Is AIPAC Still the Chosen One?
Robert Dreyfuss,Mother Jones, September/October 2009 Issue
[See also the related JfJfP posting JStreet gets star billing in the New York Times.]
AS TWO MEN AT THE PODIUM called out names in rapid succession, senators and members of Congress rose from their candlelit tables to acknowledge the cheers of 7,000 pro-Israel activists gathered to fete them. The scene was the vast Washington Convention Center; the occasion, the gala banquet capping the annual three-day conference of Washington’s most powerful lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. With more than half of Congress attending, and America’s top politicians fumbling to score crowd points with awkwardly delivered Hebrew phrases and fulminations concerning Iran, the reading of the names has become a yearly demonstration of AIPAC’s clout. Banquet speakers included Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, and John Kerry, looming on gigantic screens that lined the hall. Representing Israel were President Shimon Peres (whose address was interrupted by a half-dozen Code Pink activists) and, via satellite link, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a dog and pony show no other group—not the American Medical Association, not the National Rifle Association, not AARP—could hope to match.
For decades, AIPAC—together with Washington’s broader Israel lobby, which distributed more than $22 million in campaign contributions during the last election cycle—has had a well-earned reputation for getting what it wants. And many expected the same when, during the May conference, thousands of AIPAC foot soldiers fanned across Capitol Hill to talk up the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, a bill designed to throttle Iran’s economy by restricting its ability to import gasoline (which it doesn’t have much capacity to produce domestically). The legislation is a top priority for AIPAC, which views Iran’s nuclear enrichment push as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
But this time, AIPAC was in for a surprise. Rep. Howard Berman, a dependable Israel backer who authored the legislation this past spring, put it on ice just weeks after it was introduced. “I have no intention of moving this bill through the legislative process in the near future,” declared the California Democrat, who chairs the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“Berman shocked everybody by not moving this bill forward,” an official from the Israel lobby told me. “He’s essentially put the kibosh on the bill. On his own bill! This is a major, major, major problem.”
So what happened? The first explanation is obvious: Like many Democrats, Berman is reluctant to stand in the way of President Obama’s foreign policy objectives, including his overture to Iran and his push for US leadership toward an Israeli-Palestinian accord. But Berman’s action also signaled a deterioration of AIPAC’s power. It’s begun to appear that “AIPAC is not the 800-pound gorilla everyone says they are,” says Dan Fleshler, author of Transforming America’s Israel Lobby. “They may be just a 400-pound gorilla.”