Green Light To Iran?
Jewish groups were unhappy with this week’s decision by the Clinton administration to waive trade sanctions against three companies involved in a massive $2 billion gas development project in Iran, although none were ready to call out their troops on Capitol Hill.
On Monday, President Bill Clinton, attending a U.S.-European Union economic summit in London, waived provisions of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) applying to Total SA in France, Russia’s Gazprom and Petronas in Malaysia.
“The waivers we have granted today are part of our overall strategy to deter Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction and promoting terrorism,” Clinton said in invoking the waiver on national interest grounds.
Jewish and pro-Israel groups, key supporters of the 1996 law mandating harsh economic penalties on companies that invest in
Libyan and Iranian oil and gas projects, were dubious, although they did not see any immediate need to mount a campaign in Congress to defeat the waiver.
“Frankly, I don’t see a need for the Jewish community’s active involvement,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Members of Congress are already expressing strong concern about the administration’s decision, and I think there will be a thorough debate.”
The administration, he said, “is trying to find a way of balancing interests and concerns, including the objections of the Europeans to U.S. sanctions. But we see this as disturbing because the bottom line is that we still haven’t done anything to stop Iran from advancing its military capability.”
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY), a key ILSA sponsor, said the decision will “send a signal to others that they can do business as usual with Iran at a time when Iran continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction and continues to sponsor terrorist acts.”
Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that “we are disappointed, but we have been told privately that there are some steps they will be taking to make sure that the heart of ISLA, and its objective — to contain Iran’s oil and gas sector — will be taken. We look forward to them announcing those steps.”
An official with another Jewish group was less charitable.
“Clinton didn’t want conflict with the Europeans, and so he gave them a waiver on the Total deal, with the hope that the EU will do something else to slow Iran’s weapons program. That flies in the face of recent European behavior and it flies in the face of their greedy desire to get a big piece of the Iran oil and gas action. This decision is based on assumptions that just don’t hold up to scrutiny.”
Clout On Parade
As usual, this year’s annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was an incomparable display of raw political clout.
Speakers included top administration and congressional leaders, starting with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the chairs of both national parties and Vice President Al Gore, who gave the throng what they wanted with stern demands for Palestinian compliance on security matters — “365 days a year, and not one second less.”
A high point for delegates was the annual AIPAC roll call, an ostentatious, politically potent reading of the names of legislators, administration luminaries, diplomatic personnel and political wannabees who attended the Monday night banquet.
For the record: 45 Senators chowed down with AIPAC, and 65 members of the House.
Most popular, judging by applause: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), engaged in a quixotic presidential quest of his own, might do well to focus his efforts on non-AIPACers; his reception was tepid.
At least four Senate candidates were working the crowd, and innumerable House hopefuls.
And about 40 ambassadors came, apparently a record.
The conference featured several firsts for AIPAC, including separate sessions featuring the ambassadors of Russia and Jordan.
Last year, pro-peace process activists complained that AIPAC barely mentioned the Oslo agreement or the men who signed it. This year, speakers appeared against a huge photo montage backdrop featuring Israeli prime ministers and American presidents for the past 50 years — and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
Labor’s Truth Squad
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu getting a hero’s welcome at AIPAC after his triumphal bluff-calling visit to Washington, Israeli opposition forces and their American supporters were trying against stiff odds to offer a different interpretation of events in the region.
The head of the opposition “truth squad” in Washington was Shlomo Ben-Ami, an up-and-coming Labor Knesset member, a professor of European history and the party’s leading spokesman for the Sephardic community. Not surprisingly, Ben-Ami attacked the Netanyahu government’s credibility as a leader in the peace process.
“The coalition that won in 1996 won on false pretenses,” he said. “These people do not have the tools to produce any kind of interim agreement with the Palestinians, let alone a final status agreement. This coalition uses the cliche of ‘security,’ but it is the security of a platoon commander, not a statesman. Real security doesn’t depend on withdrawing from 1 percent or 3 or 10, but on what kinds of relations we can work out with our neighbors.”
Last week, Netanyahu repeatedly insisted that Israel alone has the right to determine its security needs.
But that, Ben-Ami, was mostly diversion.
“What he has done is succeeded in diverting attention of people to a kind of question of principle. He suggests that the issue is now who has the responsibility to decide on security. Obviously the answer is Israel — but that’s never been the question.”
He criticized Netanyahu for using his U.S. visit to line up support to undercut the administration’s recent initiative.
“Netanyahu has always confused foreign policy and hasbarah [or spin],” he said. “He doesn’t realize they are not the same. In foreign policy you have to produce results; you can’t go around constantly explaining your cliches, like the fact that Israel alone is responsible for her security. Big deal, we all know that.”
And he blasted Netanyahu for focusing on building relations with conservative Republicans in Congress, which “turns support for Israel into partisan politics,” he said. “You cannot argue that this is the friendliest administration ever, and at the same time mobilize its enemies against it.”
But Ben-Ami was also critical of fellow Knesset member Yossi Beilin, who wrote an “open letter” to AIPAC delegates urging them to listen to the pro-peace process forces as well as Netanyahu.
Gingrich In Jerusalem
It’s spring, when a politician’s fancy turns to travel. And as usual, bipartisan swarms of peripatetic legislators are Israel-bound as Congress takes a long Memorial Day break.
There are at least four groups of lawmakers from both parties heading off to Jerusalem, including a big group from the House International Relations Committee with chairman Ben Gilman (R-Rockland) as tour director, and a group under the auspices of the American Israel Educational Foundation, an arm of the pro-Israel lobby.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has led the way in blasting the Clinton administration’s recent Middle East initiative, will be heading another delegation — the first time a speaker has headed such a group.
Gingrich, who said his visit is intended to help celebrate Israel’s achievements during its first 50 years, said he “will hold an event at the U.S. embassy proposed site in Jerusalem, pointing out that ground ought to be broken, and the time has come to celebrate achievement by creating a new achievement.”
Some Jewish activists were unimpressed with that promise.
“Laying the foundation for the embassy could destroy what’s left of the peace process,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “We need building for peace, not those who support unilateral acts that will just complicate the negotiations.”
This week, Gingrich and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) held dueling news conferences to pitch their trips to Jewish journalists.