AIPAC, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States, is facing new criticism from Democrats and advocates for Palestinian rights as it convenes its annual policy conference this week amid a widening US political divide over Israel.
The annual pro-Israel event, which starts on Sunday, is expected to draw more than 15,000 Jewish Americans from across the country to Washington. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, will give a keynote address on Tuesday. Thousands will visit Capitol Hill to deliver a message to members of Congress – Jewish Americans support Israel strongly.
But this year, missing from the bipartisan parade of US politicians at AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) will be the 2020 contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Influential progressive group MoveOn, which supports Democrats, joined advocates of Palestinian rights to promote a #skipAIPAC social media campaign.
“AIPAC is faced with a unique set of challenges this year. There is a change in the discourse,” Abed A Ayoub, national legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, told Al Jazeera.
“You see a lot more individuals on the left, Democrats and progressives, realising that Israel is complicit in human rights violations, that what they are doing to the Palestinians is essentially an Apartheid state and the US is supporting this to the tune of billions of dollars a year,” Ayoub said.
‘All about the Benjamins’
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, will both appear on the main stage along with a who’s who of leaders from both parties and key foreign policy committees. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, just back from a trip to the Middle East where the US recognised Israeli control of Golan Heights, will speak about US support for Israel.
“The Democratic public position on Israeli policy has really become more critical over time,” Shibley Telhami, a pollster at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera. “Every politician who is clever and wants to win is going to have to weigh where AIPAC is on this issue, but they can’t ignore the public and the public right now is on the other side.”
A survey conducted in October 2018 by Telhami found that 55 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of Republicans think Israel has too much influence on US politics and policies. Eighty-two percent of Democrats think the US shouldn’t lean towards either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while 57 percent of Republicans think the US should lean towards Israel.
AIPAC became a focal point of partisan debate in February when freshman Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American from Minnesota, was accused of anti-Semitism for suggesting in a tweet that support of Israel by members of Congress is “all about the Benjamins”, a reference to $100 bills that feature an engraving of Benjamin Franklin.
Omar was condemned by President Trump, Speaker Pelosi and House leaders and she apologised, but took a swipe at AIPAC in the process, saying, “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry.”
AIPAC shot back with a statement to the media implying Omar’s comments were “ill-informed and illegitimate”.
“A lot of the conversation in recent months has been, well, if members of Congress want to talk about Palestinian rights issues, they should talk about Palestinian rights issues and not about the lobby,” Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told Al Jazeera.
“But the reality is that one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk about Palestinian rights issues is because of the impact of interest groups and lobby groups. These things are intertwined.”
AIPAC regularly organises a trip to Israel for freshmen members of Congress. This year, Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, skipped the AIPAC trip and said she would organise a congressional visit to the occupied West Bank. The move drew opposition from pro-Israel congresspeople backed by AIPAC.
Founded in 1951, by an Israeli foreign service officer to be the lobbying arm of the American Zionist Council, AIPAC is today the most influential pro-Israel group in the US. The presidents of most major Jewish American organisations serve on its executive committee.
A non-profit organisation, it has annual revenue of about $100m and 465 employees. It spends $45m on its annual, three-day policy conference “to nurture and advance the relationship between the US and Israel”, according to its most recent available Form 990 disclosure. CEO Howard Kohr earned $761,500 in salary and other compensation in 2016.
In 2018, AIPAC spent $3.5m on lobbying Congress for its legislative goals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics which tracks lobbying disclosures and campaign contributions. While AIPAC itself doesn’t contribute directly to candidates, pro-Israel groups and individuals contributed more than $14.8m to congressional candidates in the 2018 US elections. Sixty-three percent went to Democrats.
“The reality is that pro-Israel money is a factor. It’s kind of bizarre if you say it isn’t. And yet they want to make it into a taboo if you talk about it,” said James J Zogby, a Democrat and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.
“Are they a player? Absolutely. Are they decisive? No. But they do use money and they do use their network to have an impact,” Zogby added.
Historically, AIPAC’s government affairs team has been very successful in winning action from Congress on its legislative priorities. In 2019, the first order of business in the newly elected Senate was the passage of a package of bills sought by AIPAC that would authorise $3.3bn a year in US military assistance to Israel for 10 years, including the US’s most advanced weapons systems.
Senate Republicans added an anti-BDS measure to the bill pushed by AIPAC, allowing states and localities to retaliate in business dealings with anyone supporting a boycott of Israel. The anti-BDS measure, a top AIPAC priority, divided Democrats, some of whom see it as a violation of free speech principles.
The combined bills, which included sanctions on Syria and weapons sales to Jordan, passed the Senate by a 77-23 vote. Notably, all five senators seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination voted against the package. The bills are now pending in the Democrat-controlled House where AIPAC members will be pressing their representatives this week for approval.
Tali Ruskin, a 34-year-old Jewish woman from Baltimore will be among the protesters. She just returned from a 10-day visit to Israel where she observed Netanyahu’s alliance with far-right politicians “with shameless racist views”.
“What we have seen is that AIPAC really does not represent a majority of American Jews, especially young people,” Ruskin told Al Jazeera.
“They don’t have any redlines any more. Whatever Netanyahu is doing, whatever Israel is doing, they will support it. And they will silence and muzzle people who criticise anything.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party holds 30 seats in the Knesset and faces re-election on April 9. His leading opponent, former General Benny Gantz, a centrist leader, will also speak to AIPAC this week.