In the September 1 issue of The New Yorker, reporter Connie Bruck offers a long article on America’s top Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Bruck’s granular reporting and rich history make the piece well worth the read, though longtime followers of Middle East issues in Washington may find little surprising in her summary of how AIPAC operates. One notable exception comes in a thread running through the story about AIPAC's fight against diplomacy with Iran.
AIPAC works very hard to not appear as an overt opponent of Iran diplomacy. And with good reason: the growing party-line make-up of efforts to kill talks doesn’t fit with AIPAC’s professed bipartisanship. What’s more, the alternative to diplomacy is a path to confrontation with Iran, while unremitting hawkishness remains out of vogue among the American public. And yet members of Congress closest to AIPAC, such as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), do seem to oppose diplomacy, comparing negotiations to “Munich” at every turn.
The most revelatory disquisition contained in Bruck’s piece, however, wasn’t the discussion of the dramatic turnaround in support for new sanctions in the Senate (which Eli Clifton and I detailed in a Nation feature in July), but rather in the lower chamber of Congress. Bruck recounts how two AIPAC stalwarts in the House, Representatives Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eric Cantor (R-VA), parted ways over the latter’s attempts to derail talks:
According to the former congressional aide, Cantor told Hoyer that he wanted a bill that would kill the interim agreement with Iran. Hoyer refused, saying that he would collaborate only on a nonbinding resolution. Cantor sent Hoyer a resolution that called for additional sanctions and sought to define in advance the contours of an agreement with Iran.
"The pressure was tremendous—not just AIPAC leadership and legislative officials but various board members and other contributors, from all over the country,” the former congressional aide recalled…
The members of Hoyer’s caucus pressed him, and, on December 12th, just as the language of the resolution became final, he asked to set aside the effort, saying that the time was not right.
Though Cantor eventually backed down—the final result was a congressional letter “so anodyne that most Democrats in the progressive caucus signed it,” according to Bruck—the fact that his effort was an explicit attempt to kill negotiations and that it earned vociferous backing from AIPAC says something about the lobby’s activities. (Another revealing aspect of this episode came in AIPAC’s pressuring House Democrat Debbie Wasserman Shultz, another pro-Israel stalwart, by distributing an article from the often partisan, lowbrow neoconservative blog, the Washington Free Beacon.)
Cantor’s push, thanks to Bruck’s reporting, stands as the best example to date of how Washington’s pro-Israel community (which is diverse but whose center of gravity falls well to the right of center) is blowing smoke with its incessant proclamations that it merely wants to strengthen diplomacy with Iran. Cantor—and AIPAC, it seems, as part of a long campaign against talks—wants no deal at all.
At the same time, AIPAC and its closest allies are among the crowd who most loudly insisted over the years that, should diplomacy fail, airstrikes would be needed to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran (though it will likely only delay, rather than prevent, Iran’s progress).
When the Obama administration derided a sanctions push last fall as a “march to war,” Democrats close to AIPAC such as Bob Menendez (NJ), who’d co-sponsored the initiative with Mark Kirk, objected. Hoyer, too, recoiled, but it turns out he, at least, actually knew better at the time.