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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

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Delegates arrive at the 2013 AIPAC conference. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

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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.

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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.

Pro-Israel insiders explain that in speaking with donors and members, AIPAC officials went out of their way to emphasize that the sanctions blow-up simply reflected an honest disagreement with the White House about policy. But that’s not how Obama seemed to see it, or else administration officials wouldn’t have labeled those calling for more sanctions “warmongers.” This is a White House that has taken Rahm Emanuel’s rallying cry to heart: “You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” And AIPAC seems not to have understood that Obama saw it not simply as another Washington lobby, sometimes helpful, sometimes less so, but rather as an adversary that threatened to crash his key Middle East initiative, accomplishing one of the collective dreams of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment—historical reconciliation with the Islamic Republic.

Obama took on AIPAC not because he dislikes Israel or has a problem with the American Jewish community. Rather, it seems clear that he doesn’t like AIPAC—because he agrees with academics like Stephen Walt and U.S. policymakers like his former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his current one Chuck Hagel that the pro-Israel lobby often prevents the United States from pursuing its national interests. Given this, Obama believed, quite correctly, that AIPAC’s drive for increased sanctions on Iran ran counter to his own ideas about how to configure the Middle East to serve his own vision of America’s best interest.

As AIPAC’s President Michael Kassen and the Chairman of the Board Lee Rosenberg—a music producer who was among Obama’s earliest backers in Chicago—jointly wrote in a New York Times op-ed last week, AIPAC believes, with many others, that tough sanctions are what brought Iran to the table, and additional sanctions will strengthen the White House’s bargaining position. As they write, “diplomacy that is not backed by the threat of clear consequences poses the greatest threat to negotiations—and increases prospects for war—because it tells the Iranians they have nothing to lose by embracing an uncompromising position.”

But that interpretation flies in the face of how Obama sees the issue.

Virtually every policy the Obama Administration has pursued in the last five years shows that it believes the regime in Tehran wants a nuclear weapons program because it is fearful of being toppled. From this perspective, the last thing you want to do is put more pressure on the Iranians. Therefore, Obama has avoided feeding the regime’s paranoia and refrained from backing either the domestic opposition movement that arose in the wake of the fraudulent June 2009 elections, or the armed rebels that took on the regime’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad.

While the White House was willing to pay lip service to sanctions, the game changed once the administration finally secured the long-sought interim agreement with the Iranians in November. The administration’s priority from that point onward has been to protect that deal.

From the White House’s perspective, the two actors capable of threatening the agreement were Israel, through military strikes, and the domestic American pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, through sanctions legislation. Israel has proven rather easy to deter through tough talk and occasional new arms shipments. AIPAC’s failure to fight the Hagel nomination was a good sign for the White House that the lobby would fold its cards if confronted head-on. If AIPAC didn’t punish anyone when a man who prides himself on his outspoken hostility to the pro-Israel community—and especially to AIPAC—was nominated secretary of defense, then it would also be safe to cross AIPAC when sanctions legislation came up for a vote.

A second key moment came when the White House asked AIPAC to lobby on behalf of strikes against Assad after he crossed Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons. The problem was not simply that strikes on Syria are largely irrelevant to Israel as well as to the pro-Israel community. Rather, AIPAC’s eagerness to do the White House’s bidding simply confirmed that the lobbying group didn’t understand Obama’s larger vision. The president never wanted to strike Syria for the same reason he didn’t want to impose sanctions and threatened to veto further sanctions: Obama’s top priority is to keep Tehran at the bargaining table, and strikes on Syria might have driven the Iranians away.

When Obama decided not to strike Syria, AIPAC looked foolish. The organization banked no credit with the White House, since Obama never actually wanted to drop any bombs in the first place. Further, by supporting Syria strikes, AIPAC confirmed that its agenda was, point-by-point, the opposite of that held by the man in the White House. Having isolated AIPAC, the White House and its allies could now destroy it: In pushing for sanctions, they suggested, the Jews were taking the United States to war.

Sure, legislators will come down on AIPAC’s side when it’s cost-free. But because AIPAC cannot, or will not, punish its enemies, there’s no risk in defying the lobbying group, either. The days of the pro-Israel lobbying group striking fear into the hearts of members of Congress are over—even if a few wonky academics and overheated opinion columnists and bloggers will continue to insist that a Jewish cabal secretly controls American foreign policy. AIPAC never held such power—but the suggestion that it did was itself a form of power. Now that no one on Capitol Hill or in the White House believes that AIPAC controls anything, the lobbying group has to do some hard thinking about its own survival.

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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