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

Israel's Ehud Barak heads to Washington


Israel's outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak departed for Washington on Monday, ahead of the arrival later this week of a high-level Israeli delegation coming to Washington for consultations, apparently as part of the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

Barak “departed this morning for a working visit to the US,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement sent to the Back Channel Monday. “During his visit he will meet with senior administration officials and the heads of the intelligence and defense establishments.”

Later in the week an Israeli delegation led by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and including Yitzhak Molho is due to arrive in Washington for consultations with their American counterparts, Haaretz reported. Israeli and American officials did not immediately confirm to the Back Channel if the consultations are part of the semi-annual US-Israel strategic dialogue, co-led by Amidror and US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The visits come ahead of planned trips to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry later this month and President Obama’s first presidential trip to Israel next month, and amid a steady tempo of high-level Israeli-American security consultations.
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Israeli military jets struck an alleged weapons convoy near Syria’s border with Lebanon late last month.

The visits also come as reports suggest Iran may be slowing down growth of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defined as a key Israeli “red line.” 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

Monday roundup: Ehud Barak calls it quits

Netanyahu aimed to provoke confrontation amid 2010 US peace push


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not planning to launch an all-out attack on Iran in 2010, before he was blocked by his national security chiefs, as has recently been reported in Israel. Rather, Netanyahu, together with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was intending to provoke an attack that would potentially trigger a chain of events that would draw the United States towards confrontation with Iran, Yossi Melman reports on the front page:

The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.

Israeli censors, notably, have blocked Israeli media from reporting when in 2010 the episode occurred. But sources told Al Monitor this week that the events occurred in mid-2010. Specifically, in September, 2010. (Update:The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, responding to a contact on Facebook, says she was reliably told the incident was in late 2010. But a source told Al-Monitor the incident occurred in September, adding “it would be out of the question late 2010 because Dagan”–Israel’s then Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who played a key role in thwarting the plan–”left office in December 2010.” Rudoren later told me ‘late 2010′ could include September in her understanding.)

The Netanyahu and Barak “push to put forces on alert was not confined to one meeting,” Melman writes. “They raised it repeatedly on numerous occasions.”

In the summer of 2010, President Obama was meeting separately with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, as he geared up for a major re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in September. Those peace talks–announced with great fanfare at the White House in early September–collapsed just a few weeks later, when Israel refused to extend a partial West Bank settlement freeze. They have never resumed. Continue reading

Sudan accuses Israel of striking Khartoum arms factory

Sudan has accused Israel of being behind air strikes that targeted a Khartoum military complex around midnight Wednesday. The strikes, reportedly carried out by four aircraft, killed two people and caused a huge, fiery explosion at an arms factory located at a Sudanese army complex, local reports said.

“We think Israel did the bombing,” Sudan Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told a press conference Wednesday, the AAP news service reported, adding that Khartoum “reserve(s) the right” to respond at a “place and time” of its choosing.

Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), declined to comment on the Sudanese charge. “I will not comment on those reports,” Leibovich told journalists Wednesday, speaking on a press call organized by the Israel Project.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly refused comment, telling reporters in Israel Wednesday, “I have nothing to say about this thing,” Reuters reported.

Israel similarly did not confirm or deny its widely reported role in 2009 strikes on alleged weapons convoys in Sudan. But Israeli analysts have given broad credence to the claims, noting Israel suspects that Sudan is being used as a transit hub for Iran arms supplied to militant groups in Gaza via Sudan and Egypt.

Continue reading

Links: ‘Tea in Doha while Syria burns,’ Israeli Arab students’ new shtick

Israel criticizes Clinton no Iran ‘deadlines’ remark

Unnamed Israeli officials on Monday complained about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for negotiations with Iran.

“We’re not setting deadlines” on Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Bloomberg News’ Indira Lakshmanan in an interview in Vladivostock, Russia Sunday.

“We have always said every option was on the table, but we believe in the negotiation, the diplomatic effort through the P-5+1, but also pressure …[are] by far, the best approach to take at this time,” Clinton said, according to a full transcript of the interview released by the State Department.

Clinton’s comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Canada’s CBC that the United States and Israel are jointly discussing “red lines” on Iran.

“We’re discussing it right now with the United States,” Netanyahu told the CBC Sunday, Reuters reported.

Unnamed Israeli officials were quick to blast Clinton’s disavowal of a rapidly closing timetable for Iran diplomatic efforts.

“These kinds of statements won’t stop Iran’s centrifuges, and could have the opposite effect,” one unnamed top Israeli state official told Ynet’s Attila Somfalvi Monday. “Without a clear red line, Iran won’t stop its race towards a nuclear weapon,” the Israeli official added.

But the State Department did not back away from the remarks Monday despite the grumbling from Jerusalem. Continue reading

Reading list: Red lines, not deadlines, on Iran

  • “The U.S. is ‘not setting deadlines’ for Iran and still considers negotiations as ‘by far the best approach’ to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. (Indira Lakshmanan, Bloomberg)
  • “Israel and the United States are in discussion on setting a ‘red line’ for Iran’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.” (Reuters)
  • “We call on the government in Iran to come back to the table with substantial offers, which is very necessary and very crucial at this time.” (German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Reuters)
  • IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, ahead of IAEA board of governors meeting Monday, calls for immediate access to Iran site, says he’s frustrated. (IAEA; Reuters)
  • “What statesmen do when faced with bad options is create new ones. The third choice in this case is to negotiate a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium for civilian use….that applies rigorous safeguards…that gradually relaxes sanctions and brings this wayward country into the community of more-or-less civilized nations.”  (Bill Keller, New York Times)
  • “Immediately after the US presidential election, …Ehud Barak is certain to resume his antics and carry on where he has left off, and the countdown will start all over again.” (Ben Caspit, Maariv/Al-Monitor)