The Cable

Israeli president calls for democracy in Syria

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday called for the international community to support a transition to democracy in Syria and also called for support for other youth movements around the Middle East.

"I believe that finally a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future," Peres said at Tuesday night's dinner hosted at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). CNN's Wolf Blitzer moderated a question and answer session and probed Peres to explain Israel's stance on a range of pressing regional issues.

"The president of Syria was self assured that the people are in love with him; well, it emerged as an illusion," said Peres. "In politics you have to distinguish between support and supporters. Support exists as long as you own the government, when you're in crisis the supporters disappear."

Peres said that Israel was ready to give up the Golan Heights as part of an overarching peace deal with Syria, but only if Damascus would totally reject its alliance with Tehran and its dependence on Iranian support.

"If Syria will divorce the Iranians and the Hezbollah we are very close. If they want to have it both ways then nothing will happen," he said.

The dinner event at the USIP's brand new landmark headquarters on Constitution Avenue was hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and its executive director former Congressman Robert Wexler. Award-winning Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin performed for the audience of diplomats, lawmakers, officials, and journalists.

Speaking more broadly about the region, Peres repeated his call for advancing the Middle East peace process as a means of supporting and aligning with the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.

"In order to enable the young generation to take over and go their way, we have to find a solution for the conflict between us and the Palestinians. I would like to see that our conflict will follow the nature of these awakenings," Peres said.

The Israeli president said that Israel supports the transition to democracy ongoing in Egypt, despite the possibility that the new government might not be as reliable as the old regime in supporting the peace process.

"I have to be fair and say that President Mubarak played one role that we appreciated very much and that was to prevent another war in the Middle East -- and we shall never forget it," he said. "But I think the fact that the young generation took over and tried to tell their people, we have to join in the new age of modern life and we cannot go on with corruption, division, dictatorship -- I think it's a good opening which is needed for the Egyptians and we welcome it very much.

Peres said that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could very well be a large political player in the next Egyptian government -- but will never be the majority and do not represent the solution to Egypt's problems.

"Suppose they'll pray ten times a day. Will this solve the problems of Egypt? The problems of Egypt are not prayers, but poverty. And many of the young people understand this. And they may have overplayed their hand."

Peres's call for change and democracy did not extend to Jordan, however, where he said the international community should support and help King Abdullah II.

"He is a responsible leader who is trying to serve his people," he said. "He is in a very difficult situation economically. And if we are really serious, we have to help him to overcome the economic difficulties."

Peres also said that any Israelis who think that President Barack Obama isn't a strong supporter of Israel are wrong. He noted that Obama told him -- and has shown through his deeds -- that the U.S. president will always place Israel's security at the top of his priority list.

"I trust the president. I think he is serious. I think he has a dilemma that all of us have. The dilemma is between following the call of values, the primacy of the moral choice, and the realistic situation which is not necessarily as moral as you would like it to be," he said.

Government officials in attendance included Sens. Chris Coons, Frank Lautenberg, and Bill Nelson; Reps. Gary Ackerman, Shelley Berkley, Dan Burton, Steve Cohen, Ted Deutch, Jim Moran, Jerrold Nadler, Nancy Pelosi, David Price, and Jan Schakowsky; State Department Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Richard Morningstar Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs; Ronald Schlicker; Director of the State Department Office of Israel & Palestinian Affairs Paul Sutphin; and Deputy Secretary for Near East Affairs Jacob Walles.

Diplomats in attendance included Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Jordanian Ambassador Alia Hatoug-Bouran, E.U. Ambassador João Vale de Almeida, Azerbaijan Ambassador Yashar Aliyev, Cyprus Ambassador Pavlos Anastasiades, Georgian Ambassador Temuri Yakobashvili, Chief Representative of the PLO Maen Areikat, and representatives from the embassies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Egypt.

Most of the guests were getting their first look at the lavish USIP building, which was built with more than $100 million in taxpayer funds and approximately $50 million in private donations. Several guests noted the irony of unveiling the new building right in the middle of a huge government fight -- in which Republicans passed a bill that would completely eliminate the $41 million annual budget of USIP.

The building itself represents the cooperation of Jews and Muslims from the Middle East. The building was designed by an Israeli architect, the huge dove-shaped sculpture that makes up a large part of the roof was designed by an Iranian artist, and a large chunk of the private funding came from a donor in the UAE.

The Cable

What you need to know in case of a shutdown

The Cable has you covered in case the federal government shuts down on midnight, April 8. If you're not one of the lucky "essential" personnel chosen to work through the shutdown, here are some tips for how to handle your time off and what it means for your benefits.

"The President has made it clear that he does not want a government shutdown, and the Administration is willing and ready to work day and night to find a solution that all sides can agree with," the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said in its latest update on the potential shutdown. "That said, given the realities of the calendar, prudent management requires we plan for an orderly shutdown should the negotiations not be completed by the end of the current continuing resolution."

All employees who are not deemed "essential" must stop working altogether during a shutdown. If you are essential but were planning on taking paid leave during the shutdown, that leave will be cancelled. Essential personnel must work but will not be paid until an appropriations bill is passed and signed. Congress gets to decide if furloughed workers will ever get their back pay.

All federal employees will continue to receive their health benefits for 12 months during a shutdown, but since there will be no deductions to pay the premiums for long-term care, dental, and vision coverage, OPM is working on guidance for how to keep that coverage intact. That guidance should be released on Friday, but some details on how the shutdown impacts benefit are here.

So who is an essential employee? Well, each agency gets to decide for itself, but OPM defines them as personnel who fit any of the following categories: 1) performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, 2) performing minimal activities as necessary to execute an orderly suspension of agency operations related to non-excepted activities, or 3) performing certain other types of excepted work. That broad definition gives each agency a lot of wiggle room to determine which of its employees work through the shutdown.

Furloughed personnel could be eligible for unemployment benefits, but that depends on the state the employee resides in. Some information on that can be found here.

Guess who won't be furloughed? Members of Congress, the president, and presidential appointees, according to the Congressional Research Service's (CRS) primer on what happens during a shutdown.

The 1995 shutdown, which lasted from Nov. 13 to 19, resulted in the furlough of over 800,000 federal employees. There was another partial shutdown from Dec. 15, 1995, until Jan 6, 1996, during which about 285,000 employees stopped working, according to CRS.

CRS defines "essential personnel" to include those who provide for U.S. national security, including the conduct of foreign relations, are required to work under multiyear contracts that are not impacted by the shutdown, or conduct essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property.

An April 1 CRS primer on how the shutdown will effect the Department of Defense can be found here.

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) has set up a "shutdown information center" that has lots of specific information on how federal employees can mitigate the effects of a shutdown.

"Lessons learned from the shutdowns in the 1990s indicate that most problems were financial in nature," said AFSA. "Members who do not have overdraft privileges or lines of credit with their banks may want to set them up as a precaution. Remember that if you have a mortgage that is paid automatically, you need to have sufficient funds in your account to cover your mortgage payment."

According to Diplopundit, "AFSA will hold a rally at the Edward J Kelly Park near the 21st Street Entrance of the State Department on Friday April 8, 2011, at noon. The theme will be 'Let Us Serve America!'"

And AidWatch has a handy graph for predicting how the shutdown will factor into future decisions about funding for federal programs.

"Maybe the government could use the experience to get some much needed responses on what we citizens do and do not value, and then come up with very crude guidelines for future cuts and not-cuts," they wrote.

UPDATE: Via Roll Call, we learn that the Congressional Federal Credit Union is offering "Furlough loans" to Congressional staffers, who can borrow one month's income, up to $3,000 with no interest, for 30 days. If the loan isn't paid back by then, interest starts accumulating.