by Jim Lobe
In a remarkable demonstration of the the increasingly vulnerable state into which AIPAC appears to have thrown itself, the Israel lobby’s premier group released a new statement this afternoon clarifying that it still supports the Kirk-Menendez “Wag the Dog” Act less than 24 hours after announcing that it no longer supported an immediate vote on the legislation.
The statement came as two hard-line neoconservative (and Republican) groups — Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) and the Republican Jewish Coalition — implicitly denounced AIPAC for its retreat. The latest AIPAC statement, issued in the name of its president, Michael Kassen, suggests that it is being whipsawed between its Republican neoconservative supporters, who are used to getting their way in the organization, and its desire to remain in the good graces of key Democrats who have been increasingly alienated and angered by the degree to which Republicans are aggressively seeking to make Iran (and Israel) a partisan issue.
One very interesting question raised by the latest developments is whether AIPAC sought Bibi Netanyahu’s blessing before its statement yesterday opposing immediate action on the Kirk-Menendez bill. That AIPAC should feel compelled to make such a public statement just three weeks before its annual policy conference here will likely add to the impression among its members — 14,000 of whom are supposed to attend — that the group was not only defeated — at least for now — in its biggest legislative fight against a president of the past two decades, but that it also suffers from an indecisive and uncertain leadership typical of large organizations that have grown overconfident in their power when suddenly confronted with a major setback.
Here’s AIPAC’s latest:
I am writing today to correct some mischaracterizations in the press regarding our position on the Senate Iran bill. Some have suggested that by not calling for an immediate vote on the legislation, we have abandoned our support for the bill. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, we remain strongly committed to the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act. This legislation is one important part of a broad strategy that we have pursued over many years to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. As negotiations for a final agreement with Iran begin, we must—and will—continue our efforts on every front to ensure that any deal with Iran guarantees the dismantlement of its nuclear infrastructure and blocks its path to a bomb.
Yesterday, Senator Menendez—who along with Senator Kirk is the lead sponsor of the legislation—delivered a forceful speech on the Senate floor, in which he outlined what such a deal must include. In response, we issued a statement applauding Chairman Menendez’s leadership. We strongly support his assessment of the threat, his commitment to the critical role Congress must play, and his path to passage of the legislation, which includes building broad bipartisan support.
I want to thank you for your hard work thus far in earning the support of 59 senators for the Menendez-Kirk bill. We still have much work to do over the coming months. It will be a long struggle, but one that we are committed to fighting.
We will continue to work closely with friends on both sides of the aisle, in both the House and Senate, to ensure that everything is done to prevent a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.
Now, I personally didn’t see any press reports that asserted that AIPAC was withdrawing its support for the bill; only that it had withdrawn its support for an immediate vote on it. So what provoked this “correct[ion]?” I assume it was the remarkably hasty way in which AIPAC beat its retreat — less than two hours after Sen. Menendez delivered his floor speech in which he rued the attempt by his Republican colleagues to use the bill as a bludgeon against Democrats even as he himself stood it. While I had assumed that Menendez and AIPAC had choreographed the sequence of statements in advance — after all, Menendez was the Senate’s biggest beneficiary of pro-Israel PACS associated with AIPAC in 2012 — AIPAC’s announcement appeared to leave a number of its critical allies, such as The Israel Project (TIP), United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI), and not least the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — all of which have lobbied for immediate passage of the bill, hanging out there with a position that it had abandoned — hanging out to dry. (Remarkably, TIP’s “Daily Tip” — its news digest — completely ignored Menendez’s speech and AIPAC’s statement.)
But while those groups maintained silence Friday, ECI and RJC came out swinging, suggesting that AIPAC’s concerns about maintaining its bipartisan appeal were foolish. Here’s ECI’s statement “on the withdrawal of Democratic support for a vote on the Senate Iran sanctions bill,” issued in the name of Kristol himself:
We commend 42 [Republican] Senators for their strong letter demanding a vote on S. 1881, the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which has been cosponsored by more than half of the Senate. The bill is simple and reasonable. It would reimpose existing sanctions suspended under the interim agreement if Iran cheats; it would ensure that a final agreement requires Iran to dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure; and it promises to impose additional economic sanctions in the future should Iran fail to agree to a final deal that dismantles its nuclear infrastructure.
As the Senators put it in their letter to the Majority Leader, ‘Now we have come to a crossroads. Will the Senate allow Iran to keep its illicit nuclear infrastructure in place, rebuild its teetering economy and ultimately develop nuclear weapons at some point in the future?’
The answer to this question must be no. The Senate should act now to deliver that answer. It would be nice if there were universal bipartisan support for acting now to stop a nuclear Iran. But there apparently is not. And it would be terrible if history’s judgment on the pro-Israel community was that it made a fetish of bipartisanship — and got a nuclear Iran. [Emphasis added.]
And here’s what the RJC, speaking through the voice of its Congressional Affairs Director, Noah Silverman, put out:
As you know, the RJC has been the most consistent voice urging Congress to enact strong new legislation that will maximize pressure on Iran’s rogue regime to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.
When Senator Kirk and Senator Menendez introduced their bipartisan bill to lock in new, crippling sanctions on Iran if the regime failed to follow through on its obligations under the Geneva accord, we launched an all-out effort to win support from Republican Senators.
Within days – thanks in large part to our efforts – 95 percent of the Senate Republicans had signed on as cosponsors of the Kirk/Menendez bill. Considering that the bill (S. 1881) has numerous Democrat cosponsors, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had pledged to permit Senate action soon when he delayed a vote on sanctions last year, success seemed within reach.
What happened next should trouble every pro-Israel American deeply. The Obama administration unleashed an unprecedented campaign to portray Kirk, Menendez and their backers as ‘warmongers.’
And they enlisted Democratic members of non-partisan pro-Israel organizations to work from within to undermine the push for Kirk-Menendez.
The Obama White House’s tactics have been disgraceful. But they’ve clearly had an effect. Democratic Kirk-Menendez cosponsors endorsed delaying a vote on the legislation they ostensibly support. Liberal news outlets attacked Republicans as ‘partisan’ for demanding a vote on bipartisan legislation.
And now the most prominent organization in the coalition of activist groups supporting Kirk-Menendez – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – has reversed itself and is calling for Senate action on Kirk-Menendez to be delayed.
We still believe this legislation is urgently needed if there is to be any hope of convincing the Iranians to alter their course. And the good news is that Senate Republicans overwhelmingly understand this. Earlier this week, 42 GOP Senators sent Harry Reid a letter making it clear that Republicans who support Kirk-Menendez are determined to get a vote.
Now more than ever, Republican leaders in Congress will need our help. We want to thank you for everything you’ve already done – and to assure you that, no matter what others do, we are not going to give up on this effort. The stakes for our national security and for the survival of Israel are just too high.[Emphasis in the original.]
So now we have two hardline neoconservative Republican groups attacking AIPAC, albeit not by name, for mak(ing) a “fetish of bipartisanship,” as Kristol put it. And we no doubt have Democrats, like Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who can’t be happy with the organization due to the kinds of pressure it exerted on them to oppose their own president and the fact that AIPAC had effectively aligned itself with the Congressional Republican leadership for so long. Nor can groups like TIP or UANI or the AJC be happy with AIPAC’s probable failure to consult with them before staking out its latest position. And then there’s the fact that AIPAC, which, as this blog has noted before, prefers to act behind the scenes, had not only been forced into the limelight as a result of its advocacy for the Kirk-Menendez bill, but has, through its back-to-back public statements, moved itself to center stage, even as it finds itself buffeted by both right and left. This can’t be a comfortable place for it to find itself. Indeed, it suggests not only weakness on the part of its leadership, but also the possibility of serious internal conflict.
There’s still the question of what motivated it to change its position so publicly and so ineptly? Was it the fact that the Clintons came out for delaying a vote? After all, it’s one thing to alienate Obama, who will only be around for another three years and may face a Republican majority in both houses of Congress less than a year from now; it’s another to embarrass Hillary who, it may think, has a virtual lock on the nomination with no Republican in sight who can beat her. Or was it that letter signed by the 42 Republicans, thus transforming the bill into a more clearly partisan issue, provoking Menendez, a generally very loyal Democrat (except on Cuba), to change his position, that persuaded AIPAC’s leadership that they had to move if they were going to retain any claim to bipartisanship (in which case Kirk, who appears to have organized the letter, made a very, very serious mistake)? Or did Netanyahu, whose national security establishment appears increasingly reconciled to and comfortable with the possibility of a limited Iranian nuclear program, come to a similar realization? Or did the White House say it wasn’t going to send any Cabinet-level official to the AIPAC conference March 2-4 unless it backed off the bill, as Peter Beinart suggested in Haaretz last week? Or all of the above?