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Why is the Obama administration linking Israel and New START?

Why is the Obama administration linking Israel and New START?

While the White House continues to negotiate with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) in an attempt to convince him to allow a vote on the New START treaty this year, it is also undertaking a massive effort behind the scenes to rally foreign governments and non-governmental organizations to support the treaty’s ratification and put public pressure on Republicans to yield.

As part of that effort, the White House has been in contact with pro-Israel and pro-Jewish organizations, encouraging them to be vocal about their support for the New START treaty, and warning them that the failure of the treaty could have negative implications for the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

 “Certainly we’ve been in touch with all sorts of different groups saying if you feel strongly about the treaty, we hope your voice will be heard,” a senior administration official said when asked about whether Jewish groups had been contacted. The official added that the administration had not asked anyone to contact lawmakers.

Over the last three days, three major pro-Israel organizations issued strong statements of support for New START: the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Council for World Jewry (ACWJ).

"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the new START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a Nov. 19 letter sent to all senators. "The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation."

The ACWJ said on Monday that Russia’s "cooperation is indispensable to assuring global security and American goals, notably in blocking Iran’s dangerous quest for its own nuclear capability."

NJDC President David Harris told The Cable in an interview that he had been in touch with the administration and had meetings that included discussions of New START with officials.

“The White House made it very clear that this was a very high priority of this administration,” Harris said. “They’ve been helpful in providing resources, but they cannot and would not encourage outside the groups to lobby. But we have had conversations about the level of importance of New START.”

“To me the nexus is clear,” Harris said. “Ratifying New START is should be a central objective of the entire pro-Israel community.”

Missing from the list of groups endorsing New START, however, is the largest pro-Israel non-governmental organization, AIPAC. Also missing from the list of endorsements is any public statement from the Israeli government itself, despite the fact that several European leaders have come out strongly in support of New START.

“We have no position on the treaty. We are staying above the political discussion in Washington,” one Israeli official told The Cable. The official could not confirm rumors we’ve heard that the administration asked Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to speak out, but that Oren declined. Recently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been strengthening ties with Russia, even saying in September, “Our views on many challenges of today are close or identical.”

The official said that the Israel government was sensitive to perceptions that they were interfering in American domestic politics, following a meeting earlier this month between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).

Vice President Joseph Biden explained why the New START treaty was critical to the effort to isolate Iran in a small roundtable with foreign policy columnists, including your humble Cable guy, at the White House Nov. 19.

“I’m not suggesting that if START fails, all of the sudden we’re back in the Cold War with Russia but I am saying that the things in the margins that make a big difference right now might very well be different,” Biden said, referring to what he called “unprecedented” Russian cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

He praised Russia’s decision to forgo selling the S-300 air defense missile to Iran as well as Moscow’s cooperation in bringing new multilateral sanctions against Tehran via the U.N. Security Council. “Absent that cooperation I think [it] is problematic whether or not China or even Europe would have made some of the tougher sanctions decisions that we made,” Biden said.

Back on Capitol Hill, staffers on both sides of the issue are well aware of the administration’s recent activity but had starkly different views on its wisdom and efficacy.

“The idea that this administration, which has manifestly undermined the U.S.-Israel relationship at every turn, would gin up pro-Israel groups to ram this treaty through in the lame duck [session] is a new low, even for an administration that has made a habit of alienating friends and allies,” said one senior GOP Senate aide involved in the issue.

But another Senate aide who is involved in both the New START and Iran issues saw the logic of linking the two.

“It’s politically smart to do this. Once of the central arguments that the administration has been making is that the START treaty is important due to its impact on U.S.-Russia relations and one of the achievements has been to convince Russia to adopt a more cooperative approach on Iran,” the aide said.

But the jury is still out on whether advocacy by pro-Israel groups can cause senior Senate Republicans to rethink their positions. “The center of gravity is still Jon Kyl so I don’t know how it effective it will be in influencing his calculations,” the aide said.

A Democratic congressional staffer who is also a strong supporter of Israel argued that, if it were Democrats holding up the treaty, Republicans would surely be playing the Israel card.

“If the roles were reversed and the Democrats were playing politics with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, we’d be eviscerated by the pro-Israel community,” the staffer said. “We’d be getting our ass kicked about it, no question.”