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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Turkey's turmoil should worry David Cameron

Splits in the Turkish government could play into the Brexiteers' hands.

While Britain focused on Sadiq v Zac and Cameron v Corbyn, in Turkey an even more dramatic contest was coming to a head. For weeks there has been growing speculation about a split between Ahmet Davutoğlu, the wonkish prime minster, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the macho, mercurial kingpin of Turkish politics. The two men have differed over a growing crackdown on freedom of expression, the conflict with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s south east and Erdoğan’s ambitions to strengthen his own power. Yesterday, a nervous-sounding Davutoğlu confirmed on live television that he would leave his post.

To outside observers, this might seem like a faraway power struggle between two men with unpronounceable names. But it matters for Britain and the impending EU referendum in two crucial ways.

1. It throws the EU-Turkey refugee deal into doubt

The controversial €6bn agreement to stem the flows to Europe was born of the strong relationship between Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only does President Erdoğan have a far more ambivalent attitude towards the EU. He has also made Merkel’s life difficult by demanding the prosecution of a German comedian who penned a crude poem about him.

Though much criticised, the EU-Turkey deal has dramatically reduced the numbers being smuggled by sea to Greece. If it collapses, Europe could be heading for a repeat of last year’s crisis, when more than 800,000 people arrived on Greek shores. In Britain, such scenes will only fuel concern about migration - a key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

2. It plays into the narrative of the Brexit camp

Brexiteers have already sought to use Erdoğan’s growing illiberalism - and Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU - to win people over to their side. Turkey’s “palace coup” (as the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet called it) cements the image of Erdoğan as an all-powerful leader who will not tolerate dissent. The accusations against Turkey are often ill-informed and tinged with Islamophobia. But they are clearly seen as effective by both sides in the referendum campaign. Only this week, David Cameron was forced to distance himself from his previous enthusiasm for Turkish accession, insisting that the prospect would not be on the cards “for decades.”

For now, Erdoğan’s intentions towards the EU deal are unclear. Perhaps he would like to take credit for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the Schengen Zone (but not the UK) - an attractive perk promised in return for Turkey’s cooperation. But it is just as easy to imagine him watching it collapse before railing against the perfidious west.

Either way, there will be nerves in Brussels, Berlin and London. Diplomats see the president as a much more difficult partner than Davutoğlu. “Erdoğan has to be handled very carefully,” said one official. “If Jean-Claude Juncker says something too blunt, who knows what will happen?”

Turkey still has several hurdles to clear before visa-free travel is approved. Ankara has made clear that it will not hold up its end of the bargain if the promise is not fulfilled. With the deadline for implementation set for the last day in June, the deal could begin imploding towards the end of next month. That, David Cameron will surely note with a gulp, would be just in time for the EU referendum.