Iran deal victory proves a setback for Aipac lobbying group as American Jewish community remains div

The moment America finally made its peace with Iran and rewrote the rules of its political relationship with Israel came suddenly, even to those who have been urging both upheavals for the longest.

Inside the Washington headquarters of J-Street – a liberal Jewish American lobby group that has countered Israeli government critics by campaigning vociferously for the Iranian nuclear deal – news that enough US senators now supported it too flashed across an almost empty office.

Though the walls of the headquarters are lined with painstaking “whip counts” of where members of Congress stand on issues related to Israel, voting on the controversial deal to contain Iran’s nuclear programme was not due to begin until Congress returns after Labor Day, and, like much of Washington, several of J-Street’s top officials were still away travelling when an announcement from Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski dramatically ensured there were enough votes for the White House to withstand any motion of disapproval and allow the international deal to proceed.

Whether there is also enough Democratic support to prevent Republicans passing even a symbolic vote against the deal remains to be seen in the coming days, but White House loyalists believe the one third of US senators now committed to helping Barack Obama veto this threat already represents a huge victory over those who sought to split his party over Iran.

Mikulski’s support for the agreement means that Obama now has enough votes in the Senate to uphold his veto if Congress rejects the deal. If the administration continues to amass votes, and obtains 41, it could even stop congressional Republicans rejecting it in the first place.

“There was a substantial effort from the moment this deal was announced to kill it in Congress,” says J-Street political director Dylan Williams. “Tens of millions of dollars – some people have estimated upwards of a hundred million dollars – were used to fund ads and lobbying.”

At the heart of this unprecedented effort against the deal is J-Street’s rival Washington lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which promised to oppose the deal “with the entirety of [its] institutional resources” and has hitherto counted on strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Both lobby groups describe themselves equally as pro-Israel, but the flurry of previously hawkish Democratic senators who switched sides away from Aipac in recent days has led to growing speculation that the days of reliable bipartisan support for the Israeli government – as distinct from Israel as a whole – on Capitol Hill may be over.

“Constantly throughout these battles, Democrats in Congress were being asked to put aside their realist, pro-diplomacy worldview to back increasingly rightwing Israeli policy,” argues J-Street’s Williams. “The numbers on the Iran fight show the extent to which Democrats understand that Aipac and other right-leaning groups are not speaking for the majority of their Jewish constituents – who support the administration’s worldview. Not only has this fight resulted in a series of losses for Aipac, this fight has revealed the Aipac tiger to be a paper one.”

Not surprisingly, Aipac’s supporters strongly reject the argument that its influence has now peaked in Washington, at least among Democrats.

Importantly, they point out that simply achieving enough votes to sustain a veto over Congress is far from a ringing endorsement of Obama’s policy and point to opinion polls suggesting significant suspicion of the deal among the wider US electorate.

“This is hardly the first battle that Aipac has lost, but remember the definition of ‘losing’ here is [having] a majority of both houses of Congress, a majority of the American people and members of both parties [against the deal], which is a strange definition of losing: mathematically, this was a crush on the side of the sceptics,” says Omri Ceren, managing director for press and strategy at the Israel Project.

Aipac, which focuses on lobbying politicians rather than the media, declined a request for comment on what this might mean for the broader US-Israel relationship but directed enquires at Ceren, whose group describes itself as a “non-partisan American educational organization dedicated to informing the media and public conversation about Israel and the Middle East”.

“The public debate has been so one-sided that even the president is talking about ‘squeaking’ through Congress,” he said. “Now, that is not a mandate to reshape American foreign policy. You don’t squeak through Congress on a deal that will remake American foreign policy; this is not a highway bill.”

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Other critics of the deal also urge caution in reading too much into Obama’s reaching the 34 senators necessary for the president to withstand a veto override – arguing that it will be more important whether his opponents can assemble the 60 votes necessary to force him to use his veto in the first place.

“It’s definitely an important moment but I don’t think anyone who followed this carefully ever believed there would be the 67 votes against the deal needed to override a veto,” says Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel.

“The real issue has always been, and remains, getting to 60. There will be huge symbolic significance if the president actually has to veto the bill and it will show how unpopular the deal really is.”

On Capitol Hill, the verdict is also mixed. Some bristle at the suggestion they are beholden to lobby groups at all, despite the huge sums of campaign finance raised by pro-Israel groups on both sides of the Iranian question.

“Members of Congress make their own decisions or weigh their own decisions very seriously in matters of war and peace like this,” says one Senate Democratic aide. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that if a member of Congress opposes the deal, that a lobbying group got to him or her and if they support the deal the lobbying group failed to get to him or her. I don’t believe that’s true.”

Nonetheless, there is anger at the extent to which critics of the deal, particularly on the right, have portrayed its supporters as anti-Israel or even in favour of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.

“The Democrats who have come out and supported the deal are making a case for it with facts and with science,” added the aide. “Opponents of the deal use spin and fiery rhetoric that simply isn’t supported by the facts. I think that’s the most striking difference between the announcements.”

Others agree that the ultimate reason the deal will now go through is simply that its negotiators succeeded in making the case that it represents the best practical chance of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

“The president’s influence was greater [than that of Aipac and the anti-deal forces] and that was through the merit of the arguments that he made substantively, and his political team’s effectiveness in making sure that no major political argument against the deal ever really got traction,” says another Senate Democratic aide.

“It felt like a lot of stuff being thrown at the wall but nothing sticking politically or substantively [for the opponents] – and that’s due to the fact that the administration did a really effective job at defending this deal and making Democrats feel that this is something they should be proud to support.”

Tellingly, this view is echoed by some rightwing critics of the deal too, who complain that for once Aipac was not aggressive enough in countering pressure from the White House.

Nevertheless, support among those Democrats who have swapped sides andcome out for the deal in recent days has, at times, appeared lukewarm.

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“The support is very soft; Democrats are not loud and proud for it,” argues Pollak of the Emergency Committee for Israel. “The progressive base of the party passionately supports it, but among more mainstream Democrats they are not wild about this.”

But if this is true, it perhaps suggests even more strongly that what has changed is that the fear of retribution no longer provides a deterrent for moderate Democrats tempted to resist the influence of Aipac.

“Sometimes resistance to the deal went into the realm of express threats of a political nature; fund raisers were cancelled after members of Congress came out in some cases [for the deal],” claims J-Street’s Williams.

“Yet once you take a stand and not only survive to fight another day but do so with even more pro-Israel backing than you started out with, that has the affect of vanquishing this finely-crafted myth that there is a terrible political price to pay by going against Israeli government policy.”

All sides agree that it is too early to tell whether this more plural notion of what pro-Israeli politics looks like in Washington will stick, but if it does, one of the biggest unwritten rules of American political life may have just been torn up

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