THE BLOG

How Obama Beat the Israel Lobby

03/06/2013 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2013
  • MJ Rosenberg Worked on Capitol Hill for Democratic Senators and House members for 20 years

I am not one for admitting I am wrong but sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that I have to say it. I was wrong.

Specifically I have been repeatedly wrong when I said that the Israel lobby could not be defeated unless and until the President of the United States confronted it directly. In that situation, I always believed the United States would prevail. I did not understand that a deft president could beat the lobby through indirect means -- by quietly using his authority to prevail.

But that is what happened when the Obama administration first nominated and then achieved the confirmation of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.

There of course are those who accept the line put out by the lobby, most notably its main component AIPAC, that it was neutral on Hagel.

That is just silly. If AIPAC was neutral, it could have ended the whole battle against him by issuing a statement that it recognized a president's right to choose his own cabinet. That might not have stopped Republican groups like Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee ror Israel or Sheldon Adelson's Republican Jewish Coalition from pursuing their smear campaign against Hagel, but it would have stopped the very mainstream Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee from joining the attack. AIPAC's public silence on a campaign waged by its closest allies demonstrated what it wanted: Hagel's defeat.

President Obama outsmarted the lobby by ignoring it. He understood that if he could get Sen. Chuck Schumer to endorse Hagel, then the game would be over. That is because Schumer, a Jewish senator from New York, is the de facto leader of the lobby's forces in Congress.

Usually a hardliner on all matters relating to the Middle East, Schumer might have been expected to oppose Hagel and thereby give a signal to his fellow Democrats that doing so was the safe pro-Israel position. Had he done that some Democrats would have felt that they had better oppose Hagel.

With most Republicans already on record as opposing his nomination, just a shift of a few Democrats would have killed the nomination. Schumer's announcement in support of Hagel guaranteed that not a single Democrat would oppose him.

So what convinced Schumer to stand with Obama on Hagel? My friends on Capitol Hill, who without exception correctly predicted Schumer's position, tell me that it was made clear to him that he could not oppose Obama on Hagel and still expect to become leader of Senate Democrats when Harry Reid retires. No threats were made because none needed to be made. Schumer was simply led to understand that he was not getting a pass on this one. Add to that the unprecedented public campaign to support Hagel. This time the lobby did not have the field to itself.

And so Hagel was confirmed. The lobby was defeated. And its friends are not happy.

The strongly pro-lobby Lee Smith in a Jewish Tablet piece called, "How AIPAC Is Losing" asks "just how powerful is AIPAC if a man who refers to it as the 'Jewish lobby' and has defiantly claimed that he is not an "Israeli senator" is slated to be our next secretary of Defense?"

And, most significantly, how much influence does the lobbying organization actually exercise if it can't carry the day on the single issue that's been at the very top of its agenda for over a decade: stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.



Despite an operating budget of more than $60 million, on the most crucial issue facing Israel's security, AIPAC has lost the policy debate. The winners include those who believe you can't stop a nation from getting the bomb if it's determined to do so, those who think the Iranians have a right to nuclear weapons, and those who argue the Iranians can be contained--among them, our new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

In other words, the lobby is not all-powerful. A determined president can defeat it, a lesson Obama will bear in mind in the future.

But will Hagel's presence at the Pentagon make a difference? Who knows? But we do know this: a win is a win. And so is a defeat.

I was wrong. The lobby can be beaten. I happily apologize for charging that it could not be.