A series of legislative defeats have dented the legendary reputation of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee as the lobby that gets what it wants from the U.S. Congress and wields enormous influence over the making of American policy on the Middle East. Is the power of AIPAC waning?
Yes, say critics who think the right-leaning group is losing touch with public opinion. No, say AIPAC officials who expect their annual policy meeting, scheduled for next month, to be the biggest ever, with 14,000 supporters attending. Maybe, say analysts who point to the rise of J Street, a group founded in 2008. AIPAC tends to align its policy positions with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. J Street does not.
The most serious recent blows to AIPAC’s perceived standing as a lobbying superpower involved Syria and Iran. Last September, the organization launched a determined campaign to win congressional approval for President Barack Obama’s plan for airstrikes to punish the Syrian government for having used poison gas. It quickly became clear there was no appetite for military action in Congress and a vote might go against Obama. He called off military action.
On Iran, AIPAC lobbied against the administration, in favor of a Senate bill on additional sanctions – despite warnings from Obama that this could scuttle talks on the Iranian nuclear program. Fifty-nine senators signed on as sponsors, eight short of the veto-proof majority that had been AIPAC’s aim.
In his State of the Union address in January, Obama threatened to veto new legislation that could derail nuclear talks under an agreement that had drawn sharp criticism from Israel. The White House-Congress confrontation evoked memories of a similar showdown in 1981. Then, Israel was bitterly opposed to the sale of AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia. AIPAC lobbied against the deal and helped write a resolution to sink it. In a narrow vote, the Senate rejected the resolution. AIPAC had misread the mood on Capitol Hill. It did so again this year. “AIPAC caves on Iran Sanctions Push,” said a headline in the Jewish Daily Forward, a liberal New York newspaper, after the Democratic co-author of the sanctions bill, Senator Bob Menendez, decided not to bring it to a vote.
AIPAC also miscalculated on a matter less weighty than Iran, a bill that would have added Israel to the list of countries – 37 so far – whose citizens do not require visas to enter the United States. The arrangement is reciprocal: Americans can travel without visas to the countries in the program. Backed by AIPAC, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act is couched in language that allows Israeli border officials to decide which U.S. citizen can enter the country. It would perpetuate a practice that prompted a string of complaints from Arab-Americans denied entry to Israel or singled out for interrogation. Angry reaction to the bill has consigned it to legislative limbo.
“The visa issue was an obvious loser,” according to Mitchell Plitnick, a former head of the U.S. office of the human rights group B’Tselem. “The immediate reaction to it made it pretty clear that AIPAC was not going to win. That should have ended it and ... up until a few years ago, AIPAC’s leadership would have been smart enough to back off right away. But in 2013, they made a different decision, and this reflects the AIPAC’s diminished ability to assess the temperature of the Hill.”
Does this mean the beginning of the end of AIPAC as the “leviathan among lobbies,” as the writer Jeffrey Goldberg calls it? Probably not. But there is now a counterweight in J Street, a group that does not equate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism and does not take its talking points from the Netanyahu government. Though much smaller than AIPAC, it has been growing at a brisk rate and says it now has around 180,000 supporters. In the 2012 elections, seven Democratic senators backed by J Street won their races, as did 63 out of 64 J Street-endorsed candidates for seats in the House of Representatives.
AIPAC, which dates back to 1951, prides itself on being labeled “the most important organization affecting America’s relations with Israel” and for most of its existence managed to convince Washington’s legislators that it speaks for all of the country’s estimated 5.5 million Jews. But acting on that assumption is no longer a safe bet for politicians, as New York’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, discovered after taking office on Jan. 1.
In a speech to an AIPAC gala, de Blasio declared “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I will answer it happily, because that’s my job.”
In a city with the world’s largest Jewish population outside Israel, that remark prompted an irritated response from 58 liberal Jews, including prominent authors, academics and playwrights. In an open letter, they said that “no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.