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Soon after U.S. President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his administration announced plans to sell five AWACS, sophisticated surveillance planes valued at $8.5 billion, to Saudi Arabia. It was to be part of the largest foreign arms sale ever. Those following the debate over the recent Iran deal would not be surprised at the reaction: hawkish Senators Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said that the deal should be stopped. And even the dovish Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) called it “one of the worst and most dangerous arms sales ever.” Meanwhile, Israeli leaders fretted about the potential dimunition of their country’s security. And pro-Israel lobbying groups in the United States tried to derail the agreement.
Congress ultimately did allow the AWACS sale to proceed. In the end, Saudi Arabia’s planes didn’t diminish Israel’s military superiority. Public and political tears were mended. And the pro-Israel lobby’s loss ushered in decades of reform and growth. Similarly, this time around, Congress will not likely block the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And only time will tell whether Israelis’ worst fears about Iran’s nuclear program will be borne out. What is clear, however, is that the political atmospherics surrounding this latest battle may inflict severe wounds to the U.S. political system and to pro-Israel forces that may not soon heal.
There are some obvious similarities between the Saudi Arabia and Iran cases. First, then as now, U.S. policymakers were deeply divided over the deal. Second, the Israeli government opposed the sale of weapons to a nation widely considered unstable and overtly hostile to the Jewish state. (After all, Saudi Arabia had just recently and adamantly opposed the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.) Third, in both cases, opposition in the United States was spearheaded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As AIPAC’s executive director from 1980 to 1993, I led the organization’s lobbying efforts to block the Reagan administration's proposal.
But similarities between 1981 and 2015 are far outweighed by the differences.
In 1981, Republicans and Democrats moved on after the final votes on the AWACS deal were cast.It is true that in 1981, American opinion about the AWACS sale was fairly evenly divided. But it was not split along party lines—and both sides took pains to emphasize their bipartisanship. For example, resolutions to disapprove the sale in the House and Senate were co-sponsored by equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. The first resolution handily passed (301–111) in the Democrat-controlled House; the second one only narrowly lost in the Republican-controlled Senate, with eight senators—seven Republicans and one Democrat—deciding to side with the president on the day of the vote.
Today’s debate, by contrast, is dominated by partisan politicking and bickering. Yes, there are scattered Democrats who oppose the deal. But in this legislative struggle, the GOP is a monolith. Every single Republican in the House and Senate, and each Republican presidential candidate in the field, has denounced the agreement. Although some Republicans at least read the document, which constrains Iran’s military nuclear program in exchange for ending international sanctions, many more declared their opposition well before they had the opportunity to do so. In short, Republicans concluded en bloc that any deal negotiated by the Obama administration was, by definition, a poor one; no agreement with Iran, no matter the details, would have passed muster.
In 1981, Republicans and Democrats moved on after the final votes on the AWACS deal were cast. That will be much harder this time, but it is perhaps even more important; execution of the Iran deal will involve meticulous bipartisan oversight and cooperation over the next five years or more.
Another difference between 1981 and 2015 is the Israeli government’s role in the debate.
Certainly, in 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin voiced his opposition to the AWACS sale. Israelis were concerned that Saudi Arabia would use the high-tech intelligence-gathering planes against the Israeli air force, which would diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge. But those fears were voiced calmly. A month before the congressional votes on the sale, Begin visited Washington. In the White House, he met with Reagan, who promised that the aircraft would be kept under sufficient control. The prime minister respectfully differed, replying that the only reason Saudi Arabia could possibly want AWACS was to turn them against Israel. According to aides attending the Oval Office meeting, the U.S. president was silent.
Even Israel’s ambassador in Washington at the time, the veteran diplomat Ephraim Evron, played a low-key (if not entirely hands-off) role during the nine months of lobbying and debate. During that time, he answered questions delicately. At the same time, he pursued the Israeli acquisition of advanced U.S. technology for Israel's defense industry and U.S. weapons systems for its armed forces. Likewise, major factions within the diplomatic leadership in Jerusalem and the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv preferred that their government keep quiet, believing that it should work harder to guarantee American security backing.
On the day the Senate narrowly turned down the disapproval resolution, Reagan sent a letter to all senators explicitly promising to supply Israel with advanced U.S. defense assets.By contrast, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vigilantly met with and preached to every member of Congress who has traveled to Israel over the last seven years. Just this summer, he enumerated his reasons for opposing any deal with Iran to 22 different congressional visitors. Netanyahu has also been outspoken during his many trips to Washington since 2009, including in meetings with Jewish leaders and members of Congress, webcasts to pro-Israel individuals and groups, at numerous press briefings after meetings with Obama, and at the United Nations. His spring address to a joint session of Congress may have been the only time in U.S. history when a foreign leader used that forum to attack the policies of a sitting president.
Israel’s two most recent ambassadors to the United States, both born in the United States, have publicly and privately bashed the deal as well. Former Ambassador Michael Oren articulates this position in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, his new book about his time as Netanyahu’s envoy. Current Ambassador Ron Dermer has been more incendiary, personally persuading House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to invite Netanyahu to address Congress without coordinating with the White House.
Not surprisingly, Dermer’s tactics have turned him into persona non grata in many Democrats’ offices. The Netanyahu speech and Dermer’s unusual activities have harmed Israel in the minds of opinion makers in the media and American public. To be sure, that doesn’t mean that the 1981 AWACS debate wasn’t bruising for Israel. In a meeting with Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, three weeks after the final vote, the proud prime minister complained bitterly that the decision to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia “was accompanied by an ugly campaign of anti-Semitism,” in which supporters of the deal, he said, argued that “we should not let the Jews determine the foreign policy of the United States.”
Even so, the brouhaha over the AWACS sale didn’t end too poorly for Israel. On the day the Senate narrowly turned down the disapproval resolution, Reagan sent a letter to all senators explicitly promising to supply Israel with advanced U.S. defense assets. If something similar happens this time, which is unlikely, it certainly won’t be because of Netanyahu’s behavior in the last several months.
One of the most consequential differences between 1981 and 2015 is the divided reactions of American Jews. In 1981, they were nearly wall-to-wall opposed to the AWACS sale. Every significant Jewish organization in the United States came out strongly against the sale. And during the high holy days of September 1981, rabbis across the country gave sermons criticizing it.
The current Iran deal, by contrast, is the most divisive issue to confront American Jewry since the reestablishment of Israel. Within Congress, the majority of Jewish senators, who are Democrats, have already announced their support for the agreement, and it appears likely that a majority of Jewish House members will also vote against the resolution to block the deal. Meanwhile, virtually every national Jewish organization has come out against the agreement, whereas a majority of local ones have not. The Jewish public, too, is divided. A poll conducted for the Los Angeles–based Jewish Journal concluded that 63 percent of American Jews support the deal. A follow-up question revealed that 54 percent of those polled support congressional approval of the deal; 35 percent were opposed. Vitriol pervades discussions about the plan among family members and longtime friends, who now find it difficult to discuss the issues involved in a civil manner.
The rift between Jewish supporters and opponents of the Iran deal cannot be understated. It will have long-term implications for the future of Jewish organizations and for the active part Jews play in American politics. And this brings us to the role of AIPAC, which was—and remains—the most significant organization in the United States dedicated to enhancing the security of Israel as a fundamental element of American foreign policy. Just as in 1981, it seeks to prevent the United States from adhering to an agreement with one of Israel’s enemies. But against the background of a fractured American Jewish community, this task has proved more controversial.
The AIPAC that I led for 13 years was poorer in members and money than the organization that exists today. We had $1.2 million and insufficient budgets for advertisements, designers, professional consultants, surge staff, and travel expenses to bring citizens to Washington. During the 1981 legislative fight, my associates and I traveled to specific political jurisdictions many weekdays and every weekend from January to October 1981, meeting with influentials, Jewish and non-Jewish, and local editorial boards. We evaluated and constantly reevaluated the strength of our grassroots operations in all 435 congressional districts and 50 states. I was known for using colored pencils on self-made maps of the country on an almost daily basis.
We have to heal the wounds inflicted by the clashes over the Iran deal as soon as possible; the future of the United States, the Middle East, and Israel depend on it.The nine-month ordeal gave us some time to find politically oriented allies and to organize in specific areas, but for the most part, it was an ad hoc effort. We sought assistance from local and national Jewish organizations, but we found that most were unskilled at political lobbying. Nor did they grasp the nuances of the issues.
Needless to say, the ultimate passage of the AWACS sale stung. But it proved to be an opportunity for AIPAC to reorganize itself from top to bottom to become a very strong national voice on questions of American arms sales to the Middle East, foreign economic and military assistance, and regional policies. In 1982, we commenced an extensive lobbying training program that lasts to this day. In the mid-1980s, we also expanded outreach to a variety of evangelical Christian leaders in the South and Southwest.
By 2015, these efforts had borne fruit. The evangelical movement is a significant force on Capitol Hill and in the White House on many issues, including Israel. AIPAC has significantly greater resources in terms of funds, staff, and supporters throughout the country. Even so, the group had trouble from the start convincing American Jews on the left—the majority of American Jews—that they should oppose the Iran deal. As it pushed harder against the agreement in Congress and the public, it was accused of no longer representing the community, particularly 30- and 40-somethings who are known to feel alienated by Israel's interference in American politics, particularly on the Republican side, and the country’s disinclination to resolve the Palestinian statehood issue.
As it did after the AWACS sale, AIPAC will have some rethinking to do once the Iran deal, in all likelihood, goes into effect. To come back stronger, it has to keep a few things in mind. First, it cannot interpret the votes on the Iran deal as a litmus test of pro- or anti-Israel sentiment. Rather, the vote is a test of Republican and Democratic Party loyalties. AIPAC cannot seek revenge on members of Congress who did or did not vote to strike down the deal. Second, the group must mend fences with each Democratic congressional office to regain its bipartisan credibility. Third, it should meet with national and key local Jewish and evangelical organizations to take their political temperatures. Without a timely check-in, AIPAC won’t be able to muster a political coalition whenever the next Middle East debate arises. Fourth, AIPAC must keep an eye on the broader national interests of the United States, not only Israel's security but also the ongoing geopolitical disintegration of the Middle East and combating Islamist terrorism. Finally, AIPAC needs to be ready for the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue to come up again and again until there is a negotiated resolution.
HEAL IN A HURRY
AIPAC and U.S. political leaders cannot allow partisanship to co-opt American national interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. We will do better in these difficult and transformative times if we debate actual policy questions and find bipartisan solutions. We have to heal the wounds inflicted by the clashes over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as soon as possible; the future of the United States, the Middle East, and Israel depend on it.