The Iran Deal Puts Pro-Israel Democrats in a Bind

These Dems have to balance their loyalty to the president — and his desire to halt the Islamic Republic's nuclear program — with their discomfort over a deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with Secretary of State John Kerry after a statement on a landmark deal with Iran halting parts of its nuclear program Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva. (National Journal)

It's been a tough year for Israel's most loyal supporters in the U.S. It began with a messy confirmation process for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a nominee whom pro-Israeli groups viewed with concern. Over the summer, President Obama leaned on those groups, most notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to lobby for his proposal authorizing military intervention in Syria, only to abandon the push at the last minute. "And, most recently, pro-Israel organizations have been highly critical of a possible diplomatic deal with Iran that would loosen sanctions against the Islamic regime — a deal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deemed "exceedingly bad."

Saturday night, the White House announced a deal reached in Geneva to limit and roll back Iran's nuclear development.

Meanwhile, relations between the White House and Israel are as chilly as they've been in decades, with Obama administration officials openly contradicting Netanyahu's positions, and Netanyahu openly courting the French to forestall the U.S. diplomatic push with Iran.

All of this puts Democrats, who routinely win overwhelming support from Jewish Americans on Election Day, in an awkward position. Do they stand with the president on politically sensitive foreign policy issues, or stake their own course? That difficult dynamic is currently playing out in Congress, where the Obama administration is resisting a Senate push to maintain tough sanctions against Iran. This week, Obama met with leading senators on the Banking and Foreign Relations committees to dissuade them from their efforts while diplomacy is underway.

"There's a fundamental disagreement between the vast majority of Congress and the president when it comes to increasing Iran sanctions right now," said one Democratic operative involved in the advocacy efforts. "Pro-Israel groups, like AIPAC, try to do things in a bipartisan way; they don't like open confrontation. But in this instance, it's hard."

That awkwardness has been evident in the lukewarm reaction from many of Obama's Senate Democratic allies to the administration's outreach to Iran. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey said last week he was concerned that the administration seems "to want the deal almost more than the Iranians." Normally outspoken Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a reliable ally of Israel, has been conspicuously quiet about his views on the negotiations. In a CNN interview this month, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, whose job as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee is to defend the president, notably declined to endorse the administration's approach, focusing instead on Obama's past support of sanctions. This, despite the full-court press from Secretary of State John Kerry, a former congressional colleague.

On Tuesday, after meeting with Obama, Menendez and Schumer signed a bipartisan letter to Kerry warning the administration about accepting a deal that would allow Iran to continue its nuclear program. The letter was also signed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Robert Casey, D-Pa.

Democrats, of course, realize that the president plays an outsized role in the policy direction of his party. Just as George W. Bush moved the Republican Party in a more hawkish direction during his war-riven presidency, Obama is nudging Democrats away from their traditionally instinctive support for the Jewish state. "I can't remember the last time the differences [between the U.S. and Israel] were this stark," said one former Democratic White House official with ties to the Jewish community. "There's now a little more freedom [for progressive Democrats] to say what they want to say, without fear of getting their tuchus kicked by the organized Jewish community."

A Gallup survey conducted this year showed 55 percent of Democrats sympathizing with the Israelis over the Palestinians, compared with 78 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of independents who do so. A landmark Pew poll of American Jews, released in October, showed that 35 percent of Jewish Democrats said they had little or no attachment to Israel, more than double the 15 percent of Jewish Republicans who answered similarly. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, many delegates booed a platform proposal supporting the move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 2011, Democrats lost Anthony Weiner's heavily Jewish, solidly Democratic Brooklyn House seat because enough Jewish voters wanted to rebuke the president's perceived hostility toward Israel.

Pro-Israel advocacy groups rely on the mantra that support for Israel carries overwhelming bipartisan support, a maxim that has held true for decades in Congress. But most also reluctantly acknowledge the growing influence of a faction within the Democratic Party that is more critical of the two countries' close relationship. Within the Jewish community, that faction is represented by J Street, which positions itself as the home for "pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans" and supports the Iran negotiations. "Organizations that claim to represent the American Jewish community are undermining [Obama's] approach by pushing for new and harsher penalties against Iran," the group wrote in an action alert to its members.

Some supporters of Israel view J Street with concern. "There's a small cadre of people that comes from the progressive side of the party that are in the business of blaming Israel first. There's a chorus of these guys," said a former Clinton administration foreign policy official. "But that doesn't make them the dominant folks in the policy space of the party, or the Hill."

Pro-Israel activists worry that one of the ironies of Obama's situation is that as his poll numbers sink, his interest in striking a deal with Iran will grow because he'll be looking for any bit of positive news that can draw attention away from the health care law's problems. Thus far, Obama's diminished political fortunes aren't deterring Democrats from protecting the administration's prerogatives. Congressional sources expect the Senate Banking Committee, chaired by South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, to hold off on any sanctions legislation until there's a resolution to the Iranian negotiations.

But if Obama's standing continues to drop, and if Israel doesn't like the deal, don't be surprised to see Democrats become less hesitant about going their own way.

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