As Democrats prepare to take control of Congress, they are quietly saying that the pro-Israel lobby needs to “do some work” to improve relations with their party.
Democratic sources said that on several occasions in recent months, they felt as if the American Israel Public Affairs Committee appeared to be siding with the Republicans. In addition, some Democratic operatives complain that Aipac should have done more to speak out against the Republican campaign to paint Democrats as unreliable when it comes to standing up for Israel’s security.
Aipac officials deny that the lobby has been leaning toward the Republicans, and its executive director and president issued a November 1 statement insisting that support in Congress for Israel would remain strong regardless of which party is in power. But some Democrats complained that the statement was released Wednesday afternoon, after Jewish newspapers had gone to press with their last issue before the elections.
“This goes into my better-late-than-never file,” said Matt Dorf, a Democratic consultant who also works with Jewish organizations. “But the timing of putting this out after all the Jewish newspapers have gone to bed with their last issue before the elections is curious at best.” Referring to Aipac’s leaders, Dorf added, “They’re sophisticated players in politics, and timing is often as important as content.”
Sources close to Aipac say that the lobby decided to release the statement only last week, after the Republican Jewish Coalition released an advertisement quoting Morris Amitay, a former executive director of Aipac.
Democrats and Aipac officials both stressed that they have no dispute over Israel-related policy. But, Democrats added, at times during their years in the minority they have felt slighted by Aipac.
Several Democrats cited the scrape over a pro-Israel resolution passed in July during last summer’s Lebanon war. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi refused to co-sponsor the measure after Republicans rebuffed efforts to include a line from the Senate version that called on both sides to avoid killing civilians. Democrats claim that Aipac did not use its leverage and its connections to soften the Republican stand and to accommodate Pelosi’s concerns.
A similar situation arose in December 2005. Democrats felt that the final language of a letter drafted by the House International Relations Committee to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, praising her success in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian deal on Gaza border crossings, was too political.
Last May, Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat and member of the House International Relations Committee, alleged that an Aipac representative accused the congresswoman of supporting terrorists because she voted against the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 in committee. Until the situation was ironed out, McCollum, a lawmaker with a solid pro-Israel record and good relations with the local Jewish community, refused to meet with Aipac officials.
In addition to Amitay’s quote in the recent RJC ad, the actions of another former Aipac staffer, Caryn Garber, raised Democratic hackles last week. Garber, now a staffer for Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, sent an e-mail message that appeared to threaten retribution against Tel Aviv University because one of its main supporters is backing Kirk’s Democratic opponent. Democrats said that they now expect pro-Israel activists to take steps to mend any broken fences.
“There will be a need for some care and feeding, but it will be fine,” said one source close to congressional Democrats. According to another source with ties to the Democrats, “the good news is that both sides want to see the relationship improve.” Some Democrats said that as part of the effort to smooth over any ruffled feathers, they expect to see an increase in donations from the pro-Israel community to help cover Democratic campaign debts, as well as closer cooperation on the part of Aipac with Democratic staffers.
Sources in the Democratic Party said that in recent months, as polls began to point to Republican defeats, they already have begun to sense warmer vibes coming from Aipac circles. Democratic candidates around the country have reported an increase in campaign contributions from pro-Israel activists, and many Democratic campaigns enjoyed close ties with local donors who also have ties to Aipac.
Aipac activists and other knowledgeable political players “know where the wind is blowing,” said a Democratic activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did other members of his party interviewed for this story. Aipac officials flatly reject any claims of being at odds with Democrats, or of any need to fix the relations. “People said the same when the Democrats lost power and the Republicans took over Congress, but the transition was seamless,” an Aipac official said, adding that members of the lobby come from both parties and provide contributions to both Democrats and Republicans.
Aipac spokesman Josh Block rejected claims that the lobby has been maneuvering one way or the other between the parties.
“The one constant in Congress and in American politics is the bipartisan support for strong U.S.-Israel relations,” Block said. He asserted that Aipac always maintains good relations with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
Dorf, the Democratic consultant who raised questions about Aipac’s statement last week, said that he did expect his party “to work in cooperation with Aipac and with all other groups in the future.”
With reporting by Jennifer Siegel in New York.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.