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 has lots of financial clout.
Over the years it has raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its lobbying activities. Through the recent recession, AIPAC’s cash flow still reached almost $200 million, and in 2009, the group spent $9 million just on its annual three-day policy conference in Washington, D.C., according to IRS filings.
AIPAC raises additional hundreds of millions of dollars with the help of some of its wealthiest donors. Its AIPAC Tomorrow Campaign asks members to donate parts of their estates to the organization; so far it's received $202 million worth of planned gifts, according to its Commitment Matters book.
The pro-Israel lobby also has an affiliate called the American Israel Education Foundation that pays to take congressmen on lavish trips to Israel, among other things. A one-week trip can cost up to $28,000 for an elected official and his or her spouse. The American Israel Education Foundation raises and spends about $25 million a year, according to IRS filings.
Although AIPAC cannot make direct campaign contributions under the law, political insiders say there are about 30 political action committees linked with it. That’s nearly all the pro-Israel PACs that exist. The organization also encourages its 100,000-member base to give to pro-Israel causes and campaigns.
The Money Out
The AIPAC Cash Flow
The Individual Contributions
During the two decades M.J. Rosenberg worked for Democrats on the Hill, he and his congressional bosses nodded their heads in agreement when AIPAC members gave out its talking points every year on the last day of the annual policy conference.
“You just gotta say, ‘Yes sir, I agree, absolutely, nothing better than Israel,’ because you don’t want them to get mad at you. You wanna keep the campaign contributions going, ” says Rosenberg, who is now a senior foreign policy fellow at the progressive think tank Media Matters Action Network.
"Thousands of donors associated with AIPAC give hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns all around the country,” says Rosenberg, who also worked for AIPAC in the '80s but left after he thought the organization had adopted hawkish policies.
Smart political organizations like AIPAC understand writing a check directly from that organization to a candidate has minimal impact, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, a frequent speaker at AIPAC events.
“The much better way of catching the attention of a candidate, particularly a candidate who needs a lot of money for his or her campaign, is not just to write a check but to have large numbers of individuals each write their own checks,” he says, explaining one of the things that makes AIPAC so effective.
The Pro-Israel PACS
Since 1990, the whole of the pro-Israel lobby has given almost $96 million in congressional campaign contributions and funnels a lot of the money through local political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
Although AIPAC does not have its own PAC, it has its political department analyze who the pro-Israel congressional candidates are across the country and then distributes that information to the pro-Israel PACs, according Rosenberg.
“That's what they do,” Rosenberg says. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have a political department at AIPAC, and they have a big political department there.”
But AIPAC says it does not rate Congress members or work with any political action committees. Those running in its circles say they’re so successful because it’s not hard for them to make their case to elected officials.
“Congress is pro-Israel because America is pro-Israel. Have you ever pushed on an open door? It’s pretty easy,” says Josh Block, a former media relations head of AIPAC who now runs his own lobbying firm.
But some critics of AIPAC disagree that it’s such a simple equation, including one of the founders of J Street, an organization often seen as the more liberal alternative in the American Jewish community.
“If this were all about shared values,” says Daniel Levy, “then I imagine the question to focus at AIPAC would be, ‘Why aren’t the 30 political action committees associated with the AIPAC wing of pro-Israel advocacy disbanded?’ ”
On the Hill
Since 1998, AIPAC has spent $20,269,436 lobbying on the Hill, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to tracking money in politics.
A team of 11 in-house lobbyists work for AIPAC, including the executive director himself, Howard Kohr, and Jeff Kuhnreich, former senior policy adviser to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
The American Israel Education Foundation
AIPAC has an affiliate called the American Israel Education Foundation that spends money on educational programs, materials and travel to promote AIPAC issues. As a 501(c)(3) organization, contributions made to the American Israel Education Foundation are tax deductible, unlike those made to AIPAC. Under the law the AIPAC affiliate is limited in how much money it can give to political activities.
Since 2000, the foundation has spent almost $5 million on congressional travel to Israel and sent congressmen on a total of 575 trips, according to Legistorm, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money and travel of legislators. The top-five most expensive trips were taken by Republicans.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.): $28,121.50
Moran, who was a House representative at the time, went on a seven-day trip to Israel with his wife, Robba, in late June 2008. The trip cost about $28,000, nearly $4,000 of which was spent on his wife’s meals, according to congressional documents submitted by Moran. The American Israel Education Foundation documentation says it spent only $700 on her.
So far this year, Moran has co-sponsored a Senate resolution stating that Israel cannot return to the 1967 borders with the Palestinians, which are the borders before the military occupation began. He also co-sponsored a resolution stating the Palestinians should stop their statehood efforts at the U.N., and opposing the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian unity government.
Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.): $28,121.50
Former Rep. Ferguson went on a seven-day trip to Israel with his wife, Maureen, in late June 2008, which also cost about $28,000. He did not seek re-election and left office in January 2009. A few months prior to his trip he co-sponsored a resolution stating Israel is a strategic ally of the United States and celebrating its 60th anniversary as a country.
|Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyo.): $25,433.08
Sen. Barasso left for a five-day trip to Israel with his spouse, Bobette Brown, in late November 2008. The trip cost about $25,000. So far this year Barasso has co-sponsored a Senate resolution stating Israel should not have to return to its 1967 borders, which are the borders that existed before the occupation.
Rep. Geoffrey Davis (R-Ky.): $24,626.40
In August 2007, Rep. Davis went on an eight-day trip to Israel with his wife, Pat Davis. The trip cost about $25,000. In 2009, Davis co-sponsored a resolution that supported Israel’s three-week air strike against Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.
Rep. Michael Pence (R-Ind.): $24,010.50
Rep. Pence and his wife, Karen, went on a seven-day trip to Israel in late June 2008, which cost about $24,000. So far this year, Pence has co-sponsored a resolution supporting Israel’s use of military action against Iran if needed to take out its nuclear weapons program. He also co-sponsored a resolution supporting Israel’s terms for a two-state solution under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which means not returning to the 1967 borders.
The Money In
The Big AIPAC Bucks
Fundraising: The AIPAC Tomorrow Campaign
At its 2011 policy conference, AIPAC pushed hard to raise more money for its AIPAC Tomorrow Campaign, which has already raised $202 million in planned gifts.
A group of 13 wealthy families added to the campaign through an additional fundraiser called the AIPAC Tomorrow Challenge. They pledge to match, dollar for dollar, new legacy commitments in the year ahead, up to $19 million.
“The threats facing Israel more than doubled this year," states the campaign book. "So has commitment to securing Israel’s future."
The 13 families have already promised more than $26 million to AIPAC, aside from the money they will give as part of the AIPAC Tomorrow Challenge.
The Membership Fees
AIPAC uses a tiered system for member access, based on annual contributions. The more a member gives, the higher the level on the pyramid a member goes and the more access they get to exclusive events with higher-profile politicians.
“AIPAC clubs give you a chance to participate in exclusive events in Washington, D.C., throughout the nation and around the globe,” says the AIPAC Policy Conference program.
The highest bracket is the Minyan level, which requires a minimum annual contribution of $100,000. It's an elite circle of several hundred of AIPAC's most dedicated members, says the AIPAC website. Minyan members have mingled with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and many others, according to the program.
The other levels include the Chairman’s Council at $36,000, the President’s Club at $25,000, the Senate Club at $10,000, the Capitol Club at $3,600 and the Washington Club at $1,500.
The AIEF Bucks