Recent developments until Jan. 19

King of Bahrain addresses nation, PM hails Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ call for union

Yemeni government says presidential elections to be held as scheduled

Abbas: Netanyahu didn’t give any important proposals during Jordan meetings

Jordan’s monarch discusses with Obama course of peace process in the region

Field Marshal Tantawi asserts army won’t be dragged to plots to burn Egypt

Thailand accuses Lebanese citizen with links to Hezbollah of plotting terrorist operation

BAHRAIN:

Bahrain's king promised Sunday that the strife-wracked Gulf nation will move ahead with political reforms that widen the powers of the elected parliament to oversee governments selected by the ruling monarchy.

The reforms are part of recommendations that emerged last year from talks between various political and civil groups on easing tensions in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, which has faced more than 11 months of protests by the island's Shiite majority.

More than 35 people have died in the unrest, which began as an Arab Spring-inspired uprising for greater rights but has shifted into a challenge against the authority of the 200-year-old ruling Sunni dynasty.

Bahrain's leaders and Gulf Arab allies claim that Shiite power Iran has encouraged the violence in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

In a nationally televised address, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said he would soon issue royal decrees to amend the constitution and grant a greater role to the 40-seat lower house of parliament.

The measures include allowing lawmakers to approve governments proposed by the ruling dynasty and giving greater authority to question and remove Cabinet officials.

Parliament would also play a larger role in setting the state budget and proposing laws, he said.

But the changes are unlikely to appease Shiite opposition groups. Bahrain's main Shiite groups have withdrawn from parliament and boycotted the so-called national dialogue reform talks last summer.

Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens, but complain they are effectively excluded from key political and security roles. They have called for a government that reflects election results — which would bring Shiites into key Cabinet posts — rather than ministers hand-picked by the monarchy.

Abdul Jalil Khalil, a former parliament member with the main Shiite political group Al Wefaq, dismissed the reforms as "out of touch with reality" after nearly a year of nonstop unrest and protests. Last year, Wefaq's 18 lawmakers resigned from parliament in protest.

"The king lives in another world," said Khalil. "Things have changed. The people want an elected government."

The changes outlined by the king also limit some royal authority.

The king would have to issue more explanations on the selection process for the Shura Council, the 40-member upper house of parliament that is appointed by the monarch. The king also would need wider discussions with political and judicial leaders before any decision to dissolve the elected parliament and call new elections.

In a separate statement, Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, pledged to present a proposal for an Arab Court for Human Rights at the next Arab League summit scheduled for March. He made the comments during a news conference with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.

Bahrain's king proposed the idea of a pan-Arab body to hear rights-related cases in November after receiving an independent report on Bahrain's unrest.

YEMEN:

Yemen's presidential elections will be held as scheduled toward the end of February, the foreign minister said on Wednesday, countering his own observation a day earlier.

Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a veteran of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime, told Al-Arabiya television on Tuesday that it would difficult to have presidential elections if the security situation is not resolved.

After a series of meetings with American and U.N diplomats, al-Qirbi backtracked, saying that his government was committed to holding presidential elections on February 21. It appeared, however, that the subject was not closed.

A top ruling party official told The Associated Press that Saleh met with high-level security officials this week and decided to ask parliament to delay the elections until May 22, which would be a violation of the U.S.-backed agreement the president signed in November.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Yemen has been in turmoil for a year over demands that Saleh resign. In November, he signed the power transfer deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors, but he remains in office.

The U.S.-backed power transfer deal also granted Saleh immunity from prosecution.

That clause set off new protests when it emerged that it applied to all crimes by all members of Saleh's government during his entire 33-year reign.

Responding to the public outcry, Yemen's vice president, opposition parties and members of Saleh's party agreed to limit the sweeping immunity, said a government official who attended the meeting late Wednesday.

The official said the new arrangement would allow for trying officials except for Saleh on corruption charges. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

The immunity still covers those behind the deadly crackdowns that have killed more than 200 protesters in Yemen's uprising, part of the Arab Spring revolts that have swept through countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The amendment needs to be approved by the Cabinet and the parliament, and Saleh's supporters might try to torpedo it.

Amnesty International earlier called the law "a smack in the face for justice." Navi Pillay, the United Nations' top human rights official, said last week that granting immunity to for those accused of gross human rights violations or war crimes breaks international law.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. regretted that Saleh has not complied with agreements to leave the country and allow an election for a successor.

Saleh agreed under pressure to sign the plan to transfer power to his vice president and hold presidential elections in February. The vice president is the only candidate, and the election would rubber-stamp his takeover.

The agreement did not spell out that Saleh must leave the country, but Clinton's remarks appeared to confirm what Yemeni officials close to Saleh have told the AP – alongside the Gulf-brokered deal, Saleh made a "gentleman's agreement" with the United States to leave his country.

In late December, Saleh said he would leave Yemen to help calm the turmoil in his country, and he made a request for a visa to receive medical treatment in the United States, but officials in his ruling party later announced he would stay in Yemen.

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he will press on with a campaign for full state membership at the UN despite ongoing “exploratory” talks with Israel.

Palestinian officials have said the talks, which so far have included two meetings in Amman in the last 10 days, will not continue beyond January 26 – the deadline set by the international peacemaking Quartet for both sides to submit comprehensive proposals on borders and security.

But the current dialogue with Israel will not stop the Palestinians from seeking UN recognition, Abbas said.

“We will continue our (statehood) efforts in the Security Council,” he told a meeting of his Fatah movement on Thursday, adding that he also planned to petition the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva over Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory.

“We want to make a complaint against the occupation, which violates the Geneva Convention,” Abbas said, according to an official transcript of his remarks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said this week that meetings in Jordan would not develop into full negotiations without a settlement freeze and Israel agreeing to accept parameters for future talks.

“The Amman talks are intended to obtain a settlement freeze and the use of the 1967 lines as a reference for any future talks, and will be given a chance to succeed until January 26,” Erakat said.

In the absence of formal negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians have focused their attention on the international arena. In 2011 they won a UNESCO seat over US and Israeli opposition.

Erekat said 2012 “will be the year that the Palestinians go to the UN and all of its organizations”.

Abbas played down prospects of any breakthrough with Israel, saying that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not put forward any new proposals.

“The words that we heard in Netanyahu’s residence (in 2010) are the same words he is repeating now, nothing new,” Abbas said, adding that he had told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the apparent lack of progress.

Abbas is due to travel to London, Berlin and Moscow over the next 10 days to discuss the situation.

Abbas also told Fatah officials he was committed to reconciliation with the rival Hamas movement.

“We want to bring reconciliation to fruition,” he said. “There are people in certain places, I do not wish to specify where, who do not want reconciliation but there are people who do want reconciliation.

“Reconciliation is the main thing and we shall not allow anyone to get in our way if we reach an agreement,” he said.

The two factions signed a unity deal in May 2011 following years of bitter hostility but it has yet to be implemented.

On Thursday, a senior Fatah official said the cause of the hold-up was internal divisions within Hamas itself.

“We know there are executive forces in Hamas in Gaza that don’t want the reconciliation or to surrender their empire, money or influence,” Amin Maqbul, secretary of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council told Voice of Palestine radio.

“There is a real threat to the reconciliation if Hamas’s leadership abroad does not start pressuring those (in Gaza) to change the situation,” he said.

“If not, those on the ground in Gaza will not allow this agreement to be completed. We all know reconciliation is not just ink on paper. It is actions.”

Since Hamas forcibly took power in 2007, the Palestinian territories have been divided into two political camps, with Abbas’s Fatah largely ruling the West Bank through the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority, while Hamas holds power in Gaza.

Last month, Abbas met exiled Hamas chief Khalid Meshaal in Cairo and the two agreed on a process that could pave the way for the Islamist group to join a reformed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and for long-delayed Palestinian elections.

JORDAN:

Jordan's King Abdullah met Tuesday with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the conflict in Syria, which borders Jordan.

The two leaders told reporters after their White House talks that they would continue working together to bring about a resumption of Middle East peace talks, with King Abdullah citing the need to "keep our fingers crossed" for progress.

In recent months, King Abdullah has taken a more active role in trying to bridge the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians, filling the vacuum created by the removal of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.

Earlier this month, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators met in Amman with representatives of the Middle East Quartet -- made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- in an effort to re-launch negotiations after more than a year of deadlock.

No significant breakthrough was made, but the two sides agreed to meet again.

Obama said Tuesday he wanted to express his appreciation for the monarch's leadership in the region amid the change of what is known as the Arab Spring that has toppled governments in Egypt and Libya.

On Syria, Obama noted that King Abdullah was the first leader of an Arab state to call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down over excess brutality against his own people.

Obama thanked the king "for his willingness to stand up," and for Jordan's role in Arab League efforts to encourage a needed peaceful transition in Syria.

"Unfortunately, we're continuing to see unacceptable levels of violence inside that country, and so we will continue to consult very closely with Jordan to create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourages the current Syrian regime to step aside so that a more democratic process of transition can take place inside of Syria," he said.

In addition, Obama noted what he called the "extraordinary efforts that have been made by his majesty" and Jordan's prime minister "in guiding political reform in Jordan," putting them "ahead of the curve in trying to respond to legitimate concerns both politically and economically."

"We have said we want to be as helpful as we can," Obama said of Jordanian reform efforts.

In his remarks, King Abdullah expressed his gratitude for U.S. support for Jordan's political reforms, as well for its economic support.

Obama, in his comments, said the United States is providing "timely assistance in areas like food security this week."

"As we move into political reform, obviously the economy and the situation that challenges the livelihood of Jordanians is very, very important as we move forward. But we are very, very optimistic," said King Abdullah.

Outside the White House, however, the Jordan National Movement, a group that says it seeks to promote democracy in the country, protested King Abdullah's "absolute monarchy system in Jordan."

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians fell apart more than a year ago over disagreements on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made a bid for the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state, a move Israel called premature without direct talks to address its long-standing security concerns.

In November, King Abdullah made a rare visit to the Palestinian political capital of Ramallah in the West Bank, followed by a meeting in Amman a week later with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

EGYPT:

Egypt is facing unprecedented "grave dangers" but its military will protect it, military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in remarks published Wednesday which appeared aimed at rallying public opinion against protests planned for next week's anniversary of the country's 2011 uprising.

Tantawi's comments also seemed to be a thinly veiled warning to the activists behind last year's Jan. 25-Feb. 11 demonstrations that led to the toppling of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak.

The activists are now calling on the military to step down immediately, and accuse the ruling generals of botching the transition to civilian rule, of killing at least 80 protesters since October, of torturing detainees and of hauling at least 12,000 civilians before military tribunals for trial.

Activists plan to stage a wave of protests to mark next week's first anniversary of the start of the uprising. The state-run media has responded with a media campaign warning of a plot to destabilize the nation on the anniversary.

Tantawi's talk of unspecified "grave dangers" facing the nation and of the military's resolve to counter them harks back to the Mubarak era, when officials frequently sought to shift attention away from domestic problems with warnings of conspiracies against the country by local agents of foreign powers.

"Egypt is facing grave dangers it has not seen before," Tantawi said. Calling on Egyptians to foil the "schemes and conspiracies" against Egypt, he said: "The armed forces are the backbone that protects Egypt. These schemes are aimed at targeting that backbone. We will not allow it and will carry out our task perfectly to hand over the nation to an elected civilian administration."

Tantawi, who is in his late 70s, said that the armed forces were "pushed into the political fray only to protect Egypt from the enemies of the nation and people," language that appears designed to counter charges by activists and politicians that the ruling generals planned all along to retain their political leverage and their privileges.

Activists claim that Tantawi and the rest of the generals sitting on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are an extension of Mubarak's 29-year regime and remain beholden to the former president, whose consent was essential to their promotion through the ranks.

Tantawi himself was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, during which he was widely considered to be unquestioningly loyal to his patron.

The military has said it intended to hand over power to an elected president by the end of June, but many suspect the military will not easily give up the political dominance it has enjoyed ever since army officers seized power in a coup nearly 60 years ago.

Critics of the generals say they hope to promote an ex-officer or an ally as a candidate, to shield the military's budget, economic interests and behind-the-scenes political leverage from civilian scrutiny.

Taking advantage of the frustration of many Egyptians following nearly a year of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and deadly street clashes, the generals have been trying to publicly discredit the revolutionaries as troublemakers or as agents of foreign powers.

Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, brought out of retirement in November to take the Cabinet post that runs the police, has warned against what he calls attempts to destroy public property during the uprising's anniversary protests.

The state media has used the loss last month of rare books and manuscripts in a fire in a downtown library during clashes between protesters and troops to portray activists as reckless individuals who destabilize the country.

The army's reputation however has taken a blow from video images of the clashes posted on social networks depicting violence against protesters. They show a woman stripped half-naked while troops kick and stomp her, and soldiers urinating on protesters from the roof of the building of parliament.

But despite those images, activists acknowledge that the army's campaign has largely worked, and that they no longer have the degree of public support which they enjoyed a year ago.

THAILAND:

A Lebanese-Swedish man detained in a terror probe in Thailand has told a Swedish newspaper that he's innocent and blamed Israel's Mossad spy agency for his arrest.

The tabloid Aftonbladet on Friday said it spoke to 47-year-old Atris Hussein in a Bangkok prison where he's being held on allegations of illegally possessing explosive materials.

Hussein was quoted as saying he is "100 percent innocent" and that "much of the material the police found in my warehouse had been placed there, probably by the Israeli security service Mossad."

Thai police have said Hussein was storing the explosive materials in Bangkok before shipping them to another destination.

His arrest last week was linked to U.S. and Israeli warnings of a possible terror threat in Bangkok.