Iran deal divides US Jewish organisations

Friday 21/08/2015
Opposing the deal. US Senator Charles Schumer gesturing prior to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress last March.

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.