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Jewish and non-Jewish doves unite to press for U.S. diplomacy

WASHINGTON – A funny thing happened on the way to modifying punitive legislation targeting Palestinians — Jewish and non-Jewish groups backing aggressive peacemaking established a coalition.

The groups succeeded in toning down the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. In the process they forged an unofficial coalition of so-called “pro-peace” groups that now routinely consults on issues ranging from Israel-Palestinian matters to how best to deal with Iran — most participants oppose new sanctions.

Participants say the Jewish groups in the new coalition include Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as two groups in the process of merging: J Street and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. Officials with the groups unabashedly defend their growing ties with their non-Jewish partners, insisting that the non-Jewish groups back a two-state solution and favor other policies that will help Israel by improving chances for peace in the region.

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Jeremy Ben Ami, the director of J Street, addresses a session J Street held jointly on Oct. 25 with the Arab American Institute while Jim Zogby, center, the institute’s president, and J Street political director Hadar Susskind look on. Arab American Institute

The list of organizations from outside the Jewish community includes narrow-interest groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace, and, more recently, the National Iranian American Council. At times the informal coalition also has included liberal think tanks such as the New America Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Center for American Progress.

The loose-knit coalition has persisted and even expanded since the election of President Obama, who is friendly to its goals of active engagement. Many of the organizations had an active role, or even helped sponsor, J Street’s inaugural national conference in October. Participants attend each other’s strategy meetings and, during intense periods — for instance, in crafting the modifications to the 2006 Palestinian legislation — speak routinely in conference calls.

“It’s informal and it’s based on personal relationships that we’ve developed over the months and years,” said Warren Clark, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella body for mainstream church groups from Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox streams.

For years, liberal activists — including some associated with the budding coalition — have protested the willingness of establishment Jewish organizations to embrace pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, citing their conservative views on domestic social issues and hawkish foreign policy positions. In recent weeks, however, Conservative journalists and bloggers have criticized the willingness of dovish Jewish groups to work with non-Jewish groups that have been critical of Israeli policies and oppose Iran sanctions.

Many pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, have made sanctions a top priority, portraying them as a means of leveraging Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear weapons program. Several members of the informal dovish coalition oppose such steps, with the National Iranian American Council leading the way.

Conservative critics have focused on alleged links between J Street and the Iranian group, lumping together the two organizations. Yet J Street officials have always stopped short of publicly ruling out sanctions, arguing that the time was not right for tougher measures, but might be in the future to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, indeed, J Street this week came out in favor of proposed sanctions legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress.

Americans for Peace Now, on the other hand, has joined the Iranian group, known by the acronym NIAC, in portraying the sanctions as inhumane and likely to reinforce support for the regime. In at least one mass e-mail, Americans for Peace Now directed readers to NIAC’s talking points outlining the case for opposing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.

In the wake of Obama’s election, NIAC called a meeting to strategize among like minds on Iran sanctions.

Lara Friedman, an Americans for Peace Now lobbyist, attended the meeting. So did Joel Rubin, then a staffer at J Street, though participants say he took part in a personal capacity.

In any case, the proposed language that emerged from the Nov. 12, 2008 meeting is broad to the point of meaninglessness, underlining the difficulties of pleasing all parties in such coalitions.

“Obviously with such a diverse group, it will be difficult to coalesce behind any specific position,” the minutes of the meeting stated. “But we all share a view that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, opposes military action against Iran, and agrees that sanctions are no substitute for diplomatic engagement.” (See page 26.)

Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said Friedman’s presence was unexceptional.

“We seek advice and guidance, including those that don’t share the views of NIAC — including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which we are a member,” he said. “Lara participated in this meeting and other meetings that included NIAC and other meetings of groups that have an interest in Iran policy.”

JTA

 
 

Iran sanctions likely to pass — thanks to Iran

WASHINGTON – For years the pro-Israel lobby has been pushing more punitive steps to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But with enhanced U.S. sanctions increasingly likely by early next year, opponents and supporters agree that the case was finally made — by Iran itself.

The key to the accelerated path to a sanctions bill that insiders now believe will land on President Obama’s desk within a month was Iran’s belligerent rejection of a Western offer to substantively enhance its peaceful nuclear program in exchange for greater transparency.

News Analysis

“There’s no lack of appetite for passing the sanctions,” said an official of one of the centrist pro-Israel groups that has pushed for legislation targeting third parties, including countries that deal with Iran’s energy sector.

“It’s evident,” the official said, that the Iranians “do not want talks. They’re not going full speed ahead, they’re going full nuclear ahead.”

Even a leading opponent of sanctions, such as Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, conceded that such a measure now seems inevitable — and that the Iranian government’s behavior in recent weeks was behind the accelerated pace.

“There’s a very justified disappointment with how the negotiations have gone and with how the Iranians have conducted the negotiations,” he said.

In October, Iran initially accepted the offer to hand over much of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment to medical research levels. It also agreed to allow inspectors to examine a second, secret nuclear enrichment plant at Qom, just days after President Obama revealed its existence, based on Western intelligence reports.

Within weeks, however, Iran reneged on the deal — despite claiming that it had suggested the deal in the first place — and obstructed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, from thoroughly investigating the second enrichment site.

Parsi asserted that the resistance arose not from a regime implacably opposed to engagement with the West, but instead from elements that oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and seek to undermine it by painting the government as undermining Iran’s national interests. The paradox, Parsi said, is that these elements are otherwise perceived in the West as friendlier to rapprochement.

Nonetheless, Iran’s recidivism led two of the most critical opponents of enhanced sanctions — China and Russia — to join in an IAEA resolution blasting Iran for not cooperating. Iran countered that it would build an additional 10 enrichment sites.

Iran’s actions whittled away the reluctance of a number of key players who had worried that new sanctions would pre-empt Obama’s efforts to resolve the crisis through direct talks with Tehran — chief among them the president himself, who is now considered likely to sign a sanctions bill.

It was Obama who dispatched his most prominent Iran hawk, Dennis Ross, and Jeffrey Bader, both senior staffers on the National Security Council, to China in late October to make the case for signing on to the IAEA resolution. Ross’ argument reportedly was simple but effective: Help contain Iran, or we won’t be able to contain Israel.

Another domino to drop was U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. He not only lifted his hold on the proposed House legislation, but is fast tracking it for a vote by next week. There are similar plans in the Senate, although they may be delayed past the Christmas break because of the vexed health-care debate.

In the Jewish community, tougher sanctions have been pushed for at least a decade by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and, more recently, by other centrist, established pro-Israel organizations. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a politically and denominationally diverse umbrella organization consisting of more than 50 groups, issued a statement over the weekend urging both chambers of Congress to pass sanctions legislation by the end of the year, if possible.

“The timing for this vote is especially significant,” said Presidents Conference chairman Alan Solow and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein in the statement. “Should the IRPSA legislation pass the House, it has the potential to seriously impact the Iranian economy. The prospect of the sanctions in this bill and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House in October, are essential to pressing Iran, the leading violator of human rights and state sponsor of terrorism globally, against pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity.”

Signaling just how widespread Jewish organizational support is for the sanctions, they now have the support of J Street, a lobbying group that generally advocates stepped-up U.S. diplomacy rather than confrontation.

For months, J Street has said it backed the sanctions in principle but opposed pushing them forward while engagement was under way. But Monday the group issued a statement expressing support for the congressional measures, citing “Iran’s continued defiance of the international community and its rejection of the most recent diplomatic offer on nuclear enrichment.”

“We’re not jumping for joy for supporting this legislation,” said Hadar Susskind, J Street’s political director. “Iran has showed itself to be bad actor.”

The legislation, Susskind said, “is not perfect, it doesn’t resolve every problem, but it shows Iran that the United States and other nations are serious about this.”

One pro-Israel group remains actively opposed: Americans For Peace Now says the sanctions would backfire by turning Iranians toward a regime now fending off accusations of illegitimacy.

The group is lobbying Congress to loosen the legislation’s restrictions on the president’s ability to waive the sanctions — saying that tying his hands undermines their usefulness as a diplomatic stick.

“Rather than ‘empowering’ the president with additional authority,” as the bill promises, Americans for Peace Now said in a letter to House members, “HR 2194 would sharply limit his authority regarding both existing sanctions and potential new ones.”

Steve Clemons, a senior analyst at the liberal New America Foundation, said such posturing plays into the hands of a regime eager to blare its nationalist credentials in the wake of a summer of protests that undermined its credibility.

“They are trying to create external crises to consolidate internal power,” he said. “We shouldn’t help them.”

Parsi said rushing forward the unilateral U.S. sanctions would undercut efforts by Obama to sign on the international community to multilateral sanctions by early next year, adding that unilateral sanctions might have the effect of alienating Russia, China, and key European nations by targeting major companies in those nations.

“Are you going to have a bomb by Christmas Eve?” Parsi asked, referring to the accelerated congressional schedule. “You don’t want to give the impression that people are dying to go for sanctions because that casts the diplomacy in doubt.”

Underscoring the sinking standing of the Iranian regime, Parsi’s organization blasted the Obama administration this week for not making human rights as much a priority as nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s human rights abuses must be addressed now and not just when our focus turns to punitive measures,” he wrote in a column on the Huffington Post blog.

“Otherwise, the administration will unintentionally signal that the rights of the Iranian people are used solely as a pressure tactic against Iran when it fails to compromise on other issues.”

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

 
 

Time to ratchet up sanctions

Josh LipowskyEditorial
Published: 08 January 2010
(tags): iran, china, qom, osirak
 
 

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

 
 

Israel seeks action from Germany

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 29 January 2010
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Israeli officials say German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Holocaust Museum in Berlin on Jan. 18, 2010, has been lagging in acting against Iran despite some outspoken declarations. Moshe Milner / GPO / Flash90 / JTA

On the face of it, Israel-Germany relations have never been better.

Last week, Israeli and German government ministers held a symbolic first-ever joint Cabinet meeting in Berlin — they had held a similar joint meeting in Jerusalem in 2008. And this week, President Shimon Peres was due to address the German Bundestag in Hebrew on International Holocaust Memorial Day.

News Analysis

Israeli officials say that Angela Merkel — who declared during a 2008 visit to Israel that “Threatening Israel is akin to threatening Germany” — has been Israel’s most supportive German chancellor ever.

But although there are huge benefits in the relationship for both sides, Israel has a number of nagging concerns.

Despite tough talk against the Iranian nuclear weapons drive, Germany remains one of Iran’s biggest and most important trading partners. Israelis are worried, too, about the huge disparity between German government support for Israel and the virulent criticism of Israel coming from many public opinion leaders in Germany.

There are also signs of growing anti-Semitism in the country.

Despite her outspoken declarations, Merkel’s actions are lagging — particularly on Iran. She is categorically against the use of force against the Islamic republic. And on sanctions, Merkel says Germany is obliged only to abide by those authorized by the United Nations. Tougher U.N. sanctions backed by the United States are facing Chinese and possibly Russian opposition in the Security Council.

In 2006, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made statements questioning the Holocaust, Merkel declared that “a president who questions Israel’s right to exist, a president who denies the Holocaust, cannot expect to receive any tolerance from Germany.” But she did not recall her ambassador from Tehran.

The gap between German word and deed on Iran is not the only discrepancy that has Israeli officials worried. They are concerned as well about the disparity between government support and popular criticism of Israel in Germany.

“This worries me because in democracies, political parties seek public approval for their policies,” Shimon Stein, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, told JTA. “In the long run, the discrepancy is not good for us or for our friends in Germany.”

German popular support for Israel has eroded steadily since the 1982 Lebanon war, according to Stein. In a poll taken after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, 50 percent of Germans surveyed identified Israel as the biggest threat to world peace. In a 2002 Der Spiegel poll, 25 percent of Germans agreed with the statement that what Israel does to the Palestinians is no different from what Germans did to the Jews in the Holocaust.

In testimony to the Bundestag in June 2008, journalist and author Henryk Broder warned of a new kind of anti-Semitism in Germany among the genteel classes, academics, and politicians of all stripes that takes the form of virulent anti-Zionism.

“The modern anti-Semite pays tribute to Jews who have been dead for 60 years, but he resents it when living Jews take measures to defend themselves,” Broder said.

Germans and Europeans in general — prosperous, at peace, not threatened by outside foes and human rights-oriented — find it difficult to empathize with an Israel fighting for its life, Stein said.

“When Germans say never again, they mean never again war emanating from German soil. When Israelis say never again, they mean never again being passive victims of their enemies,” he said.

On the positive side of the balance sheet, Germany is Israel’s third-largest trading partner after the United States and China, with an annual trade volume of more than $6 billion. The Federal Republic is Israel’s strongest and most reliable supporter in European Union forums, recently helping to moderate a perceived anti-Israel move by Sweden on eastern Jerusalem.

Perhaps most significantly, Germany has made a major contribution to Israeli security through the supply and partial financing of five state-of the-art Dolphin submarines, which, according to foreign reports, give Israel a nuclear second-strike option. German mediators have helped arrange prisoner and body-parts exchanges with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a German mediator is involved in the efforts now to secure the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel and Germany also are enjoying significant scientific cooperation; Ada Yonath, the 2009 Israeli Nobel laureate in chemistry, did much of her research in Germany.

Given all this, many Israelis are bewildered that Germany hasn’t done more to curb its extensive trade and technology ties with Iran.

In 2008, German trade with Iran actually increased by 14 percent, to more than $5 billion. The German appliance and technology giant Siemens alone accounted for $600 million. It has nearly 300 Iran-based employees, and with its Finnish partner Nokia provides state-of-the-art surveillance technology. In the mid-1970s, Siemens began construction of the reactors at the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran.

About 100 dummy German companies are suspected of involvement in the sale of missile and aircraft technology to Iran, some rerouted through the United Arab Republic in the UAE. There also have been dozens of cases of “dual use” contracts between Germany and Iran: the sale for civilian use of technology that could be used for military purposes.

For Iranians, German brands long have been the products of choice. According to unofficial German estimates, 75 percent of small- and medium-sized Iranian factories use German equipment and technology. While this is a good indicator of the amount of trade between the two countries, it also shows just how much leverage Germany could have on Iran.

In early 2009, after pressure from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Merkel moved to limit export guarantees, known as “Hermes Cover,” to firms doing business with Iran. This seems to have had some effect after the unrest that followed the disputed June election in Iran, when some German firms froze activities in Iran because of the perceived risk.

Israeli pressure also forced the cancellation last week of a huge contract for Hamburg Port Consulting to run Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port from which a ship called the Francop set out carrying roughly 500 tons of weapons for Iran’s Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. It was intercepted on the high seas by the Israeli navy last November.

Israel reportedly is working behind the scenes to get a huge gas deal with an unnamed German firm canceled — a $1.44 billion contract reportedly signed last week to supply Iran with 100 gas turbo compressors for the production of liquefied natural gas.

Whether or not Israel’s efforts will bear fruit remains to be seen.

JTA

 
 

Mossad chief seen as indispensable on Iran

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 26 February 2010

JERUSALEM – Israel has not claimed responsibility for the assassination in Dubai of top Hamas arms smuggler Mahmoud Mabhouh, but the killing is raising questions about whether it will compromise Israel’s effort to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

That’s because one of the key figures behind the effort, Mossad chief Meir Dagan, is coming under heavy criticism for the sloppy operation in Dubai.

Operating under the assumption that Israel was behind the Dubai hit, some Israeli analysts are calling for Dagan’s ouster. They say the Mossad has adopted an irresponsible, trigger-happy approach to fighting terrorism, and they point to the diplomatic imbroglio facing Israel for the use of fake British and Irish passports by members of the hit squad, who traveled under the names of European citizens now living in Israel.

Dagan’s tenure at the Mossad is up for renewal at the end of the year.

Defenders of Dagan point to the long list of Mossad achievements in the war on terrorism and the campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, and argue that his tenure at the intelligency agency should be extended for an unprecedented fourth time. They insist that his knowledge of the Iranian theater is unmatched, and that as the clock reaches zero hour on the Iranian nuclear threat, his input will be invaluable — and not only for Israel.

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Mossad chief Meir Dagan, shown at a Knesset committee meeting in February 2008, has earned plaudits for his actions on Iran and some criticism for his tactics countering terrorism. Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Under Dagan, the Mossad has had just two priorities: delaying Iran’s nuclear program and counter-terrorism.

“The list must be short. If we continue pretending we can do everything, in the end we won’t do anything,” Dagan was quoted as saying when he was appointed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2002.

Sharon reportedly told Dagan to run the agency “with a knife between its teeth.”

The main focus of his tenure has been Iran. Soon after Dagan took over the Mossad, the agency reportedly passed on information to the United States and others that the rogue Pakistani nuclear dealer Abdel Qadir Khan was helping the Iranians build a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.

Since then, a string of unexplained accidents has afflicted the Iranian nuclear project: scientists have disappeared, laboratories have caught fire, aircraft have crashed, and whole batches of equipment have proved faulty.

In 2007, Israeli intelligence detected work on a secret nuclear program in Syria, and in September of that year Israeli planes bombed the site of a North Korea-style reactor the Syrians were building.

The Mossad also was credited for the discovery of a hidden Iranian enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom last September — a find that finally convinced even previously skeptical international observers that Iran indeed was conducting a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

Although the Mossad has not claimed credit for any of this, regional players have little doubt as to who has been behind the killings, the accidents, and the pinpoint intelligence.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram daily ran an article in mid-January calling Dagan Israel’s Superman and claiming that he almost singlehandedly has delayed the Iranian bomb.

“Without this man, the Iranian nuclear program would have taken off years ago,” the newspaper’s former Gaza correspondent Ashraf Abu al-Haul wrote. In a moment of rare praise for an Israeli in the Egyptian press, he called Dagan’s actions against Israel’s enemies “very brave.”

Now, as the international community dithers over new sanctions against Iran and the Iranians move closer to nuclear weapons’ capacity, Dagan’s reading of the situation will be crucial. He recently revised backward his estimate of when Iran will be able to manufacture a bomb it can deliver to 2014.

Still, there are fears in the international community that Israel may act to stop the Iranian program before it reaches its “breakout point” — when Iran will have stockpiled enough highly enriched uranium to manufacture a bomb if it so chooses. That could come by the end of this year.

For now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he favors giving sanctions a chance as long as they are tough — not allowing oil out of Iran or oil distillates like petroleum into the country.

“If one is talking about what are effective sanctions, they must include the constriction of the export of oil from Iran and the import of refined oil into Iran,” Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors meeting. “I think that nothing else stands a real chance to stop the progress of the regime, but this has a chance. At least it must be tried and must be tried now.”

Few criticize Dagan’s actions on Iran, but some question his derring-do tactics on terrorism as allegedly reflected in the Dubai operation. They argue that his risk-taking could cost Israel diplomatically and provoke heavy terrorist retaliation. His critics also contend that taking out top terrorists is a dubious proposition: Often their replacements are even more dangerous.

Dagan’s eight years at the helm have seen several targeted killings of top Hezbollah and Hamas operatives in Beirut and Damascus attributed to the Mossad — the most notable of which was the assassination of Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyeh in a car bombing in Damascus in February 2008. Mugniyeh, who reportedly planned the attack on the U.S. Marines compound in Beirut in 1983, had been on the wanted lists of Israel and the United States for more than two decades.

Late last year the Mossad, although it never acknowledged any involvement, seemed to step up its activities.

In early December, a bus carrying Hamas members and Iranian officials exploded outside Damascus. Two weeks later, two Hamas members were killed in a mysterious bombing in the heart of Hezbollah’s Dahiya stronghold in southern Beirut. Last month, an Iranian nuclear scientist died in a bombing outside his home in Tehran. A week later, Mabhouh was found dead in his Dubai hotel room.

Dagan also has pulled off some major intelligence coups in the war on terror, enabling Israeli forces to intercept weapons destined for Hamas and Hezbollah as far afield as Sudan and on the high seas near Cyprus.

In mid-January 2009, a convoy carrying weapons for Hamas during Operation Cast Lead reportedly was bombed by Israel Air Force planes in Sudan. In November, the Francop, an Antigua-flagged vessel carrying more than 100 tons of rockets, mortars, and anti-tank weapons for Hezbollah, was captured by the Israeli navy.

Dagan’s advice on Iran over the coming months will carry considerable weight. He seems to think there is still time for actions other than a full-scale military operation.

If and when it comes to that, however, chances are that despite the Dubai incident, Netanyahu, one of Dagan’s staunchest admirers, will want Dagan at his side helping to plan it.

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

Rothman meeting examines U.S.-Israeli missile defense

When Rep. Steve Rothman met late last month with the head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, the two discussed state-of-the-art defense programs that will protect the Jewish state from regional threats while providing the United States with access to superior technology.

Rothman (D-9) sits on the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which allocates all funding for U.S. military and joint U.S.-Israel defense projects. The Feb. 23 meeting with Arieh Herzog focused specifically on three missile defense programs: David’s Sling, a short-range ballistic missile defense system; the Aarow 2, an anti-tactical ballistic missile system; and the Arrow 3, an upper-tier system capable of stopping longer range missiles. (See With Murtha gone, what are ramifications for Israel?)

“The joint projects I discussed with director Herzog — and have discussed with the highest level of military and intelligence personnel at the highest level of the U.S. government — will not only provide Israel with superior missile defense systems but will also provide the United States with access to that technology at every stage of development for use by American forces and other American allies,” Rothman told The Jewish Standard earlier this week.

David’s Sling, which Rothman said has almost completed full testing, is designed to protect against Kassam rockets from Gaza and Katyushas from Lebanon. Israeli defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and the American defense contractor Raytheon are jointly developing the system. The first live-fire test of the system is expected sometime this year.

Asked about Israel’s Iron Dome system, which the Jewish state developed on its own to protect against Kassam rockets, Rothman said it provides a larger defense radius than David’s Sling, but both would contribute to “Israel’s defensive umbrella.”

The Arrow 2 system is already operational. It is designed to protect against lethal short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, such as those currently located in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

The Arrow 3 system is designed to intercept a future Iranian or other long-range missile that achieves its range by leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike the Arrow 2 warhead, which can explode without directly hitting its target, the Arrow 3 needs to directly strike the offensive missile. This, Rothman said, makes the Arrow 3 a less expensive system than its predecessor since it requires fewer explosives and thus has a smaller payload to carry.

“One of the benefits of the Arrow 3 is it will be cheaper to make and more can be acquired in Israel’s and America’s defensive arsenal for less money, yet [they will] get the job done,” Rothman said.

Israel and the United States have worked on the Arrow project since the late 1980s, and Israel deployed the first Arrow battery in October 2000. The system is a project of Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing. Developers hope the Arrow 3 will be operational sometime between 2012 and 2014, Rothman said.

Rothman and Herzog discussed “every potential threat to Israel’s security, including the Iranian threat,” Rothman said, without going into further detail. The meeting was not a response to any specific threat, Rothman noted, but rather was part of a regular series of meetings he holds with the IMDO.

Israel advocates have criticized President Obama’s policies toward Israel, specifically regarding pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions in the Palestinian peace process. Rothman, however, said that military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has never been higher than under Obama.

 
 

Obama and the deafening silence of American Jewry

 
 
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