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: Current Talking Points
Every year on the last day of its policy conference, AIPAC sends its delegates to the Capitol with a packet of talking points in hand. When they went to their congressional meetings this time around, the points helped them make the case for three policies that illustrate the lobby’s main concerns for the state of Israel.
(1) Foreign Aid: The $3 billion in annual U.S. support
The first page of the AIPAC talking points packet asked for money.
The pro-Israel lobby always campaigns to secure Israel a generous financial aid package of an annual $3 billion, which Israel uses primarily for military purposes.
In light of the current economy and the trouble the federal government has been having with the budget, the lobby has been concerned with guaranteeing the money for the 2012 fiscal year. In its talking points packet, AIPAC makes the case the U.S. should continue its aid to help Israel deal with the increased security costs of defending itself against regional threats.
Israel receives the most foreign aid compared to any other country in the world and its package comes with special benefits. While most other recipients receive aid in installments, Israel receives its money in the first 30 days of the fiscal year and can use some of it to make purchases from Israeli manufacturers, according to the Congress Research Service 2010 Report. Congress also allows extra military spending for Israel outside the annual foreign aid allotment, in particular for Israel’s missile defense systems.
(2) Iran: The Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011
The lobbying materials asked for heightened sanctions against Iran.
The United States economic embargo includes sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and companies doing business with Iran, a ban on all Iranian-origin imports, and an almost total ban on selling aircraft or repair parts to Iranian aviation companies.
AIPAC says these are the toughest sanctions passed on Iran ever but it still seeks more. The lobby would especially like to see the U.S. block more foreign businesses from working with Iran.
So far this year AIPAC has lobbied for six other bills that would strike the Iranian economy harder, including the Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011, which would tighten U.S. sanctions on investments in Iran’s gasoline industry.
The Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011 would also make the President initiate more investigations into foreign entities doing business with Iran’s energy sector, and demand more disclosure requirements to make investigations easier.
(3) Defense in the World Arena: “Reject Hamas and Return to Direct Talks”
AIPAC’s lobbying strategy includes specific recommendations on the Israeli-Palestinian relations
A. The Rejecting Hamas Portion
AIPAC wants the United States to reject the newly formed Hamas-Fatah unity government of the Palestinian territories.
The lobby argues that Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, can not be negotiated with unless it fulfills a list of requirements that includes abiding by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements and recognizing Israel’s right to exist.
“Hamas is the group responsible for years of suicide bombings in Israel and a 10-year deluge of 10,000 rockets and mortars on southern Israel,” said David Gillette, an AIPAC lobbyist, in a video at the policy conference.
But Critics believe the Palestinians have the right to elect who they want just as much as the Israelis have the right to elect their representatives.
“I am not going to tell the Israelis I can’t deal with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu, even though he is an oppressor and a racist. People have to understand peace making involves bringing enemies to the table, not friends,” said Salam Al Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
B. The Return to Direct Talks Portion
AIPAC asked the United States to veto Palestinian statehood efforts at the United Nations and wants the U.S. to pressure other countries to do the same.
The lobby says the only way to reach an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is to pursue direct talks without preconditions. It also argues Palestinians going straight to the U.N. is a ploy to isolate Israel and will be counterproductive to the peace process.
“For ordinary Palestinians simply trying to live their lives, these steps make it less likely that the Palestinian people will achieve their goal of a state,” said Gillette. “In the entire history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there has never been a peace treaty that wasn’t the result of direct negotiations between the parties.”
Those critical of the AIPAC resolution say Palestinians must try the UN as an alternative route because they can not afford the endless go-around of direct talks.
“For 20 years they’ve been doing [direct talks] with no outcome. It’s rather obvious this path has not produced,” said James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute and member of the Democratic National Committee.
The House and Senate have each passed a version of the resolution. The House version passed with 407 votes and the Senate version passed with unanimous consent.
President Obama has already agreed to vote against any Palestinian statehood efforts.