Jewish doves gain White House clout, but that’s not why U.S. Iran policy is blurring

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

James Besser in Washington

The other day a reader emailed to comment about my report that groups on the Jewish left were included in last week’s conference call between Mideast envoy George Mitchell and Jewish leaders (see blog entry here).

“These groups are blind to the threat of Iran,” the reader warned. “They’re going to contribute to the Obama administration’s dangerous shift away from regarding Iran as the top threat to the world.”

Well, yes and no.  That shift is already taking place, but it almost certainly has a lot less  to do with Jewish input than with the fact this new administration is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – an even worse one, if you believe financier George Soros (see that story here).  Every priority, domestic and international, is at best a distant second to keeping the economic crisis from getting much worse.

It is true that this administration is already getting a very different view of how Iran ranks in the priorities of most American Jews.

Groups like Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, J Street and Brit Tzedek, largely frozen out of the Bush administration, are welcome contributors to a debate conducted by a new administration that likes to hear different viewpoints.  On last week’s Mitchell teleconference, they comprised a majority – at least of those speaking.

It’s not that those groups don’t care about Iran; they do. They all regard Iran’s likely acquisition of nuclear weapons as a danger to Israel and to U.S. interests, although they are more supportive of probing for openings for negotiations than the major pro-Israel groups.

But these organizations are built around the issue of pressing for a more active peace process between Israel and her neighbors. Iran is part of the background noise of the region to them, but it’s never been a top issue.

It is for groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents for a host of reasons.

Israeli governments come and go, these days with blinding speed,  and their views on Mideast peacemaking are always changing, but it’s safe to assume every Israeli government will place Iran near the top of its list of priorities.  As a result, tough talk on  Iran is a politically safe issue for the major pro-Israel groups here.

And leaders of those organizations, reflecting many analysts in Israel, genuinely believe a nuclear Iran will be the gravest existential threat ever to confront the Jewish state. As long as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is at the helm, it’s hard to argue with that proposition.

But if the U.S. focus on Iran is blurring under the Obama administration, it probably has little to do with the newly broadened official dialog with Jewish groups.

“My worry isn’t the leftist groups that have access to this administration,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, a group that has made Iran  a top priority in recent years.  “It’s that for this administration, the economy is  issues one through 100.”

There’s little doubt Obama and Co. care about Iran, but it’s not the top issue it was for a Bush administration that gave us the phrase “axis of evil” and which had an ideology that saw Iran as the pivot in a worldwide struggle against terror that was its top priority.

The economic meltdown isn’t just a domestic emergency; increasingly, this administration believes the worldwide collapse, with its potential for igniting political instability and diplomatic realignments, poses  a grave national security threat to the nation.

And it’s hard to argue with that proposition, too.

The fact the Obama administration is hearing from different Jewish groups that don’t focus heavily on Iran is an interesting fact, but it’s probably not a major factor in that shift.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.