Israel’s visiting chief of staff finds doors closed in Obama’s Washington

Israel’s visiting chief of staff finds doors closed

in Obama’s Washington

WASHINGTON — Last year, Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi had no problem setting up meetings with top officials in the U.S. government.

On his current trip to Washington, Ashkenazi sought to meet the administration of President Barack Obama, but most officials were unavailable. Diplomatic sources said Ashkenazi failed to obtain access to any Cabinet member, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Israeli military chief, who  sought to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat, won’t even meet his counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The administration is sending a very clear message to Israel, and this is we want to talk about Palestine and not Iran,” a diplomat who has been following U.S.-Israel relations said.

On March 12, Ashkenazi left for a five-day visit to the United States meant to lobby the Obama administration to abandon the planned U.S. dialogue with Iran. Ashkenazi, scheduled to meet with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, was expected to have brought new Israeli intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

But the diplomatic sources said the administration made it clear that nobody in a policy-making position was available to sit with Ashkenazi. This included the president, Vice President Joseph Biden, Gates, National Intelligence director Dennis Blair or Mullen.

Ashkenazi has obtained a meeting with National Security Advisor James Jones. But the sources said the meeting would focus on U.S. demands for Israel to ease military restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The Obama administration believes that Israel is as much or more of a problem as it is an ally, at least until Israel’s disagreements with its neighbors are resolved,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said.

Bolton envisioned that the White House would pressure Israel to legitimize Hamas and Hizbullah. At the same time, he said, Obama would continue to woo Iran.

Already, economic and diplomatic advisers to Obama have urged the president to launch a U.S. dialogue with Hamas. The US/Middle East Project, which includes such Obama supporters as former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Hagel, was said to have elicited a promise from Obama to listen to any proposals made by Hamas.

“The main gist is that you need to push hard on the Palestinian peace process,” former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said. “Don’t move it to the end of your agenda and say you have too much to do. And the U.S. needs to have a position, not just hold their coats while they sit down.”

The Israeli chief of staff has also scheduled a session with Dennis Ross, the special adviser on Iran to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the sources said Ross was not regarded as being in a policy-making role.

The diplomatic sources said the White House and the senior echelon of the Obama administration have refused a dialogue with Israel on the Iranian threat. They said Ms. Clinton, during her visit to Israel, was largely silent during briefings by Israeli intelligence on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

During her visit, Ms. Clinton received written recommendations on U.S. policy toward Iran from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The U.S. secretary said the recommendations would be relayed to the White House.

“The Israeli government and military have been alarmed by the rapid and dramatic reversal in the U.S. policy toward Iran,” the source said. “This reversal took place without any consultation with Israel, Gulf Arab countries or even Congress.”

The sources said Israel has sought a U.S. commitment to limit its dialogue with Iran. Israel has also urged Obama to make it clear that the military option against Iran’s nuclear program exists.

But Obama and his top aides appear uninterested in hearing Israel’s position. The sources said a key aim of Ashkenazi was to urge the administration to release weapons and systems long sought by Israel in the area of aerial refueling, air-to-ground weapons, sensors as well as the F-22 fighter-jet.

In 2008, under the Bush administration, Gates and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blocked U.S. requests for these military systems. The sources said Gates and Ms. Rice concluded that Israel could use this equipment for an air strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.

“Ashkenazi sees this U.S. refusal as what has been undermining Israeli deterrence toward Iran and boosting the confidence of the Teheran regime,” the source said. “The mullahs in regime have concluded that America has dropped the military option and won’t allow such an option to Israel.”

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