The loan guarantee precedent and the Iran deal

Israel and its allies again are finding it difficult to overcome the president’s prerogative. As in 1991, defeated Jewish organizations may be left feeling weak and marginalized.

A man waits for the start of the evening's speeches at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man waits for the start of the evening's speeches at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The parallels between the 1991 dispute that pitted Israel and its American Jewish supporters against President George H. W. Bush over loan guarantees to Israel and the current fight over the Iran deal are startling. In both instances, among the few times AIPAC has directly sought to challenge a presidential foreign policy initiative, a determined president ran up against a defiant conservative Israeli prime minister.
Israel and its allies again are finding it difficult to overcome the president’s prerogative. As in 1991, the defeated Jewish organizations may be left feeling weak and marginalized, without gaining anything in return.
Bush and loan guarantees
In September 1991, Israel formally requested $10 billion in US loan guarantees to help absorb immigrating Russian Jews. President Bush, given his deep concerns about Israeli settlement construction and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s reluctance to attend the US-sponsored Madrid Peace Conference, did not want to free up Israeli funds for settlements. He thus refused to grant the guarantees unconditionally and deferred the issue to a later date.
Shamir, who distrusted Bush, countered by attempting to legislate loan guarantees with the help of AIPAC and other Jewish groups. This proved to be a miscalculation.
By remaining determined, drawing on public backing and lobbying Congress, Bush denied AIPAC the votes to override a prospective veto.
AIPAC felt particularly motivated after Bush – whom the lobby echoed Shamir in distrusting – claimed that he was “one lonely little guy” versus “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill,” seemingly vindicating AIPAC’s suspicions about him. For AIPAC, Bush’s comments not only appeared to confirm that he was not a friend of Israel but also raised the specter that the lobby could be charged with the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty. Bush’s tearful apology to Jewish leaders months later demonstrated his regrets over having been perceived that way. Yet AIPAC still failed to muster the needed congressional votes, leaving it appearing weak and castigated without accompanying gains.
Iran Parallels
In defying President Barack Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran, AIPAC and the Israeli government again find themselves fighting an emotional battle they will likely lose. Even with Senator Chuck Schumer’s announcement of opposition to Obama’s deal, Democrats likely still have the votes in the Senate and House to prevent an overturning of President Obama’s inevitable veto of a resolution disapproving the deal. Schumer’s announcement, buried during the Republican debate, will allow him to oppose the deal without derailing it.
A determined president simply gets his way on foreign policy issues. Although Obama has less public and congressional support now than Bush did in 1991, the Iran deal is central to this president’s Middle East – not just Israel – policy, making it even less likely Obama would somehow cave to AIPAC. Also interesting is that unlike in 1991, no real compromise option – such as ensuring that loan guarantees would not indirectly benefit settlements – is on the table. Rather than ask for aid to compensate Israel for acquiescing to a frightening nuclear deal, AIPAC and Israel have simply pushed to renegotiate the deal. As the American administration insists there is no alternative to accepting the deal, no room exists for compromise. Absent a highly unlikely victory, AIPAC will suffer a resounding defeat.
Enter accusations of anti-Semitism
Obama and Bush also share the dubious distinction of being accused of condoning or perpetuating anti-Semitism through public statements. Obama’s speech on the Iran deal alienated many Jews who felt as though they and Netanyahu had been singled out unfairly as opponents of the accord. Yet commentators accusing Obama of fomenting and legitimizing anti-Semitism mistake possibly inappropriate comments for incitement.
Like Bush before him, Obama’s statement emerged at a time when he felt relentlessly targeted by an Israeli leader cooperating with AIPAC. This may not excuse either president’s comments, but it is certainly a pattern worth noting. Though other voices are opposing the Iran deal, Netanyahu and AIPAC have been the loudest. As Chemi Shalev reasons, if Netanyahu can remain the only foreign leader to fight the deal, appeal directly to American Jewry, and be joined by AIPAC’s lobbying and expensive ad campaign, then surely the president should be allowed to speak directly about Israel and AIPAC’s efforts.
While the way Obama discussed this lobbying may have been counterproductive, his remarks did not originate from a place of anti-Semitism. As Jeffrey Goldberg, who has interviewed the president extensively on these subjects, has said, Obama is indeed a philo-Semite who has spent his academic and political careers surrounded by liberal American Jews.
Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu’s intransigence is decidedly not hateful. Instead it is to ask, “What kind of Jew is this?” Responses by Jewish conservatives tend to miss this nuance and introduce the threat of anti-Semitism in a way that dangerously blurs the line between legitimate criticism of AIPAC’s pro-Israel motives for its lobbying and Jew-hatred. This rhetoric degrades discourse and silences dissent on the Iran deal, while trivializing efforts to combat truly threatening anti-Semitism. AIPAC should be allowed to lobby, and real examples of anti-Semitism have emerged on the sidelines of this debate, but it is destructive to accuse the president of wielding anti-Semitism against AIPAC’s right to lobby.
Self-inflicted wounds
Why are AIPAC and Israel choosing to fight a losing battle with invariably damaging repercussions? No doubt Republican partisanship and persistent efforts to deny Obama any achievement give Jewish groups a willing partner. By combining this bloc with Democrats who are either Jewish or represent significant Jewish populations, AIPAC can imagine finding enough votes to stymie Obama’s effort. And maybe the Iran deal really is so bad that it is worth fighting no matter the costs or prospects of success.
Still, a loss while fighting a Democratic president with Republican congressional support weakens the lobby’s claim to bipartisanship, could dampen support for Israel in the long term by making the agreement a partisan wedge issue, and casts the group as ineffective.
Obama believes the Iran deal promotes American and Israeli interests and works actively to protect Israel’s security. The president also has a deep affinity for Jews. Many American Jewish leaders and Republicans, along with Netanyahu, have long been convinced that Obama’s beliefs and actions align the opposite way. These groups’ distrust of Obama has led them into a confrontation that could make the US-Israel relationship increasingly partisan and lead to further invocations of anti-Semitism that distort public discourse. AIPAC and Netanyahu look headed for a defeat with pernicious side effects or, at best, a historically unprecedented and Pyrrhic victory.
The author is a second-year graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.