By now, you’ve read that Aipac essentially pulled the rug out from under its Iran sanctions legislation. This was a new round of punitive measures designed to punish Iran for…well, I’m not exactly sure what. Iran had done almost everything the west had demanded of it in the past few months. It had signed an interim nuclear agreement calling for it to cease uranium enrichment at the 20% level and to suspend production of certain classes of centrifuges. In exchange, the west agreed to free $5 billion worth of assets that had been frozen in previous rounds of sanctions.
Though there’s been much chest-beating from neocons and Israel’s leaders seeking to depict the agreement as a win for Iran and loss for the west, most serious observers have been quite upbeat, while realizing that this is just the first stage of a long process. Among those who’ve been upbeat, naturally, has been the Obama administration. They rightly believed that the goal now should be to maintain confidence building measures leading into a second, far more serious round of negotiations that would lead to a permanent agreement.
Israel’s government hasn’t liked any of this and sought to dismiss the interim agreement as a sham and a victory by Iran over the west. As a result, it induced Aipac and the Israel lobby to devise a strategy that undercut Obama’s efforts. It essentially offered a truculent alternative that actually sabotaged the government efforts and sought to replace them with a confrontation strategy. The sanctions legislation, if it had passed, might likely have driven Iran from the international talks, which would’ve been precisely what Netanyahu wanted.
I don’t quite know how Obama pulled this off and what he had to promise to the Lobby’s Congressional allies to do it, but he succeeded in getting key Democrats like Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein to get in line with the administration. They announced publicly that while they supported sanctions (everyone apparently has to say this publicly though most know sanctions aren’t particularly successful) they didn’t see their usefulness at the present time. Therefore, they were going to withhold their support for the new round of sanctions.
A few days following this, Aipac made the extraordinary admission that it had failed. It couched its failure in terms that sounded diplomatic: since they based their efforts on a bi-partisan campaign and had lost Democratic support, they were going to pull their effort. This left the legislation’s sponsors, including Democrats like Chuck Schumer, holding the bag and wondering if they weren’t evidence of bi-partisan support, then what was? Frankly, I can’t ever remember Chuck Schumer saying “Et tu, Aipac.” It’s simply an incredible show to watch. Aipac is desserting its Congressional water-carriers. If it wants to backtrack on something it usually gives its supporters the grace to tell them in advance and allow them to announce that legislation was being pulled. Instead, Aipac announced it was dropping the ball and left its supporters to figure out how they would pick up the pieces. If you’re a staunch Israel Lobby ally, it has to leave you scratching your head wondering what’s going on.
All of this is a major victory for the Obama administration. It leaves its Iran policy initiative in a strong position (for now). Of course, the proof will be in the pudding and there must be future progress in order to justify the current level of confidence in the nuclear talks as a viable policy approach.
If this was the only Aipac defeat, then you could argue it was an anomaly. But the loss of the sanctions bill follows an equally painful defeat last September when the Obama administration appeared to be preparing to attack Syrian loyalist forces after an alleged chemical weapons attack. At that time, Obama activated the Lobby to call for Congressional support for war against Bashar al-Assad. But a funny thing happened on the way to war: Congress and the American people said: No. Nothing the Lobby could do could budge the skeptics from their doubt that a military assault was a wise tactic. As a result, Obama beat a hasty retreat and a face-saving compromise resulted in Russia and America forcing Syria to divest itself of its CW.
These two defeats for the Lobby are extraordinary. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the Lobby is dead. Not even close. The Lobby will return and flex its muscle once again on behalf of a hawkish Middle East approach. But political power moves in waves, like the tide. And it appears that the tide is gradually going out on the Lobby. It hasn’t played its cards well. Not to mention that the cards have been dealt by one of the most unpopular and extremist Israeli governments in decades, if not ever. That hasn’t helped the poker players in the Lobby.
On a parallel track, the Iranian government after the disastrous rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been playing its cards extraordinarily well. The capstone was an interview Foreign Minister Zarif gave at Davos in which he said that if Israel signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians, then eventually Iran would recognize Israel. After the Iranian leader made those radical remarks, you could tell that the Israeli hawks were waiting for the other shoe to drop. They expected that the Majlis would haul Zarif in for questioning and rake him over the coals. They hoped perhaps that Ayatollah Khamenei would make one of his thundering denunciations. But a funny thing happened: nothing. The earth didn’t open and swallow Zarif. The heavens didn’t rain down thunder and lightning. The foreign minister’s remarks weren’t repudiated. They still stand. Paul Pillar has written an excellent piece on this subject.
I can’t help but wonder if yesterday’s announcement by the Iranian navy that it was sending a small convoy around the Horn of Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean with a destination of nearing U.S. territorial waters, might not be a somewhat weak attempt by the hawks to warn the U.S. that’s what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. On my Twitter feed, I joked that Iran was sending a naval flotilla to U.S. waters as a goodwill gesture to reciprocate all that hearty cheer the U.S. 5th fleet has brought to the Persian Gulf. While the Iranian navy isn’t about to pose a major threat to U.S. shipping lanes, it does tell us that what we seek to do to others can be done to us as well.
Netanyahu hasn’t raised his typical cavil claiming Zarif is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He hasn’t said anything. I get the sense that his jaw dropped and he simply doesn’t know how to respond. Israel’s policy toward Iran is premised on truculence and hostility. The moderate, accommodating approach leaves Israeli hawks agape. While the rest of the world has accepted the radical shift in Iran’s approach, it has taken Israel months to adapt. And it still hasn’t, nor can it as long as a radical right-wing government remains in power (which is highly likely for the foreseeable future). This could be another reason why the Lobby has been caught flat-footed so often in the past months.
Another astonishing development relates to the Lobby’s response to the series of amazing developments concerning BDS. Supporters of this anti-Occupation movement have been handed a gift on a golden platter by Sodastream and its ‘Global Brand ambassador,’ Scarlett Johansson (as hard as it may be to believe, she’s half-Jewish). Not to mention, having the SuperBowl timing thrown in, meant that scores of millions of Americans likely heard about BDS for the first time. Virtually every effort the company and the actress made to explain or defend themselves not only fell flat, but actually came across as tone-deaf, if not offensive. Simply, nothing worked.
Nothing worked because Israel is increasingly finding itself defending the indefensible on the world stage. Now, the EU is slowly turning the screws on Israeli settlement products, cutting into corporate profits from agricultural products exported from beyond the Green Line. Academic and other official cooperative ventures are being threatened as well. Europe was undoubtedly watching the Sodastream-Johansson imbroglio with interest, because it understands that until now BDS was a novelty in the U.S., while it had a more serious following across the Atlantic. You will see increasing boldness on the part of Europeans in invoking BDS in ways that will include doing real harm to Israel’s economy. Both John Kerry and Yair Lapid have warned of this eventuality. Kerry, for his trouble was labelled an anti-Semite. The radical Israeli right is still trying to figure out what to call Lapid!
Increasing calls for BDS from Europeans, in turn will raise the temperature on this side of the Atlantic. Even Tom Friedman wrote an op-ed, which calls BDS the “Third Intifada.” Of course, in his own inimitable way, Friedman somehow transforms BDS into a movement that will bring about his own preferred solution to the conflict, two states, when it has no such goal. Nevertheless, when Tom Friedman takes an activist strategy like BDS seriously, you have to say: “There’s something happenin’ here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Friedman?” Liberal Zionist, Gershom Gorenberg (who hates being called that, which is why I do) too has recognized a sea change. When the Lib Zios pretend they never hated BDS and railed against it, you know there’s trouble in pro-Israeland.
The only response the Lobby could muster to all this was a lame social media campaign by Josh Block’s pro-Israel stormtroopers at The Israel Project. They tried creating posters thanking Johansson for standing with Israel. I critiqued one particularly awful specimen here in a blog post. Aside from this, there’s been radio silence from all the usual Lobby suspects: the ADL, Aipac, AJC. Cat got their tongue? It makes you wonder what’s going on. Have they been thrown back on their tushes so hard they simply don’t know how to respond?
When Israel’s Likudists are down, they react fiercely. They won’t sit back and do nothing in the face of the BDS victories. They’ll come at the group and its adherents with redoubled fury. You can be sure the Mossad is preparing a honey pot in an attempt to ensnare Omar Barghouti (shades of Mordechai Vanunu and Julian Assange!). You can expect lots of mud and smears in the coming days, weeks, and months. But even this will fall flat. Israel, or at least this authoritarian, anti-democratic version of Israel has passed the shark.