Posted on August 30, 1993 in Washington Watch

(This is the final part of a four-part series on the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, examining the sources of its power and the roots of its current internal political problems.)

AIPAC’s recent problems (the forced resignations of three of its top officers and a series of embarrassing press exposes) are themselves symptoms of deeper problems plaguing the organization and the organized American Jewish community. These underlying sources of the lobby’s problems can be grouped into four categories.

1) Strains between AIPAC and the Jewish community.
2) Ideological strains within the Jewish community.
3) The arrogance of power and money.
4) Long-term problems resulting from the changing political climate in the U.S.

1) The Jewish Community and AIPAC

More than an independent organization, AIPAC was originally designed to be a lobby for Israel that could provide guidance and information to the other Jewish organizations in the U.S. It was to be a coordinating center. On its expanded Executive Board sit the heads of the major Jewish organizations—an expression of this intended relationship. This is how it was supposed to be.

Increasingly, however, as AIPAC grew, it began to see itself as a separate entity,—in fact as the “voice of the Jewish community in Washington.” And it is this self-characterization that has caused some tension within the Jewish community.

Tempers flared, for example, in the 1980’s when the Reagan Administration held a meeting with AIPAC’s leaders at the White House. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations immediately protested to the Administration that they and not AIPAC represented the American Jewish community.

Once again in 1988, leaders of the U.S.’s three most important Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith) blasted AIPAC as being out of step with “the consensus of the organized Jewish community” on key Middle East issues.

What the three mainstream Jewish groups were protesting was AIPAC’s heavy-handed lobbying on issues such as opposition to a Kuwaiti arms sale, efforts to shut down the PLO’s U.N. office, and a preemptive effort to deny Yasir `Arafat a visa to speak at the U.N. The groups were concerned that AIPAC acted in every instance without consultation and used tactics they found objectionable.

In a revealing essay written in the mid-1980’s and published by the American Jewish Committee, a prominent Jewish sociologist criticized the lobby, charging that the lobby had created the dangerous perception that the Jewish community was a single issue (i.e., pro-Israel) constituency. This, the paper argued, and the lobby’s heavy-handed use of money in politics could, in the long run, reduce Jewish political influence and the support given by other groups to Jewish causes.

So it is that, today, as AIPAC is facing internal political problems, there are not many tears being shed within the leadership of the other mainstream Jewish political organizations. When outsiders attack the group, American Jews will support it (as Bush discovered in 1991). But when AIPAC faces its internal Jewish critics, American Jewish organizations are not willing to provide the same type of support.

2) The Arrogance of Big Money

There is also another dimension to this problem that warrants attention. As AIPAC developed political action committees (PACs) and grew dramatically in size during the 1980’s, it’s need for money and major contributors also grew. From a $1 million annual budget in mid-1970’s to a $7 million budget (plus accumulated PAC contributions of $5 million) in 1988, to a budget of almost $15 million (plus $5 million in PAC contributions) in 1992—this growth has also adversely affected the lobby.

As one former AIPAC staff member, who is now a political columnist, recently wrote, with a multi-million dollar budget AIPAC is no longer satisfied with $25 memberships and $100 donations. And given its enormous need for funds, it is not enough for the group to be led by a group of savvy staff and a board of seasoned political operators. Now AIPAC must rely on the $50,000 and $100,000 donors.

In order to lure them into the organization, these major contributors have been placed on the AIPAC board. The former AIPAC staff member says that this big money group (including people like the recently resigned President David Steiner and Regional Vice President Harvey Friedman) are a source of AIPAC’s problems. They have “big egos” and lack political judgment, he says, and they are arrogant and heavy-handed in their dealings with politicians and other Jewish organizations.

One prominent Jewish newspaper editorialized last month that the way for AIPAC to solve its problems would be for the leaders of major Jewish organizations who still sit on the expanded board of the lobby to assert themselves and retake control of the organization. If that were to happen, however, most observers agree that there would be an intense power struggle between the established Jewish community leadership and the “big money” leadership—and both would be hurt.

While this struggle between egos and different political philosophies is a characteristic of all ethnic politics and certainly has existed in the past within the Jewish community, the fact that the struggle is now so public is new.

3) The Ideological Strain within the Jewish Community

What is significant is not only that the internal debate is public, but also that it is so strident. One long-time observer of American Jewish politics said,
“In the past there was a difference between the way Americans Jews and Israelis debated their differences. Israeli political culture is brutal, American Jews have been more gentle by comparison. Now, the civility which characterizes the internal American Jewish debate is gone—and that will have an impact on the community.”

The problem, however, is not only that of a difference between the style of the big money egos and the more liberal political operators. It is also an ideological split within the Jewish community and, to some extent, between many of the so-called leaders of the Jewish community and the mass base of American Jews.

An Israeli Knesset member, Dedi Zucker, recently noted that after 15 years of trips to Israel where American Jewish leaders were made to feel like “big shots,” and after repeated visits by Likud officials to the U.S., American Jewish leaders have become “brainwashed.” An American Jewish official agreed, saying,
“American Jews were used to four consensus issues: no PLO, no yielding on the Golan, Jerusalem is ours, and no return to the pre-`67 borders.”

These were the issues for which AIPAC and most other Jewish organizations lobbied Congress for 15 years. Now they are faced with a new government in Israel that is at least willing to make some concessions—and some of those same Jewish leaders are finding it difficult to accept the change.

This is one source of the tensions that exists between AIPAC and the Labor government in Israel. AIPAC grew comfortable with Likud—it could easily mobilize its members to support Israel’s stand against a threat. It is more difficult to support peace with Arabs—especially after being brainwashed by Likud to see peace with the Arabs as either impossible or undesirable.

It was this tension that caused Rabin to rebuke the lobby. He became wary, as one Jewish observer put it, of “the Diaspora dictating policy to the Zionist state—especially when the Diaspora was supporting the opposition (Likud) and making embarrassing losses for Israel (the loan guarantees).”

After the upheavals of the past year, AIPAC has a new president: Steve Grossman. In Grossman, Labor has an AIPAC president they like, and they are working overtime to support him.

But the problems haven’t ended because even with Grossman, AIPAC is still not in line with Labor’s policies—that accounts for the firing of Harvey Friedman. And there are many other Harvey Friedmans still in the lobby’s governing body. A Jewish analyst suggested that Grossman may only be a liberal Democratic figurehead elected by the board to help the group “save face.” A true test of Grossman’s ability to lead will come in the near future as the lobby looks to hire a new executive director.

There is still another dimension to this problem that warrants investigation, which is the fact that the leadership of AIPAC and many other American Jewish organizations are themselves, for the most part, out of touch with the political views held by most American Jews.

A survey done in 1989 of American Jewish public opinion showed that 76% agreed that “Israel should make territorial compromises in the West Bank and Gaza in return for credible peace guarantees.” 67% agreed that “Arab sovereignty in the occupied territories was desirable.” Yet, these were most certainly not the positions lobbied for by AIPAC, other Jewish organizations, or their leaders.

This gap between the opinions of the constituency and the leaders has given birth to a new Jewish organization, Americans for Peace Now (APN)—which is today one of the fastest growing groups in the American Jewish community. APN supported George Bush’s position on the loan guarantees to Israel, supports “land for peace” as the way to a Middle East peace and as a group can note that many more of its members secured positions in the Clinton Administration than did AIPAC-supported candidates.

4) Long-term Problems

It appears that many of AIPAC’s board members would prefer to see Likud return to power. They are uncomfortable with the prospects for peace—they don’t trust peace, they don’t understand peace and they don’t know what they’ll do as a lobby if there is peace.

Since AIPAC’s raison d’etre has always been to secure U.S. foreign aid for the Jewish state there is trouble brewing on that front as well.

While U.S. aid to Israel is secure for this year, that is not true for the years to come. Senator Patrick Leahy, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations (the committee responsible for determining foreign aid), is pushing hard to end the earmarking provision that guarantees Israel’s aid levels. Leahy had already incurred the wrath of AIPAC two years ago when he supported and pushed for George Bush’s position on the loan guarantees. Leahy also had been a big recipient of pro-Israel PAC money, but as a result of his loan guarantee stand, he was “punished” when he ran again in 1992 and received virtually no support from those PACs. But he won without their support and continues to push legislation that AIPAC doesn’t support.

The concerns that Leahy and other members of Congress share are the tremendous pressure they are under to both cut spending and to find new resources to support new democracies that desperately need U.S. assistance. There is a growing mood to cut aid to Israel and other major recipients of U.S. aid in order to free some additional funds for Russia, Eastern Europe and African aid programs. If pressure continues to build for such cuts, AIPAC will find it difficult to win.

An additional problem that the lobby will face are new provisions in campaign finance reform which, if they pass, will significantly reduce the role that Big Money plays in election campaigns. The proposed new legislation is not perfect, but it will make it more complicated for the pro-Israel and other PACs to maintain their high visibility and the impact they currently have in politics.


Can the Lobby Survive?

When I asked a prominent Jewish American columnist whether AIPAC would survive its current troubles, he replied, “When a star dies, it takes the earth a very long time to find out about it.”

Since some of AIPAC’s power is a result of a blind fear felt by many members of Congress, change will not come about simply because the lobby is internally divided or weakened. The continued response of many elected officials toward AIPAC’s initiatives is automatic and without concern for the merits or implications of their votes. If the lobby wants something, elected officials still feel that the path of least resistance is to give it what it wants.

AIPAC may be down, but it not out. Despite internal problems, it retains the power of money and access, so its influence will continue to be felt in Washington. But its long-term prospects are dependent upon the outcome of several “ifs.” AIPAC needs time to regroup.

The first task facing AIPAC today is the hiring of a new executive director. This will not be a simple task, since the decision threatens the internal cohesion of the lobby.

Tom Dine, the recently “fired” executive director of the lobby had been with the organization for a decade. He oversaw the growth of the group from a medium-sized lobby to the strong but internally-divided power it is today. Dine was one of the few people in Washington with instant access to virtually everyone. He had worked in all three branches of the government; and though a Democrat, he was also respected and feared by Republicans.

The current acting director, Howard Kohr, is not a person of Dine’s stature. Kohr is a Republican and is not feared by Democrats. He is seen as a Likudnik—and is not viewed favorably by Laborites. But he is favored by the “big money” members of AIPAC’s board. If they get their way and the liberal president, Steve Grossman, is forced to keep Kohr, the decision may open anew the internal debate between the lobby and the more liberal members of the Jewish community. However, if Grossman is allowed his way and finds a replacement more to his liking, this, too, may increase friction within the board and could, moreover, alienate the “big money” members AIPAC needs to keep itself going.

Current tensions are already taking their toll on AIPAC. Fundraising is down by $2 million and several staff members have been let go. While the group’s budget will still be quite high (estimates are the it will be about $12 million)—it may yet suffer an additional decline in support.

The lobby will survive. It will also continue to face internal conflicts and will not regain the undisputed power it wielded during the Reagan years. How much of that power it does regain is dependent upon several factors, the “ifs” mentioned above.

If peace is not achieved, and if real campaign finance reform is not passed—AIPAC will find the time it needs to regroup and regain some of its former strength.

If Likud succeeds in ousting Labor in Israel, or if Rabin continues his “iron fist” policies in the Occupied Territories and creates deeper tensions in the Middle East, and if there is no effective U.S. challenge to a hard-line Israel, once again AIPAC will find the time it needs to regain its strength. AIPAC can only flourish in a political climate in which there is either no peace, or no tension between Israeli policy and the U.S. Administration and Congress.

At this point, the lobby could not possibly resist a strong challenge from the President, or a legislative initiative from a strong Congressional or Senate Committee Chair. But, since prospects for such a challenge seem slight, the lobby will most probably not have to face such an immediate confrontation.

AIPAC is still strong, but the group is in a fragile state. While the fallout from its internal disarray has not yet been reflected in political decisions taken by Congress or the Administration, any future blowups or an extreme challenge could weaken its power substantially.

It is ironic that, at this point, a real push toward a comprehensive Middle East peace, a genuine challenge of Israeli policies by the Administration, a strong push in Congress to change U.S. foreign aid programs to provide support for new democracies around the world, or an honest move toward genuine campaign finance reform—any of these challenges would not only enhance the prospects for a real democratic political debate in the U.S. and result in a more balanced U.S. Middle East policy that would promote peace and U.S. interests, but would also weaken the hold that the destructive lobby has on politics in Washington.

Arab Americans could play a more effective role as catalysts to help bring about this needed change, but that is a discussion that must await another article.

(This concludes the four-part series of articles about AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.)

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