The Cable

One of Congress’s Most Pro-Israel Lawmakers Isn’t Pro-Israel Enough for AIPAC

A recent letter attacking Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is causing an internal brouhaha at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The Cable has learned. The powerful lobbying outfit, known for its disciplined non-partisan advocacy for Israel, recently issued an action alert about the Florida congresswoman's waffling on Iran sanctions legislation. The letter urged members to contact Wasserman Schultz and cited a disparaging article about her in a conservative website founded by a prominent Republican political operative.

That AIPAC was driving hard for new Iran sanctions legislation surprised no one. But its use of a right-wing blog to target a well-connected Jewish Democrat with a long history of support for Israel raised eyebrows among some current and former AIPAC officials. It also raised concerns that AIPAC's open revolt against the White House's Iran diplomacy could fray its relations with liberal Democrats on the Hill.

"In the 40 years I've been involved with AIPAC, this is the first time I've seen such a blatant departure from bipartisanship," said Doug Bloomfield, AIPAC's former chief lobbyist. Bloomfield was referring to an AIPAC letter scrutinizing Wasserman Schultz's silence on sanctions. The letter relied on the Washington Free Beacon's reporting, which (irony alert) happened to be the first news outlet to report on the existence of the letter.

"We are asking you, our leaders in the pro-Israel community, to reach out to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's office," read the letter. "The [Free Beacon] article included below about Debbie Wasserman Schultz blocking bipartisan Iran sanctions came out yesterday and, simply put, we need to know if the story is true." 

Bruce Levy, a member of AIPAC's National Council who supports new sanctions legislation, said the group made a mistake by using the partisan news site in its official alert to members. "It probably gave [The Beacon] credibility, which I'm not happy about," he said. "Every little schmuck can express his opinion on the Internet, and unfortunately, it gains credibility when you endorse it."

AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

The situation Wasserman Schultz finds herself in is a dilemma shared by many Democrats torn between their support for the White House and their longstanding ties to the pro-Israel community. But in her case, the politics are even more treacherous.

Wasserman Schultz, who refuses to declare her position on the bill, is taking more heat from pro-Israel groups than any other Democratic lawmaker, even though prominent members of the party like Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein openly oppose new sanctions at this time. It's not a mystery why.

Wasserman Schultz hails from a heavily Jewish congressional district in south Florida where many equate support for new sanctions with support for Israel. Given her high-profile status as chair of the DNC, a position given to her by President Obama, and her emphatic support of Israel, she's viewed as a bellwether for other fence-sitting Democrats in Congress.

The future of Iran sanctions legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate remains uncertain. In the Senate, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-Il) have corralled a near-filibuster-proof majority of senators in support of their Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, despite the outspoken opposition by the White House. If passed, the bill would slap new sanctions on Iran if the current talks end without a long-term deal. The White House says Iran will walk away from the delicate talks if the legislation is passed, but 59 senators have already signed on in support, including 16 Democrats. Thus far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to give the bill a vote, but new legislative efforts in the House mirroring the Kirk-Menendez legislation seek to pressure Reid into allowing one.

Needless to say, it hasn't been a great month for Wasserman Schultz. In the past several weeks, she's been hammered for her refusal to support the new sanctions legislation -- a dynamic accelerated by a Huffington Post report in January detailing her secret effort to press wavering Democrats to oppose the bill. After the AIPAC letter went out, her office was hit with phone calls from AIPAC members in Florida.

But that wasn't the end of it. The Emergency Committee for Israel, a side project of conservative pundit William Kristol, took out a bruising video ad attacking the congresswoman's pro-Israel credentials. "She says she's tough on Iran," intones the ad, "so why is she against bipartisan Iran sanctions?"

Pro-Israel advocates said they expected those kinds of partisan attacks from right wing political outfits like ECI, but not from AIPAC.

Michael Adler, an AIPAC activist and prominent Democratic donor, said targeting Wasserman Schultz for not supporting new sanctions legislation is misguided given her value to the pro-Israel community. "The bill is only a litmus test for the unsophisticated in the pro-Israel community," he said. "People can disagree on tactics, but Debbie is in a unique position as DNC chair and has the pro-Israel agenda deeply-rooted in her."

Bloomfield, who spent nine years as chief lobbyist and legislative director at AIPAC, said the AIPAC he knew wouldn't reproduce an article from such a blatantly partisan outlet. "We used to use the phrase over and over again: We wanted to be a bridge between the two parties," he said. "When Democrats would introduce legislation to embarrass Republicans and Republicans would return the favor, we wouldn't bite."

Levy, who has contributed money to Wasserman Schultz's campaigns, said few appreciate the difficult position the congresswoman is in. "Debbie can not poke a stick in the eye of the president," he said. "She's the head of the DNC for God's sake."

While he disagrees with the administration's "naivete" with regards to Tehran, Levy said the pro-Israel community must stand by her. "I don't envy her position," he said. "She's representing a large constituency in South Florida and the DNC at the same time. That can be a conflict."

AIPAC's campaign in South Florida has also triggered rare anger towards the group on Capitol Hill, where some feel it has gone way too far.

"AIPAC has really over-reached on this one and alienated key allies on the Hill over what really boils down to a small tactical difference over sanctions timing," said a congressional aide who has worked closely with AIPAC. "It's hard to come to any other conclusion that they aren't deliberately flaming the partisan flames for their own political benefit." 

Adler doubted that the letter represented the views of elite AIPAC operatives and said the organization would no doubt maintain its bipartisan sheen. "When you have an organization that depends on citizen lobbyists some of them aren't as nuanced," he said. 

Whatever the case, it's unlikely that Wasserman Schultz will be able to keep her silence on new sanctions given the passion of her constituents. As it stands, her spokesperson would not deny reports that she had brought other Democrats to the White House to lobby against the new sanctions bill. Statements she provided to The Cable, and other media outlets, cleverly dodge  the issue of new sanctions legislation. "Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Iran and will continue to be," said spokeswoman Mara Sloan. With no vote pending in the House, she's under no obligation to declare a position. But whether that will pass muster with her South Florida constituents remains to be seen.


Update: Levy puts his money where his mouth is. In the last two years, he's given $3,500 to Wasserman Schultz's campaigns. The story has been updated to reflect that. 


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The Cable

Should He Stay or Should He Go? Assad's Future Clouds Syria Talks

A bitter dispute over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is casting a pall over this week's international peace talks in Switzerland, triggering harsh public exchanges between key leaders and placing the prospect of a diplomatic solution to Syria's brutal civil war seemingly even further out of reach.

The talks in the Swiss city of Montreux have been snake bitten from the start, with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon first asking Iran to attend the conference and then having to back track and rescind the invitation after the Obama administration bashed the move and the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the negotiations if Tehran took part.

The Syrian peace conference finally got underway Wednesday, but the first day was, if anything, even messier and angrier than the run-up to the meeting had been. The two sides insulted each other, and made clear that they weren't willing to compromise over Assad's role in Syria if a peace accord was reached.

The U.N.'s top negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, even admitted that he wasn't sure that representatives from the Syrian opposition and the Assad government would be willing to sit down together when a round of substantive negotiations are scheduled to get underway in Geneva Friday.

"I'm going to meet them separately and see how best we can move," Brahimi told reporters Wednesday night. "Do we go straight on Friday into one room and start discussion or do we talk a little bit more separately? I don't know yet."

The decidedly undiplomatic opening of an international conference ostensibly dedicated to high-level diplomacy raised real questions about whether the talks have any chance of succeeding - and about whether the session should even have been held given the yawning gap between the two sides in a conflict that has already left more than 100,000 people dead.

The biggest point of contention revolves around Assad's future. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing Damascus and its allies in Tehran to accept the terms of the so-called Geneva Communique, a U.N.-sanctioned plan for a transition from the Assad regime to a government of national unity "with full executive authority."

"We really need to deal with reality," Kerry said in his opening address to the gathering. "There is no way - no way possible in the imagination - that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern."

Kerry's remarks were echoed by Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba, who said the country's rebels would only accept a deal that would explicitly state that Assad would have to end his reign.

"Any talk about Assad remaining in power threatens to derail the Geneva 2 conference," he told the delegates.

Syrian officials immediately said that Assad wouldn't be going anywhere.

"There will be no transfer of power and President Bashar Assad is staying,"

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told reporters.

International conferences are usually marked by seemingly endless speeches that don't really end up saying much of anything. Wednesday was very different. Syrian

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem accused the Syrian opposition of selling their souls to the "highest bidder" and sleeping in "five star hotels" while their countryman were being slaughtered.

Moualem portrayed the Syrian government as a vital partner in the international effort to prevent al Qaeda, which has emerged as a key belligerent in the Syrian conflict, from gaining a new safe haven to plot terror attacks against the West. Moualem

likened his country's own struggle to that of the U.S., which has been battling al-Qaeda since the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

"They have forgotten that terrorism was yesterday in the U.S.; today it is in Syria; as for tomorrow nobody knows," he said. "But what is sure is it shall not stop here."

As Moualem went well beyond his allotted speaking time, Ban, who was visibly frustrated, asked the Syrian to speed things up.  

"Can you wrap up?" Ban asked.

Moualem refused, saying "this is my right."

"You live in New York, I live in Syria" he continued. "I have the right to give the Syrian version in this forum...Let me finish my speech."

Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, tried to play down the seriousness of the exchange. "Let's not make a Swiss mountain out of a molehill," he told //link// reporters.

After the conference's opening session, Ban sought to dampen expectations, saying it was an "historic" achievement simply to get the parties together.

"We did not expect instant breakthroughs from today's conference," he told reporters at the end of the opening ceremonies, noting that the "hard work" will begin on Friday.

Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, is scheduled to lead open-ended negotiations talks between the two parties starting on Friday. The former Algerian foreign minister, who has served as a high-level trouble-shooter in Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledged the talks would be tough.

U.N. based diplomats said they expected him to put off the question of Assad's fate for the time being and to focus on promoting a series of confidence building measures -- including a plan to permit U.N. aid workers access to besieged Syrian towns -- that stand a greater chance of success. Syria has already proposed that it is willing to consider an agreement to allow access to besieged communities in Aleppo.

"We have had some fairly clear indicators that the parties are willing to discuss issue of access to need people, liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires," Brahimi said.

Opposition sources say that they would welcome a commitment by Syria to provide greater U.N. access to besieged towns, and they recognize that armed opposition forces need to halt aid blockages in some pro-regime neighborhoods.

Still, they made clear that they fear negotiations aimed at ending Assad's hold on power will be hijacked by talks on humanitarian relief that will reinforce the need of the international community to deal with the Syrian leader.

If Wednesday was any indication, the rebels have little to worry about on that front. The question of Assad's future doesn't appear to be going anyway anytime soon.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

AFP/Fabrice Coffini