Israel to continue to fight against Iran Deal


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

It is now clear that the Iranian nuclear deal will pass Congress. President Obama now has the 34 votes to override any Congressional objections, and is well on the way to being able to prevent any vote at all, if he can achieve the 41 votes needed for a filibuster.

It would be logical that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would now give up his fight against the Iran deal. But at a toast at Israel’s Foreign Ministry for the upcoming Jewish New Year, Netanyahu said he intends to keep fighting against the Iran agreement.

“Even in the face of disputes, Israel must be mindful of its traditional allies, chiefly the United States,” Netanyahu said. “And although the majority of Americans see eye to eye with us in terms of the threat Iran poses, it is important that the American public understand the fact that Iran is an enemy of the United States and openly declares it.”

“Israel and the United States are allies and this understanding has important implications for our continued security cooperation,” Netanyahu added.  

Polls show that most Israelis oppose the Iranian nuclear deal, which would lift most sanctions on Iran in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program. President Obama says it will keep Iran away from a bomb for at least 15 years. But many in Israel are skeptical, saying that Iran has lied to the international community in the past and is likely to do so again.

Netanyahu’s campaign has deepened tensions between the US and Israel to one of the highest levels in recent history. An official from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC is quoted in Israeli media as saying that Netanyahu’s speech in Congress last March was a bad decision.

“As soon as he insisted on going ahead with this move, which was perceived as a Republican maneuver against the president, we lost a significant part of the Democratic party, without which it was impossible to block the agreement,” the official, who asked not to be named told the Walla News Agency.

Former Israeli Knesset member Dov Lipman (an American-born rabbi) of the Yesh Atid party, which was part of the government coalition in the last government but is currently in opposition, said Netanyahu has made serious mistakes.

“That speech in Congress made no sense in what was best for Israel,” Lipman told The Media Line. “We had Democratic congressmen begging us and saying, “don’t make this a partisan issue.” The moment he got up and put the Democrats in that position, we lost it.”

Lipman said Netanyahu should admit defeat and try to move on.

“We embarrassed the President and the Secretary of State and ruined all of these relationships with Jewish organizations,” Lipman said. “It is a colossal failure and the deal is happening anyway.”

Some Israeli analysts say that Netanyahu will not give up for several reasons.

“Israeli politics are focused on security issues, not economic ones,” Reuven Chazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “Netanyahu’s focus on Iran helped him win the Israeli election, and even if it’s a dead horse he’s going to beat it for political purposes.”

But beyond that, he said that Netanyahu deeply believes that the Iran deal is a colossal mistake that lead to a nuclear Iran, rather than preventing that scenario. He says he has heard this from several in Netanyahu’s inner circle.

“This is an almost Messianic quest in Netanyahu’s mind,” he said. “He perceives that he was put on this earth to save Israel from the Iranian threat.”

What America will offer Israel after the nuclear deal


The moment the Iran nuclear deal becomes law, as seems increasingly likely given growing congressional support for the agreement, the focus of the U.S.-Israel conversation will shift to the question of what’s next.

What more will Washington do to mitigate the Iranian threat and reassure Israel and other regional allies?

For starters, President Barack Obama seems ready to offer an array of security enhancements. Among them are accelerating and increasing defense assistance to Israel over the next decade; increasing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East; stepping up the enforcement of non-nuclear related Iran sanctions; enhancing U.S. interdiction against disruptive Iranian activity in the region; and increasing cooperation on missile defense.There also will be an emphasis on keeping any of the tens of billions of dollars to which Iran will gain unfettered access through the sanctions relief from reaching Iran’s proxies.

Adam Szubin, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary charged with enforcing sanctions, made targeting Hezbollah a focus of his meetings with Israeli officials last week, JTA has learned.

Once some nuclear-related sanctions on Iran are lifted – should Iran meet the requirements in the deal on nuclear restrictions – Washington will allocate greater resources to focusing on other sanctions unaffected by the agreement, including those related to backing terrorism, a senior U.S. official told JTA.

“We have a lot of that same personnel and resources we can devote to U.S.-specific sanctions on Iran – and not only Iran,” the official said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not wanting to be seen as endorsing the deal while there’s still a chance Congress could scuttle it, has directed Israeli officials not to engage with U.S. officials on what could be done after the deal is in place. The Israeli envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, has said that Israel would be ready for discussions only after options to kill the agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are exhausted.

“We appreciate the support that we have gotten from this administration, from this president, to enhance our security,” Dermer told USA Today in a July 27 interview. “And the discussion that we’ll have about the day after, we’ll have to leave to the day after.”

Congress has until Sept. 17 to decide whether to allow the deal to proceed.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is leading the opposition to the deal, argued in a memo distributed Monday that U.S. pledges of post-deal security enhancements are inadequate.

“The administration has tried to reassure those concerned by the dangerous consequences of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in two ways: by pledging increased support for Israel and our Gulf allies and by vowing that it will strictly enforce the deal,” said the memo, which is headlined “Promises Cannot Fix a Bad Deal.” “Neither approach will repair the deal’s fatal flaw: it legitimizes Iran as a nuclear-threshold state in 15 years.”

Obama in an interview Monday with the Forward attached urgency to confronting Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.

Speaking of Israel, he said, “We can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles.”

The emphasis on Hezbollah was appropriate, said Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser from 2009 to 2011.

“The president on sensing a degree of urgency with Hezbollah sooner rather than later is absolutely right,” Arad said, noting the group’s role as an Iranian proxy in helping prop up the Assad regime in Syria. “It relates to the need to uproot and to neutralize the violent and anti-American and anti-Israel radical group. It is a matter of urgent joint concern.”

Arad outlined a number of areas that would enhance Israel’s sense of security in a post-deal environment, including:

* Maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, even as the United States enhances the military capabilities of Arab Persian Gulf allies that, similar to Israel, will be seeking reassurances in the wake of the Iran deal;

* Enhancing joint missile defense programs;

* Extending the defense assistance memorandum of understanding, which since 2008 has provided Israel with an average of $3 billion in defense assistance per year, for another 10 years (it’s set to expire in 2018), and delivering promised F-35 advanced fighter aircraft to Israel;

* Enhancing joint civilian scientific research and development;

* Delivering advanced bunker-buster bombs to maintain Israel’s deterrent edge should Iran cheat on or abandon the deal. “Israel should be given this special kind of ordnance so it could have a more effective military option in case of Iranian violations of the agreement,” Arad said, arguing that this would strengthen the agreement by creating a disincentive for Iran to cheat.

*A “declaratory” component emphasizing U.S. longstanding commitments to Israel.

* Making clear that the U.S. effort to stop the expansion of Islamist terrorism and extremism targets Iranian activities as well as those associated with the Islamic State terrorist group.

Obama touched on many of these issues in a letter he sent to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Aug. 19.

“It is imperative that, even as we effectively cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon through the implementation of the JCPOA, we take steps to ensure that we and our allies and our partners are more capable than ever to deal with Iran’s destabilizing activities and support for terrorism,” Obama said in the letter, which was first obtained by The New York Times.

The president specified four areas where cooperation would be enhanced: extending defense assistance for a decade, joint missile defense research, joint efforts to improve tunnel detection (following the advances made by Hamas in its 2014 war with Israel), and “strengthening our efforts to confront conventional and asymmetric threats.”

The letter persuaded Nadler to back the deal and should be a salve to Israeli security officials, said Dan Arbell, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Washington.

“If I were an Israeli bureaucrat right now in any of the related areas working around this, what the president provides in his letter is a pretty thorough list, which I think the Israeli defense establishment would be happy with,” said Arbell, who now lectures at American University.

Persian Gulf allies would want the reassurances that Israel is receiving as well as specific assurances of assistance in keeping Iran from meddling in Arab affairs, said Michael Eisenstadt, a longtime officer in the U.S. Army Reserve who served in the Middle East.

Even with such assurances, Eisenstadt said, Gulf allies would remain concerned that the deal enhances Iran’s stature.

“Weapons are Band-Aids on a hemorrhage,” said Eisenstadt, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “From the point of view of our allies in the region, we’ve contributed to a lot of the problem” by advancing the Iran deal.

‘The most dangerous weapons ever invented’: Policy expert talks nukes, Israel and the Iran deal


Joe Cirincione is a nuclear policy expert who served for nearly a decade on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, beginning during the Reagan administration. He has since authored several books on the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear security strategy. Today, he is president of the Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy and conflict resolution, with offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. He is a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board and the Council on Foreign Relations. He talks here about the world's total nuclear arsenal, why coercion is a failed nuclear security strategy and why the U.S. could launch a more effective military strike after the Iran Deal expires.

Danielle Berrin: What should the public know about living in a world in which nuclear weapons are a real and present reality? 

Joe Cirincione: These are the most dangerous weapons ever invented. The use of even one nuclear weapon on a modern city would be a catastrophe unprecedented. The use of 10 weapons is unthinkable, and 100 could spell the end of the life of a country and jeopardize the continuation of human civilization. 

DBSo, what would happen if Iran dropped a bomb on a tiny country like Israel?

JC: Even a small nuclear weapon could destroy Tel Aviv. Two or three nuclear weapons could devastate large parts of the country. 

DBIn a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, you argued in favor of the Iran deal, calling any notion of a better deal “nonsense.” Why, then, does this deal also inspire such vociferous opposition?

JC: In most other parts of world, this is not a controversial agreement. International opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of this deal; nuclear policy experts are overwhelmingly in favor of this deal. The reason it is so controversial in the United States is because the political leader of Israel has said that the deal represents a mortal threat to the security of Israel. Plus, the opportunity the Republican Party has seen to deny a Democratic president a foreign-policy victory. Put those two things together, and it presents a formidable political force against what should otherwise be a noncontroversial agreement. 

DBIf the deal is as good as you say it is, why do you think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is staking so much political capital on opposing it? Is he crazy?

JC: He’s wrong. Every single argument that he presents has been thoroughly answered and rebutted by the best and brightest national security and military experts in United States government. I take him at his word that he sees Iran as a genuine threat to Israel. [But] this deal makes Israel safer: The nuclear program of Iran is going to be effectively frozen for a generation — that is a very long time in international affairs. At the end of that time, should Iran try to get a weapon, we will know with great precision where Iran’s critical nodes are located; we will have improved intelligence on their entire nuclear supply chain, and if we did have to go on a military strike, we’d be much more effective at conducting a strike after this deal than we are right now.

DBAs someone who has studied nuclear proliferation throughout his career, doesn’t history suggest that those intent on acquiring a bomb usually wind up with one?

JC: The history shows that you cannot stop a country from getting a nuclear weapon if that country is intent on getting one. The only way you stop them is if you convince them not to get it. In the last 30 years, more countries have given up nuclear weapons and nuclear programs than have tried to get them, and some of these were very tough cases: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Libya, Iraq. This [deal] is a face-saving way [for Iran] to back off from their program. Is there a risk that after 15 years they will then reinstall centrifuges and re-engage their program? Yes. 

DBThe United States is the only country in the history of the world that has actually used a nuclear weapon against another country. What makes us moral authorities on nuclear proliferation?

JC: Moral authority is not our strong suit in this regard. We have over 7,000 nuclear weapons in our arsenal; Russia has a similar number. Together, we have 95 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world, way beyond what our national security needs. We went a little nuclear nuts in the 20th century, and we’re now recovering from those years. During the Ronald Reagan administration, there were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and now there are under 16,000. We’ve made tremendous progress. 

DBIn other words, no one should be trusted with a nuclear weapon.

JC: You’ve got to be a real optimist to think that you can keep 16,000 nuclear weapons in fallible human hands and not think something is gonna go wrong. 

DBYou’ve dismissed Israel’s fear of an Iranian bomb, though, as stemming from the politics of its prime minister. Do you also dismiss Iran’s threats as empty political remarks? 

JC: Quite the opposite. Because they have leaders who have made these kinds of threats, I want a deal that stops them from getting that nuclear capability. I would have loved to get a deal that completely eliminated their nuclear infrastructure; I was in favor of that 10 years ago, when their infrastructure was very small. 

DBWhy did we miss that opportunity?

JC: In 2003 [after the United States’ invasion of Iraq], Iran offered to negotiate with the Bush administration on their nuclear program and on a package of other issues, including their support for Hamas and Hezbollah, their relationship to the State of Israel and their relationship to their Sunni-Arab neighbors. But the United States wasn’t interested. The policy of the Bush administration was, as Vice President Dick Cheney said, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.” And the view was that we could move from Iraq to toppling other objectionable governments in the region, including those of Syria and Iran. Then everything started to collapse, and that moment passed. In 2005, Iran offered again to renew negotiations, and again the U.S. wasn’t interested. So Iran went ahead with its nuclear program. As we piled on sanctions, they piled on centrifuges: They went from 164 centrifuges in 2003, to 20,000 by 2013. 

DBDoes it worry you at all that even if Iran is prevented from proceeding with its nuclear program, the collapse of sanctions will enable it to increase its conventional weapons stockpile and potentially trigger a regional arms race? 

JC: This deal keeps the conventional arms embargo on Iran in effect for five more years. Five years from now, will the embargo be lifted? Yes. This deal does not solve all our problems with Iran. It doesn’t address their support for Hamas and Hezbollah; it doesn’t address their human rights record; it doesn’t get American prisoners out of Iran. It only does one thing, but it does it very well: It stops Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. 

DBLet’s say the deal doesn’t go through, and international sanctions begin to collapse. Israeli officials have said that the U.S.’ “biting sanctions” are the only ones that matter anyway, because the U.S. controls the international banking system. Could the U.S. sustain effective sanctions alone?

JC: That is a fantasy. The idea that the U.S. can impose sanctions on the rest of the world after we walk away from a deal that everyone else thinks solves the problem is the height of hubris. If the U.S. tried to sanction Chinese banks for trading with Iran, I think you would start to see a determined Chinese effort to move away from the dollar as central global currency. A view would take hold in the world that the U.S. could not be trusted anymore, and that you could not rely on the U.S. to provide stability and consistency in international relations. 

DBHow can we measure this deal’s success?

JC: You’re not going to change this regime. The question is, does it open up? Does this deal lead to a more cooperative posture by Iran on some of the other issues that we’re dealing with? Do they start cooperating to end the war in Syria? To stabilize Iraq? To fight ISIS? If you see some movement in those directions, I think this deal will start to look very good, including to Jewish Americans. 

DB: In your heart, is this deal better for Israel or better for the U.S.?

JC: I’m going to Israel tomorrow. I’ve been to Israel 10 times, including on my honeymoon back in 1978. I have family in Israel. I would never do anything that I thought jeopardized their lives or their futures. I have a niece and a nephew who fought in the [Israel Defense Forces]; I have a goddaughter who was just a sniper on the Israel-Egypt border.  

DB: Who is Jewish in your family? 

JC: My wife and my kids, and now my grandkids. I’m surrounded. Last week, my son broke the glass under the chuppah and got married. 

DBAnd you’re Italian. What does a holiday table look like?

JC: It is not unheard of to have lasagna and kugel at the same meal.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated a quote attributed to former Vice President Dick Cheney. He did not say “We don’t negotiate with people we’ve defeated.” He said, “We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it.”

Netanyahu, Obama have contentious conversation about Iran deal


President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister had a contentious phone call after the major powers achieved a deal with Iran.

Netanyahu in a statement said he raising two objections in the phone call.

“One, the agreement allows Iran to develop extensive capabilities that will serve it in arming itself with nuclear weapons whether at the end of the period of the agreement in another 10-15 years, or earlier if it violates the agreement,” the statement said.“Two, the agreement channels hundreds of billions of dollars to Iran’s terrorism and war machine, a war that is directed against us and against others in the region,” it said.

Netanyahu’s statement also twice said that the desire by the major powers to get to an agreement was “stronger than anything else,” although it did not say whether Netanyahu made this accusation directly to Obama in their conversation.

The White House also released an account of the phone call. It said Obama told Netanyahu the deal would “verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward.”

He also told Netanyahu the U.S. defense secretary, Ashton Carter, would visit Israel next week.

The visit, the White House statement said, “is a reflection of the unprecedented level of security cooperation between the United States and Israel, and that the visit offers a further opportunity to continue our close consultation on security issues with Israeli counterparts as we remain vigilant in countering the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities in the region.”

Israel likely to turn to congress to fight Iranian nuclear deal


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

There’s a joke making the Facebook rounds of Israelis.

“Knock knock”

“Who’s there?”

“A nuclear Iran.”

“A nuclear Iran, who?”

“BOOM.”

The joke shows the deep skepticism most Israelis have, from officials down to the man in the street, that the Iran deal signed today will put an end to Iran’s nuclear program and make Israel safer. The deep skepticism is being expressed almost across the board in Israel, in a rare moment of political unity and support for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

“This agreement is about Iran making a bomb within 15 years,” General Yakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu told The Media Line. “This is a threat to our existence and we will do whatever is needed. It’s become clear that we cannot build on the Americans, and Israel has to do it by itself.”

At the same time, most analysts said that an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, which had been discussed in the past, is unlikely now. It would leave Israel a pariah in the international community.

The rift between the US and Israel has never seemed larger than this moment, after President Obama said the deal “prevents the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” President Obama also pledged to veto any Congressional attempt to stop the deal.

Netanyahu, on his part, has already said that he will turn to Congress which now has 60 days to approve the deal. Israel remains skeptical about one of the crucial parts of the deal, the mechanism for inspection to ensure Iranian compliance with the deal.

“What will happen is that the inspectors will be able to visit only places declared by the Iranians or based on information they receive from intelligence,” Amidror said. “But there will be far less intelligence because you don’t spy on a state you have an agreement with the same way you do with one that is an enemy.”

Netanyahu was even more blunt at a meeting with Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders in Jerusalem.

“Iran is going to receive a sure path to nuclear weapons. Many of the restrictions that were supposed to prevent it from getting there will be lifted,” Netanyahu said. “Iran will get a jackpot, a cash bonanza of hundreds of billions of dollars, which will enable it to continue to pursue its aggression and terror in the region and in the world. This is a mistake of historic proportions.”

Yisrael Beytenu Chairman and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman went even further, calling it a danger for the future. “History will remember the Iran deal just like the Munich Agreement (with Nazi Germany) and the agreement with North Korea,” said Lieberman. 

Iran portrayed the deal as a clear victory. In a speech to the citizens of Iran President Hassan Rouhani said, “We didn't ask for charity. We asked for fair, just, and win-win negotiations.” He added a request to the world “not to believe the Israeli propaganda and mocked the failure of the “warmongering Zionist regime.” 

Israeli experts say they are disturbed that Iran will maintain its nuclear infrastructure, and be allowed to continue to enrich uranium. They do not believe that inspection experts will be able to visit any site at any time. They reject Iran’s claim that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and say that the international community has in effect legalized the Iranian bomb.

“Iran has a lot of experience with cheating and the deal is very complicated,” Eldad Pardo, an expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem told The Media Line.

He also said that Iran, which has been suffering from a deep financial crisis brought on by international sanctions, will now be flooded with money, which it could use to further support its proxies in the Middle East, including the Islamist Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Hamas, especially, has been facing financial difficulties due to Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza.

But some Middle East analysts said that even with the threat of more money flowing to terrorist organizations, the Iran nuclear deal could be good for the region.

“It is hard to see how the region would be better off without a deal,” Jane Kinnimont, a senior research fellow on the Middle East program at Chatham House told The Media Line. “We’ve spent most of the past decade debating various options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. If it is possible to manage this issue through diplomacy, it’s clearly far better than any other option.”

Netanyahu: Preventing Iran nukes is this generation’s top challenge


Keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power is the “paramount challenge” of this generation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a pro-Israel conference.

Netanyahu kept his remarks brief on Monday in a live video feed to the annual conference of Christians United for Israel in Washington, D.C.

But speaking to his parliament on the same day, the Israeli leader signaled that he was ready to mount an effort to derail the deal that major powers and Iran appear ready to finalize in talks in Vienna.“It seems that there are those who are ready to make an agreement at any price – and this bad agreement is unavoidable,” Netanyahu told the Knesset. “Our commitment is to prevent Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons, and it is valid today more than ever. I call on all those who care about Israel’s security to unite behind this commitment.”

Netanyahu was setting up a task force to lobby against implementation of the deal, The Jerusalem Post reported, with a particular focus on the U.S. Congress, which under U.S. law may disapprove of the deal.

Also, he set up for the first time a Persian language Twitter account as a means of explaining his opposition to a deal to Iranian citizens.

The CUFI conference featured speaker after speaker condemning the deal as appeasement, including an array of Republican presidential hopefuls, among them former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“This deal will legitimize Iran and will destabilize the Middle East,” Bush said.

Kerry: Iran talks could go either way


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran and the world powers have made “genuine progress” in negotiations on a nuclear deal but that it “could go either way.”

“We are not yet where we need to be on several of the most difficult issues,” Kerry told reporters Sunday in Vienna, Austria, following one-on-one talks with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. “And the truth is that while I completely agree with Foreign Minister Zarif that we have never been closer, at this point this negotiation could go either way.

“If hard choices get made in the next couple of days and made quickly, we could get an agreement this week. But if they are not made, we will not.”

Kerry said if there is no movement on a deal that the United States is “prepared to walk away.”

On Saturday, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said she hopes that “a strong, verifiable deal will put the lid on Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.” But she also warned that even with an agreement, “Iran’s aggressiveness will not end.”

“Even if we do get such a deal, we will still have major problems from Iran. They are the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism,” Clinton, the secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term, said at a campaign event in New Hampshire. “They use proxies like Hezbollah to sow discord and create insurgencies to destabilize governments. They are taking more and more control of a number of nations in the region and they pose an existential threat to Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday strongly condemned the final negotiations push, calling it “a collapse, not a breakthrough.”

“The major powers’ concessions are increasing,” Netanyahu charged in a statement at the beginning of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. “The deal being formulated will pave Iran’s path to the production of very many atomic bombs, and it will also channel to Iran hundreds of billions of dollars that will serve its aggression and terrorism campaigns in our region and around the world.”

Netanyahu called the deal “both a nonconventional threat and a very large conventional threat against Israel, the countries of the region and the world.”

U.S. denies Israeli report on Obama inviting Netanyahu to meet


The White House denied an Israeli newspaper report on Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet in Washington next month.

Citing unnamed U.S. State Department sources, Yedioth Ahronoth daily said the two leaders could meet in the White House on July 15 or 16, after the June 30 deadline for an Iranian nuclear deal over which they have frequently clashed.

Since Netanyahu's election to a fourth term on March 17, U.S. and Israeli officials have said they expected he would meet Obama again. But no date has been set, and a White House official denied Netanyahu had received any U.S. invitation.

“No invitation has been extended, though certainly we’d expect that there will be occasion for the two leaders to meet in Washington at some point going forward,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in response to Yedioth's report.

A spokesman for Netanyahu's office had no immediate official comment on the report. Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity, however, told reporters that no such invitation had been received.

Netanyahu has criticized the emerging nuclear deal, which Israel fears will allow Iran the means of making a bomb, while also granting it sanctions relief that could help bankroll its militant allies in the region.

Iran says its nuclear projects are peaceful.

Israel accuses world powers of yielding to Iran for nuclear deal


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused world powers on Sunday of stepping up concessions to Iran to enable a deal by June 30 on curbing its nuclear program even as Tehran balks at demands for heightened U.N. inspections.

Netanyahu has argued that the agreement in the works would not deny Iran – which says its nuclear projects are peaceful – the means of making a bomb, while granting it sanctions relief that could help bankroll its guerrilla allies in the region.

“To our regret, the reports that are coming in from the world powers attest to an acceleration of concessions by them in the face of Iranian stubbornness,” Netanyahu told his cabinet in broadcast remarks on Sunday. He did not offer further details.

Netanyahu's point-man on the Iranian talks, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, said it appeared that world powers were prepared to accommodate Tehran's resistance to expanded, short-order U.N. nuclear inspections and demand to continue research and development of uranium centrifuges that make nuclear fuel.

On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country, in the name of protecting state secrets, could reject stepped-up inspections – even at the cost of missing the June 30 deadline. Western diplomats had sought the right to carry out inspections with as little as two hours' notice.

But in a televised address on Sunday, Rouhani played up the benefits of easing Iran's international isolation and pledged to reach a deal that would end the hardship of sanctions.

U.S.-ISRAELI CONTACTS

Steinitz, who was in Washington last week to discuss the Iran diplomacy, said the world powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — were considering a stop-gap whereby inspections would be decided on “by committee”.

“Such an arrangement might offer reassurance on paper, but in reality it would give Iran time to cover up illegal nuclear activity or even relocate it off-site,” Steinitz told Reuters.

He added that Israel saw no reason for world powers to allow Iran to continue research and development on uranium centrifuges “if this deal is indeed meant to freeze its program for years”.

On a visit to Israel last week, America's top general sought to reassure Israel — widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal — of “unshakable” U.S. military support.

General Martin Dempsey said long-term prospects were “far better” with an Iran that was not a nuclear weapons power and that Washington would work to mitigate Iran-related risks, with or without a deal.

Netanyahu urged world powers to hold off on a final accord.

“From the outset, the agreement being put together looked bad. It looks worse and worse with each passing day,” he said in his cabinet remarks.

Asked to rate the chances of world powers deferring the deadline to renegotiate the deal, Steinitz said: “Fifty-fifty.”

The United States has said it stands by the end-June deadline for an agreement but other officials have indicated the date might be missed as negotiations about technical details drag on.

Obama: Meeting with Netanyahu only after nuke talks deadline


(JTA) — President Barack Obama reportedly said he will not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the June 30 deadline for the Iran nuclear talks.
Obama told Jewish leaders last week that a face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu would probably end with Netanyahu publicly complaining about the president’s policies on Iran, unnamed sources familiar with the meeting told The New York Times.

For now, the president said, he would speak with Netanyahu over the telephone and an Oval Office invitation would wait until after the deadline for negotiating the details of the Iran deal, according to the Times article published Thursday.

The meeting came amid a White House push to tamp down its confrontations with Israel following a rare flash of public exasperation with an ally, the Times reported.

The White House also is engaged in an aggressive effort to assuage the concerns of Jewish-American groups and pro-Israel members of Congress over the agreement, which Israel opposes because it offers Iran sanctions relief while allowing it to keep its nuclear infrastructure and to continue to enrich some uranium.

Netanyahu, who in March decried the deal in a controversial speech he gave to Congress against the White House’s wishes, has said these terms and others risked making Iran a threshold nuclear power ready to weaponize its nuclear program so fast that world powers would be helpless to stop a breakout.

But U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said Iran already has a breakout capability of several months and that the deal would increase that time to a minimum of a year. And Obama described the deal as “our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu phones Putin to object to missile sale to Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express “grave concerns” regarding the potential future sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran.

During the phone call on Tuesday, Netanyahu said the sale would encourage Iranian aggression in the Middle East.

In a statement released later in the day, Netanyahu said the “dangerous” Iran framework deal reached April 2 in Switzerland was responsible for prompting Putin to green-light the sale.

“This sale of advanced weaponry to Iran is the direct result of the dangerous deal on the table between Iran and the P5+1,” he said in the statement, referring to the six world powers negotiating with Iran. “Can anyone still seriously claim that the deal with Iran will enhance security in the Middle East?”

Netanyahu is considering traveling to Moscow to meet with Putin personally on the issue, Israel’s Channel 2 reported.

On Monday, Putin lifted a ban on the sale of advanced surface-to-air defense missiles to Iran that had been in place since 2007. The move prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to phone Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to protest any future missile sales.

Netanyahu offers alternatives to Iran deal following latest Obama criticism


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel offered alternatives on the nuclear framework agreement with Iran.

Netanyahu released a statement on Sunday with the changes to the deal signed earlier this month, a day after President Barack Obama told reporters that Netanyahu had not provided any alternatives.

The Israeli leader called on the international community to negotiate a better agreement.

In his statement, Netanyahu criticized Iran for insisting in the wake of the agreement on maintaining its nuclear capabilities and refusing to allow nuclear inspections, as well as its continuing aggression in the region.

“Let me reiterate again the two main components of the alternative to this bad deal: First, instead of allowing Iran to preserve and develop its nuclear capabilities, a better deal would significantly roll back these capabilities – for example, by shutting down the illicit underground facilities that Iran concealed for years from the international community,” he said. “Second, instead of lifting the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear facilities and program at a fixed date, a better deal would link the lifting of these restrictions to an end of Iran’s aggression in the region, its worldwide terrorism and its threats to annihilate Israel.”

On Saturday, Obama spoke at a news conference at the Americas Summit in Panama City, Panama, on Netanyahu’s failure to come up with alternatives.

“The prime minister of Israel is deeply opposed to it, I think he’s made that very clear,” Obama said. “I have repeatedly asked, what is the alternative that you present that you think makes it less likely for Iran to get a nuclear weapon? And I have yet to obtain a good answer on that.”

The Netanyahu statement came the same day that Haaretz reported, citing two unnamed Israeli officials, that Netanyahu said at an April 3 meeting of the security Cabinet that if a final agreement is signed between Iran and the world powers, the greatest concern is that Tehran will fully implement it without violations.

Netanyahu reportedly said at the meeting — hours before the start of the Passover seder and a day after the framework agreement was signed — that he was concerned that Iran will not break the agreement, waiting until it expires in 10-15 years and the country is not considered a threat to restart its nuclear program without the threat of international monitors or sanctions.

The security Cabinet decided at the meeting to try to persuade the Obama administration to improve the agreement. Most ministers, however, reportedly believe the best way to halt or alter the agreement is through Congress, which is where the most effort will be spent.

U.S. and Israel escalate war of words over Iran


Israel and the Obama administration have stepped up their war of words over the framework agreement that aims to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a gradual rollback of sanctions.

President Barack Obama made his most detailed effort yet to persuade skeptics of the accord reached last week in Switzerland in a weekend interview with The New York Times, asserting that the deal is the “best bet” to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon and promising to “stand by” Israel in the event of Iranian aggression.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his skepticism of the deal undiminished, made the rounds of American talk shows on Sunday morning to denounce a deal that he said gives Iran a “free path” to the bomb. And on Monday, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, in an effort to rebut claims that Israel had offered no alternative to a military campaign against Iran, presented reporters in Jerusalem with a list of modifications he said would make the agreement “more reasonable.”

Steinitz’s requirements included the closing of the underground nuclear facility at Fordo, a commitment to ship uranium stockpiles out of the country and an inspections regime that would allow international monitors the ability to go “anywhere, anytime” in Iran.

Under the terms of the framework accord reached April 2 in Lausanne, the Fordo facility would be reconfigured and would not enrich uranium, but it would not be shuttered entirely. Iran also would be permitted to continue to enrich uranium using its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at its facility in Natanz. The accord requires Iran to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to investigate allegations of covert activity “anywhere in the country.”

In his interview with Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama said the deal is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to open a new chapter with Iran while preserving all American options and capabilities in the event that Iran fails to uphold its end of the bargain.

“Iran may change,” Obama said. “If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place.”

He added, “We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”

Obama acknowledged that Israel is far more vulnerable to Tehran, and he sought to offer assurances that the United States would maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and come to its aid in the event of attack. The United States, Obama said, “is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”

Yet on Monday, Obama indicated there were limits to how far he would go with respect to Israel, rejecting a demand issued last Friday by Netanyahu that a final deal require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist, calling the notion a “fundamental misjudgment.”

“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” Obama said in an interview with NPR. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment. I want to return to this point: We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing.”

Obama still faces an uphill climb in Congress. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed a bill that would grant Congress the right to review the deal. The committee is due to vote on the bill April 14. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become Senate minority leader when Harry Reid (D-Nev.) retires at the end of the year, said this week that he would support Corker’s legislation.

“I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement, and I support the Corker bill, which would allow that to occur,” Schumer told Politico on Monday.

American Jewish groups are also skeptical of the accord. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued statements following the conclusion of the agreement last week expressing hope for a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the standoff. But the groups also expressed doubt that Iran could be trusted to faithfully execute its end of the bargain.

“Given the nature of the Iranian regime, its pattern of seeking to deceive the international community on its nuclear program, its support for global terror and its regional hegemonic ambitions, its repeated calls for a world without Israel, and its clandestine weapons efforts, AJC is deeply concerned about whether Iran will abide by any undertaking it makes, and if any inspections regime will be sufficient to monitor Iran’s full compliance,” the American Jewish Committee said.

In an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu compared the agreement to the 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea. That deal, too, Netanyahu said, was “deemed to be a great breakthrough,” but it did not prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran, the prime minister said, “is a great deal more dangerous than North Korea.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning that the agreement does not threaten Israel’s survival and that Netanyahu should “contain himself because he has put out no real alternative. In his speech to the Congress — no real alternative. Since then — no real alternative.”

Steinitz pushed back against that criticism on Monday, saying the notion that war is the alternative to the Obama deal “is wrong.”

“The alternative is not necessarily to declare war on Iran,” he said. “It is to increase pressure on Iran and stand firm and make Iran make serious concessions and have a much better deal.”

Cutting losses on Iran nuclear deal, Israel eyes small print


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to signal that Israel could resign itself to an Iranian nuclear deal that would leave its enemy with some uranium enrichment capability, a compromise he has long opposed.

The shift seems surprising given Netanyahu's contentious speech to the U.S. Congress earlier this month in which he argued against world powers letting Tehran keep thousands of uranium centrifuges and remain on possible course to a bomb.

But faced with Western impatience and White House wrath over the calls to avoid a “very bad deal” – while offering no detailed alternative of his own – Netanyahu and his envoys are now engaging with negotiators on the small print of what Israel hopes will be a better agreement.

Almost lost in the prime minister's March 3 denunciations in Congress was a line urging U.S. President Barack Obama to seek a “better deal” that “Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally”.

Pressed to elaborate, Netanyahu, who won a fourth term in Israel's March 17 election, told MSNBC in an interview two days later that Israel and like-minded Arab states might accede to Iran not giving up of all its uranium centrifuges.

Iran insists its nuclear drive is peaceful and wants to keep at least 9,000 of the centrifuges, which are used to process uranium to energy-yielding purity but could potentially make warhead fuel too.

World powers have spoken of allowing Iran to have 6,500 centrifuges, a number they assess would slow the “break out” period Iran would need to build a bomb to a year – time enough to intervene.

The Israelis, who are not a party to the talks but have been heard out in Western capitals due to their fears of a nuclear-armed Iran and their threats – now looking increasingly hollow – to launch a unilateral war of last-resort, have made clear they want their foe left with much less.

But they have not presented a comprehensive counter-proposal, a reticence that one Israeli nuclear official told Reuters was designed to avoid providing a “bottom line” that negotiators might try to stretch in their talks with Iran.

Instead, officials say, Israel has been challenging Western powers on specific details of a deal, such as strong technical safeguards and extending the breakout time.

“We think to leave Iran one year from the bomb or 1.5 years is too dangerous because sooner or later they will dash to the bomb,” Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu's point-man on Iran, told Reuters this week during a visit to Europe, where he conferred with French and British counterparts.

DETAILS IN FOCUS

Israel, Steinitz said, preferred a 2- to 3-year breakout time – a disclosure in itself reflecting the recalibration by Netanyahu, whose advisers previously said that Iran, if stripped of all nuclear projects, could reconstitute them in five years.

Steinitz argued the one-year breakout could apply even if Iran were left with just 3,000 to 4,000 centrifuges, given its capacity, known by the rubric “research and development”, to improve their performance and manufacture more at short notice.

“We claim that if Iran is permitted to preserve 6,000 centrifuges the breakout time is not 12 months but around nine to 10 months, even with zero (uranium) stockpiles,” Steinitz said, urging world powers to insist on technological curbs.

“Although we are against a deal in general, we are also focusing on specific items within this wrong deal,” he said, adding that Iran should also be compelled to come clean on allegations it had conducted secret nuclear weaponization tests.

“R&D is the most important topic on the table.”

A European diplomat confirmed this was now the Israelis' focus, saying that although they “are clearly not fans of the one-year (breakout) they are principally concerned by research and development and want the most restrictions possible on it. The message is simple: stop all enrichment possibilities.”

“They are very conservative on each parameter and pushing for the most conservative and restrictive measures, but they appear to be more flexible than what they originally wanted.”

A U.S. diplomat, who also spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said it was still unclear how many Iranian centrifuges might get Israel's grudging assent.

“In private they have been talking about small numbers but the devil is in the details. What's small to us is not small to them,” the U.S. diplomat said.

Israeli hopes of seeing Iran denied any refined uranium capacity were dashed by its November 2013 interim deal with world powers, which envisaged a final agreement permitting it a “mutually defined” and “peaceful” enrichment program.

Negotiators want to agree the deal by June 30, and an outline by next week, despite disputes among Western delegates. Iran on Wednesday said any agreement must involve the immediate lifting of sanctions on it, a demand rejected by the West.

At loggerheads with a Washington weary of Middle East wars, Netanyahu has not played up past threats to attack Iran. Asked how Israel might respond if a nuclear deal that it opposes goes through, Steinitz said: “I don't know.”

Another senior Israeli official was circumspect, saying: “Would Bibi (Netanhayu) go to war over 5,000 centrifuges? I'm not so sure.”

Under cloud of Iran talk, AIPAC quietly courts progressives


At the AIPAC conference, a sea of 16,000 Israel supporters spent their time talking Iran policy amid the swirling controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

To the sidelines fell discussion of the Israeli elections, the peace process and Israeli innovation — as well as another quieter aim of the three-day forum: courting progressives.

Sprinkled through the dense program were several well-attended sessions devoted to presenting Israel’s deep connection to progressive values. In plenary sessions and breakout panels, speaker after speaker described AIPAC’s mission as being in alignment with  the history of civil rights and social justice.

“Friendship. Courage. Commitment. These are the characteristics that I was taught to value,” AIPAC National Council member Rashida Winfrey, a Selma, Ala., native with deep roots in the civil rights movement, said from the main stage on March 1 following a clip of marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. “Today I stand with those who support Israel as I know they stood with me.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, long accused of leaning to the right and concerned about stagnant support for Israel on the left, has quietly upped its outreach to liberals in recent years. Marilyn Rosenthal, a former deputy political director with the lobby, was named national director for progressive engagement in 2014.

And yet, much of that effort was invisible to the media covering the AIPAC policy conference March 1-3.

A number of sessions that celebrated progressive values were open to the press, such as the struggles against sexism and for gay rights. At one panel, titled “Proud and Pro-Israel,” longtime gay rights activist Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress highlighted the history of Jewish support for marriage equality and employment nondiscrimination.

But at several points, AIPAC shut the door to reporters.

One session, titled “The Progressive Case for Israel,” ran three times at the conference and was closed to media. Also off the record was a panel — “Israel and the Progressive Mind” — featuring Haaretz writer Ari Shavit, whose book “My Promised Land” re-examines several of Israel’s founding myths and whose presence conference-goers pointed to as evidence of a new openness.

At one closed panel, Barney Frank, the longtime former congressman from Massachusetts, questioned settlement policy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress without first checking with the White House or congressional Democrats.

“It was one of the first times I heard any substantive debates,” said Rabbi David Paskin of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who attended the Frank session and describes himself as a “pro-gay rights, pro-women’s rights, pro-immigration reform” progressive. “Congressman Frank said something quite powerful: If Israel’s greatest supporters can’t criticize her, then we lose credibility to others.”

AIPAC declined to respond to repeated requests for comment on its progressive outreach effort and why these panels were closed to the media. But interviews with attendees revealed that talk about the Palestinians exposed a rift between those who believe it is time for AIPAC to address questions of Palestinian rights and those who feel such issues are outside the lobby’s purview.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of this city’s Adas Israel confessed to some ambivalence about attending the conference. One speaker, he recalled, said that we are “called by God [to] do what is right for Israel.”

“When I think about doing right for Israel, I also think of justice for Palestinians and a real accountability for all kinds of policies and actions on the part of the current Israeli government that are hurting chances for peace profoundly,” Steinlauf said.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen of South Orange, N.J., who participated in a recent AIPAC trip to Israel for progressive rabbis and serves as a volunteer AIPAC ambassador, called the notion that it’s contradictory to be both a progressive and an AIPAC activist a “false narrative.”

But Cohen, who points to his own long commitment to gay rights, poverty relief and the environment, says AIPAC’s mission is solely to strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance. The future of the West Bank and Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians fall outside the organization’s mandate.

“Organizations have the right to define their mission and purpose in the way that they choose to define it,” Cohen said. “It is the democratic nation of Israel that has to determine what to do there” — in the West Bank and Gaza — “hopefully with a Palestinian Authority that really wants peace. But it is undemocratic for someone living here to dictate policy there.”

Without mentioning J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby seen as an alternative to AIPAC, Cohen acknowledged that other Israel policy groups disagree with AIPAC’s policy of avoiding such issues.

“You can say that approach is wrong,” Cohen said. “Then this is not the pro-Israel lobby for you.”

Joel Braunold, the U.S. director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella group for organizations working on Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, participated in two open panels addressing coexistence projects.

Braunold said he did not moderate his message for AIPAC. He took Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to task for threatening Israel’s Arab citizens during a live prime-time television debate in Israel last week. His audience, Braunold said, was mostly receptive to warnings by his fellow panelists about Jewish extremism.

Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a writer for a number of progressive publications, said it was good that AIPAC recognized that it had a problem with progressives.

“But they need to understand it’s not a perception problem but a reality problem,” Duss said. “It is great to talk about LGBT rights, social welfare and other progressive issues. Israel is a great society in many respects. But you cannot use those things to paper over the fact that Israel continues the occupation, continues to expand settlements and continues to control the lives of millions of Palestinians to whom it owes no accountability.

“The question is whether AIPAC is really willing to grapple with these issues. And I see no evidence of that yet.”

Day 1 at AIPAC: Trusting Congress, expecting little from White House and anxious about Bibigate


The marching orders to the reported 16,000 attendees were clear on the first day of this year’s AIPAC policy conference: push legislators to pass a proposed bill that would give Congress the right to approve or reject any nuclear agreement signed between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime.

And the implications, too, were clear: AIPAC, an organization built on fostering bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and the White House, all but expects the president to sign a “bad” deal with Iran, one that the group believes would make Iran a threshold nuclear power and would endanger Israel’s existence.

This dynamic—relying on Congress to counterbalance the White House—along with the anticipation and anxiety over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday address to Congress, characterized the first day of AIPAC’s three-day conference in Washington, D.C.

While AIPAC’s top brass and politicians addressing the conference did not ignore the drama surrounding the circumstances of the speech—which has further frayed an already troubled relationship between Obama and Netanyahu—the focus was on the two bills AIPAC and its army of citizen lobbyists will push when they pack Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

First, the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015”, a bill introduced on Jan. 27 that would automatically introduce new sanctions on Iran if nuclear talks collapse. Second, the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015”, introduced last Friday, which would require Obama to obtain Congressional approval over any nuclear deal with Iran.

As Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, said, “Thank goodness for Congress.”

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), appearing together on stage Sunday morning in symbolic bipartisan fashion, praised the AIPAC members for what the two said is their influence on lawmakers.

“To my AIPAC friends, you’re going to make more difference than any speech any politician could deliver,” said Graham, a crowd favorite. “AIPAC is the glue that holds this relationship together.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (R), interviewed by Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University Frank Sesno in Washington on March 1. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The South Carolina senator said that he will be in the “front row” of Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech to a joint session of Congress, which news reports have suggested he will use as an opportunity to inform lawmakers of particularly risky and dangerous elements of the deal.

“Let us commit ourselves to get as many eyes as possible on this deal before it becomes binding,” Graham said.

Cardin, stating that Israel must never become a “political wedge issue”, also helped pump up the crowd in preparation for their Tuesday lobbying mission. “We need you on Capitol Hill. We have to keep strong sanctions against Iran,” Cardin said. “We could use your help.”

For all the talk, though, about how support for Israel cannot become a Republican or Democratic issue, by putting its weight and resources behind Congress as a sort of nuclear negotiations watchdog, AIPAC's message is clear—the White House is headed toward a dangerous deal, and only Congress can stop it.

“There are some real strains in the relationships,” Kohr admitted. “There is a serious policy difference, particularly over Iran.”

About 30 Democrats reportedly plan to skip Netanyahu's Tuesday speech to Congress, which has further worsened an already toxic relationship between the current governments in Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu critics have argued that he’s using the speech as a political tool for upcoming elections in Israel, that he disrespected the Obama administration by not informing it beforehand of the address, and that he’s turning Israel into a partisan issue in Washington.

Netanyahu’s office has repeatedly said that he has an obligation to speak up for Israel because it stands the most to lose from a bad deal with Iran, and that it was not the responsibility of Netanyahu’s office to inform the White House, but of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office, which officially invited Netanyahu. Boehner’s office reportedly informed the White House of Netanyahu’s acceptance two hours before it was publicly announced.

Sunday at AIPAC, although Kohr and politicians in attendance stressed the importance of attending Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there were few, if any, public endorsements of his decision to address lawmakers.

“There’s no question that the way this speech has come about has created a great deal of upset among Democrats in Congress—House and Senate,” Kohr said. “It’s created some upset, frankly, outside the Capitol and, frankly, it may have upset some people in this room.”

On Feb. 26, Al-Monitor columnist Ben Caspit reported that AIPAC’s top officials “were in shock” after they learned of Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, and that the group warned Netanyahu that some Democrats would “boycott” the speech.

And even though Kohr did not endorse Netanyahu’s decision, he stressed that AIPAC believes “it’s an important speech.”

“We have spent active hours lobbying for members of the House and Senate to attend this speech,” Kohr said. “When the leader of our greatest ally in the region comes to Washington to speak about the greatest challenge of our time, we hope and urge members of Congress to be there to hear what he has to say.”

Cardin, striking a similar tone, said that the “circumstances surrounding the invitation are not how it should’ve been.”

“But don’t lose focus,” he continued. “The bad guy is Iran.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca.), who represents a district in Los Angeles and sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an afternoon panel session about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, that the “personal and partisan” nature of the hostility between Obama and Netanyahu makes it harder for Democrats to go against Obama and vote on sanctions while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.

“Back home they view this as a personality contest between two people, Bibi Netanyahu and President Barack Obama,” Sherman said. “It's hard for people in districts where the president got 60, 70, 80 percent of the vote to vote against Obama's position on sanctions now that it's such a personal, high profile issue.”

“It is much more difficult for me to go to Democrats,” he said.

Kerry says will know soon if U.S., Iran can reach nuclear deal


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday he expected to know soon whether Iran is willing to agree to a nuclear deal, and he appeared to take a swipe at Israel's prime minister over the issue.

“We expect to know soon whether or not Iran is willing to put together an acceptable, verifiable plan,” Kerry told lawmakers at a congressional hearing on the U.S. State Department budget.

The United States and five powers, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, are seeking to negotiate an accord with Iran to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Washington suspects Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

In his opening statement on Tuesday, Kerry also appeared to implicitly criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has blasted the emerging nuclear agreement withIran as “bad and dangerous” and said he would do what he could to prevent it.

“Anybody running around right now jumping in to say, 'Well we don't like the deal,' or this or that, doesn't know what the deal is. There is no deal yet,” Kerry said. “And I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce.”

Netanyahu is set to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, a visit that has irked President Barack Obama's aides because it was arranged by Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer without the White House initially being in the loop.

For Netanyahu, urgency trumps niceties when it comes to Iran, anti-Jewish attacks


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be running for office in Israel, but this week he had plenty of strong messages for Jews in the United States and Europe.

Speaking Monday in Jerusalem to leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Netanyahu said he would press ahead with plans to speak March 3 to the U.S. Congress even though the speech has roiled the U.S. capital.

“I think the real question that should be asked is how could any responsible Israeli prime minister refuse to speak to Congress on a matter so important to Israel’s survival?” Netanyahu said. “How could anyone refuse an invitation to speak on a matter that could affect our very existence when such an invitation is offered?”

Netanyahu also sparked controversy with his comments after the weekend attacks in Copenhagen that killed two people, including a synagogue security guard.

“To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world,” Netanyahu said, “I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”

In both cases, Netanyahu stuck with highly charged messages along with his repeated insistence that his top responsibility — even more than pleasing allies — is to speak out when Israeli security and Jewish safety are at stake.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, added fuel to the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech when he told Fox News over the weekend that he purposely kept President Barack Obama out of the loop regarding the invitation to the Israeli prime minister.

“It is no secret here in Washington about the animosity this White House has for Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Boehner said. “I simply didn’t want them getting in the way and quashing what I thought was a real opportunity.”

Boehner issued Netanyahu the invitation without consulting with the White House, notifying it just an hour or so before he issued the announcement on Jan. 21. Boehner also did not notify Democrats, and much of the pro-Israel community was kept out of the loop, too.

Top Obama administration officials have said they will not meet with Netanyahu in part because he is speaking just two weeks before Israel’s election and appearing with him would be inappropriate.

Netanyahu said that the looming March 24 deadline for an outline of an agreement between Iran and the major world powers trumped any other timing issue. That date is what “drives the speech,” he told U.S. Jewish leaders.

“Now is the time for Israel to make its case – now before it’s too late,” Netanyahu said. “Would it be better to complain about a deal that threatens the security of Israel after it’s signed?”

U.S. officials including Obama have said that any likely deal will leave Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium, albeit at a civilian scale. Netanyahu insists that even at minimum levels, an ability to enrich leaves Iran with breakout capacity.

Details of what minimum enrichment would look like have been leaked to the Israeli media, and the Washington Post reported Monday that this has led infuriated U.S. negotiators to limit what they convey to the Israelis after each session with the Iranians.

Netanyahu’s response, again, has been to intimate that the urgency of keeping Iran from going nuclear outweighs the niceties of keeping secret briefings from what both sides have agreed is an extraordinarily close defense and intelligence relationship.

“Just as Iran knows what kind of agreement is being offered, it’s only natural that Israel should know the details of the deal being formulated,” he told Haaretz as he headed into the meeting with the Presidents Conference. “But if there are those who think this is a good agreement, why must it be hidden?”

Officials on both sides have taken pains to assert that the strength of the relationship persists.

After news of U.S. plans to withhold information first made headlines in Israel, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz issued a statement noting that he recently met with the top two U.S. officials consulting on the Iran talks — Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of state leading the U.S. side in the talks, and Phillip Gordon of the National Security Council.

The sides had differences, Steinitz said in his statement, but the meeting Monday with Gordon was in “a good and friendly atmosphere” and another one with Sherman a week earlier included a lengthy one-on-one session – code meant to convey that the United States was still sharing sensitive information.

Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, also was at pains to say that the defense and intelligence-sharing relationship persisted at full strength.

“Whether it be in the intelligence sphere, where we have reached new heights of intelligence sharing and cooperation, or with respect to joint training and readiness, our two defense establishments and our two fighting forces have never been closer,” Shapiro said at the annual conference of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

He acknowledged, however, that there were “hot-button issues defining this election season,” but deferred to others at the conference to address them.

After his 2012 reelection, Obama said he would be tougher on Israel, one of his top advisers, David Axelrod, wrote in a book published this month titled “Believer: My Forty Years In Politics.”

Axelrod, who is Jewish, said Obama was a strong supporter of Israel, but he “felt he had pulled his punches with Netanyahu to avoid antagonizing elements of the American Jewish community.” CNN reported on the Israel sections of the book.

At the same time that the debate over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress raged on, the Israeli prime minister also found himself on the receiving end of criticism regarding his call for European Jews to consider making aliyah following the attacks in Copenhagen.

“Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home,” Netanyahu said. “We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe. I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are, Israel is the home of every Jew.”

Netanyahu made the statement on Sunday morning before Israel’s Cabinet approved a $46 million plan to encourage immigration and adapt the absorption process to Jews from France, Belgium and Ukraine.

In response, Denmark Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior said, “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel.”

Israel’s former president, Shimon Peres, sounded a similar note, telling more than 1,000 attendees at the Times of Israel gala in New York on Sunday that Jews should come to Israel “because you want to live in Israel.”

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt visited the synagogue late Sunday morning, laying a bouquet of flowers at its gate and vowing that Denmark “will do everything” it can to protect its Jewish community.

“Jews are a very important part of Danish society,” she said earlier at a news conference. “I say to the Jewish community, you are not alone.”

Netanyahu has pushed forward with such calls for aliyah, even as he works to cultivate close ties with European leaders in his bid to head off what he sees as a bad Iran deal, and also to limit the influence of those in Europe calling for boycotts of Israel because of its policies regarding the Palestinians.

One of Israel’s main allies in both spheres is France, perhaps the most hawkish of the six major powers negotiating with Iran. Still, Netanyahu has irked the French with the immigration plan passed Sunday, budgeting for an expected surge in aliyah from France in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris last month. The attacks included the siege of a kosher supermarket in which a terrorist killed four Jews.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls rejected Netanyahu’s call for European immigration to Israel, saying, “My message to French Jews is the following: France is wounded with you and France does not want you to leave.”

Netanyahu considering changes to Congress speech after criticism


Israeli officials are considering amending the format of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned address to the U.S. Congress next month to try to calm some of the partisan furore the Iran-focused speech has already provoked.

Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress about Iran's nuclear programme on March 3, just two weeks before an Israeli parliamentary election, following an invitation from John Boehner, Republican speaker of the house.

The invitation has caused consternation in Israel and the United States, largely because it is viewed as Netanyahu, a hawk on Iran, working with the Republicans to thumb their noses at President Barack Obama's policy towards Tehran.

It is also seen as putting Netanyahu's political links to the Republicans ahead of Israel's bilateral relationship with the United States, while giving the Israeli prime minister a publicity boost ahead of the March 17 election.

As a result, Israeli officials are considering whether Netanyahu should speak in a closed session of Congress or in smaller meetings with Congressmen rather than in a prime-time TV address, so as to defuse the tensions around the event.

Another option is for the prime minister to make his speech at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week rather than in Congress.

“The issue has been under discussion for a week,” said a source close to Netanyahu's office. “(Netanyahu) is discussing it with Likud people. Some say he should give up on the speech, others that he should go through with it.”

Likud is the right-wing party that Netanyahu leads.

Officials in Netanyahu's office said that for now his schedule had not changed.

“In the past days the prime minister has been approached several times about his trip to the United States,” one official said. “At the moment there is no change in the plans.”

An opinion poll by Israel's Army Radio on Monday said 47 percent of people think Netanyahu should cancel the address, while 34 percent say he should go ahead with it.

There are signs the issue is impacting his poll ratings.

PRESSURE

A poll by the Times of Israel on Monday showed Likud would win 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, four fewer than the centre-left opposition. Earlier polls had shown Likud and the opposition alliance neck-and-neck on 24 seats each.

Speaking on radio last week, Israel's deputy foreign minister suggested Netanyahu had been “misled” about the speech, believing it to be bipartisan when Obama's Democrats were not entirely on board.

While that may have created some room for Netanyahu to pull out if the pressure at home and from Washington becomes too great, it may be too late.

If he withdraws now it may make him look weak with core voters. He also needs an opportunity to play up his tough-on-Iran credentials before the election, with national security an overriding issue for voters.

Addressing French-speaking members of his party on Sunday, Netanyahu appeared to commit fully to the March 3 appointment saying: “I will go any place I'm invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us”.

Bibi must stop an Iran bomb even if it offends Obama


There is nothing wrong with an Israeli prime minister doing his utmost to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, even if it offends the sensibilities of the American president. A nation that has experienced the world’s worst genocide just 70 years ago has not just a right but also an obligation to take seriously any existential threats that loom against it.

Iran is a genocidal regime. It has stated on countless occasions that it will destroy and annihilate Israel. And it is now building the doomsday weapons that can translate rhetoric into action.

For years, Iran has been hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. The Obama administration’s strategy to engage the Islamic tyranny in talks has produced no demonstrable results. Unfreezing Iran’s financial assets has only emboldened the brutal regime in continuing its genocidal rhetoric against Israel and disgusting human-rights abuses.

While the administration indulges Iran’s stalling tactics, Iranian centrifuges continue to spin. And with every minute that Tehran gets closer to realizing its diabolical nuclear dream, the civilized world inches closer to its peril. And this is especially true of Israel, which sits in the crosshairs of Iranian rage.

Iran is running out the clock. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran already has 13,397 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent uranium-235. If they use all 9,000 of their reactors at Natanz, the Iranians could enrich this further, to the weapon-grade level of 90 percent uranium-235 in just over a month and a half. And, if Iran’s close ally North Korea can serve as an example, they absolutely will.

The consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb are catastrophic — for Israel, the Middle East and the entire freedom-loving world. Israel would be under existential threat and would have its hands tied in any dealings with Iranian proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. The Middle East would be instantly destabilized, with a nuclear arms race certain to take off. And with the rogue state wielding end-of-days capabilities, the entire world would be forced to witness all levels of Iranian belligerence, virtually unable to intervene.

With so much at stake, it seems the last thing we should be concerned about is offending President Barack Obama. The American president is human just like the rest of us. He can be wrong. He can make mistakes, just like the rest of us. He does not enjoy the divine right of kings. He is not infallible. And if he is offended by being second-guessed by the leader of a nation that had more than a million children gassed to death seven decades ago, he’ll get over it.

The implications of a nuclear Iran for the world are far greater than such simple considerations as the wounded ego of the leader of the free world or a breach of diplomatic protocol.

I do not envy the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He lives every day with the understanding that if he errs in the confrontation with Iran, the consequences for his people are catastrophic, devastating and irreversible. History will hold him completely accountable for his failure to protect Israel.

Now, when it comes to launching a military strike against the Iranian nuclear apparatus, we can argue that perhaps the risks of something going horribly wrong are simply too great. Many already have said so. But can the same argument really be made of a speech delivered to the United States Congress by invitation of the House speaker? What are the terrible consequences that should prevent the prime minister of Israel going before the United States Congress to call for increased sanctions against Iran?

News reports are now saying that Obama administration officials are threatening serious consequences for Israel and the prime minister because of this breach of protocol. In fact, Haaretz just quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying, “Netanyahu spat in our face … there will be a price.” I had no idea that Al Capone worked in the administration.

Such Mafia language is beneath aides to the president of the United States. I, for one, have become fatigued with the continuous threats issued to the press by “undisclosed sources” in the administration against Israel.

Is it not unseemly for America to continually issue anonymous threats against its staunchest ally, especially when the rest of the world is going to hell in a hand basket?

Perhaps the Obama administration should threaten President Bashar Assad to stop slaughtering his people in Syria and actually, this time, do something about it. Perhaps Obama should threaten devastating and immediate consequences for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi should he continue to kill Western hostages with impunity, rather than just the airstrikes that have not stopped the vile beheadings. Perhaps officials of the Obama administration can focus their energies on occasionally mentioning the words “Islamic terror” rather than continually threatening the sole democracy in the Middle East with “consequences.”

Israel is not America’s threat. Why Obama despises Netanyahu so deeply is beyond me. Can the explanation really be that Bibi doesn’t accord Obama sufficient respect? Even if that were true, it would explain why Obama dislikes him, but not why he positively despises him, seemingly more than almost every other world leader.

Regardless, the prime minister of Israel is not elected principally to understand the mindset of the American president. He is elected, first and foremost, to defend a nation that has experienced more hatred, more torture, more bloodletting and more wholesale slaughter than any nation on Earth. That prime minister has the responsibility to do everything in his power to protect the Jewish people in Israel from a nuclear annihilation.

One Holocaust is quite enough. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s foremost organization defending Israel in the media. He is the author most recently of “Kosher Lust” and 29 other books. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Netanyahu defends planned Congress speech as anti-Iran strategy


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended on Sunday a planned speech to the U.S. Congress about Iran, saying he had a moral obligation to speak out on an issue that poses a mortal threat to Israel.

His visit to Washington in March has opened up a rift with the White House and has drawn accusations in Israel that Netanyahu is undermining the country's core foreign alliance in an effort to win an election due two weeks after the trip.

Briefing his cabinet on the March 3 speech to a joint meeting of Congress, Netanyahu said his priority was to urge the United States and other powers not to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal that might endanger Israel.

“In coming weeks, the powers are liable to reach a framework agreement with Iran, an agreement liable to leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state,” he said in remarks carried by Israeli broadcasters.

“As prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weaponry that will be aimed at the State of Israel. This effort is global and I will go anywhere I am invited to make the State of Israel's case and defend its future and existence.”

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, invited Netanyahu without informing the Obama administration, in what the White House deemed a breach of protocol.

Barack Obama, who has a testy relationship with the right-wing Netanyahu, will not meet the Israeli leader during the visit to Washington, his office said. This decision was widely portrayed in the Israeli media as a snub.

The White House has cited the proximity of Israel's March 17 election and a desire to avoid the appearance of influencing the poll as reason for withholding an Oval Office invitation.

There had also been contacts for a possible meeting between Obama and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who is visiting the United States this week to address a United NationsHolocaust commemorations event.

But Rivlin's spokesman Jason Pearlman and White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said there would be no meeting, citing scheduling conflicts.

The Israeli presidential job is largely ceremonial rather than political, and Rivlin is not up for re-election in March.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, asked on CNN's “State of the Union” program on Sunday about the controversial Congress invitation to Netanyahu, said the Obama administration did not want to get into a “blame game” over the issue.

“Let's take a step back: This is the most important relationship we have in the world. This is something that ought to be and will continue to be, as far as we are concerned, above partisan politics,” he said, referring to U.S. ties with Israel.

The relationship, McDonough said, “stretches across many different things: from values, straight through intelligence cooperation, to defense and security assistance.”

Six world powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have given themselves until the end of June to produce a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran and end a long-running dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Republican Senator John McCain said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that Israeli-U.S. ties were “never worse,” suggesting that for these reasons he thought “it's important that Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to the American people.”

Netanyahu: Iran is U.S. enemy, not partner


The United States should treat Iran as an enemy and not as a partner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Jewish leaders.

“Iran is not part of the solution, it’s a huge part of the problem,” Netanyahu said Tuesday, referring to reports that the United States may be coordinating with Iran in their shared battle to crush the Islamic State jihadist group in Iraq and Syria. “The Islamic state of Iran is not a partner of America, it is an enemy of America and it should be treated as an enemy.”

Netanyahu, speaking via video link to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, said such treatment should extend to nuclear talks now underway between the major powers and Iran “by keeping tough sanctions on the regime, by making clear that the international community is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from breaking out or sneaking out to get the bomb.”

He said a deal that would allow Iran a limited uranium enrichment capacity would be a “disaster of historic proportions.”

U.S. officials have said that such a deal is the likely outcome should the sides come to an agreement. The deadline to reach a deal is Nov. 24.

“The worst thing that could happen now is for the international community to agree to a deal that would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power and removes its sanctions,” he said.

 

At D.C. confabs, U.S. and Israel present a united front


Joe and Bibi? Still buddies. U.S. and Israel? Still allies. Agreement on Iran and the Palestinians?

Well.

The governments of President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were back on joshing terms this week, but the deep differences that led to recent name-calling exchanges still percolated.

Netanyahu and Vice President Joe Biden, as well as top aides in both governments, used back-to-back conferences this weekend to get the message across loud and clear: We love one another.

“Ron, you’d better damn well report to Bibi that we’re still buddies. You got it, right?” Biden said Monday, picking out Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, known for his closeness to Netanyahu, from the crowd at the annual Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, this year taking place outside Washington in Oxon Hill, Md.

The next afternoon, at the conference’s close, Netanyahu was right back atcha in a video-linked address.

“And by the way, Ron, you can tell Vice President Biden that I know we’re still buddies, we’ll always be buddies,” Netanyahu said from his library.

Dermer spoke Saturday night to the Israeli American Council, a crowd that would be more skeptical than most of claims that the Obama administration had Israel’s back.

But the ambassador went out of his way to show that not only was the alliance close, it was unprecedentedly close, and the recent hiccups were not unusual.

Dermer praised the “the moral, political and strategic support that Israel has enjoyed for over six decades from Republican and Democratic administrations, including from the Obama administration.”

“Today the depth of that support comes in the form of unprecedented security cooperation and intelligence sharing, record military assistance and missile defense funding and backing at the United Nations and other ways,” he said.

The loquacious Biden in his Jewish Federations speech could not resist the repeated use of the “L” word.

“I once signed a photo to Bibi: ‘I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,’ ” he said. “We love one another and we drive one another crazy — I’m serious. That’s what friends do. We are straight with one another.”

Crazy may be overstating it, but the relationship sure has been fraught: From anonymous Israeli government accusations over the summer that Secretary of State John Kerry was engaging in a  ”terrorist” attack on Israel by backing a cease-fire agreement with Hamas that had been shaped by its Qatari backers; to Netanyahu’s lecturing U.S. TV audiences on how un-American it was for the Obama administration to oppose Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem; to an anonymous Obama administration official telling journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu’s behavior on the peace process and on Iran was “chickenshit.”

Despite the recent love fests, the issues that underpinned the tensions remained.

It’s not yet clear whether Iran and the major powers will reach a deal by the Nov. 24 deadline, but Philip Gordon, the National Security Council’s Middle East counselor, told JTA that were such a deal achieved, in all likelihood it would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium at limited levels.

“We’ve said yes, we can imagine a small enrichment program, so long as we had confidence that if they try to break out, we’ll have plenty of time, and that’s the only deal we’ll accept,” Gordon said during a Q&A at the General Assembly. (JTA’s Ron Kampeas moderated the session.)

Netanyahu in his remarks to the Jewish Federations gathering said that allowing Iran to keep any enrichment capacity would leave it as a nuclear threshold state.

“The worst thing that could happen now is for the international community to agree to a deal that would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power and removes its sanctions,” he said.

Also percolating was blame laying as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remained in tatters and violence intensified in Israel and the West Bank. This week, two Israelis have been stabbed to death in terrorist attacks and one Palestinian was killed in the West Bank in clashes with Israeli troops.

For Netanyahu, blame had a single address: the Palestinians.

“The Palestinian Authority, which should also be working to calm tensions, has joined Hamas,” he said, in “fanning the flames.”

The Israeli leader referred to Palestinian praise for the gunman who two weeks ago attempted to kill a Jewish activist, Yehuda Glick, who seeks greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount, and to P.A. claims that Jews have no historical affinity to the site.

The Obama administration, however, sees blame on both sides. Netanyahu this week urged Arab-Israelis protesting the shooting death of an Arab-Israeli protester to move to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

“Anyone who is not urging calm and nonviolence and a return to the status quo runs the risk that it can be a very explosive situation,” Gordon said.

Netanyahu to address UN in September


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he will address the United Nations General Assembly next month in New York.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the Prime Minister’s Office said the Sept. 30 speech would focus on Iran. This will be the third year in a row that Netanyahu will address the United Nations.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is also expected to address the world body.

In last year’s U.N. speech, Netanyahu presented a cartoonish-looking picture of a bomb with a thick red line that he said delineated the point in Iran’s nuclear development process beyond which it must not be allowed to proceed.

Netanyahu’s 2011 address focused on peace talks with the Palestinians. He urged U.N. member states not to support the Palestinian Authority’s bid to be recognized as a non-member observer state. The Palestinian motion for a status upgrade passed anyway.

In New York, Netanyahu is expected to meet with a number of world leaders on the sidelines of the General Assembly. While a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama is possible, nothing has been finalized, according to the Post.

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 to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

Israel to Assad: Air strikes did not aim to help Syria rebels


Israel sought to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that its recent air strikes around Damascus did not aim to weaken him in the face of a more than two-year-old rebellion.

Officials say Israel is reluctant to take sides in Syria's civil war for fear its actions would boost Islamists who are even more hostile to Israel than the Assad family, which has maintained a stable stand off with the Jewish state for decades.

But Israel has repeatedly warned it will not let Assad's ally Hezbollah receive hi-tech weaponry. Intelligence sources said Israel attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near the Syrian capital on Friday and Sunday that were awaiting transfer to Hezbollah guerrilla group in neighboring Lebanon.

Syria accused Israel of belligerence meant to shore up the outgunned anti-Assad rebels – drawing a denial on Monday from veteran Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interviewed on Israel Radio, Hanegbi said the Netanyahu government aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime”.

Hanegbi noted Israel had not formally acknowledged carrying out the raids in an effort to allow Assad to save face, adding that Netanyahu began a scheduled visit to China on Sunday to signal the sense of business as usual.

“DIPLOMATIC CHANNELS”

The Assad government has condemned the air strikes as tantamount to a “declaration of war” and threatened unspecified retaliation.

But Hanegbi said Israel was ready for any development if the Syrians misinterpreted its messages and was ready “to respond harshly if indeed there is aggression against us”.

As a precaution, Israel deployed two of its five Iron Dome rocket interceptors near the Syrian and Lebanese fronts and grounded civilian aircraft in the area, although an Israeli military spokesman said the airspace would reopen on Monday.

Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, said the Netanyahu government had informed Assad through diplomatic channels that it did not intend to meddle in Syria's civil war.

Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report, but one suggested that such indirect contacts were not required.

“Given the public remarks being made by senior Israeli figures to reassure Assad, it's pretty clear what the message is,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Military analysts say Syria would be no match for Israel, a U.S. defense ally, in any confrontation. But Damascus, with its leverage over Hezbollah, could still consider proxy attacks through Lebanon, where Israel's conventional forces fought an inconclusive war against the Iranian-backed guerrillas in 2006.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied Israel's attack was on arms. Shi'ite Hezbollah did not comment.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle

Israel did not warn U.S. on Syria attacks, U.S. official says


Israel did not provide advance warning to the United States on its alleged Israeli airstrikes on Syria, a U.S. intelligence official said.

The unnamed official said the United States was told of the attacks as they were in progress, Reuters reported Monday.

The Israel Defense Forces has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for attacks Friday and Sunday on what has been reported to be a shipment of long-range missiles from Iran en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Sunday afternoon that President Obama believes “the Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including some long-range missiles.” Earnest added that the U.S. “is in very close contact” with the Israeli government.

Syrian state media accused Israel of an early Sunday morning attack on what it identified as the Jamraya military research center located approximately 10 miles from the border with Lebanon.

The New York Times reported late Sunday, citing rebels and local residents, that the strike on the research center killed more than 100 Syrian soldiers, many of them members of the country's elite Republican Guard, along with hitting the long-range missiles.

Reuters cited an unnamed “Western intelligence source” who confirmed the attack and said Israel targeted stores of long-range Fateh-110 missiles. The missiles have the capacity to strike Tel Aviv from Lebanon.

Israel strikes Syria, says its targeting Hezbollah arms


Israeli jets devastated Syrian targets near Damascus on Sunday in a heavy overnight air raid that Western and Israeli officials called a new strike on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah.

As Syria's two-year-old civil war veered into the potentially atomic arena of Iran's confrontation with Israel and the West over its nuclear program, people were woken in the Syrian capital by explosions that shook the ground like an earthquake and sent pillars of flame high into the night sky.

“Night turned into day,” one man told Reuters from his home at Hameh, near one of the targets, the Jamraya military base.

But for all the angry rhetoric in response from Tehran and from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it was unclear whether the second such raid in 48 hours would elicit any greater reaction than an Israeli attack in the same area in January, which was followed by little evident change.

The Syrian government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”; but Israeli officials said that, as in January, they were calculating Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbor while facing defeat at home.

Denying it was weighing in on the rebel side on behalf of Washington – which opposes Assad but is hesitating to intervene – officials said Israel was pursuing its own conflict, not with Syria but with Iran, and was acting to prevent Iran's Hezbollah allies receiving missiles that might strike Tel Aviv if Israel made good on threats to attack Tehran's nuclear program.

What Israel was not doing, they stressed, was getting drawn into a debate that has raged in the United States lately of whether the alleged use of poison gas by Assad's forces should prompt the West finally to give military backing to oust him.

Israel was not taking sides in a civil war that has pitted Assad's government, a dour but mostly toothless adversary for nearly 40 years, against Sunni rebels, some of them Islamist radicals, who might one day turn Syria's armory against the Jewish state.

It is a mark of how two years of killing in which at least 70,000 Syrians have died has not only inflamed a wider, regional confrontation between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arabs, some of them close Western allies, but have also left Israel and Western powers scrambling to reassess where their interests lie.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state and flagship of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts where elected Islamists have replaced a Western-backed autocrat, has no love for Assad. But on Sunday it condemned Israel's air strikes as a breach of international law that “made the situation more complicated”.

ROCKETS TARGETED

Israel does not confirm such missions explicitly – a policy it says is intended to avoid provoking reprisals. But an Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the strikes were carried out by its forces, as was a raid early on Friday that U.S. President Barack Obama said had been justified.

A Western intelligence source told Reuters: “In last night's attack, as in the previous one, what was attacked were stores of Fateh-110 missiles that were in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his aim for Israel was to “guarantee its future” – language he has used to warn of a willingness to attack Iran's nuclear sites, even in defiance of U.S. advice, as well as to deny Hezbollah heavier weapons.

He later flew to China on a scheduled trip, projecting confidence there would be no major escalation – though Israel has reinforced its anti-missile batteries in the north.

Syrian state television said bombing at a military research facility at Jamraya and two other sites caused “many civilian casualties and widespread damage”, but it gave no details. The Jamraya compound was also a target for Israel on January 30.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television showed a flattened building spread over the size of a football pitch, with smoke rising from rubble containing shell fragments. It did not identify it.

Syrian state television quoted a letter from the foreign minister to the United Nations saying: “The blatant Israeli aggression has the aim to provide direct military support to the terrorist groups after they failed to control territory.”

Obama defended Israel's right to block “terrorist organizations like Hezbollah” from acquiring weapons after Friday's raid, and a White House spokesman said on Sunday: “The president many times has talked about his view that Israel, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people.”

It was unclear that Israel had sought U.S. approval for the strikes, although the White House spokesman said: “The close coordination between the Obama administration, the United States of America, is ongoing with the Israeli government.”

Obama has in recent years worked to hold back Netanyahu from making good on threats to hit facilities where he says Iran, despite its denials, is working to develop a nuclear weapon.

On Sunday, some Israeli officials highlighted Obama's reluctance to be drawn into new conflict in the Middle East to explain Israel's need for independent action.

Syria restricts access to independent journalists. Its state media said Israeli aircraft struck three places between Damascus and the nearby Lebanese border. The city also lies barely 50 km (30 miles) from Israeli positions on the occupied Golan Heights.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied the attack was on armaments for Lebanon and called for nations to stand firm against Israel. A senior Iranian commander was quoted, however, as saying Syria's armed forces were able to defend themselves without their allies, though Iran could help them with training.

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite movement that says it is defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, declined immediate comment.

ISRAELI CONCERNS

Analysts say the Fateh-110 could put the Tel Aviv metropolis in range of Hezbollah gunners, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, bolstering the arsenal of a group that fired some 4,000 shorter-range rockets into Israel during a month-long war in 2006.

“What we want is to ensure that inside the Syrian chaos we will not see Hezbollah growing stronger,” Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Netanyahu, told Army Radio.

“The world is helplessly looking on at events in Syria, the Americans in particular, and this president in particular,” he added of Obama. “He has left Iraq, Afghanistan and has no interest in sending ground troops to Syria … That is why, as in the past, we are left with our own interests, protecting them with determination and without getting too involved.”

Video footage uploaded onto the Internet by Syrian activists showed a series of blasts. One lit up the skyline of Damascus, while another sent up a tower of flames and secondary blasts.

Syrian state news agency SANA said Israeli aircraft struck in three places: northeast of Jamraya; the town of Maysaloun on the Lebanese border; and the nearby Dimas air base.

“The sky was red all night,” one man said from Hameh, near Jamraya. “We didn't sleep a single second. The explosions started after midnight and continued through the night.”

Central Damascus was quiet on the first day of the working week, and government checkpoints seemed reinforced. Some opposition activists said they were glad strikes might weaken Assad, even if few Syrians have any liking for Israel: “We don't care who did it,” Rania al-Midania said in the capital. “We care that those weapons are no longer there to kill us.”

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Roberta Rampton Aboard Air Force One and Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman

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

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