Obama condemns violence in Egypt, cancels military exercises


President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the United States is canceling joint military exercises with Egypt next month, saying normal U.S. cooperation cannot continue in light of the armed forces' bloody crackdown.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces,” Obama said on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, where he is on vacation.

“We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest,” he said in his first remarks since the crackdown began early Wednesday. At least 525 people have been killed and thousands wounded.

Washington provides $1.3 billion in military aid and about $250 million in economic aid to Egypt every year, which it has been reluctant to cut off for fear of losing leverage there and in the broader region.

Stopping military exercises in Egypt was one clear way the White House could show its displeasure. Other than a previously announced decision to halt delivery of four U.S.-made F-16 fighters, it was the first significant U.S. move to penalize Egypt's military rulers.

Obama said the United States had informed Egyptian authorities it had canceled the joint military drill named “Bright Star” that had been scheduled for next month. He said the state of emergency should be lifted in Egypt and a process of national reconciliation started.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said.

“Going forward, I've asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.” He did not elaborate.

The military drill, which dates back to 1981, is seen as a cornerstone of U.S.-Egyptian military relations. It began after the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel.

Obama, who departed for a game of golf shortly after making his statement, vented frustration that both sides in the Egyptian conflict were blaming the United States for the turmoil in the country since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, on July 3.

The United States has insisted it is not taking sides. But it chose not to condemn Morsi's ouster or call for his reinstatement, leaving the impression that it had tacitly sided with the military and accepted a coup.

“We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We've been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama said.

“We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That's our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”

CALLS FOR END TO AID

On Thursday, hundreds of supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood stormed a government building in Cairo and set it ablaze as fury over a security crackdown on the Islamist movement that killed hundreds of people spilled on to the streets.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, is of strategic importance because of its peace treaty with close U.S. ally Israel and its control of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for trade and for the U.S. military.

Held every two years, the “Bright Star” exercise also was canceled in 2011 because of the political turmoil in Egypt following the ouster of longtime autocrat and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak.

Several thousand U.S. troops were slated to participate in the exercise, which was due to begin Sept. 18, said Max Blumenfeld, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and central Asia. He said past exercises focused on integration of naval forces, airborne operations, field exercises and disposal of explosive ordnance.

Some analysts and lawmakers questioned whether the cancellation of military exercises was enough.

“This falls well short of the fundamental rethinking and reorientation that is necessary right now,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

“If the US wants to reestablish its leverage it will actually have to do something to show it is serious. The first serious step would be cutting aid, then there would be no doubt that finally the US is serious about using its leverage.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, said that military aid to Egypt should stop under a U.S. law that triggers an aid cutoff if a military coup has taken place. The administration has repeatedly said it has not determined whether the military's actions in Cairo amounted to a coup.

“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy,” Leahy said in a statement.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee late last month voted to tie aid to Cairo to the restoration of a democratically elected government in Egypt. But the legislation is still working its way through Congress and has not become law.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Martha's Vineyard; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Andrea Shalal-Esa and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Storey

Tough congressional language limits Obama’s Egypt options


When it comes to foreign assistance, American law couldn’t be clearer: A coup d’etat suspends funding, period.

But that directive, which has persisted for years in federal appropriations bills, is now clashing with another congressional priority: the apparent desire to foster an alternative to Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president who was removed from power this week by the Egyptian military.

In recent months, Congress has intimated that it would be happier if his secular foes in the military were running the country. But the law ties Congress’ hands.

On July 3, President Obama said he would “review” what the coup means for American aid.

“We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution,” Obama said in a statement. “I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters. Given today’s developments, I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt.”

Following mass demonstrations from an increasing restive population, Morsi was removed this week and replaced with the country’s chief justice, Adli Mansour, in the latest development to roil Egypt and a region already on edge from Syria’s ongoing civil war.

The United States provides some $1.8 billion in aid to Egypt annually, most of it defense assistance conditioned on Egypt’s observance of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Congressional leaders cited those circumstances in suggesting that the Obama administration work with the interim government.

But other lawmakers, while noting the flaws in Morsi’s leadership and the popular uprising that led to his ouster, underscored that the language in the appropriations bill left virtually no wiggle room.

“Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longtime chairman of the Senate’s foreign operations appropriation subcommittee. “In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree. As we work on the new budget, my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”

Unlike many other spending provisions, the language regarding a coup d’etat does not include a presidential waiver. That leaves the Obama administration three options for working around the provision: Obtain congressional agreement to add a waiver within the next few weeks; accelerate the democratic replacement of Egypt’s interim government; or use executive privilege to work around the lack of a congressional waiver.

The first two options are unlikely. Congress can barely agree on a budget, let alone a waiver on a sensitive issue like Egypt. And with Egypt already roiling with violence, its military would be loath to facilitate the return of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to power through a hastily arranged election.

The third option — exercising the prerogative of the president to advance foreign policy — could undercut U.S. credibility overseas, conveying an impression Obama has tried to correct: that the United States supports the powers it prefers, regardless of the will of the people.

Obama appears to be hoping for the democracy option. In conversations with Egyptian officials, Obama’s national security team “emphasized the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told JTA.

Why no opposition to Hagel, arms to Egypt?


Israel is facing serious challenges on two new fronts. 

President Barack Obama has nominated Israel-basher Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and sent fighter jets to Mohamed Morsi’s Israel-hating Egyptian regime.

Where are America’s major Jewish organizations? Silent, voicing no opposition.

Hagel’s nomination should have galvanized Jewish organizations in opposition, regardless of political orientation. 

Until his nomination, no major pro-Israel group could be found to have disagreed with what we have just said. Quite the contrary.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), by its own description, had “raised concerns.” 

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman had said that Hagel’s record relating to Israel was “at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling,” and that his anti-Israel lobby comments “border on anti-Semitism.” 

In 2007, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) had issued a detailed account of Hagel’s worrying voting record on Israel and the Middle East, and in 2009 its executive director, Ira Forman, indicated “that his group would oppose Hagel’s appointment to any position that had influence over U.S.-Israel relations.”

Yet, following Hagel’s nomination, virtually all Jewish groups — except the Zionist Organization of America — refused to oppose Hagel. Even Orthodox Jewish groups, like the Orthodox Union, were silent. 

AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann asserted that “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.” 

AJC Executive Director David Harris explained that, although still “concerned,” AJC is “not in the opposition camp.” 

ADL’s Foxman averred, “I respect the president’s prerogative” — something no one called into question and which in no way reduces the corresponding prerogative of the Senate to decline confirmation. 

NJDC issued a statement saying, “We trust that when confirmed … Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel.” 

In contrast, Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel was strongly opposing Hagel’s nomination before it was even announced. It has dispatched a delegation to Washington to lobby senators against confirmation.

In short, a Christian group fights for Israel while almost all Jewish groups refuse to do so.

Why? 

ADL and NJDC believe that there is no need to fight Hagel because “we expect the president to make clear that his long-held views will continue as American policy” (ADL) and because “setting policy starts and stops with the president” (NJDC).

Really? Cabinet members do influence the president, perhaps especially on momentous and difficult decisions. Recently, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was revealed to have complained with regard to the George W. Bush administration that “the Defense Department had too much power in shaping foreign policy.” And could it really be said that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had little or no influence on the policy of President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis? Or upon President Lyndon Johnson during the conduct of the Vietnam War? The idea is absurd.

The least these Jewish groups, which once opposed Hagel, can offer their members is a clear explanation as to why they’ve changed positions. 

Where, too, are Jewish organizations when it comes to the United States sending to Morsi’s vicious Egyptian regime 16 F-16 fighter jets and 200 Abrams tanks that were negotiated in 2010 with the Mubarak regime? Its replacement by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed regime should have prompted a rethink.

Morsi, a founding member of the Brotherhood’s Committee to Fight the Zionist Project, was recently found to have called in 2010 for an economic boycott of the United States, for nurturing “our children and grandchildren on hatred toward those Zionists and Jews,” and to have referred to Israelis as “bloodsuckers, warmongers … the descendants of apes and pigs.” 

In 2010, the Brotherhood leader, Muhammad Badie, advocated jihad, a state based on Islamic law, and spoke optimistically about the United States heading for a collapse. His second-in-command, Rashad al-Bayoumi, declared last year that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty “isn’t binding at all … On no condition will we recognize Israel. It is an enemy entity.” Yet Obama sends Cairo dangerous arms regardless — and virtually all Jewish groups remain silent. When Sen. Rand Paul proposed an amendment halting the Egyptian arms sale, AIPAC lobbied against and helped defeat it.

Not so many years ago, Jewish organizations held huge rallies for Soviet Jews. AIPAC and others campaigned against the sale of AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia. American Jewish organizations should have been fighting relentlessly to stop Hagel and the Egyptian arms package. 

When was the last time it was good for Jews to be the sha shtil Jews — the Jews of silence?


Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Irwin Hochberg is former board chairman of the UJA-Federation of New York, former national campaign chair of Israel Bonds and vice chairman of ZOA.

Obama expresses deep concern to Egypt’s Morsi about violence


U.S. President Barack Obama called Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Thursday to express his “deep concern” about the deaths and injuries of protesters in Egypt and said dialogue between opposing sides should be held without preconditions, the White House said.

“The president emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the White House said in a statement.

“He welcomed President Morsi's call for a dialogue with the opposition, but stressed that such a dialogue should occur without preconditions. The president noted that the United States has also urged opposition leaders to join in this dialogue without preconditions.”

Morsi called on Thursday for a national dialogue after deadly clashes around his palace.

“(Obama) reiterated the United States' continued support for the Egyptian people and their transition to a democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians,” the White House statement said. “The president underscored that it is essential for Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum to put aside their differences and come together to agree on a path that will move Egypt forward.”

Reporting by Jeff Mason, editing by Stacey Joyce

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Operation Pillar of Defense [VIDEO]


Gaza rocket hits city near Tel Aviv, no damage or casualties


A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck an Israeli city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv on Thursday, exploding in an open area within the municipal limits of Rishon Lezion, the army said.

Air raid sirens sounded in Rishon Lezion, a city some 12 km (seven miles) south of Tel Aviv, and an explosion was heard. A military spokeswoman said the rocket hit an uninhabited area. There were no reports of damage or casualties.

Israeli media reports said the rocket came down near an amusement park in sand dunes on the edge of Rishon Lezion, a city of 300,000 people. It was the northernmost point struck by a rocket since Israel's Gaza offensive began on Wednesday.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Crispian Balmer

Rockets hit near Tel Aviv as war looms over Gaza


[UPDATE 11:13 am] Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip targeted Tel Aviv on Thursday in the first attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years, raising the stakes in a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians that is moving towards all-out war.

Earlier Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, drawing the first blood from Israel as the Palestinian death toll rose to 16 in a military showdown lurching closer to all-out war and a threatened invasion of the enclave. 

Israeli warplanes bombed targets in and around Gaza city for a second day, shaking tall buildings. In a sign of possible escalation, the armed forces spokesman said the military had received the green light to call in up to 30,000 reserve troops.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Palestinian militants would pay a price for firing the missiles.

Plumes of smoke and dust furled into a sky laced with the vapor trails of outgoing rockets over the crowded city, where four young children killed on Wednesday were buried.

After enduring months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza,   Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.

[Related: Rocket strikes southern outskirts of Tel Aviv]

Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by Palestinian allies.

Mosi's prime minister, Hisham Kandil, will visit Gaza on Friday with other Egyptian officials in a show of support for the enclave, an Egyptian cabinet official said. Israel promised that the delegation would come to no harm.

Israel says its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Israel's bombing has not yet reached the saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in 2008, but Israeli officials have said a ground assault is still an option.

Israeli police said three Israelis died when a rocket hit a four-story building in the town of Kiryat Malachi, some 25 km (15 miles) north of Gaza, the first Israeli fatalities of the latest conflict to hit the coastal region.

Air raid sirens sent residents running for shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre which has not been hit by a rocket since the 1991 Gulf War. A security source said it landed in the sea. Tel Aviv residents said an explosion could be heard.

The Tel Aviv metropolitan area holds more than 3 million people, more than 40 percent of Israel's population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was committing a double war crime, by firing at Israeli civilians and hiding behind Palestinians civilians.

“I hope that Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza got the message,” he said. “If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel would pay a heavy price “for this open war which they initiated”.

After watching powerlessly from the sidelines of the Arab Spring, Israel has been thrust to the centre of a volatile new world in which Islamist Hamas hopes that Mursi and his newly dominant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be its protectors.

“The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region and would negatively and greatly impact the security of the region,” Mursi said.

The new conflict will be the biggest test yet of Mursi's commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an election after the downfall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has called for a “Day of Rage” in Arab capitals on Friday. The Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentors of Hamas.

ASSASSINATION

The offensive began on Wednesday when a precision Israeli airstrike killed Hamas military mastermind Ahmed Al-Jaabari. Israel then began shelling the enclave from land, air and sea.

At Jaabari's funeral on Thursday, supporters fired guns in the air celebrating news of the Israeli deaths, to chants for Jaabari of “You have won.”

His corpse was borne through the streets wrapped in a bloodied white sheet. But senior Hamas figures were not in evidence, wary of Israel's warning they are in its crosshairs.

The Israeli army said 250 targets were hit in Gaza, including more than 130 rocket launchers. It said more than 270 rockets had struck Israel since the start of the operation, with its Iron Dome interceptor system shooting down more than 105 rockets headed for residential areas.

Expecting days or more of fighting and almost inevitable civilian casualties, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets in Gaza telling residents to stay away from Hamas and other militants.

The United States condemned Hamas, shunned by the West as an obstacle to peace for its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

“There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel,” said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Wednesday, but took no action.

In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabious said: “It would be a catastrophe if there is an escalation in the region.Israel has the right to security but it won't achieve it through violence. The Palestinians also have the right to a state.”

“GATES OF HELL”

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas, condemned the Israeli offensive as “organized terrorism”. Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, which has its own rockets aimed at the Jewish state, denounced strikes on Gaza as “criminal aggression”, but held its fire.

Oil prices rose more than $1 as the crisis grew. Israeli shares and bonds fell, while Israel's currency rose off Wednesday's lows, when the shekel slid more than 1 percent to a two-month low against the dollar.

A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew increasingly intense and frequent. Netanyahu, favored in polls to win a January 22 general election, said on Wednesday the Gaza operation could be stepped up.

His cabinet has granted authorization for the mobilization of military reserves if required to press the offensive, dubbed “Pillar of Defence” in English and “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew after the Israelites' divine sign of deliverance in Exodus.

Hamas has said the killing of its top commander in a precise, death-from-above airstrike, would “open the gates of hell” for Israel. It appealed to Egypt to halt the assault.

Israel has been anxious since Mubarak was toppled last year in the Arab Spring revolts that replaced secularist strongmen with elected Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and brought civil war to Israel's other big neighbor Syria.

Cairo recalled its ambassador from Israel on Wednesday. Israel's ambassador left Cairo on what was called a routine home visit and Israel said its embassy would stay open.

Gaza has an estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters, no match for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.

This story was edited by JewishJournal.com.  

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Erika Solomon in Beirut, John Irish in Paris. Marwa Awad in Cairo.; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Obama speaks to Israeli, Egyptian leaders about Gaza violence


President Barack Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi on Wednesday and reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to self-defense in light of rocket attacks from Gaza, the White House said.

Obama spoke to the leaders about the rocket attacks being launched from Gaza into Israel and the escalating violence in Gaza, the White House said in a statement.

“The president urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. The two agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate,” the statement said.

“The president also spoke with President Mursi given Egypt's central role in preserving regional security. In their conversation, President Obama condemned the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and reiterated Israel's right to self-defense,” it said.

Obama and Mursi agreed on the importance of “working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible” and would stay in close touch in the days ahead, the White House said.

Egypt, only one of two Arab countries with a peace treaty with Israel, has played a role in recent years brokering a suspension of hostilities between Israel and Hamas militants who rule in the Gaza Strip.

Mursi, Egypt's new Islamist president, has been under pressure from Washington to safeguard Egypt's peace deal with the Jewish state. Egypt maintains contacts with Hamas' leadership in Gaza and has diplomatic relations with Israel.

Egypt's military receives heavy U.S. financial aid, and Cairo is looking to Washington for development assistance and debt forgiveness to help its ailing economy.

Israeli President Shimon Peres briefed Obama on Wednesday about Israel's killing of the Hamas military commander in Gaza.

The U.N. Security Council was holding an emergency meeting late on Wednesday to discuss the Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip.

Reporting by Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Christopher Wilson

The Arab Spring and Iraq


The Arab Spring, as a moniker for the revolution that seemed about to sweep the Middle East earlier this year, has given way to far less cheerful seasonal metaphors — from long, hot summer to dark, dismal winter. In Egypt, where “people power” toppled Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorship, the dream of freedom has morphed into a nightmare of mob violence and military crackdown. In other countries whose dictators have been more willing to use extreme savagery to hold on to power, the opposition is getting slaughtered — except for Libya, where Western intervention has made the difference.

What lessons should we learn from these depressing developments? And should these lessons include a reassessment of the war in Iraq?

The first lesson is that when it comes to world politics, cynicism is, alas, a safe bet. A few months ago, people who cautioned that the upheaval in the Mideast could lead to the rise of dangerously radical regimes were commonly labeled as paranoid naysayers if not bigots. When Sen. John McCain sounded such a warning last February, the leftist Web site ThinkProgress.com lambasted him for negativity toward a movement pursuing “freedom and self-determination.”

Concerns about politicized Islamic fundamentalism were dismissed because the victorious anti-Mubarak activists were mainly young and modern. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shrugged off Islamism as a “bogeyman,” asserting that the Coptic Christians he interviewed in Egypt were baffled and offended when he asked if the revolution might end in a more oppressive society.

What would those Copts say now when their community faces escalating aggression? A recent protest by Christians demanding a stop to the violence was brutally dispersed by soldiers, leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, tells Reuters that “the new emerging faction of Islamists and Salafists [Muslim ultra-fundamentalists] has created havoc since the January revolution.” Nearly 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt.

Other pessimistic predictions, too, are looking prescient. The upcoming parliamentary elections are almost certain to make the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt’s single dominant party — and the military is poised to indefinitely delay full transfer of power to civilians. Meanwhile, measures to stop weapons smuggling to Hamas across the Egyptian border have been virtually discontinued.

The point is not that any revolution in a Muslim country is likely to slide into violent fanaticism; rather, revolutions in general are liable to fall into the hands of the worst factions, be it communists or Islamists. (Even the much-praised secular activists who helped bring down Mubarak are probably more likely to be Che Guevara lovers than classical liberals.)

Critics of the Arab Spring have been accused of supporting democracy in other countries only when those countries do what the West wants. That’s a crude caricature, but it is related to a pesky fact: Peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy is more likely when the revolution is friendly to America and its allies. This was evident in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Today, of the Arab Spring countries, the most encouraging situation is probably in Tunisia: While a moderate Islamic party is set to lead in the upcoming elections, it is a party that pledges to respect secular law, boasts female candidates who don’t wear the veil and promises expanded trade with the United States.

Unfortunately, Western and American involvement is no panacea either. We do not know whether the Libyan rebels effectively backed by the United States will bring about positive change or a Taliban-style fiasco: despite their professed liberal values, some of their leaders have jihadist ties and are evasive on whether they favor a sharia-governed Islamic state. Now, foreign-policy interventionists lament the West’s failure to help rid Syria of its homicidal tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. But who or what will follow in his wake?

In a recent column, Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl suggests that the woes of the Arab Spring cast the now-reviled Iraq war in a better light: Today’s Iraq, where violence has quieted and rival groups are learning coexistence, is a model for “what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be.” Yet the road to this peace lies through several years of strife that took more than 100,000 lives — and it’s not all in the past: An outbreak of violence against Christians took dozens of lives less than a year ago.

Diehl argues that if Syria’s Assad falls, the sectarian and tribal violence could be even worse, without American and allied troops to curb it. Most controversially, he concludes that the invasion of Iraq has been somewhat vindicated — and that “Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.”

There have been predictable cries of outrage at the claim that anyone would welcome a U.S. invasion. But that’s not an outrageous notion unless one wears left-wing blinders: For all the hardships in Iraq, polls consistent ly show about half of Iraqis supporting the 2003 invasion. Still, another Iraq with its human and social costs on both sides is now unthinkable. Too many roads to hell have been paved by humanitarian intentions.

Today, democracy promotion tends to be viewed as naively arrogant: Who are we to bring freedom to other countries? One answer is that “we” — the United States and other industrial democracies — are, for all our flaws, the possessors of the only working model of a free society, as well as a civilization with unmatched economic, cultural and military power. There is no arrogance in seeking to advance the universal values of liberty and human rights — as long as we do so with a sense of realism, and of our own limitations.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”

U.S. told Egypt it must rescue Israeli embassy workers or suffer ‘consequences,’ sources say


The United States told Egypt’s military rulers during an attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo that they must act quickly in order to prevent Israeli personnel from being attacked by Egyptian protesters, Haaretz learned on Saturday.

According to senior U.S. source that were involved in the attempt to resolve the Cairo incident, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called Supreme Military Council head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, conveying what the source called an forceful message concerning the need for speed in Egypt’s ending of the embassy attack.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Post-Mubarak, Obama embraces Middle East reform


A combination of calculation, luck and principles are steering the Obama administration to emphasize democracy and human rights in the Middle East in the post-Mubarak era.

On Tuesday, President Obama laid out a revamped strategy that takes into account U.S. strategic interests in the region while also emphasizing the need to accommodate uprisings that have swept away governments in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as protests nipping at U.S. allies in Barhain, Jordan and Yemen.

“I think my administration’s approach is the approach that jibes with how most Americans think about this region, which is that each country is different, each country has its own traditions,” Obama said at a White House news conference that was supposed to have been devoted to his proposed budget.

“America can’t dictate how they run their societies, but there are certain universal principles that we adhere to,” he said. “One of them is we don’t believe in violence as a way of—and coercion—as a way of maintaining control. And so we think it’s very important that in all the protests that we’re seeing in—throughout the region—that governments respond to peaceful protesters peacefully.”

The shift from a policy that had emphasized working with powers that be in the region to one urging accommodation of human rights on the ground resulted in part from the high-risk game Obama played as the grass-roots effort to unseat President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule unfolded in Egypt.

Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at first had expressed confidence in Mubarak, a longtime ally valued in part for maintaining peace with Israel.

When Mubarak proved defiant, however, and offered only limited concessions to protesters, the White House managed to get out a condemnation in the narrow window before it became clear that Mubarak was on his way out.

On Feb. 10, after Mubarak repeated that he would stay until September, Obama put out a statement within an hour calling on Egyptian authorities “to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek.”

Within a day Mubarak had resigned, and the White House was able to bask in the impression that its most recent statement had urged him to go—pronto.

That has led to a dynamic of Washington pressing for greater liberties throughout the region while gently reminding the parties that the United States will continue to preserve its interests, said Steve Clemons, an influential foreign policy analyst who has attended National Security Council meetings on Egypt.

“The focus now is to preserve core national interests with other governments, particularly in the Middle East, and at the same time not to put ourselves at odds with publics in the Middle East,” he said.

That means insinuating reminders of where American interests lie in the regions into the same statements that uphold the rights of protesters to call their governments to account.

Obama in his remarks Tuesday was careful to praise Egypt’s transitional military government for offering reassurances that it would preserve the peace treaty with Israel—a signal to candidates in Egyptian elections to take place later this year that the United States would expect the same assurances from an elected government.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done in Egypt itself, but what we’ve seen so far is positive,” Obama said. “The military council that is in charge has reaffirmed its treaties with countries like Israel and international treaties.”

More such pronouncements expressing U.S. strategic interests should be forthcoming, said Steve Rosen, a former top analyst with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“There’s great anxiety in Israel about all this, although the Israelis have restrained themselves,” Rosen said. “The simple reality is Israel and America’s alliances are with the thin strata of the elite, not with the masses.”

Rosen said that Republicans are not checking Obama because they are under the influence of the party’s neoconservative wing, which for ideological reasons also is embracing the pro-democracy forces in the region.

“Lacking any kind of criticism for its failure to bring up strategic issues, the administration has had a free ride politically,” he observed.

In at least one area, Iran, the Obama administration is using its embrace of democratization to advance strategic goals. Obama and Clinton have referred to the success in Egypt as an example that should spur forward similar protests this week in Iran.

“We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region, saying let’s look at Egypt’s example as opposed to Iran’s example,” Obama said. “I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.”

Administration officials also are using the crises and change in the region to hit back at congressional Republicans who before the upheaval spoke of slashing foreign assistance. Clinton made the Middle East changes a focal point of her congressional meetings this week.

“Events in Egypt show how important it is that we have a global diplomatic presence, a presence that will be ready to handle crises, prevent conflicts, protect American citizens overseas, and protect American economic and strategic interests,” Clinton said after meeting Monday with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

U.S. intelligence warned Obama of Egypt instability at end of 2010


U.S. intelligence officials warned President Barack Obama’s administration of instability in Egypt at the end of 2010 but did not foresee what would trigger the unrest at that time, a top U.S. CIA official said on Thursday.

Stephanie O’Sullivan, nominated to be the principal deputy director of national intelligence, asked at her Senate confirmation hearing when the U.S. intelligence community warned Obama and policymakers that protesters might threaten Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power.

“We have warned of instability,” she said. “We didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be for that. And that happened at the end of the last year.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Egypt ‘working group’ says cut off aid


A “working group on Egypt” that includes prominent conservatives and liberals urged the Obama administration to cut assistance to Egypt if violence continues.

“Until unrestrained thug violence began on February 1, the Working Group was hopeful that the Egyptian military would play a positive role in safeguarding a peaceful transition,” said the statement Thursday, which was first reported by Politico. “If the government continues to employ such violence, the United States should immediately freeze all military assistance to Egypt.”

The “working group” includes Brian Katulis, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank who has counseled the Obama administration on the Egypt crisis; Elliott Abrams, President George W. Bush’s most senior Israel policy figure who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations; and figures who have worked in Democratic and Republican administrations and are members of organizations that are supportive and critical of Israel.

The group was set up in February 2010 to advocate for U.S. pressure on Egypt to democratize.

Obama: Egypt transition ‘must begin now’ [VIDEO]


Transition in Egypt “must begin now,” President Obama said.

Obama spoke Tuesday about two hours after after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would not run in presidential elections scheduled for September, and would prepare for a peaceful handing over of power to his successor.

It was not clear from Obama’s statement whether this was sufficient, or if he wanted Mubarak to step down sooner. Opposition groups have said that Mubarak must step down now.

“An orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and must begin now,” Obama said. “It shouldd include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties.”

Obama said he had spoken to Mubarak after the Egyptian president’s address.

“He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place,” he said.

Obama said it was not the role of outside governments to determine what happens next in Egypt, but stressed that he is “committged to a partnership” with Egypt.

 

Obama urges Mubarak not to run again


President Obama reportedly urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not to run for office again.

The New York Times, the Al Arabiya news network and other media quoted U.S. officials on Tuesday as saying that Obama relayed the message through Frank Wisner, a former U.S. diplomat.

Egyptian presidential elections are slated for September.

The Obama administration has been struggling for days to address the intensifying protests in Egypt calling for an end to Mubarak’s 30-year autocracy.

For decades the United States has backed Egypt as a reliable ally in its anti-terrorism activities and in maintaining its peace with Israel.