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Pro-Israel Lobby Finds Longtime Supporters Defect On Syria

Vice President Joe Biden, projected on screens, gestures as he addresses the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference in March.
Susan Walsh
Vice President Joe Biden, projected on screens, gestures as he addresses the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference in March.

The Obama administration is getting assistance from outside allies also trying to sell Congress on authorizing a military strike against Syria. Among the most prominent: strong backers of Israel.

Casino magnate and top GOP contributor Sheldon Adelson surprised many recently by offering to help President Obama get a resolution passed on Syria. And Capitol Hill was blanketed this week by some 300 lobbyists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

Israel's advocates have close ties with many lawmakers. According to the interest-group tracking website Maplight, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin is the sixth biggest recipient in Congress of campaign contributions from pro-Israel political action groups.

Like many other Democratic lawmakers who receive such funds, Durbin cites Israel in explaining his support for military action against Syria. "When it comes to the nation of Israel, our closest and best ally in the Middle East, they understand what we are trying to do with chemical weapons in Syria," Durbin said earlier this week on the Senate floor. "And they've made it clear through their friends in the United States and other ways, that they support it without fear of retaliation by Syria."

That's the same kind of message lawmakers have been getting in person this week from AIPAC's fleet of lobbyists. American University congressional expert James Thurber ranks AIPAC among Washington's top special interest groups. "If you look at the support for Israel by the United States, they are a key part of that," says Thurber. "They've been very successful on all the major issues related to Israel."

As a 501(c)4 organization, AIPAC cannot make campaign contributions — but it's seen as influencing many pro-Israel groups that do. (AIPAC declined a request to comment on the record for this report.)

For most lawmakers, Thurber says, loyalty to Israel and its supporters has been a given — except when it comes to a military strike against Syria. "They've voted with AIPAC, AIPAC gives them high ratings in terms of loyalty," he says, "but right now they're split, because their constituents are going in another direction."

Indeed, as AIPAC's lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — the third biggest beneficiary in Congress of pro-Israel contributions — went to the Senate floor to announce that the resolution the Foreign Relations panel approved last week authorizing military action against Syria did not pass muster. "So I will be voting against this resolution. A vital national security risk is clearly not at play," McConnell said, adding, "there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria."

McConnell is up for re-election next year in his home state of Kentucky. Longtime Kentucky political analyst Al Cross isn't surprised by McConnell's decision to break ranks on this issue with pro-Israel contributors. "He's a party leader who wants to remain party leader, and his party is clearly, the majority of his party is against this," says Cross, "and he faces an opponent in the primary who's against it."

No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn, who's seeking re-election next year, too, has also come out against the Syria resolution.

University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, who co-authored a book on the pro-Israel lobby's influence in Congress, says AIPAC has limited clout on Syria. "It almost always gets its way on issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, on foreign aid to Israel, and on protecting Israel in the United Nations," he says. "But when it comes to pushing the United States to use military force against another country because it's seen as being in Israel's interest, the lobby does not always get its way."

Even lawmakers who do agree with AIPAC on Syria say its lobbying has not influenced them. "I voted before AIPAC took a position on this," says Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, a member of the panel that passed the Syria resolution last week, "so I have supported the resolution from the beginning."

So too have most other congressional leaders — from both parties. Still, American University's Thurber says there's a good reason why that resolution was pulled Wednesday from the Senate floor. "It looks like they're not going to get the votes," says Thurber, "and so it is something, at least on this issue, that's rare, that you have all those people together, and rare that it looks like they may lose."

And that would also be a rare outcome for AIPAC's lobbyists.

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David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.