Lobbying 2016: Divided Congress upends US-Israel relationship

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Liberal Israel policy advocacy group J Street has endorsed more than half of the Democrats in the US House this cycle, the latest example of continued fallout from last year's nuclear agreement with Iran.

Since last September, Democrats have reliably blocked Republican attempts to revisit the Iran deal. That partisan divide has gradually extended to other aspects of the US-Israel relationship, raising questions about its long-term future as left-leaning American Jews grow increasingly estranged from Israel's right-wing political environment.

For J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, the fact that 117 House and Senate candidates have sought and received the group's backing this cycle — up from 95 in 2014 — is evidence that “the conversation about Israel in American politics is changing dramatically." The shift is causing headaches for the leading pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which unsuccessfully opposed the nuclear deal last year and has since mostly stayed out of the fray.

“There is a very serious challenge ahead for American policy, which is that these issues are becoming more of a political football than they’ve ever been before," Ben-Ami told Al-Monitor. "I think AIPAC has some very difficult waters to navigate ahead in an effort to try to maintain bipartisanship in an increasingly partisan atmosphere."

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Officially, AIPAC has continued to make efforts to rein in Iran a top priority.

A policy memo released in mid-July to mark the first anniversary of the deal calls on Congress to "press for a stronger response to Iran's actions." It urges new legislation "to increase the costs on Iran over its continued missile activity, support for terrorism and other destabilizing activities" and, like J Street, supports the renewal of an Iran sanctions authorization that expires at the end of the year.

That veneer of consensus hides deep divisions on the best way ahead, however.

Despite months of negotiations and a history of working closely together, the top Republican and Democrat on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels have failed to agree on any new sanctions bills since the deal went into effect. And while the House voted last month to prohibit the Barack Obama administration from purchasing heavy water from Tehran, Senate Democrats killed the motion to prevent Iran from running afoul of its plutonium-related obligations under the nuclear deal.

In mid-July, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., unveiled sanctions legislation along with just two Democrats, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both of whom voted against the Iran deal. AIPAC is lobbying on the Corker bill, according to its latest public filing, but the organization so far has not made a big public push for it.

The pro-Israel consensus is also fraying on the issue of Palestine.

In July, Republicans adopted a party platform at their convention in Cleveland that omits prior years' mention of a two-state solution. "The United States seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region," the platform reads. "We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and we call for the immediate termination of all US funding of any entity that attempts to do so."

A week later in Philadelphia, the Democrats by contrast for the first time endorsed Palestinians' national aspirations to be "free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity." A push from supporters of Hillary Clinton rival Bernie Sanders to denounce Israel's "occupation" and "illegal settlements" was soundly defeated, however.

Congress is equally torn over the issue.

More than 60 House Democrats so far have signed on to a J Street-backed resolution from Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., that calls on President Obama to articulate a "nonbinding vision" of what a two-state solution "might entail" and to continue opposing settlement expansion during his last few months in office. By contrast, 394 members of both parties, including several who co-sponsored the Yarmuth resolution, signed an AIPAC-backed letter to Obama urging him to oppose "counterproductive efforts aimed at imposing a solution" on Israel and the Palestinians.

The impressive tally is evidence of the impressive clout AIPAC retains on Capitol Hill despite the growing partisanship. The organization boasts more than 100,000 members and spends well over $60 million a year to promote “strong US/Israel ties” — including almost $3.4 million lobbying Congress and the executive branch last year.

AIPAC also has a charitable arm, the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF). Founded in 1990, AIEF funded 89 trips to Israel for lawmakers and their staff last year, according to an analysis by LegiStorm, at a cost of about $1.3 million — more than any other sponsor.

AIPAC isn’t a political action committee and doesn’t directly fund any electoral campaigns. A bevy of pro-Israel groups, however, spent more than $10.2 million on congressional candidates from mid-2013 to mid-2015, according to an analysis by the nonprofit MapLight. J Street hopes to raise $3 million this cycle, Ben Ami said, more than the $2.4 million it raised last year.

The government of Israel itself currently employs the law firms Arnold and Porter, and Sidley Austin, both of which provide legal advice on taxation and other matters but don’t lobby the US government or Congress, as well as tourism promoter Geoffrey Weill Associates. Israel shelled out more than $2.2 million for their services last year.

For all the hand-wringing over the state of the relationship post-Iran deal, the reality is that the United States and Israel retain a deep strategic bond that has seen ups and downs over the years but shows no sign of coming unglued.

Israel has long been the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world ($3.6 billion in the pipeline this fiscal year), and negotiations are wrapping up over a 10-year military pact to keep it that way. The pending Memorandum of Understanding would reportedly grant Israel $40 billion — one-third more than the current $30 billion pacakage — but perhaps at the cost of fewer add-ons from Congress every year and less support for Israel’s domestic defense industry.

Late last month, the first batch of F-35 stealth fighters destined for Israel took flight in Texas. Israel over the next two years is set to acquire 33 of the fourth-generation aircraft that are valued specifically for their ability to take out Iran’s Russian-supplied S-300 missile system.

Congress also continues to have Israel’s back. The House in June approved a Defense spending bill that sets aside $601 million for joint US-Israel missile defense programs, $455 million more than the Pentagon's request.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, in part because it objects to that increase. At least 36 members of both parties, however, have signed on to a letter urging the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees to retain the $601 million topline when they merge their annual Defense bills after the summer recess.

"These joint US-Israel programs continue to yield critical defense capabilities that protect Israel from missile and rocket threats from as near as the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to as far as Iran," states the letter from Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "As you know, investments over the years in US-Israeli missile defense programs have saved the lives of countless civilians from indiscriminate rocket and missile attacks."

Signatories include Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who would become vice president if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in November.

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Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor's Washington Editor. He was previously Congressional Correspondent from 2014 through May 2017 and most recently before that headed up The Hill's Global Affairs blog. On Twitter: @JPecquet_ALM, Email: jpecquet@al-monitor.com.

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