The Cable

Behind the scenes, a flurry of Obama administration activity on flotilla investigation

The Obama administration, led by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, was heavily involved in the Israeli government's decision to appoint an "independent public commission" to investigate the Gaza flotilla incident and pushed Israel to speed up the process in order to head off any attempts for increased pressure at the United Nations.

Over the last week, there were a flurry of high-level interactions between top administration officials and their various Israeli interlocutors. A State Department official told The Cable that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, Special Envoy George Mitchell and others were working the phones as well. Barak also spoke with Vice President Joseph Biden, who was traveling in the region.

But in last couple of days, the final details were worked out between the White House and Prime Minister's office, specifically by Jones and Israeli national security advisor Uzi Arad, according to an Israeli official. The National Security Council was much more involved than the State Department, with NSC Director Dan Shapiro in Israel to help and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren playing a role as a go-between as well, the official said.

The message Obama officials delivered was twofold. First, they wanted to make sure Israel appointed international members to the commission who were credible. William David Trimble from Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be on it.

The other Obama message to the Israelis? Speed it up. They wanted Israel to get the commission members settled on and announced as much as a week before the Israelis were ready. The Israeli official said that the detailed and extensive consultations with the Obama people are why it took so long.

"Our sense was that they were hopeful this commission announcement would come speedily and get this issue off the agenda so we could put it behind us," the official said. "Now, nobody can complain that Israel hasn't established a committee with international representation."

The direct and pivotal involvement of Jones is telling because he is also the official widely suspected (but not confirmed) to have been the source of the reports that the White House was telling foreign leaders it planned to support a separate international investigation if one was initiated at the U.N.

That story, put out by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and denied by the White House, caused significant angst inside the Israeli government and diplomatic sources said it could have been an attempt to put pressure on Israel to speed things up.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley spoke about Kristol's allegation Monday. He promised the U.S. would support the Israeli investigation but refused to forswear U.S. support of whatever U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might propose in the coming weeks.

"We stand by Israel and we'll voice our strong views against any action that is one-sided or biased by any international organization," Crowley said. "I'm not aware that the secretary general has yet made any decisions on steps the UN might take. We'll listen to what the secretary general has in mind and make a judgment then."

That type of hedging is exactly what many Israel supporters, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are concerned about.

"AIPAC calls on the Obama administration to act decisively at the United Nations and other international forums to block any action -- including alternative investigations supported by the Secretary General -- which would isolate Israel," the group said in a statement.

They also point to the White House's statement Sunday on the commission, which they see as tepid because it included a terse warning to Israel along with word of support.

"While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel's commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly. We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community," the statement said.

Going forward, there is still a lot of concern among Israelis about the prominent role Jones is playing in the shaping of the administration's Israel policy. The conventional wisdom is that Jones, along with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, are the ones inside the administration pushing for a harder line vis-à-vis Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, while Biden, the NSC's Dennis Ross, and to an extent Special Envoy George Mitchell are said to advocate a position more sensitive to Netanyahu's own political situation.

Former Middle East Negotiator Aaron David Miller said that it's natural for the NSC, and therefore Jones, to manage U.S.-Israeli issues that involve the overall tone and "high politics" of the relationship, as opposed to Mitchell, who handles issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

"When it comes to the overall relationship, the NSC is in charge," Miller said, adding that top administration officials seem to be converging around the realization that public pressure on Netanyahu can only be so effective.

"Those divisions have somewhat surrendered to reality, because in the end to get anywhere you have to work with the Israeli government," he said.

The government of Turkey is not satisfied with Israel's commission and is pledging to do its own investigation. Crowley said that was Turkey's right. The Israeli official said Israel's commission was not crafted "in any way to appease Turkey."

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The Cable

Will the new Burma envoy focus on engagement or sanctions?

The Obama administration is getting ready to select a new special envoy to Burma, who if confirmed could take up his post just after the Burmese junta holds elections the administration has already said won't be legitimate.

An administration official told The Cable, "The Department of State is reviewing several candidates now and will be in consultation shortly with Capitol Hill on the pick to be selected." The current list contains several names, and State is looking at established diplomats, former policymakers, think tank wonks, those with experience on Capitol Hill, etc., the official said.

It's been seven months since the Obama administration announced its new Burma policy, which calls for limited engagement with the brutal regime while keeping sanctions in place. The leading player on Burma policy, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, has been to the country twice in his current role. The other most active public official on Burma, Senate Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee chair Jim Webb, D-VA, has gone once.

The idea was to feel out Burmese leaders to try to make incremental progress leading up to the upcoming elections later this year that a future special envoy could build on. But none of that seems to be happening, and Campbell acknowledged upon leaving Burma May 10 that the elections are likely to be a farce.

"What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy," Campbell said following his last visit.

Webb canceled his recently planned trip altogether, only days after a leaked U.N. report was said to accuse North Korea of using several countries and companies, including those in Burma, to export nuclear and missile technology.

The current administration thinking is to lay low until after the elections and then try to reengage with the Burmese regime after that. They calculate that putting the election in the rearview mirror will eliminate it as a source of contention.

"What's happened inside the country is that they're completely focused on this upcoming exercise that they are calling an election," the administration official said. "Our best opportunities for some form of engagement will come after the elections, even though we don't believe they are credible."

Experts point out that even after the election, the issue of Burma's suspected nuclear cooperation with North Korea will remain.

"The administration has not denied that there are serious transactions between Burma and North Korea that are troubling," said Michael Green, former National Security Council senior director for Asia and President George W. Bush's nominee for special envoy to Burma. "In the midst of this engagement from the Obama administration, the junta just went ahead on these kinds of deals."

The administration, led by Campbell, approached the Burmese government last year with a set of requests: for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to be released, for the government to reach out in some way to ethnic minorities groups, and for a reduction in government-sponsored violence.

"State was ought there on a limb, but they thought if they could get something concrete from the junta they could justify further engagement," said Green. "But the fact is they got nothing, nada."

Green said he is out of the running for envoy, having seen his nomination languish at the end of the Bush administration and then meet its end in 2009 when then-subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-CA, refused to move it forward pending an unspecified favor from the White House that she did not get.

Everybody liked Green, but the Obama team needs its own person for the job -- someone who can quietly probe for diplomatic openings while avoiding negative blowback from Capitol Hill.

And therein lies the rub. Senators, especially Republican senators, will want an envoy whose focus is on enforcing existing sanctions against Burma. The State Department needs someone who can continue the engagement track.

"There's an anomaly in the situation," said one longtime Washington Burma hand. "The legislation very clearly calls for senatorial approval. But the legislation also talks about direct engagement with the Burmese."

Webb wrote June 8 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "strongly recommend" Eric John, the current U.S. ambassador to Thailand, who had some experience dealing with North Korea when he was a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

But John's one noted interaction with the Burmese junta, in Beijing in June 2006, didn't produce any results. Also, some privately question his handling of the Bangkok embassy during the recent period of severe political unrest there.

The administration will have to keep an eye on Webb, a key senator in this issue, as the envoy selection process finishes up. Officials would also be wise to keep an eye on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Sam Brownback, R-KS, both of whom are sure to want to have a say in this debate because of their keen interest in both North Korean proliferation and human rights.

Overall, the administration will have to decide what else it can do to persuade Burma's leaders to clean up their act -- and whether further sanctions may be warranted.

"We've done certain things and they've done certain things, but neither is sufficient from either point of view," the Burma hand said. "So we're in a deadlock."