To the consternation of many Republicans, the attendees at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy summit, at least half of whom are Democrats (AIPAC insiders usually put their estimate at two-thirds or more), have often made excuses for President Obama’s stance toward Israel and his Middle East policies more generally. On panels and among delegates, AIPAC members and guests would often rush to the administration’s defense on everything from the fixation on settlements to foot-dragging on sanctions. Chalk that up to Democratic defensiveness, to the effort not to offend the White House or to the AIPAC obsession with bipartisanship.
As was evident on Sunday, however, something has plainly changed, as highlighted by AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr’s dissection of the administration’s excuses for preventing further sanctions, a panel discussion in the main hall and a more intimate small panel discussion with Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The urge to bend over backwards to rationalize the administration’s foreign policy execution is lagging, to put it mildly. While not personally calling out the president, this was an all-out attack on his policies.
In the main ballroom, with thousands looking on, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), unlike the administration, talked about the unacceptability of a nuclear capable Iran (not just its possession of a nuclear weapon) and compliance with all six United Nations resolutions that rule out enrichment by Iran. “We need to be more active in interdicting the flow of illicit weapons [to Hezbollah]; we need to be more active in pushing back on their role in Syria,” said Coons. “I frankly think we’ve lost some ground in the region because our vital allies don’t believe the United States has the will, the courage, the determination after a red line was drawn, was crossed and we didn’t act in Syria. . . . We’ve lost credibility.” That’s a liberal Democrat.
Likewise, Engel and Royce took the administration to task repeatedly in a bipartisan lovefest. Engel bluntly said that the administration was “wrong in going to Congress on Syria” and should have used its authority under the War Powers Act. Both congressmen agreed the administration’s opposition to sanctions was wrong. Engel declared that he didn’t understand why Iran was being allowed to enrich during the six months of negotiations. He also acknowledged that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was acting on behalf of the administration, but said, “If the Senate had acted [on sanctions passed by the House last summer] we wouldn’t be here. . . . I have never understood the reluctance to have another sanctions bill.”
Even more surprising was the long line of audience questioners. To a person all expressed exasperation with the administration. Why aren’t the Iranians being taken to The Hague for inciting genocide? What would you say to Harry Reid or the White House to get them to move on sanctions? What can we do to push the Senate and the White House? I fully expected a few, if not most, to echo the president’s call to “give diplomacy a chance” or defend his decision to stay out of Syria. None did.
If the White House thinks there is a significant reservoir of support in the Jewish community for the president’s Iran approach or his foreign policy more generally, it’s mistaken. The president faces no future election and doesn’t much care what pro-Israel Americans think of him, but the Senate is a different matter. It will be interesting to see if AIPAC’s lobbying efforts, which begin on Tuesday, bear any fruit. These people are loaded for bear, and lawmakers who say one thing but vote another are going to get an earful.