Hoenlein: The Iranians Have Been Bazaaris for 2000 Years; They Can Run Rings Around Us

Ahead of a Conference of Presidents visit to Israel, its top executive talks about Iran, BDS, the Administration, Judaism and himself.

When Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Zarif was his country’s envoy to the United Nations, he invited Malcolm Hoenlein to have dinner at his New York home. “I keep kosher, so I didn’t eat,” Hoenlein recalls, “but we had plenty to talk about.”

“He’s a charming guy,” Hoenlein says, “I don’t dispute it. He’s intelligent and clever. Iranian President Hassan Rohani is also clever.” He pauses for a few seconds before delivering his punch line: “But we forget: These guys have been ‘bazaaris’ [bazaar merchants] for 2,000 years, while we come in as novices. They can run circles around us. They know how to negotiate and how to manipulate every situation.”

We are speaking in Hoenlein’s cramped offices at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the umbrella body of organized American Jewry, in midtown Manhattan. Hoenlein, who has served as the Conference’s chief executive for the past 28 years, has an open hour or two in his schedule, between two trips to Israel, one to a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Auschwitz and another to speak in Las Vegas, all within a week. In a few days, he will take members of the Conference to Spain and from there once again to Israel, where they will hold week-long discussions with the Israeli leadership. Iran and the Senate sanctions bill that Hoenlein and many other Jewish leaders wholeheartedly support – much to the chagrin of the Obama Administration – will be one of the main items on everyone’s agenda.

“The Iranians need to be shown that the sanctions are there, just as they need to be shown that the military option and the political will are there. They need to have a sword hanging over their heads. They need to see that we are not going to fall into the same traps set by Rohani during the previous decade, when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator.”

“We didn’t initiate the new legislation,” Hoenlein says emphatically, though some dispute that narrative. “This is coming from the members of the Senate, with 59 members of the Senate signing on, including Democrats. We support it. But we don’t want to be pitted against the administration and we are not on a collision course,” he stresses. “Ultimately, President Obama and the Administration share our goals. We have a dispute about tactics, not strategy.”

Hoenlein dismisses reports emanating from Washington in the wake of President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday that the sanctions bill, has, in fact, stalled. However, he raises the possibility of a compromise, in which senators and the Administration would agree on a “wait and see” grace period.

He is bitter about some of the language used by the Administration against supporters of the bill. “We have expressed our concern,” he says diplomatically, about such terminology as “warmongers” or “driving a path to war.”

“Their level of anger is not justified; it only divides us and forces people to adopt harder positions,” he says. “And let’s not forget that the Administration also opposed the original sanctions – which everyone today credits with having brought the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place.”

Hoenlein says the sanctions bill is necessary in order to prevent the Iranians from straying too far. “They are already walking away from the agreement. And the Administration itself is concerned about the erosion of sanctions after the signing of the interim deal.  We get reports from Europe of trade delegations waiting in line, of deals being signed. And we are already seeing changes in the economy because of the expectations that sanctions will be removed: The stock market is up 133 percent, the Iranian rial is up, employment is up, countries are rushing in to negotiate future deals.”

But are you not concerned, I ask him, about the Administration’s claim that passage of the bill will cause the Iranians to walk out of the nuclear talks? Or that Jewish groups that have come out so strongly in favor of the Senate bill will be blamed for the crisis that will ensue?

“We have to be careful not to walk into a trap in which a Senate bill that doesn’t impose immediate sanctions can somehow be misused or manipulated by the Iranians. It’s Iran that is responsible for this situation, not the Jewish community. The Iranians will find any excuse to say that the U.S. and the West are responsible for the breakdown of the talks.”

Hoenlein wavers here between two classic hasbara lines, but he is such a true believer that he doesn’t pause to reflect on what seems to be their inherent contradiction. “The problem is we don’t take dictators seriously,” he says at first. “They tell you exactly what they’re going to do. Hitler told us what he was going to do when he wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1923. Stalin also told us what he was going to do.  But nobody listens: Dictators tell the truth, leaders of a democracy lie.”

By that logic, I suggest, why don’t you believe Rohani when he says that Iran has no intention of building a bomb?

“Because they lie,” Hoenlein responds, without batting an eyelid. “They will tell you that they’re not involved in terrorism, even though we have so much evidence. It’s not just Lebanon or Hamas – go to the Balkans, travel in the Baltics, go to the Arab countries in the Gulf, go to Asian countries, every one of them will talk to you about Iran’s involvement. The first issue most African leaders raise with you is Iran’s nefarious activities in Africa. Go to Sarajevo: They have 450 people in their embassy there. It’s their base of operations.”

“Americans don’t know how widespread their net is. They are active here as well: Hezbollah makes between $500 million and a billion dollars a year just off of illegal cigarettes – $300 million in New York State alone. We have spoken to congressmen and thank God, now the big tobacco companies have gotten involved: There are 50 factories on the New York border manufacturing illegal cigarettes [on Native American and Canadian territories]. Hezbollah is responsible for the transportation, and that’s how they make their money. It’s tied to narco-terrorism, it’s tied to mafia activities, and it’s all documentable.”

“So the idea is that Iran is somehow a partner that we’re going to be able to negotiate with?” he scoffs. “When we know that all they’re looking for is time for research and development? They themselves say that they’re moving ahead and developing the next centrifuges. So why don’t you believe that?”

The Administration doesn’t know all of this?

“They do.”

So how do you explain their behavior?

“Because they believe that if they get a deal set in place, Iran will somehow undergo a transformation. But the Iranians will prove them wrong.”

It sounds as if you think the Administration is naïve.

“No, I think there are people in the Administration who are not naïve at all. But sometimes they’ve said things that have not panned out. They’ve outlined points in the agreement and then when the Iranians did so too, it wasn’t the same thing.”

Hoenlein is adamant in deflecting accusations that he or the Presidents Conference in general take sides in domestic American politics. “None of the chairmen that I worked with,” he says proudly,  “knew who I voted for.” Nonetheless, on substantive issues such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s not hard to decipher where Hoenlein’s sentiments lie. Even when he tries to present an opposing point of view, he supplies a built-in, right-wing critique.

“Every president has his own interpretation and his own vision of the role of the United States: Bush had an interpretation about world power. He saw the Axis of Evil, for which he was wrongly criticized, in my opinion. This Administration says: We can try and wean the Iranians away; maybe we can take advantage of people who expressed themselves by voting for Rohani – though he was still one of six that were approved out of 700, so the idea that he is a breath of fresh air… he’s not. And we should have empowered the people when they marched through the streets after the Green Revolution, when we, the West, abandoned them.”

Hoenlein, who maintains close contacts with some Arab leaders, often cites them anonymously as corroborating witnesses. When I ask him about Israel’s newfound alliances with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, he speaks of “the diminution of America’s role that you hear about in all the different countries: What we did in Egypt and in Morocco and in other places hurt the evaluation of where America stands. I heard from their leaders myself: Israel is our only hope against the enemy. We will condemn them, but we pray for them.”

The same holds true when it comes to Arab opinion regarding Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas: It is the unnamed Arab leaders quoted by Hoenlein who have the harshest words. “They are much more critical of Abbas than anything you can hear in Israel. These guys are crooks, they say. They stole our money, we gave them hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s all gone. They’re sick and tired of the Palestinians. You don’t hear them raise the issue at all anymore.”

He is steadfast in his efforts to deflect any blame for the impasse in the peace process away from Israel and toward the Palestinians, repeating the kind of arguments that, in Israel at least, would place him squarely in the right-wing camp. Netanyahu “does not get enough credit,” he says, for his support for a two-state solution and for going through with the prisoner releases.

“Ten negotiations, 10 times the Jews said yes – why isn’t the onus on the other side? If the same pressure that is applied on Israel had been applied to Abbas, or on Arafat at a critical moment, you would have had a deal already.”

He launches into a litany of Palestinian misdeeds – incitement, honor killings, anti-gay crimes – that are routinely ignored by the world while Israel is repeatedly censured. “It’s not only a double standard,” he exclaims “It’s a triple standard, a quadruple standard.”

So is the status quo a better option? I ask, and Hoenlein replies with marked ambivalence. “I don’t think status quo is a policy,” he says, “but sometimes that is the only option, when you don’t have a partner with whom to negotiate.”

He lambastes the “anti-Semitic” Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and refuses to distinguish it from targeted boycotts of settlements or European Union restrictions on grants for companies doing business in Jewish settlements. He refers to the controversy over SodaStream products, now showcased by the high-profile Scarlett Johansson commercial produced for this Sunday’s Super Bowl, by citing yet another Arab acquaintance. 

“SodaStream have 1,000 Palestinian workers in their factory, but the company can close it any time – so who is going to pay the price? The mayor of one of the big [Palestinian] West Bank cities called me and said: You have to stop this. The people from my town who work there make $2,000 a month, and in my city, they will make $200. They get health care there, and I can’t give them health care. They’re going to move to terrorism, because they won’t have any option.”

He proudly points to the Conference’s enlistment of 220 presidents of American universities who blasted the recent decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities. “The BDS is about undermining Israel’s right to exist,” he says. “It’s not about 1967, it’s about 1947. It’s about ‘big lies,’ distortions and misrepresentations.”

The Holocaust is a frequent reference point for Hoenlein. He remembers how his parents, German refugees who eluded the Nazis at the last minute, sat shiva after they received a telegram notifying them of the fate of the families they had left behind. He will soon publish a book in which he collaborated that details the 1,400 synagogues that were destroyed in Kristallnacht, in 1938.

The point is not to get lost in the Shoah, or to wallow in tragedy, he says, but to learn the lessons of the past. And that includes, first and foremost, the danger of Iran.

He cites a famous Churchill quote; “The farther you look back, the farther to the future you’ll see.” That’s how Judaism sees it, he says: “Our grandparents determined who we are, just as we determine who our grandchildren will be.”

In many ways, Hoenlein, 68, is the consummate macher, an ultimate Jewish political machine. By his telling, he was almost born that way: When he was 10 years old, Hoenlein snuck into the hotel room of Adlai Stevenson, then the Democratic candidate for president. “He wasn’t such a close friend of the Jews,” Hoenlein says, “but he was so impressed that he took me around with him for 3 days on the campaign trail. He had a kid with a yarmulke following him around.”

The early start earmarked Hoenlein for a lifetime of access and influence among movers and shakers, a modern successor to the traditional Diaspora role of shtadlan, the person who represents the Jewish community to outside authorities and intercedes on its behalf. From being a student activist in Philadelphia, he went on to found the New York Council on Soviet Jewry, from there to the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, and from there to being executive vice president of the Conference, a post he has filled for 28 years. In Jewish parlance, the words “Malcolm” and “Conference of Presidents” have become almost synonymous.

He is known as a quick thinker and an extremely hard worker, a clear-cut, settlement-supporting right-winger by almost everyone’s accounts, except his own.

"I am not an ideologue,” he asserts. “I have strong positions on Israel, so people say I’m a right-winger. I refuse to criticize Israel in public, so people say I’m a conservative.”

Perhaps, he concedes, it’s also an assumption that is many people’s natural reaction to the kippa that he wears on his head.

“Do you think of yourself as a centrist?” I ask. “Everyone thinks of himself as a centrist,” he laughs. “Everyone thinks that those to the right of him are wrong and those to the left of him are wrong. My political mentor, if I had to pick one, was [the late Democratic Senator Henry] ‘Scoop’ Jackson. And I was very close to Hubert Humphrey.”

But many people say that the Conference generally, and you personally, stand distinctly to the right of the overall Jewish community.

“We represent the views of affiliated Jews, Jews who belong to something – an organization, a synagogue – Jews whose voices are heard through their representatives, who sit at the Conference of Presidents. And I think if you look at the record of 50 years of Conference history, you cannot say we’re partisan. Because if we go far off from where the consensus is, believe me, the whole world falls down on us and explodes.”

Why is J Street not a member of the Conference? And how do you view their role in the community?

"They just applied and we’re going through our very thorough process. I think they will tell you that they are being treated very fairly. [He’s right: CS]. So no one is blocking anything. I think some things they have done were harmful and counterproductive: But can they have a different view? Absolutely. I want people to be able to look at the Conference and say: In that group there is someone who represents my point of view. I believe in the smorgasbord of Jewish life.”

“Look at the groups that are already in the Conference,” Hoenlein says, listing left-of-center groups such as Americans for Peace Now, the Reform Movement, Labor Zionists, etc. “It’s ludicrous to suggest the Conference is right-wing. There’s so much mythology that’s created, and the Israeli press feeds on it, and it’s simple to go with slogans, but just look at the facts.”

He says he believes in umbrella organizations because of “klal Yisrael,” the unity of the Jewish people, and because in the hectic pace of modern life, “individual organizations can’t deal with the complexities.” He proudly cites his work on behalf of oppressed Jews in countries from Syria to Iran to the Soviet Union. “It’s very easy for people to knock the Jewish establishment, but our collective track record is really damn good. I don’t think there’s any community that can compare to it.”

The difference between now and then, he says, referring again to the Holocaust, is that “today Jews have power, because the world says we have power, just like the pope has power because the world says he has power. No one asks anymore,” he says, referring to Stalin’s famous query regarding “how many divisions” the pope has.

In that case, I say, you are the main power broker. And you’ve been doing this for almost three decades. “I won’t be here forever,” he assures me. “Nature will take its course. When the time comes that I feel I’m not producing and that I’m not able to work 17-hour days, I will step down immediately.”

Given Hoenlein’s deep devotion to his job, to his beliefs and to what he sees as the protection of Israel, which even his worst critics will concede, there is no reason to doubt his pledge to retire “at my peak, and not on the way down,” as he puts it.

But given his boundless energy, his superhuman stamina and the obvious thrill that he still derives from his job – I wouldn’t hold my breath, either.

Avi Hayun