The pro-Israel lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is one of the most powerful political forces in Washington. The lobby's initiatives, backed by tens of millions in dollars in political contributions, often become legislation that passes overwhelmingly in Congress. Its supporters say AIPAC is key to the strategic U.S.-Israel alliance. Its critics contend that the lobby's unconditional support for controversial Israeli policies are counter-productive for both Israel and the U.S.
AIPAC: A Clear Political Field
Making its case to Congress is easy for AIPAC.
"There is no other side," says MJ Rosenberg, who worked on the Hill for two decades before becoming a senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.
When it comes to influencing U.S. policy in the Middle East, the pro-Israel lobby faces no meaningful opposition. There is no Palestinian lobby or even a pro-Arab lobby that seriously counters the AIPAC agenda. Its unchallenged position makes it all the more influential, and allows it to push one-sided resolutions through Congress.
The few pro-Arab political action committees that do exist work to get political candidates of Arab descent elected and focus on overcoming discrimination faced by the Arab community in the United States.
Since 2001, the pro-Arab lobby has given a mere $600,000 in congressional campaign contributions, according to Maplight.org, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics. In that same period, the pro-Israel lobby contributed $47.1 million.
The pro-Israel lobby is also distinguished by the fact that it pushes for support of a country that is already a U.S. ally.
“You know, there are many other big allies of the United States, such as the U.K., France, Italy, you name it — none of them has an active domestic lobby,” says Uri Zaki, U.S. director of B’tselem, an Israeli human-rights organization watching the occupied territories. "The reason you have an active lobby is to push controversial policies," he says.
Some consider parts of the AIPAC agenda so one-sided that even American Jewish groups sharply disagree with it.
“These letters and resolutions that repeatedly slam the Palestinians and give Israelis carte blanche for whatever its government wants to do — it’s all part of a political game, ” says Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy at J Street, a new pro-Israel lobbying organization that disapproves of some AIPAC policies.
It's easier for members of Congress to pass such resolutions than to deal with the political repercussions in an environment where AIPAC goes relatively unchallenged. The group has a reputation for running tough campaigns against those who refuse to cooperate.
Some well-known examples include former Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL), Rep. Earl Hillard (D-AL) and Rep. Paul Findley (R-IL); all of them criticized AIPAC policies and then found themselves losing their re-election bids. Some contend these representatives would’ve lost anyway, but the lobby is often given the credit.
“They’re sort of like the mafia. They leave the dead dog on the lawn and say, ‘This could happen to you,’ ” says James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute and member of the Democratic National Committee.
He extends his harsh criticism to Congress. He says most members either aren’t paying attention or fear the pro-Israel lobby too much to confront its policies.
“They don’t have the moral fortitude or commitment,” says Zogby.