WASHINGTON – Eight years ago, Stephen Rosen, then a top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and well-known around Washington for his aggressiveness, hawkish views, and political smarts, was asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker magazine whether some recent negative publicity had harmed the lobby group’s legendary clout in Washington.
“A half smile appeared on his face, and he pushed a napkin across the table,” wrote Goldberg about the interview. “’You see this napkin?’ [the official] said. In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
Eight years later, the same official, Stephen Rosen, who was forced to resign from AIPAC after his indictment – later dismissed — for allegedly spying for Israel, told a Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that AIPAC needed to retreat from its confrontation with President Barack Obama after getting only 59 senators – all but 16 of them Republicans – to co-sponsor a new sanctions bill aimed at derailing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany).
“They don’t want to be seen as backing down… I don’t believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture,” he said.
“The neoconservatives were able to push Bush & Co. to invade Iraq in 2003, but their success required an unusual set of circumstances and the American public learned a lot from that disastrous experience.”
— Stephen WaltIf AIPAC had succeeded in getting 70 signatures on the bill, which the administration argued would have violated a Nov. 24 interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that essentially freezes Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing some existing sanctions for a renewable six-month period, that would have been three more than needed to overcome a promised Obama veto.
But, after quickly gathering the 59 co-sponsors over the Christmas recess, AIPAC and the bill’s major sponsors, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, appeared to hit a solid wall of resistance led by 10 Democratic Committee chairs and backed by an uncharacteristically determined White House with an uncharacteristically stern message.
“If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.”
Combined with a grassroots lobbying campaign carried out by nearly 70 grassroots religious, anti-war, and civic-action groups that flooded the offices of nervous Democratic senators with thousands of emails, petitions, and phone calls, as well as endorsements of the administration’s position by major national and regional newspapers and virtually all but the neo-conservative faction of the U.S. foreign policy elite, the White House won a clear victory over AIPAC and thus raised anew the question of just how powerful the group really is.
AIPAC’s inability to muster more support among Democrats, in particular, came on top of two other setbacks to its fearsome reputation over the past year.
Although they never took a public position on his nomination a year ago, the group’s leaders were known to have quietly lobbied against former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary due his generally critical attitude toward Israel’s influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Several groups and individuals closely aligned with AIPAC, notably the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) – both of which have joined AIPAC in lobbying for the new Iran sanctions bill – questioned or opposed Hagel. Ultimately, however, he won confirmation by a 58-41 margin in which the great majority of Democrats voted for him.
Eight months later, AIPAC and other right-wing Jewish groups lobbied Congress in favor of a resolution to authorize the use of force against Syria – this time, however, at Obama’s request, although clearly also with the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
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