WASHINGTON — The FBI investigation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has cast light on the fine line that the organization walks between advocating a strong American-Israeli alliance and acting as the representative of a foreign government.
Both activities are legal, but serving a foreign government requires registration with the Department of Justice and entails severe legal restrictions, not applied to pro-Israel groups, including Aipac.
Aipac’s defenders, both in congressional and Jewish communal circles, insist that no evidence has emerged suggesting that Aipac either violated American espionage laws or even crossed the line requiring it to register as a representative of a foreign agent. Aipac enjoys the support, admiration and even awe of Jewish organizational officials, many of whom raced to Aipac’s defense this week.
Still, some pro-Israel activists in Washington are privately suggesting that the current scandal provides Aipac with a chance, in the words of one communal official, for “some soul-searching and reappraisal” regarding its general modes of operation. In recent years a growing minority of pro-Israel activists have expressed criticism of the lobbying powerhouse’s conduct.
Some critics in the Jewish community say that Aipac’s leadership is too closely identified with Israel’s ruling Likud party, an accusation that the organization’s executives reject strongly, arguing that the lobbying group always has supported the democratically elected Israeli government, no matter which party is in power.
Critics also have accused Aipac of adopting an agenda that too closely mirrors the hawkish agenda of neoconservatives in the Bush administration, thereby fueling conspiratorial notions that President Bush was duped into invading Iraq in order to advance Israeli interests.
Now, critics say, with its increasing focus on Iran, Aipac risks fueling the claims of those who would accuse the Jewish community of working with Washington neoconservatives to convince the White House to pursue regime change in Tehran. “Aipac is obsessed with Iran,” said a Washington executive with a major Jewish organization, suggesting that high-profile lobbying on Iran may foment anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments.
The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, rejected the notion that Aipac or other Jewish organizations had placed themselves in a vulnerable position by supporting Bush’s policy in Iraq or other neoconservative-backed Middle East policies.
“We are playing someone else’s game when we start talking about the neocon agenda and so on,” said Yoffie, who has criticized various elements of the foreign policy agenda advocated by the more hawkish members of the Bush administration. “I am opposed to any reaction that suggests this is our fault because we are too right wing. I’ve made that argument many times, and I will again, but doing so in this context would be blaming the victim.”
Several Jewish communal leaders complain that Aipac officials, as well as successive governments in Israel and the United States, have not done enough to maintain a clear wall between the lobbying group and the two governments. Critics noted that Aipac officials have left the organization to serve in the Israeli and American governments. Lenny Ben-David, formerly known as Leonard Davis, for example, worked at Aipac for 25 years — first in Washington and then in Jerusalem — before he was tapped by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998 to be the deputy chief of mission in Israel’s Washington embassy. Martin Indyk, a former Aipac staffer, became then-President Clinton’s chief Middle East adviser.
One Israeli prime minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin, chastised Aipac for too actively lobbying America’s administration. Aipac should limit its efforts to Capitol Hill, Rabin and his aides argued, and stay out of contacts between the executive branches of both countries.
Aipac’s focus on Iran policy came about as a result of Rabin’s prodding. Both he and Aipac officials preferred that the organization stay out of the Israeli-Arab peace process. Rabin suggested that Aipac lobby Congress for a tough policy toward Iran and Aipac pushed for the legislation that was eventually passed in 1996 as the Iran Libya Sanctions Act.
Aipac eventually resumed its lobbying of the executive branch, which during George W. Bush’s administration has become more intense and more intimate than ever before, according to Aipac officials. With staunch supporters of Ariel Sharon’s policy in the White House, the Pentagon and even in some offices of the State Department, Aipac enjoys unprecedented access to the administration, sources said.
While still focusing its lobbying efforts on Congress, Aipac continues to cultivate administration sources at various levels. Aipac officials point out that all important lobbying groups in Washington operate in similar ways.