Main Israel lobby seeks to regain footing as Netanyahu visits U.S
Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem (Ronen Zvulun Reuters, / January 26, 2014)
WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - For years, Israeli leaders visiting Washington have been boosted by America's main pro-Israel lobby, its influence on U.S. Middle East policy long accepted as a matter of conventional wisdom.
But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses an annual convention of Israel's U.S. supporters next week, he will find the group trying to show it has not lost its touch after the White House blocked its push for Congress to impose new Iran sanctions.
While no one doubts the American Israel Public Affairs Committee remains a potent political force, AIPAC - and the Israeli government it seeks to bolster in Washington - can ill afford any perceptions of weakness in advancing its agenda at such a critical juncture in U.S.-Israeli relations.
The largest pro-Israel lobbying group will gather at a time when its conservative leadership - not unlike the right-wing Israeli premier - are at odds with President Barack Obama over his diplomatic strategy for resolving the West's nuclear standoff with Iran, Israel's arch-foe.
AIPAC also faces questions about how it can move past its biggest legislative setback in years. The stakes are especially high on the Iran issue, the top security priority for both Netanyahu's government and America's pro-Israel community.
Scoffing at the notion that the group is on the ropes, an AIPAC source insisted its critics have "lost all perspective" and that differences with the administration are being managed.
AIPAC, which amassed about 100,000 members in its 60-year history, is widely credited with helping to ensure Israel remains a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, this year exceeding $3 billion, mostly military-related.
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After AIPAC lobbyists helped enlist 59 U.S. senators from both major parties to co-sponsor legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if negotiations failed, the bill - which had Netanyahu's blessing - stalled earlier this month.
"They came up against realities on Capitol Hill," a former administration official said, suggesting that going toe-to-toe on Iran with a Democratic president in a Democratic-led Senate was always a losing proposition. "The question now is whether this will affect AIPAC's ability to get things done that relate specifically to Israel."
AIPAC typically works behind the scenes and picks its battles well. Most measures it favors pass Congress with little opposition. But this time it found itself mocked on cable television by popular talk-show comedian Jon Stewart, who accused U.S. lawmakers of behaving like senators "from the great state of Israel."
The White House cast the sanctions effort as a "march toward war" and Obama threatened a veto, spurring some fellow Democrats behind the bill to peel off. AIPAC still believes if it bides its time, it will have a chance to revive the sanctions drive, a senior AIPAC official said.
It was the second blow to AIPAC in recent months. In September, when Obama sought congressional authorization to strike Syria over chemical weapons use, the group lobbied lawmakers at the White House's behest. But then Obama backtracked from military action.
While AIPAC's legislative stumbles have been rare, it has tripped up before. It failed to block President Ronald Reagan's sale of planes with advanced radar to Saudi Arabia in 1981, and, a decade later, President George H.W. Bush delayed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in a dispute over settlement-building in occupied territories.
AIPAC is predicting a record turnout of 14,000 members and attendance by "more than two-thirds of Congress" at its three-day annual bash.
Even at a time of friction with AIPAC, the White House is dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry, who is trying to craft a framework deal to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to address the group.
"We have an open line of communication with the administration," the AIPAC source said.
The Obama administration has made clear it hopes Netanyahu as well as his AIPAC allies will tone down their opposition while negotiations proceed with Tehran.
But the administration is resigned to taking some flak from Netanyahu. "We don't dictate his talking points," said a senior U.S. official, who also insisted that differences with Netanyahu are about tactics, not the shared goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.