The Cable

Pro-Israel Lobby Accepts White House Briefing — On Its Own Terms

In Washington, most lobbying groups need to beg the White House for a meeting with the president of the United States. But if the lobbying group in question is AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel shop in the country, it’s the White House that does the begging.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 04:  Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) shakes hands with senior AIPAC officials after he addressed the 2008 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. Obama has claimed his party's nomination after his delegate count surpassed 2,118.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 04: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) shakes hands with senior AIPAC officials after he addressed the 2008 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. Obama has claimed his party's nomination after his delegate count surpassed 2,118. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In Washington, most lobbying groups need to beg the White House for a meeting with the president of the United States. But if the lobbying group in question is AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel shop in the country, it’s the White House that does the begging.

This week, the White House extended a formal meeting invitation to AIPAC leaders who were in town to lobby Congress against the president’s nuclear deal with Iran, according to six people familiar with the matter. The first invitation couldn’t accommodate AIPAC and the more than 600 activists it flew in from around the country — so the White House kept trying.

After another back and forth, AIPAC agreed to let the president’s top aides come to the Washington hotel where the activists were staying to give an off-the-record briefing on the Iran deal. So on Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, top State Department negotiator Wendy Sherman, and Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s point man on Iran sanctions, traveled to the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel to brief with the activists.

What happened next is disputed, but the briefing clearly didn’t go as the administration officials intended. According to one person in the room, AIPAC officials refused to allow a question and answer session — an unusual restriction to impose on top officials of McDonough, Sherman and Szubin’s stature.

“They were only given 30 minutes to speak where they made the case for this deal, and all three offered the audience the opportunity to ask questions, given how important this topic is,” said an individual familiar with the matter. “But the AIPAC moderator ended the session before they could take any.”

According to another source, Sherman tried to get around AIPAC’s prohibition of questions by floating hypothetical queries that an Iran deal skeptic might have on everything from the inspections regime to the sunset of certain provisions of the deal.

The lack of questions gave some people the impression that AIPAC was afraid to give its activists too much exposure to the Obama administration’s arguments in support of a deal. AIPAC disputes that version of events entirely.

“It is absolutely not true that administration officials were denied an opportunity to take questions and answers at our event,” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, told Foreign Policy. “We granted their request and afforded them 30 minutes to make their case in any way they chose. In fact, we actually suggested that they take questions from the audience. Instead, the administration sent three officials and used more than their allotted time with their remarks rather than devoting any of their time for questions.”

As Congress prepares to leave for the August recess, lawmakers have been under immense pressure from pro-Israel groups to oppose the president’s nuclear deal. Under the terms of a U.S. law passed earlier this year, Congress can vote to prevent the United States from lifting sanctions on Iran and, effectively, unravel the nuclear accord struck in Vienna by the United States, Iran, and five world powers. A vote is expected when lawmakers return to Washington in September.

During the first half of 2015, AIPAC spent a record $1.67 million lobbying Congress against the Iran deal. The group is also pumping money into a new 501(c)(4) group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. That outfit is expected to spend $20 million on advertising and messaging campaigns in as many as 40 states to oppose the deal.

While it’s impossible to exactly say why no questions were posed at the Wednesday meeting, some pro-Israel supporters in Washington cast doubt on the sincerity of AIPAC’s engagement with the Obama administration, given the short amount of time allotted to speak to a crowd of over 600 people.

“If they were serious, why give the White House only 30 minutes on such an important issue?” said one pro-Israel operative in Washington. “I bet they spent more time with multiple members of Congress than they allowed the White House in total. Not a serious effort and, more than that, disrespectful.”

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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