AIPAC no match for the ‘sleeping giant’

In the court of public opinion, AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbies are losing ground.

Recent surveys point to a public increasingly moving towards diplomacy rather than war [Reuters]

The absolute power of the “pro-Israel” lobby, as manifested most prominently by the US-based organisation known as AIPAC, is often cited as a truism of Western foreign policy.

However, the recent defeat of the Israel-supported push to go to war in Syria, and the US administration’s continued backing of a deal with Iran on its nuclear capabilities (which Israel opposes), suggests that the pro-Israel lobby isn’t as Goliath-like as perceived.

Michael Koplow, programme director of the Israel Institute, claimed in a recent blog post that “the loud insistence of ‘Israel lobby truthers’ that AIPAC controls US policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the ADL and AJC (two AIPAC member organisations) invited to a private briefing at the White House…The bottom line is that Congress… is going to do what public opinion tells it to do.” 

While Koplow is a bit too glib in his dismissal of AIPAC money and electoral threats, his core premise is correct: When the public finally wakes up and mobilises, the lobby’s vaunted power dissipates. And the pro-Israel lobby is slowly losing the battle for public legitimacy.

The lesson of Syria

On its website, during the debate over whether to bomb Syria as punishment for its suspected use of chemical weapons, AIPAC stated: “The civilised world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons…[T]his is a critical moment when America must also send a forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hezbollah.” The organisation went on to insist that the bombing of Syria is a “critical decision” that if not enacted would “greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies”.

However, most Americans were staunchly opposed to military intervention in Syria, with a CNN poll showing that even though eight in 10 believed Bashar al-Assad’s regime gassed its own people, a strong majority did not support a retaliatory military strike.

Max Fisher, foreign affairs blogger for The Washington Post – not known for its progressive reporting when it comes to Israel, concluded: “It was a rare public test of AIPAC’s ability to shape US foreign policy and it flunked.”

Unfolding debate on Iran

Some observers argue that the pro-Israel lobby’s loss in the Syria debate is limited to that issue, and will have no bearing on the outcome of the P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, France, UK and Germany) negotiations with Iran over its nuclear status.

I believe that if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of de-legitimisation of Israel that's been taking place on an international basis,

by -US Secretary of State John Kerry

Israel has made its position chillingly clear. According to The Times of Israel, a member of the national parliament telephoned French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to warn him that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if the P5+1 nations do not stiffen their terms on a deal with Iran. “I know [Netanyahu],” the French MP, Meyer Habib, reportedly told Fabius. “If you don’t toughen your positions, Netanyahu will attack Iran… You have to toughen your positions in order to prevent war.”

If that isn’t blackmail, what is? But will it work?

Public-opinion polls show that more than 75 percent of Americans favour direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran, and although most (58 percent) won’t take military action off the table to prevent Iran from deploying a nuclear weapon, 80 percent believe the current threat can be contained without force. Clearly, public opinion – in the US at least – is on the side of dialogue.

For negotiations to be successful and not just an exercise, however, it must offer a “win” for both sides, saving face for all of the many stakeholders involved.

As Daryl G. Kimball and Kelsey Davenport write on the blog for the Arms Control Association, “policymakers in Washington and leaders in Israel who genuinely want to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran should be careful not to insist on ideal but unrealistic demands, such as zero enrichment or the complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear programme.Such a deal may have been possible in 2005 when Iran had fewer than 300 uranium enrichment centrifuges at one site; but it is not realistic now that Iran has 19,000 installed and 10,000 operating centrifuges at two sites.”

The Israeli government should understand the reality of “facts on the ground” – it’s the same logic it uses to argue that any state negotiated with the Palestinians must exclude its more than 220 illegal settlements, housing more than 500,000 Israelis. Likewise, the Israeli government has never offered to scale back its own nuclear stockpile, which is widely considered the world’s “worst-kept secret“.   

Despite the intense pressure from Israel, the Obama administration seems to realise that fact. “The American people do not want a march to war,” Agence France Presse quoted White House spokesman Jay Carney as acknowledging that new sanctions being mulled on Capitol Hill could embolden hardliners in Iran. “The American people justifiably and understandably prefer a peaceful solution…”

We, as a collective of grassroots activists for peace, must do what we did during the Syria debate – mobilise to convince the broader public, and then Congress, that trying to force Iran into a scenario in which Iran is clearly the “loser” would only end in consequences no one wants: no deal, the possibility of war and – we would add – the collective punishment (through years of sanctions) of the 76 million Iranian people.

Israeli-Palestinian issue

There are chinks as well in the armour of the pro-Israel lobbies in their longest-running war of perceptions – although for the Palestinians living under occupation, progress understandably seems glacial.

To date, Israel has relentlessly continued to create more “facts on the ground” that entrench its expansion into the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while eviscerating any hope of true Palestinian independence. The international community, led by the US, has stood by – expressing little more than “concern”.

At the macro level, the public support evident in the struggle against war in Syria and Iran seems to be lacking in the movement for Palestinian self-determination.

Earlier this month, even as US Secretary of State John Kerry shuttled around the world to breathe life into the latest round of talks, the Israeli group Peace Now revealed that Israel was preparing to build nearly 24,000 more homes for illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Yuval Steinitz, Israeli minister for strategic affairs, defiantly declared: “Prime Minster Netanyahu made it very clear that…we will build in the settlements during the negotiation.”

However, Kerry responded with a harshness that is surprising for a US administration that – to date- has not been willing to expend any political capital to challenge AIPAC and its allies on this particular front: “I believe that if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of de-legitimisation of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis,” Kerry said in a joint Israeli-Palestinian television interview.

Showing that “tough love” can work, Netanyahu uncharacteristically reversed the decision several days later, saying it had created an “unnecessary confrontation” with the international community that threatened to weaken his campaign against Iran’s nuclear programme.

Public opinion

The lesson learned: Israel will change its behaviour if it feels there will be implications that matter. The so-called two-state “solution” to the conflict with the Palestinians may no longer be salvageable (in fact, I would argue that it is not). But any hope for a just peace depends on the US and the rest of the international community backing their rhetoric with sanctions, until Israel is forced to face reality and accept Palestinians’ rights as being equal to its own.

At the macro level, the public support evident in the struggle against war in Syria and Iran seems to be lacking in the movement for Palestinian self-determination. It’s not yet obvious to many Americans that, as General David Petraeus testified in 2010, “Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is jeopardising US standing in the region.”

The most recent national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted March 13-17, found that just short of half of American adults sympathised more with Israel, while only 12 percent felt that way about the Palestinians. However, look a little closer and fault lines emerge: In the same survey, although 66 percent of Republicans said they sympathised more with Israel, only 49 percent of independents and 39 percent of Democrats said the same.

Yes, AIPAC is powerful. But so is the public will, when it awakens from its sleep like the under-estimated giant. Our job as peace activists is to continue to sound the wake-up call.

Pam Bailey is a freelance journalist and activist who has lived and worked in the Gaza Strip.