Checks and Balances

Many supporters of Israel have expressed deep concern over the administration’s stance when dealing with negotiations pertaining to nuclear weapons and Iran. A few months ago, after signing the Joint Plan of Action on Iran in concert with five other world powers, the White House managed to scuttle a bill, co-sponsored by 60 senators, which would increase sanctions on the Islamic Republic if the final negotiations were to fail. The reason? Because the Iranians threaten to walk away from the table if such a package were to be passed by the U.S. Congress.
Now, it seems, they’re at it again.

As the Senate seemed poised to pass the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, the vote was cancelled by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). The reason he wouldn’t bring the vote to committee had nothing to do with the bill itself. After all, it had passed the House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support. Four hundred and ten representatives voted for it, and only Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who has been described as a Ron Paul Republican, voted against.

What caused the bill to be pulled was, in fact, an amendment that had been offered by Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Corker’s amendment was directed at the way the administration has kept Congress out of the loop with regard to the Iran talks.

“Let’s face it, Congress has been totally iced out on this issue since its inception,” Corker said. “I cannot imagine an issue that’s more important to Israel than these negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons.” The Corker amendment stipulates that if and when a final deal is reached, officials would have just a few days to brief Congress on the deal and Congress could then hold relevant hearings. If they think it is a bad deal, the leader of either party can introduce a “resolution of disapproval” which would have to be voted on without amendments.

The point of the amendment is to provide congressional oversight on a nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, according to a poll commissioned by The Israel Project, 69percent of Americans believe there should be congressional oversight, with the overwhelming majority of that number, 58percent total, believing so strongly.

The way it accomplishes this is twofold. First off, the White House would no longer be able to withhold the text of the actual agreement from the general public. The legal need to brief Congress on the deal would avoid the debacle of the preliminary deal with Iran when, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R- Fla.), the actual text was kept in a “super-secret” location and members of Congress could only access it to read within what she referred to as “a cone of silence.”

But the real benefit of the amendment is the allowance for a “resolution of disapproval” to be introduced by either party. The resolution language is already written in the amendment, and it is very simple: “That Congress disapproves of the agreement between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran submitted by the President to Congress under section 4(a) of the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014.” Either side could force a vote on that, and members of Congress would have to take a stand.

While the non-binding nature of the proposed resolution looks like nothing more than political posturing to some, the reality is very different. It can reasonably be assumed that Secretary of State Kerry would hardly feel comfortable making a deal with Iran that he knew would likely be repudiated by Congress. And while Harry Reid has had no problem running interference in the past by using his position as majority leader to prevent a vote from taking place, here he would not be able to do so. Were a bad deal to actually come up for a vote, there is little question what the outcome would be. As such, it would severely limit the administration’s ability to just get a deal done for deal’s sake alone; it would need to provide for Israel’s security as well.

The administration opposes the amendment for the very same reasons. A senior administration official told Haaretz on Tuesday night, “Our negotiators need flexibility to achieve a comprehensive package that best achieves our goal. That cannot be done by going down a checklist of predetermined language to lock in end state positions or publicly expressed negotiating positions.” Flexibility that compromises Israeli security is not a value in any comprehensive package. If this amendment takes that option off the table, it is a very good thing.

The official insisted that the amendment “would set a precedent that would severely compromise presidents of both parties from conducting American foreign policy. We cannot have 535 negotiators for every negotiation with a foreign country.”

That position is quite inconsistent with a bill introduced by then-Senator Clinton, co-sponsored by Senator Menendez and then-Senators Obama and Kerry, called the “Congressional Oversight of Iraq Agreements Act of 2007.” That bill did more than allow Congress to express its disapproval. It would have required any SOFAs (Status of Forces Agreements) Mr. Bush made with the Iraqis to get approval from two-thirds of the Senate before it had the force of law.

Mr. Menendez has a long record of working to ensure the security of the residents of the State of Israel. We hope and trust that he is working on a compromise that would satisfy the White House, but keep the spirit of the Corker amendment intact. This way the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act can be passed into law, along with a provision that helps secure the Jewish state from a nuclear Iran.