Zionist Movement

How AIPAC is severing its historical roots -- and weakening its influence.

Illustration by Topos Graphics
Illustration by Topos Graphics
Illustration by Topos Graphics

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby once dubbed an "800-pound gorilla" for its ability to frighten senators and representatives into supporting its efforts on behalf of Israel, recently seems to have lost a bit of heft.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby once dubbed an "800-pound gorilla" for its ability to frighten senators and representatives into supporting its efforts on behalf of Israel, recently seems to have lost a bit of heft.

Beginning last fall, it strongly backed legislation that, if passed, could have derailed ongoing negotiations to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That bill obligated President Barack Obama to seek a deal requiring Iran to dismantle all its nuclear facilities, while also forcing him to certify that Iran was neither supporting terrorism nor testing ballistic missiles — and it would have imposed new sanctions if those conditions were not met. (An interim deal reached last November limited Iran’s enrichment activities but did not require the closure of any facilities.) The Obama administration opposed the legislation, but spurred by AIPAC’s efforts, the bill garnered 59 co-sponsors in the Senate — one shy of ensuring that it could overcome a filibuster.

And then the bill stalled. In his State of the Union address, President Obama was blunt: "Let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it." The following week, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not bring the bill to the floor. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the bill’s original sponsors, gave a speech on the Senate floor, acknowledging the need to give diplomacy a chance. And AIPAC itself, while maintaining that it still supported the bill’s thrust, backed off, saying the time was not right for Congress to take up the legislation. It was a humiliating public retreat for one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies.

The defeat has been portrayed largely as a failure of tactics — a question of "who played the Washington game better?" In the Huffington Post, Trita Parsi, an Iran expert who supports the nuclear talks, attributed AIPAC’s defeat to the "careful groundwork" and "intense mobilization" practiced by a "pro-diplomacy coalition" of nonprofits. In the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin, a proponent of the bill, charged that AIPAC had been "almost entirely ineffective on the issue it supposedly cares most about. It failed to persuade Reid to move the bill."

Undoubtedly, Beltway maneuvering played some role in consigning the sanctions bill to purgatory, but its defeat also revealed two growing weaknesses in AIPAC that run deeper than shortcomings in its ground game.

The first concerns AIPAC’s political base. For its first 30 years, AIPAC’s directors were well-known liberal Jewish Democrats; its natural base was among Jewish Democrats; and in Congress, it relied on Democrats for support. Today, AIPAC’s director is a Republican; Jewish Democrats are increasingly skeptical of Israel’s conservative government; and in the Senate debate on Iran sanctions, AIPAC had to rely on Republicans who may have backed the bill as much out of opposition to the Obama administration as out of support for AIPAC and Israel’s government.

The second weakness, which is related to the first, has to do with AIPAC’s fundamental orientation as a lobby for Israel — and, almost invariably, for official Israeli policy. In the past, AIPAC could convincingly maintain to Jews, Democrats, and official Washington that America’s interests and Israel’s interests, as articulated by their governments, were similar if not identical. That fundamental confluence of interests was called into question during the debate over the sanctions bill — by senators who had been among AIPAC’s most dependable allies and by commentators in the media.

These frailties have nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with the fact that the very conditions that had made the organization such a success no longer obtain — a trend that began well before the sanctions debate.


UNTIL THE END OF WORLD WAR II, THE AMERICAN Zionist movement existed largely to raise funds for Jews in Europe and Palestine, which was controlled by the United Kingdom. (An American Zionist, the joke went, was someone who gave someone else $5 to send a European Jew to Palestine.) American Jews couldn’t influence what happened in Palestine through the U.S. government because Washington deferred to the British. But that changed after the war, when London, crippled with debt, sought American help in facing down an armed Jewish rebellion in the territory.

American Jews now had an opportunity to affect events in Palestine, but they feared that pressuring political candidates and lobbying Congress and the White House for a Jewish state might arouse long-standing American suspicions about foreign influence and "dual loyalty." Asking voters to vote for Jewish interests was considered taboo. Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of the Zionist movement’s leaders, declared flatly in 1937 during the New York mayoral election, "Jews will not vote as Jews."

But in 1943, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Emanuel Neumann joined Wise in leading the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), a coalition of groups favoring a Jewish state. Silver and Neumann wanted to turn the organization into a traditional lobby that would support or oppose candidates based entirely on their stand on a Jewish state, even if that meant defeating a liberal Democrat whom Jews would ordinarily favor. Jews, who were generally liberal on social and economic issues, had begun voting Democratic en masse in 1928, and in the 1940 and 1944 elections, they had voted overwhelmingly (90 percent or above) for Franklin Roosevelt. But Zionists, Silver wrote, needed to "pin our hopes" on the "pressure of five million Jews in a critical election year."

When Neumann explained this approach to Hadassah, the main Zionist women’s organization, one of its officials said that the strategy "puts us in the same class as the communists, whom we all despise," a reference to American communists who advised voters to pick candidates based solely on what mattered to the Soviet Union. But Silver and Neumann prevailed; the organization ran ads and billboards threatening Democratic as well as Republican candidates. The strategy incurred President Harry Truman’s wrath, and also influenced his support for a Jewish state, but it failed to drive a wedge between AZEC and Jewish voters because almost all the Democrats up for election backed the creation of a Jewish state.

The American Zionist movement shrunk after Israel won its independence in May 1948. It also suffered a brief identity crisis. Neumann, who had led the charge for Israel’s recognition, now worried about allegations of dual loyalty. He proposed that American Jews delegate lobbying for the new state to "its ministers and ambassadors." "[I]t should be obvious," he declared, "that the Jews of the United States … should not be responsible for the acts and policies of a state which … will necessarily be regarded and referred to as a ‘foreign power.’" But his fellow Zionists didn’t share his reservations. They wanted a hand in the new state’s future. The American Zionist Emergency Council dropped the "Emergency" from its name — a nod to having accomplished its primary objective — and AZC turned from lobbying for Israel’s creation to lobbying on its behalf.

Israel was glad to have the help. It wanted someone to lobby Capitol Hill for U.S. aid, but at a time when the Red Scare had raised the specter of foreign interference, both the Israelis and American Zionists were wary of using a lobbyist who would have to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent (and therefore report all expenditures and label all communications as coming from a foreign power). So when, at the recommendation of Abba Eban, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, AZC hired Isaiah Kenen, Eban’s former public relations officer, to lobby, it didn’t have him register, even though his salary was paid partly by the Israeli government.

That did not sit well with many in Washington. In 1962, Sen. William Fulbright launched an investigation, and the Justice Department ordered AZC and Kenen to register as foreign agents. In response, Kenen split off from AZC and reincorporated in January 1963 as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC claimed to receive no funds from the Israeli government — and there is no evidence to the contrary. But though it was free of direct control from Israel, it continued the practice, begun with AZEC, of lobbying for what it believed to be in Israel’s interests. As a rule, though not always, this coincided with Israeli government policy.

A few Senate and House members continued to question whether AIPAC was an agent of a foreign government, but the charge didn’t stick. There were several reasons why. First, the United States saw Israel as an important ally in the Cold War. In 1970, Israel helped the United States by threatening to intervene in Jordan to quash a Palestinian revolt against King Hussein. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Israel became America’s major military ally in the Middle East against the Soviet Union. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s administration signed a "strategic cooperation agreement" with Israel. Thus, when AIPAC and other lobbying groups promoted policies that favored Israel, they could convincingly argue that those policies also benefited the United States.

Second, Israel occupied a special place in America’s moral imagination. It was a refuge from Europe’s violent anti-Semitism, which had culminated in the Holocaust, and it was surrounded by hostile Arab nations and terrorist groups committed to its destruction. Israel’s success in the 1967 Six-Day War boosted its reputation as a David amid Goliaths, while its near defeat in the 1973 war and the repeated terrorist assaults against it, highlighted by the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, showed its continuing vulnerability. In the late 1970s, popular support for Israel was further enhanced by renewed interest in the Holocaust, as evidenced in President Jimmy Carter’s support for a memorial museum in Washington and the release of a spate of books, movies, and television shows, including the hit 1978 miniseries Holocaust.

Third, contra the fears of some early Zionists, AIPAC didn’t have to recommend that Jews vote for conservative Republicans whom they might otherwise have opposed. AIPAC tilted Democratic and liberal, like its constituents. Kenen had been a labor leader, and he was succeeded by two prominent Democrats, Morris Amitay and Thomas Dine, who had been an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy. AIPAC was focused on lobbying Congress, which was responsible for the foreign aid and military budgets, and its prime allies were Democrats, who controlled the House of Representatives from 1963 to 1994 and the Senate for all but six of those years. AIPAC did back some Republicans, but they were usually the few remaining GOP liberals, like Jacob Javits and Clifford Case, whom Jews would have supported anyway.

Under Kenen, AIPAC had been a one-man operation, but under Amitay and Dine, it took off. It went from having 8,000 to 55,000 members, which gave it a base of wealthy Jewish donors who could be called upon to back or oppose candidates, and it created an impressive communications, research, and lobbying operation. The best indication of AIPAC’s power was its success in winning money and arms for Israel. From 1974 until the Iraq war, Israel was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. (The 1978 Camp David Accords, often cited as the reason for Washington’s substantial aid to Israel, actually produced only a one-year bump in the amount provided.) If House or Senate members defied AIPAC by criticizing aid budgets or supporting weapons programs for Israel’s adversaries, AIPAC summoned its supporters to fund opposing candidates.

Even its defeats managed to showcase the organization’s growing power. In 1981, it fought Reagan’s proposed sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia, an important ally of the United States. AIPAC got 36 of 46 Senate Democrats to oppose the sale, but its lobbying effort could not sway enough Republicans. Saudi Arabia got its planes, but AIPAC exacted retribution. In 1984, it helped Democrat Paul Simon oust Republican Sen. Charles Percy, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, whose support had helped bring the sale to the Senate floor. Dine boasted, "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy.… And American politicians … got the message."


DURING THE 1980S, EVEN WHILE DINE WAS director and courting Democrats in Congress, AIPAC began slowly moving to the political right. That shift was partly the result of an effort to align the organization better with the Reagan administration, but it also reflected the growing strength in Israel of the conservative Likud party. The pro-business Likud is closer politically to the GOP; and Republicans more easily understood its hawkish push for a "Greater Israel" that included the West Bank. Since ousting the Labor Party in 1977, it has dominated Israeli politics for all but 10 of the last 37 years.

In 1982, AIPAC’s board of directors, which consisted of major financial contributors to the organization and its favored candidates, for the first time chose a Republican, Robert Asher, as president. In 1993, the board fired Dine and soon elevated Howard Kohr, a Republican operative, to become its executive director. Over these years, the only time AIPAC deviated from Israeli government policy — when it was lukewarm over the 1993 Oslo Accords that Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had signed — showed its increasing hawkishness.

In moving rightward, AIPAC reached the apotheosis of its power and influence during President George W. Bush’s first term. In reaction to the 9/11 attacks, Bush and the Republican Party identified Israel as a prime ally in the war on terrorism. Republicans and conservative evangelical Protestants (alarmed by the perceived Islamist threat) flocked to Israel’s banner. While retaining its Democratic support, AIPAC increasingly looked rightward for support.

AIPAC is not a political action committee (PAC). It exercises its influence primarily through its directors’ contributions and through advising its members about which candidates to support — either through direct contributions or through giving to local pro-Israel PACs. There is no public record of where all the money goes, but one indication of who gets AIPAC’s support is contributions made by these local PACs. From 2007 to 2012, three of the five U.S. senators and, during 2011-2012, three of the five representatives who received the most funding from these pro-Israel PACs were Republicans. They included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House leaders Eric Cantor and John Boehner, and Sen. Mark Kirk, an original co-sponsor of the Iran sanctions bill.

Sometime during Bush’s second term, however, as AIPAC was continuing its movement rightward, it began almost imperceptibly, and then very visibly, to lose influence. One key factor was a change in the global security environment, which became less conducive to a simple identification of America’s interests with Israel’s. By 2007, Pentagon officials, bogged down with fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, were already expressing skepticism about the idea of a global war on terrorism. There were still terrorist and radical Islamist movements in the Middle East, but they had become primarily a threat to stability in particular countries. Israel’s continuing conflict with the Palestinians, once considered part of the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, was increasingly seen as a catalyst for it, as well as a source of broader regional instability and anti-Americanism.

When he was heading operations in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus said out loud what many U.S. foreign policy officials had come to believe. He warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples … and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support."

Simultaneously, American Jews became more supportive of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. During the Reagan era, Jewish Democrats had been willing to overlook their discomfort with Israeli expansion into the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights because they were concerned about Israel’s ability to defend itself against its enemies. But during Rabin’s pursuit of the Oslo Accords, they had glimpsed the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the long-standing conflict. During the first years of Bush’s war on terrorism and of the Palestinians’ Second Intifada, they had again become preoccupied with Israel’s security, but as the fear of al Qaeda eased and as the Palestinians elected a moderate president, they looked to Israel to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. And when Obama made the peace process one of his top first-term priorities, only to encounter resistance from newly sworn-in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and from AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and other members of the pro-Israel lobby — Jewish Democrats quickly became disillusioned with Israel’s government and its supporters in Washington.

The founding of J Street, an organization set up by Jewish Democrats to advocate a two-state solution, was one result of that disillusionment. And unlike earlier Jewish groups that have tried but failed to successfully challenge AIPAC, J Street has taken hold and grown. Since 2008, its budget has gone from $1.5 million to about $7 million. It has a staff of 50, an online network of 180,000, with 46 local groups, and a powerful student organization with some 55 chapters. And, unlike AIPAC, its views of Netanyahu and negotiations reflect those of most Jewish Democrats. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 32 percent of Jewish Democrats thought the Israeli government was "making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement," and 56 percent believed West Bank settlements "hurt" Israeli security.

The rift between Democrats and AIPAC deepened when the Obama administration began talks with Iran intended to prevent it from building nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. Last fall, the United States and its negotiating partners reached an interim deal with Tehran that slows its uranium enrichment and allows more stringent monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities while the parties hammer out a long-term accord. But Netanyahu rejected the interim agreement because it permits Iran to retain civilian nuclear facilities that produce fissile material, which could conceivably be further enriched for weapons use. And AIPAC began promoting legislation that echoed Netanyahu’s demand that sanctions not be removed unless Iran dismantled all its nuclear-related facilities. In the same language that AIPAC used in a policy brief, the bill introduced by Menendez and Kirk said that America should "stand with Israel" if it decided to attack Iran.

The clash over the bill further alienated Jewish Democrats and dramatized AIPAC’s growing dependence on Republicans. In the Senate, 43 of 45 Republicans backed the Iran sanctions bill, but only 16 of 55 members of the Democratic caucus supported it. That’s almost the mirror image of Senate support for the 1981 AWACS bill. Powerful Jewish senators Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein, who chair the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, respectively, came out against the bill, as did the Democrats’ 2016 presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton. "While I recognize and share Israel’s concern [about Iran]," Feinstein commented, "we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war." That was a rebuke not only of Netanyahu, but also of AIPAC. J Street opposed the bill, and Rabbi Jack Moline, the new head of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), directly accused AIPAC of "essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community." The NJDC has rarely, if ever, taken public issue with AIPAC in this manner.

Not long ago, AIPAC was considered nearly untouchable, and the suggestion that U.S. security interests might conflict with Israeli interests was a subject that could provoke heated, even vitriolic responses. In 2007, scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer argued in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy that AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbyists successfully pressured politicians to back an "uncritical and uncompromising relationship with Israel." Their views, first published in a 2006 article, were denounced as "anti-Semitic" in the Washington Post, the New Republic, and other mainstream publications. When former AIPAC staffer M.J. Rosenberg described members of the pro-Israel lobby as "Israel firsters" in a 2011 column that he wrote for Media Matters, a liberal nonprofit, he too was denounced as anti-Semitic — and Media Matters stopped running his column.

But as AIPAC has explicitly sided with Netanyahu over Obama, prominent liberal-leaning commentators and policy experts have begun to criticize the organization more freely. As columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times last fall:

[N]ever have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.

On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart ridiculed the Democrats who back further Iran sanctions as "senators from the great state of Israel." He quipped, "Wait a minute.… That’s a whole other country entirely. Why do we have to listen to them?" MSNBC host Chris Hayes, after showing a clip of Netanyahu declaring the interim agreement with Iran a "historic mistake," asked: "Why the heck are 16 Senate Democrats co-sponsoring this piece of legislation?… The only plausible answer is that these Democrats either genuinely want military escalation with Iran or they are afraid of the extremely powerful and influential American Israel Political Action [sic] Committee." And writing in Haaretz, commentator Peter Beinart contrasted American Jewry’s support for Obama’s initiative — by almost 2-to-1, in an American Jewish Committee poll — with the opposition from the leaders of AIPAC and similar groups. These leaders, he wrote, "are more responsive than other American Jews to the concerns of Benjamin Netanyahu, who clearly hates Obama’s nuclear diplomacy."

Not only is AIPAC coming in for more criticism than in the past, but it’s coming in for more criticism from the very wing of American politics that, once upon a time, formed its natural base of support. AIPAC knows that and is desperate to do something about it. On Feb. 5, as support for the sanctions bill was eroding still further among Democrats — three of the 16 co-sponsoring Democrats had already announced they no longer would urge a vote on it — AIPAC posted a help-wanted ad on JewishJobs.com for a "national progressives outreach constituency director" who would "promote pro-Israel advocacy among progressive political leaders and activists."

However, it may take more than a skillful coordinator who can "develop and maintain relationships" to bolster AIPAC’s standing among progressives. To do that, AIPAC would have to be willing to adopt positions that clash sharply with those of Israel’s conservative government — whether on the peace process or negotiations with Iran. It would also have to be willing to forgo supporting Republican politicians like Cantor and McConnell, who, while favoring aid to Israel, are anathema to liberal voters. By backing these conservatives, AIPAC has confirmed the qualms that Wise and officials from Hadassah expressed some 70 years ago. It’s doubtful, however, that AIPAC is ready to break with its current strategy.

The coming year will be telling. Although midway through his first term Obama had backed off his initial push for peace with the Palestinians, he and his new secretary of state, John Kerry, have picked it up once again. AIPAC may soon be forced to decide whether to back a proposal for peace that Netanyahu resists. Similarly, the Iran negotiations may also result in a long-term agreement that could promise broad sanctions relief. That step could require congressional approval, at which point AIPAC could exploit Republican opposition to Obama in an effort to block the deal’s implementation. AIPAC might well succeed — and the Israeli government would likely be pleased. But severing AIPAC’s remaining ties to liberals and Democrats could ultimately prove fatal, even to an 800-pound gorilla.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, from which parts of this article were adapted.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, from which parts of this article were adapted.

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