WASHINGTON -- The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has received the lion's share of attention for its support of and potential failure to pass a new Iran sanctions bill in the face of fierce presidential opposition. But the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby group in the U.S. has not been alone in this fight. It has been joined by a network of lesser known pro-Israel PACs equipped with one persuasive tool that AIPAC lacks: campaign contributions.
Representing communities of Jewish Americans from Long Island to Florida, from northern New Jersey to Tucson, Ariz., and the San Francisco Bay Area, these PACs have pumped more than $5.4 million into federal campaigns while hosting dozens of fundraisers and other events for members of Congress since 2011. Usually they receive little coverage, but as Chuck Gannon, president of the pro-Israel Desert Caucus PAC, told the Arizona Jewish Post, "It’s not a secret among politicians."
And these pro-Israel PACs have tended to be as determined as AIPAC in their call for tougher sanctions against Iran.
The sanctions legislation that stirred up the current fuss was introduced by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in December and quickly picked up 58 co-sponsors. It's aimed at the temporary nuclear deal hashed out between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, and supporters claim it would strengthen the U.S.'s hand against Iran. Opponents say it threatens to undermine the delicate balance of the agreement.
President Barack Obama reiterated his view in Tuesday night's State of the Union address: He warned lawmakers of both parties that he opposed that legislation while his administration and international allies were engaged in the first fruitful diplomatic efforts to reel in Iran's nuclear power ambitions.
"The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible," Obama said, referencing earlier restrictions on Iran. "But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."
The pro-Israel PACs disagree. They fear that the lifting of older sanctions under the initial short-term deal takes needed pressure off Iran, and the biggest recipients of their campaign cash include some of the biggest supporters of the new sanctions bill. Since 2011, Sen. Menendez has raised $177,270 from those pro-Israel groups now backing his legislation. Freshman Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a sanctions co-sponsor, raised $161,180 from the groups just last year.
Sources: Federal Election Commission, Influence Explorer. Figures cover the period 2011 to 2013.
It's no surprise that the two New Jersey senators are at the top of the list for campaign cash from pro-Israel, pro-sanctions groups. NORPAC, which is located in northern New Jersey, is the single largest donor among the pro-sanctions groups based on its direct campaign contributions and its members' so-called conduit contributions through the PAC.
NORPAC highly encourages these conduit contributions -- which go to the candidate with both the donor's and the PAC's names attached -- declaring on its website that any other contribution would be "'lost money' for the pro-Israel cause." The idea, according to NORPAC, is that the donor receives credit for the donation while "the candidate will know one of the overriding reasons you donated is because you believe in supporting the US-Israel relationship."
Many of these contributions are raised at the some 70 fundraisers the group holds for members of Congress from around the country each election cycle.
"We have our fundraisers for people who are supportive of our issues or who we think could be supportive of our issues," NORPAC president Ben Choake said.
Other groups, such as the Florida Congressional Committee, hold multiple fundraisers and other events, but mostly for lawmakers from their area.
Andrew Fiske, a board member at the Florida Congressional Committee, played down the role of fundraising. "It's just about getting in front of somebody to talk to them and building relationships," he said. "I think the fundraising is secondary."
The pro-sanctions groups also bring pressure to bear on Congress through grassroots organizing. NORPAC leads a 1,000-person mission each year to Washington to personally lobby lawmakers. Sanctions legislation was such a priority in 2013 that the group persuaded Sen. Kirk's office to send it the text of his bill before it was publicly filed so that the group could include those details in talking points prepared for its lobbying mission.
While those talking points made the expected arguments for tougher Iran sanctions, the leadership of the pro-sanctions PAC can be more apocalyptic.
"You're talking about a theocracy that is regularly espousing genocidal intent not only to Israel but to Jews in general," Choake said. "You haven't dealt with this kind of stuff since World War II, and this is when they're negotiating, supposedly on their best behavior." Iran is "as close to the new Nazis as you can get," he said.
Moreover, any agreement that does not completely dismantle the entire Iranian nuclear program -- a result that the Obama administration is not pursuing and the Iranian government would not accept -- "would be Munich," Choake said, referring to the 1938 Munich Agreement that handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis. (Sen. Kirk has also made reference to Munich.)
While Choate insists he still supports diplomatic efforts, that kind of "beware Munich" rhetoric implies a different attitude. This may be part of the reason why, despite the PACs' efforts, an increasing number of lawmakers in recent days are coming around to the administration's position that pushing the sanctions bill is tantamount to declaring one's support for war.
Since the State of the Union address, three co-sponsors -- Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) -- have withdrawn their support for the bill. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) dropped his support in the days prior to the president's address. Prospects for the bill's passage are fading.
The senators who have changed their minds can point to other voices among the Jewish American community who aren't calling for more sanctions.
"We're using our full arsenal of advocacy tools to argue against the legislation of any new sanctions at this time," said Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs at the pro-Israel group J Street.
According to Williams, the formation of J Street in 2008 has helped to empower those American supporters of Israel who do not back the most hawkish position on every issue that relates to the Middle East.
"We, working with other groups as well, have changed that political dynamic over the course of five and a half years," Williams said. "And you're seeing members of Congress feeling more free to promote the policies that they feel are enabling the better policies because they now have the political space to do so."
That political space is aided by the $2.4 million in contributions that J Street has given to candidates since 2011. Most of this money came in the form of conduit contributions.
Williams suggests that few of the original co-sponsors of the sanctions bill read the text before signing on and now that they're learning its contents, they're having regrets. In particular, supporters of the bill claim that the new sanctions will only take effect at the conclusion of the six-month interim deal. That is "objectively false," said Williams.
In fact, the sanctions would go into force 90 days after the legislation became law. Supporters note that the bill provides for a presidential waiver to push that date back to the end of the interim deal, but, according to National Iranian American Council policy director Jamal Abdi, the waiver would be impossible to invoke.
"The waiver that it gives him requires him to make certifications to Congress that go above and beyond what's inside the deal," Abdi said.
Despite the apparent turning of the tide against new sanctions, Abdi believes that simply introducing the legislation undermined the U.S. position at the ongoing nuclear talks. "They've put the negotiators in a place where they're now going to be questioned as to whether they can deliver on the terms of any final deal," he said.
Choake, however, thinks that a harsher stance is right for America and the world.
"When you hear the stories of your parents," he said, "when you know your grandfather or your uncle or your cousins were killed or murdered in a genocidal initiative ... you come to understand how bad things can get and how dangerous they are."