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The Evolution of AIPAC’s Political Operation in Washington over 50 Years – An Eyewitness Perspective

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

The Evolution of AIPAC’s Political Operation in Washington over 50 Years – An Eyewitness Perspective

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

No. 659, December 2022

  • The 2022 U.S. mid-term elections funding saw a new player on the field: a political action committee (PAC) formed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC had never contributed to a political candidate in the 60 years of its existence. This year, AIPAC donated $17 million to 365 candidates of both parties, adhering to its commitment to bipartisanship and reflecting Congress’ bipartisan support for Israel.
  • Founded by I.L. “Si” Kenen, AIPAC faced many challenges over the 50 years witnessed by the author. Funding was often meager; since AIPAC was a lobby, contributions were not tax-deductible. The Arab and oil lobbies were well-funded, aggressive, and purveyors of anti-Israel propaganda. Kenen published a newsletter, Near East Report, and a counter-propaganda handbook, Myths & Facts, printed with hundreds of thousands of copies and in several languages.
  • The end of the congressional seniority system was an important democratizing step and challenge; it required AIPAC to expand its lobbying staff to “cover” Capitol Hill. Campaign financing reforms instituted after the Nixon presidency meant that political contributors were no longer the “fat cats” and corporations. As the funding system was decentralized, AIPAC established regional offices to meet and work with “key contacts” across the United States. All contacts, messaging, and recruitment of AIPAC members was strictly bipartisan.
  • Occasionally, AIPAC opposed U.S. Government policies, such as arms sales to Arab states hostile to Israel or threats to cut aid to Israel over policy differences. High-profile events such as the delay of emergency aid to Israel during the 1973 war or the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia translated to AIPAC mobilizing bipartisan support of Israel in the Senate and House of Representatives. Friends of Israel – Jews and Christians – also mobilized and increased AIPAC’s membership and enhanced its reputation.
  • AIPAC’s cardinal rule that support for Israel was bipartisan was challenged in recent years, with progressive political organizations, claiming to be “pro-Israel,” organizing to defeat pro-Israel members of Congress. AIPAC’s 2022 entry into the arena of campaign financing now helps protect the bipartisan support for Israel among the American people and their representatives.

The November 2022 elections featured a new player in the high-priced game of funding political candidates. In less than one year, the PAC (political action committee) established by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, became the largest PAC in the United States, supporting 365 candidates – Democrats and Republicans – with more than $17 million in direct support. Today, AIPAC has earned its boasting rights, showing that support for Israel and financial support of pro-Israel candidates is bipartisan – $10.8 million to pro-Israel Democratic candidates and $6.6 million to pro-Israel Republicans. To put that into perspective, AIPAC PAC’s contributions were double those of the veteran PAC, Emily’s List, and tripled those of J Street.

The AIPAC PAC did not exist before December 2021. The rule in the AIPAC office until then was “We do not rate or endorse candidates.” In its long history, “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby” had never contributed to a candidate.

In August 1936, a bipartisan U.S. Senate delegation consisting of three senators and their wives visited Palestine
Before there was an AIPAC: In August 1936, a bipartisan U.S. Senate delegation consisting of three senators and their wives visited Palestine to “investigate the Palestine situations.” Attacks against Jews in Palestine and reports of Britain contemplating suspension of Jewish immigration into Palestine alarmed friends of the Jewish community and Zionist organizations. The Senate mission was organized and financed by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Pictured here their visit to a deserted Western Wall. (Library of Congress)

AIPAC 50 Years Ago

In the Summer of 1972, I nervously entered AIPAC’s office on G Street in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee until Franklyn Silbey, my boss in the U.S. Senate office where I interned in 1971, insisted, “You must work there as an intern.” He told AIPAC’s founder and director, Si Kenen, “If you don’t hire this kid, I’ll break diplomatic relations.”

My “maiden name” before taking on a diplomatic assignment for Israel in 1997 was Leonard Davis.

The AIPAC office consisted of about ten people, including the receptionist, bookkeeper, mailroom clerk, secretaries, and Kenen’s long-time woman-Friday, Esther Chesney. Not much to it. The annual budget was about $300,000; there was no health care or pension plan, and there were months when Kenen could not pay salaries. Kenen, a former newspaperman in the Ben Hecht Front Page mold, made his number one priority the publishing of his newsletter, Near East Report. Reflecting his liberal leanings, Kenen insisted on having a “union bug” on all printed material. NER covered news from the Middle East and congressional affairs when they dealt with Israel, the Middle East, and foreign policy. Before the presidential elections, Kenen would testify before the Republican and Democratic platform committees and then publish both parties’ platforms and the candidates’ Middle East position papers in the NER.

In the 1970s, AIPAC and Kenen faced some heavyweight issues: the divisive 1972 U.S. elections, foreign aid loans and grants to Israel, the Arab boycott, and the Yom Kippur War.

Challenge 1 to AIPAC: The Death of the Seniority System

Kenen didn’t have to prowl the halls of Congress to meet with elected officials and twist arms. He consulted with two handfuls of congressional titans, and they set the legislative agenda and rounded up the votes on the Hill. Some of Israel’s “go-to” supporters were Senators Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Hubert Humphrey, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Representatives Otto Passman, Emanuel Cellar, and Father Robert Drinan. They – and Kenen – had witnessed the traumas of the Holocaust and the exaltation of Israel’s founding; some toured the liberated concentration camps or, as in the case of Robert Kennedy, were on the ground during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. These giants’ congressional power and their rules would dissipate in the 1970s.

Kenen supplemented his direct relationship with senior Members of Congress with the “key contacts” on his telephone Rolodex and mailing lists of local Jewish community leaders and politically active friends of Israel across the United States. When a legislative issue or foreign aid vote was pending, AIPAC would mail out an alert or even a “mailgram” to them, the new postal conveyance of the time.

Long-serving chairmen of important committees possessed the power to promote legislation or crush it and the ability to do the same to the career of a junior committee member. Once a chairman decided, that was final. Their positions were protected by their droit d’seniority – until younger Members of Congress finally rebelled.

In the 1970s, some of the Hill’s potentates brought their own downfall. Powerful House Administration Committee Chairman Rep. Wayne Hays’ career (13 terms) was destroyed when his staff mistress was outed. Hired as Hays’ secretary, Elizabeth Ray admitted, “I can’t type. I can’t file. I can’t even answer the phone.” Another horned dinosaur, 40-year congressional veteran Rep. Wilbur Mills, left the Ways and Means Committee in disgrace after his stripper mistress, Fanny Foxe, had to be pulled out of the Tidal Basin. Even without public dalliances, senior Rep. Wright Patman (24 terms) was voted out as Banking Chairman, and Rep. F. Edward Hébert left the Armed Services Committee chairmanship after 18 terms.

After the Vietnam War, Congress was determined to challenge presidents and their administrations on foreign policy, budget, and defense issues. But Congress had to develop its own expertise. At the same time, with the death of the seniority system and decentralization of congressional decision-making, new nexuses of power evolved.

One was on the staff level, and senior analysts and experts were recruited to congressional offices. Several who worked closely with AIPAC come to mind: Richard Perle in Sen. Henry Jackson’s office and Mark Talisman in Rep. Charles Vanik’s drafted and navigated the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act that denied Most Favored Nation Status to the Soviet Union because of its oppressive treatment of Soviet Jews; Morris Amitay in Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s office and Tom Dine in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s became directors of AIPAC after Kenen; Stephen Bryen in Sen. Clifford Case’s office; Douglas Bloomfield of Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal office (and later senior lobbyist at AIPAC); and Mike Kraft of Rep. Millicent Fenwick’s office were vital figures.

The congressional initiatives, such as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment or opposing arms sales, were met with fury by Administration officials, particularly Henry Kissinger, who saw such actions as encroaching on the government’s executive powers. Ironically, a foreign newcomer to Washington, embraced by Kissinger, agreed with the foreign policy czar. He was Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Yitzchak Rabin.

Sen. Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson with the author.
Sen. Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson with the author.

In the ruins of the seniority system, another power nexus was established with AIPAC’s expansion of the lobbying department. More offices and new Members of Congress had to be contacted; more issues deliberated by Congress were on the agenda. A new aspect of AIPAC’s lobbying expanded as well – the provision of timely, accurate, well-researched, and helpful information. AIPAC met all the tasks.

Kenen hired a veteran of the McGovern campaign, Ken Wollack, a brilliant and affable operator on the Hill who led the National Endowment for Democracy in recent years. June Rogul, Richard Strauss, and Stephen Macarthur joined Ken at AIPAC. Kenen also beefed up the Near East Report staff, hiring an American reporter who filed for Yediot Aharonot under the byline of “Zev Barak,” also known as Wolf Blitzer. I served as AIPAC’s Director of Information and Research and editor of the Near East Report. Wollack, Strauss, and I were all in Jerusalem in November 1977 – by chance – when Sadat announced his visit and flew to Israel, but we never quashed the rumors of AIPAC’s prescience.

Before the computer age, it was vital to quickly deliver information to the Hill. Kenen wanted his AIPAC/NER office near the National Press Building on 14th Street N.W. But, with AIPAC’s new direction, the new director, Morrie Amitay, wanted to be close to Capitol Hill. The AIPAC office dumped the horse-and-buggy office machinery and brought newfangled FAX, Xerox, and computerized mailing lists. Daily “Hill Runs” were necessary for delivering messages, letters, and information to congressional offices, and a flock of interns had a lot of exercise. Those interns also formed the backbone of AIPAC’s softball team that also conducted its friendly lobbying on the baseball diamond in the congressional league. When Murray Lender wanted delivery of Lender’s green bagels to every congressional office on St. Patrick’s Day, the interns were enlisted.

I Bet You Never Knew

AIPAC, under Amitay, began to draw attention and press interest. While quiet and low-profile Kenen lived by his motto, “we stand behind legislation, never in front of it,” AIPAC’s new activism also drew unwanted attention. Once very late at night in July 1977, lobbyist Ken Wallach called me: “You’re the closest one to Morrie’s house. I just got a call. His house was bombed.” I rushed out to Rockville with police cars and ambulances outpacing me on Georgia Avenue. I was carrying a broom my wife gave me, but when I approached the house and saw every window in the area shattered, and the Amitay house knocked off its foundation, someone saw me toss the broom and heard me mutter, “This ain’t gonna help.” I entered the house before the police sealed it. Sybil and the three kids were safe. No one was eviscerated or even scratched by the hundreds of glass shards embedded in the walls above their beds like shrapnel. The family beagle was the only casualty.

Three years later, a white supremacist, Joseph Paul Franklin, was arrested for the bombing and a string of crimes committed after the 1977 Amitay attack: He bombed a Chattanooga synagogue, killed 21 people (primarily Blacks), shot worshippers at a St. Louis synagogue, robbed banks across the South, and attempted to assassinate Larry Flynn, Julian Bond, and Vernon Jordan, Jr. Franklin was executed in 2013.

A few years after the bombing, one envelope caught my attention as I checked incoming mail. Inside was a written rant and a “devastator” cartridge with an explosive bullet, the type used in the Reagan assassination attempt a few months earlier. The DC police and FBI were in my office within minutes. We already had a close relationship with the FBI’s DC office: they would ask for information on terrorist groups, and in return, they would warn us of heightened security levels or locations in D.C. to avoid. At their recommendation, we placed a sign on the nondescript mail room door we were to use in an emergency. The door bore a sign, “IZC Corporation” as a taunt to would-be attackers. IZC, as in International Zionist Conspiracy.

AIPAC set the pace for other organizations in introducing magnetometers and employing off-duty police.

AIPAC’s Information Was Power

Congressional offices relied on AIPAC for information and even ghostwritten speeches. [I think I wrote Rep. Jack Kemp’s first address to a Jewish audience and even lent him my kippa.] Once a congressional office requested detailed information on an Arab country’s nuclear aspirations. The AIPAC research office provided a file within a day, only to be told that the congressional office had simultaneously requested data from the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service to see who could provide the most and the quickest. AIPAC won.


AIPAC’s standing in Washington, Capitol Hill, and the pro-Israel community expanded during the 1981-1982 AWACS battle. Truth be told, the AWACS aircraft were not the most significant danger in the arms package [“It’s a flying bus,” one Israeli general stated], but they represented a sea change in the Administration’s orientation. The planes were initially ordered for the Shah’s Iran, but after his fall, they were redirected to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Air Force had to amortize the cost of the AWACS for its own fleet somehow, and oil-rich Saudi Arabia was the answer. To explain the policy change, Saudi Arabia was presented as a new “strategic pillar” in the region supporting U.S. interests. The United States had already approved F-15s for the Saudis under the Carter administration. The Reagan arms package was mostly F-15 add-ons, but the AWACS was a technological innovation for the region. For opponents of the deal, the AWACS was a flying white whale and a fatter target.

An AWACS aircraft in the Royal Saudi Air Force
An AWACS aircraft in the Royal Saudi Air Force (U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency)

Maj. Gen. Richard Secord (USAF) was the liaison officer with the Iranian air force in the late 1970s, and he served as the Administration’s point man on the Saudi sale. He made sure that the AWACS battle would be down and dirty. The experienced military man attacked the veracity of AIPAC’s information provided to the Hill about the plane and scorned a claim that the AWACS would enable the Saudis to see fast-moving ground vehicles. AIPAC returned fire, and Secord was shot down when AIPAC presented earlier U.S. Air Force congressional testimony requesting funding for the original AWACS project and promising the plane’s ability to detect vehicles “on the Autobahn.” The retired general then crashed and burned when he was found guilty of lying about the ill-fated “Iran-Contra” affair in 1989.

The Executive-Congressional tensions spilled over onto AIPAC, and senior staffers feared that the Administration, frustrated by AIPAC’s ability to secure and produce information, was attempting to fabricate a federal crime regarding secret government documents. AIPAC made clear to its employees that secret information was not to be obtained, received, or transmitted no matter how enticing.

Suspected agents provocateurs did show up on AIPAC’s doorstep. On occasion, government defense employees, sometimes “motivated by their church minister’s encouragement,” would offer classified material: one offered Army Corps of Engineers blueprints for Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk airbase; another brought computer codes to ship military materiel from U.S. warehouses to Israeli ports without any human involvement; and a third wanted to provide details on the inner workings of the Pentagon-Saudi conspiracies. We thanked them, refused to accept even a single piece of paper from them, and escorted them out. The last one, from the Bureau of Naval Intelligence, was named Jonathan Pollard, and like the others, AIPAC suspected a trap. His tale was so fantastic that I called his office to see if he really existed. He did.

In the late 1970s, AIPAC suspected that its office was bugged. Already then, sophisticated devices such as lasers measuring window vibrations could eavesdrop. How does one confirm that? Amitay approached an acquaintance in one of the U.S. armed branches. A “black bag” team was given an exercise to infiltrate an anonymous D.C. office and determine whether it was under surveillance. Yes, they determined, the AIPAC office was bugged, a charge confirmed in 1982 by Pollard before he was shown out of the office.

The FBI continued to focus on AIPAC’s relations with U.S. officials and conducted ongoing investigations from 1999. In 2004, a Department of Defense analyst was arrested for conveying secret information about Iran orally to two AIPAC analysts, who were also arrested (and fired by AIPAC).

Challenge 2 to AIPAC: Election Finance Reform

Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign was corrupt to the core. It was marked by the infamous Watergate break-in and illegal campaign contributions, including millions in cash delivered in suitcases and, in some cases, originating from donations from Gulf State oil interests. Significant private and corporate contributions were also characteristic and were supplied to both Nixon and McGovern campaigns. According to one report, Bernard “B” Rapoport of Waco, Texas, an insurance magnate and philanthropist, “lent” $250,000 to the McGovern campaign. “B” was also well-known for his philanthropic gifts to Jewish and Israeli institutions. I had the honor of attending B’s dedication ceremony of a large health clinic in Jerusalem for the Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

After Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974. The law banned corporate donations, limited how much an individual could give to a candidate, made cash contributions illegal, and required extensive reporting standards. Individual contributions to candidates for federal office were limited to $1,000 for each primary, election, and runoff.

The significant contributions by the rich, such as Rapoport, were blocked, but an alternative was found. No longer was the $250,000 donor the center of attention; the person with a list of 250 people who could each donate $1,000 was now indispensable. Such people and such lists existed in every Jewish community in the United States, where fundraising for local synagogues, schools, hospitals, community centers, Israel bonds, and the United Jewish Appeal was de rigueur.

The establishment of Political Action Committees (PACs) was a route to raise funds beyond limited individual contributions to a particular candidate. Groups of donors were legally allowed to make more significant contributions to the political parties or campaigns in what was considered “soft money.” Donations from corporations, wealthy individuals, or unions were only banned in 2002 legislation.

During these years, the establishment and large numbers of pro-Israel PACs were noteworthy – independent of AIPAC, which was not a “political action committee.” The organization’s moniker since the 1950s was “public affairs committee.”

Minor Challenges to AIPAC

Ironically, AIPAC’s Si Kenen faced an unusual dilemma in the 1972 presidential race. Israel’s new ambassador, Yitzchak Rabin, was embraced by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wrote of Rabin:

I grew extremely fond of him though he did little to encourage affection. [Rabin’s] intelligence and his analytical brilliance in cutting to the core of a problem were awesome…. We became good friends and remained so through all the vicissitudes and squabbles our duties occasionally imposed upon us.

That Kissinger-Rabin relationship resulted in Rabin making it clear that he preferred the reelection of Republican President Richard Nixon, which ran counter to the traditional American Jewish support for the Democratic Party. “Rabin would break diplomatic protocol and campaign for Nixon in 1972,” wrote veteran JTA reporter Ron Kampeas.

President Nixon received Prime Minister Golda Meir at the White House on March 1, 1973. Also attending were Rabin, Kissinger, and Simcha Dinitz.
President Nixon received Prime Minister Golda Meir at the White House on March 1, 1973. Also attending were Rabin, Kissinger, and Simcha Dinitz. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)

The state of relations strained further when Rabin learned that a fundraiser for George McGovern was to be held at the home of Kenen’s wife, Beatrice.

For years, Rabin let it be known that he disliked Congress’ involvement in arms sales decisions. That was an executive branch decision to be rendered unto Caesar, he believed. AIPAC was not a marionette of the Israeli government, and when AIPAC opposed F-15s and AWACS to Saudi Arabia, C-130s to Egypt, and arms to other Arab states, Rabin did not openly express his opinion on the issue.

AIPAC’s Critics and the Challenges of Investigations of AIPAC

In the 1960s, U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas conducted congressional hearings on the influence of foreign agents in American foreign policy. He focused on AIPAC’s founding a decade earlier. Fulbright claimed Israel had started the organization via funding through the Jewish Agency, an arm of the Israeli government. I was a kid in those years, but years later, Kenen related how persistently Fulbright and his investigator, Walter Pincus, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, went after AIPAC. Pincus later joined the Washington Post and reported on defense and intelligence issues.

“Israel controls the United States Senate,” Fulbright told Face the Nation in 1973. “Around 80 percent are completely in support of Israel; anything Israel wants, it gets.”  

It was intriguing that decades later, in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia contributed a $21 million endowment to the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies, an academic and research unit in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Fulbright, who failed to pin a foreign agent tag on AIPAC, left Congress in 1974 and registered with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia and other countries.

J. William Fulbright’s Foreign Agent Registration form filed with the Department of Justice
J. William Fulbright’s Foreign Agent Registration form filed with the Department of Justice

In 1975, coinciding with a White House-Congress confrontation over a Kissinger-engineered “reassessment” of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Justice Department Foreign Agent Office sought to investigate AIPAC. In the reassessment, the Ford Administration sought to freeze arms sales to Israel over its “intransigence” in negotiations with Egypt. Seventy-six senators from both parties wrote to the President, objecting to the ban of aircraft and weaponry to the Jewish state. They insisted that aid to Israel flow. The administration rescinded the reassessment.

But the Justice Department pushed ahead and went through AIPAC’s files with a “fine tooth comb, and we found nothing,” reported the lead investigator. I was AIPAC’s liaison with the feds. They hit pay dirt when we let them scour AIPAC’s research office. They found a news item in the research department on former Vice President Spiro Agnew visiting an Arab Gulf state to sell military gear. “We can’t get material like this from the FBI!” one exclaimed. Agnew was peddling bulletproof vests, the article said. An Arab leader wanted to test it, took a rifle, fired at the vest, and riddled it with bullets.

Later, the Federal Elections Committee sought to show that AIPAC was directing pro-Israel PACs – Political Action Committees – around the country. Their efforts failed to produce any evidence.

The Challenge to AIPAC of Israel’s Detractors

Kenen’s AIPAC competed in Washington with a dedicated and diverse group of anti-Israel activists. They included publicists funded by oil interests, several church groups, a few Arab legislators like Jim Abourezk, columnists like Rowland Evans and Robert Novak (nicknamed “Errors and No Facts”), and an Arab propagandist named Mohammed Mehdi, who preached “The road to Palestine travels through Washington.” Kenen hired a clipping service to map where Evans and Novak’s columns appeared, and when they slammed Israel, AIPAC sent rebuttals to the local Jewish leaders who responded to their local newspapers. Several papers decided not to publish any E & N columns dealing with Israel as a result. The columnists’ syndicate threatened a lawsuit, to which Kenen responded, “so sue me.” The “Media Monitor” weekly column Kenen and I wrote served as a model for CAMERA and HonestReporting, a popular website I helped get off the ground in 2000.

The so-called “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street of today is a reincarnation of an organization called “Breira” [Hebrew, meaning “alternative,” as in diplomacy is an alternative to conflict.] Formed after the 1973 war, Breira’s progressive leaders and Reform rabbis called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and recognition of the PLO. I am still enraged when I remember tiny Breira’s leader being invited to testify before Senator George McGovern’s Middle East Subcommittee alongside the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, Rabbi Israel Miller. In 1976, several Breira leaders met with Yasser Arafat. Kenen, writing in the Near East Report, labeled Breira “anti-Israel,” “pro-PLO,” and “self-hating Jews.” He claimed that Breira “undermined U.S. support for Israel.” Some things never change.

The Challenges to AIPAC of the Primaries

The demise of the Old Boys’ seniority system on Capitol Hill was accompanied by the closure of the fabled “smoke-filled rooms” of senior political party officials who often chose the parties’ presidential candidates. If Washington lobbyists had a pinch of influence in the process, it evaporated when the decentralization of political decision-making took the candidate selection process to state-by-state primary contests.

The primaries killed the power of American political parties. That post-mortem was delivered by political science professor Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick, perhaps better known for serving as ambassador to the UN.

In her 1978 monograph “Dismantling the Parties, Reflections on Party Reform and Party Decomposition,” Kirkpatrick described the new political system that restructured American politics.

Carter’s campaign was a striking manifestation of the new politics, one demonstrating that a candidate without standing as a national party leader could move through the nominating process to victory without either the support of the leadership or a powerful ideological appeal or an issue constituency.

The functions of the parties were being progressively assumed by the government, public-relations firms, professional campaign consultants, and candidate organizations.

The decentralization of Washington’s power could have weakened AIPAC, but independently, the lobby Kenen built had decided to establish regional offices across the United States. The offices were eventually set up in Texas, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, and Montana, bringing AIPAC to the grassroots and energizing local pro-Israel activists. Legendary Washington insider, Sarah Ehrman, hired by AIPAC to run the Southwest office, searched for potential key contacts in her region. She met an oil tycoon aptly called “JR” (before the appearance of the famous “Dallas” TV show and character). “JR, I didn’t know you were interested in Israel,” Sarah said. “Ms. Ehrman,” he responded, “what do you think ‘JR’ stands for? It’s Yankele Raful.”

AIPAC established one more “regional office” in 1982 – in Jerusalem – which I opened. Within three weeks of my family’s arrival, I was in Beirut reporting to the Washington office about the PLO and Syrian expulsions from Lebanon.

Syrian soldiers withdrawing from Beirut on August 28, 1982
Syrian soldiers withdrawing from Beirut on August 28, 1982. (photo taken by the author)

Within a few months, the Jerusalem office would take on a new task that would significantly enhance AIPAC’s congressional influence. On the eve of Passover 1983, the Israeli Foreign Ministry was asked to host three congresswomen and arrange for them to attend Passover Seders. The Ministry was closed for the holiday, and civil servants refused to deal with the “girls from Congress,” as one diplomat groused. I found local Jerusalemites with connections in Connecticut to host Rep. Barbara Kennelly and a Baltimore connection for Rep. Barbara Mikulski. The third congresswoman, from Yonkers, was more complex: she came with her husband, two children, and a congressional aide. “Dear,” I said gingerly to my wife, struggling with our rambunctious six-month-old. “We’re hosting a congresswoman’s family people for Seder. Her name is Geraldine Ferraro. No, she’s not Jewish.”

A wonderful time was had by all, and Geraldine returned a few years later for a Sukkot meal at our home.

As a result of the Passover episode, a new assignment was given to the Jerusalem office: scheduling and hosting congressional delegations, state political leaders, and Capitol Hill staffers. Most came through the American-Israel Education Foundation, affiliated with AIPAC. When I met them at Ben Gurion Airport, I promised them they would finish their trip exhausted and confused from all the viewpoints they would hear and the sites they would visit. Palestinian spokespersons were always on the itinerary.

Hundreds of delegations have visited Israel and the West Bank on these study missions. I learned during the AWACS battle in Washington that the most powerful lobbyist in that town was the U.S. President. In Jerusalem, I discovered that the most persuasive lobbyists for American visitors were the Land and People of Israel.

A congressional delegation visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Haifa Bay in 1995 as guests of the Haifa USO
A congressional delegation visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Haifa Bay in 1995 as guests of the Haifa USO. Also present were members of AIPAC’s staff. The author is in the center of the front row, wearing sunglasses. (Courtesy)

The Challenge of Partisan Anti-Israel PACS

Every staffer at AIPAC could rattle off two idioms in their sleep: “Support for Israel is bipartisan,” and “AIPAC is a public affairs committee and not a political PAC.”

The nightmare of the 2020 elections woke those AIPAC staffers with a jolt and silenced one of those maxims. Veteran Democratic representative Eliot Engel from New York, a 30+ year congressional veteran, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and stalwart supporter of Israel, lost to another Democrat in the primaries, a new member of the radical Democratic “Squad” dedicated to slamming Israel. A source close to AIPAC’s leaders told me that the loss of Engel would be avenged.

The so-called “pro-Israel and pro-peace” J Street had been contributing campaign funds to progressive and often anti-Israel candidates for over a decade. The J Street PAC’s donors were listed in the Federal Campaign Commission records. Unsurprisingly, among the donors were Arab-American political activists, Saudi foreign agents, U.S. diplomats, and even a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to AIPAC’s mantra, “support for Israel is bipartisan,” J Street’s favorites were exclusively Democratic.

Belatedly, AIPAC got into the PAC game in the last election cycle. Howard Kohr, the chief executive of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for 26 years, explained why in an unprecedented interview with the Washington Post. I have worked for all of AIPAC’s directors, and I cannot recall anyone who had conducted an on-the-record interview before.

Kohr explained why AIPAC had taken such a step: “We’re seeing much more vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship, who are having an impact on the discussion… And we need to respond.”

The political playing field had shifted, and the AIPAC director explained the plan for leveling the field again.

From our point of view, [the U.S.-Israel relationship] is a bipartisan issue. It is not a Democratic or Republican issue but an American one. There’s a progressive argument for the U.S.-Israel relationship, and there is a conservative argument for it, and they’re both powerful.

As Kohr continued, it was almost as if the ghost of defeated Chairman Eliot Engel was wafting through his words.

We’ve been monitoring a variety of trends in the body politic. We’re seeing hyper-partisanship, the increasing cost of campaigns, turnover in Congress, and the rise of a very vocal minority on the far left of the Democratic Party that is anti-Israel and seeks to weaken and diminish the relationship. Our view is that support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is both good policy and good politics. We wanted to defend our friends and to send a message to detractors that there’s a group of individuals that will oppose them.

After leading AIPAC into a new direction and burying a 50-year-old tradition of “AIPAC does not rate or endorse candidates,” Howard Kohr laid out AIPAC’s strategy for the future and mapped out Congress’ political playing field.

There’s going to be a whole class of progressives and Democrats that are pro-Israel, and they’ll become empowered. It will reinforce what has been the historic position within the party since Harry Truman recognized the state of Israel. One of the things we hope to do is to ensure that the Democrats getting elected to Congress are opponents of BDS. We think that there’ll be fewer supporters [of BDS] in the next Congress than there are today. Over time, we hope there’ll be even less.”

Kohr continued, “The most important thing about AIPAC — and this is both a virtue and a difficulty — is that we’re a single issue. It’s about the U.S.-Israel relationship. That’s the mandate our supporters give us. Because we’re a single-issue organization and we’re bipartisan, that’s the reason that the majority of Republicans and the majority of Democrats have been recipients of our PAC support.

Si Kenen once explained to me an essential lesson for lobbying Congress: “It’s human nature that Members want to support an issue, to be ‘pro’ something; in our case, it is to be pro-Israel.” Kenen continued, “The Arab lobby [and today, the far-left lobbies] are ‘anti-’ – anti-Israel, anti-aid, and anti-Israel defending itself.”

AIPAC’s 2022 Election Scorecard

Congressional support for Israel will be stronger after the 2022 midterm elections – from both sides of the political aisle. In the case of AIPAC, both Democrats and Republicans expressed their support for Israel, underscoring the motto of AIPAC’s political action committee: “Being pro-Israel is good policy and good politics.” In keeping with Kenen’s wise bipartisan legacy, $10.8 million was delivered to pro-Israel Democratic candidates and $6.6 million to pro-Israel Republican candidates.

Did AIPAC’s PAC challenge progressive and candidates of color? Not at all.

According to AIPAC, PAC funds were provided to 78% of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 52% of the Congressional Black Caucus, and 49% of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Two AIPAC “defeats” stand out: Israel supporter Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) and Mike Doyle (R-PA), who lost to Summer Lee, a J Street-supported progressive.

J Street was forced to downplay two of its most critical political planks this election – support for Iran and the Iran deal as well as support for a “two-state solution.” Its two “clients” – the Iranian regime and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas – were too abhorrent to promote. The self-proclaimed “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby took a new tack – “pro-democracy,” which meant pro-choice, anti-Trump, and exclusively pro-Democrat.

In the end, AIPAC’s experiment was a demonstrable success, which will encourage politicians to support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and discourage Israel’s detractors.

AIPAC concluded the election with this mission assessment:

In less than a year, the AIPAC PAC emerged as the largest pro-Israel PAC in the country – with more than 6,000 members contributing over $17 million through the AIPAC PAC for 365 Democratic and Republican candidates — affirming that being pro-Israel is both good policy and good politics. Despite the fierce partisanship of this election cycle, there remains a resolute bipartisan commitment to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

AIPAC founder “Si” Kenen and Lenny Ben-David
AIPAC founder “Si” Kenen and Lenny Ben-David (Courtesy)

Fifty years ago, at my first AIPAC Policy Conference, with its audience of maybe 350 people, Kenen insisted that two keynote addresses be delivered by senators, one a Democrat and one a Republican. Then and today, AIPAC has been dedicated to preserving bipartisan support for Israel.