AMERICAN ISRAEL PUBLIC AFFAIRS COMMITTEE (AIPAC)


AMERICAN ISRAEL PUBLIC AFFAIRS COMMITTEE (AIPAC)
AMERICAN ISRAEL PUBLIC AFFAIRS COMMITTEE (AIPAC), U.S. organization often viewed as a synonym for – if not the embodiment of – "the Jewish lobby." Founded in 1951 to ensure the special relationship between the United States and Israel, AIPAC saw the partnership between the two countries as rooted in an understanding that Israel shares with the United States a deep and abiding commitment to democratic principles and institutions and is a reliable partner in defending shared interests. On this basis, AIPAC built a formidable record over a period of six decades, reflecting the organizational skill of its leadership in mobilizing American Jewry in support of the Jewish state. In its early years, bringing together a popular constituency in support of a political goal was unique and previously unheard of within the national political process. Yet AIPAC benefited from the post-World War II climate in which many Americans and virtually all Jews, appalled by the horrific calamity that had befallen European Jewry, were active (if not always eager) participants in grappling with the issue of what might be done to assure that the Jews never again be confronted with the imminent threat of extermination. During World War II, spirited debate swirled through the Jewish community over the timing and even the advisability of advocating the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Pro-Zionists argued that no solution other than immediate statehood would allow Jews to achieve full rights and "normalcy" within the world community. Opponents pointed out that, in the midst of war, agitating for a Jewish homeland might be seen as hurting the effort to defeat Nazism. Other anti-Zionists strenuously opposed the state on the grounds that Jews are a religion, not a nationality. While certain increasingly marginalized groups continued to maintain an anti-Zionist position, the creation of the State in 1948 abruptly ended the discussion of whether there should be a Jewish state and channeled communal energy and passion into the question of what steps needed to be taken to secure Israel against Arab irredentism and also provide the resources required to successfully integrate the huge numbers of refugees from Europe and Arab lands flooding the new Jewish nation. With Israel's encouragement, the American Zionist Council, which had played a major role in building support for the nascent Jewish state, initiated a project in 1951 to lobby Congress for American aid to resettle Jewish refugees in Israel. It became quickly apparent that the lobbying necessary to win support for Israel could not be sustained by the AZC, constrained by its non-profit status from engaging in substantial lobbying. Thus, in 1954, the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs was established as a separate lobbying organization. In 1959, recognizing that many non-Zionists supported its work, the organization changed its name to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and expanded its leadership base to include national and local representatives from other organizations. Heading the effort from the start was I.L. Kenen, known to everyone as "Si." A soft-spoken, low-profile individual, Kenen was a fierce advocate, imaginative strategist, and thoughtful analyst. He understood from the start that the United States' foreign policy establishment had as a priority extending American influence in the Arab world to preserve, among other goals, access to Middle East oil. Therefore, Kenen insisted that effective advocacy on Israel's behalf needed to be focused on the Congress (the "people's house") and must, in all respects, remain bipartisan. Undergirding that strategy, Kenen shaped arguments presenting the case for assistance to Israel as consistent with American national interests, not as a sop to a special interest. It was not surprising, therefore, to find Kenen, in 1951, supporting economic assistance to the Arab states so that they, like Israel, would have resources to resettle the Arab refugees who had been displaced by the fighting that ensued following the establishment of the State of Israel. Under Kenen's professional leadership, and with the support and cooperation of many of the national membership organizations, AIPAC achieved remarkable success in winning first economic assistance and later military support for Israel. Its authoritative newsletter, the Near East Report, became required reading in Congressional offices, and its periodic publication, Myths and Facts, provided the interpretive data with which the pro-Israel case might be made. AIPAC played an immensely important role in strengthening American assistance during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In the aftermath of each, the diplomatic relationship of the two countries mitigated much of the disadvantages that Israel experienced in other parts of the globe, including Europe, Africa, and at the United Nations, where sympathy for the Palestinian cause continued to grow, even as revulsion was often expressed at some of the terrorist tactics of its more militant supporters. Kenen had understood that lobbying was considered a pejorative to most Americans and therefore kept a low profile for AIPAC. He pointedly observed that, while it was free to do so, AIPAC did not endorse political candidates or contribute to electoral campaigns.   Nevertheless, AIPAC's success with the Congress created hostility that was often expressed not in disagreement on issues but by questioning the organization's loyalty. Despite AIPAC's insistence on a fundamental congruence of Israeli and American interests, opponents argued that the Jewish lobby operated at cross-purposes with the U.S. Arkansas Senator William J. Fulbright was a particularly strident critic of Israel's Capitol Hill supporters. During the 1973 yom kippur war , Fulbright declared on CBS's Face the Nation that "Israelis control the policy in the Congress. The emotional and political ties are too strong. On every test, on everything the Israelis are interested in, in the Senate the Israelis have 75 to 80 votes." Although he drew away from the harsher inferences of this rant, Fulbright's views found resonance in later comments by General George S. Brown, who in 1974 told a Duke University audience that Jews controlled the banks and newspapers and that Americans "may need to get tough-minded enough to set down the Jewish influence in this country and break that lobby." (Brown's comment, which he came to regret, has become a staple on antisemitic websites.) Perhaps the most startling and notorious expression of that "dual loyalty" sensibility came in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush characterized activists gathered in Washington, D.C., to support loan guarantees for Israel as "a thousand lobbyists" opposed to him and, inferentially, U.S. policy. The remark caused an uproar throughout the community and is generally acknowledged to have permanently strained the president's relationship with the Jewish community. When Kenen retired in 1974, AIPAC underwent a dramatic transformation. First under Morris J. Amitay and then Tom Dine, the organization was revamped and professionalized. The revamping of AIPAC was triggered by two developments: the post-Watergate reforms which decentralized power in Congress and required AIPAC to develop relationships with more than a handful of key legislators such as Senators Henry Jackson, Jacob Javits, and Hubert Humphrey and Representatives Benjamin Rosenthal and Charles Vanik, and the need to fight arms sales to Arab countries hostile to Israel. In response, it expanded its research department, increased the number of lobbyists who worked on the Hill, enhanced its presence on university campuses, and dramatically strengthened its outreach to the community through more vigorous resource development and the establishment of regional offices (there were nine in the early 2000s). AIPAC made a conscious effort to bring legislators as well as senior aides to Israel. It also joined with local Jewish organizations to strengthen pro-Israel support among grassroots and statewide political activists. These efforts accelerated after 1988, when a coalition led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and a number of Arab groups managed to bring forward a plank to the Democratic Party platform committee that was viewed as hostile by the pro-Israel forces; it was defeated, but only following a roiling debate. More systematically than had been done heretofore, AIPAC built and utilized its system of "key contacts" to assure ready access to members of Congress through local supporters. In 2005, AIPAC boasted a membership of 65,000 people in all 50 states. Attesting to the ongoing influence of AIPAC is the continuing strong, bipartisan support for Israel on Capitol Hill. There is still a robust commitment to the special relationship between the two countries, and Israel is generally acknowledged as a partner in the struggle against terrorism and Islamic fanaticism – a partnership reflected in a multibillion dollar mostly military assistance package. Since the 1980s AIPAC has made a conscious effort to work closely with the executive branch. Ironically, though AIPAC often found itself at odds with the Department of State, it came to be seen as an important instrument in winning support for the nation's larger foreign assistance program. With assistance to Israel a dominant part of the foreign aid package, that support is often leveraged by the administration to assure adoption of the entire bill. Since Americans in general oppose foreign aid, the energy of the well-organized pro-Israel constituency became the engine for gaining support for the whole program. Despite its vaunted effectiveness, AIPAC finds itself operating in a more fractious climate than ever before. Increasingly, a broader range of positions was held – and expressed – on vital issues related to Israel's security and the role of American Jewry in supporting the Jewish state. Not only has the consensus eroded, but organizational discipline has loosened as well. It is no longer rare to find organizations publicly lobbying members of Congress both to AIPAC's political left and right on such issues as Israel's settlement policy, an independent Palestinian state, and many other issues. The divisions within the Israeli body politic are mirrored within the organized Jewish community. It is noteworthy that the growth of AIPAC's membership and the expansion of its reach into the community occurred during a period when the government of Israel was dominated by the right wing likud . Thus, activists attracted to join an organization supportive of Israel's government would tend to be right wing themselves. It is therefore not surprising that AIPAC's members who joined after 1977 and staffers who came politically of age at that time appear to be more comfortable with the historic positions of the hard-line Likud of Menaḥem Begin , Yitzhak shamir , and benjamin netanyahu rather than with the more dovish views of Labor's yitzhak rabin , Shimon peres , and ehud barak . Consequently, after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, diplomats of the Rabin government were often critical of the American Jewish lobby for not actively and publicly supporting the peace process. Shortly after becoming prime minister, Rabin let it be known that he did not need American intermediaries – i.e., AIPAC – to speak to the American administration for Israel. The public tension was eventually resolved, but the private misgivings remained. Former Likud officials who had served in the Israeli embassy and some of their American Jewish supporters used their contacts to lobby against the peace process.   Within the American context, AIPAC activists also appeared to be comfortable with the Middle East policies of President George W. Bush. Chants of "four more years, four more years" greeted the president at the 2004 AIPAC Policy Conference, creating the semblance of a partisan atmosphere. Some observers felt this was particularly unsettling given the support that all presidents, Democrat as well as Republican, professed for Israel. An AIPAC past president observed that the immediate past president, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, had been "pluperfect" on the Israel issue. While the post-Kenen AIPAC publicly followed the organizational commitment to remain above partisan politics, the perception grew that behind the scenes it quietly directed Jewish money to favored candidates. When he left AIPAC Amitay doled out large amounts of campaign money as the head of an influential Political Action Committee (PAC), and many other AIPAC leaders took visible roles in campaigns and even administrations. The inference that AIPAC was not a simple bystander to partisan politics was bolstered when, to its embarrassment and regret, a president of the organization was forced to resign after boasting to a potential contributor about the lobby's ability to elect friends and defeat enemies. In the late 1980s AIPAC was investigated extensively by the F.E.C. (Federal Elections Commission), accused of directly forwarding the contributions of pro-Israel PACS. AIPAC was exonerated. AIPAC's leaders do participate vigorously and generously in political campaigns and were credited with the defeat in 1984 of the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Charles Percy (R-IL) and in 2002 of Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), who ran again and was elected in 2004. Other missteps, more central to AIPAC's core mission, have come to light. In 1981, for example, the Jewish community took on the Reagan administration, which sought Congressional approval to sell sophisticated Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia. The increasingly bitter and public battle, pitting the so-called Jewish lobby against the president, became increasingly nasty. When Congress voted to approve the controversial sale, some saw it not simply as a defeat for AIPAC but a sign of its weakness. A more sober analysis, however, suggests that the AWACS campaign revealed AIPAC's limits in seeking to overturn a presidential initiative in foreign relations, an area where historically the White House has been able to rely on the principle that partisanship ends at the water's edge. The episode gave birth to the key contact system and the outreach to every senator and virtually every congressman. In addition AIPAC repositioned and became an advocate for maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge over its enemies. Future sales to Arab neighbors would be offset with increased military aid to Israel. More damaging to AIPAC's reputation was its role during the early 1990s in the effort to secure for Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees for the resettlement of Soviet Jews immigrating to Israel in record numbers. Although the Congress seemed more inclined to support the initiative, the George H.W. Bush administration refused to budge without some assurances from the Israelis about limiting settlement development in the territories. Either hubris or a serious miscalculation of the administration's resolve caused AIPAC to reassure the Israelis that it could overcome the administration's reservations and move the loan guarantees forward in the Congress without compromising Israel's unpopular settlement policy. Others, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told the Israelis that they could have loan guarantees or settlements, not both. Again, Israel had been given advice on the American political process that was flawed. Ultimately Israel got the loan guarantee package issued over a five-year period with amounts spent in settlements deducted from that year's installment. In the end, it also did not use the guarantee. Following a period of some turbulence and two changes at the professional top of the organization, AIPAC seemed to have righted the ship in the mid-1990s. Howard Kohr, a long-time AIPAC professional who became the director in 1996, had worked for Republicans yet had respect among Democrats. In a sense, his lower profile better served the needs of the organization. Dine had been unceremoniously dumped in 1993 after making remarks that were thought insensitive to Orthodox Jews, and Neal Sher, his successor, had had a rough three-year tenure. It seemed to be a good time to take a deep breath. However, AIPAC found itself thrust on the front pages again in 2003 and 2004 when the FBI launched an investigation following allegations that top AIPAC officials had passed along to Israel classified State Department information about Iran. Whether ultimately proven or not, the charges are redolent of the old "dual loyalty" canard, an aroma that does not easily disperse in the political atmosphere of the nation's capital. In a profound if paradoxical way, the September 11, 2001, attack on America strengthened the relationship between Israel and the United States. With the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, Americans now experienced directly what the Israelis had themselves been shouldering for decades. Pro-Israel advocacy was energized by mutual anguish and loss. For others, however, the linkage was found not in shared victimization but in joint complicity. In a painful and in some ways puzzling reversal, Israel and the United States were branded by many around the world as co-collaborators in a failed global policy that led to the occupation of Arab and Muslim lands – by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by Israel in the territories. Thus, in a grim and grotesque way, cataclysmic world events conspired to demonstrate the common interests of the United States and Israel – the very assumption upon which AIPAC has built its program for over more than half a century. (Lawrence Rubin (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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