comments_image Comments

AIPAC: powerful US lobby on pro-Israel mission

When the full complement of US lawmakers watched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address Congress on Tuesday, two-thirds of them had already heard him the previous night -- at top US pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks May 23, during an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference 2011 in Washington, DC. AIPAC has indisputably emerged as the most influential foreign policy lobby in the United States -- possibly eclipsing the traditional powerhouse lobbies for domestic gun rights, oil and retirees.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also hosted President Barack Obama at its conference, and while he has pushed hard for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, AIPAC has been seen as trying to hem in US presidents when they push a peace deal which the lobby sees as unfavorable to the Jewish state.

AIPAC has indisputably emerged as the most influential foreign policy lobby in the United States -- possibly eclipsing the traditional powerhouse lobbies for domestic gun rights, oil and retirees.

When its delegates trooped to Capitol Hill this week for a day of lobbying, they met with all 100 senators and nearly every one of 435 US representatives.

"They're the most sophisticated, effective lobby interest group in Washington, without a doubt," Aaron David Miller, an advisor to several US secretaries of state and now scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, told AFP.

Obama took heat at AIPAC's annual conference for suggesting that the 1967 lines with land swaps should be a basis for peace negotiations.

Many AIPAC members sided with Netanyahu when he criticized Obama over his stance during a recent visit to the White House.

AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr spoke out about the discord, stressing that the leaders "work out whatever differences arise between them privately, and when tensions do arise, that the leaders work together to close those gaps."

The pair mended fences -- at least publicly -- with Netanyahu in Congress thanking Obama for his "steadfast" support.

AIPAC was forged in the 1960s, when Israel's survival was far from assured, and it worked over the next decades to cement the idea that US and Israeli values were one and the same, and to secure an annual multibillion-dollar aid package for the lone democracy in the Middle East.

It's worked, with the vast majority of US lawmakers publicly aligning with Israel and pledging US support for its security.

This week the organization hosted a record 10,000 delegates at a sprawling convention center, serving what some quipped was the largest kosher meal ever.

The group raises millions each year and pushes Congress to enact pro-Israel legislation such as tightened sanctions on Iran.

"We have lobbies that hawk cigarettes, guns and elderly people," Miller pointed out. AIPAC, he said, "is selling by definition a very good product."

It's also an emotional one. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the most senior Jewish member in House history, pointed to a cradle of common heritage, telling AIPAC that Americans identify with Israel "on a gut level."

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised AIPAC's vigilance, telling delegates that "your tireless activism has made you an unparalleled force, not only in this town but throughout this country and the world."

But has AIPAC grown too strong?

One person who has been close to the group for more than 20 years acknowledged its influence.

"If you are a lawmaker, not surprisingly if you like to be elected, it's easier to know what your constituents want than to go against them," the person said.

The group has been extraordinarily successful at mobilizing the Jewish vote, and while it does not directly contribute to campaigns, its vast membership does.

In 2007 professors John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard published "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," which set off a firestorm of controversy.

The book painted AIPAC as having a "stranglehold on the US Congress" due to its ability to reward legislators and candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those opposing it.

Critics said it propagated a mythical theory of the all-powerful Jewish lobby.

"The notion somehow that AIPAC is some nefarious organization that holds American foreign policy hostage is just fundamentally and flat-out wrong," argued Miller.

Not all those who support Israel are AIPAC fans.

Hanna King, a 17-year-old Jewish college student said as she protested outside the conference, called the group a rightwing "embarrassment" that seeks what is good for Israel, not necessarily what is good for the peace process.

Josh Block, who served as AIPAC's spokesman for nine years until last November, dismissed as "nonsense" the idea that it pushes a hardline agenda, and pointed to AIPAC's broad bipartisan appeal.

"When you're lobbying on Capitol Hill for motherhood and apple pie, you're going to be effective," he said.

As for critics, one person close to AIPAC who asked not to be named shrugged: "If you don't have enemies, that means you're not doing anything important."

Today's Top Stories