The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee knew the odds were against them in the fight to block President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran from surviving a congressional vote. But the influential pro-Israel group threw itself into a nearly $30 million advertising and lobbying effort to kill the accord anyway.
On Thursday, the committee, known as Aipac, was handed a stinging defeat. After Mr. Obama mustered enough Democratic backing in the Senate to halt a vote on a resolution of disapproval against the deal, a group known for its political clout saw its power and reputation in Washington diminished.
“They failed — they couldn’t even get a vote,” said Clifford Kupchan, an Iran expert and the chairman of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, who noted that Aipac had gone “all in” and tried everything to stop the deal. “It’s among the biggest setbacks for Aipac in recent memory.”
The loss has raised difficult questions about the future of Aipac, a group formed in 1951 just a few years after the birth of Israel. Aipac has long drawn its political potency from its reservoirs of loyalty among members of both parties, but that bipartisan veneer all but vanished in recent weeks as the debate over the Iran deal became increasingly bitter.
Republicans lined up unanimously with Aipac against the accord, which Mr. Obama had made his top foreign policy priority. The vast majority of Democrats supported it.
“They will be able to recoup, but it is inescapable that there will be stocktaking,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama who is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And one of the lessons they will have to learn is that you really have to be very careful about the fights you pick that take on what amounts to a purely partisan character, because that bears a cost to you as an organization.”
Aipac now faces a debate within its ranks about how to respond to the defeat, whether by exacting a political price from lawmakers — all of them Democrats — who defied its wishes and supported the Iran deal, or moving swiftly to mend fences with lawmakers and White House officials angered by the group’s efforts to kill the deal.
“On one hand, they will have a desire to show there are consequences when you go against them,” Mr. Ross said. “On the other hand, they certainly want to maintain a nonpartisan approach, so they will have to think this through.”
In interviews on Thursday, several people close to the organization said the issue was under active discussion. Marshall Wittmann, Aipac’s spokesman, said the group’s entire attention had been on the vote, “so we have not yet focused at all on the day after, but we are very committed to ensuring that Israel remains strong in the wake of this decision.”
To be sure, the loss was only the latest in a string of hard-fought defeats for Aipac, which has found itself at odds with presidents of both parties over issues Israel deemed essential to its security. It emerged from all of them with its reputation for lobbying superiority intact and in some cases stronger.
Aipac feuded with Jimmy Carter in 1978 over his plan to sell F-15 Eagle fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, and three years later battled with Ronald Reagan over Awacs reconnaissance planes for the Saudis. The group lost both times and suffered a similar defeat when George Bush opposed loan guarantees for Israel in 1991.
Stoking opposition to Iran, which has been openly anti-American and anti-Semitic, and to a nuclear deal that even supporters voiced strong reservations with, was in some ways an “organizational imperative” for Aipac, one that allowed it to underline its mission and mobilize its activists, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At the same time, Mr. Miller said, the battle took on an striking degree of partisanship.