Over the weekend Mitt Romney launched his electoral swing to Jerusalem – with a coordinated effort in the US from the usual suspects at the Emergency Committee for Israel here and here, in tandem with the Republican Jewish Coalition – it’s worth remembering that this is not necessarily just a cynical campaign maneuver. No doubt, there is the ambition to peel off some Jewish votes, especially in states like Florida, while the expected fundraising affair in Jerusalem ($50,000 minimum ticket) promises to add quite a few shekels to Romney’s campaign coffers. But that’s only part of the story.
Romney is no Wilard-come-lately when it comes to serving the interests of Israel. His ties to the Israeli Right and especially Likud Party President Benjamin Netanyahu go back many years. Mitt met Ben in 1976, when the two were business school graduates in Boston. Netanyahu, then calling himself “Benjamin Nitai” from MIT’s Sloan School, and Romney, with a Harvard MBA, worked together as corporate consultants. Their close relationship continued over the years, through the various political ups and downs experienced by the ambitious duo.
When Romney was elected for one term as Governor of Massachusetts in 2002 his presidential ambitions were already clear. After leaving office early in 2007 – his successor, Deval Patrick was inaugurated on January 4 – Romney wasted no time in effectively launching his first presidential bid, not in Boston or Salt Lake City, but in Israel. On January 20, 2007, the brand-new ex-Governor flew off to Herzliya for the annual Interdisciplinary Security Conference, whose theme that year was “Still Time to Stop Iran”. (Romney was not alone; aspiring candidates Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain also spoke, though via satellite, to the assembled delegates.)
The next day, Romney was in the audience to hear Netanyahu – Likud Party leader but then out of elected office – address the Conference:
…on the economic level, we are taking action to advance voluntary sanctions on Iran. There is no need to wait for the United Nations to impose significant sanctions in the Security Council. A historic example of this is the action take against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
It must start in the large financial institutions in the West, led by the US pension funds. We are at the start of this plan, but we need to increase efforts. The moment the snowball of voluntary sanctions against Iran starts rolling, it will put an immense amount of pressure on the regime and the Iranian people. Such voices are already being heard in Iran.
An operation is needed here that isn’t partial, that is coordinated, and that Israel needs to lead. First and foremost, the action needs to focus on the United States, and must kickstart Jewish public opinion, the Congress and the Senate, American media, economic forces, and the average citizens.
It has been said that we need to maintain a low profile in regards to Iran. This is true in regards to our means of self-defense. However, when recruiting an international front against someone who is threatening genocide against the Jewish people in Israel is in question, who will lead this campaign if not the Jews themselves?
Whether Netanyahu thought up this idea on his own– he had been in the US during the 1980’s when the grassroots campaign for divestment from South African Apartheid took off – or if it was whispered in his ear by any of the numerous right-wing pro-Zionist operatives he knew (like Charles Jacobs or Frank Gaffney), is impossible to know for certain. The idea for a US Iran divestment campaign had already been floated in a 2006 paper by Christopher Holton, who later became head of the “Divest Terror Initiative” at Gaffney’s far-right and anti-Islam Center for Security Policy.
When Mr. Netanyahu informed Mr. Romney of a personal campaign to persuade American pension funds to divest from businesses tied to Iran, Mr. Romney offered up his Rolodex. Before he left Israel, Mr. Romney set up several meetings with government officials in the United States for his old colleague. “I immediately saw the wisdom of his thinking,” Mr. Romney said. Back in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney sent out letters to legislators requesting that the public pension funds they controlled sell off investments from corporations doing business with Iran.
On January 23 Romney in his own address to the Herzliya Conference, “called for economic sanctions against Iran “at least as severe” as those imposed on South Africa during its apartheid era, in an effort to isolate the Central Asian nation and convince it to give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.” He continued:
We also have to be imaginative in the way we pressure Iran economically and send a message to its leaders and its people that the world is not happy. In my meetings in Israel this week, I have become aware of a potential US pension system to further isolate the Iranian economy. We should explore a selective disinvestment policy. After a series of briefings here, I actually contacted the Treasurer of my own state of Massachusetts and the Governors of some of the neighboring states to begin this process.
Netanyahu was not on hand for Romney’s speech because he was already in Boston (via Romney’s private jet?) to meet with Massachusetts State Treasurer Tim Cahill, legislative leaders and members of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. The response to the proposal was apparently lukewarm at first. Cahill said he would examine the idea, but that any action would have to be approved by the legislature.
Meanwhile, members of the Boston JCRC pressed the issue more widely, arguing at the February national meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs “to form a ’Stop Iran’ coalition that would launch political, economic and educational initiatives against the Iranian nuclear threat, including a mass demonstration in Washington and a divestment campaign.” But the rest of the delegates were skittish. Jewish-American opinion had turned decisively against the Iraq war and there was little stomach for another campaign that could climax in a military confrontation. Not only that, but Walt and Mearsheimer’s initial essay on The Israel Lobby had already appeared in the London Review of Books and there was intense nervousness about what might be perceived as another Jewish-establishment and Israel supported military confrontation.
It took AIPAC to whip the troops into line. On March 13, 2007 Haaretz reported that “various Israeli sources and the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are also contributing to the efforts, particularly through specific legislation in various American states where pension funds hold stock in firms invested in Iran.” At its annual Washington DC Policy Conference later in March there were at least two panels on Iran divestment and the tactic was formally adopted after a closed-door meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. Vice-President Dick Cheney got a warm reception, but all the 2008 presidential candidates were there. Obama’s speech — apparently written by WINEP’s Dennis Ross, among others — was full of strident calls for punishing Iran with “aggressive diplomacy”. (Ross went on to co-found the anti-Iran lobbying group United Against Nuclear Iran - UANI).
By May 9, AIPAC published its memo “Divestment: An Important Tool in Preventing Nuclear Iran” (revised and reissued in 2010) advocating “state-level campaigns to divest public pension plans from companies investing in Iran’s oil and natural gas sector provide another means to pressure the regime.” Preparations got under way for a strategic – and bi-partisan — state-by-state campaign for Iran divestment.
However, there were some concerns about the legality of such state-based initiatives. Earlier court decisions had struck down similar efforts as usurping federal powers or becoming restraints on trade; there were also fears of corporate or investor lawsuits if plaintiffs could show financial harm. So lawyers at AIPAC duly arranged for the filing of Congressional legislation on May 16: H.R. 2347 Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2007; a parallel and identical bill was launched in the Senate on the next day
HR 2347 was fast-tracked in the House and passed 408-6 on July 31, 2007. However, in the Senate, where procedural rules allow a bill to be put on hold, the legislation was blocked by Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, reportedly at the request of the Bush administration. To the discomfort of AIPAC and pro-Israel advocates of confrontation with Iran, Bush apparently felt that two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were more than enough for the time being; and in any case, sitting presidents usually oppose having their hands tied by Congress on foreign affairs. The Iran Sanctions Enabling Act would not be fully passed and signed into law until 2009.
Nevertheless, the state-by-state divestment campaign took off. The legalities mattered little in the end because the effort really aimed to stir up public hostility against the Iranian regime and prepare the way for possible armed confrontation later. The practical effect of this first round of Iran sanctions was mainly symbolic, but served to open another front in the strategic propaganda war that has continued for more than a decade. After the destruction of Iraq, Iran was Israel’s last potent enemy state left in the region, an irresistible target.
The Iran divestment campaign marched relentlessly from state to state across the country with depressing uniformity. For years Google alerts would deposit links to new reports of legislative efforts and state divestment bills enacted – or much more rarely defeated – into my email inbox on a daily basis.
Everywhere divestment initiatives were launched and trumpeted by the local Jewish communal organizations and in the Jewish press, by AIPAC supporters, in the Neocon blogosphere and sometimes among local pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists. Sometimes token allies would be rounded up here and there – in the labor movement or in communities of color – but this did little to disguise the true source of the legislative initiatives. When the campaign was successful in passing divestment bills, it was usually accomplished through focused lobbying efforts and mobilization of the troops through the JCRCs and the synagogues. Despite the initial hopes the cause never took off as the broad public campaign its initiators had imagined. The so-called grassroots campaign was strictly astro-turf.
Florida was the first state to enact an Iran divestment law on June 8, 2007, followed by Louisiana (July 9), Illinois (September 11), California (October 14) – with little publicity an virtually no organized opposition. Eventually the list included New Jersey, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, Washington state, reaching 17 states plus the District of Columbia and many city councils too. I gave up counting when the wave reached Alaska. . . Occasionally a divestment bill was delayed or even defeated , as in Maine, usually when pension boards or public sector unions took notice of possible damage to state retirement fund bottom lines.
What about Massachusetts, where, thanks to Romney, the Iran divestment effort all began? It wasn’t in the first, or even the second wave of states to pass a divestment bill. The local legislative calendar did not allow the introducing a bill until 2008 and by then it was possible to muster some organized opposition in coordination with a few determined state legislators, the head of the state pension investment board and the State Treasurer (until he changed his opinion after deciding to run for governor). Embarrassingly, the Massachusetts divestment bill, camouflaged as “An Act Protecting Pension Fund Investments from the Global Securities Risk of Investment in Iran,” was defeated first time out and only passed two years later after some behind-the-scenes arm twisting by pro-Israel lobbyists and legislative leaders.
It’s worth emphasizing that the campaign against Iran was and remains “bi-partisan” in character. The Iran Divestment Enabling Act of 2007 was not the product of some Southern Republican or Neocon mouthpiece in Congress, but was introduced by that well-known Massachusetts “progressive” Barney Frank. The matching Senate bill was sponsored by an ambitious young freshman from Illinois named Barack Obama, — who later signed it into law during his first year as President.
By now Obama is learning the perils of electoral pandering to the Israel Lobby. Ever more extreme AIPAC-written Iran sanction bills – some over the tepid opposition of his administration — have poured out of Congress. The political pressure mounts to compel armed confrontation rather than diplomacy with Iran and for the President to prove his fealty to Israel by one concession after another. The bar is constantly raised, so that no increase in military aid or security cooperation with Israel, no amount of bellicose rhetoric or overt preparation for military attack on Iran will ever suffice to prove that Obama is a “true friend” of the Jewish State. The President is learning – perhaps too late – that feeding the Israeli crocodile does not work.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem on Sunday, Netanyahu — with Romney at his side — was smiling his crocodile smile in preparation to making Obama his next meal. And Sheldon Adelson was close by, writing another big check.