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Jewish Journal

Barack or Bibi? Trust, loyalty and Iran

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 20, 2013 | 1:56 pm

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together in Jerusalem on March 21. Photo by EPA/Debbie Hill/Pool (Photo courtesy of Herb Alpert Presents)

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together in Jerusalem on March 21. Photo by EPA/Debbie Hill/Pool (Photo courtesy of Herb Alpert Presents)

On Rosh Hashanah 2012, just a few weeks before the presidential election, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe offered his congregants a sermon titled “The Most Important Question in the World Today.” In it, he told his congregation he was, at that moment, a single-issue voter: “I will vote for whichever candidate seems likelier to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Wolpe said.

With that election long past, whom Wolpe voted for may now be immaterial, but the issue he pointed to continues to be of vital concern to Americans and, in particular, American Jewry. This week, as negotiators from the United States and five other world powers (known as the P5+1) come together in Geneva for a new round of talks with their Iranian counterparts, American Jews concerned about Israel face an even more urgent — and perhaps more uncomfortable — variation on that question: Can Jews trust the Obama administration with Israel’s future? 

That question is at the heart of the disagreement that today is threatening to cause what one analyst has called the deepest rift between the two long-time allies in recent memory. Can American Jews rely on the Obama administration not to shortchange Israeli interests and concerns, even as it presses for a deal with Iran and urges Congress to oppose, or at least delay, legislation to impose further sanctions on the Islamic republic? Or, should they instead side with the president’s critics — foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who have loudly criticized the proposed interim deal that reportedly broke up the Geneva talks earlier this month?

“This is a bad deal,” Netanyahu told CNN on Nov. 17, repeating a phrase he has uttered countless times in the past month. “If you do a bad deal, you may get to the point where your only option is a military option,” he said. “So a bad deal actually can lead you to exactly the place you don’t want to be.”

 Among American Jews, the reasoning on each side of this issue is not as simple as, “Do you or don’t you love Israel?”

In Washington, the political question being batted back and forth — whether the United States should proceed with additional sanctions against Iran even as it engages with Iranian negotiators — isn’t simple, either. 

“That’s a very sophisticated political judgment,” Wolpe said in an interview on Nov. 15. But considering that the possible outcomes include an Iran with the bomb and a potential military strike, Wolpe was adamant about the importance of getting the next moves right.

“I don’t doubt the [Obama] administration’s intentions,” Wolpe said, “but I think that this is a part of the world in which idealism is very dangerous. And I’m afraid that we’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be too late.” 

These days, what’s being told to reporters and played out in public may not be all that reflective of what’s going on behind the closed doors of negotiating and briefing rooms — or, for that matter, at any undisclosed nuclear development sites that may exist in Iran. 

Moreover, despite the volume and intensity by which Netanyahu and others are pushing the Obama administration to take a harder line against Iran, everyone — including the president and Secretary of State John Kerry — shares the same goal: preventing the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And almost everyone says they want to achieve this — in a verifiable and sustainable manner — without resorting to military force. 

All parties even agree that the sanctions that have been in place for the last few years have been effective, particularly in getting Iran to elect a new more moderate — or at least more moderate-sounding — president, Hassan Rouhani. By bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, the sanctions also have pushed the Iranians back to the table for the current talks. 

Still up for debate, however, is what the United States should do next — a tactical question that is of great importance. Hardliners on this issue, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), want sanctions to be ramped up — even while negotiators are at the table this week. 

“It’s not so much the content of sanctions as the momentum,” Sherman said in an interview on Nov. 15. “A smart lawyer could figure out a way around most of the existing sanctions, and Tehran has smart lawyers. But the word has gone out to the business community worldwide, saying, ‘Yeah, you can negotiate a deal that isn’t in violation of current sanctions — but, every few months, there’s going to be additional sanctions.’ ”

On the other side, President Obama is urging congress not to pass additional sanctions while negotiations are ongoing. He is making the case both that the world needs to see the United States is negotiating in good faith and that the Iranians can’t have an excuse to walk away from the table. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), who along with Sherman and 398 other members of the House voted for increased sanctions in July, has come around to the president’s point of view. 

“I think we have to go into these negotiations very skeptically. Iran has proved to be hiding its nuclear program for years,” Schiff told CNN on Nov. 15. “At the same time, I don’t think we want to do something that jeopardizes the chance to get to a good deal. We may not get there, but I don’t think we should embark on another round of sanctions during the negotiations that might cause Iranians to walk away.”

As of Nov. 19, the Journal’s press time for this issue, it appeared the leadership of the Democratically controlled Senate and the chairman of its Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), respectively — were not going to permit any legislative moves that would advance new sanctions before the resumption of talks in Geneva on Nov. 21. 

The Washington-based politics of whether to proceed with additional sanctions are complicated — and similar political calculations and uncertainties exist in Iran as well as in Israel. 

[Related: Can Israeli and American Jews bridge the Iran gap?]

Netanyahu has been beating the drum against Iranian nuclear development for years, adamant, like most Israelis, that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the Jewish state. What happens in Geneva will be of the utmost importance to Israel’s future, yet Netanyahu will not be in the room to directly affect the negotiations. 

Some have posited this as a possible explanation for Netanyahu’s advocating a “maximalist” position — that Iran must divest itself of all enrichment capabilities. Few believe the Iranians will accept such a deal, but, the thinking goes, Netanyahu is still trumpeting his preferred scenario in an effort to push American negotiators to bargain as hard as they can. 

The Obama administration has made some efforts to put the Israelis at ease. 

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Wendy Sherman flew straight to Israel from Geneva,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, who directs the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corp., told the Journal on Nov. 15. “The United States is taking Israeli security concerns very seriously. But, in return, they want to ask for a little bit of leeway.”

That request has been rejected by Netanyahu — but as Kaye wrote in a Nov. 12 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, some Israeli voices are more receptive to the approach the Obama administration is taking. 

Kaye cited Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence agency, who now leads an Israeli think tank. Yadlin “would prefer a deal that leaves Iran with no remaining enrichment capabilities,” Kaye wrote. But unlike Netanyahu, Yadlin and others have publicly stated that a good enough deal “might allow for some limited enrichment capabilities at reduced levels, accompanied by intrusive inspections that would make it harder and costlier for Iran to cheat.” 

Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman who has represented the Obama administration before Jewish audiences in Los Angeles, also pointed to Yadlin as an illustration that some Israelis are more flexible in what they will accept than Netanyahu and see merit in what Obama and the other members of the P5+1 are trying to do. 

“From my perspective, and the perspective of many people that I’ve spoken with, what the president is trying to do is fundamentally in Israel’s interest,” Levine said. “I’ve actually spoken with Israelis who have said that it would be the best public service that Israel has ever received from an American president.”

You’d never know that from listening to Netanyahu — or to the top American Jewish leaders who have lined up with the Israeli prime minister against the still-inchoate deal. Indeed, at a meeting on Oct. 29, when Obama administration officials asked representatives from four top Jewish advocacy groups to hold off any lobbying for further sanctions against Iran while negotiations were going on, they were rebuffed. 

Leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations all immediately rejected the idea; Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League initially agreed but two weeks later made a blustery about-face.

Yet despite the refusal of the American Jewish establishment’s top brass to cooperate, staffers in multiple offices on Capitol Hill told the Journal last week that there had been no noticeable uptick in calls to their offices related to Iran sanctions, suggesting that the leadership of the American Jewish establishment hasn’t yet decided to go to the mat over Iran policy. 

in this combination image, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second from left, is pictured meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, fourth from right, at the first round of the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, on Nov. 9, 2013.  Photo by Reuters /Jason Reed

Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups on the left who are supporting the president’s call to delay any increase in sanctions against Iran have been quite vocal about their positions. Americans for Peace Now and J Street both have encouraged their followers to contact senators in support of the president’s request to hold off on imposing additional sanctions against Iran. 

“Legislating new sanctions at this time would undermine President Rouhani’s standing and leeway vis-à-vis hardliners in Iran,” J Street director of government affairs Dylan Williams wrote in Haaretz on Nov. 15. “It could also fracture the united multilateral front by imposing new penalties on some of our most important partners in this effort, particularly China and Russia.” 

While American Jews who prefer the hardline approach are loath to describe themselves as following Netanyahu over Obama — suggesting uncomfortable divided political allegiances — the Israeli leader has been injecting Israel’s interests very directly into the conversation in Washington, even going so far as to dispatch Naftali Bennett, a member of his cabinet, to the U.S. capital to make Israel’s case. 

And at least one American lawmaker has publicly sided with the Israelis and against the president on one occasion. Sen. Kirk, who for years has led the charge to sanction Iran as harshly as possible, told reporters on Nov. 13 that he found the closed-door briefing by Kerry and Wendy Sherman less convincing than what he was hearing from the Israelis. 

Calling the briefing “anti-Israeli,” Kirk complained he’d been told by Kerry to “disbelieve everything that the Israelis had just told me.” 

Kirk bristled at the suggestion. “I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.” 

Kirk’s comment, said Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Peace Now, illustrates the degree to which the hardliners distrust the Obama administration. 

“You have members of Congress come out of a briefing with the secretary of state and more or less say or imply, ‘You’re telling me to believe the U.S. officials, and Israeli officials [say something else], so I don’t buy it,’” Friedman said. “For that to be stated officially is extraordinary.”

Extraordinary, Friedman said, because it would seem that Kirk is siding with a foreign nation rather than his commander-in-chief. 

American Jews — even those opposed to the president’s policies — have tried to downplay any suggestion that they are choosing to be loyal to Israel rather than to the United States. And those who approve of the president’s course of action are quick to point out that Israeli leaders might want to consider very carefully the benefits and drawbacks of turning Iran sanctions into their pet issue

“In my view, it’s in the Israeli interest to ensure that this isn’t perceived as something that is an Israeli interest alone,” the RAND Corp.’s Kaye said. ”The Israelis will have to make the case that stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear state is in the world’s best interests, and in Americans’ interests as well.

“You can’t get too out of step with the American public,” Kaye added, “and the American public is not interested in military action.”

That last fact is only too clear to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the Democratic Congressman who in July co-authored a letter to President Obama urging him to take advantage of Iranian President Rouhani’s election to try to reopen talks. “Utilize all diplomatic tools,” Price wrote with Rep. Charles Dent  (R-Penn.) in the letter urging “bilateral and multilateral sanctions … be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran at the negotiating table in exchange for their potential relaxation.”

The letter was eventually co-signed by 131 members of the House of Representatives, and Price said in an interview on Nov. 15 that nothing that happened in Geneva during the earlier round has changed his view. If anything, he said that since August, when President Obama proposed a limited strike against Syria — only to reverse course when the level of public opposition to it became clear — he’s all the more convinced that the United States needs to exhaust all alternatives before entertaining the possibility of another Middle Eastern military entanglement. 

 “It’s a fine line we’re walking, and the diplomacy may not work out,” Price told the Journal. “But we have a huge stake in trying to make it work out, or at least salvaging the view that we’re the reasonable party.”

Perhaps no subset of the American Jewish community is paying closer attention to the revived nuclear talks than Iranian-American Jews. By and large, this community of Jews has been deeply critical of all Iranian regimes since the 1979 revolution there and are thus more inclined toward Netanyahu’s tactic of pressuring the regime over Obama’s approach of earnest diplomacy. 

But for Sam Yebri, president and co-founder of 30 Years After, a Jewish group made up mostly of younger members of L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish community, the issue isn’t informed by a preference for one leader or another, or even a particular political party.  

“We all want the same result: an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons, an Iran that treats its citizens with dignity,” Yebri said in an interview. “It’s clear that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have different views about how to approach the issue.”

Yebri said he understands that ultimately, the decision about whether to enforce additional sanctions against Iran lies with the president. Personally, he said, he’d prefer to see the sanctions expanded and tightened, and he described “a real sense of despair” among Iranian-American Jews, who feel that the momentum behind sanctions, which took years to develop, could be wasted.

“What informs me — more than anything else — is my family’s, my personal experience with the Iranian regime,” Yebri said. “It continues to butcher its own citizens. It continues to support terrorism. It continues to build a nuclear program and threaten Israel. It continues to repress the Jewish community, which is held hostage in Iran.

“It’s not about leadership,” Yebri concluded. “It’s about experience.”

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