Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Small But Significant Changes

First, the Obama administration has stated that they are sending $900 million to Gaza to help in the rebuilding effort. This is not the first time that an administration has slotted aid for the Palestinians, but it's an unprecedented amount as far as I can tell. The mere fact that we might help Palestinians rebuild their flattened homes is irritating enough to the Israeli hawks, but apparently Secretary Clinton is also not afraid to call out the Israelis over the speed with which the aid is being distributed (via Glenn Greenwald):

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has relayed messages to Israel in the past week expressing anger at obstacles Israel is placing to the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. A leading political source in Jerusalem noted that senior Clinton aides have made it clear that the matter will be central to Clinton's planned visit to Israel next Tuesday.

Ahead of Clinton's visit, special U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is expected to issue a sharply worded protest on the same matter when he arrives here Thursday.

"Israel is not making enough effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza," senior U.S. officials told Israeli counterparts last week, and reiterated Washington's view by saying that "the U.S. expects Israel to meet its commitments on this matter."

What they're referring to our restrictions the Israelis have placed on the number of shipments of aid being allowed into Gaza on a daily basis. The Israelis say they're doing the best they can, but anecdotes like these make it appear that they are as cavalier about humanitarian aid as they were about avoiding civilian casualties during the Gaza offensive: incident occured last week at a crossing into the Gaza Strip that gave a very different impression to a senior observer. When Senator John Kerry visited the Strip, he learned that many trucks loaded with pasta were not permitted in. When the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee inquired as to the reason for the delay, he was told by United Nations aid officials that "Israel does not define pasta as part of humanitarian aid - only rice shipments."

Kerry asked Barak about the logic behind this restriction, and only after the senior U.S. official's intervention did the defense minister allow the pasta into the Strip. The U.S. senator updated colleagues at the Senate and other senior officials in Washington of the details of his visit.

Obviously, taking the Israelis to task over the pace at which aid is being delivered to Gaza is not the same as condemning the offensive in Gaza, but it's certainly light years beyond anything the Bush administration would've done.

Also, a change in the long-standing embargo of Cuba maybe be coming:

Monday's call by Sen. Richard Lugar for a major re-assessment of Washington's nearly half-century effort to isolate Cuba increases the likelihood that U.S. President Barack Obama will make substantial changes in policy toward Havana beyond those he promised during his election campaign, according to experts here.

"What's significant is that this is the senior statesman for foreign policy in the Republican Party, someone who doesn't have a long track record of advocating for changes in Cuba policy, who has decided to come out and really put his stamp on this issue by saying that the U.S. embargo doesn't favour our national interest," said Daniel Erickson, a Cuba specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank here.

"The fact is that Lugar has pre-empted Obama with his own proposals for changing the policy and in so doing creates a context that is much more favourable to changing the policy beyond the narrow of issue of lifting restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances" to the island, added Erickson, author of 'The Cuba Wars,' a recently published book on U.S.-Cuban relations.

"What you are seeing is momentum-building," agreed Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group that has long opposed the trade embargo. "With the policy already under review by the administration, Lugar is creating political space for Obama to take stronger action than he otherwise might."

A tougher line on Israel, a lessening of the embargo of Cuba? It's almost too much to hope for.

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