Schumer's Iran-deal criticism is rare break with Obama [Commentary]

Ehrlich: The senior N.Y. senator's stance is 'unwelcome news' to White House

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As a first term Member of the Maryland General Assembly, I joined a small delegation of elected officials on a mission to Israel in 1992. The trip was sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council. Such missions are regular occurrences for newly elected officials from Maryland and around the country.

Opportunities for socializing and sightseeing were plentiful, but the trip was focused on issues of concern to the state of Israel and the Jewish community generally. One major impression from my memorable trip (and my subsequent years in Congress): Fans of Israel sleep far better when Israel and America are on the same (foreign policy) page.

I reference this takeaway as opposition continues to grow to the president's high stakes interim nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, an agreement that provides sanctions relief in return for a slowing of nuclear enrichment activities.

The central figure in the debate is Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and number three in Harry Reid's Senate leadership team, one of the president's most ardent fans, and a critical ally of the state of Israel.

Senator Schumer is a vocal critic of the administration's Iranian gambit. A consummate politician (not necessarily a compliment), Mr. Schumer finds himself stuck between an administration intent on cutting a deal with a notoriously untrustworthy regime and a worried Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, not long removed from delivering an Oval Office lecture regarding Israel's uncompromising stance on security to a clearly agitated President Barack Obama.

It is difficult to recount even one significant instance wherein the senior senator from New York has distanced himself from Mr. Obama. Accordingly, such a public display of independence from a usually reliable ally is unwelcome news to a White House suffering historically low approval numbers.

So, how to interpret the present stand-off?

First, the president has been true to his promise of American military retrenchment from world hot spots. Witness America's scheduled withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and secondary roles in Egypt, Libya and Syria over the past three years. Even that now infamous (and repeatedly crossed) weapons of mass destruction "red line" was not enough to generate an American military response against the murderous Syrian President Bashar Assad. And who can forget Secretary of State John Kerry's promise that a real military strike would nevertheless be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort"?

Second, this president enjoys a significant domestic political advantage: the unshakable support of (most) American Jews. This support has been maintained throughout Mr. Obama's public career despite a weak Israel voting record in the United States Senate, consistent administration criticisms of new housing starts in the West Bank, and the aforementioned Oval Office confrontation with a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. In the diplomatic realm, this steadfast support allows Mr. Obama wide latitude in advocating for policies otherwise antithetical to a conservative Israeli government. Indeed, even the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is limited in its ability to influence American foreign policy during Obama II.

Which brings us back to the present dilemma.

The president revels in his anti-cowboy (read: Bush) image. He knows a deal with the mullahs will further bolster his peace-making legacy. And he understands that his sustained approval with Jewish constituencies makes grumbling about America's now secondary role in the region from the French, Saudis, and other Western aligned allies less worrisome. Hence, the view held by some Capitol Hill pundits that Senator Schumer is playing both sides against the middle. In other words, don't bet that the good senator will turn his back on this Democratic president's legacy-making deal with the Iranians.

The one X factor is Mr. Netanyahu.

The prime minister's English is superb. He has a charismatic, made for TV appeal. His instinctual hawkishness is widely admired by the American right. And he cares far more about the defense of Israel than Mr. Obama's relentless campaign for approval in the Muslim world.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.


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