She was a young mother, but her face looked much older. Her eyes darted about constantly as she spoke about her life in Kibbutz Kfar Aza along the Israeli border with Gaza. The anxiety in her voice was so evident that I hung on to her every word.
She pointed to the concrete barriers that dotted the landscape: bomb shelters.
“Wherever you are, you must always keep track how far away they are,” she said, explaining that when the alarm sounds — as it often does — “you may only have seconds before the explosions start.”
Her name is Chen Abrahams, and of all the people I met during my recent trip to Israel, her story was the most memorable. For me, her simple desire to raise her son in safety will always be the face of what American policy in the Middle East should be.
Chen isn’t alone: many Israelis live in the constant fear that they are less than 60 seconds away from an incoming rocket. An average of three rockets a day rain down on Israel from Gaza, the 139-square-mile strip which, since 2005, has been governed by Hamas.
In late June, months of relative calm were interrupted when the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired at least a half-dozen Iranian-made Grad missiles into the Israeli towns of Beersheba and Askelon in the dead of night. Only two of the six missiles were intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome system. This time, fortunately, there were no casualties from the other four.
For the mullahs of Iran, Gaza provides the staging ground for a proxy war against Israelis. Palestinian security officials have acknowledged that representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are actively assisting both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad organization in developing longer-range rockets, and Israeli officials have likewise confirmed the presence of Iranian rocket specialists in Gaza.
For Israelis like Chen, rocket attacks are just the tip of a deadly iceberg that also includes suicide bombs, roadside explosive devices, and other acts of terrorism that have become so common they are rarely reported in the American press.
Their real fear, however, is the horrifying prospect of an Iranian nuclear attack. This concern was mentioned in every meeting our delegation had with elected officials, policy experts, peace negotiators and the military. For Chen Abrahams, as for leading Israeli lawmaking and military figures, Iran’s uranium enrichment effort portends the unthinkable, whatever the likelihood of an actual attack.
Here in the United States we are told to be optimistic. The election of Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate, as Iran’s new president is to be taken as a sign that soon all will be well.
True, Rouhani campaigned on promises of improved relations with the West and his election may indeed signal that the Iranian people are tired of sanctions and desire a new path. But even before Rouhani’s name was ever permitted to appear on the ballot, he had to receive the seal of approval from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To face the voters, in other words, he had to first establish to the clerics his absolute loyalty to an unelected regime that has consistently rejected every diplomatic overture to abandon its nuclear ambitions, even in the face of sanctions that have hobbled the country’s economy.
At his first news conference, Rouhani made clear that he has no plans whatsoever to press for suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts, and most observers doubt he could do so, even if he wanted to. In Iran, the Supreme Leader is Khamenei, not Rouhani, and the former continues to control Iran’s nuclear policy with an iron grip.
While America should view Rouhani’s election as a hopeful sign, this is no time for irrational exuberance.
For the safety of Chen Abrahams, her little boy, and other Israelis like them — not to mention the security of the entire Middle East and the stability of the world as a whole — the United States must continue to seek an end to Iran’s nuclear program.
In May, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 by a unanimous voice vote. It’s time for the full House of Representatives to vote on this legislation and pressure the Senate to follow suit until it is on President Obama’s desk for his signature. Equally as important, America must continue to reinforce our strong economic partnership with Israel. It remains the one pro-Western democracy in a Middle East full of instability.
David Avella is president of GOPAC, the premier center for educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders. He recently returned from the David Ifshin Symposium in Israel.