AIPAC's Week on the Hill: Problems With Its Three Talking Points

With its all-star speakers out of the way, the American Israel Political Affairs Committee will shift its attention to the other goal its annual policy conference: unleashing upon Congress the persuasive firepower of its some 7,000 participants. Starting Tuesday morning, pro-Israel activists are hitting the Hill, holding about 500 meetings to lobby members of Congress and their aides on keeping the special relationship as special as possible.

It's standard fare in Washington for pro-Israel groups to flex their muscles on the Hill in order to constrain White House efforts to pressure Israel. Given the tensions surrounding last week's very public spat over new settlements planned for disputed East Jerusalem, there's extra oomph behind that push this year. AIPAC, of course, just slammed the Obama administration in a press release last week over its handling of the settlements issue; the group has been trying since last year to get Congress behind an aggressive unilateral sanctions program against Iran. They've come up with three main "gets" for their newly minted spokesmen: Iran sanctions, aid money, and agreements not to criticize Israel openly. But those talking points miss the mark on where U.S. Israel policy actually stands. Here's why:

1) The U.S. must approve new Iran sanctions: This is a perfectly valid point, and would be perfectly reasonable for AIPAC to press upon Congress—that is, if the White House weren't already knee-deep in delicate negotiations to do precisely what they're advocating. Hillary Clinton finally got Russia on board earlier this month, leaving China as the only holdout with veto power on the U.N. Security Council, which would implement the multilateral sanctions. What AIPAC is pushing for, however, is legislation currently under consideration in Congress that would impose sanctions unilaterally, bypassing the diplomatic dance the White House has been choreographing for more than a year. "Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite,'' Clinton told AIPAC members in her speech earlier today. Given how close she could be to achieving that coveted quorum, AIPAC's insistence upon one-upping her is puzzling, to say the least.

2) The special U.S.-Israel relationship must be reaffirmed: In the immediate sense, sure. As a result of the lobbying blitz, we're hearing a nonstop barrage of declarations of "rock solid" support for America's relationship with the Jewish state, as in Hillary Clinton's speech this morning. Congress will no doubt sign on to carefully crafted letters affirming the "special bond" between the two, like this one floating around the House today. And the best evidence of that bond—the nearly $3 billion the U.S. government sends to Israel in aid each year—will surely go through, since it was never really up for debate, anyway.

But take it with a grain of salt, since the reality is that Americans are steadily growing less supportive of AIPAC's platform. Only 54 percent of American non-Orthodox Jews under 35 say they're comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state, compared to 80 percent of those over 65. In that sense, AIPAC probably isn't helping itself with its increasing alignment with hawkish Republicans, 80 percent of whom have a favorable view of Israel, compared to only 53 percent of Democrats. While the group's annual pep rally still draws big-name speakers and widespread media coverage, its rightward shift has prompted the emergence of groups like J-Street, which push for a more liberal approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship (Jeff Goldberg has a solid look at AIPAC's shift here). There are big PR problems right now in the world of Israel policy; it's going to take a lot more than congressional platitudes to reaffirm a bilateral relationship in a meaningful, long-term way.

3) Disagreements are better resolved privately: Not this disagreement. As my colleague Mike Hirsh found out today, the whole point of sending Joe Biden to Israel last week was to deliver a message that the administration's top priority right now is to forge a U.S.-led alliance in support of sanctions against Iran. By announcing a settlement plan during Biden's visit, the Israelis made the Obama administration look like a bunch of dopes, which in turn threatened to undermine the message of strength and unity that they want to project to the Iranians (and the Chinese, for that matter, who are still holding out on the sanctions plan). U.S. officials had to come down hard, in public, to demonstrate to Iran, China, and the Arab members of the alliance that they weren't being jerked around by Israel. Surely, they will ignore this request. In fact, for all his bellowing in last night's speech, if Bibi Netanyahu recognizes just how much the announcement compromised the Iran strategy, he'll encourage Obama to do just that when the two meet Tuesday. But that, of course, is a big if.