by Marsha B. Cohen
The hearings to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense seem to have been obsessively focused on Israel, and on the threat Iran poses to Israel, with little interest on the part of most senators on Hagel’s views of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea. Several senators seemed clueless that many of the candidate’s views, expressed in speeches, votes, etc. were the purview of the Secretary of State, not the Secretary of Defense.
Why the obsession with Israel? The quick and easy answer is AIPAC, which claims the title of “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby” on every page of its website and in all of its publicity. But there’s more to pro-Israel lobbying than AIPAC. Unless you live in New Jersey or Rockland County, New York, and read the New Jersey Jewish Standard — or are a member of the House or Senate — you’ve probably never even heard of NORPAC.
NORPAC is a proudly bipartisan, relatively small and somewhat obscure Political Action Committee (PAC) which has been supporting pro-Israel congressional candidates from both parties for nearly two decades that has joined ranks with right-wing, rabidly partisan Republican neoconservative groups such as the Emergency Committee for Israel in opposition to Hagel’s nomination.
But there’s something truly, totally and uniquely bizarre about NORPAC’s anti-Hagel stance. In order to fully appreciate its monumental cognitive dissonance, it’s necessary to know a bit more about NORPAC, AIPAC and the internal politics of the “pro-Israel community.”
AIPAC, which boasts 100,000 members, receives most of the credit — and blame — for the legislation agenda of “the Israel Lobby.” Despite the widespread misperception — based largely upon the last three letters of the acronym — AIPAC isn’t a Political Action Committee. Contributions to AIPAC go toward the organization’s lobbying activities on behalf of its legislative agenda, not to specific candidates. AIPAC’s Press Office “assists the media with frequently updated briefs on important issues affecting the Middle East and United States/Israel relations” (i.e. churning out statements, memos and tweets that reduce the messy complexities of Middle East politics to straightforward AIPAC talking points) and getting college students of all faiths and backgrounds “politically engaged.”
AIPAC provides seminars in Washington, DC, and trips to Israel for members of Congress and even has its own spinoff think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which regularly participates in AIPAC briefings. It anticipates that its 2013 Annual Policy Conference in Washington, DC, (on March 3-5) will be “the largest gathering of the pro-Israel movement,” to which “thousands of participants come from all 50 states to take part in ‘three of the most important days affecting Israel’s future.’”
But there are things that AIPAC does not do, which NORPAC does, fitting it neatly into the “pro-Israel lobbying” matrix. As an organization, AIPAC doesn’t endorse political candidates, and it doesn’t give them any money. AIPAC also “does not take positions on presidential nominations,” according to spokesman Marshall Whitman. Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports that AIPAC is staying officially neutral on the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, much to the outraged chagrin of Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
AIPAC was badly burned and its reputation tarnished in 1992 when its president, David Steiner, resigned after an an audiotape of a secretly recorded telephone conversation surfaced shortly before the presidential election. A businessman named Harry Katz had phoned Steiner to ask for recommendations on how to apportion the $150,000 that Katz wanted to give to pro-Israel political candidates. During the course of the conversation, Steiner boasted about the extent of his influence with the Bill Clinton campaign and the role he would have in shaping the new administration’s cabinet choices if Clinton was elected.
Steiner’s bragging and subsequent downfall wasn’t the first disaster to hit AIPAC that year, as Robert Friedman recounted in detail in “The Wobbly Lobby” for the Washington Post. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked the Bush administration for $10 billion for absorbing immigrants and Bush said he wouldn’t approve it unless the Israelis stopped building settlements in the occupied territories, AIPAC officials assured Shamir that AIPAC had the votes in Congress to override a presidential veto. Shamir’s party lost the Israeli election in June, and by August, Israel’s first native born Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin of Israel’s Labor Party had been elected and crossed swords with AIPAC. Adding to AIPAC’s woes that August was an expose by the Village Voice revealing that AIPAC’s Policy Analysis division (previously known as “Opposition Research”) had been monitoring, harassing and discrediting anyone expressing what the organization deemed as “anti-Israel” or “pro-Arab” views. Michael Lewis (the son of historian Bernard Lewis) who headed — and still heads — AIPAC’s Policy Analysis office, wrote in an internal memo,”There is no question that we exert a policy impact, but working behind the scenes and taking care not to leave fingerprints, that impact is not always traceable to us.”
The North Jersey PAC (NORPAC) was founded in 1992 by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, just as AIPAC’s political fortunes seemed headed into a tailspin from which many feared (and others dared hope) it might not recover. By 1993, AIPAC was refocusing its attention on lobbying Congress, leaving the presidency to Israel’s Prime Minister, and building an infrastructure for “grass roots lobbying.”
Although the two organizations have remained separate and distinct, there’s been an overlap of talking points, priorities and modus operandi. NORPAC’s leaders describe it as a “single issue” organization, dedicated exclusively to promulgating the passage of Israel-related legislation, of which anti-Iran sanctions have become an integral part. NORPAC has an annual Mission to Washington each May that brings busloads of activists — well over a thousand participants in recent years — to Washington, DC, to meet personally with members of Congress, armed with NORPAC’s talking points and an agenda of legislative priorities on behalf of the “pro-Israel community.”
NORPAC hosts fundraisers for candidates of both parties, and, unlike AIPAC, doesn’t restrict itself to members of Congress. It also provides AIPAC members, and anyone else with money to give to “pro-Israel” candidates, with a long list of members of the House and Senate whose records are considered kosher from a pro-Israel perspective, or, in NORPAC’s words, “who demonstrate a genuine commitment to the strength, security, and survival of Israel.” NORPAC doesn’t endorse challengers, preferring to show appreciation to sitting members of Congress for their pro-Israel votes.
AIPAC’s ex-president David Steiner was among the very earliest donors to funnel a portion of his campaign contributions through NORPAC, according to the organization’s FTC filing in 1993. The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website shows Steiner contributing $40,000 to political candidates through NORPAC between 1995 and 2007 — not quite 10% of the political largesse he’s donated over the past two decades. Several presidents of AIPAC, including its current president, Michael Kassen, have channeled a portion of their personal political contributions through NORPAC as well.
Here’s how it works: donors give up to the maximum individual contribution of $2,500 to a political candidate through NORPAC, which aggregates it with other donations that are earmarked for that candidate. A single larger and therefore more significant check, channeled through a pro-Israel organization, is then sent to the candidate, with expectations and an agenda.
In terms of dollars expended, NORPAC is generally bipartisan, although more often than not the numbers tilt in favor of Democrats. Nevertheless, the single biggest recipient, who remained on NORPAC’s approved list for the 2012 election cycle even though he was defeated in the Republican primary, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), received a $20,000 contribution from NORPAC in the 2012 election cycle, more than any other candidate from either party. (NORPAC has been Lugar’s top donor over the past five years, from whom he received $40,000 between 2007-2012.) Typical NORPAC contributions average around $3,000 for House members and $5,000 for senators, with $10,000 nearly always being the most given.
Which brings us back to Chuck Hagel…
While AIPAC as an organization has not weighed in on Hagel, a former Executive Director, Morris Amitay, was among the first to sound the anti-Hagel alarm bells even before his nomination was official. Numerous anti-Hagel smears have been sourced to AIPAC’s former spokesman, Josh Block. But AIPAC itself? No fingerprints.
In contrast, NORPAC has been vocal, even shrill, in its opposition to the nomination, launching an Action Alert against Hagel on its website:
Dear NORPAC Members
NORPAC is opposing the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. This position represents the single most important Cabinet and Administrative position other than the President. Senator Hagel’s history on opposing action on the threat of Iran can be best described as a fringe position. His refusal to acknowledge the danger of a Nuclear Armed Iran to America and all it’s allies, and his consistent opposition to every legislative effort to contain Iran is in contrast to almost every other member of the Senate. We are concerned that his judgment on these matters is either severely flawed or affected by prejudices. We are asking you to call the legislative leaders outlined at the bottom of this email to ask them to oppose this nomination.
Beneath this call to arms is a letter, to be sent to the NORPAC member’s senators, urging them to oppose Hagel’s nomination with a rehashing of the six-week-old talking points churned out by neoconservatives since mid-December. These same talking points are echoed in a recent op-ed by NORPAC’s president, Ben Chouake, in the New Jersey Jewish Standard. The veracity of these assertions, most of which have been made by William Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, and Emergency Committee ads, among others, have been scrutinized, called into question and dismissed as only “half true,” “mostly false,” and “overblown” most recently by PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, the Associated Press, and J Street — the much maligned liberal Zionist organization (whose support for Hagel has probably contributed to the opposition to Hagel emanating from right-wing pro-Israel organizations).
But here’s the kicker: NORPAC’s Action Alert letter and Chouake’s op-ed fault Hagel for most of the same positions taken by Richard Lugar, who, as noted above, has not only been endorsed by NORPAC but received more funding in 2012 than any other single candidate. For example, the letter and op-ed state:
In October 2000, when Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) launched a terror war against Israel after rejecting without counter-offer a plan for Palestinian statehood accepted by Israel, Hagel was one of only four senators who refused to sign a Senate letter in support of Israel.
Richard Lugar didn’t sign that letter either.
In July 2001, Hagel was in a minority of only two senators to vote against extending the original Iran-Libya sanctions bill, designed to deny both regimes revenues that would assist their weapons of mass destruction programs.
The other “no” vote? Richard Lugar.
In April 2002, Hagel was one of only 10 senators to oppose banning the import to America of Iraqi oil until Iraq stopped compensating the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
So was Lugar.
In 2006, at the outbreak of the Lebanon war, Hagel argued against giving Israel the time to break Hezbollah, urging instead an immediate ceasefire. The following month, he was one of only 12 Senators who refused to formally call upon the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Another one of the 12 was Lugar.
In 2007, Hagel declined to support the bipartisan Iran Counter Proliferation Act aimed at targeting governments and businesses that assist Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2004, a New York Sun op-ed railed against the almost identical foreign policy positions of Lugar and Hagel, which it dubbed as “Lugar-Hagelism,” in an effort to defame John Kerry for sharing them. Yet in Chouake’s op-ed, headlined as “Senator Hagel’s Divisive Nomination,” he writes that several of Obama’s cabinet appointments “make sense,” including his choice of John Kerry as Secretary of State:
Senator John Kerry, set to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State, is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has built tremendous crossroads with his Republican neighbors across the aisle by working hand in hand with Ranking Republican Member Senator Richard Lugar on important issues.
The absurdity of vilifying Hagel for taking the same positions as Lugar, who received more cash from NORPAC than any other candidate in the last election cycle, has apparently eluded NORPAC’s members. So too, apparently, does the fact that in adding its voice to the vitriol over the Hagel nomination, by echoing accusations emanating from the Jewish Republican right-wing, NORPAC is contributing to both the “divisiveness” Chouake bemoans and the demise of the last vestiges of bipartisanship that the organization made its hallmark for two decades. An observation in an obituary to Lugar’s political career by Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last May pointed out:
Israel advocates and GOP insiders explained that Lugar represented a breed of lawmaker who pro-Israel groups see as valuable to their cause and disappearing: One who reaches across the aisle.
“Lugar wasn’t actively pro-Israel, but he wasn’t anti either,” said Mike Kraft, a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1970s and 1980s who now is a consultant on counterterrorism. “But generally losing a good, balanced, thoughtful guy on foreign policy is a real tragedy,” said Kraft, who worked for a number of pro-Israel lawmakers. “It weakens the American political system.”
It’s interesting that NORPAC-supported candidates were among the more reasoned and moderate members of the Armed Services Committee. The more vicious of Hagel’s critics didn’t make the list. Perhaps they are hoping, by their professed fealty to Israel, that they might be on that list for the next election cycle?
Photo: Former Sen. Chuck Hagel answers a question at his confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Service Committee at the Dirksen Senate Building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 31, 2013. DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.