AIPAC, the allegedly omnipotent lobby that nobody dares to fight, appears to be losing the battle over Iran sanctions. As the New York Times reports, AIPAC’s effort to put new sanctions on Iran has stalled after running into stiff resistance from the White House.The “omnipotent Israel lobby” is one of the hoariest chestnuts of political commentary, but maybe this news will remind people of a few basic facts about American politics. When “pro-Israel” policies are popular, as they usually are, lobbies that advocate for them appear unstoppable. But when the Israel lobby gets on the wrong side of public opinion, the magic goes away.Most of the time, the managers of groups like AIPAC are smart enough to know this, and they don’t start fights they can’t win. Thus the “all powerful Israel lobby” tends to stay out of fights—like the Hagel confirmation battle—that it understands are lost causes. In the same way, an issue like clemency for the convicted (and egregious) spy Jonathan Pollard stays off the lobby’s official wish list, because it is a no-hoper. Most Americans think spies for Israel who give away important secrets to a foreign government should rot in jail, and it would do the “omnipotent” lobby no good at all to wage a big battle on this issue and suffer humiliating and disempowering defeat.American public opinion hates and fears the mullahs in Iran and wants their nuclear drive stopped, by force if necessary, but that would be a last, reluctant decision. While a lot of people think the White House diplomacy on this issue is doomed to fail, they don’t want to pre-empt that failure. AIPAC seems to have misjudged how winnable this fight was. That’s the real story: not that the “omnipotent” Israel lobby has had its first setback in a long time, but that the instincts of some normally very shrewd Washington players failed them this time, and that AIPAC jumped in on a loser issue.AIPAC is now trying to back away from the Iran sanctions bill, claiming it never supported it anyway. But following the meltdown of the campaign to build support for President Obama’s plans to strike Syria, AIPAC has lost some credibility.As a result, its aura of invincibility has been diminished too. In a place like Washington, where the appearance of power can be as important as the reality of power, that is a setback. We suspect it will strengthen the hands of those inside the group who are calling for a more cautious approach. If those voices prevail and AIPAC returns to the pattern of only putting its prestige on the line when it is sure it can win, weak-brained hot heads, conspiracy theorists, and anti-Semites will be quick to resuscitate their beloved theories of an omnipotent Jewish lobby crushing all opposition and honest discussions of Middle East policy in the United States.There’s an odd symbiotic relationship between a lobby group like AIPAC and its more hysterical critics. It helps AIPAC when the dimwitted and the easily impressed magnify its importance out of all reason and attribute the general balance of power in American politics on a key issue to its tireless efforts. AIPAC’s critics make it easier for AIPAC to raise money from its backers.But it would be a big mistake for people to assume that, because AIPAC has misgauged public opinion on some high profile issues, the American people have stopped caring about the future of Israel.Support for Israel—not necessarily the kind of support the Israeli government or its closest allies want at any particular moment—remains a political priority for scores of millions of non-Jewish Americans. As long as that is the case, the “Israel lobby” will continue to win more than its share of policy battles, and myopic commentators will look at the pattern and think they have discovered the Jewish conspiracy that controls American foreign policy in the Middle East.
AIPAC and its criticsSo the Jews Don't Run America After All?