I am not one for admitting I am wrong but sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that I have to say it. I was wrong.
I have been repeatedly wrong when I said that the Israel lobby could not be defeated unless and until the President of the United States confronted it directly. In that situation, I always knew the United States would prevail. But I did not understand that a deft president could beat the lobby through indirect means – by quietly using his authority to prevail.
That is what happened when the Obama administration first nominated and then achieved the confirmation of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.
There, of course, are those who accept the line put out by the lobby, most notably its main component AIPAC, that it was neutral on Hagel.
That is just silly. If AIPAC was neutral, it could have ended the whole battle against him by issuing a statement that it recognized a president’s right to choose his own cabinet. That might not have stopped Republican groups like Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee For Israel or Sheldon Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition from pursuing its smear campaign against Hagel but it would have stopped the very mainstream American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League from joining the attack. AIPAC’s public silence on a campaign waged by its closest allies demonstrated what it wanted: Hagel’s defeat. So did the fact that it supplied the anti-Hagel senators with the “information” it used to bludgeon him with at his kangaroo court of a confirmation hearing.
President Obama outsmarted the lobby by ignoring it. He knew that if he could get Sen. Chuck Schumer to endorse Hagel, then the game would be over. That is because he, as a Jew and New York’s senior senator, is the de facto head of the lobby’s forces in Congress.
A reflexive lobby man, Schumer might have been expected to oppose Hagel and thereby give a signal to his fellow Democrats that doing so was the only safe position. Had he done that some Democrats would have feared not opposing Hagel. With most Republicans already on record as opposing his nomination, just a shift of a few Democrats would have killed the nomination. Schumer’s announcement in support of Hagel guaranteed that not a single Democrat would oppose him.
So what convinced Schumer to stand with Obama on Hagel? My friends on Capitol Hill, who without exception correctly predicted Schumer’s position, tell me that it was made clear to him that he could not oppose Obama on Hagel and still expect to become leader of Senate Democrats when Harry Reid retires. No threats were made because none needed to be made. Schumer was simply led to understand that he was not getting a pass on this one. Add to that the unprecedented public campaign supporting Hagel. This time the lobby did not have the field to itself. With veterans’ organizations, former Secretaries of State and Defense, and retired generals speaking out in support of the former Nebraska senator, the lobby was out-flanked.
And so Hagel was confirmed. The lobby was defeated. And its friends are devastated.
In a Jewish Tablet piece called, “How AIPAC is Losing” the militant lobby supporter Lee Smith asks “just how powerful is AIPAC if a man who refers to it as the ‘Jewish lobby’ and has defiantly claimed that he is not an “Israeli senator” is slated to be our next secretary of Defense?”
And, most significantly, how much influence does the lobbying organization actually exercise if it can’t carry the day on the single issue that’s been at the very top of its agenda for over a decade: stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Despite an operating budget of more than $60 million, on the most crucial issue facing Israel’s security, AIPAC has lost the policy debate. The winners include those who believe you can’t stop a nation from getting the bomb if it’s determined to do so, those who think the Iranians have a right to nuclear weapons, and those who argue the Iranians can be contained—among them, our new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
In other words, the lobby is not all-powerful. A determined president can defeat it, a lesson Obama will bear in mind in the future, particularly in reference to the lobby’s singular focus on war with Iran.
But will Hagel’s presence make a difference? Who knows? But we do know this: a win is a win. And so is a defeat.
I was wrong. The lobby can be beaten. Obama scared it into public silence and then defeated it. Nice work, work that will only become easier as younger Jews, and the non-Orthodox 90%, continue to abandon a lobby that is at variance with their liberal worldview. Ethnic chauvinism is on the rise in Israel (along with its twin, racism) but not here. Israel’s “demographic problem” can be solved by withdrawing from the occupied areas. The same can’t be said of AIPAC’s problem. Like the Republican Party, its base is growing smaller and narrower every day.
This post first appeared on MJ Rosenberg’s blog yesterday.