Sunday 28 March 2010

Netanyahu denies reports a close aide slammed Obama as a 'disaster' in wake of meeting

DAILY MAIL 28th March 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Benjamin Netanyahu was forced yesterday to deny reports that a close aide had described President Barack Obama as Israel's 'greatest disaster'.

The frantic damage-limitation exercise comes after more than two weeks of tension over Israeli construction plans in Jerusalem.

Washington has demanded that Israel freeze all settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.

'Comment was never made': Israeli prime minister Benjamin  Netanyahu has denied an aide called U.S. President Barack Obama  'Israel's biggest failure'

'Comment was never made': Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied an aide called U.S. President Barack Obama 'Israel's biggest failure'

Netanyahu says he will continue to expand the new Israeli areas of East Jerusalem, already home to more than 180,000 people.

President Obama is backing the Palestinian demand that indirect talks designed to kick-start the moribund peace process cannot begin unless Israel agrees to a complete freeze.

The issue has sparked a major crisis in US-Israeli relations that wrecked the first visit to the region by US vice president Joe Biden earlier this month.

Last week, Netanyahu met Obama in the Oval Office, but in circumstances that Israeli commentators said recalled a visit by an unwanted 'dictator' rather than a close friend and ally.

There was no press conference, no photographed handshake and Netanyahu was forced to use an anonymous side entrance. Half-way through the meeting, the president left Netanyahu to go and dine with his family and did not invite the prime minister to join him.

Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper, said a trusted confidant of Netanyahu called Obama Israel’s 'greatest disaster' alongside a scathing description of his 'humiliating' treatment at the White House.

'President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton adapted a clear Palestinian point of view,' said the anonymous aide. 'This is a sick and insane matter; it is a catastrophic situation. We are facing a hostile administration like never before.'

'The prime minister emphatically rejects the anonymous quotes about President Obama that a newspaper attributed to one of his confidants, and he condemns them,' Netanyahu said in a statement issued by his office on Sunday.

Snub: Obama is said to have excused himself from the meeting with  Netanyahu to dine with his family, but did not invite the Israeli PM to  join him

Snub: Obama is said to have excused himself from the meeting with Netanyahu to dine with his family, but did not invite the Israeli PM to join him

Speaking to the weekly cabinet session in Jerusalem yesterday, he described relations between Israel and the US as 'those of allies and friends'.

'I would like to make it clear: I find these remarks to be unacceptable. They are from nobody acting on my behalf,' he said.

David Axelrod, a key adviser to President Obama, also said on Sunday that the frosty White House reception was not a calculated insult.

'This was a working meeting among friends. And so there was no snub intended,' Axelrod told CNN. He said the two leaders were focused on practicalities, not protocol.

'This was not about formalities. This was not about a ceremonial meeting. This was a working meeting. We have a deep, abiding interest in Israel's security. And we believe the peace process is essential to that,' he said.

But many Israelis, who in polls give Obama an approval rating of less than 10 per cent, are not convinced.

'This government has made large concessions to launch negotiations, including the possible recognition of a Palestinian state and freezing construction. All these have been disregarded, and instead the bar kept being raised,' said National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio is the best.. Bar none, says Refaeli

SUNDAY MIRROR 28th March, 2010
EXCLUSIVE by Nick Owens and Matthew Kalman

Supermodel Bar Rafaeli says their relationship is stronger after six-month split

Bar Refaeli (

Supermodel Bar Refaeli dated a string of men during her split with boyfriend Leonardo ­DiCaprio... but says none of them matched up to the Hollywood actor.

Talking for the first time about their six months apart, the Israeli beauty revealed how she tried getting involved with other men but said she couldn’t “stomach” any of them.

“It was fun,” she said. “I tried ­going out with this one and I tried going out with that one. I met men of the world.”

But she said she was very selfish. “I told people, ‘Just so you know, I don’t have much to give right now’.

“But at the same time I felt a little bad because I thought, ‘When will this end?’ I hoped that one day I would be able to give myself again to someone.”

Lingerie model Bar, 24, reconciled with Leo, 35, in December and she says the split is what they both needed as it has made their ­relationship even stronger.

She said the time apart after two years together gave her the ­opportunity to understand a lot of things about herself.

“I worked on myself – I grew up,” she said. “I got my girlfriends back. From a very young age I have always had a boyfriend and I didn’t know what it was like to be inside my own skin.

“Today I know that a relationship can work only if you know you can be alone and you are not afraid. Now I’m not afraid of being alone.”

In her interview with Israeli women’s ­magazine L’isha, Bar – the face and body of clothing line Rampage – denied rumours the pair are set to get engaged.

“I am not thinking about getting married,” she said. “I’m still young. And when I do get engaged I might even hide the ring. I want it to remain private.”

Friday 26 March 2010

Bar Refaeli Always There for Leonardo DiCaprio (Just Not on the Red Carpet)

Thursday March 25, 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Bar Refaeli Always There for Leonardo DiCaprio (Just Not on the  Red Carpet)

Bar Refaeli and Leonardo DiCaprio

Maybe a little time off is all they needed.

Bar Refaeli says that though she went through a "tough time" after splitting up with boyfriend Leonardo DiCaprio for six months, their relationship ultimately emerged stronger.

"It was a half year for which I am very grateful," the Israeli supermodel, 24, tells her country's top-selling L'Isha magazine. "I needed it. I came to understand a lot of things about myself. "

"I worked on myself [and] I grew up," Refaeli says. "I didn't know what 'alone' was like. Today I know that a relationship can work only if you know you can be alone and you are not afraid. Today I’m not afraid of being alone."

She may not be alone – but Refaeli and DiCaprio aren't engaged either.

"I'm not thinking about getting married," she says, laughing off rumors that she was wearing an engagement ring in Berlin over Valentine's Day. "I'm still young, not yet 25."

Refaeli prefers to keep a lower profile – though she is out with DiCaprio much of the time.

"I am there for him and I am at all the events," she says. "I just don't walk in hand-in-hand with him. I don't see any reason. I don't need to strike poses with him in front of the cameras."

That's why they kept their heads down at a recent Orlando Magic-Los Angeles Lakers game. Says Refaeli: "No one needs to know how we kiss."

Tuesday 23 March 2010

In Israel, Students Get a Seat at the Planning Table for Higher Education

March 23, 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Israeli government ministers, education officials, and students announced on Tuesday the creation of a new joint planning and negotiating mechanism designed to end years of turmoil in the country's higher-education system.

"We are talking about a revolutionary reform in higher education," said Boaz Toporovsky, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students.

Under the new arrangement, government, university, and student representatives will sit on permanent committees to jointly plan developments in higher education and reach agreement on tuition rates.

The government will provide 72 percent of the higher-education budget, with tuition contributing the remaining 28 percent. The government has pledged not to raise tuition in the next three years without students' consent.

As a confidence-building gesture, the government will refund some $27-million in tuition to students who have attended college in the past two years.

"It is very important to bring about a significant increase in the resources available to the system that has seen cuts in the past," Gideon Saar, the education minister, said at a news conference in Jerusalem. "There is now an urgent need to increase the teaching staff, to increase the ratio of teaching staff to students, and to expand the budget."

The Israeli higher-education system has been hit over the past decade by cuts equal to some $300-million, or about 20 percent of the budget. That has sparked fears about the future of the country's publicly financed university and college system, which enrolls some 220,000 students.

Students went on strike for 41 days in the spring of 2007 to protest planned tuition increases; tenured professors staged a 90-day strike of their own the following semester in pursuit of a pay rise; and junior professors called a work stoppage in May 2008 demanding better wages and pension rights.

The disruptions took place against the background of a 2007 government inquiry known as the Shochat Report. It recommended sweeping reforms in the financing of higher education, in part to reverse a significant brain drain. At least 25 percent of all Israeli academics are employed by American, not Israeli, universities.

Students had protested their exclusion from most of the deliberations of the Shochat Committee. On Tuesday, Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the planning and budgeting committee of the Israeli Council for Higher Education, conceded that had been a mistake.

He said the new mechanism would oblige the government to provide substantially more money for the higher-education system.

Mr. Trajtenberg said the goal is to create 500 new teaching jobs over the next five years, as well as replace 1,000 professors due to retire. In the process, the student-to-professor ratio would drop from 25-to-1 to 19-to-1.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Middle East Quartet call on Israel to freeze settlements on second day of rocket attacks from Gaza

By MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem
DAILY MAIL 19th March 2010

Two Palestinians have been wounded as rockets continue to slam into southern Israel, the day after a farm worker was hit and killed by a strike from Gaza.

Overnight, Israeli jets hit six targets inside Gaza used for the smuggling and production of weapons.

As violence escalated on the ground, in Moscow, the Middle East Quartet of nations condemned the Palestinian rocket attacks and called on Israel to freeze all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to help re-start stalled peace talks.

A rocket fired across the border from Gaza landed in open fields around 12pm on Friday, the fifth rocket fired in a 48-hour period.

A sixth rocket apparently exploded inside the Hamas-controlled area as it was being launched.

In the early hours of Friday morning, Israeli jets struck at six sites in the Gaza Strip that the Israeli army said were used by Palestinians to smuggle, manufacture and deploy weapons against Israel.

Two Palestinians were slightly injured.

The targets included three smuggling tunnels underneath the Gaza-Egypt border, a weapons manufacturing workshop near Gaza City and two ‘terror tunnels’ underneath the northern Gaza border leading into Israel.

‘The two terror tunnels were dug one kilometer from the security fence, for the purpose of infiltrating Israel and executing terror attacks against Israeli civilians or IDF soldiers,’ an Israeli army spokesman said.

More than 330 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the past year, including the one on Thursday that hit and killed a farm labourer from Thailand working in greenhouses in northern Netiv Ha’asara.

Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defence minister, said: ‘Israel is not interested in a military confrontation, but will not allow attacks on its citizens.

‘Hamas must prevent any and all attacks on Israel to avoid a deterioration of the situation.’

In Moscow, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led a meeting of the Middle East Quartet – the UN, EU, U.S. and Russia – ahead of his first visit to the region on Saturday.

The Quartet denounced both Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli settlement expansion, including plans for new Israeli homes in East Jerusalem that prompted Palestinians to withdraw from indirect peace talks scheduled to begin this week.

‘The proximity talks are an important step toward the resumption, without pre-conditions, of direct, bilateral negotiations,’ the Quartet said in a statement, saying it expected a peace deal within 24 months.

As violence once again took hold around Gaza, that seemed an optimistic forecast.

The group also declared its strong support for its representative in Jerusalem, former Tony Blair, who is trying to gather international support for a two-year state-building blueprint drafted by the moderate Palestinian Authority government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged the Quartet to monitor Israeli settlement activity.

‘The Israelis have the choice now, either to continue with settlement activities or to engage with the peace process,’ Erekat said.

‘I don't think we can have a meaningful peace process without Israel stopping all settlement activities.’

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Israel Approves $300-Million Fund to Reverse Brain Drain

March 14, 2010

The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved a new $300-million plan to reverse Israel's brain drain and attract top-class researchers back to their homeland, Ynetnews reported. A recent survey found that the ratio of Israeli academics working in the United States to those in Israel was nearly 25 percent. The new fund, one-third of which will come from the government, will establish 30 centers of academic excellence at existing universities with attractive salary, budget, and working conditions to woo academics.

Monday 15 March 2010

Ties between U.S. and Israel 'at their worst in 35 years' over housing row

By David Gardner and Matthew Kalman

DAILY MAIL 15th March 2010

Relations between the U.S. and Israel have sunk to their lowest point in 35 years, derailing hopes for peace in the Middle East.

Israel's ambassador to the U.S. admitted that the crisis was real and dismissed attempts to play down the diplomatic row.

Michael Oren said: 'Israel's ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975 - a crisis of historic proportions.'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s

Israeli PM: Benjamin Netanyahu has defied U.S. demands to shelve the settlement expansion plan and said it 'in no way' hurts Palestinians

His remarks reflect the Obama administration's fury at Israel's announcement last week that it was building 1,600 new homes for Jews in occupied East Jerusalem.

The plan was unveiled in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's peace-making trip to Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Israel's behaviour 'insulting'.

Despite apologising for the timing of the announcement, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defied U.S. demands to shelve the settlement expansion plan and said yesterday that it 'in no way' hurts Palestinians.

'For the past 40 years, no Israeli government ever limited construction in the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem,' he said in a speech in parliament.

And he said the construction of homes for Jews in the city's eastern sector 'in no way' hurts Palestinians.

Hillary Clinton

'Very unfortunate': Hillary Clinton reacted angrily to news of Israel's plans for new settlement in East Jerusalem

EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton said the settlements were illegal and blamed Israel for jeopardising peace talks between Tel Aviv and Palestinian leaders.

In mentioning 1975, Mr Oren was referring to the crisis ignited between Israel and the U.S. by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's demand for a partial Israeli withdrawal from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

News of the new homes plan wrecked Mr Biden’s first visit to the region and threatens to torpedo talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Obama administration, which is trying to build an international coalition to block Iran’s nuclear weapons drive, sees the renewal of the peace process as vital to securing Arab support for sanctions against Iran.

Now the Palestinians say they will boycott the talks unless Israel cancels all new building in East Jerusalem. Both sides regard the disputed city as their capital.

Observers said they could not recall the last time Israel had suffered such withering criticism from the U.S., its closest ally.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni said Netanyahu was 'a prime minister who does not know what he wants. Israel is paying for its government's failure to make decisions and will continue to pay for it.'

The vice president publicly condemned the Israeli move and the Israeli ambassador was summoned to the State Department for a dressing-down.

Mrs Clinton's spokesman said the incident had 'undermined trust and confidence in the peace process.'

'The Israeli bilateral relationship with the United States has just become much more difficult,' said Haim Malka at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

'It is hard to remember a time when a senior U.S. official used the word "condemn" to describe the actions of any ally, let alone a close ally such as Israel.'

Vice President Joe Biden sits with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Wrecked: The news scuppered Joe Biden's (left) first visit to the region and threatens to damage talks between Israel and the Palestinians - Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu apologised for the 'regrettable incident'

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a liberal Jewish group with strong ties to the Democratic Party, said the American administration was guilty of 'a gross overreaction.'

'The administration should have confidence and trust in Israel whose tireless pursuit for peace is repeatedly rebuffed by the Palestinians and whose interests remain in line with the United States,' said Foxman.

The Palestinians, clearly delighted by Israel’s discomfiture, are trying to push home their advantage by demanding a complete building freeze in East Jerusalem as their price for entering the proximity talks. Israeli officials say that was never on the table.

Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, accused Clinton of 'meddling in internal Israeli decisions regarding the development of our capital Jerusalem.'

Netanyahu is now caught between the right-wingers in his government and the need to appease the U.S. The last time he alienated the right wing in his previous coalition a decade ago, his government fell.

Meanwhile, Israel battened down the hatches to try and prevent new protests after a tense weekend in and around Jerusalem.

The moves come ahead of celebrations planned for Tuesday, when Israel will re-dedicate the Hurva, the largest synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City which was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948.

The army extended its closure on the West Bank, cutting off access to Israel for all but a few Palestinians, and male worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem were limited to those aged over 50.

Friday 12 March 2010

Israel seals off West Bank as tensions rise

Israel sealed off the West Bank on Friday as tensions mounted in Jerusalem over controversial plans to build new homes for Jewish settlers.

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak : Israeli army to seal off West Bank as tensions rise

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has ordered the army to seal off the West Bank for 48 hours
Photo: AP

Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the army to cut off the area until midnight on Saturday, citing a heightened risk of attacks.

Israel has sealed off the West Bank ahead of major holidays in the past, but only rarely on other occasions.

Security sources said the closure was decided after Israel discovered plans to repeat last Friday's riots in Jerusalem in which more than 60 Palestinian youths and 15 Israeli police were injured.

The closure was announced the day after US vice-president Joe Biden concluded a visit to the region aimed at promoting renewed peace talks.

Hopes of negotiations collapsed when Israel announced 1,600 new settler homes would be built in predominantly-Arab east Jerusalem.

Israel also limited access to Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Only worshippers with Israeli identity cards and aged over 50 were permitted.

Prayers passed off peacefully at the mosque itself, but youths denied entry threw stones at Israeli police in Sultan Suleiman Street, Wadi Joz and Ras-Al-Amud on the Mount of Olives. Hundreds of Palestinians hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers near Ramallah.

Inside the Old City and throughout East Jerusalem, 3,000 Israeli police and paramilitary border police patrolled the narrow lanes, took up positions on rooftops and checked ID cards at temporary checkpoints.

Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen said he would try "to preserve the channel of dialogue with the various bodies so that quiet can be maintained on the site so that everyone can exercise their right to worship as they see fit."

Until Saturday night, only teachers, humanitarian and religious workers or Palestinians needing medical care will be allowed through checkpoints from the West Bank to Israel.

"The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect the citizens of Israel while maintaining the quality of life of the Palestinian population in the area," said an Israeli army spokesman.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of trying "to ignite a religious war in the region."

More trouble is expected next week with a planned march by right-wing Israelis through the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem.

Thursday 11 March 2010

US-Israeli relations hit new low over settlement plan

The Obama administration's relations with Israel have hit a new low as hopes for fresh peace talks collapsed in the wake of the row over plans for 1,600 settler homes.

Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem and Alex Spillius in Washington

Israel Palestine peace talks break down over settlement row
US Vice President Joe Biden with Palestinian President Mahmoud AbbasPhoto: EPA

US Vice-President Joe Biden ended a three-day visit to the region by saying President Barack Obama had asked him to issue an "immediate and unequivocal" condemnation of the moves.

Mr Biden had hoped his trip would be crowned by the resumption of talks between Israel and Palestinians after a year of stalemate. But he was left humiliated after the surprise announcement on Tuesday of plans for settlement construction in disputed east Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, said it would now be "impossible" for the US-mediated indirect talks to go ahead unless the plans were withdrawn.

"Our position is simple," said spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh. "The Palestinians and the Arabs accepted the indirect talks.

"It was the Israeli decision to start a new settlement project in East Jerusalem that hindered these talks. The Israelis should revoke these decisions, otherwise it will be difficult and impossible to go back to the negotiations."

The Palestinians were supported by the 22-nation Arab League which had first raised hopes of negotiations by giving Mr Abbas its backing to restart talks.

Mr Biden attempted to strike a conciliatory tone in his final speech yesterday but warned that Israel's announcement had "undermined the trust required for productive negotiations".

"I, at the request of President Obama, condemned it immediately and unequivocally," he said. "Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, telephoned the vice-president yesterday morning to "express his regret for the unfortunate timing" of the decision.

He is said to have reiterated his claim that he had not been aware of the announcement, and said he had summoned Interior Minister Eli Yishai to reprimand him.

The final approval process for the settlement would probably take more than a year, with construction starting several years from now, he said.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as capital of their future state, while Mr Netanyahu considers it part of "the eternal, undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people".

President Obama had hoped that by restarting the Israeli-Palestinian process he would persuade Arab states to back tough sanctions to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

But since his overture to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo last year he has had little success. Mr Biden's visit this week was designed to be a closely-choreographed presentation of Washington's ability to bring Israel into line.

Experts on the region said they could not remember the last time an American leader had used the word “condemn” in relation to Israel.

Aaron David Miller, who worked on peace negotiations for the Clinton administration, said: “If you wanted to create in a laboratory a set of events that was more harmful to American interests you could not have done a better job than this.

“It’s personally embarrassing for the vice-president and it undermines the integrity of the talks, which didn’t have much chance of working anyway.”

Another Washington Middle Eastern expert said the White House had been made to look “weak and hopeless” in its dealing’s with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In a speech to students at Tel Aviv University on Thursday, Mr Biden pleaded with Israel to do everything necessary to enter negotiations with Mr Abbas and his colleagues.

"Israeli leaders finally have willing partners who share the goal of peace between two states and have the competence to establish a nation. Their commitment to peace is an opportunity that must be seized," said Mr Biden.

"The most important thing is for these talks to go forward, and go forward promptly and go forward in good faith," he said.

The Americans initiated the indirect talks because the Palestinians had refused to enter direct negotiations without a full settlement freeze in East Jerusalem.

Israeli officials said was it was "unacceptable" of the Palestinians to make new demands before entering indirect talks as well.

"They are moving the goalposts," said one Israeli diplomat.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Middle East peace talks in doubt over Israeli homes plan

Plans to restart Middle East peace talks have been thrown into doubt after Israel received worldwide condemnation over plans to build 1,600 homes in the occupied West Bank.

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

President Shimon Peres (R) with the visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the President's residence in Jerusalem: Joe Biden: Israel and Palestine peace talks at 'moment of opportunity'
President Shimon Peres (R) with the visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the President's residence in Jerusalem Photo: EPA

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of "the ruining of trust" and said there were questions over whether fresh negotiations could now take place.

Israel's announcement left visiting US Vice President Joe Biden deeply embarrassed after a day in which he had heaped praise and affection on the country's leaders.

He expressed his fury by arriving 90 minutes late for a private dinner with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, on Tuesday night and reiterated his condemnation yesterday.

Speaking in Ramallah after meeting Mr Abbas, he accused Israel of "undermining the trust that we need right now" and complicating efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians after a year in deep freeze.

Mr Netanyahu claimed he knew nothing about the announcement of the planned construction in a Jerusalem suburb in the occupied West Bank.

But it threatened to torpedo plans for indirect peace talks that should have crowned the first visit to the region by Mr Biden.

In Strasbourg, EU high representative for foreign affairs Baroness Ashton told the European parliament she wanted to "join Vice-President Biden in condemning the decision." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said settlement activity "undermines any movement towards a viable peace process."

Mr Abbas said Israeli policies "especially inside Jerusalem, threaten these negotiations" and demanded Israel cancel the construction plans.

Addressing the Israeli people directly, Mr Abbas said he was committed to a "permanent, lasting, comprehensive and just peace" and urged the Israeli government "not to waste the opportunity".

"I would like to tell them that time is right for peace based on two states, an Israeli state that will live in peace and security alongside a Palestinian state, based on the borders of June 1967 with Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

Mr Biden strongly endorsed the leadership of Mr Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, even though their terms legally expired some time ago and they have little influence in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

He said the Obama administration was "fully committed to the Palestinian people and to achieving a Palestinian state that is independent, viable and contiguous," and "strongly supports the Palestinian Authority's efforts to build as well as strengthen its institutions and develop the economy of a state".

Lieut-Gen Keith Dayton, a US army officer, is training thousands of Palestinian paramilitary police and security forces loyal to Mr Abbas in a Jordanian training camp.

Mr Biden called on both sides to take "historically bold steps" to reach "a historic peace" but indicated it would not be easy.

"As we move forward, the United States will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did," Mr Biden warned in a clear rebuke to the Israelis. It was also an oblique warning to the Palestinians who plan to name a square in Ramallah on Thursday in memory of a Fatah terrorist who led an attack on an Israeli commuter bus in 1978 in which 37 Israelis were killed.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Joe Biden pledges 'unvarnished' support for Israeli security

US Vice President Joe Biden pledged America's "total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security" as he visited Jerusalem to meet prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

President Shimon Peres (R) with the visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the President's residence in Jerusalem: Joe Biden: Israel and Palestine peace talks at 'moment of opportunity'
President Shimon Peres (R) with the visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the President's residence in Jerusalem Photo: EPA

There had been speculation Mr Biden would deliver a warning against Israel launching a unilateral military strike against Iran but instead he present a united front against Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

"There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security," said Mr Biden. "For that reason, and many others, addressing Iran's nuclear programme has been one of our administration's priorities.

"We're determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we're working with many countries around the world to convince Tehran to meet its international obligations and cease and desist."

In contrast to recent State Department criticism of Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, the vice president went out of his way to praise Mr Netanyahu's partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction. He hailed his willingness to make "historically bold commitments" to reach peace with the Palestinians.

Mr Biden also welcomed the decision by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume indirect peace talks after more than a year of paralysis, leading to direct talks and "a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security". Mr Biden is due to meet Palestinian leaders in Ramallah on Wednesday.

"The best long-term guarantee for Israel's security is a comprehensive Middle East peace with the Palestinians, with the Syrians, with Lebanon and leading eventually to full and normalised relationships with the entire Arab world," he said.

Mr Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to peace with the Palestinians and called for "tough sanctions" against Iran.

"The stronger those sanctions are, the more likely it will be that the Iranian regime will have to choose between advancing its nuclear program and advancing the future of its own permanence," he said.

Mr Biden's short speech at Mr Netanyahu's official residence was long on expressions and body language aimed at pacifying Israelis feeling cold-shouldered by President Obama's failure to visit their country since he was elected. The two leaders referred to their long personal friendship and addressed each other as "my friend Joe" and "Bibi".

"It's been too long between visits here," said Mr Biden. "It is true that you and I have been friends a long, long time It's just quite frankly good to be back in your company and see you." The two men did not take questions in the carefully-choreographed appearance. The only glitch came when Mr Netanyahu came to present Mr Biden with a certificate to mark the planting of a grove of trees in Jerusalem in memory of the vice president's mother, only to discover the glass in the frame had shattered. The two leaders will be hoping that their alliance is less fragile.

Sunday 7 March 2010

The night Rio tried to seduce me...but ended chatting about psychology instead

7th March 2010

By Matthew Kalman

The stunning Israeli model said to have had a fling with England captain Rio Ferdinand just days before his wedding has revealed how the footballer seduced her – but insists they never slept together.

The Manchester United defender, who was given the skipper’s job when John Terry was sacked over his extramarital affair, bombarded Tslil Sela with flirtatious texts and phonecalls, claiming he was unattached.

But when he did get the 21-year-old alone in a Tel Aviv hotel bedroom, she turned down his advances – and they spent the night talking about psychology instead.

Although she never again heard from Ferdinand after he flew back to Britain for his £5million wedding to the mother of his two young children, Rebecca Ellison, Ms Sela insists the 31-year-old was a ‘gentleman’.


Tslil Sela says Rio Ferdinand tried to seduce her but that they never slept together

She met Ferdinand – who has been trying to transform his reputation from wild party animal to respectable role model – last June, when he was in Israel for the wedding of a friend’s daughter.

They had both been invited to the opening of a health club, where they instantly hit it off.

‘There was this click immediately,’ Tslil told The Mail on Sunday. ‘I was there with all these beautiful models who were trying to impress him, but I didn’t really know who he was.

'I did think he looked cute. He called me over and told me to stay and talk to him. That evening he sent me a text message to meet up with him at the Clara nightclub. I said OK.’

The Israeli brunette – a student who became a part-time model after appearing on a reality TV show – spent the evening dancing with Ferdinand. At about 3am, he invited a dozen people back to his hotel, the David Intercontinental.


Tslil Sela with Rio Ferdinand and another friend in Tel Aviv

A lot of alcohol flowed, but she said neither she nor Ferdinand were drinking. After a while, the footballer asked everyone to leave, and soon they were alone on the bed.

‘It was crazy, I know,’ she admitted. ‘I thought we might make out a little bit, but that’s all. I asked him if he was seeing someone and he said no. We started kissing.

'He put his hand under my top. Then he took his shirt off. He kept his underwear on. He started touching me and then I stopped him.

‘I was shocked. I’ve never been in any situation even close to this. He asked me what was wrong. I told him I was nervous and he told me, “OK, just cool off.” Then he continued, so I stopped him again and said it was too much for me.

Tslil Sela
Tslil Sela

Model Tslil enjoyed Rio Ferdinand's company during his stag week

I told him I didn’t even know him. I freaked out because he was moving fast. He saw that, so he stopped.

‘He definitely wanted sex and when I said no, he was really shocked and disappointed. You could tell no one had ever said no to him.

I said, “What’s so shocking about it? I don’t even know you. Does every woman who doesn’t know you sleep with you?”

‘I was really innocent. I’d had boyfriends, but I had never gone back to a guy’s place on a first date. I was not used to someone that was just trying to get me into bed. But I thought to myself, what a gentleman that he takes “no” for an answer.’

Tslil Sela was said to be shocked to discover that Ferdinand was engaged

Tslil was shocked to discover that Ferdinand was engaged

After the failed seduction, Ferdinand moved, uncharacteristically, to more cerebral matters.

‘We talked for about an hour and a half,’ Tslil said. ‘He talked about me studying psychology and wanted my observations about him.

‘How do you describe a guy you don’t know after you’ve studied psychology for only a year? So I said general things. I said that maybe sometimes he feels a bit alone. He stopped me and said, “You know, that’s exactly right”. He said everybody thinks they know him and says he’s sleazy.

‘He said he wasn’t like that, but was gentle and sensitive, not as sleazy as they always say. He was sounding too sweet, when I think about it. After we finished talking, we went back to the others. They were all drunk. Then we left.’

However, they continued to see each other, spending the next four nights dancing at the Clara – although Tslil never again returned to his hotel.

Ferdinand and his wife Rebecca, who wed last year and have two children together

Ferdinand and his wife Rebecca, who wed last year and have two children together

Nevertheless, Ferdinand bombarded her with texts and calls, promising to fly her to the UK and buy her gifts, telling her how beautiful she was, calling her ‘minx’ and saying he couldn’t wait to be alone again with her.

‘I thought it was serious. I even told my family about him,’ Tslil said. ‘I thought he would send me a ticket to London and I could hang out with him. He looked like he was someone decent and sensitive.’

On June 17, at 1.46am, he sent her a text just before boarding his plane home: ‘Don’t worry, we will meet up again.’ That was the last she heard from him. Two weeks later, she was devastated to read that he had married Rebecca.

At first, she says, she felt betrayed, but now just wishes Ferdinand well.

‘You can’t interfere in other people’s relationships,’ she said. ‘Only she [Rebecca] knows if it’s good for her to stay or not. He has to deal with the consequences.’

But she added his off-the-field behaviour shouldn’t affect his England job. ‘I don’t have any wish to see him fail because of this,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t want to be the cause of him losing the captaincy like John Terry.

‘I got hurt by him but I don’t want his life to be destroyed. I just hope what happened with me will make him stop sleeping with other girls.’

Ferdinand’s football agent Pini Zahavi said last night: ‘I don’t know her and I was with Rio most of the time while he was there.

‘There were a lot of people with him all the time, so it would have been very difficult. She has been trying to sell the story.’

Palestinians accept US offer to enter indirect talks with Israel

Palestinian leaders said representatives would join indirect peace talks with Israel yesterday as the American envoy met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to launch the initiative.


By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, has applied intense pressure on both sides to resume talks, broken off after Mr Netanyahu's election a year ago.

"The Palestinian leadership has decided to give an opportunity for the American suggestion to hold indirect talks between the Israeli and Palestinian sides," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official.

Mr Mitchell will shuttle between the two sides during four months of "proximity" talks in which the Israelis and Palestinians will not meet directly. The two teams are expected to sit in Ramallah and Jerusalem – a 15-minute drive – or in separate rooms in an American facility.

Commentators ridiculed the idea after 17 years of direct peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO but Mr Mitchell is said to regard the formula as the only route to resume negotiations. Indirect talks are generally used when the two sides refuse to recognise each other, as in negotiations between Israel and Hamas to free captured soldier Gilad Shalit, conducted through Egyptian and German mediation.

Palestinian leaders agreed to go ahead after the Arab League approved the move last week.

The Palestinians have called for a 10-month settlement freeze announced by Mr Netanyahu last November be extended permanently and that the status of East Jerusalem – seen by Palestinians as their future capital – be placed on the agenda.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Peace talks between Israel and Palestine imminent

Israel and the Palestinians are poised to resume peace talks as early as next week, ending a year-long moratorium, after Arab leaders agreed to allow the US to act as a go-between.

4 Mar 2010

Matthew Kalman, in Jerusalem

The Arab League approved four months of "indirect proximity talks" brokered by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell who will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah next week to make the final arrangements.

It means that rather than sit down together, representatives of the two sides will sit separately while a US negotiator shuttles between them to enable discussion, albeit through a third party.

The talks are likely to be held over a series of meetings in the Middle East and the United States. Israel will be represented by lawyer Yitzhak Molcho and the Palestinian envoy will be chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Palestinian leaders will meet in Ramallah this weekend to make their final decision on the proposal. They will demand that Israel cease all construction in West Bank settlements and agree to put the future of East Jerusalem on the negotiating table, Palestinian officials told The Daily Telegraph yesterday.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, welcomed the breakthrough, which will end a Palestinian boycott imposed since he was elected last February.

"We welcome the start of talks, even if they are proximity talks," Mr Netanyahu told Israeli cabinet ministers in Jerusalem on Thursday.

"In the end, our goal is to try and reach a peace agreement with our Palestinian neighbours via direct talks, but we have always said that we do not necessarily insist on this format. If this is what is necessary to start the process – Israel is ready. I think that there is international recognition that this government wants to start a peace process and I tell you that we also want to complete it."

A spokesman for Tony Blair, who represents the US, UN, Russia and the EU working with the Palestinians to secure peace, said: "Mr Blair has repeatedly urged both parties to return to the negotiating table and welcomes yesterday's decision by the Arab foreign ministers.

"Mr. Blair, who will be in the region next week, praised the tireless efforts of Senator Mitchell to secure the resumption of the diplomatic process and expressed hope that these would begin without further delay."

However, Palestinian leaders remain sceptical that the current Israeli government is serious about reaching a peace deal. They say a unilateral 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction announced by Mr Netanyahu last November has been honoured more in the breach than the observance and should also include East Jerusalem, otherwise the proximity talks will lead nowhere.

"It depends on two elements," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Daily Telegraph. "First, the seriousness of the Israeli government, whether they are really looking for a settlement, and secondly on the Americans, how much pressure are they going to put on the Israelis in order to start moving forward according to the Road Map," he said, referring to a US peace plan published in 2003.

"There won't be any direct talks unless there is progress within these four months through the indirect talks," said Mr Abu Rudeineh. "Putting East Jerusalem on the table is number one, settlements is number two – these are the main points."

Even if the two sides can cut through their mutual distrust, Israeli leaders doubt the ability of President Abbas's Fatah-led government to deliver on any peace agreement when its constitutional mandate has officially expired and the Palestinian territories remain divided between the Fatah administration in the West Bank and the Hamas-led regime in Gaza.

Mr Abu Rudeineh said there was no sign yet of a reconciliation with Hamas despite Egyptian-brokered talks that continued for more than a year and produced a draft agreement last November.

"Apart from the Egyptian document which we signed and the others didn't sign it yet - so far there is nothing new concerning this issue," he said.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Palestinian homes to make way for tourist park

Israel was facing new violence after announcing plans to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes to make way for an archaeological tourist attraction.

2 Mar 2010

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

Critics condemned proposals to relocate properties in East Jerusalem announced by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

Mr Barkat wants to create "The King's Garden" in an area known as the Bustan, a valley in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan just south of the walls of the Old City.

The area, adjacent to the ancient City of David, contains archaeological material up to 3,500 years old, and lies within a few hundred yards of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

To create this major new tourist park, Mr Barkat wants to remove 22 of 88 houses built without permits since 1967 and offer their owners the right to build close by. The new plan includes a major upgrade of roads and infrastructure, and the construction of a new school, community centre and car park.

Mr Barkat has also proposed retrospective approval for dozens of illegal buildings, opening the way for legalising a seven-storey apartment block built by Israeli settlers nearby that the country's high court had previously ordered demolished.

Many Palestinian residents inherited land in the Bustan but have been unable to secure building permits from the Israeli authorities who say the area was always zoned as an open space. Silwan is one of the most overcrowded neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. In recent years, Israeli families have moved into the area helped by right-wing groups.

"The goal is to improve an area that today is one of the lowest and worst in the city and develop it into an area we can all be proud of for the benefit of the residents and the benefit of the city, Mr Barkat told reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

He said the municipality would continue discussions with local residents in the hope of reaching agreement rather than implementing the scheme against their will.

"There are radicals and extremists that whatever we do the answer will be 'no,' who will try to use the plan to accuse us of wrongdoing," he said.

Hatem Abdel Kader, a Fatah leader in Jerusalem, said the mayor's plan was liable to spark violent Palestinian protests.

"Nir Barkat will bear the responsibility for the conflagration that will occur in the city if his plan is carried out," said Mr Abdel Kader.

"If this is what the Israelis want, we will not run away from this confrontation, and this is what they will get," he warned.

Clashes erupted last week at the Al-Aqsa Mosque between Israeli police and Palestinian youths protesting an Israeli decision to declare ancient Jewish shrines in the West Bank as areas of Israeli national heritage.