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: An Inside Look
A group of political activist leaders at the AIPAC convention.
Although AIPAC does use a team of in-house lobbyists, it also focuses on developing its 100,000-member base and pro-Israel supporters from other groups across the nation into an army of citizen lobbyists on the local and federal levels.
AIPAC does so by keeping affiliates informed through its biweekly Near East Report, providing training sessions on how to deliver talking points, and sending alerts when it's time to contact elected officials on specific pieces of legislation.
The co-head of AIPAC's Los Angeles Young Leaders program, Richard Dinets, explains how AIPAC provides its members the infrastructure and tools they need to be effective, but it's their passion that drives them to take action.
“They’re committed to making those phone calls and writing those emails year round,” says Dinets. “They’re willing to take the time and make the case.”
AIPAC also does a good job of coordinating with other pro-Israel organizations across the country. One of those groups is Los Angeles–based Democrats for Israel, a group affiliated with the California Democratic Party.
“I work very closely with the AIPAC staff,” says Leeor Alpern, president of Democrats for Israel-Los Angeles. AIPAC also works with the California Democratic Party and helps organize their state convention in Sacramento every year.
The Democrats for Israel and AIPAC work in parallel.
“AIPAC's mantra is, in Congress they have friends and potential friends,” says Alpern, who himself has been an AIPAC member since the mid-'90s. “Ours is, we have Democrats, and hopefully they're all pro-Israel Democrats.”
Their strategy is to identify up-and-coming Democrats, build a personal relationship with them and then immerse the elected officials in pro-Israel issues.
AIPAC does the same thing but across party lines. The lobby starts reaching out to politicians well before they get to Congress, while they still work as city council or school-board members or as part of the state legislature, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, who is also an AIPAC member.
The lobby realizes by the time someone gets to a position of national prominence, that’s not the time to help them understand the issues, because they’ve already thought it through to that point.
“By working with state and local, elected and appointed representatives of both parties, AIPAC has gotten to a position where no matter who gets elected president, in either party, that man or woman is going to be a strong supporter of Israel,” Schnur explains.
AIPAC maintains a strong bipartisan presence in state and national politics by encouraging its members to support pro-Israel candidates from the party of their choice. The lobby would not ask a liberal Democrat to support a conservative Republican or vice versa, Schnur says.
Although the strategy involves AIPAC pushing its allies and members to give to both political parties, Alpern, who is a loyal Democrat, doesn’t mind.
“I don’t want my party to be the only pro-Israel party,” he says.