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Neocons vs. Neocon on Iran

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Maybe I spoke too soon when I declared the fight over the new Iran bill wending its way through Congress as one between hard-line neoconservatives and AIPAC. The broad outlines of what I wrote remain true—everything from AIPAC’s intentions to Bill Kristol’s—but what I underestimated was how isolated Kristol would be even among his ideological comrades.

Let’s quickly review what’s happened so far. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worked out a compromise on a bill to give Congress, if it so chooses, a vote on any potential nuclear deal with Iran. With the bill’s provisions softened, and perhaps seeing the writing on the wall given Democratic support for some kind of oversight legislation, the Obama administration backed off its veto threat and said it could accept the compromise. That’s when hard-line opponents of diplomacy with Iran in Congress—read: Republicans closest to the neocons—started to introduce “poison pill” amendments by the dozen. Because AIPAC backed the compromise version and discouraged amendments that might prevent its passage, Bill Kristol attacked the flagship Israel lobby group in a Weekly Standard editorial. That’s when I wrote my Nation piece headlined “AIPAC vs. the Neocons on Iran.”

But the unusual, though not unprecedented, split between AIPAC and neoconservatives hasn’t fully materialized. Many neocons have decided to side with AIPAC as the preferred course, at least for now.

On Friday, the Washington Post blogger Jen Rubin attacked two senators introducing “poison pill” (she even used the phrase) amendments—Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL)—as “go[ing] off the rails” in their evident attempts to make Corker-Cardin a piece of doctrinaire anti-diplomacy legislation. (“As brilliant and inspirational as these two senators can be, it pains me to say, they at times severely lack judgment,” Rubin wrote. Ouch!)

Then, over the weekend, the normally hardest-of-the-hard-line Wall Street Journal editorial page followed suit, denouncing amendments that, “while defensible on their merits, would give Democrats the political excuse many of them seek to vote against the bill.” (Remarkably, the Journal, which explained its logic at length, appeared to assume that a) a deal was certain, and b) that it would endure at least until Obama’s successor took office.)

Both Rubin and the Journal editorial page, it should be noted, gave a nod to the compromise-killing amendments urged by Kristol and his letterhead group, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), which has followed its honcho in pressing AIPAC and senators to support any and all efforts to sabotage a deal. “Some voices on the right who misread the current situation in which Congress finds itself (powerless),” wrote Rubin, in her unusually harsh admonition of fellow travelers, “have egged Cotton and Rubio on.” Likewise, the Journal acknowledged that the Senate compromise was “being assailed by some of our conservative friends.”

The dynamics at work here underscore the degree to which Kristol and ECI find themselves isolated on this issue, even among hard-line pro-Israel Republicans. When Jen Rubin and the Journal editorial page are attacking you from the left for opposing something, you are very far to the right indeed. (The same sort of newfound clarity might apply to those journalists, like Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, who went hook, line and sinker for Kristol’s attempts to heighten the contradictions, so to speak, between AIPAC’s core mission and its attempts to rebuff purportedly “pro-Israel” amendments to the Iran bill.)

There’s one final interesting factor worth noting: its name is Sheldon Adelson. Last weekend, Republican presidential candidates engaged in what has mockingly been called the “Adelson primary,” vying for the Likudist billionaire’s favor (and many millions) at his Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) annual convention. The same group sent out an “action alert” last week imploring its membership to “call your U.S. Senators and urge them to pass S.615″—the Iran review bill—”as soon as possible.” But, in a surprising omission, the RJC alert was silent about the killer amendments.

Although Rubin and the Journal editorial board aren’t beholden to Adelson for millions of dollars in donations, Republican presidential hopefuls and members of Congress certainly are—and Adelson is known for taking an all-or-nothing approach to bestowing his largesse upon only those who keep lockstep with his hard-line views. One might guess that Adelson, who never saw a super-hawkish position he didn’t want to throw cash at, might support the amendments to the Iran bill—but one might’ve thought the same of Rubin and the Journal. We just don’t know… yet. The RJC’s silence also raises questions about the position of Benjamin Netanyahu, another major Adelson beneficiary, who may finally be heeding AIPAC’s advice against encouraging the most extreme elements in the Republican Party.

With the Adelson/RJC abstention from the debate, only this much is clear: Bill Kristol is far out on a right-wing limb on this one. Nonetheless, he has the ear of several senators, among them his protégé Tom Cotton, but also others like Rubio and another GOP presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz (R-TX). That Kristol’s lone voice can muster such action in the halls of power should be a sobering thought for all of us.

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