AIPAC is in agony. It desperately wants to support the U.S.-Russia START treaty aimed at limiting nuclear warheads because the treaty would greatly advance Israel’s security.
But it is afraid of defying right-wing Republicans in the Senate. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), in particular, is telling AIPAC “don’t you dare.” His reason is simple: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has ordered Republicans to block anything the president submits to the Senate except, of course, tax cuts for millionaires. That includes START. (The good news is that Kyl may come around and then AIPAC can, too.)
The case that START is critical to Israel is impossible to dispute. In a letter to AIPAC, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) explain that there is one gigantic factor that should matter more to the so-called pro-Israel lobby than pleasing Republicans: Iran. Rejecting the treaty will probably cause Russia to abandon the U.S.-led effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
The treaty is an opportunity to improve relations with Russia, a nation that has provided considerable support for U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran.
Last spring, Russia voted in favor of the U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Iran. This fall, Russian President Medvedev agreed not to fulfill a previously agreed-upon sale of air defense missiles to Iran.
There are many economic and geopolitical incentives for Russia to do business with Iran; its decision not to do so in these instances is a strong testament to the importance of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Like you, we are committed to preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, and we share your deep concern for the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States and Israel. As a leading voice in favor of crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, AIPAC cannot afford to stand on the sidelines as the Senate debates the New START treaty.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agrees. He believes that containing Iran can only be achieved through a “paradigm shift” in relations with Russia. “The other issues are not so important,” he says.
In other words, if AIPAC really believes what it says about the Iranian threat to Israel, it must support START because if START isn’t ratified and Moscow responds by opting out of the “contain Iran” alliance, a major obstacle to Iran’s nuclear program disappears.
And why would AIPAC hesitate in supporting START? After all, every other major Jewish organization is supporting the president on this one. (Two minor far-right “pro-Israel” organizations oppose START. One is the very Republican and ultra-neocon Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. The other is the crackpot Emergency Committee for Israel, which was established by right-wing Republicans to try to defeat Democrats by running ads claiming Democrats are anti-Israel. These two represent the company AIPAC is now keeping.)
AIPAC argues that it does not get involved in congressional battles that do not directly involve Israel. Of course, they do. They always have. Even when I worked at AIPAC decades ago, they put their full lobbying weight behind a then-controversial plan to establish a military base on the Pacific island of Diego Garcia.
Why? Because the Republican president at the time asked them to. More recently, AIPAC made sure that its friends in Congress knew that the “right vote” for Israel was supporting both Iraq wars. (Had AIPAC not indicated its support for war, far fewer Democrats would have voted for the second Iraq war.)
But now, suddenly, AIPAC has only “no comment” on START, a treaty directly beneficial to Israel — not to mention America.
Come on! Does AIPAC owe absolutely nothing to a government that AIPAC itself calls “Israel’s lifeline”? For $3.5 billion a year in aid, isn’t it a tad unseemly to give President Obama, or any president, the brush-off?
I don’t know what AIPAC will do in the end. After all, they are clearly preoccupied with former employee Steve Rosen’s lawsuit alleging that he should not have been fired for trafficking in secret government documents because, Rosen argues, that is what AIPAC does.
He wants a $20 million payoff or he will tell everything he knows. (AIPAC’s donors are generous souls, so they may give him the money. After all, AIPAC has already spent $10 million of its donors’ money first defending Rosen, then defending themselves and now trying to destroy Rosen.) So they are clearly preoccupied.
And then there is Rosen’s legacy: the pronounced AIPAC tilt to the Republicans. Before Rosen arrived at AIPAC in 1982, it was bipartisan. But Rosen vehemently argued that pro-Israel Jews need to be right-wing Republicans. He engineered the firing of former executive director Thomas A. Dine, the organization’s most successful leader, because he had been a long-time aide to Democratic senators. And he hired (Rosen did the hiring through an executive board under his control) right-wing GOP House aide Howard Kohr, who is as close to Newt Gingrich as Dine was to Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden.
Ever since, AIPAC — although not most of its membership — has essentially been a Republican organization.
But now it is taking its bias for the GOP to the next level. It is refusing to support a Democratic president who has asked for its support, despite the fact that AIPAC knows (its staffers admit it in private) that START is critical for Israel.
This should send a clear message to Democrats that the established “pro-Israel” lobby is a pro-Republican lobby.
I hope it comes around, not because I have any illusions about AIPAC. I hope it comes around because, even as it declines, it is still a lobbying powerhouse. It can, I believe, put the START treaty over … and that is critical for my family, and yours, and for families in Israel, too.
Is it too much to ask AIPAC to do the right thing? After all, Mitch McConnell isn’t Moses and the return of the neocons under President Sarah Palin is not the Promised Land.
MJ Rosenberg is the senior fellow on foreign policy at Media Matters for America. Previously, he spent 10 years as director of policy at Israel Policy Forum, before which he spent 15 years on Capitol Hill as an aide to members of Congress. He was editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report for four years in the 1980s.