Iran nuclear deal: Heated American debate leaves many Israelis cold

Most Israelis oppose the nuclear deal with Iran championed by Obama, even those who oppose Netanyahu. But there are also widely held concerns the lobbying effort in Congress is detrimental.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015.

Israeli jitters over the recent nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran stretch well beyond Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – from public opinion, to political analysts, to politicians in the dovish parliamentary opposition.

But even though Israelis worry the nuclear deal backed by President Barack Obama will strengthen their regional adversary and maybe threaten nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, many are similarly wary about the fight unfolding in Congress over whether or not to block the historic agreement.

Such sentiment is especially prevalent outside Mr. Netanyahu’s political base, even though recent polls suggest 70 to 75 percent of Israelis oppose the deal and only 15 to 20 percent support it.

Signs of the unease about the US political battle were on display this week when visiting Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was challenged by Israeli reporters over his party’s opposition to the deal – and his controversial remark suggesting that the nuclear agreement puts Israel on the verge of a new Holocaust.

In an interview on Channel 2 television, anchor Danny Kushmaro suggested that “maybe it’s time to realize it’s a done deal,” and opined that Mr. Huckabee’s remark from last month was “a bit too much.” (Huckabee defended the remark.)

Indeed, even as Americans invoke the security of the Jewish state as a justification for rejecting the Iran deal, many Israelis watching the debate from across the sea say they consider the full-throated lobbying efforts by their government to be undermining ties with the country’s most important ally.

“I don’t think the agreement is worth the paper that it’s written on,” says Alex Ledeman, a 70-year-old retiree from Tel Aviv. “But the tactics of Israel aren’t good. Israel needs to be less bombastic. Israel needs to use discrete diplomacy rather than a head-on collision with Obama. We exist here because of the US.”

Infighting among US Jews

The remarks reflect similar concerns that existed in Israel when Netanyahu agreed to an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on the proposed Iran deal: that Israel was inserting itself into a partisan battle in Washington and undermining decades of efforts to ensure that US support for the Jewish state doesn’t depend on which party is in power.

That discomfort has been exacerbated by two additional factors: Netanyahu’s decision to enlist American Jewish leaders to oppose the deal, and the sense that effort to block the administration’s deal is a lost cause.

Ben Dror Yemini, a columnist for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, says he has written repeatedly in support of the prime minister’s outspoken criticism of the deal over the last five years, but that the decision to jump into the congressional fight over approval has put Israel into a “lose-lose” situation. The commentator also bemoaned the public infighting among American Jewish organizations, in which the rhetoric has been no less overheated.

“What [Netanyahu] is doing to the Jewish community in the US is terrible for them and terrible for us,” Mr. Yemini says. “He put them in a situation of conflict.… They are fighting among themselves and [the Congress battle] is totally useless.”

Some support the lobbying effort

Although the top headlines in the Israeli media have been dominated by news of heat waves, instability in the West Bank, and a controversial natural gas regulatory agreement, Israel’s press has continued to report on developments in Congress as various swing voters or Jewish leaders come out either for or against the deal.

In the days following the July agreement, Netanyahu and his aides vowed to continue to make Israel’s criticism heard in the US, even though most political analysts say blocking the deal is a long shot.

Some Israelis say they understand Netanyahu’s reasoning and support the lobbying efforts. Shmulik Molad, a bank executive in Jerusalem, says Israel’s lobbying efforts are being misinterpreted as a personal attack on Obama and that the Jewish state has a responsibility to argue it’s case on the international stage – even if the agreement is a fait accomplit.

“The more right [of center] you are, the more you want to confront Obama in Congress, and the more left-center you are, the more you want to get [security] assurances from the administration,” says Jonathan Rhynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University who focuses on Israel-US ties.

He adds that Israel should eventually switch from openly confronting the administration over the bill to securing military hardware and diplomatic assurances that would bolster Israel’s position if Iran were to advance toward a nuclear weapon.

Concerns over Democratic support

That view is shared by Tammy Schreiber, owner of a Tel Aviv café and a self-described news junkie who has followed the deal closely. “I see that the US wants to give us a lot of goodies. We need to accept it,” she says.

Though Ms. Schreiber says she is unsure whether the Iran deal will endanger her country or bolster its security, she adds that Israel’s government needs to find a way to better cooperate with the White House. “We shouldn’t go against Obama.”

But the problem for Israel runs deeper than Netanyahu’s fractious ties with the president, Professor Rhynhold says. The battle over Iran potentially erodes support for Israel among the Democratic party rank and file, and that has the potential to create problems for Israel in the long run.

“The issue is engaging Democrats, particularly younger liberal Democrats,” says Rhynhold. “If Democrats get the impression that supporting Israel is a Mike Huckabee thing rather than an American thing, then that does damage.… The problem is [the Iran deal] is not just one man in the White House.”

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