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September 22nd, 2009
09:22 PM ET

Pushing to jumpstart talks, Obama drops demand for settlement freeze

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

Prodding Israel and the Palestinian Authority to restart talks aimed at a permanent resolution of their decades-old conflict, President Barack Obama dropped a US demand for an Israeli settlement freeze, US, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

“Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward," Obama told reporters before a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime

Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that is necessary to achieve our goals."

Obama met first met separately with Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in what he called "frank and productive" talks. The session was the first among the three leaders since Obama took office in January.

FULL POST


Filed under: Elise Labott • Israel • Palestine • President Barack Obama
July 28th, 2009
08:48 PM ET

US gives Israel "big hug" with parade of US officials

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shakes hands with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shakes hands with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

Don't you just love a parade? Apparently the Obama administration does too, as evident by the steady stream of top US officials visiting Israel this week. A bevy of heavy hitters are there, the likes of which Jerusalem hasn't seen since the Persian Gulf War.

Just as Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up his meetings there, Mideast peace envoy Mitchell arrived for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will be followed later this week by National Security Advisor James Jones and Dennis Ross, the White House's point main on Iran.

Aaron Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator under president Clinton and author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace," calls it "the big hug," a show of reassurance to Israel that the US Israeli relationship remains strong despite the current squabble over settlements.

To be sure, ties between the countries have been strained over President Obama's firm insistence that Israel halt all settlement as part of his drive for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, including a Palestinian state. And Israel is concerned Obama's engagement policy vis-à-vis Iran will come at the expense of its own security.

But the flurry of diplomatic activity sends a strong signal that these disagreements are minor in comparison to how central the US-Israel relationship is, and how large Israel looms in every piece of the American policy puzzle in the Mideast.

Which is why Gates offered Israel security reassurances with talks on Iran and missile defense. And why Mitchell emphasized the enduring strength of the friendship between the US and Israel and has been working on a deal with the Israelis on settlements, which is expected to include a freeze on construction but would allow several hundred buildings already under construction to be exempted.

One question remains about this diplomatic A-team, though. Where is Hillary Clinton? The Secretary of State hasn't visited the Middle East March, when held one day of talks with Israeli officials. She has not been to Israel since Netanyahu took office.

To be fair, Clinton just returned from a 7-day trip to Asia and spent the beginning of the week hosting top Chinese officials for two days of strategic talks. Next week she leaves for a seven-nation tour of Africa.

But on Sunday Clinton appeared Sunday NBC's "Meet the Press," where she missed an opportunity to frame the week's visits within the context of the Obama administration's plans for Mideast peacemaking. She spent a fair amount of time insisting she was President Obama's chief diplomat and and deflecting criticism that she was "sidelined" by President Obama's team of foreign policy heavyweights and because of an elbow injury. "I broke my elbow, not my larynx," she told David Gregory.

Yet in the full hour President Obama's chief diplomat didn't mention the Mideast peace process, one of Obama's stated top foreign policy priorities, even once. Clinton already enjoys a healthy dose of Israeli respect from her days as a pro-Israel senator from New York. Now Clinton must also define herself, both in word and in deed, as a key player on the President's Mideast peace team.

President Obama, too, has to work at his relationship with Israel. His aides can only do so much to ease Israeli fears about his intentions. Candidate Obama got high marks for visit to Israel during the campaign. But if he wants to now been seen as the kind of honest broker that can achieve true Mideast peace, he needs to make his own trip to Israel. His Cairo speech in June established his credentials with the Arab world. Now it's Israel's turn.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Elise Labott • Israel
July 28th, 2009
03:15 PM ET

US suspends 4 visas of diplomats in Honduras' de facto government


Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

The State Department said it revoked four visas of individuals and is reviewing the visas of all others serving in the de facto Honduran government which ousted President Jose Manuel Zelaya last month.

The four individuals currently serve in the government of Roberto Micheletti. Each obtained "A-1" visas, diplomatic visas which allow them to travel to the United States on official government business, while serving under President Zelaya, but now serve in the de facto goverment led by Roberto Micheletti. The ban applies also applies to their families.

State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly called the move "consistent with our policy of the non-recognition" of the de facto regime.

"We don't recognize Roberto Micheletti as the President of Honduras. We recognize Manuel Zelaya," Kelly said.

FULL POST


Filed under: Elise Labott
July 27th, 2009
05:23 PM ET

An end to the battle of the billboards

President Raul Castro speaks to a crowd yesterday on the 56th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. He has taken down anti-U.S. billboards.
President Raul Castro speaks to a crowd yesterday on the 56th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. He has taken down anti-U.S. billboards.

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

It was the US government's version of the ticker in New York's Times Square, blasting Havana's main seaside strip with anti-Cuba propaganda in five-foot high crimson letters. It symbolized the tit-for-tat diplomatic row between Washington and Havana.

But the ticker at the top of the US interests section in Cuba has gone blank, yet another signal the past half century of animosity between the two countries is easing

State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the ticker was turned off in June because it was not considered an "effective" as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people.

The scrolling electronic sign, fitted across 25 windows of the US interest section, ran quotes from American heroes like Martin Luther King's, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up" and Abraham Lincoln's, "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."
FULL POST


Filed under: Cuba • Elise Labott
June 24th, 2009
12:18 PM ET

Officials: President Obama reconsidering July 4th invitations to Iran

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

The Obama administration is seriously considering not extending invitations to Iranian diplomats for July 4 celebrations overseas, senior administration officials tell CNN.

The officials said intense discussions on the issue were taking place, but the final decision had not been made.

Late last month the State Department sent a cable to its embassies and consulates worldwide informing them they "may invite representatives from the government of Iran" to their July 4th celebrations.

The U.S. receptions marking Independence Day usually feature symbols of Americana, such as hot dogs, red-white-and-blue decorations and remarks by U.S. officials about America's founding fathers.

The Obama administration had decided to invite Iranians to the celebrations at overseas posts as part of President Obama's policy of engaging the Iranian regime.

FULL POST

June 23rd, 2009
10:14 PM ET

A US ambassador – in Syria again

Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell visited Syria two weeks ago, where he said he had 'serious and productive discussions' with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell visited Syria two weeks ago, where he said he had 'serious and productive discussions' with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Elise Labott
State Department Producer

President Obama has decided to send a US ambassador back to Syria, a dramatic sign of reconciliation between the two countries, senior administration officials tell CNN. The announcement is expected to be made this week.

"It's in our interests to have an ambassador in Syria," a senior administration official told CNN Tuesday night. "We have been having more and more discussions and we need to have someone there to engage."

The official said that the decision was "not in any way" related to the election crisis in Iran, although the Obama administration has maintained engaging the Syrian regime could weaken Syria's strategic alliance with Iran.

Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha said his country had not formally been notified of the decision, but told CNN "if this is true it reflects the genuine desire by the United States of America to correct the past efforts of the Bush administration and engage Syria."

FULL POST


Filed under: Elise Labott • Global 360°
June 19th, 2009
05:28 PM ET

The coming of Imran Khan's Pakistani revolution

Celebrity Pakistani Imran Khan visited Washington this week to urge the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan.
Celebrity Pakistani Imran Khan visited Washington this week to urge the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan.

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

Most people remember Imran Khan as the former Pakistani cricket player and international playboy – Pakistan's version of David Beckam, leading his country to victory in the 1992 cricket World Cup.

Khan left the cricket field in 1992 and traded his signature leopard print satin pants for a career in politics. His Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party is small, but growing at a fast pace in the tribal Frontier province.

Still displaying his trademark swagger, Khan made the rounds this week in Washington, arguing in meetings with Congressional leaders like Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry that there will be no peace in Pakistan's tribal area until the US begins to end its military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.

FULL POST


Filed under: 360º Follow • Elise Labott • Pakistan
June 18th, 2009
09:18 PM ET

Clinton blazes trail on same sex benefits

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

Yesterday's groundbreaking move by President Obama to provide some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees came to fruition in large part due to Secretary of Clinton, who first put the issue on the table.

It is unclear whether the Obama administration came to office planning to offer government-wide benefits to domestic partners of civil service employees, but Clinton, a longtime advocate of gay rights, was on it day one. Since President Obama named her as his pick for Secretary of State in November, Clinton's transition staff and the State Department had been working with members of the American Foreign Service Association and the group GLIFAA (Gays & Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies) on what could be done to extend benefits to domestic partners of diplomats serving abroad.

At her very first senior staff meeting Clinton instructed the State Department to review whether she had the authority to extend benefits to same-sex domestic partners. About a week later a gay employee asked Clinton during a town hall with employees to eliminate discrimination against same sex partners. The Secretary of State drew loud applause when she said the issue was "of real concern" to her, and that she was already working on it.

FULL POST

June 16th, 2009
09:17 PM ET

State Department to Twitter: Keep Iranian tweets coming

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

The halls of Foggy Bottom are ringing with the Tweets coming with Iran and the State Department is working to ensure they keep coming.

Senior officials say the State Department is working with Twitter and other social networking sites to ensure Iranians are able to continue to communicate to each other and the outside world.

By necessity, the US is staying hands off of the election drama playing out in Iran, and officials say they are not providing messages to Iranians or "quarterbacking" the disputed election process.

But they do want to make sure the technology is able to play its sorely-needed role in the crisis, which is why the State Department is advising social networking sites to make sure their networks stay up and running for Iranians to use them and helping them stay ahead of anyone who would try to shut them down.

FULL POST


Filed under: 360° Radar • Elise Labott • Technology
June 11th, 2009
09:00 AM ET

They are human beings – 2 million of them

The fighting in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan has forced thousands of civilians to abandon their homes.
The fighting in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan has forced thousands of civilians to abandon their homes.

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke the Special Representative for Afghan and Pakistan has a beef with the term "internally displaced persons," or IDPs. Holbrooke just returned from Pakistan, where he witnessed firsthand the humanitarian crisis brewing as a result of the Pakistani military's offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley.

The United Nations estimates about 2 million Pakistanis have been displaced by the fighting, which Holbrooke called the largest flow of refugees or displaced people in Pakistan and India since partition. Most are currently staying either in "overburdened" private houses or schools, but many are living in refugee camps. Although Holbrooke said there are no epidemics of cholera or other diseases which typically are found in such conditions, the situation could get worse as the rainy season approaches.

"It's not a good sight," he said in his first Washington press briefing since President Obama appointed him in January. "The longer this goes on, the more critical it’s going to be."

FULL POST


Filed under: 360° Radar • Elise Labott • Pakistan
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