U.S. missile plan spreads defense throughout Mideast

The Obama administration’s new missile defense plan means batteries located in Israel could be relocated to other nations in the region depending on the threat, a top U.S. official said.

The new missile defense plan addresses a supply-demand imbalance by spreading U.S. defense capabilities throughout regions, Frank Rose, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said in an address May 5 to the Israel Multinational Ballistic Defense Conference. His remarks were made available Tuesday.

Rose outlined Israeli-U.S. missile defense collaboration during the address.

“The growing proliferation of missile threats, especially those with ranges of less than 1,000 kilometers, mean that regional demand for U.S. ballistic missile defense assets is likely to exceed supply for some years to come,” Rose said. “This places a premium on developing flexible, adaptable and relocatable defense capabilities, and in encouraging the development of missile defense capabilities by our regional partners.”

It was unclear what “region” Israel was placed in under this plan, but Rose spoke of deploying U.S. missile defense capabilities to NATO partners and to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, as well as to Israel.

Rose also outlined the threats Israel faces from Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, and he listed the collaborative Israel-U.S. projects on short-, mid- and long-range missile defense programs.

“All of these activities provide numerous benefits to Israeli security,” he said. “They are built on a strong foundation of partnership that enables Israel and the United States to meet emerging security challenges, to focus on real threats, and to rely on proven system and technical solutions to those threats. Regional deterrence will be improved as missile-armed adversaries will find it difficult to threaten and coerce their neighbors in the Middle East and beyond.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Americans for Peace Now has the most pronounced opposition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Jewish Leaders Face Risky Situaton

As a new round of Mideast peacemaking begins, U.S. Jewish leaders are putting themselves on the line for a government in Jerusalem, whose real intentions are more impenetrable than ever.

In a flurry of actions and statements in recent days, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just added to the confusion — and to the risks U.S. Jewish leaders face as they rally their troops to support his government in the face of a friendly but firm squeeze from Washington.

A lot is at stake for U.S. Jewish leaders, whose greatest fear is getting caught in the crossfire between the Bush administration, the government in Jerusalem and their own constituents — a Jewish community that will support Israel’s fight for security, but which has little interest in fighting to preserve Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Sharon has made a tantalizing, hard-to-read series of moves on the political and diplomatic chess board in recent days.

On May 25, the old hawk and architect of Israel’s sprawling settlements network won his government’s conditional endorsement of the international "road map" for Palestinian statehood. He won by a comfortable 12-7 vote, despite threats by far-right parties to bolt.

In a startling break with the past, Sharon told Likud Knesset members that the "occupation" must end, because "ruling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on indefinitely." That marked the first time a leader on the Israeli right referred to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an occupation.

At the same time, Sharon said construction in settlements will continue for generations. He has offered no clues about what kind of Palestinian state he will allow.

Sharon’s real intentions remain as opaque as ever. Is he prepared to offer a minimally acceptable amount of territory for creation of a Palestinian state and genuine sovereignty? Or are his recent statements and actions simply a new version of the old stall, meant to appease Washington until the pesky road map problem goes away?

Privately, members of his government say that accepting the road map wasn’t particularly risky, because they expect Yasser Arafat and Hamas to quickly undermine it.

The problem facing U.S. Jewish leaders, who have risked their relations with the Bush administration by lobbying against the road map in Congress, is that they don’t have a clue where Sharon is taking them and his nation. If Sharon’s endorsement was just a gambit, Jewish leaders here could find themselves in an awkward position, especially if the new Palestinian government tries to live up to its commitments under the plan.

A good-faith effort by the Palestinians could cause the administration’s enthusiasm for the road map, now tempered by low expectations, to soar. That could produce a White House backlash against those Jewish groups seen as trying to erect new road map obstacles on behalf of a balky government in Israel.

Alternatively, Jewish leaders could face a problem if the Sharon government really decides to embrace the plan. In the past, Israeli governments have abruptly reversed longstanding policy, leaving U.S. Jewish groups in the lurch.

That happened in 1993, when another old hardliner, Yitzhak Rabin, decided to talk to the PLO, while many Jewish groups here were still treating "dialogue" with Arafat as a mortal sin. It could happen again if Sharon surprises the world and decides to follow the road map’s route to a settlement.

Sharon’s whole history may argue against acceptance of the road map’s core demands, including quick timetables for statehood and a settlements freeze, but he has also demonstrated a fierce determination to preserve smooth relations with Washington.

Jewish groups here need to be prepared for sharp policy changes in Jerusalem, as Sharon weighs his options. Harder to deal with will be the already wide gap between community leaders and rank-and-file Jews on peace issues.

Polls show that a majority of U.S. Jews still support the road map’s basic principles, including Palestinian statehood, security for Israel and a negotiated end to the occupation, despite almost three years of horrific terrorism. If the plan moves forward, Jewish leaders, who seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against it, could find themselves at odds with a community that may be much more willing to see Israel take risks for peace.

American Jews will support Sharon as long as they believe he is fighting for Israel’s security. That support has generally encompassed even the tough military actions he has taken in recent months to do what the Palestinians have failed to do — put the terror groups out of business.

But they are unlikely to rise to the defense of an Israeli government that seems more intent on preserving settlements than on serious negotiations.

If the administration pursues the plan and Israel resists, the gap could widen between a Jewish leadership that defends the policies of the current Israeli government and a Jewish public that is not yet ready to abandon active, difficult peace efforts, despite two very grim years.