NORPAC: The Mission and the Message

by Marsha B. Cohen

Today hundreds of buses packed with what organizers claim are about a thousand citizen advocates departed from various pick-up points in and around New York and  New Jersey for Washington, DC. They represent NORPAC (not an acronym for anything), a much smaller, localized grassroots version of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose annual policy conference brought an estimated 10,000 activists and students to the nation’s capital to lobby for pro-Israel legislation in March.

NORPAC’s annual Mission to Washington, DC lasts just one day, modeled on the climactic conclusion on the third day of AIPAC’s confabulation that dispatches busloads of attendees to their respective Senate and House members to thank them for their support for Israel and ask for more. Attracting little or no attention outside the  regional Jewish media, NORPAC markets its annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital as a fun day of family togetherness where kids (minimum age is 12) can join their parents and grandparents in coming face-to-face with members of Congress (“MoCs”), armed with NORPAC Talking Points, and demanding to know — in unequivocal and uncompromising “yes” or “no” terms — whether they will co-sponsor and vote for pending legislation supportive of Israel and detrimental to Iran.

The NORPAC annual Mission is also a bargain. The non-discounted registration fee for AIPAC’s three day policy conference in 2013 was $599 per person, not including transportation from the participants’ home city and a 2-3 night hotel stay in pricey Washington, DC. NORPAC on the other hand charges $175 for adults and $125 for students and this fee includes bus transportation from pick-up points throughout New York and New Jersey, breakfast, lunch, dinner and a plenary meeting upon arrival. Since the Mission is accomplished in a single day, there’s no need for any hotel expense. Advocacy training prior to the Mission is also included.

NORPAC differs from its big brother AIPAC not only in size, but in actually being a PAC (political action committee), aggregating and disbursing financial contributions to members of Congress. Throughout the course of each election cycle, NORPAC members host both Democratic and Republican political candidates and office holders — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the guest of honor in Teaneck, NJ at a NORPAC event on April 28 — establishing personal relationships even with out of area members of Congress who receive the lion’s share of NORPAC’s largesse. Political donors contributing through NORPAC can earmark their political contributions to any candidate they choose, even if he or she is not officially endorsed. NORPAC never endorses a candidate who challenges an incumbent with a pro-Israel record, as Shmuley Boteach discovered. Nevertheless financial contributions to challengers are accepted and contributed in NORPAC’s name.

Contributions channeled through NORPAC are not huge, but, as the organization enjoys pointing out, the impact of relatively small contributions is magnified when they are aggregated. More importantly, pooling campaign contributions through NORPAC exaggerates the pro-Israel lobby’s unity, strength and influence.

The top donor through NORPAC in the 2012 election cycle contributed $7,500, with the rest of the top 25 donors contributing $4,000-$5,000. In that cycle, NORPAC disbursed $10,603 to House Democrats, $6,350 to House Republicans, $62,330 to Senate Democrats and $54,741 to Senate Republicans. Political donations to individual candidates are generally in the $2,500-$5,000 range for House members and typically in the $5,000-$10,000 range for Senators, according to Open Secrets’ database — not huge in the Super PAC era, but significant insofar as these sums, pooled and presented to politicians by NORPAC, have a greater impact than smaller ones by individual donors.

What do NORPAC’s Mission minions, rolling into the nation’s capital on their chartered buses, want? According to NORPAC’s website:

Each year NORPAC selects different issues to present to Members of Congress related to legislation in the U.S. House and Senate. Previously we have advocated for stronger Iran sanctions, continued foreign aid, increased military and strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, and additional funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile defensive system. A talking points handout is supplied to all Mission attendees before the event to bring them up to speed on the latest, most pressing issues.

How are NORPAC’s Talking Points for 2013 “different” from all other years? They aren’t. Senate and House members are being asked whether or not they support the $3.1 billion earmarked for US military assistance to Israel plus $221 million more to fund Israel’s Iron Dome program in the 2014 federal budget, the details of which are currently being negotiated. The busloads of Israel supporters on NORPAC’s Mission and at the conclusion of the AIPAC Policy Conference are there to persuade members of Congress that the political price of even nipping, let alone slashing, military aid to Israel is not one that they will want to pay.

Meanwhile, Defense News reports that Israel is slashing its own military budget, violating a 2007 understanding with Washington that incremental hikes in US annual military aid would not be used to compensate for proportionate cuts in Israel’s defense spending. While US House Speaker John Boehner has declared that repayment of loans to China should be a higher budget priority than paying active duty US troops, members of the Israeli Defense Forces will be receiving a 21% raise. Of course, NORPAC’s Talking Points won’t be mentioning that.

Besides preserving military assistance to Israel in the 2014 budget, NORPAC is asking House members to sign on as co-sponsors of House Resolution 850, which, as a New York Times editorial points out, “would pile on tougher sanctions [on Iran] just as the two sides are trying to create trust after decades of hostility.” Senators are meanwhile being asked to co-sponsor Senate Resolution 65, which makes it increasingly likely that the US will be dragged into a war with Iran if Israel initiates one, despite the disclaimer that the Resolution does not actually authorize military action. The language of the original bill, introduced in the Senate in late February by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Lindsey Graham, initially granted Israel full US support if it chose to attack Iran in “self-defense,” which some Senate staffers viewed with alarm as “a back door to war”, according to Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now. But it  now includes the phrase “legitimate self-defense.” Even with the APN-approved language, concerns remain that the passage of S. 65 increases the likelihood that the US would not only support an Israeli initiated war with Iran but also be dragged into it.

The last item on NORPAC’s wish list is the demand that members from both houses of Congress sponsor and support H.R. 938 and S. 462 — The United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act — two parallel bills in the House and Senate that upgrade Israel to the unique status of a “strategic partner” of the U.S. Ironically, the authors of NORPAC’s Talking Points seem unaware that the hold-up in the passage of these bills comes from the Israeli side, not Congress.

One provision of the “strategic partnership” is the mutual waiving of visa requirements for Israelis entering the US and Americans entering Israel. Israel’s problem with this provision in what Lara Friedman calls the Best Ally with Benefits bills is that Israel wants the right to impose restrictions on Americans of Arab or Muslim descent or on anyone whose political views it deems questionable or undesirable.

Currently, the rate of rejection of Americans seeking to enter Israel exceeds 3%, the maximum allowing threshold for reciprocal visa-free agreements between the US and other countries. US senators are bending over backwards to accommodate the pro-Israel lobby’s efforts to help Israel evade the requirements of visa reciprocity in exchange for the “strategic partnership” proposed by AIPAC and advocated for by NORPAC.

The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proposes that Israel be granted visa waiver status if the Secretary of State determines that Israel “has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.” According to Mike Coogan,“Attorneys for both individual members and committees privately advised that complying…would be a flagrant violation of certain U.S. laws barring discrimination, and would undermine the U.S. government’s call for the equal protection of all its citizens traveling abroad.”

Promoting the upcoming Mission in the New Jersey Jewish News last week, NORPAC President Ben Chouake called May 8 “a day to play an oversized role for Israel.”

The oversized role that a few determined and committed people can play in our nation is astounding. Going down to Washington with NORPAC is a leveraged way of making oneself heard. Our members have made compelling cases and been key players in promoting legislative initiatives. This year we will have about 475 meetings planned for small NORPAC groups. A sincere citizen advocate in Washington is far more compelling than the most sophisticated lobbyist. Each of you that attend the mission has more influence than the 10,000 that stay at home.

Chouake’s article elicited a reader comment by Sherry Rosen, which reads in part:

…my take-away is that the most important issue facing Israel today is the need to encourage Israeli leaders to the negotiating table for peace talks. In the last few days alone, the Arab League has endorsed the idea of a two-state solution based on “comparable” and “minor” land swaps. and the re-endorsement of the official Arab Peace Initiative by non-Palestinian Arab countries is remarkably similar to the American framework that has been put forth for these negotiations.

As a “determined and committed” American Jew myself, I believe that the “oversized role” we can best play in ensuring “the survival of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people” is to seize the opportunity that this window of hope offers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if thousands of similarly passionate American Zionists were to meet with Congressional leaders, on May 8 or any other day, and express our abiding desire for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than confine our powerful voices to perpetuating concerns couched in the language of threats, defense, and funding sophisticated weaponry?  Who knows?  It might actually work.

NORPAC wants to make sure that their members of Congress never find out.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.