AIPAC Goes PAC and SuperPAC to Cover its Tracks as it Targets Progressives

We’re likely to see even more money going … to support these candidates who are perceived to be moderate Democrats who are pro-Israel, and to either protect them if they’re incumbents or to unseat [their opponents] if they’re progressives. – Don Waxman, UCLA

WASHINGTON – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading organization of the Israel lobby in the United States, launched two political action committees (PACs) last month in a move largely seen as an attempt to retain control amid a political climate becoming increasingly more critical of Israel.

One of the newly formed PACs will operate as a traditional PAC in that it can raise a maximum of $5,000 per candidate and must disclose its donors. The Super PAC, however, can spend unlimited amounts of money on candidates and does not need to reveal contributors’ identities.

AIPAC elaborated on its decision in a statement published on social media, written by President Betsy Berns Korn and emphasizing the organization would be supporting both Democrats and Republicans:

Throughout AIPAC’s history, the Board of Directors has consistently adjusted our political strategy to ensure we could remain successful in an ever-changing Washington. 

The D.C. political environment has been undergoing profound change. Hyper-partisanship, high congressional turnover, and the exponential growth in the cost of campaigns now dominate the landscape. 

As such, the Board has decided to introduce these two new tools.

Marilyn Rosenthal, AIPAC’s progressive engagement director, will lead the regular PAC and AIPAC’s political director, Rob Bassin, will manage the Super PAC. AIPAC did not respond to MintPress News’ requests for comment.

 

Why now?

AIPAC’s decision stirred Palestine-Israel experts across the nation. In a webinar on the subject from the Washington Report of Middle East Affairs (WRMEA), Grant F. Smith – director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy – outlined why AIPAC established these PACs now.

“Better coordination via a new PAC directly run by AIPAC will mean electing more U.S. politicians who will advance Israel’s interests from within the U.S. government,” Smith said in the webinar. “That’s the game plan.”

AIPAC is aiming to keep elected officials in line, Smith postulated. “Increasing numbers of members of Congress are opposing AIPAC and Israeli government initiatives in Congress, and to AIPAC that just isn’t acceptable.” According to Smith, AIPAC may fear losing political relevancy to other pro-Israel groups like the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), as well as wanting more pro-Israel politiicans in Congress to counter the wave of criticism coming from progressive Democrats.

In its PAC announcement, AIPAC emphasized bipartisanship would be key when distributing donations. But Smith identified a political strategy meant to mislead the public. From his analysis, AIPAC may use the traditional PAC to present a false narrative of progressive, grassroots Democratic support for Israel. He noted:

There will be a lot of Democrats and progressives presumably herded by Marilyn to donate and then they’ll all be publicly reported on in the media as endorsing pro-Israel candidates and signaling ‘this grand progressive initiative which is support for Israel. “

While the regular PAC may display Democratic support, Smith speculated the Super PAC may allow for Republican contributions to infiltrate Democratic races. “This will allow AIPAC’s new dark-money entity, which won’t disclose donors, to keep that Republican and anonymous Israel-affinity money flowing into probably, mostly Democratic races,” he said.

While AIPAC asserted they’ll be bipartisan, the organization may actually want it to appear as if they are with the Democrats. Author and historian Walter L. Hixson told MintPress News that former President Donald Trump turned AIPAC into a Republican body and that may be concerning for the lobbying group. “With Trump giving them everything they wanted and Trump also vilifying Democrats as the anti-Israel party, they drifted in the Republican direction,” Hixson said. “With J Street becoming the sort of Democratic lobby, AIPAC has sort of become the Republican lobby, and I think they don’t fully want that.”

 

Is AIPAC losing power?

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, AIPAC canceled its annual conference two years in a row. Without the conference – seen as a defining feature of the organization and a way for it to promote its agenda – AIPAC may be looking for new ways to influence.

Dov Waxman, director of UCLA’s Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, told MintPress that AIPAC is now operating in a more challenging political environment. “In years past, AIPAC’s dominance among pro-Israel groups was unrivaled, and it really was able to exercise a great deal of influence in Congress,” Waxman said. But now – with the rise of DMFI, J Street, and Christians United for Israel – AIPAC isn’t the only one lobbying for a foreign state in Washington.

From Hixson’s vantage point, AIPAC still remains king on Capitol Hill and the last election cycle may have been the main motivator behind AIPAC’s decision. “I’m sure they’re reflecting back on the last election cycle, when they suffered a major defeat in New York when Elliot Engel lost to Jamal Bowman,” Hixson said, describing how Democratic Rep. Engel, an incumbent and a longtime AIPAC ally, lost his race to challenger Bowman, who has strongly criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “They [AIPAC] targeted and tried to defeat [Rep. Ilhan] Omar and other members of the Squad and they won reelection easily.”

AIPAC

The Trump administration turned AIPAC into a Republican body, a reality the lobbying group is working to reverse. Photo | AP

Beyond electoral politics, Smith also suggested in WRMEA’s webinar and in an article published on the magazine’s website that AIPAC’s policy goals being in jeopardy may also be a factor, writing:

Lobbying on behalf of the Abraham Accords, but in reality for foreign countries (in addition to Israel), was the key item on [AIPAC’s] 2021 legislative agenda. AIPAC’s inability to smoothly deliver advanced U.S. fighter jets to the UAE may be why the lobby for Israel just announced it will be directly incorporating and operating political action committees (PACs) and super PACs to financially support key candidate races.

The UAE recently announced it would buy $18 billion worth of aircraft from France instead of the U.S. This, along with the UAE’s decision to not fund a $200 million Israeli salmon farming project in Virginia – an AIPAC-sponsored initiative – suggests AIPAC’s lobbying efforts are not now as effective as they once were. “For the Abraham Accords to work, AIPAC has to be able to lobby as effectively for UAE, Sudan, and Morocco as it does for Israel’s government, but it’s not showing any capability to do that,” Smith said. Touted as economically beneficial and a way to strengthen Middle East peace, the Abraham Accords are now in disarray. And as these normalization agreements crumble, so too does AIPAC’s significance, he concluded.

 

AIPAC working behind the scenes to channel funds

Despite its easily misconstrued acronym, AIPAC has never been a PAC. However, this hasn’t stopped the organization from taking part in the campaign arena. “AIPAC has always been a spearhead and has determined who gets funded, who gets rewarded, and who gets punished,” Hixson said. “But in order to keep their tax-exempt status [they] would farm that out to other PACs that were officially political action committees.”

Janet McMahon, founding editor of WRMEA, detailed in the publication’s webinar how for decades AIPAC has been advising several pro-Israel PACs on their donations. Specifically, a 1986 memo from Elizabeth Schrayer, AIPAC’s then-assistant director of political affairs, revealed the close-knit collaboration. In it, Schrayer suggested these PACs donate to certain candidates outside of their state. “These PACs have very innocuous names; very few of them mention Israel,” McMahon said. “The idea is they are not visible. Americans are not aware of the activities of these PACs.”

In McMahon’s monitoring of these PACs with WRMEA, she was always careful to note AIPAC still was never a PAC. She explained:

For the past 30 years or so, I’ve been telling people, “AIPAC does not contribute money to political candidates” because people think if you say someone is getting money from the Israel lobby, it means they are getting money from AIPAC, and it has not. It means they are getting money from these smaller political action committees. But it looks like a major change is in the works.”

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More Israel-centered elections?

Last summer, pro-Israel Democrat Shontel Brown beat progressive Nina Turner in a congressional primary election after DMFI poured in $1 million to stop Turner, a critic of Israel, from winning. That Ohio race may signal how much Israel will influence future congressional elections. Waxman suggested:

We’re likely to see even more money going into these races, in particular, to try to support these candidates who are perceived to be moderate Democrats who are pro-Israel, and to either protect them if they’re incumbents or to unseat [their opponents] if they’re progressives. This battle over the Democratic Party positions vis-a-vis Israel-Palestine is just going to intensify in the years ahead.”

Candidates’ views on Israel may determine how AIPAC uses its money, Smith said, but that doesn’t mean Israel will even come up in electoral debates. “You focus on the candidates’ weaknesses as opposed to being true to your cause and saying, ‘They’re not pro-Israel enough,’” Smith said, referring to how these PACs may operate.

Hiding an organization’s real objective is key, Smith noted, suggesting AIPAC may use the same puppet-master manipulation tactics it has utilized for years with pro-Israel PACs in its own PACs. “These PACs tried to stay in the background, even as they all coordinated giving to candidates they thought would support Israel,” he told MintPress News. “The name of the game was to get their person in. It wasn’t necessarily to be forthright about what the true initiative was.”

With PACs, keeping the money dark is crucial.

“That’s the way AIPAC likes to operate because it is becoming increasingly unpopular to support what Israel is doing,” Smith said. “They really would rather operate outside the limelight, behind the scenes, under the dome, or, as [former AIPAC official] Steve Rosen once said, ‘[so they] don’t necessarily have their fingerprints on it.’”

Feature photo | Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 26, 2019. Jose Luis Magana | AP

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.