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In Jewish election season, old themes and new concerns about Iran

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, left, and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol engage in The Great Debate: Election 2012 at the American Jewish Committee's Global Forum at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, May 4, 2012. (Ron Sachs/CNP)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Simmering beneath the presidential season’s familiar refrains of support for Israel is a passionate partisan argument over how best to confront Iran and deal with the new Middle East.

The Jewish election debate season was launched informally on May 4 at the annual American Jewish Committee global forum when longtime U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol made the case for their preferred presidential candidates.

Kristol vs. Frank was lively, friendly and covered familiar territory about the Jewish tendency to vote Democrat and the commitment of both parties to Israel.

An encounter the next day between two top former Iran officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, speaking at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy retreat, highlighted deep fault lines over Iran and the Middle East, not just between the campaigns but also between liberals and conservatives and the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.

At issue were whether sanctions and diplomacy would keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, what circumstances would merit a military strike and whether  the Arab Spring promised stability or chaos for the region.

The AJC debate between Frank, who this year is ending his 32-year run in the House of Representatives, and Kristol, the scion of a leading neoconservative family, was replete with the familiar, almost affectionate banter that characterizes much debate between Jewish Republicans and Democrats.

Kristol joked about how unlikely it was he would sway the audience, which he presumed to be predominantly made up of supporters of President Obama.

“It’s always a pathetic scene,” Kristol said of his appearances before Jewish audiences, noting that he has acted as a surrogate for GOP presidential candidates since 1996.

Frank needled Kristol for affiliating with a party that he said has moved sharply to the right on social issues.

“Whether or not the fact that you are gay disables you from being a foreign policy adviser,” Frank, himself gay, said, citing the case of Richard Grenell, an openly gay foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign who recently quit under pressure from social conservatives.

Both surrogates scooped out heimishe references sure to resonate with the audience: Kristol in imagining Joseph Lieberman as secretary of state, and Frank in noting his pride in his relation by marriage to the late Three Stooges member Shemp Howard.

That revelation came after Frank likened the GOP to the Three Stooges.

“I mean that with no disrespect to the Three Stooges,” he said, evoking laughter not just from the audience but from Kristol, too.

Frank and Kristol addressed substantive issues, particularly differences over how best to keep entitlement programs solvent, through cuts and privatization programs (Kristol) or cuts and increasing taxes (Frank).

On Israel and the Middle East, however, they seemed more in agreement. Like Kristol, Frank faulted Obama for a “badly worded” speech a year ago calling for negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines with security guarantees for Israel, but said the president had recovered.

Kristol agreed and said that on Iran, Obama and Romney “don’t sound that different from each other.” He claimed some credit for pressuring Obama toward being pro-Israel through his advocacy group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has run ads fiercely attacking the president’s record on Israel.

Kristol insisted that Romney would be the better choice to back Israel and face down Iran, but added that were Obama re-elected, “Some of us on the outside will continue to pressure [the administration] to do the right thing.”

The themes raised in the Frank-Kristol debate can be expected to resurface in debates in states where Republicans and Democrats agree that Jewish votes may make the difference in November, notably Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada.

The tone at the Washington Institute retreat, held at a leafy golf resort deep in Virginia’s Washington suburbs, also was friendly but less prone to banter.

Neither of the panelists — Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration who handled the Iran nuclear file from 2009 to 2011, and Jamie Fly, who dealt with the same issue in various capacities for the George W. Bush administration — was billed as speaking for the campaigns or for the parties, although Fly stepped in at the last minute for Dan Senor, an adviser to the Romney campaign.

Launching straight into substance, Kahl and Fly offered arguments that drew short of definitive conclusions but showed sharp divergence on whether an attack on Iran could prevent the acquisition of a nuclear bomb.

Kahl outlined four arguments against a nuclear Iran: It could use the bomb, or allow a proxy to use it; a bomb would embolden Iran’s already aggressive regional posture; the profound suspicion between Israel and Iran, even if neither nation intended a strike, could result in misunderstandings that could escalate into war; and a nuclear Iran could set off an arms race.

He said each had merit to varying degrees and cumulatively made the case for threatening military action. But Kahl also said that Israel was off base in pressing for military action sooner rather than later.

His reasons: Sanctions and diplomacy had yet to be exhausted; there is no evidence that Iran was definitively committed to making a bomb; it is not clear that an attack would sufficiently degrade Iran’s capability to make a bomb; and there is no united international coalition committed to military action.

“One of the reasons I’ve been so critical about the Israelis taking action is that at this moment they cannot satisfy any of those criteria,” Kahl said.

Fly said that overall he agreed with Kahl’s assessment, but differed about what it portended. Instead of seeing the lack of hard evidence of a nuclear weapons program as reason to hold back, Fly used it to argue pressing forward with plans for a military strike.

Gaps in military intelligence mean that “we don’t know what other facilities they may have,” he said, and that “sets us up for failure.”

Fly laid out a scenario in which intelligence failure combined with prolonging the military option could result in a nuclear Iran that would have to be contained — an outcome that Romney and Obama have both rejected.

“I fear this path is leading us toward essentially accidental containment,” he said.

Fly said the Obama administration had not been consistent in making clear to Iran that a military strike was an option.

“I don’t think the Iranians think this administration is serious about taking eventual military action,” he said. “Clearly the Israelis are concerned.”

If commentary by Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who was attending, was indicative, the Israelis were indeed concerned.

“I am very much afraid that all those who explain that it is too early to attack — and this is what we have been doing for the last six years — will very soon say it is too late,” said Yadlin, whose term ended 18 months ago and who was a frequent interlocutor with Kahl when both were working for their respective governments.

Similar differences at the Washington Institute conference also played out over the meaning of the Arab Spring.

“While the change in the Middle East is working against Iran, it is our belief that it can and will work for the United States,” Denis McDonough, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, said in a keynote address. “A more democratic region will ultimately be more stable for us and our friends.”

The Obama administration has engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood, among other actors in Egypt following the outster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago. McDonough said such parties were unlikely to impose dictatorships.

“Any government today is going to press towards greater transparency,” he said. “As a result of more powers to individuals, more powers to Egyptians, even if someone wants to be dictatorial, it’s going to be difficult.”

Such sanguinity about the results of Arab upheaval was otherwise in short supply throughout the conference, which tends to a draw a more hawksih-leaning pro-Israel crowd.

In concluding remarks, Washington Institute director Robert Satloff noted that “The record of empowerment of Islamic political parties is not positive.”