The Cable

Obama's deadline for direct talks looms over peace process

As this week's warm Washington welcome for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly intended to show, U.S.-Israeli relations are certainly on the mend. But President Obama's new deadline for moving the Israeli and Palestinian sides to direct talks is looming large over the peace process -- setting the stage for a summer of frantic diplomacy after 18 months of little discernable progress and raising the risks of a dramatic failure on one of his signature diplomatic priorities.

Obama announced the deadline after meeting privately with Netanyahu Tuesday, saying he wants the direct talks to begin "well before" Israel's 10-month settlement freeze expires at the end of September.

An Israeli official told The Cable that Obama and Netanyahu discussed specific confidence-building measures that Israel could take to help get to the direct talks by the deadline. The details of those measures are being closely held, but they are intended to show tangible evidence that Israel really wants to move the peace process forward.

The Israelis see Obama's deadline as a useful tool to press the Palestinians to move to direct talks -- but warn that if face-to-face negotiations don't start by the time the settlement freeze expires, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to justify extending it.

"If it was up to the prime minister, it would have happened yesterday," the Israeli official said. "There's only so much that can be demanded of Israel for just sitting down and talking," the official said. "There should be now a lot of pressure on Palestinians."

Obama didn't bring up the settlement freeze in his meeting with Netanyahu. "It wasn't discussed," the official said, "but obviously it's going to be an issue in three months' time."

For their part, the Palestinians see a continuation of the settlement freeze as a precursor to serious face-to-face negotiations, not a reward.

"I hope [Obama's deadline] is not an attempt to pressure the Palestinians that if they don't move to the direct talks, there will be a resumption of settlement construction in the West Bank," PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat told The Cable.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Obama is trying to delink the settlement freeze from the move to direct negotiations. The thinking is that if direct talks begin first, "by the time the Israeli government reaches the decision point [on extending the freeze], there will already be a different context."

But Netanyahu will have trouble justifying an extension of the settlement freeze either way, Satloff argued, and the Palestinians could manipulate the situation by accepting direct talks in some sort of symbolic way while keeping the U.S. heavily involved and making few concessions. This would shift the pressure back to Netanyahu, who would then have little progress he could use to convince the Israeli public that the settlement freeze worked.

Netanyahu had lunch Tuesday with almost the entire Obama Israel team, including Vice President Joseph Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Special Envoy George Mitchell, Ambassador James Cunningham, U.S. Representative Susan Rice, and NSC staffers Tom Donilon, Dennis Ross, and Dan Shapiro.

Among those on the Israel side of the table were National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, Ambassador Michael Oren, policy advisor Ron Dermer, and special advisor Isaac Molcho, who has served as an important go-between in recent months.

The kosher lunch menu included chopped White House garden salad with honey-apple cider dressing, thyme-roasted chicken with spring peas, leek puree and potato croutons, with apricot torte with White House honey ice cream for dessert (dairy-free, of course).

On Tuesday afternoon, Clinton, Mitchell, Cunningham, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman went to see Netanyahu at Blair House for a 45-minute working meeting that largely tracked Netanyahu's White House meetings. Gates came to Blair House Wednesday morning for a one-on-one with Netanyahu that focused on bilateral defense cooperation.

Netanyahu traveled to New York Wednesday afternoon to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He will address the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations Wednesday night and give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday before heading back to Jerusalem.

The Cable

Missile defense critic to get recess appointment

President Obama has announced his intention to use a recess appointment to push through the nomination of a leading critic of missile defense to be one of his top science advisors.

Philip Coyle was named in March as Obama's nominee to become the associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The nomination elicited a coordinated campaign by conservatives to oppose his selection, based on their longstanding disagreement with Coyle over the Bush administration's efforts to rapidly expand ballistic missile defense deployment all over the world.

In his new post, Coyle will lead a team tasked with giving scientific advice to Obama on a range of national-security issues and report to OSTP Director John Holdren.

Coyle has decades of experience, having watched the U.S. missile-defense program evolve from a 1983 speech by Ronald Reagan to a worldwide system of radars and interceptors still being pursued by President Obama. During the Clinton administration, he was the Pentagon's director for operational test and evaluation, which played a key oversight role in the program.

Since 2001, Coyle has been a leading scholar at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank focused on weapons and procurement issues. He also spent years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and once served as principal deputy assistant secretary for defense programs in the Department of Energy.

Coyle is also an outspoken critic of the way missile defense has been developed, tested, and deployed. He has often argued that the testing done by the Pentagon on ballistic missile-defense components since 2001 has been either shoddy or thin. Moreover, he has repeatedly questioned the basic rationale for investing billions to deploy ballistic missile defense around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.

"In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles," he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee in 2009. "But if you believe that Iran is bound and determined to attack Europe or America, no matter what, then I think you also have to assume that Iran would do whatever it takes to overwhelm our missile defenses, including using decoys to fool the defenses, launching stealthy warheads, and launching many missiles, not just one or two."

Obama opposed recess appointments when he was a senator, but since assuming office, he's changed his tune. The Senate has failed to act on scores of his nominees, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, has been leading a charge to change the rules in the Senate to make public the "secret holds" that often stall such nominations.

"It's unfortunate that at a time when our nation is facing enormous challenges, many in Congress have decided to delay critical nominations for political purposes," Obama said in his statement announcing the appointments. "These recess appointments will allow three extremely qualified candidates to get to work on behalf of the American people right away.

More than 180 nominees are currently awaiting action from the Senate, the White House said.

According to the Congressional Research Service, "The Recess Appointments Clause [in the Constitution] was designed to enable the President to ensure the unfettered operation of the government during periods when the Senate was not in session and therefore unable to perform its advice and consent function."

Coyle's appointment will expire at the end of this session of Congress, meaning he would have to be nominated again at the end of this year. GOP Senate offices are already promising to oppose his nomination again when that time comes.

"Hopefully, when Coyle loses his job at the end of the Congress, they appoint someone a little less ideological next time," one senior GOP senate aide said.

A similar situation surrounded George W. Bush's appointment of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations during a congressional recess in 2005. Bolton resigned at the end of that Congress, knowing his confirmation following the 2006 victory by the Democrats would be unlikely.