Journalists grill State Dept. on Palestinian unity government stance after rocket slams into Israel


Veteran journalists took turns at Wednesday's daily State Department press briefing aggressively questioning the wisdom and coherence of the Obama administration's approach to a recently appointed Palestinian unity government - agreed to by the rival Hamas and Fatah factions - hours after rockets fired from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip struck a major road in southern Israel. The Israelis held the new Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet, which has formal jurisdiction over Gaza and is treaty-obligated to seize the illegal rockets inside the territory, responsible for the attack. Washington has committed itself to working with and funding the new PA government. Veteran Associated Press diplomatic writer Matt Lee on Wednesday pressed State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki on how that position could be maintained in light of that morning's rocket attacks. Psaki's answer - that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had condemned the attacks but was unable to stop them - triggered another round of questioning. Lee questioned the geopolitical judgment behind supporting such a reconfigured and incapacitated PA, asking "if you recognize that [Abbas's] ability is extremely limited to prevent this kind of thing... how is it that you made the leap to go ahead and say, 'All right, this is a government that we can do business with?'... if you think that this guy doesn't have control over everyone who is either a member of or is backing his unity government, why would you do business with it?" When Psaki persisted in asserting that the U.S. would continue to fund the unity government, Reuters journalist Arshad Mohammed stepped in to ask why Washington was unwilling to use its leverage - "to stop dealing with the unity government or to stop funding it" - in order to stem the projectile fire. Mohammed suggested that the current policy, under which funding would continue despite the Palestinian attacks, signaled that Hamas could "send an unlimited number of rockets in and they can still be supportive of this unity government and you'll still give the unity government and the PA money."


Reuters on Tuesday conveyed new statements from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declaring that Iran must only be allowed to maintain a few hundred centrifuges in the context of any comprehensive deal between Tehran and the P5+1 global powers, amid moves by the Iranians to hold bilateral negotiations with various other P5+1 powers. Those efforts - which now have Iran holding separate talks with the U.S., Russia, France, and Germany - had quickly triggered concerns that the Islamic republic was seeking to peel away relatively tough parties from what had been, at least publicly, a somewhat united front. The Tuesday Reuters article noted that "Paris has long held out for strict terms in the negotiations," and that in the current case Fabius had emphasized that Iran's ongoing demand for tens of thousands of centrifuges had led to talks "hitting a wall." The developments come amid renewed moves by Congress to establish a voice in guiding U.S. negotiations with Iran, and as evidence continues to pile up that the administration may have lost control over the eroding sanctions regime that international negotiators are counting on to extract Iranian concessions. The Hill reported Wednesday that "critics in both parties argue the interim deal with Iran [which eroded the sanctions] will allow that country's nuclear program to move forward" and that "the threat of additional sanctions are necessary to put pressure on Iran to agree to a final deal." Legislation that would lock in future sanctions on Iran should negotiations fail, the idea being to signal to the Iranians that intransigent behavior is certain to come with economic costs, recently gained its 60th co-sponsor in the Senate.


The Telegraph on Wednesday described the United States and Britain as having expressed deep concerns over the ongoing seizure of Iraqi territory by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), as forces from the Al Qaeda offshoot followed up their Tuesday conquest of Mosul - Iraq's second largest city - by overrunning Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. By day's end the United Nations had echoed the stance and delivered a strong condemnation. The ongoing march, which has brought enormous stockpiles of weapons and money under ISIS control, has been described as nothing short of catastrophic for Middle East stability. The Wall Street Journal assessed by mid-Wednesday that the Islamist forces may be consolidating their forces in preparation for a march on Baghdad. The Daily Beast had already assessed that ISIS was on the verge of becoming a "a full-blown army" and that - with the aid of the "heavy weapons and vehicles [that] the U.S. military had provided Iraq's military," which ISIS had gained in Mosul and elsewhere - it was approaching the point where it could establish the contours of a terror state. The outlet also gestured toward potential domestic consequences of the geopolitical developments, bluntly noting that they "call[ed] into question the American government’s decision to withdraw the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011." The setbacks may erode the confidence of lawmakers in the Obama administration's broader approach to the Middle East, just as the White House is approaching a deadline for concluding P5+1 talks with Iran that all sides agree will require some form of congressional assent.


Egypt's Third Army has deployed the equivalent of a battalion of soldiers near the Israeli border to conduct counter-terrorism operations and prevent jihadists from targeting Israeli civilians - and especially civilian planes - with anti-aircraft weapons, according to a Wednesday report published in the Times of Israel by veteran Israeli Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff. The move was coordinated with Israel, and is bound to be read against a stream of news and leaks pegging Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation at unprecedented levels. Asaf Ronel, the world news editor from Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz, described the development as a "new level of cooperation between [Egyptian President el-Fattah El-Sisi] and Israel." Concrete details have been emerging for almost a year of security cooperation in the Sinai Peninsula, and had been preceded even earlier by what appeared to be unprecedented military-to-military coordination. The Egyptians have also over the last year undertaken a systematic campaign to degrade the access that the Palestinian terror group Hamas has to the outside world, and to destroy the smuggling tunnels that the group used to import rockets and missiles that were subsequently turned against Israeli civilians. For their part the Israelis, along with Saudi Arabia and much of the rest of the Gulf, have expressed frustration over ongoing decisions by the Obama administration to deny counter-terror assets to the Egyptian military for deployment in the Sinai.

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