Monday, June 25, 2012

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Iran focus of Russian president's visit to Israel

By ARON HELLER | Associated Press
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     Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to his host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they prepare to deliver joint statements after their meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, Monday, June 25, 2012. The West's standoff with Iran over its nuclear program was expected to top the agenda on Monday as Russian President Vladimir Putin began a 24-hour visit to Israel. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, Pool)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin, …
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an inauguration ceremony of a memorial to Red Army veterans of World War II in Netanya, Israel, Monday June 25, 2012. The West's standoff with Iran over its nuclear program was expected to top the agenda on Monday as Russian President Vladimir Putin began a 24-hour visit to Israel. (AP Photo/Jack Guez, Pool)
    Russian President Vladimir Putin …
JERUSALEM (AP)  Israel urged the visiting Russian president on Monday to step up pressure on Iran to curb its suspect nuclear program but there was no sign of any concessions from Vladimir Putin.
With Russia an influential voice in the international debate over Iran, the outcome of the 24-hour visit could have deep implications for whether Israel decides to strike Tehran's nuclear facilities or give the international community more time to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff.
Israel and Russia enjoy deep economic and cultural relations bolstered by the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who now live in the Jewish state. But they have deeply differing approaches to Iran's nuclear program and the uprising in Tehran's close ally Syria. Russia has blocked drastic action against the two countries, while Israel has repeatedly hinted it may act militarily to stop Iran's nuclear program.
In a brief statement after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin said their talks covered the situation in Iran and the bloody uprising in Syria, but added that he saw negotiations as the only solution for such matters.
Netanyahu countered with far more detail.
"We agree that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran pose a grave danger, first for Israel but also for the region and the whole world," he said. "Two things need to be done now: we need to bolster the sanctions and bolster the demands."
Netanyahu insisted that all uranium enrichment in Iran must cease and its underground nuclear facility near Qom be dismantled. He added that "the killing and horrible suffering of the Syrian people" must be stopped.
Israel sees Iran as its most dangerous enemy because it is convinced the country's nuclear program is meant to build bombs and not for peaceful purposes such as energy production, as Iran insists. The fears are compounded by Tehran's frequent calls for Israel's destruction, support for anti-Israel militants and arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Israel has said repeatedly that it would not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and while saying it prefers a diplomatic solution has also hinted of using a military strike as a last resort. Israel itself is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons.
Iran is under four sets of Security Council sanctions because of its nuclear program. Israel has welcomed these but warned they are not enough. Efforts aimed at tougher U.N. sanctions have been opposed in the Security Council by Russia and China, both permanent veto-wielding members that have extensive financial interests in Iran.
Russia, for instance, has built a $1 billion nuclear reactor in Bushehr. But Moscow, bowing to U.S. and Israeli demands, has also scrapped a deal to sell Iran long-range missiles that could provide a powerful deterrent against a potential air attack.
Russia and China have joined world powers in a new set of low-level negotiations with Iran in July, after the last round yielded no breakthroughs.
Another Israeli concern is Syria. Russia has continued its arms sales to Damascus throughout the violent popular uprising against President Bashar Assad. Israel is afraid Russian weapons in Syria will fall into the hands of allied Hezbollah militants in neighboring Lebanon, something Israel says happened during its 2006 war with the Lebanese group.
Putin began his official visit at a ceremony to inaugurate a Soviet Red Army memorial in the coastal city of Netanya, paying tribute to fallen soldiers of World War II that included tens of thousands of Jews.
"The memory of the fallen is sacred in my eyes. I am moved that you feel the same thing in Israel," he said, facing the sculpture of a massive pair of wings on a wind-swept hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
President Shimon Peres linked the past to the challenges of the present.
"I am confident that Russia, which defeated fascism, will not allow similar threats today. Not the Iranian threat. And not the bloodshed in Syria," he said at the ceremony.
At a state dinner later Monday, Peres pressed Putin further.
"I ask of you again: raise your voice against a nuclear Iran, against destroying a people. You know well the depth of sensitivity of the Jewish people when we are threatened with destruction," he said.
Putin responded that Russia has a "national interest" to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further.
The trip was Putin's second in Israel, having last visited seven years ago. On Tuesday, he heads to the West Bank and Jordan.
The Russian leader came with an entourage of hundreds of officials and businesspeople, who will be exploring possible military, technology and energy deals between the two countries.
Putin said his visit stressed not only the friendly relations between the countries but also a "solid basis on which to build dialogue and partnership." He said he spoke with Netanyahu about cooperation in science, technology, agriculture, medicine and culture.
The leaders also discussed the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi in Egypt's presidential election, as well as stalled Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
"Israel appreciates the democratic process in Egypt and respects its outcome. We look forward to working with the new administration based upon the peace agreement between us," said Netanyahu. "I believe that peace is an essential interest of both countries and I believe that peace is the basic element of stability on our region."
Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has said it would maintain the treaty but would demand changes to it.

Egypt's Islamist president takes revolution to palace

By Edmund Blair and Marwa Awad | Reuters
  • Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi addresses a news conference in Cairo June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi …CAIRO (Reuters) - Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected president whose powers have already been curbed by the army, began work on a coalition on Monday after touring his new palace, once home of Hosni Mubarak who banned his movement for three decades.
Declared winner on Sunday a week after a tumultuous run-off vote that pitted him against a former air force chief, the Islamist faces the challenge of meeting sky-high expectations in a nation tired of turmoil while the economy is on the ropes.
But his campaign pledge to complete the revolution that toppled Mubarak last year but left the pillars of his rule intact will come up against the entrenched interests of the generals who are in charge of the transition to democracy.
Shortly before the historic presidential vote, a newly elected Islamist-led parliament was dissolved by the army based on a court order, and the generals issued a decree setting limits on the president's remit, which cuts into Mursi's powers to act but exposes him to blame for any failures.
Critics at home and in the West called it a "soft coup".
One pressing concern - on which many Egyptians are likely to judge his performance - will to be to revive the economy of the world's most populous Arab nation.
Monday's stock market rally, at least partly fuelled by relief that the vote and result passed off without violence, may encourage the new president, but he still has to prove to wary longer-term investors that Egypt is on the road to recovery.
Egyptian newspapers welcomed Mursi's win over Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister, as a victory for the people, although many more liberal-minded Egyptians worry his conservative group will slowly whittle away at social freedoms.
Further afield, his win has had an immediate impact beyond Egypt's borders, inspiring Islamists who have risen up against autocrats across the Middle East and swept to power in North Africa. Israel worries its 1979 peace deal with Egypt, never warm, will cool further.
Palestinians in Gaza, however, are delighted.
Iran saw his election as an "Islamic awakening" - though Tehran and the Muslim Brotherhood follow different, often opposing forms of the faith. Iran's Fars news agency published an interview in which Mursi called for restoring full ties between Cairo and Tehran to build strategic "balance". A Mursi aide said he gave the interview 10 days ago.
A security official said Mursi, 60, and his wife took a tour of their new home, once Mubarak's main residence - a dramatic change of fortunes full of symbolism for a former political prisoner whose group was pursued remorselessly during Mubarak's 30-year rule.
An aide said Mursi then went to the Defence Ministry for talks with the head of the ruling military council's Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the army-appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri. They discussed forming a new government at the meetings, which Egyptians will see as a sign that real power still lies with the army.
As president, Mursi can appoint the cabinet. His aides say he has already reached out to politicians from outside the Brotherhood such as reformist Mohamed ElBaradei, who has yet to publicly respond. But legislative powers remain with the army while the parliament is dissolved, restricting his power to act.
Egypt's army-appointed government, led by al-Ganzouri who also served in the 1990s as prime minister under Mubarak, submitted its resignation on Monday but was asked to stay on temporarily until Mursi, who has yet to take the oath of office, put a team together, Information Minister Ahmed Anis said
"The revolution reaches the republican palace," wrote Al-Shorouk newspaper. Another, Al-Akhbar, quoted from Mursi's victory speech: "I am a servant of the people and an employee of the citizens".
It is a sentiment widely spoken: the sense that at last, perhaps, Egyptians have a leader who can be "fired".
Celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square - theatre of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak - extended through the night. Some Brotherhood followers were still celebrating, surprised by their victory that broke a six-decade tradition of presidents plucked from the military.
"It was a little surprising that the army acknowledged his win," said 40-year-old teacher Adel Mohamed who was in the square when the result was declared after a nervous week's wait since the vote. "The pressure from the street, from the revolution, will give Mursi strength to negotiate."
From Syria's opposition who are seeking the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad came word that Cairo was again a "source of hope" for a people "facing a repressive war of annihilation".
But millions of Egyptians, and the Western powers, looked on with unease at the prospect of the long-suppressed Brotherhood making good on its dream of an Islamic state.
Israel has been particularly nervous, urging its neighbour to respect their peace deal. It worries that the Brotherhood's win will embolden Palestinian Islamists opposed to Israel.
"Darkness in Egypt," headlined Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he "respected" the result and said he saw future cooperation with the new administration.
An aide to Mursi said during Mursi's campaign that he would delegate meetings with Israeli officials to his foreign minister, unlike Mubarak who often met top Israelis. Mubarak went to Israel only once, for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"Mursi's victory is most likely to strengthen the hand of Hamas in its fight against Israel because it will give it a moral boost," said political scientist Mustapha al-Sayyed.
But the army, determined not to see its $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid a year jeopardised, will probably ensure ties are not undermined even if the relationship sours, diplomats say.
Pledging to uphold international treaties, in a gesture to Israel, Mursi said in his first televised address as president-elect that he would work with others to see the democratic revolution through.
"There is no room now for the language of confrontation," he said, a message addressed not just to the army but to the young, urban revolutionaries who launched last year's uprising only to see the Brotherhood dominate the political scene afterwards.
One of the most influential revolutionary youth groups greeted Mursi's win as a victory for last year's uprising.
"We have defeated the candidate of Mubarak's military state, the candidate of the corrupt 'deep state' that we are fed up with," said the April 6 Youth movement.
"Starting today we will work as one body for Egypt."
Western powers congratulated Mursi, who received a phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama, offering help.
The White House said in a statement: "The president underscored that the United States will continue to support Egypt's transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfil the promise of their revolution."
Mursi may have little choice but to compromise with the army, and Brotherhood sources said a package of agreements discussed with generals last week could soon be announced.
The Brotherhood's political gains, first winning the biggest bloc in parliament and then running for president, had rattled the military. With the help of a Mubarak-era judiciary, the military council dissolved parliament on the eve of the presidential vote, then gave itself the legislative power.
Senior Brotherhood officials say they have been negotiating in the past week to change some of that, though both sides deny any haggling over the result of the presidential vote itself.
"President Mursi and his team have been in talks with the military council to bring back the democratically elected parliament and other issues," Essam Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official, told Reuters on Monday.
Brotherhood sources told Reuters they hoped the army might allow a partial recall of parliament and other concessions in return for Mursi exercising his powers to name a government and presidential administration in ways the army approves of - notably by extending appointments across the political spectrum.
Military officials have confirmed discussions in the past few days but had no immediate comment on the latest talks.
Brotherhood officials have said they will press on with street protests to pressure the army but this, along with a number of other contentious issues including to whom and where Mursi swears his oath of office, could be settled soon.
The army wants Mursi sworn in on June 30, meeting a deadline it set itself for handing over Egypt to "civilian rule" - although the military's influence will go on long beyond that.
(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

Turkey jet crisis unlikely to pull NATO into Syria

BRUSSELS (AP) — Syria's downing of a Turkish military jet has the feel of a turning point that could drag Western powers into a conflict that is spiraling out of control.
Turkey said Monday it would push NATO to consider Syria's downing of the RF-4E reconnaissance jet as an attack on the whole military alliance, and added that Syria also had shot at a Turkish search-and-rescue plane shortly after the jet was downed Friday. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to hold Syria to account, while Britain's foreign minister said Damascus won't be allowed to act with impunity.
But for all the hard talk, the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria remains remote, at best.
For one thing, military action is unlikely to get the support of either the U.N. Security Council or the Arab League, and outside intervention without the blessing of both of those bodies is all but unthinkable. And there is little appetite among the 28 NATO countries — of which the U.S. is the largest — for another war in the Middle East.
Libya was hard enough, and for a many nervous months it looked as if that conflict might end in an embarrassing stalemate for the West. And Syria would be tougher than Libya. Syrian President Bashar Assad's army is better equipped, better trained, better paid and far more loyal than was that of late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddhafi.
So for the moment, despite the increasing violence and the staggering number of deaths, action by the international community seems to be limited to sanctions and strong words.
And so it was on Monday, when foreign ministers from the 27 European Union countries condemned Syria's downing Friday of a Turkish jet, but said the bloc would not support military action in the troubled country.
"What happened is to be considered very seriously," said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal. Having gotten his denunciation out of the way, he let the other shoe drop: "We do not go for any interventions."
Turkish officials have acknowledged that the jet mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace, but was warned to leave by Turkish authorities and was a mile (1.6 kilometers) inside international airspace when Syria shot it down. The Turkish pilots are still missing.
Turkey initially called a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, on Tuesday to discuss the incident under Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty, which allows a NATO ally to request such a consultation if it feels its territorial integrity or security has been threatened.
Late on Monday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Ankara "has made necessary applications regarding Article 4 and Article 5." Article 5 states that an attack against one NATO member shall be considered an attack against all members.
Arinc also said for the first time that Syrian forces opened ground fire on a CASA search and rescue plane shortly after the downing, but did not say if that plane was hit.
An alliance diplomat said ambassadors will discuss Turkey's concerns — and would likely condemn the downing.
"But there won't be anything more specific than that," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of standing rules.
Turkey has been one of the fiercest critics of Assad's crackdown. But until now, it has had no wish to inflame already-heightened tensions.
A Turkish government official said the government was trying to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Syria, where activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising. He said the country was still working out what steps to take — though they would not include military intervention.
"We are not talking about war, but we will keep the pressure on Syria and give it no chance to catch its breath," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Okan University, said that by calling Tuesday's emergency meeting, Turkey was trying to show Syria that it has the full support of NATO and the European Union.
But he dismissed the possibility the alliance would activate Article 5, despite Turkey's requests.
"Unless there is another ... act of provocation (from Syria), there will be no activation of Article 5," Kibaroglu said.
Syria has said it was unaware that the F-4 Phantom jet belonged to Turkey, and that it was protecting its air space against an unknown intruder. In the past, Israeli warplanes have penetrated Syrian airspace by flying over the Mediterranean coastline.
Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the downing was an accident, caused by the "automatic response" of an officer commanding an anti-aircraft gun. The man saw a jet coming at him at high speed and low altitide and opened fire, Makdissi said.
Analysts said that, although the latest incident will likely be contained, the conflict in Syria is now threatening to draw in other nations.
"Syria's apology will probably quell the immediate outrage," said Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think tank.
"But it's increasingly clear that as the conflict escalates there will be a spillover effect with regional consequences," he said. "While NATO will not get involved yet, this illustrates that international actors will increasingly be sucked into the conflict."
Still, there is a sense of war-weariness in NATO, an aversion to any more involvement in the Middle East after last year's conflict over Libya.
The alliance's primary focus remains the costly war in Afghanistan, where it still has about 130,000 troops, a decade after the ouster of the Taliban regime. Although NATO forces enjoy overwhelming superiority in numbers, firepower and mobility, the guerrillas are showing no sign of giving up.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly said that the alliance would need a clear international mandate, and regional support, before it embarked on a mission in Syria.
Last year, NATO launched air attacks on Libyan government targets only after receiving a mandate from the U.N. Security Council, along with backing from the Arab League.
But in Syria's case, the Arab League hasn't been able to agree on the need for military intervention. Even Syria's different opposition groups are riven by divisions over whether outside military intervention would help or hurt. Some in the Syrian opposition argue that it would reduce their country to rubble, leaving them nothing on which to build a new future once Assad was gone.
And Russia and China — both veto-wielding members of the Security Council — have consistently shielded Assad's regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown on protests. Russia also has continued to provide Syria with arms, despite Western calls for a halt in supplies.
Diplomats from Russia and China in the past have called on all sides to refrain from provocative actions that could escalate the conflict. This would likely include reconnaissance flights over the Syrian coastline.
Last week, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis on the sidelines of a Group of 20 economic conference in Mexico.
The meeting ended without apparent agreement on how to end the violence.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut, Lebanon, also contributed to this report.
Cuban-American execs: Don't fall for phony Castro reforms
Date: Monday, June 25, 2012, 2:45pm EDT

Cuban-exile business leaders say the reforms in Cuba are window dressing.
Cuban-exile business leaders say the reforms in Cuba are window dressing.

Editor in Chief- South Florida Business Journal
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Prominent retired Cuban exile business and corporate leaders on Monday issued a statement rejecting increased business ties with Cuba while the island nation remains under totalitarian rule.
The group said it wanted to "convey our great concern regarding the Castro regime’s deceptive campaign aimed at securing much-needed financial resources to prolong its iron grip over the people of Cuba."
While Miami is often portrayed as the epicenter of anti-Castro sentiment, the executives represent a cross-section of some of the biggest names in U.S. business, including PepsiCo, Dow Chemical, Bristol-Myers Squibb, American Express and General Mills.
The Castro regime is facing what the signatories called the most severe financial crisis since the early 1990s.
The Cuban economy is partially propped up by Venezuela, which supplies more than 100,000 barrels of petroleum products a day, partly in return for the services of Cuban personnel in Venezuela, the CIA Factbook notes. There are questions about how long that can continue, given the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The signatories scoffed at economic reforms that allowed more self-employment, which was done amid serious shortages of food, products, housing and services in Cuba.
Instead of true economic reforms, the Castro regime has "only introduced non-systemic, heavily-taxed, revocable reforms with no legal protection or investment return," the signatories said.
The document said the Castro regime is pursuing a three-pronged strategy:
• Trying to induce the U.S. to lift or further weaken the embargo to funnel tourist dollars and bank credits to the bankrupt island – a bailout under the guise of constructive engagement.