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For Obama, Iran Talks Are Also About Testing the Limits of American Jewish Power

In Washington, the president and his allies are using the nuclear issue to drive a wedge between Israel and its U.S. interlocutors

Lee Smith
November 20, 2013
Sec. John Kerry speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13, 2013. Kerry is asking Congress not to approve any new sanctions on Iran while negotiations continue with Tehran about its nuclear program. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sec. John Kerry speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13, 2013. Kerry is asking Congress not to approve any new sanctions on Iran while negotiations continue with Tehran about its nuclear program. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Obama Administration thinks it’s close to signing a deal with Iran—one that will only defer, not prevent, the theocracy from reaching nuclear capacity—later this week in Geneva. While Benjamin Netanyahu has been busy denouncing the proposed deal on the Sunday morning talk shows, the administration and its allies have outflanked both the Israeli prime minister and America’s pro-Israel lobby with a very nasty public campaign of its own—one that shows where the White House’s true appetite for confrontation and conflict lies.

During a Senate briefing last week, Sec. of State John Kerry effectively called the Israelis liars: After Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk observed that Jerusalem had produced intelligence explaining that the proposed U.S.-Iran deal would set Tehran’s march toward a bomb back by only 24 days, Kerry advised him to “disbelieve everything that the Israelis had just told [us].”

Not only has the White House defined Israeli concerns as manipulative and deceptive, but they have also gone a step further, by identifying the threat to global peace as Israel’s temerity in voicing such concerns, rather than Iran’s decadelong push for a bomb. AIPAC’s push for another round of sanctions, administration officials say, will limit President Barack Obama’s diplomatic flexibility with the Iranians and set the United States on “a march to war.” Further congressional pressure on the Iranians, the New York Times says, is “urged on by Netanyahu.”

In other words, from the point of view of the administration and its surrogates in the press, if you believe sanctions—rather than good will—is what got Iran to the table in the first place and further sanctions are likely to produce a better deal than relieving pressure on Iran, then you’re a warmonger. If you believe that sanctions should not be lifted until Iran complies with U.N. Security Council resolutions and ceases all activity on its nuclear weapons program, then you’re with Netanyahu and the rest of those Israeli liars. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen tweeted that Mark Dubowitz, an official at the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has been instrumental in building support for the Iran sanctions regime in Congress, was taking his “talking points” from Israel. If you’re not 100 percent behind Obama, you just want to send American boys off to die for Jewish causes.

American officials apparently feel that trafficking in stereotypes about Jewish deceptiveness and appetite for blood is fair play because of the size of the stakes involved—peace and a historical reconciliation with Iran, which has been one of the collective dreams of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment for 34 years. In part, the White House’s confrontation with the pro-Israel community is clearly intentional, and another part is simply structural, the result of a larger, more comprehensive effort to downsize American power generally by withdrawing from the Middle East. Either way, it’s crunch time, and both the government of Israel and AIPAC have taken the rather unusual step of taking their differences with a U.S. president to the American public. One thing is clear: Whether or not the Iranians are courteous enough to wait for Obama to leave office before announcing they have a bomb, Obama’s legacy will be to have broken the spine of America’s pro-Israel lobby.


In a sense, the struggle between the pro-Israel community and the White House isn’t really about Israel. Whether or not AIPAC’s sanctions campaign succeeds—which is to say, whether or not it gets sufficient bipartisan support from Democrats reluctant to rebel against a commander in chief in the midst of a crisis moment of his presidency prompted by the introduction of the Affordable Care Act—and whether or not some combination of AIPAC, France, Saudi Arabia, and Israel manage to stop the Obama Administration from signing a bad deal with the Iranians in Geneva, Israel will be OK. Insofar as Jerusalem is coming to understand, along with the rest of America’s traditional regional allies, that Obama is leading the United States out of the Middle East, Israel, as analyst Martin Kramer, president of Shalem College, recently wrote, “must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere,” and will—in Russia, or China, or somewhere else.

The situation is very different for America’s pro-Israel community, whose power is a function of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Because Israel is a real country in a strategically vital area of the world and not simply an ethnic community like American Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, or Arab-Americans, Israel’s American interlocutors wield real power. Indeed, Israel’s current de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia, home to the world’s largest known reserves of oil, makes Israel even more significant as a possible guarantor of Saudi security. But the power of American Jews doesn’t rest on their control of oilfields, advanced fighter planes, and other traditional sources of geopolitical power. It rests on their connection to Israel and Israel’s connection to them.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the administration saw J Street not as an alternative to AIPAC or even, in the words of J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, as Obama’s “blocking back” on Capitol Hill to push the now-moribund peace process. From the White House’s perspective, it was simply a test pilot, whose job was to push the domestic political limits of the administration’s Middle East policy. OK, it wasn’t a good idea to force the peace process as hard as J Street had argued. However, battering the Israelis over settlements showed there was no problem in shaming Israel publicly—especially when the country was led by a right-wing prime minister, a spectacle that some in the U.S. pro-Israel community actually relished.

It wasn’t until his second term, with his eyes on the prize of historical reconciliation with Iran, that Obama really zeroed in on the pro-Israel community. Appointing Chuck Hagel, who’d made animus toward Israel’s supporters in Washington into a defining source of personal and political pride, as secretary of defense, was a way to move the yardsticks far downfield and pin AIPAC with its back to the goal line. Sure, the next few yards, getting a deal with Iran, would be a real pile-up, but it was doable.

Next, the White House got AIPAC to support the president’s decision to wage a short and limited campaign of air strikes against Bashar al-Assad to enforce Obama’s red line regarding the Syrian dictator’s use of chemical weapons. This not only exposed the organization to the typical anti-Semitic charges—Jewish war-mongering on behalf of Israel—but it did much worse, in helping to paint AIPAC as an over-eager lackey that jumped to do the White House’s bidding on an issue that arguably had nothing to do either way with Israel’s national interest or the concerns of its supporters. When Obama backed off the strikes and signed on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his unconventional arsenal, AIPAC was hung out to dry. To further rub their faces in it, the administration sent Vice President Joe Biden to deliver the keynote address at J Street, which had declined to support the president’s plan to strike Syria.

AIPAC has fought back and continues to do so. When the White House tried to sideline the pro-Israel community and Abe Foxman announced that Jewish organizations would take a “time out” in the Iran sanctions campaign, AIPAC immediately responded that there would be “no pause, delay or moratorium” in the outfit’s lobbying for more and stronger Iran sanctions. Even with the administration on the verge of a deal, AIPAC keeps pushing for further sanctions. However, the problem is that AIPAC has already been shown unable to shape policy from inside Obama’s White House, or to gather enough bipartisan support from within the president’s party to oppose it strongly enough on Capitol Hill.

AIPAC’s failure to project strong, clear opinions on some controversial issues—including the Hagel nomination—has contributed to the weakening of its influence. Yet to make the problem simply one of poor decision-making and leadership by AIPAC is to draw too narrow a circle around a much larger decline in influence, which includes everyone sitting at the pro-Israel family table. The United States is getting out of the Middle East, which means that Israeli interests—just like Saudi Arabian interests, or Egyptian interests, or Iraqi interests, or Palestinian interests—will simply not be as important to American policymakers anymore.

Israel will be fine on its own—even if some of the decisions it might make, like absorbing the West Bank, or refusing to recognize the legitimacy of American Jewish marriages, or cozying up to dictators like Vladimir Putin—will leave American Jews feeling alienated and bereft. The first and most noticeable impact will be on the institutions and all of the personages who have served as mediators and interlocutors on behalf of the relationship between Israel and the United States government. Someone else will fill the vacuum left by America’s exit from the Middle East, and that means that Israel’s significant foreign interlocutors—the ones who will get red-carpet treatment in Jerusalem and key interviews with sitting prime ministers—will no longer be found in the United States but elsewhere. Russian rabbis, like Berel Lazar, or French MPs, like Meyer Habib, will play the role that John Hagee or Chuck Schumer once did because of their access to key decision-makers in Moscow and Paris.

But the crucial point is that it’s not just the bigwigs in the U.S. pro-Israel community who will feel their significance to be radically diminished as the United States withdraws from the Middle East. Sure, they’ll feel the sting most acutely—at first. But in time, every American will come to feel the diminishment of American power that comes from forsaking a 60-year-old American patrimony, with the control over global resources and the geopolitical influence—and the opportunity to promote American values—it once made possible.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.