Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Barak after clear-the-air meeting with Bibi: We ‘see eye-to-eye’


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “see eye to eye” on the Iran threat and U.S.-Israel ties.

Barak made his remarks in a statement on Oct. 6 following a 90-minute meeting with Netanyahu at which they agreed to continue working together to overcome Israel’s security threats, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Netanyahu reportedly called in Barak for the meeting to reprimand him over recent meetings with U.S. officials.

Barak’s statement said that he and Netanyahu “see eye to eye” on every aspect of the Iranian threat, as well as “the relationship with the United States under the prime minister’s leadership,” according to the Post.

Barak met several weeks ago with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who remains close to President Barack Obama after serving as his chief of staff, and U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. 

Panetta to meet Barak, Netanyahu, Peres in quick trip to Israel


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel to discuss United States-Israel defense ties and the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Panetta will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

“We are a friend, we are a partner, we have — as the defense minister has pointed out — probably the strongest US-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history,” Panetta told reporters before the meeting, according to the Associated Press and Times of Israel. “What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future.”

Panetta did not go into specifics on the Iran discussions, but said that he and Israeli officials would be “discussing various contingencies and how we would respond.”

On Tuesday, President Obama announced tougher sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and banks, according to the AP.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 News that he had not yet made a decision on whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, but urged military and security officials to keep the debate over such a strike out of the public sphere.

OPINION: President Obama’s diplomacy has been given a chance


According to Jewish tradition, prophecy ceased with the end of the Biblical era, but it doesn’t take a prophet to predict that Israel will not be attacking Iranian nuclear installations, at least not for a while.

The conventional wisdom had been that the Israelis had a window of opportunity to attack Iran prior to the American election. Electoral politics would force President Obama to support and Israeli attack, whether he would have wanted to or not and the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party Mitt Romney has already come out in support of such an attack should Israel so decide.

But there will be no such attack, at least not until October and perhaps far beyond.

My reasoning is simple. With an impending election this fall, the Netanyahu government will become a lame duck government and it would be unwise for the Prime Minister to risk his reelection on the unknown outcomes of an attack on Iran.

Were such an attack a failure, it would undermine his reelection campaign. Were such an attack successful but were it to trigger attacks on Israel from the North and the South, Israel might find itself besieged by rocket fire and the Israelis might feel themselves insecure and might hold the Prime Minister responsible for miscalculating the consequences of his government’s actions. Netanyahu well remembers that his first election as Prime Minister was assisted in no small part by terrorist attacks from the North that undermined Israel’s confidence in the Oslo Accords and sunk Shimon Peres’ hopes to election on his own following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Peres’ poll numbers dropped precipitously and the rest was history.

Were Netanyahu to miscalculate, there is enough domestic opposition from security heavyweights such as the former heads of the Mossad. the Shin Bet and the IDF and sufficient caution from the current Chief of Staff of the IDF to place the full burden of responsibility of Netanyahu’s shoulders.  It is highly likely that Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not be a major factor in the next government.

If Israeli elections are held in September, a new government will not be formed and functioning until after the holidays in October, just on the eve of the Presidential elections. The Prime Minister is quite skilled at reading the American political landscape. Were President Obama to win reelection and were he to oppose the bombing in private, a newly reelected President entering his second term and not having to face the voters again, might not quite appreciate the October surprise and his rocky relationship with the Prime Minister might only become more strained.

Were Mitt Romney to be elected, Netanyahu would be sorely tempted to wait the lame duck President out and see if over US support or a US initiated attack might be forthcoming under a new President who administration would not have its people fully in place and functioning until well after a January 20th 2013 inauguration It would take time to coordinate, time for a Secretary of Defense to work with his Generals for a National Security team to be in place and ready to attack. Were a October surprise to have unintended and unanticipated anti-American consequences, a newly sworn in President Romney would also not appreciate the circumstances in which he found himself.

So we are left to ask several questions:

I understand that all politics are local, but if Iran is truly an existential threat to Israel, then why are Israeli politicians not behaving as if it were such a threat?

Why do coalition politics and the opportunity or a significant electoral triumph trump a problem of such national urgency?

A skeptic might argue that the threat has been exaggerated. I frankly do not know enough to render a judgment, but wonder if the treat is as real why can’t unity be achieved within the government itself?

With this new time framework, we shall see if international sanctions, sabotage and targeted assassinations coupled with diplomacy will actually halt Iran’s march to develop nuclear weapons. Ten months if a far longer window of opportunity than 10 to 20 weeks? That is a significant challenge to American policy but an even more serious opportunity.

If the Netanyahu-Barak strategy to bringing Iran front and center and the purpose of raising the prospect of an imminent attack has been to focus the world’s attention of the problem of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, it has been brilliant. If it is but a prelude to an actual attack then too much has been said to too many people and they would have been wiser to follow the advice of our sages: say little and do much – as Menachem Begin did in 1981 and Ehud Omert did in 2007 when they destroyed the nuclear capacities of Iraq and Syria—or follow what Vice President Joseph Biden said recently describing President Obama and quoting Teddy Roosevelt “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Obama to meet with Ehud Barak


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with President Obama on Friday morning, according to sources.

The meeting will come shortly before President Obama’s address Friday afternoon to the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which is being held in nearby National Harbor, Md.

In an address Thursday night to the organization, Barak said it’s important not to remove any option from the table when it comes to Iran. Barak also praised Obama for opposing Iran’s quest for nuclear capability and said U.S.-Israel defense cooperation is stronger than ever.

“The unshakable bonds between Israel and America and their respective defense establishments under the guiding hand of President Barack Obama are stronger and deeper than ever and we are very thankful and appreciative of that,” he said.

Barak also alluded to the controversy over proposed Knesset bills that critics say would undermine Israeli democracy by targeting certain NGOs and minority groups.

“Homefront peace includes the maintenance of our liberal democracy where the rule of the majority will never be at the expense of the rights of the minority,” Barak said.

“I will stand rock solid against any attempt to curb freedoms or undermine our democracy,” he said. “The only Jewish democratic state in the world must remain exactly that, a Jewish and a democratic state.”

He also said American Jews should not shy away from expressing their opinions about internal Israeli matters. “Your presence and voice is essential to our decision-making. It gives us all one more perspective,” Barak said. “We welcome the debate and highly value your input in our internal debate in Israel.”

Obama calls for keeping pressure on Iran


President Obama called for keeping up international pressure on Iran amid news reports that Israel may be preparing for war with the Islamic Republic.

The president’s comments, made Thursday at a joint news conference in France with President Nicolas Sarkozy, were delivered several days before the scheduled release of a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program.

“We had the opportunity also to talk about a range of security issues,” Obama said of his conversation with Sarkozy. “One in particular that I want to mention is the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

Obama added that “President Sarkozy and I agreed on the need to maintain the unprecedented international pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”

The comments came as the Israel Defense Forces held a drill in central Israel simulating missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Israeli defense officials said the drills were scheduled months ago.

The Home Front Command drill Thursday was a simulation of a rocket attack on a civilian area. The drill included opening evacuation centers and handing out gas masks.

The drill was held following several days of reports in the Israeli media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are pushing the Israeli Cabinet to approve an attack on Iran. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman strenuously denied the reports in an interview Wednesday on Israel Radio.

Also Wednesday, the Israeli military successfully test fired a ballistic missile from the Palmachim Airbase in central Israel, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry. It is widely believed that Israel has missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Ehud Barak: Final status talks within months


After meeting with U.S. leaders, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that comprehensive talks with the Palestinians on all final status issues would begin within months.

“We will have a serious discussion in coming months on security, borders, Jerusalem and refugees,” Barak told reporters Monday, ending a visit in which he met with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others.

Clinton, in an address Dec. 10 at the Saban Forum, urged the sides to address those core issues, just days after the United States abandoned its efforts to renew direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians walked out of the talks in October after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial settlement freeze.

Barak did not say how the talks would proceed, if not directly.

“The mechanics will be resolved in the coming weeks,” he said. Netanyahu has insisted on direct talks, and has preferred to focus only on borders and security for now.

Barak also dismissed the controversy subsequent to his remarks at the Saban Forum following Clinton’s address in which he said a final status plan would include a Jerusalem shared with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials within hours said that Barak’s position was not that of the government’s.

Speaking to reporters, Barak acknowledged as such, saying it was his personal view that Jerusalem is necessarily a topic to be considered in talks.

Barak, Obama’s favored warrior, assumes diplomatic posture


Fifteen years after Ehud Barak walked into politics wearing the warrior’s mantle, he is easing into the diplomat’s lapels.

The former military chief of staff, whose 1999-2001 premiership was dogged by his reputation as cerebral and remote, in his current role as defense minister is emerging as the Netanyahu government’s most accessible and conciliatory figure, according to watchers of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“There’s no doubt that Barak has emerged as a de facto go-to person at a time that some of the other bilateral relationships have proven to be contentious,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is close to some of the Obama administration’s top Middle East policy figures. “We know about the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. Barak has proven the one channel who has proven most durable. He’s viewed in this administration as a moderating force.”

Barak’s visit to Washington last week could not have contrasted more starkly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip here in late March.

Netanyahu couldn’t get a photo op with his counterpart, President Obama; Barak received a red carpet and a Pentagon honor guard from his counterpart, Robert Gates. Netanyahu practically had to bang down the White House door to get some Obama face time; the president “popped in” on a meeting between Obama and National Security Adviser James Jones and stayed for 40 minutes.

For the Obama administration, the former warrior Barak is the favored diplomat and the former diplomat Netanyahu is the suspect street fighter.

The warm words for Barak are a matter in part of timing: Barak’s visit came after the administration launched a charm offensive on Israel and the Jewish organizational leadership to reverse the bad feelings arising from the smackdown of Netanyahu over what the administration saw as his humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden during an early March visit when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem.

But it is clear, too, that the Obama officials simply like Barak much better than Netanyahu. Dennis Ross, who now runs Iran policy for the White House, wrote in “The Missing Peace,” his 2004 account of his Clinton-era peace brokering, that Barak “did not play games or tricks,” clearly a relief after three years of Netanyahu, whom he called a “leader who had two legs walking in different directions.” Ross, in his rare public moments, jokes that the White House will not permit him to discuss his books.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shared the stage with Barak at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Washington conference last week and appeared genuinely pleased to embrace “my longtime friend Ehud Barak, who has had nearly as many incarnations in public service as I have.”

Clinton continued in terms that one might ascribe to a loving, faithful partner.

“Ehud and I had a wonderful meeting the other day here in Washington and covered a lot of ground,” she said. “And as friends do, much was said and much didn’t need to be said. So I’m delighted that he is here with us as well.”

Barak returned the love, making clear that as far as he was concerned, the bad blood was gone.

“These differences, the slight disagreements, are behind us,” he told the AJC.

Again, the contrast: Clinton’s last major interaction with Netanyahu was a 43-minute March 12 dressing-down over the phone in which she made clear that the Jerusalem announcement was an “insult.”

Some Jewish leaders are leery of appearances of favoritism and wonder whether the Obama administration is replaying Bill Clinton presidency tactics of making it clear to the Israeli electorate which leader it prefers; President Clinton’s icy relationship with Netanyahu then helped Barak win the 1999 elections.

“The Obama administration would like to dump Netanyahu,” said Tom Neumann, who directs the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “They’d much rather deal with Ehud Barak or” opposition leader “Tzipi Livni because they’re not so hawkish.”

If that’s the strategy it might backfire, warned Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director.

“They need to deal with it very carefully,” he said. “If they overplay it, they will undermine the role that Barak plays. You can’t fix insulting the prime minister by being nice to his defense minister.”

Israelis are not as likely this time around to perceive such favoritism as meddling, if only because Barak’s chances of becoming prime minister again are virtually nil. His Labor Party won only 13 seats in the 2009 elections, making it the fourth-largest bloc in the Knesset, and he can barely control his own caucus, which chafes at its association with an otherwise rightist government.

In fact, the abandonment of higher ambitions—at least for now—may have helped liberate Barak from the constraints that kept him from effective diplomacy in the past.

The notion of favoritism “doesn’t apply to this government, he’s not the leader of anything,” said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations who advised Barak when he was prime minister. “He’s not a politically heavyweight person, but he’s serious” as Netanyahu’s partner in shaping policy. “If the politics are absent, it allows you to do that. He’s liberated by not having a political future.”

Barak, 68, appears as energetic as ever. On a recent Washington visit he defied a flashing red pedestrian traffic signal, striding confidently across Connecticut Avenue while security agents and aides half his age trotted to keep up with him.

If Barak indeed has given up his ambitions for winning back the leadership, he appears unbothered by it—a sharp change from what some saw as his unfettered ambition in the 1990s, when Barak alienated colleagues by cutting them off.

Then he was much more warrior than diplomat. One of his first Cabinet votes when he joined the Rabin government in 1995 was against the second component of the Oslo accords; he never overcame his distrust for Yasser Arafat. While Arafat’s intransigence is seen as mostly to blame for the failed 2000 Camp David talks, it did not help that Barak refused to personally meet with the Palestinian leader.

Barak and Netanyahu, 60, work closely and well together, say those who know them. Their alliance sustains the prophecy of a front-page story in the supplement to the now defunct Hadashot newspaper in 1986.

“Within 10 years, one of these men will be prime minister,” the paper said, a bold prediction considering their relatively low positions: Netanyahu was U.N. ambassador, Barak headed the Central Command.

Yet within a decade, Netanyahu indeed was prime minister—and Barak would take the job from him.

Now their positions are reversed: Barak, the nation’s most decorated soldier, who commanded Netanyahu in the successful 1972 raid on a hijacked airliner, defers to Netanyahu in public and private. Barak repeatedly describes Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution last summer as courageous. In meetings Barak eyes Netanyahu, waiting until he is sure that the prime minister has made his point before adding his insights.

It is also true, though, that Barak pushes the dovish agenda more than any other Cabinet minister. Netanyahu may have embraced the possibility of two states, but it is only Barak who repeatedly invokes what he sees as the doomsday alternative. Continued control of the West Bank will mean Israel “will become inevitably either not Jewish or not democratic,” he told the AJC, invoking the specter of intractably intertwined enemies in Belfast and Bosnia. “Neither is the Zionist dream.”

Barak has pushed for Israel to launch a major peace initiative. He also gently reminds Netanyahu of the potential benefits of peace.

In recent meetings, when Netanyahu would defiantly announce that he had rebuffed a Syrian overture to resume Turkish-brokered peace talks with the precondition that Israel ultimately would return the whole of the Golan Heights, Barak would add that Israel sees peeling away Syria from Iranian influence as a long-term strategic goal.

The Labor Party leader is clearly frustrated by the absence of others left of center in the government. Barak would like stronger support from his own party, and wants Livni to come in to balance—or even drive out—the far rightists. Barak likens the government to one of national unity, but with a limping left leg. And he tells an old army joke to describe his feelings about leftists who won’t support him in supporting Netanyahu: The young soldier who fails the pilot course is asked where he wants to transfer. “Anti-aircraft,” he says. His officer is surprised—the young man has promise, why would he select such grunt status? “Because if I can’t fly, I’m going to make sure no one can.”

Other factors promoting Barak’s centrality to the process include the absence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman from any serious role in the U.S.-Israel relationship while he beats back a major corruption investigation; the centrality of Israel’s defense strategies in framing its foreign policies; and the fact that the defense aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship has emerged as stronger despite the tensions in other areas.

U.S. and Israeli officials repeatedly note that the military relationship has gone from strength to strength, with increased intelligence sharing, joint maneuvers and cooperation on developing anti-missile systems.

Defense News reported Monday that Israel was upgrading its fighter jets with U.S.-manufactured “bunker duster” systems, precision-guided weapons that can penetrate reinforced concrete—a facility that would be key to any strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites.

The officials especially emphasize the closeness as it pertains to the suspected Iranian nuclear threat. Iran and its backing, through Syria, of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was a focus of a rare joint Pentagon news conference Gates hosted with Barak last week.

“Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability,” Gates said. “And we are at a point now when Hezbollah—where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world. And this is obviously destabilizing for the whole region, and so we’re watching it very carefully.”

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Makovsky said the security relationship is closer than ever.

“You have to be an air traffic controller,” he said, “to keep up with the number of high-level visits between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran.”

And Barak, more than anyone else, appears to be benefiting most from the diplomatic frequent flier points.

Obama to Barak: U.S. committed to Israel’s security


President Obama told Israel’s defense minister that the United States is committed to Israel’s security.

Obama spoke with Ehud Barak at the White House, where the defense minister had arrived on Monday to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones.

Obama also told Barak that he is determined to bring about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Also Monday, Jones apologized for telling an off-color Jewish joke last week during a 25th anniversary celebration for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The joke told the story of a Jewish merchant who had tricked a Taliban terrorist searching for water into buying a tie.

“I wish that I had not made this off-the-cuff joke at the top of my remarks,” Jones said.

“It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: That the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”

Now that Obama is in Israel, what should we expect?


Latest:

Barack Obama arrived in Israel and stressed the historic ties between the United States and the Jewish state.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is on a Middle East and European tour aimed at shoring up his foreign policy credentials.

“I want input and insight from Israeli leaders about how they see the current situation,” Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, said Tuesday night at Ben Gurion International Airport. “I’ll share some of my ideas. The most important idea for me to reaffirm is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel, one that cannot be broken and one that I have reaffirmed throughout my career.”

Obama will meet Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Earlier Tuesday in Jordan, Obama said as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters in Amman before heading to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace,” Obama said.

“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Obama was careful to point out that peace would not come about overnight and that a U.S. president could not “suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace.”



NEW YORK (JTA)—It’s not quite as big a stage as the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, but plenty of pundits and Jewish observers will be paying attention Wednesday as Barack Obama visits Israel (the first half of the sentence was a joke … I think).

Obama spoke at the AIPAC parley back in early June, the morning after the final Democratic primaries came to a close and most everyone in the country (except Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton and a few loyalists) had recognized him as the party’s presumptive nominee.

That speech was supposed to be the final word—it was going to put to rest any doubts among Jewish voters about Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. And not a moment too soon, with hawkish Jewish Democrats starting to think about their options in the fall and a Gallup poll showing Obama winning a bit more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in a hypothetical matchup in the general election against John McCain—five points worse than Clinton and about 15 points below John Kerry’s numbers in 2004.

To be sure, judging from the applause, the AIPAC speech was well received by the 5,000-plus in attendance, but the subsequent flap over Obama’s call for a “united Jerusalem”—culminating with one aide saying Obama had misused the term and the candidate himself blaming “poor phrasing”—took some wind out of Team Obama’s sails. It also raised some legitimate questions about whether the campaign was ready to handle the prime-time balancing act required in navigating the domestic and international politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So here we go again: Now the Obama campaign is facing yet another key moment with Jewish voters. And again it comes on the heels of a poll—this one commissioned by J Street, the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group—showing Obama stuck at about 60 percent.

With that in mind, here are a few things to watch during Obama’s day in Israel and the West Bank, which is scheduled to include visits with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.

MESSAGE: The challenge is for Obama to reassure AIPAC types about his commitment to Israel’s security, without angering his base, which sees the Democratic nominee as someone willing to break from President Bush’s neocon foreign policy. Already feeling testy following Obama’s vote in favor of the FISA bill, many of his most enthusiastic supporters will not take well to an AIPAC-sounding Obama in Israel.

So does Obama focus on the need for an end to Palestinian violence? Israeli settlements and restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank? The goal of achieving a Palestinian state? Will Obama and his advisers be sure to avoid additional poor phrasings?

JERUSALEM: Representatives of Orthodox and right-wing organizations are holding a press conference and a rally in Jerusalem Tuesday night, during which organizers say they will ask for clarification on Obama’s views on Jerusalem. Organizers say they were spooked by Obama’s comment to Fareed Zakaria that the Clinton parameters from 2000—which included the idea of assigning the Israelis and the Palestinians control over different parts of Jerusalem—“provides a starting point for discussions between the parties.” Obama did go on to stress that the “parties are going to have to negotiate these issues on their own, with the strong engagement of the United States.” The “let the parties decide” position puts him in the same boat as McCain, but if Obama sticks to the idea that Clinton’s proposal is a good starting point, then he can expect some pushback from some Jewish and Israeli corners.

DENNIS ROSS: The Republican Jewish Coalition took aim at Obama when it mistakenly thought that he was bringing Chuck Hagel with him to Israel, noting that Joe Lieberman was McCain’s wing man during his trip in May to the Jewish state.

Well, as Time noted, Obama is bringing Dennis Ross with him to Israel. In Ross, Obama has a tour guide with more hands-on experience in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders than Lieberman, and possibly commands more respect across a wider range of the political spectrum. Ross is a longtime proponent of an active U.S. peacemaking role with ties to the think tank most associated with AIPAC and has logged time as a commentator for FOX News (and unlike the liberals who get brought on to serve as a punching bag, Ross is often on by himself, and the hosts seem to listen to him).

The Jewish Agency for Israel tapped Ross to chair its think tank about the future of the Jewish people. In short, it’s hard to imagine a better person for Obama to hang out with in Israel if the goal is to say, “Yeah, I’m for a two-state solution—but relax, I come to it from the pro-Israel perspective, not the Mearsheimer-Walt worldview.”

MAHMOUD ABBAS and SALAAM FAYYAD: The meetings with Palestinian leaders could prove to be the most challenging part of the trip, at least politically. Never mind that Bush has repeatedly made clear that Abbas and Fayyad are his guys, or that McCain says he shares the president’s positive view of them—conservatives will be waiting to pounce on any word or image suggesting that Obama is at home with Palestinians.

At the same time Obama, like Bush and McCain, believes the U.S. should be doing whatever it can to help Fatah in its struggle with Hamas. So how does he manage to signal strong support for Abbas and Fayyad without providing too much ammo to Republican Jewish Coalition and the right-wing blogosphere. Another wrinkle: The Abbas meeting comes amid reports that the P.A. leader reportedly congratulated Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar on his release from an Israeli prison. (It doesn’t help Obama in some circles that McCain passed on meetings with Palestinian leaders during his May trip, though he made a point of praising Abbas.)

EHUD OLMERT: Last year, the Israeli prime minister ruffled some Democratic feathers at the AIPAC conference by overtly siding with Bush on the Iraq war. During his speech at this year’s gathering, he made several on-the-fly departures from his prepared text, all seemingly aimed at striking a more bipartisan tone than he did the year before.

With Obama ahead in the polls, and Israel in need of U.S. leadership on Iran, will Olmert continue to do a better job of hedging his (and by extension his country’s) bets? The Democratic candidate doesn’t need Olmert to undercut Bush and McCain, as the Iraqi prime minister did Tuesday by essentially endorsing Obama’s idea of a timetable for a withdrawal of American troops. Just a decent photo op without any grumblings about Obama from unnamed sources in the Prime Minister’s Office could provide a boost.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Bibi, the Likud opposition leader, has never been shy about making common cause with neocons and Christian conservatives (ask Bill Clinton). And Obama has objected to the “strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”

Netanyahu and Obama are a sharp contrast in styles and worldviews. Polls suggest that come next year they will be leading their respective countries, so now would be a good time to start playing nice—or to start positioning for the upper hand in what could prove to be a bumpy relationship.

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