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
Elahe Izad and Sara Sorcher
Add to Briefcase
Elahe Izad Sara Sorcher
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.

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