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December 13, 2016 3:21 pm

Top American Jewish Leader Calls on Incoming Trump Administration to Show Strength, Stand Up to Iran

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

There are numerous steps President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration could take to diminish the threats posed by the Islamic Republic, a top US Jewish leader told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.

“We really have to stand up to Iran,” Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — said. “The Iranians have to know that the US is not going to tolerate any violations of the nuclear deal, and they will be held to account. Terrorists tend to probe for weakness, and if they believe the West is weak in responses, then they will exploit it. If they run into strength and resistance, then they will adjust accordingly.”

“There are many pieces of legislation pending with additional sanctions,” Hoenlein noted. “I think that is really critical. And while I don’t expect anything immediate, because the administration has to first find its way, I do think there is a lot that could be done, short of completely scuttling the deal — which is something that might be hard to do, given the involvement of the Europeans and everyone else. We have to look, long-term, about how to really hold the Iranians to account; how to get greater transparency, which has been lacking; and a lot of that has to do with the messages we send them.”

“This is not just in regard to the nuclear weapons program, but also their ballistic-missile systems; their undermining regimes in the region; their threats against Israel; their sympathy for Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups; and their aggressive behavior towards US ships and personnel,” Hoenlein continued.

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Regarding a potential Obama administration-led end-of-term lame-duck Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic initiative, Hoenlein warned, “There is, absolutely, still a chance of something happening, because the Palestinians are pressing very hard. I think it diminishes each day, but it partly depends on what happens in Israel and partly depends on what the president may choose to do in terms of putting markers down. It could take the form of a speech, in which President [Barack] Obama lays out his parameters for a peace deal. It could take the form of any one of a number of possibilities, like not vetoing a resolution at the UN. However, so far the administration has not indicated it plans to take any of these steps, and we hope this will continue to be the case.”

Asked how he saw the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process playing out during the Trump era, Hoenlein replied, “The question is what message we send the Palestinians. They must come to the table to speak directly with Israel. I think that will determine, in large part, what is feasible. The conditions have to be there. And there should be more pressure on them on issues like incitement and payments to terrorists and their families. Congress is getting more and more involved and increasingly adamant about holding the Palestinians to account. That, I think, is really important.”

“There are a lot of factors at play, but if there is a determined decision by the PA to negotiate seriously with Israel, then I think there could be meaningful talks,” he went on to say. “If the Palestinians believe the new administration won’t go along with their efforts to increase international pressure on Israel, then maybe this will create new pressure on them to sit down at the negotiating table.”

Referring to societal tensions that have been on display in the wake of Trump’s victory over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in last month’s presidential election, Hoenlein said, “Feelings are very raw still after the election, but hopefully that will calm down with time, and people’s fears will not be realized and we — not just the Jewish community, but also the American people as a whole — can come together.”

“We are assiduous in remaining above the fray,” Hoenlein said of his organization. “We work with everybody, but endorse no party or candidate. Following an election that was this intense and divisive, there are some people — including in the Jewish community — who have not yet come to terms with the outcome, and others who are expressing concerns about what possibly could happen. But I think we have to now wait and see what the new administration will be like and the process they will pursue.”

“Our responsibility,” Hoenlein said, “is to always live up to our mandate, which includes having the ability to talk to people in the administration and to deal with them. We have all sorts of views within the Conference, across from left to right. Our job is to see beyond the moment and to look at how do we assure that we can meet our responsibilities, including protecting and fostering the specific US-Israel relationship. Having an ability to talk with the administration is essential, as well as to both sides of the aisle in Congress, whether it’s about Iran, antisemitism, fighting terrorism, whatever the issue is. We need to have the ability to express the community’s concerns, to convey their views, and advance our common causes, have access to them and deal with them. That’s our foremost responsibility to our constituents, as we have with Republican and Democratic administrations for 60 years.”

Looking ahead at the months to come, Hoenlein pointed out, “It takes time for administrations to develop their policies, particularly for an administration that is completely new. I think we’ll have to see who gets appointed to key cabinet posts. Will Trump be a master delegator like President [George W.] Bush, or will he be like President Obama, who aggregated much of the decision-making to the White House? We’ll have to see which direction Trump takes. Every administration is different; each has its own style. Administrations must be given time to figure out where they are and what they’re doing and to understand the challenges they face. All administrations take time until they settle in and have everything in place. People have to be a little patient to give them time to sort things out.”

Finally, in reference to the controversy that has erupted over the Hanukkah party his organization is co-hosting this week with the Embassy of Azerbaijan at Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, Hoenlein said, “It is really quite astonishing to me the level of vehemence that accompanied some of the responses. People can go or not go to any event that we do. Some of the people who have commented haven’t attended a Conference event in a long time, so they were not likely to have been there but some are using this to grandstand.”

“However,” he emphasized, “what’s in the background is really important — this event is a gesture to the Jewish people by a Muslim country in which Jews have lived for 2,600 years and where there has not been antisemitism. Jews in Azerbaijan live freely. In their synagogues you can see the Israeli flags. You can walk with a yarmulke in the streets of Baku, as I have done. Those who lit the fuse regarding this event usually lecture about comity and bringing people together, and yet they did not consider the consequences of their actions here.”

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