Obama: ‘I Will Veto Any New Sanctions’ on Iran

In his State of the Union address (Video and transcript below.), President Obama said that he will veto any new sanctions on Iran passed by Congress before the end of March — the U.S. deadline for reaching an agreement on a framework to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program:

Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies — including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.  There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.

But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.  It doesn’t make sense. And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.

flotus_sotu_suite_roc_AlanGross[1]Alan Gross, who was released last month from Cuban prison after five years, was among the audience.
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Stopping Radical Islam: An American Muslim’s View

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser gave a fascinating and encouraging talk on a cold, rainy Tuesday evening before an audience of 120 at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. “Stopping Radical Islam: An American Muslim’s View” opened with introductions by the Israel Consul General of the Mid-Atlantic region, Yaron Sideman, and StandWithUs directors Ferne Hassan and Yossi Puder. Internationally recognized political Islam expert Dr. Jasser founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which advocates for the preservation of the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution and counters the ideology that fuels radical Islamists. He is the author of the book A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faithand has been featured in several documentaries, including Islam v. Islamists, and The Third Jihad. He has been published extensively in national news media and appeared on national broadcast and cable TV and syndicated radio programs. He regularly testifies and briefs congressional staff members and caucuses on the threat of radicalization within the American Muslim community.

Islam v. IslamistsThe Third Jihad

Dr. Jasser’s family story is instructive. He spoke of being a first generation American of Muslim Syrian parents who fled the oppressive Baath regime in the 1960s. His family believed in the ideals of this country, where they could practice their faith freely. He was raised to serve and consequently went on to earn his medical degree with a U.S. Navy scholarship. He was the past president of the Arizona Medical Association, and now teaches and advises on medical ethics. He proudly wears a U.S. flag pin on his jacket lapel.
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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.

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Is the US-Israel Special Relationship Altered?


Anyone in Israel who is pleased with Obama’s speech does not completely understand its destructive implications.

— Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Since Harry S. Truman, every U.S. president has had the opportunity to engage in Middle East war, peace or both. We in the U.S. are result-oriented, giving politicians little credit for “best effort.” We like strong leaders, so the failed peace encounters can only damage the Chief Executive’s popularity.

One might tire of such engagements. Indeed, since both principal parties walked away from the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, less has been said in the U.S. about the problem. In Obama’s major address on foreign policy at the U.S. Military Academy commencement ceremony Wednesday, there was no mention of the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.”

More after the jump.
On Thursday, in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, commentator Alon Pinkas wrote: “It was an ‘all-inclusive’ speech that President Obama gave yesterday at the graduation ceremony at West Point Academy. All-inclusive, except for Israel and the peace process. Not even as a footnote.”

[Obama] made no mention of “our” Middle East. Not with affection and concern, and not with criticism and frustration. Neither as a U.S. foreign policy objective nor as a U.S. interest. He voiced neither a commitment to the ally Israel nor an aspiration to grant the Palestinians a state of their own. The “peace process” is yet another conflict flashpoint in the world, and the U.S. has grown weary of its failed attempts to mediate and resolve it.

Pinkas added that Wednesday morning, “in an appearance that was broadcast by three networks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all.”

This matters to us, U.S. Jews, as well as to Israel. The perceived centrality of the U.S.-Israel relationship, or the apparent disregard of that relationship, is likely to influence nuclear negotiations with Iran, subtly altering both the Iranian and the American strength of purpose and will. But that is just one likely effect of the failure of talks.

U.S. Jews have little basis today to press their government for re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the voice of AIPAC is not likely to be heard to urge a course that the Government of Israel does not want. Israel appears to be satisfied to let matters ride as they are, awaiting a day when a more desirable, or at least more desirous, peace partner may emerge on the Palestinian side.

Although a quiet has settled in for the present time, we and Obama know too well that the problems are unresolved and very unlikely to go away. As Pinkas concluded, “Anyone in Israel who is pleased with [Obama’s] speech does not completely understand its destructive implications.”

This Week’s 5 Most Important Questions

— by Steve Sheffey

  • Does Israel spy on the US?
  • Will the US prevent a nuclear-armed Iran?
  • Is J Street pro-Israel?
  • Does Marco Rubio understand global warming science?
  • Is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign working?

Read the answers after the jump.
I strongly recommend that you read this fascinating exchange between former US ambassador to Israel Michael Oren and Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf. It’s somewhat long, but it eloquently addresses many of the questions and concerns that trouble thoughtful friends of Israel.

Chuck Hagel defended Israel against spying allegations.

In response to a Newsweek report quoting unnamed US officials accusing Israel of espionage, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that “I’m not aware of any facts that would substantiate the report.” Hagel, on a three-day trip to Israel, also affirmed the strong bond between the US and Israel and noted that US aid to Israel is at record levels.

We will prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Many critics of the interim agreement with Iran refuse to acknowledge that its purpose is not to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Its purpose is to delay progress on Iran’s program so that we can negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program without Iran using the time during negotiations to make significant progress.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on May 12 that (emphasis mine):

Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. As President Obama said in Jerusalem, “America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” As the United States and our P5+1 partners engage in negotiations with Iran on a long-term, comprehensive agreement that resolves the world’s longstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, we all have a responsibility to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. But America won’t be satisfied by mere words. We will only be satisfied by verifiable action from Iran. Put simply: if we are not, there will be no deal. And, as these negotiations progress, we continue to consult closely with Israel every step of the way.

The J Street Challenge.

My regular readers know that I’m a strong supporter of AIPAC, and I explained why in my report on AIPAC and J Street. But the disagreements we have with J Street do not negate the fact that J Street is a pro-Israel organization. If you’re really concerned about J Street and the fanciful charges that have been leveled against it, you owe it to yourself to read Setting the Record Straight, by J Street’s founder and Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami.

Barney Frank made a good point last week:

I have long noted an interesting phenomenon in the opinion of some American Jews that criticism of particular Israeli government policies from a more liberal position are a betrayal, while even harsher attacks on efforts by Israeli governments to pursue peace talks are entirely legitimate.


John Oliver and Bill Nye show the world how to debate with climate change deniers.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) denied global warming science.

Rubio proved that he is both ignorant of science and eminently qualified to be a GOP candidate for President by denying the reality that global warming is caused by human activity. Jeffrey Kluger explains why Rubio is wrong on climate change. This is the same Marco Rubio who, when asked the age of the earth, said “I’m not a scientist, man.” No kidding.

Kluger’s article is a great article to send to anyone who still doesn’t get it on climate change, but Carl Hiaassen’s approach works too.

#BringBackOurGirls.

I wonder if those mocking #BringBackOurGirls would have mocked the “Save Soviet Jewry” posters many synagogues put on their lawns not too long ago. The point of the “Save Soviet Jewry” signs was not that the signs themselves would free Soviet Jews, but that by constantly calling attention to their plight, we would make action more likely and more likely to succeed.

Hashtags are today’s signs. No one thinks that hashtags on Twitter are a substitute for action, but they are helping focus the world’s attention on the plight of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Zach Beauchamp explains why #BringBackOurGirls is making a difference for Nigeria.

Click here to sign up to Steve Sheffey’s newsletter.

My Republican Haggadah: An oldie but goodie

Editor’s Note: This “Republican Haggadah” first appeared in the Huffington Post in 2012. However, except for the references to the 2012 Presidential election the humor is timeless. Enjoy!

— by Steve Sheffey

Jewish history is littered with sects, groups of people kind of like Jews who celebrate the same holidays and have many of the same customs, yet are somehow different.

Today’s sect is known as “Jewish Republicans,” few in number but very loud. Like most Jews, they celebrate Pesach, but they’ve got their own Haggadah. The differences between their Haggadah and ours are instructive.

After drinking the first cup of wine, most Jews wash their hands, but the Republicans stay seated and wait for the water to trickle down.

Most Jews then eat a green vegetable, but the Republican Haggadah follows the ruling of Rabbi Reagan that ketchup qualifies as a vegetable. Ketchup is not green, but green is the last thing any Republican would want to be. (Reagan does have this in common with Moses: Neither ever set foot in the land of Israel.)

More after the jump.
Next we break the middle of the three matzot. Most Jews break the middle matzah into two roughly equal pieces, replacing the smaller piece on the Seder plate and hiding the larger piece as the afikoman. The Republican Haggadah asks the leader (or in Republican parlance, the Seder CEO) to keep 99 percent of the matzah for himself and let the other participants share the remaining 1 percent.

The Torah speaks of four sons, but the Republican Haggadah speaks of four candidates: The simple candidate (Santorum), the wicked candidate (Paul), the candidate who does not know how to answer (Romney), and the simple candidate who thinks he’s the wise candidate (Gingrich). They have no wise candidates.

The highlight of the Republican Haggadah is its version of “Dayenu” — “it would have been enough.” The Republican motto when it comes to President Obama is “nothing is enough” — no matter how much President Obama does for Israel, it’s never enough for some of our Republican friends:

President Obama has called for the removal of Syrian President Assad.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin Laden.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has done more than any other president to stop Iran’s illicit nuclear program.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama increased security assistance to Israel to record levels.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama boycotted Durban II and Durban III.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has taken U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama cast his only veto in the U.N. against the one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama opposed the Goldstone Report.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama immediately intervened to rescue Israelis trapped in the Egyptian embassy.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama gave orders to give Israel “whatever it needs” to put out the Carmel fire.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama maintained the U.S. policy of ambiguity on Israel’s nuclear weapons.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has repeatedly condemned Palestinian incitement against Israel and attempts to delegitimize Israel.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama pulled out of joint exercises with Turkey after Turkey excluded Israel.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

There’s probably nothing President Obama can do to convince some Republicans that he’s pro-Israel. If President Obama split the Sea of Reeds and walked through it dry-shod, they’d accuse him of not being able to swim. They made their mind up before he was elected that he could not be trusted and they ignore everything that contradicts their biases.

The ultimate message of the real Haggadah is hope (sound familiar?). Let’s hope that just as the vast majority of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008, the vast majority of us will remember who we are and what we value and vote to re-elect President Obama in 2012.

Secretary Kerry’s Remarks at the AIPAC Policy Conference

Secretary of State John Kerry at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference

Today, as Israel faces serious challenges to her future, it is America that will stand firmly by her side.  

I will tell you that with the leadership of President Obama — and you can look it up, you can measure it; this is not an exaggeration, it’s a matter of fact — there has been a complete, unmatched commitment to Israel’s security.  The record of this Administration in providing aid and assistance, consultation, weapons, help, standing up in various international fora, fighting, I am proud to tell you, is unrivaled.  And the bottom line, pure and simple, has been making sure that Israel has the means to defend itself by itself and defending Israel’s right to be able to do so.  That is what we’ve done.  

Security.  Security is fundamentally what President Obama is committed to.  And so too is he committed to using the full force of our diplomacy to resolve the two great questions that most matter when it comes to ensuring the security of Israel:  preventing a nuclear Iran and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

Full transcript follows the jump.
Norm, thank you.  Thank you very, very much.  Thank you all, 14,000 strong or more.  (Applause.)  Howard, Howard Friedman and Executive Director Howard Kohr, incoming president Bob Cohen, incoming chairman Michael Kassen, outgoing chairman Lee Rosenberg, and Ambassador Ron Dermer and Ambassador Dan Shapiro.  I don’t know where our ambassadors are.  Would they — somebody ought to applaud both of them here.  (Applause.)  There they are.  Thanks for your own, Norman.

Let me tell you, it really is an enormous pleasure for me to be able to be here.  It’s a privilege.  And good to see so many friends, all 14,000 of you — a little frightening to see myself on about eight, nine, ten screens up here — (laughter).  The last time I spoke to AIPAC, I joined your national summit in Napa Valley.  I did it via satellite.  And you were in the vineyards, I was overseas — a different kind of vineyard.  So today, I think I’m getting the better end of the deal because I am here with you in person, and your wine selection is a lot more limited this time.

I have to tell you, I had the pleasure of speaking to AIPAC back in the 1990s, it was a great honor, and every time I come here, whether I get a chance to talk to a smaller group during the daytime sessions or otherwise, this is a remarkably inspiring gathering — people from every corner of the country coming together to demonstrate our deep support as Americans for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.  (Applause.)

And it is no exaggeration.  It’s not just words to say that every single one of you brings here such a special passion to a cause that you so fiercely believe in.  And let me tell you something unequivocally:  After almost 30 years in the United States Senate, I can tell you that is precisely why AIPAC’s work is in the best traditions of American democracy, and I thank you for practicing it.  (Applause.)

I want you to know that in my judgment, these democratic values are stamped in the DNA of both the United States and Israel.  But we also share something much deeper than that.  Like no other two countries on the planet, against the deepest odds, both America and Israel confidently, purposefully set out to be examples to the world.  Think about it.  From its earliest days, Israel has always said it’s not enough just to be one of many in a community of nations; Israel has strove since Isaiah’s time to serve as a light unto the nations.  (Applause.)  And that responsibility to be a light unto the nations sounds actually unbelievably similar to something that we as Americans know is part of who we are, too.

My grandfather ten times over — too hard to count in other terms — was a man by the name of John Winthrop.  And he came to what was then the New World, and he came in search of freedom, freedom to worship as he wished.  He was a minister.  He and his congregants were outcasts, persecuted, heading into a rough and unforgiving land with no guarantee even of survival.  And on his way here, he delivered a now fairly famous sermon at sea in which he called on his community to create a city upon a hill in their new home, America.

So whether you call it a city upon a hill or a light unto the nations, it actually means the same thing: being a model to the world.  It means having a home that sets a standard, a standard of dignity and a standard of freedom.  So the foundation of the friendship between the American people and the people of Israel was actually laid centuries before a single stone was set under the U.S. Capitol or under the Knesset.  And looking around this room tonight, it is clear that our friendship has never been stronger.  (Applause.)

And I’ll tell you why.  Because today, as Israel faces serious challenges to her future, it is America that will stand firmly by her side.  (Applause.)  I will tell you that with the leadership of President Obama — and you can look it up, you can measure it; this is not an exaggeration, it’s a matter of fact — there has been a complete, unmatched commitment to Israel’s security.  The record of this Administration in providing aid and assistance, consultation, weapons, help, standing up in various international fora, fighting, I am proud to tell you, is unrivaled.  And the bottom line, pure and simple, has been making sure that Israel has the means to defend itself by itself and defending Israel’s right to be able to do so.  That is what we’ve done.  (Applause.)

Security.  

Security is fundamentally what President Obama is committed to.  And so too is he committed to using the full force of our diplomacy to resolve the two great questions that most matter when it comes to ensuring the security of Israel:  preventing a nuclear Iran and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  (Applause.)

Now let me start with Iran because I know there are many questions.  I know many people — there’s been a healthy debate about the approach.  We welcome that.  But let me sum up President Obama’s policy in 10 simple, clear words, unequivocal:  

We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period.

 (Applause.)  Now, I added an eleventh word just for punctuation.  (Laughter.)

But I want you to understand there are no if, ands, or buts.  This is not a political policy.  This is a real foreign policy.  And we mean every word of what we say.  You have the word of the President of the United States that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.  Now, as we said at the outset, and I say it again today, our diplomacy is guided by a simple bottom line:  No deal is better than a bad deal.  (Applause.)  And we absolutely will not accept a bad deal.  We are committed to a deal that gets the job done.  (Applause.)

Why?  Because we get it, we understand it.  As President Obama said in Jerusalem, no one can question why Israel looks at the Iranian program and sees an existential threat.  We understand it.  We understand it in our gut.  And we also know something else.  This is not some favor that we do for Israel.  This is something that is also in the interest of the United States of America, and it’s in the interest of countries surrounding Israel.  (Applause.)  A nuclear bomb for Iran would also threaten the stability of the region, indeed the entire world.  It would produce an arms race among the surrounding countries.  There is no way the world is safer anywhere in the world with a nuclear weapon in Iran, and we are not going to let it happen, period, end of story.  (Applause.)

Now, to do that, to achieve this all-important goal, important for America’s security and for Israel’s security, it is crucial that we seizes what might be the last best chance to be able to have diplomacy work, and maybe the last chance for quite some time.  Because the reality is only strong diplomacy can fully and permanently achieve the goal.  Those who say strike and hit need to go look at exactly what happens after you’ve done that, whether that permanently eliminates the program or opens up all kinds of other possibilities, including Iran leaving the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, not even allowing IAEA inspectors in, not living under any international regimen.  That’s a possibility.  Only strong diplomacy can guarantee that a nuclear weapons program actually goes away for good instead of just going underground and becoming more dangerous.  Only the exhaustion of diplomacy can justify more forceful options if you have to take them in the end.

So we say — President Obama and myself and others — we say let’s seize the diplomatic moment.  And that’s what we are trying to do.  And the truth is it is strong diplomacy that has actually made this moment possible.  And we need to give it the space to work.  We need to make sure that if this opportunity were to elude us, it is not because we are the ones that close the window.

Now, I understand the skepticism.  I’ve been around this city for 29-plus years as a senator, became chairman of the foreign relations committee, worked with most of the members of your board and with AIPAC and others around the country, and proud to tell you that during that time I had a 100 percent voting record for Israel.  (Applause.)

And I’m not coming here to stand up in front of you and tell you that I know that Iran is going to reach an agreement.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what they’ll do.  I don’t know if they are able to make some of the tough decisions they’re going to have to make in the months ahead.  But I know that if the United States is going to be able to look the world in the eye and say we have to do something, we have to have exhausted the possibilities available to us for that diplomatic peaceful resolution.  Let me make it clear our approach is not Ronald Reagan’s and the Soviets — We’re not looking at this and saying trust, but verify.  Our approach is a much more complex and dangerous world — it’s verify and verify.  And that’s what we intend to do.  (Applause.)

Now, there is very good reason for these sanctions to exist in the first place, and good reason that we have kept the architecture of these sanctions in place.  And we continue to enforce it even as we negotiate a comprehensive agreement.  In the last weeks, we have announced additional sanctions with respect to individuals who have been tempted to go around it or violate it.  We have not changed one piece of the sanctions architecture.  And yet we are able to negotiate.  Our eyes, my friends, are wide open.  This is not a process that is open-ended.  This is not a process that is about trusting Tehran.  This is about testing Tehran.  And you can be sure that if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel.  That, I promise.  (Applause.)

Now, we have taken no options off the table, but so far there is no question but that tough sanctions and strong diplomacy are already making Israel and America safer.  The first step agreement, the first step agreement — it’s not an interim agreement, it’s a first step agreement — and the agreement that’s in force today didn’t just halt the advance of the Iranian nuclear program for the first time in a decade; it’s actually rolled it back.  And we all remember how Prime Minister Netanyahu highlighted Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium in the 2012 speech at the United Nations.  Well, today Iran is reducing its stockpile of 20 percent uranium.  And without the agreement in force today, the opposite would have been in effect.  The stockpile would have grown even more dangerous, and the amount of breakout time that they have would have grown smaller.  Because of the agreement, Iran will soon have to take its entire stock of 20 percent enriched uranium down to zero.  Zero.  Zero.  (Applause.)  You don’t have to be a math major to know that Israel is safer when Iran has zero uranium enriched to 20 percent, and that’s what we’ve achieved.

The same independent inspectors who also tell us that Iran has halted its advances on the heavy water reactor known as the Arak reactor, without the agreement in force today, we could not have stopped them making progress on the Arak heavy water reactor, plutonium reactor.  Iran has also stopped enriching all uranium above 5 percent, and it has given inspectors daily access to the facilities at Natanz and at Fordow.  You know Fordow, you’ve heard about it, that underground facility that was a secret for so long.  We’ve never had people in it.  But because of this first step agreement, we now have people inside Fordow every single day telling us what is happening.  (Applause.)

None of these things would have happened without forceful diplomacy by the United States and our international partners.  But now, my friends, we have to finish the job.  Like I tell my staff, there aren’t any exit polls in foreign policy.  It’s results that count, final results.  And that means we have to let forceful diplomacy keep working in order to put this test to Iran.

Now, right now we are carefully — and I mean carefully — negotiating a comprehensive agreement.  We are consulting with our friends in Israel constantly.  The minute Under Secretary Wendy Sherman finished her last set of meetings in Vienna the other day, she went immediately to Israel, briefed thoroughly on the talks, then went to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and continued to brief and briefed our European partners.

You might be asking:  If no deal is better than a bad deal, what does the United States consider a good deal?  Well, you have my word — and the President’s — that the United States will only sign an agreement that answers three critical questions the right way.  First, will it make certain that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon?  Second, can it continuously assure the world that Iran’s program remains entirely peaceful as it claims?  And third, will the agreement increase our visibility on the nuclear program and expand the breakout time so that if they were to try to go for a bomb, we know we will have time to act?

Those are the tests.  Those are our standards for any comprehensive agreement.  It’s that simple.  And those objectives, if they’re not met, then there won’t be an agreement.  (Applause.)  Now make no mistake, make no mistake; we can’t resolve the answer to those questions.  It’s up to Iran.  It’s up to Iran to prove to the world that its program is peaceful, and the world will hold Iran accountable.

Now, if it turns out that Iran cannot address the world’s concerns, I guarantee you it will face more pressure, Iran will face more pressure, more and more isolation.  And Congress will introduce more tough sanctions.  And let me assure you — I know Eric Cantor is here, sitting here — I assure you it’ll take about two hours to get it through the House and the Senate and it won’t be delayed and the Congress will have to do nothing more than schedule the vote, because President Obama and I fully support those sanctions under those circumstances.  (Applause.)

In the meantime, as I said earlier, we are enforcing every letter of the existing sanctions.  I have personally instructed every State Department bureau and mission around the world to watch vigilantly for any signs of the sanctions being skirted.  And to any country that wants to trade with Iran with these sanctions firmly in place, the United States will tell them exactly what I have told foreign leaders in no uncertain terms:  Iran is not open for business until Iran is closed for nuclear bombs.  (Applause.)

Now, strong diplomacy is also essential to another threat to Israel’s security:  ending the conflict with the Palestinians, and in doing so, preserving the Jewish and democratic nature of the state of Israel.  (Applause.)  I’ve had some folks ask me why I’m so committed to these negotiations and why I’m so convinced that peace is actually possible.  And they ask, “Why does John Kerry go to Israel so often?”  I think I heard Steny Hoyer say he’d been there 13 times, Eric Cantor who’s been there 12 times.  I’ve been there more times than that just in the last nine months.  (Laughter.)  And I’ve been in the Middle East more times than even that in the last months because I don’t always wind up going to Israel.

But apart from the question, I’m surprised because people ask, because apart from my affection for Israel which dates back to my first visit back in 1986, and it just strikes me that it’s the wrong question to ask, why do I go.  This isn’t about me.  This is about the dreams of Israelis and the dignity of Palestinians.  It’s about reconciling two peoples who want at long last to live normal secure lives in the land that they have fought over for so long.  It’s about answering King David’s timeless call that we seek peace and pursue it.  It’s about fulfilling the fervent prayer for peace that Jews around the world recite to welcome Shabbat.  It’s about parents from Tsefat to Eilat who want to raise their families in a region that accepts the nation-state of the Jewish people is here to stay.  (Applause.)

Now, it’s not news to any Israeli to hear me say that they live in a difficult neighborhood.  Israelis know that better than anyone.  No one needs to explain the importance of peace and security to a mother who has just sent her daughter to the army or a son who is waiting for his father to come home from another mission.  No one knows the stakes of success or failure better than those who will inherit them for generations to come.  And I have seen all of these realities in so many different ways in my travels in Israel, from the rocket casings in Sderot to the shelter in Kiryat Shmona that I visited years ago where children had to hide from Katyusha rockets.  I’ve seen it.

My friends, I also believe that we are at a point in history that requires the United States as Israel’s closest friend and the world’s preeminent power to do everything we can to help end this conflict once and for all.  Now, that is why America — (applause) — that is why America helped bring the parties back to the table, where, let’s be honest, Israelis and Palestinians have difficult choices to make.  And no one understands just how complex those choices are or how emotional they are better than the leaders who have to summon the courage in order to actually make them.

I have sat with Bibi Netanyahu for hours and hours and days and days.  We have become good friends.  (Applause.)  I believe — in fact, he ought to be charging me rent.  (Laughter.)  I’ve seen up close and personally the grit and the guts of this man and his love of country.  And I can tell you with absolute certainty and without question, Prime Minister Netanyahu has demonstrated his courage and his commitment in pursuit of peace with security.  (Applause.)  He knows that it is the only way for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state; not a bi-national state.  (Applause.)

As President Obama said publicly in the Oval Office today, and I quote him:  “Prime Minister Netanyahu has approached these negotiations with a level of seriousness and commitment that reflects his leadership and the desire of the Israeli people for peace.”

Thus far, I will tell you also that President Abbas, and I know there are many doubters here — I’ve heard the arguments for 30-plus years, 40 years — that there’s no partner for peace, that Abbas won’t be there, that — both sides, by the way, say the same thing about each other.  That’s one of the difficulties we have to try get through here.  A very small needle to try to thread in terms of the trust deficit.  Thus far, President Abbas, I will tell you, has demonstrated he wants to be a partner for peace.  He’s committed to trying to end the conflict in all of its claims, but he obviously has a point of view about what’s fair and how he can do that.  Let’s be candid.  I know that some of you doubt that.  But as Israeli security officials will attest, President Abbas has been genuinely committed against violence, and his own security forces have worked closely with Israel in order to prevent violence against Israeli citizens.

I’ve also spent many hours with President Abbas, and I believe that he clearly understands both the tremendous benefits of peace and the great costs of failure.  He understands that in terms of his own people, his own grandchildren, the country he hopes to be able to lead, and in terms of the history that beleaguers all.  He knows the Palestinian people will never experience the self determination that they seek in a state of their own without ending the conflict in a solution that delivers two states for two peoples.  (Applause.)

And so does Prime Minister Netanyahu.  When Bibi looks me in the eye and says, “I can’t accept a deal with Palestinians that doesn’t make the people of Israel safer,” we agree 100 percent.  (Applause.)  But I argue that there is a distinction between a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon or from Gaza where nothing is resolved, and a phased withdrawal that is negotiated where everything is at least in an agreement resolved.

Now, I learned about Israel’s security on many different trips over there, but one stands out.  I was — I’d been a pilot since I was in college and I was on a trip over there.  I was having a luncheon at Ovda Airbase with the Israel Air Force.  And the colonel who was in charge was — had flown.  He was an ace from the Six-Day War.  And we were having lunch at the time at Ovda and I had been badgering them to maybe let me go up and fly.  And they disappeared at lunch and finally he comes back and he says, “Senator, I hope you don’t eat too much.  We’re going flying.”  I said, “Wow, great.  This is what I’ve wanted.”  And we went out, the two of us, drove out to this jet, and he trusted me.  We put on our helmets, got in the jet, and he says, “The moment we’re off the ground, it’s your airplane.”

So literally, we took off, I take the stick, we go up, we’re flying around.  Next thing I know in my ear he says, “Senator, you better turn faster.  You’re going over Egypt.”  (Laughter.)  So I turned very fast and then I asked him if I could do some aerobatics over the Negev.  And I turned upside down and did a big loop and I was coming down, I was looking upside-down, and I said to myself, “This is perfect.”  I could see all of the Sinai.  I could see Aqaba.  I could see Jordan.  I see all of Israel below me, each side to each side.  Said, “This is the perfect way to see the Middle East upside-down and backwards.”  I understand it.  (Applause.)

The real point of this story is just to tell you that I can’t tell you the imprint on me, being up there and tiny — almost turning.  You had barely space to turn.  You get the sense of a missile from here, or a rocket from there, or the threat of war.  You understand it’s impossible to ignore just how narrow those borders are, how vulnerable Israel can be, and why Israel’s security is our first priority.  We understand that.  (Applause.)

That is why, my friends, President Obama sent a four-star general, John Allen, one of the most respected minds in United States military to do something we’ve never done in all the history of administrations negotiating for Israel’s and Palestinians’ future and that is to work with Israelis and Jordanians and Palestinians to make the Jordan River border as strong as the strongest borders on Earth.  That’s what makes this effort different from anything we’ve ever done before.  With the combination of the best military experience America can offer and the best ideas in the Pentagon and the best technology that we could deliver, we believe we can deliver to Israel security that Israel needs in order to make peace, and President Obama is committed to doing that.

Now we have no illusions.  We saw what happened after Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and Lebanon.  We all learned lessons from that, I hope.  That’s why a negotiated agreement is so important.  That’s why the security arrangements that we are helping to design will need to be operationally proven.  We’re not doing this on a whim and a prayer.  We will never let the West Bank turn into another Gaza.  (Applause.)

My friends, we understand that Israel has to be strong in order to make peace.  But we also understand that peace will make Israel stronger.  Any peace agreement must also guarantee Israel’s identity as a Jewish homeland.  (Applause.)  As Ehud Barak said on this stage last year, a two-state solution is the only way for Israel to stay true to its founding principles — to remain both Jewish and democratic.  At last year’s AIPAC conference, he said statehood is not a favor for the Palestinians, and let me reaffirm:  He is right; it is not.

Israel also needs peace in order to create greater prosperity.  All of you here know the great economic benefits of peace.  All of you have already seen what Israel has already been able to build with the forces of the region that raid against it.  Just imagine what it will be able to build as a result of peace with Palestinian neighbors.  I’ve had the foreign minister of one of the surrounding countries — a very wealthy country and a very smart foreign minister say to me if we make peace — this is under the Arab Peace Initiative and the Arab Follow-on Committee that is following everything we’re doing very closely and supporting it — and they said if we make peace, Israel will trade more in this community within a few years than it trades with Europe today.  That’s what we have available to us.  (Applause.)  And I believe that we need to stand together with a single voice to reject any of the arbitrary unwarranted boycotts of Israel.  For more than 30 years, I have staunchly, loudly, unapologetically opposed boycotts of Israel — (applause) — and I will continue to oppose those boycotts of Israel.  That will never change.  (Applause.)

Every time that Israel is subjected to attacks on its legitimacy, whether at the United Nations or from any nation, the United States will use every tool we have to defeat those efforts and we will stand with Israel.  (Applause.)

Finally, peace demands that Israel fulfill its destiny not just as a nation but also as a neighbor.  And that begins with the Palestinians, and it extends to the entire Arab League whose Arab Peace Initiative can open the door to peace and normalized relations with 20 additional Arab countries and a total of 55 Muslim countries.  The upheaval in the Middle East has shown us all that Arabs and Israelis share some of the very same security concerns.  Without the Palestinian conflict to divide them, these common interests can grow into real relationships and transform Israel’s standing in the region.  And I just invite you — I promise you these conversations take place.  I’ve had them throughout the Gulf region, throughout the Middle East, where increasingly those countries begin to see the possibilities of mutual security interests coming together for all of them against an Iran, against terrorism, against religious extremism.  This is a commonality that is a new thread in the region, and I believe it brings the potential of new possibilities.

It is also important to remember that ending the conflict means ending the incitement.  President Abbas has called incitement a germ that must be removed.  And he has sought our help in order to try to deal with the problem.  And I can tell you that with any final agreement it will also include a larger endeavor in order to help people on both sides move beyond a painful past and promote a culture of peace and tolerance.

After all these years, my friends, it is really no mystery what the end-game really looks like.  I think you know that in your hearts.  We understand what the end-game is.  I know what peace looks like.  When I talk to Prime Minister Netanyahu and others, I think everybody shares this because this is not new.  After Camp David and Oslo and Wye and Annapolis and Taba and all of these efforts, what the end-game should look like is straightforward:  security arrangements that leave Israelis more secure, not less; mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Jewish people and the nation-state of the Palestinian people; an end to the conflict and to all claims; a just and agreed solution for Palestinian refugees, one that does not diminish the Jewish character of the state of Israel; and a resolution that finally allows Jerusalem to live up to its name as the City of Peace.  (Applause.)

It will take hard work.  I’m not pretending any of the answers — these are all narrative issues.  They’re tough issues.  They complicated.  But there is a vision of peace, and it takes tough choices on both sides, especially over the coming days.  I guarantee you that America, that President Obama and this Administration will be there every day of the week, every step of the way.  And we will stand with Israel’s leaders today and with the leaders of the future.  And we will ensure that our light shines not just throughout the nations, but throughout the generations.

Leaders like a fellow named Guy  — I’ll leave his last name out — but he’s a young Israeli who took part in an exchange program with the State Department, sponsors that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to talk about their histories and their hopes.  Guy’s  grandparents fled Europe.  He was born and raised in Jerusalem.  He served in the IDF.  And he worked as an entrepreneur in Israel’s booming tech industry.  And this is what he said in that program:  We respect our past, but we don’t want to live it.  We are young enough to dream, to believe that change is possible, and that fear can be defeated.

I think Guy is right.  Change is possible.  Fear can be defeated.  But those are choices we have to make now.

My friends, a few months ago I landed in Tel Aviv and it was the 18th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.  I went straight to Kikar Rabin, and I stood with the late-prime minister’s daughter, Dalia, at the site of her father’s murder.  And we stood just steps away from where the great general, in the last moments of his life, sang the famous lyrics of Shir LaShalom:  Don’t whisper a prayer; sing a song of peace in a loud voice.  Don’t say the day will come; bring that day.  (Applause.)  That is our mission.  All of us, in whatever capacity that we can, but just as important our mission is also to raise our voices for peace, and we also need to listen.  We have to listen to those who first gave voice to our values, voices that still echo thousands of years later.

He almost — I think it was the first time I went to Israel.  I spent a week there and went all over the country and like many first-time visitors, I climbed Masada.  I climbed it with a guide — some of you may know him or heard of him, a fellow by the name of Yadin Roman.  Yadin, the publisher of Eretz Israel.  And our group debated Josephus Flavius’s account of what happened on the top of that mountain, the account of what happened 2,000 years before we were there.

Then Yadin, after we’d had this long debate, made us all vote to determine did it happen as he recounted or was it different.  And we all voted unanimously it did happen the way he recounted.  He told us to then walk to the edge of the precipice which we did, and to look out across the chasm and to shout, to shout across the ancestral home of the Jewish people.  And as we stood where every new Israeli soldier begins his or her service, by swearing an oath to honor that history and secure the future, Yadin instructed us to shout, all at the same time, “Am Yisrael chai.”  We shouted.  (Applause.)  And then I have to tell you, echoing across the chasm in the most eerie and unbelievably unforgettable way were these haunting echoes of “Am Yisrael chai, Am Yisrael chai, chai, chai.”  I’ll never forget hearing the echo of those words bouncing off that mountain.  It was literally like we were hearing the voices of the souls of those who had perished sacrificing their lives for Israel a thousand years ago.  And we were affirming those words, the state of Israel lives.  The people of Israel live.

We have to listen to those voices.  Those long ago who encouraged us to build a city on a hill to be a light unto the nations, an example to the world, to ensure Israel’s survival.  And we have to listen to the voices of young people whose futures depend on the choices that we, the leaders of today, make.  It’s for their future that we will give new strength to the U.S.-Israel partnership as AIPAC does like no other organization in our country.  It’s for their future that we will come together giving greater voice to the timeless oath and we will remember forever those words and be driven by them:  “Am Yisrael chai” will be said generations upon generations into the future because of the work you do and the work we will do together.

Thank you all very much.  Honored to be with you.  (Applause.)  

AIPAC Breaks With GOP on Iran Sanctions


Reps. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ)

— by Steve Sheffey

The Kirk-Menendez bill started out as a bipartisan effort to increase pressure on Iran. It was introduced in December with 13 Democratic and 13 Republican cosponsors, amidst concerns that the clock was ticking and the interim agreement with Iran had not yet been implemented.

But once the interim agreement took effect, and after the administration shared more details about the plan, support for a vote on Kirk-Menendez began to evaporate, especially among Democrats. It began to look less like a bipartisan effort to do the right thing and more like a vehicle for Republicans to drive a wedge between pro-Israel Democrats and President Obama.

The bottom finally fell out on Thursday, when Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and 41 other Republican senators sent a letter demanding a vote. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the bill’s co-author, responded by warning against making the bill a partisan issue.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) released a statement saying that, “We agree with the Chairman [Sen. Menendez] that stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.”

More after the jump.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), said that Iran is “a serious, serious situation. For me to receive a totally partisan letter, we should not make this a partisan issue, and that’s what 42 Republicans have done. And I think it’s wrong.”  

One of AIPAC’s core principles is that support for legislation it backs must be bipartisan. This sometimes means compromise, but AIPAC knows that the U.S.-Israel relationship could be irreparably damaged if even the perception exists that congressional policy on Israel and Iran depends on which party is in power.

Forty-two GOP senators, led by “Partisan-in-Chief” Kirk, might want a vote right now, but AIPAC does not. It must have been hard for some AIPAC leaders to stand up to Kirk, but they made the right call. AIPAC stood up against partisanship on Israel, and in favor of its principles. We cannot let anyone turn Israel or Iran into a partisan issue.

AIPAC says it remains strongly committed to the passage of Kirk-Menendez. But unlike Kirk and his Republican partisans, AIPAC opposes an immediate vote on the legislation. No vote means no passage.

There may come a time when legislation like Kirk-Menendez is appropriate, but now is not the time. AIPAC’s position is very similar to the position the National Jewish Democratic Council articulated last month.

Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz last weekend that Kirk-Menendez “had no legs and no logic to stand on.”

Some of its supporters claimed that it was meant to strengthen Obama’s hand in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, when it was clear that they meant just the opposite: to weaken the President and to sabotage the talks. They couldn’t speak this truth outright, so they surrounded it, as Churchill once said, with a bodyguard of lies.

The bill’s supporters had no rational response to the Administration’s claim that the same conditional sanctions that the bill was pushing could be legislated in a day if the talks collapsed or if Iran reneged on its commitments. They could muster only disingenuous disclaimers to the unequivocal assertion, by both Washington and Tehran, that the legislation, if approved, would contravene the Geneva agreement and bring about an Iranian walkout.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that sanctions against Iran remain in place and are enforceable during the talks, by imposing sanctions on more than 30 individuals and entities last week.

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Kerry: Negotiations Are “the Best Chance” to Prevent Nuclear Iran

In an official statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance, and parts of it will be rolled back.”

Iran will also continue to take steps throughout the [next] six months to live up to its commitments, such as rendering the entire stockpile of its 20% enriched uranium unusable for further enrichment…

While implementation is an important step, the next phase poses a far greater challenge: negotiating a comprehensive agreement that resolves outstanding concerns about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program…

These negotiations will be very difficult, but they represent the best chance we have to resolve this critical national security issue peacefully, and durably.

Full statement after the jump.
We’ve taken a critical, significant step forward towards reaching a verifiable resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

On January 20, in just a few short days, we will begin implementation of the Joint Plan of Action that we and our partners agreed to with Iran in Geneva.

As of that day, for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance, and parts of it will be rolled back, while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s program.

Because of the determined and focused work of our diplomats and technical experts, we now have a set of technical understandings for how the parties will fulfill the commitments made at the negotiating table. These understandings outline how the first step agreement will be implemented and verified, as well as the timing of implementation of its provisions.

Iran will voluntarily take immediate and important steps between now and January 20 to halt the progress of its nuclear program. Iran will also continue to take steps throughout the six months to live up to its commitments, such as rendering the entire stockpile of its 20% enriched uranium unusable for further enrichment. As this agreement takes effect, we will be extraordinarily vigilant in our verification and monitoring of Iran’s actions, an effort that will be led by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The United States and the rest of our P5+1 partners will also take steps, in response to Iran fulfilling its commitments, to begin providing some limited and targeted relief. The $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian assets that Iran will gain access to as part of the agreement will be released in regular installments throughout the six months. The final installment will not be available to Iran until the very last day.

While implementation is an important step, the next phase poses a far greater challenge: negotiating a comprehensive agreement that resolves outstanding concerns about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

As the United States has made clear many times, our absolute top priority in these negotiations is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We have been clear that diplomacy is our preferred path because other options carry much greater costs and risks and are less likely to provide a lasting solution.

We now have an obligation to give our diplomats and experts every chance to succeed in these difficult negotiations. I very much appreciate Congress’ critical role in imposing the sanctions that brought Iran to the table, but I feel just as strongly that now is not the time to impose additional sanctions that could threaten the entire negotiating process. Now is not the time for politics. Now is the time for statesmanship, for the good of our country, the region, and the world.

We are clear-eyed about the even greater challenges we all face in negotiating a comprehensive agreement. These negotiations will be very difficult, but they represent the best chance we have to resolve this critical national security issue peacefully, and durably.

2013 in Review: U.S.-Israel Relationship Stronger Than Ever

— by Steve Sheffey

The U.S.-Israel relationship emerged stronger than ever in 2013.

  • Remember the right-wing hysterics about the nominations of Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power?
    Both have proven in word and deed to be solidly pro-Israel.
  • Remember the right-wing claims that once re-elected, President Obama would turn against Israel?
    Instead, shortly after his re-election, he unequivocally supported Israel’s right to defend itself in Operation Pillar of Defense.
  • Remember what our Republican friends told us about Obama when he ran for president in 2008?
    Here is what they did not tell us:
    • that Obama would always back Israel at the U.N.,
    • that he would never cut aid to Israel, and
    • that regardless of any disagreement with Israel, he would never even threaten retaliatory action against Israel.

    This is a far cry from the George W. Bush days, when loan guarantees were cut in response to settlement activity and when the U.S. stood idly by as the U.N. condemned Israel.

More after the jump including The Cartoon Kronicles’ review of 2013.
In March, Obama became the fifth sitting president to visit Israel. While in Israel, Obama received Israel’s Medal of Distinction.

Obama also worked hard in 2013 to find diplomatic solutions to Israel’s two existential threats: a nuclear-armed Iran and a permanent occupation of the West Bank. We will have a much better sense in 2014 of whether his efforts were successful.

No matter how good the U.S.-Israel relationship is, we always want more. That is why historical perspective matters.

Last week, Haim Saban wrote:

Observers may bemoan the lack of personal chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu, but international relationships needn’t be love affairs between leaders. They rest on common interests, common values and reciprocity.

This foundation is what has sustained an exceptional U.S.-Israel partnership through 65 years, 12 U.S. administrations and plenty of rocky news cycles.

2013 reviewed by The Cartoon Kronicles:

Cartoons Courtesy of Yaakov “Dry Bones” Kirschen http://drybonesblog.blogspot.com/ and The Cartoon Kronicles @ http://cartoonkronicles.com