Obama calls Bibi

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President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Friday, a day after the Israeli leader called for a “clear red line” to be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

“The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” a White House readout of the call said.  “The Prime Minister welcomed President Obama’s commitment before the United Nations General Assembly to do what we must to achieve that goal.”

Full White House read-out of the call: Continue reading

Romney comments irk Palestinians


GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told donors at a Jerusalem fundraiser Monday that Jewish culture is one reason that Israel’s economy has been more successful than the Palestinians’, remarks that Palestinian leaders denounced as offensive.

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney, seated next to Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, told some 40 donors at a $50,000 per person breakfast fundraiser at the King David Hotel Monday, the Associated Press reported:

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he continued.

The remarks “not only offend Palestinians,” but are reminiscent of the stereotype that Jews are good with money, veteran US Middle East trouble shooter Aaron David Miller told Al Monitor Monday, adding: “Mitt Romney is no anti-Semite, he’s just not thinking before he talks.”

Palestinian leaders said the remarks were both uninformed and offensive.

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation,” Saeb Erekat, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Abbas, told the Associated Press.

“It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

Romney, on his two-day trip to Israel, evinced little interest in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. He declined to endorse the two-state solution–a long standing goal of US foreign policy going back 20 years. He also called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, but later equivocated on when the United States should move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. The matter is sensitive for Palestinians who consider East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Continue reading

Romney to Israeli paper: Both Obama and I say nuclear Iran unacceptable


GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given two interviews to Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival in Jerusalem Saturday night.

“I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is,” Romney told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated millions of dollars to Republican and Israeli causes. Adelson, who owns a home in Israel, may attend a $50,000 a plate fundraiser for Romney in Israel Monday.

“I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” Romney continued. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”

So Romney learned first-hand in London Thursday, as his perceived criticism of preparations for the London Olympics got his three-nation foreign trip off to a quite rocky start.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson–both conservatives–fiercely defended preparations for the London Olympic Games after Romney told NBC Wednesday he found some reports of some pre-Games snafus “disconcerting.”

“If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care,” railed the headline from the conservative UK Telegraph Thursday. London mayor Boris Johnson later mocked Romney in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, asking: “Mitt Romney wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” .

Romney also gave an interview in London Thursday to Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper. (Being on foreign soil when the interview was conducted, he told the paper he was trying to refrain from politicizing foreign policy.)

Asked about his Iran policy, Romney said he, like President Obama, have both said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable:The military option is the least attractive option but should not be ruled out, he said.

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Romney told Haaretz. “The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

“I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said.

In Israel, Romney will hold a breakfast fundraiser Monday (July 30) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–an old friend from their days at the Boston Consulting Group; Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served as the Obama campaign’s chief of Jewish outreach in 2008.

But even with the personal ties and partisan sympathies Romney shares with Netanyahu, the powers of his White House incumbent challenger to make policy, sign bills, and grab headlines are hard to match.

On Friday, President Obama signed “a new U.S.-Israel security pact …a move that could steal some of the headlines there” as Romney arrives,” Yahoo’s Olivier Knox noted.  Indeed.

Israeli leaders and American Jewish groups applauded Obama’s action Friday.

“The Government and the people of Israel express profound gratitude to President Barack Obama on his signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said in a statement Friday. It “sends an unequivocal message of support to the people of Israel at a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire Middle East.”

The security pact bolsters the “crucial” US-Israel security alliance “by extending loan guarantees…authorizing American military stockpiles in Israel, and improving military and intelligence cooperation, particularly in missile defense,” the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament said in a press statement.

Meantime, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to travel to Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The bill signing, as well as the Pentagon chief’s Israel trip, come “as Mitt Romney nears a visit to Israel with no power to provide security aid, unlike the incumbent,” CBS’s Mark Knoller noted.

(Photo: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the press following his meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

Yahoo Activist Daniel Loeb’s Next Battle

Will hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb do to Obama what he did to Yahoo?

After waging battle with Yahoo’s board for months, the activist shareholder and Third Point LLC founder has now completed what amounts to total regime change at the company. Having upended the company’s board and helped oust its last CEO, Scott Thompson, Loeb played a key behind the scenes role in recruiting Google’s Marissa Mayer as Yahoo’s new CEO, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher reported Tuesday.

Now Loeb and his new Yahoo CEO recruit Mayer share the goal of boosting Yahoo’s fortunes. But they find themselves on opposite sides of the 2012 US presidential race.

Loeb this month co-hosted a $25,000-person Hamptons fundraiser for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va), the Los Angeles Times reported.

Mayer, 37, by contrast, “is an active Democratic fundraiser,” who hosted a 2010 fundraiser at her Palo Alto home for President Barack Obama, “and has given to Obama annually since 2007,” Politico reported Tuesday.

Continue reading

US diplomats: "Plainly wrong" to conclude US must remove MEK from terror list

American diplomats firmly pushed back Friday on reports suggesting that the U.S. must remove a controversial Iranian anti-regime group, the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), from a U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations.

“MEK leaders appear to believe that the Secretary has no choice now but to delist them,” the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin said in a call with reporters Friday. “That conclusion is quite plainly wrong.”

“In short, the court did not order the Secretary of State to revoke the MEK designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Benjamin continued. “The court has told the State Department that it must act by October 1, but it did not mandate a particular result. I think that’s very important to underscore. The Secretary thus retains the discretion to either maintain or revoke the designation in accordance with the law.

The State Department call was prompted by an impasse in efforts by the United States and United Nations to persuade members of the cultish group to leave their former paramilitary base in Iraq, Camp Ashraf.

To date, about 2,000 MEK members have been persuaded to leave Ashraf for the former U.S. Camp Liberty military base in Iraq, where they can be interviewed for possible relocation to third countries. But the last relocation convoy occurred in early May, and some 1,200-1,300 MEK members remain in Ashraf, and are apparently issuing new demands, emboldened by the perception the group's terror designation may soon be revoked.

American officials have sought to encourage the relocation from Ashraf by indicating that cooperation in doing so will be a key factor in determining whether the group remains on the U.S. terror list. But a US court decision last month has interfered with that message.

In June, the US court of appeals ordered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue a determination by October whether the MEK should be taken off the US terror list or its terror designation should be reissued.

Meantime, the Iraqi government is threatening to forcibly close the camp, and the United States is concerned about possible violence and a potential humanitarian disaster should relocation efforts continue to stall.

Despite the group's terrorist designation, several prominent former senior American officials have taken large speaking fees to lobby for delisting the MEK. Among them, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, former DHS chief Tom Ridge, former UN ambassador and top Mitt Romney foreign policy adviser John Bolton, former UN ambassador Bill Richardson, and former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani. The Treasury Department issued subpoenas this past spring to determine who is paying for the massive lobbying effort on behalf of a designated terrorist group, and whether US criminal laws have been violated.

But American diplomats said Friday such lobbying will not impact the Secretary's decision on the MEK's designation.  Continue reading

Romney to Israel

GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney will travel to Israel later this summer, his campaign confirmed Monday.

On the visit, Romney will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–a former associate of Romney’s at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s. (Romney and Netanyahu both worked in the financial consulting world, before launching political careers; Romney after attending Harvard Business School, while Netanyahu attended MIT.) The former Massachusetts governor will also meet with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (who served as chief of Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign in 2008); Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and members of Israel’s opposition Labor party, the New York Times reported. It will be Romney’s fourth trip to Israel.

“He’s a strong friend of Israel and we’ll be happy to meet with him,” Ron Dermer, a top Netanyahu advisor, told the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, who first broke news of the visit. “We value strong bipartisan support for Israel and we’re sure it will only deepen that.”

Then candidate Barack Obama similarly traveled to Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign. But some Israelis and American Jewish groups have expressed disappointment Obama has not yet traveled to Israel as President.

“There is a definite perception that the Jewish vote and the pro-Israel vote are in play this election cycle,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, told Al Monitor in a statement Monday.

“By going to Israel, Governor Romney will be highlighting the fact that President Obama has not been to Israel as President, as well as emphasizing differences in how Romney says he would work with Israel generally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically,” Daroff said. Continue reading

Romney advisor: Arm the moderates in Syria opposition

Richard Williamson, a top foreign policy spokesperson for the Mitt Romney campaign, tells Al Monitor‘s Barbara Slavin that the US should arm selected rebel forces in Syria and be willing to go beyond the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria. Williamson also demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment and said the US should be more loyal to Israel, which he said President Barack Obama had thrown “under the bus.”

From Slavin’s interview:

Williamson: The first thing is we should be in there… You can have covert operatives, others you are working with, Turkey and … working with exiles, just like we did with Libya. The suggestion that you should lead from behind is folly in a case like this. We have great strategic interests in Syria. The commander of Central Command [Gen. James Mattis] said that the greatest strategic blow to Iran would be a change of the Assad regime… The question really is why haven’t we done more in the last 14 months.

Al-Monitor: Do you think it’s going to be necessary at some point for the US to inject its own forces, beyond special forces? Continue reading