Washington watch: US-Israel rift spreading to Jewish community

The widening rift between Washington and Jerusalem threatens to create fissures within the Jewish community here.

Kerry and Bibi (photo credit: Reuters)
Kerry and Bibi
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 “historic mistake.”
The agreement calls for six months of negotiations to produce a permanent arrangement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
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 afford.
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 Palestinians.
• 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.
• An 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 chance.
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 administration.
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.
The 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 new measures.
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 the region.
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 regime.
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.
The self-righteous Netanyahu shot back, “I won’t shut up.”
Another recent 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 direction.
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.
Seeing 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 military action.
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.