As the US turns against new sanctions on Iran, has the Israel lobby lost its mojo?

The Aipac lobby group is famed for its ability to move bills, spike nominations and keep legislators in line – but is its influence waning?

In House of Cards, the award-winning US television show adapted from a BBC miniseries, the Machiavellian congressman Frank Underwood leaks a story (falsely) suggesting that Michael Kern, the president’s pick for secretary of state, wrote an anti-Israel article during his student days. Kern, promptly denounced as an anti-Semite by pro-Israel campaigners, is forced to stand aside.

The pro-Israel lobby matters, OK? That’s the message not just from Hollywood but also from the leading member of that lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac. In a land of lobbies – from Big Oil and Big Pharma to the NRA (guns) and the AARP (pensions) – Aipac isn’t afraid to brag about its power, influence and network of contacts. It boasts 100,000 members, a $67m budget and an annual policy conference attended by two-thirds of Congress, as well as serving and former presidents. It’s said that the former Aipac official Steven Rosen once slipped a napkin to a journalist over dinner and deadpanned, “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”

But has Aipac lost its mojo? Is a lobby group famed for its ability to move bills, spike nominations and keep legislators in line now in danger of looking weak and ineffectual? Consider the evidence of the past year. Exhibit A: Chuck Hagel. In January 2013, the independent-minded Republican senator from Nebraska was tapped by Obama to become his second-term defence secretary. Pro-Israel activists quickly uncovered a long list of anti-Israel remarks made by Hagel, including his warning in a 2010 speech to a university audience that Israel risked “becoming an apartheid state”.

In previous years, Aipac would have led the charge against Hagel, but this time it stayed silent. “Aipac does not take positions on presidential nominations,” its spokesman Marshall Wittman insisted. Hagel was (narrowly) confirmed by the Senate the following month.

Exhibit B: Syria. In September 2013, Aipac despatched 250 officials and activists to Capitol Hill to persuade members of Congress to pass resolutions authorising US air strikes on Syria. “Aipac to go all out on Syria” was the Politico headline; the Huffington Post went with “Inside Aipac’s Syria blitz”. And yet, although it held 300-plus meetings with politicians, the resolutions didn’t pass; the air strikes didn’t happen.

Exhibit C: Iran. Despite President Obama pushing for a diplomatic solution to the row over Tehran’s nuclear programme, Aipac is keener on a more confrontational approach. Between December 2013 and last month, a bipartisan bill proposing tough new sanctions on Iran, and calling on the US to back any future Israeli air strikes on the Islamic Republic, went from having 27 co-sponsors in the Senate to 59 – and threatened to derail Obama’s negotiations with Tehran.

The role of Aipac here isn’t disputed. Speaking to CNN in 2013, Jane Harman, an ex-congresswoman and strong advocate for Israel, conceded that her former colleagues on Capitol Hill found it difficult to support Obama’s nuclear diplomacy due to “big parts of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States being against it, the country of Israel being against it. That’s a stiff hill to climb.”

Yet the summit is in sight. “Support for Iran sanctions bill fades”, MSNBC reported on 30 January. The bill is “on ice”, a senior Senate Democratic aide told the Huffington Post. At least five Democratic co-sponsors of the bill have said they don’t want to vote on the legislation while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.

Not only has the bill lost momentum but legislators haven’t been afraid to speak out against it. Listen to the long-time Israel supporter Dianne Feinstein of California let rip on the floor of the Senate: “While I recognise and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war.” Ouch.

Obama has repeatedly vowed to veto the sanctions bill, while his National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan suggested that supporters of new sanctions want war with Iran and “should be upfront with the American public and say so”. Such is the anti-Aipac feeling in the White House that there is even talk of the Obama administration boycotting the organisation’s annual jamboree in March.

On Iran, as on Syria, Aipac bluffed. And its bluff was called. As even Rosen, the former Aipac official, has had to admit: “I don’t believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture [with the White House].” For now, the sanctions bill is dead. Democrats, if not Republicans, are giving peace a chance. “Much of Aipac’s strength has been rooted in the false illusion of their invincibility,” Trita Parsi, a DC-based analyst, tells me. “Because people thought they were invincible, most of the time they didn’t think they could go up against them.”

Let’s be clear: this isn’t about a “Jewish lobby” or illicit Jewish influence. Pro-Israeli groups such as Aipac don’t represent American Jews; rather, they articulate the hawkish world-view of the Israeli right. Recent polls suggest a clear majority of American Jews support the president’s approach to Iran’s nuclear programme; and 70 per cent of them voted for Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney, in 2012.

As Peter Beinart, the Jewish-American journalist and former editor of the New Republic, put it in a recent column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “The only ‘leader’ who speaks for American Jews on Iran is Barack Obama.” Aipac might want to get a new napkin.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted
Chuck Hagel, US secretary of defence. Photo: Getty.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Q&A: Would Brexit really move “the Jungle” to Dover?

The 2003 Le Touquet treaty was negotiated outside the EU.

What is David Cameron’s most recent claim about Britain leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister is claiming that Brexit could result in France ending the agreement by which British immigration officials carry out checks on those seeking to enter the UK in France.  

More specifically, Cameron thinks that a vote to leave the EU would give the French government an excuse to revoke the Le Touquet treaty of 2003, and that this would cause refugee camps akin to the Calais “Jungle” to spring up along the English south coast.

What’s the Le Touquet treaty?

In February 2003, Tony Blair went to the northern French resort of Le Touquet to try and persuade President Jacques Chirac to support British and American military action in Iraq. (He failed). 

Blair and Chirac hogged the headlines, but on the summit’s sidelines, Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, an ambitious young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a treaty establishing juxtaposed controls at each country’s sea ports.

This agreement meant that British border police could set up and run immigration checkpoints at Calais – effectively moving the British border there from Dover. The treaty also enabled French border police to carry out checks in Dover.

British border police had already been operating at French Eurostar terminals since 2001, and manning the French entrance to the Eurotunnel since 1994.

What’s all this got to do with the EU?

Technically, nothing. The Le Touquet treaty is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France. Both countries happen to be member states of the EU, but the negotiations took place outside of the EU’s auspices.

That's why eurosceptics have reacted with such fury today. Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said the Prime Minister was “resorting to scaremongering”, while Ukip’s migration spokesperson, in a surprising role-reversal, said that Cameron’s argument was “based on fear, negativity, and a falsehood”.

Cameron’s claim appears to be that Brexit would represent such a profound shift in the UK’s relationship with other European states that it could offer France an excuse to end the agreement reached at Le Touquet. That is debatable, but any suggestion that the treaty would instantly become void in the event of a vote to leave is untrue.

Does France actually want to revoke the treaty?

Local politicians in Calais, and in particular the town’s mayor, have been arguing for months that the treaty should be abandoned. Le Monde has also criticised it. The current French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted today that he agreed, saying that a British vote to leave “will always result in countermeasures”.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Rob Whiteman, a former head of the UK Border Agency, said that it was “almost certain” that the treaty would end if the UK left the EU. He said that France has benefited less from the deal than it expected:

“I think at the time the French felt there would be an upside for them, in that if it was clear that people could not easily get to Britain it would stop Sangatte building up again. The camp was closed. But history has shown that not to be the case. The French authorities still have a huge amount of pressure on their side.”

That said, the French government receives money from the British to help police Calais and its camps, and various French officials have acknowledged that their ports would receive even more traffic if refugees and migrants believed that it was easier to travel  to the UK than before.

If the treaty ended, would “the Jungle” just move to Dover?

There’s little doubt that because of linguistic and familial ties, and perhaps the perception that the UK is more welcoming than France, many refugees and migrants would come to the UK as quickly as they could to claim asylum here.

Whiteman also said on Today that since the 2003 agreement, the annual number of asylum claims in the UK had declined from 80,000 to around 30,000. So the UK could expect a significant spike in claims if the treaty were to end.

But the British asylum process makes it unlikely that anything like “the Jungle” would spring up. Instead, those claiming asylum would be dispersed around the country or, if authorities are worried they would flee, held in an immigration detention centre.

Why is Cameron saying this now?

This looks suspiciously like one of the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. That is, in an effort to distract his critics from the detail of the renegotiation, the PM has provoked a row about migrants and refugees. Cameron is clearly keen to move the debate on from the minutiae of different European agreements to bigger questions about security and terrorism. Though getting bogged down in competing interpretations of a treaty from 2003 may not be the best way to move onto that broader terrain.