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.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Mass Death Sentencing of 529 People Stirs Global Outrage

A relative of a supporter of Egyptian ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is supported as he faints outside the courthouse on March 24, 2014 in the central Egyptian city of Minya, after the court ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters after only two hearings.
A relative of a supporter of Egyptian ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is supported as he faints outside the courthouse on March 24, 2014 in the central Egyptian city of Minya, after the court ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters after only two hearings. AFP/Getty Images

The death sentence for 529 defendants, unprecedented in modern Egyptian history, came after a controversial one-day trial that casts Egypt's military-backed government in even worse light amid its ruthless crackdown on dissent

With the abrupt sentencing of 529 defendants to death after a one-day mass trial that allowed no genuine defense, Egypt’s state institutions appear to be taking their cues from the terrorists they claim to be targeting. The order Monday by a judge in Upper Egypt brought condemnation from rights groups and foreign observers in terms familiar to the aftermath of a car bomb — “indiscriminate,” “mass killing,” “grotesque,” “disaster,” “exterminationist.” Legal experts scrambled to find an instance in modern history where more executions were ordered in a single go, and came up empty.

“This is way over the top and unacceptable,” Mohammed Zarei, a human rights attorney in Cairo, told the Associated Press. Egypt’s courts, he said, were turning “from a tool for achieving justice to an instrument for taking revenge.”

That has been the trend across the state apparatus since last July 3, when Egypt’s military deposed the elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the insular Islamists who had failed to bring the country together following the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. The new government’s methods have been unapologetically blunt: 1,400 to 2,000 killed, including nearly 1,000 in August on a few blocks of the Cairo streets where Brotherhood loyalists camped out for weeks to protest the coup. The death sentences announced Monday arose from riots that broke out in response to that Cairo assault in August; protesters in Minya, 150 miles south of the capital, attacked a police station and a deputy commander was killed.

If blunt force has come to be expected in the street, however, it still stands out in a courtroom. Outraged reports from Minya took their weight from accumulation of details — the airing and discussion of which are usually the point of a trial, but that judge Said Youssef refused even to hear. The wife of one defendant, an attorney who frequently represented Brotherhood members, told Buzzfeed that phone and visitor logs showed he was in a meeting when the charges claimed he had been arrested. Another defendant was confined to a wheelchair by paralysis at the time of the disturbance.

Defense attorneys complained that they had no chance to examine investigative files running more than 3,000 pages. Only a fraction of the defendants were even present in the courtroom, where decorum deteriorated and bailiffs moved in after the judge refused to postpone proceedings so defense lawyers could read the evidence.

“The judge stood up, looked at us, put his hands on his belly and announced: Monday is the verdict,” defense attorney Yasser Zidan told AP.

The stunning sentence that followed could yet be overturned by Egypt’s Grand Mufti. But Monday’s verdict stirred international opprobrium against an Egyptian regime that has arrested 16,000 citizens, declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” and jailed journalists, human rights advocates and democratic activists who had been leaders in the 2011 uprising that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. U.S. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said it was “pretty shocking” that 529 people were sentenced to die for the death of one policeman and it “defies logic” that they were all tried appropriately within just two days. “There’s no place for politically motivated convictions in a country that’s moving toward democracy,” she said.

Dissent is not brooked by the current military-backed government. It pointedly refuses to draw any distinction between the Brotherhood, which historically eschews violence, and militant Islamist extremists who are waging guerrilla and terror attacks against the state in the Sinai peninsula, and occasionally on the mainland. Monday’s sentence reflected the government’s continued willingness not only to alienate Egyptians sympathetic to the Brotherhood, but label them as an enemy. “You cannot sentence 528 people to death at once,” one observer Tweeted, giving an alternate total also circulating in reports. “That is a civil war.”

The stage was set for Tuesday, when 682 more defendants are scheduled for trial, including the top Brotherhood official, Mohamed Badie, whose title is Supreme Guide. The proceedings are, once again, in Minya.

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Erdogan Turns Off Twitter, Turns Up the Nationalism

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news briefing in a ceremony for signing agreements between Iranian and Turkish officials in Tehran on Jan. 29, 2014.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news briefing in a ceremony for signing agreements between Iranian and Turkish officials in Tehran on Jan. 29, 2014. Ebrahim Noroozi—AP

The country's powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is raging against social media and dismissing critics as corruption allegations swirl. Incriminating audio recordings surfaced on the social network in February

Until Friday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul had not posted anything on his Twitter account for a solid month. But he got busy after the country’s Prime Minister took the extraordinary step of banning the site inside Turkey.

“I hope this ban will not last long,” Gul wrote. “If there is a violation of privacy on Twitter, only the related pages should be blocked. The platform is impossible to block altogether. Such a ban is also unacceptable.”

Though not nearly as pithy as Erdogan—“Twitter, mwitter!” the Prime Minister declared at the Thursday campaign rally where he announced the ban—Gul’s prompt use of a banned site said almost as much as the great torrent of outrage unleashed worldwide by Erdogan’s audacious move. Gul, after all, is the official who, while expressing reservations, signed the legislation allowing state organs to ban the internet – a move that cost him 80,000 followers at @cbabdullahgul. Widely seen as the alternative to Erdogan in the ruling Justice and Development Party, known in Turkey as AKP, Gul has tried to navigate a course within the parameters of party loyalty but still wide of the premier’s authoritarian streak.

But it may no longer be possible now that Erdogan has become Turkey’s honeybadger.

“I don’t care at all,” he said Thursday. And he may not. Earlier this week, the national election board ruled that his party’s newest ad violated Turkish law by using the national flag to solicit votes. In fact, the flag is the whole point of the ad, which features Turks clamoring to restore a massive standard cut loose by a mysterious man in a trenchcoat (the shadow of its slow descent casting kitchens and workplaces into darkness). The ban found Erdogan nonplussed. “We will ban the ban,” he declared.

Erdogan has also vowed to ban Facebook and YouTube. (“Out of the question,” Gul replied March 7.) The Prime Minister’s particular loathing for social media began last summer, when protests broke out in Istanbul over a park, and swelled into a rebellion against his autocratic tendencies. “There is now a scourge called Twitter,” Erdogan announced June 2. “This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society.”

It’s certainly a menace to his career. Twitter is where links to audio recordings of alleged wiretaps showed up in February, apparently capturing Erdogan instructing his son to move millions in cash out of his house after hearing investigators were raiding the homes of other politicians.

The apparently devastating tapes surfaced online only after prosecutors and police involved in the investigation were fired by Erdogan’s government. The premier dismissed the most damaging as a “montage,” yet confirmed the authenticity of others. In one he is heard instructing the obsequious head of a Turkish news channel to cut short an interview with a political opponent. Erdogan also affirmed as authentic a tape telling a justice minister to keep an eye on the criminal case repeatedly brought against a media magnate Erdogan regarded as hostile.

Such is the state’s power over much of Turkey’s mainstream media, which infamously failed to cover the Istanbul protests that international news channels covered live. But the Internet is not so easily contained. As a messenger, it’s pretty much impossible to kill. Which may be why Erdogan is also wrapping himself in the flag. Polls consistently measure Turkey as just about the most nationalist country in the world.

Erdogan is circling the wagons or, rather, mustering his horde: Consider the Central Asian song that Erdogan has appropriated as his campaign theme, a martial chant from the steppes for a leader surrounded by enemies, but fiercely fighting back.

“The international community can say this, can say that,” Erdogan said as he announced the Twitter ban. “I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.”

TIME Iran

Iran Marks Persian New Year With a Looming Economic Crisis

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, in Tehran, March 20, 2014.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, in Tehran, March 20, 2014. Office of the Iranian Presidency—AP

On Friday, the day Iranians celebrate Nowruz, or Persian New Year, Iran's government will enact massive cuts to food and energy subsidies that will hit Iranian consumers hard and may make things difficult for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

In the seven months since Hassan Rouhani took office as President of Iran, his country’s economy has taken a slight turn for the better. Inflation dropped from 43 percent to 33 percent, while an interim agreement with world powers on Iran’s nuclear program produced some relief from sanctions and access to a portion of previously blocked oil revenues.

But those gains–and the vital stability they brought to the country’s troubled economy—may be short-lived. On Friday, timed to the Iranian new year celebration of Nowruz, the government’s 2014 budget takes effect, bringing with it new cuts in subsidies on food, fuel, energy and utilities. The cuts, once phased in over the coming weeks, will sharply ratchet up prices paid by ordinary citizens. The price of fuel is expected to rise by 71 percent. The next electricity bill an Iranian opens will be 24 percent higher. Water is going up 20 percent.

All told, Tehran will stop spending $25 billion it had been spending to hold down the price of essential goods and services. Instead, consumers will be exposed to something closer to real market prices—and Rouhani to the wrath of an Iranian public already strapped for cash.

“People just don’t have enough money to spend,” says Houman Kordestani, sales manager of Iran Tissue Company. He stood in his stall at the Tehran Mosalla New Year Sales Fair, an annual affair offering discounts in advance of the March 21 Nowruz holiday, and so sparsely attended this year that salesmen spent most of their time talking to one another, or staring at their phones. “In the last 19 days I’ve only sold 130 million Rials ($5,200),” says Kordestani. “It won’t even pay for my stall let alone the 4 employees I’ve got here.

“We thought it would be better with the new president.”

Rouhani campaigned on a platform that promised to improve Iran’s long dysfunctional economy by reducing the country’s international isolation. Negotiations aimed at reassuring the West about Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington and others fear could produce atomic weapons, are meant to free Iran from the crippling economic sanctions that still cost Iran $8 billion a month in lost revenue, on top of $60 billion in assets frozen overseas.

The latest round of talks, aimed at a permanent settlement, concluded on an upbeat note in Vienna on Wednesday, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying he saw “signs” of a comprehensive agreement by the July deadline. By then, public pressure for a deal may be increasing in Iran, as consumers stung by the loss of subsidies look for relief from lowered sanctions.

“In the present circumstances of Iran’s economy, my only hope is that the nuclear talks are successful,” says a manufacturer of canned tuna at the fair, speaking anonymously out of fear of political repercussions. The factory owner said he had to fire most of his employees after his production sagged badly after a first round of subsidy cuts, in 2010. Carried out under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, those subsidy cuts hastened the political demise of the conservative president, who had run as a man of the people.

“Before my customers used to buy tuna by the box,” the factory owner says. “After the first round of subsidy reforms they just buy two or three cans. If the next round of reforms is anything like the last one I’ll have to pack up next year.” His factory has shrunk from 98 workers producing 10 tons daily to a payroll of 25 and 2 tons a day, he says.

Lawmakers have tried to take some of the edge off the cuts. The $25 billion being removed from the budget is a fraction of the $70 billion (some estimates say $100 billion) that Iran’s government spends on subsidies. And expected price increases are intended to be less drastic than four years ago. Also, as in 2010, the impact of the lost subsidies will be softened to some extent by direct cash payments to low-income Iranians. Legislators also are directing money formerly spent on subsidies to go to health care and the country’s relatively small private sector—the Iranian economy is still dominated by the government.

Still, economists fear the cuts will result in the inflationary spike that occurred in the 2010 round, and was aggravated by the loss in value of the Iranian Rial because of sanctions.

“The objectives of the plan are good ones but the method has major flaws,” says Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a professor in Tehran University Faculty of Economics and former lawmaker. “In its present form this plan will increase inflation and liquidity, and force producers in the private sector out of the market.”

The cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has cast the shared hardship as a patriotic enterprise, declaring a “Resistance Economy.” The program’s 24 points include reducing dependence on oil, boosting manufacturing and diversifying imports. “If Islamic Iran follows the policies of resistance economy, not only will it overcome all economic problems, but will also defeat the enemy, who is waging an all-out economic war against our great nation,” reads the communiqué posted Feb. 19 on Khamenei’s official website.

But Khamenei, who was appointed to his office by a panel of clerics 25 years ago, does not have to worry about re-election. Rouhani’s four-year term may have only begun in August, but it may well be decided by the blend of economic and foreign policy challenges that defined his campaign. Iranians, at least, see the topics as one.

“Rouhani has entered the nuclear talks with sincerity and moderation; he is trying to rebuild Iran’s international relations,” says Khoshchehreh, the economist. “However if he is rebuffed again as he was in the 2003 negotiations [which Rouhani led as Khamenei’s chief nuclear negotiator], than Iran’s moderation will be replaced with hard-line positions just as Ahmadinejad replaced the reformist government behind the 2003 talks.”

TIME Israel

Israel Strikes Syria as Threats From Rogue Forces Grow

There's no evidence the Syrian government was involved in setting up a booby trap that injured four Israeli soldiers, but Israel's defense minister says it holds "the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory" as Syria's civil war spirals out of control

The wave of airstrikes Israel carried out on Syria overnight not only demonstrated how it’s being drawn into the civil war there, but also the challenges awaiting Israelis on a battlefield crowded with non-state actors.

Israel launched the attacks, which the Syrian government said killed one soldier and injured seven, to retaliate for the injuries to four of its own soldiers by a booby trap buried along the border fence with Syria the day before. The device was detonated after the Israelis left their armored vehicle to proceed on foot toward a shepherd, who may have been stationed near the fence to draw them toward the bomb according to the Israeli military. It was the fourth violent incident on Israel’s northern border this month, and the first to result in injuries, one of them serious.

Yet there was no sign that the Syrian military was involved in placing the booby trap or was involved its detonation. Israel apparently struck a divisional headquarters, a training base, and an artillery battery because those sites were fixed, near the border, and available as targets. It may not have had any other options. Of the four known armies operating on the northern side of the border fence, only one, clad in the fatigues of the Syrian Armed Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, has a fixed address. So that’s where the missiles were directed.

“We hold the Assad regime responsible for what happens in its territory,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained in a statement, “and if it continues to collaborate with terrorists striving to hurt Israel then we will keep on exacting a heavy price from it and make it regret its actions.”

In the Israeli media, blame for the strike was laid at the feet of Hizballah, the Shiite militia that supports Assad. No evidence was provided, but Hizballah had vowed revenge for Israel’s Feb. 24 attack on a weapons convoy. It was the sixth such airstrike aimed at preventing Hizballah from moving advanced weapons systems out of Syria, but the first to hit inside Lebanon, the militia’s home base.

Hizballah is a non-state actor mostly in name. It fields some 20,000 fighters and possesses a huge military infrastructure. But while many of the fighters are working in Syria, where they have helped turned the tide of the war toward Assad, the organization’s infrastructure is based in Lebanon. And for political reasons, Israel is not eager to send its planes where their bombs would be seen as punishing not only Hizballah but also the Lebanese state that the West, including Israel, prefers to shore up as a counterweight.

“For us it’s very important to give the Lebanese Armed Forces its sovereignty, its ability to carry out its duty,” a senior Israeli officer on the Lebanese border told TIME in a January interview.

Already arrayed along Israel’s border with Lebanon, Hizballah is also now free to operate along the portions of the border with Syria still controlled by Assad’s forces. However, in a stretch of border that for several miles abuts territory held by the Free Syrian Army—the most moderate of the rebel groups—Israel will even allow the FSA to leave its wounded fighters near the fence for retrieval by the Israelis, who take them to Israeli hospitals for treatment.

Farther to the south, however, where the borders of Israel, Syria and Jordan come together, Syrian territory is held by rebels of a more fundamentalist streak, according to Israeli officials. Across the entire theater of war, the most effective militias remain those aligned with al-Qaeda.

“What we see is many organizations from the area coming to power,” says the senior Israeli officer, “and all these organizations have a common enemy, which is us.”

The same is true on Israel’s southern flank. Jihadi groups have made a battleground of Egypt’s largely ungoverned Sinai peninsula. And in the Gaza Strip, militant Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad have launched scores of rockets toward Israel’s civilian population. The groups are all more radical than Hamas, the militant organization that won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and a year later took over Gaza outright.

Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, but the rising challenge from more radical groups has prompted some Israeli opinion leaders to officially recognize it as a government. In a column published on the news site Ynet by former national security adviser Giora Eiland, the operative logic was the same that led Israeli jets to government targets in Syria: “The more Gaza is a state, and the more we treat it as one, we’ll have more stimuli against it, stimuli which can force it to maintain peace and quiet, which is our main interest.”

The same holds true to the north, of course. What’s less clear is how much of the Syrian state actually remains to be engaged, or deterred, by Israel’s military.

TIME

Palestinian Leader Abbas Brings Weak Hand To White House Meeting

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting President Obama at the White House, March 17, 2014.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting President Obama at the White House, March 17, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is visiting President Obama at the White House today and expected to feel pressure to continue peace negotiations with Israel beyond their April deadline, even though the talks have gone so poorly

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President who has built his career on his willingness to negotiate, goes to the White House today with his work cut out for him. President Obama will pressure the Palestinian moderate to continue peace negotiations with Israel beyond their April deadline, even though the talks have gone so poorly that Secretary of State John Kerry months ago abandoned hope for a final agreement by next month and made the goal a “framework” statement describing U.S. hopes for a pact.

Abbas, who owes a measure of his position in the Palestinian leadership to Washington’s historical support of his moderate approach, may be personally inclined to give Obama what he wants. He has little personal appetite for the alternative – confrontation, either at the United Nations, which convenes in September, in the marketplace, where activists are promoting a boycott of Israel’s West Bank settlements (or of Israel itself), or even the streets, where violence is lately growing.

But Abbas’ position was a lonely one from the start; the leadership councils of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his own Fatah party strongly opposed even beginning talks last summer. And the days before his departure for Washington showcased how visibly Palestinian politics has fractured in recent months, further undermining Abbas’ claim that he can negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.

In the Gaza Strip, the population of 1.7 million is governed not by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority but by Hamas, the militant party that won 2006 legislative elections a year after Abbas was elected president. Hamas kicked Fatah out of Gaza in 2007. Founded on a premise of relentless armed resistance, Hamas famously refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, or even the point of negotiations.

“Hamas is not a problem,” Abbas said in a January. “Just leave it to us.” But it appears to be a persistent problem. Just Sunday, when Fatah tried to put its people on the streets of Gaza City – to make the kind of show of popular support for Abbas that was mounted in Ramallah and elsewhere on the West Bank – Hamas barred the demonstration.

Which is not to say Hamas has a firm grip on Gaza. The group has been isolated by neighboring Egypt, which last month declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and appeared powerless last week to prevent Islamic Jihad, a more radical militant group also supported by Iran, from launching scores of rockets into Israel. The barrage breached a ceasefire Hamas had effectively enforced for 16 months, and suggested that Gaza, already divided from the West Bank, was splitting into more political shards.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, home of another 2.5 million Palestinians, Abbas struggled to appear in charge of Fatah, the secular party that has long dominated Palestinian politics. He lashed out on March 10 against a political rival he had already cast into exile three years ago – the former Fatah security chief in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan – claiming Dahlan had ordered six murders and suggesting he had been involved in the mysterious death of Fatah founder Yasser Arafat. “Who killed Yasser Arafat?” Abbas asked a closed meeting of party leadership, in remarks later cleared for publication. “This is not evidence, but indications that deserve consideration.”

It all distracts from Abbas’ ceaseless efforts to burnish the image of statesmanship, and recast the image of the Palestinian movement. It also raises the stakes for the meeting with Obama, given that talks are supported by just half of Palestinians. A large majority feels the negotiations are doomed, according to polls. “Most Palestinians do not trust the process,” says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a polling firm based in Ramallah.

A report in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat says Abbas will leverage the one thing he can offer — his continued participation in the talks. The price, according to the report, will be a freeze on further construction of Jewish settlements, plus the release of more Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Prisoner releases do serve to shore up support for a Palestinian leader, but Al-Hayat says Abbas will up the stakes by demanding freedom for two prisoners who are leaders themselves: Ahmed Sa’adat, head of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah activist so popular he often prevailed in presidential polls even while a prisoner.

It would be a bold request. Sa’adat was sentenced to 30 years in 2008 by an Israeli court that held him responsible for a 2001 terror attack that killed Israel’s tourism minister. Barghouti was sentenced to five life terms in 2004 for ordering terror attacks during the Second Intifada. “He should rot in jail until he dies,” Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz posted on Facebook after hearing the report. The release of either would revivify the Palestinian political landscape simply by virtue of being what those politics have ceased to be – unexpected.

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