MIDEAST MONITOR: WHAT’S NEXT FOR SISI’S EGYPT?

 

http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Mideast-Monitor-Whats-next-for-Sisis-Egypt-481767

 

EGYPT’S PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has now been in power for three and a half years. In consolidating his rule, Sisi has based his claim to legitimacy on a formula familiar to authoritarian regimes: wrapping oneself in the flag of patriotism, along with promises for economic betterment and stability for the population in return for its acquiescence to a de-politicization of society. Also in use is harsh repression of political opposition, severe checks on independent civil society organizations, including the media, and restrictions on judicial independence.

Until recently, this formula appeared to be working. In addition, the need to cope with an ongoing violent jihadist insurgency in Sinai and accompanying terrorist attacks further confirmed public support for Sisi. His recent high-profile attendance at the Coptic Christmas celebrations, just two weeks after a horrific jihadist bombing in an adjacent church, was a strong statement of support for the beleaguered Copt minority.

 

However, times have become especially tough for ordinary Egyptians.

As my Tel Aviv University colleague Paul Rivlin wrote in July 2016, the optimism for Egypt’s economy generated by the $8 billion expansion of the Suez Canal and the discovery of large natural gas reserves off of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, had dissipated. Revenue from tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy, declined 50% during 2015-16 from the previous year, thanks especially to the downing of a Russian passenger airliner in Sinai by jihadists. The decades-old trend of declining rates of population growth had been reversed between 2010-15. According to official statistics, Egypt’s population increased 17.3 million to 94 million over the past decade, with all the attendant burdens on social services, the educational system and labor market that that entails. Official unemployment stood at 14%; youth unemployment at more than 40%.

Facing large government and current account deficits and an acute shortage of foreign currency, the Sisi government negotiated a largescale, three-year loan package of $12 billion. It was contingent on major reforms, including the imposition of VAT on most economic transactions, lowering domestic energy subsidies, currency rate adjustment and trimming the bloated public sector. An earlier 14% devaluation of the Egyptian pound in March had had little effect apart from sparking inflation and a large black market in scarce foreign currency.

Egyptians confronted acute shortages in essential goods, ranging from sugar, poultry and rice to medications. Pharmacists incurred the wrath of the public which faced high prices or empty shelves. They, in turn, blamed the drug companies and government.

Meanwhile, the deal with the IMF proceeded apace. A civil service law aimed at cutting the number of public sector employees was enacted.

In September, the first payment, $2.75b., was transferred to Egyptian coffers.

The real quid pro quo came in November: the floating of the Egyptian pound, whose value vis-à-vis the dollar was immediately halved, to more than 18 pounds. Concurrently, domestic energy subsidies were slashed, leading to fuel price increases of 30-45%.

For importers and investors who had already incurred dollar debts, the new exchange rate step was potentially catastrophic and calls went out for immediate government relief. The pound’s 100%+ devaluation caused a spike in inflation, which reached 24% in December while the prices of some goods rose more than 80%.

International agencies and analysts looked favorably upon the government’s steps. In December, the World Bank approved a $1b. development policy finance operation in support of the government’s economic reform program. Investors in emerging markets reportedly viewed Egypt’s prospects favorably, as did Moody’s credit rating agency, which forecast 4-4.5% growth rates during the next two years.

Sisi himself has asked the public to be patient for the next six months as the positive effects of the reforms take effect. By then, he said, the exchange rate will have stabilized, while he himself will have inaugurated a new factory producing medicines. A “parallel exchange market” that would ensure the availability of goods at affordable prices was on the drawing board.

In addition, the army, “using its own budget without burdening the state’s general budget,” has launched such projects as a cement factory, fish farming and importing large quantities of cattle to provide meat at reasonable prices. The reference to the army was telling: It’s the only institution in the country Sisi really trusts.

Egypt has muddled through its economic woes before, and it would be rash to suggest that Sisi’s rule is in any imminent danger. But neither would it be wise to ignore the real difficulties confronting Egyptian society and assume that there will be no political fallout.

■ The author is a professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University

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GERMAN PARTY (WHITE IDIOTS) CONDEMNS BDS, COMPARES MOVEMENT TO PRE-WWII ANTISEMITISM

 

http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/German-party-condemns-BDS-compares-movement-to-pre-WWII-antisemitism-481934

 

German politicians from the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) in Hamburg submitted a resolution in early February calling on the state senate to take decisive action against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, deeming it as antisemitic.

The CDU is the opposition party in the government, while the Social Democrats and the Green Party make up the governing coalition in Hamburg.

The CDU politicians condemned “BDS initiatives and activities as antisemitic,” adding that the senate, as well as government agencies, should assess all activities as hostile to Israel and take actions against BDS.

The resolution appears to the be first state government legislative act seeking to blunt BDS. The CDU sponsors of the resolution are Carsten Ovens, Karin Prien, André Trepoll, Dennis Thering, Birgit Stöver, Dennis Gladiator, and Jörg Hamann.

The resolution urged Hamburg to support further initiatives to strengthen German-Israel bilateral relations. According to the resolution, “In previous months, many different countries have shown a clear resistance against the BDS movement. National and local parliaments and administrations – for example, in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Paris – decided to reject these boycott activities.”

The northern port city of Hamburg is both a city and a federal German state.

The resolution stated: “Who today under the flag of the BDS movement calls to boycott Israeli goods and services speaks the same language in which people were called to not buy from Jews. That is nothing other than coarse antisemitism.”

The CDU compared BDS to the National Socialists who boycotted Jews in the 1930s. BDS dresses up antisemitism in the “new clothes of the 21st century” as anti-Zionism, the party said.

The anti-BDS resolution was in response to the University of Hamburg’s appointment of Farid Esack, a pro-BDS Islamic theologian from South Africa. The advisory board of the Academy of World Religions at Hamburg University, where Esack served as a guest professor from October to mid-February, distanced itself from Esack.

In a statement to Die Welt reporter Jakob Koch, the academy said it is “totally unacceptable from the view of the advisory council when a comprehensive boycott of Israel is called for and thereby a break in every form of cooperation with Israeli universities, cultural institutions and other institutions.”

Die Welt further reported on Saturday that the academy said Esack has not demonstrated clear statements affirming Israel’s right to exist. The advisory panel said that “under consideration of the now known facts a decision to appoint Prof. Dr. Esack as guest professor would have certainly been decided differently.”

Esack is the chairman of BDS South Africa. In 2015, he welcomed his “comrade” plane hijacker Leila Khaled, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, at a fund-raiser. The EU and US classify the PFLP as a terrorist organization.
Esack has argued that “the idea of an Islamic State in Germany must be allowed to be represented.”

The Israeli Embassy in Berlin told The Jerusalem Post in January: “This is a man [Esack] who expressed antisemitic statements, and who is sympathetic to Holocaust denial. A person with such views has no place as an educator in a university, in particular not in Germany; due to both professional as well as moral and probably also legal reasons.”

A statement from Esack published on a BDS website in Germany read: “Neither I nor anyone on the staff or board of BDS SA has ever made any statement that could be reasonably interpreted as antisemitism. These accusations are part of a hundreds of million of dollars, Israeli government-funded operation.” Esack has compared Israel’s government to that of Nazi Germany on his Facebook page, and called former president Shimon Peres a “terrorist.”

The anti-BDS motion in Hamburg is a further setback for BDS activists, after German financial institutions terminated three BDS bank accounts in 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party passed an anti-BDS resolution at its party congress. The senate is slated to vote on the CDU resolution on March 1.

 

ZARIF TAKES APPARENT SHOT AT ISRAELI ‘AUDACITY,’ SAYS IRAN WILL NEVER DEVELOP NUKES

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-News/Zarif-takes-apparent-shot-at-Israeli-audacity-says-Iran-will-never-develop-nukes-481970

 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said Sunday that Iran would never seek to build a nuclear weapon, taking an apparent shot at Israel for being the true nuclear-armed actor endangering the region.

Without naming Israel specifically, Zarif said at the Munich Security Council that there were certain non-members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty who were spreading accusations about the Iranian nuclear threat.

“They have the audacity” to talk about the Iranian nuclear threat when they are “the destabilizing force in the region,” Zarif said.

“We will never produce nuclear weapons, period,” Zarif said. The Iranian foreign minister added that Iran had committed to this in the nuclear deal signed with world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but has yet to receive the reciprocal fulfilling of the deal from the other side. “The international community still owes us,” Zarif stated.

In apparent response to US President Donald Trump’s comments that he was putting Iran “on notice” over ballistic missile tests last month, Zarif stated that, “We do not respond well to threats.”

Zarif said that under so-called “crippling sanctions,” intended to curb Iran’s construction of centrifuges for enriching uranium, Iran had gone from having 200 centrifuges to having some 20,000 centrifuges.

“We don’t respond to threats, we respond to mutual respect,” Zarif said.

Republican US Senator Lindsay Graham, speaking on a panel at the conference immediately after Zarif, said that not a word the Iranian foreign minister was saying should be believed.

“They’ve been trying to build a nuclear weapon,” Graham said. “If they say they haven’t they’re lying.”

“You don’t build a secret nuclear facility if you don’t want to build a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Graham said that Iran was “a bad actor in the greatest sense of the word when it comes to the region,” calling Tehran out specifically for supporting Hezbollah and writing “Death to Israel” on its missiles.

US remains ‘your greatest ally,’ Pence tells Europe

MUNICH, Germany — US Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday pledged an “unwavering” commitment to transatlantic ties, aiming to reassure allies including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pleaded with nations not to go it alone.

Capping a week of whirlwind diplomacy by American officials who have descended on Europe to calm nerves rattled by President Donald Trump, Pence underlined the United States’ loyalty to its old friends.

“The United States is and will always be your greatest ally. Be assured that President Trump and our people are truly devoted to our transatlantic union,” he told European leaders at the Munich Security Conference.

Pence said Trump would stand by the NATO transatlantic alliance and no one should doubt his commitment after sacrifices made to defend it.

“The president asked me to be here today to convey a message, a reassurance — the United States of America strongly supports NATO and we will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance,” Pence said.

“Let no one doubt our commitment,” he said.

The Munich conference, attended by top leaders, officials and analysts from around the world, was watching Pence closely to see if he would reaffirm the central US role in world affairs after Trump’s “America First” stance suggested Washington would strike out on its own.

Speaking just before Pence, Merkel had warned countries against precisely that, saying the only way to solve global problems was to stick together.

“In a year in which we see unimaginable challenges we can either work together or retreat to our individual roles. I hope that we will find a common position,” Merkel said.

In an apparent message to Trump and his efforts to enact a travel ban on several Muslim-majority nations, the German leader stressed that Islam was not the source of terrorism, according to Reuters. Muslim countries, she added, must be included in the war against jihadists.

Merkel conceded room for improvement in multilateral structures, saying that in many places they are not efficient enough.

“I am firmly convinced that it is worth fighting for our common international multilateral structures, but we must improve them in many places,” she said.

Merkel reiterated that Germany is committed to the official NATO goal of putting 2 percent of gross domestic product into defense spending — Germany currently contributes 1.3 percent.

“We will do everything we can in order to fulfill this commitment,” she said. “But let me add, however, that I believe while NATO is very much in the European interest, it’s also in the American interest — it’s a very strong alliance where we are united together.”

Pence also sought to calm nervous European allies who remain concerned about Russian aggression and have been alarmed by Trump’s positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pence vowed Saturday that the United States will “hold Russia accountable.” He said the US would demand that Russia honor a 2015 peace deal agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, aimed at ending violence in eastern Ukraine.

US Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech on the 2nd day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MCS) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Christof STACHE)

US Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech on the 2nd day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MCS) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Christof STACHE)

“Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground which as you know President Trump believes can be found,” Pence said.

Pence was meeting later Saturday with Merkel, as well as the leaders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — countries dealing with the threat of Russian incursion — along with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

The visit, which will include a stop in Brussels on Sunday and Monday, comes amid worries in Europe about Russian aggression, Trump’s relationship with Putin and whether the new president may promote isolationist tendencies through his “America First” mantra.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“The vice president has sent reassuring messages through his own engagement but that hasn’t been enough to dispel the concerns that you see in many parts of Europe,” says Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are such grave challenges that the US and Europe faces that it only heightens the desire for additional clarity from Washington.”

Pence’s stature within the administration was also under scrutiny because of the recent dismissal of Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign Monday following reports he misled Pence about contacts with a Russian diplomat, which the vice president learned about through media accounts about two weeks after the president was informed.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Pence is also expected to meet with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US is embroiled in two separate wars. Trump has made clear his intention to defeat the Islamic State group. But he also said the US may get a second chance to take Iraqi oil as compensation for its efforts in the war-torn country, a notion rebuffed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who will be meeting with the vice president.

Trump’s immigration and refugee ban has ruffled feathers with a number of Muslim-majority countries affected by the order currently tied up in court, including Iraq — a close ally in the fight against IS.

In Munich, the American allies were searching for clues from Pence as to how the Trump administration plans to deal with Russia in the aftermath of Flynn’s departure, US inquiries into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election and Trump’s past praise for Putin.

European countries along Russia’s border were rattled about deeper US-Russian ties after Trump suggested sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea could be eased in exchange for a nuclear weapons deal and the president referred to NATO as “obsolete” in an interview before his inauguration. Trump has since tempered his language, telling foreign leaders in phone calls about the importance of the NATO alliance.

NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a military alliance of European and North American democracies created after World War II to strengthen international cooperation as a counter-balance to the rise of the Soviet Union. In 2014, the 28-member alliance created a rapid-reaction force to protect the most vulnerable NATO members against a confrontation with Russia.

Lebanon president issues warning to Israel in spat over Hezbollah

Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Saturday warned that his country would meet any perceived threats by Israel with an “appropriate response,” after the Israeli ambassador to the UN complained about his statements regarding the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.

“Any attempt to hurt Lebanese sovereignty or expose the Lebanese to danger will find the appropriate response,” Aoun said in an official statement, according to Reuters.

Aoun was referring to a letter sent earlier this week to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by Ambassador Danny Danon about the president’s remarks. Aoun said Sunday that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah plays “a complementary role to the Lebanese army” in countering Israel.

“As long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel … we feel the need for its existence,” Aoun told the Egyptian TV network CBC on Sunday.

On Saturday, Aoun called Danon’s letter a “masked attempt to threaten security and stability” in southern Lebanon — where Israel had maintained a security zone from 1982 until its sudden withdrawal in 2000, and which was the focus of fighting during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Young men hold Lebanese national flags and yellow flags of the Lebanese Shiite terror group Hezbollah as they watch its leader Hassan Nasrallah deliver a speech on a screen in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil on August 13, 2016 during a commemoration marking the tenth anniversary of the end of the Second Lebanon War. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

Young men hold Lebanese national flags and yellow flags of the Lebanese Shiite terror group Hezbollah as they watch its leader Hassan Nasrallah deliver a speech on a screen in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil on August 13, 2016 during a commemoration marking the tenth anniversary of the end of the Second Lebanon War. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

Hezbollah, which was founded in the early 1980s to fight against Israel’s military presence in Lebanon, has long justified its large arsenal of weapons as needed to fight against alleged Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty, despite Israel withdrawing all its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000.

The UN said Monday in response to Aoun’s remarks on Egyptian TV that Resolution 1701, reached as part of a ceasefire agreement to end the 2006 war, prohibits the country from being allowed to field militias such as Hezbollah.

UN resolution 1701 is vital for Lebanon’s stability and security, UN Coordinator Sigrid Kaag said in a tweet, adding that the resolution calls for the disarmament of all armed groups, with no weapons that are outside the control of the state.

Recalling SCR 1701 vital 4 Lebanon’s stability-security. Resolution calls 4 disarmament all armed groups. No arms outside control of state

On Sunday, The Times of Israel reported that Israeli officials believe Hezbollah and Lebanese troops are cooperating near the border with Israel, in contravention of UNSCR 1701.

According to the Lebanese online news agency Naharnet, Aoun followed up his comments by saying Tuesday that any decisions about arms would comply with Lebanon’s National Defense Strategy.

“The matter is subject to the National Defense Strategy which we have been trying to set when the incidents got ahead of us,” Aoun told Egypt’s Nile News TV.

“Lebanon, relative to its surroundings in terms of both human and economic power, is incapable of building a military force capable of confronting the enemy. Therefore it has to use special ways for fighting, involving regular (army) and popular forces. This is the idea that can be translated into a realistic plan,” he added.

Indian UN peacekeepers with their armored personnel carrier, right, stand guard next to a giant poster that shows Hezbollah fighters and the Al Aqsa Mosque with Arabic and Hebrew words reading: "We are coming," near the barbed wire that separates Lebanon from the Shebaa Farms. April 16, 2014. AP/Hussein Malla)

Indian UN peacekeepers with their armored personnel carrier, right, stand guard next to a giant poster that shows Hezbollah fighters and the Al-Aqsa Mosque with Arabic and Hebrew words reading: ‘We are coming,’ near the barbed wire that separates Lebanon from the Shebaa Farms, on April 16, 2014. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The Lebanese president also accused Israel in his statement Saturday of occupying the Shebaa Farms — known in Hebrew as Mount Dov — a small patch of land captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, according to the Hebrew-language Ynet News site.

Lebanon maintains that the strip of land is a part of Lebanon, despite it having been under Syrian control from the 1950s until it was captured and later annexed as part of the Golan Heights by Israel in 1981.

Neither Israel, Syria or the United Nations recognize Mount Dov as Lebanese territory.

On Thursday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said that the terror group is in possession of rockets capable of striking Israel’s nuclear reactor in the southern city of Dimona and threatened that it would turn Israel’s reported nuclear arsenal against it.

Top Iranian general: World knows US can’t threaten Iran

A leading general in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards lashed out at the US on Saturday, warning that it would be unable to make good on what he said were American threats against the Islamic republic.

“The US statesmen should be very wise and avoid threatening Iran, because the entire world has admitted this fact that the Americans cannot do such a thing,” said Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, the chief of the IRGC’s ground forces, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

“Hence, they are unlikely to do such a move because it is unwise,” he added.

The IRGC’s deputy commander for political affairs, Rasul Sanayee Rad, made similar comments on Iranian state TV on Friday, declaring that, “today we are enjoying deterrence, meaning that we have dissuaded the enemy from attack.”

The comments are not unusual for Iranian military chiefs, who routinely deride the US’s military capabilities, but were made in this case in apparent response to a number of hawkish statements recently made by American officials towards Iran, including remarks by US President Donald Trump.

An Iranian military truck carries parts of the S300 missile system during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the start of Iran's 1980-1988 war with Iraq, on September 21, 2016, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/Chavosh Homavandi)

An Iranian military truck carries parts of the S300 missile system during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the start of Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Iraq, on September 21, 2016, in the capital Tehran. (AFP/Chavosh Homavandi)

Following an Iranian test of a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in January, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a number of entities involved in Iran’s missile program, with the president warning Iran that it had been “put on notice” and vowing that “nothing is off the table” in terms of a military response to perceived Iranian provocations.

Although the missile test did not violate the 2015 nuclear accord, the US government said such tests are forbidden under a separate UN resolution forbidding Iran from developing nuclear-capable missiles.

Pakpour also said Saturday that the Revolutionary Guards would conduct military drills next week, despite warnings from the US and the sanctions over the previous missile test.

“The maneuvers called ‘Grand Prophet 11’ will start Monday and last three days,” Pakpour told a news conference. He said rockets would be used without specifying which kind.

There has been an increase in tensions between Iran and the US since Trump’s inauguration in January, with the president repeating his criticism of the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers under former president Barack Obama.

During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to rip up what he termed the “disastrous” nuclear accord with Iran. Since becoming president, he has seemingly walked back his pledge to dismantle the agreement, although he has continued to call it “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen.”

US Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday continued with the administration’s hard line against Iran, telling an international security conference in Munich that Tehran was “the leading state sponsor of terrorism.” He also accused the Iranian regime of working to destabilize the entire Middle East, in part due to the terms of the nuclear deal.

“Thanks to the end of nuclear-related sanctions under the [deal], Iran now has additional resources to devote to these efforts,” Pence said.

US Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech on the 2nd day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MCS) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS KIENZLE)

US Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech on the 2nd day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MCS) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Kienzle)

“Let me be clear again: Under President Trump the United States will remain fully committed to ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon capable of threatening our countries, our allies in the region, especially Israel,” Pence said.

Earlier this week, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the US of seeking to ratchet up tensions with Iran over its nuclear program in order to distract from what he called the “war of economy” against the Islamic Republic.

“The US wants to divert the Iranian officials’ attention from the real battlefield, that is the war of economy, by repeating the trick of military threat and war; officials should keep vigilant,” Khamenei said Wednesday, according to Fars.

Veteran Israeli diplomat predicts premature end to Trump presidency

The veteran former head of Israel’s Foreign Ministry Shlomo Avineri said Saturday that he does not believe Donald Trump will serve out his four-year term, following a rocky start to his presidency that saw his national security advisor ousted, a cabinet nominee withdraw, a centerpiece immigration policy thwarted by the courts and a tidal wave of damaging leaks.

Speaking at a cultural event in Mevasseret Zion, Avineri, now a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that Trump’s behavior and personality would make it unlikely that he would see out his term, Israel Radio reported.

This is not the first time that Avineri has called into question Trump’s fitness for the role of leader of the free world. Writing in the liberal Haaretz daily last month, the professor lashed out at the president as a racist and sexist authoritarian.

Trump is “not a president of the conservative Republican model akin to [Richard] Nixon or [Ronald] Reagan, but an unprecedented figure in American politics,” Avineri wrote. “It is clear to all that this is a person with aggressive characteristics, rude, racist and misogynistic, who made his fortune (if indeed he does have equity and not just debt) through means that one could call questionable at the very least. Sometimes it appears that he sees his success in reaching the White House as another step in the promotion of his family’s business affairs.”

He added: “There has never been a president like this, not in the United States or any democratic country: It is not his views, but his behavior that will determine the character of his presidency — and the fate of the world.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference on February 16, 2017, at the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference on February 16, 2017, at the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

Avineri — who during his career also headed the Israeli delegation to the UNESCO General Assembly and took part in Israeli negotiations with Egypt — also cast doubt on the ability of the American political system to contain what he said were Trump’s “authoritarian” tendencies.

“It is not certain that the checks and balances of the US Constitution are strong enough to restrain him,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, world leaders, diplomats and defense officials were getting their first opportunity to meet with members of the new administration this weekend, amid concerns over the new president’s commitment to NATO and posture toward Russia.

Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were leading the US delegation to the Munich Security Conference, which began Friday. The annual weekend gathering is known for providing an open and informal platform for allies — and adversaries — to meet in close quarters.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European Council President Donald Tusk and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg were among the group of more than 30 heads of state and government, 80 foreign and defense ministers and other officials in attendance.

Trump set off alarm bells last month by calling NATO “obsolete,” though has subsequently told European leaders he agrees on the “fundamental importance” of the military alliance. He has emphasized the need for all members to pay a fair share for defense, an issue that NATO leaders themselves have pushed for years.

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Mattis told the alliance’s 27 other defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday that Trump has “strong support for NATO” and assured Stoltenberg that “the alliance remains a fundamental bedrock for the United States.”

Other stances — Trump’s support for Britain’s decision to leave the EU, his perceived closeness to Russia and inaugural pledge to put “America first” — also have raised “an unbelievable number of question marks,” conference organizer Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the US, said.

Pence offers ‘unwavering’ NATO pledge, but ‘not a word on EU’

MUNICH (AP) — America’s commitment to NATO is “unwavering,” US Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday, reassuring allies about the direction the Trump administration might take but leaving open questions about where Washington saw its relationship with the European Union and other international organizations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for strengthening a range of multilateral bodies — the EU, NATO and the United Nations — and lauded the benefits of “a free, independent press.”

In his first foreign trip as vice president, Pence sought immediately to address concerns raised by President Donald Trump’s earlier comments questioning whether NATO was “obsolete.”

Pence told the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of diplomats and defense officials: “I bring you this assurance: The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our trans-Atlantic alliance.”

“Your struggles are our struggles. Your success is our success,” Pence said. “And ultimately, we walk into the future together.”

Merkel, speaking before Pence, told him and other leaders that “acting together strengthens everyone.”

Her address came amid concerns among allies about the Trump administration’s approach to international affairs and fears that the US may have little interest in working in international forums.

“Will we be able to continue working well together, or will we all fall back into our individual roles?” Merkel asked. “Let’s make the world better together and then things will get better for every single one of us.”

Trump has praised Britain’s decision to leave the 28-nation EU. And a leading contender to be the next US ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch, has said Washington is “somewhat critical and suspicious” of the bloc and would prefer to work with countries bilaterally.

Pence did not mention the European Union in his speech, something picked up on by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault who wrote on Twitter: “In Munich, Vice President Pence renews America’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance. But not a word on the EU.”

Pence did say, however, that the US was on a path of “friendship with Europe and a strong North Atlantic alliance.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also indicated skepticism about Pence’s pledges, saying that he agreed Europe needed to work with the US on the basis of common values. But in a barely veiled reference to Trump, he said “both countries must define their interests, and our foreign policies should not be driven by ideology.”

“Ideologies lead to hostile concepts that might not be able to be overcome,” said Gabriel, who is chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s junior coalition partner.

Going ahead, he said Europeans “should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

In pledging the Trump administration’s support for NATO, Pence said the US expected all countries to live up to commitments to spend at least 2 percent of the value of their gross domestic product on defense.

“Europe’s defense requires your commitment as much as ours,” he said.

Merkel reiterated that Germany is committed to the 2% goal though Germany currently only contributes about 1.3%.

“We will do everything we can in order to fulfill this commitment,” she said. “But let me add, however, that I believe while NATO is very much in the European interest, it’s also in the American interest — it’s a very strong alliance where we are united together.”

Gabriel suggested that development aid and humanitarian moves — such as in Germany’s decision to take in nearly 900,000 refugees last year — should also be part of the consideration when looking at defense spending.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told The Associated Press, however, that both things were necessary.

“We need a comprehensive approach and of course development aid and funding for refugees is also very important,” he said. “But there’s no contradiction between being focused on development aid and security — actually the only way we can create development is to preserve the peace. We need security to be able to facilitate economic development.”

Merkel, who met with Pence one-on-one following their speeches, acknowledged that Europeans couldn’t fight global issues like Islamic extremist terrorism alone.

“We need the military power of the United States,” she said.

She renewed a call for Islamic religious authorities to speak “clear words on the demarcation of peaceful Islam and terrorism in the name of Islam.”

US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the security conference that Trump is working on a “streamlined” version of his executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations to iron out the difficulties that landed his first order in the courts.

Kelly said next time Trump will “make sure that there’s no one caught in the system of moving from overseas to our airports” during the travel ban.

The nations affected by the original ban were Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Kelly mentioned “seven nations” again on Saturday, leading to speculation they will all be included in Trump’s next executive order on immigration.

Iraq forces launch operation to retake west Mosul – PM

BAGDHAD, Iraq (AFP) — Iraqi forces launched an offensive on jihadists defending Mosul’s west bank Sunday, in what could be the most brutal fighting yet in a four-month-old operation on the city.

“Our forces are beginning the liberation of the citizens from the terror of Daesh,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a short televised speech, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“We announce the start of a new phase in the operation. We are coming, Nineveh, to liberate the western side of Mosul,” he said, referring to the province of which Mosul is the capital.

Federal police and interior ministry forces were expected to start the new phase in the offensive by moving on Mosul airport, which is on the southern edge of the city, west of the Tigris River.

The jihadists have put up stiff resistance to defend Mosul, their last major stronghold in Iraq and the place where their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in 2014.

A masked fighter of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitaries poses for a picture carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle by defensive positions on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are preparing for the offensive retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, on February 18, 2017. ( AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

A masked fighter of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitaries poses for a picture carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle by defensive positions on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are preparing for the offensive retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, on February 18, 2017. ( AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

After shaping operations around Mosul, it took Iraq’s most seasoned forces — the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) — more than two months to clear the eastern side of Mosul.

After a pause in the operation launched on October 17, federal forces now face what was always billed as the toughest nut to crack: Mosul’s west bank, home to the narrow streets of the Old City.

“West Mosul had the potential certainly of being more difficult, with house-to-house fighting on a larger and more bloody scale,” said Patrick Skinner, from the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.

The streets around the historical centre, which includes the mosque in which Baghdadi made his only public appearance in June 2014, will be impassable for many military vehicles and force government fighters to take on IS in perilous dismounted warfare.

Prior to the offensive that saw IS seize Mosul and much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland nearly three years ago, the east bank was more ethnically diverse than the west, where analysts believe the jihadists could enjoy more support.

Fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitaries sit in the back of a heavily-armed vehicle carrying a rocket launcher, at a defensive position on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are preparing for the offensive retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

Fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitaries sit in the back of a heavily-armed vehicle carrying a rocket launcher, at a defensive position on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are preparing for the offensive retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

– Tougher resistance –

“IS resistance could be greater in this area and it will be harder, but all the more important, to completely clear the networks from Mosul after its recapture,” said Emily Anagnostos, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

While the federal forces’ attrition is said to be high, IS’s had been undoubtedly higher and commanders have said the jihadists may no longer have the resources to defend east Mosul effectively.

Recent incidents in liberated east point to the difficulty of ensuring remnants of IS have not blended in with the civilian population in a huge city which most residents did not flee ahead of the government offensive.

Aid organisations had feared an exodus of unprecedented proportions before the start of the Mosul operation but half a million — a significant majority — of residents stayed home.

Their continued presence prevented both sides from resorting to deadlier weaponry, which may have slowed down the battle but averted a potentially much more serious humanitarian emergency in the middle of winter as well as more extensive material damage to the city.

Fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitaries prepare defensive positions near the frontline village of Ayn al-Hisan, on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are preparing for the offensive retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

Fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitaries prepare defensive positions near the frontline village of Ayn al-Hisan, on the outskirts of Tal Afar west of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are preparing for the offensive retake the western side of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, on February 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

“Mosul is going better than we expected, but there are serious dangers ahead,” Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, told AFP.

Residents of west Mosul have reported very difficult living conditions and warned that they were already low on food, with weeks of fighting expected to lie ahead.

IS fighters and Mosul residents remained able to move across both sides of the city during much of the fighting in the east but all bridges across the Tigris have now been dropped and the jihadists in the west are all but besieged.

IS has used civilians as human shields as part of its defence tactics and killed residents attempting to flee, making it both difficult and dangerous for the population to escape.

While specialised units may attempt to throw pontoon bridges across the river to attack from the east, the main initial assault of the upcoming phase in the Mosul is expected to come from the south on the city’s airport.

Army, police, interior ministry and special forces have been gearing up for the push on Mosul’s southern front, with a large concentration of fighters based out of Hammam al-Alil.

Hezbollah said to have obtained ‘game-changing’ anti-ship missiles

The Lebanese terror group Hezbollah is said to have obtained advanced Russian-made anti-ship missiles, potentially threatening Israeli gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea and the Israeli Navy’s ability to operate in the area, according to a report published Sunday.

Hezbollah’s possession of the Yakhont missiles was revealed by unnamed Western intelligence officials over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference, where world leaders and defense ministers are meeting to discuss major security issues, according to a report in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The reports did not reveal in what forum the revelations were made.

If true, Hezbollah’s possession of the missiles would represent a serious threat to Israeli interests in the Mediterranean; endangering both Israeli commercial vessels sailing in shipping lanes off the Lebanese coast and the ability of Israeli Navy ships to operate in and around Lebanese waters.

Most significantly, the missiles would give Hezbollah the ability to strike Israel’s gas production platforms in the Mediterranean, a threat Israel reportedly intends to counter by installing maritime versions of the Iron Dome missile defense system on naval vessels as part of the Israeli Navy’s efforts to secure the country’s natural gas fields.

An aerial view of the Israeli 'Tamar' gas processing rig 24 km off the Israeli southern coast of Ashkelon. Noble Energy and Delek are the main partners in the oil field, October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

An aerial view of the Israeli ‘Tamar’ gas processing rig 24 km off the Israeli southern coast of Ashkelon. Noble Energy and Delek are the main partners in the oil field, October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Israeli security officials have previously said that advanced missiles such as the Yakhont falling into the hands of Hezbollah would constitute the crossing of a red line, and Israel is said to have targeted at least two shipments of Yakhont systems in 2013 from Syria to Hezbollah. Syria, one of Russia’s closest allies has a large arsenal of the advanced anti-ship missiles.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a number of airstrikes have been attributed to Israel, reportedly targeting convoys of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, as part of Israel’s policy to prevent the group from acquiring “game-changing” arms, in particular anti-aircraft systems, chemical weapons and other advanced weaponry such as the Yakhont.

In 2014, then defense-minister Moshe Ya’alon dismissed a report published in The Wall Street Journal alleging Hezbollah was in possession of at least 12 Yakhont systems, saying that Israel believes the Shiite terror group “does not have the missiles.”

During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah successfully struck an Israeli naval warship off the coast of Lebanon using a Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile, killing four sailors.

The attack on the naval vessel surprised Israeli security officials, with an IDF officer telling the Haaretz daily at the time that “we were under the impression that we were operating beyond the range of missiles.”

On Thursday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted that Israel was surprised then and would be surprised again in any future conflict. “In 2006 you had intelligence of our ammunition but you were astonished with what you saw after figuring out that you didn’t have enough information. You will be surprised with what we are (now) hiding which could change the course of any war,” he said

The Yakhont, which was a reported range of up to 300 kilometers (186 miles), would give Hezbollah a significant upgrade over the C-802, which can reach up to a distance of 110 kilometers (68 miles).