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Pro-Israel groups backing away from confrontation with Obama over Iran

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When it comes to the deal between Iran and major powers, Israel and the pro-Israel community are retreating from a strategy of confrontation and working instead to influence the contours of a final agreement.

In a conference call last week, Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s executive director, advised pro-Israel activists and leaders not to confront the Obama administration directly over the “difference of strategy” between the United States and Israel on Iran. Instead, Kohr said to focus on passing new sanctions as a means of shaping a final deal.

AIPAC would not comment on the call, which was first revealed Dec. 3 in a Zionist Organization of America news release criticizing AIPAC’s approach. But Kohr’s advice comports with a recent rhetorical pivot by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially excoriated the interim deal with Iran reached last month in Geneva as a “historic mistake.”

This week, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, Netanyahu significantly downplayed his unhappiness with the interim deal and said he was focused instead on the outcome of the six-month period established to reach a final accord over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu is sending a team to Washington in the coming days to consult with U.S. officials on how best to influence a final deal.

“We believe that in a final deal, unlike the interim deal, it’s crucial to bring about a final agreement about determination of Iran’s military and nuclear capability,” Netanyahu said.

The interim deal rolls back some sanctions — although not the central ones targeting Iran’s banking and energy sectors — in exchange for some freezes in Iran’s nuclear development.

Israel, along with some pro-Israel groups and members of Congress, decried the deal for not dismantling Iran’s nuclear capability and said the rollback of any sanctions, however marginal, reversed the momentum that has helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. U.S. officials recoiled at the rhetoric, telling Jewish leaders in off-the-record phone calls that it made more sense for Israel to try to shape the outcome of a final deal than to trash the interim deal.

In a talk Thursday with the American Jewish Committee, Robert Einhorn, a former Obama administration policy official on Iran, said Netanyahu’s “very aggressive” tone “was surprising to me and to many others.”

“Stop this megaphone diplomacy,” said Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Work with the Americans privately.”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, agreed with Kohr’s strategy and called for working with the Obama administration.

“It’s not enough to be critical, even though the critique brought about some changes,” Foxman said. “What makes sense now is to work with the major player, the United States, the president and his staff. To flay and to continue to be critical is not productive and is not smart.”

The ZOA, which has often been outspoken in its criticism of the Obama administration’s approach toward Israel and Iran, signaled that it would not abide by calls to back away from confrontation.

“The Obama Administration Iran deal is a very dangerous act of appeasement that leaves intact all the vital elements of Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program,” the group said in a statement.

Tactical questions aside, major differences remain between what Israel and the United States are prepared to accept with respect to a final deal. U.S. officials this week for the first time said they could countenance a final deal in which Iran continues to enrich uranium at low levels. Israel is unlikely to budge on its demand for a complete dismantling of Iran’s enrichment capability.

But officials in both governments say Israel and the United States do agree on two endgame bottom lines: Iran must dismantle the underground nuclear reactor near the holy city of Qom, and it must dismantle its nascent plutonium facility at Arak.

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel community, backed by Netanyahu, will continue to press for enhanced sanctions against the wishes of the Obama administration. Pro-Israel insiders say they expect top lawmakers, led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to press for enhanced sanctions before year’s end. The sanctions likely would kick in in six months, allowing the Obama administration time to come to a deal with Iran.

Responding to a reporter’s question about Israel’s push for new sanctions, Kerry said Friday it was natural to expect a degree of pushback from Netanyahu.

“Look, the prime minister has every right in the world to make his views known with respect to his concerns about the security of his country, and we would expect him to do that,” Kerry said. “But the prime minister has also been extremely constructive in working with us on the next steps and where we need to go now. He understands that we are now in the real negotiation.”