TIME Middle East

The Path to Peace

vanAgtmael_11.JPG
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos A Palestinian man prays in a Gaza neighborhood destroyed during the war last year between Hamas and Israel

Chaos in the Middle East is sowing the seeds for an unlikely alliance between Israel and the Arab states

On May 26, 2014, an unprecedented public conversation took place in Brussels. Two former high-ranking spymasters of Israel and Saudi Arabia–Amos Yadlin and Prince Turki al-Faisal–sat together for more than an hour, talking regional politics in a conversation moderated by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. They disagreed on some things, like the exact nature of an Israel-Palestine peace settlement, and agreed on others: the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat, the need to support the new military government in Egypt, the demand for concerted international action in Syria. The most striking statement came from Prince Turki. He said the Arabs had “crossed the Rubicon” and “don’t want to fight Israel anymore.”

The Turki-Yadlin dialogue was not “official,” but it sent a clear message. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had personally approved the meeting, intending it as an olive branch to the Israelis. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to reciprocate–at least not openly. It was too dangerous politically. Crucial components of Netanyahu’s coalition, especially his supporters among right-wing Jewish settlers in the West Bank, oppose any deal with Palestinians.

And yet, in the months after he decided against a public gesture to the Saudis, Netanyahu was suggesting at private meals with editors and influential figures at the U.N. General Assembly meetings last September that an alliance with the Arabs was not only possible but perhaps the best way to resolve the Palestinian problem.

Other odd things have been happening recently in the gridlocked Middle East. On New Year’s Day, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi made an interesting speech, challenging Islamic radicalism and calling for a Muslim reformation. “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred,” he said, “should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!” The sentiments were not unexpected, since al-Sisi had come to power by overthrowing the country’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leaders in 2013. (Al-Sisi won a largely uncontested presidential election last year.) But these are not sentiments that have often been uttered publicly by Arab leaders before.

And then, the very next day, the Times of Israel reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and exiled Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan had met privately in Paris. Dahlan has made no secret of his desire to replace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Lieberman is a conservative who has fallen out with Netanyahu and wants to be part of a coalition to replace him. So what on earth were Dahlan and Lieberman talking about?

All of this may add up to nothing. But there seems to be a growing impatience with the perpetual status quo in the region. There is a new generation of leaders pushing for power in Israel and Palestine. There are dangerous new threats like ISIS. There is concern about the U.S.–the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran, the waning need for Middle East oil. There is the memory of the Arab Spring, which ultimately produced chaos instead of democracy.

The established powers in the region, like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have found in recent years that they have increasingly aligned foreign policy interests. The Israelis and Saudis have been sharing intelligence for the past few years, according to regional sources. The Israelis and Egyptians are cooperating on security efforts in Sinai and in Gaza, where Hamas–the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood–is a common enemy. There are private talks going on between Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials. “It might be called mushroom diplomacy,” an Israeli told me. “It can only grow in the dark.”

Most Israeli and Arab officials I spoke with during a December tour of the region acknowledge the mushrooms and hope that the burgeoning relationships–especially the acceptance of Israel as a de facto ally–can be brought to light in time. There are, of course, all the usual roadblocks, including the eternal one: nothing can happen publicly without an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The Saudis and the Arab League promised to recognize Israel in 2002 if such a deal were made, but the Arab terms–a return to 1967 borders, with Palestinians’ right of return to their former lands in Israel–were unacceptable to the Israelis. Now those terms may be changing. Prince Turki described the proposal as a “framework,” which implies room to maneuver.

Is it possible that the Middle East has become so unstable that an Arab-Israeli peace is no longer unthinkable?

The ISIS Effect

As 2015 begins, the Middle East seems to be a greater mess than it ever was–especially when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The deterioration began with Israel’s 50-day war in Gaza last summer, which increased the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank and has led Abbas to take a series of steps toward the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. In recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority applied for membership in the International Criminal Court–a red flag to the Israelis because the Palestinians would presumably use membership to bring war-crimes charges against Israel. In return, the Israelis have cut off the monthly payment of taxes they collect for the PA, which represent almost 80% of the government’s $160 million monthly budget. It is possible that the Palestinians could retaliate by suspending government operations in the West Bank–schools, health care and, especially, security. Chaos would be the likely result.

In the rest of the region, the sectarian split between Sunni and Shi’ite has become more dangerous, even as it has become more confusing. The Sunni Arab nations–which include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states–have worried for a decade that the U.S. demolition of Saddam Hussein’s ugly but stable dictatorship in Iraq has created a power vacuum in a broad swath of the region that the Iranians are exploiting. They call it the “Shi’ite crescent,” a sphere of influence stretching from Hizballah-controlled southern Lebanon and President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria, to Iraq and Iran, right up to the border of the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, a majority-Shi’ite area where most of the country’s oil is produced.

But the old Sunni-Shi’ite conflict has been complicated by a new threat in the region: ISIS, a Sunni radical military force vastly more competent and frightening than al-Qaeda. ISIS began in Iraq but made its mark in the rebellion against Assad’s government in Syria. Assad isn’t well liked by his Sunni neighbors–and some of them, like Qatar and perhaps private sources in Saudi Arabia, gave surreptitious support to ISIS and other Sunni militias in the early days of the rebellion.

The lightning march ISIS made through Iraq last year changed the equation. An ISIS-controlled Iraq would be a threat not only to Iran but also to some of the Sunni royal families in the region, as well as Egypt. The Jordanians–already overwhelmed by refugees from Iraq, Syria and Palestine–are vulnerable. The Saudis, governed by an increasingly feeble gerontocracy–the 90-year-old Abdullah was hospitalized with pneumonia at the start of the new year–are worried too. The Egyptians are fighting ISIS-style terrorists in Sinai and are threatened by Libyan militias, which may also be loosely affiliated with ISIS.

In response, a heterodox alliance has gathered to make war with ISIS. Iranian-backed militias, like Hizballah, are the most ardent fighters in this war, along with the Kurds. But they are now joined by U.S. airpower–as well as pilots from Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Another potentially major change in the region: the Israelis, Iranians, Saudis and Egyptians are increasingly concerned about Turkey, which sees the ISIS threat somewhat differently from its neighbors. Turkey has allegedly allowed thousands of militants to cross its border and join ISIS because the group is fighting Assad and militant Kurdish groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turks see as a permanent threat in the south and east of their country. (Turkey has acknowledged that its border with Syria is porous but has denied accusations that it purposefully allows militants to cross.) “Why aren’t you Americans making more of a fuss about Turkey’s support for ISIS?” a prominent Egyptian official asked me. “I read a lot more about our humanitarian problems in the American press than I do about the Turks who are allowing terrorists to cross their border and behead Americans.”

Of course, the “humanitarian problems” in Egypt are very real, as al-Sisi’s forces have led a brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptians have become sensitive to the point of paranoia about the changing U.S. role in the region. I had dinner in Cairo with a group of prominent leaders. One of them, a banker, asked seriously, “Is it true that there is a secret alliance between Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the existing Sunni governments in the region?”

I started to laugh, but none of the Egyptians at the table were smiling. They didn’t buy the banker’s conspiracy theory, but they laid out an array of charges, ranging from the (pre-Obama) Iraq invasion to the President’s support for the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak to the Administration’s recent slow walk of military supplies, especially spare parts, to the al-Sisi government. “Doesn’t he want us to be fighting ISIS in Sinai?” asked the banker.

The Obama Administration maintains that all al-Sisi has to do is free some political prisoners–especially those who are American and three jailed journalists from al-Jazeera who were accused, implausibly, of joining a terrorist group and broadcasting “false news”–and the military support will flow again. The Administration argues that its overall policy–steering clear of neocolonial adventurism like the 2003 invasion of Iraq and working to bring Iran back into the international community–has been more effective than George W. Bush’s neoconservatism. Obama aides also point out that there are two U.S. naval fleets in the region, plus U.S. bases in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Djibouti. “Does that sound like disengagement?” one of them asked me. “We’re not going anywhere.”

From Washington, the region seems a jigsaw puzzle ruled by anarchic moving pieces–a disproportionate source of concern that leaches attention from growing problems in Russia and East Asia. From Cairo and Riyadh and Jerusalem, though, the U.S. seems a fickle ally that can’t decide whether its policy is to support stability or the naive hope for democracy in a region that isn’t ready for it.

The modern Middle East was stabilized, in a toxic but effective way, by the Cold War, when partnership with superpowers provided security and economic aid. In the 21st century, the USSR is gone and the U.S. no longer has the incentive, or the money, to lavish vast aid packages on local clients. But the nations of the Middle East have been unable to wean themselves from their dependency on outside forces. “Whenever we’re in trouble we dial 911,” an Arab diplomat told me. “But it is illogical to think the U.S. was created to protect the Sunnis.”

With few other options, the Arabs have returned to an old idea, which was mostly bluster in the past–that they must unite to protect themselves. And any serious conversation about security and economic development has to include the one nation in the region that has succeeded at both: Israel. There is no love for the Israelis, but there is respect. And so there is a hope–a conversation that is occurring across the Arab states–that perhaps the only alternative is to bank on the regional forces of stability to create a security alliance against the extremist threat of both Shi’ite and Sunni militias. Even if that means partnering with Israel.

Strange Bedfellows

Is such an alliance even vaguely possible? History says no, vehemently. But in the days before Netanyahu’s government collapsed in December, Israeli intelligence sources–usually the most skeptical people in the country–were allowing tiny shreds of hope to creep into their calculations. The common security interests with the Arabs were compelling, several of them told me, and might lead to new arrangements in the region. It was not impossible that the Arabs could help broker a peace deal with the Palestinians. The Egyptians could help provide security; the Saudis and Gulf states could provide funds for Palestinian economic development.

For that to happen, though, Israel would need to make changes of its own. “These governments can’t be seen to be cooperating with Israel as long as there isn’t a deal with the Palestinians,” said one intelligence expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “ISIS can turn the Arab street, especially their young people, against them. It’s bad enough that [the U.S.] is dropping bombs on Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. That strengthens [ISIS] on the street as well.”

At the heart of this conundrum stands Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister may have been selling an alliance with the Arabs in New York, but he’s been selling intransigence back home. That includes a new law that would make Israel a “Jewish” state–with the implication of second-class citizenship for its 1.7 million Arab citizens. His insistence on pushing that law resulted in the collapse of his government, as moderate parties led by Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid refused to support the legislation.

Netanyahu is no longer very popular in Israel, but no one is betting against him in the March election. Given his political skills, the absence of a charismatic mainstream challenger and the steady tattoo of terrorist incidents–stabbings, shootings, cars running over pedestrians–most observers assume that Netanyahu will prevail somehow, though he might even struggle to maintain control of his Likud Party. The rising tide seems to be with the settler-movement leader Naftali Bennett, whose party might well outpoll Likud in March. It is also possible that the moderate-liberal coalition of the Labor Party and the splinter party of Livni’s supporters will challenge Likud for first place in the March election and the right to attempt to form a government of its own.

The real negotiations begin after the election. Netanyahu will try again to cobble together a centrist coalition. The big question is whether he will have to include Bennett in a government; if so, there will be no hope of Israel’s negotiating a deal with the Palestinians–and no hope of closer public ties with its Sunni Arab neighbors.

But there are other possibilities as well. If Labor-Livni polls strongly and is joined by Lapid’s centrist party, they may find a partner in Avigdor Lieberman. The Foreign Minister and leader of the Israel Beitenu party ran a crass, anti-Arab campaign last time. “But Lieberman plays a different game inside the government than he does outside,” says Shai Feldman, director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. “As Foreign Minister, he’s had to deal with the leaders of other countries. He’s more of a realist now.” But he’s also less of a political force, as recent polls show support for his party waning dramatically because of renewed corruption charges against Lieberman. “It is absolutely impossible to predict how this election is going to turn out,” Feldman says.

The New Generation

Netanyahu has been at the center of Israeli politics for nearly 25 years. Abbas has been a force in Palestinian politics even longer. But a new generation of leaders is rising, which is why the Lieberman-Dahlan meeting in Paris was noteworthy, at the very least. One thing the two men have in common, despite their wildly divergent politics, is that both believe the Netanyahu-Abbas era is coming to a close.

Dahlan is perhaps the most skilled of the next generation of Palestinian leaders, although he developed a well-deserved reputation as a thug when he led the Palestinian security services in Gaza. He is a young-looking 53, a protégé of Yasser Arafat’s and a native Gazan. He’s also the sworn enemy of Abbas, who accused Dahlan of corruption and convicted him in a show trial; Dahlan has been living in Abu Dhabi since 2011. He has already announced that he will run for President of the PA against Abbas–who is supremely unpopular–should Abbas ever call the Palestinian election that has been long delayed. But Dahlan’s strategy is more expansive than a one-on-one fight with Abbas. His hope is to create a new coalition that would appeal to people across the Palestinian political spectrum, from Hamas to Fatah.

How could he manage that? By forming an alliance with a Palestinian leader currently sitting in an Israeli prison. Marwan Barghouti, 55, is considered a folk hero by both Hamas and Fatah. He was a prominent leader of the first and second intifadehs before he was arrested by the Israelis in 2002 and sentenced to five continuous life terms for murder. Barghouti’s wife has already announced her support for a movement to draft him for President. Dahlan’s vision is that Barghouti would be the titular head of the PA from inside prison and Dahlan himself would be the hands-on guy, running the show from Ramallah, while former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, widely considered Palestine’s most effective bureaucrat, would administer the West Bank.

Netanyahu has long lamented the fact that he doesn’t have a “strong” partner on the Palestinian side. Abbas has never had the support among his people to cut a deal, and his predecessor Arafat had little desire to do so. But a government led by Barghouti or Dahlan could hardly be considered weak, and a Barghouti-Dahlan coalition would be formidable. The question of what to do with Barghouti–whether to release him or not–has been discussed by Netanyahu’s inner circle. At this point, Barghouti’s political views are a mystery; he has been described as “Mandela-esque” and utterly unrepentant.

Dahlan has been meeting with Arab leaders across the region. He is close to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and also to Egypt’s al-Sisi. His aspirations parallel Netanyahu’s: that the Arab states could be brought into the talks as intermediaries. Dahlan hopes the Arabs will nudge the Israelis to make concessions; Netanyahu hopes that the Arabs will nudge the Palestinians to make concessions. But the bottom line is the same: visions of commercial cooperation that transforms ports in Gaza and Haifa into Middle Eastern Singapores; visions of a security alliance strong enough to fend off Islamic radicalism, both Shi’ite and Sunni.

The only thing preventing all this is what usually gets in the way in the Middle East–reality. Here is what might also happen in 2015: Israel might elect a right-wing government that wants nothing to do with the Arabs. The West Bank may fall into chaos as the PA struggles without the funds necessary to keep its security forces in operation. The U.S. might make a nuclear deal with Iran, with unforeseen consequences for the region. The U.S. might not make a nuclear deal with Iran, with unforeseen consequences for the region. King Abdullah might pass away in Saudi Arabia. The moderate Jordanian government might be overwhelmed by the tide of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Bashar Assad might fall, or survive, with consequences for the Kurds, the Turks and the Lebanese. Libyan militias might find common cause with ISIS. The rickety new government in Iraq might collapse.

Any of these events is more likely to occur than a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by the Arabs. But the fact that the conversation is taking place–between Prince Turki and Amos Yadlin, between Mohammed Dahlan and Avigdor Lieberman, secretly at the U.N. and in capitals across the region–means that peace, the most unlikely Middle East result, is no longer off the table.


This appears in the January 19, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Hizballah

Hizballah’s Failures Go Well Beyond an Alleged Israeli Mole

Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags as they attend a rally to commemorate slain top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and two other leaders, Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb, in the Shiite suburb of Beirut, Feb. 22, 2008.
Hussein Malla—AP Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags as they attend a rally to commemorate slain top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and two other leaders, Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb, in the Shiite suburb of Beirut, Feb. 22, 2008.

The so-called "A-Team" of terror has had a run of failures since the 2008 assassination of its mastermind. And Iran hasn't done any better.

In the last months of 2011 and first half of 2012, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, put on perhaps the greatest show of rolling ineptitude in the history of modern covert warfare. Hopscotching the globe, their operatives tried and failed to strike Israeli or American targets perhaps two dozen times—in Azerbaijan, in Georgia, in Kenya, in Nigeria, in South Africa, in Turkey, in Greece, in Cyprus and, most spectacularly, in Thailand, where after blowing up an apartment while trying to make a bomb, an Iranian agent scrambled into the street and blew off his own legs.

What could account for such a formidable string of failures? According to Hizballah itself: an Israeli mole inside the militant group. A senior official with the Shiite militia this week acknowledged “some major infiltrations” in its ranks. Speaking to a Hizballah radio station on Sunday, Naim Qassem offered oblique but rare on-the-record confirmation of earlier reports that one of its most trusted operatives was on trial for treason, along with four others reported to be compromised by Israel’s Mossad.

“It appears to be the real deal,” says Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury official and author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “And they clearly are freaking out about it.”

The alleged culprit, identified as Mohammad Shawraba by the Lebanese English-language Daily Star, was in a position to know. The newspaper and other reports say he headed the “external operations” unit of Hizballah, the very group responsible for carrying out the bombings, assassinations and other terror strikes that the Shi’ite militia has long been known for conducting—and almost always without leaving behind evidence that it was responsible. Hizballah may not have quite invented terror strikes as a tool of modern warfare. (The first car bomb, actually a horse-drawn carriage, was exploded on Wall Street in 1920.) But by 2002, when the West felt wobbly from the attacks of 911, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage was calling them “The A-Team” of terror.

And yet, since the man hailed as Hizballah’s terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyah, was killed by a booby-trapped car headrest in 2008, his successors have been unable to deliver the revenge they repeatedly promised. Mughniyah’s assassination was, of course, laid at the feet of Mossad, as almost everything that happens in the Middle East is. The Israeli spy agency glories in its reputation for bloodless omniscience (Google the list of animals that neighboring Mideast states have named as Israeli spies), a notoriety that acts as a force multiplier. But as TIME and others have reported, Mossad has also a long run of real marquee missions, including the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran in 2010 and 2011. Those attacks in turn ignited a response from Iran’s own elite covert operators, the section of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force known as Unit 400. Though, like Hizballah’s external operators, Unit 400 soon proved less formidable than its reputation.

The full extent of the collapse became evident on February 13, 2012. Hizballah and the Qods Force were brought together by the anniversary of Muniyah’s death, four years and one day earlier, and the latest scientist assassination in Tehran, just a month previous. In what was intended as a one-two punch at “hard” Israeli targets, operatives tried to detonate bombs attached to Israeli diplomats’ cars in Tbilisi, Georgia, and New Delhi, India. The Tbilisi bomb was discovered. In Delhi, a man on a motorcycle managed to attach a “magnet bomb” to the side of a car carrying the wife of an Israeli diplomat.

It’s the method of assassination that Israeli operatives had repeatedly used on the streets of Tehran, targeting Iranian nuclear scientists on their way to work. But there was a hitch. “I was in New Delhi when it happened,” says Ely Karmon, a senior scholar at International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “They put the bomb on the right side of the car, because it had to explode on the fuel tank. But in India they ride on the left side, and the tank is on the left side.” The mistake gave the chauffeur time to eject his passenger, a diplomat’s wife, who survived.

Shawraba, the alleged Israeli mole, would have been involved in both attacks, as well as the July 2012 bombing that killed a handful of Israeli tourists on an airport bus in Bulgaria, where Hizballah resorted to a soft target. Evidence of his presumed loyalty was offered in reports that he had earlier served as a bodyguard to Hizballah’s charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, long assumed to be No. 1 on Israel’s hit list. The newspaper reports said he had betrayed five secret operations, and implied that his removal, along with four men working in his unit, had freed Hizballah from the shadow of suspicion.

“The idea is that they’ve stopped the sole source that was responsible for everything,” says Levitt, now a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he produced a 2013 report on the “Iran’s Shadow War with the West” that detailed operational incompetence in the string of failures under the heading, “Amateur Hour.” In an interview Monday, he noted that intercepted communications played a significant role in thwarting “many of these operations.”

“The Israelis are pretty good at what they do,” Levitt continues. “We’re pretty good at what we do. Nobody has one source for everything.”

Indeed, Israel has recruited Hizballah officials in the past, and likely has sources in the Iranian establishment as well, says Karmon. The Israeli army occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years, with its security services developing human assets that sometimes emerge only after decades, if ever. In 1973, the surprise Egyptian attacks on Israeli positions that became the cataclysmic Yom Kippur War was in advance tipped by the son-in-law of Egypt’s president. (His warnings were ignored, proving that Mossad isn’t omniscient after all.) What makes an insider turn? “Clearly money is very important,” says Karmon. “Also safe haven, in case of need. But sometimes it can be an issue of revenge, infighting in an organization, some personal dispute with one of the leaders.”

On the Iranian side, things have quieted down. Israel has greatly reduced its tempo of detectable attacks, and the Quds Force has eased off as well, likely in order to allow nuclear negotiations to go forward, Levitt says. But from Hizballah, the hits keep coming. Last April, another planned attack on Israelis was thwarted in Bangkok. And at the end of October, Peruvian authorities arrested a Lebanese man who admitted to working for Hizballah, and taking photos of apparent targets. Traces of nitroglycerin reportedly were found in his Lima apartment. The A-Team evidently remains on hiatus.

TIME Israel

Israel Sentences Palestinian Kidnapper to Life for Killing of 3 Teenagers

Rally Held In Tel Aviv For Missing Israeli Teenagers
Lior Mizrahi—Getty Images Israelis hold a poster showing the three missing Israeli teenagers, as they attend a rally under the slogan 'Bring Our Boys Home' on June 29, 2014 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The killing quickly escalated into 50 days of conflict in last summer's Gaza war

An Israeli court sentenced a Palestinian man to life in prison on Tuesday, for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers, which rapidly escalated into a wider regional war last summer.

Hussam Kawasmeh, a member of Hamas, was sentenced to three life terms for devising the plan to abduct three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking along a road in the West Bank, Reuters reports. The youths were lethally shot and found buried in the West Bank some three weeks after their disappearance.

Two members of the Hamas cell behind the attack were killed in a firefight with Israeli troops, while Kawasmeh, one of the sole survivors, was arrested in a West Bank raid in August.

The killing was quickly followed by a revenge attack against a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem and flared out into 50 days of sustained conflict in the Gaza war last summer.

Read more at Reuters.

TIME elections

These Are the Elections to Watch Around the World in 2015

From Greece to Argentina, elections could transform the international political landscape

This past year was marked by monumental elections that ushered in new political regimes in countries like the India, and Tunisia, and solidified or extended others in places like Egypt, Brazil and Japan.

The year 2015 is shaping up to be a respite from the chaos of democracy, with the electorate of some of the world’s largest countries sitting on the sidelines. But a spate of political developments has infused global importance into elections around the world and prompted two previously unexpected votes in Greece and Israel that will have major repercussions for their respective regions.

Here’s a look at what to expect:

United States

Three of the five largest cities are electing their mayors this year. In Chicago, former Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel is running for reelection in February and holds a strong lead in polls. In Houston, the biennial vote in November will select a successor to Democratic Mayor Annise Parker, who has reached her term limit. It will be a similar situation in Philadelphia, where Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter can’t run for a third term.

Meanwhile, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi are electing governors in November, including replacements for Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, both of whom have reached their term limits.

Greece

The Greek Parliament’s refusal to elect Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s choice for president earlier this week triggered snap general elections set for January 25. Opinion polls have placed the radical leftist opposition party Syriza in the lead, raising the prospect of an anti-bailout government that could move to default on its massive debt and prompt a new eurozone crisis.

Nigeria

A stumbling economy and a persistent Islamist insurgency in the north have drained some public support for President Goodluck Jonathan, in office since 2010, and the vote on Feb. 14 is expected to be close. Jonathan will go up against Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler campaigning on a platform of security and anti-corruption. But the biggest determinant of who becomes the leader of Africa’s biggest economy may fall along ethnic and regional lines: Buhari is a Muslim northerner, while Jonathan is a Christian from the south.

Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded his already tenuous centrist coalition in early December and called for early general elections set for March 17, expecting to win a new mandate for himself and a more right-leaning government. But polls show that a new left-leaning coalition could beat Netanyahu’s Likud party, though the incumbent could stay in power if he successfully forms a coalition with rightist parties.

Sudan

The April 13 election is all but likely to ensure that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court, will extend his 25-year rule, even as violence continues between Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur and elsewhere.

Britain

The United Kingdom is heading for what may be the closest election in a generation—and the first since a divisive vote in Scotland to remain part of the 307-year-old Union—as the Labour party seeks to unseat Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party in elections slated for early May. The rest of the European Union will be closely watching this vote, as Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2017, while Ed Milibrand, head of Labour, has rejected the idea.

Argentina

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has drawn some public support for her obstinate stance against U.S. investors and U.S. courts who are demanding Argentina repay $1.3 billion in debt plus interest. But the skirmish has scared off investors and helped put longterm economic growth largely on hold until the dispute is resolved or, as is likely, a more market friendly president takes office following elections in October. As for Fernandez, her tenure is up after reaching her two-term limit.

Canada

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has seen an uptick in support in recent days, putting it ahead of the Liberal party. But his party’s support took a hit this year and he’s far from guaranteed a win in elections in 2015, currently slated for Oct. 19. His biggest rival will likely be Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party and son of long-serving Premier Pierre Trudeau.

Burkina Faso

In the wake of longtime President Blaise Compaoré’s ouster amid mass protests, the interim leadership agreed to hold new elections in November. If that plan holds, the Burkinabé people will select a government not headed by Compaoré for the first time since he seized power in 1983.

Spain

The nascent anti-establishment party Podemos has skyrocketed in popularity and is now competitive with the two stalwarts in a country still burdened by an economic crisis (unemployment stands at around 24 percent). Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the right-leaning Popular Party, is already under pressure from an empowered Catalan independence movement, and the populist movement does not augur well for him in next years elections, which must take place on or before Dec. 20. But he’s hoping that economic reforms and early indications of a recovery will boost his standing.

Myanmar

The vote in late 2015 could mark a significant step in Myanmar’s heralded-but-stumbling process of political reform, but that’s not certain. Though the elections will be the first since a semi-civilian government assumed power after half-a-century of military rule, the military is still highly influential and key constitutional reforms called for by the opposition are unlikely to pass ahead of the vote. Among them is a measure to repeal a law that prevents opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running. For now, Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament and a retired general, is the front-runner.

TIME Palestine

U.N. Security Council Rejects Palestinian Resolution

UN Security Council rejects draft resolution on Palestinian statehood
Cem Ozdel—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Riyad Mansour, second right, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, is seen during the United Nations (UN) Security Council meeting in New York on Dec. 30, 2014.

The measure was not expected to pass due to U.S. opposition

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Tuesday rejected a Palestinian draft resolution, strongly opposed by the United States, that sought peace with Israel within a one-year time frame.

The resolution failed to win the nine-vote majority required for approval, the Associated Press reports. Eight countries voted in favor of the resolution, while two opposed (U.S. and Australia), and five abstained.

“The fact that this draft resolution was not adopted will not at all prevent us from proceeding to push the international community, specifically the United Nations, towards an effective involvement to achieving a resolution to this conflict,” said Jordan’s U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar after the vote.

The resolution, whose voting had been requested by Jordan, demanded that East Jerusalem become capital of Palestine, according to Al Jazeera. It also asked that negotiations be based on territorial lines prior to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967.

The measure was not expected to pass due to strong opposition from the U.S., according to Reuters. U.S. diplomats previously said the resolution would bind Israel and Palestine to a “rushed” timeframe to resolve a decades-long conflict, and that they would use their veto if necessary.

“We voted against this resolution not because we are comfortable with the status quo,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. “We voted against it because … peace must come from hard compromises that occur at the negotiating table.”

[AP]

TIME

The Most Powerful Protest Photos of 2014

There wasn't a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson to the student camps of Hong Kong

In 2011, TIME named the Protester as the Person of the Year, in recognition of the twin people-power earthquakes of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. TIME named the Ebola Fighters as the 2014 Person of the Year, but you could have forgiven if we went back to the Protester. There wasn’t a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the squares of Mexico City, to the impromptu student camps of Hong Kong. Many of the protests were remarkably peaceful, like Occupy Hong Kong, which was galvanized by public anger over the overreaction of the city’s police. Others turned bloody, like the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, which eventually brought down the government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in turn triggering a war that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in May and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians.

Not every protest was as effective as those that began the year in the cold of Kiev. Hong Kongers still don’t have full democratic rights, gay rights are on the retreat in much of east Africa and every day seems to bring news of another questionable police killing in the U.S. But the wave of social action that ended 2014 is unlikely to crest in 2015. The ubiquity of camera phones means no shortage of iconic photographs and videos from any protest, whether in Lima or Los Angeles, and social media gives everyone the means to broadcast. What follows are some of the most powerful images from the global streets in 2014.

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Dec. 5 – Dec. 12

From the ongoing protests against police brutality in the U.S. and the dismantling of the main pro-democracy protest camp in Hong Kong to the British royal couple’s first New York visit and Malala Yousafzai receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Israel

This New Political Partnership Could Shake Up Israel’s Election

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Israeli army's training base complex near the southern city of Beersheba
Baz Ratner—Reuters Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Israeli army's training base complex near the southern city of Beershebaon Dec. 10, 2014.

The centrist Hatnuah party's alliance with the Labor Party could be a serious rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party in next year's elections

Israel’s former justice minister is expected to join her centrist party with the country’s center-left opposition, in a move that could significantly raise the stakes in the upcoming March election.

Tzipi Livni, who heads the centrist Hatnuah party, was expected to announce a unity deal with the Labor Party in a press conference Wednesday, Reuters reports.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Livni from his cabinet last week amid growing rifts in his coalition and called for early general elections in a bid to renew his mandate in office. Polls have found his center-right Likud party likely to come away with the most votes in the general election set for March 17.

But an alliance between Livni’s Hatnuah party and the larger Labor Party, headed by opposition leader Isaac Herzog, could reshape the electoral outlook. Recent polls suggest that the centrist alliance could take more parliamentary seats than Likud.

Still, Netanyahu could remain prime minister by forming a coalition with right-leaning parties in parliament. His party was expected to decide Wednesday whether to approve Netanyahu’s proposal to move primary elections to Dec. 31 from Jan.6, a move that has drawn criticism from some party members who say it puts other candidates for party leadership — such as former minister Gideon Sa’ar—at a disadvantage.

[Reuters]

TIME Ireland

The Irish Parliament Looks Set to Recognize a Palestinian State

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John Harper—Getty Images Irish Parliament in Dublin

Ireland would be joining the U.K., France, Spain and other countries in extending symbolic recognition

The Irish government accepted a motion Tuesday calling for the symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood “on the basis of the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, as established in U.N. resolutions.”

On Wednesday, members of the lower house of the Oireachtas, or Irish Parliament, will continue debating the nonbinding bill, which is being put forward by the opposition, Reuters reports. A government spokesman said it would not oppose the motion.

“Recognizing the independent state of Palestine would be a symbolically important expression of Ireland’s support for the people of Palestine’s right to self determination,” said member of Parliament Dominic Hannigan, according to the Irish Examiner.

The Irish upper house passed a similar resolution in October.

Spain, the U.K. and France, have also passed symbolic votes of recognition, however some European countries have gone a step further and officially recognize a Palestinian state, with Sweden recently becoming the largest European nation to do so.

TIME Republican

Republican Party Leaders Offered Free Trip to Israel Next Year

Reince Priebus
Steven Senne—AP Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus addresses an audience at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Boston.

Several potential Republican Presidential candidates have already taken advantage of the trips

Members of the Republican National Committee will be treated early next year to a weeklong all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, according to an email from chairman Reince Priebus obtained by TIME.

The 168 members of the committee, three from each state, district, and territory, have been invited to visit the country from Jan. 31–Feb.8, 2015, paid for by conservative political operative David Lane’s American Renewal Project and the American Family Association. The meeting follows January’s winter meeting of the party committee in Coronado, Calif., where Priebus is set to be resoundingly re-elected to his post.

According to Priebus’ email, the trip is not an RNC event, but is reserved exclusively and is being coordinated by the RNC for members and their guests.

An RNC spokesperson said the trip was not officially a committee trip, but is a “spiritual, historic journey through Israel” organized by the groups in concert with RNC faith director Chad Connelly. According to the official, who declined to be named, about 60 members RSVPd to attend, or 36% of the full committee.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a likely Republican presidential candidate, joined Lane on a trip to Israel in 2013. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is considering a second presidential campaign in 2016, joined Lane with other Christian pastors on a tour of Poland and England this year, retracing the steps of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another possible 2016 Republican candidate, has also visited Israel with Lane.

The American Renewal Project, a conservative non-profit focused on getting Christians more involved in American politics, has recently been working to recruit 1,000 pastors to run for public office in 2016,

Here is a look at the full invitation, which was sent out on Nov. 21.

Dear RNC Members,

As previously announced, the RNC Members have been invited in their personal capacity, to participate on a trip to Israel in early 2015. This incredible opportunity is made possible through the generosity of David Lane’s American Renewal Project and the American Family Association. The trip to Israel will take place January 31 – February 8, 2015.

For RNC Members, the trip includes economy class roundtrip airfare from JFK International Airport to Israel, all meals, accommodations (based on double occupancy per room), tours, and admissions to museums and historic sites. RNC members are permitted to bring their spouse or a guest; however the spouse/guest will have to pay their way entirely including all airfare, hotels and meals. The approximate cost for the guest will be worked out once the agenda is finalized. RNC Members (and guests) will be responsible for their flight from their home airport to New York. The group will travel together from New York to Israel. Upgrades for the flight and single hotel room assignments are available for additional costs.

If you are interested in participating in the trip to Israel, please RSVP to Katie Hrkman in Member Services at ————- by Friday, November 28th.

Once we receive notice from all interested Members, we will notify those who have been selected so that travel arrangements and other details can be arranged.

Please note that although this is a trip for RNC Members and guests, this trip is not an RNC event.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Member Services at ————–.

Reince

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