May 2009

Barack Obama signalled his readiness to step deeper into the quagmire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week following a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, at the White House. At a press conference afterwards, Mr Obama stressed the importance of getting the peace process “back on track” by pushing ahead with the creation of a Palestinian state and calling on Israel to halt settlement building.

Pressure is mounting on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to bring the opposition leader Tzipi Livni into the government after last week’s difficult meeting with the US president, according to senior analysts. Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Mr Netanyahu now understood that he faced a stark choice between clashing with the White House and ditching the far-right parties in his coalition.

As might be expected of a former senior official with Israel’s spy agency Mossad, Uzi Arad — the most trusted political adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister — has got used to being in the shadows as he exerts influence. But that is fast changing. Mr Arad, recently appointed the head of Israel’s revamped National Security Council, will oversee an organisation that Mr Netanyahu regards as the linchpin of the new government’s security and foreign policy.

The United Nation’s watchdog on torture has criticised Israel for refusing to allow inspections at a secret prison, dubbed by critics as “Israel’s Guantanamo Bay”, and demanded to know if more such clandestine detention camps are operating. In a report published on Friday, the Committee Against Torture requested that Israel identify the location of the camp, officially referred to as “Facility 1391”, and allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Pope Benedict XVI urged the Christian and Muslim communities of Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, to “reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice” as he addressed 40,000 followers yesterday at his final public Mass in the Holy Land. His message of peace and reconciliation for Nazareth, renowned as the town where Jesus grew up, was delivered amid a heavy Israeli security operation that angered many residents.

Pope Benedict XVI upset the schedule on his first day in Israel by leaving an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem early on Monday night after a leading Muslim cleric called on him to condemn the “slaughter” of women and children in the recent assault on Gaza. The pontiff walked out, a spokesman noted, because Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi’s speech was a “direct negation” of dialogue and damaged the Pope’s efforts at “promoting peace”.

Anti-Christian banners and billboards have sprung up along the main route to Nazareth’s Roman Catholic church days before Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive in Israel’s largest Arab city to conduct an open-air mass. The signs, including one denouncing those who “harm God or his messenger”, have been posted by a radical Islamic group in the city as part of a campaign to stop the Pope’s visit.

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to leave Jordan and head for Israel tomorrow on the next step of his tour of the Holy Land, the city of Nazareth is in a race to complete an amphitheatre to host tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to celebrate his main public Mass in Israel on Thursday. Officials in Nazareth, renowned as the hometown of Jesus, are revelling both in the Vatican’s choice of their city for the Mass and in the Israeli government’s agreement to invest $5 million – nearly half its total budget for the visit – to construct the venue.