AIPAC Probe AIPAC Works to Preserve Clout in U.S.

AIPAC dismissed claims of its supposed enfeeblement, pointing to its extensive activity involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Iran and Syria over the past six months as proof.

WASHINGTON - In the seven months since Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin was accused of passing classified documents to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby has been struggling in two arenas: First, to extricate itself from the investigation without any indictments being issued, and second, to preserve its political clout in Washington's corridors of power.

The second arena is the more problematic one. "AIPAC has lost a lot of its power," says a Capitol Hill source who follows AIPAC closely. But the fact that the source refused to be identified by name means that AIPAC is still a force to be reckoned with in the capital's political industry.

AIPAC dismissed claims of its supposed enfeeblement, pointing to its extensive activity involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Iran and Syria over the past six months as proof.

AIPAC is considered one of the five most powerful lobbies in Washington, alongside giants like the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Rifle Association, whose budgets dwarf AIPAC's. Another proof of its power is the presence at the main banquet of its annual policy conference of senior U.S. politicians. Last year, about half the Senate and one-third of the Congress was at the banquet, alongside governors and dozens of other politicians. Not many other organizations can put on such a display.

Some in D.C. political circles said that AIPAC's main problem now was not the investigation in which it has become embroiled, but rather the political change going on in Israel. "AIPAC is simply lagging behind developments," said a congressional staffer close to the issue. According to the staffer, the fact that most of the AIPAC board is hawkish on the Israel-Palestinian conflict makes it difficult for the lobby to accommodate itself to Israel's new policies.

The issue of AIPAC getting used to the thawing of Israeli-Palestinian relations was put to the test last month during Congressional deliberations on a bill submitted by President George W. Bush to give $200 million in aid to the Palestinians to strengthen reforms and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas' government. Congress approved the bill in the end, but only after adding some serious strictures.

Who was behind the failure to pass the bill in its original form? Democratic supporters of the legislation said that AIPAC tried to torpedo it and that its lobbyists were behind the restrictions placed on the aid. AIPAC presented a totally different picture, saying that it was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay who had taken a hard-line on the bill, and that AIPAC had saved the day by suggesting compromises which had allowed the bill to pass.

Not even everyone in Congress knows who put the restrictions in the aid bill. After the vote, someone at a meeting of senior congressional staff asked who had been responsible for the limitations. "I don't feel comfortable discussing it here," a staffer from the allocations committee is said to have replied. Others present at the meeting said they thought he did not want to point a figure at AIPAC.

AIPAC is sure that it hasn't lost its clout on the Hill. Dozens of lawmakers have demonstrated their support for the lobby since the start of the investigation; some have even lodged protests with the administration over the length and character of the investigation.

Sources in Congress say that for whatever reason, recent months have seen marked increase in the presence of Jewish and other pro-Israel organizations on the Hill. If in the past the scene was dominated by AIPAC, groups like the right-wing Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the left-wing organizations Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and Americans for Peace Now (APN) are now making their influence felt.

AIPAC's relations with the executive branch have been rendered more difficult because of a desire for secrecy. A source familiar with AIPAC's activities said that while work with Congress is simple and straightforward, the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon have been exercising a great deal more caution in their conversations with the lobbyists. It's only natural, the source said, considering that the FBI has clearly been monitoring AIPAC's telephone calls and e-mails.

AIPAC bases its claim of undiminished strength on agreement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to give the keynote speech at its annual policy conference in May. The appearance is seen as a vote of confidence in the organization, whose list of keynote speakers since the Franklin/AIPAC investigation began secretly three years ago has included Bush, former secretary of state Colin Powell and Rice herself. This will be Rice's third appearence at an AIPAC annual meeting.

The affair has left Israel's representatives in the U.S. unscathed, although not unmentioned. Israel's diplomatic representatives enjoy immunity, making it difficult to make accusations when it comes to regular diplomatic activity. But even if there has been no official change, the investigation is making itself felt. A senior Israeli representative said a few months ago that he definitely sensed more caution on the part of administration officials. "Who would want to sit with me when he knows that the FBI could be sitting at the next table," the representative said.

Caution is now the watchword in all contacts with either Israeli officials or AIPAC staffer, and especially when they meet with each other. Both the Israeli Embassy and AIPAC say working relations are good and even friendly. However, Israeli sources say they feel each side is "looking carefully at the other's statements," because in light of the investigation, the mere appearence of transmission of information between the lobby and Israel could be detrimental to Israel.