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Israel's envoy courts liberal Democrats on Iran

Israel’s new ambassador to Washington is courting some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress in an effort to push the Obama administration to toughen its negotiating stance with Iran.

Israel's US envoy, Ron Dermer, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, met with black and Jewish House members last week for a breakfast dedicated to highlighting the two groups’ joint history of discrimination.

Dermer used the meeting to press the case for demanding that Iran be prohibited from enriching uranium even as he hailed President Barack Obama's leadership on the issue.

"On the issue of Iran, we share a goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and we have no doubt that the president is committed to that goal," Dermer told the lawmakers. "Israel's goal is slightly broader than that: We want to prevent them not only from having a weapon but also to prevent them from having the capability."

He went on to state his "hope" that in Israel's discussions with Obama administration officials, "we can convince them to not put forward a proposal that would leave them with enrichment capability."

"That's not something Israel could support," Dermer said, "because to leave Iran with enrichment capability is to leave them as a threshold nuclear power."

The outreach to House Democrats comes as Israel has hit a snag with the Obama administration and Congress on one of the top foreign policy priorities for both countries.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have both said Iran will likely never agree to zero enrichment. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has blocked a vote on a sanctions bill that would kick in if Iran fails to agree to a final deal that would "dismantle Iran's illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities."

In the House, 100 Democrats — and four Republicans — signed on to a letter last month from Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, arguing against any legislation or nonbinding resolution that would "imperil the possibility of a diplomatic success before we even have a chance to pursue it."

And 394 members signed on to a letter to Obama as nuclear talks resumed in Vienna on Tuesday that falls short of demanding zero enrichment.

Israel has had better luck with Republicans. Many of them agree with Netanyahu that the interim nuclear agreement signed in November was a "very bad deal " and 42 Republican senators wrote to Reid last month urging him to schedule an immediate vote on the Iran sanctions legislation.

Dermer has also had to overcome lingering Democratic concerns about his own conservative politics.

The ambassador has close ties to Netanyahu, who some Democrats felt was in the tank for Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election. Dermer immigrated to Israel from Florida in 1998 and gave up his US citizenship to become the economic affairs minister to the Israeli Embassy in Washington between 2005 and 2008; he then served as Netanyahu's liaison to the White House from 2009 until last year.

During the presidential campaign, Dermer worked with Dan Senor, the former spokesman for US occupation forces in Iraq and a leading foreign affairs adviser to the Romney campaign, to organize a trip to Israel that was aimed at boosting Romney's national security credentials. The trip generated unwanted headlines for Romney at the height of the campaign after he made controversial remarks about Palestinian "culture" during a fund-raiser with billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Since getting the nod to become ambassador, Dermer has worked closely with both sides of the aisle and has received plaudits from Democrats. In one of his first meetings with House members in November before he presented his credentials to Obama, he lauded the administration's support for Israel during the 2012 war in Gaza and shot down accusations that Israel felt misled over Iran negotiations, according to lawmakers who were there.

Last week's breakfast, organized by Reps. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was the first such joint event since a similar event with Dermer's predecessor, Michael Oren, in 2011. Notable attendees included Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its subpanel on the Middle East.

Dermer also reminded the lawmakers that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier this year lay a wreath at the grave of assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, whom Dermer called a "mass murderer of Americans" for his role in the 1983 US Embassy bombing in Beirut. He also reiterated Israeli accusations that Iran recently tried to ship 40 long-range rockets to Gaza and said allowing Iran to enrich despite its violation of six UN Security Council resolutions would set a terrible precedent.

"If you leave an outlaw terrorist regime with enrichment capability, you cannot go to another country around the world and say: 'You can't enrich uranium on your soil,'" Dermer said. "So the mistake could be, in an attempt to prevent one very dangerous regime from developing nuclear weapons, you put in place a policy that could lead to a Pandora's Box of nuclear proliferation."

Democrats said they welcomed the chance to hear from Dermer.

"I think it's a great effort," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who did not attend. "I think it's important."

The joint breakfasts are a two-way street, giving Democrats a way to establish their pro-Israel bona fides.

Cummings noted that he helped organize events with Jewish lawmakers when he was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus a decade ago after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel groups targeted Reps. Earl Hilliard, D-Ala., and Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga. Both lawmakers lost their seats in 2002 after criticizing Israel over the Palestinian issue.

"We were trying to figure out a way to bring African-American legislators and Jewish legislators together so we could try to work out the differences," Cummings told Al-Monitor. "So I applaud all those kinds of efforts."

Despite the cordial tone and open lines of communication, it's not clear Dermer will change any minds in the Democratic Caucus.

"Do I think people would like there to be zero enrichment in the agreement? Yes. Obviously," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who attended last week's breakfast. "I don't think it's realistic that that's going to happen."

Nadler said US negotiators have already all but conceded the point in the interim agreement signed in November.

"There's not a politician in Iran who would go for that, probably," he said. "There's no hope of getting an agreement without that. At least that's the judgment of the people doing it."

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