Jewish Advocacy

Implications of AIPAC’s Lobbying on Syria

Why is AIPAC lobbying so publicly on Syria? What will the effects be on that organization after the dust settles? And what does it say about Jewish advocacy on Middle East issues? Brent Sasley investigates.

Last week I argued that Syria wasn’t a priority for AIPAC, but that if the Obama Administration asked it to lobby Congress to authorize strikes against Syria it probably would. But I contended that “providing information and talking points to members of Congress at the request of the president on an issue it either doesn’t feel strongly opposed to or even agrees with isn’t the same as fighting over a policy it views as a priority.”

I was wrong. Turns out AIPAC decided to lobby hard for a Congressional yes, and to be very public about it. In its own forceful words, “The civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons” because “[t]his is a critical moment when America must also send a forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hezbollah.” It is a “momentous vote,” a “critical decision” that if not enacted could “greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies.”

Many questions have been asked and conclusions drawn about this episode. The most interesting and important are: Why is AIPAC lobbying so publicly? What will the effects be on that organization after the dust settles? And what does this say about the current and future state of Jewish advocacy on Middle East issues?

The first question is the toughest to answer. Lobbying is a multi-faceted activity, which takes place both publicly and privately. Successful advocacy organizations know how to shape the external forces around a decision-maker (such as public opinion) as well as gain access to those decision-makers to present their case directly.

Despite all the conspiracy theories about AIPAC and the Jewish community’s power over American foreign policy, most have little clue about and information on the decision-making processes in these organizations. It’s difficult, then, to know exactly why the organization decided to make a public effort.

At first glance it appears that going public on the Syria vote is less beneficial than the quieter approach. Americans are staunchly opposed to strikes on Syria; indeed, opposition has grown in the last week from 48 percent to 63 percent, as people have shifted from the undecided to the no column (support has remained more or less steady at 28 percent). There was little chance that AIPAC could bring public opinion around to the Administration’s position, because none of its arguments (chemical weapons norm, punishment, humanitarianism, Iran) resonated enough with the public on this particular issue.

For their part, members of Congress talk to each other all the time. It’s the direct communication that matters here: Congresspeople want groups with expertise in a given area to help them understand issues and even frame an appropriate response. In personal meetings AIPAC can present the arguments clearly to “key contacts” that would then call up their colleagues and try to convince them. Going public wasn’t going to convince members of the urgency of authorizing the use of force; it might even have made them more nervous about taking a public stand on a controversial and unpopular idea.

Theories on the high profile of the AIPAC effort range from sheer hubris, to a desire to showcase its power and/or its support for the strikes, to a simple miscalculation. Most likely, AIPAC decided that the risks of a public intervention (getting members’ backs up, opening themselves up to “the-Jews-want-war-again” accusations, turning their failure to get the yes vote out into a public spectacle) were simply worth the benefits. Getting a Congressperson on the public record as supporting a strike would make it harder to walk back or even change his or her mind. And forcing them to take a stand would imprint their decision in the public record, which could then be referred back to during the next election. Earning the gratitude of lobbyists is a time-worn practice in politics.

The second question—whether a victory or, especially, a loss will affect AIPAC’s future advocacy abilities—is much easier to answer. Obama has asked Congress not to vote just yet, to give the Russian proposal to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons out of regime hands more time to play out, but assuming a vote is held and Congress authorizes the use of force, AIPAC will clearly have won big. It will have demonstrated its ability to advocate effectively, but more importantly it will have helped a president with whom it has had serious disagreements in the past. Not only will the White House have to reciprocate the help, but AIPAC will have proved useful to a Democratic party that seems to have been growing more suspicious of and distant from it.

Of course, before Obama delayed his request, it seemed as though Congress was leaning toward a no vote. Preferences might shift a little if the diplomatic route fails, but it’s still not clear it would be enough. What most observers have wondered, then, is whether a no vote would diminish the allure of AIPAC, tarnish its reputation, and weaken its power.

This seems unlikely. AIPAC is much more than a single vote. Its core mission—to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship—is anchored in a network of security, political, economic, and cultural ties. That relationship easily survived Obama’s first term, though certainly there were tensions and rocky moments. But that bedrock remains stable and strong, and AIPAC’s work builds on it. This vote won’t affect how the public or Congress views Israel or American military ties to Israel, and I don’t think it will have a major effect on Iran policy. Americans view Iran as a more serious threat than Syria, and nuclear weapons are considered more dangerous than chemical weapons. Moreover, Congress has long been hawkish on Iran, willing to push the Administration to take a tougher stance on sanctions. AIPAC’s ability to work within these conditions won’t be affected by a negative vote on Syria.

Finally, the Syrian case does tell us something about the nature of Jewish institutional advocacy on foreign policy, by highlighting divisions both across Jewish Zionist organizations and within them.

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The pro-Israel Jewish organizational landscape has become far more complicated since the 1990s. There are more advocacy groups and there is more polarization. On obvious partisan issues, like elections or presidential nominations, there tends to be a split between right-leaning and left-leaning groups. But on an issue like this—which has an impact on American policy toward Israel and toward Iran—the divisions are less political.

All of the big mainstream organizations have supported the president’s effort to lobby Congress to vote yes on the authorization of force, including the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Congress. Rightist organizations have been split, with the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has long mocked Obama’s Middle East policies, supporting the use of force but the Zionist Organization of America seemingly ignoring Syria and criticizing Obama for ignoring Iran.

On the left, J Street and Americans for Peace Now represent the preference to not take a specific position on U.S. strikes. The Israel Policy Forum has taken a middle position, calling for a diplomatic solution but declaring that “in the absence of a truly credible diplomatic solution, we fully support President Obama’s decision to resort to taking appropriate military action.”

The most intense internal division appears to be within J Street, between leftist activists and board members who preferred to avoid endorsing the use of force and pragmatists who wanted to support the president. But there are even splits within AIPAC.

All these divisions provide further proof that the myth of the monolithic “Israel Lobby” is just that. Jewish groups are divided according to the consciences of their members, their political affiliations, their ultimate objectives, their relationships with politicians, the nature of their connection to grassroots supporters and the broader Jewish community, and their particular attachments to Israel and their understandings of Zionism.

All the organizations took some time to declare a public position on U.S. strikes. There was, in the immediate aftermath of the August 21 chemical weapons attack, general silence in the Jewish establishment. This was due to fears of being seen as taking sides between the two parties in the U.S. and, we now know, because some of these groups were internally divided on how to proceed. It was only after the Obama Administration asked for help that most groups took a public position.

Equally relevant is the main reason for the decisions to support the president’s effort to prevent the use of chemical weapons. Certainly it is true, as many have noted, that when the White House asks for a favor, you don’t say no. But for many the particularly cruel nature of their effects was also a call to action. “Never again should mean something,” as one official from one of the mainstream groups put it. Support for the strikes came not from the desire to fight on Israel’s behalf, but rather out of genuine humanitarian concerns underlined by Jewish emphasis on making the world a better place; in the case of war, that means doing what can be done to make it less brutal. If a credible military threat is needed for that, so be it. This was recently underlined by both Jane Eisner, Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, and Martin Raffel, Senior Vice President of the JCPA.

That Jewish institutions did not jump out in front with a position on an issue that touches on but is not directly about Israel is probably an indication of the recent and future complexities of American policy toward the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings. And as the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and the creeping expansion of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank continue, the alliances between the different organizations and the shared concerns that bind members of each together might fray and disrupt advocacy efforts.

Apart from AIPAC, observers have wondered about the impact of J Street’s non-position on its relationship with the president and its ability to advocate effectively. Some, such as Jeffrey Goldberg and Ron Kampeas—both with close networks throughout the Jewish community—suggest that J Street has undermined its credibility.

It’s possible. But it’s also possible this is simply part of a longer learning curve. Think how long AIPAC had been around before it became the powerhouse that it is today. And it was the very public defeat in the fight against Ronald Reagan’s sale of AWACs to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s that directly contributed to changes in AIPAC’s organization, strategy, and lobbying. Losses and being excluded from wins are strong motivations for change.

It’s too early to know if there are specific trends here, but one consequence seems to be that the influence of smaller groups, particularly on the right, is shrinking. While very vocal, their circle of supporters has declined as issues on which to advocate have become more complex and multi-faceted. They require nuance, difficult choices, and trade-offs; and small groups ideologically committed to a single purpose or party cannot function effectively under these conditions or have an impact on issues that cross party divisions.

The organized Jewish community is working to find its footing in conditions of change: change in America’s position in the world, in Israel itself, and in new dynamics in American politics. This will force the organizations to have to make difficult choices and trade-offs—and that’s what the Congressional vote on Syria has demonstrated.