For years, Israeli leaders visiting Washington have been boosted by America’s main pro-Israel lobby, its influence on U.S. Middle East policy long accepted as a matter of conventional wisdom.
But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses an annual convention of Israel’s U.S. supporters next week, he will find the group trying to show it has not lost its touch after the White House blocked its push for Congress to impose new Iran sanctions.
While no one doubts the American Israel Public Affairs Committee remains a potent political force, AIPAC - and the Israeli government it seeks to bolster in Washington - can ill afford any perceptions of weakness in advancing its agenda at such a critical juncture in U.S.-Israeli relations.
The largest pro-Israel lobbying group will gather at a time when its conservative leadership - not unlike the right-wing Israeli premier - are at odds with President Barack Obama over his diplomatic strategy for resolving the West’s nuclear standoff with Iran, Israel’s arch-foe.
AIPAC also faces questions about how it can move past its biggest legislative setback in years. The stakes are especially high on the Iran issue, the top security priority for both Netanyahu’s government and America’s pro-Israel community.
Scoffing at the notion that the group is on the ropes, an AIPAC source insisted its critics have “lost all perspective” and that differences with the administration are being managed.
AIPAC, which amassed about 100,000 members in its 60-year history, is widely credited with helping to ensure Israel remains a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, this year exceeding $3 billion, mostly military-related.
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After AIPAC lobbyists helped enlist 59 U.S. senators from both major parties to co-sponsor legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if negotiations failed, the bill - which had Netanyahu’s blessing - stalled earlier this month.
“They came up against realities on Capitol Hill,” a former administration official said, suggesting that going toe-to-toe on Iran with a Democratic president in a Democratic-led Senate was always a losing proposition. “The question now is whether this will affect AIPAC’s ability to get things done that relate specifically to Israel.”