Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told 22 Democratic members of the U.S. Congress on Sunday he does not intend to tell them how to vote in next month’s ballot on the Iran nuclear agreement, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told Haaretz.
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Hoyer added, however, it was clear from Netanyahu’s speech that he hopes Congress will vote against the deal.
Hoyer, 76, has been a U.S. representative for nearly 35 years and serves as the Democratic whip in the House. He came to Israel last week as head of a delegation of 22 Democratic Congress members. AIPAC, which is fighting the nuclear agreement, organized the delegation, which included mainly freshmen congressmen or representatives who have only served a few years in the House.
The main meeting the delegation held was with Netanyahu who, together with heads of the Republican Party, is trying to topple the agreement in the September vote. Netanyahu and the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, are trying to convince as many Democratic congressmen as possible to oppose the nuclear deal and, essentially, vote against U.S. President Barack Obama.
Hoyer said Sunday’s meeting between Netanyahu and the Democrats was particularly long (one hour and 45 minutes). Netanyahu was the one who spoke most during the meeting, reviewing the weak points in the Iran agreement, and explaining why he believes it’s a bad deal.
“He was respectful and expressed his position in a moderate, thoughtful and organized way. He understands that the decision is up to the members of the House that owe their judgment to their constituents,” Hoyer said on Monday. “He didn’t tell them to vote one way or another, but it was clear he hopes they will vote against the agreement because it is a bad deal that will allow Iran to have a path to a nuclear bomb in 13 years. He said, ‘It is not my place to tell you how to vote. It is up to you – but my opinion is’”
According to Hoyer, none of the Democratic representatives at the meeting felt Netanyahu was pressuring them beyond presenting his opposition to the deal.
“He feels strongly about it, so he argues strongly,” said Hoyer. “He gave a very rational presentation about why he thinks this deal is not in the best interest of the United States, Israel and the region.”
Hoyer added that members of the delegation met with current and former senior officials from the Israeli defense establishment and intelligence community. He said he heard “more reserved judgment about the deal” from those officials than he did from Netanyahu.
Preparing for 'the day after'
One of the issues the Democratic congressmen asked Netanyahu about was the “day after,” should Congress approve the deal, and his refusal to open a dialogue with President Obama about improving the Israel Defense Forces’ capabilities to manage the new security situation.
“Netanyahu said he will cross that bridge when he comes to it,” Hoyer said.
The senior congressman also said that if the deal is approved, Israel and the United States will have much work to do to cope with Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region that are unconnected with the nuclear issue.
“All those things will still exist after the deal, and we will have to work together,” he stressed.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said similar things in interviews on both Army Radio and Israel Radio. Shapiro remarked that despite disagreements over the nuclear deal, the United States and Israel can and indeed should start preparing for the day after.
He said that in another month and a half, after Congress completes the evaluation process and the United States starts implementing the agreement, the two countries will still be allies and obliged to one another. He said that the United States suggested getting to work already to discuss the day after, but until now Netanyahu has not been prepared to do so.
Shapiro added that the two countries could be talking about issues like intelligence, stopping Hezbollah’s arms smuggling and anti-missile defenses, even as the sides disagree over the deal. He said he thought the time had arrived to discuss these issues and did not see any point in waiting. He added he hoped Netanyahu would agree to begin preparing for the day after.
Hoyer, who is considered one of Israel’s biggest supporters in the House, is also, as Democratic whip, the man responsible to get Democratic representatives to vote for the deal. Still, Hoyer has yet to declare publicly if he supports or opposes the agreement. Hoyer has spoken in recent weeks with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. negotiation team in the talks with Iran, all of whom tried to convince him to support the agreement.
“I told them I would not be making a decision before the end of August. I spent four hours in the Intel-room reading documents and talked to Secretary of Energy [Ernest] Moniz,” Hoyer said. “I have more homework to do. I will have a full schedule for additional research that I need to do before I decide.”
Hoyer also said he believes that despite the disagreement over the Iran deal, the dispute would not adversely affect long-term relations between Israel and the United States, which he said are “bigger and stronger” than the murky relations between Netanyahu and Obama. He stressed that American support is a matter of survival for Israel, while, for the United States, Israel is a trusted ally that shares the same values.
When Netanyahu spoke in Congress two weeks before Israel’s election in March, Hoyer was one of those who opposed him and asserted that the maneuver was mistaken, political and damaging.
“He heads a state that is protecting a people that was savaged for millennia,” Hoyer told Haaretz, adding, “Everybody in the free world has said Iran must not have a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu believes it is an existential threat, so he is taking every step necessary. I am not surprised he will feel it is critically important enough to take steps that might ruffle political feathers. It is reasonable.”