US calls Israel settlement announcement ‘counterproductive’

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In a move the United States called “counterproductive,” Israel on Friday announced that it will build 3,000 new settler homes, including in a sensitive zone of East Jerusalem. The Israeli announcement came a day after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine’s status in the world body, against the wishes of the United States and Jerusalem.

The United States and Europe have long opposed Israeli construction in the sensitive E1 zone connecting Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adunim, north of the capital.

“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel by email Friday.

“We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder [to] resume direct negotiations or achieve of a two state solution,” Vietor continued. “Direct negotiations remain our goal and we encourage all parties to take steps to make that easier to achieve.”

“If the announcement is real and not simply a PR move for internal politics reasons, it should spur the Administration into action, as the United States has been adamant for many years, including in the Bush Administration, that Israel not build in E-1,” former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told the Back Channel Friday.

Several Israeli observers saw the announcement as an attempt by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “save face” with voters after the humiliation of the UN vote Thursday, and ahead of Israeli elections in January. In the days ahead of the vote, Israel had played down its importance, after previously warning of a harsh response if the Palestinians carried through with their UN plans.

“They threatened [the] collapse of [the] Oslo agreements, and serious acts that will destroy [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas,” Amir Radberg, who formerly worked at the Israeli embassy, told the Back Channel. “But [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton was here and begged him not to destroy PA. So this is the only thing he can do to show some action.”

“Revenge time,” Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote on Twitter. Since the Obama administration didn’t manage to persuade Europe to oppose the Palestinian UN measure, Benn explained the logic, Netanyahu is announcing settlement building in “E1, the most controversial settlement project.” But he added, Netanyahu may not actually do any building in the E1 zone for now, just prepare the approvals.

Netanyahu also announced Friday that he would travel to Germany, to express unhappiness with Germany’s decision to abstain on the UN vote, rather than vote against it. Continue reading

US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)


The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading

Syria goes dark

Syria on Thursday was abruptly cut off from the Internet, two leading US Internet analysis firms said. Many mobile phone communications in Syria appeared to be cut off too, the BBC and several news organizations reported.

“Starting at 10:26 UTC (12:26pm in Damascus), Syria’s international Internet connectivity shut down,” an analyst with Internet monitoring firm Renesys wrote on the company’s blog  Thursday.  “In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet.”

“We are investigating the dynamics of the outage and will post updates as they become available,” the post continued.

Internet analysis firm Akamai confirmed the analysis, as seen in the graphic above.

The Syrian regime appeared to have cut off the telecom services, in what may be an attempt to make coordination harder for Syrian opposition forces, an activist outside of the country told Al Monitor. Continue reading

No clarity yet on dates for new Iran nuclear talks


Diplomats from six world powers, meeting in Brussels last week (Nov. 21), called for new talks with Iran as soon as possible.

But as yet, there is no clarity about when the next round of P5+1 Iran talks will happen, diplomats from the United States and Europe told Al-Monitor on Wednesday. “All dates circulating are speculation,” a European diplomat told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “No clarity yet” about a new meeting date, a US official said.

From Washington’s perspective, the feeling is that it’s better to meet as soon as possible. While Israel is currently distracted ahead of Israeli elections in January, there’s a sense in Washington that there’s not very many months to try to get an interim deal before there’s the likelihood of renewed Israeli pressure for possible military action, not to mention that Iran goes into its own campaign mode in the spring ahead of its presidential elections in June.

But chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton’s early December schedule is already pretty booked up, and Iran is due to hold meetings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran December 13th, making it seemingly unlikely a meeting will happen before then. Ashton, just back from Central Asia, where chief US Iran negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was also traveling this week, is also due to attend a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels next week.

“I think the problem is that scheduling this thing is just logistically tough,” a Washington non-proliferation expert said, noting that western governments effectively shut down on December 17 for the rest of the year for their holidays, then in early January the Russians shut down for Orthodox calendar holidays. Continue reading

US, Israel low key as France announces support for Palestinian UN bid

The United States, in consultations with Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho in Washington in recent days, has urged Israel not to overreact to Palestinian plans to seek upgraded status at the United Nations on Thursday, advice Israel seemed inclined to take.

France on Tuesday said it would support the Palestinians’ bid to seek non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

British diplomats indicated Tuesday that Britain is still undecided how it will vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday about the issue, the State Department said, adding it agreed to disagree with France over its decision to back the Palestinian bid.

“With regard to France and any other countries, we obviously disagree with our oldest ally on this issue,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Tuesday. “They know that we disagree with them, but it’s their sovereign decision to make how to proceed.”

The United States, France and UK have urged the Palestinians to modify language in the draft resolution concerning whether Israel could be brought before the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court.

But western diplomats told Al Monitor Tuesday that the Palestinians think they have enough votes for the measure to pass at the UNGA without modifying the language and did not seem likely to change it. The key imperative is for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume soon, a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees pursuing the UN bid “as an act of [political] survival,” Rob Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, told a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday. His UN bid “is the most moderate expression of his frustration. Politically, he has no choice.”

“The smart answer for Israel would be … to say ‘fine by us,’ and not react in a harsh way,” Malley continued. “Taking harsh retaliatory measures [would risk promoting] the image of punishing Abbas for going to the UN when [Israel] rewarded Hamas with a ceasefire” after the Gaza conflict this month.

Israeli diplomats indicated that is the approach Israel was likely to take for now, though they complained the timing of the UN bid being just before Israeli elections was particularly unhelpful.

“At least for now, we’re going to go low profile on the whole deal,” an Israeli diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Just another day of ‘let’s be horrible to Israel.’. We’re used to it and aren’t getting excited, even if it is completely unhelpful to the pursuit of conflict resolution and a violation of all agreements between us, etc.” Continue reading

Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Erdogan condemns hit Turkish TV drama


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given the thumbs down to a hit Turkish television series, the “Magnificent Century,” which has riled Turkish conservatives with its steamy depiction of the decadent Ottoman reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker reports:

The show chronicles the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, whose 46-year rule which ended 1566, is seen as the pinnacle of the Ottoman Empire. Attracting a third of the prime-time audience every night it’s on air, and broadcasting to 150 million people in 22 countries from the Czech Republic to Japan, the series is a sure hit for Tims Productions–the Istanbul-based firm behind some of the most successful series and movies in the past decade.

But the decadent representation of Suleiman’s life, hinting that the sultan known as ‘the Lawgiver’ was given to alcohol and promiscuity, also drew widespread criticism from conservatives. […]

In a rhetorical flourish that rallied his supporters but baffled many commentators, the prime minister then meshed his defense of government policy with a salvo against the “Magnificent Century,” arguing for active international engagement by deriding the limited scope of the opposition’s stance and the show’s limited focus the luxuries of the palace.

“That’s not the Sultan Suleiman we know, that’s not the Lawgiver we know, 30 years of his life was spent on horseback, not in a palace like you see in TV shows,” Mr. Erdogan told a cheering crowd of thousands at an airport opening ceremony in the western province of Kutahya on Sunday. Continue reading

Monday roundup: Ehud Barak calls it quits

Cairo hosts Gaza mediation talks as parties seek to avert Israeli invasion

Cairo is host to four-way talks on the Gaza crisis Saturday, as regional parties seek to move Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire and avert an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hosting consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and several Palestinian leaders.

Speaking from Cairo, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Egyptian mediation efforts, while lamenting Israeli action as further unravelling aspirations for a two state solution.

“President Abbas has consistently offered negotiations for a two-state solution, but Israel has shown no interest in these negotiations,” the senior Abbas adviser told Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti Saturday. “So this is the result. And the Palestinian people pay the price. We have warned for a while that such a confrontation could be the outcome of the Arab Spring, in the absence of a peace process.”

With regard to the role of Egypt, the Palestinian senior adviser added, “Egypt has a critical role to play for both Palestinian mediation, according to the mandate from the Arab League, and between Israel and Hamas in the present crisis.”

Hours into day four of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has hit some 800 targets in Gaza, while Hamas has launched some 750 rockets into Israel, including five in the direction of Tel Aviv and two towards Jerusalem, Yossi Melman reports from Tel Aviv Saturday:

Three Israeli civilians have been killed, and 40 Palestinians, both Hamas combatants and civilians, including children.

Eighty of the attempted Hamas rocket launches have failed, while 27 rockets hit urban areas and caused damage. The Iron Dome anti ballistic missile defense system has intercepted 230 Hamas rockets– about 8 out of 10 rockets it has attempted to intercept in the current confrontation.

Melman estimates that:

Israel is very reluctant to move in with a ground attack. The mobilization of reservists is mainly for psychological purposes to increase pressure on Hamas.

2. The chances of a cease fire are increased.

Continue reading

Israel envoy: If Hamas stands down, we will stand down

Israel’s envoy to the United States said Friday that Israel is not looking to escalate the conflict with Hamas, but that if Hamas continues to launch rocket fire at  Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it would consider that an escalation and respond in kind.

“If they stand down, we will stand down,” Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told journalists on a call arranged by The Israel Project Friday “We are not looking to escalate.”

“The rocket fire on Tel Aviv, … and Jerusalem is an escalation,” Oren said, referring to Hamas rocket fire that landed in both cities today without causing casualties or much damage, aside from psychologically, he said. Further rocket attacks on major Israeli population centers “would be an escalation and we would respond accordingly.”

Oren declined to say if Israel would launch a ground invasion if further such rocket attacks on major Israeli cities continue. “I am just going to say that we will take all and every means to defend our citizens.”

Oren said Israel had been largely successful in targeting Hamas’ long range rocket supply, although some remain, in the three-day old Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense. The major concern now remains Hamas’ stockpile of short and medium range rockets, with a range from 7 to 50km, he estimated. A Syrian-provided 50km range rocket is one that  Oren cited as responsible for the killing of three Israeli civilians in Kiryat Malachi on Thursday.

Oren also said the Israel is encountering an increased flow of arms into Gaza  from Libya, as well as from Sudan via the lawless Egyptian Sinai. Continue reading