For decades, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has successfully worked behind the scenes to influence U.S. policymakers to pass pro-Israel legislation. Supported by some of the country's most politically active voters, AIPAC has become one of the nation's most effective lobbies, even if other powerhouse organizations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) overshadow it outside the Beltway.
AIPAC'S relative anonymity has suited the organization just fine, judging from its strong track record. But earlier this year, AIPAC began making headlines for all the wrong reasons, raising questions about the organization's future effectiveness and what may be needed to shore it up.
The problem began when two high-ranking officials, Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues, and senior Iran analyst Keith Weissman became the targets of a federal espionage investigation. They were charged in August with conspiring to obtain and disclose classified information to reporters and a foreign government, reported to be Israel.
"No lobbying group wants to have a senior employee on the front page of newspapers being indicted," said Washington Post columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum, also the author of "The Lobbyists: How Influence Peddlers Work Their Way in Washington" (Three Rivers Press, 1993). "Lobbying is increasingly a public and not a private insider effort. To the extent there is a public question mark over a high-ranking employee of any organization, that is not a good thing."
Predictably, AIPAC has attempted to distance itself from the controversy. In April, the group fired Rosen and Weissman, although AIPAC reportedly continues to pay their legal fees. AIPAC won't comment on the case, but in May, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told a record crowd of 5,000 at the annual Policy Conference in Washington that neither AIPAC nor any current employees are targets of the investigation. Subsequently, AIPAC hired a law firm to review its policies and procedures on the collection and dissemination of information, a group spokesman said.
AIPAC officials argue that the investigation has had no impact on its ability to raise money, attract members or effectively push for legislation. On the policy front, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate this summer passed by record margins a $2.52 billion aid package to Israel, including $40 million to help Jews from the former Soviet Union settle there. In late April, just after the firings, the Senate followed the House by passing a resolution urging the European Union to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
"I don't detect any dilution in their effectiveness," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), an ardent AIPAC supporter. "I think their cause is good enough and that they're strong enough to survive this just fine."
AIPAC's relationship with Congress will not suffer because the scandal involves only a couple of former officials, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development. Besides, she added, AIPAC is simply too important and influential to be ignored.
"AIPAC represents a lot of high propensity voters, many very significant campaign contributors and politically active people," Jeffe said.
Washington Post columnist Birnbaum said he thought Congress would continue to support Israel, regarding it as an important U.S. ally -- and it's AIPAC that has helped cement this consensus on an ongoing basis.
Still, some observers see a potentially weaker AIPAC. The scandal, coupled with perceptions that AIPAC supported the war in Iraq, have made the organization more vulnerable than at any point in the past decade, said AIPAC critic Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and author of the forthcoming, "The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back for the Religious Right" (HarperSanFrancisco).
"AIPAC could be perceived as not caring about the interests of the United States," he said.
AIPAC officials always strongly assert that the organization is run entirely by Americans -- ones who believe that close ties with Israel represent the best interests of the United States. Officials also insist that AIPAC took no position on the Iraq War.
Lerner's analysis underscores that some Jews, including supporters of Israel, are not necessarily enthusiastic about AIPAC. The federal investigation could prove a blow to the group's credibility and might alienate the "people in the middle," said Republican political consultant Arnold Steinberg. AIPAC should consider changing its name, Steinberg added.
So how would a Hollywood press agent handle this image problem?
For one thing, said veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, AIPAC could investigate itself and report its findings to the media as soon as possible. Otherwise, damaging details might slowly drip out and keep the story in the headlines.
But it hasn't yet become clear that AIPAC has an image problem, at least not where it matters to AIPAC, which is in the halls of official government power. Most people in public life will see the organization's present difficulties as nothing more than "an anomaly," Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick said. The present brouhaha notwithstanding, AIPAC should continue to express its point of view and lobby Congress, he added.
And to hear AIPAC officials tell it, the organization is doing better than ever. So far, no one has offered persuasive evidence to the contrary.