Why Israel Lobby Is Biggest Casualty of Feud Over Benjamin Netanyahu's Speech

The raging dispute between Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House over the Israeli prime minister’s planned speech to Congress has badly damaged relations between the two countries and destroyed any semblance of trust between the leaders of two of the closest allies on earth.

But the biggest casualties may be the normally omnipotent pro-Israel lobby and its allies in the Jewish community, who have seen their credibility and political power severely shaken.

The fight over Netanyahu’s speech, which was arranged with Republican leaders behind the back of Democrats and the White House, has dented the decades-old bipartisan pro-Israel consensus, which is a cornerstone of support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups.

“It’s a tragedy of unintended consequences,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who broke ranks with other mainstream Jewish leaders to call on Netanyahu to scrap the speech. “The Jewish community is very, very anxious not to get caught in the middle.”

Jewish activists angrily say, in private conversations and on-the-record interviews, that the Netanyahu government even kept AIPAC and the pro-Israel groups in the dark about the plans for the speech to the Republican-led Congress.

“The prime minister and [Israeli] Ambassador [to Washington Ron] Dermer need to understand that they made a mistake when they put the Jewish community in a corner,” said Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, an organization supporting progressive causes in Israel. “Putting the community in a position in which it has to choose between Israel and the president is a lose-lose situation.”

Aside from possible long-term damage to the pro-Israel lobby, leaders also complain that Netanyahu and Dermer threw a monkey wrench into their meticulously laid plans to derail the American push for a diplomatic compromise with Iran over its nuclear program.

The timing of the Obama-Netanyahu speech crisis couldn’t have been worse. It came just as AIPAC and other lobbyists prepared for their final push in their efforts to scuttle a deal that would allow Iran to maintain some nuclear capabilities.

“AIPAC spent 10 years preparing for this moment,” said Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC lobbyist.

The early months of 2015 were supposed to be used for a final push to convince Democrats to support new sanctions on Iran, a move viewed by both AIPAC and Israel as a step that could delay, or even derail, an agreement with Iran, giving the West a chance to further pressure Tehran for a possibly better deal.

Instead, liberal supporters of Israel, especially Jewish, black and Latino lawmakers, have been left humiliated by what many see as Netanyahu’s deliberate snub of President Obama.

“The irony,” said a pro-Israel activists who asked not to be named, “is that there was a chance of actually reaching a veto-proof majority” in favor of a sanctions bill. The activist, who called the conduct of Netanyahu and Dermer “scary” and a “huge error,” said AIPAC had been blindsided by the actions of the Israelis, who “thought they know better than anyone else and didn’t consult with anyone.”

The result was a double blow for AIPAC and the pro-Israel community. The speech plan has not only made it all that harder to convince Democrats, who now feel offended by Israel, to part with the president and support sanctions.

It also exposed the daylight between the lobby and the Israeli government. That sends a damaging signal that pro-Israel advocates are not in Netanyahu’s loop, meaning they cannot be trusted to provide political cover.

“We’ve been hearing all kinds of answers,” a Democratic congressional staffer said, describing his office’s contact with AIPAC, “but mainly they don’t know how this will play out.”

The staffer noted that AIPAC had been stressing the need to focus on Iran rather than the speech fracas. A spokesman for the lobby did not respond to requests for comment.

An Israeli official said that activists had been reaching out to diplomats and government officials to get some rhetorical ammunition that they can use to defend the prime minister’s decision-making.

But the activists and lawmakers have come away frustrated with the lack of concern for their political plight, especially from Dermer, who angered a group of Jewish lawmakers that met with him behind closed doors in an effort to defuse the crisis.

Beyond the Iran issue, the anxiety plays on fundamental questions about the Jewish community’s relations with Israel and the role that Israel plays in world Jewry.

Netanyahu’s statement that he will be speaking in Washington, just as he did in Paris after the terror attacks, “as a representative of the entire Jewish people” brought this question to the fore.

J Street, the dovish lobby that opposes Netanyahu’s visit, launched a petition urging supporters to tell the Israeli Embassy that “Benjamin Netanyahu does not speak for you.” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the lobby’s executive director, said he has history on his side. He pointed to a 1950 agreement between Israel’s David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, in which the Israeli prime minister stated that Israel “in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country.”

J Street’s campaign was a bit too much even for critics of Netanyahu’s speech. Foxman, in a harshly worded press release, called the petition “inflammatory and repugnant.”

Much of the mainstream pro-Israel Jewish community has remained silent on the issue of Netanyahu’s visit.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the most influential groups, has refused to weigh in on the storm that has taken over Israeli-American relations. AIPAC has also chosen not to speak publicly.

But in off-the-record conversations, four other major figures in mainstream Jewish organizations, among them a former leader, spoke harshly against Netanyahu’s speech and its impact on the pro-Israel community.

That silence in the middle has left the stage wide open for players on both right and left wings.

While J Street sought to distance American Jewry from Netanyahu, his supporters from the right focused their effort on Capitol Hill, issuing a threat to publicly shame lawmakers who decide to boycott the Israeli leader’s March 3 speech.

The fight escalated quickly when the Zionist Organization of America issued a statement lashing out at Foxman and at Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for demanding that Netanyahu cancel his speech.

In a joint statement, the Emergency Committee for Israel and Christians United for Israel Action Fund also promised to take action against the growing number of lawmakers who said they will boycott the speech.

Supporters of Netanyahu have dismissed claims that the planned speech by the Israeli leader had damaged the lobby or its efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear threat.

Morris Amitay, who was AIPAC’s second executive director and now heads a hawkish-leaning pro-Israel political action committee, said the lobby has worked throughout the years to build its bipartisan base of support, and this base is not about to disappear.

“When I took over AIPAC in 1974,” Amitay recalled, “the problem was there weren’t enough Republicans on board.” Now the lobby enjoys support from both sides of the aisle.

Netanyahu’s supporters point to the fact that the White House has been actively wooing the Jewish community to oppose new sanctions on Iran, and therefore it’s only fair to allow the Israeli leader the right of rebuttal.

Rosen argued that the crisis was manufactured by the White House in order to divert attention from the looming Iran deal. He predicted that all sides, both in the Jewish community and in Congress, will soon overcome their hard feelings toward Israel’s leader.

“It’s all trivial,” Rosen said. “Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, Dermer will be the next ambassador. And lots and lots of Democrats will talk to them, and all this ballet will be forgotten.”

But veteran activists are less dismissive, viewing this fight as more than a bump in the road, one that the Jewish community and Israel will not easily overcome.

“It’s a big deal,” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents Presidents Conference. “Damage has already been done. The American people don’t like to see their president being pushed around, and this will have a long -range effect.”

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

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