WASHINGTON – Strong condemnation among congressional members most often follows the homicide bombings rocking Israeli towns, with lawmakers throwing support behind Israel's continued operation to rid Palestinian territories of terrorists.
After an explosion in the town of Rishon Letzion on Thursday killed two people and the bomber, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said, "The innocent Israelis murdered today underscore the need to stand with Israel as they eliminate the terrorist networks."
DeLay's strong response was one of many expressions of support coming from congressional members, who repeatedly remind voters of the strong U.S.-Israel alliance dating back to Israel's 1948 foundation.
But widespread congressional support is rooted in more than just a long-term relationship. It is traced to the power of the collective Jewish or pro-Israeli lobby, a well-organized, well-funded, extremely active, and extraordinarily connected group, according to political analysts.
"They are very savvy and sophisticated," said Richard Semiatin, a political science professor at American University. "They are extremely knowledgeable and some of the best lobbyists in the country when they get into congressional offices."
Indeed, the latest crisis in the Middle East, which has been punctuated by 20 months of Palestinian uprisings that resulted in dozens of homicide bombings and the subsequent ongoing occupation of disputed Palestinian territory, has only energized this Washington lobby. The group has been hosting near-daily organizational conferences, press events, op-eds, advertising campaigns, and rallies — all demanding that Arafat get control of his militant supporters and reform his corrupt Parliament.
"It's a little like the special forces teams who go in to fight in Afghanistan. They're on the ground, calling in bombers. The planes overhead are the pro-Israeli supporters across the country," who donate money to campaigns and send letters to Washington, said former Clinton political adviser Dick Morris. "It's a very effective model and basically unequaled in the Congress."
"The key to AIPAC's success is support for the only Western democracy in the Middle East," said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which boasts over 65,000 Jewish and non-Jewish members. "The members support and believe that Israel is our ally on the frontline against terrorism in the Middle East. When you are lobbying on an issue that is so clearly the right thing to do, your effectiveness is high."
Granted, other groups, including the National Rifle Association, the Cuban American National Foundation and the American Trial Lawyers Association, all command large audiences and ready support in the aggressive environment of Washington.
But AIPAC, along with the American Jewish Committee, the American Defense League, the United Jewish Communities, the National Jewish Democratic Council, and the Republican Jewish Coalition, all of whom conduct their own grassroots campaigns, have surpassed the partisan and political bickering that often marks policy on guns, Cuba and tort law.
Just a sample of their influence: Earlier this month, pro-Israeli resolutions, which included $200 million for Israeli defense activities, passed the House 352-21 and the Senate 94-2.
During one week last month, Israeli groups were able to rally an estimated 100,000 people to Capitol Hill, as well as several political heavyweights, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
A week later, congressional leaders like DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., delivered rousing speeches to AIPAC's annual conference, the most powerful lobbying force for the Jewish-American community. DeLay's speech was followed by instructions to blanket Capitol Hill with lobbying teams.
"These groups have taken advantage of the political system to organize themselves to petition the government and they have a reputation of success not only because of their influence but because our presidents have seen their cause in the public interest," said John Samples, a political analyst with the Cato Institute. "It gives you the notion that there is a broad coalition of people who see it as part of the national interest to support Israel very strongly."
"They do have a tremendous amount of clout, but I think it starts with the fact that there is an enormous amount of support for their point of view in Washington," said political analyst Rich Galen, who edits Mullings.com. "They are feeding into a willing audience."
But not everyone is buying into the hype.
"It is truly disturbing to see American elected officials falling over themselves in an unseemly attempt to 'pledge allegiance' to a foreign government and its domestic lobby," complained the Council on American-Islamic Relations in a recent statement.
"There are Jewish people who are opposed to Israeli policies, but they don't get a hearing in the Congress. The pro-Israel lobby gets all the attention," said Faiz Rehmanen, communications director for the American Muslim Council in Washington.
"As an American, I see it as a problem. [Members of Congress] aren't addressing our interests, they are addressing the interests of a critical lobby," he added.
Indeed, the number of Jews in the United States Congress well surpasses the population as a whole. Seven percent of members are Jewish, while the Jewish-American population totals 2.2 percent, about 6 million people in a nation of 280 million.
But Jewish-Americans accounted for 4 percent of total voter turnout in the 2000 elections, totaled close to 3 percent of swing voters in several key states and their fund-raising ability is nearly unmatched, say experts.
"It's a big fund-raising community filled with people who are willing to give large sums of money to political parties and candidates," said Michael Barone, author of The New Americans. "It's money, but it is also skill, it's the strength of their arguments."
In 2001, AIPAC spent $1.1 million in lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, which Block said is typical. None of that money went directly to political campaigns. Neither does AIPAC endorse candidates.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-Israeli donors, including PACs and individuals, gave $28.6 million to Democrats and $12.7 million to Republicans. About $17.5 million came from PACs and $24 million from individuals.
By comparison, Arab-American and Muslim PAC contributions totaled $296,830 since 1990, with Democrats receiving $206,908 of that money.
"The Jewish lobby is extremely influential in Washington," said Steven Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "If you are a candidate and you get the pro-Israel label from AIPAC, the money will start coming in from contributors all over the country."
"When you have a core constituency that is so passionate about what they believe in, they are likely to open their pocketbooks," surmised Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.