Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

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More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

Israeli jets said to have struck target near Syria border

The Lebanese Army reported the heavy presence of Israeli jets over its airspace on Wednesday, as sources in the region said Israeli Air Force jets had struck a target, possibly anti-aircraft systems, near Syria's border with Lebanon overnight.

Israeli officials would not comment on the reports.

“There was definitely a hit in the border area,” an unnamed regional security source told Reuters.

“The Israeli air force blew up a convoy which had just crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon,” an unnamed security source told Agence France Press.

A source in the region told Al-Monitor the alleged target was anti-aircraft systems, or a convoy of components for such systems, but that could not be confirmed. The Associated Press reported that the target was SA-17 anti-aircraft missile defenses.

Syria possesses advanced anti-aircraft defense systems, including the Russian-made SA-17 (and, Israel believes, Russian made S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles). Israel would consider it a “game changer” if Hezbollah acquired such advanced systems, that would “change the balance of power” between Israel and Hezbollah, and interfere with Israel's ability to overfly Lebanon and deter Hezbollah, an Israeli security expert told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

Israeli sources told McClatchy that what was targeted was electronic radar equipment, that targets the GPS system of drones, such as the U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle that went down over Iran in 2011.

“The entire world has said more than once that it takes developments in Syria very seriously, developments which can be in negative directions,” Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday.

A Hezbollah spokesperson told Lebanon's Daily Star he had no knowledge of the alleged Israeli strike, the paper reported. Regional sources suggested it might be in the interests of the parties involved, including Syria, Hezbollah and Israel, not to acknowledge a strike if one occurred.

Earlier Wednesday, a Lebanese army statement said a total of twelve Israeli planes had entered Lebanese air space in three waves overnight, beginning at 4:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, and leaving on Wednesday at 7:55 a.m (12:55 a.m. ET), Reuters reported.

Israeli media, circumscribed by military censorship, cited Lebanese and other foreign media reports on the developments, which came after days of intense and secretive security consultations in Israel and with foreign capitals.

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi traveled to Washington for closed-door consultations with American officials Tuesday, Al-Monitor exclusively reportedTuesday. Israeli officials would not comment on the focus of his consultations.

Among those Kochavi met at the Pentagon Tuesday was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

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Israeli military intel chief traveling to Washington

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is traveling to Washington for consultations with American officials, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

Israeli officials declined to confirm the focus of his visit, but it comes amid signs of heightened Israeli concern about Syria.

“Hezbollah has set up several bases in Syria, near known locations where Syrian President Bashar Assad is holding parts of his chemical warfare arsenal,” Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai reported Monday.

Netanyahu “recently held a number of security assessments focusing on the developments in the war-torn country,” the Ynet report said. “Israel’s defense establishment has been holding similar assessments, focused on the potential shift in the balance of power between the IDF and Hezbollah, in the event that the latter would get hold of Assad’s WMDs.”

Netanyahu spoke by phone with President Obama on Monday, following a meeting Sunday with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Netanyahu also dispatched his National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror to Moscow, reportedly to seek Russian help in averting various Syrian contingencies.

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Lawmaker recounts Bibi tirade: Never seen such ‘agitated…sharp exchange’

House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) confirmed in an interview with Michigan radio station WJR that he witnessed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going off on a tirade against the US administration at a meeting he attended with US ambassador Dan Shapiro last month, The Atlantic‘s Jeff Goldberg notes:

…Rogers, speaking to WJR radio host Frank Beckmann, painted a very different picture. He said the meeting, originally scheduled to be a discussion of intelligence and technical issues between himself and the prime minister, spun out of control when Netanyahu began lambasting Shapiro over the Administration’s Iran policy. When Beckmann asked Rogers to describe the tenor of the meeting, he said: “Very tense. Some very sharp… exchanges and it was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the (Obama) Administration.” He went on, “There was no doubt. You could not walk out of that meeting and think that they had not lost their patience with this Administration.” Continue reading

Israeli paper reports on blow-up between Bibi Netanyahu, US envoy: “Sparks flew”

Shimon Shifffer, writing at Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth Friday, reports on an alleged recent heated exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

According to Shiffer, the “debate not diplomatic” occurred at a meeting last week when Shapiro accompanied visiting House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) to a meeting with Netanyahu:

 Netanyahu, according to a source who took part in the meeting, was irritable and very tense.  At the start of the meeting, he leveled a sharp attack on the Obama administration, which he said was not doing enough on the Iranian issue.  “Instead of effectively pressuring Iran, Obama and his associates are pressuring us not to attack the nuclear facilities,” he said, and went on to criticize the administration’s declarations that there was still room for diplomacy.  “Time has run out,” he said firmly.

At a certain point, an unusual event took place in the office …Ambassador Shapiro, who was appointed by President Obama and for years was one of his closest advisers, decided that he was fed up. …He asked permission to speak and replied to Netanyahu in a polite manner—but one that left no room for doubt.

The ambassador, in effect, accused Netanyahu of distorting Obama’s position.  He quoted the president, who had promised that he would not let there be a nuclear Iran and said that all options, including a military strike, were on the table. [...]

Political sources who witnessed the event said that “sparks flew” in the room, and that the verbal exchange became progressively sharper.  Netanyahu charged, Shapiro replied—and so on and so forth, with Rogers observing, stunned, from the sidelines.  The meeting finally ended with a harsh atmosphere in the room. …

Susan Phalen, a spokeswoman for Rogers, contacted by Al-Monitor, declined to comment on the report, confirming only that Rogers was in Israel and met with Netanyahu.

Amb. Shapiro himself referenced Rep. Rogers’ visit to Israel on his Facebook page August 24th. “My thanks to Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for an important visit to Israel to advance cooperation between our countries on critical security matters,” Shapiro wrote.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the report, except to reiterate the United States’ “rock solid support for Israeli security” and “unbreakable bond” with Israel and the Israeli people.

The suggestion of a raised-voice argument by the US envoy is an exaggeration, a source who asked not to be identified said.

(Photo: Screen shot of Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth page 2 report August 31, 2012 on alleged confrontation between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, US ambassador Dan Shapiro at a meeting last month. Al-Monitor.)

Romney to Israeli paper: Both Obama and I say nuclear Iran unacceptable


GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given two interviews to Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival in Jerusalem Saturday night.

“I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is,” Romney told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated millions of dollars to Republican and Israeli causes. Adelson, who owns a home in Israel, may attend a $50,000 a plate fundraiser for Romney in Israel Monday.

“I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” Romney continued. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”

So Romney learned first-hand in London Thursday, as his perceived criticism of preparations for the London Olympics got his three-nation foreign trip off to a quite rocky start.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson–both conservatives–fiercely defended preparations for the London Olympic Games after Romney told NBC Wednesday he found some reports of some pre-Games snafus “disconcerting.”

“If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care,” railed the headline from the conservative UK Telegraph Thursday. London mayor Boris Johnson later mocked Romney in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, asking: “Mitt Romney wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” .

Romney also gave an interview in London Thursday to Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper. (Being on foreign soil when the interview was conducted, he told the paper he was trying to refrain from politicizing foreign policy.)

Asked about his Iran policy, Romney said he, like President Obama, have both said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable:The military option is the least attractive option but should not be ruled out, he said.

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Romney told Haaretz. “The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

“I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said.

In Israel, Romney will hold a breakfast fundraiser Monday (July 30) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–an old friend from their days at the Boston Consulting Group; Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served as the Obama campaign’s chief of Jewish outreach in 2008.

But even with the personal ties and partisan sympathies Romney shares with Netanyahu, the powers of his White House incumbent challenger to make policy, sign bills, and grab headlines are hard to match.

On Friday, President Obama signed “a new U.S.-Israel security pact …a move that could steal some of the headlines there” as Romney arrives,” Yahoo’s Olivier Knox noted.  Indeed.

Israeli leaders and American Jewish groups applauded Obama’s action Friday.

“The Government and the people of Israel express profound gratitude to President Barack Obama on his signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said in a statement Friday. It “sends an unequivocal message of support to the people of Israel at a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire Middle East.”

The security pact bolsters the “crucial” US-Israel security alliance “by extending loan guarantees…authorizing American military stockpiles in Israel, and improving military and intelligence cooperation, particularly in missile defense,” the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament said in a press statement.

Meantime, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to travel to Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The bill signing, as well as the Pentagon chief’s Israel trip, come “as Mitt Romney nears a visit to Israel with no power to provide security aid, unlike the incumbent,” CBS’s Mark Knoller noted.

(Photo: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the press following his meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

Romney to Israel

GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney will travel to Israel later this summer, his campaign confirmed Monday.

On the visit, Romney will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–a former associate of Romney’s at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s. (Romney and Netanyahu both worked in the financial consulting world, before launching political careers; Romney after attending Harvard Business School, while Netanyahu attended MIT.) The former Massachusetts governor will also meet with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (who served as chief of Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign in 2008); Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and members of Israel’s opposition Labor party, the New York Times reported. It will be Romney’s fourth trip to Israel.

“He’s a strong friend of Israel and we’ll be happy to meet with him,” Ron Dermer, a top Netanyahu advisor, told the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, who first broke news of the visit. “We value strong bipartisan support for Israel and we’re sure it will only deepen that.”

Then candidate Barack Obama similarly traveled to Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign. But some Israelis and American Jewish groups have expressed disappointment Obama has not yet traveled to Israel as President.

“There is a definite perception that the Jewish vote and the pro-Israel vote are in play this election cycle,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, told Al Monitor in a statement Monday.

“By going to Israel, Governor Romney will be highlighting the fact that President Obama has not been to Israel as President, as well as emphasizing differences in how Romney says he would work with Israel generally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically,” Daroff said. Continue reading