The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:
[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).
The Obama administration may now have among its members a secretary of defense who can’t get its position on containment of a nuclear Iran straight. But the administration continues to lay down markers on its commitment to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as if Chuck Hagel’s nomination was an aberration, rather than a signal that is being interpreted in Iran to mean that it need not worry about President Obama’s threats. Vice President Biden’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference today in Washington contained more pledges that the president wasn’t bluffing on Iran. While nothing Biden said, let alone the utterances of the president on this subject, guarantees that the U.S. will ever act to stop Iran, the accumulation of their rhetoric is going to make it even harder for them to back away from their promises.
The vice president arguably went even further than the statement President Obama made at last year’s AIPAC conference when he specifically disavowed containment as an option. While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.
If there is any message to come out of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, perhaps it is a refutation of the commonly heard charge, made most infamously by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and echoed by Hagel himself, that the dread “Jewish lobby” insidiously controls American foreign policy. How strong can this lobby be if it failed to block the appointment as defense secretary of someone who was widely seen (rightly or wrongly) as inimical to Israeli interests?
As Lee Smith notes in a typically thoughtful column, AIPAC–the most powerful pro-Israel group in Washington–actually sat out the whole fight ostensibly because it wants to affect policy, not personnel decisions. But it’s also possible that it sat out the fight because it knew that it would lose; indeed after Chuck Schumer gave his blessing to Hagel, there was no realistic chance of stopping his nomination absent a unified Republican filibuster–which was never likely to last for more than a few days. And certainly other pro-Israel groups, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, did go all-out to try to stop Hagel.
One of the interesting subtexts about the debate over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense has been the relative silence from the organized Jewish world. Though there was widespread shock from most pro-Israel activists, even those who were loyal liberal Democrats, about the president’s decision to choose one of the least Israel-friendly members of the U.S. Senate in the last generation to run the Pentagon, none of the major groups, aside from the Zionist Organization of America, spoke up publicly about his unsuitability for the post or his out-of-the mainstream views.
The reasons for this silence were obvious to anyone who understands their missions and how they operate. The refusal of the major Jewish organizations was rooted in their natural reluctance to embroil themselves in fights they think would hamper their ability to do their jobs. But at this juncture in the Hagel saga, after the nominee flopped at his Senate confirmation hearing and demonstrated how insincere his conversion from being tough on Israel and soft on Iran to a garden-variety backer of the Jewish state, it is time for them to reconsider. Though the odds still favor his confirmation, and with some senators, including Chuck Schumer and Claire McCaskill, citing their silence for their support for the nominee, the rationale of the organized Jewish world for staying out of this contretemps has evaporated.
The stakes will be high when Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, meets with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Along with Republican John McCain, Schumer is the key to the question of whether critics of the appointment can rally enough votes to derail Hagel’s chances. Though he is understandably reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration, Schumer takes a dim view of Hagel’s antagonism toward Israel and the pro-Israel community as well as his soft stands on Iran. The question is whether Hagel’s rapid backtracking from these positions is persuasive enough to convince Schumer that trying to take him down is not worth the effort.
But regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the discussion about Hagel is bound to heat up in the coming days and weeks. Hagel’s past bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and his history of opposition to sanctions or the use of force against the Iranian nuclear threat places him outside of the mainstream of American opinion and also could create the dangerous impression that U.S. policy could be shifting. But there is a still a genuine reluctance on the part of many in the Jewish community to turn this nomination into an all-out battle that would pit the administration against the pro-Israel community. The dangers of such a confrontation, especially if Hagel were to survive a close vote, are real. But the argument here is that win or lose, this is a battle worth fighting.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg homed in on an interesting aspect of the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense this morning when he noted how the issue put AIPAC in a tough position. There’s little question that the pro-Israel lobby is alarmed by the prospect of having a man running the Pentagon who thinks the U.S. ought to be tough on Israel and soft on Iran rather than the other way around. But, as Goldberg rightly pointed out, AIPAC is in the business of working with Congress and the White House, not fighting them tooth and nail.
Goldberg correctly notes that it would be bad judgment for a group that applauded Obama’s promises on Iran to attempt to thwart him on his choice to head the Defense Department. While Obama’s support for positions on Iran and Israel in the past year and a half have often seemed grudging, AIPAC is eager to maintain decent relations with the White House. That would, as Goldberg seems to imply, argue for the lobby to stand aside during the upcoming donnybrook over Hagel. But the problem with this reasoning is that it ignores what is fairly obvious to both friends and foes of the nominee: his appointment signals that the administration’s election year Jewish charm offensive during which the president stopped picking fights with Israel and pledged not to contain Iran, but to stop the Islamic Republic, is very much over.
The last thing AIPAC wants to do is to fight a losing battle over Hagel in which it would get the worst of both worlds—a bad appointment and a White House that will be interested in payback for being thwarted. But the stakes are sufficiently high that it ought not be too difficult a decision. If there is any chance that the nomination can be defeated—and if reports about pro-Israel Democrats being willing to jump ship on this issue are true, he can be —then those who wish to send the administration a message that the country will not tolerate Obama breaking his promises on Iran must do whatever they can to accomplish this goal.
It looks like the congressional debate over whether to close the PLO office in Washington is far from over. Arutz Sheva reports that a bipartisan group of lawmakers began circulating a letter calling for a strong response to the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid, including the closure of the PLO office:
Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are circulating a letter in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful bid at the United Nation (sic), urging that the U.S. to utilize “every means at our disposal to ensure that this General Assembly vote does not serve as a precedent for elevating the status of the PLO in other UN bodies or international forums.”
“We are deeply disappointed and upset that the Palestinian leadership rebuffed the entreaties of your Administration and the Congress and insisted on pursuing this distinctly unhelpful initiative,” the letter states.
Echoing the apprehension of the mainstream Jewish community, the lawmakers assert that, “This Palestinian action violated both the letter and spirit of the Oslo Accords, and it opened the door for expanded Palestinian efforts to attack, isolate, and delegitimize Israel in a variety of international forums- a threat which, even if unrealized, would hang over Israel’s head during any future negotiations or any effort by the Israeli government to defend its citizens from terrorism.” …
“We can do this by closing the PLO office in Washington, D.C. We can also call our Consul-General in Jerusalem home for consultations. We urge you to take these steps,” the letter adds.
J Street backed 71 candidates in last month’s election. Sixty-nine of the candidates won. In July, the group issued a statement supporting the latest round of Iran sanctions legislation. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent the next day.
To hear J Street and supporters tell it, these are signs its influence is growing.
Last week Democrats were running riot on the talk shows, gabbing about what they claimed was an extremist Republican platform on social issues like abortion. As I noted at the time, platforms were always meaningless and are as outdated as the political conventions that adopt them. Yet GOP stalwarts were reduced to ineffectual defenses that did little to undo the damage that the symbolic adoption of planks that provided no exceptions to abortion bans did among moderate and independent voters.
This week, the shoe is on the other foot. As soon as the Democratic platform was published, we learned they had banned all mention of God from their manifesto and watered down or eliminated pro-Israel language that had previously been present in past platforms. Their replies to questions about this have been as defensive and poorly received as those given by their GOP counterparts. These twin controversies provide an interesting window into the mindset of both parties. The Republican platform shows that the party is not interested in challenging the views of social conservatives while Democrats are not inclined to treat the sensibilities of the pro-Israel community as being worth worrying about. Even though platform language doesn’t dictate policy (as pro-life advocates know since no Republican president has ever carried out their party’s promises about abortion), what does that tell you about the current state of American politics?
The well-deserved furor over Todd Akin’s boneheaded comments has been diverting attention from another tempest involving a GOP congressman going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee while on a visit to Israel organized by an offshoot of AIPAC. The New York Times, among other MSM outlets, appears eager to turn the entire trip into a “scandal”–see for example this editorial disguised as a news article. It discusses the Israel outing in the context of “famous travel boondoggles” such as the Scotland golfing trip arranged by influence-peddler Jack Abramoff. Yet by all accounts the Israel trips organized by AIPAC are filled with substantive policy meetings. Even if the congressmen spent all their time going to tourist attracts such as the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea, however, I would still be all in favor of such trips.
Does anyone seriously think that members of Congress in general, and members of the House in particular, are too worldly, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan? Au contraire. Many of them don’t even own a passport when elected. That’s hardly surprising since the bulk of them come from local politics–not from the Foreign Service or, for that matter, the armed forces. But lack of personal familiarity with the world beyond America’s shores leaves them ill-prepared to vote on national security matters ranging from foreign operations and defense budgets to treaty ratifications and authorizations for the use of military force. This is a major problem and allowing nonprofits to fund travel for members of Congress helps to alleviate it. Banning these trips will do nothing to elevate congressional ethics. It will do much to elevate congressional ignorance.
Democrats got a reminder of just what the far left wing of their party is thinking these days when a debate among contenders for their party’s nomination in the race to replace retiring Senator Joe Lieberman was overshadowed by vicious anti-Israel rhetoric on the part of one of the candidates. Candidate Lee Whitnum called frontrunner Rep. Chris Murphy a “whore” because of his support for Israel. She also referred to another candidate as “ignorant” during the course of the debate that was televised by the local NBC affiliate.
Whitnum, the sole focus of whose campaign is hatred of Israel, is a marginal player at best in a Democratic race that centers on the competition between Murphy and former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz. But her ability to get on the stage and spout bile against the Jewish state and its supporters is something of a victory for the Occupy AIPAC crowd and a warning to both Democrats and Republicans about their obligation to denounce anti-Semitic agitators who seek to worm their way into the mainstream.
A peculiar phenomenon has been dominating Israeli social media. As tensions between Israel and Iran reach fever pitch, a young Israeli couple has launched a campaign showing pictures of couples kissing under the heading “Iran, we love you, we will never bomb your country.” Some Iranians have reciprocated with rosy memes of their own carrying a similar message to their Israeli courtiers. Cute. Last Saturday, the campaign hit the streets of Tel Aviv. Hundreds waved banners and shouted into megaphones their disapproval of what they perceive to be Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “needless” warmongering. Calls for Netanyahu’s resignation were heard over chants for “social justice instead of war.”
Most pundits would agree that Iran’s nuclear program has little, if anything, to do with Israel, even though a nuclear Iran would certainly make the region more unstable and dangerous for the Jewish state. The demonstrators’ claims aren’t likely to be taken seriously by Israeli decision makers who are focused more on intelligence evaluations of the Iranian challenge than social media.
J Street is holding their annual policy conference this weekend, and the group duly requested speakers from the White House and the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. The results are unspinnable. The Israelis let J Street cool its heels until this week before dispatching deputy chief of mission Barukh Binah. Binah recently concluded a stint in Jerusalem as a Foreign Ministry deputy director-general, in which capacity he publicly castigated J Street for dishonestly manufacturing an anti-Israel publicity stunt, then building an entire media campaign around the stunt, then fabricating an Israeli apology related to the stunt. Sending him to be the embassy’s speaker was not the world’s most subtle move. The White House’s announcement of its surrogate, the vice president’s national security adviser Tony Blinken, left Ben-Ami bitterly complaining that the choice was a snub. He’s right. Blinken, for all that he is an experienced hand, is several rungs below U.S. National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who appeared at the first J Street conference and left J Street boosters musing about the group’s potential power.
J Street has gone from fantasies of being the anti-AIPAC to complaining publicly about its diminished influence. The spiral was a function of many things, but mostly of the group aggressively pushing counterproductive, failed, and toxic policies in Israel, in Congress, and in the media.
Worry over the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is one issue that has long united the pro-Israel community. The strength of this consensus, which is shared by the majority of Americans, is such that the only real division is over whether it is advisable for Israel or the West to strike Iran relatively soon or to wait a while for crippling sanctions to force a diplomatic solution before force is used. Some on the left continue to weakly argue that Iran doesn’t want to build such a weapon or, alternatively, that a nuclear Iran can be contained. But President Obama’s recent speech to the AIPAC conference in which he reiterated his determination to stop Iran and disavowed a containment strategy, demonstrated that such voices are very much on the margins of public debate, let alone the Jewish community.
However that didn’t stop the New York Times from running an article today on the front page that claimed in the headline in the version published online on Sunday afternoon “Pro-Israel Groups Differ on Iran” (by Monday, the headline had been changed to read “Hawks Steer Debate on How to Take on Iran”). But those readers eager to discover which mainstream Jewish groups were taking a contrary position on Iran were disappointed. The only organizations that the Times could find to back up that headline were J Street and Tikkun. While the former claims to be “pro-Israel” even the latter’s adherents do not attempt to play that game. But however you wish to label them, the idea that disagreement from these two left-wing outliers constitutes any sort of a Jewish debate is comical. Perhaps only in the pages of the New York Times or that of Tikkun itself, could a situation where the opposition of groups as marginal as these be considered a serious news story.
One of the standard arguments currently being employed against supporters of the State of Israel is that the true friends of the Jewish state are those who are doing their best to undermine its democratically-elected government and force it to submit to foreign pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. It is an old and somewhat disingenuous ploy that is, at best, an effort by supporters of the losing side in Israeli elections to win back what their friends have lost in the ballot box. There are times when those who like the right-of-center parties in Israel have played this game. However, since the evisceration of the Israeli left by the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace, it is the sole consolation of those who despise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies. But the anger and frustration of the Jewish left is such these days that some have expanded this tactic and taken to using anti-Semitic tropes about “Israel-firsters” which are straight out of the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel lobby thesis. To listen to people like Media Matters scribbler M.J. Rosenberg these days, it is hard to distinguish the bile he spews at AIPAC and liberal supporters of Israel (forget about what he says about conservatives) from that of out-and-out anti-Zionists.
Rosenberg’s old friend J.J. Goldberg writes in the Forward this week to defend his buddy. It is an unconvincing piece marred not so much by the frame of reference of friendship as it is by a refusal to come to grips with the way Rosenberg’s anger at his former employers at AIPAC and everyone who doesn’t share his opinion has distorted this debate. According to J.J., M.J. is still pro-Israel at heart but just doesn’t like the policies of its government and those Americans who back it. But Rosenberg’s willingness to adopt the rhetoric of Israel-haters undermines his defenders. That this apologia for Rosenberg ran in the same issue of the paper that also contained a flattering profile of Ali Abunimah, one of the leading advocates of the campaign to boycott Israel in the United States, only reinforces the impression that some on the Jewish left are so deeply invested in the effort to undermine backers of the pro-Israel consensus that they are seeking to erase any boundary between mere criticism of the government in Jerusalem and activity whose aims are clearly more sinister.
Bret Stephens’ burner of a column published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal is sure to make the rounds. He is also right to largely dismiss the political importance of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Still, it’s worth considering why the perpetually boiling Jewish communal conversation on Israel never seems to have much practical political import.
The central fallacy and problem with the discussion is the idea that American Jewish attitudes are the primary influence on American policy toward Israel. If you look at the thing without much nuance, it’s easy to see why. The recently closed AIPAC policy conference attracted no less than 13,000 delegates, the largest in its history, a healthy jump from 10,000 a year ago, and probably a doubling in five years. AIPAC also claims 100,000 members and has an annual budget of around $70 million, making it the biggest American Jewish advocacy organization (although it’s worth noting it was only relatively recently that it passed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League in this regard).
In short, the central Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying address is no cupcake, and it is getting dramatically stronger every year. It deserves extraordinary credit for its successes and growth.
Even though Sen. Mark Kirk is still home recovering from his recent stroke, his presence loomed large at AIPAC this week. Sen. Mitch McConnell gave a nod to Kirk during his speech at the gala, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued this sincere request during his keynote:
I want to send a special message to a great friend of Israel who is not here tonight: Senator Mark Kirk, the co-author of the Kirk-Menendez Iran Sanctions Act. Senator Kirk, I know you’re watching this tonight. Please get well soon. America needs you; Israel needs you. I send you wishes for a speedy recovery. So get well and get back to work.
Much of the attention devoted to U.S.-Israel diplomacy in recent months has been on whether the United States will seek to prevent the Jewish state from acting on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon. The differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the utility of sanctions or diplomacy and how much more time these measures should be allowed before force can be used have not been resolved. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that the Israelis are going to give the president a bit more time before launching their own strike.
But despite the near obsessive focus on the fractious Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the most important messages being sent from the speeches at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were not those exchanged between those two leaders. Instead, it was the clear warning to Iran by Netanyahu that the Jewish people will not live under the shadow of annihilation. For all of the justified concern about what Obama will or will not do to try to impede the Israelis as he hangs on to the forlorn hope of a diplomatic solution to the problem, the fate of the Middle East hangs on whether Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, comprehended Netanyahu’s clarion call to action during his Monday night speech to the conference. Tehran must either stand down on its nuclear ambition or face an Israeli attack at some point in the not too distant future.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish and exceptional speech at AIPAC tonight will no doubt set off days of speculation about whether or not he’s moving toward a strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s plenty of fodder to support either side of the argument. But these two quotes seem to indicate that Netanyahu is at least strongly leaning toward going it alone on an Iran strike:
“Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward…We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”
No diplomacy and no sanctions leave just one other option on the table. And the line at the end shows that Netanyahu hasn’t made Obama any promises against taking unilateral action.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s speech at AIPAC tonight was as tough as it gets coming from her: she rejected containment of Iran’s nuclear program, reiterated that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the world, and praised the latest round of “crippling sanctions” on Iran. But her comments about Iran “returning to the negotiating table” because of these sanctions seemed Pollyannaish, and coming on the heels of Senator McConnell’s barnburner, the speech seemed like a snooze.
“We’re seeing results. The Iranian economy and energy industry are suffering. Iran’s partners are cutting off ties of trade and commerce,” said Pelosi. “We are undermining the funding of Iran’s nuclear activities. In short, Iran is feeling the bite of our sanctions. Our actions reaffirm our message–it is time for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, return to the negotiating table, and abandon its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”