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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.”



Time to ratchet up sanctions

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

A sorry day at the U.N.


Topic of talk in Wayne: Chinese Jews of Kaifeng

Charles ZusmanLocal | World
Published: 04 June 2010

On Passover, Shi Lei and the other Jews in the city of Kaifeng eat Chinese pancakes. It’s not exactly matzoh, “but it is unleavened,” he said.

That accommodation, and others, is emblematic of an ancient Jewish community’s effort to revive its religious traditions, eroded over the passing centuries as its members assimilated into the life of their city and country.

But the light of Judaism never went out. “We always knew we were Jewish because our parents and grandparents told us,” said Shi Lei. “They told us we are Jews, we are from Israel.”

“This information is never forgotten,” he said.

Shi Lei, 32, spoke on a recent Sunday to more than 200 rapt listeners at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne. It was his last stop on a speaking tour that took him across the country and into Canada, during which he told the story of how his ancestors came from Persia and settled in Kaifeng in the years 960 to 1127 CE.

Close to 1,000 years have since gone by, and “we never left,” he said.

China is a different place today from what it was just a few years ago, and part of that change is a move by the some 500 residents of Kaifeng, who identify as Jewish, to rekindle their Jewish lives. It is a “learning” experience, Shi Lei said.

After the talk, Shi Lei, center, chats with Jeff Haveson, left, and Yehuda Ben Lewi, both of Ahavas Sholom in Newark. photos by Charles Zusman

In 2001 Shi Lei, who majored in English literature at Kaifeng University, went to Israel. He studied for one year at Bar-Ilan University and then for two years at Mahon Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is fluent in Hebrew and speaks flawless English.

His trip was prompted by a meeting with Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who served as a rabbi in Japan and traveled extensively in Asia. Speaking from his home in Great Neck, N.Y., Tokayer told how he met Shi Lei on a visit to Kaifeng.

The man knew little about Jewish practices, Tokayer recalled, “but he was asking so many, many questions” that the rabbi suggested he go to Israel to study. Shi Lei’s parents greeted the rabbi like a long-lost relative, and readily agreed to their son’s trip.

After one year at Bar-Ilan, Shi Lei said, he learned a lot but there was so much more to learn, so he stayed another two years at Mahon Meir, Tokayer recalled.

Back in Kaifeng, Shi Lei serves as a teacher to the rest of the community, 18 of whom have since also visited Israel. They were assisted in their visit by Shavei Israel, an organization that helps those with Jewish roots return to their Jewish identity.

Their ancient synagogue is no more, but Shi Lei has converted the home of his late grandparents into a mini-museum and community center, in which the group meets.

For larger gatherings, the group uses a Muslim restaurant, where dietary laws are similar to Jewish ones. Cost and logistics make it impossible for the group to keep kosher, “but we never eat pork,” Shi Lei said. They honor the dietary laws in spirit, he explained.

The group does not have a traditional scribed Torah, but rather has a printed version translated into Chinese. Also, they have simple prayer books written in Chinese, Shi Lei said. They are learning about the holidays and rituals, and light Friday night candles. For Passover they have Chinese-language Haggadahs.

“I am teaching in the Ashkenazic way,” he said, but Sephardic tradition might better reflect the group’s Persian roots, he added. In any case, Jews in China must “find their own way” and adapt to the country they are in. Traditional practices stopped three or four generations ago, Shi Lei said, but the Kaifeng Jews are relearning how to celebrate their faith.

One of the historic drawings Shi Lei showed depicts two Kaifeng Jews with Western facial features but wearing Chinese-style pigtails. Intermarriage has made its mark, and later photos, from about 1910, show Kaifeng Jews with Chinese-appearing facial features.

Shi Lei drew a laugh from the audience when one man said there were a number of intermarriages in his family with people of Chinese descent. “I’m glad it (intermarriage) is happening here too,” Shi Lei responded.

While Jews are living in other Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong — they are not Chinese, Shi Lei said. There are Chabad houses in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but not Kaifeng.

Shi Lei is a licensed tour guide specializing in Jewish sites ( He laced his presentation with enticing tidbits of history and illustrated it with a slide show of historic paintings and illustrations (

A thousand years ago Kaifeng was a bustling city of some 1.5 million and the capital of China, Shi Lei said. Although it was unknown in the West, it was likely the largest city in the world at that time, he said.

The Jews came as merchants, following the Silk Road, a trading route across the desert, bringing cotton cloth to trade, a material unknown in China, Shi Lei said. Their arrival drew the attention of the emperor, who welcomed the Jews and told them to keep their faith and honor their ancestors.

It was during the Song Dynasty, and Shi Lei was uncertain which emperor was in power. If the emperor said something, it was an edict, and the Jews in effect became Chinese citizens, he said.

The synagogue was built in 1136 in Kaifeng, which lies about 800 kilometers south of Beijing, near the coast. The community must have been wealthy, Shi Lei said, because the synagogue was built on a large piece of prime property at the center of the city.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1279 and lasted for centuries. The last rabbi died in 1805, and the synagogue fell into disrepair and disappeared in 1860, Shi Lei said. The remnants of a mikvah have been found at the site.

Over the years, the Jews moved from the business world and many learned Confucian ways and became government officials. They became more and more assimilated and intermarried. Slowly their Jewish practices faded away, Shi Lei explained.

There was a likely a Jewish presence in China in the eighth or ninth century, Shi Lei said, pointing to figurines showing men with “Semitic-looking” features. He also cited a document of the period that was written in Hebrew on paper. Paper existed only in China at that time, he said. The Jews were likely merchants, passing through, he said.

He showed illustrations of the synagogue — built Chinese pagoda style. The interior drawings show the “Moses chair,” where, Shi Lei explained, the Torah would be placed. The worshippers faced West during prayer, Shi Lei said, in the the direction of Jerusalem.

Shi Lei will be in the United States for another speaking tour next year, with a session tentatively planned for the 92d Street Y in Manhattan Feb 15 at 8:15 p.m., Bograd said. Interested groups can e-mail to engage Shi Lei for a presentation, Bograd said.

“The reaction [to the talk] was unbelievable,” said Richard Moskow, a past president of Temple Beth Tikvah. “People wouldn’t let him go” as they plied him with questions, Moskow said. “It was wonderful.”

Shi Lei is single-handedly trying to “resurrect the Jewish religion in China,” Moskow said, and even though he isn’t ordained, he is, in effect, the rabbi of Kaifeng.


Netanyahu hints at flexibility on Jerusalem

It was an otherwise wholly unremarkable stump speech before a friendly audience in New York.

On the evening of July 7 at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, the Israeli prime minister addressed a roomful of more than 300 Jews on the subjects of Iran, his government’s eagerness for direct peace talks with the Palestinians, and the swell meeting he had just had with President Obama at the White House.

News Analysis

But then, in an off-the-cuff remark to a question on Jerusalem from the audience, Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a hint that his government’s insistence on Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem might not be ironclad.

“Everybody knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are,” Netanyahu said in response to the question read by the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein.

The implication of Netanyahu’s remark — that other neighborhoods of Jerusalem may not remain “where they are,” becoming part of an eventual Palestinian state — was the first hint that the Israeli leader may be flexible on the subject of Jerusalem. Until now, Netanyahu has insisted that Jerusalem is not up for negotiation.

While the prime minister surely did not intend the gathering under the aegis of the Presidents Conference to serve as his forum for opening up negotiations over Jerusalem, the impromptu remark before an audience of prominent New York Jews and a handful of elected officials cast a slim ray of light on what Netanyahu thinks might be the Israeli capital’s ultimate fate.

He reiterated the point on Sunday in an interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Are you willing to put East Jerusalem as a possible capital of the Palestinian state on the table?” Wallace asked, according to a transcript provided by Fox News.

Netanyahu responded, “Well, we have differences of views with the Palestinians. We want a united city. They have their own views. We can — this is one of the issues that will have to be negotiated. But I think the main point is to get on with it.”

The remarks on Jerusalem were significant because Netanyahu’s true intentions regarding the peace process remain largely opaque, the subject of much debate from Washington to Ramallah. Netanyahu was a latecomer to the two-state position — endorsing the idea of an eventual Palestinian state only a year ago, after much prodding by the United States — and the governing coalition he has assembled is composed largely of right-wing parties that do not believe in the current Palestinian Authority as a partner for negotiations.

In public, President Obama declared last week that he believes Netanyahu is genuinely committed to seeking a two-state solution.

“I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” Obama told reporters following his Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu. “And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians around what I think should be the goal not just of the two principals involved but the entire world, and that is two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Privately, however, some U.S. administration officials have expressed doubts about Netanyahu’s ability to make good on that vision. Other Obama supporters have questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to that goal, and the Palestinian Authority leadership says Netanyahu’s interest in negotiations is not serious.

“Words, not deeds,” was the assessment of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who dismissed Netanyahu’s lip service to the peace process in an interview with The New York Times following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. “We need to see deeds.”

Netanyahu insists he is serious about peace talks, and that it is the Palestinians who are playing games.

“You either put up excuses or you lead,” the Israeli leader said in his New York speech. “I want to enter direct talks with the Palestinian leadership now,”

“I think we can defy the skeptics,” he said, recalling the doubters that abounded when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin began talking to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the lead-up to the Camp David Accords, and when Richard Nixon visited China. “This is a challenge I’m up to.”

Was it hyperbole or a sign of the legacy Netanyahu hopes for himself?

If Netanyahu is interested in following Begin and Nixon’s model, leading a conservative government to a historic rapprochement with a longtime foe, eventually he will have to include Jerusalem in negotiations with the Palestinians; they won’t sign a peace deal without it. If not, Netanyahu is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the skeptics.

“This is going to be a very, very tough negotiation, but I’m prepared to negotiate,” Netanyahu insisted last week. “But I cannot engage between someone who won’t sit at the table.”



Berman, Ros-Lehtinen press Obama on sanctions enforcement

Published: 03 December 2010

WASHINGTON – The top Republican and Democrat House foreign policy members called on the Obama administration to more closely scrutinize nations that do not comply with Iran sanctions.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, convened a hearing Wednesday on imposing tougher sanctions on Iran.

“There seems to be no doubt that Chinese companies are pursuing energy investments and selling Iran refined petroleum,” said Berman, who initiated the expanded sanctions act passed earlier this year. “The Chinese acknowledge it. I’d like to know why we haven’t sanctioned any of the Chinese companies engaged in clearly sanctionable actions. I’m concerned that we will not be able to sustain a robust sanctions regime if we don’t impose sanctions in an even-handed manner.”

President Obama had sought and received latitude in the bill to waive sanctions against countries he deemed cooperative in otherwise isolating Iran until it suspends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Also addressing the hearing, where top administration sanctions officials were set to testify, was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who is slated to replace Berman as committee chairwoman in the new Congress.

In addition to China, Ros-Lehtinen said Armenia and Turkey had expanded economic ties with Iran, and that Russia had offered defense assistance to Syria, an Iran ally.

“We must ensure that the tools we have are used to their maximum effectiveness, and look for new means of compelling Iran to cease activities that threaten our security, our interests and our allies,” she said.

Both Ros-Lehtinen and Berman praised countries that had recently added Iran sanctions, including Japan, South Korea and a number of Western nations.

Iran, meanwhile, has agreed to send a representative to talks next week in Geneva with the six major powers that shape the international community’s policies on the Islamic Republic: the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany.

JTA Wire Service

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