The Cable

Risch tries to halt vote on New START over undisclosed intelligence issue

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to approve Sen. Richard Lugar's resolution of ratification for the New START nuclear reductions treaty with Russia this morning, but not before Sen. James Risch tried to stop the vote from happening due to what he called an alarming intelligence issue was brought to senators this week.

Risch tried to stop the hearing at the outset, saying that he had been approached by the "intelligence community" with shocking information that if true would fundamentally impact the treaty and should prevent the committee from proceeding in any way. He did not specify what the information was but implored chairman John Kerry (D-MA), to postpone the vote.

Kerry acknowledged that the intelligence community had come to committee with a last minute issue and he said he made efforts to make sure all committee members' offices were aware of the secret issue. But he declined to postpone the vote and said the issue would be vetted thoroughly before the full Senate votes.

"It is inappropriate for us to have any discussion in open session in any substance of the information," Kerry said. But he made clear he viewed the issue seriously and  even spoke personally with Vice President Joseph Biden about the issue.

"The conclusion of the intelligence community is that it in no way alters their judgment, already submitted to this committee, about the substance of the treaty... We would not have proceeded today if this information had any effect on this vote or the substance of this treaty," Kerry said. "Before we go to the floor, this issue will further be vetted by the intelligence community and everybody else."

Several Hill sources declined to comment due to the fact that the information was classified.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is now supporting the treaty, said he attended a briefing yesterday about the issue and said it would not affect his support.

Overall, Kerry endorsed the resolution of ratification put forth by Lugar, which the committee voted to replace a previously circulated version by Kerry.

"I have been particularly pleased to work with Senator Lugar to develop a resolution that we can all support," Kerry said in his opening statement for today's committee business meeting in the Dirksen Office Building, where the vote on the treaty will take place in about an hour. "This is a draft that reflects all of our views and I look forward to the committee adopting it."

He also implored senators to put aside politics and ratify the treaty soon as a matter of national security.

"The stakes are significant," Kerry said. "By ratifying this treaty, we will limit Russia's nuclear arsenal. We will regain the ability to inspect their nuclear forces. And we will redouble international support for our nonproliferation efforts.""

Kerry touted the dozens of hearings held on the issue, the testimony of current and former officials in both parties, and the hundreds of answers to questions submitted by Congress. He said the administration had provided a summary of the negotiating record, although not the full record, as some GOP senators demanded.

Kerry has been quarterbacking the ratification process since April, but recently Lugar has become the center of gravity in the START ratification process because his version of the resolution for ratification is the one that the administration, Kerry's staff, and several GOP senate offices have been working on. He raised it at the meeting as a "substitute amendment" to an earlier version floated by Kerry.

Lugar said his amendment brought in the concerns of senators and should alleviate any concerns about the treaty have a constraining impact on the plans to deploy ballistic missile defense program, a key concern of lots of GOP senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ).

"My substitute amendment covers at length concerns raised about missile defense... the treaty places no limitation on the deployment of missile defense... and the 2010 unilateral statement by the Russian federation about missile defense does not impose any legal obligation on the United States."

The full Senate won't debate the treaty until after the November elections, Kerry has said.

The Cable

Former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar launches pro-Israel initiative

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.