Since US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar stirred controversy with tweets about the power of the US' Israel lobby, a flood of articles has followed exposing not only the hypocrisy of those attacking her, but lending support to claims made by the Minnesota representative about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
"There Is a Taboo Against Criticizing AIPAC — and Ilhan Omar Just Destroyed It," wrote UK journalist Mehdi Hasan in an article for the Intercept. The Al Jazeera journalist listed several famous instances in which AIPAC had exercised power and influence over US politics, including its bragging about cutting a $3 billion deal to secure aid for Israel and defeating political candidates that fall out of favour with the Israel lobby in re-election bids.
Exposing the hypocrisy among Washington's media and political class, Hasan recounted how the New York Times' Tom Friedman – a long-standing advocate for Israel in the US media – once described the standing ovations (26 altogether during a 39-minute speech) received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby".
The Guardianrevealed that pro-Israel lobby funding had in fact influenced the way Omar's Democrat colleagues responded to her accusations. The UK daily found that House Democratic leaders who drafted a resolution aimed at condemning Omar's remarks received millions of dollars from the pro-Israel lobby throughout their congressional careers. By contrast, those that defended her took little or no money from the lobby. In a separate investigation, the Guardian found that pro-Israel donors spent over $22 million on lobbying and contributions in 2018 alone.
Having broken the "taboo," the debate over the power of the Israel lobby in Washington has shown no sign of slowing. A recent report by Grant F. Smith – author of the book "Big Israel: How Israel's Lobby Moves America," – for Antiwar.com, has revealed that AIPAC is funding congressional trips to Israel to the tune of millions of dollars. These trips, which are often described as "junket to apartheid Israel," are privately-funded trips focused solely on the priorities and perceptions of Israel while ignoring Palestinians altogether.
Smith's data suggests that US lawmakers have an unhealthy loyalty and obsession when it comes to Israel; "one of every three members of Congress boarding a jetliner on a privately-funded, all-expense paid trip overseas has Israel as their final destination," he writes. In contrast, "only one out of a hundred ever visits the Palestinian territories as a final destination".
Seeking to answer the question "do members of Congress take too many private trips to Israel with AIPAC?", Smith found that the 435-person-strong House of Representatives – which makes up one of the two branches of the US Congress – made nearly 1,400 trips to Israel between 2014 and 2018. Meanwhile, the total number of subsidised visits to foreign countries other than Israel stood at 2,500.
Smith's report also suggested that, while these trips may seem to be organised by private organisations, US taxpayers are in fact footing the bill. The vast majority of trips to Israel, he said, are funded by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) which raises tax-exempt contributions from pro-Israel donors and Jewish federations. AIEF was created in 1988 by AIPAC; at one point, 66 per cent of AIEF's board was comprised of AIPAC directors.
The group's influence, along with other arms of AIPAC, is immense. In 2017, for example, AIEF reportedly raised $60 million in revenue. Working alongside another entity set up by AIPAC in 1984 – the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – which Smith says "works to portray policies favoured by the Israeli government as being in the American interest", it is suggested that the Israel lobby has an oversized influence in US politics.
According to Smith, AIPAC differs from other lobby groups funding private trips because of its foreign ties. In an account of history that would suggest AIPAC should be registered as a foreign agent, Smith points out that the Israel lobby was founded in the 1950s by a former employee of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Isaiah Kenen – who received ongoing payments from Israel to set up public relations and lobbying in the US.
Kenen was paid by the Israeli government to receive congressional delegations in Israel after major aid packages were signed into law. The nature of AIPAC's work caught the attention of US officials and, in 1962, the umbrella organization under which AIPAC is said to have served as the lobby division was ordered by the US Justice Department to register as an Israeli foreign agent.
Registering AIPAC as a foreign agent has become a popular call. The Israel lobby is cited as the source for the "over-identification" with Israel that is regularly displayed by US politicians on Capitol Hill. Warning against this, M.J. Rosenberg – writing in the Forward – quoted George Washington as saying: "A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils." America's most-famous president continued: "Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists […] betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."
Rosenberg – who admits to having worked for AIPAC and directly for Kenen, its founder – goes on to argue that the US needed to protect itself against the kind of passionate attachment Washington warned against, but has nevertheless become the most distinguishable character in US-Israel relations. To protect against this kind of passionate attachment, the United States has laws in place that forbid foreign governments from interfering. However, according to Rosenberg "this does not apply to the Israel lobby as represented by AIPAC, which is heavily involved in our political system, funding candidates who are perceived to be 'good on Israel,' and defunding incumbents who fail to subscribe to the favored foreign state's agenda".
"How does AIPAC get away with it?" asks Rosenberg. "It gets away with it because AIPAC's founder, I.L. Kenen, came up with a legal loophole by which AIPAC is defined, not as a lobby for a foreign state, but for Americans who support that state. It's a critical distinction that makes AIPAC's dominance over US Middle East policy possible".
Appealing to recognise AIPAC for what it is, Rosenberg says: "Now is the time to undo Kenen's mistake. It is time to require AIPAC to register as what it is: a foreign agent".
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.