The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was all set to storm Congress this week to push for Congress to vote to intervene in Syria. The most powerful pro-Israel group in the country, perhaps the most powerful lobbying group ever, was going to deploy 250 activists and lobbyists to strong arm and to threaten, as only AIPAC can do.
It’s unclear what they will do now. Since Sunday, the situation has changed drastically. Syria has said that it’s prepared to cooperate with the Russians to inspect its chemical arsenal and to sign a chemical weapons ban. And President Obama has called on Congress to delay a vote to authorizing force while diplomacy is pursued.
This is welcome news to most who believe that the end is more important than the means. But U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is likely breathing a huge sigh of relief. AIPAC has deep pockets and huge influence and can make or break a candidate. Begich has paid notable deference to Israel in his speeches on the issue, but AIPAC judges support by votes, not words, and had Begich voted against military authorization, he wouldn’t be in good stead with AIPAC.
It’s unclear how much influence the group has on this issue. It looked like it was going to lose in Congress no matter what, but it wasn’t going to go down easy and politicians were going to pay, if nothing else by withholding campaign money. Had Begich voted against authorizing force, which he appeared prone to do, he likely would have been one of them.
AIPAC has lost in the past, and it’s not been pretty. In 1991, against a heavy lobbying effort by AIPAC, President George H.W. Bush cut off loan guarantees to Israel until it froze West Bank settlement construction. A year later Bush lost to Clinton as did many of his supporters in Congress.
More significant for Begich was what happened in 1981, when Sen. Mike Gravel voted with President Ronald Reagan to sell advanced AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, against AIPAC’s wishes. Reagan won then, but learned his lesson by watching members of Congress who voted for the sale lose election after election. One of those members was Sen. Mike Gravel, who, until Begich, was Alaska’s last Democratic senator.
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