Who’ll Blink First?

Who’ll Blink First?

The Israel lobby and the White House stare each other down over Iran and its rhetoric.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Soon after the ill-fated Oslo agreement was signed between Yasir Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993, the PLO leader began speaking in Arab countries of “jihad,” explaining how, according to Islamic tradition, truces could be signed as a means of lulling one’s enemies before conquering them.

When I had a chance to ask then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres about such inflammatory talk during one of his visits to New York, he was dismissive. “Give the man his rhetoric,” he said with a wave of his hand.

In the end Israel gave Arafat far more than that. The result was suicide bombers, hundreds of innocent victims and years of terror and violence.

I was reminded of the incident the other day while reading about the Obama administration’s refusal to call out Iranian President Rouhani for his increasingly belligerent and gloating comments about the interim agreement signed with the U.S. and five world powers on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Our relationship with the world is based on Iran nation’s interests,” Rouhani tweeted. “In Geneva agreement, world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.”

He also asserted that Iran would not destroy one centrifuge or suspend its work on its plutonium reactor in Arak, continuing what he insisted was his country’s peaceful nuclear program.

And the White House response? Press secretary Jay Carney, maintaining that such statements were aimed at Rouhani’s “domestic audience,” said: “It doesn’t matter what they say. It matters what they do.”

In other words, give the man his rhetoric.

Are we, then, on the verge of witnessing another case of a democratic government so intent on avoiding a military confrontation with a dangerous adversary that it willfully ignores reality? More bluntly, are we being spat on and calling it rain?

As a showdown nears, American Jews are divided about how to avoid war with Iran — whether it is best for the U.S. and Israel to support President Obama’s negotiating efforts, or encourage Senate legislation that would increase pressure on Iran, to reduce the chance of Washington being snookered. (Poor Bill de Blasio got a taste of that intra-Jewish split last week when he made a seemingly motherhood-and-apple-pie pledge at a private dinner hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the official pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., which supports the Senate bill. “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC,” the new mayor said. In response, dozens of prominent liberal Jews, who oppose the legislation, signed on to a letter telling him, “Your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding.)

A month from now, more than 14,000 people will gather in Washington for the annual AIPAC conference, the largest turnout by far for an American Jewish event. For the last several years the program’s main agenda has been Iran, and the need to prevent its militant Islamic leaders from achieving the capability of producing a nuclear bomb.

There is a particular sense of urgency to the issue this year because the six-month interim agreement is in place, and the clock is ticking. At the moment AIPAC, along with the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups on the center and right, appear headed for a direct confrontation with the White House.

These Jewish groups support the prospective Senate bill, calling for tighter sanctions on Iran that would go into effect only if the current talks fail. At a time of intense party rivalry, the bill has the co-sponsorship of 59 senators, including 16 Democrats, all of whom insist that it is “an insurance policy” aimed at holding the Iranians’ feet to the fire.

The administration strongly opposes the bill, fearful that passage would result in the Iranians making good on their threat to walk away from the talks. Obama said in his State of the Union speech that he would veto such legislation if it passes. “For the sake of our national security we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said. Some administration supporters have described those who back the legislation as “war mongers.”

While the mainstream media describes the legislation as “stalled,” Jewish organizational officials I’ve spoken with say they are in no hurry to press the issue now.

“Everyone has gone to the brink and now we’re all looking down and stepping back,” one said. “No one is backing off but no one is pushing for a confrontation, either. No one wants to test the president.”

The strategy is to quietly persuade at least eight more senators to sign on to the bill, which would give it 67 votes and make it veto-proof. Then offer some ideas for how the administration could “climb down” and accept the bill, which calls for the U.S. to back Israel if it decides to take military action against Iran.

“We’re encouraging the administration to take ownership of the legislation and work out a congressional deal,” one insider said. “But they don’t want to do it.”

Several leaders noted that while Iran is trying to drive a wedge between the administration and Congress, the real focus should be on Iran and its defiant behavior. “We’re hoping Iran’s actions will give Obama a reason” to take a tougher stand. So far, though, Iran’s strategy of self-assurance seems to be paying off, with Rouhani the darling of Davos, and multinational companies lining up with the hope of doing business with Tehran.

“They feel they outsmarted us,” one Jewish official said of Iran. “They’re feeling the momentum shift in their favor.”

With so much attention now on the proposed Senate bill, it’s important to consider what, if anything, the U.S. will do if Iran violates the interim agreement. Stringent sanctions have taken a severe economic toll on Iran, but they seem to have only strengthened the resolve of the country’s leaders to continue their nuclear effort. It’s unlikely that further sanctions will change their mind.

Everyone wants diplomacy to work; no one wants a military confrontation. But U.S. diplomacy without the genuine threat of the use of power to back it up is a half-hearted gesture, a formula for failure. And for now no one in the know thinks Washington is prepared for another Mideast conflict, least of all the leadership in Iran.


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