The news that Sen. Chuck Schumer will support the Hagel nomination means that Hagel will almost certainly be confirmed as Secretary of Defense. It does not mean that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is not opposing the appointment. It means that, at long last, it has been defeated.
It is obvious why AIPAC is so insistent that it is not trying to prevent former senator Chuck Hagel from becoming the Secretary of Defense. As investigative journalist Max Blumenthal put it in a piece published yesterday:
AIPAC has good reasons to keep its fingerprints off the public campaign to demonize Hagel. For one, AIPAC thrives on its ability to influence lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, requiring it to avoid alienating the key congressional Democrats who rubberstamp the anti-Palestinian resolutions and Iran sanctions legislation it routinely authors. If AIPAC waded into the Republican-led crusade against Hagel in a public way, it might enrage some of its most reliable Democratic allies in Congress, generating unnecessary acrimony that might complicate future lobbying initiatives.
The other reasons Blumenthal enumerates are AIPAC’s fears of contributing to the bad feelings between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stemming from Netanyahu’s open preference for Mitt Romney in the recent U.S. election.
And then there is AIPAC’s complicated legal status stemming from the fact that, unlike other lobbies for foreign governments, it is not registered as such with the Department of Justice. If it was, its activities would be severely circumscribed. Seeming to lay low, while orchestrating events from behind a screen, makes sense.
AIPAC does not have to issue directives from its headquarters in Washington to convey its desires.
In fact, it usually doesn’t. It never likes to leave fingerprints and still manages to get what it wants because policymakers, media people, etc., know what its preferences are without public pronouncements. This even applies to what AIPAC considers its most significant annual achievement: passage of the $3.5 billion Israel aid package and making sure that there are no strings or conditions attached.
Between 1993 and 1995 I worked for a member of the House Appropriations Committee. That is the body that writes the legislation that provides the money after its Subcommittee on Foreign Operations submits its recommendations which are then quickly approved and, after adoption by the full House and Senate, go to the president for his signature.
Here is how it works. AIPAC provides each staffer on the subcommittee with legislative “language” that spells out precisely what it wants for Israel and the amount of dollars it wants for each provision. The language helpfully arrives in electronic form so the staffer does not have to do anything but drop it into a letter that each legislator writes to the chairman of the committee. Each staffer receives the same “wish list” from AIPAC ensuring that each member of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations will be requesting the same thing.
Invariably there are extra items to be requested, above and beyond the usual provisions, which AIPAC hands out as gifts to members of the committee it particularly favors. That member will be the only one asking for this “goody” for Israel and can then claim credit for it. That credit can then be cashed in the form of contributions from donors associated with the lobby for the legislator’s next campaign
The key point is that this is all done in the dark. No member of the Appropriations Committee would ever admit that all they do in crafting the Israel aid package is drop in Israel’s request, as composed and delivered by AIPAC. If a current staffer ever made the mistake of stating publicly that this is how it is done, she would not be a staffer for long. The bottom line is that AIPAC’s direct role is kept secret. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever described this process until right now.
Achieving passage of the Israel aid package is AIPAC’s most public initiative. Nonetheless, it pretends that the aid legislation simply arises from the will of Congress and the president as a popular manifestation of admiration for Israel.
Needless to say, it does the same thing on its other signature annual achievement: piling sanction after sanction on Iran. It does the same with its lesser efforts like all those resolutions supporting Israel’s wars on Gaza, condemning Palestinian actions and commending Israeli prime ministers for their supposed efforts to achieve peace or combat terrorism. All these arise from AIPAC’s offices, are delivered to Capitol Hill and then are passed with hardly a dissenting voice, all without AIPAC claiming credit for itself. In fact, it invariably hails Congress for doing the work it itself actually did.
So don’t fall for the ridiculous idea that AIPAC is not behind the effort to defeat Chuck Hagel. It almost never operates in the daylight, why would it start now?
Remember, I was the fortunate recipient of the 1982 memo from Steve Rosen, then AIPAC’s deputy director (and subsequently fired by AIPAC after being indicted on an espionage charge) that said the following. Rosen sent it to me on my very first day working at the organization.
It read, in its entirety: “A lobby is like a night flower: It thrives in the dark and dies in the light.”
That is the reason it is operating against Hagel in the dark. Would you expect it to shine a flash light on its self?
No, AIPAC lost. Here is another sign. President Obama is now saying that Netanyahu’s conduct indicates that “ Israel doesn’t know what its best interests are.” It appears that Netanyahu and AIPAC are facing a nightmare: a second term Democratic president who isn’t afraid of the lobby. Stay strong, Mr. President.
M.J. Rosenberg served as a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow with Media Matters Action Network, and prior to that worked on Capitol Hill for various Democratic members of the House and Senate for 15 years. He was also a Clinton political appointee at USAID. In the early 1980s, he was editor of AIPACs weekly newsletter Near East Report. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum.