Obama tries to strike balance on Egypt after crackdown

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20130815-122313.jpgPresident Obama interrupted his vacation Thursday to announce that the United States will cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt to protest the government crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters yesterday that killed over 500 people. But, Obama said, broader American interests mitigated against canceling the over billion dollars in US aid to Egypt at this time.

“Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world, and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically- elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Thursday.

“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama continued, saying the U.S. had notified the Egyptian government earlier Thursday that it was cancelling the military exercise, Bright Star, planned for next month. “The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a phone call with Egypt’s defense minister and de facto military ruler Gen. Al-Sisi, “made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner deplored the violence, but said there were many warning signs that the protracted standoff between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Morsi was heading towards confrontation.

“Without in any way leaving the impression that I think the bloodshed [is excused], this has been about the least surprising outcome,” Wisner, who served as Obama’s special envoy to Egypt in 2011, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“It has been warned for the longest time,” he continued. “These negotiations were not going to go anywhere, because [the Muslim] Brothers had a view about what they were trying to accomplish.”

“The Brothers thought they could defy the odds, and … drive a wedge between the international community and the government, and in that sense they have hardly succeeded,” Wisner said. “Second, they thought they could drive a wedge between” the Egyptian people and the military-led government. While they haven’t managed to do so to date, he assessed, “I can’t argue that they won’t eventually have some success.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood has reached a point where it sees this as the last battle — so, it’s either win it or die as a ‘martyr,’…victory or death,” Egyptian analyst Wael Nawara wrote for Al-Monitor Thursday, describing the expanding Muslim Brotherhood protests as “no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force…and border control officials.”

Wisner cautioned Washington against overreacting, stressing U.S. statements need to strike a balance, to keep ties with Cairo from further fraying and to try to urge the political transition back on track.

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Netanyahu apologizes to Turkey over Gaza flotilla raid

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.

Preparations underway for renewed US-Egypt military talks


Preparations are underway to resume formal US-Egyptian military cooperation talks as early as next month, almost two years after the last round at the Pentagon was cut short by the January 2011 protests that toppled the Mubarak regime, veteran national security journalist Viola Gienger reports on the front page:

“Planning is ongoing for the resumption of the MCC, as early as this fall,” Navy Cmdr. Scott McIlnay, a US military spokesman, confirmed to Al-Monitor. Egyptian officials said the talks likely would be scheduled for sometime after the Nov. 6 elections.

The plan to revive discussions represents a desire by the US to quickly normalize military relations even as administration officials and members of Congress proceed warily with a new Egyptian government led by a president aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

US officials are quietly debating how to update military ties to reinforce civilian control of Egypt’s armed forces, advance democratic transparency in its finances and build a more modern approach to securing the country beyond Abrams tanks and fighter jets.  […]

Former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, in an interview with Al-Monitor‘s Cale Salih this week, singled out for praise new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s achievement in retiring Egypt’s military council from its predominant role in Egyptian political life. Continue reading

Friday reads: War games


Iran war game shows rapid escalation as US, Iran misread others’ moves. (David Ignatius/Washington Post)

State Department rejects Sen. John Kerry’s call to block US funds to Iraq over alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps overflights to supply arms to Syria. (Reuters)

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Aldabbbagh tells Al-Monitor that the Iraqi government has informed Iran that it will not allow its air space to be used to supply either side in Syria’s civil war. “We had informed the Iranians that Iraq will never [allow the] use [of] its airspace to do so.” (Al Monitor)

New AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman once worked as a lobbyist for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. (The Forward)

Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany writes how the Muslim world can defend the prophet. (Al-Safir/Al-Monitor)

Recent Israeli war games in the Golan Heights are an important signal to Iran, writes former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Ydioth Ahronoth/Al Monitor)

Former Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan becomes a dissident. (The New Yorker)

(Photo: An Israeli soldier travels atop a mobile artillery unit during a drill near the northern city of Katzrin in the Golan Heights September 19, 2012. Israel’s military launched the surprise large-scale exercise on Wednesday on the occupied Golan Heights, testing its battle readiness amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear drive and civil war in Syria. REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

DNC platform: “Window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely”

From the Democratic National 2012 platform:, released today as the Democratic convention gets underway in Charlotte, North Carolina:

… President Obama believes that a diplomatic outcome remains the best and most enduring solution. At the same time, he has also made clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options – including military force – remain on the table. But we have an obligation to use the time and space that exists now to put increasing pressure on the Iranian regime to live up to its obligations and rejoin the community of nations, or face the consequences.

More at the link (page 29/40), .pdf.

(Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young.)

US-Israel war game scaled back (Updated)


Update: The Defense Department belatedly issued a statement Friday noting the exercise still remains the largest ballistic missile defense exercise ever undertaken by the US and Israel.

The Pentagon has scaled back a joint US-Israeli military exercise scheduled to take place this fall,  Time‘s Karl  Vick and Aaron Klein exclusively report:

…Well-placed sources in both countries have told TIME that Washington has greatly reduced the scale of U.S. participation, slashing by more than two-thirds the number of American troops going to Israel and reducing both the number and potency of missile interception systems at the core of the joint exercise.

“Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you,’” a senior Israeli military official tells TIME.

The reductions are striking. Instead of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops originally trumpeted for Austere Challenge 12, as the annual exercise is called, the Pentagon will send only 1,500 service members, and perhaps as few as 1,200.  Patriot anti-missile systems will arrive in Israel as planned, but the crews to operate them will not.  […]

U.S. commanders privately revealed the scaling back to their Israeli counterparts more than two months ago.  The official explanation was budget restrictions.  But the American retreat coincided with growing tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations on Israel’s persistent threats to launch an airstrike on Iran. ….

The back story: Late last year, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to cancel the exercise, which was originally scheduled to take place this past spring, defense sources previously told Al-Monitor. Panetta agreed to the request only if the exercise was rescheduled, not canceled entirely. So the Pentagon was deeply annoyed when Israeli officials left the false impression that the US was responsible for the war game being postponed. “It was Barak,” a US official told me.

Update: The Pentagon disputed the interpretation offered by Time for the scaled back exercise in a statement late Friday afternoon, noting Austere Challenge-12 will still represent “the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise” between the United States and Israel.

“The exercise was originally scheduled for May, however at the request of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Israeli Defense Forces, the exercise was moved to late Fall of this year,” Ltn. Col. Wesley P. Miller IV, a Defense Department spokesman, told journalists in a statement sent out late Friday afternoon, several hours after guidance had been sought on the Time report.

“When the exercise was moved, the United States notified Israel that due to
concurrent operations, the United States would provide a smaller number of
personnel and equipment than originally planned. Israel reiterated its
request to postpone until late Fall,” Miller continued.

However, “Austere Challenge-12 remains the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009,” Miller continued. “The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned.”

“As Israel Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly said, the US-Israel
defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been,” Miller said. “The United States
agrees. Austere Challenge is a tangible sign of our mutual trust and our
shared commitment to the defense of our nations.”

(H/T Zvika Krieger)

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (2nd R) and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pose with Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)

Israeli Defense Minister publicly divulges US intelligence report


Israel’s Defense Minister raised some eyebrows in the United States when he told Israel Radio Thursday that a new, previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program.

Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that there is “apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices,” in Washington, CBS News reported.

“As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak continued. “It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Generally, foreign leaders don’t publicly disclose allied nations’ classified intelligence reports in such a provocative manner, intelligence experts said.

“The rules of the spy game are clear,” former US Navy intelligence analyst John Schindler wrote on his blog. “When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.”

A cavalcade of top American officials have traveled to Israel in recent weeks to confer on Iran, and President Obama this month signed a $70 million US military aid package for Israel. Israeli officials have expressed growing impatience with US reluctance to endorse military action on Iran at this time.

The Israeli Defense Minister’s comments followed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz Thursday which said that there was a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. But several American former intelligence and security officials told Al-Monitor that the product is not an NIE, but a smaller, more focused report or series of reports on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps related to suspected weapons-relevant research activity. Continue reading

Slavin: Why Centcom chief really wanted third aircraft carrier in the Gulf

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports that Gen. James Mattis, the head of US Central Command, unsuccessfully sought permission to send a third US aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region in January in an effort to deter Iran from escalating tensions in the Gulf.

 

While I have the utmost respect for Lake’s reporting skills, the story may have misconstrued Mattis’s views when it describes him as a hawk who as Lake puts it, “has often found himself the odd man out — particularly when it comes to Iran.”

 

In fact, Mattis, despite his nickname “Mad Dog Mattis,” is a prudent planner who seeks to prevent any incident with Iran in the Persian Gulf – and to make sure that if one occurs, it does not spiral out of control. Continue reading

Gen. Petraeus’ “rider”

Retired Gen. David Petraeus has lowered his profile since hanging up his camouflage to helm the CIA last fall, and his foreign trips now go mostly unpublicized. But some Agency hands apparently find the new director’s list of requirements–cabled to foreign stations ahead of his travel to their outposts—a bit much.

One Agency veteran relayed what he described as Petraeus’ request list to the Back Channel. Among the items:

  • Fresh pineapple each night before he goes to bed (not canned)
  • Sliced bananas for his cereal in the morning
  • Someone to accompany him on his morning runs, and a route devised that preferably avoids crossing any streets.
  • Also, he noted, the former General doesn’t open doors. “All doors have to be open when he arrives,” the former senior CIA officer said.

In addition, the intelligence chief requests that six empty wine glasses be placed in his room, in case he needs to host foreign dignitaries or members of the travel party after a long day of meetings.

A CIA spokesman, asked for comment on the list, said that as a rule, the Agency does not discuss the details of the Director’s travel. But he noted the items on the alleged list would seem to reflect a Director who takes care of his health—(Petraeus, 59, had surgery for prostate cancer a couple years ago)–and is an avid runner.

“The fact of the matter is that Director Petraeus pays a great deal of attention to his health,” CIA spokesman Preston Golson said by email.  “He has a lifelong commitment to physical fitness, and that naturally includes a careful diet.”

“As for running—not jogging—it’s hard to do a six-minute mile if you’re waiting at an intersection,” Golson added. Continue reading