(photo credit: AP)
While bombing Iran's nuclear facilities should be regarded by Israel as a "last resort" to halt the threats to wipe out the Jewish state, and would endanger the free world, US President Barack Obama "can never dictate to Israel to follow a path that would lead to harming itself," Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Interviewed during a short visit, Lautenberg - a consistent backer of Israel who is also a Democratic Party supporter of Obama - said, "Israel didn't ask us permission to drop bombs twice on Syrian nuclear facilities. I didn't hear America scolding Israel for what it did then. Hypothetically, if Israel were able to get rid of Iran's nuclear bomb-making capability, I'm sure that America would not send Israel a chastising e-mail message. We have to give Israel the courtesy of [allowing it to] make its own decisions."
He added that if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed in his bid for reelection on June 12, "we'll celebrate - unless there is someone worse in his place... Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would be a desperate act for Israel. I'm certainly not promoting it. But all free countries are endangered. The battle has to be fought together. Obama is a leader, and he will do what is necessary."
The senator - one of 13 Jews (not all recognized as such according to Jewish law) in the 100-member Senate - said he disagreed with Obama's policy of linking US action against Iran with an Israeli limitation of settlement activity.
"I agree that each is a major problem deserving of attention, but one is not dependent on the other," he said.
Israel is a "humane democratic society, a bastion of decency and freedom. It is a vital asset for America. It deserves not only respect but support," said Lautenberg, who has visited Israel 80 times since 1968. "It is a necessity for the US, a drop of sanity in the middle of so much madness."
When Lautenberg, who after 24 years in office has served longer than any other New Jersey senator in history, said that at first, he had worried that he might have to face a situation in which America's position stood in blunt contradiction to the good of Israel.
"There have been occasional moments when relations were chilly, but [a confrontation between the two countries] has not been a problem," he said.
The 85-year-old senator said he was sorry that Obama's image in Israel had been negative so far and that polls had shown that only 31 percent of Israelis considered the president's views pro-Israel.
"Obama has many Jewish supporters in the US. Israelis' opinions about him are neither fair nor accurate. He has a different style than [former president George W.] Bush, who conducted a discredited presidency that was bad for world stability. A lack of world stability is not good for Israel," he said.
"Obama has come to change the status quo and not to alienate the rest of the world from the US," he continued. "To be a leader, you have to talk to other countries. We have to talk even to Iran."
Commenting on concerns in Israel that Obama would not take strong action against North Korea for its illegal nuclear testing this week, Lautenberg said that Obama "cannot shoot from the hip. With his strong standing, he will take action. Everyone - including Russia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan - is worried about North Korea and Iran. The president has an opportunity for leadership after America lost its standing in the world over the last eight years. Obama is out to regain it."
While US government policy has consistently been for Israel to return to the pre-Six Day War lines, Lautenberg said that Israel "won't return to the '67 borders. They are insufficient to permit Israel to function. I can't predict what the map will look like. As for the old settlements, Israel captured the territories when it was attacked, and it won the war. It was entitled to build defenses to promote its security. Older settlements are a reality. But the newer settlements and outposts are counterproductive and threatening in a way that almost prevents discussions with the Palestinians."
The senator met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his visit and held meetings in Jericho and Ramallah.
"Some accommodations with the Palestinians have to be made," Lautenberg said.
But he said that due to Palestinian demographics, "I frankly think that the only solution" to their conflict with Israel is the two-state solution.
"If you look at Palestinian population growth in the territories, you can see that one day in the not-too-distant future, there will be a Palestinian majority. Israel must talk to people in the West Bank and offer them help with agriculture, education and the necessary structure for a functioning society when they get a state of their own."
A news feature on Sen. Frank Lautenberg will appear next week.â€¢