (The Israeli military located a tunnel originating in the side room of a mosque, apparently on the assumption that Israeli forces would not attack a holy place.) The depth at the entrance runs to a depth of 18 to 20 meters. As the diggers proceed, engineers follow pouring concrete to reinforce the walls and the ceiling. The electricians follow later, installing lights, and ventilation. Communication lines are also spread along side the tunnel in order to enable communication between the various parts of the tunnel, in the absence of a cellular reception, which at any rate, would be vulnerable to interception by Israeli’s signal-intelligence services.

If the digging goes well, without cave-ins from the sandy soil or flooding from groundwater, a 1,500 meter (nine-tenths of a mile) tunnel can be dug in nine to ten months. That said, the Israeli sources noted that one of the tunnels discovered was dug over two years. The final third, perhaps 500 meters, extends into Israel, but stops several meters short of the surface, in order to be breached when the order is given for offensive action.

That order would be carried out by special forces Hamas has trained specifically to operate from the tunnels, according to Israeli officials. Their target is presumed to be civilian enclaves such as Kibbutz Ein Ha’shlosha, which stands near the “mega-tunnel” discovered in October. But the presumption is based on the tunnels already known. In recent years Israel’s renowned military research establishment has found an apparently effective defense for the rockets militants long have fired out of Gaza – the Iron Dome anti-missile system. But for two decades the quest for a technology that will detect what Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman of the Israeli army’s southern command this week called “these infernal tunnels” has come up dry.

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