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

Olivia Acland
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The closure of small businesses in Calais is punishing entrepreneurial refugees like Wakil

We meet the Afghan refugee who purchased a plywood shelter, painted it with blue hearts and green flowers, and stocked it with basic supplies. The police have just destroyed his makeshift shop.

French police have returned to the Calais migrant camp, known as the “Jungle”, to continue dismantling the businesses there. Last Friday was the fourth consecutive day that they had been in the camp seizing stock from shops, restaurants and barbers.

They have arrested at least 13 proprietors and accused them of running illegal businesses without authorisation, sustaining an underground economy, and not having the required health and safety measures in place. The majority of the “Jungle” businesses have now been dismantled.

Many small enterprises have cropped up in the Calais camp over the last year, and a mud road lined with plywood shacks has been nicknamed “the high street”. Here you can find Afghan restaurants, Pakistani cafes, hairdressing salons and small convenience shops. 

The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Boucher, recently announced that the camp is to be demolished imminently, and closing down its micro-economy seems to be the first step in realising this plan.


The authorities enter the Calais camp. Photo: Juliette Lyons​

The makeshift town – which is home to more than 4,000 people – has been cowering under the threat of demolition since January, when attempts were made to bulldoze its southern stretch. Most of the people living here have come from war-torn Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Syria, and a lot of them have been on the move for years. The shops and restaurants were bringing a degree of normality back to their lives.

The businesses were mainly run by refugees who had given up trying to cross the border into Britain and were seeking some stability within the makeshift world.

Wakil, the owner of a small convenience store, was one of these people. He left Afghanistan four years ago, where he worked first as a journalist, and then as lorry driver for the US military. He tells me that he misses his old life and job greatly: “I studied at university for four years in order to become a journalist, I am passionate about that work and I dream of doing it again.”

Forced out of his hometown after writing articles that criticised the Taliban, he moved to Kabul and found work as a lorry driver for the US Army. When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, Wakil deemed it too dangerous to stay and set off on a journey to Europe.

He travelled over land through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, and then made it to Italy in a flimsy boat. With very little money, he was forced to sleep rough until he managed to find work in a restaurant where the owner was willing to overlook the fact that he did not have the right papers.

He started to establish a life in northern Italy, taking classes to learn the language and renting. Then, when the restaurant changed hands and the new owner refused to employ anyone without a work permit, he was once again jobless and without prospects. 

“After this happened, I decided to go to England,” he says. “Back home I had met some English people and they told me that life is good over there.”

Wakil then travelled by bus through France, and ended up stuck in Calais. He says: “I tried to cross the border but a policeman caught me in the back of a lorry – he beat me and sprayed me with pepper spray. After that I was frightened and I stopped trying. I decided to stay here for a while, and I set up this business to give me something to do.”


A view of tents in the camp. Photo: Olivia Acland

After just ten days in the Jungle, Wakil managed to purchase a plywood shelter off another Afghan refugee for €370. Smuggling building supplies into the camp had become very difficult, so “property prices” within the micro-economy were on the rise.

He painted the shack with blue hearts and green flowers, and stencilled the words “Jungle Shop” onto the side in mauve. When his improvised store was ready, he borrowed a bicycle and headed into Calais to buy basic supplies from cheap supermarkets.

He filled the shelves with tomatoes, fizzy drinks, milk cartons and biscuits. Each time a customer came asking for something that he didn’t have, he’d note it down and incorporate it into his next shop. In this way, his business grew and although the profits were small (around €250 a month), Wakil was relieved to be busy and working again.

Wakil’s business wasn’t raided the first day that the police came in, but after watching other shops being emptied of stock and the owners being taken to prison, he became extremely anxious. On the evening of the first raid, he invited friends to his shop to eat or take away as much of his supplies as they wanted.

“I was too worried to eat,” he says. “But I knew that the police would come for my shop in the next days and I didn’t want everything I’d bought to be wasted.”

Fearing arrest, Wakil then went to hide in Calais and returned at the end of last week to find his shop empty. 

“The police took everything,” he tells me. “When I came back and saw it all gone I felt terrible. Many more of my friends had also disappeared – I’m told they were taken to prison.”

When I express my sympathies, he replies: “Don’t worry about me; others from the Jungle are in worse situations. This has happened to many of us.”

Most of the businesses that were providing some kind of stability for displaced people like Wakil are now just empty shells. A volunteer at Care 4 Calais (a charity distributing aid in the camp) Alexandra Simmons says, “the businesses were giving independence to refugees who had lost everything. They were extremely good for people’s mental health.”

The bare shops now serve as stark reminders that it is just a matter of time before the camp is emptied of its people too.