The Bell Tolls for AIPAC, the Late, Great Pro-Israel Lobbying Group
With Washington locked in partisan warfare, the organization has to choose between being liked or winning
Both Democrats and Republicans crossed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Iran sanctions legislation earlier this month—an issue that has been at the top of the pro-Israel lobbying group’s agenda for the past 10 years. So, with more than 10,000 pro-Israel activists set to gather at the Washington Convention Center this weekend for AIPAC’s annual policy conference, the big question on everyone’s minds must be: Who is AIPAC going to punish first?
“Sure, that’s the question AIPAC leadership has been asking,” quipped Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy issues, sarcastically. “If that were really the case, it would mean they’re angry at the president of the United States, the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, the head of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and more than two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate.”
According to Rosen, AIPAC isn’t in the business of punishing those who cross it. “You can’t go out and throw rocks at Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” he went on. The National Rifle Association is notorious on Capitol Hill for its short memory, demanding loyalty from legislators on every vote. But AIPAC doesn’t work that way. The NRA blocks anti-handgun legislation, but AIPAC passes pro-Israel legislation—and for that you need Democrats, especially when the Democrats have the White House and the Senate and the Republicans control only the House. Thus, says Rosen, “you can’t be at war with the Senate majority leader when you have to come back tomorrow for something else.”
AIPAC’s former Executive Director Morris Amitay agrees. “Thankfully, there is no enemies list,” he said. “There’s no one on the Hill you can point to and say they’re really bad on Israel issues.” Rosen and Amitay, both former top AIPAC officials, agree that the people who want the lobbying group to punish those who vote against them are talking emotionally. “Being angry,” said Rosen, “means being partisan.” Being bipartisan, on the other hand, apparently means that AIPAC’s necessary reaction to defeat is to do nothing.
In spite of the widespread conviction, held by both pro- and anti-Israel activists, that AIPAC holds unmatched sway over American Middle East policy, the outfit’s recent loss underscores the real and growing limits of its political power. It was only a matter of time before someone zeroed in on the organization’s fundamental dilemma and made it choose between form (bipartisanship) and substance (pro-Israel legislation). Now that President Barack Obama has forced that choice, AIPAC is clearly at a crossroads.
For almost a decade now, AIPAC’s biggest battle in Washington has been to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons program. The sanctions provided for in the most recent bill were to come into effect only if negotiations over a permanent agreement to replace the interim agreement failed. Nonetheless, Obama threatened to veto the bill and the Democrats backed off. When Republicans wanted to push ahead, AIPAC chose bipartisanship over sanctions, siding with Democrats in asking to postpone the vote. “The better part of valor is to come back another day,” said Amitay. “I’m sure it was a tough decision.”
As Rosen explained, there was a collision between AIPAC’s two core principles. “The problem of Iran is a cardinal issue, but bipartisanship is too,” he said. It might be emotionally satisfying to act out when the vote goes against you, but AIPAC’s main job is to produce bipartisan majorities. “AIPAC decided to pull a punch,” Rosen went on, “because it had no other choice.”
And that’s precisely the problem—AIPAC had no choice. And now everyone sees it. The organization’s power resides largely in the appearance of power, which depends on its presumed ability to punish those who act against it.
When AIPAC lost its campaign to stop the Carter Administration from selling F-15s to Saudi Arabia in 1978, the White House agreed not to equip the Saudi purchases with the most advanced equipment. But there were no concessions to sweeten the bitter taste of defeat this time around. AIPAC lets on that it’s happy to have the bill on the legislative schedule for a vote sometime in the future. However, there will almost surely never be a vote on more sanctions while Obama sits in the Oval Office, because it is in the interest of both the administration and the Iranians to roll over the six-month interim agreement indefinitely—while Iran continues work on its ballistic missiles and warheads as well as “research and development” on its second-generation centrifuges. In other words, taken together with the fact that the administration intentionally collapsed the sanctions regime in order to empower the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani, the fight over Iran sanctions is over and AIPAC was routed.
AIPAC’s failure is not simply the result of the fact that the lobbying group’s preferred strategy of bipartisanship has been riddled with contradictions for almost half a century—even as it has kept wealthy Democratic donors on board. Rather, the group’s bipartisan inclinations seem to have blinded them to the fact that the president had his own Middle East strategy—even as he mimed agreement with the general idea that Iran should be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons. The inclination to take the president at his word allowed AIPAC to present its pro-sanctions program as a bipartisan effort and straddle the differences between Democrats and Republicans. When the differences between the parties turned out to be real, AIPAC flopped.
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