After the Iran vote, now what?


Is it over?

Recently, during a KPCC radio talk show about the Iran deal, the host, Patt Morrison, asked me whether, now that President Barack Obama has the 34 votes he needs to support the Iran nuclear agreement, the rancor and vitriol within the Jewish community that marked the debate over it would subside. 

Honestly, I wish I knew the answer.

The truth is, the debate has opened up some wounds that are going to take some time to heal, assuming they will heal. We knew this day of reckoning would come, and the vote would go down one way or the other, but we acted as if the only thing that mattered was winning the fight, not how we’d live together after it ended.

“We were so busy fighting about days one through 60,” Rabbi Aaron Panken, the head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion told me — referring to the number of days before the congressional vote — “we haven’t really thought about what happens on day 61.”

I suggest that on day 61, in the spirit of the Jewish New Year, we take a breath and take stock. This, it seems to me, is where we are:

First, we are divided. Right after the deal was announced in July, Jewish leaders, here and in Israel, proclaimed that the Jewish world stood united against it. This moment, they said, was a rare instance of 13 million Jews, one opinion. But shortly after that pronouncement, the Jewish Journal conducted a national poll that revealed a majority of American Jews favored congressional support for the deal by a wide margin — 53 percent to 35 percent. That revelation changed the conversation. It showed a significant political and ideological rift among American Jewry.

Second, it is now clear no single voice represents the Jews. As the debate intensified, mainstream American-Jewish organizations lined up against the deal in concert with the Israeli government. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee led the charge. The Anti-Defamation League also said no, albeit with a slightly more nuanced approach, as did the American Jewish Committee, and numerous local Jewish Federations all weighed in against it. Dueling petitions from hundreds of rabbis, competing op-eds and those pesky scientific polls showed there is a disconnect between the organized and, for lack of a better word, the disorganized Jewish worlds.

Third, a critical aspect of this schism is age. The Jewish Journal poll reported that Jewish adults under 40 supported congressional approval of the deal 59 to 25 percent. This next generation is going to take a long, hard look at organizations and leaders that speak in their name, and spend their donations, but don’t share their views.

Fourth, it is important to be clear who crossed the lines of civility and who didn’t. On Aug. 28, The New York Times ran a misleading article headlined, “Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews.” The reporters listed numerous examples of vitriol from those who oppose the deal. They wrote that longtime Israel supporter Rep. Jerrold Nadler had been called a “kapo” for siding with the president. The deal’s opponents, they wrote, also held rallies denouncing the pro-deal lobbying group J Street as traitors, and Obama as a terrorist. 

As for the other side, the reporters found that they … appealed for civility. There has been no equivalence to the meanness of tone and foulness of language expressed by what is, to be sure, a minority of the deal’s Jewish opponents. We have a vitriol problem, but the name-calling comes largely from one side. 

Fifth, our divisions are nothing new. Let’s not treat this like it’s the beginning of the end of Jewish unity. It is more like the continuing expression of historic Jewish disunity. We fought bitter internecine fights over how to react to the Holocaust as it was happening, over the formation of the State of Israel and over the Oslo accords. Those ideological divisions have transferred neatly to Iran. Once this debate is over, we won’t leave the ring, we’ll just go to our corners.  

Sixth, here’s the good news: We tend to fight with our mouths. There have been some anguished exceptions throughout history, but, most of the time, we seem to understand that words may hurt us, but sticks and stones are a lot worse.

Seventh, another thing The New York Times misunderstood is that the debate did not create two sides, but three — and that is a crucial point going forward. Some Jews hate the deal and oppose it. Some like the deal and support it. The third group doesn’t like the deal, but thinks it’s the best of all realistic options. In the Jewish Journal poll, even though a majority of Jews interviewed supported the deal, only 42 percent said they believe it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon over the next 10 years. This group views the deal with low expectations, raised suspicions and eyes wide open. 

If there is a way to go forward with some kind of unity, this third group, I believe, holds the key. Those who oppose the deal can stop fighting the reality of it and start pushing, pragmatically, for arrangements to improve security in America, Israel and among our other Mideast allies in the face of it. We need to learn from the Obamacare debate that, at some point, the fight’s just over. 

Or, at least, I hope it is. 

Shanah Tovah.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Israelis aren’t unified on Iran deal


One of the strongest arguments the Jewish opponents of the Iran nuclear deal have wielded is that Israelis are unified in their opposition to it.

If the famously fractious Israelis all agree that the Iran deal is bad, they argue, it must really be awful. This line of reasoning can be especially persuasive to American Jews and Israel-sympathizing representatives in Congress. Who are we to disagree when the people who face the greatest threat from a nuclear Iran categorically oppose this deal?

Except for one thing: It’s not true.

If you look at the polling results, you’ll see that the numbers tell a far more nuanced story. So do the actual statements by many of Israel’s political opponents to the deal, which have evolved from outright rejection to more of a regretful embrace. And perhaps most strikingly, dozens of Israeli security experts have publicly weighed in, all in favor of the deal.

The first breach in the Israeli Unified Agreement Theory came shortly after the deal’s announcement, as Israeli officials were trumpeting the fact that the Iran nuclear deal was a rare case of “6 million Jews, one opinion,” against it.

That’s when Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s navy and its internal security services, Shin Bet, told the Jewish Daily Forward’s J.J. Goldberg that the imperfect deal actually made Israel safer.

“Reaching the agreement wasn’t a mistake,” Ayalon said. “It is the best of the available options, even though it strengthens Iran as a troublemaker. We in Israel need to differentiate between, on one hand, the problems in the Middle East and the understanding that we will have to continue fighting terrorism for the next 30 to 40 years, and on the other hand, the need to prevent the entry of nuclear weapons. I’m sorry to say this, but this is the price we need to pay to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.”

Ayalon’s analysis was the first tear in a very flimsy façade of Israeli unanimity. By early August, dozens of former senior members of Israel’s defense establishment published an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to accept the nuclear accord with Iran. They joined with numerous senior military and intelligence officials who had already come out in favor of the deal. These included Efraim Levy, former head of the Mossad; Eli Levite, deputy director general of Israel’s atomic energy commission; Shlomo Brom, a brigadier general, former director of the Israel Defense Forces strategic planning division and former deputy national security adviser; and Uzi Arad, national security adviser.

When I saw Arad’s name on the list, I thought: Wow. In 2009, Arad was appointed Israel’s national security adviser and head of the Israeli National Security Council — by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why? Because he had established himself as a strong voice against Iran’s nuclear program.

“We shouldn’t see this as a bad deal,” Arad said recently. “For the security of Israel, the responsible and cautious way ahead is to understand that the agreement is what it is, and that’s it.”

Nothing makes the continued and, it looks like, pointless opposition to the Iran deal from many mainstream Jewish organizations look as ill-considered as these experts’ statements. Not one of these generals or intelligence officials needs to be reminded of the perfidy of the Iranian regime by a Jewish-American leader who knows more about Gulfstreams than about F-16s. Arad doesn’t need an education in Iranian terrorism, nor does a single one of his co-signers. And yet Arad and a long line of Israeli security experts have decided the deal is the best way, at least for the foreseeable future, to keep nukes out of the mullahs’ hands.

The Israeli public may not agree with that opinion, but that doesn’t mean opinion in Israel is unanimous behind Bibi’s approach to the deal. In the most commonly quoted poll, 69 percent of Israelis oppose the deal. But the same poll showed only a slight majority — like, 51 percent — thought Bibi should openly oppose the deal. The same poll showed a plurality of Israelis (37 percent) actually opposed the way Netanyahu handled the campaign against the deal, while only 34 percent believe he’s done a good job.

These sentiments were echoed in statements by opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who initially joined Netanyahu in condemning the deal, but then split with him in how to go about lobbying against it. Opponents would have done far better working with President Barack Obama and deal supporters to strengthen the deal’s provisions and win extra security guarantees for Israel.

“The Iran deal will pass,” Herzog posted this week on his Facebook page, “the world is running to Iran to do business and open embassies, and no one is listening to Israel.”

Some of the security experts think it’s a pretty good deal; some don’t. Most Israelis, to be sure, don’t like it. But what has become increasingly clear is that, although Israelis may not support the deal, they support supporting the deal.

Meanwhile, American-Jewish organizations, who have continued to oppose the deal, are about to lose a war that didn’t need to be fought. Instead of fighting the president of the United States and other Jews, they could have taken a page from those pragmatic Israelis, and focused on fighting Iran.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Bibi, you’re no Moses


So, he spoke.

And while his rhetoric soared, his ideas sank.

He gave us a thousand reasons why the deal whose details he may not know is a flawed one. He gave us not a single pragmatic better option.

Not one.

And life, they say, is not about what’s ideal. It’s about what’s possible. 

Bibi said he wants Iran to abandon its nuclear program, renounce its desire to obliterate Israel and stop supporting terrorism. Ideally the Iranian regime would react to continuing or increased sanctions by doing those things.  

But expert after expert tells us that if these talks fail, there’s a far better chance the sanctions regime, which is dependent on the cooperation of Russia, China and other ornery nations, will fall apart, and whatever hobbles are now on Iran’s nuclear development will fall away. 

In other words, the most dangerous thing for Israel, America and the world might possibly be for Bibi to get his way.

If Iran is as crazy, messianic and violent as Bibi spent a good third of his speech asserting — then his proposal makes even less sense. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from crazy people is first keep them away from dangerous weapons — not make them promise to change. Maybe Bibi has the right ideas, but they’re in the wrong order.

In fact, Bibi’s speech — solid, stirring as it was — left me more perplexed than convinced. I couldn’t agree more with him about the historic levels of support the Obama administration has shown for Israel, and about the very real, existential danger the Iranian regime poses for Israel.  

But these other applause lines made me wonder:

“Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war,” Bibi said. “That’s just not true.”

Note that Bibi said, “war,” not “military action.” It is more likely a breakdown in talks will compel the latter, even if Israel and the United States are able to avoid the former. But in any case, unless Bibi can say — and he couldn’t — what a better deal is, his words here ring hollow. 

Remember Colin Powell testifying in the run-up to the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein was trafficking in yellow cake uranium — an assertion that proved false and helped lead us into a disastrous war? If Bibi’s planless plan fails, well, this might be Bibi’s yellow cake moment.

“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short break-out time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends.”

And that better deal is …? 

Barack Obama, as opposed to his predecessors, worked to get the world on board for a sanctions regime predicated on getting Iran to agree to a reasonable deal. 

If those countries aren’t on board, those sanctions, in the words of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “are going to get leaky very soon.” 

With no deal and no sanctions, Iran will continue to develop its nukes uninspected. 

“Imagine 10 years of no deal,” said Zakaria, “and where will Iran be at that point?”

My friends, for over a year,” Bibi said, “we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal.

Actually, the administration has made clear the opposite is the case.

“I have repeatedly said that I would rather have no deal than a bad deal, but if we are successful in negotiating, then in fact this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, reacting to Bibi’s speech. “Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”

“Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar‘— call their bluff,” Bibi continued. “They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”

Bibi likes to paint Obama as the over-eager suitor to the borderline offensive stereotype of the wily Oriental bargainer.  But in doing so, he ascribes great rationality to a regime he just convinced us was nuts. The truth is, there is ample historical precedent for Iran choosing principle over payout. 

“This is why … as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

This hubris played well in Congress and perhaps back home — though we won’t know how well until Election Day in Israel two weeks from now.

There was a time in Jewish history when Israel tried to stand alone: It’s called Masada.  In modern Israeli history, Israel has never stood alone — it couldn’t survive five minutes without the backing of a superpower. Every prime minister has understood this.  That Bibi pretends otherwise — and, in recent weeks, has acted otherwise — endangers Israel’s security.

Bottom line:  Bibi provided a clear path away from negotiations, but not toward a non-nuclear Iran. 

At the end of his speech, he pointed to a painting of Moses that adorns the Capitol. You have to love the irony. Moses, you’ll remember, had a speech impediment. He never could have been as eloquent as Bibi. Then again, great speeches alone don’t get you to the Promised Land.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Obama: Helping terror go nuclear


Last Tuesday’s terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue killed five people: four rabbis (including three born in the USA) and a Druze police officer. Two Palestinians entered during morning prayers and attacked worshipers with knives, meat cleavers, and a handgun. Congress showed moral clarity when blaming the horrors on Hamas and Palestinian Authority incitement, but Obama’s statements were perfunctorily “balanced.” Obama warned of a “spiral” of violence – an obtuse refrain of those suggesting moral equivalency between terrorism and the fight against it. Obama also misleadingly claimed that “President Abbas…strongly condemned the attacks” omitting that Abbas did so only after pressure from the administration and with equivocation (Abbas suggested a link between recent terrorism and visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, as if to justify the attacks). It’s also worth noting that Palestinians celebrated the massacre (as they did after the 2013 Boston bombing and the 9/11 attacks).

Obama’s weak reaction is consistent with his mostly impotent response to ISIS terrorists who behead Americans and Mideast Christians and grow their Islamist empire by the day. Frighteningly, his approach to Iranian nukes follows the same meek pattern, but the stakes are exponentially higher, because when Iran goes nuclear, so does terrorism.

Iran is already the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, without nuclear weapons. Iran-supported Hamas has already tried to commit nuclear terror: last summer, Hamas launched rockets at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. How much more dangerous will Iran become when it has nukes? Even if Iran doesn’t directly commit nuclear terrorism, an Iranian nuclear umbrella will embolden the regime and the terrorist organizations it sponsors. 

Obama has a long record of weakness towards Iran. In 2009, when Iran’s Basij paramilitary force brutalized demonstrators protesting Iran’s fraudulent presidential election, Obama kept his response irrelevantly mild for the sake of “engaging” Iran. That surely helped Iranian voters understand the risks of protesting the “free” election of 2012 (involving eight regime-picked candidates). It was indeed a very orderly rubberstamp.

In 2011, when a U.S. drone went down on Iranian soil, Obama cordially requested it back. The regime recently scoffed at such impotence by showcasing its knock-off based on that drone and some U.S.-made helicopters that it purchased,  highlighting just how useless sanctions have become.

President Hassan Rouhani’s election vastly improved the public face of Iran’s nuclear program, and Obama was charmed too. Obama has been unilaterally weakening the sanctions against Iran by not enforcing them. He has threatened to thwart any Congressional attempt to limit his nuclear generosity by simply lifting sanctions without Congressional approval. Yet despite these concessions and Rouhani's smiles, human rights abuses in Iran have actually worsened.  

Obama declared in 2012 (while running for reelection) that he doesn’t bluff when it comes to stopping Iranian nukes, and that containment was not an option, unlike military force. But the credibility of that statement collapsed after Obama shrunk away from his “red line” against Syrian chemical weapons use. In 2013, Basher Assad gassed his own people and Obama took no military action. So if Obama cowers against a disintegrating state, what are the chances that he’ll militarily prevent Iranian nukes?

And Obama has dangerously undermined the only military threat to Iranian nukes that anyone still takes seriously: Israel. On the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama has isolated Israel on how close Iran is to a nuclear capability with estimates that are far laxer. And as long as Obama continues negotiating (even if Iran is clearly playing for time as the U.S. offers ever more desperate proposals) or reaches a deal allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear weapons state, an Israeli military option to defang Iranian nukes appears less legitimate. 

The media’s anti-Israel bias is well known (they can’t even get a simple story about vehicular terrorism against Israelis correct (compare how The Guardian writes accurate headlines when Canada suffers an Islamist car attack but not when Israel does). So if Obama accepts Iran’s nuclear program and Israel then attacks it, the media will be even harsher on Israel (even though the world will be silently relieved, if Israeli courage succeeds at neutralizing what scared everyone else).

Downgrading US-Israel relations seems to be part of Obama’s détente with Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei recently tweeted his plan for destroying Israel, but Obama grows even more determined to reach an accord that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program. And the Obama administration’s diplomatic abuse of America’s closest Mideast ally is unprecedented – from his humiliation of Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2010, to Secretary of State John Kerry’s betrayal of Israel during Operation Protective Edge, to calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” a few weeks ago, without even apologizing later (note the irony of calling Netanyahu a coward anonymously). Obama seems far more concerned by Israeli construction of apartments in Jerusalem than a nuclear Iran. And he has been pressuring Israel to retreat from more disputed territory, effectively rewarding Palestinians for launching the third missile war against Israel from Gaza in five years last summer and now the third Intifidah inside Israel in 17 years. That puts Obama just behind the European appeasers who think Palestinian bellicosity merits statehood. They all naively think — at Israel's peril — that peace is possible with raw hatred.

Obama indeed appears desperate to get a nuclear accord with Iran at any price. He has written letters asking for Iran’s help against ISIS after they hinted at an ISIS-for-nukes exchange, and has pursued an agreement at all costs. Obama’s top aide, Ben Rhodes, was caught saying how a nuclear accord is as important to Obama as “healthcare”; at least there’s a fitting slogan to sell the deal to Americans: “If you like your nukes, you can keep them.”

Russia, the serial spoiler, suggested extending nuclear talks past the November 24th deadline. Iran will undoubtedly agree to more enrichment time (while it keeps stonewalling the IAEA’s investigations into it nukes), as it did last July. For Obama, a bad agreement or an extension looks far better than concluding that talks have failed and issuing more empty threats to stop Iran militarily. And so U.S. foreign policy will continue its freefall, as the world’s bad actors will want to see what they can extort from a leader even weaker than President Carter. While Carter permitted Iran to hold 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days, Obama may allow Iran to hold the world hostage with nuclear terrorism. It's now dreadfully obvious: without massive public pressure, Obama will help Iran get nukes. Anyone concerned about nuclear terrorism should sign this petition: http://www.nobombforiran.com

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

Netanyahu to Obama: Israel cannot allow nuclear Iran


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Obama that Israel cannot let Iran get a nuclear bomb and said an end to uranium enrichment is an Israeli demand of any agreement with Iran.

“If Iran is prevented from enriching uranium and dismantles fully its military nuclear capability,” Israel would accept the deal, the Israeli prime minister told Obama on Monday when they met at the White House in the Oval Office.

Obama and U.S. officials have said that Iran is likely to be left with a limited enrichment capability as part of any deal.

“Israel cannot permit such a state to have the ability to make a bomb,” Netanyahu said. “We just cannot be brought back to the brink of destruction. I as the prime minister of Israel will do whatever I must to defend the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu also appeared to push back against warnings from Obama in an interview published Sunday by Bloomberg View that Israeli settlement expansion and a failure to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians would lead to Israel’s international isolation.

“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said, saying he expected an end to Palestinian incitement and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

“That’s what the people of Israel expect me to do, to stand strong against criticism, against pressure.” he said.

Obama refrained from pushing back in the Oval Office appearance, confining his remarks to pledging to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and commending Netanyahu for his commitment to the peace process.

U.S. says ‘very hard’ to clinch deal as Iran nuclear talks resume


Major powers resumed talks on Wednesday on a preliminary agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program with the United States warning it would be “very hard” to clinch a breakthrough deal this week and Tehran flagging “red lines.”

Each side appeared to tempering anticipation of an imminent agreement after the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Tehran in the last round of negotiations two weeks ago.

Policymakers from the six governments have since said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could finally be within reach to defuse a decade-old standoff and dispel the specter of a wider Middle East war over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said remaining differences were narrow in the search for an interim deal that essentially would require Iran to limit its contested uranium enrichment program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

“It is the best chance for a long time to make progress on one of the gravest problems in foreign policy,” Hague told a news conference in Istanbul.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We hope the efforts that are being made will be crowned with success at the meeting that opens today in Geneva.”

A senior U.S. negotiator was more cautious, telling reporters: “I think we can (get a deal). Whether we will, we will have to see because it is hard. It is very hard … If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago.”

The official, with an eye to prominent skeptics of deal-making with Iran, including Israel and hawks in the U.S. Congress, said the vast majority of sanctions – particularly on Iranian oil exports and banking – would remain intact after any initial pact and Washington would “vigorously” enforce them.

On the other hand, a Western diplomat said there was still a “very high probability” that foreign ministers would return to Geneva this week to try to nail down an agreement in the negotiations, expected to run through Friday.

A second Western diplomat expressed guarded optimism about a deal, but said “the ball is in the Iranian court.”

Western governments suspect Iran has enriched uranium with the covert aim of developing the means to fuel nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Refined uranium is used to run nuclear power stations – Iran's stated goal – but can also constitute the core of a nuclear bomb, if enriched to a high degree.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech as Western negotiators gathered in the Swiss city that Tehran would not step back from its nuclear rights and he had set “red lines” for his envoys in Geneva. By rights, he was alluding to nuclear fuel production on Iranian soil.

He added, according to his official website: “We want to have friendly relations with all nations and peoples. The Islamic system isn't even hostile to the nation of America, although with regards to Iran and the Islamic system, the American government is arrogant, malicious and vindictive.”

Khamenei also called Israel a “rabid dog”, and criticized France, which spoke out against a draft deal floated at the November 7-9 negotiating round, for “succumbing to the United States” and “kneeling before the Israeli regime”. France said the comments were unacceptable.

The U.S. official said Khamenei's remarks were “of course, of concern.” He said leaders in Iran and the United States should not engage in rhetoric that deepens mistrust between the two estranged nations, which have not had diplomatic relations for more than three decades.

TOUGHER TERMS

A senior U.S. State Department official said there would be a bilateral U.S.-Iranian meeting on Thursday. The official did not say who in the U.S. delegation, which is headed by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, would meet with the Iranians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to appeal for tougher terms in any accord with Iran after failing to convince the United States that the world powers are pursuing a bad deal.

Israel, assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat and wants its arch-enemy's uranium enrichment capabilities dismantled and its enriched uranium stockpile removed.

Israel worries that the initial deal being discussed in Geneva would buy Iran time to pursue nuclear weapons because it would not scrap its nuclear fuel-making infrastructure.

The six powers see it, however, as a way to cap Iran's nuclear activity as a stepping stone towards a broad final settlement that would eliminate any risk of Tehran “weaponising” uranium enrichment.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes sought to allay Israeli misgivings, saying negotiators needed the six months that an interim solution would provide to strike a comprehensive agreement.

“We share the end goal and that's the point of these whole negotiations, which is to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons,” he told CNN.

The last meeting stumbled over Iran's insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be explicitly recognized and over its building of a heavy-water reactor near Arak that could yield plutonium, an alternative bomb ingredient, once operational.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has since suggested a way around the first sticking point, saying Tehran has the right to refine uranium but is not now insisting that others recognize that right.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the issue of whether Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium in the longer term would not be decided in an interim deal.

A United Nation's inspectors' report last week showed Iran had stopped expanding enrichment and had not added major new components at Arak since August, when moderate Hassan Rouhani replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

GOOD FAITH

Zarif, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, said on the eve of the meeting there was “every possibility” of a successful conclusion provided there was good faith and the political will among all involved to resolve problems.

American lawmakers urged President Barack Obama's administration to take a tougher line with Iran.

The talks in Geneva started on Wednesday with a meeting between Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates contacts with Iran on behalf of the six powers, before a full plenary meeting of Iran and those nations.

After years of confrontation, a shift towards meaningful diplomacy between Iran and the world powers took shape after Rouhani's landslide election victory on a platform to relieve the Islamic Republic's international isolation and try to lift sanctions, which are strangling Iran's oil-dependent economy.

Rouhani wants action soon: Western sanctions have reduced Iran's daily oil export revenue by 60 percent since 2011 and caused its currency to collapse.

Still, diplomats say Iran has so far refused to meet all of the powers' demands. They include suspending enrichment of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity – a significant advance towards the threshold for bomb fuel – as well as limiting its enrichment capacity and mothballing the Arak reactor project.

Western diplomats have kept many of the details of a preliminary deal under wraps but said this would not win Iran relief from the most painful sanctions on oil trade and banking that many believe finally forced it into serious negotiations.

Under an initial deal the OPEC producer is likely to temporarily regain access to precious metals markets and trade in petrochemicals and could see the release of some of its oil revenues frozen in oversees accounts.

The Iranian assets that would be unfrozen as part of any deal this week would amount to less than $10 billion, U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice told CNN.

Additional reporting by John Irish and Fredrik Dahl, in Geneva, Marcus George and Isabel Coles in Dubai, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jeruselem, Sophie Louet in Paris, David Brunnstrom and Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Christopher Wilson

At G.A., Peres and Netanyahu strike different tones on Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his hard line against Iran’s nuclear program in an address to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, repeatedly telling the gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that the compromise being formulated is a “bad deal.”

“What is being proposed now is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” to build a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu said Sunday. “Not one centrifuge is dismantled; not one. Iran gets to keep tons of low enriched uranium.”

Netanyahu’s comments came as negotiations between Iran and Western powers failed over the weekend to reach an agreement that would ease sanctions in return for the Islamic Republic freezing its nuclear program for six months.

Netanyahu said he would continue to criticize such an agreement and called on his audience to join him in advocating against it. Later he suggested that Iran has plans to attack the United States.

The prime minister’s sharp comments underscored what some perceive as a widening gulf between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue — speculation that Israeli President Shimon Peres sought to downplay in his address to a plenary session at the G.A. on Monday.

“The United States is our best friend, and the friendship of the United States to us is deep and meaningful,” Peres said. “[Obama] committed himself not to permit the Iranians to become a nuclear power, not just for the sake of Israel but for the sake of humanity.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who also addressed the Monday plenary, took a similar line, emphasizing that the alliance between the two countries is “as close as it has ever been.”

“There is no greater priority for the United States and Israel than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Shapiro said. “On this issue the United States and Israel share an identical objective. [Obama] will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period.”

In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his demand that in order for Israel to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also called for a continued strong bond between Israel and the North American Jewish community.

“When it comes to Jewish survival and the survival of the Jewish state, I will not be silenced, ever,” he said to loud cheers from the crowd. “We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves and speaking up. All of us, all of us, have to stand up and speak up.”

Netanyahu also said that Israel must have “robust security arrangements” in order to be confident that a peace with the Palestinians will last, and referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital.” The Palestinians claim the eastern half of the city as their capital and have slammed recent Israel announcements of building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, as have the United States and others.

“The minimum thing we can demand is that the official position of the Palestinian leadership recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “This will be a long process but it must begin with that.”

At the end of the speech, Netanyahu praised the strong relationship between Israel and the U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities. He noted his government’s efforts to reach a compromise between feuding factions at the Western Wall, long a high priority of American Jewish leaders.

“The Kotel is in Israel, but the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said, using the Hebrew term for the wall. “We have to consult together and reach a solution together.”

Netanyahu appeared relaxed during the speech, cracking jokes, leaning on the podium and calling out audience members by name. And conference delegates speaking before Netanyahu echoed his speech’s main points, especially on Iran.

Speaking at a reception for the Ruderman Family Foundation before Netanyahu’s speech, former Netanyahu adviser Dore Gold called for the Jewish people “to unite on this issue of Iran.”

And introducing the prime minister, Jewish Federations Chairman Michael Siegal said the international community must oppose the Iranian nuclear program.

“A nuclear Iran is an unacceptable position,” he said. “It is unacceptable to Israel, it is unacceptable to the U.S., it is unacceptable to the world.”

On Sunday morning, at the start of the Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu called the deal on the table between the world powers and Iran “bad and dangerous.”

“It is dangerous not just for us, it is also dangerous for them [the world powers],” he said.

Israel accuses Iran of deception to buy time for atom work


Israel accused Iran on Wednesday of using “deception and concealment” to buy time for its nuclear program, signaling skepticism that the Islamic state's new government would agree to curb its atomic activities.

The election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as new Iranian president has raised hopes of progress in long-stalled efforts to find a peaceful solution to the decade-old dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.

But the head of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission said: “The picture that the Iranian representatives are portraying regarding openness and transparency of their nuclear program … stands in sharp contradiction with Iran's actual actions and the facts on the ground.”

The key issue was not whether Iran has “nominated new envoys, modified its diplomatic vocabulary … but whether it is addressing seriously and in a timely manner outstanding issues that have remained unresolved for too long,” Shaul Chorev told the annual meeting of the U.N. nuclear agency.

“So far the window of serious engagement offered by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and the international community has been grossly abused by Iran,” he said.

Western powers and Israel accuse Iran of seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear weapons.

Iran says its program is entirely peaceful and says it is Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, that threatens peace and security in the region.

Chorev accused Iran of “deception and concealment, creating a false impression about the status of its engagement with the agency … with a view to buy more time in Iran's daily inching forward in every aspect of its nuclear military program”.

Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Alison Williams

West lobbies U.N. nuclear meeting to reject Arab push on Israel


The United States said on Tuesday an Arab push to single out Israel for criticism over its assumed nuclear arsenal would hurt diplomatic efforts to ban weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Frustrated over the postponement of an international conference on ridding the region of atomic arms, Arab states have proposed a resolution at a U.N. nuclear agency meeting expressing concern about “Israeli nuclear capabilities”.

The non-binding text submitted for the first time since 2010 to this week's member meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency calls on Israel to join a global anti-nuclear weapons pact and place its atomic facilities under IAEA monitoring.

Israel is widely believed to possess the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, drawing frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation. It has never acknowledged having atomic weapons.

U.S. and Israeli officials – who see Iran's atomic activity as the main proliferation threat – have said a nuclear arms-free zone in the Middle East could not be a reality until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Iran curbed its program.

Washington is committed to working toward a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA said.

But the Arab resolution “does not advance our shared goal of progress toward a WMD-free zone in the Middle East,” Ambassador Joseph Macmanus said in a comment emailed to Reuters.

“Instead, it undermines efforts at constructive dialogue toward that common objective,” Macmanus added.

Israel and the United States accuse Iran of covertly seeking a nuclear arms capability, something the Islamic state denies.

Iran this week said Israel's nuclear activities “seriously threaten regional peace and security”.

World powers agreed in 2010 to an Egyptian plan for an international meeting to lay the groundwork for creating a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

But the United States, one of the big powers to co-sponsor the meeting, said late last year it would not take place as planned last December and did not suggest a new date.

Arab diplomats said they refrained from putting forward their resolution on Israel at the 2011 and 2012 IAEA meetings to boost the chances of the Middle East conference taking place last year but that this had had no effect. A vote on the text may take place on Thursday, one envoy said.

Editing by Andrew Heavens

David Suissa: On bombing Iran


“The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. … The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

Those powerful and unambiguous words were spoken by presidential candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 AIPAC convention. 

Since then, the danger from Iran has only gotten more “grave” as the regime has moved significantly closer to its nuclear dream.

How urgent is the threat? As Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently wrote in the Atlantic: “That Iran’s nuclear challenge poses the most urgent threat to peace and security today is widely agreed across the national security community.”

Allison quotes former Mossad head Efraim Halevy saying that “Israel has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran,” while Henry Kissinger warned that “we are in the last year where you can say a negotiation can conceivably succeed. … If nothing happens, the president will have to make some really tough decisions.”

We’ve seen how Iran has been resolute in its mission to become a nuclear power. But what about President Obama’s mission to “eliminate this threat”?

The president has done an admirable job of rallying the global community to enforce tough economic sanctions on Iran. The problem is that these sanctions haven’t convinced the Iranian regime to stop or end its nuclear program.

I’m no expert on centrifuges and uranium enrichment, but I do know something about human nature. When a bad guy shows you his evil intentions, it’s best to assume the worst, especially when the stakes are so high.

But instead of assuming the worst, we’ve been hoping for the best.

In particular, we’ve hoped that the sanctions we’ve imposed on Iran are tough enough to induce its leaders to abandon their dream of ruling the region and bringing Islamic glory back to Persia. That’s a big hope.

The latest instance of wishful thinking is that Iran’s new, more “moderate” president, Hassan Rohani, will decide that the bomb is really not worth all the tsuris and, voila, no more nuclear threat!

White House spokesman Jay Carney put it a little more diplomatically:

“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. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

Yes, and should Hamas choose to reform its anti-Semitic charter and seek Israeli investment to build a Riviera on the Gaza coast, it will find many willing partners.

Remember, Rohani is the same sneaky guy who “struck a conciliatory posture as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator under another reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, while presiding over the secret advance of the nuclear program,” as international jurist Irwin Cotler wrote recently.

Cotler even quotes Rohani boasting about it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan [a crucial nuclear site]. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Well, it looks like the shmoozing mullah is at it again, charming the West with wily words of reason while buying Iran more time to “complete the work.”

If the Obama administration was looking for an excuse to kick the can down the road and avoid making tough decisions, it certainly found it in Rohani.

So, this is where things stand: Even as Secretary of State John Kerry invests enormous energy trying to create a Palestinian state that he hopes won’t become another terror regime, a real terror regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction is continuing its headlong push for a nuclear bomb.

Is there anything the United States can do to get Iran’s attention, short of bombing its nuclear facilities?

I heard a good answer the other day from a prominent Jewish leader.

During a recent visit to the Jewish Journal offices, American Jewish Committee head David Harris explained that in this game of high-stakes poker, the crucial thing is to show Iran that you’re not bluffing — that you’re deadly serious about preventing a nuclear weapon. 

His idea? Explode a bunker-buster bomb — the kind of weapon the United States would use to take out the nuclear facilities — as a military “exercise,” and make sure everyone knows about it.

Could the move backfire and rally the Iranian people and the Shiite world behind the Persian regime? Sure, there are always risks, and the Iranian crisis has always been about picking the best of bad options.  

But here’s the essential point: An Iranian nuclear bomb is a deadly threat to Israel and the world. You can make all the tough speeches you want, and impose all the tough sanctions, but in the end, until the bad guy sees that you really mean business, he won’t take you seriously.

I think they call that human nature.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Congressmen tell Obama to increase pressure on Iran over nukes


In the wake of Iran’s recent election, a bipartisan group of congressmen are calling on President Obama to increase pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was perceived to be the most moderate of the candidates and “while this was not a free and fair election, judged by international standards, its outcome reflected considerable dissatisfaction by the Iranian people with an autocratic and repressive government that has internationally isolated Iran,” the letter from the congressmen to Obama noted.

The June 28 letter was signed by Reps. Ed Royce, (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and 43 other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The letter pointed out that “Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity.” It also noted that Rouhani previously served as his country’s nuclear negotiator and had indicated his support for the program in a post-election news conference.

“Our diplomatic goal must be to reach a negotiated settlement in which Iran agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. For this outcome to be realized, Iran must face intensifying pressure,” the congressmen wrote.

Time to enter the Iranian bazaar on the nuclear issue


Iran’s new president still Khamenei-approved, Netanyahu says


The election of cleric Hassan Rohani as president of Iran does not change anything, since he was shortlisted by the country’s radical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Candidates who did not conform to Khamenei’s extremist outlook were not able to run for the presidency, Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, a day after Rohani’s election.

Netanyahu pointed out that “among those whose candidacies he 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.’ ”

It is Khamenei who ultimately determines Iran’s nuclear policy, the Israeli leader said.

“Iran will be judged by its actions,” Netanyahu said. “If it continues to insist on developing its nuclear program, the answer needs to be very clear — stopping the nuclear program by any means.”

Rohani, who is seen as much more moderate than the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will take office in August after receiving slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Some 72 percent of the 50 million eligible voters turned out.

The combative Ahmadinejad was barred from running for reelection due to term limits.

“This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness, and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill temper,” Rohani said Saturday on state television.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “Iran must abide by the demands of the international community to stop its nuclear program and cease the dissemination of terror throughout the world.”

In its statement on Saturday, the White House congratulated the Iranian people for participating in the political process and “their courage in making their voices heard.” The statement said it respected their vote.

“It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians,” the White House said.

On Sunday, the British newspaper The Independent reported that Iran will  send 4,000 Revolutionary Guard troops to Syria to aid President Bashar Assad against rebel forces in his country’s two-year civil war. The decision reportedly was made before the start of the presidential election.

Iran also proposed opening up what it called a “Syrian front” against Israel in the Golan Heights, according to the Independent.

Russia’s Putin says Iran nuclear push is peaceful


Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he has no doubt that Iran is adhering to international commitments on nuclear non-proliferation but regional and international concerns about Tehran's nuclear program could not be ignored.

Putin, whose country is among six world powers seeking to ensure that Iran does not seek to develop nuclear weapons, also said Iranian threats to Israel's existence were unacceptable.

His remarks appeared aimed to strike a balance between the interests of Iran, on the one hand, and on the other, Israel and global powers seeking to ensure Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

“I have no doubt that Iran is adhering to the rules in this area. Because there is no proof of the opposite,” Putin, whose country is one of six leading those diplomatic efforts, told Russian state-run English-language channel RT.

But he criticised Iran for rejecting a Russian offer to enrich uranium for Tehran's nuclear programme and took aim at aggressive Iranian rhetoric about Israel, with which Putin has been improving ties in recent years.

“Iran is in a very difficult region and when we hear … from Iran that Israel could be destroyed, I consider that absolutely unacceptable. That does not help,” Putin said.

Putin suggested that Washington was exaggerating dangers posed by Iran, saying “the United States uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or non-existent threat”.

Putin said that concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely for peaceful purposes including power generation, must be addressed.

Last week, Russia joined China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany in pressing Iran to cooperate with a stalled investigation by the U.N. nuclear agency into suspected atomic research by the Islamic state.

In a June 5 joint statement intended to signal their unity in the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, the six powers said they were “deeply concerned” about the country's atomic activities.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Michael Roddy

Hosting U.S. defense chief, Israel hints at patience on Iran


Israel suggested on Monday it would be patient before taking any military action against Iran's nuclear program, saying during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel there was still time for other options.

With Iran's presidential election approaching in June there has been a pause in hawkish rhetoric by Israel, which has long hinted at possible air strikes to deny its arch-foe any means to make an atomic bomb, while efforts by six world powers to find a negotiated solution with Tehran have proved fruitless so far.

“We believe that the military option, which is well discussed, should be the last resort,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters at a news conference with Hagel.

“And there are other tools to be used and to be exhausted,” Yaalon said, listing diplomacy, economic sanctions and “moral support” for domestic opponents of Iran's hardline Islamist leadership.

Iran has denied seeking nuclear weapons capability, saying it is enriching uranium only for domestic energy purposes while calling for the elimination of the Jewish state. Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.

U.S. President Barack Obama has in the past clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how urgent the need may be to consider military action against Iran. Washington has suggested more time should be given for concerted diplomacy combined with sanctions pressure to produce a peaceful solution.

But with Obama recently installed in his second term, and Netanyahu in his third, the allies have publicly closed ranks. The United States projects more defense aid for Israel after the current disbursements of some $3 billion a year expire in 2017. And Hagel unveiled the planned sale to Israel of missiles, warplane radars, troop transport planes and refueling jets.

“These decisions underscore that the military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel is stronger than ever, and that defense cooperation will only continue to deepen in the future,” Hagel said.

By contrast, the Bush administration in 2008 declined to provide Israel with refueling tankers and missiles that might be used in a strike on Iran.

MILITARY OPTIONS REMAIN ON TABLE

Before taking the helm at the Pentagon, Hagel had stirred ire among pro-Israel Americans for remarks including skepticism about the feasibility and desirability of such military action.

But in Israel, the second foreign country he has visited as defense secretary after Afghanistan, Hagel hewed to Obama's line. “All military options and every option must remain on the table in dealing with Iran,” he said.

“I support the president's position on Iran. And it's very simple and I have stated it here … Our position is Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon – the prevention of Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Period.”

Iranian media reported on Monday that Iran and officials from the United Nations nuclear watchdog would hold a new round of talks on May 21 in Vienna. The International Atomic Energy Agency wants inspectors to restart a long-stalled investigation in Iran's suspected atomic bomb research.

From Israel, Hagel travels to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter two Gulf Arab countries, which are also wary of Iran's nuclear ambitions, stand to win a major U.S. arms sale.

After lengthy disagreement, Israeli and U.S. estimates of when Iran might be able to produce a first nuclear weapon now largely dovetail to a time frame of about a year.

Hagel also said that non-military pressure on Iran has yet to be exhausted. “The sanctions on Iran are as potent and deep and wide a set of international sanctions that we have ever seen on any country. And those will continue to increase,” he said.

“Whether it leads to an outcome that we desire remains to be seen … and as I said, the military option is always an option.”

After the news conference, Hagel boarded an Israeli military helicopter for an aerial tour of the Golan Heights frontier.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Budget, Iran top priorities for new Israeli government


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government will face the immediate task of passing an austerity budget and the time-sensitive challenge of preventing what it believes is Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Following is a list of the coalition's main priorities as Netanyahu started his third term in office on Monday:

PASSING A BUDGET

After clinching coalition agreements last week, Netanyahu said his government's first task would be “passage of a responsible budget” – shorthand for widely expected spending cuts and tax rises.

The budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – double the original target. It was cabinet infighting over the 2013 budget that led Netanyahu to call an early election.

Netanyahu now has 45 days to put together a budget and win parliamentary approval, or face another general election. Parliament could, however, use special legislation to extend the deadline to 120 days.

IRAN

Netanyahu has said his government's “paramount task” would be “to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons”.

Last year, Netanyahu announced a “red line” for Iran's nuclear program, saying Tehran should not be allowed to obtain 240 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium, a point it could reach, he said, by spring or summer of 2013.

It was another heavy hint from Netanyahu that Israel could attack Iran's nuclear sites. But officials and analysts say Iran has slowed its mid-level uranium enrichment to stay beneath the Netanyahu threshold.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in an interview with Israel's Channel Two television last week, said it would take Iran more than a year to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies seeking atomic arms.

SYRIA

Israel is closely watching Syria's civil war, with occasional spillover mortar fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Netanyahu has voiced concern that Syria's chemical weapons and other advanced arms could fall into the hands of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

In January, according to a Western diplomat and a source among Syrian rebels, Israeli planes bombed a convoy near Syria's border with Lebanon carrying weapons to Hezbollah.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE

Netanyahu has said that Obama's visit this week would put the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue on his new government's agenda earlier than expected.

Beyond an oft-repeated call to the Palestinians to return to peace talks they abandoned in 2010 over Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, Netanyahu has not voiced any new ideas on how to restart the negotiations.

Israel's new housing minister, a settler himself, said on Sunday the cabinet would keep expanding settlements to the same extent as Netanyahu's previous government.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

In Iranian New Year message, Obama warns Iran of isolation but not strikes


President Obama warned Iran of further isolation but stopped short of threatening military action should the country not cooperate with the international community on its nuclear program.

Obama in his annual message marking the Iranian New Year, known as Nowruz, addressed Iranians and their leaders.

“If, as Iran’s leaders say, their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution,” Obama said in a video message posted Monday, two days before he travels to Israel to discuss Iran strategy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s a solution that would give Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” the president said, referring to offers by major powers to reduce sanctions in exchange for more transparency and access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

“Finding a solution will be no easy task. But if we can, the Iranian people will begin to see the benefits of greater trade and ties with other nations, including the United States. Whereas if the Iranian government continues down its current path, it will only further isolate Iran. This is the choice now before Iran’s leaders.”

Netanyahu, some U.S. pro-Israel groups and a number of U.S. lawmakers of both parties have called on Obama to make more explicit the threat of military action that will be taken to stop an Iranian bomb.

Obama has not discounted the military option, but has estimated that Iran is about one year away from obtaining such a device and prefers to press forward with diplomacy and economic pressure for now.

Lots of listening, no grand initiatives expected on Obama’s Mideast trip


When President Obama visits Israel next week, Gavriel Yaakov wants him to jump-start the peace process.

“I’m excited,” said Yaakov, 67, sitting in a Tel Aviv mall. “I want negotiations to get to an agreement on a long-term peace with the Palestinians.”

Yaakov said he trusts Obama, but his friend, Yossi Cohen, is more skeptical.

“I’m not excited,” said Cohen, 64, who charged that the president supports Islamists and “hasn't done anything” to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No one has helped,” Cohen said. “Whoever thinks there will be peace, [it will take] another 200 years.”

Their views reflect two of the president's overriding concerns as he prepares to embark on a three-day trip to Israel next week.

Obama remains deeply unpopular in Israel, with approval ratings of about 33 percent last year, and Jewish leaders and local analysts are urging him to try to improve his relationship with the Israeli public. But the president also is seen as wanting to promote a renewed effort at Middle East peace, though administration officials, wary of a top-down push for peace, have emphasized that the president is leaving such initiatives up to the parties there.

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama conceded that the short-term outlook for a peace agreement is “bleak,” but that prospects could improve in the coming months. Instead, the president was focused on how best to reach out to Israelis, participants said, asking for input about what he should say and whom he should try to reach.

Obama held a similar meeting with Arab-Americans, soliciting their input about his trip and expressing his “commitment to the Palestinian people” and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to establish “a truly independent Palestinian state.”

“It creates an opportunity not only for a new beginning between the president's second term and the prime minister of Israel, who is beginning a new term — assuming he puts together a government, which I think he will,” Dennis Ross, Obama's top Iran policy adviser in his first term, said at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, before Netanyahu had established his coalition.

“But I think it also is a chance to create a connection with the Israeli public and to demonstrate unmistakably when the president says that he's determined to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, he isn't saying that from a distance. It's not an abstraction. He can go and he can address the Israeli public directly.”

Obama will land at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 20. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Peres will present Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor.

His itinerary includes a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery, the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After departing Israel on March 22, Obama will travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.

The night before his departure, he will address thousands of Israeli students at Jerusalem's convention center. The speech is consistent with Obama's history of directly addressing the public during his trips abroad, and specifically young people.

“I think this is consistent with his town squares,” said Alan Solow, a top Obama fundraiser and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He recognizes that in the future, the world will be flatter than today and it's essential that future leaders understand the good intentions of the United States to promote a better and more peaceful world.”

Obama's engagement with Mideast peacemaking was turbulent in his first term. His relationship with Netanyahu has been rocky at best, and his previous attempt to restart the peace process, in 2010, failed after three weeks.

The president's low approval rating in Israel is likely only to complicate matters. The 33 percent rating is actually a significant improvement over his first term, when pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank helped push his approval numbers below 10 percent.

“Obama needs to reestablish a relationship of trust with the Israeli public,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Whether Obama likes it or not, Netanyahu is the elected leader of the State of Israel, and whether Netanyahu likes it or not, Obama is the elected leader of the U.S. It’s time for the two leaders to accept the inevitable and learn to work together.”

U.S. administration officials have aimed to lower expectations for any concrete outcome to the Obama trip, denying recent reports in the Israeli media that the president is preparing a major peace initiative and emphasizing that he intends to do a lot of listening. Analysts say in order to make progress on the peace front or the Iranian nuclear threat, another issue much on the minds of Israelis, Obama needs to be more candid about past failures.

“For a game-changing speech, you need to speak realistically,” said Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor who is also a Hartman fellow. “You can’t pretend it’s the start of the Oslo peace process. You need to move forward based on the failures. I think Israelis are primed for it.”

Klein Halevi said a similar honesty should be evident in Obama's treatment of the Iran issue. Israelis are doubtful of the president's repeated assertion that all options are on the table in addressing the nuclear threat, he said, and urged the president to speak directly to the Iranian leadership in his convention center address.

“When Obama speaks on Iran, he shouldn’t be speaking only to the Israeli public,” Klein Halevi said. “He should be directly addressing the leadership of Iran from Jerusalem.”

Despite the caution coming from the White House, Israelis are anything but unified in their skepticism of a new peace push. On Facebook, 23,000 people have “liked” a push to have Obama address the masses at Rabin Square, the emotionally charged plaza where the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords was assassinated in 1995.

“We want to send the message that there’s a public desire to turn the page and strive for peace,” said Amit Youlzari, 31, the lead organizer.

With Obama set to speak in Jerusalem, Youlzari has helped arrange for the speech to be shown on large projection screens in the square.

“We want to tell the U.S. that we support Obama and the messages we hear from him,” Youlzari said. “And we want to send the world a picture of a full plaza of people who want peace.”

Ben Sales reported from Tel Aviv and Ron Kampeas from Washington.

Kerry: Obama would prefer to ‘avoid considering’ Iran strike


Secretary of State John Kerry said President Obama would prefer to avoid considering military action against Iran, but Iran's failure to seriously negotiate makes “confrontation more possible.”

Kerry, interviewed by ABC News in Doha, Qatar, during his first overseas trip in his new job, refused to discuss differences between the United States and Israel over “red lines” that could trigger a military strike.

“I’m not going to get into red lines and timing publicly except to reiterate what the president has said again and again, which is he prefers to have a diplomatic solution,” Kerry said.

“He would like to see the P5+1 process, the negotiation process, be able to work, and avoid any consideration of any military action,” Kerry said, referring to the major powers negotiating with Iran.

Kerry said he expected a serious proposal from the Iranians when they meet with representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain in Istanbul later this month.

“If they keep pushing the limits and not coming with a serious set of proposals or are prepared to actually resolve this, obviously, the risks get higher and confrontation becomes more possible,” he said.

In a separate interview with NPR, Kerry said Egypt's role in brokering last November's cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and keeping the peace on its border with Israel informed his decision to release $190 million in assistance funds to the Egyptians. That decision was made over the objections of some in Congress who are concerned about the course that Egypt's Islamist government is taking.

“Egypt has been — was critical in helping to bring out peace in the Gaza Strip,” Kerry said. “President [Mohamed] Morsi personally intervened. President Morsi has personally helped to make sure that that peace has held, and he is cooperating with Israel on the security in the Sinai and cooperating with Israel in terms of extremism and intelligence.”

“So for the American people, the amount of money that we’re investing in Egypt compared to its importance to us in the region for stability, for peace, for the future possibilities, is minuscule,” he said.

Iran nuclear talks show progress, Western diplomat says


Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers this week were more constructive and positive than in the past, but Iran's willingness to negotiate seriously will not become clear until an April meeting, a senior Western diplomat said on Thursday.

The diplomat was more upbeat about the talks in Kazakhstan than other Western officials have been, suggesting there could be a chance of diplomatic progress in the long standoff over Iran's nuclear activities.

“This was more constructive and more positive than previous meetings because they were really focusing on the proposal on the table,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi struck an upbeat note about the talks, saying they had reached “a turning point” this week and suggesting a breakthrough was within reach.

“I call it a milestone. It is a turning point in the negotiations,” Salehi told Austrian broadcaster ORF during a visit to Vienna for a United Nations conference.

“We are heading for goals that will be satisfactory for both sides. I am very optimistic and hopeful,” he said, according to a German translation of remarks he made in English.

Years of on-off talks between Iran and the six powers have produced no breakthrough in the dispute over the nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful but that Western powers suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb capability.

Iran has faced tightening international sanctions over its nuclear program and Israel has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail.

At the latest talks, the six powers offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work.

“We show a way into the easing of sanctions. We don't give away the crown jewels in the first step,” the diplomat said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and to return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6.

STEP-BY-STEP

The March meeting will be a chance for experts to explain in detail what the six powers' offer means, the senior Western diplomat said, adding that the April meeting would be key.

“This will be the important meeting. We'll see if they are willing to engage seriously on the package,” the diplomat said.

Western officials said the six powers' offer included easing a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals and relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there”.

The U.S. official did not term what was being asked of Iran as a “shutdown” of the plant, as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

The senior Western diplomat denied the six powers had softened their position on Fordow, but conceded: “We may have softened our terminology.”

The diplomat sketched out a step-by-step approach, saying the six powers' proposals offered Iran the prospect of further steps in return for Iranian actions beyond a first confidence-building step. “There has to be a clear sequencing,” the diplomat said, without giving details.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said on Wednesday the six powers had tried to “get closer to our viewpoint”, which he said was positive.

Editing by Roger Atwood

Netanyahu urges ‘military sanctions’ threat against Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community on Wednesday to threaten Iran with “military sanctions,” saying economic measures are failing to curb Tehran's nuclear drive.

“I believe it is incumbent upon the international community to intensify the sanctions and clarify that if Iran continues its program, there will be military sanctions,” Netanyahu said.

He did not, in a statement released by the prime minister's office, specify what military measures he envisages.

“I don't think there are any other means that will make Iran heed the international community's demands,” he said, in his first remarks on the issue after two days of nuclear talks between Tehran and world powers in the Kazakh city of Almaty.

Netanyahu has long said that only a credible military threat, coupled with tough economic sanctions, could dissuade Iran from acquiring what Israel and the West believe is a capability to build atomic weapons.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes only.

In Almaty, the first negotiations between Iran and six world powers in eight months ended without a breakthrough on Wednesday. They agreed to meet again at expert level in Istanbul next month and resume political talks in Kazakhstan on April 5.

Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to halt its nuclear program.

Netanyahu, setting a “red line” at the United Nations last September, has said Iran could by the middle of this year reach the point where it has enriched enough uranium to move quickly toward building an atomic bomb.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ori Lewis

Israel urges swift response to North Korea nuclear test


Israel said on Tuesday that the international community must make clear to North Korea after its latest nuclear test that such activities cannot be tolerated.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said the test, North Korea's third in defiance of U.N. resolutions, and a ballistic missile launch in December raised “grave concerns” about proliferation of nuclear and ballistic technologies.

“These actions by the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), in violation of its international obligations, must be met with a swift response by the international community,” the ministry said.

“A clear message must be sent to DPRK and to other countries that such activities are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers to put more pressure on Iran to stop what Israel and Western countries fear is a drive toward developing atomic weapons. Iran says it is enriching uranium solely for peaceful purposes.

Israel, which is generally believed to possess the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal but refuses to confirm or deny the fact, says a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its existence, and has hinted strongly that it will take military action if international efforts fail to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Netanyahu says preventing nuclear Iran is his primary challenge


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an election victory speech on Wednesday, said preventing a nuclear-armed Iran would be the primary challenge facing the new government he intends to form.

“I am proud to be your prime minister, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity, for the third time, to lead the state of Israel,” he told a cheering crowd at the campaign headquarters of his right-wing Likud party.

Exit polls showed Likud, allied with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, emerging from Tuesday's vote as still the biggest bloc in the 120-member parliament, with 31 seats, despite a drop in their support and a surprise surge by a new centrist party.

Netanyahu said he intended to form as broad a governing coalition as possible, suggesting he would go beyond a traditional alliance with other right-wing and religious partners.

“The first challenge was and remains preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he said in his speech.

Netanyahu has called Tehran's nuclear program an existential threat to Israel and has stoked international concern by hinted strongly at possible Israeli military action to stop Iran from developing an atomic bomb.

He has said that by the summer, Iran may reach a level of uranium enrichment that would enable it to move rapidly towards building a nuclear weapon.

Iran, which has been hit by Western sanctions over its nuclear activities, says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes only.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ari Rabinovitch

Syria may hold uranium stash, Western and Israeli experts say


Western and Israeli security experts suspect Syria may have tonnes of unenriched uranium in storage and that any such stockpile could potentially be of interest to its ally Iran for use in Tehran's own disputed nuclear program.

They say natural uranium could have been acquired by the Arab state years ago to fuel a suspected nuclear reactor under construction that was bombed by Israel in 2007.

U.S. intelligence reports at the time said the site in Syria's desert Deir al-Zor region was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor designed to produce plutonium for atomic arms.

Syria, ravaged by a war the United Nations says has killed 60,000 people, has denied accusations of a clandestine nuclear programme. Its envoy in Vienna, where the U.N. nuclear watchdog is based, was not available for comment on Friday.

“Someplace there has got to be an inventory of fuel for the reactor. It doesn't make sense to have a nuclear installation, a nuclear reactor, without any fuel,” proliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think tank said.

But, he added, “to my knowledge there hasn't been any substantiated accounts identifying where that material may be located.” It would likely have come from North Korea, he said.

Even if Syria did have such a stockpile, it would not be usable for nuclear weapons in its present form, a fact that makes it less of a pressing concern for the West than fears that government forces may use chemical arms against their foes.

The Financial Times newspaper said this week Syria may hold up to 50 tonnes of unenriched, or natural, uranium – material which can fuel atomic power plants and also provide the explosive core of nuclear bombs, but only if refined to a high degree.

Some government officials have raised concerns that Iran might try to seize it, the FT said, without identifying them.

Though such a quantity in theory could yield material for several atom bombs, it would first have to be enriched much further, from 0.7 percent of the fissile isotope in natural uranium to 90 percent, in a technically complicated process.

Iran, which denies Western accusations of atomic bomb ambitions, has said its mines can supply the raw uranium needed for its nuclear programme and that it has no shortage problems.

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which for several years has been seeking access to the destroyed Deir al-Zor site as well as three other locations that may be linked to it, declined to comment on the FT report.

A recently retired Israeli security official said he believed Syria was keeping uranium at a site near Damascus, one of the places the IAEA wants to inspect, but he did not say what he based this on.

IRAN CONNECTION?

The former Israeli official said rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who now control a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts of the capital, may get hold of the stockpile and make its existence public.

“Then it would put paid to the Syrians' claims that they never had a reactor in the first place,” he said.

Another possibility was that Syria, “knowing the material is no longer secured, could ship it out to Iran, which is certainly in need of more uranium for its own nuclear plans,” the former Israeli official, who declined to be named, added.

But a veteran Israeli intelligence analyst who now works as a government adviser said the figure of 50 tonnes of uranium cited by the Financial Times was “not at all familiar to me”.

A Western diplomat said there had been speculation about possible uranium – perhaps in the form of natural uranium metal to fuel a reactor – in Syria because of the destroyed Deir al-Zor site but that he knew of no specific details.

“It is plausible. But as far as I know no one has ever had any idea where the material is,” he said, adding it would not be easy to ship large quantities to Iran without detection.

Syria says Deir al-Zor was a conventional military facility but the IAEA concluded in May 2011 that it was “very likely” to have been a reactor that should have been declared to its anti-proliferation inspectors.

If there is a stockpile of uranium in Syria, it would be of use for Iran as it faces a potential shortage, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank.

“Syria has been getting quite a bit of help from Iran. This would have been one means of repaying them,” he said. “There is evidence that Iran is looking around the world for uranium.”

Israel, which is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, and Western powers accuse Iran of seeking to develop a capability to make atomic bombs.

The Islamic state says its programme to refine uranium is solely intended for peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Some Western analysts have said Iran may be close to exhausting its supply of raw uranium, known as “yellow cake”, although IAEA reports suggest it still has plenty of natural uranium gas to use for its enrichment work.

“If there is an undeclared inventory of 50 tonnes of uranium then, if I were Assad, I would want to spirit it out of there and the most likely place would be Iran,” Hibbs said.

U.S. to honor Israel’s Barak, outgoing architect of Iran policy


Outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will receive the highest award he could be given by a U.S. secretary of defense when he visits the Pentagon on Thursday, three days after announcing his exit from political life next year.

The 70-year-old Barak, a leading strategist in confronting Iran over its nuclear program who has also served as Israel's prime minister and armed forces chief, has been a regular visitor to the Pentagon in recent years as tensions with Tehran simmer.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has known the Israeli leader since President Bill Clinton's administration, when Panetta was chief of staff and when Barak served in roles including foreign minister. Barak and Panetta speak regularly, with three conversations alone during the crisis in Gaza this month.

“He's been an important partner of the U.S. for a long time,” one U.S. defense official told Reuters, adding he will receive the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

Should Barak's resignation prove permanent, his successor could come from the ranks of right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been seen at odds with Washington over the best way to handle Iran.

Ex-Israeli general Moshe Yaalon, who has talked tough on Iran but is more circumspect among Netanyahu's advisors, is a possible candidate to succeed the more moderate Barak. He is the minister of strategic affairs and is a former chief of staff of the Israeli defense forces.

There has been speculation that Barak might even be replaced by the current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the Likud's more hawkish coalition partner.

“The fact is that none of us know,” said Anthony Cordesman, at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Pentagon announced that Panetta and Barak will address a news conference at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (1730 GMT).

Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by Stacey Joyce

Report: Netanyahu, Barak ordered preparation for Iran strike in 2010


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli military in 2010 to prepare for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites, an Israeli news channel reported.

Netanyahu gave the order during a meeting with what is known as the cabinet of seven, or the security cabinet, Israeli investigative journalist Ilana Dayan reported.

The command was reported in a television promotion Sunday night for the season premiere of Dayan’s one-hour weekly documentary program, “Fact,” on Israel Channel 2. The program to air Monday night will look at Israel’s decision-making process regarding an attack on Iran's nuclear program.

Former IDF General Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former Mossad head Meir Dagan told Dayan that the order to go to a level “P Plus” – code for getting ready for a military strike, was an attempt to circumvent getting the approval of the full Cabinet.

Dagan reportedly said that “the prime minister and defense minister were trying to “hijack a war.”

Ashkenazi reportedly responded that the Israeli military lacked the operational capability to carry out such a strike.

Since retiring from the military, Dagan and Ashkenazi have both publicly stated their opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran.

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.”

At final debate, Israel and Iran take center stage—and the candidates find common ground


Israel, a heated issue throughout the campaign, finally took center stage at the final presidential debate.

It was mentioned a total of 29 times by President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney at Monday night's foreign policy debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Actual policy differences, however, seemed to be in short supply.

Israel and the Iranian nuclear program were among the main topics in a debate that largely focused on the Middle East. But whether the subject was Iran sanctions, the need to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or the U.S. commitment to Israel, the clashing candidates sounded surprisingly similar notes.

Aaron David Miller, a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said the broad areas of agreement on the Middle East reflected a growing consensus among both parties that any president's priority should be to focus on the struggling American economy and tread carefully overseas.

“There were tactical political reasons why the governor wanted to create the impression that he is a centrist,” said Miller, a former top Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, speaking of Romney. “But I think we are faced now for the first time since the end of the Cold War with a remarkable consensus on what we can do in the world. The public understands that we need to fix America's broken house, but that we are also stuck in a region of the world where we can't fix it or extricate from it.”

With sharp policy differences mostly missing, both candidates painted their support for Israel in personal terms. Romney cited the strength of his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama spoke of how he was affected by a 2008 visit to Israel, with stops at its national Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and the embattled town of Sderot.

Romney's remark came as he dismissed out of hand a hypothetical proposal by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, positing a last-minute warning call to the White House from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli bombers were on their way to Iran.

“Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel, is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way,” Romney said. “This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before.”

To draw a contrast, Romney accused Obama of saying that he wanted to “create daylight” between Israel and the United States. (The reference was to a 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders in which the president was pressed to have a policy of “no daylight” with Israel, to which Obama responded that such an approach had not advanced peace in the past. Obama, however, is not known to have called for a policy of proactively creating daylight between the two countries.)

Romney also criticized the president for not visiting Israel during his travels to the region. Obama responded by suggesting that Romney's recent visit to Israel contrasted unfavorably with his own 2008 visit to the Jewish state as a presidential candidate.

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

Obama went on to recount his visit to the southern town of Sderot, which is near the Gaza Strip.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he said. “And I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms. And I was reminded 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.”

The acrimony underlying the exchanges contrasted with the many overall agreements on policy that were acknowledged by the candidates a number of times.

Romney opened his statement during the Israel and Iran portion of the debate by seconding the president's response to a question about whether the U.S. should regard an attack on Israel as an attack on itself.

“I want to underscore the same point the president made, which is that if I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, we will stand with Israel,” Romney said. “And if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.”

Romney expressed support for Obama’s Iran sanctions, although he faulted the president for introducing them later rather than sooner and claimed credit for calling for tougher sanctions in 2007 — although lawmakers for years before had been pressing the Clinton and second Bush administrations to institute such sanctions.

More critically, Romney’s emphasis was on “diplomatic and peaceful means” — a posture that aligned with Obama’s preference for exhausting all options before considering a military strike to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“It is also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means,” Romney said. “It's absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions. I would have put them in place earlier. But it's good that we have them.”

A Congressional Research Service report published last week found that sanctions were seriously affecting Iran’s economy but had not yet stopped its suspected nuclear weapons program. The report held out the prospect of that happening soon.

“A broad international coalition has imposed progressively strict economic sanctions on Iran’s oil export lifeline, producing increasingly severe effects on Iran’s economy,” the report said. “Many judge that Iran might soon decide it needs a nuclear compromise to produce an easing of sanctions.”

At the debate, Obama argued that the sanctions on Iran have been a policy success, saying that his administration “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy.”

Both candidates appeared to be on the same page when it came to adjudicating what circumstance would trigger consideration of a military strike.

“The clock is ticking,” Obama said. “We're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere. And I've been very clear to them. You know, because of the intelligence coordination that we do with a range of countries, including Israel, we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program.”

Romney agreed, saying, “Of course, a 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.”

The candidates also shared agreement on other Middle Eastern issues. Romney’s campaign has assailed Obama for months for not doing enough to intervene in Syria, but during the debate the Republican candidate made clear that he, like the president, opposed direct U.S. military involvement. Romney did favor arming some of the rebels.

Romney also accused Obama of failing to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Liberal critics of Romney had seized upon a secretly recorded meeting he had in May with Florida donors in which he expressed doubt that there would be any opportunities to advance the peace process in the near future.

But at the debate, Romney seemed to suggest that the failure to make progress for peace was not inevitable but rather a policy failure by the president.

“Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? Romney asked. “No, they haven’t had talks in two years.

David Siegel — A year in L.A.


In the early-morning hours of Sept. 12, this reporter was awakened by a phone call from a Jerusalem newspaper asking for details about a man named Sam Bacile.

According to seemingly credible global news reports at the time, Bacile was an “Israeli Jew” living in Los Angeles whose virulently anti-Muslim film, “financed by 100 Jewish donors,” had sparked fatal riots in Libya and Egypt, and uprisings were rapidly spreading across the Arab world.

I immediately phoned the mobile number of David Siegel, Israel’s consul general for the southwestern United States.

Siegel was on an official visit in Arizona but already on top of the situation. He and his staff had checked with government offices in Jerusalem and contacts in Hollywood and the local Israeli community. The upshot was that not a single person knew of a Sam Bacile, and Siegel expressed doubts that a man by that name actually existed.

His conclusion, backed by separate investigations by other Journal reporters, was the first step in unraveling a purposefully misleading story that could have had grave repercussions for Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.

Not every day has been quite as exciting since Siegel took up his present post a year ago, but each day has brought its own quieter concerns and challenges.

During a recent wide-ranging interview in his West Los Angeles office, Siegel — an Israeli diplomat born in Burlington, Vt. — discussed some of the challenges Israel faces internationally and in his jurisdiction locally.

Siegel leaves no doubt that his overriding concern as Israel’s top regional representative is to impress upon all to whom he speaks that the Iranian nuclear threat targets not only his country but also the entire Middle East and, indeed, the world.

Putting it starkly, Siegel said that Tehran’s almost daily pronouncements on annihilating the “Zionist entity” are worse than even the threats uttered by a Hitler.

Neither sanctions nor diplomacy have dissuaded Iran from trying to develop a nuclear bomb, nor from exporting terrorism internationally, Siegel said, and the clock is running out on when Iran will have the capability to make good on its most dire threats, or unleash a “geopolitical hurricane” in the Middle East.

Siegel acknowledged a “robust debate” within Israel as to if and when its air force should strike first, but he insisted that “all options are on the table.”

Turning to Israel’s immediate neighbors, Siegel noted that the Arab Spring uprisings and, especially, “the terrible tragedy in Syria,” showed once again that the problems of the Middle East “are not just about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

Asked about the American presidential election campaign, in which each party claims to be more supportive of the Jewish state than the other side, Siegel avowed that Israel’s position, as always, is strictly nonpartisan.

“I would only hope that neither party would use Israel as a wedge issue,” he said.

In most other areas, the United States and Israel have much to give to each other, not only in shared intelligence findings but also in high-tech research and development, Siegel noted.

When Siegel, his wife, Myra, and their three children  arrived in Los Angeles a year ago, he set up as one of his primary goals to “bring the real Israel to the community. “Too many people still relate to Israel only in terms of war or politics, but there is much more to our country,” he declared. “As in America, Israel is an innovative and vibrant society, and we can learn much from each other.”

For example, the United States can learn something from Israel’s integration of vast numbers of immigrants and helping inner-city kids achieve educational success, while Israel could learn from the success of Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles drug and alcohol rehab center.

Los Angeles prides itself on the diversity of its citizenry, but so does Israel, with about 100 distinct ethnic groups. In this respect, Siegel feels that the L.A. Jewish community could step up its outreach to the city’s other ethnic groups.

He also emphasized the existence of 27,000 civil associations in Israel, which promote everything from tikkun olam, or healing of the world, to raising fish in the desert.

“So there are 27,000 opportunities for everybody to connect with Israel, regardless of political leanings or professional interest,” he said.

Like his predecessors, Siegel works at maintaining productive relations with Hollywood, including its studio chiefs and celebrities.

But while some would like to see the TV and film industries produce works with a “pro-Israel” slant, Siegel looks more to the economic side of the enterprise.

“I’ve learned that Hollywood is a business, and Israel, as a locale, could do more to attract major feature productions to shoot in the country,” he said.

One effort along that line was a visit last March by Israeli President Shimon Peres to Los Angeles, where he met with a virtual who’s-who of the Hollywood power structure.

But Siegel cites as perhaps his most important contribution during the past year his part in expanding relations between UC Irvine (UCI), frequently in the news for campus tensions between Muslim and Jewish students, and Israeli universities, including Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

“Both UCI and BGU are about 40 years old, and both are strong in solar energy and biotech research and development. So they are a natural fit,” he said.

UCI has also established joint programs with the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Technion, while UCLA, USC, Chapman University and Arizona State University also are strengthening their ties with Israeli institutions.

In serving as a kind of matchmaker between Israeli and American universities, Siegel said that he tends “to work from the top down,” first contacting the chancellors or presidents of the U.S. universities, who can then motivate their staffs and faculties to follow through.

Among the to-do projects on Siegel’s list is one that is unique to the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Currently, about 5,000 foreign volunteers are serving with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), half of them from North America.

They are called “lone soldiers” because they have no family to visit during holidays or furloughs, so Israeli families try to fill the gap with home hospitality.

Siegel points out that the lone soldiers also leave behind “lone parents” or “lone grandparents” in their respective home countries. He would like to mobilize the resident Jewish community to complement Israel’s example by giving moral support and friendship to such lone parents and grandparents of IDF solders from Los Angeles.

To foreign observers, Angelenos are usually defined by either the perceived glamour of Hollywood or the wealth of Beverly Hills.

Although Siegel knows America well, both by his upbringing and service with the Israel embassy in Washington, he is still surprised by the warmth and vibrancy of the local Jewish community.

“I am constantly learning more about the community and expect to still be learning when my four-year term here is up.”

Iran may still be years away from any nuclear-armed missile


Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium for several atomic bombs if refined to a high degree but it may still be a few years away from being able to build a nuclear-armed missile if it decided to go down that path.

Israel's warning last week that Iran will be on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon by mid-2013 seemed to refer to when it could have a sufficient stock of higher-grade uranium to make a quick dash to produce a bomb's worth of weapon-grade material.

But, analysts say, Tehran would need time also for the technologically complicated task of fashioning highly refined uranium gas into a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile – if it opts for such weapons of mass destruction.

“If they haven't worked out all the steps with dummy materials beforehand they will have a lot to do,” said a Vienna-based diplomat who is not from one of the six world powers involved in diplomacy over Iran's disputed nuclear activity.

“Maybe they have all of the equipment ready. Maybe they have played with surrogate materials. I don't think anyone knows.”

Experts stress that timeline estimates are fraught with uncertainty as it is unclear how advanced the Islamic Republic may be in its suspected nuclear bomb research.

“I still think that we are talking about several years … before Iran could develop a nuclear weapon and certainly before they could have a deliverable nuclear weapon,” said Shannon Kile, head of the Nuclear Weapons Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank.

Iran rejects suspicions of a covert quest for atomic bomb capability. But its refusal to curb nuclear work with both civilian and military applications, and its lack of openness with U.N. inspectors, have drawn tough Western sanctions.

A high-level group of U.S. security experts – including former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage – estimated that Iran would need between one and four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single nuclear device.

“Additional time – up to two years, according to conservative estimates – would be required for Iran to build a nuclear warhead that would be reliably deliverable by a missile,” they said in a report published last month.

Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank, also said Iran would need at least two years for assembling a nuclear-tipped missile.

Senior researcher Greg Jones of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center put forward a much quicker breakout scenario for any bomb bid and suggested a truck rather than a missile could be used for delivery to target.

Iran could refine uranium for a nuclear weapon in 10 weeks and produce the required non-nuclear components in six months or less, he said, adding this could be done simultaneously.

NO BREAKOUT WITH JUST ONE BOMB?

But the IISS argued in a report last year that the weaponisation time must be added to that required to produce the fissile material to calculate when a usable bomb could be made.

Making the actual weapon entails converting uranium gas to metal, designing a nuclear triggering device and the production and fitting of spherical explosive lenses, it said.

The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year published a report with a trove of intelligence indicating past, and some possibly continuing, research activities in Iran that could be relevant for nuclear weapons.

They included suspected high explosive experiments and possible work on designing a device to produce a burst of neutrons for setting off a fission chain reaction.

“The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing,” the IAEA said in its latest report on Iran, issued in late August.

Washington still believes that Iran is not on the verge of having a nuclear bomb and that it has not made a decision to pursue one, U.S. officials said in August.

Israel, believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, has threatened military action to stop Iran obtaining such weaponry, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week signalled any attack was not on the cards this year.

In a speech at the annual United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Netanyahu drew a “red line” on a cartoon bomb just below a label in which Iran was 90 percent along the path to having sufficient weapons-grade material.

Experts put that at the point when Iran has amassed enough uranium, purified to a fissile level of 20 percent, that could quickly be enriched further and be used to produce a bomb.

Iran has produced more than 6.8 tonnes of uranium refined up to 5 percent since 2007, an amount experts say could be used for about five nuclear weapons if processed much further.

Worryingly for the West and Israel, some of that material has been refined to 20 percent, representing most of the effort involved in reaching potential bomb material.

According to the latest IAEA report, Iran has produced about 190 kg of this higher-grade uranium, about half of which has been earmarked for conversion into research reactor fuel, leaving a stockpile in August of just over 90 kg.

Traditionally, about 250 kg is estimated to be needed for a bomb, but some believe less would do.

“It is widely known that even a first device can be made with much less,” the diplomat in Vienna said. But, “no one breaks out to make one warhead. Estimates vary but most think three to five warheads is a minimum to be a real nuclear power.”

An Israeli official briefed on the Netanyahu government's Iran strategy told Reuters: “Once Iran gets its first device, no matter how rudimentary, it's a nuclear power and a nuclear menace. With that said, we have always noted that, from this threshold, it would take Iran another two years or so to make a deployable warhead.”

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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