AIPAC Bill Runs Into Unusual Resistance In Congress

In an article published in The Hill, Mike Coogan reports that some of the key legislation that emerged from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 annual policy conference is running into significant difficulties in Congress. The bills, which Lara Friedman only half-jokingly called the “Israel Best Ally With Benefits” bills, have not gained close to the overwhelming support that AIPAC has come to expect from Congress.

Indeed, more than five weeks after the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate, it has gathered only 18 co-sponsors. That’s a shockingly low total for a focal point of AIPAC lobbying. It has done better in the House of Representatives, with 171 co-sponsors, but given the more hawkish nature of the House, even that’s not a success by AIPAC’s standards.

While one shouldn’t make too much of this, it certainly seems like AIPAC reached a little too far with this bill. The main issue is a portion of the bill which, in the Senate version, would grant a US visa exemption for Israeli citizens without requiring a reciprocal arrangement from Israel. The US has visa exemption arrangements with 37 other countries, but all of them reciprocate.

Ron Kampeas quotes a staffer from a leading pro-Israel lawmaker in the US House of Representatives as saying that “It’s stunning that you would give a green light to another country to violate the civil liberties of Americans traveling abroad.”

The US concern is particularly profound after a Palestinian-American, who taught English at the Friends’ School in Ramallah, was barred by Israel in January from returning to her West Bank job after a trip to Jordan, despite having a visa that allowed her to leave and re-enter Israeli-controlled territory. Israel, undoubtedly, is concerned that a reciprocal agreement would compromise its ability to bar not only Palestinian-Americans, but also pro-Palestinian activists, from entering the country.

The House version of the bill does not exempt Israel from reciprocity, but merely calls on the Secretary of State to report to Congress on the extent of Israel’s compliance with the reciprocity requirement and “…what additional steps, if any, are required in order for Israel to qualify for inclusion in such program.” That may be one reason the House bill has done better.

The bill includes other troublesome aspects. Friedman points out that the Senate bill includes shockingly weak language in support of a two-state solution: “…language that disconnects the issue from U.S. national security interests and in doing so creates a formulation that inconsistent with the actual foreign policy of the Obama Administration or ANY previous administration.”

Even so, it remains surprising that a bill that emerged as a focal point from an AIPAC policy conference would have this much trouble. Coogan thinks this is a sign that AIPAC’s grip on Congress might be weakening.

It certainly adds to a sense that AIPAC might have reached a tipping point. Equally telling is what Coogan says about how AIPAC brought this bill to the Hill: “Numerous public reports and off-the-record accounts from legislators and staff signaled that the brazenness and late release of the Israel lobby’s legislative demands blindsided both individual members and various committees. Provisions appeared tone deaf and legally problematic, even among Israel’s strongest supporters.”

I haven’t been able to locate those “numerous public reports,” but my own sense from talking to people on Capitol Hill and other informed colleagues is that there is indeed some tension there. That’s on top of congressional bristling at AIPAC’s efforts to exempt aid to Israel from the sequestration cuts. Dylan Williams of J Street told The Forward that the possibility that AIPAC might try to lobby for exempting aid to Israel from the sequester “…seems a little tone deaf,” and that some Hill staffers were “surprised that some groups — that people from AIPAC — were asking for this.”

Does all this mean AIPAC is losing its grip? Probably not, but as members of Congress grow less enthusiastic about complying with AIPAC’s demands, the possibility that more politicians will test the widely-held but unproven maxim that opposing AIPAC is electoral suicide arises. That could make things very interesting.

AIPAC on the Defensive

This article was originally published by LobeLog, an indispensable source for foreign policy news and analysis. Check it out. 

The 2013 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference wasn’t quite the same show of arrogant power that it usually is. There seems to have been a AIPAC-620x350note of unusual concern among the 13,000 or so assembled activists. And those concerns echo some of what AIPAC’s detractors have been saying for some time.

The tone was set by AIPAC’s president, Michael Kassen at the beginning of the conference. In what Ha’aretz reporter Chemi Shalev described as “… an uncharacteristic ‘adapt or die’ alarm to the American Jewish community,” Kassen warned of “the growing allure of isolationism among our new leaders”, which would include an aversion to difficult foreign policy issues…like Israel.

Kassen urged the AIPAC activists to expand the base from its overwhelmingly Jewish one, and highlighted the participation of representatives from the African-American and Latino communities in the conference. Yet, despite this outreach, The Forward’s Natan Guttman reports that “…a look at the audience made clear that AIPAC is still largely an organization made up of white Jewish activists.”

There’s more here. Orthodox Jews are disproportionately represented at AIPAC. The Orthodox community represents around 15% of all US Jews. Support among non-orthodox Jews has been dwindling in a hurry, and despite intense efforts by AIPAC to reach out to younger Jews, the crowd is heavily skewed toward grey hair. Guttman also reports that an AIPAC official he spoke to rejected the idea that AIPAC had lost many liberal Jews to the more dovish pro-Israel group J Street by saying that “…if anything, liberal activists are turning away from the issue of Israel altogether and are not seeking a different kind of political approach.”

What AIPAC seems to be facing is the fact that its base, while very active and willing to mobilize considerable wealth as well as time and energy to support the AIPAC agenda, is aging and increasingly out of touch with most Americans. This is something commentators like myself, MJ Rosenberg and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have been contending for quite some time. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of AIPAC’s problems. Continue reading

All Eyes on Iran for AIPAC 2013 Conference

This piece was initially published at LobeLog. Please check it out, as it’s an indispensable source for foreign policy news and analysis. You won’t regret it! 

The annual Israel-Congress orgy dubbed as the AIPAC Policy Conference kicked off today. It might just as well be called the War on Iran conference — that’s sure to be the

President Obama speaking at a previous AIPAC conference, He won't be there this year.

President Obama speaking at a previous AIPAC conference, He won’t be there this year.

issue that dominates the proceedings. The US-Israel relationship is taking the second spot. And the Palestinians? More than ever before, they will be invisible.

There are a few sessions at the conference that deal with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in very general terms. But Iran will be the focus, as evidenced by related bills which AIPAC had some of its most loyal members of Congress introduce in advance of their lobbying day. Those bills work to give Israel a green light to attack Iran if it feels the need to and puts the “special relationship” between the US and Israel on paper.

Last week a Senate resolution was introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). The two senators are widely known as AIPAC favorites and have led bipartisan actions like this in the past, working with AIPAC quite closely to develop legislation favorable to the lobbying organization. The resolution states that if Israel decides to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, this would be considered an act of self-defense and that “…the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel…”

The bill is a “sense of Congress” resolution, so it is not binding; hence the word “should” rather than “will” is used. Still, it is a very clear expression that the Senate expects and desires that President Obama provide a full range of support to Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. It certainly sends a signal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will have Congress behind him if Obama tries to restrain Israel from taking such a step. While the bill’s wording clarifies that it should not be understood as a declaration of war in the event of an Israeli attack, a commitment to military support of Israel in the event of a purely Israeli decision to attack Iran could well amount to the same thing. Continue reading