Saturday, January 3, 2015

Sen Graham: The Iranian nuclear ambitions are the biggest threat to the world in general

In an interview with Israel Hayom, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) vows to make sure that the Iranian nuclear talks are "handled properly" • The U.S. should embargo anyone who boycotts Israel, and never give up on the peace process, he says.

By Boaz Bismuth

If you ask U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) whether the average Israeli citizen should believe the mainstream media's assertion that relations between Israel and the U.S. are in decline and that the decades-long friendship between them is unraveling, the answer would be a definitive no. If not stopped, he may even launch into a detailed monologue on how committed the entire U.S. Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, is to the Israeli cause.

"There's been some friction between the administration and the Israeli government but I would say that the friction that has reared its head at times is not the strongest indicator of the relationship," Graham, 59, says. "I think the U.S.-Israel relationship's anchor tenant is the Congress."

He says there is nothing preventing the U.S. from standing by Israel while simultaneously supporting nuclear talks with Iran (without lifting sanctions), the way he does, in efforts to prevent them from obtaining nuclear weapons. Or while supporting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his efforts to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the latter, he makes sure to point out that "the United Nations is not a good venue for Israel when it comes to the peace process." This during the same week that the U.N. actually rejected the Palestinian proposal for statehood.

Q: So what is the average Israeli citizen to think about relations between Israel and the U.S.?
"Presidents come and go. [George H.W.] Bush 41's administration had problems with Israel's policies [led by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir]. In business terms, the anchor tenant is the Congress.

"There's wide bipartisan support in a couple of areas: that the peace process should not be turned over to the United Nations. I sent a letter to the administration together with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urging the administration to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that would start getting involved with the peace process. The last thing in the world we should do is to avoid direct negotiations.
"Secondly, there's a lot of bipartisan support for the idea that sanctions against Iran brought them to the table, and the Iranians need to understand that the sanctions are not going away, unless we get a deal that we all can live with."

How else does Congress' support for Israel come into play?

"When it comes to military assistance, economic assistance, Congress is firmly in Israel's camp. There is absolutely no support in any segment of American political life to restrict aid to Israel. There is absolutely no support for the idea of sanctioning Israel over the settlement issue.

"Sen. Schumer and I are planning to introduce a Hamas sanctions bill that would sanction companies that do business with, or countries that support Hamas, we view it as a terrorist organization. We passed one resolution after another during the recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza supporting Israel's right to defend itself, applauding Israel's efforts to restrict civilian casualties and condemning Hamas efforts to inflict as much violence as possible."

You mentioned the need for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The Palestinian initiatives to gain statehood at the United Nations without first negotiating a peace agreement with Israel are going to be met with a lot of bipartisan resistance. I think that there is a lot of support on both sides of the aisle to make sure that the U.N. is put on notice that if they give membership status to the Palestinians, any subdivision of the U.N. that recognizes the Palestinians as a state, their funding would be terminated. We did that with UNESCO."

Despite his clear tone, Sen. Graham makes sure to clarify that "I just want the Israeli people to know that Congress does have your back. I am by no means anti-Palestinian. I am pro-Israel and I want to help the Palestinian people with their legitimate ambitions."

He also reiterates that "there will be a lot of bipartisan opposition to any effort by the Palestinians to use the International Criminal Court in the Hague against the Israel Defense Forces."
In Graham's view, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the key issue, and the most urgent problem at this time is the Iranian nuclear threat.

"The Iranian nuclear ambitions are the biggest threat to the world in general," he says. "Israel needs to be reassured that Congress will be there in an appropriate way. I can assure you that the Republican control of Senate and the House will be pushing measures to make sure that the Iranian nuclear negotiations are handled properly, that sanctions are reimposed if the Iranians walk away from the table or if they cheat on any deal."

According to the New York Times, the White House is not committed to bringing an Iranian deal, should one be reached, to Congress for approval. How will you react if they do bypass Congress?

"They seem to want our approval when it comes to operations in Syria and Iraq. We, the Congress, created the sanctions, and we should have a say on whether the deal justifies lifting the sanctions. I don't know how this will turn out, but I think there will be a strong bipartisan vote in favor of the idea that any deal between the P5+1 [and Iran] should come before Congress before the sanctions are lifted. I can't think of a more important decision that the world will make in 2015 than how to handle the nuclear ambitions of the ayatollahs in Iran.

"Islamic State and al-Qaida and radical Islam are a threat to our way of life. The Arab world is beginning to see radical Islam as a threat to their way of life as well. There is an opportunity here for the United States, Europe, the Israelis and Arab states to work together against two common enemies: radical Islam and the nuclear ambitions of the ayatollahs in Tehran."

With an emphasis on Iran?

"I would like to see a peaceful end to their program. I don't mind the Iranians having a nuclear power program for peaceful purposes, but I am very concerned about giving them an enrichment capability. Fifteen nations have nuclear power programs but they do not enrich uranium. That's why I want any deal to come before Congress for our vote and approval. I fear a North Korea outcome.

"The last time the world tried to regulate or control a rogue regime's nuclear ambitions was North Korea. Republicans and Democrats both bought into the idea that you could allow the North Koreans a small enrichment program and the U.N. would control the outcome. Well, it didn't work. They broke out. They have nuclear weapons."

Won't all this overshadow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while claims continue to be made that the settlements are the biggest obstacle standing in the way of peace?

"The rockets are not being fired because of settlements. The questions that need to be answered is, what is the source of the violence? What is Hamas' reason for firing the rockets? Land for peace did not end well when it comes to Gaza. At the end of the day, the source of the [Palestinian] violence is the existence of the Jewish state, not the settlements. I believe that Hamas' agenda is not a two-state solution but rather a one-state solution.

Europe doesn't seem to see it that way. Anti-Semitism is mounting, in contrast with the U.S. where Jews are not afraid to wear a kippah and go to synagogue.

"This issue perplexes me. The European hostility toward Israel is growing. How will it manifest itself? I could see a situation where you have non-tariff trade barriers. There will not be an embargo explicitly leveled against Israel but they will use other means to isolate Israel.

"I think part of it is due to a larger Muslim population throughout Europe that has not been able to assimilate. The Europeans are having a hard time getting their Muslim populations integrated into society, so one of the easy ways for them to deal with their domestic problems is to beat on Israel."

What is your main concern?

"I worry about where this is going. America needs to be ready and willing to push back against any European nation or business that would embargo Israel. If you embargo Israel, we will embargo you.
"I feel very strongly about this. The common values that the U.S. and Israel share, and the common enemies we share, obligate us to speak up and be protectors of the only democracy in the region. If Israel fails, God help us all."

Graham is also interested in Israeli politics. Ahead of Israel's March 17 elections, he tries to analyze the trends. Among other things, he talks about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he met this week: "I met a very confident man who understands and is very comfortable with who he is and what he believes."

About the elections, Graham says that "my job is not to decide who will govern Israel. My job is to be a friend of Israel in a fashion that is consistent with U.S. interests. It is in the United States' strategic, economic and national security interest to align ourselves with Israel.

"The relationship is not based on personalities. It is based on shared values and common enemies. I told every potential prime minister candidate that I will be the chairman of the foreign assistance account and I will do everything I can to make sure that the economic assistance we provide to Israel continues."

In addition to Netanyahu, you met with three potential candidates who are vying for the prime minister's seat (Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Isaac Herzog). If one of them was at Israel's helm instead of Netanyahu, would things be different with the American president?

"I'm not a psychologist, but I do know that President Obama is seen as a distant figure in American politics. One of the complaints that his critics level at him is that he doesn't engage Congress. He is not hands-on. There are very few political leaders that I would want to go to a movie with. This is a business and the relationship is not based on whether you want to go see a movie together, but on whether you see the world the same. Israel is a democracy, and if America doesn't stand up for democracy, who will?

"The frustration that the president may have with the prime minister, and vice versa, does not define the relationship. These things have happened in the past, and they will happen in the future. All I can tell the people of Israel is that the U.S. Congress is firmly in your camp.

"The personality of potential prime ministers may matter to some extent, but Iran's nuclear ambitions need to be controlled, and I don't think there is much difference among those running for office about Iran. All the candidates see the Iranian nuclear ambition as an existential threat to Israel.

"I found a common agreement among the candidates that direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians should be the way forward, not turning the process over to the United Nations. When it comes to the major themes, there is a lot of agreement. The personality differences are being overstated. The relationship is strong because the foundation is that the American people, as a body politic, respect, admire and love Israel."

As someone who specializes in foreign affairs, where do you think Obama's foreign policy is going after six years in the White House?

"I think Obama tried to not be President [George W.] Bush. I think he believed that Bush was too much of a cowboy who was involved in too many situations. Obama believes that the war in Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity. Obama approached Iran with an open hand, not a clenched fist, but I think that his 'leading from behind' model has not served our national security interests well. What you see is that after six years, there are more radical Islamic organizations than there were before 9/11, holding more territory, more safe havens, more money and more resources with which to strike the U.S. and our allies.

"I think American foreign policy should be re-evaluated. The campaign promise that Obama made to withdraw all troops from Iraq should have been modified based on sound military advice. One of the contributing factors for the rise of ISIS was our withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and I hope that we don't make the same mistake in Afghanistan.

"President Bush made his fair share of mistakes, but he corrected. I believe that the reason we are now going back into Iraq is because Obama was too focused on a campaign promise and didn't adjust based on reality on the ground. I fear that we want a deal with the Iranians too badly."

The Middle East is not an easy court to play on.

"One of the first things that you have to do in the Middle East is to gain respect. You have to enter negotiations from a position of strength. Congress is much more in the mindset that ISIS is a direct threat to the U.S.; there is more suspicion in Congress about dealing with the Iranian nuclear program than there probably is in the administration. In two years we will change presidents but in the meantime there is a historic opportunity for Arab states, Israel and the United States to jointly work to defeat radical Islam. The number one thing that Obama has to get right is how the negotiations with Iran end. It is his biggest opportunity to have a meaningful legacy."

What about the peace process?

"I don't see the peace process moving forward any time soon. I think we should always try. My number one goal in 2015 is to keep nuclear weapons out of the Middle East."

Out of all countries in the Middle East?

"Yes. It is a commonly held view that Israel has nuclear weapons. The thing that has always intrigued me about that is that not one Arab state that I know of has ever felt the need to get a nuclear weapon of their own because Israel has one. They are very confident that Israel will not misuse that capability. They didn't feel threatened enough to get a nuclear weapon of their own. That cannot be said of the Sunni Arab response to the Shiite Persian Iranians. People in the U.S. don't understand that as much as they should."

Can you explain?

"The Sunni Arab states are telling me privately and somewhat publicly that whatever we give the Iranians, they will want as well because they don't trust the Iranians. The Sunni Arab nations will not allow a nuclear capability to exist in the hands of the Iranians without having it themselves. This is my biggest fear: A bad outcome in the negotiations with Iran could set the Middle East on the path to a nuclear arms race."

Speaking of Sunni Arab states, is anything happening behind the scenes in Saudi Arabia?

"One of the reasons that oil prices are so low right now is that the Saudis want to make sure the Iranians suffer. They feel the sanctions are breaking apart and they want to punish Russia for helping [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. Syria is a vexing problem that has to be solved, but I would put that second to the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

"I do sense that in the last engagement with Hamas, for the most part they were isolated, except of Qatar and Turkey. Now we are seeing Qatar beginning to change. There is definitely realignment in the Arab world regarding radical Islam. There is an opportunity here to do something new and different: to create a regional coalition of Israelis, Arabs -- reasonable people -- to contain radical Islam and deal with Iranian nuclear ambitions. This is an opportunity to do something historic."

Looking ahead to the end of Obama's term, the question has to be asked: Whom will Graham and his friends support in the 2016 presidential election, and can their candidate win?

"The Democrats seem to feel very comfortable with Hillary Clinton, so if she runs she'll probably win the nomination and she will be a strong candidate. For a Republican to win the White House we have to perform better with minorities. It is important that the Republican Party show a willingness to solve the immigration problem in a rational way.

"I think foreign policy will be a very big issue in 2016. The Republican candidate needs to articulate why America needs to lead. When America withdraws from leadership, vacuums are filled and the world becomes a much more dangerous place. They will have to articulate that America is the leader of the free world, it is in our interest to do that.

What will the Republicans have to focus on in order to win the next election?

"We will have to offer an alternative to Obama on foreign policy that is stronger, but measured. We will have to convince the middle class that big government is not your friend, but your enemy. We need to convince them that Obamacare has blown up in people's faces. But it is not enough to criticize his approach. We need to prove to people that we can create a health care system that is more affordable, more sustainable, with better access and more private sector centered."

What will the key issues be in the 2016 election?

"The debate in 2016 will be about how to defend our values, ourselves and our friends in an increasingly hostile world. How to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of radical Islamists. I believe the best way to do that is to engage the world, not to withdraw from it.
"But if we don't show progress on immigration, it will be virtually impossible to win the White House, because we are losing the Hispanic community."

Do you think that the Democrats secured a victory by renewing ties with Cuba, thereby winning over the Hispanic community?

"No, I don't think so. The idea of normalized relations with Cuba? Sign me up. But the Castro brothers [former president Fidel and current president Raul] did nothing to deserve it. Iran is watching this administration and I worry about the signal we're sending. The Castro brothers got everything they wanted for decades, and democracy got very little in return. I think it was a bad deal. I don't mind one day normalizing relations with Cuba, but you have to show progress. If we're not for democracy, who will be? If we're not for freedom, who will be?

"That's why the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is unique, because Israel is unique. There are no Arab democracies. We are going to be a friend to those who embrace tolerance and freedom and allow people to express themselves and reach their goals as individuals. If we're not a friend of that, who will be? When you abandon those who seek those freedoms, you will one day lose yours."