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March 19, 2017 1:11 pm

Top American Jewish Official: Middle Eastern Leaders Relieved to See Obama Go, Want US to Take Tougher Line Against Iran

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

Middle Eastern leaders are looking for the Trump administration to re-engage with the region and take a tougher line against Iran, a top American Jewish official told The Algemeiner this week.

Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — recently returned to the US from a trip that included stops in Israel, Egypt, Morocco and Cyprus. “What we heard in all the countries was a sense of relief over the change of administrations and anticipation about what the new administration will be, who will be in it, what they will do and how they will govern,” he said. “There is a feeling that America is back in the game. But there is also some anxiety and uncertainty.”

Israeli officials, according to Hoenlein, are “hopeful” about President Donald Trump.

“They all recognize that it’s still early, but the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the president at their meeting [in February] was good,” Hoenlein said. “Ambassador Nikki Haley has been very strong at the UN responding to attacks on Israel. And the president also protected aid to Israel in the face of major budget cuts.”

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Israel’s major worries at the moment, Hoenlein stated, are the ongoing conflict in Syria and instability in Jordan.

“If there is a ceasefire in Syria, will Iran have a permanent place there?” Hoenlein asked.

Another issue bothering Israeli officials is “what is happening in Lebanon and, even more so, the incursions and encroachments in the Golan area by Hezbollah and Iran-backed militia groups who are today very active and have gotten closer to the area. They are a threat to both Jordan and Israel, and the region. I think the prime minister has sent a message to keep them away or Israel is going to react.”

Hoenlein made sure to praise UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for recently speaking out against Hezbollah.

“There was an incredible statement by the secretary-general which got very little attention but was very important,” Hoenlein said. “He condemned Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon and said they were a violation of Security Council Resolution 1701 that was adopted after the Second Lebanon War. It was a very tough statement citing their weapons buildup as a further violation and criticized the encroachment on Lebanese sovereignty.”

Reports that the Islamic Republic is seeking to build a military base at the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea should “be of concern to everybody,” Hoenlein said, noting that such a facility could be used as a launching point for further subversive Iranian activities in the region.

Hoenlein hypothesized that the Iranian Navy’s harassment of the USS Invincible — an American surveillance vessel — in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month was connected with missile tests conducted by the Tehran regime.

“I think that the reason the Iranians were playing havoc with our ship was because it’s able to monitor missile launches,” he said. “And I think they were trying to deflect it away from finding out about additional launches they were engaged in. At a time when they’re trying to put on a show of being moderates, the Iranians are anything but that.”

Regarding Trump’s initial forays into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking — including diplomatic envoy Jason Greenblatt’s Middle East trip this past week — Hoenlein noted, “We don’t know the substance yet, but President Trump has said he’s interested in making a deal. How it’s different [from the past], we will only find out as the process unfolds. In the past, we have seen some people become obsessed with the deal in and of itself. It has to be rooted in the reality on the ground and discreet negotiations.”

“I don’t think Jason Greenblatt, or others in the administration, including the president, are going to do anything detrimental to Israel,” Hoenlein continued. “I don’t want to see tensions arise between them [the US and Israeli governments] because of expectations that may not be fulfilled. And they [the Trump administration] are likely to be frustrated, like everyone else, by [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, but at least they can tell the world, ‘We tried.’ Netanyahu has always said that he’s ready to talk and the US could do a lot to incentivize the parties.”

“I think, most of all, they want to talk about things like economic development programs — which everybody agrees could be done now and build the basis for any kind of future discussions,” he went on to say. “By this, you build people’s vested interest in negotiating an agreement and avoiding further violence or disruptions.”

Asked about a potential regional approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — an idea touted by Trump and Netanyahu at their joint White House press conference in February — Hoenlein replied. “I heard in various places in the Middle East over the past months during my travels, leaders would like to see the Palestinian issue resolved. It’s not necessarily a top priority, [but] it’s certainly an annoyance. They say that it’s something that excites the street. The Palestinians yell ‘Al-Aqsa is under siege’ and people go crazy. Middle East leaders want this issue over, because, as one put it, they see it as an obstacle to expanding their ties more openly with Israel. They feel it contributes to instability in the region and [serves as] a rallying point for extremists.”

Turning to the Trump administration’s relationship with the US Jewish community, Hoenlein said, “It is very early as the administration settles in and they still haven’t filled most of the posts. So it’s hard to judge them and make assessments. And it’s still too early to see the details of the policies in many areas. But I do think that on the key issues of Jewish security in the US, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and others have been responsive. They’ve reached out to the community. There have been meetings, assistance and public statements.”

Most noteworthy, Hoenlein pointed out, was Trump’s condemnation at the start of his Feb. 28 address to a joint session of Congress of the recent upsurge of antisemitic incidents across the country.

“You have to give the president credit,” he said.

On the spate of bomb threats that have targeted Jewish community centers over the past few months, Hoenlein stated, “Some top officials have said that it’s a single person who is doing this. The likelihood is that this is going to continue for a while, because of the atmosphere that has been created — the tensions that were exacerbated, but not caused, by the election. We saw this trend well before the election.”

Hoenlein said he was largely satisfied with the governmental response, at both the federal and local levels, to the threats faced by American Jews. However, he added, “increased funds are needed for security and educational programs at our synagogues, schools and other institutions.”

“Maybe it will wake up the community,” he said. “Raising security awareness is something we’ve been trying for a long time, led by our Secure Community Network (SCN) operation. What is now being done is not enough. Our schools and institutions are still largely unprotected and more has to be done. Some measures do not cost a lot of money and some require funding. France and Britain gave very large grants to their Jewish communities to improve security and we need to do the same.”

“The community has to make security a greater priority,” Hoenlein concluded. “For example, when budgets are made, security is left for last. Now it must be first.”

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