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~ The power of AIPAC ~

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  • November 3, 2007 -- The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and 14 other Bush administration officials will be compelled to testify in the espionage trial of pro-Israel lobbyists, a judge in Washington ruled yesterday.

    The ruling threatens to expose how officials used calculated leaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to influence ideological infighting about the Middle East within the Bush administration. It would require Ms Rice and others to testify about internal conversations as well as contacts with the pressure group.

    The two AIPAC officials were arrested in a FBI sting operation in 2004 after they were fed false information about a plot to kill Israeli agents in Iraqi Kurdistan.

    Steve Rosen, the former foreign policy chief, and Keith Weissman, the organisation's senior Iran analyst, argue that their conversations were in line with the administration's unofficial practice of using the lobby as a diplomatic back channel.

    Judge TS Ellis III granted lawyers for the two men wide latitude to question Ms Rice, the former national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser and leading official on the Middle East, Elliot Abrams and other key officials. "Defendants are entitled to show that, to them, there was simply no difference between the meetings for which they are not charged and those for which they are charged," Mr Ellis wrote.

    "They believed that the meetings charged in the indictment were simply further examples of the government's use of AIPAC as a diplomatic back channel."

    He held out little hope that he could be persuaded by administration efforts to block the subpoenas. "The government's refusal to comply with a subpoena in these circumstances may result in dismissal or a lesser sanction," he wrote.

    The former deputy Pentagon chief, Paul Wolfowitz, will also be compelled to testify. The AIPAC officials are the first people to face charges under a 1917 espionage law that makes it illegal for civilians to receive classified information. A former FBI official was jailed for 12 years last year after pleading guilty to leaking information.

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    • The shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel

      Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel
      Such lobbyists and their back-room influence should make us very uneasy

      Pardon me for asking. Perhaps I shouldn't. For an easy life, some things, you learn, are best left unsaid. Nervous, am I? You bet. But these questions will not stand aside or lie down. They have been bothering me since the Labour party donor row broke last week. They are raised here in good faith. I have no wish to bring the wrath of Moses upon me and I can already hear the accusations of anti-Semitism because I dare to raise the question: Can someone explain what exactly is the role of the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) in our political life? And its twin, the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) too. In an open democracy, we are entitled to make such queries – indeed, it is a duty.

      David Abrahams, the strange shape-shifter at the centre of the funding furore, was once Mr Big in LFI; so is John Mendelsohn, the smart fundraiser picked by Gordon Brown to garner "election resources" to finance the next Labour win. Lord Levy is also a key member of LFI. We witnessed the tortuous police investigation into the peer's affairs during the cash for honours investigations, but not once was there any scrutiny of Levy's connection to LFI and how that might have led to the offer of his prestigious position as the Middle East envoy, handed to him by his tennis partner, Tony Blair.

      I rang some of my Jewish friends who support LFI and are well acquainted with Abrahams and Mendelsohn. Two have known both professionally for some time and others have personal relationships with these men. I felt their unease as we talked about this latest unsavoury New Labour scandal. Some of these contacts confirm that Abrahams and Mendelsohn fell out at a dramatic LFI meeting when Abrahams wanted the group to make contact with a particular Palestinian organisation and Mendelsohn vehemently disagreed. OK. Internal strife among campaigners is part of the deal, and Palestine, as we know, divides Jewish opinion the whole world over. Such things happen all the time when communal champions gather. It happens within Palestinian forums too. But LFI is not only an activist network. It enviably attracts the support of top parliamentarians, almost all prime ministers for a start. Its fringe meetings are packed because, on the platform, they can guarantee the biggest names from the political parties.

      Founded in 1957, it then had a lot of politicians on side, says one of my contacts. After the 1967 war, support for Israel became more problematic and LFI had to become more strategic and focused to keep MPs on side.

      Mendelsohn is a passionate Zionist and infamous lobbyist, described by the Jewish Chronicle as "one of the best-connected power brokers". So we can assume LFI plays a part in shaping our foreign policies in the Middle East – the most inflammable tinderbox in the world today. And that is neither right nor fair. The LFI take, by definition, has to be partisan. It exists to present the official Israeli view; it cannot be nuanced or considerate to "the enemy". I would venture to suggest that Tony Blair's abject performance during the last Israeli assault on Lebanon was partly the result of the special relationship he had with LFI.

      The current scandal and its links to LFI only encourages fascist and Islamicist propagators of the idea of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Look on the crazed websites today and you see how they feed on this crisis and rejoice. LFI is the most successful of many interest groups which have been allowed to exert undue pressure on policies.

      There is Labour Friends of India, more courted and favoured than ever before. When the Hindu fundamentalist BJP was in power, this group ensured the support of British MPs who should have known better. The Muslim Friends of Labour has donated large amounts of money in Glasgow, I imagine for some reciprocal advantage. Such lobbyists and their considerable back-room influence, how they can manipulate politicians and the media, and the secrecy of the conversations they have with the powerful, should make us very uneasy. There are no records we may look at, no transparency. As far as I know, no civil servants take notes. Yet decisions they can drive through do affect the future of the whole world.

      Whatever the outcome of the various investigations into the unlawful proxy donations, and who did what when with Abrahams' £600,000, the issue of insider lobbying by interest groups is as serious, possibly more so, and must not be ignored. It is astonishing that we have allowed it to spread through the corridors of power and infuse the air that breathed there. This corruption has no whiff, no colour. It is deadly and must now be stopped at source.

      Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel - Independent Online Edition > Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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        • WASHINGTON, April 24, 2008: American Jews have formed a new pro-Israel lobby as an alternative to traditional organizations that they assert have often been impediments to progress in the Middle East because of their generally reflexive support of Israel.

          Officials of the new group, called "J Street," say they believe the best way to bring security and peace to Israel is to help political candidates who support that country but will occasionally question some of its policies, like maintaining or expanding settlements in disputed territories.

          For many who follow the intense and complex world of lobbying on Middle East issues in Washington, there is little doubt about the role J Street hopes to play in domestic U.S. politics - upsetting or at least diluting the influence of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the formidable lobby that has long been the dominant voice of American Jewry with regard to U.S. Middle East policy.

          "They're trying to be the un-AIPAC," said Shmuel Rosner, who follows the issue closely as the chief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

          Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the new venture, said that "a large number of American Jews and their friends have dropped out of the discussion about how to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors because they don't have a home politically." He argued that there was a need for an alternative to the traditional groups who say that "to oppose any Israeli policy is to be anti-Israel."

          The new group's name is a multiple play on words. Not only does the letter "J" suggest a Jewish cause, but "K Street" has come to be shorthand for the Washington lobby industry because many lobbyists' offices are there. Although streets in central Washington are named for letters in the alphabet, it is also a cartographic quirk that there is no J Street to be found between I and K.

          The group's founders say they will provide something else that does not exist - financial support from American Jews for candidates whose views are not in line with AIPAC's. J Street will have its own political action committee to donate to candidates on the basis of their views about U.S. policy for the Middle East.

          AIPAC does not have a political action committee and does not donate to candidates, but it exercises significant influence in other ways. Its prominent members donate heavily as individuals to candidates favored by AIPAC, and it mobilizes influential supporters in lawmakers' home districts.

          Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, said his group intended to select a handful of congressional candidates to support this autumn with donations of about $50,000.

          He said they would choose candidates in June who are willing, for example, to express forcefully their support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue and for aid to the Palestinian Authority. One race that has the potential to provide such a demonstration is the Senate campaign in Minnesota, in which Norm Coleman, the incumbent Republican who is a staunch Israel supporter, is likely to be opposed by Al Franken, a Democrat who might take some positions more in line with those of J Street.

          Underlying the formation of the group is a fundamental question that has long vexed the American Jewish community: What is the most effective way to support Israel? Many people involved in AIPAC have long argued that American Jews have limited standing to criticize Israel's policies because they are not themselves facing difficult questions of safety and survival.

          AIPAC declined to comment on the formation of J Street. But some people involved in AIPAC noted with satisfaction the vast difference in size of the two groups: J Street is planning for an operating budget of about $1.5 million, compared with AIPAC's $100 million endowment, membership of more than 100,000 and annual lobbying expenditures of about $1 million.

          Victor Kovner, a prominent New York lawyer and former corporation counsel for the city who is one of the principal fund-raisers for J Street, said the group was aimed at undoing the notion that "AIPAC speaks for American Jews on issues affecting Israel and Middle East."

          He said candidates would also be able to use those endorsements as a shield against accusations that they are anti-Israel. The group's principal fund-raisers are Kovner, who supports Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Alan Solomont, who supports Senator Barack Obama.

          A principal theorist behind the group, J Street officials said, is Daniel Levy, the son of Lord Michael Levy of Britain, who had been the Labour Party's principal fund-raiser.

          So far, J Street has raised about $750,000 for its lobbying arm. It is organized as a nonprofit and is not obliged to detail its donations, although Ben-Ami said a few people whom he would not name had given gifts of $100,000. As for the political action committee, J Street lists about nine named donors, about half of whom have given the maximum of $5,000.

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          • "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel,
            and it must remain undivided"


            The unpromised land

            June 5, 2008 -- Imagine the shock-horror: Barack Obama attends the conference of an organisation whose former officials face trial for spying on the United States!

            It would be all over the blogs, except that John McCain and Hillary Clinton were attending the AIPAC conference this week in Washington DC as well, pandering to the lobby that will get you accused of anti-Semitism if you quote its own website about its power.

            This non-lobby has always harassed politicians into compliance – who now remembers the way they hounded Hillary Clinton for years as a crypto-Palestinian supporter? It works. Whatever the lobby asks for, she now gives them 50% cent more. And Obama gave them 100% extra.

            So there we were, thinking that the country had come of age at last, finally putting truth in the rumours about liberty and equality first spread by a group of slave-owners some ten-score and thirty years ago. Obama's securing of the nomination alone underscores how much the country has changed in the 20 years I have been here.

            However, I am glad that I kept some reservations about the idea of Obama taking us to the New Jerusalem. Not least since he was busy giving away the old one to those who stole it.

            After viral emails and vicious attacks against him as an anti-Israeli or even Islamic sleeper, the worm turned – in the direction they pointed. Obama promised to support an "undivided Jerusalem," as Israel's capital in his speech to the lobby.

            Not a single country recognises the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. Indeed, the last few banana-ish republics that maintained embassies in West Jerusalem have removed them, since no country, including the US, is prepared to over-ride the UN partition resolution which designated the city as international territory.

            There are proposals that would have the city as the joint capital of both Palestine and Israel, and it is possible that Obama was thinking of those. However that possibility was somewhat diminished by the complete absence of any mention of Israeli settlement building, the road blocks, the separation wall, all in defiance of international law, and indeed of Israel's own commitments to the Quartet and the peace roadmap. Indeed, far from pressuring Israel to live up to its obligations, he promised yet another $30bn in stringless aid!

            Those of us who were, on Tuesday night, cheering the seeming end of the long years of neocon domination of foreign policy should pause and recall that Paul Wolfowitz addressed an AIPAC crowd and reminded them: "Israelis are not the only victims of the violence in the Middle East. Innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact." The crowd booed. However, he knew they would and was prepared to take the risk.

            At any AIPAC rally since the defeat of Saddam, it is always good for a quick buzz to attack Iran, and of course, all the candidates obliged. So, the choice we are left with is choice between Obama, who is prepared to talk to the Iranians, but still waving a big stick, ("I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything.") and McCain, who wants to dispense with the talking.

            Of course, some AIPACniks mightn't like talking to the Iranians, but Obama could always send Ollie North, who has considerable experience bridgebuilding between Israel and Iran and seems to be still beloved of the lobby and its friends.

            But he would be better of building up ties to J-street, the new Peace-Nowish lobby whose views seem to represent far more American Jews than AIPAC, which more and more looks like a Likudnik-Neocon lobby, prepared to fight to the last Israeli – and indeed the last GI - for their eschatological visions.

            Let us hope Obama's speech was just a passing pander and that the peace drive he promised takes international law on occupied territories into account.

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            • June 6, 2008 -- Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama did not rule out Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem when he called for Israel's capital to remain "undivided," his campaign told The Jerusalem Post Thursday.

              "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," Obama declared Wednesday, to rousing applause from the 7,000-plus attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

              But a campaign adviser clarified Thursday that Obama believes "Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties" as part of "an agreement that they both can live with."

              "Two principles should apply to any outcome," which the adviser gave as: "Jerusalem remains Israel's capital and it's not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967."

              He refused, however, to rule out other configurations, such as the city also serving as the capital of a Palestinian state or Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods.

              "Beyond those principles, all other aspects are for the two parties to agree at final status negotiations," the Obama adviser said.

              Many on the right of the political spectrum among America's Jews welcomed Obama's remarks at AIPAC, but the clarification of his position left several cold.

              "The Orthodox Union is extremely disappointed in this revision of Senator Obama's important statement about Jerusalem," said Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. He had sent out a release Wednesday applauding Obama's Jerusalem remarks in front of AIPAC.

              "In the current context, everyone understands that saying 'Jerusalem... must remain undivided' means that the holy city must remain unified under Israeli rule, as it has been since 1967," Diament explained.

              "If Senator Obama intended his remarks at AIPAC to be understood in this way, he said nothing that would reasonably lead to such a different interpretation."

              Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and another Jewish activist who had originally lauded Obama's statement, now called the candidate's words "troubling."

              "It means he used the term inappropriately, possibly to mislead strong supporters of Israel that he supports something he doesn't really believe," Klein charged.

              But congressman Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Florida with ties to the Jewish community and a long-time supporter of Obama, rejected the idea that the Illinois senator had been misleading with his comments.

              "Everyone knows that Jerusalem is a final status issue. That is not a secret to anyone. Senator Obama says emphatically that should the Israelis and the Palestinians negotiate [an agreement], he will respect their conclusions and that he will not dictate a particular resolution."

              And some groups were pleased by the clarification on Jerusalem provided by the campaign.

              "There was reaction from some of our base who were taken aback by it and thought he was undermining the peace process," said Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir, who described his organization as "gratified" by the clarified position which seems to follow APN's policy that sovereignty of Jerusalem could be shared in a final peace settlement.

              Obama has faced questions about his support for Israel from hawkish quarters of the Jewish community, and his campaign said the speech before AIPAC, following a town hall meeting at a Florida synagogue last month, were key elements in shoring up the Jewish vote, which generally goes to the Democrats.

              "We think we've gotten a good reaction to the speech and we're pleased that we've gotten a good reaction," said the campaign adviser of the candidate's AIPAC address, which received multiple sustained standing ovations.

              Palestinian factions though were particularly troubled by the original speech's original language on an undivided Jerusalem.

              "This statement is totally rejected," said Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whom a top aide described as "disappointed."

              "The whole world knows that holy Jerusalem was occupied in 1967 and we will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state," Abbas said.

              The Obama campaign adviser said that whatever the international reaction, it was important for the Illinois senator to "make his positions clear."

              "Our main audience is American voters at the moment. Other people want to know where he stands and it's important that they do know where he stands," he said.

              Speaking generally about the speech, which also stressed the importance of a secure Israel and the need to isolate Hamas, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters: "Obama's comments have confirmed that there will be no change in the US administration's foreign policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict."

              Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, called Obama's address "moving," adding that he was also impressed by the speeches delivered at the same conference by Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.

              Olmert spoke to all three candidates by phone Thursday as he wrapped up a three-day visit to Washington.

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              • May 1, 2009 -- The U.S. government is to drop espionage charges against two officials of America's most powerful pro-Israel lobby group accused of spying for the Jewish state because court rulings had made the case unwinnable and the trial would disclose classified information.

                The two accused, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which drives fundraising for some U.S. members of Congress. They were accused of providing defence secrets to the chief political officer at the Israeli embassy in Washington, Naor Gilon, about U.S. policy toward Iran and al-Qaida in league with a former Pentagon analyst who has since been jailed for 12 years.

                Dana Boente, who was prosecuting the case in Virginia, said that the case was dropped because pre-trial court rulings had complicated the government's case by requiring a higher level of proof of intent to spy. The court said the prosecution would have to prove not only that the accused pair had passed classified information but that they intended to harm the U.S. in doing so.

                Rosen and Weissman have argued they were merely using the back-channel contacts with government officials, lobbyists and diplomats that are common in Washington. The defence intended to call the former U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and other officials to establish that the government regularly uses AIPAC to discreetly send information to Israel.

                A former Pentagon analyst, Lawrence Franklin, has already pleaded guilty to disclosing classified information to Rosen and Weissman.

                The dropping of the charges will come as a relief to AIPAC because the case threatened to overshadow its annual conference this weekend at which it parades support from American politicians. It was also an embarrassment which laid the lobby group open to charges of putting Israel's interests above those of the U.S.

                The case has been further complicated by a scandal revealed last month by a political publication, Congressional Quarterly, around a member of Congress, Jane Harman, who was secretly taped telling an Israeli agent that she would pressure the justice department to reduce spying charges against the two former AIPAC officials.

                In return, the Israeli agent offered to get a wealthy donor who helps funds election campaigns for Nancy Pelosi, the then-minority leader in the House of Representatives, to pressure Pelosi to appoint Harman to a senior position on the congressional intelligence committee.

                Aware of the sensitivity of the position she has put herself in, Harman finished the discussion with the Israeli spy by saying: "This conversation doesn't exist."

                Congressional Quarterly obtained a transcript of the tape recorded by the National Security Agency. An FBI probe of Harman was dropped after the intervention of President Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.

                AIPAC has long wielded considerable influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East though a mix of appeals to American sympathy for Israel and a hard-ball approach against members of congress who question the unyielding policies of Israeli governments.

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                • WASHINGTON, May 4, 2009 -- During Israeli president Shimon Peres' speech today at the annual AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee) policy conference at the Washington Convention Center, CODEPINK members raised banners saying "Want Peace? End the Occupation," "What About Gaza?," and "No Money for War Crimes."

                  As the six activists were forcibly dragged away from the stage, they shouted similar phrases including "Tikun olam (Heal the world) for Gaza, too!", all meant to draw attention to widespread opposition to AIPAC's policies lobbied to Congress that include unconditional support and financing for Israel's militaristic policies including the recent devastating invasion of Gaza, building of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the separation wall, refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians' democratically elected representatives, and threats to attack Iran.

                  "The brutal invasion of Gaza was a breaking point for me and many American Jews," said CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, who recently led a 60-person delegation to Gaza. "I was appalled by the devastation and the suffering I saw, particularly among the children. As a mother, I feel compelled to speak out against Israel's bombing of civilians and the ongoing siege that is so devastating to the lives of Gaza's 1.5 million people-most of whom are under 18."

                  While AIPAC claims to represent the U.S. Jewish community, its wholesale support of the Israel government goes against the majority opinions of the Jewish Americans. According to a recent survey by the Jewish lobby group J Street, 76 percent of American Jews support a two-state solution, 69 percent support negotiating with a Fatah-Hamas unity government, and 59 percent felt the Gaza invasion did not improve Israel's security.

                  "Like most American Jews, I grew up with a deep appreciation for the state of Israel," said Rae Abileah, a young American Jew of Israeli descent. "After witnessing the attack of Gaza on TV and hearing the calls for crippling sanctions on Iran, I can no longer avert my eyes to the other side of the story most rabbis still aren't talking about. I am joining the dozens of Jewish organizations, and the growing global movement, advocating a change in the Israeli policies of occupation and aggressive violence. It's high time to drop the victim narrative so that we may all survive, and one day thrive as neighbors."

                  CODEPINK activists inside the AIPAC conference (with its theme "Relationships Matter") were: Medea Benjamin, 56, Rae Abileah, 26, Blaine Clarke, 29, Christianna Reinstein, 21, Desiree Fairooz, 53, and Tighe Barry, 52.

                  "The most important relationships for Israel to cultivate are not with U.S. Congressional allies but with the Palestinian people," said Christianna Reinstein, a student of Middle Eastern studies who joined the protest inside the AIPAC conference today. "AIPAC's lobbying of Congress has not made Israel more secure and has hurt American efforts to improve relations in the Arab world."

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