The Cable

Obama to Rabbis: Ignore negative public statements by Abbas and Netanyahu

President Obama, in a private conference call Wednesday, told an audience of Jewish leaders to discount non-constructive statements made by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Middle East peace talks move forward, saying that such remarks are all part of the negotiating game.

The groups represented on the call were from across the Jewish religious spectrum: They included the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, the reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Obama implored the rabbis on the call to publicly support the talks, and to try to rally their own people to support the negotiations. The call was timed in advance of the start of the Jewish high holy days, when the Rabbis see the largest turnout of the year among their congregants. Along those lines, he asked them to discount statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they say things in public that make the talks seem doomed. That's mainly for the local television cameras, Obama said.

"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there's going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can't do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We're going to have to work through those things."

He emphasized that he would give the same message to Arab groups, regarding statements by the Israeli government they might find objectionable.

"What you're going to see over the next several months is that at any given moment, either President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu may end up saying certain things for domestic consumption, for their constituencies and so forth, that may not be as reflective of that spirit of compromise we would like to see. Well, that's the nature of these talks," Obama said.

Obama referred directly to statements made by both leaders this week that seemed to show an unbridgeable gap over whether Israel must extend its 10-month partial settlement construction freeze, which expires on Sept. 26. The next round of the talks, to be held in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem next week, will be the last official round before the deadline.

"There is going to be an immediate set of difficulties surrounding the existing moratorium on settlements," Obama admitted, pointing out the public positions of the two leaders.

"On one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu saying ‘there's no way I can extend it.' There's President Abbas saying ‘this has to be extended for these talks to be effective," Obama said. He maintained that there was a compromise to be struck.

"I am absolutely convinced that both sides want to make this work and both sides are going to be willing to make some difficult concessions," Obama said. He did not specify what a potential compromise would look like.

Overall, Obama told the rabbis that he believed both Netanyahu and Abbas were serious about peace and said the first round of talks last week in Washington exceeded his expectations.

"I am stunned at how cordial and constructive the talks were," he said.

But Obama's main message on the call was a plea to the rabbis to actively support the talks, or at least not to actively undermine them.

He asked the religious leaders to help him promote the talks among Jewish communities both in American and Israel, and "to give these talks a chance and not look for a reason why they won't succeed."

Regarding interfaith relations in the United States and the treatment of Muslim Americans in particular, Obama again asked the rabbis for help. "It is very important for leaders in the Jewish [community] to speak from a deep moral authority in making sure that those Muslim-Americans trying to practice their faith in this country can do so without fear or intimidation," he said.

He did not mention the Park 51 Community Center project by name.

On Iran, Obama argued that the sanctions announced by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others were having an effect on the regime in Tehran.

"Every assessment that we've seen so far is that the degree of international coordination that's being implied in enforcing these sanctions is unprecedented and the Iranian regime has been shocked by our success," Obama said. He said the Israeli assessment matched his own.

While the peace talks and the Iran threat are not necessarily linked, Obama told the rabbis that resolving Israel's disputes with its neighboring Arab states would increase Iran's isolation.

Obama also delivered a message of urgency regarding the peace talks.  "If that window closes, it's going to be hard to reopen for years to come," he said. "We're not going to get that many more opportunities."Obama wished all the rabbis "L'shana Tovah," which means Happy New Year in Hebrew, and "Todah Rabah," which means thank you.

"With you I hope and pray this year will be a year of health and happiness, joy and justice, and ultimately perhaps a year of peace," he said.

The Cable

Lieberman warns China not to undermine South Korean sanctions

The South Korean government announced a series of sanctions against Iran on Tuesday after intensive lobbying from the Obama administration.

The new measures, which target Iran's energy and banking sectors as well as specific Iranian bad actors, follow similar moves by Japan last week. They are also in line with measures imposed by the European Union last month, though not quite as extensive as the administration had proposed to Seoul.

Regardless, the administration and members of Congress who are pushing for countries to put more pressure on Iran hailed the announcement, noting that South Korea moved forward despite the potential cost to its domestic industries.

"I know that this was not an easy or cost-free decision for the ROK government, either politically or economically. But it is precisely Seoul's willingness to shoulder rather than shirk its international responsibilities that confirms the Republic of Korea's emergence as a global leader," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, in a statement.

Japan has the third largest economy in the world, South Korea ranks as the eleventh largest, and both countries have major business interests in Iran -- especially in the energy sector. The new measures would prevent the initiation of any new joint business ventures but allow existing projects to continue.

For the administration and its allies in Congress, the South Korean and Japanese sanctions announcements reaffirm their strategy of using the U.N. Security Council resolution against Iran, which was passed on June 9, as a framework for taking additional steps aimed at convincing Iran to address the international community's concerns about its nuclear program.

The coordination is a positive sign of cooperation between Washington and its two most important East Asian allies. At the same time, Iran watchers note that Beijing stands to profit if Chinese companies move to fill the demand gap created by the South Korean and Japanese sanctions.

Lieberman is warning that if Beijing undermines the new sanctions, Congress will move to enforce sanctions against Chinese companies using authorities provided in the recent U.S. sanctions legislation.

"Chinese companies have unfortunately in the past been allowed by their government to pursue their commercial self-interest in Iran, exploiting the restraint of other countries," Lieberman said. "If this trend continues, China will isolate itself from the responsible international community in Asia and around the world."

Behind the scenes, State Department and Treasury officials had been working hard to encourage the South Korean and Japanese governments to adoptthe strongest measures possible. This effort has been led by Stuart Levey, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Robert Einhorn, the State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control.

Einhorn and the NSC's Daniel Glaser traveled to Tokyo and Seoul last month, and a Congressional staff delegation visiting Seoul and Tokyo last week also was partially focused on the push for strong sanctions language.

National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers, the NSC's Tom Donilon, Asia Senior Director Jeffrey Bader, and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell were in Beijing last weekend and the topic of Iran sanctions was also on their agenda.

The main hub of Iranian financial activity in South Korea is the Seoul branch of Bank Mellat, a Tehran-based bank that has already been targeted by both the United States and the European Union. South Korea only agreed to a 60-day suspension of Korean dealings with Bank Mellat Seoul, with a promise to reevaluate after. Washington had wanted a total freeze.

Iran watchers on Capitol Hill said the temporary suspension would have the desired effect by making it clear to investors they should not do business with Bank Mellat in Seoul.

"The fact is they are taking action against Bank Mellat and they are embedding this action within a broad framework of other actions," said one GOP Senate aide. "It's very possible that everybody and their brother is going to run for the exits... that bank is going to be kryptonite."

Levey and Einhorn have also been working hard on the recently announced new U.S. sanctions on North Korea, a topic in which both Japan and South Korea have a vital interest. Aides said that, while the two efforts weren't directly linked, there are indirect links in that Iran and North Korea are involved in some of the same illicit activities.

"There is a tie in the sense that North Korea and Iran actively cooperate on a range of illicit proliferation-related activities," said one Congressional staffer close to the issue. "That's a linkage that both the Koreans and the Japanese recognize and appreciate."

UPDATE: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also praised the new sanctions and saw them as a message to China. He tweeted, "Korea adopted strong new sanctions on Iran today. Japan did the same last week. China should follow their good example of global leadership."