Secretary of State Clinton: There's a great exhalation of breath going on around the world … on Israel-Palestinian situation, We'll be working on a series of short-term obectives, but we'll wait until Mitchell gets back

Here are excerpts from remarks with reporters today by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton: “There’s a great exhalation of breath going on around the world as people express their appreciation for the new direction that’s being set and the team that’s put together by the President to carry out our foreign policy goals. And as I said when I came here last week, you know, we view defense, diplomacy, and development as the three pillars of American foreign policy. That’s not rhetoric. That is our commitment. That’s how we are proceeding”…

President Obama “reserves the right to engage in whatever way he deems best, at whatever time he chooses to further American interests. And clearly, that is not limited to any one country. It is a broad statement of our approach. We are engaged ourselves in a vigorous policy analysis of a number of problems and challenges that we face around the world. And we will be, you know, rolling out ideas and plans as we go forward. The President and I thought it was important that we, as quickly as possible, set forth our policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan, because we knew we wanted to reengage vigorously from the very beginning in the Middle East. And, you know, we chose as an envoy someone who – we have great confidence in his ability to do that. And to carry the message from the President, from myself, from our government that, you know, we’re going to be working on a series of short-term objectives with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but that we remain committed to the long-term objective of a comprehensive peace that provides security in the context of a two-state solution for the Palestinians …

“QUESTION: both you and the President in the wake of the Israeli-Hamas conflict have talked a lot about the plight of Palestinians while recognizing Israel’s right to self-defense, but you’ve put a lot of emphasis on the Palestinian plight. And I was wondering if you think that the Israeli campaign, given the fact that Hamas is still in control of Gaza and still on the ground and not completely decapitated, do you think that that was a counterproductive mission?

“SECRETARY CLINTON: You know, I think we’ve said all we’re going to say about the Israeli-Palestinian situation as we send our envoy out. I think we want to give him the opportunity to listen and bring back his impressions and information. And we are at this moment focused only on the Israel-Palestinian track. And I think it’s important to put the emphasis where it rightly belongs. We have, as I said, some short-term objectives such as a durable ceasefire, which as you know has receded somewhat today because of the offensive action against the IDF along the border. But of course, we’re concerned about the humanitarian suffering. We’re concerned any time innocent civilians, Palestinian or Israeli, are attacked. That’s why we support Israel’s right to self-defense. The rocket barrages, which are getting closer and closer to populated areas, cannot go unanswered. And it’s, you know, regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza. We are supporting the efforts by the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to try to support the humanitarian efforts. We will participate with our own contributions. The United States is currently the single largest contributor to Palestinian aid, and we will be adding even more because we believe that it’s important to help those who have been damaged and suffering. But again, this is one of those situations that we’re going to await the report of our envoy. I mean, that’s why we chose Senator Mitchell. We have a lot of confidence in his knowledge of the area and his political ear, so you not only hear what people say but what the meaning behind the words might be. So we’re going to wait and let him report back to us about the way forward…”

Next! George Mitchell coming to update his listening

George Mitchell has been here before. He wrote a report in 2001 on the causes of the Second Intifada (which broke out at the end of September 2000, following the failed Camp David talks, then a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to what Jews call the Temple Mount (but what Muslims know as the Haram as-Sharif).

He is now the envoy of the new U.S. President Barak Obama, and he is now in the region. His mission: to listen. He will meet Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak on Wednesday, then travel to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. On Thursday he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata’a Presidential Palace — a former British governor’s building, and prison — in Ramallah. (After that, Mitchell will go to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, then to Paris and London).

Obama’s first phone call to a foreign leader — on Wednesday, the day after his inauguration — was to President Abbas in Ramallah. Obama told Abbas that he would be engaged in the search for a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict here. Obama then called Israeli leaders, and the heads of state in neighboring Jordan and Egypt. Obama named Mitchell as special envoy a day later. At the time, obama said Mitchell’s mission would be “to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress … progress that is concrete”.

Last Friday, three days after his inauguration, Obama urged Israel to open Gaza border crossings to aid and commerce. “Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace — as part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce … [And] Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them”, Obama said. He also called for a border monitoring regime involving the Palestinian Authority and the international community. At the same time, he added, Hamas must however stop firing rockets into Israeli territory.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood told journalists Monday that “Special envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the cease-fire in Gaza, establish an effective anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the re-opening of border crossings, and development of an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction and re-invigorate the peace process”.

Wood indicated that Mitchell will be accompanied by an inter-agency team of Middle East specialists, and will start with an effort to shore up the current Gaza truce. But, Mitchell will not have contacts with Hamas, Wood said.

UPDATE: Ahmad Yousef, a top aide to Ismail Haniyah, received visiting journalists in Gaza in the garden of his house near the border with Egypt, said that “We would like him [Mitchell] to listen to us and to the Hamas vision, what Hamas expects from this American administration … We expect fairness and objectivity and even-handedness when they handle this conflict”, according to the Financial Times. The Christian Science Monitor, whose correspondent said that Yousef was a foreign policy adviser to Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh, reported that he said in the same briefing to visiting journalists: “The Americans and Europeans were mistaken to boycott Hamas from the start … I expected Obama to say that he will go and talk to everybody … We’d like to see America as impartial, not just seeing Hamas as a terrorist group … The people chose Hamas [in January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council], and America and the rest of the world should respect that”.

Yousef was repeating a position staked out by Khalid Mash’al, head of Hamas’ political bureau, in a televised speech from Damascus last Wednesday, when he called the international community to deal with Hamas. “For three years they have been trying to get rid of us, including through a blockade. Now it is time to start talking to Hamas, a force whose legitimacy was reinforced in the recent war,” he said. This was reported by Ma’an News Agency here.

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"Why should anyone not believe that Israel is controlling U.S. foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East?"

Here it is — word for word: State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack being grilled by journalists (mostly AP’s Matthew Lee, it seems) on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s remarks yesterday that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “shamed” after he called her boss, U.S. President George Bush, to make sure she would not vote in favor of the adoption of UN SC Resolution 1860 last Thursday:

QUESTION: Yeah. Given Prime Minister Olmert’s comments yesterday, why should – why should anyone still – or why should anyone not believe that Israel is controlling U.S. foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East?

MR. MCCORMACK: I did see the reports of his comments, and let me just start off by saying I don’t know the context of the comments. I don’t know if they are reported accurately. I don’t know if the Israeli Government would say, yes, that is an accurate quote.

What I can tell you is that the quotes as reported are wholly inaccurate as to describing the situation – just 100 percent, totally, completely not true. And I can – you know, I can vouch for that, having been up there at the United Nations the entire time, witnessed Secretary Rice’s deliberations with her advisors. I knew about the phone calls that she was doing and I can tell you a couple things.

One, very early on in the process, as far back as Wednesday, the Secretary decided that we were – we, the United States, weren’t going to be put in a position of vetoing a resolution, made the decision to support going forward with a resolution. At that point, there was a debate whether or not we were going to try to get a presidential statement or a resolution. We decided that point – at that point that we were going to go for a resolution and we weren’t going to be – if we could get one that was agreeable to all the members of the Security Council, we weren’t going to be in a position to veto it.

Second, that afternoon, all that afternoon, Thursday afternoon, Secretary Rice’s recommendation and inclination the entire time was to abstain, for the reasons that she described both during the Security Council session and subsequently in interviews. So I can tell you with 100 percent assurance that her intention was 100 percent to recommend abstention. She, of course, consulted with Steve Hadley at the White House as well as with the President. I’ll let the White House describe any interactions between the President and Prime Minister Olmert. But – so this idea that somehow she was turned around on this issue is 100 percent, completely untrue.

QUESTION: How could the prime minister of Israel get such a – you know, how – he certainly is under the impression that he singlehandedly prevented the United States from voting for this resolution. Why would he – why would –

MR. MCCORMACK: Matt – Matt, I –

QUESTION: How could he –

MR. MCCORMACK: You would have – you’d – Matt, I can’t tell you. You would have to –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: And again, I can’t – you know, I can’t posit and vouch for the – whether those remarks are accurate.
Continue reading "Why should anyone not believe that Israel is controlling U.S. foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East?"

Day 17 of IDF operation against Gaza – and questions mount

As the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead proceeds in its 17th day, with continuing attacks, there are increasing questions raised about the purpose and the method of prosecution of this war.

Haaretz today carries a report on the opinion of Prof. Yuval Shany, an expert in international law from Hebrew University’s law faculty, about possible violations during the current IDF operation: “The relevant question, he said, is ‘whether the operation is proportionate to the provocation that led to it. When a single Qassam [rocket] is fired, the state cannot invade and conquer an entire country. There must be a measure of proportion between the action and the reaction. But here, we are not talking about a single Qassam, but about years of Qassams’. Israel, he continued, ‘is permitted to use force to the degree necessary to end the attacks against it. Therefore, it [the operation] is legal as long as it is meant to prevent the attacks’ … However, Shany stressed, by law, Israel would not have the right to use force to effect regime change in the Gaza Strip. Israel would also have no right to deliberately target Palestinian civilians, even though Hamas deliberately targets Israeli civilians: One side’s illegal actions do not entitle the other side to violate the law as well. ‘In wartime, it is permissible to attack military targets only’, Shany explained. ‘This means targets that make a significant contribution to the other side’s war effort: Qassam launchers, Hamas fighting forces, weapons storehouses and [smuggling] tunnels’. Military targets can be struck even if civilians will very likely be hurt, as long as the harm to civilians is proportionate, he explained. This depends on factors such as the military value of the target, the extent of the harm suffered by civilians and the measures taken to minimize this harm. Thus, with regard to two specific dilemmas faced by Israel – whether to attack mosques being used as weapons storehouses, and also hospitals where senior Hamas commanders are holed up – Shany said: ‘A mosque is a more acceptable target than a hospital, because with a hospital, the assumption is that the harm to civilians will be far greater’. And in fact, Israel has chosen to strike mosques, but not hospitals. However, the professor added, even a hospital does not have total immunity: Firing missiles at it would be unacceptable, but a commando force could be sent in to capture wanted Hamas men. Regarding claims that Israel has deprived Gaza of fuel and electricity, and prevented the evacuation of the wounded, Shany said that once Israel has taken control of the Strip, it must enable the population’s humanitarian needs to be met. This includes an obligation to treat the wounded and to supply food, water and electricity. ‘The longer the army remains in an area, the greater its obligation to supply the local population’s needs becomes’, he added. Similarly, when Israel warns civilians to leave a house before an attack, it must ensure that they have somewhere to go and access to basic necessities such as food and water. Nevertheless, Shany noted, when United Nations agencies examined Israel’s conduct during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, they praised its practice of dropping leaflets to warn civilians to leave before bombing, saying this reduced civilian casualties…” This report can be read in full here.

Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour, who lives and works in the West Bank wrote today on the TPM blog that: “I watch in shock, like the rest of the world, at the appalling death and destruction being wrought on Gaza by Israel; and still it does not stop. Meanwhile, we see a seemingly never-ending army of well-prepared Israeli war propagandists, some Israeli government officials, and many other people self-enlisted for the purpose, explaining to the world the justifications for pulverizing the Gaza Strip, with its 1.5 million inhabitants. Curious about how Israel, or any society for that matter, could justify a crime of such magnitude against humanity, I turned to my Jewish Israeli friends today to hear their take on things. One after another, the theme was the same. The vast majority of Jewish Israelis has apparently bought into the state-sponsored line that Israel was under attack and had no other option available to stop Hamas’ rockets. More frightening is the revelation that many Israelis—including one person who self-identifies as a ‘leftist’—are speaking of accepting the killing of 100,000 or more Palestinians, if need be”.

In his post, Bahour said there were actually plenty of other options, and he named a few, including: accepting that there is an Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory; accepting an international presence in the occupied territory; accepting lawful non-violent resistance to the occupation; and opting not to interfere in internal Palestinian politics. But, he wrote, “The fact of the matter is that you had a long list of options open to you! So many, indeed, that it boggles the mind that your government has apparently been able to blind you to all of them…so that today, as the bombs shriek over Gaza, you can say, and evidently sincerely mean it: ‘We had no other option’. Nevertheless, even with all these options effectively invisible to you, there is nothing on this earth—not law, not politics, not even a desperate and lengthy campaign of rockets creating widespread fear and even some civilian deaths on your side of the border—there is nothing that can justify, by Israel or any other country on this earth, the decision to opt for a crime against humanity as your chosen response. Nothing!” This post can be read in full here.