U.S. Jewish Leaders Eye Iran Talks Warily, Ready to Attack ‘Bad Deal’

But J Street poll finds grass roots optimistic about accord.

Olivier Fitoussi

NEW YORK – While details of what may end up in a negotiated nuclear deal with Iran are not yet public, leaders of some American Jewish groups and Jewish congressmen past and present made clear, in interviews with Haaretz, that they are watching developments closely and prepared to respond forcefully if the deal reached is viewed as a bad one.

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For example, a deal regarded as bad might include the softening or lifting of the arms embargo without requiring sufficient international inspection and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear manufacturing facilities, some said.

“The level of concern is very high everywhere I go,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, whose member groups include 50 different Jewish bodies ranging from dovish Americans for Peace Now to the hawkish Zionist Organization of America.

“Will the [lifting of] sanctions really be tied to concrete results? Those are some of the things we are waiting to see,” Hoenlein said in an interview from Israel. “Across the board, concern is very strong. The stakes are very high.” The Conference’s five-year-old National Task Force on Iran, which is chaired by former Senator Joseph Lieberman, continues to meet, but no other planning of a potential response is underway.

“If there is a deal, it will be among the most momentous foreign policy events in recent history,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “There is no exaggeration there. The stakes are enormous, for the U.S., for our allies in the region, for global security,” he said. “That’s why we’re pleased that Congress will get a chance to review the deal, deliberate, debate, vote, because the ramifications of any such deal reach everywhere.”

The AJC has followed the Iran issue for over 15 years, Harris said. “We have circled the globe countless times to meet with hundreds of world leaders in literally thousands of meetings” about it. “We have a real interest in this issue and understand the stakes of getting it right.”

He warned against anticipatory posturing by organizations or individuals in advance of a deal being announced, since in the end there may be no deal at all. “As administration negotiators have told us, nothing is settled until everything is settled,” said Harris.

Congressional kickback to Netanyahu's speech

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress created short-term tension but, so far, no long-term problems for the American Jewish community in its relationship with the president and his administration, said those interviewed.

It has, however, created a kind of congressional kickback on the anticipated nuclear deal, said former Congressman Mel Levine, a California Democrat in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1993. “A lot of damage was done by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. It moved some Democrats more likely to be critical of a deal to more likely be supportive of a deal [with Iran] because they were so offended,” said Levine, who was a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is now a Los Angeles attorney.

Most of those interviewed said it is premature to prognosticate about the impact of a specific deal on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But, said Representative Lee Zeldin, the only Republican Jew in Congress, a deal with Iran that is viewed as bad for Israel’s security is likely to send typically Democratic Jewish voters to the Republican side.

“I would be shocked if we didn’t see more Jewish voters in the U.S. start switching allegiance (to the Republican party) if the president signs off on a bad deal with Iran,” said Zeldin, whose staunchly pro-Israel speech at The Hampton Synagogue on Long Island last Saturday was enthusiastically received by the modern Orthodox congregation.

“There is growing frustration among the electorate that wants to see stronger, more consistent foreign policy, one which strengthens our bonds with our friends, not our enemies,” said the freshman congressman, who in a New York Times profile this week was labeled “a foreign affairs firebrand.”

For Zeldin, a primary concern about the Iran deal is whether it will be presented the same way in both America and Iran. “If the president is presenting Americans with a version in English that is any different than what the Iranians are interpreting, then there really is no deal. One of my concerns with negotiators on both sides is if they can’t agree on a critical component they may start negotiating by playing with the languages in a way that might serve their own domestic politics but not be a meeting of the minds. If the Iranians are refuting at all any term of the English version of the agreement, then there’s no agreement.”

U.S. Jews at large less wary of accord

But wariness among American Jewish leaders and interested Congressmen both current and former may not be mirrored among voters.

A poll commissioned by liberal lobbying group J Street, released in June, found that a majority of American Jews support the Obama administration’s effort to reach a settlement with Iran.

Fifty-nine percent of American Jews would support a final agreement with Iran that places significant limits on the country’s nuclear program in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions, as compared to 53 percent of Americans who were asked the same question in a recent CNN poll. American Jewish support grew to 78 percent when respondents were given more information about the deal’s possible specifics.

On that same J Street poll Israel was far down a list of the most important issues in the upcoming election, respondents said. Just 7 percent of the 1,000 Jewish adults polled said Israel was one of their top two concerns, compared with 45 percent who said that the economy is. Israel ranked slightly above Iran, however, as a pressing concern, with just 6 percent saying that the latter should be the most important priority for the president and Congress.

And while the current focus is on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, there should also be significant concern about that regime’s non-nuclear weapons capacity, said Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, a Washington D.C. think tank.

U.S. President Obama with Robert Wexler (Credit: Courtesy of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace)

“One of the difficult challenges of any negotiated outcome will be how to manage Iran’s other nefarious behavior,” said Wexler, a seven-term Democrat who represented Florida in the House of Representatives. He served as an adviser on Middle East and Israel issues to Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. Wexler retired from Congress in 2010.

“My fear is if we reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear weapons program, the ayatollah [Iranian leader Ali Khamenei] will be presented with tremendous internal political pressure to, in effect, pay off the more extremist revolutionary elements within his military infrastructure,” Wexler said. “My greatest fear is that he will somehow relax the spigot on terrorist behavior and other forms of terrorism in the region and possibly the world.”

Anti-American rumblings in Iran

Indeed, the New York Times reported Wednesday that an influential Iranian ayatollah, Ali Jannati, said at a rally, “We march not only against IsraelIt goes far beyond that. We also march against the arrogant powers,” Europe and, particularly, the United States.

According to The Times: “The underlying cause for the heightened display of anti-Americanism, analysts say, is the growing likelihood that Iran and its Western negotiating partners will sign a nuclear accord, opening the possibility of improving relations with the Great Satan, the United States.”

“One of the lessons of history is that we need to take the threats of dictators seriously,” said Hoenlein. “Hitler and Stalin told the world what they were planning to do and no one listened. [Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei says ‘death to Israel, death to America, death to Jews.’ We’re not going to take a quiet approach to someone who wants to destroy us.”

This “is not just an Israel or Jewish issue. It’s an American issue, a global issue. [Khamenei] threatens all of us,” Hoenlein said.