The widening rift between Washington and Jerusalem threatens to create fissures
within the Jewish community here.
There is a growing feeling among some
pro-Israel groups that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s strident attacks on
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in the wake of their
diplomatic opening to Iran may be harmful not only to bilateral relations but to
their institutional interests as well as Israel’s.
Recent polls show the
American public, by large margins, agrees that the interim Geneva agreement
between the leading world powers and Iran to freeze the Islamic Republic’s
nuclear program is an historic opportunity, and not, as Netanyahu insists, an
The agreement calls for six months of negotiations to
produce a permanent arrangement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear
Netanyahu’s call to immediately impose tougher sanctions is
making a growing number of pro-Israel activists, Jewish leaders and political
figures uneasy. Unlike the saber-rattling prime minister they know their
constituents don’t want to see another war this country can’t
Jewish activists see a number of problems ahead: • A growing rift
within the Jewish community between the mainstream and the hardline Netanyahu
supporters on this and other issues, particularly settlements and peace with the
• A potential loss of access to the administration and
alienation from important contacts in the government, which means a loss of
influence on the broad range of other issues on their agendas.
anti-Israel backlash if Israel is seen trying to torpedo a deal with Iran and
push the United States into another war.
Many American Jews support the
agreement not because they trust Iran but because they want to give diplomacy a
Some of the most vocal opposition to the agreement is coming from
Capitol Hill. The Republicans reflexively oppose anything Obama does and may be
tempted to try to sabotage the agreement by enacting tough new sanctions for
just that reason.
Democrats don’t trust Iran, either, and support tough
sanctions, but they are more open to working with the
Netanyahu’s full court press in Congress is putting many
lawmakers in a politically awkward spot – another factor jeopardizing Israel’s
long-term interests in Washington.
The White House is vigorously lobbying
Congress to delay any new sanctions and to give negotiations a chance. After
all, they’re telling lawmakers, the purpose of the sanctions was to force Iran
to engage in serious talks.
The Geneva agreement requires a halt in any
new sanctions for the duration of the negotiations. If the talks succeed, more
won’t be necessary, Obama is telling them, and if they fail, he’ll back
stringent new measures.
One strategy being considered on the Hill, as
reported here earlier, is to enact new sanctions and put them on hold for the
duration of the talks. An alternative may be to shelve new legislation for the
duration of the talks. But Republicans may press for immediate steps that would
force Obama to choose between a signature that would kill the negotiations or a
veto they and Netanyahu could use to brand him as anti-Israel.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC ), the leader of the sanctions
movement, was the first to put some distance between itself and Netanyahu. It
has said the negotiations should be given time to work or fail before imposing
The group may have been warned off by its own failure to
muster enough congressional support to force Obama to bomb Syria as punishment
for using poison gas. The result was a defeat for AIPAC and Netanyahu but a
victory for Israeli security because Syria was forced to give up its chemical
weapons arsenal, which was the greatest present threat to Israeli security in
AIPAC also appears to be distinguishing between a civilian
and military Iranian nuclear program instead of the zero-tolerance it previously
advocated. Netanyahu has been vague on that point.
Sen. Chuck Schumer
(D-New York), who likes to describe himself as Netanyahu’s closest friend in
Congress and often echoes his views, appears to be following the AIPAC line, as
are many mainstream Jewish organizations.
Congress can play bad cop to
Obama’s good cop, but it has to be careful not to go farther than the war-wary
American public will tolerate. Also Congress can’t ignore the concerns of our
European allies, who are critical to maintaining the sanctions
Some of Netanyahu’s former colleagues and rivals are cautioning
him to end his strident attacks on the American government and the Geneva
agreement. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said Netanyahu has “declared war on
the US.” He said “picking a fight with Israel’s number one ally and to incite
the American congress against the president” is dangerous.
Dan Meridor, a
former deputy prime minister under Netanyahu, said “embarking on an offensive of
attacks, criticism and scorekeeping” only benefits Iran.
self-righteous Netanyahu shot back, “I won’t shut up.”
development that should make Netanyahu and his hardline supporters nervous is
the waning influence of the evangelical movement, which AIPAC and the Israeli
Right have ardently courted for years and expected to protect their interests in
Washington. Overtaking the religious Right is the rising tide of the tea party
movement, which is pulling the GOP in a more isolationist
Netanyahu has accepted Obama’s invitation to send a national
security team to Washington to discuss the upcoming negotiations. Meanwhile
there are reports out of Jerusalem that the prime minister has ordered the
Mossad to find the smoking gun that will derail the Iranian deal.
he wasn’t making progress in that direction, Netanyahu on one occasion tried to
take credit for the agreement, saying it is a “bad deal” but better than
expected because of his influence. He couched that with another threat to take
Netanyahu risks getting to the point where the
administration – and the other big powers – become convinced that nothing they
do will satisfy him, so why even bother. That would be the most dangerous
development of all – for Israel and for the Jewish groups here that are
increasingly uncomfortable with the prime minister’s bellicose leadership.