WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel’s highest-ranking female soldier, Brig. Gen. Yisraela Oron, was sounding all the right notes for her J Street hosts.
At the tail end of a U.S. tour for the left-wing pro-Israel lobby, Oron was lending her considerable security credentials to its platform: a two-state solution, territorial concessions by Israel and a robust U.S. peacemaking role.
The conversation with a group of reporters then turned to Iran and its nuclear potential, and Oron was unequivocal: yes to engagement, but on a timetable that would be tied to punishing sanctions.
"The thing that worries me and that worries other Israelis is that it is not limited in time," Oron said as the faces of her J Street hosts turned anxious, adding that "I’m not sure I’m expressing the J Street opinion.”
She was not. J Street explicitly opposes a timetable and has reservations about proposed additional sanctions.
The awkward moment pointed to a potential split between left-wing pro-Israel groups and the Israeli constituents for whom they claim to speak. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian issue, little dissent exists among Israeli politicians over how to deal with Iran.
That puts left-wing U.S. Jewish groups at odds with Israeli left-wingers.
"There is a more hawkish perception among virtually all circles in Israel" than there is in the United States, said Yossi Alpher, a consultant who has worked with Americans for Peace Now. "It’s very natural. Iran doesn’t say the U.S. has no right to exist and doesn’t do the equivalent of denying the Holocaust. It doesn’t deploy proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah against the United States and on its borders."
Right now, the differences are not pronounced — the administrations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama are virtually on the same page on the need to confront Iran, and soon. That could change, however, if Iran makes a serious counter offer to Obama’s proposal to engage.
Last week, the Iranians said they had made such an offer. Its details are not known, but it will be part of the “reassessment" Obama has pledged to complete by the end of September, when the major world powers meet at the U.N. General Assembly.
"If Iran engages and the Obama administration argues that a deal has been made, the Israeli government will be very wary," Alpher said. "This could immediately create a whole world of suspicions."
Under those circumstances, the vast majority of American Jewish voters who backed Obama last year would be faced with the first either-or U.S. vs. Israel issue in decades, and groups that describe themselves as pro-Israel and pro-peace will find themselves for the first time speaking for virtually no one in Israel on a critical issue.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will lobby in Washington on Sept. 10 and rally outside the General Assembly on Sept. 24 for sanctions that would end the export of refined petroleum to Iran, which imports 40 percent of its refined oil.
On Israel’s left, the Labor Party, currently part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, aggressively backs sanctions. Its leader and the current defense minister, Ehud Barak, makes Iran’s isolation the centerpiece of his exchanges with his counterparts in the West.
The smaller Meretz Party, to Labor’s left, also backs Iran’s isolation. It routinely frames its arguments for robust peacemaking in terms of the need to contain Iran’s ambitions.
Former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin tells audiences that Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister who launched the Oslo process in 1993, did so principally because of his fears of Iran. Beilin told a German audience last year that he "advocates increased sanctions towards Iran in order to stop centrifugal uranium programs."
Avshalom Vilan, a Meretz Knesset member until March, was a forceful advocate of reaching out to the nations most able to wound Iran’s economy, including Germany and India.
Across the ocean, however, left-wing U.S. Jewish groups — not to mention non-Jewish left-wing groups — are against more sanctions.
Americans for Peace Now has the most pronounced opposition.
"We don’t think crippling sanctions are right if the meaning of that is that the sanctions will not be targeted against Iran’s governments and leaders but will target Iranian people," spokesman Ori Nir said. "We think that’s not only morally wrong but is also strategically perilous."
Other left-wing groups also hedge on the prospect of sanctions.
The Israel Policy Forum, in a July 15 paper, encouraged engagement and said threats of enhanced sanctions were "not necessary" because Iran’s leadership knew they were forthcoming.
The most recent statement from Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, dated July 2008, rejects "diplomatic isolation or veiled threats of military action" and advocates "utilizing diplomatic and economic incentives and sanctions together."
In a policy statement, J Street says it does not oppose further sanctions "in principle," but "under the current circumstances, it is our view that ever harsher sanctions at this time are unlikely to cause the Iranian regime to cease weapons development." Engagement should "not be conducted with a stopwatch," it said.
The Reform movement, which often aligns with the left-wing groups on Israel-Palestinian matters, is a bit closer to the Israeli position when it comes to Iran.
Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform’s Religious Action Center, disputes Americans for Peace Now’s contention that the proposed enhanced sanctions are immoral.
"These were chosen as a much more targeted way to put the maximum pressure on the power structure in Iran," he said.
The other left-wing pro-Israel groups arrived at their Iran policies partly because of their alliance with an array of liberal Democrats wary of engaging Iran in the wake of the Iraq War and its resultant quagmire. Behind the scenes, these groups have sought sanctions that would not harm ordinary Iranians.
Supporters of tougher sanctions argue that sanctions targeting the regime have been in place for years and have had little effect.
Shai Franklin, a senior fellow for U.N. affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said that gravitating away from deference to Israeli constituencies may be healthy for some U.S. Jewish groups.
"It makes the conversation more interesting, and once that happens you’ll find more people getting involved, from the right and left," he said.
Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum said differences might emerge next month over the pacing and intensity of sanctions.
"The Iran difference is part of a differentiation that has got to be addressed," he said. "At some point there has to be a serious dialogue between American Jews and Israel and the Obama administration and Israel."
One tactic might be to remind Israel that Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran appears to have rallied support in Europe in recent weeks for tougher sanctions.
"The doves," Spiegel said, "accomplished what the hawks could not.”