Options for Mid East talks: Carrying on, interim deal, or a turn to the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian bloc

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, nearing 80, has proved time and again in the last two decades that he will never put pen to paper on an accord for ending the dispute with Israel. If he really wanted an independent Palestinian state, he could at any time have followed the path to self-determination chosen by David Ben Gurion, when he declared Israeli statehood on May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv. Had Abbas (known mostly as Abu Mazen) formally convened an assembly of Palestinian community and institutional leaders at the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah and proclaimed statehood, there would have been very little Israel could have done.
But that is not his way and never has been, because for him Palestinian independence is no more than an abstract slogan which must never come to earth.

In 1995, Abbas and the dovish Israeli politician Yossie Bailin jointly drafted a document, which later carried their names, offering  a formula for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute – except that he never signed it. He couldn’t bring himself to this commitment, because it conflicted with his fundamental principles and put his political survival at risk.
Today, too, the rise of a Palestinian state would end Abbas’s career as Palestinian leader. He holds sway over the six West Bank towns which passed to Palestinian Authority control without a legal mandate. The last Palestinian elections in 2006 gave his Fatah party only 48 seats compared with 76 netted by the rival Hamas.

Israel, the United States and Europe therefore respect as their legitimate Palestinian partner for peace negotiations a figure who is unelected and whose rule is buttressed by seven Palestinian security battalions, which America and Europe agreed to bankroll to the tune of $2 billion, after the cutoff of Arab aid. Another three battalions are due to be added to the force.

So Abu Mazen keeps up the masquerade of striving for Palestinian independence and staying in the talking shop for two purposes: It keeps him in power by dint of international recognition, and donations continue to roll in to feed his corrupt regime and cover the payroll of his security force.
Not much is left to trickle down to the ordinary Palestinian family.

To buy a small measure of street credibility, Abbas must show the people that he is the only leader able to force Israel to release Palestinians from long prison sentences. He achieves this by making this his price for not walking away from the table
So long as the money flows in and Palestinians are sprung from Israeli jails, no voices are raised in circles that count in Ramallah against the corrupt practices eating away at the regime.

Abbas therefore ranted and raved when Israel’s cancelled the fourth batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners due to be released March 30, to punish him for sending applications to 15 UN agencies and conventions for membership to bypass the negotiations. Israel also hit back at Abbas with a threat of sanctions – some directed against his personal business interests.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s hard work as would-be peacemaker was not just thrown back in his face but drew criticism at home from his colleagues in the White House and State Department. He tried Thursday to speak to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in what was described as a desperate bid to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.
The US Secretary rebuked both the two leaders equally for engaging in “tit-for-tat” tactics, but he knew exactly which side had caused the rupture. Kerry must by now realize that Abu Mazen’s history of withdrawing from any fruitful dialogue for peace made this outcome inevitable. Had he gone for interim accords, which he never considered, rather than final solutions, he might have bought a few years’ lull in the dispute, although this too would have come apart over the same Palestinian dynamic.

In the past, Abu Mazen had to contend with only one effective dissenting voice. It came from his bitter rival, Mohammed Dahlan, who ended up quitting his comfortable berth on Palestinian Authority and Fatah councils in Ramallah and going into exile. There, too, he landed on his feet.
Some 30 years younger that Abbas, Dahlan has been a persona non grata for Israel as former Gaza strongman and innovative terrorist.

He is problematic on at least three more counts:

1. Seven years ago, he extracted from the US government a huge sum – estimated at $1 billion – for promising to rid the Gaza Strip of Hamas rule. He never delivered and refused to refund the money.

That is one US count against him. In addition, he has thrown in his lot with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and their offensive against Obama administration Middle East policies.
2.  Because of his unbridled criticism of Mahmoud Abbas and calls for his removal, Dahlan is on the run from his enemies who have sworn to destroy him.
3.  Dahlan has managed to win the sympathy and patronage of powerful Gulf rulers. With their help, he established himself three months ago in Cairo within the Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi’s inner circle of advisers on the Palestinian question. This explains why Abbas gives Cairo a wide berth.
The Palestinian renegade gained this position through the influence of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is one of El-Sisi’s most generous bankers and who stands at the forefront of the Saudi-UAE life-and-death campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The talk of Ramallah this week was not the breakdown of talks, which surprised no one there, but interest in the way the Palestinian fate could be profitably drawn into the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian war on the Muslim Brotherhood and its offspring Hamas – away from the American ken.

Abbas’s rival Dahlan is shaping up as facilitator.

This trend appears to have been picked by some Israeli government and intelligence circles, judging by a comment heard from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Wednesday, April 2, during an office party on Passover Eve. He remarked that the ball is now in the Palestinian court. “Irrespective of the negotiations, Israel has found an attractive political horizon in such places as the Arab oil emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding: “If Abu Mazen is willing to follow us in that direction, fine. If not, we don’t need him.”
This comment suggested that Israel has thoughts of linking up with the emerging Saudi-Egyptian-UAR bloc and bringing the Palestinian issue on board.  Whether or not these thoughts crystallize into hard policy, they hint at an alternative Israeli approach to the Palestinian question.

Israeli launches spy satellite after US refusal to push for Iran’s weapons program’s dismantlement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to delay the launch of Israel’s improved Ofek 10 spy satellite Wednesday night April 9, hours after the six powers and Iran wound up another round of talks in Vienna on comprehensive accord on its nuclear program. Israel decided to show some muscle over the Obama administration’s consent to raise Iran’s weapons program at the next round of nuclear negotiations next month, DEBKAfile’s Washington and Jerusalem sources report. But this assurance, relayed also to the Saudi government, was not accompanied by information on the points to be raised, or the US response if Tehran continued to maintain that its weapons program is non-existent and therefore not up for negotiation with the world powers.

Neither did Washington reply to questions from Jerusalem about how US negotiators would act in the light of the latest intelligence data supplied by Israel, Britain and Holland attesting to accelerated Iranian work on its putatively non-existent weapons program.  The Israeli prime minister is still waiting for an answer from Washington. But at least one American official admits to knowing the truth.
“It would take Iran just two months to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday in a downbeat assessment of efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
High-ranking US and Israeli sources told DEBKAfile early Thursday April 10 that it is becoming harder than ever, in the context of US-Israel relations, to disentangle the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the ineffectual nuclear talks with Iran.
The top level of the US administration appears to have fallen into two factions pulling in opposite directions: One group, led by President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, wants Israel to carry the can for progress or for obstacles in negotiations with the Palestinians, while appeasing the latter and letting Iran off the hook on the concerns of Israel (and other Mid East nations).

The opposing group, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, favors more flexibility and is trying to mediate between the White House and Jerusalem.
National Security Adviser Rice is the toughest nut to crack in this regard.
The rift between the two factions led to the cancellation of Kerry’s White House meeting with the president that was scheduled for Tuesday, April 8 for an evaluation of the Israel-Palestinian peace track and whether or not to end US involvement.

Rice would have urged the US to pull out and lay the blame squarely at Israel’s door.

By postponing this confrontation, Kerry bought time for another bid to salvage the negotiations. And indeed, his envoy Martin Indyk has kept low-profile talks going between the two sides.

There is every indication that Prime Minister Netanyahu is at the end of his tether on what he regards as the Obama administration’s unfair appreciation of the concessions Israel made to keep the talks alive in the face of Palestinian negativism. Sources in Jerusalem say White House lenience toward the Palestinians hardens the intransigence of their leader Mahmoud Abbas and so undermines the entire peace effort.
At least for now, Netanyahu is taking a hard line himself, DEBKAfile’s Jerusalem sources report. Wednesday, Netanyahu punished Abbas for his unilateral application to 15 UN agencies to bypass negotiations with a dose of his own medicine. He ordered all Israeli ministerial contacts cut off with their Palestinian peers and the cancellation of VIP privileges for Palestinian high-ups.

For a show of Israeli muscle, he ordered the Israel military spy satellite Ofek-10 to be launched from the Palmachim air base Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, it was circling in earth orbit every 99 minutes from an altitude of 600 kms. Ofek-10’s improved surveillance capabilities include high-resolution cameras able to distinguish between objects of half a meter and operate in varying lighting and weather conditions.
That afternoon, the entry of the Samson cargo plane, the new Super Hercules C130J, into service with the Israeli Air Force took place in a public ceremony. Samson markedly extends the IAF’s ability to carry troops forces and hardware over any point in Iran. It was the first of six giant air transports to be delivered by the end of next year. The message the show was meant to convey was that Israel is again preparing to conduct a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program after being pressed by Obama into holding back for some years.

The old confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu is therefore back in full force. Will the Israeli prime minister continue to tough it out on either or both the Palestinian and Iranian nuclear tracks? That is anyone’s guess. But Wednesday, he was heard to say that a sovereign nation has the right to say no.

Cairo The War Dog

When U.S. President Barack Obama went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a highly publicized but very private meeting with the commando team that killed Osama bin Laden, only one of the 81 members of the super-secret SEAL DevGru unit was identified by name:  Cairo, the war dog.

Cairo, like most canine members of the elite U.S. Navy SEALS, is a Belgian Malinois.  The Malinois breed is similar to German Sheperds but smaller and more compact, with an adult male weighing in the 30-kilo range.

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You never know when an ordinary person will become the days hero.

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Pilots often claim that the two worst things that can happen to a pilot are:

(1) Walking out to the aircraft knowing this will be your last flight or
(2) Walking out to the aircraft NOT knowing this will be your last flight.

This pilot’s story adds another possibility….

The events of September 11, 2001, put two F-16 pilots into the sky with orders to bring down United Flight 93.

Late on that Tuesday morning of September 11th, Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney was on a runway at Andrews Air Force Base and ready to fly.  She had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders, “Bring  down United Airlines Flight 93.”

The day’s fourth hijacked airliner seemed to be hurtling toward Washington.  Penney, one of the first two combat pilots in the air that morning, was told to stop it.

“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” says Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, remembering the September 11 attacks and the initial U.S. reaction.

The one thing she didn’t have as she roared into the crystalline sky was live ammunition.  Or missiles.  Or anything at all to throw at a hostile aircraft.  Except her own plane.  So that was the  plan.

Because the surprise attacks were unfolding, in that innocent age, faster than they could arm war planes, Penney and her commanding officer planned to fly their jets straight into a Boeing 757.

“We wouldn’t be shooting it down.  We’d be ramming the aircraft,” Penney recalls of her charge that day.  “I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot.”

For years, Penney, one of the first generation of female combat pilots in the country, gave no interviews about her experiences on September 11 (which included, eventually, escorting Air Force One back into Washington’s suddenly highly restricted airspace).

But 10 years later, she is reflecting on one of the lesser-told tales of that endlessly examined morning: How the first counterpunch the U.S. Military prepared to throw at the attackers was effectively a suicide mission.  “We had to protect the airspace any way we could,” she said last week in her office at Lockheed Martin, where she is a director in the F-35 program.

Penney, now a major but still a petite blonde with a Colgate grin, is no longer a combat flier.  She flew two tours in Iraq and she serves as a part-time National Guard pilot, mostly hauling VIPs around in a military Gulfstream.  She takes the stick of her own vintage 1941 Taylor craft tail-dragger whenever she can.

But none of her thousands of hours in the air quite compare with the urgent rush of launching on what was supposed to be a one-way flight to a midair collision.  First of her kind!

She was a rookie in the autumn of 2001, the first female F-16 pilot they’d ever had at the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard.  She had grown up smelling jet fuel.  Her father flew jets in Vietnam and still races them.  Penney got her pilot’s license when she was a literature major at Purdue.  She planned to be a teacher.  But during a graduate program in American studies, Congress opened up combat aviation to women and Penney was nearly first in line.  “I signed up immediately,” she says. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad.”

On that Tuesday, they had just finished two weeks of air combat training in Nevada.  They were sitting around a briefing table when someone looked in to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.  When it happened once, they assumed it was some yahoo in a Cessna.  When it happened again, they knew it was war.

But the surprise was complete.  In the monumental confusion of those first hours, it was impossible to get clear orders.  Nothing was ready.  The jets were still equipped with dummy bullets from the training mission.  As remarkable as it seems now, there were no armed aircraft standing by and no system in place to scramble them over Washington.  Before that morning, all eyes were looking outward, still scanning the old Cold War threat paths for planes and missiles coming over the polar ice cap.

“There was no perceived threat at the time, especially one coming from the homeland like that,”  says Col. George Degnon, vice commander of the 113th Wing at Andrews.  “It  was a little bit of a helpless feeling, but we did everything humanly possible to get the aircraft armed and in the air.  It was amazing to see people react.”

Things are different today, Degnon says. At least two “hot-cocked” planes are ready at all times, their pilots never more than yards from the cockpit.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane could be on the way, maybe more.  The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked Col. Marc Sasseville.  They were gearing up in the pre-flight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.  “I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating, “I’ll take the tail.”  It was a plan.  And a pact.  ‘Let’s go!’

Penney had never scrambled a jet before.  Normally the pre-flight is a half-hour or so of methodical checks.  She automatically started going down the list.

“Lucky, what are you doing?  Get your butt up there and let’s go!” Sasseville shouted.

She climbed in, rushed to power up the engine, screamed for her ground crew to pull the chocks. The crew chief still had his headphones plugged into the fuselage as she nudged the throttle forward.  He ran along pulling safety pins from the jet as it moved forward.  She muttered a fighter pilot’s prayer – “God, don’t let me [expletive] up”- and followed Sasseville into the sky.

They screamed over the smoldering Pentagon, heading northwest at more than 400 mph, flying low and scanning the clear horizon.  Her commander had time to think about the best place to hit the enemy.  “We don’t train to bring down airliners,” said Sasseville, now stationed at the Pentagon. “If you just hit the engine, it could still glide and you could guide it to a target.  My thought was the cockpit or the wing.”

He also thought about his ejection seat.  Would there be an instant just before impact?  “I was hoping to do both at the same time,” he says.  “It probably wasn’t going to work, but that’s what I was hoping.”

Penney worried about missing the target if she tried to bail out.  “If you eject and your jet soars through without impact… ” she trails off, the thought of failing more dreadful than the thought of  dying.

But she didn’t have to die.  She didn’t have to knock down an airliner full of kids and salesmen and girlfriends.  They did that themselves.  It would be hours before Penney and Sasseville learned that  United 93 had already gone down in Pennsylvania, an insurrection by hostages willing to do just what the two Guard pilots had been willing to do: Anything, and everything.

“The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” Penney says. “I was just an accidental witness to history.”

She and Sasseville flew the rest of the day, clearing the airspace, escorting the president, looking down onto a city that would soon be sending them to war.

She’s a single mom of two girls now.  She still loves to fly.  And she still thinks often of that extraordinary ride down the runway a decade ago.

“I genuinely believed that was going to be the last time I took off,” she says.

Remembering the Pacific

Remembering the Pacific is a video podcast series that presents the personal stories behind World War II’s Pacific Theater. Hear American and Japanese servicemen tell their war stories from December 7, 1941 through the war to the ongoing reconciliation between the two countries. Witness the effects on the home front as American and Japanese civilians recount the emotions of the war years and come to terms with loved ones lost, sacrifices made and recognition of civil rights. Hear about the personal importance of the memorials and the lasting impacts of the Pacific War.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO