Israeli officials are concerned about the growing number of Democratic presidential candidates who are promising to reverse President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
The concern has to do with both the possibility of the United States re-entering the nuclear agreement, which the Israeli government strongly opposed when it was signed in 2015, and the prospect of Israel becoming too involved in internal American politics during a tense and divisive election campaign.
Officials who have spoken with Haaretz in recent weeks described a “political nightmare scenario” in which Israel is dragged into the presidential race because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials will make comments about the Iran deal, at the same time as Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee will spar over its fate.
At last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer gave a preview of what the discussion over this subject could look like during the election year. Dermer said that calls to renew America’s commitment to the nuclear deal are “unacceptable” in Israel’s view.
“There are leaders who are calling to return to that deal. And that is something that has to be seen as totally unacceptable,” Dermer said. “You know, in 2015 when we are having this debate there were a lot of question marks. What would happen? Would this moderate Iran? Is this a good thing? Is this going to make war less likely?”
Dermer added that “now in 2019 there's exclamation points. It made Iran more dangerous. It made war much more likely. So anyone who is saying that they're going to return to the deal is basically saying that they're going to give hundreds of billions of dollars to people who are committed to Israel's destruction and our Arab neighbors' destruction and giving them a clear path to nuclear weapons.”
In recent months, six Democratic presidential contenders with a realistic shot of fighting for the nomination have publicly announced their support for re-entering the deal that Trump withdrew from last May. Those candidates are senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Kamala Harris (California) and Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), as well as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and former Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro.
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Other Democratic contenders are expected to do likewise over the next months, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who was part of the Obama administration that negotiated the deal in the first place, and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who voted in favor of the deal in 2015.
The Al-Monitor website reported last month that “Re-entry into the nuclear deal with Iran is fast becoming a litmus test for Democrats hoping to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.” At the same time as the various candidates began expressing this position, in February the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution in favor of re-entering the nuclear deal.
An overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress — including many of those who voted against the nuclear deal in September 2015 — opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord between Iran and six world powers last year. His withdrawal has so far not led to the collapse of the deal itself, which the other world powers and Iran continue to uphold.
On Monday, the United States announced that buyers of Iranian oil need to end imports soon or face sanctions. Last November, the Americans imposed sanctions on exports of Iranian oil after Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal earlier last year.
Administration officials have been saying for months that Trump wants to exert maximum economic pressure on Iran by cutting off its main revenue source. At the same time, the administration is struggling to convince European and Asian allies to cut their economic ties with Iran or withdraw from their commitments to the nuclear accord.
In the United States, the fight to preserve the nuclear deal is being led by left-wing groups focused on foreign policy, including the Jewish progressive organization J Street, which is behind a campaign to get Democratic candidates to commit to re-entering the deal. The organization is keeping track of which candidates have already made such a commitment and which ones still haven’t spoken out.
One candidate, Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey), said last month it was still “too early” for him to make a decision on the matter.
Growing support on the Democratic side for re-entering the deal has created two main concerns on the Israeli side. In the long term, there are fears about a reversal of Trump’s Iran policy by a future Democratic president.
A short-term concern, which exists mainly among the professional ranks in Jerusalem, involves a scenario in which Israel will be seen as “taking a side” in the upcoming U.S. election. Sources who spoke with Haaretz said that if the eventual Democratic nominee will be committed to re-entering the Iran deal, any comment on the subject from Israeli officials could become part of the U.S. political debate.
One source, who asked to remain anonymous in order to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue, said that Trump and other prominent Republican politicians “won’t hesitate for a single second” if they find an opportunity to use Israeli statements for their own political benefit. Yet if Israel doesn’t speak up on the subject, the same source said, it would be hypocritical, since the government’s official position on the issue is very clear.
During the 2016 presidential election between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Israel was rarely in the political spotlight and there was no serious discussion over Netanyahu’s preference between the two candidates — although many Democrats were still angry over Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress in which he attacked Obama’s Middle East policy, two weeks before that year’s Israeli election.
Things were different in 2012, though, when Netanyahu was accused by some Democrats of helping Mitt Romney’s campaign against President Barack Obama — an accusation the prime minister strongly denied.
A Democratic presidential nominee committed to re-entering the Iran deal could also create a serious headache for AIPAC, which is trying to preserve bipartisan support for Israel in an age of growing division and polarization.
The pro-Israel lobby group has a policy of aligning itself unconditionally with the Israeli government, but it also has a clear policy of not “choosing sides” in presidential contests. An election between Trump and a Democrat committed to re-entering the Iran deal will be difficult for the lobby group to navigate.