Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

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Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

Roundup: Kerry for Secretary of State

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Israel FM Lieberman resigns

Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his intent to resign a day after he was indicted for fraud and breach of trust, though he’s still expected to stand in Israeli Knesset elections next month, the BBC reports:

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has resigned after being charged with fraud and breach of trust following a long-running investigation.

Mr Lieberman has also resigned as deputy prime minister, and said he would fight to clear his name of the charges. … His resignation comes five weeks before Israel’s general election.

Lieberman,  the leader of Israel’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, had said Thursday that he did not intend to resign, but would make a decision after consulting with his attorneys. Continue reading

Israel AG drops graft charges against Lieberman, indicts for breach of trust

Israel’s Attorney General on Thursday announced that after a twelve year investigation, he is dropping major money laundering and graft charges against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but intends to indict him for breach of trust, Haaretz reports:

On Thursday Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced Thursday the decision to close the major case against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, thereby concluding a 12-year investigation.

Weinstein closed the main case against Lieberman, which involves allegations of money-laundering, fraud, and breach of trust, on suspicion he received millions of dollars from international tycoons like Martin Schlaff and Mikhail Chernoy through foreign companies while he was serving in public positions.

However, Weinstein announced his decision to indict Lieberman for breach of trust for allegedly working to promote former ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh without reporting that Ben Aryeh had given Lieberman information about the investigation against him being conducted in Belarus. There are those in the legal community who believe that while Lieberman's alleged actions in this instance may have been ethically improper, it isn't clear that any illegalities were involved.

So can Lieberman still serve? Maybe. Haaretz: Continue reading

Wieseltier: Losing hope on Israeli-Palestinian peace

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic who has long pro-Israel ties, captured the sense of despair among some in Washington at the direction of Israeli politics in the wake of Israel’s decision to build in the sensitive E1 corridor and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s uncomfortable presentation to the Saban Forum earlier this month:

I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. [...]

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu petulantly responds to the General Assembly vote with an outrageous proposal for Jewish housing in the area east of Jerusalem known as “E1,” which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians. He allies his party with the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the fascist face of Israel, who has proposed loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, and then his party, I mean the Likud, demotes its moderates and promotes the odious likes of Moshe Feiglin, who refers to Arabs as Amalek and advocates their “voluntary transfer” from Israel. As these anti-democratic maniacs flourish in Netanyahu’s base, one increasingly hears in those quarters the ugly old refrain that Jordan is the Palestinian state. And there is no significant opposition to Likud [...] People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will. So what if the two-state solution is the only solution, when nobody is desperate to solve the problem?…

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced upon his return to Israel from the United States this past week that he will not run in elections next month, warned that Israel's E1 building policies are further isolating Israel from the rest of the world, including its friends in the United States.

Continue reading

Obama golfs with Bill Clinton, spurring interest from Mideast watchers


Middle East watchers were seized with the news that President Barack Obama was playing golf on Sunday with former President Bill Clinton.

“Pleeeeze offer him role of Mideast Envoy? Pleeeeeze?,” Israeli lawyer and anti-settlements expert Daniel Seidemann wrote on Twitter, in response to a post noting Bill Clinton was among Obama’s golfing companions Sunday.

President Obama “is golfing with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Virginian gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, according to the White House press office,” White House pool reporter Eric Wasson of The Hill wrote in a pool report Sunday sent to other reporters covering the administration.

“I’m sure 42 will have advice to share on the #MidEast Peace Process,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy at the Jewish Federation of North America, commented on the golf outing of Presidents 42 and 44, reported to have grown closer during Obama’s reelection campaign.

Middle East peace activists have long fantasized about Obama enlisting the popular former President to try to advance the stalled Middle East peace process. (“Bill Clinton is the only guy I can think of who is trusted and liked by all sides,” veteran US foreign policy watcher Steve Clemons told this reporter two years ago. “Employ Bill Clinton as peace envoy,” Bernard Avishai, writing at the Daily Beast, urged anew this month.)

But until recently, with the imminent departure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the key role Bill Clinton played helping Obama’s reelection campaign, the prospects of such an appointment seemed entirely unlikely. Even now, as yet, there is little sign the Obama administration seems inclined to wade back into a big new Israeli-Palestinian peace push, certainly not before Israeli elections next month. The biggest obstacle: the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t seem to want it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angry over the United Nations vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status last week, lashed out at the Palestinian entity Sunday, as Israel announced new settlement building plans and that it was withholding $100 million in tax payments to the PA. “The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu charged Sunday.

Given the obstacles the Israeli and Palestinian parties have thrown up to returning to the peace table, “the ultimate question is what does America do,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House on Middle East and Jewish affairs, told the Back Channel in an interview last week. Continue reading

Erdogan condemns hit Turkish TV drama


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given the thumbs down to a hit Turkish television series, the “Magnificent Century,” which has riled Turkish conservatives with its steamy depiction of the decadent Ottoman reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker reports:

The show chronicles the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, whose 46-year rule which ended 1566, is seen as the pinnacle of the Ottoman Empire. Attracting a third of the prime-time audience every night it’s on air, and broadcasting to 150 million people in 22 countries from the Czech Republic to Japan, the series is a sure hit for Tims Productions–the Istanbul-based firm behind some of the most successful series and movies in the past decade.

But the decadent representation of Suleiman’s life, hinting that the sultan known as ‘the Lawgiver’ was given to alcohol and promiscuity, also drew widespread criticism from conservatives. […]

In a rhetorical flourish that rallied his supporters but baffled many commentators, the prime minister then meshed his defense of government policy with a salvo against the “Magnificent Century,” arguing for active international engagement by deriding the limited scope of the opposition’s stance and the show’s limited focus the luxuries of the palace.

“That’s not the Sultan Suleiman we know, that’s not the Lawgiver we know, 30 years of his life was spent on horseback, not in a palace like you see in TV shows,” Mr. Erdogan told a cheering crowd of thousands at an airport opening ceremony in the western province of Kutahya on Sunday. Continue reading

Obama, Romney face off at foreign policy debate

The last debate of the 2012 US presidential campaign, on foreign policy, gets underway in a few minutes in Boca Raton, Florida, and Middle East issues–Iran, Libya, Syria, Israel–look set to predominate.

I’ll be joining the folks at NPR affiliate KCRW and friends for a live-blog of the debate, which you can follow here. What questions do you hope get asked? Continue reading

Hillary Clinton: ‘I take responsibility’ for Benghazi security lapse

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN Monday that she accepts responsibility for the security lapse that led to the death of four State Department personnel in Libya last month.

“I take responsibility” for what happened in Benghazi, Clinton told CNN‘s Elise Labott. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”

Clinton spoke from Lima, Peru Monday, as Republicans have accused the Obama administrating of giving conflicting accounts of what it knew in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Benghazi outpost.

Clinton has widely signaled her plans to step down from the job of Secretary of State at the end of Obama’s first term, even if he is reelected. In her role as Obama’s top envoy, she has become the most popular figure by far in the Obama cabinet, one who is widely eyed as a prospective Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reports Tuesday that Clinton made a similar statement of responsibility in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday (Oct. 10), but the paper did not publish it:

On Monday night, the Journal’s Monica Langley reported that Clinton made a similar comment to her in a recent interview. That comment had not previously been published.

“I take responsibility,” Clinton told the Journal. “I’m the Secretary of State with 60,000-plus employees around the world. This is like a big family … It’s painful, absolutely painful.”

Clinton sat for an interview with the Journal last Wednesday and there was no embargo preventing the paper from publishing any part of it, a State Department spokesman told The Huffington Post

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech to the media at the government palace in Lima, October 15, 2012. Clinton is on a two-day official visit to Peru.  REUTERS/Jorge Luis Baca.)

Netanyahu calls Israel elections


As widely anticipated, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday announced early elections. Citing the Knesset’s stalemate over passing a budget, Netanyahu said elections should be held as soon as possible.

Israeli media reports said that could be as early as late January or February.

Netanyahu also said that stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb would be his key priority in a second term.

The Likud prime minister is in a strong position to bolster his position in the elections, although his ruling coalition could be shaken up.

Israeli television reports speculated on two possible challengers: former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, or former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, both of the Likud  break-away Kadima party. Olmert was recently exonerated of corruption charges.

(Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem October 9, 2012. Netanyahu announced on Tuesday he would seek an early Israeli election, expected to be held in January or February. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.)