Wednesday, February 12, 2014

AIPAC reconsidered.

AIPAC is at a cross-road. It has sided with President Barack Obama in a very public dispute with some of the most pro-Israel members of both houses of Congress.

First the background. The U.S. and Israel share a foreign policy goal of keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel’s reasons are existential. The American administration is motivated by our strong commitment to Israel, as well as the realpolitik observation that Iran with nuclear weapons is unstable enough all by herself, but if that were to come about, the resultant nuclear arms race in the region would pose unacceptable risks.

The U.S. has waged a campaign against Iran that included sabotage, in which effort they have received support from the Israelis. Iranian nuclear scientists have a habit of dying in suspicious circumstances, though, of course, nobody is taking credit. And then there were the sanctions. Here’s where you can read about the history of the U.S. efforts to first support and then discourage Iran’s nuclear program. (Executive Summary: Democrats are tougher on Iran than Republicans. By far.)

The election of 2008 produced Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, of course, a Democratic President. Congress passed “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), with bi-partisan support and President Obama signed it into law July 1, 2010. The CISADA greatly enhanced restrictions in Iran. The sanctions regime had the desired result: Iran came to the negotiating table.

The negotiations resulted in an interim agreement which I discussed here. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said that the agreement was the “deal of the century” for the Iranians, but President Obama argued that the interim agreement was a reasonable effort to avoid war, and further that the movement in Congress to pass additional, conditional sanctions would be counter-productive.  This is what he said at the State of the Union address:
 “It is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program -- and rolled back parts of that program -- for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. 
“It's not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 
 “These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran's support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we're clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don't rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.
 “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. 
“If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran's leaders do seize the chance -- and we'll know soon enough -- then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”

That “new sanctions bill” that the President referenced was actually a thing, and AIPAC had been pushing it for months. But last week AIPAC reversed course, and agreed with Democrats who had said that “now is not the time” for new sanctions.  This move angered Republican supporters of the new sanctions bill, and it didn’t go down too well with the Israeli administration. According to the Daily Beast one GOP Senate staffer put it like this: “Republicans responded with a big middle finger.”

How did it happen that AIPAC was on the wrong side of this issue for so long? And how could it be that AIPAC could fail so spectacularly in bringing along the Republicans when it saw the light? And worst of all, how could it possibly get cross-wise with the Israeli administration?

There are people – you may even know some of them – who just hate President Obama. Netanyahu’s strained relationship with the American President has been reported on extensively. Perhaps it is because of Bibi’s close association with Mitt Romney, which led to him breaching the well-known norm of international behavior and interfering in the American internal politics.

More likely, he regards the change in American policy as a cause of the Arab Spring and therefore a dangerous thing. He’s wrong, of course, since as we have seen, the Arab Spring has resulted in the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, (exactly as I predicted here) and the emergence of a free Libya with the death of Quaddafi. And let's not forget the disarming of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. So, AIPAC could be negative about Obama and be in line with the Israeli PM’s opinion, misguided though it was. And if Bibi said that the interim deal with the Iranians was bad, AIPAC can’t be blamed for saying so. After all, they are the Israel Lobby, aren’t they?

Well, actually, I do blame them for saying that the interim deal was bad. I’m willing to forgive and forget in light of the fact that they have come to the position that I advocated before last Christmas. But I would hope that AIPAC would learn from their mistake. And what was that mistake? The mistake was in confusing Israel’s interests with Bibi Netanyahu’s interests. It has been observed that AIPAC is no longer the Israel Lobby, but rather, the Likud Lobby. (President Shimon Peres and many other prominant Israelis were much less critical of the interim deal than the PM.) 

But Bibi isn’t the only one who doesn’t like Obama. There’s a contingent of Americans who can’t stand the sight of him. I won’t speculate on why that is, though others have suggested that, like everything else in America, considerations of race enter into it.

Although AIPAC has taken steps to reverse the perception (or fact) that it has a right-leaning bias, AIPAC has also reached out with renewed vigor to a core Republican constituency, viz., evangelical Christians. Groups like CUFI (Christians United For Israel) are a natural target audience for this effort.

Some Jews say that Israel – or Jews in general, for that matter – cannot be too selective in her friends. It’s a case I might have made with regard to Israel’s association with apartheid Union of South Africa in a by-gone era. But in that case, I would have been observing Israel’s relationship to a third party. Now, we are looking at the relationship between Israel – a country and a people I love –and the United States, a country that I am proud to call my own.

I am not the first person to question whether or not Israel can trust the love of our Christian brethren. One of the founding documents of Zionism was Leo Pinsker’s, Selbstemanzipation (Auto-emancipation), published in 1882. Or more recently, Bob Dylan wrote, “Well, he got no allies to really speak of; What he gets he must pay for, he don't get it out of love.”

I’m all in favor of making strategic alliances. But in this instance, we see that fundamentalist Christians’ love of Israel was trumped by their Republican hatred of Obama. And since Republican politicians are petrified of being challenged in a primary by some fundamentalist Tea-party buffoon, they dance to whatever tune these fundamentalists call. 

Even if that amounts to a big middle finger to AIPAC.

After all, AIPAC committed an unforgiveable offense: it agreed with Obama. 

“… and tell ’Big Mitch sent ya!”

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