When AIPAC Went AWOL
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Washington Times title: "Israel lobby tiptoes around Hagel nomination"
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
The chairman of the board, president, chief executive officer, and vice chief executive officer all signed the letter.
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:
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."
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