How White House Push to Jews Spurred Shift on Syria

Forced Israel Lobby's Hand With Demand for Clear Stand

Push for Action: As Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel pushed Congress with a hawkish message on Syria, aides were calling pro-Israel groups to demand an open message of support.
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Push for Action: As Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel pushed Congress with a hawkish message on Syria, aides were calling pro-Israel groups to demand an open message of support.

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 04, 2013.
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It was a long road for the pro-Israel community before it publicly came out in support of the attack. While expressing outrage over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the Jewish community was initially reluctant to speak out in favor of an attack, fearing the move would play to the hands of those accusing the community of pushing America to war.

But several factors changed the calculus of Jewish leaders — most significantly the Obama administration’s emphasis on the importance an affirmative vote in Congress would have on Israel’s interests in the region and the White House’s implicit message that pro-Israel activists should take this point to heart.

Demonstrating the sensitivity of dealing with such requests was an article published on September 2 in the New York Times that quoted an unnamed administration source who seemed to be prodding AIPAC to weigh in and lobby for the resolution. The reference to AIPAC was later removed from the article with no explanation.

Requests from the White House for AIPAC to help with legislation on Capitol Hill are rare, but not unheard of, especially when this might give chary members of Congress the assurance they are not crossing the lobby’s will. In the 1980’s the administration asked AIPAC to lobby in favor of an arms deal with Morocco and for aid to the government of Lebanon. In both cases the lobby did just that, after making sure these requests did not interfere with Israel’s interests.

“These things happen,” said former AIPAC chief lobbyist Doug Bloomfield. “I used to get calls from people down town saying they need help to drum up a vote.” Bloomfield also noted that requests for help also came from members of Congress, when they felt they needed the pro-Israel community to speak up and make the case for an issue they intended to vote on.

“Based on past experience,” added Steve Rosen, another former top AIPAC official, “I can pretty confidently predict that the White House not only contacted AIPAC, but also gave them a very specific list of members that need to be approached.” Rosen said that while AIPAC was probably reluctant to take the lead on the issue, it had little choice.


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