Washington watch: AIPAC – Whose lobby is it?

Netanyahu’s unrealistic demands on Iran AIPAC will reinforce the claim by critics that it puts Israel’s interests above America’s.

AIPAC 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plans to lay out his uncompromising terms for a nuclear deal with Iran when he speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington Tuesday morning, he told visiting US senators last week.
The appearance will be a win for the pro-Israel lobbying giant, but it also highlights a huge new risk – that by echoing Netanyahu’s unrealistic demands on Iran AIPAC will reinforce the claim by critics that it puts Israel’s interests above America’s.
“[Netanyahu’s] position is no, no, no. No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, (D-Virginia), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near East and South Asia, Al-Monitor reported.
Netanyahu’s “three no’s” will be the heart of his emotionally-charged message to the expected 14,000 delegates just before they go up to Capitol Hill for their annual lobbying day.
AIPAC is still reeling from the humiliating setback of having to retreat on the what was to be the centerpiece of its day on the Hill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, S. 1881. It was hoping to lock up a veto-proof majority to pass the tough sanctions legislation over White House objections, but was forced to back down when sponsors began to peel away after the president warned it could sabotage the talks with Iran.
Although it said it would not push for an early vote as planned, AIPAC was vague about whether it would heed the administration’s call to wait until the talks concluded.
Doubts were raised in a New York Times op-ed Saturday signed by the lobby’s two top lay leaders. They declared, “we remain committed” to S. 1881’s passage and hinted that it may not wait to see the outcome of negotiations before setting up another confrontation.
Their message is we don’t trust the administration to be tough enough, so we need to keep pushing the Congress to push the administration to stand firm. That’s not an unreasonable message, and it is Congress’ role. But the problem arises over how much is serious policy – good cop, bad cop – and how much is a political set-up to declare any outcome of the talks a failure and thus a betrayal of Israel, as defined by Republicans and Netanyahu.
“He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions,” Kaine said of Netanyahu.
Secretary of State John Kerry will tell AIPAC delegates that the administration is unalterably committed to preventing Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will say his department enforces sanctions and will be very tough.
But they’re no match for Netanyahu, whose Tuesday morning appearance will have all the trappings of a pep rally as he does what he does best: warn of the dire threats to the survival of the Jewish people, stir up fears and emotions and send the troops into battle on a holy mission.
The AIPAC op-ed insisted the group’s approach would “complement and enhance the administration’s efforts,” and that line would be credible if it didn’t have the feel of a set-up designed to discredit anything short of meeting its and Netanyahu’s maximalist and unrealistic demands was a sell-out of Israel. The AIPAC leaders echoed Netanyahu in calling on Congress to establish “acceptable terms of a final accord” that must include, at a minimum, “the dismantling” of Iran’s nuclear program.
Also last week Netanyahu told the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem to take home the message that the economic and political pressure on Tehran must be tightened or it won’t take negotiations seriously. The Iranians, he told them, “don’t have any right to enrichment.” Iran, in his view, should have no nuclear program.
Netanyahu claims he wants a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear problem, but his “three no’s” say something very different.
He’s being unrealistic, indicated Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator in the Iran talks. “Zero enrichment” would be ideal, but “unlikely,” she told reporters in Jerusalem. She flew there immediately following last week’s Vienna session with the Iranians to brief Israeli leaders.
The world powers negotiating with Iran agree it will not be possible to totally dismantle any nuclear activity in Iran.
A more realist outcome would be a domestic enrichment program that is “limited, discreet, constrained, monitored and verified,” Sherman said. And if those terms can’t be met, there will be no agreement.
AIPAC’s bipartisan reputation is in tatters and it sounds increasingly like a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and for hyper-partisan Republicans rather than the voice of the American Jewish community.
AIPAC already had been preparing its Plan B: set the terms of an acceptable nuclear accord so high that they are unattainable, guaranteeing an “I told you so” failure. Netanyahu’s message to the visiting senators appears to confirm that strategy.
In their Times op-ed, the two AIPAC leaders insisted that their hard line on Iran does not make them “warmongers,” but by echoing Netanyahu’s uncompromising terms they have to realize they give a different impression. More important, what they fail to grasp is that the war-wary American public, Jews and non-Jews, don’t share their hard-line view. That opens them to charges of advocating policies that put Israel’s – or Netanyahu’s – interests first, not America’s.
And that’s something AIPAC can’t afford if it wants to be know as America’s pro-Israel lobby, not Israel’s American lobby.
Bringing an expected 14,000 enthusiasts to Washington is an impressive show of force, and AIPAC’s coffers are bulging, but is it increasingly representing a very vocal, conservative minority and is out of step with a majority of American Jews on issues like this and peace with the Palestinians.
More and more the question in Washington is whose interests does it really represent.