JERUSALEM, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Israel was expecting a diplomatic tsunami to strike in September, but the problems have come sooner than expected, leaving it ever more isolated in the Middle East.
Egypt's decision on Saturday to recall its envoy from Israel will remove the last Arab ambassador from Tel Aviv, further undermining a relationship that had started to buckle following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Tensions flared after a cross-border attack earlier this week, with Cairo accusing Israeli forces of shooting dead three Egyptian security guards during gunbattles with Palestinian militants who had earlier ambushed and killed eight Israelis.
The row comes days after renewed verbal barbs between Israel and its one-time ally Turkey, which is still fuming over the deaths of nine Turks last year when Israeli commandos stormed a boat trying to break the blockade of Gaza.
Turkey is demanding an apology for the incident, something Israel is refusing to provide. Now Egypt wants to hear “sorry” too, but all it is getting so far are offers of “regret”.
“Egypt is trying to re-educate Israel and is following the same line as the Turkish foreign policy,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern studies in Tel Aviv.
Israel's international standing faces a fresh assault next month as Palestinian leaders from the West Bank seek full membership of the United Nations in a General Assembly vote that will expose decades of rancour.
“Israel needs to learn that it is facing a different Middle East,” Rabi told Reuters Television.
PRESERVING THE PACTS
Israel's 1979 peace deal with Egypt has been the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, providing much-needed stability to its southern flanks and enabling successive leaders to maintain the status quo in the unresolved Palestinian conflict.
Egypt's new military leaders are highly unlikely to tear up the Camp David accords, which brought Cairo enhanced security stability and also gave it access to generous Western funds.
But after an uprising among a populace that is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian, the military has already shown itself to be more open to the Islamist Hamas group that governs the Gaza enclave and more assertive when it comes to dealing with Israel.
“Israel must be aware that the days when it kills our children without getting a strong, appropriate response are gone for ever,” Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and ex-Arab League chief, said on his Twitter feed.
In the heady days following the Egyptian peace deal, which eventually opened the way for treaties with other Arab states such as Jordan and Morocco, many Israelis hoped that they would find partners to forge a reconstructed and secure Middle East.
Those dreams have long vanished and some analysts believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government have simply decided to by-pass the region and build alliances elsewhere.
“They don't expect peace with the Palestinians. They are giving up on the Middle East. They are focusing on eastern Europe,” said Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry.
“If you think like that then you can't expect good relations with your neighbours,” he told Reuters.
As ties with regional neighbours sour, relations with some of Israel's closest allies, including the United States, are not as rosy as they once were.
Western diplomats have pinned much of the blame for stalled Palestinian peace talks on Israel, with Washington and European capitals roundly condemning a spurt of recent approvals for settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
While the United States has said it will side with Israel in the impending showdown in the United Nations, a big majority of U.N. members are likely to back the Palestinians.
“The real wake-up call will come in September. The Palestinians are headed towards a diplomatic Intifada, not a military Intifada,” Liel said, seeing diplomacy rather than street violence as the main threat for Israel.
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JERUSALEM, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Israel was expecting a diplomatic tsunami to strike in September, but the problems have come sooner than expected, leaving it ever more isolated in the Middle East.
NEW DELHI, Aug 20, 2011 (AFP) - There is no small irony in the fact that India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, known for his probity and integrity, now finds himself fighting for political survival with an anti-corruption activist.
When the Congress party won elections in 2004, its decision to name Singh as premier was partly based on his unblemished record as the “Mr Clean” of Indian politics.
After a thumping re-election in 2009, Singh was more popular than ever and there was never any doubt that he would retain the post for another term.
But in the past year his reputation has taken a battering with a succession of high-profile, multi-billion-dollar corruption scams involving some top government officials.
More recently he has been locked in a damaging battle of wills with the hugely popular campaigner Anna Hazare, who has triggered a wave of public fury over corruption that has left Singh, 78, struggling to respond.
His administration has made some crucial blunders in handling the Hazare phenomenon, including arresting the 74-year-old in a bid to prevent a planned hunger strike aimed at forcing the government to draft stronger anti-graft laws.
“The PM's credibility was severely damaged by the decision to arrest, then release Hazare. He totally misread the public mood,” said Zoya Hassan, a professor of political science at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Tens of thousands of Indians took to the streets of cities across India to protest at Hazare's detention, forcing the government to back down, order his release and grant him the right to stage a 15-day public fast.
Singh then took his argument against Hazare to parliament, but his remarks that the activist's tactics were “totally misconceived” only served to stoke public anger and the widespread belief that the PM was out of touch.
The prime minister has repeatedly said his government is serious about fighting corruption, but analysts say he has done little to make good on his promises.
An editorial in the Hindustan Times newspaper warned Singh that “no one is willing to listen anymore... The clock is ticking and we can only hope it is not a doomsday one.”One of Singh's former ministers is on trial and another has resigned over a the tainted sale of telecom licences in 2008, which cost the exchequer up to $40 billion in lost revenues, according to the national auditor.
No-one has accused the prime minister of any personal impropriety, but he has been tainted by association and criticised for turning a blind eye to the actions of other members of his government who do not share his reputation for moral rectitude.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, a political analyst and columnist for the DNA newspaper said Singh “simply doesn't take corruption seriously enough”.
“He believes that the government has more important priorities to address like economic reforms and welfare programmes,” Rao told AFP.
An economist who studied at both Cambridge and Oxford, Singh served as India's finance minister in the 1990s and launched the financial and economic reforms that led to the country's emergence as the world's second-fastest-growing major economy.
Now, with inflation running dangerously high, discontent over corruption has shot up among India's growing urban middle class who have called for Singh to shed his quiet, soft-spoken ways and tackle graft aggressively.
“He has always maintained a low-key presence, which today makes him seem ineffective before a public which needs him to speak loudly in a time of confusion and crisis. He doesn't inspire their confidence,” said Rao.
A few months ago, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram acknowledged in an interview that the public wanted to hear more often from Singh.
“Lots of people would like the prime minister to step up to the plate, so as to say, and speak more often. But that is the style of the person,” Chidambaram told the NDTV channel.
In a sign of growing concern over Singh's ability to lead, a poll released earlier this month by a New Delhi-based research institute showed that Indians' top choice for prime minister was Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
Some 34% of the more than 20,000 people polled said Gandhi, 43, should replace Singh immediately as premier, compared to just 22% who wanted Singh to stay on.
The face-off with Hazare will have done nothing to reverse those numbers, but experts say the government is unlikely to want a leadership change before 2014, when national elections are slated to take place.
“The Congress would not want to expose Rahul Gandhi to criticism at a point when the government has its back to the wall. Even though Singh is losing ground, he will stay on,” Rao said.
WASHINGTON, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Now that he has called for Syria's leader to leave, U.S. President Barack Obama faces the daunting challenge of smoothing the way to a post-Assad era -- just as another Arab strongman looks increasingly beleaguered in Libya.
The twin crises appear to offer opportunities for U.S. foreign policy -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an ally of Iran, foe of Israel and sponsor of the armed militant group Hezbollah, while Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has vexed U.S.
officials for decades.
But they also bring grave risks at a time when Obama is focused on domestic affairs.
Between them, Assad and his late father have ruled Syria with iron fists for 41 years. U.S. and European officials privately concede that civil and political chaos in Syria might be the most likely result if Assad abruptly leaves power.
Syria's political opposition is even more disorganized and fragmented than Libyan rebels who now appear to be closing in on Gaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli.
After weeks of resisting, Obama, backed by the European Union, called on Thursday for Assad to go during the same week that Gaddafi's position in Libya appeared to erode, as rebels seized the key western city of Zawiyeh.
With a war-weary U.S. public and tight budgets, the White House has made clear it has no plans to put troops on the ground in Libya or Syria, either to topple their leaders or engage in “nation-building” should they depart.
“The same concerns that apparently constrained the administration from calling for Assad's ouster persist today: how do we force Assad out? Does the fall of the Alawite regime result in sectarian chaos? And what comes after this regime amid potential Islamist extremism?” said Juan Zarate, a White House counterterrorism adviser to former President George W.
Assad and much of his ruling circle are members of the minority Alawite sect, which makes up about 12% of Syria's population.
“The calculus to call for Assad's ouster has come too late, and it's now time to find ways with our partners to shape the coming days in Damascus,” Zarate said.
The Syrian opposition, which ranges from secular reformers to Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood, has made halting steps at unity.
On Friday, more than 40 “revolution blocs” announced they had forged a coalition to unite their efforts to overthrow Assad, according to news reports.
“The opposition, on its own and without international involvement, has made significant strides over the past several months to unify,” a senior U.S. official said this week.
“We can't predict how long this transition will take.
Nothing about it will be easy. But we're certain that Assad is on the way out,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
STRUGGLE MAY DRAG ON
Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin predicted the struggle in Syria would go on for some time “because of Bashar's limited incentive to cry 'uncle,'” but would result ultimately in Assad's demise.
That might be followed by a weak, Sunni-dominated government and McLaughlin said such an outcome would itself present many challenges.
He said it would “transform Syria into a political battleground between competing regional players, mainly Shiite Iran -- which will be losing its closest ally and the avenue through which it supplies its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon -- and Saudi Arabia, which will see an opportunity to checkmate Iran's regional influence by aiding Syria's Sunni majority.
“Just the usual simple Middle East equation -- actually what is already three-dimensional chess will become more like a mosh pit.” It is unclear how much planning the Obama administration
has done for a post-Assad Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met publicly for the first time this month with Syrian activists.
But in Libya, a rapid succession of rebel victories has accelerated Western postwar planning, even as officials discounted intelligence reports suggesting Gaddafi's departure was imminent.
The NATO alliance on Friday authorized formal planning for post-Gaddafi Libya. Next week, rebels of the Transitional National Council will meet in Dubai with officials from the United States, Britain, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and perhaps others, “all devoted to the day-after planning,” an Obama administration official told Reuters.
The working idea is that the UAE, Jordan and Qatar would put together “a bridging force” of 1,000 to 2,000 personnel to be deployed in Libya just after Gaddafi goes, the official said.
White House officials are concerned that unless transition plans are firmed up now, post-Gaddafi Libya may be chaotic and it may be impossible to fulfill the West's promise to protect Libya's population from a humanitarian crisis.
Some U.S. and European officials say that despite its better organization and purported recent advances, Libya's opposition movement is not ready to govern.
LONDON, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looks doomed, politically if not militarily, and the longer he clings to power by brute force the harder it will be to achieve an orderly transition and mend a ruined economy.
The 45-year-old leader has shown no sign he is willing to relinquish office. A military coup or a contest within elements of the army, security forces and the Baathist party elite could break the stalemate. Otherwise more bloodshed seems inevitable.
But opposition figures like Haitham Maleh, 80, voice confidence that a post-Assad Syria can move to democracy and avoid the chaos Iraq endured after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“We do not have any fear of the people being ready to take over,” Maleh, a veteran human rights lawyer, told Reuters.
“Syria is different from Iraq. Iraq was destroyed. In Syria there is a popular democratic revolt and people are meeting, forming activists groups and committees and preparing.”
For the past five months hundreds of thousands of Syrians have braved arrest, torture, bullets and even tank fire to demand his downfall. They have been unable to topple him.
Assad's military and security apparatus, dominated by his minority Alawite sect, has equally failed to suppress a popular uprising inspired by revolts sweeping much of the Arab world.
Damascus has blamed the insurrection on foreign-backed armed gangs and has played on the fears of some Alawites, Christians and secular-minded people among Syria's Sunni Muslim majority that Islamists might seize power if Assad's power crumbled -- although protesters have rarely raised Islamist slogans.
This week the United States and its European allies have joined demands for Assad to quit, ditching their previous calls for drastic reforms -- an implausible project that would have forced him to dismantle a security-based police state and dislodge his own clan from the centre of power and wealth.
Even Turkey, once an ally, and Saudi Arabia, bastion of Sunni Islam, have turned against Assad, without demanding his removal. Russia, with a naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast, says he should have more time to enact reforms.
Deepening international isolation might persuade some of the many Syrians who have sat on the fence during the turmoil that Assad's days in the presidential palace are numbered.
“It makes a difference for these people, not least some of the Alawite leaders, who have this conspiratorial mindset and think that if the Americans have made up their minds Assad must go, then he will go sooner or later, so it's better for them to leave the ship before it sinks,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Syria's opposition ranges from the Muslim Brotherhood to secular liberals, nationalists and Kurds as well as the mostly unknown local leaders and youthful activists who have driven the anti-Assad protests in towns and cities across the country.
They might applaud if, as in Egypt and Tunisia, army generals dismayed at having to turn their guns on their people, rather than outside enemies, told Assad it was time to go.
Some had hoped that former Defence Minister Ali Habib, an Alawite, would play that role. Assad removed him this month.
Whether he is deposed by the army or otherwise, the people waging a revolt which has cost up to 2,000 civilian lives and, the authorities say, those of 500 soldiers and police, will want a transition to civilian rule and a say in Syria's future.
In June, around 300 opposition figures, including some from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, gathered in Turkey to promote democratic change in Syria and elect a consultative council.
While acknowledging their differences, they agreed to work together, rejected foreign interference and stressed that the peaceful revolt did not target any sect -- an attempt to reassure Alawites fearful of persecution in a post-Assad era.
Syrian dissidents have suffered decades of repression in a country where power resides in the Assad family, exercised through the Baath party, the security agencies and a favoured business elite. They had seemed ineffectual, if not irrelevant.
Yet some, such as Maleh, former member of parliament Riad Seif and others, retain widespread respect in Syria and could perhaps play a leadership role in a transitional phase.
The revolt itself has spawned new young leaders and activists, who have clandestinely organised protests, coordinated among themselves and used satellite telephones and the Internet to send images of their struggle around the world.
“It's remarkable what they have achieved in maintaining momentum against a regime which is prepared to use full force in an environment which was always much more repressive from the beginning than Egypt under (Hosni) Mubarak,” said Perthes.
JERUSALEM, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Whatever threats Israel faced in recent decades from Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories, it could always feel confident that Egypt was covering its back in the far south.
Thursday's assault by militants who crossed the largely unprotected desert border with Egypt confirmed Israel's fears that its security problems are multiplying following the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Eight Israelis died in the attacks near the Red Sea resort of Eilat, and although officials were quick to absolve Egypt of any collusion in the strike, they voiced grave concern about growing lawlessness in the barren Sinai peninsula.
The attack, blamed on Palestinian militants from nearby Gaza, has left Israel in the uncomfortable position of being both threatened along one of its flanks, yet militarily hamstrung by a deal with one of its few Arab peace partners.
Egypt has rebuffed accusations that it has lost its grip on the area, with South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda telling Reuters on Friday the situation is “stable and under control”.
But Israel will certainly beef up security along its 266-km (165-mile) frontier with Egypt.
“The border with Egypt is no longer a peaceful border and we need to change the way we treat it,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni said on Friday while visiting the wounded in hospital.
“Until today we treated it as border with infiltrators who wanted to find work. But it has become a border that is crossed by those who want to take our lives,” she added.
Israelis believe the Palestinians could not enter Israel via its heavily guarded border with Gaza, and instead slipped into the Sinai from where they entered southern Israel. Witnesses said they were disguised as members of the Egyptian security forces.
CONSTRAINED BY A TREATY
One of the immediate results of the killings will be swifter construction of a border fence that the army now hopes will be completed next year. Military sources have also said Israel will bolster an Eilat-based commando unit.
But there is a gnawing worry that without determined Egyptian action, Israel will remain vulnerable.
“This region is breached and there are terrorist, al Qaeda infrastructures there from where this attack was developed and born,” said Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel's armed forces spokesman.
Israeli officials say Egypt's military rulers do not appear to have the same control over their country as Mubarak once wielded. They also fear that Cairo no longer sees safeguarding its Jewish neighbour as a top priority.
The terms of the historic peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979 help explain Cairo's problems. The accords called for the demilitarisation of central Sinai and only allows Egypt to deploy a small number of lightly armed border guards there.
However, security has clearly deteriorated since February, with assailants twice blowing up a pipeline bringing gas to Israel. Only days ago, Israel approved an Egyptian request to deploy 1,000 more troops to the area, local media reported.
Israel's hands are also tied. It has had little compunction about striking deep into the territory of other neighbours when it has felt threatened, but its cherished Camp David peace treaty means such overt operations within Egypt are out of the question.
That leaves Israel with the risky option of covert missions, discovery of which could fray what trust remains with Cairo's interim military leaders and an Egyptian populace that is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian.
Nationalist politicians are already raising calls for a rethink of relations with Egypt.
“The attack in the south is another stone falling from the tower of delusion about the peace treaty with Egypt,” said Michael Ben Ari, a parliamentarian with the National Union party. “It's time we understood that there is a dangerous entity in the south that is cooperating with Israel's worst enemies.”
It is hard to overstate the importance to Israel of the peace accord, helping it to reduce military spending and to maintain the status quo in the unresolved Palestinian conflict.
Thursday's incursion means that Israel will certainly have to spend more to defend its southern lands -- expenditure that the government can ill afford at a time of unprecedented protests in Israel against the high cost of living.
The attack also comes at a time when the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is preparing a diplomatic offensive next month to try to secure membership of the United Nations.
Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, says the country is facing a unique set of challenges, with a growing risk of near-total isolation in the region.
“What happened near Eilat wasn't just about security along our border. It goes much deeper than that. I fear we are losing a strategic ally in Egypt,” he told Reuters.
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