The United States has to keep up economic pressure on Iran and simultaneously exert its power in Syria, according to Middle East expert Andrew Tabler. The alternative, he warned an audience in Whippany on Oct. 20, would be “very, very bad news.”
“The White House might say that it has only so much capacity for dealing with threats in the Middle East and that they can deal with Iran or with Syria, but not both at the same time,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true, and it presents Israel and its advocates with an unfair dilemma; the threats from Iran and from Syrian are growing at the same time.”
Tabler, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, gave the keynote address at the third annual Step Up for Israel Advocacy Summit at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus.
About 100 people attended the program, which featured talks, panels, and workshops intended to help attendees become better advocates for Israel in the media and in dealing with politicians. The summit is a centerpiece of a grassroots education and advocacy initiative to “prepare the Greater MetroWest Jewish community to counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy.”
“This year, with chaos in the Middle Eastern countries that border Israel and the concern about the intentions of the new Iranian president and new negotiations while Iran continues to enrich uranium, our members felt that these were two urgent issues for the community to focus on,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “We are also planning to roll out a branding Israel social media program, and were very fortunate to have the top experts on this to train us in how to move this forward.”
The event was sponsored by the CRC, NJ American Jewish Committee, and the Washington Institute, in partnership with local synagogues and other organizations.
Iran’s nuclear program was the topic of a panel discussion featuring Gary Samore, president of United Against Nuclear Iran and a former Obama White House coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Speaking as a tag team, the two dissected the Iranian government’s new “charm offensive” and its attempts to get sanctions lifted. Samore described the current situation as “the best chance in decades to negotiate a deal,” but said it was very unclear whether Iran would accept the limitations on its nuclear program demanded by the international community.
“It is absolutely critical that you keep up the great work,” Dubowitz said in regard to those engaged in “Stop Iran” advocacy efforts. “It is because of your efforts that these negotiations are happening now.”
Shifting to Israel, experts on marketing and diplomacy argued for a broad-based campaign by supporters to “accentuate the positives” about the country’s accomplishments. That panel featured Gerald Ostrov, founder of a “rebranding” effort called Rethink Israel; Itzik Yarkoni, the founder and executive director of BOMAH: The Brand of Milk & Honey: Connecting People to Israel; and Jeremy Geller, who serves as social media expert with the Consulate General of Israel in New York.
In order to counteract the usual emphasis on conflict in the region, they agreed, advocates should highlight Israel’s cultural and technical developments through social media and by presenting positive personal stories.
Alex Doctoroff, a Springfield resident who comes from Ukraine, was one of the few audience members to take exception to their approach. The most vocal and opinionated opponents to Israel, he said, are those who are concerned about its politics, not its culture. “We have to make it clear why we have a right to be there,” he said.
This approach was addressed at the summit’s final panel, which provided advocacy techniques and tools to counter attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, such as accusations that Israel is an apartheid state. “It is important to know the facts and how to effectively speak to your opponent,” said Sarit Catz, CRC Israel Advocacy chair. She also directed participants to a the CRC resource website, campaignfortruth.info.
Tabler, a former journalist who lived in Syria for eight years, urged the audience to “broaden the bandwidth” in regard to demanding both pressure on Iran and action in Syria.
Describing the Middle East “as the most masculine space on the planet,” Tabler suggested that the Obama administration has encouraged “our adversaries to test us” by not asserting itself on Syria and foreign policy.
By failing to support the moderate rebel forces early on in Syria, he said, the Obama administration allowed a situation to develop where more radical, anti-Israel groups have taken control of much of the country, but President Bashar Assad remains in power, becoming more draconian and more dependent on support from Iran. “That is very, very bad news, especially when dealing with the Iranian nuclear program,” Tabler said.
Russia, in contrast, has asserted its power far more effectively, he said, and thus has emerged as “the big winner.”