AIPAC loses its grip on the White House

February 6, 2014
Sarah Benton

In the complex juggling act of trying to get a ‘framework agreement’ in place (administration) and win the ear of Congress there are five articles on the main ‘pro-Israel’ groups:

1) The Nation: Kerry’s Israel-Palestine Plan Will Challenge AIPAC, Bob Dreyfuss thinks there’s not a lot AIPAC can do to sabotage the framework agreement;
2) The Nation: Bill de Blasio Is Wrong to Pander to AIPAC, the editors deplore de Blasio’s kow-towing to an unrepresentative AIPAC and notes JStreet’s growing influence;
3) JTA: As Kerry works on peace framework, Jewish groups keeping low profile;
4) National Journal: How a Weaker AIPAC Makes It Easier to Vote Against Iran Sanctions, Sara Sorcher and Elahe Izadi connect the rise in influence of JStreet to the fall in AIPAC’s power;
5) NY Times: Potent Pro-Israel Group Finds Its Momentum Blunted;
6) Lobelog: AIPAC, NORPAC, excerpt from Marsha B. Cohen’s account of lobbying groups;

Secretary of state Kerry has left it to his envoy Martin Indyk to try to sell the framework agreement to the American Jewish establishment.

Kerry’s Israel-Palestine Plan Will Challenge AIPAC

By Bob Dreyfuss, The Nation
February 03, 2014

AIPAC is in deep, deep trouble. First, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tried, and utterly failed, to destroy President Obama’s critical diplomatic dialogue with Iran by pushing for a new economic sanctions bill that would have ended the US-Iran talks. Now, AIPAC will have to face a real, existential challenge, namely, the about-to-be-released “framework agreement” for the Israel-Palestine conflict, a framework developed by Secretary of State John Kerry over months of shuttle diplomacy in the region. If AIPAC hadn’t confronted the White House over Iran—and lost—it might have more muscle now to fight the Obama-Kerry plan for Israel-Palestine. Instead, AIPAC has alienated the White House and, no doubt, lost credibility with some members of Congress, especially in the Democratic Party, who’ve traditionally followed AIPAC’s lead on the Middle East.

The Obama-Kerry Framework Agreement, which is supposed to be released very soon, could be a very, very big deal. For years, American presidents have promised, or threatened, to release an “American peace plan” for the Middle East, but none of them have had the courage to do so, because doing so would mean taking on AIPAC. Now, it appears, Obama and Kerry are doing it. And they’re doing it with AIPAC in a gravely weakened state.

Lately, Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s point person on the Middle East, has been making phone calls to American Jewish leaders—no doubt including AIPAC officials—to explain what’s coming. By all accounts, the precise terms of the plan are still in flux, and none of it has been accepted yet by either the Israelis or the Palestinians. But its terms include tens of billions of dollars in financial compensation for Palestinian refugees who have to resettle in the West Bank and Gaza, for settler Jews who’d have to be relocated out of the West Bank and back into Israel, and apparently also for Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries for Israel over decades. Kerry will propose a state roughly based on the 1967 borders, with some changes, and with US and NATO forces taking over security along the Jordan River valley and the creation of a security zone there. And, though it isn’t clear yet, the proposal will have to deal with Jerusalem, which both Israel and Palestine demand as the capital of their respective states, which means dividing that city and providing Palestinian access to it despite the proliferation of illegal Jewish settlements that surround it and that were built precisely to prevent the division of Jerusalem, which Israel claims in whole.

Based on initial reactions so far, the Palestinians seem mostly willing to play along, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has even specified how long he’d accept the presence of Israeli forces in the West Bank and those forces transition out—either three or five years—and he’s expressed willingness for a US-NATO role in the Jordan River area. But the Israelis, led by a fervently right-wing, ultranationalist government, are not so willing to play along—and that’s where AIPAC may have to weigh in. Unfortunately for the Israel Lobby, however, its credibility is nearly shot.

As M.J. Rosenberg, an astute observer of the lobby and a former AIPAC staffer himself, has said, when it comes to Iran Obama faced down AIPAC and won, handily. As I reported here on January 13, the White House got tough with the Israel lobby and its neoconservative friends last month, when pressure was building for a new anti–Iran sanctions bill. At that time, as I reported, a statement from the White House said: “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action [against Iran], they should be up front with the American public and say so.” Then, in his State of the Union address, Obama said flatly that he won’t stand for any congressional meddling on Iran:

Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.

As Rosenberg reports, several leading Democrats in the Senate who’d earlier supported the self-destructive Iran sanctions bill scurried away from it. Says Rosenberg, “AIPAC’s entire campaign to destroy America’s chance to reach an agreement with Iran crumbled.”

Now what can AIPAC do if Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, rejects the Obama-Kerry plan? Not a lot.

To understand the Palestinian reaction so far, read the report in The New York Times about Abbas’ interview with that paper on the still-gestating Kerry proposal. Abbas makes what appear to be all-or-nothing comments, perhaps realizing the significance of Kerry’s plan. By the same token, top Israel officials—especially far-right types—have expressed grave alarm about what’s about to be announced, even using exceedingly undiplomatic language. As Avi Shlaim wrote, in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend, “Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners.”

Meanwhile, in an indication that Kerry is ready to play hardball with Israel, in comments made at a security conference in Europe, Kerry actually pointed out that Israel can’t afford to be stubborn because the movement to boycott Israel and to “delegitimize” the state of Israel is gaining momentum:

Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary.… You see for Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.

That, naturally, caused tumult in the Israeli body politic.

Stay tuned.

Bill de Blasio Is Wrong to Pander to AIPAC

The powerful right-wing lobby doesn’t represent most American Jews, and it’s no longer the only game in town.

The Editors, The Nation
January 29, 2014

Last summer, this magazine enthusiastically endorsed Bill de Blasio in his campaign for mayor of New York City, praising “his commitment to reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms.” Later we celebrated his landslide victory, and we still stand firmly behind him on the issues most critical to the future of New York.

So it was especially dismaying to learn that, less than a month after he assumed office, the mayor who had promised a more inclusive and transparent administration than that of his predecessor delivered a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a gala not listed on his public schedule and not open to reporters. De Blasio pandered to the powerful right-wing lobby, assuring attendees that “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.”

Deplorable? Yes. Surprising? Hardly. Perhaps the most depressing feature of this ritual of abjection is its predictability—the fact that for decades, this has been standard operating procedure for many American politicians, even ones who are steadfast on core progressive issues like de Blasio. Office-seekers learn to assume early in their career that if they don’t pledge fealty to AIPAC, retribution will be swift and their political life could be a short one. So rather than test the limits of the lobby’s power, most of them go along.

AIPAC’s dominion—reinforced by Christian Zionists and the usual cast of neocon hawks—is destructive on many fronts. Not only has it prevented a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict by enforcing lockstep US support for the most retrograde elements in Israel; in recent years it has, in league with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, been doing everything it can to provoke US conflict with Iran. Now, when a conciliatory new government in Tehran is seeking rapprochement with Washington—the best hope for US and regional security in more than three decades—AIPAC and its allies have been pressing Congress for renewed sanctions precisely in order to kill that hope, which could set Washington on the path to war.

However, it’s important to recognize that many of the assumptions that underpin AIPAC’s influence don’t carry the force they used to. Praising what he called the “deep connection” between New York and Israel, de Blasio pointed out that New York is “home to the largest Jewish community outside the state of Israel,” as if Jewishness and Zionism (and, by implication, Zionism of the AIPAC sort) were indivisible. But polls consistently show that among Jews, Israel actually ranks very low on the list of political priorities, as do the long-running tensions with Iran. Of far greater concern are the economy, the growing gap between rich and poor, the struggle for social justice—the same issues that animated de Blasio’s mayoral campaign and propelled him to victory. Apart from the question of what Jewish New Yorkers want is that de Blasio is the mayor of, and should speak for, all New Yorkers, including the hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Arabs, not to mention Christians, Buddhists, atheists and others, who live, work, pay taxes and vote in the city.

And beyond that is the fact that AIPAC is no longer the only lobby game in town. J Street was established in 2008 specifically to back politicians who support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It also supports the recent interim accord between Tehran and Washington, opposes the new sanctions AIPAC is pushing and—in a pointed rebuke to AIPAC’s bullying tactics—encourages “vibrant but respectful debate about Israel.” Criticism of Israeli policies, it argues, “does not threaten the health of the state of Israel—but certain Israeli policies (and the silence that too many in the American Jewish establishment choose when vigorous protest of those policies is necessary) do threaten Israel’s future.” Beyond J Street, a host of Jewish groups and individuals in New York and across the country are fighting not only for social justice here but against occupation in Palestine too—an ethical mission they see as truly indivisible, and far more in keeping with the ancient Jewish precept of tikkun olam (“healing the world”) than the toxic militarism of AIPAC. Jews are a strong presence in many campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, and activist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have been mounting a courageous resistance to AIPAC.

Bill de Blasio, an “unapologetically progressive” mayor, as he put it in his primary victory speech, is at the height of his popularity. He thus has a unique opportunity to help end the stranglehold of AIPAC by meeting with J Street. He could also meet with New York’s sizable Palestinian and Muslim communities. By publicly welcoming groups that promote genuine peace in the Middle East, his foreign policy would be far more consistent with the progressive policies he promotes at home. And he might find, just as he did in his mayoral race, that such actions have far more support among New York’s—and the country’s—citizens than many imagined.

As Kerry works on peace framework, Jewish groups keeping low profile

By Ron Kampeas, JTA
February 04, 2014

WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration prepares to unveil a framework plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Jewish groups have responded by lying low.

In contrast to the noisy Iran sanctions contretemps between the administration and much of the pro-Israel community, the leading centrist Jewish groups have largely adopted a wait-and-see approach as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry works on the framework agreement.

The groups all publicly express support for Kerry’s efforts, but they have refrained from aggressive lobbying or commenting on news reports about purported details of the framework.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which usually takes the lead in framing community response to peace talks, has been quiet, congressional and administration insiders said.

“As we have since the beginning of the process, we continue to support Secretary Kerry’s diplomatic efforts to achieve a secure and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman said in a statement to JTA.

There are a number of reasons for the community’s relatively low profile. In addition to their focus on Iran, centrist groups do not want to prematurely weigh in on an anticipated proposal that has yet to see the light of day.

The muted response also echoes the approach taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has emphasized that he is receptive to Kerry’s efforts, even as he has suggested that Israel will not necessarily have to agree to all the elements of an American framework proposal.

In addition, the Obama administration has tried to head off concerns by stressing that it is developing the framework in close consultation with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, emphasizing that there will be no surprises.

At least 50 Jewish organizational leaders received a preview of some of the framework’s likely elements in a conference call last week with Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Jewish communal leaders offer varied assessments of the communal expectations of whether Kerry’s efforts will advance the cause of peace.

Martin Raffel, senior vice president at the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said the community was invested in a successful outcome.

“The mainstream is overwhelmingly hopeful that Kerry will get to what they are trying to accomplish,” he said, “which is to get to a framework that the parties will agree to even if they have reservations, but there are sufficient grounds to build on.”

But Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, noted what he described as a widespread Jewish communal skepticism rooted in two decades of frustration.

“The skepticism is overwhelming on all sides, so now we’re waiting and seeing,” Foxman said, referring to attitudes within the organized Jewish community.

In a short radio commentary released Tuesday, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, applauded Kerry’s efforts.

Noting that advancing peace “isn’t for the faint-hearted,” Harris said, “Bravo, then, to Secretary of State John Kerry for his current effort.”

But Kerry’s efforts have met with outspoken opposition from the right, both in the American Jewish community and in Israel.

The Zionist Organization of America accused the Obama administration of turning itself into the Palestinian Authority’s “attorney and chief negotiator.”

Some right-wing members of Netanyahu’s Likud party and larger governing coalition have reacted with alarm to Kerry’s efforts.

Last month, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, was quoted by an Israeli newspaper as privately telling colleagues that Kerry had an “incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling.” Yaalon later apologized if Kerry was offended by the remarks attributed to him.

More recently, a Knesset member from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, Moti Yogev, suggested that Kerry was driven by anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings. His statement was condemned by Jewish groups, including the ADL and AJC.

Tensions also flared recently between Kerry and Netanyahu. Israeli officials reacted with anger to Kerry’s warning in a speech last weekend that failure to arrive at a deal could give momentum to efforts to isolate and boycott Israel.

Netanyahu responded that “no pressure will cause me to concede the vital interests of the State of Israel,” while Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, called Kerry’s remarks “intolerable.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki shot back that Kerry opposes boycotts and simply was describing what was at stake, adding that the secretary of state “expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.” Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said on Twitter that the attacks on Kerry were “unfounded and unacceptable.”
The ADL weighed in with an open letter criticizing Kerry’s remark.

“Describing the potential for expanded boycotts of Israel makes it more, not less, likely that the talks will not succeed; makes it more, not less, likely that Israel will be blamed if the talks fail; and more, not less, likely that boycotts will ensue,” Foxman wrote.

Foxman’s letter did, however, express support for Kerry’s peace efforts and respect for his work.
Some of the likely elements of the framework that have been discussed in briefings and news reports would be warmly received by Jewish groups. According to participants in the off-the-record call with Indyk, the peace envoy suggested that the framework would include a call for recognition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people — a key Netanyahu demand that has been firmly rejected by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But in addressing delicate issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, the framework could draw objections from both sides. News reports have suggested that the framework would call for Jerusalem to be a shared capital and for Palestinian refugees and their descendants not to have the right to resettle in Israel, although the reliability of such reports is not clear.

The State Department has stressed that the framework is a work in progress and so even Indyk’s characterizations should not be considered final.

Jewish communal professionals say that sensitive compromises likely to be embedded in an agreement would require community consideration, particularly on Jerusalem.

“Most organizations have passed a number of resolutions on these issues,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “If what comes out in the framework differs from that, we want to engage with our community in a thoughtful examination of where we are now.”

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said his group would push back against anything less than full Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.

“Our position is very clear,” he said. “The O.U. is flat opposed to any proposals that would re-divide the city of Jerusalem and we regularly communicate that to people in the Obama administration.”

Josh Block, the president of the Israel Project, said Jewish groups throughout the process should be urging sensitivity to Israeli security needs in a tumultuous neighborhood. But he said the groups should be prepared as well for the possibility of the talks failing due to Palestinian intransigence.

In that event, Block said, it will be important to work to ensure that the Palestinians, and not Israel, are held responsible.

“The Israelis are cooperative,” he said. “Are Indyk and Kerry at the end saying both sides wouldn’t get it done, or are they going to say it’s the Palestinians?”

How a Weaker AIPAC Makes It Easier to Vote Against Iran Sanctions

Hope for a diplomatic solution and the growth of an alternative pro-Israel lobbying group has changed the equation.

By Sara Sorcher and Elahe Izadi, National Journal
January 22, 2014

The 59 senators who signed on to new Iran sanctions know President Obama opposes them—and they did it anyway.

On the surface, the vote count—which includes 16 Democrats—looks grim for the White House, which strongly opposes the threat of new sanctions, in favor of diplomacy. But the tally is far from the 100-vote rebuke the Senate handed to the White House on the issue in 2011.

The truth is that it is now easier to vote against Iran sanctions than it has been in years past—and to oppose one of the strongest, most influential lobbying groups in the country: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

For two decades, AIPAC has made pressuring Iran its top issue, driving Democrats today into an uncomfortable position, wedged between an adamant White House and a powerful lobby trying to equate support for sanctions with support for Israel.

“Being anti-Iran today is like being anti-Soviet during the Cold War,” said Doug Bloomfield, the group’s former legislative director. “Who wants to be tagged by being called pro-Iranian and opposing [sanctions]?”

Officials at AIPAC declined to comment. But others, like Sen. Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican who coauthored the sanctions bill, have been upfront about “heavy” contact with the pro-Israel community and “regular” briefings with AIPAC leadership about the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which includes measures to punish Iran’s oil industry if it breaches diplomatic commitments.

“[I’m] very happy that this has become the kind of test issue for the pro-Israel community,” he said. “The pro-Israel community is going to be heavily present in most states. This is a chance for a senator to go back and tell them that, ‘I’m with you … on a critical issue, like the survival of Israel in the 21st century.’ ”

Yet a significant minority of senators is declining that opportunity.

The rise of J Street, a younger pro-Israel lobby pushing hard against the new sanctions, is serving as a counterweight to AIPAC on this issue. Revived hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani helps J Street’s cause. So does political pressure from Obama. By decoupling support for Israel with support for new sanctions against Iran, the group is making it easier for lawmakers inclined to support the White House.

“We’ve been working diligently on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish-American community to raise support for the president’s diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Iran, and oppose any legislation which would threaten it,” said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street. “We feel very strongly that the current bill in the Senate would threaten diplomacy.”

J Street’s influence is also clear in the money it spends. Among pro-Israel groups, JStreetPAC was the largest single political donor during the 2008 and 2012 cycles, contributing nearly $2.7 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups.

And some lawmakers supported by J Street have been vocal in support of the group’s position. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, for instance, has spoken out strongly against the new Iran sanctions.

As one congressional aide put it, “Those are the political calculations that are made easier when a group like J Street gives you cover.”

Legitimate Differences

Policymakers for and against sanctions have legitimate differences of opinion on strategy to achieve the same goal: getting Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The administration believes new sanctions now will interfere with the final deal the U.S. and world powers are trying to negotiate with Iran. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and pro-Israel groups in the U.S. supporting Israeli leadership on this issue, want to keep the pressure tight during the interim deal, which does not fully dismantle Tehran’s nuclear program. AIPAC and the bill’s supporters in Congress believe the threat of new sanctions will actually strengthen the ongoing negotiations. The legislation gives Iran a “clear choice,” AIPAC’s director of policy and government affairs Brad Gordon said in a video on the group’s website. “Give up your pursuit of a nuclear-weapons capability, or face further crippling economic sanctions.”

On Capitol Hill, the debate is less over tactics than ideology. Lawmakers are left in a tricky position: Those optimistic about diplomacy or wanting to side with the White House are often left with the impression that failing to back more sanctions against Tehran is tantamount to breaking faith with the Jewish state.

“It’s been a very clever lobbying campaign, because those who are promoting [sanctions] … have framed the discussion: You’re either for Iran, or against Iran,” Bloomfield said. “What the hell kind of choice is that?”

The most direct influence AIPAC exerts on the Hill is via lobbying; the group spent $2.2 million in 2013, more than three-fourths of the total spent on pro-Israel lobbying that year. AIPAC’s educational arm is one of the biggest sponsors of congressional travel, too, spending about $9 million on nearly 900 lawmaker trips to Israel since 2000, according to Legistorm.

Unlike J Street, AIPAC does not directly contribute to candidates. However, donations from the organization’s leadership have long been tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics as pro-Israel political contributions.

AIPAC’s support for sanctions has sometimes forced lawmakers into verbal acrobatics. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, for instance, stresses how he has voted for “the strongest” sanctions in the past. If negotiations fail, he said, “then I’m going to vote for even stronger sanctions in the future. But at this point, I think negotiations are our best hope of taking the nuclear weapons out of Iran and avoiding war.”

Does he feel this a politically difficult position to take, given that pro-Israel groups are pushing so hard? “Yes,” Durbin said. He also acknowledges the pressure is prevalent on Capitol Hill. As for how he’s felt it, he said, “I’m not going to get into that.”

A Pro-Israel Alternative

Founded in 2008, J Street introduced an alternative definition to what, exactly, it means to be pro-Israel.

“There was a very clear definition of what was considered to be part of the mainstream Jewish community, and it basically had to do with agreeing with most of the Israeli government’s policies,” the aide said.

Now there’s a divide. “What J Street says is, ‘We don’t have to agree with Bibi Netanyahu, when we agree with some of the opposition leaders in Israel.’ ” the aide said. “They’ve definitely broadened the definition, the boundaries, of what it means to be pro-Israel, and they’ve empowered these voices, which exist in both the American-Jewish community, in Israel—and in Congress.”

The message is, apparently, resonating. Not one of the seven Senate candidates that J Street officially endorsed in 2012 have signed onto the recent sanctions bill. “Obviously we’re excited to see when folks take what we think is the best position,” said Dan Kalik, J Street’s director of political affairs.

Of course, these senators are a minority. But it is significant that, rather than avoiding cosponsoring sanctions or voting quietly against them, some lawmakers—including Feinstein—are coming out to say publicly they do not believe this is the time for new sanctions.

Introducing new sanctions now, Feinstein said on the Senate floor last week, “defies logic, it threatens instant reverse, and it ends what has been unprecedented diplomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war.”

Feinstein received $82,171 through JStreetPAC during her 2012 run, making the California Democrat the fifth-top recipient of the group’s money that cycle, and the group her second-largest individual donor.

Lobbying Ahead

In the battle for influence, groups supporting sanctions will continue to highlight the Iranian threat. Ben Chouake, a physician who heads NORPAC, a New Jersey-based group backing candidates committed to the “strength, security, and survival” of Israel and that is pushing for sanctions, said the message is well-received.

“When you go to a member of Congress and say, ‘This is an existential threat to the world,’ you explain why, and it’s a logical explanation, people usually get it,” he said. “And they understand their responsibilities.”

A major player among pro-Israel groups, NORPAC contributed nearly $2 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups in election cycles from 2008 to 2012. While NORPAC offers no ultimatums in exchange for monetary support, Chouake said, Iran “is clearly the No. 1 issue.”

“What’s on the table is the prospect of nuclear genocide,” Chouake said. “They want to do to the Jews in 12 minutes what Hitler did in 12 years. You just can’t let crazy people get nuclear weapons. There’s nowhere to hide.”

Convincing presidents, however, can be a different story. “Virtually every president hates these sanctions bills,” said Chouake, who has been at NORPAC for 15 years. “Clinton hated it; Bush fought it tooth and nail. But every administration, after it was passed, took great advantage of these sanctions and ultimately appreciated they could be used as a tool to facilitate American policy.”

In his last term, Obama was forced to learn to love the Iran sanctions Congress muscled through. This time, he may not have to.

Potent Pro-Israel Group Finds Its Momentum Blunted

By Mark Landler, NY Times
February 03, 2014

WASHINGTON — The last time the nation’s most potent pro-Israel lobbying group lost a major showdown with the White House was when President Ronald Reagan agreed to sell Awacs surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia over the group’s bitter objections.

Since then, the group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has run up an impressive record of legislative victories in its quest to rally American support for Israel, using a robust network of grass-roots supporters and a rich donor base to push a raft of bills through Congress. Typically, they pass by unanimous votes.

But now Aipac, as the group is known, once again finds itself in a very public standoff with the White House. Its top priority, a Senate bill to impose new sanctions on Iran, has stalled after stiff resistance from President Obama, and in what amounts to a tacit retreat, Aipac has stopped pressuring Senate Democrats to vote for the bill.

Officials at the group insist it never called for an immediate vote and say the legislation may yet pass if Mr. Obama’s effort to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran fails or if Iran reneges on its interim deal with the West. But for the moment, Mr. Obama has successfully made the case that passing new sanctions against Tehran now could scuttle the nuclear talks and put America on the road to another war.

In doing so, the president has raised questions about the effectiveness of Aipac’s tactics and even its role as the unchallenged voice of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Jewish leaders say that pro-Israel groups disagreed on how aggressively to push the legislation, even if all the groups favor additional sanctions.

“Some of us see the object as being to target Iran,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We’re not out there to target the president; we’re out there to target Iran.”

With neither side spoiling for a fight or ready to back down, Mr. Foxman said, the sanctions campaign is stalled. Lawmakers confirm that the political climate on Capitol Hill has changed since the bill’s sponsors and Aipac made their push in December.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a staunch supporter of Israel, is one of 16 Democrats who signed on to the bill, along with 43 of the Senate’s 45 Republicans, bringing it to within a few votes of a veto-proof majority. Now Mr. Blumenthal says the Senate should hold off on a vote to give Mr. Obama breathing room for diplomacy.

“There’s been an unquestionable, undeniable shift in the perception of national security,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “I’m sensitive to the feelings, the resistance, the aversion of the general public to any kind of American military engagement.”

On Monday, 70 House Democrats sent Mr. Obama a letter backing his diplomatic efforts and opposing new sanctions. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added her voice to those urging no legislation.

The bill’s chief sponsors insist they are not retreating, with some congressional aides predicting that the White House’s tough tactics could backfire down the road.

“The American people — Democrats and Republicans alike — overwhelmingly want Iran held accountable during any negotiations,” said Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois, who is a lead co-sponsor, along with Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey.

But Aipac’s headaches go beyond Iran. In September, it threw an army of lobbyists behind an effort to win a congressional mandate for Mr. Obama’s threatened military strike on Syria. Facing certain failure in Congress, the president pulled the plug on the effort.

Earlier last year, it came under fire from the right for not publicly opposing Mr. Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, because of what critics said was his anti-Israel record.

None of this will prevent Aipac from drawing 14,000 supporters and a who’s who of speakers from the White House and Congress when it holds its annual meeting here next month. But this year’s meeting could be more complicated than the one in 2012, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel turned out to demand that Mr. Obama threaten Iran with a military strike if it produced a nuclear weapon. The president, who also spoke, promised to keep all options on the table, including military action.

Aipac officials said that their fund-raising is at record levels and that the March meeting will be the largest in its history. The group has helped secure $3.1 billion in American aid for Israel for the fiscal year and largely framed the public debate over Iran’s nuclear program.

“Under any other circumstances, having 59 senators from both parties supporting a bill that has this type of opposition is extraordinary,” said a spokesman for Aipac, Marshall Wittmann. “For someone to describe this as a setback is completely preposterous.”

Mr. Wittmann disputed suggestions that the group had been weakened by its support for the abortive military action against Syria or its decision not to lobby against Mr. Hagel. Mr. Obama’s threat of force, he said, helped get chemical weapons out of Syria. As for Mr. Hagel, Mr. Wittmann said, “our focus is on the policy.”

Still, in its zeal to pass the bill, Aipac may have overreached. Last month, a regional director for the group came to the defense of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, after Aipac sent a letter urging its members to demand that she clarify her support for sanctions.

In the follow-up letter, emailed to Aipac members in Florida, a national board member, Ike Fisher, declared, “Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz has a strong record of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Ms. Wasserman Schultz declined to comment.

In another small but telling contretemps, a group of prominent liberal Jews sent a letter last week to Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, rebuking him for speaking last month at a closed-door gathering of Aipac, which they said “speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters.”

Founded in 1951, a few years after the state of Israel was established, Aipac says its mission is to “strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship,” regardless of the governments in either country.

“The source of Aipac’s power is its ability to generate bipartisan votes,” said Steven J. Rosen, a former senior official at the group, who was forced out in 2005 after being caught up in an espionage case.

The trouble is, Aipac’s fervent push on Iran sanctions has increasingly allied it with Mr. Netanyahu and against Mr. Obama. J Street, a more dovish pro-Israel group, has lobbied vigorously against the bill, underscoring divergent views within the pro-Israel lobby.

“You’re seeing, in the American Jewish community, an engagement in the debate in a more complex way,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. “Some say they want sanctions, but some say they support the White House.”

Even Aipac’s efforts to support the president have been troubled. It had deep reservations about Mr. Hagel, which officials shared privately with lawmakers. But it did not publicly oppose his nomination, in part because White House officials said the president would not forgive it.

“A lot of this has been about Obama,” said Steve Rabinowitz, who worked in the Clinton administration and advises Jewish groups. “The good news is that his foreign-policy cred has strengthened, and there is increasing deference to the president on foreign policy.”

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, embodies this trend. After voting for sanctions in the House, he opposed the Senate bill because, he said in an interview, the point of sanctions was to force Iran to the bargaining table.

Mr. Murphy said he was not worried about bucking Aipac. “The pro-Israel community in Connecticut knows I’m a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said, “and I always will be.”


By Marsha B. Cohen, Lobelog
February 2013

The North Jersey PAC (NORPAC) was founded in 1992 by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, just as AIPAC’s political fortunes seemed headed into a tailspin from which many feared (and others dared hope) it might not recover. By 1993, AIPAC was refocusing its attention on lobbying Congress, leaving the presidency to Israel’s Prime Minister, and building an infrastructure for “grass roots lobbying.“

Although the two organizations have remained separate and distinct, there’s been an overlap of talking points, priorities and modus operandi. NORPAC’s leaders describe it as a “single issue” organization, dedicated exclusively to promulgating the passage of Israel-related legislation, of which anti-Iran sanctions have become an integral part. NORPAC has an annual Mission to Washington each May that brings busloads of activists — well over a thousand participants in recent years — to Washington, DC, to meet personally with members of Congress, armed with NORPAC’s talking points and an agenda of legislative priorities on behalf of the “pro-Israel community.”

NORPAC hosts fundraisers for candidates of both parties, and, unlike AIPAC, doesn’t restrict itself to members of Congress. It also provides AIPAC members, and anyone else with money to give to “pro-Israel” candidates, with a long list of members of the House and Senate whose records are considered kosher from a pro-Israel perspective, or, in NORPAC’s words, “who demonstrate a genuine commitment to the strength, security, and survival of Israel.” NORPAC doesn’t endorse challengers, preferring to show appreciation to sitting members of Congress for their pro-Israel votes.

AIPAC’s ex-president David Steiner was among the very earliest donors to funnel a portion of his campaign contributions through NORPAC, according to the organization’s FTC filing in 1993. The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website shows Steiner contributing $40,000 to political candidates through NORPAC between 1995 and 2007 — not quite 10% of the political largesse he’s donated over the past two decades. Several presidents of AIPAC, including its current president, Michael Kassen, have channeled a portion of their personal political contributions through NORPAC as well.

Here’s how it works: donors give up to the maximum individual contribution of $2,500 to a political candidate through NORPAC, which aggregates it with other donations that are earmarked for that candidate. A single larger and therefore more significant check, channeled through a pro-Israel organization, is then sent to the candidate, with expectations and an agenda.

In terms of dollars expended, NORPAC is generally bipartisan, although more often than not the numbers tilt in favor of Democrats. Nevertheless, the single biggest recipient, who remained on NORPAC’s approved list for the 2012 election cycle even though he was defeated in the Republican primary, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), received a $20,000 contribution from NORPAC in the 2012 election cycle, more than any other candidate from either party. (NORPAC has been Lugar’s top donor over the past five years, from whom he received $40,000 between 2007-2012.) Typical NORPAC contributions average around $3,000 for House members and $5,000 for senators, with $10,000 nearly always being the most given.

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