What to Make of AIPAC Entering the World of Political Contributions 

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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2022, pp. 20-21

Special Report

By Dale Sprusansky

THE ISRAEL LOBBY network received a major shakeup in December when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) announced its intention to launch a political action committee (PAC) and a super PAC. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep) held a webinar on Dec. 22, 2021 to dissect the ramifications of this news.

Janet L. McMahon, the former managing editor of the Washington Report and editor of the “Other Voices” supplement, noted that while AIPAC has long coordinated pro-Israel activism and policies, it has never directly contributed to political campaigns. Instead, it has served as the nexus of pro-Israel activity in the U.S., sending cues to the more than 100 pro-Israel PACs that do directly support individual political campaigns. 

McMahon noted that the vast majority of these pro-Israel PACs have “very innocuous names” that few Americans would associate with Israel, such as the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, Desert Caucus PAC and Hudson Valley PAC. “There’s no way you would know what their agenda is,” McMahon observed—and this is intentional. “The idea is that they are not visible, Americans are not aware of the activities of these PACs,” she noted. However, McMahon and her peers at the Washington Report have been diligently tracking and reporting on the activities of these groups for decades by scouring through Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings. 

While following PAC donations gives one an indication of which candidates the lobby favors, PACs are just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the vast sums being spent on pro-Israel politics, McMahon noted. This is because of two growing phenomena.

The first is a tactic known as “bundling,” in which a group of people send individual contributions directly to a candidate all at once to demonstrate their collective financial power and passion for a particular issue, like Israel. Such contributions are recorded by the FEC, but are not officially logged as stemming from a group with a political agenda.

There is also the rising prominence of “dark money” groups, McMahon noted. “Dark money” groups are permitted to engage in political activities such as buying advertisements, but they are prohibited from directly contributing to individual campaigns. Unlike PACs, “dark money” organizations are not required to disclose their donors, since they are registered as non-profits with the Internal Revenue Service. This makes figuring out who is pulling the levers behind large political influence campaigns difficult. 

Indeed, often times voters don’t even know the advertisement they are consuming is from a “dark money” group, especially when that group is pro-Israel. This, McMahon explained, is because pro-Israel groups tend to attack Israel’s critics on unrelated “scandals” and issues. “When the lobby goes after a candidate, they don’t usually say it’s because of that person’s record on Israel, it’s a different issue entirely,” McMahon noted. The reason for this is clear: Unlike the megadonors funding these ads, very few voters are rattled by a candidate questioning the actions of a foreign country such as Israel. 

Grant F. Smith, the director of IRmep, estimated that about $6 billion is donated to “dark money” pro-Israel groups every year. He believes AIPAC’s new PAC and super PAC have the potential to raise this much money. “All they have to do is effectively reach out to that existing pool of donors and become the filter through which that money flows,” he said.

Smith found it intriguing that AIPAC’s PAC will be run by Marilyn Rosenthal, the group’s current progressive engagement director. He believes AIPAC will use its PAC to primarily process contributions from left-wing donors, so that public FEC records will show large amounts of “liberal” cash flowing to pro-Israel causes. In light of growing support for Palestine among the Democratic Party base, AIPAC likely feels the need to do whatever it can to push the image of a “grand progressive initiative” that supports Israel, Smith said. 

While PACs can only receive a limited amount of money from individual donors, super PACs can accept unlimited funds from both individuals and corporations. Super PACs cannot contribute directly to individual campaigns, but, like PACs, they do have to report their funders to the FEC. However, since non-profits can give to super PACs, it’s possible for someone to route their super PAC contribution through a non-profit in order to prevent their identity from being recorded in any FEC filing. In this instance, super PACs can function as quasi “dark money” entities. Smith suspects AIPAC may route some “dark money” into its super PAC, and that the overall flow of cash into its super PAC will likely be “much more significant” than what goes through its PAC.

As to why AIPAC is joining the PAC game, Smith believes the group fears it is losing ground to new organizations such as the recently launched Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI). In recent elections, DMFI has spent millions to influence outcomes and promote the continuation of pro-Israel politics within the Democratic Party. “AIPAC may feel it needs to be more directly involved in electoral politics to be relevant,” Smith said. He also believes AIPAC is concerned with the trajectory of recent initiatives, such as the Abraham Accords Israel signed with several Arab governments, and is accordingly seeking ways to increase its power. 

Walter L. Hixson, the author of several books on the Israel lobby and a contributing editor at the Washington Report, noted that AIPAC views its mission as more important than ever in light of growing criticism of Israel. “The role of the lobby is to distort this knowledge of the illegal settlements, the illegal occupation, the apartheid state and the blatant violation of human rights,” he noted. The lobby has historically been “extremely successful” at this, hence the billions in annual unconditional U.S. aid to Israel and Washington’s robust diplomatic support for Israel. Their ability to keep such support flowing in the midst of glaring violations of international law, human rights, and even U.S. law proves that the Israel lobby is unquestionably the most influential foreign lobby in Washington, Hixson said.

The lobby’s power is most clearly manifested in its ability to steer legislation on Capitol Hill. “Israel effectively owns the U.S. Congress,” he said. “Since the post-war period, Israel found that by targeting, rewarding [and] punishing members of Congress, it could effectively control Congress—and it does.”

While some downplay or outright deny the Israel lobby’s influence, Hixson implored Americans and academics to assess the copious and widely available evidence of the lobby’s power. He warned that AIPAC has no intent to relinquish this power. In addition to launching its PAC and super PAC, Hixson noted the group is expanding its office space and staff in Washington, an indication they intend to continue advancing their work.

Dale Sprusansky is managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.


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