For Obama, Iran Talks Are Also About Testing the Limits of American Jewish Power
In Washington, the president and his allies are using the nuclear issue to drive a wedge between Israel and its U.S. interlocutors
It wasn’t until his second term, with his eyes on the prize of historical reconciliation with Iran, that Obama really zeroed in on the pro-Israel community. Appointing Chuck Hagel, who’d made animus toward Israel’s supporters in Washington into a defining source of personal and political pride, as secretary of defense, was a way to move the yardsticks far downfield and pin AIPAC with its back to the goal line. Sure, the next few yards, getting a deal with Iran, would be a real pile-up, but it was doable.
Next, the White House got AIPAC to support the president’s decision to wage a short and limited campaign of air strikes against Bashar al-Assad to enforce Obama’s red line regarding the Syrian dictator’s use of chemical weapons. This not only exposed the organization to the typical anti-Semitic charges—Jewish war-mongering on behalf of Israel—but it did much worse, in helping to paint AIPAC as an over-eager lackey that jumped to do the White House’s bidding on an issue that arguably had nothing to do either way with Israel’s national interest or the concerns of its supporters. When Obama backed off the strikes and signed on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his unconventional arsenal, AIPAC was hung out to dry. To further rub their faces in it, the administration sent Vice President Joe Biden to deliver the keynote address at J Street, which had declined to support the president’s plan to strike Syria.
AIPAC has fought back and continues to do so. When the White House tried to sideline the pro-Israel community and Abe Foxman announced that Jewish organizations would take a “time out” in the Iran sanctions campaign, AIPAC immediately responded that there would be “no pause, delay or moratorium” in the outfit’s lobbying for more and stronger Iran sanctions. Even with the administration on the verge of a deal, AIPAC keeps pushing for further sanctions. However, the problem is that AIPAC has already been shown unable to shape policy from inside Obama’s White House, or to gather enough bipartisan support from within the president’s party to oppose it strongly enough on Capitol Hill.
AIPAC’s failure to project strong, clear opinions on some controversial issues—including the Hagel nomination—has contributed to the weakening of its influence. Yet to make the problem simply one of poor decision-making and leadership by AIPAC is to draw too narrow a circle around a much larger decline in influence, which includes everyone sitting at the pro-Israel family table. The United States is getting out of the Middle East, which means that Israeli interests—just like Saudi Arabian interests, or Egyptian interests, or Iraqi interests, or Palestinian interests—will simply not be as important to American policymakers anymore.
Israel will be fine on its own—even if some of the decisions it might make, like absorbing the West Bank, or refusing to recognize the legitimacy of American Jewish marriages, or cozying up to dictators like Vladimir Putin—will leave American Jews feeling alienated and bereft. The first and most noticeable impact will be on the institutions and all of the personages who have served as mediators and interlocutors on behalf of the relationship between Israel and the United States government. Someone else will fill the vacuum left by America’s exit from the Middle East, and that means that Israel’s significant foreign interlocutors—the ones who will get red-carpet treatment in Jerusalem and key interviews with sitting prime ministers—will no longer be found in the United States but elsewhere. Russian rabbis, like Berel Lazar, or French MPs, like Meyer Habib, will play the role that John Hagee or Chuck Schumer once did because of their access to key decision-makers in Moscow and Paris.
But the crucial point is that it’s not just the bigwigs in the U.S. pro-Israel community who will feel their significance to be radically diminished as the United States withdraws from the Middle East. Sure, they’ll feel the sting most acutely—at first. But in time, every American will come to feel the diminishment of American power that comes from forsaking a 60-year-old American patrimony, with the control over global resources and the geopolitical influence—and the opportunity to promote American values—it once made possible.
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