Israeli jets said to have struck target near Syria border

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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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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

Iran nuclear talks still up in the air

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There’s still no agreement on a new meeting between Iran and six world powers, a western diplomat said Friday.

“No change. Contacts are ongoing,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel Friday.

As to what accounts for the hold up, a former Iran nuclear negotiator said Iran had been seeking to learn what was in the updated P5+1 package in advance of the meeting, but been refused. “Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail, and as always Tehran would be blamed,” Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel Thursday.

But western officials might be forgiven for wondering if Iran may just be giving them the run-around. And some Iranian analysts acknowledge that may not be too far off the mark, though they think Iran will eventually agree to a meeting date.

“Why rush into talks that everyone agrees will not get them anything substantial,” Hossein Shahbazi, a US-based Iran analyst, translated Iranian thinking to the Back Channel Friday.

From Tehran’s perspective, the “Iranians are not actually playing a terribly bad game now,” Shahbazi continued. They don’t think military action is in the offing. And though Congress continues to pile on sanctions, Iran believes they can withstand them for some time, he said.

Ultimately, “the talks will take place, as Iran doesn’t want to be blamed for their failure,” Shahbazi said. “But, addressing Iran’s important need for sanctions relief will be necessary for having Iranians to act constructively towards the talks going forward.”

Several national security experts have been urging the Obama administration to pursue bolder diplomacy on Iran, and offer more generous sanctions relief in exchange for greater Iranian transparency and monitoring.

However, if a 20% deal can’t be reached in the next few months, and if Iran continues to grow its 20% stockpile, President Obama is likely to come under increasing  pressure to demonstrate to Iran that the threat of force is credible.

Columbia University scholar Robert Jervis, who analyzed coercive diplomacy options in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, said while negotiating with Iran is incredibly difficult, there are some grounds to believe an interim nuclear deal is achievable.

“What we want from the Iranians is what they say they want,” Jervis told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “The Iranian say, ‘we do not want a bomb.’  And what we say is… we want assurances, openness and assurances” that Iran is not producing a bomb.

“It’s not Jerusalem,” he added, referring to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute holding positions that are hard to reconcile with the other. Continue reading

Bob Gates, Carl Levin endorse Hagel for SecDef

Two key endorsements for Chuck Hagel, who President Obama nominated today for Secretary of Defense, may help ease his confirmation battle. Both Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a key Jewish Senate leader, and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said Monday they strongly endorsed the choice.

“Senator Hagel is well qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs,” Levin said in a statement Monday sent to reporters as Obama announced the nomination, urging the Senate to promptly confirm his choices.

Levin serves as a kind of unofficial dean of Jewish Democrats in the Senate, and many fellow Jewish Democratic Senators follow his lead on sensitive, Israel-related matters.

“The Armed Services Committee will give prompt and careful consideration to Senator Hagel’s nomination for this critical position,” Levin vowed in his statement Monday.

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates also endorsed Hagel for SecDef, in a statement emailed to reporters by his former spokesman Geoff Morrell:

I congratulate Senator Hagel on his nomination to be secretary of defense. I am grateful for his willingness to take on this responsibility at a time of great challenges for the Defense Department. While there are issues on which I have disagreed with him, such as the 2007 surge in Iraq, he is a man of complete integrity and deep patriotism. He is also the president's choice. The country and our men and women in uniform would be well-served by his swift confirmation.” – Robert M. Gates

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Obama to name John Brennan for CIA, Chuck Hagel for Defense


President Obama on Monday will nominate White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, and former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense.

Brennan, a 25 year CIA veteran who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence advisor going back to the 2008 campaign.  He is very close with the President and extremely well-liked by the White House and National Security Council staff.

“When I was in [the White House], I slept better at night knowing that John Brennan never did,” former Obama White House political advisor David Axelrod wrote on Twitter Monday. “He worked 24/7 to keep Americans safe. Extraordinary guy.”

Brennan however withdrew his name from consideration for CIA chief in 2008 amid concerns about whether he had endorsed Bush-era CIA use of waterboarding and other controversial harsh interrogation techniques. More recently, Brennan has reportedly been among the figures arguing inside the administration for more restraint in the use of targeted drone strikes to kill militants.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served two terms as Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been co-chairman of Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The nominations are expected to be announced at 1pm EDT.

The administration is gearing up for a tough confirmation battle over Hagel.

Neoconservatives and some right-leaning pro-Israel and gay rights groups have already signaled their opposition to Hagel, while several former diplomats, military officers, and Israel envoys have endorsed him. Among Hagel’s supporters, former National Security advisors Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Israel Tom Pickering, former Defense Secretary  Frank Carlucci, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The administration may have been taking aback by the early opposition to the Hagel nomination, given his distinguished record of service and compelling personal story.  The White House also may have thought the worst was behind it after Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, bowed out amid Republican sniping over her comments on the Benghazi attacks. Obama last month nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Regarding the preemptive campaign against Hagel, it has been “like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” one Democratic source said. The Obama administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”

“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices,” the source continued. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”

Hagel’s positions on national security policy are considered similar to those of President Obama, who defended him as a “patriot” in an interview last month.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory last month. “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.”

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments.”

“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative,” Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly said Monday.

(Photo: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan briefs President Obama on Dec. 14, 2012 on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said this was the worst day of his Presidency. Pete Souza, White House.)

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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 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Israel kills Hamas militant, announces military operation in Gaza underway


Israel on Wednesday said it had killed a top Hamas military commander as it launched a new military operation in Gaza following several days of rocket attacks into southern Israel.

Ahmed al-Jaabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, was killed in Gaza City when his car was hit by an Israeli air strike, Israeli officials said, in what they emphasized was just the start of the military action, code-named “Operation Cloud Pillar” in Hebrew, but translated into “Pillar of Defense” in English.

“After the rocket fire of recent days, the [Israeli Defense Forces] chief of staff has decided to authorize the targeting of terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others,” IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told reporters Wednesday, Agence France Press reported. “This is the beginning.”

A Palestinian stringer on the ground in Gaza told Al Monitor that eight Palestinians had been killed, and 64 Palestinians injured since the Israeli action got underway, as of 10:30 PM local time. The stringer said at least two children were among the dead.

The Israeli Defense Forces said they had targeted Jaabari because he “served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the state of Israel in the past number of years,” the New York Times reportedContinue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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