Is AIPAC Waging A Shadow War On Hagel?

Is the Israel lobby’s premier organization outsourcing its assault on Chuck Hagel?

January 14, 2013  |  

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“A lobby is like a night flower: It thrives in the dark and dies in the light.” — former AIPAC foreign policy director Steve Rosen

If the most powerful Israel lobbying group in America is to be believed, it has no involvement in the increasingly ugly campaign to sabotage the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to Secretary of Defense. According to Eli Lake, a reliable water carrier for the Israeli government and its various Beltway lobbying arms, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is “sitting out” the Hagel fight. The same day, another faithful pro-Israel partisan, Jeffrey Goldberg, speculated on his blog at the Atlantic that “AIPAC will not mount a significant campaign” against Hagel.

“AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations,” insisted AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman.

But a closer investigation of the campaign against Hagel indicates that AIPAC — and by extension, the Israeli government — may be outsourcing the attacks to its longtime former spokesman, the notoriously combative pro-Israel operative Josh Block. Through Block, who was until very recently quoted by reporters as a “former AIPAC spokesman,” AIPAC has apparently been able to assail one of President Barack Obama’s key nominees without risking the political fallout that such a gambit might invite.

“Because Josh Block does not work for AIPAC anymore, he can say whatever he wants,” MJ Rosenberg, a former editor of AIPAC’s weekly newsletter and ex-congressional aide who is now one of the Israel lobby’s premier critics, told me. “And he does: when AIPAC wants a message sent, it tells journalists, ‘We have no comment but you can call Josh Block.’ And Block, who is in constant contact with AIPAC, gives the line but AIPAC has deniability — they can just say, he doesn’t work for us.”

AIPAC has good reasons to keep its fingerprints off the public campaign to demonize Hagel. For one, AIPAC thrives on its ability to influence lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, requiring it to avoid alienating the key congressional Democrats who rubberstamp the anti-Palestinian resolutions and Iran sanctions legislation it routinely authors. If AIPAC waded into the Republican-led crusade against Hagel in a public way, it might enrage some of its most reliable Democratic allies in Congress, generating unnecessary acrimony that might complicate future lobbying initiatives.

What’s more, were AIPAC to openly oppose President Barack Obama on a key cabinet pick, it would risk deepening the tension between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came dangerously close to openly campaigning for Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, during the 2012 presidential campaign. Given the already icy relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, it is no surprise that AIPAC has gone to such lengths to distance itself from the campaign against Hagel.

Another reason for AIPAC’s reluctance to publicly oppose Hagel is its complicated legal status. Though it functions as a virtual arm of the Israeli government, AIPAC is not regulated by the US Department of Justice as other foreign agents are. If it were ever exposed for directly coordinating with the Israeli government, AIPAC would be required to register with the DoJ under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Its staff members would then be allowed to carry the line of the Israeli government, but only under strict regulations that would severely hamper their effectiveness, and erode their image as a homegrown reflection of America’s supposedly pro-Israel sensibility.

According to Rosenberg, this is where Block enters the picture.

“The Josh Block phenomenon is a strategem to get around laws relating to foreign lobbying,” Rosenberg explained. “He talks to the Israeli embassy constantly and can and does convey what the Netanyahu government wants. But, hey, he isn’t AIPAC, so he can do that. He’s just a citizen. That’s why Josh Block is infinitely more valuable as ex-AIPAC than he was before.”