The Think Tank AIPAC Built: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

April 13, 2010 12:47 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard had an excellent piece in Foreign Policy this weekend which alluded to the fact that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP or "The Washington Institute"), often featured on PBS and other news outlets as an "independent source," is an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) cutout. 

Walt was responding to an attack by WINEP's current director, Robert Satloff, who calls out anyone who would even suggest that WINEP is an AIPAC front.

Satloff's column is not only nasty and utterly disingenuous, but it seems to confirm the idea that those who criticize Israeli policies, or the influence of the lobby itself, will have their names smeared, their motives questioned, and their personal integrity challenged.

Of course, this idea (known as the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis after Professors Walt and John Mearsheimer propounded it in their book, The Israel Lobby) is the last thing Satloff, a lobby kingpin, wants to confirm.  But he can't help himself.  He has written the best defense of the controversial Walt-Mearsheimer thesis that I've seen.

Satloff not only suggests that Walt is an amoral hack, he also argues that "his employer," Harvard University, has sold out to foreign special interests. Such delicious irony!

And talk about delusions of grandeur. The idea of Satloff successfully discrediting one of the most respected political scientists in the United States, a tenured Harvard professor, is absurd (unless, of course, the conspiracy theorists are right).  If Satloff thinks he can "get" Prof. Walt, he is as delusional as Joe McCarthy was when he thought that he could destroy Eisenhower.

In any case, Walt is right about the origins of WINEP; it was created by AIPAC.  How do I know? As an AIPAC staffer, I was in the room when AIPAC decided to establish WINEP.

It was Steve Rosen (later indicted under the Espionage Act, although charges were subsequently dropped) who cleverly came up with the idea for an AIPAC-controlled think tank that would disseminate the AIPAC line in a way that would disguise its connections.

There was no question that WINEP was to be AIPAC's cutout. It was funded by AIPAC donors, staffed by AIPAC employees, and located one door away, down the hall, from AIPAC headquarters (It has its own digs now).

It would also hire all kinds of people not identified with Israel as cover and would encourage them to write whatever they liked on matters not related to Israel. "Say what you want on Morocco, kid." But on Israel, never deviate more than a degree or two.

I didn't pay that much attention at the meeting because, despite pressure that I do so, I never intended to go near any operation ultimately under Steve Rosen's control.

But another participant at the meeting remembers it well.  Like most people who criticize AIPAC and are involved professionally with the pro-Israel world, he asked not to be identified. (I respect that.  I am not so much brave as I am safe from being punished for taking on AIPAC, as I am not employed or paid in any way by any lobby-connected institution.)

My correspondent writes:

WINEP was created initially at a time when AIPAC was in financial trouble and having a lot of problems raising money, so it was suggested, probably by Steve Rosen, (I was at the same meeting) that we split the AIPAC research department into two parts, a minor part to service the legislative lobbying, and the major part to become a 501(C)3 that could raise big bucks tax free unlike AIPAC itself which did not enjoy that tax status.

As you wrote, it was originally in AIPAC's building and on the same floor but we started getting a lot of pressure from some of the other Jewish organizations which were worried that AIPAC would cut into their (C)3 fundraising.

As for funding, the Weinbergs were key and even worked out a deal with some big money folks who didn't want to contribute to a political operation like AIPAC but would give to (C)3's. So one could give to the (C)3 and someone else would match it for AIPAC.

This became the ultimate in interlocking directorates.

So why does it matter?

It matters because the media has fallen for the WINEP/AIPAC sleight of hand and treats WINEP spokespersons (particularly on the PBS News Hour) as if it's an independent and objective voice and not part of the Israel lobby.

Here is what Walt says about that:

Although WINEP claims that it provides a "balanced and realistic perspective" on Middle East issues, anyone who spends a few hours examining its website and reading its publications will realize this is not the case. 

In fact, WINEP is funded and led by individuals who are deeply committed to defending the special relationship, and promoting policies in Washington that they believe will benefit Israel.  Its board of advisors is populated with prominent advocates for Israel such as Martin Peretz, Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Mortimer Zuckerman, and there's no one on this board who is remotely critical of Israel...

Understanding this is especially crucial at critical moments -- like the present when the United States and Israel are battling over settlements -- and WINEP is called upon to play the role of objective observer.

There is a new crisis brewing and WINEP will no doubt employ its best damage control tactics on it. Israel recently announced a new policy that could be a step toward the "transfer" of Palestinians out of their own country by deeming them "infiltrators."

From Ha'aretz over the weekend:

A new military order aimed at preventing infiltration will come into force this week, enabling the deportation of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, or their indictment on charges carrying prison terms of up to seven years.

When the order comes into effect, tens of thousands of Palestinians will automatically become criminal offenders liable to be severely punished.

I don't know precisely what this means. It sounds ominous. But, when I turn to PBS to help me figure it out, I'd like to hear from all sides: US, Israeli and Palestinian officials; think tanks like the New America Foundation, the United States Institute for Peace, the International Crisis Group, the Heritage Foundation, Brookings, and the Cato Institute; and from independent disinterested academics. 

I have no problem with representatives of the Washington Institute appearing, but only if it is identified as the "pro-Israel" think tank.  In the capacity of an advocacy group, it could be heard along with J Street, the Arab-American Institute, Americans For Peace Now, and the American Task Force For Palestine.

It's all a question of truth-in-labeling.  PBS should understand that. Next time a WINEP official appears, let your audience in on the secret:  The Washington Institute is part of the "pro-Israel" lobby. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that.