Netanyahu Calls for a Unity Government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised the leader of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, with an offer to join the Likud-led right of center coalition government, saying Israel was faced with existential choices that required a broad coalition to form a unity government. By existential choice, Netanyahu is referencing Iran. The Kadima leader, and the former Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni did not reject the proposal out of hand.  The story in Haaretz:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked opposition leader Tzipi Livni, the chairwoman of Kadima, on Thursday to join a unity government. Livni did not immediately reject the offer, and added that if the offer is real "I always said that it is up for discussion."

Livni clarified that any decision regarding Kadima's moves will be taken by the party after thorough discussion and not by her alone.

Netanyahu told Livni that Kadima's addition to the government was crucial in light of the local and global challenges facing Israel today.

During their meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, Netanyahu briefed Livni on political and security issues on the government's agenda, telling her that the basis for joining a unity government would be principles of peace and security that he outlined in his foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan University in June.

Netanyahu offered Livni to include four Kadima members in inner cabinet discussions, should Kadima join the proposed unity government, but he didn't offer ministerial portfolios.

The meeting between the prime minister and the opposition leader comes on the tail of Livni's accusation earlier Thursday that Netanyahu was trying to split Kadima, currently embroiled in a proxy war over the faction's leadership.

Kadima No. 2 Shaul Mofaz on Thursday demanded that Livni take the party to primary elections, telling reporters after their afternoon meeting that he hoped she would "listen to others, for once" and keep the party from breaking up.

The rift at the top of Kadima worsened on Wednesday, after MK Mofaz lashed out at Livni, saying it was her lack of leadership that has reportedly led 14 of Kadima's 27 MKs to start negotiations with Likud about moving to that party.

Mofaz met Livni at her north Tel Aviv home on Thursday afternoon, hours before the faction's council was to convene to discuss the future of the party.

Livni told Mofaz during the talks that she feared Netanyahu was "trying to split Kadima. It's on the table and it's a fact." She urged Mofaz, along with other senior members of the party to do everything possible to keep Netanyahu from "weakening Kadima."

Kadima, a centrist party by Israeli standards with 27 seats, is the largest single party in the 120-member Knessett. Israeli political observers seem to think that Netanyahu's offer is not much more than an attempt to destroy his only significant internal opposition by luring about a dozen of Kadima members to form a breakaway party and join the government.

Certainly events in the Middle East have been moving quickly over the latter part of 2009: a financial collapse in Dubai; a tribal revolt by a Shi'ite minority that has led to a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen; US drone attacks in Yemen targeting Al-Qaeda operatives; a border dispute between Iran and Iraq amidst attacks on Shi'ites; an Egyptian move to seal off the Gaza Strip; a rapprochement between Syria and Turkey that perhaps has left the Israelis worried; a historic visit to Damascus by Saad Hariri, the new prime minister of Lebanon; an Al-Qaeda attack against a Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Riyadh; and the on-going but going nowhere talks between the West and Iran over the nuclear issue now set against the backdrop of increasing protests and unrest in the Islamic Republic. Never a dull moment.

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Clinton's Defense Umbrella Idea for the Mid-East Resurfaces

Secretary of State Clinton in Bangkok resurrected an idea that she originally proposed back during the primaries last year. Then a candidate for President, Mrs. Clinton argued that United States would deal with a nuclear Iran -- by arming its neighbors and extending a "umbrella of deterrence" over the region. In an April 2008 debate, then Senator Clinton said that the United States "should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region."

Recently a number of foreign policy analysts have suggested that Secretary Clinton was a forgotten player in the Obama Administration - some going as far that she had been sidelined completely - but the resurfacing of the defense umbrella idea is the clearest evidence yet that Secretary Clinton is winning policy battles within the Administration.

From the New York Times:

"We will still hold the door open (for talks with Iran) but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said time and time again, crippling action, working to upgrade the defense of our partners in the region," she said in a program taped for Thai television during a visit to Bangkok.

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment ... that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon."

Last week Clinton said Iran's intentions were unclear following June's election there and that Washington's offer of talks with Tehran over its nuclear program was not open-ended.

The former Bush administration refused to engage Iran directly until it had met certain preconditions, including suspending uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons.

But President Barack Obama, who took over in January, says that approach failed and Clinton has also said it was a mistake.

Despite the policy shift, Iran has not responded to Obama's overtures and those from other countries seeking to persuade Tehran to give up sensitive nuclear work the West believes is aimed at building a bomb and Iran says is to generate power.

Diplomats suspect Iran is buying time by stalling over getting into any substantive talks.

As James Hoagland noted US defense guarantees would enable "Arab states to forgo developing their own nuclear arsenals, just as the U.S.-Japan bilateral security treaty is intended to keep Japan nuclear-free." Deterrence works. It is a proven concept.

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Netanyahu's Bluff

Bumped - Todd

On his first day in office, Benjamin Netanyahu sure does have his rant on. Today in an interview (with no transcript provided) with Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic, Israel's new Prime Minister laid down the gauntlet. According to the rather gung-ho Mr. Goldberg, the message from Israel's newly sworn in Prime Minister is "stark". If the Obama administration doesn't prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, Israel may be forced to attack. The stupidity of that sentence should be self-evident. This is tantamount to an ultimatum and one delivered via the media. If Netanyahu wants to play games, he'll find himself talking to no one.

Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a challenge for Barack Obama. The American president, he said, must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons--and quickly--or an imperiled Israel may be forced to attack Iran's nuclear facilities itself.

"The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told me. He said the Iranian nuclear challenge represents a "hinge of history" and added that "Western civilization" will have failed if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

In unusually blunt language, Netanyahu said of the Iranian leadership, "You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."

As if Netanyahu can dictate to Barack Obama by throwing a tantrum. Israel voted for its own irrelevance on the international state back in February. The elections proved indecisive and Israelis will come to regret their decision if they haven't done so already. Netanyahu may lead a government, he doesn't lead the country. Netanyahu and his 30 member cabinet, the largest in Israeli history, came into power with a stunning 54% disapproval rate according to Haaretz.

According to a survey for Haaretz, the public is not giving the new government a grace period, perhaps because it has so many ministers and deputy ministers, or because so many of them have dubious portfolios.

The problem could also be the friction that accompanied the government's formation; two key cabinet members are suffering embarrassingly low support ratings. Netanyahu, who dreamed for a decade about returning to the Prime Minister's Bureau, will have to work hard and fast to show he is productive.

The most striking result of the Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under Prof. Camil Fuchs of the statistics department at Tel Aviv University, is the extent of the public's dissatisfaction with the new government. Less than a third of those surveyed said they are satisfied with Netanyahu's government. More than half, 54 percent, are dissatisfied with the new government.

It's unlikely that politically Netanyahu could pull off an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities but even more that this, Israel lacks the military capacity to take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities which are not just spread out across the country but also buried deep underground in protective bunkers. Furthermore, Israeli warplanes would have to fly over US controlled airspace. Netanyahu's rant is a bluff.

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The Neocon War on Christopher Hill

Flushed by their success in derailing the nomination of Ambassador Charles Freeman to the National Intelligence Council, the neocons have set their sights on another appointment, that of Ambassador Christopher Hill, who is currently the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to be next US Ambassador to Iraq. The first salvo was fired earlier this week by Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard who questioned Ambassador Hill's diplomacy skills when really what Mr. Goldfarb is angry about is that Ambassador Chris Hill and Secretary Rice outmanuevered Dick Cheney and the neocons in the Bush Administration's approach to North Korea and the Ambassador has been openly critical of the neoconservative approach to long-standing international issues.

This weekend, the former Vice President got in on the act of Chris Hill bashing courtesy of CNN's John King:

KING: Before we get to another break, let me follow up on that point. You disagree with the overreliance, I think is a good term, a fair term, tell me if I'm wrong, on the diplomacy with the Europeans when it came to Iran. You also disagreed with the approach in the end to North Korea and taking them off the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for, I believe your view is, for nothing, or for just false promises.

The man who led that effort, Chris Hill, the diplomat in charge then is now President Obama's choice to be the ambassador in Iraq. That's a tough job. Do you think Chris Hill is up to that job based on what he did in North Korea?

CHENEY: He's not the man I would have picked for that post. He doesn't have any experience in the region. He's never served in that part of the world before. He doesn't speak the language. He's got none of the skills and talents that Ryan Crocker had, who was our last ambassador, who did a superb job, deserves as much credit as Dave Petraeus in terms of how that process worked during the surge that led to the success we've seen now in Iraq.

So I think it's a choice that -- a choice I wouldn't have made. I did not support the work that Chris Hill did with respect to North Korea.

That last sentence is telling. That's what they are upset about. They were circumvented on North Korea.

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Is Obama "Prepared to Talk to Hamas"?

The UK Guardian is reporting that the "incoming administration will abandon Bush's isolation of Islamist group (Hamas) to initiate low-level diplomacy" according to sources within the transition team.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The Guardian has spoken to three ­people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive.

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