AIPAC Talking Points Revealed

AIPAC Talking Points Revealed

Documents show that the powerful lobby is spreading its influence on Capitol Hill by calling for unconditional military aid to Israel and hyping up threats from Iran.

by Luke Goldstein, reposted from The American Prospect, March 14, 2024

NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND – This week, approximately 1,600 foot soldiers from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) congregated inside the garish yet functional Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, for the PAC’s annual policy conference. It took place this year amid Israel’s bloody war in Gaza, which has left at least 30,000 Palestinians dead and is turning into a critical wedge issue in the 2024 elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed attendees by videocast, along with Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog. According to an incomplete speaker list, the entire Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress delivered remarks—Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Mike Johnson. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) and Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) were both in attendance, among other representatives.

In past years, the conference has been a media spectacle, with a widely disseminated lineup of powerful speakers to showcase AIPAC’s enduring political influence. This year, however, it was locked down, with few social media posts and broadcast speeches, largely because of the threat of disruptions from anti-war protests. The goal of this year’s low-key gathering was to fire up attendees for AIPAC’s 2024 agenda, before sending them off to Capitol Hill to strong-arm Congress on supporting Israel.

The Prospect has obtained documents from the conference that preview the PAC’s lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill this week. The documents reveal AIPAC’s legislative strategy and the talking points it will use to support an unconditional $14 billion military funding package that has thus far been held up, among other policy changes. They also include numerous positions on aspects of the U.S. response to the war that have not previously been made public, from abolishing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to opposing recent restrictions imposed by the Biden administration on Israeli settlers. There is no mention of a two-state solution.

“This is damning evidence that AIPAC is completely aligned with the far right of the Israeli government even as tensions emerge between Netanyahu and the Biden administration,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Though many of the policy positions are consistent with AIPAC’s past advocacy, this trove of files offers a rare glimpse into the conversations the PAC holds with members of Congress behind closed doors, and the arguments it’s deploying.

THOUGH THE PRIMARY MOTIVATION FOR THE CONFERENCE was lobbying, the event also informed members about the PAC’s congressional spending plans. AIPAC has pledged to drop over $100 million on campaigns this election cycle to defeat any congressional candidates critical of Israel.

This week, the PAC touted its prowess to members as “dollar for dollar, the largest contributor to candidates in the 2022 midterm elections,” via its super PAC United Democracy Project. One brochure even pulls quotes from critical articles in The Intercept and Slate as testaments to its pre-eminence as an electoral juggernaut.

AIPAC has long described itself as a bipartisan organization that endorses the full leadership of both parties, despite the fact that financial disclosures show that many of its top donors overwhelmingly back GOP candidates, including former President Trump. Yet in 2022 and this year, almost all of AIPAC’s electoral spending has come in Democratic primaries.

At the conference, the lobby did not hide its slant in campaign funding. In one pamphlet given to conference attendees, the only featured Democrats were from safe blue seats where they’d defeated a more progressive “anti-Israel” candidate in the primary, such as Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI), Shontel Brown (D-OH), and Glenn Ivey (D-MD). The featured Republicans, however, either flipped their seats or represented highly contested frontline races held by only narrow margins. Those were Reps. Young Kim (R-CA), Don Bacon (R-NE), and Ken Calvert (R-CA).

AIPAC is instructing members to make assertions of fact to congressional staff that are not supported by credible evidence other than statements by the Israel Defense Forces.

It’s been clear for several election cycles that AIPAC might sway the electoral map more so for Republicans, but this document all but signals that directly to its members.

The pamphlet does try to refute charges that the lobby opposes all progressives. It takes a dig at its critics by claiming to have raised more money for endorsed Congressional Progressive Caucus members, at $1.8 million, than left-aligned groups Justice Democrats, J Street, and EMILYs List combined.

But the talking points promoted at the conference for its members to use on the Hill tell a different story. They’re exclusively directed at combating rhetoric and policy from Democrats, Squad members, cease-fire advocates, and even President Biden, who has only recently mildly criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the war.

The legislative packet is directed at defending Israel’s military actions in Gaza against any calls for conditioning military assistance, as well as the findings of the International Court of Justice investigation. AIPAC is also using the ongoing war and threat from Hamas to call for further sanctions against Iran, potentially pulling the U.S. into a broader regional war.

AIPAC is instructing members to make assertions of fact to congressional staff that are not supported by credible evidence other than statements by the Israel Defense Forces, according to experts who reviewed the documents. “They’re going to the Hill to repeat a foreign government’s talking points,” said Matt Duss at the Center for International Policy, a former policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The lobbying files promote the familiar though contested line that “Israel does not target civilians.” This has been questioned due to the sheer body count of Palestinian civilians, women and children, during the war, compared to members of Hamas, along with the stated intentions by several Israeli officials to “eliminate everything” in Gaza. The IDF has justified the high casualty numbers by saying that Hamas weaponizes civilians as human shields. Yet the IDF has authorized airstrikes on sites with dense civilian populations such as hospitals and refugee camps, most recently at the “Flour Massacre” at the end of February, when the IDF opened fire on civilians gathered around an aid truck delivery, killing over 100.

But even more controversial is that AIPAC is telling members of Congress that “Israel is not blocking the delivery of aid to Gaza,” and that “reports that people are starving in Gaza are false.” Neither claim is supported by findings of international authorities, nor by recent actions undertaken by the United States government. Just last week, the U.S. air-dropped aid packages into Gaza, circumventing Israeli border officials, and at the State of the Union address President Biden announced intentions to set up a port for deliveries. These actions were only necessary because Israel has made it difficult to get aid through checkpoints, such as during one recent incident where the Israeli navy fired at an aid convoy. The EU’s foreign-policy chief last week said that starvation in Gaza is being used as a weapon of war.

“AIPAC wants Congress to disregard not just credible international institutions, but also their own eyes, and to simply take Israel’s word for what’s happening in Gaza in spite of the Israeli government’s ongoing pattern of disinformation,” said Omar Baddar, a policy analyst on Middle Eastern affairs.

Despite being a longtime donor and supporter of President Biden’s, AIPAC’s talking point also goes on the attack against him for recent remarks that, however tepidly, indicate a shift in tone. Biden has distanced himself from Netanyahu, embracing the language (if not the full meaning) of cease-fire, and more recently indicated a potential red line, should Israel launch a ground invasion of the Gaza border city of Rafah.

AIPAC dedicates an entire section of its file for members to rebuke the president’s comments, under the subhead “Why is President Biden dictating to Israel how to fight this war,” while simultaneously demanding military assistance from his government.

It advises members to say “concerns about the conduct of the war against Hamas are best delivered privately,” and “public statements that show divergence … are unhelpful and could embolden Hamas and Iran.”

In AIPAC’s talking points, Hezbollah is mentioned nearly as much as Hamas, often in the same breath as proxies for Iran.

The documents reveal numerous advocacy positions that AIPAC has not been forthright about publicly. They include opposing the Biden administration’s memorandum on arms sales in February, which merely asks for written assurances from countries receiving aid that they’re complying with existing laws. They also oppose recent U.S. sanctions against West Bank settlers who have engaged in violence against Palestinians. AIPAC deems these measures “unnecessary.”

Though AIPAC says it welcomes humanitarian assistance included in an emergency military package for Israel, it demands that none of that aid go through UNRWA even though the group has proven to be one of the most effective international vehicles for distributing assistance. That’s because AIPAC is pushing for a complete defunding and abolition of UNRWA after reports by the IDF that a handful of its staffers were aiding Hamas. The IDF has not provided evidence to back up these claims.

AIPAC now indicates it’s open to a stand-alone Israel military aid package without Ukraine aid, which is a significant tactical change according to Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs at the Center for International Policy, who used to work for J Street. AIPAC had sought for Israel aid to be included within a broader bill, ostensibly because of the principle that “rising aid lifts all boats.” This also had the effect of insulating Israeli aid from potential challenges or conditions.

The fact that AIPAC has now shifted to accepting a stand-alone bill could indicate a fracturing of the foreign-aid NGO coalition because of the war. It could also mean that AIPAC believes it can exert enough pressure on members to get the votes for Israel aid, set aside from the messier politics of Ukraine funding and the border bill that it was originally attached to.

A striking theme across the conference and legislative packet is the focus placed on the threat from Iran. In AIPAC’s talking points, Hezbollah is mentioned nearly as much as Hamas, often in the same breath as proxies for Iran.

An entire pamphlet from the conference is dedicated to the “multi-front threat” from seven different groups, not just in Gaza but across Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. “Iran and its terrorist proxies are waging war against the Jewish state,” the pamphlet states, which is an “even greater threat” than Hamas.

AIPAC has long lobbied for more hawkish measures against Iran. But its talking points suggest that it’s now using the October 7 attacks and the current war as a pretext to push for greater U.S. involvement against the Islamic Republic. Other than military funding for Israel, the main pieces of legislation AIPAC is supporting both entail stronger actions to cut Iran off from the global economy. Those are the Iranian Sanctions Enforcement Act and the SHIP Act, which would crack down on any foreign ports and refineries that process petroleum exported from Iran in violation of existing U.S. sanctions. The SHIP Act passed the House in early November.

“AIPAC hopes to see Iran’s economy crippled through sanctions as a means of drying up Iran’s support for Hezbollah, which they seem to think will give Israel the upper hand in a conflict that many see as imminent,” said Baddar.

AIPAC’s push for these actions comes as the war in Gaza threatens to escalate into a regional war. Recently, Israel has exchanged rocket fire with the Shiite political party Hezbollah along its northern border with Lebanon, where the IDF reports it assassinated a key Hamas target. If Hezbollah and Israel directly go to war, it would pull other Arab nations in and put pressure on the U.S. to back its closest ally in the region.

The documents further emphasize U.S. involvement by highlighting the three Army troops killed in January in a drone strike on a base in Jordan, which officials have linked to Iran.

“This is a repeated tactic we’ve seen. When there’s more attention on Israeli military actions against Palestinians and the occupation, the government pivots to fears about Iran,” said Duss.

At the beginning of the war, there was immediate speculation that Iran and China gave Hamas directives to carry out the October 7 attacks, though those claims are still unfounded. As public perception shifts against Israel, potentially pulling U.S. policy with it, AIPAC appears poised to drum up more threats about Iran’s role in the war.

Luke Goldstein is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.


2009 AIPAC national conference:

Anti-Iran ad in NY Times
New York Times advertisement demonizing Iran with the list of groups that paid for it.

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