The Cable

Israeli students plan to protest Obama speech after embassy snub

The U.S. Embassy in Israel declined to invite students from a controversial university in the West Bank from attending President Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem, prompting those students to promise a protest of the president's appearance.

After the Times of Israel reported that students from all major Israeli universities except Ariel University, based in a hotly contested West Bank settlement, were invited to Obama's March 21 address at a Jerusalem convention center, Israeli lawmakers and Ariel University students criticized the president and pledged to show up at the speech anyway. The school was upgraded to full university status last year, becoming the first Israeli major university in the West Bank and sparking a firestorm of international criticism.

"We were pretty shocked by the discrimination and by the manner in which Ariel University was given up on," Shay Shahaf, the head of the university's student union, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, promising to protest. "In either case, we'll have a presence there."

A U.S. embassy official confirmed to The Cable that the embassy rather than the White House was in charge of the invite list but said that invitations were only extended to educational institutions that were partners in joint programs with the embassy. Ariel University is not a embassy partner, the official explained.

"We're working with institutions that are partners in joint programs with the U.S. embassy and not even all of our partners were included because we have a limited number of invitations," the official said.

Jewish Home Minister Yoni Chetboun wrote to Shapiro complaining about the snub but has not gotten any response.

"He [Obama] chose not to speak before the Knesset, saying he wasn't coming to Israel for political reasons, but at the same time decided he's meeting with students from the universities, except for Ariel University, which is a political decision. It's exclusionary," Chetboun's spokesman Ohad Cohen told The Times of Israel. "Israel decided that Ariel is a full-fledged university. So does Obama not recognize Israel's decisions?"

Some in Washington see the incident as an unforced error by the Obama administration that could cause unnecessary controversy during his first trip to Israel as president.

"This is discrimination plain and simple, and unfortunately it is also counterproductive," said Noah Pollak, executive director of the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel, which has run advertisements denouncing Obama's Israel policies. "The controversy threatens to overshadow the rest of his trip and make it about delegitimizing Israeli students because of where they go to school. Anyone who wants President Obama's trip to be successful should be asking him to correct this mistake."

The Cable

Jim Jones: Camp Liberty is worse than Guantanamo

Former National Security Advisor Jim Jones said Tuesday that the former U.S. military base where a group of Iranian dissidents live is like a prison and the conditions there are worse than the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Jones was a keynote speaker Tuesday at a Nowrouz lunch reception hosted by the Iranian American Cultural Society of Michigan, a group that advocates on behalf of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that was designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization until last October. The organization is one of several Iranian-American organizations believed to be a front group for channeling MEK money to famous American lawmakers and former senior officials, according to State Department officials and congressional aides. The groups insist they are independent.

The State Department agreed to remove the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations, a designation the group earned after a terrorist attack in the 1980s that killed six Americans, because the MEK agreed to move from its secretive compound, Camp Ashraf, on the Iran-Iraq border, to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport.

But the MEK has been complaining about the conditions at Camp Liberty ever since the move, along with its powerful and often paid friends in the U.S. foreign policy community.

"The facility at Camp Hurriya (Arabic for "freedom") has become more of a prison than a camp," said Jones, who added that the alleged terrorists imprisoned at Guantánamo "are treated far better."

Jones criticized both the U.S. and Iraqi governments for ignoring what he called a "growing human rights debacle," said the MEK at Camp Liberty "continue to languish in horrible conditions," and put forth that the camp "should be more aptly named ‘Camp Shame.'"

Jones did not disclose whether he was being paid for his advocacy on behalf of the MEK.

Jones also openly criticized the Obama administration's policy of engagement with the government of Iran and said that the Iranian regime is simply using the negotiations with the international community to buy time to build a nuclear weapon.

Jones also called for regime change in Iran.

"We say to the so-called leaders of the Iranian regime: ‘Your days are numbered,'" he said.

The lunch event was held in the ostentatious Kennedy Caucus Room in the Senate Russell Office Building and was organized by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who once paraphrased his uncle President John F. Kennedy's famous "I am a Berliner" quote by declaring, "I am an Ashrafi."

The other speakers were former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of conspiring with Iran to murder MEK members. Gingrich pointed to the attack on Camp Liberty in February that killed seven members of the group, which he said was perpetrated by the Iraqi military.

"This is a deliberate plan by Maliki to humiliate the United States and prove our irrelevance and curry favor with the Iranians," Gingrich said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) popped into the event make quick remarks about Iran but didn't say anything about Camp Liberty or the MEK. The Cable caught up with Sessions afterwards and asked him what he really thought about the MEK. Sessions said he trusted Jones on the issue.

"I believe that General Jones is correct that this has been an unfortunate mistake," he said, referring to the conditions at Camp Liberty. "I didn't know it was that bad. But I know it went from a good facility to a bad one."

The lunch began with grilled eggplant, dolmeh, cherry tomatoes, olives, mint, and bread. The entrée was beef and sliced boneless chicken kabob with grilled tomatoes and rich rice with saffron. Persian pastries were served for dessert.

Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy