POLITICS
09/14/2013 09:47 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Inside AIPAC's Syria Blitz

WASHINGTON -- As Jews all over the world marked the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Friday, uncertainty loomed over both the U.S. and Israel as to what role the United States, Russia, and the international community would play in resolving the brutal civil war in Syria.

On Tuesday night, President Obama made the case to the American public that Congress should authorize airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's military, in response to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons. But as Obama was honing his argument Monday, Russia came forward with a surprise proposal whereby Assad would surrender his vast stockpile of non-conventional weapons, and by doing so, avert a U.S.-led military intervention.

The outlines of the plan were welcomed by the international community, and on Friday night Secretary of State John Kerry remained in Geneva, where he and his Russian counterpart were working to hammer out the specifics of a plan to secure, and destroy, Assad's chemical arsenal.

On Capitol Hill, however, America's leading pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was making a different set of calculations.

Beginning Monday, the advocacy group had dispatched more than 200 activists to Washington, where they urged members of Congress to pass resolutions in both the House and the Senate authorizing the airstrikes on Syria. According to an AIPAC official who spoke to The Times of Israel, the group's representatives secured more than 300 meetings, which the official described as "cordial" and "challenging." A spokesman for AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

But practically as soon as it began, AIPAC's widely publicized push for the authorization vote in Congress drew criticism from the same country it aims to support -- Israel. "In case you were wondering, AIPAC is not Israel" blared the headline of an editorial Monday in the prominent Israeli newspaper Haaretz. AIPAC "is not authorized to express Israeli policy," the editorial said. "Israelis and Israeli decision-makers should give up any pretense of intervening" in American military decisions.

Shalom Yerushalmi, a senior political columnist at Maariv, another Israeli newspaper, was more critical, writing the same day as the Haaretz editorial that AIPAC is "harming Israeli interests," and that Israel should tell AIPAC to "stay out of this." And the Jerusalem Post warned that lobbying on Syria by U.S.-based groups with strong ties to Israel should "not be predicated in any way on whether the [military] action against Syria is 'good' or 'bad' for Israel."

Even AIPAC seemed to distance itself from the question of what was good for Israel. Its decision to push for the Syria strike authorization vote "was assessed solely in terms of U.S. interests," said the AIPAC official who spoke to The Jerusalem Times. “We believe deeply that it is in the U.S.'s interest to act."

What made it all the more unusual was that for weeks before the Russia offer, Kerry had been arguing on Capitol Hill that it was Israel, along with other U.S. allies in the Middle East, that would be in harm's way if the U.S. failed to strike Syria.

"I can make it crystal clear to you that Israel will be less safe unless the United States takes this action," Kerry told Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during a Senate hearing on Sept. 3.

So why wasn't AIPAC whistling the same tune as the administration?

Even as AIPAC's activists blanketed the hill, the group's signature bare-knuckle political pressure seemed to be lacking, a senior Senate aide told The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman. "Believe me, I have been around here when AIPAC was really putting the pressure on, and this isn’t one of those times," the staffer said. According to numerous Senate staff members who spoke to Fineman, the overall impression was that AIPAC was lobbying on the Syria vote more out of a sense of duty to the administration than out of pure self-interest.

Alan Elsner, vice president of communications for the pro-Israel group J Street, said the proposals in Congress were never about protecting Israelis from Assad. "Most Israelis believe their government and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) can handle any sort of chemical threat coming from Syria," Elsner said. He cited Israel's long record of taking unilateral action when it has percieved a genuine threat -- most notably in 2007, when Israeli forces bombed a suspected nuclear facility in Syria.

The Syria vote in Congress, Elsner said, was important mainly because it would influence how other countries viewed American military resolve. If Congress were to deny an American president the authorization he sought, America's standing in the world might have suffered. "Anything that weakens the United States in the eyes of the world would weaken Israel," Elsner said. "But that's very different from imminent danger."

Imminent danger was an apt term for the state of the House and Senate military authorization bills, which faced broad bipartisan opposition and rock-bottom public support from day one. The Russian proposal first reported on Monday picked up steam over the next 48 hours, and it offered Obama and legislators the perfect opportunity to shelve the ailing Syria legislation -- at least for the time being. For AIPAC, the authorization's champion, anything short of a "no" vote constituted a victory.

By Friday afternoon, the consummate lobbying operation was already moving on to its next congressional project. "Senators team [up to] introduce bipartisan U.S.-#Israel energy collaboration bill," the group posted on Twitter shortly after lunch.

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