Since 1986, Malcolm Hoenlein has headed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group of the US Jewish establishment. It’s a position that gives him access to the highest echelons of the American and Israeli leaderships, and to corridors of power in more countries elsewhere around the globe than one might imagine.
Visiting Israel this week, Hoenlein briefed Times of Israel editorial staffers about many of the issues dominating the American-Israeli relationship, and then sat down for an interview.
We explored his concerns over the failure of diplomacy thus far to rein in Iran; Hoenlein is a bitter critic of the interim deal — for allowing Iran to maintain its 3.5% enrichment capacity, and for the leeway it grants the Iranians to continue to develop weaponization programs.
We discussed the public sniping between American and Israeli leaders. Needless to say, Hoenlein broadly urged both sides to resolve their differences privately, arguing that enemies of the US and Israel delight in exploiting open differences between the two allies.
We heard his (bleak) assessment of the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace breakthrough. Hoenlein cannot imagine that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in a position to “deliver on the fundamentals.”
And we talked about what he sees as a rising tide of anti-Semitism, notably in Europe, often manifested behind a thin veil of anti-Zionism. It was in this part of the conversation that Hoenlein, who always speaks with passion, became most animated. Excerpts:
The Times of Israel: We understand you have concerns about the interim deal with Iran, because there are avenues by which Iran can bypass its constraints?
Malcolm Hoenlein: The missile program [and] a lot of the nuclear research is done in conjunction with North Korea and perhaps others… Once you declare that you’re not going to disassemble a single centrifuge and you’re not going to dismantle any of the infrastructure, you’ve drawn the line in the sand. You mean that you’re going to have the capacity to [build nuclear weapons]. So the United States and the West have to make a decision: Are we going to draw a line; where are we going to draw the line?
But even if we draw the line short of them producing the weapon, it doesn’t mean that they won’t have [the bomb]. There are other ways that they could get it. They want this; it’s a symbol of national pride. It is of great significance to them.
It is possible that the research [Iran is allowed to do even under the terms of the interim deal] can go in many directions. Today, they are doing much more with centrifuges. So that the day the deal breaks down, it’s not that they’re starting from where they stopped.
The impression is that we froze them in a certain place, [but that's] not [the case]. The R&D should have been frozen, everything else [should have been frozen]. We haven’t stopped the missile development, we haven’t stopped the weaponization process, we haven’t stopped them from doing other kinds of research….
So we’re not going to go back to a position, from November 20, or whenever it was that the agreement was signed. They’re going to be in a much better position. And that’s why having that stockpile of [uranium enriched to a level of] 3.5% is much more significant than whether they have the 20% [enriched uranium]. Because with the new centrifuges, you can get from 3.5% to the 90% [levels needed for a nuclear bomb] much faster. You don’t have to go [through intermediate stages of] 5%, 20%. Three-quarters, or two-thirds, of the work is getting to 3.5%.
You’re saying really that the Iranians can became a threshold state within the parameters of the interim deal?
They can move to the point that, once the deal ends or breaks down, they will be then emerging as a threshold state.
That will set off the arms race in the Middle East, because nobody is going to want to be caught and left exposed. The race is already on. Many Arab countries have applied for the right to have nuclear power. Many of them making deals. Many of them are looking already at technology and purchases.
Are there certain countries where you see signs of nuclear weapons programs?
They have applied to have the right to have and build nuclear plants and stuff like that. And we know that they talk to European countries about buying nuclear plants.
Which Arab countries?
Everybody is saying, “Of course we want it for peaceful purposes.” But once you start building the infrastructure for a nuclear capacity, to cross over is really simple… Jordan has indicated it wants to build several nuclear [reactors]. And Saudi Arabia and the UAE and many others want to do it. And once it starts, you’re not going to be able to stop it.
Do you feel that successive American presidents, including the current one, have failed the Iranian people?
The West, as a whole, failed the people of Iran when they went out during the Green Demonstration, when the students went out. We did not stand by them. They were looking to the West for at least signals of support. They didn’t ask us to send troops. They wanted us to support them, verbally, with economic or other support, like radio stations, or means for communications. They weren’t asking for weapons, and felt betrayed by the West as a whole.
‘There were 600 public executions in Iran in the past year: political dissidents, religious leaders — anybody that they see as a political threat… The numbers are higher since Rouhani got elected’
And now, they look at the execution of political prisoners in the largest numbers ever. They look at people being hung from cranes, so it’s not as if nobody knows it’s happening. And there is no response from the West. So the message to them is that they’re alone. They’re isolated. And they’re saying, “Look, we’re not going to put our lives on the line if there’s not going to be any resonance outside.”
Can you quantify that statement about executions?
There were 600 public executions in the past year: political dissidents, religious leaders — anybody that they see as a political threat. And of course they will, in some cases, invent crimes allegedly committed… A homosexual could be hung because he’s a homosexual; a Christian who is accused of proselytizing, which, in most cases, just means practicing their religion, will be hung — and they hang them from cranes!
These are higher numbers than in the past?
Yes. The numbers are higher and have increased since [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani got elected. Higher than under [his predecessor Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.
What kind of reaction would you like to see from the White House?
The White House — the whole Western community — ought to be taking action, as we would against any country that engages in this kind of action. Look, overall the West is muted in their response to the killings of Christians by the thousands, from Indonesia to Nigeria to Tehran to Damascus. Where is the outcry? Christians and Copts [are being killed] in Egypt, other countries — and hardly any response to it.
What kind of response are you expecting?
It has to be an outcry, and sanctions, and there can be all sorts of actions taken to demand that this be reversed. Where are the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions? Why aren’t the condemnations coming from them? Even if it’s just a message to them that people care.
Why is the US not leading that response?
It’s a good question why the US and why the Europeans and others have not reacted. There have been formal statements at times, but this really requires a concerted response. It cannot be tolerated. And, frankly, the Jews seem to be the ones most outraged by it. But we have to be careful because it can exacerbate the situation for the [victims], if it looks like they’re part of the “Zionist conspiracy, the Jewish conspiracy,” when we speak out on it. It’s shades of the past that a world that is indifferent to such brutal actions becomes indifferent to anybody’s suffering.
Let us play devil’s advocate on Syria: President Bashar Assad is dismantling its chemical weapons capability, and not a shot was fired from the West. Fantastic outcome, right?
It will be a fantastic outcome if we are able to remove all the chemical weapons and the capacity to build them from Syria. That is definitely a good outcome. But what made the difference was when American ships had their guns trained on Syria, and the Syrians believed that we were prepared to use them the same way that [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi believed that we were going to do it. And that goes to the heart of all the issues that we talked about — the Iranians and Osama bin Laden and many others said the West lacks will and determination.
They don’t believe that we’re prepared, or that we have the stomach, or that the American people have the stamina, to withstand another war and standing up to another issue and doing all these things. And when we show them this kind of commitment, that we’re ready to stand… When our ships went around Syria and were ready to fire — and I believe we would have — we sent such a strong message that [Assad] said, somebody said, “Listen, these guys are serious now, we better get rid of this stuff.”
It also became, in part, a liability for him because the rebels and others might get hold of these weapons. It didn’t just happen that, all of a sudden one day, [Assad] woke up and decided that he’s going to get rid of them. It’s when we show that we’re serious, when the sanctions… What brought the Iranians to the table? It was the sanctions, it was the determination, the belief that there would be another round of sanctions, that Congress and the international community would do more.
To the credit of the Obama administration — and in the beginning, of the Bush administration, but more so under Obama — when the Treasury Department really implemented these things and made demands, the [Iranian] banks couldn’t do business and you couldn’t ship. Now, one of the concessions is that you can have insurance again for shipping, so that they’re loading up and they’re sailing again.
‘To show the Iranians that we’re serious, one of the things we ought to do is move back the aircraft carrier that we took out because of sequestration’
Well, these [concessions] are going to be hard to undo; not impossible, but it will be hard to undo. And you have all the Europeans and everybody coming [to Iran] and looking at deals. I don’t think that they’re constantly making deals, but I think that you break a psychological barrier in what was done. And they will find ways around it.
Look, the Iranians with the Russians… and the Iranians with the Chinese, they can make all kinds of deals that will undermine the efficacy of the sanctions.
And the concessions on gold?
Gold is very important, because gold is a way for them to bypass these banking sanctions… You can trade in gold for oil, and it doesn’t go through the banks. So you bypass the sanctions. The car industry, the airplane parts — while in and of itself may not seem so significant, but in fact they do have a much bigger impact. It opens up the whole business of trade and exchanges. The petrochemicals — huge opportunities there.
In terms of the Syrian lesson for Iran, is there something that the US should be doing to make the military option more credible?
There are things that we could do to show that we’re serious. And one of the things is that we ought to move the aircraft carrier back that we took out because of sequestration. Sequestration is over. It’s now legitimate to put it back. It would send the right message to our friends in the Gulf, to Israel and to others, that we’re serious, that we have the capacity. We may have sufficient capacity now with what we have deployed there, but this would be such an important message. Because, when we took it out, we did it because of sequestration, [but] I don’t believe that that’s what they believe in Tehran. And perception is [as] important as the reality. Whatever the reason might be, if the Iranians believe that it’s because we’re lessening our capacity and determination, then we are undermining our stance.
Let’s talk about the American-Israel relationship vis-à-vis the Palestinian process, which has seen quite an open exchange of nasty rhetoric. It’s pretty unusual, though not unprecedented: You have cabinet ministers castigating Secretary of State John Kerry… phone calls between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kerry to clear this up. How damaging do you think that is?
Everybody has to got to pull back and think about what they say. Words count. And words from responsible people count more. Both sides have used language — when we saw the “warmongering” comment to two senators because they support sanctions and believe that sanctions were what brought the Iranians to the table, etc., being a path to war. [Last month, the head of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, accused Sen. Mark Kirk -- who initiated a new sanctions bill -- of “warmongering.”]
‘The enemies of both countries will exploit any perceived split between the US and Israel’
Number one, you alienate them further and make an agreement much harder within the administration and between the administration and Congress. But also, the comments that sometimes come out of Israeli officials or others, we can’t just react without thinking and [issue] some sort of automatic response because somebody perceived an affront or concern.
When something is wrong, it can be dealt with. But overall, differences between the United States and Israel should be dealt with quietly between the parties, between the president and the prime minister, the secretary of state and the prime minister and other people. The price both sides will pay will be very high, because the enemies of both countries will exploit any perceived split between the US and Israel. It’s detrimental to America’s interests in the Middle East as a whole, let alone in terms of the US-Israel relationship, which is still the most important relationship. In view of the Arab “volcano” — not “Spring,” I call it the Arab “volcano” — the US-Israel relationship looms even larger. And Israel’s position looms larger in the region as a stable ally of the US.
For Israel, we still only have one United States. We only have one friend of that kind, and that friendship is deep and the American people want it to be deep, at sustained levels that are at the highest in terms of US support and the American people’s support for Israel. Even on Iran and Israeli action — on all those areas, you still see remarkable levels of support. If we get into this kind of public name-calling — again, I say there’s responsibility on all parts, you can’t just say things to another audience and not believe that it’s going to play in the headlines here…. The American people don’t want to see their leaders castigated in public ways by foreigners.
I think everybody should go back to the old adage: “Wise people are careful with what they say.”
Do you think that President Obama is a friend of Israel, insufficiently invested in Israel, wishes it would disappear? There are allegations across the spectrum.
I see all this speculation. I don’t believe that the president of the United States is anti-Israel. The Congress is extremely pro-Israel. The American people are pro-Israel. And I think that if you look at the level of cooperation in so many areas that don’t get publicized, whether it’s the Military Intelligence, R&D, so many other areas… Iron Dome — these are all joint US-Israel projects. Nobody’s interested when everything goes well between the US and Israel. And neither side publicizes all the good that they do.
Look at all the joint exercises in the last year, between Operation Cobra and all the rest that go on, between America and Israel and third parties. It’s really unprecedented. [People are too quick] to say: “Oh, this guy is anti-Israel, that guy is anti-American…” The Israeli people are so pro-American, more than any people, I think, in the world. The Israeli government consistently reiterates — the prime minister and others — that this is the central relationship for Israel. And for America, as well. So I think people should just step back and be careful when they make these allegations. They have to substantiate them; they have to prove them.
‘We meet with Arab leaders and they are concerned about what they perceive as America’s policy or disengagement’
I do think America has made mistakes. Israel certainly makes mistakes. But that’s the real world. You live in a tough world where demands are so great, where you react, constantly and instantly now. Because of the Internet, everything, every comment gets blown way out of proportion. People don’t have a chance to think about what they’re saying, or to respond. When I started, the news cycle was 24 hours. Then it was 12, eight, six — now it’s 30 seconds. And if you’re not there in those 30 seconds, you’re dead. And that’s what happened. Every comment then evokes a response.
People also can’t let their domestic political objectives dictate what they say, if they don’t think about the broader consequences of their remarks.
And yet it is not just Israel but other American allies, such as relatively moderate Arab states, that worry about the US not being as engaged and committed.
Absolutely. They are concerned. We meet with Arab leaders and they are concerned about what they perceive as America’s policy or disengagement. There is a reorientation. But I don’t think America wants to disengage from the region. We made mistakes regarding some of the countries. Certainly all the things that happened in Egypt portrayed America — some portrayed it as being pro-Muslim Brotherhood, or trying to support other elements and punishing Egypt with withholding some of the aid. Although they don’t look at the fact that most of the aid is still flowing.
Yes, America has problems with the perception of its role, but there is a change. There is a policy change in that regard — about the way America engages, not whether America is engaged. But you saw that when it came down to it in Syria, we put our ships where it counted.
How do you evaluate the chances of the P5+1 powers reaching a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran?
It all depends on the terms of the agreement. You can reach an agreement, but it’s not going to be good for the West in the long run unless we put real pressure on the Iranian regime — which means tough sanctions, a real message of our determination, and that they have to believe that all options really are on the table.
How likely is such an outcome?
So far, we have not really seen it. They’re already talking now about extending the talks and not meeting the six-month deadline, or a year deadline. And all this time we’re giving them more options, more opportunities to develop their R&D, their capacity to be able to be a threshold nation when this is over, to break out [to a nuclear weapon] very quickly. We lowered the breakout time from six months to three months to two months… if [the diplomatic process] collapses.
And you see that the Iranians are very clear about what they say. They tells us their positions: no dismantlement, no stopping of enrichment. And they tell us: These are the bottom-line red lines. Now the West has to say: “These are our red lines,” and the Iranians have to be convinced that we mean it. But so far we backed off from [doing this] at times and we have compromised our position to get to the deal. And we don’t know all the details yet of the deal, if there are any other side agreements and other things that were signed.
‘Nobody sane should want a war between Iran and the United States’
I hope that it works. We want to see it work. Nobody wants a war. Nobody sane should want a war between Iran and the United States — not because we couldn’t win and not because we couldn’t do the job. We could do it. We don’t even have to have troops on the ground, I believe, to be able to set back their nuclear program very seriously. But the only way it would work [via diplomacy] is if we are determined and we’re very clear and we’re not yielding. Like Gaddafi got the message: If the Iranians get the message that this is really going to cost Khamenei his $95-billion share in the economy and the Iran Revolutionary Guards’ share of the economy, and the fear that the people will at some point break and just start really reacting, then we can cobble together something.
Right now, I don’t see the elements coming together for a deal on the part of the Iranians. We have to show that it was the Iranians, though, who didn’t allow a deal to be signed. So that whatever action is taken, there won’t be any second-guessing, and saying, “Well, if you had…” I think the West has gone absolutely as far as it could to get a deal. Now the onus has to be on the Iranians, not by further compromise by the West, but by demanding that they live up to every commitment — and, if not, then the consequences will be what they will be.
If diplomacy fails, do you think the current American administration would consider military action to prevent the Iranians from inching towards a nuclear weapon?
The president has expressed his commitment so often and so clearly — that they will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon — that I think he will have to respond to that possibility.
You speak about having a nuclear weapon. What about having a nuclear weapons capability, in other words accepting Iran as a nuclear threshold state. Is that something you see the White House ready to accept?
That’s when we get into questionable territory and that’s why legislation [is proposed by] Congress and others, to make sure there is no backtracking by Iran, to make sure they understand what the consequences will be. Not only if they actually produce the bomb but [if they] have the capability to produce the bomb. What’s the difference if they need a 1-month or 2-month period to do it? Once you cross the threshold where they have all the [elements] in place — weaponization, enrichment, and missile delivery systems — that’s all. Then they have crossed the line, and can say, like North Korea, “We’re there.”
Do you see the White House accepting such a situation?
I hope not.
Do you share Secretary Kerry’s insistent optimism that there is a deal to be done with the Palestinians?
I’m somebody who has worked for decades on involvements in various negotiations. I just don’t see where [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas today can deliver on the fundamentals that are going to be essential. And especially when he’s drawn red lines that are critical on issues such as the “right of return” and recognition of the Jewish state and some of the other things. So I don’t know that we’re in a position right now — [Abbas] is in the 10th year of his four-year term; he’s got internal political considerations that he has to worry about. I don’t know that anybody is in the wings that’s going to be better. I do believe that Netanyahu is serious about the negotiations. And I want to believe that Abbas would be serious.
The boycott threats ‘raise the question of whether this is really about Israel or is it just a convenient cover for traditional anti-Semitism’
[But] the fact that incitement continues — that’s something that could stop. And that’s something the president of the US and Kerry has called on him [to stop], and they promised him. And I remember Abbas standing there next to President Obama saying: “Incitement? There is no incitement. We have no incitement.” And yet it continues unabated. That’s certainly something that could be controlled. And that would send a signal: Look, we’re really ready to cross the threshold to a different era. Again, both sides have to avoid actions that excite or incite, but it can’t be one-sided. And right now, all the pressure is on one side.
All the pressure from the United States?
From the US, the West, the Europeans — they don’t threaten boycotts of the Palestinian territories for their incitement, or for what they fail to do. We don’t see them threatening anybody else. There are countries doing a hell of a lot worse than what they perceive Israel to be doing. Therefore, that raises the question of whether this is really about Israel, or is it just a convenient cover for traditional anti-Semitism and isolation of Jews and the Jewish people, using the guise of being against certain policies of Israel. This was never about policies. Because you can criticize policies without going to these extents. I believe this is not about 1967, this is about 1947. This is about Israel’s right to exist, and the right of the Jewish people to national self-expression. And you see that the thin veil, the line between this and anti-Semitism in Europe now, [is] being obliterated with the demonstrations and the political manifestations that hid behind the anti-Israel guises. That veil is quickly removed.
You’re talking about countries like Greece and Hungary?
With Greece, at least, you have to give them credit that the government has really acted against [the neo-Nazi party] Golden Dawn. [I'm talking about the Hungarian neo-Nazi party] Jobbik, or in Scandinavia, or the fact that you had this big demonstration in France, where people were yelling “Jews, get out!” I mean, they are not small numbers, and not Muslims. These are really serious developments.
‘I don’t believe this is the 1930s. But it’s the wrong question. The question is what lessons do we learn from the 30s that we apply today’
People have a limited capacity of what they can accept. And if you put all these things [together], people will just drop their hands and say, “Oh it’s all too much,” and then walk away. They can’t. I was in Auschwitz with the members of the Knesset recently and I spoke at the end, and I said: “The reason we go back to these blood-soaked fields is not to get lost in the troubles of the past. We memorialize the victims. But for Jews, history is about the future. That we do it to learn the lessons.”
I don’t believe this is the 1930s. But it’s the wrong question. The question is what lessons do we learn from the 30s that we apply today. And the lesson is, number one, that we can’t fool ourselves. We can’t keep saying, “It won’t get worse, it won’t get worse, we can live with it, we can tolerate it.” That’s what happened with slavery in [ancient] Egypt, and it’s the same thing that happened under Hitler. Everybody said, “It won’t get worse, we can live with it.”
‘I don’t want any more memorials to dead Jews. I want the world to stand up for living Jews and the vibrant, living Jewish state’
We draw the line. We have to say that there has to be zero tolerance for intolerance. We are the ones. It’s what Martin Luther King once said: “We won’t be judged by the attacks of our enemies, but by the silence of our friends.” The lesson of history is that we give the license to our enemies. It’s not what they do; it’s what we fail to do. And right now, we’re falling into that trap again.
It’s in the inability to stand up; it’s the unwillingness to confront. Europe, too, often turns a blind eye — including the Jewish communities — to the realities of what’s happening on the ground. And we as a collective community, and others, can’t hide behind excuses…
I don’t want any more memorials to dead Jews. I want the world to stand up for living Jews and the vibrant, living Jewish state. We can’t be bought off by just having another monument. I don’t want any more monuments. I want them to stand up now and say, “We’re not going to tolerate it.” What’s happening in Europe today has to be declared for what it is. And they can hide behind any political guise or anything else; it’s not going to work. We have to expose it… and those behind it… and those who fail to act against it. And that’s true for the United States, Europe, or any other place. It is really serious and the lesson of history. The reason why we look back [is], as Winston Churchill once said: “The further back you look, the further ahead you will see.”
We look back… that’s what our sages taught us a thousand years ago. All our [religious holidays] are here not just for ritual observance; they’re meant to be experiential. We experience what previous generations [went through] to learn their lessons. Why do we read about our Patriarchs and Matriarchs? We see not just their successes; you read about their frailties, because we learn from it — that’s the whole point of history for us.
It’s a way for us to confront the future, but only if you learn the lessons of the past. The lack of experience, whether it’s on the part of government officials or governments, is manifested in mistakes and wrong policy. And we can’t afford it, because we’re going to be judged for what we do or don’t do. If we don’t recognize what the delegitimization movement is, that it’s a threat to the Jewish people, to Jewish existence and the Jewish state, that it’s a means of undermining our standing. It is really [Jewish Agency Chairman Natan] Sharansky’s Three Ds [demonization, double standards, and delegitimization], but on steroids. If we don’t understand our obligation, if we haven’t learned that from the events of 70 years ago…
[Former Israeli foreign minister] Abba Eban said that Jews had influence in many places, but power [they] had none in World War II. Today, Jews have power. We have power because we have a Jewish state… we have power because Jewish communities count, in the United States and elsewhere. But you’ve got to use it, and you’ve got to use it in the right ways.
Power is like a muscle: If you exercise it right, you build it up. If you abuse it, you destroy it. We have to use it right. But we have to be willing today to exercise it, and to stand up and speak out when it’s not comfortable.