It has been often repeated that former AIPAC official Steve Rosen boasted to Jeffrey Goldberg that within 24 hours he could have the signatures of 70 U.S. senators on a cocktail napkin. Such was the clout of the Israel lobby’s main congressional enforcement arm. But students of the lobby often wondered what would happen if AIPAC faced an actual political contest. Its victories seemed almost too effortless, the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals.
The Israel lobby’s campaign to scuttle negotiations with Iran is not going easily. Yesterday, Jonathan Broder reported in Congressional Quarterly that “momentum for a new Iran sanctions bill appears to have stalled.” The bill in question is the Kirk-Mendendez-Schumer legislation, which imposes new sanctions on Iran and stipulates that the United States go to war on Israel’s side in the event Tel Aviv decides, for reasons of “self-defense,” that it needs to attack Iran. (As of this writing, the legislation has 51 co-sponsors and will surely acquire more, but Obama would obviously veto it, as would any President who wished to maintain some control over America’s foreign policy.) Meanwhile, Adam Kredo in the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon published a hit piece on Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, accusing her of stalling a companion negotiations scuttling bill in the House. The piece pointed out that Florida Jewish organizations were upset Schultz was not doing the Israel lobby’s bidding.
Honestly no one would ever have expected Wasserman Schultz, an influential congresswoman who is often flamboyantly pro-Israel, to be AWOL when AIPAC wanted something done. She famously orchestrated the congressional standing ovations when Netanyahu spoke before Congress in 2011. And yet here she is, at least thus far standing quietly in the corner of Obama and the American diplomats who know anything about the issue, to the chagrin of those who want an American war with Iran. Like no previous issue, the Iran question is forcing the American Jewish political establishment to choose between its often reflexive and unquestioning backing of Israel’s hawkish positions and its own professedly liberal political values—which in this case militate towards testing whether negotiation is better than bombing. Schumer lines up with Netanyahu. Wasserman Schultz may well support Obama. Sprinkled throughout the Senate are veteran Jewish lawmakers who have already made it clear that they want to give the administration every possible chance to forge a nuclear deal, and possibly someday a detente, with Iran. I can’t imagine that these choices between competing impulses and allegiances are easy, and I hope there is a novelist (probably but not necessarily Jewish) who can work them into a period-defining novel.
On the merits of the issue too, everything is suddenly in play. The rise of Sunni jihadists in Syria and their reemergence in Iraq underscores what to some has long been obvious: objectively the United States has more grounds for cooperation with Iran (and Turkey) than with a backward looking Wahabi sheikdom. The Israel Project is frantically sending around worried reports about the rush of international businessmen to Tehran. Let it be a flood. The stories unintentionally underscore one of the Obama administration’s main talking points: there is no chance to hold together a coalition of international sanctions if the administration refuses to take the outstretched hand of an Iranian president. Yes it is conceivable, perhaps even fifty-fifty, that AIPAC and Netanyahu will prevail in the Senate in the next few weeks, and that Obama’s diplomacy with Tehran will be effectively collapsed. But China, Russia, Germany, Britain, and France will not fall back in line to implement a tougher AIPAC orchestrated sanctions regime. This week, two former British cabinet ministers lead a delegation of British lawmakers to Tehran, a small step but symbolically significant. Are they going to sign up for Netanyahu’s war train? Not likely. And if not Britain, who? China? Russia? India? Japan?
What the Israel lobby envisions is America alone, its only ally a gallant little Israel, fighting Mideast wars in perpetuity to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly. It could happen, but it probably won’t.