News (4 June 2008)

Diplomats: 3 suspect Syrian nuke sites off limits
By GEORGE JAHN – AP

VIENNA, Austria (AP) — Syria has told fellow Arab countries that it will not permit an International Atomic Energy Agency probe to extend beyond a site bombed by Israel, despite agency interest in three other suspect locations, diplomats told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The agency's main focus during its planned June 22-24 visit to Syria is a building in the country's remote eastern desert that was destroyed by Israeli jets in September.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei announced Monday that Damascus has agreed to an agency check of U.S. assertions that target was a plutonium-producing reactor that was near completion, and thus at the stage where it could generate the fissile material for nuclear arms.

The U.N. agency is also interested in following up on information that Syria may have three other undeclared atomic facilities. Diplomats and a nuclear expert told the AP on Monday that at least one of the sites may have equipment that can reprocess nuclear material into the fissile core of warheads….

The diplomats said Syrian atomic energy chief Ibrahim Othman told the Arab delegates his country could not open secret military sites to outside perusal as long as Syria and Israel remained technically in a state of war….

Olmert Tells AIPAC Peace With Syria Could Transform Middle East
2008-06-03 20:59 (New York)
By Jonathan Ferziger

June 3 (Bloomberg) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told American Jewish leaders he hopes renewed contacts with Syria will lead to peace talks that could transform the Middle East.

Olmert spoke late today at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, a pro-Israel lobby. He said he expects to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians this year and called for tougher international sanctions against Iran to stop its development of nuclear weapons.

Economist Intelligence Unit
03 Jun 2008 (T13:20)  COUNTRY VIEW
OUTLOOK FOR 2008-09

  * The  president, Bashar al-Assad, is expected to remain in power in 2008-09. He will continue to rely on the strength and loyalty of the security services, which will keep opposition forces weak and ineffective.
  * The  start  of  talks with Israel and a reduction, at least temporarily, in tensions in Lebanon may give Mr. Assad  the  opportunity  to  reduce  Syria's  political  isolation, but he is unlikely to end its strategic alliance with Iran.
  * Economic  policy  in  2008  will be dominated by conflicting views on how to respond to high global oil and commodity prices in the context of a growing fiscal deficit.
  * Syrian  oil  output  will  fall  over  the  outlook period, which will reduce export volumes and government spending and thereby curb economic growth.
  * The  Syrian  pound  is  forecast  to  appreciate against the US dollar this year (largely because of dollar weakness),  but  to  depreciate  in  2009,  as  the Central Bank of Syria responds to concerns about export competitiveness.
  * The  current-account  surplus is expected to remain large in 2008, at around 2.6% of GDP (US$1.4bn), before narrowing in 2009 to 1.8% owing to falling oil export volumes.

DOMESTIC  POLITICS:  There  is  little  prospect  of  any  serious  challenge  to the president in 2008-09, and substantive  political  reforms are unlikely. Mr Assad's control of the country is supported by key elements in the  security  services  and by the ruling Baath party. The core of the elite is drawn from Mr Assad's minority Alawi  sect,  and is acutely conscious that to move against him would risk endangering the Alawi hold on power.

Since  assuming  power following  the  death  of  his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, Mr Assad has stepped up repression  of local opposition groups and activists, and has appointed his own close allies to key posts. This has increased his control, albeit at the cost of narrowing his power base.

INTERNATIONAL  RELATIONS:  The agreement among Lebanese factions to appoint a president and the announcement of indirect  Syrian-Israeli  talks  in  Istanbul,  Turkey,  offer  some  opportunity to address Syria's continuing international  and  regional  isolation. Nonetheless, Mr Assad's sporadic efforts to improve Syria's diplomatic links–particularly with the regional heavyweights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia–are likely to face ongoing problems over his stance on Lebanon, long seen by Syria as within its sphere of influence, and the UN investigation into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. The regional isolation was demonstrated clearly  in  March 2008 when half of the heads of state invited to the first ever Arab League summit to be held in the Syrian capital, Damascus, did not attend.

POLICY TRENDS: An economic debate continues between the government's more fiscally prudent elements, led by the deputy  prime  minister  for economic affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari, and those factions that are concerned about the  impact of rising prices on disposable incomes. Reductions in fuel subsidies, implemented in early May 2008 have not resolved this debate, because increased world oil prices and a 25% rise in public-sector salaries have
offset  the fiscal benefits. Furthermore, the proposed introduction of a value-added tax has been delayed until 2009. In 2009 the policy debate will turn to the need to diversify the economy and encourage investment.

INTERNATIONAL ASSUMPTIONS: World GDP growth is expected to average 3.7% in 2008-09 (at purchasing power parity exchange rates), down from an estimated 4.8% in 2007, largely as a result of a sharp slowdown in the US economy in 2008. The Economist Intelligence Unit has substantially revised its oil price projections, as buoyant demand in  emerging  markets  will  offset  the  projected slowdown in the OECD. We now forecast that the price of the
   benchmark  dated  Brent  Blend will average around US$106.5/barrel over the outlook period. We have also raised our  forecasts for food prices in 2008 and are expecting an increase of 40%, although prices will ease slightly in 2009.

ECONOMIC GROWTH:  Although  Syria maintains that growth in 2007 was 6.5%, we have revised our estimate down to 4.3%  because  investment  growth  and  exports  were not as strong as previously thought; the IMF is even more downbeat,  estimating  3.9%. We expect the Syrian economy to slow further to an annual average of 3.9% over the outlook  period,  largely  owing  to  falling  oil  output.  The agricultural sector is also expected to remain depressed  this year, after another poor harvest. These negative trends will be only partly offset by continued expansion in the services sector, boosted by solid growth in tourism and demand for goods and services, in part from the large Iraqi refugee population.

INFLATION: We expect inflation to continue to rise in 2008–to an average of around 16.8%–owing to significant reductions  in  fuel  subsidies  in  March  and  May and to a 25% increase in government salaries and pensions. However,  it  is  possible that the shock caused by these sudden changes could drive inflation even higher than our  current  forecast.  In  2009  flat oil prices and a slight easing in non-oil commodity prices will help to bring  down  inflation,  to  around 10.2%, and any significant return of Iraqi nationals to Iraq could lower it even further by reducing demand pressures. Although official full-year inflation data are not yet available for 2007,  an  annual average of at least 12.2% (up from 10% in 2006) seems plausible based on current information.

The  official  consumer  price index (CPI) is only currently available for the first three quarters of 2007 and apparently  shows  flat  prices  over  that  period.  However, this does not seem to mesh with regional trends, anecdotal  reports  of  price  increases  and some recent statements by Syrian officials (for example that food price  inflation in 2007 was 26%). This is why our estimate for inflation in 2007 is likely to diverge from the official data, unless they show a dramatic increase in CPI for the final quarter of 2007.

EXCHANGE  RATES: A new exchange-rate regime–a peg to a basket of currencies based on the IMF's special drawing rights–has  been  in  place  since  October  2007, resulting in a marked appreciation of the pound against the dollar.  Despite  the  change,  however,  the  authorities  are expected to keep close control of the currency, placing  a  high  priority  on  exchange-rate stability. The dominant position of the state-owned banks and the Central  Bank's control over foreign-currency transactions (even as some laws are relaxed) mean that the regime is  well  placed  to  protect  the  value of the pound. As a result, we forecast that the pound will appreciate further  against  the  weak  dollar  in 2008. Next year, by contrast, we expect a modest depreciation, owing to concerns about the competitiveness of Syria's non-oil exports (and some strengthening of the dollar against the
euro).

EXTERNAL  SECTOR: We expect Syria's merchandise export earnings to rise in 2008, owing to the sharp increase in average  oil  prices, which will offset the negative impact of falling oil production and reduced wheat exports owing  to  a  poor  harvest.  Non-oil  exports  are  continuing  to benefit from strong regional demand and the relaxation  of  foreign-exchange  controls,  which  has  led  to more exports being officially recorded. Import spending  growth  will  remain  strong over the outlook period, partly because of the ongoing process of tariff liberalisation,  but  also because of healthy demand for capital goods related to some large infrastructure and construction  projects.  As  a result, the trade account surplus will narrow over the outlook period from about US$1bn (2% of GDP) in 2008 to US$0.7bn next year.
   -0- Jun/03/2008 21:17 GMT

Youth held for past year because of comments posted online 
Reporters without Borders

Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the detention of Kareem Arbaji, a young business consultant, for the past 12 months because of comments he posted on the online discussion forum Akhawia (www.akhawia.net/). The arrest of Arabji, who is due to appear in court on 8 June, has only now been drawn to the organisation's attention.

"Arbaji's arrest means that a total of three cyber-dissidents are being held in Syria," Reporters Without Borders said. "His detention for the past year is further evidence of the government's systematic repression of online freedom. He was arrested on 7 June 2007, but that was not the first time he was summoned for questioning about his online activities. We call on the authorities to stop hounding Internet users."

Aged 31 and a graduate in accountancy from Damascus University, he was managing a business consultancy when he was arrested in the utmost secrecy on 7 June 2007. He is currently being held in a military prison in Saydnaya, north of the capital.

During a hearing on 20 March, he was charged with spreading false information under article 286 of the criminal code, which punishes "any person who disseminates information considered false or exaggerated and which is liable to undermine national morale."

Two other cyber-dissidents are currently being held in Syria on the same charge. They are writer and poet Firas Saad, who was arrested in November 2006 for criticising the government on the website Al Hiwar Al Moutamaden, which means "Modern Discussion," and blogger Tariq Biassi, 22, who was arrested in July 2007 because of an online comment very critical of the government.

Participants in the Akhawia (www.akhawia.net/) discussion forum often criticise the authorities. The government systematically filters opposition websites and Akhawia is on its blacklist. Another 100 websites were blocked in December 2007. Under regulations that took effect in July 2007, website owners are required to keep the personal data of everyone who posts articles and comments on their sites.

Landis comment: The Lebanese are kissing and making up. As Qifa Nabki observed, It is not surprising that Junblat is first off the block in the reconciliation department. I was told by good Syrian sources that Amal fighters were prepared to wipe out Junblat's military base in a march on the Jabal to set the ground for an Arslan take over of the Druze Mountain had not Junblat head them off at the pass by declaring defeat and pleading for mercy for his people the day after Hizbullah took West Beirut.

Lebanese Shiites don't want Iranian-style regime – Qabalan 
Daily Star, 3 June 2008

The vice president of the Higher Shiite Council, Sheikh Abdel- Amir Qabalan, said on Monday that Lebanese Shiites were not in favor of Iran-style "rule of the jurisprudent."

"Shiites don't want to change the regime in Lebanon, and we also don't favor a rule of the jurisprudent in Lebanon," Qabalan said. "We hide nothing from the Lebanese, we love Iran, but the rule of the jurisprudent cannot be applied in Lebanon."

Meanwhile, Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani called for a "new start" in Lebanon, which can be achieved by "erasing the painful scars and failures of the past"

Amal, PSP ink joint statement calling for reconciliation
By Anthony Elghossain (Thanks QN)
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Amal, PSP ink joint statement calling for reconciliation

BEIRUT: Officials from the Amal movement and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) met Tuesday in Parliament and issued a joint statement calling for broader reconciliation in Lebanon.  Alongside other party officials, Amal MPs Ali Hassan Khalil and Ali Bazzi and PSP MPs Akram Chehayeb and Wael Abu Faour attended the meeting, which concluded with the declaration of a four-point statement.

Israel Court Condemns Student Ban
BBC, June 3, 2008 

The Israeli Supreme Court has called on the government to reconsider its almost total ban on Palestinian students leaving the Gaza Strip to study abroad.

En Syrie, Bachar el-Assad redistribue le pouvoir
Georges Malbrunot
03/06/2008 | Mise à jour : 21:43 |Le Figaro

En écartant son beau-frère, le général Assef Shawkat, l'homme fort de Damas envoie un signal à la communauté internationale.

Dans la plus grande discrétion, le pouvoir vient d'être redistribué entre les membres du directoire familial qui gouverne la Syrie d'une main de fer. La principale victime de ce jeu de chaises musicales est le beau-frère du président Bachar el-Assad, le tout puissant Assef Shawkat, patron des Renseignements militaires, qui est soupçonné par la communauté internationale d'avoir trempé dans l'assassinat de l'ancien premier ministre libanais, Rafic ­Hariri, en 2005.

«Assef a été mis en quaran­taine près de Lattaquieh», révèle un connaisseur du système syrien. Celui qui avec l'aval de Bachar , avait placé ses hommes à la tête des autres services de sécurité «paie pour deux échecs». Le premier concerne le bombardement israélien du site nucléaire syrien, le 6 septembre, près de Deir Ez-Zor (Nord-Est), rendu possible grâce à des photographies, prises au sol, par des Kurdes, qui auraient travaillé pour le Mossad israélien. «Des gens se sont approchés du site, poursuit l'expert, or c'est le service de Shawkat qui était responsable de sa protection». Première conséquence de cette faille, le poids des Renseignements militaires dans l'appareil sécuritaire a décliné au profit des Renseignements généraux du général Ali Mamlouk : «Ce sont des gens plus présentables, pour avoir commis moins de basses œuvres hors de la Syrie», ajoute la source. Le président syrien a également décidé d'«encadrer» son beau-frère en le flanquant d'un numéro 2, Ali Younès, qui lui rend compte directement…..

Syrians like the candidate’s approach to diplomacy.
3 June 2008, City Journal
Bashar feared another civil war in Lebanon
By Abdul Hamid Ahmad, Editor in Chief
Published: June 02, 2008, Gulf News
Opening an embassy needs good relations between the two countries and we were forced to put off this step as relations with Lebanon deteriorated in the past few years, says Bashar Al Assad, Syrian President…..

Comments (33)


1. MSK said:

Dear Josh,

You said:

“I was told by good Syrian sources that Amal fighters were prepared to wipe out Junblat’s military base in a march on the Jabal to set the ground for an Arslan take over of the Druze Mountain had not Junblat head them off at the pass by declaring defeat and pleading for mercy for his people the day after Hizbullah took West Beirut.”

Funny, I have it from good Lebanese and int’l journalists in Lebanon sources that the exact opposite was the case, that the Druze (pro-Junblat, regular “I’m defending my house/village” Druze, and even a few of Arslan’s men who turned against their M8 allies) put up a very stiff resistance. After all, Hizbullah lost 16 of its fighters in the Shuf (the total number of dead during all clashes was around 70, half of them innocent bystanders, so you do the math …).

And, wouldn’t Syrian sources like to see it the way they portrayed it to you?

–MSK*

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June 4th, 2008, 7:09 am

 

2. Alex said:

MSK, Joshua

I was told by good Indian sources that it was not decisive either way.

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June 4th, 2008, 7:27 am

 

3. Qifa Nabki said:

So what’s up with Assef Shawkat.

A few months ago, al-Siyasa was reporting that he was under house arrest, and everyone on SC was dismissing it as neo-con propoganda.

Now Le Figaro is confirming that he has in fact been quarantined, under the pretext of his failure to prevent the Mughniyyeh assassination and the Israeli attack on the supposed nuclear plant”.

So what gives?

Alex, I remember that you were particularly skeptical of this story. What do you think now?

If it’s true, sounds to me like Bashar’s preparing his brother-in-law to take a dive for the Hariri assassination.

But is it?

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June 4th, 2008, 12:14 pm

 

4. norman said:

Print | Close this window

U.S. tells Syria not to restrict U.N. nuclear probe
Wed Jun 4, 2008 8:04am EDT
By Mark Heinrich

VIENNA (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday demanded Syria give free rein to U.N. nuclear investigators after diplomats said Damascus would bar access to some sites Washington believes are linked to a secret atomic reactor.

The United States says Syria was close to completing a reactor with North Korean help that could have yielded plutonium for nuclear arms before it was bombed by Israel last September.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog began an inquiry after receiving U.S. intelligence documentation in April.

International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei said on Monday that Syria, which had not responded to IAEA requests for explanations since the bombing, would allow in United Nations inspectors on June 22-24 to pursue the inquiry.

Informed diplomats said Syria would let inspectors examine the al-Kibar site in its northeast desert, but not go to three other locations believed to house facilities or equipment for producing plutonium from fuel from the reactor.

That prompted Gregory Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, to demand that Syria not hinder agency investigators in any way.

“The United States welcomes the announcement that the IAEA will visit Syria and stands ready to support a rigorous IAEA investigation into Syria’s clandestine nuclear activities,” Schulte said in a statement sent to Reuters.

“It is imperative that Syria fully cooperate with the IAEA and in no way hinder the investigation either by further delaying an inspection or by refusing the IAEA unfettered access to any site requested by the IAEA,” he said.

Syria, which has said the bombed site was a disused military building and that it has no clandestine nuclear program, has not confirmed publicly the IAEA visit.

RESTRICTED VISIT

But a senior Syrian official told an Arab League meeting outside an IAEA governors’ conference in Vienna on Tuesday that the IAEA trip would go ahead and inspectors would get access to the al-Kibar site, diplomats in the meeting said.

Syrian Atomic Energy Agency chief Ibrahim Othman told them, however, that Damascus would not permit checks of other sites Washington had urged inspectors to examine as possible places for processing nuclear material, diplomats said.

They said the position of Syria, which is in a state of war with Israel, was that the other sites were off-limits military installations essential to national security and irrelevant to the IAEA because they had no nuclear connection.

Syria was granting inspectors access to al-Kibar as a one-off gesture to dispel international doubts and it expected the IAEA to close the file after the June mission, they said.

“There is concern Syria will not let inspectors move around freely or gather samples of whatever is relevant for their inquiry. The IAEA will clearly need more than one visit to approach any conclusions,” said a senior non-Arab diplomat attending the 35-nation IAEA governors meeting.

Some nuclear analysts, citing satellite photos, say Syria bulldozed and swept clean the al-Kibar zone after the bombing and erected a new building over it, possibly to erase evidence.

Washington produced for reporters in April before-and-after aerial photographs of the alleged reactor as well as detailed interior images of what it said were important components.

Syria has one old research reactor under IAEA monitoring.

President Bashar Assad said earlier this week Syria was not seeking nuclear firepower but wanted access to peaceful atomic energy through a collective Arab project recently announced.

Syria is a close ally of Iran, whose secretive uranium enrichment program has been under IAEA investigation since 2003 due to Western suspicions of a covert drive for atom bombs.

Iran says it wants only nuclear-generated electricity but restrictions imposed on IAEA inspections mean the agency has been unable to verify Tehran’s program is wholly peaceful.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

© Thomson Reuters 2008. All rights reserved. Users may download and print extracts of content from this website for their own personal and non-commercial use only. Republication or redistribution of Thomson Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters and its logo are registered trademarks or trademarks of the Thomson Reuters group of companies around the world. Thomson Reuters journalists are subject to an Editorial Handbook which requires fair presentation and disclosure of relevant interests.

Reuters journalists are subject to the Reuters Editorial Handbook which requires fair presentation and disclosure of relevant interests.

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June 4th, 2008, 1:06 pm

 

5. norman said:

Iran, Mideast peace on Bush-Olmert agenda
By MATTI FRIEDMAN 06.04.08, 6:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON – Israel’s fears that Iran could obtain nuclear weapons and the Israeli government’s attempts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and Syria are top agenda items when Israel’s beleaguered prime minister, Ehud Olmert, meets President Bush.

The most pressing issue for Wednesday’s talks, however, might not even be openly discussed: Olmert’s deteriorating political situation back home, where his popularity has nosedived because of a new corruption scandal and where the end of his term is largely seen as just a matter of time.

Those developments are jeopardizing Bush’s already ambitious timetable for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by year’s end and are making it unlikely that Bush or Olmert will be able to shepherd the process to completion.

For Olmert, a friendly meeting with a stalwart ally like Bush is a marked change from what he left behind in Israel, where his political allies are conspicuously refusing to come to his defense and jostling for his job.

Topping the list of discussion points at the Bush-Olmert meeting is Iran, a prime concern for both countries, though each has a different intelligence assessment on the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Israel believes that Iran has not suspended its nuclear weapons program, despite a report to the contrary by U.S. intelligence.

“I think they both made their points very clear, and Israel has made it clear that they think … that intelligence is wrong, and that Iran is still pursuing a nuclear weapon,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said ahead of the meeting.

Israeli newspapers also have reported that Olmert hopes to acquire a sophisticated U.S. missile defense system, advanced radar and new warplanes.

In an indication of what Olmert is likely to tell Bush, the Israeli prime minister told thousands of Israel supporters at the annual convention of the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the Iranian threat “must be stopped by all possible means.”

Olmert said international sanctions aimed at stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons must be ratcheted up urgently, and he suggested measures like banning Iranian businessmen and financial transactions and imposing sanctions on Iran’s crucial import of gasoline.

Olmert said the world should see that “the long-term cost of a nuclear Iran greatly outweighs the short-term benefits of doing business with Iran.”

But sanctions are “only an initial step,” and Iran’s flouting of the international measures so far “leave no doubt as to the urgent need for more drastic and robust measures,” Olmert said.

He is also expected discuss with Bush Israel’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria, according to Olmert spokesman Mark Regev.

Israel renewed peace talks with Syria last month without the involvement of the U.S., which has tried to isolate the Syrian regime. Syria’s president said in interviews published Tuesday in the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. would have to become involved if the process is to succeed.

But while it is not a party to the Syria talks, the Bush administration has become deeply involved in Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations. Bush set the target for a peace agreement at the end of the year, saying Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are the right people to lead a historic compromise.

But the Bush administration now seems aware that Olmert could be on his way out. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process “is bigger than any one person, and that we’re going to continue to work on it, despite what may or may not be happening in Israeli political circles,” Perino said.

Speaking to the AIPAC lobby’s annual conference, Olmert made only one oblique reference to his domestic woes, mentioning that he briefly considered calling off his visit to the U.S. because of “the recent political developments in Israel of which you are aware.”

Olmert was addressing the group of powerful American Israel supporters just as his relationship with one such supporter threatens to ignominiously end his term in office. The testimony of New York businessman Morris Talansky, who claims to have given Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash over a decade and a half, in part to fund a lavish lifestyle, has thrown Israel’s political system into turmoil.

Olmert’s key coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, now says he’ll topple the government if Olmert doesn’t step aside. And Olmert’s rivals in his Kadima Party, including his popular deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are jostling for position and gearing up for party primaries.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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June 4th, 2008, 1:18 pm

 

6. Naji said:

Obama is addressing AIPAC right now…! These guys don’t waste any time…! His speech is carried live on CNN and Al Jazeera… So far he is making Bush sound like a moderate dove…!

Hillary will also speak…

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June 4th, 2008, 2:27 pm

 

7. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Wow! What a speech Obama gave AIPAC. Frankly, now I don’t care if McCain or Obama are elected.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:01 pm

 

8. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

A direct Obama quote:
“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Everything.”

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June 4th, 2008, 3:11 pm

 

9. Alex_NO said:

I thought this was more interesting than Obama’s speech, which was after all predictable: he can’t say anything else, and doesn’t necessarily speak of a post-election policy.

I didn’t know about Syria’s world record:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7435424.stm

Size is all for Syrian restaurant
Damascus Gate restaurant (courtesy of Damascus Gate website)
The scale and decor are reminiscent of a Hollywood epic film set

Syria may already boast some of the world’s best food, but now it can also claim the world’s largest restaurant.

The 6,012-seat Damascus Gate has taken the accolade from a Bangkok eatery serving a mere 5,000 diners.

The crucial test for Guinness World Record officials is all the tables are properly catered for, and they likened the Syrian kitchen to a “mini-factory”.

One item not on the menu is a draft of the famous black Irish brew, however. The restaurant does not serve alcohol.

Located in a Damascus suburb, the restaurant, known as Bawabet Dimashq in Arabic, has been operating since 2002.

It has a huge open air area complete with pools, fountains and replicas of archaeological ruins for the summer, and separate themed areas for Chinese and Indian cuisine.

During the busy summer months up to 1,800 staff are employed in the 54,000 sq-m dining area and 2,500 sq-m kitchen.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:11 pm

 

10. Alex said:

And I don’t have any problem with (almost) anything Obama said at the AIPAC speech… especially his statement that a major goal of his was to “free ourselves from the tyranny of oil, the petro dollars that pay for weapons that kill American troops and Israeli citizens.”

But I think that a clarifications on his support for an undivided Jerusalem as capital of Israel is needed.

He knows that Palestinians would not sign on anything that does not includes parts of East Jerusalem that they will expand to the east and call it their capital

So, it depends on how he defines “undivided”. This “undivided Jerusalem” was an AIPAC demand that many American politicians supported but with some modifications.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:13 pm

 

11. Alex_NO said:

“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Well, you know, AIG, this corresponds to the truth. The Iranians say, and all the evidence so far available accords, that they are not seeking a nuclear weapon. So Obama can freely say that.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:16 pm

 

12. MSK said:

Ya Alex,

His people could be sly and think of it the way the Geneva Initiative thinks of J’lem: a jointly administered capital of both Israel & Palestine. That way it’s not “undivided” AND the Palestinians, de facto, get East J’lem.

In the end, every US president will agree to what Israelis & Palestinians agree on.

–MSK*

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June 4th, 2008, 3:19 pm

 

13. norman said:

AIG,

Iran said that it does not want nuclear weapons , so if Iran can have nuclear energy and know how without weapons , everybody should be happy , And Obama will look like a winner.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:21 pm

 

14. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Alex_No,

Sure, Obama was fooling AIPAC and he really believes the Iranians.

As for the undivided Jerusalem, he will be held to his word.

Obama said the Republican Guard is a terrorist organization. Your spin on that?

How about Obama not agreeing to negotiate with Hamas, what is your spin on that?

Your hope for change in the middle east based on the US and Israel changing is delusional. Change will come only when the Arabs change.

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June 4th, 2008, 3:25 pm

 

15. Murphy said:

“t a major goal of his was to “free ourselves from the tyranny of oil, the petro dollars that pay for weapons that kill American troops and Israeli citizens.””

It’s sad – if not at all surprising – that a member of an oft-oppressed minority would stoop to crude racism in order to pander to a foreign interest group.

Firstly, only about 20% (don’t quote me on that) of US oil imports come from Arab states. Secondly, ‘tyranny’ of oil? Huh? Americans really don’t want to drive their SUV to the McDonalds drive-in, but the Aye-rab ‘tyrants’ force them to do so? Thirdly, “petro-dollars” are ‘killing American troops and Israeli citizens”??? Gimme a break. The wealthiest oil states pay big bucks for their weapons which come from…. AMERICA and other Western nations. And most of them leave said weapons to rot in the desert rather than offend the US by actually using them.

Obama: servility you can believe it.

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June 4th, 2008, 4:03 pm

 

16. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Murphy,
He was of ocurse referring to the Iranian petro dollars which are indeed being used to kill Americans and Israelis.

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June 4th, 2008, 4:09 pm

 

17. Murphy said:

“He was of ocurse referring to the Iranian petro dollars which are indeed being used to kill Americans and Israelis.”

In which case it’s very odd that Obama didn’t say so explicitally – particularly since it’s abundantly clear that he fully understands that demonising Iran is now an essential part of the US presidential candidate’s game of Prostration for Zion.

Odder still when one remembers that, of course, precisely 0% of US oil comes from Iran, given the total economic sanctions placed on Iran by the US for over two decades now. Odder yet, when it’s recalled that Iran does not earn ‘petro dollars’, but, sensibly enough ‘petro euros’.

No, it’s perfectly obvious that Obama was indulging in some pretty nasty anti-Arab sentiment here, knowing full well how certain that is to be a hit with the AIPAC crowd.

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June 4th, 2008, 4:30 pm

 

18. norman said:

Alex,

Did some of the posts go down ?.

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June 4th, 2008, 4:35 pm

 

19. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

No he was referring to Iranian money. It does not matter that the US does not buy oil from Iran. What matters is that the US consumes a lot of oil allowing Iran to get more money for its oil on the world market.

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June 4th, 2008, 4:58 pm

 

20. Murphy said:

“No he was referring to Iranian money.”

You haven ‘t provided a single piece of evidence to support this claim. Apart from the points I’ve already mentioned, it’s most bizarre that in a speech where Obama mentioned Iran by name several times, yet he neglected to do so here.

“What matters is that the US consumes a lot of oil allowing Iran to get more money for its oil on the world market.”

Again, if this is what Obama believed, why didn’t he come out and say so? He knows perfectly well that mentioning Iran as many times as possible will keep them AIPAC-dollars floating his way.

And btw did Mr. Change offer any concrete suggestions as to how poor Americans might free themselves from the awful tyranny of the Iranian oil they don’t buy? Or was he just hoping – undoubtedly correctly – that crude bandstanding would be more than enough for American Zionists?

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June 4th, 2008, 5:14 pm

 

21. Alex said:

Murphy,

It does not really matter … as long as it is generic talk.

I think that the relationship between the current administration on the one hand, and hte Saudis (petro dollars?) and the right wing Israelis on the other han, has been very unhealthy.

America will always have very good relations with both countries, but … Cheney’s way of tying America’s options to those of Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s was unprecedented (in a very negative way), and I think that if Obama will reduce both, he will be doing a good thing for his country, and for the Middle East.

Norman,

Something weird happened, yes… I don’t know yet what that was

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June 4th, 2008, 5:14 pm

 

22. Murphy said:

“It does not really matter … as long as it is generic talk.”

In policy terms, it matters little, I agree. But it does matter in the sense that a candidate who marketed himself on his ‘idealism’ and ‘thirst for change’ is not afraid to stoop to decades old anti-Arab rhetoric in the hope that a few agents of a foreign power might like him.

“if Obama will reduce both, he will be doing a good thing for his country, and for the Middle East.”

Firstly, I don’t buy into all that talk about how the Cheney-Bush administration was particularly friendly to the Saudis. The fact is, America needs KSA – not only because of that country’s own huge oil resources, but because a pro-US Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin of the whole American order in the ME. Were KSA to be ‘lost’ to American the way Iran was, the entire, very unpopular pro-US system in the region would crumble. Maintaining that relationship is more crucial now than ever, at a time when the political sands in the region are shifting, and America just doesn’t have the influence in the ME which it used to have. Even Clinton, for all her anti-Arab populism (witness her stance on the Dubai ports farce, and her comments a few weeks ago about how she would never ‘have tea with the Saudis) would have no choice but to stay on good terms with Riyadh.

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June 4th, 2008, 5:25 pm

 

23. Alex said:

Murphy,

I never had such high expectations from Obama… I liked him, and I am hoping that when the campaign against McCain is over, he will still be relatively better thatn Bush NAd Cheney. But I fully expected him to make many concessins to AIPAC during the campaign.

There is no option … if he did not, he would have ended up being portrayed as some kind of dangerous, or dangerously naive be;iever in the Good will of evil American enemies like Iran and Syria …

It is not smart for Obama to stick to his ideals when it comes to positions on the Middle East… He can deviate a bit … that’s all he can.

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June 4th, 2008, 6:02 pm

 

24. Murphy said:

“I never had such high expectations from Obama…”

Oh, me neither, and I don’t even like him, whatever ‘like’ means with a potential POTUS.

“It is not smart for Obama to stick to his ideals when it comes to positions on the Middle East… He can deviate a bit … that’s all he can.”

I’ve not seen the remotest evidence that Obama really has any ‘ideals’ when it comes to the ME, or anything else for that matter. And we’re not talking ‘deviation’ here – we’re talking about abject submission to the power of AIPAC – complete with threats to bomb nations that do not threaten the nation Obama hopes to be the elected leader of. And yes, you can of course make the argument that bending over for Zion is neccessary in a realpolitik sense. But that does not in any way, shape or form mean we should respect or make excuses for someone who does it.

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June 4th, 2008, 6:08 pm

 

25. Nur al-Cubicle said:

Only a matter of weeks before Obama is forced to don the yarmulke and be paraded in front of the Wailing Wall as part of the nominee consecration process.

Some observers believe that Bush will bomb Iran now that the Dem nomination is locked up with Obama the winner.

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June 4th, 2008, 6:35 pm

 

26. Naji said:

Azmi Bishara is on Al Jazeera for the hour, mostly on Lebanon. Very worthwhile… and, notably, a first prime-time serious discussion of Aoun and the Tayyar…!

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June 4th, 2008, 7:36 pm

 

27. Observer said:

Nur How would the nomination facilitate a bombing campaign?

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June 4th, 2008, 8:04 pm

 

28. ALEX_No said:

You guys, I do think one has to be realistic, sober and realistic, about Obama.

I have no doubt that among the three candidates, including the perhaps deceased candidature of H. Clinton, Obama is the best candidate for Syria.

I am far from an Obamaniac, and excuse me if I repeat the well-known. The factors are: 1. young age, and thus more adaptable to reality. 2. intelligence. 3. It is unlikely there will be any neo-cons in his administration (not true of Clinton, and certainly not of McCain).

What he said today before AIPAC was the speech of a candidate. He could not speak otherwise. Policy after election would be different, though I have no doubt there will be AIPAC pressures to carry out promises.

It would be unreasonable to suppose that, if he is elected, there will be vast and immediate policy changes. After all the US has her interests, and they carry on from one administration to another. On the other hand, one could imagine that the obvious extremist push for more war, typical of the Bush administration, will be cut back. Diplomacy will be given more importance. If policy change takes place, it will be slow and concealed.

Personally I think that, when the new administration, of whatever colour, gets into power, they will discover horrors, mainly in the finance, which will force them to cut back on the wars.

Obama is quite unrealistic when he says he wants to cut back on US troops in Iraq. Again the remarks of a candidate. There are only two options in Iraq: either maintain a full military occupation by force at the same level as today, or pull out. Iraqis will never accept a consensual occupation, as the present dispute over the SOFA agreement shows. “Pull-out”, if made by agreement, of course implies leaving a figleaf in place, in order to maintain US credibility, for a while at least.

It is this financial issue which is going to dominate the new administration. Can the military occupation of Iraq be maintained financially?

I would think Obama has the best chance of finding a solution for Iraq, though not the one he proposes now. However I recognise that it is normally militarist leader, like Nixon and Vietnam, who can resolve a problem.

Nur al-Cubicle is of course right that the crazies in the White House may well attack Iran before the end of Bush’s mandate. I have accepted an invitation to a conference in Tehran in December, so that I can see the mushroom clouds.

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June 4th, 2008, 8:19 pm

 

29. Observer said:

Obama has a huge problem and that is called the Democratic Establishment that will make sure that he will follow the broad lines of both parties that the country has followed since the Depression. These are

An economy tied to the military industrial complex
A foreign policy of total control of commodoties exchange
A financial policy that insures pre eminence of the dollar
Military bases at the chock points of every maritime and oil pipeline routes

His genuflexion in front of AIPAC is the first maturation from primary candidate to Party candidate.

That is called evolution into a politician.

If he does not conform and is elected, the Establishment will insure that he fails miserably within a first term and then they will come back and say: see, he has to be WASP to be successful.

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June 4th, 2008, 9:02 pm

 

30. Qifa Nabki said:

Wow, what a buzz kill. 😉

“YES… WE… CAN… ?”

Hmmm….

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June 4th, 2008, 9:13 pm

 

31. Murphy said:

“What he said today before AIPAC was the speech of a candidate. He could not speak otherwise. Policy after election would be different, though I have no doubt there will be AIPAC pressures to carry out promises.”

Ahhh…. if only that were true. With all due respect, Alex, I think you are being very naive here. Obama now needs to prostrate for AIPAC because he wants to be elected…. once he is elected he will need to prostrate for AIPAC in order to get a second term… once he’s got a second term he will need to prostrate for AIPAC in order to secure his lucrative post-politics after dinner speech career and so it goes on and on.

The fact is, Obama has shown what most of us already suspected: Like all major US politicians, he couldn’t give a damn for the Palestinians or Arabs in general. Of cours, truth be told, he probably couldn’t give a damn for the Israelis either, but realpolitik demands that he swear undying love – yes, love – for them and all that they do. No worse than other politicians, for sure, but no better either. If you expect him to show a more pro-Arab stance if and when he gets into power, I fear you are going to be sorely disappointed.

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June 5th, 2008, 7:20 am

 

32. dreamer said:

A draft analysis of the alleged Syrian reactor
shows crucial flaws:

http://www.free-cats.org/boe.html

A small sum of money is required to purchase
satellite images to prove the allegation
is false.

Thank you.

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June 11th, 2008, 4:14 am

 

33. dreamer said:

Please delete my previous comment!

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June 11th, 2008, 3:56 pm

 

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