Much of the spotlight has been on the strong — even frantic — opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the agreement marked “one of the darkest days in human history.”
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami
The rush of Israeli politicians — and American-Jewish organizations to line up behind him — obscures the fact that a growing number of highly-respected Israeli voices and the majority of Jewish-Americans actually support the Iran deal.
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In fact, in recent days, people like former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy and former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon have stepped forward to differ with the prime minister. That’s no easy task in the heated political environment of Israel. Netanyahu has been issuing dire warnings evoking the threat of a second Holocaust for years. Anyone who contradicts him risks being labeled as “weak on security.”
Perhaps, this explains why distinguished former top officials of the Israeli security services — whose service, knowledge and experience are unquestionable, have been the first to step forward in favor of the agreement. Their credentials also make their voices exceptionally important to this debate.
It is equally difficult for American-Jewish leaders, who tend to align themselves with any and every policy adopted by Israel’s government, to do otherwise now. But their full-throated opposition does not reflect what polling tells us about the views of the majority of Jewish-Americans.
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In a poll of American Jews sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and released on July 23, 49 percent backed the deal while 31 percent opposed it, compared to 28 percent and 24 percent of all Americans in polled in that survey (the rest were not sure). Fifty-three percent of American Jews wanted Congress to approve the deal, versus 35 percent who wanted Congress to reject it. In the general population, according to that poll, those numbers were 41 percent approve, 38 percent disapprove.
“The findings … demonstrate a significant divide between the positions of major Jewish groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and many Jewish Federations, which have publicly opposed the deal, and the majority of American Jews. The thousands of American Jews publicly protesting congressional approval of the deal obscures the reality that most American Jews want Congress to approve it,” the newspaper wrote.
All of us in the pro-Israel community in the United States take Israel’s security extremely seriously. Israelis understandably feel threatened when Iranian leaders threaten to wipe them off the map and deny the Holocaust. They are justifiably alarmed by the massive arsenal of rockets and missiles Iran’s client Hezbollah has amassed just across the Lebanese border, all of them pointing at Israeli cities.
The question that warrants serious debate is whether Israelis will be safer facing a nuclear-armed Iran or an Iran without nuclear weapons. Will they be safer facing Hezbollah under an Iranian nuclear umbrella or Hezbollah without such protection?
If the answer to these questions is the latter, then the pro-Israel position would be to support an agreement that blocks all of Iran’s paths to acquiring such weapons. Without the deal, the Iranians will be free to move their nuclear program ahead without international monitoring or inspections and with a crumbling international sanctions regime.
This is precisely the argument Ayalon, Halevy and others have been making. “In the Middle East 10 to 15 years is an eternity,” Ayalon said in an interview with the Forward. “And I don’t believe that 10 or 15 years from now the world will stand by and watch Iran acquire nuclear weapons.”
Halevy, writing on Ynet News, said: “Without an agreement, Iran will be free to do as it pleases, while the sanctions regime will anyway crumble, as many of the world’s countries will rush to Tehran to sign profitable contracts.”
Such voices may not command the attention they should amid the political posturing. Heading into the 2016 presidential race, and with Hillary Clinton strongly backing the deal, Republican presidential contenders are vying to outdo each other with bellicose statements. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker even suggested that the next president might have to take military action against Iran on Inauguration Day.
Sound bites designed to appeal to Republican primary voters are, however, no substitute for serious arguments about how to promote American and Israeli security.
Israelis are right to be worried about Iran – as are Americans. And security must be the standard against which we judge this agreement. So let’s have an informed debate that will educate Americans about what this deal does and what it does not do – about its strong points and its potential vulnerabilities.
And let’s listen to the military and security experts here and in Israel who are lining up by the dozens in support of this agreement.
If it truly encourages a debate on the merits, Congress will listen to the experts and decide not to stand in the way of this important agreement.