Howard Berman likes to joke that he became a Zionist before he became a Democrat. Aside from the moment when he learned that president Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died, the 67-year-old congressman's earliest political memory is of being at a rally at a Los Angeles stadium celebrating the birth of Israel in 1948.
Today, as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he's in a position to do more than wave flags and cheer. He has the helm of one of the most powerful bodies shaping US foreign policy, and he says his decision to run for Congress and focus on international relations while in office was intimately connected to his Jewish background and ties to the Jewish state.
"Israel's security and the US-Israeli relationship is for me an issue that shapes my whole agenda [in] Congress, and guides it," he told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.
That office, with its mammoth world map along one wall and National Jewish Democratic Coalition humanitarian award and Vladimir Putin matryoshka doll mixed in with the family photos, is one Berman assumed just this February after a quarter-century of service in Congress. In addition to serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee and getting through such legislation as that authorizing embargoes on countries supporting terrorism, Berman, a lawyer by training, has served on the Judiciary Committee and headed a subcommittee dealing with intellectual property rights.
He has now slipped into the large shoes of Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US House of Representatives, after he died from cancer in February. Lantos projected an international air as he strode the world stage championing human rights; the dignitaries at his Capitol memorial service included Tzipi Livni, Elie Wiesel and Bono. Berman, in contrast, seems as suited for a history department as a congressional committee chairmanship. "He combined a real passion with a tremendous eloquence," the Associated Press quoted Berman saying of Lantos. "That's just not my strong suit. I'm more of an inside animal."
If his careful sentence construction, curly gray-white hair and unassuming manner make him seem professorial, it's a look that's not deceiving, according to those who work with him - they praise him for being smart and genial. And he was politically shrewd enough to endorse Barack Obama, despite Hillary Clinton's strong appeal in the Jewish community and her primary victory in California, where his own voters reside.
Despite the differences Obama is trying to emphasize between himself and President George W. Bush, Berman, a liberal by inclination, doesn't hesitate to call the commander-in-chief a sincere supporter of Israel who has many of the same goals internationally - especially when it comes to stopping the Iranian nuclear threat - that he does. He just thinks that a Democratic administration would be more effective in realizing them. "I share this administration's goals," he says, "but I'm interested in achieving them, not just in making rhetorical statements about them."
What's your assessment of America's current Iran policy?
Iran, of all the many compelling issues out there right now, should be our top priority. I think it is quite unacceptable to have Iran as a nuclear weapons capable state, and our policy should be focused on stopping that from happening. But our current policy is not working. Iran continues to enrich uranium. The level of multilateral sanctions increases by very minor increments in a fashion that is not going to provide the kind of economic pressure on Iran to change its behavior.
We've had a total embargo on Iran, unilaterally since 1979 or 1980, but we've never imposed a sanction under ILSA [the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act] on any companies investing in Iran's energy sector. Our unilateral currency regulations are the most positive thing we've done, but even that Iran has figured out ways to circumvent. And so nothing we've done [until] now is seriously working toward achieving the goal. It's time to rethink what we're doing and how we're approaching this.
What should be done?
I believe there's a level of economic sanctions that would force Iran to change its position here. You don't even have to go to prohibiting anyone from buying their oil. You could embargo refined oil products coming back to Iran. You could massively cut the level of bilateral trade with a number of key countries, particularly European countries, which are dealing with them. You could create major, clear threats on a multilateral basis [so that] Iran knows what's coming, and the question is what are we doing to try to reach that point. The implication is, not much.
What specifically do you think has been flawed in the approach so far?
There are many different reasons in many different places... Let's take Russia for example. Are we prioritizing this goal in our bilateral relationships with the Russians? I don't think so. It's one of the issues in the relationship, and by this I don't simply mean Russia's proliferation to Iran, where there have been some positive steps. I mean Russia's willingness to impose the draconian sanctions that could force a change in behavior. I don't think we've prioritized this in our relationship with Russia.
We have many different issues, and they seem to all be in some ways of equal importance. We pushed the deployment of a partial missile defense system, which angers the Russians, in order to increase the possibility that we can intercept a nuclear-tipped missile - a threat that is real, but down the road in some ways, when the goal should be keeping Iran from having the ability to have a nuclear-tipped missile. And I also find it very interesting that we've entered into an nuclear cooperation with Russia to enhance our work with them on a number of nuclear energy and other issues without Russia having joined as a partner in this sanctions effort.
I just think the administration hasn't prioritized. They haven't. And I have to tell you, my guess is that the key to getting a common approach of European, Russian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Gulf countries, which I think is much more likely to make the Iranians think, may be a willingness on our part to deal with other issues we have with Iran. This administration has subcontracted the negotiations, the discussions with Iran, to the Europeans, and has insisted on a precondition - you must suspend your uranium enrichment. And for more than three years they've been enriching uranium while we say, before we ever deal with anything else, you have to stop enriching uranium. It ain't working.
Some of these factors are contributing to a sense among Israelis that it increasingly looks like Israel is going to have to deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran on its own. What do you say to them?
I think what the Israelis desperately want is a strategy that works. And right now, they don't see anything working.
There are a number of reasons why this is a very important goal, given who's in the leadership in Iran. Once they're nuclear weapons capable, are they going to behave like other countries with that capability have behaved?... [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is very frightening and scary. We like to indulge ourselves in the notion that that's just talk and that rationality would prevail, but I'm not sure.
Secondly, once they have that capability, they become a much more serious hegemonic power in the region. They can set the agenda... Iran with a nuclear weapons capability changes the whole balance of power. And then, equally important, the whole nonproliferation regime collapses because the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks and others say, wait a second, maybe we've got to get this... Days are limited, so a coherent strategy may not develop until the next administration.
And what's your assessment of the Annapolis process and its prospects over the shorter and longer term?
I have this conflict between my heart and my head. I want it to work. I want a two-state solution, where Israel can live in security, where the terrorism threat is eliminated or reduced so dramatically that it's not a fundamental factor. So my heart wanted it to work, but I didn't understand how, given what Hamas controls and the role they still play. I didn't understand quite how'd you get the concessions necessary on both sides to reach that agreement, when it can't be implemented yet.
So your thoughts on moving forward?
Maybe there's too maximalist a goal here. Maybe it isn't a detailed, final status agreement that sets everything down exactly. Maybe there's some middle ground that can be accomplished. But you've got to change things on the ground... You've got to give the Palestinians and the Israelis some sense that, on both sides, there is a fundamental change in the calculation here, that the Palestinians see that their life is getting better and can get even better faster by a solution, and that the Israelis think that there are Palestinians who have the ability to stop terror and therefore can be trusted with their own state and don't constitute a threat. There are a few bright spots, if you want to count two weeks in Jenin [when US-trained Palestinian security forces were deployed], and even there I want to make sure it's not just a crime-fighting effort but a terror-fighting effort.
When you talk about this administration, Bush is clearly a president who really cares about Israel and the US-Israel relationship, and clearly understands and has been very sensitive to the threats to Israel and to wanting to help them with that. And notwithstanding those great motivations and noble intentions, some of his policies have made things worse, like pushing those [Palestinian] elections in January of 2006, when he was hearing from people on both sides who were committed to the peace process asking: Until Hamas makes a decision that it is a political movement and not a military movement, why is it being treated as a legitimate political force?
If Hamas and Fatah reform a Palestinian national government, as they're now discussing, what should US policy towards it be?
It would recreate some of the very same problems we had when they did that before. I don't want to jump to any quick conclusions, but it brings back some of the concerns. It certainly undercuts our ability to do a lot of things with the Palestinian Authority that we want to do.
Such as supplying funding? Particularly to the US training program for Palestinian security forces which you praised?
I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but giving money to an authority that has Hamas in it is very different than giving money to [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salaam Fayad. The Israelis are going to have the same problem.
What about Israel's policy toward Gaza and the border blockade? Should it be changed?
As I understand Israel's policy on Gaza, we're not going to allow there to be a grave humanitarian crisis, but as long as Hamas exercises control over that area, and as long as it either shoots or allow others to launch rockets into Israel, as long as they use that control and Egyptian lack of diligence to rearm their forces, we and Israel are going to do as much as possible to isolate them. I think that makes sense.
You recently spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention on some of these points, as did fellow Democratic politician, Barack Obama, whom you've endorsed. How did you feel about his take on these issues?
I thought it was a great speech. He was never more clear and more explicit in understanding the special relationship and the commitment to do what needs to be done to protect Israel's survival and security than he was yesterday. But more importantly is that he laid out that he never intended that the notion of talking to our enemies was some naÃ¯ve desire to think that bad guys would become good because they had a chance to meet him and talk to him. The characterizations of his view were not accurate.
When he thinks, for instance, about talking, about engagement with Iran, it's because it's part of a strategy to achieve the goal of stopping Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, of stopping Iran from destabilizing Lebanon and Israel and other countries by their financing, training, supplying of military equipment to terrorist organizations, of stopping them from doing what they're doing to our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's part of a coherent strategy, and it's to be undertaken only when there's a reasonable likelihood that engagement will achieve those goals, or create the dynamic where the world will see that Iran is not changing its position and will come on [board] against Iran... And he reaffirmed, at the end of the day, that you can never take the military option off the table, because every other strategy becomes less likely to succeed if you have.
Do you think Obama is vulnerable on Israel and with Jewish voters more generally?
Sure, and I think the speech was a key speech to laying the foundation for reversing that weakness, because people didn't know [Obama]. They have maybe a sentence in a debate 10 months ago and then a huge number of negative characterizations of what he was going to do. And he finally, in a thorough and I thought in a very compelling way, created the alternative to what his opponents were saying... I don't hear anybody at AIPAC or in the Jewish community saying, this administration, boy, they've sure dealt with Iran effectively. If he can offer a vision of how we can push our critical objectives more effectively than this administration has, I think they see where things can be better with an Obama presidency. But I recognize that one speech doesn't change everything. There's a lot of work to do. There were thousands of people who were there, but there were millions who weren't.
Were you surprised by the enthusiastic reception Obama received at AIPAC?
No, because I believe the nervousness about him wasn't about his race, it wasn't about his name, it was about his positions. And I think once he gave them positions that they felt comfortable with, they would say right on, that's good.
Did you hesitate before endorsing Obama?
Originally I thought: I'm going to support the Democrat; I'll work with whoever wins in terms of the issues I care about, I don't need to be in the middle of anything and I like them both. But as time went on and as I saw what was going on, with efforts by the Jewish Republican Coalition and others to create a portrait of Obama that I didn't think was true - and I did some due diligence to make sure it wasn't true - I decided to endorse him and try to help him.
How has your own Jewish background influenced you and your decision to become involved in politics?
It's part of why I wanted to come to Congress. It influenced why I wanted to go on the Foreign Affairs Committee. It influenced how I decide to plan my day. It influenced why I talk to you rather than a reporter from the Bhutan News Times.
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