Israel PM warns of N-strike on Iran

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has again raised the prospect of a military strike on Iran.

The PM has said Tehran will cease its nuclear program only in the face of “a credible military option”.

He declared yesterday that as Prime Minister he was the only person capable of bringing the Israeli public behind any peace deal with the Palestinians.

In a confident performance before foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu also said he had made clear to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman his displeasure at his attack on members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Mr Lieberman criticised members of Likud who are opposed to his proposal to investigate left-wing groups that he says are “delegitimising” the Israeli Defence Forces.

Mr Netanyahu was asked about an assessment by retiring Mossad director Meir Dagan that Iran is not likely to achieve nuclear weapons before 2015.

“Intelligence estimates are exactly that, estimates,” he said.

Of the UN economic sanctions against Iran, the Prime Minister said: “The only chance these sanctions will achieve their objectives would be to couple them with an understanding from Iran that if they don’t achieve their goal they would be followed by a credible military option.”

He said the only time Iran had paused its nuclear program was in 2003 when it believed there was a credible military option from the US.

Mr Netanyahu said there was no doubt the current sanctions had caused hardship in Iran “but they have not in any way altered Iran’s determination to pursue its nuclear program”.

He did not rule out a peace agreement with Syria but saw no willingness by Syria to break its relationship with Iran.

On Gaza, he said the economic circumstances of the Hamas-governed strip had improved since Israel had eased restrictions on imports but warned about consequences if the recent spate of rockets being fired into Israel continued.

“I think they will make a terrible mistake to test our will to defend our people. I think they will make a terrible, terrible mistake,” he said.

Mr Netanyahu was asked about comments by Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni that there was “an evil wave” sweeping Israel.

Ms Livni said Mr Lieberman was “harming the country” but held Mr Netanyahu responsible for rebuking his Foreign Minister for criticising Likud members but not for the substance of his proposals to target left-wing groups.

Ms Livni said Israel was “deteriorating and abusing the very values for which we want to fight”.

But Mr Netanyahu said: “I am committed to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state with democratic values.”

He contrasted that with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah — “only 10 minutes from here” — where it was a law that anyone who sold property to a Jew faced the death penalty.

“Isn’t that worth reporting?” he asked.

British PM David Cameron and deputy Nick Clegg ‘not best mates’

BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron said he trusted his deputy Nick Clegg but would not go so far as to say they were friends, in an interview out today.

Cameron told the Daily Mail newspaper that both his Conservatives and Clegg’s Liberal Democrats had taken a risk in governing together.

Asked if he would describe himself and Clegg as friends yet, Cameron replied: “Hmm. Well, we wouldn’t go to the cinema together, quite, but we’ve had him and (his wife) Miriam round for supper.”

Cameron has been accused of being closer to Clegg, in person and politics, than to some of his fellow Conservatives.

They are both aged 44 and went to similar high-ranking schools.

“Politics evolves. We trust one another. Both of us started off from the same position, taking a risk,” he said.

“It would probably have been easier not to do this, politically and personally.

“But in the end – and I don’t want to sound pompous or pious – you ask yourself if you are doing the right thing for the country. We both think we are.”

Cameron said he hoped the coalition would be about more than simply clearing Britain’s record deficit.

“I want this to be more than a ‘cuts-and-rescue’ government. I want this to be a genuinely reforming and modernising government,” he said.

Their coalition faces its first test at the polls on Thursday in a by-election in northwest England.

The opposition Labour Party narrowly beat the Lib Dems to the seat in the May general election, but bookmakers have Labour as the clear favourite to win this time as polls show Clegg’s party riding as low as seven percent.

Obama picks new aide amid debt challenge

BARACK Obama chose a new top White House aide overnight and challenged newly empowered Republicans to raise the US debt limit, as his foes vowed again to repeal his health care overhaul.

Obama picked William Daley, commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, as his new chief of staff, pursuing a staff shake-up that signals a potential change in course in response to his Democrats’ November 2 elections rout.

Daley, 62, is seen as a centrist powerbroker and has strong ties to the US business community, with which the president has had a rocky relationship, and has strongly backed efforts to expand international trade.

The move came one day after Republicans took over the House of Representatives and as US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner formally asked lawmakers to let the US government borrow more money – the opening shot in a political war over the massive and swelling US debt.

Geithner warned in a letter to senior members of Congress that failure to raise the debt ceiling from 14.29 trillion dollars could prompt a US default as soon as this March, with “catastrophic economic consequences.”

“Never in our history has Congress failed to increase the debt limit when necessary. Failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States,” and would “lead to the loss of millions of American jobs,” he said.

Republican US House Speaker John Boehner responded with wary support for raising the US debt limit, saying “America cannot default” on what it owes, but insisted on deep spending cuts as well.

“While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren,” Boehner said in a statement.

Geithner’s request, although expected, came earlier than many observers had anticipated, challenging Republicans who had hoped to put off that debate until after votes on slashing government spending to please their core supporters.

And the request was expected to get a chilly welcome from newly elected Republicans drawn from the ranks of archconservative “Tea Party” activists dead set on slashing spending and, in many cases, opposed to raising the debt limit.

Republicans were also struggling to beat back charges they were breaking their campaign promises for deep spending cuts, slashing the deficit, and bringing new transparency to the divided US Congress.

Top Republicans have abandoned their vow to slashing $US100 billion in government their first year in office, a figure drawn from their signal election campaign “Pledge to America.”

But they doubled down on plans to target Obama’s signature health care overhaul with a symbolic repeal vote next week – their victory in the House as certain as their defeat in the Democratic-held Senate.

Boehner charged the sweeping measure, designed to extend coverage to 31 million of the 36 million Americans who currently lack it, was “destroying jobs in our country” with onublican House Speaker John Boehner.

“I do not believe that repealing the job-killing health care law will increase the deficit.”

Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Robert Gates unveiled deeper cuts in US military programs than initially planned, citing the country’s “dire” fiscal situation.

“The Pentagon cannot presume to exempt itself from the scrutiny and pressure faced by the rest of our government” to scale back spending, Gates told a news conference.

Later Democrats joined Republican to vote 410-13 to slice five percent from House expenses, a $US35 million drop in the roughly $US3.6 trillion bucket of annual US government outlays.

And House members also read aloud from the US Constitution – but omitted sections later amended, such as the original language defining black slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning congressional seats.

Birthright citizenship looms as next immigration battle

NOGALES, Arizona — Of the 50 or so women bused to this border town on a recent morning to be deported back to Mexico, Inez Vasquez, eight months pregnant, stood out.

“All I want is a better life,” she said after the Border Patrol discovered her hiding in the bushes on the Arizona side of the border with her husband, young son and a very pronounced abdomen.

The next big immigration battle looming centers on illegal immigrants’ offspring, who are granted automatic citizenship like all other babies born on U.S. soil. Arguing for an end to the policy, which is rooted in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, immigration hard-liners describe a wave of migrants like Vasquez stepping across the border in the advanced stages of pregnancy to have what are dismissively called “anchor babies.”

Still, Arizona — whose law granting the police the power to detain illegal immigrants is tied up in the courts — may again take the lead in what is essentially an effort to redefine what it means to be an American. This time, though, Arizona lawmakers intend to join with legislators from several other states to force the issue before the Supreme Court.

This coalition of lawmakers will unveil its specific plans today in Washington, but people involved in drafting the legislation say they have decided against the painstaking process of amending the Constitution. Since the federal government decides who is to be deemed a citizen, the lawmakers are considering instead a move to create two kinds of birth certificates in their states, one for the children of citizens and another for the children of illegal immigrants.

The theory is that this could spark a flurry of lawsuits that might resolve the legal conflict in their favor.

Most scholars of the Constitution consider the states’ effort to restrict birth certificates patently unconstitutional.

“This is political theater, not a serious effort to create a legal test,” said Gabriel Chin, a law professor at the University of Arizona.

Despite being called “anchor babies,” the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States cannot actually prevent deportation of their parents. It is not until they reach the age of 21 that the children are able to file paperwork to sponsor their parents for legal immigration status.

In April, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, one of those pushing for congressional action on the citizenship issue, stirred controversy when he suggested that children born in the United States to illegal immigrants should be deported with their parents until the birthright citizenship policy was changed.

“And we’re not being mean,” Hunter told a tea party rally in Southern California. “We’re just saying it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen.”

Immigrant advocates say intolerance is driving the measure.

“They call themselves patriots, but they pick and choose which parts of the Constitution they support,” said Lydia Guzman, a Latino activist in Phoenix. “They’re fear-mongerers. They’re clowns.”

Obama gets help from Gipper

STUNG by criticism he is aloof and out of touch, Barack Obama has turned to the great communicator for inspiration.

He has used his Christmas holiday in Hawaii to read a biography of Ronald Reagan.

The icon of the Republicans and the Tea Party may seem an unusual choice of subject matter for the Democratic President, who spent the first day of 2011 with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha at Pyramid Rock, a secluded beach at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

The first family then hit the tennis courts at Kailua Racquet Club, a private club near the neighbourhood where the Obamas are renting a luxurious ocean-front home.

Like Mr Obama, Reagan suffered a huge drop in popularity and heavy losses in mid-term elections, yet managed to bounce back to win a second term.

Reagan, like Mr Obama, endured what was until then the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and saw unemployment rise to more than 10 per cent.

Voter disenchantment led to a large swing to the Democrats in the 1982 mid-term elections.

As the economy recovered, however, he went on to trounce Walter Mondale, his Democratic challenger, in the 1984 presidential election, winning almost every state.

Mr Obama’s approval ratings, at 47 per cent according to last week’s Gallup poll, are nowhere near as low as Reagan’s, which fell to just 35 per cent at the beginning of 1983.

Mr Obama, a former law professor who is regarded as distant even by his own staff, is studying how the Hollywood actor achieved his remarkable comeback.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs revealed the President’s holiday reading included Lou Cannon’s account of Reagan’s administration, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.

“Like Obama, Reagan greatly valued his privacy and was not naturally gregarious,” noted Bradley Bloch on The Huffington Post, adding Reagan was a master of “the personal relationship”.

“Reagan knew that at the end of the day politics — even (and perhaps especially) at the global level — is ultimately about people,” Bloch wrote. “As Obama looks to get his groove back, Reagan may be his most accessible role model.”

Perhaps inspired by “the Gipper” — Reagan’s nickname from one of his film roles — Mr Obama is expected to return to Washington tomorrow to start the second half of his presidency with renewed vigour.

Apart from the political biography, he has been reading Our Kind of Traitor, John le Carre’s latest spy thriller, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by the British author David Mitchell.

But golf has dominated the 10-day holiday. “His swing looks a lot better this year,” said Mark Sousa, the golf professional at the Mid Pacific country club in Kailua, where Mr Obama played several rounds with old friends from Hawaii.

Schwarzenegger ponders next role as political term ends

LOS ANGELES—The Terminator always said he’d be back.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is sifting through a stack of corporate, movie and real estate offers as the celebrity politician nears a career crossroad: On Monday, he’s out of a job.

His next act? After seven years as governor of California, the former body builder and film star will, by his own account, hit the speech circuit, keep a hand in political activism and possibly write the autobiography that publishers have wanted him to do for years.

The Austrian-born Schwarzenegger says he even might get back into acting if the right script comes along — presumably one appropriate for a 63-year-old father of four with political baggage, advancing age lines and a tinge of grey.

“Will I still have the patience to sit on the set and to do a movie for three months or for six months, all of those things? I don’t know,” the Republican governor tweeted in October in a rare exchange about his plans.

A spokesman says Schwarzenegger is sorting out “an absolute flood of every conceivable offer” from the corporate world, real estate ventures and the entertainment industry, but he insists he won’t make any decisions until after he surrenders the office to successor Jerry Brown.

“I don’t have a plan,” Schwarzenegger told hundreds of supporters and staffers at a private farewell party on Thursday.

He was less guarded in October, when, along with plans for speeches and a book or two, he hinted broadly at a continuing role in the environment and political reforms.

“There are a lot of important things that I want to say,” he tweeted. “My struggle for reform will continue, my belief in environmental issues and in protecting the environment will continue.”

One thing is certain: The multimillionaire Schwarzenegger will start earning money after passing up his $174,000 (U.S.) salary throughout his two terms. His time in office left him with plenty of political welts, but the biggest hit was on his own wallet.

State records show Schwarzenegger poured at least $25 million into two campaigns for governor and other political ventures since 2001 — no small sum even for an actor who once got $30 million a film.

That doesn’t include travel costs. He often commuted from Los Angeles to Sacramento several times a week in a private jet at his own expense. He and his family never moved to Sacramento, preferring their secluded canyon estate a few kilometres from the Pacific Ocean.

His assets have been held in a private trust since he took office in 2003, but he can return to managing his portfolio, deep in real estate holdings, after stepping down.

His Hollywood future will be the subject of endless speculation. Hollywood insiders say he could take a role as producer or director, but don’t look for him to reappear as a hulking action hero.

“He’s a wealthy and clever man. Wealthy and clever men have lots of possibilities,” said long-time Hollywood publicist Michael Levine.

Empty chair left for jailed Chinese Nobel laureate

OSLO, Norway—When ambassadors, royalty and other VIPs take their seats in Oslo’s modernist City Hall on Friday for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, there will be one chair left empty—for this year’s winner.

Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, a democracy activist, is serving an 11-year prison sentence in China on subversion charges brought after he co-authored a bold call for sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.

Chinese authorities have placed Liu’s supporters, including his wife Liu Xia, under house arrest to prevent anyone from picking up his prize.

On Thursday, Chinese police surrounded Liu’s house in Beijing. Officers guarded the entrance to the residential compound and checked the identities of all who entered. About a dozen journalists stood outside while officers patrolled inside the compound in central Beijing.

China was infuriated when the prestigious $1.4 million prize was awarded to the 54-year-old literary critic, describing it as an attack on its political and legal system.

Beijing has also pressured foreign diplomats to stay away from Friday’s ceremony. China and 18 other countries have declined to attend, including Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.

At least 45 of 65 embassies in Oslo have accepted invitations.

Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad said Liu will be represented “by an empty chair … the strongest possible argument” for awarding it to him.

It will be the first time the peace prize will not be handed out since 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting the award.

The prize can be collected only by the laureate or close family members. Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov of the Soviet Union and Lech Walesa of Poland were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.

Among the 1,000 guests expected at the City Hall ceremony are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Ambassador Barry White. In addition, about 100 Chinese dissidents in exile and some activists from Hong Kong will attend.

A torchlight parade through the dark, wintry streets to the Grand Hotel will follow, with chosen guests dining at a banquet with Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja.

Lundestad said countries gave various reasons for not attending, but some were “obviously affected by China.” He noted that two-thirds of embassies had accepted.

China warned that attending the ceremony would be seen as a sign of disrespect.

“We hope those countries that have received the invitation can tell right from wrong, uphold justice,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland urged China to consider political reforms, saying the committee’s decision to award Liu the prize was also a message to Beijing that as a world power, China “should become used to being debated and criticized.”

“This not a prize against China,” Jagland said.

On Thursday, about 100 protesters chanting “Freedom to Liu! Freedom for China!” marched to the Chinese Embassy in Oslo and tried to deliver a petition with more than 100,000 signatures urging the dissident’s release from prison.

“Liu should not be jailed for his words. It’s against the Chinese Constitution,” said demonstrator Renee Xia. “The Chinese government is violating its own constitution by criminalizing free speech.”

The Norwegian-Chinese Association plans a pro-China rally outside the Norwegian Parliament during Friday’s ceremony.

Several news websites, including the BBC’s and Norwegian broadcaster NRK’s, were blocked in China on Thursday, apparently to blot out any possible coverage of the ceremony. Some Nobel-related reports on CNN’s website were also inaccessible.

Li Heping, a civil rights lawyer, said the government’s harsh reaction to the prize was an eye-opener for the West.

“In the past, the West didn’t have a consensus on China. But this affair, this Nobel prize, has created one because it is linked with the West’s core values,” said Li, who was disbarred after pursuing human rights cases.

The United States and prominent rights groups repeated calls for Liu’s freedom.

China’s “very public tantrum has generated even more critical attention inside and outside China and, ironically, emphasized the significance of Liu Xiaobo’s message of respect for human rights,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said Thursday.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley reaffirmed U.S. support for the Nobel Peace Prize, telling reporters in Washington: “We urge China to uphold its international human rights obligations and to respect the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all Chinese citizens. And we continue to call for Mr. Liu’s immediate release.”

In a chaotic ceremony Thursday in Beijing, former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan was honored with the first Confucius Peace Prize—intended to put forth China’s idea of peace.

Lien was absent and his aides seemed not to know anything about it. Instead, an unidentified, ponytailed girl accepted it on his behalf.

Tan Changliu, chairman of the awards committee, said the new prize should not be linked with Liu.


CIA, Mossad killed our scientist – Iran

IRAN’S interior government minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar tonight accused the US and Israeli intelligence services – the CIA and Mossad – of killing a prominent nuclear scientist.

“Mossad and the CIA are the enemies of Iranians and always seek to hurt this nation. They particularly want to stop our scientific progress,” he said, after state media reported one Iranian nuclear scientist was killed and another wounded in separate attacks in the capital.

“The desperate terrorist act against the two academics shows their weakness and inferiority,” he said of today’s attacks, in which assailants on motorbikes reportedly attached bombs to the scientists’ cars on their way to work.

Iran was quick to blame Israel following the twin blasts.

“In a criminal terrorist act, the agents of the Zionist regime attacked two prominent university professors who were on their way to work,” the website of Iran’s state television network reported earlier Monday, referring to arch-foe Israel.

“Dr Majid Shahriari was killed and his wife was injured. Dr Fereydoon Abbasi and his wife were injured,” the report said.

Fars news agency said the scientists were targeted in two different locations by men on motorcycles who approached their vehicles and attached bombs to their cars.

Shahriari was a member of the nuclear engineering department of Shahid Beheshti University in northern Tehran, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Abbasi held a PhD in nuclear physics and did nuclear research at the defense ministry, the hardline news website Mashreghnews said.

The website said Abbasi, 52, was “one of the few specialists who can separate isotopes” and was a “member of the Revolutionary Guards since the revolution” in 1979.

The reported attacks came a day after the top US military officer said the United States, which is suspicious of Iran’s nuclear drive, was weighing military options in the face of Tehran’s announcement it had a nuclear power plant up and running.

On Saturday, Iran said its first atomic power plant built by Russia in the southern city of Bushehr had begun operations, ahead of a new round of talks with Western powers over the country’s controversial nuclear drive.

South Korean President says North Korea will ‘pay the price’ for attack

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has vowed to make North Korea “pay the price” for its “inhumane” artillery attack on a frontline island that killed four people and sparked global outrage.

Lee had come under pressure to take a tougher line against Pyongyang after his military’s counter-fire following North Korea’s deadly artillery strike on a border island last week was seen as feeble. “I can’t help expressing anger at the North Korean regime’s brutality,” he said in a nationally televised address.

“Now our people know that any more tolerance and patience will only fan bigger provocations,” he said of the regime that has previously tested nuclear bombs and is blamed for sinking a South Korean warship, killing 46 people.  But North Korean state media also issued terse warnings as the war of words on the divided peninsula escalated dramatically.

North Korean state media called a joint US-South Korean naval drill in the Yellow Sea a “grave provocation” and a “crime” which had brought the region to “the brink of war”.

The US and South Korean navies are staging their biggest-ever joint exercise, a show of force against North Korea which last week launched an artillery strike on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island, killing four people.

The four-day manoeuvre – which Washington calls defensive in nature but says is aimed as a show of force to the hardline communist regime – is led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency – carrying an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun, the official ruling Workers’ Party of Korea newspaper – called the exercise “another grave military provocation against us by America and the South Korean enemies”.

“It’s a crime for South Korea and the United States to hold large-scale military exercises at this critical location to lead the situation to an explosive stage.” “The Yellow Sea is at the brink of war because of their military provocations,” it added.  “It’s a huge mistake if the US and South Korean enemies try to pressure and threaten us” with the US carrier, it added.

“If they provoke us again we will wipe out the bases for invaders and will root out the source of war.”  The North’s chief ally China called Sunday for “emergency consultations” on the crisis early next month among chief envoys to stalled six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear disarmament.

South Korea’s Lee, in his seven-minute speech, made no reference to China’s proposal but said it was “difficult to expect the North to abandon nuclear weapons and military brinkmanship”.
South Koreans now know “that any more tolerance and patience will only fan bigger provocations”, he said.

“The North’s provocation this time is in a different level than before,” Lee said. “Making a military attack on civilians is an inhumane crime banned even during wartime.  “Now is the time to take actions rather than speaking 100 words,” he said without elaborating on what he would do.  The South’s military said today’s joint naval drills, far south of the tense Yellow Sea border, would focus on defence against the North’s submarines and guided missiles.

“Monday’s drills include a live-fire exercise by multiple aircraft from the (US aircraft carrier) George Washington, which will shoot mock targets in waters,” a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.  Aegis-class destroyers would hone their capabilities to detect and destroy “hundreds of targets” in the sky, he said.

Eleven ships from the two navies plus aircraft and helicopters and more than 7,000 personnel are taking part in the four-day drill which began Sunday.

UK could begin Afghan drawdown 2012

THE British head of the armed forces says UK could begin pulling its troops out of Afghanistan in just over a year.

General David Richards told the Telegraph today that there was “certainly scope for reduction” of the British presence in the southern province of Helmand by 2012 while on a visit to the war-torn country.

“I don’t want to say it will definitely happen because the enemy has a vote,” Richards said. “We should not think the Taliban are thick and unthinking. There may be scope for reductions next year.”

“Come 2012 there will be scope for slow reductions, but with our eyes on the fact the Taliban will still be around, we will do it cautiously,” he added.

Britain has the second largest commitment to the NATO-led mission, with some 10,000 soldiers in Helmand province in the violent south of the country. It has lost 345 troops since the mission began in 2001.

In comments earlier this month, Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would withdraw all of its combat troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2015.

US president Barack Obama initially wanted to reduce forces by July next year, but that looks set to be delayed to allow the 30,000 extra troops which he deployed to have their effect.