Netanyahu alienates Democratic allies with US Congress address

(By Deutsche Welle) Unyielding support for Israel has long been a bipartisan pillar of US foreign policy. But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress has further strained his already tense relationship with the White House.

Israeli leaders normally receive a glowing bipartisan welcome in Washington. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress in 2011, he received 29 standing ovations from both Democrats and Republicans.

But this time around it will be different. More than two dozen lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have vowed to boycott Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday. Vice President Joe Biden will be skipping town for an impromptu trip to South America, and President Obama has declined to meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli leader’s visit to Washington.

The controversy started in January when House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress on “the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” Boehner, a Republican, did not consult the White House before extending the invitation. He criticized President Obama for devoting too little attention to Islamic fundamentalism in his state of the union speech. Netanyahu would fill in the gaps for the American people, according to Boehner.

“I frankly didn’t want them getting in the way and quashing what I thought was a real opportunity,” America’s third most senior elected official told Fox News, referring to the Obama administration.

Leading Democrats were outraged. Not only had the president been rebuffed, but Netanyahu was scheduled to address Congress just two weeks before parliamentary elections in Israel. Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser, suggested that the invitation was motivated by political partisanship, calling the move potentially “destructive” to the “fabric” of the US-Israel relationship.

“Much of the controversy has been over whether this was a deliberate political maneuver by Boehner to put the Democrats in a defensive position of either appearing to be critical of Israel by not coming to the speech, or showing up and giving legitimacy to what will certainly be a critique of the Obama administration,” William Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, told DW.

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Ehud Barak: ‘It’s a wake-up call’

(By Deutsche Welle) Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tells DW that the controls on intelligence agencies should probably be tightened as a consequence of the NSA affair. But he warns that citizens shouldn’t be naïve about security.

Ehud Barak has served as Israeli’s prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, among a host of other posts. He has decades of experience in intelligence matters and is Israel’s most highly decorated soldier.

DW: You mentioned during your presentation at the Cyber Security Summit in Bonn that offensive capabilities are greater than defensive capabilities in terms of cyber security threats. With the NSA affair, we’ve seen the extent to which governments are able to conduct surveillance on foreign leaders, private citizens and industry. What can these groups do to protect themselves against such surveillance?

Ehud Barak: I don’t think that we should look at it as a competition or struggle between the American government or other governments and individual citizens. I don’t think that the American government, by allowing the NSA to do what it is doing, intended to spy on individual citizens. Basically, I believe them. They are trying to block terror, and probably they drifted into somewhat of a more general kind of operation.

The real answer is not to be taken by citizens, but by government. If the German government or the French government or other governments in Europe want to discuss this issue with America – and probably they need to discuss it with America – and they expect the Americans to be responsive, they have to sit together and clarify what happened. What is done by the American and what is done by other, including European, intelligence services and to set together rules for future behavior. My experience with the Americans is that once they accept a rule, they respect it.

Basically, within a government – like the NSA case or be it any other operation – I believe from my experience that it should be not just at the disposal of the executive branch, namely the heads of the intelligence services, but controlled by a triangle of the three branches.

Namely, the executive branch of course [and] the judicial branch. Everything should be under control of a judge or group of judges that have total access for the details of what is done and should prove it from a legal point of view. And then inspections by subcommittees of the parliaments with enough stuff to be able to learn and know what’s happened. I believe that was the case with the Americans, that both the Congress and judicial system had their representative. If it didn’t work well enough it should be improved. But it’s not something that we cannot think of.

The real challenge will be with the bad guys. There are some bad guys in the world, both cyber criminals and even some governments with bad intentions, where certain steps should still be taken in order to avoid terror and avoid breaking the foundations of world order. And that needs certain capabilities in these arenas of intelligence gathering.

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US-sponsored Mideast peace talks facing failure?

(By Deutsche Welle) US Secretary of State John Kerry has forged a tentative agreement between Israelis and Palestinians on renewed peace talks. But the two sides still face fundamental disagreements about the preconditions for negotiations.

Three years after US President Barack Obama’s failed foray into the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his secretary of state returned to Washington over the weekend with an apparent pledge by the two sides to restart negotiations aimed at a peace accord.

“I’m pleased to announce that we’ve reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last Friday in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

But both the Israelis and Palestinians have remained mum over the details of the prospective talks, delegating the public relations job to Kerry. And the US secretary of state has told the press only that the two sides have agreed to sit down with each other at the negotiating table.

The chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators – Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat – would begin preliminary talks in Washington “within the next week or so,” according to Kerry.

“Neither side wants to be blamed for a collapse of Kerry’s efforts, and both sides are in fact nervous that without some process the situation will deteriorate and produce a worse outcome,” Aaron Miller, a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former advisor to Democrat and Republican secretaries of state, told DW.

“The question that remains to be seen is whether or not both Netanyahu and Abbas have made private commitments to Kerry on the parameters that guide the negotiations,” Miller said.

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US, Russia seek to bridge divide over Syria

(By Deutsche Welle) For more than two years, Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Syria, as the civil war there continued to escalate. But now, the former Cold War foes are promising to bridge the diplomatic divide.

If one were to take US Secretary of State John Kerry at his word, then the diplomatic stalemate between America and Russia over the Syrian civil war seems to have been a miscommunication. During talks in Moscow, Kerry told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US and Russia have “very significant common interests” in pushing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria.

“The alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos,” Kerry told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday.

“The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow,” Kerry said. “The alternative is that there may be even a break up of Syria.”

The secretary of state’s push for Russian cooperation comes as the civil war in Syria has taken on troubling new regional and international dimensions in recent days.

Israel twice bombed targets outside of Damascus last weekend, reportedly in an attempt to prevent Iranian guided missiles from falling into the hands of the Shiite Islamist militant group, Hezbollah.

The Israeli airstrikes came after the United States and its British and French allies claimed to have mounting evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. The three Western powers have accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of deploying the chemical agent sarin against rebel forces and civilians. Damascus, on the other hand, has accused the rebels of using deadly chemical agents.

“Kerry is following up the US administration’s stated goal of leading a diplomatic effort that was to include unifying the opposition and coordinating an international response,” Waleed Hazbun, director of the Center for Arab and Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut, told DW via email.

“But even on the humanitarian level, the US effort is viewed regionally as lacking,” Hazbun said.

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Syrian uprising challenges Assad regime’s regional ties

(By Deutsche Welle) Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters has placed Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran in a tough spot as they try to reconcile their political ties to the Assad regime with their professed support for the Arab uprisings.

As President Bashar al-Assad’s regime faces growing isolation both domestically and on the world stage due to its six-month-long violent crackdown on opposition protesters, the increasingly real prospect of regime change in Syria has sent political tremors throughout the region.

The Assad regime claims the leadership mantle of the so-called resistance bloc in the Middle East (informal group including Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran – the ed.), a movement that opposes Israel and American influence in the region.

But the Syrian government’s violent crackdown, which has taken the lives of an estimated 2,700 people according to the UN, has begun to undermine the regime’s resistance credentials and could tarnish the reputation of its Islamist allies, threatening to permanently de-legitimize and weaken the current key players within the resistance camp.

“The whole raison d’être of the state is based on the whole slogan of resistance and we are facing Israel,” Khaled Hroub, an expert on Arab politics at the University of Cambridge, told Deutsche Welle.

“The rhetoric, the discourse is the backbone of the whole regime in the country, if you take this out nothing is left for the regime to promote itself, to justify its existence.”

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Tea Party grapples with US role in the Middle East

(By Deutsche Welle) As the Republican presidential primary intensifies and turmoil in the Mideast simmers, Tea Party candidates are venturing beyond their focus on the economy and articulating their views on America’s role in the world.

As the Republican presidential primary gets into full swing, the grassroots conservative Tea Party movement has made its voice heard at an early stage. In Iowa, populist candidate Michele Bachmann and libertarian Ron Paul came in first and second respectively in a preliminary poll seen as a test of campaign strength, beating out establishment candidates such as Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who subsequently quit the contest.

Although foreign policy has been largely overshadowed by the dismal state of the American economy, political upheaval in the Middle East has forced increasingly prominent Tea Party-associated candidates to articulate clearer positions on the US role in the world as the battle for front-runner status escalates.

“The Tea Party did not arise out of a concern with foreign policy,” Stephen Walt, an expert on US foreign policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told Deutsche Welle.

“You haven’t seen them articulate or weigh in a well-defined foreign policy position in the way you have seen them weigh in on the budget battle and on health care.”

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