Most experts agree that a Congressional veto of President Obama’s plan for a U.S. military strike on Syria would not only damage his presidency but also erode America’s standing in the Middle East and diminish its power of deterrence, especially towards Iran.
But now that the American Jewish establishment has come off the fence to loudly endorse the president’s policy, the fallout from an Administration failure to convince Congress could claim two additional victims: Israel and the influential lobby that supports it.
If AIPAC goes “all out," as Politico reported on Thursday, and “250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week," but the House of Representatives nonetheless votes against the President, then the lobby’s image of invincibility, to which it owes much of its influence, will inevitably be jeopardized.
And if Congress nixes the plan to punish Syria for its August 21 chemical attack, despite the Administration’s argument that doing so would endanger Israel’s security, then it is Israel’s power of deterrence, which includes a perception of absolute Congressional support, that would be diminished.
True, Israel and AIPAC have lost monumental battles in Congress before. In 1981, a full court press by AIPAC and other Israel supporters swayed the Democratic House but failed to convince the Republican-controlled Senate to block President Reagan’s plan to sell advanced AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. In 1991, 1300 pro-Israel lobbyists, Jewish and otherwise, who also “stormed the halls of Capitol Hill”, did not succeed in dissuading Congress from accepting President George H Bush’s call for a four-month moratorium on loan guarantees to Israel.
In both of these famous failures, however, AIPAC and other Jewish groups were pitting themselves against the President, not fighting on his behalf. And in both cases, the lobby’s defeat, by the narrowest of margins, actually made it stronger.
As journalist and author J.J. Goldberg describes in his book Jewish Power, the Reagan Administration was so overawed by the influence and reach that AIPAC showed in the AWACS duel that it embraced the lobby as its ally throughout the rest of Reagan’s term. And Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992 in the midst of his quarrel with the Jewish community made his triumph over the lobby go down in history as a Pyrrhic victory indeed.
In 2013, however, AIPAC and other Jewish groups have placed themselves squarely – and ironically, given their troubled history - on the same side as Obama, and will thus be deprived of using the power and aura of the presidency as an excuse for any defeat. Congress, on the other hand, has been viewed in recent years as AIPAC’s stomping grounds and as Israel’s best and last defense, even against the American president, as Obama himself found out in his first term: a defeat on home turf would thus reverberate throughout Washington, not only for Obama but for those who backed him as well.
And if it is the Republican-dominated House that rebuffs the president while the Democratic controlled Senate endorses him, as many analysts now predict, the popular and self-perception of both parties could very well change and evolve, influencing their relations with Israel as well.
After all, in the 2012 elections, American Jews are thought to have voted for Obama despite the fact that he and his fellow Democrats were considered to be “softer” on Israel than the hawkish Republican Party, in which support for Israel knows no bounds.
As Mitt Romney said in one of the Republican debates, before making crucial decisions on Israel’s security “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’” Two years later, Netanyahu may be calling back, but Republicans are suddenly keeping their phones off the hook.
And while a Republican denial of Obama’s resolution on Syria would probably stem from myriad considerations – including, first and foremost, a rejection of Obama itself – it would nonetheless move the party in the isolationist direction of Rand Paul and other “America Firsters”, and undermine the claim that Republicans care for Israel’s security more than their Democratic rivals.
Now it’s true that AIPAC and Jewish groups have steered clear of mentioning Israel as a reason for America to attack Syria, citing the need to maintain America’s stature in the world and to make sure that “barbarism on such a mass scale is not given a free pass”. That doesn’t diminish, of course, the absolute identification of Israel with the lobby that carries its name and the fallout that both would suffer if Congress rejects their claims.
The Administration, in any case, has publicly and prominently placed the welfare of Israel and the deterrence of Iran high on the list of factors that mandate an attack against Damascus. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone even further, comparing inaction against the Syrian regime to American and international inaction in the face of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. It may be unclear how this line is playing out in Peoria or Topeka, but it has certainly stirred Jewish sentiments and strengthened the hand of those who had urged the community to end its self-imposed vow of silence and to come out swinging in favor of the Administration.
Indeed, for most Jewish leaders, as well as for the overwhelming majority of Israeli decision-makers, the argument for a military strike against Syria and against a Congressional veto is almost a no-brainer. Israelis may have viewed Obama’s hesitation to respond immediately to the August 21 attacks and his decision to seek Congressional approval as a sign of weakness, but most agree now that a Congressional veto that would scuttle an American attack would wreak untold damage on America’s power of deterrence, in the region and towards Iran in particular, and thus undermine Israel’s national security as well.
It is no wonder, therefore, that a lobby and an American Jewish establishment that purports to support Israel would step up to the plate at such a critical time, though one may question the tactical wisdom of moving so directly and abruptly from total silence to “going all out”, as the Jewish organizations did just a few days ago.
A defeat for the Administration could turn into a significant and potentially negative milestone for Israel and its lobby as well, not only in Congress and the media, but with the American public as well.
It is public opinion, after all, that is said to be driving members of Congress against a Syrian attack: Americans are turning away from being “the world’s policeman” but in the process, even if unintentionally, they may be turning their backs on Israel as well.
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