A historic phone call between President Barack Obama and the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week was the highest-level contact between the countries in more than three decades. Speaking Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden was clear about what he believed drove Rouhani to the negotiating table: “the most effective sanction regime in all of history.”
Biden arrived late to deliver the keynote Monday at the annual conference of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group, coming straight from a private meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is delivering the final speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
J Street, founded in 2008, is the hipper and more progressive younger sister to pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. But Biden’s rhetoric seemed better-suited to the kind of hardline audience that has traditionally dominated pro-Israel advocacy in the U.S. He repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, and was tempered in his optimism about the new Iranian president, whose conciliatory tone at the U.N. last week excited some in the international community.
Emphasizing the shared interests between the U.S. and Israel, Biden said: “If there were no Israel, we’d have to invent one, to make sure our interests are protected."
Biden’s skepticism over Iran’s “charm offensive” and apparent commitment to the sanction program is exactly what Netanyahu has publicly urged of Americans. Israeli officials said their prime minister would play the role of “spoilsport” at the U.N., and caution world leaders to focus on Rouhani’s actions as opposed to his words. In this respect, Netanyahu is representing popular opinion in his country; a poll by Israel’s Channel 10 News found that 78 percent of Israelis don’t believe Rouhani’s stated desire for dialogue with the U.S. is genuine.
But Biden’s speech was surprisingly heavy on issues of Israeli security for an organization whose primary agenda items are a two-state solution and peace. On certain issues, the conference attendees appeared distinctly to the left of the mainstream Zionist movement, and even J Street’s official line, applauding at one session earlier Monday when a panelist called for a Palestinian “right of return,” noted Tablet magazine.
Other speakers at the conference were more euphoric than Biden about this diplomatic moment, and seemed better attuned to the crowd at the conference, which saw attendance balloon to almost 3,000 this year.
“This isn’t just a dodge and a faint by a regime determined to pursue a nuclear weapons capability,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, at a panel earlier in the day.
Rouhani was elected after eight years of dissatisfaction, she said, with the “creeping pariah status Iran had achieved thanks to [previous President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s reprehensible rhetoric.” She added, however, that Rouhani was “a preacher of theocracy” and no “Jeffersonian democrat.”
Even Merav Michaelia, a member of the Labor Party in the Israeli parliament, undercut her prime minister in a conversation with the press on Sunday. "The difference between Netanyahu and Obama is that while Obama really wishes to achieve the goal of Iran not having a nuclear weapon and nuclear ability," she said, "Netanyahu and Israel in general want Iran to forfeit. They want Israel to win."
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli and professor of contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya, outlined the multiple “traumas” Israel faces with regards to Iran, including its history of funding attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas, which the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, and years of Holocaust denial by Ahmadinejad. But Javedanfar also received raucous applause for several jabs he made against Netanyahu.
“Ahmadinejad was an asset, the gift that kept on giving… He isolated the Iranian regime like never before, and Israel didn’t have to do anything,” he said. “Rouhani’s a diplomat. With all due respect for my prime minister, I don’t think he knows how to handle diplomats.”
Ken Pollack, a former Iran-Iraq analyst with the CIA, current senior fellow at the Saban Center, and Middle East adviser to congressional leaders, cited a CNN poll showing that three-quarters of Americans support direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
“They are not crazy. They aren’t irrational. They are not messianic, at least in their external behavior,” Pollack said about the Iranian leadership. “And they are not reckless… They have a great deal of respect for our power.”
The timing with Iran and renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations made the fourth J Street conference particularly energized. There were hundreds more attendees than in 2012 and nine members of the Israeli parliament in attendance, marking a new milestone in organization and legitimacy for the pro-Israel Left -- even if the conference’s keynote speaker wasn’t necessarily talking to them.