Sunday, March 02, 2014
As the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference begins in Washington, the lobbying organization will once again break attendance records, with estimates of 14,000 attendees. But the conference will be a subdued event, regardless of the obligatory cheering for any speaker who says that Iran must not get the bomb. Cheering will not end the Iranian nuclear program. Unfortunately, neither the P5+1 nor U.S. President Barack Obama, assuming he ever really cared to accomplish this, are likely to do that either.
The president is sending Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to fly the administration's colors and fake that all is well between the Obama administration, AIPAC and Israel. Lew is an observant Jew, but has had no real role since he joined the administration in either the Iranian nuclear issue or the Israeli-Palestinian talks. So his presence is window dressing.
Kerry is of course central to both issues, and he will attempt to reassure the assembled delegation that the White House is not blind to the realities of negotiating with Iran, and has not been giving away the store to the mullahs (despite much evidence to the contrary) in a desperate attempt to negotiate a deal, any deal that would bring Iran into the "community of nations."
On the Israeli-Palestinian track, Kerry will promise his and the president's utmost commitment to Israel's security, and try to prod AIPAC to back his efforts to get Israel to agree to a framework deal that allows negotiations to continue for another nine months or a year. Kerry will argue that now is a rare moment for Israel, when it can step up to the chance to finally make peace with the Palestinians. If it fails to do so, presumably the window of opportunity for peace in our times will close. Of course, given that the Palestinians have made clear to Kerry that they completely reject pretty much every element of his framework for negotiations, the only window that may be closing is the one that allows Kerry, the former senator and defeated presidential nominee (the only Democratic nominee to lose the popular vote since 1988), to see himself in his dreams accepting a Nobel Peace Prize. Given how little it took for Obama to be voted as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 almost on the day he took office, Kerry arguably deserves multiple awards for his efforts. But when a prize has been so cheapened, only a career politician nearing the end of that career can see winning it as a meaningful honor.
Beyond the day-to-day stories on the ups and downs of the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, and the Israelis and Palestinians each talking directly to Kerry but not to each other, a bigger battle has been fought and won by the administration. That battle has been to move the Democratic Party away from its bedrock support for Israel. Obama is a man of the Left. He is, in some sense, the first such president since Franklin Roosevelt. Had Roosevelt survived to the vote on the U.N. partition plan in 1947, a strong case can be made that he would have refused to back Israel in the General Assembly vote and to recognize the new state when it declared independence in 1948, assuming Israel could have won the partition vote without American support. Roosevelt after all, had a long history of distrusting, and even making anti-Semitic statements about, Jews, and refused to lift a finger to save the Jews of Europe from the Nazi annihilation until badgered by his own Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in 1944.
Obama sees himself as a transformative president, much as Roosevelt was. Both presidents assumed office during economic downturns, Roosevelt's of course far more severe. Both sought to greatly expand the size and reach of government to address the downturns. Neither was able to dramatically improve economic performance and produce a solid recovery, though the new spending and programs did expand the safety net. Both were presidents focused on domestic issues, though Roosevelt understood the challenge of the Axis powers, and the need to win the war against our enemies, and successfully prosecuted our war effort on multiple fronts.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, behaves as if our only enemies are a few isolated al-Qaida terrorists. He has been busy reducing the size of the armed forces and Pentagon budget (as all good leftists have always wanted) and made clear that he wants America out of overseas conflicts. Obama is moved by inequality (which has become much more severe on his watch despite his redistributionist efforts to legislate higher taxes and more spending), the nonexistent war on women that helps move the needle in campaigns, and other social issue advocacy.
But with regard to U.S. relations with Israel, and the role of Congress in pro-Israel advocacy, Obama has also been on a mission. Today, if you are on the Left, chances are high that you are not fond of Israel. In fact, opposition to Israel has become one of many litmus tests for the Left. Finding pro-Israel professors who are on the Left takes you to Alan Dershowitz's office, and few others. What was once a fringe anti-Zionist movement has gone mainstream the last few years, in part through the focused efforts of Professors Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, and the constant pressure on college campuses by students and faculty to take direct action against Israel through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
These anti-Zionist efforts have grown much faster since Obama became president. While Obama has not endorsed the BDS movement, he has not condemned it either. He has sent top administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, to the annual conference of J Street, where awards are given to individuals (e.g., Peter Beinart) for their advocacy of boycotts. He has given the Presidential Medal of Honor to Desmond Tutu, who endorsed the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and has called Israel a racist state. Kerry himself implicitly threatened Israel with more BDS activities by European nations (if not others) if it were unable to make peace with the Palestinians in the next few months.
Now many on the Left are contacting their Democratic senators and House members, demanding they create more space between Israel and the United States, and to defer to Obama on foreign policy. The biggest push in this direction has been to back the administration's so-far successful effort to kill a new Iran sanctions bill that would have re-enforced the message to Iran that we were not desperate for a deal at any price, and that to achieve real sanctions relief as opposed to getting hit with new sanctions, Iran would have to end its nuclear enrichment program and deactivate its reactors and centrifuges.
The administration has sought opportunities to create distance between elected Democrats and the pro-Israel community. One such effort was to shepherd the founding and growth of J Street, an alternative to AIPAC, which has effectively appealed only to members of one political party and their supporters on the Left, Jewish or not. While J Street professes to be pro-Israel and pro-peace, in reality it is pro-Obama and hostile to Israel's elected government, particularly when Obama is at odds with Israel and AIPAC. Bipartisanship has always been the key to AIPAC's success. There are more Jewish Democrats than Republicans, and that is the case within AIPAC, itself. But over the last few years, Democratic members of Congress have found it easier to ignore AIPAC and stand with Obama, but not with Israel. Supposed leaders on Israel among Democrats in Congress have switched sides to become total toadies for the administration -- such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senator Dick Durbin, and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Others, such as Senator Chuck Schumer, have for the first time in their long political career, gone silent.
If AIPAC begins to be seen as too Republican, that will make it easier for more Democrats in Congress to move away from the organization. And that of course is exactly Obama's goal -- he has no fear of a pro-Israel group that looks Republican-dominated. If that occurs, more of the organization's Democratic members will also walk, given their allergic reactions to being seen as part of a GOP-leaning group.
For years, the promise of campaign support from the pro-Israel community was an important component of financing for various campaigns. Now, when Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Jewish Hollywood movie mogul, can give millions to the president or to groups opposing Republicans in Congress with Israel a nonissue in the donations, or radical environmentalists can pledge $50 million to $100 million for the midterms to back Democrats, pro-Israel campaign financing has been overwhelmed by other causes and organizations that are more in lockstep with Democratic/leftist thinking. Working with environmentalists or Hollywood lobbyists, or public employee unions, means that Democrats never have to say they are sorry. But saying yes to AIPAC puts Democrats on the wrong page with their president.The president figured this out early. It has taken a while for members of his party to catch on. But more and more, they have, and that is a victory for the president and the Democratic Party he wants to lead and design.