Kerry urges support for Mideast peace bid

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US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled his determination to launch a new Middle East peace bid in the coming days, warning the time to get a two state solution is drawing to a close. But he offered few details of how new peace talks might avoid the pitfalls that have led earlier efforts to collapse.

“What happens in the coming days will dictate what happens in the coming decades,” Kerry told a Washington conference of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Monday, as the State Department said that Kerry planned to make his fifth trip as Secretary to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next week.

“Time is running out,” Kerry waned. “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”

Kerry, in his first major speech to a US Jewish audience since becoming Secretary of State, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas peace partners, who shared his commitment to reach a negotiated two state solution. While saying he understands why many in the region are skeptical the time is right to achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Kerry warned of the consequences of delay.

“Before anyone gives up hope, you have to ask if you are willing to live with a permanent conflict,” Kerry said. “A realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side.”

Many plugged-in US peace process veterans said they had little understanding of the details of Kerry’s initiative, while some Israeli observers expressed wariness that a fragile new peace effort, without the proper ground-work, was liable to collapse, potentially leading to violence.

Kerry “seems to think just talking to leaders and making speeches will make things happen,” a former senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said Monday. “He shows no appreciation for creating conditions for talks, not has he shown any understanding of the need to build a team or a coalition. He confides in nobody, has no real staff that is empowered, no conceptual thinkers under him, and is starting to appear desperate. That said, I sure hope he knows what he’s doing. Based on what I’ve seen, I have no reason to believe so. ”

The Israeli leadership wants peace, but “may be split between those who don’t believe the other side can deliver, and those who in addition are not yet ready [or] willing to put on the table what they know they’re going to do one day,” one Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said Sunday.

“What they also want,” the Israeli official continued, “is a way to legitimately blame the Palestinians and not get blamed if it doesn’t happen now, which, to be fair, most think it won’t.”

“My guess is [Kerry] has no illusions about Netanyahu, and he knows President [Obama] will not expend heavy duty capital to rein him in,” one veteran Israeli peace activist, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

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State RUMINT: Malinowski for State DRL, Sewall for CT or PM

Updated: Two more Clinton administration alums may be tapped for senior State Department posts.

The Obama administration may name Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), sources tell the Back Channel. Harvard's Sarah Sewall is also rumored to be up for a top State Department job, with some sources saying the White House has picked her for Counterterrorism Coordinator, others hearing Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

Sewall, a lecturer at  the Harvard Kennedy School and expert in the field of protecting civilians in wartime, did not respond to queries from the Back Channel. The State Department and White House declined to comment on whether the appointment was in the works.

The Back Channel previously heard that the bureau's Deputy Coordinator Anne Witkowsky was also under consideration for the Counterterrorism Coordinator post, which was formerly held by Daniel Benjamin, who left in January to head Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Sewall, a member of the Obama/Biden transition team, previously served in the Clinton administration as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and as the foreign policy advisor to then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, is expected to be nominated to succeed Michael Posner as Assistant Secretary of State for DRL. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Friday.

Malinowski previously served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Continue reading

Iran, Jordan call for Syria transition talks


Iran’s Foreign Minister, on a rare visit to Jordan Tuesday, called on the Syrian regime and opposition to enter talks on forming a transitional government.

“We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a joint conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in Amman Tuesday, Agence-France Press reported.

“We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra,” Salehi added, referring to the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq, that has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States but been among the more militarily effective anti-Assad militias on the ground in the conflict.

Salehi’s two day visit to Jordan, a close US ally, comes amid a flurry of intensified regional and international diplomacy on the Syria conflict, and as the United States and Europeans consider stepped up measures to aide the Syrian opposition on the ground while pushing the two sides into transition talks.

“We’re working intensively with a range of partners to strengthen the Syrian opposition and help shift the balance on the ground, which is essential to any chance of shifting Asad’s calculus,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in a speech at Princeton University Saturday.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Russia Tuesday for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to find “common ground” on Syria. Kerry is due to meet with Jordan’s Nasser Judeh in Rome on Wednesday.

Salehi, meantime, was scheduled to travel on to Damascus later Tuesday for a meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, IRNA and AFP reported. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, is due to make a rare visit to Iran next week.

Iran’s stepped up diplomacy on Syria in the wake of Israeli strikes in Syria over the weekend is part of Tehran’s “hedging” strategy, to ensure “the Islamic Reublic retains influence in Damascus irrespective of he outcome of the civil war,” Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney wrote at the Brookings Institution website Tuesday.

“Iran hopes to preserve at least a vestige of its ally Bashar, but has also sought a seat at the table in shaping post-Asad Syria in any formal regional dialogue,” Maloney wrote. Tehran also has “a genuine national interest in precluding the expansion of Sunni extremism.”

Iran has continued to be involved in a regional dialogue on how to resolve the Syria crisis with Egypt and Turkey, a member state diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told al-Monitor Monday. (Saudi Arabia has refused to attend the meetings of the regional ‘quartet’ because of Iran’s presence, the diplomat said.)

A high level US Defense Department delegation is also currently in Jordan for meetings of the US-Jordan Joint Military Commission, that got underway Monday. Continue reading

Roundup: Israel chooses Hamas

(Photo: Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal reacts upon his arrival at the Rafah crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah.)

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Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said. Continue reading

US Navy fires on “rapidly approaching” boat near Dubai

A US Navy security team fired on a small motor boat off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates Monday, after the small vessel “disregarded warnings and rapidly approached”  the US Navy ship, the Rappahonnock, the Pentagon said Monday.

“The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” the US Navy/Centrall Command said in a press statement sent to Pentagon reporters Monday. “When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun.”

The incident, near Jebel Ali, UAE,  is under investigation. The nationality of those aboard the motor boat is not yet known or being released, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy Central Command told Al Monitor. “At this time I don’t have that information, the incident is still under investigation,” US Navy spokesman Ltn. Greg Raelson told Al Monitor by email.

ABC News reported that the small motor boat was not from Iran. “I can’t emphasize enough that this has nothing to do with Iran,” an unnamed Navy official told ABC News.

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