AIPAC’s Annus Horribilis?

The year of 2014 is starting well for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the premier organization of this country’s Israel lobby.

Not only has it been clearly and increasingly decisively defeated – at least for now and the immediate future – in its bid to persuade a filibuster-proof, let alone a veto-proof, super-majority of senators to approve the Kirk-Menendez “Wag the Dog” Act that was designed to torpedo the Nov. 24 “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA) between Iran and the P5+1. It has also drawn a spate of remarkably unfavorable publicity, a particularly damaging development for an organization that, as one of its former top honchos, Steve Rosen, once put it, like “a night flower, … thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

Consider first what happened with the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, named for the two biggest beneficiaries of “pro-Israel” PACs closely associated with AIPAC in the Congressional campaigns of 2010 and 2012, respectively. Introduced on the eve of the Christmas recess, the bill then had 26 co-sponsors, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, giving it an attractive bipartisan cast – the kind of bipartisanship that AIPAC has long sought to maintain despite the group’s increasingly Likudist orientation and the growing disconnect within the Democratic Party between its strongly pro-Israel elected leadership and more skeptical base, especially its younger activists, both Jewish and gentile. By the second week of January, it had accumulated an additional 33 co-sponsors, bringing the total to 59 and theoretically well within striking distance of the magic 67 needed to override a presidential veto. At that point, however, its momentum stalled as a result of White House pressure (including warnings that a veto would indeed be cast); the alignment behind Obama of ten Senate Committee chairs, including Carl Levin of the Armed Services Committee and Dianne Feinstein of the Intelligence Committee; public denunciation of the bill by key members of the foreign policy elite; and a remarkably strong grassroots campaign by several reputable national religious, peace, and human-rights groups (including, not insignificantly, J Street and Americans for Peace Now), whose phone calls and emails to Senate offices opposing the bill outnumbered those in favor by a factor of ten or more.

The result: AIPAC and its supporters hit a brick wall at 59, unable even to muster the 60 needed to invoke cloture against a possible filibuster, let alone the 77 senators that AIPAC-friendly Congressional staff claimed at one point were either publicly or privately committed to vote for the bill if it reached the floor. By late this week, half a dozen of the 16 Democrats who had co-sponsored the bill were retreating from it as fast as their senatorial dignity would permit. And while none has yet disavowed their co-sponsorship, more than a handful now have (disingenuously, in my view) insisted that they either don’t believe that the bill should be voted on while negotiations are ongoing; that they had never intended to undercut the president’s negotiating authority; or, most originally, that they believed the mere introduction of the bill would provide additional leverage to Obama (Michael Bennet of Colorado) in the negotiations. Even the bill’s strongest proponents, such as Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, conceded, as he did to the National Journal after Obama repeated his veto threat in his State of the Union Address Tuesday: “The question is, is there support to override a veto on that? I say, ‘No.’”

The Democratic retreat is particularly worrisome for AIPAC precisely because its claim to “bipartisanship” is looking increasingly dubious, a point underlined by Peter Beinart in a Haaretz op-ed this week that urged Obama to boycott this year’s AIPAC policy conference that will take place a mere five weeks from now. (This is the nightmare scenario for Rosen who noted in an interview with the JTA’s Ron Kampeas last week that the group’s failure to procure a high-level administration speaker for its annual conference “would be devastating to AIPAC’s image of bipartisanship.”) According to Beinart:

The appearance of bipartisanship is essential to AIPAC’s business model. And yet that bipartisanship is, in some ways, a ruse. The group’s hawkish foreign policy stances on both Iran and the Palestinians are far more in line with Republican than Democratic public opinion. Demographically, AIPAC is increasingly populated by Orthodox Jews, who – in contrast to American Jewry as whole – generally vote Republican. It’s true that the Iran sanctions bill AIPAC is pushing has garnered 19 [sic] Democratic – along with 43 Republican – co-sponsorships. But congressional sources say bluntly that many of those Democratic senators are only supporting the bill because AIPAC, and like-minded groups, want them to.

Indeed, the growing tension between AIPAC, which takes its orders from Bibi Netanyahu and whose leadership is probably to the right even of him, and Democrats has become increasingly apparent, especially in ways that must make the organization acutely uncomfortable. Thus, earlier this month, Rabbi Jack Moline, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), which normally toes AIPAC’s line on any Israel-related issue, publicly accused it of using “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they didn’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.” Moreover, AIPAC’s pressure tactics – bolstered by Bill Kristol’s neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) – against the head of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, appear to have backfired badly, as the head of the group’s Southeastern states director, Mark Kleinman, felt compelled to issue a public defense of the congresswoman earlier this week as it became clear the bill was actually losing support among Democratic lawmakers. “People don’t forget these kind of attacks,” one veteran Capitol Hill lobbyist told me last week. “There is a cost to pay.” Finally, the fact that AIPAC, after a full month of all-out lobbying, was able to add only three Democrats to the initial list of co-sponsors, while all but two Republican senators (Paul and Flake) signed on, leaves the bill with an overwhelmingly partisan look. (One encouraging note: Hillary Clinton finally ended her silence on the issue, coming out strongly against new sanctions.)

As Doug Bloomfield, a former chief AIPAC lobbyist told me at the end of last week about the bill:

It turned out to be a Republican game of gotcha. Iran is really a secondary issue; it’s all just gotcha. That’s the politics; you want to make the other side look bad, in this case, to portray Obama as soft on Iran and an unreliable friend of Israel.

…Take a look at AIPAC today. In the early years, there were no strings with $200 donations, but a $200,000 contribution, that comes with chains. The biggest contributors now are Likud and Republican. That doesn’t come with strings; it comes with chains. In my experience, it was taken over by a board of major contributors who are micro-managers.

…When Reagan came in and had a Republican Senate, one of the board members urged firing all of the staff associated with Democrats. Now they’re working with the Republicans in the Congress to undermine a President. What is the message? The great irony of this whole campaign on sanctions is that its raison d’etre was to put pressure on the Iranians to come to the table. It worked, so why don’t they declare victory? Why push for more sanctions that, as the president warned, could scuttle these talks? The first reason is that this has been their primary issue. Like the old cliche about real estate, “Location, location, location,” for them it’s been “Iran, Iran, Iran.” Israel and the peace process is in a distant second place… Number two is that this institution is very tight with Bibi Netanyahu, and it’s also his Number One issue. He says we can’t do anything with the Palestinians until we remove the nuclear threat from Iran. And how? To totally dismantle its nuclear program. As long as you hold to that, you don’t have to deal with the Palestinians.

Moreover, the disconnect between AIPAC and Democrats also mirrors what appears to be happening within the Jewish community itself. This was demonstrated in part by the fact that, of the 11 Jewish members of the Senate, only four co-sponsored the bill (and three of them have been among those who have retreated from full-throated support), while six, including Levin and Feinstein, publicly backed Obama. Moreover, this was one issue in which the upstart J Street came out early and unequivocally against AIPAC and prevailed. And then there was the remarkable letter obtained by Mondoweiss from nearly 60 prominent Jewish New York celebrities, artists, religious figures, donors, and philanthropists to newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio admonishing him for kissing AIPAC’s ring during a recent off-the-record meeting with senior officials of the organization:

…[W]e do know that the needs and concerns of many of your constituents – U.S. Jews like us among them – are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and that no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.

This is not the kind of publicity AIPAC enjoys.

Nor can it be happy that the trips to Israel for promising politicians and lawmakers sponsored by AIPAC’s “educational” arm, the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), and specifically whether they should be publicly disclosed, have become an issue in the Republican primary campaign for the attorney-general of Nevada, in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s home state, as disclosed in this JTA item Thursday. Like AIPAC and its meeting with de Blasio, AIEF, which took 81 members of the House – or about 20 percent of all House members – on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel during the August recess in 2011, much prefers to maintain a low profile, at least in this country.

For Bloomfield, AIPAC’s entire management of the Iran issue has been characterized by “inept handling and poor judgment”, and, instead of claiming victory for its sanctions strategy, it looked like “another rightwing group that prefers war over negotiations, domestic partisanship over diplomacy.”

Of course, none of this means that the battle over Iran policy is won, but it does suggest that AIPAC’s membership has some serious thinking to do about the group’s relationship to Democrats and to the broader Jewish community. Nor does it necessarily mean that we have finally reached a “tipping point” regarding the lobby’s hold over Congress and U.S. Middle East policy. But this is unquestionably a significant moment. (Rosenberg has a good analysis about AIPAC’s defeat out on HuffPo today that is well worth reading.)

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Reprinted with permission.

Inter Press Service

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.