Vigilance, not optimism, in engagement with Iran

Hassan Rohani was sworn in as Iran’s president on Sunday. In his inauguration speech, he alleged that his government would walk the path of “detente” with the world, but that the international community should engage with Iran through “dialogue” and “respect” instead of sanctions. “Mutual transparency is key for opening doors of confidence,” he added.

Rohani promised Iran would pursue “peace and stability in the region” and be “a haven of stability”.

He presented the Majles, the Iranian parliament, with his cabinet choices. The Majles is expected to vote on the list next week.

The US said it was ready to work with Mr Rohani’s government if it were serious about engagement. “The inauguration of President Rohani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Unlike Mr. Carney, the Iranian people seemed not to see much opportunity in the event. Apart Hassan Rohani’s past record marking continuous presence and action in security agencies of the clerical regime for three decades; apart his strong and flawless loyalty to the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, permitting him to take part in a presidential election where only eight people among more than 800 were allowed to attend; his choice of ministers is tell-tale of his internal intentions: his proposed candidate for the sensitive post of Justice Ministry is Mostapha Pour-Mohammadi, for years a strongman in the feared Ministry of Intelligence and a member of the three-judge panel that condemned thousands of political prisoners to death in 1988.

At that time, just after the Iran-Iraq war, Iran put thousands of political prisoners to death during a few months. During those months, the three-judge panel retried thousands of inmates already serving sentences. The hearing lasted a few minutes for each prisoner. Those inmates who stood by their opposition to the regime were ordered immediately hanged. As many as 30,000 prisoners were thus massacred according to the opposition.

As for “peace and stability in the region,” Mr. Rohani is a fervent supporter of the Iranian military engagement in Syria. He stressed in a recent interview with an Arab leading newspaper: “Syria is the only country in the region which has resisted the expansionist policies and conducts of Israel.”

Yesterday a leading  French weekly revealed how Iran trained Iraqi Chiites in a base close to Tehran before sending them to suppress popular uprising in Syria.

But even more than his freak record back home his own conduct during the period he was in charge of the nuclear negotiations with the West should ring bells. During the two year period of 2003 – 2005, as head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, he assured the European Troika formed by Great Britain, France and Germany as his negotiating counterparts that uranium enrichment in Iran’s nuclear facilities had stopped while they were talking. The Sunday Telegraph however wrote later in 2006: “In a speech to a closed meeting of leading Islamic clerics and academics, Hassan Rohani, who headed talks with the so-called EU3 until last year, revealed how Tehran played for time and tried to dupe the West after its secret nuclear program was uncovered by the Iranian opposition in 2002.” In fact cascades of centrifuges were completed during all the time Rohani was negotiating with the Europeans with not a single machine coming to a halt.

As for mutual transparency, the Iranian opposition revealed only two weeks ago a hidden nuclear site located in tunnels beneath a mountain near the town of Damavand, 44 miles northeast of Tehran.

According to the opposition, the site has existed since 2006 with the first series of subterranean tunnels and four external depots recently completed.

They claimed Hassan Rohani had a “key role” in the program.

It seems that optimism towards Rohani is unfounded. With the absolute power in the hands of the supreme leader Khamenei, and with Rohani’s obedience towards Khamenei in spite of existing relations with other factions in the regime, it is obvious that he would try to buy time before anything else, if there would be anything else.

So vigilance, and not optimism, has to remain the motto in any engagement with Iran.

Extremely moderate

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

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

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

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

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

Skeptics were none too impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Democrats ‘confident’ Hagel will follow Obama’s pro-Israel lead

The National Jewish Democratic Council said it was confident Chuck Hagel would follow what it called President Obama's “unprecedented” pro-Israel record.

The statement Monday morning came before Obama's formal announcement expected later Monday nominating Hagel, a former Republican senator, for defense secretary.

“President Barack Obama's unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable, and setting policy starts and stops with the president,” said the statement, which was not attached to the name of an NJDC official. “While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President's lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel — on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran's nuclear program.”

In 2007, when Hagel was considering a presidential run, the NJDC distributed an attack sheet on Hagel, noting his equivocation on such issues such as Iran sanctions and his criticism of some Israeli policies.

Hagel, after quitting politics in 2008, drew closer to his then-fellow senator, Barack Obama, over a shared opposition to intensifying the U.S. presence in Iraq.

In 2009, NJDC's then-executive director, Ira Forman, said it would be problematic for the group if newly elected President Obama, as it was then rumored, would nominate Hagel for a top Cabinet post. Forman's successor as NJDC's top official, David Harris, had until Monday refused to weigh in on the matter.

A number of prominent Jewish Democrats, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have suggested they would support Hagel, but others like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have expressed reservations and still others have been outright opposed, including Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee; former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a contender to replace Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for an interim should Kerry be confirmed as expected as secretary of state; and Susan Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who is active in the NJDC.

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

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



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


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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

He has promised to increase military assistance to Israel.



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree on Israel

Israel had a starring role in the third and final presidential debate last Tuesday night. How big? China, a country of 1 billion people to which America owes $1 trillion and whose military and economic decisions will affect us for years to come, rated 32 mentions. Israel, a country of 6 million people that receives $3 billion in aid from America each year, received even more — 34 mentions, to be exact. The European Union, Latin America, Eastern Europe — in short, most of the rest of the world — got 18 mentions, total. Imagine a New Yorker cover showing a map of the world according to the candidates: There are only three countries — the U.S., China and Israel — with Israel slightly larger than the other two.

It would be flattering, all this attention for one little Jewish state, if it also weren’t so dangerous. The special attention is a direct consequence of what happens when Israel is used as a political wedge issue, a way to peel Jewish voters away from Democratic candidates.

The danger is that instead of enjoying the broad, bipartisan support it has long received, Israel will come to be seen as a one-party cause. In a country that’s frequently split down the middle, that can’t bode well for Israel.

As I watched the debate unfold — and the inexorable Israel question arise — I fantasized the way I’d like to see these candidates, and all future ones, handle it. What follows is that fantasy, in transcript:

Bob Schieffer: Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, which of course is the same promise that we give to our close allies like Japan?

President Barack Obama: You know, Bob, let me stop you there. Of course, I’m tempted to knock that softball straight over Miami Beach clear to Cleveland Heights. But I’m not going to do it.

Because this is what will most certainly happen. I will use the opportunity to boast about how much my administration has done for Israel, and about how much Israel means to me; I might even hum a few bars of “Hatikvah.” And then Gov. Romney will get his two minutes, and he will profess his love and support for Israel, and then accuse me of turning my back on Israel, of putting “daylight” between America and Israel. And then in my rebuttal I’ll call into question his ability to protect Israel, and our parties and our defenders will join in the accusations and defamations, and in all the noise, the American people will lose sight of the most important, essential truth: America’s support for Israel is bipartisan. It is good for America, and good for the world. And it is unshakeable. That is true whether you elect me or Gov. Romney, a Democrat or Republican.

Schieffer: Gov. Romney, your rebuttal?

Gov. Mitt Romney: I agree with the president. In fact, if you noticed when we walked out on stage to your applause, we exchanged a few words and smiled. I said to the president, “I won’t take the Israel bait,” and he said, “I’m with you there.”

We want to set an example for the American people that some issues are too important to politicize, and Israel is one of them. After all, what candidates argue over which party supports England more, or which of us has Brazil’s back? Earlier this year, the Senate passed the bipartisan United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act. The vote was 100-1. In August, the House voted to increase sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act, by a vote of 421-6. And you expect me to stand here and accuse the leader of his party of endangering Israel? I guess what I’m saying, Bob, is the president and I want every American to know there is no daylight between Republican and Democratic support for Israel.

Obama: Look, this doesn’t mean the governor and I will approach every problem in the same way. And it doesn’t mean that we will agree with Israel on every issue. Anyone who tells you that both Republican and Democratic presidents haven’t had strong disagreements with Israel over the years hasn’t cracked a history book. Ronald Reagan fought with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the Lebanon war; Richard Nixon threatened sanctions, and George H.W. Bush denied Israel loan guarantees because of settlements. And don’t get me started on Jimmy Carter. We want a strong, secure Israel living in peace with its neighbors. Sometimes we may even disagree with whatever Israeli government is in power over how best to achieve that — but our genuine commitment and support does not waver.

Romney: That’s why we have both stressed the need for the Israelis and Palestinians to come to some kind of agreement. Presidents of both parties have tried — and failed — to broker an accord, not because we like the room service at the King David, but because we understand the status quo is unsustainable and a peaceful, just resolution is in Israel’s strategic interest.

Schieffer: Outstanding, gentlemen. In that spirit, can I suggest you also pledge to find bipartisan solutions to our country’s economic problems?

Obama: Bob, don’t push your luck.

During presidential campaign, engaging Iranian Jews at 30 Years After event

By the time former Congressman Mel Levine took the stage as an official surrogate for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign at a gathering of mostly young Iranian Americans, the ballroom at downtown’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel was more than half empty. 

Most of the more than 1,000 attendees at a daylong Oct. 14 civic action conference organized by 30 Years After (30YA) had left before the after-dinner speeches by Levine and his counterpart, David Javdan, who spoke on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

Not Shala Kohan, though. 

After a full day of panel discussions about the challenges, opportunities and choices facing publicly minded Iranian-American Jews, Kohan sat at a table near the back of the room with her husband, her two daughters and one granddaughter, dissecting Levine’s every word and offering a running commentary. 

“We haven’t climbed out at all!” Kohan said after Levine touted the Obama administration’s record on job growth since the 2008 economic collapse. When Levine said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “called President Obama” to help arrange the rescue of six Israelis trapped in the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September 2011, Kohan responded, “He called America.” 

Levine knew the audience wasn’t going to be particularly friendly to an ally of the Democratic president; his joke about how the 30YA crowd “would be a hotbed of Obama support” didn’t even draw a laugh. 

Javdan, who served as general counsel in the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush, drew applause from the remnants of the crowd even before he made a single policy statement on behalf of Romney.

“Our community understands implicitly that the key element of freedom is economic freedom, that the American dream is about being your own boss and controlling your own destiny,” Javdan said to more applause. “Drowning our small businesses with higher tax rates than corporations pay and binding them in endless red tape and regulations is no way to go.”

Although the campaign surrogates were given the last slot of the night, the hotly contested presidential campaign had been simmering just beneath the surface of many of the public and private conversations throughout the day, and the subject had worked its way into panel discussions, though often indirectly. 

During a discussion among Jewish elected officials, Rep. Howard Berman offered a vigorous defense of the Obama administration’s work to secure sanctions against Iran. In the context of another conversation about improving public perception of the Iranian-American community, panelist David Peyman, a deputy attorney general with the Department of Justice, wondered why the Iranian-American Jewish community hasn’t commanded the kind of attention from the two candidates on Iranian issues that the Cuban-American community commands on Cuban relations. 

And every conference attendee received, along with the day’s schedule of events, a form letter to sign addressed to Obama and Romney urging the president and his Republican rival to toughen their positions on Iran by agreeing to impose a “full economic blockade” of the regime. 

Even so, most of the discussion at the conference was dedicated to subjects that weren’t quite partisan, even though political issues sometimes came up, even when presenters expressed opposing positions. 

Foreign policy “insiders,” including former ambassadors Dennis Ross and Mark Wallace, presented briefings about Iran, Israel and United States in the morning, and four candidates running for mayor of the City of Los Angeles — a nonpartisan position — were on hand to make their cases in the afternoon. 

Rabbi David Wolpe spoke not about Iran, as he had in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Sinai Temple, but rather addressed more personal matters facing young Iranian-Americans and their community — struggling with one’s ego, figuring out how to best use one’s money and the search for love.

When Berman and his congressional colleague Rep. Henry Waxman — both of them facing tougher opposition than usual this election season — appeared on stage together, no mention was made of Bill Bloomfield, an independent who has spent more than $2 million of his own money on his race against Waxman, or of Rep. Brad Sherman, who is leading Berman in the polls and had appeared at the 30YA conference earlier in the day.  

The two long-serving congressmen together presented a commendation to Shervin Lalezary, the Iranian-American Jewish reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff who caught the suspect now charged with 100 arson-related counts connected with a series of fires that burned around Los Angeles in the days leading up to and following New Year’s Eve 2011. 

Lalezary was featured in national and local press when he made the arrest in January and he has been honored by 30YA on at least one other occasion this year. He serves as a model for the five-year-old group — a successful lawyer who also volunteers to advance the public good. 

But if Lalezary is one model of civic action put forward by 30YA, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who appeared on a panel titled “Why Politics Matters” at the conference, offered up another, more political suggestion. 

Feuer, with the support of 30YA, has passed legislation in Sacramento that puts economic pressure on the Iranian regime by taking action at the state level. Because of term limits, Feuer is now running for Los Angeles city attorney next year; if he doesn’t win, he and possibly two of his co-panelists — Berman and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who announced in September that he will retire at the end of his term — could all find themselves out of office by 2014. 

With all eyes on the race for the White House, Feuer encouraged the conference attendees to consider upping their political involvement at the local level, as well.

“Find someone in whom you believe,” he said, “and get involved in one of their campaigns.”

Romney decries Obama Middle East policy in foreign policy speech

President Obama has led “from behind” on the Middle East, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney charged in a foreign policy speech.

Romney, in a speech Monday at the Virginia Military Institute, said the attacks last month in Libya that left four American diplomats dead “were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.”

“They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East – a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century.”
Romney called out Obama for failing “to use America’s great power to shape history – not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.”

Romney called the strain on the relationship between the president of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel “a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries, especially Iran.”

“The President explicitly stated that his goal was to put 'daylight' between the United States and Israel.  And he has succeeded,” Romney said.

Romney also discussed Iran and its nuclear weapons program. “Iran today has never been closer to a nuclear weapons capability. It has never posed a greater danger to our friends, our allies, and to us,” he said.

Romney also discussed the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and the uncontrolled violence by the Assad regime in Syria, concluding that “it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the President took office.”

“We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity,” Romney said.

Romney pledged to impose new sanctions on Iran, and to increase military assistance and coordination with Israel.

“I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations,” he added.

In a press call on behalf of Obama following the speech, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters that “I know from my own conversations with Israelis, that they basically are very satisfied with President Obama’s policies towards Israel.”

“But the bottom line from my conversations with Israelis is that they believe the relationship between the United States and Israel is as good as ever. I mean as good as it gets, very good, excellent, on the same wave length,” Albright said.

Albright referred to Romney's visit last summer to Israel. during which he said that Israel's economic success was borne out of the power of culture, one that he implied Palestinians lack, as an example of his lack of Middle East experience.

Ben LaBolt, national press secretary with Obama for America, also said that Obama has spent more time talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that any other world leader.

The speech came on the same day that the Pew Research Center released the results of its latest poll, showing that registered voters are evenly split between Obama and Romney at 46 percent each.

Netanyahu aides: In opposing Israeli attack on Iran, Peres forgot his place

President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly clashed over the possibility of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities on Thursday, with Netanyahu aides reportedly saying that Peres had “forgotten the role of a president in the State of Israel.”

Earlier Thursday, the president said in an interview to Channel 2 that Israel should not act alone against Iran’s nuclear program, and that he trusted U.S. President Barack Obama intends to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“It’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can only delay [Iran’s progress]. Thus, it’s clear to us that we need to go together with America. There are questions of cooperation and of timetables, but as severe as the danger is, at least this time we’re not alone,” Peres said.


President Obama: 2012 State of the Union [FULL VIDEO]

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On Iran, one voice

I don’t know who will win the presidential election in 2012, but I know whom I don’t want to win it: Iran.

Yet I have a sickening sense that come next November, after two years of a nasty, slimy mud-wrestling match, the Democratic and Republican candidates will be left bruised and panting on the floor and the mullahs will walk away with the prize. 

That prize is an American electorate riven and confused about the Iranian nuclear threat and what to do about it.

The leading Republican candidates have already made clear that Iran is the devil’s playground when it comes to Campaign 2012.

“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in a speech in Spartanburg, S.C., last week. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.” 

Romney is accusing President Obama of refusing to consider a military option against Iran. That is certainly damning. Except it’s not true. 

“We are not taking any options off the table,” Obama said as recently as Nov. 14 in Hawaii (and on other occasions). “Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region, but also to the United States.”

Romney’s distortion of Obama’s record is not a mistake; it’s a plan. His advisor Daniel Senor acknowledged as much to the Huffington Post this week. 

From the Romney campaign’s perspective, I can see the temptation. It is hard to paint Obama as weak or indecisive on defense when the guy has more kill notches on his belt than Josey Wales. And Romney can’t well pick a fight over Chinese currency valuation because, well, who understands that? 

That leaves, in Romney’s mind, Iran. And if by painting Obama as ineffectual on Iran Romney can also pick off a few Jewish voters in Nevada and Florida, so much the better. 

But Senor, who co-wrote the terrific book “Start-Up Nation” with Saul Singer, should know better. In fact, his understanding of the Iranian situation as described in the interview with HuffPo is almost identical to what Obama has been saying. “Iran is a unique kind of threat. … It directly and unambiguously threatens core American interests: the security of the American homeland, the security of our access to vital resources in the Gulf and the security of America’s close ally, Israel.”

I’m not arguing that Obama’s Iran policy has been flawless. He fumbled badly by not doing more to support the June uprisings by the Iranian people who sought to topple the current regime. If Romney can convince me that he would have had the wisdom and experience to be more effective under those same circumstances, I’m all ears.

But I do think Obama deserves credit for focusing more of our attention on Iran, and more productively, than his predecessor.

Lost in all this partisan chatter are three facts: Iran’s nuclear program leapt forward while the Bush administration was otherwise engaged in Iraq. Under the Bush administration, the National Security Estimate downgraded the potential threat of Iran’s nuclear program. And it was the Bush administration that refused Israel’s request in 2008 for stronger bunker-busting bombs and for permission to fly over Iraq on a mission to destroy the Natanz reactor. 

Obama’s policy on Iran’s nuclear program has been more forceful and more focused.

“When I came into office, the world was divided, and Iran was unified around its nuclear program,” Obama said in a speech earlier this month. “We now have a situation where the world is united and Iran is isolated. And because of our diplomacy and our efforts, we have, by far, the strongest sanctions on Iran that we’ve ever seen.” 

This week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to buttress Obama’s contention in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. After reiterating the dangers a nuclear Iran poses to Israel and the region, Barak offered his assessment of Obama. 

“He is extremely strong supporter of Israel in regard to its security,” Barak said. “Traditionally, the president will support Israel in keeping its collective military edge and taking care of its security needs. But this administration is excelling in this. And it could not have happened without the immediate direct support of the president. So I don’t think that anyone can raise any question mark about the devotion of this president to the security of Israel.”

Even in an election year, there are times we need to present a united front against clear dangers.

On Sept. 24, 2008, as the tanking economy presented a national threat, then-candidate Obama and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, issued a joint statement backing the Bush administration’s initial recovery plan.

“Now is a time to come together — Democrats and Republicans — in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people,” they said. “This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. ”

If Romney and Obama really believe a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe, they can prove it by speaking in a united voice.

Imagine — instead of finger pointing for political points — the power of a unified statement from Romney and Obama on Iran’s nuclear program. That would marginalize the isolationist Ron Paul wing on the right and the knee-jerk Israel-is-behind-it-all wing on the left. It would send a signal to world leaders that no matter who wins in November, the sanctions against Iran will endure. And it will let the mullahs know that no matter who wins in November, they lose.

Will Iran be the wild card in presidential election?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bush’s Arab world tour significant for Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Ahmadinejad: The next Hitler?

From 1939 to 1945, during the Holocaust, 6 million Jews died atrocious deaths throughout Europe at the hands of Adolf Hitler.

On Aug. 6, 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed office as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a rise that could provoke the beginning of the next Holocaust or World War.

Ahmadinejad, 50, has been a very outspoken and controversial character since he stepped into office. Not only is this man an anti-Semite, but he’s also drawn the attention of the international community as an imminent threat to the entire globe.

He has clearly established a blatant opposition to the Jewish people as a whole, as well as other faiths different from his own Shi’a Islam. Throughout his term, he has repeatedly quoted the deceased mullah, Ayatollah Khomeni, by saying that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Recently, Ahmadinejad held a “Holocaust Summit” in which he denied the Holocaust, calling it a “myth.”

The honorary guests included David Duke, grand wizard of Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s, who spoke to the summit, saying, “The Holocaust is the device used as the pillar of Zionist imperialism, Zionist aggression, Zionist terror and Zionist murder.”

However, Ahmadinejad’s hatred isn’t limited to the Jewish community. Recently, he called for a census of every single follower of the Bahai’ faith for “confidential reasons.” Thousands of non-Muslims are being persecuted every day in Iran by his actions — Ahmadinejad is the one provoking it.

Hateful remarks and threats may be legally permitted, but the development of uranium and other dangerous products that may contribute to the construction of weapons of mass destruction certainly is not. Despite numerous demands from the United Nations, Europe and the United States, Iran has refused to cease producing these radiological compounds, citing that they are being developed purely for internal nuclear growth and research.

Currently, Iranian scientists are feverishly producing copious amounts of potentially deadly nuclear compounds, which eventually may be used on Israel or possibly the United States.

“The combination of a regime with a radical agenda, together with a distorted sense of reality, put together with nuclear weapons, is a dangerous combination that no one in the international community can accept,” says Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry.

Some might argue that though Ahmadinejad may appear to be a threat to the world, he is serving and providing for his own country and people. But the scores of protests against Ahmadinejad by college students in Tehran over the past couple of months prove otherwise.

In fact, when he first stepped into office, dozens of activists shouted abusive slogans and set off firecrackers as Ahmadinejad addressed students at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University. Furthermore, students recently disrupted a speech by Ahmadinejad at the Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran. According to the Iranian Student News Agency, the students set fire to photographs of Ahmadinejad and threw firecrackers. The protesters also chanted “Death to the dictator.”

The only reasonable, rational or even ethical thing to do is to dismantle the current Iranian regime and throw Ahmadinejad out of power. This is obviously not an easy task.

Therefore, the Jewish community as a whole, teens and adults, should take an affirmative stance against Ahmadinejad, by being the first ones to initiate or attempt to initiate some sort of change, whether large or small.

We can all use editorial articles, peaceful and effective protests, and especially our voices to raise awareness against Ahmadinejad and his terror.

Jewish politicians, rabbinical and social leaders must step up and attempt to make a change themselves or address the present situation in Iran to those who can make a change.

Not only is Ahmadinejad’s regime currently persecuting the Iranian Jewish community in Iran, but if nothing is done, the global Jewish community may once again face another Hitler equipped with powerful nuclear technology, brutality, and worst of all, complete and utter hatred against Jews. Our eyes were shut more than 60 years ago when millions died; let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Joshua Yasmeh is a sophomore at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills.

Speak Up!

Tribe, by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15; Deadline for the April issue is March 15. Send submissions to

The Importance of Accessibility

Although this was my third visit to the White House, the novelty does not easily wear off. My first invitation was to a prayer breakfast toward the end of the Clinton administration.

second time, I wasn’t actually invited. I just hitched a ride as the guest of my close friend, Rabbi David Wolpe. Then, the occasion was a dinner to mark the opening of the Anne Frank exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

My most recent presidential encounter began with a call from the official liaison to the Jewish community. He explained that the president wanted to convene a small meeting to discuss Jewish higher education. The gathering was to take place on the morning of Dec. 18 in order to coincide with a Chanukah party at the White House later that same evening.

I was still a bit uncertain about the purpose of the meeting, but at 10 a.m. on the appointed day, I presented myself in the lobby of the West Wing.

I was part of a small group that included six presidents of Jewish universities and seminaries, as well as a few students and representatives of B’nai B’rith Hillel.

Soon we were joined by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten (who is Jewish), Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and, finally, by the president himself.

President Bush made a point of going around the table and greeting each of us personally before the “formal” meeting began. But herein lies the curious part. There really was no formal meeting. For almost an hour, the president discoursed on a variety of themes, including Iraq, the nuclear threat emanating from Iran, global terrorism, Darfur and, of course, Israel. Little was actually said about higher education.

At one point, Bush reminded us of his trip to Graceland with his friend and fellow Elvis fan, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, as an example of how former enemies can, in time, become friends. Unable to restrain myself, I raised my hand and asked whether he had considered a trip to Graceland with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

My question evoked the anticipated laughter from those seated around the table, but I think the president may have taken me a bit too seriously. He stressed that it would be inappropriate for an American president to “reach out” to a leader who currently poses a potential nuclear threat to other nations of the world.

This very serious response to a very unserious question provides an insight into Bush’s view of his presidency. He is exceedingly concerned about his legacy, and he measures that legacy in terms of his own willingness and ability to protect us from the perceived threats leveled against the United States. Simply put, he does not want to be remembered as the president who ignored any encroaching danger.

Bush argued that the Islamic extremists could not possibly be religious people. After all, he reasoned, religious people do not murder others.

Had I not already squandered my one chance to speak on a joke, I would have begged to differ with him on this point. Perhaps a committed Christian in today’s America sees religion primarily in terms of love, but periods of “killing the infidel” have historically been a part of Islam, Christianity and even biblical Judaism.

Often, the theory is advanced that important White House policy decisions are made by someone other than the president himself. However, the Bush we encountered is a man who appears to know his own mind. He may not always be highly articulate, even in a small group, but the moral clarity of his message came through.

The meeting concluded with a photo op in the Oval Office. In the evening, my wife, Hana, and I returned to the White House, where we were greeted by a blazing menorah and a military band playing a medley of Chanukah songs. (Of course, since the Chanukah repertoire is a bit meager, they did add a few generic holiday classics, like “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells.”)

Earlier that day, the White House kitchen had been made kosher so that the dietary needs of all 500 Jewish dinner guests from around the country could be accommodated.
Hana is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and as our evening at the White House drew to a close, she could not help comparing what we had just witnessed with the experience of her parents in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. I agreed that the event was remarkable, but I asked her if this whole affair had any practical significance for the Jewish community. Hana thought it did.

“Just think about it,” she said. “If Jews had enjoyed this kind of access to the president during World War II, our history might have taken a very different turn.”

Dr. Robert Wexler is the president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles

Enforce cease-fire terms for peaceful New Year

The Jewish people have a tradition of reflecting on the past as a tool to move forward. Never is this custom more significant than at the start of each New Year.

This Yom Kippur, we have a lot to bear in mind. At the end of summer a year ago, just before the beginning of 5766, Israel had faced what at the time seemed to be its most difficult summer with the disengagement from Gaza. A rift was created within Israeli society, one that the people of Israel were still dealing with until just before this summer began.

The thriving economy and booming tourist industry seemed a promising end to a trying year and hopeful beginning of the coming year. Unprecedented numbers of Hollywood celebrities were calling Tel Aviv their summer hotspot, and Israeli teens were trampling all over each other to buy tickets for some of the biggest acts in the world — performing in Israel.

School was out and summer camp was in. The pools had been properly chlorinated, and everyone was ready to show off their brand new bathing suits. For the kids all over Israel, this was the moment they’d been waiting for since September.

Following the deaths of 10 Israeli soldiers in two terrorist attacks, which resulted in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on June 25 as well as Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12, Israel set aside its summer plans and prepared to face once again what we have faced so many times in the past — war.

By mid-July the residents of northern Israel were being bombarded on a daily basis by deadly Katyusha missiles fired by Hezbollah. Innocent civilians were being targeted and killed. Hezbollah was exhibiting a new ruthlessness, placing ball bearings in the missile heads with the sole purpose of inflicting maximum injury and suffering on anyone within its reach of one mile.

Northern Israel took a harsh beating, bustling Israeli landmark cities like Haifa, Tzfat, Nahariya, Kiriyat Shmona and Tiberias were nearly deserted. Buildings were destroyed, the lush green landscape was in flames, and many lives were lost. With more than a third of Israel’s population in the line of fire, residents either fled south or huddled together in bomb shelters, transforming the animated north into a ghost town.

By the time a cease-fire was reached, 160 Israelis had been killed by Hezbollah terrorists. More than 4,000 missiles landed in Israel during the war, hitting 6,000 homes, leaving 300,000 Israeli’s displaced and forcing more than a million to live in bomb shelters.
Had the United Nations implemented Security Council Resolution 1559, the war would probably have been averted. Now, with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1701, the international community has been given a second chance to make things right.

Resolution 1701 brought an end to the military struggle, but while the bombs have stopped falling and the focus is to regroup and rebuild northern Israel, we must remain cautious and guarded.

The clear agenda of the president of Iran, a fundamentalist regime that gives financial support and operational directives to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, has not changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to sponsor terrorism and strives to achieve nuclear capabilities, while at the same time reiterating his call for the destruction of the Israel and denying the Holocaust.

Iran and Syria remain the driving force behind Hezbollah, a fact that strengthens the argument that the arms embargo addressed in Resolution 1701 must be enforced.
The culture of hatred that has grown strong in the unstable region surrounding Israel affects the Jewish people worldwide. Today, however, the Jewish people are stronger than they have ever been. That strength stems, among other things, from Eretz Israel, the one country in the world every Jew is free to call their home.

This summer, as Israel was under fire, the Jews of the world spoke together and stood together. It is well known that as Jews we band together in times of hardship. Never was that more true than during this past summer. Jews in Israel and around the world understood the stakes and made standing with Israel their first priority.

In accepting Resolution 1701, Israel has once again shown its commitment to peace by giving diplomacy a chance to succeed. It is now essential that this commitment to peace be echoed by the international community, starting first and foremost with the implementation of this important resolution.

As we continue the battle to free our abducted soldiers and secure our borders, Israel remains strong. Looking forward to a new year, we are strengthened by the lessons of our past. The Jewish people have overcome countless obstacles since the beginning of our history 5767 years ago, and we will continue to prevail against all odds and all enemies for a long time to come.

With this year ending and a new one beginning, I want to take this opportunity to thank the Jewish community for its undying support of Israel.

I pray that God continues to give us all the strength to face the many challenges that lie ahead.

I wish all of you a healthy, happy, peaceful New Year and may all of your hearts’ desires be fulfilled.

Am Yisrael Chai!

The people of Israel will live for eternity.

Chag Samech, Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova.

Ehud Danoch is Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles.

Reading Venezuela’s Enigmatic President

“There is no anti-Semitism in Venezuela, we don’t know what that is,” declared Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, in his recent two-day trip to Los Angeles to discuss his country’s Bolivarian Revolution and the changing political landscape of Latin America.

In the past, Venezuelan Jews would have agreed. However, events over the past few years have caused the local and international Jewish communities to revisit their opinion.

Two years ago, an unsubstantiated armed government search of a Jewish day school terrified parents and children. There were no accusations of anti-Semitism, but the Jewish community was on edge.

On Christmas Eve 2005, though, President Hugo Chávez made remarks that set off a furor.

“The world has an offer for everybody, but some minorities,” he stated, “the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones who threw out [South American liberator Simon] Bolivar … they took possession of all the planet’s gold … concentrated the riches in a few hands; less than 10 percent of the world population owns more than half of the riches of the world.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center immediately condemned the speech, demanding an apology for what it termed Chavez’s invocation of the “canard of the deicide and the association of Jews with wealth.”

Separately, about 250 Venezuelan intellectuals protested the remarks with a full-page ad in the major Venezuelan newspaper.

However, the major Jewish confederation, known by its acronym CAIV, supported by the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, issued its own statement — criticizing the Wiesenthal Center for jumping to conclusions and acting without consulting the local community: “You have interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community. You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don’t know or understand.”

Supporters of Chávez explained away the anti-Semitic interpretations of his comment by citing the president’s adherence to “Liberation Theology,” which views Jesus as a socialist and the elite classes responsible for his crucifixion. The result was utter confusion.

Traditional roles and relationships are changing in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America. Two polarized camps are emerging, aggressively challenging the status quo: one aligned with the West and the other with the left. Meanwhile, local Jewish communities walk a tightrope, trying to balance patriotism, respect for their leaders and issues of security.

The backdrop for these developments is Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. To advance the revolution, Alvarez recently spoke at activist and former state Sen. Tom Hayden’s house in Los Angeles. He enthusiastically described the revolution to an eclectic crowd of about 30 people — mainly supporters. They were inspired by Chávez’s “new model” for the region, with its promise to overturn traditional inequalities, both on national and international levels.

This “new model,” asserted the ambassador, challenges the ineffectiveness of “neo-liberalism” and proposes to replace it with a “participatory democracy,” in which “what seemed like apartheid” and “social exclusion” will become things of the past.

At home, the approach entails the aggressive implementation of educational and health programs. Abroad, it means a direct challenge to the United States and the West in general, as it views “socialism as the only solution against U.S. imperialism.”

Overall, the approach is fueled by high oil prices and know-how from Chávez’s closest ally, Fidel Castro.

Critics complain about Chávez’s autocratic style, an erosion of civil liberties and property rights, as well as ineffectiveness of his economic policies. But it is his foreign policy that is causing more concerns.

In his backyard, Chávez is fostering ties with a growing number of like-minded countries in Latin America. The result is a virulent anti-American leftist bloc emerging in the region, aligning itself with foes of America and Israel. As an illustration of the tenor among this alliance, Evo Morales, the newly elected president of Bolivia, has vowed to be “Washington’s worst nightmare.”

Rallying solidarity around this anti-American sentiment, Chávez has been publicly preparing for what he states is an imminent U.S. invasion, threatening to cut oil exports at the first sign of aggression.

As Chávez advances his foreign policy goals, he is strengthening ties with his OPEC partners. In particular, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chávez — who warmly refers to Ahmadinejad as a “great ally of brothers” — are getting closer. The two leaders reportedly signed a commercial deal estimated at $1 billion, through which Venezuela has invited many Iranians to provide technical, scientific and economic support all around the country.

Recently, Venezuela added its voice to Syria’s and Cuba’s against a UN resolution to report Tehran to the Security Council for its violation of IAEA nuclear safeguards. For this, Ahmadinejad commended Chávez for his “brave and judicious decision.”

Further provoking concerns, Venezuela’s Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel recently announced that he would receive Hamas in Venezuela “with pleasure,” adding, “What’s the problem with that?”

Still, the government insists that Chávez wants good relations with all religious groups. Officially, its position has remained supportive of the local Jewish community. Ambassador Alvarez was emphatic: “The opposition is manipulating the situation, not out of true concern for Israel or anti-Semitism, but out of a desire to harass this government. There is no anti-Semitism in Venezuela. In fact, President Chávez was invited to and attended a Holocaust commemoration event.”

With regard to Venezuela’s ties to Iran and its president’s announced desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” Alvarez stated, “We have indeed had good relations with Iran for 40 years. However, we do not agree with those comments. We don’t believe in any type of exclusion, nor in terrorism of any kind.”

Julie Drucker, a language and marketing consultant for the Latin market, grew up in Venezuela and lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Nation & World Briefs

Jews React to Williams’ Execution

Rabbi Steven Jacobs was home late Monday night watching TV coverage of the execution of Crips gang co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams, and he was glad he wasn’t at the loud candlelight vigil outside San Quentin State Prison.

“The sideshows on both sides. It was such a circus,” said Jacobs, leader of the Reform Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and a prominent death-penalty opponent.

Williams was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 13 for murdering four people in 1979. Having renounced gang life years ago while imprisoned, his plea for clemency drew international attention but ultimately was rejected Monday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Local Jewish community support for Williams was evident in the course of his clemency campaign. But except for the left-of-center Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), major Jewish groups did not make the ex-gang chieftain’s controversial case a top issue.

“I don’t think most Jewish communal organizations, other than the Progessive Jewish Alliance, see capital punishment as a major Jewish communal priority,” said PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, who kept vigil Monday night with about 100 other death penalty opponents at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Westwood.

“What disturbs me has been those who have campaigned to abolish capital punishment even for crimes against humanity and genocide, torture and mass terrorism,” death penalty supporter Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The Journal. “I’m disturbed by the abolitionist’s argument.” Greenfield also appeared on CNN in the minutes before Williams’ execution began, at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

One abolitionist watching Greenfield was Jacobs. By 1 a.m. Tuesday, about 30 minutes after Williams was pronounced dead, the rabbis’ Boston-accented voice was heavy over a phone line as he said to a Journal reporter, “It’s just sickening. It’s just the manufacturing of death in this country that’s so sickening. It’s not about mercy. It’s not about justice. It’s about politics.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Way Cleared for Payments to Austrian Holocaust Survivors

A U.S. court decision has paved the way for final compensation payments to Holocaust survivors from Austria.

Last week’s decision by a U.S. District Court in New York to dismiss class-action lawsuits against Austrian businesses was greeted with relief by survivor organizations and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, parties to a settlement negotiated with the Austrian government.

The resulting legal closure means payments are imminent, said Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference executive vice president. Neither the Austrian government nor businesses would agree to payments without insurance against future lawsuits.

“This fund has been tied up in legal knots in courts in the U.S., and this had deprived many Austrian Holocaust survivors and their heirs of the symbolic payments,” Taylor told JTA in a telephone interview.

But “like most restitution payments, this is not an issue of money,” he emphasized. “The amounts are small, but the property losses were large. This is about symbolism. People are frustrated that what was supposed to be a symbolic gesture turned into a legal argument.”

In some cases, heirs will be the beneficiaries, said Hannah Lessing, director of the Austrian National Fund, which will distribute some of the payments. Of 30,000 who filed for compensation, only 15,000 are still living. The fund tries to reach the oldest claimants first, she said.

“Nothing will ever be fair,” said Lessing, whose father fled Nazi Austria for Palestine. “Whatever we do will always be a little piece of a puzzle.”

Jackson Seeks Retraction of Anti-Israel Remarks by Iran

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on Iran’s president to retract anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments. The comments by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “are a threat to the fragile fabric of the world community,” Jackson said in a statement.

In comments made last week, Ahmadinejad said: “If the Europeans are honest, they should give some of their provinces in Europe, like in Germany, Austria or other countries, to the Zionists, and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe, and we will support it.”

He earlier called for Israel’s destruction.

Hillary Clinton Endorses Israel’s Security Barrier

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) backed Israel’s right to construct its West Bank security barrier. Clinton, speaking after receiving an honorary degree from Yeshiva University last Sunday, said that a recent visit to Gilo, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, gave her “an even greater appreciation for the importance and rationale” of the fence, which has helped reduce Palestinian terrorist attacks. At the height of the intifada, Gilo was the target of frequent shootings from the neighboring Palestinian town of Beit Jalla.

Israel has the “right to build a security barrier to try to keep out those who would do harm to Israel,” Clinton said.

Israeli ‘Rabbicops’ Ploy Being Investigated

Hundreds of Israeli policemen are believed to be obtaining rabbinical ordination to boost their salaries. Citing Justice Ministry sources, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in an expose that as many as 600 policemen have taken courses for the Orthodox clergy so that they could receive $430 monthly stipends.

According to the newspaper, some of the “rabbicops” are openly secular, and the sages administering the ordination courses have been known to allow their students to abbreviate the studies for the sake of convenience. Police spokesmen declined comment, citing a probe already under way.


Iranian President’s Call Helps Israel

Israel often comes under international criticism for its counterterrorist and settlement-building policies. But comments by Iran’s president calling for Israel’s destruction have elicited international sympathy for the Jewish state.

In itself, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s televised late October call for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map” wasn’t so new.

But since the comments came not from one of the country’s ayatollahs but from its president, and came soon after Israel garnered international plaudits for its Gaza Strip withdrawal, and as international scrutiny on Iran’s nuclear program intensifies — they drew a lot of attention.

Israel found its objections to the radical rhetoric echoed worldwide — from the United States to Europe to the United Nations.

Even Russia, which is helping Iran build its Bushehr nuclear reactor and has long been hesitant to criticize its trading partner in the Persian Gulf, joined in.

“What I saw on television is unacceptable. We will bring this to the attention of the Iranians,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who in a landmark United Nations address in September bemoaned the fact that “no one opens their mouth” when such threats are made against his country, launched a campaign to have Iran expelled from the forum.

“A country that calls for the destruction of another people cannot be a member of the United Nations,” Sharon said.

Jerusalem officials admitted that a U.N ouster of Iran was unlikely, given that it would require a Security Council recommendation and two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly — traditionally a bastion of anti-Israel sentiment.

“I don’t know if it has any chance of success,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres said of the campaign. “But it is something we must say. I don’t think it is a matter of what one thinks is worthwhile or not. This is intolerable.”

The U.N. Security Council has rebuked Iran for Ahmadinejad’s comments.

For its part, Iran over has accused the West of using its president’s comments about the destruction of Israel in order to intensify pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

At the same time, Iran’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that the government’s official stance “is that the occupation of Palestine should end, refugees should return and a democratic state should be formed with Jerusalem as its capital.”

According to some Jerusalem officials, the international community responded so strongly to Israel’s diplomatic offensive in a bid to avert an Israeli military offensive.

Sharon, like President Bush, has long hinted that force could be a last resort for preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Ahmadinejad’s speech at the “World Without Zionism” rally — where the title was posted in English, not Farsi, for international consumption — coupled with his lack of cooperation with European-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, have made this specter of confrontation loom ever larger.

“Such a country, with nuclear arms, is a danger, not just to Israel and the Middle East, but also to Europe,” Sharon said. Similar comments came from the White House.

Still, no one expects military escalation before the exhaustion of U.S.-led efforts to bring Iran before the Security Council and impose sanctions unless it abandons its quest for weapons of mass destruction.

Ahmadinejad has made this possibility more likely.

“I cannot fail to recognize that those who favor transferring the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council now have an additional argument,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.

A Historic Event

It was a remarkable sight: the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan sitting on a New York dais alongside leaders of the American Jewish community and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations — while eating a kosher dinner beneath a blue-and-white banner reading: “Council for World Jewry.”

It was all the more notable, considering the significant personal risk the appearance must have entailed for Pervez Musharraf, who has been the subject of several recent assassination attempts at the hands of Muslim extremists who are violently anti-Israel and anti-America.

There was near-unanimous agreement among Jews and Pakistanis at Saturday night’s event that Musharraf’s mere presence before an audience of Jewish officials represented a potentially historic step in Muslim-Jewish relations. For his landmark gesture, the Pakistani general received a series of standing ovations.

“I would never have imagined that a Muslim, a president of Pakistan and, more than that, a man in uniform would ever get such a warm reception from the Jewish community,” Musharraf said as he ascended the platform to excited applause.

Beyond the novelty of the appearance, however, Musharraf’s half-hour speech met with disappointment from some Jewish leaders who found his remarks rich in hyperbole but poor in specific proposals.

“If we waited 100 years [to hold this meeting] it would have been even more historic, but what is it we have achieved?” asked Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In his world, in his culture, in his environment, this is a major step. From our perspective, it isn’t.”

Some lamented that Musharraf said little beyond his previous comments about establishing relations with Israel, which he again conditioned on future actions by Israel, culminating in the establishment of a Palestinian state. Musharraf’s address followed closely his brief encounter last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the sidelines of the United Nations World Summit and a recent meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, which do not have full diplomatic ties.

Still, said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress — whose Council for World Jewry sponsored the event — given Musharraf’s domestic political constraints, Jews should not underestimate what he was able to offer.

“It is not helpful for us to be critical of a Muslim leader who, given his political pressures, comes to speak to us and doesn’t give us everything we want at that moment in time,” Rosen said. “We couldn’t have expected that he would have announced last night that he would immediately begin normalizing relations with Israel. It wasn’t a real expectation.”

Challenged by Foxman to show more leadership by moving to formalize Israeli-Pakistani relations right away, Musharraf responded that “57 years of hatred, bitterness, animosity cannot be undone so fast.”

“It is my sincere judgment that this is not the time to do it,” he said. “We need to be very patient. I need some more reasons and rationale. I need some more support” to be able to convince the Pakistani people to go along with the move.

Israel’s foreign minister, for his part, said he looked favorably on the meeting as a step in what he acknowledged could be a “long process” toward full ties.

“The time has come, I believe, to have full diplomatic relations with all of these” moderate Muslim countries, Silvan Shalom told Jewish journalists this week. “I believe that many of them are close. They’re always looking for the appropriate time.”

Shalom did not attend the Musharraf event.

Musharraf spoke about religious similarities between Muslims and Jews and characterized recent hostility between the two groups as an aberration against a background of historical coexistence. He further earned plaudits for insisting that terrorism “cannot be condoned for any cause.”

While he referred to “Schindler’s List” and praised Sharon for the recent Gaza Strip withdrawal, Musharraf upset many in the audience by insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of world terrorism, and that Pakistan won’t forge diplomatic ties with Israel until the Palestinians have a state — essentially giving the Palestinians a veto over the entire process, several Jewish leaders noted afterward.

“Palestine has been at the heart of troubles in the Middle East,” Musharraf said. “I have no doubt whatsoever that any attempt to shy away or ignore the root causes of terrorism is shutting one’s eyes to reality and is a sure recipe for failure.”

That sentiment struck a raw nerve among many Jews in the audience, who lamented that Muslim nations for too long have tried to lay the blame for many of the world’s ills on Israel.

“The root cause of terrorism is the same as the root cause of Nazism: simply, the hatred of Jews through teaching hatred of Jews,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Musharraf also called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and respect other faiths’ attachment to Jerusalem. He did not express any corresponding demands on the Palestinian side.

“Israel must come to terms with geopolitical reality and let justice prevail for the Palestinians,” Musharraf said. “They want their own independent state, and they must get it.”

Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has had something of an image problem in the West. Daniel Pearl, a Jewish reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and decapitated by terrorists in Pakistan; Osama bin Laden is thought to be in hiding somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; a Pakistani nuclear scientist was discovered to have supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and Pakistan’s extensive network of religious schools has been accused of spreading a radically violent and anti-Western version of Islam.

Many in the audience saw Musharraf’s decision to address a Jewish audience as a public relations move, rather than the reflection of a serious desire for detente. Like many in the Muslim world, Musharraf views the American Jewish community as key to securing political influence along the Beltway, some said.

Musharraf didn’t do much to dispel this impression.

“I feel privileged to be speaking to so many members of what is probably the most distinguished and influential community in the United States,” he said.

But Mossadaq Chughtai, director of the Pakistani American Liaison Center, which runs the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, dismissed this line of thinking.

“We have good standing with Congress” and the White House, he said, noting that President Bush has hosted Musharraf at Camp David. “Not as good as AIPAC, but we’re making strides,” Chughtai said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Still, many considered the symbolism of the event key. Unlike Palestinian leaders, who often have made conciliatory statements to foreign leaders in English, while urging their constituents to war in Arabic, Musharraf spoke before a full contingent of Pakistani media beaming his words back home, where they are likely to be controversial.

For Dr. Abdul Rehman, an officer of the MMSI mosque in Staten Island, N.Y., Musharraf’s appearance gives the “green light” to Muslims to work toward cooperation and dialogue with Jews.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, thought Musharraf was “very sincere” and praised him for not making grand promises that he would not be able to fulfill.

“There’s no question he will have a hard time explaining to his people what he’s doing and trying to bring them along,” Lazar said. “On the other hand, he didn’t give any kind of time frame” for normalizing ties with Israel.

At the least, the event led to immediate interreligious dialogue in the hallways: Lazar was seen chatting and posing for photos with Imam Ghulam Rasul of the MMSI mosque and invited mosque leaders to visit him if they’re in Moscow.

Pakistani television reporters pulled Israelis and American Jews aside for interviews to be broadcast in Pakistan.

“I think the event was very significant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Something that hopefully can be built upon.”

Michael Arnold contributed to this report.

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."