What Should AIPAC Do Now?
After the Iran-Deal Vote: What Should AIPAC and Pro-Israel Voters Do Now?
By Chris Gersten, former Political Director, AIPAC and founding Executive Director, National Jewish Coalition
Now that the fight to defeat the Iran nuclear agreement is over, the pro-Israel community can begin to explore how AIPAC and other Jewish organizations should respond to the outcome. It is possible for these groups to grow stronger, provided they learn from the experience. I saw this happen when I was AIPAC’s political director in 1983 and 1984, shortly after AIPAC failed to defeat the Reagan Administration’s sale of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) to the Saudis.
Instead of being weakened by the defeat, AIPAC used the AWACS sale to mobilize the American-Jewish community and dramatically strengthen all aspects of its operation. Pro-Israel PACs multiplied all over the nation, and AIPAC increased its budget and staff size.
The current leadership should follow the same path by developing a strategy to turn defeat into an opportunity to grow in strength.
Little GOP Support
AIPAC lost the AWACS battle in large part because it had little sway with Republicans, and no wonder. After I started working for AIPAC, I did a Federal Election Commission analysis of pro-Israel contributions to all members of Congress and discovered that, in the 1981-1982 election cycle, 90 percent of all pro-Israel PAC contributions were made to Democrats. I saw to it that that kind of lopsided support for candidates of one party over the other never happened again. But pro-Israel financial support for GOP candidates is still less than 40 percent of the total today.
The Iran Agreement fight in Congress has polarized the Jewish community and divided Congressional supporters. The Democratic Party, considered to be much more pro-Israel than the GOP until the last 25 years, sided with the President in the fight, with four notable exceptions: Senators Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin, and Joe Manchin.
The Republican Party in the Senate and House was nearly unanimous in its opposition to the Agreement.
So how should the pro-Israel community respond? It is tempting, especially for Republicans like me, to attack the Democrats, call them unreliable friends in the pocket of a President who is no friend of Israel, and work to elect Republicans. But that would only weaken AIPAC and further polarize support for Israel. Instead, the pro-Israel community needs to explore a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach to dealing with the abandonment by most of the Congressional Democratic Party.
AIPAC must lead all pro-Israel forces. The Republican Jewish Coalition needs to understand AIPAC’s strategy and set about developing its own approach to reward Republicans and selectively try to defeat Democratic Senators who voted for the Agreement.
The abandonment of AIPAC and Israel by the majority of Jewish Democrats in the House and Senate demonstrated that these members do not consider the loss of AIPAC support to be a serious issue. They all have their own deep relationships with the pro-Israel community and can raise their own funds from the Jewish community.
Reducing Their Donations
It is important to remember that Democratic members of the House and Senate continue to get disproportionate financial support from pro-Israel PACs. According to Janet McMahon of Election Watch, in 2014 seven of the top ten Congressional fundraisers from pro-Israel PACs were Democrats. In terms of career fundraising, seven of the top ten House members and eight of the top ten Senators were Democrats. In 2012, eight of the top ten fundraisers were Democrats and all ten of the top ten Senators were Democrats. The same pattern existed earlier.
AIPAC must now restructure relationships with Democrats who have been traditional friends of Israel but supported the Iran Agreement. It must not be forgotten that they opposed AIPAC on the most important vote of the past 30 years.
These members must not be given a pass. They must get the message that while they are still considered friends of Israel, they must now re-confirm that friendship through concrete acts.
No Easy Passes
AIPAC must not let the Dems off easy by giving them phony pro-Israel credentials that have no impact on policy. Asking Democrats to issue boilerplate pro-Israel statements or sponsor feel-good resolutions or even sign letters to the President or Secretary of State is no substitute for taking tough stands when it matters most.
The difficult task will be to reduce funding for these Democrats (and the few GOP members who voted with the President) in 2016 but keep doors of communication wide open.
Contributions to these members through pro-Israel PACs and individuals should be cut way back for the 2016 cycle. AIPAC does not tell the PACS how to spend their money, but signals to these PACS can be sent.
Sending a Strong Message
The Democrats who supported the Iran Agreement will continue to seek to split the Jewish community. They will push the PACs for contributions and try to end-run AIPAC. But the pro-Israel PACs must take a very disciplined approach to supporting those who broke with AIPAC. If the PACs agree to cut back their contributions to those former friends who voted against AIPAC by 75 percent, the members would get a very strong message.
The PACs must be united in this effort. The worst thing that could happen would be if Jewish and other Dems could split the pro-Israel community by squeezing money from PACs right after they abandoned Israel.
Members who have been friends in the past should feel the heat and should understand that they need to prove themselves all over again to be considered reliable friends of Israel. These members need to be invited into homes to meet and hear from Jewish and Christian Evangelical friends of Israel without raising money. They need to hear that they have let their pro-Israel constituents down and have a lot of fence mending to do.
A number of the Democrats who supported the President have raised hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars from pro-Israel PACs and donors. A few of these politicians from the Democrat party should be targeted by the PACS and donors for defeat, first and foremost Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who uses her strong ties to the pro-Israel community to raise money for herself, for the Democratic National Committee which she heads, and for other Democrats.
When Ms. Wasserman Schultz voted against AIPAC, she thumbed her nose at the entire pro-Israel Jewish community. She should have every cent of her pro-Israel funding cut off and money should be raised for her 2016 opponent.
Targeting the Vulnerable
Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, another Jewish Democrat who opposed AIPAC, has raised high six figures from the pro-Israel community over the years. It would be useful to target him as well.
Looking ahead to the 2018 and 2020 elections, pro-Israel donors should look at all vulnerable Senators who voted with the President on Iran.
One of these vulnerable Senators is first-term Michael Bennett of Colorado, who voted against AIPAC and is running in 2016.
What We Can Do
Pro-Israel activists should create full-page newspaper and internet ads during the 2016 election reminding pro-Israel voters which members voted for and against the Iran Agreement.
Jewish community groups and synagogues should invite opponents of those Dems who voted wrong to speak before Jewish audiences.
There must be a price to pay for the Democratic members who supported the most anti-Israel President in US history against AIPAC and Israel. At the same time, local Jewish leaders must keep all doors open to these members, and AIPAC should continue to work closely with them to gain support for the very difficult issues that will emerge over the next few years.