To Win Broad U.S. Jewish Support, Obama Must Truly Tackle Iran

The U.S. president argues that the Iran deal offers the best possible means to assure Israel’s security. The problem is that he is not convincing.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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U.S. President Bararck Obama makes a statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 2, 2015 after a deal was reached on Iran's nuclear program.
U.S. President Bararck Obama makes a statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 2, 2015 after a deal was reached on Iran's nuclear program.Credit: AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

When polling data is available on what American Jews think of the agreement with Iran, most of them, I am betting, are not going to like it. The great majority will be profoundly skeptical, while a significant number will oppose it outright. Even Obama admirers, such as myself, who generally applaud the president’s tough-minded realism, will not be cheering this particular deal.

Part of the reason, of course, is that it is not a very good deal, and in many ways, it is not a deal at all. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains in place, the Iranians have walked away from long-standing commitments, and the Americans have compromised on long-standing demands. Absolutely critical arrangements on verifying compliance, without which the whole plan collapses, have yet to be negotiated. “Better than expected” and “better than the alternative” are the descriptions most frequently heard from supporters of the deal, and both claims have a measure of truth. But they hardly constitute a reason why American Jews should offer their enthusiastic endorsement.

But in the final analysis, it is not the specific terms that will most bother U.S. Jews. The technical details of the deal are frustratingly complex. The for-and-against experts give dueling interpretations that are beyond the comprehension of average Americans. (How can I know how many centrifuges are really too many?) Instead, American Jews will make their judgments based on things that they do know. And after years of Iran watching, they know that Iran is an Israel-hating, Holocaust-denying theocracy, and the patron of Hezbollah and other radical groups that are in the business of killing Jews. From our long history, Jews are aware that such things matter. When in doubt about whether to trust virulently anti-Semitic nations and leaders, the general rule is: Don’t.

To his credit, U.S. President Barack Obama, in his interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times, acknowledges the validity of Jewish and Israeli concerns, including the vicious, anti-Jewish rhetoric of the ayatollahs and the subversive role that Iran is now playing throughout the Middle East. But the president argues that the deal offers the best possible means to assure Israel’s security. The problem is that he is not convincing. The critical question of when relief from sanctions is to be provided is unresolved. And his explanation of what will happen if Iran cheats is convoluted and even embarrassing; even the non-expert knows that what he is proposing, at this stage at least, cannot be counted on to work.

Who is responsible for the dangerous situation in which America now finds itself?

First and foremost, the president. The framework deal happened on his watch and was negotiated by his team. No matter how noble his intentions, the president’s job is to safeguard American interests and protect and reassure American allies. If his deal is not a good deal—and right now, it does not seem to be—he must take the blame.

But there is a lot of blame to go around. And American Jews are sophisticated enough to know that some of those yelling the loudest contributed mightily to the current mess—including Republican hawks and even Israel’s leaders.

Let’s begin with the administration of George W. Bush and the national security hawks—generally known as the neoconservatives—who inspired its hard line on foreign policy. These are the people who led America into the Iraq War, the most disastrous American foreign policy decision of the last quarter century. More than 4,000 Americans died in this war and trillions of dollars of American tax money were squandered. A war intended to bring democracy to the Middle East brought chaos instead, and a despotic Sunni regime was replaced by an oppressive Shi’ite one. The result was not the model Arab democracy that Americans had been promised but a Sunni rebellion that eventually gave birth to the fanatics of ISIS. The only real victor in all of this was Iran, which was empowered by the removal of a dangerous Iraqi enemy and by the installation of a friendly Shi’ite government in Baghdad. Iran became a major regional power and the threat that it is today as a consequence of America’s catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.

And then there is the role of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected prime minister of Israel in 2009. After sounding the alarm on Iran, he never acted as if preventing an Iranian bomb were his real priority. He should have spent the next six years in a non-stop effort to build a relationship of trust with the U.S. president. He should have set aside his obsession with settlement building, declaring that nothing would interfere with his commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran. He should have developed closer ties with the Sunni states of the Arab League, potential allies on the Iranian threat, even if that meant starting talks based on the Arab League’s Peace Initiative. He should have cultivated personal connections with both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, avoiding partisanship at all costs. And if had done all of these things, it is reasonable to think that his advice would have been sought, his counsel heeded, and his contribution to the negotiating process considerable.

But Netanyahu did none of these things. Bizarrely, he did exactly the opposite, offending the key American, European and Arab players at each step of the process. The result was that as the negotiations reached a critical stage, Israel was excluded and her legitimate concerns were brushed aside. This political bungling was not merely unfortunate; it was a tragedy with major security implications.

Still, we should return to where we started: Responsibility now rests with Obama. While American Jews can appreciate that others have had a role in creating the ominous threat that Iran poses, they look to their president to take the initiative. With a weak deal on the table, they want Obama to use the months ahead to forge a much tougher and more effective agreement. Only if he is able to do so, I believe, can the president count on broad American Jewish support.

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