U.S. says still waiting for Israeli minister’s apology

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The State Department said Friday that it does not consider Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s clarification of his remarks this week about US weakness to constitute an apology, prolonging an unusually public spat between the two allies.

The United States is “disappointed with the lack of an apology” by Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday.

“We still have remaining concerns about [Defense Minister Yaalon’s] pattern of behavior,” Psaki said.

The latest diplomatic dust-up between Washington and Jerusalem erupted when Haaretz reported that Ya’alon, speaking at Tel Aviv University Monday, said the US was “showing weakness” on the world stage, and that Israel should not rely on Washington to handle Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday to protest Yaalon’s remarks, which Psaki, speaking at the State Department press briefing Wednesday, described as “not constructive,” and “confusing.” The U.S. demanded an apology, she said.

Ya’alon subsequently called his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel late Wednesday to clarify his remarks, saying it was not his intent to harm the US-Israel strategic relationship. “My statements had no criticism or intent to hurt the US or the relationship with it,” Ya’alon said in the call, according to a statement put out by his office to Israeli media.

But the State Department made clear Friday that it did not consider the explanation given to Hagel good enough to put the matter to rest.

“Ya’alon’s problem is that he does not make do with telling just the Americans themselves what he thinks,” Ben Caspit wrote for Al-Monitor Friday. “He seems to have some uncontrollable urge to vent his frustration in public. While Ya’alon might very well be right, he is probably not being smart. The Americans don’t like to hear such things said about them in public. Israel does not have another United States.”

Whether Netanyahu will agree and decide to have Yaalon make another effort at an apology, or will let the matter continue to fester, remains to be seen.

US presses Egypt for swift return to civilian rule, against arbitrary arrests

President Obama met with his national security team on Egypt on the July 4th holiday, as US officials consulted with allies and pressed Egyptian officials for a swift transition back to civilian rule.

US officials “have been in touch with Egyptian officials and our regional partners to convey the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible,” the State Department said. They also pressed for “a transparent political process that is inclusive of all parties and groups; avoiding any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters; and the responsibility of all groups and parties to avoid violence.”

Secretary of State John Kerry discussed developments over the past two days with Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Emirati Foreign Minister bin Zayed, the Norwegian Foreign Minister Kai Eide, and Qatari Foreign Minister al-Attiya, the State Department said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Hagel spoke with Egyptian army chief al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya'alon.

New US National Security Advisor Susan Rice spoke with her Israeli counterpart, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror. Continue reading

Egypt protests: live-feed

Live feed from Cairo's Tahrir Square Wednesday showing millions of Egyptian protesters celebrating as the Egyptian army's deadline passed for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to respond to protesters' demands. From PBS:

Live video from your iPhone using Ustream

Earlier Wednesday, Essam al-Haddad, a top foreign policy advisor to Morsi, warned in a statement posted to his Facebook page that what is happening in Egypt is a military coup:

As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page.

For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let’s call what is happening by its real name: Military coup. […]

You have heard much during the past 30 months about ikhwan excluding all others. I will not try to convince you otherwise today. Perhaps there will come a day when honest academics have the courage to examine the record. ….

The State Department said Wednesday that it was not taking sides, but it was disappointed that Morsi, in his speech Tuesday, did not offer more steps responding to protesters' demands.

“There are broad immediate steps that could be taken, [including] to call for an end to the violence, specifically violence against women; and… take steps to engage  with [all parties, including] the opposition and the military,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday. Continue reading

Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading

Round up: Khamenei nixes US talks

  • Iran’s Khamenei rejects offer for US talks as ploy.
  • Iran reluctant to negotiate from position of weakness.
  • Analysis prepared for President Obama and staff depicts Supreme Leader as walled off from country’s economic strains.
  • European court throws out sanctions against Iran’s Bank Saderat
  • Don’t expect big new peace push when Obama visits Israel next month.
  • Senate panel vote on Hagel delayed.

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(Photo: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Hamid Forootan/ISNA.)

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Hagel assures Jewish groups on Israel, Iran

Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, met with leaders of several American Jewish organizations at the White House last week in an effort to alleviate any of their concerns ahead of his confirmation hearing, officials and Jewish groups said.

Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee has been scheduled for Jan. 31st.

“Senator Hagel met with the leadership of several major American Jewish organizations at the White House as a part of his ongoing outreach,” an official working on Sen. Hagel’s confirmation told the Back Channel Tuesday.

“He discussed his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, including his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and to sustaining the Obama Administration’s unprecedented security cooperation with Israel,” the official said. “He appreciated the opportunity to have a constructive, informed and wide-ranging discussion.”

The meeting, held at the White House last Friday Jan. 18th, included representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti- Defamation League (ADL), and the AJC, as well as Vice President Biden.

The meeting was “an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion of key issues of importance to all of us.,” a statement from the Conference of Presidents sent to journalists Monday said.

Meantime, a former ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued that allegations that Hagel is “indifferent to Israel” or “soft on Iran” are “false.” Continue reading

Sen. Nelson: Netanyahu raised no concerns about Hagel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised no concerns about President Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, US Senator Bill Nelson said in Israel Tuesday.

Nelson, a Florida Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said “that Hagel has a record of support for Israel” and he will vote to confirm him, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Nelson spoke on a visit to Israel following meetings Tuesday with Israeli leaders and Israeli intelligence officials about Iran’s nuclear program.

So far, several Democrats on the armed services panel have indicated they plan to back Hagel’s confirmation, including its chair, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jack Reed of Rhode Island—a close Hagel friend—and now Nelson.

Several Republicans have said they have strong concerns about the former two term Nebraska Republican and decorated Vietnam combat veteran. Among them, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the armed services panel; David Vitter (Louisiana), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Texas’ junior Senator Ted Cruz.

Both former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and ret. Gen. Colin Powell, with wide bipartisan support, issued statements strongly endorsing Hagel for Secretary of Defense on Monday.

Meantime, the Council on Foreign Relations told Al Monitor Tuesday that controversial accusations made by its senior fellow Elliott Abrams in an interview Monday did not represent the views of the institution.

Abrams, the former Bush White House Middle East advisor, called Hagel an anti Semite in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. The accusation was widely lambasted on social media sites after the interview aired. Asked by Al-Monitor what evidence he has to support his accusation, Abrams did not respond.

Abrams’ wife Rachel Abrams is a founding board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Bill Kristol–led, GOP group at the center of the anti-Hagel campaign. ECI previously ran TV ads against President Obama’s 2012 reelection.

“As you may know, the Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional position on matters of policy,” CFR’s vice president for global communications and media relations Lisa Shields told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “The views expressed by our more than seventy experts, who reflect a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives, are theirs only.”

(Photo: Democratic Senator Bill Nelson during a debate October 17, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper.)

Buzz on Obama 2.0 Middle East team

Turkey's President Gul attends a meeting with U.S. Congressmen and U.S. ambassador to Turkey Wilson in Ankara

With President Obama expected to name more cabinet picks next week, including Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, speculation has begun to turn to who will fill out senior and middle ranks of his second term Middle East team.

Among the questions affecting the transition shuffle is whether acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones will be formally nominated for the post under Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry, or, as seen as more likely, whether someone new will be tapped.

Jones, a career foreign service officer, is, like Kerry, the child of US Foreign Service parents, who spent much of her childhood abroad. A former Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (2001-2005), Jones came out of retirement in the private sector (APCO Worldwide) to assist in the Near East bureau in 2011. She assumed the Acting Assistant Secretary job for the bureau after Jeff Feltman retired to take the number three job at the United Nations last May, but has not been formally nominated for the job.

Department sources said that some State rank and file officers are troubled that the Benghazi investigation resulted in the impending departure of Jones’ deputy, Raymond Maxwell. A career foreign service officer tapped as the DAS for Libya and the  Maghreb in 2011, Maxwell had been scheduled to retire this past September. He stayed on however after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel to try to get the Maghreb shop, devastated about the loss of their friend and colleague, through. The perception among some in the rank and file is that Jones let Maxwell take the fall, while escaping blame herself, in part because of her long professional relationship with Tom Pickering, the veteran diplomat who chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board investigation, department sources who declined to speak for attribution said. Jones and Maxwell did not immediately return requests for comment. A former official subsequently told the Back Channel that Jones is definitely planning to leave.

If Jones moves on, among those rumored to be under consideration to helm the Near East bureau, officials said, is Puneet Talwar, who has served as the Obama administration National Security Council Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Talwar, the former top Iran and Iraq advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under then SFRC chairman Joe Biden, is also said to be under consideration to become national security advisor to  Vice President Biden. (Current Biden national security advisor Antony Blinken is expected to get a promotion in the new term: among the posts he is discussed for, Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, or US Ambassador to the UN, if Susan Rice is named National Security Advisor.) Continue reading

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