Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Washington today for a trip to the Gulf, where she will meet with senior Arab leaders and civic groups. Middle East peace, Iraq, and Iran will be at the top of her agenda.
Clinton travels to New York tonight to pay a visit to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has been in New York since November for surgery on his back. She'll also meet tonight with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in New York, before embarking on a six-day trip that will take her to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
"She is going to want to talk about Iraq," a senior State Department official said about the trip. "We obviously want to encourage [regional leaders in the Gulf] to be as supportive as possible to the new Iraqi government."
"On the peace process, I think it's time once again for the secretary to take stock on what is happening in the region," the official said. "She will want to talk a bit about where the Arab peace initiative is and she will want to get a better sense of how the region sees the situation on the ground both in terms of both the Palestinian Authority and also in terms of the talks... We are very eager to see progress made but it's an uphill battle."
Clinton will also sound out the Gulf rulers on their opinions toward Iran's recent actions, said the official. With the "P5+1" countries scheduled to hold another round of talks with Iran in Istanbul, it is an important moment to attempt to "unknot this problem that we find ourselves in with the Iranians and their nuclear ambitions," the official said. "She'll also want to take stock of where we are on the sanctions regime."
Clinton will hold bilateral meetings with senior leaders in all three countries. In the UAE, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince, and his brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister.
This will be Clinton's first visit to Dubai, where she will meet with ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She will also go to Abu Dhabi and visit the "green city" of Masdar, the futuristic neighborhood being built to run completely carbon neutral and waste free.
In Oman, Clinton will help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who the State Department official described as "a long time friend of the United States and a valued partner who has made enormous changes on the ground in his country over the last 40 years. "
In Qatar, Clinton will meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, and participate in the Forum for the Future, a meeting of government, civil society, and business leaders from around the region. There she will participate in a panel with a foreign minister, a civil society representative, and a business leader from the region.
The State Department is billing the trip as "an opportunity to showcase these other dimensions of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly the emphasis we've placed on building partnerships beyond the government to government level, reaching out to civil society, reaching out to the private sector," said another senior State Department official. "That's really the key goal for everything that she's doing on the trip."
A Democratic House lawmaker is calling on France not to sell advanced anti-tank weapons to Lebanon, out of fear they could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.
"As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If this were to occur, Israel would be in grave danger of having your anti-tank missile used against her," Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I agree in principle that strengthening the LAF against Hezbollah is an important goal, but I believe that providing the LAF with anti-tank missiles is neither helpful nor necessary in that regard."
Rothman's letter is just the latest in a string of actions from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioning the wisdom of continued military assistance to the LAF from both the U.S. and other countries. In November, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and House Foreign Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) released their hold on $100 million of U.S. military assistance to the LAF after months of seeking assurances from the State Department that the materiel would not fall into Hezbollah hands.
Rothman is a member of the House Appropriations Defense -- as well as the State and Foreign Ops -- subcommittees.
Israel has opposed the sale of the HOT* anti-tank missile to the LAF since their 2006 war with Hezbollah and has continued its opposition after a border clash this past August resulted in five deaths. Following the border skirmish, the administration dispatched Frederic Hof, senior aide to Special Envoy George Mitchell, to warn the Lebanese government that U.S military assistance wasn't guaranteed and future Hezbollah mischief would push Congress over its tolerance limit.
U.S. military assistance to the LAF has focused mainly on small arms, munitions, training, and vehicles, such as Harley Davidson motorcycles. The administration believes strongly that the LAF does a good job of keeping control over its military equipment and that strengthening the LAF is the best way to keep it from slipping further toward Hezbollah's control.
"We remain determined to work with the Lebanese government to extend its authority over all of Lebanon, and to advance political and economic reforms that benefit the people of Lebanon," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said on a September trip to Beirut. "This commitment includes U.S. support to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is part of an international effort to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state and the ability of the Lebanese Government to exercise its sovereignty and authority over all of its territory."
The administration doesn't believe that Hezbollah is on the verge of "usurping" the LAF and doesn't believe that giving aid to Lebanon undermines Israel's "Qualitative Military Edge," a U.S. commitment to always make sure Israel is stronger than its neighbors.
While the Obama team is unlikely to publicly raise the issue of the HOT missile sales during Sarkozy's trip to Washington in January, officials could raise it privately, as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the issue of the French sale to Russia of the amphibious assault ship Mistral.
The United States has provided the LAF with over $700 million in assistance since 2007, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and is requesting $132 million more for fiscal 2011. But Congress is sure to ask whether that aid is really being used against the threat from Hezbollah or Israel.
"To the extent that U.S. security assistance is limited to training and items designed to improve Lebanese government capability to contain and potentially disarm Hezbollah and other internal threats, they may become incompatible with the evolving threat perceptions and political intentions of Lebanon's political leadership," wrote CRS. "Events continue to suggest that Lebanese leaders are prepared to seek security assistance and weapons from non-U.S. sources to meet their perceived needs."
*The HOT (Haut subsonique Optiquement Téléguidé Tiré d'un Tube) missile is a long-range, anti-tank weapon that can be mounted from a tank or a helicopter. It is manufactured by MBDA, a joint corporation of French and German defense firms. Its name, roughly translated, means "High Subsonic Optical Remote-Guided Fired from Tube."
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for seven hours in New York in an attempt to strike a deal on extending Israel's partial moratorium on settlement construction. This week, the State Department announced it would no longer pursue a settlement freeze extension as a way to revive the talks.
Why did the agreement fall apart? The United States had offered Israel a host of security incentives, including 20 brand-new fighter planes, for Netanyahu to take back to his cabinet in exchange for a renewed three month settlement moratorium. But President Barack Obama never put that deal in writing, and the Israelis never were clear on its terms or what would happen when the three extra months expired.
"We have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. "We will consult with the parties in the coming days as we move forward. And as we proceed, our position on settlements has not and will not change. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we will continue to express that position."
When Clinton takes the microphone on Friday evening at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center event, the world will be watching to see how she charts out the U.S. view on the way forward for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She's predicted to say by experts close to the administration that that the direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians will formally pause, and that the United States will begin "parallel talks" with each side separately.
There is a slight difference between the "parallel" talks and the "proximity" talks that preceded the "direct" talks, which started in September with great fanfare. In the "proximity" talks, the two sides were in close proximity and the U.S. mediator shuttled back and forth between the parties. In "parallel" talks, the U.S. meetings with the two sides could be far apart in both time and geography.
But Clinton is expected to argue that the parallel talks are the best way to get back to direct talks, which the United States still believes are the only way to reach a negotiated two-state solution. She is not expected to spell out exactly how long the "parallel" talks could last.
Some experts see the shift as an overdue recognition by the Obama administration that their focus on the settlement issue was wrongheaded, as was their commitment to extending the direct talks, no matter the cost.
"Their actions are an admission that the route they were on was not the right one," said Rob Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group. "The U.S. administration reached the conclusion they couldn't get the deal [with the Israelis] and even if they got it, it wasn't clear the Palestinians would accept it. And even if they accepted it, wasn't clear what would happen after 90 days expired except that there could be another crisis."
Crowley acknowledged that the negotiations over the proposed 3-month extension of the settlement moratorium became too much of the focus of negotiations.
"We thought that this had, in a sense, become an end in itself rather than a means to an end," Crowley acknowledged. "We're going to focus on the substance and to try to begin to make progress on the core issues themselves. And we think that will create the kind of momentum that we need to see - to get to sustained and meaningful negotiations."
Over the last month, the Israelis had intense discussions with U.S. officials about the specifics of the offer to extend the settlement moratorium, but the negotiations never came to fruition. For example, regarding the 20 F-35 fighter jets the Obama administration was offering as a sweetener, the Israelis wanted to know how the United States could promise the fighters without Congressional approval. They also had further questions about the offer: Who would pay for the planes? When would they be delivered? Could the Obama administration even promise F-35 planes, considering they don't yet exist and are years behind schedule?
More broadly, the United States never agreed to Netanyahu's demand that this would be the very last time the Israelis would be asked to extend the settlement moratorium. Moreover, administration officials could not assure Israel that the 90 days would yield progress toward a peace deal. The Palestinians would just wait out the three months, the Israelis predicted.
"We felt uncomfortable with the premise of it," one Israeli official told The Cable, "It would not necessarily guarantee that after three months time we would make any headway with the Palestinians, so we in three months would be in the same situation we are today."
And so the negotiations fizzled. They were snuffed out when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Israeli official closest to the Obama team, publicly declared the direct talks over because, as he put it, the United States was "very busy with North Korea and the WikiLeaks releases."
Barak is headed to Washington Friday, where he will attend the Saban Center event and meet with Clinton on Friday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates next Monday. Israeli negotiator Isaac Molcho is also in town with his team. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is also speaking at the Saban event, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will be in Washington with his team to meet with Obama administration officials. Special Envoy George Mitchell will travel to the region next week.
The Israeli line is that end of the neogtiations over settlements is a good thing, because it will force the Palestinians to choose to either come back to the table without what Israel calls "preconditions," such as a settlement freeze.
"It's probably better to redefine the playing rules and the Palestinians are going to have to back down from their precondition," the Israeli official said. "They can't just wait for the Americans to deliver the Israelis on a plate."
But the Palestinians view the failure of the U.S.-Israeli negotiations as just one more sign that the Israelis will never meet their demand to stop building in disputed areas while talks are ongoing. They also see the failure to convince Israel to agree to a settlement freeze as yet another sign the Obama administration isn't willing to use sufficient leverage over Israel to advance the peace process.
"Although the U.S. administration may have their own reasons, the fact that they have backed down [from insisting on a moratorium extension], an objective they set for themselves a year and a half ago, is really of a great concern to us," said the head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat in an interview. "One wonders in the future if they will be able to get Israel to comply with international law to reach a conclusion to the process."
In the most favorable analysis, by taking settlements off the table, the Obama administration can now come up with new and creative ways to get both parties back to the negotiating table -- without constantly looking at the clock.
"We have removed self imposed obstacles by agreeing that we will give up on the settlement freeze and by removing the requirement for direct talks," said Malley.
But that still leaves all sides quite far away from real, sustainable progress towards peace.
"All of the other obstacles remain," Malley added. "The lack of trust and the huge gaps between the two sides, the divided Palestinians, the dysfunctional Israelis, the polarization of the region, the damaged credibility of the U.S... all those remain."
On a February trip to the Middle East, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told Qatari leaders that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, that a Palestinian capital should be established in East Jerusalem as part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that he was "shocked" by what he saw on a visit to Gaza.
Kerry discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a visit to Qatar during separate meetings with Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as revealed by the disclosure of diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks.
The emir told Kerry to focus on Syria as the path toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kerry agreed with the emir that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a man who wants change but pointed out that his arming of Hezbollah and interference in Lebanese politics were unhelpful. Kerry said that Assad "needs to make a bolder move and take risks" for peace, and that he should be "more statesman-like." Kerry also agreed with the emir that the Golan Heights should be given back to Syria at some point.
"The Chairman added that Netanyahu also needs to compromise and work the return of the Golan Heights into a formula for peace," the diplomatic cable reported.
As for the peace process, Kerry defended the Obama administration's drive to use indirect proximity talks (which were only being discussed at that time) as a stepping stone to direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He said the two sides should first agree on the amount of land to be swapped and then work on borders, followed by settlements.
Kerry also said that final agreement would have to include a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Any negotiation has its limits, added Senator Kerry, and we know for the Palestinians that control of Al-Aqsa mosque and the establishment of some kind of capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not negotiable," the cable stated, summarizing the meeting with the emir. "For the Israelis, the Senator continued, Israel's character as a Jewish state is not open for negotiation. The non-militarization of an eventual Palestinian state and its borders can nonetheless be resolved through negotiation."
In a separate meeting the day before with the prime minister, Kerry resisted the Qatari leader's assertion that Hamas was ready to accept the existence of the State of Israel, but he agreed that urgent action was needed to rebuild Gaza.
According to the leaked diplomatic cable, the prime minister told Kerry, "We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza… Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ [Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani] was preaching to the converted and told the PM he was ‘shocked by what I saw in Gaza.'"
In a telling exchange at the end of his meeting with the emir, the Qatari ruler gave Kerry some advice for dealing with the Iranian government.
"The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100," the cable said.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
While the White House continues to negotiate with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) in an attempt to convince him to allow a vote on the New START treaty this year, it is also undertaking a massive effort behind the scenes to rally foreign governments and non-governmental organizations to support the treaty’s ratification and put public pressure on Republicans to yield.
As part of that effort, the White House has been in contact with pro-Israel and pro-Jewish organizations, encouraging them to be vocal about their support for the New START treaty, and warning them that the failure of the treaty could have negative implications for the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
“Certainly we’ve been in touch with all sorts of different groups saying if you feel strongly about the treaty, we hope your voice will be heard,” a senior administration official said when asked about whether Jewish groups had been contacted. The official added that the administration had not asked anyone to contact lawmakers.
Over the last three days, three major pro-Israel organizations issued strong statements of support for New START: the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Council for World Jewry (ACWJ).
"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the new START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a Nov. 19 letter sent to all senators. "The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation."
The ACWJ said on Monday that Russia's "cooperation is indispensable to assuring global security and American goals, notably in blocking Iran’s dangerous quest for its own nuclear capability."
NJDC President David Harris told The Cable in an interview that he had been in touch with the administration and had meetings that included discussions of New START with officials.
“The White House made it very clear that this was a very high priority of this administration,” Harris said. “They’ve been helpful in providing resources, but they cannot and would not encourage outside the groups to lobby. But we have had conversations about the level of importance of New START.”
“To me the nexus is clear,” Harris said. “Ratifying New START is should be a central objective of the entire pro-Israel community.”
Missing from the list of groups endorsing New START, however, is the largest pro-Israel non-governmental organization, AIPAC. Also missing from the list of endorsements is any public statement from the Israeli government itself, despite the fact that several European leaders have come out strongly in support of New START.
“We have no position on the treaty. We are staying above the political discussion in Washington,” one Israeli official told The Cable. The official could not confirm rumors we’ve heard that the administration asked Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to speak out, but that Oren declined. Recently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been strengthening ties with Russia, even saying in September, “Our views on many challenges of today are close or identical.”
The official said that the Israel government was sensitive to perceptions that they were interfering in American domestic politics, following a meeting earlier this month between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
Vice President Joseph Biden explained why the New START treaty was critical to the effort to isolate Iran in a small roundtable with foreign policy columnists, including your humble Cable guy, at the White House Nov. 19.
“I’m not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we’re back in the Cold War with Russia but I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might very well be different,” Biden said, referring to what he called “unprecedented” Russian cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.
He praised Russia’s decision to forgo selling the S-300 air defense missile to Iran as well as Moscow’s cooperation in bringing new multilateral sanctions against Tehran via the U.N. Security Council. “Absent that cooperation I think [it] is problematic whether or not China or even Europe would have made some of the tougher sanctions decisions that we made,” Biden said.
Back on Capitol Hill, staffers on both sides of the issue are well aware of the administration’s recent activity but had starkly different views on its wisdom and efficacy.
“The idea that this administration, which has manifestly undermined the U.S.-Israel relationship at every turn, would gin up pro-Israel groups to ram this treaty through in the lame duck [session] is a new low, even for an administration that has made a habit of alienating friends and allies,” said one senior GOP Senate aide involved in the issue.
But another Senate aide who is involved in both the New START and Iran issues saw the logic of linking the two.
“It’s politically smart to do this. Once of the central arguments that the administration has been making is that the START treaty is important due to its impact on U.S.-Russia relations and one of the achievements has been to convince Russia to adopt a more cooperative approach on Iran,” the aide said.
But the jury is still out on whether advocacy by pro-Israel groups can cause senior Senate Republicans to rethink their positions. “The center of gravity is still Jon Kyl so I don’t know how it effective it will be in influencing his calculations,” the aide said.
A Democratic congressional staffer who is also a strong supporter of Israel argued that, if it were Democrats holding up the treaty, Republicans would surely be playing the Israel card.
“If the roles were reversed and the Democrats were playing
politics with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, we’d be eviscerated by the pro-Israel
community,” the staffer said. “We’d be getting our ass kicked about it, no
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-hour marathon meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday in New York could signal a turning point in the effort to revive the stalled Middle East peace talks, as the administration works to resolve the dispute over Israeli settlement building by turning the focus to borders and security.
The Obama administration's latest strategy seems to have two main elements, according to a senior official's read out of the meeting and analysis by current and former officials on both sides. First, the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu as many security guarantees as possible in order to give the Israeli government increased confidence to move to a discussion of the borders that would delineate the two future states. Second, the administration wants to work toward an understanding on borders so that both sides can know where they can and can't build for the duration of the peace process.
"If there in fact is progress in the next several months, I'm confident people will look back at this meeting between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu as the foundation of the progress. It was that important," former Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable.
Wexler said that President Obama had long been asking both the Israelis and the Palestinians for clarity on the territories they envisioned being part of their future states. The recent meeting, he said, could be an important step in that direction -- at least in clarifying Israel's position.
"I am hopeful that yesterday's meeting was the beginning of clarity in terms of Israel's visions about her own borders -- where does Israel want Israel's borders to be," said Wexler. "Because ultimately, we can't help our close friend until they share with us their own vision."
The meeting was the highest level interaction between the U.S. and Israeli governments since the last round of direct talks in September. Wexler said that while the two leaders didn't sit down with a map and draw lines around particular neighborhoods, the administration's switch to a focus on borders as a means of getting at the settlements problem was clear. "It's the only rational, sane way to proceed," he said. "Talking about borders and territories will by definition minimize the impact of the settlement issue."
Wexler said that by virtue of the fact that the meeting was seven hours, it's reasonable to assume that significant progress was made. "I think we're very close to creating that magic formula that satisfies both the Israelis and the Palestinians to come back to the table."
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, wasn't so sure. He pointed to the boilerplate statement that Clinton and Netanyahu issued after the meeting as evidence that no real breakthrough was achieved.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary Clinton had a good discussion today, with a friendly and productive exchange of views on both sides. Secretary Clinton reiterated the United States' unshakable commitment to Israel's security and to peace in the region," the statement read.
But Areikat endorsed the idea of discussing borders ahead of the settlements issue, saying that's what the Palestinian side has been advocating all along.
"The conventional wisdom is that if we deal with the issue of the borders then we will be able, by default, to deal with the issue of settlements -- and if you can define the borders of the two states and agree on these borders, then each party can build in its own territory without being contested by the other party," Areikat told The Cable. "This is what everybody is aiming at.... Now whether the Americans are going to succeed in convincing the Israelis to do it, we have to wait and see."
Of course, the two sides disagree over the order of events even when discussing the border issue.
"The Palestinian position is that we need to agree on the borders, then we will discuss in parallel the security arrangements. The Israelis are saying no, we need to define first what the security arrangements are to project what the final borders will be," Areikat explained.
In what appears to be a recognition of the Israeli position, Clinton and her team apparently spent a good deal of their time with the Netanyahu team spelling out a long list of additional security guarantees the Obama administration is offering to Israel.
In a Friday morning conference call with Jewish community leaders, notes of which were provided to The Cable, the National Security Council's Dan Shapiro described several of the ways America has been advocating on behalf of Israel's security in recent months. They included increased U.S. diplomatic opposition to efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora, continuing to block efforts to revive the Goldstone Report at the United Nations, promising to block condemnation of Israel at the United Nations for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, and defeating resolutions aimed to expose Israel's nuclear program at the IAEA, and increasing pressure on Iran and Syria to stop their nuclear and proliferation activities.
The U.S. position on settlements has not officially changed, Shapiro said. The United States still believes that the Israeli settlement moratorium should be extended, but that Palestinians should stay in peace talks even if it is not. He said that President Obama -- who said Monday that Israeli settlement construction was "never helpful" to peace talks Israel announced further construction plans in East Jerusalem -- wasn't trying to publicly criticize Netanyahu with his remarks. He simply answered a question put to him in a direct way, said Shapiro.
The Clinton-Netanyahu meeting was the culmination of several days of intensive, personal attention to the issue by Clinton herself. On Tuesday, she held a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to announce $150 million in new U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. On Wednesday, she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman to discuss the Middle East peace process.
But in the Washington press, the seven-hour conversation was somewhat overshadowed by Netanyahu's meeting with incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Unlike Clinton, Cantor publicly disclosed what he told Netanyahu.
"Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," read a statement from Cantor's office on the one-on-one meeting. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."
Wexler said he didn't see a problem with Cantor's remarks or stance. "It's a perfectly natural, appropriate meeting to have," said Wexler, who pointed out that Netanyahu also met with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). "I don't believe he intended to play the president, the prime minister, or anyone else against one another."
But Areikat saw Cantor's stance as extremely unhelpful.
"This amounts to undermining the efforts of the U.S. to achieve peace," he said. "People like Eric Cantor who blindly oppose the Palestinians, they think they are helping Israeli interests but he is hurting Israeli interests. By making these statements they are hardening Israeli positions."
UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that Shapiro was describing a list of ways America was already working on behalf of Israel's security, not a new list of incentives discussed in the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting.
Now that the Republicans are projected to take control of the House, we here at The Cable would like to introduce you to the next head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Ros-Lehtinen has been a force on the committee for years as the vocal, passionate, sometimes combative ranking Republican. A Cuban-American lawmaker from a heavily Jewish district, Ros-Lehtinen has staked out firm positions on several issues that stand in contrast to now outgoing chairman Howard Berman (D-CA). Her ascendancy as chairwoman will change the tone and agenda of the committee and will pose new challenges for the Obama administration's efforts to advance its foreign-policy agenda.
Over the mid to long term, Ros-Lehtinen is poised to thwart Obama's efforts to move toward repealing sanctions on Fidel Castro and resist any White House attempts to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She isn't likely to move Berman's foreign-aid reform bill through the committee and she is likely to seek cuts in the foreign-aid budget in her authorization bill.
But most significantly, gone will be the days when the committee deferred to the administration on the order of foreign-policy priorities. The committee will also stop taking the administration's word when it comes to matters of policy oversight.
For example, although Berman and Ros-Lehtinen agreed on the need to push tough sanctions on Iran, Berman delayed action on the bill to allow Obama's engagement effort to play out. Ros-Lehtinen might not be so accommodating.
"The Berman people were ahead of the Obama team on a number of things, but they deferred to the administration on timing. You are going to see more aggressiveness, to push an agenda and not to defer to the administration," said a Republican congressional aide.
We're also told that there's no love lost between the staffs of Berman and Ros-Lehtinen. Ros-Lehtinen's staff is said to be very disciplined and at the same time aggressive. They are not easy to negotiate with, according to our sources, and very effective at achieving their aims.
In the near term, Ros-Lehtinen could cause complications for the administration's foreign policy in a number of ways. She is a Russia skeptic, and wants more investigation into the civilian nuclear agreement with Russia that is currently before the Congress. Congress probably won't move to block this deal, but Ros-Lehtinen is sure to schedule hearings to pick apart future deals planned with Jordan, South Korea, and Vietnam.
Ros-Lehtinen will be pushing the administration to strictly enforce new sanctions law against Iran. If the mere threat of penalties under the law doesn't entice large international companies to leave Iran, she will call for the administration to start punishing those companies, even if they are from China or Russia.
Immediately after the election, Ros-Lehtinen will be leading a bipartisan congressional effort to demand more information about the administration's planned sale of $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale in U.S. history.
In a previously unreported letter, obtained exclusively by The Cable, Ros-Lehtinen joined with Berman to demand that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates answer several outstanding questions about the deal.
"We are writing to raise concerns and pose a number of strategic questions about the impact such sales would have on the national security interests of the United States and our allies," they wrote. The Obama administration defends the deal as vital, and Israel raised few objections.
"There are a lot of questions to be answered on this," a GOP House aide said. "If Israel doesn't strongly object that doesn't mean it's not problematic."
If the GOP is able to exert more control over foreign policy, that will also impact how foreign leaders and foreign governments interact with the United States. Foreign countries will have to pay more attention to Congress, and may further discount President Obama's ability to deliver.
"Gridlock has some implications of its own," said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're sending a message to international leaders that they will have to work both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue."
AFP / Getty Images
Congress may not be in charge of making foreign policy, but it sure can influence its implementation. Since taking office in January 2009, members of Congress -- drawn primarily but not exclusively from the ranks of the GOP -- have slowed the Obama administration's efforts to advance its strategy when dealing with Russia, Syria, Israel, Cuba, and a host of other relationships. And the midterm elections won't be making things any easier for President Barack Obama.
GOP lawmakers stand to play a huge role in the upcoming debates next year over the promised July 2011 drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, whether to maintain or increase U.S. foreign assistance packages, and how strongly to press countries such as Russia and China to implement new sanctions against Iran.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In a rousing 30-minute speech Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implored attendees at the annual gala for the American Task Force on Palestine not to give up on the struggling Middle East peace process, despite past, current, and future obstacles.
Hosted by ATFP President Ziad Asali, the event was packed with officials, experts, and influence makers involved with the region. The four honorees of the night were Retired Col. Peter Mansoor, renowned poet Naomi Shihab Nye, playwright Betty Shamieh, and Booz Allen Hamilton's Ghassan Salameh. Other notables figures in attendance included Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud and Sharif El-Gamal, the developer of the Park 51 Muslim Community Center. Palestinian-American comedienne Maysoon Zayid was also a hit.
All attendees we spoke to praised Clinton's speech as a fair and balanced (no pun intended) assessment of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and an impassioned plea for both sides in the conflict to redouble their efforts to reach a negotiated and permanent end to the conflict. "She could have given the same exact speech to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]," said one very satisfied attendee.
Of course, Clinton didn't get into the details of the ongoing negotiations to try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay engaged in the direct talks they started last month. But she touched on almost every other issue related to the situation.
Here are some key excerpts:
On the current impasse in the peace talks:
We have no illusions about the difficulty of resolving the final status issues of borders and security, settlements and refugees, of Jerusalem and water. And it's no secret that we are in a difficult period. When President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington last month to re-launch direct negotiations, we knew there would be setbacks and struggles.Our position on settlements is well-known and has not changed. And our determination to encourage the parties to continue talking has not wavered.
I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse. But I can tell you we are working every day, sometimes every hour, to create the conditions for negotiations to continue and succeed. We are urging both sides to avoid any actions that would undermine trust or prejudice the outcomes of the talks. Senator Mitchell will soon return to the region for further consultations. We have not given up and neither have President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu.
On the value of the two state solution for Palestinians:
For Palestinians, a two-state solution would mean an independent, viable, and sovereign state of their and your own; the freedom to travel, to do business, and govern themselves. Palestinians would have the right to chart their own destinies at last. The indignity of occupation would end and a new era of opportunity, promise, and justice would begin... There is no substitute for face-to-face discussion and, ultimately, for an agreement that leads to a just and lasting peace. That is the only path that will lead to the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspirations and the necessary outcome of two states for two peoples.
On what the two states should look like:
We remain convinced that if they persevere with negotiations, the parties can agree on an outcome that ends the conflict; reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps and Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel's security requirements. This will resolve all the core issues and, as President Abbas said the other day, end all historical claims.
On seeing past the false choices of the conflict:
Being pro-Palestinian does not mean you must reject Israel's right to exist. And being pro-Israel does not mean you must deny the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. The path to security and dignity for both peoples lies in negotiations that result in two states living side by side in peace and prosperity, and a comprehensive peace in the entire region.+
On the need for more money for the Palestinian Authority:
The Palestinian Authority needs a larger, steadier, and more predictable source of financial support. The United States is proud to be the Palestinian Authority's largest donor. The European Union has stepped up as well. But the broader international community, including many Arab states, can and should provide more financial support. It takes far more than commitments and plans to support making the State of Palestine a reality. And in fact, as the Palestinian economy has increased, the need for future assistance has decreased, but there is still a gap and that gap has to be filled.
On her wish to increase economic activity in Gaza:
Now, we still need many more steps from Israel to enable more economic activity in Gaza, including exports that bolster legitimate business enterprises. Our goal is to support sustainable economic growth in Gaza, and it's a little-known fact that the Palestinian Authority is the principal financial supporter of Gaza. The people in Gaza are dependent upon the Palestinian Authority, which is another reason why the increase in economic activity in the West Bank is not only good for those who live in the West Bank, but those who live in Gaza as well.
On the Obama administration's commitment to seeing it through:
This is not easy. If it were, anybody could have done it already. We've had leaders who have given their lives to this work, and now we have a moment in time that we must seize. I urge you to help lead the way. And I promise you this: The Obama administration will not turn our backs on either the people of Palestine or Israel. We will continue working for and, God willing, achieving the just, lasting, and comprehensive peace that has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for years.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, who laid down a marker by arguing in Thursday's New York Times that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state now, met with a host of Arab American leaders the night before to explain recent Israeli decisions regarding the peace process and assure them of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to the end goal.
Hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is led by rumored future U.S. ambassador to Israel, Robert Wexler, Oren responded to questions from a range of groups, including the American Task Force on Palestine, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, the Palestinian Business Committee for Peace and Reform, AMIDEAST, the American Task Force on Lebanon, the El-Bireh Palestine Society, and others.
Here are some excerpts of what Oren said:
On the Israeli attitude to the peace process:
To understand [the Israeli] perspective you need to understand that first of all Israel, and Israelis, have been through a great deal over the course of the last decade, since 2000, certainly... What is extraordinary, I believe, is that in spite of all this upheaval and violence and trauma, that a significant majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution... That's the good news. The less-than-good news is that as a result of all these disappointments and setbacks in violence, many Israelis, a significant majority, almost the same majority that supports a two-state solution, is skeptical about the ability to achieve that solution; skeptical of the Palestinian leadership's willingness to step up and make that historical peace; skeptical of the willingness of the Palestinian people specifically, and of the broader Arab world to accept a permanent and Jewish state in the Middle East; skeptical about an end of violence.
On the current status of the talks:
I won't dissemble the fact, I don't think I could dissemble the fact, that we are at an impasse tonight. We are each in our own corner -- the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Arab League, I think the administration also -- and we're looking for the right bell that will get us out of these corners and get us to the middle but not swinging, talking. And I would be misleading you to indicate in any way that I have the magic formula, that anybody has the magic formula for this. I can only assure you, again, that this government and the Prime Minister are deeply and unequivocally committed to this process.
On Netanyahu's offer to extend the settlement freeze only if Palestinians accept Israel as a "Jewish state":
The situation was created where there was a complete impasse in the talks. The PM felt that with the level of skepticism - that some measure had to be given by the Palestinians that would reassure the Israeli public, the Israeli public that feels they have made concession after concession whether it is recognition of the two state solution, the support from the bottom up, the security in the West Bank-they needed to hear something from the Palestinians that the Palestinians were serious about peace. And the Prime Minister felt that if he had that from the Palestinians-and once again this was only created by the end of the moratorium issue-that he could go to the government and try to persuade them on the extension. He did not.
On the right of return for Palestinian refugees:
We also understand that here is a final status issue, a classic one that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means that Palestinian refugees will not be resettled there. They will be resettled in the Palestinian state and not in the Jewish statme or in any other state but not in the Jewish state. The demographic integrity of Israel will be preserved. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is not a tactical issue for us. It is the most fundamental issue for us. It's the absolute core of the conflict. It's what created the conflict to begin with.
On the idea of an American plan for Middle East peace:
I don't want to in any way imply that they can quickly reach this without bridging proposals by the U.S. There is a big difference between a bridging proposal and an overarching comprehensive agreement. And our fears relating to an overarching comprehensive agreement -- "this is our American version of peace" -- is that it will not meet our vital security needs, as we were talking about here earlier. And secondly that it could lead to an imposed solution. Because once it's on that table you don't know where it goes or how the tables are going to find itself. It could find itself in an international organization that could say that if the two parties do not accept this proposal they could sanctioned. That's a real fear. And in which that would put us in a very adversarial position.
On why Israel doesn't want to discuss settlements now:
Settlements -- from our perspective -- is a final status issue. It is way down the list of final status issues because settlements from our perspective are a subcategory of borders which are a subcategory of security. And so we are a long way from discussing settlements. By putting them up front, it creates a difficultly -- a political difficulty. And it further augments the skepticism that many Israelis feel about the seriousness of a Palestinian interlocutor if they're making the issue of settlements -- something that the government cannot do right now.
On the Arab Peace Initiative:
The Israeli government welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative. We welcome it as a positive contribution to the peace process. We think it's a single component of a future possible peace. We feel that it's not enough. And that the promise of normalization for withdrawal to the '67 borders would have far greater wave, and have far greater persuasive powers in the Israeli public, if the Arab world was willing to take even the minutest steps towards normalization... Israelis are generally not aware of what is in the Arab Peace Initiative. But they are aware that the Arab world is not taking any steps, even symbolic steps towards normalization. And those steps would have immense impact on Israeli public opinion.
An Israeli government official sends along this photo that he contends shows the only "humanitarian" goods found aboard the Irene, a ship of Jewish activists who tried to break the Gaza blockage.
The photo and others like it show four small backpacks with assorted toys for young children, such as coloring books, painting kits, and small dolls. The Israeli official points to the items as evidence the sole purpose of the mission was a desire to create a confrontation with the Israeli forces that are enforcing the blockade of Gaza.
"The photos show that his was another example of an unnecessary provocation that has nothing to do with helping the people of Gaza or supplying them with humanitarian aid," the official said.
The Israel Defense Forces boarded the Irene Tuesday. The IDF said the interception was peaceful, but some of the activists claimed that Israeli troops employed violence, including the use of tasers. The ship set sail from Famagusta, Cyprus, and had 10 activists on board: 5 Israelis, 3 Brits, 1 German, and 1 American, all of whom were Jewish.
Senior White House officials told a group of Jewish lawmakers Wednesday morning that the Obama administration is pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the now-lapsed settlement building moratorium for 60 days as one way to allow Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to continue, said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
The U.S. push for a 60-day freeze was reported Tuesday by Bloomberg and Politico, attributed to secondhand anonymous sources, but Levin's account is the first on the record account from a U.S. government leader that the White House has embraced the proposal as a way to keep the talks alive.
If Netanyahu accepts the deal, which he has shown no public signs of doing, negotiations begun by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 1 would likely proceed past the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 2. It is still unclear what exactly would be different on the Israeli or Palestinian sides after the 60 day period expired that would allow the process to move forward from there.
NSC senior director Dennis Ross and Michelle Obama's chief of staff Susan Sher met with only Jewish senators Wednesday morning at the White House's behest.
"They laid out some of the challenges ahead and explained what steps were being taken to keep the negotiations going," Levin said about the meeting, which went on for over an hour.
"They're talking about trying to find a way to get the parties to continue negotiating. With Netanyahu, it's about figuring out a way to get to the 60-day freeze, or with [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, trying to figure out a way on his end, if that freeze is not put back in place, to return to negotiations," Levin said. "They're trying to figure it from both directions."
Levin, who organized the meeting, declined to specify how the White House is trying to convince Abbas to continue with the peace talks if the 60-day freeze is not implemented. He was one of the 87 senators who signed a letter earlier this week asking Obama to put pressure on Abbas to stay at the negotiating table.
Today, he said he supported the strategy that the administration was pursuing.
"I'm glad the administration is working to find a way to move forward, so I was satisfied the administration is doing everything they can do," Levin said.
Special Envoy George Mitchell, his deputy David Hale, and the NSC's Dan Shapiro are in the region now, meeting with both parties. The team will meet with the Israelis today and the Palestinians Thursday. Mitchell is also planning to visit a number of Arab countries ahead of the Arab League meeting Oct. 4, where a decision regarding its position on future of the talks will be made.
"I'm not optimistic or pessimistic," Levin said about his hopes for the success of the negotiations, adding that he was skeptical of anyone who was optimistic about talks regarding the difficult challenge of reaching a Mideast peace deal.
"Realistically, there's a desire on the part of both sides to try to keep this process going. That's the heart of the matter, that both of the parties want to find a way to do it."
The White House has been ramping up its public outreach to Jewish lawmakers and community leaders throughout September in hopes of persuading them to support the process and convince their constituencies to do so as well.
In a Sept. 7 conference call with rabbis of all political stripes, Obama himself made this plea, asking Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by both Netanyahu and Abbas, calling them all part of the diplomatic game.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
Now that the Israeli settlement moratorium has expired, the world is looking to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to see if he will follow through on his threats to step away from the negotiating table. Here in Washington, lawmakers are looking to President Barack Obama to lean on Abbas to stay put.
Eighty-seven U.S. senators have already signed on to a letter, which was initially circulated only three days ago, calling on Obama to publicly pressure Abbas to continue with the direct peace talks begun Sept. 1 in Washington.
The senators sent the letter (PDF) to Obama on Monday. It stated that "Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," a thinly veiled reference to Abbas's multiple statements that he would leave the talks if the moratorium was not extended.
The senators also praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for staying at the table even though the beginning of the process was marred by violence.
"Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks," the senators wrote. "We also agree with you [Obama] that it is critical that all sides stay at the table."
Abbas isn't showing his cards yet, and has promised not to make any decisions about whether to continue the negotiations until after he consults with the Arab League on Oct. 4.
The senators' letter also called on the Arab League to do more to support the Palestinian Authority.
Some pro-Israel groups in Washington, which have perceived Obama as willing to publicly pressure Netanyahu but not Abbas, are lending their support to the senators' message.
"AIPAC strongly applauds this overwhelming, bipartisan statement supporting these important direct talks, and making crystal clear to President Abbas that staying at the table -- without preconditions or threats -- is the only path to peace," said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The seats assigned to the Israeli delegation were vacant when President Obama delivered his Thursday morning speech to the United Nations, but that was not a snub directed at Obama, an Israeli official tells The Cable.
"It's the religious holiday of Sukkot," the official e-mailed, referring to the Jewish holiday that falls on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. Sukkot is the beginning of seven days of festivities centered around the autumn harvest.
We excused ourselves in advance to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. and the administration and explained it is the Jewish Holiday," the official said.
Nevertheless, several conservative blogs posted a video showing the vacant chairs, one with the headline "Video: Israel Delegation BOYCOTTS Obama UN Address."
"For people to suggest that the Israelis were absent for any other reason than the Jewish holiday is wrong, and depending on who it's coming from, could be malicious," said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
President Obama delivered his second speech at the United Nations Thursday morning, giving a full-throated defense of his first 20 months in office and a sober assessment of the challenges that lie ahead.
He pled for the world to aggressively support the U.S.-led direct peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Specifically, he called on Arab nations to demonstrate their support through changes in policy that could help repair relations between Israel and its neighbors.
"Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians. But these pledges must now be supported by deeds," Obama said. "Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps toward the normalization that it promises Israel. Those who speak out for Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and - in so doing - help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state. And those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down."
Obama also announced that he will add Indonesia, a country to which he has twice cancelled visits, to his Asia trip this November, which will also include stops in India, South Korea, and Japan. Obama meets with leaders from all 10 ASEAN member countries Friday.
Here are some key excerpts:
On the U.S. economy:
I have had no greater focus as President than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe. And in an age when prosperity is shared, we could not do this alone. So America has joined with nations around the world to spur growth, and the renewed demand that could restart job creation. We are reforming our system of global finance, beginning with Wall Street reform at home, so that a crisis like this never happens again. And we made the G-20 the focal point for international coordination, because in a world where prosperity is more diffuse, we must broaden our circle of cooperation to include emerging economies.
There is much to show for our efforts, even as there is much more work to be done. The global economy has been pulled back from the brink of a depression, and is growing once more. We have resisted protectionism, and are exploring ways to expand trade and commerce among nations. But we cannot - and will not - rest until these seeds of progress grow into a broader prosperity, for all Americans, and for people around the globe.
On the war against Islamic extremists:
While drawing down in Iraq, we have refocused on defeating al Qaeda and denying its affiliates a safe-haven. In Afghanistan, the United States and our allies are pursuing a strategy to break the Taliban's momentum and build the capacity of Afghanistan's government and Security Forces, so that a transition to Afghan responsibility can begin next July. And from South Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are moving toward a more targeted approach- one that strengthens our partners, and dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.
As part of our efforts on non-proliferation, I offered the Islamic Republic of Iran an extended hand last year, and underscored that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community. I also said - in this hall - that Iran must be held accountable if it failed to meet those responsibilities. That is what we have done. Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences. Through UN Security Council Resolution 1929, we made it clear that international law is not an empty promise.
Now let me be clear once more: the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.
On the Middle East peace process:
Now, many are pessimistic about this process. The cynics say that Israelis and Palestinians are too distrustful of each other, and too divided internally, to forge lasting peace. Rejectionists on both sides will try to disrupt the process, with bitter words and with bombs. Some say that the gaps between the parties are too big; the potential for talks to break down is too great; and that after decades of failure, peace is simply not possible.
But consider the alternative. If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state. Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors who are committed to co-existence. The hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity.
I refuse to accept that future. We all have a choice to make. And each of us must choose the path of peace. That responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history.
On human rights and democracy:
In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights. Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability, or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom. We see leaders abolishing term limits, crackdowns on civil society, and corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.
As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people. Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty - that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply: democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred.
It's time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors, and to increase the UN Democracy Fund. It's time to reinvigorate UN peacekeeping, so that missions have the resources necessary to succeed, and so atrocities like sexual violence are prevented and justice is enforced - because neither dignity nor democracy can thrive without basic security. And it's time to make this institution more accountable as well, because the challenges of a new century demand new ways of serving our common interests.
The world that America seeks is not one that we can build on our own. For human rights to reach those who suffer the boot of oppression, we need your voices to speak out. In particular, I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century - from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America. Do not stand idly by when dissidents everywhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten. Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.
Top Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian Natan Sharansky, reacted with disappointment Wednesday to comments by former President Bill Clinton casting Israel's Russian immigrant population as an obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Sharansky even accused Clinton of inappropriately trafficking in ethnic stereotypes about Israelis.
"If the reports of President Clinton's comments are accurate, I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins. I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner," said Sharansky, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
As reported first by The Cable, Clinton identified the Russian community as the ethnic group inside Israel least amenable to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. The former president, speaking in a roundtable with reporters Monday in New York, also suggested that because Russian and settlers' offspring comprised an increasing proportion of the Israel Defense Forces, forcibly removing settlers from the West Bank as part of a peace deal might be more difficult.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also reacted strongly Wednesday, calling Clinton's comments "distressing," according to the Israeli news wire Ynet.
"As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace," Netanyahu reportedly said.
Sharansky also denied that he participated in a conversation with Clinton years ago where he used his Russian identity as a reason to oppose a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Monday, Clinton recalled a conversation, telling reporters that Sharansky said, "I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you."
Sharanksy responded Wednesday: "I was never at Camp David and never had the opportunity to discuss the negotiations there with President Clinton. It may be that he had in mind our conversations at Wye Plantation years before, where I expressed my serious doubts, given the dictatorial nature of the PA regime, whether Mr. Arafat would be willing to bring freedom to his people, an essential element of a sustainable peace," said Sharansky. "History has shown that these concerns were justified."
The Cable reported that Clinton was referring to Sharansky's opposition to the 2000 Camp David accords but, after reviewing the transcript, it was clear that Clinton was referring to discussions he had with Sharansky during negotiations over the 1998 Wye River Memorandum.
Yisrael Beitenu, an Israeli political party whose supporters are made up of mostly Russian immigrants, called Clinton's comments "crude generalizations." Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, one of the leaders of the party, said that nobody should attempt to divide Israeli groups in such a way.
"The immigrants of Russia contributed to the development of the state of Israel in every field, including science, culture, sports, economy and defense. This year, the entire country is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Russian aliyah. This shows that the Israeli people are united," the Jerusalem Post reported her saying.
Not all Israeli leaders were upset. Coalition Chairman and Russian immigrant Zeev Elken praised Clinton's remarks. "I am proud of former President Clinton's distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years," he told Ynet.
Clinton's staff did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
A bipartisan group of senators are circulating a new letter urging President Obama to speak out publicly to pressure the Palestinian leadership not to abandon the Middle East peace talks.
The new initiative comes ahead of the Sept. 26 deadline expiration of Israel's 10-month settlement construction moratorium, which presents the first obstacle to the direct peace talks being spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly stated that he will withdraw from the negotiations if settlement construction resumes, but Israeli leaders have been equally adamant that they will not extend the moratorium.
President Obama has told Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, calling it all part of the diplomatic game. But the administration has publicly called on Israel to extend the freeze, at least in part.
Lawmakers, who have also bristled at the administration's public pressure on Netanyahu, are now calling on Obama to make it clear to Abbas that even if the freeze isn't extended, he should stay at the table.
"Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," the group of senators wrote in the letter (PDF) dated for release Sept. 24, obtained by The Cable.
The initial draft is signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Richard Burr (R-NC), but they circulated a "dear colleague" letter (PDF) Monday calling on more lawmakers to join.
The senators praised Netanyahu for staying at the table even though the beginning of the process was marred by violence.
"Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants at the start of the negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not abandon the talks," the senators wrote. "We also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table."
Administration officials have indicated that a compromise may be in the works. Former President Bill Clinton said Monday, "I believe there is a fix they can both live with."
Experts said the letter was a gentle push for the Obama administration to sharpen his stance toward Abbas as the end of the freeze rapidly approaches.
"Obviously this is a direct message to President Abbas, and President Obama, that many in Congress...want the Palestinian leadership to stop making what they see as threats and to put public pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move their position," said one Capitol Hill insider who had seen the letter.
"Many Capitol Hill office see Abbas quitting the talks over the settlements as him using the same issue he was clinging to when trying to set preconditions for the talks in the first place."
(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
Russian immigrants to Israel have emerged as a central obstacle to achieving a Middle East peace deal, according to former President Bill Clinton. He voiced fears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which increasingly consists of soldiers hailing from this community, might not be fully willing to oppose Israeli settlers as a result.
In a roundtable with reporters during his Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, Clinton made his most extensive remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is spearheading.
"An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," Clinton said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians. "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."
To illustrate his view on the Russian immigrant community, Clinton related a conversation he had with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli parliamentarian, who he said was the only Israeli minister to reject the comprehensive peace agreement Clinton proposed at the Camp David Summit in 2000. The proposal was eventually rejected by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'" Clinton recalled. "He said, ‘I can't vote for this, I'm Russian... I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'"
Clinton responded, "Don't give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It's a lot bigger than your jail cell."
Clinton used the anecdote to explain the Russian immigrant population's attitude toward a land-for- peace deal with the Palestinians. "[Sharansky] was nice about it, a lot of them aren't," Clinton said.
Clinton then ranked the Israeli sub-national groups in order of his perception of their willingness to accept a peace deal. The "most pro-peace Jewish Israelis" are the Sabras, who he described as native-born Israelis whose roots there date back millennia, because they have the benefit of historical context. "They can imagine sharing a future."
Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe and have been in Israel for one or more generations are the next most supportive of a peace deal, Clinton said.
The "swing voters" are what Clinton called the "Moroccans": North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. He described them as right-of-center citizens who nevertheless want normal, stable lives.
"When they think peace is possible, they vote peace. When they think it's not, they vote for the toughest guys on the block," Clinton said.
Regarding the settlers, Clinton said that their numbers had grown so much since 2000 that their longstanding opposition to giving up their homes in exchange for peace might be more entrenched and therefore a bigger challenge than before.
"In 2000, you could get 97 percent of the settlers on 3 percent of the land. Today, you have to give almost 6 percent of the land to get 80 percent of the settlers," said Clinton. "There were 7,000 settlers in Gaza and it took 55,000 Israeli forces people to move. Somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 settlers will have to be moved out of the West Bank."
Clinton spoke extensively about the positives and negatives he sees in the ongoing direct peace talks launched by the Obama administration.
"I'd say their chances are at least 50-50," Clinton said optimistically.
The Palestinians' internal divisions, specifically the lack of Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip, present another problem, but one that a peace deal could help solve, he suggested.
"That makes it more difficult for Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to make a deal and to wonder what a deal means," he said. But if there's a deal on the table, that would create enough pressure for an election in Gaza that President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would win, Clinton argued.
"I believe if there were an election in Gaza today, Fatah would win because of the greater prosperity and the greater security produced under Abbas and Fayyad," Clinton said, adding that Fatah only lost in Gaza elections because of intra-party faction fighting that saw many candidates run against others in their own party.
There are some factors that point to improved conditions for making a peace deal as compared to 2000, said Clinton. He pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Israelis trust Netanyahu to make a peace deal, more than when Ehud Barak was negotiating, according to Clinton. Also, he said that he has faith that the current Palestinian Authority leadership is serious about reaching a settlement.
"They won't do what Arafat did, they won't get up to the deal and lose their nerve. They know what the future looks like."
In the long term, Israelis will face increased pressures, Clinton said. Because of the high Palestinian birth rate, Israel will become a Palestinian-majority state sometime in the next 30 years, if it does not give up the West Bank.
"Then they will have to decide either to be a Jewish state or a democracy, but they cannot be both. They don't want to face that. They don't want to face not only the international legitimacy question but also the internal identity crisis."
Moreover, Clinton said, Hamas militants will soon have military technology that will allow their relatively low-damage attacks on Israeli population centers to have greater accuracy and lethality.
"It's just a matter of time before the rockets have a GPS system on ‘em and a few rockets will kill a whole lot of people. Netanyahu understands that," said Clinton.
He also said that Arab leaders were on board with Middle East peace now more than ever, partly because they now have Iran as a boogeyman to deflect attention from their unpopular policies.
"They think they've got a real enemy in Iran now, so they don't need a faux enemy in Israel to keep people in the street directed at somebody besides them."
Before pontificating on the peace process, Clinton seemed to realize he was stepping into some sensitive territory, but decided to proceed nonetheless.
"I wouldn't say too much about this if Hillary weren't Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I'm darned sure not going to say too much now," he said, before going in depth on the issue for over 10 minutes.
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
As the Obama administration tries to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, back here in Washington a group of international figures convened at the Ritz Carlton Tuesday night under the banner of a new group, the "Friends of Israel Initiative."
The new initiative was created by former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, who was the keynote speaker at the Ritz Carlton event last night. The movement, which is based in Europe but is now establishing a presence in Washington and other cities around the globe, is dedicated to combat what members view as the "international campaign to combat the global effort to delegitimize the State of Israel."
The group's board is composed mainly of non-American, non-Jewish, world leaders such as Aznar, former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, Nobel Peace Prize winner Lord William David Trimble, and former president of the Italian Senate Marcello Pera. But they have support from American statesmen as well, including former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and House Foreign Affairs ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who introduced a Congressional resolution in support of the initiative.
The Cable sat down for a one-on-one interview with Aznar to hear about his vision for the group and his take on the threats to the Western world:
Josh Rogin: Why did you feel the need to create this group?
Jose Maria Aznar: This idea is a consequence of my convictions and the convictions of many different people. We believe in the values of the Western world and we believe that it is necessary to enforce at this moment our way of life, and that the weaknesses of the Western societies, especially in Europe, is a problem for all of us.
For us, Israel is a part of the Western world. Israel is not a country of the Middle East, it's a Western country in the Middle East. Therefore, the interests of Israel are our interests. Israel is a democracy and we have a responsibility to contribute to helping democracies in difficulty. Lastly, there is a very serious situation: the effort to delegitimize Israel and we think it is very dangerous to accept this without a reaction.
JR: How is your initiative different from all other pro-Israel initiatives?
JMA: At one point the question for us was, should we organize a new Jewish lobby, a new Jewish organization? The answer was no. The most important aspect of this idea is that to become a member of the board of this institution it is necessary to be a non-Jew, because what's important is the strategic alliance between Jews and non-Jews. Furthermore, it is not an organization linked to the Israeli government, it's not an organization dependent on the circumstances of the moment. We cannot act in reaction to the crisis in the Middle East because we can say everyday there is crisis in the Middle East. It is necessary to defend the strategic idea. I began in Europe: in Paris, in London, now here in D.C. In the next month I will be in Italy, in Rome, in Spain, in Czech Republic, South America.
JR: What is your view on the relationship between Europe and Israel?
JMA: We are perfectly aware of the situation in Europe regarding the state of Israel. If we defend the values of the West, we can find that the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the most important values for us. Judeo-Christian values are the same for Jewish people and European Christian people.
What is relevant in this moment is not whether we are Jewish or not Jewish, the problem is to have or know the same strategic concept. And you can explain to the different parts of Europe the situation and why the existence of the state of Israel is so important for our interests. For example, if Israel at one moment disappeared or was attacked as a consequence of threats, the next territory to be confronted directly would be Europe. We share these interests with Israel. It is necessary to explain this to the people, because for the mass media today it is very easy to present things as simply right and wrong, and every day Israel is presented as the wrong option and guilty in all situations.
JR: Can you specify exactly the threats that your group sees as necessary to confront?
JMA: Well, the threat is the delegitimization of the state of Israel, first of all. The threat is the weakness of the European system, the Western system of values. The fear is that one could decide that at this moment Israel is something that is not worth defending, that millions of people are not important, that it's better to reach an agreement with radical Islam.
European weakness in foreign policy is extremely important. Also, this American administration is different; the position of this administration regarding Israel is different than other American administrations. Lastly, look at the region. Look at Iran, it's a very important threat. There is a terrorist threat from Hamas and Hezbollah, negative collusion in the Palestinian side. All these negative perspectives are enough reason for us to act and to react.
JR: Why do you say that the Obama administration is different from other American administrations on this issue?
JMA: I believe that Mr. Obama thinks that he can move the Muslim world and solve the problems of the Muslim world by making speeches. It is not true. Second, the position of the American administration is more or less that they prefer reaching an agreement with [the Muslim world] that defends Israel... but [their] priority is reaching an agreement with [the Muslim world], not to support Israel's government. So, if [their] priority is that, it is necessary to change the Israeli government and provoke a very strong policy against them. This policy is a serious failure.
JR: What do you think about the current Middle East peace talks?
JMA: The position of taking steps in support of conversations is a good step, but in my view, in this moment it's necessary to avoid the question of Israeli settlements because the problem of Israeli settlements is linked with the life and the survival of the Israeli government. If you put the pressure on this point, you eliminate one of the negotiators, and I believe that everybody in Israel is more or less agreed that there is possibility to reach an agreement if the conditions put forth by Israel are respected.
I believe it is necessary to guarantee a Jewish state, it's necessary to guarantee the existence of this state, it's necessary to put an end to the threats of the delegitimization of the state, it's necessary to have a viable Palestinian state, and to recognize that the idea of the Jewish state is absolutely vital. In my view, the problem from the Palestinian side is that some people understand that recognizing the existence of the Jewish state is not good business for some people on the Palestinian side. I think it would be a good business, the right decision for the Palestinian people but not for some elites and Palestinian politicians.
JR: Overall, how goes the Obama administration's leadership in the broader struggle against Islamic extremism, in your view?
JMA: For me, this is a question of will. To have indecision in the government is very bad and maybe, for example, if you look at Afghanistan, it is possible to think things are going well or to think things are going bad. Do you have the will to win or not? Do you want to win? Or do you want to pull out quickly?
If you want to win, please organize and do so. If you want to pull out, please organize and do so. But this is not a good policy to maintain indecision on these questions, because in the end the results are very bad, not only for the interests of the West, but also for the leadership of the United States.
OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.
The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.
"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."
He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.
"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.
Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.
"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.
"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.
"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.
Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.
"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.
But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.
He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."
Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.
He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.
On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.
"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.
While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.
Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks. "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.
"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.
Your humble Cable guy is on vacation, but sending along this briefing skipper, in which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. These are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by Special Envoy George Mitchell:
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
The first direct peace talks in 20 months between Israeli and Palestinian leaders kick off Wednesday in Washington, but in reality the discussions have already begun. Even so, there are no prearranged deals on settlements or any other issue before the leaders sit down, the Israeli Embassy said Tuesday.
"We are coming to the table with no preconditions on any issue," embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled said on a conference call Tuesday. "We are certain that the issue of settlements, of this moratorium, will be on the table and discussed between the two leaders... with the hope that a solution, an exit, a formula can be found that will satisfy both sides, but only after it is brought to the table between them."
The settlements issue is the most pressing item on the agenda, because the current moratorium on building, put in place by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last year, is set to expire by the end of September. Without some new agreement on even a limited settlement freeze, analysts fear, the new talks could break down only weeks after they begin -- dealing a perhaps mortal blow to President Obama's Middle East ambitions.
Peled indicated that there was a deal to be worked out, and we've heard that a compromise is in the works that would expand exemptions for building in areas that are expected to fall on the Israeli side of the line after final borders are established.
But for now, the Israeli government is making clear that the settlement freeze in place, which the Palestinians have argued is not being strictly enforced, is not guaranteed to continue. Netanyahu is under pressure from members of his coalition to let the freeze expire.
"The latest moratorium that this government took about 10 months ago was a one-time gesture with the aim of jumpstarting the process," Peled said.
He also said that he was not aware of any ideas that the United States was bringing to the table to bridge gaps between the two sides and added that it was not the Obama administration's place to interject its own ideas into the process.
The Israelis are endorsing the one-year timeline announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell but believe the deadline shouldn't result in a hard stop to the process if it might take a little longer.
"We believe that a year should give us enough time to reach some sort of preliminary agreement. That's a realistic time frame but by no means a deadline," Peled said, adding that the date and format of future meetings after this week was all yet to be determined.
Mitchell, briefing reporters Tuesday morning at the White House, sidestepped the entire issue of settlements.
"Our position on settlements is well known, and it remains unchanged," he said. "We've always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations. As Secretary of State Clinton has said, as we move forward it's important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it."
The U.S. will play "an active and sustained role" in the process, but doesn't necessarily have to be present at every meeting, Mitchell said. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could meet about every two weeks from now on, with constant interactions at lower levels, he added.
As for Hamas, Mitchell said the militant group could participate in the process only after it committed to democracy and nonviolence. Although Mitchell has often compared Middle East negotiations to the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland, he said Tuesday that the comparison is not strictly accurate, even though military groups in Northern Ireland eventually did join talks.
"So, first, let me say they're very different. It's not useful to try to make direct comparisons because the participants, the circumstances, the situation, the timing are all very different," he said.
Meanwhile, administration officials have been preparing the ground all week. Mitchell's deputy David Hale, the National Security Council's Dennis Ross, and the NSC's Dan Shapiro have been in the region while Mitchell, Clinton, and even Obama himself have been working the phones.
On Tuesday alone, Clinton met with Abbas, Netanyahu, former British prime minister and Middle East "Quartet" envoy Tony Blair, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit.
"We will be clarifying today where the parties stand in advance of the meetings that they'll have and the dinner they'll have at the White House tomorrow," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama will have bilateral meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. The five leaders and Blair will dine together that evening at the White House.
Then on Thursday, Netanyahu and Abbas's delegations will head over to the State Department for the formal sessions, hosted by Clinton.
If there's one word to describe the feelings about the talks throughout Washington, that word is skepticism. Experts across the political spectrum see the idea of a breakthrough as a long shot at best.
Steve Clemons, foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation, said that the White House itself had appropriately low expectations. "There's a good deal of healthy skepticism there."
New America senior fellow Daniel Levy said that the structure of the talks bodes poorly for the prospects of success. There are no terms of reference, hard realities about gaps on major issues are being ignored for now, and both the Israeli and Palestinian governments have domestic limitations and limited capacity to make a deal, he noted.
"There isn't an Obama-specific approach," said Levy. "We're seeing a very similar approach to what's been done in the past, obviously an approach that didn't deliver."
The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Washington office is accusing Yale University of supporting "anti-Arab extremism and hate mongering" at a recent academic conference -- a charge the conference's organizer flatly denies.
The controversy surrounds a conference held last week titled, "Global Antisemitism - A Crisis of Modernity," which was organized by the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). The three-day conference featured papers and speeches from more than 100 scholars from universities throughout the world. But as far as the PLO's Washington office is concerned, some of the attendees were beyond the pale.
The head of the PLO mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat¸ wrote a letter Tuesday (pdf) to Yale President Richard C. Levin demanding that the university disassociate itself from the conference. Areikat accused three speakers in particular of spreading anti-Arab propaganda: Retired Israeli Col. Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Anne Herzberg, legal advisor to the group NGO Monitor, and Itamar Marcus, who heads the Palestinian Media Watch website and lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
"It's shocking that a respected institution like Yale would give a platform to these right-wing extremists and their odious views, and it is deeply ironic that a conference on anti-Semitism that is ostensibly intended to combat hatred and discrimination against Semites would demonize Arabs - who are Semites themselves," wrote Areikat.
Charles Asher Small, the organizer of the conference and head of YIISA, told The Cable in an interview he was surprised and dismayed by Areikat's letter. He said that scholars and academics from across the political and ideological spectrum and hailing from 18 countries participated in the conference.
Small also said that one of the results of the conference was the formation of a professional association, called the International Association for the Study of Antisemitism (IASA), dedicated to fulfilling the program's stated mission of combating hatred and discrimination in all its forms. "The IASA is to function to represent scholars and intellectuals everywhere, regardless of their school of thought, scientific approaches, academic discipline, or ideological opinion," he said.
Furthermore, Small said that while his work focuses on hatred toward Jews, anti-Semitism is a phenomenon closely related to discrimination against other groups.
"We know from history that anti-Semitism unleashes a virulent form of hatred. It begins with Jews but it does not end with Jews," he said. "We see that moderate Muslims, women, gays, Copts, Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, and others, also become victims, as the basic notions of democracy and citizenship come under assault in too many societies."
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks set to begin in Washington this week, some in the pro-Israel community saw Areikat's letter as an ill-timed political cheap shot.
"If the Palestinian Authority and the PLO spent as much effort fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel incitement, rather than try to intimidate and silence those who expose it, the cause of peace would greatly benefit," said an official with a pro-Israel organization in Washington.
There's a battle going on among the standard-bearers of the Tea Party over their foreign policy message. But at the rank-and-file level, Tea Partiers have no unified view on major foreign policy issues. They are all over the map.
Sarah Palin, who spoke at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Mall Saturday, would like the Tea Party to endorse her quasi-neoconservative approach to national security policy. She advocates aggressive unilateralism, ever-rising defense budgets, unfailing support of Israel, and a skeptical eye toward China, Russia, and any other possible competitor to the United States.
Ron Paul, a founding leader of the Tea Party who has seen the movement slip away from him somewhat, wants the movement's focus on thrift to extend to foreign policy, resulting in an almost isolationist approach that sets limits on the use of American power and its presence abroad.
In over a dozen interviews with self-identified Tea Party members at Saturday's rally, your humble Cable guy discovered that, when it comes to foreign policy, attendees rarely subscribed wholeheartedly to either Palin or Paul's world view. Despite claiming to share the same principles that informed their views, Tea Partiers often reached very different conclusions about pressing issues in U.S. foreign policy today.
Understandably, most Tea Party members at the rally viewed foreign policy through the prism of domestic problems such as the poor economy and the movement of jobs overseas. Almost all interviewees expressed support for U.S. troops abroad and a connection to Christianity they said informed their world view.
But that's where the similarities ended. Some attendees sounded like reliable neocons arguing for more troops abroad. Others sounded like antiwar liberals, lamenting the loss of life in any war for any reason. Still others sounded like inside the beltway realists, carefully considering the costs and benefits of a given policy option based on American national security interests.
For example, The Cable interviewed Danny Koss, a former Marine from Grove City, PA, who was measured when it came to talking about the war in Afghanistan.
"If we are going to stay, I suggest we really win," he said. "I'm not convinced that some of our leadership is ready for that. I know our generals are."
Koss, sounding like a realist, said that he saw China as a near-term economic threat but not a near-term military threat. A strike against Iran was not a good option, he argued, although he said it was wise of President Barack Obama to publicly state that all options are on the table.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, however, Koss seamlessly switched to a religious frame.
"You've got to go back and read the Bible, see who had it first. If you believe the Bible and who God gave it to, the rest is history," he said.
Later, we ran into Cecilia Goodow from Hartford, NY, who said that her foreign policy views were determined exclusively by her faith. This led her to regret the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"It sounded so reasonable at the time. But Holy Father John Paul II was against the war; he said it would just be an awful thing and many people would be killed," she said. "I always supported the troops, but we know history and we know that wars are sometimes perpetrated by evil people for evil reasons that the average person doesn't even know about or understand, so I can't wait for it all to stop."
Goodow said she wants Obama to stand up for America more and fight the forces of evil, which include Iran, but she doesn't support military intervention, even in Afghanistan.
"Sometimes that's cloudy -- why are we there? Barack Obama ran on the promise that he was going to bring everybody home. That's what we all sat around the table talking about. Maybe if there's a new presidential policy maybe we can have peace again, maybe we can bring our kids home," she said. "War begets more war."
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we found Larry Maxwell of Patterson, NY. Dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and holding a huge American flag, he was as much historian as activist, engaging passersby in debates about America's past.
While he supported the decision to go war in Iraq and largely believes claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Maxwell lamented the cost of the Iraq war and the danger of bolstering Iranian influence in the region.
But while Maxwell was concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran and its nuclear program, he didn't believe that a military strike is the best option.
"Are we the world's police? We're having a lot of trouble here and a lot of problems here. I'm not sure where our role comes over there," he said. "The United Nations would be the place for that ... but nobody listens to them."
Maxwell, like Koss, also referenced the Bible to support Israel's right to the land it now occupies. "The Bible says in the last days, that the Middle East, that's going to be the center of activity," he said. "If you go back to the Bible, it says there's going to be an army of 200 million men coming out of the East to the Middle East, as part of that whole Armageddon and ‘end of days' thing."
But not all Tea Partiers reflexively took Israel's side. Brandon Malator from Washington, DC, who dressed in U.S. Army fatigues and donned a cowboy hat with a Lipton tea bag dangling from the brim, was a stalwart supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not of Israel.
"[We should] stay longer. We've never left any other country and we shouldn't leave Iraq," he said, adding that the U.S. is engaged in a 100-year-war that would include a coming war with Iran and eventually a war with China, which he called "World War III." He praised Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. "I think we're doing what we need to do as Americans. I think if the rest of the world doesn't like it, then that's tough luck."
But when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malatore's was downright dovish. "I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to an agreement, share the land, and do whatever they need to do to stop fighting all the time. I hope that war ends; that's been going on too long."
Israeli diplomats around the world are engaged in a labor dispute with their government, but that shouldn't endanger next week's trip to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli embassy official in Washington tells The Cable, and the protest is in no way related to the Obama administration's drive for Middle East peace.
The work sanction, whereby Israeli diplomats in Israel and abroad are coming to work each day but refusing to provide consular and diplomatic services for officials from other Israeli government ministries, has been going on for weeks. This tactic is meant to bring about negotiations with the Israeli treasury, which has refused to act on their demands for pay and benefits commensurate with what Israeli officials from other agencies dealing with national security in Israel and when deployed abroad receive.
But despite an article Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz entitled, "Israel diplomats' strike threatens PM's Washington trip," the embassy official insisted that Netanyahu's trip will go on as planned.
"This is a struggle to improve the wages of the diplomatic employees of the foreign service -- nothing more, nothing less," the official said. "It has nothing to do with the content or purpose of the prime minister's visit."
Amb. Michael Oren, who is a political appointee and therefore not directly involved, is likely to accompany Netanyahu during his trip, but the Washington embassy will not give Netanyahu's personal staff all the help it would normally give, such as advanced logistics planning, setting up press events, and so on.
If anything, the reduction of services might "make the prime minister's office understand that we have a legitimate struggle and our work is indispensable," the official said, adding that the Prime Minister's office may be inconvenienced but will ultimately be able to fulfill its mission.
"We face the same dangers of others that are sent abroad, but we get less than half their pay."
But his message to the Obama administration was: "Don't worry Washington, our labor dispute is not about you."
Of the many questions hanging over the new direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday morning, one of the thorniest is what to do about the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is not a party to the negotiations.
White House officials addressed that topic directly Friday afternoon on a private conference call with Jewish community groups, saying that the talks would build legitimacy for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against Hamas and that a peace agreement would convince the Palestinian people to abandon Hamas and its violent methods.
"The ability of the forces of moderation and the forces of peace among Palestinians to prevail will be greatly enhanced once they're able to point to an ongoing peace process and ultimately a peace treaty and I think the Palestinian people will see that for what it is," said David Hale, deputy special envoy for Middle East peace, according to a record of the call made available to The Cable.
"Abbas offers the Palestinian people the choice of negotiating your problems and challenges rather than trying to use violence or terrorism to try to achieve your goals," Hale said. "Abbas is strengthened in the eyes of the Palestinian people when he's able to show his course of peace actually produces results. So we think that by entering into direct talks, it ought to be able to strengthen his position rather than the opposite."
Abbas has not yet actually accepted the invitation to join the talks, but he is in his final consultations and the White House expects to communicate his positive answer soon. Hamas, for its part, has already rejected the negotiations.
Earlier this week, Hamas Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the invitation, "would form a cover to Abbas and his Fatah party to go to the negotiations and would help them to escape from embarrassment before Arab and Islamic public opinion."
As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has already accepted the invitation to have dinner with Abbas, President Obama, Quartet Representative Tony Blair, Jordan's King Abdullah, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington on Sept. 1 and then sit down with Abbas and Clinton Sept. 2 to begin the talks. Obama intends to hold bilateral meetings with all four leaders that day as well.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomes the invitation of the United States to begin direct negotiations without preconditions," read a statement issued by his office Friday, referring his demand that no preconditions be attached to the discussions.
So far, Abbas has only said he welcomes an accompanying statement by the Quartet, a statement that reaffirms past Quartet statements that do have what some would call preconditions, such as a demand that Israel halt all settlement building, but doesn't explicitly repeat them.
Nevertheless, "these are talks without preconditions," emphasized Dennis Ross, director for the central region on the National Security Council, on the call.
"Obviously they take place within a certain context," said Ross. "Clearly the challenge for us is to overcome gaps. The gaps are real; we shouldn't have any illusions about the difficulties we are going to face. But you are never going to get anywhere if the parties can't deal with each other directly."
The Obama dinner is not meant to be a photo op, but rather a chance to establish an atmosphere of trust, said Ross. "The significance of the dinner is somehow not to suggest we have some high-profile event, it's a reminder that the aim of this process is to produce coexistence and reconciliation. There's clearly a trust deficit that we're going to have to find a way to overcome that."
There's not much detail about what will happen after the Sept. 2 meeting because those specifics simply haven't been worked out yet. It will be an intensive process once begun, without long gaps between meetings, said Hale. Some meetings will include the United States; others won't. The one-year timeline Clinton announced is a serious goal, not a hard deadline.
"We will definitely want to make sure there's a structure that allows us to have a full and careful review of all the issues but also allows us to move toward that objective," Hale said.
The aim of the call was to get community groups, especially Jewish community groups -- some of whom have been critical of President Obama -- behind the effort and to ask for their help.
"There are going to plenty of those who don't want these negotiations to succeed. And one of our real challenges is to build some real momentum behind these negotiations and to build a kind of context in which they take place so they have the best chance to succeed," Ross said. "The degree to which we can generate a lot of public support for this effort is something that in the long run will contribute to its ultimate success."
Groups on the call included the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, J Street, the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, the Orthodox Union, and the Boca Raton Synagogue.
(Corrected: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")
The Middle East Quartet is expected to release its long-awaited statement on direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians Friday, as negotiations at the U.N. continued into late Thursday afternoon.
State Department officials had been sure that the statement, a formal invitation for both parties to enter direct negotiations, would be released earlier this week. But last-minute objections from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides forced new rounds of discussions, culminating in what Reuters reported was a conference call between Quartet members Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft.
"There are details that are still being worked out. You could quote Yogi Berra, I suppose, ‘It's not over till it's over,'" State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. "We think we're very, very close to an agreement."
Multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that the substance of the reported draft represents a compromise intended to accommodate the Palestinians' calls for the pending Quartet statement to include several specific items that they believe are "terms of reference" for the direct talks but which the Israeli side sees as "preconditions" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to reject.
The apparent compromise would result in a statement whereby the Quartet reaffirms a "full commitment to its previous statements," according to Reuters, a reference to the March 19 Quartet statement issued in Moscow, but doesn't explicitly repeat certain contentious language from that document.
Among the disputed items in that statement, which Netanyahu ultimately rejected, were calls for a Palestinian state to be established in 24 months and for Israel to halt all settlement building, including natural growth of existing settlements, as well as building and evictions in East Jerusalem.
Neither side wants to be seen as resisting the move to direct talks, which the Obama administration has been pushing hard to begin before Netanyahu's 10-month settlement moratorium expires next month. If the Quartet is able to get its new statement out Friday, it will be about a week later than State Department sources had predicted, due to some extra shuttle diplomacy that the U.S. team had not anticipated.
When Special Envoy George Mitchell traveled to the region last week, he believed he had a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the wording of the statement, but it was clear upon arrival that Abbas had additional concerns, multiple diplomatic sources said.
So, Mitchell called back home to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her that the Palestinians were not on board. After further negotiations, Abbas set forth his demands for what the statement should include, but when Mitchell brought those terms to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister told Mitchell he couldn't accept them.
"We wanted the statement to include the same elements the March 19 statement included," the PLO's Washington representative Maen Rashid Areikat, who is in the region, told The Cable in an interview.
"The Quartet statement must be clear about how the quartet sees the terms of reference, the time frame, and the situation on the ground, such as the cessation of settlement activity," Areikat said.
Mitchell was forced to return to Washington empty-handed, but left the National Security Council's David Hale in the region to continue working the problem and negotiations continued.
Mitchell's trip wasn't a failure, according to Areikat. "I believe it was part of an overall discussion of progress with the parties, and if we see progress in the statement it will have been worth it," he said.
The Quartet seems to be calculating that by referring to the March 19 statement but not repeating the items explicitly, Israel will be able to accept the invitation to the talks without technically backing down from its demand that no preconditions be set. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for direct talks to begin forthwith.
Although it's too early to tell because the final Quartet statement hasn't been released, the compromise might be crafty enough to get the job done.
"I believe we could be able to accept such a statement if it doesn't assume to determine the terms of reference and doesn't pre-empt the negotiations," one Israeli official told The Cable, responding to a query about the leaked draft.
Some reports blamed the delay on disputes inside the Quartet between the United States and the EU, largely about the same issues. But one European diplomat in Israel said that these reports were misleading and the real dispute was over how to accommodate both the Israelis and Palestinian on substance and choreography.
There is a sense of urgency about the Quartet statement, because Friday is seen as the last day that key U.S. officials, including Clinton, will be working before their August vacations and because preparations will be needed to get the direct talks underway in time to beat the deadline, assuming there are no further delays.
The State Department has been working the issue hard, and Clinton has spoken in the last 24 hours with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, Quartet Representative Tony Blair, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
If the Quartet can act Friday, diplomatic sources said the direct talks could commence in as little as a few days but probably no later than two weeks from now.
Crowley predicted that the United States would issue an accompanying statement that will have some additional details, such as where and when the negotiations will take place.
Crowley wouldn't comment on speculation that the administration's statement is meant to accommodate Netanyahu's concerns about the scope of the negotiations and provide him with domestic political cover.
"Members of the Quartet will demonstrate their support for the process, we will demonstrate our support for the process, and we will outline specifics of where we go from here," he said.
Harvard University sold off some of its investments in Israel but is not divesting itself from the Jewish state and the portfolio changes were not politically motivated, according to the university's spokesman.
Reports that Harvard sold off all of its holdings in Israel sparked immediate outrage across the Internet Monday morning, based on the news that the Harvard Management Company's most recent SEC filing revealed that it had sold stocks amounting to $39 million in Israeli companies such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., NICE Systems Ltd., Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., Cellcom Israel Ltd., and Partner Communications Ltd.
But Harvard spokesman John Longbrake tells The Cable that the filing shows only a change in holdings, not a change in policy.
"The University has not divested from Israel. Israel was moved from the MSCI, our benchmark in emerging markets, to the EAFE index in May due to its successful growth. Our emerging markets holdings were rebalanced accordingly," he said.
Harvard still is invested in Israel, Longbrake said, but he declined to go into specifics. He said the filing in question only represents a small portion of Harvard's overall portfolio, which is about $26 billion.
In other words, Israel's growth and development resulted in a status change whereby the stocks could no longer be considered "emerging market" holdings, requiring Harvard to rebalance its emerging market portfolio.
"There are some funds which invest only in emerging markets," Yaacov Heen, the Cellcom CFO, told The Media Line. "So Harvard had to sell our stock because Israel is no longer classified as an emerging market and they no longer have the ability to hold this stock within the emerging markets fund."
From The Media Line:
Formerly the Morgan Stanley Capital International, MSCI World, is an international index of 1,500 stocks from a couple dozen ‘developed' countries and is often used as a benchmark by global stock funds. In May, MSCI upgraded Israel from an ‘emerging' economy to a ‘developed' economy.
But it's also true that several of the stocks Harvard sold were doing poorly. Harvard's three biggest remaining holdings are all in emerging markets, Israel's Globe business news site reports. They own $295 million in a fund composed of Chinese equities, another $295 million in a fund focused on emerging marks, and $181 million in a Brazilian stock fund.
Harvard's explanation didn't stop the group organizing the Arab boycott of Israel, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) for Palestine movement, from claiming a victory.
"We welcome Harvard's decision, and encourage all academic institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere to follow its lead, to invest in socially responsible investments, and divest from Israeli war crimes," Hind Awwad, Coordinator of the BDS National Committee in Palestine told The Media Line. "After Israel's war of aggression on Gaza in 2008/2009, and its recent attack on the Freedom Flotilla, the Global BDS campaign has gained great momentum."
The BDS campaign -- targeting Israeli consumer, academic, cultural, and sports organizations -- started in 2005 and had its first conference in Ramallah in 2007. The Anti-Defamation League has pointed out that, in February 2009, a similar claim by BDS that Hampshire College had divested its Israeli holdings was also disputed by the college.
"Despite the best efforts of activists, and some gains among church groups, the divestment campaign in the U.S. has been largely unsuccessful," the ADL said. "To date, it has failed to bring its primary targeted institutions to divest from Israel or from U.S. companies doing business with Israel."
The Obama administration has made it clear to the Lebanese government that it should do everything in its power to avoid another border skirmish with Israel and be careful about cozying up to Iran if they value their defense relationship with the United States.
Iran has offered to become the primary supporter of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) after two leading U.S. lawmakers put a hold on U.S. military assistance to the LAF last week. The holds were placed around the same time as a border skirmish between Israel and Lebanon that resulted in four deaths. The attack on Israeli soldiers who were pruning a tree began with shots fired from the Lebanese side, possibly with an American made sniper rifle.The lawmakers, House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, and House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-NY, are working with the administration now and the expectation is that the holds will be soon lifted.
But in the meantime, the administration delivered a message to the Lebanese government via Frederic Hof, senior advisor to Special Envoy George Mitchell, who was in Beirut on a previously scheduled visit. Hof arrived there last week and left August 9. He met with senior civilian and military leaders to discuss the border incident and to update them on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a senior U.S. official told The Cable.
"He noted that the incident could and should have been avoided and placed stress on the important U.S.-Lebanon bilateral defense relationship," the official said.
Hof also warned that some in Congress were trying to curtail or even eliminate U.S. military assistance to the LAF and the administration's efforts to keep the assistance going were dependent on there being no further incidents.
"Hof told his interlocutors that if something like this were to happen again, he's not sure we could prevent [the elimination of the aid] from happening," the official said.
Perhaps most importantly, Hof communicated to senior Lebanese officials that their actions going forward, such as taking assistance from Iran, for example, would have consequences for U.S.-Lebanon military cooperation.
"He reaffirmed that the Administration considers the relationship very important and the role of the LAF as a national institution defending the country's sovereignty to be vital. But he also explained that our ability to justify and strengthen this important defense relationship will be affected by what Lebanon does in the wake of this incident," the official said.
Reports from the region said that Hof met with Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Qahwaji, who also met with Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Abadi on Monday.
It's not clear that the Lebanese government or the LAF got the message. Lebanese Defense Minister Elias al-Murr shot back at Congress defiantly on August 11.
"That person who said in Congress, 'I will stop aid to the army,' he is free to do so.... Anyone who wants to help the army without restrictions or conditions, is welcome," Murr said. "This person wants to make military aid conditional on not protecting [Lebanon's] land, people, and borders against Israeli aggression. Let them keep their money or give it to Israel. We will confront [Israel] with the capabilities we own."
Murr also reportedly said the army fired at Israel based on "an order from the army chief."
Back in Washington, the State Department is working with Berman and Lowey to reassure them that U.S. military aid is not going to Hizbollah and is not being used against U.S. allies. A State Department official said on background that he expects the holds to be lifted soon.
"We are committed to our relationship with Lebanon," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. "It serves our interests; it serves Lebanon's interests; it serves the region's interests. We continue to believe that investing in Lebanon's government and investing in Lebanon's military serves as a stabilizing influence and expands and strengthens Lebanon's sovereignty."
The actual money, $100 million worth of Humvees, small arms, and maintenance support, was already appropriated by Congress as part of the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill. But as of July 29, the money was still unspent. That's the day State sent over what's known as a "spend plan" for the money, which is what triggered the holds from Berman and Lowey.
Berman actually placed his hold before the border clash. Lowey placed her hold in reaction to the incident.
"Before disbursing this assistance, we must understand the exact circumstances of the incident and how our assistance can most effectively enhance our security and that of our allies," Lowey told The Cable Wednesday. "I am working closely with the Administration to answer these questions."
Two more lawmakers have also waded into the debate. House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-MO, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ask for briefings on U.S. military assistance to the LAF.
"I have supported both this and the last Administration's efforts to build the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to conduct counterterrorism operations. However, this recent exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese armed forces along that border has me concerned that our policy with Lebanon may be counter-productive," Skelton wrote.
And House Minority Leader Eric Cantor,
R-VA, called for fiscal 2011 funding to be
blocked until the questions regarding the incident and the LAF's relationship
to Hizbollah are resolved.
"The LAF's unprovoked attack on the Israeli defense forces in undisputed Israeli territory demands a sweeping reassessment of how we distribute our foreign aid," Cantor said in a statement.
Cantor apparently didn't realize that fiscal 2011 funding has not been considered by Congress and won't come up for several months.
It's extremely unusual for the State Department to change a travel warning to American citizens based on a complaint from the destination country, but that's exactly what happened this week after the Israeli government protested, State Department officials admitted Wednesday.
On August 5, State issued a travel warning to all American citizens in a response to rocket attacks that hit both Israel and Jordan. The warning included the line, "rockets have been fired recently into the Eilat and Aqaba areas. U.S. citizens in Eilat and southern Israel are advised to ascertain the location of the nearest bomb shelter." No similar warning was issued for Jordan.
The Israeli tourism ministry protested privately and publicly, saying, "This advisory gives a prize to terror and undermines regional stability and the sense of security that Israel gives to everyone who enters the country.... Differentiating Israel from its neighbor that actually suffered loss of life is improper and lacks balance."
On August 10, State issued the new travel warning, which replaces the August 5 notice and doesn't mention Eilat at all, only saying, "U.S. citizens in the area should be aware of the risks and should follow the advice of the Government of Israel's office of Homefront Command."
After spokesman P.J. Crowley defended the change Tuesday, one sarcastic State Department reporter asked Crowley on Wednesday, "Can any country complain about the travel advice that you give and have it changed? Or is that just a privilege that's accorded to Israel?"
Crowley responded that the change was made in part because there was a disparity between the Israeli travel warning and the lack of a similar warning for Jordan. He also argued that disseminating the information through what's called a "warden message," which only goes out to U.S. government personnel, was sufficient.
"We decided, upon further review ... that the warden message was the appropriate way, because we were talking about one specific incident, to communicate this threat information. And that's why we withdrew the language from the Israeli travel warning," he said.
The State Department press corps was not satisfied. They pressed Crowley on whether their assessment had changed, and if not, why they chose not to inform American citizens of the ongoing risk? Here's the exchange:
Q: But I was under the impression that the -- that the responsibility of the State Department was for the safety and security of American people and to let them know when there are -- when there are threats.
MR. CROWLEY: True. All true.
Q: And now you -- now you've -- now you've removed the -- the word "Eilat" does not even appear in the new travel warning.
MR. CROWLEY: That's true.
Q: And it's still dangerous for Americans to go there, you believe.
MR. CROWLEY: That's true.
Q: So why would you take it out?
MR. CROWLEY: We took it out because we felt that a warden message was the more appropriate way to communicate a particular risk factor for Eilat.
"I'm not denying it's unusual to change a travel warning two times in two weeks," said a State Department official, speaking on background. The official said State took the blame for the error.
"We listened to what Israel had to tell us but it was a process failure here at the Department," the official said.
The rocket attacks were an isolated incident, not a trend, so the State Department now believes a travel to Eilat is OK, Crowley said. "I think Americans should feel free to travel to Israel and should take appropriate precautions knowing that there are still risks involved in visiting that country."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.