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Israel Watches Carefully As U.S. Engages Iran

The Obama administration is moving ahead on its push to engage Iran, nearly concluding a review of its policies toward that country, and naming veteran Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross as a special adviser.

As the American approach toward Iran takes shape, Israel is trying to ensure that America’s talks with Tehran are conducted only for a limited time,and are not used by Iran as a cover for continuing its nuclear activity.

Though Ross’s appointment was greeted warmly by Jewish leaders, another possible administration appointment is irritating pro-Israel activists. They fear that Charles “Chas” Freeman, who is being considered for chairman of the National Intelligence Council, will bring his views, which are critical of Israel, to the White House.

Ross, whose appointment was announced February 23, is a veteran peace negotiator known for his strong support for Israel and his close ties with the Jewish community. His new portfolio is expected to focus on America’s efforts to engage Iran, but his exact role as special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia is unclear.

Ross had been expected to be named a special envoy to Iran, but the State Department’s announcement was worded vaguely. Pressed by reporters, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said that Ross would be “advising the secretary on long-term strategic issues” in the region, but made clear that “he’s not an envoy” and will not be negotiating.

According to two Washington insiders who follow the issue closely, the administration is remaining ambiguous about Ross’s responsibilities because its policy review on Iran is yet to be completed. Another reason for the vague definition is to make sure that Ross’s mission does not overlap with that of George Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East.

Work on America’s new Iran policy is taking place before a new government has been formed in Israel, but the issue of dealing with Iran in Israel crosses partisan boundaries and enjoys a broad consensus. Though Israel does not oppose President Obama’s attempts to reach out to Iran, it is concerned about the terms of such negotiations.

“We would like very much to see some kind of a frame set for this engagement,” an Israeli diplomat said, “whether it is a time frame or a set of parameters that will define the expectations.” The diplomat stressed that thus far, Israel has not been presented with a new American policy toward Iran.

“The Israelis feel, and rightly so, that an open-ended process could be used by the Iranians to buy more time,” said Daniel Brumberg, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The Israelis will be worried that the administration could be dragged into endless negotiations.”

It is still not clear what a time frame for engagement with Iran would look like, although experts agree that it should take into account the Iranian elections coming up in June. The American concern is that open negotiations before the elections could be used by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to bolster his standing in the polls and prove that his hard line approach was successful in breaking Iran’s diplomatic siege without giving up its nuclear ambitions.

Ross is widely considered to be fairly hawkish when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He has said that a combination of incentives and punishments should be used to deal with Iran.

The main issue awaiting decision by the administration, either during the policy review or at a later stage, is whether to allow Iran some form of nuclear enrichment. Thus far, Obama has not shown any willingness to go for a solution permitting enrichment, even under strict oversight. Israel and its supporters in the United States strongly oppose allowing Iran to continue any form of nuclear enrichment.

Meanwhile, Jewish groups began quietly lobbying against the possible nomination of Freeman to chair the NIC, a body in charge of advising the administration on intelligence assessment and policy.

Freeman, a former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is currently president of the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based think tank funded in part by Saudi donors. He is known as a harsh critic of Israel and has publicly denounced the pro-Israel lobby. In a 2007 speech at the Pacific Council on International Policy, he argued that the United States is no longer an honest broker in the Middle East because it chose “to back Israel’s efforts to pacify its captive and increasingly ghettoized Arab populations.” During the same speech, Freeman blasted the Bush administration for not taking action while “the Jewish state continues to seize ever more Arab land for its colonists.”

Freeman said that it was difficult to find a publisher in the United States for the controversial paper “The Israel Lobby,” published in 2006 and written by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, because of the “political penalties the lobby imposes on those who criticize it.”

The responsibilities of the chairman of the NIC vary according to the decision of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Freeman, if chosen for the post and confirmed by the Senate, is expected to play an important role in shaping the National Intelligence Estimate, which is one of the main tools in forming the national security policy on a broad range of issues, including Iran. Freeman could also take part in the daily intelligence briefings provided to Obama.

Jewish groups refrained from commenting on the intention to appoint Freeman, but a senior official with a leading Jewish organization told the Forward that some of these groups are already conveying their discontent to the White House.

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