AIPAC’s Self-inflicted Wounds in Iran Sanctions Campaign Puncture Its Power of Deterrence

Rage from Jerusalem fueled the Jewish establishment’s hasty and unequivocal support for a Senate bill that was as dangerous as it was disingenuous.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There is a famous rabbinical parable related to the multiple punishments heaped on the Egyptians as they pursued the Israelites fleeing Egypt. It tells of a servant who brought his king rotten fish from the market, for which he was given a punishment of either eating the fish, getting lashed a hundred times or paying a heavy fine. He couldn’t quite finish the fish, begged for the lashes to stop when they reached 60 and ended up having to pay the entire fine.

So it is with AIPAC’s all-out support for the Senate’s misconceived Iran sanctions bill that has now been put on hold: it has antagonized the Obama Administration, alienated large swaths of the Democratic and Jewish left and damaged the pro-Israel lobby’s standing and stature. And the bill itself may end up right next to the decaying fish in the garbage pail of history.

Apologists for the Jewish establishment will tell you that the Administration exerted enormous partisan pressure on Democratic supporters of the Iran sanctions bill, culminating in President Obama’s thundering threat to veto it in his State of the Union address. The wavering Democrats buckled, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid balked, and the bill was put on ice. By stating that the bill “should rest on bipartisan support and that there should not be a vote at this time”, as it did on Thursday, AIPAC was simply ratifying what had become a fait accompli.

But that is only half the story, if that, because the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, at its core, was a sham. It had no legs and no logic to stand on. Some of its supporters claimed that it was meant to strengthen Obama’s hand in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, when it was clear that they meant just the opposite: to weaken the President and to sabotage the talks. They couldn’t speak this truth outright, so they surrounded it, as Churchill once said, with a bodyguard of lies.

The bill’s supporters had no rational response to the Administration’s claim that the same conditional sanctions that the bill was pushing could be legislated in a day if the talks collapsed or if Iran reneged on its commitments. They could muster only disingenuous disclaimers to the unequivocal assertion, by both Washington and Tehran, that the legislation, if approved, would contravene the Geneva agreement and bring about an Iranian walkout. And they had no conceivable contingency plan - other than denial – for the steep price that their success might exact, which could be far costlier than failure: a golden opportunity for Tehran to scuttle the talks, create an international crisis and pin the blame on the “Jewish lobby” and its “puppets” in Congress.

Instead of cool-headed calculation and calm assessment of the pros and cons of the legislation – which originated with the senators, they maintain - the Jewish leaders let themselves be swept away by the rage and resentment emanating from Jerusalem in the wake of the Geneva agreement with Iran and the diplomatic subterfuge that supposedly preceded it. The nearly unanimous public endorsement by AIPAC and other major Jewish groups of a bill that the Administration repeatedly described as dangerous and belligerent was meant to score points and exact punishment rather than promote a reasonable strategic purpose. That is one reason, perhaps, why efforts for compromise ended in failure.

The bottom line is that the lobby has suffered its second serious setback within a few short months, though the first pales in significance: the lobby’s support for the Administration’s call for military action in Syria was less prominent and less polarizing than its stalled campaign on Iran. The double whammy punctures AIPAC’s aura of influence, dilutes its power of deterrence and undermines its claim to legitimacy, all of which are in the eyes of the lobby’s beholders and dependent on their perceptions. “Jews have power because the world thinks they have power,” as the Conference of President’s Malcolm Hoenlein told Haaretz only last week: by that yardstick, it’s clear that both “the Jews” and the non-Jews of the pro-Israel lobby have significantly less power today than they did before they embarked on their hasty if not reckless Iranian campaign.

There are those who relish AIPAC setbacks and rejoice in its defeats, whether they are outright enemies or well-meaning friends: both groups tend to downplay the genuine threats and existential dangers that face Israel, notwithstanding the non-stop, hyperactive, sky-is-falling propaganda barrage of the government and its supporters. Israel could very well need a strong and influential voice in Washington, possibly as soon as the predictions and the assessments of the skeptics and the pessimists about Iran’s ultimate intentions are borne out in reality. But rather than safeguarding them for a critical crunch time, Israel and its lobby appear to be squandering their precious reserves of political goodwill and political impact on petulant sideshows and roads that lead nowhere.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington Sunday, May 22, 2011.Credit: AP

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