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Despite progress, Obama appears hesitant about Netanyahu meeting

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 06 November 2009

WASHINGTON – With President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to appear at the same convention of Jewish activists, and their governments nearing a deal on the thorny settlements issue, it would seem like a great time for a sit-down.

But there’s a problem: the reluctance of the Palestinians — and by extension the Arab world — to climb on board for renewed negotiations.

News Analysis

The close-but-no-cigar atmosphere prevailing in Washington is what’s behind Obama’s reluctance to meet next week with Netanyahu, insiders say, although both leaders will be addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in the U.S. capital. (See Big stars, nuts and bolts at the GA.)

Spokesmen at the White House and the Israeli Embassy said there are discussions about a meeting, but as of Tuesday nothing had been scheduled.

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President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured at a White House meeting in May, will address the upcoming Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, but it remains unclear if they will meet at the Washington event. White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

With Netanyahu set to arrive Sunday, the continuing uncertainty shocked Jewish communal insiders: No one could remember a time when an Israeli prime minister was this close to coming without a meeting in place.

“Someone’s playing chicken,” one insider said.

The sense is that Netanyahu wants a meeting and Obama isn’t so sure.

The ducking and weaving was all the more unusual for what Americans and Israelis agreed was a good meeting over the weekend between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton came to Netanyahu’s defense when a reporter asked the prime minister at a joint press availability Sunday why Israel would not agree to a settlement freeze as a means of luring the Palestinians back to the talks. Netanyahu replied that such a freeze was never a precondition for talks, but that he was ready to impose a qualified freeze in any case.

“I said we would not build new settlements, not expropriate land for addition for the existing settlements, and that we were prepared to adopt a policy of restraint on the existing settlements, but also one that would still enable normal life for the residents who are living there,” he said.

Clinton jumped in and noted that what Israel was offering was unprecedented.

“I would add just for context that what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate,” she said. “There has never been a precondition. It’s always been an issue within the negotiations.

“What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described — no new starts, for example — is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations.”

Clinton quickly added that “for 40 years, presidents of both parties have questioned the legitimacy of settlements,” but Arab capitals were buzzing with protests within minutes.

Clinton, who was on her way to Morocco to attend a summit of Arab foreign ministers — and to make the case for increased Arab involvement in the peace process — was under pressure, insiders said, to “walk back” her statement before arriving in a lion’s den.

Hence the statement that Clinton issued Monday, saying Israel’s current offer “falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be.”

“But if it is acted upon,” she added, “it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth.”

There was a degree of understanding for Clinton’s position in the pro-Israel community in Washington, and no one was ready to walk back the praise they had lavished upon her for backing up Netanyahu in the first place. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee “applauded” Clinton, and the pro-Israel lobbying group called on the Palestinian Authority and Arab states to return to talks.

If anything, pro-Israel insiders say, the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu teams is on a good footing and improving. Obama’s officials are pleased with the restrictions Israel has lifted in the west bank; Israel backs Obama’s strategy of containing Iran through engagement backed by the threat of far-reaching sanctions.

And the Israeli army and the U.S. European Command carried out a joint exercise Tuesday witnessed by Netanyahu, who called it “an expression of the meaningful relations between Israel and the United States.”

So what’s behind Obama’s reluctance to meet Netanyahu?

Insiders suggested that the U.S. president still feels burned by the summit he had in September at the United Nations in New York with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that produced no results and led to sniping between the Israeli and Palestinians sides. Obama wants the promise of substance before another meeting takes place.

Ori Nir, a spokesman and analyst for Americans for Peace Now, said a frustrated Obama administration is no longer looking for a boost in peacemaking and instead simply wants to usher along whatever components of the process it can.

The problem now, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that Abbas faces elections in January.

“The general rule is that neither side makes concessions during an election,” said Makovsky, who has just co-authored a book with Obama’s senior Iran adviser, Dennis Ross, called “Myths, Illusions, and Peace.”

Vexing the matter further is that Abbas, while popular throughout the Palestinian areas, does not rule the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas terrorist group is in control. Hamas has made it clear that it will not allow elections, and Abbas has yet to decide whether to hold an election in the west bank alone or to suspend polling until he reaches an accommodation with Hamas.

Clinton pressed Abbas on where he stood on whether to go to elections and more broadly on rejoining peace talks. He has yet to answer.

JTA

 
 

Obama administration presses multilateral approach on Iran

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The United Nations Security Council, meeting Dec. 10, hears a briefing from the chairman of the committee established pursuant to the 2006 resolution on Iran sanctions. U.N. Photo

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration continues to favor multilateral sanctions when it comes to pressuring Iran, senior officials have said.

“We want to create coalitions,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a Dec. 10 interview with Al Jazeera when she was asked if the United States was nearing the point when it would impose sanctions unilaterally to persuade Iran to make its nuclear program more transparent. “We want to find common ground with people. There are many things we could go off and do unilaterally, as the prior administration certainly demonstrated. That’s not our chosen path. We would prefer to take some more time, to be more patient, to bring people together to make the case.”

Clinton rebuffed claims that the United States and Europe had failed to persuade other major powers to make common cause on the Iran issue, referring to the recent resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, condemning Iran for failing to cooperate with its inspectors.

“The vote that was accumulated condemning Iran, calling for Iran to act, was shocking to some people because it was so unified,” she said. “It wasn’t just the United States. It was Russia, it was China and many other countries. That’s because we have spent time listening and working hard to create this common ground and these common interests, and we’ve done it out of a sense of mutual respect.”

Congress is pressing forward this week with a package of unilateral sanctions. Clinton’s spokesman, Ian Kelly, denied reports that the State Department was lobbying against the package, but added that the Obama administration prefers the multilateral route.

“We want to make sure that whatever kind of package is being considered, that it’s the right kind of package,” Kelly said in a briefing last Friday. “And I think we also want to be sure that whatever we do, we do it multilaterally. I mean, that just makes good practical sense. Any kind of pressure is going to be more effective if it’s implemented broadly and not simply bilaterally.”

Representatives of the major powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and China — will meet before year’s end to consider the next steps with Iran in the wake of its rejection of an offer to enrich its uranium to medical research levels in exchange for greater nuclear transparency.

Last Friday, the White House endorsed a statement issued by the Council of European Union, the EU’s foreign policy arm, that warned of a “clear response” to Iranian recalcitrance, an allusion to enhanced sanctions.

“Iran’s persistent failure to meet its international obligations and Iran’s apparent lack of interest in pursuing negotiations require a clear response, including through appropriate measures,” the EU statement said.

The White House endorsement echoed that language.

“If Iran continues to fail to bring its nuclear program into full compliance with the requirements of the United Nations Security Council and the IAEA, there will be consequences and we will be consulting closely with our partners to ensure those consequences are credible,” the White House said. “We will continue to assess Iran’s responses, and together with our partners will take appropriate measures in keeping with our common approach to the Iranian nuclear program.”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

Can Iran’s democracy clock outpace its nuclear clock?

WASHINGTON – Iran watchers keep two clocks: One counts down to a nuclear Iran, the other counts down to a democratic Iran.

Neither clock is guaranteed to keep ticking all the way down.

News Analysis

The international community hopes to thwart Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. And despite the upheaval in Iran last summer, no one is sure that the autocratic regime in Tehran is on its way out — or whether it will be replaced by a true democracy.

Still, recent developments on the ground — the rise last June and subsequent repression of Iran’s democracy movement, and Tehran’s apparent nuclear gains — have altered assessments about the two countdowns and whether they are influencing each other.

Some hard-liners such as John Bolton, the Bush administration’s pugnacious U.N. ambassador, say getting tougher on Iran would empower its democracy movement. Others, like Shoshana Bryen, the senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, counter that the democracy movement has essentially been snuffed out — providing another reason for the West to get tougher.

table class="caption">imageIran watchers in Washington and Israel wonder what will come first: an Iranian nuclear bomb or the turning out of the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shown addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro

Bryen says the nuclear clock is ticking faster — earlier this month, Iran announced plans to build 10 new nuclear fuel plants — and the regime in Tehran has figured out how to gum up the democracy clock.

“I think we are now not able to wait for the overthrow,” Bryen said, arguing that mass imprisonments and executions have intimidated Iran’s opposition.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak delivered the same message last week in meetings with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran.

“We see that the grip of the regime on its own people and even the cohesion of the leading group of ayatollahs are both being cracked and probably the countdown, historic countdown, toward the collapse has already started, but I don’t know of any serious observer who can tell us whether it will take two years, four years, six years, or 10,” Barak said in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And it’s clear to me that the clock toward the collapse of this regime works much slower than the clock which ticks toward Iran becoming a nuclear military power.”

A similar split is taking hold among those who oppose harsh sanctions. Many in this camp, spearheaded by the National Iranian American Council, say that the successes of the Iranian opposition movement bolster the argument for holding back on tough measures.

Others, however, heeding “realists” such as former George W. Bush administration officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, say sanctions are futile precisely because the Iranian government is here to stay, so it’s better to talk to the current regime.

The Obama administration appears to be shifting toward a dual track of investment in the democracy movement and tougher sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is accelerating talks with major powers toward a new sanctions package and said last month that Iran’s government is assuming the trappings of a junta.

A report last month by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the first time cited as “credible” reports from Western intelligence agencies that say Iran is actively working toward a bomb. The report is helping the United States make the case for sanctions to holdouts in the U.N. Security Council.

P.J. Crowley, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Feb. 22 that the Obama administration is still focused on outreach — specifically an offer to get Iran to give up its low-enriched uranium in exchange for uranium enriched to medical research levels. He said an international, multilateral sanctions regime was close — underscoring the Obama administration’s focus on pressing for U.N. sanctions targeting the regime’s leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that protect it.

Crowley also would not count out unilateral congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector — the approach being pushed by many pro-Israel groups.

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now — the only major pro-Israel group opposing the congressional sanctions described as “crippling” by their sponsors — says Iran needs active diplomatic engagement precisely because of the nuclear threat and the futility of sanctions, which he warned could backfire.

Nir says the prospect that the regime in Tehran would give way to democracy is too ephemeral right now to count on as policy.

A group of foreign policy realists for months has been advising the administration that investment in the Iranian opposition movement is futile.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett derided Obama’s outreach to Iran as half-hearted and said engagement with the real power — the Iranian regime — made better sense than staking anything on the democracy movement.

Not everyone is ready to count out the democracy movement.

David Cvach, until recently the second counselor at the French Embassy in Iran and now the Middle East specialist at the French Embassy in Washington, says he believes the fissures in Iran reach deep into the power structure.

“The system has lost its amazing capacity to bring everyone together,” he said of the regime in a Feb. 5 talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Cvach says the successes of the opposition coupled with the Obama administration’s attempts at outreach to Iran lay the groundwork for sanctions that would target the regime’s elites.

“We should now focus on pressure on the regime,” Cvach said. “We don’t need to know whether it has nuclear weapons or how deep the fissures are — what we know is enough to raise the pressure.”

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, says that sanctions could be counterproductive unless they are narrowly targeted.

“Sanctions that truly target the Revolutionary Guards but spare the population will likely not damage the Green movement,” Parsi said. “But blind, indiscriminate sanctions that hurt the population have in the past and will likely in the future make the struggle for democracy more difficult.”

Meir Javendanfar, a respected Iranian-born Israeli analyst who believes the post-June unrest has wounded the Iranian regime, favors the sanctions targeting the Guard’s banking and business interests — for now.

Broader sanctions, he says, are risky, but the prospect of a nuclear theocracy is riskier.

“Not imposing sanctions will be the worst option,” he said. “It will send a signal to Khameini,” the supreme ruler of Iran, “that the West is weak.”

JTA

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U.S.-Israel search for Middle East peace: Beyond Ramat Shlomo

 

At AIPAC, Clinton gets friendship, Bibi gets love

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to thousands of pro-Israel activists in Washington at the annual AIPAC policy conference on Monday. AIPAC

WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton to AIPAC: We’ll keep complaining about building in Jerusalem.

Benjamin Netanyahu to same: And we’ll keep building.

Guess which speech got the bigger cheers.

To be sure, in speeches this week at the annual AIPAC policy conference, all sides repeatedly stressed complete confidence in the durability and necessity of a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, and highlighted areas of agreement, first and foremost the need for tough action to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Several key differences were on display, however, as the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. secretary of state, and the leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not back down from their bottom lines.

AIPAC officials insisted that disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington take place behind closed doors. Clinton said the Obama administration will make its unhappiness clear and public when it regards an Israeli action as undermining the peace process.

For Netanyahu and AIPAC, Jerusalem is off the table; for Clinton it’s very much part of the discussion.

Clinton went out of her way to praise the Palestinian Authority; Netanyahu went of his way to criticize it.

The two speeches Monday — Clinton for breakfast and Netanyahu for dinner — culminated two weeks of tensions sparked when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that had been aimed at underscoring the close U.S.-Israel friendship and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“It is our devotion to this outcome — two states for two peoples, secure and at peace — that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem,” Clinton said. “This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it, and staying there until the job is finally done.”

Clinton’s mild rebuke brought surprising, if light, applause. It was a mark of the success of repeated pleas from AIPAC’s leadership to more than 7,500 activists in attendance to keep things civil. Clinton earned standing ovations coming in and out, and there was no audible booing.

Netanyahu’s Jerusalem encomium, by contrast, brought the house down — delivering perhaps the biggest cheers during this year’s conference.

“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” he said. “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”

Netanyahu’s message in meetings with U.S. leaders, his spokesmen said, was that the dispute over Jerusalem could delay peace talks by a year.

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr and President Lee Rosenberg were equally as determined to make Israel’s point, almost to the word.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement,” Kohr said in the line of the morning that brought the greatest cheering. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”

Kohr also made the case for keeping such disputes out of public view.

“When disagreements inevitably arise, they must be resolved privately as is befitting close allies,” he said.

That’s been the mantra of AIPAC, along with the center and right in the pro-Israel community — and Clinton turned it around.

The announcement of new construction in the west bank and eastern Jerusalem, she said, “exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. And it undermines America’s unique ability to play a role — an essential role, I might add — in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree to say so, and say so unequivocally.”

It was clear, though, that Clinton was sensitive to Israeli and pro-Israel complaints that the opprobrium she had heaped onto Israel — she called the building announcement an “insult” — was one-sided and that she had ignored Palestinian violations.

In fact, her spokesmen have condemned Palestinian incitement. And Monday, Clinton picked up the two signal issues that have exercised Israel’s advocates: the naming of a public square in Ramallah for a terrorist who led a deadly 1978 attack, and Palestinian rioting greeting the rededication of an Old City synagogue destroyed during the 1948 Independence War.

“These provocations are wrong and must be condemned for needlessly inflaming tensions and imperiling prospects for a comprehensive peace,” Clinton said to applause.

Clinton leavened her calls for an end to incitement by attempting to shift blame for the naming of the square from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to Hamas. And she had praise for the PA leadership.

“We commend the government of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for the reforms they’ve undertaken to strengthen law and order, and the progress that they’ve made in improving the quality of life in the west bank,” she said.

Netanyahu had only criticism.

“What has the Palestinian Authority done for peace?” he asked. “They have placed preconditions on peace talks, waged a relentless international campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and promoted the notorious Goldstone report that falsely accuses Israel of war crimes.”

AIPAC, Israel, and the Obama administration have differences on Iran as well. AIPAC activists pushed hard for enhanced Iran sanctions when they lobbied Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, while the administration wants time to exhaust the prospect of multilateral sanctions.

Here, though, Clinton was able to throw the crowd some meat, saying that whatever sanctions emerged, they would not be glancing.

“Our aim is not incremental sanctions but sanctions that will bite,” she said. “It is taking time to produce these sanctions, and we believe that time is a worthwhile investment for winning the broadest possible support for our efforts. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring these nuclear weapons.”

Rosenberg, just inaugurated as AIPAC’s president and a key fund-raiser in candidate Barack Obama’s presidential run, also made sure to hit affectionate notes, noting Clinton’s pronounced pro-Israel record in her eight years as a U.S. senator from New York. Among other things, she led the successful effort to force the International Committee of the Red Cross to recognize Israel’s Magen David Adom.

Netanyahu made sure to praise Obama for increasing security cooperation.

“From one president to the next, from one Congress to the next, America’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering,” he said. “In the last year, President Obama and the U.S. Congress have given meaning to that commitment by providing Israel with military assistance, by enabling joint military exercises, and by working on joint missile defense.”

Kohr, the longtime AIPAC director, used the policy conference to outline the group’s priorities. He focused on gaining Israel its deserved entry into the international community through membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates economic policy in the developed world; getting Israel a seat on the U.N. Security Council; and forging a closer relationship between Israel and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

All have been Israeli priorities for years, but throughout the Bush administration and the prevalence of neoconservatism in its foreign policy, AIPAC’s embrace of these issues was low-grade. In fact, in making the case for advancing Israel in the United Nations, Kohr even asked: “Now, some of you may be asking, why does it matter?”

He ran through an explanation of the U.N. Security Council’s powers, but left unsaid why else it matters: The Obama administration’s emphasis on multilateralism and on working out differences in international forums. Kohr was telling his activists that this was the new Obama order.

News Analysis

Perhaps most telling was where Clinton ad-libbed away from her prepared remarks and revealed a soft affection for Israel and its friends.

She delivered a prepared line about “pioneers who found a desert and made it bloom,” then paused and said, “There were people who were thinking, how could that ever happen? Ahh, but it did.”

She amended a line about warriors offering peace to describe them as “so gallant in battle.” Clinton asked the crowd if they thought she thought it necessary to speak “because AIPAC can get 7,500 people in a convention center? I don’t think so.”

In her lengthiest unscripted passage, Clinton recalled traveling the world during the 1990s, the heyday of Arab-Israeli peace talks, and never hearing anyone mention the conflict outside the confines of the Middle East. These days, she said, its periodic explosions into war is often the first item, however far-flung her travels.

It was a gentle unsettling of the belief that the Israel-U.S. relationship exists in a bubble unaffected by outside realities.

“We cannot escape the impact of mass communications,” Clinton said. “We can only change the facts on the ground.”

JTA

For a first person account of the AIPAC conference, go to ‘We prayed with our feet’.

 
 

Passover 1945

The Passover blog

The following round-up is adapted from JTA’s Passover blog, blogs.jta.org/passover:

Helping interfaith families navigate Passover

The Jewish Outreach Institute has launched a “Preparing for Passover” blog. The catch: It features women from other religious backgrounds who are raising Jewish children.

One contributor identified as Elizabeth took to the blog to recall her spring situation from last year:

“My parents live 800 miles away, and wanted to come spend Easter with the kids. We don’t celebrate it, but anytime they want to come and under whatever context, that’s fine. The problem — they were scheduled to arrive at four on the afternoon of the seder. While I would be making my four dishes for the dinner, getting dressed up and dressing the kids, stowing the spare chairs and tables in the car, getting our ritual objects out of the attic, rehearsing the four questions with my youngest. But really, it wasn’t the logistics that bothered me. It was whether to invite them. Invite them to an event that would be held half in Hebrew, three hours long, after two days of driving, with people they don’t know and rituals that they had their own Christian interpretations for? I didn’t really want to spend my seder being the explainer, holding everyone and everything together and feeling all of that stress myself. ...

“[Eventually] I sucked it up, decided I could handle this and invited them. But they didn’t come — it was Holy Week and they wouldn’t miss going to church that night. Duh. Another interfaith religious dilemma solved itself here in my little corner of the tent.”

If anyone out there is facing a similar situation this year, Levi Gibian Fishman of the Jewish Outreach Institute has put together a list of tips for conducting an “inclusive interfaith seder.” One of his suggestions: Honor the newcomer.

“Go further than merely acknowledging the newcomers sitting around your seder table,” he wrote. “Let them know their presence is truly a blessing. By choosing to partake, the newcomers are aligning themselves with the Jewish community and casting their lot with the Jewish people. Vocalize your appreciation during the seder by expressing how thankful we are for their participation.”

Twittering the plagues

Stephanie Simon and Ann Zimmerman of The Wall Street Journal reported on Rabbi Oren Hayon’s innovative initiative: Passover twittering.

“Building on a growing movement to add a bit of fun to the plagues and pestilence, he has recruited a handful of fellow rabbis to act out the Passover story in 140-character Twitter messages, accessible at twitter.com/tweettheexodus.

“The drama began [March 16] with a link to a trailer for the 1956 film ‘The Ten Commandments’ followed by @The_Israelites complaining: ‘We have much to fear from @PharaohofEgypt. He tires of us… ‘ The improvised dialogue will continue for two weeks.”

Keep it simple

That’s the main piece of advice from Tamar Fox of MyJewishLearning: “When Passover approaches, it seems like everyone in the Jewish community goes a little bit (or more than a little bit) crazy. You start hearing about people going through every page of every book in their house, trying to eliminate minuscule crumbs. Kosher stores are clogged with families inspecting the new Passover-friendly products, and elaborate Passover recipes are getting passed around, each of which seems to call for potato starch, and seven egg yolks.

“If you’re into that, go for it. But if you don’t have an endless supply of time and money to buy and cook for Passover, then let me give you my foolproof Passover food tip: Chill out, and go as simple as possible. You do not need a kitchen full of new supplies, a full slew of kosher-for-Passover spices, or a new cookbook to get you through the week of Passover. In fact, you need the opposite. Strip it all down to the bare minimum.”

Matzoh balls and strikes

Matzoh balls won’t be the only spheres being served up on Passover — the Major League Baseball season opener is on April 4: Mariners vs. Giants and Yankees vs. Orioles. But what to eat if you’re going to the game? A hot dog on matzoh? There’s a great children’s book (ages 5-9) on just this theme, “Matzah Ball: A Passover Story,” by Mindy Avra Portnoy and Katherine Janus Kahn.

Seder rations

Need a seder that’s ready to go and ready to eat? Here’s one all individually packaged. What’s the catch? To order it you need to be in the U.S. Armed Services. Served up by the Defense Services Agency, each ration includes 1 disposable seder plate, 8 packets of horseradish, 2 cans gefilte fish, even 1 white yarmulke, and much more packed in a white recloseable sturdy box. (Sorry no wine, but there’s juice.) Order early.

Hillary plays Exodus card

The U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, ended her speech at the AIPAC conference with a Passover flourish.

“We are entering the season of Passover. The story of Moses resonates for people of all faiths, and it teaches us many lessons, including that we must take risks, even a leap of faith, to reach the promised land. When Moses urged the Jews to follow him out of Egypt, many objected. They said it was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. And later, in the desert, some thought it would be better to return to Egypt. It was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. In fact, I think they formed a back-to-Egypt committee and tried to stir up support for that. And when they came to the very edge of the promised land, there were still some who refused to enter because it was too dangerous, too hard, and too risky.

But Israel’s history is the story of brave men and women who took risks. They did the hard thing because they believed and knew it was right. We know that this dream was championed by Herzl and others that many said was impossible. And then the pioneers — can you imagine the conversation, telling your mother and father ‘I’m going to go to the desert and make it bloom’? And people thinking, how could that ever happen? But it did.”

JTA

 
 

The U.S. should not give Palestinians a free pass

 

Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”

JTA

 
 

White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 
 
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