by Jim Lobe
Just four days before 14,000 members arrive for AIPAC’s annual policy conference and a keynote by none other than Bibi Netanyahu himself, the group appears at sea, tossed between Republicans eager to do the Likud leader’s bidding and embarrass President Barack Obama on the one hand and the administration and leading Democratic lawmakers who believe that any new sanctions legislation will likely sabotage the ongoing negotiations with Iran and bring the country closer to another Mideast war.
The latest move is predictably coming from the Republican side, which seems determined to find a new legislative vehicle for the stalled Kirk-Menendez (“Wag the Dog”) sanctions bill. They apparently intend to propose — and try to force a vote on — an alternative to a military veterans’ bill (S. 1982) put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders. The alternative, sponsored by North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, reportedly includes most of the Kirk-Menendez provisions. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear Wednesday that the Republican stratagem was very much linked to the AIPAC conference when he made yet another appeal to Majority Leader Harry Reid to permit a vote on sanctions legislation. Here’s what he said on the floor:
Now I know many active Members of AIPAC — the Majority Leader mentioned AIPAC — they want to have this vote. They’ll be coming to Washington next week from all over the country. I’ll bet you, Mr. President, this is a vote they want to have.
So far, however, it appears that Reid and the Democrats are standing firm against the move, as the caucus tweeted in response to McConnell:
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) February 26, 2014
They quickly marshalled strong support from key veterans groups, including the American Legion, whose National Commander, Daniel Dellinger, put out the following statement:
Iran is a serious issue that Congress needs to address, but it cannot be tied to S. 1982, which is extremely important as our nation prepares to welcome millions of U.S. military servicemen and women home from war. This comprehensive bill aims to help veterans find good jobs, get the health care they need and make in-state tuition rates applicable to all who are using their GI Bill benefits. This legislation is about supporting veterans, pure and simple. The Senate can debate various aspects of it, and that’s understandable, but it cannot lose focus on the matter at hand: helping military personnel make the transition to veteran life and ensuring that those who served their nation in uniform receive the benefits they earned and deserve. We can deal with Iran – or any other issue unrelated specifically to veterans – with separate legislation.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) quickly followed suit with its director, Paul Rieckhoff tweeting that Iran sanctions were “not relevant” to the bill and suggesting that the Republican maneuver was another example of “gridlock” in Washington. Later in the day, Reid himself tweeted:
— Senator Harry Reid (@SenatorReid) February 26, 2014
The question, of course, is where is AIPAC in all this? I sent an email query to the group’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, around noon but had received no reply as of late Wednesday night, suggesting either that the organization had not yet formed an opinion or simply preferred not to comment, a rather striking possibility given the proximity of its policy conference which will end with all of the attendees fanning out across Capitol Hill to lobby their lawmakers on a range of priorities, no doubt beginning with Iran. As the delegates will have just heard a no-doubt hawkish exhortation from Netanyahu himself Tuesday morning and the Burr alternative may be the only pending Iran-related measure that reflects his views, what marching orders will AIPAC offer its legions? Moreover, given the strong Democratic opposition to date, lobbying in favor of Burr will make AIPAC’s claim to bipartisanship appear ever more hollow. And while that may be the direction in which some of the group’s biggest donors would like to take it, such a move would risk further alienating its largely Democratic base.
AIPAC’s two top leaders sought last weekend to clarify its position in an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Let Up on Iran,” which, in addition to misstating a number of facts, succeeded only in muddying the waters by noting, “Earlier this month, we agreed with Mr. Menendez on delaying a vote in the Senate, but we remain committed to the bill’s passage.” What that means at this point, however, is anybody’s guess. Do they think that what they agreed to delay just two weeks ago should now be voted on despite the stronger opposition among Democrats? Not clear, not clear at all. It would seem that the flailing I referred to a couple of weeks ago continues. Indeed, it appears that the staunch Likudists over at the Washington Free Beacon agree. Its lead article today, entitled “AIPAC ‘Neutered’ on New Iran Sanctions,” decries the group’s silence, quoting one of the newspaper’s habitual anonymous “insiders” as saying “…I think they’re hiding under their desks hoping no one noticed they’ve abandoned the issue they spent a decade rasing millions off of. …AIPAC is missing in action.”
Meanwhile, two likely Republican president candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, made clear Wednesday they have no reservations about supporting new sanctions or, for that matter, war if it comes to that. Both senators suggested that if Iran obtained a bomb, it might very well transfer it to Venezuela. (Shades of pre-Iraq war hype.) “They both hate us,” declared Cruz. Meanwhile, Cruz’s fellow-Texan, Pastor John Hagee has scheduled his big annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) conference in Washington for July 21-22; that is, two days after the expiration of the six-month Joint Plan of Action (JPA) negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia plus Germany), which, however, can be extended by another six months by agreement of the parties. If, as anticipated, such an extension will be agreed, AIPAC will be joined by its Christian Zionist brothers and sisters in a major new push for sanctions.
Photo: Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Gage Skidmore