Netanyahu apologizes to Turkey over Gaza flotilla raid

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday apologized to Turkey for a 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed 10 Turks, in what US officials hailed as “a first step” toward reconciliation between the former allies.

The apology was made in a thirty minute, three-way call between President Obama, Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conducted from a trailer on the airport tarmac in the last hour of Obama’s historic visit to Israel, the US officials said.

“Netanyahu apologized for the Mavi Mara flotilla incident and acknowledged ‘operational mistakes,'” said one senior US official, according to the White House pool report.

“Prime Minister Erdogan accepted the apology on behalf of Turkey,” the US official added.

Netanyahu also agreed in the call to set up a humanitarian fund to pay compensation to the families of those killed in the raid, making way for the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the two countries, which are both important US allies.

Erdogan, in the call, spoke “of the importance he attaches to the shared history and centuries old ties of strong friendship and cooperation between the Jewish and Turkish peoples,” a statement from the Turkish prime minister’s office said.

The U.S. nudge towards restoration of Turkish-Israeli diplomatic ties marks a significant “get” in Obama’s visit to Israel that has been otherwise short of concrete deliverables, while long on warm words and upbeat reassurances on the strength of the US-Israeli alliance and security ties.

Nine Turks and one Turkish-American citizen were killed in the May 2010 Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which had sought to break Israel’s blockade to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel following the incident, and said it would not restore them until Israel formally apologized and paid compensation.

A past US effort to broker a resolution reportedly fell apart at the last minute after Netanyahu, under pressure from his then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, decided not to issue the agreed-upon apology language. Temporarily out of the new Israeli government while awaiting trial on alleged corruption charges, Lieberman on Friday railed against the Israeli apology, saying it endangered Israeli troops and counterterrorism operations.

Once close Israeli-Turkish ties have grown increasingly strained since Israel’s 2008 Cast Lead operation against Hamas, and more broadly as Erdogan’s ruling Islamist Justice and Peace (AKP) party has moved to bolster ties with Arab countries and peoples in the region, while also moving to subvert the country’s once dominant secular military command.

Military ties formed the backbone of the Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance at its height, said Dan Arbell, Israel’s recent Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, who is studying the relationship as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution Saban Center. Even the restoration of formal diplomatic ties now–as well as brisk economic trade–is not likely to return Israel and Turkey to the level of rapport they enjoyed in the past, given the reduced role the Turkish military plays under Erdogan and the AKP, he said.

“This begins a process of normalization, but I do not see it bringing the countries back to the level of relations they had between them in the 1990s,” Arbell told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. However, an opening for rapprochement has arisen amid a growing “convergence of interests” between Ankara and Jerusalem in the region, he said, including shared concerns about spillover from the Syria conflict, and Ankara’s deepening rift with Iran.

Though Turkish-Israeli reconciliation was expected to be an agenda item during Obama’s conversations in Israel this week, Arbell said he was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the diplomatic breakthrough.

“The pace of this was surprising,” he said, adding that the parties would not have been able to overcome the diplomatic impasse wihout Washington’s mediation.

Following the call Friday, Obama traveled to Amman, Jordan for the final leg of his Middle East trip. In Jordan, he will meet with King Abdullah and then travel to the ancient city of Petra.

Iraq advisor eyed for State DAS for Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s former nominee for Iraq ambassador, will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, current and former US officials tell the Back Channel. The State Department plans to fuse the two offices, officials say.

McGurk has been serving as a senior Iraq advisor at the State Department since withdrawing from consideration to be US ambassador to Iraq last summer. McGurk did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

The McGurk appointment, which several officials said is a done deal, is expected to be announced after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf is announced for her next assignment, which sources suggested may be deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Turkey. Former acting DAS for Iran Henry Wooster was made special Iran advisor to JSOC late last year, after he assumed helm of the office following the death of Philo Dibble.

McGurk, a trained lawyer who advised the last several US ambassadors to Iraq, developed a strong working relationship with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement on behalf of Bush White House and later the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq for the Obama administration. He is said by sources to have particularly won the admiration of Antony Blinken, President Obama’s new deputy national security advisor and former national security advisor to Vice President Biden, who oversaw US Iraq policy in Obama’s first term. Continue reading

Iran, world powers agree to new nuclear talks in Istanbul, Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan__ Negotiators from Iran and six world powers announced they would hold two more meetings over the next month to discuss a new international proposal aimed at curbing Iran's 20% enrichment and nuclear breakout capacity, in exchange for some sanctions relief. The announcement came at the conclusion of two days of talks here that have seemingly turned out to be among the most positive of the past year, though both sides say they still have some work to do to narrow differences.

The parties agreed to hold an experts meeting in Istanbul on March 18, followed by a political directors meeting, again in Almaty, Kazakhstan on April 5-6, negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran announced in a joint statement at the conclusion of talks Wednesday.

Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili described the Almaty meeting as “positive,” while his American and European counterparts characterized it, more cautiously, as “useful,” stressing the imperative is results, not atmospherics.

“I would say it was a useful meeting,” a senior US official told journalists Wednesday. “The day we have concrete results, I will use a different adjective.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking at the conclusion of talks Wednesday, said she welcomed if the Iranian side “are looking positively at proposals we put forward.” But, she added, “I believe in looking at what the results are.”

The centerpiece of the two-day meeting was a presentation Tuesday by Ashton of a revised international proposal focused on curbing Iran's 20% enrichment, suspending operations at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility, and increasing nuclear safeguards, transparency and IAEA inspections that would prevent a rapid Iranian breakout capability, the US diplomat said.

The updated offer somewhat eases demands to entirely “stop, shut and ship” its 20% stockpile made in a proposal put forward in Baghdad last May.

Unlike the past proposal, the updated one would allow Iran to keep a sufficient amount of its 20% enriched fuel to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients, the US diplomat said.

The revised proposal also calls for “suspension of enrichment” at Fordo–rather than shuttering the fortified facility, built into a mountain in Qom– and would “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there,” the American official said. It also calls for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures “to promote greater transparency…and provide early warning” of any attempted breakout effort, the official said.

In exchange, the proposal offers an easing of some sanctions. The US official said the proposed sanctions relief at this stage does not involve oil or financial sanctions, but other US and European Union imposed sanctions, which the official declined to specify. It would also offer to not impose new UN Security Council or European Union proliferation sanctions, as the previous offer also had. “We never regarded sanctions as an end in themselves,” the American official said.
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The US official declined to say whether the updated proposal asks Iran to halt installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, that could considerably speed up Iran's enrichment capacity.

Jalili offered rare praise for the international proposal, acknowledging it demonstrated a clear effort to respond to Iranian concerns. “We believe this is a…turning point,” he said through at a translator at a press conference Wednesday. The six parties “have moved closer to our proposal.”

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

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

Obama to visit Israel in spring

President Obama is planning to visit Israel this spring, the White House confirmed to Al Monitor Tuesday. It will be his first trip to the Jewish state since taking office.

“When the President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu on January 28, they discussed a visit by the President to Israel in the spring,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said by email Tuesday, in response to a query.

“The start of the President’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria,”  Vietor said.  “Additional details about the trip – including the dates of travel – will be released at a later time.”

Obama will also travel to the West Bank and Jordan.

Israel's Channel 10 reported Tuesday that President Obama will visit Israel on March 20th. The White House did not confirm his travel dates.

Israeli sources told Al-Monitor that President Obama initiated the plan for the Israel trip, early in his and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new terms. “It reflects a priority,” a former Israeli official surmised.

The early spring trip also gives Obama the opportunity to try to reach out to Israeli leaders and the public before potential new tensions strain the alliance, including over the timeline for diplomacy with Iran. It also offers perhaps something of a fresh start for relations between the two leaders who have often been at odds over the past four years, even as US-Israeli security cooperation has expanded to unprecedented levels. Continue reading

Tuesday links: Middle East awaits election’s victor

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

US military team in Jordan to help with Syria crisis


A US military team has been deployed to Jordan to assist the key American ally manage the refugee flow and instability from the Syrian conflict next door, the Pentagon has acknowledged.

A U.S. defense official, speaking to the Associated Press, said some “100 military planners and other personnel stayed in Jordan after attending an annual May exercise and several dozen more have flown in since,” the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The US military task force operates out of a US-Jordan military base north of Amman.

The task force, led by a senior American officer, is “now largely focused on helping Jordanians handle the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the country’s resources,” the New York Times reported. Its mission “also includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan …from the upheaval in Syria and to avoid the kind of clashes now occurring along the border of Syria and Turkey.”

The US official “stressed that the team is not there to fight, but rather for contingency planning on a number of issues including how to handle the flood of Syrian refugees in Jordan and creating a buffer zone to protect the ally in the continuing crisis,” the AP report said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah dissolved parliament October 4th to make way for the country’s first post-Arab spring parliamentary elections, due to be held early next year. Continue reading

Syria’s Moallem to lead delegation to UN in New York

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead the country’s delegation traveling to New York next week for events surrounding the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Moallem is expected to arrive in New York around September 24, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

His visit comes as the international community remains divided over how to contain the civil war that has engulfed the country over the past 18 months, killing over 20,000 people and spurring a refugee exodus to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Western countries remain reluctant to intervene in the conflict, and the prospect looms of a protracted civil war, that could potentially destabilize Syria’s neighbors.

On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Mnister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Damascus for talks with Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about how to resolve the conflict.

Salehi’s Damascus trip followed consultations in Cairo the past two days on the Syrian crisis, involving Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the new UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Salehi will also travel to New York next week as part of the Iranian delegation attending the UNGA activities.

Obama nominates Stephen Beecroft for Iraq envoy

President Obama on Monday formally nominated Robert Stephen Beecroft to be US Ambassador to Iraq.

Beecroft, the Charge d’Affaires in Iraq since 2011, has served as de facto acting ambassador since the departure of US Ambassador James Jeffrey in May.

Beecroft, a career Foreign Service officer, previously served as executive assistant to two Secretaries of State and as US Ambassador to Jordan.

Beecroft’s nomination comes as Iraq’s government spokesman Ali Aldabbagh warned in an interview with Al-Monitor Monday of growing sectarian tensions in the country. Aldabbagh, a close advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also charged that Iraqi’s fugitive Sunni Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi has “direct” ties to groups committing terrorism in Iraq. Continue reading