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Eli Clifton | The Nation

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Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton

Squawks from hawks: Money, politics and Middle East diplomacy.

How Much Money Could These Two Iran Hawks Make From Unrest in the Middle East?

Iranian flag

An Iranian flag in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

On Monday, I published an article detailing how billionaire gold and silver investor Thomas Kaplan and former UN Ambassador Mark Wallace may have promoted their own business interests through work undertaken by United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that is headed up by Wallace and that shares employees with companies controlled by Thomas Kaplan.

UANI has been an outspoken critic of the White House’s efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, characterizing the November interim agreement as a “disappointment” that provides “disproportionate sanctions relief to Iran.” A former Obama administration official who worked closely on Middle East policy told me, “I’m concerned that [UANI and its allies] don’t understand that failure to address this issue will ensure that Iran gets the bomb or we’re headed toward war.”

Indeed, Wallace and Kaplan, through various public disclosures about silver mines they own or have owned in the past, state that they believe the value of silver will hold steady or appreciate if there is unrest in the Middle East. Those statements raise questions about the two men’s motives in attacking the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts.

But a filing submitted in New York yesterday by attorneys representing Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate accused by UANI of doing business with Iran, offers some new clues into the connections between Kaplan and UANI.

Restis, who is filing a defamation suit against UANI, suggests that Kaplan “stands to profit from UANI’s ‘name and shame campaign’” against Restis’s two companies, Enterprises Shipping & Trading and Golden Energy.

The filing reads:

[Kaplan] got his start with help from the family of Leon Recanati, a Greek-Israeli entrepreneur whose family owns and still operates Overseas Shipholding Group (“OSG”), a rival shipping company to Enterprises Shipping and Trading. See Exs. 4, 5. OSG operates oil tankers that compete directly with Mr. Restis’ tanker company, Golden Energy Maritime Corp., whose initial public offering had to be abandoned in 2013 when Defendants launched their defamation campaign that is at the heart of this litigation. See Am. Compl. ¶ 97. OSG would stand to profit if Mr. Restis and his companies were no longer able to operate. Kaplan married Leon Recanati’s daughter Dafna Recanati and was introduced to Israeli investor Avi Tiomkin, by Dafna Recanati’s mother.

Restis’s counsel also infers from Wallace and Kaplan’s statements about silver’s value during periods of geopolitical unrest in the Middle East, that:

UANI’s hard-line campaigns against Iran contribute to the very uncertainty that, in turn, benefits Kaplan, Tigris Financial Group, Wallace, and other Kaplan-controlled companies in which Wallace is involved.

The Wallace-Kaplan connections, which I outlined in my article, are further expanded upon in the court filing. It reads:

Defendant Mark Wallace, founder and CEO of UANI, serves as an officer and/or director of at least six of Kaplan’s companies (Tigris Financial Group, Silver Opportunity Partners, Niocan, Inc., Nio-Metals, Cougar Gold LLC, and Electrum Group). Wallace has not drawn a salary from UANI since 2009, so Wallace appears to be getting his financial benefit indirectly through UANI supporter Kaplan.

I detailed how three employees of Kaplan’s companies, other than Wallace, serve or served in positions at UANI, but the court filing adds a fourth overlapping individual. Restis’s lawyer writes:

Jonathan Powell, an Advisory Board member of UANI and The Institute for Strategic Dialogue was a college classmate of Kaplan’s and serves as a Senior Advisor to Tigris Financial Group.

The filing also raises questions about how UANI “operates rent free out of offices in 45 Rockefeller Center in office space donated by Continental Properties.” Continental Properties’ managing director is Mark Fisch. The filing elaborates:

Fisch and Kaplan jointly fund the Kaplan-Fisch Fellowship at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts. Id. Furthermore, Continental Properties employee Kim Hillman is also a director of UANI.

And, as if the connections between Kaplan and UANI weren’t well enough established, UANI’s counsel is Brian Stack, “also a UANI Board Member and Kaplan’s counsel in other matters,” according to Restis’s attorney.

But the real intrigue in all of this is the access and influence that UANI, a group whose own executive director is betting big on a series of investments he and Kaplan say will appreciate in or retain value if there is unrest in the Middle East, has to Congress and prominent academics.

Wallace has testified three times in his capacity as a UANI official and, at a July Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Iran policy, all three outside witnesses invited to testify were affiliated with UANI (one did not attend because of sickness).

While access on Capitol Hill for a group with murky financial interests in the shipping industry and gold and silver markets raises eyebrows, Restis’s attorney also points to a possible quid pro quo at Harvard University. He writes:

Kaplan is a member of and donor to the International Council of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. See Ex. 8. The Recanati-Kaplan Foundation (Kaplan’s and his wife’s family foundation) contributed $149,000 to the Belfer Center in 2012. See Ex. 9 In 2013, the Belfer Center appointed a new executive director, Gary Samore, who had just finished serving as an anti-proliferation advisor to the Obama administration. See Ex. 10. Shortly thereafter, Samore became UANI’s President.

I’ve reached out to Gary Samore and a number of current and former UANI advisory board members with positions at the Belfer Center, including Graham Allison, Dennis Ross and Chuck Freilich. None have responded. (The Belfer Center was ranked as one of the least transparent US think tanks in a recent Transparify study on think tank transparency.)

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UANI advisory board member Mark Lagon, a professor at the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University and former director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, told The Nation that UANI “has done tremendous work.”

Addressing Wallace’s dual role as head of Kaplan’s Tigris Financial Group and executive director of UANI, Lagon said, “I was aware of Amb. Wallace’s role at Tigris. I leave further comment to Mark Wallace, a man of integrity.”

Kaplan, UANI and Wallace have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

 

Read Next: the alternatives to more war in Iraq

Why the Hawks Are Winning the Iran Debate

Senator Mark Kirk

Senator Mark Kirk, R-IL, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommitte hearing in support of Iran sanctions (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite) 

Last week, my colleague Ali Gharib and I published an article in The Nation in which we explored the influence of hawkish groups in shaping congressional legislation on Iran sanctions. One of the explanations we offered was the overwhelmingly large budgets enjoyed by hard line, pro-sanctions organizations such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Another, perhaps related, explanation lies in the frequency with which hawkish groups advise members of Congress at House and Senate committee hearings .

We wrote:

Since November 2012, eleven separate hearings on Iran policy have considered a total of thirty-six expert testimonies from outside groups. Of that number, two neoconservative organizations dominated: FDD fellows made five appearances, and those from the AEI had four. Neoconservative allies like David Albright, who co-chairs a nonproliferation group with Dubowitz and spoke before Congress four times in this period, also gave testimony. All told, people associated with groups taking a hard line on Iran sanctions accounted for twenty-two of the thirty-six testimonies solicited by House and Senate committees.

Centrist think tanks, on the other hand, were underrepresented. Employees of the Council on Foreign Relations testified twice, while the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies fielded only one witness apiece over the period reviewed by The Nation. Experts from dovish think tanks hardly appeared at all: the only witness from such a group, Barak Barfi of the generally left-of-center New America Foundation, made one appearance.

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A pie chart, shown below, illustrates the outsize influence enjoyed by hawkish groups at committee hearings. Simply stated, hard line, pro-sanctions, groups are the most frequent outside voices invited to advise Congress about the White House’s Iran policy.

 

Read Next: Fuzzy Math From Iran Hawks.

Meet the Billionaire Funders of the Anti-Diplomacy Lobby

Iran flags

(yeowatzup/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

My colleague Ali Gharib and I just published an article in The Nation in which we explore how hawkish, deep-pocketed organizations hold disproportionate influence in shaping the discussion about Iran-policy on Capitol Hill.

These groups, in no small part due to their outsize budgets, shape sanctions legislation, dominate witness lists at congressional hearings, and help lead the opposition to the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.

We wrote:

In the boxing ring that is Washington, the match-up isn’t even. Compare, for example, the budgets of groups that oppose diplomacy with those that support it. Four of Washington’s pro-diplomacy groups are significant players on the Hill: the Center for a New American Security, the National Iranian American Council, the American Iranian Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. According to their most recent tax filings, these organizations boasted an annual combined budget of approximately $9.4 million.

Meanwhile, the latest tax filings for just two of the groups that push hardline policies, the [Foundation for Defense of Democracies] and [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], have a combined budget of approximately $75 million. And that doesn’t include the annual budget of an AIPAC offshoot, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy ($8.7 million), or aggressive right-wing PR groups like United Against Nuclear Iran ($1.6 million), whose spokespeople are regularly quoted by national media.

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You can read the entire article here, but I’d like to call attention to a sidebar where we profiled three large donors—Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer and Bernard Marcus—to organizations that have put up resistance to the P5+1’s efforts to reach a comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran. Check it out.

 

Read Next: US Hawks Would Love to Wreck the Iran Talks—but They Won’t

Is an Israeli Official Spreading Propaganda on Tinder?

screen grab by author

(Screen grab by author)

“Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s self-named “defensive” operation in Gaza, is killing a lot of Palestinians in response to rocket fire from Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza puts the latest casualty toll at 174 killed Palestinians and over 1,100 wounded. The UNRWA commissioner general in Gaza told The New York Times, “Women and children make up a sizable number of victims of the current strikes.” As of yet, no Israelis have been killed during the latest Gaza offensive.

One hundred and seventy-four to zero is a tough ratio to explain. Especially for an operation that Israel claims is being taken in self-defense against terrorists in Gaza. But the Israeli Prime Minister’s office may have found an answer to this minor public-diplomacy challenge: Tinder, a popular online smartphone dating/hookup app.

A friend who uses Tinder logged on yesterday and was swiping through profiles when he came upon “Israel,” age “34” (?!). Israel said it (he? she?) was five miles away, but seemed to have one thing on its mind: sharing images justifying Israel’s bombing campaign of Gaza.

The images are simple and contain short phrases like, “We’re using anti-missile systems to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles – that’s the difference,” and, “While Israel protects the holy sites of Jerusalem, Hamas targets rockets at them.”

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One of the images advises viewers to visit #IsraelUnderFire, a Facebook site full of Israeli Defense Forces meme-style images. Several of the images on the Tinder profile had been posted on #IsraelUnderFire. The administrator for the page is Yair Eddie Fraiman, “Director of Interactive Media & Public Diplomacy at Office of the Prime Minister of Israel,” according to his LinkedIn profile.

Fraiman hasn’t responded to a request for comment (I’ll update this post if he does).

 

Read next: Obama Fiddles While Gaza Burns..”

Two Points of View From Today’s House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing

Congressional hearings are frequently long, boring, drawn-out affairs with little substance and lots of posturing. But every once in a while, a member of Congress breaks through the noise and says something noteworthy. Today, in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing full of hawkish posturing on Iran—demands of zero enrichment and a complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, both likely non-starters for Iran’s negotiating team, were standard fare—Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY) explained his reasoning for why the White House and P5+1 diplomacy represent the best path forward for the United States.

Meeks suggested that the sanctions regime against Iran as well as the White House’s diplomatic outreach with the P5+1 has required collaboration with US allies.

This President has proposed trying to see what we can do. Talking with Iran not only by ourselves but an unprecedented level with some of our allies.… It just seems as though that when we were successful with sanctions it was when it became multilateral and not just unilateral.

Meeks shared the concern expressed by his colleagues in the committee who question Iranian intentions but emphasized that if Iran fails to live up to its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action or future agreements, the multilateral strategy pursued by the White House will best protect US interests

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He continued:

We are going to need to make sure that we still have unity among ourselves so that we can make sure that those sanctions that we have to put on or implement are not sanctions that’s just done by the United States but are sanctions that are also done by the P5+1 countries, so they become very important to us.

Lest Meeks’ comments give the impression that level-headedness ruled the day in Washington, Representative Juan Vargas (D-CA) reminded the hearing that “Iran is like North Korea” and “if they get a nuclear weapon, they’ll also threaten to bomb Los Angeles.”

Of course, that comparison requires a serious misreading of the politics in Iran and North Korea. The International Atomic Energy Agency has extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities but has had no access to North Korea since 2009, and North Korea has moved forward with a series of nuclear tests between 2006 and 2013. Furthermore, North Korea has shown a determination to acquire nuclear weapons while isolating itself from the world. Iran, by contrast, has pursued negotiations with the P5+1 and sought to negotiate an end to the multilateral sanctions regime highlighted by Representative Meeks.

And as for North Korea’s threats of attacking Los Angeles? US officials don’t believe North Korea has either the capability to deliver a warhead to the continental US or a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

 

Read Next: Hundreds of unaccompanied children are being held in a makeshift border patrol facility.

What the ‘Wall Street Journal’ and the MEK Get Very Wrong About Iran’s Nuclear Program

President Rouhani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses a meeting on nuclear disarmament at UN headquarters (AP Photo/Mike Segar).

The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages have long served as a welcoming home to pundits toeing a hawkish line on Iran, Iraq and a laundry list of foreign policy challenges facing the United States. Tuesday, the Journal’s editorial board exclusively published details of a report provided by the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group that until less than two years ago was designated a terrorist group in the United States and Canada.

Noticeably, the WSJ did not claim to have verified the MEK’s allegations that Tehran has continued to pursue nuclear weaponization research.

Even while uncritically reporting on the allegations, the article contained one major factual error. It read:

…having ceded a right to enrich and permitted the Islamic Republic to develop an advanced enrichment capability, the West is now left with preventing weaponization as the final barrier against a nuclear-capable Iran…

In fact, no administration or international negotiating body has “ceded” Iran the “right to enrich.” Iran has enriched uranium for the better part of the last decade despite sanctions from the past two administrations and demands that they cease enrichment. Even in the recent flurry of diplomacy between the P5+1 and Iran, no agreement has been made public and nothing has been formally conceded. (A November accord accepted de-facto enrichment while limiting Iran’s enrichment from 20 percent down to 5 percent.)

But perhaps more surprisingly, the WSJ editorial board apparently felt no compunction to inform readers about the source of this “plausible new report.” This, despite the fact that the Journal’s editorial team even includes one outspoken critic of the MEK, Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial page writer based in Europe.

In a 2011 Radio Free Europe column, Ahmari characterized the MEK as “a mostly irrelevant group as ideologically coherent as Lyndon Larouche's cult and just as ineffective." Later that same year, Ahmari, writing in Tablet, warned that the MEK was an “Islamo-Marxist cult.” Many critics have pointed to the group's cult-like features, though over the last the few decades the MEK shed its Islamo-Marxist roots—a past many adherents today deny entirely.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Ahmari, along with a small group of neoconservative pundits, promoted the article on Twitter but Ahmari, even while defending the MEK report, admitted the source was “problematic” in a tweet directed at me.

Indeed, the MEK has proven an unreliable source in the past.

In 2010, following an MEK claim to have discovered a secret nuclear site near the Iranian city of Qazvin, State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley told Fox News, “The MEK has made pronouncements about Iranian facilities in the past—some accurate, some not.”

While the Journal’s standards may be different for editorial content, a simple warning that the source was “problematic” and that much of the report was unverified, would be a reasonable expectation from one of the world’s most widely read newspapers.

“The MEK has a mixed record,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based arms control advocacy group, told The Nation. “It's curious that it occurred in the editorial page section and not the news section,” said Kimball. “The editors don't appear to have tried to vet the information and they don't stand behind it.”

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The MEK may be onto something with its contention that Iran continued with its nuclear weapons work (the IAEA's reporting about the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program only covers the period before 2003). But relying almost exclusively on the organization is, to borrow a word, problematic, and raises a question: Why did the MEK approach the ideologues of the Journal’s opinion pages instead of its newsroom staff with its exclusive report? Perhaps the paper’s veteran foreign affairs reporters, who have no doubt had many interactions with the MEK, are more skeptical of the group’s claim.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on the fight over extending the war in Afghanistan.

Neoconservative Super PAC Bets Big on North Carolina GOP Primary Challenge

Walter Jones

US Representative Walter Jones meets with Gold Star and Military Families in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Mannie Garcia)

UPDATE: Representative Walter Jones (R) won his primary campaign last night, beating Taylor Griffin 50.91 percent to 45.05 percent. The Emergency Committee for Israel, which spent over $300,000 attacking Jones, has remained silent about their latest electoral setback. Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street, quipped on Twitter, “At this point Emgncy Comte for Israel’s done more to destroy myth that there’s political cost to pro-diplomacy positions than we have.”

Today, an odd battle for the future of the Republican Party’s foreign policy is being fought in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, as Taylor Griffin, a former financial services consultant, challenges ten-term congressman Walter Jones for the GOP nomination. Jones has shifted toward a libertarian foreign policy position since supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But while big-money interests are running ads attacking Jones as insufficiently supportive of Israel and not tough enough on Iran, one person is surprisingly quiet on the foreign policy battle being fought: Taylor Griffin.

The Emergency Committee for Israel spent spending over $300,000 in the month of April to run attack ads accusing Jones of being “the most liberal Republican in Congress,” despite the fact that the American Conservative Union ranked him as one of their “ACU Conservatives”—members of Congress who score 80 percent or higher on the organization’s annual matrix of “key conservative voting issues.” Griffin’s entire primary campaign raised approximately $250,000.

The attacks on Jones have focused on his opposition to further sanctions on Iran while the White House and the P5+1 continue negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and on his endorsement from J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.

While ECI, a group co-founded by neoconservative political operative Bill Kristol and originally based out of Orion Strategies’ office, home of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, is spending big to make the case about Jones’s shift toward an isolationist foreign policy doctrine, Griffin has been noticeably absent from the debate.

The candidate’s campaign website lists thirteen issue areas in which he takes a position. “Commercial & Sport Fishing” and “Eastern North Carolina Values” get a section. Iran, Israel, foreign policy and national security are nowhere to be found.

Griffin may have a very good reason to stay out of the debate: the neoconservative foreign policy vision espoused by his supporters is wildly unpopular and outside the mainstream. ReThink Media’s analysis of polls conducted between September 2013 and February 2014 found that a majority or plurality of Americans support the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1. A mid-November ABC/Washington Post poll reported that 64 percent of respondents support lifting some sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on the country’s nuclear program.

Griffin found a lucrative source of campaign funds by teaming up with Iran hawks for campaign contributions. His biggest source of campaign contributions, kicking in $46,850, came from employees of Elliott Management, a hedge fund managed by GOP mega donor and noted Iran hawk Paul Singer.

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ECI, Paul Singer and other neoconservatives may be funding Griffin as a more palatable alternative to Walter Jones, but if today’s primary is a referendum on the isolationist foreign policy stances taken by Jones, it’s noteworthy that Griffin has rarely mentioned foreign policy in interviews and makes no mention of Iran or Israel on the issues section of his website. Griffin, it would appear, has made the calculation that Republicans in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District are either sympathetic to Jones’s shift away from the George W. Bush administration’s adventurist foreign policy or they simply don’t care. Griffin would rather talk to them about fishing.

Read Next: George Zornick on how Republicans blocked a hearing on long-term jobless benefits

When Acceptance Just Isn’t Acceptable: Netanyahu’s Denial of Holocaust Acceptance

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Reuters/Gali Tibbon)

Today is Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day of mourning to commemorate the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. At the opening ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu painted a bleak picture of the challenges facing the Jewish state, restating the existential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and comparing the threat posed by Iran to that faced by Jews in Europe more than sixty years ago.

Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism have been exhibit A in Netanyahu's case that some Israeli foes are implacable. He cites these views about Jews and the Holocaust to denounce nuclear diplomacy with Iran and two-state diplomacy with the Palestinians.

Speaking at Yad Vashem, Netanyahu said:

In this place I have said many times that we must identify an existential threat in time and act against it in time and tonight I ask 'why in the years before the Holocaust did most of the world's leaders not see the danger ahead of time?' In hindsight, all the signs were there.... Has the world learned a lesson from the mistakes of the past? Today we are again faced with clear facts and before a real danger. Iran calls for our destruction, it develops nuclear weapons.

And pundits regularly point to Palestinian and Iranian Holocaust denial as further evidence of the existential threats facing Israel.

By most accounts, the threats facing Israel from Iran and from Holocaust denial in the region are on the decline. But the increasing acceptance of the Holocaust by Palestinian and Iranian leaders poses a unique challenge to Netanyahu's hard-line policies.

The P5+1 is on the verge of reaching a lasting agreement with Iran that would ensure inspectors access to nuclear facilities and impose verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

While Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to deny the Holocaust, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged last year that “the Nazis carried out a massacre that cannot be denied, especially against the Jewish people.”

Skeptics, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, said Rouhani’s acceptance of the Holocaust was minimized by suggesting that Jewish Holocaust survivors in Israel were taking vengeance on Palestinians for the Nazis’ crimes. Netanyahu outright rejected Rouhani’s acknowledgement of the Holocaust, tweeting, “… @HassanRouhani, like Ahmadinejad before him, refused to recognize the #Holocaust as an historical fact.”

Answering statements of Holocaust acceptance with denial is becoming a Netanyahu trademark.

Yesterday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era.” Netanyahu responded by accusing Abbas of wanting to “have it both ways” by entering into a pact with Hamas, the militant Islamic group which controls Gaza Strip and declines to acknowledge the Holocaust.

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Denying Holocaust acceptance appears to be on the rise for Netanyahu as he struggles to maintain the narrative that Israel is surrounded by forces who deny the veracity of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people.

Indeed, clinging on to demonizing caricatures of Mahmoud Abbas and Hassan Rouhani is of increasing political necessity as the P5+1 work towards a final agreement with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and US-led peace talks falter, leading Secretary of State John Kerry to unleash warnings that Israel is headed toward increased isolation and risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it fails to reach a two-state solution with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

 

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