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Iran and the Limits of AIPAC’s Power

Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

AIPAC is among the most effective lobbies on Capitol Hill and has, thanks to support from a broad cross-section off American society that cares deeply about the Jewish state, helped build a wall-to-wall consensus in favor of the U.S. alliance with Israel. When AIPAC takes up an issue or seeks supports for a program of joint interest to the U.S. and Israel, it usually gets its way. But thanks to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory, AIPAC’s reputation as a Washington super lobby has grown out of all proportion to reality. Far from being the pro-Israel tail that wags the American dog, it is, in fact, nothing more than a manifestation of the bipartisan support for the Jewish state that is deeply engrained in the political DNA of the United States.

Though it has, at times, been unfairly labeled as only supportive of Israeli right-wingers or a tool of the Republican Party, it is nothing of the sort. AIPAC loyally supports whomever the Israeli people elect to govern their nation. And it has as many, if not more, Democratic supporters as it does Republicans. It is that bipartisan nature that is key to its ability to produce results. Though it has consistently pushed both Republican and Democratic administrations to give more to Israel or to be more vigilant about threats to Middle East peace such as Iran, its ability to prevail is based on the sort of access to the leaderships of both parties that makes its involvement in partisan disputes impossible.

That is why Obama’s decision to throw down the gauntlet and veto new Iran sanctions even if they passed both Houses of Congress rendered AIPAC’s role in the debate moot. AIPAC can oppose a policy but it can’t go to war with Democrats any more than it could with Republicans. If Senate Democrats like Schumer were unwilling to stand up to the president’s threats, there was never anything AIPAC could do about it.

As for the government of Israel, it, too, may be frustrated with AIPAC over the defeat of sanctions. But if so, that says more about their frustration with Obama than it does about AIPAC’s shortcomings. AIPAC has a specific role to play in the alliance. That role is to work with the administration and the Congress, not to engage in knock-down, drag-out fights that will hamper its ability to keep U.S. aid flowing to the Jewish state and to foster increased cooperation between the two countries.

One may well argue that the Iranian nuclear issue is of such importance that all other considerations should be put aside in favor of advocacy of a tougher U.S. stance. But even here AIPAC—and the State of Israel—must look at the long-term picture rather than vent anger after a momentary defeat. If the administration’s engagement with Iran fails—as it almost certainly will—then AIPAC must be in position to renew the fight for sanctions and more U.S. action to stop the nuclear threat. Burning their bridges with the Democrats now will undermine future efforts along these lines.

The Israeli government is also in no position to decry AIPAC’s current moderation at the moment on Iran sanctions. AIPAC’s retreat on sanctions is no different from the efforts of the Israelis to paper over their differences with Secretary of State John Kerry over the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. They understand only too well that keeping close to the administration is an imperative even when it does—or in Kerry’s case, says—things that undermine the alliance.

AIPAC may have lost a battle in the last month over Iran sanctions but it still is in a position to win the war to hold the administration to its pledge to stop the nuclear threat from Tehran. In order to do that, unfortunately, it must retreat now in order to prevail later.


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