by Jim Lobe
Seemingly overshadowed by the crisis in Crimea and the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just don’t seem to be getting the kind of momentum in their perennial jihad against Iran that they’re used to coming out of AIPAC’s annual policy conference.
It’s true that the more than 10,000 AIPAC activists sent to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives immediately after the conference May 4 should have been pleased by the House’s passage a day later by a 410-1 margin of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act. It’s been a major priority for the group since last year and one that authorizes $1.8 billion dollars in additional U.S. weapons shipments to Tel Aviv, which already receives on average of about three billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid. It also opens the possibility that Israelis wishing to come to the United States would not require a visa.
But AIPAC’s and Netanyahu’s top priority — getting a new Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill against Iran enacted — clearly moved out of reach six weeks before the conference when all but 16 Democratic senators refused to sign on as co-sponsors and buck their president who had pledged to veto any such bill on the grounds that it risked undermining ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. With Plan A thus scuttled, AIPAC moved to Plan B, a non-binding resolution that would lay out conditions — several of them clearly unacceptable to Tehran — for any comprehensive deal with Iran which, if not included as part of the deal, would result in Congress’s refusal to fully lift U.S. sanctions. In that case, too, the White House made its strong opposition clear, and the effort quickly collapsed.
That left Plan C — a (necessarily non-binding) letter from lawmakers to Obama — laying out what conditions its authors expected to be included in any final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. As I described last week, there were actually two letters, both approved by AIPAC: a Menendez-Graham version in the Senate whose harsh tone and demands (a final deal “must require”, etc.) no doubt more accurately reflected the views of both AIPAC’s leadership and Netanyahu than the softer version (“We are hopeful that a permanent diplomatic agreement will require” etc.) that was co-authored by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Leader Steny Hoyer. Both letters were ambiguous on key points — to what extent would Iran’s existing nuclear program have to be dismantled and specifically whether a limited uranium enrichment program would be deemed acceptable — and thus subject to different interpretations.) When the House version was subsequently endorsed by Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin precisely because it appeared to give the administration more diplomatic space to negotiate a deal, AIPAC’s leadership was reportedly caught once more on the backfoot. Of course, as I noted last week, the White House still opposes both letters, but the fact that AIPAC’s plans 1, 2, and its preferred version of 3 have all been set back must give the administration considerable satisfaction. (I heard — but cannot confirm — that, at the conclusion of a White House meeting with top AIPAC officials back in early January, one of them told a senior administration official point-blank, “You have to know that we’re going to beat you on this.”)
AIPAC has kept silent on the number of senators who have signed either letter. At first I understood they were trying to persuade senators to sign the Menendez-Graham version only and actively lobby them against the Cantor-Hoyer-Levin letter. But that then embarrassed their allies in the House, so the group began asking — with some success — senators to sign both letters, thus contributing to the growing impression on Capitol Hill that the nation’s most powerful foreign policy lobby simply doesn’t have its act together.
In any event, AIPAC is now actively pushing House members to sign Cantor-Hoyer, which apparently is the best it thinks it can do under the circumstances. As of Wednesday afternoon, according to AIPAC’s tally, 293 members had signed the letter, but 138 — including a surprising number of far-right Republicans, like Michele Bachmann, Joe Barton, and Louie Gohmert, who probably think AIPAC has turned way too mushy — have not. This is now ten days after the end of the AIPAC conference! For an organization whose top lobbyist less than ten years ago bragged that he could get 70 senators to sign on a napkin within 24 hours and which is used to the kind of virtually unanimous votes that took place last week for the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, this is pretty pathetic. It cannot help that AIPAC got virtually no press during its conference and has gotten some really terrible reviews in Israel, notably one by Gideon Levy (admittedly a peacenik) in Haaretz, which was reposted by M.J. Rosenberg here.
In pushing the Cantor-Hoyer letter, however, the group is misrepresenting what the letter actually says. For example, AIPAC says:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) are circulating a bipartisan letter addressed to the President delineating the necessary terms for a final agreement with Iran, including dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program.
But the actual letter states:
We are hopeful a permanent diplomatic agreement will require dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons-related infrastructure, including enrichment-, heavy water-, and reprocessing-related facilities, such that Iran will not be able to develop, build, or acquire a nuclear weapon.
Of course, AIPAC is spinning the letter in favor of its hoped-for interpretation, but there is a substantial difference both tonally and literally in what the two statements say.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu appears increasingly and openly frustrated by the lack of attention his histrionics about Iran has been getting. Last week’s seizure by Israeli commandos of the KLOS-C merchant ship in the Red Sea off the coast of Eritrea and Sudan was no doubt timed to immediately follow Bibi’s anti-Iran tirade at AIPAC and his continuing presence in the U.S. He gave vent to that frustration in Eilat this week where he keynoted the display of the captured, supposedly Gaza-bound Syrian-made M-302 rockets which, according to Israel, had been hidden aboard the vessel in Bandar Abbas under sacks of Iranian cement, by fulminating about the “hypocrisy” of the West, especially EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was then on a visit to Tehran, in not treating the incident with the seriousness that he believed it warranted (as if, for example, there were no “hypocrisy” in a nuclear-armed non-member of the IAEA constantly complaining to the same body about Iran’s nuclear program).
Now, it may be that those rockets were intended for Gaza, although Israel has not yet disclosed any of the evidence on which it based that charge, and most experts who have addressed this issue have expressed considerable skepticism about the Israeli thesis, especially in light of Egypt’s destruction of so many of the tunnels that link the Sinai to Gaza and the military regime’s enhanced intelligence cooperation with Israel on both the Sinai and Gaza since last July’s coup d’etat in Cairo. (Given that cooperation, why wasn’t the shipment intercepted by the Egyptians when it passed through southern Egypt or the Sinai?)
Still, I’m prepared to believe that high-level IRGC hard-liners who, like AIPAC and Netanyahu, are unenthusiastic, to say the least, about Hassan Rouhani’s efforts at rapprochement with the West, may have behind such a shipment, and may even have hoped that it would be discovered, precisely in order to undermine the nuclear talks. (I think Mitchell will be writing more about this question shortly.) But what is so interesting is precisely the lack of interest in Netanyahu’s charges on the part of western — and especially U.S. — mainstream media and politicians. Granted, the Ukraine crisis and the missing airliner are taking up an awful lot of news oxygen these days, but when the Israelis shout really loud, especially about terrorism and Iran, it usually gets attention. Not this time. Writing for Al-Monitor, Ben Caspit wrote an excellent piece about this Tuesday entitled “Israel fears it has lost world attention on Iran.” It seems the world has tired of Bibi and sees him increasingly as the boy who cried wolf, as hinted at in an interesting analysis posted Wednesday by Haaretz’s editor, Zvi Bar’El.
On the other hand, consider this colloquy at Tuesday’s State Department press briefing. The final sentence is a little worrisome:
QUESTION: Can we go to Iran?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Your counterpart at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Marzieh Afkham, described the whole ship episode and the press conference that took place – the ship that was allegedly going to Hamas – as a farce. And she described it in very graphic terms like Mr. Netanyahu is trying to sort of complicate whatever efforts you’re having in the negotiations. Could you comment on that?
MS. PSAKI: I would stand by the comments I made yesterday about the ship containing Iranian weapons. I spoke extensively to that yesterday. So I don’t have any —
MS. PSAKI: — I think the facts are the facts in this case.
QUESTION: So let me ask you again. You have your own evidence, your own gathered evidence that this ship was laden with arms.
MS. PSAKI: The Israelis are the lead on this.
Photo: Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Eilat regarding weapons he claims were bound for Gaza by Iranian order. Few foreign press were reportedly in attendance.