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Pro-Israel Lobbying Group Holds Meeting Amid Worries

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is accustomed to getting its way. The powerful lobby has run smoothly and quietly for half a century, successfully championing the close ties between Israel and the United States.

But this is a different time. On the eve of the organization's annual convention, traditionally a self-congratulatory event, many AIPAC supporters are wringing their hands over a federal probe into allegations that two of the group's employees may have passed classified information to Israel.

"In my heart of hearts I believe that AIPAC will continue to be strong; it's not a fly-by-night operation," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "But this has obviously been a blow. As long as this remains unresolved, with these charges swirling around, the unease will continue."

"I genuinely hope that this does not impact the effectiveness of the organization; its role is too important," agreed Neal Sher, a former executive director of AIPAC. "But one has to be concerned. Uncertainty is very problematic."

Both men, and the pro-Israel Jewish community in general, worry that the disclosures could weaken AIPAC and its efforts to promote U.S. support for the Jewish state.

Such doubts are unusual for the organization, which has long been counted as one of the country's most effective lobbying groups. It ranked consistently among the five most influential interest groups in Fortune magazine's poll of Washington insiders (alongside such better-known lobbies as AARP and the National Rifle Association). A recent survey by the National Journal ranked AIPAC No. 2 among Democratic lawmakers and No. 4 among Republicans.

Money is the main reason. AIPAC takes pains to say that it does not contribute funds directly to candidates for federal office, and that it does not rate or endorse them. It constantly updates its 100,000 members on lawmakers' views of Israel and maintains close ties with a network of wealthy individuals and political action committees that regularly pour millions of dollars into the political process.

With a $40 million annual budget, regional offices around the country, and a well-regarded staff of lobbyists and researchers in the capital, it helps persuade the U.S. government to continue sending billions of dollars in aid to Israel each year and to keep a steadfast alliance with that nation.

Proof of its sway will be on display beginning Sunday, when some of the biggest names in politics and foreign policy will be featured at AIPAC's annual policy conference.

About 5,000 of its members will throng the Washington Convention Center to hear speeches by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the chairmen of both major U.S. political parties and the top leaders of both chambers of Congress. The banquet Monday night will be attended by half the Senate and a third of the House, AIPAC aides said.

Principals of the pro-Israel lobby are eager to focus attention on these high-profile guests. But a growing number of Jewish American activists are worried about the recent controversy. Last month, AIPAC dismissed two senior staffers amid an FBI investigation into whether they passed classified U.S. data to Israel.

Lawyers for the two men -- policy director Steve Rosen and senior analyst Keith Weissman -- have denied that they were involved in any wrongdoing, and a source close to AIPAC said that the government has informed the organization that it is not the target of the probe.

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