'There were no surprises, when somebody said, Now I see the light'

Briefing congressmen on Iran deal concerns, PM provides no ‘Aha!’ moment

Hosting separate Democratic and Republican delegations, Netanyahu doesn’t tell them how to vote, but says it’s a ‘moral duty’ to defeat the agreement

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

PM Netanyahu briefs Democratic congressmen in Jerusalem, August 9, 2015. Steny Hoyer is closest to Netanyahu. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
PM Netanyahu briefs Democratic congressmen in Jerusalem, August 9, 2015. Steny Hoyer is closest to Netanyahu. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

As the battle over the Iran nuclear agreement continues to rattle the American political establishment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week hosted two delegations of US congressmen from both sides of the aisle.

During both meetings at his office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu argued strongly against the deal, but stopped short of explicitly calling on the legislators to vote against it in Congress next month. “He made his case very expansively without trying to pressure anyone how to vote,” a source with intimate knowledge of the meetings told The Times of Israel. Still, according to a second source, he did assert that it was a “moral duty” to thwart the agreement.

On Sunday, Netanyahu hosted a group of 22 Democrats headed by House Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Maryland). On Wednesday, he met with 36 Republican lawmakers led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA).

“He did not tell us how to vote,” McCarthy, who is on the record opposing the deal, told Israeli reporters Thursday in Jerusalem. “He’s much like every leader of every other country, [who] convey what they see.”

Earlier this week, Hoyer — who has not yet announced how he’s going to vote — said Netanyahu made his case in a “respectful” and “moderate” fashion. “He understands that the decision is up to the members of the House that owe their judgment to their constituents,” Hoyer told the Haaretz daily after the prime minister’s meeting with the Democratic legislators.

“He didn’t tell them to vote one way or another,” said Hoyer, “but it was clear he hopes they will vote against the agreement because it is a bad deal that will allow Iran to have a path to a nuclear bomb in 13 years. He said, ‘It is not my place to tell you how to vote. It is up to you — but my opinion is…’”

PM Netanyahu briefs Republican Congressmen in Jerusalem, August 12, 2015 (Haim Zach/GPO)
PM Netanyahu briefs Republican Congressmen in Jerusalem, August 12, 2015 (Haim Zach/GPO)

While it’s true that Netanyahu refrained from urging members to oppose the deal, he did speak of a “moral duty” to defeat the deal, leaving “little to the imagination,” one source critical of his comportment said.

Most if not all Republican congressmen are likely vote against the agreement with Iran, while many Democrats are expected to back their president and the deal he has negotiated. US President Barack Obama has vowed to veto legislation trying to kill the deal. He needs the support of one-third of either the House or the Senate to block efforts to override his veto.

During Sunday’s meetings with the Democratic lawmakers, Netanyahu acknowledged that many if not all of them might find it hard to vote against Obama, the leader of their party and a strong advocate for the deal, a source said. “But he acted in a very similar fashion in his meeting with the Republicans, thoroughly explaining why he thinks the deal is terrible. He didn’t act like the Republicans will vote against it anyway, so why bother.”

The atmosphere at both meetings was serious, with a focused Netanyahu making his case reservedly and patiently, several sources familiar with the meetings said. But it was unclear whether Netanyahu managed to change any Democrats’ minds about supporting the deal, one source said. “There were no surprises, no Aha! moments that somebody said, ‘Now I see the light.’”

Netanyahu attaches great importance to his meetings with American congressmen, especially with the Democrats, and that was evident during this week’s meeting, the source told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He was respectful of the sensitivities involved, of the predicaments the Democrats have here. He understood that many if not all of them would vote for the deal, even if they had misgivings about it.”

The prime minister met the groups for about an hour and a half each, and pointed out what he believes are the fatal weaknesses of the accord with the help of a marker and a white board. He jotted down some of his arguments and then took time to answer all the congressmen’s questions. “Had there been more questions, he would have been happy to answer them, although he had other meetings waiting for him,” the source said.

On Wednesday, Hoyer and McCarthy issued a joint statement of support for Israel, which hails America’s funding of the Iron Dome missile defense system but doesn’t mention the Iran deal. “Congress stands united with Israel, not only in support of its Iron Dome defenses, but also in preserving Israel’s security and ensuring the safety of its people,” it stated. “In these dangerous times, Israel can always be certain that the American people are by their side.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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