A Bad Year at AIPAC

But it would be dangerous to count them out

Most organizations would consider it a triumph if their annual convention had the Vice President of the United States as the keynote speaker. In addition to the VP, the convention also had Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Robert Menendez, and former presidential candidate Senator John McCain as speakers.

Yet, for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), this was a very bad year. For the first time in seven years, the President of the US and the Israeli Prime Minister were not attending (although the Israeli PM did speak from Israel via satellite as he desperately tries to form a governing coalition). Undoubtedly, one reason Obama wasn’t speaking at AIPAC was because they had clearly favored (although they didn’t endorse) the Pro-Israel Mitt Romney for President.

This is an unusual turn of event for what is considered one of the most powerful political committees in the United States. Yet, don’t count them out. While some think that Israel has taken some political hits with the Obama victory and Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense, AIPAC is working behind the scenes to tighten Israel’s control over US policy – with the help of the new Secretary of Defense.

To understand AIPAC and its political arm-twisting is to understand Machiavellian politics at its best. They work best when sitting behind closed doors with politicians, not when attacking them publically in the media.

For more than half a century, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has lobbied to ensure that America continues to unconditionally support Israel at the expense of other policy considerations. From a small pro-Israel public affairs group in the 1950s, AIPAC has grown into a 100,000-member national movement described by The New York Times as “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel.” It has been described as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, DC, and its critics have stated it acts as an agent of the Israeli government with a “stranglehold” on the US Congress.

AIPAC lobbies for financial aid from the United States to Israel, helping to procure up to three billion in aid yearly, making Israel “the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” Additionally, the result of AIPAC’s efforts include numerous exceptional provisions that are not available to other American allies. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), these include providing aid “as all grant cash transfers, not designated for particular projects, and…transferred as a lump sum in the first month of the fiscal year, instead of in periodic increments. Israel is allowed to spend about one quarter of the military aid for the procurement in Israel of defense articles and services, including research and development, rather than in the United States.”

AIPAC’s influence is legendary. Former AIPAC president Steiner claimed in 1992 that he had met with Bush U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker and cut a deal with him. He bragged, “I got, besides the $3 billion, you know they’re looking for the Jewish votes, and I’ll tell him whatever he wants to hear … Besides the $10 billion in loan guarantees which was a fabulous thing, $3 billion in foreign, in military aid, and I got almost a billion dollars in other goodies that people don’t even know about.

Although some saw the Hagel confirmation as proof of the political weakness of the Israeli Lobby in today’s Washington, there were wheels within wheels that were setting Hagel up to be the chief protector of Israeli aid.

No sooner did Barack Obama nominate Hagel for Secretary of Defense on January 7 than AIPAC announced it would not oppose the former Republican senator from Nebraska. Indeed, so neutral did it wish to be on this delicate topic that its spokesman even avoided mentioning Hagel’s name, declaring only that “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.” AIPAC then maintained a complete silence through Hagel’s confirmation on February 26. More important, it did not lift a finger to influence the vote. Some observers insist that strong opposition to Hagel by AIPAC would have stopped the nomination.

Meantime, other Jewish organizations did oppose Hagel. The Zionist Organization of America produced 14 statements arguing against Hagel’s nomination between December 17 and February 22. The Anti-Defamation League also opposed him.

However, AIPAC was playing a longer term game when they allowed Hagel to become Secretary of Defense. He is now beholden to them for not scuttling his nomination and the payoff is coming soon. AIPAC figured, why antagonize a soon-to-be very powerful figure and a principal player in the U.S.-Israel relationship?

Part of AIPAC’s calculations include the fact that many other pro-Israeli people work for the Department of Defense and the new Secretary will be less likely to hinder their efforts. If Hagel had been violently opposed by AIPAC, he might have reined their efforts.

However, AIPAC was also looking at the Sequester’s budget cuts and insuring that Israeli aid wouldn’t be cut this year or in the future. In order to do that, they are pressuring Congress to name Israel a as a “major strategic ally” of the US, a unique status that would be enjoyed only by the Jewish state. With this designation of ‘major strategic ally’ the government would move programs that are currently paid out of the US aid to Israel into the base Pentagon budget. In order to pull this off, they would need Hagel’s support – something he may have opposed if AIPAC had pressed to stop his nomination.

This is the ultimate behind-closed-doors deal. AIPAC doesn’t oppose Hagel’s nomination and makes sure more money is funneled through the Defense Department, which gives Hagel more political influence. In turn, Hagel makes sure that Israeli aid moving through the Defense Department isn’t cut. Rest assured Hagel doesn’t talk negatively about the “Jewish Lobby” again.

AIPAC behind the scenes

AIPAC has a reputation for inserting its agents inside both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1992, AIPAC president David Steiner was forced to resign after he was recorded boasting about his political influence in obtaining aid for Israel. Steiner claimed to be “negotiating” with the incoming Clinton administration over who Clinton would appoint as Secretary of State and Secretary of the National Security Agency. Steiner stated that AIPAC had “a dozen people in [the Clinton] campaign, in the headquarters… in Little Rock, and they’re all going to get big jobs.

Many of these AIPAC assets are recruited during their college years. In fact, hundreds of college students were targeted as future political leaders and given all-expenses paid trips to the 2013 AIPAC Conference. Jonathan Kessler, director of AIPAC’s Leadership Development Department told an audience, “Every future senator will pass through an American campus. Every future House representative will pass through an American campus. AIPAC’s job is to identify, engage and educate those individuals that are already self-defining, self-actualizing as campus political leaders.”

AIPAC started its Leadership Development Department, with the goal of teaching students about its issues and then molding them into effective pro-Israel advocates. Now AIPAC works on hundreds of college campuses, according to its website. AIPAC provides its student members with biweekly education materials, legislative updates, action alerts, trips to Israel and specialized training in what it calls “propaganda response,” says the Israel on Campus Coalition website, a pro-Israel college coalition supported by AIPAC.

Not all of these AIPAC students will end up as politicians. Some will work for American national security – a concern given the potential divided loyalties of these AIPAC participants.

AIPAC has been at the center of several allegations that it helps Israel spy on the US. In April 2005, AIPAC policy director Steven Rosen and AIPAC senior Iran analyst Keith Weissman were fired by AIPAC amid an FBI investigation into whether they passed classified U.S. information received from Franklin on to the government of Israel. They were later indicted for illegally conspiring to gather and disclose classified national security information to Israel. AIPAC agreed to pay the legal fees for Weissman’s defense through appeal if necessary, but charges were subsequently dropped.

A month later, the Justice Department announced that Lawrence Anthony Franklin, a U.S. Air Force Reserves colonel working as a Department of Defense analyst at the Pentagon in the office of Douglas Feith, had been arrested and charged by the FBI with providing classified national defense information to Israel. The six-count criminal complaint identified AIPAC by name and described a luncheon meeting in which, allegedly, Franklin disclosed top-secret information to two AIPAC officials. Franklin pleaded guilty to passing government secrets to Rosen and Weissman and revealed for the first time that he also gave classified information directly to an Israeli government official in Washington. On January 20, 2006, he was sentenced to 151 months (almost 13 years) in prison and fined $10,000. As part of the plea agreement, Franklin agreed to cooperate in the larger federal investigation.

The espionage cases shows a growing weakness of AIPAC – it no longer can count on official US assistance and must work illegally to get information that it once received officially. The Democratic Party under Obama has moved from its traditional pro-Israel stance. Even the Jewish-American voter has changed. Today a Palestinian arguing for a two state solution will probably receive a warmer welcome at a Jewish community center than an Israeli official arguing for a continuance of the status quo.

However, it would be dangerous to underestimate AIPAC. A new generation of pro-Israel politicians and bureaucrats are ready to take their place in the US government. And, given its skills at behind-closed-doors negotiating, AIPAC stands ready to keep Israel in its special place in American foreign policy.