Senate Fight Over Arms Reduction Treaty Puts AIPAC in the Hot Seat

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
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With ratification of the Russian–American nuclear arms-reduction treaty becoming a political football, pro-Israel groups are caught in the middle of a congressional showdown.

The Obama administration, seeking to bolster support for Senate ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START, is privately urging Jewish groups to come out in favor of the treaty, stressing the negative impact that the failure to ratify would have on efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

While succeeding in enlisting some Jewish groups, the administration could not convince the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which chose to remain on the fence, refusing to lobby in favor of the treaty.

The fight over START comes on the eve of a major power shift in Congress. AIPAC has been trying to adjust to the new post-election political reality on Capitol Hill, where Republicans will wield greater influence when the new Congress convenes.

While Senate Republicans are refusing to ratify the START treaty, Democrats have framed the issue as relating directly to Israel’s security and its attempts to counter Iran. AIPAC, however, fears that taking a stand in favor of the treaty would be seen by Republicans as a partisan move, according to Jewish communal leaders who say they have spoken about the issue with AIPAC insiders.

AIPAC’s refusal to get involved, despite the administration’s pleas, has led to an unusual letter, one in which two leading Senate Democrats are lobbying AIPAC to lobby their fellow senators in favor of the treaty.

The November 30 letter, signed by Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is addressed to AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr. It lists steps taken by Moscow to help increase international pressure on Tehran, including its cancellation of a planned sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.

“As a leading voice in favor of crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, AIPAC cannot afford to stand on the sidelines as the Senate debates the New START treaty,” Schumer and Levin wrote in their letter.

A spokesman for AIPAC declined to comment on the group’s position regarding ratification of the START treaty.

Wrangling over the ratification of the new START treaty has been going on ever since President Obama and Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed the accord in Prague in April. According to the agreement, both sides will limit their number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and will significantly reduce their number of nuclear launching platforms.

For ratification, the treaty needs to be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But Democrats’ efforts to win ratification have been encountering opposition from several Republican senators, led by Jon Kyl of Arizona, who have tied the issue to their desire to see a modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and their objections to the Obama administration’s approach to missile defense.

Obama has made ratifying the treaty a top priority for the current lame-duck congressional session. But Kyl has said that there is not enough time to ratify the treaty before the end of the year. His fellow Arizona Republican, Senator John McCain, however, recently expressed hope that a compromise could be reached this year to meet Kyl’s concerns and ensure ratification.

Administration officials also have reached out to Israel, asking for its public support in making the case for START, according to an Israeli diplomatic source. The source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that Israel turned down the administration’s request, stressing that as a matter of policy Israel does not take sides in partisan disputes.

Some Jewish groups, however, have weighed in.

The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to senators expressing concern that failure to ratify the treaty “will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself.” The letter added that not ratifying START “would inevitably hamper effective American international leadership to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

The ADL’s director of international affairs, Michael Salberg, said that the group was not taking a political position by articulating its support for START. “Our letter expresses our view from a nonpartisan, bipartisan position,” he said.

Support for START’s ratification was also voiced by the American Council for World Jewry. The group’s chairman, Jack Rosen, issued a statement endorsing Obama’s call for ratification and saying that Russia’s cooperation “is indispensable to assuring global security and American goals, notably in blocking Iran’s dangerous quest for its own nuclear capability.”

Similar opinions were also offered by B’nai B’rith Interna- tional and by the National Jewish Democratic Council, which addressed its appeal to members of the Jewish community. “As a community, we simply must lend our voices and help pass START now. We can do no less,” read the NJDC statement.

NJDC’s president and CEO, David Harris, said that the positive response among Jewish groups to the administration’s appeal on START has to do with an understanding of the importance of the issue for Israel’s security. “Smart people are connecting the dots between START and containing Iran,” Harris said.

But not all of the Jewish community is on board. In an open letter addressed to the Jewish community, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs rejected attempts to recruit Jewish support for the ratification. “Many in our community have been pressured to join this public effort. We would not join this effort,” JINSA’s letter stated. “The appeal of the proposed treaty confounds us — particularly because we hold America’s security to be essential to our lives and freedoms as Jews.”

JINSA’s executive director, Tom Neumann, said that the question of whether START will help Israel’s security is unclear. “If America is weakened, then it is bad for Israel,” he said. But he added that if safeguards are present to ensure Russian compliance and if America doesn’t sacrifice its own defense capabilities, the new START treaty could be helpful.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

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