National Security

Netanyahu turns up pressure on Dems

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Twenty-two House Democrats visiting Israel got an earful from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their recent visit to the Middle East.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders pressed their case against President Obama’s historic nuclear deal with Iran, and focused on Democrats who could be the swing votes in the House.

{mosads}Rep. Gene Green, a 12-term Texas Democrat who’s toured the region numerous times in the past, said visiting lawmakers typically get about 30 minutes of face time with Israel’s prime minister. As a sign of the urgency surrounding the nuclear deal, Netanyahu gave the Democrats two hours.

“This is probably the most involved I’ve ever seen a prime minister get,” Green said Tuesday in a phone interview. “He almost conducted a town-hall meeting with us.”

The display highlights how Netanyahu’s efforts to scuttle the deal with Congress have continued since his controversial speech earlier this year to a joint session.

Behind GOP leaders who’ve been highly critical of the nuclear deal, Congress is expected to vote in September on a resolution disapproving it. Most of the 22 Democrats on the trip remain undecided on that resolution. 

Their visit was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a charitable offshoot of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobbying group staunchly opposed to the deal.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) said the AIEF sponsors were particularly careful not to lobby the lawmakers on any issues before Congress. 

“I didn’t feel like I was heavily pressured at any point,” he said Wednesday by phone.

But Netanyahu and the other Israeli leaders, he added, made clear they were not a part of the nonprofit group in making their case against the Iran deal.

“They expressed their opinions,” he said, “but also emphasized they weren’t telling us how to vote.”

Besides Netanyahu, the members met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, both of whom oppose the accord.

Led by Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, the lawmakers’ tour overlapped with a similar AIEF-funded trip featuring 36 House Republicans, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). But with GOP lawmakers near-unanimous in their opposition to the nuclear deal, the Israelis’ message — directly or indirectly — was largely aimed at swaying on-the-fence Democrats.

Those Democrats could prove crucial to the debate. Obama has vowed to veto the disapproval measure, and the fate of the accord could rest on Democrats’ ability to sustain that veto in the face of a Republican override effort.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been an aggressive supporter of the nuclear pact, endorsing the deal within days of its unveiling and blasting out mass emails each time another Democrat backs the agreement. 

Of the 22 Democrats on the Israel trip, only two had announced their position on the Iran vote prior to the visit. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) is supporting the deal and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) is opposing it.

Three others have taken a stand since their return: Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Denny Heck (D-Wash.) will back the deal, while Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) will not.

The other 17, including Hoyer, have not said how they’ll vote, though several have indicated leanings.

Rep. Brad Ashford (D-Neb.) returned from the trip with suggestions that he’ll oppose the agreement. 

“There may be circumstances under which I could support a deal but at the moment it is just not good enough,” he said in a statement.

DeSaulnier said if the vote were today he’d back the deal, but he’s still meeting with constituents before reaching a final decision.

Green said the overwhelming majority of calls to his office are urging his opposition, but he also remains undecided.

“I’m really torn on it,” Green said. “I want to make sure Israel is safe and secure but this is the first time since ’79 we’ve had any kind of agreement with Iran.”

There were other issues on tap during the Democrats’ tour. They heard security and terrorism concerns from Israeli forces on the borders of Lebanon and Gaza. They examined minority rights issues with Israeli Arabs. And they met with Palestinian leaders — including Finance Minister Shukri Bishara and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — on a number of topics, including the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But it was the Iran deal that was the undercurrent of the trip, and some Democrats lamented that the issue of Israeli security has turned decidedly partisan.

“The image that it’s a partisan issue is wrong for the long run,” Green said.

Green, for one, placed much of the blame on GOP leaders for inviting Netanyahu earlier in the year to address Congress without informing the Obama administration. Netanyahu used the speech to hammer the nuclear negotiations months before the deal was finalized.

Asked if that episode is a factor surrounding the Iran vote, Green said: “It is, but I don’t want to … make my decision on the issue.

“I don’t like it, and I’ve expressed that opinion,” he added. “But I don’t think that’s the end-all and the be-all.” 

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Gene Green Iran Iran nuclear deal Mark DeSaulnier Nancy Pelosi

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