After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.
All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.
The chief problem with the article is that its premise is based on the myth that AIPAC is a monolithic and unstoppable group that can pass any bill it likes. The article’s assertion that AIPAC has gotten its way on every public policy issue since its futile effort to stop the Reagan administration from selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 is foolish. AIPAC rarely, if ever, directly challenges presidents and when it does it inevitably comes out on the short end, as in its confrontation with the George H.W. Bush administration over loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 when the elder President Bush depicted himself as “one, lonely, little guy” standing up to AIPAC. Written by White House correspondent Mark Landler, one of whose previous recent forays into foreign policy was a sycophantic paean to the virtues of Secretary of State John Kerry, today’s equally slanted piece simplifies the congressional debate on Iran—which has been driven as much, if not more, by longstanding Senate sanctions activists such as Senate Foreign Policy Committee chair Robert Menendez and his Republican counterpart Mark Kirk than outside lobbyists—into a one-on-one duel between Obama and AIPAC.
That suits the administration since it wishes to show itself as having bested AIPAC. But it dramatically distorts the truth about the way AIPAC operates and its aversion to involvement in partisan debates. The charge that the group is biased toward Republicans is bunk. The group and its large cadre of supporters throughout the nation are only interested in whether a member of Congress is a supporter of Israel and enthusiastically backs Democrats who fit that description and does the same for those in the GOP. Nor is it the American branch of the Likud, as some falsely assert and Landler implies in his misleading article. The group’s guiding principle is respect for Israeli democracy and when that means, as it did for much of the 1990s, backing a left-wing government that embraced Oslo, that stand was a source of frustration to AIPAC supporters sympathetic to the Israeli right. Its primary purpose is to encourage support for the alliance between the two countries and that goal is bound to disappoint partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.
It is precisely because AIPAC is not equipped for partisan battles that it’s invariably reluctant to directly challenge any president. That was true last year when it passed on the opportunity to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense despite his vocal support for Walt-Mearsheimer slurs, and it is true today when it has decided to tread lightly on the Iran sanctions issue rather than express open opposition to the president.
By smearing all those who want a measure that would actually strengthen his hand in negotiations with Iran as warmongers, the president has faced down AIPAC and the pro-sanctions bipartisan Senate majority. But if, as is likely, the administration’s Iran diplomacy yields no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and its stockpile of enriched uranium, the president will find himself facing the same bipartisan majority demanding more sanctions and action on Iran led by Menendez, his own party’s foreign-policy point man.
In the meantime, when AIPAC supporters gather by the thousands next month in Washington, the message to the group from Congress will give the lie to the conceit of Landler’s piece. Liberals hoped that alternatives to the mainstream pro-Israel group, such as J Street, would equal or supersede the organization. But after more than five years the leftist alternative remains without influence in Congress or in an administration that has proved time and again that it knows it must reckon with AIPAC as the principal voice of pro-Israel opinion in this country. AIPAC’s power does not reside in a mythical ability to override the will of presidents but in the simple fact that support for the Jewish state transcends party politics as well as ethnic or religious lines.
It says something disturbing about this administration that it has been more solicitous of the sensibilities of the Islamist dictators of Iran in the past few months than those of Americans who care about Israel’s security. But anyone, including the White House correspondent of the Times, who expects an all-out war between the Obama administration and AIPAC in the coming months is misinterpreting both AIPAC’s purpose and the ability of the White House to sustain its dangerous push for détente with Tehran in the absence of any tangible progress toward ending the Iranian nuclear threat.