Addressing a Latino rally in Los Angeles at the height of the Democratic bid for the presidency in 2000, Joe Lieberman spotted a placard he says he'll never forget: "Viva Chutzpah!" it proclaimed.
Lieberman read it as a joyful endorsement of American diversity in general, and of his campaign, in particular, to become his country's first Jewish vice president.
The Connecticut senator recalled the rally and the go-Joe placard toward the end of a lengthy conversation during his visit to Israel this Pessah. I had asked him the inevitable question about his country's readiness to elect a Jew to top national office, the more so when dilemmas relating to the Middle East and Israel might so often feature prominently on the White House agenda.
Lieberman, of course, dealt with variations on this theme all the time in the course of that so narrowly unsuccessful campaign, and doubtless has been asked about it hundreds of times more in the years since (even though, as he volunteered when we said our good-byes, he does not intend to run again on a presidential ticket). But as throughout the interview, he paused and formulated a careful response, which included the LA rally story.
More substantively, he said, the numbers proved the point. The fact is, he reminded me - with barely a twinge of rankling injustice - that the Gore-Lieberman campaign wound up winning the popular vote. "The great thing about democracy, about elections, is that it's like sports," he said lightly. "It ends up in quite specific numbers... And after all is said and done, Al Gore and I did get a half million more votes than the other ticket, so that shows that there was a willingness to consider my candidacy not based on my religion.
"That validated a lot of the polling that had been done before periodically over the years," Lieberman went on. "Gallup or somebody does it: Would you support somebody Jewish, black, woman, etc. The numbers for acceptance of a Jewish candidate are over 90 percent. I do think there's been a broad acceptance, and it's not affected by the particular context of the Middle East - as long as the person himself or herself obviously has policies or personal characteristics that justify the support."
Perhaps the group of Americans most troubled by the prospect of a Jewish vice president, the senator said, were some in the Jewish community. Lieberman recounted that he and his wife Hadassah flew to Nashville for dinner with the Gores to hear that he had been chosen for the ticket, and that Gore told him: "'I want you to know that I spoke to several people about selecting somebody Jewish to be my running mate. And I got mixed advice. But I concluded that the fear of anti-Semitism in America was much greater than the reality of anti-Semitism. And that the fear of anti-Semitism is not surprisingly pronounced among Jews.'"
In other words, Lieberman spelled out, "the nervousness about having a Jewish person as president or vice president was much greater among Jews than among Christians. That says a lot about America. And it says a lot about Jews."
The holiday context may have helped, but Lieberman made for a charming interviewee, open and unhurried, and at least as interested in trying to gain insights into Ehud Olmert's new Israel, and Hamas's new Palestinian Authority, as in offering his own. But he offered a great deal of insight nonetheless, notably including candid assessments of how the crisis over Iran's nuclear and anti-Israel ambitions might play out, and of American attitudes to the incoming Israeli prime minister's declared intention, unilaterally if necessary, to shape Israel's borders.
What is your sense of how the administration is going to handle Iran?
There is rising concern in Congress obviously about Iran, and obviously in the administration as well. I don't think anyone's yearning for military action against Iran, but the consensus is that it should not be taken off the table and that this is a serious enough threat.
They've got a very extreme government, still the largest state sponsor of terrorism, with this new president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad]. In some sense it's really reflecting, more than [previous president Muhammad] Khatami did, the real thinking of the group that's ruled Iran for a long time. He's saying that his intention is to wipe Israel off the map, but also making statements to a big crowd in Teheran: "Imagine a world without the United States. It's possible in our time." Those are very ominous statements.
In the Congress there's a skepticism - skeptical to pessimistic - about the willingness of the United Nations to take economic or diplomatic action against Iran. Everyone's focus is on that. That's why I go back to saying nobody is yearning for military action against Iran but nobody generally wants to take it off the table. I certainly don't.
There is a skepticism, particularly, because of the conflicting interests of Russia and China, with [their] increasing economic relations with Iran. The Europeans have been stronger than I worried [they would be], and than a lot of others worried, so far.
I suppose it's possible to imagine as a next step, though a difficult one, that if the UN Security Council fails to impose economic sanctions on Iran, that we might form what might be called an "economic coalition of the willing," or maybe it's a "coalition of the economically willing" - the US and Europe, maybe a couple of others - to impose or accept outside the UN framework economic sanctions on Iran.
Failing that, I think we've got two courses. One is to take military action. It's probably the last choice, but one that has to be there. And the second is to work much more aggressively and probably covertly - it's hard to do - to encourage the reformist and opposition elements in Iran. From all that I hear, the government continues to be very unpopular with the people. People are not living well, even though Ahmadinejad apparently touches a nationalistic nerve with the nuclear program. I keep talking to people anecdotally, Iranian-Americans for instance, who travel there and they say that the people - cab drivers, let alone their own friends - say, "When is America coming?" or even more personally, "When is Bush coming?" This is a very difficult moment and this is a dangerous country.
What kind of military option is there? I've heard former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle suggest that, in one night, with one fleet of bombers, it's over, which I thought was probably overly...
I don't think anyone is thinking of this as a massive ground invasion, as in Iraq, to topple the government. I think the only justifiable use of military power would be an attempt to deter the development of their nuclear program if we felt there was no other way to do it. And I use the word "deter" because I'm skeptical of our ability - because they've spread their nuclear program and some of it is underground - to knock it out completely.
But what would be the reason to do it? To delay it, to deter it, hoping that you set the program off course, so that by the time they catch up back to where they were, there's been a change in the government. That's the limited objective that I would see.
This could be done in a fairly rapid way, and would be, in other words, a limited sending of a message?
Yes, primarily from the air, potentially with some on the ground covert assistance. But it would be more than a message. It would be truly an attempt to hit some of the components of the nuclear program, again to delay it.
What is your sense of timing?
I'm speaking without the benefit of knowing what's happening within the administration at this point. We on the Armed Services Committee, on which I serve, have not been briefed on this as a committee at all, but we keep hearing that the administration is considering these options.
This is another post-9/11 moment, in the sense that there is a lot of feeling in the US, even in government, that Osama bin Laden was saying very clearly throughout the '90s exactly what he intended to do. And in fact he was starting to do it. He was hitting the embassies in Africa.
The lesson here pre-dates Osama bin Laden. You can certainly go back to Hitler and others. It is that sometimes when people say really extreme things - which at some level a lot of people don't want to even believe, and ascribe to domestic politics - they may actually mean it and they may intend to do it. So I do think that the statements of Ahmadinejad are taken very seriously, both with regard to the US and with regard to Israel.
You've seen the president's statements about Iran are very related to what Ahmadinejad has said about Israel. The president will say, 'We will not stand by and allow someone to attempt to destroy our ally Israel.'
The very fact that there is active discussion of the potential [for military action against Iran] - this is not, you know, sort of set war plans, but the discussion of options - does say something. We've come some distance here with regard to Iran, fairly quickly. I'm not saying that it says without doubt that there'll be military action, but there's been movement because we're taking this very seriously.
In terms of international support, America takes this threat seriously, Israel takes it seriously, Europe is up there but perhaps not as ready... How much support does America need if it decides this can't go on anymore, that the Iranians are making too much progress? Could America afford to do something, in terms of the kind of military last resort that you spoke of, on its own?
The administration and the Congress are certainly focused on the diplomatic track at the UN and the potential for economic sanctions before the military option is ratcheted up to a more serious level. But if it got to the point where we were starting to take more serious action, there would be an attempt to involve other countries. The Europeans do seem agitated about what's happening in Iran now, so there's no question there would be an attempt to build an international coalition.
The moment of truth obviously would come if the president felt that this was a serious threat to our security and, nonetheless, there was tacit international support but not a willingness to step forward. Whether he would still take action, I don't know. It's an open question.
The other feeling that we have in the US, in Congress, is that the other group that is very worried about the developments in Iran is the other Arab countries, to the extent to which they [might] give backing [for US-led action]. It would be a tough move for them given their own domestic environment to support such an action, but my impression is that they certainly would not be unhappy about it. There's a series of concerns about the danger to them from Iran having a nuclear weapon.
Can I ask you about your thinking, and wider official thinking, in terms of Israel and the West Bank? Prime minister Sharon sought to stress that he had American support for an eventual annexation of at least certain areas of the West Bank, where most of the settlers live. Is that a realistic sense of American thinking? Would America back Israel in annexing the major settlement blocs? The official American thinking is opposition to settlements, but are there some nuances there?
This is a position that's moving, that is dynamic, and while, generally speaking, the American position is still that questions of borders, the territories, have to be negotiated here on the ground between the parties, there's a growing acceptance: The president's letter from 2004 certainly accepted that the US understands that the end result of this will not be to go back to the '67 borders, and that there was a reality and a justification for the major settlement blocs. That's reflected - I certainly share it personally - in a pretty solid bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress.
Will there be some dissent about it if it's done unilaterally? Some, but I think the prevailing opinion here, particularly now with Hamas having won the elections on the Palestinian side, [is] that the Israeli government will be justified in taking unilateral action to secure defensible borders.
Ehud Olmert made plain the specifics of his "convergence" plan before the elections. If he acts truly dramatically, if he says, "We're pulling back basically to the security barrier, 7 percent or so of the West Bank, and we're annexing this territory," is there a potential for America to say, "Israel has set the contours of its permanent size. It's done this unilaterally because there's a terrorist regime on the other side, and we're prepared to endorse that." Is that possible?
There are different forms of endorsement so it's early in the process. My own sense of it is that Prime Minister Olmert will have to first develop support here [in Israel] for doing that, in so far as it means he'll have to converge many thousand people into the major settlement blocs, and then also make the case within the US and presumably within the international community insofar as they're open minded about it. But I think there'll be a receptive audience within the US government, congressional and executive, to that argument.
Now there are steps in this that are beyond where we are now. For instance, would the US acknowledge, accept the reality and even the desirability from an Israeli security point of view of that kind of action. I think the answer is: probably. The question nobody has reached or I haven't heard anybody reach is whether the US would accept that as a new international border. That's where most people are now, but of course it would certainly be a big step in that direction. I think certainly within Congress and the administration, and I would guess within the American people, there's a willingness to understand and support such a step by Israel.
Would annexing the Jordan Valley conceivably be part of that, or would America never endorse Israeli annexation or control of the Jordan Valley?
That's more difficult for me to answer. That's an opinion that the US is fuzzier, unformed on. My guess is that [permanent Israeli control there] would be a harder sell, but [there would] not [be opposition] for the presence of security personnel there.
The strongest support is for the major settlement blocs. Sharon helped to reshape or form a consensus in the US about this, as well as here [in Israel]. Sharon saw a forming consensus about this - a desire to change the status quo, to achieve defensible borders, to take tough steps to do it - but he then deepened and broadened the consensus.