Former Israel spy chief in Belarus for liver transplant

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Former Mossad spy chief Meir Dagan underwent a liver transplant in Belarus last week and is in intensive care, Israeli media reported Tuesday.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, speaking at a press conference in Minsk Tuesday, announced “that a former Mossad chief had been operated on in the country ten days ago and was currently in recovery,” the Jerusalem Post wrote, adding that while Lukashenko didn’t identify the patient by name, Israeli media named him as Dagan.

“Dagan’s illness, cancer, was known for a couple of months to a small group of confidants and colleagues and me, but it was decided for reasons of not invading his privacy not to report it,” veteran Israeli intelligence journalist Yossi Melman told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “Tonight the Belarus President Alexander Lukaschenko revealed it in a press conference trying to gain pr for himself and his pariah regime.”

Two months ago, Dagan went to Sloane Kettering hospital in New York for medical checks hoping to find a compatible organ, but in vain, Melman said. “He returned to Israel and his health was deteriorating.”

Dagan subsequently resigned from his position as director and consultant to various Israeli and foreign companies and flew two weeks ago to Minsk with his family for the surgery, said Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of a recent book on Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon.

Since stepping down as Israel’s spy chief in 2011, Dagan has become a key voice in Israel and the United States expressing opposition to unilateral Israeli military action on Iran.

“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it,” Dagan told CBS’s 60 Minutes in a March 2012 interview.

“I heard very carefully what President Obama said. And he said openly that the military option is on the table, and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state,” Dagan continued. “If I prefer that somebody will do it, I always prefer that Americans will do it.”

(Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) hugs Meir Dagan, the outgoing director of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, after thanking him at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.)

Eutelsat pulls plug on Iran state media


The Iranian government has frequently jammed international satellite broadcasts of western media into the country, most recently blocking BBC and VOA Persian broadcasts of currency protests in Tehran.

But on Monday, it was not the Iranian government but European satellite provider, EutelSat, which claimed responsibility for 19 Iranian state-run television and radio stations abruptly going dark.

“Viewers in the Middle East, Iran’s main cornerstone of influence, and Europe as well as those inside Iran who accessed the channels through the popular Hotbird satellite no longer have access to the channels,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday:

Eutelsat Communications said it stopped broadcasting the Iranian channels in light of European sanctions approved in March and a French regulatory decision. …

Though Eutelsat’s decision to remove Iran’s government-owned channels isn’t related to the nuclear standoff, the move serves to isolate the Islamist Republic further. Continue reading

Turkey’s Erdogan meets Iran’s Ahmadinejad on Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a surprise meeting with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of a regional economic conference in Baku, Azerbaijan Tuesday, to discuss Syria.

The Turkish leader proposed that Turkey, Egypt and Iran might hold three-way talks on resolving the Syria conflict, that has sharply strained relations between Ankara and Tehran. While Iran has backed its ally the Assad regime, Turkey has supported the opposition, while hosting an influx of over 100,000 Syrian refugees and fighting escalating border clashes this month after Syrian mortar killed five Turkish civilians.

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Hillary Clinton: ‘I take responsibility’ for Benghazi security lapse

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN Monday that she accepts responsibility for the security lapse that led to the death of four State Department personnel in Libya last month.

“I take responsibility” for what happened in Benghazi, Clinton told CNN‘s Elise Labott. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”

Clinton spoke from Lima, Peru Monday, as Republicans have accused the Obama administrating of giving conflicting accounts of what it knew in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Benghazi outpost.

Clinton has widely signaled her plans to step down from the job of Secretary of State at the end of Obama’s first term, even if he is reelected. In her role as Obama’s top envoy, she has become the most popular figure by far in the Obama cabinet, one who is widely eyed as a prospective Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reports Tuesday that Clinton made a similar statement of responsibility in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday (Oct. 10), but the paper did not publish it:

On Monday night, the Journal’s Monica Langley reported that Clinton made a similar comment to her in a recent interview. That comment had not previously been published.

“I take responsibility,” Clinton told the Journal. “I’m the Secretary of State with 60,000-plus employees around the world. This is like a big family … It’s painful, absolutely painful.”

Clinton sat for an interview with the Journal last Wednesday and there was no embargo preventing the paper from publishing any part of it, a State Department spokesman told The Huffington Post

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech to the media at the government palace in Lima, October 15, 2012. Clinton is on a two-day official visit to Peru.  REUTERS/Jorge Luis Baca.)

Links: ‘Tea in Doha while Syria burns,’ Israeli Arab students’ new shtick

Rabbi Pinto’s wife hospitalized after suicide attempt

The wife of an influential rabbi caught up in a bribery and money laundering probe has been hospitalized in Israel following a reported suicide attempt Sunday, the Jerusalem Post reports.

Dvora Pinto, 37, the wife of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, was admitted to a hospital in Rehovot, Israel Sunday after taking an overdose of pills, reports said.

The couple were remanded to 15 days of house arrest in Ashdod, Israel Thursday (Oct. 11), after being accused of attempting to bribe a senior Israeli police officer with $200,000 for information on a money laundering probe of a charity connected to the rabbi, Hazon Yeshaya. Continue reading

Ex-Aide to Rep. Grimm and Rabbi Pinto changes attorneys

Ofer Biton, a former fundraiser for Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) and aide to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, has hired a new attorney, Al-Monitor has learned. Biton was arrested by the FBI in August on an immigration fraud charge, amid a federal campaign finance probe of Grimm.

Biton has retained former federal prosecutor Alan Vinegrad, the former US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, as his new defense counsel, sources familiar with the development told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton has been represented in proceedings to date by John Meringolo, whose most well known past clients include John Gotti Jr., and Gambino crime family soldier Greg DePalma.

Biton, an Israeli citizen, was released on bail to house arrest last week. He appeared at a status hearing on his case before US District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf in Brooklyn Friday, and informed the court of his intent to add Vinegrad to his defense team.

Meringolo, in past court proceedings, has alleged that prosecutors were pressuring his client to cooperate in their campaign finance probe of Grimm in exchange for leniency. But Biton would not cooperate against the Staten Island freshman Republican, he told reporters after a court appearance last month. “I haven’t seen any evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing of Michael Grimm,” Meringolo told reporters after a hearing Sept. 7. (Asked about the remark–seemingly on behalf of someone other than his client–by Al-Monitor this week, Meringolo declined to comment, but insisted that Biton was the only one paying his legal fees.)

Meringolo also said that he intended to take Biton’s case to trial.

It’s not clear if Biton’s decision to change attorney suggests he is reconsidering his options.

Vinegrad, now a partner at Covington & Burling, did not return a message left by Al-Monitor Friday.

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Rabbi linked to US lawmakers questioned in Israel graft probe


Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic rabbi with a large and influential following in New York, has been questioned in Israel on allegations that he tried to bribe a senior Israeli police investigator, Israeli media report Friday. The deepening legal scrutiny of Rabbi Pinto in Israel comes as his former top aide appeared in federal court in New York Friday, amid an FBI campaign finance probe of a congressman accused of pressuring Rabbi Pinto’s followers for illegal campaign donations.

Pinto is alleged to have been caught in a sting offering a senior Israeli police investigator a $200,000 bribe for information concerning a money laundering investigation, Ma’ariv reported.

Rabbi Pinto was questioned Thursday by Israeli police “on suspicion of having tried to bribe chief of the Police Investigation Division Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Bracha,” Maariv’s Avi Ashkenazi reported.

“Escorted by detectives and wearing a wire, the officer, [Bracha], received $100,000 in cash from Pinto, in exchange for which he was to provide information about the investigation into Hazon Yeshaya, a charity organization,” Maariv wrote.

Pinto’s attorney told the paper the rabbi has cooperated in answering the police’s questions and has done nothing wrong.The rabbi and his wife have been released to house arrest in Ashdod, Israel to answer additional questions, reports said.

Rabbi Pinto, 38, has developed an influential following in both Israel and the United States, and has close ties to US lawmakers. In August, the FBI arrested the rabbi’s former top aide, who had worked as a fundraiser for New York Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island). Al-Monitor reported in August that the top seven donors to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2008 campaign were from members of Rabbi Pinto’s congregation.

Ofer Biton, the former aide to Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm, had a status hearing in his case before US District Court Judge Roslynn Mauskopf Friday, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton also informed the court Friday that he has retained a second defense lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, who used to be the US attorney in the district.

Biton, arrested on an immigration fraud charge in August, was released to house arrest last week after a former business partner of Grimm’s put up his $1.5 million bail.

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Gunmen kill top Yemeni security officer employed by US Embassy

A top Yemeni security official with the US Embassy in Sanaa was killed Thursday by a gunman on a motorbike, in an attack the State Department said appeared to target him.

Qassim M. Aklan, a Yemeni national, served as head of the Foreign Service national investigative unit within the larger Regional Security Office shop at the US Embassy in Sanaa, where he had worked for eleven years, the State Department said Thursday.

Mr. Aklan “was a dedicated professional who will be greatly missed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Thursday. “We condemn this vicious act in the strongest terms possible and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.”

In his capacity as head of the Yemeni security staff working at the US Embassy Sanaa, Aklan was “responsible for routine personnel checks,” Nuland said. “He was our liaison on security matters to local authorities.”

Aklan “was not in the Embassy at the time of his killing,” but “off duty….and out with a family member when he was killed,” Nuland said.

The US is in close contact with Yemeni authorities who are investigating the incident, Nuland said.

Reports from Yemen hypothesized that Aklan was targeted by al Qaeda.

Diplomats mull refreshing Iran nuclear proposal ahead of new talks

Washington and five world powers are considering offering Iran a refreshed proposal that could include limited sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, Iran analysts and western diplomats briefed on the consultations said this week.

Diplomats rom the P5+1 are expected to hold a new round of talks with Iran next month, following informal contacts this month between European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her deputy Helga Schmid, and their Iranian counterparts, the sources said.

Western policymakers “recognize they need to include some sanctions relief,” in the reformulated proposal, Trita Parsi, an Iran analyst with the National Iranian American Council, told Al Monitor Thursday. “But there’s a problem with sequencing, and questions about how to stop, freeze, shut, ship out.”

Given many US sanctions on Iran are legislated by Congress, and not solely under the discretion of the executive branch to lift, Washington will be looking to the Europeans for options for limited sanctions relief, Parsi said.

“We recognize that the Iranians need something more with which they can sell a deal at home, and we will expect real change on the other side,” the Guardian’s Julian Borger cited a European official in a report published Thursday. “It is about getting the sequencing right.”

Western diplomats see a few month “window”–from the US presidential elections Nov. 6 until some time in the spring–in which to try to negotiate a deal, Al Monitor‘s Barbara Slavin reported this week. Western diplomats and analysts suggest the timeline may be constrained, both because of wide anticipation of renewed pressure from Israel for military action early in the new year, as well as Iran’s leadership preparing for Iran presidential elections in June.

“The American administration is essentially looking at a window of immediately after the US presidential elections until March of next year, when the Iranians have their new year and after that, presidential elections,” Parsi said. “Before then, something positive needs to happen.” Continue reading