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Iran sanctions policy, Syria airstrike leak exacerbate U.S.-Israel differences

Click photo to download. Caption: President Barack Obama meets American Jewish leaders in the White House in March 2011. Last week, in their latest meeting with the White House, Jewish leaders were reportedly asked not to push for strengthened Iran sanctions while negotiations over the Iran nuclear program persist. Credit: White House.
Click photo to download. Caption: President Barack Obama meets American Jewish leaders in the White House in March 2011. Last week, in their latest meeting with the White House, Jewish leaders were reportedly asked not to push for strengthened Iran sanctions while negotiations over the Iran nuclear program persist. Credit: White House.

Attitudes on Iran sanctions and the leaking of information on an Israeli airstrike in Syria have exacerbated the Obama Administration’s differences with the Israeli government, while pro-Israel groups in the U.S. find themselves caught in the crosshairs.

Tensions between the Israeli and American governments rose significantly last week when the U.S. confirmed publicly that the Israel Air Force was responsible for a strike on a Syrian military base near the port city of Latakia. The strike reportedly took out arms bound for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

“The United States pulled the rug out from Israel in leaking the story,” Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington under Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, told

“When these actions become public, it changes the game,” Ben-David said.

Israel often carries out clandestine military operations in the region to prevent the illegal movement of weapons that can directly impact Israel’s security. While the U.S. is often told of such operations either before or soon after they occur, confirmation of targeted strikes are often intentionally left vague to maintain Israeli deterrence capability, and to prevent retaliation as well as international condemnation.

The uncharacteristic confirmation is considered by many in the upper echelons of the Israeli administration to be an intentional leak that may have been intended at further isolating Israel in the international community, and potentially even provoking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to respond militarily.

Reports on Israeli television networks Channel 2 and Channel 10 were particularly fierce in their criticism of the Obama Administration’s leak. Top Israeli military analysts referred to the leaks as  “scandalous,” “illogical,” “unfathomable,” and “foolish.”

Several prominent U.S. Jewish groups are now also finding themselves caught in a dilemma between supporting American and Israeli policies, amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries. While Netanyahu has renewed the call for tougher sanctions on Iran, and has left open the real possibility of a military strike to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration prefers not to implement new sanctions during Western negotiations with Iran.

Following recent reports that Iran may be as little as two weeks away from enriching uranium to weapons grade, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) broke from the U.S. administration’s stance by making an announcement over the weekend that it would not back down from pressing Congress to enact tougher economic sanctions against Iran.

“AIPAC continues to support congressional action to adopt legislation to further strengthen sanctions, and there will absolutely be no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts,” AIPAC President Michael Kassen said in a statement.

“Until Iran suspends its enrichment program, additional sanctions are vital for diplomacy to succeed,” Kassen added.

The announcement came despite the fact that last week, when American Jewish leaders gathered with senior Obama Administration officials at the White House, the administration reportedly asked Jewish leaders to refrain from asking for stronger Iran sanctions while negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program persisted.

AIPAC’s announcement favoring additional sanctions represents a sharp shift in the lobby’s support for the Obama administration’s Middle East policies. Recently, AIPAC lobbied in favor of military action against Syria at the behest of the Obama administration.

“After AIPAC went out on a limb to support Obama on a Syrian attack, don’t look for them to be running to [Barack] Obama’s support now,” Ben-David—who served for 10 years as AIPAC’s director of research and information in Washington and then for 15 years as founder and director of AIPAC’s Israel office—told

According to Ben-David, AIPAC is beholden to neither the Israeli government nor the American government.

“Traditionally, AIPAC is a lobby,” he said. “They do not work for the Israeli government.  They are beholden to the American public. On policy issues, AIPAC measures the mood of the American people, the Jewish community mood, and the mood of Congress.”

“The American public is suspicious of Iran, the Jewish community is suspicious of Iran, and Congress is suspicious of Iran,” Ben-David added.

Lobbying Congress in favor of military action against Syria for its reported use of chemical weapons was a bit of gamble for AIPAC, according to Ben-David. Even though Obama called for an attack in a nationally televised address, such military action did not have domestic or international support.

“I don’t think the mood was as clear when the Syrian issue came up. It was determined that nobody at home or abroad actually wanted it. And it is not certain whether or not Israel actually wanted an attack. Nobody was sure what the American policy was,” Ben-David said.

Christians United For Israel (CUFI) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) will also continue their push for stronger Iran sanctions, breaking with the Obama administration’s policy and falling in line with the stance of the Israeli government.

“We mustn’t give Iran a comfortable window within which to complete their nuclear work,” CUFI Executive Director David Brog told “So long as Iran continues to build its stockpiles of enriched uranium, we should—at the very least—be strengthening our sanctions.”

“Since it is the ever-toughening sanctions that got Iran to negotiate in the first place, there needs to be a reminder that things will get still worse for Tehran if nothing changes soon on the ground,” AJC Executive Director David Harris wrote in an op-ed for Haaretz.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), however, last week said Jewish groups would follow the Obama administration’s lead and take a “time out” in their lobbying efforts following the White House meeting, said the group’s executive director, Abraham Foxman.

In addition to attending the White House meeting with Jewish leaders, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) played host to senior members of the Obama Administration during its own centennial meeting, and presented an award to former Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta. The dinner was attended by Panetta and his successor, current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, as well as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.

ADL Director Abraham Foxman was an outspoken opponent of Hagel’s candidacy as Panetta’s successor, but Foxman told reporters, “I guess I changed my mind about what I think of him.”

Hagel announced during the dinner’s keynote address that the U.S. will advance the delivery of six V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor helicopters to Israel.

“The Israeli and American defense relationship is stronger than ever, and it will continue to strengthen,” Hagel said.

According to Ben-David, the decision to provide Israel with sophisticated weaponry two years from now does little to make up for the differences in policies that may threaten Israel in the short-term. “Israel is not thinking two years down the line right now, it is thinking two months down the line,” he told

“I don’t think any of the Obama administration actions are giving Israel any confidence right now,” he added.

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