The Cable

Partisan Infighting Hinders AIPAC's Iran Lobbying

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most powerful special interest groups in the United States, has an unusual problem on its hands.

On Sunday, March 2, it will welcome a record 14,000 attendees to Washington, D.C., for its annual policy conference. After two consecutive days of pro-Israel speeches, those supporters will storm Capitol Hill to lobby U.S. lawmakers. But according to sources inside and outside AIPAC, the group does not yet have a piece of legislation to pass for the issue it cares about most: Iran's nuclear program.

The absence of a bill or nonbinding resolution reflects AIPAC's bruising battle with the White House that left Democrats and Republicans bitterly divided on the traditionally nonpartisan issue. It's also leading to criticisms that the group doesn't have a clear legislative agenda ahead of its most important lobbying event of the year.

"When an organization places so much focus on one issue, people are going to be expecting something proactive to do on it when they come to town," said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street, AIPAC's dovish pro-Israel rival. "And as of today, it's not clear what that something is or whether there will be anything."

To be sure, strenuous efforts were made to introduce some kind of legislation on Iran's nuclear program before the start of the confab, including a long-delayed House resolution outlining the acceptable terms of a final nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. But multiple Hill sources say that the nonbinding resolution, fleshed out by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), will not be introduced before the conference. Instead, aides in the Senate and House said lawmakers may join together to draft letters to the president, but even the fate of that effort is uncertain.

"They just want something," said a GOP Senate aide. "They've spent so much political capital, they'll accept just about anything at this point to not have egg on their face."

But AIPAC officials say such criticism is shortsighted and does not reflect the ambitious agenda it will lay out for thousands of activists next week. "It will not be one piece of legislation, one resolution, or one letter, but a whole series of actions," an AIPAC official told The Cable.

The "comprehensive strategy" outlined by the AIPAC representative will emphasize Congress's role in overseeing the Obama administration's negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program. That will include scrutinizing the implementation of the interim deal that Tehran and Washington agreed to in November and outlining the parameters of a final agreement.

But AIPAC finds itself trying to thread a difficult needle between Democrats loyal to the president and Republicans eager to drive a wedge in the pro-Israel community. "The issue of Iran sanctions has now become a partisan one with Republicans on one side and the White House and Democrats on the other," said a congressional aide who works closely with AIPAC. "Unfortunately, once an issue becomes partisan, a bipartisan organization like AIPAC has difficulty managing it. Instead of having policy disagreements that are reconcilable, you have political disagreements that are a zero-sum game."

AIPAC, like the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed the interim deal with Iran and insists that any final deal require Iran to stop enriching uranium on its soil, full stop. Although the interim deal temporarily halted major aspects of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for $7 billion in sanctions relief, pro-Israel hard-liners say it gave too much away. Looking forward, an AIPAC memo to Congress last week demanded that any final deal require Iran to dismantle all "illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities." But many experts inside and outside the administration say Iran would never accept such a deal.

These tactical differences have shattered the usual bipartisan support for AIPAC legislation, leaving the group in an awkward position.

Up until early February, AIPAC supported an Iran sanctions bill by Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk that threatens more sanctions on Tehran's oil industry if no final deal is reached. The bill racked up an impressive amount of support, with 59 co-sponsors. But the White House threatened to veto the legislation, calling it a "march to war" that could detonate the sensitive nuclear talks in Geneva. After a handful of Democratic leaders rallied to the White House's side, AIPAC reversed course and said the legislation should be shelved for a later date.

According to the AIPAC official, the group is still searching for more co-sponsors of the bill but isn't asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass it now. "Our belief is it should come to a vote when it has the broadest support," said the official. That decision has angered a number of Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who've made immediate passage of the bill a signature issue. But it has also smoothed over some anxieties by pro-Israel Democrats who bristled at the group's open defiance of a Democratic president and his allies on the Hill, including Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a lawmaker with a long history of support for the Jewish state. On Thursday, National Journal reported that 82 deep-pocketed Democratic donors sent a letter to Democrats in Congress urging them not to pass any legislation that could jeopardize the nuclear talks.

That same day, Israel became a partisan issue again when Senate Republicans used a filibuster to block a vote on expanding veterans benefits because Democrats would not attach a GOP amendment on Iran sanctions. Reid refused to allow a vote on the amendment due to concerns that it would implode the administration's Iran talks. As a result, the effort to expand health-care programs for veterans, something supported by both parties, failed.

"I hope all the veterans groups have witnessed all the contortions the Republicans have done to defeat this bill," Reid said. "Shame on Republicans for bringing base politics into a bill to help veterans."

A senior GOP aide complained that congressional Democrats were acting against their own views to support the president. "If everyone voted their conscience … it would pass overwhelmingly," he said.

Meanwhile, AIPAC's efforts to cobble together some sort of nonbinding resolution or letter that Democrats and Republicans can agree on has led some to criticize it as weak or irrelevant since neither of the actions would carry the force of law. The AIPAC official said that view fails to appreciate the current political climate in Washington for any lobbying group. "I think a lot of people lose perspective," the official said, referring to AIPAC's efforts to round up 59 co-sponsors for Menendez's bill. "At a time of extraordinary polarization, this has extraordinarily impressive bipartisan support.… I can't think of another piece of substantive legislation that has this breadth of bipartisan support."

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The Cable

New Ukraine Government Asks U.N. to Help Ease Crisis

Facing the threat of a potentially bloody breakup of its country, Ukraine's fledgling government this morning appealed to the U.N. Security Council to convene an emergency session to pursue a diplomatic settlement to the crisis in Ukraine.

The request, which was contained in a letter from Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, comes one day after pro-Russia secessionists in Crimea seized government buildings and raised the Russian flag over the regional parliament. The Security Council is set to consider the Ukrainian request at noon, and will likely hold the meeting later in the afternoon.

But U.N.-based diplomats said that Ukraine's government faces an uphill battle in securing Security Council support for its cause because Russia, which supports ousted leader President Viktor Yanukovych, has the power to veto any action in the Security Council.

Ukraine's latest diplomatic push comes as senior American, U.N. and European envoys, including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.N. envoy Robert Serry, have flooded into Kiev over the past several days to show support for the new government and to counsel its new leadership on how to navigate the diplomatic crisis with Russia and pro-Russian forces within Ukraine.

Vice President Joseph Biden phoned Ukraine's new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday and welcomed the formation of a new government in Ukraine and pledged American support through the transition. But Biden, Serry, and other foreign delegates also pressed the new leader to work constructively with its powerful neighbor Russia.

"The vice president reassured the prime minister that the United States will offer its full support as Ukraine undertakes the reforms necessary to return to economic health, pursue reconciliation, uphold its international obligations and seek open and constructive relations with all its neighbors," the White House said in a statement.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in an effort to calm the situation. But the two former Cold War superpowers remained fundamentally divided over the direction Ukraine should take.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. government is "watching closely" as events unfold in Ukraine, and warned Russia it "would be a grave mistake" to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

Psaki said that Yanukovych "has lost legitimacy as he abdicated his responsibilities" by fleeing Kiev, and leaving behind a "vacuum of leadership."

Asked if U.S. officials had any evidence indicating Russian troops had intervened in Ukraine, Psaki said: “I don’t have any independent information to share with you.”

President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone with senior European leaders, including Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. "They stressed the extreme importance of preventing further escalation in violence and the need to quickly normalize the situation," according to a Kremlin statement. "The politicians agreed to maintain personal contact regarding this topic and to intensify cooperation between foreign policy departments."

Russia confirmed that it had authorized maneuvers by armored vehicles in Crimea, but said that the exercise was aimed at guaranteeing the protection of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Ukraine. It said that its military activities were permitted under Russian and Ukrainian agreements.

The Russian foreign ministry declined to engage in direct talks with Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, saying that it "considers the events in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as a result of internal political processes in Ukraine," according to a ministry statement, reported by Itar-Tass.

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, congratulated Yatsenyuk, the new Ukrainian prime minister, on the formation of a coalition government and promised to work in the Senate to pass legislation granting financial support for the transitional government.

"This assistance package will be part of a broader coordinated program with the European Union, IMF and other international partners," he said. "I encourage the new government to implement the necessary economic reforms to stabilize the economy and set Ukraine on a path to prosperity, including rooting out corruption and increasing transparency in government finances. Ukraine’s leading industrialists might also consider how they can play a helpful role in stabilizing the economy. Finally, I remain deeply concerned about events in Crimea and urge all parties to exercise caution and refrain from further escalating tensions."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched Serry, a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine, to Kiev to urge the country's new leaders to reach out to pro-Russian political leaders in the east, and to try to integrate the Party of Regions, a pro-Russian body, into the new government. "The main message is the government needs to be inclusive," said one diplomat familiar with the discussion. "The crisis can't be solved without Russian involvement, so don't do anything to needlessly antagonize the Russians," Serry told Ukraine's leader.

Russian officials, meanwhile, have been unwilling to accept the new government. On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, raised concern in remarks before the U.N. Security Council that the United Nations leadership was showing support for the new Ukrainian government. Churkin, meanwhile, issued a private protest, or demarche, for sending Serry to Kiev, saying his visit lent legitimacy to an illegitimate government, according to a diplomatic source.

"We are particularly concerned about the legitimacy of the actions being taken by Ukraine's Supreme Rada," Ukraine's parliament, Churkin told the Security Council Friday, claiming Kiev's leaders were engineering "forced regime change by creating facts on the ground."

Churkin accused Ukrainian leaders and anti-Russian extremists of attacking religious shrines, banning the Russian language, and "muzzling dissent" through "dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods." Churkin also expressed alarm that international institutions, including the United Nations secretariat, were supporting Ukraine's new leaders.

But U.N.-based diplomats challenged Churkin's characterization, saying that Ukraine's new prime minister has sought to assure Ukraine's Russian minorities that their rights will be respected under the new government.

AFP