Billing itself as "America's pro-Israel lobby," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of the more influential advocacy groups in the United States. With a self-proclaimed mission to "ensure that both America and Israel remain strong and that they collaborate closely together," AIPAC is widely regarded as the formidable organization in the so-called U.S. Israel Lobby.
Although it states on its website that it "receives no financial assistance from Israel," AIPAC generally promotes the policy objectives of the government in power in Israel. This has led critics to bemoan its undue influence on Washington, arguing that what is best for Israel is not necessarily what is best for the United States.
Despite the criticism, both liberal and conservative politicians actively court the group. Boasting about the group's clout, former AIPAC lobbyist Steven J. Rosen reportedly once slipped a napkin to "pro-Israel" journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and quipped, "You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin."
However, in late 2013 and early 2014, AIPAC suffered a series of high-profile defeats that led some observers to question whether the group would retain its influence in coming years. Notably, after failing to marshal support for a U.S. military strike on Syria and to head off renewed nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers, AIPAC was forced to back down from its 2013-2014 bid to pass new Iran sanctions legislation while talks were underway after failing to persuade enough Democrats. Critics in and outside of government accused the bill's supporters of trying to sink the negotiations and foment a war. "AIPAC and other hard-line groups remain a potent force in guaranteeing generous U.S. aid to Israel and hamstringing U.S. efforts to achieve a two-state solution," said Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, "but their clout declines when they advocate a course of action that could lead to another Middle East war."
In particular, support for the group seemed to be slipping among many of the otherwise liberal-leaning Jewish voters who had traditionally provided the backbone of its support. "Today, a growing number of American Jews, though still devoted to Israel, struggle with the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Many feel that AIPAC does not speak for them," reported The New Yorker in a lengthy 2014 profile.
Noting AIPAC's increasing alienation from important constituencies and increasing reliance on evangelical Christians and Republicans, journalist Jim Lobe wrote in August 2014: "Liberal Zionists—who undoubtedly constitute a majority of American Jews (who in turn constitute a major source of political campaign funding for Democrats)—face a choice between their Zionism, as defined by Netanyahu and AIPAC, on the one hand and their liberal values on the other. The two appear to have become mutually exclusive."
Iran has long been a key target of AIPAC's lobbying efforts. The group claims on its website that "Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terror and is racing toward a nuclear weapons capability. Through its proxy armies of Hizballah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Iranian regime is supporting terrorists that have carried out attacks on American troops and Israeli civilians."
Among its objectives has been to get the United States to impose ever-tighter sanctions on Iran. In a June 2012 "Issue Memo" titled "While the World Talks, Iran Enriches; More Pressure Needed," AIPAC argued that talks between Iran and the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1) were failing to produce results and that "crippling economic sanctions must be accelerated to prevent Tehran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability." The memo also dismissed any consideration of "containing" Iran and added that "the United States must make clear that it will prevent Iran from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will not be allowed to acquire the capability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing."
AIPAC maintained its support for tightening sanctions even into late 2013, when the P5+1 powers—including the United States—reached an interim agreement that would see Iran restrict its enrichment activities in exchange for minor sanctions relief while a final agreement was negotiated. While a November 2013 AIPAC memo acknowledged that the agreement did limit Iran's abilities to enrich, the lobby complained that Iran was allowed to enrich uranium at all and called for Congress to preemptively pass new sanctions in the event the agreement failed. That same month, the hawkish "pro-Israel" Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) revealed that he was working with AIPAC and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). to push new sanctions even as talks were underway, defying calls from the Obama administration to give the talks a chance. The Kirk-Menendez sanctions package ultimately floundered after AIPAC failed to muster enough Democrats to secure a veto-proof majority and Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to bring the bill to the floor.
In March 2014, as the annual AIPAC policy conference was underway in Washington, Reps. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD)—both reliable AIPAC allies—circulated a letter among their colleagues saying that while they "do not seek to deny Iran a peaceful nuclear energy program," they were concerned that "Iran will use prolonged negotiations as a tool to secure an economic lifeline while it continues to make progress towards a nuclear weapon." Expressing concern about "Iran's state sponsorship of terrorism, its horrendous human rights record, its efforts to destabilize its neighbors, its pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its threats against our ally, Israel, as well as the fates of American citizens detained by Iran," they concluded with the typical hawkish refrain, "we must keep all options on the table to prevent this dangerous regime from acquiring nuclear weapons."
Describing the letter as "AIPAC-approved," the Inter Press Service's Jim Lobe (whose outlet was denied press credentials for the AIPAC conference, presumably because of its critical stance towards the group) noted that while the letter was "a bit more congenial than" the Kirk-Menendez approach in that it did not propose specific new sanctions, its not-too-subtle nod to military action "naturally raises hackles and strengthens hardliners in Tehran."
Among the key sanctions AIPAC has promoted in recent years was the 2009 House-passed Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which according the Congressional Research Service could prevent the United States "from providing credit, insurance, or guarantees to any project controlled by any energy producers or refiners that contribute significantly to Iran's refined petroleum resources."
According to AIPAC, the bill represented "landmark sanctions legislation that would reinforce American diplomatic efforts with Iran with the threat of tougher sanctions if Iran rejects U.S. overtures and continues to enrich uranium." However, other observers countered that the bill would "hurt the Iranian people while having little effect on the leadership [the] sanctions are supposed to put pressure on; undermine the Obama administration's attempts at engagement with Iran under a multilateral negotiating framework; and isolate the U.S. by antagonizing crucial allies in the UN Security Council."
Another key AIPAC target has been Syria, which the lobby views as a threat to Israel, in part because of Syrian support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. After the start of the opposition uprising in 2011, AIPAC released a number of issue memos lambasting the Syrian regime for committing human rights abuses and supporting terrorism. Although it steered clear of calling for direct U.S. military engagement, the lobby pressed for increased sanctions on the country.
A July 2011 issue memo called for tightening sanctions and international pressure. "The United States must hold Syria accountable for its destructive behavior and fully implement sanctions on Damascus as authorized under the Syria Accountability Act," it said. "The Treasury Department should sanction Syrian banks and businesses facilitating Damascus' illicit activities."
By September 2013, AIPAC was unabashedly supporting a U.S. strike on the country, launching a lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill aimed at convincing U.S. lawmakers to authorize an attack and warning that any failure to act would embolden Iran. Connecting AIPAC's interest in the Syrian civil war to its position on Iran, AIPAC critic MJ Rosenberg argued that "AIPAC joined the battle to win Congressional approval because resolving the Syria crisis through any means other than war would set a terrible precedent for Iran: resolving the Iran nuclear issue diplomatically." But with U.S. popular opinion deeply opposed to U.S. involvement in the war, Rosenberg noted that "AIPAC's big lobbying day for war with Syria changed no votes. Not one."
AIPAC had stepped up its campaign against Syria many years before the uprising began. Shortly after President George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq in May 2003, AIPAC began pushing for passage of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act,which allowed for U.S. sanctions against Syria.
The move stirred rumors that the Bush administration was contemplating "regime change" in Syria following its invasion of Iraq. Reported the Deutsche Presse-Agentur in November 2003, "In his speech this month about the need for the Middle Eastern countries to move toward democracy, U.S. President George W. Bush won some praise but his words were also met with apprehension among Arab countries in the region. The basis for such worries was that Bush's speech was preceded by suggestions from the so-called neoconservatives. They were the spearhead of the drive that led to the invasion of Iraq. For example, one of them, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, talked (while in Israel) about the Syrian government's failure to stop infiltration of guerrillas into Iraq. He coupled that with the observation that Syria's military strength was feeble. This occurred at the same time that the Israeli lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was using its muscle on the U.S. Congress to pass the Syria Accountability Act. This would impose U.S. sanctions on Syria unless Syria ended its occupation of parts of Lebanon, cut its ties to Palestinian groups the United States regards as terrorists, and stopped its alleged development of chemical and biological weapons."
In an October 2009 policy brief, AIPAC argued that despite the sanctions that had been imposed since passage of the Syria Accountability Act, little had changed.It also criticized the Obama administration's efforts at negotiation, stating: "While the Obama administration has renewed sanctions imposed under the Syria Accountability Act, it also has sought to improve relations between Washington and Damascus through a series of high-level visits to Syria that have largely focused on persuading Syria to clamp down on the influx into Iraq of foreign fighters who have directly contributed to the instability of the new Iraqi government and the deaths of American soldiers."
The Influence of the "Israel Lobby"
The apparent ability of the "Israel Lobby" to influence the direction of U.S. policy has been hotly debated for years, particularly since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as many key champions of the war in the Bush administration—including Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith—seemed to be motivated by their views on Israeli security. However, many elements of the lobby—including inside AIPAC—were not immediately supportive of the neoconservative desire to go to war with Iraq.
In their hotly contested 2006 paper on the lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt emphasized the influence of neoconservatives within it. They wrote: "Although neoconservatives and other Lobby leaders were eager to invade Iraq, the broader American Jewish community was not. In fact, Samuel Freedman reported just after the war started that 'a compilation of nationwide opinion polls by the Pew Research Center shows that Jews are less supportive of the Iraq War than the population at large, 52% to 62%.' Thus, it would be wrong to blame the war in Iraq on 'Jewish influence.' Rather, the war was due in large part to the Lobby's influence, especially the neoconservatives within it."
But as the Washington Post's Glenn Frankel reported, AIPAC "took no official position on the merits of going to war in Iraq. But, like the Israeli government, once it was clear that the Bush administration was determined to go to war, AIPAC cheered from the sidelines, bestowing sustained ovations on an array of administration officials at its April 2003 annual conference and on Bush himself when he attended the following year."
Few would dispute the influence of groups like AIPAC and its spinoff, the Washington Institute for Near Policy. However, analysts who criticize this influence are often accused of anti-Semitism, as was the case with Walt and Mearsheimer when they released their working paper. Remarks made by Alan Dershowitz, the well-known lawyer and Harvard professor, were typical of much of the criticism. Dershowitz lambasted the paper as being full of "bigoted comments" and that it had the "the smell of singling out Jews and singling out Israel."
The two authors foresaw the criticism, arguing in the paper: "No discussion of how the Lobby operates would be complete without examining one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-Semitism. Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy—an influence that AIPAC celebrates—stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though the Israeli media themselves refer to America's 'Jewish Lobby.' In effect, the Lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. This tactic is very effective, because anti-Semitism is loathsome and no responsible person wants to be accused of it."
According to some estimates, there are about 500 national and local organizations that collectively make up the Israel lobby. And of those, AIPAC arguably carries the most weight—Newt Gingrich once called it "the most effective general interest group over the entire planet." As Walt and Mearsheimer reported: "In 1997, Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People (AARP), but ahead of heavyweight lobbies like the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. A National Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington 'muscle rankings.'"
AIPAC lists "preparing the next generation of pro-Israel leaders" as one of its goals, casting its net far beyond Jewish circles. "In the last few years, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has broadly expanded beyond its Jewish membership base reaching out to Hispanics, African-Americans, and Christian activists," reported the Religion News Service.
On AIPAC's diverse array of supporters, Walt and Mearsheimer reported: "The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders in the House of Representatives. They believe Israel's rebirth is part of Biblical prophecy, support its expansionist agenda, and think pressuring Israel is contrary to God's will. In addition, the Lobby's membership includes neoconservative gentiles such as John Bolton, the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and columnist George Will."
AIPAC and Iraq
Extremely active in securing weapons deals for Israel, in lobbying for sanctions against the country's Middle East rivals, and in promoting the political agenda of whatever government happens to be in power in Israel, AIPAC has long played a highly public role in American policymaking in the Middle East. It has also been active in pushing U.S. intervention in the region.
AIPAC was in the thick of things during the lead up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. According to press reports, AIPAC membership jumped nearly 50 percent, to some 70,000, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, in part through ties the group had made with the Christian Right, which reflected a key strategy promoted by many neoconservatives and foreign policy hardliners during the 1990s. In late 2002, as talk about war heated up in Washington, AIPAC held a "national summit" in Atlanta to discuss the possible war and to strategize with supporters. Among the conference speakers were Wolfowitz, Tom Ridge, and Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition.
AIPAC's efforts to persuade U.S. lawmakers to go after Iraq date back to the first Gulf War. In an interview shortly after the 1991 Gulf War began, Thomas Dine, then president of AIPAC, told the Wall Street Journal that his organization had been busy behind the scenes building support for the war. "Yes, we were active," said Dine. "These are the great issues of our time. If you sit on the sidelines, you have no voice."
According to press reports, in 1990 alone pro-Israel groups gave nearly $8 million in campaign contributions. Of those on the Democratic side of the aisle who received PAC cash and later supported the decision to go to war was Sen. Harry Reid, who had received $150,000 from pro-Israel PACs during his Senate election bid. A dozen years later, in 2002, Reid again supported the use of force against Iraq. Other Democrats who voted for the 1991 Gulf War resolution and received lobby cash included Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada and Sen. Howard Heflin of Alabama. According to the Wall Street Journal, the entire Alabama delegations in both the House and Senate voted for the resolution. Although at first glance "this can be ascribed to the conservative, pro-military character of the state," opined the Journal, it is clear that "pro-Israel PACs have also cultivated Democrats [in the state] in recent years."
A key AIPAC supporter at the time who actively worked to get congressmen on board the Gulf War resolution was Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-NY). Solarz, who later became a supporter of various Project for the New American Century (PNAC) initiatives (he signed the notorious September 20, 2001 PNAC letter calling for war against Iraq "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack"), personally lobbied Sen. Al Gore, who voted for the resolution, as well as several other fence-sitters among the Democrats, whom Solarz accused of being "tragically shortsighted" in their view of the Israeli-American relationship. Solarz also pushed AIPAC to play a more public role in supporting the use of force, as well as several other pro-Israel lobbies, including the Reform Jewish Movement.
Once the first Gulf War was under way, AIPAC set about capitalizing on the growing U.S. public support for Israel in the wake of Saddam Hussein's Scud missile attacks on Israel. According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA), by the end of January 1991, AIPAC had rushed off a letter to its supporters outlining a post-war campaign. Reported WRMEA: "Counting on the American public's newfound understanding of Israel's vulnerability, AIPAC will press for a new package of security aid for Israel far larger than any previous package. Second, the lobby will encourage the United States to strengthen its friendship with Israel and avoid 'pandering toward Arab states hostile to the West and Israel.' Third, it will request millions of dollars more in housing loan guarantees to settle Soviet Jews. And finally, it will work to ensure that any diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict will be based on 'close cooperation and trust between the United States and Israel.'"
AIPAC has also lobbied heavily for U.S. funding of various Israeli weapons programs, including Israel's Arrow missile defense system, which AIPAC has described as "among the world's most sophisticated missile shields."
After the Senate voted in 2002 to include money for the Arrow system and other Israeli military priorities in a defense spending bill, AIPAC proudly reported, "In a vote of 95-3, the Senate last week passed the fiscal year 2003 Defense Appropriations bill, which provides substantial funding for U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation. The Arrow Missile Defense Program received $80 million above the administration's request for a total of $146 million. Additional funding includes the following: $23.5 million for the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser; $64.9 million for the Litening II Targeting Pod; $35 million for Bradley Reactive Armor Tiles; $22 million for the Hunter Unmanned Aerial Vehicle; and $20 million for the Improved Tactical Air-Launched Decoy."
Several high-profile Bush administration officials have had financial interests in many of the weapons systems pushed by AIPAC, including Jay Garner, the former "mayor of Baghdad." Garner is a past president of SY Coleman Technology, which produced parts for the Arrow missile system. Garner also has strong ties to the neoconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Walt and Mearsheimer highlighted U.S. support for Israel's weapons procurement as one of the many signs of the many "special deals" the pro-Israel lobby has helped the country seal. "The United States has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems like the Lavi aircraft that the Pentagon did not want or need, while giving Israel access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry like Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the United States gives Israel access to intelligence that it denies its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye toward Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons."
More recently, AIPAC has been a leading proponent of U.S. funding for Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defense system, a joint U.S.-Israeli project putatively designed to shield Israel from rocket attacks launched from the Palestinian territories. Although the effectiveness of the expensive program has been repeatedly questioned, AIPAC has credited it with "saving countless civilian lives." As Congress contemplated budget cuts to defense and foreign aid programs in early 2013, AIPAC mobilized to protect Israel's line items, including the Iron Dome system. "During a period of mounting threats to American interests in the region and to our critical ally, Israel, this is no time to reduce critical assistance which would only result in greater and graver costs," said an AIPAC spokesperson quoted by the Jerusalem Post.
The following year, during Israel's 2014 war on Gaza, AIPAC lobbied intensively for an emergency $225-miillion supplement in U.S. funds for Iron Dome. "The worst part was having to vote for this at a time we are all so upset by the killing in Gaza," said a Republican Senate aide. "It's as if AIPAC knows how angry we are so the whole Senate has to take their test. They will make us cast a totally symbolic vote, just to show who's in charge. It's so telling that the only issue we come together with Democrats is on an AIPAC vote. We don't even come together on our wars, when our soldiers are in the field. The senator was sick about it."
Lawrence Franklin Controversy
Normally operating behind the scenes in political and lobbyist orbits, AIPAC was forced into the public spotlight over a controversy involving two of its (now former) employees that erupted in 2005.
In May 2005, the FBI arrested Lawrence Franklin, a Pentagon analyst, for disclosing government secrets. According to an FBI affidavit, Franklin shared information about possible attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq with AIPAC staffers Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman during an FBI-monitored lunch in June 2003. Franklin was allegedly upset that his hardline stance on Iran was being overlooked, and he hoped AIPAC would be able to attract attention to his views. According to the New York Times, supporters of an "influential circle in the Pentagon" (whose members have long-standing ties to AIPAC and were leading advocates for war in Iraq) blame the FBI's investigation on "the continuing struggle inside the administration over intelligence."
Several months after Franklin's arrest, the Department of Justice issued an indictment against Rosen and Weissman. According to the indictment, the pair passed the information Franklin gave them to a journalist and an Israeli diplomat, leading to charges that they had conspired to violate the 1917 Espionage Act.
Although Franklin pleaded guilty to his charges and was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison, Rosen and Weissman were never prosecuted. In May 2009, the Justice Department asked that charges against the two be dropped, citing court decisions that would have forced disclosure of classified information and reduced the likelihood of successful prosecution.