Julie Bykowicz & Jonathan D. Salant
September 5, 2013
Lobbying on Syria has inspired coalitions of the unlikely, aligning President Barack Obama with Sheldon Adelson, the Republican billionaire who spent about $70 million trying to defeat him last year, in the push for a military response to the use of chemical weapons.
Opponents of U.S. military intervention in the civil war-torn Middle Eastern country include Occupy Wall Street, which protests against Wall Street profits; Code Pink, an antiwar group; and the Russians.
Interest groups and activists are ratcheting up their advocacy ahead of the Sept. 9 return of Congress to Washington, when lawmakers plan to take up Obama’s request for authorization of a limited military strike. The request came after U.S. officials concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on Aug. 21 fired chemical weapons into rebel-held areas near Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children.
“For our credibility, we have to do something,” said Morris Amitay, founder of the pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee.
The president has said a military response is necessary to uphold a longstanding international ban on chemical weapons use and to deter Assad from using them again on his people or such neighbors as Israel and Jordan, two U.S. allies.
Obama made the same argument Aug. 30 on a 30-minute conference call with 1,000 rabbis. Obama conducts such a call annually. This time, at the White House’s request, Syria was the topic of the first question, asked by Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis.
While Iran wasn’t mentioned in the call, it was viewed by participants as part of the context of the president’s remarks. ‘We have a very strong stake in the world taking seriously our insistence that weapons of mass destruction should not proliferate,” said one of those on the call, Rabbi Rick Block, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a New York-based organization of Reform rabbis.
The support Obama is getting from pro-Israel groups in the U.S. is important because of their history of political influence. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups have long helped secure continued U.S. aid to Israel, mobilizing activists who visit or call lawmakers. The effort is supplemented by several political action committees that donate to candidates depending on their support for Israel.
The pro-Israel community contributed $14.5 million to federal campaigns for the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than the $11.1 million in donations by the defense aerospace industry, one of the biggest and most consistent political contributors.
While most of the Jewish groups’ donations lean Democratic, Adelson alone transformed the 2012 Republican primary when he and his wife used $15 million in private funds to sustain the unsuccessful candidacy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and then poured $53 million into groups advancing Republican nominee Mitt Romney. In all, Adelson and his wife donated $93 million to Republican causes in the 2012 campaign, center data shows.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which counts Adelson as a board member, yesterday sent an “action alert” to its 45,000 members, directing them to tell Congress to authorize force. “This is not a partisan issue,” the coalition said in its message.