How a Weaker AIPAC Makes It Easier to Vote Against Iran Sanctions

Hope for a diplomatic solution and the growth of an alternative pro-Israel lobbying group has changed the equation.

Vice President Joe Biden addresses the 4th National J Street Conference at the Washington Convention Center September 30, 2013 in Washington, D.C. J Street is a nonprofit advocacy group made up primarily of Jews based in the U.S. which says it aims to promote American leadership in ending the Arab-Israeli and Israel-Palestinian conflicts through diplomacy.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher and Elahe Izadi
Sara Sorcher Elahe Izadi
Jan. 22, 2014, 4:30 p.m.

The 59 sen­at­ors who signed on to new Ir­an sanc­tions know Pres­id­ent Obama op­poses them — and they did it any­way.

On the sur­face, the vote count — which in­cludes 16 Demo­crats — looks grim for the White House, which strongly op­poses the threat of new sanc­tions, in fa­vor of dip­lomacy. But the tally is far from the 100-vote re­buke the Sen­ate handed to the White House on the is­sue in 2011.

The truth is that it is now easi­er to vote against Ir­an sanc­tions than it has been in years past — and to op­pose one of the strongest, most in­flu­en­tial lob­by­ing groups in the coun­try: the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

For two dec­ades, AIPAC has made pres­sur­ing Ir­an its top is­sue, driv­ing Demo­crats today in­to an un­com­fort­able po­s­i­tion, wedged between an adam­ant White House and a power­ful lobby try­ing to equate sup­port for sanc­tions with sup­port for Is­rael.

“Be­ing anti-Ir­an today is like be­ing anti-So­viet dur­ing the Cold War,” said Doug Bloom­field, the group’s former le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or. “Who wants to be tagged by be­ing called pro-Ir­a­ni­an and op­pos­ing [sanc­tions]?”

Of­fi­cials at AIPAC de­clined to com­ment. But oth­ers, like Sen. Mark Kirk, the Illinois Re­pub­lic­an who coau­thored the sanc­tions bill, have been up­front about “heavy” con­tact with the pro-Is­rael com­munity and “reg­u­lar” brief­ings with AIPAC lead­er­ship about the Nuc­le­ar Weapon Free Ir­an Act, which in­cludes meas­ures to pun­ish Ir­an’s oil in­dustry if it breaches dip­lo­mat­ic com­mit­ments.

“[I’m] very happy that this has be­come the kind of test is­sue for the pro-Is­rael com­munity,” he said. “The pro-Is­rael com­munity is go­ing to be heav­ily present in most states. This is a chance for a sen­at­or to go back and tell them that, ‘I’m with you “¦ on a crit­ic­al is­sue, like the sur­viv­al of Is­rael in the 21st cen­tury.’ “

Yet a sig­ni­fic­ant minor­ity of sen­at­ors is de­clin­ing that op­por­tun­ity.

The rise of J Street, a young­er pro-Is­rael lobby push­ing hard against the new sanc­tions, is serving as a coun­ter­weight to AIPAC on this is­sue. Re­vived hope for a dip­lo­mat­ic break­through with new Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani helps J Street’s cause. So does polit­ic­al pres­sure from Obama. By de­coup­ling sup­port for Is­rael with sup­port for new sanc­tions against Ir­an, the group is mak­ing it easi­er for law­makers in­clined to sup­port the White House.

“We’ve been work­ing di­li­gently on Cap­it­ol Hill and in the Jew­ish-Amer­ic­an com­munity to raise sup­port for the pres­id­ent’s dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts vis-a-vis Ir­an, and op­pose any le­gis­la­tion which would threaten it,” said Dylan Wil­li­ams, dir­ect­or of gov­ern­ment af­fairs at J Street. “We feel very strongly that the cur­rent bill in the Sen­ate would threaten dip­lomacy.”

J Street’s in­flu­ence is also clear in the money it spends. Among pro-Is­rael groups, JStreet­PAC was the largest single polit­ic­al donor dur­ing the 2008 and 2012 cycles, con­trib­ut­ing nearly $2.7 mil­lion to fed­er­al can­did­ates, parties, and out­side groups.

And some law­makers sup­por­ted by J Street have been vo­cal in sup­port of the group’s po­s­i­tion. Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein, for in­stance, has spoken out strongly against the new Ir­an sanc­tions.

As one con­gres­sion­al aide put it, “Those are the polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tions that are made easi­er when a group like J Street gives you cov­er.”

Le­git­im­ate Dif­fer­ences

Poli­cy­makers for and against sanc­tions have le­git­im­ate dif­fer­ences of opin­ion on strategy to achieve the same goal: get­ting Ir­an to give up its pur­suit of nuc­le­ar weapons.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves new sanc­tions now will in­ter­fere with the fi­nal deal the U.S. and world powers are try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with Ir­an. Yet Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu, and pro-Is­rael groups in the U.S. sup­port­ing Is­raeli lead­er­ship on this is­sue, want to keep the pres­sure tight dur­ing the in­ter­im deal, which does not fully dis­mantle Tehran’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram. AIPAC and the bill’s sup­port­ers in Con­gress be­lieve the threat of new sanc­tions will ac­tu­ally strengthen the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ations. The le­gis­la­tion gives Ir­an a “clear choice,” AIPAC’s dir­ect­or of policy and gov­ern­ment af­fairs Brad Gor­don said in a video on the group’s web­site. “Give up your pur­suit of a nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­ity, or face fur­ther crip­pling eco­nom­ic sanc­tions.”

On Cap­it­ol Hill, the de­bate is less over tac­tics than ideo­logy. Law­makers are left in a tricky po­s­i­tion: Those op­tim­ist­ic about dip­lomacy or want­ing to side with the White House are of­ten left with the im­pres­sion that fail­ing to back more sanc­tions against Tehran is tan­tamount to break­ing faith with the Jew­ish state.

“It’s been a very clev­er lob­by­ing cam­paign, be­cause those who are pro­mot­ing [sanc­tions] “¦ have framed the dis­cus­sion: You’re either for Ir­an, or against Ir­an,” Bloom­field said. “What the hell kind of choice is that?”

The most dir­ect in­flu­ence AIPAC ex­erts on the Hill is via lob­by­ing; the group spent $2.2 mil­lion in 2013, more than three-fourths of the total spent on pro-Is­rael lob­by­ing that year. AIPAC’s edu­ca­tion­al arm is one of the biggest spon­sors of con­gres­sion­al travel, too, spend­ing about $9 mil­lion on nearly 900 law­maker trips to Is­rael since 2000, ac­cord­ing to Le­gis­torm.

Un­like J Street, AIPAC does not dir­ectly con­trib­ute to can­did­ates. However, dona­tions from the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s lead­er­ship have long been tracked by the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics as pro-Is­rael polit­ic­al con­tri­bu­tions.

AIPAC’s sup­port for sanc­tions has some­times forced law­makers in­to verbal ac­ro­bat­ics. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, for in­stance, stresses how he has voted for “the strongest” sanc­tions in the past. If ne­go­ti­ations fail, he said, “then I’m go­ing to vote for even stronger sanc­tions in the fu­ture. But at this point, I think ne­go­ti­ations are our best hope of tak­ing the nuc­le­ar weapons out of Ir­an and avoid­ing war.”

Does he feel this a polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion to take, giv­en that pro-Is­rael groups are push­ing so hard? “Yes,” Durbin said. He also ac­know­ledges the pres­sure is pre­val­ent on Cap­it­ol Hill. As for how he’s felt it, he said, “I’m not go­ing to get in­to that.”

A Pro-Is­rael Al­tern­at­ive

Foun­ded in 2008, J Street in­tro­duced an al­tern­at­ive defin­i­tion to what, ex­actly, it means to be pro-Is­rael.

“There was a very clear defin­i­tion of what was con­sidered to be part of the main­stream Jew­ish com­munity, and it ba­sic­ally had to do with agree­ing with most of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment’s policies,” the aide said.

Now there’s a di­vide. “What J Street says is, ‘We don’t have to agree with Bibi Net­an­yahu, when we agree with some of the op­pos­i­tion lead­ers in Is­rael.’ ” the aide said. “They’ve def­in­itely broadened the defin­i­tion, the bound­ar­ies, of what it means to be pro-Is­rael, and they’ve em­powered these voices, which ex­ist in both the Amer­ic­an-Jew­ish com­munity, in Is­rael — and in Con­gress.”

The mes­sage is, ap­par­ently, res­on­at­ing. Not one of the sev­en Sen­ate can­did­ates that J Street of­fi­cially en­dorsed in 2012 have signed onto the re­cent sanc­tions bill. “Ob­vi­ously we’re ex­cited to see when folks take what we think is the best po­s­i­tion,” said Dan Kalik, J Street’s dir­ect­or of polit­ic­al af­fairs.

Of course, these sen­at­ors are a minor­ity. But it is sig­ni­fic­ant that, rather than avoid­ing co­spon­sor­ing sanc­tions or vot­ing quietly against them, some law­makers — in­clud­ing Fein­stein — are com­ing out to say pub­licly they do not be­lieve this is the time for new sanc­tions.

In­tro­du­cing new sanc­tions now, Fein­stein said on the Sen­ate floor last week, “de­fies lo­gic, it threatens in­stant re­verse, and it ends what has been un­pre­ced­en­ted dip­lomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Can­didly, in my view, it is a march to­ward war.”

Fein­stein re­ceived $82,171 through JStreet­PAC dur­ing her 2012 run, mak­ing the Cali­for­nia Demo­crat the fifth-top re­cip­i­ent of the group’s money that cycle, and the group her second-largest in­di­vidu­al donor.

Lob­by­ing Ahead

In the battle for in­flu­ence, groups sup­port­ing sanc­tions will con­tin­ue to high­light the Ir­a­ni­an threat. Ben Ch­ou­ake, a phys­i­cian who heads NORPAC, a New Jer­sey-based group back­ing can­did­ates com­mit­ted to the “strength, se­cur­ity, and sur­viv­al” of Is­rael and that is push­ing for sanc­tions, said the mes­sage is well-re­ceived.

“When you go to a mem­ber of Con­gress and say, ‘This is an ex­ist­en­tial threat to the world,’ you ex­plain why, and it’s a lo­gic­al ex­plan­a­tion, people usu­ally get it,” he said. “And they un­der­stand their re­spons­ib­il­it­ies.”

A ma­jor play­er among pro-Is­rael groups, NORPAC con­trib­uted nearly $2 mil­lion to fed­er­al can­did­ates, parties, and out­side groups in elec­tion cycles from 2008 to 2012. While NORPAC of­fers no ul­ti­mat­ums in ex­change for mon­et­ary sup­port, Ch­ou­ake said, Ir­an “is clearly the No. 1 is­sue.”

“What’s on the table is the pro­spect of nuc­le­ar gen­o­cide,” Ch­ou­ake said. “They want to do to the Jews in 12 minutes what Hitler did in 12 years. You just can’t let crazy people get nuc­le­ar weapons. There’s nowhere to hide.”

Con­vin­cing pres­id­ents, however, can be a dif­fer­ent story. “Vir­tu­ally every pres­id­ent hates these sanc­tions bills,” said Ch­ou­ake, who has been at NORPAC for 15 years. “Clin­ton hated it; Bush fought it tooth and nail. But every ad­min­is­tra­tion, after it was passed, took great ad­vant­age of these sanc­tions and ul­ti­mately ap­pre­ci­ated they could be used as a tool to fa­cil­it­ate Amer­ic­an policy.”

In his last term, Obama was forced to learn to love the Ir­an sanc­tions Con­gress muscled through. This time, he may not have to.

What We're Following See More »
Kaine Sticks Mostly to the Autobiography
15 minutes ago

Tim Kaine introduced himself to the nation tonight, devoting roughly the first half of his speech to his own story (peppered with a little of his fluent Spanish) before pivoting to Hillary Clinton—and her opponent. "Hillary Clinton has a passion for children and families," he said. "Donald Trump has a passion, too: himself." His most personal line came after noting that his son Nat just deployed with his Marine battalion. "I trust Hillary Clinton with our son's life," he said.

Bloomberg: Neither Party Has a Monopoly on Good Ideas
1 hours ago

Michael Bloomberg said he wasn't appearing to endorse any party or agenda. He was merely there to support Hillary Clinton. "I don't believe that either party has a monopoly on good ideas or strong leadership," he said, before enumerating how he disagreed with both the GOP and his audience in Philadelphia. "Too many Republicans wrongly blame immigrants for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on climate change and gun violence," he said. "Meanwhile, many Democrats wrongly blame the private sector for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on education reform and deficit reduction." Calling Donald Trump a "dangerous demagogue," he said, "I'm a New Yorker, and a know a con when I see one."

Biden: Obama ‘One of the Finest Presidents’
1 hours ago

Vice President Biden tonight called President Obama "one of the finest presidents we have ever had" before launching into a passionate defense of Hillary Clinton. "Everybody knows she's smart. Everybody knows she's tough. But I know what she's passionate about," he said. "There's only one person in this race who will help you. ... It's not just who she is; it's her life story." But he paused to train some fire on her opponent "That's not Donald Trump's story," he said. "His cynicism is unbounded. ... No major party nominee in the history of this country has ever known less."

Trump and Clinton Equally Disliked
5 hours ago

According to the most recent Gallup poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are equally disliked. The poll, conducted between July 18 and July 25, shows both major party candidates for president are viewed favorably by 37 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 58 percent of respondents. This poll is bad news for Clinton, who has received better favorable and unfavorable ratings in nearly every poll over the last year.

Pence: “Serious Consequences” if Russia Hacked DNC
6 hours ago

The same day that Donald Trump encouraged Russia to hack the State Department and "find the 30,000 emails that are missing," the GOP nominee for vice president took a more serious approach. "If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences," Pence said in a statement. Trump's comments at a press conference this morning were rebuked by individuals across the political spectrum, while some on Trump's team, including prominent surrogate Newt Gingrich, have called his comments a "joke."