Lester Crown, the Chicago billionaire who has been President Obama’s advocate to the Jewish community and to Israeli leaders, says that he is confident that Obama “will pull the trigger” if Iran develops a nuclear weapon– even though Iran would not use a nuclear weapon against Israel.
Nukes pose a threat to the Jewish state, Crown says, because Iran would use them to achieve power-parity with Israel and become a “bully in the area,” encouraging Hezbollah to attack Israel every two years, and so wear Israel away by attrition.
Crown, 88, rarely expresses his views publicly. He doesn’t have to. A leading philanthropist, he has the ear of the president. But speaking on July 2 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg, surely the most important journalist on Jewish issues and Israel in the country, Crown acknowledged that he often interprets Obama for Israeli leaders.
Crown described the establishment of Israel as a “miracle”– “To me it isn’t the eighth miracle of the world, it’s the number one miracle”– and Goldberg, who once emigrated to Israel and served in the Israeli military, spoke admiringly of Crown’s “loyalty or service” to Israel: “You’re Lester Crown, no one in Israel can doubt your loyalty or your service to the state of Israel.”
Here’s their exchange on Iran, beginning at minute 42:
Goldberg: “I know you’ve talked to the president about the Iran issue. [Crown nods]. I know you’ve talked to Israeli leaders about the Iran issue.”
Crown: “Yes sir.”
Goldberg: “In fact, I know that Israeli leaders come to you to try to have you explain to them President Obama’s thinking on some occasions. So give us your sense of his thinking on what remains the most pressing foreign policy national security decision in the wider Middle East for the president in the next couple of years. Do you think that if push comes to shove he will actually order a strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities?”
Crown: “…The answer to your question, as far as I am concerned, which is, I’m probably in the minority in saying to it– I said Yes, I think he would. I think two things have happened. I think the Israelis have really at this point have subcontracted that decision to the United States, which really is surprising. I think the time has passed when the Israeli air force with a surgical strike can do the damage that they think needs to be done.
“The Iranian nuclear program– both– in all ways is right near the top, whether it be in missiles, whether it be in centrifuges, weaponization, mineralization– it is right at the point where they can have a nuclear weapon. It is so close. Now whether it’s within two months or six months or a year, obviously– I obviously don’t know.”
Goldberg: “But you feel confident that President Obama has this in hand?”
Crown: “I think first the eight– I guess– Have a vote in the room!– the American public in my opinion wants nothing to do with the Middle East at this point. They’d love it to go away. It’s been a problem. They just would love to see it go away. And with good reason. The American public after Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t want any more military action in the Middle East at all. And I think the vote would be unbelievably heavily against it.
“I still think he will pull the trigger when that particular point comes. The real question is, Will it be in time or will it be a day late?”
Goldberg: “My final and hardest question is this: What poses a greater threat to Israel, the Iranian nuclear program or Israel’s own policies in the West Bank that as you would argue hurt Israel’s legitimacy and make it difficult to imagine Israel moving forward into the coming decades as it is right now, a Jewish majority democracy? External or the internal?”
Crown: “You have to put it on a time scale… The Iranian thing has to be solved. It just has to– If they have nuclear weapons, what I think will happen, they won’t use them on Israel. But they will become the bully in the area to the point, to our tremendous detriment, the United States’s tremendous detriment and Israel, and they will just authorize Hezbollah to attack Israel, let’s say, every two years. And by attrition, you get ten years from now, you have no country. So that has to be taken care of…
“After that is, the internal part of it. They have to solve themselves. People on the West Bank and the situation with the ultra-Orthodox has to– They can’t allow this to go on because it’s corroding the inside and the whole core of the country.”
The exchange begs the question of why the U.S. should take military action when Crown obviously think deterrence works with nuclear powers. And why the U.S. should take military action when the public want no more wars in the Middle East and the threat is Hezbollah, an Islamist military and political force in Lebanon.
The interview is also interesting for Crown’s expression of dedication to the state of Israel as a haven for Jews because of the legacy of the Holocaust. He says his businessman father bought up aviation parts in the U.S. on behalf of the Israelis in violation of US laws in the 1950s, and that almost all American Jews support Israel.
Crown also states that the two-state solution is imperative and the Palestinians deserve a state in the West Bank. He deplores the Orthodox Israeli settlers as “absolutely impossible” and says he has urged Israeli leaders not to subsidize settlements, but to pull settlers back into Israel.
Crown is a billionaire supporter of Barack Obama, a philanthropist involved in the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chicago Global Affairs Council, and the Aspen Institute. In 2008, he reached out to the Jewish community to win them over to Barack Obama on Israel. In 2010, he reportedly applied pressure on Obama to have him stop criticizing Israel on settlements.
The exchange also features some racism against Arabs.
Goldberg had joked that there were “3 million Jews” in the room and when Karim Kuwar, the Jordanian ambassador to the United States, rose to ask a question about the Arab Peace Initiative, Kuwar introduced himself as “probably the only Arab” there.
“Oh I doubt it,” Goldberg says.
Crown quips: “If you had to have one in the room, this is the best.”
Goldberg laughs raucously.
Thanks to Max Blumenthal.