Americans who care deeply about Israel have to make two decisions regarding the upcoming election.
The first decision is whether a candidate’s or a party’s level of support for Israel should be the most important consideration in determining their vote.
If the answer is in the affirmative — or even if support for Israel is but one of a number of important considerations — Americans who care deeply about Israel then need to determine whether there is a significant difference between candidates or parties.
Let me begin with the first question.
From any perspective, an American voter ought to be preoccupied with issues other than, or at least in addition to, Israel. Even the voter for whom Israel is the greatest priority needs to be preoccupied with America. If the United States weakens in any way — economically, militarily, in international stature, morally — it affects its ability and/or its will to support Israel.
So it would seem to be myopic to vote solely based on the question of which candidate or party will more strongly support Israel.
But note that I write “would seem.” Because a legitimate case can be made for seeming to put the cart (support for Israel) before the horse (other American matters).
The reason is this: The attitude of a party or candidate toward Israel tells you more than perhaps any other issue about that party or candidate. Treatment of and attitudes toward the Jews and Israel is an almost perfect indicator of a party’s, a country’s or a candidate’s values.
Support for Israel does not guarantee a person will be a great leader. But apathy, not to mention hostility, toward Israel guarantees a bad leader (of any country).
As ironic as it may appear, therefore, even an American who is not interested in Israel has every reason to be quite concerned with a party’s and a candidate’s attitude toward Israel. I cannot come up with an example of a great, moral leader anywhere who was weak on Israel.
The Jews and the Jewish state are the world’s canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews play in the world. Even miners who have no interest in canaries know that if the canary dies, it is a signal that noxious fumes are present and must be fought — or the miners will die.
This is not a role that Jews or Israel have ever asked for. But it has always been true.
It is therefore very important for voters — again, whether or not they are greatly concerned with Israel — to ascertain which party and candidates are pro-Israel.
Many supporters of Israel in the Jewish community (for the record, most American supporters of Israel are Christians) maintain that there is little that distinguishes the Democratic and Republican parties generally or Mitt Romney and Barack Obama specifically.
If only this were the case.
While I never believed that Obama was personally hostile to Israel, it takes a willful disregard of inconvenient truths to argue that he and the Democratic Party are as supportive of Israel as are Romney and the Republican Party.
First, virtually every observer of contemporary international relations believes that President Obama dislikes the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Supporters of the president contend that this is Netanyahu’s fault. But fault-finding here is irrelevant. Whatever the cause, this hostility remains a fact. And that is bad for Israel.
If there is a modern precedent of a president of the United States refusing to meet the prime minister of Israel when the latter was already in the United States, and had requested such a meeting (either in New York or in Washington), I am unaware of it. And this was how Obama treated the Israeli prime minister just weeks before a national election when Jewish votes matter. Imagine how Netanyahu — Israel’s democratically elected leader, let’s remember — will be treated if Obama is re-elected.
As reported in the Guardian, the major left-of-center newspaper in the United Kingdom: “The chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, described attending a ‘very tense’ and argumentative meeting between Netanyahu and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, in late August at which the pair had ‘elevated’ exchanges.
“Rogers described Netanyahu as at his ‘wit’s end’ over Obama’s refusal to set red lines for Iran.
“It was very, very clear that the Israelis had lost their patience with the administration,’ Rogers told a Detroit radio station. ‘We’ve had sharp exchanges with other heads of state and other things, in intelligence services and other things, but nothing at that level that I’ve seen in all my time where people were clearly that agitated, clearly that worked up about a particular issue, where there was a very sharp exchange.’ ”
And as regards the Democratic Party, one need only recall the vote of the Democratic delegates at their national convention in Charlotte, N.C., regarding the omission of any mention of Jerusalem (and God) in the Democratic Party platform. As anyone could hear, there were at least as many votes against mentioning Jerusalem as there were for it, and there was sustained booing after Jerusalem and God were reinserted into the platform.
The fact is that throughout the Western world — take Canada today, for example — conservative parties and leaders support Israel far more than liberals and leftists do.
When all this is added to President Obama’s goal of sharply reducing American military spending, it should be clear to any honest observer that a Romney and Republican administration would be far more supportive of Israel.
None of this will matter to most American Jews.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his re-election campaign on Monday, saying Israel had new unspecified “capabilities” to act against Iran's nuclear threat, an issue he said he had placed at the heart of the global debate.
In a combative speech to parliament, he urged lawmakers to back a motion to hold an election on January 22, a date approved by his cabinet after he said difficulties agreeing a 2013 budget with coalition partners had meant such a vote was necessary.
The motion was expected to be approved during a marathon session since most Israeli political parties supported it. A final vote was expected by early on Tuesday.
Opinion polls predict an easy election victory for right-wing Likud party leader Netanyahu who is likely to head a coalition that includes nationalist and religious parties.
“In less than 100 days the people of Israel shall decide who shall lead it to confront the greatest security challenges we have ever faced, and the world's toughest economic crisis in 80 years,” Netanyahu said.
Alluding to past threats to attack Iran to stop it from building a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies, Netanyahu said Israel now had “the capabilities to act against Iran and its satellites, capabilities we didn't have in the past”.
He did not elaborate but said he had “put the danger of Iran's nuclear program at the center of the global agenda”.
“Whoever makes light of the threat of Iran's nuclear program doesn't deserve to govern Israel for even a single day,” he added, taking aim at rivals who accuse him of using the Iran issue as a scare tactic to remain popular.
SWIPES AT RIVALS
Netanyahu also said he had managed to avoid going to war during his two terms in office – three years in the late 1990's and his current term since March 2009.
“We didn't wage any unnecessary wars, or any wars at all,” he said, saying fewer Israelis had been killed in conflicts with the nation's Arab neighbors.
The comment was widely seen as a swipe at Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who is seen as Netanyahu's potentially toughest rival if he decides to make a comeback after a recent acquittal on most corruption charges.
Olmert and his centrist Kadima deputies presided over two wars during the two years they were in office, including a month-long campaign against Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006 and a three-week offensive against Gaza Hamas militants in 2008-2009.
Both wars killed hundreds and drew wide international condemnation of Israel which was criticized for the deaths of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
Shaul Mofaz, the current head of the centrist Kadima party, accused Netanyahu of “blatantly interfering in the U.S. election,” alluding to Netanyahu's open disputes with President Barack Obama on Iran and the Palestinians ahead of a November 6 presidential vote.
Turning to economics, Netanyahu touted what he called a “revolution” under his stewardship, citing highways that had been paved to link up Israel's center with peripheral towns and the creation of new jobs despite a global financial crisis.
Economics was one of the main reasons Netanyahu last week decided to move up Israel's national election by eight months from a scheduled October 2013.
He cited differences with coalition partners over austerity measures in next year's fiscal budget, as well as security challenges including the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Editing by Andrew Osborn
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said a national dialogue leading to elections was the way towards a solution to Syria's crisis, in remarks broadcast on Tuesday.
He told Al Jazeera television that war was not the way forward, adding: “There is another way to find a solution, it is national, mutual understanding in order for there to be elections in the future.”
The interview was translated from Persian into Arabic by Al Jazeera.
Iran is a main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been battling an uprising against his rule. Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt, which has grown into a full-scale civil war.
“Syria's case is very complex and at the same time is a very important one,” Ahmadinejad said. “Should I follow those demanding war? I don't think the language of war is a good language.
“There must be a different way to solve problems … I have opposed war, but those who want things to be settled through dialogue are a minority and perhaps the majority are in favour of going ahead in the context of war.”
Ahmadinejad, who made similar comments in a separate news conference in Tehran, said Iran had long had good relations with Syria. He said Tehran had built dams, roads and power stations in Syria and Iranian pilgrims were frequent visitors to the Arab country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dedicates much of his time to thinking about how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue, considering it a rapidly approaching existential threat. Not surprisingly, it was also the main topic of a wide-ranging interview he gave with Israel Hayom before Rosh Hashanah. Here is what the Israeli leader had to say:
IH: What did you say, and what did you hear, in your recent conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama?
Benjamin Netanyahu: “It was a good conversation that revolved around significant issues and our desire to prevent Iran from progressing any further with their military nuclear program. It is natural to have disagreements. Israel is closer [to Iran] and more vulnerable. The U.S. is big, far away, and less vulnerable. Naturally we have diverging views on certain things. In the face of a threat like Iran’s nuclear armament, I believe that it is important that the international community set a clear red line. Iran has taken obvious steps in recent years and months toward developing nuclear weapons capability.”
Do you believe Obama when he says, “We will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons”?
“I’m certain that he means what he says, just as the Europeans mean it when they say it and the same way we mean it when we say it. But the question is how to achieve this in a practical fashion—that is what we discussed. This is the main issue affecting our future. Naturally, a prime minister should be looking out for Israel’s essential interests. I do so in conversations with world leaders and in public remarks.”
It appears as though you are currently in conflict with Obama. Is Israel in conflict with the U.S.?
“It is not a conflict. It is a question of emphasis on Israel’s interests, and that is the responsibility of the prime minister of Israel. I have been saying these things for 16 years.
“At first I was almost the only one warning against this danger, and then others joined me. I called for sanctions on Iran and I was nearly alone in that call, but then others joined me. I was the first one to demand red lines, and maybe I am alone at this time, but I believe that others will soon join me.
“A prime minister’s and a leader's duty is to insist on the things that are essential to Israel's security, even when it is not easy, and even when there is criticism, and even when there is no immediate agreement on everything.
“If, over the last 16 years, I had listened to the advice of all those people who told me that this or that is ‘unacceptable’ or that ‘now is not the right time’ or ‘wait until the circumstances shift in your favor,’ I don’t know if we would have made it this far. I was able to contribute to the establishment of a global coalition against Iran. We are encumbering Iran’s economy, but we have not yet reached the main objective: stopping Iran's nuclear program. And Iran is getting ever closer to achieving its own objective. That is why I am saying things in the most responsible, thought-out, measured way possible—to our American friends as well—that we have a common goal: stopping the Iranians.”
When you make remarks to the Americans in such a blunt way, doesn’t it cause damage?
“I’m not saying things in a blunt way, but in an honest way, just the facts. I can make nice and word things delicately, but our existence is at stake. This is our future. We’re talking about a historic junction that has profound meaning. These are not just words and I am not exaggerating. That is what I have done, and that is what I will continue to do.”
The U.S. is in the midst of an election year. There are allegations that you are intervening and impacting the elections.
“That is complete nonsense. The only thing guiding me is not the U.S. elections but the centrifuges in Iran. It is not my fault that the centrifuges aren’t more considerate of the Americans’ political timetable. If the Iranians were to hit the ‘pause’ button and stop enriching uranium and building a bomb until the end of the elections in the U.S.—then I could wait.
“But they are not waiting. They are progressing. The things that I am saying have to do with events in Iran, not events in the U.S. The desire to stop Iran is common to all Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike. There is no distinction in the desire to stop this thing. It is my duty as the prime minister of Israel, when I see Iran’s nuclear program barreling forward, to say the things that I think are necessary to ensure the future of the State of Israel. It has nothing to do with American politics.”
What needs to happen for Israel to shift from talk to action?
“I don’t think that there is any point in going into that.”
How long before Iran reaches the zone of immunity?
“Every day that goes by brings Iran closer to its goal.”
Is there a disagreement with the U.S. over that assessment?
“I don’t think that there are big gaps in our assessments of the point at which Iran will complete its preparations. The question is when action needs to be taken, not so much in terms of the date, but more in terms of the process: when Iran will reach a point beyond which it will be extremely difficult to stop. Obviously our answer to that question is different from that of the U.S. because there is a difference in our capabilities. But time is running out for the U.S. too.”
Is Israel facing Iran alone?
“I am doing everything in my power to turn everyone against Iran. We are safeguarding our ability to act on our own in the face of any threat to our security and our future. The entire world is besieging Iran, financially speaking, and we should encourage that.
“A large part of the world has enlisted to the cause and answered our call. There is an international framework to press Iran, but we still can't say that, despite all the real difficulties imposed on Iran’s economy, it is stopping Iranian aspirations. I see both sides of the equation, but I’m not satisfied with just one.”
Is Israel prepared for an attack on the homefront?
“We are living in the missile age, which we entered during the Gulf War. There has been a decades-long gap in preparedness. An entire generation has gone by without proper homefront preparations. I take this issue very seriously, and I hold meetings on homefront preparedness every other week. I am personally involved in the matter. In the same way that I was personally involved in building the fence in Sinai [along the Israeli-Egyptian border], which has stopped infiltrators, thus, here, we are also working methodically.
“We can’t protect every point in Israel, but we can protect most of it. One of the things that has made me very happy is the fact that the Iron Dome [missile interceptor system] has become operational. It was a decision I made during my term, and the results have been good.”
“But it is important to remember this: You can protect from missiles in one way or another, but there is one thing there is no protection from: the atom bomb. The only thing that can protect us is preventing it from becoming a reality in the hands of the enemy. And, of course, we have to clarify to anyone who ever considers attacking Israel with weapons of mass destruction that he does so at his own peril.”
It looks as though housing prices in Israel have begun climbing again, despite various government measures. Will there be additional measures to bring housing prices down?
“According to the data I have, housing prices have risen by 1.8 percent since the beginning of the year. That is far less than in previous years. Prices are too high, in my opinion, and we are working to increase the supply of apartments. The current supply stands at 80,000 units. That is why the sharp price hike has leveled out. But we want more. Opening up the main routes on the highways will help. What was once considered to be in the periphery will no longer be in the periphery. Using the freeway you can get [to central Israel] in a short time and you can afford a house with a yard. You have to leave Gush Dan [central Israel] and then you can see the revolution. Even inside Gush Dan you can see the revolution.”
You have been blamed for the collapsing communications market: for involvement, or inaction, in saving Channel 10 and the collapse of the Maariv newspaper.
“Funny that no such allegations were made when industrial plants were forced to close down. I don't think that we, as a government, can or should intervene in the communications market. If we do we will be accused of the opposite—people will say that we are controlling the media by providing assistance to this or that media outlet. There is a real problem in the market. It is simply too small to support the number of media outlets that exist. I hope that all the channels and newspapers find a way to survive, but the government can't do everything.”
When should we expect Israeli general elections?
“Sometime in 2013.”
Read the full interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the Israel Hayom website at http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=5813
Egypt’s new president may lack real foreign policy clout for now, but the mere fact that a Muslim Brotherhood man is at the helm of the biggest Arab nation will embolden fellow Islamists seeking revolutionary change around the Middle East.
Mohamed Morsi’s tenure as head of state is likely to unsettle Israel, please the Jewish state’s arch-foe Iran, and dismay secularist critics of the Brotherhood at home and abroad who argue that political Islam is no antidote to unemployment, a flatlining economy and social misery, analysts say.
It will also stir misgivings among some Gulf Arab states still struggling to respond effectively to the ousting of their long-term ally, deposed president Hosni Mubarak.
Analysts say any variations in aid flows from the Gulf may be an indicator of the health of their relationship with Cairo.
“Morsi’s victory will not benefit us directly. But it is a symbol of a victorious revolution,” Abu Yazen, an activist from the Syrian city of Hama, the repeated scene of bloodshed during Syria’s 15-month-old uprising, told Reuters.
“Morsi and his victory illustrates that revolutionaries will not rest until they reap the rewards of their work,” he added.
Mustapha el-Sayed, political science professor at Cairo University, said Morsi’s victory in presidential elections confirmed a trend started in Tunisia “that the political force most likely to come to power in most Arab states after the fall of their regimes is the Islamists.”
The Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and most established contemporary Islamist movement, has wide influence in the Arab world even if, like in Egypt, its followers have often been repressed in Muslim-majority countries.
After wins by Islamists at legislative polls in Tunisia and Morocco, Morsi’s election is prompting the world to think again about how it deals with advocates of Islamic rule.
But the Egyptian military is expected to keep a tight rein on foreign policy and will protect a peace treaty with Israel that brings in $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid a year.
As a result, the ability of the Morsi government to provide immediate material support to kindred political forces in other Arab countries may be limited.
COLDER PEACE WITH ISRAEL
And in any case, his urgent tasks will be at home, namely to bring Egyptians the stability and prosperity they are desperate for after stagnation and corruption under Mubarak, followed by 16 months of crisis.
But his focus on domestic affairs will not stop critics of the Brotherhood from looking on with trepidation.
Israeli officials have said they respect the election result and expect Cairo to continue to preserve the treaty. But Former Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in an interview with Israel Radio that while the peace treaty would continue, it would be “much colder” in future.
“There’s not a shadow of a doubt we have awoken to a new world, a different world, a world that is more religious, Islamist and anti-Israel. … the man is known for his extremist views against the peace treaty with Israel,” Ben-Eliezer said.
The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is strongly critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists in Egypt with growing concern.
Hamas hopes a Morsi presidency would loosen the economic shackles of a boycott of Gaza that Israel says is meant to stop the flow of arms to Gaza.
“The question is how Western states react, if they isolate Hamas further and keep trying to squeeze them out of power, then of course Hamas will turn to the Brotherhood for support, it is only logical,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha.
“They’re a pragmatic party that takes help from anybody they can get.”
Britain’s Quilliam think tank said a topic to watch closely was increased rocket attacks from Sinai which “could destabilize the relationship between Egypt and Israel, particularly if Israel seek unilateral action inside Egyptian territory.”
MORSI WIN LIKELY TO INFLUENCE LIBYA
In Libya it is still unclear how well the Muslim Brotherhood-linked party, the Justice and Construction Party, will do in Libya’s first free elections slated for July 7 because the organization does not enjoy the same institutional popularity that it does in Tunisia or Egypt.
But experts and Libyan liberals alike believe that the Brotherhood win in Egypt will boost the confidence of their Libyan counterparts.
“The Brotherhood in Libya will see it not just as a victory for Egypt but a victory for the Brotherhood (generally),” said political scientist Omar Ashour.
He said if the Libyan Brotherhood were successful in Libya, an oil producer with big financial reserves, their Egyptian counterparts would look to them for contracts and opportunities to help the Egyptian economy through its struggles.
In Libya, secularists watch Morsi with some concern.
Watching a re-run of the Egyptian president’s speech on a news channel this morning in his office, Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s wartime rebel prime minister who resigned last October told Reuters that Mosri’s win in Egypt would “definitely” boost the Libyan branch of the Brotherhood.
“It makes our task here as democratic forces calling for a civil state and calling for equal rights for all Libyans, and calling for a real democratic process much harder,” he said.
Gulf Arab states have reacted warily to Morsi’s win.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution Doha branch said Morsi’s win represented the first time an Islamist party had risen to the presidency in the Arab world.
“There is a symbolic power that is surely concerning to Gulf leaders especially those in Saudi and the Emirates because they are increasingly concerned about their own Islamist opposition.”
GULF ARABS SEEN PREFERRING ‘WEAK” EGYPT
Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at Quilliam, said Gulf states wanted the “weak Egypt” they were used to under Mubarak and did not want to regain the diplomatic weight it had in the 1950s and 1960s during the heyday of Arab nationalism.
“The Brotherhood is the group with the soft power and the influence to be able to revive Egypt and make it, once again, the most influential country in the Middle East,” he said.
“Watch the economic cooperation with the Gulf. Will they fulfill the projects they have promised? I suspect not.”
Hamid of Brooking said Gulf states would use economic clout to pressure the Brotherhood. “Egypt is going to need assistance – loans, foreign direct investment—and the Gulf leaders, if they’re smart, will use that to their own benefit,” he said.
Emboldened by the growing clout of Islamists elsewhere, members of Islah, or Reform, in the United Arab Emirates have stepped up demands for greater power to go to a semi-elected advisory council.
“It’s great, let the Islamists win, let them be demystified and show that they don’t have a special warrant to create jobs, or resolve the Palestinian issue—they are just regular guys,” said Mishaal al-Gergawi, an Emirati political analyst.
“Jobs, the economy, society, identity—all these issues that people are worried about in the Gulf, Islamists don’t have an advantage in addressing these,” he said.
Additional reporting by Hadeel Al Shalchi in Tripoli, Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Jeffrey Heller and Allyn Fisher in Jerusalem, Nidal al Mugrabi in Gaza, Regan Doherty in Doha, Joseph Logan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Marcus George in Dubai, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo
Editing by Samia Nakhoul
Egypt’s Islamist President-elect Mohamed Morsi voiced interest in restoring long-severed ties with Tehran to create a strategic “balance” in the region, in an interview published on Monday with Iran’s Fars news agency.
Morsi’s comments are likely to unsettle Western powers as they try to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program, which they suspect it is using to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this.
Since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising last year, both countries have signaled their interest in renewing ties which were severed more than 30 years ago.
“We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region,” Morsi was quoted as saying in a transcript of the interview.
Fars said it had spoken to Morsi a few hours before Sunday’s announcement that declared him the winner of Egypt’s presidential election.
Asked to comment on reports that, if elected, his first state visit would be to Riyadh, Morsi said: “I didn’t say such a thing and until now my first international visits following my victory in the elections have not been determined.”
Rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran has been intensified by the “Arab Spring” revolts, which have altered political certainties in the Middle East and left the powerful Gulf neighbors vying for influence.
In a message to Morsi on Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated him for winning the vote.
“I emphasize expanding bilateral ties and strengthening the friendship between the two nations,” Ahmadinejad wrote, according to state television.
Iran has hailed Morsi’s victory over former general Ahmed Shafik in Egypt’s first free presidential election as a “splendid vision of democracy” that marked the country’s “Islamic Awakening” – a phrase Iranian politicians use to describe the events of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath.
Western diplomats say in reality Egypt has little real appetite to change relations with Iran significantly, given the substantial issues the new president already has to face in cementing relations with regional and global powers.
“Iran is hoping for Egypt to become a deterrent against an Israeli attack as well as a regional player that Iran can use as a potential counter-balance against Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said a diplomat based in Tehran.
“Egypt, at least under present circumstances, would side with either of these against Iran.”
CAMP DAVID REVIEW
In contrast to comments Morsi made in a televised address after his victory was announced on Sunday, Fars news quoted him as saying Egypt’s Camp David peace accord with Israel “will be reviewed”, without elaborating.
The peace treaty remains a lynchpin of U.S. Middle East policy and, despite its unpopularity with many Egyptians, was staunchly upheld by Mubarak, who suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which Morsi belongs.
The Sunni Brotherhood, whose Palestinian offshoot Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, is vehemently critical of Israel, which has watched the rise of Islamists and political upheaval in neighboring Egypt with growing concern.
Egypt’s formal recognition of Israel and Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution led in 1980 to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, among the biggest and most influential in the Middle East. They currently have reciprocal interest sections, but not at ambassadorial level.
Egypt’s foreign minister said last year that Cairo was ready to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which has hailed most Arab Spring uprisings as anti-Western rebellions inspired by its own Islamic Revolution.
But Iran has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s closest Arab ally, who is grappling with a revolt against his rule, and at home has continued to reject demands for reform, which spilled onto the street following the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy
On May 5, President Barack Obama kicked off his re-election campaign in front of a crowd of 14,000 people at Ohio State University. Obama presented his new campaign slogan, “Forward,” and strongly criticized his presumed Republican opponent Mitt Romney.
Sixty-one percent of respondents in a recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey said they would vote for Obama, who garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential election. Now that a Romney-Obama matchup in November is all but inevitable, JointMedia News Service compares Obama’s record from his first term with Romney’s views and campaign statements on the most important issues to the Jewish community.
ISRAEL & THE CONFLICT
“There should not be a shred of doubt right now: When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” the president said at the 2012 AIPAC conference in response to ongoing criticism that his policies regarding the Jewish state and the conflict with the Palestinians are shaky.
On the one hand, Obama had publically opposed last September’s unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations and approved nearly $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program. However, he also endorsed a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians based on “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said is dangerous to Israel’s security. Obama has also criticized Jewish building in the West Bank.
Under Obama’s administration, the U.S. State Department has refused to publically recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “Our policy with regard to Jerusalem is that it has to be solved through negotiations,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland recently said.
In the wake Obama’s 1967 borders statement, Romney said that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus, indicating he agrees that such borders will pose a security risk for the Jewish state. Furthermore, “it is disrespectful of Israel for America to dictate negotiating terms to our ally,” Romney said.
Romney has also said that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel should be one of support and not criticism, since Israel is “a nation which shares our values and is our best friend in the Middle East.” He also believes it is not the duty of the U.S. to dictate to Israel where it should have its American embassy. Currently, the embassy is in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem is not internationally recognized as Israel’s capital. “My inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist,” he said.
However, Romney has not explicitly acknowledged support for Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel.
“I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say,” Obama has previously said regarding Iran.
The Obama administration is primarily focused on using diplomatic sanctions against Iran. Obama has said such sanctions would strike “at the heart” of Iran’s nuclear ability. “We are showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences, and if it persists, the pressure will continue to mount, and its isolation will continue to deepen.” In fact since 2010 the president signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, as well as other sanctions, all of which targeted Iran’s international banking and oil sale abilities.
With regard to a military solution to the conflict, Obama had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against prematurely attacking the country. As to his own administration, “as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country,” Obama has said.
Romney calls for another round of tough diplomatic sanctions on the country targeting the financial resources of the Iranian regime, as well as placing more restrictions on the Central Bank of Iran and all business activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If the United Nations cannot lead these sanctions due to vetoes from major world nations like Russia or China, the U.S. must be ready to lead with the support of as many governments as it can muster.
However Romney believes that sanctions will only be effective if they are buttressed by a concrete military presence in the region. According to his campaign website, this should begin with restoring the presence of U.S. aircraft carrier task forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region, repairing relations with Israel, increasing military coordination with Arab allies and conducting more naval exercises to demonstrate American military strength to the region. “Only if Iran understands that the United States is utterly determined when we say that their nuclear-weapons program is unacceptable is there a possibility that they will give up their nuclear aspirations peacefully.” Romney has also promised to “take every measure necessary to check the evil regime of the ayatollahs.”
THE ARAB SPRING & SYRIA
In this year’s State of the Union address, Obama emphasized that “a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli. A year ago, [Muammar] Gaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators—a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone.” However, Obama also said that the final outcome of the “Arab Spring” remains uncertain. Even so, he pledged more than $800 million in assistance to countries engulfed in these revolutions.
“We will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings,” Obama said, adding that Syria’s Assad regime “will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”
However, recent estimates put the total death toll since the Syrian conflict began at more than 11,000. The U.S. government has not yet intervened militarily, even though it had intervened in Libya just months earlier, citing UN vetoes by major countries like Russia.
Obama did recently announce his intention to extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, which will allow him to continue placing a variety of sanctions on the country. In March he announced that the U.S. government will provide direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition.
Romney has said that the “Arab Spring” has spun out of control. “We’re all very happy that a very bad guy in Moammar Gadhafi was killed, but…how can we try and improve the odds so…that the developments are toward democracy, modernity and more representative forms of government? This we simply don’t know,” he said in October 2011.
Romney’s official website statement on the Middle East addresses the concern that rather than evolving into democracies, these Middle Eastern revolutions could lead to radical Islamist regimes: “The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter.” Romney’s campaign claims that the U.S. government will “make available technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management” under his leadership.
As for Syria, “the United States must recognize Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for what he is: an unscrupulous dictator, a killer, and a proxy for Iran,” according to Romney. He argues for increased pressure on the UN to act and collaborate with Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Syrian regime, and to make it clear that the U.S. and its allies will support the Syrian opposition when it will be building a post-Assad government. However, Romney said at a news conference in March that he too is “not favoring military involvement, direct military involvement by the United States” at the current stage.
Various groups have called on the president to grant clemency Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987, arguing that Pollard’s life sentence is disproportionate to sentences given to others serving time for espionage. In April of this year, Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote a letter entreating Obama to release Pollard. The White House responded that “regarding Mr. Pollard the administration’s position has not changed.”
When it comes to Pollard, Romney seems to be undecided on whether he deserves a presidential pardon, though he has said he is “open to examining” the issue.
Information and quotations in this report taken from Mittromney.com, Politico.com, Washington Post, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom, BBC, Huffington Post, Fox News, Israel National News, Whitehouse.gov, CBS, New York Times, Israeltoday.co.il, jonathanpollard.org and Freebeacon.com.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee likes to promote an image of bipartisan bonhomie at its annual policy conference. But that’s not always easy, especially in a presidential election year and with partisan passions running high over Middle East policy.
The first session of the AIPAC conference ,a foreign policy panel, produced some surprise fireworks.
Liz Cheney, a top State Department Middle East official in the Bush administration and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, came out swinging against President Obama’s record.
“Everyone in the room understands,” she said, that Obama has made statements “more focused on containing Israeli actions than they have been on containing Iran.”
Fellow panelist Jane Harman, a former California congresswoman who was the longtime top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, did not take the swipe at her party’s standard-bearer sitting down.
“This administration has done more than any in history to help Israel protect itself,” Harman said.
She contrasted Obama’s efforts to keep Iran from going nuclear with what she depicted as the failures of the administration that employed both Cheneys.
“We have paid dearly in treasure and lives, and the results in those countries are very unsettling,” Harman said, enduring Cheney’s withering glare in referring to the wars that Bush launched in Afghanistan and Iraq. The pro-Iranian tilt of the Iraqi government was “very, very troubling,” Harman added, leaving unsaid that Cheney had helped midwife the same government into existence.
The parties that followed the Monday night gala were off the record, but the political movers and shakers shouted so loud in their rented tents in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, you could hear what they were saying out in the hall.
Once I got past the barriers it was off the record.
So what did I overhear from the hall?
National Jewish Democratic Council President David Harris saying his party is the natural home for the Democrats …
And Republican Adam Hasner, running in Allen West’s old congressional seat in South Florida, joking about how the Republican Jewish Coalition could not so long ago meet in a phone booth …
And from this we learn much of what is said off the record at these events is said on the record at other events.
Daniel Hernandez, the congressional intern who helped save Gabrielle Giffords’ life after she was shot, got a shout-out at the NJDC event.
AIPAC showed a video interview with the college student, whose own political career is budding—he was recently elected to the Phoenix school board.
Hernandez described his interactions with a teacher who was a Holocaust survivor, and then his introduction to working for the Democratic Party.
“I started working for a lot of older Jewish women who called themselves my yentas,” he said.
The last time he saw Giffords, Hernandez said, he told her he would attend the AIPAC conference.
“When I said AIPAC she just lit up and had a really big smile,” he recalled. Her message? “Tell them I love Arizona and tell them I love AIPAC.”
Rick Santorum was the first of three GOP candidates to speak at the AIPAC conference on Tuesday, its last day—and the only one there in the flesh. He wanted some love for actually flying in on Super Tuesday, when 10 primaries are being contested.
“I wanted to come off the campaign trail to come here,” he said. Santorum also coined the catchy anti-Obama line of the day, saying that while Obama says he has Israel’s back, “from everything I’ve seen from the conduct of his administration, he has turned his back on the State of Israel.”
Romney, speaking via satellite, got special treatment in two ways: First, AIPAC tweaked its tradition of having a home-state backer introduce the candidate by bringing on two AIPAC stalwarts—one from Massachusetts (where he governed) and one from Michigan (where he was raised, and where his father governed).
But won’t that contribute to the feckless image he is trying to shuck?
Romney also had a panel ask him questions, and he even made a little news when one of the questioners asked him what he would do to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“Talking about a peace process right now is a bit like setting up a tent in the middle of a hurricane,” he said. “So there has to be some settling down of a number of questions I think before the peace process is going to get its legs again.”
Newt Gingrich then spoke and delivered a quickie Israel platform in maybe a minute.
His first day, he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, introduce an energy plan that would reduce the necessity of Saudi oil and launch a bid to unseat the Iranian government.
Then he wanted his panel; some 10 seconds of dead silence: For Newt, there was no panel.
Gingrich recovered, and AIPAC even came back with two questions.
Iran’s parliamentary election this Friday is a potentially decisive battle in the struggle between political and religious hardliners, but it is unlikely to alter Tehran’s stand on its deadlock with the West over its nuclear program.
It will be the first poll since the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009, which led to eight months of bloody street protests by Iranians demanding reform.
The ballot takes place as the dispute with the West over Iran’s nuclear program is growing alongside concerns that Israel might attack it over suspicions of developing atomic weapons. Tehran says the nuclear work it to generate power.
With leading reformists snubbing the vote and with the outcome unlikely to force a nuclear re-think, its main significance is the contest between two rival hardline factions, loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Both sides have put their fingers on the triggers and are ready to fire. They will lay their guns on the ground if they reach a compromise,” political analyst Hamid Farahvashian said.
The result will demonstrate which camp is stronger and will have a bearing on a presidential election next year.
The clerical establishment needs a high turnout to show its legitimacy and popularity, badly damaged after the 2009 election and ensuing anti-government unrest.
“Not leaving anything to chance, Khamenei loyalists need a majority in parliament to obstruct the likely chances of Ahmadinejad’s allies winning the 2013 vote,” Farahvashian said.
A critical assembly could weaken Ahmadinejad and his supporters for the rest of his term, he said.
Analysts say Khamenei supporters are sure to win the majority as he has around 20 million backers around the country.
“My prediction is that we will have an assembly dominated by Khamenei loyalists and a minority made up of Ahmadinejad supporters,” political analyst Babak Sadeghi said.
Supporters of both leaders portray their leaders as the most capable of defending the legacy of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
The struggle began when Ahmadinejad tried to supersede Khamenei in Iran’s complex political hierarchy in which the Supreme Leader has held total authority since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is Iran’s second Supreme Leader.
Since Ahmadinejad’s re-election to a second term in 2009, which Khamenei initially endorsed, the growing influence of his circle has alarmed the Supreme Leader and his supporters.
Khamenei loyalists accuse Ahmadinejad of trying to undermine his position by involving himself in theocratic issues, traditionally the Supreme Leader’s own preserve.
An alliance of establishment groups – the Revolutionary Guards, powerful clerics, influential merchants and hardline politicians – have united to block Ahmadinejad’s allies from winning the vote.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or dismissed from their posts for being linked to a “deviant current” that his rivals say aims to weaken the role of the clergy.
“For the Supreme Leader, preserving the integrity of the clerical establishment is of utmost concern,” said a relative of
Khamenei, who asked not to be named.
The volume of verbal threats has also increased against Ahmadinejad, with Khamenei threatening to eliminate the position of president.
But Ahmadinejad has ways to fight back. The interior ministry, in charge of conducting the elections, can declare the results null and void, analysts say.
Whatever the outcome, real power on vital issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States remains solely in the hands of the Supreme Leader.
Some argue that the establishment ultimately needs Ahmadinejad to survive, particularly when Iran is under international pressure over its nuclear activities and faces a tightening web of sanctions and threats of U.S. or Israeli military action against its nuclear sites.
“His dismissal could increase pressure on Iran and also encourage the opposition to take to the streets. It will weaken the establishment,” political analyst Sadeghi said.
Meanwhile, Western sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to make concessions on the nuclear issue have started to hurt energy and food imports. Many Iranians blame Ahmadinejad’s policies for soaring prices.
Rivals say he has left Iran internationally isolated and a victory for his camp would bring more pressure on the economy.
Critics say cuts in food and fuel subsidies, replaced by direct monthly payments of around $38 per person since 2010, have fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.
Concerned by economic difficulties, many Iranians are hesitant to vote for candidates allied to the president.
“I can no longer afford my family’s expenses. Even the price of bread has tripled. Ahmadinejad promised to bring the oil money to our tables but instead he has taken away even bread,” said teacher Reza, 57, a father of three.
The son of a blacksmith whose humble image still scores well with Iran’s poor masses, Ahmadinejad still enjoys support in small towns and villages in Iran, particularly because of his handouts of petrodollars.
But his image has been tainted by the country’s biggest banking scandal, which was made public with Khamenei’s approval.
Some politicians have linked Ahmadinejad’s close advisers to the lead suspect in the $2.6 billion scam, claiming part of the money had been earmarked for the election campaign of Ahmadinejad allies. He denies any government wrongdoing.
“I voted for Ahmadinejad in 2009 because I thought he was decent. But with this fraud I will not trust any politician again and I will not vote,” said shop-keeper Habib, 28, in the central town of Damavand.
The election is unlikely to herald a change in fortune for the reform movement.
Pro-reform political parties have been banned since the 2009 election, which the opposition says was rigged.
Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011 and many reformists have either been jailed or banned from political activities.
Iranian authorities, while publicly hailing the Arab Spring revolts, are concerned that they could spill into Iran and have warned against any revival of the unrest of 2009.
Editing by Angus MacSwan
I don’t know who will win the presidential election in 2012, but I know whom I don’t want to win it: Iran.
Yet I have a sickening sense that come next November, after two years of a nasty, slimy mud-wrestling match, the Democratic and Republican candidates will be left bruised and panting on the floor and the mullahs will walk away with the prize.
That prize is an American electorate riven and confused about the Iranian nuclear threat and what to do about it.
The leading Republican candidates have already made clear that Iran is the devil’s playground when it comes to Campaign 2012.
“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in a speech in Spartanburg, S.C., last week. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
Romney is accusing President Obama of refusing to consider a military option against Iran. That is certainly damning. Except it’s not true.
“We are not taking any options off the table,” Obama said as recently as Nov. 14 in Hawaii (and on other occasions). “Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region, but also to the United States.”
Romney’s distortion of Obama’s record is not a mistake; it’s a plan. His advisor Daniel Senor acknowledged as much to the Huffington Post this week.
From the Romney campaign’s perspective, I can see the temptation. It is hard to paint Obama as weak or indecisive on defense when the guy has more kill notches on his belt than Josey Wales. And Romney can’t well pick a fight over Chinese currency valuation because, well, who understands that?
That leaves, in Romney’s mind, Iran. And if by painting Obama as ineffectual on Iran Romney can also pick off a few Jewish voters in Nevada and Florida, so much the better.
But Senor, who co-wrote the terrific book “Start-Up Nation” with Saul Singer, should know better. In fact, his understanding of the Iranian situation as described in the interview with HuffPo is almost identical to what Obama has been saying. “Iran is a unique kind of threat. … It directly and unambiguously threatens core American interests: the security of the American homeland, the security of our access to vital resources in the Gulf and the security of America’s close ally, Israel.”
I’m not arguing that Obama’s Iran policy has been flawless. He fumbled badly by not doing more to support the June uprisings by the Iranian people who sought to topple the current regime. If Romney can convince me that he would have had the wisdom and experience to be more effective under those same circumstances, I’m all ears.
But I do think Obama deserves credit for focusing more of our attention on Iran, and more productively, than his predecessor.
Lost in all this partisan chatter are three facts: Iran’s nuclear program leapt forward while the Bush administration was otherwise engaged in Iraq. Under the Bush administration, the National Security Estimate downgraded the potential threat of Iran’s nuclear program. And it was the Bush administration that refused Israel’s request in 2008 for stronger bunker-busting bombs and for permission to fly over Iraq on a mission to destroy the Natanz reactor.
Obama’s policy on Iran’s nuclear program has been more forceful and more focused.
“When I came into office, the world was divided, and Iran was unified around its nuclear program,” Obama said in a speech earlier this month. “We now have a situation where the world is united and Iran is isolated. And because of our diplomacy and our efforts, we have, by far, the strongest sanctions on Iran that we’ve ever seen.”
This week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to buttress Obama’s contention in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. After reiterating the dangers a nuclear Iran poses to Israel and the region, Barak offered his assessment of Obama.
“He is extremely strong supporter of Israel in regard to its security,” Barak said. “Traditionally, the president will support Israel in keeping its collective military edge and taking care of its security needs. But this administration is excelling in this. And it could not have happened without the immediate direct support of the president. So I don’t think that anyone can raise any question mark about the devotion of this president to the security of Israel.”
Even in an election year, there are times we need to present a united front against clear dangers.
On Sept. 24, 2008, as the tanking economy presented a national threat, then-candidate Obama and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, issued a joint statement backing the Bush administration’s initial recovery plan.
“Now is a time to come together — Democrats and Republicans — in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people,” they said. “This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. ”
If Romney and Obama really believe a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe, they can prove it by speaking in a united voice.
Imagine — instead of finger pointing for political points — the power of a unified statement from Romney and Obama on Iran’s nuclear program. That would marginalize the isolationist Ron Paul wing on the right and the knee-jerk Israel-is-behind-it-all wing on the left. It would send a signal to world leaders that no matter who wins in November, the sanctions against Iran will endure. And it will let the mullahs know that no matter who wins in November, they lose.
The ties that bind Los Angeles’ Iranian community to its roots a half-world away have been in full view this week, as protesters cried out in reaction to the June 12 Iranian presidential election, calling it fraudulent and a sham. Within the Iranian Jewish community in particular, the belief remains that none of the candidates can be expected to effect real change in Iran — not the rabidly anti-Israel, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nor the so-called moderate candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
“Iran’s presidential elections are far from democratic or legitimate,” Bijan Khalili, a local Iranian Jewish activist and publisher, said even before Iran’s Interior Ministry announced the incumbent had won the election by a nearly two-thirds margin on Saturday. “For example, religious minorities like Jews and women in general cannot run for that office.” Anyone who does run does so at the discretion of the supreme leader and Islamic clerics, Khalili said, and “they have the final say as to who will win.”
On Friday, nearly two dozen local Iranian Americans, among them a smattering of Iranian Jews, protested as voters cast their ballots at an official Iranian government polling station inside a Westin Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport. Citizens of Iran who live outside the country, including those holding dual citizenship, were allowed to participate in the election. According to the current Iranian law, citizens outside Iran must simply present a valid Iranian passport and be over the age of 18 to vote.
Protesters said they were surprised to see roughly 1,000 local Iranians come to vote, including what looked like a handful of Iranian Jews. “I witnessed some Iranian Jewish female college students who showed up to vote,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, an Iranian Muslim protester among those protesting at the hotel. Farahanipour is head of the Marse Por Gohar Party, an Iranian political opposition group based in Westwood.
The official Web site of the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., named only four polling centers in Southern California — the LAX Westin, the Hyatt in Irvine, the Embassy Suites in La Jolla and the Ayres Hotel in Ontario.
But even the validity of such polling stations should be questioned, according to Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. He charged that renting polling space to the Iranian government means these hotels engaged in an illegal business transaction with the embargoed regime.
“Managers of two of these local hotels said they had knowingly rented their facilities for the official use of the presidential elections of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Nikbakht said. “Therefore these hotels had entered into financial transactions with persons and entities connected to the Islamic Republic of Iran and were very possibly in violation of various U.S. laws prohibiting financial transactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The Web site of the Iranian government’s Interior Ministry names a total of 41 voting locations in the U.S. where Iranians with duel citizenship could go to vote.
When Ahmadinejad’s government declared victory so quickly, the reaction inside Iran was swift and passionate, and locals in Los Angeles followed suit. On Saturday and Sunday, dozens of Iranian Americans of various faiths gathered in protest outside the Federal Building in Westwood. They included both those opposed to all aspects of the Iranian regime as well as supporters of the reformist Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad’s forces worked in Los Angeles in advance of the election, according to Nikbakht, who has long monitored the activities of the Iranian government’s proxies in Southern California. Nikbakht said a small contingent of pro-Ahmadinejad supporters had been speaking to crowds of Iranian American students at UCLA recently as well as at campuses in the Los Angeles area in an effort to encourage them to vote for the incumbent.
In addition, two weeks ago, as many as seven pro-Ahmadinejad supporters stood in front of the Borders bookstore in Westwood waving Iran government flags, Nikbakht said. The supporters chanted slogans in favor of the Iranian president.
Iranian Jews here remain reluctant to speak out on the outcome of the election, saying they are fearful of possible retaliation against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Yet all said they believe the current anti-Israel and anti-American attitudes of the Iranian government would not change, regardless of who is named Iran’s president.
“No one really believes that the policies of Iran would change with a new leader, because the real policy comes from the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei, and not from the so-called president, no matter who is elected,” said Jimmy Delshad, an Iranian Jew who is currently serving as vice-mayor of Beverly Hills. “Iran’s president is only the propaganda mouth of the regime.”
Likewise, local Iranian Jews said officials in the Obama administration as well as members of the news media have been duped into painting a positive image of Iran’s “reformist” presidential candidates, including the moderate Mousavi.
Khalili points to history as a guide: “If you look at the track record of these supposed reformists, like [former president Mohamad] Khatami — they not only made Iran less free, but they were more oppressive to the population than all the past hardliners.
“Journalists and political voices opposed to the regime were executed under the reformists in the late 1990s,” Khalili added. “Khatami’s government killed, tortured and imprisoned hundreds of opposition student leaders during the 1999 student uprisings. The nuclear weapons program was also secretly going forward at full speed during Khatami’s reign, and he knew all about it.”
Southern California Iranian Jews’ disdain for the “reformist” government officials in Iran is deep-seated. In September 2006, seven Iranian Jewish families in Los Angeles and Israel filed suit against Khatami, holding him responsible for the arrests and disappearance of their loved ones between 1994 and 1997 — 12 Jews who were arrested by the Iranian secret police while attempting to flee from southwestern Iran into Pakistan and have since disappeared.
Likewise during Khatami’s presidency in 1999, 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz were imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the international exposure of the case put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the “Shiraz 13” were released.
Nikbakht believes the Obama administration miscalculated the outcome of the elections in Iran and was naïve in failing to foresee the potential for fraud in the voting process.
“The U.S. administration, clearly misled by their Iran advisers and analysts, apparently believed that the real power in Iran would stay neutral in the elections and would let the people actually elect someone without fraud and vote-rigging,” Nikbakht said.
Local Iranian Jews said that regardless of who becomes the winner in the election, they will continue to educate Americans about the evils of the current Iranian regime, using their first-hand experience of the tyranny of Iran’s religious leadership.
“Perhaps the biggest misconception in the West is the gross underestimation of the depth of this regime’s commitment to its fundamental belief that the entire world must eventually come under the rule of Islam and Iran’s ‘supreme leader,” said Sam Kermanian, former secretary general of L.A.’s Iranian American Jewish Federation and current executive vice chair of the Center For Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights in Los Angeles.
U.S. State Department officials and representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.
WASHINGTON [JTA] — No confessional bloc rejects the Iraq war more than American Jews do. But in a bit of political jujitsu, John McCain is making the policy his own in his plea for Jewish votes.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee made headlines — and drew heavy fire from Democrats — for launching this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Monday with an attack on Barack Obama’s Iran policy.
But more remarkable was how Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) chose to close his speech: Defending his commitment to an unpopular war by casting it as important for Israel’s safety.
“Another matter of great importance to the security of both America and Israel is Iraq,” he said. “You would never know from listening to those who are still caught up in angry arguments over yesterday’s options, but our troops in Iraq have made hard-won progress under Gen. Petraeus’ new strategy.”
McCain was referring to the troop escalation that he advocated a year ago, and that was carried out under the command of David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
“It’s worth recalling that America’s progress in Iraq is the direct result of the new strategy that Sen. Obama vehemently opposed,” McCain continued. “Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran. We must not let this happen.”
The line earned applause at the AIPAC policy conference — the lobby’s membership skews far more Republican than the wider Jewish voting public — but how it will play with the broader American Jewish public remains to be seen.
Jews and black Protestants oppose the war in greater numbers than any other religious group — more than 70 percent, according to some polls. That and McCain’s commitment to conservative social mores — particularly his anti-abortion positions and stated admiration for recent GOP judicial nominations — would apparently make him a difficult sell to American Jews.
But recent polling has shown McCain — in a race against Obama, the likely Democratic presidential candidate — faring much better among Jews than any Republican candidate has since Ronald Reagan. In a Gallup poll of Jewish voters last month, McCain garnered 32 percent against Obama’s 61 percent, substantially better for the Republican candidate than the 24-75 break President Bush earned in 2004.
McCain’s backers credit a “straight talk” strategy, which would explain McCain’s tack Monday at the AIPAC conference: Voters favor a candidate who says what he means even when they don’t agree with him, the backers say.
“What is most strikingly different from other candidates is that he is strongly principled and an independent thinker,” Lew Eisenberg, a McCain campaign national finance co-chairman, said. He cited McCain’s backing for the surge a year ago and his backing for an unpopular immigration reform bill around the same time.
Democrats are not allowing McCain’s “straight talk” reputation to go unchallenged. In his AIPAC speech, McCain targeted Obama’s signature foreign policy distinction, his willingness to directly engage with the leaders of pariah nations, including Iran.
“The Iranians have spent years working toward a nuclear program, and the idea that they now seek nuclear weapons because we refuse to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history,” he said.
That sparked a long and detailed reply from the Obama campaign outlining the Illinois senator’s advocacy of tough Iran sanctions bills and resolutions. The statement also continued a Democratic policy of associating McCain with Bush, the most unpopular president in polling history.
“John McCain stubbornly insists on continuing a dangerous and failed foreign policy that has clearly made the United States and Israel less secure,” the Obama statement said. “Here are the results of the policies that John McCain has supported, and would continue. During the Bush administration, Iran has dramatically expanded its nuclear program, going from zero centrifuges to more than 3,000 centrifuges.
“During the Bush Administration, Iran has expanded its influence throughout a vitally important region, plying Hamas and Hezbollah with money and arms. During the Bush Administration, Hamas took over Gaza. Most importantly, the war in Iraq that John McCain supported and promises to continue indefinitely has done more to dramatically strengthen and embolden Iran than anything in a generation.”
McCain’s campaign will not let the Bush linkage go unchallenged, and is working hard to distance the candidate from the president, particularly in its appeal to Jewish voters, a senior adviser said in an interview.
McCain “said in 2003 that unless we change things we’re going to be in real trouble, he argued for a change in strategy, a counterinsurgency, the troops that were needed,” the aide said.
In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, McCain displayed a willingness to chart his own course, even while echoing much of Bush’s thinking on Iran and Iraq. In particular, he signaled a commitment to playing a more active personal role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“I would have a hands-on approach,” McCain said in the interview, in sharp contrast to the current president’s much-noted reluctance to play such a role. “I would be the chief negotiator. I have been there for 30 years. I know the leaders; I know them extremely well. Ehud Barak and I have gone back 30 years. I knew [Ehud] Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem. I’ve met many times with [Benjamin] Netanyahu. I’ve met with Mahmoud Abbas.”
Another tack for appealing to Jewish voters, McCain backers say, is to argue that although McCain backs conservative policies, he thinks for himself — an approach that they hope will go some way toward assuaging concerns of Jews who are concerned about the conservative shift in the U.S. Supreme Court.
McCain has stated his admiration for Bush’s judicial picks, but also drew the ire of conservatives several years ago, when he spearheaded the so-called Group of 14; the collection of seven Democratic and seven Republican senators who reached a deal that successfully headed off a partisan meltdown in the chamber and effectively paved the way for Democrats to block several of Bush’s most controversial judicial nominees, while permitting the appointment of dozens more.
The extreme Islamist president of Iran has lobbed all sorts of verbal bombshells at Jews and Israel in recent weeks: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly reiterated his desire to wipe Israel off the map, and he implied that the Holocaust is a myth.
All of this was bad enough, but there’s also the matter of actual bombshells, and the fact that Iran’s hardline regime may be perversely fervent enough to lob a few of those — at Israel, at U.S. forces abroad, or at any other real or perceived enemies.
And with a little bad luck, those bombshells could even be nuclear.
Some experts and Israel government officials fear that Iran may be just months away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb, and a fierce debate is raging in Israel over how to react.
The critical date could come in March, when a series of developments will converge:
• It will be too late to stop Iran from making a bomb, according to Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash-Ze’evi.
• The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to issue a report that month on Iran’s nuclear drive that could lead to sanctions against Teheran or highlight the international community’s inability to act in concert on the issue.
• Israeli elections are scheduled for March 28, with the Iranian nuclear threat already shaping up to be a hot campaign issue.
As if to underscore that things are coming to a head, the London Sunday Times reported this month that Israel has ordered elite forces to be ready by late March for a possible strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office and Israeli defense officials dismissed the Sunday Times story as a “baseless fabrication.”
At the same time, Sharon says Israel will not be able to tolerate a nuclear Iran and that the Jewish state has the capability to act to prevent it.
“We have the ability to deal with this and we are making all the preparations to be ready for such a situation,” he declared in an early December news conference.
But does Israel really have a military option against the Iranian nuclear threat? And can it go it alone, as it did against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981? Most leading Israeli pundits are skeptical. And some fear election rhetoric could compromise Israeli policy, hurt Israel’s international standing and generally prove counterproductive.
Iranian statements over the past few months underline just how dangerous the threat to Israel could be.
In October, Iran’s hard-line President Ahmadinejad said Israel should be “wiped off the map,” and earlier this month he said Israel should be dismantled and re-established in Europe.
He followed that up with his assertion about the Holocaust.
“Today, they have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it to be above God, religion and the prophets,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. Officials of the regime, instead of backing down through a “clarification,” stood firm.
“Westerners are used to leading a monologue but they should learn to listen to different views,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said over the weekend. “What the president said is an academic issue. The West’s reaction shows their continued support for Zionists.”
Israeli officials say a bomb in the hands of leaders with ideas like these adds up to a rogue regime with a predisposition and the means to destroy Israel.
Israel’s dilemma is acute: how to get the international community to act without seeming to be goading it into action; or alternatively, how to act itself without incurring international opprobrium or aggravating the situation.
Powerful voices in the international community are cautioning Israel against attacking. In Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize over the weekend, the IAEA’s director, Mohammed ElBaradei asserted that force simply wouldn’t work.
“You cannot use force to prevent a country from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he told the Oslo-based Aftenposten. “By bombing them half to death, you can only delay the plans. But they will come back, and they will demand revenge.”
It is precisely because of the complexity of the issue that Sharon has been keen to put it on the election agenda. His message is plain: Labor leader Amir Peretz is too inexperienced to handle it, and Likud nominee Benjamin Netanyahu too unreliable.
Indeed, Netanyahu seemed to play into Sharon’s hands by declaring that if he became prime minister, he would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities the way had bombed the Iraqi reactor under Menachem Begin. This drew a sharp editorial response from the Israeli daily Ha’aretz: “Whoever publicly recommends an Israeli military option sins doubly. He incites the Israeli public unnecessarily; presents Israel as pushing the U.S. into a major new war; drags this sensitive subject into the overheated rhetoric of an election campaign; and invites Iranian threats and various anti-Israel reactions.”
Official Israeli policy remains deliberately vague.
On the one hand, Israeli officials insist that for now the policy is to help mobilize international pressure on Teheran, but they refuse to rule out a future Israeli military strike.
“At the moment, in the current phase, the focus is in the sphere of international diplomacy,” Amos Gilead, head of the Defense Ministry’s strategic policy team, explained on Israel TV. But then, commenting on the Sunday Times story, he said he denied “the specifics” of the report, including the timetables and the Israeli intelligence operation in northern Iraq. But, he added, “it’s impossible to say in advance that all the options will be ruled out.”
Leading Israeli pundits, however, doubt whether Israel really has a military option. Writing in the Ma’ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit pointed out the chief difference between Iraq in 1981 and Iran today: Whereas Iraq’s nuclear capacity was concentrated in one weakly guarded reactor, Iran’s fuel enrichment program is via centrifuges housed in several well-protected sites across the huge country.
“To attack, we would need a lot of intelligence, multiple strikes, the ability to hover over Iran for long periods and in large numbers, lots of luck, lots of bunker-busting bombs, and with all that, the chances of success would be slight,” Caspit wrote.
The former commander of the Israeli air force, reserve Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, said that if there is an attack some time in the future, Israel would only be part of a larger force — partly because the job is just too big for Israel to handle alone.
There would be too many targets, each target would need several fighter-bombers, protected by fighters, accompanied by rescue planes to pick up crew members who might be shot down.
“Maybe,” Ben-Eliyahu said, “there will be a joint decision for joint action one day, involving countries like the U.S., Britain, Germany and Turkey.”
Reuven Pedatzur, a strategist at the Netanya Academic College, said he doubts that any such joint action will ever materialize. Nor is it likely that Israel or any of the other players will take action to stop Iran alone.
“Iran may well come to possess nuclear arms,” he said. “And if that happens, Israel will have to learn to live with the Iranian threat and to neutralize it by means of credible deterrence.:
Israel’s deterrent capacity is impressive. Its Arrow anti-missile defense system is the most advanced of its kind in the world. Israel, according to foreign sources, also has an impressive second-strike capability: F-15 fighter bombers that can reach Iran without refueling, Dolphin submarines that can launch nuclear weapons from the sea and long-range missiles of it own. Theoretically, an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel could be blocked by the Arrow system, while an Israeli second strike could destroy Iran.
That equation, strategists like Pedatzur believe, should be enough to deter Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs who effectively rule Iran, if or when they do finally manage to produce a bomb.
Additional reporting by Journal staff.