By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) — It has been for decades a recurring confusion for some in Washington: does AIPAC, the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby, have a PAC?
Not until today.
The PAC in AIPAC stands for Public Affairs Committee, not political action committee. But after countless explanations over the years, the group is getting into the fundraising business.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Thursday launched a regular political action committee, which funnels $5,000 maximum donations to designated candidates per race, and a super PAC, which can raise unlimited money for a candidate. AIPAC PAC will be the name of the regular PAC, while the super PAC has yet to be named.
“The creation of a PAC and a super PAC is an opportunity to significantly deepen and strengthen the involvement of the pro-Israel community in politics,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in an email. “The PACs will work in a bipartisan way.”
Wittmann would not provide further comment. But one function of the PACs could be to allow AIPAC to more robustly favor Democrats who are close to the lobby, to counter an impression in recent years that has deeply troubled the lobby: that it is more inclined to do battle with Democrats than Republicans. Additionally, coming out with an initiative that is emphatically bipartisan is a means of rejecting pressure on the lobby from Republicans to shun Democrats.
Notably, the regular PAC will be headed by Marilyn Rosenthal, who in recent years has led AIPAC’s outreach to progressives. An AIPAC official said the super PAC will be helmed by Rob Bassin, AIPAC’s longtime political director.
It’s a sea change for a lobby that since its launch in the first half of the 1950s has assiduously cultivated an image of being above the political fray, at least on the surface. The annual policy conference, suspended this year and next because of the pandemic, is welcoming to all comers, Democrats and Republicans alike, and lawmakers in either party who tangled with AIPAC were barely mentioned by name at past conferences. The named enemies were those foreign governments perceived as threatening Israel — Iran is a recurring villain — and the narrative was that AIPAC was uniting Congress against those bad actors.
AIPAC has become more domestically combative in recent years as a cadre of Israel critics among progressive Democrats has become more vocal. Two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, boycotted AIPAC’s annual policy conference in 2020.
AIPAC in its online advertising has recently targeted Israel’s harshest critics on the left, including Reps. Ilhan Omar and Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. The lobby has also singled out Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who consistently obstructs assistance to Israel, although he frames that as being in Israel’s interest.
Behind the scenes, AIPAC could be hard-hitting. It published a candidates’ scoring guide, but endeavored to make sure that only AIPAC insiders and donors had access.
AIPAC members were also rewarded with honors depending on how much they gave a candidate. Politicians held fundraisers at hotels and restaurants not on the campus of an AIPAC event, like the policy conference, but never more than walking distance.
Actual PACs popped up that barely tried to hide their origins at a meeting of AIPAC-affiliated minds; Pro-Israel America, launched in 2019, is led by two former senior AIPAC staffers.
In a statement announcing the new PACs, AIPAC made it clear that in the current polarized environment, maintaining a veneer of politesse was no longer a nicety the lobby could afford.
“The DC political environment has been undergoing profound change,” the statement said. “Hyperpartisanshiup, high congressional turnover and the exponential growth in the cost of campaigns now dominate the landscape.”
Notably, AIPAC’s upstart rival, J Street, also runs an adjacent regular PAC, although not a super PAC, which requires greater infrastructure and investment.
AIPAC will retain its 501 (c) 4 tax exempt status, which allows it to engage in politics as long as politics are not its main endeavor. An affiliate, the American Israel Educational Fund, which subsidizes trips to Israel for lawmakers and other influencers, has 501 (c) 3 status, which allows for greater tax exemptions. That status is limited to organizations whose aims are educational, religious or charitable.
An AIPAC official who spoke anonymously to share strategy said the launch of the PACs was part of an effort to modernize the lobby. The official noted AIPAC’s expanded social media presence and said an AIPAC app would soon be forthcoming.
Main Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, D.C.,on March 25, 2019 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)