Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Iran and US Nuclear Program Pact

For two decades, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been, metaphorically speaking, screaming from the rooftops that Iran was on the verge of attaining a nuclear weapon and that the world had better pay attention. While Prime Minister Netanyahu has been far off base in claiming, since the early 1990’s, that Iran would imminently have a nuclear weapon, I wholeheartedly believe that if it weren’t for Prime Minister Netanyahu, no one would have paid attention to this issue whatsoever. That would have had disastrous results. Prime Minister Netanyahu made the world wake up to the Iranian threat even when they desperately wanted to look the other way.

Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn’t just talked the talk of making Iran Israel’s top priority, he has walked the walk. The Prime Minister’s belief that Iran was the biggest threat facing Israel was carried out in policy. Billions of shekels have been spent on monitoring and counteracting this threat.  Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s focus on Iran has been a clear priority over dealing with other security issues such as the Palestinians, settlement expansion in the territories and internal security matters. Time and again, he has warned that Iran must not be allowed to “break out” (make the final pieces of a nuclear weapon).

Along the way, Prime Minister Netanyahu has convinced others, albeit reluctantly, that something must be done. None of the world’s powers want Iran to have nuclear weapons. While Iran has threatened Israel consistently for more than three decades, the entire world is at risk from an Iranian nuclear weapon. While skeptical at first, I too have been convinced by Prime Minister Netanyahu that this is a vital issue for Israel and the world. That the world woke up to this threat is to the Prime Minister’s credit. However, in his criticism of President Obama’s policies over Iran during this last year, the Prime Minister has not given the US, or the President, any credit for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check. The United States was Israel’s partner, Israel’s only partner, in assassinating the head of the Iranian nuclear program – setting it back, according to experts, by a year or more. The United States was Israel’s partner, Israel’s only partner, in developing and deploying the Stuxnet Worm which infected Iranian nuclear centrifuges, destroying thousands of machines and setting the Iranian program back by years. I wouldn’t categorize that as sitting on one’s hands as the Prime Minister has intimated that Obama has done.

Contrary to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s depictions of President Obama, the US has done these things even though the risk of Iran considering them acts of war was high – exposing the US to either terrorism or direct military action from Iran. Additionally, every Israeli Minister of Defense over the last seven years has proclaimed publicly that the Obama Administration has done more than any previous administration to build up Israel’s defensive capabilities and has increased military and intelligence cooperation to never before seen levels. The Prime Minister is not only disingenuous when he depicts the US as some Chamberlin-esque capitulator, he has been a most ungrateful recipient of help on what is his self-proclaimed most important issue.

With that as a backdrop, I would like to highlight why I am not opposed to the deal with Iran.

First, this is a good deal for Israel. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct and the biggest threat to Israel is an Iranian nuclear weapon, then Iran not having one achieves this goal. The deal is far from perfect, and clearly falls short of what the Prime Minister would like it to do, but that doesn’t mean that it is a bad deal under the circumstances. As the deal is structured, it would be at least 10-15 years before Iran could reinstitute parts of its nuclear program – longer for other parts. That is 10-15 years, or more, of Israel not living under the threat of nuclear attack, something that, without the deal, could happen as soon as two months from now. Even if the deal provided fewer years of safety, it is better than a two month breakout period. 

Of course, there are trade-offs that do not make me happy in this deal, but trade-offs are exactly what happen in a negotiation – any negotiation. You have to give to get and both sides did plenty of giving and getting. One area of concern that has been raised often in this last week is that of conventional weapons. With the inflow of cash to Iran and with the easing of the embargo, Iran will clearly be able to increase its conventional weapons budget which could certainly be a threat to Israel and even, perhaps, to the United States. That is possible. However, Israel has made it very clear that its concerns were with nuclear weapons, not conventional ones – until now. By asking for no nukes and by trying to limit conventional weapons, Israel is trying to have her cake and eat it too. Israel has shown that it is the regional superpower with conventional conflict and it will continue to be that superpower. Of course, Israel has its own nuclear program that gives its conventional warfare a mighty hammer to go with its anvil. Hard numbers also show that Israel will not only have the qualitative edge, it will have the quantitative edge, even with a cash boost to Iran. Iran’s current military budget is $15 billion. Israel’s is $18 billion ($3 billion of which comes from the US).  Without the billions of dollars Israel spends each year countering Iran’s nuclear program, that will feel like an extra billion or two; putting Israel 25% ahead of Iran right out of the gate. If Prime Minister Netanyahu were a diplomat, he would be flying to each of the 6 countries who negotiated with Iran to ask for more military aid. If, on average, each added $1 billion in aid (which they are capable, and I would even hazard, willing), Israel could be outspending Iran tomorrow by nearly double. Of course, Israel doesn’t use all of its military spending against Iran, but neither does Iran use its spending in any meaningful way against Israel. Even those numbers, however, do not reveal the biggest edge that Israel has – its heretofore unnamed allies: Sunni Muslim countries. They spend $130 billion alone and also seek to keep Iran both without nukes and without the means to upset the apple cart further in the Middle East. Without any adjustments, today, Israel and the Sunni countries outspend Iran ten to one on military spending. They will spend more if Iran does. Iran will not be able to outspend their enemies. Israel might even make some new friends out of this situation. That is why this is a good deal for Israel: no nukes for Iran, more money for Israel (you can be sure that the US alone will sweeten the pot) and alliances with strange bedfellows.

Second, this is a good deal for America. The United States has too much to lose by not working with the other countries involved and we were receiving ample pressure, particularly from Russia and China, to end the sanctions against Iran. If they decided to pull out of the embargo on their own, the US would have no leverage to get a deal later. China alone has the need and the money to buy every drop of oil that Iran produces at market rates – and they want to. The US has been holding its finger in that dike for years and there is only so long you can do that.

The US has other interests here too – whether we like it or not, Iran is already our ally in the fight against ISIS. We have been bombarding by air and Iran has been fighting on the ground. The Administration and the overwhelming majority of US citizens would like to keep it that way – with as few US boots on the ground as possible. With the exception of China, the other nations in the negotiations, like the US, have been fighting ISIS attacks on their own soil. Iran’s fight against ISIS gives those nations more tools to defend themselves against domestic terror attempts. We can debate the soundness of using Iran for a proxy war with ISIS, but it has been US policy for over two years now. Opponents of this deal are fighting an uphill battle because of real US strategic interests. This is a good deal for America because it makes us safer, preserves important alliances and deepens our ability to fight our enemies.

When it comes to Iran, the US has a national security interest which is not in lock step with Israel's. That is rarely the case, but in this case, it is true. I chose my words carefully – not in lock step is not the same as opposing interests. Both the US and Israel want to keep Iran without a nuclear weapon, want to keep Israel as the regional superpower and want to avoid an outright war with Iran. That is hardly the chasm that some portray between our respective national interests in this matter. So, US interests in Iran and Israel's differ, slightly. Reflective of that, we have different approaches to dealing with the issue. Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t negotiate, with anyone about anything. He has that perverse luxury because Israel is relatively isolated in the world, politically speaking, as is. The US, on the other hand, negotiates because it can and because it should. The two countries have different parameters for how they deal with the rest of the world. One is the only superpower and the other is a small country that is a regional superpower with few allies as good as the one superpower. Those are the truths. Israel cannot arm twist a different reality into the world no matter how hard it tries to do so.

Israel and the US have differing interests here. Are we, therefore, by default, as Jews, supposed to look the other way, as Americans? There are complicated conflicting values at play here. Everyone is trying to make it so simple. The US and Israel are allies, but they are not one country. Each would be doing a disservice to its citizens if it didn't look out for its own interests first. That is what the US (and Germany, England, France, Russia, China and the UN) has done. Israel is trying to do the same. Israel doesn't have the influence that the rest of the world has to get its agenda accomplished. 

Third, there are no better alternatives. Opponents of this deal have said repeatedly that no deal is better than this deal. This is far from true. No deal means the following in short order: Iran develops a nuclear weapon in 60-90 days. China and Russia, for their own economic reasons break the embargo (are we willing to fight our biggest trade partner and tell them they cannot buy the oil that fuels the economy from which we buy so much?), Iran will use the threat and protection of a nuclear weapon to attack our allies in the region such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc…

Could there have been a better deal? Maybe, but unlikely. Short of being treasonous, no one can offer a legitimate reason why President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry wouldn’t have gotten a better deal if they could have. The worst case scenarios to not having a deal in place is all out war with a nuclear nation.

Yes, this deal just kicks the can down the road, but that is far better than having that can blow up in our faces right now.  The monitoring system in place is also flawed, but gives us 99% of the access we wanted and it is nearly impossible for Iran to hide serious infractions under these conditions. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted over and over that no deal would be better than this one, but, not once, has he offered a realistic alternative. He knows that there is no military option because they don’t have what it takes to do the job. Even if the US gave Israel the bunker busters that are needed, it would only set the Iranian program back a few years – while at the same time, it would likely spark an all-out war between Iran and Israel, which is why the US has held onto those bombs so tightly.  There is no better deal and having no deal is worse than this deal.

Lastly, I think that this whole issue comes down to whom you trust. Do I trust Iran? Not as far as I can throw them. We shouldn’t just keep a watchful eye on Iran, we need to keep both eyes on them every step of the way for the next 25 years, until this deal expires. What I do trust about Iran is that they have real needs as a nation. They need money and this deal gives them access to it. This deal gives them money and it is na├»ve to think that it will all be used for military purposes. The ayatollahs are not idealists who are seeking to open up to the west, they are seeking these funds to keep a grip on their power – to give their people something they hope the people will not overthrow them to get.  I don’t trust them, but I trust their desire to stay in power – what else do tyrants have? They have a lot to lose by blowing this deal.

Do I trust Israel? Yes, of course. While we have a divergent path here, Israel is a rational country and will not do anything that will permanently harm itself. That is why they haven’t tried a military option against Iran and why they haven’t been even more brazen with the US (and Germany, Israel’s second largest supporter). The issue is that I do not trust Prime Minister Netanyahu. I don’t think he will try something foolish with Iran, or even with the US. What I don’t trust is his style and the collateral damage he is causing to US/Israel relations and what he is doing to the American Jewish/Israel relationship. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign against this deal comes dangerously close to forcing American Jews to choose between supporting our own administration and his. We have worked far too hard, for far too long, to shed the “dual loyalty” accusation to allow the Prime Minister to tear it all down. He has nothing to lose by using this approach, after all, he has said very clearly that he believes that all Jews should live in Israel. So, in his mind, if the US gets uncomfortable for us, the better. All the more so if he gets what he wants in the process. It is a dangerous game for him to play with our loyalties.

US Jews, by and large, and most especially in the Conservative and Reform Movements, have almost nothing in common with the Prime Minister. Both movements favor a territorial compromise with Palestinians so that they can have their own state. Besides a little lip service, he has shown that this is not his intention. Both movements have stated their opposition to settlement expansion. The Prime Minister is their biggest advocate. Both movements have advocated for religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and he makes partnerships with those who oppose us and accuse us of not even being Jews. Our movements have been at the forefront to combat Israeli racism and sexism and his coalition aids and abets it at every turn. This is not about opposing the Prime Minister’s policies, it is about his values – we just don’t share them. Except for one. We both love Israel.  Sometimes, love just isn’t enough. 

I trust President Obama for the very reasons I cannot take sides with the Prime Minister. While not Jewish, we liberal movement Jews share an immense array of values with the President. Each and every accomplishment of the Obama Administration has had broad Jewish support: healthcare, gay rights, civil rights, environmental issues, saving the economy through stimulus, not allowing crippling tax cuts, and much more. We share values. And, I truthfully believe, we share a love for Israel – not the same kind of love, but a love nonetheless. Plus, President Obama has never asked us to choose between our love of country and our love of Israel. He would never ask. I have had my share of frustrations with the President, but I have never questioned his sincerity or his prudence. On the contrary, I am often exasperated with his lack of fire and the measured pace he takes with everything he does.  

In summary, this is a good deal for Israel and a good deal for the United States. Besides, there isn’t a better deal out there– despite people wishing that were so.

I encourage you to participate in this dialog. Read, pay attention and speak your mind (thoughtfully and respectfully). If you would like to read further about this issue, I think you should have a look at these pieces:
From NY Times Op-Ed Columnist Tom Friedman

Rabbi Scott Weiner
"TINR Tablet" Blogger

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Summer is Here at Temple Israel ... finally!

Summer is here, and it's full of possibilities!

We all have high hopes - whether we are 9 or 90 years old. The sun is shining and we all hope to take full advantage of the extra light and frivolity. If you are anything like me, your calendar is already filling up with summer activities like concerts and beach trips.

Here at Temple Israel, the summer is also filled with possibilities. The possibility of trying out things you did not have time for, or energy for, during the year. So, if your kids are away at camp, or your work schedule is just a little less hectic, or you just have more hours in your day this time of year - bring a little of that freedom this way. In case you didn't know it, we have MORE people attend our Friday night services during the summer. They are usually in our courtyard (newly renovated and ready for action next week) and are lovely, musical, joyous, and lighthearted. Come and partake in the beauty. Also, there's another reason you don't want to miss Friday nights at Temple Israel. Two Community Shabbats (July 10 and August 7), the first of which will be a BBQ and our two Shabbat ShaBeaches at Five Islands Park (July 24 and  August 21) are all on Friday nights! Click here to see all the events Temple Israel has to offer!

Also, many of you have flexible Fridays in the summer. Why not try our fabulous Talmud Class which is growing every week. It takes place on Fridays from 9-10 a.m. Check the Temple calendar as there are a few weeks with no classes.

Saturday morning services are also a great opportunity to try something different in the summer. They are "come as you are", casual, shorter than during the year and no b'nei mitzvah. They are really a wonderful way to start your Saturday morning.

As we shift gears into summer, I hope to see you here more than your regular schedule allows. You will not regret it and it will make your summer even better!

Rabbi Scott Weiner
"TINR Tablet" Blogger