AIPAC says it was ‘challenged’ in Syria vote push, but stands by move

Powerful pro-Israel lobby denies working at behest of US administration or Israel

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama leaves a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill in Sept. 2013 (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
US President Barack Obama leaves a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill in Sept. 2013 (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — Under fire for its support of US President Barack Obama’s controversial and ultimately unpopular push to launch a military strike against Syrian targets, an AIPAC official said late Tuesday that the organization stood by its support for Obama’s initiative.

Despite its reputation as a lobbying powerhouse, the organization found it “challenging” to gain traction during this week’s hundreds of visits conducted with members of Congress, the official said.

The official, who agreed to speak anonymously about AIPAC’s work lobbying for US military action, confirmed that the organization had held conversations with the administration about its willingness to lobby Congress for military action against Syria – but emphasized that “we had already decided that this was important” and that AIPAC had “made that decision on our own.”

He denied that AIPAC had mobilized to push Congress to support Obama’s proposal in response to requests by the administration, and described Israeli media reports that Obama had contacted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask him to push AIPAC to lobby for military engagement in Syria as “categorically false.”

AIPAC’s decision to support military intervention in Syria, the official said, was not based on Israeli government policy, usually viewed as the measuring stick by which AIPAC decides whether to throw its considerable weight behind an issue. “This was assessed solely in terms of US interests. It is our view that it is essential to send a message to Tehran” that the US stands by its commitment to non-proliferation of nonconventional weapons in the Middle East, he explained.

“We believe deeply that it is in the US’s  interest to act. It obviously affects regional allies but both the president and the secretary of state have said that this will also threaten the interests of the United States,” he added. “We concur with the president and secretary of state that on both a moral and a strategic plane, this cannot stand,” he said, adding that the group had a “particular concern” that Iran would see US inaction on Syria as an indication that nonconventional weapon development and even attacks could proceed with impunity.

The official said that even while the Israeli government policy was one of non-involvement in the internal American debate, “if the US had initiated military activities, even without taking the case to Congress, we would have stood to support that action too.”

But the president did decide to take his case to Congress for approval, leading to a legislative quagmire

The AIPAC official described the 300-plus meetings and conversations that organization representatives had with members of Congress as “cordial,” but did not say that they had been successful. “This was a very controversial and challenging vote,” the official said yesterday, emphasizing that members had “encountered challenges” in presenting the case for a military strike against Syria on Capitol Hill.

The official noted that although “the Iran message was accepted” by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, congressional concern over a nuclear Iran did not translate to political traction for the Syria plan.

Late Tuesday night, Obama announced that he would delay Congressional votes – which he had been increasingly predicted to lose – in order to allow time for a diplomatic solution to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons to take hold. Prior to his announcement, support for Syrian military engagement had hit – along with the president’s Syria policy approval ratings – an all-time low.

AIPAC does not intend to backtrack on its support for a hard line on Syria, the official said.

Yet even within the organization, the official indicated, opinions on military intervention were split. He noted that “AIPAC members, like the rest of the American people, are debating this topic” and instead emphasized “a sense of unity that we need to deter the proliferation of this kind of weapon.”

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