15 July 2009

* Israeli warships in Suez are latest signal to Iran

It would be exaggerative to say that the sight of Israeli naval vessels sailing the Suez Canal is nothing unusual, and such passages in recent months have caused considerable interest in the international community.
    The latest reported journeys through the canal were confirmed on Tuesday by Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. At least one of the vessels making the journey was a Saar class missile-carrying frigate, one of Israel's most advanced. Earlier this month, the Israeli navy confirmed that an Israeli submarine traversed the canal in June.
    Some Israeli analysts suggested the fact that the passages among the news headlines was a clear attempt by Israel to show Tehran that Israel is serious in its military intentions and will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.
    Officially, the Jewish state said that it is simply trying to cut out any weapons smuggling to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. However, this also has an Iranian dimension, as Israel has long been claiming that Iran is arming Hamas.
    An Iranian ship was torpedoed off the Sudanese coast in April, according to the Egyptian media. The ship was reportedly filled with arms and headed for Gaza. Various claims were made as to who was behind the attack, but there was a distinct feeling that Israel played a major role in the operation. Likewise, it is believed that Israeli aircraft was behind a strike against an arms convoy in Sudan in January, reported local daily Ha'aretz.
    Israeli ships have occasionally traversed the Suez since Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement in 1979. Israeli naval vessels based in the southernmost city of Eilat on the Red Sea coast need to sail the canal in order to return to naval headquarters on the Mediterranean Sea coast.
    What is different this year is the media attention these journeys generated. It is unclear whether details of the journeys are being released by Israel, Egypt, the United States or any other player, but the effect is what is important, according to Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
    "First and foremost, it shows that Israel and Egypt have a good, discreet dialogue concerning all events in the Middle East, especially terror, the Palestinian issue and clearly Iran," said Mazel.
    News of the sailing came as the international community continues to disagree as to how to proceed in talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Israel's official position is that it favors talks and sanctions, yet there is a definite school of thought in Israel that supports the idea of a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations.
    U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden made what appeared to be a faux pas two weeks ago during an interview with an American TV program. Biden said it was not for the United States to dictate what other countries should or should not do when they are "existentially threatened." A day later, a State Department official clarified that Biden's comments were not a "green light" for an Israeli strike against Iran.
    Egypt is also very concerned by the Iranian threat. It said that it has successfully thwarted various efforts of the Iran-backed Hezbollah organization to launch attacks on the Egyptian soil. In April, Cairo said it busted a Hezbollah cell that, among other things, was planning to attack ships in the Suez.
    It is not clear whether the alleged cell was intended to attack randomly on all traffic or to target American and Israeli ships.
    The international intelligence community believe that Hezbollah could not operate without approval from Iran, particularly when it was not on its native Lebanese soil.
    If Iran was behind the cell, which had at least 25 members, then the events in April were just the latest in a series between Tehran and Cairo since Iran's Islamic Revolution, which took place in the same year with the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.
    Iran accused Egypt of selling out when the latter signed the Camp David agreement with Israel. Egypt is also perceived as the leading nation in the Sunni Muslim world, which is at odds with Shiism, which dominates in Iran.
    Iran is becoming the glue that binds Israel and the Arab world. There were reports earlier this month that Saudi Arabia has agreed to allow Israeli jets to fly over its airspace should Israel decide to attack Iran. Riyadh denied the claim, but this is also a sign that the Arabs and Israelis have realized that they now have a common enemy.
    Noting that the Iranian threat to the Arab world has its roots in the 1979 revolution, Mazel said that Iran has a clear policy of spreading its Shiite influence across the region. It began working in Lebanon, but Iran wants to see its proxies controlling much of the rest of the Middle East, he said.
    This week's passage through the Suez by two Israeli warships is in itself not that significant, but coupled with all the other developments in the region, particularly those surrounding Iran, the reportage of Tuesday's sailings is a highly significant joint message from Israel and Egypt. These one-time enemies are united in their belief that the international community needs to take the Iranian threat seriously; if not, at least one regional player will be forced to act alone.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.