Six years ago, the Jewish American community was evenly divided over a key issue that would help define President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy. A survey conducted by the Jewish Journal in July 2015 showed that 49% of American Jews supported the nuclear deal with Iran while 31% were opposed. The debate tore apart even liberal congregations.
As the U.S. entered its third round of indirect talks with Iran on Monday, American Jews - and mainstream Jewish groups - seem less animated by the prospects of returning to the 2015 deal.
That’s not to suggest that American Jews won’t have something to say if an agreement is reached between Washington and Tehran about returning to compliance with the international accord in return for sanctions relief. Israel’s official position is still unclear, given the political deadlock there, and major Jewish groups have yet to indicate how they would react to the restoration of a key Obama foreign policy initiative that Biden has vowed to champion.
“There’s a very long way to go,” Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told Jewish leaders on a White House Zoom call on Friday.
So what should we expect in the coming months and will we once again witness division among Jews if the administration reaches some sort of deal? The following scenarios and factors to consider are based on interviews with close to a dozen Jewish leaders representing a diversity of viewpoints, many speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Back to the JCPOA
As a presidential candidate and since he got elected, Biden has been clear about his intentions to return as an active partner to the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If U.S. negotiators get Iran to return to compliance with the terms of the 2015 agreement in return for sanctions relief, it is unlikely to trigger too much blowback. Even Democrats who opposed the deal in 2015 are unlikely to broadcast their objections, because the agreement would not need the approval of Congress. If there is opposition, it will likely be along party lines with Democrats supporting Biden and the Republicans arguing against it.
Based on recent statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Gilad Erdan, Israel will object to any parameters that bring Iran and the U.S. back into compliance. Israeli objections would assuredly prompt Jewish groups like AIPAC — who were actively opposed to the deal in 2015 — to demonstrate their opposition.
Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s chief policy and political affairs officer in Washington, told the Forward that his group will certainly call out such an agreement as “dangerous” and express its concern that yet “another opportunity has escaped us to address the full range of Iranian threats.”
But it still remains to be seen whether other mainstream groups representing liberal Zionists and others aligned with the Democratic Party will want to see the reopening of old wounds, an outcome that many Jewish leaders fear.
Biden is not Obama
In recent months, senior Biden administration officials have indicated that they would consult with Israel and other partners in the Middle East and the Gulf region as negotiations proceed. A senior Israeli delegation is visiting Washington this week to discuss Iran with top administration officials.
The White House is also seeking to engage with the top leadership of Jewish American groups, not necessarily to sell the deal but at least to hear them out.
Sheila Katz, chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, said in an interview that she’s been “impressed at the diversity of people and organizations that the administration is choosing to engage in the conversation before the decisions are being made, to be a part of the process from beginning to end.”
Katz, who was on the White House call on Friday, suggested that the Biden administration has used the idea of virtual meetings replacing in-person meetings in order to hold these conversations more frequently. “This is the first administration, whether it’s from necessity or by choice, that has really embraced Zoom and technology to engage even more voices in the process,” she said.
This appreciation contrasts sharply to attitudes in 2015, when Jewish Democrats cautioned Obama that he was “accelerating the corrosion” in the Jewish community in framing the debate as a choice between war and peace.
Biden himself has set a more positive tone since the inauguration, even while pushing an agenda that has been embraced by the progressive wing of his party. The rhetoric coming out of the White House this time suggests that there’s a very clear desire to avoid the acrimony that tore the community apart in 2015.
But what is Biden’s ultimate goal? Secretary of State Tony Blinken suggested during his confirmation hearing that the administration is not just seeking to return to the 2015 deal, but finding a way to exert pressure to expand the deal — and possibly negotiate a broader agreement.
As one could expect, Blinken’s words won’t mollify many Republicans.
“You know what? Biden is not Obama, but he is unequivocally pushing the Obama agenda,” Fred Zeidman, a donor and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in an interview. “He has surrounded himself with the same folks that were executing the Obama foreign policy. This is not the Joe Biden that we have known from the past.”
Israeli opposition is not monolithic
Israeli opposition is also not as strong as it was when the terms of the deal were first made public in 2015. The nation is trying to figure a way out of political deadlock after four consecutive elections, and the parties on the center-left are more aligned with the Biden administration’s position than they are with Netanyahu.
Israel generally sets the tone for much of the American Jewish establishment on these issues. Netanyahu’s joint address to Congress in March of 2015 galvanized the Jewish community’s resistance to the deal.
But this time there’s no unified stance in Israel or a clear understanding of the Israeli government’s objective.
If an alternative government is formed in the coming weeks, anyone replacing Netanyahu will seek to avoid confrontation with the U.S. administration. However, if the deadlock continues, mainstream Jewish groups will be more reluctant to take part in a campaign led by an embattled prime minister — assuming he is still in power — who has alienated the Democratic Party.
Looking back, Netanyahu and his supporters’ aggressive opposition to the 2015 deal didn’t achieve its goal. As one leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, put it: “The teeth seem sharper than their bite.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, noted that not a single member of the Senate or the House who voted for the Iran deal lost their seats in the 2016 elections. Another Jewish Democrat added that “there is not one person in Congress that would have voted yes and voted no because of what Bibi did, and there are people who would have voted no but voted yes because of what Bibi did.”
A better deal
An outcome that would best diffuse any potential opposition would be a nuclear deal that also addresses Iran’s ballistic missiles program, its aggressive activities in the region and support of terror.
That is why so many Jewish groups are taking the wait-and-see approach, hoping that the Biden administration will push for an outcome more sustainable and more effective than a maximum pressure campaign to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
Joe Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said that if more is achieved at the table during current negotiations than in 2015, the deal would be a “game changer” in how organizations assess the merits of taking the diplomatic route with Iran.
Will Biden’s attempt to return to Iran deal split Jews?