Trump’s defense secretary pick opposes scrapping Iran nuclear deal

Shortly before Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary was announced, Jim Lobe wrote: Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the odds-on favorite for Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of defense. It’s worth exploring his views on Iran particularly in light of the ultra-hawkish positions of both National Security Adviser-designate Gen. Michael Flynn and CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo, both of whom have made no secret of their desire to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Mattis’s most comprehensive public statement on these subjects came at an hour-long presentation he gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last April 22. It was entitled “The Middle East at an Inflection Point,” but it was really all about Iran. With the exception of the Military Times, the media entirely ignored his talk.

Recall that Mattis was essentially let go as chief of the U.S. Central Command, in which capacity he served from August 2010 to March 2013, largely because the Obama administration felt that he was too hawkish toward Iran. That hawkishness certainly comes through in his CSIS presentation. He sees Iran as the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” “the single most belligerent actor in the Middle East,” and as “not a nation state. Rather, he argues, it’s a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem” that has not modified its hostility toward the U.S., Israel, and its Arab neighbors since the revolution. (It would be very hard to imagine Mattis supporting any effort to integrate Iran into a new regional security structure, although he didn’t explicitly address that issue in his talk.)

Nonetheless, unlike Flynn and Pompeo, Mattis makes clear that Washington should abide by the JCPOA, which he sees as an “imperfect arms control agreement,” because any withdrawal, especially in the absence of support from its allies, would put Washington and the region “on a road to perdition.” [Continue reading…]

The Forward reports: Late last month, when it first emerged that Trump was considering Mattis for the job, the Zionist Organization of America said it would oppose the pick, citing a 2013 appearance at the Aspen Security Forum shortly after he retired as chief of the U.S. Central Command.

“I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” Mattis said then of his job, which involves interactions with America’s Arab allies.

He also warned that the United States urgently needed to press the Israelis and the Palestinians to advance to a two-state solution.

“Either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” Mattis said. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s right, cheering Donald Trump’s win, renews calls to abandon two-state solution

The New York Times reports: Emboldened by the Republican sweep of last week’s American elections, right-wing members of the Israeli government have called anew for the abandonment of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

“The combination of changes in the United States, in Europe and in the region provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything,” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, told a gathering of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on Monday.

Mr. Bennett, who advocates annexing 60 percent of the occupied West Bank to Israel, exulted on the morning after Donald J. Trump’s victory: “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”

That sentiment was only amplified when Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer and co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee, told Israel’s Army Radio that Mr. Trump did not consider West Bank settlements to be an obstacle to peace, in a stark reversal of longstanding American policy. [Continue reading…]

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A two-state solution looks more distant than ever

Roger Cohen writes: There is agreement on very little in the fractious Holy Land, but on one issue there is near unanimity these days: A two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more distant than ever, so unimaginable that it appears little more than an illusion sustained by lazy thinking, interest in the status quo or plain exhaustion.

From Tel Aviv to Ramallah in the West Bank, from the largely Arab city of Nazareth to Jerusalem, I found virtually nobody on either side prepared to offer anything but a negative assessment of the two-state idea. Diagnoses ranged from moribund to clinically dead. Next year it will be a half-century since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began. More than 370,000 settlers now live there, excluding in East Jerusalem, up from about 249,000 in 2005. The incorporation of all the biblical Land of Israel has advanced too far, for too long, to be reversed now.

Greater Israel is what Israelis know; the smaller Israel west of the Green Line that emerged from the 1947-49 war of independence is a fading memory. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with its contempt for Palestinians and dissenting voices in general, prefers things that way, as the steady expansion of settlements demonstrates. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, has lost the legitimacy, the cohesion and the will to do much about it. The cancellation of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza that had been set for this month was another sign of paralyzing Palestinian infighting. [Continue reading…]

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Shimon Peres obituary: Peacemaker or war criminal?

Jonathan Cook writes: Famously in the late 1990s, [Shimon] Peres [the last major figure in Israel’s founding generation, who died today, age 93] made the mistake of asking a Labour party convention whether he was a “loser”. The delegates roared back: “Yes”.

Over two decades, Peres lost five elections in which he stood for prime minister.

Although he served in the top job on two occasions, he never won a popular mandate.

He briefly took over from Rabin after the latter was felled in 1995 by an assassin’s bullet. He was also prime minister in an unusual rotation agreement with his Likud rival Yitzhak Shamir after neither secured a parliamentary majority in the 1984 election.

Unlike Rabin and Ariel Sharon, two figures of his generation who enjoyed greater political acclaim, Peres suffered in part because he had not first made a name for himself in the Israeli army, Ezrahi observed.

He was seen as more uninspiring technocrat than earthy warrior.

Even on Israel’s left, said Roni Ben Efrat, an Israeli political analyst and editor of the website Challenge, he was viewed as an opportunist.

“His real obsession was with his own celebrity and prestige,” she said. “What he lacked was political principle. There was an air about him of plotting behind everyone’s backs. He was certainly no Nelson Mandela.”

Rabin, who tussled regularly with Peres for leadership of the Labour party, called him an “inveterate schemer”.

With Rabin’s victory in 1992, Peres was appointed number two and returned to what he did best: backroom deals, in this case a peace track in Norway that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

When Rabin was assassinated two years later, it was assumed that Peres would romp home in the general election a short time later, riding a wave of sympathy over Rabin’s death.

Instead he lost to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who profited from the right’s campaign to discredit the peace process and its architects as “Oslo criminals”.

Peres would see out much of his remaining time in frontline politics providing a veneer of international respectability to right-wing Sharon governments through the second Intifada as they crushed the Palestinian leadership and built a steel and concrete barrier through the West Bank. [Continue reading…]

Anshel Pfeffer writes: Perhaps the final irony of Shimon Peres’ life was that his last act in the service of peace, remains secret and undocumented. As an octogenarian president, he observed the conventions of the ceremonial office and refrained from openly intervening in politics. That didn’t stop the commanders of the army and chiefs of the intelligence services turning to him for advice when they felt their political masters were dangerously wrong. Towards the end of his seven-year term, he was the secret leader of the faction within the defence establishment that successfully worked to block the plans of Netanyahu, the prime minister and the defence minister Ehud Barak to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, before it could build an atomic bomb.

Ultimately he had to rely on the generals and spy chiefs to avert war. He never convinced ordinary Israelis to make the same leap of faith he had. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump links his Mexico border wall plan to Israel’s ‘successful’ Apartheid wall

Israel-wall

The Guardian reports: Donald Trump attempted to draw parallels between Israel’s separation barrier and his much-touted border wall pledge on Sunday after both presidential nominees met the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Trump’s hour-long meeting with Netanyahu at his Trump Tower penthouse, the two reportedly discussed “at length Israel’s successful experience with a security fence that helped secure its borders”, according to the Trump campaign.

Israel’s separation barrier, which runs for 440 miles (700km) near or along the 1949 armistice lines set after Israel’s war for independence, is a fence of most of its length. In contrast, Trump has pledged to build a wall of concrete and rebar as high as 55 feet (17 metres) along the nearly 2,000 mile border between the US and Mexico.

The meeting was the first of two that Netanyahu held with presidential candidates on Sunday, the day before the first presidential debate. Contrary to custom both meetings were closed to the media, the Trump campaign has prevented reporters from any access to his meeting with Netanyahu and aides to the Israeli prime minister reportedly went on to insist Clinton’s campaign abide by the same rules Trump insisted upon.

According to a readout provided by the Republican’s campaign, the nominee signaled support for the controversial moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the real estate developer “acknowledged that Jerusalem has been the eternal capital of the Jewish people for over 3,000 years, and that the United States, under a Trump administration, will finally accept the long-standing Congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel”. [Continue reading…]

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Powell acknowledges Israel’s nuclear arsenal

Eli Clifton reports: According to hacked emails reviewed by LobeLog, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Israel’s nuclear arsenal, an open secret that U.S. and Israeli politicians typically refuse to acknowledge as part of Israel’s strategy of “nuclear ambiguity.” Powell also rejected assessments that Iran, at the time, was “a year away” from a nuclear weapon.

The emails, released by the hacking group DCLeaks, show Powell discussing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before a joint meeting of Congress with his business partner, Jeffrey Leeds.

Leeds summarizes Netanyahu as having “said all the right things about the president and all the things he has done to help Israel. But basically [he] said this deal sucks, and the implication is that you have to be an idiot not to see it.”

Powell responded that U.S. negotiators can’t get everything they want from a deal. But echoing a point that many Iran hawks have questioned, Powell said that Israel’s nuclear arsenal and rational self-interest make the construction and testing of an Iranian nuclear weapon a highly unlikely policy choice for Iran’s leaders. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. will provide Israel with more military aid than ever provided to any country

The Washington Post reports: Israel and the United States have reached an agreement that will provide Israel an unprecedented amount of military aid over a decade.

The State Department said the agreement, known as a memo of understanding, will be signed Wednesday afternoon. Jacob Nagel, Israel’s acting national security adviser, arrived in Washington on Tuesday morning to sign on behalf of his country.

The agreement is expected to give Israel as much as $3.8 billion a year over 10 years, more aid than the United States has ever provided to any country. That represents a significant increase over the $3.1 billion the United States gives annually now, a figure that increases to about $3.5 billion a year with aid supplements approved by Congress. That is also much lower than the $4 billion to $5 billion a year that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought. [Continue reading…]

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Russia says Palestinian, Israeli leaders agree to meet

Al Jazeera reports: Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed “in principle” to meet in Moscow in what Russia hopes will relaunch Middle East peace talks after more than two years’ break, according to the Russian foreign ministry.

While it is not clear when the meeting will take place, Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Thursday Moscow had heard from the offices of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two agreed to meet in the Russian capital.

“The leaders of Palestine and Israel have given their general consent to meet in Russia,” Zakharova told reporters.

“The most important thing is to pick the right timing,” she added. “Intensive contacts on this are ongoing.”

Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Jamjoom, reporting from Moscow, said the Russian statement “hardly sounded like a sure thing at this point”, highlighting a comment by a Kremlin spokesperson on Wednesday saying that a meeting between the two sides was “not on the schedule and not on the agenda”.

Earlier this week, Abbas said a scheduled meeting in Moscow had been postponed at Israel’s request.

Abbas has said that he would only meet Netanyahu if Israel freezes settlement construction on occupied lands and carries out a previously agreed-on release of Palestinian prisoners. [Continue reading…]

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Soviet document suggests Mahmoud Abbas was a KGB spy in the 1980s

The New York Times reports: Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may have more in common than an interest in Middle East peace talks. According to a newly discovered Soviet document, Mr. Abbas may have once worked for the K.G.B., too.

The possibility, trumpeted by the Israeli media on Wednesday night and just as quickly dismissed by Palestinian officials, emerged from a document in a British archive listing Soviet agents from 1983. A reference to Mr. Abbas is tantalizing but cryptic, just two lines identifying him by the code name “Mole.” At the end of his entry are two words: “K.G.B. agent.”

The suggestion that Mr. Abbas may have been on Moscow’s roster more than three decades ago might have been just a historical curiosity but for the fact that it comes at the same time that Mr. Putin has been trying to organize new talks between Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. A Russian envoy was in Jerusalem this week to meet with Mr. Netanyahu, but the Israeli and Palestinian leaders remain at odds and no direct talks appear imminent.

“We thought it was important now in the context of the Russian attempt to arrange a summit between Abbas and Netanyahu, particularly because of Abbas’s joint K.G.B. past with Putin,” said Gideon Remez, one of two researchers at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who found and disclosed the Soviet document to Israel’s Channel 1. (At the end of the Soviet era, Mr. Putin was a K.G.B. lieutenant colonel.)

Mr. Remez’ research partner, Isabella Ginor, said Mr. Abbas’s past was relevant because of Russia’s possible continuing influence on him. “We don’t know what happened later on and if Abu Mazen went on with his service or work for the Soviets,” she said, using another name for Mr. Abbas. “But now that he is head of the Palestinian Authority, this can be a lever on him.” [Continue reading…]

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Will Israel be put on trial for war crimes?

Al Jazeera reports: Israel has agreed to allow the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to send a delegation to Israel and the occupied territories. It was revealed over the weekend in a step that could dramatically increase the risk of Israeli officials being tried for war crimes.

Emmanuel Nahshon, a foreign ministry spokesman, confirmed to Al Jazeera on Sunday that Israel had agreed to the visit in principle, though the “when and how” were still under discussion.

The ICC’s move comes as human rights groups have harshly criticised Israel for closing investigations into dozens of allegations that its military has broken the laws of war during an attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014.

The Hague prosecutors are reportedly interested in examining how effective Israel’s legal mechanisms are in investigating allegations of war crimes.

Under the terms of its founding statute, the ICC could take over jurisdiction of such probes if it is persuaded that Israel is unable or unwilling to conduct credible investigations itself. [Continue reading…]

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Religious extremists shut down the Israeli railway system

The Associated Press reports: Israeli commuters began their work week Sunday with massive traffic jams and a cancellation of train service along one of the country’s busiest routes following a religious and political scuffle that had threatened to shake the governing coalition.

The crisis erupted over the weekend after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, made an 11th-hour decision to halt routine railway repairs scheduled on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Orthodox Jewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, and a religious party in the coalition had threatened to quit the government unless Netanyahu halted the repairs.

Netanyahu’s transport minister, Yisrael Katz, canceled a key train route on the Tel Aviv – Haifa line Sunday because of the delayed repairs. The government dispatched extra buses for some 90,000 affected commuters.

The resulting traffic jams offered a physical illustration of the outsized power the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority wields in Israeli politics.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians offer Netanyahu support to stabilize his coalition, while the government carves out large budgets for ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries. Recent reforms aimed at forcing religious youths to enlist for army service, which is compulsory for most other Jewish Israelis, have been scrapped. [Continue reading…]

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As Trump vs. Clinton captivates world, Netanyahu is unusually silent

The New York Times reports: For three hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel held forth on all sorts of topics — on Israel and the Middle East, on his record and on his plans. One subject that Mr. Netanyahu studiously avoided in his expansive conversation with American visitors last weekend, though, was the United States election.

Much of the rest of the world is absorbed by the contest between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it is a topic Mr. Netanyahu will not touch. Four years after he was accused of meddling in the American election on behalf of President Obama’s opponent, the hardly bashful Israeli leader this time has taken a virtual vow of silence.

The unusual reluctance comes after years of toxic relations between him and Mr. Obama, culminating in an acrid public feud over the American-brokered nuclear agreement with Iran. With Mr. Netanyahu seemingly aligning himself during that fight with Mr. Obama’s Republican critics, some Israel backers feared the country was squandering its traditional bipartisan support. The prime minister now seems intent on extricating himself from the partisan tussle.

“Everybody understands here in Israel that the most important thing for us is to go back to where we were for the last 68 years, which is bipartisan,” said Yair Lapid, a centrist party leader who hopes to succeed Mr. Netanyahu. “This is why nobody will take sides in a presidential campaign.”

But if Israel is staying away from the American campaign, the campaign is staying away from Israel, too. While it was an occasional topic of questioning during primary debates, it has been all but absent from the discussion in the general election.

In part, that reflects a high-octane campaign of invective that has overlooked many policy questions. But it also underscores the plethora of other issues that have seized Washington’s attention, principally the rise of the Islamic State, the war in Syria and relations with Russia. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute, once a dominant part of any White House foreign policy, seems to be slipping to a second-tier issue. [Continue reading…]

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