The Cable

Top Pentagon Intel Official: No Mideast Peace 'In My Lifetime'

This story has been updated.

ASPEN, Colo. — A top Pentagon intelligence official said he saw no prospect of Mideast peace in the decades to come, a strikingly pessimistic assessment of one of the Obama administration's top foreign-policy priorities.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who will be stepping down from his post as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency later this year, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum that Israel needed to carefully calibrate its current military offensive in Gaza so that it punished Hamas without fully eradicating it. If it did, Flynn warned that Gaza could fall under the sway of the extremist group that now controls broad swaths of Syria and Iraq.

"If Hamas were fully destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse," Flynn said Saturday night. "It would be a worse threat that could come into the ecosystem and be more dangerous, something like an [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] or an [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]."

Flynn told the crowd that the instability wracking the region was likely to continue well into the future. "Is there going to be peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime," he said.

The DIA chief's unusually blunt comments came on a weekend of violence in Gaza, where the death toll for both Israelis and Palestinians has been steadily rising.

The two sides had agreed to a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire Saturday, and Israel offered to extend the agreement by another 12 hours. Hamas rejected the extension, and on Sunday morning resumed its missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israel responded with a barrage of new airstrikes on targets across Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that Israel would continue its offensive against Hamas until the militant group stopped lobbing rockets into Israel or using its tunnels to infiltrate Israeli territory to mount new attacks or kidnap soldiers or civilians.

"Hamas has broken five cease-fires," Netanyahu said. "They've violated their own cease-fires. They are firing on us now.... We'll do whatever is necessary to achieve our goal of a sustained quiet."

The conflict, now entering its third week, has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 46 Israelis, including 43 soldiers. In a phone call with Netanyahu Sunday afternoon, President Obama condemned Hamas's rocket attacks on Israel and said the Jewish state had a right to defend itself, but said the United States had "serious and growing concern" about the violence and what Obama termed a "worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza," according to a White House account. Obama, according to the White House, pressed Netanyahu for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire that could then lead to broader talks about a longer-term truce. Netanyahu has said the Israeli assault will continue until its security needs have been met, and the chances of a diplomatic solution seem increasingly remote.

Flynn, who was forced to retire early after clashing with his superiors, wasn't the only top American official at the security forum here to express profound concern about the chaos in the Mideast.

Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the Syrian civil war posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland because growing numbers of foreigners were taking part in the fighting there, gaining battlefield experience they could potentially use against targets in both the United States and Europe. Foreign fighters are of enormous concern to Western security officials because they have European or American passports, making it easy for them to return to the United States and plan potential new attacks.

Olsen said at least 12,000 foreigners were taking part in the war against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, up from 7,000 a few months ago, including at least 1,000 Europeans and at least 100 Americans. Olsen said some of the Americans had returned to the United States, but stressed that many were being tracked and monitored by the FBI.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaking on the same Friday panel, said the intensifying conflict in the Gaza Strip threatened to further "fuel" the ranks of foreign fighters inside Syria. "It may contribute to the number of individuals who feel that they want to become part of the fight, but not necessarily in Gaza," Mueller said.

Both men, in addition to an array of other current and former U.S. officials, said the territory held by ISIS, which has renamed itself the Islamic State, was emerging as a training camp for other militants and a safe haven for plotting other attacks.

Syria, Olsen said, was providing safe havens that were starting "to be reminiscent of what we faced before 9/11 in Afghanistan."

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The Cable

Gaza Fighting Turns Uglier as Cease-Fire Proves Elusive

The Israeli cabinet unanimously rejected a U.S.-backed plan for a weeklong halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas, dealing a blow to the Obama administration's effort to end the conflict in Gaza and to revive a broader push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The failure to implement a cease-fire before a self-imposed deadline this weekend comes as the conflict threatens to take a new, uglier turn. Thousands of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces in the West Bank following a strike on a U.N. school in Gaza that left 16 dead and hundreds wounded. With the fighting now in its third week, more than 800 people -- mostly civilians -- have died in Gaza. Fighting has also claimed the lives of 35 Israelis, the bulk of whom were soldiers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats were upbeat about the talks right up until the vote. Addressing reporters alongside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Kerry said he could not announce a full-blown cease-fire agreement before departing Cairo for meetings in Paris on Saturday because Israelis and Palestinians could not agree on the "terminology" of a cease-fire. Shoukry said the warring parties need more time to reach an understanding.

Israeli officials were reportedly adamant that any agreement allow Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops to continue destroying Hamas tunnels in Gaza. These tunnels -- which Hamas fighters use to infiltrate Israel and carry out operations -- have become a focus of IDF operations during the conflict that began July 8. Israeli forces were reportedly surprised by the networks' full extent, and destroying them is now a key IDF objective.

Still, Kerry says he will press on in his urging to end the fighting. A U.S. official told Reuters that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a 12-hour "humanitarian cease-fire" to commence Saturday morning as a "down payment."

"None of us here are stopping," Kerry said. "We have a framework that will work."

Kerry is promoting a two-step diplomatic initiative that would begin with a seven-day truce. Once the fighting stops, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would join other key regional and international powers in Cairo for broader talks about the Gaza Strip's economic, political, and security future.

Though Israeli media reported that the American proposal was unanimously rejected by the Israeli cabinet, Kerry downplayed the setback's magnitude, insisting that the Israeli government's discussion is focused around concepts and that no final proposal was submitted.
"Gaps have been significantly narrowed," Kerry said. "It can be achieved if we work through some of the issues that are important for the parties."

Hamas's response to Kerry's cease-fire outline is unclear. It rejected an earlier Egyptian proposal, which Israel had accepted, saying it wasn't consulted and that the plan didn't address its demands to lift the blockade on Gaza and release more prisoners from Israeli jails. In an interview Thursday with the BBC, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Hamas would silence its weapons when the blockade is lifted. "We want a cease-fire as soon as possible that's parallel with the lifting of the siege on Gaza. That is the demand of the Gazan people," he said.

On Thursday, a strike targeting a U.N. school in Gaza providing shelter to Palestinians fleeing the violence left 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, including women and children. Even though there's no definitive proof which side is responsible for the incident, the West Bank erupted in protest overnight.

Thousands of West Bank protesters clashed with Israeli security forces Friday. At least five Palestinian protesters were killed. Meanwhile, Israel continued its operations in Gaza and the IDF said that one of its soldiers, Staff Sgt. Guy Levy, 21, was killed in Gaza by Palestinian "terrorists" operating near a school administered by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Palestine (UNRWA). More than 140,000 Palestinians are sheltering from the fighting in UNRWA facilities.

"At noon today, terrorists fired mortars & anti-tank missiles from near an UNRWA school in Gaza, killing an IDF soldier," according to a tweet from the IDF spokesman. "Our initial reports from the field indicate that terrorists also opened fire from within the UNRWA school."

Shortly after the announcement that the Israeli government had rejected a cease-fire proposal, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told his troops "to be prepared for the possibility IDF will be ordered to expand Gaza ground operation very soon."

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images