The Iran Deal Puts Pro-Israel Democrats in a Bind

These Dems have to balance their loyalty to the president — and his desire to halt the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program — with their discomfort over a deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with Secretary of State John Kerry after a statement on a landmark deal with Iran halting parts of its nuclear program Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 22, 2013, 6:16 p.m.

It’s been a tough year for Is­rael’s most loy­al sup­port­ers in the U.S. It began with a messy con­firm­a­tion pro­cess for De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, a nom­in­ee whom pro-Is­raeli groups viewed with con­cern. Over the sum­mer, Pres­id­ent Obama leaned on those groups, most not­ably the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, to lobby for his pro­pos­al au­thor­iz­ing mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia, only to aban­don the push at the last minute. “And, most re­cently, pro-Is­rael or­gan­iz­a­tions have been highly crit­ic­al of a pos­sible dip­lo­mat­ic deal with Ir­an that would loosen sanc­tions against the Is­lam­ic re­gime — a deal that Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu deemed “ex­ceed­ingly bad.”

Sat­urday night, the White House an­nounced a deal reached in Geneva to lim­it and roll back Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar de­vel­op­ment.

Mean­while, re­la­tions between the White House and Is­rael are as chilly as they’ve been in dec­ades, with Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials openly con­tra­dict­ing Net­an­yahu’s po­s­i­tions, and Net­an­yahu openly court­ing the French to fore­stall the U.S. dip­lo­mat­ic push with Ir­an.

All of this puts Demo­crats, who routinely win over­whelm­ing sup­port from Jew­ish Amer­ic­ans on Elec­tion Day, in an awk­ward po­s­i­tion. Do they stand with the pres­id­ent on polit­ic­ally sens­it­ive for­eign policy is­sues, or stake their own course? That dif­fi­cult dy­nam­ic is cur­rently play­ing out in Con­gress, where the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is res­ist­ing a Sen­ate push to main­tain tough sanc­tions against Ir­an. This week, Obama met with lead­ing sen­at­ors on the Bank­ing and For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tees to dis­suade them from their ef­forts while dip­lomacy is un­der­way.

“There’s a fun­da­ment­al dis­agree­ment between the vast ma­jor­ity of Con­gress and the pres­id­ent when it comes to in­creas­ing Ir­an sanc­tions right now,” said one Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive in­volved in the ad­vocacy ef­forts. “Pro-Is­rael groups, like AIPAC, try to do things in a bi­par­tis­an way; they don’t like open con­front­a­tion. But in this in­stance, it’s hard.”

That awk­ward­ness has been evid­ent in the luke­warm re­ac­tion from many of Obama’s Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic al­lies to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s out­reach to Ir­an. Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey said last week he was con­cerned that the ad­min­is­tra­tion seems “to want the deal al­most more than the Ir­a­ni­ans.” Nor­mally out­spoken Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York, a re­li­able ally of Is­rael, has been con­spicu­ously quiet about his views on the ne­go­ti­ations. In a CNN in­ter­view this month, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Debbie Wasser­man Schultz of Flor­ida, whose job as chair­wo­man of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is to de­fend the pres­id­ent, not­ably de­clined to en­dorse the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach, fo­cus­ing in­stead on Obama’s past sup­port of sanc­tions. This, des­pite the full-court press from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, a former con­gres­sion­al col­league.

On Tues­day, after meet­ing with Obama, Men­en­dez and Schu­mer signed a bi­par­tis­an let­ter to Kerry warn­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion about ac­cept­ing a deal that would al­low Ir­an to con­tin­ue its nuc­le­ar pro­gram. The let­ter was also signed by Sens. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa.

Demo­crats, of course, real­ize that the pres­id­ent plays an out­sized role in the policy dir­ec­tion of his party. Just as George W. Bush moved the Re­pub­lic­an Party in a more hawk­ish dir­ec­tion dur­ing his war-riv­en pres­id­ency, Obama is nudging Demo­crats away from their tra­di­tion­ally in­stinct­ive sup­port for the Jew­ish state. “I can’t re­mem­ber the last time the dif­fer­ences [between the U.S. and Is­rael] were this stark,” said one former Demo­crat­ic White House of­fi­cial with ties to the Jew­ish com­munity. “There’s now a little more free­dom [for pro­gress­ive Demo­crats] to say what they want to say, without fear of get­ting their tuchus kicked by the or­gan­ized Jew­ish com­munity.”

A Gal­lup sur­vey con­duc­ted this year showed 55 per­cent of Demo­crats sym­path­iz­ing with the Is­rael­is over the Palestini­ans, com­pared with 78 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans and 63 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents who do so. A land­mark Pew poll of Amer­ic­an Jews, re­leased in Oc­to­ber, showed that 35 per­cent of Jew­ish Demo­crats said they had little or no at­tach­ment to Is­rael, more than double the 15 per­cent of Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­ans who answered sim­il­arly. At the 2012 Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion, many del­eg­ates booed a plat­form pro­pos­al sup­port­ing the move of the U.S. Em­bassy in Is­rael from Tel Aviv to Jer­u­s­alem. In 2011, Demo­crats lost An­thony Wein­er’s heav­ily Jew­ish, solidly Demo­crat­ic Brook­lyn House seat be­cause enough Jew­ish voters wanted to re­buke the pres­id­ent’s per­ceived hos­til­ity to­ward Is­rael.

Pro-Is­rael ad­vocacy groups rely on the man­tra that sup­port for Is­rael car­ries over­whelm­ing bi­par­tis­an sup­port, a max­im that has held true for dec­ades in Con­gress. But most also re­luct­antly ac­know­ledge the grow­ing in­flu­ence of a fac­tion with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party that is more crit­ic­al of the two coun­tries’ close re­la­tion­ship. With­in the Jew­ish com­munity, that fac­tion is rep­res­en­ted by J Street, which po­s­i­tions it­self as the home for “pro-Is­rael, pro-peace Amer­ic­ans” and sup­ports the Ir­an ne­go­ti­ations. “Or­gan­iz­a­tions that claim to rep­res­ent the Amer­ic­an Jew­ish com­munity are un­der­min­ing [Obama’s] ap­proach by push­ing for new and harsh­er pen­al­ties against Ir­an,” the group wrote in an ac­tion alert to its mem­bers.

Some sup­port­ers of Is­rael view J Street with con­cern. “There’s a small cadre of people that comes from the pro­gress­ive side of the party that are in the busi­ness of blam­ing Is­rael first. There’s a chor­us of these guys,” said a former Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion for­eign policy of­fi­cial. “But that doesn’t make them the dom­in­ant folks in the policy space of the party, or the Hill.”

Pro-Is­rael act­iv­ists worry that one of the iron­ies of Obama’s situ­ation is that as his poll num­bers sink, his in­terest in strik­ing a deal with Ir­an will grow be­cause he’ll be look­ing for any bit of pos­it­ive news that can draw at­ten­tion away from the health care law’s prob­lems. Thus far, Obama’s di­min­ished polit­ic­al for­tunes aren’t de­ter­ring Demo­crats from pro­tect­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prerog­at­ives. Con­gres­sion­al sources ex­pect the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee, chaired by South Dakota Demo­crat Tim John­son, to hold off on any sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion un­til there’s a res­ol­u­tion to the Ir­a­ni­an ne­go­ti­ations. 

But if Obama’s stand­ing con­tin­ues to drop, and if Is­rael doesn’t like the deal, don’t be sur­prised to see Demo­crats be­come less hes­it­ant about go­ing their own way.