The Cable

Democrat’s Latest Pro-Israel Appeal Draws Friendly Fire

Ever since his vote last September for the Iran nuclear deal, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has bent over backwards to demonstrate his fervent support for the state of Israel through a variety of press releases, public speeches, personal meetings with Israeli leaders, and direct overtures to pro-Israel lobbyists.

WILMINGTON, DE - SEPTEMBER 16:   Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Chris Coons speaks during forum at Bernard and Ruth Siegel Jewish Community Center September 16, 2010 in Wilmington, Delaware.  Republican and Democratic candidates for Delaware's U.S. Senate seat, House of Representatives seat, state treasurer and state auditor met to answer questions at a community open house with the midterm elections a month and a half away.  Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell defeated nine-term Congressman Mike Castle (R-DE) in the Republican primary to run against Democratic candidate New Castle County Executive Chris Coons in November's midterm elections for Vice President Joseph R. Biden's former U.S. Senate seat.  (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
WILMINGTON, DE - SEPTEMBER 16: Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Chris Coons speaks during forum at Bernard and Ruth Siegel Jewish Community Center September 16, 2010 in Wilmington, Delaware. Republican and Democratic candidates for Delaware's U.S. Senate seat, House of Representatives seat, state treasurer and state auditor met to answer questions at a community open house with the midterm elections a month and a half away. Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell defeated nine-term Congressman Mike Castle (R-DE) in the Republican primary to run against Democratic candidate New Castle County Executive Chris Coons in November's midterm elections for Vice President Joseph R. Biden's former U.S. Senate seat. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Ever since his vote last September for the Iran nuclear deal, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has bent over backwards to demonstrate his fervent support for the state of Israel through a variety of press releases, public speeches, personal meetings with Israeli leaders, and direct overtures to pro-Israel lobbyists.

But with his latest bid to charm the pro-Israel community — a letter co-authored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urging the Obama administration to give Israel the most expensive military aid package in history — Coons has angered several fellow Democrats after he rebuffed their requests to modify the letter’s language, Foreign Policy has learned. 

The letter put Democrats in a tough spot: It is backed by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization that few lawmakers want to alienate. But it also implicitly criticized the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which most Senate Democrats supported.

In the April 25 letter, Coons and Graham warned President Barack Obama that Israel must receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to prepare for the “likelihood that Iran will resume its quest for nuclear weapons.”

Ultimately, 83 senators signed the letter. But several Senate offices asked Coons to swap the word “likelihood” for “possibility” — softening language that suggested the deal would inevitably fail to prevent Iran from seeking a nuclear weapon.

“A whole lot of Democratic lawmakers wanted it out, but people in Coons’ office refused to do it,” said a Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the intra-party dispute.

A spokesman for Coons confirmed his boss’s resistance to the change.

“It’s no secret that Sen. Coons is among Israel’s strongest allies in the Senate,” Sean Coit, a Coons spokesman, told FP. “Sen. Coons talked with several of his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, about specific language in this letter, but ultimately, this is where it landed.”

The disagreement comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to close a deal with the United States on a 10-year defense package before Obama leaves office next January. Netanyahu told reporters last week that “significant gaps remain” in the negotiations.

Israel, which receives more than $3 billion from the United States every year, is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. In 2007, the U.S. pledged to give Israel $30 billion over a decade. The next ten-year deal will set the level of U.S. military aid to Israel from 2018 to 2028.

The U.S. reportedly offered Israel a deal worth $40 billion, or $10 billion more than the last 10-year deal, in negotiations that began in November. But Netanyahu is looking to wrest more money from the U.S. government. And his American allies are urging the administration to acquiesce to Jerusalem’s demands.

The Graham-Coons letter says senators “stand ready to support a substantially enhanced new long-term agreement to help provide Israel the resources it requires to defend itself and preserve its qualitative military edge.”

Earlier this month, AIPAC sent its members an action alert to demand their senator sign the letter. “Ask your senators to support this bipartisan initiative, and thank those who’ve already signed,” said the alert.

For many lawmakers, the letter and the pending aid deal are a way to improve relations with AIPAC after supporting the Iran deal, on which the organization spent tens of millions of dollars trying to derail.

“There are some members still in the doghouse with AIPAC and they are looking for anything that helps them get out,” a Republican Senate aide told FP. “Other members feel the administration has not supported Israel enough and they want to give them more.”

A third group of lawmakers are eager to support a bigger military aid package for Israel, but don’t want to besmirch the president or the Iran deal in the process. “That line in the letter was an F-you to the administration,” said another Senate aide. “It basically says the Iran deal is going to fail.”

Coons’ spokesman said that’s not what he intended to convey.

“Sen. Coons believes prudent military planners from both Israel and the United States need to plan for any and all scenarios that threaten Israel,” said Coit. He said that includes a scenario where Iran bucks the nuclear agreement and races toward a bomb “between now and 2028” when the next U.S.-Israel defense agreement expires.

Responding to the dispute, a senior Obama administration official dismissed concerns that the Iran deal will fail to cut off Tehran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. “If Iran cheats, we’re confident we’ll detect it,” said the official. “But we have certainly seen nothing to indicate Iran is doing anything but adhering to the agreement.”

The United States initially offered expanded military aid in a new 10-year deal a year ago, after an interim nuclear deal was agreed with Iran. But Netanyahu rejected the offer, arguing he didn’t want to be seen lending any support to the nuclear negotiations, Obama administration officials said. 

A final nuclear agreement was clinched with Iran in July, opening the way for Washington and Jerusalem to begin talks on a new package for military aid. The Pentagon initially evaluated Israel’s armed forces and the threats it faces and came up with a recommendation for the defense package. The White House then increased that number, before presenting the proposal to the Israelis, officials said.

The U.S. administration believes the next step in the negotiations rests with Israel. Although Netanyahu’s government has so far held out for a bigger offer, senior Israeli military officers are anxious to get an agreement in place and do not necessarily want to see a protracted negotiation that goes beyond Obama’s termadministration officials and congressional aides told FP.

In a speech earlier this month before J Street, a dovish pro-Israel group that often serves as a counterweight to AIPAC, Vice President Joe Biden said the security assistance package being offered by Washington was the most generous in the history of the United States. Although the vice president sounded hopeful the two sides would resolve their differences, he also said he told Israeli leaders in March that “Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get every solitary thing it needs.”

FP’s chief national security correspondent, Dan De Luce, contributed to this report.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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