Activists Scramble for Answers As Clock Ticks on Iran Nukes

By Ori Nir

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Convinced that time is running out on efforts to block Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb, Jewish organizations are scrambling for effective ways to take action — but they have not had much success.

“There really aren’t any good options,” said David Twersky, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress. “Everywhere you move, you’re checked.”

As anxiety over the issue mounts, the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Dan Halutz, reportedly has told a Knesset committee that in three months Iran would cross the point of no return by mastering the technological know-how to produce a nuclear bomb. Israeli officials, however, denied a report published in a British newspaper last week that Prime Minister Sharon has instructed the Israeli army to prepare for an attack on Iran this March.

Israeli officials and Jewish communal officials are voicing increasing frustration and alarm over their inability to take independent action against Iran. At the same time, they are highly critical of what they see as the international community’s weak, almost blasé response to an alarming crisis with global repercussions.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has escalated his verbal attacks on Israel. In a speech Wednesday, he described the Holocaust as a myth and repeated his call for Israel to be moved to somewhere in the West.

Jewish communal leaders say that the crisis has emerged as the central issue of concern for most major Jewish organizations. Last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee launched a new Web site to focus attention on the crisis regarding Iran. The move came just days after Aipac, the most influential pro-Israel lobby, took the rare step of openly criticizing the Bush administration, arguing in a November 28 statement that the White House was making a dangerous mistake by not insisting that Iran be immediately referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations launched a campaign last week calling on supporters to send letters to the administration, urging that America’s policy on Iran “remain firm and that the Iranian nuclear issue be brought to the U.N. Security Council without delay.”

Several communal leaders said that soon the mounting crisis might merit an even larger-scale community-wide mobilization similar to the campaign to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s, or the campaign several years ago in support of Israel’s war on Palestinian terrorism.

“Very possibly, we are getting there,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. One of the community’s most influential liberals, Rabbi David Saperstein, agreed. “We are approaching that level of concern,” said Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Still, Jewish organizations are unsure about what steps to take. They worry that any unified action might create a damaging perception that Iran’s nuclear program is a narrow Jewish or Israeli concern.

“Soviet Jews and the intifada were our issues. Here we must be heard, but we mustn’t make it into a ‘Jewish issue,’” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Another problem is the potential disagreement over what the message of such a campaign would be. Most Jewish groups — if not all — believe that a military option to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities is not viable. Most, if not all, agree on the need for the U.N. Security Council to discuss the Iranian issue to prepare the ground for sanctions against the Iranian regime — but they differ over how to proceed.

The disagreement played out earlier this month, when Aipac decided to blast the Bush administration. The organization’s executive director, Howard Kohr, briefed a small group of directors of Jewish groups before taking action. At least one of the participants in the conference call, the Forward has learned, took issue with Aipac’s decision to attack the White House, arguing that the administration may have acted correctly by trying to prevent a Russian or Chinese veto at the Security Council. Kohr reportedly replied that it is imperative to bring the issue to the U.N. now, to lay the foundation for international action.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, also seemed to take issue with Aipac’s approach. “While I understand concerns such as Aipac’s,” he told the Forward, “I also see what our country is facing [in Iraq] and why it needs to be fairly circumspect and careful.”

Some Jewish communal officials argue that a campaign aimed at trying to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions is futile. “What you have in the Jewish community right now is panic, because Jewish organizations now understand — as do planners in the Department of Defense — that there is no viable military option,” said Shoshana Bryen, an official at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, agreed that it was hard to imagine an effective military response, but he urged the Bush administration to take a more active role in pressing for sanctions. “We are kicking the ball to the Europeans … rather than showing leadership,” he said, echoing the criticism of many Jewish groups. “When the Europeans fail — and they will — it will come back to us, and you know: The last grains of sand pass much faster through the hourglass.”

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