Israel faces threats ranging from rockets to nuclear, defense minister says


Israel faces a wide variety of threats ranging from Islamic militants wielding missiles and rockets to nuclear attack, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday during a visit to the United States.

Yaalon was speaking with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the National Defense University in Washington. Carter emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Israeli security relationship and the United States' commitment to maintaining close ties.

Carter and Yaalon are due to visit the Naval Air Station in Maryland on Wednesday for a demonstration of the F-35 joint strike fighter. The United States has said it will deliver the F-35 to Israel next year, making it the only country in the Middle East to have the top-flight aircraft.

Yaalon ticked off a number of threats that he said Israel has faced, including from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad's Syria, and Iran.

“The threat has been changed dramatically from conventional type warfare to what might be called super-conventional…weapons of mass destruction, or sub-conventional like terror, rockets, and missiles,” Yaalon said.

Close U.S.-Israeli ties have come under strain in recent months over a nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and the United States and other world powers, which Israeli officials have denounced as empowering Iran and endangering Israel.

Yaalon said the deal, which was agreed in July and imposes curbs on Iran's nuclear program in return for the removal of some economic sanctions, could delay an Iranian nuclear threat againstIsrael.

“Yes, for the time being, for about a decade or so, it (Iran's nuclear program) might be postponed as a threat against us,” Yaalon said, adding that the Iranian government had not given up its “vision of having a military nuclear capability.”

Iran denies ever pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and said that it wanted nuclear capability only for civilian purposes.

Yaalon also addressed ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians. Violence has flared in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, in part triggered by Palestinians' anger over what they see as Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Yaalon said claims that Israel had violated agreements related to the holy site were false.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced cautious hope that there may be a way to defuse the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

‘The Girl from the Garden’: A story of love and shame in Jewish Iran


In 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, the writer Parnaz Foroutan left Iran with her family. She was only 6 years old, but she remembers how tense life had become.

“My early childhood, we would run down to the basement, with the lights off and the landlord’s wife screaming that we’re all going to die,” she recalled, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. “The next morning you just put on your outfit and go to first grade, and pass rubble where there used to be a building.”

Foroutan’s mother is Jewish and her father is Muslim. She was raised in a secular household, which made living in post-revolution Iran difficult.

“They were telling us that if our parents listened to unsanctioned radio stations, or if they drank wine, we should tell the teachers,” she said.

After the family packed their belongings and left Iran, they traveled in Europe for a year before settling in the mostly white upper-middle class enclave of Agoura Hills in the Conejo Valley, where there were very few Persian families. Her parents’ mixed-faith marriage alienated them from many relatives and also exposed Foroutan to institutional hatred on both sides.

“It was weird growing up in between these two cultures. On one end, I would listen to an aunt on my Jewish side saying all Muslims should be eradicated off the face of the Earth. And then on my dad’s side, he told me that as children they were told that Muslim boys were in danger of being kidnapped by Jews, because they wanted to use their blood for Passover bread,” she said.

Foroutan eventually converted to Baha’i, but she enjoyed growing up with both Jewish and Muslim traditions. At Shabbat dinners and festivals, she would hear stories about her home country from her mother’s relatives in Southern California. They would riff off of one another’s stories in a sort of communal storytelling.

“Somebody would say something, and someone else would say, ‘No, no, you’re forgetting this part!’ And the story would just build and build, and all of us would be sitting there, in the middle of it,” she recalled.

Many of the characters in her debut novel, “The Girl from the Garden” (Harper Collins, 2015), are based on actual family members and events, though as her relatives aged, their versions of stories began to conflict.

“The Girl from the Garden” focuses on a wealthy family of Jews in the Iranian town of Kermanshah in the early 20th century. Asher Malacouti is the head of the family and measures his own success on having a son. But his young wife, Rakhel, is unable to bear him a child, which makes Asher frustrated and angry. He lusts after his cousin’s wife, Kokab, and as soon as it’s announced that she’s divorcing her husband, Asher announces his intention to take Kokab as his second wife. 

In a time when a woman’s worth was measured by her ability to bear children, Rakhel despairs at her infertility and fears she’ll be sent away from the family. Meanwhile, Asher’s brother Ibrahim and his wife, Khorsheed, give birth to a son, making Rakhel even more despondent.

The story is recounted in fragments by the family’s sole surviving daughter, Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in Los Angeles. As she tends to her garden, memories of her old life fade in and out of her consciousness. She remembers Rakhel as a bitter old woman, cursing anyone who came within earshot. She remembers the pain and sorrow her family experienced and the women who suffered at the hands of their husbands. 

Foroutan sees the servitude of women as part of a larger system of oppression, stemming from the Russian and British occupations of Iran during the early part of the 20th century, to the fighting between Muslims and religious minorities, conflict between the rich and poor and between men and their wives and children, in what Foroutan called “trickle-down oppression.”

The Jews in the book also suffer at the hands of the Muslim majority. In one scene, Ibrahim accidentally bumps into a man on the street and is beaten within an inch of his life by a mob of Muslims, who call him “Jude najis,” an impure Jew. A mullah eventually saves him from the angry crowd.

Mahboubeh is based on Foroutan’s real-life maternal grandmother, and the other characters are also drawn from her actual relatives.
Rakhel, the author said, “is the central figure in my family history.”

Even so, Foroutan is careful not to call her novel a work of history. She compared writing the book to exhuming the bones of a dinosaur. “You’ve got the structure, but you don’t know what color it was, or what its flesh looked like, or if it had feathers or scales,” she said. “So you construct it. To give it flesh, you have to imagine things.”

After graduating with a degree in English, Foroutan wandered from job to job. She taught English to fifth-grade boys at a yeshiva in Los Angeles, saying, “It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.” She then worked as a film and TV writer in Hollywood for a year (“I was so sickened by the industry, I took all my savings and went to Iran”). She knew she was a writer but didn’t know what to write. She began doing performance poetry, found a jazz-punk band to back her up, and did underground performances where the band would improvise and she would shout poetry onstage. “It was very raw,” she said.

That was in Tehran, right before 9/11. When she watched the World Trade Center towers fall on TV, she decided it was time to return to the United States. 

“We were all thrown into an upheaval. All of a sudden the world took a weird, dark turn. I wanted to do something and didn’t know what it was,” she said.

Foroutan taught English in inner-city schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, focusing on social justice through literature. She taught a class on Muslims in the media and the Middle East, and another on plays of the 1950s and the idea of the American dream from a Marxist perspective. She also taught classics of the Western canon from a feminist perspective.

“The one thing that gave me hope were those students and talking to them about everything that was going on globally,” she said. “They’re somewhere between childhood and adulthood. It’s this really magical age. There’s a lot of hope and belief in the goodness of the world. It’s a nice place to hang out.”

In Foroutan’s debut novel, her characters are trapped by tradition and expectations. Perhaps it’s the ability to think critically about their world that makes her so attracted to working with teenagers, as they dream of a better world than the one they inherited.


Parnaz Foroutan will read from “The Girl from the Garden” on Tuesday, August 18 at 6:30 pm at Diesel at Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, and on Friday, August 21 at 7 pm at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Kerry visits Riyadh to soothe fears of stronger Iran under nuclear deal


Secretary of State John Kerry flies to Riyadh this week to try to reassure King Salman that any nuclear deal with Iran will be in Saudi interests, despite the kingdom's fears that it may boost Tehran's backing for Shi'ite Muslim groups in the region.

Convincing Saudi Arabia to accept any agreed nuclear deal is important to President Barack Obama because he needs Riyadh to work closely with Washington on a host of regional policies and to maintain its role as a moderating influence in oil markets.

While the main critics of the U.S. push for a nuclear deal with Iran are Israel and Congressional Republicans, Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia is also concerned that an accord would allow Iran to devote more cash and energy to Shi'ite proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, escalating conflicts.

“The Saudis fear Obama will give the Iranians a deal whatever the cost because it is important for his legacy and that Iran will get a certain regional status in exchange for an agreement,” said one diplomat in the Gulf.

Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland, on Monday and Tuesday and the two are expected to sit down again on Wednesday as they try to meet a late March deadline to achieve a framework nuclear agreement.

Kerry then flies to Saudi Arabia, where on Thursday he meets the new king, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The main purpose is to brief them on the state of the Iran talks and to make the case that a diplomatic solution to the long-festering crisis over Iran's atomic programme will make them more secure rather than less.

Saudi Arabia's anxiety about an agreement has fuelled a flurry of diplomacy in recent days to bolster unity among Sunni states in the Middle East in the face of shared threats including Iran, analysts say.

Washington shares Arab concerns about Iran's role, particularly in Syria and Yemen and through its ties to Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, a senior U.S. official said, on condition of anonymity, but added that there was a “very substantial” U.S. military commitment to Gulf allies.

“What we need to do is have the appropriate strategies to counter any provocative and destabilising behaviour … It's going to depend on what can we do effectively in places like Syria and Yemen,” he said.

A second senior U.S. official told reporters a nuclear deal would not necessarily lead to a closer U.S.-Iran relationship and less influence for Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, nor would it diminish U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence.

“You can't read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the U.S. relationship with Iran may go in the future,” he said. “Regardless of what happens with the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region, Iranian aggressiveness in the region.”

ANXIOUS

However, U.S. officials are unwilling to outline what strategies might curb Iran's regional influence, and the U.S. record in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – where armed Iranian allies have since flourished – has caused Saudi Arabia great anxiety.

The country's trust in Washington during the Iran talks is also still recovering from the sudden move in late 2013 towards a nuclear deal, when Saudi officials were blindsided by the revelation of months of secret talks between the U.S. and Iran.

“They are very, very nervous about the way we are moving forward,” said a Western diplomat who tracks the issue closely. The diplomat said Riyadh feared a “lose-lose situation” in which Iran either gained an atomic weapon or was freed from sanctions.

Riyadh has long been worried about Iran gaining nuclear weapons capability, something that once led the late King Abdullah to ask Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” by striking Iran, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed.

But it now sees Iran's involvement in Arab countries, particularly its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its support for Iraqi Shi'ite militias and its ties to the Houthi group that has seized control in northern Yemen, as a more urgent problem.

A senior State Department official told Reuters: “Secretary Kerry will make clear we understand the concerns they have about the region's security, concerns that we also share.”

Meanwhile, King Salman is working to forge a united front among Sunni states against what Riyadh sees as the dual threat from Iran and Islamic State militants, analysts say.

Over the past week Salman has met the leaders of all Saudi Arabia's Gulf Arab neighbours, the king of Jordan and the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, the two most populous and militarily powerful Sunni states in the region.

“The understanding is that we will face a more aggressive Iran if they sign an agreement. All the restrictions on it will be lifted and it will be much stronger. This is an issue that needs some sort of unity,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Chaos is my Heaven: Q-and-A with Itai Anghel


Rob Eshman: What year did you first meet Commander Media, the leader of the female militia you film in your documentary.

Itai Anglel: 2010.  She was already a commander. So when I saw her now, it was very good, you know. It meant for her, you know, that, “Okay, it’s fine. He can join us. “

Rob: And you just crossed into Syria?

Anghel:  I’ve been to Iraq four times and I’ve been to Syria two times. I have an American passport. I was born in the United States, but I never lived actually in the States because my parents have been studying in Columbia University in New York for six years.

Rob: But it still must give you an extra level of, I don’t know, caution or fear thinking what people would do to you in these places if they found out you were Israeli somehow.

Itai: Yeah. Of course. I deal with it a lot. I actually, you know, do some sort of techniques in order to make my way through all these very tense places. The way I see it is like that, I mean, if I will attract attention, then it is the beginning of the end. The thing is try not to attract attention. I mean, I try not to be interesting. I’m working on not being interesting when I’m working in journalism.

If I try to summarize it in one sentence, you know, whenever you feel anxious, whenever you look scared — and I’m scared, I’m scared to death — but whenever you look scared, then all the attention is on you, all eyes on you because you look like someone who has done something bad. You look like you’re guilty of something.

[MORE: The brave Israeli interviewing ISIS fighters in Syria]

When you hang around in places where there are a lot of conspiracies among other people going on, so when they see someone look at his face, immediately, “Okay, who’s this guy? Why does he look like that?” So although I feel very scared of this outside I got to a point where, you know, when I got from the border of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it was exactly on the day that America began bombarding there and there was a lot of hostility in this specific place that I had to go through. They were chanting, “Death to Israel. Death to America!” and I would put my camera and there were like hundred men. And they burned the flag of Israel and they burned the flag of the United States. 

So you know, the instinct is just to run away, but actually it’s not the place to run away. Running away was something that attracts attention. So I do exactly the other thing. I try to look at them, respond to, you know, even the problematic people around them. For example, one burned the Israel’s flag and they go straight to me. “Hello, who are you?” “I can speak some Arabic, I can speak English, I can speak whatever language you speak.”  

He was smoking a cigarette, so I asked for a cigarette. I do not even smoke, by the way, but you know the circumstance. And I think in every moment — not in every moment — in every second back there I’m engaging myself in what they are thinking about me and how they see me. And when I ask him for a cigarette, I mean, obviously he doesn’t know me, but he has an idea of, “Oh, this guy looks cool. He probably used to come in here, probably know people in here.” And this is how I make my way. And I realized, I mean, the flag of my country is melting in front of me, so what I feel in my stomach is one thing, and the outrage is one thing, but on the outside I stepped on this flag, this part of this flag that is being melted as it had nothing with me.

And I talked to him and I give him the impression like, “Oh, great that you’re here. I’ve been looking for you. What are you doing right now?” and then, you know, it’s sort of a dance  between us begins. This is actually the beginning for everything that I’ve done anywhere. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza, whatever. This is the way I’ve been around, absolutely in contrast to what you would accept, contrary to what I would do, you know, normally. Now the situation is not normal, so you have to think out of the box. It’s what I’ve been doing in the past 20 years.

Rob: The fact that you have an American passport in a lot of these places doesn’t really protect you either. It’s not like America is that popular.

Itai: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the American passport enables me to put a step on the map, like when the Americans invaded Iraq, so with the American passport I could go inside. While inside it doesn’t have to do with nationality and it doesn’t have to do with your religion. It has to do with you being a human being. The way you manage to handle yourself socially. Normally, they don’t even ask you where you’re from. Really.  And if they ask, I tell them that I’m an American.  In Fallujah, for example, where they’re fighting against the Americans. I was there by the way, when the Iraqi sniper [Mustapha,made infamous in the American Sniper movie], you know, shot Marines.

Rob: From 'American Sniper.'

Itai: I tell [the Iraqis] that I’m an American. And they say, “Hey, hey, American is not good.” But I tell them in Arabic, “I’m an American, but I’m not a soldier. I’m not from the Army, I’m a journalist.” And when I speak in Arabic, believe me, they’re amazed, because it’s not that they saw during the 10 years that the Americans have been there someone speaking Arabic, without a professional translator.

So immediately the next question is, “How come you know Arabic?” And I told them that I studied, and then, immediately the next question that I know will be asked is, “Why do you study Arabic?” because they never saw an American make an effort to speak Arabic. And I told him, “Because I want to speak with you, I want to talk to you.”

And then something happened, you know. “Okay.” They see me. I’m alone usually. I’m also the cameraman and the soundman … I do everything by myself. So I’m not intimidating. I will never be intimidating.  

Rob: But [ISIS] seems to especially hate journalists, right?

Itai: Yeah. This is in the specific territory of ISIS. I’ve been with the Kurdish guerrilla while I was taping them and knowing, without any doubts, that if I was caught within ISIS territory, I’m dead. So I went with a Kurdish fighter. I was in the front line but still with the Kurds. Had something happened to the Kurds, some sort of attack by ISIS and they would’ve managed to capture me. I mean, I didn’t even try to fool myself. I know what might’ve happened. But I trusted this guy.

Rob: Did the Kurds know that you were Israeli or Jewish?

Itai: I had, in this specific place, two people that they knew who I am. They knew the truth of me being Israeli, and because of my visit in 2010 and some Kurdish friends.

After the massacre in Sinjar, which was the biggest massacre that ISIS committed against the Iraqi Kurds, I talked to a friend and I felt like I really needed to go again and tell the story again. I tried to verify whether there is a possibility for me to hang around there. And a friend told me, “Yeah, why not?” I mean, it’s okay. I was not sure whether I really needed it, but slowly but surely I knew a conflict was built. It was two people, a man and a woman, and one of them from Syria and one of them from they were very interested in  an Israeli coming there, but they knew who I am, because of my previous work. So they said okay, and they told me that I can absolutely trust them. So I trusted them. It proved to me the right assessment. And then, you know, I got in.

Rob: And these were Kurds? The people you trusted they were Kurds?

Itai: Obviously, yeah. Absolutely. So among them … they told me, “Listen, don’t share too much that you’re an Israeli because we know there are also, within the Kurdish area, a lot of Sunni Muslims that would’ve liked ISIS to capture the place. So if there is a rumor that is spread about an Israeli in here, it would be a problem.” 

But little by little more people realized who I am. It was good, because normally I hide my identity and I occupy myself 24 hours a day, every minute and every second with what they think about me and how do a look. And it’s difficult because I’m a very honest man, but you have to live this part of lying and never tell the whole truth of who you are. I mean, I am an American with an American passport, but it’s not the whole story. You meet people, and you make friends, but you cannot tell them who you are. Even if I absolutely trust them, I cannot.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And  this specific trip was amazing. It was a great relief because they knew who I am. They knew who I am. I didn’t have to engage myself in pretending.

Rob: So, say, like the female commander Media, she knew you were Israeli?

Itai: Yeah. Definitely.  And then we kept another segment of this commander when she’s saying something specific about it because she knew that I’m an Israeli. She said, “The other people who suffer, the only people who suffer, the only community who suffer more than the Kurds, are the Jewish people. So we would’ve expected you, more than any other nation, to sympathize and to be our allies.” And we share the same enemies, by the way. And you, out of this genocide, managed to fight back to win, to have a state, an important state in the world. And this is the model we are looking for because this is our war for independence.” I was amazed.

Rob: Why did you cut that out of the documentary?

Itai: I don’t know. Instead of putting it inside the documentary, we decided, you know, when we go to the studio—because everybody was watching it live—and then you go to the studio and everybody is in love with this commander. “So now this is what this commander has to say about us.” And then we brought it up, so everybody saw it. 

Rob: I see.

Itai: She referred mainly to the fact that Israel provided a lot of weapons to Turkey and a lot of drones to Turkey and these drones are used in order to shoot and kill people like her.

Even when I was there four and a half years ago, 2010, and I hung around where they take refuge  and hide, there were drones, you know, even there. And they were Israeli drones!

Rob: Crazy.

Itai: They were operated by Israelis. Even in the toughest times of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, you still have the kid in Ashdod with joysticks between the Israeli army and the Turkish army.

Rob: So you could’ve been killed by an Israeli drone.

Itai: Yeah, exactly! That went through my head, you know. “If I’m killed now, it would be done by an Israeli weapon driven by Israeli people.”

Rob: It could be your cousin.

Itai: So, yeah, so this is, you know, she was referring to that.

Rob: And do you know if Israel is now helping the Kurds in the ISIS territory at all?

Itai: I don’t know too much about the [government], but after this documentary we made a lot of difference. So I mean, everybody was in love with the Kurds and everybody supported the Kurds…

Kurds have been enemies of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, our same enemies, and they share values like democracy and human rights. And then they see the Commander Media and then they see the respect for Israel — so everybody is absolutely in love with them. And everybody is very much enraged when they realize what we’ve done when they heard the commander. There was a lot of reaction right now.

Rob: How long total were you inside doing this documentary? How long were you inside Iraq and Syria doing the documentary?

Itai: Two weeks.

Rob: Two weeks.

Itai: More or less one week in Iraq, one in Syria.

Rob: Did you go in thinking it was going to be focused so much on this woman, or is that something you discovered when you got there?

Itai: No, I knew about [Media]. I wanted to make all the efforts to meet the woman. Obviously I didn’t know that I would be able to meet her. It was by chance. They told me, “Listen, there is a city of Mahmour that was held by ISIS and is liberated. We’re going in and we’re going to see the commander.” 

And the commander I realized she is a woman, and Media. And I told the interpreter, “Why didn’t you tell me that the commander is a woman?” And they looked at me as if, you know, something is wrong with me, because they don’t differentiate. In Hebrew you say, Mefaked or Mefakedet (Male or Female Commander).

Rob: Right.

Itai: In Kurdish there is one word for male or female. So I was surprised. This is amazing! Nowhere else in the world.  

Rob: You interviewed a man who said the woman are actually better fighters than men.

Itai: You know, in terms of feminism, it’s not that male fighters are their enemy. This is not like it happens with Western feminism. No, no, absolutely it’s like brothers and sisters are fighting together, trusting each other. It’s amazing.  So I knew about all of the women because I saw them fighting two and a half years ago. I was very, very happy to meet the commander.

Rob: America and Israel have women in their armies, but these are really hardcore combat troops. I mean, they’re—

Itai: They are absolutely frontline. In Israel, you know, the idea to say that a women have liberty to make something big of themselves in the army, which is — I hate to say it — it’s bullshit. Everybody knows it’s bullshit …

ISIS is a very serious, complicated mission for the Kurdish guerrilla. It’s not that you’re looking for the most macho male. No. Sometimes it is the women who are doing all the jobs. And Mahmour was liberated only by women. They left more than 300 bodies of ISIS behind, and ISIS ran away, even from the neighboring region. And what is amazing is that women happen to frighten the [ISIS] men because, according to their perception, the theological perception of ISIS, if you get t killed in a combat, what is called “jihad”, you go to heaven.

Rob: Right, right.

Itai: But if a woman kills him, because a woman is not exactly a human being according to their perception of Islam, so you will not go to heaven. And therefore the ISIS panic by the presence of women. So if they engage in a battle they will try to kill the women first, and they’re thinking would be, as an ISIS fighter, “I have to kill the women, because if later on I would be killed by a man it’s okay because I would be in heaven. If a woman would kill me, then this is really the end. So, you know, I will try to make the effort to kill the women.” The women know that the ISIS fighters are getting panicked when they are out, so they signal them that they are there. We call it in Hebrew, if you’re like at an Oriental wedding, we call it hululu.

Rob: The war cry.

Itai: Yeah. So this is what the Kurdish women are doing. I think it’s a very, very crazy situation that these women make this scream you know only from—

Rob: Weddings, right.

Itai: —Parties. It was so crazy. And at night, when we were sitting by the fire one km from the ISIS lines.  And I told them that I was Israeli and that these voices, you know, we call it hululu. We shout it at wedding and parties. They were laughing because they told me, “Listen, it’s not hululu, it’s pilili. That’s the way they call it. And it’s not so fun. It’s like a—

Rob: —War cry.

Itai: Yeah. Exactly.  Even in the funerals — unfortunately you have a lot of funerals of male and female fighters there. It’s very emotional.

Rob: That was part of the documentary.

Itai: Yeah. You hear in the megaphone they make this pilili, because that’s a cry to show ISIS, “You can kill us, but we’re not backing off. We will put up a fight.”  

Rob: The other really powerful part of the documentary is the interrogation of the ISIS fighters. 

Itai: They were prisoners. And to me is very emotional because, you know, I knew, not as a friend, but I saw him as a filmmaker three times, James Foley. James Foley was the first one to be beheaded by them.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And when he entered Syria it was November 2012. He entered from Turkey to Syria, and this is exactly what I’ve done in November 2012, four or five days after he did it. Me and my colleague found out what is the distance between the route he had taken and mine: About a kilometer and half. So back then we realized it was very lucky. 

But when we came in — because I saw him, you know, like three times and it was only, “Hey, take care. How are you? Take care.” We were not trying to mingle or to make friends in those places, because you know, I’m an Israeli and I want the least number of  people to know about it.

Rob: Right.

Itai: My friend told me that he was a great guy and you could trust him.. So I tell him of this specific situation in our country. And then, you know, you hear that he has gone.  When they [the prisoners] came in, you know, immediately I thought about him. What they might have done with him or not. 

And then they’re talking so openly about how they beheaded, and how killed, how they just decided to tell, which was completely crazy, completely crazy, but I have to tell you it was also very, very, very interesting. I mean, besides the initial shock of mine, it was so interesting. 

And I was given 20 minutes to talk to them, because even the process of getting this interview was, it was very abrupt. So we did the interview, and asked all the possible questions. And I can speak Arabic, but my Arabic is okay enough to get by. It’s not perfect, as I cannot understand every word, especially Iraqi Arabic. 

Rob: What drugs did they take?

Itai: Hallucinogens. He was hallucinating. This is what he was saying. And one of them told that he remembers that he killed specifically three under drugs and he cannot tell how many women he raped. The one that was in Iraq told me that he doesn’t remember exactly if it’s 60, 70 or 80 people beheaded and killed.

Rob: But they almost said it with almost no emotion. Like nothing, just like kids talking about a book report or something? Was that shocking?

Itai: No, it was not shocking. You undergo under such a brainstorming. You do what God wants you to do.  And they use a knifewhich is not so sharp, in order to increase the suffering of the one you’re beheading, “This is exactly what prophet Mohamed would’ve done, would’ve like you to do,” which, you know, according to any other Muslim in the world is completely far from it. According to them this is it. So they are good and they are fine.

Rob: They didn’t seem to be that educated. They didn’t seem to be that learned or even that religious.

Itai: Most of the soldiers anyplace are exactly like that, if you think about it. Most, the great mass of soldiers are people like that. But never in the history of the Middle East  was such a conquest of territory in such a short period of time. They inflict terror among the population with a video clip. So all the people who are supposed to go out and fight them, watch it and run  away in order to not to be burned or not to be beheaded. And the Kurds are the only ones to fight, which is amazing,  the female and male fighters.

Rob: When I lived in Israel I knew some Jewish Kurds.

Itai: The Kurds are a nationality, and this is most important to more than 90 percent of the Kurds. But when you talk about religion, most of them by the way by origin are Muslim. But for them religion is not relevant. If they’re in guerilla, [religion] doesn’t even exist. 

So you have the majority are Sunni Muslim, you have some Shia Muslim, you have Yazidi, and you have almost 200,000 Jews now in Israel and maybe in Jerusalem. And by the way, the relationship between Jews and Kurds over the years was amazing. Look at even the US warfare in Iraq. You had like 4,500 Americans killed, not one in Kurdish territory. I mean, it’s something there within this darkness of region you have like a light.

Rob: Are they observant at all?  

Itai: No. I mean, they have mosques, you know, when you go to like big cities like Erbil. You hear them. But, you know, it’s not a factor. In the guerrilla army  it doesn’t exist at all. 

Rob: It’s all about the nationality.

Itai: It does exist, and you have also Christians by the way. And you have a very, very tiny minority who even go to ISIS. So you have some Muslim Kurds who are going to ISIS but then it’s a very tiny minority, but it exists.

Rob: When you told the ISIS prisoner  that you were Jewish or Israeli, it looks like he couldn’t even process it.  

Itai: Yeah.  Unlike what people think in Israel and the government, we are not like the first priority of ISIS.

Rob: Right.

Itai: They told me, “Listen, we never encountered anything like it.” And when I ask them they specifically said, “Yeah, Israel is a Muslim territory, so we have to fight and kill the Israelis.’ But this is something they would say about Sweden and China and whatever.

Rob: Did the two ISIS prisoners, the two of them did they think they were going to be killed or executed?

Itai: I don’t know. Good question. When they were brought to the room they were blindfolded. And I think by then they realized that the Kurds are not killing them, but they didn’t know what they are coming to. And when my translator told them, “Listen, we’re journalists and I’m the translator.” “Okay, okay.”  They realized that the Kurds are not killing them, not executing them.

Rob: So the Kurds really do just keep their prisoners. 

Itai: A translator of mine walked out while the interview took place. Apparently she couldn’t go on sitting there when they were explaining how they take women, kidnap women and provide these women to the commander. And now they’re being raped and now they’re being sold for $20 if a woman is old, or $70 for a [12-year-old] because she’s worth more. She went out of the room and she was very, very emotional and upset. She’s very liberal and very intellectual. She said [just shoot them]. Why provide them with good conditions and later on, you know, there will be a prisoner’s exchange. 

Rob: As an Israeli, it has to be surreal for you walking through Syria. I’m assuming you were alive in ‘73 or…? How old are you?

Itai: I’m 46. 

Rob: But you remember the ’73 war, right?

Itai: Yes, I was 5 years old.

Rob: But, I mean, it must be surreal, right? 

Itai: Totally. I was growing up with the idea that all Iraqis want to kill you, that all Syrians want to kill you. And then when I went to these places and see the reality  to be different from what was being said. And I liked it very much, because they realized that the journalist every time I go to a place I learned something new and my knowledge multiplies by ten.

So I become only more curious every time there is place I think I  know something about … I know it when I will be there. I will know for what is going on. And obviously there is a great curiosity.

Rob: And even, you’re giving these people voices. 

Itai: Yeah, definitely.

Rob: Even the ISIS fighters, you’re not so much yelling at them or screaming. You’re just letting them talk.

Itai: Never. I mean, I’m talking a place where to me it was very clear the good guys and the bad guys, but normally it doesn’t exist. I gave a lot of voice to Palestinian because I’ve been a lot to Gaza and the West Bank from people from all over. Even when I began, in Bosnia. Each and every faction has something interesting to tell me. Because I’m coming from a land of disputes, so I know that there is not one complete black and white story.  So I go to all the warring factions. There’s only two times I was not able to do that. I was not able to go into ISIS territory, but I was able to talk to the prisoners. I was listening to them, not proving them wrong, I’m hear to understand what they are doing. 

Rob: Right. Do you have family?

Itai: No, I do not have children yet. I hope, you know, it will come soon. I have a girlfriend. But not married. You know, children hopefully, you know, will come soon. In this way of life it is very difficult–

Rob: I was going to say–

Itai: [But] … I still have something to do with this world regarding this job of mine.

Rob: Are you worried that ISIS knows how to use the internet just like you know how to use the internet. Are you worried they’ll see this and it’ll be harder to be discrete and go to these places without being recognized?

Itai: Well, obviously I’m burning myself little by little. I mean in Israel, where I’m more  famous and everybody knows me, they think I’m committing suicide.  But again it’s like everybody in Israel is thinking everybody in the world is watching Israeli television. No, nobody is watching. Only intelligence services. And I go only to countries where the intelligence in the country itself is completely in chaos. All the places I’ve been to — and I’ve been to dozens of places — are only in the moment where everything is crashed, the system is crashed, and anybody who is supposed to spot me is running away for his life.

Rob: So the safest time for you is when everything is in chaos?

Itai: Chaos is my heaven.

Why Israel loses no sleep over Islamic State


At first sight, it seems that Israel is just as preoccupied with the rise of Islamic State as anyone else. Israeli media report diligently on the extremist group's assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani and run at least a story every few days on its atrocities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu references Islamic State frequently, as do other Israeli ministers. And the stories of two Palestinian citizens of Israel who died fighting for the group have been recently featured in the press.

Still, Israel remains the least concerned and least directly threatened country in a region increasingly rocked by Islamic State's advance. It certainly does not see the group as an external threat. Shocking though the events in Syria and Iraq are, Israel is far beyond the range of even the most sophisticated of Islamic State's weapons. The group's immediate territorial interests do not extend to anywhere near Israeli borders, and its support in areas adjacent to Israel is still negligible. What's more, unlike many militant groups and states in the region, Islamic State has declared itself emphatically disinterested in intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferring instead to draw its support from Sunni revanchism and introducing a semblance of order into war-torn regions of Iraq.

Islamic State also does not yet pose an internal threat to Israel. Unlike most countries bordering Syria, Israel has not been politically or demographically unsettled by the civil war there. The diversified systems of control employed by Israel – some liberal democracy and some military rule – have cemented differences among the country's constituencies disgruntled with the Israeli government. The divisions have precluded the emergence of a broad uprising similar to those that constituted the Arab Spring. The relatively short, highly militarized border between Israel and Syria has prevented the influx of refugees into Israel, as well as any significant spread of the fighting.

In the absence of incentives to change policy, Israel remains determined to display an official disinterest in Iraq and a staunch neutrality toward Syria. Although the government has often expressed sympathy for victims of the Syrian civil war and offered some of them medical treatment, and has on one or two occasions hit targets in Syria, Israel has been careful to signal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that it considers him a relatively reliable neighbor and would not work actively to replace him.

It's also unlikely that Israeli leaders will come under any internal pressure to change this position. While the images of the war in Syria have prompted some Palestinians to travel abroad and take up arms against the Syrian regime, sometimes fighting alongside jihadist organizations, the numbers have been small – and their wrath, for now, directed at the Syrian regime, not at Israel. Images of Islamic State's atrocities, combined with the group's religious fanaticism, contempt for nation-states and express disinterest in the Palestinian cause have left Palestinians – largely secular, nationalist and deeply committed to building their own nation-state – more alienated than allured.

Even attempts by Israeli centrists and the U.S. to tie progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the fight against Islamic State have left Israel unmoved. Israel, the argument went, should make concessions in its talks with Palestinians to mollify Arab populations as their governments yet again throw in their lot with the Americans – and by extension, with the Israelis. This tactic rests on the idea that the only real threat that Islamic State poses to Israel, however remotely, is if it toppled any of the “moderate” Arab states, especially Jordan, by invading them or capitalizing on their local discontents, or a combination of the two.

But the Israeli government, which has no interest, political or ideological, in facilitating a two-state solution, has so far responded with a shrug. The view in Israel is that the moderate Arab regimes are sufficiently threatened by the spread of Islamic State to prioritize drawing the Americans in, warts and all. If anything triggers revolutions in these countries, it will not be the plight of the Palestinians.

The lack of direct threats notwithstanding, Israel has been able to extract some short-term gains from unfolding catastrophe. With the West again mobilizing against a radical Islamist group, Netanyahu find himself on the familiar turf of the “war on terror.” He is capitalizing on this by trying to equate Palestinian nationalism – especially the religious wing of it – with Islamic State at every conceivable opportunity (even if with little perceptible effect). Second, Israel is again making itself useful to the West as a corner of stability and pro-Western sentiment in an otherwise turbulent Middle East – and is using this to push the Palestinian issue further down the agenda.

These considerations apart, Israel sees Islamic State as something that's happening to other people – and the country will do its best to keep it so.

Cartoon: The journey ahead will be long


Israel’s most valuable Muslim ally


Jews worldwide will soon mark the onset of a Jewish New Year with the specter of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East. Amid the preponderance of daily bad news, it is uplifting to celebrate narratives of tolerance and respect. Earlier this month, I was one of 12 rabbis meeting with two distinguished Los Angeles-based diplomats, Consul General of Israel David Siegel and Consul General of Azerbaijan Nasimi Aghayev. We broke bread together and discussed our shared goal of shining a positive light on the unique story of Azerbaijan, a Muslim nation that enjoys positive relations with the United States, Israel and its own Jewish community.

[Related: 

Iran dramatically shifts Iraq policy to confront Islamic State


As pressure built up for Nouri al Maliki to step down from the prime minister post in Iraq last month, Iran, his most ardent supporter stayed surprisingly silent as top Iranian officials worked to get him out.

Similarly, when the United States, regularly denounced as the Great Satan by officials in Iran, began bombing inside Iraq last month, Tehran stayed quiet.

This marked shift in Iran's approach to Iraq is a response to the gains of Islamic State, the militant group which has torn across Iraqi territory and come within striking distance of the Iranian border.

Islamic State fighters in Iraq have engaged in acts of brutality, including beheadings and mass executions, often targeting Shi'ites, whom they consider to be heretics. The majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims.

As a result of this threat, Iran has had to take a more flexible approach to its policy in Iraq, which has led to a series of dramatic shifts, experts say.

Not only have officials in Tehran dropped their support for Maliki and turned a blind eye to renewed U.S. attacks in Iraq, they have also reached out to arch rival Saudi Arabia and participated in talks about the security situation in Iraq.

“There's a drastic change in Iranian foreign policy with regard to Iraq,” said Mehdi Noorbaksh, an associate professor of international affairs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

DIRECT THREAT

The last time that Iraqis chose a prime minister, in 2010, the bloc led by Ayad Allawi won the most seats in the election.

Allawi, a moderate Shi'ite, had pulled together a coalition that included Shi'ites and a number of prominent Sunni politicians but Maliki, not Allawi, became prime minister, largely due to pressure from Iran, critics say.

Allawi, who has held talks with the current prime minister designate Haidar al Abadi for a potential role in the new government, is still critical of the Iranian influence at that time. “It's deprivation of the Iraqis from their rights by a foreign power,” he said. “It's insulting to the Iraqis.”

When parliamentary elections were held in Iraq last spring, the situation had hardly changed: Iran continued with its steadfast support for Maliki. It was only when the Islamic State captured Mosul in mid-June that Iranian officials grasped the direct threat posed to Baghdad and the holy Shi'ite shrines in the country and changed tack, Iraqi officials and experts say.

“Iran was supportive of Maliki and said to hell with the others until the army collapsed,” said a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive subject.

“Iranians are very realistic people, very patient. They weigh their national interests very carefully. They don't want a front with the Islamic State that extends from Iran all the way to the Mediterranean,” he added.

The importance of the issue for the Iranians was highlighted when the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, travelled to Baghdad in June. The Quds Force is a branch of the Revolutionary Guards that is tasked with operations outside of Iran, frequently involving proxy armed groups in the region.

Soleimani met top Iraqi security officials to help organise a military counter-offensive to the advance of the Islamic State, current and former Iraqi officials say. The plan included the use of thousands of militiamen who were armed and trained by Iran as well as thousands of new recruits who had volunteered after Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a call to arms against the Islamic State in June.

But Soleimani also met Maliki to discuss the prime minister post. The Iranians were disappointed by Maliki's inability to rally the military to confront Islamic State. “They curse Maliki,” said a former senior official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.

Soleimani's outreach was followed by a visit from the director of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who met Sistani along with a number of other prominent Shi'ite clerics and Sunni politicians in mid-July.

Shamkhani's visit was significant because he is not only a top security official but also a relative moderate who is close to president Hassan Rouhani and the Supreme Leader, experts say. One week after meeting with Shamkhani, Sistani, who had been implicitly pushing for Maliki to step down, issued a statement saying political leaders should not cling to power.

When Iraq's president announced that Abadi was the new prime minister candidate in mid-August, Shamkhani sent a message of congratulations even before Maliki had announced whether he would step down.

“Iran was one of the first countries that supported Abadi,” Noorbaksh said. “Through Shamkhani they wanted to say the whole security apparatus of Iran is behind the new prime minister.”

COMMON ENEMIES

Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni Muslim country long critical of what it views as Maliki's sectarian Shi'ite policies, also praised the nomination of Abadi. Despite deep divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the war in Syria in recent years, the two countries now face a mutual threat from Islamic State. Fighters from the militant group have threatened to attack Saudi Arabia in videos posted on the Internet.

Iran broke through the diplomatic impasse last week and sent deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian for an official visit to Jeddah, the first meeting of its kind since Rouhani became president one year ago. Abdollahian discussed the growth of Islamic State in Iraq among other topics with his Saudi counterpart.

But even more surprising than the thaw in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is Iran's tacit acceptance of American bombing in Iraq nearly three years after the last U.S. troops left the country. Here, again, Iran reversed its traditional foreign policy stance in the face of a mutual threat.

“The Islamic State is a common enemy to both the United States and Iran,” said Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. “I've always said that even at the most difficult times they have a common interest, even if they don't confer.”

Iranian hardliners have not criticized the American attacks in Iraq and even conservative press outlets, which often lambast the U.S., have kept largely quiet.

“There was no criticism whatsoever,” said Noorbaksh.

“This is a huge sign that the Iranians do not mind. You cannot find anything in Khamenei's speeches criticizing the United States inside Iraq now.”

In contrast, Khamenei has criticized the U.S. on a broad range of other issues in recent speeches, including the American position in talks between Iran and Western powers on Iran's nuclear program.

Additional reporting by Ned Parker in Baghdad; editing by Anna Willard

Facing Islamist threats, Arab nations tilt toward Israel


Between the war in Gaza and gains by Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria and Libya, there’s plenty of cause these days for pessimism about the Middle East.

But amid all the fighting, there’s also some good news for Israel.

If it wasn’t obvious before, the conflagrations have driven home just how much the old paradigms of the Middle East have faded in an era when the threat of Islamic extremists has become the overarching concern in the Arab world. In this fight against Islamic militancy, many Arab governments find themselves on the same side as Israel.

A generation ago, much of the Middle East was viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, during the Iraq War era of the 2000s, the focus shifted to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the sectarian fighting it spurred. By early 2011, the Arab Spring movement had become the template for the region, generating excitement that repressive autocratic governments might be replaced with fledgling democracies.

Instead, the Arab Spring ushered in bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya, providing openings for violent Islamists. Egypt’s experiment in democracy resulted in an Islamist-led government, prompting a backlash and coup a year ago and the restoration of the old guard.

After witnessing the outcomes of the Arab Spring, the old Arab order appears more determined than ever to keep its grip on power and beat back any challenges, particularly by potent Islamist adversaries.

The confluence of events over the summer demonstrates just how menacingly Arab regimes view militant Islam. A newly declared radical Islamic State, known by the acronym ISIS, made rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, brutally executing opponents and capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. In Libya, Islamic militants overran the Tripoli airport while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against them.

Concerning Gaza, Arab governments (with one notable exception) have been loath to offer support for the Islamists who lead Hamas.

Let’s consider the players.

Egypt

Having briefly experienced a form of Islamist rule with the election and yearlong reign of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pendulum has swung back the other way in Egypt.

The Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who seized power from Morsi, is far more hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood than Hosni Mubarak’s was before the coup that toppled him from the presidency in 2011. Sisi’s Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and sentenced hundreds of Brotherhood members to death.

The Brotherhood’s pain has been Israel’s gain. During the Morsi era, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula became a staging ground for attacks against Israel and a conduit for funneling arms to Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate. But after Sisi took charge, he all but shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, clamped down on lawlessness in the Sinai, and ended the discord that had taken hold between Cairo and Jerusalem.

When Hamas and Israel went to war this summer, there was no question about where Cairo stood. For weeks, Egyptian mediators refused to countenance Hamas’ cease-fire demands, presenting only Israel’s proposals. On Egyptian TV, commentators lambasted and mocked Hamas leaders.

With its clandestine airstrikes in Libya over the last few days, Egypt has shown that it is willing to go beyond its borders to fight Islamic militants.

Saudi Arabia

It may be many years before Israel reaches a formal peace agreement with the Arab monarchy that is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, but in practice the interests of the Saudis and Israelis have aligned for years – particularly when it comes to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi and Israeli leaders are equally concerned about Iran — both are pressing the U.S. administration to take a harder line against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. With Iran’s Shiite leaders the natural rivals of Saudi’s Sunni rulers, the kingdom is concerned that the growing power of Iran threatens Saudi Arabia’s political, economic and religious clout in the region.

Saudi antipathy toward Iran and Shiite hegemony accounts for the kingdom’s hostility toward Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group that serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. After Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack that sparked a war with Israel in 2006, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal blamed Hezbollah for the conflict.

Hezbollah’s actions are “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible,” Saud said at the time. “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them.”

More surprising, perhaps, was Saudi criticism this summer of Hamas, a fellow Sunni group. While former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al Faisal condemned Israel’s “barbaric assault on innocent civilians,” he also blamed Hamas for the conflict overall.

“Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip following its bad decisions in the past, and the haughtiness it shows by firing useless rockets at Israel, which contribute nothing to the Palestinian interest,” Saud told the London-based pan-Arab newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Saudi rulers oppose Hamas because they view it as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they believe wants to topple Arab governments. Likewise, when ISIS declared earlier this summer that it had established an Islamic caliphate, al-Faisal called ISIS “a danger to the whole area and, I think, to the rest of the world.”

The Wahabbis who rule Saudi Arabia may be religiously conservative, but they’re not so extreme as to promote overtly the violent export of their fundamentalist brand of Islam through war, jihad and terrorism.

Of course, just because their interests are aligned doesn’t mean the Saudis love Israel. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Nawaf Al-Saud, wrote during the Gaza war that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will answer for his crimes before a higher authority than here on earth.”

But common foes increasingly are bringing Saudi and Israeli interests together.

Qatar

At first glance, Qatar may seem like a benign, oil-rich emirate of 2 million people living in relative peace, spending heavily on its media network, Al Jazeera, and planning to wow the world with construction for the 2022 World Cup.

But Qatar is also a major sponsor of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The country funnels money and weapons to Hamas, to Islamic militants in Libya and, according to Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, to groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida.

In an Op-Ed column in Monday’s New York Times, Prosor disparaged Qatar, which is home to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and serves as a base for Taliban leaders, as a “Club Med for Terrorists.”

“Qatar has spared no cost to dress up its country as a liberal, progressive society, yet at its core, the micro monarchy is aggressively financing radical Islamist movements,” Prosor wrote. “Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.”

Syria

When the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began, champions of democracy cheered the revolution as yet another positive sign of the Arab Spring. It took a while, but the Obama administration eventually joined the chorus calling for the end of the Assad regime.

In Israel, officials were more circumspect, fretting about what might come next in a country that despite its hostility had kept its border with Israel quiet for nearly four decades.

Three years on, the conflict in Syria is no longer seen as one of freedom fighters vs. a ruthless tyrant. Assad’s opponents include an array of groups, the most powerful among them Islamic militants who have carved out pieces of Syrian territory to create their Islamic State.

Now the Obama administration is considering airstrikes to limit the Islamists’ gains — and trying to figure out if there’s a way to do so without strengthening Assad’s hand.

For Israel, which has stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, the prospect of a weakened but still breathing Assad regime seems a better alternative than a failed state with ISIS on the march.

Iran

Where is the Islamic Republic in all this? Compared to the newest bad boy on the block, this one-time member of the “axis of evil” looks downright moderate.

Iran is negotiating with the United States over its nuclear program, and both view ISIS as a foe and threat to the Iraqi government (which Iran backs as a Shiite ally).

Last week, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf indicated that the United States may be open to cooperation with Iran in the fight against ISIS, which is also known by the acronym ISIL.

“If they are interested in playing a constructive role in helping to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, then I’m sure we can have that conversation then,” Harf said.

Whether working with Iran is good or bad for Israel depends on one’s view of the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

If you think the talks have a realistic chance of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran diplomatically, the convergence of U.S.-Iran interests may ultimately serve the goal of addressing this existential threat to Israel. If you think Iran is merely using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to exploit eased sanctions while it continues to build its nuclear project, then Iran-U.S. detente may distract from the larger issue.

Where all this turmoil will leave the region is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, as made clear by the U.S. decision to intervene against ISIS: Ignoring what’s happening in the Middle East is not an option.

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


One of the crazy things about following the Middle East is trying to keep track of all the bad guys. Remember when Iran was the big bad Islamic wolf? Or al-Qaida? Or Hezbollah? Or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Hamas?

Now, as if in a flash, along comes ISIS to become the evil flavor of the month. Seriously, how much evil can one region generate?

A screenwriter couldn’t make up such a cocktail of hatred. Just for starters, you have Shias against Sunnis, Persians against Arabs, Arabs against Turks, Turks against Persians, Iraqis against insurgents, Syrians against insurgents, insurgents against insurgents, Lebanese against Syrians, Egyptians against Qataris, Saudis against Iran — and everyone against the Jews.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to explain how each shade of evil differs from the next. I know that a lot of people these days are into the “Who’s worse? Hamas or ISIS?” game, but from where I sit, whether you chop people’s heads off or hide behind children to murder other children, evil is evil.

Even that old standby, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend,” doesn’t really hold up anymore. Just look at ISIS and Syria.

One of the sworn enemies of ISIS just happens to be … yeah, the biggest murderer of the new century, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 of his own people.

I know ISIS is the height of evil, but can I really cheer for that Syrian butcher against anybody?

Same with the Jew-hating Holocaust deniers in Iran – they also hate ISIS. Aside from the fact that we belong to the same species, do I really want to have anything in common with the nuclear mullahs of Persia—even if it’s a common enemy?

It’s hard to fathom that one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel – Hezbollah – could now be fighting in Syria against one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel—ISIS.

Consider also Saudi Arabia, presumably in the “moderate” camp of the Mideast jungle. We’re now supposed to be buddy-buddies with the Saudi royalty because they’re the enemies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But wait. Guess who for years has been funding the most violent strains of Islam in the region? That’s right, the Ferrari-driving House of Saud.

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

The craziness is everywhere. Remember when the Muslim Brotherhood was running the show in Egypt and helping smuggle lethal weaponry to their Hamas brothers in Gaza? Well, the Brotherhood became so hated in Egypt that most of them are now in jail. So, guess who’s now Egypt’s sworn enemy? That’s right, Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian people are not exactly crowding into Tahrir Square to cheer on the Zionist army as it fights Hamas. But cheering privately? Highly likely.

We saw another example of the new Middle East craziness a few weeks ago when Egypt first tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

On one side you had Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and (yes!) Israel—all sworn enemies of Hamas– and on the other side you had Turkey, Qatar and (yes!) the United States. Why would the U.S. be on the “wrong” side?

The best analysis I’ve read is that President Obama is obsessed with closing a nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Egyptian-led coalition is strongly opposed to Iran, Obama was reluctant to poke Iran in the eye by empowering the anti-Iran coalition on any issue.

In any event, now that ISIS has crossed the line by beheading an American journalist, Obama is facing some serious cognitive dissonance: Should he align with the evil mullahs of Iran or the butcher of Damascus against the evil killers of ISIS, at least covertly? Good luck with that one.

I knew things were getting hairy when I asked my daughter in Tel Aviv how she was holding up with all the latest Hamas rockets, and she replied: “We’re worried about ISIS now.”

This is what the new Middle East has come down to– an embarrassment of evils. ISIS may be a new brand of evil, but when I look at longtime murderous entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or Syria, all I can think is: Pick your poison, folks.

If a sinister game designer wanted to create a new video game to capture what’s going on right now in the Middle East jungle, that’s a good name right there: “Pick your poison.”

There wouldn’t be any good guys in this game– just an orgy of bad guys. The whole fun would be in deciding who the baddest guy is at any moment, and knocking down as many of these guys as possible.

The ultimate goal would be to take down the baddest “bad guy” of them all, the one the whole world really hates: Israel.

Don’t lose sight of the Iranian threat


The bloody sectarian warfare in Iraq and Syria and the swift takeover of wide swaths of territory by the Sunni fundamentalist ISIS — now calling itself a “caliphate” — has triggered calls to cooperate with Shiite Iran as a counterweight.

Yet we must not allow our justified concerns about ISIS to blind us to the even greater danger to regional security posed by a nuclear Iran.

We must remember that a nuclear Iran could credibly threaten our allies with destruction — especially Israel, which Iran has promised to wipe off the map — furnish Hezbollah and other non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons, and start a nuclear stampede as other countries in the area initiate nuclear programs of their own.

International negotiators resumed talks in Vienna on July 2 to address this danger to world peace. With a July 20 deadline looming, it is the latest — and, unless they are extended, the final — round of negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 nations (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) aimed at preventing Iran from achieving military nuclear capacity, in return for which the international community will end the economic sanctions that have been placed on the country.

This series of talks was agreed upon in an interim agreement, announced on November 24, 2013, after Hassan Rouhani, viewed as a comparative moderate, assumed the presidency of Iran. When the interim accord went into effect in January, Iran froze elements of its nuclear program and the U.S. eased some of the sanctions.

Since it was the economic sanctions that had forced Iran to the negotiating table, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) proposed legislation, to take effect after the July 20 deadline, that would hold Iran’s feet to the fire by ratcheting up sanctions if the current talks collapsed or Iran violated its obligations. But when the Iranians protested this threat of new sanctions, the administration convinced the senators to stand down. Nevertheless, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stated that the sanctions would be re-imposed and strengthened should the talks fail.

The key issue separating the two sides is Iran’s enrichment of uranium, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes, but the P5+1 warn can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran today has some 10,000 operating centrifuges, the mechanisms that do the actual enrichment, and the “breakout time” — how long it would take Iran to produce a nuclear bomb should it decide to do so — is estimated at a few months.

Western observers say that little progress has been made toward a comprehensive agreement due to Iranian defiance and refusal to diminish its nuclear facilities already built. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has issued several reports raising questions about the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. On June 2, the IAEA’s director general, Yukiya Amano, called Iran’s posture a “jigsaw puzzle” and made clear that the IAEA’s inquiries would not be completed by the July 20 deadline.

“That is not our timeline. It is their timeline,” said Amano, referring to the P5+1. “We will take the necessary time to resolve all the outstanding issues.”

Leading figures in the American administration have said — almost like a mantra — that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” And Secretary of State John Kerry, in a June 30 Washington Post opinion article, noted that the “public optimism” shown by the Iranian negotiators “has not been matched, to date, by the positions they have articulated behind closed doors.”

Emphasizing the large gap between Iran’s professions of peaceful intentions and “the actual content” of its nuclear program, Kerry cited numerous previous instances of the country’s violation of international obligations. He wrote that the P5+1 will not agree to an extension of the July 20 deadline “merely to drag out negotiations,” and warned that should Iran not satisfy the demands of the international community, “sanctions will tighten and Iran’s isolation will deepen.” If that doesn’t deter Tehran, the administration has said that “all options are on the table.”

Should the deadline pass without an agreement or a time-specific extension, we must be prepared to follow through on the administration’s wise words, and encourage the international community to follow suit. Nothing that is happening in Syria or Iraq mitigates the specter of a nuclear Iran.

(Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.)

 

L.A.’s Iranian-American community unhappy with U.S., Iran relations


Reactions have been strong and angry from the local Iranian community to outreach initiated by the Obama administration to the Islamic Republic of Iran for assistance in quashing Sunni militants in Iraq. The United States reportedly met with Iranian officials on June 15 in Vienna, on the sidelines of talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian-Americans voicing the strongest objections to the overtures are mostly immigrants to the United States who experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination in their homeland in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Many were forced to quickly abandon their homes and businesses there more than three decades ago and since have been outspoken critics of the Muslim leaders in their homeland. The local Iranian-Jewish community, in particular, which was especially hard hit by the revolution, is expressing shock that the Obama administration would consider warming relations with the regime, even in the face of the advancing extremists in Iraq.

“I think the best word to describe the community’s reaction would be disbelief,” said Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, based in West Hollywood. “Generally speaking, for some time now, our community has considered the administration’s foreign policy to be naïve, particularly when it comes to the Middle East,” Kermanian said. “So, to some extent, we had resigned ourselves to seeing the sorts of outcomes that we are seeing in Syria and Iraq or the continued nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran — but I doubt anyone in our community was quite ready for the possibility of a military cooperation with the Islamic Republic.”

Many Iranian-Jewish community activists pointed to the fact that the Iranian regime is believed to have backed terrorist groups responsible for killing U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“To me, asking Iran for military help in stabilizing Iraq is like asking the Italian Mafia for help in protecting the casinos in Las Vegas,” Simon Etehad, a local Iranian-Jewish attorney and community activist, said. “You really do not need to be that sharp with your history to know that the Iranian regime’s dream is to get a foothold in Iraq — and what would be better than having the president of the United States open the door for you?”

Etehad and many other Los Angeles-area Iranian-Jewish activists said they are upset as well because of the Iranian regime’s poor human-rights record and repression of religious minorities, including toward the few remaining Jews in Iran.

“Once the president of the United States of America, as the leader of the free world, normalizes a relationship with the Iranian regime that still persecutes its minorities, hangs hundreds of innocent people on false accusations, supports terrorist organizations and continues the development of its nuclear weapons, then what would you expect the other countries who were to follow us to do?” Etehad said.

Within the Iranian-American community, not only Jews are upset over this issue; many local Iranian Muslims also expressed outrage.

“I simply do not understand how the U.S. government is trying to negotiate with a terrorist-sponsoring regime like Iran, period!” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, the Iranian-Muslim head of the Iranian opposition party Marze Por Gohar, based in Westwood. “And now the U.S. wants to cooperate with Iran’s terrorist regime and its revolutionary guard that are listed on the State Department’s terrorist list. This does not make any sense!”

The prospect of warming of ties with Iran’s current regime also undermines the efforts of some key opposition groups within Iran who are fighting for a true democracy in the Islamic Republic, Farahanipour said.

“The Iranian regime’s strategists have gotten excited that America is showing weakness and asking for their help in Iraq,” Farahanipour said. “This is because [the] regime’s leaders know that average people will lose their hope of fighting to overthrow this regime, and they will not have any choice except to unite behind the ayatollahs.”

Iranian-American activists said this new trust in Iran’s leaders comes in response to an extensive public relations campaign that has been waged by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

“Rouhani can put a spin on it by putting on a nice smile or make a few jokes in English, but he is still a wolf in sheep’s clothing who wants the destruction of the United States,” Etehad said.

 Yet, many Iranian-Jewish activists said they are also concerned about the freedom and well-being of the non-Jewish Iranians in Iran who have been suffering inhumane repression for nearly four decades at the hands of the current regime.

“Our small community in the United States is composed of those very lucky individuals who were able to free themselves from the bondage of the present regime in Iran, but we are a tiny portion of the tens of millions of Iranians who are being usurped and are suffocating under this regime,” Kermanian said. “Any pain we may feel is for the people of Iran who, for the most part, love the United States and are gasping for a bit of air of freedom — but are witnessing U.S. policies that are moving toward legitimizing the Iranian regime instead of recognizing and supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people.”

Los Angeles’ Iranian Jews said they are also concerned that any change in relations with the current Iranian regime sends mixed signals to the Iranian regime’s leaders regarding relations between the United States and Israel.

“If the Islamic Republic of Iran perceives the American foreign policy as one which is abandoning Israel or distancing from it, and accepting the Iranian regime as a regional power — preferably the No. 1 power, like … the shah in the 1970s — then they may happily accept the United States as a long-term ally,” said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran.

Representatives at the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read more about Iranian-Americans’ opposition to the warmer ties between Iran and the United States, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Iraq asks United States for air support to counter rebels


Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi'ite-led government's army.

However, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a Congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.

Baghdad said it wanted U.S. air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he said: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them.”

In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIL.

While Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible”, he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

The White House has said President Barack Obama has not yet decided what action, if any, to take following the rebel onslaught, and was due to discuss the options with leaders of Congress later on Wednesday.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.

However, any air targets would be hard to identify because the militants did not have traditional supply lines or major physical infrastructure and mingled with civilians.

REFINERY BATTLE

Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a week.

ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but the rebels also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.

Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticised the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shi'ite south and far from the fighting.

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.

In a televised address on Wednesday Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas”.

But so far Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi'ite militia – many believed to be funded and backed by Iran – have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.

Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the insurgents seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.

HOLY SHRINES

Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift dating to the 7th century.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East's main Shi'ite power, which fought a war against Iraq that killed a million people in the 1980s, was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq's great shrines of Shi'ite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

“Regarding the holy Shi'a shrines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” Rouhani said in an address to a crowd on live TV.

He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although he also said Iraqis of all sects were prepared to defend themselves: “Thanks be to God, I will tell the dear people of Iran that veterans and various forces – Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all over Iraq – are ready for sacrifice.”

Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the main Shi'ite shrines. The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam since the Middle Ages.

Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, said Iraq was hurtling towards civil war. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in words clearly aimed at Iran and at Baghdad's Shi'ite rulers, deplored the prospect of “foreign intervention” and said governments need to meet “legitimate demands of the people”.

Maliki's government has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting “genocide” by backing Sunni militants. Riyadh supports Sunni fighters in Syria but denies aiding ISIL.

The Baiji refinery is the fighters' immediate goal, the biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq, which would give them a grip on energy supply in the north where the population has complained of fuel shortages.

The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown out by helicopter.

“The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” an official speaking from inside the facility said.

The government denied the refinery had fallen. Counter-terrorism spokesman Sabah Nouri insisted forces were still in control and had killed 50 to 60 fighters and burned six or seven insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three directions.

Oil prices rose on news the refinery was partly in rebel hands.

FROSTY MEETING

Last week's sudden advance by ISIL – a group that declares all Shi'ites to be heretics deserving death and has proudly distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners lying prone in mass graves – is a test for Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.

Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops and U.S. officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy. However, the White House said more talks with Iran about dealing with the crisis in Iraq, which have taken place on the sidelines of meetings on Tehran's nuclear programme, are unlikely for the time being.

U.S. and other international officials insist Maliki must do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among Sunnis, the minority that ran Iraq until U.S. troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back sending U.S. troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he described as a “civil war”.

Reid and three other congressional leaders – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi – are meeting Obama later on Wednesday.

Western countries fear an ISIL-controlled mini-state in Syria and Iraq could become a haven for militants who could then stage attacks around the globe.

In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood before cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite politician who held the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.

“No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion,” Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of “reviewing the previous course” of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.

Though the joint statement said only those directly employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi'ite militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.

With battles now raging just an hour's drive north of the capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw fierce sectarian street fighting from 2006-2007 and is still divided into Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by razor wire and concrete blast walls.

Addtional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan, Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker, Oliver Holmes, Mark Hosenball, Amena Bakr and Yara Bayoumi; Writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; Editing by Will Waterman and Robin Pomeroy

U.S. may discuss Iraq with Iran, not seeking atomic talks extension


The United States may discuss the security crisis in Iraq with Iran on the sidelines of this week's nuclear talks in Vienna, a senior U.S. official said on Monday, in what could mark a momentous step in U.S. engagement with its longtime adversary.

The negotiations in the Austrian capital between Iran and six world powers are “focused solely” on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, the Obama administration official said, but “it may be that on the margins of the (nuclear meeting), but completely unconnected to it, there may be some conversation.”

Both Washington and Tehran are alarmed by the rapid advance in Iraq of insurgents from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is seeking to re-create a medieval Islamic caliphate across much of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Regarding the nuclear talks between Iran and the big powers being held from Monday through Friday, the U.S. official said there were no discussions at moment on a possible extension of the July 20 deadline for a long-term deal to end sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its atomic energy program.

“We are entirely focused on getting an agreement by July 20,” the official said, although there were still significant gaps in positions between the sides. The West suspects Iran has been seeking the means to make nuclear bombs behind the facade of a civilian uranium enrichment program. Tehran denies any such intent, although it has a history of evading and restricting U.N. nuclear inspections.

“On the most important subjects we are not even close to an outline of solutions,” a Western diplomat said. “I can’t say what will happen between now and July, but what is for sure is that we will need to work day, night and weekends. “

Diplomatic sources have told Reuters that it is increasingly likely Iran will seek an extension of the deadline. [ID:nL1N0OL0YZ] However, the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “I think that everyone needs to understand there is no automatic extension here, it has to be mutually agreed.”

WIDE DIVERGENCE IN POSITIONS

The official said the U.S. delegation, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and including Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Bill Burns, was to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday to build on talks the two sides held at lower level last week in Geneva. A State Department official later said the meeting had begun. “We not only understood each other better after those two days but I think we both can see places where we might be able to close those gaps,” the official said of the Geneva parley.

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed on the July deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement when they hammered out an interim deal on the decade-old nuclear stand-off in Geneva on Nov. 24.

The November accord – under which Iran suspended some sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief – allowed for a six-month extension if necessary for a settlement to remove the threat of a new war in the Middle East.

An extension would allow up to half a year more for partial sanctions waivers and restraints on Iranian nuclear activity as agreed in Geneva. To avoid open conflict with a hawkish Congress, Obama will want the lawmakers' approval for extending.

The previous round of talks in Vienna, in mid-May, ran into difficulties when it became clear that the number of centrifuge enrichment machines Iran wanted to maintain was well beyond what would be acceptable to the West.

Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated goal, but also provide material for atomic bombs, which the West fears may be it ultimate aim.

“Iran wants a lot and we are ready to only give a little. A strong capacity to enrich enables them to quickly move to an armed nuclear weapon, a weak capacity delays that substantially,” the Western diplomat said.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel concerned about any U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq


Israel voiced concern on Monday at the prospect of its closest ally, Washington, cooperating with its what it considers its deadliest foe, Iran, to stave off a sectarian break-up of Iraq.

But, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters, the United States and other major powers have pledged that any such cooperation would not set back their drive to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was considering talks with Iran about the Iraqi crisis. Iranian officials have voiced openness to working with the Americans in helping Baghdad repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency.

While deploring the “ungodly horror” of the bloodshed in Iraq, Steinitz said Iran should not be helped to extend its sway in Iran where fellow Shi'ite Muslims form the majority.

That, he said would give Tehran an arc of control running through Syria, where the Iranians back embattled President Bashar Assad, and on to Lebanon, where they have powerful allies in the Hezbollah militia.

“And we would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue,” Steinitz said in an interview.

Even before the Iraq crisis, Israel was concerned about Iran's nuclear talks with Washington and five other powers, aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing atomic weapons capability.

Israel fears Tehran would be able to shake off international sanctions built up over the last decade.

SEPARATION

Steinitz was cautiously optimistic that the negotiations would be unaffected by any international involvement in Iraq.

“We are troubled, but we have been made to understand by everyone – the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans – that a total separation will be enforced,” he said.

Steinitz said such a separation of policies would be similar to Russia's participation alongside Western powers in the Iranian nuclear talks even as it spars with them over Ukraine.

Neither Washington nor Tehran, old adversaries with often contrary interests in the Middle East, have articulated how they might cooperate in Iraq.

Washington has no appetite to send troops back to the country it occupied for almost a decade, but the Obama administration has suggested it could carry out air strikes against insurgents.

Steinitz, who regularly confers with the United States about the Iranian nuclear negotiations and other regional issues, said he did not know what actions the Americans might take in Iraq.

Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, an elite force separate from the regular army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or allied militia. During its occupation of Iraq, the United States said some attacks on its forces had Iranian help.

Iran says it has never sent forces to Iraq but might now assist the Maliki government with advisers and weaponry.

Another Israeli security official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said deeper Iranian commitment in Iraq could make Tehran more accommodating in the nuclear talks as it might feel over-extended and reluctant to spark further crises.

“They would have to redirect resources, perhaps even pull their forces out of Syria to send to Iraq instead,” the second Israeli official said. “Let them sink into that new quagmire.”

Steinitz rejected this view, however, saying: “I would never look to solve one travesty with another travesty.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

U.S. considers air strikes, action with Iran to halt Iraq rebels


The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.

The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups who oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite.

Joint action between the United States and regional Shi'ite power Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Iran's 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive.”

As for air strikes: “They're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.”

The Pentagon said that while there might be discussions with Iran, there were no plans to coordinate military action with it.

Britain, Washington's ally in the 2003 war that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, said it had reached out to Iran in recent days. A U.S. official said meetings with Iran could come this week on the sidelines of international nuclear talks.

Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shi'ite politicians who came to power in U.S.-backed elections.

ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shi'ites heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.

Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam's era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.

ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town on Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks, adding to an arsenal of U.S.-provided armor they have seized from the disintegrating army.

Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.

“It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies,” said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby city of Falluja, largely held by insurgents since early this year.

Overnight, the fighters captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting on Sunday, solidifying their grip on the north.

“Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi'ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main city, which ISIL seized last week at the start of its push. Fighters then swept through towns and cities on the Tigris before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.

Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is home to a Shi'ite shrine. A convoy traveling to reinforce the troops there was ambushed late on Sunday by Sunni fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.

An Iraqi army spokesman in Baghdad reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.

OBAMA WEIGHING OPTIONS

President Barack Obama pulled out all U.S. troops in late 2011 and rules out sending them back, although he is weighing other options such as air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier has sailed into the Gulf along with a warship carrying 550 marines.

The only U.S. military contingent on the ground is the security staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington said on Sunday it was evacuating some diplomatic staff and sending about 100 extra marines and other personnel to help safeguard the facilities.

The sprawling fortified compound on the banks of the Tigris is the largest and most expensive diplomatic mission ever built, a vestige of the days when 170,000 U.S. troops fought to put down a sectarian civil war that followed the 2003 invasion.

Iraqis now face the prospect of a replay of that extreme violence, but this time without American forces to intervene.

Potential cooperation between the United States and Iran shows how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map of Middle East alliances in a matter of days.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected last year, has presided over a gradual thaw with the West, including secret talks with Washington that led to a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. But open cooperation against a mutual threat would be unprecedented.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that London had already made overtures to Tehran in recent days. A U.S. official said talks over Iraq between U.S. and Iranian officials could take place this week in Vienna, where both sides are attending nuclear negotiations.

SAUDI FEARS

Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iraq could anger U.S. allies Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main Sunni power, said it rejected foreign interference in Iraq, and blamed Baghdad's “sectarian and exclusionary policies” for fuelling the insurgency.

ISIL fighters' sweep through the Tigris valley north of Baghdad included Saddam's hometown Tikrit, where they captured and apparently massacred troops stationed at Speicher air base, once one of the main U.S. troop headquarters.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting. They were shown being transported in the backs of trucks, led to an open field, laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black ISIL flag can be seen.

“This is the fate of the Shi'ites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads.

ISIL said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appear exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A former local official in Tikrit told Reuters ISIL had captured 450-500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere in Tikrit. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding out in Speicher.

Washington has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create unity, but the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation than reconciliation. He was shown on television on Monday meeting military chiefs, vowing to crush the uprising and root out politicians and officers he blamed for betraying Mosul.

“We will work on purging Iraq of the traitors, politicians and those military men who were carrying out their orders,” he said. “Betrayal and treason have made us more determined and strong, and I swear a sea of men will march to put an end to this black page in Iraq’s history.”

Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq based mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, turning out in their thousands to join militia and the security forces after a mobilization call by the top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani.

A leading Sunni cleric, Rifa al-Rifaie, said Sistani's call amounted to sectarianism. Sistani is known as a moderate who never called his followers to arms during the U.S. occupation.

“Sistani, that lion, where was he when the Americans occupied Iraq?” Rifaie said. He gave a list of Sunni grievances: “We have been treated unjustly, we have been attacked, our blood had been shed and our women have been raped.”

ISIL emerged after Saddam's fall, fought against the U.S. occupation as al Qaeda's Iraq branch and broke away from al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It says the movement founded by Osama bin Laden is no longer radical enough.

Its cause has also been taken up by many other Sunni groups who share its view that Maliki's government oppresses them.

Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who was vice president until fleeing the country in 2012 after Maliki accused him of terrorism, said Maliki must go: “What happened is an uprising by the Sunni Arabs in Iraq to confront oppression and materialization,” Hashemi told the BBC. “Resolving the conflict in Iraq comes through excluding Maliki from power.”

Syria’s chemical weapons program was built to counter Israel


Syria, defeated by Israel in three wars and afraid its arch enemy had gained a nuclear arsenal, began in earnest to build a covert chemical weapons program three decades ago, aided by its neighbors, allies and European chemical wholesalers.

Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to set up a program on its own, but with backing from foreign allies it amassed what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles of nerve agent in the world, Western military experts said.

“Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at the outset of its chemical weapons program, but the understanding now is that they have a domestic chemical weapons production capability,” said Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

As Syria's civil war enters its third year with 80,000 dead, chemical weapons are reported to have been used by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and there are also fears they could fall into the hands of militants seeking to destabilize the region.

As a result of the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria sought to counter Israel's military superiority.

Non-conventional weapons have already been used in the region. The late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons such as mustard gas and other nerve agents during the 1980s, including the killing of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, during the war with Iran.

Syria's ally Iran is accused by the West of seeking to develop an atomic bomb, which it denies, while Israel refuses to confirm or deny whether it has nuclear weapons.

“Syria had to have something to stack up against Israel,” Smithson told Reuters.

United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had “reasonable grounds” to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria. They had received allegations that government forces and rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by the government.

Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely destroying their stockpiles.

Syria does not generally comment on its chemical weapons, but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that it had them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but could use them against foreign forces.

LOSING CONTROL

While it is relatively easy to produce small amounts of chemicals, scaling up to megaton quantities of precursors needed for weapons of mass destruction requires long-term, industrial-grade processing facilities with advanced equipment.

The first technology and delivery systems were most probably obtained from the Soviet Union and pre-revolution Egypt, military experts believe, while chemical precursors came from European companies.

To boost its own capabilities, Damascus set up the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), an agency with a civilian figure head that was run by military intelligence.

It is “the best-equipped research center in Syria, possessing better technical capacity and equipment than the four Syrian universities,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a leading non-proliferation group, wrote last month.

The SSRC, attacked by rebels earlier this year, oversees chemical weapons facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Firaqlus, according to the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies. It set up facilities for blister agent, sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, the Center said.

The agency is now headed by one of Assad's top advisers, national security chief Ali Mamlouk, said Brigadier General Mustafa al Sheikh, a Syrian army defector.

“The man overseeing the chemical weapons in general is Ali Mamlouk, but effective control of the weapons is becoming fragmented,” Sheikh, who served for almost two decades in chemical weapons units, told Reuters from an undisclosed location in northern Syria. “Assad himself has lost overall command and control.”

Mamlouk, on a list of Syrians targeted by EU sanctions since 2011, was promoted last year to head national security after its chief was killed in a bombing in Damascus. Considered to be a member of Assad's inner circle, Mamlouk is one of two Syrian officers indicted last August in Beirut for allegedly plotting to incite sectarian violence in Lebanon. Efforts to reach Mamlouk for comment were unsuccessful.

Sheikh said the arsenal is now in the hands of chemical weapons-trained loyalists of Assad's Alawite clan, a Shi'ite offshoot sect, and is being used for limited attacks that have killed dozens of rebels.

“Most of the chemical weapons have been transported to Alawite areas in Latakia and near the coast, where the regime has the capability to fire them using fairly accurate medium range surface-to-surface missiles,” Sheikh said.

Some chemical munitions remain in bases around Damascus, and have been deployed with artillery shells. “It is a matter of time before fairly large warheads are used,” he said.

A U.S. official, asked about Sheikh's comments, told Reuters: “This is one concerning scenario we're taking a close look at.”

Reports of use of chemical weapons in the battlefield have become more frequent in recent weeks. A U.N. team of inspectors has been denied access and has been unable to verify the claims.

ILLEGAL SUPPLIERS

The bulk of chemical and biological weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” said Globalsecurity, a security information provider.

In the early 1980s, Syria mostly imported French pharmaceuticals, some of them so-called “dual use” chemicals, which could also be used for chemical weapons, it said.

A wide range of industrial chemicals with legal applications, such as in agriculture, are also precursors for chemical weapons. The most important precursors for sarin, the nerve agent believed to have been used in recent fighting in Syria, are methylphosphonyl difluoride and isopropanol.

None of the reports cited named specific companies as suppliers. Syria has said it intended to use the chemicals for agriculture.

Securing raw chemicals on the international market became more difficult in 1985, when suspect sales were restricted by the Australia Group, a 40-nation body that seeks to curb chemical or biological weapons through export controls.

Some experts say Damascus obtained supplies from Russia and Iran instead, but Syria may also have turned to a network of illegal traders using front companies to sell to Iran and Iraq.

Former Russian general Anatoly Kuntsevich was suspected of smuggling precursor chemicals to VX gas to Syria, according to Globalsecurity. He died in 2002.

While questions remain about the origins of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, an evaluation by the U.S. government in March leaves little doubt about the threat it poses.

“Syria's overall chemical weapons program is large, complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage, production, and preparation,” the Director of National Intelligence wrote.

It “has the potential to inflict mass casualties, and we assess that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”

Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood

Fiasco Accomplished


Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film


Fury about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad tore across the Middle East after weekly prayers on Friday with protesters attacking U.S. embassies and burning American flags as the Pentagon rushed to bolster security at its missions.

The obscure California-made film triggered an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Tuesday, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In Tunis, at least three people were killed and more than two dozen wounded, state television said after police gunfire near the U.S. embassy in the city that was the cradle of last year's Arab Spring uprisings for democracy. At least one person died in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, a doctor said, after some of thousands of protesters had leaped into the U.S. embassy.

As U.S. military drones faced Islamist anti-aircraft fire over Benghazi, about 50 marines landed in Yemen a day after the U.S. embassy there was stormed. For a second day in the capital Sanaa, police battled hundreds of young men around the mission.

In Khartoum, wider anger at Western attitudes to Islam also saw the German embassy overrun, with police doing little to stop demonstrators who raised a black Islamist flag. Violence at the U.S. embassy followed protests against both Washington and the Sudanese government, which is broadly at odds with the West.

The wave of indignation and rage over the film, which portrays Mohammad as a womanizer and a fool, coincided with Pope Benedict's arrival in Lebanon for a three-day visit.

The protests present U.S. President Barack Obama with a new foreign policy crisis less than two months before seeking re-election and tests Washington's relations with democratic governments it helped to power across the Arab world.

He was at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington to greet a flight bringing home remains of the four dead from Benghazi.

It also emerged that Libya had closed its airspace over the second city's airport for a time because of heavy anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city; Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers to justice.

The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an attack against the militants who were involved in the attack.

A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy compound and the city, taking photos and inspecting locations of radical militant groups who are believed to have planned and staged the attack on the U.S. consulate.

There were protests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

MARINES TO YEMEN

The Pentagon said it had sent a “fast” platoon of Marines to Yemen to bolster U.S. embassy security after clashes in Sanaa.

U.S. embassies were the main target of anger and protest but most embassy staff were not at work because Friday is the Muslim weekend across the Arab World.

The frenzy erupted after traditional Muslim Friday prayers. Fury over the film has been stoked by Internet video footage, social networks, preachers and word-of-mouth.

Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Two Islamist preachers in Egypt told worshippers that those who made the movie deserved to die under Islamic law but they urged protesters not to take their anger out on diplomats.

In the restive Sinai peninsula, militants opened fire on an international observer base near El Gorah, close to the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, and burned tires blocking a road to the camp, a witness and a security source reported. The source said two members of the force were wounded.

The Sudanese who broke into the German embassy in Khartoum and hoisted an Islamic flag, while one person was killed in protests in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Police in the Sudanese capital had fired tear gas to try to disperse 5,000 protesters who had ringed the German embassy and nearby British mission. A Reuters witness said police stood by as a crowd forced its way into Germany's mission.

Demonstrators hoisted a black Islamic flag saying in white letters “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet”. They smashed windows, cameras and furniture in the building and then started a fire.

Staff at Germany's embassy were safe “for the moment”, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. He also told Khartoum's envoy to Berlin that Sudan must protect diplomatic missions on its soil.

Sudan's Foreign Ministry had criticized Germany for allowing a protest last month by right-wing activists carrying caricatures of the Prophet and for Chancellor Angela Merkel giving an award in 2010 to a Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in 2005 triggering protests across the Islamic world.


Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Gareth Jones in Berlin, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Libya, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Iraq, Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, Anis Ahmed in Bangladesh, Regan Doherty in Doha, Roberto Landucci in Italy and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

Catch-2012


The Syrian army loyal to Bashar Assad recently retook Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. Daraya had been in the hands of the rebels.

The Syrian armed forces came in with tanks and armored personnel carriers. As troops advanced on foot, the fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army withdrew. The retaking of Daraya by Assad’s army was the culmination of three days of helicopter gunship attacks that took a huge toll on the rebel army.

After the rebel forces left, a massacre ensued. Rebel sources report that as many as 600 people were massacred — execution style — in the aftermath.

For Assad this was a huge step toward victory over the insurgents, the people he refers to as terrorists. Add to that the other victory he had in Aleppo, and you will understand why Assad, his followers and his forces feel as if the balance of power has shifted back toward them. 

One of the reasons Assad’s army has been so much more successful in their recent attacks against the rebel army is their now-frequent use of helicopters and jets in air attacks.

As the Syrians fight among themselves, the world’s most powerful nations watch, wait and some even play more or less active roles in the rebellion. Right now, the United States is furious with Russia and with China for providing assistance to Assad and for vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions that they proposed. Worse still, the United States is livid because Russia and China are forcing compromises on other resolutions so that, if and when they are passed, the resolutions have no teeth.

But Russia is just looking out for Russia’s own best interests. It just finished building a naval base in Tartus, which cost between $3 and $4 billion. The base is set to be a new and improved set of Russian eyes and ears in the Middle East. 

That base puts Russian boots on the ground in the Middle East. To protect their new base, the Russians have dispatched their only aircraft carrier and placed it right there. The carrier, known as the Admiral Kuznetsov, is not a single ship. A carrier comes with 41 to 67 accompanying aircraft and many escort ships. A carrier fleet the size the Russians have carries thousands of sailors and soldiers plus techies. 

Russia isn’t finished. It has also just sold a fleet of 36 YAK fighter jets to Syria. The Russians didn’t build the base and sell the YAKs with the expectation that it will all be turned over to rebel control. The Russians expect to do business with Assad and Syria for a long time to come.

As all this is happening, the United States is sitting on its hands with smoke coming out of its ears diplomatically and strategically speaking. The only support the United States can provide in Syria is humanitarian aid. 

The United States is in a Catch-22.

It wants to oust Assad from power because he is an evil, murderous dictator. But it learned a lesson in Libya. In Libya, the United States fought to create a no-fly zone that was, in reality, an invitation for the West to oust Gadhafi. Then the United States armed the Libyan rebels and aided them. And it backfired. 

Libya is actually a country of tribes — about 140 tribes. And many of the tribes took the weapons and then sold them. They sold them to Gaza and they sold them to groups that are not friends of the United States. Like al-Qaeda. Imagine how angry Congress was to discover that the weapons they gave to oust Gadhafi ended up in Gaza and were used to shoot Israelis. 

By now it is clear that the original rebel protesters in Syria are either dead, arrested or going back to school. According to intelligence reports, there are now 15,000 al-Qaeda-trained fighters in Syria. 

Despite its desires to see the rebels succeed, the United States cannot offer weapons or military aid to Syria’s rebel fighters — all it can offer is humanitarian aid. Despite all good intentions, the United States knows exactly what will happen if it provides rebel forces with weapons, and Congress will not knowingly give weapons to al-Qaeda.

The United States is upset with the situation inside Syria and upset with Russia and China. But in reality, Russia and China are doing exactly what the United States has done in other situations. Russia and China cast vetoes in the United Nations in order to protect their own interests in Syria and in the Middle East. 

They fear that ousting Assad would bring in yet another Islamic regime that is unfriendly to foreign friends.

The only chance the United States has of changing the game in Syria is by convincing Russia and China to see things as it does. But neither China nor Russia is falling for that again. Meanwhile, Assad’s retaking of Daraya might very well signal the wave of the future for Syria — more massacres and more executions, under the guiding hand of Bashar Assad.


Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World Through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

The Iraq liars target Iran


Christmas did not arrive early for the “Bomb Iran” crowd.

Over the past several weeks, neoconservative hawks were gleefully predicting that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report on Iran’s nuclear program would provide the spark needed to ignite and justify a U.S. or Israeli attack.

Sadly for them, the report did no such thing and the issue has been overshadowed by other stories. In fact, there was so little new in the IAEA report that Iran experts who had been scheduled to do media spots discussing the issue were told not to bother coming in. The Penn State cover-up, the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal, and now the Rick Perry brain freeze would continue to dominate the news cycle.

This does not mean that the Iran nuclear threat has passed, only that the IAEA did not demonstrate that it has intensified. Yes, Iran is taking steps that indicate clear interest in developing nuclear weapons. But neither the IAEA nor anyone else knows if the Iranian regime intends to develop weapons, how long it will take to develop them, or what its nuclear posture would be if it had the bomb. (For 30 years, various experts have predicted that Iran would have nuclear weapons in a year, five years, or whenever — with the date always receding into the horizon.)

The IAEA report doesn’t offer much clarification. As a senior U.S. government official said in a conference call with reporters, “The IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full scale nuclear weapons program nor does it have a program about how advanced the programs really are.”

Of course, the usual suspects claim to know, just as they claimed to know that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that would someday produce Condoleezza Rice’s infamous “mushroom cloud” over Washington. And those same suspects agree about what needs to be done to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. As with Iraq, the answer is preventative war. Sooner rather than later.

It’s a case of what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.”

It is amazing that the same gang of people that lied us into the disastrous war in Iraq (a war that has resulted in 4,471 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead) would have any credibility at all as they seek to get us involved in another Middle East war.

But apparently some people still take these warhawk neocons seriously. After all, if it weren’t for them, no one here would be contemplating a third war in the Middle East, one far more dangerous than the other two. In fact, it is impossible to find a single politician or journalist advocating war with Iran who is not a neocon or an AIPAC cutout. (They’re often both.) And even when not specifically advocating war, they ratchet up the tension by predicting it, as if, by definition, an Iran with or on the verge of developing nuclear weapons means war. (This, obviously, has not been the case with the seven other nations that have gone nuclear since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.)

The leader of the Iran war claque is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, “has most heightened the sense of anxiety” with “a series of leaked reports” that Israel is “increasingly determined to launch a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear facilities—with or without Obama’s assent.” Remnick writes:

The country’s most influential columnist, Nahum Barnea, wrote a front-page commentary in Yediot Ahronoth recently called “Atomic Pressure,” slamming Netanyahu and Barak for acting dangerously and without a thorough public discussion. Barnea, who is as connected a journalist as I have ever met, tried to describe Netanyahu’s thinking: “Ahmadinejad is Hitler; if he isn’t stopped in time, there will be another Holocaust.” He continued, “There are those who describe Netanyahu’s attitude on the matter as an obsession: All his life he dreamed of being Churchill; Iran gives him the opportunity.”

Remnick, who knows Netanyahu, continues:

Barnea is right: Netanyahu is obsessed with the Second World War parallels, real or imagined, and even used them to justify his opposition to the peace process with the Palestinians in the nineties. Netanyahu is deeply influenced not only by his hundred-year-old father’s right-wing Revisionist ideology, but also by a profound sense of himself as Israel’s post-Holocaust protector. Heroic imagery, like the F-15s flying over the rail tracks to Auschwitz, is no small part of what drives him. Five years ago, he said of the Iranian nuclear issue, “The year is 1938 and Iran is Germany.”

Netanyahu’s hysteria about Iran, and his repeated threats to attack its nuclear facilities, would — if the shoe was on the other foot — almost surely cause Israel to preemptively attack Iran. Obviously, the Iranians, whom the neocons invariably describe as “insane,” know the difference between Bibi’s bloviating and real threats. Nonetheless, repeatedly threatening Iran, as Netanyahu does, is dangerous business.

In any case, Netanyahu’s acolytes here think in the same apocalyptic terms he does. Journalist Jeff Goldberg, one of the most outspoken advocates of invading Iraq in 2003, wrote this week about Iran:

The Israeli case for preemption is compelling, and has been for some time. The leaders of Iran are eliminationist anti-Semites; men who, for reasons of theology, view the state of the Jews as a “cancer.” They have repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and worked to hasten that end, mainly by providing material support and training to two organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah, that specialize in the slaughter of innocent Jews. Iran’s leaders are men who deny the Holocaust while promising another.

Pretty overheated stuff — “eliminationist anti-Semites” specializing in “the slaughter of innocent Jews.” Goldberg could be Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah except that Nasrallah would be referring to Israelis as the eliminationists and Palestinians as the victims.

Obviously, this kind of language is designed to ensure that there is no dialogue, that, in fact, the enemy is Hitler. Always Hitler. And, in Netanyahu’s case, it’s always 1938.

But it’s not 1938, Iran is not Nazi Germany, and Israel — with 200 air, land, and sea-based nuclear missiles — is nothing like the Jewish communities of Europe that, without weapons or allies, were annihilated by Nazi Germany. As former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy put it recently, “The State of Israel cannot be destroyed” by an Iranian attack, but an Israeli attack on Iran would produce turmoil “in the region for 100 years.”

To put it simply, an attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would embroil the Middle East in war, threaten the world’s oil supply and economy, likely unleash a massive missile attack by Hezbollah on Israel, jeopardize 100,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East, solidify the Iranian regime’s waning support among the population, and still only delay the Iranian nuclear program by a few years.

Insanity.

So what’s to be done about Iran?

An attack will not deter whatever motivation Iranians may have for a nuclear bomb. In fact, an attack is one way to ensure that the Iranians do get a bomb (to protect themselves from future attacks). And further sanctions, which AIPAC has made a litmus test for campaign support, will only hurt ordinary Iranian citizens without affecting Iran’s nuclear program.

There is only one way to deal with Iran and it is the one we have never tried: unconditional, comprehensive negotiations.

No, not the kind of baby-step talks both sides occasionally propose, but real negotiations that put everything on the table: Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran’s threats against Israel and its unremitting hostility to it, Iranian support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, U.S. attempts to overthrow the Iranian regime and our support for the assassination of its civilian scientists, and, finally, Iran’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only comprehensive negotiations will end the Iran crisis without plunging the region, and possibly the world, into war. Only successful comprehensive negotiations can provide both Israel and Iran with the confidence to get off a course that could lead to mutual destruction. Nothing else will work and everything else has been tried. There is no alternative to diplomacy. Period.

 

Analysis: Obama sounding similar to Bush on foreign policy


Not only is Barack Obama inheriting President Bush’s Middle East, it looks like he’s adopting his strategies.

Perhaps the most striking presence on the Chicago stage Monday, where President-elect Obama presented his national security team, were the policies of the outgoing president.

Speaking generally, Obama hewed to the “change” bromides of a campaign that said it wanted to bury Bush’s legacies.

“In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges,” Obama said. “We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends.

“We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships,” he continued. “We will show the world once more that America is relentless in the defense of our people, steady in advancing our interests and committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world.”

Yet when he briefly detoured into specifics, introducing Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), his pick for secretary of state, Obama’s themes sounded familiar.

“There is much to do — from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea, to seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, to strengthening international institutions,” Obama said.

The first three components of that four-pronged strategy are carryovers from the Bush administration’s final years: Defuse Iran and North Korea and nudge forward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Obama’s priority list comes despite a growing chorus of voices that insists that the Israel-Palestinian track is intractable for now, needing management, not solutions. Those voices — including Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East adviser who is now helping to shape Obama’s Middle East policy — say peace with Syria is the better bet for now.

But the Israelis and the Palestinians at the table believe that Obama has their back and predict a deal within months.

“We’re very close, and it’s time to make decisions,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week after meeting with Bush.

Olmert made it clear that it was his impression that Obama would carry over the Bush administration’s emphasis on arriving at an agreement within the next few months.

“It’s like a relay race,” the outgoing Israeli leader said. “The baton will be passed in an orderly, correct way.”

Olmert believes a deal could be in place before he leaves office in March. He is stepping down to face corruption charges.

That prediction was echoed by a top Palestinian negotiator, Maen Rashid Areikat, who told the Washington Times that the negotiators had arrived at a formula to circumvent perhaps the most intransigent obstruction to statehood — control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas terrorists. Areikat told the paper that a state would first be declared in the West Bank.

Those are pipe dreams, said Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum and has monitored the Israel-Syria talks.

“There is much more of an opportunity to make a breakthrough with Syria than there is a Palestinian front,” he said. “With the vision of Palestine in two pieces and the problems between Hamas and Fatah,” the relatively moderate party controlling the West Bank, “it makes it difficult to move to a final agreement.”

Another of Obama’s picks, Gen. James Jones for national security adviser, also implies an interest in carrying over Bush administration efforts to build a Palestinian security infrastructure. Jones, a former NATO commander, most recently monitored Palestinian and Israeli compliance with peace deals, with special attention paid to the creation of a Palestinian police force.

Jones was tough with both sides during his tenure, but his appointment has raised eyebrows in Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refuses to authorize the release of a report in which he reportedly slams Israel for hampering Palestinian Authority security training.

During his NATO stint, Jones was known as friendly to Israel’s regional interests. The Israeli concerns about his appointment are the result of Israel having been “treated gently” during the Bush administration, Lewis said, and eventually will pass.

“Anytime you ask the Israelis to do something they don’t want to do, they’re resentful; it’s nothing other than normal business,” Lewis said. “After eight years of the Israelis being treated very gently, the contrast was probably annoying to them. He’s a balanced guy, and that’s what you need.”

Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said the Jones appointment was reassuring because it signaled another consistency with the presidency: Its second-term deference to experienced military opinion.

“Picking a Marine for almost anything is a good pick,” said Bryen, whose organization cultivates close relations with all branches of the U.S. military. “He has the background to talk about military priorities in Afghanistan, in Iraq.”

That’s true as well of Obama’s pick for defense secretary: the incumbent, Robert Gates. Obama ran a campaign that derided Bush’s choices in Iraq, but in recent months, the Bush administration has edged closer to Obama’s vision of a phased, careful — and not unconditional — withdrawal.

On Iran, there appears to be consistency, too. During the campaign, great focus was placed on Obama’s calls for stepped-up diplomatic outreach, but since defeating Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he has stressed the need for Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. On Monday, the president-elect hammered home the message again.

It’s a two-pronged approach that jibes with the Gates and Clinton choices. Clinton, Obama’s chief rival during the primaries, hewed to more hawkish Iran rhetoric, although it helped energize her left-wing critics during the Democratic primaries. At the same time, with Gates in the Pentagon, the Bush administration has edged away from cutting off the Islamic republic and has all but killed the idea of striking Iran or allowing Israel to strike.

Ross, meanwhile, joined top former Bush administration officials in signing off in September on an especially tough blueprint on how to deal with Iran published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

The proposal, “Meeting the Challenge,” was barely noticed in the media. It calls for stiffer sanctions, an end to uranium enrichment and outlines a military option that would have “more decisive results than the Iranian leadership realizes,” although such an option would be a last resort.

Ross’ presence on Obama’s transitional Middle East policy team, as well as on the front page of a report that includes first-term Bush hawks, such as Michael Rubin, Michael Makovsky and Steve Rademaker, has sent shudders through those in Washington who had hoped an Obama administration would stress outreach to Iran at a time when its hard-liners are showing signs of being in retreat.

Bryen said it was clear that Obama would eventually seek to expand the Bush administration’s recent, limited diplomatic entreaties to Iran; it was not clear how.

“The incoming administration clearly believes there are approaches to Iran that haven’t been tried,” she said.

The one flag that may trouble some Jewish groups was the fourth leg of Obama’s foreign policy strategy: the planned elevation of U.S. involvement with the United Nations. Groups such as B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee have maintained their commitment to the body, while growing increasingly skeptical of its potential for ever treating Israel fairly. Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have just about written off the United Nations as a useful forum.

Obama nominated Susan Rice, one of his top campaign advisers, to be U.N. ambassador and has said she will serve at Cabinet level.

“She shares my belief that the U.N. is an indispensable and imperfect forum,” he said.

Attention, politicians: Pandering won’t fly


Over the last few weeks of the presidential campaign, the media reported on embarrassing attempts at pandering directed to the Jewish community. While these kinds of efforts are nothing new, and many of the panderers will renege on their pledges once in office — politicians have been promising to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem for a generation — they tell us something important about ourselves.

Why do politicians think that these predictable panders will win our votes? Have they been given bad political advice, or have we, unwittingly, sent the wrong message?

This election cycle the panders were especially blatant, if only because they were so heavy-handed. Usually, there is some restraint in the effort to woo Jewish voters; certain things are just not done, even though they might strike a resonant chord with some Jewish constituencies.

This year, however, many politicians — especially in the Republican camp — threw caution to the wind and said whatever they thought would be effective to garner Jewish voters in the swing states. Notably, the false suggestions that Barack Obama is a Muslim, pals around with terrorists, is hostile to Israel and even that his election might lead to a second Holocaust.

Throughout the campaign a coarse effort was made to push Jews’ nervous buttons on Israel, anti-Semitism, terror and the Holocaust in shameful attempts to exploit fear and, too often, ignorance.

What these efforts should provoke is serious introspection by us. We should ask ourselves why we come to be perceived as susceptible to such inaccurate, superficial and incendiary blandishments by those who run for office. Why is it assumed that the Jewish community will find such wild, unsubstantiated allegations to be worthy of consideration and further dissemination? What have we done to allow the purveyors of the falsehoods and mischaracterizations to think they will find a sympathetic audience?

I have been involved in the organized Jewish community for more than 30 years, both as a professional with the Anti-Defamation League and as a lay leader with several diverse Jewish organizations.

I have hosted and witnessed a boatload of politicians and community leaders who have sought to connect with their Jewish audiences by touching upon issues they thought would resonate. Invariably, the topics of choice were Israel, anti-Semitism and, to a lesser degree, hate crimes and terrorism.

Almost always, the presentations adhered to a predictable arc: accolades for the person who reaffirmed the views that were overwhelmingly held by the audience. Rarely were the elected called upon to propose more than applause-earning platitudes. We settled for facile analyses and the painless intoning of set pieces about a predictable list of priorities, which was all we seemed to demand.

This ritual dance has sent politicians the wrong message. We are widely perceived as virtually single-issue in outlook, lacking nuance on complex matters and easily pleased. “Throw them a few bones, and they’ll be happy,” seems to be the operative assessment among the politicians who do the Jewish circuit.

Exacerbating the problem is the effort — most pronounced in recent years — to enforce a conservative orthodoxy when it comes to the Middle East. The most rigid elements of the Jewish community now tend to define the parameters of legitimate debate. To argue against their positions is to risk being termed naïve, ignorant or even disloyal. For most elected officials, taking the status quo line is much easier than arguing for risk-taking and innovation, even though those same positions may be considered tame in the Israeli Knesset.

Incidentally, having an agenda set by the most fearful in a minority community is strikingly similar to what prevails among other ethnic/racial groups. The most fearful often set the terms of debate in the African American and Latino communities, too. To buck the conventional wisdom is itself an act of courage.

The risk in what we have wrought — settling for pabulum and superficiality instead of honest and serious analysis, while also avoiding spirited internal discussion of those issues — is that the community is perceived as easy and vulnerable to thoughtless appeals to our basest fears.

We must demand more of others and of ourselves.

We shouldn’t settle for platitudinous sermons when we invite political leaders to speak — it does neither them nor us any good. We should tolerate, indeed encourage, vigorous and spirited discussions of tough issues relating to our community here and in Israel; it will do us and our children good.

The results of the 2008 presidential election indicate that the base appeals to our “tribal” instincts didn’t work very well. We can take some comfort in that. But we must, by our actions, demonstrate that intelligent, substantive discussions of issues of concern will be welcome in the future. It’s time to tell the politicians: superficial appeals to simplistic and false notions of our priorities just won’t fly. The world is too complex for that, and we know it.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

The Democrats won for the wrong reasons


The Republicans deserved to lose, but the Democrats did not deserve to win.

After McCain had the good luck to win the nomination early, he squandered valuable time, failing to use his advantage to define his campaign, or Obama. In contrast, the brilliance of Obama’s campaign implied Obama’s ability to govern. Once McCain impetuously took Obama’s chameleon moderation off the table, the unqualified Obama, who had more energy and seemed more coherent, gained credibility and endorsements, synergistically. Consequently, the late attacks, though legitimate, against Obama as a stealth candidate seemed like smears.

Yet, on election eve, even New York Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler, speaking for Obama at a Florida synagogue, implied his candidate knew what Rev. Wright stood for, but had lacked the “political courage” to repudiate his pastor. Earth to Nadler: If you’re Jewish and you feel your candidate lacks the guts to confront the bashing of America and Israel, why would you support him?

Generally, voters continue to want something for nothing: On Tuesday they rejected Republicans for their un-Republican policies of borrow-and-spend and embraced Democrats for their un-Republican policies of tax-and-spend. But, there’s more to this year’s political soap opera than economic bad times and the class warfare to which Democrats pander demagogically. Indeed, truly hardworking people properly blame a government that (under Clinton, as well) seemed to favor parasitic Wall Street bankers over them.

But what about people who had put nothing down on a home, then borrowed on it to live beyond their means, and believe their predicament is somehow everyone else’s fault? In Obama’s presumed cradle-to-grave nanny state they now have a savior. When candidate Obama said everyone has a “right” to be provided day care for their children and a college education for them and universal health care and …, how does one distinguish between Obama’s peculiar constitutional theory of civil rights and his pedestrian campaign rhetoric of bold promises? As one Obama voter interviewed on television said, “I owe money on a car loan. I helped him out, and now he can help me out.”

The more liberal Jews often speak of “tikkun olam” and the Jewish ethic of caring for the less fortunate. Yet, they favored Joe Biden, who gave almost nothing to charity. Instead, his concept is to tax others to enforce his concept of social justice. Why not have an honest dialogue?

Before his election, Obama said he wants “to fundamentally transform America.” Most of us believe his election itself testifies to the innate greatness and wonderful goodness of America, and we do not believe our country requires a fundamental transformation, and certainly not into the mold of European social democracy — secular and stagnant. Yet, as an American, I never thought I would say that I find a new French leader, the pro-opportunity, pro-defense Mr. Sarkozy, closer to the American ideal than our own president-elect. In giving President-elect Obama the benefit of the doubt, I hope sincerely that he can grow into the job, and I can revise that assessment.

Back to the campaign. Why did voters believe that Obama and his backers (examples: Finance Chairs Chris Dodd in the Senate and Barney Frank in the House of Representatives), who aggressively supported the massive program of sub-prime loans and stubbornly resisted critical reforms, were somehow better qualified and more likely to resolve the economic crisis than McCain, the maverick who had outspokenly opposed Fannie and Freddie excesses? The dysfunctional McCain campaign failed miserably to anticipate, and communicate, on the issue of the economy. Indeed, it is McCain, not Obama, who would more quickly get government out of the bailout business. Obama’s campaign words, “We’re seeing the final verdict on Bush’s failed economic policies,” cleverly evaded this unreported or underreported fact: Wall Street favored Obama. It did so because the wealthy, with their tax lawyers, do just fine under Democrats; it’s the middle class that disappears.

McCain was not a leader on the economic issue. His anemic, often irrelevant, campaign advanced silly proposals like a gas tax holiday. When he suspended his campaign, he had an opportunity to dominate the White House meeting, oppose the bailout and insist on oversight and taxpayer protections, and emerge as the leader. Instead, he fumbled, and Obama picked up the ball.

The blatantly biased media did not explain the origins of the economic crisis; instead, the media consistently boosted Obama, who never actually had taken on his party, as the candidate somehow for change, while resisting any serious investigative reporting of Obama’s myriad deficiencies and inconsistencies. For example, Obama, who once said gun ownership was not protected against the Second Amendment, reversed himself, just as he did on public funding of campaigns, offshore oil drilling and many more issues, with a free ride from reporters. But the media magnified every alleged error by Sarah Palin and at the same time barely publicized Joe Biden’s numerous, even egregious, blunders. In fact, more investigative reporting was directed at Palin than at Obama.

The media’s role should be considered in context. Bill Clinton inherited a world void of the Soviet threat, thanks mainly to the policies of Ronald Reagan; Clinton had little to do with the resulting calm. Further, Clinton was required to show fiscal restraint at home, thanks mainly to Republican control of Congress; Clinton had little to do with the cyclical economic recovery. But in the Clinton mythology, relative peace and prosperity were, perversely, his accomplishments. Now, we face this coming trajectory: lower oil prices, a recovering stock market, a turnaround economy, and stability in Iraq, no thanks to the emerging one-party rule of Barack Obama, who is likely to take credit.

Congressional Republicans are hardly blameless for their predicament or bad press: Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his successors, they not only failed to reform, but also acted more like the tyrannical Democrats they had replaced. And where these Republicans had resisted (to his benefit) the big government of President Bill Clinton, they then supported (to his detriment) the reckless expansionism of President George W. Bush. The Bush Administration acted like Democrats — giving rise to an even greater and more costly Federal role in our failing public education system and adding a dysfunctional prescription drug benefit to our troubled Medicare program. All this, and more anti-conservatism, yet they were glaringly incapable, even after Sept. 11, of even trying to secure our borders.

The turning point for many conservatives was when the Congressional Republican leadership abandoned Federalism to convene Congress in an emergency weekend session to consider a matter in the Florida judiciary — the Terry Schiavo case involving Schiavo’s terminal illness. As for the Administration, its handling of the Katrina case, complete with political cronies, demonstrated incompetence that embarrassed conservatives and further damaged the Republican brand.

Expect to see the Democrats, who under Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, have controlled Congress for the last two years, use their one-party government to produce the same sort of failures, but on a much grander scale. The (Democratic) cure can be worse than the (Republican) disease.

The collapse of the credit markets is the main reason both for the Obama victory and for the Republican losses in the Senate and House. The national vote was largely punitive — punish the Republicans for economic uncertainty and despair. What of the political onslaught we now face? Congressman Howard Berman, almost alone among Democrats, has had the integrity to resist what his party wants to do: In the name of fairness, Democrats would trash the First Amendment and silence talk radio. But will other Democrats of conscience resist the cynical plan of Democrats to eliminate the secret ballot on whether workers want a union? What about appointing nominees to the Supreme Court who share Obama’s philosophy that the purpose of income taxes is not to raise revenue, but to redistribute wealth, and that such redistribution to the recipient is a civil right?

McCain made a gracious and moving concession speech. Obama, in turn, set a tone of unity and, for the first time, tried to lower messianic expectations. But time will tell whether he grows beyond his leftist background and ideological voting record and governs from the center, or yields to the extremists in his party who control Congress.

So, finally, what does this election in the United States mean to Israel? In recent years, the American left, like its counterparts elsewhere, has been hostile to the Jewish state, and the left now controls the U.S. Congress. As for the presidency, Israel can hardly rely on Jewish voices of dubious moral authority, like Congressman Nadler, who “know” that Obama really is a friend of Israel.

The people of Israel face an existential threat from Iran, while in Obama they see, at best, a work in progress — “a man not fully formed” — as Dennis Prager observed, hopefully, the day after the election. Thus, these election results make a compelling case for risk-averse Israelis to elect a man associated not only with national prosperity but also with national security — Bibi Netanyahu.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

Yes, I can


Now that the election season is over, I want to share a personal revelation that I think can help bring Obama voters and McCain voters closer together. But first, a
little background.

I’ve always loved a good conversation, especially with people whose views are different from mine. But this year, I have been vacillating between McCain and Obama, and without taking a clear stand, I found it hard to have any decent debates. I haven’t met too many other vacillators.

I have, however, met plenty of hysterical partisans.

My McCain buddies have sent me countless e-mails warning me that an Obama victory might jeopardize the survival of Israel and endanger America, and my Obama buddies have been certain that the future of the Western world hangs on their man’s victory.

If I tried to mention at a McCain table how an Obama victory would re-brand America globally, or how his ability to look at different sides of an issue might be a good thing for the country, or how there are advisers around him like Dennis Ross who could hardly be accused of being anti-Israel, I would invariably get an alarmed response demonizing the man. Conversation over.

If I expressed concern at an Obama table about his lack of experience, or his relationships with unsavory characters, or his politically convenient flip-flops on major issues, or if I brought up McCain’s experience and independent nature, I would invariably get an indictment of McCain’s war-like ways, or a demonizing of Sarah Palin. Conversation over.

People didn’t just pick sides. They dug their heels into thick mud and barely moved. Unless you were surrounded by like-minded people where you could just pile on, you either had very short conversations or screaming matches.

So I came up with a secret plan. I shut my mouth. Instead of telling people how I felt about the candidates, I channeled the big “O.”

Not the big O of Obama, but the big O of Observer. I became an observer and a listener. I soaked it up. I asked questions. I observed how people argued, what set them off and how people on both sides acted in similar ways. I learned that when emotions run so high and opinions are so intense, you learn a lot just by observing and studying the show.

And study I did. I read important writers on both sides. I read National Review and the Nation. I read the key blogs. I would go from the passion of Andrew Sullivan and Joan Walsh on the Obama side to the passion of Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn on the McCain side. Somewhere in the middle, I would hear the moderating voice of David Brooks.

Because I have many friends whom I respect who are strongly anti-Obama, I tried to muster some animosity towards the man — but I couldn’t. Maybe it was because I remember how my mother cried on a November day in 1963 when she heard on the radio that President John Kennedy had died. I was a little kid, having dinner with my family in Morocco, and all I remember thinking was: Why would my mother cry for someone who lives so far away?

No matter how many alarming blog posts I read against Obama, I simply couldn’t ignore the few billion people around the world who might soon look up in admiration to our African American president in the White House — just like my mother looked up to Kennedy from her house in Morocco.

And no matter how many brilliant and valid critiques I would hear against Senator McCain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the decent and heroic American that David Foster Wallace wrote about so lyrically when he covered McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” for Rolling Stone magazine in the 2000 election.

Back and forth I went, seeing the power and weaknesses of both sides. Instead of engaging in exhausting debates, I channeled my passion away from ideology and toward understanding.

And by the time the winner was announced, I had received an unintended blessing from my dispassionate journey. A personal revelation, if you will.

It struck me that no matter who runs the White House — even after a historic victory that my grandchildren will talk about — they still won’t be able to help me with the most important things in my life: How I raise and educate my kids, how I deal with my friends and community, how ethically I lead my life, how I give back to the world, how I grow spiritually, how I stand up for Israel and the Jewish people, how I live an eco-friendly life — in short, how I help my country by taking personal responsibility for my own little world.

Those things are not so much “Yes, We Can,” but more “Yes, I Can.”

In fact, I have a wish that our eloquent new president will have the audacity to tell the nation that, for most of us, 99 percent of our happiness is in our own hands. While we await universal health care, we should take better care of our bodies and our health and save the country billions. While we await a better education system, we should read to our kids every night and teach them the values that will make them productive citizens. While we await government action to fight global warming, we should go green in our own lives. While we await a fix to the economic meltdown, we should learn to budget and spend within our means, and, for those of us who can afford to help, have the kindness to help those who have fallen through the cracks of our debt-ridden safety net.

The truth is, despite the headiness of this historic moment, neither President Obama nor President McCain could do for us what we need to do for ourselves and for our country. If our new president can inspire us to understand this truth, he will bring about the real change we need.

Obama — who won 78% of Jewish vote — faces global disarray, Mideast challenges


WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama emerges from a maelstrom into a vacuum.

The U.S. senator from Illinois has survived the longest and roughest election season in memory to assume control of a free world in free fall: A collapsing economy, a resurgent Iran, an obstreperous Russia.

“He’s going to have his hands full with a recession, a housing crisis, Wall Street, domestic legislation, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Center for Near East Policy.

No matter who was elected president, they would have to to re-accrue the political capital squandered by President Bush in his last years of office, said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at UCLA. Obama, however, makes a better case than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his Republican rival, Spiegel said.

“What Obama is really offering is the olive branch in one hand and the other is a fist,” he said.

Conservatives and some Republicans tried to use Obama’s exotic background against him, particularly in the Jewish community. But in the end, voters went with the son of a woman from small-town Kansas and a nominally Muslim father from the Kenyan hills–a choice that some observers say will be likelier to repair relations with an international community alienated by a president who once famously said nations either stand with or against the United States.

“Obama can say ‘I’m a different person with a different approach, we’re going to work with you on global warming, family planning, we’re going to be broader in our approach, we’re not looking for fights with Russia, we have a much more nuanced policy,” Spiegel said.

M.J. Rosenberg, the legislative director of the Israel Policy Forum, which strongly favors an increased U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, said Obama’s unlikely path to the presidency was a game-changer when it comes to foreign policy.

“He was elected to the Senate four years ago, he defeated Hillary Clinton, he defeated John McCain, he’s African American. Because it’s a transformational presidency, he can do things other presidents might not have been able to do,” Rosenberg said.

It is precisely this possibility of possibility that excites or worries Jewish political activists, depending on their political stripes. Obama’s Jewish backers argue that his victory will provide a significant boost in U.S. credibility and influence that can be used to increase international pressure on Iran and support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Detractors, on the other hand, have predicted that in his desire to win international respect, Obama could end up pressuring Israel and backing away from confrontation with Iran.

What’s clear, experts say, is that Obama faces an almost unprecedented challenge for a new president. Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist on sabbatical at American University in Washington, described a world facing fundamental historic changes.

“I’m thinking of periods such as after the Second World War when the super powers devised a new world, or the Vienna Congress” of 1814-1815 that re-configured Europe. “You need a complicated, comprehensive approach to the new situation.”

Don’t worry too much about Obama being “tested” as a young, inexperienced president, as the McCain campaign had charged, said Yitzhak Reiter, a Hebrew University professor who just published “War, Peace and International Relations in Islam”.

“Being an Israeli, I know that whenever a radical group has a plan in mind and are able to carry it out, they carry it out,” he said. “If they were able to challenge America, they would have done it by now.”

The most serious challenge, Peri said, is the potential of an Iran with nuclear weapons – a possibility, Israel believes, that could occur within two years.

“It will totally change the balance of power in the Middle East, not just because Iran might use the bomb, but because conventional power has been defined by non-conventional power, the fear that Israel has a nuclear capability,” he said. With a nuclear Iran, “assuming Hezbollah or Syria attacks Israel, Israel will be deterred from deterring them.”

The same goes for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that fear Iranian hegemony. “The whole balance of power in the conventional sphere changes,” Peri said.

Obama’s likely path may be determined by those who advises him, Peri said, noting the preponderance of Clinton administration veterans who favor diplomatic engagement as the best path for ensuring Israel’s security. For example, in recent months, former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross has emerged as Obama’s senior adviser on Israel and Iran; and his top staffer on Jewish issues has been another Clinton administration veteran, Daniel Shapiro.

“The people I know who are surrounding Obama have a more progressive view of the Middle East, want to see a peace between Israel and Palestinians, they see the differences in the Arab world and understand you have to take into account Arab interests vis-a-vis Iran,” Peri said.

Ross argues that the United States needs to play a more consistent and involved role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he also has ruled out the establishment of any “artificial” timelines for establishing a Palestinian state. On Iran, Ross has echoed Obama in arguing that the United States needs to increase its level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran–but says such an approach must be coupled with tougher sanctions in order to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mitchell Bard, the director of the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise and the author of “Will Israel Survive?,” was heartened by the Obama campaign’s stated intention to make Iran a priority in its first months. “He has to make some decisions early on to create some action to prevent Iran from getting to the point of no return,” Bard said.

He said Obama’s ability, proven during his campaign, to build alliances across the political spectrum would serve him well.

“He has the personal chemistry, the potential for building relationships,” Bard said, noting that Bush’s first term was well served by the personal relationship he developed with Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, despite policy differences.

Spiegel said Obama’s willingness to engage diplomatically suggested he would succeed where the Bush administration ran into a wall, in building an international alliance to isolate Iran.

“Obama starts out popular, people want to establish good relations; it’s going to be much easier to sell sanctions,” he said.

Under those circumstances, Spiegel said, Iran should soon face a ban on imports of refined fuel. Iran, with a refining infrastructure in disarray, relies on imports for 40 percent of its petroleum use. Such a ban, coupled with the decline in the price of crude, should hit the Iranian economy hard.

“If the price of oil is dropping and not rising, and with truly effective sanctions, then you’ve got a much better chance” of getting Iran to stand down from its weapons program, he said.

Obama has said he would couple sanctions with diplomatic outreach as a means of persuading Iran. Makovsky predicted that such an outreach would not take place until after Iranian presidential elections next summer in order not to hand a victory to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and who wishes Israel did not exist.



Jewish vote: Obama 78-21

By Eric Fingerhut

The first exit poll on the Jewish vote is out, and it has Barack Obama bettering John Kerry’s Jewish vote total from four years ago.

The preliminary poll, which is likely to be updated later this evening or tomorrow, has Obama receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote, to just 21 percent for John McCain. Kerry garnered 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, and Al Gore won 79 percent of the Jewish vote (with a Jewish running mate) eight years ago. The Jewish vote was 2 percent of the poll sample.

If those numbers hold up, it would vindicate Jewish Democrats like Rep. Robert Wexler, who claimed this summer — to skeptical reporters at the Democratic convention — that Obama would hit traditional levels of the Jewish vote for Democratic presidential candidates. At the time, Obama had been totaling slightly more than 60 percent in polls of Jewish voters.



If such outreach fails, Makovsky said, an Obama administration will at least have earned greater credibility if it is forced into a military option.

“If those negotiations don’t work, he will have some very tough calls to make but he will probably believe he is stronger for having made the approach,” he said.

Obama, who emphasized the Iraq quagmire during much of his campaign, was until recently believed to be likelier than McCain to have attempted to reshape the international alignment, tamping down tensions with Russia and refocusing international attention on Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That is less likely now with the economic crisis, Peri said. “Without the economic crisis, I think global issues would have been dealt with sooner,” he said.

Even with narrower expectations, experts agreed that the likeliest beneficiary of Obama’s victory in the Middle East would be Israel-Syria talks; Bush has discouraged this track, and McCain’s campaign suggested they would have continued that policy.

Israel and Syria, having engaged in back-channel talks through Turkey, have all but reached an agreement, including security arrangements, analysts say. Syria is seen as close to agreeing to pull itself out of Iran’s orbit and to cut off terrorist groups. The remaining obstacle is Syria’s desire to get back into the good graces of the United States, something that American hawks have been resisting in part because of Syria’s continued designs on Lebanon.

“It won’t take more than a few months to reach an agreement,” Peri said. “With a green light from the United States, the deal is done.”

Another factor favoring a Syrian agreement is that all the leading candidates in the Israeli elections – including Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu – have in the past committed themselves to a peace with Syria that would include a concession of at least part of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Experts disagreed on what the Obama victory means for Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Peri and Makovsky noted the intractability of the Palestinian split, between moderates in the West Bank and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip–a balance of power many believe makes the creation of a Palestinian state impossible at this time.

But Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum predicted that despite the Palestinian disarray, Obama would press the negotiations forward. The outline of an agreement is known, and achieving it would facilitate every other foreign policy initiative, he said.

“You get a hell a lot of mileage out of getting these two peoples together,” Rosenberg said. “A president who has the leadership to have a signing ceremony looks like a magician.”

But Obama’s Jewish detractors are concerned. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group had deep-seated worries about Obama, but as a tax-exempt organization could not speak of them until now.

“We are worried that he will put enormous pressure on Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinian Arabs without demanding that the Palestinian Arabs fulfill their obligations” under peace agreements, Klein said.

Klein cited as a basis for his concerns Obama’s advisers, including Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Tel Aviv who has counseled pressuring Israel, and friendships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, all strident critics of Israel.

Regarding Iran, Klein referred to Obama’s pledge last year to meet with Ahmadinejad, saying: “Someone who said he will sit down with this Iranian Hitler, Ahmadinehjad, without preconditions is clearly someone who will not do what needs to be done to prevent nuclear weapons in his hands.”

ANALYSIS: Obama worked hard to gain Jewish trust


YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (JTA)—A major Republican tack against Barack Obama has a simple theme: By his friends you shall know him.

For the McCain campaign, in recent weeks this has meant repeatedly linking the Democratic presidential nominee to William Ayers, the former member of the Weather Underground. But Jewish Republicans had been employing the strategy for many months in the run-up to the Nov. 4 vote, with the goal of portraying Obama as soft and unreliable in his support for Israel.

Jewish GOPers point to Obama’s 20-year membership in the church of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his associations—however limited—with Palestinian activists and his consultations with some foreign policy experts seen as critical of either Israel or the pro-Israel lobby.

To buttress this line of attack, they stress Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iranian leaders. Hovering in the background—and at times right up in the voters’ faces—have been Internet campaigns and outright pronouncements by some conservative pundits depicting Obama as an Arab or a practicing Muslim.

Obama has responded by explaining how he has dropped troubling relationships, touting his ties to some Jewish communal leaders in Chicago and pro-Israel lights, casting himself as a lifelong supporter of Israel and presenting himself as a leader who would work to revitalize black-Jewish relations.

He has insisted repeatedly that Israel’s security is “sacrosanct,” cited his defense of Israel’s military tactics during the 2006 war in Lebanon and pressed for tighter U.S. sanctions against Iran as part of his pledge to do everything in his power to block Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. senator from Illinois has spoken thoughtfully about Jewish holidays and religious traditions, as well as the early influence of Jewish and Zionist writers on his worldview. And last Martin Luther King Day, Obama used the pulpit of the slain civil rights leader to condemn anti-Semitism in the black community.

“I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time,” Obama told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year, noting “theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris.”

“So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”

Such policy and ideological pronouncements were enough to secure support during the Democratic primaries from a few pro-Israel stalwarts in the U.S. Congress (most notably Robert Wexler of Florida) and the media (New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz). And even the recently defunct New York Sun—a neoconservative newspaper that had plenty of problems with Obama’s domestic and foreign policies—felt inspired to publish an editorial in his defense on the general question of support for Israel.

“We’re no shills for Mr. Obama, but these Republicans haven’t checked their facts,” the newspaper declared in the January 9, 2008 editorial. “At least by our lights, Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America.”

Still, despite such sentiments and Obama’s feverish efforts to allay Jewish concerns, polls showed him having trouble with Jewish voters—first during the primary season, when he reportedly trailed his main party rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and then throughout much of the general election race when surveys showed him failing to match the totals of previous Democratic nominees.

In recent weeks, however, as the Republican ticket has had to cope with the nation’s economic collapse and the declining popularity of vice-presidential choice Sarah Palin, Obama has been able to flood swing states with waves of newfound Jewish surrogates who were either neutral or with Clinton during the primaries but are now speaking out for him.

Their effectiveness was in evidence last week in a Gallup Poll that showed Obama breaking through a plateau that had dogged him for months: The Democratic candidate garnered 74 percent Jewish support, matching past Democratic candidates and bypassing the persistent 60 percent showing since the primaries.

The trend toward Obama was tangible earlier this month at the B’nai Israel synagogue in Rockville, Md., where the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Noah Silverman made the case for GOP nominee John McCain in a debate with Michael Levy of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Unlike the false depictions of Obama as a radical Muslim that have spread through the Internet, Republican Party reminders of Obama’s past associations with alleged radicals “are not smears,” Silverman said.

The packed hall burst into sustained laughter. Such derision, however, has not inhibited the guilt-by-association attacks. John Lehman, a Reagan administration Navy secretary, at this city’s Jewish community center last week cited the usual litany. He even tossed in Wright, though McCain has banned the use of the pastor’s liberation theology as a cudgel.

“You’re known by the company you keep,” Lehman said several times.

He later defended his mention of Wright, who once described Israel as a colonial power and used the phrase “goddamn America” in a sermon about the continued struggle facing blacks.

“It’s an important issue,” Lehman told JTA. “I don’t see how someone could sit in a pew for 20 years and listen to that crap.”

The Youngstown audience wasn’t interested—it peppered Lehman and the Obama surrogate with questions about policy.

That doesn’t mean that some of the attacks are not substantive. In an interview with JTA during the primaries, Obama failed to say how he could not have been aware of Wright’s radical views on Israel over a 20-year relationship with his church.

“It doesn’t excuse the statements that were made, it’s just simply to indicate it’s not as if there was a statement like this coming up every Sunday when I was at church,” Obama said at the time, evading the question, which was how Obama responded to Wright’s radicalism on those occasions, however infrequently he may have encountered it.

A few weeks later, Wright’s public appearances grew intolerable, and the Obamas left the church and cut off the pastor.

On other fronts, Obama has been less decisive in walking back from what many Jewish and pro-Israel activists—including his own supporters—see as obvious blunders.

Obama still won’t acknowledge that his “I would” reply to a debate question in 2007 about whether he would meet unconditionally with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant just that. And his clear declaration of support for Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital at the AIPAC policy conference in May was followed up by poorly conceived clarifications to the Palestinians, then to the pro-Israel community, then to anyone who was still bothering to ask.

The most effective Republican tack has been his status as a blank slate: Obama is 47 and has barely four years of experience on the national stage.

What has smoothed these concerns has been a strategy of systematically cultivating the Jewish community since his first run for state Senate in 1996. His closeness to scions of Chicago’s most influential Jewish families—including the Pritzkers and the Crowns—propelled a state-by-state outreach that strategically targeted similar dynasties.

For instance, the campaign’s Jewish outreach director in Ohio, Matt Ratner, came on board after a meeting between the candidate and his father, Ron, a leading Cleveland developer. The campaign has set up Jewish leadership councils in major communities and hired Jewish outreach directors in at least six swing states.

Obama used the same strategic outreach in building his policy apparatus. The foreign policy team making the case for an Obama administration that engages in intense Middle East diplomacy features several accomplished Jewish members.

In addition to Wexler, Obama’s circle of advisers on Israel and Iran policy includes familiar veterans of the Clinton administration such as Dennis Ross, once America’s top Middle East negotiator; Dan Shapiro, a lobbyist who once headed the legislative team for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.); and Mara Rudman, a former national security councilor.

Obama reached out to Wexler, a make-or-break figure among Florida’s Jews, before announcing for president, and since 2005 has been consulting with Ross—the most reputable name among Jews in Middle East peacemaking.

“His vision of direct American engagement” with leaders in Tehran “for the purpose of stopping Iran’s nuclear program was so compelling I wanted to be a part of it,” Wexler told JTA.

“Direct American engagement” with Iran was once inconceivable as a pro-Israel position. Due in part to a concerted effort by Obama and his Jewish friends, however, it has gone mainstream, most recently in a bill co-authored by the Democratic nominee that promoted tightened anti-Iran sanctions as well as the utility of engagement. The bill, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives but was killed by Senate Republicans without explanation.

The bill is just one example of how Obama has offered detailed policy proposals that have meshed his emphasis on diplomacy with some of the hallmarks of Israeli and pro-Israeli strategies, especially when it comes to Iran. By the time Obama or his surrogates have rattled off a detailed sanctions plan that includes targeting refined petroleum exporters to Iran, the insurance industry and Iranian banks, listeners at some forums almost appear to have forgotten about Obama’s one-time pledge to meet with Ahmadinejad. It doesn’t hurt that the McCain campaign is short on such specifics.

In a trip to Israel over the summer, Obama impressed his interlocutors by internalizing their concerns over Iran and immediately integrating them into his own vision for the region, Ross said in an interview.

“He told the Israelis during the trip that ‘Iran with nuclear weapons was not only an existential threat to Israel, and I view it that way, but I also would view it as transforming the Middle East into a nuclear region, undermining everything I’d hope to accomplish,’ ” said Ross, who accompanied Obama on the trip.

None of this guarantees a smooth pro-Israel presidency. During the primaries, Obama cautioned Cleveland Jewish leaders that to be “pro-Israel” does not mean being “pro-Likud,” an encomium that could haunt the U.S.-Israel relationship if Obama is elected and the Likud Party—as projected—returns to power in case of early elections in Israel. Still, Obama supporters credit a meeting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for some of the nominee’s initiatives dealing with the Islamic Republic.

But it is the overemphasis on Obama’s Middle East views and associations—real or imagined—that might prove the critical weakness in Republican efforts to cut down Obama’s support among Jews. It’s not just that it’s true now, as it has been in past campaigns, that Jews are not single-issue voters. It is also that Obama has uncovered an exquisite Jewish spin to his broader appeal to generous notions of America’s liberal past.

In making the case that Obama is an unreliable flip-flopper, Republicans note that one of the biggest applause lines in his AIPAC speech was his Jerusalem pledge. But they don’t mention that the biggest applause line had nothing to do with Israel—especially extraordinary considering the foreign-policy-first crowd.

“In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder,” Obama said in his conclusion. “They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man—James Chaney—on behalf of freedom and equality. Their legacy is our inheritance.”

In Washington’s culture of sarcastic bon mots, surely there lurks a line about what it takes to make an AIPAC activist cry. Judging by some of the faces in the crowd that day in May, Obama found the soft spot.

ANALYSIS: Rough race takes toll on McCain’s image


NEW YORK (JTA)—When John McCain stopped in New York one Tuesday in October 2007 to make his pre-primaries pitch to a room full of Jewish bigwigs, he spent virtually all his time discussing foreign policy—but only after an emotional introduction from James Tisch that focused less on policy than the character of the presidential candidate standing before them.

Tisch, a scion of a family real estate empire, proud Republican and decorated Jewish communal leader, invoked the memory of the late Washington power lawyer David Ifshin and his unlikely friendship with McCain.

Back when McCain was a prisoner of war being held and tortured by the North Vietnamese, Ifshin—then a hard-core anti-war protester—visited Hanoi to speak out against U.S. involvement in the war. His remarks were piped into McCain’s cell.

A few years later, the story goes, Ifshin found himself living on a kibbutz in Israel when the Yom Kippur War erupted. Watching U.S. aircraft arrive with supplies to aid the beleagured country triggered a transformation in Ifshin that would culminate with his becoming a lawyer for AIPAC and then the Clinton administration.

Along the way, after McCain had entered the U.S. Congress, Ifshin sought out the Republican lawmaker and asked his forgiveness.The two became friends and worked together on human rights causes.

“It was,” Tisch told the 50 people assembled, “an inspiration for many of us.”

And, one could reasonably add, a powerful example of why—before the twists and turns of an increasingly bitter presidential race—McCain commanded respect in Democratic and liberal circles. To be sure, the veteran Arizona senator has always been a staunch conservative on a range of economic, social and foreign policy issues. But when it comes to grand themes—his emphasis on personal redemption, reconciliation, bipartisanship, sacrifice—McCain’s message has resonated across party lines.

It is true that in the heat of the race, McCain’s “Country First” campaign slogan can sound to the Democratic ear like a swipe at the patriotism of the opposing ticket. But when voicing the fuller version—when grounding his commitment to country in his realization in a Vietnam prison camp that the greatest fulfillment in life is serving a cause greater than one’s self—McCain could be mistaken for John F. Kennedy urging a new generation to embrace the notion of putting service to country first.

Just as important in understanding McCain’s initial appeal among Democrats, independents and the mainstream media is his willingness to work with liberal stalwarts—Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on immigration and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance—and his willingness to criticize conservative efforts to demonize politcal opponents.

During his own failed bid for the 2000 Republican nomination, McCain lashed out at the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling them “agents of intolerance” after they lined up behind then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

And on Election Night in 2002, while others in his party were celebrating big Republican gains, McCain was on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart lamenting the defeat of Democrat Max Cleland in Georgia. It was not the first time that McCain tore into the GOP over its strategy of questioning the patriotism of Cleland, a fellow veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam.

It was not so long ago, in other words, that McCain was known for palling around with liberal East Coast media elites and being a target of some evangelical leaders and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

In recent weeks, however, as McCain ratcheted up his attacks on Obama, he has found himself being accused of embracing the same dirty campaign tactics that he has so often criticized. McCain’s detractors argue that his reputation for straight talk is no longer deserved, pointing to ads suggesting that Obama wants to teach kindergarten students how to have sex and accusing him of associating with domestic terrorists.

Even several Republican lawmakers and McCain’s own running mate have joined Democrats in criticizing his campaign’s recent strategy of flooding the phone lines in swing states with anti-Obama robo-calls.

Democrats have also taken aim at McCain’s status as a maverick, increasingly painting him as a clone of President Bush when it comes to the economy and foreign policy. They note that the candidate has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers who back the Iraq war and oppose robust diplomatic intiatives with Syria and Iran.

Despite McCain’s opposition to abortion rights, as well as the mounting assertions that he has betrayed his reputation as a straight-shooting maverick, the Republican nominee had seemed poised to make serious inroads among Jewish voters. Polls for months showed McCain already surpassing the 25 percent of the Jewish vote that Bush took in 2004, with plenty of undecideds still up for grabs.

Undoubtedly, McCain received a boost from his reputation for bipartisanship and bucking religious conservatives, his long record of support for Israel, tough talk on Iran, a prominent endorsement from U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and lingering questions about Barack Obama.



AUDIO: John McCain and Joe Lieberman’s conference call with Jewish leaders


While Jewish GOPers have attempted to paint Obama as someone who might end up tilting toward the Palestinian side in the peace process, McCain has focused more on Iran and Iraq in attempting to challenge Obama’s preparedness to lead on the Middle East. McCain has pounded again and again on Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iran’s president, and argued that Obama’s timeline for a pullout from Iraq would threaten Israel and the United States.

“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,” McCain told thousands of pro-Israel activists in June. “We must not let this happen.”

One of his key advisers on such issues is Lieberman, who crossed party lines to endorse the McCain shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Even before the endorsement, Lieberman had infuriated many Democrats with his unflinching support for the Iraq war and decision to carry on with a third-party bid after losing Connecticut’s Democratic senatorial primary in 2006.

In the process, however, his stature seemed to grow within centrist and right-leaning pro-Israel circles, and he still can draw a crowd at Florida retirement communities that remember him fondly as the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate.

“From the moment the next president steps into the Oval Office, he or she will face life-or-death decisions in this war,” Lieberman told a Republican Jewish Coalition crowd in January during a stop in Boca Raton shortly before the GOP primary in Florida. “That’s why we need a president who is ready to be commander-in-chief from day one, a president who won’t need any on-the-job training. John McCain is that candidate and will be that president.”

It was one of the first of many appearances that Lieberman would make in the Sunshine State and in front of Jewish audiences on behalf of McCain.

But Lieberman has emerged as more than a surrogate. The Connecticut senator is a trusted adviser and has become a regular travel buddy joining McCain on many of his campaign trips, as well as his visit in late May to Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

It was Lieberman who quietly pulled McCain to the side during a news conference in Jordan, prompting the candidate to correct his mistaken assertion that Iran was training members of al-Qaida. And it was Lieberman who was dispatched by the McCain campaign to brief reporters after Obama and McCain both delivered solidly pro-Israel speeches at the AIPAC policy conference in June.

Soon after, in the weeks leading up to the Republican convention, speculation was rampant that McCain wanted to tap Lieberman as his running mate—a move that some observers say would have helped the Republican nominee with many Jewish undecideds. But according to some reports, warnings from prominent Republican strategists that the selection of a pro-choice quasi-Democrat would trigger a conservative revolt ultimately led McCain to settle on the surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

(Lieberman is said to remain on the short list for either secretary of state or secretary of defense in a McCain administration.)

From the start, the McCain camp appeared bent on underscoring Palin’s pro-Israel bona fides. Her first meeting at the convention was a closed-door session with leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The Republican Jewish Coalition circulated a video clip showing a small Israeli flag displayed in her office in Alaska.

Palin herself took up the task of speaking out against Iran and defending Israel’s right to defend itself. Like McCain, she did so while also voicing support for a two-state solution, saying during the vice-presidential debate that it would be a “top priority.”

Ultimately, however, it appears that attempts to paint her as unqualified and a product of the religious right have been successful. A survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee in early September found that 54 percent of American Jews disapproved of the Palin choice, compared to just 15 percent who felt that way about Obama’s selection of U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

Increasing unhappiness with Palin, along with the economic crisis, has coincided with a drop in the polls for McCain, both in the general electorate and among Jewish voters. New polling data from Gallup released Oct. 23 shows Obama winning 74 percent of the Jewish vote. Of course, even more alarming for the McCain camp is the overwhelming majority of surveys showing him trailing nationally and on the state-by-state map.

And if a signifcant defeat were not enough, McCain’s critics appear ready to carry on the fight beyond Election Day.

“Back in 2000, after John McCain lost his mostly honorable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he went about apologizing to journalists—including me—for his most obvious misstep: his support for keeping the Confederate flag on the state house” in South Carolina, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein recalled in a recent blog post titled “Apology Not Accepted.”

“I just can’t wait for the moment when John McCain—contrite and suddenly honorable again in victory or defeat—talks about how things got a little out of control in the passion of the moment,” he added. “Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.”

This view is the overwhelming verdict among liberal bloggers as they rush to permanently redefine the real McCain as a dishonorable fraud, and it is gaining ground among media pundits and Democratic officials. In fact, the attempts at McCain revisionism during this presidential cycle go back to at least 2006, when he faced criticism for accepting an invitation from Falwell to speak at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Liberal bloggers ripped into McCain, pointing to the speech and the accompanying sit-down with Falwell as proof that the Arizonan was set to sell out his principles to win the GOP nomination in 2008.

But taken together with separate addresses McCain delivered in New York a few days later to students at Columbia College and the New School, the speech at Liberty could just as easily be seen as reinforcing the image of McCain as someone willing to cross lines and build bridges. After all, how many other presidential candidates could boast of such a trifecta, especially in one week?

In all three speeches, McCain argued for vigorous debate—and mutual respect. To help make the point, during his Columbia speech, McCain reflected on his relationship with Ifshin.

“I came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart, and I realized he had not been my enemy but my countryman … and later my friend,” McCain reportedly said.

“His friendship honored me. We disagreed over much. Our politics were often opposed, and we argued those disagreements. But we worked together for our shared ideals,” he said. “David remained my countryman and my friend until the day of his death, at the age of 47, when he left a loving wife and three beautiful children, and legions of friends behind him. His country was a better place for his service to her, and I had become a better man for my friendship with him. God bless him.”

If nothing else, for anyone paying attention, McCain’s willingness to bury the political hatchet with Falwell should have seemed perfectly in character.

Why Obama is better than McCain for Israel


I wouldn’t gamble with Israel’s future. Why would you?

Most arguments in favor of Sen. John McCain and his approach to Israel rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, put simply, McCain is a gambler — in practice, in personality and in judgment.

No supporter of Israel should want Israel’s future placed in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler, whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated. And why would a supporter of Israel want to place the Jewish state’s future in the hands of an inexperienced, ideological, unpredictable, unknowledgeable and barely known President Sarah Palin in the event of a tragedy that would elevate her to the presidency?

With a reputation for fiery verbal outbursts against associates at home and abroad, McCain’s fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin in the first place, rushing back to Washington to “help” in the bailout and flip-flopping on regulation, Bush and his tax policy.

While both candidates have strong records backing Israel, there are differences. McCain benefits from having been in public life longer than Sen. Barack Obama, but his global policies are more likely to harm the Jewish state. He stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than President Bush’s, seemingly closer to Palin’s.

When McCain doesn’t approve of another country’s policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He follows in the Bush tradition of unilateralism and an America going its own way.

He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush — talk loudly but without a clear policy, only drifting. Regarding Russia, McCain has been clear in his determined opposition to the Putin regime, but Israeli leaders are asking for U.S. consultations with Moscow over Iran. How can McCain’s Cold War-style Moscow policy possibly produce that kind of dialogue?

Take a look at Israel’s security today and compare it to eight years ago. Is Israel better off now than when Bush assumed office in 2001?

Eight years ago, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria were all weaker, and the Palestinians were less divided, more stable and more capable of dialogue with Israel. As well, Jordan, critical to Israel’s security, is now threatened from within and without.

Although Bush has been seemingly friendly in his attitude toward Israel, his policies, or lack thereof, have consistently eroded Israel’s defensive strength. If McCain continues to pursue these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will only deteriorate further.

In the Middle East — on Iraq, on Iran and on Arab-Israeli relations — McCain offers more of the same policy that has led to Bush’s repeated failures in the region. Indeed, in recent months even Bush has come close to accepting Obama’s policies on an Iraq timetable, on promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, on Pakistan and Afghanistan and even on the idea of possibly talking to Iran. Lately, it seems McCain is often more Bush than Bush.

Israel’s security would be enhanced with a fresh post-Sept. 11 approach by a new leader with a better pro-Israel perspective. It is not words but actions that will make the difference for Israel.

The policy framework Obama offers has a much better likelihood of producing positive results than McCain’s. For example, on Iran, Obama would talk to lower-level officials and increase dialogue as Iran demonstrates its seriousness to make concessions. On the contrary, McCain is opposed to dealing directly with leaders in Tehran until they stop enriching uranium — the classic, unproductive Bush policy.

Both campaigns, particularly Obama’s, have been vociferous in advocating intensified sanctions against Iran and maintaining the military option on the table.

Obama envisions a regional policy that takes into account America’s competing challenges, first and foremost with the complexities of the Iraq-Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan quadrangle, yet also addresses simultaneously Israel and its neighbors, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Hezbollah. (It is worth noting that Obama has consistently said he will explore talking to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria but not to nongovernmental threats like Hamas and Hezbollah). Of course in the tough Mideast, Obama’s policy may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain’s will definitely fail.

America’s financial crisis also strengthens the argument for Obama. As the stark events of late September have made only too clear, it is the Democrat, with a fresh, experienced and savvy team, who is far more likely to reverse the U.S. economic meltdown.

For an Israel integrally tied to America and its fortunes, a continued U.S. economic decline will only affect its military security and economic standing adversely and dangerously. The candidate who can better fix the economy must be seen as a stronger advocate of Israel than his opponent, no matter how long the latter has made friendly statements toward the Jewish state.

McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But one wonders why any American should want to live with these kinds of outcomes, but more importantly, why should any supporter of an embattled Israel want to risk the future of the Jewish State on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic and unpredictable whims that guide his decision making?

The Jewish state would be far better off for the next four years with the cool, careful, considered decisions of a strong supporter — Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and a professor of political science at UCLA.

McCain for America — and Israel


As a patriotic Jewish American, I care deeply about Israel’s wellbeing and security, as well as that of our own country. In having to choose between the two presidential candidates, I find myself looking closely at their statements, record of accomplishments and the people

who advise them now and those they were influenced by in the past. I do this with America’s future foremost in mind and what we could expect their policies would mean to Israel going forward. This measuring rod is critically important in the face of the unprecedented national security challenges that we will face in the next few years.

Today, the choice for the pro-Israel community is clear — Sen. John McCain is the one. I regret that my choice is not shared by more of my co-religionists, but I believe that too many fail to appreciate the growing menace of Islamic extremism to the United States and Israel, voting Democratic more out of habit than self-interest or deep conviction.

I realize that for many Jewish Americans, Israel’s and America’s safety and security appear to be a lower priority than certain social issues, such as preserving abortion rights. I’ve heard this expressed often by those who sincerely feel that the next president’s Supreme Court appointments are more crucial than how a president will face up to the jihadist threat to Israel and the United States. If McCain had made the abortion issue a defining one of his public life, then this concern might have some validity. But this is not the case. Instead, McCain has focused his energies on issues pertaining to our national security and understands how to deal with the threat to America and free peoples around the world.

Sen. Barack Obama might be the choice of those Jewish Americans who have an “it’s all Israel’s fault” mentality and who feel anti-Semitism today is the result of Israel’s own actions. But for Jews who are troubled by the moral equivalence argument sustained by our State Department and some mainstream media like The New York Times, it is time to review a predilection to support Obama because he is a Democrat and seriously consider voting for McCain.

In my years in Washington going back to my first job in the JFK administration, I have worked for a liberal Democratic congressman and a liberal Democratic Senator. But I am much more closely aligned today with the diminishing number of Democrats who are considered centrists of the Joe Lieberman-Henry “Scoop” Jackson variety. The loudest voices now in the Democratic Party belong to the Michael Moores, Dennis Kuciniches and the moveon.org progressive types who are enamored with Obama.

When Lieberman, now an independent Democrat, endorsed McCain for president, he said, “I have worked with Sen. McCain on just about every national security issue over the past 20 years…. I have seen Sen. McCain time and time again rise above the negativism and pettiness of our politics to get things done for the country he loves so much.”

This resonates with me and contrasts starkly with the shallow background and thin resume of McCain’s opponent. Obama’s boosters credit him with transcending race and by extrapolation, everything else, including divisions of region, class, party, generation and ideology. But his very lean record in the Senate to date indicates none of this. Aside from winning elections and writing two books about himself, what accomplishments can he point to?

Comparisons between Obama and the young and charismatic John F. Kennedy also come up short. Actually, it is McCain, not Obama, who, like Kennedy, was commissioned as a naval officer, awarded the Purple Heart and decorated for helping his comrades. And McCain, much like JFK, has pledged to fight for freedom around the world and not to retreat from our enemies. This is certainly what we need today, more than meaningless slogans like “change we can believe in” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Many in Congress have excellent Israel-related voting records. Obama, in his very brief career, is among them. But some of these same legislators also appear reluctant to confront the growing menace of Islamofacism and the threat it presents to America’s vital interests in the Middle East and to Israel’s survival. Only one presidential candidate repeatedly states that “the transcendent challenge we face today is the menace of Islamic extremism.” McCain asserts this to all kinds of audiences and at all times. McCain offers a clear choice to voters on Nov. 4, as he acknowledged the grim reality of today’s world.

One can respect Obama for his ambition, his meteoric rise and his rhetorical skills. But his equivocation on issues like Jerusalem, public campaign financing and the success of the surge in Iraq are disturbing, as is his approach to dealing with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When not scripted, he has spoken of the “legitimate grievances” of Hezbollah and Hamas. Also worrisome is his ultraliberal voting record in the short time he has served in the U.S. Senate. He has been ranked as having the “most liberal” voting record in the entire U.S. Senate — a record that does not fit with one who claims to be a “unifier.” A unifier might be expected to come from the middle of a party, the place that gave us the constructive and bipartisan Senate “Gang of 14,” which forged a compromise on judicial appointments. Obama was nowhere to be seen in that group. And it is McCain, not Obama, who has pledged to appoint members of both parties to his presidential Cabinet.

Another primary concern is Obama’s meager national security record. Instead of arriving at well-established positions through years of intensive deliberation and consideration, he will have to rely more heavily on a group of advisers — some 300 by his own count. Given both the backgrounds of several of the more permanent people who have counseled him to date and the endorsements he has received from an infamous list of Israel bashers, this is surely not a promising sign. One speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee cannot make up for off-the-cuff remarks that paint an entirely different picture.

If one believes we live in a very dangerous world with unprecedented challenges, the choice before the American people and the Jewish community should be an easy one. On that fabled “day one,” Iran, Iraq, Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan, China, global terrorism, Middle East oil and, almost incidentally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be at the top of the new president’s agenda. Given the two candidates’ records, experience and core values, the choice for the pro-Israel community and the American people should not be a difficult one. McCain for president.

Morris J. Amitay, a Washington, D.C., attorney, is a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC (www.washingtonpac.com).