Iran Deal Is the Best Way to Stop Its Nuclear Program

The framework for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not as emotionally satisfying as bombing Iran into a parking lot or strangling Iran’s economy with sanctions, but it is the option most likely to permanently stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

This framework does not provide absolute certainty, but no option will eliminate the potential for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. The best we can do is perpetually prevent Iran from actually acquiring nuclear weapons, which this deal does with greater certainty and more likelihood of success than scuttling the deal and either increasing sanctions now or taking military action.

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The deal does not require Iran to recognize Israel, rid itself of ballistic missiles, stop terrorism, or end domestic repression. However, Fred Kaplan reminds us that “the U.S.-Soviet strategic arms treaties, signed throughout the Cold War, didn’t require the Soviet Union to disavow communism, end its support of Third World insurgencies, or institute Jeffersonian democracy,” but they did cap and eventually reverse the nuclear arms race. Would you rather have an Iran vowing to destroy Israel in possession of nuclear weapons or without nuclear weapons?

In Politico, Sandy Berger explained that “the idea of a better deal is a chimera, an illusory option, and it should not lull us into thinking there is another agreement to be had if only we were to bear down harder.”

In The New York Review of Books, Jessica Mathews wrote that the “lesson of sanctions — from Cuba to Russia and beyond — is that they can impose a cost on wrongdoing, but if the sanctioned country chooses to pay the price, sanctions cannot prevent it from continuing the sanctioned activities.”

Between 2003 and the start of current negotiations, sanctions cost Iran nearly $100 billion and Iran grew its number of centrifuges from 3,000 to 19,000. Iran is now only a few months from nuclear breakout. Even the strongest sanctions would not work quickly enough to stop Iran from producing what it needs for a nuclear bomb.

Our allies would not join us in further sanctions if they believed we were jettisoning a reasonable framework. If a deal falls through, multilateral sanctions will fall apart. Moreover, we cannot unilaterally enact sanctions that have extraterritorial reach, as we have previously done.

Military action would only delay Iran’s progress for between two and four years, much less than the length of the proposed deal. Iran would end inspections, we would know far less than we do now about Iran’s facilities, and Iran would be convinced that it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself.

The deal is not based on Reagan’s “trust but verify” dictum but on John Kerry’s “distrust and verify” principle. Nevertheless, many are concerned that Iran will cheat. But that is an argument against any deal, and if we have no deal, we will have a nuclear Iran. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy says that President Obama is right:

One of the arguments being voiced against the continuation of the talks is that Iran has a history of lies and cunning, and can thus be expected to breach the agreement and deceive the world. True, the Iranians have a tendency to deceive, but they could do so even if they agreed to zero centrifuges, the closure of all their nuclear facilities, and supervision on the part of the Mossad itself. Loopholes can always be found, so there is no such thing as a “good agreement.” The Iranians will uphold an agreement only if it is worth their while.

The silliest argument against a deal is that Obama is trying to stave off an Iranian bomb until he leaves office so that he will leave with a legacy of no bomb. Do you not think that Obama realizes that if Iran goes nuclear after he leaves office because of a flaw in the deal he negotiated, his legacy will be forever tarnished?

Obama came into office as a strong proponent of nuclear non-proliferation. If his legacy motivates him to ensure that Iran never gets the bomb, that is fine with me. That is what he means when he says “not on my watch.”

Reports of Death of US-Israel Relationship Greatly Exaggerated

There’s been much confusion about President Obama’s stance toward Israel following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election. Ink has been spilt and emails have been sent.

At the first opportunity following Bibi’s re-election, the Obama administration won praise from Israel for abstaining from the U.N. human rights session on Gaza.

That doesn’t sound like retaliation to me. Instead of relying on rumors, speculation, and the ability of our right-wing friends to read the President’s mind and divine his intentions, read for yourself what he said today at his press conference.

As pro-Israel advocates, we don’t have to agree with the administration. But we do have to understand what the President’s position really is. What follows is the entirety of President Obama’s comments regarding Israel from today’s press conference.

To a certain extent, the United States has to play with the cards it is dealt, and in this case, Bibi dealt the United States a bad hand. The question is whether President Obama’s response is reasonable given the circumstances–is President Obama doing what he can to isolate the problem and continue the strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel, or is he looking for excuses to shift U.S. policy? His actions at the U.N. yesterday are a clue, but read the transcript below and decide for yourself.

I’ve bolded what I think are the key statements, but I encourage you to read all of it. It’s not long, and then you’ll not only know President Obama’s position, but you’ll be able to evaluate the fairness and accuracy of the articles and emails that you have and will be reading.

Josh Letterman: You’ve made very clear that you’re not buying Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempts to walk back the comments that he made before the election, opposing Palestinian statehood, and that you’re reassessing your approach. What could Prime Minister Netanyahu do, if anything, in the short term to persuade you that he’s serious about Israeli-Palestinian peace and that he’s an honest broker that you could work with? Or is it too late to repair that relationship during your presidency? And is there any truth to allegations that Israel was spying on the Iran talks?

President Obama: Let me, first of all, address your second question about spying allegations. As a general rule, I don’t comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters. (Laughter.) And I think I’ll continue that tradition.

But with respect to the possibility of an agreement that ensures that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, we have not just briefed Congress about the progress or lack thereof that’s being made, but we also brief the Israelis and our other partners in the region and around the world. And if, in fact, an agreement is arrived at that we feel confident will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it’s going to be there for everybody to see. And people are going to be able to lift up the hood and see what’s in there.

So I have confidence that if there’s an agreement, it’s going to be a good agreement that’s good for American security and Israeli security and the region’s security. And if it isn’t, then there probably won’t be an agreement. So there will be, I think, significant transparency in the whole process.

With respect to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, I think it’s important to understand that the issue here is not what I believe, but it’s what the Palestinians and the parties in the negotiations and the Israeli people believe is possible. That’s the most important issue. I’ve said before and I’ll simply repeat: Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the election run-up, stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was Prime Minister. And I took him at his word that that’s what he meant, and I think that a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally.

Afterwards, he pointed out that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But, of course, the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon. So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time — which was always the presumption.

I don’t think anybody ever envisioned in any peace agreement, certainly not one that Prime Minister Netanyahu would agree to, or that the Israeli people would agree to, that overnight you suddenly have a Palestinian state right next to Jerusalem and that Israel would not have a whole range of security conditions that had to be met, and that it would be phased in over a long period of time.

So the issue has never been, do you create a Palestinian state overnight. The question is, do you create a process and a framework that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility, that down the road they have a secure state of their own, standing side-by-side with a secure, fully recognized Jewish state of Israel.

And I think — it’s not just my estimation — I think it’s hard to envision how that happens based on the Prime Minister’s statements. And so, when I said that we have to now do an evaluation of where we are, it’s not in reference to our commitment to Israel’s military edge in the region, Israel’s security, our intelligence cooperation, our military cooperation. That continues unabated. And I will continue to do whatever I need to do to make sure that our friends in Israel are safe. That’s what I’ve done since I’ve been President, and that’s not going to stop. And so the Israeli people need to know that.

But I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years. Because up until this point, the premise has been, both under Republican and Democratic administrations, that as different as it was, as challenging as it was, the possibility of two states living side by side in peace and security could marginalize more extreme elements, bring together folks at the center and with some common sense, and we could resolve what has been a vexing issue and one that is ultimately a threat to Israel as well.

And that possibility seems very dim. That may trigger, then, reactions by the Palestinians that, in turn, elicit counter-reactions by the Israelis. And that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that will be dangerous for everybody and bad for everybody.

So, bottom line, just to summarize here — number one, our military and intelligence cooperation with Israel will continue unabated, unaffected, and we are absolutely committed to making sure that the Israeli people are safe, particularly from rocket attacks and terrorist attacks aimed on civilians.

Number two, that the evaluation that’s taking place is specific to what happens between the Israelis and Palestinians going forward. We’ll continue to engage the Israeli government as well as the Palestinians, and ask them where they are interested in going and how do they see this issue being resolved. But what we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years. That is something that we have to, for the sake of our own credibility, I think we have to be able to be honest about that.

And I guess one last point about this, because obviously I’ve heard a lot of the commentary — there’s a tendency I think in the reporting here to frame this somehow as a personal issue between myself and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I understand why that’s done, because when you frame it in those terms, the notion is, well, if we all just get along and everybody cools down, then somehow the problem goes away. I have a very business-like relationship with the Prime Minister. I’ve met with him more than any other world leader. I talk to him all the time. He is representing his country’s interests the way he thinks he needs to, and I’m doing the same.

So the issue is not a matter of relations between leaders; the issue is a very clear, substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations, and for regional stability. That’s our view, and that continues to be our view. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach. And so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.

Will you consider supporting Palestinian statehood at the U.N.?

President Obama: We’re going to do that evaluation — we’re going to partly wait for an actual Israeli government to form.

Does Obama Really Doubt Kosher Market Attackers’ Anti-Semitism?

paris62047[1]President Obama and other members of his administration have repeatedly condemned the January 9 Paris kosher market attack as anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris pose a threat that extends beyond the Jewish community. (Barack Obama, January 22)

The violent assault on the Jewish community in France that took place on Friday afternoon – as the Jewish community in Paris was in the final hours of preparing for the restfulness and peace of the Sabbath – was the latest in a series of troubling incidents in Europe and around the world that reflect a rising tide of anti-Semitism. (Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff, January 13)

All four [victims] were casualties of violent anti-Semitism–targets because they were Jews. All were killed playing some role in preparation for the celebration of Shabbat – a core practice of their faith. (Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, January 22,

But in a Feb. 9 interview with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, the President was not as clear as he could have been, and his critics ignored all of his previous statements and leapt to the most implausible interpretation, as if this was the first time the President spoke about it.

Yglesis: Do you think the media sometimes overstates the level of alarm people should have about terrorism and this kind of chaos, as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease?

Obama: Absolutely. And I don’t blame the media for that. What’s the famous saying about local newscasts, right? If it bleeds, it leads, right? You show crime stories and you show fires, because that’s what folks watch, and it’s all about ratings. And, you know, the problems of terrorism and dysfunction and chaos, along with plane crashes and a few other things, that’s the equivalent when it comes to covering international affairs. There’s just not going to be a lot of interest in a headline story that we have cut infant mortality by really significant amounts over the last 20 years or that extreme poverty has been slashed or that there’s been enormous progress with a program we set up when I first came into office to help poor farmers increase productivity and yields. 7 It’s not a sexy story. And climate change is one that is happening at such a broad scale and at such a complex system, it’s a hard story for the media to tell on a day-to-day basis.

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Cartoon courtesy of Yaakov “Dry Bones” Kirschen: http://drybonesblog.blogspot.co.il/

Look, the point is this: my first job is to protect the American people. It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that

Compounding matters, two White House spokespeople did a terrible job responding to questions, although they did get it right later that same day.

Our view has not changed. Terror attack at Paris Kosher market was motivated by anti-Semitism. POTUS didn’t intend to suggest otherwise. (John Earnest, White House Press Secretary, February 10)

We have always been clear that the attack on the kosher grocery store was an anti-semitic attack that took the lives of innocent people. (Jen Psaki, Department of State Press Secretary, February 10)

Yair Rosenberg spells it all out:

One of the downsides of Obama’s carefully cultivated intellectual persona is that onlookers often mistake his errors for intended actions, not realizing that this president makes miscues like any other. What critics would’ve written off as a gaffe if it came from George W. Bush, they instead see as part of deliberate plan when it comes from Obama. But those who would read a malevolent worldview–rather than mere mangled messaging–into this episode should remember that the Obama administration has in fact been a stalwart critic of rising European anti-Semitism. The president even dispatched his confidant Samantha Power to Berlin to hector European nations about not doing enough to fight it. It is exceedingly unlikely that the administration has suddenly decided that Jew hatred on the continent is no longer a problem.

Hopefully, the next time the president errs, his team will simply correct the record the first time, rather than awkwardly attempt to spin his mistake into something more sensible.

7 Q&A: Iran’s Nuclear Program & Netanyahu’s Speech

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Heavy water reactor in Arak, Iran.

1. How Can We Best Prevent Iran From Acquiring Nuclear Weapons?

A nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and destabilize the region.

President Obama and members of his administration have repeatedly stated that Iran will be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and that all options, including the military option, are on the table.

During the Obama administration, Congress passed, and Obama signed into law, increasingly tough sanctions against Iran. The President signed every sanctions bill that Congress sent him. These sanctions hurt Iran economically, because Obama built an international coalition that adhered to the sanctions. But Iran had only accelerated its progress toward nuclear weapons.

On November 24, 2013, the U.S. and its allies entered into an interim agreement with Iran called the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Under the JPA, Iran agreed to freeze or roll back its nuclear program in return for a limited, reversible sanctions relief. The JPA stopped the clock so that Iran could not advance its program while talks were continuing.

The JPA has been extended twice and will expire on June 30, 2015, but the U.S. hopes that a framework for a final agreement will be in place by the end of March, with the remaining time used to work out the details.

The administration and its allies believe that diplomacy is our best chance to stop Iran. We tried sanctions. They brought Iran to the table, but they did not stop Iran’s progress — only the JPA did that.

Even the most crippling sanctions, assuming that our allies would agree to tougher sanctions, probably would not be sufficient to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons because Iran is already so close. Military action might set their program back, but unless we are willing to invade and occupy Iran, military action would ultimately succeed only in convincing Iran that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself.

Some lawmakers now want to pass more sanctions legislation or require that any final agreement be approved by Congress. The administration opposes such legislation, and so should we.

2. Is the Joint Plan of Action (interim agreement) Working?

As Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken testified, the interim agreement is working:

Today, as the result of the constraints in the JPA, Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program and it has rolled it back in key areas for the first time in a decade, and it has allowed us to have greater insight and visibility through more intrusive and more frequent inspections.

The Arms Control Association details Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement in a chart, and Politifact verified the President’s statement about Iranian compliance.

Meanwhile, as Blinken said, despite the limited sanctions relief, “virtually the entire sanctions architecture remains in place. Indeed, throughout the existence of the JPA, sanctions pressure on Iran has not decreased — it has increased.”

3. How Can a Bill That Imposes Sanctions Only if a Deal is Not Reached Disrupt Negotiations?

The latest version of the Kirk-Menendez bill (sponsored so far by 30 Republicans and eight Democrats, and none of the Democrats want a vote until at least the end of March) would impose sanctions only if we did not reach a final agreement with Iran.

The administration opposes triggered sanctions for several reasons:

  • Such sanctions would be viewed by the international community as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the JPA, freeing Iran to violate its commitments under the JPA and resume its nuclear program.
  • Such sanctions could provoke Iran to end negotiations.
  • If Iran did not walk away, Iran would likely adopt more extreme positions in response.
  • If our allies perceive that we are not serious about living into up to our commitments, their support for sanctions will wane.

The Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn said that new U.S. sanctions legislation would have a troublesome impact “on the internal debate in Tehran and on prospects for positive changes in Iran’s negotiating position”:

Opponents of a deal would seize on the new legislation to argue that the United States is violating the spirit of the JPA, that the U.S. has no intention of ultimately removing the sanctions, and that the U.S. Administration cannot be counted on to deliver its end of any agreement eventually reached.

The critics — whose strong influence has so far impeded the adoption of a pragmatic Iranian negotiating position — would be further strengthened. Playing on Iranian hyper-sensitivity to giving in to foreign pressures, they would demand that U.S. pressure tactics not be rewarded by making concessions in the talks.

Thus, instead of compelling Iran to be more flexible, new U.S. legislation could produce greater defiance, further entrench rigid Iranian negotiating positions, and increase support for the Supreme Leader’s pipedream of an “economy of resistance” that could manage effectively without a nuclear deal. So even if a new sanctions law did not precipitate an abrupt termination of the talks, it could increase the likelihood that the negotiations will ultimately fail.

However, Blinken is the one who spoke about the key point:

We can debate whether any or all of these things would happen. What I can tell you today is that those who are best placed to know — the diplomatic professionals who have been leading these negotiations and dealing directly with the Iranians and our international partners for the past several years — believe that the risks are real, serious and totally unnecessary. That is their best judgment.

Why run those risks and jeopardize the prospects for a deal that will either come together — or not — over the next two months? Why not be patient for a few more months to fully test diplomacy? There is nothing to be gained — and everything to be lost — by acting precipitously.

Iran fully expects that if talks break down, we will enact tougher sanctions. As Einhorn said, “There is no need to legislate those sanctions in advance to ensure their credibility.”

In the meantime, Iran is the country whose nuclear program has been frozen and they are the ones whose economy continues to suffer because of sanctions. As Einhorn said, “Iran, not the United States or its partners… is the clear loser the longer the JPA remains in effect.”

4. What If We Get a Bad Deal?

President Obama and his staff have been as clear as can be on two points: We will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and no deal is better than a bad deal.

The administration’s refusal to sign a bad deal is the reason that the interim agreement was extended twice. We will hear all sorts of unconfirmed rumors about deals that are being contemplated, but do not waste your time: The only deal that matters, if a deal is to be, is the one that will be officially announced. Until then, we can do nothing (except scuttle negotiations and eliminate any hope of a deal, which seems to be the Republican plan).

We should oppose any efforts by Congress to approve a deal. This is not a treaty: This Congress would not have approved the JPA, and this Congress would only approve a perfect deal. But a good deal will not be a perfect deal.

As much as we would like to permanently and forever rid Iran of all nuclear capacity, that is not going to happen. An agreement that, in Einhorn’s words, “would allow a strictly limited and heavily monitored enrichment program” and would lengthen to at least one year, “the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a single nuclear weapon,” would be sufficient. The agreement itself would have to last at least ten years.

5. Should Netanyahu Address Congress?

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran will take place two weeks before Israel’s election. Netanyahu wants the Israeli public to see members of Congress give him standing ovations. It is also a blatantly partisan effort by Republicans in Congress to enlist Netanyahyu’s aid in lobbying Congress in favor of Republican legislation on Iran.

Netanyahu’s defenders sanctimoniously say that he needs to warn Congress about the threat posed by Iran. I am aware of no members of Congress who do not support preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or who do not know where Bibi stands.

This is not about the U.S. vs. Israel. This is not even Obama vs. Netanyahu. This is about a terrible political miscalculation by Netanyahu and his Republican ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, aided and abetted by the Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner.

Vice President Biden, a pro-Israel stalwart for more than 30 years, will skip the speech. He could not possibly attend following this major and deliberate breach of protocol.

Some Democratic members of Congress also might not attend because the disrespect shown to the President by Boehner and Netanyahu. Let us be clear: Democrats are firmly pro-Israel and firmly in favor of policies that prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. What they are not in favor of is being used as props for a foreign leader’s re-election campaign and to humiliate Obama.

Even Israel’s consul general in Philadelphia, Yaron Sideman, said that the purpose of Netanyahu’s speech is to defy and humiliate Obama:

It is our impression that these people’s support for the speech stems from their identification with, and admiration for, a move to defy and humiliate President Obama, more than from the importance they attribute to the Iranian issue, which should be the center of the speech.

The former Mossad head, Meir Dagan, and a close advisor to Israel’s former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Wiesglass, were also very critical of Netanyahu’s speech, calling it an “excessive provocation” and warning of the “terrible damage” it will do.

In The Jerusalem Post, Douglas Bloomfield wrote similar things:

There is no known precedent for a foreign leader working with the Congressional opposition behind a president’s back to come to Washington to lobby against an administration’s policies… Netanyahu’s supporters are accusing the administration of snubbing the prime minister, but it is actually the other way around. The Congressional appearance was arranged in secret and was intended to be a platform for pressing for new sanctions legislation that Obama has threatened to veto.

Former Congressman Mel Levine was one of Israel strongest advocates when he was in Congress. He wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz with Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, Oded Eran, stating that Netanyahu’s impending visit breaks away from “the fundamental principles that form the bedrock of Israeli-U.S. relations”:

This relationship should never be owned in the United States by one party, nor should it ever become a political football between Republicans and Democrats. Furthermore, both the United States and Israel should refrain from interfering in the domestic politics of one another.

Netanyahu – who cannot be accused of not understanding U.S. politics or the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship — is guilty of all three sins.

Levine and Eran suggest that Bibi defuse the situation by meeting with bipartisan leadership instead of addressing a joint session of Congress. But that would make way too much sense.

6. Did Speaker Boehner Inform the White House Prior to Inviting Netanyahu?

In an absurd attempt to pull themselves out of the muck, some of our Republican friends are pointing to a New York Times correction stating that Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation after the White House had been informed of the invitation.

It is supposedly nice that our Republican friends have so much faith in the New York Times that they even read the corrections, but let us get real: Even if true, the correction does not state who supplied this information, or more importantly, exactly who was “informed.” The truth is that the White House was blindsided by the invitation and only learned about it from press reports.

The bottom line remains that Boehner did not consult with the White House or his Democratic counterparts before extending the invitation, and if there was notice — all of two hours — before Bibi accepted, there is really no difference between that and no notice at all. It was a done deal, secretly prepared by the Republicans for weeks without the knowledge of the White House or congressional Democrats.

7. How Will This Affect U.S.-Israel Relations?

The good news from a pro-Israel standpoint is that despite whatever his personal relationship with Netanyahu might be, Obama has been rock-solid in his support for Israel from day one.

During his first term, Obama:

  • ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin-Laden,
  • built the international coalition that enforced the toughest sanctions ever against Iran,
  • restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration (and secretly sold Israel the bunker-busting bombs it requested but did not receive during the Bush administration),
  • increased security assistance to Israel to record levels,
  • requested funding for Iron Dome above and beyond those levels,
  • boycotted Durban II and Durban III,
  • took US-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels, cast his only veto in the UN against a one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution,
  • opposed the Goldstone Report,
  • stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla, and
  • organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.

After winning re-election, Obama:

  • spoke out against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the U.N.,
  • reiterated his firm commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,
  • forcefully condemned Hamas while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself,
  • became only the fifth sitting U.S. president to visit Israel, and
  • supported even more funding for Iron Dome, which saved thousands of Israeli lives in the last Gaza conflict.

Obama has continued some U.S. policies that have been in place since 1967, such as vocal opposition and condemnation of settlements, not moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and urging “restraint” on both sides during wars, sometimes in almost the exact words used by the Bush administration. That is par for the course, even if our Republican friends continue to profess shock that the President adheres to decades-old U.S. policy on those issues, both in tone and substance.

Obama’s record on Israel is better than that of any Republican president. If this is how Obama treats Israel when he does not like Israel’s prime minister, imagine how he will treat Israel if Israel elects someone else.

New Sanctions Won’t Stop Iran

Allowing a state-sponsor of terrorism to possess nuclear weapons is unacceptable.

A nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel’s existence and set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

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Heavy water reactor in Arak, Iran.

Strong economic sanctions, enforced by the Obama administration and made effective by the international coalition President Obama built and maintained, did not stop Iran’s progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons. The tougher the economic pressure, the harder Iran worked on developing its capabilities.

However, tough sanctions did bring Iran to the negotiating table. Under the Joint Plan of Action (the interim agreement), Iran finally agreed to halt, and in some cases roll back its nuclear program in return for a limited, reversible sanctions relief.

Iran’s economy still suffers from the tough sanctions that remain in place, giving Iran a tremendous incentive to continue negotiating toward a comprehensive agreement. But time no longer works against the U.S., and will not work against it for as long as both it and Iran continue to comply with the interim agreement.

President Obama has repeatedly stated that his goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; that all options, including the military option, are on the table; and that if the talks fail — he rates their chance of success as 50-50 at best — then not only will the limited sanctions relief end, but he will ask Congress for tougher sanctions.

Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. It would be irresponsible not to ratchet up the sanctions if talks failed, but if talks do fail, sanctions will be even less likely than negotiations to stop Iran. The only remaining option will then be military action, and while it might stop Iran in the short term, it will guarantee that Iran will do all it can to eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

That is why negotiations remain our best hope for stopping Iran, and that is why, with so much at stake, Congress would be foolish to take any action that could even arguably violate the interim agreement, create uncertainty, or call our good faith into question.

The interim agreement expires in July, but Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the deadline for reaching agreement on a framework is the end of March. If we get there, the next three months would be spent hammering out the details. So as a practical matter, we will know if we are likely to have a deal in two and a half months, and negotiations are proceeding based on that expectation.

However, new Iran sanctions legislation will soon be proposed.

A draft of the new Kirk-Menendez bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, would impose sanctions if the interim agreement expires without a long-term, comprehensive solution that will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Congress should debate the bill and schedule a vote in early April.

The bill contains a provision allowing the President to waive sanctions, if he feels that it is necessary to conclude a comprehensive agreement. However, this is a draft, and it could change prior to introduction in the Senate.

Even a bill whose terms do not take effect until the expiration of the interim agreement will violate the interim agreement, if it becomes law while the interim agreement is still in force. Passage of such a bill would be viewed by Iran and the U.S.’ allies as needlessly provocative and as a sign of bad faith.

Moreover, this bill would do nothing prior to the expiration of the interim agreement except poke a finger in Iran’s eye, and maybe the administration’s eye too. Why risk poisoning the atmosphere in the midst of delicate negotiations?

Even if one believes that the bill would not violate the interim agreement, even if one believes that it would not impair negotiations, why take that chance? Regardless of when the bill is enacted, new sanctions would only kick in after the expiration of the interim agreement. Why pass this bill now instead of waiting just two and a half months?

It can only be worse off if this bill passes now; it cannot be better off, and if this bill does scuttle the talks, the world will rightly blame the U.S., making it much less likely that its allies would join in tougher sanctions. And without the cooperation of those allies, the sanctions called for in this bill will be much less effective.

British prime minister, David Cameron, one of the U.S.’ key allies on Iran, urged Congress last Friday not to pass sanctions legislation. Cameron said that such legislation would “fracture unity” among the international coalition that is confronting Iran.

Would passing a bill now send a signal to Iran? What signal? The President has already made clear that we will impose more sanctions if talks fail, and no one doubts that Congress will accede to his request.

The only signals this bill would send are signals to the U.S.’ allies, that it does not care what they think; and signals to hard-liners in Iran, that maybe they should now threaten the U.S. with action should talks fail; or worse, that they might as well break off negotiations now.

2014: The Year That Wasn’t

Obama%20Fox%20530[1]The 2014 retrospectives are coming out, so here’s something different: A look at the predictions and claims made by our Republican friends that failed to materialize in 2014.

My Jerusalem Post article about the campaign to delegitimize President Obama identified repetition of falsehoods and baseless speculation as two of the three techniques used to distort President Obama’s record. We saw those techniques on display throughout 2014.

Would I enhance my credibility by criticizing President Obama? My credibility, to the extent I have any, comes from your knowing that I will always tell you what I think and support my arguments with facts you can rely on. If I’m asked what two plus two equals, I’m going to say four every time. I’m not going to sometimes say two plus two equals five just to show I’m “balanced,” no matter how many times our Republican friends try to have us believe that two plus two equals whatever may be politically convenient for them.

Take a look back at 2014 and see what I mean: [Read more…]

Is Iran Violating the Interim Agreement?

Secretary_Kerry_greets_Iranian_Foreign_Miniser_ZarifIs Iran violating its obligations under the Joint Plan of Action interim agreement?

Secretary of State John Kerry says no. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says no. But Foreign Policy claims that parts of a confidential report cite an unnamed state alleging that Iran violated certain terms, and that “diplomatic sources” said that the unnamed state was the U.S.

Foreign Policy apparently does not have the full report, but if you read the article carefully, and if you are willing to trust the unnamed sources, you will see that the article talks about violations of U.N. agreements, not the Joint Plan of Action with Iran.

[Read more…]

No, the U.S. Won’t Impose Sanctions on Israel

The U.S. is not going to impose sanctions on Israel.

You would not believe the nonsense I get in my inbox. The question I ask myself is whether I should write about it, thus giving it a modicum of credence and potentially spreading the rumor further, or whether to ignore it, letting the misinformation stand uncorrected. But since we are going to see a lot of nonsense between now and Israel’s upcoming elections, let us see what we can learn. [Read more…]

Hagel Proves Republican Critics Wrong

Remember the vicious campaign against Chuck Hagel waged by the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Protect Our Heritage PAC and other Republican groups? They were wrong. Totally wrong.

The outgoing Defense Minister was a true friend of Israel. Said who? Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon said. New Republic noted that Republicans attacked Hagel for being anti-Israel, but he turned out to be Israel’s closest friend.

Do not expect these Republicans to apologize for wasting our time and for attempting to besmirch Hagel’s reputation, though, and do not expect anyone to hold them accountable.

The Jerusalem Post noted that “when Jewish organizations turn out to be so wrong about their diagnosis of a particular candidate — as they were with Hagel — they end up paying a price”:

The next time they attempt to campaign against a nomination they will inevitably be less convincing. It would, therefore, be prudent to save clout and credibility for the truly important battles. The nomination of Hagel, it turns out, certainly wasn’t one of them.

Many of the same Republicans who blasted Hagel also “warned” us about Samantha Power, who blasted U.N. prejudice against Israel last week:

[T]he United States remains profoundly troubled by the repetitive and disproportionate number of one-sided General Assembly resolutions condemning Israel — a total of 18 this year.

This grossly one-sided approach damages the prospects for peace by undermining trust between parties and damaging the kind of international support critical to achieving peace. All parties to the conflict have direct responsibilities for ending it, and we are disappointed that UN Members continually single out Israel without acknowledging the responsibilities and difficult steps that must be taken on all sides.

These unbalanced, one-sided resolutions set back our collective efforts to advance a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Middle East, and they damage the institutional credibility of the United Nations.

This administration has in common with every administration since 1967 its strong opposition to settlements, which Power also reiterated. But no administration has backed Israel at the U.N. to the extent the Obama administration has.

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You Call That a Crisis?

Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 9, 2013. (Photo: Matty Ster.)

Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 9, 2013. (Photo: Matty Ster.)

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) responded Wednesday to Jeff Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic that quoted a senior U.S. official referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as a “chicken**t”:

There should never be any doubt that the special and strategic bond between the United States and Israel remains strong, steadfast and secure. In such a relationship, cooperation is celebrated and differences should be aired in confidence.

Unsubstantiated reports of inappropriate criticism and unprofessional name-calling are outrageous and unacceptable. And if proven true, the responsible individual should be held to full account. Whether they agree or disagree, friends engage with respect.

Dialog and professional engagement are essential to meeting the growing challenges that both Israel and the United States face. I hope that this moment provides an opportunity to reaffirm the distinct and critical relationship between our two countries.

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) said similar things:

Even in informal conversation, the use of the term was unprofessional and does not meet the standard of civility and deference that has typified the Administration even in disagreement with its long-time ally.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has the right and responsibility as the freely elected leader of a sovereign nation to conduct Israel’s foreign and domestic policies as he determines are in the best interests of his country and its people. Likewise, the United States has a strategic interest in pursuing peace, prosperity and security for Israel. Cooperation between the two countries has never been stronger.

The personal frustration that is reflected in the anonymous source’s ad hominem attack should be channeled to constructive engagement rather than rhetorical flourishes.

As pro-Israel advocates, even as we condemn this unacceptable name-calling, we must understand what was behind it.

We are in a difficult position because the current government in Israel also bears some of the blame for the rift in U.S.-Israel relations. It is not “anti-Israel” to recognize this reality any more than it is “anti-American” to recognize the flaws of the current U.S. government’s policy.

We have heard tales of rifts and snubs almost since the day President Obama was elected. Yet, the Obama administration has taken U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels: He provided Israel with record aid, including enthusiastic support for Iron Dome, which the George W. Bush administration was “frosty” on, and while continuing U.S. policy on settlements and Jerusalem that have been in place since 1967, he has not let this decades-old disagreement affect the U.S. strategic and diplomatic support for Israel.

During the Gaza War, even while calling for a cease-fire, Obama resupplied Israel with munitions. The delay in delivering Hellfire missiles, which have now been delivered, did not adversely affect Israel, which did not use those during the war.

The undeniable reality is that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong, and it is almost a testament to the strength of the relationship that the worst that President Obama’s critics can point to is name-calling. I would take name-calling over the tangible damage previous administrations have done to Israel any day.

No one in the Bush administration ever publicly referred to the prime minister of Israel as “chicken**t,” but let us not forget what did happen during the Bush tenure.

Bush rejected requests from Israel for special bombs to attack Iran and violated an agreement with Israel to maintain its qualitative military edge by selling arms to Arab states.

In 2002, Bush demanded that Israel stop its military offensive in the West Bank “now, not tomorrow.”

In 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the Bush administration said, “We are urging restraint on both sides, recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself,” almost word for word what the Obama administration said during Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

The Bush administration pressured Israel into allowing Hamas to participate in the 2006 Gaza elections, thus conferring on Hamas a legitimacy it could not have otherwise achieved. The Bush administration rescinded $289.5 million in loan guarantees for Israel as punishment for what Bush considered illegal settlement activity.

The Obama administration has never pressured Israel to act contrary to what Israel perceives as its best interests. If the Obama administration is in a crisis with Israel, we should only wish the Bush administration had similar crises.

President Nixon postponed the sale of 25 Phantom jets and 80 Skyhawks to Israel, and complained that “the f**king Jews think they can run the world.” President Ford called for a “total reassessment” of the U.S. policy toward Israel. As Lenny Ben-David wrote in The Jerusalem Post, the Bush 41-James Baker animus toward Yitzak Shamir “was so hot it could melt snow on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Nothing that is happening now comes close to the animus and venom that Menachem Begin displayed toward Ronald Reagan in 1981.

If you can think of a Republican administration that has been better to Israel than the Obama administration, I am all ears. Anyone who thinks we are at a low point in U.S.-Israel relations either has forgotten history or has conveniently chosen to forget.

So why the hatred of Obama from some of our Republican friends? Even psychoanalyst Richard Kaufman is not sure:

I wish I could understand the blind, irrational, paranoid rage so many people nurture toward Obama.

A lifetime in psychiatry, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis does not help me to figure out where this wrath comes from in otherwise sane, reasonable, loving, compassionate, highly educated, intelligent people.

I dislike, disrespect and disagree with many, if not most, politicians. But I don’t hate them. Perhaps the hypertrophied reaction to Obama is a type of monosymptomatic delusion? I do not know.

I do not know either, but let us keep the current tensions in perspective. We were told before President Obama’s election in 2008 that he would turn on Israel. It never happened. Then we were told that once re-elected in 2012 he would turn on Israel. It never happened either.

Instead, Obama visited Israel, becoming only the fifth sitting president to do so, and continued building the international coalition without which sanctions on Iran would not be effective. And he not only championed Iron Dome from the beginning, but he asked Congress for additional funding during the recent Gaza War, thus saving thousands of Israeli lives.

The U.S.-Israel relationship has always had its ups and downs. By any historical measure, the Obama administration, with all personal tensions, remains among the ups.

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