It was a balmy spring evening, and the Jewish elite of Los Angeles had gathered in Beverly Hills to hear two U.S. senators provide a top-level briefing on Israel and the Middle East. The dinner at the Beverly Hilton was hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the nation’s pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby, and it was a record-setter, with 1,100 in attendance, checkbooks in hand.
But strangely, barely a word was mentioned about Israel’s most immediate compelling challenge, its impending withdrawal from the Gaza strip and from part of the West Bank.
Instead, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), delivered an alarming bulletin on Iran.
“These are dangerous times, we all know this, for Israel,” Stabenow said. “Iran is building nuclear weapons and has missile technology to use them.”
Not all experts hold that view of Iran, but Stabenow’s message — what she said and what she didn’t say — was 100 percent on target for AIPAC. The overriding theme was unmistakable: Israel needs your help now more than ever, and the way to help, with your checkbook and your politicking, is through AIPAC.
AIPAC keeps its focus on external threats to Israel. But its own survival has become a question in recent months as it waits out a federal probe that began with an FBI sting operation last year. AIPAC and two of its senior staffers are under investigation for allegedly passing classified U.S. government information to the Israeli government. AIPAC apparently fired those two employees last week.
In other ways, though, AIPAC is doing better than ever. Membership has climbed to record levels of more than 100,000. The Los Angeles area, the nation’s second-largest chapter, has added some 300 members since December, swelling numbers past 4,000, also a high-water mark.
And there’s room to expand, with an estimated American Jewish community of 5.5 million and growing interest among conservative Christians in joining and backing groups that support Israel. AIPAC, after all, is not a Jewish organization per se. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-based AIPAC is developing new reach by pushing initiatives involving state and city governments that want to improve homeland security with help from Israel.
The March AIPAC fundraiser in Beverly Hills raised an estimated $700,000, according to organizers, a number impossible to confirm independently. More importantly, the guest list was developed with community leaders in mind, the kind who have direct sway over others, such as rabbis and successful entrepreneurs. By intent, there was a full range of religious traditions represented, including ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. In fact, AIPAC made a point to bring together Jews who, philosophically, disagree on many things, showing once again that preserving Israel remains the great unifier. All told, the gathering was the largest AIPAC event by a factor of two or three in at least 10 years, said Elliot Brandt, AIPAC’S West Coast regional director.
While the dinner lacked A-list Hollywood celebrities, it was a who’s who of local, state and even national politics. For AIPAC, it’s all about politics, even in Hollywood. The guest list featured three U.S. senators, most of the top statewide electeds, a score of state legislators and headliner local attractions including L.A.’s mayoral opponents: incumbent James Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.
Besides Stabenow, the other keynote politician was Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, whose presence in liberal Los Angeles underscored AIPAC’s determination to work with both parties. In his remarks, Kyl talked of how Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, far outshines the late Yasser Arafat, but has accomplished far too little in fighting terrorism.
No speaker mentioned the travails of Palestinians under Israeli “occupation.” And the only victims spoken of were Israelis. This perspective has always made AIPAC suspect on the political left, and among those who argue that a person can be fully pro-Israel while also opposing specific policies of an Israeli government.
There was no speechmaking on this summer’s scheduled removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza and part of the West Bank. For good reason: The pullout is not a cause around which to rally all American Jews and checkbooks, especially within the Orthodox community. And emotions will run hotter still if settlers physically resist displacement or if violence breaks out between settlers and Israeli troops. At that point, AIPAC is likely to feel heat from the portion of the political right that supports the settlers.
AIPAC keeps a studiously low profile on such matters, though for the record, it supports both the withdrawal and the two-state solution embodied in the Bush administration’s “roadmap” to peace.
Given the potentially perilous rhetorical terrain, it was remarkable how expertly Kyl and Stabenow stuck to the AIPAC playbook. Either they just happen to think like AIPAC, or else they’ve learned their lessons well.
These lessons come in two forms, one quite literal. AIPAC will take politicians to Israel and educate them on history from an Israeli perspective. And AIPAC can cite chapter and verse on the advantages of a “strong U.S.-Israel relationship.” The other part of the curriculum is a syllabus on power politics, namely, the money, votes and noise that AIPAC and pro-Israel Jews can bring to bear.
Much of this organizing and lobbying happens at AIPAC’s annual conference, in May in Washington, D.C. That’s when AIPAC trains and further indoctrinates its own faithful, who then descend in person and en masse on lawmakers at the Capitol. By that time, AIPAC would fervently like to have the federal probe behind it.
The investigation into AIPAC may be overblown as a spy scandal, but it’s invited comparisons to the 1985 case of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel. The association is potentially damaging to AIPAC’s effectiveness, because AIPAC walks a fine line of credibility as an all-American operation. On one hand, AIPAC supports the Israeli government and lobbies relentlessly for foreign aid and policies that benefit Israel. On the other hand, AIPAC maintains that the Israeli government has no control over its actions; in short, AIPAC is 100 percent American, 100 percent independent, even while it’s 100 percent behind what the government of Israel wants, at least in public.
That’s an equation so ingrained into American Jews that it hardly seems worth mentioning. But substitute the word China for Israel, and an organization like AIPAC would look, to many neutral observers, like a front for a foreign government, one that is seeking undue and self-serving influence over U.S. policies. Such a taint, if it stuck, could destroy AIPAC overnight, along with its lobbying for a pro-Israel policy that proponents also characterize as genuinely pro-American. In the words of a news story in last week’s Washington Post, “the brewing scandal at AIPAC has caused an uproar in the Jewish community, especially among wealthy political donors.”
An AIPAC spokesman took pains to emphasize the organization’s independence. “AIPAC is not a foreign agent and does not represent the government of Israel,” said Andrew Schwartz. “We represent more than 100,000 Americans who are dedicated to advocating for a strengthened U.S.-Israel relationship.”
In a move that could limit damaging fallout, AIPAC cut ties last week with policy director Steve Rosen and senior analyst Keith Weissman. Both had been on paid leave since late January. Rosen, in particular, has been a force for AIPAC within official Washington for nearly two decades, so his departure is no small thing. Rosen and Weissman, through their attorney, have denied any wrongdoing.
AIPAC defended them as well, until their apparent dismissal last week. “The action that AIPAC has taken was done in consultation with counsel after careful consideration of recently learned information and the conduct AIPAC expects of its employees,” another AIPAC spokesman, Patrick Dorton, told The Journal.
Dorton declined to comment on the federal investigation in any way, but a knowledgeable source confirmed to The Journal that four members of AIPAC’s professional staff testified in late January or early February before a grand jury in northern Virginia: Howard Kohr, executive director; Richard Fishman deputy executive director; Renee Rothstein, head of communications; and Rafi Danziger, a staffer in policy and research.
The grand jury can take the investigation anywhere it chooses; it isn’t limited to the FBI sting that allegedly snared the two staffers. The investigation of AIPAC broke last year when the FBI raided AIPAC’s Washington offices in August. Agents searched the premises again in December.
AIPAC, of course, continues to press its political agenda in Congress. This menu, as always, includes massive U.S. aid to Israel. The projected figure for next year is $2.38 billion. AIPAC also supports $200 million in aid to Palestinians, but not to the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC wants these funds limited to specific projects managed by outside groups. The organization also would also like to see more federal support for cooperation between Israel and local governments in the U.S. The Capitol police force, for example, has already sent officers to Israel for anti-terrorism training.
A top priority is legislation to tighten sanctions on Iran. It’s already illegal for American corporations to do business with Iran, but a bill before Congress would tighten the noose on foreign subsidiaries and American investors.
“Iran has continued to lie and deceive regarding its nuclear weapons program,” said AIPAC’s Schwartz, “and it’s incumbent upon the United States and the Europeans to work toward getting Iran to dismantle its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Stabenow and Kyl could hardly have said it better. Similar echoes of AIPAC dogma in the halls of Congress testify to AIPAC’s success. That influence could come crashing to earth, however, pending a bad outcome to the federal investigation.
Over the long haul, AIPAC faces other threats to its clout, including a declining Jewish population and the nation’s growing Islamic and Arab communities. But then, AIPAC members are never more motivated to act or donate than when the future of Israel is at stake.