Posted on August 16, 1993 in Washington Watch

(This is part two of 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.)

Last week I detailed two of the four keys to AIPAC’s political success, its ability to create a network of influential American Jews and to mobilize them in support of Israel; and its ability to raise substantial amounts of money and to put it to use in a focused political plan.

This week I will focus on the final two keys to AIPAC’s success: its ability to create an aura of power and its ability to develop and implement an effective political strategy.

The ability to create an aura of power.

Writing in the pro-Israel magazine New Republic, Morton Kondracke reported a conversation with an anonymous member of Congress who told him:

If there were a secret ballot, aid [to Israel] would be cut severely. It’s not out of affection anymore that Israel gets $3 billion a year. It’s from fear that you’ll wake up one morning and find that an opponent has $500,000 to run against you.

It is, in large measure, this kind of fear of power that has created support for AIPAC’s initiatives in Congress.

To some extent, fear of AIPAC’s clout is justified; but I believe that the lobby has magnified its claims of power out of all proportion in order to cultivate fear among members of Congress, thereby enhancing its power.

Shortly after losing the vote to sell AWACs to Saudi Arabia, AIPAC pledged that it would defeat those whom it held responsible for its defeat. By the mid-1980s, it would boast of success, since many of the offending Senators had, in fact, been defeated. But was AIPAC solely responsible for these losses, or was their boasting unjustified?

The most prominent of the pro-AWAC Sale senators to have been defeated was Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, who lost his 1984 reelection bid. In a speech in Toronto in 1984, AIPAC’s Executive Director Tom Dine, in speaking of the Percy defeat, gloated: “All the Jews, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And the American politicians—those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire—got the message.”

It was true that AIPAC helped to direct over $300,000 in PAC money first to a primary opponent of Percy’s and then to the Democratic candidate who defeated him—Paul Simon. It was also true that a wealthy Jewish donor, Michael Goland illegally contributed $1,000,000 to finance a right-wing attack on Percy to siphon some conservative votes away from the Republican Senator (the Goland-fueled effort charged that Percy was pro-abortion). But the reasons for Percy’s defeat may be found elsewhere.

In fact, I was at a forum with the former Senator shortly after his defeat when he charged that it was the African American vote in Chicago, the largest city in his state, that had cost him his election. In previous races, Percy, an advocate of civil rights, had secured endorsements and votes from the African American community. African Americans, angry with the power structure in Chicago (which was white and Democratic), had on many occasions refused to endorse the white Democratic candidates in state-wide elections in order to show their displeasure over the way they were treated by the Democratic Party in Chicago. Voting patterns in Illinois are such that unless a Democrat can win overwhelmingly in the city of Chicago, he cannot win the whole state—the rest of which is largely Republican. Percy’s previous victories came because he was able win some of Chicago’s small and influential Jewish vote and, more importantly, a good portion of Chicago’s African American vote.

By 1984, however, things had changed. The notorious white Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, Sr., had died and an African American Mayor, Harold Washington, had been elected. The Democratic Senatorial nominee, Congressman Paul Simon, was a liberal with strong civil rights credentials and was also a close friend of the new Mayor. Thus it was that Percy lost the African American vote and this, he felt, had cost him the election. While it was true that the Jewish community had been involved in this race, with many opposing Percy (although Percy did have his strong Jewish supporters as well), it was not their work alone that brought Percy’s defeat. In addition, it is important to note that neither the Middle East nor the pro-Israel PACs became an issue during the campaign (despite Arab Americans urging Percy to speak out on these subjects), and Percy even went so far as to discourage active Arab American involvement or fundraising for his campaign for fear, he said, of antagonizing AIPAC!

AIPAC’s boasts that it “beat Percy” rang hollow, but went unchallenged, and so many observers came to believe that it was the lobby which had “single-handedly brought down the mighty Senator.” Arab Americans and their supporters unfortunately have, on too many occasions, played into the hands of AIPAC’s myth-makers by agreeing with their boastful claims, and reinforcing them.

Several other so-called AIPAC “victories” can also be better understood when seen in terms of changing voter demographics and other decisive political dynamics that affect elections. A closer look at AIPAC’s record will show that not only didn’t it win all of the races it claimed to win, but it has lost many races it has worked hard to win.

An examination of AIPAC and pro-Israel PAC supported candidates in 1992, for example, shows that in the elections involving the top ten recipients of pro-Israel PAC money, five lost their elections! And in the highly publicized AIPAC effort to defeat Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island in 1988, AIPAC and all of its money was unable to prevail. The lobby and its money can play an important role in an election—but in the end, voters and domestic issues are the decisive factors in every victory and defeat.

But the facts have not mattered—what has been most telling is the myth of AIPAC power, as exemplified by Morton Kondracke’s anonymous congressman. This myth is one that AIPAC has deliberately cultivated, much to its advantage and, as I have noted, Arab Americans their supporters have all too often mistakenly encouraged those efforts.

The ability to develop and implement a winning political strategy.

While the myth of AIPAC power in elections is overblown (many AIPAC supported candidates don’t win elections), it is the strategic use of money that contributes to AIPAC’s success in lobbying. But this is only one part of AIPAC’s overall strategy in winning passage of legislation. The other components of its winning legislative strategy includes the following points:

a) In elections, AIPAC uses threats and promises of contributions to shape the policy of as many candidates as possible—before they are elected.

Working with either its own members or utilizing the organized Jewish community in each Congressional district, AIPAC directs visits to every serious Congressional candidate. The candidates are asked to prepare or endorse an already prepared statement on the Middle East which is filled with the usual pro-Israel rhetoric. Sometimes implicit in the request, and sometimes quite explicit, is the promise of campaign funds or the threat of support for an opponent.

The threat can be a successful form of behavior modification, even with long-time elected officials who go against the policy of the lobby. My experience with Tom Harkin (a Democrat from Iowa), is a case in point.

In the late 1970s, then-Congressman Tom Harkin was a leading human rights advocate in the House of Representatives. This stance led him to support Palestinian rights as well. In 1980, for example, when two Palestinian mayors were expelled by Israeli military authorities from the occupied West Bank, Harkin endorsed the defense campaign on behalf of the mayors.

Harkin’s voting record in this period also reflected his balanced perspective in Middle East issues. Regularly voting against foreign aid bills in 1977, he supported two efforts to cut aid to all foreign aid recipients (including Israel) by 5%. In 1978 Harkin opposed a bill that would have provided $25 million to resettle Soviet Jews in Israel and prevented U.S. involvement in two United Nations committees working on Palestinian rights.

But in 1980, Harkin changed course dramatically. Shortly after endorsing the two expelled Palestinian mayors, Harkin was visited by AIPAC and, according to a staff member, left the meeting shaken and feeling threatened. Apparently he got the message, and thereafter Harkin’s record was dramatically different.

From 1980 through 1984, he consistently voted for pro-Israel bills and signed most pro-Israel letters circulating on Capitol Hill. He became so strong in his support of Israel that, in 1984 Senate bid, he received significant contributions from pro-Israel PACs which had targeted incumbent Senator Roger W. Jepsen for his vote to send AWACs to Saudi Arabia.

In 1990, Harkin ran for reelection and received an additional $246,000 from pro-Israel PACs.

Harkin’s opponent that year, Representative Tom Tauke, was approached by AIPAC early in the campaign. Tauke was, like so many other candidates, urged to issue a statement in support of Israel. He was told that, of course, he would not receive pro-Israel support, since Harkin was the pro-Israel candidate—but if he agreed to refrain from criticizing Israel, he would be helped after the election if he won. In the end, Harkin had been “threatened” and “rewarded” and Tauke had been “neutralized.” Nevertheless, the 1990 election was quite close and could have ended differently, Tauke campaign staff felt, had their candidate exposed AIPAC’s practices and the extent to which Harkin had been influenced by pro-Israel PACs.

b) After years of placing interns in Congressional offices and of cultivating friends in Congress (by working on their campaigns, contributing to their elections, winning their friendship through years of cooperative efforts), AIPAC has been able to place hundreds of former interns, former staff and friends and supporters into key positions in many congressional offices.

Since in many Congressional offices staff do most of the Congressman’s work, the power of the staff is quite considerable. They write the Congressman’s letters to constituents, draft their speeches and positions papers, and they even sign the person’s name to congressional letters and as co-sponsors to legislation. In many instances, staff will determine who will or will not receive appointments with the member of Congress.

There have been many occasions where members of Congress I know will be unaware that they have co-sponsored a piece of legislation (to which their names were added by staffers)—but once informed only the brave will remove their names.

c) Again, utilizing its own extensive activist membership and the networks provided by the other mainstream Jewish organizations, AIPAC can deliver thousands of letters to a member of Congress—from his own constituents—either protesting an “anti-Israel” vote or praising a “pro-Israel” vote.

While letters and petitions in themselves mean little (the side that sends the most letters doesn’t automatically win the Congressman’s support), they are a reminder to the congressman of the potential for support or opposition he can expect at election time.

d) Another effective mechanism used by AIPAC and other Jewish groups to win Congressional support has been the regular trips to Israel they sponsor for most members of Congress, and even other local elected officials (who are viewed as potential Congressional candidates in the future). For example, a survey of trips made by members of Congress during the a 1991 break showed that Israel was the number one travel destination, with 30 members of Congress stopping there—which was more than the total of visits to all the Arab countries combined during the same period.

As with the letter writing, the trips in and of themselves have more of a symbolic than an actual value. The visits do not educate, since they are one-sided presentations. A real fact-finding visit would, of course, include traveling throughout the Middle East. The purposes of the trips, in actuality, are to inform the members of Congress what they are expected to say about issues involving Israel.

Just as all the statements signed by members of Congress in their election campaigns sound the same (because they are), so do the comments they make when they return from Israel all sound the same—because they have learned on their visit what to say and how to say it.

Most members of Congress are not convinced to behave in a certain way by the letters, by the trips to Israel or by the pressures on them to conform. They are convinced by the fear of being defeated. And the letters and the other forms of pressure represent symbols of the money and “power” that creates fear.

I frequently refer to a club I have only jokingly formed, called the “I’m really with you Arabs, but…” Club. To it belong all those members of Congress who told me after or during their elections or after their trips to Israel that they really know that the Arab side is right, but… And the “but” is usually followed by some reference to money or pressure from the pro-Israel side (and, conversely, by the absence of money from our side or the failure of Arab Americans to vote or apply public pressure in amounts equal to the pro-Israel side).

In this light, it is imperative to correct an impression about lobbying in U.S. politics. Lobbying, for the most part, does not consist of visiting with a member of Congress and convincing them of the “truth,” because “truth” doesn’t influence votes, power does. Lobbying is collecting on a bill that is due. In effect, the successful lobbyist implies, “You know we’ve supported you with money and votes, and now we want your support.” Too many Arabs and Arab Americans still do not understand that lobbying is not merely an information dispensing game.

e) AIPAC also runs an aggressive information campaign targeted at the media, opinion-makers as well as members of Congress and their staffs. AIPAC uses this constant campaign technique to shape the debate about Middle East policy in this country, and its efforts usually go uncontested.

Utilizing all of their resources, especially among opinion-makers (newspaper editorial writers and political leaders), the lobby will develop a theme and present it in a repetitive fashion so that it comes to be accepted as common sense. At this point, one can usually recognize the signs of an AIPAC-orchestrated campaign. Three opinion articles by “AIPAC friends” in The New York Times, a few more in the Washington Post, a Congressional resolution in support of the issue, a number of similar speeches by key members of Congress, and AIPAC memoranda, and information briefs sent out to all Congressmen and Senators and newspaper editors—after a two-week “information blitz” such as this, AIPAC and its supporters would have succeeded in defining an issue and establishing their view as the “accepted” conventional wisdom.

Arab Americans, overpowered by such a barrage of information, must then fight an up-hill battle in the media to make our case. In other words, even before we can begin to do our actual work, AIPAC has put us on the defensive. They have used this technique to define the PLO as “terrorist,” to define each and every Israeli attack as a “retaliation,” to call loan guarantees “humanitarian aid,” to tar their enemies as “anti-Semites,” and on and on.

f) AIPAC also has an aggressive information-gathering operation by which it and related Jewish organizations are able to know what members of Congress say at any public gathering, and what perceived enemies of Israel also say. This apparatus is so sophisticated as to resemble a quasi-governmental intelligence agency in that it covers not only print and other media outlets, but also involves sending spies to offices, meetings and events to record what transpires, and even who simply attends.

While AIPAC claims that it gathers such data legally and only for its own use, in fact it is what it do with this information that makes it so potent a force in their arsenal and such an integral part of their strategy.

AIPAC’s so-called “research” department has become a major source of information on members of Congress and on “enemies of Israel.” It publishes a confidential monthly report which it sends to Jewish groups and leaders and wealthy donors and a number of friendly writers. Then, over the next few weeks, articles and columns will include the AIPAC “line” on issues of the day as well as details on what various public officials have said and/or done.

It is through these reports that AIPAC is able to shape attitudes and behavior among its supporters. The reports are not always truthful, however.

I have learned from a reporter who regularly covers the lobby, that AIPAC’s research department has an entire drawer devoted to me as an “enemy.” I apparently have the distinction of being second to Jesse Jackson in the numbers of files kept by the lobby.

I can speak first-hand of the political use which AIPAC makes of its “information gathering.” For example, in 1986 I made contributions to a number of Congressional campaigns. After the elections a few of the Congressional offices contacted me to inform me that they had been called by supporters of Israel who noticed on Federal Elections Commission records that they had received contributions from me. The supporters of Israel had wanted the Congressional offices to know who I was and what I stood for. Implicit in these conversations was the message that it would be wise for these members of Congress not to accept my support. To the credit of those whom I and many other Arab Americans have supported in recent years, none have rejected our support.

But the threat is there, and it can be intimidating to some members of Congress.

One might think after all this that the lobby was invincible. But as it reached the peak of its power, cracks in AIPAC’s armor began to appear. And after some review it seems that AIPAC’s successes may be leading it into some deep internal difficulties. I will review these difficulties in next week’s article.

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