Last week the Senate passed Resolution 65, mandating a new round of sanctions against Iran and promising to support Israel if it should choose to launch a unilateral war. The bill contradicted explicit US policy in a number of areas: it imposed secondary penalties on US allies; it lowered the bar for military action to Israel’s preferred language of “nuclear capability” rather than acquisition of a nuclear weapon; and it interferes with the attempt to reach a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear impasse at a delicate time. No wonder Secretary of State John Kerry implored Congress not to pass the bill when he testified before the Senate Foreign relations committee last month.
Nevertheless, the Senate bill came to a vote on May 22, and the result – in a roll call vote – was 99-0 in favor of the bill.
In the last Congress, another Iran Sanctions measure – an amendment attached to the 2012 Defense Appropriation Bill — was also opposed by the Obama administration. The provision, probably illegal under WTO rules, mandated secondary penalties against foreign banks which did business with Iran’s oil sector (US banks were already banned from doing so). Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner wrote a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee “to express the Administration’s strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran.” Two State Department officials of the Administration testified against the amendment; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry also opposed the measure.
However, when the amendment’s sponsors insisted on a roll call vote, it passed 100-0. Even Senator Kerry voted for the measure he had earlier opposed.
To understand how this can happen, it is useful to look at the Israel Lobby’s legislative MO — as well as the larger dynamic around Israel advocacy within the US Congress, in our political system and in the press.
AIPAC, of course, is the premier Israel Lobby organization. Every year at its annual Conference the group assembles a huge turnout of moneyed and grassroots lobbyists. Scores of members of Congress from both parties and political aspirants of all stripes jockey to express their loyalty to the Lobby. It is at these conferences that AIPAC’s major legislative priorities for the year are unveiled. This always includes renewed (and increased) military aid for Israel and for the last ten years or so various measures to oppose, sanction and preferably make war on to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran — Israel’s last remaining serious military opponent in the Middle East.
Here is the way it works.
–In the days before the yearly AIPAC conference in early March, reliable members of Congress from both parties – preferably non-Jews – are prevailed upon to submit AIPAC-drafted bills with a substantial number of initial bi-partisan sponsors. This year the highlighted legislation included House Res. 850, The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, introduced on February 28 by California Democrat Rep. Edward Royce and 31 co-sponsors (16 Democrats and 15 Republicans); and Senate Res. 65, Strongly Supporting the Full Implementation of United States and International Sanctions On Iran, also introduced on February 28 by the every dependable Senator Lindsey Graham [R-SC] and 22 initial co-sponsors (13 Democrats and 9 Republicans). Another bill, apparently a late entry from the March 2-4 Conference itself, did not follow the preferred pattern. House Res. 938, The United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 was introduced hurriedly on March 4 by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL27] with only two Democratic co-sponsors. These three bills embodied AIPAC’s 2013 declared legislative priorities: “Prevent Iranian Nuclear Weapons Capability”; “Strengthen U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation”; “Support Security Assistance for Israel”.
— Then, before leaving Washington, the Conference attendees launch themselves on Capitol Hill to recruit more co-sponsors for the AIPAC bills. Initially, this is mostly pushing on an open door, as many legislators are eager to join the bandwagon; some were simply not asked earlier in the interest of bi-partisan balance; some were not quick enough to get listed when the initial bills were introduced. Within a few weeks of the AIPAC Conference Senate Res. 65 had an additional 55 co-sponsors, House Res. 850 added more than 250 sponsors; and House Res. 983 more than 150.
–The effort continues to line up more cosponsors with the aim of securing an irresistible momentum for the bills. Many legislators simply take more time to pin down; others (few) might have been reluctant holdouts persuaded not to find themselves isolated against the AIPAC juggernaut. An AIPAC staffer once famously bragged that “in twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on a napkin”. It took a little longer this time, but Senate Res. 65 already had 91 co-sponsors before it came up for a vote. House Res. 850, still pending, now has 351 co-sponsors; H. Res. 983 has 271.
–Not all AIPAC-initiated legislation follows this pattern. Other bills or amendments come up during the year and are pushed as opportunities or needs present themselves. Some of these bills – and the frequent “Congressional Letters” of support for Israel — have little practical impact on policy but are part of AIPAC’s disciplining of US legislators. I call it “puppy training.” Most members of Congress become reflexively obedient to AIPAC’s legislative agenda. The 29 standing ovations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed Congress in 2011 are a good illustration of the outcome. Pavlov had nothing on the Israel Lobby.
It might be tempting to conclude – as AIPAC and its allies contend – that Congress acts in response to overwhelming public support for Israel. However, it is important to observe that votes on the Lobby’s bills are rarely much publicized in the US – as opposed to Israeli –mainstream media. Of course, the pro-Israel political machine, the Rightwing and Zionist blogosphere do pay close attention, ever-ready to punish legislative misbehavior. Most of the public remains, by design, completely unaware of these political maneuverings. Not long ago, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor proposed voting separately on military aid to Israel so as to insulate it from potential cuts to Pentagon spending, but he was quickly persuaded to drop the idea. The Lobby prefers to have the $3 billion plus in annual aid to Israel discretely hidden within the vast Defense Appropriation Bill.
So the power of AIPAC derives not fundamentally from Israel’s vast popularity. Although opinion polls do regularly confirm the public supports Israel at a much higher level than the Palestinians (no surprise), substantial pluralities still prefer that the US stay neutral in the conflict. I have seen no polling about support for the billions in military aid to Israel each year. It is hard to imagine that the majority response would be anything but negative in the light of cuts to funding for other popular government programs. Not surprisingly the Lobby prefers “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the question of yearly billions for Israel.
The apparent dominance of the Israel Lobby in Congress stems from what I would call “asymmetric politics”. AIPAC represents the power of a well-funded and single-issue political machine. It is quick to punish recalcitrant legislators – or to reward good behavior with dollars and campaign support from the many PACS and rich donors who take its direction.
On the other side, the advocates for Palestinian rights are scattered, poorly funded and little threat to incumbent legislators. The Arab and Muslim communities cannot match the Israel Lobby’s Jewish financial base or its mobilized grassroots numbers. Many of their communities are relatively new in the US, insecure and targeted by the well-funded complex of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim mobilization since 9/11. The great mass of the public are simply not involved and not paying much attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict or much aware of pro-Israel political power in Congress.
Seen in this light, members of Congress – ever averse to risk, as are all elected officials – are behaving rationally when they defer to the Israel Lobby. They pay little or no price for playing ball with AIPAC and risk a backlash with no apparent reward if they don’t.
As for the broader anti-war and progressive movements, even when they have adopted good positions on Palestinian rights or opposing the Lobby-supported drive for war with Iran, these issues usually turn out to be “expendable” in comparison to other agendas.
Two recent examples will illustrate this dynamic.
This Spring, a well-established national peace organization, with a significant branch in Massachusetts, decided to endorse Democratic Rep. Ed Markey prior to the special primary election for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat. Markey is on the right side of most issues progressive hold dear, but he was also an initial supporter of the Iraq War. And he has become a very reliable backer of Israel-Lobby legislative priorities, where in Massachusetts he is something of an outlier on these issues. He was among only three Mass delegation co-sponsors of H. Res. 850 and among only two of H. Res. 983. He is also a dependable signer of whatever letter AIPAC is collecting signatures for, such as the one supporting the assault on Gaza a few years ago.
Some members of the peace organization argued in favor of no endorsement for Markey – at least in the primary – because of his poor record on Iran and Palestine, but they were outvoted. The majority argued that an endorsement and fundraising for Markey would give them “access” to promote better positions on these issues after the election. A cynic may wonder whether Markey, or any other progressive legislator would take this seriously. A long-serving national board member of the group resigned in protest.
Then there is Massachusetts’ celebrity Senator Elizabeth Warren. Many of her progressive supporters were uneasy over the boiler-plate pro-Israel language on her campaign web site, however there was little doubt that she was a genuine populist on other issues and would bring a rare progressive voice to the halls of Congress. This, in large measure, she has done.
However, when push came to shove, Sen. Warren was persuaded to add her name as a sponsor to Senate Res. 65 – late to be sure (not until May 7) – and she joined in the unanimous vote in favor of the bill. Now Warren, formerly a faculty member of Harvard Law School, undoubtedly knows the score on the Israel and Iran issues. It is hard to imagine she hasn’t had certain conversations in the Faculty Club about Palestine, heard about the many events at her school on issues of Human Rights and International Law in the Middle East or understood the role of the Israel Lobby in war-promotion and military spending.
No doubt Warren rationalized her vote pragmatically. Why risk becoming an isolated Senate freshman and losing her political credibility? Why not submit to what was required in order to give her space to battle on other political issues she cared about? For Senator Warren – as for so many Congressional progressives and Liberals — her seat is worth the price of a vote for AIPAC. And it is highly unlikely that she risks losing much electoral support for doing so.
This is the way asymmetric politics works for the Israel Lobby. It is the dynamic that puts our country in opposition to most of the world with respect to International Law and peace in the Middle East. And it may yet succeed in getting us into a war with Iran.
Jeff Klein is a retired local union president, peace and justice activist, Palestinian rights supporter. This post first appeared on Klein’s new website, At a slight angle to the universe.