Will Hillary Clinton's Choice of Tim Kaine as VP Reignite the Iran Deal Controversy?

Clinton critics have been quick to point out that Kaine was one of the first senators to announce he was boycotting Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her running mate Senator Tim Kaine wave to supporters during a campaign rally in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 23, 2016.
Scott Audette, Reuters

Hillary Clinton was no longer secretary of state nor a U.S. senator when the painful throw-down between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the Iran deal played out in the winter of 2015.

That’s been fortunate for Clinton when it comes to her relationship with Israel and the Jewish establishment. The rupture between Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and Israel’s leaders and their advocates in much of the American Jewish community was deep and bloody, and scars remain. But because Clinton wasn’t a key player in the drama, successfully downplaying her support for the deal and any role she had in its origins, it hasn’t proven a real obstacle to American Jewish leaders who support Clinton, especially in the current anti-Donald Trump atmosphere. 

But now, Clinton's choice of Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate has handed a potentially useful new weapon to those who have misgivings about her and want to make inroads with her Jewish and pro-Israel supporters on behalf of Trump. 

It wasn’t just that Kaine was among the Democrats who decided to boycott Netanyahu's speech in March 2015, just before the Israeli election, to a joint session of Congress decrying the brewing deal with Iran while it was still in the formative stages. Kaine was among the very first to announce that he would do so – the fourth senator, to be precise, after Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy, and then Hawaii’s Brian Schatz. Eyebrows were raised that a mainstream Democrat like Kaine would make such a move, which he explained in a statement saying: "There is no reason to schedule this speech before Israeli voters go to the polls on March 17 and choose their own leadership. I am disappointed that, as of now, the speech has not been postponed. For this reason, I will not attend the speech."

After Clinton's VP pick was announced this weekend, the pro-Trump Breibart news site wasted no time reminding the world of the fact that Kaine “joined anti-Israel radicals” in boycotting Netanyahu’s speech last year, characterizing the Israeli prime minister’s appearance as “the last plea of a beleaguered nation.” 

Kaine, the article said, “represents the pro forma, dinner-and-fundraiser definition of 'pro-Israel,' which offers Democrats cover, and allows donors to rub shoulders with politicians, but which means little in practice.” 

Republican Jewish Coalition Executive-Director Matt Brooks released a statement saying the Kaine pick showed that Clinton “cannot be trusted to keep our country safe," saying that the Virginia senator’s support of the Iran deal “paved the way to a nuclear-armed Iran” and calling him “out of touch on the dangers facing our country.” Brooks tweeted that his behavior on Iran showed that Kaine “wasn’t there when the Jewish community needed him” and that when the chips were down he “chose to stand with Obama.” 

Until the Iran deal cast its shadow, Kaine was viewed as a strong, friendly, classically moderate, Democratic “pro-Israel” politician who has cooperated in the past with the dominant pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC. While governor of Virginia, he took trips to the Israel to promote trade ties, and a warm relationship continued during his time as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In an intensive post-mortem discussion of his actions regarding the Iran deal with the Forward, Kaine said he had shared many of Israel’s concerns about Iranian behavior. He said the issue of Iran’s cheating was a “very very fair question” and that concern over Iran’s actions in Syria and Yemen and “whether sanctions relief — more dollars, gives them the ability just to do more of it, I think is a very fair worry."

He expressed those worries by co-authoring the Corker bill, which gave Congress the right to review any agreement reached in the Iran talks, despite threats by Obama to veto it – a threat he didn’t exercise. 

In his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism, Kaine met with Netanyahu several times to discuss the issue as the Iran deal took shape, and at times appeared frustrated with the prime minister's unwillingness to bend. Returning from one such conversation in 2014, Kaine described Netanyahu's position to journalists as “no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program.”

It may have been this personal involvement in unsuccessfully trying to bring Netanyahu around on substance that fueled his anger when he perceived that the prime minister was using the dispute for political gain. 

In the Forward interview, Kaine characterized Netanyahu's appearance in Congress as a political ploy that had been “carefully designed to keep the White House out, to keep all congressional Democrats in the dark, even those of us who had been strong pro-Israel supporters, and in my view it was being done purely to try and influence the Israeli elections and demonstrate American support for one person and one party, which is something we should never do.”

Kaine said that he had actively tried to delay the Netanyahu speech until after the Israeli elections, when a bipartisan invitation to the prime minister could have been made. “Then the prime minister could have come and talked about a framework of a deal that was actually on the table, and pointed out the good, the bad, the ugly – here’s what’s good, here’s what’s bad.”

But as it played out, “it was just an exercise to paint a straw man and knock it down. And I viewed it as purely an exercise focused on the politics, not the important substance.”

Conservatives in Virginia suspected Kaine of pulling a “politically calculated” ploy of his own by boycotting Netanyahu, namely “throwing Israel under the bus”  in order to grab a headline and curry favor with the progressive wing of the party – intimating that the senator may have deliberately publicly snubbed the prime minister in order to improve his chances as an attractive vice presidential candidate. 

Kaine may have mended fences with angry anti-deal forces in Jerusalem and Washington with his activities after the deal was done. He joined Democratic colleagues calling for the Obama administration to write a new and strengthened “Memorandum of Understanding” on security assistance to Israel the following November. And in January Kaine joined seven of his Democratic colleagues in a meeting with Netanyahu in Israel to discuss oversight of the agreement and went to Vienna to meet with officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body monitoring Iranian compliance with the deal. Kaine said in the Vienna meeting that he “emphasized that the IAEA’s credibility is on the line with the nuclear deal’s implementation and monitoring and that it would be a destructive blow to the organization if it does not quickly catch any attempts by Iran to undermine or cheat on the deal and immediately report those findings.”

Perhaps with a different Republican presidential candidate opposing Clinton, Kaine’s history – along with the fact that, as an active proponent of a two-state solution, he is a favorite of J Street and a recipient of campaign donations from the dovish organization – might have substantively helped the GOP in efforts to woo hawkish American Jews from Clinton-Kaine to Trump-Pence. 

But in this bizarre outlier of a presidential election, it is unlikely to have an effect. 

While the voice of Republican Jews, the Republican Jewish Coalition, may have “congratulated” Trump in May when he received enough delegate support to win the nomination, it has not actively praised him in any way, only speaking out to shoot arrows at Clinton, and now at her running mate. 

The continuing deep discord and discomfort among Jewish Republicans regarding Trump was reflected in the fact that so many of them steered clear of last week’s Republican National Convention where Trump was nominated. 

It surely makes any misgivings about Kaine’s record on the Iran deal, the two-state solution – or any other issue – pale in comparison. 

JTA contributed to this report.