Iran policy reveals split between U.S. Jewish and Israeli left


Israel’s highest-ranking female soldier, Brig. Gen. Yisraela Oron, was sounding all the right notes for her J Street hosts.

At the tail end of a U.S. tour for the left-wing pro-Israel lobby, Oron was lending her considerable security credentials to its platform: a two-state solution, territorial concessions by Israel and a robust U.S. peacemaking role.

The conversation with a group of reporters then turned to Iran and its nuclear potential, and Oron was unequivocal: yes to engagement, but on a timetable that would be tied to punishing sanctions.

“The thing that worries me and that worries other Israelis is that it is not limited in time,” Oron said as the faces of her J Street hosts turned anxious, adding that “I’m not sure I’m expressing the J Street opinion.”

She was not. J Street explicitly opposes a timetable and has reservations about proposed additional sanctions.

The awkward moment pointed to a potential split between left-wing pro-Israel groups and the Israeli constituents for whom they claim to speak. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian issue, little dissent exists among Israeli politicians over how to deal with Iran.

That puts left-wing U.S. Jewish groups at odds with Israeli left-wingers.

“There is a more hawkish perception among virtually all circles in Israel” than there is in the United States, said Yossi Alpher, a consultant who has worked with Americans for Peace Now. “It’s very natural. Iran doesn’t say the U.S. has no right to exist and doesn’t do the equivalent of denying the Holocaust. It doesn’t deploy proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah against the United States and on its borders.”

Right now, the differences are not pronounced—the administrations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama are virtually on the same page on the need to confront Iran, and soon. That could change, however, if Iran makes a serious counter offer to Obama’s proposal to engage.

Last week, the Iranians said they had made such an offer. Its details are not known, but it will be part of the “reassessment” Obama has pledged to complete by the end of September, when the major world powers meet at the U.N. General Assembly.

“If Iran engages and the Obama administration argues that a deal has been made, the Israeli government will be very wary,” Alpher said. “This could immediately create a whole world of suspicions.”

Under those circumstances, the vast majority of American Jewish voters who backed Obama last year would be faced with the first either-or U.S. vs. Israel issue in decades, and groups that describe themselves as pro-Israel and pro-peace will find themselves for the first time speaking for virtually no one in Israel on a critical issue.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will lobby in Washington on Sept. 10 and rally outside the General Assembly on Sept. 24 for sanctions that would end the export of refined petroleum to Iran, which imports 40 percent of its refined oil.

On Israel’s left, the Labor Party, currently part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, aggressively backs sanctions. Its leader and the current defense minister, Ehud Barak, makes Iran’s isolation the centerpiece of his exchanges with his counterparts in the West.

The smaller Meretz Party, to Labor’s left, also backs Iran’s isolation. It routinely frames its arguments for robust peacemaking in terms of the need to contain Iran’s ambitions.

Former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin tells audiences that Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister who launched the Oslo process in 1993, did so principally because of his fears of Iran. Beilin told a German audience last year that he “advocates increased sanctions towards Iran in order to stop centrifugal uranium programs.”

Avshalom Vilan, a Meretz Knesset member until March, was a forceful advocate of reaching out to the nations most able to wound Iran’s economy, including Germany and India.

Across the ocean, however, left-wing U.S. Jewish groups—not to mention non-Jewish left-wing groups—are against more sanctions.

Americans for Peace Now has the most pronounced opposition.

“We don’t think crippling sanctions are right if the meaning of that is that the sanctions will not be targeted against Iran’s governments and leaders but will target Iranian people,” spokesman Ori Nir said. “We think that’s not only morally wrong but is also strategically perilous.”

Other left-wing groups also hedge on the prospect of sanctions.

The Israel Policy Forum, in a July 15 paper, encouraged engagement and said threats of enhanced sanctions were “not necessary” because Iran’s leadership knew they were forthcoming.

The most recent statement from Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, dated July 2008, rejects “diplomatic isolation or veiled threats of military action” and advocates “utilizing diplomatic and economic incentives and sanctions together.”

In a policy statement, J Street says it does not oppose further sanctions “in principle,” but “under the current circumstances, it is our view that ever harsher sanctions at this time are unlikely to cause the Iranian regime to cease weapons development.” Engagement should “not be conducted with a stopwatch,” it said.

The Reform movement, which often aligns with the left-wing groups on Israel-Palestinian matters, is a bit closer to the Israeli position when it comes to Iran.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform’s Religious Action Center, disputes Americans for Peace Now’s contention that the proposed enhanced sanctions are immoral.

“These were chosen as a much more targeted way to put the maximum pressure on the power structure in Iran,” he said.

The other left-wing pro-Israel groups arrived at their Iran policies partly because of their alliance with an array of liberal Democrats wary of engaging Iran in the wake of the Iraq War and its resultant quagmire. Behind the scenes, these groups have sought sanctions that would not harm ordinary Iranians.

Supporters of tougher sanctions argue that sanctions targeting the regime have been in place for years and have had little effect.

Shai Franklin, a senior fellow for U.N. affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said that gravitating away from deference to Israeli constituencies may be healthy for some U.S. Jewish groups.

“It makes the conversation more interesting, and once that happens you’ll find more people getting involved, from the right and left,” he said.

Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum said differences might emerge next month over the pacing and intensity of sanctions.

“The Iran difference is part of a differentiation that has got to be addressed,” he said. “At some point there has to be a serious dialogue between American Jews and Israel and the Obama administration and Israel.”

One tactic might be to remind Israel that Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran appears to have rallied support in Europe in recent weeks for tougher sanctions.

“The doves,” Spiegel said, “accomplished what the hawks could not.”

McCain accepts nomination, offers little new on Israel, Iran


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden, Palin lead campaign clash on Mideast


ST. PAUL (JTA)—The two vice-presidential candidates led the way Wednesday as the Obama and McCain campaigns worked to draw clear battle lines on Iran and Israel.

In a highly anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention, Alaska Gov. and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin mocked U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for saying more than a year ago that as president he would meet the leaders of pariah states unconditionally.

“Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay—he wants to meet them without preconditions,” she said during her acceptance speech Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center here.

Palin’s address followed a speech by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the most popular candidate among Jewish GOPers in the primaries. Giuliani warmed up the crowd with swipes at Obama, including an assertion that the Democratic nominee had flip-flopped on the issue of Jerusalem.

“When speaking to a pro-Israeli group, Obama favored an undivided Jerusalem, like I favor and John McCain favors it,” Giuliani said. “Well, he favored an undivided Jerusalem—don’t get excited—until one day later when he changed his mind.”

Earlier in the day, the Democrats launched their own Middle East-related attack when Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), used a 20-minute conference call with members of the Jewish media to blast the Bush administration and McCain, the Republican presidential nominee and longtime Arizona senator.

Biden blamed the Bush administration’s sluggish diplomatic efforts for slowing up Israeli-Palestinian talks and paving the way for the ascendancy of Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Democratic vice presidential candidate argued that the administration has failed to respect Israel’s autonomy, citing reports that the White House at one time directed Israel not to engage in talks with Syria. And he appeared to reject the administration’s reported efforts to block Israel from taking military action against Iran.

“This is not a question for us to tell the Israelis what they can and cannot do,” Biden said. “I have faith in the democracy of Israel. They will arrive at the right decision that they view as being in their own interests.”

That said, Biden added, the Bush administration could have done much more on the diplomatic front to help avert the potential need for military action.

Taken together, Biden’s press call and the GOP convention speeches underscored the ramped-up efforts by both campaigns to paint the other side as promoting a reckless foreign policy that would endanger Israel and undermine U.S. interests.

They come as polls suggest that Obama commands about 60 percent of the Jewish vote—a solid majority, but at least 15 points below the percentages recorded by recent Democratic presidential candidates.

Even as both sides attempted to draw stark distinctions on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, it was unclear if any exist. The clearest gap appears to be on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

McCain has said he would do so when he enters office. In response, the Obama campaign accused McCain of lying.

The last two presidents made the same promise during their campaigns, but neither Bush nor Bill Clinton over the past 16 years ever even made an attempt to actually carry out that promise.

On the wider question of Jerusalem’s final status, however, it’s not clear that the candidates disagree.

Obama felt the need to clarify comments he made on the issue to thousands of pro-Israel activists in June, but both he and McCain have expressed essentially the same views: They share Israel’s concerns and say ultimately the two sides must decide the matter in negotiations.

Though for years the Bush administration was reluctant to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, McCain has pledged to do so. Both he and Obama favor a two-state solution, place most of the blame on the Palestinians for the failure to reach one, and back efforts to isolate Hamas and shore up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On Iran, however, the disagreements appear more pronounced—between Obama and the Bush administration and between the two presidential campaigns.

In mocking Obama’s stated willingness to meet with the president of Iran, Palin was echoing a longstanding line of attack against Obama employed not only by Republicans but by Obama’s main rival in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Since Obama first made the remark during a primary debate more than a year ago, he appears to have backtracked, saying he would require extensive preparations before such a meeting.

Still, Obama and Biden have stuck to the view that hard-nosed talks between the United States and Iran could ultimately lead Tehran to change its behavior—and, failing that, make it easier to build international support for tougher sanctions and possible military action against the Islamic regime.

McCain, on the other hand, has scoffed at the notion that talking with top Iranian leaders would do any good. At the same time, McCain has opposed several congressional measures backed by Obama that supporters say would place increased economic pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear pursuits.

Biden argued during the conference call that the net result of McCain’s positions is that he’s offering a choice between “unacceptable status quo or war.”

“There’s nothing in between with the McCain doctrine—nothing,” Biden said. “That is no option. That is a Hobson’s choice.”

In her speech Wednesday night, Palin expanded the Iran debate, arguing that the energy policies she favors—in particular, expanding oil drilling in the United States, especially Alaska—would help diminish the Iranian threat.

“To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of world energy supplies or that terrorists might strike again at the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia or that Venezuela might shut off its oil deliveries,” Palin said, “we Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas.”

(Editor Ami Eden contributed in New York to this report.)

School Risked Fiscal Peril for Its Students


Esther Nir knew she wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. Although she and her Israeli-born husband, Ofer, were living in a decidedly secular kibbutz, Nir had attended yeshiva as a young girl in Brooklyn.

“I wanted my children to learn Torah and decide for themselves what they wanted to do when they got older,” she said.

But when the family moved to the United States from Israel in 1990, Nir was shocked by the cost of day school education. None of the Orthodox day schools she approached could give the family a financially viable offer.

“If a school cost $12,000 per year, they would go down by $2,000…. It was still out of reach,” Nir recalled.

One school implied that the family was not observant enough to be accepted.

Discouraged, the couple sent their three daughters to public school.

Four years later, Ofer Nir saw an article in a Hebrew-language newspaper about Perutz Etz Jacob Academy, an Orthodox day school reaching out to families of all religious levels, economic abilities and nations of origin. He looked up from the paper and said to his wife, “I think we’ve found the school we’re looking for.”

Located in a nondescript building on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, Etz Jacob is not glamorous. The furniture is worn, the walls need a paint job and the outdoor play area is tiny.

The Nirs were undaunted. The following year, they enrolled their three daughters: D’vorah in eighth grade, Ayala in sixth grade and Kesem in second grade. Based on the family’s financial situation, tuition was initially set at $100 per child per month.

Etz Jacob prides itself on accepting children who would not otherwise get a Jewish education. Rabbi Rubin Huttler of Congregation Etz Jacob founded the school in 1989 as a haven for new immigrants flooding into Los Angeles from Russia and Iran.

“Other schools weren’t accepting these children,” he said. “So we decided to take on that mitzvah.”

Over the years, immigration slowed, but Etz Jacob continues to take students who have not been able to find a home at other Jewish schools for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Nirs, are struggling financially. Others have learning disabilities or emotional issues. A few have experienced discipline problems at other schools.

“We see the potential in the child, not what he’s doing now,” said Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the school’s principal. He believes it’s never too late to begin learning.

“Rabbi Akiba started studying the alphabet at the age of 40, and he became one of the greatest rabbis in history,” he said.

Only 5 percent of Etz Jacob’s students pay full tuition of $8,000, with the rest paying on a sliding scale. According to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, 40 percent of all day school students in L.A. receive need-based financial aid. However, Graff noted, “Other schools with a high percentage of scholarships tend to have a support base that can sustain them from year to year.”

This is not the case with Etz Jacob. The school’s liberal admissions policy jeopardized its very existence. Over the years, Huttler and Harrosh struggled continuously to keep the school afloat. Over time, debt mounted. Last summer, Etz Jacob Academy owed an entire year’s rent. Huttler reluctantly concluded that he would have to close the school.

Enter Aron Abecassis. A go-getter who prospered in real estate, Abecassis had supported the school when he first heard it was having troubles making ends meet eight years ago. Then in 2004, when he learned of the impending bankruptcy, Abecassis took the school on as a personal mission. Although his three children were enrolled at nearby Maimonides Academy, Etz Jacob’s plight touched a chord: Abecassis himself had once been a poor immigrant in search of a Jewish education.

In 1970, his family fled Morocco because of the increasingly hostile climate for Jews. “We left everything behind,” said Abecassis, who was 9 years old at the time.

The family went to Canada, but when his father tried to find a Jewish day school for his three children, “they came up with all kinds of excuses not to admit us,” Abecassis recalled. “I always felt I missed the structure and foundation of a Jewish identity that comes through Jewish education.”

In addition to donating his own funds, Abecassis created a business plan to save the school. He enlisted rabbis throughout the community to appeal to their congregants for help. He solicited individuals to provide $10,000 student sponsorships.

“We’re Jews. And Jews all help people in need,” Abecassis said.

When Abecassis approached L.A. Jewish Federation President John Fishel about Etz Jacob’s financial plight, Fishel provided the school with a $50,000 emergency gift. The gift came with two conditions: That the school undergo accreditation and that it strengthen its leadership structure.

“Providing this support to Etz Jacob is consistent with the Federation’s aim of ensuring that a Jewish education is accessible to every Jewish child who seeks one,” Fishel said.

Regina Goldman, a former principal of Melrose Avenue Elementary now on Etz Jacob’s board, oversaw the accreditation process. The school just received accreditation approval from the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which gives the stamp of approval to both secular and religious schools. It is in the process of applying for accreditation the Bureau of Jewish Education. Nancy Field, previously of the Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, has been hired as Etz Jacob’s general studies principal.

In what Abecassis describes as “a rescue effort by the Jewish community,” 17 local synagogues and foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, have provided funds to the school. In addition, 47 individuals have sponsored student scholarships averaging $10,000 each. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, enough to cover not only this year’s operating expense, Abecassis said, but also — for the first time in its 17 years of existence — Etz Jacob is now free of debt.

Ultimately, Abecassis hopes the school will be able to build a permanent facility that would allow it to double or triple its current 100-student capacity. He’d like to break ground within three years.

As for the Nir family, who found a haven at Etz Jacob 10 years ago, they grew more observant and eventually became baalei teshuvah. Two daughters now live in Israel, and the youngest is enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles. The Nirs say they are grateful for the impact the school made upon their family and heartened to hear that Etz Jacob’s future finally seems secure. “Torah is more important to them than money or a fancy building,” Esther Nir said. “The most important thing to them is giving a Jewish education to a Jewish child.”

 

Did Feith Cross the Pro-Israel Line?


However the sordid facts play out in the current FBI investigation of a senior Pentagon analyst’s alleged spying on Israel’s behalf, they raise a raft of nettlesome questions — and memories.

Recall, for example, that the heart of Jonathan Pollard’s self-justification was that he passed on to Israel information regarding Iraq’s evolving capabilities for hurting Israel; information to which Pollard claims Israel was entitled, but to his knowledge was not being shared with Israel.

Intelligence sharing between America and Israel goes on at the highest levels and is remarkably intimate — but it is not, nor can it be supposed it ever will or even should be, complete. Each nation, sometimes for good reason, sometimes for bad, shares what it knows — or thinks it knows — selectively. In the case at hand, the classified information that was allegedly passed on to Israel was less about Iranian capabilities, more about America’s assessments and intentions. Providing Israel with that kind of secret information is an invitation to the Israelis to focus their diplomatic efforts on persuading America to alter its course — whether by force of argument or by adding new "intelligence," actual or manufactured, to the shared mix.

Over the years, my own inquiries into the Pollard case have included conversations with people intimately familiar with the entire body of evidence. I am persuaded that what is publicly known regarding Pollard’s betrayal is only a part of its extent. But Pollard himself, miserable though he might be, languishes in his cell not only because of his crimes but also because of Israel’s inadequate response to those crimes. In the aftermath of Pollard, Israel solemnly undertook to make available to the Americans the full dossier regarding what Pollard had stolen and transmitted to his Israeli handler. This undertaking was not honored, and the consequent resentment lingers — and may account for the FBI’s sudden leak of the latest allegations (for more on this story, see p. 14).

In the days ahead, we will perhaps learn whether the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was, as is alleged by the FBI tattlers, involved. One hopes it was not, lest AIPAC be found to have damaged itself beyond repair, and the Jewish community therefore be required to invent and laboriously build a new lobbying capability to replace it. As a general rule, it would be a mistake to count AIPAC out this early, not only because the allegations are, for the time being, merely allegations, but also because AIPAC is remarkably resilient. Still, there are not a few people in Washington who would delight in an AIPAC rendered at last more modest, if not downright ruined.

The far more serious threat presented by the unfolding scandal goes to the question of involvement by the pro-Israel community in shaping American Middle East policy. One can be "pro-Israel," however defined, as part of a general theory of American Middle East interests. If one honestly believes, for example, that Iraq can be transformed into a democracy, or even just a law-abiding state, and that such a transformation would create a domino effect throughout the region — rather fantastical beliefs, but just this side of utterly preposterous — then the fact that such a development would be "good for Israel" is an incidental benefit. If, however, one begins with a pro-Israel commitment and from that backs into a policy that calls for an American "war of liberation" in Iraq, that’s another matter entirely. The distinction between the two approaches is sometimes difficult to make — but it is a distinction with a very considerable difference.

There has been a steady undercurrent of concern in the current war on Iraq regarding the central role in the rationale and run-up to the war played by so-called Jewish intellectuals in and near the Bush administration — principally, in Dick Cheney’s office and in Donald Rumsfeld’s. In the current case, Larry Franklin, the alleged wrongdoer, is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve who served in the past as an attaché at the U.S. embassy in Israel; he works for Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy and a leading proponent of America’s war on Iraq. Feith, who together with Richard Perle, David Wurmser and Meyrav Wurmser, were the key authors of a 1996 briefing paper for then Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," was critical of Israel’s 1978 peace with Egypt and opposed Oslo, Wye and every other agreement remotely based on "land for peace" or a "two-state solution." The 1996 paper fully reflects that opposition; it calls for a far more aggressive American policy toward both Saddam Hussein and Syria. Feith himself (whose name has repeatedly surfaced in connection with the scandals at Abu Ghreib prison) is one of those connected insiders who seem to outlast scandal (Elliot Abrams being the current poster boy for that talent) and, largely hidden from public view, exercise outsized influence on affairs of state.

As the United States now stumbles its way toward a coherent policy regarding Iran, with the awesome dangers that an ill-chosen policy would involve, it becomes critically important that we know for a fact that government policy has been developed exclusively on the basis of America’s perceived interests. That cannot, however, come to mean that American Jews, presumptively pro-Israel, are inherently ineligible to participate in such policy formulation or even that they be subjected to more stringent controls. Yet if, in their right-wing, pro-Israel zealotry, Feith or any of the others have in any way suggested to their aides that the sharing of classified information with Israel is acceptable, that is a plausible outcome of this mess. Pro-Israel? Hardly.


Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

What about Iran?


Last week in Baghdad, 30 Iranians were captured fighting for the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A few days earlier, two trucks transporting weapons for Sadr’s fighters were caught trying to drive into Iraq from Iran.

NBC reported recently that "thousands" of Iranian-funded fighters are operating in Iraq. And last month, the Sept. 11 commission, which investigated U.S. intelligence failures associated with the terrorist attacks, found that eight of the 19 hijackers were given safe passage through Tehran in 2000 and 2001.

Yet despite all of this damning behavior, a senior Bush administration official last month told the Financial Times, "Iran’s hard-line government has refrained from efforts to destabilize the new government in neighboring Iraq."

After the release of the Sept. 11 commission’s findings about the safe passage, President Bush responded unflappably to the critical accusation, saying the United States "will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."

While the on-the-books policy of the current administration is regime change in Tehran, an overstretched military and an absence of good military options have led Bush to sound decidedly dovish. Rather than beating another war drum, he has made murmurs about the prospect of resumed relations in exchange for better Iranian behavior.

Just 10 weeks before the November election, Bush faces a problem: Iran, one of the three points on the axis of evil he described in his 2002 State of the Union address, is compounding headaches for the administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is now evidence of a link between the regime and Al Qaeda, throwing further doubt on why the Bush administration chose to strike at Saddam Hussein, rather than deal with the problem of the mullahs in Tehran.

And perhaps most menacingly of all, Iran is driving full speed ahead toward achieving a nuclear weapon. Senior U.S. officials all the way up to Bush have said the world cannot allow Iran to go nuclear, but such rhetoric has not proved powerful enough to halt programs in the past.

"We’ve heard this from the administration before. We’ve said, ‘We can’t allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.’ News flash: North Korea does have nuclear weapons," said Jon B. Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made the pledge most recently in an Aug. 8 interview with NBC’s "Meet the Press." "We cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon," she said. "The president will look at all the tools that are available to him."

Yet at the moment, the United States, so consumed with the mess in Iraq, hardly has the stomach for another Middle East confrontation.

"The U.S. commitment in Iraq in terms of attention and troops has dramatically reduced our leverage over Iran," Wolfsthal said.

And in case anyone in Iran remained worried about the Bush administration getting tough, all they had to do was listen to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on Aug. 10. "We can’t do everything at once," the administration’s top hawk told the House Armed Services Committee, when asked how the United States is dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support for terrorism.

With competing camps within the administration, some pushing for engagement, others for, at the very least, support for democracy advocates inside Iran, Washington seems hardly able to draft a coherent approach to Tehran. Gone — at least for now — is the neoconservative rhetoric that the U.S. superpower can go it alone.

Even though the Iranian nuclear threat is far more imminent than Iraq’s ever was, the United States is pursuing an internationalist approach, relying on the Europeans (who provide Iran with 40 percent of its imports and have more leverage) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — actors that the Bush administration ridiculed in the run-up to the Iraq war — to fix the problem.

Last October, the Europeans, bearing all kinds of carrots, thought they had won a pledge from the Iranians to halt their nuclear bid. The IAEA quickly found that Iran was continuing to manufacture centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment, the key to a nuclear warhead.

Now the United States is hoping the IAEA, which meets next month, will refer Iran’s nuclear violations to the U.N. Security Council. And there, the United States hopes the world will sanction Iran for its behavior.

Israel is hoping for that, too. Israeli officials say world attention to the Iranian nuclear problem has slowed the program a bit. Israel recently set back the date by which Iran will have a nuclear bomb to 2008.

But everyone all the way up to Bush knows that if diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon the program fail, Israel will not wait until Iran has fissile material to take steps to thwart the program. The London Times reported last month that Israel had conducted military rehearsals for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear power facility under construction at Bushehr.

"Israel will on no account permit Iranian reactors — especially the one being built in Bushehr with Russian help — to go critical," the Times quoted an Israeli defense source as saying. "If the worst comes to the worst and the international efforts fail, we are very confident we’ll be able to demolish the ayatollahs’ nuclear aspirations in one go."

Iran, which this month tested its long-range Shahab 3 missile — believed to be able to be tipped with a nuclear warhead — has pledged in turn to "wipe Israel off the map" if it strikes at its facilities. And Ayatollah Ali Hamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently warned it would strike at the "enemy’s" interests around the globe in retaliation, most likely a reference to soft targets like Jewish centers and Israeli embassies.

If Iran attains nuclear capability, the perceived threat to Israel may be greater than the actual one. "I think that the odds are they would not use it against Israel. The odds are against that they would contract out the nuclear technology to terrorists," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Speaking at a panel on Iran hosted by the Hudson Institute on Tuesday, Gerecht noted that while he believes "the Iranian regime is not a crazy regime" and therefore would not seek nuclear annihilation by striking Israel in a post-Sept. 11 world, people must be "very fearful" of the possibility of a nuclear-equipped, virulently anti-Israel Iran.

Ray Takeyh, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said on the same panel that Iran’s accelerated nuclear ambitions were motivated primarily by the "massive projection of American power on Iran’s periphery," not by a desire to strike Israel. "I never really believed that Iran wants nuclear weapons because of Israel. Israel has no territorial designs on Iran."

"Nobody is going to talk about what kind of option Israel has operationally," said David Ivry, who commanded the Israeli air force’s 1981 covert strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. In a telephone interview, Ivry said one of the keys to the 1981 raid was that "nobody [outside the planners] knew what [Israel’s] red line was.

"The red line was that we are going to attack when there is enriched uranium on its way to be put in the nuclear reactor," he explained. "The idea was such that we cannot attack the nuclear reactor after the enriched uranium was put in, because it would cause an environmental disaster."

"Now," Ivry said, speaking of Iran, "it is a bit different. There are more facilities. They are underground. You have to define a red line, and this should be done inside [the Israeli military establishment]."

Ivry, unlike the defense source quoted by the London Times, has no delusions that an Israeli military strike would wipe out Iran’s nuclear capability forever.

"Even when we attacked the nuclear reactor at Osirak, our intelligence said within three to five years they would have it again," Ivry said. "But the idea was such that we have to gain time…. You cannot destroy a nuclear program completely once a nation has a desire to have it. You’d need different leadership."

Zalman Shoval, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said that an Iranian nuke would be a problem for the entire world, not just Israel.

"If the Iranians actually developed nuclear weapons capability, of course Israel would be worried," Shoval said. "But I’m not sure Israel is the sole or even the main potential target. I’m not sure this is Iran’s most important geopolitical aim. What Iran wants to do is to be a regional superpower and control parts of the Middle East, and they apparently believe that having nuclear weapons will give them that ability."

"I’m not saying Israel couldn’t act," he added. "But Israel doesn’t want and doesn’t need to be in the forefront of acting."

One of the main obstacles in confronting Iran’s nuclear program is that the program is not centered at Bushehr, Wolfsthal said. Iran is working on producing highly enriched uranium using small gas centrifuges and cylinders at spots throughout the country. Wolfsthal said Iran has the science down and doesn’t need any additional technology from countries like Pakistan or Russia.

"Iran has become largely self-sufficient … we don’t have the ability to constrain them through an embargo or a blockade," he said.

Some experts in Washington predict a second Bush administration would be more robust in its approach to Iran, anything from more actively fomenting domestic dissent to a decapitating strike against the Iranian leadership, should the nuclear threat become critical.

A Kerry administration, some Democrats, in particular, say, may be better able to work with European allies to produce a diplomatic solution. What’s for certain, as Shoval noted, is that "despite the present imbroglio in Iraq, whoever wins in November will have to take the lead in dealing with it."

Bush Expands Mideast Agenda


With the death toll mounting in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" plan in tatters, the Bush administration and Congress want to put out other Middle East fires before they get out of control.

Administration officials and lawmakers recently launched initiatives to sanction Syria and Iran for links to terrorist organizations and plans to develop and obtain weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers also have focused on Saudi Arabia, accusing it of supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups. Officially, the Bush administration regards the kingdom as an ally in the war on terrorism.

The United States has been keeping an eye on these three countries for years, but attention on them has increased in the wake of U.S. military action against Iraq.

"I think it’s all wrapped up with the Iraq war and concern about the riffraff of the world assembling in Iraq to attack American forces," said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Walker said some Bush administration officials want to take severe actions against Iran and Syria, including new sanctions made possible by the Patriot Act, passed over Sept. 11, 2001. The new actions could include cutting sources of funding for the three countries and their interests in the United States.

Lawmakers are already highlighting their concerns in Congress. A number of congressional hearings last week produced dire predictions about Iranian and Syrian capabilities and what could be the result if the United States fails to act.

Israeli and U.S. legislators said Wednesday during a committee hearing that Iran could be "weeks away" from achieving nuclear-weapon capabilities.

"If not efficiently tackled, in one year from now we may face a new world, a very dangerous Middle East and a very dangerous world," said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee.

Pressure on Syria has been mounting as well. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told a House subcommittee Tuesday that Syria is a dual threat because of its support of terrorist groups and the possibility that Syria could arm the groups.

"While there is currently no information indicating that the Syrian Government has transferred [Weapons of Mass Destruction] to terrorist organizations or would permit such groups to acquire them, Syria’s ties to numerous terrorist groups underlie the reasons for our continued anxiety," Bolton said.

Bolton also appeared to soften Bush administration opposition to the Syria Accountability Act — legislation backed by pro-Israel groups that would sanction Syria for harboring terrorists, seeking nuclear weapons and occupying Lebanon.

Bolton said Tuesday that the administration has no position on the legislation. The White House had previously claimed the legislation would tie up the administration’s hands in foreign policy. Sources say the State Department is using support for the sanctions act as leverage in discussions with Syrian officials.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Bush on Tuesday calling for the United States to downgrade relations with Syria.

"Unless Syria changes its policies, no United States ambassador should be sent to Damascus, and the president should refuse to accept the credentials of any proposed Syrian ambassador to the United States," Ackerman wrote.

Walker said unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran and Syria would have little effect.

"We already have unilateral sanctions against both countries, and it hasn’t really stopped them," said Walker, now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. "Sanctions will only hurt American companies."

In Saudi Arabia’s case, the Bush administration and lawmakers remain miles apart. Lawmakers emphasize the link between the Saudis and terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda; the Bush administration says Saudis are aiding the fight against terrorism.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that American law enforcement officials estimate that 50 percent of Hamas’ budget comes from people in Saudi Arabia.

The Bush administration dismissed the report.

"The Saudi government has committed to ensuring that no Saudi government funds go to Hamas," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We know that private donations from people in Saudi Arabia to Hamas are very difficult to track and stop, and we continue to work closely with Saudi officials to offer expertise and information that can assist them in that regard."