There are Jewish lobbyists, political activists, federation leaders, rabbis, opinion writers and maybe even some ordinary folks who are focused on the day two months from now when the U.S. Congress votes on the nuclear agreement with Iran. Will there be enough votes to sustain President Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment? If not, how soundly will the deal be rejected?
Millions of dollars will be spent by then, trying to sway the relatively few undecided votes in the Senate, the public opinion that could affect those wavering lawmakers and the donor class which really has their ear. Given the geopolitical stakes, and the passion, it may feel like Election Day when the polls say the race is too close to call, or a prize fight between two boxers of near identical ranking.
But when the curtain falls on this great Washington drama, what then? What happens to the Jewish community, and the American-Israeli relationship on The Day After?
That is what has us worried. It has been many decades since an American president and an Israeli prime minister have been in so public a dispute; many decades since leaders of the organized Jewish community here have chosen to openly challenge the White House; many decades since the rhetoric escalated so quickly and defiantly. It has happened before, but there are crucial differences today that make this stand-off even more anxious and disheartening for American Jews.
“We’re caught in a war of hyperbole and I don’t think either side is doing the reality of the situation a service,” the noted historian Deborah Lipstadt said. “I’m very concerned about the deal, certainly, but I’m also concerned about the long-term implications for the American-Israeli relationship.”
Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, offers an even bleaker assessment: “I don’t understand how it gets translated into anything but a lose-lose for Israel and U.S. relations.”
No one who worries about The Day After is saying that there shouldn’t be a robust debate about the agreement signed July 14 by Iran, the United States and five other nations to reduce Iran’s nuclear capability in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. And some Jewish organizations are productively committing to that debate. The Anti-Defamation League, for instance, urged lawmakers to get answers to four “tough questions” about the agreement before voting for approval, and to withhold their support if the concerns about verification, deterrence and the like are not satisfied.
But there’s a difference between challenging the substance as the ADL is doing and the sort of gloves-off fight accelerating with every bombastic protest and press release. Some of the agreement’s most enthusiastic supporters seem willfully deaf to the legitimate cries of Israelis concerned about how Iran will exercise its new military and economic muscle once sanctions are lifted. On the opposite end of the political spectrum is a well-funded, scorched-earth campaign promoted by those who find nothing of value and everything to decry about this agreement, painting it in apocolyptic colors, drawing frightening historic comparisons and too often demeaning the very Jewishness of anyone with the chutzpah to disagree.
And what of The Day After? If Obama ends up prevailing with Congress — and the good money is on that outcome — then the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies will have spent $20 million for nothing, emerging weaker and more aligned with the political opposition to a president who has proven to be surprisingly successful as a lame duck.
But what if Israel and its American supporters are able to accumulate enough votes to override a promised presidential veto? What then?
The president will be crippled, and the United States isolated on the world stage. It’s unlikely that Iran will return to negotiations, and highly likely that Russians and Chinese will begin trading with Tehran. And if a military option turns out to be the only way to stop an unregulated Iran, you can rest assured that Israel and, by extension, America’s Jews will be held responsible for igniting the next Middle East war. Israel is, let’s remember, the only nation to oppose this deal so aggressively in public.
Perhaps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have devised a scenario to avoid this nightmare. If so, we wish they’d share it.
History is only a limited guide here. There have been at least three other times in the past 40 years when diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel turned openly hostile: in 1975, when President Ford complained about Israeli “intransigence” and reassessed the bilateral relationship; in the 1980s, when President Reagan defied Israel and sold surveillance airplanes to Saudi Arabia; and in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush held up a $10 billion loan guarantee over a dispute about settlements.
In each case, the U.S. president won. And somehow, the relationship survived.
The situation today is more fraught, for this reason: Ford, Reagan and Bush were all Republicans, so Jewish voters could side with Israel and remain in their natural political home, the Democratic Party. Today, the extreme partisanship of the Iran debate is forcing many American Jews to choose between a president they have supported overwhelmingly and an Israel they wish to defend.
Respecting that tension will be essential for The Day After. “If we are going to have this argument within the family, then each side should say they are not going to ascribe malign intentions to their opponents,” offered Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Let’s conduct ourselves in such a way that we can live together afterwards. It’s not too late.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.