AIPAC bruised after Iran deal setback
Washington - US President Barack Obama’s success in ensuring that the Iran nuclear deal will not be killed by the US Congress was seen as a resounding defeat for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which fought furiously against the deal.
AIPAC is widely regarded as a formidable, respected and feared lobby group in Washington. Thus, its failure to block the Iran deal, according to Steve Rosen, former director of foreign policy issues for the organisation marks “a very bad moment for AIPAC”.
But the White House remains locked in a bitter fight with AIPAC and Republicans in Congress. Obama would like to claim enough support for the agreement to be approved by a safe margin without having to use the presidential veto. AIPAC would like to force a veto to show that the deal does not have public support and can be overturned by a future administration.
AIPAC’s effort, which the Jewish community newspaper The Forward described as “the most expensive pro-Israel campaign in American history”, was helped by strong Republican opposition to the Iran deal.
AIPAC waged a robust public campaign, with intense lobbying of Congress and national television ads. Media reports said AIPAC spent between $20 million and $40 million on the campaign and its supporters claim that its efforts led to a shift in public opinion. If so, however, that shift did not translate into a congressional victory.
A debate is taking place in the United States and in Israel over what AIPAC’s defeat means both for the organisation and for US-Israeli relations. Some analysts say that AIPAC should never have challenged Obama because it was clear from the beginning that he had the votes in Congress to keep the Iran deal on track.
Others say AIPAC had no choice because Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented the issue as an existential threat to Israel.
Elliott Abrams, a former national security official under president George W. Bush, wrote in the Weekly Standard, a conservative Washington publication, “If AIPAC would not fight on this issue, many of its supporters would wonder why it ever existed.”
The most consequential effect may be on AIPAC’s reputation as being invincible. Dylan Williams, political director of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that supports the Iran deal, told the Guardian “this fight has revealed the AIPAC tiger to be a paper one”. Former congressman Robert Wexler, D-Fla., told Newsweek, “The strength of any 800-pound gorilla lies in the perception that his power is so significant that no one can challenge him.”
This may be true but this is not the first time AIPAC has fought a US president and lost. This time, as with the previous instances, AIPAC lost the fight because the president had the support of the national security establishment.
In 1978, Israel opposed an US arms sales package to Jordan and Saudi Arabia but AIPAC failed with Congress to prevent president Jimmy Carter from going ahead with the sale.
Perhaps the most famous fight between a president and the pro- Israel lobby was in 1981 when US president Ronald Reagan proposed the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. AIPAC could not stop the sale because it was seen as being in the US national security interest.
President George H.W. Bush tied a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel to its settlements-building. AIPAC fought back hard and Bush famously complained that he was “one lonely little guy” fighting “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill”. The president won.
AIPAC emerged without permanent damage after those fights and many predict this time will be no different.
But one thing clearly is different: The split in the Jewish community became very deep during the debate over the Iran deal and revealed that AIPAC is no longer the only influential Jewish organisation in Washington. J Street and others, such as Peace Now and Jewish Voices for Peace, oppose AIPAC and the Israeli government on many issues and are asserting themselves as legitimate representatives of the Jewish community.
But this is not the end of the process and AIPAC has not had its last word. As Abrams notes, it is too early to judge whether the organisation won or lost on the Iran deal and its strength is in defeating members of Congress who oppose it. “If members of Congress who voted with Obama are defeated in the 2016 elections,” Abrams wrote, “AIPAC will very likely be given a good deal of credit.”
Abrams and others discount predictions of a lasting negative effect on AIPAC because of the fight over the Iran deal. They argue that the United States has already entered the 2016 election campaign and with a new president, administration and Congress installed in January 2017 there will be new issues and this battle soon will be history.
That, too, remains to be seen.