The Huffington Post headline “Saboteur Sen. Launching War Push” on December 19 and the enraged Jewish reactions to it escaped intense scrutiny because of end-of-the-year vacations and the media’s need to sum up 2013. The incendiary headline, however, should serve as a shot across the bow, intended or not, about the malevolent maelstrom that could engulf the American Jewish establishment in the wake of its unequivocal and nearly unanimous support for new sanctions on Iran.
Under the headline, in the middle of the homepage of the most widely read news sites in the world, was a picture of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the main sponsors of the proposed Nuclear Iran Prevention Bill 2013. He was speaking from a podium, behind a lectern on which the name and emblem of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC was boldly displayed.
The message couldn’t be clearer: Menendez was a warmonger. And the people backing him, inspiring him and/or pushing him belonged to AIPAC and the pro-Israel community.
Jewish reactions were fast and furious: David Harris of the American Jewish Committee was “appalled” by the “shameful attack” on Menendez. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman wrote in a letter to the editor published on the Huffington Post website that the photo of Menendez speaking at an AIPAC event “implies that he was trying to ‘sabotage’ the administration's efforts on Iran for reasons related to Israel under pressure from American Jews. We are shocked that a version of the anti-Semitic theme that ‘Jews manipulate the U.S. Government’ was boldly featured on your site.”
Foxman also disputed the basic premise of the disputed headline: “We and many in the U.S. and around the world believe that setting the table now for future sanctions against Iran that would kick in if diplomacy fails to achieve a nuclear accord will enhance the likelihood for reaching that agreement without the need for military action.”
This is not the view of the Administration, which has warned with varying degrees of insistence and alarm that the sanctions bill could derail nuclear talks with Iran and thus, inevitably, increase the chances of a military confrontation. American Jewish leaders privately go so far as to suspect that the inspiration for the kind of incendiary headline that Huffington Post chose was the direct result of background briefings and prodding by Administration officials.
Whether it was or it wasn’t, it is the kind of insinuation that Jewish groups should be bracing for, many times over, as the battle over the sanctions bill is bound to escalate as soon as the 113th Congress reconvenes for its Second Session next week. Given that all of the major Jewish groups - with the exception of J-Street - have spoken out publicly and unequivocally in support of a position that is so staunchly rejected by the Administration, the stage is being set for a showdown that more than justifies comparisons to similar face-offs in the past, including the 1981 skirmish with the Reagan Administration over the sale of early-warning AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia and the 1991 clash with George H Bush over settlements and loan guarantees.
The pro- Israel lobby lost both of those campaigns, but those defeats didn’t kill it – they only made the lobby stronger. As JJ Goldberg recounts in his book “Jewish Power” the campaign against the AWACS sale galvanized the Jews, consolidated AIPAC’s standing in Washington and convinced the Reagan Administration that it was a force to be reckoned with and, if possible, enlisted on the Administration’s side. In 1992, the loan guarantees for Soviet immigrant absorption remained frozen until Yitzhak Rabin replaced Yitzhak Shamir as Israeli prime minister, but George Bush went on to lose the November elections, thus creating the unspoken myth that even a president could pay with his job if he tangled too strongly with those powerful Jews and their allies.
Win or lose, however, there is one stark difference between those two renowned altercations and the current situation vis-a-vis Iran: U.S. public opinion couldn’t care less about AWACS and loan guarantees, one way or another, but a military engagement with Iran is something that the American people worry about, and largely - and sometimes vehemently - oppose. A campaign in support of the Senate’s Iran sanctions bill could pit the Jewish establishment not only against the Administration, but also put it on a dangerous collision course with large segments of U.S. public opinion, mostly on the left, and with the American media as well.
But even that altercation would pale in comparison to the unprecedented and untenable situation that the Jewish leadership might find itself in if the Administration loses the sanctions fight, despite a presidential veto, and if its worst case scenarios of an Iranian walkout and an escalation in military tensions are borne out.
Supporters of sanctions, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish groups that support the current Senate bill, maintain that Iran has its back against a wall of economic hardships created by the current sanctions and that the threat of even more sanctions would only increase Tehran’s willingness to make nuclear concessions.
There are those - including the editors of the Huffington Post, evidently - who view this line of reasoning as disingenuous and its proponents as seeking to lead the U.S. to a military confrontation. But even if one ignores such skepticism, supporters of the sanctions bill cannot rule out the possibility that the Iranian regime will either feel compelled to break off talks because of internal pressure by Iranian hardliners, or might even view a new sanctions bill as a unique opportunity to drive a huge wedge between Israel and its lobby, on the one hand, and the Administration and large parts of the American public on the other.
After all, the Administration is already coming close to claiming that legislation of new sanctions, even if they are conditional and set to kick in only in the future, is tantamount to a violation of the November 24 interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva. Iran might very well decide to break off talks, to pin the blame on Congress and the Jews, to cite the Administration’s own statements as corroborating evidence and to leave the P5+1 countries, their politicians and their publics to bicker and recriminate among themselves.
Some people might compare this situation to the 2003 Iraq War, in which Israel and right-wing American Jews were also accused of pushing America to war. In that case, however, the war enjoyed sizeable public support, at least at the outset, Israel and organized Jewry played only a minor public role in prodding the Administration to act and the Administration itself had no history of suspicion and ill will with Israel or its supporters and no interest in pinning the blame on either.
Iran, it should be clear, is no Iraq, in any way, shape or form. Whatever one’s view of the Iranian talks and of the wisdom of new sanctions legislation, it would be foolhardy to ignore the precarious predicament that U.S. Jews may soon find themselves in - one in which headlines alluding to warmongering senators and their Jewish supporters will be much more the rule than the exception but may also be the least of Jewish worries.
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