Munich, Feb 17 (AP/UNB) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew lengthy applause Saturday for her spirited defense of a multilateral approach to global affairs and support for Europe's decision to stand by a nuclear deal with Iran.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was not among the impressed, however, and he doubled down on American criticism of Europe.
Merkel's comments at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of world leaders and top global defense and foreign policy officials, followed days of acrimony between the U.S. and Europe over Iran.
Merkel told the group — which included the largest U.S. delegation ever with dozens of members of Congress, Ivanka Trump, Pence and others — that she shared American concerns about many Iranian efforts to increase its power in the region.
But while she said the split with the U.S. over Iran's nuclear agreement "depresses me very much," she defended it as an important channel to Tehran, stressing the need for international diplomacy.
"I see the ballistic missile program, I see Iran in Yemen and above all I see Iran in Syria," she said. "The only question that stands between us on this issue is, do we help our common cause, our common aim of containing the damaging or difficult development of Iran, by withdrawing from the one remaining agreement? Or do we help it more by keeping the small anchor we have in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas?"
Germany, Britain, France, China, Russia and the European Union have been trying to keep the 2015 deal with Iran alive since President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of it last year.
The deal offers Iran sanctions relief for limiting its nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that, so far, Tehran is sticking to the agreement.
But the U.S. argues that the deal just puts off when Iran might be able to build a nuclear bomb. Speaking after Merkel, Pence pushed for Europeans to end their involvement in the nuclear deal, calling Iran "the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world."
"The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining U.S. sanctions against this murderous revolutionary regime," Pence said. "The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and with the Iranian people, our allies and friends in the region. The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal."
Merkel's speech was warmly received, while Pence's was met with polite applause.
"This was a big and say-it-as-it-is Merkel speech," Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank, wrote on Twitter. "Minutes of applause and standing ovations for a powerful commitment to picking up the pieces of a shattered (world) order and working on a European and (international) order that creates win-win situations."
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who was in office when the Iran nuclear deal was negotiated, went out of his way to thank Merkel and defended the Iran deal as a "significant agreement."
Biden told the group that many Americans did not agree with the Trump administration's "America first" approach.
"You heard a lot today about leadership but in my experience, leadership only exists if somebody and others are with you," he said after Pence's address. "Leadership in the absence of people who are with you is not leadership."
In her speech, Merkel also questioned whether it was a good idea for the U.S. to withdraw troops quickly from Syria "or is that not also strengthening the possibilities for Iran and Russia to exert influence there?"
Turning to nuclear disarmament, Merkel said the recent U.S. announcement that it was pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty was "inevitable" because of Russian violations.
Moscow followed suit by also withdrawing from the treaty, strongly denying any breaches. The U.S. administration was also worried that the pact was an obstacle to efforts to counter intermediate-range missiles deployed by China, which is not covered by the treaty.
Merkel noted the treaty was conceived "essentially for Europe," where such missiles were stationed during the Cold War. She said "the answer cannot lie in blind rearmament."
"Disarmament is something that concerns us all, and we would of course be glad if such negotiations were conducted not just between the United States ... and Russia, but also with China," she said.
Merkel also defended Germany's progress in fulfilling NATO guidelines for countries to move toward spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024, which has been criticized as too slow. And overall, she rejected the idea of a go-it-alone foreign policy.
She said it's better to "put yourself in the other's shoes ... and see whether we can get win-win solutions together."
Pence stuck to the U.S. line that the 2 percent NATO guideline is a strict commitment rather than a target, saying while more alliance members have met the criteria, "the truth is, many of our NATO allies still need to do more."
He also reiterated American opposition to the joint German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which Washington fears will make Europe overly reliant on Russian gas.
"The United States commends all our European partners who've taken a strong stand against Nord Stream 2," he said. "And we commend others to do that same."
He added: "We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East."
Merkel defended the pipeline under the Baltic Sea, dismissing the American concerns as unfounded and assuring Ukraine that it won't get cut off from Russian fuel.
Speaking as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko looked on, she told him his country would continue to be a transit country for Russian gas even after the pipeline is complete.
Merkel noted that Europe also has enough terminals to receive more liquefied gas from the U.S., among other options.
"There's nothing that speaks against getting gas from the United States, but to exclude Russia is the wrong strategic signal," she said.
Canberra, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — The Australian government said Wednesday it would reopen a mothballed island detention camp in anticipation of a new wave of asylum seekers arriving by boat after Parliament passed legislation that would give sick asylum seekers easier access to mainland hospitals.
The Christmas Island immigration detention camp, south of Jakarta, Indonesia, was a favorite target of people smugglers who brought asylum seekers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East in rickety boats from Indonesian ports before the trade virtually stopped in recent years.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a security committee of his cabinet agreed to reopen the camp on the advice of senior security officials.
The decision was made before the Senate passed legislation 36 votes to 34 that would allow doctors instead of bureaucrats to decide which asylum seekers on camps on the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru can fly to Australia for hospital treatment.
Morrison's conservative government argues that the bill, passed 75 to 74 by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, will undermine Australia's tough refugee policy. The policy banishes asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat to the Pacific island camps in a bid to deter other asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage.
"My job now is to ensure that the boats don't come," Morrison told reporters. "My job now is to do everything in my power and the power of the government to ensure what the Parliament has done to weaken our border does not result in boats coming to Australia."
The legislation demonstrates the government's weak hold on power and will put asylum seeker policy at the forefront of campaigning ahead of elections that Morrison wants to hold in May. He has ruled out calling a snap election on the refugee issue.
Morrison said he would repeal the "foolish law" if his government were re-elected.
Australian governments rarely lose votes in the House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form an administration.
Legislation has only been passed in the House against a government's will in 1929, 1941, 1962 and 2013.
The ruling coalition lost its single-seat majority when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quit politics after he was deposed by his party colleagues in August. Another lawmaker has since quit the government as part of the bitter fallout over the leadership change.
Refugee advocates applaud the law that they regard as a more humanitarian approach toward asylum seekers.
The Senate passed similar amendments on medical evacuations despite ruling party objections on the last day Parliament sat last year.
Australian security agencies warned in December that if those amendments became law, asylum seekers would likely head to Australia again in significant numbers.
The people smuggling boat traffic has all but stopped in the past five years with the government promising that any refugees who arrive on Australian shores by boat will never be allowed to settle there.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten on Tuesday re-drafted the amendments passed by the Senate in December in an attempt to make the law less likely to attract a new wave of asylum seekers, who used to arrive in Australia at a rate of more than a boat a day.
The changes included a provision that only the 1,000 asylum seekers currently held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and not any future arrivals would be considered for medical evacuation under the new regime.
The government had struck a deal in 2016 for the United States to accept up to 1,250 refugees languishing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The government had similarly made the offer only available to refugees on the islands at the time to avoid attracting new asylum seekers, Shorten said.
"I believe that we can keep our borders secure, we can uphold national security but still treat people humanely," Shorten told Parliament.
Refugee advocates and lawyers had lobbied senators to back the amendments passed by the House. They said delays in medical treatment had cost asylum seekers' lives and left others at risk of blindness or kidney failure. Rape victims had endured traumatic late-term abortions.
"Yesterday was a victory for the conscience of this nation," Asylum Seeker Resource Center chief executive Kon Karapanagiotidis said of the House vote.
"Yesterday was a win for compassion and decency over the politics of fearmongering and hysteria and cruelty that we have seen under this government," he added.
Medical evacuations have become a loophole in Australia's policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
Hundreds of asylum seekers who have been allowed into Australia for hospital treatment have received court injunctions that prevent their return to the islands.
Sick asylum seekers often have to fight the Australian government in court for permission to be transferred to an Australian hospital.
The sprawling Christmas Island camp was closed in October and is one of 19 immigration detention centers that the government closed due to an absence of boat arrivals.
The government said at the time the Christmas Island facilities would be "kept in a state of operational readiness" so that they could be reopened at short notice.
The center was completed in 2008 with a capacity of fewer than 2,000 inmates, but by 2013 held almost 3,000 asylum seekers due to a surge in boats.
The center on Australian territory has been the scene of violent riots, hunger strikes and numerous incidents of self-harm. A wooden boat carrying 90 asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq ran onto rocks on Christmas Island in 2010, killing 48.
Because it was the most prison-like of Australia's immigration centers, Christmas Island had been repurposed in recently years to house foreign criminals who had completed sentences in Australian jails and were fighting deportation. But 17 Vietnamese asylum seekers who reached northeast Australia in August last year — the first boat arrival in four years — were sent to Christmas Island before they were returned to their homeland.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said part of the Christmas Island facilities "can be opened very quickly." Dutton did not say what category of asylum seeker might be sent to Christmas Island instead of Nauru.
"There is no question that people smugglers will be hearing very clearly that the policy in Australia has changed," Dutton said. "This puts Australia back on the map for people smugglers and Bill Shorten has that on his shoulders."
Warsaw, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — The Mideast conference in Poland starting Wednesday offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an opportunity to flaunt in public what he has long boasted about happening behind the scenes — his country's improved relations with some Gulf Arab nations.
Several Gulf dignitaries are expected to attend in a potential show of force against uninvited Iran. But the Palestinians are urging a boycott of the conference, and it remains to be seen whether Arab officials will make any public overtures to Netanyahu without a major concession to the Palestinian cause, which still animates the Arab public.
The United States and Poland are sponsoring the conference in Warsaw, which they say is aimed at promoting peace and security in the region but appears to be mainly focused on isolating Iran.
Iran has denounced the conference, which begins Wednesday, as an American anti-Iran "circus." Russia has said it will not attend, and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, is also skipping the event.
For the Trump administration, it is a high-profile occasion to gather all its Middle East allies. For Poland, it offers a chance to strengthen ties with Washington as it seeks greater protection from Russia.
But the real winner could be Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stated that Israel has clandestinely developed good relations with several Arab states, despite a lack of official ties. Bringing such contacts out into the open would mark a major diplomatic coup, put a seal of approval on his goal of improving Israel's standing in the world and provide a powerful photo-op for his re-election campaign ahead of the April vote in Israel.
Before departing for Poland on Tuesday, Netanyahu told reporters that the focus of the conference will be Iran, an issue he said "unites Israel, the United States, many countries in the world." He said Israel enjoys "very good relations" with every country in the region "except Syria," where Israel has carried out several airstrikes on Iranian targets in recent months.
Danny Danon, Israel's U.N. ambassador, said his private contacts with Arab officials are far warmer than what is said in public. He predicted that once one Arab country goes public, others will quickly follow.
"As of now, they are already cooperating with us," he told reporters in Jerusalem recently. "We ask them to recognize us and not to be ashamed for using our technology or our defense systems."
Israel has signed peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, but other Arab nations have refused to publicly improve relations without significant progress being made toward ending Israel's half-century occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state.
But as shared concerns about Iran have overshadowed the Palestinian issue in recent years, ties that have long lingered in the shadows have begun to emerge.
Netanyahu visited Oman in October and met with longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Days later, two of his ministers headed to the United Arab Emirates for a security conference and to cheer on an Israeli delegation at a judo tournament — where the Israeli anthem was played after an Israeli competitor won gold.
Saudi Arabia, long rumored to have backdoor ties to Israel, lifted a decades-long ban on the use of its airspace for flights to Israel last spring, allowing India's national carrier to cross its skies. The leaders of the small Gulf nation of Bahrain have also expressed willingness to normalize relations.
Gulf Arab states have given less voice to their traditional antipathy toward Israel as they have grown increasingly fearful of Iran over its involvement in Syria and other regional conflicts, and its support for various armed groups. Getting closer to Israel also helps them to curry favor in Washington.
But with Arab public opinion still strongly against normalization with Israel, this week's conference is unlikely to produce warm engagement right away, said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.
"Covert meetings already exist, and the 'under-the-table' relations are the world's worst kept secret, so I don't see what the Arabs would gain from shaking hands," he said. "The point is to see everyone in the same room as a united front against Iran. But the Arab street is still nowhere near where the elites are regarding Israel, and too strong an embrace could draw fire."
The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are scheduled to attend and meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is unclear what their level of engagement will be with the Israeli delegation.
Netanyahu recently visited the Muslim-majority African nation of Chad to officially restore relations after 50 years and promised there would be more such visits and announcements soon.
Trump's senior Mideast adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan for close to two years, but has not yet released details. U.S. officials say Kushner is expected to make some comments about the conflict in Warsaw, but Netanyahu said he doesn't expect any discussion of the peace plan.
The Palestinians have pre-emptively rejected the plan, accusing the Trump White House of being unfairly biased toward Israel. They've also asked Arab countries to boycott or downgrade their representation at the conference in Poland.
"We view the Warsaw conference as a plot against the Palestinian cause," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said this week.
President Mahmoud Abbas met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Tuesday, who expressed his "permanent stand" in favor of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, according to the official Saudi news agency.
Further tempering expectations, an Israeli TV channel obtained what it said was a secret Foreign Ministry report concluding it was very unlikely Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel without a major concession to the Palestinians. The report, aired on Israel's Channel 13 news, quoted a senior official as saying the narrow window for a breakthrough with the Saudis had closed.
The Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the report.
Toronto, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Canada's former justice minister announced Tuesday that she was quitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Cabinet — a move that follows allegations Trudeau's office pressured her to avoid prosecuting a major Canadian engineering firm.
Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould released a letter announcing her resignation but gave no reasons. She had been demoted from the post of justice minister last month.
The Globe and Mail newspaper reported last week that Trudeau or his staff pressured her to arrange a deal with Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin that would let it avoid criminal prosecution on allegations of corruption involving government contracts in Libya.
Trudeau said he was "puzzled" and "surprised and disappointed" by her decision.
"Allow me to very clear. Our government did its job properly and according to all the rules," Trudeau said.
The prime minister said Wilson-Raybould never came to him in the fall with concerns the government was not acting properly. "It was her responsibility to come directly to me and highlight that," he said.
"To be honest I don't entirely understand why Jody Wilson-Raybould made the decision she did," he added.
Wilson-Raybould said she has hired a former Supreme Court justice to advise her on what she can say publicly about the matter.
Her resignation is a potential blow to Trudeau as he faces re-election this year. He has denied directing Wilson-Raybould to arrange such a deal.
On Monday, Trudeau said he had told Wilson-Raybould previously that any decision on the subject was hers alone. Trudeau also said her continued presence in the Cabinet should speak for itself.
But later Monday night she told him she was quitting the Cabinet
"Regardless of background, geography, or party affiliation, we must stand together for the values that Canada is built on," Wilson-Raybould said in her resignation letter.
The Globe and Mail's report said Trudeau's office pressured her to instruct the director of public prosecutions — as allowed by law — to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
The agreement would have allowed the company to pay reparations but avoid a criminal trial on charges of corruption and bribery.
If convicted criminally, the company would be banned from receiving any federal government business for a decade. SNC-Lavalin is a major employer in Quebec with about 3,400 employees in the province, 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.
The company released a public letter to Canadians last October complaining it had not been offered a remediation agreement and noting that "innocent stakeholders continue to bear all the brunt of this uncertainty - including all 52,000 current employees who have no responsibility for any past misconduct."
The company also said foreign companies with similar issues are able to work freely in Canada and around the world because of such settlement agreements in place in their own countries.
On Monday, Canada's ethics commissioner announced an investigation into the allegation.
Andrew Scheer, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said Trudeau is trying to hide the truth and the scandal has thrown the government into "chaos."
"Yesterday he tried to reassure Canadians that nothing unethical took place. In fact, he said that Mrs. Wilson-Raybould's presence in Cabinet should speak for itself," Scheer said. "Today her resignation speaks for itself."
Wilson-Raybould became Canada's first Indigenous justice minister when Trudeau appointed her to the post in 2015.
Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, said her quitting is a blow to Trudeau's efforts for reconciliation with aboriginals.
"The symbolism of her quitting after being touted as Trudeau's bridge to the aboriginal community and as a symbol of the place they could aspire to in Canadian society — the loss of that is dreadful," Bothwell said.
Rome, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte demanded "authentic" solidarity from Italy's European Union partners on the issue of migrants Tuesday, but drew sharp barbs himself from EU lawmakers for refusing to join a united European stand on Venezuela and over Italy's nasty spat with France.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Conte insisted his country's EU partners quit following what he called a "nationalistic logic" and instead take in some of the tens of thousands of economic migrants brought to Italy after rescue at sea but who are ineligible for asylum.
"Let's put into practice an authentic solidarity," said Conte, whose populist government includes a coalition partner that advocates "Italians first" policies in foreign affairs.
Christian Democrat leader Manfred Weber used the parliament's debate on the future of Europe to appeal to Conte for Italy to join the "common European approach" that recognizes Venezuelan congress leader Juan Guaido as his country's interim leader until a new presidential election is held in the South American nation.
"Guaido has asked Italy to recognize him. I think that you should answer Guaido if you think that there must be a common European approach" to issues, Weber said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Italy's foreign minister said in Rome that his government considers illegitimate last year's re-election of Nicolas Maduro as Venezuelan president but stopped short of joining EU recognition for Guaido's role.
In his retort, Conte contended that recognizing Guaido risked aggravating the South American nation's crisis by "crowning one actor over another."
The senior partner in Conte's government, the euro-skeptic 5-Star Movement, staunchly backed Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
European lawmaker Udo Bullmann slammed the Italian-French diplomatic spat between the two major trading partners.
"In contests like these, no one comes out a winner. It's a classic lose-lose situation," Bullmann said during the debate.
Last week, Paris called back its ambassador from Rome after 5-Star chief Luigi Di Maio met in France with leaders of the yellow vest movement that has violently protested the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader has derided Italy's populist policies as a "nationalist leprosy" eroding European unity.
Conte alluded to the spat, saying "bilateral quarrels represent more the effect than the cause of an inability of Europe to propose solutions" to the continent's problems.
Italy's populist parties are vowing to make populism the biggest force after the May elections for the European Parliament.
Conte scolded the European Union for "losing contact with its people and making ever more unfillable" the distance "between Brussels and the many peripheries of the continent."