Four different Senate Republicans have four different ideas on how to alter U.S. aid to Egypt, in a struggle that is also becoming about the future of Republican leadership on foreign policy.
The Senate is working now on the next Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government from April until October -- and aid to Egypt is the main foreign policy issue likely to be attached to the funding measure. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) all have introduced amendments to the CR dealing with Egypt aid, but they all have competing ideas on how to condition it in light of Egypt's changing security challenges and the fragile path to democracy under the government led by Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsy.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has also introduced an amendment on Egypt aid, making it five total amendments that are now the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"We have five different amendments that have been offered on Egypt," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Thursday, lamenting that the Senate was confronted with tackling the Egypt aid issue in a rush on a temporary funding bill. Reid doesn't really want to do Egypt policy on this bill at all.
"This is a CR for six months. We have a functioning Foreign Relations Committee. That's where this should take place," he said. "We all have concerns about Egypt. Our funding in Egypt, maintaining stability in the region, supporting Israel. We have, as I've indicated, five senators who have filed five separate, distinct amendments. And literally staffs with senators have worked all day coming up with an amendment that Democrats and Republicans could agree on. It hasn't been done. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but it hasn't been done. I would again remind senators that this is a Continuing Resolution. The long-term solution to the situation in the Middle East is not a short-term CR. Whatever we do on this bill would expire in six months anyway."
But despite Reid's reluctance, senators are likely to coalesce around one or two Egypt aid amendments that could get a vote on the Senate floor next week. The first senator to introduce an Egypt amendment was Rubio, who spoke about it in an interview this week with The Cable.
"This is not about cancelling foreign aid to Egypt per se. This is about restructuring it in a way that lines up with the interests of the taxpayers of the United States of America," Rubio said. "Their real security needs are largely internal and we want to recalibrate our military aid to Egypt to meet their actual needs. Egypt doesn't need tanks, it doesn't need jet fighters, it's not going to be invaded by neighbors in the near future."
For Rubio, the Egypt amendment is his opening salvo in what promises to be a year of increasing involvement in an array of foreign policy issues. He promised he would have similar amendments in the future on aid to other countries as well.
"Foreign aid is important because it increases our influence and in particular our ability to influence things around the world to advance our interests. But foreign aid is not charity.... That means that every single dime we give in foreign aid should be conditioned," he said.
Rubio is also concerned about the Morsy government's commitment to the Camp David accords, their unwillingness or inability to maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and their treatment of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.
"We've heard some of the comments of the president of Egypt and some of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's downright offensive, and that's their ideology and we've seen some of that come through in their public policy," he said.
Rubio's original amendment would have blocked disbursements of economic support funds (ESF) and new foreign military financing for Egypt until the administration could certify that the Morsy government was enacting economic and political reforms, not restricting religious and human rights, not undermining free and fair elections, improving its treatment of foreign NGOs, fully implementing the peace treaty with Israel, taking all available actions to end smuggling into Gaza and combat terrorism in the Sinai.
The Rubio amendment required the administration to certify that the government of Egypt had apportioned specific amounts of aid to counterterrorism and the Sinai but gave the administration the authority to waive the new aid restrictions every six months.
The McCain amendment takes a different, less confrontational approach. It only would impact foreign military financing, not economic support funds, and clearly states that any change in Egypt military aid should only affect new contracts, not existing contracts for items already in the manufacturing pipeline.
The McCain amendment requires the administration to report back to Congress about how the Egyptian military is spending the money and how it might be spent better in the security interests of both Egypt and the United States. But there's no cut off of aid and no waiver authority. Last year, Egyptians got angry when Congress imposed new restrictions on military aid to Cairo, only to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waive them anyway.
After McCain filed his amendment, Rubio made some changes to his amendment to bring it closer in line with McCain's. Rubio's new amendment now conditions ESF funds in a way that's closer to what's already in present law. Backroom negotiations between the two offices are ongoing.
The Leahy amendment is seen as the Democrats' attempt to take what they liked of the Republican amendments and try to reach a compromise text. It most closely follows McCain's approach by requiring the administration to report on the military aid spending but also requires the administration to report on political reform, human rights, and NGO treatment in Egypt.
Paul's amendment would cut off all assistance to Egypt until Morsy says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David accords. Inhofe's amendment would conditionally suspend the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Inhofe has also co-sponsored the Paul amendment.
"For months, I have been calling for President Obama and his administration to hold president Morsy accountable for failing to promote promised democracy in Egypt and for the instability in the region," Inhofe said on the Senate floor this week. "Under President Morsy and his radical Muslim Brotherhood, the United States' historically good relationship with Egypt is at a standstill."
The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply not a top priority for Israel at this time, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who just returned from a trip to the region.
Rubio traveled to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan last week and spoke about his trip Wednesday to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Israel has a number of issues that they are concerned about and at the top of the list is Iran," Rubio said, noting that he believes Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and that only the threat of losing power, not negotiations, will convince the Iranian government to change course.
"I hope there is a breakthrough in the negotiations ... I really hope that's what happens, but I don't believe that's what will happen," Rubio said.
"The second major concern is Syria with regards to weapons," he continued, noting that Syria is being flooded with weapons that will remain there after the regime falls, mostly in the hands of groups hostile to the United States. He said he supports giving elements of the Syrian opposition ammunition, but not weapons.
"You don't have to give them weapons; they've got plenty of weapons, frankly. What they need is ammunition. They run low on that very quickly," he said.
"The third concern that they have in Israel is Egypt," Rubio went on. He said the Israelis view the Muslim Brotherhood as a very patient group that, in the short term, is willing to be very pragmatic, but has a long-term strategy of fundamentally redefining every entity in Egypt and pushing the country in a more Islamic direction. The worsening security situation in Sinai is also a priority for Israel, and the U.S. government should press Egypt to do more, he said.
"The fourth issue that comes is the Palestinian question with regards to the West Bank," Rubio said. "The sense you get from the Israeli side of that is that is not the No. 1 issue on Israeli minds at this moment."
"It's not that the Palestinian issue isn't important to the Israelis; it's just that in the ranking now, it's lost its place because of all these other issues," Rubio said.
There's a fundamental difference of opinion between the Israeli government and the Obama administration on the priority of dealing with the Palestinian peace process, he said.
"I think the right approach of the U.S. is to view all of these issues through the lens of Israeli security. The more security Israel feels, the likelier it's going to be that these issues move forward to resolution," Rubio said.
Rubio said that Israeli officials were eagerly anticipating the visit next month by President Barack Obama and were curious about whether Obama was coming with a specific plan on the Palestinian peace process or whether he was just going to go to listen.
"I told them I probably wasn't the best source for the president's thinking but my sense of it was the president was probably coming more to listen than to dictate," he said.
On a conference call with American rabbis Thursday evening, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney altered his position on what "red lines" he would set for Iran before deciding military action was necessary.
"Your good friend Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu says that the international community needs to draw a red line for Iran. Do you agree that a red line needs to be drawn, and where would you draw it?," Rabbi Efrem Goldberg asked on the call, a recording of which was provided to The Cable.
"With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere," Romney said. "So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world."
"Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn't want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry," Romney said.
Romney's remark that the United States should take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons "capability" matches what many GOP leaders and pro-Israel groups have publicly stated, but it stands in contrast to the "red line" Romney set out in a Sept. 14 interview with ABC News.
"My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," Romney told network host George Stephanopoulos. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world. Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East. But it could be brought here."
Asked if his red line was the same as President Obama's, Romney told ABC, "Yes."
Rabbi Goldberg also asked Romney what exactly he would do differently than the current administration to prevent a nuclear Iran. Romney offered few specifics. He referenced his January 2007 speech at the Herzliya Conference, where he called for several specific measures.
"We recently have done one of them, which is getting crippling sanctions. It's taken a long time to finally come around to that, but that is one of the key elements to changing Iran's course," Romney said. "Sanctions are having an impact on their economy. Unfortunately, they took so long to be put in place that I think Iran is racing forward with their nuclear plans."
He said he would increase the credibility of the military option and U.S. support for dissidents in Iran.
He also called for the indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for "genocide."
"I think we should indict Ahmadinejad under the Genocide Convention for incitation of genocide," Romney said. "I think that he and the diplomats in Iran should be treated like the pariah[s] they are ... I believe they should be treated the same way we treated South Africa during apartheid."
In the call, Romney did not address the controversy over his remarks at a May fundraiser where he all but counted out the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a hidden camera video posted by Mother Jones magazine, Romney told a group of donors in May that Palestinians "have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace," and that a two-state solution is "almost unthinkable to accomplish."
"We have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it," Romney said.
"But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work," Romney said to the donors. "So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we're trying to force peace on them. Then it's worth having the discussion. So until then, it's just wistful thinking."
Addressing the tension between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, Romney said Thursday, "Our relationship with Israel should be one which the world sees as being extraordinarily close ... and if per chance there are disagreements, we keep those disagreements to ourselves and in private, as opposed to airing them out in public."
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CHARLOTTE - Following a tumultuous and embarrassing episode Wednesday in which the Democratic National Committee suddenly altered its platform to embrace Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, top Democrats are pointing fingers in every direction.
After defending their decision to keep language on final status issues out of the platform all morning Wednesday, convention leaders reversed themselves Wednesday afternoon and proposed two amendments to the platform adopted on Tuesday, one to add a mention of God and one to add a mention of Jerusalem. That decision followed a full day of pressure brought on the DNC and the administration by lawmakers, AIPAC, and other Jewish elected officials in Charlotte.
"Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths," the new platform language states.
An Obama campaign official told The Cable late Wednesday that the change in platform was made to reflect the personal views of the president, who believes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and who "personally intervened" to ask for the platform change. The official explanation is that the omission of the Jerusalem line was an oversight by platform drafting staff, even though people involved in the drafting said Wednesday that the omission was intentional, as a means of avoiding discussing final-status issues altogether.
"There's a difference between running for president and governing," an official involved in the process told The Cable Wednesday. "And when you govern on this issue, the official position of the United States has been for years and from administrations of both parties that the status of Jerusalem is a final-status issue."
By Thursday morning, top campaign officials took to the airwaves to point fingers at the platform drafters in an attempt to deflect responsibility from the DNC and the Obama campaign leadership.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the omission was a "technical error" during the drafting process. David Axelrod blamed the controversy of the Israel platform on unspecified "others" on whom the president was depending to draft the platform and said that Obama had asked for the platform change when he became aware of the issue.
The campaign did not respond to a request for comment on who the "others" were, but it's been well reported that the two officials given the responsibility for overseeing the drafting of the Israel platform plank in July and August were Obama campaign national security advisor co-chair and former Pentagon official Colin Kahl and former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler.
The Cable asked Kahl Thursday whether the campaign was unfairly pointing fingers at him and Wexler in an attempt to deflect blame on the issue. He didn't directly address the question, but said the drafters never meant to say that Jerusalem was not the capital of Israel.
"I don't think there was any intention by the drafters to signal any change in U.S. policy. Clearly, it was misinterpreted that way. So the president intervened to correct the record and they changed the platform," he said. "We are where we are. We should move on. The platform is changed."
Kahl also defended the overall platform plank on Israel, which he said focused on the security and financial assistance the Obama administration has given to Israel and avoided getting into any final-status issues.
"Nobody can read the Democratic platform on Israel and come away with the sense that it's not pro-Israel. It's extraordinarily pro-Israel. More importantly, the administration has been supportive of Israel in an unprecedented manner," he said.
Wexler staunchly defended the original platform language in an interview with The Cable Wednesday and staunchly defended the new platform language in an interview today. He said that the party's position on Jerusalem never wavered.
"The position of the Democratic Party has always been that Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel. I have a 13-year voting record in Congress that is consistent with that," he said. "It's the same platform; now it's got two more sentences. The original language was all pro-Israel language. Now it has the language on Jerusalem, too. I'm glad they did that. The policy hadn't changed. There was confusion, and the president wanted to clear it up. It was as simple as that."
Some people involved in the discussions over the issue here
in Charlotte were upset by what they saw as Kahl and Wexler's poor handling of
the issue, both before the convention and after the platform became a
controversy in Charlotte.
"Colin Kahl and Bob Wexler bear personal responsibility for the platform debacle and the embarrassment caused to the president and the party," said one source involved in the back and forth over the platform change. "They led a secretive, exclusionary process, rather than an inclusive one, recklessly threw out the longstanding platform language, and then attempted to cover their tracks by misleading stakeholders about what they had done and with whom they had consulted."
One Democratic official directly involved in the platform-drafting process rejected that criticism and argued that AIPAC and other critics could have weighed in on the Israel plank of the platform at the time.
"To say that any one or two people were responsible for the language on Israel in the Democratic Party platform is flat wrong," the official said. "This platform was adopted by a committee of over 100 representatives, and numerous advocacy groups had the opportunity to formally participate in the process. It's wrong to point fingers at one or two people, both of whom have been steadfast supporters of Israel and have worked to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship while inside government and out."
At a series of events in Charlotte Wednesday, lawmakers and Jewish elected officials from around the country pressured the administration to do something to sort out the flap. Buzzfeed reported that a full third of the Senate Democratic caucus pressed top officials including White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy on the issue at a Wednesday lunch hosted by AIPAC.
One Democratic senator told The Cable that he had only become aware of the flap on Wednesday and immediately raised objections to the platform omissions with the administration. Multiple sources told The Cable that several lawmakers pressed the White House directly Wednesday, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Steve Israel (D-NY), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
AIPAC also decided Wednesday to go public about its objections to the platform after Democratic officials said on background that AIPAC had signed off on the original platform, a claim AIPAC strongly denied.
Delegates inside the convention hall Wednesday evening told The Cable they were happy with the platform change, if for no other reason that it would end the controversy over what they believed was a non-issue.
"If those simple changes are going to make people feel more comfortable with our platform and allow us to be more inclusive, than that's what we need to do," said Emily Mixter, a Michigan delegate.
Jeremy Moss, an alternate delegate from Michigan, said the change was needed to assure delegates the policy hadn't changed.
"I'm a Jewish elected official, and this was an important part of the platform that was included in years past," he said. "They excluded language that was in the platform in years prior, which is something that I didn't understand."
Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, told The Cable that there's no contradiction between a party platform that states Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and an administration policy that refused to recognize it.
"The administration's policy is what has been a bipartisan policy, which is that this is an issue to be decided between the parties. So are we going to dictate this? Of course not. But do we prefer Jerusalem as the capital? Of course we do," he said.
Smith also commented on the perception that the crowd inside the hall did not actually vote in favor of the new platform plank but the convention heads ignored the crowd and declared that two-thirds of delegates had voted for it.
"I've taken some voice votes and I've received some voice votes, and I can tell you it's in the ear of the beholder," he said. "I've been at a lot of conventions. Something will always spring up. It never fails. Something on the floor surprises you. That will never stop."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
CHARLOTTE - Following what Obama campaign officials said was the personal intervention of President Barack Obama, the Democratic National Committee reversed itself and altered their platform Wednesday afternoon to include language identifying Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
After defending their decision to keep such language out of the platform as recently as this afternoon, convention leaders today proposed two amendments to the platform adopted on Tuesday, one to add a mention of God and one to add a mention of Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths," the new platform language stated.
An Obama campaign official told The Cable late Wednesday that the change in platform was made to reflect the personal views of Obama, who believes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and who "personally intervened" to ask for the platform change.
"Mitt Romney spent last week claiming the Republican platform didn't reflect his personal views. That's why the platform was amended, to make clear what the president's personal views are on Jerusalem," the official said.
The official acknowledged that the administration's policy remains not to weigh in on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be decided by the parties. But the official said that Obama's views and the administration policy are two separate things.
“This makes crystal clear what the President’s personal view is. The policy has not changed. The president has a personal view and the administration has a policy. They’re not incompatible but there are reasons that the administration’s policy is that the Jerusalem is a final status issue," the official said. “We wanted to make the President’s views clear.”
The Romney campaign was quick to call on Obama to publicly
state that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as his party's platform language
"Mitt Romney has consistently stated his belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Although today's voice vote at the Democratic National Convention was unclear, the Democratic Party has acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Obama has repeatedly refused to say the same himself. Now is the time for President Obama to state in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel's capital," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
The amendments required two thirds of delegates' support for adoption and the voice votes inside the arena were so inconclusive, the chair had to call for votes three times. After declaring that two thirds of the delegates had approved the amendments, the hall erupted in boos and howls.
Earlier Wednesday, drafters of the platform and top Democrats including former Rep. Robert Wexler defended the absence in the platform of language affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
"There's a difference between running for president and governing," a Democratic official involved in the drafting process told The Cable earlier today. "And when you govern on this issue, the official position of the United States has been for years and from administrations of both parties that the status of Jerusalem is a final-status issue."
But Democrats were heavily criticized by Romney, Paul Ryan, and many others for not including the Jerusalem language in the platform. AIPAC also told The Cable Wednesday that they had asked for the Jerusalem language in their submission to the DNC but had not seen the final text before the platform went to print.
AIPAC had other gripes about the platform, such as that it didn't contain previous references to Hamas, Palestinian refugees, and language saying that Israel is America's closest ally in the region, but they decided late Wednesday to get behind the new platform language and move on.
"We welcome reinstatement to the Democratic platform of the language affirming Jerusalem as Israel's capital," AIPAC said in a statement provided to The Cable. "Together, these party platforms reflect strong bipartisan support for the US - Israel relationship."
CHARLOTTE - Changes between the 2008 Democratic Party platform's language on Israel and the 2012 version were due to a deliberate effort to refocus the platform toward President Barack Obama's policies, two officials directly involved in its drafting process told The Cable.
Leading pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC were heavily involved in the platform-drafting process, saw final language of the draft platform, and told platform drafters they were satisfied with it, both officials said.
Certain parts of the pro-Israel community are up in arms this week over the fact that the latest version of the platform doesn't include certain passages from the previous version, such as language affirming that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, specific mentions of the terrorist group Hamas, and language spelling out the party's position that Palestinian refugees would be settled outside of Israel as part of any comprehensive arrangement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For its part, AIPAC denies signing off on the final language.
"Any assertion that AIPAC had prior knowledge of the deletion of language including on Jerusalem, Israel as the most reliable ally, Hamas, or the refugees is categorically false," AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton told The Cable. "AIPAC was never provided with a final copy of the Middle East part of the platform."
"Jerusalem as the capital was part of AIPACs written submission to the platform but we did not see, review, or sign off on the final text,” Dorton said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney weighed in personally Tuesday, saying in a statement, "It is unfortunate that the entire Democratic Party has embraced President Obama's shameful refusal to acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel's capital ... As president, I will restore our relationship with Israel and stand shoulder to shoulder with our close ally."
A Democratic official directly involved in the drafting process told The Cable that the drafters made a deliberate and conscious decision to reframe the Israel section of the platform around Obama's record, to limit the section to cover his existing policies, and to intentionally avoid any and all final-status issues.
"There's a difference between running for president and governing," the official said. "And when you govern on this issue, the official position of the United States has been for years and from administrations of both parties that the status of Jerusalem is a final-status issue."
The official listed a number of final-status issues, including borders and settlements, that the Obama administration has determined should be subject to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, so the platform drafters decided that the party should stay out of them as well.
"There is a difference when you're writing a platform for an incumbent president. We made a decision to make the platform very much a focus on what the president has been doing. It's not a purely aspirational document," the official said. "On Israel the decision was decided to focus the extraordinary support the president has given to Israel. The decision was to frame the platform plank around that."
Two GOP platforms during George W. Bush's leadership of the Republican Party called out Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and vowed to move the U.S. Embassy there, but Bush never actually carried out his promise, the official pointed out. He also pointed to the 2012 GOP platform, which no longer identified Israel as the "undivided" capital of the Jewish state.
"Is it the Republican position that Jerusalem should be divided?" the official asked. "We are the party in power, so the official administration positions on these final-status issues can't be irrelevant."
Here in Charlotte, a huge debate has erupted over whether or not the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had seen the final draft of the 2012 DNC platform and been satisfied with it during a July drafting session in Minneapolis and another final drafting session in early August in Detroit. Some anonymous sources are telling reporters that AIPAC "loved" the platform while other anonymous voices saying that AIPAC "was not in the room" when the platform was being worked on.
The Democratic official involved in the drafting said that AIPAC had been consulted very closely, was fully aware of the final draft, and suggested some changes that were in fact incorporated, but never objected to the platform's failure to mention Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
"AIPAC was in the room in Minneapolis and Detroit and I know for a fact that AIPAC was shown the final copies of the draft language," the official said. "They were there for the entire time. They were shown the final draft by a number of platform committee members, and they offered suggestions. They just didn't mention Jerusalem."
What's more, at the second drafting session in Detroit, AIPAC's proxies had every opportunity to offer amendments if there was anything about the Israel plank of the platform they didn't like.
"In Detroit, the draft platform is made public to everyone was there," the official said. "If this was an issue they felt passionate about, they could have offered an amendment and there were no amendments offered by Jewish constituency groups. None."
The Israel platform language was drawn largely from speeches Obama has already made, the official said. The language was shared with certain members of the White House who are authorized to interact with the campaign, but there was no formal vetting of the platform by the administration.
Former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, was a member of the platform drafting committee and took part in the formation of the Israel section of the platform in Minneapolis in late July. Wexler independently confirmed to The Cable that AIPAC was present at all public parts of the drafting process and had regular interactions with drafting committee members, suggested some changes to the platform that were adopted, but never brought up the Jerusalem issue with him or others as far as he knows.
"The platform was not a checklist of final-status issues," Wexler said. "[AIPAC] told me they thought the language was pro-Israel and satisfactory. They had many opportunities to raise significant concerns and that definitely didn't happen."
"The firestorm that has been raised relates to final-status issues and Jerusalem. The Obama administration policy on Jerusalem is identical to that of Bush, Clinton, and every president since Lyndon Johnson. It's a false story," said Wexler. "The Likud position is American should not dictate final-status issues to the Israelis or to anyone, and that's what the platform does: It encourages the parties to negotiate without outlining their position."
Wexler also pushed back on the criticism that Hamas is not specifically called out in the platform, saying that the platform covers all Palestinian terror groups.
"That's a bunch of junk," Wexler said about the criticism. "The platform doesn't say ‘Hamas,' but it says that any potential Palestinian partner has to meet the conditions necessary for peace. That's even stronger and of course it applies to Hamas."
He said the outcry is overblown and that the media storm over the platform is simply a reflection of Republican attempts to politicize the Israel issue ahead of the election.
"The Democratic platform's language relative to Israel is undeniably, 100 percent pro-Israel," he said. "To make Israel a wedge issue is harmful to both the U.S. and Israel. And the centerpiece of America's decades-long relationship with Israel is that it's a bipartisan issue. If you deeply care about the well-being of Israel as an American, then you will realize that this kind of rhetoric is not good for either Israel or the United States."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Mitt Romney's foreign trip showed that he can't handle sensitive diplomatic situations, can't even handle relationships with friendly countries, and therefore is failing the commander-in-chief test, according to Obama campaign representatives Robert Gibbs and Colin Kahl.
"He offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region in the world. He certainly didn't prove to anyone that he passed the commander in chief test," said Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Gibbs said the Romney campaign set extremely low expectations for the trip -- and then didn't even meet those expectations. The former Massachusetts governor did not visit any warzones or meet with any U.S. troops, Gibbs observed, as then Senator Barack Obama did when campaigning in 2008.
"Many were surprised that Mitt Romney did not take the opportunity to meet with any members of our armed forces on this trip," said Gibbs.
Gibbs also noted that Romney only took three questions from the reporters traveling with him, sparking frustration between the Romney campaign and the press corps that boiled over with profane comments from one of Romney's aides to reporters in Poland. Obama took 25 questions on his campaign trip abroad, Gibbs said.
"He repeatedly took a pass on explaining his views on foreign policy to the American people," Gibbs said. "Romney's auditioning to be the leader of the free world and it's clear he is unable to represent America on the world stage."
Kahl, who served in the Obama administration for three years as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said that Romney's suggestion that London was not ready to host the Olympics was an unforced error.
"The trip was supposed to be an easy one for Governor Romney, but he couldn't even handle the low bar that his campaign set for him," said Kahl. "If Romney can't handle the special relationship with Great Britain on the eve of the Olympic Games, how can he handle our enemies?"
Kahl said that Romney's trip was devoid of specific policy proposals and that Romney has repeatedly criticized Obama's foreign policy without spelling out exactly what he would do differently.
"The world got to see what it would be like if Mitt Romney was in charge of American foreign policy and it's not a sight they will forget any time soon," said Kahl. "This trip casts serious doubt as to whether Governor Romney has the ability to handle the job."
Gibbs and Kahl also criticized Romney for intimating that culture had something to do with the disparity of wealth between in Israel and the Palestinian territories, comments described as racist by several Palestinian leaders.
"You have to choose your words very, very carefully and Governor Romney just didn't do that," said Kahl. "
"It's up to Governor Romney to explain why those comments would be helpful to resolving the conflict in the Middle East."
Kahl also defended the Obama administration's reluctance to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there, as Romney promised to do when he was in the Jewish state.
Kahl said that the current policy that the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be negotiated between the two parties represents bipartisan consensus going back decades.
"[Romney] disagreed with past democratic administrations like Bill Clinton's and past Republican administrations like Ronald Reagan's," Kahl said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Romney surrogate and rumored candidate to be Romney's running mate, defended the former governor's comments on culture and wealth in a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable.
"I think that certainly you look at the success of some countries and you wonder why are some nations that are right next door to other nations and more successful. I think America has benefited from being a melting pot of cultures," Rubio said. "There's no way you look at Israel and not marvel at what they have accomplished -- their commitment to democracy, their commitment to free enterprise, their commitment to upward mobility -- and I think you find a lot of that in their culture, absolutely."
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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A top advisor to Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday accused U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of leaking classified intelligence information to New York Times reporter David Sanger.
The advisor, former George W. Bush envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, was speaking during a debate at Washington's Brookings Institution with former senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, who has emerged as one of President Barack Obama's top foreign-policy surrogates on the campaign trail.
Williamson was hammering the Obama administration for leaking national security secrets for political gain, a theme of Romney's speech Tuesday before the Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada.
"I believe every reporter in this town knows that at least one of the sources is in the White House," Williamson said. "I think the Obama administration has figured out how to do [intelligence sharing]: Have the national security advisor talk to David Sanger and then all intelligence is shared."
"No one is immune. Nothing is off the table," Flournoy responded. "[Obama] has also said he will pursue the investigations to their logical conclusions and he will prosecute anyone who is found to have leaked."
"There's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one," she added, pointing out that the administration has appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks.
That apparently is not enough to satisfy Romney, who on Tuesday called for "a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel" into what he called "a national security crisis."
"Whoever provided classified
information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration,
must be exposed, dismissed, and punished," he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Monday that the White House should understand the leaks were coming from within its own ranks, but she retracted that comment Tuesday and said she did not know who the leakers were.
Arming the Syrian rebels
Williamson also said Wednesday that Romney firmly supports direct U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels.
"[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition," Williamson said. "He's said repeatedly he'd be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition."
In fact, Romney has often said that he supports "working with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition, but Williamson was clear that Romney supports the U.S. government directly providing American weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
Williamson ripped the Obama administration for being slow to work with the Syrian opposition, leaving the United States largely in the dark and impinging on the U.S. ability to work with rebel leaders now.
Romney does not support the idea of "safe zones" to protect Syrian civilians and rebel fighters, however, and idea championed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as well as several of the former Massachusetts governor's own foreign-policy advisors.
"He's said that's not his position, but he feels we should be arming the opposition, but more importantly we shouldn't be leading from behind," Williamson said.
Flournoy countered that the administration has been working with the Syrian opposition for many months, even if it wasn't in the news. But she said that the administration's emphasis has been on diplomacy and sanctions, not adding fuel to what many are now describing as an incipient civil war.
"The way change will ultimately happen in Syria is if you can get parts of the inner circle around Assad to defect, and they're beginning to do that," she said. "Working the political dimensions of this are the most important piece and that's what the administration has been focused on from the get-go."
The debate touched on a range of other international issues, and moderator Marvin Kalb tried to tease out the differences between Romney and Obama on each.
On Iran, Williamson said that Romney does not support any deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium at even low levels, while administration officials have said Iran has the right to limited uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.
"That would be unacceptable to Romney," Williamson said. He also said Romney would create a "credible threat" of military action against Iran that Obama has not.
"There is no credible threat of force. No one in Tehran or in the region feels that the Obama administration will use force," Williamson said.
Flournoy replied that Obama is serious when he says Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, but that there is a year or more at least before Iran could reach the nuclear threshold that would trigger any military action.
"He doesn't bluff. That is the policy," she said. "Pentagon planning for this is very robust ... the military option is real. The president's judgment is now is not the time."
On Israel, Flournoy tried to counter Romney's critique that Obama has not visited Israel in his first term. Romney will visit Israel this week as part of his three-nation foreign trip that also includes stops in the United Kingdom and Poland.
"When you judge a president's commitment to Israel, you have to look beyond the itinerary," she said. "Does anybody question Ronald Reagan's commitment to Israel? He never went to Israel."
Williamson responded that Obama's treatment of Israeli leaders has been insulting and he referenced the March 2010 incident when Vice President Joe Biden delayed his arrival at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem on the day of Biden's arrival.
"The vice president of the United States kept the Israeli head of state waiting 90 minutes for dinner because he was having a temper tantrum. You don't treat any head of state that way, let alone your friend," Williamson said.
The two advisors also clashed over the merits of Obama's "reset" policy with Russia and whether China is being held to account for manipulating its currency.
But Williamson praised Obama's handling of the relationship with India and said, "The president has made good progress [on Chinese human rights] in the governor's opinion."
The Cable asked Williamson to respond to Republican complaints that the Romney campaign has been light on details about its foreign policy and has even downplayed the importance of national security during the campaign. The Weekly Standard's William Kristol wrote Wednesday that the Romney campaign should stop talking about national security as if it's a low priority for a candidate and a president.
"There's an understandable desire to have more and more details," Williamson said. "But in the end what he needs to do is try to present a world vision that is dramatically different from President Obama's, and a thrust of how he would approach it ... and he's done that."
"Bill Kristol will never be satisfied that there are enough details and he's paid to be provocative, but we feel we are laying out a vision for where America should go."
In a rare moment amid a presidential campaign more often focused on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, economic growth, and deficit spending, the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney teams are ramping up their foreign-policy messaging this week as the former Massachusetts governor sets off for a major trip abroad.
In what has become a new ritual of American politics, both candidates will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno this week.
Ahead of Obama's Monday afternoon visit there, the president's campaign released a new video touting his administration's treatment of veterans and the president's moves to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq last year.
Romney will speak to the conference on Tuesday before heading off on a three-nation foreign trip. On July 25, Obama surrogate and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy will square off with Romney advisor Rich Williamson, George W. Bush's envoy to Sudan, in a debate at the Brookings Institution.
Earlier Monday, Flournoy and Colin Kahl, another former defense official, held a conference call with reporters, during which Kahl pledged that Obama would visit Israel in his second term if he is re-elected.
Kahl's pledge comes in response to the Romney camp's criticism that the president has been a fickle ally of Israel, a critique the GOP candidate is looking to exploit during his upcoming stop in Jerusalem.
After Romney speaks to the VFW Tuesday, he heads off that evening to London to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and meet with British officials. Romney then goes on to Israel and Poland before returning to the United States.
On their own conference call with reporters, several Romney policy advisors emphasized that Romney will not be criticizing Obama's foreign policy on the trip.
"This trip is really an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen," said Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign's policy director. "There are a number of challenges the world is facing today and this is an opportunity for him to visit three countries that each have a strong and important relationship with the U.S."
"So this trip demonstrates Governor Romney's belief in the worth and necessity of standing with our allies and locking arms with our allies," said Chen. "Each of these nations shares our love of liberty as well as our fortitude to defend it. They are each pillars of liberty and have fought through periods where liberty was under siege. This trip is an opportunity for us to demonstrate a clear and resolute stand with those nations that share our values."
The Obama campaign set his own marker for Romney's trip.
"He'll need to prove to the American people that he sees foreign-policy issues as worthy of substantive discussion rather than just generalities and sound bites in this campaign," said Obama senior advisor Robert Gibbs Monday. "This trip and this campaign begs several questions and I think Mitt Romney owes it to the American people to say where he stands on these important issues as he's trying out to be leader of the free world."
In London, Romney will meet with the leaders of the British government and opposition, including Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Minister William Hague, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, and former prime minister Tony Blair.
In Israel, Romney will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Perez, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Kadima Party Leader Shaul Mofaz, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
This will be Romney's forth trip to Israel. He made a family trip there in the late 1990s and then visited in January 2007 and gave a speech at the annual Herzliya conference. In January 2011, Romney visited Israel as part of a three-nation trip that also included stops in Afghanistan and Jordan.
Romney is visiting Poland at the invitation of former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and he will also meet with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. He will also visit Polish sites of historical significance, his advisors said.
In Poland, Romney will thank Poland for its commitments of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and tout Poland's relative economic success during the European fiscal crisis.
"This is a country that stands in sharp contrast economically to the rest of Europe... and Poland's success is rooted in its commitment to the principles of free market economies and capitalism," said Romney advisor Ian Brzezinski.
Although Romney will hold public events at all three stops, don't expect any big policy speeches or attacks on the administration's international actions.
"This trip is solely an opportunity to listen and the contrasts will be kept here in the States," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
The Palestine Liberation Organization has denied recent reports that the White House issued a notice threatening to cut all aid to the Palestinian Authority if it launches a renewed drive for recognition at the United Nations.
"This is absolutely not true," PLO representative to Washington Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable this week. "We do not know what they are saying. It's unfounded."
According to numerous online sources, Palestine National Council political chairman Khaled Mesmar, an Obama administration envoy issued the threat during a recent visit to Ramallah, and Areikat's comments come just days after senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinian Authority plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as an observer state. Last year's bid for statehood membership was blocked by the United States, and the top foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives issued a similar threat in August 2011.
On Capitol Hill, the Palestinian Authority has faced increasing scrutiny since it sought U.N. recognition last September. House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has spearheaded congressional efforts to prevent federal budgetary allocations to the Palestinian Authority -- which have averaged nearly $600 million since Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 -- from being released, along with House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX). In March, Ros-Lehtinen agreed to release $88.6 million of $147 million slated for Palestinian development aid in the West Bank and Gaza that Republican lawmakers had placed on hold in August 2011, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overruled the decision and notified Congress in April that the entire package would be disbursed.
"On the congressional level I think that what we are facing is a total ignorance and lack of understanding of the political dynamics and variables that are involved in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians," Areikat said in a short interview. "We are shocked to know that these members of Congress don't even have the minimum knowledge or understanding of Palestinian positions or the impact of U.S. assistance on improving the living, economic, and humanitarian positions of the Palestinian people. Resorting to this tool to try to influence Palestinian leaders into changing their political position is something that has proven in the past to be counterproductive, and it will not lead to a change in the Palestinian political position."
As Ros-Lehtinen continues to place holds on FY2012 funds, however, the Palestinian Authority is facing financial collapse. Saudi Arabia transferred $100 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority after Israel applied for a $100 million International Monetary Fund loan on its behalf and was refused, but the PA's budget deficit for the current year has already surpassed the $1 billion mark. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Monday that the PA is unable to pay about 150,000 of its employees.
The House's stance on foreign aid to the Palestinians has drawn the attention and ire of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA).
"House Republicans want to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority," he said during a speech at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition's annual conference on Tuesday. "I can't imagine anything that would tumble the Middle East more rapidly into a radical tailspin."
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), a co-signatory of the Cohen-Yarmouth-Connolly letter, which stresses the importance of American leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agrees.
"No, I do not support cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority," he said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "I oppose them unilaterally seeking statehood, the deal should be bilateral, but cutting them off would lead to more conflict not less."
Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, worry increasingly about corruption within the Palestinian government, as a committee oversight hearing last week about the Palestinian Authority's "chronic kleptocracy" demonstrated.
"As a major political donor to the Palestinians, we need to be extremely concerned that our aid will be construed as support for a corrupt regime," House Foreign Relations Committee senior member Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said during the hearing. "If they unintentionally wind up enriching loathsome regime figures ... then we have a hard choice as our support for the people is outweighed by unintended, undesirable consequences of that flow."
Areikat dismissed the hearing as a politically motivated smear tactic.
"By holding these hearings all the time, the House Foreign Relations Committee is ignoring an important fundamental principle in the U.S. system, which is giving the other party the chance to present its case," he told The Cable. "They have been holding all these hearings on the Palestinian Authority while the Palestinian Authority and its representatives are absent, so it's only a charade. It's a politically motivated campaign that has nothing to do with transparency and accountability."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today on a two-week trip that includes a stop in Israel, a stop in Egypt, and a new effort to head off a possible new round of tensions with Palestinian leaders.
Clinton's travel will take her to France, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel. The first item on Clinton's international agenda is Syria, and Clinton will attend the Friday meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, the U.S.- and Turkey-led diplomatic initiative that is meant to coordinate international action to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Clinton isn't expected to make any significant changes in the U.S. position on Syria, which is still, in a nutshell, to avoid direct intervention, look the other way while Gulf Arab states arms the opposition, and work with Russia to facilitate a Yemen-like political transition.
"[T]he secretary will consult with her colleagues on steps to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to support UN-Arab League Special Envoy Annan's efforts to end the violence and facilitate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria," read a statement sent out by the State Department today.
While she's in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, "to discuss both parties' efforts to pursue a dialogue and build on President Abbas' exchange of letters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," the State Department said.
Reuters reported that reported that Clinton requested the meeting and will also press Abbas not to pursue a new United Nations resolution that condemns settlements in "occupied" territories. Expectations on the Palestinian side for any progress in Paris are low, according to Reuters.
On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an audience last week at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival that a new unilateral settlement freeze was not likely. "The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
The U.S. and Palestinian leaderships have also been at loggerheads over the Palestinian drive to seek membership in U.N. bodies, such as UNESCO. U.S. law required the end of all American contributions to UNESCO after that body admitted Palestine as a member earlier this year.
On July 8, Clinton will go on to Tokyo to attend an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, a follow-up to last December's conference in Bonn, Germany. In Tokyo, Clinton will talk about the "transformation decade" in Afghanistan, which she will say begins in 2015, after the bulk of U.S. and international forces leave that country.
"The Afghan Government in turn will lay out its plan for economic reform and continued steps toward good governance," the State Department said in its release.
The next day Clinton will go to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to speak to a meeting of the Governing Board of the Community of Democracies, an informal multilateral coalition of countries that promotes democratic values,, speak at a women's conference, and meet with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold.
On July 10 Clinton moves on to Hanoi for a day of meetings with government and business leaders before traveling to Vientiane, Laos, on July 11. Her stop in Laos will mark the first visit to that country -- one of the world's last avowedly communist states -- by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years and Clinton will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong.
After her brief stop in Laos, Clinton will arrive late in the day July 11 in Cambodia. While there, she will participate in three major conferences: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, and the U.S.-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference. Tensions between China and its neighbors over maritime disputes is sure to be high on the agenda.
After two days in Phnom Penh, Clinton will go to the city of Siem Reap on July 14 to meet with business leaders and deliver the keynote address at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Dialogue. The Lower Mekong Initiative is a development-focused forum that joins the U.S. with several southeast Asian nations.
The next day it's off to Cairo, where Clinton is reported to have a meeting scheduled with the new President Mohamed Morsy. She will stay in Egypt until July 16, and will meet with senior government officials, civil society, and business leaders, and inaugurate the U.S. consulate in Alexandria.
The last stop on Clinton's tour is Israel, where she will be meeting with as yet undisclosed Israeli leaders "to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern," the State Department said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also expected to travel to Israel to meet with leaders there sometime this summer.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said June 30 that Iran will successfully develop a nuclear weapon in "several years" if the international community doesn't stop it.
"In my judgment ... if nothing will be done about it, within several years Iran will turn nuclear," Barak said during his featured interview at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, conducted by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.
The estimate appeared more distant than other recent statements by top Israeli leaders. "They are getting there, and they are getting very, very close," Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said in March about Iran's nuclear clock.
Barak repeated the Israeli government's insistence that Israel reserves the right to strike Iran to prevent Iran from going nuclear, even without the cooperation or approval of the United States.
"We cannot afford delegating the decision even into the hands of our most trusted allies, which are you," he said to applause.
But he also said that there are no differences between U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates on the progress of Iran's nuclear program.
"Several years ago the [2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate] raised some questions. Now there are no differences between our intelligence," Barak said.
When asked by Friedman if U.S. President Barack Obama is a friend of Israel, Barak said, "Yes, clearly so."
Friedman also asked Barak why the Israeli government doesn't just institute a new settlement freeze as a means of restarting the defunct peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Barak said that wasn't going to happen.
"The Palestinians under Abu Mazen refused once and again to get into the room without a precondition... I believe that most of the responsibility is on their shoulders," he said.
Barak said he respects the Egyptian people's decision to elect Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi as their new president and he expects the new Egyptian government to live up to all its international commitments, including the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. But he said that the new government could align itself with Hamas.
"Mubarak despised them. But the new regime might find some a certain kind of brotherhood and have a different kind of relationship (with Hamas)," he said. "A child cannot choose its parents; a country cannot choose its neighbors."
On Syria, Barak said that the U.S. needs to do more to push Assad from power more quickly, working with Russia and Turkey.
"The longer it stretches, the more chaotic the morning after will be," he said. "There is a need for American leadership, from wherever you choose to lead."
As a third round of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers ended conclusively Tuesday, Israeli vice prime minister and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz called on the so-called P5+1 to focus on stopping Iran's uranium enrichment during a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.
"Such an agreement we didn't see in the last meetings," he said. "Not in Baghdad, Istanbul, and in Moscow ... [A deal] should be based on stopping all continued enrichment activity, removing all enrichment materials, and inspecting and dismantling all underground facilities, mainly Qom."
Mofaz, a former defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who was recently brought into Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, added that while now is the time for diplomacy and sanctions, Israel along with the United States and other Western countries should prepare all options.
"From my best view, the use of military power should be the last option, and if necessary should be led by the U.S. and Western countries," he said. "We should ask ourselves how much we would delay the Iranian program -- for how many months, for how many years -- and the second question is what will happen in our region the day after."
Diplomacy, though, is only good for so long, he stressed.
"When you say that this is the time for diplomatic activity and sanctions, it doesn't mean that you have two, three, or five years," he explained. "We have a limit of time, and the limit of time is until the Iranian leader will take the last step to having a bomb."
Mofaz also addressed the ongoing crisis in Syria, where well over 10,000 people have been killed and thousands more driven from their homes since the uprising began in March 2011.
"My expectations are that the Western countries should give humanitarian support to the Syrian people," he said. "We cannot be part of it, and it is clear why."
Mofaz was more optimistic about Israel's strained relationship with Turkey, which he believes will be resolved "in the coming months" because it is strategically necessary for both parties
On the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mofaz says he does not support Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon's recently proposed program of coordinated unilateralism, in which Israel would not attempt to annex any territory east of the security fence and the Knesset would pass a law encouraging settlers to move to the other side of the fence.
Mofaz said that Israelis and Palestinians must "break the ice" and get back to the negotiating table. The future permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state should be determined by the settlement blocs that house more than 250,000 settlers, he said, adding that Israel should continue to build in those blocs.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul to convene a new worldwide forum of countries to share info and help integrate efforts to fight terrorism -- but Israel wasn't invited.
In her opening remarks at the June 7 forum, Clinton framed the terrorism challenge as a common world cause and emphasized the need to build up civilian institutions, coordinate anti-terror efforts, and establish a unified, long-term strategy for fighting terrorist groups' ideology and their sources of funding.
"We view this forum as a key vehicle for galvanizing action on these fronts and for driving a comprehensive, strategic approach to counterterrorism," Clinton said, standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu. The United States and Turkey are the co-chairs of the initiative, known as the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Although Clinton mentioned that terrorism is a challenge in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Maghreb, Turkey, and Europe, she didn't mention Israel or any of the groups that support terrorist attacks against Israeli interests, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"We underscore our condemnation of all acts of terrorism, which cannot be justified on any grounds whatsoever, and our continuing commitment to oppose terrorism irrespective of the motives of the perpetrators of such acts," read the September 2011 political declaration that established the forum.
Although 29 countries and the European Union were invited to be founding members, Israel was not. After facing repeated questions at last week's briefings, the State Department put out the following explanation as to why Israel was not included:
"Our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, front line states, and emerging powers develop a more robust, yet representative, counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF's founding members," the statement said. "We have discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel in its activities on a number of occasions, and are committed to making this happen."
The founding members are Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The State Department's explanation wasn't enough to satisfy critics of the administration, who point out that Israel is an ally and has more experience with terrorism and counterterrorism than, say Japan, or Switzerland.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) joined together Monday to protest the Obama administration's decision to exclude Israel from the new forum, in a letter to Clinton.
"As you know, there are few countries in the world that have suffered more from terrorism than Israel, and few governments that have more experience combating this threat than that of Israel," they wrote. "We strongly believe that Israel would both benefit from, and contribute enormously to, this kind of exchange. We look forward to hearing from you about whether the administration shares our view that Israel rightfully belongs as a full participant in the and what, if any, steps you are prepared to take to right this wrongful omission."
The Israeli government hasn't publicly complained about the snub and the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment, but multiple Congressional sources said that Israeli officials have complained privately to them, saying the Israeli government was unhappy about being left out.
"Obviously the U.S. is looking to adhere to the wishes of Turkey and the Turks have made it very clear they don't want the Israelis there," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "But since this is a U.S.-sponsored event, hosted in Turkey, the U.S. should not be listening to anybody about who they should or should not invite."
The U.S. government considers the descendants of Palestinian refugees to be refugees, a State Department official told The Cable, and another top State Department official wrote in a letter to Congress that there are now 5 million Palestinian refugees.
The two new policy statements come in the midst of a fight over whether the United States will start separating, at least on paper, Palestinians who fled what is now Israel in 1948 and 1967 from their descendants.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved unanimously an amendment to the fiscal 2013 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill that requires the State Department to report on how many of the 5 million Palestinians currently receiving assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) are actually people who were physically displaced from their homes in Israel or the occupied territories, and how many are merely descendants of original refugees.
The amendment, as passed, was watered down by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from a version proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would have required more in-depth reporting on how many UNRWA aid recipients are now living in the West Bank, Gaza, and other countries such as Jordan. An even earlier version of the bill would have made it U.S. policy that Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and those who are citizens of countries like Jordan are not, in fact, "refugees."
The State Department objected strongly to the Kirk amendment, claiming that any U.S. determination of the number or status of refugees was unhelpful and destabilizing and that refugee determinations are a final-status issue that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides wrote Thursday in a letter to Leahy. "United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations -- final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations. The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees."
"This action would damage confidence between the parties at a particularly fragile time, undercut our ability to act as a mediator and peace facilitator, and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan," Nides wrote.
But later down in the letter, Nides states, "UNRWA provides essential services for approximately five million refugees, including education for over 485,000 school children, primary health care in 138 clinics, and social services for the most Vulnerable, particularly in Lebanon and Gaza." (Emphasis added.)
To experts and congressional officials following the issue, that declaration was remarkable because it was the first time the State Department had placed a number -- 5 million -- on the number of Palestinian refugees.
"The Nides letter could be considered a change in U.S. policy with consideration to refugees because it states clearly that 5 million people served by UNRWA are refugees," one senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable. "For the Obama administration to stake out a position emphatically endorsing the rights of 5 million Palestinian refugees is by itself prejudging the outcome of final- status issues."
Steve Rosen, a long time senior AIPAC official who now is the Washington director of the Middle East Forum, said that by calling all 5 million UNRWA aid recipients "refugees," the State Department is saying that all the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the nearly 2 million who are citizens of Jordan have some claim to the "right of return" to Israel, even though Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all stated clearly that a two-state solution would mean that the bulk of the 5 million Palestinian "refugees" would end up living in the West Bank or Gaza, not Israel.
President Barack Obama said in June 2011, "A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people." In January, 2008, while a presidential candidate, Obama said, "The right of return [to Israel] is something that is not an option in a literal sense."
At the heart of the issue is what constitutes a "refugee." The entire thrust of the Kirk amendment was to challenge UNRWA's definition, which includes the descendants of refugees -- children, grandchildren, and so on. That has resulted in the number of Palestinian "refugees" skyrocketing from 750,000 in 1950 to the 5 million figure quoted by Nides today.
An analysis by the academic journal Refugee Survey Quarterly projected that if that definition remains intact, there will be 11 million Palestinian refugees by 2040 and 20 million by 2060.
In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.
"Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. "For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context."
Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations. Regardless, the State Department's new statement could have wide-ranging implications.
"How many generations does it go?" asked Rosen. "I'm Jewish, and as a grandchild of several refugees, could I make a claim on all these countries? Where does it end? Someday all life on Earth will be a Palestinian refugee."
The Cable asked the State Department whether descendants of refugees get refugee status for endless generations and whether Nides's mention of the 5 million Palestinian refugees was an intentional shift in U.S. policy, but we haven't gotten a response.
The State Department statements also appear to conflict with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status, which allows spouses and children of refugees to apply for derivative status as refugees, but specifically declares that grandchildren are ineligible for derivative refugee status. In other words, U.S. law doesn't permit descendants of refugees to get refugee status inside the United States.
Some regional experts see Kirk's amendment as a ploy to cut some of the $250 million in U.S. funding for UNRWA and bolster Israel's position by negating rights of Palestinians that would otherwise be determined in negotiations.
Leila Hilal, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told The Cable that to honestly determine which Palestinians remain refugees, one would have to wade into a long, complicated legal and factual analysis about which Palestinians in the region have adequate national protection that would end their refugee status.
"The rights of return and property restitution do not depend on refugee status," she said. "Ultimately, however, this congressional move is a political stunt intended to preempt final-status outcomes -- and a rather cheap one at that."
UPDATE: A State Department official confirms that yes, the descendants of refugees are still refugees for numerous generations until they return home or are resettled in a third country. The official also argued that Nides' reference to UNRWA serving 5 million "refugees" was also accurate.
"The number of people on UNRWA's rolls isn't and shouldn't be a secret," the official said. "The Kirk amendment, based on commentary surrounding it, is meant to set a stage for the U.S. to intervene now with the determination that 2nd and 3rd generation descendants have no claims and in fact aren't even Palestinians. Our interest is to avoid that. We are not predetermining numbers that the parties themselves must ultimately agree on. Nor can UNWRA."
One day before the AIPAC conference kicks off in Washington, an anti-Obama pro-Israel group is widening its criticism of President Barack Obama's record on Israel -- while the White House defends its treatment of the relationship.
The trailer for a new 30-minute video, entitled "Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel," cuts together clips of Obama quotes and outside commentary to put forth the narrative that Obama has made statements and taken actions as president that have put him out of step with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters.
(UPDATE: Now you can watch the entire 30 minute video here.)
"We believe that that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines," Obama is shown saying, a reference to his May, 2011 speech, where he for the first time explicitly defined U.S. policy as supporting the 1967 borders with agreed swaps as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"He didn't quite have a full grasp of what the full region looks like," conservative journalist Lee Smith is shown saying in the video. "This is not how you treat an ally."
The ad goes beyond the Israeli issue to suggest that the president is too solicitous of Muslim concerns. The end of the trailer shows Obama saying, "I want to make sure we end before the call to prayer," a clip from his town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul in April 2009.
The video was produced by the group the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its pre-AIPAC publicity campaign, including posters and billboards all over Washington that question Obama's commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?" the posters read. Then, next to a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, it says, "Do they?"
ECI is run by executive director Noah Pollak and Michael Goldfarb, a former McCain-Palin staffer now working at the consulting firm Orion Strategies and as chairman of the board of the Washington Free Beacon, an new conservative website.
"Obama says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable," Pollak told The Cable today. "We hope he means what he says, but the recent statements from his administration, his contentious relationship with the Israeli government, and his consistent efforts to weaken congressional sanctions don't inspire confidence."
The ECI board is comprised of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Gary Bauer, who has endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election.
As part of its pre-AIPAC activity, ECI took out a full page ad in the New York Times yesterday calling out donors for supporting two liberal advocacy organizations in Washington, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, and accusing those donors of "funding bigotry and anti-Israel extremism."
Pollak also said that the video, billboards, and ads happen to refute a pre-AIPAC interview Obama gave to The Atlantic, in which Obama expressed frustration with the attacks coming from conservative lawmakers and groups like ECI that claim he is not pro-Israel.
"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," Obama said. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"
"Obama said today he doesn't understand why there are questions about his record of support for Israel," Pollak said. "We think this movie will set the record straight, and remind pro-Israel Americans of the facts of this administration's failure to stand with Israel at some critical moments."
Here is the full video:
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may be slipping in the polls, but he will deliver a speech at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, a spokesman for AIPAC confirmed today.
Gingrich's speech will be on the morning on March 5, one day after U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the conference and before the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will speak that evening. Obama and Netanyahu will meet in the Oval Office that day.
Last December, Gingrich made news when he called the Israeli-Palestinian peace process "delusional" and called the Palestinians an "invented" people. He also said the Palestinian Authority and Hamas share "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
"If I'm even-handed between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists who are firing missiles every day, that's not even-handed. That's favoring the terrorists," Gingrich said.
Gingrich's campaign has benefited from more than $10 million in donations to a Gingrich-supporting Super PAC from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Netanyahu and owner of the daily Israel Hayom.
In addition to Gingrich, Obama, and Netanyahu, the current list of confirmed speakers now includes: Israeli President Shimon Peres, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol, and political analyst for NBC News Mike Murphy.
Kristol is on the board of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that has sponsored several ad campaigns accusing Obama of being "not pro-Israel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election. The other two board members of ECI are Gary Bauer, who today endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel."
WILLIAM PHILPOTT/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama will deliver remarks at the AIPAC conference March 4, one day before he sits down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, a reprise of the difficult meeting they held there last year.
"We are pleased to announce that the president will address this year's annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., on Sunday March 4. The president welcomes this opportunity to speak to the strengths of the special bonds between Israel and the United States," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
He confirmed that Obama and Netanyahu will meet March 5. The order of events will be opposite of last year, when Obama spoke the day after his tense and awkward meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office, where Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama on Israeli security.
Obama will speak to AIPAC Sunday morning, the two leaders will meet Monday, and then Netanyahu will address the conference Monday evening.
Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres will speak at AIPAC, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former member of Congress Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, and editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol.
Carney also commented on the visit of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to Israel this past weekend, where he met with Netanyahu and a host of other senior Israeli officials, including National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who coordinates the Iran portfolio, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and Military Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi.
Carney didn't say explicitly that Donilon asked the Israelis to hold off on attacking Iran, but his message was along those lines.
"The president has said -- that there is time and space for diplomacy to work, for the effect of sanctions to result in a change in Iranian behavior, an agreement by Iran to live up to its obligations, to engage in negotiations and resolve this matter peacefully," said Carney. "We do not, of course, as we've said many times, take any option off the table. And that was the context of the discussions that Mr. Donilon had with his counterparts in Israel."
According to readouts of the Donilon meetings in the Israeli press, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials told Donilon they were displeased with the Obama administration's recent press outreach regarding Iran, especially the Feb. 19 CNN interview given by Joint Chiefs' Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, during which Dempsey warned that the risk of Iranian retaliation for an Israeli strike on Iran would outweigh the benefits.
"That's the question with which we all wrestle, and the reason that we think that it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran. I mean, that's been our counsel to our allies, the Israelis, well-known, well-documented," Dempsey said. "And we also know -- or believe we know -- that the Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability."
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is expected to arrive in Israel Feb. 23 for a range of meetings.
The State Department rolled out its fiscal 2013 budget request today, which contains several items that are sure to meet resistance when lawmakers roll up their sleeves and dig into the budget this spring and summer.
International programs don't have strong constituencies on Capitol Hill to begin with, and Congress has its own ideas for how to spend foreign aid.
The State Department knows all of this, of course, and has framed its fiscal 2013 budget request as a small portion of the federal budget that contributes directly to national security. State's $51.6 billion request, however, faces a GOP-led House that is searching hard for discretionary budget items to cut and a foreign-policy-minded Senate that wants to use aid to press foreign governments to act more in line with U.S. priorities.
"This is a moment of historic change around the world. They are also tight times for our government and for our people -- the two truths that have guided us from day one," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said Monday. "And so, as I'd like to remind you once again, with just 1 percent of the federal budget, the State Department and USAID will maintain our country's leadership in a changing world, what'll promote our values, jumpstart our economy, and above all keep America safe in 2013 and beyond."
Here are five of the items in the State Department's budget that will spark debates in Congress this year:
1) The top line budget numbers. The State Department and USAID requested $51.6 billion for fiscal year 2013, but $8.2 billion is categorized as temporarily needed funding for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan under what's called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (OCO) account. The remaining $43.6 billion is the "core budget" request and represents a 10 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress.
For fiscal 2012, lawmakers moved a lot of funding from the core budget to the OCO account in order to fit State Department funding inside the mandatory discretionary spending caps set forth in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Now, State is trying to move that funding back into its core budget so that it will have it whenever the need for emergency funding wanes.
In general, State prefers to use the OCO accounts when possible because Congress is more willing to fund programs that are needed in the current wars... and because the OCO account is off budget. ("Obviously, the benefit of the OCO account in general allows for all of you who report on this and for the Hill to look at the costs of our frontline states, to look at the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan," said Nides.)
But outside experts see the OCO account, which has been used by State since last year and by the Pentagon since 9/11, as a slush fund. "I think OCO accounts are a scourge," said Gordon Adams, former national security director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. "Special extra accounts are a refuge for budget scoundrels. Funding for all three of those countries are going to be subject to debate and dispute."
2) Middle East Funding Initiative. The administration is requesting $770 million for this new initiative, which is meant to support U.S. activities in countries affected by the "Arab Spring." This is the largest single new program in the State Department's budget request, but there's not a lot of detail in the request about how the money will actually be spent.
Nides said it's impossible to predict. "The Arab Spring has come. We need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives," he said. "I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent, because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill."
Some $70 million of that total comes from existing programs, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and USAID's Office of Middle East Partnerships (OMEP). The remaining $700 million is "new money," an administration official said. "We came to the Middle East changes without any resources dedicated to this in the budget," the official said, explaining that State has spent about $800 million since last year to respond to the protests in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but had to cobble those funds together from other accounts.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said Adams. "It's probably not a bad idea in theory but it is way too large for having no program."
3) Egypt military funding. The State Department is again asking Congress for $1.3 billion in direct aid to the Egyptian military. The $1.3 billion in military aid that Congress appropriated for fiscal 2012, however, has not been sent yet and might be held up for a while because of the escalating crisis concerning pending charges against 19 American NGO workers in Cairo. By law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to certify the Egyptian military is moving towards a true democratic transition before that money can be released and many top lawmakers are urging her not to do so. There are even bills to halt the funding regardless of Clinton's determination. Additionally, the administration is requesting $250 million in direct assistance to the civilian government, which it believes to be more responsible for the NGO crackdown than the military.
Nevertheless, the administration is hoping that will all be worked out by next year. "Our goal is, is to provide them those funds," said Nides. "I mean, it's obviously clear to all of us that we have issues that we need to work through. And we're working very aggressively to do so. But this budget reflects our commitment and our desire to fully fund those initiatives."
4) Pakistan civilian assistance. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in tatters, but the administration is still requesting more than $2 billion in aid to Pakistan. But in a shift from last year, the administration is requesting significantly less money for assistance to the Pakistani civilian government while increasing requested aid for the Pakistani military. That may seem odd considering that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have been widely accused of playing both sides in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in a military garrison town for years.
Nevertheless, the administration is requesting only $1.1 billion for in Pakistani civilian assistance for 2013, even thought the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorized up to $1.5 billion each year. Meanwhile, the administration requested $800 million under the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund (PCCF), a reimbursement program for the Pakistani military jointly run by State and DOD, and State is requesting $350 million in foreign military financing for Pakistan, up from $98 million in fiscal 2012.
An administration official said that becuase Congress only gave State about $1 billion last year under the Kerry-Lugar program, that's about how much they decided to ask for in FY 2013. "It's still one of the largest recipients of assistance in our budget," the administration official said. "We have a lot of negotiation to do and we'll be making that argument that we can and we'll have to figure out with Congress what the final number will be."
5) Palestinian Authority assistance.
The administration requested $370 million for economic support funding for the
West Bank and Gaza in fiscal 2013, down from the $397 million given to the PA
in fiscal 2012 but still one of the largest U.S. assistance programs in the
budget. Congress is extremely sour on PA assistance, however, because peace
talks have broken down and because Fatah and Hamas are planning to form a unity
The reduction in West Bank funding is because equipment for the U.S. police training program there has been largely completed, an administration official said. State also cut the amount of direct cash transfers to the Palestinian Authority from $200 million to $150 million. "We think the economic situation is slightly better so we think we can do a little bit less," the official said.
What's more, the administration is also requesting $79 million for UNESCO in 2013, even though the U.S. government is legally barred from contributing to UNESCO because the organization admitted Palestine as a member.
"The Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the president's also articulated -- and quite clearly -- that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO," said Nides. "We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we are not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver. And we have made it clear to the Congress we'd like a waiver."
Tuesday marked Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's first official visit to Washington in 18 months and he made extensive rounds, meeting with State Department officials and a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In the morning, Lieberman met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2010. There were no official statements made after the meeting, but Lieberman told Haaretz it was a "very good" meeting that included a lot of substance. "We are waiting for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and we express our appreciation for the support of Israel," he said. "We appreciate the very crucial decision [by the Obama administration] of sanctions against Iran, and we continue to monitor it closely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the meeting spanned the gamut of issues, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Middle East peace, Turkey, and Iraq... all in about 30 minutes.
"With regard to Iran, they talked extensively about the impact that the new sanctions are having and our efforts to work with countries around the world to wean them from Iranian oil and, obviously, our mutual commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to increase the pressure through these sanctions," Nuland said.
After Iran, the most oft discussed topic in Lieberman's Washington meetings was the new agreement between Fatah and Hamas, but Nuland said the State Department has not made a judgment on that agreement or what it will mean for the U.S. involvement in the region.
"They did discuss the fact that it's not particularly clear what this agreement will change. In particular, we still have President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the head of the government; we still have Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad responsible. And so frankly, any impact this may or may not have is unclear," she said.
That issue came up often in Lieberman's meetings on Capitol Hill Tuesday. After meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman sat down with the triumvirate of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable, Senator Lieberman said the Palestinian agreement was a major issue for him personally.
"Surprisingly, we didn't talk that much about Iran. The conversation was about the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Syria, and Egypt," Senator Lieberman said. "It's very troubling. Hamas is still on our terrorist list and still committed to the destruction of Israel... If this agreement means that Hamas and Fatah are together running the government, then it puts in real jeopardy American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."
Senator Lieberman also weighed in on reports that Fayyad will lose his position. "Fayyad has enormous credibility in the U.S. Congress, he has more credibility than any other of the Palestinian leaders," he said. "If he's gone, it's a real step backward."
He also said the portrayal of Foreign Minister Lieberman in the press, which sometimes includes accusations of anti-Arab racism, are not accurate. "The reality of the Avigdor Lieberman is better than his portrayal in the media. He's a thoughtful man, he has a big world view," Senator Lieberman said.
The Israeli foreign minister then sat down for lunch with several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee before meeting one on one with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In attendance at the HFAC lunch were Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Elliot Engel (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ted Deutsch (D-FL, whose chief of staff is named Josh Rogin), Dan Burton (R-IN), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), David Rivera (R-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa).
"We share your deep concerns about Iran, and I would appreciate your thoughts on how much time you believe there is before Iran enters into a zone of immunity," Ros-Lehtinen said at the top of the lunch meeting, before reporters were ushered out of the room. "On Iran, do you think the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, with regards to how much time we have left?"
We were told by multiple staffers that Iran dominated the discussion at the lunch but Lieberman said nothing new about Israel's intentions regarding striking Iran. (The lawmakers also served Lieberman a lunch of couscous and chick peas, traditional Middle Eastern fare, which struck some as odd considering he can probably get better versions of both foods at home.)
"Foreign Minister Lieberman made very clear the serious and present danger Iran presents to Israel, the region, and the world," Berman said in a statement. "It was clear that the Israeli government has not taken any option off the table vis-à-vis Iran."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
There will be at least one president speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): Israeli President Shimon Peres. But President Barack Obama has yet to RSVP, although he has been invited to the March event.
"Israeli President Shimon Peres is among a growing list of prestigious speakers already confirmed to address this year's conference," reads a notice being sent out by AIPAC in the near future, obtained in advance by The Cable. "President Peres will be honored for his unparalleled service to his country during a special presentation. The Israeli president's presence at this year's conference will offer each of us an historic opportunity to see and hear from one of the Jewish state's founding fathers in what promises to be a uniquely memorable highlight of the conference."
Other famous speakers AIPAC is getting ready to announce include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former member of Congress Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, and editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol.
Our sources report that although AIPAC invited Obama to speak, the White House has yet to say who it's sending. NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to break that news to The Cable today. Insiders think the administration might send Vice President Joe Biden, although it depends on whether the White House feels it need a boost with the Jewish community as the conference nears.
Last year, Obama gave a speech that many saw as an effort to smooth over tensions in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
One can safely assume no administration officials will be speaking at the Occupy AIPAC rally, being organized by Code Pink, which is set to bring together lots of anti-AIPAC activists to Washington in a protest right across the street from the AIPAC conference.
According to their website, one of the speakers at that event will be Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. Contacted by The Cable, Parsi said, "I'm not speaking there."
Code Pink spokesperson Rae Abileah told The Cable that Parsi committed to speak at the event weeks ago but then cancelled last week, shortly after Code Pink announced his participation.
"Trita called us and said he forgot he had to attend his wife's family reunion on the West Coast that day, but he was really sorry and would do his best to help us find a replacement speaker," said Abileah.
We asked Parsi to confirm that but he didn't respond.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama is prepared to give the order to strike Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon if sanctions and international pressure prove ineffective, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who just returned from a whirlwind trip around the region.
"[Obama] is definitely capable of ordering a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities," Lieberman told The Cable in a Friday interview. "Do I know that he will? No. But the Iranians and others will be foolishly mistaken if they assume that he will not in any circumstance order a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if the sanctions don't work."
"I don't know that the president will order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities even if the sanctions don't work, but I know that he's capable of doing that and I believe he's prepared to do that," he said, adding that he doesn't think Obama would ever send ground troops to Iran.
Over the New Year's break, Lieberman visited Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, and Libya, and he said Iran was the number one concern of leaders in the region. In previous meetings, Israeli officials had focused almost entirely on U.S. red lines and their concern over whether Obama would really attack Iran if push came to shove, emphasizing that Israel would attack if the United States doesn't. But now the Israeli government seems more willing to let the sanctions strategy run its course, Lieberman said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview this week that Iran is beginning to show signs of cracking under the international sanctions regime.
"Not only do the Israelis believe the U.S. and the international community has to go through every economic effort to change the mind of the Iranian leadership, but now they believe it might actually work. They believe that the economic sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian economy and beginning to have an effect on the regime," he said.
Lieberman himself doesn't believe that the Iranian regime will ever transform into a constructive member of the world community, but he holds out hope that the sanctions, due to their effect on the Iranian people, could force the regime to rethink its strategy.
"The only thing the Iranian government cares more about than the development of their nuclear weapons is the survival of the regime," he said.
The Obama administration has been adamant that regime change per se is not the goal of U.S. sanctions. On Wednesday, a Washington Post article initially quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying "regime change" was the goal, but then was quickly corrected to say "public ire" was the sanctions' goal, not regime change. Today, a U.S. official told AFP that the goal of the sanctions was to "close down" the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).
When the Menendez-Kirk amendment -- which imposed sanctions on the CBI and eventually became U.S. law -- came up the Senate, the administration resisted the measure, warning it could harm the U.S. economy and aid Iran's economy. These days, the administration has changed its stance and is now embracing the sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner traveled to Japan and China this week to encourage them to cut off their dealings with the CBI, and the State Department instructed all of its ambassadors to meet with their host governments to explain the new law and express the administration's intention to enforce it.
Back in Washington, pro-sanctions senators aren't taking any chances that the administration might back off its newer, tougher stance vis-à-vis Iran. Congress is encouraging the EU to implement a full oil embargo, and the Senate plans to bring up a new round of Iran sanctions legislation for consideration as early as next month.
Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also plan to introduce a new Senate resolution to express the sense of Congress that a containment strategy for Iran that falls short of doing everything possible to stop the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.
"Now the Iranians are clearly hurting. We have to make clear to them that if they don't respond to the economic and diplomatic pressures, that containment is not an option. We're not going to just sit there and let them become a nuclear power," Lieberman said about his forthcoming resolution. "I think is a way for Congress of saying with all the options on the table, containment cannot be one [of the options]."
But isn't the Senate's action also directed at the Obama administration, to make it clear to the White House that Congress does not accept a containment strategy for a nuclear Iran?
"Yes, exactly," Lieberman said. "But the first target of the resolution is Iran."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration may not be getting a whole lot of love from the pro-Israel community these days, but tonight, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is giving their annual National Service Award to U.N. Representative Susan Rice.
Rice plans to use her acceptance speech at tonight's event in New York to both defend the Obama administration's record on Israel and spell out the increased military and security cooperation that's taken place on Obama's watch. Previous winners include House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
Here are some excerpts of Rice's speech, obtained by The Cable:
"America remains deeply and permanently committed to Israel's peace and security. It is a commitment for this president and this Administration. It spans generations. It spans political parties. It is not negotiable. And it never will be," Rice will say.
"From the moment he took office, President Obama's guidance has been clear: to strengthen and deepen that commitment. He has been clear all along that our special relationship with Israel is deeply rooted in our common interests and our common values."
"That's why we've increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. That's why, even in these tough fiscal times, we've increased foreign military financing to record levels. That's why we've also included additional support for the lifesaving Iron Dome anti-rocket system -- which saw action just days ago in defense of innocent Israelis who live near the Gaza frontier."
"That's why we're working jointly to toughen up Israel's security through the Arrow system; and through David's Sling; and through joint military exercises that have never been more robust."
"That's why, if you ask members of the uniformed military of Israel or the United States, if you talk to leaders at the Kirya or the Pentagon, you'll hear the same assessment: the American commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge has never been stronger. That's a fact, plain and simple."
"Of course, the Arab world is undergoing unprecedented political change, and the calls for freedom across the region have brought legitimate security concerns. But let there be no doubt: we are doing all we can to ensure that Israel remains secure even as the region becomes more free."
Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad right now on a surprise visit before he travels this weekend to Turkey and Greece.
Biden landed on Tuesday afternoon in Baghdad and is expected to hold meetings with top Iraqi officials about the future of the U.S.-Iraqi partnership. He will stay for two days, multiple news outlets reported.
"Vice President Biden has arrived in Baghdad, Iraq," his office said in a release. "While there, the Vice President will co-chair a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee. He will also meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and other political leaders. The Vice President will also participate in, and give remarks at, an event to commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops."
On Friday, Dec. 2, Biden will arrive in Ankara, where he'll have meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lay a wreath at the Ataturk Mausoleum before continuing on to Istanbul. In Istanbul, Biden will attend a global entrepreneurship summit hosted by Erdogan.
National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken told reporters on Monday that he expects Biden to discuss U.S. assistance in fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been attacking Turkish forces recently.
"The PKK is a common enemy of Turkey, the United States, and Iraq, and we expect to focus on that," Blinken said.
Blinken also said Biden hopes to discuss the situation in Syria, the upcoming meeting of Cypriot leaders in January, the war in Afghanistan, "and the prospects for progress in normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia." He'll also meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Regarding Turkey's deteriorating relationship with Israel, Blinken said, "I suspect that that will come up."
"It pains us to see the two of them at odds because they're both such close partners of the United States," Blinken said. "And the bottom line is that improved relations between Turkey and Israel would be good for Turkey, good for Israel, and good for the United States and indeed good for the region and the world so that's something we will continue to encourage."
Biden will then travel to Athens on Monday, Dec. 5, where he will hold the administration's first meeting with new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. He'll also meet with President Karolos Papoulias, as well as former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who heads the largest party in Parliament, and Antonio Samaras, who heads the second largest party.
But the Greeks shouldn't expect any direct financial assistance as they struggle with their fiscal crisis.
"I think the U.S. very much recognizes the sacrifices being made by the Greek people as they pursue this reform process and view the fiscal and structural reforms that have been agreed on with the European partners and with the IMF as critical," said Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman. "On the economic situation, the Vice President will be supportive of the overall reform effort and the package of measures that have been put in place by the European partners and by the IMF."
The State Department is still trying to convince Congress to restore funding for UNESCO, which was cut off after the U.N. cultural agency's members granted full membership to the Palestinians -- but there is little chance lawmakers will change the provision preventing U.S. funding.
State sent an unofficial memo to key congressional offices today titled, "How the Loss of U.S. Funding Will Impact Important Programs at UNESCO." The memo, which was passed to The Cable by a congressional source, argues that UNESCO programs will have to be cut back severely due to the loss of U.S. funding.
State Department spokespeople have said they are working with Congress in the hopes of amending the laws that cut off U.S. funds to any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a full member, but there is broad bipartisan support for the funding cut-offs and no real congressional effort to change the law.
"The cut-off in U.S. funding may not directly affect extra-budgetary programs funded by other donors, but it will weaken UNESCO's presence in the field and undermine its ability to take on and manage such projects and programs," the memo stated (emphasis theirs).
UNESCO will lose $240 million of funding for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- roughly 22 percent of its budget -- and will have to scale down programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan, the memo states.
The memo also lists several ways that UNESCO supports U.S. national security interests. These include "sustain[ing] the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring" and democratic values around the world, promoting nation-building in South Sudan, and encouraging Holocaust education in the Middle East and Africa.
Read the full memo after the jump:
White House advisor Dennis Ross, one of President Barack Obama's lead officials in handling the Middle East peace process and U.S. policy toward Iran, is leaving the administration and returning to the private sector.
"After nearly three years of serving in the administration, I am going to be leaving to return to private life," Ross said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday. "I do so with mixed feelings. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this President, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East."
He will leave the administration is early December. No replacement has yet been announced.
Ross' official title was National Security Council (NSC) senior director for the "central region," which gave him authority over not just the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also placed him in charge of NSC officials who worked on Iran, India, and other issues. He said in his statement that he promised his wife he would be in government for only two years.
"We both agreed it is time to act on my promise," Ross said.
Ross actually worked for the Obama administration for almost three years, and resigned two days after Obama was caught on a hot microphone discussing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy their mutual frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"I cannot stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama in what the two leaders thought was a private conversation at the G-20 summit in Cannes.
"You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day," Obama responded.
Ross worked on Middle East issues for every administration since Jimmy Carter, except for that of former President George W. Bush, and was often seen as the Obama administration's main interlocutor with the Netanyahu team. He reportedly clashed with members of the administration who focused on other aspects of the administration's Middle East policy, such as former Special Envoy George Mitchell.
He had originally been appointed in February 2009 as special envoy to the Gulf and Southwest Asia, a job located at the State Department and focused on Iran, but was moved to his NSC position in June 2009. While there, he had been working primarily on the Middle East peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney praised Ross in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday.
"Dennis Ross has an extraordinary record of public service and has been a critical member of the President's team for nearly three years," Carney said. "In light of the developments in the broader Middle East, the President appreciates his extending that by nearly a year and looks forward to being able to draw on his council periodically going forward."
A group of House lawmakers is making the case for continuing U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the Palestinian bid to seek full membership in the United Nations.
"Maintaining U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in the essential strategic interest of Israel and the United States," wrote 44 lawmakers, all Democrats, in a letter today to House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee heads Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY). The letter was spearheaded by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Peter Welch (D-VT).
Ever since the Palestinians began their statehood drive this summer, Congress has been attacking the $550 million of annual aid given to the PA by U.S. taxpayers. For fiscal 2011, Congress had already provided the Palestinians with about $150 million in direct budget support -- also known as cash -- but $200 million in security funding and about $200 million in humanitarian funding has been held up.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) released her hold on the security funding last week, but she and Granger are still holding up the non-security funding. Also, Congress is set to consider whether to allocate a whole new tranche of aid to the PA as part of the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal 2012 State and foreign ops spending bill. That bill could come up in the Senate this week or next, leading to a House-Senate conference behind closed doors to iron out a final compromise bill.
"We understand the developments that have led some to call for a suspension or termination of aid to the PA," the 44 lawmakers wrote. "However, these legitimate concerns must be weighed against the essential role that U.S. assistance to the PA plays in providing security and stability for Palestinians and Israelis as well as critical humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people - and the potential consequences if this assistance is terminated."
Currently, the House version of next year's foreign aid bill would terminate all aid to the PA unless the Palestinian government drops its statehood bid at the United Nations and enters into direct negotiations with Israel. The Senate version is less strict; it would only withdraw the funding if the Palestinians actually succeed in joining the United Nations, which isn't likely due to the U.S. veto power at the Security Council. The Senate bill would also give the president a waiver over cutting aid to the PA.
"The prospect of continued assistance depends on the actions of Palestinian leadership, which can choose to pursue a path of direct negotiations rather than a counterproductive and destabilizing push for statehood through the UN and affiliated agencies," Matthew Dennis, spokesperson for Lowey, told The Cable.
"The chairwoman takes the views of all members into consideration," said Matt Leffingwell, spokesman for Granger.
President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that it wants U.S. aid to the PA to continue, because the assistance impacts Israeli security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, told The Cable last week that he agrees that aid to the PA is important but will fight to end it anyway because of the politics surrounding the issue.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Democratic lawmakers who are making the case for the aid, along with some non-governmental organizations such as J Street, want to make sure top appropriators know that there is some support for aid to the Palestinians in Congress.
"The Price-Welch letter puts down a marker that there is a difference of opinion on whether aid to the PA should continue in Congress," Dylan Williams, J Street's director of government affairs, told The Cable today.
Williams said that many of the letter's signers supported House Resolution 268, passed in June, which threatened to cut off aid to the PA if it continued to seek U.N. membership. But seeing as how the Palestinians were able to join UNESCO with overwhelming international support, forcing the United States to stop contributing to that organization, he said those threats no longer makes sense.
"The situation has changed since HRes 268 and the bid to keep the Palestinians away from the United Nations has failed," Williams said.
The State Department is trying to convince Congress not to cut U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the fact that the Palestinians are defying the United States by seeking statehood at the United Nations and specialized U.N. agencies.
"Congress should be aware of the potential second and third order effects of cutting off assistance to Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday. "We must ask ourselves, if we are no longer their partner, who will fill the void? We must think about the other potential partners that could fill the space left behind, and that should give us pause."
When the State and Foreign Ops appropriations bill comes up in the senate, probably next week, foreign aid will be scrutinized like never before by legislators eager to find budget cuts wherever they can. Leaders in both parties have also pledged to cut U.S. aid to the PA in order to punish the Palestinians for seeking statehood outside the peace process.
Just last week, lawmakers reacted angrily to the Palestinians' successful bid to join UNESCO, which triggered a law requiring the U.S. government to halt its contributions to the organization.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee ranking Republican Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable on Nov. 1 that Congress is poised to cut off all U.S. funding for the PA, which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
The Cable asked Shapiro how the State Department planned to defend PA funding and what the prospects were for success.
"We are in discussions with Capitol Hill about the best way to provide support," Shapiro responded. "Hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement with Capitol Hill that preserves our interests."
Shapiro also urged Congress not to place conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt, which includes billions in military and economic support funding each year.
"I know that the uncertainty of the Egyptian transition has prompted some in Congress to propose conditioning our military assistance to Egypt. The administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach," Shapiro said. "Now is not the time to add further uncertainty in the region or disrupt our relationship with Egypt. Conditioning our assistance to Egypt risks putting our relations in a contentious place at the worst possible moment."
He also addressed State Department funding of political training for parties in Egypt, even Islamic parties that may have anti-Western agendas.
"As these Arab countries are going into political transitions, a number of new people are coming into the political process, many of whom describe themselves as Islamists. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are anti-democratic." Shapiro said. "We need to support an effort and structure to channel this energy that's coming into the political process into an understanding of what democracy means and the benefits of it, and our training on the ground is designed to do so."
The Cable also asked Shapiro to explain the State Department's latest thinking on the proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which is also facing stiff congressional opposition. State has said it will consider the report of an "independent" Bahraini human rights commission before moving forward with the sale. Shapiro said that U.S. policymakers will also consider the Bahrain government's response to the report.
"We have committed that we will not move forward with that sale until the report comes out and we are able to assess the reporting and the Bahraini government response," he said.
Following the State Department's announcement that it had cut off U.S. funding from UNESCO in response to its overwhelming vote in favor of accepting the Palestinian bid for full membership, senators from both parties predicted the United States would cut funding or even withdraw from several other international organizations the Palestinians seek to join.
As The Cable reported last month, the Obama administration is required by existing U.S. law to cut off funding for any international organization that grants the Palestinians full membership. . Membership in UNESCO also grants the Palestinians membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The United States is not a member of UNIDO, but will be forced to stop contributing to WIPO.
But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Palestinians could seek membership in more prominent international organizations, which could result in the United States defunding or even withdrawing from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The AP reported today that the Palestinian Authority was examining seeking membership in 16 more U.N. organizations.
While leading senators in both parties acknowledge that such an outcome would be negative for U.S. interests and influence, they have no intention of intervening to change the law. To the contrary, several top senators in both parties told The Cable they support the policy and will work to enforce it, despite the consequences.
"This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
"There's a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this," he said. "What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That's what's at risk here. That would be a great loss."
Graham said he believes it is in the U.S. interest to actively participate in these organizations. And yet, he plans to introduce a Senate resolution to formally withdraw U.S. membership in UNESCO -- a more serious action than simply cutting off funds. He intends to do the same for any other international organizations the Palestinians succeed in joining.
Graham also said that Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
"I don't think that's in our near-term or long-term interest, but that's what's going to happen, that's where this thing is headed," Graham said.
But isn't the United States just spiting itself by withdrawing from organizations in order to punish them for recognizing the Palestinians?
"Not really," Graham replied. "The world has to make a decision.... If the U.N. is going to be a body that buys into Palestinian statehood ... then they suffer. It's a decision they make."
Graham is seen as the most important GOP lawmaker in the fight to maintain foreign aid and U.S. involvement in international organizations, because of his subcommittee position and his genuine support for such issues. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian recognition, the politics just don't allow any room for compromise, he said.
"I'm the closest thing to a friend [U.N. supporters] have [in the GOP]," he said. "But if the Palestinians continue to go to more organizations, such as the World Health Organization, well -- it's just going to be politically impossible for a guy like me to support a body who's playing a destructive game with the peace process."
Most of Graham's GOP colleagues are not as conflicted as he is with the idea of U.S. withdrawal from U.N. organizations.
"They've made a decision and they will pay the consequences for their decision," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable, referring to UNESCO. "And that is that U.S. tax dollars are not going to be spent, if I have anything to do with it, on organizations that take the measures they've taken."
Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don't plan to do anything about it.
"We've put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it."
Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO's General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.
Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.
"That's what the law requires. It's been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that's the law," he said.
The senators don't blame the Obama administration for what is happening at the United Nations, because the administration has consistently called for the Palestinians to stop their statehood bid there. But Hill staffers in both parties have complained that the administration doesn't seem to have a plan to get out of the crisis or find a way around the law.
One Senate Republican staffer close to the issue told The Cable, "The administration is behaving just like a deer frozen in the headlights on this."
Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."
ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.
The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.
"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."
Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.
"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."
Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.
"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said. "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."
ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.
But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.
"There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."
ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.
"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."
Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.
In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.
"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.
Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."
Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.
Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."
"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."
Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.
"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."
And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.