The Cable

Mitchell trip postponed indefinitely as State Department awaits Netanyahu’s response

U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell has postponed his planned talks with the Israelis and Palestinians indefinitely, waiting for a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's list of demands follow the row over new housing in East Jerusalem.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley first said that Mitchell simply couldn't fit in the meetings before he is scheduled to be in Moscow on Thursday for a meeting of the Quartet, the Middle East peace contact group that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States. "It's the tyranny of the schedule," he said.

But when pressed, Crowley said that Mitchell was still waiting for Netanyahu's formal response to Clinton, as conveyed during their 43-minute angry phone call last Friday. Of course, Mitchell had been planning to leave on Sunday and then was thinking about leaving as late as Monday evening, before the decision was made at the last minute not to go.

"We did delay that departure so that he would be informed by the Israeli response to the secretary's conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu," Crowley said, adding that State expects the response shortly and follow-on meetings are still expected, although nobody knows when.

A State Department official said on background that it was Mitchell's decision not to go on the trip, in consultation with State and White House officials. Another phone call between Clinton and Netanyahu could come tomorrow, the official added.

Obama administration officials involved in the discussions in Washington this week include the NSC's Dennis Ross, David Hale, Dan Shapiro, and others.

Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman is in Tripoli now in advance of the Arab League meeting later this month, a State Department official confirmed -- not mentioning that Libya remains angry at comments Crowley made from the podium earlier this month.

"We want to reaffirm the commitment by both sides that we will continue these proximity talks in the coming days and that is our plan," Crowley said. He revealed some of the distrust of the Israelis inside the Obama administration when he said, "They've told us they remained committed to the process. We just want to make sure that their words are followed by actions."

 

Clinton herself struck a similar tone Tuesday morning in her remarks after meeting with Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin.

"We are engaged in a very active consultation with the Israelis, over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to this process," she said. "Our goal now is to make sure that we have the full commitment from both our Israeli and our Palestinian partners to this effort."

Netanyahu's office was quick to issue a statement in response, which said, in part, "With regard to commitments to peace, the government of Israel has proven over the last year that it is commitment [sic] to peace, both in words and actions."

Lawmakers from both parties have been active in asking the White House to back down from its harsh rhetoric toward the Israeli government and its list of demands, which reportedly include asking Netanyahu to reverse the decision to approve the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem and promise to include core issues in the coming indirect negotiations.

Congressmen on both sides have said the U.S.-Israel dispute risks complicating international efforts to pressure Iran, but Clinton said, ‘I don't buy that ... We have an absolute commitment to Israel's security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."

"I think both sides have now climbed up a tree that's going to be very difficult to climb down from," said Aaron David Miller, former Middle East negotiator. "The way each side is reacting seems to guarantee that it's not going to be easy to close this latest flap."

(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.") 

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The Cable

Petraeus: I never formally asked for command of the Palestinian territories

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, did not formally request that the West Bank and Gaza be placed under his command's domain, he told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Petraeus was reacting to an article on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel last week reporting that he briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff about his concerns over how a lack of progress in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians could jeopardize U.S. national security interests. The article originally stated that Petraeus followed up with a white paper sent to the White House that recommended the Palestinian territories be taken out of European Command's area of responsibility and placed with his own Central Command.

But in testimony today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus denied that he made such a request and downplayed the discussions that he and other senior military leaders have had over the issue.

"Although some staff members have, various times, and I have discussed and you know, asking for the Palestinian territories or something like that to be added ... I have never made that a formal recommendation for the Unified Command Plan, and that was not in what I submitted this year," Petraeus said. "Nor have I sent a memo to the White House on any of this."

The article was updated to say that CENTCOM did in fact recommend that the Palestinian territories be added to its portfolio, but made that recommendation to the Joint Chiefs, not the White House.

On Tuesday, a senior military official close to Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen emailed Foreign Policy to say that "while the Chairman certainly did receive a briefing by Gen. Petraeus' team, he was not ‘stunned' by it. Indeed, he found it somewhat out of date."

Retired Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, who was CENTCOM commander from 2007 to 2008, said that when he was in charge of the region, discussion about adding parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories to his portfolio was commonplace.

"It's been discussed in the past and I'm open to that kind of discussion when the time is right," Fallon told The Cable. "Frankly, during my time it wasn't right because we had two burning hot wars going on and didn't really need another major diplomatic challenge."

"From my perspective, in many respects it might be easier because the whole rest of the Middle East is part of CENTCOM, but in the end that's going to be a political decision," Fallon explained. "There are certain advantages to having it all in one pot but there's a lot friction there. Certainly it's worth exploring..."

Overall, Petraeus testified that the tensions caused by the dispute between Israel and its neighbors does have an "enormous effect" on other regional issues.

"My thrust has generally been, literally, just to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area," he told Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was reported to have told Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu that Israel's actions to stall the peace process are endangering American troops in Afghanistan, although the White House is now denying he used such stark language.

But a State Department official, speaking on background, did acknowledge the administration's feeling that the peace process and U.S. activities throughout the Middle East are closely interconnected.

"If there's hope associated with a peace process, that can have a constructive impact both in Israel and Palestine and beyond. Where a process stagnates, that can also have implications," the official said. "We understand how important this issue is not only to the immediate parties but to the region as a whole. That's why we see this process as closely identified with broader U.S. interests in the region."

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