Joe Lieberman: US-Israel relations about to become ‘very productive’

Obama ‘not punitive,’ and many Democrats who backed Iran deal now eager to show support for Israel, says former vice presidential candidate

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former US senator Joe Lieberman speaking in the Knesset, November 23, 2015 (Yirmiyahu Vann)
Former US senator Joe Lieberman speaking in the Knesset, November 23, 2015 (Yirmiyahu Vann)

With the Iran nuclear agreement a done deal, relations between Jerusalem and Washington are about to prosper, former US senator Joe Lieberman said Monday during a visit in Israel. In particular, Democrats who voted in favor of the controversial pact, which Jerusalem called a “historic mistake, are going to be keen to show their support for Israel,” he added.

“I think we’re entering a period now where the relations between the United States and Israel are going to be very positive and productive — and that includes a maintenance of the qualitative military edge,” Lieberman told The Times of Israel during an interview in Jerusalem.

Lieberman was a lifelong Democrat, being the party’s candidate for vice president in the 2000 election, until he became an independent in 2006. Though he retired from Congress two years ago, he was a vocal opponent of the July 14 nuclear pact with Iran, actively advocating among US lawmakers to reject the deal.

Many Democrats voted for the Iran deal despite concerns, arguing that while flawed it was better than the alternative, Lieberman said. They do worry about the agreement’s impact on Israel’s security and will thus make an extra effort to bolster US support for the Jewish state, he said.

“There will be a real tendency among members of Congress, particularly Democrats, to make it clear that they voted for the Iran agreement but that shouldn’t be used as measurement of their support for Israel, which remains strong,” the 73-year-old Stamford, Connecticut, native said. “I think the same feeling will be in the administration. The president wants his term as president to end with good relations with Israel, not with disagreements. So I’m an optimist.”

The rift between the US administration and the Israel government is currently “being repaired,” Lieberman said. This is certainly true at the Congressional level but there are indications that President Barack Obama is also eager to bury the hatchet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders argued bitterly over the Iran deal, but met at the White House earlier this month and agreed to look ahead rather than dwell on past disagreements.

“He’s gotten what he wanted so he’s the victor,” Lieberman said of Obama. “I think that he understands that and he’s not going to be punitive.”

Lieberman, a Modern Orthodox Jew who calls Israel his “second home,” also sounded optimistic when discussing the friction the Iran deal caused within the American Jewish community. “I don’t think this is irreparable,” he said. The ferocious arguments about the deal revealed a “range of opinions” that has existed for some time, but is no cause for panic, he added.

“The important thing to take away from the debate is that the US Jewish community is a broad spectrum,” he said. “You have very zealously pro-Israel groups, very active, very influential. You have people who are very pro-Israel but also have a point of view on social issues and are not going to be reflexively pro-Israel on every point. And then you have a group in America for whom Israel is not a priority concern.”

Efforts to strengthen the US-Israel bond should focus on areas “where it doesn’t exist,” Lieberman said. “Part of that is for people to appreciate the diversity of Israeli life and Israeli politics.”

At the same time, he acknowledged some “attrition” regarding American Jews’ attitude to Israel, which should not be ignored lest it continue to grow.

On Tuesday, Lieberman addressed the Knesset caucus for US-Israel Relations chaired by Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, which seeks to strengthen ties between lawmakers from the two countries.

“We brought Joe Lieberman because first of all he reached the highest level of any American Jew in American politics,” said Jay Ruderman, the president of a foundation seeking to foster a better understanding of American Jewry among Israeli opinion leaders. “He was almost the vice president of the United States and he’s a very committed Jew. He’s in a key position to comment on it.”

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