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Israel is being buffeted by regional unrest and by mounting international pressure over settlements. AIPAC, whose mission is to smooth Israel’s path and soften its blows, has received painful lessons in the limits of power. Times like these, when so much is uncertain, call for caution and patience, qualities for which neither Israel nor the lobby are well known.
Netanyahu had spent the previous day in talks with the president, vice president and leaders of Congress. They were discussing the two historic negotiations orchestrated by America that will determine the contours of Israel’s future. For Israel the two negotiations — one over Palestinian statehood, the other on Iran’s nuclear project — are life or death questions. For America they are two items among many on the government’s plate, both abruptly overshadowed just before Netanyahu arrived by the Ukraine crisis.
Activists come to the yearly AIPAC conference expecting to be energized, thrust for a moment onto the world stage as actors in the drama of Israel’s struggle for survival. They’re treated to two days of fiery rhetoric by senators, administration officials and Israeli ministers, then bused to Capitol Hill for a day of face-to-face lobbying with lawmakers. Their message is whatever legislative agenda AIPAC gives them — weaponry, aid, counter-terrorism programs.
This year’s conference program and legislative agenda were to focus on a single, urgent priority: fixing the flaws in the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva last November between Iran and the P5 plus 1 powers. The agreement called for Iran to freeze much of its nuclear effort in return for a relaxation of sanctions while talks commenced on a permanent deal. It also set a goal in final negotiations of limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. Critics — principally the Netanyahu government and congressional Republicans — wanted to shore up the weakened sanctions and define an end goal of dismantling Iran’s enrichment, not just limiting it.
Legislation along those lines was drafted by a pair of senators, Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk, working closely with AIPAC. Through the winter, Senate signatures were gathered, aiming for a veto-proof two-thirds majority. The climax would come at the AIPAC conference in March, when 14,000 citizen-lobbyists would flood Capitol Hill in a triumphant push for final passage.
But the strategy collapsed January 28, when President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, vowing to veto the bill if it came to his desk. Democratic support for the bill abruptly dissolved, eliminating the possibility of a veto override. On February 6, pressured by Democratic members, AIPAC itself announced that it no longer sought a Senate vote on the bill.