Collateral Damage

The Obama-Netanyahu War over Iran is leaving some US Jews feeling battered into choosing between their president and Israel’s premier.

US Presidnet Barack Obama in the Oval Office at the White House [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Presidnet Barack Obama in the Oval Office at the White House [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TENSIONS BETWEEN an American president and Israeli premier have rarely been as open, personal, and vitriolic as they presently are between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The American Jewish community has been confronted by “dueling appeals,” according to the Associated Press, forced to choose between Netanyahu, who has been lobbying vociferously to scuttle the July nuclear deal signed in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 and Obama who sees it as central to his legacy. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national- security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down,” the president told Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic magazine.
The row will continue at least until after September 7 when the US Congress returns from its Labor Day recess to vote on the matter. Should the vote go against Obama, he has pledged to wield his veto power. It would take two-thirds of the votes cast in each chamber to override.
“This deal will bring war,” Netanyahu declared in an August 4 video address to American Jewish leaders. Whether Iran keeps the deal or not, the premier said the agreement will ultimately leave the mullahs with hundreds of nuclear weapons even as Tehran builds an intercontinental ballistic capacity to strike North America.
While community leaders and Jewish lawmakers are grappling with the substance of the deal, there is an undercurrent of sentiment especially in progressive circles that Jerusalem is asking American Jews to choose its interests over Washington’s.
Speaking at a recent Washington forum, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub of Encounter, a group that advocates making US Jews “constructive agents of change” on the Arab- Israel conflict, wondered aloud, “If our American interests do diverge from Israeli interests, what then for us as American Jews. How do we navigate that?” “This is a really tough one,” replied Forward newspaper editor Jane Eisner, who moderated the event. “This is the kind of thing that makes a lot of us squirm.” She added, “Unlike most other hyphenated-Americans, we have this other country that we care about – a real lot.”
The late political scientist Richard Neustadt famously argued that the real power of any American president is the “power to persuade.” Though roughly 50 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the presidency, he can nonetheless tap into the prestige of his office in any head-to-head contest with a no less unpopular foreign leader. Indeed, Obama has framed the argument in either/ or terms.
He told a group of 22 Jewish leaders at the White House on August 4 that if Congress does not approve the agreement, the US would likely find itself pressured into war with Iran. The not-so-subtle undercurrent was that US Jews would be held accountable for dragging America into another costly and protracted Middle East war. “It was an unsettling address for American Jews, even if they object to the relentless anti-deal campaign being waged in their name,” wrote Chemi Shalev in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.
Netanyahu plainly believes the stakes are too high not to call in all his chips. Tehran has time and again pledged to wipe Israel off the map. He presumably figures that if US Jews won’t oppose a deal that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program and lifts sanctions worth billions of dollars to its economy ‒ money that will be used to bolster the regime and its Hezbollah proxy ‒ what good is the purported influence of the Jewish lobby.
Many organizations, including the centrist Anti-Defamation League and the quintessential establishment American Jewish Committee, not to mention right-leaning groups such as the Orthodox Union and Zionist Organization of America, have come out against the deal. The preeminent pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (the America Israel Public Affairs Committee) is working tirelessly to torpedo the deal. Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an AIPAC-linked group, is reportedly spending millions on the “No” campaign, according to The Washington Post.
THOSE IN the community feeling the heat most are Democratic Jewish lawmakers.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer, whose term expires in 2016, and Bronx Congressman Eliot Engel, who will be seeking his 14th term in November, have both announced that they will break with Obama and vote to disapprove the Iran deal.
Opposition to the deal by mainstream Jewish organizations does not reflect the sentiment of American Jewry, Mira Sucharov, a Carlton University political scientist tells The Jerusalem Report. She cites a poll designed by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion demographer Steven M. Cohen, which found that 48 percent of US Jews favor the deal, 27.6 percent are opposed and 24.6 percent aren’t sure.
AIPAC’s efforts are being countered by J Street, which has essentially taken on the role of lobbying the US Jewish community and lawmakers on behalf of the Obama administration. It plans to spend at least $2 million to $3 million on its Iran suasion efforts.
Netanyahu’s “insistence on fighting a battle against the Iran agreement only isolates Israel” and creates a gulf with American Jews, sociologist Samuel Heilman, a Jewish studies professor at New York’s Queens College tells The Report. Citing a Washington Institute survey that shows Palestinians as ready to move forward on the peace process, Heilman argues that the best way to isolate Iran is to take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict off the table. “There are many ways to isolate Iran by Israel, and they all come down to making an agreement on two states for two peoples.” Moreover, says Heilman, if Israel is perceived as encouraging America to enter another Mideast war instead of choosing a diplomatic solution, “this will in time surely undermine Israel’s special relationship with the US.”
Nothing makes American Jews more uncomfortable than raising the dual-loyalty canard. While ostensibly aimed at taking some of the sting out of the Iran deal, the timing of the federal announcement that Jonathan Pollard will be released in November, having served a 30-year sentence for espionage on behalf of Israel, paradoxically calls attention to a case of perfidy most Jews would rather forget.
Netanyahu’s detractors say that pressing US Jews to choose between Washington and Jerusalem will whiplash against the community. M.J. Rosenberg, a staunch opponent of Israeli policies, has argued that the dual loyalty charge could be valid on the Iran issue if “people knowingly put the interest of Israel’s Likud government above America’s.” He recently tweeted: “Netanyahu and the Israel lobby’s war on Obama are undermining American Jews.”
In any case, historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University points out to The Report that US Jewry has always been happiest when its interests and American interests appear to run hand in hand. He points to the example of the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel was seen as a US surrogate in the Cold War and to the sense of affinity between the two countries in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
“Often, though, the situation is more complicated. The problem, this time, is that the debate has been framed in terms of Israeli interests vs. US interests, when it should actually be about different visions of what America’s best interests are,” says Sarna. “Had the debate focused on whether America should sign a treaty with a country that openly espouses the annihilation of Israel, I think that the issues involved would have been clearer and the American- Jewish community would have had an easier time uniting.”
Still, many who oppose the Iran deal think Netanyahu’s handling of the Israel- US relationship has been dangerously counterproductive. These include his former ambassador to Washington and now Kulanu Party Knesset Member Michael Oren, Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog, President Reuven Rivlin, and Yesh Atid Party chief Yair Lapid ‒ all of whom have lobbied against the deal.
Some analysts surmise that Obama decisively checkmated Netanyahu back in March 2013 when the White House launched its secret negotiations with Iran.
That’s when Tehran realized that after inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with the Islamic State group making inroads throughout the Middle East, Washington had little stomach for a war with Iran. This might also explain why Netanyahu felt he had nothing to lose by addressing a joint session of Congress in March.
The president’s camp has cautioned that, if Congress nixes the deal, Iran will feel free to pursue uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels even as the sanctions regime collapses. On the other hand, say analysts, the mullahs could announce ‒ counterintuitively ‒ that congressional opposition notwithstanding they will, nonetheless, adhere to their Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commitments signed in Vienna.
EITHER WAY, EU members along with China and Russia can be expected to resume business as usual with the Islamic Republic. Chomping at the bit, Vladimir Putin has already met with Qassem Soleimani, a top official of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, to discuss Moscow’s delivery to Iran of S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons.
The discomfiture felt by US Jews over the Iran nuclear deal is reminiscent of the 1981 controversy over selling AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia.
Paying no heed to protests by premier Menachem Begin, Ronald Reagan’s administration was determined to go ahead with the most massive foreign arms sale in US history. Then Saudi lobbyist Fred Dutton bluntly told senators that they had to choose between “Begin and Reagan.” Former president Richard Nixon weighed in warning that the Jewish community will “have to take the consequences, if Congress kills the AWACs sale.” On the Senate floor, South Carolina Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings referred sardonically to Ohio senator Howard Metzenbaum as the senator from B’nai Brith. Unnamed administration sources implied that the patriotism of US Jews was in question. This onslaught roused The New York Times to editorialize that supporters of the AWACs deal had shown “no compunction about uttering even the vilest threats of retribution against Israel and of anti-Semitism in America.”
After the much vaunted pro-Israel lobby went down to defeat, secretary of defense Casper Weinberger disingenuously bemoaned that criticism of Jewish lobbying efforts had taken such “an ugly tone.”
Any claims of dual loyalty in the Iran case are totally misplaced, Norman Podhoretz, the dean of American neoconservatism, asserts to The Report. He argues that, if anything, Jews who predominantly lean toward the Democratic Party are oddly out of step with the rest of America. It’s true that those who identify as Democrats support the Iran deal 52 percent to 32 percent, but Americans on the whole oppose it by a 57 to 28 percent margin, Podhoretz notes, citing an August 3 Quinnipiac poll.
“Depending on which poll you believe, anywhere from 60 percent (in a J Street survey) to a narrow plurality of Jews are in favor; no poll, so far as I know, shows a majority of Jews opposed,” Podhoretz says.
However, an Israel Project poll has a plurality of Jews ‒ by a narrow margin ‒ wanting Congress to reject the deal.
“In other words, if you frame the issue as America vs. Israel, it’s the general population, not the Jews who, so to speak, are guilty of dual loyalty – i.e., by siding with Netanyahu against Obama.”
New York City Jews appear to be outliers, he says. By a 53 percent to 33 percent margin the community opposes the pact even though city Democrats back the deal 43 percent to 33 percent, according to an August 11 Quinnipiac survey.
Podhoretz goes on to say, “But, of course, framing the issue in that way is preposterous, since it rests on the wildly fallacious assumption that the deal is self-evidently good for America.
“Moreover, if anyone is pushing the Jews into a corner, it’s Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose warnings emit a whiff of anti-Semitism.”
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness (The Toby Press). You can follow him on Twitter @ JAGERFILE