A Digest of debkafile Round-the-Clock Exclusives in the Week Ending May 28, 2009

Lebanon's election at center of US-Russian tug of war


22 May: Shortly after visiting US Vice President Joseph Biden stated in Beirut Friday, May 22, that his government would “evaluate the shape of its assistance program based on the policies of the new government,” elected on June 7, Moscow announced that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov would visit Damascus and Beirut on May 23-25. He would be meeting Syrian president Bashar Assad as well as the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman.

Biden urged “those who think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away.” This was an apparent reference to Hizballah and its pro-Syrian allies. debkafile's Middle East sources report that Lavrov's trip is mean to convey that, unlike Washington, Moscow is well-connected on both sides of Lebanon's political spectrum, the pro-Western majority March 14 bloc fighting for survival as well as its challenger, the pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian Hizballah-led March 8 alliance.

Since the race between them is close, Biden was sent to Beirut to try and tip the scales with a promise of tanks, helicopters, drones and artillery.


debkafile lifts fog from the Obama-Netanyahu balance sheet


23 May: For the sake of warding off a surprise Israel attack on Iran, US president Barack Obama accepted a six-month deadline for testing Tehran by diplomacy – without pressing Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to endorse a Palestinian state. Both gave ground in their first ice-breaking encounter.

Three days later, the White House rebuffed claims that Obama would use his June 4 speech to launch a new Middle East initiative. That tale was planted by Jordan's Abdullah II's advisers and picked up by Israel's often anti-Netanyahu media.

Once that misapprehension was removed, some of the real subjects of discussed emerged.

For instance, Obama did not demand the repartition of Jerusalem; neither was he keen to pursue the Palestinian issue at all at this time. Most of all, he was after space to engage in negotiation with Tehran without the threat of a surprise Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear sites hanging over the talks.

Obama and Netanyahu set up two working groups for continuous discussion between them:

One, headed by US national security adviser James Jones, will track of progress in the bilateral US-Iranian negotiations and report back to the White House and Jerusalem.

The second team, headed by Middle East envoy George Mitchell, will be in charge of the Palestinian issue.

Netanyahu may find it hard to explain at home why he promised no Israeli surprise attacks against Iran for six months – even though major disruptions loom: Lebanon's pro-Western government may be overthrown by its June 7 election or thereafter, Iranian long-range missiles introduced to the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas' new Palestinian government in Ramallah collapse, and Tehran will continue its shock tactics.

To shift the focus, Netanyahu spoke passionately about Jerusalem, although its status was not under assault in his White House talks.

“The flag that flies over the Kotel is the Israeli flag… Our holy places, the Temple Mount — will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever,” he told yeshiva students.

And “Jerusalem was always ours, will always be ours, and will never again be divided,” he vowed at the annual Jerusalem Day state ceremony on Ammunition Hill, Jerusalem, honoring the soldiers who fell in the Six-Day War in 1967.


US army chief: Narrow space left for dialogue to stop Iran attaining nuke


24 May: Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued his most serious warning yet about the approach of a nuclear-armed Iran: “Most of us believe that “Iran is one to three years” from developing a nuclear weapon…depending on where they are right now. But they are moving closer, clearly, and they continue to do that.” He indicated that an Iran could develop a nuke at any time from one to three years hence.

At the same time, Mullen said a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities could have grave consequences – but so too would a nuclear-armed Iran.

In talks with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on May 18, US president Barack Obama said the talks with Iran he is seeking cannot “go on forever” and agreed that at the end of the year, progress would be evaluated.


May 24 Briefs


·        Presidents of Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan hold first summit in Tehran on ways to end Pak/Afghan wars.

·        Lavrov says Hamas should be part of Middle East peace process. He calls on Assad, Meshaal in Damascus.

·        Iranian presidential hopeful Rezai: I would stop Israel with “one strike.”

·        Lieberman: Israel's withdrawal to pre-1967 borders would not end conflict but transfer it to Israeli heartland.

·        Demolition of outposts must be part of comprehensive approach.


Israel to drill missile attack from many directions


25 May: Deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai outlined the nationwide civil defense exercise to be staged next week in a briefing to the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee Monday, May 25. Next Tuesday, he said, sirens would send the entire population heading for the nearest shelters or protected sites.

Vilnai explained the exercise was configured on the presumption of a missile assault from three or four directions synchronized with large-scale terrorist attacks up and down the country. He stressed that this was no fantastic scenario divorced from reality but highly credible in the event of a war.

Drills conducted in the last two years and the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon war and 209 Gaza conflict had been factored into the coming exercise, said the deputy minister. In both, Israel's population had come under heavy missile bombardment.

Upgraded “gas masks” would be redistributed to the population later this year.


North Korea test-fires two more short-range missiles


26 May: Seoul reports North Korea test fired two short-range missiles Tuesday, May 26, its fourth and fifth since carrying out an underground nuclear test Monday. The test was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council Monday night.

debkafile's military sources note that North Korea and Iran are closely and secretly coordinated on their military nuclear and missile programs. Most of the guidance technology which gave the long-range Seijl 2 surface missile tested by Iran Wednesday, May 20, its bull's-eye accuracy came from Pyongyang. Iran's long-range missile test was carried out less than a month after North Korea's own internationally condemned missile test launch on April 5. Tehran may also be expected to be not far behind its nuclear partner in conducting its own first nuclear test.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a news conference Monday, May 25, that while all international issues are open for discussion, “Iran's nuclear issue is closed.”


Netanyahu's backing for outpost removals unrelated to his Iran deal with Obama


26 May: A high-ranking Israeli delegation is to meet US officials in London with a defense ministry plan for evacuating some 24 unauthorized outposts on the West Bank. This plan was prepared ahead of defense minister Ehud Barak's visit to Washington next week and backed solidly by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The first 10 warnings of impending demolitions were distributed Monday, May 25. They dropped Netanyahu in hot water in his own Likud faction.

To persuade the critics, Netanyahu implied without saying so outright that he had won US backing or cooperation for an Israeli offensive against Iran and that the price tag was the removal of West Bank outposts.

He stressed the importance of “our relations with the United States” for “the future of the state.”

This implied link was disingenuous since debkafile's Washington sources contradict Netanyahu's interpretation of his understanding with US president Barack Obama about the need to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear capability. This understanding, they say, was confined purely to diplomatic efforts (for which the two leaders set a six-month limit). A unilateral military attack by Israel was no part of it. In fact, an Israeli strike would spark a serious crisis between Jerusalem and Washington.

The bottom line here, say debkafile's military sources, is that however many outposts are evacuated, whether authorized or not, it will not bring the Obama administration around to backing an Israeli strike against Iran.


First Russian warships enter Persian Gulf ports


26 May: Russian warships are due to call Wednesday, May 27, at the Bahrain port of Manama, seat of the US Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, debkafile's military sources reveal. They will be following in the wake of the Russian vessels docked at the Omani port of Salalah, the first to avail themselves of facilities at Gulf ports.

Their arrival is fully coordinated between the Russian and Iranian naval commands.

According to our sources, this is the first time a Russian flotilla will have taken on provisions and fuel at the same Gulf ports which services the US Navy. Moscow has thus gained its first maritime foothold in the Persian Gulf.

Our military analysts find Russia and Iran seizing the moment to take advantage of two developments:

1. President Obama quietly reduced the number of US warships maintained in the Gulf to its lowest level in two years to generate a positive atmosphere for the coming US dialogue with Tehran. Not a single US aircraft carrier is anywhere in the Gulf region.

2. Monday, May 25, President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated France's first naval facility in the Gulf in Abu Dhabi. Russian and Iranian policy-makers see no reason why if Paris can set up a military presence, Moscow can't.


North Korea warns South of military strike, no longer bound by 1953 Truce


27 May: Pyongyang announced early Wednesday, May 27, that its withdrawal from the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953 means that “the Korean peninsulas will go back to a state of war.” Thousands of US troops are deployed in the buffer zone since the war ended.

US spy planes reported that the plutonium separation plant at Yongbyon had been reactivated.

North Korea repeated that Seoul's decision to join the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative was tantamount to a declaration of war. “Any hostile acts against our republic, including the stopping and searching of our peaceful vessels… will face an immediate and strong military strike in response,” the North Korean statement said.

Firing another short-range missile in Japan's direction, its sixth since conducting a nuclear test Monday, May 25, Pyongyang said it could not guarantee the safety of shipping off its west coast. The test was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council.


May 27 Briefs


·        West Bank rabbis call on Israeli soldiers and police to defy orders to evacuate settlements.

·        Police question FM Lieberman again on suspicion of money laundering and obstructing their inquiry.

·        French Egyptian Culture Minister appointed head of UNESCO apologizes for anti-Israel remarks.

·        Israel's unemployed figure rises to 228,000 – 7.6 pc.

·        Moscow announces undefined “preventive measures” after North Korean nuclear test.

·        High terror alert declared in Islamabad, Karachi, Rawalpindi after massive bomb blast kills at least 40 in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistan claims capture of two assailants. Interior minister said attack reprisal for Pakistani military Swat operation. Suicide bomber flattened 15 buildings, damaging ISI and police station in city center. Attackers opened fire on police from wrecked station.


Abbas will find Obama puts Syrian peace track ahead of Palestinians


28 May: Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas will put before US president Barack Obama when they meet at the White House Thursday, May 28 a thick sheaf of pre-conditions for talks with Israel, primarily heavy US pressure to force the Netanyahu government to stop all construction activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem and remove 200 West Bank roadblocks.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has come forward to declare that the president objects to any form of Israeli settlement activity whether for “natural growth” or any other purpose.

But for now, the administration is more interested in advancing the Syrian than the Palestinian peace track.

In any case, Obama is advised by his Middle East envoy George Mitchell that focusing on the Palestinian issue in its present strife-ridden state would be a waste of time and better go for the Syrian track. He and his aides are planning an early visit to Damascus to test the ground for resumed peace talks.

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