The pro-Israel lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is one of the most powerful political forces in Washington. The lobby’s initiatives, backed by tens of millions in dollars in political contributions, often become legislation that passes overwhelmingly in Congress. Its supporters say AIPAC is key to the strategic U.S.-Israel alliance. Its critics contend that the lobby’s unconditional support for controversial Israeli policies are counter-productive for both Israel and the U.S.
The American-Israel lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), exercises an enormous gravitational pull on the U.S. Congress, the White House and U.S. regional foreign policy.
“The pro-Israel lobby is one of, if not the single most influential organized lobbying presence in Washington, D.C.,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
The lobby’s clout spans succeeding presidential administrations and transcends partly lines, and few elected officials have the wherewithal to resist its influence. In the House, the most partisan branch of U.S. government, less than 10 percent of the representatives regularly vote against AIPAC-backed bills. The lobby enjoys just as much success in the Senate, where its legislation has made it through with unanimous approval.
One of the main reasons for its influence: its huge financial punch. Just in 2010, the pro-Israel lobby spent almost $4 million on lobbying, of which AIPAC accounted for $2.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics. Since 1990, the pro-Israel lobby as a whole has given almost $96 million in congressional campaign contributions. (AIPAC does not give direct campaign contributions but has been linked to coordinating them.)
As a result of the lobby’s power, the U.S. government provides Israel military and political support well beyond what it gives to any other country in the world. The support includes backing some controversial policies. The Jewish state has exerted a military occupation over the Palestinian territories for more than 40 years, and walled off almost 2 million of the population into the tightly controlled area of the Gaza strip.
The lobby and AIPAC argue Israel has a legitimate right to control these regions so it can protect its citizens from rockets and suicide bombers. The United States should continue supporting Israel, says AIPAC, because it serves as a strategic partner in the Middle East.
“Israel is a reliable fellow democracy that shares America’s values and world view in a region often dominated by radical forces, dictatorial regimes and extremist non-state actors,” AIPAC says on its website.
AIPAC is the central and most powerful player of the pro-Israel lobby. It organizes pro-Israel alliances across the country, helps shape the pro-Israel legislation that goes to Congress and works directly with U.S. representatives and their staff on the Hill in getting it passed. AIPAC also connects elected officials to its network of wealthy donors.
The organization uses its congressional influence to promote the idea that the U.S. should unconditionally support Israel not only because it is a strategic ally but also because it faces the same threats as the United States in the Middle East.
“You can see the world in terms of friends and in terms of enemies,” says Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesman who now runs his own lobbying firm. “You look at Israel, you see a friend. When you look at countries in the Arab world, not so sure. And when you look at Iran, it’s definitely an enemy.”
AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, shared a similar narrative in a speech he gave at the annual policy conference held in Washington, D.C., this past May, in which he identified enemies and potential enemies across the region. They included Egypt, Syria and Iran. He also mentioned Hezbollah, which operates out of Lebanon, and Hamas, which represents the Palestinian-held Gaza strip.
“There are forces — internal and external — in every one of the Arab nations,” said Kohr, “who seek to defeat America and destroy Israel.”
Critics of the lobby say it uses the notion of security threats as a way to justify the Israeli occupation of 4.4 million Palestinian people and the building of illegal Israeli settlements deep into the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. They also argue AIPAC uses the defense argument to legitimize the very strict blockade on Gaza.
J Street is one of the American Jewish groups willing to criticize AIPAC, even though AIPAC claims it speaks for the entire community. The AIPAC tagline is “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” Organizations like J Street disapprove of what they see as AIPAC’s one-sided policies and dislike the way it ignores the problems of the settlements and the blockade.
Instead, AIPAC focuses on persuading elected officials that the U.S. should help Israel overcome its regional threats and secure its position in the world arena. The United States does so through military funding and support at the U.N. Security Council.
The U.S. gives Israel $3 billion annually in military assistance and extras, such as the recent $202 million contribution to Israel’s anti-missile defense system. On the international front, of the 28 U.N. resolutions the U.S. has vetoed since 1988, 22 of those were critical of Israel, according to the U.S. State Department and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
AIPAC also argues that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could spur an arms race in the region and the rest of the world. The lobby also says Iran funnels weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups that have fired rockets into Israel.
The United States has a total economic embargo against Iran, but AIPAC seeks further sanctions, including a worldwide gasoline embargo against the country. Critics argue this strategy of economic warfare could eventually lead the U.S. into a military conflict.
“These are all ingredients that we have seen put together before, and the question we need to be asking is how do we avoid the same scenario from playing out with Iran that we had for Iraq,” says Jamal Abdi, policy director at the National Iranian American Council.
AIPAC says the the sanctions will deter Iran’s fanatical leadership from going further with its nuclear program, and from running weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, who probe and provoke Israel.
“Make no mistake. This is a war of wills. Iran sees this moment as a chance to project its power — its radical agenda — into regimes across the region,” says Kohr.
Critics say AIPAC’s generally aggressive foreign-policy agenda, especially concerning the Palestinians, has tarnished the image of the U.S. in the rest of the world. And they say the legislation AIPAC pushes through Congress will not serve the United States in the long run.
“America will be on the wrong side of history,” says Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The leaders of AIPAC believe their organization promotes freedom and democracy in the Middle East, and helps keep both Americans and Israelis safe. Kohr used the end of his speech at the policy conference as an opportunity to tell members they lobby for important American values.
“Through all the change — through all the chaos, some seek to sew in order to harm Israel and harm America,” said Kohr. “We need you to help policymakers focus on these fundamentals. On freedom. On faith. On the values shared by America and Israel that make both of our nations — indeed, our world — safer and more secure.”
Although AIPAC does use a team of in-house lobbyists, it also focuses on developing its 100,000-member base and pro-Israel supporters from other groups across the nation into an army of citizen lobbyists on the local and federal levels.
AIPAC does so by keeping affiliates informed through its biweekly Near East Report, providing training sessions on how to deliver talking points, and sending alerts when it’s time to contact elected officials on specific pieces of legislation.
The co-head of AIPAC’s Los Angeles Young Leaders program, Richard Dinets, explains how AIPAC provides its members the infrastructure and tools they need to be effective, but it’s their passion that drives them to take action.
“They’re committed to making those phone calls and writing those emails year round,” says Dinets. “They’re willing to take the time and make the case.”
AIPAC also does a good job of coordinating with other pro-Israel organizations across the country. One of those groups is Los Angeles–based Democrats for Israel, a group affiliated with the California Democratic Party.
“I work very closely with the AIPAC staff,” says Leeor Alpern, president of Democrats for Israel-Los Angeles. AIPAC also works with the California Democratic Party and helps organize their state convention in Sacramento every year.
The Democrats for Israel and AIPAC work in parallel.
“AIPAC’s mantra is, in Congress they have friends and potential friends,” says Alpern, who himself has been an AIPAC member since the mid-’90s. “Ours is, we have Democrats, and hopefully they’re all pro-Israel Democrats.”
Their strategy is to identify up-and-coming Democrats, build a personal relationship with them and then immerse the elected officials in pro-Israel issues.
AIPAC does the same thing but across party lines. The lobby starts reaching out to politicians well before they get to Congress, while they still work as city council or school-board members or as part of the state legislature, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, who is also an AIPAC member.
The lobby realizes by the time someone gets to a position of national prominence, that’s not the time to help them understand the issues, because they’ve already thought it through to that point.
“By working with state and local, elected and appointed representatives of both parties, AIPAC has gotten to a position where no matter who gets elected president, in either party, that man or woman is going to be a strong supporter of Israel,” Schnur explains.
AIPAC maintains a strong bipartisan presence in state and national politics by encouraging its members to support pro-Israel candidates from the party of their choice. The lobby would not ask a liberal Democrat to support a conservative Republican or vice versa, Schnur says.
Although the strategy involves AIPAC pushing its allies and members to give to both political parties, Alpern, who is a loyal Democrat, doesn’t mind.
“I don’t want my party to be the only pro-Israel party,” he says.