Freshman Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-L.I.) returned from Israel Tuesday saying the briefing she attended with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only reinforced her conviction that the Iran nuclear pact is a bad deal.
“I thought he made a very compelling case to everyone in the room,” Rice told The Jewish Week. “I had felt confident in my decision when I made it. I had given it a tremendous amount of thought, and nothing I heard or saw caused me to waiver in that at all.”
Rice was one of 22 Democratic members of Congress who flew to Israel last week for a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, the charitable arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group sponsors such trips every two years for freshman members of the House.
It also brought over 36 Republican House members, and the two trips overlapped by one day.
The visits, which were organized months ago, came at a fortuitous time because they afforded Israeli leaders a chance to explain their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal just weeks before Congress is to vote on whether to approve it. Democrats are expected to be the swing vote because most Republicans already oppose it.
Rice said she opposed it for three reasons: it would “merely pause” and not eliminate Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon; sanctions that would be lifted under the agreement would not have the same crippling economic impact if they were restored because Iran cheated, and uncertainty that Iran could even be spotted cheating.
She added that “crippling sanctions brought Iran to the table — and they can again. There is no question that if we stick together and maintain these sanctions that we can get a better deal.”
In her opposition, Rice joins local fellow Democratic Reps. Grace Meng, Elliot Engel, Nita Lowey and Steve Israel, as well as Ted Deutch of Florida and Brad Sherman of California. Sen. Charles Schumer also announced his opposition.
A number Jewish Democrats in Congress, among them California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, have announced their support for the plan.
In explaining his decision to oppose it, Schumer said in a statement that he was concerned with as long as a 24-day delay before International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would be allowed to inspect a suspected covert nuclear weapons site. Such a delay, he argued, “would hinder our ability to determine precisely what was being done at that site.”
In addition, he said, he was troubled that the U.S. could not unilaterally demand an inspection of a site, and feared that the provision for a “snapback” of sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation “seem cumbersome and difficult to use.”
The agreement expires in 15 years and Schumer said Iran, having been freed of sanctions for a decade and a half, would be “stronger financially and better able to advance a robust nuclear program. Even more importantly, the agreement would allow Iran, after 10 to 15 years, to be a nuclear threshold state with the blessing of the world community.”
But Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the American negotiating team, said here Tuesday that Iran is a “nuclear threshold nation today” and that it achieved that capability at a time when the U.S. and Iran did not speak with one another.
In remarks at a discussion hosted by Thomson Reuters, a multimedia group, Kerry scoffed at the suggestion that further negotiations would produce a “better deal.”
“It’s not going to happen,” he insisted. “There is not a better deal. [Former President] George Bush tried in 2008 to get a better deal and Iran went from 104 to 19,000 centrifuges. … We are confident we will know what they are doing. We are safer with this deal than without it.
Kerry said President Obama told him that he was prepared to use the military option to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, “but he said we owe it to the world to try to get an agreement … which is not based on trust, but which is verifiable. I believe we have that agreement and that we have enough intelligence capacity to know what they are doing.”
Regarding Israel’s opposition, Kerry said he has spoken with Netanyahu “and we agreed to disagree. But the U.S. has huge stakes in that region and we will never allow it to be threatened. We are engaged with them [Iran] and will be deeply engaged pushing back on their nefarious activities.”
Meanwhile, Jewish organizations have been slow in taking sides. B’nai B’rith International announced its opposition on Monday, saying: “We have doubts about elevating the international status of Iran, which has done nothing to prove it will keep its word.”
It joined the Orthodox Union, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in rejecting the agreement.
The most prominent Jewish group in favor of the agreement is J Street, the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby, which said it believes the agreement “demonstrates that a core security interest of the United States — ensuring Iran does not get a nuclear weapon — can be achieved through diplomacy and without the use of military force. This deal makes the United States, Israel and the entire world safer, and it would be highly irresponsible for Congress to reject it.”
The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly took no position, issuing a statement calling on Congress to carefully review the agreement to “ensure that Iran will be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Similarly, the Jewish Federations of North America urged “Congress to give this accord its utmost scrutiny.”
Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, said he was upset that so many Jewish organizations haven’t taken a stand against the pact when there is an “existential threat to Israel which could result in the massacre of millions of Jews and the deaths of large numbers of Americans and others.”
“It is as frightening and disgraceful as the deafening silence of Jewish leaders during the ’30s and ’40s,” he added, referring to the Holocaust.
A number of other Jewish groups said they intend to take a position but are still studying the agreement.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is now polling its 51 member organizations to see if there is a consensus, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement that his organization is in the process of consulting with its leaders and “listening to expert voices reflecting the range of views on the deal. We are doing this in a thoughtful and deliberative fashion and as expeditiously as possible.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that at this point his organization is opposed to the agreement “unless the administration can answer” a series of questions about it.
Greenblatt said he expected the ADL to formulate a position “very soon.”
Greenblatt said also that he found “very problematic” the rhetoric directed at Schumer from progressives since he announced his opposition to the deal last Thursday evening. People on various social media sites have called him a variety of names including “traitor.”
President Obama said last week that opponents of the agreement are pushing for war with Iran just as they did in advance of the war with Iraq, and he suggested that AIPAC was behind the advertising blitz against to the deal.
Abraham Foxman, the immediate former national director of the ADL, was quoted by CNN as saying Obama’s rhetoric could end up “fueling and legitimizing anti-Semitic stereotypes out there that Jews are warmongers.”
Robert Cohen, AIPAC’s president, said in a statement that AIPAC’s facts are “well-substantiated and accurate” and that the TV ad by its advertising partner, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, does not mention Obama “in any way.” In addition, he said AIPAC took no position leading up to the Iraq War.
Recent polls have found that the Jewish community and most Americans are opposed to the Iran agreement. A poll released Tuesday by Monmouth University found that 41 percent of Americans believe Iran got more out of the deal than the U.S. And it found that 61 percent of Americans don’t trust Iran to abide by the agreement.