It’s much too soon to predict, with anything approaching precision, the likely ripples of the Iran deal, but one of Washington’s formerly feared hunters now finds itself in the crosshairs: On left and on right, everybody seems to have it in for AIPAC.
While the Iran deal brought the absolute best out of smaller and more modestly endowed organizations like The Israel Project or the Foundation for Defense of Democracies—the first campaigned tirelessly in the media, the second scorched Congress with a string of devastating and illuminating testimonies—AIPAC pursued an oddly milquetoast strategy and failed to convert even supportive senators like Cory Booker to the anti-deal cause. Anti-Israel detractors who for the last decade declared that AIPAC was all-powerful are now rushing to declare the lobby irrelevant, and some in Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike—are inclined to agree. What is being perceived as AIPAC’s refusal to run an aggressive campaign against Democrats supportive of the Iran deal is causing some former allies on the right and on the left to ponder whether the formerly formidable organization has any purpose anymore.
To counter the administration’s pro-deal push, and to retain its commitment to bipartisanship, AIPAC went out of its way to avoid appearing overly red. It formed a dedicated lobbying effort, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, led by Democrats. According to the New York Times, the organization’s spokesman was Patrick Dorton, a Democratic political operative; two of its other principal figures were Mark Mellman, the Democratic pollster who is a close adviser to Harry Reid, and Mark Putnam, the Democratic media mastermind whose specialty is making liberals look tough and resilient. Whether these Democratic stalwarts were willing to aggressively pursue lawmakers who were potential or actual clients is anybody’s guess. What is clear is that AIPAC itself seems to have made the decision not to “primary”—or actively work to unseat—previously friendly lawmakers who happened to support the deal.
Had AIPAC threatened to punish incumbents by supporting their rivals, Joel Rubin, who until recently served a the State Department’s liaison to the White House, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, the group might’ve “made it a trade-off, leveled the playing field, and [given] political space to members to focus on the merits.” AIPAC, however, chose a different path, one that failed to strike fear into the hearts of Democratic lawmakers and called into question the organization’s ability to again capture a position of influence with Democrats.
But while AIPAC’s dimming reputation with the left is a bit of a dog-bites-man story, the organization being ignored by Republicans is much bigger news. If the lobby is not willing to take on Democrats who oppose its signature issues, “[i]t’s hard to see what we gain [from talking to AIPAC],” as a senior Republican Senate aide told the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman. “We have many, many friends who are part of the organization, but the organization doesn’t seem to be advancing the causes we hold dear.”
The sentiment seems to be widespread among Republicans: Last month, several GOP lawmakers, from Illinois’ Peter Roskam to presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, introduced motions designed to delay a vote on the deal until various transparency requirements were met, giving legislators sufficient time to review pertinent documents. These are positions AIPAC would have likely supported; neither Roskam nor Cruz, however, bothered alerting AIPAC in advance.
And why would they? Crossing AIPAC, after all, is not the same as crossing Israel—something that American lawmakers, given voters’ overwhelming sympathy and support for the Jewish state, actually do fear. It’s not even clear that AIPAC still has a clear mandate from Jerusalem: The organization was reportedly opposed to Netanyahu’s speech in Congress earlier this year and saw the Israeli prime minister’s decision to accept John Boehner’s invitation as something between an irritation and an assault. Some at AIPAC even used the metaphor of a surprise attack in describing how ill-prepared the group was for Bibi’s move: “This is AIPAC’s Yom Kippur War,” one of the organization’s leaders told the Israeli journalist Ben Kaspit at the time.
With the GOP now talking directly to Netanyahu, and the Democrats standing firmly with the president, it’s hard to see AIPAC bouncing back unless the organization shows it has to be taken seriously. The lobby’s only hope is to use its considerable war chest to forcefully go after Democrats in 2016, restoring some of its capacity for political deterrence and regaining the Democrats’ obedience and the Republicans’ respect.
The Iran deal wasn’t just a battle over a specific policy; it might also have been a bellwether for a new political order, one in which traditional alignments fade away. Ever the master of the zero-sum game, President Barack Obama—whose chief talking point about the Iran deal was that you’d have to be some kind of nutty warmonger to oppose such a sensible scheme—managed to intimidate ostensibly pro-Israel Democrats on the most important vote related to Israel’s security in decades. What does it mean to support AIPAC—as leading Democrats, such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, claim to do—but simultaneously vote for measures that cede regional power and influence to Israel’s (and America’s) worst enemies? This is not a political question, at least not entirely. It’s a moral conundrum, one that leaves many supporters of Israel, inside and outside the District of Columbia, in despair. Unable to be Democrats any longer, and frequently unwilling to turn Republican, these ideologically homeless voters are looking for a strong organization to represent them. To seize that mantle, AIPAC, or whoever replaces it, must do away with any notion of politesse and fight not only for votes but also, and most importantly, for beliefs.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.