August 13th, 2020


Pro-Israel evangelicals are escaping AIPAC's shadow

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published Jan. 11, 2017

Pro-Israel evangelicals are escaping AIPAC's shadow

Since its founding in 2006, the country's largest evangelical pro-Israel lobby, Christians United for Israel, has been a junior partner to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, when it comes to lobbying Congress.

While there were a few times when the group pushed issues independent of AIPAC, for the most part it has followed the more established lobby's lead in Washington. With Donald Trump about to be sworn in as president, this is beginning to change.

David Brog, the founding executive director of Christians United for Israel, or CUFI, and an active member of its board, told me last week that his organization is better positioned to drive the pro-Israel agenda in Trump's Washington than AIPAC, which has embraced a bipartisan approach for decades to its lobbying for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This is important because AIPAC is on the record in support of a two-state solution. CUFI, on the other hand, does not take a position on the matter. And while AIPAC has opposed President Barack Obama's efforts to publicly pressure Israel to end settlement activity in the West Bank, it has not supported legislation, for example, to defund the Palestinian Authority. CUFI on the other hand does support such proposals.

"AIPAC's assets were most important during the Obama administration, unfortunately we learned the limits of those assets during the Obama administration too," Brog said. "We believe we have great assets that will be most valuable during a Trump administration, this is not only connections, but speaking for a critical base. I can't think of anyone else on this issue that better represents a base that voted for Trump."

On this, Brog has a good point. CUFI claims 3.3 million members, most of whom are evangelical Christians. The evangelicals supported Trump early in the Republican primaries and came out in large numbers for him in the general election.

CUFI also has strong personal ties to the incoming administration. Gary Bauer, who runs CUFI's Washington lobbying arm, is a personal friend of Vice President-elect Mike Pence. His son is a senior aide to Pence. In 2014, Pence traveled to Israel with a CUFI delegation. Trump's incoming adviser for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left the Republican convention this summer to address CUFI's annual meeting.

AIPAC is a bipartisan organization and it has Republican members who have influence within the party. It is also the best funded foreign policy lobby in Washington. Between Aipac and its sister organization, the American Israel Education Foundation, it has revenue in excess of $125 million annually in recent years. CUFI doesn't release its financial figures, but officials with the group say its budget is a fraction of AIPAC's. Add to this AIPAC's stable of seasoned lobbyists, who often understand the history of legislation and policies effecting Israel better than legislative staffers and members of Congress.

Yet sources within the Trump transition team tell me the group is not favored inside the president-elect's inner circle. This is in part because AIPAC issued a statement following Trump's address to its annual policy conference in March that distanced the organization from what it said were the candidate's ad-hominem attacks against President Barack Obama. But this is also because many Republicans have grown frustrated with AIPAC's handling of the Iran issue. In 2015, every Republican voted against the Iran deal in Congress, but AIPAC only persuaded four Democratic senators to join them. Ultimately, Congress failed to stop the deal that was bitterly opposed by Israel's government.

Brog told me that he expects Trump's approach to Israel policy will break away from what he called "a model that pays excessive homage to bipartisanship and even fetishizes it."

In this sense, Brog expects Trump will be less beholden to the orthodoxy of the two-state solution, a policy supported by both parties since the early 1990s when the Oslo peace negotiations began. "Whatever one's position on the two-state solution is, most Israelis and pragmatists recognize it's not something that can be implemented today. We will see in the Trump administration, an administration that recognizes that reality," he said.

Brog said he appreciates AIPAC's efforts in Washington. He credited the group for helping persuade more than 100 Democrats last week to break with Obama and support a measure condemning the U.N. Security Council resolution the U.S. declined to veto last month that negated Israel's claims to East Jerusalem.

"Where we agree we are thrilled to partner with AIPAC, they are the best of partners," he said. That feeling is mutual. An AIPAC spokesman, Marshall Wittman, told me over the weekend, "We work with CUFI very cooperatively and productively and believe they make an invaluable contribution to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship."

Nonetheless, Brog also said CUFI will push for issues in Congress even when AIPAC does not. "Where we disagree, we will go it alone," he said.

This is already beginning to play out. Last month, CUFI launched a new campaign to lobby for legislation from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to defund the Palestinian Authority. Consider it the group's declaration of independence from AIPAC.

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.