September 16, 2019

Why we lost the debate to kill the Iran deal, and how we could ultimately win

Early on in February of this year, as the President and his Secretary of State were starting to leak information on the  negotiations around the proposed deal with Iran, the world looked on and assumed like so many attempts before it, the prospects of success where slim – they would fail.  But the Israeli government took them seriously, they went into high gear, sending out messages through government operatives, generals and eventually the Prime Minister. This culminated in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grand performance before congress. 

Mistake number #1.  No sitting president wants to be upstaged, nor embarrassed.   And no Democratic member of congress wanted to be part of a political maneuver that was staged not just by the Republican majority, but was blatantly used to manipulate the elections in Israel.  With that move, so began the slippery slope of alienating the key members of congress, the key democratic constituencies that could have turned the tide and killed what is arguably a “poor deal with Iran”.   

Then after the Netanyahu grandstanding, negotiations began to heat up as deadlines approached.  And Israel turned up the heat with its propaganda machine.  Leaking information on the Iranian nuclear program, placing editorials in newspapers, sending operatives from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. to media and events like congressional hearings. 

Mistake number #2 – Its not all about Israel — Its about the spread of terrorism and the importance of keeping sanctions.   As the elements of the deal leaked out in earnest in late April early May, the Israeli lobby began to attack the deal without any substance.  “We know this will be a bad deal for Israel.” stated a email from AIPAC.  “We cannot trust the Iranian's to keep their word” stated another one.  

Mistake number #3  While the Israeli lobby did the inside the beltway dance and shuffle, all the while the President and his people were out working the world stage putting pressure on our strongest allies to support a deal that they themselves had concerns about.  And setting in place U.S. based support with key Democratic constituencies.

Next up, the deal is getting done, the Iranians were close to walking away according to sources in the talks.  They did not want an extension.  We could have killed the deal right then and there.  But instead pro-Israel forces and members of the Israeli government chose a different path.  They focused their efforts on stirring up their base, sending out fundraising letters and attacking the wrong folks – the important Democrats that they were going to need in the coming months. 

Mistake number #4.  While the pro-Israel forces focused on attacking Democrats and let their Republican allies carry the message, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry were traveling the world, further pushing our allies into supporting the deal, and meeting regularly with the Democratic leadership to prepare for the eventual rollout of a flawed deal.  They knew it was flawed, yet they continued to think as they do today that this is the best deal we can get. 

Mistake number #5.  Already behind the eight-ball only weeks before the final announcement of the deal, finally the pro-Israel lobby meets in secret meetings in DC to plan what to do about a deal.    What do they do – they hire a Republican PR firm and Republican operatives to oversee the campaign, while leaking their strategy to the conservative media.   Not a great strategy, when you have to convince 30+ Democratic House members and a dozen or more Democratic Senators to oppose a flawed deal.   And in a typical inside baseball strategy they start running ads in national publications and doing TV advertising to an audience that has not been contacted in months as to their position, and has little connection to what is now become a partisan battle. 

Mistake number #6.  Panicked and playing catch up, they put into place a last minute attempt to lobby members of congress during the recess.  The big problem —  they have no base of support, the constituents that would make the most impact to members are already either neutral or are not going to go up against the President.  Having been worked for months by the administration, the supporters have convincingly framed the debate, and the Israeli government having counted the votes now knows they need to be careful for fear of a increased Obama backlash. 

Is it too late?

So where are we today, the pro-Israel groups for the last 40 days have been desperately trying to work constituencies that have no skin in the game, and are more concerned about the last two years of an Obama presidency and important members of Congress that will be critical to their issues in the coming years.  Throw on top of this members being lobbied by the leadership to tow the line or else they may end up in the smallest office, working on the subcommittee on Post Office operations. 

And so we have a misguided plan, late execution, a lost moral high ground, and many pro-Israel supporters like myself left confused and disappointed.

So can we win this? Probably not.  But we could inflict enough damage and pain that the administration and the world will listen- – implementation is still yet to be determined.    How can we achieve this.  We need to enlist the Obama coalition – go grassroots, and capture the debate by shifting the narrative away from Israel and back to terrorism and protecting the Homeland. 

We cannot re-write the history of the last 6 months.  We cannot undo the Netanyahu speech, or even bring together members of the Democratic caucus to rally behind their most trusted allies – the Jewish community.  Nor can you take back the millions wasted on national media campaigns and robo calls to staff members who have more to loose in bucking the leadership.  

Opportunity number #1.  What we could do and what we should have done is to reach out to the traditional Democratic base, the coalitions of minorities, women and seniors, labor and others that have stood side by side with the American Jewish community for decades.  Fighting for human rights, civil rights and personal freedoms.   We should have utilized this most powerful of coalitions to push back on our friends in the Democratic establishment to support what is right and what is important.   There is nothing more persuasive than a local constituent or large contributor calling or writing a member of congress to say.  “Please think before you cast this vote….”   Staff members catch on when calls come in from individuals that don't even know whom they are talking to – pushed through by eager political operatives that are making big bucks, while the President and his team count favorable votes.

Over and over again, our community falls into the same trap.  We take for granted that the communities we have been so closely aligned with, will be there when we need them. 

Opportunity number #2. So moving forward as a community, lets cast off the traditional playbook, put energy into local third-party Democratic and independent groups and focus on the importance of protecting the USA.    We as a Jewish community need to dig deep into our strong alliances with groups that have for decades relied on our support to achieve personal justice – we need them now, and they should be with us.  We need to ask them to reach key Democratic leaders and tell them its important that this deal not be implemented without the support of the community it will impact.  

That is where we should be, that is where we need to be – unfortunately, we are weeks away from approval of this deal, while continuing to  watch ads that point fingers and talk down to the same people that we need to support us.