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September 18, 2015

What If Washington Were Jerusalem?

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON–As one of the American citizens who was born in Israel and is well versed in Middle East affairs, my friend Raphael Benaroya has an interesting way of demonstrating for his fellow Americans what it is like to live in Israel. As the debate over Tehran reaches farcical levels – with even Donald Trump coming to the Capitol to bloviate against Congress while Tea Party diehards in the audience took turns hitting a punching bag in the image of Barack Obama – I keep coming back to Raphael as a means of understanding the depth of Israeli anger and Jewish rage over the agreement.

As Raphael explains, it was 225 years ago that America’s capital – the city of Washington, in the District of Columbia – was carved out of land donated by the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia. Today, it occupies a footprint slightly larger than the city of Jerusalem, which sits some 6,000 miles away, and it lives in relative peace. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if, Raphael asks, rather than sitting in comfort and security, the District of Columbia instead lived with the same reality that Israeli Jews are confronted with each day?

What if, for instance, the state of Virginia, bordering Washington on the west, had fired more than 20,000 rockets into DC since 2001 while calling for its destruction? That’s what Israel faces with Hamas in Gaza.

What if Maryland, across the District’s northern border, had fired an average of 134 missiles into DC each day during a 2006 conflict–and had received so many reported shipments of next-generation missiles in recent years that it was estimated that the next war would see 1,500 launches a day, causing mass District casualties? That’s what confronts Israel with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

What if the governor of New York, just three states to the northeast of DC, said at a military parade featuring trucks full of missiles capable of reaching Washington, “DC must stop existing”? What if the highest-ranking religious leader in New York had said, in 2012, “the opportunity must not be lost to kill all DC residents and annihilate the District of Columbia, while developing nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them?”

And what if New York had been known to use its riches to fund more than a dozen terrorist organizations working for DC’s destruction, and had been exposed as the supplier of both the 20,000 missiles that had fallen on DC from Virginia since 2001 and the next-generation missiles that kept appearing in Maryland to be targeted at District residents at some future date?

That’s the threat posed to Israel by Iran. It is no wonder Israel views Iran as a clear and present danger!

Furthermore with a third of 18 million world Jews annihilated just 75 years ago and with multiple attempts by its neighbors to destroy if by force ever since, Israel feels justified to take the threats of its enemies seriously; even more seriously than the assurances of its friends. The point is that nobody, not even Washington, can understand what it really means to be Israel in that region today. Nobody in the US can truly comprehend the constant onslaught of vitriol directed towards Israel on a daily basis. The Iranian government routinely threatens to annihilate Israel; the Jewish state must remain vigilant in response.

As Israel’s strongest ally, the US takes Iran’s threats seriously, which explains the current rhetoric in the debate over the Iranian nuclear deal. Senate Democrats blocked a Republican resolution to condemn the nuclear deal, ensuring that it will pass without President Obama exercising his veto power. Some political resistance, however, still remains; the House recently held a symbolic vote condemning the agreement. For the most part world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most vocal opponent of the deal, have accepted the outcome.

What happens now? For many European nations, the passage of the deal signals a chance to renew economic relations. Business leaders from London to Paris to Berlin, wanting access to a young, cosmopolitan market of 80 million people, have fallen over themselves while rushing to invest in the country. According to Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, by the beginning of August, the Iranian government had approved more than $2 billion in European projects.

For Iran, the renewed attention can only strengthen its economic and diplomatic presence on the world stage. Besides the substantial economic growth fueled by foreign investment, Iran will have access to more than a $100 billion in frozen overseas assets. Easing sanctions will increase Iranian oil production by 1.5 million barrels a day before the end of 2016, injecting up to $20 billion a year into the Iranian economy.

Iran’s political influence can only grow alongside this economic growth. The UK, for example, sees the agreement as an opportunity to engage Iran on other regional conflicts, like the civil war in Syria. This deal legitimizes the Iranian regime, seen for three decades as an international pariah, and establishes the nation as a rising power with increasing influence in regional politics. The country has spent billions of dollars to assist the Assad regime in Syria. Major General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of its special operations forces, brazenly works with militia forces in Iraq. In Yemen, Iran started arming, financing, and training Houthi rebels years before they attacked and seized the Presidential Palace last January. We should expect more such efforts to come.

For Israel, this paradigm shift in regional politics has serious security implications. In addition to its nuclear threat, Iran has recently rekindled its financial and military support of Hamas. Although Shiite Iran and Sunni Hamas have significant ideological differences, both sides agree on the overarching goal of destroying Israel. Iran’s continued support for Hezbollah also continues.

This is particularly troubling since Iran’s violent rhetoric towards the state of Israel has not ceased. Just last week, Iran’s Supreme Ruler proclaimed that Israel would not exist in 25 years.

In this context, it is easier to understand Israel’s adamant opposition to the nuclear agreement. It’s not just about nuclear weapons. It’s about regional politics. Netanyahu has already shifted his rhetoric in this direction. In his words, “the money that will flow to Iran as a result of the accord will go to strengthen the terrorist organizations that work against us.”

What can the U.S. do to help Israel defend itself? Three things.

First, make crystal clear our commitment to Israel’s security. Specifically, offer Israel deterrence and defense treaty that unequivocally declares an attack by Iran on Israel, as an attack on the U.S. to which it will respond in kind.

Second, Washington should cooperate with Israel, Egypt, certain Gulf States and NATO partner nations to monitor and counter Iranian funding of terrorist organizations. Through intelligence-sharing and strategy-coordination, these countries can effectively monitor Iran and its covert programs. The US can also work through international institutions like the UN Security Council to impose penalties on Iran for violating international agreements on state support for terrorism.

Third, the US should use social media and other technologies to directly connect with the overwhelmingly young population in Tehran. President Obama’s recent address to Iranian youth on YouTube is a good example of this kind of outreach. With 70 percent of the population under the age of 35, the majority of Iran’s young, cosmopolitan millennials are friendlier to the West and desperate to join the world. These sentiments will surely grow as foreign investment develops the Iranian economy and connects the country to the rest of the globe.

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reminded the US on the Senate floor, Iran, as well as 22 other countries in the Middle East, do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel must contend with that reality and the threats that accompany it. When Americans question Israel’s security concerns, it is important to remember Raphael Benaroya – and imagine if DC were in the same situation. A nuclear agreement in itself will not bring peace. And it is foolish to hope that it will – because hope has never been an effective foreign policy, particularly when the reality of that hope falling short is that you would cease to exist.