by Marsha B. Cohen
*This post has been updated.
Last Tuesday (Oct. 29) administration officials met with what the Israeli daily Haaretz describes as a “coterie of Jewish leaders.” Only four Jewish organizations were represented: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); the American Jewish Committee (AJC); and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
Speaking for the administration during the one hour “off the record briefing” were White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, her deputies Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken, and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Sherman is the senior State Department official representing the U.S. at ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. The next round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) are scheduled for Nov. 6-7.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations issued a news release that evening: “Leaders of several Jewish organizations participated in an off-the-record discussion with senior Administration officials about issues of the highest priority for the U.S., for our community and for America’s allies, halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
“We had a constructive and open exchange and agreed to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” the release said. “We welcome the reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.”
Numerous Jewish groups that are usually invited to Israel-related get-togethers — including representatives of the Orthodox and Reform movements and the younger “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group, J-Street, which has been very supportive of Obama’s foreign policy agenda — were not on the guest list. According to the Times of Israel, the White House had postponed a meeting scheduled for Monday with a broader range of Jewish groups. Instead, a meeting was set up for Tuesday with attendees from “organizations that had challenged the administration’s policies on Iran.”
The attendees included the Conference of Presidents Chairman Robert Sugarman, Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, and former Conference Chairman Alan Solow. Abraham Foxman, who accused Secretary of State John Kerry the other day of having made “inappropriate” remarks about the use of “fear tactics” to undermine diplomacy with Iran, represented the ADL. Also attending were AIPAC’s Executive Director, Howard Kohr, and Jason Isaacson, the Director of Governmental and International Affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
Speaking for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan said in a statement that the purpose of the meeting was for the administration to reassure the Jewish organizations that “the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.”
Pro-Israel groups have been supportive of congressional determination to impose new and stiffer sanctions against Iran even as the new Iranian administration of Hassan Rouhani has stated its determination to resolve the nuclear issue. Pro-Israel groups are supporting the congressional push for more crippling sanctions while the White House is arguing that any new sanctions should be put on hold for at least the duration of the next round of talks.
If the White House entertained the hope that an intimate and “off the record” gathering of pro-Israel, Iran policy hardliners who purportedly represent the views of American Jews would be kept quiet, there was a major miscalculation. Citing “sources familiar with the meeting,” Chemi Shalev of Haaretz initially reported early Friday morning that the pro-Israel Gang of Four had agreed to tone down their demand that new Iran sanctions be enacted immediately, without waiting to see whether the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will reveal any signs of progress.
According to Shalev, the Jewish organizational leaders had agreed to grant the Obama administration “a limited ‘grace period'” of 60 days only after the administration assured them that no current sanctions would be eased and that no Iranian funds frozen in banks around the world would be released. By Friday afternoon, however, Shalev had found an anonymous source affiliated with an organization represented at the meeting who categorically denies that any commitment was given for any such moratorium. “In fact,” the source told Shalev, “we will support it.” Furthermore, according to Shalev, “Sources in the Jewish establishment emphasized that they did not make any commitment to refrain from supporting new sanctions in their private dealings with the U.S. lawmakers.”
The Jerusalem Post‘s Michael Wilner also reported on Friday afternoon that the organizations at the meeting had not agreed to desist from their efforts in support of new Iran sanctions. “I can tell you, within AJC, no decision has been made to revisit support for the Senate measure,” David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, told the JP. “There’s no process in place to reconsider our decision.”
Christians United for Israel (CUFI) is also mobilizing its million-plus Christian Zionists to urge their members of Congress to “support legislation to tighten the sanctions on Iran and to do everything in your power to ensure the prompt final passage of this measure.”
Although mainstream pro-Israel organizations have always insisted that U.S. support for Israel is bi-partisan and have been very reluctant to turn support for Israel (which includes staunch opposition to any improvement in relations between Israel and Iran) into a “wedge issue,” the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon turned to its own anonymous sources to accuse the Obama administration of having repeatedly “screwed pro-Israel groups.” Alana Goodman quoted “a senior official at a top pro-Israel organization” who claimed “the pro-Israel community has helped the White House out of several political binds recently and has only received problems in return…Now the administration is demanding favors, to say nothing of trust.”
*Update (Nov. 3): In response to Chemi Shalev’s reports on Friday, Abraham Foxman of the ADL confirmed to Haaretz on Saturday that the four major pro-Israel groups had agreed to abide by a limited “time out” during which they would not push for stronger sanctions on Iran.“That means that we are not lobbying for additional sanctions and we are not lobbying for less sanctions,” Foxman told Haaretz as well as other U.S. media outlets. A few hours later, however, a statement by AIPAC’s president, Michael Kassen, contradicted Foxman’s claim, insisting there would be “no pause, delay or moratorium” in AIPAC’s efforts to seek new sanctions on Iran.