Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan RouhaniReuters
Here’s a good question without an answer so far - if the Iranian nuclear effort is intended to be for peaceful purposes, why are the facilities being built underground?

That was just one intriguing question posed by Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) at an appearance for NORPAC in Lawrence, New York on Sunday night. The Senator in the last year of her first term in the Senate is a leading and outspoken supporter of Israel, and also just as outspoken and critical of much of the performance of US President Barack Obama these last several years in Washington.

At the same time, another outstanding personality on the subject of US-Israel relations and the Iranian threat is the Presidents Conference’s Malcolm Hoenlein, to a great extent the definitive word and the barometer who can best measure the nature of what is going on in both Jerusalem and Washington DC.

Senator Ayotte was in Lawrence at the beginning of the week with her astute analysis and observations, and Hoenlein will be the scholar in residence this coming Shabbat at the Young Israel of Woodmere, at which time he will share with the community much of his acumen and insight.

The appearance of both personalities in the community is a demonstration of the importance of the involvement of the people - the voters - in the complex process of influencing our elected representatives in Washington to not act on their own, but to actually execute the will of the people - that would be us.

On that level there are numerous concerns about how pro-active we should be as a community and whether being outspoken on issues like Iran either helps to enhance, or in some way damages the vitality of the US-Israel relationship.

Among the things that Hoenlein will tell his audiences over Shabbat - that is, without revealing too much of his content - is that despite the optics and the rhetoric emanating from all sides, the US-Israel relationship is good and healthy and has never been stronger. 

Not the first rocky period for US-Israel ties

In a phone interview with Arutz Sheva on Monday, Hoenlein said, “the US-Israel relationship cannot be measured by the personalities involved.”

He went on to cite other periods where relations between the two countries were somewhat rocky, but noted that the core relationship, disagreements notwithstanding, always remained solid.

Many of us can recall the time when Ronald Reagan was none too pleased with Menachem Begin after the Israel Air Force destroyed a nuclear site under construction in Iraq. And then there was Yitzhak Shamir going head to head with the senior George Bush over settlements and US loan guarantees to assist Israel in absorbing hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel.

So there are a few gossipy types of diplomatic things buzzing around out there in the aftermath of the defiant speech delivered by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the US Congress last week.  First, Hoenlein, says that there is absolutely no truth to the idea that the US has indicated that they would shoot down Israeli planes on their way to take out Iranian nuclear facilities.

He adds that the two National Security Advisers, Susan Rice for the US and Yossi Cohen for Israel, continue without interruption their close coordination on military and related matters that impact the two countries.

Netanyahu speech worked

As for the Netanyahu speech to Congress, Hoenlein says that it achieved its objectives by boosting the subject and making it part of the daily conversation on the level of the citizenry who are now calling their Congressional representatives to voice their opinion and position on the matter.

On Sunday night in Lawrence, Senator Ayotte confirmed that observation.  She said that the night before, on Saturday night, she was at a function at her daughter's school in New Hampshire, and for the first time that she can recall people came up to her to discuss the deal with Iran. 

She said that whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power or not has never been a big issue in New Hampshire. She, however, attributes the furor and attention generated by the Netanayhu speech to making more Americans conscious of what is at stake, and not just for Israel or others in the Middle East - but for the US as well.

Enemy is radical Islam

Unlike administration officials, both Senator Ayotte and Mr. Hoenlein do not hesitate to reference the scourge of so much of the world’s violence and terror originating from radical Islam. 

“You cannot effectively fight an enemy until you identify and expose it for what it is,” said Hoenlein.   He points out that in the battle with Islamic State (ISIS) and radical Islam, Obama is essentially alone in not telling it like it is.

“Even King Abdullah in Jordan and President (Fattah Abdul) al-Sisi in Egypt are outspoken and critical about the Islamic aspect of today’s terrorist threat,” says Mr. Hoenlein.  We discussed why it is that the current crisis, if you can call it that, is couched almost exclusively in terms of a US-Israel dispute or face-off of some sort.

Hoenlein responded to that query by agreeing that indeed the threat of a nuclear Iran may in fact have greater effect down the road on Arab governments like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Jordan - those that subscribe to a different brand of Islamic observance than the Iranians do.

He said that he has visited almost every Arab capital and has spoken to numerous Arab heads of state - frequently off the record - and, he added, they are plainly concerned about the possibility of an agreement that will be a pathway to a nuclear Iran.

Hoenlein said that the Arab governments have told him that they consider nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran a greater hazard to them than to Israel. “Israel can defend itself against Iran,” he has been told by Arab leaders, who added "we cannot."

What is pro-Israel?

Malcolm Hoenlein is the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The group has within its membership a broad cross section of organizations that are meant to represent the wide ranging and varied opinions that exist within the vast and diverse American Jewish community.

The objective of the group is to deliver to high levels of government and international leaders where the American Jewish community stands on issues of the day. The challenge is both immense as it is complicated. For the most part, while the various constituencies of the member organizations have their positions on Israel, the Presidents Conference largely reflects and supports the policies of the given Israeli government. 

So the times we live in are not as troubling as they might seem on the surface but they certainly are difficult to navigate a clear and successful route through. In the past while support for Israel was an easily understood matter, today that support has a multiplicity of faces and positions. It is only over the last few years that you can be in favor of Israel doing diplomatic danger to itself and still be considered pro-Israel.

Both Ayotte and Hoenlein say that they cannot be more emphatic about how vital people's involvement on a personal level is at this point in time. On the all important Corker-Menendez bill that makes it imperative that President Obama receive Congressional approval of any agreement reached with Iran, we the people will make the difference.

Blocking an Iran deal

Senator Ayotte told her audience that currently there are 11 Democrats prepared to join 54 Senatorial Republicans in voting to override a Presidential veto of Corker-Menendez. Still, Ayotte reports at this juncture the move is still three Democratic votes short of making it legally necessary for Obama to seek approval from Congress.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office told the 5TJT this week that the Senator is on board with his ten colleagues and 54 Republicans to vote to override.  Still uncommitted or uncertain are prominent Democrats Kristin Gillibrand  (NY) and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

How both Gillibrand and Booker who represent very large pro-Israel Jewish constituencies in their states can still be uncertain about how to vote on the bill is something of a mystery. Pressure is being brought to bear from constituents on both Senators. A call to their officers to make your position known on the dangers of a nuclear Iran would be timely and in order.

To gain additional excellent insight on the drama currently playing itself out, you can be certain that after you hear the three presentations by Malcolm Hoenlein at the Young Israel of Woodmere this Shabbat you too will be able to consider yourself something of an authority and expert on the subject matter.

As Rabbi Shalom Axelrod said the other day, the synagogue invited Mr. Hoenlein to speak months ago. Who could have guessed at the time that it would be in the immediate aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, a week before elections in Israel and just days before fateful decisions need to be made on Iran’s nuclear abilities in the near future?