AIPAC in Decline

by Shlomo Ben-Ami Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. 09.10.2015
MADRID – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s lobbying power in the United States is undeniable. But AIPAC’s supposed ability to control US policy decisions is a Potemkin village myth, cultivated by friends and rivals alike. In fact, thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, AIPAC’s influence is under threat – though Netanyahu himself will be just fine.

Claims about AIPAC’s clout have long shaped analysis of US foreign policy. For example, Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, in their notorious essay “The Israel Lobby,” asserted that AIPAC manufactured the Iraq War. But the reality is far less sinister: in that case, AIPAC merely surfed on the pro-invasion wave unleashed by President George W. Bush, with his Messianic urges, and Vice President Dick Cheney, a one-man war lobby.

The truth about AIPAC – that it is influential, but far from invulnerable – has recently been revealed, both to the public and to the group itself. Having been pushed by Netanyahu into an unwinnable fight against US President Barack Obama’s administration over its nuclear deal with Iran, AIPAC is now crumbling under the weight of its own hubris.

In fact, AIPAC has never overcome resolute opposition from an American president, particularly in a matter of US national security. It failed to stop Jimmy Carter from selling F-15 Eagle fighters to Saudi Arabia in 1978, or to prevent Ronald Reagan from supplying AWACS reconnaissance planes to the Saudis three years later. And its 1991 battle with President George H.W. Bush over the linkage of US loan guarantees for Israel with Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir’s support of the 1991 Madrid peace conference – one of Bush’s key legacies – ended in defeat.

Against this background, AIPAC should have known that its attempt, in close cooperation with Obama’s Republican opponents, to block the Iran nuclear deal (one of Obama’s most important achievements) would fail. Indeed, Obama even used a tactic similar to that of George H.W. Bush to win the day. Just as Bush openly denounced the “thousand lobbyists” working the halls of the US Congress against a vital national interest, Obama said in a conference call that his critics “would be opposed to any deal with Iran,” and called out AIPAC’s $20 million advertising campaign against the agreement. He also put AIPAC in the same category as the Republicans who “were responsible” for leading the US into the Iraq war.

For AIPAC – which has traditionally relied on a broad coalition of social and political forces in the US that view Israel’s security as both a moral cause and a vital national interest – this is not any old defeat. The Republican-backed crusade against a key agreement negotiated by a Democratic president, with his party’s overwhelming support, has threatened the bipartisan foundations of Israel’s cause in America.

Of course, the nuclear deal involved more than just the US and Iran. AIPAC was opposing an international agreement that six major world powers – China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – had already signed and that the United Nations had approved. Even some of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress were unlikely to deal a potentially devastating blow to America’s international credibility, and the idea that the negotiating countries would all agree to reopen the talks to produce a “better deal” was sheer fantasy. Yet that is the objective that Netanyahu set for AIPAC.

The row over the Iran deal is bound to be a watershed moment for American Jews, among whom sharp divisions have formed. Indeed, the American Jewish Committee 2015 Survey of American Jewish Opinion reports the emergence of “two diverging Jewish sub-communities,” with a growing number of Jews feeling alienated by the organizations that claim to represent them.

AIPAC represents a striking anomaly in the life of American Jews. It is increasingly identified with the Republican agenda and Israel’s evangelical Christian supporters, even though polls have repeatedly shown that Jews are America’s most liberal ethnic group.

The truth is that American Jews largely opposed the Iraq war. They overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party. They define their religion as moderate and liberal, with many upholding gay rights and abortion, both anathema to evangelical Christians. The majority of American Jews even support the creation of a Palestinian state. And, although they are far from united on the Iran deal, the agreement’s supporters outnumber its opponents.

Much of the blame for the damage that has been done – to AIPAC, American Jewish communities, and even the US political process – falls on Netanyahu. But he is unlikely to face retribution for any of it. On the contrary, the Obama administration has already begun the discussions it promised on upgrading Israel’s strategic capabilities. As Arab countries throughout the Middle East melt down – with increasingly significant spillover effects in the West – Israel continues to represent a stable regional partner for the US.

More dangerous, Netanyahu could achieve his next goal: preventing a strategic détente between the US and Iran that would enable cooperation in resolving major regional conflicts, from Yemen to Syria. After all, Obama’s victory on the nuclear deal may have been inevitable, but it was far from easy. An odd coalition of Iranian radicals, AIPAC, the Saudi-led Sunni alliance, the Israeli government, and US politicians from both parties have already compelled Obama to promise additional sanctions on Iran for its sponsorship of terrorism. As a result, America’s cold war with Iran is likely to persist.


Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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