Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, defied Aipac on the Iran deal. He appears to be forgiven.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Aipac Opens Door to Democrats Who Supported Iran Deal

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Last month, after Democratic senators protected President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran from censure in the Senate, many in Washington wondered whether the lawmakers who supported the deal would pay a price with the pro-Israel lobby that fought so hard against it.  

The early signs from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, are that most of them won't. On Monday, Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who supported the Iran deal despite being heavily courted by Aipac to oppose it, was a featured speaker at a luncheon organized by Aipac members in the real-estate industry.

A spokesman for Coons confirmed the senator attended the Aipac event. "I think even those who disagree with his decision on the nuclear agreement recognize that he remains a strong friend of Israel and the pro-Israel community," the spokesman, Sean Coit, said.

Luncheons like those Coons attended Monday in New York are one of the perks for pro-Israel lawmakers. The Aipac members who attend these affairs have deep pockets and often contribute to both parties. The fact that Coons was featured as a speaker signals that in some cases Aipac is willing to forget the Iran vote and focus on keeping its friends inside the Democratic party instead of going to war with them.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Deal

Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic political operative and former Clinton White House staffer, told me he was pleased Aipac invited Coons to speak.

"We're all waiting to see what the dynamics are going to be since the Iran deal vote and where AIPAC, congressional Republicans and the Israeli foreign ministry are each going to come down. I think this is great sign from Aipac," he said.

Following Aipac's defeat last month in the fight over the Iran deal, the organization has internally debated how and whether its members will restore deterrence in Congress, according to sources familiar with these discussions who asked to be anonymous. 42 Democrats ended up opposing Aipac in the Senate, enough to block a vote on a resolution to disapprove the Iran nuclear deal. Thus far Aipac has not yet signaled the political repercussions for them. One Jewish community leader told me there may be one or two Democrats who are targeted to send a message, but most Democrats who voted for the deal will be welcomed back into the pro-Israel fold.

Steve Rosen, a former foreign policy director for Aipac, told me his former organization will be inclined to work with Democrats rather than turn them into enemies. "There is no question Aipac lay leaders will in the future be holding fundraisers for Democrats who voted for the Iran deal," he said, adding it was not practical for Aipac to boycott the 42 Democratic senators who supported the president's Iran deal.

"When you have guys like Coons with a long pro-Israel voting record, Aipac will continue to work with them," Rosen said.

But there is another reason Aipac cannot afford to punish too many Democrats for their Iran votes. The lobby's core mission is to protect and enhance the U.S.-Israel relationship. You can't do that if all your friends in Washington belong to one political party, particularly when the president belongs to the other one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net