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Iran, again

 

Differences emerge on sanctions

WASHINGTON – As long as the Iran conversation was broad and dealt only with “sanctions,” the Congress, the White House, and the pro-Israel community seemed to be on the same page.

But now that Iran has rejected just about every bouquet sent its way and the talk has turned to the details, longstanding differences over how best to go forward are taking center stage.

News Analysis

With the backing of many Jewish groups, Congress appears to be pressing ahead with a package that targets Iran’s energy sector.

While the White House appears to support new congressional sanctions, it appears to favor more narrow measures targeting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, considered especially vulnerable because of the recent anti-government turmoil.

In part the debate is over which approach would do more to help opposition forces in Iran. But also playing a role is the Obama administration’s continuing emphasis on securing international backing for tougher measures against Tehran, the idea being that sweeping U.S. sanctions aimed at the Iranian energy sector could turn off several key nations.

Additionally, the Obama administration has not counted out the prospect of engagement with Iran, although the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government has put to rest any notion that it will entertain the West’s offer to enrich Iran’s uranium to medical research levels in exchange for transparency about the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

“Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering” of Iranians, “who deserve better than what they currently are receiving,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a news conference Monday.

Opponents of the congressional sanctions, which target just about any investment anywhere in the world in Iran’s energy sector, say they would be inhumane and rally support for the regime.

“Having opposed the adoption of crippling sanctions all along, Americans for Peace Now is glad to see further affirmation from the White House that it does not seek such crippling sanctions,” said Ori Nir, a spokesman for APN, the only major Jewish group opposing the congressional package.

In defense of the proposed legislation, one insider from a centrist pro-Israel group recounted a much-repeated scenario: The cab driver who runs out of gas in the middle of a traffic clogged street, gets out of the car, and raises his fist and curses — not the West as he might have just a year or so ago, but Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran’s leadership.

“In tyrannies, the fiction that keeps people under control is the trust they have in government to take care of them and the fear they have of confronting the government,” the insider said. “In Iran, the trust is gone and the fear is still there, but going.”

Concerns that the congressional package will lead to human misery are overstated, its backers say. The bills include provisions for presidential waivers and are meant first as leverage.

Similar sanctions packages passed by Congress in the 1990s also were never implemented by Presidents Clinton and Bush, yet they had an almost immediate effect because of the threat of being implemented. Major Western traders pulled out of Iran, which is partly why the country’s refinement capabilities are in disarray. Iran, a major oil exporter, still must import up to 40 percent of its refined petroleum.

The principals in shaping the previous sanctions — in Congress, the Clinton administration, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — now openly admit that they were playing a coordinated “good cop-bad cop” game: Republicans who backed the sanctions would quietly shape their criticisms of the Clinton administration in consultation with administration officials; Clinton officials then would cite that “pressure” in getting European nations to join in efforts to isolate Iran.

It’s not clear now whether a similar dynamic is at work between the White House and Congress. Some insiders say it is; others say the Obama administration is genuinely wary of punishing sanctions and is unhappy with the pressure from Congress and the pro-Israel community.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its sanctions package in late December, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to attend to the Senate version as soon as the chamber reconvenes Jan. 19.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he is willing to consider the White House’s objections, particularly to a proposed blacklist of companies that deal with Iran and to sanctions that target third-party entities — companies and nations that deal with Iran.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is moving ahead with the following actions:

• Pressing other major powers to back a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that would expand existing sanctions on travel and business dealings to 3,000 individuals associated with the Revolutionary Guards;

• Intensifying enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions on doing business with Iran;

• Intensifying efforts to uncover and fine companies that cover up their financial dealings with Iran.

JTA

 
 

Shouting into the wind

 

Why bother with Iran sanctions again?

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The United Nations Security Council, shown in session on Feb. 18, has passed sanctions measures three times against Iran but has failed to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe

For years, sanctions have been the world’s answer to Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Three times already — in 2006, 2007, and 2008 — the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions measures aimed at obstructing Iran’s nuclear capabilities and prodding the government in Tehran into cooperating.

News Analysis

The result: Iran moved ahead with building clandestine nuclear facilities, installing centrifuges and enriching unranium while refusing full access to international weapons inspectors and turning down deals with the West. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report saying it had evidence of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran to build a nuclear warhead.

Tehran repeatedly has made clear that its policy toward the West — on the nuclear issue and other matters, including last year’s disputed election — is defiance and obduracy, not cooperation or capitulation.

Now, in the face of mounting evidence that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb continues unabated, pro-Israel groups and U.S. and European governments again are pushing for new sanctions.

Given that sanctions haven’t worked in the past, is there any hope that things will be different this time?

“We won’t know the answer until we actually try,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main U.S. Jewish umbrella group on Mideast-related issues.

“Sanctions can have an impact if they’re the right kind of sanctions, if they’re not going to be put off,” Hoenlein said. “The question is implementation. It’s not moving fast enough. The Iranians only understand one language: They have to understand this is showdown time.”

For now the approach among Jewish organizational leaders who have led the campaign to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is to continue to promote sanctions — both by the United Nations and by individual countries, including the United States. The thinking is that sanctions under consideration are considerably tougher than earlier rounds and must be tried before any other options can be explored.

“If we’re willing to put meaningful, painful sanctions in place, it can work,” said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been the main lobbying group pushing Congress for sanctions on Iran.

“Do we have the ability to create significant economic pain for the Iranian government? Yes. Are they willing to change their behavior based on that impact? We don’t know,” Block acknowledged.

The new U.N. sanctions would target Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and more severely restrict Iran’s banking industry. For enactment, nine of the U.N. Security Council’s members must vote for them, and none of the five permanent, veto-wielding members — China, Russia, the United States, Britain, and France — can block them.

Russia, an early holdout, is sending signals it favors new sanctions, but China has yet to agree. Four more yes votes would be necessary from the 10 rotating members: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina , Brazil, Gabon, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Uganda. The four votes are not yet in place, insiders say, and the date for a vote on sanctions continues to be pushed back.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is set to pass broad unilateral sanctions that would target Iran’s energy sector.

As the day of reckoning with a nuclear Iran fast approaches, advocates in the Jewish community are being forced to confront the question of where to go beyond sanctions.

There are no sure answers. Sanctions have not worked so far, and the U.S. administration doesn’t appear close to considering the military option.

Even if Israel were to circumvent the United States and strike Iran, it would be hard to wipe out the country’s nuclear facilities, which are thought to include sites that are hidden, underground, scattered, and heavily fortified.

Some Jewish groups have begun talking about how to live with a nuclear Iran.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, said that even if sanctions couldn’t stop Iran from going nuclear, they still could help deter a nuclear Iran from using its weapons.

“The idea that the game is over if Iran has a nuclear device is mistaken,” Mizrahi told JTA. “As long as Iran hasn’t used a nuclear device to shoot anybody or give it to terrorists, we still have to give it a full-court press.”

It’s possible, she noted, that Iran already has obtained a nuclear device from North Korea or other clandestine methods.

“Even if they were to have a nuclear device and a rocket today, it would still be useful to have sanctions,” Mizrahi said. “They can still be dissuaded from using their weapons and giving them up.”

With the time remaining for effective sanctions to have an impact on the Iranian regime dwindling, is it time to go to Plan B?

“There are plan Bs,” Hoenlein said. “We have not advocated military action. We don’t believe that’s our role. We believe all options should be on the table, including that. If they don’t believe all options are on the table, they will never move.”

Plan B, he said, could entail anything from a naval blockade to military strikes. The United States does not yet appear to be at that point, but of course Israel at any point could move to its own Plan B.

Even as they concede that serious questions remain about the efficacy of new sanctions and other options, U.S. Jewish organizational leaders are canvassing the country and holding meetings around the world to warn about the dangers of a nuclear Iran — and not just so they can feel that they’re doing something or to give their audiences a reason to lay awake at night.

“I’m not trying to suggest this as a panacea,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy umbrella group. “We still have to get the sanctions thing passed.”

Talking about the dangers of a nuclear Iran can energize people to lobby their elected representatives, press the issue at consulates and embassies, and talk to associates with business interests overseas about the imperative to isolate Iran, he said.

The point, several Jewish officials said, is not to give up.

“Because of our history, because of our teachings, I think we’ve been taught that one cannot just sit by and watch evil win,” Gutow said, citing Theodor Herzl’s famous line “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Mizrahi also cited Herzl.

“I’m not optimistic about any of these things, but as Golda Meir put it, Jews don’t have the option of being pessimists,” Mizrahi said. “If every time the world said it’s impossible for Israel to accomplish something, if they’d listened, Israel wouldn’t have gone back to reclaim the land, drain the swamps, and build the country. I believe very strongly in what Herzl said.”

JTA

 
 

Déjà vu in Ahmadinejad performance at U.N.

NEW YORK – When Iran’s president spoke from the podium at the United Nations this week, the scene it sparked was something of a repeat from his address at the U.N. Durban Review Conference a year ago in Geneva.Then as now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks prompted delegates from several Western countries to walk out of the plenum — this time when he accused the West of double standards on nuclear technology.

It was political theater that has become a standard part of the drama surrounding Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West.

While the United States, European countries, and Israel press for Iranian nuclear transparency, Tehran does what it can to avoid tougher sanctions and divert attention from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Ahmadinejad’s appearance Monday at the review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, when he tried to draw attention to U.S. and Israeli nuclear weapons, was of a piece with that effort.

“Regrettably, the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including my country,” said Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to attend the conference.

Turning to Israel, he said, “Although the Zionist regime stockpiles hundreds of nuclear warheads, wages numerous wars in the Middle East region, and continues to threaten the people and nations of the region with acts of terror and threats of invasion, it enjoys the unconditional support of the Unites States government and its allies and receives the necessary assistance to develop a nuclear weapons program.”

Heeding a call issued by Jewish groups in the days leading up to the conference, delegates from the United States, Britain, France, Hungary, New Zealand, and the Netherlands walked out as Ahmadinejad spoke. Israel, one of three U.N. member nations that are not members of the nonproliferation treaty, along with India and Pakistan, was not at the conference.

“Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability poses a threat to the region and the entire Western world,” the president and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Alan Solow and Malcolm Hoenlein, said in a statement before the conference urging delegates to walk out when Ahmadinejad spoke. “To have President Ahmadinejad address this review conference makes a mockery of the efforts of many countries to prevent nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism from becoming the gravest global threats of this century.”

While Ahmadinejad tried to focus the conference attention on Israel’s non-participation in the international nuclear treaty, Western leaders sought to spotlight Iran’s noncompliance with nuclear inspectors.

“Iran’s president offered the same tired, false, and sometimes wild accusations against the United States and other parties at this conference, but that’s not surprising,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the conference. “Iran will do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability. Ultimately, however, we will all be judged not for our word but for our action.”

Jewish groups organized protests and a news conference outside the United Nations.

At one event, several members of the U.S. Congress and Jewish organizational officials gathered across the street from the U.N. building, calling the proceedings on the opposite side a sham. The protesters called for tougher sanctions against Iran and demanded that corporations stop doing business with the Islamic Republic. JTA

Ari Bildner contributed to this report.

 
 

Facing confluence of diplomatic events, Israel taking wait-and-see stance

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From left, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on Sept. 14. Moshe Milner/GPO

WASHINGTON – Heading into a period of intense diplomatic activity, Israel and the pro-Israel community are taking what may appear to be an atypical wait-and-see approach.

That sentiment and the Jewish holidays explain the relatively muted tone.

News Analysis

This week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik for their second round of direct talks. Next week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to deliver his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly — his first since the international community launched a major intensification of sanctions aimed at getting Iran to make its nuclear program more transparent.

Also next week, two separate U.N. inquiries into Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla of ships are likely to be released.

Such a confluence of events, with its potential for anti-Israel invective, normally would invite a vigorous “best defense is an offense” approach from the pro-Israel community. Instead, organizations appear to be hanging back.

The reason, insiders say, is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees the stakes as too high for nasty back-and-forths between Israel and its opponents to get in the way. Netanyhahu is genuinely invested in the peace process and does not want to hand Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an excuse to bolt.

Netanyahu also wants the Obama administration to have room to maneuver as the prospect of a nuclear Iran looms larger.

“The Israelis are saying this is real — Netanyahu wants to talk to Abbas one on one, and they will either move this ball forward or they won’t,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, who has been in close contact with Israeli officials.

Netanyahu’s seriousness is underscored by what appears to be a shift on extending the partial settlement freeze he imposed 10 months ago. Abbas has threatened to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended past its Sept. 26 deadline, and last Friday President Obama said he also wanted it extended.

The Israeli leader, who until this week had refused an extension, suggested to his cabinet on Sunday that there may be room for compromise.

“Between zero and one there are a lot of possibilities,” Haaretz quoted Netanyahu as saying.

Key to Netanyahu’s calculations is the improved relationship he has with Obama, a critical element in selling concessions to the Israeli public. At a news conference last Friday, Obama praised Netanyahu’s freeze.

“The irony is that when Prime Minister Netanyahu put the moratorium in place, the Palestinians were very skeptical,” Obama said. “They said this doesn’t do anything. And it turns out, to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s credit and to the Israeli government’s credit, the settlement moratorium has actually been significant. It has significantly reduced settlement construction in the region. And that’s why now the Palestinians say, you know what, even though we weren’t that keen on it at first or we thought it was just window dressing, it turns out that this is important to us.”

Another calculus for the Netanyahu government in its wait-and-see plan is the Obama administration’s success in drumming up Iran sanctions. Most recently, Japan and South Korea expanded sanctions over China’s objections, joining the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Norway in targeting the Islamic Republic’s energy and banking sectors.

Even Russia is reported to have effectively “forgotten” to deliver its promised S-300 air defense system to Iran, which would considerably boost Iran’s ability to repel a strike against its nuclear arms centers should they become active.

U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies agree that Iran is feeling the squeeze, Israeli officials have said, leading Israel to defer to the Obama administration — for now.

“We’ve seen that the sanctions have taken a bite,” Michael Oren, Israel’s U.S. ambassador, told JTA. “But they have not yet in any way stopped enriching uranium or pressing on with their nuclear program. So that’s going to be the true test. Six or nine months down the road, we’re going to have to reassess and see where the sanctions are going.”

Ahmadinejad’s planned appearance at the General Assembly next week usually would spur the major Jewish organizations to organize a major protest rally to underscore his isolation. But with the Sukkot holiday coinciding with this year’s General Assembly, the protest has been scaled down to a Central Park rally organized by StandWithUs, a student-driven pro-Israel group.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is urging nations to walk out when Ahmadinejad speaks.

“We call upon all member states that uphold democracy and human rights to manifest their rejection and disapproval of President Ahmadinejad’s incitement, bigotry, and Holocaust denial by walking out of the General Assembly during his speech,” the organization said in a statement.

Local Jewish groups are planning sustained activism on Iran, said Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils.

“Several communities are planning days of action to raise community awareness about Ahmadinejad, the United Nations, the continued threat,” he said.

JCRCs are asking members to press lawmakers to keep Iran on the agenda, on the federal level and state level, where divestment initiatives are flourishing, Protas said.

“There’s a recognition that the sanctions don’t end the situation,” he said.

The collective decision by Israel and Jewish groups to lay low on the dueling reports on the flotilla raid is seen as a test of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has tried to moderate the U.N. probes of the raid.

Israel was condemned harshly after its commandos killed nine Turks when violence broke out on one of the ships during Israel’s operation to stop the flotilla from breaking the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s defenders say the commandos came under attack and were defending themselves; critics say Israel used excessive force.

Pro-Israel officials expect the investigation of the incident by the U.N. Human Rights Council to be biased; the council condemns Israel more than any other nation. The other investigatory commission, however, which Ban appointed and is headed by Geoffrey Palmer, a former New Zealand prime minister, is seen as fair. Netanyahu cooperated with that commission.

The question, said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, is whether Ban will be able to maneuver his commission’s report into being the one adopted and advanced by other U.N. bodies, including the General Assembly, rather than the U.N. Human Rights Council report.

“This is a test for the U.N. and for Ban’s leadership,” Mariaschin said. “Will it be fair?”

JTA

 
 

Ahmadinejad, media rock star

 

Sderot, besieged by bombing, JNF provides cutting-edge protection

The mayor of Sderot, David Bouskila, and the award-winning journalist Linda Scherzer were guest speakers at a Jewish National Fund event held last week at the Englewood home of Doryne and Milton Davis. More than 40 people gathered there to learn about the current “matzav” (the situation) in the border town, a target of 8,600 Hamas rockets since 2001 — with 28 deaths reported by 2009, hundreds injured, millions in property damage, and thousands of people, including 3,000 children, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sderot has a population of approximately 22,000. At the end of 2008, the mayor reported, 10 to 15 percent of the population had fled — the average number of missiles that landed in the city daily was nine. Today, said Bouskila, the town enjoys a period of relative calm; only one or two missiles land every other day, and people have begun to move back to the city.

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JNF’s Bob Levine, left, stands with Sderot Mayor David Bouskila during a JNF gathering last week. Jeanette Friedman

Teaneck resident Bob Levine, JNF’s vice president of education, noted that a 21,000 square-foot, bomb-proof facility is protecting hundreds of children and senior citizens daily. It was built as a giant recreation center to provide children with a state-of-the-art safe play space/social center so that they wouldn’t have to worry about getting to a conventional bomb shelter within 15 seconds — the time between the sirens going off and the rockets landing.

Bouskila said that 75 percent of the children suffer from PSTD. “They may never be like other children,” he continued. “They lost their childhood, they worry about the situation and their parents and they don’t know what to do….

“Our children study in a democratic society with values of human rights … but the terrorists use human shields so civilians die. Yet that is not the point. It is the media. We are not popular in the international media. It is impossible to be strong and popular at the same time — we have to be underdogs. But if we become weak, we will be destroyed.”

Linda Scherzer, who made a presentation before the mayor spoke, had been on the Middle East beat for eight years and connected to Sderot as part of the Bergen County Jewish community in 2008, when a group of local women arranged to bring 40 traumatized kids from Sderot to summer camp in the United States.

Scherzer, a former Mideast correspondent for CNN, described today’s relative calm as a “hudna,” defining that Arabic word, often translated as “ceasefire,” as a time to rearm and prepare for more war. She said she’d learned from the Palestinians she covered in the west bank and Gaza that they had generational patience, that they felt that their turn would come eventually. As for Iran, she said, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is two years closer to his nuclear bomb, while he arms terrorists on Israel’s borders. “The extremists will tell you to your face they have no interest in peace,” she said. “They are willing to wait. They understand that if their grandchildren won’t see it, then their great-great-great-grandchildren will replace the [Jewish] state with a fundamentalist religion. Their numbers have grown and their ideology is consistent. What you see is what you get.”

What is far more troubling, she said, is the callous indifference of the international community and how everyone heaps calumny upon Israel. She wondered aloud if the media are to blame for this attitude and why it was not aimed at Sudan, Libya, Iran, and other regimes that ignore human rights.

But she feels the media are generally honest, with a fair degree of integrity. “It takes journalists a while to get up to speed,” she said, “but the Palestinians have convinced the world that they are the real victims. They know they are no match for Israel’s army, so they confront [it] on the airwaves [and] in a public relations war where they embed their fighters in civilian populations. Then they aim at Israeli civilians, knowing eventually the army will respond, and the images that result from that are compelling; they are filled with tremendous pain, and they make the pain on the Israeli side look like nothing.”

Scherzer told of a doctor, a Holocaust survivor, who was in her clinic in Ashkelon during an attack and was disfigured. At a U.N. panel discussion in Geneva, one of the panelists said to the doctor, “I feel sorry for you, but it in no way does it make up for the horror Israel inflicts on Gaza.”

The mayor thanked the JNF and American Jewish community for what they have done for the children of Sderot and added, “It’s not just about the children. JNF also built us a reservoir that provides water to all the farms around Sderot and gives life to the area. People who left are coming back and starting to buy houses and apartments. No one should believe that if we leave Sderot, there will be peace. We left Gaza, and nothing changed. We will not leave, because next it will be Ashkelon. We are in Israel proper, not in a settlement. Bibi came to visit, and played with the children. We are proud, because I bring world leaders to the recreation center and show them how the American people built it for our children. When Obama came to Sderot he said that if his daughters were in town, he wouldn’t let them sleep there.” Quoting the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, he said, “We will have peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

To raise funds for the shelter and other projects in Sderot, JNF is selling steel tulips for $1,000 a piece. Conceived and designed by soldier/artist Eldor Levy of the Givati Brigade, they are made from Kassam rockets that landed in Sderot. Bouskila said, “When a deadly weapon is transformed into a beautiful flower, it makes a powerful statement for peace. You touch the metal that was meant to kill. Now we can sell it to give life. This is our wish — to teach people to love.”

 
 

Response to fire illuminates challenges for Israel

 

Israel missing historic opportunity to support Arab freedom

 
 
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