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AIPAC typically works behind the scenes and picks its battles well. Most measures it favors pass Congress with little opposition. But this time it found itself mocked on cable television by popular talk-show comedian Jon Stewart, who accused U.S. lawmakers of behaving like senators “from the great state of Israel.”
The White House cast the sanctions effort as a “march toward war” and Obama threatened a veto, spurring some fellow Democrats behind the bill to peel off. AIPAC still believes if it bides its time, it will have a chance to revive the sanctions drive, a senior AIPAC official said.
It was the second blow to AIPAC in recent months. In September, when Obama sought congressional authorization to strike Syria over chemical weapons use, the group lobbied lawmakers at the White House’s behest. But then Obama backtracked from military action.
While AIPAC’s legislative stumbles have been rare, it has tripped up before. It failed to block President Ronald Reagan’s sale of planes with advanced radar to Saudi Arabia in 1981, and, a decade later, President George H.W. Bush delayed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in a dispute over settlement-building in occupied territories.
AIPAC is predicting a record turnout of 14,000 members and attendance by “more than two-thirds of Congress” at its three-day annual bash.
Even at a time of friction with AIPAC, the White House is dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry, who is trying to craft a framework deal to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to address the group.
“We have an open line of communication with the administration,” the AIPAC source said.
The Obama administration has made clear it hopes Netanyahu as well as his AIPAC allies will tone down their opposition while negotiations proceed with Tehran.
But the administration is resigned to taking some flak from Netanyahu. “We don’t dictate his talking points,” said a senior U.S. official, who also insisted that differences with Netanyahu are about tactics, not the shared goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official who heads the U.S. negotiating team in talks between Iran and world powers, left little doubt that the administration is keeping AIPAC on its radar screen.