Israel Could Lose America’s Democrats for a Generation
If the nuclear deal collapses, U.S. liberals will never forgive Israel for its starring role in a catastrophic turn of events.
Last week, I went to hear Secretary of State John Kerry defend the Iran nuclear deal at the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Haass, president of the organization, began by asking Kerry to explain what “we have gained by this agreement.” The first thing the secretary said was that he was “very proud” of his “100 percent voting record for Israel” as a senator. The second thing he said was that nobody had worked harder than he had to bring peace to the Middle East. The third thing was, “I consider Bibi” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “a friend.” What we have gained, Kerry summed up, is “safety and security … for Israel and the region.”
I found it astonishing that Kerry had answered a question about the most consequential diplomatic agreement the United States has signed over the last four decades as if he were the foreign minister of another country. Wasn’t the “we” in question “the American people”? Of course, Kerry’s political instincts were perfectly accurate. He knows that he and President Barack Obama don’t need to persuade the Democratic left of the deal’s merits and needn’t bother trying to convert Republican conservatives. He needs to reach the people who view American national security as not just inextricable but indistinguishable from Israeli security.
On the way out, I saw once such personage and asked, jokingly, whether he had come around on the deal. He hadn’t, of course, but he conceded that he would have to live with it. On the other hand, he added darkly, he knew very well what would happen if Congress voted against the agreement and then overrode Obama’s veto: “They’ll blame the Jews.”
No, they won’t. Most Americans who hate the Jews also hate Obama and Iran, and so will be happy to see the deal go up in smoke. Maybe they’ll thank the Jews. What will happen, though, if Congress overrides Obama’s veto — thus destroying the signal foreign-policy achievement of his tenure, humiliating the president before the world, and triggering a race for nuclear weapons capacity in Iran and across the Middle East — is that Democrats will blame Netanyahu and Israel. And it won’t just be the American left, which already regards Israel as an occupying power. The fraying relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party will come apart altogether. Pro-Israel Democrats like Hillary Clinton will have to begin calculating how high a price they’re prepared to pay for their continued support.
Am I exaggerating? Consider the geopolitical math. Until recently, critics of the proposed nuclear deal could claim that “our allies in the region” believed that it threatened their security. But last week, the Saudi foreign minister blessed the deal, if rather halfheartedly. The president of the United Arab Emirates and the emir of Kuwait sent congratulatory notes to Iran, though that still falls short of an endorsement. “Our allies” will not continue to lobby against the deal; only Israel will.
Now consider the congressional math. To override a presidential veto in the Senate, opponents of the deal will need to find 67 votes. All 54 Republicans seem prepared to vote against the president — many of them gleefully. But 13 Democrats must be prepared to defy their president on a question that will help define his place in history. How many of them would take such a stand if, say, the Saudis and the Emiratis opposed the deal and Israel favored it? How would Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and third-ranking Democrat, vote? Do we even have to ask? (So far, the senator has said only that he plans to “carefully study” the language of the deal.) Such is Schumer’s influence among liberal Democrats that he could single-handedly scuttle the deal by voting against the measure.
I have no reason to doubt that Schumer sincerely believes that Kerry might be wrong, and Netanyahu right, about the dire effects that the nuclear deal would have on Israel’s security. And I know that many Israelis, and not just die-hard Likudniks, appear to believe that a military strike on Iran, with all its calamitous consequences, would be better for their security than the agreement Obama has struck. (See, for example, this column in the leftist Haaretz by Ari Shavit, a journalist and the author of the acclaimed My Promised Land.) Maybe Schumer thinks so too.
I think that calculus is crazy. But Israelis know their neighborhood a lot better than I do. In any case, because Israel is far more directly threatened by Iran than the United States is, the merits of the case are different for Tel Aviv than for Washington. Each side insists that the other is wrong about its own national security interests, but the truth is that those interests do not exactly coincide. Why should they?
Of course Kerry can’t say, “This is a great deal for the United States, even if it’s a slightly less great deal for Israel.” Political reality compels him to sustain the myth that those interests cannot diverge. Nevertheless, I find it offensive that Kerry had to indulge in such contortions in order to demonstrate his bona fides toward Israel. Meanwhile, his “friend” Netanyahu has received the administration’s endless stream of entreaties with contempt — a fact that Kerry not very obliquely acknowledged by referring in his speech to unnamed “people” who “rant and rave” about the agreement, including “the prime minister with a cartoon of a bomb at the U.N.”
Yet Kerry and Obama must continue trying to reach Americans who defer to Netanyahu as the arbiter of American national security. Those who say, “I will never choose between Israel and the United States” are being disingenuous. They are choosing.
Netanyahu threw down the gauntlet with the Obama administration a long time ago; perhaps he thinks he has nothing left to lose. But that’s almost certainly not true. If 13 Democrats heed the Israeli siren song and the nuclear deal collapses, only a fantasist can believe that Iran will come back for a new and harsher deal or that the United Nations and the European Union will hang tough on sanctions. Instead, Iranian centrifuges will start spinning once again, while Pakistani scientists carrying nuclear blueprints will make clandestine visits to Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu will then take the game one step further by calling for airstrikes against Iranian facilities. If he succeeds — which I doubt — Americans will never forgive Israel for its role in a catastrophic decision.
Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he is perfectly prepared to pay that price. Can Chuck Schumer say the same? I would suggest that his higher obligation would be to protect Israel from its own worst instincts.
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James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.