Wednesday, September 2, 2015

AIPAC Iran Deal Loss An Opportunity For Change

This morning, Senator Barbara Mikulski indicated she would support the Iran nuclear deal. This brings the total number of supporters in the Senate to 34, meaning that the Senate will not have the 66 votes necessary to override a presidential veto of a congressional resolution of disapproval.

After Congress gave itself authority to review the deal in May, the 159-page document became a partisan battleground, and a source of contention between the United States and Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the deal an "historic mistake," raising US-Israel tensions and putting American pro-Israel groups in a tough position (Brent Sasley explains why here). 

AIPAC's mission is to "strengthen, protect and promote the US-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States." It aims to support policies that enhance the US-Israel relationship rather than Israeli security itself. Given this mission, a successful strategy for the Iran deal would have been for AIPAC to act as a conduit. It should have tried to clarify the terms of the deal to Israel's leadership, while communicating Israel's specific security concerns to the US government. Sanctions relief for the IRGC, for example, entails real risks for Israel - ones to which the Obama administration has been sympathetic. In turn, Israel has expressed concerns about the text of the deal that US assurances could assuage. There are differences in the American and Israeli positions, but these differences could have been mitigated and Israel's security enhanced had AIPAC acted as a communicative conduit between the administrations.

Instead, AIPAC chose blanket opposition to the entire deal, alienating the administration and empowering its Republican adversaries. It raised $30 million for television ads to oppose the deal in key congressional districts and released fact sheets opposing the agreement. These materials were not only explicitly opposed to the deal, they were often based on arguments with no basis in reality. These frantic but fallacious messages polarized debate and delegitimized Israel's legitimate concerns about the deal. What could have been an opportunity for communication that would have enhanced Israel's security became a partisan political circus. The Iran nuclear deal became a cheap political football in a game based on arguments that would not survive the second week of an "Introduction to International Relations" class. 

AIPAC's campaign was not only ineffective, it was poorly strategized and based on egregious factual errors. It harmed the US-Israel alliance and alienated a Democratic base that will be critical for the future of that alliance. $30 million would have been better spent on taking leaders to Israel, enhancing security dialogues between the US and Israel, or investing in bilateral efforts to improve living conditions for poor or under-served Israelis. 

AIPAC has seen setbacks before, and will likely see them again. However, it should take the time to seriously reconsider the utility of an adversarial and reactionary approach to its stewardship of the US-Israel relationship.