TIME Israel

Obama Warns Netanyahu On Peace Talks

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

The President warns of Israel's "aggressive settlement construction over the last couple of years"

President Obama set the table for Monday’s meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by pointedly warning that if current peace talks with the Palestinians fall apart, the United States may not be able to protect its longtime ally from the consequences.

“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” said in an interview with Bloomberg View published late Sunday. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

Israel has built some 200 guarded subdivisions and towns on land it conquered in the 1967 Six Day War. The roads and areas reserved for the 350,000 Jewish residents bar Palestinians from 40 percent of the West Bank, which along with the Gaza Strip would make up the Palestinian state the moderates on both sides see as an end to the conflict.

In 2009, Netanyahu agreed to freeze construction in the West Bank for 10 months as a show of good faith in advance of new negotiations, but that round of talks went nowhere. During the latest negotiations, convened by Secretary of State John Kerry in July, Netanyahu has repeatedly announced new construction. Analysts say the announcements helped mollify critics of the talks in his pro-settler Likud party, but risks framing Israel as an insincere negotiator — and more likely to carry the blame if talks collapse. Palestinian officials say they intend to capitalize on that perception by resuming the effort to punish Israel through diplomatic means. The options run from preparing to bring a case against Israel in the United Nations’ International Criminal Court, whose defining statute appears to consider settlements a war crime, to ramping up boycotts of varying caliber, some directed specifically at companies operating in occupied territories, others against Israel as a whole. Some Palestinian officials also warn that armed resistance also becomes more likely.

Progress in the talks has been so slow that, with a self-imposed April deadline for an agreement looming, Kerry has made the goal an announced “framework” laying out the parameters of a final pact, which would justify extending the talks to try to reach such an agreement. But even that relatively modest goal of an agreed-upon framework is in doubt.

“When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation,” Obama said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, and paraphrasing a Jewish sage. “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”

Before boarding his flight for Washington, Netanyahu made clear to reporters that his priority is Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel’s concern that world powers are being played by the Iranians through negotiations. On the Kerry talks, he sought to push the spotlight to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Obama described as “sincere.”

“The tango in the Middle East needs at least three,” Netanyahu said. “For years there have been two — Israel and the U.S. Now it needs to be seen if the Palestinians are also present.”

The settlers had a few choice words as well. “Incredible,” said senior settler leader Dani Dayan in a Twitter post Monday morning, “that as we see massacres and invasions across the globe, Obama reserved the term ‘aggressive’ to describe construction of houses.’’

TIME Israel

Scarlett Johansson Says She’s No Role Model

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson In Venice in September 2013. Gabriel Bouys—AFP/Getty Images

First Scarlett Johansson endorsed the anti-poverty activist group Oxfam by serving as its ambassador. Then she left that behind in the uproar that followed becoming “Global Brand Ambassador” for SodaStream, an Israeli company that builds its home-carbonation machines on land Israel has occupied since the 1967 war.

Now she says no one should pay any special attention to what she says.

“I don’t profess to know more or less than anybody else,” the actress says in Dazed & Confused magazine, a print-only British monthly that landed her first interview since the SodaStream ruckus erupted in advance of the company’s Super Bowl ad starring Johansson. “If that’s a by-product of whatever image is projected on to me I don’t feel responsible as an artist to give anyone that message. It’s not my jam.”

Johansson’s declaration that “I don’t see myself as being a role model” may be both a bit late and a bit wishful. For movie stars, close public attention pretty much comes with the territory, and she seemed aware enough of the power of her celebrity both when she signed on with Oxfam eight years ago, and in January, when she was hired to promote a gadget that many have embraced as much for reducing the number of cans and bottles in the world as for the tastiness of the fizzy drinks it produces. As Johansson put it, with two exclamation points, in a company press release announcing her hire:

“I’ve been using the SodaStream products myself and giving them as gifts for many, many years. The company’s commitment to a healthier body and a healthier planet is a perfect fit for me. I love that the product can be tailored to any lifestyle and palate. The partnership between me and SodaStream is a no brainer. I am beyond thrilled to share my enthusiasm for SodaStream with the world!!”

Just as much enthusiasm appears to be felt by activists waging a campaign to boycott companies that do business in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the territories Israel conquered in the Six Day War of 1967 and have been occupying militarily — and building on — since. Palestinians want the land for an independent state, along with the Gaza Strip. The Johansson-SodaStream flap brought the campaign celebrity-grade publicity, raising awareness of the issue with exactly the kind of socially-aware, liberally inclined folk who’d consider buying a countertop carbonation system.

TIME Viewpoint

Can Turkey’s Erdogan Stay in Power?

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he arrives at a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he arrives for a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara Feb. 25, 2014 Umit Bektas / Reuters

The Turkish leader’s authoritarian streak is the most important issue ahead of key elections

In its first eight decades as a republic, the biggest question facing Turkey was one of identity. Would it be the secular democracy envisioned by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or a nation governed by the Islamic faith that defined the Ottoman Empire from whose ashes it rose? Ataturk did his best to secure the former option, sending the Caliph packing (on the Orient Express) and ordering Turks to use second names, abandon the fez and write in Roman letters. After he died, his acolytes enforced his vision with a rigidity grounded in an abiding mistrust of the masses. Four times in four decades, Kemalist generals deposed elected governments they deemed dangerous to secular rule.

But everything changed in 2002, when Turks voted the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into government, led by the charismatic and irascible Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Once an avowed proponent of political Islam, Erdogan campaigned for Prime Minister on a platform of personal piety and fair play, especially in economics. Embraced first by the conservative Anatolian heartland distrusted by the Kemalist elite, the AKP’s support grew in subsequent elections.

But as the country prepares for three more polls over the next 15 months, the most pressing issue is no longer about the secular or religious nature of the state. It’s Erdogan. Turks have to decide whether they prefer a strongman over the delicate calibrations required in a system of checks and balances.

(MORE: Turkey’s “House of Cards” moment.)

When spontaneous demonstrations erupted last May over the fate of a city park, Erdogan’s reaction validated the protesters’ assertion that the larger problem was his creeping authoritarianism. Riot police overreacted to the demonstrations, deploying tear gas and water cannons, and international outrage poured in. With the Prime Minister abroad, other AKP leaders, including President Abdullah Gul, struck a politic, palliative tone that lasted only until the boss got back. Erdogan blamed shadowy outside forces, invoking the reliable stewpot of bogeymen—hidden hands, Washington—for the unrest.

He made the same play when a massive graft investigation burst into the headlines in December. In time, the AKP closed ranks, passing bills consolidating power around its embattled leader. Gul signed a measure restricting the Internet and tracking users. Another bill tightened executive control over judges and prosecutors, a convenient move as troubling corruption allegations crept toward Erdogan himself. (The allegations should be best assessed by a judiciary visibly independent both of the Premier and the “parallel government” supposedly run by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic leader resident in Pennsylvania, that Erdogan’s allies claim is driving the probe.)

Municipal elections on March 30 will give voters their first say on all this. The opposition is uninspiring: led by Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party, it is riven by divisions and hampered by the lack of a compelling leader to take on Erdogan. But with the economy sliding, if the AKP ends up losing previous strongholds like Istanbul, the result would embolden Erdogan’s opponents. An electoral setback might also shake loose papered-over tensions within the AKP, perhaps exposing internal rivalries in time for the presidential election in August.

According to an AKP spokesman, Erdogan, who is barred by party rules from returning as Premier, will seek that office. But if the incumbent, Gul, also chooses to run, the resulting split within the ruling party could give voters the credible alternative to Erdogan that the opposition has thus far failed to provide. Gul is a devout Muslim who, in contrast to the Prime Minister’s majoritarian tendencies, talks of pluralism and the rule of law.

A more cynical scenario involves the parliamentary polls set for June 2015. Were Gul to vacate the presidency and were the AKP to prevail in the legislature yet again, analysts note he would be available to resume the premiership in place of Erdogan. Gul already performed that role in 2002, when a prior conviction for Islamist politicking barred Erdogan from immediately assuming office. Another job-swap in 2015 would for now close the door on the possibility that in the absence of a credible opposition, a viable alternative to Erdogan might emerge from within the AKP.

TIME Kurds

WATCH: These Dance Moves May Get You Death Threats in Kurdistan

A racy new music video by Kurdish pop singer Helly Luv has gone viral, but also angered some in conservative Kurdistan

A risqué new music video is making waves in socially conservative Kurdistan, drawing both clicks on YouTube and reports of death threats in social media.

The Guardian quotes the manager of “Helly Luv,” the performance name for singer Helen Abdulla, as saying the threats had been posted online but did not specify where or by whom. “We do not wish to publish names of these Islamic groups because we do not wish to glorify [their] actions,” said Gwain Bracy.

The news report dovetails nicely with the title of the song, “Risk It All,” and the theme of the video, which embraces nearly every opportunity to be provocative. It opens with the singer lighting a Molotov cocktail in a city alleyway of baked brown bricks, then joyfully leading a line of Kurdish children somewhere – possibly astray. In other scenes Luv shimmies in a mini-dress and dances in the baggy-pants jump suit of the Kurdish militia known as peshmerga, meaning “those who face death.”

The flag of Kurdistan is featured prominently, as are a pair of lions. The video was filmed mostly in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government that governs the Kurdish sections of northern Iraq with substantial autonomy. Kurds, who may be the largest ethnic group without a national homeland, also live across the borders of Iran, Syria and Turkey, as well as across Europe.

Luv grew up in Finland and lives in Los Angeles, which both adds to the sensation and the measure of apprehension around the video. With almost 500,000 clicks on YouTube in just two weeks, “Risk It All” is clearly finding an audience – as is Dashni Morad, another Kurdish pop sensation.

But as a member of the diaspora, Luv may be far more comfortable projecting sexuality than the largely rural, traditional and Muslim audience in Kurdistan. Honor killings–in which a woman is slain for “staining the honor” of her family–are not a thing of the past in the region.

Nor is Islamist militancy. Kurds from the area made up the rank and file of Ansar al-Islam, a group associated with al-Qaeda that held territory near Halabja until just before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The group condemned the avowedly secular government then led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, dispatching assassins and suicide bombers against its representatives—people who certainly did face death.

TIME Technology & Media

The Evil of WhatsApp: $19 Billion App Angers Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis

Paper cites New York rabbis as saying the app causes the destruction of Jewish families and businesses

Is the social messaging startup WhatsApp worth the $19 million Facebook is paying? That’s for the market to decide. But the company’s extraordinary success is on display in a particular subculture not typically associated with social networking.

“The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the New York newspaper Der Blatt reported last month, in a headline written, as the entire newspaper is, in Yiddish. The translation comes courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward, an independent mainstream English-language site that has documented the complex relationship between the faith’s strictest adherents and the smartphone. The specific temptations are pointedly left unstated in the Der Blatt story, but any breach of modesty is a serious matter in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known for their black suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, go to great lengths to segregate themselves from the modern world, building whole communities committed to enforcing the strict moral codes taken from scripture and expressed in the vestments of pre-Enlightenment Eastern Europe. Against this ideal, the digital world presents a consistent challenge.

“The siren song of the Internet entices us!” a man named Eytan Kobre proclaimed outside Citi Field on May 20, 2012, the day the home of the New York Mets was filled by 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men attending a rally to denounce the Internet. Kobre was the event’s spokesman, telling reporters: “It brings out the worst in us!”

And because smartphones bring the Internet as close as your pocket, the devices are seen as particularly pernicious. One rabbi compared them to a weapon. Another smashed one in public. In Israel, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef inveighed so frequently against the gadgets that, when he lay on his death bed last year, a supporter urged breaking 10,000 iPhones to restore him to health.

And yet, the supporter posted his plea on Facebook, and the rabbi had his own smartphone app (one that secular Israelis claimed was used to turn out voters for the Shas political party Yosef led). Rather than enforce a total ban on smartphones, some rabbis set out to neuter them. “Kosher phones” are stripped of applications that tap into the Internet or are deemed at risk of promoting unhealthy distraction by The Rabbinic Committee for Matters of Communications, which answers to the top ultra-Orthodox rabbis worldwide. The Forward reports that, of 20,000 apps, only 600 are approved for the faithful by “rabbinic advisers” consulted by an Israeli supermarket chain that offers a “Kosher” LG-Nexus 4. Facebook was banned, as was YouTube. But somehow WhatsApp was overlooked, and ultra-Orthodox men flocked to it in recent months, the newspaper reports.

The messaging service allows its 450 million users worldwide to send and receive photos, videos and text, among a small group. It’s not exactly Snapchat, the messaging application that automatically erases an image moments after it’s sent (making the world safe for sexting). But Der Blatt said WhatsApp was destroying families by distracting parents from their children and worse.

The Forward quotes religious users arguing that the WhatsApp’s group messaging function actually enhances community cohesion but the site reports the company that filters smartphones for one Hasidic sect is preparing to block WhatsApp’s functionality. Lipa Schmeltzer, a Hasidic pop star who’s been called “the Jewish Elvis,” told reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis the ban makes little sense given that the authorities have already forbidden the Internet.

“It’s like banning a shopping center and then feeling the need to ban particularly aisle nine,” Schmeltzer says.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Militants Up The Stakes With Tourist Bus Bombing

A picture taken on February 16, 2014 show the wreckage of a tourist bus at the site of a bomb explosion in the Egyptian south Sinai resort town of Taba. AFP—Getty Images

A Sunday bombing attack on a tour bus on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula near the Israeli border which killed at least 3 people, including 2 South Korean tourists, amounts to a declaration of war on the already staggering Egyptian economy

Correction appended: Feb. 17, 2014

The bombing of a tourist bus on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, just a few hundred yards from the heavily fortified border crossing with Israel at Taba, represents a substantial escalation in the Islamist insurgency that erupted in the country last summer.

Until Sunday’s bombing, which killed at least three, including two South Korean tourists, militants in Sinai had taken great care to restrict their attacks to police, army and other sovereign representatives of the Egyptian state they view as illegitimate.

Those attacks came overwhelmingly in Sinai’s northern section, where the Egyptian military had deployed helicopter gunships, armor and troops in answer to a surge of attacks following the military’s removal of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi as President on July 3. Sinai’s once robust tourist industry suffered, but the only attack to actually occur in the south was the car bombing of a police station at El-Tor, well off the tourist path.

(MORE: Cairo Bombs Raise Public Outrage Against Muslim Brotherhood Despite Denials)

The bus attack changes everything. The bombing — which early reports suggested was either a suicide bombing or an RPG attack — amounted to a declaration of war on the already staggering Egyptian economy, which relies heavily on tourism. It recalls the 1997 mass shooting at Luxor, which killed 62 people, most of them Swiss tourists, at one of the major tourist attractions in Egypt. That attack, carried out by an earlier generation of Islamist extremists, brought a thunderous reaction from the Egyptian government of then President Hosni Mubarak, resulting in the roundup of thousands of citizens suspected of supporting the militants.

This time, the battle lines have already been drawn by Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the military-backed government put in place after the removal of Morsi, who had been fairly elected. Anyone who expresses support for Morsi’s reinstatement risks being called a terrorist. The entire Brotherhood, which officially eschews violence, now bears the official designation.

If the bus was targeted because it carried Christians — returning from a pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s, the Greek Orthodox monastery below Mount Sinai, where tradition says Moses brought down the Ten Commandments — the attack would be even more freighted.

(MORE: A Great and Terrible Wilderness: Egypt’s Sinai Has Become the Latest Battleground for Global Jihadists)

“The instability in Sinai reflects the instability all over Egypt in the last two years,” says Aviv Oreg, former head of the al-Qaeda desk in the intelligence branch of the Israeli military. But Sinai, which dangles like a shark’s tooth between “mainland” Egypt and Israel, is famously difficult to control.

A few hours before the bombing, reports emerged that Egypt was creating a “buffer zone” between its border and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave ruled by the militant group Hamas, which controls hundreds of tunnels reaching into Egyptian territory. The tunnels are used both for trade in goods, and for transfer of weapons smuggled and stored in Sinai in great numbers.

“You name it,” Oreg says, “you can find it in Sinai.”

MORE: Monks in Egypt’s Lawless Sinai Hope to Preserve an Ancient Library

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the monastery the tourist bus was traveling from. It is St. Catherine’s, not St. Mary’s.

TIME Middle East

Arab Donald Duck Quacks No More After Anti-Israeli Tweet

Disney's Donald Duck in a street side advertisement in Cairo.
Disney's Donald Duck in a street side advertisement in Cairo. Francois Perri—Redux

Wael Mansour, the Egyptian voice actor performing Donald Duck for Disney's Arab broadcasts, revealed he was fired for an anti-Israeli tweet

In Egypt, it appears the voice of Donald Duck may also be the voice of the people. Wael Mansour, the young Cairo resident who voiced Donald in Arabic dubs of Disney cartoons, lost his job over a post on Twitter calling for Israel to be “demolished.” The episode has unfolded at the intersection of popular culture and social media, bringing instant fame to a buff young voice artist in a country where anti-Israel sentiments are still embedded in the population 35 years after leaders of the two countries made formal peace. The last reminder came in September 2011 when rioters breached the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Mansour announced his dismissal in a Feb. 6 Tweet, punctuating the news with a single word: “Proud.” By the next day, he was celebrating his 5,000th follower. By Wednesday the total had tripled to 30,000. His most recent post linked to a Lebanese television report on the flap on YouTube, which though not available in English will satisfy any reader’s curiosity about what Donald sounds like in Arabic.

The offending tweet went out last Aug. 4 and stopped short of the anti-Semitism that still inflames some quarters of the Middle East. “I hate Zionism,” Mansour wrote, naming the ideology on which modern Israel was established in 1948, as a homeland for Jews on land also claimed by Arabs—700,000 of whom fled the fighting or were driven into neighboring countries by Jewish forces. “I have so much hate inside me with every single child they murder or land they seize!”

It was apparently the 1,700 re-tweets that undid Mansour. Those, and a Twitter bio that proclaimed his status as the voice of Donald Duck in the Middle East. “Repellent, of course,” Abigail Disney, niece of Walt, replied when asked (on Twitter) if she had any reaction.

Israelis weighed in too. One reader comment following the story in Haaretz took the long view: “Since Exodus we know that Egypt is not a good country for Jews.”

TIME Middle East

Palestinian Official Says ‘Armed Resistance’ an Option If Peace Talks Fail

Jibril Rajoub, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on Jan. 28, 2014 Azin Haghighi—AFP/Getty Images

Jibril Rajoub, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, tells TIME there may be an outbreak of violence should the current rounds of peace talks with Israel fail

The Palestinian official who headed Yasser Arafat’s security force at the start of the Second Intifada is warning that armed conflict may well follow the failure of current peace talks with Israel.

“They should expect a reaction,” Jibril Rajoub tells TIME in an interview. “We have to ring the bell. Uncle Sam should understand that there is a new fascistic doctrine among the Israelis, and this is a real threat to their interests in the Middle East, and even in the whole world.”

Rajoub, who now holds the title of minister of youth and sport in the Palestinian Authority, stops short of declaring the West Bank will erupt if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry fails to coax a final agreement from the talks, set to end in April. But the vehemence of Rajoub’s message is clearly meant to draw attention, as was the place he first delivered it–a television studio in Tehran.

Rajoub’s Jan. 28 visit to Iran was extraordinary for a senior official of Fatah, the secular movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. Iran has been the major sponsor of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that drove Fatah out of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Rajoub says Abbas sent him to Tehran in order to encourage Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani in his effort toward a more moderate foreign policy (including outreach to Gulf countries that are close to Fatah) and to enlist Iran’s efforts in Fatah’s long-promised reconciliation with Hamas.

But Tehran also provided an effective stage for broaching the option of violent struggle — something Fatah has avoided for at least a decade. Abbas continues to forswear violence, instructing PA forces to work with Israeli security to thwart any attacks. Should the peace talks break down, the confrontation he calls for would be limited to the diplomatic arena, including the option of charging Israel before the International Criminal Court.

But violent incidents have risen on the West Bank over the last year, and a recent poll found a plurality of Palestinians believe armed resistance more likely than negotiations to deliver the statehood that has not emerged from two decades of talks.

“Now we are engaged in negotiations. We hope this will lead us to our national goals,” Rajoub says. “But if talks fail or collapse, the Israelis will not keep behaving as the bully of the neighborhood while enjoying security and stability, expanding settlements and humiliating Palestinians. Resistance will be an option, including armed resistance, within the [Occupied] Territories against the occupation.” He rules out the possibility of attacks in Israel, pointedly telling his Iranian interviewer “there must not be bus bombings in Tel Aviv.”

The warning is only that — Rajoub says a decision to return to arms would be a collective one — but Rajoub is a fitting choice for delivering it. Jailed for 17 years by Israel, he was a militant in his youth, running Fatah cells in the Hebron Hills. As head of Preventive Security under Arafat, he ran the largest intelligence and enforcement apparatus across the West Bank. After the 1993 Oslo Accords promised Palestine a state, he also worked closely with Israeli security, in order to thwart violence aimed at derailing the pact. Interviews with former chiefs of Israel’s domestic security agency make up the entirety of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, and when their talk turns to discovering that some Palestinians turn out to believe ardently in peace, the image on the screen is Rajoub’s. He lowers his gaze at the reminder.

“Who, you think, changed?” Rajoub asks. He says the good faith shown to Palestinians by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is gone with Rabin, assassinated in by a militant Jewish settler in 1995. Hard-core supporters of settlements, which currently number 200 and keep Palestinians off more than 40 percent of the West Bank, now dominate the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has announced regular expansions of settlements during the current round of talks—an act considered illegal by most of the international community. Meanwhile, extremist settlers routinely harass Palestinians on the ground, uprooting olive trees and vandalizing mosques.

“Enough, enough, enough,” Rajoub says. “Dogs enjoy rights in Europe and America better than the Palestinian in their homeland.

“I am still committed, but my people are losing hope.”


Iran’s Rouhani Blocks Missile Test, Fights Hardliners

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
President Rouhani during interview with Swiss TV station at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jan. 23, 2014. SIPA

As he seeks harmony with the West, Iran's president Hassan Rouhani flew in the face of conservative hardliners at home when he blocked a planned military test by pulling its funding

Two dozen conservative Iranian lawmakers are complaining that President Hassan Rouhani canceled a military missile test by withholding funding required for it. The complaint, reported by the semi-official news agency IRNA on Sunday, is the latest public display of the intense push-and-pull between the new president elected on promises to moderate Iran’s troubled international image and the fundamentalist ideologues responsible for its isolation.

So far, Rouhani has been holding his own, though the strain is evident. On Wednesday night, after a live interview with him on state television did not begin as scheduled, Rouhani turned to Twitter to blame by name the head of state broadcasting. The flap was reportedly over who would interview him–a reporter sympathetic to his moderation effort or a hardliner. When the program finally began, 90 minutes late, he ended up taking questions from both.

It was a fitting compromise. Rouhani himself has a foot in each camp, and Iran is of two minds about the potential new era heralded by the interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program that was forged in Geneva last year. The deal itself appears to enjoy broad backing. While Tehran’s most fundamentalist elements dubbed it a “nuclear holocaust,” conservative power centers including the Revolutionary Guards have praised it. “The diplomatic apparatus has met the aspirations of every single Iranian,” said a recent statement from the Guards, whose extensive economic holdings stand to benefit from an easing of the U.S.-led sanctions under the pact.

Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei made clear on Saturday that Rouhani – who served for years as his national security chief – should have room to maneuver after only “a few months” in office. “Authorities should be given the opportunity to push forward strongly,” the Leader told an audience of air force officers. “Critics should show tolerance towards the government.”

Khamenei himself has withheld comment on the interim pact, a reticence that’s actually typical. Rouhani has written that the Leader declined to weigh in even privately on the last nuclear agreement, signed with European powers in 2003 – but later interceded to discard the deal. Khamenei’s current silence may again permit him the freedom to at some point halt the talks without appearing to reverse himself. But it also reflects the realities of a new situation that, from Iran’s point of view, is complex even by the fluid standards of a government that communicates constantly via Twitter, a service it still blocks inside the country.

“We struggled during Pahlavis’ repressive times,” Khamenei said in Feb. 4 tweet, referring to the country’s American-backed monarchy that was toppled in the 1979 Revolution. “Today we struggle against bids of aberration in the world, a more complicated struggle.”

Iran is treading a thin line. On the one hand, Khamenei seeks removal of the economic sanctions that the Carnegie Endowment for Peace estimates have cost the country north of $100 billion. Yet the Leader also remains deeply skeptical of a wider rapprochement with The Great Satan. “American officials publicly say they do not seek regime change in Iran,” Khamenei also said Saturday. “That’s a lie. They would not hesitate a moment if they could do it.”

And so, the commander of Iran’s northern fleet announced Saturday that warships were headed for the U.S. coast, a symbolic if militarily inconsequential bit of gunboat diplomacy that could be framed as the reply of a proud nation to frequent U.S. naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Mehr news agency reports that lawmakers also complain of Rouhani’s Foreign Minister preventing foreign military advisers from helping Iran with its missile technology – potentially a significant development: Iran’s most formidable missiles are from North Korea, and would deliver the nuclear weapon its critics fear Iran is developing. Like the Leader said, “a more complicated struggle” indeed.

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.

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