The Middle East Channel

Israel Announces Plans for 1,400 New Settlement Homes

Israel published tenders Friday for the construction of over 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The plan includes building 801 housing units in the West Bank, and 600 in East Jerusalem. Israel's housing ministry additionally re-issued tenders for 582 units in East Jerusalem that did not previously receive bids from contractors. According to the anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, Israel has announced plans for the construction of an estimated 5,349 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since peace talks resumed in the summer of 2013. Concerned that new settlements could jeopardize negotiations, European and U.S. officials have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to move forward with construction. The Israeli government delayed the announcement until after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent trip to the region working on establishing a framework for a peace agreement. The announcement also came after Israel's release in late December of 26 Palestinian prisoners in part of a deal brokered by the United States for the resumption of peace talks.

Syria

Forces loyal to the Syrian government have reportedly killed dozens of opposition fighters attempting to break an army siege of parts of the central city of Homs. According to the Syrian news agency SANA, regime troops "confronted armed terrorist groups," killing 37 rebels in one operation, and several more in other attacks. SANA did not give a casualty figure for government forces. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 45 rebel fighters were ambushed and killed in the regime controlled Khaldiya neighborhood of Homs's Old City. Meanwhile, the Observatory reported that 482 people, including 85 civilians, were killed in a week of fierce clashes between rebel factions and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Free Syrian Army (FSA) officials have accused ISIL of forwarding the Assad regime's agenda by attacking rebel forces that were fighting to gain control of government-held territory or helping Assad's forces to target FSA fighters. U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say al Qaeda-linked extremist groups in Syria are working to identify, recruit, and train Westerners who have traveled to fight in the region to carry out attacks when they return home. According to officials, at least 70 Americans have traveled to Syria, or attempted to, since the conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines  

  • Iran and Russia are negotiating an oil-for-goods deal for Iran to exchange 500,000 barrels a day of oil for Russian equipment and goods, despite Western sanctions.
  • Tunisia's Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has resigned, ending the rule of the Islamist Ennahda party in line with a transition agreement, and will be replaced by Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa.
  • A standoff between Iraqi troops and militants in Anbar province has entered its second week, meanwhile the U.S. military is pushing to resume training Iraqi commandos in efforts to fight extremism.
  • Hospital officials said Thursday former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in "grave" condition.
  • Three Al Jazeera journalists held in Egypt's Tora prison will remain in custody for 15 additional days awaiting sentencing, which was postponed until February 2.   

Arguments and Analysis

'Winning the Peace by Failing in Geneva: How to Work the Syria Negotiations' (Jeremy Shapiro and Samuel Charap, Foreign Affairs)

"If the United States recognizes that Russia's objectives are about the process, not the outcomes of a settlement, and acts that way, the negotiations could produce closer U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria. Washington needs to let the talks unfold in a way that demonstrates to Moscow that Assad and his cronies -- rather than the opposition, U.S. policy, or other states in the region -- are the main obstacle to peace and stability.

That might not be too difficult to manage. Assad seems to have no intention of negotiating a deal or countenancing any kind of power-sharing. But the Kremlin has been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Until Assad demonstrates his bad faith by publicly rejecting a settlement that Russia accepts, Moscow will continue to regard him as a part of the solution, not the source of the problem.

There is some precedent for such a change in Russian policy. In 2009, Tehran publicly rejected a Russian offer to store Iran's enriched uranium -- a deal that Iran had accepted days earlier. Angered by Iran's betrayal, Russia supported tough new UN sanctions against Iran in June 2010.

Similarly, if Geneva II fails because Assad rejects a reasonable deal that all the other parties endorse, Moscow will begin to see that its desire for both stability in the region and avoiding coercive regime change requires working more closely with the United States. It might then pressure Assad to accept a transition. It could also work with the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council to address the humanitarian situation in Syria, particularly by seeking approval for UN agencies to enter Syria through border crossings not controlled by Damascus, which could bring desperately needed help to hundreds of thousands of people in opposition-held areas."

'Khaled Dawoud: Point of no return' (The Arabist)

"The current struggle between those who cling to the 'Islamic identity' of Egypt and those who believe that Egypt has one of the most ancient identities in the world, while striving to build a modern state, has been going on for more than two hundred years and will not die out anytime soon. I was one of those who said that the Brotherhood's arrival in power was a chance to prove that their abuse of religion does not mean that they have preternatural abilities to solve Egypt's accumulated and intractable problems. Egyptians discovered this quickly and hit the streets in the millions on June 30 to call for an end to Morsi's failed rule. I had hoped that the integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process would help put an end to their insularity and their claims that they are a 'Godly organization' that does not err because God is helping them, and that they would acknowledge that they are a political organization that can co-exist with others if they would only give up their claim to possess absolute truth.

Now, after the government's announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood is a 'terrorist organization' and the Brotherhood's reciprocal escalation by threatening to 'string up' the 'coup-plotters,' it seems that any talk about national consensus has become a sort of delusion and the upper hand belongs to whichever of the two sides escalates and doesn't blink. The Brotherhood has the chance to reconsider its position and start on the path of reconciliation with the Egyptian people, if it recognizes that what happened on June 30 was an expression of real popular outrage and not just 'Photoshop' and that the end of Morsi's presidency -- even though he was elected -- is not the end of the world. It certainly does not mean that the alternative is to destroy Egypt and burn it to the ground. This is taking into account that we are still making our first steps toward trying to build a democratic system after sixty continuous years of one-man and one-party rule."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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