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AIPAC Walks Bipartisan Line While Israeli Politics Moves Sharply Right


The pro-Israel lobby needs to figure out what happens next, especially AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It is one of the most powerful lobby organizations in Washington, D.C. And it, along with others, suffered a major defeat when it failed to block President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In its six decades of working Washington, AIPAC has presented itself as the intentionally bipartisan voice of American Israeli unity.

STEVE ROSEN: I worked there for two and half decades.

OVERBY: Steve Rosen was AIPAC's foreign-policy director from 1982 to 2005.

ROSEN: If AIPAC became a Republican organization, it would cease to exist.

OVERBY: So here's AIPAC's problem. While it's been walking the bipartisan line, Israeli politics has been moving sharply right. Last winter, Republican House Speaker John Boehner introduced the Israeli prime minister to a joint meeting of Congress to make the case against the Iran deal.


JOHN BOEHNER: I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the prime minister of Israel, His Excellency Benjamin Netanyahu.

OVERBY: AIPAC isn't in the business of opposing Israeli government positions. It took on the Obama administration instead. AIPAC spokesmen declined to speak on the record for this story. Aaron David Miller is a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department. Now he's a scholar at the Wilson International Center in Washington.

AARON DAVID MILLER: This pro-Israeli community has a powerful voice. There's no question about it. But it does not and has never had a veto over what a willful and skillful and determined American president does.

OVERBY: AIPAC has lost big legislative battles over aid to Israel, in 1975, 1980 and 1991.

MILLER: They lost all three of these fights. And yet, no one could argue that 15 or 20 years later, this organization has any less influence.

OVERBY: In fact, after each of those fights, AIPAC's membership and fundraising spiked. In special interest politics, there's nothing like losing to enhance the bottom line. AIPAC has rivals in the pro-Israel lobby. One is J Street. It's younger, more liberal and much smaller. Last year, J Street spent $400,000 on lobbying compared to 3 million by AIPAC. J Street's president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said the outcome on the Iran deal has long-term significance.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: It's not everything changes from here on in. But one will look back at it this and say this was a very important moment. And from here on in, you can't talk about the American Jewish political community the same way that you did before.

OVERBY: In the short term, Congress is expected to produce a big aid package for Israel that should have broad support, except the conservatives might add amendments to obstruct the Iran deal. Again, Jeremy.

BEN-AMI: If that legislation is used as a Trojan horse to contain poison pills that are designed to undermine the deal, then there's going to be yet another fight.

OVERBY: AIPAC members will be reassessing Democratic lawmakers who voted for the deal. Josh Block is a former AIPAC spokesman who now heads a group called The Israel Project.

JOSH BLOCK: How they move ahead and support those members of Congress or seek to support others to replace them is an open question. You know, in politics, hindsight isn't just a matter of hindsight. It's a matter of accountability.

OVERBY: And despite this loss, AIPAC still has plenty of power to hold lawmakers accountable. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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