New Defense Secretary hosts U.S. gathering on Islamic State strategy

New U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is gathering top U.S. military commanders and diplomats for talks in Kuwait on Monday about the battle against Islamic State, as America's military effort approaches major hurdles in both Iraq and Syria.

Carter says he hopes the roughly six hours of largely unscripted discussions will help assess the war that he is inheriting after swearing-in on Tuesday as President Barack Obama'sfourth defense secretary.

“I'm trying to assess the situation in Iraq, Syria and the region more generally,” Carter told reporters during his first trip abroad as defense secretary.

Carter's meeting at a U.S. Army camp in Kuwait comes against the backdrop of a fierce debate inside the United States about the U.S. strategy, which Obama's Republican critics say is far too limited militarily to succeed.

It also comes at a moment of increasing concern about the group's spread, with Libyaemerging as a battleground for militants loyal to Islamic State.

Among the long list of participants are General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, retired General John Allen, Obama's envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition and U.S. ambassadors to countries including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Still, a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Carter stressed the gathering was a learning tool — not a sign of his concern about the strategy or a prelude to an overhaul.

“I am not expecting a major re-write of our strategy. I'm just not. He just wants to understand it and he's the kind of guy where he needs to … dig into it,” the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

The United States is now restricting the role of ground troops in Iraq to advising and training local forces, focusing American firepower on a U.S.-led coalition air campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

But Carter could soon be asked to make a recommendation about whether to send American forces closer to the fight, possibly as spotters for air strikes during an offensive to retake the city of Mosul that could begin in April or May.

“I'm always open to advice from our military commanders about what the best way to achieve success is,” Carter said. “That is a question that will come down the road.”

The Pentagon is also preparing to start training Syrian rebels next month at sites outside of Syria.

Israel closes embassies around the world as diplomats strike

Israeli diplomats launched an unprecedented strike on Sunday, forcing the complete closure of embassies around the world as they escalated a dispute over pay, officials said.

The industrial action has already threatened to postpone a visit by Pope Francis to Israel planned for May – one of 25 trips by foreign officials affected by a work slowdown the diplomats began on March 5 when wage talks broke down.

By escalating the action to a full strike – the first by the diplomatic corps since the country's establishment in 1948 – the diplomats will close all of Israel's 102 missions abroad, paralyzing most diplomatic work with other countries and the United Nations.

[Related: Israel’s diplomatic corp labor strike continues]

“We are completely shutting down the (foreign ministry) office and missions abroad. This is the first time ever,” ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

Another ministry official told Reuters: “As of now, the foreign ministry doesn't exist. It's not possible even to submit complaints”.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the strike “irresponsible” and “a wretched decision and a display of a loss of control on union's part.”

“We shall do whatever possible to minimize the damage to the country and its citizens,” Lieberman said.

Diplomats said the strike – involving some 1,200 foreign service employees – was open-ended and had been called after the Treasury had failed to present any acceptable proposals.

They are demanding an increase in monthly salaries, which they put at 6,000-9,000 shekels ($1,700-$2,600), and want compensation for spouses forced to quit jobs due to foreign postings. They say about a third of their number has quit in the past 15 years due to poor wages.

Yacov Livne, spokesman for the diplomats' union, said: “the Treasury is determined to destroy the foreign ministry and Israeli diplomacy.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Palestinian protesters throw shoe at American diplomats

Palestinian protesters confronted a group of U.S. diplomats visiting the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The diplomats, including Jerusalem consulate employees, were in a convoy of vehicles heading to a reception reaffirming cultural and educational ties with the Palestinian Authority, according to reports.

The demonstration, which reportedly was organized through Facebook, included the hurling of a shoe at the diplomats, which is considered a major insult in the Arab world.

The demonstrators protested against U.S. opposition to the Palestinians’ United Nations statehood bid and the U.S. Congress freezing aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Some Palestinians invited to the event stayed away because they were afraid of the protesters, The Associated Press reported.

Britain upgrading status of Palestinian diplomats

Britain will upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation to the United Kingdom to a mission.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague made the announcement upgrading the status of Palestinian diplomats in Britain on Monday, a day before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet with Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron in London.

Hague at a news conference said he would discuss the issue with Abbas, and “also confirm that given the extent of our aid to the Palestinian Authority and our work with them, we will join many other countries in upgrading the status of the Palestinian Delegation to London to the level of a mission.”

Hague also called for “an urgent return to negotiations based on clear parameters including 1967 borders.”

“It remains more vital than ever that we press for a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

In January, Ireland upgraded the Palestinian diplomatic status in the country to an official embassy. Several other European countries, including France and Spain, have also done the same thing.

Israeli diplomats’ strike damages international ties

A strike by Israeli Foreign Ministry employees has broadened, halting defense-related exports and freezing assistance for Israelis abroad.

The strike, which began several weeks ago and has added sanctions on a weekly and now daily basis, has included refusing to cooperate with other ministries such as the Prime Minister’s Office, the Mossad and the army; disrupting diplomatic mail service; and refusing to cooperate on visits of dignitaries and state delegations.

Earlier this month, a delegation of 500 that included business leaders and was led by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had to be canceled due to a lack of cooperation from Foreign Ministry personnel. A visit scheduled for next month by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and several of her Cabinet ministers to attend the annual joint Israel-Germany Cabinet session is in danger of cancellation.

Foreign Ministry diplomats are asking that their salaries be brought in line with intelligence and defense department employees. Their union claims that many employees have turned to welfare services for assistance. Ynet reported last month that some diplomats had cut their service short because they could not afford to live in their host country.

The workers struck briefly in the summer, initially refusing to handle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, but giving in due to the seriousness of the visit.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry announced that it could not provide assistance to Israelis traveling abroad due to the sanctions and absolved itself of responsibility for the safety of Israelis abroad.

Israeli embassies the previous day began withholding security and trade assistance to Israeli companies abroad, in effect halting defense-related exports. Earlier in the week, Israeli ambassadors cut off all contact with foreign ministries, prime minister’s and president’s offices in the countries in which they serve.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Haaretz that Foreign Ministry staffers have been offered a raise of 8.75 percent to their base salaries in addition to other extras. He said diplomats that serve abroad twice would have a 14.74 percent increase in base wages, which could rise to 22.75 percent on a future deployment.

Diplomats: U.S. will not pressure Israel on nukes

A statement from the major powers committing to a nuclear-free Middle East will not result in pressure on Israel, according to two diplomats familiar with the issue.

Reuters reported Wednesday that the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council—including the United States—have prepared a unanimous statement committing “to a full implementation of the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East and we support all ongoing efforts to this end.”

The NPT, or nuclear non-proliferation treaty, commits signatories to not acquiring nuclear weapons or to reducing existing stockpiles. Israel, which is not a signatory, is believed to possess as many as 200 warheads.

In a related story, the Associated Press said U.S. officials were discussing with Israel “practical measures” toward Israel’s NPT compliance.

Two diplomats separately told JTA that such discussions would not amount to pressure on Israel to end its nuclear capability.

One of the diplomats said “practical measures” could include a moratorium on testing or setting up a body to deal with nuclear disarmament. Such steps would not affect Israel’s alleged existing reserve of nuclear weapons.

It seems clear, however, that any Israeli cooperation in such a venture would require a degree of transparency. Until now, Israel has refused to confirm or deny its nuclear capability.

Talks on NPT compliance, initiated by the United States and under United Nations auspices, are under way in New York.

Egypt is leading an effort to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and, with Iran, wants to cite Israel in any such resolution.

The Western diplomats told JTA that the United States and its Western allies would quash any such mention.