What’s ‘American’ About the American Israel Public Affairs Committee?

The FBI’s decision in early May to arrest Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon analyst accused of disclosing classified information about U.S. forces in Iraq, has put in the spotlight the work of an influential pro-Israel lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as well as its many supporters in and outside government, including Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, and Douglas Feith.

According to an FBI affidavit, Franklin related information about possible attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq to two AIPAC employees during an FBI-monitored lunch in June 2003. Franklin was allegedly upset that his hardline stance on Iran was being overlooked, and he hoped AIPAC would be able to attract attention to his views.

According to the New York Times (May 5, 2005), supporters of the "influential circle in the Pentagon," whose members were leading advocates for war in Iraq and have long-standing ties to AIPAC, blame the FBI’s investigation on "the continuing struggle inside the administration over intelligence," arguing that individuals who supported the Iraq war have been unjustly targeted.

Although the two AIPAC employees had not been charged (as of early May 2005) and the lobbying group was informed that it was not under investigation, the Franklin case has brought some unwanted attention to AIPAC, as well as to the larger issue of U.S.-Israeli relations. Many observers have long suspected that key supporters for the Iraq war inside the administration – including Wolfowitz and Feith – were at least in part motivated by their views on Israeli security. These views were also in line with the stance of AIPAC and several other pro-Israel outfits.

Of all the U.S. lobbies, few wield more influence than the pro-Israel interest groups. According to some estimates, there are about 500 national and local organizations that collectively make up the pro-Israel lobby. And of those, AIPAC arguably carries the most weight – "the most effective general interest group over the entire planet," Newt Gingrich once said of AIPAC. Extremely active in securing weapons deals for Israel, in lobbying for sanctions against the country’s Middle East rivals, and in promoting the political agenda of whatever government happens to be in power in Israel, AIPAC has long played a highly public role in American policymaking in the Middle East.

AIPAC has also been active in pushing U.S. intervention in the region. In fact, its efforts to persuade U.S. lawmakers to go after Iraq date back to the first Gulf War. In an interview shortly after the 1991 Gulf War began, Thomas Dine, then the president of AIPAC, told the Wall Street Journal that his organization had been busy behind the scenes building support for the war. "Yes, we were active," said Dine. "These are the great issues of our time. If you sit on the sidelines, you have no voice."

According to press reports, in 1990 alone pro-Israel groups gave nearly $8 million in campaign contributions. Among those on the Democratic side of the aisle who received PAC cash and later supported the decision to go to war was Sen. Harry Reid, an influential Democrat who had received $150,000 from pro-Israel PACs during his Senate election bid (a dozen years later, in 2002, Reid would again support the use of force against Iraq). Other Democrats who voted for the 1991 Iraq war resolution and received lobby cash included Sen. Richard Bryan and Sen. Howell Heflin. According to the Wall Street Journal, the entire Alabama delegation in both the House and Senate voted for the resolution. Although at first glance "this can be ascribed to the conservative, pro-military character of the state," opined the Journal, it is clear that "pro-Israel PACs have also cultivated Democrats [in the state] in recent years."

A key AIPAC supporter at the time who actively worked to get congressman onboard the war resolution was Rep. Stephen Solarz. Solarz, who later became a supporter of various Project for the New American Century initiatives (he signed the notorious Sept. 20, 2001, PNAC letter calling for war against Iraq "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack"), personally lobbied Sen. Al Gore, who voted for the resolution, as well as several other fence-sitters among the Democrats, who Solarz accused of being "tragically shortsighted" in their view of the Israeli-American relationship. Solarz also pushed AIPAC to play a more public role in supporting the use of force, as well as several other pro-Israel lobbies, including the Reform Jewish Movement.

Once war was under way, AIPAC immediately set about to capitalize on the growing U.S. public support for Israel in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks on the country. According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA), by the end of January 1991, AIPAC had rushed off a letter to its supporters outlining a postwar campaign. Reported WRMEA: "Counting on the American public’s newfound understanding of Israel’s vulnerability, AIPAC will press for a new package of security aid for Israel far larger than any previous package. Second, the lobby will encourage the United States to strengthen its friendship with Israel and avoid ‘pandering toward Arab states hostile to the West and Israel.’ Third, it will request millions of dollars more in housing loan guarantees to settle Soviet Jews. And finally, it will work to ensure that any diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict will be based on ‘close cooperation and trust between the United States and Israel.’"

Within a few short months, however, newspapers were reporting that AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobby had suffered a "damaging reversal" and that Israel was "no longer an automatic ally." It seems that the administration of George H. W. Bush was more interested in maintaining relations with other Arab states and pushing for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal than it was in keeping the lobby happy.

Despite these setbacks, AIPAC was again in the thick of things during the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. According to press reports, AIPAC membership jumped nearly 50 percent, to some 70,000, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, in part through ties the group had made with the Christian Right, which reflected a key strategy promoted by many neoconservatives and foreign policy hardliners during the 1990s. In late 2002, as talk about war heated up in Washington, AIPAC held a "national summit" in Atlanta to discuss the possible war and to strategize with supporters. Among the speakers at the conference were Paul Wolfowitz, Tom Ridge, and Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition.

Commenting on the burgeoning relations between the Christian Right and the pro-Israel lobby, Reed said: "I don’t think there’s any question that since September 11 and the attack on the United States there’s been a renewed dialogue and a new relationship between the Jewish community and the Christian community because of their shared friendship to Israel and their mutual opposition to terrorism."

Not long after President Bush declared an end to the war in Iraq in May 2003, AIPAC focused its attention on a new target – Syria. AIPAC helped lobby for passage of new U.S. sanctions against Syria, long a key goal of neoconservatives and Likud supporters both in the United States and Israel. Reported the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (Nov. 14, 2003),

"In his speech this month about the need for the Middle Eastern countries to move toward democracy, U.S. President George W. Bush won some praise but his words were also met with apprehension among Arab countries in the region. … The basis for such worries … was that Bush’s speech was preceded by suggestions from the so-called neoconservatives. They were the spearhead of the drive that led to the invasion of Iraq. For example, one of them, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, talked [while in Israel] about the Syrian government’s failure to stop infiltration of guerrillas into Iraq. He coupled that with the observation that Syria’s military strength was feeble. This occurred at the same time that the Israeli lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was using its muscle on the U.S. Congress to pass the Syria Accountability Act. This would impose U.S. sanctions on Syria unless Syria ended its occupation of parts of Lebanon, cut its ties to Palestinian groups the United States regards as terrorists, and stopped its alleged developments of chemical and biological weapons."

AIPAC has also lobbied heavily for U.S. funding of various Israeli weapons programs, including its Arrow missile defense system. Its Web site explains: "Since 1990 the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization have cooperated to develop missile defense technology to counter the threat of long-range missiles, which are being developed by countries such as North Korea and Iran. This military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel has resulted in the deployment of the Arrow missile defense system, and the continuing development of the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL)."

After the Senate voted in 2002 to include money for the Arrow system and other Israeli military priorities in a defense spending bill, AIPAC proudly reported, "In a vote of 95-3, the Senate last week passed the fiscal year 2003 Defense Appropriations bill, which provides substantial funding for U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation. The Arrow Missile Defense Program received $80 million above the administration’s request for a total of $146 million. Additional funding includes the following: $23.5 million for the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser (MTHEL); $64.9 million for the Litening II Targeting Pod; $35 million for Bradley Reactive Armor Tiles; $22 million for the Hunter Unmanned Aerial Vehicle; and $20 million for the Improved Tactical Air-Launched Decoy (ITALD). Learn more about these defense programs by visiting our interactive strategic showroom."

Several high-profile Bush administration folks have had financial interests in many of the weapons systems pushed by AIPAC, including Jay Garner, the former "mayor of Baghdad," whose SYColeman produced parts for the Arrow missile system. Garner also has strong ties to the neoconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Author: Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is the director of IPS Right Web and the lead researcher of the Global Detention Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.