Israel Watches Iran With Worry


For Israel, it’s the classic “I’ve got good news, but you might want to hear the bad news first” scenario.

Just when a confluence of unrelated events revived the prospect of peace talks with the Palestinians, Iran’s potential nuclear threat to the Jewish state suddenly seems greater than ever.

In fact, the Iran dilemma is almost the mirror image of new hope with the Palestinians: The prospect of a nuclear-armed, radical Islamic regime suddenly has moved from the “within years” to the “within months” column, differences between the United States and Europe are dogging resolution — and the United States wants Israel to just sit still.

Reports of Iran’s accelerated development of nuclear material, as well as missiles to deliver it, have profoundly unsettled Israelis.

“We believe we know what the real intentions of the Iranians are,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said last week in Cleveland at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations. “The real intention of the Iranians is to develop a nuclear bomb.”

The level of agreement over keeping at bay a nation that routinely calls for Israel’s elimination and glorifies suicide bombers reached across Israel’s otherwise fractious political culture.

“Israel cannot, cannot live under the shadow of nuclear Iran and the bomb,” Ephraim Sneh, a leader of the opposition Labor party, said on CNN.

“Israel is very vulnerable,” said Sneh, who was in Washington last week. “All our economic and intellectual assets are concentrated in a piece of 20 and 60 miles. That’s all. Two bombs can turn Israel into a scorched Third World country. We cannot live with it.”

Yossi Beilin, leader of the dovish Yahad party, said the issue hangs over the nation at a time when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, forthcoming Palestinian elections and the Bush administration’s post-election energy present renewed opportunities for peace in the region.

“Iran is a very, very important issue,” Beilin said. “For us it is hovering, it is a problem.”

Israel and the United States were hoping the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would announce tougher measures at its board meeting Thursday, including more rigorous international monitoring and a trigger mechanism that automatically would refer any violation of Iran’s nonproliferation agreement to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.

Mindful of this week’s IAEA meeting, the Iranians signed an agreement last week with France, Germany and Britain to temporarily suspend their uranium enrichment efforts.

Iran announced on Monday that the suspension, in effect until Iran works out a long-term agreement with the international community, is now underway.

Instead of assuaging concerns, however, the agreement underscored skepticism about Iran’s intentions. Within days of signing the agreement, a reliable opposition group said Iran was using advanced technology to enrich uranium at military sites and keeping the activity secret, presumably to exempt it from the suspension.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran also said that the country had purchased enriched uranium in 2001 and designs for nuclear warheads in the mid-1990s.

Iran dismissed the claims out of hand, but on Friday European diplomats — some apparently from the same nations that had negotiated the suspension agreement — were telling reporters that Iran was accelerating enrichment ahead of the suspension.

The diplomats were furious with the obvious effort to get Iran as close as possible to weaponization before the freeze kicks in.

President Bush said he found the allegations credible. Attending a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Chile, Bush said he considered the reports a “very serious matter.”

Another area of concern for the Americans is the development of missiles needed to deliver the warheads.

“I have seen some information that would suggest they had been actively working on delivery systems,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week.

Iran dismisses the reports as unfounded and compares them to the erroneous intelligence on weapons development that helped draw the United States into war with Iraq.

“The burden of proof is on the shoulder of the person who makes the claims,” Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Monday in an interview on CNN.

The problem with that explanation is that Iran often is the source of the claims. In August, Iran released photos of a new version of its Shihab missile that had a baby-bottle design, as opposed to the usual cone shape.

The design apparently was drawn from Soviet era ICBM nuclear missiles, said Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since a nuclear device fits better in a baby-bottle shape.

Why would the Iranians allow the release of those pictures?

“They want people to know,” Clawson said.

With Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein out of the way, flexing muscles sends a message that Iran is now a dominant power in the Middle East. That would allow Iran to continue its disruptive involvement in Lebanon, where Israel says Iran has armed Hezbollah terrorists with 13,000 missiles. Hezbollah and Iran also have emerged among the main financiers of Palestinian terrorist attacks in the West Bank.

The revelations late last week only increased skepticism among some on the 35-member IAEA board, and the United States has expressed its determination to impose stiffer standards, especially since Iran reneged on previous deals.

Europeans also are unnerved that the newer Shihab missiles apparently could put major European cities within range.

On the other hand, China and Russia — which as declared nuclear nations have considerable influence at the IAEA — are averse to sanctions. Russia has a financial stake in Iran’s main nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Furthermore, Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director-general, on Monday called Iran’s enrichment suspension a “step in the right direction,” despite skepticism by Israel and others that any real suspension was underway.

Should Iran clear the IAEA hurdle, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) plan to reintroduce their bipartisan “Iran Freedom Support Act” when Congress reconvenes in January. It would allow the president to sanction countries that do business with the Islamic regime and strengthen support for opposition groups.

That likely would have the strong support of the pro-Israel community in Washington, which believes the suspension agreement with Europe is inadequate.

“Iran is intensely working to marry its nuclear and missile programs so that it can deliver a nuclear weapon at the earliest possible date,” said Andrew Schwartz, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Nothing in the agreement stops Iran from completing nuclear warhead designs or improving its missiles to enable them to deliver nuclear weapons.”

After this meeting, Bush likely would raise the threat of sanctions when the IAEA board meets again, in about four months.

Israel, meanwhile, is sitting on its hands, not wanting to upend delicate U.S. efforts to build international support. U.S. officials have made clear they do not want Israel to repeat its successful 1981 strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

“I don’t see how it would do anything but provoke … a conflict between Israel and Iran, and we want to avoid that at all costs, and I think the Israelis recognize that,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “It’s one thing to attack a reactor in Iraq 20-some years ago. It’s something entirely different to take on that challenge now.”

Israelis say they are happy to comply, for now. On the record, they say the window for Iran’s nuclearization is two years; off the record, they say the world is looking at 12 months.

“The complacency of the international community drives Israel, pushes Israel to the corner,” Sneh, a retired general, told CNN. “We don’t prepare a pre-emptive strike, but, gradually, along the axis of time, we are pushed to the corner.”


Cancer Crusader Takes on Oil, School

Lori Moss waited three hours to meet her heroine, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, at a book signing last year, even though Moss was weak from her chemotherapy treatment.

The meeting turned out to be exactly what Moss had hoped — Brockovich was intelligent and personable.

But Moss was surprised at how much interest Brockovich took in Moss’ own story.

After Moss, 28, told Brockovich that she had already battled two cancers, the activist became alarmed, Moss said. “She asked me questions like, ‘Where did you grow up?’ and ‘What was in the neighborhood where you grew up?'”

“I don’t know,” Moss told Brockovich. “I know there’s an oil well on my school campus, but that’s all I know,” Moss offhandedly recalled. She had never given much thought to the oil well that sat on the campus of Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) — her alma mater of nearly a decade ago.

Perhaps the oil well at Beverly Hills High School might have gone unnoticed by BHHS students and Beverly Hills’ residents in the past, but these days it’s hard to miss. In a legal battle that has pitted oil companies against hundreds of BHHS graduates, Brockovich has spurred a class-action lawsuit, claiming that a network of oil wells underneath the campus is responsible for turning the affluent high school into a “cancer cluster” site, an area where the occurrence of a particular cancer is higher than average.

As the high-profile case awaits trial, Moss, the impetus for Brockovich’s crusade, is taking an active role in her own life. The Jewish Westwood resident was once secretive about her cancers, only allowing her closest friends and family to know she was sick; now the petite and private woman has willingly become the spokesperson for the case, and she welcomes the public spotlight — if it means seeing justice done.

“[The case] has really taken over,” said Moss, who has recently appeared in People and Glamour magazines and on Court TV and the “Today” show. “I’ve always been very quiet about my diseases. But as time was going on, I realized, ‘You know what? If I can help one person and at least make a difference, then I will open up about my diseases.’ I also knew at that point I wasn’t alone, there were a lot of others. You feel a need knowing that there’s other people.”

Moss only discovered just how many others shared her experience several months after her initial interaction with Brockovich, when the investigator relayed that at a meeting for an unrelated case, somebody muttered, “You think this is bad? You should check out Beverly Hills High School.” Brockovich, the director of research at the law offices of Masry and Vititoe, then recalled meeting Moss at the book signing.

Moss had known about two other BHHS graduates who had cancer, but it never struck her as unusual. But Brockovich’s call about a year ago set Moss into action. As Moss spoke to more people, she became increasingly suspicious. “Before I knew it, this one knew another person and this one knew another person,” Moss said, noting that the people had one of three types of cancer: Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer.

When Moss found out about a cancer victim, she would record the BHHS alum in her journal and call the person: “Hi my name is Lori Moss, formerly known as Lori Herman,” she would generally start her phone calls, using both her maiden name and married name (to husband Randy Moss). “I went to Beverly, and I’ve been sick with cancer and if I’m correct, I heard that you were sick with cancer, too.”

The story “Toxic School?” broke Feb. 10 on KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, revealing that tests taken by UCLA toxicologist Dr. James Dahlgren had found “abnormally high levels of benzene, methane and n-hexane” — byproducts that Dahlgren said “would be high at an oil refinery.” The byproduct of the most concern was benzene, which has been known to lead to cancer. The report also revealed that Brockovich had found a 1984 environmental impact report commissioned by the Beverly Hills Oil Co. (the previous owner and operator of the site), as required by the city of Beverly Hills, which admitted that the oil well could potentially be a health hazard.

By the time “Toxic School?” aired, Moss had talked with approximately 50 graduates who had cancer. After the story broke, the calls came in by the hundreds — each individual expressing varied reactions. “A lot of people knew that there was an oil well there, but a lot of people didn’t know. So it was kind of a mixed reaction,” Moss said. “I had a lot of people who cried, couldn’t believe the information…. Some people — men — would tell me that they remembered that when they had physical education and they would run around the track, they would smell the oil. I heard people say that they would take off their shirts when they would run the track and wrap them around their face to cover their mouth and nose.”

Moss is now one of 21 BHHS graduates (’77-’96) with Hodgkin’s serving as plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed on June 9 by Masry and Vititoe against the 17 oil and gas companies that ran the 19 wells, which stopped production in May.

Ed Masry, who is famous for working with Brockovich on high-profile class-action suits, such as the one in the 2000 film, “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts, said this is the first of a number of lawsuits he will bring against the companies, Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills School District — both which have received oil royalty payments for many years. (Other lawsuits will represent BHHS graduates and Beverly Hills residents with other types of cancers.)

Defendants deny Masry’s and Brockovich’s claims, and assert that the air is safe. They also deny the area is not a “cancer cluster” site.

A Feb. 11 and April 22 series of tests conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), the air pollution control agency for Los Angeles County, found that “to date, monitoring at the high school area has not shown readings of benzene, hexane and other air toxic levels that are considered abnormal,” according to an SCAQMD memo. “In addition, the measured level of propane and methane in the samples are not considered a threat to human health.”

Beverly Hills and BHHS have also commissioned other firms to conduct indoor and outdoor air testing, which have found that the air is safe. One of those firms, Camp Dresser & McKee, will also conduct additional ambient air, soil and soil gas testing this summer. The city has also subpoenaed Masry and Vititoe’s data and research, claiming that the law firm only published selective reports.

“We have concerns, and we will continue to have concerns, because it is our job to ensure the health and safety of our students,” Beverly Hills High School District Superintendent Dr. Gwen Gross said about the current state of affairs on campus. While some parents have requested alternative indoor physical education for their children, Gross said, she “is not aware” of any parent who has pulled his or her child out of school.

“We are in a position of relying on factual data, nonalarmist, nonemotional, nonspeculative approaches,” Gross said, “and we are taking a firm, data-based message to our community.”

In response to current parental concerns at BHHS, Dr. Wendy Cozen, cancer epidemiologist with the USC Keck Cancer Surveillance Program, recently released a report on Beverly Hills residents stating that the observed numbers of Hodgkin’s Disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer were within the expected range, and that known causes for these types of cancers are not petroleum or petroleum products. “We believe that an oil well cannot be cause for concern,” said Cozen, who, along with her husband, Dr. Thomas Mack, is part of the cancer registry that collects information on every cancer patient diagnosed in Los Angeles County. She said that based on studies of people who live near refineries, oil wells cannot cause cancer.

The plaintiffs’ claim of a “cancer cluster,” Cozen said, should be attributed more to the types of people who live in the area, rather than their environment. According to an independent study she is conducting separately in relation to BHHS, Cozen said that Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer are all higher in Ashkenazi Jews.

Masry believes Cozen’s research doesn’t focus on the school itself, but the general Beverly Hills area. “We’re not arguing that the city has an increase in cancer. Most of our alumni don’t even live in Beverly Hills,” Masry told The Journal. “We’re arguing that alumni of Beverly Hills High School have significantly high levels of cancer above the national average. What she’s saying may be absolutely accurate, but it has nothing to do with our case.”

The woman who set the whole case into motion is now cancer free. Moss, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 2001, is still haunted by the experience. Two months ago, Moss felt a small lump on her neck and went to the doctor to have an MRI. “It came back that the lymph node was larger than the previous MRI and it did look suspicious,” Moss said. “The blood came back normal, so they’re just going to watch it. But these are the things you live with every day, knowing and feeling your neck all the time.”

One BHHS graduate who had contacted Moss during the case recently passed away. “It affected me a lot. She had Hodgkin’s too, and that’s what scares me. Obviously it was caught at different times — her stage was different than mine — it was a different situation. But considering it’s the same disease, it scares me.”

The worst part of her experience, Moss said, is the stress it has caused her mother. “Obviously, if my mom knew that there was this cancer-causing whatever, she never would have sent me there,” said Moss, who attended Stephen S. Wise Temple day school from first through fifth grades, until her parents switched her to the Beverly Hills school system because of the exemplary reputation of its schools. “I can’t believe my mom had to watch me go through all of this,” Moss said. “You know, you’re an adult and your mom’s bathing you again and cooking for you and feeding you. I just can’t imagine it from a mother’s point of view.”

Although Moss realizes that she can never take back the years that she spent battling her diseases, she hopes that her experience will at least inspire change. “What I’ve been through is one of the worst things anybody can go through,” said Moss, who spends most of her time as the spokesperson on this case. “If anything can come of this, they need to go into that school and they need to make a difference and they need to clean it up and make it a safe and healthy environment for all these students coming through, and the teachers and the staff,” she said.

“When I think about the students that go there now, who for the next 10 or 15 years are going to freak out about whether they’re going to get cancer or not … it’s a terrible thing to have hanging over your head. So they need to go in there and clean it up and just make it a safe place, because nobody should have to go through what all of us have gone through.”

No ‘Place’ Like Israel

"If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches From an Anxious State" by Daniel Gordis (Crown Publishing, $24).

In the summer of 1998, Daniel Gordis and his family moved from Los Angeles to Israel. It was supposed to be just for a sabbatical. But after being there for a while, the family decided to become permanent residents. It was a time of euphoria in Israel. The economy was booming and peace seemed just around the corner. The Gordises felt confident that their children would be part of the first generation of Israelis to grow up in a land at peace.

From the beginning, Gordis kept in touch with his family and friends back in the States by e-mail. His letters were so well-written and so insightful that the people who received them passed them on to others who asked to be included on the list, and soon he had a bigger readership for his reports than he could have ever imagined when he started.The Jewish Journal published some of his letters as did The New York Times Magazine.

And then came the matsav (situation). The dream of right-wing Israelis — that it was possible to occupy the West Bank indefinitely and control the Arabs who lived there — came crashing down. And the dream of left-wing Israelis — that they could adjust the borders here and there and that it would be enough to achieve a lasting peace — came crashing down, too.

The assumptions with which the Gordis family had come — that the Arabs want peace as much as we do, that they could have peace on the northern border just by getting out of Lebanon, that the world understands what we are trying to do — all have been blown to pieces. And a new stage, a nerve-wracking stage that has been going on for more than two years, began.

The Gordis family has had to wonder whether they served their children well by bringing them from the safety of Los Angeles to the tense land of Israel. The tone of these e-mails changed as the family began to struggle with what Gordis and many Israelis are now going through. The e-mails became a kind of self-therapy, in which he examined relentlessly why they had come, why they were staying and what it means to live in Israel during this difficult time.

Gordis, like most American armchair Zionists, came with a clear idea of what should be done to resolve the hostilities that had gone on for so long. But the longer he stayed, the less his preconceived notions made sense. And now, like most Israelis, he simply does not know what, if anything, will work. The country is simply exhausted, worn out by day after day of devastating news. No one has the energy to dream of peace anymore. A little bit of quiet is enough of a goal for most people now.

The matsav forces him and every Israeli to examine their commitment and to ask themselves why they say in this land. But Gordis, and many of the people he works and lives with, find an answer, an answer deep enough to enable them to explain to themselves why they stay. Gordis comes to the conclusion that if he were to leave, he would be betraying all the generations that yearned for this moment in history and he would be giving up the claim that he has always affirmed: that Judaism is a way of life that seeks to sanctify the street, the economy, the culture and the world — and not just the synagogue. He and his family are not going to walk away from the millennial Jewish dream, even if it becomes unpleasant — or even dangerous — to live it. Because life, this matsav has taught him, is not about pleasure or comfort or even safety. Life is about purpose, choice and meaning.

Normalcy is not the goal, writes Gordis near the end of his book when he is trying to explain why his family is staying. Sure, he writes, we will pay a lot to achieve normalcy with our neighbors if we have to, no doubt about that. The goal is long lines at the car wash before Pesach, alarm guys dressed up in costume for Purim, hundreds of people packed into synagogues in every neighborhood on the Shabbat before Pesach to hear the annual pre-Pesach sermon and secular magazines that quote the prophets when they want to criticize the mayor or the army. The goal, quite simply, is Jewish life, like it can’t exist anywhere else.

I don’t know many books that describe the neverending strain of the matsav as well as this book does. And yet, surprisingly enough, in the end this is not a depressing book, but an uplifting one, because it explains not only what the people of Israel are going through, but why.

I remember some official in Arafat’s coterie was interviewed by the media sometime ago and said: "We Arabs are going to win because we value life less than the Israelis do." You read this book and you see that the man had it wrong. The Jews are ultimately going to win, and they will win precisely because they value life more than others do. This is what gives them a reason to stay, and a reason to fight, if fight they must.