Taking on the President on a matter of national security is a decision that the pro-Israel community does not take lightly. It can adversely impact individuals’ and organizations’ relations with the White House; it can inflame tensions between Israel and the United States, it can stoke anti-Semitism and, after all of these negative consequences, end in defeat. The danger represented by the Iran nuclear deal is so great, however, that, for the first time in more than 30 years, the pro-Israel community is directing all its resources to undermining what President Obama considers his greatest foreign policy accomplishment. Obama seems prepared to stop at nothing to win, including resorting to anti-Semitic tropes, while the pro-Israel community is still constrained by fear of losing access, alienating its allies and giving the President ammunition to paint Jews as disloyal.
Just how difficult is it to defeat a president when he casts an issue in national security terms? I examined that question in The Water’s Edge and Beyond and found that out of 152 instances where the President opposed the pro-Israel lobby’s position on a security issue between 1945 and 1984, the lobby won only 22 percent.
The last major fight was over Ronald Reagan’s decision to sell AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. Some in Israel argued that it was a mistake to engage in an all-out fight with a president considered a friend of Israel, but, by that time, the Israeli lobby had invested too much capital to defeat the sale to back down.
Like today’s debate, the AWACS fight was portrayed as a personal showdown between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Reagan. Reagan did not make the debate personal in the way that Obama has with Netanyahu; nevertheless, his view was clear when he said, “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.” Like Obama, he argued that his policy would not hurt Israel, contradicting the statements of Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and military experts.
It was the media that hyped the Reagan vs. Begin angle, which originated with the Saudis’ chief lobbyist, Fred Dutton, who told the New York Times that senators who opposed the sale would have to explain “how they will run foreign policy now that they have chosen Begin over Reagan.” The pro-Israel lobby was also portrayed as interfering with U.S. national security. Despite the bitterness of the congressional battle, Reagan never resorted to anti-Semitic attacks on those who opposed the arms deal.
The AWACS fight also illustrated the unique tools a president has to influence the vote. For some time, it appeared Reagan would lose, but then he started taking members of Congress to his woodshed. He met with 75 senators and held private discussions with 22 Republicans, 14 of whom voted for the sale. He also convinced 10 of the 22 Democrats he met to vote his way. “When the President started calling up senators and inviting them to the White House,” Senator Robert Packwood said, “they came back converted.”
What was Reagan’s secret?
Some senators were given “top secret” assurances regarding Israel’s security; others received more tangible benefits. For example, Slade Gorton received a promise from the White House to support an appropriation to renovate a hospital in Seattle; the appointment of Charles Grassley’s candidate for U.S. Attorney in Iowa was expedited; and Montana’s John Melcher was offered support for a coal conversion facility near Butte.
Roger Jepsen was one of the most vocal opponents of the sale until the administration “beat his brains out.” He was told that Reagan had to win the vote and Jepsen’s vote was needed. If he did not vote with the President he would get no further cooperation from the White House. Meanwhile, the White House called people in Iowa who, in turn, generated calls and letters to Jepsen. The day before the vote, Jepsen switched sides and said he was voting for his president’s successful conduct of foreign policy.
You can be sure similar scenes are being played out between Obama and congressional Democrats.
Reagan’s lobbying turned the tide and the sale was approved. The result was so devastating the lobby abandoned the policy of opposing arms sales to Israel’s enemies (Israel generally kept quiet as well since its qualitative edge was maintained), opening the door to tens of billions of dollars of weapons systems being transferred to the region.
The lobby was initially prepared to go to the mat one more time in an effort to prevent President George H.W. Bush from linking the suspension of settlement construction to loan guarantees Congress offered to help Israel absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Once again, the President and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, butted heads. Since this was not a national security issue, however, the lobby seemed to have the votes to secure the guarantees without the linkage.
Facing a possibly humiliating defeat, Bush resorted to what many saw at the time as an attack on the loyalty of American Jews. On September 12, 1991, he held a press conference in which he portrayed himself as “only a lonely little guy” pitted against “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question.” This was a thinly veiled reference to the Jews opposing the deal. Privately, he reportedly went even further and threatened to go on television and essentially blame the Jews for interfering in U.S. foreign policy. Though many people criticized Bush’s “intemperate language” at the time, the threats worked; the lobby backed off as congressional support collapsed, and, ultimately, conceded the linkage after Yitzhak Rabin was elected Prime Minister and accepted Bush’s terms in hopes of mending fences with his administration.
Fast forward to the present. We will probably not learn until after the fight what Obama did to twist the arms of members of Congress, but we do know he has had at least two meetings with Jewish leaders in a clear effort to intimidate them into backing off and keeping silent. They have not backed off, but they may have been cowed into silence.
This was disturbingly apparent when Obama took a page out of Bush’s playbook by calling on American citizens to counteract the “lobbyists” who are “backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising.” In another indirect attack on Jews, he said, “You’ve got a whole bunch of folks who are big check writers to political campaigns, running TV ads, and billionaires who happily finance SuperPACs and they are putting the squeeze on members of Congress.” He also falsely accused Israel and American Jews of pressuring the United States to go to war with Iraq, as well as disingenuously insisting the only alternative to the deal is war, in an effort to paint Jews as warmongers.
Let’s see, opponents of the deal are rich; they are using their money to undermine American interests; they have the chutzpah to exercise their right to petition their government; they dragged America into one war and now want to force us into another. If you didn’t know better, you’d think these accusations had come from Pat Buchanan or Walt and Mearsheimer. In fact, if they came from anyone but the President, they would be labeled anti-Semitic; however, it appears no one is prepared to speak truth to power and tell the President he has crossed the line from legitimate criticism to Jew-baiting and scapegoating. The reluctance to call him out on it says volumes about how secure Jews really feel in America.