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Pressure Groups and US Middle East Policy

Pro-Israel Group Exerts Quiet Might As It Rallies Supporters in Congress

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

By Robert Pear with Richard L. Berke
New York Times
July 7, 1987

Read the First Article 

WASHINGTON, July 6 — The Reagan Administration notified Congress at 5:57 P.M. on Friday, May 29, of its intention to sell 1,600 Maverick anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Within half an hour, lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the only group registered to lobby Congress on legislation affecting Israel, were on the telephone to lawmakers about the proposal.

Over the next 13 days, the committee mobilized its nationwide network of supporters with a series of memorandums and telephone calls urging them to lobby Congress.

Though it is unclear whether the committee, known as Aipac, can take all the credit, more than 260 members of Congress co-sponsored resolutions to block the sale, prompting President Reagan to withdraw it.

To some, like Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois, the incident demonstrated that the lobbyists from Aipac were, in his words, “extremely effective” on Capitol Hill.

Aipac’s influence over the executive branch is a result, in part, of its skills in lobbying Congress.

Interviews with dozens of lawmakers, politicians and present and former Aipac officials provide a picture of how the lobby actually works — how it seeks to inform and influence members of Congress, both in Washington and back at home.

The Aipac lobbyists “are professionals in every sense of the word,” said Mr. Hyde, a member of the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committee who has often clashed with them over arms sales and other issues. “They bring clarity of purpose with passionate commitment to everything they do. They are never ambiguous. The President’s foreign policy should be so effective.”

The Aipac lobby is a well-oiled machine, a model for other lobbies in a technological age, and there is no evidence to suggest that its effectiveness has been diminished by the disclosure of Israel’s role in either the Iran contra affair or the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the Washington intelligence analyst convicted last year of spying for Israel.

A Successful Lobby for Various Reasons

According to members of Congress, Aipac is one of the most successful lobbies on Capitol Hill for these reasons:

  • It has a simple, coherent message and is motivated by single-minded devotion to a cause. Unlike business lobbies, the Aipac lobbyists are not seeking financial benefits for their members. Whereas the Reagan Administration is often divided, with different agencies expressing different views, Aipac is unified.
  • Though Aipac does not endorse or give money to candidates, it is perceived as influencing many campaign contributions. Israel’s friends in Congress are often rewarded with such contributions from individual Aipac members and from pro-Israel political action committees.
  • Many in Congress are predisposed to help Israel. Morris J. Amitay, former executive director of Aipac, said that any legislation deemed important to Israel starts with “a consistent, reliable base” of 200 supporters in the 435-member House and 40 to 45 of the 100 Senators.
  • A lobby is only as good as the quality of the information it supplies to members of Congress, and lawmakers say that Aipac generally supplies timely and reliable information.

Thomas A. Dine, executive director of Aipac and one of its six registered lobbyists, is continually urging the 55,000 members to become citizen lobbyists. “Issues are won or lost on Capitol Hill not because of what takes place in Washington, but because of what constituents want,” he said in an interview.

Even in states where there are only small Jewish populations, Aipac has organized a network of pro-Israel citizens who meet several times a year with members of Congress when they return home.

Senator Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, meets them in Anchorage, and Representative Bill Alexander, Democrat of Arkansas, remembers being effectively lobbied by Aipac members back in the small town of Paragould.

Aipac keeps a meticulous record of lawmakers’ votes on foreign aid, arms sales and other issues affecting Israel. On request, it distributes such information to members with a disclaimer saying, “We do not rate or endorse members of Congress.”

Lobbyists Provide ‘Seal of Approval’

But individual members of the staff and officers of the organization may give a nod to some candidates. “Aipac, in effect, gives the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on whether a candidate, left or right, is good on the issue of Israel,” said Richard B. Strauss, a former lobbyist who now edits a newsletter on Middle East affairs.

In a speech to the Council of Jewish Federations in Chicago last November, Mr. Dine, a former aide to three Democratic senators, gave his assessment of 13 newly elected Senate members. Eight would be more friendly to Israel than the senators whom they were replacing, he said, and the other 5 would be as supportive as their predecessors.

“In the 1985-86 campaign,” he said, “Aipac lay leaders and staff met with every senator up for re-election except one, plus 49 Senate challengers and 205 House challengers, including every new freshman member.”

Perhaps more important, Mr. Dine said that the Jewish community should remember the “friends” of Israel who would be up for re-election in 1988, and he named 19 of them, including 6 Republicans.

Some members of Congress said they were uncomfortable discussing Aipac’s influence because they did not want to feed a myth of a conspiratorial, monolithic, high-powered Jewish pressure group. In many ways, they said, Aipac’s tactics were like those of groups that lobby for farmers, bankers or teachers.

Representative George W. Crockett Jr., a Michigan Democrat who has often disagreed with Aipac on foreign aid and other issues, said, nevertheless, that he had “the highest admiration for the way they get things done.” Mr. Crockett, who is black, said, “I just wish blacks were organized like that.”

Representative Mervyn M. Dymally, a California Democrat who is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Aipac was “without question the most effective lobby in Congress.” He said he sometimes felt “intimidated” by members of the organization because “they have successfully shut out all of my Jewish support except personal, social, and family friends.”

Mr. Dymally, who has often complained about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank of Jordan, asserted: “There is a high level of intolerance among the Aipac leadership and a very arrogant response to any criticism of Israel. Indeed, if I were in Israel, if I were a member of the Knesset, I would be freer to criticize Israel than I am today as a member of Congress.”

Robert H. Asher, president of Aipac, said, “It’s baloney to suggest that we stifle free speech or twist people’s arms,” and he added: “Aipac is not, I repeat not, the most powerful lobby in Washington. The reason Congress passes legislation favorable to Israel is that it is in the best interest of the United States.”

Haunting Memory of Wartime Inaction

Like many members of Aipac, Mr. Dine is haunted by a conviction that “the Jewish community did not utilize even the limited power it had” to rescue European Jews from the Nazi death machine.

In the 1940’s, a Jewish Congressman from Manhattan, Sol Bloom, was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee but “refused to do anything to save his brethren,” Mr. Dine said.

Another type of criticism is sometimes heard from strong supporters of Israel, including Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California.

These two Democrats complained that Aipac had listed them as voting against aid to Israel when they voted against omnibus bills to which they objected for other reasons, such as aid to the Nicaraguan contras.

In a letter to Mr. Dine, Mr. Frank asserted that “Israel has not been damaged financially” by the defeat of such bills on the floor because a separate bill is later adopted providing Israel with the same amount of money.

Assistance for Israel might be 1 percent or 2 percent of the total appropriation, he said, in an interview, but Aipac urges a vote for the overall bill, no matter what else it contains.

Mr. Dine defended Aipac’s practice, saying it was “a bottom-line organization” concerned about results — which he contends cannot be obtained without supporting foreign aid as a whole. “Unless there is support for the overall foreign aid ‘pie,’ the slice for Israel is always jeopardized,” he said in a reply to Mr. Frank.

No Endorsement of Candidates

The committee’s influence does not stop in Congress but carries over into election campaigns. Aipac officials say they stop short of endorsing candidates because they do not want to be perceived as having a public “hit list” for fear of alienating potential allies in Congress.

Aipac officials do not purport to be able to deliver votes for a candidate and bristle at the suggestion of even a casual link between the committee and specific campaigns. They acknowledge that they are often called upon fro advice about candidates, but say they provide such information as private citizens.

“Very often I will specifically say, ‘I am speaking to you as a private citizen,’” said Mr. Asher, a Chicago businessman who is treasurer of Citizens Concerned for the National Interest, a pro-Israel committee with no official ties to Aipac.

Dozens of Aipac members play major roles in political campaigns across the country. They are not representing Aipac. But their activities often generate support among candidates for the pro-Israel positions advocated by Aipac.

Despite the suggestion of its acronym, Aipac is not a political action committee and cannot give money to candidates. There is no official list of pro-Israel political action committees. Federal Election Commission records show that there were at least 60 such committees in the 1985-86 campaign and that they contributed $3.8 million to candidates. (These figures do not include money spent by the PAC’s for administrative costs.)

By comparison the PAC affiliated with the National Association of Realtors gave $2.7 million to Congressional candidates in 1985-86, the most of any committee. The PAC affiliated with the American Medical Association contributed $2.1 million in that period, while the National Rifle Association’s committee gave $909,549.

In all, 3,152 PAC’s contributed $139.5 million to Congressional candidates in 1985-86. As a share of all PAC contributions, Mr. Asher said, the spending by pro-Israel Pac’s was no greater than the proportion of Jewish people in the United States, which he estimated at 2.6 percent.

Officers of the pro-Israel political action committees often consult Aipac about candidates’ voting records and many members of Aipac sit on the boards of these committees.

The largest such group is the Washington-based National PAC, which gave $1 million to 118 Democrats and 82 Republicans running for Congress in 1985-86. The fund’s treasurer, Richard H. Altman, served as political director of the group from 1979 to 1983.

“Aipac members are the cream of the political world,” said Arthur D. Chotin, who was deputy director of Aipac from 1974 to 1980. He later established and is now treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, the second largest pro-Israel PAC, which contributed $293,400 to Congressional candidates in 1985-86.

Mr. Amitay is on Aipac’s executive committee and communicates almost daily with the organization. He also publishes a newsletter that minces no words in praising some candidates and criticizing others.

‘Courageous Friend’ Or ‘Negative Member’

Reviewing Republican senators up for re-election in 1988, Mr. Amitay writes that Dave Durenberger of Minnesota has been a “courageous friend” and John Heinz of Pennsylvania a “down-the-line supporter” while Daniel J. Evans of Washington State has been the “most negative member of the Foreign Relations Committee” and Chic Hecht of Nevada “has disappointed many previous supporters in the Jewish community.”

Aipac members will be active in Presidential politics in 1987-88, but they have no coordinated strategy and no consensus on a candidate.

Several have contributed to the campaign of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who is viewed as a favorite in the Jewish community because he has long been vocal in support of Israel.

S. Harrison Dogoie, a Philadelphia businessman, is a fund-raiser for Mr. Biden, sits on Aipac’s 200-member national advisory council and has been active in two pro-Israel PAC’s.

Aipac’s officers are supporting a mix of Presidential candidates, including Representative Jack F. Kemp, Republican from upstate New York, and Representative Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.

Two senior members of the Aipac staff have resigned to join Presidential campaigns. Jonathan S. Kessler, student director of Aipac for seven years, left last month to become youth director for Mr. Biden. Daniel S. Mariaschin, a former political affairs director of Aipac, is now a spokesman for the Republican campaign of Alexander M. Haig Jr.

Several political operatives — the kind of professionals who might choose which candidates to work for — said they relied on Aipac for detailed analysis of candidates’ voting records and overall performance on matters relating to Israel. But many said they needed no explicit guidance from Aipac on which candidates to support. “We work with a very, very sophisticated constituency,” Mr. Kessler said.

Nathan Landow, who heads Impact ’88, a group of top Democratic fundraisers, and supports Senator Albert D. Gore Jr. of Tennessee for President, said he held a fund-raising luncheon every two years for 10 incumbent senators “who don’t have large Jewish constituencies and have good voting records in support of Israel.”

Mr. Landow, a member of Aipac, said he consulted the committee for guidance on which senators to invite.

“It’s just a little thank you,” said Mr. Landow, a Washington area real estate developer. Each senator attending the luncheon receives a total of $10,000 in campaign contributions, he explained.

Position on Israel is Determining Issue

Most of the political action committees support incumbents who have a record of support for Israel, regardless of their positions on other issues, even if the challenger seems likely to be just as supportive of Israel.

The single-issue focus of many political action committees concerns people like Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee.

“A pro-Israel record is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for supporting a candidate,” he said.

“I want to know also what he thinks about immigration, separation of church and state, civil rights and other issues.”

The effect of the contributions on the outcome of Senate actions last year is difficult to assess.

The contributions might have tipped the balance in some close races, political strategists say. But the pro-Israel groups have been good at sensing winners and that might be a factor.

Of the 12 Senate candidates who received the most money from such groups in 1985-86, nine were victors.

Read the first article On Middle East Policy, a Major Influence.

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AIPAC Speeches by Policymakers

Magazine – Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

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Book – Stealth Pacs: Lobbying Congress for Control of U.S. Middle East Policy

Book – The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement With Israel, 1947 to the Present

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Book – Fifty Years of Israel

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more resources


The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)

Council for the National Interest – Opposition to AIPAC

Anti-Defamation League

U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation

Muslim Public Affairs Council

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