The Future of Bipartisanship on Israel

(Photo Credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

A version of this article was delivered by Yousef Munayyer at the Institute for Palestine Studies’ panel discussion The Future of Bipartisanship on Israel on Thursday, October 15, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

[…] The headline in the New York Times that ran on September 10th – once it became clear that the Obama administration had secured the votes necessary to ensure the passage of the Iran deal in the Senate – read “Influential Pro-Israel Group Suffers Stinging Political Defeat.” This headline encapsulated the prevailing narrative in the aftermath of the Iran deal. We are to believe that what just took place was a stunning defeat for AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and a defeat for U.S.-Israel relations.

It’s important to look at what took place in a broader context to properly understand the impact this had, if any, on U.S.-Israel relations and what role interest groups and Congress played

While there have been instances in the past where the Israel lobby has taken on the White House, this attempt by the Israel lobby is different than any that came before it. The reason for this is that unlike the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) sale to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s and the loan guarantee battle of the George H.W. Bush administration, the stakes in this battle where much greater. One can argue that the AWACS sale and the loan guarantees were relatively minor in comparison to the effort that was involved in the Iran deal. In the Iran deal you had the product of many years of multilateral negotiations with major allies and partners around the globe to address an issue of global security importance: the prevention of nuclear proliferation.

The Iran deal was also the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. The White House had invested a great deal of political prestige, but also a great deal of American credibility on the international stage to achieve this agreement. For this reason the task that the Israel lobby faced was bigger than any it had faced in the past. And while the Israel lobby exercises a great deal of influence, one lobbying entity which is a force to be reckoned is based at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Despite being in the fight of its life against a powerful and dedicated opponent in the White House, the Israel lobby fought for votes in the Senate and the House.  And while they were ultimately unable to prevent the deal from moving forward, one cannot understate what they were able to accomplish. Even though the United Nations Security Council voted in unanimity to support the Iran deal and though a U.S. president argued that this multi-lateral national security deal kept us out of war while advancing a key national security interest, the majorities of both houses of Congress had opposed the deal. While the Obama administration will surely spin this as a victory, for America’s legislative body to not stand behind an American president in large numbers when he peacefully advances the American national interest is an embarrassment.

But if one looks at the situation only in terms of whether or not the Iran deal passed or failed in Congress, then perhaps one can come to the conclusion that the Israel lobby lost. Rarely, however, in politics are things so cut and dried. We should ask ourselves: why it is that the Israel lobby was determined to fight a battle that they knew they would “lose” even after expending significant costs?

They fought despite knowing that they were going to lose the vote, but in this calculation there was more to be gained from fighting and losing than losing without fighting at all. The Israeli official agenda regarding Iran in previous years focused on its nuclear program, but after it became clear that the P5+1 were moving forward on a deal that would cut off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon and significantly roll back its nuclear program, the Israeli narrative began to change. What we then began to hear from Israel and particularly from Benjamin Netanyahu was not simply about how close Iran was to the red line on the infamous cartoon bomb that he brought to the UN General Assembly, or about the status of this or that nuclear facility is  or how many centrifuges were spinning. Instead we began to hear about Iran’s behavior in the region: what it was doing in Syria and Yemen, its support for proxies across the map, and what it would do with funds it would access once certain sanctions relief kicked in. This was an effective moving of the goalposts and it set the framework for a fight between the White House and the Israel lobby. So even though the Iran deal was going to secure the vast majority of Israel’s initial demands regarding the Iranian nuclear program, there was still a fight to be had. The gloves were officially off and emphatically dropped when the Israeli Prime Minister accepted an invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House to address Congress and lobby in Washington D.C. in direct opposition to a sitting U.S. president on a key national security objective.

So what was to be gained from fighting a fight you know you’re going to lose? Here it is important to consider the alternative. Imagine Israel and its allied interest groups did not put up a fight, the perception would have been that the Iran deal had Israel’s blessing, that Benjamin Netanyahu was happy and satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations between Iran and the P5 +1, and that Washington had resolved the single issue Israel had been yapping most vociferously about for the last decade. Obama would have done Netanyahu a favor. But for the Israel lobby it’s better to be in a position where it appears that the U.S. owes Israel one and not the other way around. By fighting what appeared to be a desperate fight, the Israel lobby has succeeded in creating the impression that the United States has thrown Israel under the bus and abandoned its “most important strategic ally” for the sake of cozying up with Iran. While this narrative certainly plays into some of the tropes on the far right where some believe that the president is a secret Muslim trying to destroy the United States from within, it also helps create the conditions necessary to support the Israeli position on other key issues in the bilateral relationship. The Iran deal is but one issue in the U.S.-Israel relationship. If Israel can build leverage or pressure against the White House through Congress in one area, it can use that leverage or pressure in another area to its benefit.

Military aid to Israel continues to be the single most important metric of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And in the aftermath of the passage of the Iran deal, reports indicate that the Obama administration is preparing a consolation prize for Israel – a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between both states that would see $ 45 billion of military aid going to Israel over a 10-year period or $ 4.5 billion  a year, which is a billion and a half more per year than under the current MoU.

So now let’s recap and try to understand exactly what the Israel lobby got out of this fight. Despite not being able to secure enough votes, they still demonstrated a tremendous amount of influence and will likely fundraise well from this effort; they pushed public opinion significantly against the Iran deal despite the fact that a majority approved it after it was initially announced; they created the conditions in which their bilateral negotiations with the United States over military aid are likely to result in the largest ever military aid package from the U.S. to Israel; oh, and Israel also got a deal which insured that its most significant regional adversary will have its nuclear program significantly scaled back and will be under the most intensive inspections regime known to man. Despite getting all of this, they’ve also still managed to convince so many of us, including the New York Times, that they came out with the short end of the stick.

But let’s be clear about this. While I don’t think the Israel lobby lost in the way that the conventional narrative suggests, I do think that what they were able to accomplish came at significant cost. The effort against the Iran deal widened fissures that we’ve seen growing for the past several years when it comes to support for Israel in the United States. The highly partisan nature of attacks on the president, the politicization of the issue of Israel in general, and the particularly divisive speech by Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress earlier this year made what has always been a bipartisan issue into an increasingly partisan one.

There’s no doubt that members of Congress are still very supportive of Israel, and that support exists across the aisle, but the extent of that support has been weakened and the partisan divide is reflecting a divide in American public opinion on Israel that we have seen developing over several years. This divide in public opinion is most evident when responses are disaggregated and analyzed at the level of subgroups. What we are seeing today is that the younger you are, the more progressive you are, and the darker your complexion is, the more likely you are to be sympathetic towards Palestinians and critical of Israeli policy. And who are the youth in this country, the progressives of this country, and the people of color in this country, but  the very base of the Democratic Party and, as demographics hold, the very future of the United States?

So when we talk about the future of bipartisanship on Israel, this is literally what the future looks like and it’s something that should make the Israel lobby very uncomfortable. Additionally, the United States and Israel are two states moving in very different directions. Despite its flaws, the United States is moving in a socially inclusive direction over time while the rise of religious nationalism in Israel is pulling the state further and further in the exclusivist direction. This is increasingly setting up a clash of values that shatters the “shared values” talking point. […]

In sum, there are shifts on the horizon but they are not here yet and while the Israel lobby still has great influence in Congress, it has also reached the limits of its power and put those limits on display for all to see.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Related Article: Senior Fellow Mouin Rabbani on Israel’s Defeat on Iran Deal.