The Cable

Obama adds Saudi Arabia to June trip

President Barack Obama will visit Saudi Arabia next week, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said today, adding it as the first stop to a previously announced itinerary that includes a planned speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt, visits to Dresden and Buchenwald in Germany, and commemoration of the 65th anniversary of D-Day in France.

In Riyadh, Obama will meet with Saudi King Abdullah on June 3. Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East peace process will be on the agenda, the AP cited Gibbs.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet with Obama at the White House Thursday. Obama will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who canceled his White House visit due to the death of his grandson, in Cairo. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman are currently in Washington in his stead.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is expected to come to Washington next week, Israeli media reported. Reports said Barak would propose dismantling 26 West Bank outposts in exchange for Washington's acquiescence to continue "natural growth" expansion in existing West Bank settlements. Barak is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, national security advisor James L. Jones, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

At a press conference following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Obama said, "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That's a difficult issue.  I recognize that, but it's an important one and it has to be addressed."

A former Israeli government official told The Cable that he found Barak's planned request to Washington shocking. "You would think ... they would at least pretend to understand the Obama zeitgeist and at a minimum play the game," he said. "But no, they are dumber than meets the eye."

"I imagine that within a week or so, commentators will accuse [Netanyahu] of misleading the U.S. and dragging [his] feet," the former Israeli official added. "There is already criticism in the media of his settler-mentality, neo-con mindset, Cold War rhetoric, staff who misinterpret both Israeli public opinion and contemporary Washington and think it's just fine to confront Obama on some ... settlement the size of a McDonald's toilet."

UPDATE: At a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit Wednesday, Secretary of State Clinton said:

With respect to settlements, the President was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point.

Cilnton is scheduled to have dinner with PA President Abbas Wednesday night.

 

The Cable

Libya claim delays Feltman confirmation vote

A compensation claim regarding Libya appears to be delaying the confirmation vote of Jeffrey Feltman to become assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, The Cable has learned.

Feltman's nomination was forwarded by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate last week. But last Friday, before they broke for Memorial Day, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), usually a reliable Obama White House ally, put a hold delaying a Senate vote on the nomination until after the week-long recess, apparently at the request of an unidentified constituent with an unspecified, Libya-related claim. The case does not have to do with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland, but officials would not specify what it was regarding.

The case doesn't appear to have anything to do with Feltman himself or his specific role in U.S.-Libya policy, sources in and out of the government said. Rather, as the highest level State Department Middle East official to undergo confirmation, his nomination seems to be an opportunity for Levin to raise the matter on behalf of the constituent.

Feltman, a career Foreign Service Officer, served as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and is currently serving as the acting assistant secretary of the NEA bureau. He declined to comment. Feltman traveled in Lebanon and back to Washington with Vice President Joseph Biden last week.

His predecessor as assistant secretary of NEA, David Welch, retired from the State Department in December to join Bechtel as vice president for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Bechtel is part of an Egyptian-led joint venture that has contracts to design and build power plants in Libya.

Last August, "Mr. Welch helped negotiate a fund for Libyan victims of 1986 U.S. air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi," the Washington Times reported. "The strikes were retaliation for Libya´s role in bombing a German nightclub frequented by American servicemen."

The Justice Department declined to comment on the matter. A U.S. official said it's not clear if the matter raised by Levin on behalf of his constituent should be resolved by State or the Justice Department.

Levin's office also declined to comment, except to say last Friday that the Senator had asked for a few more days to seek clarification on some matters before the Senate takes up the nomination. Congress is out all week and Levin is back in Michigan, his office said Tuesday.

UPDATE: A Democratic Hill staff source writes, "Vice President Biden was pushing very hard for expedited Senate confirmation of Feltman to allow him to accompany the VP to Lebanon as the sworn-in A/S for NEA.  This pressure started ... before Feltman's confirmation hearing with Biden personally calling Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Kerry to ask this be done. The Committee formally reported out his nomination last Tuesday. If there was no hold put, Feltman could have been confirmed on Wednesday. What this all means is that Levin can be argued to have defied the VP's direct wishes here.  Feltman still went with Biden, but only in his acting capacity."

UPDATE II: In an October 2008 press statement, Levin said: "I welcome Libya’s deposit of the final installment of the $1.5 billion, which it agreed to pay under the U.S.-Libyan agreement on a comprehensive settlement of terrorism claims against Libya. ... Libya’s full payment of the claims settlement ends the years of waiting for compensation for the victims and their families of the Pan Am bombing, the La Belle Discotheque bombing in Berlin, and other Libyan-sponsored acts of terrorism. ... One of the two servicemen killed in the La Belle bombing was from Michigan; 80 other servicemen and women were wounded in that bombing including a Michigan soldier. This payment removes a major obstacle to an improvement of U.S.-Libyan relations, although there are other outstanding issues.”

The Detroit News adds Thursday, "At issue is whether a Michigan resident whom Levin's office would not identify is eligible for compensation under a $1.5 billion settlement with the Libyan government. ... Under the settlement, several lawsuits filed in U.S. courts against the Libyan government were dropped. ... A Levin aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said the dispute is over a Michigan resident and plaintiff on one of the dropped suits who was not a U.S. citizen at the time of the attacks. The aide said the agency set up to administer the fund will only compensate those who were U.S. citizens when they were attacked. ... Francesco Zirelli, a Detroit photographer, was among 11 U.S. residents hurt in the attack on Rome's airport in 1985 who sued the Libyan government for compensation."