Forward Thinking

AIPAC Lost Iran Sanctions Battle — Not War

By Brent E. Sasley

  • Print
  • Share Share

Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images

Efforts to pass a new Iran sanctions bill have not only stalled in the Senate, but appear to be slowing even in the House. Perhaps predictably, given the focus on AIPAC as the primary driver of the bill, observers are now wondering whether AIPAC has “over-reached” and been “weakened.” While the failure of any lobby group to pass signature legislation dents its reputation, presumptions about AIPAC’s coming vulnerability betray fundamental misconceptions about how foreign policy is made.

Foreign policymaking in the United States is an executive privilege. Presidents typically have a lot of leeway in this area. This is the result of constitutional authority, judicial reinforcement, and a general acceptance among lawmakers that presidential predominance in foreign affairs is both necessary and, by now, traditional.

Under these conditions, lobby groups have always had much more success with Congress than with presidents. Congress is a fractious body, with over 500 individual targets; the president is a single individual. Failures in Congress are more setbacks than anything else, given the multiple access points and the rolling nature of elections; failing to convince the president is a very public event, harder to overcome.

The ability of any advocacy organization to achieve its goals has also always been contingent on broader political conditions. Presidents determined to promote a foreign policy agenda have normally been able to overcome lobbies’ opposition — particularly when they are supported by the American public and by other groups.

The Iranian nuclear program is not seen by the Administration or by the public as an existential issue in either U.S.-Israel relations or for Israel itself. That makes it harder to convince Americans that a bill leading to greater American commitment to the Middle East and entailing more U.S. soldiers being sent there is in America’s interest.

The political terrain is also changing, dislodging AIPAC’s once-unchallenged position in Israel advocacy. The emergence of J Street and the willingness by groups on the far right to undermine the organizational consensus on Israel have changed the nature of Jewish lobbying in the U.S., pulling AIPAC in two different directions. It needs to maintain the traditional bipartisan consensus on Israel without being outflanked by the right or the left.

In the case of the Iran sanctions bill, a diverse coalition of forces on the left has proven an effective counter-point to AIPAC’s arguments about the urgency of passing new legislation now.

AIPAC’s defeat on the sanctions bill — and it is a defeat — coming so closely on the heels of its failure to “win” Congressional support for a strike on Syria, does raise questions about its ability to pursue its agenda in a changing Washington.

But the advocacy group isn’t going anywhere. Its core priority, maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, remains popular among politicians and the public. It’s also rooted in a myriad of networks, including military cooperation, popular sympathy, academic and cultural exchanges, and more. And so long as the Arab states (including Palestine) are viewed as unstable, authoritarian and violent, there are no counterweights to the view of Israel as a reliable ally with shared values, despite growing misgivings about settlements and the occupation.

It’s not clear that AIPAC could have done anything different in the face of a strong push by the Obama Administration against a new sanctions bill. It’s a truism in advocacy work that you can’t always win; but you can stay relevant. AIPAC has adapted over time, learning from its past successes and failures. Expect it to do so again. The challenge this time will be to recognize that Israel is increasingly popular on the right while less popular on the left.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: sanctions, J Street, Congress, Iran, AIPAC

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.