Jeremy Ben-Ami

Distrust But Verify

Air Date: September 12, 2015

Jeremy Ben-Ami, Founder and President of J Street and author of A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation gives perspective on the Iran deal coming up for a vote in the US Congress.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In greater numbers than the general public, most Jewish Americans favor the terms of the recently crafted Iranian nuclear deal that will purportedly stop that nation’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Among the domestic allies of the Obama-Kerry diplomacy is J Street, which bills itself as the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. Its founder and president, author of “A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation” – Jeremy Ben-Ami descends from a founding family of Tel Aviv.
“What’s your better idea? Is a challenge any honest opponent of the deal must accept,” James Fallows in The Atlantic wrote recently. Indeed, critics of the tentative accord have been more inclined to warmonger than to offer non-violent alternatives. Moreover, they’re drawing analogies of the deal to the appeasement of the Nazis. And so first, I want to hear Jeremy’s basic reaction to that premise.

BEN-AMI: Well, you know, the, the fear mongering that goes around any of these issues clouds a rational discussion. And what Fallows is saying and what many of the proponents of the deal are saying is if this isn’t the right path, then what’s your alternative?

And that’s a very rational way to approach it. But if you’re Bibi Netanyahu or you’re AIPAC or you’re some of the right wing members of Congress, … and you’re simply exploiting people’s fears and you’re bringing up, uh, the Holocaust in 1938 and the Nazis, you’re not interested in a rational discussion. And, there actually isn’t an answer to that. The answer is this deal, … will make Israel and the United States and that region a little bit safer. It’s not a perfect deal. It’s not the answer to all the problems of the region. But it makes the region a little bit safer and it’s better than not having the deal. And that’s just a rational discussion. It’s very hard to have in response to those kinds of claims.

HEFFNER: So Fallows follows up, “the question for Congress to ask is whether the deal A, does more than any alternative to B, minimize Iran’s incentives to develop weapons for C, as long, as long a period as possible.” So, this deal, by no means, guarantees the kinds of universal checks on Iran’s nuclear technology. But to your mind, it does A, B, and C, precluding a possible intervention — war, violence.

BEN-AMI: Right.

HEFFNER: For how long?

BEN-AMI: Well in the context of diplomacy and negotiation, it does the best that the P5 plus one, the world powers that negotiated, were able to do. Now Netanyahu and others basically want capitulation. They basically want the dismantlement of every last brick and stone and centrifuge and element of the Iranian program. But that’s not something you negotiate. That, that’s the terms of a surrender. And so in the context of a negotiated agreement that allows the Iranian political leadership and the religious leadership to go in front of their people with their heads at least a little bit up high saying we got something … that’s what we got. This is the compromise. This is a permanent commitment not to develop a nuclear weapon. It’s not just a time limited commitment. This is a permanent commitment not to have a nuclear weapon. Uh, it is very significant, … intrusive inspections and verification. It’s a deal that is not based on trust as the President said. It’s based on distrust, but verify. And so the level of the inspections, the, the level of the monitoring, the 24-7 presence in every declared Iranian facility, uh, is, … spectacular. It’s the best, uh, non-proliferation regime that’s ever been negotiated with a, with a country. And then finally, of course, the thing that is difficult is what’s being given back, … to the Iranians in return for doing those things. Uh, they are getting some of their assets that have been frozen released. Uh, they are being gradually released from the international sanctions regime.

But as the President said, that sanctions regime was put into place to get them to the table. So if you don’t take it away when they’ve come to the table and said what you wanted them to say then why were they at the table in the first place.

HEFFNER: But if your operating stipulation, Jeremy, is distrust but verify, what leads us to think that you’re going to be able to verify, factually, anything from these inspections?

BEN-AMI: This is an agreement with a regime that is an adversary of the United States and of the, many of the countries with which it was negotiating. So, uh, you know, I think one of the most important things for those of us that favor diplomacy and this is true for the President and the Secretary of State and all the other negotiators, what’s so important is that it be very clear to the people we’re asking to support this deal that, that it’s clear that we understand who we’re dealing with. Uh, that we are dealing with a country that is a really bad actor. It treats its people badly. It, it plays games in the region — it funds terror around the world. Uh, it has regional strategic ambitions. So these are all realities. And it’s very important that for those who we’re trying to convince to support this deal, it be understood that we recognize those realities. Given that, we’re in every single facility 24-7 – with both, uh, electronic monitoring and a physical presence. Every ounce of uranium that is mined in a uranium mine in Iran is going to be tracked from the moment it comes out of the ground through the entire chain or reprocessing to its final disposition. In order to evade this kind of a program and have some secret program somewhere else, you need an entire supply chain from the mines, through the reprocessing, through the weaponization, all the steps along the way to be completely hidden.

HEFFNER: I want to follow up on that analogy because the fear that you suggest is being bred, a culture of fear by the opponents, by the adversaries of this truce, we would say is misplaced, historically, as a matter of fact, right? Looking at Iran, relative to Saudi Arabia, Syria, other regional players, when Mike Huckabee says or another Republic candidate politicizes the issue, President Obama said in response, these comments would be ridiculous if they weren’t just plain sad. And I couldn’t help, Jeremy, but read in a recent edition of the New York Times Magazine, “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” — brought me back to a whole new frame of reference in viewing this issue. The soundness of that analogy is very questionable. You have to look at alliances in the region and there’s no reason for Americans or Israelis to believe, is there, that Iran poses any greater a risk to their welfare than Saudi Arabia or the countries that have proven more of an allegiance to the elements of ISIS.

BEN-AMI: The Middle East is a swirling cauldron of secular, religious, intra-religious, … ethnic tribal, uh, Persian versus Arab, … Sunni versus Shi’a. It is a, … very, very difficult place to pursue a rational, strategic agenda. And that’s why the President has, I think wisely, been very, very circumspect in his … engagements in the region. It was the mistake that the Bush administration made in going into Iraq, … and we see the fallout now of that over the last decade and where that led us to. It’s why even though Syria is such a mess today… the President has stayed away from the use of military force. But look at what we were able to achieve through diplomacy in Syria, to get the chemical weapons out of the country. Look at what we’re hopefully achieving through diplomacy with Iran — which is to make sure that with all of that swirling mess, Iran doesn’t become a nuclear power setting off a nuclear arms race in the region. What’s worse than the current situation with all of these troubles? This situation with all these troubles and a nuclear arms race on top of it.

And that’s something that none of us around the world should at all want to see happen. And that’s why this has been so limited to just the nuclear issue. How do you prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? And the rest of these questions do need to be dealt with. But they need to be dealt with separately. And Israel, the United States, the Sunni, uh, Arab nations that we have good relations with, you know, we have very common interests in trying to ensure stability and security and fighting against, uh, ISIL and Al-Qaeda and limiting, uh, the regional, strategic ambitions of Iran. Those are things that can be discussed separately. But the key to this deal is at least they won’t have a nuclear weapon.

HEFFNER: I understand. I understand your point. That being said, in Israel, to your knowledge, if the fear of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust is being tapped into, and Jews in America seem unfazed, right? They seem relatively unfazed according to the public opinion surveys. But Israel does not. The Israelis are fazed and they have the right, you would say, and I know you have said to be fazed. That may, might not even be the right word. Fearful, frightened, um, petrified. If that fear is being tapped into in an exploitative and historically unsound way, can’t we, don’t you want to correct the record?

BEN-AMI: Well absolutely. And, and the most important voices in this discussion should be the voices of Israel security experts, right, the people who have devoted their lives and their careers to defending the State of Israel. And so when I look at the debate in Israel, uh, on one level, I see the politicians who are, some of them, exploiting, uh, fear and pandering. And others who are afraid to appear weak, and therefore follow along after, uh, Netanyahu. But at another level, I see the commentary from the former heads of the Shin Bet, the former heads of the Mossad, former heads of the Israeli military intelligence. A whole range of real experts from the Israeli nuclear establishment who say at the end of the day, Israel will be better off with this deal than without. So we as J Street, in this country, I think need to echo and, and bring to light those statements and make it really clear that when you get beyond the pandering of the politicians and the fear mongering and all of the rhetoric, that the people who know what they’re talking about, about security, are divided at, at worst and relatively supportive of moving forward with a deal like this in the best interests of the State of Israel. And that’s what we want to keep the, the light on is the sort of non-political expert class on this.

HEFFNER: And you’re concentrated, specifically, in this lobbying effort for the nuclear deal as it relates to support in the US Congress so that passage of this is secure. Um, what to you is the most pressing issue on the mind of someone like Senator Schumer here in New York?

BEN-AMI: Well I do think that many of the, uh, uh, key voices in the House and Senate on this issue are as concerned with the security and stability of, uh, the Middle East and specifically as it relates to Israel, as they are with the, uh, security of the United States. I mean, I think those are the two critical, uh, factors for them. And I know that having spoken to Senator Schumer, he is weighing this very carefully and he is listening to, uh, experts from here, from Europe, from Israel, from the Arab nations and getting a, a full read of all of those opinions. I think that on balance, he will find that the predominance of experts on this issue think this is a reasonably good deal that should be supported. So we’ll see what his ultimate, uh, decision is. But that’s what he should be listening to and sort of shutting out the political noise, uh, in the background and the, you know, the rallies and the calls and all the rest of it and really focus in on the security interests of the United States and of our allies in the region.

HEFFNER: I gather by your response, uh, you don’t want to legitimize in any way the comments of people opposing the deal on the grounds that the Holocaust or the annihilation of Israel is on the table here.

BEN-AMI: Right. Well I think one thing that’s important to, to bear in mind is that the, uh, you know, the, the Iranian people over the course of history have actually had a very good relationship with the Jewish people and with the state of Israel. And, uh, you know, the notion that there is a historic desire on the part of, uh, the Iranian people to wipe out the, uh, state of Israel and the Jewish people is, is simply, uh, you know, not based in history and not based in fact. Uh, this regime in Iran is a terrible regime. And it’s been terrible for the Iranian people. You know, and we’ve seen, uh, the streets bubble up at times with, you know, the sense of, uh, anger and rebellion against the regime. Uh, so you know, I think putting this in terms of history, uh, you don’t have a mass movement, uh, grounded in anti-Semitism, in Iran that is urging its government to do everything it can to wipe the state of Israel off the map. That, that is not what we’re dealing with. And I think it’s very important, uh, to be clear-eyed about what we are dealing with. What we’re dealing with is a regime that uses the rhetoric and uses these tactics in the way that other regimes do, uh, in order to maintain its power, in order to exploit other, uh, potential opportunities, uh, in the region and, you know, there, there’s no reason to believe that the Iranian people or the, the country of Iran is developing a nuclear weapon in order to destroy the state of Israel. So historically, you know, the analogy of Iran, uh, and Nazi ideology is just simply, you know, out of left field.

HEFFNER: To the extent that Iran has played an adversarial role in confronting Israel militaristically, what, what have you said in response to allegations about Hezbollah?

BEN-AMI: Iran does play a really negative role. The regime of Iran plays a very negative role in the region. It funds Hezbollah. It funds certain elements of the Palestinian resistance movement in Gaza. It has certainly funded and contributed to the chaos in Yemen. Uh, so it is absolutely using its assets and using its resources for its own strategic purposes. It wants to increase its strategic, uh, relevance and its strategic power in the Middle East. The Persians and the Arabs have had a long running dispute and rivalry. It goes well beyond any, uh, you know, nation states. This goes back in history. There’s a Sunni-Shi’a divide here as well. And so there is just a, a real traditional rivalry over the centuries and even millennia, uh, that this is a part of.

And so, it is important to recognize that they are a bad actor. But bringing it back to the agreement, the point of the agreement is to ensure that this bad-acting regime doesn’t have a nuclear weapon and can’t use that as further leverage to pursue its ambitions in the region. And I think that’s, you know, where J Street comes from is we are a political movement in the United States that says, We want to see the interest of the state of Israel, the interests of the United States promoted and the security enhanced through diplomacy, through efforts to resolve these conflicts through negotiations as a first resort. You know, we’re not a pacifist organization. We’re not saying never use force, that there’s no role in life for the use of military force. There is. But it should be a last resort. And one of the problems with the neocon worldview and those who brought us the world in Iraq is shoot first, aim later. You know, they, they, they’ve never met a conflict that doesn’t require a military solution. And so we are bringing a different worldview. And helping American decision makers understand that within the American-Jewish community, that worldview is the majority worldview. Despite the voices that are being heard in Washington from some of the larger organizations. Whether it’s AIPAC or whether it’s some of the Jewish federations that have supported, uh, that have opposed the deal. Uh, whether it’s the Emergency Committee for Israel or the Republican Jewish Coalition or whoever it is, those groups speak for a minority of Jewish Americans. A majority of whom support Barack Obama and support a different approach to solving these problems.

HEFFNER: I know that you are counteracting this, but why do you think they have the bully pulpit or the majority of the bully pulpit? Despite representing a minority viewpoint.

BEN-AMI: I mean one of the—you know, you can ask why is it that, uh, gun owners, uh, you know, with ten percent of the population of the country supporting them are able to thwart gun control legislation that has ninety percent support. Um, often the people who, uh, are the loudest and the most, uh, vitriolic on an issue, uh, are the people who hold a more minority point of view. And they may be more passionate about that and they may bring to bear more resources. And they may make it their only issue in life. What, what is true, I think, of the Jewish community in this country is that we are deeply engaged in nearly every great social cause, uh, that has happened over the last hundred years. Right, we’re at the forefront of fighting for civil rights and civil liberties and for women’s rights and gay rights, we’re at the front of the, uh, anti-poverty movement, the environmental movement. You know, you, you really, you will see Jewish Americans actively engaged in the struggle for social justice and a more progressive causes at every corner in this country.

Most of those people are not deeply engaged in Israel advocacy. They agree with what J Street is saying, but the folks who get engaged only in Israel advocacy and who devote their, their extracurricular time and money, uh, to Israel advocacy, tend to be more conservative on these issues. They tend to be more likely to support, uh, the Bibi Netanyahu worldview. Or the types of world view of some of the Republican candidates and they throw their energy, their money, and their time into that. And they have for, for decades now. And unfortunately in Washington, many elected officials think that’s the voice that speaks for all Jews. And we set J Street up to make it clear that people who care about the state of Israel and about its security actually have a wide range of perspectives on these issues. And there’s a very moderate majority that tends not to be heard.

HEFFNER: And that perspective, what you allude to as an alternative worldview, the playbook that was modeled most recently in efforts towards peace, um, that ultimately did not really, uh, create the sustainable, uh, domestic international tranquility that it was aiming for was Jimmy Carter. And I do see the potential here for Iran in its stabilizing, potentially stabilizing role to, uh, create a platform for more cultural exchange that can lead to, uh, not only a safer region but a, a safer world.

BEN-AMI: Well, you know, let me say right at the outset that I think that the Sinai Agreement negotiated at Camp David by a right wing Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, uh, together with Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter, uh, is one of the most successful acts of diplomacy in the Middle East in, in our lifetimes. And, uh, it may not be the warmest peace ever. But for nearly forty years now, uh, there has been, uh, no violence. There has been no conflict. Land was given back in return for a resolution of a conflict in a diplomatic manner and that has held, uh, and that should be one of the greatest achievements since the creation of the State of Israel. And, uh, you know, I do think that that’s something that, um, should be looked as a model for how one solves conflicts, for instance, with the Palestinian people and how do you give them territory but then ensure peace and security out of that, not just simply, uh, you know, further conflict and further demand.

HEFFNER: I, I appreciate what you’re saying. In isolation though, the, the cancer spread and, uh, while Egypt and Israel preserved peaceful relations and it, it didn’t reverberate across the region, whereas there is the hope that this pact can and will.

BEN-AMI: Well—

HEFFNER: Possible?

BEN-AMI: You know, I, I would say A, um, no one agreement and no one conflict lies at the root of all the ills in the Middle East. Uh, you really have to take a step back and say what is actually causing the tremendous problems and upheavals in the Middle East. And the root causes actually have a lot more to do with the internal dynamics of the Arab world, of the Muslim world and of all of the, you know, problems that were sewn as a result of the, you know, division of land after World War One, uh, into nation-states that didn’t make any sense. And so, you know, the, the Egypt-Israel agreement was not going to solve the broader problems of the Middle East, the, and, and it succeeded and it achieved what it set out to do and that’s what one has to look for. The Iran agreement is not designed to create a new Middle East. The Iran agreement is not designed in order to be the entryway into some kind of a, you know, new dialogue and a new, uh, dawn. And it would be a huge mistake for the President or for J Street or other advocates of the deal to sell it that way. Uh, it is designed to ensure that this regime in Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, period. And, and that’s, that’s what we think it does, uh, and it will be a success if it does that. And I don’t think we should put more burden on it then to carry out the purpose for which it was negotiated.

HEFFNER: And finally, Jeremy, how does this affect the 2016 Presidential campaign and J Street’s role in shaping what you describe as your mission?

BEN-AMI: Well I think one of the, uh, questions is to what extent will the Republicans, even after this agreement does, I believe, you know, go into effect and, and I do hope that over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, uh, we’ll see that Iran will comply with its terms as it has over the course of the, uh, year and a half that it’s been under, uh, interim agreement. Uh, will the Republican party still believe that it can gain politically by attacking the President over a, and, and the likely Democratic nominee, the Secretary of State who laid the groundwork for this agreement, uh, Hillary Clinton. Will they see political advantage in attacking it even if it’s working. And I don’t know. Uh, you know, you, you have an American public that doesn’t want another war. You have an American public that supports this agreement by and large. If it’s in effect and if it’s working, will the Republicans continue to try to make it a political issue a year from now? I don’t know. Uh, certainly J Street will be out there to prove that for those who support the agreement, this can be a political benefit because they have taken a step that enhances security and avoids another military conflict. And we’re going to hopefully be able to show that candidates and sitting members of Congress and, and the Senate who supported it will be able to gain political support in their home states and districts by supporting it.

HEFFNER: Well Jeremy, I hope you come back and join us after some of these fact-finding missions are underway and what may be these, uh, upcoming inspections and, uh, insight that we glean from them. Thank you for being here.

BEN-AMI: Great. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.