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Why Israel Should Worry about the Failure to Pass another Iran Sanctions Bill

by Shmuel Rosner

January 23, 2014 | 5:58 am

Photo by Reuters

Visiting Washington back in November of 2013, I conveyed the message I heard from legislators, pro-Israel advocates and even government officials: the campaign to add more sanctions on Iran is on halt, but not for very long. Israel, surely, was quite confident at the time that there are enough votes out there to make a statement by passing another sanctions bill – possibly one that will not go into effect immediately, but, still, one which will be registered in the minds of Iranians and Obama administration officials. In fact, Jerusalem was led to believe that the new sanctions bill is not a question of 'if', but rather one of 'when' and 'what exactly'. Congress is going to pass a bill, Israeli officials told me, based on what they heard from American friends, including congressmen and senators. But, like what happened to Jerusalem officials with other Iran-related matters, they soon discovered that the American position is more elusive than they previously thought. It is not just the Obama administration that is disappointing the Israeli government in not taking a tough stance on Iran – it is also the American Congress.

There are two ways of looking at the current map of expectations and calculations regarding a new Iran sanctions bill: one is mathematical, the other one focuses on trends rather than numbers.

Looking at the numbers makes sense, as the vote is ultimately about numbers. Can the bill pass? Can it withstand a Presidential veto? These are the important questions. To answer them, using the approach taken by Greg Sargent and Ron Kampeas can be helpful. According to their counts “19 members of the Senate Democratic caucus opposed to a vote, versus 15 who might be assumed to support one, with 21 not accounted for”. This teaches us that “although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime”, as Jonathan Tobin writes, “the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle”. There will not be enough votes to overcome a veto. And if the count keeps coming down as it has in recent days, there might not be enough votes to pass a bill in the Senate (the House is another story).

Looking only at the numbers is a mistake, though, as the more troubling picture arises when one looks at the trends behind those numbers.

Legislators seem very reluctant to challenge the Obama administration on matters of national security and foreign affairs. This can’t be good for an Israeli government that finds a much more sympathetic ear on the Hill than in the white House.

Democratic legislators are becoming unreliable when it comes to supporting what they deem hawkish Israel-related positions. In other words: if a couple of years ago the Democratic-Republican gap in views related to Israel was very common and easily detectible among the voters, but much narrower among legislators, it is possible that Democratic legislators are gradually catching up with their constituents and becoming reluctant to champion the positions advocated by the Israeli government.

The pro-Israel lobby looks weaker than it was in the past, as competing groups pertain to speak for the same cause (Israel’s safety) while advocating opposite policies. Of course, the demise of the “lobby” was predicted many times in the past, with great exaggeration and more fanfare than substance, yet disturbing reports such as this one are becoming more common – “The truth is that it is now easier to vote against Iran sanctions than it has been in years past, and to oppose one of the strongest, most influential lobbying groups in the country: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee” – and with them the perception that it is becoming easier to present a vote against Israel as a vote for Israel.

Not that those American legislators should consider Israel as the main reason to bolster sanctions on Iran – their concern should be the interest of America. And here, again, the trend speaks louder than the numbers: most American voters seem to be tired of foreign news and foreign entanglements; they seem to be in favor of the solution with Iran that seems the least confrontational- namely, the agreement that the administration is selling them.

And it isn’t just American voters that seem reluctant to adopt a tough approach to Iran, it is also the Jewish American community that is getting much softer on this issue, as I showed a couple of months ago. True, the leaders of many Jewish organizations are fiercely advocating sanctions and are on the watch to make sure that the American position on Iran doesn’t wane. But this seems like a top-down effort and not one that genuinely reflects the worries of the majority of American Jews, who say in every poll we have at hand, quite simply, that they support Obama on Iran.

For Israel all this is far from disastrous. The ultimate issue isn’t the round of (delayed) sanctions - it is the agreement in Geneva. And on this agreement the jury is still out. Of course, Israeli leaders are worried and – for good reason – find it hard to be confident that the Obama administration will hold the line and not sign a deal that is detrimental to the region (the Saudis are even less confident than Israel). Naturally, the fact that Congress hasn't been sending a clear message of steadfastness to the administration gives Obama and Kerry even more room for maneuver on this issue. Yet the specific issue of the possible failure to pass a specific sanctions’ bill is much less worrisome than the trends that such a failure portends (the debate about whether such a bill is good or bad for the ultimate goal of stopping Iran’s race to becoming a military nuclear power is a worthy one, but not the topic of this article).

In other words: by opting not to send the administration a message with a strong sanctions’ bill – if that’s how this ends – Congress is sending Israel a very strong message. It is a you-can’t-count-on-us message. It is a this-is-where-American-leadership-in-the-world-is-going message. It is a you-are-still-at-a-loss-when-it-comes-to-courting-Democrats message. It is an American-Jews-might-still-love-you-but-aren’t-so-sure-about-your-policies message (or, possibly: might still love you, but not enough to support policies that aren’t compatible with the political beliefs of their political camp).

For Israel, navigating the American waters has always been a matter of finding a road that makes it seem the two countries have compatible interests and beliefs. It is becoming trickier now, not because there's been a huge change in Israel’s approach and policies, but rather because America is changing in ways that Israel will have to learn to live with. And thinking about the long term, this is much more important than this or that bill.

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