The flagship pro-Israel lobbying organization failed to stop Obama’s Iran Deal. It may lose even more influence under Trump.
By Armin Rosen, TABLET
At first blush, at least, a Trump presidency promises everything that AIPAC, America’s largest pro-Israel lobbying group, could ever wish for. After eight years of rocky relations between Jerusalem and Washington, Donald Trump promises that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will receive a much friendlier reception in the White House during his administration. The inclusion of Iran hawks such as CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, and defense secretary nominee James Mattis could even spell the end of the nuclear agreement with Iran, especially in light of Tehran’s repeated flirtations with violating the deal.
In reality, Trump poses a string of new problems for AIPAC. “There’s definitely no question that it was better and easier for [AIPAC] if Hillary won,” said one Democratic strategist recently. “Policy is only part of it. It would’ve been an opportunity or their best chance at hitting reset for Democrats.” Instead, after losing its fight against the Iran Deal, the lobbying group must try to stake out an unstable middle ground during an even more polarizing presidency than Obama’s while fending off challenges from its left and right. “In this new world where J Street really is a pro-Israel validator for segments of the Democrats and the Zionist Organization of America is a validator for segments of the Republicans, what’s AIPAC role?” the strategist wondered.
After an appropriate period of reflection and testing the waters, AIPAC may well decide that its role is to continue doing whatever it has been doing. Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, rejects the claim that that losing fight against the Iran Deal constitutes evidence of any larger organizational failure on AIPAC’s part, citing majority opposition to the agreement both in Congress and the American public. “The fundamental premise that people have been operating on is based on a deliberate effort to try to paint this as a defeat for the pro-Israel community, AIPAC, everybody involved … when, in fact, that is not the case,” he said.
But continuity may only hasten the lobby’s moment of reckoning under Trump—from both sides of the aisle. If a Republican administration—one in which Steve Bannon is a top adviser—becomes an enabler of a right-wing Israeli government at the same time the Democrats elevate Israel critics to positions of power within the party, decades of masterful difference-splitting and triangulation could shatter. If, for instance, Trump does try to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, or cuts off all U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority, AIPAC would be put in the uncomfortable position of supporting controversial moves by a sitting U.S. president, which would further repel many Democrats. If it opposes the policy goals of a sitting Israeli prime minister that are supported by most Jewish Israelis, it would forfeit its status as a bipartisan advocate of the US-Israel relationship in Washington, and become simply another partisan lobbying group—competing with J Street, the ZOA, and even smaller, more obscure groups like NORPAC, a New Jersey PAC that has donated nearly $4 million to pro-Israel candidates and PACs since 2010. And if the left-wing Minnesota congressman and consistent Israel critic Keith Ellison ends up heading the DNC, AIPAC would have to choose between passively accepting a shift away from Israel within the Democratic party or openly opposing the leader of the party that forms a majority of the lobby’s donors, supporters, and staff. According to multiple sources, including former employees, Democrats make up the bulk of the staff at AIPAC’s seven-story D.C. office, with estimates averaging around 60 percent.
The risks to AIPAC’s bipartisan positioning that the superheated partisan environment surrounding a Trump presidency poses are already visible. When Bannon, the CEO of Breitbart News, was named chief White House strategist Nov. 15, Jewish activists criticized AIPAC for refusing to condemn Bannon’s appointment or to oppose Trump directly, with the columnist Peter Beinart alleging that the lobby “no longer take[s] moral responsibility for the country in which [its] members live.” This was a bizarre expectation: AIPAC virtually never weighs in on government-personnel matters, and concerns over Bannon have little to do with the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is AIPAC’s organizational brief. As a lobbying organization, AIPAC also doesn’t have the luxury of immediately making an enemy of the person controlling access to the White House. The idea of AIPAC as a Trump-era moral arbiter, or as an organization that’s interested in or even capable of limiting the damage of a Trump presidency and its second-order effects on American political life, runs counter to AIPAC’s recent history, and to the lobby’s very DNA.
AIPAC is a $128 million organization that can fill an arena and reach nearly any member of Congress within 24 hours. But as AIPAC grows, so does the conflict between its organization and its mission. Concerns over Ellison’s potential tenure as head of the Democratic National Committee are within AIPAC’s organizational brief—Ellison has voted against funding for the Iron Dome missile interceptor and against multiple Iran sanctions packages, and backs a degree of engagement with Tehran far beyond what the vast majority of his Democratic colleagues support. But AIPAC has had nothing to say about Ellison, either.
Such notable silences about outré figures who have moved to the center of both parties might be taken as a sign of strength from an organization that had a history of winning hard political fights. Except that AIPAC is fresh off the biggest loss in its history. The group’s puzzlement at Donald Trump, and its paralysis in the face of Bannon and Ellison, therefore appears to be part of a larger drift into meaninglessness that was apparent during the fight over the Iran Deal, and became even more starkly visible during this past presidential campaign.
The public airing of AIPAC’s election-related troubles began this year on March 16, when a group of rabbis announced that they were organizing a boycott of Donald Trump’s March 21 address to AIPAC’s annual policy conference. It was the first edition of the lobby’s premiere event to be held in Washington’s 20,000-seat Verizon Center, and the first since the July 2015 announcement of the Iran nuclear agreement.. The boycott was organized in response to Trump’s various inflammatory statements about immigrants, Muslims, and other minority groups. Lobby representatives said the speech was simply an opportunity to hear out a major presidential candidate, and claimed that AIPAC automatically invites any viable White House contender.
Attendees and organizers were clearly uneasy with Trump speaking—“I don’t think Trump had any major support in that room,” one former AIPAC staffer recalled. But they were also wary of excluding the potential next president of the United States from their most important event, regardless of who he was or what he believed. Using a teleprompter, Trump delivered a fairly anodyne pro-Israel address, reportedly written by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the owner of the New York Observer. But he still couldn’t help himself: In an apparent ad-lib, Trump called President Barack Obama “the worst thing ever to happen to Israel. Believe me, believe me.” This wasn’t quite on the scale of accusing Mexican immigrants of being criminals and rapists, but it nevertheless represented a crisis for the lobby, which tries to be fastidiously bipartisan.
“I think there is an understood agreement with the campaigns that you’re going to talk about your campaign,” one former AIPAC staffer said. “You might talk about some policies, but you’re not going to hurl aspersions about people with whom we have to work, from our house. Tom DeLay never got up and talked about how Nancy Pelosi was fucking up the country.” Within a day, AIPAC had issued an unprecedented apology for Trump’s attack on the president. “They felt they needed to remind everybody that that’s not what AIPAC is a platform for,” the former staffer explained.
But AIPAC’s mea culpa displeased the Trump team and Kushner himself, and the episode seems unlikely to be forgotten by a president who is infamous for holding grudges. Nor are AIPAC’s bipartisan policy prescriptions—many of which were forged during eight years of trying to appease a White House that tended to see Netanyahu as a political obstacle—likely to convince Trump that AIPAC is a natural ally. For example, the 2016 Republican Party platform makes no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undermining AIPAC’s long-time bipartisan two-state doctrine, which soon mysteriously disappeared from sections of the organization’s website. The views of David Friedman, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, are well to the right of AIPAC’s party line as well—Friedman believes the two-state solution is an “illusion,” and is a prominent supporter of the controversial Bet El settlement in the central West Bank. As AIPAC twists and turns, American Jews may soon be confronted with a once-unlikely reality: The White House and the Israeli government might find it convenient to ignore a flagship pro-Israel lobbying organization that likes to advertise its influence and which serves as a lightning rod for attacks on Jewish political power from both the left and the right.
How did an organization whose supporters and opponents alike often portrayed it as an unseen hand guiding U.S. foreign policy become such a likely nonfactor in the political calculations of both parties? While the short answer may be Donald Trump, the slightly longer and more accurate answer is the Iran Deal.
In recent months, I’ve spoken with over 40 people who worked closely on the Iran nuclear issue, including former and current AIPAC staffers, strategists and aides from both parties and both houses of Congress, former administration officials, policy experts, and pro-Israel activists. Although they often disagreed on how, why, and even whether AIPAC lost the fight over the Iran Deal, a picture nevertheless emerged: When confronted with the nuclear agreement, whose implementation began a year ago this month, AIPAC stuck to its brand of triangulation, bipartisanship, and self-preservation, and failed to satisfy many supporters of Israel, mollify the group’s critics, or achieve the organization’s major desired policy result.
But AIPAC’s problems ran deeper than any specific tactical or strategic miscalculation. The lobbying juggernaut repeatedly struggled to take a coherent stand on an issue it cared deeply about, raising questions of organizational purpose and self-definition that Trump-era political heat has suddenly and unexpectedly brought to a boil.
The Iran nuclear agreement was reached July 14, 2015. When AIPAC decided to oppose the accord two days later, it set itself up for a battle it likely knew it would lose. On April 2, 2015, a U.S.-led group of six major powers finalized a “political framework” agreement with Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland, clearing a major hurdle to that July’s deal. And on May 22, Obama signed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, an AIPAC-supported bill sponsored by Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin that created a veto-proof majority standard for halting the deal’s implementation, and a filibuster-proof standard for even voting to approve or disapprove of the deal in the Senate. “They were constrained by the fact the prime minister came out so strongly … but they’re professionals,” one former Obama administration official said, in reference to Netanyahu’s polarizing March 3, 2015 speech before a joint session of Congress opposing the deal. “They can count to 60. It was very obvious when the Lausanne deal happened and the Corker legislation came through that the fight was over.”
It might have even been over before then. Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department official, said the Iran negotiations matched “a willful, and to some degree, skillful” U.S. administration with “an Iranian partner … who was also determined for any number of reasons to reach this agreement.” There was little AIPAC could do to change that underlying reality.
AIPAC is a $128 million organization that can fill an arena and reach nearly any member of Congress within 24 hours. But as AIPAC grows, so does the conflict between its organization and its mission.
But AIPAC didn’t have the option of doing nothing. The entirety of the Israeli political spectrum opposed the deal: not just Netanyahu, but leading opposition politicians, including Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid. Steve Rosen, a longtime AIPAC official, said that following Israel’s lead is “how AIPAC bridges its internal dilemmas.” On controversial issues, including the peace process, AIPAC is guided by “a consensus that Israel is a democracy, and those people have the right to choose their leaders, and it’s their lives that are on the line.” (Rosen left the organization in 2005 when U.S. prosecutors accused him of violating the Espionage Act during the course of his work for AIPAC. The charges were later dropped).
There was also the sense that supporters of Israel had accumulated political clout and institutional heft for exactly this kind of high-stakes battle. “I think there was a feeling in the AIPAC leadership that this was really a moment of truth—that this was the kind of moment for which AIPAC was created,” said Joseph Lieberman, a former U.S. senator and chairman of the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran.
John Kerry delivers remarks during AIPAC’s Policy Conference at the Walter Washington Convention Center March 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
As soon as the fight over the deal moved to Congress, it became clear that AIPAC was asking a lot of Democrats, who, thanks to the oversight mechanism in the Corker-Cardin bill, would have to buck a determined White House on three separate votes—a cloture vote for a resolution of disapproval, a vote on the resolution itself, and a veto override—in order to actually halt the agreement. As one Democratic congressional staffer explained, it made little sense politically for a Democratic member to defy the president on a single one of these votes. “Knowing that the deal was going to go through, members of Congress then have to reconcile any concerns they had about the agreement and arguments made by AIPAC with the president of the United States telling them they would not get a pass on this,” the staffer said. This dynamic was so rigid that the source wondered if any lobbying on the deal made a difference: “Even if nothing happened, if AIPAC had not come [to the Hill], if the administration had not come, if other groups had not come up, I don’t know that the vote would have been all that different.”
On July 17, 2015, three days after the nuclear deal was reached , AIPAC announced the creation of Citizens for a Nuclear-Free Iran (CNFI), which had a war chest of over $20 million, much of which was spent on anti-deal television advertising. But the fight that really mattered, and that would test whether AIPAC could assert its leverage without wrecking its bipartisan model, was in Washington.
Just before Congress entered its August 2015 recess, Jewish members gathered on Capitol Hill to meet with high-level AIPAC executives, including Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director since 1996. Kohr famously keeps a low profile; he “doesn’t throw ideas or words around cavalierly,” one congressional staffer explained.
Kohr is admired among former AIPAC staffers. He came to AIPAC in 1985 while in his late 20s, leaving a job as legislative director at the National Jewish Coalition (now called the Republican Jewish Coalition) to serve as deputy for Steve Rosen, then AIPAC’s director of foreign policy. AIPAC has grown considerably under Kohr’s leadership: In 2005, the group had $48 million in assets. By 2013, it had $128 million.
He’s fostered a familial atmosphere, partly by proving that no task is beneath him: One former staffer recalled seeing Kohr stuffing envelopes before a board meeting; another remembered him participating in an annual phone-a-thon meant to re-engage lapsed members. He’s “shy and bookish” but “approachable” and “level-headed,” the kind of boss who “doesn’t seem like he’s off in an ivory tower somewhere.” He’s a “giant,” someone with the capability of a White House chief of staff who could easily command an eight-figure salary at a lobbying firm. According to the Forward, he earned $636,000 in 2014, overseeing an organization with $77.7 million in yearly revenue.
One former staffer said Kohr is “a Mount Rushmore organization builder,” but then abruptly wondered what that really counted for in light of how the Iran fight played out. “If his job is institutional stability and growth, he’s the most extraordinary leader I’ve ever seen. If his job is furthering the mission, if you had asked me that any time before early 2015 I would have said he’s also extraordinarily good at that.”
A former senior congressional aide was less generous: “He is someone who has been intoxicated by the access granted to him at every level of government, and the idea of being locked out of certain rooms in the executive branch weighs more heavily when decision points come on Capitol Hill than it should.”
During that meeting with Kohr, the members who considered supporting the deal explained how difficult it would be for them to go against the president on a resolution of disapproval—in light of Republican pressure and rhetoric, a vote against the agreement would be interpreted as a direct rebuke to Obama. Even members who considered opposing the deal were concerned about the fallout of the United States nixing a major diplomatic accord. Some members asked AIPAC executives whether they could back a nonbinding statement of support instead of a measure with the power to spike the deal entirely. Perhaps realizing this was tantamount to surrender, and a nonstarter with Republicans committed to actually blocking the deal, the AIPAC officials replied with a hard no and restated their insistence on a binding vote.
Barack Obama addresses the 2008 AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
AIPAC held two full-scale fly-ins of its activists during the congressional-review period, and launched what insiders describe as the biggest mobilization in the lobby’s history. The Hill took notice: One staffer compared the avalanche of meetings and phone calls to organized labor’s campaign against the Trade Promotion Authority bill, which unfolded over the same summer. But there was one major difference: Organized-labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, had cut off all funding to members of Congress before the TPA vote, and vowed to restore it only to those who opposed the bill. AIPAC chose not to play that kind of hardball. Multiple people who attended Hill meetings that included AIPAC-affiliated activists, along with activists from other groups, recalled how intense some of the sit-downs with staffers and members of Congress got. But the meetings would also include an acknowledgement that there were unlikely to be any direct consequences of supporting the deal.
A source present in Hill meetings with AIPAC activists said they typically went this way: “In the meeting, a group of 10 to 15 constituents would give a very harsh portrayal of the agreement and plead with the member—some of them would cry—saying that this is the crucial issue, we really need you on this. And before the meeting was over, someone would thank them for their support, say we hope the relationship can go forward and we can work with them again, that kind of thing. It was, ‘Please don’t vote for this, please please don’t vote for this, see you next year.’ ” For the source, this was “illustrative of the whole problem” with AIPAC’s tactics. “There was no solid message of, ‘Here’s what we want you to do, and here’s what’s going to happen if you don’t.’ Everyone from the AARP to the Spotted Owl Society knows that that’s a formula members will understand.”
Michael Pregent, a former Army intelligence officer and executive director of Veterans Against the Deal, attended a number of Hill meetings with AIPAC activists on Sept. 9, 2015, the day of an anti-Iran-deal rally on the National Mall. There were aspects of AIPAC’s Hill push that impressed him: The group hosted a strategy session for activists at a Washington hotel the night before and ensured that each meeting included actual constituents of the member of Congress being lobbied.
But the meetings could get disorganized—Pregent said AIPAC activists even openly disagreed with him in one instance when he attempted to discuss Iranian support for proxy groups that had fought the U.S. military in Iraq. He noticed a lack of uniformity in the activists’ talking points and sensed a division between AIPAC members who were committed to stopping the deal and those who didn’t want to appear overly hostile to members of Congress they appeared to know personally. “Nobody was afraid of AIPAC,” Pregent said of the members of Congress he met with. “They knew that AIPAC wasn’t united.”
AIPAC applies a softer touch to the political process than is generally recognized. The group exerts its influence through two means: a Washington-based shop that engages in traditional lobbying and policy-related activities, and grassroots-level organizing largely aimed at fostering access and developing personal relationships with members of Congress.
A former AIPAC staffer explained how the latter works: “Say you give $10,000 to AIPAC,” the source explained. That donor “gets nice seats at Policy Conference” and becomes part of an informal local network of other AIPAC activists giving to congressional candidates. Importantly, AIPAC does not direct this network—as a public-affairs committee, the lobby cannot legally endorse candidates or channel donations. But there are some broadly accepted unwritten rules among AIPAC-affiliated donors, like not giving to the opponent of nearly any incumbent member, even if that opponent is the more pro-Israel of the two candidates. As one activist put it, “AIPAC tells us that are two kinds of members of Congress: Friends, and potential friends.”
If there’s a race for an open House seat, “the network isn’t gonna give money to the challenger,” the former staffer explained, “but it still needs to get to know him. Later, privately, you send the challenger a message saying the pro-Israel people can’t raise money for you, but let me max out to you and write your Israel position paper.” If the challenger wins, “you are the ‘key contact’ to that office and you’re the one raising money from that network.”
The “key contact” is “the person through which all the really important asks are made,” the former staffer said. Thanks to training from AIPAC’s staff, a key contact learns how to become a focused political operator. “You’re gonna know to keep it so that a member of Congress sees you coming down the hall and thinks ‘Israel.’ They don’t think of your business or of any issue other than Israel.”
AIPAC has a “key contact” for virtually every congressional office. The key contact has the ability to bring an issue to a member’s attention or get a call returned personally from that member within 24 hours. “Key contacts don’t have to threaten or yell or know specifics,” said one former senior congressional aide. “Usually they don’t know specifics. … Ultimately, they’re reading off of AIPAC’s talking points.”
The key contacts effectively collapse the distance between AIPAC’s Washington office, the lobby’s 17 regional offices, and decision makers on Capitol Hill. It’s a system based on relationships rather than overt leverage or the cold calculations of policy. The fact that AIPAC is legally prohibited from directing donations or fundraising for candidates devolves power from its Washington operation and puts the onus for decisive action on AIPAC-affiliated donors. “[AIPAC’s] ability to hold lawmakers accountable hinges on the willingness of major fundraisers to punish a lawmaker that didn’t go along with what they thought they would go along with,” one senior Republican congressional aide noted.
But lobbying that’s overly determined by relationships—and thus by access—has arguably hamstrung AIPAC. It gives considerable power to the member of Congress, who can decide to politely stop listening to his or her key contacts. It also makes AIPAC hesitant to criticize individual members of Congress or other political figures for fear of blowing up the relationships on which the group’s influence is based. This imbalance grows over time: The longer the relationship lasts, the more the lobby has invested in it, and the more it has to lose from a rupture. There also isn’t a clear threshold for a key contact withdrawing support. If there was a red line for AIPAC declaring that members of Congress were dead to them, it wasn’t crossed at any point before or after the Iran Deal debate by any member.
AIPAC is almost constitutionally incapable of making value judgments about individual members of Congress. It doesn’t make very many value judgments about individual U.S. officials, period—AIPAC remained as silent on Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, or on Keith Ellison’s run for DNC chief, as it has been on virtually every other personnel matter of recent decades. AIPAC hasn’t filed a Form 5 independent expenditure report with the FEC—the standard declaration for a group that isn’t legally classified as a PAC that wants to spend money in order to directly influence an election—in any of the past four federal election cycles. (In contrast, the Emergency Committee for Israel, the right-wing, pro-Israel pressure group co-founded by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, filed 31 Form 5s between the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles.)
The lobby internally tracks the voting records of individual members of Congress, but according to multiple sources, it will not give out a member’s record unless an AIPAC member asks to see it—someone who wants to piece together Ellison’s voting record on Iran sanctions or military aid to Israel, or who wants to know which votes AIPAC thinks are important in determining a member’s pro-Israel bona fides, are left to fend for themselves. AIPAC is worried that distributing voting records to anyone could be misconstrued: “It could be seen as an endorsement by AIPAC or as criticism, because there are members of Congress with lots of bad votes,” one former staffer said. Other lobbying groups rate members of Congress using percentages or letter grades. One AIPAC official claimed that the organization does not even do this internally.
This even-handedness had an impact on how AIPAC fought the Iran Deal. CNFI polled approval of the Iran deal within a number of key Democratic congressional districts and found two-thirds opposition to the agreement in most of them, and plurality opposition to the agreement in nearly all of them. The poll results were conveyed to individual members of Congress in meetings with CNFI staff. But they did not appear in any of CNFI’s public material, including its television ads, which accounted for the majority of the organization’s over $20 million in spending. The ads did not name members of Congress who were considering backing the deal but whose constituents opposed it—preventing the lobby from translating remarkably lopsided public agreement with its position into hard political capital.
The Mellman Group—which is known as a Democratic firm—conducted polling for CNFI and consulted for the group in other areas as well. As Mellman Group CEO Mark Mellman noted, “There was nothing in any way, shape, or form that was anti-Democrat in anything that CNFI did.” He believes that a more confrontational approach wouldn’t have worked. “Having dealt with a lot of these people over a lot of years, I think that tends to get their back up against the wall and tends to harden the partisanship, and therefore makes it more difficult to get them on our side. … It would have created vastly bigger strains and tensions between the Jewish community, the pro-Israel community, and Congress, but it wouldn’t have had a positive effect.”
As AIPAC officials explained, the lobby didn’t want to exact costs from members of Congress, even on an issue of overriding importance like the Iran Deal. “We’re just not in the business of threatening,” an AIPAC official said. “It’s not our way.”
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The straitjacket of low-impact bipartisanship that constrained AIPAC’s efforts against the Iran Deal is the long-term result of two of the lobbying organization’s most important accomplishments. In the early 1980s, AIPAC-affiliated donors contributed to the defeat of Illinois Republican Sen. Charles Percy, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key supporter of a U.S. sale of the AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia, a deal AIPAC unsuccessfully fought. With its deterrence in place, AIPAC then learned how to package pro-Israel positions in ways that members of both parties could accept.
Dan Cohen began working for AIPAC as a Hill lobbyist in the mid-1980s, not long after the AWACS battle. In those days, Republicans were ideologically opposed to foreign-aid bills, and would vote against them even if they included assistance to Israel. Cohen was part of an effort to incorporate aid to Israel into the defense budget instead, in order to win Republican support for US aid to the country. “You’ve provided something in the context of their worldview that works for them,” he explained. The approach paid off handsomely: In 1989, Israel became one of the United States’ first five major non-NATO allies. Around the same time, AIPAC pushed for the establishment of joint U.S.-Israeli weapons programs, like the Arrow missile defense system, which entered development in 1986, and the Kurnass 2000, a modernization of the avionics systems on U.S.-built F-4 Phantoms used in Israel’s air force.
Cohen said that between 1986 and 1993, U.S. public spending on military aid to Israel leapt to $960 million from $15 million. AIPAC had sparked a bipartisan policy shift. “Tom Dine wanted the sides to fight over the pro-Israel agenda,” said Cohen of AIPAC’s then-executive director, who left in 1993. “That was AIPAC’s great success in the ’80s.”
But the bipartisan approach that worked so well in the 1980s and early 1990s created severe problems for AIPAC under the Obama administration, which proved more willing to openly pressure Israel and openly engage with its enemies than any White House in decades. AIPAC had to keep up its access to an uncooperative executive branch while sticking to its policy of only backing legislation that has bipartisan support. Now, during the Trump administration, bipartisanship has the danger of creating the appearance of AIPAC courting a president who has been accused of ignoring or even abetting the anti-Semitism of some of his supporters.
“You always have the push-pull architecture of the AIPAC lobby model,” a former senior congressional aide explained, “which is to push Democrats as far as they’re willing to go, and to pull back Republicans from going farther than Democrats are willing to go. They’re able to play each side against each other to eventually land in a compromised middle place.”
The Iran Deal fight brought AIPAC to a series of unhappy mediums, none more consequential than the botched attempt to sanction Iran after serious negotiations had started. On Nov. 24, 2013, a U.S.-led group of six world powers and Iran reached an interim agreement on limits to Tehran’s nuclear program, the essential first-step in the negotiation of the July 2015 deal. On Dec. 13, 2013, Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez introduced a bill that would impose sanctions on Iran several months in the future, a move meant to penalize the regime for dragging out talks while placing a time limit on negotiations.
Sanctions were AIPAC’s home turf. One congressional staffer likened AIPAC’s role in previous sanctions legislation to that of an editor in journalism: Its lobbyists and analysts would look for gaps in the proposed statutes, raise ideas, and propose improvements. The Iran sanctions were also a triumph of AIPAC’s bipartisanship model. Between 2010 and 2013, Congress sanctioned Iranian exports and financial institutions in a series of near-unanimous votes. These were measures with which the Obama administration was often uneasy, because it viewed them as undermining the White House’s ability to conduct foreign policy and its freedom to engage Tehran diplomatically. Obama still enforced the sanctions, even though the legislation gave the executive branch considerable leeway.
The politics of Kirk-Menendez proved different than usual. The bill had bipartisan support; at one point, it boasted 17 Democratic co-sponsors. But other Democrats, and the White House, saw the bill as a plot to scuttle negotiations entirely. There’s debate over whether the legislation ever had enough Democratic support to make it out of the Senate or to override the inevitable veto. Either way, Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, refused to bring it to a vote.
In February of 2014, Kirk organized a letter to Reid signed by 42 of the Senate’s 45 Republicans, urging a vote on the bill. AIPAC “freaked out” at the letter, according to one Hill source (an account corroborated by reports from Eli Lake, then at The Daily Beast). Realizing that bipartisan support for the bill was breaking under White House pressure, Menendez gave a speech in the Senate explaining why his colleagues shouldn’t vote on his own bill, which most of them supported. And on Feb. 6, 2014, AIPAC issued a statement conceding that it was not the right time for a vote on a bill it had been backing.
Deal opponents believe that the sanctions measure was the pivotal Hill episode of the 14-month Iran negotiations. “Kirk-Menendez was the most important time to fight back, and AIPAC didn’t want to do that,” one observer with knowledge of the situation said.
AIPAC believed a fight over Kirk-Menendez would have been costly and futile. “It was clear as day Democrats were going to give them the chance to do the negotiations,” one AIPAC official said. “The writing was on the wall at that point. … It would’ve done no good to move forward on a fight we would lose at White House pressure.”
By then, AIPAC already had an uncertain recent record of balancing bipartisanship and access against the advancement of its policy objectives. On Aug. 21, 2013, the Iranian-supported regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched sarin-gas-tipped projectiles into Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack killed an estimated 1,500 people and violated Obama’s “red line,” the president’s standard for intervening in Syria’s civil war with military force.
According to multiple sources, then-White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called Howard Kohr in September of 2013 to request that AIPAC support airstrikes on the Assad regime in Syria, which Obama said he would not launch without Congressional authorization. AIPAC ended up backing the strikes and lobbied for them on the Hill. An AIPAC official explained why American military involvement in the Syrian Civil War fell within the group’s brief of issues: The possibility of a Middle Eastern regime or nonstate group using biochemical weapons “was one of the great concerns that affected Israel and the whole region.” Still, members of Congress were generally less supportive of military action after receiving national security briefings on the proposed operation. The Syria strikes never came to a vote, thanks to the chemical-weapons agreement reached between Russia, Syria, and the United States in September of 2013. Eventually, the impression grew that regardless of either side’s intentions, a pliant AIPAC had let the White House draw it into a losing fight, even after the president had already decided not to enforce his own “red line.”
By early 2015, AIPAC was preparing its network for a fight over the Iran Deal. “Starting in January of 2015, the message was, ‘We’re going to start talking about three things: Iran, Iran, and Iran,’ ” one AIPAC activist recalled. But sanctions were already off the table. And congressional-oversight legislation became the project of a lawmaker who was not considered to be particularly close with the lobby: Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, one of three Republicans not to sign Kirk’s February 2014 letter urging a vote on forward-looking sanctions. The result, the Corker-sponsored and AIPAC-supported Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, created a three-vote structure for stopping the deal—cloture, disapproval, veto-override—and passed on May 14, 2015. Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate did not allow amendments on the bill to be heard, and as one staffer recalled, AIPAC “was not supportive of an open amendment process.” The bill passed the Senate 98-1. (The only Senator who voted against it was hawkish Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton.)
Hillary Clinton waves during AIPAC’s annual policy conference on March 21, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The Iran Deal debate concluded in Congress on Sept. 10, 2015, with a failed cloture vote and no Senate vote on a resolution of disapproval, even though most of the chamber’s members opposed the nuclear agreement. “The Corker bill was set up to enable Obama to say that he gained congressional sign-off on the deal despite the opposition of a majority of the House and Senate,” said one strategist who works in the Republican pro-Israel world and was closely involved in the Iran Deal fight. One senior Republican congressional staffer echoed this sentiment, citing the bill’s failure to mandate that the deal be considered under “expedited procedure,” which the Senate uses when considering so-called 1-2-3 agreements on international civilian nuclear cooperation and doesn’t require a cloture vote. “If you wanted to have a vote it would be totally reasonable to use that procedure. But if you want the appearance of an up or down vote—but want it to ultimately fail—you hide behind the 60-vote [cloture] threshold,” the staffer said.
Still, the legislation created a 60-day review period, during which Congress held a series of hearings with administration brass, CNFI ran ads, AIPAC held fly-ins, and 55 percent of the American public came to oppose the agreement, with only 25 percent supporting it, according to a Quinnipiac University poll published in late August of 2015. The law obligated the administration to submit all documents related to the agreement to Congress—documents that revealed the controversial inspection protocols for the previously closed-off Parchin military facility, and the actual time frame of agreed restrictions on Iran’s centrifuge development. But the bill did not secure a congressional vote on the deal, which would have required six Democratic members of the Senate to join the chamber’s 54 Republicans in voting for cloture. Every Democrat but Bob Menendez, Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin, and Ben Cardin voted to sustain the filibuster.
AIPAC decided not to pick ugly public battles that could have permanently alienated Democrats who were already ambivalent about the deal—but that only means the anti-deal side failed to get a cloture vote out of senators who may already have substantively agreed with them. “Nobody I talked to among the Senate Democrats said, ‘Joe, I just have to disagree with you on this one, this is a great agreement,’ or that, as Tim Kaine said [during the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate] this stops Iran from being a nuclear power without us firing a shot,” Joe Lieberman recalled. “Nobody said that to me.”
Activists, strategists, and congressional staffers believe that AIPAC has sounded a tactical retreat in the year-and-a-half since the Iran Deal became official. Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a wavering Democrat who many in the pro-Israel world expected to vote for cloture in September of 2015 but who voted to keep up the filibuster after expressing deep reservations about the deal, spoke at a luncheon for AIPAC donors just a month later, according to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. In October of 2016, one congressional staffer struggled to remember the last Iran-related letter AIPAC had circulated, or any Iran-related issue the lobby had taken up, aside from reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act. “They’ve backed off of it,” the staffer said of AIPAC and Iran-related issues on the Hill.
But AIPAC hasn’t remained totally silent on Iran since the deal was reached, and the group has made at least one revealing and futile attempt to push the issue forward over the past year. According to multiple sources, AIPAC wanted to include new ballistic-missile-testing-related sanctions as part of its Policy Conference lobbying package in March of 2016. The push for new sanctions was a bust almost from the beginning. Congressional leadership was willing to move forward, but the White House communicated a veto threat that soon reached AIPAC. “The theme of the conference was ‘come together,’ or ‘coming together,’ or something like that,” a Democratic congressional adviser recalled. “The message they wanted to send was that ‘we’re moving forward,’ and at that point to launch another battle with the administration was not going to be conducive to that goal.”
According to another congressional staffer, the episode is also proof of the lingering wounds of the Iran Deal fight. “Remember, this was after two [Iranian missile] tests violating previous [UNSC] resolutions,” the staffer said. “And there was still no bipartisanship on ballistic-missile sanctions. If that doesn’t show that AIPAC broke the Hill on bipartisanship, I don’t know what does.”
Even supporters of the group can see that its performance in the Iran deal fight casts doubt on the applicability of the lobby’s favored methods in the current political environment. “A couple years ago the theme of Policy Conference was ‘relationships matter,’ ” one former staffer recalled. “I’ve been in politics for a long time, and I bought into that when I worked there. But I’ve come to realize that relationships don’t matter. Fear does! Relationships don’t matter at all.”
The present moment might be less perilous if AIPAC were a slimmer, hungrier, and more fear-based operation—one that didn’t fill arenas, live and die on access, and leave observers guessing who its friends and enemies really were. But scaling back, or even just deciding not to expand, would require a revolution in the lobby’s thinking.
At the organization’s Washington, office, evidence of AIPAC’s tendency to use organizational growth as a cure-all for some of its deepest internal tensions is affixed to the Jerusalem Stone in the lobby. Perpendicular to the elevator bank, right near an abstract painting of the American and Israeli flags, large lines of text announce that the building’s construction was made possible by Dr. Miriam Adelson and Sheldon Adelson. But not long after the building opened, the Adelsons broke with AIPAC over the group’s support for the two-state solution. Since then, the gulf between AIPAC-type bipartisanship and more right-wing pro-Israel activism has only grown as groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel have entered the scene and the Obama administration simultaneously pursued peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and nuclear talks with Iran. Still, AIPAC kept growing through it all; the group had $50 million in net assets at the time of its break with Adelson in 2008, and has more than twice that today. On Dec. 1, 2016, AIPAC submitted plans to the D.C. Zoning Commission to build what the Washington City Paper describes as “a new 11-story commercial office ‘intended to serve the organization’s projected future growth.’ ”
The lesson that AIPAC took from its turbulent experience with the Obama administration is that it is possible to keep expanding dramatically even in the face of public setbacks and policy defeats. Ironically, it could take an effusively pro-Israel Republican president to demonstrate that organization-building is not the same as winning political battles. In its effort to maintain a 30-year-old model of bipartisanship that seems to have little place in today’s Washington—in trying to be all things to all people as Israel becomes an even more polarizing issue in the United States—AIPAC will likely endanger its place at the center of policy debates that affect Israel’s future.