Is AIPAC Waging A Shadow War On Hagel?
“A lobby is like a night flower: It thrives in the dark and dies in the light.” – former AIPAC foreign policy director Steve Rosen
If the most powerful Israel lobbying group in America is to be believed, it has no involvement in the increasingly ugly campaign to sabotage the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense. According to Eli Lake, a reliable water carrier for the Israeli government and its various Beltway lobbying arms, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is “sitting out” the Hagel fight. The same day, another faithful pro-Israel partisan, Jeffrey Goldberg, speculated on his blog at the Atlantic that “AIPAC will not mount a significant campaign” against Hagel.
“AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations,” insisted AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman.
But a closer investigation of the campaign against Hagel indicates that AIPAC -- and by extension, the Israeli government -- may be outsourcing the attacks to its longtime former spokesman, the notoriously combative pro-Israel operative Josh Block. Through Block, who was until very recently quoted by reporters as a “former AIPAC spokesman,” AIPAC has apparently been able to assail one of President Barack Obama’s key nominees without risking the political fallout that such a gambit might invite.
“Because Josh Block does not work for AIPAC anymore, he can say whatever he wants,” MJ Rosenberg, a former editor of AIPAC's weekly newsletter and ex-congressional aide who is now one of the Israel lobby’s premier critics, told me. “And he does: when AIPAC wants a message sent, it tells journalists, ‘We have no comment but you can call Josh Block.’ And Block, who is in constant contact with AIPAC, gives the line but AIPAC has deniability – they can just say, he doesn’t work for us.”
AIPAC has good reasons to keep its fingerprints off the public campaign to demonize Hagel. For one, AIPAC thrives on its ability to influence lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, requiring it to avoid alienating the key congressional Democrats who rubberstamp the anti-Palestinian resolutions and Iran sanctions legislation it routinely authors. If AIPAC waded into the Republican-led crusade against Hagel in a public way, it might enrage some of its most reliable Democratic allies in Congress, generating unnecessary acrimony that might complicate future lobbying initiatives.
What’s more, were AIPAC to openly oppose President Barack Obama on a key cabinet pick, it would risk deepening the tension between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came dangerously close to openly campaigning for Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, during the 2012 presidential campaign. Given the already icy relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, it is no surprise that AIPAC has gone to such lengths to distance itself from the campaign against Hagel.
Another reason for AIPAC’s reluctance to publicly oppose Hagel is its complicated legal status. Though it functions as a virtual arm of the Israeli government, AIPAC is not regulated by the US Department of Justice as other foreign agents are. If it were ever exposed for directly coordinating with the Israeli government, AIPAC would be required to register with the DoJ under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Its staff members would then be allowed to carry the line of the Israeli government, but only under strict regulations that would severely hamper their effectiveness, and erode their image as a homegrown reflection of America’s supposedly pro-Israel sensibility.
According to Rosenberg, this is where Block enters the picture.
“The Josh Block phenomenon is a strategem to get around laws relating to foreign lobbying,” Rosenberg explained. “He talks to the Israeli embassy constantly and can and does convey what the Netanyahu government wants. But, hey, he isn't AIPAC, so he can do that. He's just a citizen. That’s why Josh Block is infinitely more valuable as ex-AIPAC than he was before.”
In June 2012, Block was hired as CEO of The Israel Project, a major pro-Israel advocacy group that focuses on influencing journalists, politicians, and other cultural elites free trips to Israel, lavish seminars, and aggressive lobbying. When Hagel’s name was floated as the likely Defense Secretary nominee in December, Block opened up a series of harsh attacks on Hagel, reportedly disseminating anti-Hagel talking points to sympathetic reporters and neoconservative activists. Block’s Twitter feed has become a clearinghouse for attacks on the former senator, including those that baselessly portray him as anti-American and anti-Semitic, and the former AIPAC spokesman has been quoted in publications ranging from the Daily Beast to Politico disparaging Hagel.
On January 8, I attended an Israeli national election debate sponsored by The Israel Project at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. On a stage before virtually the entire foreign press corps stationed in Jerusalem were candidates from the four leading Israeli political parties. Bombarded with questions from reporters about their opinion of the Hagel nomination, each candidate studiously refused to issue any criticism. Tzachi Hanegbi, a close ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu from the Likud Party, emphasized that it would be inappropriate for any Israeli official to publicly question the judgment of the American president.
Outside the auditorium, I interviewed the Executive Director of the Israel Project, Marcus Sheff. A well-practiced media professional, Sheff grew visibly uncomfortable when I asked him about Block’s attacks on Hagel. “Josh Block has clearly made those statements about Chuck Hagel,” he said haltingly, “and you are free to look at those statements, and you would have to ask Josh about that.”
When I asked Sheff if the The Israel Project would formally adopt Block’s position as its own – if it officially opposed Hagel – he refused to provide a direct answer. He stuttered: “Uh, again, it’s a subject which is being discussed vociferously in Washington… I would ask you to ask our Washington office about that.”
It was clear that The Israel Project’s directors, like those from AIPAC, were deeply concerned about being identified with the attacks on Hagel. Indeed, Sheff was anything but thrilled to be put on the spot about Block’s activities. But The Israel Project’s staff did not have the luxury of waging political warfare under the cover of darkness as AIPAC did. After all, it was their own CEO who was helping orchestrate a campaign to smear a popular three term former senator and Vietnam War hero as an anti-Semitic radical.
Block may have made himself a liability to The Israel Project, but as long as he is employed there, Rosenberg believes he provides AIPAC with a key asset. “The whole anti-Hagel effort is coordinated by AIPAC,” claimed Rosenberg. “If it didn't want Hagel to be smeared as anti-Israel, he wouldn’t have been. So he is being smeared nonstop and if the effort fails [AIPAC] can say, ‘It wasn't us. We are neutral. These attacks came independently.’ “That’s why they use cutouts,” he added. “I know because I used to be one of them.”