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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.
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    HARI SREENIVASAN: Peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan were dealt a blow today when it emerged that a man representing the Taliban side is an impostor.

    Unnamed Afghan insiders told various media outlets the man posing as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour met with Afghan and NATO officials three times. He is one of the highest-ranking members of the Taliban Council.

    But, in Kabul today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai quickly dismissed the reports, and said he never met the man.

    HAMID KARZAI, president, Afghanistan (through translator): I didn’t see anyone by the name of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. And Akhtar Muhammad Mansour didn’t come to Afghanistan. Don’t accept this news from the foreign press regarding meetings with the elders of the Taliban, because most of them are propaganda.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, confirmed there has been outreach to the Taliban over the past six to eight months.

    Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Petraeus said there had been long-held doubts about one of the alleged Taliban representatives.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, International Security Assistance Force: Some of these have been recognized as being legitimate. All are very preliminary. And, in fact, as we have described them at most have been talks about talks or pre-preliminary, there was skepticism about one of these all along, and it may well be that that skepticism was well-founded.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The Taliban has denied talks are taking place at any level.

    The death toll from a stampede in Cambodia rose to nearly 380 people today, as rescuers search for more victims. The disaster happened late yesterday in Phnom Penh during a festival celebrating the end of the rainy season. Thousands tried to flee over a narrow bridge. Many suffocated or were trampled in the frenzy. More than 750 people were injured, including some who reported being wedged in the crowd for hours.

    Vatican officials signaled today the pope has made a shift on the church’s teaching regarding condom use. The Roman Catholic Church opposes the use of contraception, but, over the weekend, Pope Benedict XVI suggested condom use was acceptable in preventing the spread of HIV.

    Today, Vatican officials clarified the pope’s statement.

    REVEREND FEDERICO LOMBARDI, Vatican spokesman (through translator): It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another person with whom you have a relationship. This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is, it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk on to another.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Thirty-three million people around the world are currently living with HIV.

    In U.S. economic news, officials from the Federal Reserve lowered economic expectations for next year. The 18 top leaders of the central bank predicted the U.S. economy will grow at a 3 to 3.6 percent pace. That’s down sharply from earlier projections. The minutes from their last closed-door meeting also show the policy-makers were divided over whether to launch a $600 billion program to shore up the economy.

    The Fed news, combined with unease over North Korea and Europe’s financial woes, brought stocks on Wall Street down today. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 142 points to close at 11036. The Nasdaq fell 37 points to close at 2495.

    Those are some of the day’s major stories.

    The post News Wrap: Taliban Impostor Exposed in Afghan Peace Talks appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The Obama administration has shifted gears in Mideast peace talks away from Israeli settlements and toward other core issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and analysts say they expect borders will be the next focal point.

    In a Dec. 10 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the need for the two sides to address the borders of a future Palestinian state, control of Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.

    U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell then traveled to the region to try to advance the new focus, meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

    The new approach came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a settlement freeze, which expired in September, and the administration appeared to abandon its efforts to convince him to do so. Direct Israeli-Palestinian talks broke off as a result of the settlement freeze expiring.

    After two years of spending a great deal of time on the settlement issue, the administration is essentially saying, leave this aside and get into the main task at hand, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute. “We’ve been dealing with the appetizers. Now let’s deal with the main course.”

    The administration’s well-intentioned but rigid stance on extending the settlements moratorium basically boxed in the parties to take positions that didn’t allow for flexibility, according to Makovsky.

    But coming to an agreement on borders will make the settlements issue moot, he said. And the U.S. wants to see progress on territory and security because the differences between the two sides on these issues are relatively narrow, he added.

    Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya, said he thought the decision not to press forward with the freeze, while he understood it, was a mistake, and that the administration should have thought of a Plan B.

    “When you demand something from a government, even an ally, when you ask something in a clear and explicit way, there has to be afterwards ‘or else,’ and there was no ‘or else,’ or even incentives,” he said.

    Melhem said he also thought borders would be the next issue on the table as an indirect way of dealing with settlement activities, which is still the fundamental immediate issue for the Palestinians.

    “In other words, if we can determine where the border is between a future Palestine and Israel, then we can say that on this side of the border, settlements are totally unacceptable and on this side they may be acceptable, particularly those big settlements around the Jerusalem area.”

    Time is of the essence, Melhem added. The administration has tried direct talks, indirect negotiations, putting pressure on Israel, and if nothing substantive happens by the spring, “many Palestinians will say it’s useless, the U.S. administration will begin thinking about 2012 (elections), other regional issues will force themselves on the agenda, … and people will say it’s almost two-and-a-half years, what do you have to show for it,” he said.

    Diana Buttu, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said many Palestinians already have lost faith in the peace talks.

    “As a Palestinian, when you see that your situation has gotten worse with peace negotiations — 17 years of them — rather than better, there’s very little that can be pushed to say this is the way that you should be going,” she said.

    Buttu said she expects the Palestinian side will move away from negotiations and toward international bodies for action, such as trying to get the U.N. Security Council to intervene and pursuing recognition of an independent Palestinian state from other entities.

    “It’s getting to a point where people no longer believe in the peace process and instead are looking to other mechanisms,” she said.

    The post On Mideast Talks, U.S. Moves to ‘Main Course’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JEFFREY BROWN: And we pick up on some of these questions with two men who have helped us analyze foreign policy challenges in the past. Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. He is now is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Walter Russell Mead is professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College.

    Now, Walter, I want to start with the latest on Libya with Hillary Clinton taking the blame for security at the Benghazi consulate. Where does that leave the matter of the responsibility of the White House, both for the specific incident and the larger Libya policy?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Bard College:  Well, I think Secretary Clinton was absolutely right that specific security requests don’t go up from the State Department to the president.

    And so it would be I think a mistake to say that President Obama is responsible for the failure to provide more protection in Benghazi. And Secretary Clinton did the right thing by taking responsibility herself.

    Now, on the other hand, you have to ask, what would Harry Truman have done? What does it mean for the buck to stop here? In the same way that Secretary Clinton is responsible for what happens in State Department, the president to some degree is responsible for what happens in the administration.

    But I certainly don’t think there was a situation where somebody said to President Obama, don’t you think we need more security there, and he said absolutely not.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Zbigniew Brzezinski, what do you make of this incident and the reaction to it and what does it tell us about the foreign policy debate in the campaign?

    ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: I think it tells us that the foreign policy debate is being diverted to side issues.

    It’s a tragedy what happened. In a human sense, it’s important. But in terms of large national policy, that’s not being discussed. And I think those who are charging the president with responsibility here overlook the fact that there are precedents for failing to assume responsibility, as, for example, prior to 9/11, when the president and the secretary of state then were briefed about the rising threat against the United States.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stay with you, Mr. Brzezinski.

    When we look at the Ryan-Romney — excuse me, the Romney-Ryan team talking about this foreign policy mess, the unraveling, as Paul Ryan referred to it, particularly including Libya and the larger Middle East policy, what do you see? What do you make of that?

    ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I’m afraid there is truth in the fact that the position of the United States in the Middle East is unraveling.

    But one has to go back a number of years and ask, what has set that process in motion? And I’m afraid that the United States simply has fumbled over the years the unique opportunity it had to shape a more stable and more peaceful Middle East.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by that?

    ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, first of all, the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue.

    You know, today, the Middle East is politically awake and the masses are stirring. Every public opinion poll tells us the masses have a negative view of American position on that issue because they see the United States as failing to move the peace process forward. And I’m afraid there is some truth to that conclusion.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Walter Mead, what do you see when you hear about this — the use of the term like unraveling of foreign policy?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would say that we’re clearly — the hope that President Obama could sort of turn things around from the Bush administration doesn’t seem to have been fulfilled.

    You know, and I think Zbig is right that, to some degree, what happened there was that President Obama in those early weeks made the sort of claim in a sense that he was going to start a new relationship with the Islamic world and pressuring Israel to stop all settlements in the Middle East is what he was going to do.

    Unfortunately, that was something he wasn’t able to deliver on, probably shouldn’t have made the pledge. But in any case, once that happened, the Palestinians pretty much couldn’t get back to the peace process, you know, by being sort of — they couldn’t be softer on Israel than the president of the United States.

    And, basically, since that initial period in the early weeks, months of the Obama administration, there has been no real progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. And I think Zbig is correct that that has been a big problem for the United States.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But do you hear — Mr. Brzezinski, do you hear an alternative from the Romney-Ryan campaign? Do you hear anybody talking about something that suggests a kind of coherent policy?

    ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I’m afraid I have to say quite bluntly that so far the discussion of foreign policy has been at a rather primitive level.

    I hope it will be much better in this debate. Certainly, the president knows the issues well. I hope the governor also knows those issues well. So, I hope they discuss them seriously, but certainly not in terms of slogans about responsibility for this or for that, but rather in terms of what is actually at work today in the Middle East.

    We’re facing an explosive situation throughout the entire region. And those who are pushing the United States to plunge into it either by becoming militarily engaged in Syria or by striking at Iran are in effect advocating that the United States puts the match to a container full of gasoline.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Walter Mead, have you heard an alternative put forward by Governor Romney?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, you know, I think we have heard a little bit of rhetoric about being tough and so on. But, you know, that I think is not the — hopefully not what Governor Romney is really about.

    I think what we really need between — at the next foreign policy debate between the two candidates is a serious discussion. And I think, again, Zbig is right. America’s goal has to be not to get in deeper into a lot of wars and conflicts in the Middle East. But what are the policies that are most likely to secure our own vital interests in the region and minimize the risk of conflict with others?

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, specifically, Walter, what would you want to ask — well, ask of both sides? What questions need to be asked to the two candidates?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think it would be interesting to hear from Governor Romney, how is your policy different both from what President Obama is doing and what President Bush did? What would be the sort of third Romney way that you think we ought to go?

    For President Obama, the real question I would like to hear him talk about is, why haven’t you spent more time explaining the Afghanistan war, other policies of yours in the Middle East? I think, hopefully, in the debate, he will do that, but I don’t really feel that President Obama has taken the American people into his confidence about our Middle East policy.

    I don’t mean all the little details and the sort of who — you know, whether you’re giving arms to Khalid or to Jamil in Syria, whatever, but some sense of what is the strategic vision right now that the Obama administration is pursuing? Where do we stand in this problem of terror? Where is it going?

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Zbigniew Brzezinski, same question to you. What specific questions would you like to hear or ask of both candidates?

    ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think Walter put it extremely well. We need a serious discussion of what should be done and what can be done and what the United States must avoid doing.

    And one of these things that it must avoid doing is becoming the solitary combatant in the Middle East. There are people who are talking loosely about the United States becoming militarily engaged. They should be obligated to explain, what is it exactly that they would do? How would they operate? Who would be our friends that would be there with us? And what solution do we envisage?

    The fact of the matter is that today the Middle East as a whole is undergoing an explosive pattern of change. And I think caution and prudence are the points of departure for an intelligent policy here. And then once we have established some consensus on that, we can talk on the specifics, namely, whom do we involve with us in doing something hopefully constructive about Syria? How do we negotiate with the Iranians so that there is a positive outcome?

    How do we renew the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians? And it would be useful to hear the two candidates comment on each of these.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Walter Russell Mead, thanks so much.

    The post Experts Urge Candidates to Debate Foreign Policy Seriously, Not Play Blame Game appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Palestinian bid for greater recognition at the United Nations, I’m joined by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, and Ghaith Al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.

    Welcome back to both of you.

    Let’s start by explaining, why is this such a big deal? You have got the U.S. vociferously opposed to it. Why is this such a big deal, first of all, for the Palestinians?

    GHAITH AL-OMARI, American Task Force on Palestine: For President Abbas, the stagnation in the peace process over the last couple of years, his lack of any diplomatic achievements throughout that period, and the fact that we have seen Hamas gaining more and more mainstreaming in the region and beyond the region makes it…

    MARGARET WARNER: Gaining more popularity?

    GHAITH AL-OMARI: More popularity, more diplomatic recognition by some of the Arab countries, et cetera.

    All of these things have made Abbas need a diplomatic achievement, not necessarily for the strategic value of it, but for the political value and for the credibility that’s been given him in the Palestinian streets.

    MARGARET WARNER: And why is it such a big deal for Israel?

    DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: For Israel, they see it as politically harmful, as a step away from the table. As Ghaith said, we have been in this impasse now for a few years.

    And it seems it incentivizes the Palestinians go to a third party, the U.N., to impose an outcome of statehood and to get the statehood without going through a peace, and that these two ideas should be really joined. So that’s the main point.

    And the second fear is that somehow this would put a snowball impact on the International Criminal Court and create certain efforts to delegitimize Israel in the international arena, and if there was another Gaza situation that it would impair Israel’s ability to defend itself.

    MARGARET WARNER: Because the new Palestinian “state” — quote, unquote — might take the opportunity to go to the ICC.


    MARGARET WARNER: They’d be at least entitled to try for membership there.

    So, Ghaith, back to you. What impact did the Gaza conflict that just ended a week ago have on all the actors here?

    GHAITH AL-OMARI: From a Palestinian point of view, from point of view of President Abbas, it made it very clear and it sharpened his need for political achievement.

    So it made him more determined to go through with this step. For some of the Europeans, I think, they felt that Hamas’ diplomatic and political gains are getting too much. And Abbas needs again for himself.

    So you saw some countries like France and others changing their view, and moving from abstention to actually voting for — because they felt that the trends are going in a negative direction.

    And I suspect what we will see in the Israeli and American reaction in the day after some recognition that the balance of power in Palestine has shifted, and Abbas needs to be supported at this moment, even though there is tremendous frustration with his move.

    But I think, strategically, they understand that he has to be strengthened. Otherwise, it’s going to be Hamas that is going to take the lead.

    MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree? Do you expect Israel’s reaction to be less negative than it would have been two weeks ago? Explain this.

    DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, I think, actually, Ghaith and I agree. I think that it’s more muted right now.

    Now, things could change in 24 hours if Abbas gives an incendiary speech at the U.N. where, like he’s done in the past, said Jerusalem is only the capital for Christianity and Islam, and hasn’t even mentioned the Jewish connection of the land. So the tone could impact things.

    But I think it’s more muted for the reason Ghaith said. I think there is some concern that, with the Gaza campaign last week, that that gave Hamas too much of a boost, and this would really be leading to a situation where Israel’s steps could hurt the wrong guys, which are the…

    MARGARET WARNER: You mean, for instance, if Israel were to try to withhold the tax money they collect.

    DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right. We will have to see for sure. But I think that is a big factor.

    I think a second element in this is the counterintuitive relationship that is emerging between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as a result of Gaza.

    I was in Jerusalem, I was in Ramallah last week and — during Gaza — and it was striking how the prime minister’s people were very delighted by the statement of the president in East Asia that…

    MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the prime minister of Israel was delighted?

    DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right, and that therefore this is — they’re not looking for something that would in any way lead to more tension between the U.S. and Israel.

    And, also, I might add that we just came off of a Likud primary a couple days ago. And Netanyahu is now in a general election where he wants to maximize the vote, which means — also says that you can manage the American account.

    MARGARET WARNER: But Abbas as a leader in the Palestinian community has been adversely affected by Gaza, has he not?

    GHAITH AL-OMARI: Oh, most certainly, most certainly.

    MARGARET WARNER: And his whole path toward negotiation?

    GHAITH AL-OMARI: Basically, the message incoming from Hamas right now is negotiation and diplomacy have produced nothing. Throwing missiles into Israel is producing gains, whether politically. Now after the last Gaza round, they expect that things are going to go — open up, the borders are going to open up.

    All of these things mean that Hamas’ message that violence actually works is taking traction, while Abbas’ message that diplomacy works has produced nothing over the last couple of years.

    Added to this, I would say over the last year what we have seen is a very interesting dynamic, on the high diplomacy, the very visible diplomacy, a lot of tension and a lot of mutual recrimination.

    On the ground, there has been a degree of cooperation between Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his government and the Israeli government, to such an extent that you see elements in the Israeli government right now wanting to actually reward that kind of trend, and are aware that cutting off funds, whether by the U.S. or by Israel, actually hurts the one and only thing that has been working.

    So I think all of these things together come to produce would what I would hope would be a more rational response.

    MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line, what impacts will this have on, say, the prospects for moving at all off the dime on negotiations, which have been stalled so many years?

    DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I think nothing is big is going to happen until after the Israeli elections in January. And, hopefully, we will see a broader-based government there.

    And, hopefully, we will see also President Abbas realize two years of impasse, not coming to the table has not really yielded much and that they will basically realize you could have all of the symbolic votes at the U.N. as you want, but there’s no substitute for working out your differences face to face, and the road to statehood leads through peace.

    MARGARET WARNER: You mean through negotiated peace.


    MARGARET WARNER: So, but that would require the Palestinians to drop their precondition on talks, right, which has been first Israel has to stop building settlements.

    GHAITH AL-OMARI: I think it would require action from the three parties, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the U.S.

    From the Palestinian point of view, I think Abbas has a choice. Either he’s going to use his newfound momentum to pivot towards creating a condition where we can have peace talks after the Israeli negotiations.

    MARGARET WARNER: Which would mean dropping that demand.

    GHAITH AL-OMARI: It will be dropping that demand, producing a new public messaging, focusing more on things on the ground, less confrontational, more looking towards direction, but also requires Israel to react to this — or not to overreact to this, whether by cutting off funding or changing settlements on the West Bank, and requires the U.S. as well to not overreact by cutting off funding, but to try to find these areas of common interest that exist, and build on them in order to create a virtuous dynamic that, come the Israeli elections, we might have the groundwork laid out for something serious.

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, hope springs eternal, as always.

    Ghaith Al-Omari, David Makovsky, thank you.

    DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.

    The post How Will the Palestinian U.N. Move Impact Prospects for Mideast Peace? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama called on young Israelis to see the world through Palestinian eyes and challenged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to abandon — quote — “formulas and habits that have blocked peace.”

    But even amid his visit, the old threats and realities of violence were present.

    Margaret Warner reports from Jerusalem.

    MARGARET WARNER: The second day of the president’s trip to Israel and the West Bank was met with rocket fire from one place Mr. Obama won’t go, Hamas-controlled Gaza.

    Two landed in Sderot, Israel, a clear breach of the cease-fire the Islamist Hamas faction and Israel struck late last year. There were no injuries. A little-known militant group claimed responsibility, saying it wanted to show that Israel could not protect its airspace during Mr. Obama’s visit.

    The Israeli mayor of Sderot said there was another message from militants to President Obama.

    Mayor David Buskila, Sderot: The message is, why you go to Ramallah? We are the owners of this region. You can arrive to Gaza and talk with us. Why do you go to talk with Abu Mazen in Ramallah?

    MARGARET WARNER: Abu Mazen is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who greeted Mr. Obama in Ramallah on the West Bank at midday. A small band of protesters in the city center was kept well away. Just outside the city, there were minor clashes with Israeli troops.

    The two leaders held talks on one priority of president’s four-day visit to the Middle East, reinvigorating peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But contrary to the apparent and unusual chumminess with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, Mr. Obama and Abbas displayed an understated, businesslike tone in their brief press conference.

    The president denounced the morning’s rocket attack and the group that rules in Gaza.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hamas cares more about enforcing its own rigid dogmas than allowing Palestinians to live freely, and because too often it focuses on tearing Israel down rather than building Palestine up.

    MARGARET WARNER: On the issue at hand, the president did say his administration was committed to give the moribund peace process another try, and he urged the Palestinians to do the same.

    But Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank has been a stumbling block to reviving peace negotiations. The Palestinians have made halting Israeli construction a condition for restarting talks.

    Mr. Obama initially joined that call in 2009, but hasn’t since.

    Today, Abbas seemed to reaffirm that insistence, though he didn’t use the word condition.

    PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS, Palestinian Authority: It is the duty of the Israeli government to at least halt the activity, so that we can speak of issues. And when we define our borders and their borders together, each side will know its territory in which it can do whatever it pleases. So the issue of settlements is clear.

    MARGARET WARNER: But the president said, while settlement activity wasn’t constructive for peace, setting preconditions for talks was counterproductive too.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace.

    If the only way to even begin the conversations is that we get everything right at the outset, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how you actually structure a state of Palestine that is sovereign, contiguous, and provide the Palestinian people dignity.

    MARGARET WARNER: The president also met with young Palestinians, many of whom have lost faith in any resolution to the decades-old conflict.

    Back in Jerusalem, before thousands of mostly young Israelis, the president gave the featured address of his Mideast tour. While reiterating America’s unwavering support of Israel, he also called on them to identify with their young Palestinian counterparts.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: And put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own.

    It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands, or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank, or displace Palestinian families from their homes.

    Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.

    Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.

    MARGARET WARNER: In a speech shot through with adrenaline from the president and the crowd, Mr. Obama echoed some of the themes that helped get him elected in 2008, that citizens can and should compel their leaders to act.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: And let me say this as a politician. I can promise you this. Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.

    MARGARET WARNER: The evening closed with a state dinner in Israel. Tomorrow, the president leaves for Jordan.

    The post Obama Discourages Preconditions, Champions Change for Mideast Peace Prospects appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret has traveled with the president all week. She was in Amman when I spoke with her just a short time ago.

    Margaret, hello.

    Tell us, first of all — the administration seems very pleased about this breakthrough between Israel and Turkey. Tell us about President Obama’s role in making that happen.

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, the White House, the administration has been working for over two years to try to heal this rift, but it really became important as the Syria conflict got more serious in the neighborhood, because in the absence of going in militarily, the president is trying to organize all the neighbors, as we know, in the region to assist with refugees, to assist with figuring out where the chemical weapons are, to try to figure out which Islamist forces might be gaining ground among the rebel forces.

    It’s very complicated. And to have two of America’s three staunchest, best sort of security and intelligence allies in the region not speaking has been a huge, huge problem. So, John Kerry, when he went to Ankara on his maiden trip as secretary of state, talked to Erdogan.

    And then the president when he got here at his very first meeting with Netanyahu Wednesday brought it up, and has been working at it, we’re told, each time they have met. So it was set up that they went to the airport. They had a trailer set up, and Netanyahu and Obama went in, and the call was made.

    And we were all wondering — it took something like half-an-hour. And we wondered, why so long, why was the president there, why did he get on the phone. And what I’m told is that both Netanyahu and Erdogan required the president to be there, because for each one that gave him cover, that leader cover to do this sort of forced apology.

    Erdogan could say President Obama has explained that it’s very, very important for to us at least cooperate on security intelligence. I need to do this for my friend Barack Obama, and Netanyahu could make the same case to the people who are criticizing him at home for apologizing to Erdogan.

    So, that’s why Obama got on the call as well.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, you mentioned Syria.

    When the president got to Jordan, he and King Abdullah held a joint press conference, news conference, and the president announced there that he is going to be asking Congress for more money to go to Jordan, to help them deal with all the refugees coming in from Syria.

    Why is that important for the Obama administration?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, when I said there were two of the three allies in the region, the third most important ally there for the United States is Jordan, a tiny country, but punches above its weight.

    Jordan security forces and intelligence forces are excellent. And I described in the earlier piece some of the role it’s playing. But King Abdullah’s on somewhat shaky ground, the economy is bad, and part of the problem is the refugees are a huge pressure point, as the king sort of eloquently said today.

    Few of us saw the foreign minister this afternoon, who said it’s almost as if — he said it’s as if another eight or nine — the king said 10 percent has been added to our population. And the foreign minister said — I asked him actually the question that the king was asked, would you ever shut your doors? And he said, we just can’t do that.

    But he said, I have to say my nightmare scenario is I get a call at 3:00 a.m. and I’m told there are 50,000 refugees at the border; what do we do?

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, just to wrap up quickly, we know the bulk of the president’s time was spent in Israel trying to patch up relations there, but also calling for new thinking on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Have you picked up reaction yet to what the president was saying?

    MARGARET WARNER: Judy, in the public, especially on the left in Israel, there was great, great joy at what the president had to say about resolving the conflict.

    But the reaction from people sort of in the political circles was a little more true to form. For example, Naftali Bennett, who is from the settler movement who did very well in the election and is now in the government, said we don’t need — a second Palestinian state, that isn’t new thinking. And he said very pointedly, people can’t be occupiers in their own land.

    In other words, he was rejecting the idea that Israelis don’t have the right to live anywhere they want in the entire territory. Then, today, I talked to Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian very prominent, who is still a member of the PLO executive committee, and she said, we don’t need new language or new thinking. We need new will and courage by the United States.

    And Palestinians were widespread in their disappointment with the trip, because they felt that the president had really embraced the Israeli kind of view of this conflict, and had not expressed a willingness to press for some freeze on settlements.

    So, it doesn’t mean something may not happen. But you could see that new thinking is going to come hard in this region of a very old conflict.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you very much, joining us from Amman.

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    JEFFREY BROWN: And now another take on the question of military intervention in Syria. It comes from our own Margaret Warner, who is in Cairo tonight, getting reaction from there and around the Mideast.

    I spoke to her a short time ago.

    Margaret, welcome.

    So, tell us about the reaction you have been getting from people there so far about a possible U.S. strike against Syria.

    MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, I have only been here 24 hours, and I have to say, I have been surprised at the unanimity with which people here are opposed to the idea of a U.S. military strike on Syria, despite the fact that some people here believe Assad probably did use chemical weapons.

    People here say it will just cause more instability in the region. And they mention everything from more refugees to strengthening jihadi forces inside the rebel forces in Syria. And there’s really — at the root of it, there’s really great distrust of the United States, both its past actions in the Middle East and its motives for even considering this.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re saying they might well believe that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but this really comes down to their feelings first and foremost about the U.S.?

    MARGARET WARNER: It really does, Jeff.

    Some people said to me, you got it wrong — the United States got it wrong about Iraq. You told the world there were weapons of mass destruction being made, and they were not. So, there are many people here who even doubt the intelligence that the Obama administration has presented with such kind of authority and confidence this time.

    So I would say that’s a larger group. But I spoke to a young man last night who actually believes Bashar Assad did it. He said, we saw all those bodies on television. But, still, he does not — nobody here that I have spoken to — I don’t mean there isn’t anybody — trusts the United States and wants the United States to intervene once again in another Arab country.

    They all point to the example of Iraq in a second way, which is the United States went in to rid Iraq of a dictator, and look what we got. Look what this region got, which is Iraq in disarray, sectarian violence within Iraq, and now, as we know, exporting jihadi elements back into Syria, Sunni extremists.

    And Egypt is dealing with their own jihadi elements in the Sinai. So, whether it’s for practical reasons or on the level of trust in the United States’ motives, I just didn’t hear anyone who had confidence that the United States could act effectively and was doing it really with the region’s interests at heart.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And what about, Margaret, the president’s announcement this weekend that, while he wants to do it, he would go to Congress, which will delay things for a bit? What kind of reaction, if any, you did get on that?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, on that, it really — to the average man on the street, that had barely penetrated.

    To people, former parliamentarians, people who are political activists — I’m thinking of three different people of that sort I spoke to — they were split. One person said to me, you know, that really conveys a certain weakness. Obama may — President Obama may say it’s because of the American democratic system. And we know the reasons he gave.

    But here, in some quarters, it was seen as a sign of weakness, but another person, an activist, a pro-democracy activist, said, well, actually I think it — to restrain yourself when you say you have the power and believe you have the power shows strength, not weakness.

    There is a little bit of a split on that, but, really, that’s not the important prism through which people here are looking at it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The president of course is hoping for support from that part of the world, particularly through the Arab League. Where do things stand for that?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, not encouragingly for the Obama administration, because, as you said, the Obama administration hoped that, just as just with the action in Libya, they would be acting in concert not only with some European partners, but with the Arab League.

    The Arab League last week I think it was met and said, essentially, held Assad, said Assad should be held to account, and was critical of Assad, stopped short of military action. This week, starting yesterday, they had an emergency meeting which they moved up from later in the week to reconsider the question.

    But what came out, the first readings looked like, oh, they’re now really calling on the international community to do something. But when you look at the text — and I spoke to people both in the Egyptian government and in the Arab League — they say the important thing about the today’s announcement was, yes, we’re calling on the United Nations and the international community to take some sort of deterrent action or deterrent measures against the use of chemical weapons by the regime, but — but the only basis, the only legal basis for military action is under either the U.N. charter of self-defense or by a vote of the Security Council, which, as one Egyptian official admitted to me, for practical — in a practical sense, that’s not going to happen because of Russia’s opposition.

    And so it is interesting that — on two points. One, Egypt has long been an ally of the United States, is not acting in concert with the U.S. here. Egypt was the first to came out last week and say they were opposed to the use of force. And, secondly, that Marwan Muasher, who is the former foreign minister of Jordan, said to me today, it’s interesting that the only Arab leaders in the full-throated way calling for U.S. military action are the ones without elected parliaments.

    That is, they are the governments that don’t feel they have to be responsive to their people, and that is some of these Gulf kingdoms, and that whether it’s Jordan or Egypt and other states which do have aroused publics now, and since the Arab spring, an even more activist public, they are not willing to go there.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Margaret Warner in Cairo for us tonight, thanks so much.

    MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Jeff.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s much more online, where we continue our Syria coverage, including on our World page a dispatch from Margaret in Cairo.


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    Twenty-six Palestinian prisoners were transferred to Ofer Prison near Jerusalem Monday, to be processed for release Tuesday evening. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Magister

    Late Tuesday night, 26 Palestinian prisoners will be free to return to their homes. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Prisons Service told the AFP that the prisoners would be split up and bussed to two different checkpoints for entry into the Palestinian territories.

    According to a statement published Sunday from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s website, all 26 of the prisoners had perpetrated offenses before the 1993 Oslo Accords and served prison sentences of 19-28 years. All but two of the prisoners were serving life sentences.

    “The decision to release the prisoners is one of the most difficult I’ve had to make,” Netanyahu said Monday on public radio. “It is unjust because these terrorists are being released before completing their sentence. My heart is with the families of the victims.”

    The releases are the second phase of 104 Palestinian prisoner releases agreed upon in order to re-open peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. The ongoing peace talks have occurred under a U.S.-imposed media blackout and therefore, there are few details known about their progress.

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    GWEN IFILL: Nancy Youssef is covering the trial for McClatchy Newspapers. I spoke with her a short time ago.

    So, Nancy Youssef, apparently, Mohammed Morsi resisted everything, including what prison uniform — or what uniform of any kind he would wear to court today. What happened in that courtroom?

    NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: It was actually quite dramatic.

    It was a lot of yelling by Mohammed Morsi and the six other defendants in the cage with them. Every time the judge tried to proceed with the case normally, they would yell that the courtroom and the trial was a farce. Mohammed Morsi repeatedly said that he was their president and called the process invalid.

    When he walked in, one of the journalists yelled “Execution, God willing” to him. And there was even fights that broke out between the journalists and some of the Morsi lawyers and those of his co-defendants.

    And so there was so much chaos and drama that, at the end of the day, the judge determined that the case couldn’t proceed. And it was adjourned until January 8.

    GWEN IFILL: Was the point of Mohammed Morsi’s protest to say that he was — they didn’t even have the right to be trying him because he still is the legitimate president?

    NANCY YOUSSEF: That’s right.

    He really — we hadn’t seen Mohammed Morsi since July 2, the day before his ouster by the military. And he really picked off exactly where he had left off in that speech, saying that he was the president. His lawyers said that if they wanted to remove the president that there was a constitutional process to do that, suggesting that the court session was, in fact, illegal, and essentially tried to carry himself as the president.

    Even the co-defendants tried to treat him still as president, the fact that he was wearing a suit when he walked in. He smiled and gave a wave that has become popular among the Islamists. And the fellow — his fellow co-defendants let him take the lead.

    And so there was an effort in that courtroom to really state and show the position of Morsi and his supporters that the process is invalid and that he remains the president.

    GWEN IFILL: What is the state now of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Mohammed Morsi’s party?

    NANCY YOUSSEF: It’s interesting.

    What we saw in the courtroom really reflected what’s been happening outside the courtroom. The entire leadership of the very centralized organization has been arrested. And because of that, the organization has been quite fractured. Where the Muslim Brotherhood could once get hundreds of thousands of people to the street, today only managed to get a few thousand.

    And one could really feel the absence of that leadership as they tried to galvanize support for Mohammed Morsi and his first appearance in court. At the same time, one could also feel the fear that the military felt about the Brotherhood and their ability to create instability in the state, the fact that this trial was not broadcast live, that journalists who were allowed in could not bring cameras or telephones, and that the only images came out later through state television.

    The fear that the Brotherhood could rise up and cause instability was certainly felt and reflected in the military’s decision to not allow people to even see Morsi being held by — by the new government.

    GWEN IFILL: So if they were unable to even get this trial started today, what is — and it’s been put off until January — what is expected to change that will allow this to get under way?

    NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I think what’s going to happen is, we will see more restrictions put on those defendants, such that they can’t speak, so that the judge allows them to speak.

    There may be efforts to create some sort of legal process such that they’re not required to speak as much, because every time they did — they were asked to speak, to answer things like their name and the charges put before them, they used it as an opportunity to state their political positions.

    So my guess is, we will see more restrictions on that front. It was quite a contrast from when Hosni Mubarak, Morsi’s predecessor, was in jail. He was quite quiet and cool. And so the outbursts were unusual for these what’s become relatively frequent trials of former presidents. So my guess is, we will see some adjustments in terms of their ability to speak in court or be addressed by the court in future sessions.

    GWEN IFILL: Nancy Youssef reporting from Cairo tonight for McClatchy Newspapers, thanks so much for helping us out.

    NANCY YOUSSEF: Thanks, Gwen.

    GWEN IFILL: We mentioned earlier that Secretary of State John Kerry has visited both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in recent days to work on U.S. relations with both countries.

    NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins me now for more on this latest diplomatic effort.

    Margaret, welcome again.

    Listen, it’s interesting to me that John Kerry would happen to be in Egypt on the same day that Mohammed Morsi comes out of seclusion, out of jail, to go on trial. Coincidence?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, and, actually, it was the day before. No, it was very much awkward timing.

    GWEN IFILL: Right.

    MARGARET WARNER: The timing of the trip was dictated by what he is doing on the back end in Algeria and Morocco.

    But they very aware of the awkwardness of this timing. And, in fact, unusually, his trip wasn’t announced. His visit wasn’t announced until he got on the ground. Now, usually, that only happens when you go into a really dangerous place like Iraq or Afghanistan.

    And I’m told it reflected the sensitivity about the timing, the awareness of the sort of difficult security situation in Egypt, and also the anti-American feeling. All right. So, that said, they really thought about what he would say.

    And you saw yesterday in his press conference with the foreign minister, he said, we really think Egypt is on this road map to restoring civilian democracy. He was very encouraging about that. But he — and he said, we certainly expect that the constitution will include — will insure “all Egyptians” — quote, unquote — access to full and fair trials and transparent ones and due process. So, that was as far as he went.

    GWEN IFILL: Right.

    There has been some awkwardness because the U.S. has not conceded that a coup actually happened in Egypt. Any of that — was any of that on display, or is that just something that they are tiptoeing around?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, whether to call it a coup or not, this military-installed government is glad that…

    GWEN IFILL: Right.

    MARGARET WARNER: … at least the administration didn’t do that.

    But, again, you saw Secretary Kerry walking this really fine line, because most now — a lot of Egyptians are mad at the U.S. for not endorsing the coup.

    GWEN IFILL: Right.

    MARGARET WARNER: What was clearly a coup.

    So, again, you saw Secretary Kerry basically saying, you know, we applaud them being on the right track. The Egyptian officials actually told me afterwards they considered it very positive, because at least it showed the U.S. was now ready to move forward with this relationship, despite the fact that this is not a civilian government.

    But for the U.S., it’s a more mixed picture. And Kerry had to signal that about what — when and if the partial aid suspension will be restored.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of awkwardness, let’s move to Saudi Arabia, where…

    MARGARET WARNER: Another longtime partner of the United States in the region, yes.

    GWEN IFILL: Exactly, where he was also forced to walk a very thin, perilous line diplomatically.

    MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Yes, because Secretary — because the United States, which has been a longtime partner of the Saudis in that region, finally, Saudi Arabia’s unhappiness with the Obama administration burst into full flower, as we recall, a couple of weeks ago, with blind quotes and attributed quotes to the intelligence chief voicing such displeasure over the U.S., what they see as the — President Obama’s flip-flop on whether or not to strike Syria over chemical weapons, for one, and, two, its now very vigorous pursuit of negotiations with Iran.

    So, for Saudi, it is really all about the big struggle for power in the region between itself and Iran. And there’s definitely a doubt about the steadfastness of the U.S.

    GWEN IFILL: So, is it real anger or is this diplomatic anger?

    MARGARET WARNER: That’s much debated.

    There is real anger on the issues. And you heard that from the foreign minister today, who really ticked them off. And he said at one point there are ticking time bombs that cannot just be managed and managed endlessly. And he was talking about Syria and Iran. But I’m reliably told that the Saudis, despite the threats and some of those earlier stories, they don’t plan to try to totally go it alone in funding and giving arms to rebels in Syria, because they think only the U.S. actually has both the intelligence — has the intelligence capability to vet.

    They don’t want jihadis getting a hold of those weapons any more than Washington does.

    GWEN IFILL: And Iran is the backdrop to all of this.


    MARGARET WARNER: And Iran, of course, siding with Assad, is the backdrop to this siding, as well as every other issue on which the Saudis are currently disappointed with the United States.

    So I think we can expect the Saudis to continue to press the U.S. not to give away the store to Iran, not to lift sanctions too soon, and to do more to help the so-called moderate rebels in Syria.

    GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks so much.


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Tensions escalated today between the United States and Afghanistan, one day after both sides announced they had reached an historic agreement, paving the way for the U.S. to leave forces in that country beyond 2014.

    PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan (through interpreter): My trust with America is not good.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Afghan President HAMID KARZAI opened a meeting of tribal elders in Kabul with a blunt assessment of his often testy relations with the U.S. Still, he urged the loya jirga to endorse a new security agreement, allowing thousands of American troops to stay another 10 years in training and support roles.

    HAMID KARZAI (through interpreter): The security agreement will give us the opportunity to move from a transitional process to a stable process. As we are in a pullout process, this withdrawing of foreign troops from Afghanistan should be a happy process. If the foreigners leave Afghanistan unhappy, it will be very dangerous for us. I hope you get my point.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, toward the end of his hour-long speech, Karzai threw a new curveball; he called for delaying the actual signing of the agreement until after next April’s presidential election. The U.S. had wanted a deal signed last month.

    In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is seeking clarification.

    JEN PSAKI, State Department: We have been very clear, as the secretary was when he was in Kabul just last month, that the — in order to create certainty, in order for the United States, in order for our NATO allies to plan, we must do this as quickly as possible. Otherwise, it puts the planning and the post-2014 presence at risk.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The proposed agreement has several key provisions, among them, granting U.S. troops immunity from prosecutions in Afghan courts and barring Americans from raiding Afghan homes, except under extraordinary circumstances.

    In addition, President Obama sent a last-minute letter to Karzai, promising the U.S. will respect Afghan sovereignty and the dignity of citizens in their homes and private lives.

    In response, Karzai today underscored his country’s expectations.

    HAMID KARZAI (through interpreter): If Americans would like to sign the bilateral security agreement, in return, we ask them to provide us with stability and peace. I am sure peace is in their hands.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Foreign combat forces are already under a deadline to depart Afghanistan by the end of next year. Without a security agreement, all U.S. troops will leave, just as happened in Iraq, when Baghdad failed to sign a similar agreement in 2011.

    That would leave nearly 350,000 Afghan security forces without further U.S. military training and funding. The loya jirga will debate through Sunday. Its decisions are not legally binding, but, either way, the Afghan Parliament would still have to ratify the agreement.

    To help us understand this back-and-forth and the need for a deal is James Dobbins. He is the Obama administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Ambassador Dobbins, welcome to the NewsHour.

    JAMES DOBBINS, U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan: Thank you.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is the timetable for this deal? President Karzai is saying it wouldn’t be signed until April. The administration wanted it done last month. Which is it?

    JAMES DOBBINS: Well, the two sides agreed last November that we would do this within a year. And we continue to believe it’s important to achieve that timetable.

    And we’re pleased that we were able to reach agreement within that time frame on the text, and we’re hopeful that the loya jirga will give a positive signal. We’re pretty confident that the Afghan Parliament, which will also review this, will be positive. And we do expect that — it to be signed expeditiously thereafter.

    We think that’s important, both because we have our own need to plan for our future commitment — or lack of commitment, if it’s — if the agreement is never concluded. All of the other participants in ISAF — there’s some 40 of them — they need to plan. And their plans are dependent on our plans.

    And, finally, Afghanistan is going to a very difficult, delicate election at a time of considerable uncertainty. And we need to provide the maximum degree of certainty in the background about the international presence, about the American commitment.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to clarify, delaying the signing until April doesn’t jeopardize this?

    JAMES DOBBINS: I think delaying the signing to April will make it much more difficult for us to make our commitments. It will make it more difficult and make it virtually impossible for other countries to make their commitments. I think it will have a long-term deleterious impact on the scale of international assistance to Afghanistan.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re trying to get them to change his mind?

    JAMES DOBBINS: And, besides that, it’s a two-round election, and it’s not necessarily over in April. It could extend several months beyond that, because, if the first round doesn’t produce a clear winner, there will be a second round.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So it sounds like you’re trying to get him to change his mind and make it — make it sooner.

    JAMES DOBBINS: Absolutely.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the reports are, Ambassador Dobbins, 8,000 to 12,000 mostly U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan another decade, until 2024, in a training and counterterrorism mission.

    Is that what the U.S. wants?

    JAMES DOBBINS: The U.S. hasn’t made any — the president hasn’t made any decision on the numbers of the American troops. We do intend that we would probably the largest contributor in an allied force.

    The force would be in a non-combat role, train, assist, and advise. There would also be a small American counterterrorism force that would be stationed under this agreement. But the bulk of the troops would be in the train-advise-assist, and it would be a NATO force, with the United States as the largest single contributor, but with a significant number of other countries contributing.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re talking in the thousands of U.S. troops?

    JAMES DOBBINS: Potentially.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you said not in a combat role, but in counterterrorism, so they’d be armed. They’d potentially be putting their lives at risk.

    JAMES DOBBINS: I think the counterterrorism element would be relatively small compared to the train, advise, and assist.

    Afghanistan remains a dangerous environment, and, yes, our forces would be assuming some degree of risk. But U.S. casualties are way down already, because Afghans are in the lead. And at the point we’re talking about, the Afghans will be comprehensively undertaking the defense of the country.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the argument to the American people that they should support an agreement that keeps any number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for several more years, up to 10 more years?

    JAMES DOBBINS: Well, we continue to want to deny Afghanistan as a launch point for international terrorism.

    The Taliban continue to be linked with al-Qaida. If the Taliban were able to come back, seize control of some or most or even all of the country, you would again have a regime linked to al-Qaida and prepared to facilitate those kinds of attacks. And we now believe that we can do it with much — a smaller commitment, because we have raised and trained and helped support an Afghan army and — and police force of about 350,000.

    But we don’t believe that we can afford to abandon Afghanistan altogether.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The agreement — the agreement also has language in it, though, that puts limits on what U.S. troops can do in terms of not going, for example, into private homes unless there’s an urgent reason to do so. How much of a disadvantage is that?

    JAMES DOBBINS: The agreement actually pretty much describes what we’re already doing. Afghan troops are in the lead. We don’t go into Afghan homes.

    We sometimes accompany Afghan troops that go into Afghan homes if they have reason to search the home. So the things that we’re precluded from doing in the agreement are by and large things we have already ceased doing, and, after all, we want these roles to be assumed by the Afghans. We don’t want to continue to have to do them ourselves.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask because that specific language is in the agreement. The Afghans were — felt very strongly that it should be in.

    JAMES DOBBINS: Right. Right.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Ambassador Dobbins, the idea — among other things, what President Karzai said today was, he said, “My trust with America is not good.”

    Again, for Americans to see their troops committed to a country where the relationship between the leaders — or at least on the part of President Karzai toward the United States, is shaky at best, how do you — how do you explain that to the American people?

    JAMES DOBBINS: Well, President Karzai is not going to be president of the country more than another four months, approximately four to six months, depending on whether the election goes into a second round.

    Afghanistan is a democracy. It’s holding elections. I think we will judge Afghanistan’s attitude toward our forces and toward our commitment by what the loya jirga, which is currently meeting, decides, and perhaps equally importantly, what the parliament ultimately decides when this agreement is submitted to them. At this point, we anticipate strong support this both forums.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: You do expect strong support?


    JUDY WOODRUFF: And a new leader with a better attitude toward the United States?

    JAMES DOBBINS: Well, there’s — at this point, there are 11 candidates.

    The entire political class of the country is engaged as candidates or supporting candidates. I think most — several of the candidates have already said that they would sign this agreement if President Karzai didn’t. We don’t want to postpone a signature to that point.

    So I don’t want to characterize, you know, the individual candidates. We’re not backing any one of them. But I don’t think there’s any of them we couldn’t live with.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador James Dobbins, who is the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, thank you.

    JAMES DOBBINS: My pleasure.


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to an update from the birthplace of the Arab spring, Tunisia.

    The North African nation has struggled with democracy since the ouster of its former leader nearly three years ago. That struggle is not unique among the region’s new democracies, but its attempt to right its course is without precedent in the new Arab world.

    Producer Jessie Deeter recently visited the country and filed this report narrated by Hari Sreenivasan.

    ANIS MOEZ, Tunisia (through interpreter): When I used to pray, they would stop me and take my taxi permit. But now they give it back. And I went back to work. This is the only thing I gained from the revolution.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Anis Moez suffered under former President’s Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia, when Muslims were not allowed to show outward signs of their faith, including wearing head scarfs.

    Now, like many Tunisians, he’s still searching for the great promise offered by the revolution that kicked off the Arab spring nearly three years ago.

    Nabiha Ben Said is an unemployed seamstress who had high hopes after the revolution, but has become disillusioned with the ruling Ennahda party she helped vote into power.

    NABIHA BEN SAID, Tunisia (through interpreter): My wish? That Tunisia would stop and go back to the way we lived before. Life has gotten more expensive, too expensive in Tunisia. The population can’t handle freedom. It’s true. I swear to God. Look what freedom has done, where it’s taken us.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Tunisia’s revolution gave hope to the rest of the region that democracy was possible, but the transition from decades of authoritarian rule remains difficult.

    Over the summer liberal politician Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated. It was the second murder of a political figure in a year. The killings, combined with frustration over high unemployment and security concerns, set off a month-long protest and calls for the ruling Ennahda party to dissolve government.

    BEJI CAID ESSEBSI, Nidaa Tounes Party (through interpreter): They haven’t been able to achieve the goals of the revolution, in other words, the unemployment, the poverty in the marginalized regions.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi heads Nidaa Tounes, the secularist main opposition party to Ennahda.

    BEJI CAID ESSEBSI (through interpreter): There have been serious incidents, assassinations of politicians, which have never happened before in Tunisia.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: In an extraordinary move, Ennahda, led by Rashid al-Ghannushi, agreed to exit, rather than experience the fate of an ouster, like Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi.

    RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI, Ennahda Party (through interpreter): We in the Ennahda party have accepted to step down from the government without elections and without a coup. We will just work toward the transition and toward democracy.

    Monica Marks studies Tunisia’s political system at Oxford University.

    MONICA MARKS, Oxford University: They realize that’s probably the best strategic option for them, because they’re sitting at the helm of government at a time of great strife.

    MUSTAPHA K. NABIL, former Central Bank of Tunisia: We’re in a situation now where growth is very weak, job creation is very weak and the social tensions are high.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Mustapha Nabil is the former governor of Tunisia’s Central Bank. He fears that if a new transitional prime minister isn’t chosen soon, it will be hard for Tunisia to pull back from the upheaval created by ongoing political uncertainty.

    MUSTAPHA K. NABIL: You have a balance of payment under pressure. You have banking system under pressure. So, a lot of these things are coming now to bear, and the risks of some slippage, of some crisis, serious crisis, are there.

    TAREK SPIKA, Tunisia (through interpreter): I voted for Ennahda. The next time, I’m going to cut off his finger, this finger that voted for Ennahda.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: TAREK SPIKA is a shop owner from Gabes, an industrial town in the south of Tunisia. He says that the government hasn’t helped him gain the work and security he sought by moving to Tunis.

    TAREK SPIKA (through interpreter): Before the revolution a woman could go out in the street around 10:00 or 11:00 at night. Now no, because the country isn’t safe.

    MONICA MARKS: The security situation makes a lot of people nervous, because they are used to the eerie stability of a police state, in which nothing really ever happened.

    But, for average, Tunisians this is a fragile situation, but it’s also a frightening situation. And that kind of fear and feeling of instability I think, make people very vulnerable to these discourses of stability, of authoritarianism bringing more stability.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The main alternative to Islamist Ennahda is Nidaa Tounes. The party has been accused of having links to dictator Ben Ali’s old regime, which was notorious for torture and corruption. It’s alleged that much of the country’s business community had direct ties to the former president.

    Nidaa Tounes leader Essebsi says that he and his party shouldn’t be judged by the transgressions of some in the pre-revolution government.

    BEJI CAID ESSEBSI (through interpreter): I have been in politics since March 1956, independence day. I was here, and I’m still here. But the old regime isn’t all dirty, you know? There were two million Tunisians with Ben Ali. We can’t exclude them all.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But the new government by its own admission has not held members of the old guard accountable for past crimes.

    RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI (through interpreter): We have failed in some things. We didn’t hold accountable those who were corrupt. And so the protest against us are back because we were not strong enough in punishing the corrupt individuals.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Ennahda and its political opponents are in gridlock over the country’s future. And attempts to agree on a caretaker prime minister have been delayed. A new election won’t happen until six or seven months after that leader is chosen.

    KACEM AFAYA, Workers Union of Tunisia (through interpreter): We are currently pressuring them to convince them to reach a consensus in order to save Tunisia.

    Kacem Afaya of the UGTT union that is mediating negotiations between the two parties is worried about the consequences of not reaching a deal.

    KACEM AFAYA (through interpreter): It is critical that we avoid a bloody confrontation. It is essential that we succeed in bringing back safety and social stability. If we don’t find a solution in December, it will be the bankruptcy of this regime.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The constituent assembly, the body charged with rewriting Tunisia’s constitution, is more than a year past its mandated deadline and must wait until a new acting prime minister is chosen to finish. But it, unlike other parts of the government, will not be dissolved until the constitution has been completed.

    Amel Azzouz is an Ennahda member and constituent assembly representative.

    AMEL AZZOUZ, Ennahda Party: We will dissolve the government, but this constituent assembly will remain, because it the center of democracy. It’s the symbol of democracy. It’s the symbol of the will of people. And it is thanks to this assembly that we will guarantee the movement or the transition to another period, to an entrenched democracy and republic, a new republic.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: As difficult as this transition seems, experts like Monica Marks are still hopeful.

    MONICA MARKS: If Tunisia can pull through these next number of years, if people can together work for compromise and have that blitzkrieg mentality, we’re going to get through this no matter what, then Tunisia could become the first democracy in the Arab world, and no longer can people say Arabs aren’t ready for democracy.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But the longer Tunisians like Anis Moez wait for the critical next steps, the further away the democracy becomes.


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    GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: What’s become of the Arab spring? In 2011, there was great hope that democracy would replace authoritarian regimes in a number of countries in the Middle East, but that’s not exactly what happened.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner explains why.

    MARGARET WARNER: As the fourth year of the Arab spring begins, the Middle East is seeing fresh waves of violence of widening scope.

    In Syria, Sunni-led rebels long fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are now battling jihadi extremist units as well. In Iraq, where Sunnis are protesting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Maliki, militants linked to al-Qaida have seized key western cities. And in Lebanon, spillover from the Syria conflict has triggered car bomb assassinations of top Sunni figures and bombings of Shiite neighborhoods in Southern Beirut.

    Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, takes a long view of all this in his new book, “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.”

    We sat down for a conversation about it at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Marwan Muasher, thank you for joining us.

    What you call the second Arab awakening has so far seemed to have unleashed, basically, chaos and violence in Syria and in Libya, and new forms of undemocratic rule in Egypt, even Tunisia. Why is that?

    MARWAN MUASHER, former Jordanian official: There is no transformational process in history that occurred the course of a short three years. The Arab world is no different.

    The Arab world was living under a state of artificially induced stability for a long time, non-democratic governments, an Islamic opposition which promised the moon and did not — was not put to the test to deliver on any of its promises.

    Now that the lid has been taken off, all kinds of issues are coming out. So I think while it was simplistic to call it an Arab spring right after it occurred, expecting, you know, autocracies to evolve into democracies overnight, it is equally simplistic to think that this is an Arab winter, and that this is necessarily how the process will end.

    MARGARET WARNER: So, do you think that this region will move to some sort of stable, but also open and democratic rule?

    MARWAN MUASHER: I think what we have already seen is the bankruptcy of both the secular regimes and forces that are attempting to rule without a system of checks and balances and of a religious opposition which is promising the moon, but has not delivered on results.

    That vacuum, if you will, that bankruptcy of both the secular and the religious forces has not been filled yet. Obviously, radical forces, al-Qaida types in Syria and other places, are attempting to make use of that to their own advantage.

    So far, what we have not seen are third forces which are, you know, for democracy, for pluralism, assert themselves in this new transformation, and to present themselves as credible alternatives, both to the religious opposition that is there in the Arab world and to the secular, both regimes and forces who are also behaving in an exclusionist manner, and not really putting in place institutions that would assure a democratic and pluralistic culture.

    MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there’s anything in the sort of Arab culture or cultural DNA of this region that makes whoever gets in power embrace a kind of zero sum game, exclusive form of governing?

    MARWAN MUASHER: Absolutely not.

    What we are witnessing is a direct result of an era in the Arab world where democracy was not practiced nor encouraged, an educational system which basically taught people just to blindly follow leaders without critical thinking, without asking questions.

    So, obviously, when this is disturbed, both the religious and secular forces are behaving in nondemocratic ways. It’s so far a winner-take-all strategy. And as I say always, a zero sum game has meant that the sum is zero so far.


    Until both forces realize that this is not a battle between secular and religious elements, until that becomes a battle for pluralism, where everybody assures the right not only of themselves, but of others, to operate in the political sphere, this second Arab awakening will not be successful.

    MARGARET WARNER: But how do you foresee this battle taking shape? I mean, for instance, in Egypt, the young people, the middle-class people who came out to Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak go said this is what they wanted, and yet they proved incapable of doing the hard work of building parties, and went — and they lost the election.

    MARWAN MUASHER: This is a natural process that will, I think, take its course in Egypt, maybe 14, 15 years before we see stability come again and before people realize that pluralism needs to be the underlying foundation, the operating system for everything that can be done.

    MARGARET WARNER: The other split, of course, we’re seeing — and it seems to be growing wider and wider — has been between Sunni and Shia. Who’s going to resolve that? How will that get resolved?

    MARWAN MUASHER: Again, this is, I think, a result of — a direct result of the lack of pluralism, because the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Arab world is not just a religious divide. It’s all — also a political divide.

    MARGARET WARNER: It’s about power.

    MARWAN MUASHER: It’s — well, yes, and groups, particularly Shiite groups in the Arab world have lived as second-class citizens for a long time. They were not given equal rights.

    In my view, if all the ethnic, religious, political groups in Arab world are treated as equal citizens, a lot of these problems would just disappear. But this is not going to be automatic or immediate. This is going to take decades of work, in which you have to do things to the educational system, the value system that exists in the Arab world. In other words, there are no shortcuts to democracy.

    MARGARET WARNER: But, in the meantime as you pointed out, extremist elements, violent jihadi elements are taking advantage of this vacuum.

    The U.S. has made clear it’s not going to intervene in the classic military sense. What will — I mean, other than hoping that pluralistic forces get their act together, what will bring this region to some sort of stability?

    MARWAN MUASHER: I think the jihadi sort of phenomenon is transient in the Arab world.

    The radical elements in Syria now are being fought by the moderate Islamists themselves. This is a fight that needs to go on. But the overwhelming majority of the Arab world do not subscribe to al-Qaida types, do not subscribe to this jihadi radical thinking.

    In the end, the street in the Arab world, just as the street in any other place in the world, who cares about job, about improving their lot — they don’t care about ideology and radical forces.

    MARGARET WARNER: And overcoming that has to be done by the people on the ground, not by outside powers.

    MARWAN MUASHER: Absolutely. This is a responsibility of Arabs themselves, no one else.

    MARGARET WARNER: Marwan Muasher, thank you.


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    HARI SREENIVASAN: For some refugees, the United States will be the final stop on that exhausting journey. Yesterday, the White House announced that 10,000 Syrians will be resettled in the U.S. over the next year.

    For more on how those 10,000 will be screened and selected, I’m joined by Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International, and Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism.

    So, Daryl, let me start with you.

    How does a refugee get from some of those scenes that we have seen in this program and so many others to a country like the U.S.?

    DARYL GRISGRABER, Refugees International: Yes, it’s a fairly complicated process with quite a lot of steps.

    When a person first — for example, if we use Syrians as an example — flee Syria, goes to say, Jordan, in Jordan, they register with the United Nations, specifically the United Nations Refugee Agency. The United Nations will then do an interview, get a lot of biographical information, history, family members, that sort of thing, and try to decide if that person’s eligible for resettlement and if that’s the appropriate tool to protect that person.

    Not everybody gets resettled. It’s quite a small number. And then from there, the U.N. will make referrals to various countries that accept refugees, for example, the United States. And the United States then goes another huge process of vetting those people to make sure it’s OK to let them into the U.S.

    It takes about two years on average, sometimes longer. So it’s quite a slow process, yes.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And how do you do that for 10,000, 100,000 or whatever the final number is, whichever the countries are that are accepting them?

    JUAN ZARATE Former Deputy National Security Advisor: Well, keep in mind, last year, we settled only 1,500. And now we’re talking about 10,000. It’s an exponential increase in the numbers.

    And in terms of screening for security purposes, as Daryl indicated, you have an entire additional process in the U.S. context, where refugees receive the highest level of security check of anyone traveling to the U.S., and in that context, the Syrian refugees, the highest level of scrutiny.

    And so that is biometric data that’s checked, biographic data that’s checked, interviews from the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community looking at whatever information they have around that individual, their family, their networks, to determine whether or not there’s a security risk in that person resettling to the U.S.

    So that is time-intensive. And in the context of Syria, where the U.S. hasn’t had the benefit of being on the ground, like it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, you don’t have a lot of information. And so we’re grasping in the dark to determine what the risk is of bringing some of these people to the U.S.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are the agencies involved? Who pays for all this?

    DARYL GRISGRABER: Well, within the government, the State Department is involved.

    U.S. CIS, Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is within the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is within Health and Human Services, and there are a number of voluntary agencies involved as well. So there’s some private-public partnership once people actually reach the United States.


    I think the concern also, Juan, is these security checks, especially considering ISIS and how dominant it is in Syria, what is the likelihood of a bad actor getting through the system?

    JUAN ZARATE: Well, you have already heard the director of national intelligence, Director Clapper, talk about the intelligence community’s concerns about precisely that, the fact that the Islamic State, for example, could use refugee flows to implant individuals, operatives, sleeper cells into the United States.

    And the challenge, of course, for the counterterrorism community, not unlike other challenges that they have to face, is that we’re not talking about huge numbers. You can talk about just a handful or a dozen among that population that you’re letting in that could be problematic, hitting soft targets and presenting other problems.

    And so the intelligence community is incredibly conservative. As part of its vetting process, you have the National Counterterrorism Center and others looking at as much data as possible. And, frankly, at the end of the day, it’s about risk management. How much risk are we willing to take, given what is likely to be a lack of clear information about who is actually coming in?

    And we know terrorists in the past have tried to use this process. We have got a few cases in the U.S. of populations within refugees supporting terrorist groups. Not a lot, but the risk of just one or two is considered high for the intelligence community.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So considering that there’s going to be this many layers of checks and it could take this long, how do we deal with this kind of volume?

    DARYL GRISGRABER: Well, we get it going as quickly as possible.

    I would say first, the 1,500 refugees that Juan mentioned is a very small number for the U.S. addressing an emergency situation like this. We’re talking about four million Syrians who potentially need protection. Not all of them will be resettled, only a small number. But it’s important to get the flow of the process going as quickly as possible, because the security checks in particular take quite a long time, as you know.

    And sometimes it has to be done more than once. Sometimes, medical checks or security clearance have expired while another process is going on. So, there’s a lot of stopping and restarting in many cases. And so all of this needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, so really dedicating the financial resources and machine power to it will make a lot of difference.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And during this time, these people are not in the United States. They’re in that sort of first country where they registered.

    DARYL GRISGRABER: Yes. Yes. No, they stay in that country.

    And, remember, resettlement is a protection tool. They’re — people are chosen for settlement because they’re vulnerable and need to be relocated for their own safety. But with how slow the process is, sometimes, they will stay in that vulnerable situation for a couple of years at a time until the resettlement process is done.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And so what about the increased threat level when — I guess it depends on how they’re received in these different communities, even in the place where they’re waiting or in the country where they finally get to.

    JUAN ZARATE: It’s a great point, because this in some ways is the perfect storm of both a humanitarian crises, but also security crisis short and long term.

    The short term is what we talked about, which is the Islamic State taking advantage, putting sleeper cells in, et cetera, maybe not a high likelihood, but perhaps high consequence.

    But you also do have the challenge of displaced communities and populations being radicalized, falling prey to the lure of the ideology that has brought others to the forces of the Islamic State, and a real challenge, I think, for all of the receiving countries to make sure that there’s welcoming environment, resources and an ability to integrate as well as possible these populations, because one of the things we have seen in counterterrorism is one factor, not the only, but one factor that leads to radicalization, that leads to individuals going to fight abroad is not being integrated, not finding a way into the society in which they have moved.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Juan Zarate, Daryl Grisgraber, thanks so much.

    DARYL GRISGRABER: Thank you.

    JUAN ZARATE: Thank you.

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    U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in  Washington November 9, 2015.  The two leaders meet here today for the first time since the Israeli leader lost his battle against the Iran nuclear deal, with Washington seeking his re-commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  - RTS669M

    U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House Monday. Photo by Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.

    WASHINGTON — Minimizing sharp differences, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed their commitment to seeking elusive Middle East peace on Monday, though prospects for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians appear ever further out of reach.

    The U.S. and Israeli leaders’ meeting at the White House marked the first time they had talked face-to-face in more than a year. They have long had a frosty relationship, and tensions peaked earlier this year amid Obama’s pursuit of an Iran nuclear deal that Netanyahu vigorously opposed.

    Monday’s meeting was an attempt to reset ties for the final year of Obama’s presidency.

    In comments to reporters before their private talks, they sidestepped their disagreement on Iran, with Obama calling it a “narrow issue.”

    “We don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about us blunting destabilizing activities in Iran that may be taking place,” Obama said. “So we’re going to be looking to make sure we find common ground there.”

    Netanyahu didn’t mention the Iran matter at all in his public comments. But in their two-hour-long private session, Obama and Netanyahu discussed ways to cooperate to ensure Iran lives up to its commitments under the deal, said a senior Obama administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.

    In public, the leaders emphasized areas of shared interest, including negotiations on a new security arrangement and the goal of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, even as the two sides grapple with fresh outbreaks of violence.

    Obama said he was focused on “how we can get back on a path toward peace, and how we can make sure that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are met through a political process, even as we make sure that Israel is able to secure itself.”

    Netanyahu declared, “We have not given up our hope for peace.” He reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution, though he gave no ground on the Israelis’ longstanding conditions for achieving that outcome.

    The prime minister’s statement followed his apparent backtracking during Israeli elections earlier this year. At the time, U.S. officials said there would be policy ramifications for a Netanyahu shift on statehood, including potentially easing opposition to Palestinians turning to the U.N. Security Council to create a state.

    On Monday, however, White House officials said Obama focused more on getting Netanyahu to outline ways to keep confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians to a minimum in the absence of a long-term solution.

    “This is certainly an opportunity for Prime Minister Netanyahu to put forward some ideas to move this process toward a two-state solution,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said of the meeting.

    Netanyahu was said to be offering a series of confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians, including easing restrictions on communications, water usage and work permits in Israel and on Palestinian development in the West Bank.

    However, Israel has given gave preliminary approval for a new settlement project in the West Bank, territory Palestinians are demanding as part of a future state, documents revealed Monday. Most nations, including the U.S., view Israeli settlements there as illegal or illegitimate and hindering efforts for Palestinian statehood.

    A new round of violence broke out in the region about two months ago. Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of inciting the violence, while Palestinians say it’s due to a lack of hope for gaining independence after years of failed peace efforts.

    Obama and Netanyahu also discussed the renewal of a 10-year security agreement that could result in increased U.S. military assistance to Israel. The two leaders agreed Monday that a U.S. team will travel to Israel in early December to start discussions on the agreement, officials said. In the immediate aftermath of the nuclear deal, Netanyahu had refused to discuss the security agreement with the U.S.

    “The security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities,” Obama said. Netanyahu said he appreciated what Obama has done.

    “Israel has shouldered a tremendous defense burden over the years, and we’ve done it with the generous assistance of the United States of America,” the Israeli leader said.

    Monday’s meeting was clouded by the controversy following Netanyahu’s appointment of a new spokesman who has spoken derisively about Obama. Ran Baratz, a conservative commentator, has suggested in Facebook posts that Obama is anti-Semitic and Secretary of State John Kerry cannot be taken seriously.

    While White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed displeasure over the appointment, Obama was not expected to have brought the matter up in the meeting. Baratz is not on the trip, and Netanyahu has said he will decide his fate after returning to Israel.

    Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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    Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

    Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump injected the United States into a volatile crisis among America’s Mideast allies, siding Tuesday with Saudi Arabia and other countries against Qatar in a dispute that threatens to disrupt efforts to defeat the Islamic State group and counter Iran.

    In a series of early-morning tweets, Trump appeared to endorse the accusation that the small, gas-rich kingdom funds terrorist groups, a serious allegation against a strategic U.S. partner that hosts a base with some 10,000 American troops. He also sought to cast the anti-Qatar action led by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates as the result of his trip last month to Riyadh, where he pressed leaders from dozens of Arab and Muslim governments, including Qatar’s emir, to combat extremism.

    Trump said he’d told the kings, presidents and prime ministers that funding “Radical Ideology” can’t be tolerated, and “Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

    “They said they would take a hard line on funding … extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” Trump said on Twitter, claiming his visit to Saudi Arabia was “already paying off.”

    The president’s sharp critique of Qatar pulled the U.S. directly into a conflict that American diplomats had wanted the bickering parties to resolve among themselves. The U.S. wasn’t planning a major mediation role, a State Department official said, pointing to offers from Turkey and Kuwait to intervene in what is emerging as the worst diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf in decades.

    The fracas pits Qatar — a country smaller than Connecticut and the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas — against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Those countries on Monday severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, leading to suspended flights and regional ports closed to Qatari ships as anxious residents started stockpiling food.

    Qatar’s neighbors have long accused the country of tolerating or even encouraging support for extremist groups, including al-Qaida’s Syria branch — all of which Qatar denies. But its independent foreign policy has led to various tensions with its neighbors. The region’s Sunni states bristle at Qatar’s less hostile position toward Shiite Iran and object to its backing groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology challenges the system of hereditary rule in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere.

    For Trump, the rift has emerged as a key test of his goal to unite the region around destroying IS and other extremist groups, and containing Iranian influence. While he has even held out hopes that a communal effort could pave the way for Israeli-Arab rapprochement, the Qatar crisis serves as a reminder of the region’s many fault lines that challenge U.S. diplomacy.

    Political shock waves roiled the Persian Gulf, as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states cut all ties with Qatar, accusing the tiny oil state of supporting terror groups and embracing Iran. How did simmering tensions burst into full-on crisis for the coalition? Judy Woodruff speaks with Joyce Karam of Al-Hayat.

    While Trump, too, shares the Saudi and UAE goals of weakening hardline Islamic movements and stemming Iran’s influence, American officials hadn’t publicly singled out Qatar as a problem. Like earlier administrations, Trump’s had kept its concerns private while publicly praising Qatari efforts to stamp out terror financing.

    “They have made progress,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday, while adding that “they and we recognize more work remains to be done.”

    On Monday, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, encouraged the sides to “sit down together” to resolve irritants he said had “bubbled up” for some time. He didn’t take sides.

    It was unclear how Trump’s broadside against Qatar might affect the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS. The U.S. relies heavily on Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to orchestrate air attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. And it is trying to galvanize the Arab world to assume greater responsibility in fighting IS, something governments won’t be able to do if they’re consumed with internal spats.

    “It’s a mixed bag with Qatar,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, summing up America’s strategic conundrum. “They have been definitely playing footsie with a lot of terrorist organizations, but we have a big air base there.”

    The Pentagon cited no immediate effects from the instability on its operations. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, expressed gratitude to Qatar for supporting the U.S. presence, outlining no plans to adjust American military posture.

    Yet a prolonged crisis will put significant pressure on Qatar. Millions of migrant workers and expatriates live there, and much of Qatar’s food comes from Saudi Arabia across the peninsular nation’s only land border, which the Saudis have now closed.

    And a coup attempt or any cross-border action by the Saudis or Emiratis would put Trump in an uncomfortable position, given his now vocal support for the anti-Qatar action.

    If Qatar is economically weakened or decides to retaliate against Trump’s 140-character allegations, it has leverage. Beyond hosting U.S. troops, Qatar has invested billions in the U.S. and increased its clout in Washington along the way.

    It’s a strategy shared by other Persian Gulf countries seeking to win U.S. support — including Saudi Arabia. During his Saudi trip, Trump announced $110 billion in deals to sell weapons to the kingdom.

    And in its bid to lobby the U.S. administration, the Saudis spent about $270,000 at Trump’s hotel in Washington between October and the end of March, new foreign agent filings show. The Trump Organization says the money will be handed over to the U.S. Treasury.

    Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.

    Analysis: Qatar-Gulf split means splitting headache for the U.S.

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