An AIPAC and Capitol Hill veteran explains how AIPAC really works and the lobby’s tactics of reward and retribution. By M.J. Rosenberg
One thing that should be said about Representative Ilhan Omar’s tweet about the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (more commonly known as AIPAC, or the “Israel lobby”) is that the hysterical reaction to it proved her main point: The power of AIPAC over members of Congress is literally awesome, although not in a good way. Has anyone ever seen so many members of Congress, of both parties, running to the microphones and sending out press releases to denounce one first-termer for criticizing the power of… a lobby?
Somehow, I don’t think the reaction would have been the same if she had tweeted that Congress still supports the ethanol subsidy because the American Farm Bureau and other components of the corn/ethanol lobby spend millions to keep this agribusiness bonanza going (which they do). Or that if she had opposed the ethanol subsidy, she would have been accused of hating farmers.
That’s American politics; the only difference between all the domestic lobbies that essentially buy support for their agenda is that AIPAC is working for a foreign government, a distinction but not much of a difference when the goal is to maintain a status quo that is not necessarily in the national interest.
What did Omar tweet that was so terrible, anyway? Actually, it was two tweets that produced the unsettling but oh-so-telling coming together of President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in common denunciation of the first-term member of Congress. Omar’s crime: daring to suggest that campaign contributions orchestrated by AIPAC play a large part in achieving bipartisan support for anything proposed by the Israeli government and/or its lobby, AIPAC.
This is, of course, something everyone knows and which even a former president of AIPAC once admitted in a conversation that was recorded by an interlocutor. In fact, as early as 1988, 60 Minutes did a segment on how AIPAC divvies up the money. (Moreover, I, as an employee of the lobby from 1973 to 1975 and 1982 to 1986, repeatedly and personally witnessed the whole process of funding and defunding, which is anything but a secret within the organization. Additionally, I spent close to 20 years as a legislative assistant to Democratic House and Senate members and saw AIPAC’s tactics of reward and retribution from that vantage point too.)
Officially, of course, AIPAC does not engage in political fundraising; it would be illegal for it to do so, and the lobby is vehement on the point that it doesn’t. And it is true that, to my knowledge, it does not directly raise money to support or defeat candidates. But that is just a technicality. Political fundraising is a huge part of AIPAC’s operation. One of the three top positions in its massive Washington, DC, headquarters is that of political director, who runs both the Washington political operation (his annual salary is over $450,000) and deputy regional directors around the country. Here is how AIPAC describes what these officials do, as described in a “help wanted” description for a Los Angeles deputy regional political director:
- Help track House and Senate races in the region
- Assist with planning and executing local Congressional Club events and Congressional Club components in local events
- Attend and assist in regional events
- Establish and maintain contact with House and Senate campaigns to assist in the scheduling of candidate meetings and facilitate the submission of position papers
- Solicit financial support for AIPAC’s Annual Campaign
- Conduct candidate meetings
- Research, track and record FEC and polling data
- Work with colleagues to increase pro-Israel political participation in the region (Solicit Congressional Club commitments)
- Assist with AIPAC legislative grassroots mobilizations
- Assist with scheduling and organizing of caucuses in the regions and lobbying appointments during the AIPAC Policy Conference
- Assist with the integration of AIPAC’s activist bases in the Jewish and Outreach communities
- Promote participation at local and national AIPAC events including regional events and national political training conferences
- Research, gather and deliver information requested by pro-Israel political activists
- Other duties as assigned
Not mentioned is what all the information is used for: political fundraising. That means making sure that pro-Israel PACs know what to do with their money. And making sure that individual donors know what to do with theirs. That is why AIPAC has a large national political operation. If it were not in the money-distribution business, it would simply rely on its legislative department to lobby for and draft legislation for members of Congress. Nor would its political director make a half-million dollars a year. In short, AIPAC’s political operation is used precisely as Representative Omar suggested.
Again, I know this because I witnessed it over and over again. I sat in AIPAC staff meetings at which the political director discussed whom “we” would be supporting in this campaign and whom “we” were going to “destroy” in that one. I also sat in on meetings at AIPAC’s huge annual policy conference, attended by as many as 20,000 AIPAC members and virtually the entire Congress, at which fundraising pitches were made.
AIPAC, of course, denies that anyone raises money at its policy conference. And it’s true. No one does… in the official AIPAC rooms. However, there are also the side rooms, nominally independent of the main event but just down the hall, where candidates and invited donors (only the really wealthy donors get the invites) meet and decide which candidate will get what. This arrangement is almost a metaphor for the whole AIPAC fundraising operation. The side rooms are nominally not AIPAC, so AIPAC can deny that any fundraising takes place at their conference. But in fact, they are the most exclusive venues in the country for candidates to raise money in the name of advancing the AIPAC cause.
AIPAC denies fundraising precisely the way Captain Renault in the film Casablanca declared he was “shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on” in his establishment. As he is saying it, one of the club’s crooks hands him a wad of cash, saying, “Your winnings, sir.”
Same with AIPAC: “We don’t donate to campaigns. Here’s your check.” Or, more usually, a bundle of checks that are not traceable back to AIPAC because, on paper at least, they come from individuals who like a candidate’s stand on Israel or Iran sanctions (as told to them by AIPAC’s political operatives).
So enough about AIPAC’s fundraising denials, which insult the intelligence of anyone who hears them. Except, check this out: Political activist Ady Barkan describes how a congressional candidate he worked for scored $5,000 from an AIPAC representative just by promising to support AIPAC’s pet issues. Easy money!
Back to Representative Omar. The first tweet, which resulted in ominous storm clouds over her head, was her response to a journalist who asked, by the tweet of course, what accounted for such fierce defense of a foreign country by US political leaders even if it meant attacking the free-speech rights of Americans. Omar responded, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” breezily referring to $100 bills. This was bad enough, suggesting that campaign contributions plays a part in AIPAC’s success at garnering support for legislation that reads like it’s written by the Likud Central Committee.
But that was nothing compared to the monsoon of invective produced by her response to a reporter from the Jewish newspaper Forward, Batya Ungar-Sargon, who (again in a tweet) disingenuously asked Omar who she thought is “paying American politicians to be pro-Israel.”
Even before Omar responded “AIPAC!” Ungar-Sargon had resorted to the lobby’s (and its media friends’) favorite tactic when exposed or criticized: charging Omar with anti-Semitism; specifically, for using what Ungar-Sargon described as an “anti-Semitic trope.” That opened the floodgates for the full “she’s an anti-Semite!” onslaught. One by one, other Jewish organizations weighed in (AIPAC is designated by virtually all the mainstream Jewish organizations as their official lobby, and they invariably jump when AIPAC tells them to). And then AIPAC’s congressional enforcers weighed in, led by Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, who has been AIPAC’s man on the House floor for decades, Pelosi, and others. They all said the same thing: that Omar’s tweet was anti-Semitic, with many adopting Ungar-Sargon’s characterization of Omar’s words as “an anti-Semitic trope,” by which they seem to mean using the words “Jewish” and “money” in the same tweet.
But that is not what Omar said. She wasn’t even talking about Israel per se. When asked whom she is accusing of buying members of Congress, Omar responded with one word: AIPAC. Period.
And here’s the thing: AIPAC is not synonymous with Jews. By its own admission, AIPAC has 100,000 members out of an American Jewish population of about 6 million. Of that number, most are Jewish but, as it proudly proclaims, many are evangelical (and other) Christians. Implying that criticizing the power of a predominantly Jewish organization is anti-Semitic is like saying that those who point to the Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal are anti-Catholic, or that condemning violent Islamist extremists is tantamount to hating Muslims. It is ridiculous. It is also clever because it deters legitimate criticism of Israel or, God forbid, of the lobby by sending a clear message to politicians that any such criticism will cost them mightily. Watching what the lobby and its acolytes, in Congress and out, are saying about Omar would cause anyone in politics to think long and hard before saying anything at all about Israel, other than the effusive statements of praise AIPAC wants. And that is the lobby’s goal: to ensure that Congress never questions Israel about anything, that it just shuts up and keeps the billions of dollars in aid coming. And above all, without conditions, like requiring Israel to take steps to end the occupation, the blockade of Gaza, or to grant equal rights to Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories.
The only thing wrong with Ilhan’s tweets about AIPAC is the seeming suggestion that money is all there is behind US support for Israel. There are many, many reasons why the United States supports the existence of the State of Israel and the security of its people. One of them has always been the Holocaust, which demonstrated that Jews do need a secure refuge because, as has been dramatically illustrated in the United States since the rise of Donald Trump, anti-Semitism remains a contagion that can infect a xenophobic population anywhere. Tell me that there is no need for a Jewish state anymore, and I’ll point to the massacre at the kosher supermarket in Paris or, even more frightening, the slaughter of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (the worst act of anti-Jewish terrorism in the history of the United States).
But believing that Israel has every right to exist in peace is not the same as saying that it should continue to occupy or blockade Palestinian lands or deny full democratic rights to the people who live there. It does not mean that we should enact laws that penalize people who choose to boycott Israel because they oppose its policies toward the Palestinians. It does not mean that we should continue to support members of Congress who refuse to put conditions on our aid to Israel, just as we impose conditions on other congressional appropriations, including those that go to our own states and local governments. It certainly does not mean that we have to embrace AIPAC’s number-one priority of recent years: preventing and then destroying President Obama’s nuclear pact with Iran simply because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to deter an Iranian nuclear bomb through war (preferably an American attack) rather than diplomacy.
No, supporting Israel has very little, if anything, to do with keeping quiet about the dangers represented by its out-of-control lobby. In fact, it more likely represents the opposite. AIPAC is bad for America, but it could well be catastrophic for Israel if it hasn’t been already. This is something more and more Jews (particularly the young) now understand, which is why groups like J Street, IfNotNow, Americans For Peace Now, and Jewish Voice for Peace have come to the fore in recent years and have grabbed their share of the congressional turf, which was once exclusively owned by AIPAC. Joining them are the newly energized Arab American Institute and a significant new player, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, as well as various Palestinian student groups which are ensuring that Palestinian voices are heard, sometimes in concert with the progressive Jewish groups and sometimes on their own. But finally heard.
The bottom line is that despite all the congressional denunciations of Omar and the hysterical denials that AIPAC buys support for Israel with its “Benjamins,” the times are changing. On February 5, when AIPAC’s “Combating BDS” bill passed the Senate, 22 Democrats voted against it. That is a decent number, but the real sign that AIPAC’s power is on the wane is that every Democratic senator who is a candidate for president (except Amy Klobuchar) voted No. They voted No because they are seeking to win support from the Democratic grassroots, which, naturally enough, skews younger and younger, more and more progressive, and less and less white, leading naturally enough to more sympathy for Palestinians and less for Netanyahu’s Israel. That wouldn’t have happened before 2016, when Bernie Sanders embraced Palestinians and their cause as part of his coalition and not only did not lose support because of it but gained it. By 2020, it will be close to impossible for any Democrat to claim the progressive mantle while aligning with AIPAC.
For now, with the Baby Boomers still the most influential segment of the population, AIPAC is holding its own, even happily raising money over the whole Omar incident. But its future looks dim, especially its post-Trump future. And that is very good news.
During a long career in Washington, M.J. Rosenberg worked as a Senate and House aide, at the State Department, at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), at Israel Policy Forum, and at Media Matters For America.