Sanctions pressure builds

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014. Kerry is heading to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to discuss his effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, yet his conversations with the U.S. allies will undoubtedly turn to other Mideast trouble spots. Kerry said Saturday that progress is being made in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, yet key hurdles are yet to be overcome. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

Secretary of State John Kerry (Brendan Smialowski/Associated Press)

Support for the Iran sanctions bill continues to swell. The number of co-sponsors is up to 58 (with sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, that makes 59). There was a flood of GOP additions yesterday, perhaps a result of a massive phone campaign by Concerned Women for America (CWA), a 500,000-member Christian and Zionist conservative group.

CWA’s chief executive and president Penny Young Nance sent out a letter today thanking senators for support:

Previous Iran sanctions passed by Congress brought leaders of Iran to the negotiation table and are what has kept them there. As the administration works to achieve a final agreement we must continue the pressure. This legislation is consistent with the administration’s diplomatic efforts since it only imposes further sanctions if the talks fail or if Iran violates the interim agreement. However, for the safety of Israel and the entire Middle East, we must not waiver.

Senators from both sides of the aisle have come together in rare bipartisan agreement to support this critical act. Yes, diplomacy is underway to procure a final agreement with Iran, however in the meantime, the United States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and ignore a clear and present danger to stability of the region.

We commend those senators who have signed onto S. 1881 and respectfully urge cosponsorship from those who have yet to do so.

No wonder then that the Democrats have been out spinning, decrying the pro-sanctions crowd as being too tough and insisting there aren’t votes to override a veto. But that is likely false. According to sponsors of the bill and pro-Israel organizations, there are more than 75 votes for the bill, although only 59 are formally committed. The National Jewish Democratic Council, an adjunct of the Democratic National Committee — and not independently minded as are mainstream pro-Israel groups such as the American-Israel Policy Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — is tying itself in knots trying to be supportive of the White House but avoid appearing to be against sanctions.

On the GOP side, the Free Beacon ran a story asserting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is “signaling” support for the sanctions bill, but his office’s comments in the report are studiously neutral. (“Sen. Paul has not said he wouldn’t support it in a vote.”) In fact, pro-Israel groups have heard nothing to suggest Rand Paul is coming over to the pro-sanctions side.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is much more likely to support sanctions. His office e-mailed me the following statement: “Talks on implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement are ongoing, but time is running out. If Iran is simply using this as another stalling tactic, further congressional action will be warranted.”

Whether 43 or 45 of the 45 Republicans support the sanctions bill, the near unanimity among Republicans and the open support from 16 Democrats puts the remaining Democrats on the hot seat. For now, they are trying to have it both ways, saying they will support the bill if it comes to a vote but not co-sponsoring the bill. That leaves them vulnerable to opponents’ claims that they are fair-weather friends of Israel, more afraid of the White House than a nuclear-armed Iran. For a freshman Democrat like New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, facing a possible challenge from the doggedly pro-Israel Scott Brown, this becomes awkward, to say the least. The problem for Democrats increases as the map for the GOP expands, which makes the holdout stick out. Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, who is up for reelection this year, has become a co-sponsor, but Tim Kaine, also of Virginia, is sticking with the White House — for now.

Meanwhile, the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) is out with a blistering ad taking on Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) ECI’s executive director, Noah Pollak, bashed the Democratic National Committee chairwoman in a mass e-mail: “This ad highlights the contradiction between Rep. Wasserman Schultz’s very public pronouncements of support for Israel and her behind the scenes campaign to stymie bipartisan Iran sanctions on behalf of President Obama. As her constituents find out the truth, we hope they will demand a more responsible approach on this important issue.”

All of this puts pressure on the White House. How reasonable is it for the administration and its surrogates to oppose a sanctions bill consistent with the White House’s own sanctions rhetoric (i.e. “sanctions brought Iran to the table”), especially when that sanctions bill gives the president discretion to hold off if progress in the talks is being made and would go into effect only if Iran cheats or won’t go forward with a final deal? The public statements from the National Security Council accusing sanctions proponents (Democrat Chuck Schumer — really?) of wanting to go to war, the whining from the National Jewish Democratic Council, the urgent alert from J Street and the rising number of co-sponsors suggest the White House should start looking for an alternate strategy. Insulting 59 senators isn’t working very well.

UPDATE: Scott Brown e-mailed me, “One of the things I miss most [since leaving the Senate] is not being able to fight for Israel.” Hmm. Over to you, Sen. Shaheen.

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