President Barack Obama’s decision to make Congress decide on the course of the Syrian intervention has put the pro-Israel camp just where it did not want to be: openly advocating American military involvement in the volatile Middle East. It’s a calculation based on the lesser of two evils, the greater being risking Washington’s withdrawal from leadership on global security just as Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. No one has a greater stake in a strong United States — and the credibility of America’s deterrent capability — than Israel and the Jewish people. Indeed, many of the arguments that motivate the president’s opponents on Syria could also apply in the event that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities becomes necessary.
Yet this is a debate about the American national interest, and most American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supporters do not want it to degenerate into a debate about Israel. Most agree with former Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovitch that, “It’s bad for Israel [if] the average American gets it into his or her mind that boys are again sent to war for Israel.”
Paralyzed by these fears, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC supporters in Washington remained nearly silent for weeks, even after evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians outside Damascus. And they remained quiet even after Obama indicated that he was preparing a military strike. They did not want to be drawn into a political melee in a deeply divided Congress, risking strains in the bipartisan support for Israel that forms the bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
All that has now changed. Responding to a full-court press by the Obama administration — a call to Netanyahu, a direct message to AIPAC, and messages via congressional leaders — AIPAC has weighed in fully in support of the president’s call for intervention.
This is a major change in precedent. Ten years ago, AIPAC struggled to stay out of the Iraq War vote when that issue was before Congress, and did not openly endorse that authorization. Neither the Israeli government nor AIPAC supporters in the United States considered Saddam Hussein nearly the threat that Iran was. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then warned President George W. Bush privately that he thought an attack on Iraq would be a mistake. After the Iraq vote, to prove its innocence, AIPAC organized a letter from 16 Jewish members of Congress stating that “AIPAC as an organization never took a position on the war and none of us were ever lobbied by the organization on the war in Iraq.” It did not work. Israel’s detractors never cease asserting that the Iraq War was fought on Israel’s behalf, and that belief has eroded support for Israel on the left wing of the Democratic Party.
But now, President Obama is making everyone stand up and be counted, and he is putting maximum pressure on all prospective allies to come out from behind the curtain and speak up. As a White House official told the New York Times, AIPAC is “the 800-pound gorilla in the room” because it has close relations with and access to a vast array of members on both sides of the aisle and on all sides of the debate. Simply put, the president has staked a lot of political capital on the gambit to sway Congress on his Syria plan — and he needs AIPAC’s support.
The administration is certainly aware that many of the wavering members in the House and Senate could be influenced if Israel’s outgoing but powerful ambassador, Michael Oren, and the pro-Israel lobby joined the fray. Public statements of support are helpful, but the main thing is the mobilization of AIPAC’s vast network of trusted “key contacts” to speak privately with members they know well.
AIPAC’s leaders, like other Americans, don’t see much to support on any side of the civil war in Syria, and in their hearts they would probably like to see both sides lose. But an American military strike that destroys Syria’s aircraft and helicopters, degrades its air defenses, and disables its runways, would be a benefit to Israel and the region — no matter who emerges victorious there.
And if, conversely, the red lines that have been declared by President Obama were to be wiped out by an isolationist Congress (much as British Prime Minister David Cameron was repudiated by Parliament), it could begin a wider U.S. retreat in the Middle East. It would certainly undermine the campaign to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear weapons program. Already, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are boasting about a “historic American retreat,” and extremist elements from al Qaeda to North Korea must be rubbing their hands in glee. Without a strong United States, the world of our children will descend into a very dark void, because after America there is no one else waiting in line to assume leadership except these forces of evil and chaos.
If AIPAC sits on its hands, Obama might well lose this historic vote on Capitol Hill. If so, the Rand Paul/isolationist right and the antiwar left may celebrate, and conservative critics can blame it on Obama’s feckless leadership. But it will be a disaster for the Middle East and the world, and it may be impossible to contain the damage.
Some can close their eyes to these realities, but Israel and its friends in Washington don’t have that luxury. Americans and Brits are far away, but Israel’s permanent reality is that it lives in that very bad neighborhood, faced with an existential crisis and a Syrian civil war in danger of spiraling out of control. That is why, while Americans are divided on the issue, an overwhelming majority of Israelis are hoping President Obama will prevail. And why, in the end, the pro-Israel camp knows it needs to support Obama.
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as a senior official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is now the director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.