The Cable

Rubio: Peace process not a top priority for Israel right now

The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply not a top priority for Israel at this time, according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who just returned from a trip to the region.

Rubio traveled to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan last week and spoke about his trip Wednesday to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Israel has a number of issues that they are concerned about and at the top of the list is Iran," Rubio said, noting that he believes Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and that only the threat of losing power, not negotiations, will convince the Iranian government to change course.

"I hope there is a breakthrough in the negotiations ... I really hope that's what happens, but I don't believe that's what will happen," Rubio said.

"The second major concern is Syria with regards to weapons," he continued, noting that Syria is being flooded with weapons that will remain there after the regime falls, mostly in the hands of groups hostile to the United States. He said he supports giving elements of the Syrian opposition ammunition, but not weapons.

"You don't have to give them weapons; they've got plenty of weapons, frankly. What they need is ammunition. They run low on that very quickly," he said.

"The third concern that they have in Israel is Egypt," Rubio went on. He said the Israelis view the Muslim Brotherhood as a very patient group that, in the short term, is willing to be very pragmatic, but has a long-term strategy of fundamentally redefining every entity in Egypt and pushing the country in a more Islamic direction. The worsening security situation in Sinai is also a priority for Israel, and the U.S. government should press Egypt to do more, he said.

"The fourth issue that comes is the Palestinian question with regards to the West Bank," Rubio said. "The sense you get from the Israeli side of that is that is not the No. 1 issue on Israeli minds at this moment."

"It's not that the Palestinian issue isn't important to the Israelis; it's just that in the ranking now, it's lost its place because of all these other issues," Rubio said.

There's a fundamental difference of opinion between the Israeli government and the Obama administration on the priority of dealing with the Palestinian peace process, he said.

"I think the right approach of the U.S. is to view all of these issues through the lens of Israeli security. The more security Israel feels, the likelier it's going to be that these issues move forward to resolution," Rubio said.

Rubio said that Israeli officials were eagerly anticipating the visit next month by President Barack Obama and were curious about whether Obama was coming with a specific plan on the Palestinian peace process or whether he was just going to go to listen.

"I told them I probably wasn't the best source for the president's thinking but my sense of it was the president was probably coming more to listen than to dictate," he said.

The Cable

Wendy Sherman headed to Israel and Jordan

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman will go to Israel and Jordan next week in advance of the visit there by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the State Department said Wednesday.

"Following the P5+1 talks in Kazakhstan with Iran on its nuclear program, Under Secretary Sherman is traveling from February 28-March 4 to Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, where she will meet with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign Ministers," the office of outgoing State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. The statement didn't say what Sherman would do there or whom she would meet.

Kerry and Obama will visit Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan later in March. Kerry will not visit those countries on his current nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, but he will be in that region with stops in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar in the next few days,

Several State Department sources told The Cable that Kerry had wanted to visit Israel on his maiden voyage as secretary of state. There was a back and forth between the State Department and the White House. Ultimately, the decision was made that Kerry and Obama would visit Israel together.

In a press briefing earlier this month, Nuland said that Kerry wasn't going on his own because the Israeli government was still in the process of getting set up after the last round of elections.

"Given the fact that the government coalition negotiations in Israel are still underway, the secretary will be traveling there with the president when he visits later in the spring in lieu of making his own separate trip in February to Jerusalem and Ramallah," she said.

Former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Wilson Center, told The Cable that it was wise of the administration not to send Kerry to Israel before the Obama visit.

"By going to Israel before the president, Kerry would risk exposing himself as not a serious player and taking away the president's own fire. All eyes should be on Obama. Not only is that the way Obama wants it; that's also the best approach to take," he said.

What matters now concerning Israel is whenObama sits down with the Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for a private conversation, they test their capacity to reach understandings with one another on Iran and the Palestinian issue, Miller said.

"Kerry's relationship with Bibi isn't broken; Obama's is. So too, the president needs to have a public conversation with the Israeli people and to personalize his often remote, detached persona. John Kerry can't do either of these things; nor should he be expected to," he said.