TIME Israel

Obama Approval Rating Dives In Israel

Less than a year after President Obama left Israel to the sound of loud cheering after he assured Israelis in Hebrew that they “are not alone,” a new poll has found that 70% of Jewish Israelis do not trust Obama to safeguard their nation’s vital interests in negotiations with the Palestinians.

The survey, published Friday in the Israeli weekly Sov Hashavua, is the latest in a string of recent polls demonstrating a precipitous fall in the confidence Obama appeared to have restored during his three-day visit last March. On Jan. 26, a Times of Israel poll found only one in five Israelis trust Obama to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as he has vowed to do. The same survey reported just one in three Israelis has a favorable opinion of Obama. Last May, in the afterglow of his state visit, 61 percent in a Pew poll expressed “confidence” in Obama.

What’s happened since? The answer is: two negotiations, and a lot of tart exchanges.

The first negotiation was with Iran: In November, the United States and five other world powers made an temporary pact with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried as a “a historic mistake.” Some prominent Israelis were less critical about the pact, which merely froze for six months a nuclear program that Israel wants to see dismantled, but Netanyahu’s ministers echoed his rhetoric, casting Obama as a sucker for an Iranian charm offensive.

The other negotiation was the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that Secretary of State John Kerry has relentlessly pursued. The talks, intended to last for nine months, showed so little progress around the half-way point that Kerry has begun assembling a “framework” that would justify an extension. The effort pushed the most contentious elements of any deal into public view as politicians were forced to float possible compromises.

It also made Kerry an object of increasing resentment. Last month Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, Moshe “Bugie” Ya’alon, was forced to apologize publicly after the State Department objected to his referring to Kerry as “obsessive and messianic.” Then Israeli officials lambasted Kerry for warning Feb. 1 of the downside for Israel if the talks fail, including “talk of boycotts.” The reference was to an incipient international movement aimed at pressuring Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories using the kind of economic pressure brought to bear on South Africa when it enforced apartheid.

But Netanyahu’s government seized on the warning as a threat. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said Kerry’s remarks were “hurtful..unfair…intolerable” and amounted to asking Israel to negotiate “with a gun to its head.” Netanyahu said “attempts to impose a boycott on the state of Israel are immoral and unjust.” The State Department read Netanyahu’s statement as a conflation of Kerry with the hazard he was flagging, and issued a statement of its own admonishing “all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.” On Monday night National Security Advisor Susan Rice joined in, posting on Twitter: “Personal attacks in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable.”

But in Israel, at least, the damage was done. Friday’s Israel Hayom daily carried yet another poll, this one showing only 21% of Israeli Jews thought Kerry was speaking out of “concern for Israel.” Sixty percent, the survey said, took his warning as a threat.


Iran Says It Will Reduce Military Potential of Nuclear Reactor

A view of Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities is seen, near the central city of Arak, in 2011.
A view of Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities is seen, near the central city of Arak, in 2011. Hamid Foroutan / ISNA / AP

If Iran follows through the move could increase trust in further nuclear negotiations

Iran is willing to make changes to the nuclear reactor it is building near the city of Arak, 180 miles southwest of Tehran, that would make it more difficult to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency said Thursday. The unexpected announcement, made in an interview with a state television channel, apparently signaled the first major concession from Iran on its nuclear program, and appeared to come outside the give-and-take of formal negotiations on the subject with the United States and other world powers.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization, emphasized to Press TV that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were peaceful, but acknowledged there were “valid questions” over why Iran was pursuing two technologies that could produce nuclear weapons. One part of Iran’s program involves enriching uranium – spinning it in centrifuges to render it suitable for producing power or, if enriched to a much higher level, to fuel a nuclear weapon. At the same time, in Arak, Iran is nearing completion of a “heavy water” reactor. Heavy water is an expensive, denser water (thanks to the presence of of the hydrogen isotope deuterium) used to moderate the atomic reaction in the plant’s core, a process that produces a substantial amount of plutonium, which once removed can also fuel a bomb.

Salehi indicated Iran was prepared to heed calls to substitute ordinary or “light” water in the Arak reactor, significantly reducing its potential for military use. “Here we can do some design change,” Salehi said, “in other words make some change in the design in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns.”

The modification would be the first permanent scaling back of Iran’s nuclear program. All Iran’s concessions in the interim agreement with the United States and five other world powers, announced Nov. 24 in Geneva, were temporary and easily reversed. The Geneva agreement was meant to freeze Iran’s program for at least six months while negotiations aimed at a permanent pact went forward.

“Politically, it’s quite significant, because the world has been worrying about Iran going on the parallel track to a nuclear weapon, which is the plutonium track,” says Ephraim Asculai, a former official in Israel’s nuclear agency and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The issue of making Arak a light water reactor has been raised before. This is the first time I’ve heard that they’re considering it.”

Both Salehi and Asculai separately pointed out that a light water reactor also produces plutonium (the Iraqi reactor that Iran bombed in 1980 and Israel bombed in 1981 used light water). But experts say plutonium from a light water reactor is much less accessible for use in a weapon than from a heavy water plant. “Technically, getting the plutonium out of the fuel is not that easy,” says Asculai.

Though it came as a surprise, Iran’s announcement of a likely shift to using light water may have been in the works for some time. In May 2013, Iran informed the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency that it planned to use ordinary water in tests at the Arak facility, mystifying nuclear experts who said even a tiny amount of light water would contaminate the system designed for heavy water. The plan prompted speculation that Iran might be planning to take the Arak reactor online ahead of schedule, thwarting any potential military strike. In light of Salehi’s interview, it now appears at least as possible that Iran’s technicians were simply implementing a change its politicians are only now revealing.


Four Car Bombs Explode in Baghdad as Death Toll Keeps Rising

Smoke rises after a parked car bomb went off at a commercial center in Khilani Square in central Baghdad, Feb. 5, 2014.
Smoke rises after a parked car bomb went off at a commercial center in Khilani Square in central Baghdad, Feb. 5, 2014. Karim Kadim / AP

Four car bombs exploded in Baghdad on Wednesday, and two rockets were fired into the heavily fortified Green Zone. The targets were the Iraq government that the United States left behind two years ago – a regime dominated by the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and facing an insurgency of its own from al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the Sunni minority. But casual observers could be forgiven a certain disorienting familiarity.

Wednesday’s attacks, which killed at least 24 people, were only the latest in a horrendous barrage that included seven bombings on Monday, and claimed more than 1,000 lives in January alone. Photos showed streetscapes Americans came to see often during the eight-and-half-year occupation: boulevards boxed in by towering concrete Jersey barriers, strewn with blackened steel, and patrolled by dun-colored Humvees.

“Wow, it’s like Groundhog Day. What year is this?” the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson asks in a Twitter post linking to the latest attacks.

What has changed? Not as much as hoped from a U.S. investment of well over $1 trillion. Iraqis no longer have an American occupation to resist, but combatants find ample fuel in the sectarianism that claimed 50,000 lives there from 2006 to 2008. The situation is aggravated on the one hand by the exclusionary performance of the Shiite-heavy government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s, and the resurgence of Sunni extremism in the heavily sectarian civil war in neighboring Syria, which has spilled across the border. Last month Iraq’s deputy interior minister said al-Qaeda-linked forces now back in Fallujah, 44 miles west of the capital, held weapons “huge and advanced and frankly enough to occupy Baghdad.”

The capital contains institutions like the Foreign Ministry, which was among the targets Wednesday. But Shiite neighborhoods are frequently targeted as well in the once-cosmopolitan city. Iraq’s Interior Ministry says half of some 500 car bombs detonated in Iraq last year exploded in Baghdad. The website Iraqi Body Count calculates the city’s death rate from violent acts at eight per 1,000 residents per year. In the world as a whole over the last half century, year by year, that’s just about the rate per year of deaths from all causes, according to the United Nations. And in Iraq, the rate is once again rising.

TIME Middle East

Israeli Officials Stay to Hear Iranian Minister’s Presentation

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon attends a meeting session of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 2, 2014.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon attends a meeting session of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 2, 2014. Xinhua Press / Corbis

In an apparent warming of relations, Israel's Defense Minister sat and listened to Iran's Foreign Minister during a conference in Germany over the weekend

When Iran’s Foreign Minister took the stage at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Israel’s Minister of Defense made an unexpected decision. He opted to remain in his seat. The move – or, rather, the lack of a move – made headlines in Israel, where it was read as a diplomatic opening between the Jewish State and the Islamic Republic. In September, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, stood up and marched out of the General Assembly as Iran’s celebrated new President, Hassan Rouhani, arrived to make his address. On Sunday, Prosor stayed in his seat along with the Defense Minister, the proudly hawkish Moshe “Bugie” Ya’alon.

What does it mean? An innocent might observe that Ya’alon knew he was on the next panel, and didn’t want to hold things up. But there was wide agreement among observers that something deliberate was going on.

“It seems to me that Israel made a public outreach to Iran,” writes Meir Javedanfar in The Iran-Israel Observer, a blog devoted to relations between the two countries. Javedanfar, who was born in Tehran and lectures in Iranian politics at the postsecondary IDC Herzliya sees Ya’alon’s respectful presence before Iranian envoy Mohammad Javad Zarif as “a small positive step forward in order to test the waters. To see how the Iranian side reacts in the future. Israel wins no matter what,” he says. “If Iran reacts positively then it would show that moderation and good will works. If Iran does not react or continues with its rhetoric against Israel then Israel could say that it is the other side that does not want to change, no matter what. This would strengthen Israel’s case against Iran’s nuclear program.”

It’s possible that Zarif warmed to Ya’alon’s presence. When asked on the panel about Iran’s stand on the Palestinian aspirations for their own state, on a portion of the land both Jews and Arabs claim as a homeland, Zarif pointedly disassociated the government he represents (Rouhani’s) from that of its immediate predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notorious for calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and for questioning the Holocaust.

“Of course we don’t make the same statement the previous government made,” Zarif said. “But [Israeli] policies have deprived the Palestinian people of the most elemental rights. Until this is discussed the crisis is not going away.” As for the Holocaust, Zarif called it “tragically cruel and should not happen again.”

That appeared to complete two of three of the demands given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leaving before Rouhani spoke at the UN: “When Iran’s leaders stop denying the Holocaust of the Jewish people, stop calling for the destruction of the Jewish State, and recognize Israel’s right to exist, the Israeli delegation will attend their addresses at the General Assembly.”

All in all, Zarif’s remarks were in line with Rouhani’s campaign promise to end the international isolation that Iran suffered under the potent combination of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and the U.S.-led economic sanctions aimed at the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Harsh rhetoric still comes out of Iran; in November, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to Israel as a “the sinister, unclean, rabid dog of the region.” And both Ya’alon and Zarif had plenty of unpleasant things to say about the government of the other. But at least they no longer found the presence of the other too abhorrent to tolerate.

TIME Syria

Evidence of War Crimes In Syria But No Prospect of Trials

A Free Syrian Army fighter offers evening prayers beside a damaged poster of Syria’s President Bashar Assad during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 8, 2012. Narciso Contreras / AP

The trove of horrific photos that surfaced Monday purporting to document systematic torture, starvation and execution of prisoners by Syrian authorities is exactly the kind of evidence prosecutors look for when seeking to bring charges of crimes against humanity in international courts. Yet legal experts say any such trial is highly unlikely.

“The obvious route of justice here would be the International Criminal Court,” says Reed Brody, an expert on international justice at Human Rights Watch. The ICC was created in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2002 to prosecute exactly the kind of outrages the report lays out in the sort of chilling bureaucratic detail seen in previous war crime trials, from the prosecution of Nazi officers at Nuremberg onward. And even though Syria is not among the 122 nations that have made themselves accountable to the ICC its officials still could be referred to The Hague by a vote of the United Nations Security Council.

“And we believe obviously that that’s what should happen, considering the evidence that serious crimes have been committed in Syria,” Brody says. “The problem is the Russian nyet.”

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia can veto any action there. And as a backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow has repeatedly blocked condemnations of human rights violations in the country — which would include appalling atrocities attributed to assorted rebel groups arrayed against the central government. The thwarted demands for justice included a letter signed by 58 nations a year ago to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

Russia – along with China, which frequently objects on principle to outside scrutiny of a state’s behavior toward its own people – also is in a position to prevent establishment of a U.N. court specifically devoted to prosecuting war crimes in Syria, as were established after wars in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

There may be one other option: Under the legal concept of “universal jurisdiction,” courts in other nations sometimes prosecute severe human rights abuses. In 1998, Gen. Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain for a warrant issued in Spain charging the former Chilean ruler with torturing Spanish citizens while in power. “But this is also a long shot, because many countries that have universal jurisdiction legislation place conditions on its use,” says Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at Hebrew University Law School, where he is dean.

And then there’s the question of the strength of the evidence – some 55,000 photos showing 11,000 bodies, nearly 10 percent of the death toll of the entire war – first published by The Guardian and CNN. Would it help convict Assad, or other senior Syrian officials, if a case were brought?

“This is horizontal evidence of the crime base, as opposed to vertical evidence that links the people on top to the crime,” says Brody, who spoke en route to Senegal, where he is supporting the prosecution in a special court of Hissene Habre on charges of systematic torture and executions when he ruled Chad. “Obviously Assad didn’t kill any of these people, but at a certain point things become so overwhelming it becomes hard to imagine that the leader didn’t know about this.”

Shany was less confident. He did not question the veracity of the report, which was prepared by three highly respected experts on war crimes, nor its funding by Qatar, a Gulf state supporting rebels in the Syrian civil war. The problem, Shany says, is legal precedents emerging in recent judgments, specifically the 2012 acquittal on appeal of two Croatian generals earlier convicted of targeting Serb civilians by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

“It’s tough, and it’s becoming tougher” to convict senior officials for war crimes, says Shany. The Croatia case “raised the bar for command responsibility – from a negligence to an awareness standard.”

At the ICC, the only head of state convicted so far of war crimes is former Liberian President Charles Taylor, now serving a sentence of 50 years. But then, as incumbent Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has complained in his own trial, so far only Africans have faced prosecution before the ICC. That appears to be partly because so many African countries – 33 – have submitted themselves to its jurisdiction. But Shany says it may also reflect the “geopolitical reality” that African countries are less likely to have a protector on the Security Council.


Deal or No Deal? New Iran Nuclear Talks Center on Centrifuges

German Foreign Minister Westerwelle Attends UN General Assembly
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of Iran, in New York City, Sept. 24, 2013. Thomas Koehler / Photothek / Getty Images

As talks resumed in Geneva, ambiguous language may allow Tehran to prepare and test a new generation of enrichment machines, which could shorten the potential dash to a nuclear bomb if the final agreement falls through

High-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program resumed in Geneva on Thursday with diplomats from Tehran on one side of the table and representatives of the European Union and United States on the other. But the meeting was not the start of negotiations toward a comprehensive pact – the goal teed up by the interim agreement announced with much fanfare on Nov. 24.

The topic at hand is still that interim agreement. Turns out everything in it was not quite agreed after all.

One widely reported sticking point – likely the biggest – is the fate of the new centrifuges Iran has assembled but not yet installed. Centrifuges are complex machines that purify uranium by spinning it in canisters at terrific speed. Uranium purified to 5 percent can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor built to produce electricity.

Most of the 18,000 centrifuges that Iran has installed are relatively primitive. But it has purchased newer models, called IR-2m, that work four or five times faster. Under the terms of the interim agreement, Iran agreed not to install them at its enrichment plants in Natanz or Fodrow. The question is whether the text allows Iran to test the new models. Iran says it can, noting the document permits “research and development” on the new model. Western power disagree, and so the talks continue.

“What it says about R&D isn’t specific enough,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Iran left Friday’s meeting under the impression that the issue had been resolved. The state-owned IRNA agency quoted Tehran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, as saying that language had been decided around the table in Geneva — but added the significant caveat that all parties had two days to confirm with their capitals that the (undisclosed) compromise language was acceptable.

For the West, the worry is that allowing Iran a free hand to test the faster centrifuges means the machines will be standing ready for immediate use if the talks on a final pact fall apart – significantly shortening the time it would need to produce the atomic weapon that Western powers and Israel believe is the point of a nuclear program Iran still insists is peaceful.

The dispute – and, perhaps more important, the delay it has caused – cast a shadow over the Nov. 24 announcement of the interim agreement, marked by on-stage embraces and declarations of a new era in relations between Iran and the West. Six weeks later, the vaunted document has not actually been signed. Which means its provisions freezing several elements of Iran’s nuclear program have not gone into effect — nor the countdown to a comprehensive pact, which could take either six months or a year, depending on how you read the document.

“Now it’s clear to us that there were a number of issues left with, shall we say, ‘lack of clarity,’ which opens up a lot of room for disputes over the different interpretation,” says Emily B. Landau, a nuclear proliferation specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University.

Landau, who has followed the once-secret Iranian nuclear effort for more than a decade, interprets the delays as Iranian stalling. During the two years of haggling that followed a previous (and likewise celebrated) announcement of a 2003 pact between Tehran and European powers, Iranians quietly mastered the technical points of enriching uranium. The strategy was a point of pride for then-negotiator Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s President. In 2005 Iran announced it was leaving behind the agreement with the Europeans turning on its centrifuges. Since then, it has accumulated some 10 metric tons of uranium enriched to 5 percent purity, and enriched about 400 pounds to 20 percent, closer to the potency required for a nuclear weapon.

“We’ve seen this before in the Iran issue back in 2003 when the British, French and Germans struck the deal to suspend Iran’s program,” agrees Fitzpatrick. “It was full of loopholes and Iran took advantage of every loophole.” He sees that, however, as natural behavior in any negotiation and no particular reflection on Iranian sincerity. “I wouldn’t myself call it bad faith, but I’m sure people who want to think the worst of Iran – and there are a lot of them – will call it bad faith,” he says.

Landau counts herself among them. She notes that, even though the interim deal has not yet been signed, the international economic sanctions that coerced Iran to begin negotiations are already losing their power: The Nov. 24 announcement produced an immediate uptick (by 3 percent) in the value of Iran’s currency and oil sales. Businesses are preparing for the limited lifting of sanctions promised when the interim pact goes into effect – perhaps by Jan. 20, according to published reports.

In the interval, Tehran stands to benefit, both by remaining free of its obligations under the interim pact and by enjoying the economic benefits that accumulate even before sanctions are officially lightened. “Unfortunately, economics doesn’t adhere to the clear-cut logic of the Obama administration,” Landau says. “It’s not a faucet you can turn on or turn off. Economics responds to expectations.”

For the diplomacy that produced the interim deal, expectations remain high. Thursday and Friday’s sessions brought Washington’s top negotiator, Wendy Sherman, along with her Iranian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and EU deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid.

The profile was low key, with no sign of fallout either from the Dec. 13 walkout of a lower level Iranian delegation (to protest the introduction in a U.S. Senate bill calling for more sanctions), or from the language of Iran’s Supreme Leader in a speech Thursday. Ayatullah Ali Khamenei warned that “the enemy’s smile shouldn’t be taken seriously.” His additional statement that Iran “will negotiate with this Satan, to deter its evil and solve problems,” after all amounted to an endorsement of the negotiations, as well a reiteration of his well-known views on Washington. Analysts interpreted them as largely for internal consumption, especially to hard-liners who oppose the talks.

The word to the diplomatic world was far blander, and on Facebook, where Foreign Minister Javad Zarif posted Wednesday. “The nuclear talks are continuing with seriousness and political will,” he wrote, adding that the December sessions brought “positive results.”

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