Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Seeing the Light: Uncovering Congress's Dangerous Addiction to Pro-Israel PACs

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Seeing the Light: Uncovering Congress's Dangerous Addiction to Pro-Israel PACs

Article excerpt

Seeing the Light: Uncovering Congress's Dangerous Addiction to Pro-Israel PACs

In the Jan. 25, 1993 issue of the Nation, Micah L. Sifry takes exception to some of the conclusions of a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League on "Anti-Semitism in America." "Criticism of Israel, it turns out, is no predictor for anti Semitic attitudes," the Nation editor points out. "In fact, many critics of Israeli policy are well educated, follow foreign affairs closely and embrace tolerant, pluralistic attitudes at home."

Given such enlightened, and not at all uncommon, attitudes on the part of American Jews, why are so many members of Congress loath to criticize Israel when it disregards international law and denies basic human rights to the Palestinians under its occupation? I found the answer only after I accepted an assignment to compile reports filed with the Federal Election Commission of exactly how much money pro-Israel political action committes (PACs) gave to candidates running for Congress in 1992.

As a new writer for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, I approached the assignment in March 1992 with healthy skepticism. When dealing with any aspect of the Arab-Israeli issue, loaded as it is with emotion, one can only maintain credibility by not accepting what one is told on its face value and by constantly checking the facts. After all, I knew political action committees were a part of the American political landscape. They represent everything from ice cream manufacturers to the National Rifle Association. Teachers have PACs, gays have PACs, pro-lifers and pro-choice groups have PACs. Wasn't the issue of pro-Israel PACs wielding too much influence being blown out of proportion?

The importance of my research, according to Richard Curtiss's book Stealth PACs, in the fourth edition of which the figures I was gathering eventually would appear, is that federal law limits any one PAC to a contribution of no more than $5,000 to a candidate in a primary election and another $5,000 in the general election. Therefore, theoretically, no special interest could use its PAC to donate more than $10,000 to any individual candidate during a two-year election cycle. With 55 pro-Israel PACs actively supporting Israel, however, as was the case in the 1992 cycle, they would have the ability to out spend any other special interest.

But, I thought, if they had been doing this ever since 1978, as claimed in the book, wouldn't I have read about it somewhere else? I trekked down to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and, with the help of a patient federal employee, I followed instructions left by my predecessor for collecting information from reports to the commission by 116 pro-Israel PACs listed in the book.

I approached my assignment in March 1992 with healthy skepticism.

I discovered that only three of those PACs had names referring in any way to the Middle East. Names of the others referred either to good government, their geographic location in the United States, or both. Thus the author had dubbed them "Stealth PACs," and turned their innocuous names into an initial guide to identifying their true purpose.

The fact is that virtually no other kind of PAC adopts an innocuous name. After all, it is to any PAC's advantage to attract like-minded donors, and to be sure that the candidate knows why its campaign contribution was made. It struck me that there must be a reason for pro-Israel PACs to adopt such misleading names. Could it be to conceal from the public the existence of so many of them?

Still, I knew that not every innocuously named PAC existed to support U.S. aid to Israel. There was, for example, a PAC called "Emily's List" organized to support women candidates. How could I satisfy myself that the 116 PACs on the list, with names like Gold Coast PAC, Heartland PAC, and Badger PAC, were pro-Israel PACs? Why not call them up and ask them, just to be sure?

Since I already had discovered a new PAC, one not listed in the 1991 version of Stealth PACs, but which followed the donation patterns of those that were listed, I decided to start with it. …

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