By Kevin Madigan | kmadigan@atljewishtimes.com

Ken Stein for Atlanta Jewish Times

Ken Stein speaks at Young Israel of Toco Hills on April 19. (photo by Kevin Madigan)

Ken Stein, an Emory University expert on the Middle East who famously criticized former President Jimmy Carter for a book he wrote about the region in 2006, defended President Barack Obama’s stance on Israel and negotiations with Iran during a talk in Toco Hills on April 19.

Speaking at Young Israel of Toco Hills, Stein explained that both Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have valid points to make regarding the current situation, and he praised the U.S. policy of pragmatism and engagement instead of containment in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel’s discussion with the United States on the Iranian issue has to do with how Israel controls Iran, which is an existential threat,” Stein said. “The issue for the state of Israel is how to manage a region of the world where our priorities are, one, the security and territorial integrity of our state; two, how to protect our citizens; and three, what do we do to assure ourselves that tomorrow will be better than today?”

The answer, Stein said, is to create alliances of convenience rather than alliances of conviction, and he pointed to historical precedents to illustrate his case. “I’m going to use a phrase that may not immediately have relevance. I want you to think about the phrase ‘buying time.’ Historically, that’s what Jews have done when they’ve lived in a non-Jewish world. We’ve bought time.

“We are a minority, and therefore we’ve had to negotiate within the minority in order to assert our position and state our preferences, promising to give something to a ruler of a country, exchange our expertise or ideas so that we can be preserved as a people, because we will always be a minority. We were a minority 3,000 years ago and will be in 300 years. Its reality. We’re always lobbying or negotiating with someone for enhanced status, for preserving our status quo.”

Netanyahu’s purpose is to buy time, find and keep allies, and increase security, Stein said, and whether or not Iran has a nuclear capability, Israel has to plan for one, just in case. “Israel has to live in this highly complex neighborhood, and it has to make foreign policy based on changes. You have to prepare yourself for umpteen different contingencies,” he said. “A lot of conflicts have nothing to do with Israel. Sunni and Shia, for instance. It’s just the neighborhood where Israel happens to live.”

Stein, a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history, political science and Israeli studies at Emory, praised Obama in spite of current tensions with Netanyahu. He quoted an interview Obama gave to the New York Times on April 4 in which he said the negotiations with Iran are “our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon … and sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anyone messes with Israel, America will be there.”

Stein said Obama should be taken at his word. “People who don’t like Obama failed to read that or ignored it. He didn’t say, ‘I don’t have Israel’s back.’ He didn’t say, ‘Everything Netanyahu said [to Congress] is a load of.”

The Obama doctrine is engagement, Stein said. “He’s engaged with Cuba, now with Iran. He is trying to use logic and reason to persuade bad guys to do better things.”

Obama declared during the 2012 election campaign that he was not seeking regime change in Iran but was only interested in engaging with its leaders. “That was an enormous statement for the Iranian government,” Stein said.

He said the Iran deal will be a transaction, not a transformation. “It’s a contract where sides will agree, where behavior will be monitored, and some restrictions or penalties will be imposed for not observing what has been agreed to. Iran will continue to protect its regime to ensure its longevity.”