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

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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Monday roundup: Ehud Barak calls it quits

Cairo hosts Gaza mediation talks as parties seek to avert Israeli invasion

Cairo is host to four-way talks on the Gaza crisis Saturday, as regional parties seek to move Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire and avert an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hosting consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and several Palestinian leaders.

Speaking from Cairo, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Egyptian mediation efforts, while lamenting Israeli action as further unravelling aspirations for a two state solution.

“President Abbas has consistently offered negotiations for a two-state solution, but Israel has shown no interest in these negotiations,” the senior Abbas adviser told Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti Saturday. “So this is the result. And the Palestinian people pay the price. We have warned for a while that such a confrontation could be the outcome of the Arab Spring, in the absence of a peace process.”

With regard to the role of Egypt, the Palestinian senior adviser added, “Egypt has a critical role to play for both Palestinian mediation, according to the mandate from the Arab League, and between Israel and Hamas in the present crisis.”

Hours into day four of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has hit some 800 targets in Gaza, while Hamas has launched some 750 rockets into Israel, including five in the direction of Tel Aviv and two towards Jerusalem, Yossi Melman reports from Tel Aviv Saturday:

Three Israeli civilians have been killed, and 40 Palestinians, both Hamas combatants and civilians, including children.

Eighty of the attempted Hamas rocket launches have failed, while 27 rockets hit urban areas and caused damage. The Iron Dome anti ballistic missile defense system has intercepted 230 Hamas rockets– about 8 out of 10 rockets it has attempted to intercept in the current confrontation.

Melman estimates that:

Israel is very reluctant to move in with a ground attack. The mobilization of reservists is mainly for psychological purposes to increase pressure on Hamas.

2. The chances of a cease fire are increased.

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Israel envoy: If Hamas stands down, we will stand down

Israel’s envoy to the United States said Friday that Israel is not looking to escalate the conflict with Hamas, but that if Hamas continues to launch rocket fire at  Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it would consider that an escalation and respond in kind.

“If they stand down, we will stand down,” Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told journalists on a call arranged by The Israel Project Friday “We are not looking to escalate.”

“The rocket fire on Tel Aviv, … and Jerusalem is an escalation,” Oren said, referring to Hamas rocket fire that landed in both cities today without causing casualties or much damage, aside from psychologically, he said. Further rocket attacks on major Israeli population centers “would be an escalation and we would respond accordingly.”

Oren declined to say if Israel would launch a ground invasion if further such rocket attacks on major Israeli cities continue. “I am just going to say that we will take all and every means to defend our citizens.”

Oren said Israel had been largely successful in targeting Hamas’ long range rocket supply, although some remain, in the three-day old Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense. The major concern now remains Hamas’ stockpile of short and medium range rockets, with a range from 7 to 50km, he estimated. A Syrian-provided 50km range rocket is one that  Oren cited as responsible for the killing of three Israeli civilians in Kiryat Malachi on Thursday.

Oren also said the Israel is encountering an increased flow of arms into Gaza  from Libya, as well as from Sudan via the lawless Egyptian Sinai. Continue reading

Gaza war intensifies — on Twitter


Given how polarized the Israel-Palestinian issue already is in the region and around the world, the Gaza conflict of 2012 is proving increasingly hard to navigate in one key virtual battleground: Twitter.

The social media space has already become a key front in the battle for information and narrative sympathies in the two day old Operation Pillar of Defense, avidly used by journalists on the ground and foreign capitals, the warring parties, and hundreds of thousands of their followers and observers around the world, often using hashtags that signify the posters’ point of view (#Gazaunderattack #LifeUnderRockets #PillarofDefense). But beyond the accurate information offered from the ground in real time–reports of air strikes in Gaza City and air raid sirens in Tel Aviv, videos posted of the Iron Dome system firing to try to intercept Hamas rocket fire, and heartbreaking photos of children killed–the Twitter forum has also produced a dizzying stream of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, confusion, reports of rockets hitting Tel Aviv that didn’t, official accounts that seemed fake and fake accounts that seemed real.

In the deluge, even experienced journalists and ordinary observers were having trouble separating fact from fiction, real information from propaganda. Continue reading

Observers Fear Conflict in Gaza Could Escalate


Israel on Thursday said that 15 Palestinians had been killed, 9 of them militants, since the start of its military operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defense, a day earlier.

Three Israeli civilians were killed on Thursday when a Hamas rocket hit their home in Kiryat Malachi, about 25 km north of Gaza.

Israeli air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv at nightfall Thursday, but the rocket that triggered them fell into the sea, an Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor. “Confirmed:despite sirens in Tel Aviv, rockets did not land in the area,” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Avital Leibovich wrote on Twitter.  Israel warned, however, that a strike on Tel Aviv could trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Earlier Thursday, another rocket fired from Gaza struck an open area near Rishon LeZion, a city with more than 200,000 people, Leibovich said.

The seemingly deeper reach of Hamas rockets into Israel may suggest that since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, “the smuggling routes have flourished,” allowing Hamas to grow its stockpile of Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor by email Thursday. “If this is the case, the stockpile could be significant.”

Palestinians held a funeral for Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari Thursday, a day after he was targeted in an Israeli air strike. Israeli media reported that Jabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades, had been involved in back channel talks about a long-term Hamas-Israel truce.

“Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip,” Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reported. “This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit.”

Witnesses posted video of the US-provided  Iron Dome missile defense system attempting to intercept Hamas rocket fire.

President Barack Obama consulted by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.  The US and Egyptian leaders agreed on the importance of efforts to de-escalate the situation, the White House said in a read out of the call.

Egypt, amid street protests in Cairo against the Israel action, recalled its ambassador to Israel. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt had already returned to Israel before the military operation began, to avoid being expelled, Israeli media reported.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session behind closed doors Wednesday night at Egypt’s request. Arab League foreign ministers were due to meet on Saturday for consultations on the crisis.

The number of Palestinians injured in the military action to date was disputed, with Israeli sources saying 80 injured, and Palestinians saying 130. Among the Palestinian civilians killed was the 11 month old son of BBC producer Jihad Masharawi in Gaza, BBC colleagues said. “This was Jihad’s 11 month old son Omar who was killed in #Gaza yesterday when a shell came through the roof,” BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar posted on Twitter. Continue reading

Obama campaign aides portray Romney foreign tour as lightweight

Obama campaign advisors set out Monday to cast GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s upcoming foreign tour as a series of offshore fundraisers that lack much in the way of substance.

“We in the United States, Britain and NATO have agreed to a plan to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014,” Michele Flournoy, the Obama campaign’s top foreign policy advisor and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told journalists on a call arranged  by the Obama for America campaign Monday.  “The transition process is already underway.”

“Gov. Romney has articulated opposition to that timeline,” Flournoy continued. “So  he fundamentally disagrees with our British friends.”

Romney plans to depart this week for the UK, where he will attend the London Olympics, and meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Then he will travel to Israel and Poland, his campaign said. “He is really abroad to learn and to listen,” Romney policy director Lahnee Chen told reporters on a conference call, the AFP reported.

Robert Gibbs, Obama campaign senior advisor, portrayed the Romney itinerary as lightweight compared to candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 world tour in which he traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, as well as Germany, France and the UK. Obama “made it a priority to visit and talk with our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait,” Gibbs said. “It was important during the trip to meet servicemen and women, as well as consult commanders in the region to get a sense of the situation on the ground.”

On Iran, which is expected to be a major focus of Romney’s discussions with Israeli leaders, “all we have gotten from Romney is tough talk,” said Colin Kahl, who served as Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, on the campaign call. Continue reading