Today, I spoke to the Seattle Metropolitan Democratic Club with Dick Blakney about U.S. policy toward Iran. My talk dealt with the latest developments in the Israel Lobby’s attempt to sabotage the administration’s diplomatic initiative to resolve the nuclear impasse. I also took the advantage to speak in broader historical terms about the development of the Lobby. Since these were Democratic Party activists I also tried to suggest how they could counteract the impact of the Israel Lobby’s massive influx of pro-Israel cash into the political process. The most current part of the talk is my critique of Aipac’s Lee Rosenberg’s NY Times op-ed, which comes toward the end of this talk:
The Israel Lobby and the Distortion Effect in U.S. Middle East Policy
The Democratic Party faces a major obs tacle in relation to U.S. policy toward Israel. I refer of course to the Israel Lobby. You may know that in Democratic presidential primaries pro-Israel donors give as much as 40% of the cash that candidates get. Pro-Israel Party members in these primaries provide as much as 20% of those who vote, while Jews overall are about 2% of the U.S. population. This causes a weird distortion effect in mounting a rational, effective policy toward Israel. It means that candidates have to do a delicate dance when it comes to this subject. There are certain subjects that may not be touched. Other subjects can be discussed, but only in certain ways.
For example, our Democratic senators, Cantwell and Murray, receive a huge amount of campaign funding from Washington donors affiliated with Aipac and the Israel Lobby in general. Because of this, they take positions they would never take were it not Israel. That is why both supported the draconian Iran sanctions legislation written by Aipac and championed by the GOP and some Democrats.
Similarly, why else would Cantwell and Murray oppose a UN Security Council resolution opposing settlements, which is formal U.S. policy? Money, as Jesse Unruh used to say, is the mother’s milk of politics. Pro-Israel money is showered on Democrats to ensure their votes on issues deemed important to the Lobby.
The situation among our members of Congress is a little different. We currently have some like Jim McDermott who feel politically comfortable enough that they can go their own way and get away with it. In the past, we had Brian Baird who bravely visited Gaza with Rep. Keith Ellison after Operation Cast Lead. Brian alas left Congress. Unfortunately, they seem to be the most independent members of our Congressional delegation on this issue.
If you are a progressive activist as many of us here are, how do you address this challenge? If you feel U.S. policy toward Israel is skewed, how do you push back? Clearly, most of us are not George Soros. We don’t have the money the Lobby has. What we do have is the power of our voice and presence. Unfortunately, that’s not as powerful as money. But it can’t be entirely discounted either. We must maximize whatever leverage we do have to argue for a more rational, balanced and pragmatic Middle East policy.
If you accept my argument that the Israel Lobby has a stranglehold over U.S. policy toward Israel, has it always been so and will it remain so? That’s an interesting question. Aipac was founded by a visionary Israeli-American named Si Kenen in the 1950s, shortly after Israel was founded. It didn’t always have the power it has now. In the beginning, it was a small struggling group. But quickly, wealthy pro-Israel Jews rallied to its cause and by the early 1960s, its power began to resemble what it is now.
I’m an Aipac-watcher and have been for several decades. I chart its power like an astronomer charts the waxing and waning of the Moon. Though I’d like to be able to report that Aipac’s power is on a steady decline, I can’t. But since last September, two momentous events have occurred which have put a huge dent in Aipac’s aura of invincibility.
In late August, there were reports that Syrian forces had used sarin gas against civilians and killed several hundred people. Follow up reports pinned the blame on the Assad regime for the crime. Pressure began to build for the U.S. and UN to take more aggressive action against Assad for this and his other crimes of violence.
Pres. Obama began to formulate a plan to attack Assad’s military capabilities, including his WMD and chemical weapons facilities. The U.S. campaigned for European allies to join in this effort. We signed up France and expected the UK to join. But a funny thing happened on the way to war: the British parliament balked. They handed Prime Minister Cameron a massive defeat that almost toppled his government.
From there, opposition snowballed. A Congressional vote, which had seemed a sure thing only days before, began to look dicey. By early September, Pres. Obama had begun to back away from the war plan. Due to what appeared at first glance to be a Kerry miscue, we fell into Russia’s arms and developed an alternate plan that called for Syria to renounce its chemical weapons.
Those of you who remember this period a few months ago will remember that Obama look utterly foolish turning his back on a war plan he’d been heartily endorsing only days before. The Israel Lobby, which had been the chief lobbying effort in Congress on behalf of the pro-war vote, was left holding the bag.
Aipac is excessively sensitive to how it and its power is perceived. It only wants to show its full power in when something important is at stake, like attacking Bashar al-Assad. Otherwise, it prefers to operate quietly, behind the scenes. In this case, Aipac put all its chips on the table. It exerted maximum pressure on legislators to support an attack. And Pres. Obama abandoned them almost in mid-sentence.
This was an abrupt and humbling take-down for the lobby group. It’s not used to losing. It doesn’t like losing. If it loses, not only does it lose on the proximate issue it’s promoting; it loses in the perception of its power among members. Aipac, above all else, must be seen to be powerful. If it isn’t, then members may defy it with impunity. That’s something to be avoided at all costs.
After Pres. Rouhani’s speech to the UN last fall, and his conciliatory gestures made while he visited this country, the U.S. and Iran announced a new round of nuclear talks. Those talks then led to an interim agreement to suspend certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in return for partial relaxation of the sanctions regime against it.
The Israel Lobby hates Iran. It is their bête noire. The idea that the U.S. might resolve the nuclear impasse through negotiation rather than through a military strike makes both Bibi Netanyahu and his strongest supporter here apoplectic. So they devised an alternate strategy: they did their best to torpedo the nuclear talks and prepared for their failure by proposing a new set of draconian sanctions that would cause even more suffering for Iranians and ratchet up pressure on the regime to abandon its nuclear program.
As I watched the trains barreling toward each down these tracks, I didn’t know what would happen. Would the diplomatic talks smash into the sanctions legislation? And if it did, would either one come out intact? Then Pres. Obama did something uncharacteristic. He took a stand. He began to lobby Congress heavily against the sanctions bill.
Then there were victories in the negotiations and a six-month preliminary deal was reached. This enabled Obama to argue before Congress that more sanctions would poison the well and destroy the chance for the talks to progress.
Frankly, I didn’t know how this would end. Aipac, as I’ve said, is used to getting its way. It rarely loses, even when it’s fighting a president. Obama, as I also said, isn’t known to be a political street fighter. But in this case, he decided successful nuclear talks were something worth fighting for. He persuaded key Democratic (and Jewish) sponsors of the bill like Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin to drop out. Pretty soon, the campaign was shorn of Democratic support. The one Democrat left holding the bag was Chuck Schumer, one of Aipac’s staunchest allies in Congress.
Aipac, which calls itself bi-partisan, but which really isn’t, felt it had little choice but to abandon the sanctions bill (for now). The announcement it was doing so was met by shock among everyone, especially progressives who are simply so unused to the Lobby losing.
So there you have two major defeats for Aipac in less than six months. A very big deal. But does it mean Aipac is dead? Not by any means. It is very much alive. But it is wounded. Its future could go either way. It could lick its wounds and maybe even learn from its mistakes (though that’s doubtful). Or it could double down on a progressively more shrill, bellicose approach toward issues like Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace. If it continues making the mistakes it’s made over the past six months, its star will fall quite far and fast.
We have a hint about Aipac’s strategy in a recent NY Times op-ed (likely) ghostwritten for the president and chair of Aipac. The article, Don’t Let Up on Iran, is full of distortions, errors and outright lies. But it is useful in giving us access to the group’s current thinking. They implicitly acknowledge the President’s victory in the recent skirmish. But now, instead of seeking to use the sanctions tactic to destroy the nuclear talks, they portray a two-track strategy. Nuclear talks are all well and good, they argue, but let’s keep an ace in the hole with sanctions. We can use them as a bludgeon with which to pummel the Iranians. Then, if they don’t come around to our point of view and submit in the negotiations, we can put the screws to them.
What’s disingenuous about this is a passage like this:
The approach we outline offers the best chance to avoid military conflict with Iran. In fact, diplomacy that is not backed by the threat of clear consequences poses the greatest threat to negotiations — and increases prospects for war — because it tells the Iranians they have nothing to lose by embracing an uncompromising position.
Get that? If we don’t threaten them with dire consequences THAT will lead to war. It’s one of the most ass-backward conceptions I can think of.
Further, the article demands the Iran “dismantle its nuclear program.” This is something no party, including the U.S. and western powers. have advocated. Though it is a position advocated aggressively by Bibi Netanyahu.
They again try to revive Aipac’s Congressional sanctions strategy by suggesting that Congress has a “historic role” in foreign policy. Our Constitution suggests otherwise clearly designating the president as the authority to devise and implement foreign policy with Congress serving solely in an advise and consent role. The article authors actually have the temerity to claim that Pres. Obama should “welcome” such efforts because they strengthen his hand, rather than weaken it. I’m sure he felt that way over the past few weeks as he desperately lobbied the Congress not to sabotage his nuclear talks strategy!
The final nail in the coffin as to Aipac’s clear intent to continue undermining a diplomatic approach is here:
Thus we urge Congress to outline for Iran the acceptable terms of a final accord. This must include, at a minimum, the dismantling of its nuclear program…
First, it is not up to Congress to outline anything. That’s the president’s job as is the job of determining the shape and terms of a nuclear accord. If the accord needs to be approved by Congress (and I’m not clear that it does since it’s not a formal treaty), that would come after. Third, we again see the demand for dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, an outcome no one except the Israel Lobby sees or wants.
Our job as activists is to put before our legislators an alternative narrative to what they’re told by Aipac. That narrative has to say that America needs to talk rather than fight. That we need diplomacy rather than threats. Anything put forward by Aipac regarding Iran is counter-productive and hostile to a peaceful resolution of this conflict.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.