Chuck Hagel's notorious 2008 statement about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading institution of the pro-Israel lobby, claimed that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in Congress]. ... I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."
Then a strange thing happened: no sooner did Barack Obama nominate Hagel for secretary of defense on Jan. 7, when AIPAC announced it would not oppose the former Republican senator from Nebraska. Indeed, so neutral did it wish to be on this delicate topic that its spokesman even avoided mentioning Hagel's name, declaring only that "AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations." AIPAC then kept a complete silence through Hagel's confirmation on Feb. 26. More important, it did not lift a finger to influence the vote.
AIPAC's initial logic made some sense: Obama, having just won an impressive reelection effort, had chosen his man and Republicans were likely to put up a merely token resistance to him, so why antagonize a soon-to-be very powerful figure and a principal player in the U.S.-Israel relationship? As my colleague Steven J. Rosen explained back then, "AIPAC has to work with the secretary of defense." It also did not want to antagonize increasingly skittish Democrats.
Subsequently, an intense search into Hagel's record found more ugly statements about Israel. He referred in 2006 to Israel's self-defense against Hizbullah as a "sickening slaughter." In 2007, he pronounced that "The State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister's office." And in 2010 he was cited as warning that Israel risked "becoming an apartheid state."
Still, the senator who spoke of an intimidating "Jewish lobby" got a complete pass from that same lobby. It makes one wonder just how intimidating it is.
Other pro-Israel organizations took a different approach. The Zionist Organization of America produced 14 statements arguing against Hagel's nomination between Dec. 17 (urging Obama not to nominate the "Iran- & Terrorist-Apologist & Israel-Basher Chuck Hagel") to Feb. 22 (a listing of "Ten Important Reasons to Oppose Chuck Hagel"). Not itself primarily a lobbying organization, ZOA's calculus had less to do with the prospect of winning and more to do with taking a principled and moral stand.
Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took up the fight.
Hagel squeaked through the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12 with a party-line 14-11 vote. A vote to end debate on the nomination failed to win the needed 60 votes on Feb. 14. He finally won confirmation by a 58-to-41 vote, facing the greatest number of "no" votes against any secretary of defense (George C. Marshall in 1950 came in a distant second with 11 no's). And so, the fringe figure who opposed even economic sanctions on Iran, the bumbling nominee who confused prevention with containment, the politician characterized by Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina) as "the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the State of Israel in our nation's history" – well, he took office on Feb. 27.
The mammoth Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where the AIPAC policy conference takes place.
Yes, AIPAC remains a force to contend with on secondary issues; for instance it won an eye-popping 100-0 victory over the Obama administration in Dec. 2011 on an Iran sanctions bill. But (ever since the AWACS battle of 1981) it has studiously avoided antagonizing the president on the highest-profile issues, the ones most threatening to Israel. As a result, it neutered itself and presumably lost the debate over Iran policy.
The age of Obama and Hagel needs the robust AIPAC of old.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
Mar. 6, 2013 update: I explore the subtleties of this topic at "The Hagelian Dialectic."
Sep. 8, 2013 update: The Times of Israel has published "An open letter to AIPAC from a frustrated friend" that is far more stinging than my criticism of a half year ago. Neil Lazarus writes about the AIPAC readiness to support Barack Obama in his preparation to attack the government of Syria over its use of chemical weapons that it
has placed itself fully on the side of a short sighted, if not dangerous policy. AIPAC has become for Obama, what Hezbollah is for Syria. A blind supporter of a war that may ignite the region. Maybe AIPAC should rebrand to OPAC; Obama's Public Affairs Committee. Clearly on the issue of Syria, they don't represent the interests of Israel. ...
by supporting Obama's Syrian policy, many will blame Israel for leading the USA into another war and not a lobbyist group that has overstepped the mark.
Feb. 27, 2014 update: In an e-mail to members attending its forthcoming policy conference, AIPAC sent out an awkward admonition to its members to behave while unpopular administration figures address them. It bears the subject line "Welcoming Guests into Our Home" and reads in part:
We have always had the perspective that these speakers and guests have been invited into our home, and we will treat them with the warmth, respect, and appreciation that anyone would be accorded as such.
Therefore, how we conduct ourselves during the conference, individually and collectively, is a matter of great importance. Because we know that you—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—come to this conference with one overriding concern—a stronger U.S.-Israel alliance—we ask that you act and react to every speech, address, and briefing that will be offered as part of the conference program in only the most positive manner.
The chairman of the board, president, chief executive officer, and vice chief executive officer all signed the letter.
Part of AIPAC's letter to participants in its policy conference.
July 30, 2014 update: After surveying the Obama administration's neglect of Israeli interests during its war with Hamas, Lee Smith wonders where AIPAC is. Or, as his sub-title puts it, "AIPAC, the so-called Jewish Lobby, has no influence in the White House and is scared to speak out." He explains:
Sure, AIPAC gets House and Senate members to sign letters supportive of Israel and makes statements of its own. ... But it's crunch time for Israel, and thus also for the organization that is supposed to represent most potently the U.S.-Israel friendship, a relationship Obama is crashing on behalf of Israel's adversaries. So, the question is why won't AIPAC say out loud what everyone, including the Israeli left, now sees plainly? Regardless of what Obama may feel in his "kishkes" about the Jewish state, his policies are hostile to Israel. ...
AIPAC is either an organization whose purpose is to maintain the broad bipartisan consensus on Israel, or it's a last line of defense, standing up to tell the president he's gone too far. The Israeli public has spoken very clearly, and with one voice. The seriousness of the threat is clear. So, where is AIPAC?
Comment: In retrospect, AIPAC's shyness to take on Chuck Hagel was but a foretaste of what was to come. This issue is more important and urgent than a cabinet position. Still, AIPAC sits it out.
July 17, 2015 update: AIPAC has found an issue on which to take a stand: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna three days ago between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to Ron Kampeas of JTA, staff and lay leaders have been told to cancel summer plans in "undertaking a major and significant effort to urge Congress to oppose the deal and insist on a better agreement." Its executive director, Howard Kohr, issued a script for calling legislators' offices that reads, "I am calling to urge [the senator/representative] to oppose the Iran nuclear deal because it will not block Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
Also of note: in contrast to my account above, Kampeas says AIPAC has twice "pulled out all the stops in taking on a president" – the AWACS sale I mentioned and but also "George H.W. Bush's linkage of loan guarantees to Israel to restraint on settlement building in disputed areas."
Sep. 28, 2015 update: After Congress failed to stop the JCPOA with Iran, Alana Goodman of the Washington Free Beacon looked back and found that AIPAC's having sat out the Hagel fight was a turning point:
Republican disenchantment with AIPAC dates back to at least the end of 2012, according to insiders. That was when the lobbying group declined to fight President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel. ... "[AIPAC] refused to fight on Chuck Hagel's nomination," said one senior GOP political adviser. "That was the opening salvo from the president to test the pro-Israel community, and to see if [the White House] could push AIPAC around."
While Senate Republicans were able to mount a filibuster against Hagel, the nomination was eventually approved. "All the Republicans looked at each other, being like, 'If [AIPAC's] not going to fight on this when this is a winnable battle right now, what are you going to fight about?' That was the beginning of the end," said the adviser. Others agreed that the Hagel nomination was a tipping point. "It was a 'fuck you' to AIPAC," said one pro-Israel official. "And they didn't fight it."