An interim deal with Iran has been signed. The government of Israel is deeply concerned. So too are Israel’s American Jewish supporters. The terms of a final deal could be favorable to Israel; President Obama has made his case that this will be so. But there is also an argument to be made that America’s resolve has been weakened, the sanctions are unravelling, and Iran is likely to emerge from the talks as a threshold nuclear state. What happens in the next 6-12 months will critical for Israel’s future—and perhaps for her survival.
As the negotiations continue, and as American Jews consider the role they should play, this would be a good time to summarize what American Jews can learn from recent developments in the talks with Iran.
First: The President of the United States usually gets his way in matters of foreign policy.
This is a simple and obvious point, but an important and often forgotten one. There are exceptions, of course. When American lives are at risk or immediate security interests are at stake, Congressional voices are raised and public debate ensues. But generally speaking, Americans defer to their president on foreign affairs. This does not mean that President Obama should not be challenged; it does mean that for him, as for previous Presidents, once he makes up his mind, he is more likely than not to carry the day.
Second: The American people do not want their government making commitments abroad—regarding Iran or anything else.
Americans do not share the activist impulses of American Jews, even though they admire Israel and disapprove of Iran. In the Pew Research Center’s survey on national priorities, conducted earlier in the year, 83% of Americans said that the president should focus on domestic policy, while only 6% said foreign policy. Consider some distressing data from a recent ADL survey: 48% of Americans said that if Israel attacked Iran, the United States should be neutral; only 40% said that the U.S. should support Israel.
Third: Republicans will not be champions of a military strike against Iran.
Some conservatives like to talk tough on Iran, but it’s mostly bluff. After the interim Iran agreement was announced, Republicans made some noise—but not much. They mostly avoided taking any public positions that would suggest the need for American military action. This is because the Republicans now have an assertive neo-isolationist wing (led by the Tea Party and Rand Paul) and because the Republicans are reading the same polls that the Democrats are reading.
Four: America no longer believes that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
American diplomats do not think that Israel will use American planes against American wishes in an extremely risky military operation that, even if partially successful, would leave Israel utterly isolated in the world. Does Israel have the right to act independently to protect her interests? Of course. Would an Israeli attack have been possible a few years ago? Perhaps. But none of that matters now. And since empty threats diminish rather than strengthen Israel’s credibility, it would best for Israel’s leaders to stop threatening.
Five: The Iranian threat and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are closely connected.
Logically, they should not be, but both Netanyahu on the one hand and Obama and Kerry on the other have made the connection. Netanyahu has suggested that a failure to eliminate the Iranian threat will make Israel less likely to compromise with the Palestinians. Then again, it could work the other way. Israeli concessions in dealing with the Palestinians could be leverage with the Americans in the Iran negotiations; furthermore, they could also be helpful in developing relations with the Saudis and the Arab League, who are potential allies on Iran but who need an Israeli-Palestinian deal for meaningful cooperation with Israel.
Six: Reports of deep fractures in the Jewish community over Iran or of a major loss of Jewish clout in America are greatly exaggerated.
President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue to pay an enormous amount of attention to Jewish concerns on Iran. They know that the Jewish community has been and will continue to be major players in the Iran debate.
And what does all this mean? Writing as someone who has significant concerns about the interim agreement, my conclusion is that this is a time for realism by the American Jewish community. Spouting vitriol at the President is a mistake, and confrontation with the administration will backfire. The simple fact is that the Obama administration wants a diplomatic deal with Iran, the American people will be supportive, and the Republicans will mostly be concerned with other things.
But realism is not retreat. In fact, American Jewish political engagement has never been more vital than it is now. The task of the Jewish community in the next 6 months is to do what it does best: use every ounce of its influence with the administration and with Congress to assure that the deal reached is a good one and that Iran neither develops a nuclear weapon nor is able to build such a weapon on short notice.
Not surprisingly, ominous predictions notwithstanding, the American Jewish community—a mature, sophisticated community—understands these realities very well, and this is precisely what it is doing.