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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“The simple reality is that a defeat for the president would be a defeat to everything the pro-Israel lobby believes in,” he said.

Another factor that helped AIPAC and Jewish groups come out in favor of Obama’s plan was its winning of bipartisan support. After meeting with Obama on September 2, Senate Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham made clear they backed the resolution and were willing to work for its passage. The next day the Republican House Speaker John Boehner plainly stated: “I’m going to support the president’s call for action.”

Majority leader Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, also announced he would back the plan.

In a letter sent on September 3 to its supporters, AIPAC stressed the now-bipartisan nature of the request for authorization for use of force against Syria, telling its activists: “We need your help to persuade members of the Senate and House to join Speaker Boehner, House Majority Leader Cantor, House Democratic Leader Pelosi, House Democratic Whip Hoyer and many other in both chambers, in support of this bipartisan resolution.”

Maintaining bipartisan support has been AIPAC’s mode of operation for decades, although some critics have accused the lobby in recent years of veering closer to the Republican side. Still, it is not all that clear which side will require more persuasion from AIPAC on the issue of Syria.

There are currently two groups in Congress viewed as difficult to convince to vote for a military attack: The Tea Party Republicans who tend to oppose any increase in government action, even overseas, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, known to be averse to military intervention. AIPAC holds strong ties with both groups.

It has shown remarkable success in convincing fiscally conservative Republicans to support aid to Israel despite their political inclination to cut spending, and has also proved to be effective in working with all Democrats, including those closer to the left. In recent years, legislation regarding sanctions on Iran strongly supported by AIPAC but opposed by Obama won massive support from Democrats, despite the fact that a Democratic president was against them.

“Now the White House expects AIPAC to help him with the Democrats,” said Rosen, who believes that the lobby’s ability to deliver will be directed mainly at the Democratic side. But a former Obama administration official argued that it is the Republicans who will have more to gain from the pro-Israel lobby’s decision to step in, since it can provide Boehner and Cantor with the political backing they need in the face of congressional Tea Party resistance.

Meanwhile, J Street, the dovish lobby often at odds with AIPAC, has yet to weigh in on the debate. A spokeswoman for the organization said that J Street has not taken a position on the president’s request for authorization of military power. In a statement issued on August 29, J Street said that Syria must be held accountable, but called on President Obama and world leaders to make sure that “any action taken should aim to minimize the loss of civilian life, deter the further use of chemical weapons and avoid regional spillover.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman


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