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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.