In America, Israel Is Losing the Debate on Iran

With isolationism now firmly mainstream among the U.S. public, Netanyahu must lower his sights: focus on sanctions, and keep up the momentum with the Palestinians.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

In America, Israel is losing the debate on Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a good speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, but it made no difference. Americans aren’t buying what he’s selling.

This is true for the American political class, and it’s true for the American people.

I do not say this with satisfaction. As an internationalist and interventionist, I say it with distress and alarm. (I have spent my life contemplating the horrors of the Holocaust, saying “Never again,” and meaning it.) But I refuse to pretend that I don’t see what is happening in front of my eyes, and my hope is that Israeli leaders and American Jews won’t delude themselves either.

At the moment, the chance of an American attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities is close to zero, no matter what happens there. The chance of American military action of any kind against Syria is close to zero, even if the Syrians engage in horrific, genocidal acts. The American people are fed up with the Middle East. To be sure, they don’t much like the Iranians and they continue to view Israel with great sympathy, but the basic reality is that absent an attack on the United States they don’t want to intervene anywhere, for any reason.

On the one hand, this is not news. Americans have been engaged in two wars over a 12-year period, and neither has gone well. Add to that the antics of a dysfunctional national government that has lurched from crisis to crisis while the economy sputters, and it is hardly a surprise to find resistance among most Americans to any additional foreign involvements.

On the other hand, just in the last three to four months, isolationist feeling appears to have grown significantly. When President Barack Obama called for military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, even veteran pundits were taken aback by the intensity of the public’s opposition. According to a Gallup poll, support for military action was among the lowest for any intervention the polling organization has asked about in the last 20 years.

Of great importance as well are the dramatic changes in the conservative camp. In recent years, Republicans have seen themselves as the assertive, hard-line party, advocates of American activism and champions of American values abroad. But with remarkable speed, this image has disintegrated. Pressured by Senator Rand Paul and the Tea Party, the once assertive GOP has become an either silent or stuttering voice on the great foreign policy issues of the day. Paul, who just last year was seen as a fringe figure, is now on most everyone’s list as a first-tier Republican presidential candidate. Paul is talented, charming, intelligent, and principled — and an unwavering isolationist who demands that America withdraw from the world.

To appreciate Paul’s influence, one need only look at the zigzagging of Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio was elected with Tea Party support, but built a strong foreign policy repertoire and consistently called for a tougher line on foreign policy — until recently. Once an advocate of a tough line on Syria, he backed away under pressure from the pro-Paul forces.

The Economist’s influential “Lexington” columnist tried to argue in the September 14 issue that Americans have not really turned isolationist, but virtually the only evidence he could offer is that Americans favored going to war in Afghanistan by 51% to 44%. What this mostly proves is the opposite of what he intended. If only 51% of Americans favored military action against a government complicit in a direct attack on the United States, how many would support an attack against a country — such as Iran — not involved in such an attack?

America is now committed, rightly, to finding a diplomatic solution to the impasse with Iran on its nuclear program. The good news is that the sanctions are clearly hurting Iran, and perhaps there is room for diplomatic progress.

But what if the diplomacy fails? Obama has talked tough and could yet authorize military action. Still, he will be reluctant to do so because of his innate caution and his acute awareness of the strong objections of the American people. And — this is what’s new — if the time comes for such a decision, the once-tough Republican congressional delegation will not be demanding American resolve; it will more likely be running for cover.

What does this mean for Netanyahu?

First, when the time comes, he could order an Israeli attack on Iran. But it is hard to find any American official who believes this is going to happen.

Second, following up on his strong UN speech, Netanyahu should lower the tone, dispense with bluster and work hard with American Jews to educate both American parties on the continuing danger and deceptions of Iran.

Third, he must convince the Americans that he is prepared for progress on the negotiations with the Palestinians. These negotiations are a high priority for the Obama administration and for the European Union; like it or not, attitudes on Iran will be shaped by perceptions of Israel’s role in the talks.

And finally, his political efforts in the United States should focus less on Iran’s centrifuges and more on the sanctions. Maintaining the full force of the sanctions is absolutely essential; if they are eased prematurely, all is lost. This is less than what Israel and its American Jewish supporters want, but, in light of American political realities, it may be the most that can be hoped for.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer, lecturer and teacher, served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012 and lives in the United States.

The lights of the U.S. Capitol remain lit into the night as the House, at left, continues to work on the "fiscal cliff" legislation proposed by the Senate, in Washington, on January 1, 2013Credit: AP

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