The Obama administration’s effort to save its talks with Iran has turned into a craven game of Israel outreach. John Kerry, Joe Biden and a top Treasury official had to placate Israel’s friends on the Hill yesterday, but these powerful friends, including Democrats, repeatedly cited Israeli officials’ concerns. “I’m dubious,” Chuck Schumer said of the administration’s talks; and on MSNBC this morning Kerry was reduced to bragging about how often he was on the phone with “Bibi,” the Israeli prime minister. I just got off the phone with him now, he said.
The whole exercise is a demonstration of the centrality of Israel and its lobby inside the American discourse. What about America’s interests? And why isn’t our press making more of this question?
Here is Chemi Shalev at Haaretz, describing Israel’s reach in the Senate: “Republicans blast Kerry’s ‘anti-Israeli’ Senate briefing against new Iran sanctions: Harsh rhetoric between Jerusalem and Washington continues, with the U.S. blasting Israel’s ‘unreal’ evaluations of Iran accord and Netanyahu warning that the ‘bad deal’ could lead to war.”
Some choice excerpts (thanks to Pamela Olson):
Accompanied by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, top U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman and other officials, Kerry tried to convince Senators to refrain from approving new sanctions against Iran, with saying that such a move would “destroy the ability to be able to get agreement.” Kerry told skeptical lawmakers that they needed to “calm down” and to give the negotiations a chance to succeed…
Speaking to reporters after the briefing before the Senate Banking Committee, [Illinois Senator Mark] Kirk described it as “fairly anti-Israeli” and seemed to put more trust in intelligence assessments apparently given to him by Israeli officials than in Kerry’s official presentation.
“I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service,” Kirk said. He revealed that the Israelis had told him that the “total changes proposed set back the program by 24 days.”
According to the Buzzfeed news site, a Senate aide familiar with the meeting said that “every time anybody would say anything about ‘what would the Israelis say,’ they’d get cut off and Kerry would say, ‘You have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this.’”…
Earlier, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki used unusually blunt and undiplomatic language to dismiss claims made on Wednesday by Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz that the proposed deal with Iran would cut 40% of the value of the current sanctions regime and would give Tehran a $40 billion benefit.
“Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality,” she said.
The New York Times notes that several powerful Democrats also criticize the negotiations, and they’ve been on the phone to Israel too.
[T]he skepticism is bipartisan. [Senate majority leader Harry] Reid, a Democrat, said, “I hope we can work something out with Iran, but I am a person who really believes in the state of Israel.”
“Our concern over here in dealing with the nuclear capability of Iran is one thing,” he continued. “Put your mind-set that you’re in Israel. There are not thousands of miles separating you. It’s scores of miles. What we do has to be done right.”
After meeting with top administration officials, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat, said: “I am dubious of the proportionality of the deal. While I am exploring further details, I am worried that we are reducing sanctions while Iran is not reducing its nuclear capabilities.”
John Kerry was on Morning Joe today. You’d think they might have asked about Netanyahu playing Congress. No, it was all about Israel and Bibi– Bibi Netanyahu. Note that Kerry begins to state forthrightly the disagreement between the U.S. and Israel and then checks himself.
KERRY: The President’s plan on Iran would actually expand the current breakout time. If we don’t negotiate and we don’t get this agreement, the exact opposite happens. … a standoff in this circumstance which becomes far more dangerous for Israel – our ally and friend – far more dangerous for the region, may even push other countries to nuclearize, and could result in the requirement that we have to, rather than have a negotiated, peaceful resolution of this, take military action in order to secure our goals.
ROBERT GIBBS: … I’m interested in how do you talk to and what do you say to Prime Minister Netanyahu between now and the beginning of those talks next week that the path that you’re pursuing is best for them and what do you say specifically around Iran’s continued enrichment abilities or continue to build a nuclear reactor for plutonium enrichment?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not going to let them do that, first of all. I mean, we’ve made it clear to our friends up on the Hill that each of those critical enrichment facilities are part of this agreement, and none of them will be able to progress further if we get this first step. That’s how we begin to roll back the program and hold it where it is. So that’s an essential component of this.
But I’ve had several conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu this week. In fact, literally just before coming here, I hung up the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And we’re having a very friendly and civil conversation about this. I respect completely his deep concerns as a Prime Minister of Israel should have about the existential nature of this threat to Israel. We understand that, which is why President Obama has made this firm commitment that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon.
Now what we agree on – what we disagree on is not the goal. We all agree on the goal; we disagree on a tactic. We believe that you need to take this first step and that you will not get Iran to simply surrender and believe you’re dealing in good faith if after two years of negotiating you don’t follow through on what’s on the table. But Bibi, the Prime Minister – Netanyahu believes that you can increase the sanctions, put the pressure on even further, and that somehow that’s going to force them to do what they haven’t been willing to do at any time previously. We just don’t agree with that as a – but I don’t want to go into the – I mean, what’s important here is we stand with Israel firmly – 100 percent. There’s no distance between us about the danger of this program, and the end game for us is exactly the same. Iran cannot have a peaceful nuclear program that is, in fact, a deceptive program or a program geared to allow them breakout…
MS. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah. Mr. Secretary, Steve Rattner has a question for you.
MR. RATTNER: Quick last question, I think, Mr. Secretary. Sir, you laid out your case very unemotionally, very clearly, very logically. Why are you having so much trouble with so many of your former colleagues, including Senator Corker, the ranking minority, Senator Schumer the number three Democrat, and so forth.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are a lot of reasons for that, Steve. I’m not going to enumerate all of them now except to say that every senator is entitled to be skeptical, entitled to ask tough questions. They did yesterday and they will – and we’ll answer them. And we’ll answer their questions. I’m going to continue to talk to senators in the next days. I believe that what we are doing is – and the President believes this very deeply – is the best first step that will actually make Israel safer.
The Iranians aren’t happy. From the State Department briefing yesterday:
Do you have any chance to see the tweets of the Foreign Minister of Iran and part of the tweet diplomacy? Because he is arguing about this P5+1 stand.
MS. PSAKI: The tweets from this weekend?
QUESTION: Yes. I mean, it was reported today in New York Times regarding – I mean, criticizing or some kind of criticizing the Secretary regarding his blame, blaming Iran.
MS. PSAKI: I think I talked about this already yesterday, so I would point you to the comments I made yesterday about it, the tweets.
About the tweets, yesterday:
Is the Secretary upset by this? Is the Secretary upset by the tweeting that’s going on, or does he think it’s just for Iranian domestic audiences?
MS. PSAKI: The Secretary doesn’t have any particular analysis of the tweeting. He feels that this is an issue where we came very close to – as you heard him say – to making a deal.
Here are a couple of the tweets:
No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday.But it can further erode confidence
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 11, 2013
And here the Iranians brag on their cooperation with international inspection protocol:
— nuclearenergy.ir (@nuclearenergyir) November 11, 2013