Eli Lake here does a micro-analysis of AIPAC’s failure on its Iran sanctions bill. The timeline is confusing: AIPAC supported (and probably drafted, that’s how it’s usually done) the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer legislation designed to scuttle Obama’s Iran negotiations; then it appeared to back off, signaling through many channels that it wasn’t necessary to bring the bill (which gained 59 co-sponsors, a majority but not enough to break a filibuster or override a presidential veto) up for a vote immediately. This wasn’t AIPAC’s only mixed signal: AIPAC also appeared to attack Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic Congresswoman (and pro-Israel stalwart) representing an AIPAC stronghold in South Florida for not facilitating companion legislation in the House. Then it backed off from the attack and defended her. All this took place amidst an unprecedented public debate about sanctions and Iran diplomacy which put the organization under a spotlight; AIPAC lobbying for the bill was reported openly in the New York Times, an extremely rare occurrence. As a group which prefers to work behind the scenes and win its votes by overwhelming margins, this was a doubly uncomfortable situation.
Lake doesn’t try to draw big conclusions, but it is time for a reassessment. Is the eight hundred pound gorilla of Capitol Hill really weakened? On its way out? Was AIPAC always a bit of a paper tiger, which could be blown away as soon as an American president set his mind to it? These are critical questions, whose answers will shape American mideast policy for decades to come.
Between Obama’s phone call with Rouhani in October and the end of January, the nation’s key foreign policy players—lobbyists, legislators, journalists, indeed much of attentive public—fought an intense battle, set off by Bibi Netanyahu’s claim that the proposed interim deal with Iran was “bad and dangerous,” a great deal for Iran, terrible for everyone else. Netanyahu spoke before the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, urging American Jews to “stand up and be counted” against Obama’s effort. Israeli ministers flew to Washington to lobby Congress, joined by Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer. Two months ago, Foreign Policy reported that Israel seemed to be winning an information war on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers spouted Israeli talking points (considered factually incorrect by the administration) about details of the interim deal with Iran. After a few weeks and several false starts, the Bibi-led forces coalesced behind the Kirk-Schumer-Menendez bill, a poison pill designed to ensure the Iran negotiation’s failure. And yet, after six weeks of intense maneuvering, AIPAC, whose leaders had once boasted of being able to round up seventy Senators in a single day, were unable to get past 59.
Over the past few months, AIPAC faced, for the first time ever, a broad and multilayered coalition of old and new forces. The emergence of courtly and diplomatic Iranians on the world stage was a new factor, and tapped into latent Western longings for a reset in its relationship with the country. So too was the political coming of age of liberal Zionist groups (like J Street) and writers (Peter Beinart) which amplified the voices of the large number of American Jews, almost certainly a majority, who aren’t spoken for by AIPAC. The unspoken but habitual deference on Capitol Hill to key Jewish lawmakers on Israel-related matters was given a jolt by senators Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein, who not only supported the Obama diplomacy but did so forcefully and eloquently. Also new was a smaller but effective Iranian-American group, the Trita Parsi led National Iranian American Council. The Obama administration was precise in its messaging, never overstating the prospects of diplomatic success or what could be achieved (even if some observers believe that Obama is aiming eventually for a major diplomatic realignment that brings Iran as a Shia power into the coalition against Sunni extremism, al-Qaeda and its allies.) Working in tandem with the administration were several traditional liberal arms control experts, and grassroots peace-oriented lobbies, as well as an overwhelming preponderence of prominent retired diplomats and military figures. In addition to these, I wouldn’t minimize the role of anti-interventionist conservative outlets (like TAC) and more left-wing Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, and writers around the Mondoweiss website. This proved a formidable coalition, and generated enough noise and sense to tilt much of the mainstream media (including New York Times and the heretofore neoconservative Washington Post) in favor of the Obama administration’s diplomacy. AIPAC was called out explicitly by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, and the major pop culture icon Jon Stewart mocked the effort to scuttle Obama’s diplomacy. By the end of January, several senators who had signed up to support the bill in December believing, as it always had been, that’s it’s a no-brainer to back AIPAC-sponsored diplomacy began searching for the exits, saying things like “a vote on the bill isn’t really desirable now.” In the history of AIPAC, such a loss of clout was simply without precedent.
Nonetheless, while stalling an AIPAC bill is formidable, it doesn’t signal the political demise of AIPAC and its associated allies. First, AIPAC had to fight on terrain (of Netanyahu’s choosing) which put it out of sync with the deeper desires of the American public. Basically trying to undermine diplomacy with Iran made the war option far more likely, and the American people made crystal clear—as they did about Syria last summer, that they aren’t interested in another war in the Middle East. The Obama administration spokesmen quietly but unmistakably said the choice was between diplomacy and war. The bill’s supporters claimed to be offended—Who us, warmongers?—asked Commentary and others. But the faux outrage convinced no one; it was easy enough to point out that main intellectual opponents of Obama’s diplomacy had a long record of advocating war against Iran.
More than a year ago, Robert Merry argued in an important essay in The National Interest that a president could win a stand-off with Netanyahu over America’s Iran policy—that on a vital issue of war and peace of obvious consequence for America’s core national interests, a president could go to the people and prevail against Netanyahu and the Israel lobby. This confrontation took place, but not as Merry imagined. Obama never had to mount a podium, draw a line in the sand, or make clear the divergence of interests between Israel and U.S.. It’s almost certainly better that he didn’t. (He did, in his State of the Union address, promise to veto Kirk-Menendez-Schumer if it ever came across his desk.). Instead a broad civil society coalition essentially mobilized by itself, took on the Israel lobby, and prevailed in American opinion and on Capitol Hill.
What does this portend for the future? Here the best case is for guarded and limited optimism. Obama has won valuable running room for diplomacy with Iran, and it won’t be easy to push it back; in a showdown with AIPAC, the lobby blinked, and AIPAC is now left squabbling with more right wing members of the Israel lobby and the neoconservative coalition.
Does this translate into other areas, particularly increased support for a peace settlement leaving the Palestinians with a real state? Doubtful. In the piece cited above, Robert Merry made the distinction between war and peace with Iran,—a vital interest of the United States—and the disposition of the West Bank. The United States does, to be sure, have a moral interest in a Palestinian state—as its unconditional support for Israel has managed to forestall one for the past forty-five years. It has a strategic interest as well—as American support for the Israeli occupation has galvanized countless Arabs to oppose American policies, hate America, and even commit acts of terrorism. But is it a vital strategic interest in the same way as avoiding a war with Iran? Arguably not, and it seems a particular stretch to claim so at a time when the Arab world is in utter turmoil over issues with little or nothing to do with Israel.
So to the extent that AIPAC conceives of its role as maintaining unconditional American support for Israel, including maintaining lavish foreign aid packages and diplomatic support, it is likely to succeed in the short run. In Obama’s trip Israel last summer, he called upon Israelis themselves to reject the occupation and allow Palestinians a viable state—claiming that this was an Israeli interest too. He was undoubtedly right, but he was also passing the buck to a group with few inclinations in this direction. And implied but unsaid: Obama was not going to pressure them. In the past week, Israeli newspapers have been full of reports (denied of course by the administration) that Obama isn’t prepared to go to the mat for Kerry’s peace mission, and that if Israel won’t agree to meaningful settlement withdrawal, well, Israel won’t agree. The United States won’t be twisting any arms.
This is a painful conclusion to draw (there should be a Palestinian state) but I can see the logic. Israel will remain, as it is now, one state between the river and the sea. Inevitably it will face a battle over voting rights, just as South Africa did. Obama will by then be long out of office, and AIPAC will face a quandary. What will America do when the two state possibility is foreclosed, support Israel or support democracy? My surmise is that in the long run is that it will support democracy. But right now? It’s unfortunate, but the victory of the past three months (what should its name be?), however important and however historical, has limited carry-over to Palestine.