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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Barack Obama

ISRAEL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek Jonathan Pollard's release

Pollardletter1After raising the issue in private back-channels as well as personally with U.S. presidents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to publicly and officially appeal to President Obama to release Jonathan Pollard. 

Netanyahu's decision follows a personal letter from Pollard, hand-delivered to the prime minister by Esther Pollard, wife of the convicted spy. "I hereby request that you submit an official request for my release to the President of the United States now, without further delay, and that concurrently you announce this request publicly," wrote Pollard, who stated his willingness to "bear the risk of any consequences " that may result from the prime minister's action.

Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst, was convicted of passing classified information to Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. Israel did not acknowledge Pollard for many years but granted him Israeli citizenship in 1995, during Netanyahu's first term in office. A few years later, Israel publicly conceded Pollard had been an Israeli spy.

American intelligence officials have been staunchly opposed to any compromise on the issue and are believed to have foiled previously reported deals on his release. Others maintain that Pollard's sentence was disproportionate at best, and based on circumstances that are no longer relevant.

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ISRAEL: More help on the way to fight Carmel fire

As more international help continues to fly into Israel to help combat the fire decimating the Carmel woodland, the worst in the country's history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed thanks for the many helping hands. He has spoken with 30 heads of state over the the last three days and says he finds the mobilization heartwarming. There is "no shame" in receiving help, said Netanyahu. "It is part of our existence in a global village.... We both receive and extend assistance."

The wake-up call was harsh and Netanyahu heard it well.  The prime minister announced his intention to supply Israel with an aerial firefighting force, "which we need in this era of global warming." Speaking Satuday at the command center set up at Haifa University, Netanyahu commented on assistance from the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt, and said that forming and equipping the force will establish "a regional network for the benefit of our peoples." A proposal for building the force will be submitted quickly and budgeting expedited.

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WEST BANK: Mitchell searching for 'common ground' to salvage negotiations

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, who arrived Tuesday on a Mideast trip to try to salvage the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, seemed determined to continue his efforts to bridge the fast-growing gap between Israel and the Palestinians on the issue of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Mitchell held one round of separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the last couple of days. He will now hold a second round in the next couple of days with both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, looking for what he called “common ground between the parties” to salvage the month-old direct negotiations.

It is not yet clear whether he will succeed in bringing Abbas and Netanyahu together again at the same table, as was the case before the settlement freeze expired Sept. 26.

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IRAN: President Obama outlines position on Islamic Republic to BBC Persian


President Obama gave a much-anticipated interview to the BBC Persian’s Bahman Kalbasi on Friday in which he tackled Iran’s nuclear program, sanctions, Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli peace process and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial comments blaming the American government for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“It was offensive. It was hateful, and particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of ground zero, where families lost their loved ones,” Obama said of Ahmadinejad's comments made during a speech on Thursday at the United Nations in New York. “It just shows once again the sort of difference between how the Iranian leadership and this regime operates and how I think the vast majority of the Iranian people -- who are respectful and thoughtful -– think about these issues.” 

Obama went on to respond to criticism that sanctions against Iran run counter to the message of diplomacy he offered in his first direct message to the Iranian people, which was broadcast last year on the occasion of the Persian new year.

“Iran has not been able to convince the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful,” Obama said. “This is not a matter of us choosing to impose punishment on the Iranians. This is a matter of the Iranian government, I think, ultimately betraying the interests of its own people by isolating it further.”

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UNITED NATIONS: Israel's absence during Obama speech draws attention

President Obama's call Thursday in an address before the U.N. General Assembly for Israel to extend its West Bank construction moratorium got little reaction from the Israeli delegation. That's because they weren't there.

As Obama spoke about the importance of supporting U.S.-brokered peace talks, television cameras panned to empty chairs at Israel's U.N. desk.

Speculation immediately spread across Internet sites and among arm-chair analysts about whether Israel was snubbing Obama and boycotting his speech. Israel has been resisting mounting international pressure to extend the partial moratorium, which is set to expire Sunday. Palestinians have threatened to quit peace talks if construction resumes, though they've also hinted in recent days that they are open to a compromise.

Israeli officials have denied their absence was an intentional slight, saying they were observing the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and had informed the U.S. in advance that they would not be present.

Nevertheless, American officials expressed some disappointment that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to skip the U.N. meeting, sending other Israeli leaders to represent the country. Obama had hoped to use the forum to continue efforts to prevent peace talks from collapsing.

And some of Netanyahu's right-wing colleagues condemned Obama's speech, accusing the U.S. president of "inappropriate interference."

-- Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem

WEST BANK: Is Mitchell getting any closer to bringing Palestinians to negotiating table?

After meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for three hours in  Ramallah on Tuesday, U.S. special peace envoy George Mitchell seems to be getting closer to convincing the Palestinians to start direct negotiations with Israel. But he still has some more convincing to do before he succeeds.

Mitchell froze his efforts toward indirect, or proximity talks, started in March, after President Obama, heeding domestic and Israeli pressure, called on Abbas to  go straight to direct negotiations regardless of the outcome of the unfinished indirect talks.

Obama made that position clear in what Palestinians described as a carrot-and-stick letter Obama recently sent to Abbas. In that letter, Obama told Abbas that he must go to direct negotiations with Israel or else Obama would not be able to help him any more. Palestinians interpreted that as Obama's threatening to stop all financial and political assistance.

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ISRAEL: Possible Iran scenarios

The military option against Iran's nuclear program always seems to be discussed in the context of one table or another. On the table, off it or under it, the possibility of a strike lurks in the background, a semi-abstract code for something potentially awesome -- and not in the cool sense of the word.

President Obama told Israeli television in a recent interview (in itself an interesting occurrence) that the possibility of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon was unacceptable and that the issue has been the No. 1 priority in foreign policy of the last 18 months. "We continue to leave the door open for a diplomatic resolution of this challenge, but I assure you that I have not taken options off the table," he told Channel 2. 

Again, the table. So whose table is it?

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WEST BANK: Mitchell fails to get Palestinian approval for direct talks with Israel


Special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, on a new round of his proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, seems to have failed Saturday in getting a Palestinian agreement to resume direct negotiations with Israel, suspended since December 2008.

As a result, Mitchell said he will tour several countries in the region in an effort to get their support for President Obama’s vision of peace in the Middle East, but most importantly to get them to pressure the Palestinians to accept direct talks.

Mitchell, who described his three-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah as “candid and productive,” did not tell the press anything about direct negotiations with Israel but this subject was definitely at the core of his talks. Obama had urged Abbas in a telephone call last week to move from the current indirect or proximity talks to direct negotiations with Israel. The Palestinian Authority said it will start direct negotiations only after progress in the proximity talks on borders and security.

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ISRAEL: Navy preparing to block flotilla of activists determined to reach Gaza

The eight-ship flotilla is determined to break through the naval blockade and reach Gaza. Israel is just as determined this isn't going to happen. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Friday that the aid convoy was violent propaganda and that "Israel will not allow its sovereignty to be threatened in any way, in any place -- land, air or sea."

What might become a standoff at sea will have been preceded by a standoff of narratives via the Internet and media, which ultimately will declare the winner of the duel. Meanwhile, there seemed to be a ghost in the machinery -- technical problems held up one of the boats taking part in the sail, resulting in a delay. Greta Berlin of Free Gaza told Israeli media the flotilla's departure was postponed until Saturday morning in an effort to avoid a late-night encounter with the navy. Israeli TV reported Friday evening that the navy was setting out in a few hours anyway.

Watch live streaming video from insaniyardimat

(To see live broadcasts from the ships, go to (above) and for other videos and uploads to Enjoy the live broadcast while it lasts; Israel intends to use screening to prevent live broadcasts of interception.)

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MIDDLE EAST: What can Obama do to restore confidence in peace process?


Voices of skepticism and disdain abound when it comes to United States' efforts to promote peace in the Middle East. Many in the Arab world regard the Obama administration's steps to restart talks as too little too late by a government too beholden to Israel. 

But some also proposed ideas for moving forward, even after Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where peace was overshadowed by Israel's announcement of plans to expand settlements in the West Bank.

“They shouldn’t allow Israel or a part of the Israeli government to sabotage this baby step,” said Paul Salem, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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IRAN: In televised appearance, rebel leader confirms Tehran hardliners' narrative of U.S. support for opposition

Three days after he was allegedly captured by Iranians in a still cloudy operation, Baluchi rebel leader Abdulmalek Rigi was shown on Iranian television and appeared to confess to ties to the Obama administration.

Rigi, 27-year-old leader of Jundallah, the ethnic Baluchi separatist group, appeared in good health, but at times seemed to be reading his confession, which lacked any dates or names of individual Americans he was supposedly in touch with through an unnamed third person.

The confession neatly matched the narrative touted by Iran's hard-liners, who have long alleged that the United States has been covertly funding groups seeking to undermine the Islamic Republic.

"He came and said that they have asked for a meeting," Rigi said. "'Come and cooperate with us and we will put financial resources at your disposal. We will supply you with military facilities and arms and ammunition and we will also give you a base in Afghanistan on the border with Iran."

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IRAN: U.S. business groups call on White House to drop proposed sanctions

Picture 22

In his State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Obama offered a seemingly softened rhetoric toward the Islamic Republic on the issue of sanctions over its controversial nuclear program.

He said Tehran would "face growing consequences" if it failed to curb its nuclear program. But he didn't specify whether those consequences would include sanctions, as demanded by U.S. lawmakers expected to take action on a new set of proposed sanctions targeting Iran's gasoline imports.

This week, several prominent American business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Foreign Trade Council, came out strongly against sanctions.

Picture 21

The groups warned White House national security advisor James Jones and high-level economic policy advisor Lawrence Summers that expanding sanctions on Iran would hurt U.S. national interests on several levels.

"The undersigned business organizations are profoundly concerned that current legislative proposals to expand U.S. sanctions on Iran would significantly undermine the U.S. national interest. ... The proposed sanctions would incite economic, diplomatic and legal conflicts with U.S. allies and could frustrate joint action against Iran," read the letter posted on foreign policy journalist Laura Rozen's blog, which was among the first outlets picking up on the story. 

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