Hagel meets Israel's Ehud Barak

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Newly confirmed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday met with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in his first bilateral meeting with a foreign leader since taking the helm of the Pentagon last week.

The two defense chiefs discussed Syria, Iran and continued US support for Israel’s qualitative military edge and anti-missile defense systems, despite looming US budget cuts, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

On Syria, the two defense chiefs discussed “the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons” in that country and pledged to “continue U.S.-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat,” Little said.

On Iran, Secretary Hagel “reiterated that President Obama is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon with all options on the table,” Little said. “The United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing.”

Hagel and Barak have a long and constructive working relationship dating back over a decade, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote for Al-Monitor late last year, noting he had personally been present at three of their past working meetings.  Continue reading

Obama to name John Brennan for CIA, Chuck Hagel for Defense


President Obama on Monday will nominate White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, and former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense.

Brennan, a 25 year CIA veteran who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence advisor going back to the 2008 campaign.  He is very close with the President and extremely well-liked by the White House and National Security Council staff.

“When I was in [the White House], I slept better at night knowing that John Brennan never did,” former Obama White House political advisor David Axelrod wrote on Twitter Monday. “He worked 24/7 to keep Americans safe. Extraordinary guy.”

Brennan however withdrew his name from consideration for CIA chief in 2008 amid concerns about whether he had endorsed Bush-era CIA use of waterboarding and other controversial harsh interrogation techniques. More recently, Brennan has reportedly been among the figures arguing inside the administration for more restraint in the use of targeted drone strikes to kill militants.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served two terms as Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been co-chairman of Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The nominations are expected to be announced at 1pm EDT.

The administration is gearing up for a tough confirmation battle over Hagel.

Neoconservatives and some right-leaning pro-Israel and gay rights groups have already signaled their opposition to Hagel, while several former diplomats, military officers, and Israel envoys have endorsed him. Among Hagel’s supporters, former National Security advisors Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Israel Tom Pickering, former Defense Secretary  Frank Carlucci, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The administration may have been taking aback by the early opposition to the Hagel nomination, given his distinguished record of service and compelling personal story.  The White House also may have thought the worst was behind it after Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, bowed out amid Republican sniping over her comments on the Benghazi attacks. Obama last month nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Regarding the preemptive campaign against Hagel, it has been “like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” one Democratic source said. The Obama administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”

“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices,” the source continued. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”

Hagel’s positions on national security policy are considered similar to those of President Obama, who defended him as a “patriot” in an interview last month.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory last month. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments.”

“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative,” Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly said Monday.

(Photo: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan briefs President Obama on Dec. 14, 2012 on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said this was the worst day of his Presidency. Pete Souza, White House.)

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Obama defends Hagel as ‘patriot’

President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended former Senator Chuck Hagel as a patriot and outstanding intelligence advisor, but said he had still not decided who he would nominate to serve as his next Defense Secretary.

Obama, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday for the first time since 2009, was asked by host David Gregory, “Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you, should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?”

“Not that I see,” Obama responded, after saying he had not made up his mind yet about his pick for Pentagon chief.

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” the president continued. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

“So I haven’t made a decision on this,” Obama said.

Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, apologized earlier this month for comments he made in 1998 regarding an ambassador nominee who was gay. Former US ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel subsequently wrote on Facebook that he accepts Hagel's apology.

“Senator Hagel's apology is significant–I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything,” Hormel reportedly wrote on Facebook Dec. 22, noting that over the past “fourteen years…public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.”

Obama made the same point to Gregory. “With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.  And that's something that I'm very proud to have led.”

Obama’s comments on the Sunday show gave no indication of when he might announce further cabinet nominations for his second term. To date since his reelection last month, Obama has nominated only Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and former Democratic presidential candidate is expected to be easily confirmed. Kerry and Hagel are both Vietnam veterans. Continue reading

Obama golfs with Bill Clinton, spurring interest from Mideast watchers


Middle East watchers were seized with the news that President Barack Obama was playing golf on Sunday with former President Bill Clinton.

“Pleeeeze offer him role of Mideast Envoy? Pleeeeeze?,” Israeli lawyer and anti-settlements expert Daniel Seidemann wrote on Twitter, in response to a post noting Bill Clinton was among Obama’s golfing companions Sunday.

President Obama “is golfing with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Virginian gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, according to the White House press office,” White House pool reporter Eric Wasson of The Hill wrote in a pool report Sunday sent to other reporters covering the administration.

“I’m sure 42 will have advice to share on the #MidEast Peace Process,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy at the Jewish Federation of North America, commented on the golf outing of Presidents 42 and 44, reported to have grown closer during Obama’s reelection campaign.

Middle East peace activists have long fantasized about Obama enlisting the popular former President to try to advance the stalled Middle East peace process. (“Bill Clinton is the only guy I can think of who is trusted and liked by all sides,” veteran US foreign policy watcher Steve Clemons told this reporter two years ago. “Employ Bill Clinton as peace envoy,” Bernard Avishai, writing at the Daily Beast, urged anew this month.)

But until recently, with the imminent departure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the key role Bill Clinton played helping Obama’s reelection campaign, the prospects of such an appointment seemed entirely unlikely. Even now, as yet, there is little sign the Obama administration seems inclined to wade back into a big new Israeli-Palestinian peace push, certainly not before Israeli elections next month. The biggest obstacle: the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t seem to want it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angry over the United Nations vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status last week, lashed out at the Palestinian entity Sunday, as Israel announced new settlement building plans and that it was withholding $100 million in tax payments to the PA. “The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu charged Sunday.

Given the obstacles the Israeli and Palestinian parties have thrown up to returning to the peace table, “the ultimate question is what does America do,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House on Middle East and Jewish affairs, told the Back Channel in an interview last week. Continue reading

Feldman: Case closed-for now-on Israel Iran strike?


Israel scholar Shai Feldman pronounces the Israeli debate on attacking Iran over. The two chief proponents of Israeli action, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “did not bluff, but they were defeated”–at least for now, Feldman, a scholar at Brandeis and Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes at Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel:

For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country’s president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.[…]

Contrary to what many think, Netanyahu and Barak … did not bluff, but they were defeated. With President Peres publicly joining the many formidable opponents of a military strike and General Sagi raising questions about the competence of Israel’s current leaders, Israel now lacks the minimal consensus required for a demanding military campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. The debate has been settled. At least for now.

But two veteran Israeli analysts said they were not convinced the debate is over at all.

“While Shimon Peres’ statement was of extraordinary importance, the logic underlining Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak’s rationale remains intact,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas told Al Monitor Monday by email.

“They are convinced that the ‘timetable gap’ that exists between the US and Israel will not change,” Pinkas continued. “The one game-changer that is still available are US assurances pertaining to a US military strike sometime around spring 2013, if all else fails.”

“No. I don’t think it’s over,” Israeli national security correspondent Yossi Melman told Al Monitor by email. Melman, co-author of a new book on Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armaggedon, noted that Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror on Monday briefed Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, on Iran. The briefing was seen as an effort to try to sway Shas’ two cabinet ministers in favor of possible Israeli action on Iran.

“So it’s far from over,” Melman said. “I still think Israel will [probably] not attack before [the US] elections, but …. Netanyahu and Barak seem to be still very determined.”

(Photo: Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool)