by Jim Lobe
Last weekend, I noted the increasingly vulnerable position in which AIPAC finds itself in after its defeat on the Kirk-Menendez bill (S. 1881), and less than three weeks before its annual conference, which this year is expected to attract a record 14,000 attendees, as well as keynoter Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Reporters who pay closer attention and have better contacts inside AIPAC than I do appear to share this view.
Particularly remarkable is an article entitled, “As Confab Nears, AIPAC Still Trying to Figure Out its Legislative Agenda,” by JTA’s Ron Kampeas. It describes how unprepared the group’s leadership appears to be:
“[J]ust three weeks before the [annual] conference, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is facing a dilemma: how to craft a legislative agenda after losing a bruising battle with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions and amid uncertainty stemming from regional turmoil and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
An AIPAC official confirmed that the lobbying group has yet to choose a legislative initiative for the estimated 14,000 activists to support at the March 2-4 conference.
While AIPAC does not unveil the specifics of its favored legislative action until the eve of its conference, what’s unusual is that those close to the group and its Capitol Hill interlocutors say it’s not yet clear even behind closed doors what shape AIPAC’s lobbying will assume.”
A second widely noted article, “How AIPAC Botched Its Biggest Fight in Years,” appeared in the Daily Beast Tuesday morning. It recounts details surrounding last week’s debacle and offers a broader context in which it took place, particularly the apparent splits between AIPAC’s neoconservative/Republican wing and those within the group who hope to maintain its appeal to Democrats as well as, more interestingly, between the latter and the Netanyahu government as represented by its new ambassador here, Ron Dermer, who reportedly lobbied very aggressively for the passage of the bill even when it became clear that there was no way its proponents could get a veto-proof majority or Majority Leader Harry Reid to send it to the floor for an up-or-down vote. (Unlike his predecessor, Michael Oren, Dermer, who grew up in Florida, is said by knowledgeable sources to consider himself a Republican with little interest in or patience for Democrats.) According to Lake’s account, Dermer told Republican Sen. Bob Corker outright that AIPAC and the Israeli government were not on the same page. Lake recounts where the group ended up:
Somehow, on the issue arguably of most importance to both the Israeli government and America’s pro-Israel community—Iran and its nuclear ambitions—AIPAC didn’t merely fail to deliver. It alienated its most ardent supporters, and helped turn what was a bipartisan effort to keep Iran in check into just another political squabble. The lobby that everybody in Washington publicly backs somehow managed to piss off just about everyone.
Now, I wouldn’t call AIPAC’s management or mismanagement of the bill a “botch” as the Daily Beast’s headline writer did. I think there is something much more fundamental — and possibly existential — about what is happening to the group. Its neoconservative/ECI/Republican wing, which no doubt includes important donors, is pressing it to abandon its bipartisanship, which is a very, very risky strategy when one considers that a strong majority of the Jewish community remains firmly in the Democratic camp. And, as many polls have shown, Democrats are becoming ever more disenchanted with the policies — not just with respect to Iran — being pursued by Netanyahu’s right-wing politics. This puts AIPAC in an extremely delicate position, and one that it has never before confronted. In that respect, Netanyahu’s keynote speech could be a very important moment in the group’s history.
All this plays out while the most prominent pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is going through its rockiest period in decades. The administration’s attacks on sanctions advocates as “war mongers” and ability to rebuff sanctions showed AIPAC’s declining influence on the left, a trend accelerated under an administration with the worst relationship with Israel since George H.W. Bush. In awkwardly abandoning the current sanctions battle, AIPAC was accused by the right of bending over backward to accommodate Democrats who aren’t supportive of sanctions. When AIPAC attempted damage control last Friday by issuing a letter from its president saying AIPAC was in fact still in favor of sanctions, the reaction on Capitol Hill ranged from confusion to contempt. At the time its role is most critical, AIPAC is least effective.
This naturally must intensify the heartburn at AIPAC headquarters.
Meanwhile, opponents of more sanctions appear to have gone somewhat on the offensive in the House, especially in light of persistent reports that Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer were cooking up an AIPAC-backed non-binding resolution designed to define what would or would not be acceptable in a final deal worked out between Iran and the 6 world powers known as the P5+1. A total so far of 104 House members have signed a letter demanding that Congress “give diplomacy a chance.” The letter, which was organised by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and gained the signatures of four Republicans, adds that any “bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement, must be avoided.”
I understand that in a meeting with top AIPAC board members Tuesday, House Democrats made clear that there was no support in their caucus for any Iran resolution — binding or non-binding and that Wednesday’s release of the Price-Doggett letter was designed to underline the lack of appetite for any more legislative battles on Iran until diplomacy plays out. And while the White House announced Wednesday that Obama and Netanyahu will meet Mar. 3 at the White House, there still has been no word as to whom the administration intends to send to address the AIPAC conference that will be going on at the time.