Posted on August 09, 1993 in Washington Watch

(Beginning this week, I will be writing a four-part series on the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, examining the sources of its power and the roots of its current internal and political problems.)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby, has been hit by a series of crises over the past two years.

AIPAC’s recent problems began in September 1991. Its losing fight against President George Bush over the issue of loan guarantees for Israel was the lobby’s first major legislative defeat in ten years. AIPAC then found itself at odds in mid-1992 with the newly-elected Labor government in Israel. And, finally, within the past six months, after a number of embarrassing press stories and exposes, the organization was hit by the forced resignations of its president, its executive director and one of its vice presidents.

For the first time since the group rose to power, the Jewish press, and even the mainstream newspapers, have run articles asking questions like “Is AIPAC in Trouble?” and “Can AIPAC Survive?”

While a great deal has already been written about AIPAC in the Arab press, much of it has been rhetorical and moralistic, and too little analytical. A more sober political analysis is needed in order to:

1) understand how the lobby really works—and to identify the source of its power and success;

2) review the lobby’s current problems and understand their background; and

3) assess the future of this group that has played such an important role in opposing a balanced U.S.-Arab relationship.


Since its inception some 40 years ago, the keys to AIPAC’s success have been:

1) The ability to create a network of influential American Jews and mobilize them to support Israel.

2) The ability to raise substantial amounts of money and to use money in a focused political plan.

3) The ability to create an aura of power.

4) The ability to develop and implement an effective political strategy.

Of course, these factors do not account for U.S. support for Israel, since from the days of Israel’s creation there were both powerful political forces and popular support for the creation of a Jewish state. What AIPAC is responsible for, however, is the total distortion of U.S. policy during the past two decades which has resulted in the virtual implementation of parts of Israel’s agenda by successive Congresses and Administrations. This agenda includes such items as:

· special and extraordinary economic benefits given exclusively to Israel,
· silence in the face of repeated Israeli violations of U.S. laws regulating arms sales, economic aid, and U.S. efforts to block or delay implementation by Israel of several United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and
· repeated opposition to important and mutually beneficial U.S. arms sales to Arab countries,
· and the adoption of foreign policy initiatives that have forced the U.S. to mimic Israeli policy on key Middle East issues.

So, while public opinion and concern for the fate of the Jewish people after World War II may have at one time accounted for U.S. support for Israel, it is necessary to comprehend the workings of the pro-Israel lobby in order to understand how that support has been distorted to produce the highly unbalanced policy that exists today.

How has AIPAC done it? By a blending of the four keys listed above and detailed below:

The ability to network influential American Jews and mobilize them to support Israel.

Since its earliest days as an organized constituency in the U.S., the Jewish community has been active in social, cultural and political life. In this country they have been a central component in two of our major social transformation movements: organized labor and civil rights. Their leadership in these two movements catapulted many American Jews into major roles in politics and government, and won their community significant allies among other ethnic and racial groups in the U.S.

Americans Jews have also been extraordinarily active in other ways in U.S. politics. For example, they are not only more involved in political parties and campaigns than most other groups, but they also vote in percentages almost twice as high as the national average. Though their overall numbers are small (they are only 2.2% of the U.S. population), the Jewish community is heavily concentrated in a number of politically important states. More than 80% of the Americans Jewish community lives in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California. When their percentage of the total population in these states is multiplied by their higher voter-turnout ratio, the importance of the Jewish vote can be seen in each of these states.

State % of Total Vote
New York 16%
New Jersey 10%
Florida 8%
Maryland 8%
Massachusetts 8%
Pennsylvania 6%
California 5.5%

Thus, in national and statewide elections, winning the “Jewish vote” in these states is viewed by politicians as an important key to their success.

In short, because of their long involvement in politics and in political and social movements, the American Jewish community is well-placed and respected throughout all sectors of the political establishment.

What AIPAC has been able to do, since its inception, is to create a network of prominent Jews already active in the political system, organize them, and provide direction to their efforts. The organization has been able to identify Jews who worked for politicians, were friends or associates or major contributors of politicians, and important Jewish leaders who came from the home towns of politicians whom AIPAC hoped to influence. By relying on such a network, the lobby was able to win U.S. aid for the new state of Israel and build a support base in Congress for their pro-Israel initiatives.

Today, AIPAC as an organization has grown in excess of 50,000 members. Using its own networks, but also relying on the organized strength of the other major Jewish groups, AIPAC has been able to accomplish a number of additional political objectives.

· It has created at least the appearance, and in some cases the reality of being able to deliver a powerful bloc of votes committed to the single issue of Israel.

· It has expanded its network of prominent political workers, activists, donors and community leaders who work with it to achieve its agenda.

· It has created its own version of Washington’s famous “revolving door”, as it recruits prominent former Congressional and Administration staff to work at AIPAC and send former AIPAC staff to work in important positions on all levels of government.

Through this process, AIPAC has not only entered the mainstream of U.S. politics, it become a component of the mainstream of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The ability to raise substantial amounts of money and to put it to use in a focused political plan.

American Jews have long been viewed as legendary donors in American politics. For example, in the years before campaign finance reform, it was widely reported that in 1968, of the 21 individuals who contributed $100,000 or more to the Presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey, 15 were Jews. Even now, with campaign finance reform in place, it is estimated that over 50% of the total money raised by the national Democratic Party and 25% of the money raised by the national Republican Party comes form the Jewish community.

But it is not just the amount of the money that accounts for the tremendous influence of the donors—it is the targeting of that money which makes it so important a key to AIPAC’s success.

After suffering a defeat in 1981 in their attempt to block the sale of AWACs to Saudi Arabia, AIPAC decided to become more disciplined in the use of money in political campaigns. Recognizing the possibilities and limits created by campaign finance reform, they helped to create a number of political action committees (PACs) to implement their objectives.

The growth of PACs in U.S. electoral politics was encouraged by the campaign reform laws passed in the late 1970s. These reforms sought to eliminate from elections large contributions from individual donors. The new law limited the amount one person could contribute to $1,000 per candidate per election. The law also allowed for the use of the PACs—a fund that could receive $10,000 from an individual donor and could give $10,000 to a candidate in each election cycle.

At least 60 to 70 pro-Israel PACs currently exist—with 51 of them having AIPAC Board members as officers or directors. In combination these PACs raise and distribute roughly $4,000,000 to Senate and Congressional candidates each election cycle. In effect, the campaign reform laws provided a loophole for large donors. Instead of giving $50,000 each to ten different candidates, they could each now give $5,000 to 10 PACs, which could in turn give $5,000 to the ten candidates, for the same total of $50,000 per donor and the same total of $50,000 to each candidate.

AIPAC was the first to discover this loophole, and exploited it most effectively to circumvent the intention of the new law. In order to work, however, the entire system must be carefully orchestrated—something that is technically illegal, as the law prohibits any cooperation among PACs and prohibits PACs from receiving direction from any source.

While AIPAC claims to have no control over, nor even to have offered advice to, the PACs—since to do so would be a violation of the campaign reform law—most informed observers dismiss this claim. There is significant evidence to point to AIPAC’s direction of the pro-Israel PACs. How else, AIPAC’s critics charge, can one explain how the $4,000,000 coming from 51 PACs each cycle ends up so conveniently distributed and targeted to just the right Senate and Congressional candidates?

This network of PACs and the quantity of money they contribute has been an important new key to the success of the pro-Israel lobby. The PACs have allowed the lobby to:

· direct money to key races in states where there were no major Jewish donors and few Jewish voters;
· provide identifiable pro-Israel money in political campaigns so as to make it a factor that politicians take into consideration; and
· have a mechanism whereby it could visibly reward friends and punish enemies.

Between 1990 and 1992, I did four extensive studies of pro-Israel PACs and their giving patterns in elections. In the 1990 work, “PAC-ing the U.S. Senate,” I found a direct relationship between amounts of money received by a Senator and their voting record on Israel. The Senators with the most consistent pro-Israel records received on average $100,000 per election from the pro-Israel PACs. Meanwhile, the Senators with the records least supportive of Israel averaged less than $8,000 per election from the same PACs.

In a follow-up study on “Pro-Israel PACs and the Gulf Crisis,” I found once again that those Senators who had most consistently voted against arms sales to Gulf countries and any form of U.S.-Gulf security cooperation were consistently among the highest recipients of pro-Israel PAC money. The five highest recipients (Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, former Senator Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota and Senator Claiborn Pell of Rhode Island) averaged $360,000 each in the last two elections cycles, and all five had perfect voting records in opposing all pro-Arab legislation.

Finally, in a 1992 study of where those PACs directed their contributions, I observed that more than 20% of all the pro-Israel PAC donations in four successive election years went to just 17 Senators (averaging over $200,000 each). These 17 form a controlling bloc of votes on the two influential Senate committees which oversee all foreign assistance and arms sales abroad (Foreign Relations and Appropriations).

This ability of AIPAC to direct some $4,000,000 each election cycle to a few important Senators has contributed to their political power. And while the overwhelming bulk of the money goes to only a handful of Senators and a few Congressmen (most elected officials receive very little, if any, support), it is the fear that this money could turn against them that keeps many elected officials in line.

A by-product of the creation of PACs and the involvement of AIPAC with major Jewish political contributors has been that, gradually over the past number of years, major wealthy Jewish contributors have been brought into the leadership of the organization and gained positions on its executive board. They now sit alongside the politically savvy operators and Washington insiders who ran the lobby in the past. While their presence has added significant new financial resources to the fuel the lobby, it has also produced tension within the organization and within the Jewish community at large. It is this tension, as we shall see, which accounts for some of AIPAC’s current troubles.

(In next week’s article I will examine how AIPAC has created an aura of power and how it has developed a winning electoral strategy.)

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