Call it Charles Schumer talks tachlis. The senior senator from New York, who may be the most important Democrat in the Senate, appears to be preparing to get behind the agreement U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking with Iran. That is my interpretation of his closed-door remarks to Orthodox Union officials in Washington, where Schumer characterized the choice America is facing as “which is better — no agreement or an agreement that is not close to the ideal.”
In Schumer’s remarks a week ago, which were caught in a 23-minute video now on YouTube, he begins by saying that he “wanted to talk a lot of tachlis about Iran” but “I’m not going to do this because you’re recording it.” He nonetheless gives a remarkable glimpse of a key Democratic leader as he wrestles with an agreement that hasn’t yet been struck but that has already been warned against by Israel. It’s a reminder that even a senator who likes to refer to himself as a “shomer Yisrael,” or guardian of Israel, is having a hard time reasoning this thing out.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that Schumer simply endorsed what the administration is doing. That was the kind of blunder made by Obama’s treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, the other day at a Jerusalem Post parley; he was booed and heckled in what Chemi Shalev characterized as “one of the surliest receptions ever accorded to such a high-ranking administration official by a Jewish audience in the United States.” Schumer was much more thoughtful and nuanced.
Schumer agreed emphatically that an Iranian atomic bomb would be an existential threat to Israel — and a threat, but not an existential one, to America. But he mocked advocates of a military strike against Iran, calling it “the next worst solution.” He expressed the fear that it would precipitate terrorist strikes against Israel and America and prompt Hezbollah to launch 10,000 rockets against Israel. The odds are, he warned, that “tens of thousands of Israelis would die.”
“So those who say ‘nice and easy, let’s have a military solution’ are not looking at the facts, and as a Jewish leader in America, I have to look at the facts,” Schumer said, vowing: “I will not be pushed around on this issue.”
The best solution, Schumer said, would be “an agreement that everyone likes.” There are those of us who reckon even a “good” agreement would be a strategic error, in that it would make America a contract partner of an undemocratic regime; Schumer did not address that point. He views the chances of winning an agreement everyone likes as extremely unlikely. Hence the question of which is better — no agreement or an agreement that is not close to ideal.
Here Schumer offered a soliloquy on dual loyalty. He posited a hypothetical agreement that has a 95 percent chance of ensuring that there is no Iranian A-bomb. “If you are president of the United States, president of one of the European countries, or an American, an average American, you say that’s pretty good to me,” he said.
“But,” Schumer continued, “because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel, if you’re prime minister of Israel or an Israeli citizen or for that matter an American Jew or at least some American Jews, many, you say I can’t live with a 5 percent chance that Israel will be annihilated.” So, he added, “there is a basic difference in viewpoint.” He then spoke about how the “American Jewish community ignored the threat of Hitler,” some even deliberately keeping quiet for fear of being accused of dual loyalty.
“The 95-5 figure is something that’s very important for people to understand,” Schumer said, before asking for the door to be closed and announcing: “This is the tachlis part.” He warned that not having an agreement would leave the sanctions in place, but only if everyone else stays in — a reference to the fact that full sanctions require the cooperation of other countries. He warned of the possibility that the Europeans could leave, adding, “it so bothers me to have the Jewish fate in European hands.”
“We’ve been through this before, we Jewish people,” Schumer said.
Schumer was applauded when he explained his opposition to Obama on the interim agreement. But he went on to warn that one could have the “default position that no agreement leads to the worst thing, a nuclear Iran.” Then, moving on to “an agreement that is hardly ideal,” he faults Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to construct his speech to Congress in March as a series of test questions through which to judge the pending pact.
The senator ends by talking about how important the decision is, how many people he’s talking to, how he has been an elected official for 41 years and is not going to let party, politics or pressure interfere, and how he has to do the right thing as best he can.
Until that time, he says, he’s going to find out as much as he can. Which is why — at least to my ear — this sounds like a case of one of the most pro-Israel leaders in the Democratic Party getting ready to support Obama in abandoning the military option he’d long insisted was on the table and swinging behind an agreement with the ayatollahs.