Archive for January, 2013
The Israeli government remained silent over the apparent brewing battle in Washington over U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice for defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, whose record on Iran and Israel is under close examination.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak offered no immediate comment on the pick, announced on Monday after being rumoured for weeks in which some pro-Israel figures pilloried the former Republican senator.
Parting with the rightist government’s reticence were two relatively junior officials, Civil Defence Minister Avi Dichter and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, neither of whom is expected to stay on after Israel’s national election on January 22.
“There have already been nominations in the past which looked very troubling to us, and ultimately reality turned out totally differently, both for better and for worse,” Dichter told Israel Radio in an interview.
“Therefore I think we should be careful. We do not nominate people in agencies in other countries in general, and especially in the United States. So, as it is customary to say to those being nominated there: welcome.”
Netanyahu, who is favoured for reelection, has had a testy relationship with Obama, a Democrat who won a second term in November – though both insist their nations’ alliance is sound.
Israel, which receives around $3 billion a year in U.S. defence grants, has at times challenged the Obama administration by threatening preemptive war against the disputed Iranian nuclear programme while world powers pursue talks with Tehran.
Obama has also criticised the Netanyahu government’s settlement of occupied West Bank land, which the Palestinians blame for the two-year-old impasse in negotiations with Israel.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday it hoped Hagel’s appointment would change U.S. policy and make Washington “more respectful of the rights of nations”.
The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom quoted an unnamed government official on Tuesday as saying the choice of Hagel was “very bad news”, adding: “Clearly it won’t be easy with him.”
The official suggested having Hagel in the Pentagon would allow the president “to play ‘good cop'” with Netanyahu.
Many Republicans say Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel’s interests. He voted repeatedly against U.S. sanctions on Iran and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
Hagel sought to beat back the bias allegations on Monday, telling the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper his record showed “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and that he had “said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism”.
“Furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel’s interest,” added Hagel.
His statements appeared to be supported by Ayalon, a former envoy to the United States, who told Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: “I have met him many times, and he certainly regards Israel as a true and natural U.S. ally.”
Despite the criticisms of Hagel, the White House believes it can garner enough support for him on both sides of the political aisle to win confirmation in the Democrat-led Senate.
A decorated Vietnam war veteran, Hagel has criticised the size of the U.S. military, telling the Financial Times in 2011 that the Pentagon was “bloated” and needed “to be pared down”.
Hagel has also been attacked by gay rights groups for remarks in 1998 questioning whether an “openly aggressively gay” nominee could be an effective U.S. ambassador. He apologised for the comments last month, saying they were “insensitive”.
The American debate over Hagel has reached Israeli media, with one Yedioth columnist predicting the Pentagon pick would be Netanyahu’s “nightmare”. The prime minister delivered two speeches on Monday and Tuesday but made no reference to Hagel.
Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defence minister, played down the impact of Hagel’s nomination on Obama’s strategies.
“In the United States, policy is made by the president, not by the members of the cabinet,” he told Reuters, noting that Ronald Reagan, a former president considered warm to Israel, had a less sympathetic defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger.
A Pakistani soldier was killed and another injured in a gunfight between Indian and Pakistani troops in Kashmir on Sunday, a disputed incident that could heighten tensions between the nuclear neighbours after a period of rapprochement.
The Pakistani army said Indian troops had raided their Sawan Patra checkpost in Kashmir, a hotly contested area both countries claim as their own. The Indian military denied its soldiers had attacked a Pakistani position.
“Pakistan army troops effectively responded and repulsed the attack,” a Pakistani army spokesman said in a statement.
The two sides then exchanged fire across the Line of Control, an internationally recognised line in Kashmir patrolled by troops from both countries, he said.
Indian army spokesman Colonel Jagadish Dahiya said Indian troops had not crossed the Line of Control. “However, there was a ceasefire violation by Pakistan. Our troops retaliated by firing,” Dahiya said.
“None of our troops crossed the Line of Control. We have no casualties or injuries.”
Attacks across the Line of Control are not uncommon. The two sides sporadically shoot at each other, though far less frequently than they used to.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, when they became independent from Britain. The two countries share many similarities in language and culture, though most of Pakistan’s citizens are Muslim and most of India’s Hindu.
Kashmir, and the human rights abuses committed there by Indian troops, is a politically explosive issue in Pakistan. Pakistani security forces have long trained militant groups to attack Indian soldiers.
The two countries fought their most recent war in 1999, when Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control and occupied Indian territory in Kargil, but were forced to withdraw.
After a period of quiet, relations between the two countries nosedived again in 2008, when a militant squad rampaged through the Indian city of Mumbai, killing 166 people. India accused Pakistan of sheltering the masterminds behind the attack, charges that Pakistan denies.
The two countries have been slowly repairing relations in recent months. In November, India executed a Pakistani man who was the last surviving perpetrator of the Mumbai attack.
Last month the two countries signed a deal designed to ease visa restrictions for some citizens to travel between the two countries.
Tension between the two countries has also spilled over into nearby Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan. India offers military and economic aid there, but many Pakistanis fear this is an attempt to lessen Pakistan’s influence.
The United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan to move against al-Qaeda and militant havens along its Afghan border. Pakistan says it does not have enough troops because so many of them are patrolling the border with India.
Some U.S. officials also believe Pakistan is unwilling to move against the militants because some elements in Pakistan’s security forces would prefer to be able to use the militants to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan after most foreign combat troops have pulled out by the end of 2014.
President Obama who had hailed the last-minute deal that pulled America back from the “fiscal cliff”, issued a warning in his weekly address that he “will not compromise” over his insistence that Congress lift the government debt ceiling.
The President said in his radio and internet address that the fiscal cliff deal, approved by Congress late on New Year’s Day and signed on Thursday, raises tax on the wealthiest Americans while preventing a middle-class tax increase that could have thrown the economy back into recession.
With one crisis behind him, Mr Obama faces new battles in Congress over raising the country’s 16.4 trillion-dollar (£10.2 trillion) borrowing limit, as well as scaling back more than 100 billion (£62.5bn) in automatic spending cuts for the military and domestic programmes. The cuts are delayed by two months under the compromise.
Politicians promise to replace those across-the-board cuts with more targeted steps that could take longer to implement.
Mr Obama, speaking from Hawaii, where he is on holiday with his family, said he was willing to consider more spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit. But he said he would not compromise over lifting the debt ceiling.
The nation’s credit rating was downgraded the last time politicians threatened inaction on the debt ceiling, in 2011.
“If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic,” Mr Obama said. “Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game again.”
If elected officials from both parties “focus on the interests of our country above the interests of party, I’m convinced we can cut spending and raise revenue in a manner that reduces our deficit and protects the middle class”, he said.
In the Republican address, Rep Dave Camp of Michigan said that as attention again turned to the debt limit, “we must identify responsible ways to tackle Washington’s wasteful spending”.
Americans know that “when you have no more money in your account and your credit cards are maxed out, then the spending must stop”, he said.
Infighting has penetrated the highest levels of the House GOP leadership. Long-standing geographic tensions have increased, pitting endangered Northeastern Republicans against their colleagues from other parts of the country. Enraged tea party leaders are threatening to knock off dozens of Republicans who supported a measure that raised taxes on the nation’s highest earners.
“People are mad as hell. I’m right there with them,” Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said late last week, declaring that she has “no confidence” in the party her members typically support. Her remarks came after GOP lawmakers agreed to higher taxes but no broad spending cuts as part of a deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.”
“Anybody that voted ‘yes’ in the House should be concerned” about primary challenges in 2014, she said.
At the same time, one of the GOP’s most popular voices, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, blasted his party’s “toxic internal politics” after House Republicans initially declined to approve disaster relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy. He said it was “disgusting to watch” their actions and he faulted the GOP’s most powerful elected official, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
In the controversy surrounding the “fiscal cliff” issue, it’s easy to forget that the origin of the entire debate was a professed desire to reduce swollen federal deficits.
Whether the target was $4 trillion (2.4 trillion pounds) over 10 years, as proposed by the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission, or in the $2 trillion range, as tossed around by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama, the idea was to rein in total debt that now tops $16 trillion.
By those standards, the bill passed by Congress Tuesday to avoid the cliff’s automatic steep tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts, looks paltry indeed.
The legislation, which won final approval in the House late Tuesday after passing the Senate early in the day, adds nearly $4 trillion to federal deficits over a decade compared to the debt reduction envisioned in the extreme scenario of the cliff, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
This is largely because it extends low income tax rates for nearly every American except the relative handful above the $400,000 threshold.
It’s also because it put off for at least two months the automatic budget cuts that were part of the cliff and would have saved about $109 billion in federal spending on defence and non-defence programs alike.
The legislation, which ultimately came down to a fight about tax equity rather than federal spending, did to deficit reduction what Obama and congressional leaders always promise to resist: It “kicked the can down the road” to a later date.
In explaining the measure to the news media, the White House, which helped broker it, gave no particular figure for how much it would bring down the deficit, stating only that, somehow, “with a strengthening economy, ” it would.
Whether it ultimately succeeds will depend in part on what happens to the now-delayed “automatic” spending cuts, including whether Obama follows through on reductions in outlays.
The legislation also sets up what is likely to be an even more heated fight in late February when the Treasury Department must come to Congress to seek an increase in the government’s borrowing limit.
That will bring everything full circle to where the cliff originated during a struggle between Obama and Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling above $14.5 trillion.
That struggle ended in August, 2011 with a bipartisan deal designed to scare Congress into legislating significant long-term cuts in federal spending.
The idea was that by setting a strict deadline of January 2, 2013 and dire consequences in the form of draconian spending cuts for failing to meet it, the White House and Congress would be forced into action.
Republican Representative Paul Ryan, a self-described deficit hawk who served as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, declared the moment a “huge cultural change.”
Coincidentally, low tax rates that originated during the administration of President George W. Bush were also set to expire on December 31, making the prospect of inaction so threatening that the Congressional Budget Office determined that failure to intervene could cause a new recession.
But the controversy over taxes, coming on the heels of a presidential campaign built around Obama’s demand for middle-class tax justice, ultimately consumed the argument over the cliff, leaving deficit reduction as the forgotten issue.
Among those disappointed by the process was Alice Rivlin, a Brookings Institution scholar, former U.S. budget director and co-author of another widely discussed deficit reduction plan named for herself and former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico.
“I’d been optimistic,” Rivlin said in an interview with Reuters. “I thought that we might get might get it done” and that Boehner and Obama “might get to a grand bargain.”
Maya MacGuineas, a budget hawk who has led a group of corporate chieftains in a group called “Fix the Debt,” was also unenthusiastic about the bill.
“This is one of the lowest common denominator deals,” MacGuineas said. “I wish I had something nice to say, but not so much.”