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Is a train wreck waiting for Israel on Capitol Hill?

History shows that after the predicted epic smackdown on Capitol Hill over the Iran deal all will be just fine

If past is prologue, the U.S.-Israel relationship will be back on track after the Iran deal.

After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was agreed upon in Vienna by Iran and the P5+1 countries on July 14, 2015, their agreement will be presented by the U.S. Administration to Congress for a 60-day review. The Senate and House of Representatives will each then have the options of approving the agreement, voting on a resolution of disapproval, or taking no action. In the event of a resolution of disapproval, the President announced on July 14 that he will veto the legislation, thus challenging his congressional opponents to secure two-thirds of that house in order to overturn his veto.

“Pundits” predict a cataclysmic battle on Capitol Hill between the White House and Republicans, the pro-Israel lobby, and diverse military and scientific experts. But the most attention is focused on the personal mêlée between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who considers the agreement a “historic mistake.” Netanyahu’s political opponents in Israel and Washington accuse him of wrecking U.S.-Israel relations while at the same time failing to stop or help mold a better Iranian deal.

My experience of more than 40 years of intense involvement in the U.S.-Israel relationship suggests that after the dramatic Sturm und Drang in the Capitol Hill showdown so loved and exaggerated by the media, the state of affairs will return to calm. As they say, “been there, done that.”

We were there and did that in the 1981 AWACS battle on the Hill when a relatively small American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) challenged the Reagan Administration and the Saudi Lobby seeking the U.S. sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft, F-15 add-ons, and other equipment worth $8.5 billion to Saudi Arabia. I served as AIPAC’s director of research and wrote most of the position papers and public relations messages opposing the sale over the course of an almost one-year campaign.

Behind the sale was the plan for a major U.S. shift to replace the deposed Shah’s Iran with Saudi Arabia as a pillar of U.S. Middle East policy. The provision of some of the weaponry to Saudi Arabia blatantly broke assurances made to Israel two years earlier. (Sounds familiar.)

On October 14, 1981, the House of Representatives with its Democratic majority voted overwhelmingly against the sale, 301-111, and attention shifted to the vote in the Senate where opponents to the sale had a clear majority. Intense lobbying of the Senate by both sides ensued.

On October 28, the Senate rejected a resolution to disapprove the sale of the AWACS to Saudi Arabia, in a dramatic 48–52 vote. Of the 50 senators who had originally cosponsored the resolution, Reagan arm-twisted eight first-term senators — seven of them Republicans — to switch at the last minute and oppose the resolution. The sale went through.

Several important lessons of the AWACS battle stand out for today:

The President of the United States is the most powerful lobbyist in Washington. His hands control levers of the high voltage lines of patronage, local state projects, appointments, campaign contributions and more. That is also the case today.

The 1981 battle included rank charges of the dual loyalty of American Jews. “Reagan or Begin” was the line promoted by a powerful Washington insider who served as a Saudi foreign agent. A faint odor of bigotry is on the wind again today.

Saudi Arabia’s repressive rule, instability, anti-Semitism, and support for Jihad and terrorism were issues raised by opponents of the sale. These human rights issues made little difference then; it appears that they are unimportant today as well, but they will be expressed.

Tensions were high when AIPAC witnesses appeared in congressional hearings with Administration officials. Pentagon spokesmen were quick to rebut claims about the weapons’ capabilities, only to be caught in their own words since they testified in exaggerated terms years earlier for congressional appropriations for the same weapons systems. Today, Administration intelligence and military spokesmen are hearing their own words replayed about the dangers inherent in the Iran deal.

The AWACS sale was a pyrrhic victory for the Saudis. Their misdeeds and dirty laundry were openly displayed, and years would pass before another major arms sale was proposed. Today, Iran’s behavior, colonialism, and eschatological theology are better publicized. Scrutiny of Iran’s post-deal actions will be intense.

Lastly and most importantly, just days after the AWACS vote, the State Department’s congressional liaison met with AIPAC lobbyists to discuss cooperation on the annual Foreign Aid Bill. The Israeli aid package “served as the engine that pulled the foreign aid bill for other countries” was a common expression then. Today, U.S.-Israel affinity, military and intelligence cooperation, and popular opinion in both countries guarantee that the current rocky relationship will right itself.

The summer squalls on the Potomac rarely last past the early evening thunder showers.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.
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