The Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) is a neoconservative pressure group launched in July 2010 to promote militarist, "pro-Israel" U.S. policies. A frequent ECI tactic is to publish advertisements that attack politicians who question one-sided U.S. support for Israel. It also publishes open letters to political figures and hosts a website that provides information about political races and highlights ECI's concerns regarding Israel's security.
According to its website: "The Emergency Committee for Israel is committed to mounting an active defense of the U.S.-Israel relationship by educating the public about the positions of political candidates on this important issue, and by keeping the public informed of the latest developments in both countries."
ECI has also operated a political action committee (ECIPAC) to lobby on behalf of its preferred policies. An early financial backer of ECIPAC was Daniel Loeb, a registered Democrat and well known hedge fund manager who gained attention in 2012 when he helped raise money for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. According to FEC filings, in 2010, Loeb was the ECIPAC's largest donor, giving $100,000.
Like most members of the "Israel Lobby" in the United States, ECI has promoted a hardline U.S. stance on Iran's nuclear program. In late 2013, the group released a video entitled "Obama's March to War" that selectively incorporated apparently contradictory statements by President Obama on a host of issues. The video then ended with Obama stating during a presidential debate with Mitt Romney that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon during his presidency, which was immediately followed by a nuclear detonation and a mushroom cloud.
ECI has also supported passage of a new sanctions bill on Iran that appears to be designed to scuttle ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. In January 2014, the group published a press release lambasting an agreement between Iran and six world powers—including the United States—that aims to assist implementation of the interim agreement Iran signed in late 2013 regarding its nuclear energy program. "With today's announcement of an implementation agreement with Iran," the statement read, "President Obama has shown a willingness to be tough in confronting the pro-Israel majority in Congress, threatening to veto any legislation that would punish Iranian deception or prevent the White House from acquiescing to a bad deal with Iran."
The legislation referred to in the press release was cosponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in 2013, and heavily promoted by leading members of the Israel Lobby, including the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). However, when the bill's supporters failed to enlist enough Democrats to sign on to the bill, AIPAC made a surprise announcement in early 2014 that it thought it would be premature to bring the new sanctions bill up for a vote.
This announcement, which was subsequently retracted by AIPAC only 24 hours later, spurred heated criticism from other members of the "pro-Israel" crowd, including ECI's William Kristol, who made a veiled accusation that AIPAC was sacrificing the effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran with the goal of maintaining its own bipartisan connections. "It would be nice if there were universal bipartisan support for acting now to stop a nuclear Iran," said Kristol in an ECI press release. "But there apparently is not. And it would be terrible if history's judgment on the pro-Israel community was that it made a fetish of bipartisanship—and got a nuclear Iran.
ECI has targeted a number of political figures and liberal groups. In early 2013, for instance, the group emerged at the forefront of a neoconservative effort, which was orchestrated in part by Kristol, to sink Barack Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to head the Department of Defense in early 2013. Using language similar to an op-ed published by Kristol, ECI launched advertisements accusing the Vietnam veteran Hagel of being weak on Iran and hostile towards Israel.
The campaign prompted Emily Hauser, a writer for the "Open Zion" blog at The Daily Beast, to opine, "The ugly, facts-optional anti-Hagel campaign was never about Israel. ... Neocon attacks on President Obama—as channeled through the likes of Bill Kristol, the Emergency Committee for Israel, Jennifer Rubin, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, etc and so on—are about American power. They are about how a certain (pretty well discredited) ideology envisions the use of American power in the world, and they are about how power is shared within America's borders."
ECI's agenda and modus operandi were also on display during the lead-up to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March 2012. On March 1, ECI ran a full-page ad in the New York Times accusing two liberal organizations—namely, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters—of being "anti-Israel," highlighting the various Jewish foundations supporting the work of these groups. The ad urged Times readers to "call these foundations and ask them: Why are you funding bigotry and anti-Israel extremism?"
The ad, however, appeared to backfire when many of the people and organizations cited in the ad as critics of the groups protested ECI's decision to quote them out of context and without permission. Writing in the Forward, "pro-Israel" Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz said the ad "misrepresents the truth," while Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman told the New Yorker that it was "misleading, distorted, inaccurate." Additionally, according to Forward, "most of the five Jewish organizations that were named in the ad told the Forward they had hardly been affected, despite ECI publishing their telephone numbers."
The NYT ad seems to have been part of what the New Yorker termed a "two-pronged maneuver … to intimidate critics of Netanyahu" and "to damage Obama." The second prong in this effort was the launch of a 30-minute video titled "Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel," which attacked President Obama's treatment of Israel. According to the New Yorker, the video—which showed the president interacting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well as with Turkish students, saying he wants "to make sure that we end before the call to prayer"—aimed to demonstrate that Obama "is biased against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians" and to insinuate that he may be Muslim.
At roughly the same time as the video release, ECI ads began appearing at bus stops in Washington, D.C., displaying a picture of Obama with the text: "He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him? Do they?" Underneath the text were pictures of Ayatollah Khamanei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
ECI's first act after its launch in 2010 was to run a controversial attack ad in July of that year targeting U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), which insinuated that he supported terrorists. The group followed up this action by sending a public letter in December 2010 to Sens. Charles Schumer and Carl Levin excoriating the two Democratic senators for writing a letter to AIPAC urging the lobby to support the New START agreement between the United States and Russia. ECI claimed that that letter was "a disgrace" that allegedly implied a threat to AIPAC. "We've rarely seen Senators stoop to this kind of public bullying. AIPAC 'cannot afford to stand on the sidelines?' What threat do you mean to convey by this statement?" It added, "Is it your position that if the Senate does not ratify START in the lame duck session, Russia will be justified in violating UN sanctions against Iran, or in selling Iran air defense missiles? If not, why do you appear to give the Russian government such a justification? Is that the action of true friends of Israel, or true opponents of a nuclear Iran?"
Right-Wing Bona Fides
Unlike earlier neoconservative-led endeavors (like the Project for the New American Century) that made alliances with hawkish elements in the Democratic Party, ECI is a decidedly right-wing affair. ECI board members have included William Kristol, editor and founder of the Weekly Standard and cofounder of the Foreign Policy Initiative; Rachel Abrams, the wife of the convicted Iran-Contra veteran Elliott Abrams who passed away in 2013; and Gary Bauer, a well-know Christian Zionist who leads the lobby groups American Values and Keep Israel Safe and serves on the executive board of John Hagee's Christians United for Israel.
ECI's initial director and apparently sole employee is Noah Pollak, a relative neoconservative newcomer who has worked for Commentary, the Middle East Forum, and the Sheldon Adelson-supported Shalem Center in Jerusalem.[xviii] According to one observer, Pollak frequently uses Twitter to make arguments that seem to be taken from the talking points of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Additional ECI principals have included Michael Goldfarb, a former writer for the Weekly Standard and vice president of Randy Scheunemann's Orion Strategies—which apparently initially housed ECI— who serves as an adviser; and Margaret Hoover, a long-standing Republican Party figure who served under Karl Rove in the George W. Bush administration and initially owned the domain name used by ECI's website. Hoover is the great granddaughter of Herbert Hoover and a right-wing pundit and blogger.
Although ECI's shared address with Orion Strategies was confirmed, it is unclear whether the firm has also advised ECI. In an email exchange with Salon's Justin Elliott, Goldfarb wrote: "I'm on the record as an adviser to ECI and its no secret that I work at Orion, where the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq sign is still proudly displayed on the front of the building. ECI will be opening an office next week, but given the urgency of our cause, getting an office sorted out seemed less pressing than exposing [Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate] Joe Sestak's anti-Israel record."
Though the formal connection between these groups is tenuous, it nonetheless raised concern in the blogosphere. Inter Press Service's Jim Lobe wrote: "So, apart from Goldfarb's advisory status and a temporary letterhead, there may yet may be no formal connection between ECI and the firm that advises Sarah Palin on 'national and international' issues — the same firm that acted as one of many of Ahmed Chalabi's 'useful idiots,' including Bill Kristol, Elliott Abrams, and Gary Bauer. As Matt Duss at Think Progress suggested this week, with advocates like these, the emergency in Israel that the Emergency Committee was apparently created to address can only become more dire."
"The Pro-Israel Wing of the Pro-Israel Community"
The group first debuted in early July 2010 on CNN, when Campbell Brown (wife of neocon operative Dan Senor of the Foreign Policy Initiative) interviewed Pollak. Asked whether Israel and the United States were on the "same page," Pollak thought not but added that "there is a developing consensus that something needs to be done and that it would be very, very bad if the Iranians went nuclear."
In a subsequent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Pollak justified the group's creation, saying, "We will not rest until there is a pro-Israel group representing every pro-Israel person on earth."
Asked how ECI differed from other "pro-Israel" groups, Pollak said: "Well, for starters, ECI is pro-Israel. Our purpose is to address three major threats to the U.S.-Israel alliance in the context of the American political debate: the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's sponsorship of terrorist groups; the campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel; and the hostility of the Obama administration to the traditional closeness of the two nations. At bottom, we believe that the turn against Israel is a rejection of America's special role in the world as a defender of liberal democracies. We will do great damage to our own national soul if we allow ourselves to become cynical participants in the international lynching of the Jewish state."
William Kristol provided a similarly banal reason for the group's raison d'etre in comments to Politico, saying, "We're the pro-Israel wing of the pro-Israel community."