How AIPAC Lost Its Grip

(Source: ABC)

I have always believed that, at some point, the Israeli prime minister and his lobby would lose their grip on U.S. Middle East policy, at least I’ve believed that since 1982 when Tom Dine, AIPAC’s most successful executive director, explained how it would happen.

It was during my four year stint at AIPAC that I asked Dine if a U.S. president could take a position opposed by the lobby, in a case where national security interests were clearly at stake, and prevail.

Dine responded that although he hoped that day wouldn’t come, he did not think a president could make Israel do anything it didn’t want to do given the power of AIPAC and “our friends in Congress.” In other words, as long as politicians need AIPAC-directed campaign funds, it wouldn’t happen.

But then he added a caveat:

“Of course, if a president pushed hard enough, and told the American people directly that U.S. security was at stake, he’d win. By that I mean AIPAC would have no choice but to support him. We can never defeat a U.S. president who reaches over the heads of AIPAC and Congress and goes to the American people directly and invokes the national interest.”

No one can force a president to abandon diplomacy in favor of war. A president can, as Obama is doing with Iran, simply do what he believes is best for America.

Although both my question and Dine’s answer referred to the occupation, his response is even more apt in reference to policies like bombing Syria or Iran, where the actions pushed by Israel and the lobby would lead the United States into war. Although continuation of the occupation endangers U.S. interests and lives, the causal connection is not as obvious as it is to actually attacking another Middle Eastern country.

What Dine got wrong was his belief that the lobby could only be defeated if the president directly confronted it, highly unlikely in the present context in which Vice President Joe Biden never ceases to tell audiences of present and potential donors that there must be “no daylight, no daylight” between U.S. and Israeli policies.

And that is not how the AIPAC collapse happened over the past six weeks.

The lobby has been beaten on Syria and on its No. 1 priority, blocking any U.S. rapprochement with Iran in order to get the war it wants. Anyone who follows the news knows that both the Israeli government and its lobby have been hit harder by the U.S. in the last month than at any time since Eisenhower forced Israel out of Sinai in 1956.

One small indication was the reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations. The man actually threatened war with Iran if he did not get his way, and Americans, Iranians, Israelis and the world at large reacted with a silence that was less than a yawn.

A year ago the world hung on every threat Netanyahu uttered at the General Assembly and his red line cartoon made the front page of every major news outlet in the world. Two years ago, when he spoke to a joint session of Congress, House Members Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Eric Cantor and Eliot Engel orchestrated 29 standing ovations for Netanyahu’s threats. He stood there, joking with Biden like the two old pols they are, and basking in the love.

Look at the situation today.

Netanyahu huffs and puffs and … nothing. AIPAC sent hundreds of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to win support for bombing Syria and didn’t change a vote. Only a few dozen legislators supported the idea and it was withdrawn and replaced by diplomacy. On Iran, with Netanyahu and AIPAC warning that President Rouhani was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, President Obama picked up the phone for the first conversation with an Iranian leader. When Netanyahu howled in protest at the UN, he was dismissed as a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

How did this all happen?

It happened because the American people have spoken in almost one voice: it does not want another Middle Eastern war. (The only people who favor confrontation with Iran over its nuclear development are the lobby and its neoconservative mouthpieces in Congress and the media).

In other words, democracy prevailed.

I feel odd writing about democracy when 30 Republicans are so blatantly subverting it during the first government shutdown in 17 years. They cannot tolerate the idea of an African-American president. But that is the result of a ridiculous quirk built into our failing system. That is certainly a catastrophe but one that will soon end with the right’s defeat.

Foreign policy is different. No one can force a president to abandon diplomacy in favor of war. A president can, as Obama is doing with Iran, simply do what he believes is best for America.

Obama wants reconciliation. As for Netanyahu, he will just have to content himself with his $3.5 billion in aid, faux words of love at the White House, and the absence of pressure from Obama to allow inspection of his huge nuclear bomb stockpile … for now.

Again, how did this happen?

On Iran, Obama led. On Syria, he followed. In both cases, the politicians followed the American people who, the polls showed, overwhelmingly want to avoid another war in the Middle East.

But what about AIPAC?

Can’t it defeat public opinion with its campaign funds and threats?

Apparently not on Iran or Syria.

Rep. Alan Grayson, who led the fight against bombing Syria, although he is very close to AIPAC, says that the lobby is irrelevant when public opinion is on the other side.

Here he is speaking about why AIPAC failed on Syria. His explanation is equally applicable to Iran:

AIPAC has issued a statement saying that they’re in favor of an attack … But at this point it’s not relevant, because the public is engaged, the public is paying attention, and the public is adamantly against this. All these organizations sort of fall to the wayside when the public weighs in. There are now both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have reported that their emails and letters and phone calls to their office are running more than a hundred to one against this. People are against it. They’re adamantly against it … So, any organization, like AIPAC or otherwise, cannot operate effectively in the environment that we’re in, where the public is speaking and speaking very loudly.

AIPAC “falls to the wayside when the public weighs in.”

I can add nothing to that except: Hallelujah.


M.J. Rosenberg is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator. He was most recently a Foreign Policy fellow at Media Matters For America. Previously, he spent 15 years as a Senate and House aide. Early in his career he was editor of AIPAC’s newsletter Near East Report. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum. Follow him @MJayRosenberg.