It is clear that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops to defeat the nuclear deal arrived at recently between the P5+1 nations and Iran. The Israeli lobby in the US is leading the charge on Netanyahu’s behalf by working on the members of the US Congress. Congress has sixty days to pass a vote of disapproval on the deal. Given Republican majorities in both houses and the desire of that party to defeat any significant act by president Obama, that vote seems to be a foregone conclusion and you can expect to hear every Republican candidate condemn the deal at tomorrow’s debate. It is also clear that Obama will then veto that vote. So the real question is whether Congress can muster the two-thirds majority to override the veto.
Israel and the Israel lobby are going all out to try and muster that supermajority. Phillip Weiss writes that Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu is going to make a special appeal to American Jews show their loyalty to the Jewish state by exerting pressure on Congress to kill the deal and he has already issued the first of such appeals. The congressional vote on the Iran deal is shaping up to be a test of the power of the Israel lobby to bend the US Congress to its will and derail the deal. They tried earlier with the infamous letter sent by 47 Republican senators to the Iranian leaders not to trust any deal arrived at with Obama’s administration. Both Iranians and US observers treated this extraordinary effort to undermine American diplomacy with both incredulity and contempt. Significantly, not a single Democratic senator signed the letter and the key question is how many Democrats will break with their own party’s president and vote to scuttle the nuclear deal, what Obama clearly sees as a signature achievement of his administration.
There was a time when this would not have even been an issue because the opposition of Israel and the Israel lobby to a deal would have prevented things from getting even this far. Recall the boast over a decade ago by Steven Rosen, then director of foreign-policy issues at AIPAC, to a reporter at lunch, “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
That was at a time when even talking about the existence of the Israel lobby, let alone its power over Congress, was taboo in the US media. That changed with the publication in 2007 of the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt that brought the topic out into the open. That discussion has made the lobby have to work harder and the vote on the Iran deal shows the extent of the effort.
On Monday, almost every freshman member of the US Congress will jet off on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel for a week of briefings and lobbying intended to ensure they vote against the Iran nuclear deal agreed on 14 July.
The junket is an annual affair organised by Aipac, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, and very few freshman turn it down. More than sixty out of a total of 70 are expected to go this year, flying business class and staying at five star hotels. Aipac’s aim is that at least 80% of any Congress has been on one of its trips to Israel at least once. It is an unparalleled example, among the world’s democracies, of one country’s influence on the political system of another. Aipac did not respond to a request for comment.
The journalistic shorthand for Aipac used to be “the Jewish-American lobby” but that is less and less accurate, particularly over the Iranian nuclear deal. Polls suggest a solid majority of American Jews support Obama and his administration’s diplomacy. A survey commissioned by the LA Jewish Journal, found the spread was 48% to 28% in favour of the deal. But Aipac is fervently against it.
Peter Beinart, a US political commentator for Haaretz says the divergence is explained by the fact that AIPAC’s politics are controlled by a few wealthy donors rather than American Jews in general. He wrote: “The principle that structures organized American Jewish life is not democracy. It is plutocracy.”
Not only does Aipac not represent mainstream American Jewish opinion, it also presents quite a narrow window into Israeli opinion, faithfully echoing the hawkish line of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. According to sources familiar with planning for the trip, it has resisted appeals to include briefings from former members of the Israeli security establishment who are supportive of the deal.
Aipac expects to spend some $40m on an ad campaign in about 40 states, focusing on vulnerable Democrats, turning up the pressure on them in their home states over the summer recess. Its liberal, pro-deal counterpart, J Street, can only hope to spend up to $5m.
Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s director of communications said: “They have money on their side, but we have the actual weight of American Jewish opinion on ours. AIPAC and RJC’s strategy is to sink a lot of dollars into making a lot of noise in order to try and compensate for the fact that, when it comes to where American Jews stand on this deal, the numbers are working against them.”
A lot of the Israeli lobbying effort is being targeted at influential Democratic New York senator Charles Schumer to not only oppose the deal but to lobby his fellow Democrats against it. Schumer actually boasts that he has a mission from god to be a protector of Israel. He had initially indicated that he would support the deal because it was in the American interest but the heavy lobbying seems to be making him uncertain. Greg Sargent does some calculations and thinks that despite Schumer’s defection, the deal looks safe.
In the House of Representatives, one of the Democratic leaders Congressman Steven Israel has said that he will vote to oppose the deal and also campaign against it.
But other groups are organizing counter-lobbying efforts in support of the deal, although they do not have the same financial clout as AIPAC.
This vote will reveal if the lobby still has the power that Rosen boasted about a decade ago.