Supporting Iran Deal Doesn't Make J Street anti-Israel

Expecting the left-wing U.S. Zionist group to hew to the positions of the Israeli left ignores the different political considerations in each country.

Moshe Sussman

Following Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s announcement that he opposed the Iranian nuclear deal, right-wing critics wasted no time accusing J Street of being anti-Israel, pointing out that the organization’s extensive efforts to support the deal now fall squarely outside the bounds even of left-wing Zionist discourse. This accusation misses the point entirely: It foremost mischaracterizes pro-Israel support for the deal, ignores the political context in Israel, and most importantly reflects outdated notions of how best to support Israel in an increasingly divided U.S. Congress. The challenges facing each country’s mainstream left differ, leading them to sometimes diverge on strategy. 

Although J Street doubtless represents the largest, most divisive left-wing Zionist group in the American Jewish community, according to its detractors on the right, it is by no means alone in its support for the Iran deal. In addition to the 59% of American Jews who support the deal, according to a J Street poll, its opinion is echoed by other progressive Zionist groups, including Conference of Presidents members, Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu, the latter of which has ties to Israel's Labor Party and is a member of AIPAC. General countenance for the deal is also expressed by leading figures in Israel’s military establishment, as well as many non-Jewish pro-Israel American diplomats, lawmakers and senior military leaders. Unless all of the above are also to be considered anti-Israel, then the potential to both be pro-Israel and support the Iran deal cannot be dismissed.

As for the difference of opinion between U.S. liberal Zionists and Israel's main center-left party, each side's positions are based on an entirely separate cost-benefit analysis, due to the different domestic factors and foreign policy ramifications in Israel and the United States. Herzog, appearing intent on joining the ruling coalition with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has expressed determination to stop the Iran deal, a move that may be designed to curry favor with the majority of Israelis who doubt it can prevent Iran from ultimately becoming nuclear. 

Although this may be grandstanding in part — when Herzog quotes Jabotinsky it is not out of disinterested admiration — Zionist Union's alarm is justified from a national security standpoint. With less economic strain on its economy, Iran will continue to aid Hezbollah. No amount of CIA reassurances that Iran will not increase its financial contribution on that front will allay Israel's concerns regarding Iranian aggression in the region or a softening U.S. resolve vis-a-vis Iran.

Zionist Union, operating within the realm of Israeli domestic politics, does not need to worry about the international consequences of not supporting the deal. Israel’s position is already well known thanks to Netanyahu, and it is unlikely that Herzog could sway Congress by any further lobbying.

Americans cannot play this game of brinksmanship. Lawmakers on the fence will foremost look to their domestic constituencies, experts and lobby groups for guidance. While Israel can continue to pressure the U.S. to be tough on Iran in general and Zionist Union can boost its security credentials with little to no consequence, U.S. liberal Zionist groups represent a collective voice that could influence Congressional representatives to support a deal they contend will block Iran’s pathway to a bomb. Allowing the deal to be rejected, they worry, would mean that the P5+1 sanctions regime could collapse and leave Iran free of commitment. Such worries, whether overblown or not, reflect genuine concern for Israel. 

Rather than trying to paint U.S. liberal Zionist groups as anti-Israel for not taking their mandate from Israeli parties, opponents should focus on the substance of their arguments, and the deal’s potential ramifications for Israel. 

And instead of demanding that all pro-Israel advocates and lawmakers blindly adopt their Israeli counterparts’ positions, pro-Israel advocates should encourage them to assess the logic behind those positions and attempt to incorporate them into their own decision-making, taking into account American national interests. 

The expectation that U.S. leaders should altruistically bind U.S. policy to Israel’s damagingly casts longtime dovish Israel supporters as anti-Israel for refusing to subscribe to some of Israel’s hawkish positions. Instead, accepting that the two countries have different national interests, and attempting to highlight points of agreement and devise mutually self-interested solutions to manage points of disagreement, is a much more durable way to ensure bipartisan, self-interested American support for strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.  

Brian Reeves is a visiting fellow at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter at:@BrianNReeves