AIPAC 'PACs' up money game but sacrifices neutrality - opinion

By giving up the neutrality of neither rating nor endorsing, the group will create conflicts for members and contributors.

 THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington in 2018. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington in 2018.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

AIPAC is setting up a pair of Political Action Committees (PACs) in an effort to expand its influence directly into campaign financing after years in the shadows pretending it didn’t play the money game.

Despite declaring it does not rate or endorse candidates, it has been doing just that, although privately for its members and an expanding corps of pro-Israel activists. Removing the veil is intended to magnify its clout, but it could create more problems than it will solve. It will make the group more partisan as it publicly discloses its endorsements and donations.

This will mean direct donations as opposed to currently directing donations.

Other pro-Israel PACs will see an ally and resources will become a rival and may no longer look to this competitor for guidance. Yes, I know coordinating giving violates the federal election laws and tax regulations, but it’s been going on for years anyway.

By giving up the neutrality of neither rating nor endorsing, the group will create conflicts for members and contributors. How will hardcore conservatives feel about their PAC contributions going to liberals? Will Republicans in Congress be upset that an organization they have considered in their corner since the late 1980s will now be trying to elect opposition members?

The US Capitol building, which contains the House of Representatives and the Senate. (credit: PIXABAY)
The US Capitol building, which contains the House of Representatives and the Senate. (credit: PIXABAY)

The lobby announced the head of its federal PAC will be Marilyn Rosenthal, who has been in charge of outreach to progressives, and the big bucks Super PAC will be helmed by Rob Bassin, the group’s longtime political director.

Federal PACs can contribute a total of $5,000 directly to each candidate or campaign committee per election, while the Super PAC can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing federal election candidates but cannot directly donate or coordinate with the candidates, campaigns or parties.

The Super PAC will probably accelerate its ad campaign against Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), both Muslims and strident critics of Israel, and a few others on its enemies list.

More critically, will AIPAC be spending its money opposing candidates who claim to love Israel but oppose just about everything else most American Jews support?

Rep. Paul Gosar (Arizona) is a member of the House Republican Israel Caucus, who loves Israel, he says, but not Jews, if you listen to his siblings who call him an antisemite. He was recently censured by the House for posting a video showing him appearing to kill Democratic colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) and attacking President Joe Biden. But he loves Israel.

So do Reps. Andy Biggs (Arizona), Jeff Duncan (South Carolina), Jody Hice (Georgia) and Barry Moore (Alabama). They’re also members of the Israel Republican Caucus with Gosar, and members of the extreme right Freedom Caucus, which unanimously supports and preaches the ‘Big Lie’ about the 2020 election. Biggs is its chair.

The Freedom Caucus, like nearly every Republican in the House, supported Donald Trump’s insurrection and worked to undermine the Constitution and prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election. So did the two top Republican leaders of the party in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) and minority whip Steve Scalise (Louisiana). McCarthy has a history of antisemitic tropes, and Scalise once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage,” referring to the rabidly antisemitic KKK Grand Wizard.

And what about Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) who led the Senate effort to reject the decision of voters in 2020 and now want to run for president themselves?

They were key figures in efforts to undermine American democracy, overthrow the election results and prevent the Congress from fulfilling its Constitutional obligation to certify the election.

But they love Israel. Isn’t that enough to help pay to reelect them?

One AIPAC insider said the move reflects “adjusting to changing times.”

One of the changes may be the growing influence of J Street. Among the first and loudest to object to AIPAC’s decision, the group’s main issue is promoting peace with the Palestinians. It is a lobby and a PAC, it openly endorses candidates and has been steadily growing at AIPAC’s expense as many friends of Israel were repelled by the organization’s close ties to Republicans, evangelicals, Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

By naming its liaison to the progressives to lead the federal PAC, AIPAC may be trying to win back some Democrats.

It will be very difficult, said one Democratic political professional. “The antipathy toward Israel in Democratic circles is disturbing in the wake of the damage done by Netanyahu in the Iran nuclear debate. What Bibi and [former ambassador to the US Ron] Dermer did to [President Barack] Obama was unforgivable. They did great damage.” 

It was Dermer who articulated his boss’s thinking when he said evangelicals are more important for Israel because they outnumber Jews.

Some Democrats who already distrust AIPAC may see the new PACs as a way for the group to channel their contributions to undesirable Republican candidates the lobby favors. Instead they might prefer to contribute to J Street and other PACs more aligned with their thinking.

The pro-Israel PAC network is less robust than it was 20 years ago, and many of those groups may see AIPAC as a rival for funds in a time of dwindling resources and outrageously expensive campaigns.

The new AIPAC PACs could be a drain on resources for two centrist pro-Israel groups, the Pro-Israel America PAC, set up by former AIPAC senior staff and lay leaders, and Democratic Majority for Israel, which seeks to balance AIPAC’s rightward leanings that have alienated Democrats and to balance pressure from the progressives.

As Israeli governments, primarily under Netanyahu’s leadership, moved farther to the right not only on peace but issues like religious pluralism and Diaspora relations, and plunged more deeply into partisan American politics, Jews and Democrats, the party they historically supported with about 70-80% of their votes, drifted away.

AIPAC traditionally has taken the stance that it looks only at a politician’s record regarding Israel, and nothing else. More and more in today’s corrosive and highly polarized era we have to ask whether we can afford to be single-issue voters and ignore the rest of a candidate’s votes.

Can we say, okay, you want to remove the wall of church-state separation, privatize Medicare and Social Security, repeal clean air and clean water standards, make guns more easily available and repress the voting rights of undesirables, we don’t care just so long as you vote the way I want on Israel?

As a former AIPAC lobbyist, I see another problem. In the past when we were lobbying lawmakers to discuss legislation and they brought up campaign contributions, it was easier to deflect them by saying we’re not a PAC (the PAC in AIPAC’s name stands for Public Affairs Committee). From now on, every lobbying visit will be monetized.