by Mitchell Plitnick
When the history of pro-Israel lobbying in Washington is fully written, it may well be that the push for confrontation with Iran will be seen as a major turning point. On Monday, a consistently hawkish, pro-Israel Democrat, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), withdrew the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s docket. Menendez made the surprise move because a Republican member of the committee, Bob Corker (R-TN), was going to add an amendment intended to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.
Judging from news reports in mainstream and far-right outlets, it seems the amendment was Corker’s idea. It would have required the U.S. president, upon reaching a deal with Iran, to submit a report to Congress within three days. Congress would then have a non-binding “vote of disapproval.” But AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, stood by the amendment, and one has to think that Corker would not have introduced it if he knew AIPAC would oppose it. AIPAC eased up on its pressure against negotiations with Iran earlier this year, but it has remained steadfast in its distrust of the diplomatic process, as has, of course, the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. AIPAC’s decision to support the Corker amendment, coupled with a ratcheting up of the rhetoric coming from Netanyahu against the negotiations in recent days, suggests a renewed campaign to derail Obama’s efforts to resolve the dispute with Iran diplomatically.
Perhaps even more notably, this episode marks another step in the increasing polarization of Israel as a domestic U.S. political issue. The Republicans have been working hard ever since Barack Obama got elected to “own” the issue of Israel. In this case, however, they and AIPAC may have overplayed their hand, just as it did at the beginning of the year with S. 1881, when it lined up with Republicans to try to strangle the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between world powers and Iran in its crib.
The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act had already generated some controversy, especially over a provision that would have allowed Israel to participate in the U.S.’ visa waiver program, which would make it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain American visas. The House of Representatives ended up amending the bill to address the initial objections to admitting Israel into that program program. The objection centered on Israel’s unwillingness to reciprocate in granting visas to U.S. citizens, a standard expectation of the program. The bill now addresses this with language that requires Israel to treat U.S. citizens (including Arab Americans) as it wishes the U.S. to treat Israelis and satisfy all other requirements of the visa waiver program. Many believe that other objections, specifically revolving around Israel’s espionage activities in the U.S. (which Israel vehemently denies but are well known in the U.S. intelligence community), are the reason for a recent spate of leaks to Newsweek magazine on the subject.
But aside from that piece, the legislation is a pretty standard piece of pro-Israel fluff, which would provide only a modest, small boost to existing cooperation between the United States and Israel in military, security and scientific arenas. Yet it appears quite possible that AIPAC helped Corker kill it, however unintentionally. Why did that happen?
This seems to have been a miscalculation on AIPAC’s part. If this amendment originated with Corker and not AIPAC, as seems likely, then it was clearly an attempt by the Tennessee Republican to drive a wedge between the “pro-Israel community” and the president. AIPAC backs the idea, but they surely treasure bi-partisan support for their initiatives in Congress much more, as indicated by their decision to back down on S. 1881 in February, especially after it ran up against a solid wall of Democratic opposition. Yet AIPAC has been remarkably passive in the face of Republican efforts to make Israel a partisan issue. Of course, Republicans have gotten a lot of help from Netanyahu (and now his new ambassador, Ron Dermer) on that score in recent years. But the alienation of liberal Democrats from pro-Israel sentiment is growing as a result. This amendment and its result constitute one more step in that direction.
AIPAC, and probably Corker as well, did not expect Menendez to pull a popular pro-Israel bill from the Senate docket. But Menendez appears to have recognized the difficult position this amendment would put Senate Democrats in. They cannot credibly oppose Obama on negotiations with Iran because their constituents support the talks and are deeply opposed to military action against Iran. Once Obama, in his State of the Union Address no less, declared that he was standing firm on negotiating seriously with Iran and then prevailed in the fight over S. 1881, it was clear that most Congressional Democrats would not challenge the president so long as the talks continued. So, if the Corker amendment was brought, Senate Democrats would either have to vote against their president or against AIPAC. Neither prospect held any appeal to Menendez. So he pulled the bill.
In many ways, Menendez and other Senate Democrats who are particularly close to AIPAC just want to keep their heads down for the next two years. If Obama can work out a viable deal with Iran, that’s great. If not, they are probably hoping that a more hawkish leader, like Hillary Clinton, who will be more in line with AIPAC on Middle East policy, will win in 2016. Until then, they are going to have to walk a tightrope.
Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to continue their efforts to “own” the issue. Corker will probably back down on his amendment eventually so that the rest of the bill can go through. But that will mean that the Republicans can claim that Menendez, well-known as among the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, thwarted AIPAC’s plans.
If, as AIPAC surely hopes, the next president, from either party, is more in tune with the Netanyahu government than Obama, then a rightward move of the Israel issue serves it well in the long-term. Indeed, in such a case, AIPAC would probably prefer a Democrat again in the White House, reinforcing the group’s bipartisan image and influence, while Israel gets framed in Washington in a more comfortable way than it is now.
Still, this could backfire. Aggressive Republican efforts to make Israel a partisan issue — and AIPAC’s acquiescence in that strategy — are alienating a lot of Jews and a lot of Democrats. Most of those groups want a secure Israel, to be sure. But they also want to avoid war with Iran and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. AIPAC is working against both of the latter goals.
AIPAC will have no problem keeping Republicans in their camp, unless more radical groups, such as Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and, of course, the Republican Jewish Coalition, that criticized its capitulation on S. 1881 persuade its wealthiest donors to desert it. But Democrats might find it increasingly difficult to toe the AIPAC line, even with a more hawkish figure like Clinton in the White House. AIPAC has come a long way by justifiably touting its bipartisanship. Should “pro-Israel” become a Republican label, however, they stand to lose a great deal in the long run. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.