AIPAC | The vehicle of America’s pro-Israel lobby 

The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee continues to wield heavy influence over U.S. foreign policy even as civilian casualties mount in Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, which began after a murderous cross-border raid by Hamas

November 05, 2023 05:15 am | Updated 09:30 am IST

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks live via satellite, at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks live via satellite, at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In May 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama, in the course of a speech on the Arab Spring, said: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” He was merely stating the official American position, although one rarely articulated publicly by a sitting President. But his words sparked a controversy. Congressmen were inundated with calls from members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. Within three days, Obama had to walk back his statement. He clarified, “The parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That’s what ‘mutually agreed-upon swaps’ means.”

This episode is just a minor one in a long list involving several American Presidents that reflects the role played by AIPAC and its stranglehold over America’s West Asia policy. Officially, the AIPAC supports a two-state solution and the Oslo Accords. But its actions tend to be in sync with the rightwing Likud party of Israel, which favours untrammelled expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and has no interest in peace talks. This explains why AIPAC took issue — as did Benjamin Netanyahu — with Obama’s reference to a settlement based on 1967 borders. It also explains why, for instance, AIPAC endorsed a bipartisan Bill to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem.

Today, military, financial and political support for Israel is the lynchpin of America’s West Asia policy. As American political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt explain in their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, such unconditional support may have made sense during the Cold War when Israel was a bulwark against Soviet influence in the region. But the Cold War has ended, and with it, so has any geopolitical justification for unconditional military aid to Israel, which runs to about $3.8 billion a year, making it the largest beneficiary of American largesse.

This level of support may seem to be borne of an understanding that safeguarding Israeli security interests was critical for U.S. foreign policy goals. Alongside this understanding, and until recently, there was also a consensus that the prime obstacle to regional stability was the Israel-Palestine conflict, and resolving it was the key to securing Israel’s security and a sustainable peace.

New consensus

However, this old consensus, which drove successive American Presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to pressure Israel to stop settlement expansion in the occupied territories, has given way to a new one — that the biggest threat to Israeli security and regional stability is Iran. This new narrative has been accompanied by calls for dishing out to Iran the same treatment as was meted out to Iraq. AIPAC has been instrumental in building this consensus, which has clear gains for Israel: it keeps the tap of U.S. military aid open while foreclosing any let-up in U.S. involvement in the region, regardless of the ‘pivot to East Asia’ announced by the Obama administration.

And today, at a moment when the UN Secretary-General and the vast majority of UN member states are calling for a cessation of the bombing campaign over Gaza and the view that Hamas’s terrorist attack does not justify the mass killing of Palestinian civilians is gaining ground, the U.S. political establishment has promised more weapons to Israel — a move that caused a State Department official in charge of arms transfers to resign in protest.

How did a lobbying group, representing a religious group (Jews) that comprises less than 3% of the American population, come to wield such influence over the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation?

AIPAC was founded in 1954 by Isaiah Kenen, an official with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the lobbying arm of the American Zionist Committee. Initially named the ‘American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs’, it was established in response to a crisis in Israel-U.S. relations triggered by the Qibya massacre in 1953 when Israeli troops killed 69 Palestinian villagers.

To avoid the disclosure requirements and restrictions associated with being designated as a ‘foreign agent’, it was incorporated in 1963 under its current name, as an organisation managed wholly by prosperous Jewish-Americans.

AIPAC has followed a three-pronged strategy since its inception. Firstly, it has focussed on developing a vast number of grassroots activists — a methodical outreach that today extends beyond Jews to evangelical Christians, Afro-Americans and Latinos. Numbering more than 3 million according to its website, these activists are organised into ‘caucuses’ who meet their Congressional representatives, talk to them, and assess them on their pro-Israel agenda, helping to profile every political contender on the basis of their stance on Israel.

Secondly, since it is a lobbying group and cannot directly raise funds, it has created an array of political affairs committees (PACs) which organise campaign funds for pro-Israel candidates, and alternatively, for the rivals of candidates viewed as pro-Palestine or critical of Israel. For instance, the United Democracy Project, an AIPAC-backed ‘Super PAC’, has reportedly spent huge sums to thwart progressive Democratic candidates who have been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians, such as Rashida Tlaib, the solitary Palestinian-American in the Congress. AIPAC-linked pro-Israel groups are a massive source of campaign funding for American politicians, totalling over $30 billion in 2020, which means that unless a candidate comes from a wealthy background, whether or not she toes the line set by AIPAC could have a significant impact on her political future.

Lastly, AIPAC has always adopted a bipartisan approach to its pro-Israel agenda, taking care to ensure funding to both parties. Although Jews are traditionally Democratic voters, AIPAC has managed to convince Republican politicians that voting in consonance with the pro-Israel agenda would ensure generous campaign contributions.

Political and financial clout

However, it was not until the 1970s that AIPAC attained the level of political and financial clout needed to influence American foreign policy. And it has only gotten stronger since. From Congressmen and Senators, it has expanded its influence to staffers on Capitol Hill, the White House bureaucracy, the higher echelons of the American media, and the most powerful think tanks, which are populated with pro-Israel experts.

AIPAC has, of course, benefited from the fact that there are no rivals countering its agenda — there is no Arab or Palestinian lobby with anything close to an equivalent influence. It has, in recent times, endorsed attempts to shut down criticisms of Israeli excesses in the occupied territories by discrediting the critics, including attempts to characterise such critics as purveyors of anti-Semitism.

But it is also possible that the influence of AIPAC has been exaggerated. There exists a school of thought which holds that the ‘AIPAC factor’ may not be the only explanation for the U.S.’s reluctance to hold Israel to the universal standards of human rights accountability. Israel also enjoys strong support among America’s conservative Christians, who view contemporary Israel through biblical lenses and for whom the history of Israel is implicated in America’s future.

For now, AIPAC’s most pressing challenge is the growing sentiment against the escalating civilian casualties in Gaza, which have the potential to bring the Biden administration’s unconditional military aid to Israel under increasing scrutiny, not only from progressive Democrats, but also from Republicans who would question the wisdom of continuing to funnel public money into Israeli weaponry.

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