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Pressure Groups and US Middle East Policy

On Middle East Policy, a Major Influence

Lobbying for Israel — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee — First of two articles.

By David K. Shipler
New York Times
July 6, 1987

Read the second article.

WASHINGTON, July 5 — After several decades of growth in size and sophistication, the leading pro-Israel lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has become a major force in shaping United States policy in the Middle East.

Operating from tightly guarded offices just north of the Capitol, the organization has gained the power to influence a Presidential candidate’s choice of staff, to block practically any arms sale to an Arab country and to serve as a catalyst for intimate military relations between the Pentagon and the Israeli Army. Its leading officials are consulted by State Department and White House policy makers, by Senators and generals.

The committee, known by its acronym Aipac, is an American lobby, not an Israeli one — it says its funds come from individual Americans — and it draws on a broad sympathy for the cause of Israel in the Administration, Congress and the American public. As a result, it has become the envy of competing lobbyists and the bane of Middle East specialists who would like to strengthen ties with pro-Western Arabs.

Interviewing Candidates

“It tends to skew the consideration of issues,” a senior State Department official said. “People don’t look very hard at some options.” This narrows the Administration’s internal policy discussions, he said, precluding even the serious study of ideas known to be anathema to Aipac, such as the sale of some advanced weapons systems to Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

A former official in the Reagan White House gave a different assessment. While Aipac is “a factor, nothing was ever excluded as an option for consideration,” he said, “I know of no case where it was decisive, at least in the analytical phase.” The greater influence seemed to be at the political, decision-making level, he said.

Aipac is already gearing up for the 1988 Presidential campaign. So impressive is its political mystique that now, 16 months before the 1988 elections, nearly all the Presidential candidates have already met with Aipac officials to be interviewed about their positions on the Middle East and to be presented with a red, white and blue briefing book on Aipac’s positions, according to Thomas A. Dine, the organization’s executive director.

“That’s a function that we take very seriously,” Mr. Dine said in an interview. “It’s a part of the political mandate.” Before giving a speech, he added, a candidate “might ask us how we think it would play in the Jewish community.” Some check on Aipac’s reaction to people considered for foreign affairs staff positions.

“This is an actual example,” Mr. Dine said. “I won’t give you the name. One of the Presidential candidates called us and said, ‘I will be publicly declaring soon, and I am interested in hiring so and so for a top campaign position. Tell me what you think about him.’”

“Was it thumbs up or thumbs down?” Mr. Dine was asked.

“Thumbs up.”

Some former Government officials accuse Aipac of heavy-handed tactics. One, who asked not to be identified, described a campaign of letter-writing, directed at a university that had invited him to speak, in which officials of Aipac and other organizations of American Jews accused him of holding anti-Israel views. The university resisted efforts to deny him a platform.

But some people grow weary of the struggle and fear for their careers. “Pretty soon,” he observed, “you say, ‘I’m not going to go give a speech.’”

An Image of Power Bestows Power Itself

The perception of Aipac’s strength may be larger than the reality, a product of “smoke and mirrors,” in the words of one former White House aide with the close ties to various Jewish organizations.

Some politicians are under the erroneous impression that Aipac formally endorses candidates and funnels money to their campaigns. The organization stops short of that, according to Mr. Dine, by providing information on voting records to Aipac members, some of whom send funds to pro-Israel candidates through separate political action committees.

In politics, however, image becomes reality, and politicians take Aipac very seriously. “You’d have to put consideration of Aipac right up there with organized labor,” said Bob Beckel, who was Walter F. Mondale’s campaign manager in the 1984 Presidential election. “I would put them up in the top tier.”

Aipac’s perceived clout, especially its ability to mobilize majority votes in the House and Senate on certain issues, has given it stature with the executive branch. And its influence, now widely regarded as greater than ever before, has soared in the Reagan years as a result of the Administration’s enthusiastic support for Israel as well as Aipac’s success at grassroots organizing and its skillful lobbying.

“It is an extraordinarily well staffed, dedicated and able organization that pursues its work systematically, and relentlessly, and effectively,” a State Department official said.

His admiration had a certain chagrin, for members of Congress who support Israel had just forced the Administration to withdraw its proposal to sell Maverick air-to-ground missiles to Saudi Arabia, just when Washington was requesting Saudi help in protecting shipping in the Persian Gulf.

On the other hand, the Administration sometimes obtains help from Aipac on matters before Congress. Recently, when some conservatives opposed President Reagan’s nomination of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Arnold L. Raphael as Ambassador to Pakistan, spreading rumors that he had been “soft” on limiting Soviet influence in the Middle East, officials reportedly asked Aipac to use its impeccable pro-Israel credentials to vouch for him. Aipac did so, the rumors were defused and Mr. Raphael was confirmed.

Similarly, officials describe Aipac as the most effective lobby on behalf of foreign aid for countries other than Israel, which gets $3 billion a year in military and economic assistance, more than any other recipient.

“They understand,” a State Department official said, “that if Israel and Egypt are left with foreign aid and the rest of the world goes starving, that’s not good for Israel.” Consequently, Aipac officials say, they push hard for approval of the entire foreign aid request.

Overlapping Interests And a Cadre of Experts

The intricate relationships that have evolved between Aipac and Administration officials derive from its political clout, the overlapping Israeli and American strategic interests in the Middle East and the expertise of Aipac’s staff.

Since 1980, when Mr. Dine became executive director, the organization has assembled a cadre of weapons experts and strategic analysts who have transformed the lobby into a small think tank, publishing monographs with such titles as “The Strategic Value of Israel” and “U.S. Procurement of Israeli Defense Goods and Services.” Aipac’s Washington office has a staff of 58.

Its research department is headed by Stephen J. Rosen, a conservative strategic analyst who worked for the Rand Corporation. One of his projects at Rand, under contract with the Pentagon, involved a study of the advantages to the United States of prepositioning military equipment in Israel, as opposed to Arab countries. The unclassified research has reappeared in an Aipac monograph.

Alan Platt, now serving as a part-time consultant for Aipac, also worked for Rand and, in the Carter Administration, dealt with conventional weapons transfers in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

The value of such specialists is immense. They understand weapons systems, know the literature and have many contacts in the Pentagon and other agencies.

“We’re involved at every point that a decision is being made,” Mr. Dine said. Administration officials are now sounding out Aipac about the 1989 budget. And as the 1988 budget is being considered by Congress, “we are being questioned constantly,” he said, “getting phone calls from the House Budget Committee leadership and staff, the Senate Budget Committee leadership and staff: ‘What do you think if? What do you think about? Hey, how about?’”

Under Reagan, Warming Relations

Aipac’s expanding efforts have been made easier by the sympathy it has found in the Reagan administration, and the improvements in Israeli-American relations have been dramatic.

In 1981, the United States and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a formal relationship of strategic cooperation. The United States has designated Israel “a non-NATO ally,” entitling it to bid on classified defense contracts. In 1985, the two countries established a free trade zone, which envisions the phasing out of all tariffs and quotas. In 1986, the Administration signed an agreement on Israel’s participation in research on a space-based missile defense system. Only Britain, West Germany and Italy have similar agreements.

Aipac cannot take sole credit for all these developments, of course, Israel itself lobbied hard for the strategic relationship and it found key supporters in the Administration. But Mr. Rosen has reportedly worked to flesh out the strategic cooperation by encouraging joint American-Israeli naval maneuvers, the use of Israeli target ranges by United States Navy planes and the like. Despite initial opposition in the Pentagon, the relationship has become institutionalized.

Richard L. Armitage, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, described the phenomenon in a letter last month to Aipac’s director. In the salutation typed by his secretary, Mr. Armitage crossed out “Mr. Dine” and wrote “Tom.”

“We take great pride in the fact that many activities, unthinkable in the past, are now a normal and routine occurrence between the two defense organizations,” Mr. Armitage wrote. “The unique relationship that exists between the U.S. and Israel is being enhanced by the daily exchanges and the development of personal relations between the professional members of the two countries’ military forces.”

In a speech last year, Mr. Dine called this “a revolution in the area of strategic cooperation,” adding, “This President and his Secretary of State are going to leave a legacy that will be important to Israel’s security for decades to come.”

He quoted Secretary of State George P. Schultz as saying the goal was “to build institutional arrangements so that eight years from now, if there is a Secretary of State who is not positive about Israel, he will not be able to overcome the bureaucratic relationship between Israel and the U.S. that we have established.”

Aipac officials have also worked for Israel’s participation in the space-based defense program by informing Pentagon officials of Israel research capabilities and projects under way.

One of the most promising is an effort to develop a weapon to shoot down short-range missiles. Israel has been working on this to counter Syrian missiles believed to be tipped with chemical weapons, and it would like $100 million to $200 million in contracts from the United States to finance testing. Aipac has been pressing for this, and a Pentagon official said discussions were under way.

Unusual Access To Official Data

Pro-Israel lobbyists are aided by their unusual access to official information, including some that is supposedly restricted. A classified list of proposed arms sales that the United States regularly compiles is provided by the Administration each year — at least orally — to Aipac officials, to test their reaction to various plans.

“In 1978, I was in the Pentagon working on the Saudi F-15 sale,” a former official said. “We didn’t do anything there that Aipac didn’t have within hours. Our briefing papers. We went to brief Congressmen on the sale, and Aipac already had rebuttals to our briefings.” He attributed the leaks to “friends of Israel in the Pentagon.”

The situation appears to have tightened slightly since Jonathan Jay Pollard, a United States Navy intelligence analyst, was convicted this year of spying for Israel.

When an Aipac official called an Israeli diplomat recently to try to obtain an unclassified Pentagon document, the Israeli said he would not have it until the formal clearance process was completed in October, although he added that he had been allowed to read it at the Pentagon.

In general, however, the Pollard case does not appear to have retarded the steady growth in Aipac’s stature. Privately, Aipac officials say, they expressed strong dismay to Israeli leaders over the use of an American Jew to commit espionage.

Ironically, the Administration’s respect for the lobby was enhanced when Aipac lost a tough battle to block the sale of Awacs surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1981, according to a former White House official. “They learned about Aipac,” he said, and officials then took this attitude: “We blew three fuses with those guys, and we don’t want to go to the mat with them again.”

Aipac’s grass-roots support also grew after the Awacs battle in years that included the friction with United States over Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its Jewish settlement policies in the West Bank.

In a concerted effort to expand, Aipac grew from 9,000 contributing households in 1980 to 55,000 today, from an annual budget of $1.4 million then to $6 million now. Aipac says that 90 to 95 percent of its contributors are American Jews, and that nearly all of the remaining 5 to 10 percent are evangelical Christians who are avid supporters of Israel. The donations are not tax deductible.

Accusations that Aipac has tried to stifle debate on the Middle East surfaced in November 1984, when more than 600 members of the Middle East Studies Association, a group of academics, unanimously passed a resolution condemning Aipac and the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith for circulating what the association called “blacklists” of professors and speakers deemed anti-Israel.

“It was total poppycock,” Mr. Dine declared. “In no way do we do what they claimed. We do operate in the grass roots. College campuses are in those grass roots. Our job is to educate, to organize, to mobilize people, to engage themselves in the foreign policy debate and in the political process.”

Roots in Judaism And Ties to Israel

In a sense, that political process seems to engage Mr. Dine even more than does the cause of Israel. He is a 47-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer who was a Foreign Service officer in India before working for Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Having grown up as a Reform Jew in Cincinnati, home of the Hebrew Union College, he sees himself imbued with the ethical tradition in Judaism. “I didn’t come to this job thinking Israel, Israel, Israel,” he said. “I came to this job thinking American foreign policy and how to strengthen America’s position in the world. At the same time, I though a lot about Israel because I am Jewish.”

Robert H. Asher, a Chicago businessman who is Aipac’s president, has closer personal ties to Israel, which he visits five or six times a year. He and his wife have started a foundation to promote musical education for Israeli youngsters, he said, and they own an apartment in a choice neighborhood of Jerusalem, with a view of the Old City, the Judean desert and the mountains across the Jordan River.

Today, to defend against possible terrorism, the group uses a metal detector, closed circuit television and double security doors at its offices.

But both Mr. Asher and Mr. Dine ridicule the widespread impression in Washington that Aipac is a mouthpiece for Israel. Although the organization was founded as the American Zionist Council in 1951 by I. L. Kenen, who was a registered foreign agent for Israel, Mr. Kenen turned it into an American lobby in 1954 and changed the name to the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs. He remained associated with it when it assumed its present name in 1959.

“They very rarely give us a report of what exactly they are doing,” an Israeli diplomat said. “There are many cases where they don’t bother to find out our position.”

One example is a current effort by Aipac to devise a method of relieving the huge military debt that Israel is paying off at high interest rates. Israel has not been attracted by an Administration proposal to lower rates and defer payment on the difference until the end of the loan terms.

Aipac is out ahead of the Israeli Government on this, consulting outside economists and officials in the Office of Management and Budget, and the diplomat cautioned that Israel might decide to reject whatever solution Aipac worked out.

Although some in the Israeli Labor Party see Aipac’s line as closer to the right-wing Likud bloc than to the more liberal Labor positions, Mr. Asher and Mr. Dine insist that their group avoids issues that are divisive in Israel, such as whether to relinquish part of the West Bank.

The Aipac board contains many pro-Labor people, one staff member said, and Aipac’s arguments about the West Bank stress the security concerns on which there is a consensus in Israel, not the biblical and religious justifications for holding the territory that appeal to the Likud.

Still, in virtually all instances, Aipac’s lobbying efforts coincide with positions that would be considered to the right of the political center in Israel. Asked where Aipac had gone wrong, in the Israeli Government’s view, the Israeli diplomat replied, “I don’t think that I can point to any example.”

Read the second article: Pro-Israel Group Exerts Quiet Might.

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