Take a Look Inside AIPAC’s Massive Lobbying Machine

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 4 2013 7:44 PM

It Takes an AIPAC Village

When it comes to influencing U.S. foreign policy, the preeminent pro-Israel lobby knows which fights are worth fighting. 

Vice President Joe Biden (R) embraces Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak (C).
Vice President Joe Biden embraces Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference on Monday in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Is that him?”

“This is the Iron Dome guy? That’s him speaking?”

“I think that’s him!”

A hundred-odd “pro-Israel lobbyists,” as the official literature calls them, gather around a small stage in the AIPAC Village. There are several of these stages. It’s a large “village,” located at the bottom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, in a room that stretches underneath three city blocks. To get there, you walk past the ads that repurpose the old Uncle Sam recruitment photos with a new slogan: “I want YOU to be on time for your lobbying appointment.”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Six weeks ago, this was the site of the largest inaugural ball in modern history. The floor was bare concrete, and the hors d’oeuvres were Cheez-Its and pretzels served in ornate metal bowls. Today, for the annual American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee conference, the room is carpeted, and the kosher refreshments are served from ersatz “food trucks.” Higher-dollar donors head into pavilions at the north and south ends of the room, where they can kibitz with members of Congress and former diplomats. (AIPAC offers special recognitions for donations up to $2 million.) Lower-dollar donors can check out the technological “showcase,” products invented by Israelis and now ready for American soldiers, drivers, or households.

Case in point: a presentation by retired Brig. Gen. Danny Gold. In 2005, when he ran the Israeli Defense Force’s weapons and R&D shop, Gold advocated for a short-range defense system that could scan for missiles, predict their targets, and destroy them in flight. Within five years, Iron Dome was getting the funding it needed. In 2012, it knocked out 84 percent of the missiles shot from the Gaza strip. Gold tells the story in a thick accent, giving credit to Israeli’s scientists—and giving some credit to the Obama administration, which presided over $275 million of funding for Iron Dome.

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Shoshana Marcus, a donor and Hebrew teacher who lives in Maryland, lifts her iPhone above the crowd. “I want to take a picture,” she says. “This is the man who saved my grandchildren! I’ve got grandchildren who live in Israel.”

If Gold saved her grandchildren, and the Obama administration bankrolled that rescue mission, who gets the kudos? That question will be asked and re-asked of the 12,000-plus AIPAC donors who’ve come to D.C. this weekend. Jewish panic about Barack Obama was the dog that never barked, not during the 2008 campaign, not even after the 2012 campaign. When Obama picked Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon, Republicans saw a test for AIPAC. Would America’s “pro-Israel lobby” throw its weight and conspicuous money against a man who’d accused “the Jewish lobby” of “intimidating a lot of people” into unwise votes?

No, it wouldn’t. AIPAC stayed out, pointing out that it never got involved in nomination spats. Hawkish pro-Israel groups, with infinitely less clout, tried and failed to pinch-hit. At a pre-AIPAC happy hour, on Saturday, some of the activists who’d manned the guns remained bitter. “They existed to stop something like the Hagel nomination,” one of them told me. “What vote’s going to come up that’s more important than Hagel? What’s more important than saying: No, you can’t do what Hagel’s done and expect to ever get a defense role?” The anger spilled out from AIPAC donors, and it was channeled in pro-Israel punditry. “Had the American Israel Public Affairs Committee opposed Hagel publicly,” wrote Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin in her 73rd and final post chronicling the nomination, “I do not think he would have been confirmed.”

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