TIME Turkey

Anger at Turkish Mine Disaster Rebounds on Erdogan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits scene of accident following the coal mine fire disaster in Soma district of Manisa, western Turkish province, on May 14, 2014.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits scene of accident following the coal mine fire disaster in Soma district of Manisa, western Turkish province, on May 14, 2014. Ege Gurgun—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

After surviving a massive corruption scandal, battles with social-media sites and protests over his authoritarian politics, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's populist image may be further harmed by the deadly coal-mine disaster in Soma

As if Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t have enough to worry about with a massive corruption scandal, running battles with the world’s most popular social-media sites and stubborn protests over his authoritarian politics, Wednesday’s catastrophic mine accident in the city of Soma looks set to trouble his premiership yet further.

Only six weeks after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party dominated Turkey’s municipal elections, a victory that was widely viewed as a vote of confidence in the Premier, the mine explosion quickly stirred discontent. Protesters congregated at the local party headquarters in the city of 100,000 people, 480 km southwest of Istanbul, some calling the Premier “murderer” and “thief,” according to news reports.

Demonstrators, some wearing miner’s helmets, also gathered outside the Istanbul headquarters of the company that owned the mine; underground, commuters played dead on subway platforms in a show of solidarity with the dead miners. Another group in the capital city of Ankara tried to march on the Energy Ministry before being dispersed by police.

Erdogan reacted to the disaster much as any leader would: he canceled a planned trip to Albania in order to visit the site and ordered three days of mourning. But he was more combative than statesmanlike when confronted with the complaints of grieving families that safety had been shortchanged at the mine. The deaths occurred after an electrical transformer exploded during a shift change, with more than 700 workers in the mine. The death toll stood at 274 on Thursday, with at least 150 others still trapped in smoldering tunnels filled with toxic gases.

“Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” Erdogan said at a news conference after his site visit, before listing a series of global mining disasters going back to 1862.

The Prime Minister has largely weathered the controversies that have gathered about him over the past year, thanks in part to the economic expansion he has overseen over the decade-plus rule of the AKP, as his party is known in Turkey. But the mine disaster could strike in a visceral way at the core of the Premier’s populist image, as a self-described “black Turk” who stands with the common man against elitists who controlled national politics for most of Turkey’s history.

Erdogan’s close links to big business, in particular the construction industry, was after all at the heart of the massive judicial probe prosecutors pursued until he ordered them reassigned. And after almost a dozen years in power, his party cannot avoid responsibility for the country’s abysmal record on worker safety. The Geneva-based International Labour Organization in 2012 ranked Turkey third worst in the world for worker deaths.

The Soma disaster carries specific risks for the incumbent. Last month, a local lawmaker petitioned Turkey’s parliament to investigate the mine; Ozgur Ozel, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, said residents had complained incessantly that the mine was not safe. The effort was thwarted by Erdogan’s party, some members of which publicly mocked the proposal. Erdogan pointed out on Wednesday that the mine had passed inspections in March.

The issue is sure to be revisited now, and for some time to come. Already media outlets critical to Erdogan were linking the Prime Minister to the disaster and alleging the mine operators were given advance notice of inspections. “Massacre in the mine,” read the headline on one column in the English language Today’s Zaman on Wednesday. “Symptom of a one-man regime.”

TIME Nigeria

5 Things to Know About Boko Haram

A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012.
A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012. Samuel James—The New York Times/Redux

The Nigerian militant group, founded in 2002, grew far more brutal after its founder was executed. Now suspected of having kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last month, it has reached a realm appalling even to extremists

The militant group Boko Haram has become a target of international outrage ever since it kidnapped more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls last month. A leader of the group recently boasted in a video that “I abducted your girls” and will “sell them in the market.” The United States has vowed to send a team to Nigeria to assist in their rescue, and a social media campaign is seeking to raise the pressure on world leaders to act.

Here are five things to know about Boko Haram.

It began in Nigeria’s poorest corner

Nigeria was formed as a protectorate of Great Britain, but the colonial power concentrated its resources on the coast. The country’s northern half, which extends into the Sahara, was Muslim, and so poor that in Kano, the ancient city walls are being eaten away by people stealing sand. Northerners generally feel under-represented, and Boko Haram began in 2002 as an expression of that. A charismatic cleric named Mohammed Yusuf founded the group as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The mosque and school he established were presented as an alternative to the government schools he regarded as both alien to Muslims and tools of the elite. That gave rise to the nickname Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is a sin.”

It turned far more violent after its founder was killed in police custody

The group, which advocated reviving an Islamic caliphate and imposing Sharia law, gradually grew more militant, attacking local critics, including Christians, and government representatives, especially police. Government forces struck back with a vengeance in 2009, capturing Yusuf, interrogating him in front of an array of camera phones, then shooting him without trial. Followers went underground but mounted a fierce return, now led by Yusuf’s former deputy, Abubakar Shekau. The group has killed more than 1,500 people since 2009 in attacks that have grown more and more deadly. The 815 people killed in 2012 was more than in the previous two years combined. But it was the April 14 abduction of about 276 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok that drew the world’s attention. This week’s attack on another town, Gamboru Ngala, which left at least 150 dead, might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The military option, while tempting, could make matters worse

“This problem is coming from bad governance, bad governance and bad governance,” says Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “More troops, more boots on the ground won’t solve anything.”

Crisis Group reports detail the conditions that have nurtured the group, which Depagne notes “moved from a 100-person sect at the end of 2002 to a kind of massive underground force, complete with artillery.” Contributing factors include desertification linked to climate change, and the heavy-handed actions of Nigerian security forces, who worked with local militias dubbed Joint Civilian Task Forces to counter the group. Watchdogs including Human Rights Watch have documented mass arrests and extrajudicial killings by Nigerian forces in Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold.

Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the Obama Administration appeared to be taking the right approach by sending a small team from several disciplines, including psychology as well as intelligence and military, to assist Nigeria in finding the kidnapped girls. “The government’s heavy-handed approach has made the problem worse and harder to solve,” she says. The specialists from Washington “have to make sure that the Nigerian security forces don’t go in too strongly,” Margon warns. “The U.S. hasn’t been all that good at sending those messages to Nigeria. I understand some are sent privately, but they need to send a public message as well so the Nigerian people understand what is going on.”

It’s crazier than al-Qaeda

Boko Haram is reportedly linked to al-Qaeda and has been listed since last year by the United States as a terrorist organization. But in the constellation of African insurgencies, Boko Haram appears to have less in common with al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate active in Somalia, than with the Lord’s Resistance Army, the savage cult that has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for more than 25 years. Both Boko Haram and the LRA kidnap girls en masse, make use of porous international borders, and are led by a warlord who claims to talk with the Almighty. And while LRA founder Joseph Kony claims to be Christian, the faith is no more recognizable to believers than Boko Haram’s brand of Islam, which alarms even jihadists. “Their brutality is kind of a combination of African rebel groups and al-Qaeda in its original incarnation,” says Margon, who previously worked for the Senate subcommittee on Africa. “Al-Qaeda now realizes you have to engage in populations, you can’t just slaughter them.”

In the video announcing he would sell the kidnapped schoolgirls, Shekau comes off as a parody of an African warlord, standing in front of an armored personnel carrier, scratching his head idly as he speaks, amused by the fuss. “Just because I took some little girls who were in Western education everybody is making noise,” he says, and chuckles. A few moments later, the warlord declares, “Either you are with us—I mean real Muslims, who are following Salafism—or you are with Obama, Francoise Hollande , George Bush—Bush!—Clinton.” He pauses to turn a page in a sheaf of what appeared to be prepared remarks, then adds: “I’ve forgot not Abraham Lincoln.”

The social media campaign might actually help

The JosephKony2012 online campaign ended up doing little beyond making a household name of the LRA leader, but that was the creation of a group of outraged Americans. A Nigerian lawyer started #BringBackOurGirls, following the lead of distraught mothers who had taken their case to the streets of Abuja, the Nigerian capital. “I think what you’re seeing from the Nigerian side is that they are pretty well fed up with the way the authorities are handling Boko Haram,” Margon says. And not only did the campaign catch fire—First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted her support on Tuesday—it also served to illuminate the more subtle issues involved, such as the quality of local governance. Protest organizers complained of being ordered detained by Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan after an unproductive meeting with her Monday, the same day the video surfaced publicly. As President Barack Obama said at a town hall meeting while in Africa last year, “It is my strong belief that terrorism is more likely to emerge and take root in countries that are not delivering for their people.” He was answering a question from a Nigerian.

TIME Iran

Iranian Commander Lets Slip That Revolutionary Guard Is Fighting in Syria

Hossein Hamedani Iran Syria
Head of the Mohammad Rasulallah Revolutionary guard base, Hossein Hamedani, attends a conference to mark the martyrs of terrorism in Tehran on Sept. 6, 2011. Morteza Nikoubaz—Reuters

It's common knowledge that Iran sent forces into Syria early in the civil war, so it's bizarre that an Iranian news item, which reported a Revolutionary Guard commander admitting his country's role in the brutal conflict, was hastily scrubbed from the Internet

Iran’s military involvement in Syria’s civil war is not much of a secret. Yet when a commander in the Revolutionary Guard Corps spoke openly about it on Sunday, the Iranian news story reporting his comments lasted only a few hours online before authorities there took it down.

“Today we fight in Syria for interests such as the Islamic Revolution,” Hossein Hamedani said at a conference, according to the original post by the Fars news agency. “Our defense is to the extent of the Sacred Defense,” the commander went on, using the regime’s term for the 1980-88 war with Iraq, a reference that signals the importance the Islamic Republic places on the survival of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

Hamedani, identified by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a former commander of the Guard’s Rasulollah division in Tehran, boasted of training Syrian government forces, and even establishing “a second Hizballah” in Syria, the first one being the Shiite militia Iran established in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of that country. Until it was taken down, the Fars story also said Hamedani claimed 130,000 members of Iran’s paramilitary volunteer Basij were trained and ready to go to Syria.

The volunteers would be joining an Iranian force that has been assisting Assad since early in the three-year conflict. The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, acknowledged as much in September 2012, though he said the involvement was limited to the Corps’ Quds Force, which operates clandestinely abroad. Jafari made the admission a month after a busload of Iranians was captured outside Damascus by the Free Syrian Army, and described by Iran as religious pilgrims. Their journey turned out to have been booked by the Revolutionary Guards’ travel agency.

But the most striking evidence of Iranian boots on the ground in Syria is video footage purporting to show a Guards commando unit. Filmed by an Iranian documentary maker, it was obtained by rebels who overran the unit and gave the footage to the BBC, which named the resulting documentary, Iran’s Secret Army. “It’s quite dramatic footage, and gives us our best information on the Iranian presence,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Iran’s involvement has been pretty heavy.”

So why not admit it?

It may be a question of keeping fuel off the fire. Iran feels it must deny its military involvement so as not to motivate the rebel side further, says Landis. The war has devolved into a sectarian conflict, with Shiite Iran and Hizballah aligned with Assad—whose heterodox Alawite faith is seen as kin to Shiism—against overwhelmingly Sunni rebel forces, which include extremists who regard Shiites as apostates. “The main rebel battle cry, the main rebel insult is ‘nizam majousi’,” or Persian regime, says Landis, who blogs at Syria Comment. “To call Syrians Alawite and assisters of the regime majous, means they are neither the right religion nor the right nationality or ethnic group: neither Sunni nor Arab.”

The accusation was also heard during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, where any Shiite force was apt to be labeled—and often were—a cat’s paw of Tehran. But in Syria’s case it’s more likely to be true, Landis notes. Lebanese Hizballah has played a crucial battlefield role over the last year, and Tehran has trained, armed and directed government forces, as well as providing elite special forces of its own. “The main accusation there is that all Shiites and [regime supporters] are crypto-Iranian,” he says.

But given the potency religion has already provided in fueling the conflict, it’s evidently not in Iran’s interest to further fire up the Sunni side by acknowledging its presence on the battlefield — even if denying it means suffering the occasional Wizard of Oz, pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain moment.

TIME Israel

New iPhone App Turns Back The Clock on Israel

A smartphone placed on an Israeli map in Jerusalem, displaying the new iNakba application that allows users to find the remains of Palestinian villages that now lie inside modern-day Israel, May 5, 2014.
A smartphone placed on an Israeli map in Jerusalem, displaying the new iNakba application that allows users to find the remains of Palestinian villages that now lie inside modern-day Israel, May 5, 2014. Thomas Coex—AFP/Getty Images

What Israel calls Independence Day, Palestinians know as "Nakba," The Catastrophe. Now an iNakba app maps villages erased after 1948, tracking a changing landscape. A spokesperson for the app's developer Zochrot said, "maps are a political tool"

Tuesday was Independence Day in Israel, and Israelis marked 66 years of statehood with barbecues, flyovers, and fireworks. Supporters of the Palestinians used the occasion to unveil a new app that looks at the holiday from the perspective of the side that lost the 1948 war and has been locked in conflict with Israel ever since: iNakba

In Arabic, “nakba” means “catastrophe,” and the iPhone application maps some 500 Palestinian villages that once stood on the land controlled by Israel since 1948. The app was developed by Zochrot, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that exists to remind Israel’s Jewish majority of that history. “The application provides coordinates and maps of Palestinian localities that were completely demolished and obliterated after their capture, partially demolished, or remained standing although their residents were expelled,” Zochrot says on its website.

This appears, on an iPhone screen, as a forest of ochre-colored Google Map pins laid over the familiar map of modern Israel. Tap on any one pin and the Arabic name of the village comes up: Umm al-Zinat, for instance, in the north near Haifa. Tap again, and a page opens showing a photo—some feature handsome stone buildings, this one just rubble—and a few lines of data: There is the name of the Jewish communities that went up after 1948 (Elyakim), the date and the Israeli military unit that occupied it, and the Palestinian population in 1948 (1,710) and after 1948 (None).

A menu allows viewers to upload photos of their own, and offers driving directions, using Google Maps, Apple Maps or Waze—the crowd-sourcing navigation app developed by Israelis and purchased by Google for $1.15 billion.

“The idea of the app is like changing the landscape, because we in Zochrot believe that maps are a political tool, and from ‘48 till today, Israel on its maps just erased Palestine and its localities and our heritage,” Raneen Jeries, a spokesperson for Zochrot, tells TIME. “So we put Palestine back on the map.”

The app has its practical uses. Of the 3,000 downloads in the first 24 hours, some may have been by descendants of the 750,000 people who fled or were forced out in 1948 and now come to Israel looking for the site of their ancestral home in a landscape of freeways, factories and subdivisions. Bound volumes like All That Remains can help, but as Jeries says, “It’s not easy to find the destroyed places.”

But the app also represents a new frontier—clean, bright, helpful—in the competition between historical narratives. Israelis and Palestinians have different experiences of the last century, and each wants the world at large to see history from their perspective. The differences between them extend even as far as dates: Israel changes the date of Independence Day every year, marking the occasion according to the lunar-based Jewish calendar. Palestinians use May 15, the day after Israel signed its declaration of independence on the Gregorian calendar in 1948.

The iNakba effort is unlikely to change many minds among Jewish Israelis, says Dahlia Scheindlin, a political consultant and pollster who blogs on the leftist +972 site. “Up until now, Zochrot has taken very radical positions,” she tells TIME. By supporting the right of return for Palestinians—allowing descendants of the 1948 exodus to live in Israel—the group has placed itself in line with a segment of the Jewish Israeli population that, Scheindlin says, is too tiny to register in public opinion surveys. Nakba is so unpopular a notion that until the Knesset legal advisor barred its introduction in 2012, Israeli lawmakers championed a bill barring its commemoration inside Israel, even though 20 percent of the population is Arab, many descended from the Palestinians who were allowed to remain after 1948.

Still, Scheindlin says, Zochrot has displayed a talent for framing a volatile issue in new ways. “They’re making an effort to get noticed in Israeli society,” she says, “and at least talk in way that will get people thinking.”

TIME Iraq

Iraq Votes in Relative Peace, But Governing Remains a Challenge

Iraqis went to heavily guarded polls this week to cast votes for representatives. The country's first parliamentary election since the U.S. withdrew in 2011 saw a turnout of almost 60 percent and was relatively peaceful, with attacks killing 14 people across the country

Voting in Iraq’s first election since American troops left the country went relatively smoothly this week. Turnout reached almost 60 percent, no major irregularities were reported, and in a country defined for more than a decade by car bombs and mass fatalities, the death toll for election day stood at 14.

“Anywhere else in the world, that would be seen as a terrible disaster,” says Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. “Everything is relative in Iraq.”

But then, getting people to vote has not been a great challenge in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, where traffic closures and security services out in force made for relatively safe. The problem, in Iraq, is what comes next: governing.

Wednesday’s parliamentary election was the third since U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein 11 years ago, and amounted to a referendum on the man who has governed for the last eight years: Nouri al-Maliki, seeking a third term as prime minister, is widely criticized for ruling the country of 32 million with a focus on sectarian divisions. Opponents argue that by favoring Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite majority, he has encouraged a Sunni rebellion that has opened much of Anbar province to groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Iraq’s third major population, the Kurds, essentially govern themselves in a largely autonomous northern enclave.

Very early returns suggested that, as analysts expected, Maliki appeared likely to remain the dominant political figure, though in a more crowded political universe. All major parties appeared to be drawing fewer votes than four years earlier, as smaller parties fractured the vote within each bloc.

“He won,” al-Khoei says, “but it doesn’t look like he won by a large enough mandate” to assure a third term without forming a coalition— a negotiation process that dragged on for 10 months in 2010, and might take even longer given the increase in parties. The process could also aggravate the sectarian warfare that has already led to death tolls approaching the “civil war” bloodletting of 2006-7. But al-Khoei says the process might also do the opposite, leading to the kind of inclusive character that has eluded Iraqi governance to date.

“One of the paradoxes of Iraqi politics as I see it is the atmosphere is incredibly sectarian,” al-Khoei tells TIME. “But at the political levels, in a weird way it’s gone beyond sectarianism, because all the parties are much more fragmented. So it seems to me it’s much more likely that blocs within the blocs will do deals at the expense of their co-religionists or fellow Kurds.”

As in 2010, the makeup of a governing coalition will likely be influenced by Iran, which, despite the massive U.S. investment in lives and treasure, has emerged as the dominant outside influence in Iraq. Analysts call that another impediment to building trusted institutions as committed to democracy as the citizens who defy threats and bombs to cast their ballots.

“The election is not the problem,” says Hiwa Osman, a former aide to Iraq’s Kurdish President, Jalal Talabani. “The key thing with Iraq is it needs to figure out what kind of system you have.” While Kurds favor a federal system with loose control, others prefer a centralized system—though Maliki has so concentrated powers that some critics warn of an emerging dictatorship.

“I think Iraq is on a path whereby however more central government wants it to be, the more distance it will create between its various components,” says Osman, “Maliki has been trying for more than a year to control it by force, but security usually comes last in handling any political problem. Anbar’s problem is a political problem.”

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudis Show Off a Missile As Tensions Rise With Iran

Saudi worries about a nuclear Iran may be behind display of a missile that could reach Tehran

Saudi Arabia bought its mid-range Dong Feng-3 ballistic missiles from China in the late 1980s, but had not put them on public display until they were wheeled past a reviewing stand at the Hafr al-Batin military base this week, at the parade concluding the largest military exercise the kingdom has ever mounted.

It was no secret that the Saudis had the missiles, but the public outing of the weapons on Tuesday was broadly interpreted by analysts as Saudi Arabia sending a message to its regional rival, Iran, at a time when the countries are battling at one remove in Syria, and the Saudis feel betrayed by Washington for attempting a rapprochement with Tehran by embracing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

“They’ve been kept under wraps all these years, albeit they were known to be there; it’s just quite interesting for us to see them on show,” says Jeremy Binnie, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, who was among the experts taking note of the Saudi showcase.

“I think there’s a few different ways you could potentially read it, but certainly one is as a sort of display of Saudi Arabia’s ability to retaliate in kind to Iranian ballistic missile attacks. And that was sort of the message coming out of this exercise in general, quite a lot of publicity by Saudi Arabia standards all round.”

The Saudis and Iranians are longtime rivals divided foremost by faith – the Saudis functioning as guardians of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch, while the Iranians lead the minority Shia denomination. But the competition has ramped up in recent years as Iran has drawn Iraq into its orbit (as the Saudis insistently warned Washington would happen if the secular Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, was brought down), and has sharpened as Iran has drawn nearer to the capability of producing a nuclear weapon.

Iran says it has never had plans to build a nuclear bomb. It is currently engaged in negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States and other world powers. Those talks are reportedly proceeding well of late. Which is small comfort to the Saudis. “They don’t have much faith in the Obama administration,” says Meir Javedanfar, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, a private Israeli university. “They are worried Washington is going to reach a deal with the Iranians and leave the Saudis behind.”

Hence Riyadh’s tough talk about going it alone. “We do not hold any hostility to Iran and do not wish any harm to it or to its people, who are Muslim neighbors,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, told a security conference for Gulf states last week. “But preserving our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with it, including in nuclear know-how, and to be ready for any possibility in relation to the Iranian nuclear file.”

Tehran routinely showcases its own arsenal in parades, as well as mounting war games several times a year. But at the Saudi base, the reviewing stand also conveyed a message: Among the dignitaries was the chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, whose presence, along with the missiles, could be read as a threat to top a Saudi missile with a Pakistani nuclear warhead. The Saudis reportedly aided Pakistan in its clandestine and successful nuclear effort, and have done little to quell reports that Islamabad might provide its loyal friend with a warhead should Iran actually produce an atomic bomb.

“You can read what you like into it,” says Binnie. “But having a high-ranked Pakistan guy there helps keep that idea alive that Saudi Arabia might be in a position to get nuclear warheads form Pakistan if Iran goes nuclear, which the Saudis want us to believe at the moment.”

Will the Iranians respond? Not on any parade ground, says Javedanfar,who lived in Iran in 1987.

“It is a flexing of the muscles, but the war being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not one where you can use missiles,” he says. “It’s proxy war, where you can use your intelligence agents, you use terror, you use unconventional means. That’s why I don’t think this is going to impress the Iranians too much.”

What might impress Tehran, he says, is a bold move in Syria, the main proxy war between the two Middle East powers. Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizballah, heavily support President Bashar Assad against rebels armed and supported by the Saudis and a handful of other majority-Sunni nations. “I don’t think either Iran or Saudi Arabia sees the other as a conventional threat,” says Javedanfar. “If we see a flooding of Pakistani weapons to the rebels in Syria, this is the kind of thing that will worry the Iranians, not a Saudi missile.”

TIME

Israelis and Palestinians Play Blame Game as Deadline for Peace Deal Expires

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians expected Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to result in a pact, as the prospects for success were dim from the start

The deadline for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians expired without a deal on Tuesday, with the two sides blaming each other for the lack of a breakthrough in the negotiations brokered by the U.S.

Israel suspended the talks earlier this month after Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who leads both the Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party that governs the West Bank, unexpectedly announced a reconciliation pact with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that oversees the Gaza strip.

Although neither side actually expected the talks to bear fruit, the blame game that had played out in the background ever since the negotiations began nine months ago was center stage as the April 29 deadline for a peace deal came and went.

“Unfortunately, Israel never gave the negotiations a chance to succeed,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement accompanied by a six-page report detailing Israeli “violations” during the nine-month period. Meanwhile, over the weekend, an unnamed Israeli official declared that it was Abbas who had “administered the coup de grace to the peace process.”

“The international blame game,” says Israeli analyst Mark Heller, “has been the main subtext of the negotiations all along.”

The prospects for success were dim from the outset, given that the two sides had to be coaxed into starting the discussions, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry playing the role of referee.

According to officials on both sides, and countless reports in both Israeli and Palestinian media, the talks only began after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a promise that Abbas would suspend his efforts at the U.N., where Palestine was recognized as a state in 2012, granting it access to institutions that include the International Criminal Court, a sore point for Israel.

In return, Netanyahu was asked to give up something as well. One option was a freeze on settlement construction on the West Bank, the land where a Palestinian state will ostensibly stand, but where Israel has built almost 200 towns and subdivisions. Netanyahu demurred. He had frozen construction in 2009 and paid a price with his political base, which is prosettlements. This time he chose another option: agreeing to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.

It was a painful decision; many of the prisoners had killed Israelis. But, politically, the pain was tempered by the freedom on settlements: the prisoners were released in batches, and with every release, Netanyahu announced more construction activity. The final tally was released Tuesday by Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements but is widely regarded as scrupulous in recording their expansion. Israel gave the nod to plans for some 13,851 new units over the past nine months, or 50 new homes a day.

This played into the Palestinians’ hands, complains Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence who now runs the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think tank at Tel Aviv University. Settlements already keep Palestinians from 40% of the West Bank, and every expansion fed the narrative that Israel does not really intend to give up the territory it is supposed to be negotiating to leave.

That perception was encouraged by Kerry, who during an April 8 appearance before the U.S. Senate, said the talks went “poof” after Israel’s Housing Minister approved a batch of homes as U.S. officials were trying to contain a crisis triggered when Netanyahu failed to release the final set of Palestinian prisoners under the agreement struck at the start of the talks. Abbas retaliated by signing U.N. treaties.

“For nine months, Israel’s Prime Minister and the PA chairman ran around and tried to cast the blame on each other,” Yael Paz-Melamed wrote in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv the next morning. “Israel, it must be said, lost this battle.”

But last Wednesday, Abbas made a risky move in abruptly agreeing to reconcile with Hamas. The announcement was popular among Palestinians, but outraged Israelis, who know Hamas only from its signature weapon, the suicide bombing.

Netanyahu wasted no time. A day later, his security cabinet unanimously voted to suspend the talks. “We are not going to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas,” Netanyahu declared.

“Most of communication is about framing,” says Heller, editor of Strategic Assessment, a quarterly published by INSS. “As long as the Palestinian’s frame is about settlements, that works against Israel’s advantage. If Israel can frame it about terrorism or terrorists, that works to Israel’s advantage. And the fact is, Hamas is legally and diplomatically defined as a terrorist group. That should help in places where Israel can get a fair hearing.”

The reality of the Hamas-Fatah deal is of course more nuanced. Hamas is nominally committed to erasing Israel, but works to suppress rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Recently, a former Israeli national-security adviser says Israel should recognize Hamas. And what’s more, a unified Palestinian government can claim to negotiate on behalf of the entire Palestinian people, a point a U.S. official reportedly made to Jewish leaders last week, according to the Hebrew daily Haaretz.

Meanwhile, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, writing in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, said that Hamas clearly acted out of weakness. According to Halevy, its position is so vulnerable that Israel should either move to eradicate it militarily or finally sit down and talk. “I have been saying and writing this for ten years,” he wrote.

Despite the finger-pointing between the two sides, the talks may be revived. As the Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid writes in a column for TIME, some in Netanyahu’s governing coalition want to see what a Palestinian unity government looks like before deciding on “where to go from here.” But if April 29 really does turn out to be the end of the road for these negotiations, the blame game would appear to have gone Israel’s way at the last moment. “Abbas put his foot in it,” Heller says, referring to the unity deal, “and gave Bibi just what he wanted.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Courts Mock Justice With More Mass Death Sentences

Egypt Court Death Sentence Mourners
Relatives and families of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi react after hearing the sentence, in front of the court in Minya, south of Cairo, Apr. 28, 2014. Mohamed Abd El Ghany—Reuters

One court condemned 683 more defendants to the gallows, making 1,100 Egyptians who have been convicted in the death of a single policeman. Meanwhile, no security official has been charged for the more than 1,000 civilians killed in July

Correction appended, May 1 2014

Egyptians will go to the polls at the end of May to elect a president, but Monday brought a flurry of reminders that democracy is about more than what happens at the ballot box. The courts that are supposed to provide a check on executive power were showcasing their apparently complete alignment with Egypt’s security state.

The same Egyptian judge who last month sentenced to death 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters condemned another 683 to the gallows in Minya, including the organization’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie. Meanwhile, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters banned the April 6 Movement, a grassroots organization instrumental in the 2011 revolution that Egypt’s military last year seized power ostensibly to protect.

The behavior of the Egyptian courts has given some observers cause for concern. “The reality is that on one side you have this legal system which is not fit for purpose,” says Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a political advocacy group based in London. “Then you add the political pressures being borne on the judiciary, and you’re getting these sort of messages coming across… It’s absurd. The scale of the whole thing should bring fear into the international community.”

There was at least a hint that the global opprobrium that greeted last month’s mass sentencing may have had some impact. After condemning the 683 to death, the court revisited the 529 sentenced to death last month, commuting the sentences of all but 37 defendants to life in prison. But the convictions remained contaminated by the trial – a single day, with no defense allowed – as well as upstaged by the record-breaking mass sentence in the second case. “The judge did not give the lawyers any time to study the case,” says Ahmed Ban, an analyst for the Nile Center for Political and Strategic Studies and former Brotherhood member. “He didn’t listen to witnesses.”

Shadjareh notes that with Monday’s verdict, more than 1,100 Egyptians have been convicted for the death of a single policeman in Minya, while no security official has been charged for the more than 1,000 civilians killed across Egypt since the military dissolved the elected government dominated by the Brotherhood in July.

Both Minya trials grew out of riots that broke out across Egypt in August, after Egyptian forces mounted an assault on a Brotherhood sit-in on a Cairo street, killing hundreds. The massacre heralded a crackdown that appears to involve every major state institution, including courts which, even during decades of dictatorship, retained a reputation for independence.

During the rule of President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, “the judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses,” Nathan J. Brown and Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently wrote, “ Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need.” Judges have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and now the liberal April 6 Movement, named for the date of a planned 2008 public strike in an industrial town that grew into a nationwide protest movement.

Appeals against these rulings are theoretically available, but apparently are not to be attempted. A delegate from the online human rights group Avaaz was detained and deported earlier this month while trying to coordinate a meeting with Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the state official who must review every death sentence. The delegate carried a petition signed by 1.1 million people urging the Mufti to set aside the 529 death sentences.

“Look not at just what these cases mean individually, but what it means overall for Egypt,” says Sam Barratt, a spokesman for Avaaz.org. “Our deeper concern is what this means to the direction of Egypt, and what that could mean to the region for an increasingly disenfranchised group of individuals who have been shown no recourse but violence.”

Analysts say the fate of Badie, the Supreme Guide, may be crucial. If his sentence is carried out, Egyptian authorities will have executed the eighth holder of the office created by Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian schoolteacher who established the organization as a grassroots effort to apply the imperatives of Islam to modern government.

The Supreme Guide holds nominal sway over Brotherhood branches in other nations, but his primary authority has been in Egypt, where for decades the group remained the only formidable organized opposition to the secular security state held in place by the nation’s powerful military. And indeed Badie and his aides in the Guide’s office at times appeared to govern Egypt jointly with Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood official narrowly elected president in 2012, under the banner of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, until the July 3 coup.

Morsi’s own trial is scheduled to resume May 6. The charges he faces include incitement to murder and insulting the judiciary. If Egypt’s courts carry on acting as they have done, the outcome is unlikely to be a surprise.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Islamic Human Rights Commission as a human rights group. The organization also operates politically, and has voiced support for the Lebanese militant group Hizballah.

TIME Yemen

Drone War Doesn’t Stop Al-Qaeda’s ‘Obsession’ With Striking U.S.

People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda
People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda April 19, 2014. Stringer—Reuters

Experts say Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains focused on striking the United States, and targeted attacks by American drones and Yemeni commandos have so far failed to weaken the dangerous group

Al-Qaeda is so many places these days that it’s easy to overlook the one spot on the globe arguably most dangerous to the West. But the stony hills of southern Yemen stood out vividly in the video that surfaced on the Internet last week, as did the scores of jihadi fighters who gathered to chant and pray in a brazen open-air meeting. The leader of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, a former secretary to Osama bin Laden named Nasser al-Wuhayshi, sat on a rock and held forth on the importance of striking America—“the bearer of the cross.” Pick-ups carried black Qaeda flags fringed in gold, like the campaign standards of a regular army, all in the clear light of day.

“Many wondered, myself included, where were the drones during such a public display of al-Qaeda’s power?” Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at Towson University in Maryland, tells TIME.

“Last weekend was the answer.”

The U.S. and Yemen launched joint attacks late Saturday that continued through Monday. The attacks served as a reminder of the persistent terror threat in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of bin Laden and a stronghold of al-Qaeda’s “old school”—militants focused not on sectarian warfare within Islam, but on “the far enemy,” meaning the West and, especially, the United States. Waves of American aircraft—identified by Yemeni officials as drones—targeted militants in vehicles, while Yemeni commandos poured from Russian-made helicopters steered by U.S. Special Operations pilots. The government of Yemen said 55 militants were killed, a sizable number that analysts said may also be significant.

“It’s significant if they’re senior people,” says Magnus Ranstorp, who directs research at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College.

DNA tests were underway to nail down identities, Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told reporters on Wednesday. Initial reports indicated that the dead may include Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb-maker U.S. officials dubbed “the world’s most dangerous terrorist” because of his talent for getting explosives past security. Among al-Asiri’s innovations were the “underwear bomb” that a militant failed to detonate on an airliner over Detroit in 2009, as well as explosives hidden in computer printers shipped to the U.S. Earlier in 2009, al-Asiri dispatched his own brother on a suicide mission aimed at a Saudi interior ministry official.

“They are a serious terrorism threat, given the technical capability, the level of innovation in delivery,” Ranstorp says. “They almost have an autistic obsession with striking civilization.”

That alone distinguishes AQAP from other al-Qaeda branches, many of which are more interested in winning territory or waging sectarian war on Muslims they regard as apostates, often followers of the faith’s Shiite tradition. Qaeda fighters took over much of Yemen’s south in the security vacuum that followed the Arab Spring uprisings, only to be pushed into the mountains by government forces in 2012.

But the terror group remained focused on striking overseas. “AQAP appears to be the only one that’s still vectored toward, ‘We gotta hit the US, we gotta go after the Far Enemy,’ and that was al-Qaeda’s original banner,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and officer at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Watts says there are indications that young members of AQAP, many of them Saudis who fought in Iraq, appear to be arguing for greater involvement in sectarian conflicts, and building a state based on Sharia law. And indeed, in the video that surfaced earlier this month, several militants speak of concentrating their attention within Yemen, where a Shiite uprising supported by Iran festers in the north.

But Watts says “the old guard” remains in control. “That’s the track record, and they’re the group that’s committed to external operations against the U.S. and the West,” he says.

That also explains the cascading U.S.-Yemeni joint strikes last weekend, which, based on the relative complexity involved, Watts says appeared to have been in the works for some time. U.S. Special Forces, both in Yemen and across the Bab-al-Mandab (Gate of Tears) in Djibouti, have worked closely with Yemen’s military and intelligence since 2001, and more openly since Hadi became president. But Schmitz, the Towson professor, says Yemenis harbor the same concerns about their sovereignty and civilian casualties that plagued the American drone campaign in Pakistan. And in Yemen, al-Qaeda has consistently bounced back, in recent months overrunning military installations, attacking the Ministry of Defense, and breaking 19 militants out of the capital’s central prison.

“These operations seem to show that al-Qaeda was alive and well,” Schmitz says. “In spite of five years of drone warfare and three years of direct confrontation with the Yemeni military in which many people have been killed, al-Qaeda shows great resourcefulness and resilience.”

TIME Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Israel-Palestine Peace Talks Mired in Uncertainty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 6, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 6, 2014. GALI TIBBON—EPA

Analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's disclosure that Israel would halt the negotiations with Palestinians, following the announcement this week that rival factions Fatah and Hamas would seek to form a unity government, could just be a tactical move

Israel’s decision to suspend peace talks with the Palestinians might appear to signal the end of negotiations between the two sides—but the move has only served to create yet more uncertainty about their future.

The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Thursday arrived as a thunderclap: after a five-hour meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet, the vote to suspend the negotiations that have been championed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was unanimous. But analysts said they understood the suspension to be just that—a pause in the negotiations “until the make-up of the new Palestinian government and its policy become clear,” Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz, the respected Israeli daily.

Netanyahu was incensed that Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who heads both the Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party, had agreed to patch over a seven-year rift with Hamas, the militant Islamist group whose charter denies Israel’s right to exist. The reconciliation announced on Wednesday caught the Israeli government by surprise.

But does that mean the talks—which are set to expire on April 29—are over? “No, of course not,” says Efraim Inbar, the conservative head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “We’ll see what happens with Hamas.”

Kerry had to coax both sides into participating in the talks, which began in July, and neither has reported substantial progress. When U.S. efforts to extend them through the end of the year failed three weeks ago, Kerry said the Obama administration would re-assess its investment in the effort.

Still, both Netanyahu and Abbas have indicated they want to continue talking, and as a practical matter, Palestinian unity might even improve the prospects of a deal. The European Union welcomed the pact nominally ending the factional rift, which had divided the Palestinian public both politically and territorially, with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million Palestinians reside, while Fatah held sway on the West Bank, home to another 2.5 million.

A senior Fatah official on Thursday said the unity pact with Hamas was made with the understanding that the group would support the peace talks, regardless of what its charter says. “We wouldn’t have been prepared—or able—to sign a reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all the Palestinian factions that we are leading our nation to a two-states-for-two-nations solution,” former PA security chief Jabril Rajoub told Israel’s Army Radio. Rajoub tried to turn the tables on Netanyahu, pointing out that parties in his own governing coalition rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, yet talks proceeded anyway.

Inbar, who supports Netanyahu, says he understood the Israeli cabinet’s decision as a tactical move, calculated to push back at Abbas after the Palestinian leader took the initiative.

“It’s good for domestic politics,” Inbar says, of the Israeli cabinet vote. He adds that it could also stir the Obama administration to intercede on Israel’s behalf. “Maybe the Americans will wake up, I don’t know.”

For the time being, the Israelis have seized on the extremist reputation of Hamas as an opportunity to cast Abbas as the reckless party. After the reconciliation deal was announced, a post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page showed a photo of Osama bin Laden alongside an picture of Abbas shaking hands with a senior Hamas official who had publicly lamented the terror mastermind’s death. Below ran the caption: “This is President Abbas’ new partner.” What analysts call “the blame game” has played out in the background of the negotiations since their start, with each side quietly angling to avoid being seen as responsible for their assumed eventual collapse.

For most of that time, Israel appeared most vulnerable to the blame, largely because, as the talks proceeded nominally toward establishing a Palestinian state, Netanyahu steadily expanded the approximately 200 Jewish settlements on the West Bank territory where that state was expected to stand. Kerry appeared to seal that assumption earlier this month when he told a Senate committee that Israel’s approval of 700 more units in a settlement undermined U.S. efforts to extend the talks.

But as long as the fate of the talks remains unclear, so does the answer to the question of who might bear the blame for their end. For all the drama of Thursday’s cabinet vote, its announcement felt more incremental than final to many observers.

“It could be tactical leverage, or maybe something more substantial,” says Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a former Israeli peace negotiator, now at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University. “It could be a way to make sure that Hamas doesn’t gain too much influence inside whatever government emerges.”

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