For half a century, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has championed a strong U.S.-Israel relationship on a bipartisan basis. With Congress now enormously divided on many issues, with some evidence of personal bitterness among some members of the Senate and House from each side of the aisle toward members on the other side, the support for good American ties with Israel has been one of the very few issues that has survived the partisan bickering.
That bipartisan spirit may well come to a critical test in the coming months over U.S. policy toward Iran. Pressure is coming from the White House not to consider any new congressional sanctions against the Iranian regime and to relax certain existing sanctions in efforts to lure Iran into being more forthcoming in the negotiations now underway in Geneva over its thinly disguised nuclear weapons program. U.S. President Barack Obama and his European counterparts seem almost giddy with anticipation at being able to "close the book" on the Iranian nuclear issue, much as they have now blissfully separated themselves from the prospect of any type of fighting over the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons on its opponents.
For Obama, a bad deal (one that may allow Iran to complete its nuclear weapons program quickly at a future date) but a deal nonetheless, after years of failed American and European diplomatic efforts, is automatically a good deal. Obama and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton want to declare a victory as they did in Syria, and they seem to have allowed their delight at the more forthcoming nature of the recently elected Iranian President Hasan Rouhani to dull their critical faculties. Some members of Congress, for the moment from both political parties, seem aghast at the eagerness to reward the Iranians with something tangible at this point, in exchange for nothing more than a seeming change of heart toward negotiating with the West.
A big test lies ahead. Since Obama became president in 2009, there has been no evidence of any significant number of Democrats ever opposing his wishes if he leans on them in the name of party unity and loyalty. In the battle in the House of Representatives over the Affordable Care Act in 2010 ("Obamacare"), a few House Democrats strayed, but since Democrats comprised nearly 60 percent of the House seats at the time, and needed only a majority in the House for passage of the legislation, those who strayed were likely given permission to do so since a yes vote might have endangered their chances of re-election in 2010. In the Senate, where 60 votes were needed to kill a Republican filibuster, the Democrats had exactly 60 votes when the legislation came to a vote in 2009, and all the Democrats stayed on board, some after securing a bundle of goodies for their state. In the recent budget fights, the party discipline was strong on both sides, but unanimous on the Democratic side. None of this augurs well for Democrats having the courage to challenge Obama even if they are convinced he is wrong to be so trusting and pliable with Iran.
There is also the question of how firmly AIPAC will be willing to battle the president over Iran, should it come to that. AIPAC and much of the Jewish community have been cowed by Obama since he announced his run for the White House in 2007. Liberal Jews looked away from Obama's troubling history with anti-Israel advocates in Chicago, and argued that he voted for foreign aid and was part of the mainstream consensus on Israel when he was a Senator. Of course, many Jews were major contributors and fund-raisers for his White House effort, and his prior Senate run. The truth of the matter is that the great majority of American Jews automatically vote Democratic, and not because of a candidate's stance on Israel. Abortion rights, economic policy and the environment seem to be the decisive factors in why Jews vote Democratic, not whether the candidate is more or less pro-Israel.
Once Obama took office, his administration has enjoyed the non-stop embrace of J Street, a left-of-center group that claims it is pro-Israel and pro-peace, but seems to have been established to pressure Democratic members of Congress to distance themselves from AIPAC, and make it easier for the president to steer his foreign policy away from the consensus view in Congress. The administration has sent its top officials to J Street events, signaling its comfort with the group, and an increasing number of Democrats have used this endorsement by the White House to become regulars at J Street events, accept their PAC money in campaigns, and advocate, in a J Street way, their pro-Israel credentials.
In the run-up to what was a potential military action against Syria over its chemical weapons use, the Obama administration hung AIPAC out to dry, requesting that it use its power on Capitol Hill to lobby uneasy members from both parties to endorse a strike against Syria. The effort was hopeless, but AIPAC nonetheless sent some of its top people scurrying around Senate and House offices, dutifully responding with "how high?" when asked to jump. The explanation that was offered by AIPAC for its compliance with administration policy was that a forceful response on Syria was critical to sending the right message to Iran about U.S. will to challenge the regime on its nuclear program.
So now, Iran is suddenly front and center, and the administration is pressuring Congress to give the administration time to succeed in negotiations (with success to be defined by the president at some future point). The signs pointing to an impending cave-in of American will are everywhere.
Illinois Senator Mark Kirk and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez have been two of the leaders in endorsing additional sanctions since Iran seems to be hurting from existing ones, and more pressure, rather than concessions, are likely to be the only thing that might get meaningful Iranian action on its nuclear program. The Obama administration seems to believe that Iran conducting face to face talks is an important concession in and of itself, so Iran is now owed one by the West.
The initial meetings in Geneva brought smiles from Western negotiators, but nothing in the way of new concessions from Iran. Iran continued to claim that it has no nuclear weapons program, and that they would not agree to shut down their centrifuges or ship their nuclear fuel out of the country. The American and EU response seemed to be "thank you, we will take it," and "this non-offer represents great progress."
The administration is now lobbying Congress to delay new sanctions: "Congress has been an important partner in our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This administration continues to enforce a comprehensive set of international sanctions against the Iranian regime. There is no doubt that our efforts to apply economic pressure on Iran through sanctions have gotten us where we are today -- to have the opportunity to test Iranian intentions to seek an enduring diplomatic solution. We believe it will be helpful to allow the ongoing diplomatic negotiations to move forward before we consider any new sanctions legislation. We will continue our close consultation with the Congress, as we have in the past, so that any congressional action is aligned with our negotiating strategy as we move forward."
But the administration has also hit on a way to give the Iranians something substantive, for what appears to be nothing substantive so far in return: a proposal that ties Iranian concessions (to be determined) to relaxing existing financial sanctions that have prevented Iran from accessing cash associated with sale of its oil. Tens of billions of dollars are tied up now that could become available to Iran if Western negotiators judge the regime as having made the desired concessions. Some analysts argue that the West is throwing away its leverage in the talks by its eagerness to move the talks forward.
If Kirk, Menendez and others move ahead with new sanctions legislation, and refuse to relax existing sanctions, what will AIPAC do and what will Democrats do, when Obama begins to apply pressure? Will Democrats who are skeptical of Iran's intentions, and who believe there is no real consideration in this administration of a military option, stand firm that sanctions are all that is left for America to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, or will the army of appeasers in Congress triumph? How will the libertarian faction among Republicans respond to the White House pressure?
The pro-Israel stalwarts in Congress do not have an easy task ahead of them. The American people are tired of war, and tired of the nation obsessing about the Middle East. The media, led by The New York Times, are making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out to be a war-monger, isolated from the international community, which wants to welcome Iran into the community of nations and resolve issues over its nuclear problem (out of sight, out of mind). And then there is Obama, who never met a fight he wanted to fight unless the enemy was the Republican Party in Congress. If there is a real pro-Israel community in the House and Senate, and if AIPAC has any real lobbying power when the president is on the other side, rather than using the organization, the next few months will tell the tale.