An Israeli government official sends along this photo that he contends shows the only "humanitarian" goods found aboard the Irene, a ship of Jewish activists who tried to break the Gaza blockage.
The photo and others like it show four small backpacks with assorted toys for young children, such as coloring books, painting kits, and small dolls. The Israeli official points to the items as evidence the sole purpose of the mission was a desire to create a confrontation with the Israeli forces that are enforcing the blockade of Gaza.
"The photos show that his was another example of an unnecessary provocation that has nothing to do with helping the people of Gaza or supplying them with humanitarian aid," the official said.
The Israel Defense Forces boarded the Irene Tuesday. The IDF said the interception was peaceful, but some of the activists claimed that Israeli troops employed violence, including the use of tasers. The ship set sail from Famagusta, Cyprus, and had 10 activists on board: 5 Israelis, 3 Brits, 1 German, and 1 American, all of whom were Jewish.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's decision not to sell advanced weaponry to Iran is being hailed as a dividend of the Obama administration's "reset" policy with Russia. And although the administration didn't expressly offer the Kremlin a quid pro quo for the reversal, Moscow will expect moves by Washington in return as it cautiously moves to grasp Obama's outstretched hand.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations implored the Kremlin not to follow through with their 2006 signed agreement to sell almost $1 billion worth of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, and on Wednesday, Medvedev formally announced the sale will not go through.
Top Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian Natan Sharansky, reacted with disappointment Wednesday to comments by former President Bill Clinton casting Israel's Russian immigrant population as an obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Sharansky even accused Clinton of inappropriately trafficking in ethnic stereotypes about Israelis.
"If the reports of President Clinton's comments are accurate, I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins. I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner," said Sharansky, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
As reported first by The Cable, Clinton identified the Russian community as the ethnic group inside Israel least amenable to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. The former president, speaking in a roundtable with reporters Monday in New York, also suggested that because Russian and settlers' offspring comprised an increasing proportion of the Israel Defense Forces, forcibly removing settlers from the West Bank as part of a peace deal might be more difficult.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also reacted strongly Wednesday, calling Clinton's comments "distressing," according to the Israeli news wire Ynet.
"As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace," Netanyahu reportedly said.
Sharansky also denied that he participated in a conversation with Clinton years ago where he used his Russian identity as a reason to oppose a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Monday, Clinton recalled a conversation, telling reporters that Sharansky said, "I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you."
Sharanksy responded Wednesday: "I was never at Camp David and never had the opportunity to discuss the negotiations there with President Clinton. It may be that he had in mind our conversations at Wye Plantation years before, where I expressed my serious doubts, given the dictatorial nature of the PA regime, whether Mr. Arafat would be willing to bring freedom to his people, an essential element of a sustainable peace," said Sharansky. "History has shown that these concerns were justified."
The Cable reported that Clinton was referring to Sharansky's opposition to the 2000 Camp David accords but, after reviewing the transcript, it was clear that Clinton was referring to discussions he had with Sharansky during negotiations over the 1998 Wye River Memorandum.
Yisrael Beitenu, an Israeli political party whose supporters are made up of mostly Russian immigrants, called Clinton's comments "crude generalizations." Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, one of the leaders of the party, said that nobody should attempt to divide Israeli groups in such a way.
"The immigrants of Russia contributed to the development of the state of Israel in every field, including science, culture, sports, economy and defense. This year, the entire country is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Russian aliyah. This shows that the Israeli people are united," the Jerusalem Post reported her saying.
Not all Israeli leaders were upset. Coalition Chairman and Russian immigrant Zeev Elken praised Clinton's remarks. "I am proud of former President Clinton's distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years," he told Ynet.
Clinton's staff did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
President Obama will unveil his administration's new overarching strategy on global development Wednesday in a speech at the United Nations.
"Today, I am announcing our new U.S. Global Development Policy -- the first of its kind by an American administration," Obama will say, according to prepared remarks. "It's rooted in America's enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being. And it outlines our new approach and the new thinking that will guide our overall development efforts."
The president's speech will place global development in the context of his National Security Strategy released in May, which emphasizes the interconnected relationship of security, economics, trade, and health.
"My national security strategy recognizes development as not only a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative," Obama will say. "We've reengaged with multilateral development institutions. And we're rebuilding the United States Agency for International Development as the world's premier development agency. In short, we're making sure that the United States will be a global leader in international development in the 21st century."
The White House was busy laying the groundwork in advance of the president's speech, touting the highlights of what it calls the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD). A fact sheet provided to reporters laid out the basic ideas of the U.S. strategy, which includes a focus on sustainable outcomes, placing a premium on economic growth, using technological advances to their maximum advantage, being more selective about where to focus efforts, and holding all projects accountable for results.
The White House will not release the full text of this initiative, which was previously known as the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7).
On some specific items of contention, the White House has decided that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will not have a permanent seat on the National Security Council, as many in the development community wanted. However, he will be invited to attend its meetings when issues affecting his work are being discussed.
An executive-level Development Policy Committee will be created to oversee all interagency development policy efforts, as was outlined in a leaked copy of a previous draft of the new policy. There will also be a mandated once-every-four-years review of global development strategy, which will be sent to the president.
Obama announced the new policy during the U.N.'s conference on the Millennium Development Goals. "The real significance here is the fact that the President chose to unveil this at the U.N. and in the context of the MDGs," said Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy at the U.N. Foundation. "[I]t shows how closely the administration wants to work with the U.N. and U.N. agencies in implementing them."
Development community leaders reacted to the new policy with cautious optimism and a hope that implementation would go as planned.
"President Obama has delivered a big victory for the world's poor, our national interests, and the movement to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective," said George Ingram, a former senior official at USAID and current co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. "Now the tough task of implementation begins, and we are ready to work with the Administration to ensure that key reform principles are applied and codified in law, because that is the real way to make this policy one of the President's great legacies."
Deputy National Security Advisor for international economics Michael Froman, in a Friday conference call with reporters, defended the White House's decision not to release the entire PPD. "It's general policy that we can release a detailed summary of it, but as I understand it the policy is not to release the PPD themselves," he said.
Development community leaders were nonetheless disappointed.
"We understand that NSC documents like this aren't normally released in full, but there are pitfalls in this approach," said Greg Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America. "The Administration should make sure that enough gets out to not only provide the American people with a clear rationale for the new approach, but also make sure that our partners around the world understand how we plan to change the way we work with them."
On a Thursday conference call with development community leaders to preview the release, one senior administration official mentioned your humble Cable guy while requesting anonymity and asking the participants to hold the information close.
"I know that with this group it's a little unusual to do calls on background and embargoed... not that I think anybody on this line has ever talked to Josh Rogin," the official said.
A bipartisan group of senators are circulating a new letter urging President Obama to speak out publicly to pressure the Palestinian leadership not to abandon the Middle East peace talks.
The new initiative comes ahead of the Sept. 26 deadline expiration of Israel's 10-month settlement construction moratorium, which presents the first obstacle to the direct peace talks being spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly stated that he will withdraw from the negotiations if settlement construction resumes, but Israeli leaders have been equally adamant that they will not extend the moratorium.
President Obama has told Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, calling it all part of the diplomatic game. But the administration has publicly called on Israel to extend the freeze, at least in part.
Lawmakers, who have also bristled at the administration's public pressure on Netanyahu, are now calling on Obama to make it clear to Abbas that even if the freeze isn't extended, he should stay at the table.
"Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," the group of senators wrote in the letter (PDF) dated for release Sept. 24, obtained by The Cable.
The initial draft is signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Burr (R-NC), but they circulated a "dear colleague" letter (PDF) Monday calling on more lawmakers to join.
The senators praised Netanyahu for staying at the table even though the beginning of the process was marred by violence.
"Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks," the senators wrote. "We also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table."
Administration officials have indicated that a compromise may be in the works. Former President Bill Clinton said Monday, "I believe there is a fix they can both live with."
Experts said the letter was a gentle push for the Obama administration to sharpen his stance toward Abbas as the end of the freeze rapidly approaches.
"Obviously this is a direct message to President Abbas, and President Obama, that many in Congress...want the Palestinian leadership to stop making what they see as threats and to put public pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move their position," said one Capitol Hill insider who had seen the letter.
"Many Capitol Hill office see Abbas quitting the talks over the settlements as him using the same issue he was clinging to when trying to set preconditions for the talks in the first place."
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
Russian immigrants to Israel have emerged as a central obstacle to achieving a Middle East peace deal, according to former President Bill Clinton. He voiced fears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which increasingly consists of soldiers hailing from this community, might not be fully willing to oppose Israeli settlers as a result.
In a roundtable with reporters during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Clinton made his most extensive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is spearheading.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians. "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."
To illustrate his view on the Russian immigrant community, Clinton related a conversation he had with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian, who he said was the only Israeli minister to reject the comprehensive peace agreement Clinton proposed at the Camp David Summit in 2000. The proposal was eventually rejected by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'" Clinton recalled. "He said, ‘I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'"
Clinton responded, "Don't give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It's a lot bigger than your jail cell."
Clinton used the anecdote to explain the Russian immigrant population's attitude toward a land-for- peace deal with the Palestinians. "[Sharansky] was nice about it, a lot of them aren't," Clinton said.
Clinton then ranked the Israeli sub-national groups in order of his perception of their willingness to accept a peace deal. The "most pro-peace Jewish Israelis" are the Sabras, who he described as native-born Israelis whose roots there date back millennia, because they have the benefit of historical context. "They can imagine sharing a future."
Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe and have been in Israel for one or more generations are the next most supportive of a peace deal, Clinton said.
The "swing voters" are what Clinton called the "Moroccans": North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. He described them as right-of-center citizens who nevertheless want normal, stable lives.
"When they think peace is possible, they vote peace. When they think it's not, they vote for the toughest guys on the block," Clinton said.
Regarding the settlers, Clinton said that their numbers had grown so much since 2000 that their longstanding opposition to giving up their homes in exchange for peace might be more entrenched and therefore a bigger challenge than before.
"In 2000, you could get 97 percent of the settlers on 3 percent of the land. Today, you have to give almost 6 percent of the land to get 80 percent of the settlers," said Clinton. "There were 7,000 settlers in Gaza and it took 55,000 Israeli forces people to move. Somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 settlers will have to be moved out of the West Bank."
Clinton spoke extensively about the positives and negatives he sees in the ongoing direct peace talks launched by the Obama administration.
"I'd say their chances are at least 50-50," Clinton said optimistically.
The Palestinians' internal divisions, specifically the lack of Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip, present another problem, but one that a peace deal could help solve, he suggested.
"That makes it more difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to make a deal and to wonder what a deal means," he said. But if there's a deal on the table, that would create enough pressure for an election in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would win, Clinton argued.
"I believe if there were an election in Gaza today, Fatah would win because of the greater prosperity and the greater security produced under Abbas and Fayyad," Clinton said, adding that Fatah only lost in Gaza elections because of intra-party faction fighting that saw many candidates run against others in their own party.
There are some factors that point to improved conditions for making a peace deal as compared to 2000, said Clinton. He pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Israelis trust Netanyahu to make a peace deal, more than when Ehud Barak was negotiating, according to Clinton. Also, he said that he has faith that the current Palestinian Authority leadership is serious about reaching a settlement.
"They won't do what Arafat did, they won't get up to the deal and lose their nerve. They know what the future looks like."
In the long term, Israelis will face increased pressures, Clinton said. Because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Israel will become a Palestinian-majority state sometime in the next 30 years, if it does not give up the West Bank.
"Then they will have to decide either to be a Jewish state or a democracy, but they cannot be both. They don't want to face that. They don't want to face not only the international legitimacy question but also the internal identity crisis."
Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.
"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.
He also said that Arab leaders were on board with Middle East peace now more than ever, partly because they now have Iran as a boogeyman to deflect attention from their unpopular policies.
"They think they've got a real enemy in Iran now, so they don't need a faux enemy in Israel to keep people in the street directed at somebody besides them."
Before pontificating on the peace process, Clinton seemed to realize he was stepping into some sensitive territory, but decided to proceed nonetheless.
"I wouldn't say too much about this if Hillary weren't Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I'm darned sure not going to say too much now," he said, before going in depth on the issue for over 10 minutes.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad paid millions to a government contractor for meals and snacks that nobody ate, according to a new internal State Department report.
The State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the embassy overpaid by over $2 million, including over $1 million in snacks alone. The funds went to contractor KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton that runs food service for the over 1,500 employees of the world's largest embassy complex.
"KBR's headcount records from meals consumed do not match dining facility account records, and OIG was unable to reconcile the difference. These discrepancies suggest that in FY 2009 there were $2.23 million in unsupported food costs," the report stated.
A significant part of the discrepancy was due to how people are counted when they stop by what's called the "Grab-n-Go" snack stands at the embassy. This resulted in $970,000 dollars paid to KBR it didn't deserve, the report explained.
Partial blame lies with the embassy, according to the OIG. For example, the embassy staff encouraged employees to sign in every time they stopped by the snack areas, even if they were just picking up a cup of coffee or going back for an apple. As a result, "it was not uncommon to see 6-8 scans per individual for the same meal period. One person scanned his card 25 times in two days."
The embassy management office even put up signs around the embassy last year that read, "More scans = more goodies."
This practice resulted in inflated numbers being sent back to the contractor. The contractor would then prepare more food based on those numbers, resulting in higher overall costs to the embassy and the taxpayer.
The OIG criticized the embassy staff for encouraging this type of behavior. "OIG calculates the current embassy policy inflates the reported plate cost by 16 percent," the report said.
But the OIG did not entirely exonerate KBR of blame. Its report said that, while KBR provides a lot of data to the Defense Department, it isn't in a form the Pentagon can use. Therefore, there's no way to tell if contractor staffing levels are correct and finding instances of waste and fraud are more difficult.
The embassy responded to the OIG by saying that its description of how the Grab-n-Go stands work was "not completely accurate" and that the money paid to KBR is based on the amount of food eaten, not the number of scans. Responding to another of the OIG's criticisms -- that many non-authorized personnel were eating at the facilities -- the embassy said that it would not refuse a meal to any military or U.S. government employee.
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
The South Korean government announced a series of sanctions against Iran on Tuesday after intensive lobbying from the Obama administration.
The new measures, which target Iran's energy and banking sectors as well as specific Iranian bad actors, follow similar moves by Japan last week. They are also in line with measures imposed by the European Union last month, though not quite as extensive as the administration had proposed to Seoul.
Regardless, the administration and members of Congress who are pushing for countries to put more pressure on Iran hailed the announcement, noting that South Korea moved forward despite the potential cost to its domestic industries.
"I know that this was not an easy or cost-free decision for the ROK government, either politically or economically. But it is precisely Seoul's willingness to shoulder rather than shirk its international responsibilities that confirms the Republic of Korea's emergence as a global leader," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, in a statement.
Japan has the third largest economy in the world, South Korea ranks as the eleventh largest, and both countries have major business interests in Iran -- especially in the energy sector. The new measures would prevent the initiation of any new joint business ventures but allow existing projects to continue.
For the administration and its allies in Congress, the South Korean and Japanese sanctions announcements reaffirm their strategy of using the U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran, which was passed on June 9, as a framework for taking additional steps aimed at convincing Iran to address the international community's concerns about its nuclear program.
The coordination is a positive sign of cooperation between Washington and its two most important East Asian allies. At the same time, Iran watchers note that Beijing stands to profit if Chinese companies move to fill the demand gap created by the South Korean and Japanese sanctions.
Lieberman is warning that if Beijing undermines the new sanctions, Congress will move to enforce sanctions against Chinese companies using authorities provided in the recent U.S. sanctions legislation.
"Chinese companies have unfortunately in the past been allowed by their government to pursue their commercial self-interest in Iran, exploiting the restraint of other countries," Lieberman said. "If this trend continues, China will isolate itself from the responsible international community in Asia and around the world."
Behind the scenes, State Department and Treasury officials had been working hard to encourage the South Korean and Japanese governments to adoptthe strongest measures possible. This effort has been led by Stuart Levey, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control.
Einhorn and the NSC's Daniel Glaser traveled to Tokyo and Seoul last month, and a Congressional staff delegation visiting Seoul and Tokyo last week also was partially focused on the push for strong sanctions language.
National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers, the NSC's Tom Donilon, Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell were in Beijing last weekend and the topic of Iran sanctions was also on their agenda.
The main hub of Iranian financial activity in South Korea is the Seoul branch of Bank Mellat, a Tehran-based bank that has already been targeted by both the United States and the European Union. South Korea only agreed to a 60-day suspension of Korean dealings with Bank Mellat Seoul, with a promise to reevaluate after. Washington had wanted a total freeze.
Iran watchers on Capitol Hill said the temporary suspension would have the desired effect by making it clear to investors they should not do business with Bank Mellat in Seoul.
"The fact is they are taking action against Bank Mellat and they are embedding this action within a broad framework of other actions," said one GOP Senate aide. "It's very possible that everybody and their brother is going to run for the exits... that bank is going to be kryptonite."
Levey and Einhorn have also been working hard on the recently announced new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, a topic in which both Japan and South Korea have a vital interest. Aides said that, while the two efforts weren't directly linked, there are indirect links in that Iran and North Korea are involved in some of the same illicit activities.
"There is a tie in the sense that North Korea and Iran actively cooperate on a range of illicit proliferation-related activities," said one Congressional staffer close to the issue. "That's a linkage that both the Koreans and the Japanese recognize and appreciate."
UPDATE: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also praised the new sanctions and saw them as a message to China. He tweeted, "Korea adopted strong new sanctions on Iran today. Japan did the same last week. China should follow their good example of global leadership."
A Florida group's plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 could hurt the international mission in Afghanistan and put allied troops at risk, the head of NATO said Tuesday.
"I strongly condemn that. I think it's a disrespectful action and in general I really urge people to respect other people's faith and behave respectfully. I think such actions are in strong contradiction with all the values we stand for and fight for," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "Of course, there is a risk that it may also have a negative impact on the security for our troops."
Rasmussen's comments came just one day after Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a statement criticizing the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which plans to burn copies of Islam's holy book for 10 reasons they explain on their website.
"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Petraeus said.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, told CNN that the issue was already a hot topic of discussion among Afghans and said, "We very much feel that this can jeopardize the safety of our men and women that are serving over here in the country."
The Associated Press reported that hundreds of Muslims in Kabul have already rioted in protest of the planned Koran burning.
Rasmussen is in Washington to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House Tuesday afternoon. Topping the agenda are metrics for assessing progress in Afghanistan, as well as preparations for the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon in November.
In a wide-ranging discussion with reporters, Rasmussen expressed guarded optimism about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, where about 40,000 NATO troops are fighting alongside American soldiers and marines.
Rasmussen said he agreed with President Obama's decision to begin the transition of authority over security matters from allied forces to the Afghan government, including troop withdrawals, in July 2011. He said the pace of withdrawals were to be determined by conditions on the ground, and that the goal was to complete the transition by the end of 2014.
"I can tell you when it will begin, I can tell you when it would be completed, but I can't tell you exactly what will be the time differences between these two points," he said about the transition, predicting an announcement regarding the beginning of the transition at the Lisbon conference.
He acknowledged that there is an ongoing process to identify which provinces to transition to Afghan control first, and what metrics to use in judging progress on goals. He said it was premature, however, to say which provinces might be ready first or what specific metrics might be used.
"We will not leave until we have finished our job... A handover doesn't mean an exit," he said. NATO forces will have an ongoing role, which will include the presence of a base in Kabul that will allow them to continue to provide support at some level in perpetuity, he said.
On the ever-puzzling issue about what to do regarding Afghan government corruption, Rasmussen said that the international community must keep up political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said that he believes Karzai is sincere about cooperating with the NATO-led coalition on this issue.
"He realizes that it is a prerequisite for gaining the trust of his own people that he and his government fight corruption determinedly," he said. "I really do believe he will do what it takes."
Rasmussen said the Lisbon conference will address a host of issues, including tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, NATO cooperation on missile defense, and cyber warfare. He also endorsed a NATO missile defense shield and extended an offer to Russia to participate. (Russia has shown little enthusiasm for missile-defense cooperation.)
On nuclear weapons, Rasmussen said that while he shared Obama's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, for the time being nukes will remain in Europe as part of NATO's posture. He said the conference will not come out with specific numbers for the reductions of nuclear weapons based in Europe.
"We will not give up nuclear capabilities as a central part of our deterrence policy," he said.
Your humble Cable guy is on vacation, but sending along this briefing skipper, in which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by Special Envoy George Mitchell:
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to publicly denounce the impending trial of a journalist and blogger facing execution at the hands of the Iranian regime.
The journalist, Shiva Nazar Ahari, who has been imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since December, goes on trial Sept. 4 for crimes such as "anti-regime propaganda," "acts contrary to national security through participation in gatherings," and "enmity against God." The last charge can carry a death sentence.
Her activism and defense of political prisoners, which included acting as the spokesman for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, has raised the ire of the Iranian government for years. Conservative writers have been calling on President Obama to personally call for her release.
"I am urging you and President Obama to press the Iranian regime for the immediate release of Ms. Ahari ... It is crucial for the United States to advocate for brave Iranian citizens like Ms. Ahari, and I hope you will do all you can to secure her release." Brownback wrote to Clinton Aug. 31. "Obviously, time is of the essence."
According to the State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on Iran, authorities arrested Ahari and two of her colleagues from the Committee for Human Rights Reporters on Dec. 20 as they were headed to Qom for the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been one of the leading spiritual figures behind Iran's reform movement.
"According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested seven of the nine leaders of the organization during the year and pressured the group to close its Web site," the report said.
Clinton did call for Ahari's release in June, on the one year anniversary of the highly disputed Iranian presidential election that sparked a wave of violence and suppression. She also called on Iran to release human rights defenders Narges Mohammadi, Emad Baghi, Kouhyar Goudarzi, Bahareh Hedayat, Milad Asadi, and Mahboubeh Karami, as well as the three American hikers who have been detained without charge for over a year and a missing former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The State Department has been stepping up its public advocacy on behalf of imprisoned Iranians lately. Clinton gave her first public condemnation of the detention of Baha'i faith leaders last month. None of the political prisoners or hikers has, as of yet, been released.
The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Washington office is accusing Yale University of supporting "anti-Arab extremism and hate mongering" at a recent academic conference -- a charge the conference's organizer flatly denies.
The controversy surrounds a conference held last week titled, "Global Antisemitism - A Crisis of Modernity," which was organized by the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). The three-day conference featured papers and speeches from more than 100 scholars from universities throughout the world. But as far as the PLO's Washington office is concerned, some of the attendees were beyond the pale.
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat¸ wrote a letter Tuesday (pdf) to Yale President Richard C. Levin demanding that the university disassociate itself from the conference. Areikat accused three speakers in particular of spreading anti-Arab propaganda: Retired Israeli Col. Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Anne Herzberg, legal advisor to the group NGO Monitor, and Itamar Marcus, who heads the Palestinian Media Watch website and lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
"It's shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views, and it is deeply ironic that a conference on anti-Semitism that is ostensibly intended to combat hatred and discrimination against Semites would demonize Arabs - who are Semites themselves," wrote Areikat.
Charles Asher Small, the organizer of the conference and head of YIISA, told The Cable in an interview he was surprised and dismayed by Areikat's letter. He said that scholars and academics from across the political and ideological spectrum and hailing from 18 countries participated in the conference.
Small also said that one of the results of the conference was the formation of a professional association, called the International Association for the Study of Antisemitism (IASA), dedicated to fulfilling the program's stated mission of combating hatred and discrimination in all its forms. "The IASA is to function to represent scholars and intellectuals everywhere, regardless of their school of thought, scientific approaches, academic discipline, or ideological opinion," he said.
Furthermore, Small said that while his work focuses on hatred toward Jews, anti-Semitism is a phenomenon closely related to discrimination against other groups.
"We know from history that anti-Semitism unleashes a virulent form of hatred. It begins with Jews but it does not end with Jews," he said. "We see that moderate Muslims, women, gays, Copts, Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, and others, also become victims, as the basic notions of democracy and citizenship come under assault in too many societies."
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks set to begin in Washington this week, some in the pro-Israel community saw Areikat's letter as an ill-timed political cheap shot.
"If the Palestinian Authority and the PLO spent as much effort fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel incitement, rather than try to intimidate and silence those who expose it, the cause of peace would greatly benefit," said an official with a pro-Israel organization in Washington.
There's a battle going on among the standard-bearers of the Tea Party over their foreign policy message. But at the rank-and-file level, Tea Partiers have no unified view on major foreign policy issues. They are all over the map.
Sarah Palin, who spoke at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Mall Saturday, would like the Tea Party to endorse her quasi-neoconservative approach to national security policy. She advocates aggressive unilateralism, ever-rising defense budgets, unfailing support of Israel, and a skeptical eye toward China, Russia, and any other possible competitor to the United States.
Ron Paul, a founding leader of the Tea Party who has seen the movement slip away from him somewhat, wants the movement's focus on thrift to extend to foreign policy, resulting in an almost isolationist approach that sets limits on the use of American power and its presence abroad.
In over a dozen interviews with self-identified Tea Party members at Saturday's rally, your humble Cable guy discovered that, when it comes to foreign policy, attendees rarely subscribed wholeheartedly to either Palin or Paul's world view. Despite claiming to share the same principles that informed their views, Tea Partiers often reached very different conclusions about pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy today.
Understandably, most Tea Party members at the rally viewed foreign policy through the prism of domestic problems such as the poor economy and the movement of jobs overseas. Almost all interviewees expressed support for U.S. troops abroad and a connection to Christianity they said informed their world view.
But that's where the similarities ended. Some attendees sounded like reliable neocons arguing for more troops abroad. Others sounded like antiwar liberals, lamenting the loss of life in any war for any reason. Still others sounded like inside the beltway realists, carefully considering the costs and benefits of a given policy option based on American national security interests.
For example, The Cable interviewed Danny Koss, a former Marine from Grove City, PA, who was measured when it came to talking about the war in Afghanistan.
"If we are going to stay, I suggest we really win," he said. "I'm not convinced that some of our leadership is ready for that. I know our generals are."
Koss, sounding like a realist, said that he saw China as a near-term economic threat but not a near-term military threat. A strike against Iran was not a good option, he argued, although he said it was wise of President Barack Obama to publicly state that all options are on the table.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, however, Koss seamlessly switched to a religious frame.
"You've got to go back and read the Bible, see who had it first. If you believe the Bible and who God gave it to, the rest is history," he said.
Later, we ran into Cecilia Goodow from Hartford, NY, who said that her foreign policy views were determined exclusively by her faith. This led her to regret the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"It sounded so reasonable at the time. But Holy Father John Paul II was against the war; he said it would just be an awful thing and many people would be killed," she said. "I always supported the troops, but we know history and we know that wars are sometimes perpetrated by evil people for evil reasons that the average person doesn't even know about or understand, so I can't wait for it all to stop."
Goodow said she wants Obama to stand up for America more and fight the forces of evil, which include Iran, but she doesn't support military intervention, even in Afghanistan.
"Sometimes that's cloudy -- why are we there? Barack Obama ran on the promise that he was going to bring everybody home. That's what we all sat around the table talking about. Maybe if there's a new presidential policy maybe we can have peace again, maybe we can bring our kids home," she said. "War begets more war."
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we found Larry Maxwell of Patterson, NY. Dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and holding a huge American flag, he was as much historian as activist, engaging passersby in debates about America's past.
While he supported the decision to go war in Iraq and largely believes claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Maxwell lamented the cost of the Iraq war and the danger of bolstering Iranian influence in the region.
But while Maxwell was concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, he didn't believe that a military strike is the best option.
"Are we the world's police? We're having a lot of trouble here and a lot of problems here. I'm not sure where our role comes over there," he said. "The United Nations would be the place for that ... but nobody listens to them."
Maxwell, like Koss, also referenced the Bible to support Israel's right to the land it now occupies. "The Bible says in the last days, that the Middle East, that's going to be the center of activity," he said. "If you go back to the Bible, it says there's going to be an army of 200 million men coming out of the East to the Middle East, as part of that whole Armageddon and ‘end of days' thing."
But not all Tea Partiers reflexively took Israel's side. Brandon Malator from Washington, DC, who dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and donned a cowboy hat with a Lipton tea bag dangling from the brim, was a stalwart supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not of Israel.
"[We should] stay longer. We've never left any other country and we shouldn't leave Iraq," he said, adding that the U.S. is engaged in a 100-year-war that would include a coming war with Iran and eventually a war with China, which he called "World War III." He praised Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. "I think we're doing what we need to do as Americans. I think if the rest of the world doesn't like it, then that's tough luck."
But when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malatore's was downright dovish. "I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to an agreement, share the land, and do whatever they need to do to stop fighting all the time. I hope that war ends; that's been going on too long."
Israeli diplomats around the world are engaged in a labor dispute with their government, but that shouldn't endanger next week's trip to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli embassy official in Washington tells The Cable, and the protest is in no way related to the Obama administration's drive for Middle East peace.
The work sanction, whereby Israeli diplomats in Israel and abroad are coming to work each day but refusing to provide consular and diplomatic services for officials from other Israeli government ministries, has been going on for weeks. This tactic is meant to bring about negotiations with the Israeli treasury, which has refused to act on their demands for pay and benefits commensurate with what Israeli officials from other agencies dealing with national security in Israel and when deployed abroad receive.
But despite an article Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz entitled, "Israel diplomats' strike threatens PM's Washington trip," the embassy official insisted that Netanyahu's trip will go on as planned.
"This is a struggle to improve the wages of the diplomatic employees of the foreign service -- nothing more, nothing less," the official said. "It has nothing to do with the content or purpose of the prime minister's visit."
Amb. Michael Oren, who is a political appointee and therefore not directly involved, is likely to accompany Netanyahu during his trip, but the Washington embassy will not give Netanyahu's personal staff all the help it would normally give, such as advanced logistics planning, setting up press events, and so on.
If anything, the reduction of services might "make the prime minister's office understand that we have a legitimate struggle and our work is indispensable," the official said, adding that the Prime Minister's office may be inconvenienced but will ultimately be able to fulfill its mission.
"We face the same dangers of others that are sent abroad, but we get less than half their pay."
But his message to the Obama administration was: "Don't worry Washington, our labor dispute is not about you."
The State Department's top spokesman cautioned reporters Tuesday not to take snippets of edited remarks on the Internet by the "Ground Zero mosque" imam and use them to brand him a radical, lest they repeat the mistakes made by the media in calling former USDA official Shirley Sherrod a racist based on edited clips of her promoted on conservative websites.
Imam Feisal Rauf, the spiritual leader of the proposed Park 51 community center in lower Manhattan, is on his State Department-sponsored trip to the Persian Gulf right now, giving speeches in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates about what it's like to be a Muslim in America.
Rauf has been traveling on behalf of the department since 2007 on trips sponsored by both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. He belongs to the progressive Sufi sect of Islam and has been praised as a bridge-builder even by conservative pro-Israel bloggers, such as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who has had extensive interactions with him.
But activists who oppose the Park 51 project have pointed to various statements by Rauf to build the case that he's dangerous radical. For example, yesterday Pamela Geller of the blog Atlas Shrugs posted a clip of excerpts from a speech Rauf gave in 2005. Those excerpts include Rauf saying:
We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaida has on its hands of innocent non Muslims. You may remember that the US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations. And when Madeleine Albright, who has become a friend of mine over the last couple of years, when she was Secretary of State and was asked whether this was worth it, said it was worth it. [emphasis Geller's]
P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told reporters Tuesday that they shouldn't be quick to take those remarks out of context.
"I would just caution any of you that choose to write on this, that once again you have a case where a blogger has pulled out one passage from a very lengthy speech. If you read the entire speech, you will discover exactly why we think he is rightly participating in this national speaking tour."
The Cable asked Crowley directly, "Is he the Muslim Shirley Sherrod?"
Crowley responded, "That's a good cautionary tale for everybody."
The University of South Australia's Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre has the full transcript and full audio recording of Rauf's 2005 remarks. Here are some excerpts not posted by the Atlas Shrugs blog:
On the bonds between Islam and Judeo Christianity:
We are united with Christians and Jews in terms of our belief in one God. In the tradition of the prophets. In our tradition of scriptures. The Jewish prophets, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist and Mary are in fact religious personalities and prophets of the Islamic faith as well...
From the point of view of Islamic theology, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic history, the vast majority of Islamic history, it has been shaped or defined by a notion of multiculturalism and multireligiosity, if you might use that term. From the very beginning of Islamic history Islam created space for Christians of various persuasions, of Jews and even of Muslims of different schools of thought within the fabric of society.
On religious freedom:
A necessary part of this is to embrace and to welcome and to invite the religious voices in the public square, in the public debate, on how to build a good society. So multiculturalism, in my judgment, involves not only differences of culture and ethnicity but also multireligiosity, and that's where the challenge and the rub comes in for many because there is a perception that multireligiosity must mean the potential conflict between different religious voices in the public square. I, for one, believe that that is not in fact the case.
On religious tolerance:
[O]ur law, our sense of justice, our articulation of justice, must flow from these two commandments of loving our God and loving our neighbour, and if we are not sure of how to articulate the love of God in the public square we certainly can allow each person and each group of each religious group to choose to love God in the vernacular and in the liturgy that it chooses and it prefers, but it gives us a broad basis of agreement on which we can love our fellow human beings and this, I suggest, is the mandate that lies before us today as we embark on this 21st Century and is the mandate and the homework assignment that lies ahead of us.
On Islam and terrorism:
The broader community is in fact criticising and condemning actions of terrorism that are being done in the name of Islam... What complicates the discussion, intra-Islamically, is the fact that the West has not been cognisant and has not addressed the issues of its own contribution to much injustice in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a difficult subject to discuss with Western audiences but it is one that must be pointed out and must be raised.
Acts like the London bombing are completely against Islamic law. Suicide bombing, completely against Islamic law, completely, 100 per cent. But the facts of the matter is that people, I have discovered, are more motivated by emotion than by logic. If their emotions are in one place and their logic is behind, their emotions will drive their decisions more often than not, and therefore we need to address the emotional state of people and the extent to which those emotions are shaped by things that we can control and we can shape, this is how we will shape a better future.
Rauf is in Doha, Qatar, now, where in addition to giving a speech on Muslim life in America at a local university, he is meeting with government officials and NGO representatives and will hand out gifts and treats to children at the Doha Youth Center, Crowley said.
Although Rauf is getting questions about the controversy from his interlocutors and from the press in the areas he is visiting, don't expect him to talk about the Park 51 project, Crowley said.
"It's been suggested that through this tour he's going to be promoting this center, that's not true, or that he's going to be fundraising and that's not true," said Crowley. "He has chosen not to comment on the center so we can't be accused of doing things that are not consistent to the goals of the international program he's participating in and we respect those decisions."
Crowley also shot down another story in the conservative blogosphere today speculating that Rauf's wife Daisy Kahn will join the State Department-sponsored trip. Khan has elected to stay in the United States, he said.
Of the many questions hanging over the new direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday morning, one of the thorniest is what to do about the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is not a party to the negotiations.
White House officials addressed that topic directly Friday afternoon on a private conference call with Jewish community groups, saying that the talks would build legitimacy for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against Hamas and that a peace agreement would convince the Palestinian people to abandon Hamas and its violent methods.
"The ability of the forces of moderation and the forces of peace among Palestinians to prevail will be greatly enhanced once they're able to point to an ongoing peace process and ultimately a peace treaty and I think the Palestinian people will see that for what it is," said David Hale, deputy special envoy for Middle East peace, according to a record of the call made available to The Cable.
"Abbas offers the Palestinian people the choice of negotiating your problems and challenges rather than trying to use violence or terrorism to try to achieve your goals," Hale said. "Abbas is strengthened in the eyes of the Palestinian people when he's able to show his course of peace actually produces results. So we think that by entering into direct talks, it ought to be able to strengthen his position rather than the opposite."
Abbas has not yet actually accepted the invitation to join the talks, but he is in his final consultations and the White House expects to communicate his positive answer soon. Hamas, for its part, has already rejected the negotiations.
Earlier this week, Hamas Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the invitation, "would form a cover to Abbas and his Fatah party to go to the negotiations and would help them to escape from embarrassment before Arab and Islamic public opinion."
As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has already accepted the invitation to have dinner with Abbas, President Obama, Quartet Representative Tony Blair, Jordan's King Abdullah, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington on Sept. 1 and then sit down with Abbas and Clinton Sept. 2 to begin the talks. Obama intends to hold bilateral meetings with all four leaders that day as well.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomes the invitation of the United States to begin direct negotiations without preconditions," read a statement issued by his office Friday, referring his demand that no preconditions be attached to the discussions.
So far, Abbas has only said he welcomes an accompanying statement by the Quartet, a statement that reaffirms past Quartet statements that do have what some would call preconditions, such as a demand that Israel halt all settlement building, but doesn't explicitly repeat them.
Nevertheless, "these are talks without preconditions," emphasized Dennis Ross, director for the central region on the National Security Council, on the call.
"Obviously they take place within a certain context," said Ross. "Clearly the challenge for us is to overcome gaps. The gaps are real; we shouldn't have any illusions about the difficulties we are going to face. But you are never going to get anywhere if the parties can't deal with each other directly."
The Obama dinner is not meant to be a photo op, but rather a chance to establish an atmosphere of trust, said Ross. "The significance of the dinner is somehow not to suggest we have some high-profile event, it's a reminder that the aim of this process is to produce coexistence and reconciliation. There's clearly a trust deficit that we're going to have to find a way to overcome that."
There's not much detail about what will happen after the Sept. 2 meeting because those specifics simply haven't been worked out yet. It will be an intensive process once begun, without long gaps between meetings, said Hale. Some meetings will include the United States; others won't. The one-year timeline Clinton announced is a serious goal, not a hard deadline.
"We will definitely want to make sure there's a structure that allows us to have a full and careful review of all the issues but also allows us to move toward that objective," Hale said.
The aim of the call was to get community groups, especially Jewish community groups -- some of whom have been critical of President Obama -- behind the effort and to ask for their help.
"There are going to plenty of those who don't want these negotiations to succeed. And one of our real challenges is to build some real momentum behind these negotiations and to build a kind of context in which they take place so they have the best chance to succeed," Ross said. "The degree to which we can generate a lot of public support for this effort is something that in the long run will contribute to its ultimate success."
Groups on the call included the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, J Street, the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, the Orthodox Union, and the Boca Raton Synagogue.
(Corrected: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
The Middle East Quartet is expected to release its long-awaited statement on direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians Friday, as negotiations at the U.N. continued into late Thursday afternoon.
State Department officials had been sure that the statement, a formal invitation for both parties to enter direct negotiations, would be released earlier this week. But last-minute objections from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides forced new rounds of discussions, culminating in what Reuters reported was a conference call between Quartet members Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft.
"There are details that are still being worked out. You could quote Yogi Berra, I suppose, ‘It's not over till it's over,'" State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "We think we're very, very close to an agreement."
Multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that the substance of the reported draft represents a compromise intended to accommodate the Palestinians' calls for the pending Quartet statement to include several specific items that they believe are "terms of reference" for the direct talks but which the Israeli side sees as "preconditions" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to reject.
The apparent compromise would result in a statement whereby the Quartet reaffirms a "full commitment to its previous statements," according to Reuters, a reference to the March 19 Quartet statement issued in Moscow, but doesn't explicitly repeat certain contentious language from that document.
Among the disputed items in that statement, which Netanyahu ultimately rejected, were calls for a Palestinian state to be established in 24 months and for Israel to halt all settlement building, including natural growth of existing settlements, as well as building and evictions in East Jerusalem.
Neither side wants to be seen as resisting the move to direct talks, which the Obama administration has been pushing hard to begin before Netanyahu's 10-month settlement moratorium expires next month. If the Quartet is able to get its new statement out Friday, it will be about a week later than State Department sources had predicted, due to some extra shuttle diplomacy that the U.S. team had not anticipated.
When Special Envoy George Mitchell traveled to the region last week, he believed he had a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the wording of the statement, but it was clear upon arrival that Abbas had additional concerns, multiple diplomatic sources said.
So, Mitchell called back home to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her that the Palestinians were not on board. After further negotiations, Abbas set forth his demands for what the statement should include, but when Mitchell brought those terms to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister told Mitchell he couldn't accept them.
"We wanted the statement to include the same elements the March 19 statement included," the PLO's Washington representative Maen Rashid Areikat, who is in the region, told The Cable in an interview.
"The Quartet statement must be clear about how the quartet sees the terms of reference, the time frame, and the situation on the ground, such as the cessation of settlement activity," Areikat said.
Mitchell was forced to return to Washington empty-handed, but left the National Security Council's David Hale in the region to continue working the problem and negotiations continued.
Mitchell's trip wasn't a failure, according to Areikat. "I believe it was part of an overall discussion of progress with the parties, and if we see progress in the statement it will have been worth it," he said.
The Quartet seems to be calculating that by referring to the March 19 statement but not repeating the items explicitly, Israel will be able to accept the invitation to the talks without technically backing down from its demand that no preconditions be set. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for direct talks to begin forthwith.
Although it's too early to tell because the final Quartet statement hasn't been released, the compromise might be crafty enough to get the job done.
"I believe we could be able to accept such a statement if it doesn't assume to determine the terms of reference and doesn't pre-empt the negotiations," one Israeli official told The Cable, responding to a query about the leaked draft.
Some reports blamed the delay on disputes inside the Quartet between the United States and the EU, largely about the same issues. But one European diplomat in Israel said that these reports were misleading and the real dispute was over how to accommodate both the Israelis and Palestinian on substance and choreography.
There is a sense of urgency about the Quartet statement, because Friday is seen as the last day that key U.S. officials, including Clinton, will be working before their August vacations and because preparations will be needed to get the direct talks underway in time to beat the deadline, assuming there are no further delays.
The State Department has been working the issue hard, and Clinton has spoken in the last 24 hours with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, Quartet Representative Tony Blair, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
If the Quartet can act Friday, diplomatic sources said the direct talks could commence in as little as a few days but probably no later than two weeks from now.
Crowley predicted that the United States would issue an accompanying statement that will have some additional details, such as where and when the negotiations will take place.
Crowley wouldn't comment on speculation that the administration's statement is meant to accommodate Netanyahu's concerns about the scope of the negotiations and provide him with domestic political cover.
"Members of the Quartet will demonstrate their support for the process, we will demonstrate our support for the process, and we will outline specifics of where we go from here," he said.
Last week, we reported that the GOP is holding up the nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Today, we bring you the letter from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining his objections to the nomination.
Brownback, who will retire from the Senate at the end of this year, has long been critical of Ricciardone dating back to the nominee's time as ambassador to Egypt during the Bush administration and as one of the key officials chosen to strengthen Iraqi opposition groups in early 2003. Brownback states in his letter that Ricciardone "downplayed" the Bush administration's pro-democracy efforts in Egypt and "did not favor" a strong effort to work with Iraqi opposition groups in the run up to the invasion.
"From the latter days of the Bush administration to today, opposition groups from Africa to the Middle East to Asia have been questioning the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. Given these questions, I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time -- despite his extensive diplomatic experience," Brownback wrote.
Brownback also criticized Ricciardone for his work while in Cairo to establish an endowment fund to provide non-military aid to Egypt, which the senator argued would have been a slush fund for the Mubarak government and contributed to the further marginalization of democracy and human rights opposition groups there. The Obama administration is negotiating over the controversial endowment even to this day.
"I believe democracy and human rights should be considered on par with other aspects of our bilateral relationships, but I am not convinced that Ambassador Ricciardone shares that view. I am concerned that the endowment plan will marginalize further discussion about the development of democracy in Egypt," he wrote.
All of this speaks to how Ricciardone would conduct American diplomacy in Turkey, according to Brownback, who alleges that secular Turkish opposition groups are already complaining they don't have good access to current ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who is on his way to take over for Chris Hill in Baghdad.
Brownback is requesting that State provide written answers and assurances on a list of questions ranging from Ricciardone's views on numerous issues to assurances regarding how the State Departmetn will conduct aspects of foreign policy. He also signaled that Turkey's recent decisions to vote against new sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council and harshly criticize Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident will also be part of Ricciardone's confirmation debate, which could resume when Congress returns from recess.
"I am also concerned that we have not fully considered the ramifications of a Turkish tilt toward Iran and away from Israel, and I will give those issues some attention before the Senate reconvenes in September," Brownback wrote.
Full letter after the jump:
Harvard University sold off some of its investments in Israel but is not divesting itself from the Jewish state and the portfolio changes were not politically motivated, according to the university's spokesman.
Reports that Harvard sold off all of its holdings in Israel sparked immediate outrage across the Internet Monday morning, based on the news that the Harvard Management Company's most recent SEC filing revealed that it had sold stocks amounting to $39 million in Israeli companies such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., NICE Systems Ltd., Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., Cellcom Israel Ltd., and Partner Communications Ltd.
But Harvard spokesman John Longbrake tells The Cable that the filing shows only a change in holdings, not a change in policy.
"The University has not divested from Israel. Israel was moved from the MSCI, our benchmark in emerging markets, to the EAFE index in May due to its successful growth. Our emerging markets holdings were rebalanced accordingly," he said.
Harvard still is invested in Israel, Longbrake said, but he declined to go into specifics. He said the filing in question only represents a small portion of Harvard's overall portfolio, which is about $26 billion.
In other words, Israel's growth and development resulted in a status change whereby the stocks could no longer be considered "emerging market" holdings, requiring Harvard to rebalance its emerging market portfolio.
"There are some funds which invest only in emerging markets," Yaacov Heen, the Cellcom CFO, told The Media Line. "So Harvard had to sell our stock because Israel is no longer classified as an emerging market and they no longer have the ability to hold this stock within the emerging markets fund."
From The Media Line:
Formerly the Morgan Stanley Capital International, MSCI World, is an international index of 1,500 stocks from a couple dozen ‘developed' countries and is often used as a benchmark by global stock funds. In May, MSCI upgraded Israel from an ‘emerging' economy to a ‘developed' economy.
But it's also true that several of the stocks Harvard sold were doing poorly. Harvard's three biggest remaining holdings are all in emerging markets, Israel's Globe business news site reports. They own $295 million in a fund composed of Chinese equities, another $295 million in a fund focused on emerging marks, and $181 million in a Brazilian stock fund.
Harvard's explanation didn't stop the group organizing the Arab boycott of Israel, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) for Palestine movement, from claiming a victory.
"We welcome Harvard's decision, and encourage all academic institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere to follow its lead, to invest in socially responsible investments, and divest from Israeli war crimes," Hind Awwad, Coordinator of the BDS National Committee in Palestine told The Media Line. "After Israel's war of aggression on Gaza in 2008/2009, and its recent attack on the Freedom Flotilla, the Global BDS campaign has gained great momentum."
The BDS campaign -- targeting Israeli consumer, academic, cultural, and sports organizations -- started in 2005 and had its first conference in Ramallah in 2007. The Anti-Defamation League has pointed out that, in February 2009, a similar claim by BDS that Hampshire College had divested its Israeli holdings was also disputed by the college.
"Despite the best efforts of activists, and some gains among church groups, the divestment campaign in the U.S. has been largely unsuccessful," the ADL said. "To date, it has failed to bring its primary targeted institutions to divest from Israel or from U.S. companies doing business with Israel."
As the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq accelerates, the thousands of Iraqi citizens who have worked with the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion face an even more uncertain future. Congress is calling on the administration to devise a new plan to help them.
In 2008, a shocking article in the New York Post written by U.S. Marine Owen West described the harrowing experience of translators and aides to U.S. troops in Iraq as they try to escape the threats on their lives and transition to a better life in America. An excruciatingly long process full of bureaucratic hurdles faced these refugees, to the point that even then-ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker wrote to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to complain of "major bottlenecks" in the system.
For those who have made it the United States -- and over 35,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived since 2003 -- they then face another set of near-insurmountable challenges. Your humble Cable guy has come across several young Iraqis, mostly women, who found themselves with no job, no money, and no place to live once they made it to the Washington, DC area. Eligible for one-time grants ranging from $900 to $1800, most have trouble finding work and are still fighting with the State Department for permanent residence status. Many were completely dependent on the kindness of the soldiers they had worked with in Iraq, and many returning veterans have taken former translators and their families into their homes.
Congress held hearings and eventually passed legislation in 2008 to expand the services for Iraqis who had worked with the U.S. military, largely due to the work of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who led a campaign to bring attention and resources to the issue right up until his death.
But now, as the U.S. military leaves Iraq, Congress is calling on the administration to do more.
Twenty-two senators and congressmen wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates Friday to demand the administration come up with a comprehensive plan to support the thousands of Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. military.
"Time is of the essence in developing a plan to address this looming crisis as the August 31, 2010 withdrawal date rapidly approaches," the lawmakers wrote. "The United States has a moral obligation to stand by those Iraqis who have risked their lives -- and the lives of their families - to stand by us in Iraq for the past seven years, and doing so is also in our strategic self-interest. Providing support for our Iraqi allies will advance U.S. national security interests around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, by sending a message that foreign nationals who support our work abroad can expect some measure of protection."
The lawmakers praise the State Department for speeding up the visa process but lament that only about 2,000 visas have been issued out of the 15,000 visa limit State has set for such Iraqis. The process still takes over a year and requires hundreds of dollars in fees many refugees can't afford. Specifically, the lawmakers are asking the administration to speed up the resettlement process, expand the visa program to include Iraqis who worked for non-governmental organizations, and consider an airlift of Iraqis who are in danger as the withdrawal date approaches.
The letter was authored by the chairmen of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL). Hastings added a provision to the fiscal 2011 defense policy bill calling for a plan to expedite resettlement of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis at risk as troops withdraw from Iraq.
At the commission's July hearing on the issue, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration Eric Schwartz said that the Obama administration is devoted to improving the resettlement program for Iraqis who can't return home and will triple the number of those resettled to the United States this year.
Schwartz also said he authorized a doubling of the one-time grant refugees are given when they arrive in the United States.
"It won't eliminate the enormous challenges faced by new arrivals, nor will it address the longer-term adjustment needs that are addressed by the Department of Health and Human Services, but it will help to ensure that incoming arrivals have a roof over their heads and have sufficient provisions for their first months in the country," he said.
The Obama administration's work in fighting for human rights across the globe has been largely behind the scenes, a strategy that has elicited criticism from those who believe public admonishment is the best way to shame brutal regimes into better treatment of their citizens.
When it comes to Iran, the administration's calculation is more complicated. Their ongoing pursuit of engagement with the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which coexists alongside a policy of increasing sanctions, requires a delicate balancing act. The State Department has been very vocal in its call for the release of the American hikers that have been detained in Iran since July 2009, but more reticent in supporting indigenous groups facing persecution by Iran's government, such as the pro-democracy Green Movement.
But there are signs that may be changing and that the State Department is poised to become more vocal in its public criticisms of Iranian human rights offenses.
Members of the Baha'i faith, one long-persecuted group in Iran, were greatly reassured Thursday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement criticizing the Iranian government's persecution of the group. Seven Baha'i leaders were each sentenced to 20 years in prison this week.
"The United States strongly condemns this sentencing as a violation of Iran's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," Clinton said. "Freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places. The United States is committed to defending religious freedom around the world, and we have not forgotten the Baha'i community in Iran."
Persecution of the estimated 300,000 Baha'is in Iran has existed since the religion's inception in the 19th century, but increased dramatically following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the eradication of the Baha'i faith became official government policy. Since the revolution, over 200 Baha'is have been killed by the regime, while hundreds have been imprisoned and thousands have been denied access to basic human rights, including the right to education and to work.
Shastri Purushotma, Human Rights Representative for the U.S. Baha'i community, told The Cable that they greatly appreciated Clinton's statement, whichmarked the first time she had spoken out on behalf of the Baha'is.
"The Obama administration and the State Department have spoken up at every major stage of their trial," he said. "It would be wonderful if President Obama could speak out about this too, in the right opportunity and right setting."
Clinton's statement on the Baha'i prosecutions came just two days after she sharply criticized Iran for its treatment of several other citizens who had been denied due process or basic freedoms.
She mentioned the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery, the case of Ebrahim Hamidi, who is being executed for sodomy, and the cases of Jafar Kazemi, Mohammad Haj Aghaei, and Javad Lari, three protesters arrested after the flawed June 2009 elections.
"The United States is deeply concerned that Iran continues to deny its citizens their civil rights and intimidate and detain those Iranians who seek to hold their government accountable and stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens," Clinton said.
For the Bahai, public awareness of their plight is crucial.
"If someone is trying to commit a crime, if they can do it in the dark, they have a better chance of getting away with it," said Purushotma. "All of these things are intertwined, you can't separate out human rights and the nuclear issue, because the way a country treats his own people is an indication of how they will treat their neighbors."
Jared Mondschein contributed to this article.
The nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey is being held up in the Senate and the GOP has no intention of allowing a vote on the nomination any time soon.
A spokesperson for Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, confirmed to The Cable that his office has placed a hold on the nomination, which was reported out favorably by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. Brownback is preparing a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining the reasons for his objections.
Brownback's office declined to specify the contents of the letter, but multiple GOP senate aides from other offices said that there was widespread support throughout the caucus for Brownback's position and that there was nothing specific the administration could do to convince Ricciardone's detractors to allow his nomination to proceed. If Brownback did release his hold, it's likely another one would surface soon after.
"He's just the wrong guy for this sensitive post at this time and the hope is that the administration will recognize that he won't be confirmed this year and nominate someone better," said one senior GOP aide close to the issue.
Of course, the president could appoint Ricciardone this month during the congressional recess and avoid a Senate confirmation vote, but then Ricciardone would be ambassador only until the new Congress is seated in January, at which point a potentially larger GOP Senate caucus would likely raise the same objections.
The controversy over the nomination is mired in the history of U.S. relations with several of the countries in which Ricciardone has served, including Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his supporters, Ricciardone is a distinguished 34-year veteran of the Foreign Service who has taken on tough assignments in dangerous places on behalf of both Democratic and Republican administrations. To his critics, Ricciardone's record shows a pattern of being too close to the governments he is interacting with and too tepid on the mission to push values such as democracy and human rights with tyrannical regimes.
The tenuous nature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship right now due to Turkey's vote against new sanctions for Iran at the U.N. and Turkey's bold anti-Israel stance in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident have put a spotlight on the nomination.
The administration might be wary of spending its limited political capital to push through the Ricciardone nomination to a floor debate in the Senate because it could open up a broader public discussion of Turkey policy the White House might not think is useful given the delicate diplomatic environment.
There are signs that the administration is working hard now behind the scenes to reevaluate its approach to Turkey. For example, the State Department is hosting a high-level meeting today on Turkey policy, led by Clinton and Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter and with the participation of Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon.
"The ultimate aim of [the meeting] is to assess in a free, think-tanky sort of way, are we moving in the right direction, are there other areas we can address?" a State Department official said, explaining that this one of multiple meeting being held to come up with "out-of-the-box thinking to try to assess where we need to go."
One GOP Senate aide lamented that the administration seemed tone deaf to Republican objections to Ricciardone.
"They're trying to get together to figure out their Turkey policy and this nomination shows they don't have one."
The Obama administration has made it clear to the Lebanese government that it should do everything in its power to avoid another border skirmish with Israel and be careful about cozying up to Iran if they value their defense relationship with the United States.
Iran has offered to become the primary supporter of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) after two leading U.S. lawmakers put a hold on U.S. military assistance to the LAF last week. The holds were placed around the same time as a border skirmish between Israel and Lebanon that resulted in four deaths. The attack on Israeli soldiers who were pruning a tree began with shots fired from the Lebanese side, possibly with an American made sniper rifle.The lawmakers, House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, and House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY, are working with the administration now and the expectation is that the holds will be soon lifted.
But in the meantime, the administration delivered a message to the Lebanese government via Frederic Hof, senior advisor to Special Envoy George Mitchell, who was in Beirut on a previously scheduled visit. Hof arrived there last week and left August 9. He met with senior civilian and military leaders to discuss the border incident and to update them on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a senior U.S. official told The Cable.
"He noted that the incident could and should have been avoided and placed stress on the important U.S.-Lebanon bilateral defense relationship," the official said.
Hof also warned that some in Congress were trying to curtail or even eliminate U.S. military assistance to the LAF and the administration's efforts to keep the assistance going were dependent on there being no further incidents.
"Hof told his interlocutors that if something like this were to happen again, he's not sure we could prevent [the elimination of the aid] from happening," the official said.
Perhaps most importantly, Hof communicated to senior Lebanese officials that their actions going forward, such as taking assistance from Iran, for example, would have consequences for U.S.-Lebanon military cooperation.
"He reaffirmed that the Administration considers the relationship very important and the role of the LAF as a national institution defending the country's sovereignty to be vital. But he also explained that our ability to justify and strengthen this important defense relationship will be affected by what Lebanon does in the wake of this incident," the official said.
Reports from the region said that Hof met with Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Qahwaji, who also met with Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Abadi on Monday.
It's not clear that the Lebanese government or the LAF got the message. Lebanese Defense Minister Elias al-Murr shot back at Congress defiantly on August 11.
"That person who said in Congress, 'I will stop aid to the army,' he is free to do so.... Anyone who wants to help the army without restrictions or conditions, is welcome," Murr said. "This person wants to make military aid conditional on not protecting [Lebanon's] land, people, and borders against Israeli aggression. Let them keep their money or give it to Israel. We will confront [Israel] with the capabilities we own."
Murr also reportedly said the army fired at Israel based on "an order from the army chief."
Back in Washington, the State Department is working with Berman and Lowey to reassure them that U.S. military aid is not going to Hizbollah and is not being used against U.S. allies. A State Department official said on background that he expects the holds to be lifted soon.
"We are committed to our relationship with Lebanon," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. "It serves our interests; it serves Lebanon's interests; it serves the region's interests. We continue to believe that investing in Lebanon's government and investing in Lebanon's military serves as a stabilizing influence and expands and strengthens Lebanon's sovereignty."
The actual money, $100 million worth of Humvees, small arms, and maintenance support, was already appropriated by Congress as part of the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill. But as of July 29, the money was still unspent. That's the day State sent over what's known as a "spend plan" for the money, which is what triggered the holds from Berman and Lowey.
Berman actually placed his hold before the border clash. Lowey placed her hold in reaction to the incident.
"Before disbursing this assistance, we must understand the exact circumstances of the incident and how our assistance can most effectively enhance our security and that of our allies," Lowey told The Cable Wednesday. "I am working closely with the Administration to answer these questions."
Two more lawmakers have also waded into the debate. House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-MO, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ask for briefings on U.S. military assistance to the LAF.
"I have supported both this and the last Administration's efforts to build the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to conduct counterterrorism operations. However, this recent exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese armed forces along that border has me concerned that our policy with Lebanon may be counter-productive," Skelton wrote.
And House Minority Leader Eric Cantor,
R-VA, called for fiscal 2011 funding to be
blocked until the questions regarding the incident and the LAF's relationship
to Hizbollah are resolved.
"The LAF's unprovoked attack on the Israeli defense forces in undisputed Israeli territory demands a sweeping reassessment of how we distribute our foreign aid," Cantor said in a statement.
Cantor apparently didn't realize that fiscal 2011 funding has not been considered by Congress and won't come up for several months.
It's extremely unusual for the State Department to change a travel warning to American citizens based on a complaint from the destination country, but that's exactly what happened this week after the Israeli government protested, State Department officials admitted Wednesday.
On August 5, State issued a travel warning to all American citizens in a response to rocket attacks that hit both Israel and Jordan. The warning included the line, "rockets have been fired recently into the Eilat and Aqaba areas. U.S. citizens in Eilat and southern Israel are advised to ascertain the location of the nearest bomb shelter." No similar warning was issued for Jordan.
The Israeli tourism ministry protested privately and publicly, saying, "This advisory gives a prize to terror and undermines regional stability and the sense of security that Israel gives to everyone who enters the country.... Differentiating Israel from its neighbor that actually suffered loss of life is improper and lacks balance."
On August 10, State issued the new travel warning, which replaces the August 5 notice and doesn't mention Eilat at all, only saying, "U.S. citizens in the area should be aware of the risks and should follow the advice of the Government of Israel's office of Homefront Command."
After spokesman P.J. Crowley defended the change Tuesday, one sarcastic State Department reporter asked Crowley on Wednesday, "Can any country complain about the travel advice that you give and have it changed? Or is that just a privilege that's accorded to Israel?"
Crowley responded that the change was made in part because there was a disparity between the Israeli travel warning and the lack of a similar warning for Jordan. He also argued that disseminating the information through what's called a "warden message," which only goes out to U.S. government personnel, was sufficient.
"We decided, upon further review ... that the warden message was the appropriate way, because we were talking about one specific incident, to communicate this threat information. And that's why we withdrew the language from the Israeli travel warning," he said.
The State Department press corps was not satisfied. They pressed Crowley on whether their assessment had changed, and if not, why they chose not to inform American citizens of the ongoing risk? Here's the exchange:
Q: But I was under the impression that the -- that the responsibility of the State Department was for the safety and security of American people and to let them know when there are -- when there are threats.
MR. CROWLEY: True. All true.
Q: And now you -- now you've -- now you've removed the -- the word "Eilat" does not even appear in the new travel warning.
MR. CROWLEY: That's true.
Q: And it's still dangerous for Americans to go there, you believe.
MR. CROWLEY: That's true.
Q: So why would you take it out?
MR. CROWLEY: We took it out because we felt that a warden message was the more appropriate way to communicate a particular risk factor for Eilat.
"I'm not denying it's unusual to change a travel warning two times in two weeks," said a State Department official, speaking on background. The official said State took the blame for the error.
"We listened to what Israel had to tell us but it was a process failure here at the Department," the official said.
The rocket attacks were an isolated incident, not a trend, so the State Department now believes a travel to Eilat is OK, Crowley said. "I think Americans should feel free to travel to Israel and should take appropriate precautions knowing that there are still risks involved in visiting that country."
The Middle East Quartet is preparing to announce movement toward direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders as early as next week, as U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell scrambles to get buy-in from both sides.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has all but signed on to the move to direct talks, which would begin in early September, a U.S. official tells The Cable. The Quartet's announcement will come in the form of an invitation to both parties to join direct talks. The invitation will mention that all final-status issues will be on the table but is not expected to include Abbas's demands for progress on these issues before direct talks begin.
The official said that following Mitchell's Tuesday meeting in Ramallah with Abbas, the administration believes the Palestinian leader will agree to direct talks even though he will not get his chief demand, that Israel agree to a continued settlement freeze as a condition of moving forward.
"His hand has been forced," by the American side, the official said, adding that the location of direct talks had not been decided but would probably be in a third country, such as Egypt. The United States will remain a player in the direct talks, which will also have senior Arab representation from a country yet to be determined.
"Things are looking up. It was a good meeting," the official said, referring to Mitchell's talks with Abbas.
Mitchell will now meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before returning to Washington. Netanyahu has often said he wants to proceed to direct talks immediately, so expectations are high that he will agree to the terms laid out in the forthcoming Quartet statement.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley warned reporters Tuesday that the deal to move to direct talks is not yet signed and sealed.
"I think we're getting closer. But since George Mitchell is a baseball fan, as he would say, we have not yet reached home plate," he said. "We are pushing the parties to agree to direct negotiations. And we think after today's meeting, we are closer to reaching that point than we were yesterday."
In recent days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been working the phones on the issue, speaking with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Quartet special representative Tony Blair, and the issue came up in her conversation Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The U.S. official said that the Quartet statement is likely to be largely consistent with previous statements on the issue, meaning that it won't break new ground on contentious points.
That spells trouble for the talks and also for Abbas, who is struggling to maintain power and legitimacy among his own constituency, said Daniel Levy, senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
"The Quartet statement only becomes meaningful if the language in the invitation moves the ball forward and that is not expected to be the case," he said. "Abbas has not had political trust or legitimacy for a very long time now. For those who have been trying to build him up as a negotiator with power, this only further emaciates him."
Moreover, the fact that the Quartet is declining to go further in addressing issues such as borders, security, Jerusalem, and settlements means that the direct talks are likely to be just as unproductive as the proximity talks have been, according to Levy.
"The goal is a two-state solution. No one in the region sees or believes the direct talks in this format will be effective in moving this forward."
The recent outbreak of violence on the Israel-Lebanon border is renewing concerns in Washington about the wisdom of supplying arms to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
U.S. military assistance to Lebanon is based on the rationale that supporting the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri strengthens Lebanese sovereignty and the government's authority relative to the influence wielded by Syria and the militant group Hezbollah.
Thus far, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Internal Security Forces have proven good stewards of the items the Pentagon has given them, including more than 1,000 small-arms items like sniper rifles and even some Harley Davidson motorcycles, reducing fears that the weapons will fall into Hezbollah's hands.
But this week's deadly shooting exchange between LAF and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers over the removal of a tree near the security fence dividing the two countries is raising old questions about the dependability of the LAF, and whether U.S. arms are being used to attack Israel, America's closest ally in the region.
Neither the U.S. nor Israeli governments know for sure whether the sniper rifle that an LAF soldier fired to start the incident was from the batches of M16 sniper rifles that came from the United States. But some in Congress are determined to find out.
"I am calling for an inquiry into the incident on the Lebanese border, focusing on whether equipment that the United States provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces was used against our ally, Israel," Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL, told The Cable. "If it's factually shown that this was a Lebanese government authorized action, I would be very concerned about continuing to provide military support to Lebanon, and I think other members of Congress would agree."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also said to be skeptical of continued U.S. military support to the LAF, though he has never said so publicly.
Regardless of the origin of the rifle, Klein and others want to know whether the incident was planned by the LAF or the Lebanese government. "We owe it to the American taxpayer to learn whether this attack on Israel was coordinated and premeditated," he said.
An Israeli official, speaking on background, told The Cable that several persuasive pieces of evidence have led Israel to conclude that the attack was planned in advance.
For example, UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force tasked with ensuring calm along the border, requested a three-hour delay before Israel removed the disputed tree so that the Lebanese could be alerted. The IDF acceded to this request, but by the time the tree removal began, there were two Lebanese reporters on the scene. One of them was killed and the other was injured in the resulting melee.
"We believe that in those three hours, they decided this would be a good chance to set up some sort of incident," the official said.
The State Department backed up the U.N.'s account of the incident, which is that the LAF fired first and without direct provocation. "The firing by Lebanese Armed Forces was wholly unjustified and unwarranted," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
The Israeli official said the first shot was from a sniper rifle and was not aimed at the soldier cutting down the tree (which was apparently on the Lebanese side of the fence but the Israeli side of the border), but rather the unit commander, who was in his truck some 200 feet away.
That commander, Lt. Col. Dov Harari, was killed, and the officer next to him was seriously injured. The targeting of the commander, a 45-year-old reserve officer overseeing a maintenance unit, could not have been an accident or self-defense, the official said. "All of this proves to us that this was a pre-planned ambush and not some sort of mishap."
The official also said that the IDF has concluded that the LAF fired directly at UNIFIL personnel, although no one from UNIFIL was injured. U.S. administration sources said that they had seen no evidence that UNIFIL personnel were targeted and that UNIFIL hasn't raised the issue with the U.S. government.
An LAF spokesman has said that the Lebanese fired into the air and then were attacked by Israel with artillery shells.
UNIFIL did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: A Lebanese official, speaking on background, strongly disputed Israeli accounts of the clashes. "It was a not a pre-planned ambush," said the official. "The last thing that the Lebanese wanted is a confrontation and an armed conflict now. So why would they plan to have one with the Israelis and shoot at them?"
The Lebanese contend that, after Israel informed UNIFIL of its plans to cut down the disputed tree, the Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers on the ground asked for a 24-hour delay, which was refused. The soldiers had requested time to raise the issue within their chain of command. If the Israelis had acceded to the request, the Lebanese believe, the situation could have been resolved peacefully.
The Lebanese official also said that the soldiers did not initially shoot directly at the Israeli officers, as Israeli officials have claimed, but first yelled at them to stop their work. When the Israelis did not respond, the soldiers contacted their military superiors in Beirut and received approval to fire warning shots. "They got the orders for shooting warning shots from their superiors, but not for shooting at the Israelis," said the official. "The aim was to avoid a confrontation."
The Lebanese government contends that the problems along the Israeli-Lebanese border originate from ambiguity regarding the location of the border dividing the two countries. While the IDF soldiers were behind the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated line that was published in 2000, it is not the international border, which is the 1949 armistice line. "The Blue Line is the withdrawal line; it's not the international line," said the official. "And the Lebanese have reservations over some spots, including the place where this incident happened."
To prevent these incidents from occurring in the future, the Lebanese government is calling for closer coordination between UNIFIL, Israel, and Lebanon in the area. It will also request that the international community work to develop an internationally recognized border separating the two countries that would resolve Israel and Lebanon's remaining territorial disputes.
Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew's departure from Foggy Bottom was initially seen as a loss for the State Department, but in his next role as White House budget director, he could be in an even better position to help State get the increased funding he believes it needs.
Lew was nominated formally today to be President Obama's next director of the Office of Management and Budget, replacing Peter Orzsag, who has already departed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reluctant to let Lew go, given his crucial role in managing State's resources. But if he gets confirmed, the department could benefit by getting a budget request next year that reflects its need for billions more to operate in new and dangerous areas, funding that Lew himself said today he thinks is necessary, especially as State takes over operations in Iraq from the military.
"We've been very clear... that the request we made for this year [for Iraq] represents just a part of the year's programming, so there will be substantial increases in the operating program costs going forward," Lew told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Thursday.
"Frankly, we can't send a civilian into Mosul without recognizing the security requirements that are there... On some level, it's a question of ‘Do you undertake the mission or don't you undertake the mission?,' and I think we've gotten approval to undertake quite a large mission."
The State Department budget is notoriously difficult to defend on Capitol Hill. Most lawmakers put their domestic priorities first anyway, and in this atmosphere of severe fiscal strain and a bipartisan push to cut deficits, foreign ops and foreign aid are under the microscope like never before. Already, the Senate Budget Committee has tried to take $4 billion away from State's fiscal 2011 request. The Senate Appropriations Committee recently set allocations that included giving foreign ops $2.4 billion less than what the White House wanted.
But even that White House request doesn't fully reflect the department's needs for the coming year, Lew said.
"The challenge is not just to see an increase of civilian spending, but to see that in the context of military spending," Lew said. "Military spending for this year in Iraq will be going down $15 billion. We need to look at the whole of what the U.S. government effort in Iraq is costing."
Lew was speaking in his capacity as State's budget guru, not as the next White House budget czar, so skeptics will say that Lew's commitment to expanding the department's resources might wane once he gets to the Old Executive Building.
But one area where Lew is signaling he will support Foggy Bottom is through supplemental "emergency" requests for funding for Iraq, which are easier to defend because they don't have to be paid for.
Lew said the approach that the administration used this year, folding some Iraq costs into the regular budget and using supplemental requests for others, is likely to continue next year as the military moves out and State takes on responsibility for its own logistics, communications, and security.
Even so, the State Department may have to scale back its original plans for several "embassy branches" around Iraq, due to the limitations of available resources. "We can't spread ourselves so thin that we don't have the capacity to do the job," Lew said.
Philo L. Dibble, a former longtime State Department official, will return to Foggy Bottom this fall to take over the Iran portfolio following the departure of John Limbert.
A State Department spokesman confirmed that Dibble is expected to start in September as the deputy assistant secretary of state (DAS) covering Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). According to his State Department bio, he was previously a DAS in NEA from 2003 to 2005, although he didn't deal with Iran specifically. In March 2005, he moved to the Bureau of International Organization Affairs to be the principal DAS until he left government for personal reasons.
A career Foreign Service officer, Dibble has also served as director of the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs, deputy director of the Office of Egyptian and North African Affairs, special assistant in the office of the under secretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, financial economist in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, and Lebanon desk officer.
Meanwhile, Limbert's last day, after nine months in the job, is tomorrow. He told Barbara Slavin for an article in Foreign Policy that he had promised to return to his teaching post at the U.S. Naval Academy for the fall semester. But he did suggest that he wasn't happy with the current state of U.S.-Iran diplomacy.
"Here's the problem," Limbert said. "For 30 years, careers were made both here and in Tehran by how nasty you could be to the other side and how creative you could be in being nasty to the other side. So if you're going to change that, what happens if it doesn't get some immediate result? It's very easy to slip back into what you always have been doing."
The State Department is pushing back against assertions that it signaled its agreement to the release of convicted PanAm Flight 103 bomber Abdelbasset al-Megrahi last year, only to strongly criticize that very release now.
In a rare publication of a diplomatic letter, State is hoping to combat the narrative of its involvement in the Megrahi affair as told in this July 25 article in the Times of London newspaper, headlined, "Revealed: Document exposes US double-talk on Lockerbie."
The Times story quotes from a letter from Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the U.S. Embassy in London, to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, expressing the U.S. position on the potential release of Megrahi on compassionate grounds due to his impending death from cancer.
According to the Times, the letter shows that the U.S. preferred to have Megrahi released rather than see him transferred to a prison in Libya. The U.S. government refused to permit the Scottish authorities to publish the letter, arguing it would prevent "frank and open communications" with other governments, according to the paper.
But that concern was outweighed by State's desire to set the record straight, as the department released the full text of the Aug. 21, 2009, letter today. State's aim is to show that the U.S. position was that Megrahi should stay in Scotland one way or the other, rather than return to Libya -- where he received a hero's welcome and remains to this day.
First, LeBaron did say that compassionate release was preferable to prisoner transfer:
"The United States is not prepared to support Megrahi's release on compassionate release or bail," Lebaron wrote. "Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the U.S. position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose."
But he also made clear that Megrahi had better be close to death:
"[A]ny such release should only come after the results of independent and comprehensive medical exams clearly establishing that Megrahi's life expectancy is less than three months. The results of these exams should be made available to the United States and the families of the victims of Pan Am 103. The justification of releasing Megrahi on compassionate grounds would be more severely undercut the longer he is free before his actual death," he said.
And the letter also states clearly that if released, the State Department wants Megrahi to stay in Scotland:
"[T]he United States would strongly oppose any release that would permit Megrahi to travel outside of Scotland. We believe that the welcoming reception that Megrahi might receive if he is permitted to travel abroad would be extremely inappropriate given Megrahi's conviction for a heinous crime that continues to have a deep and profound impact on so many. As such, compassionate release or bail should be conditioned on Megrahi remaining in Scotland," the letter states.
"To avoid the worst possible outcome -- a hero's welcome for Megrahi in Libya -- we indicated to Scottish authorities that, though we did not endorse Megrahi's early release under any scenario, compassionate release conditioned on Megrahi remaining under close supervision in Scotland would be less objectionable than any release permitting his travel outside of Scotland," the office of State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the Scottish government did not heed those views."
Meanwhile, it appears that British Prime Minister David Cameron will not compel former British officials to appear at this week's Senate hearing on the issue, despite pleas from four senators.
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.