Rep. Howard Berman (D. Ca) -- Bibi's man (photo via Wikipedia)

If we see military action in Iran in the next several months, you can trace part of the reason back to a redistricting quirk in the San Fernando Valley.

Rep. Howard Berman basically ran the state’s redistricting maps, through his brother, when they were drawn by the legislature. But California voters passed an initiative setting up an independent redistricting commission, which drew Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman into CA-30, the same district in the Valley, leaving the additional district in the area for a Latino candidate to take (City Councilman Tony Cardenas will in all likelihood represent the area). The district is mostly Sherman’s turf, but Berman has the money and endorsements from practically the entire Congressional delegation, including both Senators. But Sherman has seen leads in early polling.

This all came to a head last night at a debate, held at Temple Judea in Tarzana, between Berman, Sherman and Republican Mark Reed, Sherman’s 2010 opponent. California now has a “top-two” primary, where all candidates appear on the primary ballot and the two with the most votes, regardless of party, move to the general election. For this reason, Berman and Sherman could actually continue this campaign through to November.

The debate, sponsored by the Jewish Journal, spent the entire first half on Israel policy, particularly the possibility of military action with Iran. This is highly unusual for a Congressional debate until you consider that Berman is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and his opponents spent the entire night getting to his right on Israel policy.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D. Ca) Just as belligerent (Wikipedia)

Sherman is clearly taking a populist line in this campaign, to contrast with Berman’s establishment credentials. Sherman emphasized his leadership opposing TARP, his opposition to free trade policies, and said that SOPA “was not well-designed,” even though he’s still listed as a co-sponsor of that anti-piracy bill. Both Democrats take major funding from Hollywood, and Berman, still in thrall to that cash, called SOPA a bill about “property rights” and chalked up the recent takedown of the legislation to a “disinformation campaign” from Silicon Valley. But in general terms, without the Israel issue, you would have a clear establishment Dem vs. populist Dem dynamic.

However, Israel dominated the debate. Sherman in his opening statement called for the release of Jonathan Pollard, a convicted Israeli spy, and demanded the moving of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. These would be comfortable positions in tonight’s GOP primary debate. For his part, Berman said that he authored the “toughest sanctions on Iran in history.” Mark Reed spent the night pointing to the two incumbents and saying their work on Iran had failed, summoning the most apocalyptic rhetoric imaginable to describe them (the “they want to wipe Israel off the map” variety), to cheers from the packed synagogue crowd. [cont’d]

When asked if Israel should attack Iran themselves, Sherman said that Israel “will not listen to cautions from the US.” He criticized the slow pace of sanctions and said that he had been calling on crackdowns on the central bank and petroleum sales “since 1998.” He added that “we in the pro-Israel community will have to explain to our friends,” if the price of oil surges after an Israeli attack on Iran, why that attack was necessary and vital for Israel’s security. Wow.

Berman chose to dodge speculation on an Israeli attack, charging that the sanctions he wrote on Iran are working, and that the international coalition built to carry them out made that happen (Sherman countered that “secondary sanctions” must be created with US business, to further strangle Iran). But, he said, “you have to leave the military option on the table as a threat” to get China and India, which have not agreed to the sanctions (and have been a safety valve for Iran to sell their products), to comply.

Reed, for his part, said that the US has to build a coalition for war, because if Israel goes alone, “it will create more problems for them.” He then added that he supports Israel going alone if they make that decision!

And if you think that Berman isn’t being pushed into a very dark corner on Israel policy by this primary, consider this. Last week, Joe Lieberman and some colleagues introduced an exceedingly dangerous bill in the Senate, a resolution essentially supporting military action if Iran has a nuclear “capability.” Lieberman couldn’t even define “capability” in this context. But Berman said that he would introduce a companion bill in the House with similar language, along with the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “The test has to be if Iran has a weapons capability that cannot be destroyed,” Berman says. “When that happens, everything changes.”

Reality compels me to point out that the consensus view of the US intelligence community is that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon. In fact, Sherman, who changed his position on the Iraq war after initially being a supporter, was asked whether this rush to war felt at all familiar. He said that the difference was that the weapons inspectors found nothing in Iraq, but “we know what they’re doing” in Iran, and that their nuclear program has “no other purpose but as a weapon.” Again, the consensus view of the US intelligence community declares that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon.

This went on for 45 minutes, with each candidate trying to up the ante on belligerence against Iran and support for Israel. (This was actually a question from the moderators: “When was the last time you visited Israel?” Berman, with his dozen visits, won on that score.) The candidates blamed Mahmoud Abbas for stopping peace talks. They demanded that no US funds go to UNESCO, who allowed the Palestinian state in as a member (Berman acknowledged that it’s “sort of sad” because UNESCO does good work in the world; Reed called UNESCO “UNICEF”). Sherman tried to differentiate himself by criticizing the President on his statement about the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations, a perfectly reasonable statement made by prior Republican Presidents. Berman hyped his closeness to Israel by saying that Bibi Netanyahu “calls me” when he wants something done.

Sherman did make one important point, that he opposed the war in Libya because “the American Constitution is not a flimsy piece of legalism” and that the Administration did not use the War Powers Act to go to war. “By subverting the Constitution” and allowing an Administration to go to war without the consent of Congress, “we do more harm to us than we can possibly do good in Libya,” Sherman said. Of course, Sherman would be happy to see Israel strike Iran unilaterally, as long as Congress keeps their prerogatives.

The dynamic is really frightening here. A ranking member on Foreign Affairs in Congress is being pulled (and quite willingly) into increasingly aggressive positions, and this shows no sign of slowing down.

David Dayen

David Dayen