U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
Tuesday marked Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's first official visit to Washington in 18 months and he made extensive rounds, meeting with State Department officials and a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In the morning, Lieberman met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2010. There were no official statements made after the meeting, but Lieberman told Haaretz it was a "very good" meeting that included a lot of substance. "We are waiting for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and we express our appreciation for the support of Israel," he said. "We appreciate the very crucial decision [by the Obama administration] of sanctions against Iran, and we continue to monitor it closely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the meeting spanned the gamut of issues, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Middle East peace, Turkey, and Iraq... all in about 30 minutes.
"With regard to Iran, they talked extensively about the impact that the new sanctions are having and our efforts to work with countries around the world to wean them from Iranian oil and, obviously, our mutual commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to increase the pressure through these sanctions," Nuland said.
After Iran, the most oft discussed topic in Lieberman's Washington meetings was the new agreement between Fatah and Hamas, but Nuland said the State Department has not made a judgment on that agreement or what it will mean for the U.S. involvement in the region.
"They did discuss the fact that it's not particularly clear what this agreement will change. In particular, we still have President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the head of the government; we still have Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad responsible. And so frankly, any impact this may or may not have is unclear," she said.
That issue came up often in Lieberman's meetings on Capitol Hill Tuesday. After meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman sat down with the triumvirate of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable, Senator Lieberman said the Palestinian agreement was a major issue for him personally.
"Surprisingly, we didn't talk that much about Iran. The conversation was about the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Syria, and Egypt," Senator Lieberman said. "It's very troubling. Hamas is still on our terrorist list and still committed to the destruction of Israel... If this agreement means that Hamas and Fatah are together running the government, then it puts in real jeopardy American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."
Senator Lieberman also weighed in on reports that Fayyad will lose his position. "Fayyad has enormous credibility in the U.S. Congress, he has more credibility than any other of the Palestinian leaders," he said. "If he's gone, it's a real step backward."
He also said the portrayal of Foreign Minister Lieberman in the press, which sometimes includes accusations of anti-Arab racism, are not accurate. "The reality of the Avigdor Lieberman is better than his portrayal in the media. He's a thoughtful man, he has a big world view," Senator Lieberman said.
The Israeli foreign minister then sat down for lunch with several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee before meeting one on one with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In attendance at the HFAC lunch were Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Elliot Engel (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ted Deutsch (D-FL, whose chief of staff is named Josh Rogin), Dan Burton (R-IN), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), David Rivera (R-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa).
"We share your deep concerns about Iran, and I would appreciate your thoughts on how much time you believe there is before Iran enters into a zone of immunity," Ros-Lehtinen said at the top of the lunch meeting, before reporters were ushered out of the room. "On Iran, do you think the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, with regards to how much time we have left?"
We were told by multiple staffers that Iran dominated the discussion at the lunch but Lieberman said nothing new about Israel's intentions regarding striking Iran. (The lawmakers also served Lieberman a lunch of couscous and chick peas, traditional Middle Eastern fare, which struck some as odd considering he can probably get better versions of both foods at home.)
"Foreign Minister Lieberman made very clear the serious and present danger Iran presents to Israel, the region, and the world," Berman said in a statement. "It was clear that the Israeli government has not taken any option off the table vis-à-vis Iran."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Your humble Cable guy discussed the violence in Syria and the United Nations Security Council's failed effort last weekend to build international consensus on how to deal with the crisis on Monday evening's edition of the Rachel Maddow show with guest host Chris Hayes.
Take a look:
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
All three of the lobbying firms representing the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C., dropped Egypt as a client late Friday amid widespread criticism of the ruling military council's raid of U.S. NGOs in Cairo and its refusal to let American NGO workers leave the country.
The Livingston Group, run by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), the Moffett Group, run by former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-CT), and the Podesta Group, run by Tony Podesta, unanimously severed their combined $90,000 per month contract with the Egyptian government, Politico reported late Friday, quoting Livingston directly. The three firms had formed what is known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011 after 18 days of massive street protests. According to the disclosure filings, Egypt has paid PLM more than $4 million since 2007.
The trio came under fire last week for circulating talking points defending Egypt's Dec. 29 raid of several NGOs working to train political parties in Egypt, including three organizations partially funded by the U.S. government. The groups had been working in Egypt for years without being technically registered with the government, but now stand accused of fomenting unrest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been ruling the country since Mubarak's ouster.
"It is bad enough when the actions of American lobbyists conflict with U.S. national interests. It is far worse when their influence-peddling undermines American values, as the Egyptian government's lobbyists in Washington are doing in this instance," said Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in a Jan. 24 statement. McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the groups that had their Cairo offices raided. The other two groups were the National Democratic Institute, whose board is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington against the Egyptian government reached a boiling point when it was revealed Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government along with five other U.S. citizens.
"To have an American lobbyist lobbying for a government where these activities are taking place -- is there no shame in this town?" said Rep. Frank Wolf on Thursday.
On Friday, Sam LaHood told NPR that he and the other Americans trapped in Egypt could face criminal charges, lengthy trials, and years of prison time.
"If we are referred to trial," LaHood said. "The trial could last up to a year ... and the potential penalty is six months to five years in jail."
The lobbying groups buckled under the public pressure, recognizing that they couldn't influence the SCAF's actions in this case and that their association with the military council was harming their broader image. For years, these firms have been defending the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual aid package on Capitol Hill and lobbying for non-military aid to go through the government, and not directly to independent organizations as many democracy advocates urged.
The Cable reported that in late 2010, Bob Livingston personally called Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to get him to kill a Senate resolution calling for greater respect for human rights and democracy in Egypt. Wicker placed a hold on the resolution and it died in the Senate.
Egypt's lobbyists were also responsible for negotiating an endowment the Egyptian government wanted from the Obama administration. But the Mubarak regime demanded the money be given with no annual Congressional oversight, and the negotiations broke down.
Congress did place new restrictions on military aid to Egypt in the most recent appropriations bill passed in December, as a way of pressing the SCAF to move faster toward handing over its executive powers to an elected government.
According to the legislation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that the Egyptian government is living up to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and that the SCAF is supporting the transition to civilian rule. Multiple congressional aides told The Cable Friday that the aid is now in serious jeopardy.
"Needless to say, this whole crisis is going to make it a lot more difficult for the secretary of state to meet the certification requirements to continue providing assistance to Egypt," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "People up here are completely seized with this issue. They're putting their friends in a really awful spot."
Another senior Senate aide noted that the Obama administration is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to deescalate the crisis, which is threatening to do long-term harm to the official U.S.-Egypt relationship.
President Barack Obama brought up the raids in a call last week with SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the White House. Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Lahood have been working the phones hard, calling contacts in Egypt to send strong messages and implore them to change course. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner was in Egypt on Jan. 26 and met with high-level Egyptian officials.
"Since the NGO raids in late December, the Obama administration has repeatedly provided paths for the SCAF to deescalate this crisis. Instead they keep escalating -- doubling down on a bad bet that, in the end, will prove ruinous to them," the Senate aide said. "Three weeks ago no one in Congress thought there was a chance in hell that aid to the Egyptian military could ever come under serious threat. It is now an increasingly and shockingly real prospect."
Ironically, McCain and Lieberman had been among the U.S. leaders most supportive of the SCAF and its role in maintaining stability during Egypt's fragile transition.
Many in Washington believe that the SCAF is being heavily influenced on this issue by one civilian Egyptian official, Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of international cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In a speech this week, she disavowed the SCAF's previous promises to return the NGOs' raided possessions and cease harassing them as she lashed out at the American NGO groups.
Lorne Craner, the president of IRI, said in an interview Friday with The Cable that there is bad blood between Abul-Naga's ministry and the NGO groups. "Some people say that the people who used to get the money, for example the minister of international cooperation, resent the fact that they are not getting all of the funding," Craner said.
Meanwhile, the Americans and several of their locally hired staffers are enduring hours-long interviews as they await a possible arrest, which would only escalate the crisis.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," Craner said. "You start to think about Americans getting arrested on the streets of Cairo and sitting in a cage in some Cairo court ... And these are our allies."
UPDATE: On Sunday the Egyptian Embassy in Washington issued a statement claiming they dumped the PLM Group, not the other way around:
The Government of Egypt had decided to terminate its contractual relationship with the PLM Group. This decision was transmitted to the Group's principals on January 27th 2012 through an official letter, as the contract stipulates, that either party has the right to terminate the relation within a 60 days prior notice.
It is surprising that a distorted version of this fact is being circulated in some media outlets. It is equally disturbing that articles and media coverage of the issue were made without an attempt to contact the Egyptian Embassy to check the factual basis of the stories reported.
This Press Release attempts to clarify the situation in line with the official documents related to the matter including the letter of termination which was recently transmitted by the Embassy to the PLM Group.
The Cable has obtained a copy of the draft resolution on Syria currently being discussed inside the U.N. Security Council. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures would be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days.
U.N. Security Council diplomats are meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss what's being called the Arab-European draft resolution on Syria. The Moroccan ambassador is presenting the draft resolution, which is designed to implement the recommendations of the Arab League transition plan laid out on Jan. 22.
The draft resolution condemns "the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities," demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to all human rights violations, and calls on both sides to end attacks and violence immediately.
The resolution then lays out a political roadmap that matches the Arab League initiative intended to pave the way for a transition "leading to a democratic, plural political system" through the formation of a national unity government, the handing over of all presidential authority to Assad's deputy for a transition period, and then the holding of free and fair elections with international supervision.
Importantly, the draft resolution requests that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon report on the implementation of the resolution every 15 days and also directs the Security Council "to review Syria's implementation of this resolution [in] 15 days and, in the event that Syria has not complied, to adopt further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States."
Representatives from the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spelled out the broad goals the United States has for the final version of the resolution.
"We are looking for a resolution that reflects the commitments that the Arab League was seeking from the Syrian government, that -- in its November 2nd agreement, which unfortunately has not been lived up to by the Syrian side," Nuland said.
She indicated the United States was hopeful that Russia, which has been openly supporting Assad and sending him weapons, will work with the rest of the Security Council to produce a resolution that is strong and effective. Russia and China vetoed European resolution on Syria last fall and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Friday that Russia would veto any resolution that seeks to remove Assad from power.
"We continue to want to work with the Russians so that the whole U.N. Security Council is united in sending the strongest possible message to the Assad regime that the violence has got to end, and we've got to begin a transition," Nuland said.
President Barack Obama's administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales -- without any formal notification to the public.
The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles.
The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process, which requires posting the information on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn't meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation.
At today's State Department press briefing, The Cable asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland about the new sale. She acknowledged the new package but didn't have any details handy.
Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification, which would allow Congress to object and possibly block the deal.
We're further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain's "external defense" and therefore couldn't be used against protesters. Of course, that's the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.
Regardless, congressional opponents to Bahrain arms sales are planning to fight back. Wyden is circulating a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that Bahrain's government continues to commit human rights violations and should not be rewarded with U.S. arms sales.
"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable on Friday. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."
"Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States," Wyden said. "When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume."
That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.
"The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country," McGovern told The Cable. "Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales."
A State Department official declined to give specifics of the new arms package to The Cable but said that Bahrain was moving in the right direction.
"We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's recommendations, but more needs to be done," the official said. "We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation."
Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the government crackdown on protests in 2011, recently said in an interview that the administration is not doing enough to pressure the Bahrain regime. "There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice," he said.
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told The Cable on Friday that the new sale will be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its repression.
"In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region," he said. "Rewarding regimes that repress peaceful dissent with arms sales simply does not square with the administration's rhetoric. The administration can no longer afford to endorse the status quo in Bahrain."
Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Cable on Friday that the sale of U.S. arms to the Bahraini regime sends the wrong message to the people of Bahrain, and the region in general.
"This message of ‘business as usual' will only strengthen the regime's belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally," she said. "At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States' test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably."
UPDATE: Late Friday evening, the State Department sent out a lenghty statement on the arms sales:
We are maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.
During the last two weeks, representatives from the State Department and Department of Defense briefed appropriate Congressional staff on our intention to release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations. This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment. None of these items can be used against protestors.
This isn't a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole. The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require Congressional notification. In fact, we've gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required by consulting with Congressional staff on items that do not require Congressional notification.
We have and will continue to use our security assistance to reinforce reforms in Bahrain. We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) recommendations, but more needs to be done. We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.
We will continue to consult extensively with Congress on this policy.
President Barack Obama's administration is working on the details of how it will implement crippling new sanctions against Iran, and the two senators who wrote the legislation warned the White House today not to water down the measures.
"We understand that the administration is drafting rules to guide the implementation of the law and we hereby seek to convey the legislative intent underlying certain terms and phrases in the amendment and to ensure that the positive developments that have occurred as a result of the amendment are buttressed by the administrative rules," wrote Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in a letter today to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who traveled personally to Japan and China this month to discuss the issue.
The State Department has sent teams to several countries urging them to comply with the new measures imposed by the Menendez-Kirk amendment, but the administration's recent enthusiasm for the sanctions is at odds with their attempts to water down the sanctions language while it was going through Congress. The law would punish any country or bank that does business with the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), or with Iran's state-controlled oil sector.
That's why Kirk and Menendez, along with their allies, are now worried that the Obama administration will try to implement the rules in such a way that will allow some countries that refuse to stop doing business with Iran to wiggle off the hook, by delaying implementation for months or claiming that other countries' adherence is more robust than it really is.
Obama, for his part, has hailed his administration's success in establishing a broad-based coalition aimed at isolating Iran.
"When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China -- that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran -- to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure," the president told Time in an interview released today.
The Menendez-Kirk letter list several concerns about the forthcoming rules, which could be unveiled as early as next week. Their two main worries are that the administration will allow countries to avoid being penalized by saying they have achieved "significant reductions" in their dealing with Iran, and that Obama will postpone implementation of the sanctions on national security grounds.
The implementation rules will define exactly what the term "significant reductions" means. Menendez and Kirk want the administration to use the same definition as was used for the last round of Iran sanctions, as dictated by the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), to avoid any confusion.
"To ascribe more variable terminology to the definition of ‘significantly reduced' would diminish the ability of countries to understand and comply with the amendment," the senators wrote. "An unevenly applied interpretation would also call into question the seriousness of the sanctions policy and send mixed signals to both Iran and our allies."
The senators' other main concern is that Obama will avail himself of the "national security waiver" found in the law to postpone implementing the new sanctions altogether for another 120 days. If he doesn't invoke this waiver, sanctions against countries that do business with the CBI could take hold Feb. 29. If Obama uses the waiver, he won't have to sanction any countries until late June, which tracks with the timeline the law specifies for the imposition of the oil-related sanctions.
The senators also don't think Obama should be able to waive all the sanctions with one stroke of the pen. They want him to have to waive sanctions for each country on a case-by-case basis. That's one of the things the forthcoming rules will address.
"We would welcome an opportunity to discuss these points with you prior to the publication of the final rule for the Menendez-Kirk amendment," the senators wrote -- a nice way to complain to the administration that they are not being properly consulted.
A senior Senate aide who works on the issue was more direct with The Cable.
"There's been little to no consultation or communication on this rule," the aide said. "There is growing concern that the administration may be moving toward a broad and non-specific definition for ‘significant reduction,' and the intention of the authors is that every bank that is in violation of the law would need its own national security waiver in order for the president to exempt them."
The actual rule writing is done at Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), run by Adam Szubin.
"The administration is hard at work drafting the regulations implementing the legislation. We are already using this law, in concert with our other efforts, to reduce Iran's access to oil revenue, both by working with our partners to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian crude and by impeding the CBI's ability to receive payment for whatever oil Iran is able to sell," a Treasury Department spokesman told The Cable. "We will continue our intensive engagement to ensure that the maximum amount of pressure is exerted by the international community against Iran's illicit nuclear program."
There will be at least one president speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): Israeli President Shimon Peres. But President Barack Obama has yet to RSVP, although he has been invited to the March event.
"Israeli President Shimon Peres is among a growing list of prestigious speakers already confirmed to address this year's conference," reads a notice being sent out by AIPAC in the near future, obtained in advance by The Cable. "President Peres will be honored for his unparalleled service to his country during a special presentation. The Israeli president's presence at this year's conference will offer each of us an historic opportunity to see and hear from one of the Jewish state's founding fathers in what promises to be a uniquely memorable highlight of the conference."
Other famous speakers AIPAC is getting ready to announce include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former member of Congress Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, and editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol.
Our sources report that although AIPAC invited Obama to speak, the White House has yet to say who it's sending. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to break that news to The Cable today. Insiders think the administration might send Vice President Joe Biden, although it depends on whether the White House feels it need a boost with the Jewish community as the conference nears.
Last year, Obama gave a speech that many saw as an effort to smooth over tensions in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
One can safely assume no administration officials will be speaking at the Occupy AIPAC rally, being organized by Code Pink, which is set to bring together lots of anti-AIPAC activists to Washington in a protest right across the street from the AIPAC conference.
According to their website, one of the speakers at that event will be Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. Contacted by The Cable, Parsi said, "I'm not speaking there."
Code Pink spokesperson Rae Abileah told The Cable that Parsi committed to speak at the event weeks ago but then cancelled last week, shortly after Code Pink announced his participation.
"Trita called us and said he forgot he had to attend his wife's family reunion on the West Coast that day, but he was really sorry and would do his best to help us find a replacement speaker," said Abileah.
We asked Parsi to confirm that but he didn't respond.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama is prepared to give the order to strike Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon if sanctions and international pressure prove ineffective, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who just returned from a whirlwind trip around the region.
"[Obama] is definitely capable of ordering a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities," Lieberman told The Cable in a Friday interview. "Do I know that he will? No. But the Iranians and others will be foolishly mistaken if they assume that he will not in any circumstance order a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if the sanctions don't work."
"I don't know that the president will order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities even if the sanctions don't work, but I know that he's capable of doing that and I believe he's prepared to do that," he said, adding that he doesn't think Obama would ever send ground troops to Iran.
Over the New Year's break, Lieberman visited Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and Libya, and he said Iran was the number one concern of leaders in the region. In previous meetings, Israeli officials had focused almost entirely on U.S. red lines and their concern over whether Obama would really attack Iran if push came to shove, emphasizing that Israel would attack if the United States doesn't. But now the Israeli government seems more willing to let the sanctions strategy run its course, Lieberman said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview this week that Iran is beginning to show signs of cracking under the international sanctions regime.
"Not only do the Israelis believe the U.S. and the international community has to go through every economic effort to change the mind of the Iranian leadership, but now they believe it might actually work. They believe that the economic sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy and beginning to have an effect on the regime," he said.
Lieberman himself doesn't believe that the Iranian regime will ever transform into a constructive member of the world community, but he holds out hope that the sanctions, due to their effect on the Iranian people, could force the regime to rethink its strategy.
"The only thing the Iranian government cares more about than the development of their nuclear weapons is the survival of the regime," he said.
The Obama administration has been adamant that regime change per se is not the goal of U.S. sanctions. On Wednesday, a Washington Post article initially quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying "regime change" was the goal, but then was quickly corrected to say "public ire" was the sanctions' goal, not regime change. Today, a U.S. official told AFP that the goal of the sanctions was to "close down" the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
When the Menendez-Kirk amendment -- which imposed sanctions on the CBI and eventually became U.S. law -- came up the Senate, the administration resisted the measure, warning it could harm the U.S. economy and aid Iran's economy. These days, the administration has changed its stance and is now embracing the sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner traveled to Japan and China this week to encourage them to cut off their dealings with the CBI, and the State Department instructed all of its ambassadors to meet with their host governments to explain the new law and express the administration's intention to enforce it.
Back in Washington, pro-sanctions senators aren't taking any chances that the administration might back off its newer, tougher stance vis-à-vis Iran. Congress is encouraging the EU to implement a full oil embargo, and the Senate plans to bring up a new round of Iran sanctions legislation for consideration as early as next month.
Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also plan to introduce a new Senate resolution to express the sense of Congress that a containment strategy for Iran that falls short of doing everything possible to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.
"Now the Iranians are clearly hurting. We have to make clear to them that if they don't respond to the economic and diplomatic pressures, that containment is not an option. We're not going to just sit there and let them become a nuclear power," Lieberman said about his forthcoming resolution. "I think is a way for Congress of saying with all the options on the table, containment cannot be one [of the options]."
But isn't the Senate's action also directed at the Obama administration, to make it clear to the White House that Congress does not accept a containment strategy for a nuclear Iran?
"Yes, exactly," Lieberman said. "But the first target of the resolution is Iran."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama's administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where more than 5,000 people have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again "leading from behind," while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League -- which sent an observer mission to Syria this week -- pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials insist that they are moving cautiously to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country's complex dynamics before getting more involved.
The administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. Bashar al-Assad's regime is a "dead man walking," State Department official Fred Hof said this month. Now, the administration is ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue after several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis. The National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee, Deputies Committee, or Principals Committee meetings, the officials said. (Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.)
The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
"The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it's still at the preliminary stage," one official said. "There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future."
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials -- one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally careful out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
"Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious," the official said. "The criticism could be we're not doing enough to change the status quo because we're leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it's mindboggling."
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
"This isn't Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher," the official said. "Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow."
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
"That's theoretically one of the options, but it's so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment," another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
"Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine," said Ghalioun. "We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights."
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Assad to step aside and emphasizing the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve either result. "The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn't let the Arab League monitors do their work. "If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The SNC, the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, "Safe Area for Syria," edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact," the paper stated.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime -- a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
For now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad's human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn't flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
"This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time," said one administration official.
"[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre," said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. "We're intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing."
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught offguard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration's message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
"We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections," he said. "But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn't happen."
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military's role in cracking down on the protesters.
"It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission," said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative."
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
"Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors," he said. "It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus."
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
"The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That's another feature of this administration," said Katulis. "And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration first urged Senate leaders to compromise on new legislation that would sanction the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) -- but then came out today against that very compromise, angering and alienating a key Democratic Senate ally.
Two senior administration officials testified Thursday morning that the current bipartisan amendment to impose new sanctions on the CBI and any other bank that does business with them is a bad idea that could alienate foreign countries, make it more difficult to pressure Iran, and raise oil prices, which could actually help the Iranian economy.
The administration's strategy of working behind the scenes to change what's become the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions amendment, only to publicly oppose it today, angered several senators, including Robert Menendez himself. The New Jersey Democrat took seven minutes at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to chastise Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen at Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting for asking him to negotiate on their behalf, and then criticizing the compromise he struck with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
"At your request we engaged in an effort to come to a bipartisan agreement that I believe is fair and balanced. And now you come here and vitiate that agreement.... You should have said we want no amendment," Menendez said. "Everything that you have said in your testimony undermines your opposition to this amendment. The clock is ticking."
Menendez said he regretted working with the administration on the issue, and said that perhaps he should have just agreed to Kirk's original Iran sanctions amendment, which was more severe and provided the administration with less room to maneuver than the compromise amendment that is set to be voted on and passed in the Senate as early as tomorrow.
"This certainly undermines your relationship with me for the future," Menendez told the administration officials. He also urged for more drastic measures, such as a gasoline embargo on Iran. "If the Europeans are considering an embargo, we shouldn't be leading from behind, we should be leading forward."
The break between this Democratic senator, who is up for reelection next year, and the Obama administration comes two days after the administration sent three very senior officials to meet with senators to try to get them to scuttle the amendment. On the morning of Nov. 29, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough called an emergency meeting on Capitol Hill, multiple Hill sources told The Cable.
They sat down with Sens. Kirk, Menendez, and SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). The officials argued that the Kirk-Menendez would get in the way of their efforts to build a multilateral coalition designed to increase pressure on Iran, and they warned the amendment might cause severe disruptions to the world oil markets and therefore have negative effects on the U.S. economy. Kirk and Menendez flatly refused to back down, our sources said, while Kerry reportedly said exactly nothing in the meeting.
The officials' sentiments were echoed in a letter sent today to Senate leaders by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who we're told is personally invested in the administration effort to thwart the Kirk-Menendez amendment.
"I am writing to express the administration's strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran," wrote Geithner. "In addition, the amendment would potentially yield a net economic benefit to the Iranian regime."
Geithner argued that because the Kirk-Menendez amendment would force foreign banks to choose between doing business with the U.S. or Iran, some might choose Iran and resist going along with American unilateral efforts, thereby helping the Iranian economy and hurting our own.
Menendez addressed that point by saying that the amendment allows the implementation of the sanctions to be waived if the president determines there's not enough supply in the world oil market, or if he determines a country is making progress in divesting itself from Iranian business relationships.
"So we basically say to financial institutions, do you want to deal with a $300 billion economy, or do you want to deal with a $14 trillion economy? I think that choice is pretty easy for them," Menendez said at the hearing. "So I find it pretty outrageous that when the clock is ticking, and when you ask us to engage in a more reasoned effort, and we produce such an effort in a bipartisan basis, that in fact you come here and say what you say."
One GOP Senate aide told The Cable today that while the amendment was crafted to avoid disrupting the world economy as much as possible, administration officials' warnings of economic consequences could have an effect of their own.
"The administration is going to spook the oil markets themselves in opposition to an amendment that would not," the aide said. "They could create their own self-fulfilling prophecy of driving up oil prices, so their strategy seems to be self defeating."
UPDATE: The Kirk-Menendez amendment passed the senate late Thursday by a unanimous vote of 100-0.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad right now on a surprise visit before he travels this weekend to Turkey and Greece.
Biden landed on Tuesday afternoon in Baghdad and is expected to hold meetings with top Iraqi officials about the future of the U.S.-Iraqi partnership. He will stay for two days, multiple news outlets reported.
"Vice President Biden has arrived in Baghdad, Iraq," his office said in a release. "While there, the Vice President will co-chair a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee. He will also meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and other political leaders. The Vice President will also participate in, and give remarks at, an event to commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops."
On Friday, Dec. 2, Biden will arrive in Ankara, where he'll have meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lay a wreath at the Ataturk Mausoleum before continuing on to Istanbul. In Istanbul, Biden will attend a global entrepreneurship summit hosted by Erdogan.
National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken told reporters on Monday that he expects Biden to discuss U.S. assistance in fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been attacking Turkish forces recently.
"The PKK is a common enemy of Turkey, the United States, and Iraq, and we expect to focus on that," Blinken said.
Blinken also said Biden hopes to discuss the situation in Syria, the upcoming meeting of Cypriot leaders in January, the war in Afghanistan, "and the prospects for progress in normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia." He'll also meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Regarding Turkey's deteriorating relationship with Israel, Blinken said, "I suspect that that will come up."
"It pains us to see the two of them at odds because they're both such close partners of the United States," Blinken said. "And the bottom line is that improved relations between Turkey and Israel would be good for Turkey, good for Israel, and good for the United States and indeed good for the region and the world so that's something we will continue to encourage."
Biden will then travel to Athens on Monday, Dec. 5, where he will hold the administration's first meeting with new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. He'll also meet with President Karolos Papoulias, as well as former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who heads the largest party in Parliament, and Antonio Samaras, who heads the second largest party.
But the Greeks shouldn't expect any direct financial assistance as they struggle with their fiscal crisis.
"I think the U.S. very much recognizes the sacrifices being made by the Greek people as they pursue this reform process and view the fiscal and structural reforms that have been agreed on with the European partners and with the IMF as critical," said Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman. "On the economic situation, the Vice President will be supportive of the overall reform effort and the package of measures that have been put in place by the European partners and by the IMF."
The State Department is still trying to convince Congress to restore funding for UNESCO, which was cut off after the U.N. cultural agency's members granted full membership to the Palestinians -- but there is little chance lawmakers will change the provision preventing U.S. funding.
State sent an unofficial memo to key congressional offices today titled, "How the Loss of U.S. Funding Will Impact Important Programs at UNESCO." The memo, which was passed to The Cable by a congressional source, argues that UNESCO programs will have to be cut back severely due to the loss of U.S. funding.
State Department spokespeople have said they are working with Congress in the hopes of amending the laws that cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a full member, but there is broad bipartisan support for the funding cut-offs and no real congressional effort to change the law.
"The cut-off in U.S. funding may not directly affect extra-budgetary programs funded by other donors, but it will weaken UNESCO's presence in the field and undermine its ability to take on and manage such projects and programs," the memo stated (emphasis theirs).
UNESCO will lose $240 million of funding for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- roughly 22 percent of its budget -- and will have to scale down programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan, the memo states.
The memo also lists several ways that UNESCO supports U.S. national security interests. These include "sustain[ing] the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring" and democratic values around the world, promoting nation-building in South Sudan, and encouraging Holocaust education in the Middle East and Africa.
Read the full memo after the jump:
White House advisor Dennis Ross, one of President Barack Obama's lead officials in handling the Middle East peace process and U.S. policy toward Iran, is leaving the administration and returning to the private sector.
"After nearly three years of serving in the administration, I am going to be leaving to return to private life," Ross said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday. "I do so with mixed feelings. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this President, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East."
He will leave the administration is early December. No replacement has yet been announced.
Ross' official title was National Security Council (NSC) senior director for the "central region," which gave him authority over not just the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also placed him in charge of NSC officials who worked on Iran, India, and other issues. He said in his statement that he promised his wife he would be in government for only two years.
"We both agreed it is time to act on my promise," Ross said.
Ross actually worked for the Obama administration for almost three years, and resigned two days after Obama was caught on a hot microphone discussing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy their mutual frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I cannot stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama in what the two leaders thought was a private conversation at the G-20 summit in Cannes.
"You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day," Obama responded.
Ross worked on Middle East issues for every administration since Jimmy Carter, except for that of former President George W. Bush, and was often seen as the Obama administration's main interlocutor with the Netanyahu team. He reportedly clashed with members of the administration who focused on other aspects of the administration's Middle East policy, such as former Special Envoy George Mitchell.
He had originally been appointed in February 2009 as special envoy to the Gulf and Southwest Asia, a job located at the State Department and focused on Iran, but was moved to his NSC position in June 2009. While there, he had been working primarily on the Middle East peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Ross in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday.
"Dennis Ross has an extraordinary record of public service and has been a critical member of the President's team for nearly three years," Carney said. "In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward."
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
The top U.S. official at NATO said Monday that there is zero planning -- or even thinking -- going on about a military intervention in Syria.
"There has been no planning, no thought, and no discussion about any intervention into Syria. It just isn't part of the envelope of thinking, among individual countries and certainly among the 28 [full NATO members]," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. "If things change, things change. But as of today, that's where the reality stands."
Daalder, speaking to an audience at the Atlantic Council, is in town along with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will meet later today with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They will be discussing the NATO summit to be held in Chicago next May and taking a victory lap following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Daalder said that there were three overarching conditions that need to be met before the Obama administration would even consider any future military intervention such as occurred in Libya.
"The formula was that there needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action," said Daalder. "It's those three things we need to look for before we even think about the possibility of action. None of them apply in Syria."
Daalder also noted that there is not enough evidence that air strikes would be effective in Syria, that the opposition and the Arab League have not asked for intervention, and that the U.N. Security Council has refused to act.
Daalder said several times that the United States had not been "leading from behind" in Libya, and he offered his take on the Obama administration's foreign-policy philosophy, as implemented during the Libya intervention.
"The administration came to power with a particular view about how the world worked. And that was a view that in an age of globalization, security was no longer principally determined by geography, but developments anywhere in the world could have a major security impact at home, so as a result you had to find a way to work with others," he said. "The lynchpin of Obama foreign policy was rebuilding partnerships and alliances."
"As part of that analysis, there was also a belief that the era when the United States could decide, determine, and do everything by itself had also come to an end," he said.
The United States is conducting an exercise to examine the lessons learned during the Libya intervention. However, Daalder said that although the European countries ran short of key items such as precision missiles during the war, the United States was perfectly well-prepared and did everything basically right throughout the mission.
"I'm not sure there is a lesson we need to learn for the United States," Daalder said. "In terms of capabilities, we know where the shortfalls are, but they are European shortfalls.... We could have done this campaign by ourselves. But the wise decision was not to do something we could, because others could help too."
Daalder also acknowledged that NATO-Russia talks over missile defense cooperation are at an impasse over a dispute regarding Russian demands for written assurances that U.S. systems are incapable of being used against Russia. The United States has no intention of giving such assurances, according to Daalder.
"We have put on the table numerous proposals for cooperation, which in many ways take their proposals as the basis," he said.
"They want a written guarantee that is legally binding that says the system will be incapable and will never be directed against them," he said. "And we have said that a legal guarantee like that is not something we want nor something we could ratify."
Bahrain's government is under pressure -- not just from protesters in Manama, but also from parts of the Washington foreign policy community, who want to delay U.S. arms sales to the country. Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa has been in town for over a week meeting with officials and lawmakers to assuage U.S. concerns over the kingdom's domestic crackdown, and sat down for a lengthy interview with The Cable.
Khalifa's message was clear: The Bahraini government is sensitive to international concerns about its treatment of protesters, pledges to follow the recommendations of an upcoming commission report on its actions, and wants to reinforce that the international community should not lose sight of the broader security situation in the region, characterized by the Iranian threat.
"I'm here to see our friends in the administration and Congress to try to explain what's happening in Bahrain," he said. "We are just before the issuance of the commission of inquiry's report. I'm here to show our commitment to that, how we will accept it and do all that is necessary to implement it."
That report, being written by Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), was established by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and is chaired by human rights advocate and professor M. Cherif Bassiouni. It is expected to be released on Nov. 23. Bassiouni has faced some criticism for making statements that appear to be to conciliatory to the regime, but he recently promised his report will give the Bahraini government "some bitter pills to swallow."
After five U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month to protest the pending $53 million sale of armored Humvees and missiles to Bahrain, the State Department wrote a letter to Congress last week linking the arms sale directly to the BICI report.
Khalifa said his government has been alarmed by congressional opposition to the arms sale, but said that he trusts the Obama administration to judge the outcome of the commission's report fairly. He also argued that a delay in completing the arms sale would not be in the interest of regional security.
"What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that," he said. "That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."
Of course, one component of that emerging regional security architecture is the Peninsula Shield Force, made up of dozens of tanks and approximately 40,000 troops that came to Bahrain via Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE during the height of the unrest in March. Those forces are still there but are "purely to deter external threats," Khalifa maintains.
Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government during its domestic crackdown, and more than 1,000 have been arrested. Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the government has employed brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids.
The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.
Khalifa didn't meet with any of the senators who signed the letter, but he did meet with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).
Rubio, a strong supporter of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship, sent his own letter to Clinton arguing that the administration should delay the sale of the Humvees, but not the missiles. Rubio wrote that the administration should delay the sale of "any items within the proposed weapons package that could be used to disrupt peaceful dissent."
Khalifa told The Cable that no military hardware has been used against protestors. "Our soldiers did help the police under the banner of the police... but no military hardware was used," he said. Several videos have surfaced of armored troop carriers allegedly firing on protesters and journalists.
So what is the urgency of the U.S. arms sale? Khalifa said that if the United States wants to advance deepening security ties with the Arab Gulf states, any delays would only send the wrong signal to the region's adversaries, principally Iran.
"The claims of torture, that is in the hands of the commission of inquiry," Khalifa said. He said that all government police are clearing identified and sometimes they use overwhelming force during arrests because of the chaotic situation in some Bahraini towns. "If the arrest happens at night, some of the villages are not in a very orderly place. So maybe the arrest was to minimize chaos," he explained.
Khalifa said he didn't have any information on the specific case of Jaleela al-Saman, vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Association, who was reportedly arrested for the second time last week in a night-time raid. Khalifa said that any federal employee who was unfairly dismissed will be rehired.
Khalifa acknowledged that dozens of Shiite mosques and other religious structures have been destroyed by the government in recent months, a step that President Barack Obama condemned in his May 19 speech on the Arab uprisings. However, he said that the structures were demolished for violating building codes or infringing on property that didn't belong to them, not as part of a crackdown on protestors.
"What wasn't helpful was the timing of that happening," he said. "Why were those structures targeted during the national safety situation? That's a serious question. It was ill-timing. It should not have happened in association with restoring law and order in Bahrain."
He added that some Sunni religious structures were also destroyed, and he pledged that the government will pay for the cost of rebuilding structures if they are in adherence with laws and codes, and that "will start soon."
It's too early to tell if Khalifa's charm offensive has had any impact. Rubio spoke with The Cable after meeting with the foreign minister, and said he hadn't changed his view on the arms sales package ... yet.
"We have a special obligation to our allies to encourage them on the road to democracy. I don't expect them to get there overnight," Rubio said. "Bahrain is a country that is friendly and helpful to us, but I believe that their status quo politically is unsustainable and in the long term undermines their ability to resist the pressures put on them not just internally, but also from Iran."
The Obama administration, meanwhile, continues to point to the BICI report as a key element that will inform the next steps in its relations with the kingdom. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated that mantra today following Khalifa's meeting at the State Department with Clinton.
"This investigation, we hope, will speak not only to individual incidents, but also to systemic changes that can be made to prevent future such abuses," Nuland said. "And we will look not only for a full, transparent, independent report, but also for the government to take steps to redress shortcomings that are found."
Khalifa struck a confident note that, in the end, it will all work out between the United States and Bahrain.
"We're allies, we're friends. If your friends don't give you advice, what kind of friends are they?" he said. "I think definitely, with commitment, we will sail through this."
When President Barack Obama and senior administration officials proudly announced that all U.S. troops in Iraq would leave by the end of the year, there was no mention of the millions of Iraqis who were forced to flee their homes by the U.S. invasion or the thousands who risked their lives by working directly for the U.S. military.
"It is wonderful that American troops will finally be able to come home, but we must remember that for the nearly three million Iraqis displaced by the war, returning home is still not an option," said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center.
The U.S. neglect of Iraqi refugees -- especially those who can no longer live in safety in Iraq due to their work with the U.S. military -- is not a new phenomenon. Your humble Cable guy has met dozens of Iraqi refugees over the years, mostly women, who had somehow managed to secure a rare special visa to enter the United States, but this status has been offered to only a fraction of those who helped the U.S. military by working as guides or translators.
Most of those refugees were living in the United States without jobs, permanent residences, or any financial support from the U.S. government. Many were wholly dependent on the kindness of the soldiers they had worked with in Iraq, who felt an obligation to aid them. Some even married those soldiers.
As early as 2007, The New Yorker and other outlets were reporting about the herculean efforts U.S. soldiers had gone to in order to help their Iraqi staffers flee to safety, even creating an "underground railroad" to bring Iraqis to the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan, because the Baghdad embassy would not process their visa requests.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took up the issue of Iraqi refugees, introducing a resolution to expand the available number of visas and pressing the State Department to streamline the process for those who sacrificed on behalf of the U.S. effort. He had some success, but died before finishing the work.
Four years later, advocates are still pressing the administration to issue all the visas it can to help Iraqis resettle in the United States and then help them get on with their new lives.
"The United States failed to honor its commitment to Iraqi refugees this year, admitting less than half of the 17,000 refugees we had promised to help. This includes thousands of Iraqis whose lives are at risk, or family members have been killed, as a direct result of their work as interpreters and drivers with U.S. forces in Iraq," Heller said. "The U.S. must continue to honor its obligations to the Iraqis for whom withdrawal is not an option."
Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."
ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.
The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.
"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."
Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.
"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."
Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.
"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said. "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."
ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.
But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.
"There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."
ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.
"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."
Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.
In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.
"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.
Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."
Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.
Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."
"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."
Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.
"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."
And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.
The Israeli government is proud of the agreement it struck that led to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit today after five years of imprisonment, but don't expect any change in its approach to Hamas, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren told The Cable today.
"Hamas remains a terrorist organization. It doesn't meet any of the Quartet's criteria for negotiating. Its charter still calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish people worldwide. It's a genocidal organization," Oren said in an interview. "Hamas itself is not saying it's a partner for peace talks. That's not in the bargain."
The deal to trade Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was mediated by the Egyptian government and German mediators; no further deals or indirect interactions between the Israeli government and Hamas are in the works.
Those prisoners included Nasser Yateima, who was imprisoned for his role in a 2002 suicide bombing at an Israeli hotel on Passover, Walid Abdel-Hadi, who was involved in several attacks including a 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem cafe that killed 11, and Ahlam Tamimi, who participated in bombing of a Sbarro's restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001 where 16 died.
Oren said the reason that the Israeli government took the risk of releasing so many dangerous prisoners was due to the unwritten social contract between the state and the people that Israel will do everything in its power to recover captured citizens.
"This deal goes to the very heart of the relationship between the State of Israel and the army of Israel. At the end of the day, yes, there's a heavy price to pay here, but as a result of Gilad Shalit's release, are we more motivated to go out and defend our country? Unquestionably, yes," he said. "That's the true strategic value, not just the humanitarian value, of what we've done."
But why did Hamas make the deal, in Oren's view?
"I think they're weak, weakened by the situation in Syria. They have been weakened by the situation in Gaza, where there's been a complete implosion of support for them in Gaza, where the economic situation is deplorable," he said.
Oren said that this weakened position led to a steady decline in Hamas' demands over the past two and a half years, which created a situation that made the terms of the deal amenable to Israel. Oren argued that the success of the deal does not strengthen Hamas, either in Gaza or with regard to their competition with the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
"They may celebrate for a few hours, but the people in Gaza are going to wake up tomorrow in the same position that were in today, and that's not a very favorable position at all," Oren said. "There's no obscuring that fact.... It's not a victory for them."
Despite some criticism inside Israel against the government for striking the deal, Oren said that the takeaway lesson of today's events is that the current Israeli government is capable of making hard and painful decisions -- and can deliver if there's a fair deal on the table. He also said that the reaction of the Palestinians to the deal highlights a fundamental difference between the two peoples.
"Today's events really showed a gap between Israeli society and Palestinian society. We celebrated life. They celebrated death," Oren said. "They celebrated the release of people who have killed dozens of men, women, and children. And it's a huge ethical difference."
The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.
The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "No funds authorized to be appropriated by this act or any other act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states."
The Palestinians cleared a hurdle this week when the UNESCO executive board approved their bid to join the organization, sending the matter to a vote by UNESCO's 193-nation General Conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized UNESCO on Wednesday for taking up the issue.
"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic.
She acknowledged the "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."
The U.S. has not yet paid their bills on UNESCO for 2011, about $80 million, which is 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. If the law is triggered and the U.S. does not pay in 2012, the U.S. would lose its vote in the organization. Plus, UNESCO officials have told the U.S. that if U.S. funds are not expected over the next two years, they may have to initiate massive layoffs beginning in January to account for the shortfall in funds.
Palestinian membership in UNESCO would also grant them immediate membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The U.S. would have to stop contributing to WIPO but America is not a member of UNIDO.
We're told that the State Department is currently having their attorneys draft a legal opinion on how U.S. laws would affect U.S. participations in U.N. bodies that grant the Palestinians member state status. Their ruling will have ramifications not only for UNESCO, but for all other U.N. specialized agencies that the PLO is expected to submit their application to, such as the IAEA, WTO, WHO, World Bank, and others.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the administration was "still working" on what the legislative triggers regarding funding would mean. But a State Department official said that the administration has not been able to find a way around the law.
"We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso and the Palestinians have the remote control," the State Department official said. "They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It's 100 percent up to them."
Meanwhile, Congress is ratcheting up its own involvement on the issue. Later today, 10 House appropriators will call on UNESCO not to move forward with consideration of Palestinian membership, in a letter to UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova obtained by The Cable.
"We... respectfully request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Palestine Liberation Organization's application to become a Member State does not come before the UNESCO General Conference," states the letter, prepared by the office of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO."
Signatories of the letter include the heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Steve Austria (R-IL), Charles Dent (R-PA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Adam Schiff (D-CA).
One senior Republican staffer pointed out the irony that it was President George W. Bush who brought the United States back into UNESCO, and now the United States might be forced to leave the organization by Obama -- a president who came to office promising to reverse what he argued was Bush's tendency to ignore the international community.
"Remember, we joined UNESCO in part because we needed them to help de-radicalize textbooks particularly in the Muslim world after 9/11 and as a platform to counter expanding anti-American attitudes in academia," the staffer said "And now, by de-funding UNESCO, we lose all the leverage we had gained."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to The Cable widely held suspicions that the Syrian government is arresting and torturing Syrians whose family members have spoken out against the regime here in the United States.
The FBI is investigating claims that the Syrian embassy staff in Washington has been collecting information on Syrian-Americans in and around Washington, especially those who dare to protest against the regime. That embassy is led by Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who has updated his blog only intermittently since the outbreak of violence in Syria.
Ford did not directly accuse Moustapha of spying on American citizens and transmitting that information back to the regime, to be used to punish family members as part of an organized campaign of fear and intimidation. But he said that those families are being tortured.
"We know of families here in Syria who have been arrested, who have been beaten, whose homes have been broken into, because of activities against the Syrian government - participation in marches, for example - by family members in the United States," Ford said in a phone call from his post in Damascus.
Ford said he couldn't comment on the Moustapha investigation specifically, but confirmed that the State Department is tracking these cases and has evidence of multiple instances of retribution against Syrian-Americans by the Assad regime.
"We know of at least three instances of that. How does the Syrian government know about [the Syrian-Americans' activities]? You and I can speculate," Ford said. "We do know of families that were attacked here. It's really serious."
Without directly accusing the Syrian embassy in Washington of spying, Ford said, "It is entirely unacceptable for any foreign embassy in the United States to facilitate the harassment of American citizens."
The Wall Street Journal has reported on several claims by activists of retribution brought down on their Syrian-based family members. Ford's comments represent the highest level public acknowledgment of these activities to date.
At Ford's confirmation hearing in August, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) spoke about how the regime treats those Syrians who try to maintain contacts in the United States.
"The terrible reach of this regime has directly affected constituents in my home state of Pennsylvania," said Casey, who told the story of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian who traveled to the United States to attend a medical conference with his brother Hazem Hallak, a Syrian-American living near Philadelphia.
"Upon his return to Syria, Sakher was missing. His wife contacted the authority to confirm that he was in their custody but would be released shortly," Casey said. "Two days later, his body was discovered in a village 20 miles south of Aleppo. The authorities then denied that he was ever in their custody and claimed that they found his body in a ditch, by the side of the road."
"Sakher's body was subjected to brutal torture. His bones were broken and his body was mutilated in unspeakable ways," said Casey. "Sakher was not a political activist. He was not involved in the demonstrations. His sole offense appears to be his visit to the medical conference and his visit with his brother in the United States of America."
If the Syrian regime's intention was to intimidate Hazem Hallak, their strategy surely backfired. He became an outspoken and fierce critic of the regime in response to his brother's death.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded again Sunday to charges that he was responsible for failures in the peace process leveled against him by former President Bill Clinton in remarks reported exclusively on The Cable.
Netanyahu, who first responded to Clinton on Friday evening on ABC News, was again confronted with the former president's accusations on Sunday morning on NBC's Meet the Press. Host David Gregory drew Netanyahu's attention to this passage in our story:
Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.
"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."
Here's how Netanyahu responded:
You know, I regretfully and respectfully disagree with former President Clinton. He should know, more than anyone else, that in the peace conference he presided in at Camp David in 2000 with [Yasir] Arafat and former Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak, it was the Palestinian side who walked away from his own parameters. And in 2008, President Bush can tell you how the Palestinian side led by President Abbas walked away, just would not close in on another prime minister's suggestions.
In the two-and-a-half years since then, anybody conversant with the facts knows that I made these offers again and again, called for two states for two peoples, froze the settlements -- nobody did that, ever -- for nearly a year. They didn't come. They don't want to come. And they go around to the U.N. I disagree with that.
Gregory asked Netanyahu whether it's true he will never give up the West Bank.
"No, we could arrive at an arrangement that takes care of Israel's security needs and gives the Palestinians a life of dignity for themselves," Netanyahu said. "But they have to have leaders who are prepared to do that. You know what? I hope they do, not just for our sake but for their sake too."
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu was so mad about Clinton's remarks that, "he asked his aides to request that the White House issue a statement distancing itself from Clinton's statements."
The White House declined to say whether they had received a formal or informal complaint about Clinton's remarks from Netanyahu's staff. Asked for a response to Clinton's remarks by The Cable, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor sent along this statement, which just repeated the administrations standard talking points.
"President Obama expressed his views clearly Wednesday at the outset of his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he said that peace must be negotiated and cannot be imposed on the parties," Vietor said. "Actions at the United Nations will achieve neither statehood nor self-determination for the Palestinians. The Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate through these very difficult issues that have kept the parties apart for decades to achieve the ultimate goal of two states, side by side, living in peace and security."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded tonight to criticisms leveled on Thursday by former President Bill Clinton, who blamed Netanyahu for creating obstacles to a Middle East peace deal.
"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination and [Ariel] Sharon's stroke," Clinton said on Thursday, in remarks reported exclusively on The Cable.
Clinton said that Netanyahu moved the goalposts and made reaching a comprehensive peace deal more difficult upon taking office.
"The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn't seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu," Clinton said, referring to what he called fair offers from the Palestinian government and the other Arab nations. "Now that they have those things, they don't seem so important to this current Israeli government."
Clinton also said that the Palestinians have offered Netanyahu the same deal the two sides almost agreed to in 2000 at Camp David, but Netanyahu refuses now to accept it.
Netanyahu shot back at Clinton when asked about the remarks in an interview with ABC News.
"I respectfully disagree," Netanyahu said. "The Palestinians are basically trying to shortcut this. They're trying to get a state without giving us peace, without giving us security."
"President Clinton knows very well [that] in 2000 at Camp David ... who really made the generous offer and the Palestinians refused to come," he said. "I'm sure that President Bush can tell you what happened at Camp David a few years later, when another Israeli prime minister made a generous offer, and the Palestinians refused to come."
When asked if he had moved the goalposts, Netanyahu said, "Not at all."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late on Thursday praised a new statement issued by the Middle East Quartet calling for new negotiations, a statement neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have endorsed.
"The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through negotiations between the parties," she said. "Therefore, we urge both parties to take advantage of this opportunity to get back to talks, and the United States pledges our support as the parties themselves take the important next steps for a two-state solution, which is what all of us are hoping to achieve."
Who's to blame for the continued failure of the Middle East peace process? Former President Bill Clinton said today that it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose government moved the goalposts upon taking power, and whose rise represents a key reason there has been no Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Clinton, in a roundtable with bloggers today on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, gave an extensive recounting of the deterioration in the Middle East peace process since he pressed both parties to agree to a final settlement at Camp David in 2000. He said there are two main reasons for the lack of a comprehensive peace today: the reluctance of the Netanyahu administration to accept the terms of the Camp David deal and a demographic shift in Israel that is making the Israeli public less amenable to peace.
"The two great tragedies in modern Middle Eastern politics, which make you wonder if God wants Middle East peace or not, were [Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination and [Ariel] Sharon's stroke," Clinton said.
Sharon had decided he needed to build a new centrist coalition, so he created the Kadima party and gained the support of leaders like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert. He was working toward a consensus for a peace deal before he fell ill, Clinton said. But that effort was scuttled when the Likud party returned to power.
"The Israelis always wanted two things that once it turned out they had, it didn't seem so appealing to Mr. Netanyahu. They wanted to believe they had a partner for peace in a Palestinian government, and there's no question -- and the Netanyahu government has said -- that this is the finest Palestinian government they've ever had in the West Bank," Clinton said.
"[Palestinian leaders] have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before -- my deal -- that they would take it," Clinton said, referring to the 2000 Camp David deal that Yasser Arafat rejected.
But the Israeli government has drifted a long way from the Ehud Barak-led government that came so close to peace in 2000, Clinton said, and any new negotiations with the Netanyahu government are now on starkly different terms -- terms that the Palestinians are unlikely to accept.
"For reasons that even after all these years I still don't know for sure, Arafat turned down the deal I put together that Barak accepted," he said. "But they also had an Israeli government that was willing to give them East Jerusalem as the capital of the new state of Palestine."
Israel also wants a normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors to accompany a peace deal. Clinton said that the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative put forth in 2002 represented an answer to that Israeli demand.
"The King of Saudi Arabia started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, ‘if you work it out with the Palestinians ... we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership,'" Clinton said. "This is huge.... It's a heck of a deal."
The Netanyahu government has received all of the assurances previous Israeli governments said they wanted but now won't accept those terms to make peace, Clinton said.
"Now that they have those things, they don't seem so important to this current Israeli government, partly because it's a different country," said Clinton. "In the interim, you've had all these immigrants coming in from the former Soviet Union, and they have no history in Israel proper, so the traditional claims of the Palestinians have less weight with them."
Clinton then repeated his assertions made at last year's conference that Israeli society can be divided into demographic groups that have various levels of enthusiasm for making peace.
"The most pro-peace Israelis are the Arabs; second the Sabras, the Jewish Israelis that were born there; third, the Ashkenazi of long-standing, the European Jews who came there around the time of Israel's founding," Clinton said. "The most anti-peace are the ultra-religious, who believe they're supposed to keep Judea and Samaria, and the settler groups, and what you might call the territorialists, the people who just showed up lately and they're not encumbered by the historical record."
Clinton affirmed that the United States should veto the Palestinian resolution at the U.N. Security Council for member-state status, because the Israelis need security guarantees before agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Netanyahu government has moved away from the consensus for peace, making a final status agreement more difficult, Clinton said.
"That's what happened. Every American needs to know this. That's how we got to where we are," Clinton said. "The real cynics believe that the Netanyahu's government's continued call for negotiations over borders and such means that he's just not going to give up the West Bank."
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Top Obama administration officials here in New York are working hard with Quartet members, including Russia, to come up with language for a new statement on the Middle East Peace Process, one that would be viable no matter what happens with the Palestinian drive to seek member-state status at the U.N. this week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday evening on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly and the Palestinian U.N. gambit was a major part of their conversation. Following the meeting, State Department officials said that Clinton was focused on the longer-term diplomatic picture.
"Both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton agreed that the Quartet envoys should continue working to find a way forward among the Quartet in the form of a statement that can help establish a pathway back to negotiations over time," a senior State Department official told reporters in a read out of the meeting.
But when pressed, the official could not note any progress or agreement between the U.S. and Russia on the contents of the statement. The official said, however, that the meeting was only the first of what will be several U.S.-Russian interactions on this issue this week.
"They talked about what the purpose or nature of a Quartet statement and product would look like and the desire by both of them to have the Quartet play a constructive role in producing a pathway that could lead back towards negotiations," the official said. "And they also talked about what some of the elements might look like in a statement that could provide a useful framework or context for negotiations between the two sides. And then they agreed that the envoys should continue working."
The Cable reported last week that among the issues under consideration within the discussions over a Quartet statement were two specific items: modified language to acknowledge the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and a U.S.-proposed timeline for resuming direct negotiations within four to six weeks.
But Clinton and Lavrov didn't get to that level of details on Monday evening. "Their conversation tonight was at more of a strategic level than at a level of text," the official said, adding that Clinton affirmed the U.S. position opposing the Palestinians move at the U.N., a move the Russian government is publicly supporting.
The official's briefing seemed to signal that the Obama administration has somewhat resigned itself to the fact that the Palestinians plan to move forward at the U.N. this week and that the administration is now looking over the horizon to minimize the damage to the peace process and focus on what happens after all parties leave New York.
"And so the question is: How do you deal with all the elements that are at play in the discussions here in New York in a way that can produce a pathway when people leave New York back to negotiations and then have those negotiations ultimately yield the two-state solution that everybody wants," the official said.
The reporters at the briefing repeatedly noted the administration change of emphasis away from criticizing the Palestinian U.N. activity and toward a diplomatic path that would begin after the General Assembly ends.
The official acknowledged that in Clinton's meeting with Lavrov, she didn't spend a lot of time trying to convince the Russians not to support the Palestinian statehood bid.
"I think she laid out her position on why she believes that action at the United Nations is not the best way forward, and she spent the bulk of her time encouraging the foreign minister to work with her on finding a way forward that would get the two parties back into negotiations."
GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry hosted a pro-Israel rally in New York on Tuesday morning during which he repeatedly accused President Barack Obama of "appeasement" of the Palestinians and of bungling three years of Middle East diplomacy.
"I hope you will tell the people of Israel that help is on the way," Perry told an assembled audience of Jewish organization leaders and journalists at the W Hotel on Union Square.
He called for the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington and the cutting off of U.S. aid to the Palestinian leadership as punishment for their drive to seek member-state status at the United Nations.
The Obama administration had treated Palestinian and Israel concerns with equal regard, which has led to the diplomatic crisis brewing in Turtle Bay, according to Perry.
"Simply put, we would not be here today at this precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn't naive, arrogant, misguided, and dangerous," Perry said. "The Obama policy of moral equivalency, which gives equal standing to the grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, including the orchestrators of terrorism, is a very dangerous insult."
Perry criticized the Palestinians several times for "violating the spirit" of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, by seeking recognition of statehood at the United Nations. He also said the Israelis should be allowed to keep building settlements.
Perry's specific criticisms of Obama's approach to Israel were threefold: He said that, by beginning with indirect talks between the parties, Obama had encouraged the Palestinians to shun direct negotiations. He said Obama's May 19 announcement that negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps, which was made the day before a U.S.-Israel summit, was an insult to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Perry also said that calling on Israel to halt settlement activity as a prerequisite to negotiations left Israel with no room to negotiate.
"We see the American administration having a willingness to isolate a close ally and to do so in a manner that is both insulting and naïve," said Perry.
Perry corrected a mistake he made on Sept. 15, when he called on the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel's right to exist. Today, he called on the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
He then went on to say that Obama failed to support the Iranian democracy movement and wrongly pursued engagement with the governments of Iran and Syria.
"Who knows what the leadership of Iran would look like today if America had done everything within our power to provide both the diplomatic and moral support to encourage the growing movement of dissidents that sought freedom," he said. "Our actions in recent years have destabilized the region."
Also speaking at the event were Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY), who just won a special election to replace Anthony Weiner in Congress, and Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and the chairman of World Likud.
"[The Palestinians] cannot come to the U.N. without paying the price...and the price will be that the U.S. will stop immediately the funding for the PA if there will be a vote in the U.N. bodies next week," Danon said. "When we see a lack of leadership coming from the White House, that will make [the Palestinians] more determined to attack Israel the way they do."
The vast majority of the mostly Orthodox Jewish leaders at the event supported Perry's tough stance, and some even advocated stronger measures to punish the Palestinians for their U.N. gambit. But some in the audience criticized Danon, who does not support a two-state solution, for censuring the Obama administration while the president and his team met with world leaders to defend Israel's position only blocks away.
"Whether as openly as Danon did this morning, or more surreptitiously as Netanyahu and others practice it, right-wing politicians from Israel and the U.S. keep a very blurred line of separation between their respective national interests, constituencies, and fundraising," one Jewish organization leader at the event told The Cable.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.