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

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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

Israel envoy questions new settlements

Israel’s UN envoy was applauded by fellow Israeli diplomats when he questioned the timing of recent Israeli settlement announcements, which have been highly controversial internationally and condemned as “counterproductive” by the Untied States.

Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, attending the annual gathering of 160 Israeli ambassadors and chiefs of mission in Israel Monday, asked Israeli National Security advisor Yaakov Amidror “what was the rationale behind timing the decision to promote construction in area E1…after the UN resolution to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to an observer state status,” YNet.com’s Itamar Eichner reported Tuesday.

“Prosor's fellow ambassadors, who found it difficult to explain to the world the basis of Israel's foreign policy on the matter, applauded Prosor,” the Ynet report continued.

Amdiror, however, rebuked the diplomat for questioning government policy.

“Gentlemen, do not be confused,” the Israeli national security advisor responded, according to the YNet repot. “You are the government's representatives. If that doesn't suit you: either go into politics or resign.” Continue reading

Feldman: Case closed-for now-on Israel Iran strike?


Israel scholar Shai Feldman pronounces the Israeli debate on attacking Iran over. The two chief proponents of Israeli action, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “did not bluff, but they were defeated”–at least for now, Feldman, a scholar at Brandeis and Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes at Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel:

For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country’s president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.[...]

Contrary to what many think, Netanyahu and Barak … did not bluff, but they were defeated. With President Peres publicly joining the many formidable opponents of a military strike and General Sagi raising questions about the competence of Israel’s current leaders, Israel now lacks the minimal consensus required for a demanding military campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. The debate has been settled. At least for now.

But two veteran Israeli analysts said they were not convinced the debate is over at all.

“While Shimon Peres’ statement was of extraordinary importance, the logic underlining Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak’s rationale remains intact,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas told Al Monitor Monday by email.

“They are convinced that the ‘timetable gap’ that exists between the US and Israel will not change,” Pinkas continued. “The one game-changer that is still available are US assurances pertaining to a US military strike sometime around spring 2013, if all else fails.”

“No. I don’t think it’s over,” Israeli national security correspondent Yossi Melman told Al Monitor by email. Melman, co-author of a new book on Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armaggedon, noted that Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror on Monday briefed Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, on Iran. The briefing was seen as an effort to try to sway Shas’ two cabinet ministers in favor of possible Israeli action on Iran.

“So it’s far from over,” Melman said. “I still think Israel will [probably] not attack before [the US] elections, but …. Netanyahu and Barak seem to be still very determined.”

(Photo: Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Presidential Palace in Jerusalem August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool)

Former Israeli nat’l security advisor: “Right way to deal with Iran was through diplomacy”

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, interviewing former IDF planning chief and National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, has come up with the most substantive list yet of the pros and cons for Israeli military action against Iran. The bottom line: Eiland joins numerous other Israeli intelligence and defense experts in giving greater weight to the cons in the process.

Eiland, who also served as Israeli National Security Advisor from 2003-2006, calls the prospect of facing either Iran with a bomb vs. bombing Iran, “a choice between the plague and cholera.”

For each choice, he says, there are four main risks. An Iran with nuclear weapons could launch one against Israel, a prospect he says is extremely unlikely but not nonexistent. Risk two is sparking a Middle East arms race, three is worsening Israel’s strategic position with regard to conventional conflict and four is spurring “a radical tidal wave in the Muslim world.”

Eiland’s candid enumeration of the risks of Israeli military action, however, suggests that “cholera” is worse than the plague. Risk one, he says, is that the operation could fail because of the dispersed and hardened nature of the Iranian nuclear program. If that happens, risk two is “a terrible erosion of our regional deterrent capability, which will encourage all sorts of sharks to attack the Israel that issued a threat and failed to carry through and is now bleeding in the water.” Continue reading

Senior Obama officials travel to Israel for consultations

A “cavalcade” of high-ranking Obama administration officials will travel to Israel over the next two weeks for strategic consultations, diplomatic sources told The Back Channel. Among them, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who will participate in the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

While the high-level American-Israeli consultations will cover the range of security issues, the most pressing focus of the consultations will be Iran. Israel is skeptical of the prospects of achieving a near-term diplomatic solution, and is pressing for tougher sanctions to be imposed and for the U.S. to issue a credible military threat against Iran over its nuclear program. It has not ruled out taking military action on its own if Iran does not agree to curb its most sensitive nuclear work, particularly its 20% enrichment activities at the fortified Fordo enrichment site.

Clinton will travel to Israel July 16-17, “where she will be meeting with the Israeli leadership to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern,” the State Department previously announced. Clinton, who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris Friday and will visit Egypt July 14-15, will also discuss with her Israeli counterparts prospects for resumed Israeli-Palestinian contacts, if not full fledged peace talks, Egyptian-Israeli relations after the election of Islamist president Mohammed Morsy, and the Syrian conflict and its impact on Jordanian stability.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will lead the U.S. delegation traveling to Israel this week for meetings of the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue, a State Department official told Al Monitor Monday. The semi-annual dialogue, involving days of intense, inter-agency meetings among senior officials from both countries, is formally co-chaired on the U.S. side by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and on the Israeli side by National Security Advisor Gen. Yaakov Amidror.

Several high-ranking U.S. officials from other agencies will also participate in the consultations, the diplomatic sources said. The White House, which has not yet announced nor confirmed the trip, did not respond to a query on who from the National Security Council may travel from the American side. Diplomatic sources told Al Monitor it would include senior officials below the president and vice president.

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