WASHINGTON - Eight years ago, Stephen Rosen, then a top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and well-known around Washington for his aggressiveness, hawkish views, and political smarts, was asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker magazine whether some recent negative publicity had harmed the lobby group's legendary clout in Washington.
"A half smile appeared on his face, and he pushed a napkin across the table," wrote Goldberg about the interview. "'You see this napkin?' [the official] said. In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin."
Eight years later, the same official, Stephen Rosen, who was forced to resign from AIPAC after his indictment - later dismissed -- for allegedly spying for Israel, told a Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that AIPAC needed to retreat from its confrontation with President Barack Obama after getting only 59 senators - all but 16 of them Republicans - to co-sponsor a new sanctions bill aimed at derailing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany).
"They don't want to be seen as backing down... I don't believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture," he said.
"The neoconservatives were able to push Bush & Co. to invade Iraq in 2003, but their success required an unusual set of circumstances and the American public learned a lot from that disastrous experience."
-- Stephen WaltIf AIPAC had succeeded in getting 70 signatures on the bill, which the administration argued would have violated a Nov. 24 interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that essentially freezes Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for easing some existing sanctions for a renewable six-month period, that would have been three more than needed to overcome a promised Obama veto.
But, after quickly gathering the 59 co-sponsors over the Christmas recess, AIPAC and the bill's major sponsors, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, appeared to hit a solid wall of resistance led by 10 Democratic Committee chairs and backed by an uncharacteristically determined White House with an uncharacteristically stern message.
"If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. "Otherwise, it's not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran's nuclear program to proceed."
Combined with a grassroots lobbying campaign carried out by nearly 70 grassroots religious, anti-war, and civic-action groups that flooded the offices of nervous Democratic senators with thousands of emails, petitions, and phone calls, as well as endorsements of the administration's position by major national and regional newspapers and virtually all but the neo-conservative faction of the U.S. foreign policy elite, the White House won a clear victory over AIPAC and thus raised anew the question of just how powerful the group really is.
AIPAC's inability to muster more support among Democrats, in particular, came on top of two other setbacks to its fearsome reputation over the past year.
Although they never took a public position on his nomination a year ago, the group's leaders were known to have quietly lobbied against former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary due his generally critical attitude toward Israel's influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Several groups and individuals closely aligned with AIPAC, notably the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) - both of which have joined AIPAC in lobbying for the new Iran sanctions bill - questioned or opposed Hagel. Ultimately, however, he won confirmation by a 58-41 margin in which the great majority of Democrats voted for him.
Eight months later, AIPAC and other right-wing Jewish groups lobbied Congress in favor of a resolution to authorize the use of force against Syria - this time, however, at Obama's request, although clearly also with the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But the popular groundswell against Washington's military intervention in yet another Middle Eastern conflict - as well as the reflexive aversion by far-right Republicans to virtually any Obama initiative - doomed the effort.
Neither Hagel nor Syria, however, has approached the importance AIPAC has accorded to Iran and its nuclear program which have dominated the group's foreign-policy agenda for more than a decade. During that time, it has become used to marshaling overwhelming majorities of lawmakers from both parties behind sanctions and other legislation designed to increase tensions - and preclude any rapprochement -- between Tehran and Washington.
Last July, for example, the House of Representatives voted by a 400-20 margin in favor of sanctions legislation designed to halt all Iranian oil exports from Iran. The measure was approved just four days before Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's inauguration.
Throughout the fall, AIPAC worked hard - but ultimately unsuccessfully - to get the same bill through the Senate.
Now, two months later and unable to muster even a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, AIPAC appears to have shelved the Kirk-Menendez bill, which, among other provisions, would have imposed sanctions if Tehran violated the Nov. 24 agreement or failed to reach a comprehensive accord with the P5+1 on its nuclear program within a year.
"Clearly, the ground has shifted, dealing a huge defeat to AIPAC and other groups who have been aggressively lobbying for [the new sanctions bill]," wrote Lara Friedman, a lobbyist for Americans for Peace Now in her widely-read weekly Legislative Round-up, while other commentators, including Rosen, warned that overwhelming Republican support for the bill put AIPAC's carefully cultivated bipartisan image at risk with Democratic lawmakers and key Democratic donors.
"They definitely lost this round and that has cost them a huge amount of political capital with the administration and with a lot of Democrats," said one veteran Capitol Hill observer who also noted AIPAC faced "an almost perfect storm" of an administration willing to fight for a policy that also enjoyed strong support from the foreign-policy elite and an engaged activist community that could exert grassroots pressure on their elected representatives. "Senate offices were getting a couple of calls in favor [of the bill] and hundreds against. That certainly has to make a difference."
"AIPAC and other hard-line groups remain a potent force in guaranteeing generous U.S. aid to Israel and hamstringing U.S. efforts to achieve a two-state solution, but their clout declines when they advocate a course of action that could lead to another Middle East war," Stephen Walt, co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," told IPS in an email exchange.
"The neoconservatives were able to push Bush & Co. to invade Iraq in 2003, but their success required an unusual set of circumstances and the American public learned a lot from that disastrous experience," according to the influential Harvard international relations scholar.
No one, however, believes that AIPAC and its allies have given up. If the P5+1 negotiations should falter, the Kirk-Menendez bill is likely to be quickly re-introduced; indeed, one influential Republican senator said it should be put on the calendar for July, six months from Jan. 20 the date that Nov. 24 interim accord formally went into effect.
"It seems likely that advocates [of the bill] are getting ready to shift to some form of 'Plan B' [which], ...one can guess, will look a lot like Plan A, but, instead of focusing on derailing negotiations with new sanctions, [it] will likely focus on imposing conditions on any final agreement - conditions that are impossible to meet and will thus kill any possibility of a deal," according to Friedman.
That could include conditioning the lifting of sanctions on an agreement that includes a ban on any uranium enrichment on Iranian soil - a condition favored by Netanyahu that Tehran has repeatedly rejected and that most experts believe would be a deal-breaker.