The influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is hosting its 2012 annual policy conference in Washington, D.C. The conference, which advocated the organization's hawkish views on the Middle East conflict, drew 13,000 attendees, including hundreds of members of Congress, President Obama, and Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney. On Tuesday, members of AIPAC will be flooding Capitol Hill with official lobbying appointments. However, there are many ways the lobby group exerts influence in Washington.
In 2001, AIPAC was named the fourth most powerful lobby in Washington, D.C., by Fortune Magazine, and it is very successful in its mission. The United States is among the largest supporters of the Israeli government, providing it with $3 billion a year in foreign aid. The United States also has vetoed dozens of United Nations resolutions critical of Israeli actions. While most Americans are generally supportive of Israel, there are a range of views, including within the U.S. Jewish community, about how best to implement that support. AIPAC presses the executive branch and Congress to pursue the most hawkish policies, usually those in sync with those of the conservative Israeli Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even when Likud is not in power.
One of the keys to AIPAC's success is its education arm, the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF). AIEF sponsors trips to Israel for Members of Congress and their staffs, and uses these trips generally relay Likud's view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In all, AIEF spent $2,035,233 sponsoring congressional trips to Israel in 2011, according to data my blog, Republic Report, gathered through the Legistorm database. In contrast, the more moderate Israel lobby J Street -- which launched in 2008 to provide an alternative to AIPAC's hawkish advocacy -- spent only $45,954 on congressional trips to Israel. J Street's trips, included more extensive meetings with Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups. Which means that J Street was, in this area, outspent by a factor of 44: 1 in 2011. Republic Report has plotted this data into the following chart:
Look at the itinerary (requires free registration with Legistorm) of a nine-day, $20,000 AIEF trip Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) took in August 2011. During his trip, Pompeo was treated to meals, information sessions, tours, and other activities with mostly hawkish high-ranking Israeli officials, academics, and non-profit leaders. The sessions included "Terror from Gaza and Sinai" and "Hamas Next Door." During the nine days, only an hour was spent with Palestinian officials, with a short meeting scheduled in with Salam Fayyad, a Palestinian Authority Prime Minister widely viewed as highly sympathetic to the Israeli government.
None of the AIEF trips have featured extensive visits to the occupied West Bank that would reveal human rights abuses against Palestinians. Israeli human rights groups, too, are not part of these trips. There are also no visits to the Palestinian-operated Gaza Strip, which has been under a crippling embargo for years. The Palestinian narrative of the conflict seems to be almost completely disregarded.
Trips to Israel can be incredibly influential. I know because I went on one last year, with Birthright, an organization that provides free trips to Israel for young Jews. Much of Birthright's funding comes from AIPAC board members, trustees, and sympathizers. My trip's 10-day agenda was remarkably similar to Pompeo's, with fewer high-level security briefings and more sing-alongs. We were, however, personally addressed by Netanyahu and spent extended time with members of the Israeli Defense Force. I went into the trip with an educated and exhaustively thought-out opinion of the Israel-Palestine issue. Over the course of Birthright, I found myself more sympathetic to the more hawkish view of Israel security policy and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But after the Birthright portion of my trip, I traveled independently, spending time with Palestinians in the West Bank, which balanced out my views -- an experience Pompeo and other members of Congress likely miss out on.
AIPAC is certainly entitled to its point of view. But the enormous resources it marshals in pursuit of its goals, including for extensive overseas trips for legislators, drown out other voices and make it difficult for Members of Congress to hear and be receptive to other points of view about how to foster a peaceful Middle East and protect U.S. security.