The White House is pushing back hard against a claim by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that the administration is preparing to support an independent U.N. investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident.
Kristol, writing on the Weekly Standard blog, claimed he had heard, "the administration intends to support an effort next week at the United Nations to set up an independent commission, under UN auspices, to investigate Israel's behavior in the Gaza flotilla incident."
The White House quickly and sharply denied that account.
A White House official told multiple reporters, "We've said from the beginning that we support an Israeli-led investigation into the flotilla incident that is prompt, credible, impartial, and transparent. We are open to different ways of ensuring the credibility of this Israeli-led investigation, including international participation."
The official also said, "We know of no resolution that will be debated at the U.N. on the flotilla investigation next week."
Kristol's allegation, and the White House's rebuttal of it, is further illustration of the ongoing tension between some in the pro-Israel advocacy community and the administration over how strongly and aggressively to defend Israel in the international arena.
While it's true there is no specific resolution expected, sources close to the issue say, what pro-Israel leaders like Kristol are worried about are continuing calls for tougher measures against Israel, such as the vote in the Human Rights Council, and whether or not the administration will really oppose them with vigor.
That point is made clearly in the first line of a letter addressed to the president that is currently being finalized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY. In a rare show of bipartisan comity, the two Senate leaders are calling on Obama not just to oppose new efforts to isolate Israel at the U.N., but to openly declare America's support for the Jewish state.
"We write to affirm our support for our strategic partnership with Israel, and encourage you to continue to do so before international organizations such as the United Nations," the letter reads.
Commending the administration for working to craft a presidential statement by the U.N. Security Council that didn't call for an international investigation in the first place, the senators asked him not to support any new ones.
has announced its intention to promptly carry out a thorough investigation of
and has the right to determine how its investigation is conducted," they wrote. "In the meantime, we ask you to stand firm in the future at the United Nations Security Council and to use your veto power, if necessary, to prevent any similar biased or one-sided resolutions from passing."
Nearly a year after a disputed election sent tens of thousands of Iranians into the streets to protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's return to power, Sen. John McCain praised President Obama and said that his personal narrative and sparkling personality gave him the unique ability to make progress toward overthrowing the clerical regime in Tehran.
"The United States has never had a president whose personal story resonates as strongly overseas as President Obama's does -- whose ability to inspire, to move people, to mobilize them on behalf of democratic change is one of the greatest untapped sources of strength now available to Iran's human rights activists," he said. "If the president were to unleash America's full moral power to support the Iranian people -- if he were to make their quest for democracy the civil rights struggle of our time -- it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be historic."
McCain's speech to the National Endowment of Democracy (NED) was a full-throated call for regime change in Iran, in addition to being a call for increased administration support for Iranian democracy advocates.
"I believe that when we consider the many threats and crimes of Iran's government, we are led to one inescapable conclusion: It is the character of this Iranian regime -- not just its behavior -- that is the deeper threat to peace and freedom in our world, and in Iran," McCain said. "Furthermore, I believe that it will only be a change in the Iranian regime itself -- a peaceful change, chosen by and led by the people of Iran -- that could finally produce the changes we seek in Iran's policies."
NED Thursday gave its 2010 Democracy award to the Iranian Green Movement in a ceremony including NED Chairman Richard Gephardt and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen R-FL.
McCain implored the audience not to believe the conventional wisdom in Washington that the Green Movement is waning.
"The Green Movement lives on. Its struggle endures. And I am confident that eventually, maybe not tomorrow or next year or even the year after that, but eventually, Iranians will achieve the democratic changes they seek for their country," he said. "The Iranian regime may appear intimidating now, but it is rotting inside."
Getty Images News
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can't seem to unify the political factions within his own community, but there is one disparate group that he does have the ability to bring together: the American Jewish community.
Representatives from all sides of the pro-Israel NGO world all came together to meet with Abbas at a private dinner at the Newseum last night. The groups put aside their differences over Israeli tactics, U.S. pressure, treatment of Gazans, and treatment of the Israeli human rights community to show a united front to the Palestinian leader and get him to answer the questions on their mind.
Leaders of more hawkish groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents, Mort Zuckerman, Elliott Abrams, and Dov Zakheim broke bread with the more dovish likes of J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Hillel.
The Cable spoke got the readout from multiple participants. Here's how it went:
Host Robert Wexler, president of the S. Danial Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and rumored next ambassador to Israel, opened with some short remarks. Abbas made a quick speech, and the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour session was all questions and answers.
Three topics dominated the questioning: how and when to move to direct talks, Palestinian "incitement" and how far Abbas would be willing to show both sides he was serious about peace, and to a lesser degree, what to do about Hamas.
The Gaza flotilla incident was not discussed. Nobody, including Abbas, brought it up.
Most participants we spoke with said Abbas gave mostly constructive answers, went further on explanations that he ever has before, and sometime gave as good as he got.
"I've never seen him as impressive," said one conservative participant. "You have to give the guy credit. He handled himself well in a den of lions."
Another participant, however, called Abbas "evasive" and said he failed to answer key questions.
But the Palestinian leader did relay the message from his meeting with Obama, which is that everyone must push faster toward direct talks. When participants asked him why he won't just agree to direct talks now, Abbas pointed back to the White House.
"He said, ‘This is what the administration asked me to do. How can I go further than the Obama administration?'" one participant remembered.
Abbas took the same tack regarding the fraught issue of Israeli settlements, saying the White House has asked the Israelis to stop settlements and defending his position as supporting Obama's.
"That's basically calling for preconditions again that the administration has rejected," one participant said, expressing skepticism that Abbas is really pushing for direct talks now.
Abbas did say something to the effect of, "nobody knows better than I that final peace can only be negotiated face to face."
Abbas continued to insist that the settlements issue is not a precondition to direct negotiations, but said that there needs to be progress made on core issues before he's ready to move forward with direct talks.
He also got in a couple good jabs, such as when he was asked why he won't do more to convince Israelis he's serious about peace. He pointed out that he had appeared on Israeli television, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to appear on Palestinian TV.
When asked if he would acknowledge Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal, Abbas hedged, saying that Israel could identify itself however it wanted to, after the two states had been separated.
At one point, he said, "I recognize that West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," a comment that perked up the ears of several participants.
Attendees asked Abbas why he hadn't done more to curb incitement against Israel among his own people. He defended a law passed against incitement, acknowledged it wasn't being well enforced, and then criticized Netanyahu for refusing to join his proposed trilateral commission on the issue.
"He didn't always give a straight answer; he didn't always give answer that people wanted to hear," one impressed participant admitted. "But I think he had a lot of guts for doing this. Would Bibi do the same thing with Palesinian community leaders?"
Leading Jewish Americans are reportedly just about fed up with the government of Turkey, but many of them are still very much interested in working with the Palestinian Authority and will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas tonight.
The S. David Abraham Center for Middle East Peace is hosting a private dinner for Abbas this evening that will bring together more than 30 Jewish community leaders and former officials to schmooze with Abbas, including former national security advisors Stephen Hadley and Sandy Berger and former White House Middle East hand Elliott Abrams. The event's host is the center's president, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, who is widely rumored to be soon appointed the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.
"The meeting tonight, it's all for the purpose of supporting the administration's effort to enable the Palestinians and Israelis to come together to engage in direct talks in a serious fashion about substantive issue related to final status issues," Wexler told The Cable.
Regarding the Gaza flotilla incident that has dominated the headlines for weeks, Wexler said the Jewish community's message will be: "It cannot or should not be an excuse or the mechanism in which to undermine the proximity talks."
The Obama administration has fought hard to protect those indirect talks, led by Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, from becoming a casualty of the flotilla affair, but is growing impatient about what has been nearly a year and a half of little progress. President Obama echoed Wexler's call for constructiveness in comments after meeting with Abbas, and urged the Palestinian leader to come to the table and negotiate with Israel.
"President Abbas and I spent most of our time discussing how do we solve the problem. One of the things that we see is that so often rhetoric, when it comes to issues in the Middle East, outstrip actually solving issues," he said. Regarding Gaza, he said, "the status quo that we have is one that is inherently unstable."
Abbas also argued that the Palestinians want to move to direct talks and don't have any preconditions.
"We are not saying that we have conditions. What has happened is that we agreed that should progress be achieved, then we would move on to direct talks," he said. "We are working in order to make progress."
According to comments yesterday by the PLO's representative in Washington, however, the Palestinian side will not move to direct talks with the Israelis until they engage on "fundamental issues" -- meaning borders, Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
Regarding anger in the Jewish-American community at how Turkey has handled the Gaza flotilla crisis, Wexler said it was nothing compared with Turkey's vote against the U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran sanctions today.
"I respect and admire the American Jewish community's engagement over the years with the government of Turkey. But I regret deeply the vote that Turkey made at the U.N. Security Council today," he said. "It is a significant setback in American-Turkish relations. It cannot be sugar coated."
Wexler declined to comment in any way about his rumored appointment to Tel Aviv.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Now that the U.N. Security Council has passed its new sanctions resolution against Iran, the path is clear for Congress to move forward with its own, tougher set of sanctions.
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, had agreed to give the administration more time to complete the U.N. track before reconciling the Senate and House versions of Iran sanctions legislation. After an unusually public first session of the conference committee, work has been quietly proceeding at the staff level and is finishing up now.
The sequencing here is important. Congress is also waiting until the European Union has a chance to meet and announce its own set of measures. That meeting will happen June 16 and 17 in Brussels. After that, Congress will have two weeks to unveil its bicameral bill before lawmakers leave town for the July 4 recess.
"We now look to the European Union and other key nations that share our deep concern about Iran's nuclear intentions to build on the Security Council resolution by imposing tougher national measures that will deepen Iran's isolation and, hopefully, bring the Iranian leadership to its senses," Berman said Wednesday. "The U.S. Congress will do its part by passing sanctions legislation later this month."
Hill sources say that it's still unclear whether Congress will be able to pass the conference report out of both chambers before the July 4 recess, as Dodd and Berman promised. But they see the passing of the U.N. resolution as the needed signal to move the conference process to its final conclusion.
"Now that the U.N. vote is behind us, there is a strong case to be made that the sanctions should be as strong as possible," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "We've now begun the process of what is essentially the last, best hope of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."
Still, even among sanctions advocates, there's great skepticism that Iran can be convinced to change course.
"The good news is that everything is going according to plan," the aide said. "The bad news is that the plan might not work."
Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, alluded to that Wednesday when calling for continued diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime.
"Iran's nuclear program cannot be peacefully resolved without direct dialogue with the leadership in Tehran," Kerry said. "While today's action puts wind in the sails of this process, it is only the first step. We need more diplomatic creativity, energy and a clear vision of what is possible."
Kerry's committee will hold a hearing June 22 on the U.N. sanctions with the under secretaries of state and Treasury, William Burns and Stuart Levey, two of the administration's top point men on Iran.
The main issues inside the conference still include whether and how to meet the Obama administration's demand for an exemption from new sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with U.S. efforts. Republican lawmakers worry that the White House will use that to broadly exempt some of Iran closest business partners, such as Russia and China.
"It is clear the president's policy has failed. It is now time for the Congress to approve the Iran sanctions bill currently in conference committee, without watering it down or plugging it full of loopholes, and then the president should actually use it," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
The fact that the U.N. resolution does not include language to restrict China's oil business with Iran or Russia's nuclear assistance and possible anti-aircraft system sales to Tehran elicited scorn from multiple leading GOP senators.
"I wish I could say that today's Security Council resolution is worth the more than six months it took to produce, but that is just not the case. The resolution is a lowest-common-denominator product," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.
We're told that McCain's proposal to target regime leaders accused of human rights abuses is set to be included in the conference report. We're also hearing that inside the conference, some new sanctions imposing mandatory penalties against international banks that do business with Iran are under discussion.
As far as we know, neither the House nor Senate leadership has allotted floor time for the bill yet, but that shouldn't be too much of a burden. The Iran sanctions legislation is expected to be passed relatively quickly and with broad bipartisan support.
When President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in the Oval Office Wednesday, they will have a largely shared albeit astoundingly ambitious agenda: to show movement on the peace process after nearly a year and a half of little progress and to craft a way forward on Gaza in the wake of last week's deadly flotilla incident.
"We look forward to engaging with President Abbas to move the process forward so that we can get to direct talks to address all the final-status issues, and to ensure that neither side take provocative steps that could stand in the way of progress," said a White House official, adding that the two leaders "will discuss steps to improve life for the people of Gaza, including U.S. support for specific projects to promote economic development and greater quality of life, as well as a long-term strategy for progress."
Moving forward to direct talks also means that both sides must "address all the final-status issues, and ensure that neither side take provocative steps that could stand in the way of progress," the White House official said.
That tracks largely with what Abbas said he wants to focus on in an op-ed Tuesday and what other Palestinian leaders are saying is on Abbas's agenda when he gets to the White House. The difference is that Abbas will tell Obama that it's the Israelis who need to change their tone and actions to make it happen -- and it's the Americans who need to push them to do so.
"The president [Abbas] is going to stress in the process the importance of accelerating these efforts in order to end the Israeli occupation," PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable in an exclusive interview. "And he is going to urge the administration to use whatever leverage they have with the Israelis in order to end this inhumane blockade and siege of the Gaza strip."
Areikat said that it was too early to know if the proximity talks are bearing fruit. But he warned that the Palestinian Authority will only move to direct negotiations when Israel engages on "fundamental issues," meaning final-status issues such as borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the longstanding Palestinian demand for the right of return of refugees.
The Obama administration, which has said it wants to find ways to increase assistance getting into Gaza but not at the expense of Israel's security, will also want to know what the delegation Abbas sent to Gaza following the flotilla incident heard from Hamas, which controls the impoverished coastal strip.
That delegation was sent, Areikat said, because "some believe that there is an opportunity to try to speed up these efforts to reach reconciliation." He didn't, however, say that Hamas should be included in the peace process or that the Obama team should engage with the militant group, which the United States and Europe have designated a terrorist organization.
Experts said that the Obama administration needs Abbas to try to get past the flotilla incident, which should be in the interests of both the White House and the Abbas government. Abbas needs to show that his faction, not Hamas, is the center of gravity in Palestinian politics.
"I think Fatah was getting increasingly optimistic about where they were standing relative to Hamas in terms of popular support," said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, program officer in the U.S. Institute of Peace's Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. "So I think that one of Abbas's challenges here is to take back some spotlight here, and take back the reins in terms of being in control."
If Abbas is really serious about reconciliation, he'll have an uphill climb convincing the Obama administration that goal is achievable in the short term.
"Part of his job on this visit will be to convince the administration why it's important, how he plans to do it and how somehow they can strike a deal behind the scenes that fits with the quartet's conditions," said Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at USIP, referring to the group of four Middle East players that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States.
The Israelis have criticized Abbas for refusing to come to the table for direct talks; the Palestinians, for their part, insist they won't negotiate with the Israelis until they freeze settlements completely and indefinitely.
So Obama's Middle East peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, has been shuttling between the two camps in what are effectively negotiations about ... negotiations.
The White House wants direct talks "because there's no way they get anywhere unless the format of the talks change, and they want to find out what [Abbas] needs to get into direct talks," Lasensky said.
On this trip, Abbas will meet with Obama, State Department officials, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and will also give a speech at the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, the State Department said today that about $45 million of America's $400 million in aid to Palestinians this year was designated for Gaza, with a strong effort to make sure none of that money went to strengthening Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, or commit to respecting past international agreements, as the U.S. insists.
"We will engage with any political group that is willing to meet our basic red lines for playing a constructive role in the region," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley,."Those red lines are clear. Hamas has made clear they have no intention at the present time of agreeing to those. And as a result, we do not have a political relationship with Hamas."
As the crisis over a deadly Israeli commando raid on a vessel carrying Turkish activists continued to command the attention of top officials in Washington, Jerusalem, and Istanbul, Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, called Friday for engaging Hamas in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But in an unfortunate turn of phrase, Tan twice said Friday that the militant Palestinian group, which the United States and Europe have designated a terrorist organization, is a necessary and important part of the "final solution" to the conflict.
"For a final solution, you cannot ignore Hamas. That's what we are saying," said Ambassador Namik Tan. "This is not the first time that we are trying to bring this into the discussion. We have told this to the Israelis, to our American friends, to our international interlocutors, everyone. How could you imagine a final solution without Hamas?"
Tan's choice of words aside, he was calling for Hamas to be included in final-status negotiations -- a prospect many Israelis would find even more objectionable than his language. The U.S. position is that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, respect international agreements, and reject violence before it can be considered a legitimate player.
The ambassador's comments highlighted the yawning gap between the positions of the Turkish government and that of the American and Israeli administrations, as tensions linger following this week's Gaza flotilla incident.
Only yesterday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization. I said the same thing to the United States. I am still of the same opinion. They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land."
As the Obama administration continues to try to calm the situation and contain emotions following the Gaza flotilla incident, the Turkish government is doing exactly the opposite, raising the volume of its public calls for actions by both Washington and Jerusalem.
At his embassy Friday afternoon, Tan railed against Israel, made broad threats about the Turkish-Israel relationship, and professed deep disappointment with the Obama administration and its handling of the crisis.
"Israel is about to lose a friend ... This is going to be a historical mistake," he said, calling on Israel to make a public apology if its wishes to keep its ties with Turkey. "The future of our relationship will be determined by Israel's action."
Calling the Israelis "criminals," he reiterated Turkey's call for an international investigation. "It's all criminal ... Can you imagine a criminal investigating its own wrongdoing?"
The Obama administration has made clear it supports Israel conducting its own investigation, albeit with some unspecified international participation. "Can Israel, as a vibrant democracy, with strong institutions of government, conduct a fair, credible, transparent investigation?" State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "The answer is yes. It is fully capable of doing that."
President Obama spoke with Erdogan by phone and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a two-and-a-half hour face-to-face meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday. But while the two long interactions were helpful in getting Israel to release Turkish citizens, they didn't produce any agreement on the overall issue, said Tan.
"There is no word of condemnation nowhere, at all levels. So we are disappointed," Tan said. "We want to encourage the United States to take certain decisions in that regard."
He also revealed that Davutoglu had been scheduled to have a meeting in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Netanyahu canceled his visit to deal with the fallout from the flotilla incident.
Asked about the next flotilla, currently headed to Gaza, Tan said that Turkey was not discussing it with either the U.S. or Israel. In fact, he professed not to be aware of it. "Is there another flotilla? Are there even any Turkish citizens on it? I have no idea."
ANATOLIA NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images
As the Obama administration prepares to receive the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the next two weeks, the White House is doing a lot of legwork to try to keep lines of communication with Jewish groups and lawmakers open, to build as much local support as possible for its approach to ending the Middle East conflict.
But not all Jewish groups and lawmakers are on the same page. Most are uncomfortable with President Obama's policy of placing pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and want to make sure that the administration's efforts to bring the two parties to the negotiating table doesn't come at the expense of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Other Jewish lawmakers openly support pressuring Netanyahu, and take a stance that diverges from the Israeli government's approach to key issues. One of them is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, who is circulating a letter supporting the proximity talks around the Senate this week, obtained by The Cable.
The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn't been sent and is still open for signatures. But a couple of its lines are already raising eyebrows in Senate offices on both sides of the aisle.
"We strongly believe that a permanent peace agreement ... can only be achieved with the United States bringing the parties together and driving them to a settlement," the letter states (emphasis added).
Later on, it argues, "While the Israeli Government has announced a moratorium on settlement activity, for too long the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermined confidence."
The Netanyahu government vigorously disputes that building in East Jerusalem should be deemed as "settlement" activity. The approval of construction on 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel is what kicked off the whole fracas between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in the first place.
Senators including Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, have been very vocal about their view that building in Jerusalem should not be considered "settlement" activity. Schumer even called the Obama approach to Netanyahu "counterproductive" before he backed off those comments.
Netanyahu is certain to be irked by the letter's language. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital," he told the recent AIPAC conference. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."
Whether or not the U.S. should "drive" the two parties to make peace is another point of contention. The Palestinians see the proximity talks as a great way to keep the Obama administration actively involved, while the Israeli government and its supporters feel that although the U.S. has an important role to play, the Obama administration shouldn't be pushing Netanyahu to do things he doesn't want, or isn't able, to do.
"It's unclear what more Senator Feinstein wants to push Israel to do," said one GOP Senate aide. "At what point do we really want to force democracies to do things their people don't support?"
"I can't see how this letter is at all helpful for the administration or the peace process right now," said a Democratic Senate aide working on the issue, who feared the letter could damage whatever trust the administration has worked to rebuild with the Israelis over the past several weeks.
During the recent powwow between the president and 37 Jewish members of Congress, Feinstein was among the only members that expressed agreement with Obama's view that confrontation with Netanyahu was the right approach, according to one Hill source who was briefed on the meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, struck a different tone in a letter he sent to Clinton last month, when he said, "I hope that the Obama Administration will do everything possible to reduce recent tensions with Israel while reaffirming the need to move forward with the peace process."
Despite repeated proclamations by senior leaders in both chambers of Congress and on both sides of the aisle that nothing could stop the Iran sanctions bill, its two lead sponsors announced today that they would delay the conference meant to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions.
"With the progress in negotiations at the Security Council, we believe that our overriding goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is best served by providing a limited amount of time for those efforts -- and expected follow-on action by the EU at its mid-June summit -- to reach a successful conclusion before we send our bill to the president," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, said in a statement Tuesday.
It was only last week that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, promised to get it done before the Memorial Day recess.
"International sanctions make a lot more sense than unilateral" Dodd said at the time. "But we're not going to retreat from the unilateral sanctions effort."
But today, Dodd and Berman claimed that last week's unveiling of the draft U.N. sanctions resolution by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had convinced them that the Security Council process was actually making progress. They now expect to bring the conference report to be voted on by the entire Congress "in the latter half of June."
The delay represents a retreat for the lawmakers and a victory for the Obama administration, which had warned Congress that passing the bill could upset delicate U.N. negotiations. But inside the conference, serious disputes between lawmakers and the administration remain, such as whether to grant broad exemptions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the United States.
A U.N. official told The Cable that Security Council members are still pouring over the draft resolution and the reams of documents and annexes that accompany it. Those consultations are expected to go on for weeks.
Outside groups that have been pushing for the legislation, such as the American Israel Public Action Committee, were quick to say they are OK with the delay.
"AIPAC supports this decision and endorses Chairmen Dodd and Berman's firm, public commitment to get tough, comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation on the president's desk before the July 4th recess," the group said in a statement.
What's not clear is whether Republicans will suffer Dodd and Berman's delay quietly. "I didn't see any Republican names on that statement by Dodd and Berman," one GOP congressional aide remarked.
House GOP leaders had agreed not to bring up procedural motions to protest the lack of a conference report if the bill was completed by May 28. But now Berman will have to convince them that the delay is in the best interests of getting a stronger bill whenever it's completed.
As Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri makes the rounds in Washington today and tomorrow, he faces deep questions in Congress and in the Defense Department about the future of the U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Supporters of the funding, mostly at the State Department and the White House, argue that strengthening the Lebanese military is the best way to bolster Hariri against the mounting influence of both Syria and Hezbollah, the radical Shiite militant group, inside Lebanon. The Lebanese military, this faction argues, is the most representative of the country's civic institutions and continuing the funding can help convince Hariri that working with the U.S. is a beneficial and defensible strategy.
But many lawmakers and some at the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are extremely skeptical that continuing to funnel large amounts of cash and supplies to the LAF is really a good way to approach the Lebanon problem. They are angry about statements Hariri has made about Syria's alleged transfer of long-range missiles to Hezbollah, and question whether the military aid to Lebanon is part of a coherent strategy.
"Threats that Lebanon now has huge missiles are similar to what they used to say about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Hariri reportedly said last month. "These are weapons that they did not find and they are still searching for."
But Hariri's reaction to the alleged arms transfers has given many inside the administration pause. There's also a concern he could let U.S. weapons slip into the hands of Hezbollah, although the track record of the LAF in that regard has been solid so far.
"The number one issue now is arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah and this confounds our policy of supporting the Lebanese military," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Obama administration wants Hariri to use the state's instruments of power, such as the LAF, to confront Syria over the alleged arms transfers, but Hariri is in no position to confront Damascus.
Hariri has been careful not to upset Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is widely thought to have ordered the 2005 assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
"It would be hard for anyone not to take note that he visited Damascus before he visited Washington," said long-time Lebanon hand Firas Maksad, who said that Hariri is walking a very thin line as he tries to placate the United States and Syria at the same time.
Overall, the arms transfers are on balance a good idea, said Maksad. "We need to think about how we can strengthen our leverage in Beirut. At the end of the day, that's the only hope for a counterbalance to Hezbollah."
But lawmakers, always looking to pinch pennies, and Pentagon officials, who are most concerned about the Hezbollah-Israel tensions, aren't satisfied that strategic hedging is enough of a justification for continued military assistance like on the order of $500 million since 2006.
"The Defense Department has always asked the question: Why are we doing this, what are the objectives, what is the end state we are trying to achieve in Lebanon?," said Aram Nerguizian, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's an idea that is not linked to an end state. We like the process, but ultimately, what is it that the U.S. is trying to do in Lebanon? That's what hangs in the balance."
Mona Yacoubian , who just released a new report on the Syria-Lebanon situation for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that there is growing concern inside the administration that the shift of power inside Lebanon toward Hezbollah suggests that it may not be wise to put more resources into the Lebanese military. She argues, however, that the best way to deal with Hezbollah is to help build and strengthen the Lebanese state.
Meanwhile, Hariri is faced to deal with the facts on the ground, which are clearly tipping toward a negative direction, she said.
"He's coming to Washington with a very difficult task. He's got to balance day-to-day concerns with the broader concerns of his ally, the U.S. If he moves to please us, he angers Syria, Hezbollah, and others. If he seems to mimic the U.S. position, he suffers at home. He's in a no-win situation."
The White House readout of Hariri's meeting with President Obama gave little inkling of these tensions, and said the meeting focused on Arab-Israel peace effort, the suspected transfer of Syrian weapons to Hezbollah, and Lebanon's role as rotating president of the U.N. Security Council, which is currently mulling over new sanctions against Iran. But the statement also pointed to President Obama's "determination to continue U.S. efforts to support and strengthen Lebanese institutions such as the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces."
Privately, the White House was sending a much tougher message, however. Hariri brought so many officials into his bilateral with Obama, sources say, there was no way to speak frankly about subjects of real contention, like U.S. military support and Hariri's unhelpful statements regarding the alleged Hezbollah arms transfers. So Obama and Hariri had a separate, private meeting amongst themselves, where we hear the tough messages were really delivered.
Hariri also met with Gates, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, and Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell today. Feltman, who was the U.S. ambassador in Beirut at the time of Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination, released a statement citing Lebanon's role in promoting international security and "the key role of Lebanon in the long-term effort to build a lasting, comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
But Feltman didn't mention Lebanese military assistance, which will be at the top of lawmakers' agendas Tuesday.
"His meetings went very well today," David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of Hariri. "I don't think that's going to be the case when he goes to Capitol Hill tomorrow."
The administration has requested $100 million for the LAF in its Fiscal 2011 budget request.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
The Syrians may be arming Hezbollah with long range missiles, but don't let it be said that Uncle Sam isn't providing material help to the Lebanese government. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut dropped off 20 Harley Davidson motorcycles to the Lebanese police today.
U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison, who has been intimately involved in the diplomacy surrounding alleged Syrian arms transfers, presented the motorcycles as a gift to Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) as part of the United States' ongoing effort to support the Lebanese government, a policy dating back to George W. Bush's administration.
"Today, we add another iconic American vehicle to the ISF arsenal," Sison said at the handover ceremony in Beirut. "These impressive and easily recognizable motorcycles will certainly assist the ISF in projecting its presence in the eyes of the Lebanese citizens, and if I might add -- doing so with great style."
The Lebanese government, of course, might be less concerned about looking good and more concerned about whether violence will break out in the historically war-torn country. But hey, these aren't just your everyday motorcycles: They've go specialized police equipment, including enhanced steering and braking capabilities and lights and sirens with mounted microphones and speakers, the State Department said.
But what if the Lebanese police want to haul some cargo? Not to worry. U.S. taxpayers have already given them 480 Dodge Chargers, 60 Ford Explorers, and some new parts for the 24 Harleys America gave them already. The new motorcycle gift cost a total of about $500,000, the State Department said, part of more than $100 million that State's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau, known as "Drugs and Thugs," has spent on the ISF since 2007.
On the military side of the equation, the U.S. has given the Lebanese Army more than $400 million in military assistance since 2006, and Vice President Joseph Biden promised Lebanon a new military aid package valued in the hundreds of millions when he visited Beirut last year, to include 42 fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial drones, and tanks. The Lebanese complained recently that much of this aid has not yet been delivered, especially the highest technology stuff, like the fighter jets. Of course, the Russians already gave Lebanon 10 MiG fighter jets, and last week pledged to arm Syria with its own jets, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank weapons.
As for the bikes, "the capability that these Harley Davidson motorcycles will provide the ISF is something that the ISF officers who enforce the law in Lebanon have been asking for," Sison said. No word on whether they came with matching leather jackets.
Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.
In the letter (pdf), 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren't satisfied with the State Department's latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
The senators aren't buying State's argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.
"If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior," the letter reads.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said recently that "Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability," but did not confirm that Syria had sent Scuds to the Lebanese militant group.
Not only have U.S. officials said they aren't sure whether Syria actually did make such a transfer (nor has the Israeli government presented evidence to back up its allegations, which Syria denies) but the administration contends that the lack of a U.S. ambassador is actually making it very difficult to talk to Assad on a daily basis. A recent State Department inspector general's report found that the embassy isn't getting much face time with senior Syrian officials.
High-level visits, such as the recent ones by Undersecretary Bill Burns and Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, are actually more of a reward, administration officials say, because they always make news. An ambassador can do the quiet unglamorous diplomacy that's called for in Damascus, they argue, without the fanfare.
The GOP senators don't see it that way, however, and won't budge until State tells them what "new sanctions" it will place on Syria, or alternatively, when the deadline for engagement to show results will be. They also want State to send over congressionally mandated reports on sanctions that State has simply never completed.
Indicating some pique that Clinton didn't respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, "We would appreciate a response from you personally." The department's previous response came from Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Richard Verma.
Meanwhile, Ford languishes at home, having given up his previous gig at the Baghdad Embassy but unable to start something new while this drama plays out.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
As the sanctions drama at the U.N. moves into what the Obama administration hopes are its final stages, the Iranian government is busily trying to conduct its own diplomatic outreach, including an attempt to convene an international meeting of some Security Council members in Tehran.
U.S. officials are arguing that after hearing Iran's pitch, those council members still resisting sanctions -- a group that includes nonpermanent members Turkey and Brazil -- will have no more excuse to hold up the process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to make that case Thursday morning.
"During the call, the secretary stressed that in our view, Iran's recent diplomacy was attempt to stop Security Council action without actually taking steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There's nothing new and nothing encouraging in Iran's recent statements."
A State Department official, speaking on background basis, explained that State expects Iran to try to convene an international meeting of sympathetic countries in Tehran to coincide with the upcoming visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva.
"It's possible that a high-level Turkish official might go," the official said. "We wanted to make sure Turkey understood exactly how we view recent actions and statements by Iran."
After Lula's visit, expect the U.S. message to be: The engagement track has all but failed.
"At that point, we'll understand what Iran is either willing or unwilling to do, and at that point we believe that there should be consequences for a failure to respond," Crowley said.
Iran has been stepping up its anti-resolution diplomacy of late, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki making the rounds of relevant countries. Mottaki even hosted an impromptu dinner for all the Security Council members in New York last week. (He served leftovers, Crowley tweeted.)
We are hearing that the U.S. goal is to pass a sanctions resolution by the end of May, but most diplomats don't expect it to get done until at least mid-June. U.S. officials are expressing increased confidence that the resolution will pass and will not get vetoed.
"[U]nless Iran does something significant that demonstrates that it is taking confidence-building measures, I am very confident we will get a Security Council resolution that is supported by the majority of the U.N. Security Council," White House WMD czar Gary Samore said Tuesday.
The so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany, met in New York Wednesday on the issue. Clinton discussed Iran with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo for more than an hour Wednesday. "They acknowledged that good progress has been made, talked about a couple of technical issues in the drafting of the draft resolution, and pledged that both sides would continue to work hard within the P-5+1 to resolve remaining questions," Crowley said.
President Obama spoke over the phone with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday morning and discussed Iran as well. "The presidents also discussed the good progress being made by the P5+1 towards agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and agreed to instruct their negotiators to intensify their efforts to reach conclusion as soon as possible," according to White House readout of the call.
Add the Obama administration's WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Samore tied the peace process to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, currently ongoing in New York, by saying that one of the key signs of success would be if "at least some progress" can be made toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
"We recognize and I frankly think everybody recognizes that in the absence of a comprehensive and endurable peace settlement, achieving the zone... is just not likely to be the outcome any time soon."
He then took the argument one step further and said, "The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that's an essential element to making progress in any of these zones... It's hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition... it's a precursor to negotiations."
It's longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should eventually join the NPT, but it's also longstanding U.S. policy not to push Israel to change its stance of neither confirming nor denying its estimated stockpile of 100-plus nuclear weapons. Samore said he does not personally support Israel changing its policy of ambiguity and that no such discussions were taking place that he was aware of.
He also sought to set clear expectations for what might come out of the four-week conference, namely that the administration was not expecting all of the conference members to sign onto any agreement together.
"We believe that if a strong majority of countries support an outcome that pledges support for the treaty and supports practical steps for all of the three pillars plus language on the Middle East, that would be a successful outcome... even if that document is not accepted by the conference as a whole."
Samore also defended the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, which the White House sent over to Congress Tuesday. Some lawmakers see the agreement as an undeserved reward to Russia, before that country has publicly committed to signing onto a strong Iran sanctions resolution at the UN.
He said the deal, known as the 123 agreement, won't come into force until later this year and he predicted a UN sanctions resolution would materialize well before then. And he doubted that Russia would go through with the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, which could also provoke opposition to the deal.
"We've made it very clear to the Russians that would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations and the Russians understand that the consequences would be very severe... I'd be surprised if those transfers take place," said Samore, declining to specify exactly what those consequences would be.
He also headed off another potential concern about the deal by saying, "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran."
Samore said the START treaty with Russia will probably be submitted to Congress this week.
Tonight in New York, representatives of all the United Nations Security Council members will meet and break bread at the Iranian mission, a dinner called at the last minute by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice won't attend, instead sending deputy permanent representative Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff. "She has prior obligations," a U.S. official told The Cable. Our UN sources said that although every Security Council country will be at the table, none of the P5+1 countries are sending their top UN diplomats.
That may be a sign that that they don't see the dinner as substantive, but rather as one more attempt by Iran to defend whatever it is doing on the nuclear front and argue why they shouldn't be sanctioned.
"We see this as yet another opportunity for Iran to show the council that they are prepared to play by the rules and meet their international obligations," the U.S. official said, "That being said, they have not shown any recent indications that they are ready to do so and we come in with a realistic set of expectations."
The U.S. is prepared to portray the event as a sign that Iran is feeling the heat, is actually more worried about the UN sanctions resolution currently under negotiation, and it scrambling to turn the momentum back their way.
"This dinner, which is unusual, is a good indication to the lengths that Iran is going right now to combat the sanctions effort and that they recognize how isolated they have become," the U.S. official argued.
So where is that UN sanctions resolution right now? Our UN sources report that the relevant delegations are going through the proposed provisions line by line and are having extremely detailed negotiations, but there is still no timeline for when the text might surface.
And while the U.S. side doesn't expect much to come out of the dinner, their role tonight will be to play defense, making sure Mottaki doesn't sway any of the other council members by bending the truth, the U.S. official said.
"We want to be there to make sure the facts are represented and there is no opportunity for obfuscation."
The National Security Council's Dennis Ross is the latest U.S. official to link the Obama administration's drive to secure peace between Israelis and Arabs to the overall goal of bringing greater stability to the region and combating the threat from Iran.
"In this region, pursuing peace is instrumental to shaping a new regional context," Ross said in remarks Monday evening. "Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges ... It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances."
Ross was speaking at the closing dinner for the Anti-Defamation League annual conference, where attendees also heard from the NSC's Daniel Shapiro, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin, special envoy for monitoring anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal, Israeli Amb. Michael Oren, and others.
Ross, whose exact portfolio at the NSC has been the subject of much speculation outside the administration, noted that "the greatest challenge for peace, for security in the Middle East, lies in Iran" and tied the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Islamic Republic.
"Clearly one way that Iran is increasing its influence in the region is by exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians," Ross said, echoing statements made by U.S. Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus in a report (pdf) submitted to Congress back in March.
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests," Petraeus wrote. "The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
Conservative hard-liners ripped Petraeus for the statement, linking the report to a story on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel (some elements of which are in dispute). The National Review's Andrew McCarthy even accused the general of "echoing the narrative peddled incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the countries where he works."
But Ross, who is not often accused of being too hard on Israel, made similar comments Monday. "The continuation of the conflict strengthens Iran's rejectionist partners and also Hezbollah. Iran deliberately uses the conflict to expose even the moderates in the region by stoking the fears of its populations and playing the worst most anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist prejudices," he said.
Ross also had some harsh words for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government the Obama administration believes may have considered transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.
"By transferring weapons including long-range weapons to Hezbollah, Syria is engaging in provocative and destabilizing behavior," said Ross, borrowing language from earlier remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "President Assad needs to make a decision whether he wants war or peace in the region."
Clinton made also linked the peace process to Iran in remarks last month when she said, "Those who benefit from our failure of leadership traffic in hate and violence and give strength to Iran's anti-Semitic president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]and extremists like Hamas and Hezbollah."
At Monday's dinner, ADL Executive Director Abe Foxman defended Ross from a recent attack by an anonymous administration source quoted by Politico's Laura Rozen.
"He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests," the source told Rozen, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Ambassador Dennis Ross has been advancing U.S. interests in national security for over 25 years," Foxman said. "He's a gifted statesman who is trusted by people on different sides of the negotiating table and on both sides of the aisle here at home."
While the State Department works to combat Iran's nuclear propaganda at the UN, back in Washington a group of bipartisan senators are doubling down on their promise to push for tough Iran sanctions legislation that does not include "cooperating country" exemptions that State wants.
The House and Senate began conference on the two bills last week, one led by Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, D-CT, and the other led by House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA. The main change that State wants the conference to make to the legislation is to have the bill waive corporate sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with the new sanctions regime.
According to Deputy Secretary James Steinberg (pdf), the waiver is needed to avoid upsetting countries the U.S. needs to bring along on its push for multilateral action. Critics fear it will be used to exempt some of Iran's biggest trading partners, Russia and China, in exchange for their support for a new U.N. resolution
"We would find it difficult to support any conference report that would weaken the House and Senate passed sanctions by providing exemptions to companies or countries engaged in the refined petroleum trade with Iran," reads the May 3 letter from Sens. Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, John Cornyn, R-TX, Dick Durbin, D-IL, Susan Collins, R-ME, Kent Conrad, D-ND, Evan Bayh, D-IN, Sam Brownback, R-KS, John McCain, R-AZ, and Kit Bond, R-MO.
"In particular, we are skeptical about any revision to the legislation that would exempt countries engaged in otherwise engaged in sanctionable activities because they are incorporated in so-called ‘cooperating countries.'"
The senators also expressed their opposition to any changes in the legislation that would weaken sanctions of Iran's energy sector at all and made an argument supporting the inclusion of new language from McCain targeting Iranian officials guilty of human rights abuses. McCain was promised strong support for that in exchange for him allowing the original Senate bill to move off the Senate floor.
The senators wrote that the administration's ongoing drive to seek a new sanctions resolution at the UN Council was "complementary" to Congressional action but that the conference must be completed as soon as possible, "regardless of progress at the UN."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to press in New York Monday, rejected the claims by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran had accepted the IAEA's proposal for transferring its nuclear material to a third country. Clinton reiterated that the U.S. is pursuing the "pressure track" but declined to use the term "crippling sanctions" as she has done in the past.
"For all the bluster of its words, the Iranian Government cannot defend its own actions, and that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community," she said.
The State Department didn't hold a press briefing Monday, as many top officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are in New York for the kickoff of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
So the only official readout from State's press shop today comes from official statements mailed from the press office and the brand new Twitter account of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley. (@pjcrowley)
Crowley is only the latest administration official to take to Twitter, and we hope his feed won't become a replacement for direct interactions with the public and the press. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (@presssec) has come under criticism for seemingly bypassing the White House press corps by breaking news on his Twitter account, such as the announcement that President Obama was delaying his trip to Indonesia.
So far today, Crowley has four tweets, including reiterating the administration's position on Iran's nuclear program. Here are his first day's tweets:
2:53 PM: Hello world. Excited to be here on Twitter. Looking forward to our global conversation.
3:08 PM: At #UN, President Ahmadinejad claims that #Iran accepted TRR offer. But Iran has yet to respond to #IAEA. The ball remains in Iran's court.
4:03 PM: At #UN, rather than answer questions about his nuclear program, President Ahmadinejad tried to hide the ball. We aren't playing his game.
4:04 PM: At the #UN, #SecClinton pledged the U.S. will do its part to strengthen the #NPT. Didn't see anyone walk out in protest.
One of the State Department's e-mail fact sheets on the NPT review conference contains Clinton's announcement Monday that she is starting a campaign that seeks to raise $100 million over the next five years "to broaden access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," with $50 million to be raised from outside the U.S.
"The funds are to significantly expand support for projects sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), addressing energy and important humanitarian purposes, such as cancer treatment and fighting infectious diseases, food and water security, and the development of infrastructure for the safe, secure use of civil nuclear power," State's fact sheet reads, "These efforts will be aimed to assist developing countries."
The Iran sanctions conference meets for the first time next Wednesday and the meeting will be open to the public, according to a notice circulated around the Hill today.
The conference, hosted by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, I-CT, on "The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act," will be held in the room 210/212 of the new Capitol Visitors Center on April 28 at 1:00 p.m. and will be a "public meeting," the notice said.
Representatives from Berman and Dodd's offices did not immediately respond to requests for information about exactly how "public" the meeting will be.
Berman finally appointed conferees Thursday, the Senate appointed its conferees in March. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has promised to move the bill as soon as the conference ends and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said Tuesday he was hopeful the bill could reach the president's desk "within a matter of weeks."
At the public meeting, watchers can expect to hear some of the following things from these conferees, all of whom made floor speeches about the bill during Thursday's debate:
The urgency of this issue is beyond dispute. Iran quite possibly will be capable of developing and delivering a nuclear weapon in the next 3 to 5 years, and our task of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability is made more complicated by the fact that we all know that our best weapon for fighting this battle -- economic sanctions -- takes time to work. So we need the strongest possible sanctions, and we need them fast.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL:
Diplomacy and engagement have had no real impact on the regime in Tehran. As Iran sprints towards the nuclear finish line, deadlines set by the Obama administration for compliance have been repeatedly disregarded. Now the strategy appears to be resting on securing a new U.N. Security Council resolution. However, Russia and China see themselves as friends of the regime in Tehran and have publicly stated that they will not support a resolution that puts any significant pressure on Tehran. In fact, The New York Times reported last week that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in a secret 3-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-IN:
It is extremely important that we do something and do something very, very quickly. We have waited too long. We have been talking about negotiating with Iran and putting sanctions on them for the past 4 or 5 years, trying to get our allies to work with us. The fact of the matter is nothing has happened, and Iran continues to thumb their nose at the rest of the world. This is a terrible, terrible threat. A terrorist state, Iran, with nuclear weapons is not only a threat to the Middle East, to Israel, our best ally over there, but it is a threat to every single one of us.
Rep. Ron Klein, R-FL:
This legislation gives companies a simple choice: do business with the United States, or do business with Iran. We cannot allow the U.S. taxpayer to be last crutch of Iran's dangerous nuclear program. Not on our watch and not on our dime. The time to act is now, and we must move with fierce urgency.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-CA:
Today, the world's top terrorist state has its tentacles throughout the region. For those of us who have engaged in this region and have watched neighboring countries to Iran, watched their propensity to react as Iran has sped up its development, each of those countries is now looking at going nuclear. I would ask my colleagues to think about those neighbors of Iran that would create a heavily nuclearized Middle East should Iran succeed in this and what the impact would be. We can only imagine the turmoil and the tensions that will come to the Middle East should we not succeed in this effort to prevent Iran from developing these nuclear weapons.
Hoyer: (not a conferee)
It is my belief, my colleagues, that if smart sanctions take effect, more and more Iranians will come to the same conclusion and so, hopefully, will the Iranian regime. Sanctions will show the regime that its embrace of nuclear proliferation carries a cost that is far too high. We cannot expect a change of heart from Tehran, but we can demand a change of behavior. My colleagues, this action is timely and perhaps past time, but it is always timely to do the right thing, to speak up, to act, and to encourage our allies as well and our partners and our fellow citizens in this globe to act in a way that will protect them and protect our international community.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-NY: (not a conferee)
This week, Iran announced its testing of various missiles and weapons capabilities. U.S. officials have said Iran could develop a ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. by 2015, and they have said that Iran's continued existential threat to our strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, presents dire global security implications. I urge the conferees to act with haste to address these urgent challenges with tough crippling sanctions. Let the speed with which Congress finalizes this legislation to sanction Iran be a message to the international community that time is of the essence if we are to contain Iran's threat to security, stability and prosperity worldwide.
When U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison met with Lebanese officials on Wednesday, she had a mission: She was there to urge Lebanon to help avoid a new outbreak of violence between Israel and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Sison, an affable and well-liked career Foreign Service officer, was given the difficult task of both urging the Lebanese to do what they can to avoid an eruption of war and convincing them that U.S. and Israeli concerns about alleged Syrian arms transfers over the Lebanese border should be taken seriously.
Arab press reports cited anonymous sources as saying Sison showed Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri photos of truck convoys, evidence of increasing and escalation weapons shipments to Hezbollah. More shockingly, the reports said that she told Lebanese officials the United States had stopped Israel from launching an imminent strike against the convoys. Neither of those details is true, according to multiple administration sources.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable that the idea American waived Israel off of a strike on Syrian weapons transfers is "totally false," but declined to describe the specifics of the meeting. Another U.S. official described the Arab press reports as "bullshit."
Two administration officials close to the issue, however, said that the meeting did in fact take place, but no photos were shown and the United States did not halt an imminent Israeli strike.
"The Israelis weren't ready to shoot anything. There was never a point where they said, ‘We are going to strike something,'" the official said, adding that at some point Israeli action could of course be a possibility -- albeit a disastrous one.
Regardless, the controversy surrounding Sison's meeting reflects the extremely high tensions in the region following reports of new Syrian weapons transfers, including possibly SCUD missiles, to Hezbollah -- tensions the Obama administration is trying to tamp down.
Sison's message was the same message the U.S. is sending to all the parties, which is, "A war now is not in anyone's interest," the official said.
The administration is still not clear that any SCUDs have been transferred, but there is an acknowledgement that Syrian weapons transfers are increasing in both quantity and quality.
"It's a deterrence game and each side is building up its deterrence capability," this official said, adding that as both the Israelis and Hezbollah prepare for war, the seriousness of any actual outbreak of fighting is keeping both sides from initiating battle -- for now.
"In a way, the deterrence is working," the source added, noting that the downside risk of the arms buildup is that any miscalculation that begins an open conflict would precipitate a large-scale war that whose consequences would be impossible to predict.
According to this official, who stressed that they were only conveying their personal analysis, not the overall administration position, Hezbollah is still seeking revenge for the 2008 Israeli assassination of its military leader Imad Mughniyeh, and sees some spectacular attack on Israel as a way to achieve that.
But Hezbollah, now accountable to the Lebanese people due to its role in the government, doesn't want to be seen as firing the first shot that could lead to devastating retaliation from Israel. So the group is trying to goad the Israelis into starting the conflict, the official believes.
The Israelis are aware they are being goaded, the official said, and are doing their best to resist while warning Washington that at some point violence might be unavoidable. "The Israelis know that once they strike, that's all the excuse that Hezbollah needs to wage a full-scale war," the official explained.
As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, "that's the million-dollar question," the official said. The Obama administration genuinely does not understand Syrian intentions and there are three basic theories within the administration as to why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would continue to escalate arms shipments to Hezbollah despite U.S. warnings.
According to one school of thought, this is Assad's way of playing hardball with the Israelis in advance of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. No one wants to negotiate from a weak position, so he is amassing chits that he can bargain away later.
An opposing theory is that Assad has no interest in engaging with the Americans or negotiating with Israel at all. This line of thinking concludes that he is simply paving the way for eventual conflict with Israel.
The third, more nuanced analysis portrays Assad as a man in a bind. He has himself so tied up with Iran and Hezbollah that perhaps he can't disengage as easily as those in the West think he can. Also, Assad has always been a gambler and may have simply become entangled in his own web of deals with so many competing interests.
"We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem," the official said. "Until then it's all damage control."
Meanwhile, the administration is trying to explain to the Syrians how foolish the weapons transfers are, if they are really happening, while telling the Israelis to be patient and arguing that the only beneficiary of a new Israeli-Hezbollah war would be Iran, which would seize upon a new conflict to deflect international pressure over its nuclear program.
"Hariri is terrified that another war is going to break his country apart and if that means denying the weapons transfers or whatever, he's going to do it," our official speculated. "He's desperately trying to save his country from utter decimation."
A top Obama military policy advisor and Afghanistan war veteran is moving from the Pentagon to take up a senior position at the US Agency for International Development.
Craig Mullaney was a key Obama campaign advisor and part of Obama's Pentagon transition team. Until today, he was the principal director for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia at the Office of the Secretary of Defense policy shop. Starting Monday, he will be USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah's senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues.
The move is a step up for Mullaney, who was a natural fit for the OSD policy job but always had a preference for intellectual policy work over the largely administrative tasks that a desk officer is subsumed with on a daily basis.
"The job he's had in the Pentagon was to make the trains run on time, which was great for learning the interagency process, but at USAID he will more of an opportunity to be doing more of the policy work he loves," said Andrew Exum, a friend who also works at the Center for a New American Security.
Before signing on the Obama presidential campaign, Mullaney was a West Point grad, Rhodes scholar, and Army Ranger. He earned the Bronze Star and several other medals during his time leading an infantry rifle platoon on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2003.
After coming home from war, he taught at the Naval Academy and wrote the book "The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education," which his personal website describes as "an unforgettable portrait of a young soldier grappling with the weight of his hard-earned knowledge while coming to grips with becoming a man," and the New York Times described as Mullaney's "attempt to reconcile the precombat lessons that seemed so clear to him with the exigencies of battlefield experience."
Here is the video trailer for Mullaney's book:
Find him on twitter here.
Although the public fireworks between top U.S. and Israeli officials may have died down in recent days, a fully fledged debate has erupted inside the Obama administration over how to best bring Middle East peace talks to fruition, let alone a successful conclusion.
Some reports have suggested there are two camps within Obamaland -- one favoring an incremental approach focused on persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations, and a second group pushing the president to lay his own "American plan" on the table.
But one U.S. official close to the issue told The Cable there's a more diverse spectrum of opinion inside the administration, with different officials exhibiting a range of views on what the tactics and tone of the U.S. approach should be going forward. There is no prospect of an Obama peace plan surfacing anytime soon, however.
"That's obviously an option we have. At some point we may exercise it," the administration official told The Cable. "There's been no decision to do it and there's no plan to do it."
National Security Advisor Jim Jones is the one most clearly advocating for a more definite American plan for how to proceed. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and New York Times reporter Helene Cooper both described Jones as the prime mover behind a recent White House meeting in which a group of former national security advisors urged Obama to consider proposing his own peace initiative.
But Jones denied Friday that Obama has decided to take their advice.
"These are ongoing discussions, and I think that while we've not taken any decision to jumpstart any dramatic shift in our strategy, I think we should say, to make clear, that we don't intend to surprise anybody at any time," Jones told reporters.
"Some people suggested an American plan; other people had problems with it. Obama didn't weigh in one way or the other," the official said.
Meanwhile, Special Envoy George Mitchell, who has been shepherding the negotiations over the proximity talks that are meant to lead to direct talks, isn't necessarily opposed to a U.S. plan, but believes even talking about it now is premature.
Mitchell is for "getting to the negotiations, somehow" and is not in favor of releasing U.S. ideas "at this time," the official explained. That's different than being for "incrementalism," which in and of itself is a misleading term, in this insider's view.
"By definition all processes are incremental until they're not," the official said. Mitchell's other concern is that announcing a plan could be disastrous because the outlines of such a deal would certainly contain items that would upset each side.
"There are issues that are nonstarters on both sides, so what happens when both side reject it?," the official wondered.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agrees with Mitchell that it's not yet time for an American plan. But she is also saying inside the discussions that both sides need a lot of pushing to do things they don't want to do.
That's somewhat different than Vice President Joseph Biden, who leans more toward thinking about how to solve the logjam between the U.S. and Israel first, and then figuring out how to solve the overall issue after that. He is not thought to be in favor of announcing an American plan in the near term.
Add to that line of thinking the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, who due to his experience and inclination is also said to be more focused on solving the dispute over Israel's settlements. Yes, Ross argues for going a little easier on the Israelis than the other members of the team, the official said, but recent attacks on his loyalty to America from unnamed sources were way overblown.
Valerie Jarrett is another team member to watch. Two officials confirmed she is in almost all the meetings, although one official cautioned that doesn't mean she has a foreign-policymaking decision role, per se.
"Certainly how we handle Israel has implications for the public, nongovernmental organizations, and Congress, so understanding how the public and the interest groups will react is important and you have to loop her in," the official said.
To the extent that Jones and Jarrett seem to have increasing clout with Obama, that worries outsiders who fear they are pushing him toward a tougher stance vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who abruptly cancelled his plans to come to Washington next week for the nuclear summit.
And amid reports that Obama personally directed the harsh response to Netanyahu following the settlements dispute last month and the dressing down Netanyahu received at the Oval Office, Israel supporters worry that he is determined to make Netanyahu come to him.
That still hasn't happened, as the White House waits for Netanyahu's response to the list of ideas Obama gave him to prove Israel's commitment to the process.
"We are still in consultations," the official could only say.
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
Are Syrian weapons flooding into Lebanon? That's the chatter in national-security circles this week, leading some in Congress to raise concerns over the Obama administration's decision to send a U.S. envoy back to Damascus after a long period of downgraded relations.
Informed administration sources said they were well aware of the rumors that unspecified amounts of a new type of weaponry are making their way over the border and into Hezbollah hands. Sources close to the issue said that the weapons were of a characteristic and range that could pose a risk to large swaths of Israel, not just the communities in the north that already live every day under the threat of short-range rocket attacks.
There have been scattered, unverified reports since late last year that Syria was moving some of its arsenal of Scud missiles toward Lebanon, but few if any in the Western press. Syria is thought to have several hundred of the Soviet-era Scuds and other short-range ballistic missiles in its arsenal.
Now, the rumors that the weapons have moved into Hezbollah hands are raising tensions in the region and heightening concern here in Washington.
One Middle East insider told The Cable that the concern is coming primarily from Capitol Hill. "There is serious concern in Congress about just how bad Syria's behavior has been lately, from their flagrant ties with terrorist groups and Iran, to deeply worrying arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon."
A Senate leadership aide confirms that there is now at least one hold on the nomination of Robert Ford to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in more than four years. Some congressional sources said there were multiple holds. The lawmakers are said to be pressing for more intelligence-sharing on the Syrian weapons transfers as part of their demands before considering Ford. (Other reasons why senators are holding up the Ford nomination can be found here.)
The administration sources we spoke with they had no clear understanding about exactly what the current state of play was regarding the weapons. That has led some to privately wonder why the situation wasn't being more closely tracked, although that may very well be going on at levels we can't see.
National Security Spokesman Mike Hammer told The Cable that the administration is "increasingly concerned about the sophistication of the weaponry being transferred and have continued to reiterate our strong concerns to the Syrian and Lebanese authorities."
"The transfer of weapons from Syria to Lebanese Hizballah undermines the Lebanese government's ability to exercise sovereignty over all of its territory and risks sparking a conflict that no one needs," he added.
Several senators have been traveling in the region, including in Syria, during their legislative recess. Sources contacted who are on those delegations refused to comment on the rumors in any way, citing the extreme sensitivity of the issue.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry strongly expressed his concerns about Syrian weapons flows into Lebanon when visiting Damascus last week. "That is something that must stop in order to promote regional stability and security," Kerry said.
But Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, strongly denied the allegations.
"These reports are unequivocally false and are a product of the Israeli government that is trying to speciously create a raised level of tension in the region to justify a future conflagration of violence on their part, or simply to divert attention from the real issue at hand: Israeli settlements and expansionism," he told The Cable.
Special Representative Richard Holbrooke has received a clean bill of health after having his heart valves checked today and will go with General David Petraeus to Afghanistan next week after all.
New America Foundation's Steve Clemons has the news on the Washington Note.
I have learned just an hour ago that the angiogram showed the best possible results. There was no significant obstruction that required intervention.
Richard Holbrooke has been cleared to travel with General Petraeus to Afghanistan.
In fact, Holbrooke spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly and she cleared the trip.
I can also report that Holbrooke is in excellent spirits -- though he seemed in excellent spirits when he presided over an all staff meeting Tuesday this week and had not yet informed his team of this potential health challenge.
So good news on the Holbrooke health front.
After President Obama has rolled out his nuclear policy review Tuesday morning, he used his down time to turn his attention to another major nuclear initiative: the Nuclear Security Summit being held in Washington next week.
With 47 world leaders coming to town, Obama simply can't very well schedule one-on-one meetings with all of them -- lest international diplomacy turn into the equivalent of speed dating. Still, the least the president can do is give a phone call to the leaders he's rejecting, and that's what he was doing Tuesday afternoon.
So far, the world leaders Obama has granted an audience to are (in alphabetical order by country): President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, President Hu Jintao of China, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev doesn't need a bilateral, because he will have lots of time to hang out with Obama Thursday in Prague when they meet there to sign the new START agreement. Obama just met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week. And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is skipping the summit to gear up his campaign ahead of the May elections he announced this morning.
So who's not getting face time with Obama? One confirmed rejection is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who got the consolation phone call from Obama just a few hours ago.
"President Saakashvili thanked President Obama for his invitation to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington," according to a readout of the call from the Georgian side. "President Obama thanked President Saakashvili for Georgia's exceptional commitment of troops to the international effort in Afghanistan."
What Obama didn't mention in the call Georgia's aspirations to join NATO or Georgia's concern about the French sale of a new assault ship to Russia.
Hey, maybe they'll run into each other at the buffet.
So, who are the other countries may be soon getting the rejection call? Looks like the leaders of Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Vietnam.
Adding to Congress's threats to move Iran sanctions legislation regardless of what happens at the United Nations, a House appropriator will move to keep all U.S. government money out of the hands of companies that do business there.
"During the House Appropriations Committee's consideration of the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations bills, I will offer an amendment to each of the twelve appropriations bills to ensure that no federal funds go to companies doing business with Iran," Rep. Steve Rothman, D-N.J, will say in a statement to be released Thursday but obtained in advance by The Cable.
Rothman is responding, in part, to a March 7 New York Times article reported that $107 billion worth of U.S. taxpayer money has gone to companies doing business in Iran, $15 billion going to firms that directly violating existing U.S. sanctions by aiding Iran's oil industry.
If the committee votes to adopt Rothman's language when they takes up the spending bills, it would become the law of the land that no U.S. Government funds would go to such companies, no matter what other sanctions might be in place.
Rothman isn't the only lawmaker trying to close the path of funds from Washington to Tehran. The House version of the Iran sanctions bill currently awaiting conference has a provision to stop U.S. government funds from going to companies involved in Iran's oil sector, written by Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL.
The Senate version of the bill has a similar provision that covers technology exports to Iran, but not oil industry involvement. Inside the conference, several lawmakers are expected to push for language that covers both sectors and perhaps more.
Congress is expected to start working on the spending bills in May.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is speaking this morning to the AIPAC conference, only hours ahead of her meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. President Obama invited Netanyahu to meet him on Tuesday night.
Clinton will spend some time in her speech directly addressing the settlement issue that touched off the public spat between her and Netanyahu next week. Here are some key excerpts from her soon-to-be-delivered remarks:
The "Quartet" of powers focused on Middle East peace has come out with a call for Israel to halt all settlement activity -- just after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday to offer her a compromise that falls short of that goal.
Netanyahu spoke with Clinton Thursday while she was in Moscow meeting with officials there on the new nuclear-arms reduction treaty and a dispute over a new Russian nuclear facility in Iran. Rather than agreeing to Clinton's demand that he reverse the decision to build 1,600 new settlements in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu is reported to have offered a delay of the project and other confidence-building measures to get back to the proximity talks with the Palestinians announced last week.
That was apparently enough to get the Obama administration to have Special Envoy George Mitchell go ahead with his planned, but postponed, trip back to the region. The Cable reported Thursday that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will join Netanyahu in Washington this weekend for the AIPAC conference and will also join Netanyahu's meetings with top administration officials.
But none of that matches the Quartet's call for the government of Israel "to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001, and to refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem," as communicated in a State Department statement Friday morning.
The Quartet said new talks should lead to a final settlement within 24 months and said that the status of Jerusalem is a "permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties." The group condemned the Israeli decision to move forward with plans for new housing construction in East Jerusalem, saying that the annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized the by the international community.
Although the Quartet's statement is more aggressive than what the Obama administration and Netanyahu are negotiating behind closed doors, the Israeli response and its reception at the White House is seen as another sign that both sides are trying hard to deescalate the public spat and get ready for a very public embrace at AIPAC next week.
"And so the message is: We've got to get over this," Vice President Joe Biden told ABC news. Clinton called the Netanyahu response "useful and productive" in remarks in Moscow.
The full Quartet statement after the jump:
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has just been added to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's trip to the United States for the upcoming AIPAC conference, an insider tells The Cable. Barak will be included in all of Netanyahu's meetings with senior administration officials, our source confirms. His addition to the trip is sure to fuel speculation that the Netanyahu government is trying to repair ties to the Obama team by reestablishing trust that was lost last week.
Barak, who was prime minister from 1999 to 2001, was a crucial player in the Camp David Summit in 2000. He hails from the left-leaning Labor Party, which is a minority member of Netanyahu's coalition. The recent U.S.-Israeli dispute began with an announcement of new settlements by a ministry led by the right-leaning Shas party.
Still no word whether Netanyahu (and Barak) will get face time with President Obama, but meetings with Vice President Joseph Biden are expected, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still waiting for a response to her list of demands to Netanyahu.
Barak will attend the AIPAC gala event Monday night, which Netanyahu will address. Hillary will speak Monday morning.
U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell has postponed his planned talks with the Israelis and Palestinians indefinitely, waiting for a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's list of demands follow the row over new housing in East Jerusalem.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley first said that Mitchell simply couldn't fit in the meetings before he is scheduled to be in Moscow on Thursday for a meeting of the Quartet, the Middle East peace contact group that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States. "It's the tyranny of the schedule," he said.
But when pressed, Crowley said that Mitchell was still waiting for Netanyahu's formal response to Clinton, as conveyed during their 43-minute angry phone call last Friday. Of course, Mitchell had been planning to leave on Sunday and then was thinking about leaving as late as Monday evening, before the decision was made at the last minute not to go.
"We did delay that departure so that he would be informed by the Israeli response to the secretary's conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu," Crowley said, adding that State expects the response shortly and follow-on meetings are still expected, although nobody knows when.
A State Department official said on background that it was Mitchell's decision not to go on the trip, in consultation with State and White House officials. Another phone call between Clinton and Netanyahu could come tomorrow, the official added.
Obama administration officials involved in the discussions in Washington this week include the NSC's Dennis Ross, David Hale, Dan Shapiro, and others.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman is in Tripoli now in advance of the Arab League meeting later this month, a State Department official confirmed -- not mentioning that Libya remains angry at comments Crowley made from the podium earlier this month.
"We want to reaffirm the commitment by both sides that we will continue these proximity talks in the coming days and that is our plan," Crowley said. He revealed some of the distrust of the Israelis inside the Obama administration when he said, "They've told us they remained committed to the process. We just want to make sure that their words are followed by actions."
Clinton herself struck a similar tone Tuesday morning in her remarks after meeting with Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin.
"We are engaged in a very active consultation with the Israelis, over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to this process," she said. "Our goal now is to make sure that we have the full commitment from both our Israeli and our Palestinian partners to this effort."
Netanyahu's office was quick to issue a statement in response, which said, in part, "With regard to commitments to peace, the government of Israel has proven over the last year that it is commitment [sic] to peace, both in words and actions."
Lawmakers from both parties have been active in asking the White House to back down from its harsh rhetoric toward the Israeli government and its list of demands, which reportedly include asking Netanyahu to reverse the decision to approve the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem and promise to include core issues in the coming indirect negotiations.
Congressmen on both sides have said the U.S.-Israel dispute risks complicating international efforts to pressure Iran, but Clinton said, ‘I don't buy that ... We have an absolute commitment to Israel's security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."
"I think both sides have now climbed up a tree that's going to be very difficult to climb down from," said Aaron David Miller, former Middle East negotiator. "The way each side is reacting seems to guarantee that it's not going to be easy to close this latest flap."
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.