Beyond the toxic rhetoric: Obama, Bibi and prospects for peace


President Barack Obama remains furious at Benjamin Netanyahu. He and many European leaders were counting on Israelis to get rid of an intractable “hawk” and replace him with Yitzak (Bougie) Herzog, the more flexible “dove.” With Bibi out of the way, the path would have been cleared for a quick final deal with Iran (including immediate removal of sanctions) and hasten a two-state solution in the Holy Land, before President Obama’s second term ended.

But how realistic was that? Let’s say that Bougie had won 30 seats en route to setting up a center-left coalition, Prime Minister Herzog would have to strive mightily to thwart Tehran going nuclear. Ayatollah Khamenei and his lackeys would still be plotting the Jewish State's annihilation. Israel's Prime Minister would also be challenged by a new strategic threat from Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist allies, who are busily building a new missile-laden front to threaten the Galilee and Israel's northern panhandle from Syrian territory–opposite the Golan Heights. To date, these provocative moves by Tehran haven’t raised any protest from either the U.S. or the European Union.

Without doubt, a Left-led coalition is much more strongly committed to a Two-State solution than the Netanyahu-led Likud ever was; though it is hard to see how a deal could have been reached by Herzog during the next two years. Hamas’ continued terrorism and genocidal hate, and the embrace by leaders of the corrupt-riven Palestinian Authority of terrorist murderers of Jews, leave many Israelis on the Left doubtful that President Mahmoud Abbas has either the power or desire to negotiate a final settlement. His game plan remains relying on the U.N., the E.U., and (perhaps) the U.S. to force Israel into a deal that heavily favors maximal Palestinian aspirations. Israelis across the political spectrum still want a peace deal with their Arab neighbors, but even a Herzog-led coalition still needs a Palestinian partner prepared to tell his constituents in Arabic that their Jewish neighbors are there to stay and that they too have rights to be in the Holy Land. Tragically, there is no Palestinian Anwar Sadat on the horizon.

For now, Obama seems intent on pummeling and punishing Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, the suggestion of a game-changing U.S. support of an U.N. Security resolution that would effectively force a shotgun marriage between Jerusalem and Ramallah is a terrible idea. It would only backfire, weakening Israel's left and further emboldening Hamas and Hezbollah to ramp up terror attacks against a Jewish State that may no longer have the U.S. in its corner.

In fact, the road to real progress towards peace starts in the Oval Office through Ramallah. Here are five suggestions for the next Obama-Abbas call:

1. No more International Criminal Court shenanigans. Seeking indictment of your negotiating partners for crimes against humanity is a deal-killer.

2. No more unilateral moves to gain U.N.-recognized statehood without negotiating with the Israelis.

3. Including Hamas that refuses to drop its genocidal anti-Israel agenda – in a Palestinian government is untenable. PA must take back control of Gaza. If the PA can’t even enter, let alone control, the largest Palestinian communities, how can Israel expect that the PA can deliver on any commitment.

4. No more anti-Semitic attacks and incitement by Palestinian media, religious and other elite. Stop denying the Jewish people's link to its ancestral homeland. Such hatred incenses Israelis and contributes to the explosion of anti-Semitism across Europe and on North American university campuses.

5. The US and European donors are ready to invest billions more in peace. For that to happen, transparency must reign–insuring that help actually reaches Palestinians who need it. The brutal truth is that if elections were held on the West Bank right now, Hamas would win in a landslide, because of one central issue: corruption.

And Bibi? He walked back his election campaign statement that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch. But he knows that if and when a viable partner emerges from the Palestinian camp, any elected Israeli Prime Minister will have to rush to the negotiating table.

Prime Netanyahu must also do everything in his power to de-personalize disagreements with President Obama. But no one should expect Netanyahu to step back from his stance on Iran. He (and every Jew) is right to take the Mullahocracy's existential threats at face value.

I was present at our Nation's Capitol for Bibi Netanyahu's speech on Iran. Love him or hate him, everyone there, and all Israelis watching at home, saw a true world leader in action. In the end, his respectful and masterful speech reminded everyone, that he has earned his place on the international stage, no matter how discomfiting his message is to some.

If the Obama Administration really wants to reach Israelis, denouncing the democratic results of the Israeli electorate, is not the way to go. What they want to hear from Washington is a coherent plan for fighting terrorism in their neighborhood and the details of a deal with Iran that, to paraphrase Netanyahu, Israelis and Iran's Arab neighbors, can “literally” live with.

Hopefully, the mushrooming dangers in the region will help both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu recalibrate their rhetoric and refocus on the enormous challenges at hand.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Time to enter the Iranian bazaar on the nuclear issue


Iran’s president-elect Rohani: More of the same or a bridge to the West?


Former national security adviser, former nuclear negotiator, a decades-old friendship with the supreme leader — Hassan Rohani is as Iranian establishment as it gets.

Which is why, some Iran watchers say, he may be an invaluable asset in the quest to reduce tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

In his first remarks following his election to the Iranian presidency last week, Rohani sustained the moderate image that helped sweep him into office with more than 50 percent of the vote, obviating the need for a runoff against one of the other five candidates.

Rohani, 64, described Iran’s parlous relationship with the United States as “an old wound which must be healed,” according to The New York Times translation of his news conference on Monday, while also defending Iran’s “inalienable rights” to enrich uranium. He intimated, however, that he was willing to make the country’s nuclear program more transparent.

Skeptics were none too impressed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Rohani did not present a change from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his predecessor who was notorious for anti-Semitic rantings, Holocaust denial and oft-repeated wish that Israel would one day disappear.

Both men, Netanyahu said, emerged from a small pool of candidates selected by a council that answers to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

“Among those whose candidacies [Khameini] allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan,’ ” Netanyahu said Sunday.

The Obama administration also expressed skepticism, although unlike Netanyahu, it held out hope that Rohani’s moderated rhetoric represented an opening.

“President-elect Rohani pledged repeatedly during his campaign to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said. “In the months ahead, he has the opportunity to keep his promises to the Iranian people.”

Kerry also repeated his readiness to “engage directly with the Iranian government” to meet Western demands that it make its nuclear program more transparent.

Rohani was born in northern Iran to a religious family that sent him to seminary when he was 12. He went on to earn advanced law degrees at Glasgow Caledonian University and to publish two books in English on Islamic jurisprudence. Until his election he was the managing editor of two scholarly foreign affairs periodicals, in English and in Farsi.

For much of his career, Rohani has been deeply embedded in Iran’s corridors of power. Ten of the 16 entries under “professional experience” in his English-language biography posted on the website of the think tank he has led since 1992, the Center for Strategic Research, detail his security establishment credentials.

Rohani served two stints as national security adviser, from 1989 to 1997 and 2000 to 2005, and was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005.

During his mid-2000s ascent under the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, Western diplomats speculated that Rohani was being groomed for the presidency, noting both his facility for engagement with the West and ties to the conservative establishment and the supreme leader. Rohani is fluent in English, along with several other Western languages, and has an active presence on Twitter.

In his published works, Rohani offers some clues about his views concerning engagement with the West, particularly in nuclear negotiations.

According to Farideh Farhi, a University of Hawaii analyst writing this week on LobeLog, a foreign policy website, Rohani seems to believe that engagement offers more for Iranian security than isolation.

“The foundation of security is not feeling apprehensive,” Rohani wrote in his 2011 book, “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,” according to a translation by Farhi. “In the past 6 years” — since the departure from power of moderates led by Khatami — “the feeling of apprehension has not been reduced.”

Western diplomats who led nuclear talks with Rohani in the mid-2000s told reporters at the time that they saw Rohani as someone coming to the table ready to forge deals. It was during Rohani’s term as chief nuclear negotiator that Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium, although talks ultimately foundered over the extent of the Iranian suspension.

Rohani no longer favors such a suspension, but has suggested that he is ready to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent as a means of lifting Iran’s isolation.

“The best way to characterize Rohani is that he realizes the extent of the crisis facing the Iranian regime due to multiple reasons, but also because of the nuclear program and sanctions,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran policy analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon. “Rohani is not someone who believes Iran must sacrifice everything for resistance.”

During his campaign, Rohani suggested that the price of “resistance” championed by Ahmadinejad and some of the hardliners running against him had cost Iran too much.

It would be nice “that while centrifuges are working, the country is also working,” was one of his slogans, according to Meir Javedanfar, an Iran-born Israeli analyst.

Skeptics emphasized Rohani’s establishment ties, which according to the Times date to 1967, when he met and befriended Khameini on a long train ride.

The Israel Project in its biography of Rohani emphasized that his ascension to the upper echelons of the Iranian government came about through his friendship with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the country’s president throughout much of the 1990s. It was under Rafsanjani that international terrorism operations and nuclear development expanded greatly.

Khameini, as many have noted, remains the ultimate power in Iran. But Nader said Rohani’s establishment past and the swell of moderates who carried him into office over hardline regime favorites such as Saeed Jalili, also a former nuclear negotiator, could position him as a bridge between the two camps.

“Rohani is not transformative. He is part of the conservative establishment and the national security establishment,” Nader said. “He’s acceptable to both sides, to Khameini and the conservatives and to the reformists. He’s a figure who will try and bridge the gap between the components of the regime.

“This is an opportunity for Khameini to make concessions to change and to save face.”

On the issues: Obama and Romney on abortion, Iran, Israel and more


JTA reviews the positions of presidential candidates Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on some issues of importance to the Jewish community.

ABORTION



Obama:

Obama says he is “committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose” and has suggested that the Supreme Court decision affirming abortion rights — Roe v. Wade — is “probably hanging in the balance” this election. Obama has opposed efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood, citing its work as a provider of women’s health care services.



Romney:

The Republican nominee vows to be “a pro-life president” and has repudiated his previous backing for abortion rights, though he supports allowing abortion in instances of rape, incest and danger to the health or life of the mother. He wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, thus allowing states to set their own abortion laws.

Romney has said that there is “no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” He has said that he would support a constitutional amendment that defines life as beginning at conception. He advocates ending federal funding of Planned Parenthood, citing its role as an abortion provider.



HEALTH CARE



Obama:

The president says that the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — often referred to as “Obamacare” — is a historic advance. The law aims to make coverage universal by offering federal subsidies for many insurance buyers, expanding Medicaid eligibility for low-income families, setting up health insurance exchanges to offer choices and mandating that everyone has insurance or be subject to a penalty. It bans discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions and prohibits lifetime caps on coverage.

On Medicare, the president touts the health reform law’s provisions that he says help close the “doughnut hole” in the program’s prescription drug benefit and achieve an estimated $716 billion in future Medicare cost savings.

He opposes what he characterizes as Romney’s plan to turn Medicare into a “voucher” program, arguing that it would be costly for seniors. The Obama campaign says that the Republican nominee’s proposed cap on federal Medicaid spending growth amounts to a dramatic cutting of the budget for the federal-state program that provides health coverage to the needy.

Obama touts the health care reform law’s requirement that insurers cover contraception.

Romney:


The Republican nominee promises to work immediately to repeal the health care reform law. He says that individual states should have the ability to craft their own approaches to health care. He says he wants to promote greater competition in the health care system and give consumers more choices.

Romney proposes transforming Medicare into what he calls a “premium support system.” Under the system, seniors would receive a defined contribution amount from the government that could be applied toward an array of private insurance options that Romney says would have to be comparable to what Medicare offers, as well as a traditional government-provided Medicare option that would compete with the private plans. If a plan’s premium exceeds the government’s contribution, seniors who choose such a plan would pay the difference. He promises Medicare would remain unchanged for current beneficiaries and those now nearing retirement age.

He accuses the president of cutting $716 billion from Medicare in order to pay for the other provisions of the health reform law.

Romney has called for transforming Medicaid into a program in which the federal government gives block grants to the states and allows them greater flexibility to define eligibility and benefits. He would place a strict cap on the annual rate of increase in the federal government’s contribution to Medicaid, limiting it to 1 percent above inflation.


IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM


Obama:

The president has said that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and the United States is “going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.” He has ruled out the possibility of simply containing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Obama says his administration has “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history,” noting the damage that has been done to the Iranian economy.

He said that in any negotiated deal, the Iranians would have to “convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program,” and that there should be “very intrusive inspections.” Obama said Iran would not be allowed to “perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere.”

He accuses Romney of having “often talked as if we should take premature military action.”

Romney:



The Republican nominee calls a nuclear Iran “the greatest threat the world faces, the greatest national security threat.” He says that Iran must be prevented from getting “a nuclear weapons capability.”

Romney says he supports the further tightening of sanctions against Iran and accuses the Obama administration of not moving aggressively enough on this front.

Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, says the Obama administration has failed to convey to the Iranians that there is a credible threat of U.S. military action. Romney later said “military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.”

Romney said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be indicted for incitement to genocide over his verbal attacks on Israel’s existence.




ISRAEL


Obama:

The president points to what he calls his administration’s “unprecedented” commitment to Israel’s security, citing the growth in U.S. security assistance and funding for the Iron Dome system to intercept rockets from Gaza. He has promised to do “what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge — because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

He has pledged to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.” He has called for using the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps as the basis for negotiating the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Obama opposed Palestinian efforts to gain statehood recognition at the United Nations and said the path to a Palestinian state is “negotiations between the parties.” He has demanded that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and abide by past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

While the Obama administration has criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, it also vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities.

Romney:

The Republican nominee says Obama “has thrown Israel under the bus” and has tried to create “daylight” between the United States and Israel. He says the “world must never see any daylight between our two nations.” He vows to “never unilaterally create preconditions for peace talks, as President Obama has done.”

At a meeting with donors that was secretly recorded, Romney expressed pessimism about current possibilities for Israeli-Palestinian peace, explaining that the Palestinians don’t want peace. He suggested the best that could be done would be to “kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” But in a later speech he promised to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” He says he “will reject any measure that would frustrate direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

He has promised to increase military assistance to Israel.




RELIGION AND STATE

Obama:

The president said the “constitutional principle of a separation between church and state has served our nation well since our founding — embraced by people of faith and those of no faith at all throughout our history — and it has been paramount in our work.”

Obama says he “expanded the federal government’s faith-based initiative because it is important for government to partner with faith-based organizations,” citing the role they play in delivering social services.

He says he does not support school vouchers, including to religious schools, because they “can drain resources that are needed in public schools.”

Obama says his administration found a way to respect religious freedom while also ensuring that employees of many religious-affiliated institutions have contraception covered by their health insurance. The administration requires a religious-affiliated institution's insurance provider to directly provide such coverage to employees free of charge when the religious institution objects to providing or paying for such coverage itself.

Romney:

The Republican nominee said “the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.” He said that America’s founders “did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square.”

Romney says he would allow low-income and special needs students to use federal funds designated for them to enroll in private schools, including in religious schools where permitted by states.

He criticizes the administration’s application of the health care law’s contraception coverage clause to employees of many religious-affiliated institutions, saying that it infringes on religious liberty. He endorsed legislation that would exempt employers from having to cover contraception in their employees’ insurances policies if doing so would contradict an employer’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.

For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Obama, Romney meet for final debate as race tightens


President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in front of the cameras for a final time on Monday as opinion polls show their battle for the White House has tightened to a dead heat.

With 15 days to go until the Nov. 6 election, the two candidates turn to foreign policy for their third and last debate, which starts at 6 p.m PST.

The stakes are high, as the two candidates are tied at 46 percent each in the Reuters/Ipsos online daily tracking poll.

The debate will likely be the last time either candidate will be able to directly appeal to millions of voters – especially the roughly 20 pct who have yet to make up their minds or who could still switch their support.

Obama comes to this debate with several advantages. As sitting president, he has been deeply involved with national security and foreign affairs for the past three-and-a-half years. He can point to a number of successes on his watch, from the end of the Iraq war to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But Romney will have many chances to steer the conversation back toward the sluggish U.S. economy, a topic on which voters see him as more credible. He will also try to use unease about a nuclear Iran and turmoil in Libya to sow doubts about Obama's leadership at home and abroad.

Romney launched his candidacy with an accusation that Obama was not representing U.S. interests aggressively enough, but after a decade of war voters have little appetite for further entanglements abroad. After a clumsy overseas trip in July, Romney will have to demonstrate to voters that he could ably represent the United States on the world stage.

“What he needs to do is get through this third debate by showing a close familiarity with the issues and a demeanor in foreign policy that is not threatening,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Presidential debates have not always been consequential, but this year they have had an impact.

Romney's strong performance in the first debate in Denver on Oct. 3 helped him recover from a series of stumbles and wiped out Obama's advantage in opinion polls.

Obama fared better in their second encounter on Oct. 16, but that has not helped him regain the lead.

The Obama campaign is now playing defense as it tries to limit Romney's gains in several of the battleground states that will decide the election.

Romney could have a hard time winning the White House if he does not carry Ohio. A new Quinnipiac/CBS poll shows Obama leading by 5 percentage points in the Midwestern state, but another by Suffolk University shows the two candidates tied there.

LAST-CHANCE DEBATE

More than 60 million viewers watched each of their previous two debates, but the television audience this time could be smaller as it will air at the same time as high-profile baseball and football games.

Much of the exchange, which takes place at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, will likely focus on the Middle East.

Campaigning in Canton, Ohio, on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden reminded voters of Obama's pledge to pull troops out of Afghanistan in the next two years and pointed out that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have made no such guarantees.

“They said, quote, it depends. Ladies and gentlemen, like everything with them, it depends,” Biden said. “It depends on what day you find these guys.”

At their second debate last week, the two presidential candidates clashed bitterly over Libya, a preview of what is to come on Monday evening. They argued over Obama's handling of the attack last month on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

The Obama administration first labeled the incident a spontaneous reaction to a video made in the United States that lampooned the Prophet Mohammad. Later, it said it was a terrorist assault on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This shifting account, and the fact that Obama went on a campaign trip the day after the attack, has given Romney ammunition to use at Monday's debate.

“The statements were either misleading by intention or they were misleading by accident. Either way, though, he's got to get to the bottom of this,” Romney adviser Dan Senor said on NBC's “Today” show.

Obama and his allies charge that Romney exploited the Benghazi attack for political points while officials were still accounting for the wellbeing of U.S. diplomats.

Regarding foreign policy overall, Obama's allies accuse Romney of relying on generalities and platitudes.

“It is astonishing that Romney has run for president for six years and never once bothered to put forward a plan to end the war in Afghanistan, for example, or to formulate a policy to go after al Qaeda,” U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, wrote in a memo released by the Obama campaign on Monday.

Romney has promised to tighten the screws over Iran's nuclear program and accused Obama of “leading from behind” as Syria's civil war expands. He also has faulted Obama for setting up a politically timed exit from the unpopular Afghanistan war, and accused him of failing to support Israel, an important ally in the Middle East.

The Republican challenger is likely to bring up a New York Times report from Saturday that said the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to hold bilateral negotiations to halt what Washington and its allies say is a plan by Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.

The 90-minute debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS, will be divided into six segments: America's role in the world; the war in Afghanistan; Israel and Iran; the changing Middle East; terrorism; and China's rise.

Netanyahu to seek early election in 4 months


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he supported an early general election in four months’ time, a ballot polls say could strengthen his hand as Israel confronts Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“It is preferable to have a short election campaign of four months that will swiftly return stability to the political ranks,” Netanyahu said in a speech to a convention of his rightist Likud party.

The next national vote was not due until October 2013, but new legislation that might force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military and an upcoming budget debate have threatened to unravel a governing coalition of religious and nationalist parties once seen as one of the most stable in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu said he wanted to avoid pressure from coalition partners who were beginning to destabilize the government. He did not specify a date, but a party official earlier said September 4 was the probable date for the ballot.

“With the start of the government’s fourth year we have seen many signs that the stability has begun to waver and political instability always brings extortion (and) populism which harm security, the economy and society. I will not allow a campaign of a year and a half that will harm the country,” Netanyahu said.

A Netanyahu victory two months before the U.S. election would give him leverage over Barack Obama on the Iranian and Palestinian issues while the U.S. president is still engaged in his own campaign and wary of alienating pro-Israeli voters.

Netanyahu and Obama have had a thorny relationship and the right-wing Israeli leader has come under pressure from Washington not to take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear facilities suspected of being part of a project to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program is purely civilian. Israel is believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.

Opinion polls show Likud will easily come out on top of the national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing his country – the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Parliament was due to convene on Monday and vote on a coalition-backed resolution of dissolution. Netanyahu and his government would remain in office until a new administration is sworn in after the election in four months’ time.

Israeli leaders have insisted the election campaign would have no impact on their decision-making on Iran.

“Netanyahu does not hide his intention to strike Tehran’s nuclear sites before they become immune to attack,” commentator Ron Ben-Yishai, referring to Iranian efforts to put its atomic facilities deep underground, wrote in Israel’s popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“Hence, his decision to call early elections when his position on this issue is so clear and consistent shows confidence that Israel’s public is behind him, thereby granting more credibility to the Israeli threat,” he wrote.

Netanyahu has been urged by Washington and other world powers to allow beefed-up international sanctions on Iran to bite. He has voiced pessimism about the outcome of international nuclear talks with Iran due to resume in Baghdad on May 23.

While opinion polls have shown strong support for Netanyahu’s leadership, they have also indicated a wide majority of Israelis either oppose an Israeli strike on Iran or would favor an attack only if it were carried out with U.S. agreement.

Some former Israeli security chiefs have criticized Netanyahu’s hawkish stance. His former internal security chief, Yuval Diskin, accused both him and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of having a “messianic” policy toward Iran.

On Friday, Barak said Iran’s nuclear strategy could eventually allow it to build an atomic bomb with just 60 days’ notice. The remarks elaborated on long-held Israeli concerns that Tehran is playing for time as it engages in negotiations aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche

Iran parliament vote seen bolstering Supreme Leader


Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s power over rival hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian leaders were looking for a high turnout to ease an acute crisis of legitimacy caused by Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 when widespread accusations of fraud plunged the Islamic Republic into the worst unrest of its 33-year history.

Iran also faces economic turmoil compounded by Western sanctions over a nuclear program that has prompted threats of military action by Israel, whose leader meets U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday.

The vote in Iran is only a limited test of political opinion since leading reformist groups stayed out what became a contest between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad camps.

“Whenever there has been more enmity towards Iran, the importance of the elections has been greater,” Khamenei, 72, said after casting his vote before television cameras.

“The arrogant powers are bullying us to maintain their prestige. A high turnout will be better for our nation … and for preserving security.”

The vote will have scant impact on Iran’s foreign or nuclear policies, in which Khamenei already has the final say, but could strengthen the Supreme Leader’s hand before the presidential vote next year. Ahmadinejad, 56, cannot run for a third term.

Iranians may be preoccupied with sharply rising prices and jobs, but it is Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions that worry the outside world. Western sanctions over the nuclear program have hit imports, driving prices up and squeezing ordinary Iranians.

OBAMA-NETANYAHU TALKS

Just days away from the talks between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their aides were scrambling to bridge differences over what Washington fears could be a premature Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Netanyahu will press Obama, who is facing a presidential election campaign, to stress publicly the nuclear “red lines” that Iran must not cross, Israeli officials say.

Global oil prices have spiked to 10-month highs on tensions between the West and Iran, OPEC’s second biggest crude producer.

The election took place without two main opposition leaders. Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who both ran for president in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a year.

No independent observers are on hand to monitor the voting or check the turnout figures that officials will announce.

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani made a pointed reference to the outcome of the 2009 vote, which he questioned at the time. “If the election outcome turns out to be what the people cast in the ballot boxes, God willing we will have a good parliament,” the elder statesman said after voting in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad also voted, but state media did not immediately show this or report any comment he might have made. The outgoing parliament is due to grill him next week on his handling of the economy and other issues – an unprecedented humiliation for an incumbent president, but one he may use to hit back at his foes.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0430 GMT) and were due to close at 6 p.m., but might stay open longer. Ballots are counted manually and Iran may have to wait three days for full results.

Voting was slow at first in affluent northern Tehran but picked up later. Voters queued up in poorer parts of the capital and in provincial cities, Reuters witnesses said.

“I am here to support my establishment against the enemies’ plot by voting,” said Mahboubeh Esmaili, 28, holding her baby in a queue of about 50 people at a central Tehran polling centre.

SLAP IN FACE

Khamenei has told Iranians that their vote would be a “slap in the face for arrogant powers” such as the United States.

A U.S. official said Iran had clamped down on dissent since the turbulent presidential election nearly three years ago.

“Since then, the regime’s repression and persecution of all who stand up for their universal human rights has only intensified,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Mario Otero told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in her report to the council she was alarmed at a “surge in executions” reported in Iran in the past year. She gave no figures.

The two main groups competing for parliament’s 290 seats are the United Front of Principlists, which includes Khamenei loyalists, and the Resistance Front that backs Ahmadinejad.

The president, a blacksmith’s son, has long appealed to Iran’s rural poor with his humble image and cash handouts from state funds, but spiraling prices have dented his popularity.

Energy and food imports have been hit by sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work that the West suspects is a cover for a drive to build atomic bombs. Tehran says it has only peaceful aims, such as generating electricity.

Prices of staple goods, many of them imported, have soared because the Iranian rial’s value has sunk as U.S. and European Union sanctions on the financial and oil sectors begin to bite.

Ahmadinejad’s critics accuse him of making things worse for low-income Iranians, saying his decision to replace food and fuel subsidies with direct monthly payments since 2010 has fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

ALLIES FALL OUT

The president enjoyed solid support from Khamenei in the months of “Green Movement” protests that followed the 2009 election, but the two men have fallen out badly since then.

For Khamenei, the parliamentary election could reinforce his grip on power against a president seen as trying to undermine the clergy’s central role in Iran’s complex political hierarchy.

Ahmadinejad and his “deviant current” allies have alarmed Khamenei’s conservative camp by emphasizing nationalist themes of Iranian history and culture over the Islamic ruling system introduced by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Some Iranian media reports said Ahmadinejad hoped to secure the election of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, to succeed him. Khamenei will want to install one of his own loyalists to prevent further divisions within the ruling elite.

Powerful establishment groups, including senior clerics, the elite Revolutionary Guards and bazaar merchants, formed an alliance to back Khamenei loyalists in the parliamentary vote.

Not everyone can run in Iranian elections. The hard-line Guardian Council, made up of six clerics and six jurists who vet candidates, approved more than 3,400 out of 5,382 applicants.

Some politicians said the council barred many established Ahmadinejad supporters, forcing him to pick political unknowns.

The rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad broke into the open in April 2011 when the Supreme Leader forced the president to reinstate an intelligence minister he had insisted on firing.

Khamenei has kept up the pressure in recent months. Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or sacked for links to the “deviant current”.

Most strikingly, the president’s media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, has received a one-year jail term for insulting Khamenei, which an appeal court upheld on Wednesday.

The authorities suggested that malign foreign hands were trying to disrupt the election.

“So far, 10 saboteurs who came to Tehran from outside the country have been arrested and are now in detention,” Mohammad Taqi Baqeri, a Tehran election official was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. He gave no details.

Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Marcus George in Dubai and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Obama: ‘All options’ – including diplomacy – still on with Iran


All options are on the table for Iran, but a diplomatic solution to the impasse over its nuclear weapons program is still a possibility, President Obama said in his State of the Union speech.

Obama said Iran was more isolated than ever because of the intensified sanctions he has introduced or encouraged.

“Let there be no doubt:  America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” he said.  “But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

Obama also referred to the defense alliance with Israel, but did not mention—as he has in past speeches—his efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Our iron-clad, and I mean iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history,” he said to a standing ovation.

Speaking of the “Arab Spring” wave of protests across the region, Obama said the outcome was still uncertain, and alluded to concerns about Islamist victories in elections in Egypt and Tunisia.

“While it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well,” he said.  “We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings – men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.”  He predicted the demise of the Assad regime in Syria.

Much of Obama’s speech was focused on proposals to spur job creation.

The State of the Union marked one of the last appearances in Congress of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is still recovering from a shooting attack a year ago and who is resigning from Congress as of tomorrow to focus on her recovery.

Giffords was cheered walking into the chamber, accompanied by her close friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Obama sought Giffords out for a hug before he began his speech.

Will Iran be the wild card in presidential election?


As reports circulate about an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iranian progress toward building a nuclear weapon, issues of foreign policy and Israel may find their way back into a presidential election season that has thus far been dominated by the economy. If Iran’s nuclear program emerges as a major issue, it will be problematic both for President Barack Obama and for his Republican challengers.

Jewish voters, of course, have a deep concern over Iran’s ability to threaten Israel with a nuclear bomb. While most Americans are focused on the ailing economy, Jews have an eye out for Israel’s security.

Since being bolstered by the removal of Saddam Hussein, once Iran’s most dangerous regional enemy, Iran is on the rise.

The last several weeks have seen a great deal of movement on the Iran issue. Along with the IAEA report, Israel has allowed the public to eavesdrop on an internal debate about whether to attack Iranian nuclear installations. This discussion would normally be kept secret, but Israel is clearly sending a message to the United States and others that if toughened sanctions do not work, an attack is likely. An explosion at an Iranian missile plant was widely considered to be the work of Israel, which apparently has been conducting a series of covert actions against Iranian targets. These attacks also may have included the implanting of a computer virus. 

Despite the Obama administration’s numerous successes in foreign policy, the urgency of the economic crisis has dominated the conversation. Ironically, this is the rare election season in which a Democrat has the edge on foreign policy more than on domestic policy. Yet, any statements by the White House that seem to downplay the domestic economy in favor of touting global successes could backfire politically.

Republicans have been more comfortable talking about the struggling economy than about foreign policy.  Foreign policy, normally a Republican edge, is not working as well for them this year — Obama’s successful assaults on Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists have made him hard to challenge. There also are few real party differences on foreign policy, compared to the yawning and fundamental chasm on economic policy. On foreign policy,  party differences tend to be rhetorical and symbolic, with Republicans calling for belligerence, American dominance and clear victories, no matter how complex the situation. This leads to oddities, such as Michele Bachmann first charging that Obama has surrendered to terrorism and then springing to his defense (although not by name) for his targeted killings of terrorist leaders.

But as much as both parties want to ignore foreign policy, the world doesn’t always cooperate with American electoral calculations. A low-level conflict with Iran already seems to be under way, and it could escalate before the election.

Obama’s rocky relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu was highlighted by the open microphone gaffe with French president Nicolas Sarkozy when both presidents shared their frustrations with the Israeli prime minister. More importantly, though, it is perhaps under-recognized that Obama has given Israel more militarily than his predecessor George W. Bush ever did, in particular bunker-buster bombs that could hit Iranian nuclear sites.

There are some clues from the Nov. 12 Republican debate on foreign policy on how the Republican side of the discussion of the Iranian question might play out. Anything that resembled bluster earned applause from the party base. Anything that seemed like a reasoned analysis, such as when Rick Santorum, and even Michele Bachmann, tried to explain how hard it is to deal with a mixed-motive ally like Pakistan, drew a dead audience response.

Mitt Romney’s best line was, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will get a nuclear weapon. If we elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not.” The implication was that Romney would be able to force Iran to back down. But would he? Republican presidential contenders like to say the president needs to listen to commanders on the ground. Are they aware that the top military brass are against a preemptive attack on Iran, and that the president would have to overrule them to do so? And American voters do not seem eager for another war, just as Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down.

Nevertheless, Obama has a tough case to make for his own approach. His foreign policy is based on speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Rhetorically, it’s no match for Republican belligerence. He cannot bluster from the White House, nor can he promise that a conflict with Iran would bring about a nice, neat victory. He has to show that all the steps short of war that the United States has taken — giving bunker busters to Israel, pressuring allies to make sanctions work and diplomatically isolating Iran — will prevent the need for an attack. Finally, he has to be convincing both at home and in Iran’s eyes that, should all else fail, he has drawn a firm line that he will stick to with regard to Iranian nuclear capability.

Because of Obama’s style, which seems to be more forceful behind the scenes than in public, Iran may make a miscalculation, such as happened before in the Middle East, in 1967 and 1973, that a politically vulnerable American president (first Lyndon Johnson, then Richard Nixon) would abandon Israel in a crisis. Both presidents came mightily to an imperiled Israel’s aid.

Obama will argue that the Iran situation is more complicated than his opponents suggest, but subtlety is a difficult sell. Republicans have, since the Chinese Revolution in 1949, made hay out of topics like “Who lost China?” That question obsessed Johnson, who feared that if he pulled out of the disastrous Vietnam War, he would face the same question about Vietnam.

The prospect of a nuclear Iran goes beyond electoral politics. Despite Obama’s many successes against terrorism, and his leadership in the defeat of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, Iran is likely to be the defining test of the Obama doctrine. Finding the right path and the right language to address this growing problem is going to take every ounce of the president’s strength, intellect and consistency, all in the midst of a tightly contested presidential election. But he must do so, both for the good of America and for its ally Israel.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

At least 3 GOP candidates say war with Iran is an option


Three Republican candidates for president said they would go to war if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon.

Mitt Romney, one of the frontrunners and the former Massachusetts governor, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania U.S. senator, each said Saturday night that a “credible threat” of war was necessary to contain Iran.

The policy under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush was to say that “nothing is off the table” without specifying a military option.

“The president should have built a credible threat of military action,” Romney said, referring to Obama.

“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Gingrich and Santorum agreed that there should be a “credible threat” of military action.

Herman Cain, a businessman who is also a front-runner, said he would support insurgents in Iran and deploy anti-missile ships in the region, but stopped short of military action.

“I would not entertain military opposition,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas.) also was opposed.

Not asked were Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Bachmann later accused Obama of “not standing with Israel” at a time that “the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war with Israel.”

Perry said he backed sanctions that would cut Iran’s Central Bank off from the U.S. economy—something that is currently under consideration in Congress.

Perry also said he backed cutting foreign assistance altogether and getting nations to make their case for assistance. When asked if that included Israel, he said “absolutely,” although he predicted that Israel would make a strong case and would receive substantial aid.

His campaign emailed a “clarification” to reporters immediately following the debate.

It repeated Perry’s debate remarks that “Israel is a special ally, and my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level” but added: “Gov. Perry recognizes Israel as a unique and vital political and economic partner for the United States in the Middle East.”

The debate, co-sponsored by CBS and National Journal, took place at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. South Carolina is a key early primary state for Republicans.

Iranian unrest prompts calls for more U.S. pressure on regime


With unrest mounting in Iran over official claims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, U.S. Jewish organizational leaders were calling for more American support for the protesters and more international action to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Since Ahmadinejad was declared a landslide winner June 13, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in protest.

As the first signs of a violent crackdown came Monday, some Jewish communal officials—including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—questioned whether the United States should be doing more to show solidarity with the demonstrators.

Foxman said he had “not heard America embrace” Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi.

Hoenlein said he understood why the United States “doesn’t want to become a factor” in the process, but added, “When do the young people feel they’ve been abandoned” by the West?

Talking to reporters Monday, Obama said “it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be” and the United States wants to avoid “being the issue inside of Iran.”

“What I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process,” he added, “I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.”

The protests and crackdowns in Iran are likely to reignite the debate over the best way to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and support of international terrorism: Negotiate a deal with the country’s current Islamic rulers that helps prolong their political survival, or ramp up support for forces seeking to topple the regime?

While Israeli officials and Jewish organizations have yet to weigh in strongly on the question, for weeks they have been asserting that it doesn’t matter whether Ahmadinejad or Moussavi is president because the final decision-maker is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and by most accounts he is a strong backer of Iran’s current nuclear policies and support for terrorist proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

But in recent days Moussavi, the prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, has sided unabashedly with the demonstrators, even as they have appeared to be challenging the legitimacy of the regime. This, coupled with his calls for better relations with the West and less support for Hamas and Hezbollah, has many portraying Moussavi as a true reformist candidate who could potentially trigger significant changes on some fronts.

But Dan Mariaschin, international executive director of B’nai B’rith International, cautioned against losing sight of the fact that Moussavi was the prime minister when Iran’s nuclear program launched.

“Those who think there are sharp differences” between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad are “certainly taking a leap of faith,” Mariaschin said.

In the end, said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement, “The re-election of Ahmadinejad underscores why the international community must do all it can to deny the Iranian regime the means to carry out its dangerous and destabilizing ambitions.”

20 killed at opposition rallies across Iran


Twenty people were killed at rallies across Iran on Tuesday, as opposition activists demonstrated against the disputed results of last week’s presidential elections, according to various media reports.

Iran’s defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi urged his supporters not to attend a planned rally in Tehran on Tuesday in light of the violence, his spokesman said. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Report: Defeated Ahmadinejad rival arrested in Iran


Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was reportedly arrested Saturday following the reformist’s defeat at the polls by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supporters of Mousavi, the main challenger to Ahmadinejad, responded to the election with the most serious unrest in Tehran in a decade and charged that the result was the work of a dictatorship.

Mousavi’s arrest was reported by an unofficial source, according to whom the presidential hopeful was arrested en route to the home of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

IRANIAN ELECTION ANALYSIS: All Iran candidates will bolster Hamas, Hezbollah ties


One winner has already been declared in the Iranian elections: The Internet, used by more than 23 million Iranians, or 34 percent of the population. But that figure alone cannot be used to determine which of the four candidates will win. At the very most, one can assume most Web users will vote for reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, rather than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mohsen Rezeai.

Although the presidential race is based mostly on the individual skills of the candidates, their agendas and public record are no less important. The candidates have almost insignificant differences on issues of core interest to the West and Israel. All of the candidates have said they are willing to hold a dialogue with the U.S., but say it would be gradual and depend on U.S. policy. Even Ahmadinejad has expressed his willingness to talk to the U.S. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Israelis catch U.S. election fever


TEL AVIV (JTA) — Just beyond the beer taps at a Tel Aviv bar with an American flag hanging out front, a makeshift polling station draws dozens of Americans in Israel casting their vote for the U.S. election, 6,000 miles away.

“This is more fun than voting in the Bronx,” said one voter, sealing his ballot in an envelope Sunday night at the Dancing Camel, the Tel Aviv bar where the Vote From Israel organization set up its absentee voting operation in the city.

Israelis — including the American citizens among them, as many as half of whom hail from swing states — have been closely following the election campaign across the ocean.

Hourly radio news bulletins routinely report the latest U.S. polls, Israeli media have dispatched reporters to cover the campaign trail and have been rebroadcasting Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonations on “Saturday Night Live.” Some Israelis have even gotten involved on the grassroots level. One group produced a YouTube video called Israelis for Obama that has been seen some by some 400,000 viewers.

All the while, Israelis have been following the disproportionate mention of their small country in the campaign with a mix of amusement and validation (in the vice presidential debate alone, Israel got 17 references).

The visits to Israel this summer by both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain lent further credence to the Israeli joke that Israel is America’s 51st state. During their visits, both candidates made the perfunctory pledges of support for Israel. The gestures may have been meant for Jewish voters back home, but they also put at ease Israelis not too familiar with either candidate.

Israelis “feel very much involved in this election and have deep opinions about it,” said Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.

The author of a new book on the history of the U.S. presidency titled “The Presidents,” Diskin said he was surprised by the high level of demand in Israel for his new book, which includes chapters on Obama and McCain and features the two on its cover.

With the U.S. election just days away, poll results released this week by the Rabin Center for Israel Studies found that 46.4 percent of Israelis would vote for McCain and 34 percent for Obama, with 18.6 undecided. Nearly half of the 500 Israelis surveyed, or 48.6 percent, said McCain would be better for Israel; 31.5 percent said Obama would be better.

The results are very different from U.S. polls showing Obama in the lead, including among American Jews. They reflect the wariness some Israelis, including Americans living here, have about Obama’s untested relationship with Israel. With the growing threat of a nuclear Iran high on Israelis’ minds, some Israelis see McCain as the safer choice, due to his foreign policy record and experience and more hawkish line on national security.

Others support Obama’s message of change and are eager to see a U.S. president with a less unilateral approach to foreign affairs than President Bush and whose actions will boost America’s standing in the world, which is seen to benefit Israel. They also support the Democratic candidate’s positions on abortion rights, health care policy and the economy.

Among registered Democrats in Israel, Obama lost in the primaries to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). who beat Obama 54 to 45 percent. Clinton polled better in Israel than both Obama and McCain; her popularity here is thought to be due to her familiarity to Israelis and to the popularity of her husband in Israel.

With its large community of expatriate Americans — Israel is thought to have the fifth-largest U.S. expatriate community in the world, after Canada, Britain, Germany and Mexico — Israel is seeing its share of political activity around the U.S. election.

One New Jersey native now living in Israel, Noah Hertz-Bunzl, 22, founded a group called Americans in Israel for Obama, which coordinated efforts with the Obama campaign for two voter registration events. The group also has been calling Jews in swing states to convince them to vote Obama.

“The basic point we make is not to be scared off by Obama and to counter the misconception that Israelis are opposed to him,” Hertz-Bunzl said.

Kory Bardash, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, said that he expects most American voters in Israel to side with McCain, noting that in 2004 approximately 70 percent of Israel’s Americans voted for Bush.

“People who vote in Israel are typically either religious or people who care about Israel,” Bardash said. “It’s foreign policy and the economy that matter, and traditional liberal issues do not play so much of a role here.”

McCain’s support among Orthodox Jews is stronger than among liberal ones.

Elliott Nahmias, 37, originally from California, said he’s voting McCain in large part because of foreign policy considerations.

Jennifer Shapiro, 27, who grew up in New Jersey, said she’s become obsessed with the elections, even from the distance of Israel.

“I don’t do anything but read and watch news about the election,” she said.

Shapiro said she is supporting Obama because she favors his international outlook and his positions on domestic issues, including health care and the economy.

When it comes to Israel, she says the Jewish state will know how to take care of itself no matter who is president: “It will do what it needs to do to protect itself,” she said.

McCain and Obama campaigns focus on sanctions as Iran threat looms


WASHINGTON (JTA) — The mounting anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program is sparking campaign chatter over a possible Israeli strike and prompting a bipartisan effort to revive long-stalled sanctions legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Time is running out, say advocates of new congressional sanctions against Iran, with some wondering if a nuclear deadline for the Islamic Republic looms as early as next year. But an election or three — in the United States, Israel and Iran — seem to stand in the way of coordinated action, and conventional wisdom posits that a U.S. president who is perhaps the lamest duck in decades is hardly in a position to carry through with meaningful action.

Against this backdrop, attention has turned increasingly to the possibility of Israel launching a pre-emptive strike, with reports claiming that U.S. officials have told Jerusalem not to take such action. At the same time, however, both vice-presidential candidates have said in recent weeks that the United States should respect any Israeli decision on the matter and both campaigns were planning this week to discuss their Iran policies with Jewish communal leaders.

In the Congress, escalating concerns about Iran have prompted Democrats and Republicans to set aside sharp election-year differences to coordinate with Israel and the pro-Israel lobby to push through sanctions legislation before year’s end, including the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

The measure would mandate the publication every six months of a list of companies invested in Iran’s energy and defense sectors in order to facilitate divestment from Iran by state pension funds. It also protects from lawsuits fund managers who divest from Iran.

Obama’s bill and the Iran Counterproliferation Act are under consideration for attachment to a defense authorization measure that must be passed this term.

The bills have been held up until now because of resistance from the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for myriad reasons: Some business interests have opposed the counterproliferation bill because it would close loopholes that have allowed American companies to continue working with Iran through foreign-owned subsidiaries.

Additionally, the Bush administration has aggressively opposed limitations on its executive prerogative in foreign policy. Pro-Israel insiders say that some Republicans have opposed the sanctions-enabling legislation because they don’t want to give Obama, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, a legislative victory in an election year.

But many of those differences have been set aside in recent weeks, pro-Israel insiders told JTA.

Dan Shapiro, an Obama foreign policy adviser and top Jewish outreach coordinator, confirmed to JTA that Obama’s bill, which would offer tort protections to pensions that divest from Iran, is likely to be part of the defense authorization measure that is set to pass.

“It has the support of several dozen senators,” Shapiro said.
He would not, however, count out resistance from the White House.

Earlier sanctions have had an impact: Businesses increasingly are reluctant to invest in Iran in part because of sanctions Bush has implemented on Iranian banks through executive order.

The perceived need for some kind of action has been exacerbated by the lame-duck status of Bush, who is exiting office as one of the least popular presidents in modern history, and Wednesday’s primaries in Israel. The Israeli vote is likely to be followed by weeks or months of political realignments ahead of new general elections.

In addition, Iran is set to hold presidential elections next June, raising hopes of ousting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery rhetoric has fanned much of the anxiety about a nuclear Iran.

According to experts, the next president — whether it is Obama or U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — is likely to ramp up the pressure on Iran. But differences persist in how each man would go about increasing the pressure.

A bipartisan slate of five former secretaries of state — including Henry Kissinger, now a McCain adviser — met this week under CNN auspices and agreed that talks with Iran would likely be on the agenda next year, whoever is president. McCain repeatedly has criticized Obama’s willingness to talk with Iranian leaders and painted the Democratic candidate as dangerously naive on the matter.

Obama is considering how best to establish an international commitment to further isolate Iran; McCain is considering ways to encourage internal Iranian dissent toward regime change.

Both campaigns are making their case on Iran this week to segments of the Jewish community. On Wednesday, McCain’s senior advisers were to meet with Jewish backers in Arlington, Va., while Obama himself was to take part in a conference call with rabbinical leaders.

“This is an extremely important issue, an extremely serious issue, and an extremely urgent issue,” Tony Lake, Obama’s top national security adviser, said at an event organized by the Center for U.S. Global Engagement in Denver during the Democratic National Convention last month. “It could well lead to the worst crisis that we will see over the next five years because the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will present a huge threat to the security of Israel, to others in the region, to the Europeans, including the Russians, and many others.”

Obama wants to see “progress between now and next January,” Lake said, but already is planning action “as soon as he takes office.”

Dennis Ross, the former top Middle East negotiator under Bush’s father and Bill Clinton, and now a senior Obama adviser, said the candidate’s preferred approach would be “serious sticks and serious carrots” — in that order.

“You’ve got to change the formula from weak sticks and weak carrots, which is not enough to concentrate the Iranian mind in terms of the negotiations and make them change behavior,” Ross told JTA.

An Obama administration would rally the international community to cut off refined petroleum exports to Iran, hitting almost half of its gas supply, and end investment in the Islamic Republic’s antiquated energy infrastructure.

The obstacles to such a strategy remain China and Russia, which maintain extensive business contacts in Iran. Ross described a strategy of first targeting China, which depends heavily on Iran for its oil supply. China, he noted, is even more dependent on Saudi oil, yet no serious effort has been made to recruit Saudi Arabia into leveraging the Chinese into isolating Iran, even though the Saudis have even more to fear from a nuclear Iran than Israel.

Ross said Obama also became interested, after touring Israel in July and meeting top security officials there, in targeting the five major re-insurers — the companies that underwrite insurance companies. A re-insurance boycott would go a substantial way toward crippling Iran’s energy sector.

The McCain campaign is similarly exercised about Iran, but is mapping a different approach focused on supporting internal political resistance to the regime.

“I think you’ll see John McCain, diplomatically, working very aggressively with countries throughout the Middle East who feel, and properly so, a threat from the rise of the Shi’a extremist regime, and try to get a larger condominium to address them,” said Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s envoy to Sudan who also is advising the McCain campaign, earlier this month in Minneapolis.

McCain campaign officials did not return requests for interviews on the topic, but Williamson advocated a “soft” campaign of encouraging democratization within Iran as well as building up a regional front that would isolate the regime.

“There has to be a recognition that that regime has its own fissions, and divisions within it,” he said, before rattling them off: “The balance of power between the president, Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader, constituencies, it has economic growth problems, it has an increasingly dissatisfied younger population and the majority of the country is under 30 years of age, and it has stresses with neighbors.”

Williamson added: “I think you’re going to see John McCain utilizing the instruments he has been involved in, all over the world, in over 90 countries, in trying to help civil society, endemic democratic institutions grow.”

McCain accepts nomination, offers little new on Israel, Iran


ST. PAUL, Minn. (JTA)—John McCain used his convention speech Thursday to unveil his game plan for claiming the mantle of real change: Shore up support among conservatives by touting traditional Republican positions while appealing to undecided voters by criticizing his party’s actual performance and promising to work across party lines.

In the process, he offered little new on Israel and Iran—possibly because of Republican confidence that the party has the upper hand over Democrats on those issues.

Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) accepted the Republican Party’s nomination on the final night of the convention in St. Paul with a speech that promised a Washington shake-up.

“Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first-country-second, Washington crowd: Change is coming,” McCain said to cheers.

The McCain campaign has striven to undercut claims by the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to real change—a tough proposition given his advantage of being a Democrat after eight years of Bush administration rule, including six years when Republicans controlled Congress. Making the challenge even tougher is McCain’s commitment to a long string of conventional Republican domestic and foreign-policy staples.

Stll, McCain offered a clear break from the increasingly bitter mood in Washington: He pledged to work with Democrats and independents once elected.

“Instead of rejecting good ideas because we didn’t think of them first, let’s use the best ideas from both sides,” McCain said.

The nominee already has made clear his most senior adviser on foreign policy—and on some areas of domestic policy—will be Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the former Democrat who became the first Jew to make a national ticket when he was tapped as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000.

Not much in terms of policy appeared to distinguish McCain from Bush, whose unpopularity ratings are at about 65 percent, according to polls.

This is partly because, in one critical area, dealing with Iraq, Bush in recent years has caught up with McCain: Bush has increased troops, a policy that has gone some way toward stemming the chaos that ensued in that country after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

On education, taxes, trade and immigration, McCain appears to be on the same page as Bush. If there was a difference between the two that came out in the speech Thursday, it was one of emphasis: In his speech, McCain barely mentioned the social conservatism that characterized much of the Bush administration. He included one passing mention to a “culture of life,” a code for opposition to abortion.

McCain opposes abortion, but has shown little taste for legislating it out of existence; additionally, unlike many Christian conservatives, he supports embryonic stem-cell research.

Israel did not get a mention in McCain’s speech, but McCain alluded to Israel’s concerns at two points.

First, when he outlined unfinished foreign policy business: “Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism, and is on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons,” McCain said. The other reference was in outlining a pledge to promote energy independence—one Obama also has adopted but without going as far as McCain in pushing for more drilling in the United States.

“We’re going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much,” McCain said. The world’s major oil producers include such countries as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia.

When the Middle East came up during the Republican convention, it often did so in conjunction with hopes for energy independence. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential pick, also linked the two in her speech Wednesday night.

Republicans’ confidence that McCain will claim a greater share of the Jewish vote this November compared to recent presidential elections was evident on the margins of the convention.

Polls have shown McCain claiming at least 32 percent in November, a leap from the 25 percent Bush won in 2004. This, despite the Obama campaign’s efforts in recent months to stress its support for Israel and its commitment to tougher action against Iran.

Lawmakers attending a Republican Jewish Coalition event on Thursday returned constantly to the theme of McCain being a more proven friend of Israel than Obama.

“If you care about the United States of America, if you care about Israel, this election is absolutely critical,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). Nevada is in play this election and its growing Jewish population could prove critical in November.

At the same event, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to imply that the Democratic Party isn’t pro-Israel.

“There’s an important and fundamental difference between the two parties in Washington, and I know you’re not going to be fooled by Democrats claiming that just because they’re for foreign assistance to Israel that they’re pro-Israel,” McConnell said. “Israel’s security and U.S. security are inextricably intertwined and they involve… having an assertive, aggressive proactive approach to danger.”

Such harsh rhetoric echoed the sharp attacks against Obama delivered by Palin and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their speeches the night before.

On McCain’s night, however, the nominee ultimately appeared to take his cues from Lieberman, who in his speech Tuesday night painted the GOP nominee as a maverick willing to buck his own party and work with Democrats when the national interest required it.

Dems use speeches to hit GOP on Israel


DENVER (JTA)—President Bush and John McCain backed policies that have endangered Israel, Democrats argued during their convention speeches Wednesday night.

In a night dedicated largely to foreign policy and national security issues, several speakers at the Pepsi Center argued that Israel’s enemies have been emboldened by Republican mishaps. The strategy reflected an increased willingness of Democrats to go on the attack against the Bush administration over Israel, after years of simply insisting both sides of the aisle were equally supportive of the Jewish state.

Alan Solomont, a top fund raiser for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) this time around, told JTA that four years ago it was the “belief of the Kerry campaign that [Israel] was not a point of differentiation therefore the campaign did focus on other issues.”

Not this year. Among those who used their speeches to hammer home the new talking points were:

* Kerry: “George Bush, with John McCain at his side, promised to spread freedom but delivered the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. They misread the threat and misled the country. Instead of freedom, it’s Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and dictators everywhere that are on the march. North Korea has more bombs, and Iran is defiantly chasing one.”

* Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): “Under George Bush, the Middle East has become more troubled. That hurts America and endangers our ally, Israel, which has been forced to confront a resurgent Hamas, an emboldened Hezbollah and an Iran determined to get nuclear weapons. That is not the change we need.”

* Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.): “We entered into an unnecessary war and remain bogged down in Iraq as Afghanistan backslides and the architects of Sept. 11 remain free. On Bush and McCain’s watch, we have witnessed the growing influence of a belligerent Iran that has destabilized the Middle East and threatens our ally, Israel.”

During their respective speeches, President Clinton and Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), focused on the harm done by what they described as the Bush administration’s failure to utilize diplomacy.

Clinton argued that America’s “position in the world has been weakened by,” among other things, a failure to consistently use the power of diplomacy, from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America to Center and Eastern Europe.” As for Biden, he pointed to Iran as a hot spot where the United States has failed diplomatically.

“Should we trust John McCain’s judgment when he rejected talking with Iran and then asked: What is there to talk about? Or Barack Obama, who said we must talk and make it clear to Iran that its conduct must change,” Biden said. “Now, after seven years of denial, even the Bush administration recognizes that we should talk to Iran, because that’s the best way to advance our security. Again, John McCain was wrong. Barack Obama was right.”

Obama drew criticism from his onetime primary opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and from Republicans for his statement last year that he would be willing to meet with the president of Iran; he and Biden were two of just two dozen senators to oppose an amendment urging the declaration of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has since said that he supported the Bush administration’s ultimate decision to take such a step, but objected to the amendment out of fear that the Bush administration would unduly treat it as an approval for attacking Iran. In general, the Obama campaign has argued that its ticket would adopt a tougher and smarter approach to isolating Iran in an effort to short circuit its nuclear pursuits.

Republicans, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani earlier this week, have been painting Obama as naive and undependable when it comes to safeguarding Israel. And, in recent days, they have also attempted to challenge Biden’s pro-Israel bona fides. The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement Wednesday citing a 1982 clash that Biden had with Israel’s then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, in which the Delaware senator criticized Israeli settlement expansion and reportedly raised the possibility of cutting U.S. aid to Israel over the issue. In addition, the RJC cited several pro-Israel congressional letters and resolution that Biden did not sign on to.

Biden, who has worked closely with Israel and Jewish groups on many issues, was praised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee upon being tapped by Obama.

During his speech, Wexler—who boasts of being the first Jewish congressman to back Obama’s presidential bid—described the nominee as a staunch supporter of Israel.

“In his heart, in his gut, Barack Obama stands with Israel,” Wexler said, adding that the candidate “understands the threats Israel faces from Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. And as President, Barack Obama will strongly support Israel’s right and capability to defend itself, and finally make progress toward the goal of a two-state solution that preserves Israel’s security as a Jewish state.”

Obama sounds both hawkish and dovish themes in Israel, Jordan


SDEROT, Israel (JTA)—During his stops in Jordan and Israel, presidential contender Barack Obama stressed both his backing for tough Israeli security measures and his commitment to advancing the peace process.

In meetings with several Israeli leaders Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s struggle against terrorism and other violent threats, including Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on its citizens,” Obama said during a stop Wednesday at the police station in Sderot, the Israeli city that has been deluged by rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

“If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I encourage Israel to do same,” addded the U.S. senator from Illinois, speaking in front of shelves filled with mangled Kassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

Obama’s trip comes as his presidential campaign has stepped up its outreach efforts to Jewish voters, and as it tries to shore up the presumptive Democratic candidate’s image with the general public as a potential commander in chief.

Over the past few weeks the Obama campaign has set up Jewish outreach committees in various cities, many with the help of Jewish lawmakers who either backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president or stayed neutral in the Democratic primary campaign.

This week’s trip also presented Palestinian officials and several Israeli politicians who aspire to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister with an opportunity to forge a relationship with a possible future U.S. president—not a small thing in a country where voters place a high premium on strong ties with the United States.

In addition to discussing security issues in his meetings with Israeli leaders, Obama also talked about negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. On Tuesday in Jordan, Obama said that as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters in Amman before heading to Israel and the West Bank. “The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace.

“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs,” he said.

In Jerusalem the next day, Obama met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he donned a white kipah and penned an entry in the visitors’ book.

“At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world,” Obama wrote.

The Democratic candidate then went to Ramallah to meet with Palestinain Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. P.A. officials said Abbas briefed Obama on progress in the peace process. Obama was slated to meet later in the day with Olmert.

Israeli sources said Obama’s discussions with Barak turned to the recent launch of Turkish-mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria.

Obama, according to one source, described the efforts to achieve peace as important, but said that as president “he would never put pressure on Israel to take steps that could put its security at risk.”

The senator apparently was referring to Syria’s demand for a full return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.

As for Iran, Obama described the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as “the most important challenge facing the international community right now,” Israeli sources said, adding that it would top the agenda of Obama’s meetings later this week with the leaders of Germany, France and Britain.

Obama drew criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition and some conservative bloggers over some of the comments he made in Jordan.

Terrorism, Obama said, is “counterproductive, as well as being immoral, because it makes, I believe, the Israelis want to dig in and simply think about their own security regardless of what’s going on beyond their borders.”

Obama immediately added that “the same would be true of any people when these kinds of things happen and innocent people are injured.”

“On the other hand, I think that the Palestinians have to feel some sense of progress in terms of their economic situation, you know, whether it’s on the West Bank or Gaza, if people continually feel pressed, where they can’t get to their job or they can’t make a living, they get frustrated,” Obama said. “It’s hard for them if they see no glimmer of hope to then want to take a leap in order to make impressions.”

In response to the comments, the RJC issued a statement criticizing Obama for what the organization described as “asking Israelis and the American Jewish community to put terrorism in context.”

Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, responded with his own criticism of the RJC.

“I can only imagine that the head of the RJC put on one of those hats with horns on it that Shamans might wear,” Forman said. “Then they must have proceeded to whip themselves into a fury dancing around a fire pit stoked with acacia wood. Then by pouring the blood of a red newt over the Obama statement and reading the statement by the light of the acacia fire, they could somehow divine an anti-Israel message out of what appears, to everybody else, to be a pro-Israel statement.”

Obama press conference in Sderot

 

2008: The contest for the Jews


With Hillary Rodham Clinton’s

Bush’s Arab world tour significant for Israel


With its focus on strengthening the moderate Arab coalition against Iran, President Bush’s tour of the Persian Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and Egypt could prove extremely significant for Israel.

From an Israeli perspective, the three key elements were isolating Iran, coaxing moderate Arab countries into moving toward normalization with Israel and getting oil-rich Arab states to honor their financial pledges to the Palestinians.

Progress on all or some of these issues would significantly boost Israeli foreign policy goals.

On Iran, Bush’s rhetoric was uncompromising. In a major policy statement in Abu Dhabi, he described Tehran as a threat to world peace and called on America’s allies to join the United States in confronting the danger “before it was too late.”

Bush accused the Iranian regime of funding terrorists and extremists, undermining peace in Lebanon, sending arms to the Taliban, seeking to intimidate its neighbors with alarming rhetoric, defying the United Nations and destabilizing the entire region by refusing to be open about its nuclear program.

But after last month’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran had suspended a clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2003, it is unclear what action the United States intends to take.

Bush’s post-NIE Mideast diplomacy can be read in two different ways: bolstering the moderate Arab coalition against Iran as part of an ongoing policy of containment through diplomatic and economic sanctions, or as laying the diplomatic groundwork for a possible military strike against Iranian nuclear installations before the president leaves office.

Israeli experts are divided over how far Bush is likely to go.

Eitan Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies said he would be very surprised if Bush does anything dramatic during the remainder of his term, such as initiating a dialogue with the ayatollahs or launching a military strike.

Indeed, Gilboa said the president may have ordered the NIE findings to get himself off the hook on attacking Iran.

“The administration has no stomach for military action now,” Gilboa said. “The public doesn’t want it, and it could hurt the chances of the Republican candidate in the November presidential election.”

But Roni Bart, an expert on U.S. Middle East policy at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, argues that the NIE has been far less influential than is generally thought and that Bush still may attack Iran if he believes it is the right thing to do.

Bart points out that the NIE failed to convince the Europeans, the Arab states, the U.S. presidential candidates and, most important, Bush himself that the Iranians have abandoned their drive toward nuclear weapons.

“After seven years we know a bit about Bush. He doesn’t care about public opinion, and he says God talks to him,” Bart said. “If he thought he should attack before the NIE, and if that’s what he still thinks a few months from now, the NIE won’t change his mind.”

Bush is committed to beefing up moderate forces in the Persian Gulf region as part of the effort to contain Iran. Most significant, the United States intends to supply Saudi Arabia with $20 billion in state-of-the-art weaponry over the coming decade.

Nevertheless, the moderate Arab states are highly ambivalent about war with Iran. Both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates told Bush they would not allow U.S. forces to use their territory as a launching pad for a military strike.

As for normalization between Israel and the Arab world, Bush declared in Jerusalem last week that the Arab states should “reach out to Israel,” describing it as a step “that was long overdue” and that would give Israel the confidence to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Indeed, Israel argues that things would proceed much better if the Arabs make a reciprocal gesture of normalization toward Israel for each step Israel makes toward the Palestinians. The Arabs, however, see normalization as a prize that Israel will be entitled to only after a peace treaty with the Palestinians is complete.

So far, the Arabs have shown little sign of any change in this attitude.

The smattering of Israeli dealings in the Gulf countries is kept highly secret for fear of embarrassing Arab host countries. Last year, when a Kenyan athlete running for Bahrain won the marathon in Tiberias, the Gulf state summarily revoked his Bahraini citizenship for competing in Israel.

Last week, though, offered a significant exception to the rule: The Saudi-owned newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat ran an article calling on the Arabs to show greater understanding for Israeli concerns.

Written by Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian-born scholar at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, the column urged the Arabs to do much more to convince the West they really want peace and stability — including peace with Israel.

“Perhaps the time has come for the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, to take a serious view of Israel’s strategic fears,” Fandy wrote. “The Israeli question about the nature of the Palestinian state is logical and legitimate. Will this state add to stability or instability in the region?”

The fact that such views were allowed to appear in a publication connected to the Saudi royal house constituted a small but possibly significant crack in the rejectionists’ wall.

Bush on his trip also sought to ensure that the Arab contribution to the $7.4 billion aid package raised for the Palestinians at last month’s donor conference in Paris comes through. The largest pledge was $500 million from the Saudis over the next three years.

Israel has a clear interest in the money getting to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Israeli policy is based on sustaining the growing contrast between an increasingly prosperous West Bank and an economically declining Gaza Strip. The hope is that this will help bring down Hamas in Gaza and create a large Palestinian majority for peace.

Annapolis, Paris and Bush’s current Middle East tour are all part of this grand peacemaking scheme. But will it be enough in a region teeming with so many powerful countervailing forces?


Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Iran, Israel and the 2008 election


When presidential candidates compete in an election with an open seat in the White House, they are prisoners of events. The White House controls the agenda, and the candidates must adapt.

Vice President Richard Nixon was badly hurt by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to stimulate the economy in 1960 and lost the election to Sen. John F. Kennedy, who had promised to “get the country moving again.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey nearly beat Nixon in 1968, but only after a stubborn President Lyndon B. Johnson finally signaled a change in Vietnam policy near the end of the campaign. President Ronald Reagan’s recovery from Iran-Contra and numerous agreements with a Democratic Congress and with the Soviet Union immeasurably helped Vice President George Bush win the presidency in 1988.

And so it will be. The Republican Party has a two-sided albatross around its neck, an unpopular president who is trying desperately to keep an unpopular war going past Election Day so that its disastrous ending can be on the next president’s watch. The chemistry of this election is toxic for Republicans. To hold the Republican base, the candidates have to be upbeat about both the war and Bush, as the country increasingly turns against both.

Bush is unlikely to change policy in Iraq unless forced to, and he is most likely to only hint at troop pullbacks before the election. But will Bush temporarily change the chemistry by launching an attack on Iran?

The Bush world tends to follow its own quirky calendar. August is the month for gathering themselves together, the famous Bush vacations. Unfortunately for us, one of those vacations fell in August 2001, and therefore the warnings of an imminent attack were ignored. By Sept. 12, though, Bush was a national hero.

The Iraq War push started in September 2003, and as Bush adviser Andrew Card noted, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Right now, September is looking very bad for the administration, with negative reports from Iraq and festering anger at the war on Capitol Hill, even among Republicans.

Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be mobilizing his forces in a skeleton administration depleted by resignations toward confrontation with Iran. The neoconservatives, so hell-bent in their rush to war with Iraq, are now on the Iran warpath. So now we have a new Hitler-for-a-day. (Remember when Saddam Hussein was Hitler, or was it Kim Il Sung?)

What will be the reaction of congressional Democrats, especially Jewish Democrats who are deeply concerned about Iran’s threat to Israel? Does one support an administration that has managed to at least identify a serious enemy but can’t be trusted to do anything sensible about it?

The Bush administration is counting on these Democrats to be at least ambivalent about an attack on Iran. Tired of being called Defeatocrats, top Democrats would be tempted by a confrontation they could wholeheartedly endorse, at least in theory, especially one that is sold as bolstering Israel’s security. Unlike with the administration’s invention of the prewar Iraq threat, there is bipartisan agreement that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a major strategic danger.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) demand for a congressional vote on war over Iran is unlikely to impede Bush. In fact, if the White House calls that bluff as it did on the Iraq War, the vote might pass, and those Democrats who voted against it would be vulnerable. The party will once again split between its anti-war base and its leadership.

Leading Democratic presidential candidates will have a difficult time flat-out opposing an attack on Iran. They have been placing themselves to the right of the administration on Iran for some time and now may find it hard to backtrack. The two top candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have been criticizing Bush for not being firm enough with Iran.

They would instead raise tactical questions or call for diplomacy, arguments that were easily dismissed in the run-up to the Iraq War. The most compelling and credible case against war with Iran will likely be made by military leaders disturbed by the state of American forces as a result of the Iraq War.

For the Republican presidential candidates, an attack on Iran may help in the near term, but they should be careful about what they wish for. Right now, the Iraq War is long past the rosy beginning stage and into full fiasco mode.

Anything that changes the chemistry will seem better than where they are now. The start of war is generally popular and causes a rallying effect around the incumbent and his or her party. But having another war to defend in November 2008 cannot be good for Republicans. War and fear of terrorism got them through in 2004, but voter fatigue is palpable. What won in 2004 may destroy their 2008 prospects.

From Israel’s standpoint, there must be a sense of vertigo. All along, Israel has seen Iran on the horizon. Israelis are now putting out the word publicly that they warned Bush not to attack Iraq and urged him to instead keep his focus on Iran.

Israel has the same dilemma as Jewish Democrats in the United States. Now that Bush and Cheney are focused on the right challenge, can they be trusted not to make the same hash of this that they have of everything else? Like the Democrats, having so long said that Iran was a greater threat than Iraq, what leverage do they have to influence how Bush deals with it?

Israel is also very concerned about the United States being seen as fighting a war for Israel, given how quickly American domestic opinion changes. That concern may underlie the release of its earlier warnings about Iraq. While Israel wants Iran weakened, it does not want to be blamed by American voters for another failed military adventure. Bush and Cheney, meanwhile, have an interest in using the protection of Israel as a way to de-fang potential Democratic opposition.

The Bush administration may or may not attack Iran. It foolishly invaded Iraq but after years of saber-rattling, made a deal with North Korea. In the long run, it would be better for the Republican ticket if the administration found a way to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions without war. It would be even better if Bush wound down the Iraq War before next November. Voters have short memories and can be forgiving when the main irritant is removed. Those two steps would make today’s one-sided Democratic edge a thing of the past.

U.S. Mistakes Worsen Iran Situation


The recent runoff election in Iran catapulted the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, onto the international stage and set off a blaze of speculation. But while the face of the presidency may have changed, the soul of the regime has not.

From the vantage point of the United States and Israel, the Iranian government remains a repressive autocracy at home and a sponsor of terrorism abroad. It’s also a regime they view as close to developing nuclear weapons. With Ahmadinejad as president, Iran’s government is now dominated by hard-liners, with the reformists marginalized. This development certainly does not augur well for the future of relations between Iran and the United States and Iran and Israel, or for the cause of freedom within Iran. However, the added problem is that the regime now asserts that the election (with its high turnout) affirms the regime’s legitimacy and validates its system of government.

In truth, the election can hardly be called democratic. To begin with, the Council of Guardians, a nonelected body dominated by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, disqualified 1,000 candidates (including all women candidates), narrowing the field to seven selected participants. The general election, marred by charges of intimidation and vote-rigging, then triggered the runoff between Ahmadinejad and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

This became a contest between uninspiring alternatives. Rafsanjani is a cleric ex-president, who endorsed some social reforms and talks with the West, but who also was seen as representing an endemic culture of corruption. Ahmadinejad promised economic reforms and the eradication of corruption, but also espoused adherence to rigid Islamic tenets.

In the end, economic security trumped social freedom. Now, many fear that Ahmadinejad will “Talibanize” the country. One voter described the election as a choice between “bad and worse,” hardly an encouraging democratic outcome.

Ahmadinejad has the record of a zealot. As mayor, he closed fast-food restaurants and ordered city workers to grow beards. He was a founder of the student group that occupied the U.S. Embassy. Some have alleged that Ahmadinejad participated in the hostage taking, a charge he denies.

Regardless of his role in the hostage crisis, there is no mystery about his views on Israel, the United States and Iran’s nuclear program, as expressed in recent interviews.

As to Israel, Ahmadinejad spews a familiar putrid rhetoric: “Israel is the biggest threat to peace and security in the Middle East [and] is the reason behind the unstable situation, due to its brutal crimes and daily killings against Palestinians.” Regarding the United States, Ahmadinejad seems hardly able to contain his contempt. Vowing to press ahead with Iran’s nuclear program, he states: “The Iranian nation is taking the path of progress based on self-reliance. It doesn’t need the United States.”

Ahmadinejad’s dismissive attitude is, sadly, understandable. The Bush administration’s credibility has been severely undermined by its false claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s assertions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons will, as a result, face a higher burden of proof before the United Nations. Further, the morass in Iraq, as well as other factors, limit military options for the United States.

Of overriding concern is that the Bush administration appears to have no coherent policy toward Iran, which has left the United States in the position of barking from the sidelines, while the fundamentalists grow stronger. Even Bush’s criticism of the election process may have misfired and actually bolstered voter turnout, another misstep in a long list we could call the Bush “reign of error.”

The Bush administration has vacillated between tough talk, veiled military threats and backing European negotiations. At the end of the day, however, the hard-liners are in control, and may have delivered yet another stinging slap to the United States by electing an alleged former hostage-taker as president.

If the Bush administration has had a policy, it has clearly failed. Its only remaining feasible alternative at this point may be the path of concessions and compromise, a course that could strengthen the regime.

As for the people of Iran, the Bush administration offers an empty platitude: “We continue to stand with those who call for greater freedom for the Iranian people.”

But what does this mean?

The tragic fact is that during Bush’s tenure, the movement for reform and liberty in Iran has waned. If the Bush administration truly wishes to advance freedom, it must actively support elements within Iran that seek change in a democratic and bloodless manner.

While there is proposed legislation in Congress to this end, the money that would be allocated for the effort is paltry, at best. Until there is adequate funding to support U.S. policies that are thoughtful, realistic and consistent, we can expect matters to continue going from bad to worse.

H. David Nahai is a real estate attorney and former chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

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Rags to Riches: An Immigrant’s Tale


In 1973, when then-33-year-old Jimmy Delshad was sitting in Sinai Temple, he asked his father-in-law, "Who’s that man sitting next to the rabbi on the bimah?"

"That’s the president of the synagogue," his father-in-law replied. "But don’t worry. That will never happen to you."

How wrong he proved to be.

Delshad, who was born in Iran and moved to Los Angeles in 1959, was elected president of Sinai Temple in 1999. It was the first time that an Iranian Jew had been selected to head one of the largest synagogues in the United States. A philanthropist and activist within his own community, Delshad, 62, was elected president last month of Magbit, a foundation that raises funds and distributes interest-free loans to college students.

But Delshad is about to expand his activities to the community at large, with a bid to run for the Beverly Hills City Council in an election scheduled March 4, 2003. Delshad said he hopes to give something back.

"I want to give back to my Beverly Hills community, because I feel blessed and fortunate to have been living here," he said. The City Council hopeful said he has experience as a business owner and leader of major nonprofit organizations that would "help protect and enhance our quality of life in Beverly Hills."

An energetic man with keen brown eyes, Delshad’s rise mirrors many of those in the Iranian Jewish community who arrived here young and penniless and eventually thrived.

Born in Shiraz, Iran, Delshad immigrated to the United States when he was 18, and entered the University of Minnesota. He then decided to move to Los Angeles with his two older brothers and formed the Delshad Trio, a pop music band. The group played American, Hebrew and classical Persian music at bar mitzvahs and at Christmas and New Year’s parties to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, he entered California State University Northridge, and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, specializing in computer studies. In 1966, Delshad met Lonnie Gerstein, an Israeli-born student who was the president of the student Zionist organization. They married in 1968, and have two children, Debra, 28, and Daniel, 26.

After graduation, Delshad embarked on a career in computer technology in 1965, and by 1978 he went into business for himself, designing and manufacturing backup storage devices for large computers.

Delshad’s involvement with the Jewish community began in college, and continued throughout his working years. In 1987, Delshad joined Sinai Temple’s board of directors, and in 1999 was elected temple president.

He served both as president of Sinai Temple and his company, American International, for about half a year. In 2000, Delshad decided to sell his business so that he could devote himself full time to the needs of the synagogue.

"At that time, I told myself that the company makes money, but money comes and goes, while opportunities like this do not come very often," he said. "Then I chose the temple."

During his service as temple president (1999-2001), Delshad said membership grew by more than 30 percent. Delshad also aided in raising more than $4 million to help reduce the temple’s mortgage, helped establish an endowment fund and oversaw the renovation of the temple in 2001.

Delshad currently serves on the board of numerous Jewish organizations, such the Sheba Medical Center, AIPAC, The Maple Counseling Center, the Iranian American Jewish Federation and Nessah Synagogue.

"Jimmy has tremendous energy and enormous dedication," said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who has known Delshad for five years and worked closely with him for two. "He is tireless in promoting the interest of Jews and the Jewish community."

Delshad is hoping to win one of two seats held by incumbents. He said he wants to improve school safety and traffic problems in Beverly Hills. Although many Iranian Jews live in Beverly Hills, Delshad said he is counting on the mainstream vote, because he does not believe Iranians are heavily involved in local politics.

"I want to show my gratitude to America and to my city, Beverly Hills," Delshad told The Journal.

However, he has been told that his bid for a City Council seat may face a problem. "One of the former councilmen of Beverly Hills told me, ‘I don’t think that Beverly Hills is ready for an Iranian-born candidate,’" said Delshad. Like his father-in-law’s comment regarding Sinai Temple, Delshad was not deterred by the opinion. "I am going to change that impression," he said.

And he has set his sights even higher, looking beyond the City Council. "I look forward to becoming the mayor of my city, so that I can devote my life to my people and my country," Delshad said. "My message to young people is that everything is possible, all you need to do is to work for it."

Iran’s Elections — A Cause to Rejoice?


The western world did headstands and cartwheels last week as Iranian election results indicated that “reformers” easily won seats in Iran’s parliament. According to news reports, “the Clinton administration is welcoming” election results as “as pointing toward a stronger hand for reformers who seek more freedom and engagement with the world.” Calling State Department statements “warm,” the Associated Press reports that “the balloting was a historic event, with the Iranian people showing they want policies that give them more freedom.”

Does “more freedom” for the Iranian people mean a different way for Iran to conduct business in the world? While Iranians have come to expect major changes in society since their “reformer” President Mohammad Khatami began widening individual freedoms, freeing the press and reducing the clergy’s interference in the government, the legal system and daily life, does it mean there is reason to expect the U.S. to drop Iran from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism? I think we must take a wait-and-see approach to the true impact of the Iranian elections before we jump into Khatami’s arms and proclaim more than 20 years of Iranian hostility to the U.S. at an end?

Just a few months ago it was revealed in the U.S. press that Iran was rebuffing American efforts to warm-up relations with Iran. President Clinton even went so far as to secretly ask the Iranian government for help in uncovering evidence behind the bomb attack at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Instead of assistance, he received a stone cold silence from Iran, notwithstanding Iranian statements condemning terrorism.

Apparently expressing its frustration with Iran, the Clinton Administration then let it be known that Iran may have had more than a passing role in the 1982 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and possible involvement in the Khobar Towers attack.

Last summer, Khatami met in Damascus with the heads of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the group that killed my daughter Alisa in 1995, along with other terrorist groups intent on destroying the State of Israel. Their intent was not to dissuade them from terrorism but to support them. The meetings must have paid off as Hezbollah has obtained weapons (some of U.S. origin) that have wreaked havoc in the Lebanon security zone, causing Israel to rethink its position in southern Lebanon. Islamic Jihad has attempted several attacks within Israel, but due to good security work by Israel and the terrorists’ ineptitude, injury and damage were kept to a minimum.

In addition, what of the 13 Iranian Jews who have been arrested and charged with treason? In the absence of a loud outcry from the rest of the world, these unfortunates would most probably have gone to meet their maker by now. Will Iran’s reformers now release them?

Let’s hold off on the optimism until we see real results from the elections in Iran. Let’s wait for the cessation of financial, moral, and material support for terrorist groups in the Middle East. Let’s wait for Iran to recognize and admit its role as the sponsor of death in Lebanon, Israel and around the world. Let’s wait for Iran to stop development of weapons of mass destruction. But let’s not hold our breath until that happens.