Whether reviled or admired, the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States has long been the stuff of legend. Both its detractors and its supporters alike view the lobby, especially AIPAC, as enjoying immense influence in Washington DC. This perception has itself fuelled the lobby’s power, as politicians fear incurring its supposedly mighty wrath. Now this power is being tested in a very public manner.
The “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013” is a bill that was introduced in the Senate two weeks ago by Mark Kirk (R-Ill) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) , and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 26 senators. It would impose even more crippling sanctions on Iran if it violates the interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month, or if no comprehensive agreement - involving the complete dismantling of Iran’s enrichment capabilities - is achieved after the expiration of the interim deal. The bill also calls for American “diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel if Prime Minister Netanyahu decides to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or an anti-Semite to see AIPAC’s hands all over this bill. Whatever the motivations of the senators proposing the legislation - it is worth noting that Senator Kirk is one of the biggest recipients of campaign funding from pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) - this is a bill that AIPAC strongly supports, along with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, two other influential members of the pro-Israel lobby.
This does not necessarily mean that the new Iran sanctions bill is being put forward simply at the behest of the pro-Israel lobby, as some have suggested. Suspicion of Tehran’s intentions, skepticism about the prospects for a comprehensive nuclear accord, and opposition to the Obama Administration’s Iran policy (and, for some Republican Senators, pretty much everything President Obama does) are also driving Congressional support for this legislation. Nevertheless, AIPAC, along with other pro-Israel groups, are actively lobbying in favor of it (with encouragement from Jerusalem, no doubt).
Is this proof, then, of the pro-Israel lobby’s power? Is it evidence that, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued in their best-selling book "The Israel Lobby" and "U.S. Foreign Policy," it dictates U.S. policy towards the Middle East? Not at all. If anything, far from proving the lobby’s power, the Iran sanctions bill demonstrates its limitations.
For one thing, there is still significant opposition to the proposed legislation, despite AIPAC’s support for it. Ten senators, all of them chairs of important Senate committees, have come out publicly against it. This is surely not something that they would do if the pro-Israel lobby was as powerful and fearsome, as many believe it to be.
For another thing, not all pro-Israel lobby groups actually support this legislation - the more dovish groups J Street and Americans for Peace Now oppose it. The pro-Israel lobby is not a monolith. It is divided on this issue, as it has long been divided on other issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As a result, if they want to be ‘pro-Israel,’ American politicians can support any number of things. They can vote for or against further sanctions on Iran, and there will be pro-Israel groups, and PAC money that will back them either way (J Street’s PAC now gives more money than any other pro-Israel PAC).
Most importantly, American foreign policy is really made in the White House, not on Capitol Hill. However much sway the pro-Israel lobby, and AIPAC in particular, has in Congress, it is no match for a determined President when it comes to foreign policy. On the few occasions when AIPAC has directly challenged a president, as it famously did over President Ronald Reagan’s sale of AWACs aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and President George H.W. Bush’s suspension of loan guarantees to Israel in 1991, it has lost. Now that President Barack Obama has promised to veto the Iran sanctions bill if it gets through the Senate, AIPAC will probably suffer another defeat.
If AIPAC does lose this battle with the Obama Administration, it should surely prove that it is not as all-powerful as many imagine it to be. Such proof, however, is unlikely to convince those for whom the pro-Israel lobby has become a convenient scapegoat that they can blame for the failings of American foreign policy.
Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is also the co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development at Northeastern University. He is the co-author of "Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within" (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of "The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending/Defining the Nation" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
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