In the battle for influence in the Middle East, Israel retains one unrivaled weapon in its arsenal: American voters.
While other nations spend millions hiring high-priced lobbyists, Israel can rely on a grass-roots army of thousands of supporters to achieve its priorities. Those foot soldiers have helped make Israel the top recipient of US foreign aid since World War II and ensured that the country’s existential priorities — notably Iran’s nuclear program — are America’s as well.
At the center of that effort is the half-century-old American Israel Public Affairs Committee, self-identified as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” AIPAC, which boasts more than 100,000 members, spends well north of $60 million a year to promote “strong US/Israel ties” — including almost $3 million lobbying Congress and the executive branch last year.
AIPAC isn’t a political action committee and doesn’t directly fund any electoral campaigns. A bevvy of pro-Israel groups, however, spent more than $8.8 million on Congressional candidates in 2012-2013, according to an analysis by the nonprofit MapLight; their top recipient, with $747,000, was Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., the co-sponsor of Iran sanctions legislation and one of AIPAC’s strongest allies in Congress.
The lobbying powerhouse also has a charitable arm, the American Israel Education Foundation. Founded in 1990, AIEF has funded 946 trips to Israel for lawmakers and their staff since 2000, according to an analysis of financial disclosure forms by LegiStorm, at a cost of more than $9.6 million — more than any other sponsor.
While AIPAC isn’t funded by the Israeli government, its ties to Israel have come under scrutiny in the past. The group was founded in 1951 as the American Zionist Committee by Isaiah L. "Si" Kenen, the former information director for Israel's United Nations mission; it changed its name in 1959 and was incorporated in 1963.
Two of AIPAC's top officials were indicted in 2005 for passing secrets on to Israel, and critics routinely assert it is a de facto agent of the Israeli government. Some former US officials, including Sen. William Fulbright, D-Ark., have argued it should therefore be required to register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which subjects foreign lobbying to a much higher degree of transparency than demanded of domestic actors.
Such views remain marginal, however. Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, addressed AIPAC's 2012 policy conference in Washington and praised the organization ahead of the November election.
"Because of AIPAC’s effectiveness in carrying out its mission, you can expect that over the next several days, you will hear many fine words from elected officials describing their commitment to the US-Israel relationship," Obama said at the time. "But as you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture — at every fork in the road — we have been there for Israel."
That commitment — and that of Congress as well as past US presidents — has enabled Israel to reap $121 billion in US assistance since 1948, according to the Congressional Research Service. Uniquely among foreign aid recipients, Israel is allowed to use part of that assistance (26.3% under current law) for investments in its domestic weapons industry — a privilege worth $815.3 million in the 2014 fiscal year.
Israel can also count on the support of an array of think tanks across the political spectrum dedicated to strong US-Israel ties, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the brain child of future US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk when he was deputy director of research at AIPAC in 1985. Last year, AIPAC's former longtime spokesman, Josh Block, took the helm of the decade-old The Israel Project, dubbed "Israel's most effective nongovernmental public relations agency" by the Jewish Daily Forward.
Israel itself currently employs the law firms Arnold and Porter and Sidley Austin, both of which provide legal advice on taxation and other matters but don’t lobby the US government or Congress. Israel shelled out almost $1.5 million for their services last year.
The country also enjoys the support of the US defense industry and its congressional boosters. Israel is on track to become the first foreign nation to operate Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter, while missile maker Raytheon stands to make millions after Israel agreed to spend half of its Iron Dome funds in the United States.
For all of Israel's clout, however, its priorities often hit a brick wall when they diverge from the US government's.
While Congress rushed to proclaim Israel’s right to defend itself and approved $225 million in extra spending for the Iron Dome missile defense system — increasing Obama’s 2015 budget request to $401 million — the Obama administration has been harshly critical of aspects of the Gaza operation. Secretary of State John Kerry pushed for a cease-fire early on, while his State Department declared itself “appalled” by Israel’s “disgraceful” shelling of a UN shelter.
On Iran, the administration’s push for nuclear diplomacy has so far derailed AIPAC’s lobbying for new sanctions. Israel suffered another legislative setback in July when Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., backed off their effort to grant Israel visa-free travel amid administration concerns of discrimination against Arab-Americans.
Their amended bill, reads a new summary from Boxer’s office, “clearly states that Israel must extend ‘reciprocal privileges … without regard to race, religion, national origin or ethnicity’ to all Americans in order to be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program.
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