U.S. State Department on new Netanyahu government

The U.S. State Department spokesperson told journalists today that the U.S. will explain to the new Netanyahu government the American support for a two-state solution (or, the American support for the creation of a viable Palestinian state):

“QUESTION: On the topic of Benjamin Netanyahu stepping in as Israel’s prime minister today, I guess what kind of steps, if any, could we see – could we expect from the Administration regarding the – furthering the notion of a two-state solution, as well as curtailing expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank area?

MR. DUGUID: Had the government been installed before I just walked in?


MR. DUGUID: It had been installed just before I walked in. We will then, of course, meet with the new government and begin our discussions, where we will go in and explain to them what our policies are and our support for a two-state solution and the way we see the best way going forward. But I don’t have anything more than that for you, as we have just now had a new Israeli Government”.

Akiva Eldar on the new Netanyahu government

Akiva Eldar has written in Haaretz today that the new U.S. Administration of Barack Obama has a new bipartisan document “waiting for the new Israeli government to be sworn in. The American president is due to use it as the basis of a special speech in which he will present his vision for the Middle East”.

Akiva reports that it will be based in large part on “a report drawn up at the end of 2008 by 10 senior figures from the two principal political parties in the United States. One of them, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, has in the interim been appointed a senior economic adviser to the president. The authors of that report recommended to the president that he replace ‘the conditions of the Quartet’ with a readiness to recognize a Palestinian unity government, on condition that that government would agree to a cease-fire with Israel, authorize Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to conduct negotiations on a final-status solution, and bring the agreement to a referendum” …

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Uri Avnery on new Netanyahu government

Uri Avnery has written of the new Israeli Prime Minister, who is being sworn in as this post is being composed, that:
“Binyamin Netanyahu has proven that he is a consummate politician. He has realized the dream of every politician (and theatergoer): a good place in the middle. In his new government he can play off the fascists on the right against the socialists on the left, Liberman’s secularists against the orthodox of Shas. An ideal situation. The coalition is large enough to be immune from blackmail by any of its component parties. If some Labor members break coalition discipline, Netanyahu will still command a majority. Or if the rightists make trouble. Or if the orthodox try to stick a knife in his back. This government is committed to nothing. Its written ‘Basic Guidelines’ – a document signed by all partners of a new Israeli government – are completely nebulous. (And anyhow, Basic Guidelines are worthless. All Israeli governments have broken their agreed Basic Guidelines without batting an eyelid. They always prove to be rubber checks.) All this was acquired by Netanyahu on the cheap – a few billions of economic promises that he would not dream of fulfilling. The treasury is empty. As one of his predecessors in the Prime Minister’s office, Levy Eshkol, famously said: ‘I promised, but I did not promise to keep my promises’…

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Yaakov Katz on the new Netanyahu government – the Sayeret Matkal (elite military unit) connection

The Jerusalem Post’s correspondent with excellent military contacts has written today that, with the imminent inauguration of Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s next Prime Minikster, a “Sayeret Matkal trio” will be taking the reins of power.

Katz wrote that “[Ehud] Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier, was the commander of the IDF’s most elite unit, known by its Hebrew name, Sayeret Matkal. Netanyahu, whose brother Yoni later became commander of the unit and was killed during the 1976 raid on Entebbe, was a junior team leader under Barak’s command in the early 1970s. With the swearing-in of the new government on Tuesday, the relationship between Barak and Netanyahu has changed – Netanyahu, the new prime minister, is the commander in chief. Barak … as the defense minister, he will have to carry out missions assigned by Netanyahu. Netanyahu and Barak are not the only members of the new government with origins in the army’s most elite unit. Moshe ‘Bogie’ Ya’alon, the former chief of staff slated to become the minister of strategic affairs, served as commander of the unit between 1987 and 1989. This Sayeret Matkal trio will now be leading the country’s defense and security apparatuses at a time when some of the most critical decisions in the country’s history will have to be made – from whether to use military force to stop Iran’s race toward nuclear power, to the Hizbullah threat in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip … As former members of Sayeret Matkal, the Netanyahu-Barak-Ya’alon trio carried out some of Israel’s most covert and complicated operations – some of which are still classified”. This article can be read in full here.

Continue reading Yaakov Katz on the new Netanyahu government – the Sayeret Matkal (elite military unit) connection

Seymour Hersh hopes for peace in the Middle East…

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, dated 6 April, Seymour Hersh writes:
“Obama’s Middle East strategy is still under review in the State Department and the National Security Council. The Administration has been distracted by the economic crisis, and impeded by the large number of key foreign- and domestic-policy positions yet to be filled. Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East diplomacy, on January 22nd, won widespread praise, but Mitchell has yet to visit Syria. Diplomatic contacts with Damascus were expanded in late February, and informal exchanges with Syria have already taken place. According to involved diplomats, the Administration’s tone was one of dialogue and respect—and not a series of demands. For negotiations to begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful resolution of Hamas’s ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)

“A senior White House official confirmed that the Obama transition team had been informed in advance of Carter’s trip to Syria, and that Carter met with Obama shortly before the Inauguration. The two men—Obama was accompanied only by David Axelrod, the President’s senior adviser, who helped arrange the meeting; and Carter by his wife, Rosalynn—discussed the Middle East for an hour. Carter declined to discuss his meeting with Obama, but he did write in an e-mail that he hoped the new President “would pursue a wide-ranging dialogue as soon as possible with the Assad government.” An understanding between Washington and Damascus, he said, “could set the stage for successful Israeli-Syrian talks.”

“The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, ‘Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama’ when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a ‘pro-Palestinian’, who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would ‘never make it in the major leagues’). But the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel. “It was Jones”—retired Marine General James Jones, at the time designated to be the President’s national-security adviser—’who came up with the solution and told Obama, “You just can’t tell the Israelis to get out”.’ (General Jones said that he could not verify this account; Cheney’s office declined to comment.)

“One issue that may be a casualty of an Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Assad ‘has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of diplomatic success will solve his internal problems’. The authorities, Whitson said, are ‘going after ordinary Syrians—like people chatting in cafés. Everyone is looking over their shoulder’.”

“Assad, in his interview with me, acknowledged, ‘We do not say that we are a democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are moving forward’. And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The Bush White House, he said, had viewed the fundamentalists as groups ‘that you should go and chase, and then you will accomplish your mission, as Bush says. It is not that simple. How do you deal with a state of mind? You can deal with it in many different ways—except for the army’. Speaking of Obama, he said in his e-mail, ‘We are happy that he has said that diplomacy—and not war—is the means of conducting international policy’.

“Assad’s goal in seeking to engage with America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush Administration’s strategy of aligning America with the so-called ‘moderate’ Arab Sunni states—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in a coördinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah, and Hamas.

“ ‘Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks, because they don’t fully trust the Syrians’, Itamar Rabinovich said. ‘But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances—they’re very hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, “It’s to your advantage not to isolate Iran”.’ Rabinovich added, ‘Both Israel and the United States will insist on a change in Syria’s relationship with Iran. This can only be worked out—or not—in head-to-head talks’.

“The White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that country—and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and intelligent diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses”.
This Seymour Hersh article can be read in full in The New Yorker here.

Olmert revelation – I made a "final offer" to Abbas in September 2008

YNet’s Roni Sofer wrote that outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an “unprecedented” offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2008 — to which Abbas has not responded, Olmert claims — proposing to give Palestinians 93% of the West Bank and parts of Herusalem.

In the story, Sofer reported that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attempted to clarify Thursday alleged promises he had made in a so-called ‘final offer’ to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2008, which included the eviction of tens of thousands of settlers and territorial concessions in Jerusalem. ‘There was one point when I put things on the table and offered Abbas something that had never been offered and dealt with the crux of the problem, with the most sensitive issues that touch the most exposed nerves and historical obstacles’, Olmert said during a Thursday conference in Herzliya. ‘I told him – “let’s sign”. It was half a year ago and I’m still waiting’, he said. Senior officials said that a meeting of the leaders in the Prime Minister’s resident in Jerusalem involved a ‘final offer to end the conflict’. The offer involved a future border between a possible Palestinian state to Israel, involving the eviction of the more than 60,000 settlers living beyond the security barrier in the West Bank – the proposed new border between the two entities. The offer involved a return of 93% of the West Bank, leaving in Israel the large population centers, such as Ariel and Elkanah in the north, Maaleh Adumim in the center, and Jerusalem and Gush Etzion in the south. Regarding Jerusalem itself, Olmert offered to cede over to the Palestinians the peripheral neighborhoods and the refugee camps surrounding the city, such as Kalandia. The holy sites, whose sovereignty is desired by all faiths, would be determined within an international framework, the prime minister said. The plan was also presented to the Americans who, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, supported the plan. They apparently also expressed optimism that the offer would be acceptable to the Palestinians”…

This account was published in full in YNet here.

An overhaul in U.S. Mideast Policy?

U.S. Senator John Kerry, who recently visited the region — including post-war Gaza — said to Voice of American recently that inauguration of a new U.S. administrations presents “an extraordinary chance to signal a new regional approach to the Middle East”.

There have been several signals recently, during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton a few days after Kerry had come through, that the U.S. is, indeed, taking a wider approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his Ramallah headquarters, Clinton told journalists that “The Obama Administration will be vigorously engaged in efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and all of the Arab neighbors”.

In the same press conference, Abbas confirmed in response to a journalist’s question that Clinton had brought a letter (or a message) from U.S. President Obama.  Abbas said the letter contained Obama’s assurances that he is fully committed to the peace process, that the United States supports the Palestinian (National) Authority, and the Road Map — and the Arab Peace initiative (proposing full recognition and normalization of relations with Israel, if Israel fully withdraws from Palestinian lands it occupied in the June 1967 – including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza).

VOA reported in an analysis piece from Washington today that Kerry said “there has been a tectonic shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East.Kerry says the rise of Iran following the war in Iraq has created an unprecedented willingness among moderate Arab nations to work with Israel.  ‘”To start with we need to fundamentally re-conceptualize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a regional problem that demands a regional solution. The challenges that we face there – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Middle East peace process – form an interconnected web that requires an integrated approach’, he said.

As the VOA noted in the report, two senior U.S. envoys have visited Syria, “the highest level talks between Washington and Damascus since 2005”; President Obama has announced the timetable for withdrawal of American combat forces in Iraq: and Obama has decided to open the door to the possibility of direct engagement with Tehran.

The VOA report can be read in full here.

In a separate news story, VOA reported that “European Union officials will meet Sunday [15 March] with envoys from Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to discuss the situation in the Middle East. The bloc’s Czech presidency said Wednesday that the meeting in Brussels will focus on Egypt’s role in mediating Middle East negotiations. A representative from Jordan will also attend the meeting”. This report can be read in full here.