AFRICANGLOBE – James Clyburn was livid. In February, shortly after learning that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would deliver a speech to Congress, criticizing President Barack Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, the assistant minority leader joined a small group of senior Democrats for a closed-door meeting in the Capitol building with Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of Israel’s parliament. The boyish-looking Edelstein, a member of the ruling Likud Party, had flown in from Jerusalem to tamp down the furor that erupted over Netanyahu’s planned address.
Usually meetings between American lawmakers and Israeli officials on Capitol Hill are chummy. But this one was tense. The Democrats felt it was sheer chutzpah for a foreign leader to use Congress as a soapbox to challenge their president, and they were particularly incensed by the way Netanyahu and Republican leaders had arranged the speech behind Obama’s back. But Clyburn, a long-standing member of the Congressional Black Caucus, went even further, adding an unmistakable racial overtone to Netanyahu’s offense. According to aides, the South Carolina Democrat bluntly told Edelstein he regarded the prime minister’s upcoming speech as an “affront to America’s first Black president.”
Since that meeting, the rancor between Black Democrats and Netanyahu has intensified. Some 57 Democrats—including most Black lawmakers—stayed away from the Israeli leader’s March 3 speech in protest. Two weeks later came Israel’s parliamentary elections, when Netanyahu renounced his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After his reelection to a fourth term, Netanyahu tried to walk back his remark, but Obama wasn’t buying his clarifications, saying he took Netanyahu “at his word” and would now reevaluate his approach to the Middle East peace process. The U.S.-Israel relationship suffered yet another body blow on Tuesday after a Wall Street Journal report quoted unnamed American officials saying that Israel spied on the Iran negotiations, then leaked cherry-picked details to Congress in a bid to scuttle the talks.
But for Black Democrats like Clyburn, it was Netanyahu’s coded election-day warning that Israel’s Arab citizens were headed to the polls “in droves” to vote him out of office that pushed them from anger to outrage. Netanyahu later apologized for his remark, but his contrition appeared to have no effect on Clyburn and company. “The Congressional Black Caucus is gone,” said one Democratic congressional aide, referring to its support for Israel under Netanyahu.
As negotiators from the U.S., Iran and five major powers close in on a framework nuclear accord in Geneva to meet an end-of-March deadline, Netanyahu’s loss of Black support on Capitol Hill probably means he’s lost his gamble to create a way for Congress to pass a bill that would block an agreement. “Bibi,” a congressional aide said, using Netanyahu’s nickname, “ensured there will be no veto-proof majority in the House.”
The Fight for 40 Votes
The reason that the Congressional Black Caucus wound up with this sort of power lies in its ability to block legislation that would override Obama’s veto on the Iran bills. There are two such bipartisan measures in the Senate. One, introduced by Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, would automatically impose additional sanctions on Tehran if no nuclear agreement is reached by the end of March. Weeks later, in April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to vote on a second Iran bill that would require the president to obtain congressional approval for any nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic.
The White House has vowed to veto both, arguing the measures would torpedo the chances of any agreement. In turn, Obama’s threat has prompted Republican predictions of veto overrides—a formidable legislative hurdle that requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers. That means 67 votes in the Senate and 287 votes in the House.
It’s possible that the Senate’s 54 Republicans could find 13 Democrats and independents willing to cross the aisle. After all, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby, is against the emerging Iran deal. And the group still wields enormous influence with pro-Israel donors to congressional races, whose contributions often dictate the way lawmakers vote on Israel-related legislation.
But assuming all of the House’s 247 Republicans vote to override an Obama veto, they would still need at least 40 Democrats to join them. The Congressional Black Caucus, most of whom don’t rely on pro-Israel campaign donations, has 46 members, the vast majority of whom would fiercely defend Obama’s signature foreign policy effort. Joining them: at least two dozen white progressive Democrats who also would rally to prevent a veto override.
To make matters worse for Netanyahu and his supporters, no House Republican has offered companion legislation to the two Iran-related measures in the Senate—a necessary step in the process. The Senate may pass one or both of the Iran-related bills, but without identical legislation eventually clearing the House, there would be no bill for the president to veto. That, of course, could change. But on the Iran nuclear issue, House members have been far more measured than their colleagues in the Senate. And until the House weighs in with a bill of its own, anything the Senate does is the legislative equivalent of one hand clapping.
‘All Sides Have Agreed to Buy the House’
Like Netanyahu, Obama’s Republican critics, worry that a nuclear accord will provide Iran with significant sanctions relief without placing enough constraints on Tehran’s capacity to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. Under such an agreement, Obama could temporarily waive congressionally mandated sanctions and lift another layer of sanctions imposed by executive order. Any permanent change in congressional sanctions would require new legislation, and Obama sees congressional reluctance to do so as a way to pressure Tehran into abiding by the terms of the deal.
Another Republican complaint is that Obama also plans to submit any agreement to the U.N. Security Council, whose five permanent members—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France, along with nonmember Germany—are negotiating the the terms of the accord and presumably would agree to lift a third set of international sanctions. Such broad relief, these critics contend, will only reinforce Tehran’s inclination to flout the agreement and continue to fund international terrorist groups.
But as they say in the Middle East, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. With a March 31 deadline looming, the negotiations have kicked into high gear, with all sides reporting progress and arms control experts sounding optimistic about an accord. “President Obama’s political opponents try to block everything he does,” Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, told NPR. “But I think the center of the American security establishment is solidly behind the deal as it’s been outlined.… It looks like all sides have agreed to buy the house, and we’re just negotiating the closing costs.”
That still leaves U.S.-Israel relations at one of their lowest points since the birth of Jewish state in 1948. At his March 24 news conference, Obama made it clear that the U.S. will continue to cooperate with Israel when it comes to security and intelligence. But because of Netanyahu’s election-day disavowal of a two-state solution, the president said the U.S. will continue to reassess America’s relationship with Israel. “What we can’t do is pretend that there is a possibility of something that is not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years. That is something that we have to—for the sake of our own credibility—we have to be able to be honest about that.”
On Capitol Hill, that message seemed to resonate loudest among Obama’s Black Democratic allies. There was a time before Netanyahu’s speech when many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, steeped in Old Testament messages from Negro spirituals, saw their own reflection in Israel’s struggle. But after Netanyahu’s broadsides against Obama’s diplomacy and his remarks about Israeli Arabs, those days appear to be over. As one Democratic aide put it: “It’s going to be very difficult to bring them back.”
By: Jonathan Broder