When Bibi didn’t meet Barack—a story of comity?


President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not meet, but they ended up sounding not so far apart.

Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday in many ways echoed Obama’s speech there on Tuesday, with both ratcheting up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. The themes that echoed in each speech suggest that despite the bickering between the two leaders, they may be converging on policy.

Obama reiterated that “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, a stance that is in accord with Israel’s position.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, articulated a red line — something Obama has been reluctant to do, beyond saying that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. But the Israeli prime minister set that red line in a spot that allows the United States some more time to give diplomacy and sanctions a chance to work.

The speeches reflected a coordinated strategy to make clear to the Iranians that the United States and Israel are aligned, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The key is that the U.S. and Israel have common thresholds, and if that is conveyed to Iran publicly, that would be effective,” Makvosky told JTA. “What I saw was effective in Netanyahu's speech was that he was able to sharpen the focus on the Iranian nuclear program while not sharpening the conflict with the president.”

Netanyahu in his speech suggested that the United States and Israel were working to get on the same page. “Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” he said.

For all of the focus on the details of the difficult relationship between the two leaders — the fact that they are not meeting during Netanyahu’s U.S. visit made headlines — the speeches sounded similarly tough notes on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama said. “It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy.”

Obama has explicitly rejected containment since he spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in May. On Tuesday, the president used blunt language at a venue not as receptive to tough talk on the issue, and characterized Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. The latter statement is the sort of warning that Netanyahu has been repeating since being elected to his second term as prime minister in 2009.

Obama concluded the Iran portion of his speech with a clear commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran: “And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu’s speech, like Obama’s, was a no-holds-barred warning about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Photos of Netanyahu holding up a simple drawing of a bomb with the fuse burning down made front pages. Of greater significance, than the Israeli prime minister’s stern demeanor and dramatic delivery was the red line he drew on the cartoon – more precisely, where he drew it.

The bomb represented the three stages Netanyahu says are required for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon: Low-enriched uranium, medium-enriched uranium and high-enriched uranium. Iran is already enriching uranium to the medium levels of 20 percent.

The spot between medium-enriched and high-enriched uranium is where Netanyahu drew the red line, suggesting that Iran’s arrival at the cusp between medium- and high-enriched uranium is what should trigger a military intervention by the United States or Israel.

Making the cusp between medium- and high-enriched uranium is a major concession for Israel; Israeli officials over the summer pushed back against proposed U.S.-initiated compromises with that would allow Iran to enrich at 3.5 percent to 5 percent, insisting that Iran end all uranium enrichment. Netanyahu’s red line conceivably would accommodate compromises third parties have suggested that would allow Iran to enrich at 20 percent, or medium level.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s prediction of when the cusp between medium and high enrichment would arrive, based on International Atomic Energy Agency reports, ended speculation that Israel could go it alone with a military strike before the U.S. presidential election, which has been a key request of an array of Obama administration officials who have been arriving in Israel each week over the past several months.

“And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage,” Netanyahu said. “From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Another overlap between the two speeches had to do with each leader’s call on the Muslim world to reject radicalism.

“It is time to marginalize those who — even when not directly resorting to violence — use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel, as the central organizing principle of politics,” Obama said. “For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes an excuse, for those who do resort to violence.”

Netanyahu echoed the concern about extremism: “That intolerance is directed first to their fellow Muslims and then to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, secular people, anyone who doesn't submit to their unforgiving creed. They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma, unrelenting conflict.”

Significantly, Obama also focused on the extremist ideology of the Iranian regime, and its ties with terrorist groups in the region – also themes that Netanyahu has emphasized. “In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads,” Obama said.

Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary on Thursday and spoke with Obama on Friday in a phone call.

A White House readout of the phone call said, “The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

The comity between the two leaders might not last, Makovsky said, but the effort is critical. “I’m not saying the U.S. and Israel have found common ground, I'm saying there's an effort to find common ground,” he said. “Netanyahu's calculation is that it's better to make that effort.”

In case Israel goes it alone against Iran, he said, Netanyahu “will be able to look into the eyes of the mothers of Israel and say, ‘I left no stone unturned.’”

Blaze Touches Off Tense Moments


Jeff and Liz Kramer and their three teenage sons could only watch and wait. The Sutton Valley residents paced the sidewalk in front of their home on Thursday morning, watching as the head of the Topanga Canyon Fire crept along a ridge less than 800 yards away, consuming brush and sending up billows of smoke.

“We’ve been up all night watching it,” Liz Kramer said. “It started here at about 1 a.m.”

As the Ventura County Sheriff’s fire support helicopters doused flames with water assaults, the Oak Park couple talked with neighbors about whether to evacuate.

“The firemen keep telling us we’re fine,” she said. “But our cars are loaded, and we’re ready to leave.”

While the Kramer home was spared and no other Jewish homes were known to have been lost, an iconic structure of Jewish Los Angeles was not so fortunate. In Simi Valley at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, sparks fell and ignited a fire on the roof of the landmark House of the Book. The building’s interior was not apparently harmed. A detailed damage assessment is pending.

The Topanga Canyon Fire erupted in Chatsworth off of Topanga Canyon Boulevard at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesday, amid high temperatures and dry Santa Ana wind conditions. By Friday, it had grown to engulf about 21,000 acres and required a multiagency firefighting force of 3,000 from Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

Fire crews had the fire 20 percent contained by Friday morning, shortly before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the affected area by air. The estimated cost of the fire currently stands at $2.8 million, with the cause of the blaze still under investigation.

Hundreds of families were evacuated from affected areas, which included Box Canyon, Lake Manor, Woolsey Canyon, Bell Canyon, West Hills, Hidden Hills, Mountain View Estates, Las Virgenes Canyon, Chesebro Canyon, Old Agoura, Agoura Hills and Oak Park. Among the evacuees from these upscale hillside communities was “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Shelley Berman, who has lived in Bell Canyon since 1984.

Temple Aliyah President Marcy Howard told The Journal she evacuated her home in Mountain View, a gated community adjacent to Las Virgenes Canyon, at 4 a.m. Thursday.

“When they tell you you’re going, nothing counts but getting your kids, your dogs and yourself [out]. You don’t know if you have five hours or five minutes,” she said.

Howard met friends at the Calabasas Commons and then ended up at Jerry’s Deli in Woodland Hills, where she said many displaced Jewish West Valley residents were congregating early Thursday morning. Howard opted to spend Thursday night in a hotel, despite offers of shelter from numerous friends.

“Everyone has been so gracious and so lovely,” she said.

Around the Conejo and West Valley, synagogues reported a similar situation. “So far we have more people offering space than need it,” said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim of Thousand Oaks.

The Conejo and West San Fernando valleys have become a magnet for Jewish families in recent years, so there were bound to be scores of Jewish families affected by the evacuation orders, not to mention the choking haze that hung over the region.

“We left at 3 a.m. [Thursday morning] and went to my mother-in-law’s in Thousand Oaks,” said Loury Silverman, an Oak Park resident who had just finished davening Thursday morning at Chabad of Conejo.

At Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Executive Director Gary Brennglass had examined the House of the Book by Thursday afternoon. “The exterior is OK, but the roof was damaged,” he said. “We also lost a lot of vegetation. But thank God our other buildings and bunks weren’t lost.”

No synagogues were damaged, but area shuls removed their Torahs as a precaution.

In Old Agoura, the proposed future site of Heschel West day school was unsigned. That project has long been challenged by the Old Agoura Homeowners Association, partly over concerns that it might make a wildfire evacuation more difficult.

All told, the fire damaged three single-family homes and destroyed one building at the Rocketdyne facility between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.

Heschel West, at its temporary site in Agoura Hills, closed Thursday and Friday, as did the New Jewish Community Day School at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills and schools throughout the Las Virgenes Unified School District. In the Las Virgenes Canyon area, Mestiva, an Orthodox boarding school closed on Friday.

Many synagogues also canceled Hebrew school classes, expecting to start again on Sunday or Monday, after the anticipated full containment of the fire over the weekend.

Jewish leaders exhorted community organizations to find out what people’s needs are in affected areas.

“We can make sure that synagogues that have been displaced because of the fire will have a space for High Holidays,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of The Valley Alliance.

Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipness said his congregation usually meets at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center during the High Holidays. But with the center being used as a staging area for firefighter efforts, the synagogue’s High Holiday committee was already scouting out alternatives.

“They say it’ll be ours after Saturday, but who knows,” said Kipness, who has already rewritten his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon around the fire.

One group will need other quarters for sure. B’nai Horin of Simi Valley had scheduled High Holidays services at the House of the Book. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute hopes to house the group at a different meeting area on campus.

Many of the evacuated families have returned home, even as fire crews continue to keep an eye out for hot spots and areas where the fire could break through and threaten homes again.

The Rothsteins of Oak Park were among the families who had a close call. Sergiu Rothstein had left his home Thursday afternoon to get pizza for firefighters keeping watch over his neighborhood. A half hour later, flames blocked his return.

He stood on the center median of Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Oak Park, watching as fire lunged toward his hillside community only a few miles away.

“I was coming back, and the flames were shooting up 10 and 20 feet,” he said. “My family called me and said, “Don’t come back to the house.”

When reached by phone Friday morning, Rothstein said fire crews had saved his home.

“Everyone was wonderful,” he said.