- - Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Presidential press secretary Jay Carney uttered 10 words the other day that represent a major presidential challenge to the American Israel lobby and its friends on Capitol Hill. Referring to Senate legislation designed to force President Obama to expand economic sanctions on Iran under conditions the president opposes, Mr. Carney said: “If it were to pass, the president would veto it.”

For years, there has been an assumption in Washington that you can’t buck the powerful Israel lobby, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, whose positions are nearly identical with the stated aims of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t like Mr. Obama’s recent overture to Iran, and neither does AIPAC. The result is the Senate legislation, which is similar to a measure already passed by the House.

With the veto threat, Mr. Obama has announced that he is prepared to buck the Israel lobby — and may even welcome the opportunity. It isn’t fair to suggest that everyone who thinks Mr. Obama’s overtures to Iran are ill-conceived or counterproductive is simply following the Israeli lobby’s talking points, but Israel’s supporters in this country are a major reason for the viability of the sanctions legislation the president is threatening to veto.

It is nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Senate legislation is designed to sabotage Mr. Obama’s delicate negotiations with Iran (with the involvement also of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program. The aim is to get Iran to forswear any acquisition of nuclear weapons in exchange for the reduction or elimination of current sanctions. Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium at very small amounts, for peaceful purposes, and Mr. Obama seems willing to accept that Iranian position in the interest of a comprehensive agreement.

However, the Senate measure, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat; Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat; and Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, would impose potent new sanctions if the final agreement accords Iran the right of peaceful enrichment. That probably would destroy Mr. Obama’s ability to reach an agreement. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani already is under pressure from his country’s hard-liners to abandon his own willingness to seek a deal. The Menendez-Schumer-Kirk measure would undercut him and put the hard-liners back in control.

Further, the legislation contains language that would commit the United States to military action on behalf of Israel if Israel initiates action against Iran. This language is cleverly worded, suggesting U.S. action should be triggered only if Israel acted in its “legitimate self-defense” and acknowledging “the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force,” but the language is stunning in its brazenness and represents, in the view of Andrew Sullivan, the prominent blogger, “an appalling new low in the Israeli government’s grip on the U.S. Congress.”

While noting the language would seem to be nonbinding, Mr. Sullivan adds that “it’s basically endorsing the principle of handing over American foreign policy on a matter as grave as war and peace to a foreign government, acting against international law, thousands of miles away.”

That brings us back to Mr. Obama’s veto threat. The American people have made clear through polls and abundant expression (especially during Mr. Obama’s flirtation earlier this year with military action against Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime) that they are sick and weary of American military adventures in the Middle East. They don’t think the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been worth the price, and they don’t want their country to engage in any other such wars.

That’s what the brewing confrontation between Mr. Obama and the Israel lobby comes down to — war and peace. Mr. Obama’s delicate negotiations with Iran, whatever their outcome, are designed to avert another U.S. war in the Middle East. The Menendez-Schumer-Kirk initiative is designed to kill that effort and cedes to Israel America’s war-making decision in matters involving Iran, which further increases the prospects for war. It’s not even an argument about whether the United States should come to Israel’s aid if our ally is under attack, but whether the decision to do so and when that might be necessary should be made in Jerusalem or Washington.

2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of beginning of World War I, a conflict triggered by entangling alliances that essentially gave the rulers of the Hapsburg Empire power that forced nation after nation into a war they didn’t want and cost the world as many as 20 million lives. Historians have warned since of the danger of nations delegating the power to take their people into war to other nations with very different interests.

AIPAC’s political power is substantial, but this is Washington power, the product of substantial campaign contributions and threats posed to re-election prospects. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website, Sens. Kirk, Menendez and Schumer each receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in pro-Israel PAC money and each of their states includes concentrations of pro-Israel voters who help elect and re-elect them.

Elsewhere in the country, AIPAC’s Washington power will collide with the country’s clear and powerful political sentiment against further U.S. adventurism in the Middle East, particularly one as fraught with as much danger and unintended consequence as a war with Iran. If the issue gets joined, as it appears that it will, Mr. Obama will see that it gets joined as a matter of war and peace. If the Menendez-Schumer-Kirk legislation clears Congress and faces a presidential veto, the war-and-peace issue could galvanize the American people as seldom before.

If that happens, the strongly held opinions of a democratic public are liable to overwhelm the mechanisms of Washington power, and the vaunted influence of the Israel lobby may be seen as being not quite what it has been cracked up to be.

Robert W. Merry, political editor of the National Interest, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.