Israel DM Ya’alon clarifies his comments on U.S. (updated)

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Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon called US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday to clarify his remarks that described the US administration as projecting weakness and saying Israel should take matters into its own hands on Iran.

“My statements had no criticism or intent to hurt the US or the relationship with it,” Ya’alon told Hagel in the Wednesday night call, Israeli media reported on Twitter late Wednesday. “The strategic ties between Israel and the United States are of high importance, as are personal ties and mutual interests.”

Hagel “expressed deep concern about the minister’s comments on U.S. policy towards Iran,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a readout of the call Thursday. “Minister Ya’alon clarified his remarks by underscoring his commitment to the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The State Department had publicly–and unusually forcefully—denounced Ya’alon’s remarks and demanded an apology.

Ya’alon, speaking at Tel Aviv University Monday, said the United States “shows weakness” on the world stage, and that Israel should not rely on it to deal with Iran, Ha’aretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

“The U.S. at a certain stage began negotiating with [the Iranians], and unfortunately in the Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better,” Yaalon said, according to Ha’aertz. “We [Israelis] have to look out for ourselves.”

Ya’alon’s comments “were not constructive,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Wednesday.

President Obama “has provided an all-time high level of security assistance to Israel…even during times of budget uncertainty, to provide Israel with unprecedented capabilities and options,” Psaki said.

“So it is certainly confusing to us why Defense Minister Ya’alon would continue his pattern of making comments that don’t accurately represent the scope of our close partnership,” Psaki said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday “and protested to him his concerns about these comments,” Psaki said.

It’s the second time Ya’alon’s remarks have provoked U.S. demands for an apology.  In January, Ya’alon reportedly described Kerry’s diplomatic efforts on behalf of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a “messianic obsession.”  He subsequently apologized.

Ya’alon, in his call with Hagel Wednesday, “also provided…an update on Israel’s security situation and yesterday’s operation,” against Syrian army positions near the Golan, the Pentagon’s Kirby said. Hagel “expressed his sympathy for the wounded Israeli forces and their families, as well as his concern for the ongoing situation in Syria.”

The two defense chiefs “pledged to continue working closely with one another on the range of security issues facing the United States and Israel,” Kirby said.

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walking with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon after he arrived at the Pentagon, June 14, 2013. Photo by AP.)

Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit


Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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Obama cabinet briefs Congress on Syria, as UK participation looks in doubt


The Obama administration will brief lawmakers on Syria in an unclassified teleconference call at 6pm Thursday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James A. Winnefeld Jr. are expected to be on the call, Hill sources said.

The briefing was originally going to be classified which would have required members not in Washington to travel to a federal building with a secure line.

But several lawmakers were apparently traveling and did not think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources say, and the briefing was changed to unclassified to accommodate them. Among those who didn’t think they could get to a classified line, Hill sources said, were Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was reportedly fundraising in North Dakota and Ohio Wednesday. (A spokesman for Cantor did not immediately respond to a query.) House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was traveling in Montana, but an aide said it was not the case that he could not get to  a secure line for the Syria call. “Some other members may have had such an issue but it was not one for the speaker,” Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner, said by email Thursday.

Boehner sent President Obama a detailed letter (.pdf) Wednesday affirming the president's prerogative to act against Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, but seeking more clarification on the U.S. military strategy and legal justification for Syria action.

“It is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action – which is a means, not a policy – will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” Boehner wrote Obama.  “I respectfully request that you, as our country’s commander-in-chief, personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.

The Obama administration- Congressional consultations on Syria are, however, so far positively tame compared to what ally British Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced from British parliament, still haunted by the Ira war. The UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a unanimous assessment Thursday that said, in short, no one else could have conducted the Syrian chemical weapons attack except Syrian regime forces, and that they assessed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons 14 times previously in the conflict on a small scale before the much larger Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta that killed over 300 people. Despite the assessments, British public opinion is wary of getting involved, and Labour leader Ed Miliband urged Cameron at a parliament debate Thursday to delay any action on Syria until further verification from the United Nations chemical weapons inspections team and another UN Security Council debate.

Cameron has agreed not to act before UN inspectors return from Syria on Saturday and report back to the UN Security Council some time next week. The British parliament would then in theory vote on whether to authorize the UK to act.

It’s not clear how long Obama will wait for him, though, especially as the vote looks increasingly unlikely to pass, US and British sources said. Continue reading

White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.

The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.

The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

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Obama tries to strike balance on Egypt after crackdown

20130815-122313.jpgPresident Obama interrupted his vacation Thursday to announce that the United States will cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt to protest the government crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters yesterday that killed over 500 people. But, Obama said, broader American interests mitigated against canceling the over billion dollars in US aid to Egypt at this time.

“Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world, and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically- elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Thursday.

“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama continued, saying the U.S. had notified the Egyptian government earlier Thursday that it was cancelling the military exercise, Bright Star, planned for next month. “The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a phone call with Egypt’s defense minister and de facto military ruler Gen. Al-Sisi, “made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner deplored the violence, but said there were many warning signs that the protracted standoff between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Morsi was heading towards confrontation.

“Without in any way leaving the impression that I think the bloodshed [is excused], this has been about the least surprising outcome,” Wisner, who served as Obama’s special envoy to Egypt in 2011, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“It has been warned for the longest time,” he continued. “These negotiations were not going to go anywhere, because [the Muslim] Brothers had a view about what they were trying to accomplish.”

“The Brothers thought they could defy the odds, and … drive a wedge between the international community and the government, and in that sense they have hardly succeeded,” Wisner said. “Second, they thought they could drive a wedge between” the Egyptian people and the military-led government. While they haven’t managed to do so to date, he assessed, “I can’t argue that they won’t eventually have some success.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood has reached a point where it sees this as the last battle — so, it’s either win it or die as a ‘martyr,’…victory or death,” Egyptian analyst Wael Nawara wrote for Al-Monitor Thursday, describing the expanding Muslim Brotherhood protests as “no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force…and border control officials.”

Wisner cautioned Washington against overreacting, stressing U.S. statements need to strike a balance, to keep ties with Cairo from further fraying and to try to urge the political transition back on track.

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Tom Donilon to step down, Susan Rice to succeed as NSA

President Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will step down, to be succeeded by UN envoy Susan Rice, the White House announced Wednesday. President Obama will nominate his former White House advisor and humanitarian expert Samantha Power to be the next US envoy to the United Nations.

The announcement comes in advance of President Obama’s first meeting with China’s President Xi, in California later this week. Donilon has made the US “rebalance” to Asia a focus of his tenure as Obama’s top national security advisor, and traveled to China late last month to discuss the agenda.

The Back Channel reported May 3rd that Donilon was expected to step down this summer, several months earlier than previous reports had suggested. Among his considerations, associates said, was that he had been doing this for over four long years, and family medical issues. (Sources say that Donilon’s wife Catherine Russell, former chief of staff to the Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, is recovering from a medical issue. Obama earlier this spring nominated her to be his next ambassador at large for global women’s issues.)

White House associates say Rice and Power, like Donilon, are trusted Obama advisors who have been in his inner circle of national security confidants going back to his 2008 presidential campaign. As such, sources anticipated a relatively smooth transition and a good deal of continuity on major foreign policy issues.

“I think the interesting thing about this transition is it’s clearly been planned for a long time,” former White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel Wednesday. “It’s not a shake up. It’s a transition in which Susan and Sam can hit the ground running because they have been doing it for four years.”

“The key to a successful national security adviser is having the President's trust,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told the Back Channel Wednesday. “That is what made Donilon such a power player and the same will be true of Rice, who has long been close to Obama.”

It remains to be seen if the elevation of Power to the UN and Rice's move to the White House will shift the Obama administration's thinking towards greater Syria intervention, given their reported roles inside the Obama inter-agency debate advocating for NATO intervention in Libya, and Power’s expertise in humanitarian intervention and as the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide.

“Power and Rice are strong and principled advocates of atrocity prevention, but are not the irresponsible liberal interventionists often portrayed,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who advised the Obama 2008 campaign on foreign policy said Wednesday. “They are close to President Obama on foreign policy and will face the same limits and obstacles constraining the current policy on Syria. I wouldn't expect them to rapidly push for a military intervention which the administration views as unlikely to succeed.”

“My sense is, everyone in the government, including Susan and Sam, is going to keep pushing for a better outcome in Syria,” Vietor said. “No one is satisfied with the outcome on the ground.”

“It’s wrong to assume that means military intervention,” he added. “We have a lot of considerations to work through. What you have got are people who have been in the government who understand the role that US diplomatic leverage and military power plays, and how that can often be the single most important thing we’ve got. So it’s certainly a significant set of changes. But it remains to be seen what it leads to in Syria.”

Donilon had been looking for the right time to announce his departure, to make the transition as smooth as possible, aides said. “Tom been thinking about this for a long time,” Vietor said. Rice and Donilon will work together over the next few weeks to manage the transition. Donilon is expected to depart mid-July.

While the administration's re-balance to Asia as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq were top Donilon policy priorities, his imprint as a manager of the policy process is perhaps more significant. Donilon was deeply involved in the day to day running of the inter-agency process, some say with a heavy hand, as well as discipline. Aides say he should be credited with running a national security process in which disparate views were heard and fought over internally, but where notably few high-level cabinet fights erupted publicly.

“Tom Donilon has been an outstanding national security adviser. As an inside manager of the President's national security policy process, Tom succeeded in leading a collaborative and insightful process in which all players – from top to bottom – worked together rather than against each other,” Ivo Daalder, outgoing US ambassador to NATO and a friend of Donilon, said.

“It's a feat very few of his predecessors were able to accomplish,” continued Daalder, who is co-author of one of the defintive studies on the role of the national security advisor, In the Shadow of the Oval Office. “He truly managed a 'no drama' process – one that produced very effective advice for the President and ensured smooth implementation of the President's decisions.” Continue reading

Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

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Hagel meets Israel's Ehud Barak


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

Levin: GOP demands on Hagel "far exceed" rules

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin charged panel Republicans with going overboard in their demands for financial information from Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

Hagel “has provided all the financial information the rules of the committee require,” Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday.

“The committee cannot have two different sets of financial disclosure standards for nominees, one for Senator Hagel and one for other nominees,” Levin wrote in a follow up letter Friday to the panel's ranking Republican Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).
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Republican Senators appear “to insist upon financial disclosure requirements that far exceed the standard practices of the Armed Services Committee and go far beyond the financial disclosure required of previous Secretaries of Defense,” he wrote.

Levin said he intends to schedule a vote on Hagel's nomination “as soon as possible.” Hill staffers suggest that may come early next week.

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Waiting games: Iran, world powers play chicken over talks impasse


As Iran continues to balk at scheduling new nuclear talks, six world powers are prepared to wait them out.

European diplomats said this week that Iran was giving them the run-around in scheduling a new round of talks.

In the latest salvo in the blame-game over the delay, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council claimed in a statement Friday that it is actually the P5+1 asking to push back the meeting. Deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid called her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Friday, to ask to delay the meeting ’til February “because the P5+1 isn’t ready,” Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Friday. “Bagheri…asked [the] P5+1 to be committed to the fixed dates in January,” the Iran NSC statement said, implying the six powers were the ones holding up resumed talks.

“Nonsense,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, fired back. “The reason for the hold-up is not the 3+3. We are ready and have been for a long time.”

“We had at least five calls to push for a January 28-29 meeting in Istanbul – they did not accept,” a western diplomatic source told the Back Channel Friday. “Now we offered new dates in February (as Jan. 28 now too late from a logistical point of view) and we hope that they will finally accept so we can leave these games behind and focus on substance.”

Tehran’s procrastination is meant to show that the Western sanctions are not working and they are in no big hurry to get back to talks, Iran expert Trita Parsi wrote at the Huffington Post Thursday. But it may also be driven by Iranian fears that they will be blamed if the meeting fails, over what Iran sees as a paltry offer, he said in an interview Friday.

But the P5+1 is not going to improve the package to reward the Iranians for not coming, diplomats and analysts told the Back Channel, even as Iran is intent on showing the sanctions are not so devastating that they are desperate for a deal.

“In terms of why [the Iranians are] not coming, their objective is to hold out as long as possible, and draw as significant concessions as possible preemptively,” former State Department Iran advisor Suzanne Maloney told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “And I think they believe their leverage increases so long as they show they are not desperate for a deal.”

The Iranian calculation that delay favors their negotiating leverage is likely mistaken, Maloney said.

For the United States and P5 partners, “you sit and wait them out,” Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“I don’t think we improve the prospects for a deal by signaling” we’re prepared to sweeten the deal, she added. “They don’t put a lot of credibility in any signals we send, anyhow.”

While Iranian sources have suggested they are trying to press the P5+1 to put discussion of sanctions relief on the agenda for a new meeting, western diplomats say it’s simply “not true at all” that the group has resisted discussing sanctions relief, a  European diplomat told the Back Channel Friday.

Former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said he expected Iran would likely show up for talks in February or so.

“They have no prospects of getting an improved deal if they don’t come,” Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. And “they run the risk…that pressure will go up.”

The Iranians “want to show they are in no hurry,  that [the pressure] is not working,” Ross suggested. The Iranian calculus is that the longer the talks impasse drags on, and their program advances, “the pressure builds on us,” Ross said. “They believe we don’t really want to use force. …They are playing a very risky game.”

Iranian delay may also be the result of Iranian interest in seeing if Obama’s new national security team modifies US policy towards Iran, Ross said. Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry “in the past has signaled an interest in talking to them,” Ross said Iranian leaders may be thinking. “’Let the new team get on board.’ The truth is–and the Iranians will discover this as well–this is the same president and he is the one who makes the decisions.”

“I will give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat. …The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda here,” Kerry continued. “If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. That is what we are seeking.”

Maloney agreed Washington doesn’t need to go overboard to correct any Iranian misreading of Obama’s new national security team as being averse to the use of force if diplomacy with Iran fails.

“Ultimately, everyone knows that there’s a real military option,” Maloney said. “Sanctions are bleeding the country dry. … We don’t need to grandstand. We have far more leverage than the Iranians do.”

If and when negotiations resume, however, the United States will have to take a strategic decision “at what point are we prepared to pay to play,” Maloney said. “To put significant sanctions relaxation, even temporary relaxation, on the table.”

(Photo: U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.)