Iran deal divides US Jewish organisations
Washington - The Iran nuclear agreement has divided US Jews, a community that has long valued a unified public voice when it comes to Israel.
“It’s been an extremely divisive issue within the community because American Jews overwhelmingly voted for (US President Barack) Obama. Yet on the other hand, Netanyahu, in an unprecedented manner, is trying to rally American Jews to oppose the deal,” Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, a Washington Jewish organisation that advocates for a two-state solution, told The Arab Weekly.
Nir was referring to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s aggressive lobbying of US lawmakers. Netanyahu sparked controversy in March when he addressed the US Congress — accepting an invitation that was sent without prior White House approval — in what many Jews, and others, called a disrespectful act against the Obama administration and a low point in bilateral relations.
But US Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the most prominent Jewish member of Congress, heeded Netanyahu’s call and announced his opposition to the Iran agreement, further highlighting the gap within the Jewish community, the majority of whom are Democrats.
The divisions have not been lost on Israelis, and diplomats are raising the alarm.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently published a leaked message from an Israeli diplomat in the United States to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “At this crucial point of the Iranian issue… the Jewish community in the United States is not standing as a united front behind Israel and important parts of it are on the fence,” Yaron Sideman, Israel’s consul general in Philadelphia, said in his telegram, according to Haaretz.
Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), opposes the Iran agreement and downplayed the repercussions for the Jewish community.
He pointed out that Israel is not alone in its concerns about Iran. Saudi Arabia is opposed to the agreement and Isaacson says that less vocal players have expressed anxieties. “We talked to enough countries, including Jordan and Egypt, and they’re very worried,” Isaacson said from his office in Washington.
Obama accuses opponents of the agreement of failing to present an alternative. From Isaacson’s perspective — a view shared by other opponents of the agreement — Iran came to the negotiating table with too much power. With time, he said, and with more stringent sanctions, Iran’s position would weaken and it would have been forced to negotiate from a more compromised position.
“We urge Congress to put pressure on Iran, which needs the deal more than we do. With time, we can get a better deal,” said Isaacson.
Such a deal would not include an arms embargo that ends in eight years or less, nor allow for advanced research on uranium enrichment, he explained, even if it would release Iran’s frozen assets.
“We recognise that under any deal, Iran will get its frozen assets back,” Isaacson said. “It’s a lot of money for a regime that has the ability to make mischief. We know Hezbollah is waiting for the money.” Iran has about $100 billion in frozen assets, according to some US estimates.
Proponents of the agreement say it is the best way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal and that the status quo is “unsustainable”.
“Whether this means inching Iran towards a nuclear bomb or going to war, the alternatives to this deal are unsustainable,” said Nir. “We believe this deal is the best way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It’s a good deal for the US and for Israel.”
Nir acknowledges that Israelis and Jewish-Americans who oppose the agreement have a genuine fear of Iran, “a sworn enemy that in the past expressed a desire to erase Israel from the face of the map”.
“So they come to it with emotional baggage that has to do with the Holocaust experience and Netanyahu reflects this anxiety — it’s not just demagoguery,” said Nir.
As for tensions within the American-Jewish community and between the United States and Israel, Nir said that as Israel moves more to the right, the two countries’ inherent value systems are increasingly at odds.
“Regardless of the Iranian front, in many other ways the relationship between the US and Israel has been strained and the gap between the two political elites has been widening over the past years,” said Nir.
With the Iran agreement almost certain to move forward (Obama has vowed to veto any congressional vote against it), opponents face an embarrassing political defeat. The White House already has publicly reprimanded Schumer.
Perhaps the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), still among the most powerful lobbies in Washington, stands to lose most by rallying behind Netanyahu.
“This will weaken AIPAC,” said Nir. “AIPAC usually likes to fight a sure battle. So for AIPAC to launch one of its biggest fights in history and then lose, I think it very likely will hurt it.”
Isaacson, however, says it is worth the fight, even if the battle is lost and US-Israeli relations suffer.
“There will be bruised feelings and it will take time to heal but the relationship between the two countries is rock solid,” he said.