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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

 
 

Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama

WASHINGTON – With anxiety over the White House’s Middle East policy mounting in some pro-Israel circles, several Jewish organizational leaders have found themselves in a discomfiting position: criticizing the Obama administration in public while stridently defending the president in private against the most extreme attacks.

It’s an upside-down version of what pro-Israel groups usually do: lavishing praise on the U.S. government of the day for sustaining the “unbreakable bond” while making their criticisms known quietly, behind closed doors.

News Analysis

The criticism has come in the form of mostly polite statements and newspaper ads questioning Obama administration pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, particularly regarding building in eastern Jerusalem. Such criticisms are voiced as well in private meetings with administration officials.

The defense comes up in dealings with irate donors and constituents, in phone calls, e-mails, addresses to small Jewish groups, shul talk. The theme of the complaints is consistent, and shocking, said multiple leaders, who all spoke off the record, and reflect the subterranean rumblings about the president heard during the campaign: His sympathy lies with the Muslims, he doesn’t care about Israel, he’s an anti-Semite.

The Jewish Federations of North America is sufficiently concerned about the phenomenon to have convened a “fly-in” of Jewish organizational leaders to Washington for an as yet unannounced date in May. The leaders will meet with White House, State Department, and congressional officials, in part to “to convey concerns about U.S.-Israel relations” — but also, insiders say, to allay those concerns.

One recent flood of anxious queries followed the Obama administration’s announcement earlier this month of its long-awaited nuclear policy. The reality of the policy was a pledge not to threaten with nuclear weapons those nations that provably disavow their nuclear weapons capability. Nations that continued to maintain a threatening nuclear posture, the policy made clear, would still face the prospect of a U.S. nuclear response should they attack the United States or its allies.

Obama named Iran as such a nation.

Yet instead of being reassured, donors and members of national Jewish groups flooded Jewish leaders with anxious queries about a posture that they interpreted as being aimed at embracing a nuclear Iran and forcing Israel to abandon its own reported nuclear capability.

Another persistent — and unfounded — rumor has it that Obama removed the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” from the White House seder in March.

“Where the ____ are they getting this?” asked a senior official at an organization that has been publicly critical of Obama since last summer.

Angst was stoked, too, when Obama spoke last week of peacemaking throughout the world necessitated by the cost of “American blood and treasure” through involvement in conflicts. It didn’t help that a New York Times analysis suggested the president had said that the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace threatened U.S. troops in other parts of the globe — even though the transcript of Obama’s remarks did not bear out any such linkage and Obama administration officials flatly denied one existed.

Jewish officials said a share of the blame lay with the Obama administration, partly for not adequately reaching out to Jews and to Israel, and partly because of the emergence of what appears to be internecine policy wars.

“The real story of The New York Times story is not that he’s changing Israel policy,” said another leader of an organization that has not been shy about criticizing the Obama administration. “The real story is, why are officials leaking” misrepresentations of his policy “to The New York Times?”

On the other side, one leader blamed the Netanyahu government for sending mixed signals on how to handle the tensions between Israel and the United States over settlement policy.

“Some are saying quiet is the best answer and others are saying loud noise is the best answer,” the Jewish organizational official said.

The official cited reports that Netanyahu personally approved public letters — from Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Elie Wiesel, the internationally known Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate — criticizing Obama’s demand for a halt in Jerusalem building.

Despite mounting criticism by some Jewish leaders, polls show that Obama’s support among Jews in general remains strong. His backing has dropped from astronomical highs after he was elected, but remains about 10 points stronger than in the general population. Moreover, to the degree that it has eroded, the dissatisfaction with Obama appears to have more to do with unhappiness over his handling of health care and the economy than it does Israel.

Those who are expressing their concerns, however, are among the most active members of the pro-Israel community and help set the tone for the trilateral U.S.-Israel-Jewish leadership ties. Some are acquiring their information from anti-Obama e-mail blasts and consistently partisan critics of Obama.

Richard Baehr, writing in the conservative online magazine The American Thinker, cited The New York Times’ misreading of Obama’s remarks in arguing that “this president is the greatest threat to the strategic alliance of the U.S. and Israel since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948.”

McLaughlin & Associates, a GOP polling firm, touted signs last week that Jewish support for Obama was eroding, but the survey questions were premised on shaky assertions. One question posited that Obama would support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, although U.S. officials have consistently said they would oppose such a move. Another suggested that Obama was ready to force Israel to give up the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, although there has been no such pressure.

Administration defenders cite signs suggesting that beyond the settlement rhetoric, the relationship is improving: Obama has increased defense cooperation, for instance, and strategic consultations between officials of both nations are more frequent than they have been in a decade.

“Our bond with Israel is unshakable and unbreakable both as it relates to security, as it relates to a common set of values and also as a common strategic vision because the threats to Israel are similar to some of the threats the United States faces,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said Monday on Bloomberg TV.

Jewish leaders welcome such reassurances but say they are made defensively, and repeatedly call on the Obama administration to become proactive.

Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the election and now heads the Center for Middle East Peace, suggested a more proactive posture was in the offing.

“Actions in the next several months will begin to reflect it,” he told JTA.

Notably, Emanuel held a behind-closed-doors meeting Tuesday with a group of leading Orthodox rabbis.

Meantime, Jewish leaders are walking a tightrope trying to balance traditional deference to the administration with concerns over the tensions. They also object to what they see as the unwarranted pressure on Netanyahu as opposed to relatively little pressure on the Palestinians to join talks that Israel has embraced with enthusiasm. Israel, they hasten to argue, remains America’s best friend in the region.

Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made the Israel-is-our-best-friend case last week at Israel Independence Day celebrations, sharing the stage with Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod.

“Israel stood by America in spirit and in action after the tragic events of 9/11,” Rosenberg said. “As both our great nations fight the same scourge of terrorism and Islamic extremism, it is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world.”

The Wiesel and Lauder letters offered a suggestive contrast over how to handle the tensions.

Wiesel’s critique was oblique, not naming Obama, and deferred to U.S. orthodoxy that a final-status agreement must accommodate Palestinian claims to the city.

“What is the solution?” Wiesel asked. “Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be.”

Lauder, by contrast, directly addressed Obama and suggested that the president was sacrificing Israel to improve relations with the Muslim world.

“The administration’s desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well known,” said Lauder, an active Republican. “But is friction with Israel part of this new strategy? Is it assumed worsening relations with Israel can improve relations with Muslims?”

One of the Jewish leaders said the contrast was instructive.

“For all intents and purposes, the WJC’s relationship with the White House ended last week,” he said of the group Lauder heads. “That’s not a relationship that pro-Israel groups can afford to have over the next couple of years.”

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has publicly criticized the administration on several Israel-related fronts. Still, he said, Jewish leaders have a responsibility to defend the president “when talking to those who accuse him of being an enemy of Israel or a Muslim.”

“For many years, you had a lot of Jews who didn’t vote for President Bush who would say, ‘I don’t like Bush but I love what he’s doing on Israel,’” Foxman said.

“Now the paradigm is changing. A lot of Jews are saying, ‘I like Obama, but I don’t like what he is doing on Israel.”

Foxman added that the most frequent question he hears when speaking to Jewish audiences is whether Obama is a friend of Israel.

“I say yes — but what’s wrong is the implementation of what he promised. What’s flawed is the strategy, not the goal,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader quickly added that despite promises to learn from past mistakes, the administration’s handling of Israel-related issues is “going from bad to worse.”

JTA

 
 

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Komen Race for the Cure to be run in Israel

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From left, Hadassah President Nancy Falchuk, Susan G. Komen lay leader Hadassah Lieberman, and Komen CEO Nancy Brinker speak with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat at a press conference in Washington on April 28. Courtesy of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

The world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is partnering with Jerusalem, Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, health advocates, and scientists for a week of breast cancer-related events.

The Komen organization is launching the Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative, a partnership with nongovernmental organizations in Israel, to enhance advocacy, awareness, screening, and treatment of breast cancer in Israel during the week of Oct. 25 to 29.

A series of events will include a think tank on breast cancer, a mission to Israel, and Komen’s famed Race for the Cure, which will be held just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

While not an overtly Jewish charity, Komen has deep Jewish roots. Nancy Brinker started the organization in 1982 after her sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer. Brinker is Jewish, as was Komen.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has invested more than $27 million in funding for international breast cancer research and more than $17 million in international community education and outreach programs. Komen has partnered or funded programs in more than 50 countries.

While most of the money raised by Komen goes to general breast cancer causes, the organization has given $2 million for research in Israel through the Weizmann Institute of Science, Hebrew University-Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Beit Natan, and Life’s Door. In the United States it has ties to Hadassah, Sharsheret, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This will be the first time, however, that Komen has held the 5K Race for the Cure in Israel.

“This is exciting. For me it is very exciting,” said Hadassah Lieberman, who joined Komen as its global ambassador several years ago when the organization ran its first international race in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The race has since been held in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Egypt.

“We have been thinking about Jerusalem for a while,” said Lieberman, the wife of Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman. “It has been one of the places where these things take a while to coordinate.”

According to Komen officials, breast cancer is the most common form of women’s cancer in Israel, accounting for nearly 30 percent of new cancer cases in the country. About 4,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Israel each year.

In bringing the race to Israel, Susan G. Komen for the Cure hopes to spark new collaborations with organizations such as the Israel Cancer Association and to raise awareness of breast cancer in Israel.

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s very first international research grant went to Israel 16 years ago, and we have enjoyed longstanding friendships and productive collaborations in Israel ever since,” Brinker said in a statement announcing the Israel project. “The new Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative takes our relationships to the next level — in partnership with the city of Jerusalem, Hadassah, government leaders, advocates, and our global partners — as we work to address the critical issues in breast cancer for the women of Israel and the world.”

This might seem a precarious time for an international fund-raising organization to broaden its ties with Israel, with the country feeling the fallout of the flotilla incident in terms of public opinion, but Lieberman says she does not believe it will be an issue for Komen’s fund-raising.

“Everyone, whether it is Jewish organizations or Christian populations, is really excited about this race because we never have had a chance to do it in Jerusalem,” she said. “It’s very been exciting and positive, particularly at times like this, when you have to understand that this illness has no border and boundary and you understand the cure has no border and boundary.”

Lieberman added, “It is very special to be able to go to the Kotel to put a note in the [Western Wall], and for some of these women to go there and have a prayer for themselves or for their sisters’ or aunts’ health, and spread awareness around Israel.”

JTA

 
 

Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

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On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 
 
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