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Obama and J Street Together Again on Iran

The left-wing J Street lobby came into existence in order to support Obama administration pressure on Israel. But with the president shelving any talk about twisting Israel’s arm to make concessions to the Palestinians while he’s running for re-election, the group is instead doing its best to muster support for his weak position on Iran. As an article on the subject published in Foreign Policy by Dylan J. Williams (J Street’s government affairs director) shows, like the president, the group says it is against Iranian nukes, but their priority is opposing the idea of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Williams’ argument employs the sort of upside down logic that characterizes much of the group’s thinking about the Palestinians. He claims that although diplomacy has already been repeatedly tried and failed, the West should continue to talk with the Iranians despite all the evidence that points to the conclusion that Tehran has no intention of abandoning its nuclear goal. Most of all, he deprecates even the thought of using force, because he claims that strengthens the Islamist regime. In doing so, the group is setting the stage for what will likely be the focus of debate on the issue should the president be re-elected. With Obama’s belated policy of sanctions and diplomacy unlikely to resolve the situation, there will be little doubt that as time runs out until the Iranians get their nuke (the head of British intelligence said it would happen within two years), that defending Obama’s refusal to act to avert the threat may be the priority for his Jewish cheerleaders. But while this may bring them closer to the president after he abandoned their positions on the peace process, it will continue to place them outside of the pro-Israel mainstream.

The romance between J Street and Obama has not been as smooth as the group’s leaders once thought. When the president took office, J Street thought its role as his Jewish surrogate would lead them to supplant AIPAC in influence. But after three years of loyally supporting the president’s desire to distance the United States from the Jewish state and to hammer its government on settlements, borders and the division of Jerusalem, they have been sidelined by the administration’s Jewish charm offensive in 2012. J Street commands little support and less respect among the majority of American Jews, and the president’s speech to the AIPAC conference (the group that J Street once hoped to supplant) this year abandoned the stands J Street applauded.

Despite its pretense to mainstream status, Iran is just another issue about which J Street has carved out a position with which they have demonstrated how out of touch they are with both Israeli and American Jewish opinion. For most of the last four years, J Street refused to support tough sanctions on Iran. But now that the administration belatedly embraced this tactic, J Street is a true believer in sanctions.

Williams accepts at face value the predictions that a strike on Iran would only delay rather than end the Iranian threat. Even if that were true, a delay would be to Israel and the West’s advantage, but it’s far more likely that an unpopular regime under economic pressure would not have the resources or the will to reconstruct its nuclear project.

Even more absurd is Williams’ argument that the threat of force will deepen the Iranians’ resolve to go nuclear. The problem with the diplomatic track is that the opposite is true. After years of Western “engagement” and feckless diplomatic entreaties (a policy that was, to be fair, begun under George W. Bush but enthusiastically continued by Obama), the Iranians think they have nothing to fear from Washington. Their model is that of North Korea, which defied the West and eventually went nuclear despite the diplomatic breakthroughs American administrations thought they had achieved.

All this sets the stage for the next real debate about Iran that will follow after the November election. Though the president has said all the right things about wanting to stop the Iranians, the failure of his initiatives will leave him with two choices: use force or pretend diplomacy is still an action and keep talking until Tehran gets its nukes. The second option is something Israel rightly fears, but that may be exactly what J Street wants a re-elected Obama to do. Like its foolish calls for pressure on Israel to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that doesn’t want to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, such a stand is neither “pro-Israel,” nor “pro-peace.”


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