On the eve of Thanksgiving, President Obama and other major world powers reached a historic deal with Iran that would see a freeze in parts of that nation's nuclear program in exchange for a softening of sanctions that have taken a heavy toll on Iran's civilian economy.
The deal was widely praised across the world, but brought sharp criticism from the Israeli government, with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu calling it a “historic mistake.” Yet in a rare display of daylight between the two governments, Obama administration officials have stuck to their guns, and are adamant about keeping the agreement in place.
Members of Congress allied to pro-Israel votes and money, however, are not so keen on allowing Obama's refreshing diplomacy to take its course. Senators who have long been allies of the nation's Israel lobby – such as Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who said Israel is the “reason why I ran for Senate,” and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) – quickly prepared new sanctions legislation, which is especially perilous at this time because the Iranian government has vowed to pull out of talks if Congress passes any more sanctions.
This threat is taken so seriously by the Obama administration that the President has vowed to vetoany new sanctions bills. During a late December press conference, Obama castigated thosepushing for new sanctions. “I'm not surprised that there's been some talk from some members of Congress about new sanctions,” said Obama. “I think the politics of trying to look tough on Iran are often good when you're running for office, or if you're in office.”
47 Senators have co-sponsored the Kirk-Menendez legislation, curiously called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 – given that forcing Iran out of the talks makes it more likely that it would pursue nuclear weapons – including fifteen Democrats.
One of the Democrats most out front in promoting the sanctions is Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate. Schumer is an almost lockstep ally to the president in most policy areas, with a voting record to the left of most Senate Democrats. However, on this issue, him and ultra-reactionaries like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are aligned. MapLight ranks him as the twelfth-highest recipient of pro-Israel money all Senators, an important source of campaign cash especially in his state of New York.
Shortly after Obama and other world leaders struck their deal with Iran, Schumer attended a gala event with OHEL Children's Home and Family Services, a staunchly pro-Israel crowd in his state (its co-president Mel Zechter is a significant donor to pro-Israel Democrats). “Democrats and Republicans are going to work together to see that we don’t let up on these sanctions…until Iran gives up not only its nuclear weapons, but all nuclear weapon capability, all enriched uranium,” Schumer thundered.”Every time the Arab world, the Palestinians, have risen against us, we have risen to defeat them. The one existential threat to Israel’s existence is a nuclear Iran.” When the Iran sanctions bill was introduced on December 19th, he was an original co-sponsor.
The fact that hawkish allies of the Israel lobby like Menendez, Schumer, and Kirk introduced the sanctions legislation is no surprise. What may be surprising to some is that the body's newest member – Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who has said “there is nothing in the realm of progressive politics where you won't find me” and is prone to quoting Gandhi – is a proud co-sponsor as well.
But when you look at Booker's back story, who he counts as his closest advisers, who helped him fundraise, and the traditional power of the Israel lobby in his home state, his support for the Senate Iran hawks becomes less and less curious and more and more expected.
A Proven Ally to the Israel Lobby
The nation's most effective foreign policy lobby is the Israel lobby. Comprised of a network of political action committees (PACs), skillful lobbyists, and grassroots networks, this lobby has effectively frozen U.S. Congressional policy on Israel, ensuring that there are traditionally few differences between the Israeli Prime Minister and the U.S. Congress.
Long before Booker made his 2013 run for the U.S. Senate, he was courting this lobby, letting them know that he was a reliable ally. In late October of 2008, Booker spoke at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Nation Summit in Chicago. “Only when I saw Israel, did it really become a part of my being,” he explained to the crowd about a trip he took to Israel. “And you understand that we must defend that nation. We understand that security is about land. Anybody who goes to the Golan Heights can see. You can stand there with water balloons and throw them down on the people below and saturate it with water. And we cannot allow the valley to be saturated with the blood of Jews!”
This line drew thunderous applause from the crowd, as it was a signal that Booker had adopted its narrative: Israel is under siege and in constant threat of annihilation, and the United States must have complete policy alignment with its government to prevent the deaths of Jews, who live perilously close to Arabs who want to destroy them.
Ironically, this speech was given just weeks before the Gaza-Israel war that would lead to the deaths of 1400 Palestinians and just 13 Israelis (four from friendly fire). Booker has never spoken about preventing Arab deaths at Israeli hands, which occurred in a ratio of 100-to-1 during that conflict, but that isn't how you build support from AIPAC hardliners.
But Booker's hardline support for Israeli policy isn't explained just by his past few years of pandering to crowds at AIPAC conventions. Before Booker spoke that day in Chicago, he was introduced by his long-time friend and mentor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
Boteach has worn many hats, but he is one of the most famous rabbis in the world for his prominence in pop media. He's a best-selling author for his book Kosher Sex and was a close spiritual adviser to the late Michael Jackson.
He is also a consistently hardline supporter of Israel's government. In 2012, Boteach, enraged at what he perceived to be President Obama's weak support for Israel's government, ran for Congress as a Republican. With $1 million in backing from Sheldon Adelson's Super PAC, Boteach campaigned on traditional Republican issues like school choice and lower taxes. But Israel was never far from the campaign, as he made one of the cornerstones of his attack on his Democratic opponent, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), the fact that he signed a letter protesting the humanitarian impact of Israel's embargo on Gaza. Boteach went on to lose by almost 50 percentage points.
After Booker began his run in the summer of 2013, liberal Zionist writer Peter Beinart noted his close relationship to Boteach, who he has known for twenty years and reportedly studies Torah with on a weekly basis. Beinart noted Boteach's opposition to a Palestinian state, his praise for Israeli settlers who are colonizing the West Bank, and his utter denial of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians writ large. Reflecting on Booker's close relationship to Boteach, Beinart concluded:
But Booker is no longer just a spiritual seeker looking for community in unusual places. He’s on his way to being one of the most important politicians in the country. He says he supports a Palestinian state but when he speaks on the Middle East he generally recites the standard AIPAC half-truths. Indeed, although he reminds audiences that the word “Israel” means “struggle,” he doesn’t appear to have struggled with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians at all. To truly become the moral leader he’s capable of being, he’s going to have to start. Maybe, after his next Shabbat meal with his old friend Shmuley Boteach, he can suggest that they go and really see [occupied] Hebron.
Perhaps this sharp missive from the prominent Beinart impacted Booker, especially in light of a Democratic primary where he was being attacked from the left. On his campaign site, he affirmed that “the president is right to keep all options, including military action, on the table while vigorously pursuing both international sanctions and a negotiated settlement that prevents Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.” He also noted that Iran “elected a new President who has taken a less confrontational tone and positioned himself as open to negotiation.”
But even if amidst this softened rhetoric, Booker still emerged as a hardline ally of anti-Iran lobbyists. His fundraising may help explain why. Although AIPAC often brings together influential donors and activists, it has no fundraising PAC of its own. That's where, in Booker's case, NORPAC comes in. A New Jersey-based PAC that bills itself as supporting candidates who “demonstrate a genuine commitment to the strength, security, and survival of Israel,” it has been a big fundraiser for Menendez and other Senate hawks. NORPACs president raised at least $100,000 for Booker, and told New Jersey Jewish News that during the private event then Mayor Booker spoke to “our key concern, Iran.” Alex Kane notes that Booker also was backed by a Super PAC called the Mobilization Fund that received hundreds of thousands of dollars from hedge funders who also funded Israel lobby causes.
Put together, Booker's courting of the influential Israel lobby, which is powerful in his state of New Jersey, his long friendship with a hardliner like Boteach, and the fundraising dollars from NORPAC and others results in the Booker Paradox: a Senator who hates the War On Drugs, a spending far too much on the military budget, and commits himself to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but who sides with Iran war hawks.
Jumping on the Wrong Bandwagon
While Iran sanctions have typically been an easy pass in the U.S. Senate, there are signs that Booker's crowd may lose this fight. In addition to the White House's veto threat – which pushes the threshold of votes needed to 67 – there has been major organizing against the sanctions for the first time. Ten Senate Democratic committee chairmen wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asking him to deny a vote on new sanctions; progressive organizations like MoveOn and Credo are openly petitioning against the sanctions legislation, with Credo even promising to “hold any politician – whether Republican or Democrat – accountable who ties the hands of the White House in negotiating peace with Iran and pushes us into another unnecessary and costly war.” And the new pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby – groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Americans for Peace Now, and J Street – are petitioning against the bill as well.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said if any of his Democratic caucus colleagues bring up new sanctions, they “will not have my support.” And unlike Booker, another freshman Democratic Senator – Elizabeth Warren (MA) – has endorsed Obama's interim deal with Iran, and criticized adding new sanctions during a committee hearing in December.
This comes at a time when AIPAC is actively demanding new sanctions, meaning that, for the second time in less than a year – the other being its failure to muster congressional support for a resolution striking Syria – it may be losing a battle in Congress.
It's ironic that Booker, who in many ways represents a fresh face for the Democratic Party, is hitching his wagon to a political force that is anything but fresh – and may soon, as is frequently discussed, may lose control of the debate altogether.