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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.

image
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

 
 

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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Is Obama’s J-Dar off?

Probing, once again, the ‘kishkes question’

WASHINGTON – Does President Obama need a “Shalom Chaver” moment à la Bill Clinton?

More fraught back-and-forth between the organized Jewish community and the Obama administration again has brought to the fore the question of what the president feels in his gut toward Israel and the Jewish people.

The questions were prompted by the Obama administration’s late and qualified response to last week’s naming of a square for Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist who helped mastermind a 1978 bus attack that killed 37 Israeli civilians, including a dozen children. The hurt feelings were sharpened by the massacre over the previous weekend of an Israeli couple and three of their children in their home in the Itamar settlement in the west bank.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted the Mughrabi square naming at a Manhattan memorial service for the murdered Fogel family members from Itamar.

“If governments, even our own, do not stand out and shriek and condemn and take action when they see this kind of action by the Palestinian Authority and their representatives” — and the incitement continues despite repeated promises — then “we must make sure that our voices are heard,” Hoenlein said. “We have to demand accountability and that there will be consequences.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, asked what the president feels “in his soul” — a reference to disputed reports that in a meeting with Jewish leaders last month, Obama asked them to “search their souls” regarding their desire for peace.

“In light of what President Obama said to us at the White House and in light of this present episode, the ZOA asks a simple question: What does President Obama’s shocking, unbelievable, and frightening refusal to condemn the honoring and glorifying of a major Jew-killer by [President Mahmoud] Abbas’ P.A., a day after an anti-Israel massacre, tell us about Obama’s true feelings about Jews and Israel?” Klein asked. “Mr. Obama, we respectfully ask you, sir, to ‘search your soul’ to evaluate your feelings and actions and policies toward the Jewish state of Israel.”

President Clinton set the high mark for connecting with Israelis and Jews in his 1995 eulogy at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral when he encapsulated worldwide Jewish grief in a simple Hebrew phrase: “Shalom, chaver,” “Farewell, friend.” The second President Bush also made clear his affection for the Jewish state, both supporters and detractors agree.

Speaking on the record, most Jewish community leaders dismiss talk about Obama’s “kishkes factor” — what he feels in his gut — as overly focused on the ephemera of emotions and beside the point: The lines of communication with the White House are open, they say, and the president and his staff are responsive to their overtures.

“I would say we have a good line of communication with them,” said Alan Solow, the Presidents Conference chairman and a fund-raiser for Obama in 2008. “Our access is both appropriate and excellent. There’s not a problem of communication issue between the Jewish leadership and the White House.”

Solow would not address the kishkes factor, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

Speaking on background, however, a number of Jewish community figures — among them those who generally sympathize with the administration’s outlook on Israel — say Obama just doesn’t get it.

“His J-Dar is off,” said one dovish figure who recalled Obama’s first meeting with Jewish leaders in the summer of 2009, when he told them that previous administrations’ policy of not being public about policy disputes with Israel was unproductive.

“It may have been true, but it was not the right thing to say” to Jewish leaders, the official told JTA. “What it implies is that you’re trying to drive a wedge between them and the government of Israel — but you should know that rarely, rarely works because the organized Jewish community supports Israeli governments. He doesn’t get the emotional issue, and maybe even the structural issue.”

Obama’s missed opportunity was not visiting Israel after his June 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, a number of officials have said.

A conservative who has tried to make the case for this White House among like-minded friends and colleagues says Obama’s aloof personality is a problem.

“With Clinton, when he talked to you, it was like you were the most important person in the world,” the official said. “With Obama, it’s like he’s the most important person in the world.”

A prominent Democrat and a Clinton administration veteran said the problem was not confined to the Jews: This White House had made the rookie mistake of believing its resounding victory gave it a license to ignore special interests.

“It’s frustrating for every community, not just the Jewish community,” the Democrat said. “They have turned up their nose at constituency politics — labor, Hispanics, blacks, gays, and lesbians also don’t get courted. They think they can go past affinity groups, and they can in some instances, but they still have to court the groups.”

White House officials tend to audibly sigh when the question arises. They especially chafe at the notion, raised by a number of Israeli and pro-Israel officials, that there is no immediate “hotline” official in the White House — someone like Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration’s top Middle East staffer, who could be reached at a moment’s notice.

That person in this White House has been Dan Shapiro, who has Abrams’ job, and he has been responsive, according to friends of the White House.

One sympathetic pro-Israel official said that expecting microscopic attention to square-namings by west bank Palestinians was demanding too much of Shapiro.

“He’s just been dealing with that small problem of Libya,” the official commented dryly.

Obama announced recently that Shapiro would be his nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

White House officials say they have tried to be responsive and have engaged with Jewish leaders, and they say it’s a no-win situation: When they do not respond to a given event, like the Mughrabi square naming, they get into trouble, but when they do respond, the response is picked apart for inadequacies.

That damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t-prickliness characterized Jewish reaction to Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in 2009, when he went out of his way to condemn Holocaust denial among Arabs — and was slammed by some Jewish groups for seeming to draw moral equivalence with Palestinian suffering and for neglecting to mention the Jewish people’s biblical roots case for Israel.

The more recent episode, over the Mughrabi square, showed how an administration could stumble. The first response, days after the naming, came from relatively low-level officials and in response to a JTA inquiry, and said the administration was seeking “clarification” on an event that had been widely reported. The Palestinian Authority did not officially sponsor the event, nor did its officials attend it, but officials of Abbas’ Fatah Party were in attendance and Abbas did not reprimand them.

A day later, the State Department’s top official, Mark Toner, explicitly condemned the naming and said the United States “urged” Abbas to address it.

Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, suggested such reactions were overwrought.

“Obama does not seem to have internalized yet, or does not seem cognizant yet of the fact that most American Jewish voters are progressive — they support his general agenda,” Nir said. “They typically don’t vote first and foremost on Israel and will probably overwhelmingly vote for him again.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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