The debate in Israel over confronting Iran is being mirrored locally, with most activists sharing the Netanyahu government’s dire assessments of Iranian nuclear ambitions and others arguing that the threat is not all that imminent.
The latter view was bolstered in recent weeks, after at least four past and present high-level defense and security officials in Israel cast doubts on the urgency of action against Iran’s nuclear development.
Iran’s leaders are “very rational people” who would not make the “enormous mistake” of building nuclear weapons, General Benny Gantz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said April 25 in a widely discussed interview.
Nevertheless, many leaders of New Jersey’s Jewish community are insisting that Iran remains an imminent threat to Israel and other parts of the world.
Iran’s leaders “are sharp, smart people, but they are extremists,” countered Jim Daniels, a native of Tehran who chairs the Stop Iran Task Force at the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest and Central NJ. “We can never forget that. The threat is there and is still imminent. I don’t think we can let our guard down.”
Similarly, Buzz Warren, president of the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Region, said that despite the divergence of opinion in Israel, “I think everybody is still on the same page in regard to Iran’s intentions.”
Gantz’s views notwithstanding, the “[Iranian] leaders’ reality isn’t based on a kind of Western reality we understand,” added Warren. “So how can you say definitively that once they’ve got the bomb they are not going to use it or give it to somebody else?”
Warren and John Rosen, AJC’s regional director for New Jersey, heard a similar message earlier this month at the organization’s Global Forum in Washington, DC, where the issue of Iranian nuclear power occupied center stage.
“AJC certainly takes what the Iranians say at face value,” said Rosen. “There have been voices in America and in Israel which have been giving Iran the benefit of the doubt. But from my perspective, and from what I heard at the Global Forum, the thinking is that Iran is serious about pursuing nuclear weapons and also serious about eradicating Israel using those nuclear weapons.”
Diplomats from 50 countries attended the Global Forum. Among them was German Foreign Minister Guido Westervelle, who asserted a common Western line in saying that Germany “cannot and will not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon…. It would represent not only a threat to Israel but to the region as a whole.”
But while most Western leaders agree with that statement, consensus breaks down, as it does in Israel, over the existential nature of the treat to Israel, the effectiveness of global diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, and the extent to which an Israeli military strike is a viable option.
‘Keep out of it’
Larry Lerner of Warren, for example, told NJJN he believes that many Jewish organizations seem to be engaged in a “rush to judgment” about the degree of the threat from Iran at a time when so many prominent former leaders of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency; the IDF; and the Israeli government are urging caution in considering an immediate preemptive military action. In addition to Gantz, they include former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Yuval Diskin, former chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service; and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
Such men are saying, “‘Hey, there isn’t an existential threat right now,’” said Lerner, former president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations and past president of the dovish Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA). “I see bombing Iran as another one of these places you go into and can’t get out of. No one who talks about bombing Iran can give me an exit strategy if they go after Israel.
“Israel was lucky to get out of Lebanon after the Second Lebanon War [in 2006], so I don’t know what this rush to judgment is about.”
Lerner suggested the Jewish community in the United States “keep their noses out of it. I don’t think it helps peaceful relations in the Mideast to go encouraging the bombing of Iran. Why don’t they just keep quiet for awhile? Let the Israelis deal with it as best they can. We have seen there is a dispute in Israel. Why take sides?”
Some favor a continued strengthening of sanctions to effect a halt on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Iran is like an express train,” Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the AJC conference. “It’s fast. It’s on a destination, and it’s heading toward a nuclear weapon. The international community is like the local train; it stops and starts. If it doesn’t accelerate, the world will not stop Iran.”
“We think the threat is serious and almost every country agrees with that,” said Nathan Carleton, communications director of United Against Nuclear Iran in New York, in a phone interview. UANI is a nonpartisan coalition that favors heavy sanctions against Iran.
Despite remarks by Gantz and other high-ranking Israelis, Carleton said, “We are definitely not rethinking our position about the dangers of Iran and the actions that have to be taken to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.”
Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit would like to see American-Jewish organizations put greater emphasis on issues like the peace process with the Palestinians and Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
“I don’t know how big a threat Iran is, but I do think there are other very serious existential threats to Israel that require just as much of our attention,” she said. “These two things are eating away at the strength of Israel. Those issues, in particular the internal issues, are so serious that if we invest all of our efforts in focusing on external threats, we will fail to notice the internal threats and the threats to the security of Israel because of the lack of a peace process.”