Where the Democrats Divide on Iran (And Israel)

If the U.S. Senate sanctions bill ends up triggering hostilities between the U.S. and Iran, there will be bad times ahead for the pro-Israel groups pushing sanctions– and their Democrat supporters.

Ali Gharib
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U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez, Washington, October 10, 2013.
U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez, Washington, October 10, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Ali Gharib

A majority of the Senate now backs a new sanctions bill against Iran introduced by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Reports, channeling anonymous Senate aides, indicate that the bill might have enough support to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle; it may even have the backing of a veto-proof majority, which it'll likely need, since the Obama administration threatened to veto it.

Passing the Iran sanctions, though, could still be a fight. The administration threw down the gauntlet this week, suggesting many supporters of passing new sanctions are favoring a path to confrontation, maybe even want a war. And the administration's getting some support from powerful Senate Democrats.

Whether or not Barack Obama and his Senate allies manage to block the Menendez-Kirk bill with a veto - and that's a wide-open question - the vocal Democratic opposition alone signals a shift in Congress's bipartisan pro-Israel consensus. The last major Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill to come to a roll call vote, after all, passed the upper chamber 100 to zero.

Any number of reasons could animate the Democratic split over the new Iran sanctions - the huge stakes (potentially war), or loyalty to the administration, for example - but the trend on Israel as a political issue is unmistakable. Israel issues becoming fodder for polarized, partisan debate has most notably manifested itself in divides among Democrats themselves.

And, yes, Iran issues are Israel issues on Capitol Hill. One can note the strong backing of Israel advocacy groups pushing the Iran sanctions. The announcement of new co-sponsors to the Menedez-Kirk bill added over the winter recess showed up not in press releases from their offices or in the dormant Congressional record, but rather in a scorecard posted online by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerhouse lobby engaged in a full-court press for new sanctions. (Some liberal pro-Israel groups, such as J Street, are opposing new sanctions.)

One could also take Members of Congress at their word: The Menendez-Kirk bill itself includes a non-binding provision that pledges U.S. support - even calling for an authorization of American military force - should Israel attack Iran. And Israel gets invoked constantly in Congressional debates over Iran policy.

Israel still enjoys majority support among adherents of both American political parties. But a recent Pew poll showed that Israel's favorability ratings had a wider partisan divide than any other country asked about: 55 percent of Democrats viewed the Jewish state favorably, while 74 percent of Republicans did. Previous Pew polling has shown Democrats are much less likely to sympathize with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, a spread that's been stable for a few years but grown over the longer term.

The Israel split among Democrats last reared its head during the 2012 presidential election campaign. Fissures could be seen both among the grassroots of the party and at its highest levels.

At the Democratic National Convention, an embarrassing episode unfolded as party elites sought to amend the party platform under GOP pressure to include language about Jerusalem as Israel's "undivided" and eternal capital, a point regularly pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Democrats’ 2008 aspirational platform included Jerusalem language, but drafters initially left it out in 2012 because it didn’t accord with a decades-long U.S. policy, continued by Obama, of not recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city. When the language came up in Charlotte, convention chair Antonio Villaraigosa called three voice votes on the amendment; Democratic delegates were clearly split, well short of the two-thirds needed to amend the platform. When Villaraigosa declared that the amendment had passed anyway, a goodly proportion of delegates loudly booed.

More strikingly, Netanyahu took what many observers thought was a swipe at Obama's 2012 re-election bid at the height of the campaign, siding with Republican nominee Mitt Romney's positions on - you guessed it - Iran policy. Democratic pro-Israel stalwart Sen. Barbara Boxer chided Netanyahu in a letter: "As other Israelis have said, it appears that you have injected politics into one of the most profound security challenges of our time - Iran’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons."

The new Menendez-Kirk bill's launch was certainly a bi-partisan affair; it immediately garnered co-sponsorship by 13 Republicans and 12 Democrats. After that, though, it's been a decidedly Republican push: A day after introduction, six Republicans signed on, along with one Democrat. (Since the winter recess broke, 25 new co-sponsors have emerged, just one of them a Democrat.)

Then something remarkable happened: Forceful pushback. Ten powerful Democratic Senate committee chairs sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asking that they be informed if and when the sanctions bill moves.

"At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail," wrote the committee chairs, including reliable friends of Israel like Senators Boxer, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Carl Levin (D-MI).

If the latest round of delicate diplomacy does collapse due to the new sanctions, the U.S. and Iran could be set back on the path to confrontation. Democrats may take note of who undermined the talks, against the warnings of the administration and the intelligence community.

After the Iraq war, unrepentant Democratic supporters paid at the polls; Iraq dogged Hillary Clinton in her failed 2008 bid for the party nomination, and Joe Lieberman was excommunicated from the party in a primary. If an Iran war breaks out, the party's anti-war grassroots may notice sanctions backers' pro-Israel proclivities too. That won’t be good for their electoral prospects, nor for Israel advocates who cherish their bipartisan support in Washington.

Ali Gharib is an independent journalist based in New York who covers foreign affairs and Iran policy.Follow him on Twitter: @ali_gharib

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