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Analysis AIPAC-Conf

Published on March 27th, 2016 | by Lara Friedman

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AIPAC and Congress

by Lara Friedman

[As we have over the past few months, LobeLog is posting excerpts from the Legislative Round-up published weekly when Congress is in session by the inimitable Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now about what Congress is up to and what individual members are saying, particularly about Israel-Palestine and Iran.]

Shameless plug: Lara Friedman writing at the Huffington Post on Trump & AIPAC: Look on AIPAC’s Works, American Jews

NOTE: The House went into recess on March 24; it returns to session on April 12. The Senate went into recess on March 19; it returns to session on April 4.

Bills, Resolutions, & Letters

(US-ISRAEL CYBERSECURITY COOPERATION): HR 4860: Introduced 3/23 by Rep. Cicilline (D-RI) and 9 bipartsan cosponsors, “the United States-Israel Cybersecurity Cooperation Act.” Referred to the Committees on Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, and Science, Space, and Technology. Cicilline’s press release  announcing the bill is here.

(YET ANOTHER – PARTISAN – NEW IRAN SANCTIONS BILL) HR 4815: Introduced 3/21 by Pompeo (R-KS) and no cosponsors, the “Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act of 2016.” Referred to the Committees on Foreign Affairs Financial Services, the Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, and Ways and Means.

(CONTINUE $$ US-ISRAEL COOPERATIVE PROGRAMS) Roskam-Meng letter: On 3/24, Reps. Roskam (R-IL) and Meng (D-NY) sent a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense urging continued funding for U.S.-Israel defense cooperation programs. NOTE: This funding is in no way under threat (the letter is the equivalent of a traffic cop standing along a highway waving at cars to keep on driving…). Press release is here. 

(INCREASE U.S.-ISRAEL MISSILE DEFENSE COOPERATION) Donnelly-Sessions letter to Obama: On 3/23, Sens. Donnelly (D-IN) and Sessions (R-AL), Ranking Member and Chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, sent a letter to President Obama “highlighting the importance of investments in U.S. missile defense capabilities and the need to strengthen our partnerships with allies around the world, particularly Israel, as Iran continues to exhibit dangerous missile program activities.” Press release is here.

(STOP IRANIAN SUPPORT FOR HAMAS) Moulton-Kinzinger letter to Kerry: On 3/18, Reps. Moulton (D-MA) and Kinzinger (R-IL) led  a letter, with 39 bipartisan cosigners, calling on Secretary of State Kerry to work toward a new UN Security Council resolution to ban weapons transfers to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations.  Press release is here.

(CONTINUE $$ FOR US-ISRAEL COOPERATIVE PROGRAMS) Kirk-Gillibrand letter: On 3/18, Sens. Kirk (R-IL) and Gillibrand (D-NY) sent a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense urging full funding for U.S.-Israel defense cooperation programs. NOTE: This funding is in no way under threat (the letter is the equivalent of a traffic cop standing along a highway waving at cars to keep on driving…). Press release is here.

The AIPAC 2016 Policy Conference

This week, AIPAC activists took to Capitol Hill as they do every year in conjunction with the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Unusually, the conference took place at a time when the Senate was out of session (meaning that most senators were not in town to meet with AIPAC conferees or to attend AIPAC events). A few other observations:

The 2016 AIPAC Lobbying Agenda was the weakest AIPAC lobbing agenda in memory. You can view the full agenda here (screenshots from the AIPAC Conference App). The agenda focused on three things: Iran, possible UNSC action on Israel-Palestine, and the new ten-year MOU governing U.S. military aid to Israel currently under negotiation. Traditionally AIPAC conferees come to congressional offices with specific asks – i.e., asking members to cosponsor legislation (specific bills or resolutions) or sign specific letters. This year, the situation was very different.

  • On Iran: AIPAC conferees went to the Hill with no concrete asks – no letters to sign, no specific bills or resolutions to cosponsor. This appears to reflect the inability of members in either chamber to come to bipartisan consensus on Iran-related legislation – most likely because, while Democrats support strong oversight of the JCPOA and getting tough on Iran over ballistic missile tests, they are not on board with efforts to scuttle the JCPOA or score gratuitous points over the Iran deal (which Democrats largely supported) during this election period. Which left AIPAC with the painful choice of lobbying in support of partisan legislation – and feeding the view of many that AIPAC has become a partisan organization – or lobbying nothing specific at all.
  • On Israel-Palestine: AIPAC conferees went to the Senate with, again, no concrete legislative ask. In the House, they did have an ask: they asked members to sign the relatively moderate Lowey-Granger letter (moderate for what it doesn’t say more than what it does, and for the wiggle room it leaves in the wording it contains). Both the absence of a Senate vehicle and the relative moderation of the House letter appear to reflect the fact that many Democrats are disinclined to get on board with Republican – and AIPAC – efforts to lay down unreasonable, hard red lines with respect to possible action by the Obama Administration on Israeli-Palestine in these final months in office.
  • Aid to Israel: With respect to the MOU, AIPAC conferees once again were sent to the House with no concrete ask.  In the Senate, they did have a concrete ask, urging senators to sign the Graham-Coons letter. However, this seemingly benign letter is reportedly proving problematic, since in making the case for increased military aid to Israel, it asserts, pretty directly, that the JCPOA is a bad deal that will fail in the near term, thus increasing the danger to Israel (“Moreover, Israel must prepare for the likelihood that Iran will resume its quest for nuclear weapons.”). This framing is self-evidently problematic (and probably infuriating) for Senate Democrats who supported the Iran deal and also support increased aid to Israel (it is not clear why Senator Coons, who has been an outspoken defender of the JCPOA, did not see this as a problem; it also remains to be seen if the letter will pick up steam when the Senate is back in session).

What WASN’T lobbied is telling. Missing from the 2016 Lobbying Agenda was anything related to BDS. This absence is notable given that of the four issues listed on AIPAC’s website under “Legislative Agenda,” the BDS issue is the only one that was not part of the 2016 lobbying agenda. This absence is even more notable given that the “Fight the Boycott of Israel” page on AIPAC’s website features (as of this writing) numerous pending bipartisan BDS-related pieces of legislation, including “the Combating BDS Act of 2016” (HR 4514 and S. 2531) – all of which, it should be noted, include the “settlements=Israel” conflation. So why did AIPAC leave this issue entirely off their 2016 lobbying agenda?

One possible reason is that AIPAC-led efforts on this issue over the past year – which successfully pushed Congress to adopt “settlements=Israel” language (misleadingly promoted as strictly anti-BDS language) as part of two major trade bills – turned out to be what soccer fans would call an “own-goal.”  As has been exhaustively reported in previous Round-Ups, passage of the faux-BDS provision in the TPA bill yielded a statement from the Administration calling out the “settlements=Israel” conflation and rejecting it; the subsequent passage of an even more problematic version of the faux-BDS provision, included in the Customs Bill, yielded a presidential signing statement declaring the “settlements=Israel” unconstitutional. In this context, it seems plausible that AIPAC has determined that pushing further “settlements=Israel” legislation in Congress is not a smart idea, at least at this time.

This is the latest in a series of consecutive years where lobbying has proved problematic for AIPAC.

  • 2013 AIPAC lobbying agenda: The 2/28/14 edition of the Round-Up covered the full or partial defeat of all of AIPAC’s major 2013 lobbying initiatives (some of which spread into 2014). These were: S. Res. 65, aka, the “backdoor to war” resolution – which passed only after being significantly watered down by the Senate; S. 462 and HR 938, aka, the “best-allies-with-benefits” bills – that hit a roadblock due to AIPAC’s overreach in trying to force Israel into the Visa Waiver Program (it took AIPAC 18 months and two policy conferences to get the measure passed, and then only after the Visa Waiver section had been stripped down to non-binding language); and HR 850,the Iran sanctions bill that passed the House and died in the Senate.
  • 2015 AIPAC lobbying agenda: In 2015, there was the battle over the Corker bill, which was clearly intended to be a roadblock to any agreement with Iran and was a key ask at that year’s policy conference. That bill failed to attract widespread Senate support in its original form, and only moved when it was amended to such an extent that ultimately the Obama Administration supported it.  AIPAC’s other key ask in the 2015 policy conference was S. 269 – another Kirk (R-IL)-Menendez (D-NJ) Iran bill intended to be a roadblock to an Iran deal. This bill went nowhere.

Hearings

4/5: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing entitled, “Recent Iranian Actions and Implementation of the Nuclear Deal.” As of this writing the only scheduled witness is Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Thomas Shannon.

3/22: The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing entitled, “Hezbollah’s Growing Threat Against U.S.National Security Interests in the Middle East.” Witnesses were: Matthew Levitt, WINEP [statement]; Tony Badran, FDD [statement]; and Daniel Byman, Georgetown University [statement]. Video of the hearing is here.

On the Record

Blumenthal (D-CT) 3/24: Blumenthal Applauds Obama Administration for Iran Sanctions Enforcement

Feinstein (D-CA) 3/24: Feinstein Statement on Iran Hacking Indictments  – “I congratulate the Justice Department and the FBI for these indictments and look forward to the individuals being held accountable for their actions.”

Coons (D-DE) 3/24: Senator Coons applauds Obama Administration actions against Iran

Hoyer (D-MD) 3/34: Statement on Sanctions Designations Against Entities Aiding Iran’s Ballistic Missile Development

Engel (D-NY) 3/24: Statement on Indictment Against Iranian Hackers

Meehan (R-PA) 3/24: Meehan on Iran Hacking Indictments: “These Are Not the Acts of a Nation Worthy of Trust”

Sherman (D-CA) 3/24: Comments on Treasury Decision to Sanction Supporters of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program and Mahan Air

Pompeo (R-KS) 3/24: Pompeo Asks Islamic Society of Wichita to Cancel Fundraising With Hamas-Linked Imam on Holy Friday

Van Hollen (D-MD) 3/24: Van Hollen Statement on New Sanctions Aimed at Iran’s Missile Program, and Charges Against Perpetrators of Iranian-backed Cyber Attacks on U.S.

Pompeo (R-KS) 3/24: Pompeo on Indictment of Iranians for Cyber Attacks on U.S. Banks, Dam

Langevin (R-RI) 3/24: Langevin Statement on the Indictment of Iranian Hackers

Pompeo (R-KS) 3/23: State Confirms Obama Administration Paid Iran $1.7 Billion

Dold (R-IL) 3/23: Standing Up for Israel (excerpt: One of the pressing problems facingIsrael right now is the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Many people remain unaware of the threat this hateful and misguided movement poses to Israel. [At the AIPAC Policy Conference] I took a minute to answer a question about BDS and our new bipartisan bill, the Combating BDS Act of 2016.” (video here).

Rogers (R-AL) 3/23: We Must Support Israel (excerpt: “The Obama Administration’s relationship with Israel over the past seven years has been strained close to the breaking point. President Obama has neglected Israel and left them without many of the resources they need…)

Royce (R-CA) 3/22: Chairman Royce Statement on President Obama’s Trip to Argentina(“I am disappointed to hear President Obama’s schedule does not include a stop at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association or a meeting with survivors.  The July 18, 1994 attacks on AMIA and the Israeli embassy remain the deadliest acts of terror inArgentina’s history…” 

Cruz (R-TX) 3/21: Oped in the Jerusalem Post: ‘The US-Israel Alliance Against Terrorism’

Frankel (D-FL) 3/21: Frankel Urges Increased Funding for U.S.-Israel Anti-tunnel Defense Program

Issa (R-CA) 3/21: Americans being unjustly held in Iran

Deutch (D-FL) 3/21: On Twitter – I join @YairLapid & others in protesting the @UN_HRC’s anti-Israel obsession while they ignore mass atrocities around the world

Poe (R-TX) 3/19: Iran and North Korea coconspirators in mischief

Royce (R-CA) and Engel (D-NY) 3/19: Joint statement demanding consequences (sanctions) for Iranian ballistic missile tests


About the Author

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Lara Friedman is director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now. As a leading authority on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Israeli settlements policy, and Jerusalem, Ms. Friedman frequently meets and briefs Members of Congress, US Administration officials, foreign diplomats, and other members of the foreign policy community. She is a frequent resource for journalists and policymakers, and regularly publishes opinion and analysis pieces in the US and Israeli press. A former Foreign Service Officer, she served in Jerusalem, Washington, Tunis and Beirut, and is fluent in French, Spanish, and Arabic.



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