by Mitchell Plitnick
Syria’s declaration that it would accept a Russian proposal to hand over its chemical weapons to an international body was the latest in a string of surprises around international concern over the ongoing, horrific civil war in that country. It is extremely premature, at this point, to declare the threat of a US escalation over, but the delay this proposal produced does go a long way toward lowering the heat on the crisis and, at minimum, stretching the timetable.
President Obama’s willingness to bring this idea to the U.N. Security Council opens the door to averting a U.S. strike and pushes back the likely strike date and a congressional vote on Obama’s decision. That has led to a collective sigh of relief, at least for the moment, throughout the country. And nowhere has that sound been louder than in the offices of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The debate has been a difficult one in Washington. A hawkish minority see striking Syria as a necessary deterrent, both to Bashar al-Assad reusing chemical weapons and emboldening Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, a decision hawks think will be influenced by a perception that the U.S. is so reluctant to get involved in another military escapade that it will not back up threats of using force. That’s what is meant by “protecting U.S. credibility.” But the majority of the U.S. public and, at least for the time being, the House of Representatives seems to be opposed to Obama’s idea of hitting Syria.
In one of a series of surprises around this issue, AIPAC publicly dove in to the Syria debate in DC, and faced the most daunting challenge they had in many years. One of the things that gives AIPAC its air of invincibility is their astounding record of success on Capitol Hill. One of the reasons they have that record is that they rarely get into fights they are not sure they are going to win. This one was far from that.
A vote held immediately after the president announced he was going to request authorization from Congress would have likely been unsuccessful. Some, myself included, believed that a full court press by the president combined with hard lobbying by AIPAC and the Saudis would, over the course of time, sway enough votes to give the president what he wanted. I’m pretty sure the Senate, in any case, will support Obama. The House is certainly more questionable.
If the vote in either chamber went against the president, it would mean an unprecedented loss for AIPAC. They’ve lost before, but never when they were working with, rather than against, the president of the United States. That they got involved with such an iffy proposition can only be explained by an Israeli desire to see Obama win this one, but also for the Israeli government itself — which, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced unprecedented criticism for interfering in U.S. politics — to remain distant from the debate. In a most unusual development, it is Obama who keeps talking about Israel being a factor in his decision. AIPAC has adamantly refused to name Israeli concerns as a reason for their support of an attack on Syria.
Chemi Shalev, the very sharp Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote:
If AIPAC goes ‘all out,’ as Politico reported on Thursday, and ‘250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week,’ but the House of Representatives nonetheless votes against the President, then the lobby’s image of invincibility, to which it owes much of its influence, will inevitably be jeopardized.
I’m not sure AIPAC’s air of invincibility would be jeopardized so much as it might be slightly diminished, another step on the unfortunately long road to normalizing the U.S. discussion of Middle East policy.
The other, younger and more moderate side of the Israel Lobby, J Street, had its own problems with the Syria issue. Internal debate in the organization had a stymying effect and left them without a position. While some were content with no stance from the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobbying group, their silence can hurt them in the long term on the Hill.
Long-time DC observer Ron Kampeas has it just right when he says:
One of the most effective ways for lobbyists to accrue influence on the Hill is to convey to overwhelmed congresspersons and their staffers that the lobby has the expertise to help them arrive at an informed opinion. And if in addition to expertise, your lobby has a cadre of seasoned staffers who are able to shape a lawmaker’s concerns into legislative language that is likely to attract cosponsors and even achieve passage (the golden ring for a body that passes less than five percent of its proposed legislation), then you have influence.
J Street has been able to make some headway in recent years in campaign fundraising. But they have not been able to establish themselves as a reliable source of expertise on Capitol Hill. AIPAC remains a source for expert analysis, and that has a great effect on how members of Congress and their staffers, except for those few who actually have their own expertise on the Middle East, end up voting on Middle East matters. As Kampeas says, J Street wants influence, “…and answering ‘We dunno’ on Syria is not the way to go about earning it.”
J Street bills itself as the group that “has Obama’s back.” That involves giving him political cover to exert some moderate pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, which, to date, they really have not been able to deliver (but they’re young — AIPAC also took a good number of years to build the sort of gravitas it has). J Street can also recover from the Syria crisis, as long as it doesn’t have more incidents where its own membership and leadership are so divided on an issue that they can’t take a stance.
But AIPAC has already taken a hit by openly lobbying, and declaring that it will flex serious muscle, in support of a military action that, for better or worse, is opposed by the majority of US citizens. If the issue does come to a vote, which still seems likely, and they lose one or both congressional chambers (which I don’t think will happen, but I hold a minority view), it will be a more serious blow. That’s reinforced by the fact that not only AIPAC, but also a lot of the more mainstream Jewish groups that tend to follow it, like the American Jewish Committee and World Jewish Congress, have come out forcefully behind a strike on Syria, and continued to press the point, even after the Russian proposal.
But I don’t think this will be as damaging as either Shalev or MJ Rosenberg think it will be. There is still no significant opposition to AIPAC’s lobbying power; this question was not directly connected to Israeli policy; and the most powerful tool in AIPAC’s arsenal — the public US misunderstanding of the Middle East, the Arab world and Israel, and especially the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict — is still in place, as is the perception that AIPAC speaks for, not the Jewish community as is often argued, but Jewish donors. US Jews make up a wildly disproportionate fraction of individual political gift givers, but while some large donors like Sheldon Adelson or Haim Saban are very clear about the decisive role Israel plays in where their money goes, it is far less clear how important Israel is in broader Jewish donations, and it’s virtually certain that the issue is not as prominent as is commonly argued.
Still, just by going so public with the Syria issue, AIPAC has suffered a setback, and this has not been lost on Israelis. Leaders and opinion makers in Israel from the liberal Ha’aretz to veteran Israeli diplomats are criticizing AIPAC for their actions on Syria. It’s not a huge hit, but AIPAC will feel it. If only someone, be it J Street or another group, would just take advantage of this opportunity…