Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

On AIPAC and Lobbying

AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal has, unsurprisingly, led to increased attention about its advocacy activities. Those who support the deal, and oppose AIPAC’s own position against the deal, have made some inaccurate or misleading claims about its activities. The crudest simply argue that AIPAC is a foreign agent and is looking out only for Israel.

But the more sophisticated have tried to draw a connection between AIPAC’s stance on the Iraq War and the Iran deal. That is, they claim AIPAC lobbied in favor of the war, and so cannot be trusted to make smart policy arguments today.

But there’s no evidence that AIPAC did lobby for the invasion of Iraq. The claim is supported only by statements by AIPAC leaders and others (sometimes second hand) that they lobbied. But while those seeking to undermine AIPAC’s arguments credit these few statements as truth, they ignore statements by other AIPAC people saying the exact opposite. That’s selection bias.

Moreover, some of these statements aren’t explicit acknowledgement of actual lobbying, but hypotheticals and qualified “we might do so.” One should also note that lobby groups prefer to play up their credentials and their successes; power is partly perception, especially in a place like D.C.

Finally, this is D.C. we’re talking about. People meet other people all the time, and talk about policy and political issues all the time, sharing ideas and information. That’s perfectly normal, but it’s not lobbying.

I’ve yet to see any actual evidence of lobbying. This might include specific meetings or strategy documents about lobbying, a chronological discussion of a politician changing her mind on the invasion of Iraq after a series of meetings with AIPAC officials or board members, or highlighting the same language used by AIPAC on a potential Iraq invasion in a Congressional resolution or some other official policy document.

Without any of this, claims about AIPAC and the Iraq war are at best uninformed, at worst conspiratorial. Surely a serious public debate about an important foreign policy like the Iran deal deserves much more than either of those.

Some Implications of the Geneva Deal

An interim deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran has just been signed. There is certainly a lot to talk about, but here are some implications for Israel and the American Jewish community.

1. From Israel’s perspective, there are some pretty big holes in the agreement. But that was to be expected: it’s an interim deal only, and could not have addressed all the big issues. The question that Jerusalem will be thinking about for the next six to 12 months is whether it’s a genuinely strong foundation for a final deal, or whether it’s just a façade for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

2. Given these holes, what does this say about Washington’s commitment to Israeli security? I don’t expect the American-Israeli relationship to stumble or collapse. It’s simply too strong, rooted in too many areas (public opinion, shared interests, strategic cooperation, and more) to fall apart over this single issue.

Nor is there anywhere else Israel can turn for military aid or diplomatic cover. The notion that France could ever have replaced the United States was simply silly; not only are those ties not as intense, but you cannot replace the genuinely special relationship between the U.S. and Israel overnight with a country that is as interested in building ties with Iran as it might be in building them with Israel. And Israeli politics and society is oriented toward the United States, and has been for a long time; shifting such attitudes isn’t easy.

3. It’s unclear how Israel will react in concrete terms to the deal. The choice is between sitting back and letting the deal take its course, with some independent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program; or continuing to take action against it, through covert means. It’s not an easy choice—doing the latter could prompt Iran to end up pulling out of the agreement, leaving Israel to blame and further isolating it in the international community on this issue.

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the process leading up the Iran deal badly. In Raphael Ahren’s terms, he gambled and lost. He was belligerent and condescending; he threatened; and he directly called on both Congress and the U.S. Jewish community to fight against their president’s policy because he, Bibi, told them it was wrong.

It’s not clear he would have gotten much better terms, but he would have been more intimately involved in the process, demonstrated Israel is a responsible actor on an issue of critical importance, and been in a stronger position to make demands in the aftermath of the deal. He also would likely have garnered more sympathy for Israel’s position. It’s not that he cried wolf too often, but rather that he did it so belligerently and derisively, even hysterically. He doesn’t care that others started to roll their eyes by the end, but it is a problem if they start to think Israel isn’t being constructive but just obstructive; then it gets shut out of the process. This is important as Iran is now seen as a full partner in this process, rather than just the enemy against which sanctions and threats had to be applied.

Still, Bibi should be content that at least one part of his strategy paid off. It seems clear that without the severe economic sanctions and believable threat of military action, Iran wouldn’t have come to the table. Bibi can build on these in the time leading up to negotiations over a final deal.

5. Don’t expect this to change Israel’s domestic political conditions. Israelis might not be happy with a deal, but plenty of analysts and security officials have said it’s a good deal to begin with; it’s not at all clear that Israelis would vote Bibi out on this issue alone; and there’s still no serious challenger to him and to Likud. And there’s still some time to go before the consequences of the deal will be known and before the outcome of bargaining over a final deal; lots can happen in Israel between now and then to change Israelis’ minds one way or the other. That said, Bibi would be coming up on his fourth term—which would be unprecedented. It’s just as likely that he decision to step down before then or to lose an election would be the result of too much time at the top, rather than Iran.

6. Expect Israel to take a harder line in talks with the Palestinians. Bibi is angry and frustrated with Obama, and already thinks he’s been ignoring Israel’s concerns. It’s not that Bibi will stop the talks, but that he’s likely to become more intransigent.

7. Israel’s and AIPAC’s failure to change President Barack Obama’s mind on the negotiations underlines what serious observers of Jewish lobbying have long know: that the ability to “win” is conditioned by several factors, including external conditions and the determination of the president. Congress has always been more open to AIPAC’s (and other groups’) advocacy; but because Congress’s role in foreign policy is limited, so, too, is the ability to change the president’s mind when he is set on something. The Iran deal and the failure to get Congress to vote yes on Syria strikes are some good recent case studies to use in discussions of how American policy toward the Middle East gets made.

8. On the dynamics in Jewish advocacy more generally: The political polarization of the last several years hasn’t diminished, and that has made it easier for groups on the left and on the right to fight against each other, putting the big centrist groups in the difficult position of trying to maintain a balance between them. But I think the far-right groups (like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel) will be weaker for it. Their loud and ultimately futile opposition to much of the Obama Administration’s agenda has demonstrated that while they get notice (see how often their claims are cited in news accounts), they don’t get results. The big question is whether groups like AIPAC and the ADL will recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. The evidence isn’t clear at this point. But like Bibi, they will have much to reflect on in the coming months.