Despite critique, Jewish groups continue Iran push

Jewish Federations issue resolution calling for tougher terms on Geneva deal, stop short of criticizing Obama administration

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA), an annual conference of thousands of participants from North America, in Jerusalem on November 10, 2013. (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA), an annual conference of thousands of participants from North America, in Jerusalem on November 10, 2013. (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/FLASH90)

WASHINGTON — A day after columnist Thomas Friedman blasted Jewish groups for allying with Saudi Arabia in what he described as a push to derail nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Jewish Federations of North America issued a statement calling for strong caps on Iran’s nuclear program. In a resolution passed by the JFNA’s executive committee, the organization aligned itself closely with the policy advocated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisting that any diplomatic solution reached in nuclear talks with Iran must result in the “complete dismantling of Iran’s capability of producing nuclear weapons and ensure mechanisms for ongoing verification of Iranian compliance.”

The JFNA’s Executive Committee unanimously issued the resolution based on a directive by the Jewish Federations’ board of trustees and delegate assembly, which was discussed at last week’s 2013 General Assembly in Jerusalem.

JFNA was not one the four Jewish organizations invited to the White House earlier this month in an attempt by the administration to tamp down advocacy for increased sanctions against Iran. Although not directly calling for increased sanctions — something Netanyahu has advocated for — the resolution represents a tougher diplomatic line than the Obama administration has adopted during the ongoing negotiations in Geneva.

The resolution acknowledged common policy ground between the US and Israel, stating that “a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable to the United States, as reflected in U.S. government policy, to Israel, to Canada, and indeed the entire world.” The careful nod to US policy placed the Federation resolution at the moderate end of a larger battle underway between US Jewish organizations and the White House.

Although JFNA representatives stressed that the Jewish Federations have issued resolutions on Iran’s nuclear weapons development in previous years, the resolution issued Wednesday came at a particularly sensitive moment. Tensions between the White House and a number of major Jewish organizations reached a new high last week when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney condemned those who supported increased sanctions against Iran as leading to “a march to war.” A few days later, Secretary of State John Kerry accused senators who supported increasing sanctions and questioned the US’s negotiating strategy in Geneva of placing more faith in Israeli briefings than American ones.

Friedman, a senior columnist with The New York Times, was unusually acerbic in a Tuesday column that claimed that Congress’s position on Iran “comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.” But his column came as relations between the administration and American Jewry appeared to be slightly relaxing. On Wednesday, a White House official was dispatched — albeit nominally on another subject — to meet with at least one Jewish organization, and proved willing to discuss Iran in a calming if not conciliatory tone.

The JFNA announcement may have come shortly after nuclear talks resumed in Geneva, and a day after Friedman’s column was published, but its release date was dictated by a bureaucratic timetable inside the organization. Work on passing the resolution began at the organization’s General Assembly in Jerusalem, held early last week — after the meeting with the White House seeking support from major American Jewish groups — but before relations between the US and Israel sank to their present low. Much of the language in the resolution echoes statements made during the opening Sunday of the Jerusalem conference by JFNA Board Chair Michael Siegal when he introduced Netanyahu.

The resolution makes JFNA the third of the four groups that met with White House officials to come out as critical of the administration. Following the late October meeting, reports circulated that the groups involved would ease off lobbying Congress for increased sanctions against Iran.

Within a few days, The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee confirmed that it would not adhere to the request, with AIPAC President Michael Kassen emphasizing that his organization “continues to support congressional action to adopt legislation to further strengthen sanctions and there will absolutely be no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts.”

Last week, during the GA, as tensions heated up between the US and Israel, the Anti-Defamation League’s National Director Abe Foxman reversed his organization’s post-meeting stance and issued a public call for increased sanctions, while openly criticizing the administration’s negotiating stance.

The JFNA resolution is less strident than Foxman’s quick reversal, emphasizing that the organization believes that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon. It does not offer an explicit critique of the administration, although the call for a “complete dismantling” of the nuclear program echoes criticism that the interim deal forming in Geneva does not adequately prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear program while a permanent agreement is being hammered out.

With additional sanctions off the table in the Senate, concerns about the contours of the interim deal have emerged as the main focus of debate in Washington.

J Street also issued a statement Wednesday, in which it reiterated “its strong support for efforts by the United States and its partners in the P5+1 to reach an agreement with Iran that could serve as a significant first step in efforts to prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote in the statement that “we need to see how the talks in Geneva resolve and what the terms of the agreement are, but our understanding is that this first step will freeze and begin to roll back the Iranian program for several months while keeping the vast body of sanctions in place,” adding that “as such, it should be welcomed by the whole world, including Israel, as a major step toward averting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran without resorting to military action.”

The left-wing lobbying group emphasized the administration’s response toward critics who describe the lines of the interim agreement as lax to the point of inefficacy, arguing that “absent a deal, either the Iranians will keep moving full speed toward the capacity to assemble a weapon, or Israel, the United States or both might feel impelled take military action to set back the Iranian program, potentially plunging the region into a deeply destabilizing war, the consequences of which are impossible to predict.”

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