A debate about the power in Washington of the pro-Israel lobby is underway, after Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., responded sharply to reports that Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was targeting both Omar and fellow Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan.
Omar quoted rap lyrics — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” — to suggest McCarthy’s move was driven by the lobby’s prolific spending. Asked specifically who she was referring to, Omar responded, “AIPAC!”
The debate over the influence of pro-Israel groups could be informed by an investigation by Al Jazeera, in which an undercover reporter infiltrated the Israel Project, a Washington-based group, and secretly recorded conversations about political strategy and influence over a six-month period in 2016. That investigation, however, was never aired by the network — suppressed by pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.
In November, Electronic Intifada obtained and published the four-part series, but it did so during the week of the midterm elections, and the documentary did not get a lot of attention then.
In it, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby speak openly about how they use money to influence the political process, in ways so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism.
“Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them.”
David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference, described for the reporter how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization, so that the money doesn’t show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC. He describes one group that organizes fundraisers in both Washington and New York. “This is the biggest ad hoc political group, definitely the wealthiest, in D.C.,” Ochs says, adding that it has no official name, but is clearly tied to AIPAC. “It’s the AIPAC group. It makes a difference; it really, really does. It’s the best bang for your buck, and the networking is phenomenal.” (Ochs and AIPAC did not immediately return The Intercept’s requests for comment.)
Without spending money, Ochs argues, the pro-Israel lobby isn’t able to enact its agenda. “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them. They kick the can down the road, unless you pressure them, and the only way to do that is with money,” he explains.
He describes a fundraiser for Anthony Brown, a Democrat running for Congress in Maryland, as typical. “So we want the Jewish community to go face to face in this small environment, 50, 30, 40 people, and say, ‘This is what’s important to us. We want to make sure that if we give you money, that you’re going to enforce the Iran deal.’ That way, when they need something from him or her, like the Iran deal, they can quickly mobilize and say look, we’ll give you 30 grand. They actually impact,” Ochs tells the reporter.
Such a claim is not so different from what Omar was describing, and for which she was roundly condemned. In the wake of Omar’s tweets, the Washington Post, for instance, reported, “The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support ‘demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic.’” (On Monday, Omar apologized for her tweets, but insisted that AIPAC and other lobbyist groups are harmful to U.S. politics.)
In the censored documentary, Ochs went on to describe a fundraiser hosted by Jeff Talpins, a hedge fund giant, as similar as well. “In New York, with Jeff Talpins, we don’t ask a goddamn thing about the fucking Palestinians. You know why? ’Cause it’s a tiny issue. It’s a small, insignificant issue. The big issue is Iran. We want everything focused on Iran,” Ochs says. “What happens is Jeff meets with the congressman in the back room, tells them exactly what his goals are — and by the way, Jeff Talpins is worth $250 million — basically they hand him an envelope with 20 credit cards, and say, ‘You can swipe each of these credit cards for a thousand dollars each.’”
Ochs explains that the club in New York required a minimum pledge of $10,000 to join and participate in such events. “It’s a minimum commitment. Some people give a lot more than that.”
AIPAC, on its own website, recruits members to join its “Congressional Club,” and commit to give at least $5,000 per election cycle.
Eric Gallagher, a top official at AIPAC from 2010 to 2015, tells the Al Jazeera reporter that AIPAC gets results. “Getting $38 billion in security aid to Israel matters, which is what AIPAC just did,” he notes at one secretly recorded lunch. “Everything AIPAC does is focused on influencing Congress.”
The film, called “The Lobby,” was produced by Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, and features hidden-camera footage obtained by the reporter, who posed as a Jewish, pro-Israel activist from Britain who wanted to volunteer with the Israel Project.
Outfitted with a luxury apartment in Dupont Circle, the reporter hosted multiple gatherings and otherwise socialized broadly within the pro-Israel community, winning the confidence of senior officials, who divulged insider details, many of which have been leaked and created international news.
A companion version of the film, which looked at the Israel lobby’s influence in the United Kingdom, did make it to air and was the subject of intense controversy. It exposed a plot by an Israeli embassy official in the United Kingdom to “take down” pro-Palestinian members of Parliament, leading to his resignation.
That film, however, included a snippet of footage from the United States. Officials here quickly realized that they, too, had been infiltrated. In the U.K., the Israel lobby lodged an official complaint claiming the series was anti-Semitic, but the U.K.’s communications agency rejected the claim, finding that “the allegations in the programme were not made on the grounds that any of the particular individuals concerned were Jewish and noted that no claims were made relating to their faith.”
Pro-Israel officials in the United States, rather than file an official complaint, exerted political pressure. A bipartisan group of 19 lawmakers wrote to the Justice Department requesting an investigation into “the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States,” and suggesting that the organization be made to register as a foreign agent. Ultimately, Qatar bent to the pressure and killed the documentary.