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Jewish Journal

Iran First

by Rob Eshman

June 3, 2009 | 6:34 pm

I’ve had six different conversations over the past two weeks with the leaders of six different pro-Israel groups, few of whom get along particularly well and none of whom work closely together.

All these groups are out raising money, launching this or that educational campaign, meeting politicians, squabbling among themselves.

The world has dramatically changed, but the Los Angeles pro-Israel community still operates as if it’s 1993 — Clinton and Arafat are shaking hands on the White House lawn, there’s no recession and there’s no uranium in Iran.

If there were ever a time to make common cause with a united voice, it is now. And if ever there were a leader who needed to recognize the power of a united Jewish voice, it is President Barack Obama.

I’ll get to the content of the message in a moment, but understand that it will carry far more weight coming from the broadest spectrum of American Jewish pro-Israel opinion.

For years there have been sharp ideological differences between competing pro-Israel groups. What you would call the right supported Israeli settlement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, opposed a Palestinian state and refused to even entertain the notion of ceding control of a single square inch of Jerusalem.

What you’d call the left favored negotiations over land, supported a Palestinian state, opposed further settlement and kept an open mind over the future status of Jerusalem.

American Jews did battle over these divisions, each of which proffers a starkly different vision of what kind of state Israel should be. They set up offices, held rallies, bought round-trip tickets for an endless parade of Israeli speakers, and ran full-page ads in this paper advancing their cause.

Then, it all made perfect sense (especially those full-page ads).

Now, it’s time to rethink. There are a host of reasons why — there’s less money to go around, yesterday’s clear ideological walls have crumbled — but there is one that trumps them all: Iran.

The pro-Israel community needs to join together from across the ideological spectrum and let President Barack Obama know that he is flat wrong about linkage.

Administration officials have said that there is a connection between progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace and dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama has declared a “linkage” between Israel halting its settlements and America’s ability to deter Iran from building a bomb.

There are so many reasons why this formulation is deadly, but let me start with the simplest: It assumes if peace doesn’t come tomorrow, it could always come the day after. But if Iran chooses to develop and use its nuclear capacity against Israel, there will be no day after. In other words, Obama is linking a political and human-rights dilemma to an existential threat. At the risk of reducing historical analogy to the absurd, imagine if, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had told President John F. Kennedy, “We’ll stop pointing those nuclear warheads at you as soon as you make progress on civil rights.”

There are realpolitik reasons why linkage is foolish as well. An Iranian bomb would increase the chance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, give Hezbollah and Hamas a nuclear umbrella under which to fire their rockets at Israel, and, at the very least, elevate the Iranian regime as the savior of the Palestinians when its policies have done nothing but undermine the development of a civil Palestinian society.

Would the Iranians really use a nuke against Israel or sell one to Israel’s enemies? With all due respect to Fareed Zakaria, who peddles Iranian pragmatism like salted pistachios, no one knows for sure. But why in the world would any sane Israeli, or supporter of Israel, want to take that chance?

I’m not about to second-guess Obama on how to approach the Iranians. The last administration, despite its pro-Israel rhetoric, left Israel in a far more precarious position than it found it. But Israel and “linkage” is a dangerous non-starter — a policy that demands that America’s pro-Israel groups finally bury their ’90s hatchets and join the 21st century.

Every pro-Israel organization, from the left to the right, from Peace Now to ZOA to AIPAC to StandWithUs to AJC and more, ought to sign on to a single full-page advertisement in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and, of course, The Jewish Journal.

Here’s my draft of the text:

Dear President Obama:

As you know, the American Jewish community harbors deep ideological divisions over how Israel should handle its conflict with the Palestinians.

But today we are joined together to oppose any policy that conditions America’s full and immediate commitment to a denuclearized Iran to Israel’s settlement policies or its negotiations with the Palestinians.

While we disagree sharply among ourselves over the settlements and the negotiations, we know that linking them to progress on the Iranian nuclear issue imperils the existence of Israel as well as peace and stability in the Middle East.

We urge you to send a clear and consistent message to Iran and the world that any country whose leader threatens to destroy another — and supports terrorists who share that exact goal — can never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

Never before in our history have we joined together to express a single unified opinion, but we do so now in the hope that you might hear us and take heed.

With All Our Prayers for Your Success,

The Jews. All of us.

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