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Iran Sanctions, BDS and the Decline of the Lobby

senate supporters of iran sanctions bill

Major Senate supporters of Iran sanction bill left high and dry by Aipac’s withdrawal. (Getty Images)

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.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Deïr Yassin February 10, 2014, 2:30 AM

    @ Richard
    Concerning the absence of an Iranian reaction to Foreign Minister Zarif’s statement in Munich, Haaretz had another article the next day: “Iranian foreign minister in hot water over Israel remarks. FM Mohammad Javad Zarif not authorized to voice an opinion on the ‘Zionist regime’ parlementarioan reportedly says. Iran’s lawmakers intend to question the country’s foreign minister (…..)”

    Concerning the European attitude to BDS: the European countries do not act likewise. Scandinavia, Ireland and France are different worlds: in France, people are still being taken to court for promoting BDS, the importer of SodaStream just won a case against Association France-Palestine Solidarité (a French organization promoting the respect of the UN resolutions). Though boycott is not illegal per se, it seems that “the present context” and “historical events” (translation: France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany …..) make the boycott of Israeli products a discriminatory act (cf. the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira answering a question at a Parisian university recently).

    • Oui February 10, 2014, 5:21 AM

      Boycott is a legitimate tool, the denigrating method used was against French law. France is unique in undermining free speech. The European Union is required to label products correctly coming from OPT and act when Israeli companies cheat on labeling products “Made in Israel.” EU Court ruling – here.

      French court rules boycott group cease denigrating campaign against SodaStream

      The reasoning behind the court’s decision is that, though a boycott is a legitimate tool, the way it is implemented must be done in a fair and appropriate manner that doesn’t manipulate the company’s own ads. For example, AFPS put out adds that read: “blood bubbles” or “Free the bubbles, Palestinians can wait.”
      The group was ordered to pay 6,500 euro [$8,500].

      This French ruling is more troublesome – French Court Fines Members of BDS Group Calling for Supermarket Boycott. The ruling is based on the strict anti-discrimination laws, including one passed by the French parliament in 2003 known as the Lellouche Law. Bio Pierre Lellouche

      Palestinian Boycott Committee condemns repression of French BDS activists

      • Deïr Yassin February 10, 2014, 2:59 PM

        “Boycott is a legitimate tool, the denigrating method used was against French law””
        Yeah, that’s what they came up with in this particular ruling concerning SodaStream.
        The law considers boycott to be a legitimate tool but the former Minister of Interior Michèle Alliot-Marie alias MAM (the one who wanted to send troops to help Tunisian dictator Ben Ali only a few days before he was overthrown) published a memorandum specifically for the Israeli case, called “la circulaire MAM”, it’s still around though many legal authorities have protested, and the present Minister of Justice has promised to abogate it.
        If you understand French, here’s the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira explaining why calling for boycott of Israeli products are ‘illegal’ though legal by law. She explicitely speaks about the law sanctioning anti-semitism. If you don’t understand it, don’t worry, nobody understands it, only that the Zionist lobby has more and more influence in this country (the actual Minister of Interior is as he said on a Jewish radio ‘eternally linked to the Jewish community and to Israel’ because his new wife is Jewish…..)
        http://www.europalestine.com/spip.php?article8994 (video embedded)

  • Oui February 10, 2014, 5:56 AM

    Lovely! Guess which Israeli company fought on appeal the German court ruling on imports from OPT. The Court of Justice of the European Union made a ruling which had to be enforced by all EU countries and is the basis for the present European “Boycott” of fraudulent labeling of goods “Made in Israel.” Thank you SodaStream!

    Court of Justice of the European Union
    PRESS RELEASE CJE-10-14 [en]
    Luxembourg, 25 February 2010
    Judgment in Case C-386/08
    Brita GmbH v Hauptzollamt Hamburg-Hafen Soda-Club Ltd.

    Products originating in the West Bank do not qualify for preferential customs treatment under the EC-Israel Agreement

    Brita is a German company which imports drink-makers for sparkling water, as well as accessories and syrups, all of which are produced by an Israeli supplier, Soda-Club Ltd., at a manufacturing site at Mishor Adumin in the West Bank, to the east of Jerusalem.

    Brita sought to import goods supplied by Soda-Club into Germany. It informed the German customs authorities that the goods originated in Israel and, on that basis, it hoped to be granted the preferential treatment provided for under the EC-Israel Agreement. Suspecting that the products originated in the occupied territories, the German authorities asked the Israeli customs authorities to confirm that the products had not been manufactured in those territories.

    Although the Israeli authorities confirmed that the goods in question originated in an area that is under their responsibility, they did not reply to the question whether the goods had been manufactured in the occupied territories. For that reason, the German authorities refused in the end to grant Brita the preferential treatment, on the ground that it could not be established conclusively that the imported goods fell within the scope of the EC-Israel Agreement.

    Brita contested that decision before the courts and the Finanzgericht Hamburg (Finance Court, Hamburg) asked the Court of Justice whether the preferential treatment provided for under the EC-Israel Agreement may be granted in respect of goods which have been manufactured in the occupied Palestinian territories and which the Israeli authorities have confirmed as being of Israeli origin.

    In today’s judgment, the Court holds that each of the two association agreements has its own territorial scope: the EC-Israel Agreement applies to the territory of the State of Israel, whereas the EC-PLO Agreement applies to the territory of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    The Court points out that, under general international law, an obligation cannot be imposed upon a third party – such as the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – without its consent. As a consequence, the EC-Israel Agreement may not be interpreted in such a way as to compel the Palestinian Authorities to waive their right to exercise the competence conferred upon them by virtue of the EC-PLO Agreement and, in particular, to refrain from exercising the right to issue customs documents providing proof of origin for goods manufactured in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    In those circumstances, the Court holds that products originating in the West Bank do not fall within the territorial scope of the EC-Israel Agreement and do not therefore qualify for preferential treatment under that agreement. It follows that the German customs authorities could refuse to grant, in respect of the goods at issue, preferential treatment as provided for in that agreement, on the ground that those goods originated in the West Bank.

  • brenda February 11, 2014, 6:54 AM

    “It’s simply an incredible show to watch.”

    yes it is! This story has me sitting on the edge of my seat. Another AIPAC loss in this line-up would be the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Obama’s Sec. of Defence — maybe that’s in the category of “over-reach” rather than loss, but no matter, it is all good. At the end of the day maybe we’ll have peace in the Middle East and AIPAC registered as a foreign lobby.

    thanks for this piece, Richard. It was a pleasure to read. You might be interested in Ben Caspit’s reporting on al-Monitor:

    “Kerry Lets Europe Play the Boycott Card”
    summary: The United States and Europe are playing good cop-bad cop in the negotiations with Israel.

    Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/02/john-kerry-avigdor-liberman-european-boycott.html#ixzz2t1dbqNCB

  • This is a serious question February 11, 2014, 3:59 PM

    I’m not making any attempt to troll, but can anyone explain to me the concept of “half-Jewish”?

    I thought the criteria was pretty straightforward: either your mother is Jewish, in which case you are also Jewish, or she isn’t, in which case you aren’t Jewish.

    Or, put another way: I thought that “half-Jewish” was akin to “half-pregnant”

    Apparently not….

    • Richard Silverstein February 11, 2014, 6:54 PM

      I meant genetically half-Jewish (she has a Danish, non-Jewish father), not halachically. Halachically, she is Jewish. Though her mother doesn’t sound like a person who has any Jewish commitments or involvement. So it’s possible Johansson doesn’t practice or consider herself Jewish.

      • This is a serious question February 12, 2014, 2:01 AM

        OK, thanks, I understand now.

      • Deïr Yassin February 12, 2014, 11:13 AM

        I read somewhere in an interview that Scarlett Johansson ‘felt Jewish’. It was related to Woody Allen I remember, something about her feeling a connection to him by being Jewish (and New Yorker too if my memory is correct).
        I’m really disappointed by her; I used to like her though I’m not into film stars but she seemed ‘different’. Her grand-dad was a well-known intellectual in Denmark that used to be on tv, a historian of arts who later became involved in TV-producing.

        • This is a serious question February 12, 2014, 6:36 PM

          Hmm, doesn’t that raise some interesting issues i.e. if someone who has a Jewish mother says only that she “felt Jewish” then it must be equally possible for her to say that, well, heck, today I don’t “feel Jewish” at all.

          Or, put another way: while she can’t change her genetics she certainly is acting as if she thinks her “Jewishness” is something she can turn on (and off, presumably) like a light-switch.

          Richard, what would the Rabbinical courts make of that notion?

          Is someone who is Born Of Jewish Mother forever labelled by such courts as “a Jew”, and if they claim that “No! No, I’m not!” would the Rabbinical court simply continue to insist that “sorry, you are”.

          • Richard Silverstein February 12, 2014, 11:54 PM

            @ THis is a serious question: It’s also a complicated question. In Jewish law, you can’t renounce your Jewishness. Even if you convert to another religion, you’re still Jewish, at least as far as Jewish law is concerned.

            But in this day & age Jewish law doesn’t hold much sway except inside communities where it is operative, so you can pretty much go your own way. If you don’t want to be Jewish no one is going to force you to be.

  • A quick head's up February 11, 2014, 4:08 PM

    Richard, you might want to take a look at the latest article at the NYTimes by Jodi Rudoren.

    She’s normally a stenographer for the Israeli PM’s Press Office, but the article
    “In West Bank Settlements, Israeli Jobs Are Double-Edged Sword”
    seems quite well balanced.

    • Richard Silverstein February 11, 2014, 8:14 PM

      A quick head’s up: I agree. It was one of the rare stories she’s written in which there was nothing objectionable and it was actually informative. You know what they say about broken clocks…

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