By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – At its annual policy conference earlier this month, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) welcomed the Israeli Prime Minister and President, the U.S. President, and some 13,000 participants, nearly 300 from Connecticut. Among the state delegation was Michael Kassen, who was inducted at the conference as the organization’s national president, a position he will hold for two years.
Kassen has always been involved in the Jewish community, since his childhood in Cleveland, where his parents were active in the local Jewish federation. He graduated from Princeton and Harvard Business School, where he met his wife, Shelly. The couple lived in Boston for a decade before settling in Westport in 1989, where they raised three daughters. The couple has always been involved in a Jewish federation, first in Boston and currently in New York and Westport.
Kassen spoke with the Ledger about how he first became active in AIPAC and what he hopes to accomplish during his tenure as president.
Q: What originally inspired you to engage in AIPAC’s work?
A: I got involved in AIPAC in 2001, right after the second intifada. I was familiar with the organization and Shelly and I had responded to mail appeals through the years, but nobody had ever asked me to become active. A woman I had gotten to know through UJA-Federation of New York called to tell me that she was going to work for AIPAC and asked whether I knew what it was, and then asked for a gift. We felt heartsick about what was going on in Israel – there were buses being blown up every week – and, as she explained to me what AIPAC did, it spoke to me. Shelly and I decided to make a financial commitment and I started going to AIPAC events in New York and the organization’s work really grabbed me.
In 2003, Shelly and I helped create the AIPAC Fairfield County Council; Shelly served as its first chair. I started to get more involved in trying to reach out and tell people about AIPAC and involve them. I was asked to join the board of directors in 2004, and served in different committee assignments and leadership positions. The incoming president is selected halfway through the term of the current president. In January 2011, while on an AIPAC mission in Jerusalem, I was asked if I would consider the position.
Q: What made you accept?
A: It’s hard to say no to an offer like that. I was flattered and humbled that I was asked, and that feeling has only grown since then. In January 2011, the revolution in Tunisia had started, but Tahrir Square, Yemen, Libya, Syria had not yet happened. At that time, the issues facing Israel were the tremendous challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear problem, and the ongoing lack of dealings with the Palestinians. But the landscape around Israel has changed over these last 14 months so much that, though the presidency would have been a big job then, it’s a bigger job now.
Q: How do you define AIPAC’s identity?
A: There are people who think of AIPAC as right-wing, but we’re a very big tent. We have members from the entire political and denominational spectrum from the left, right, and in-between; from the Orthodox to the unaffiliated, and increasingly, non-Jews. As an organization, we don’t publicly – or even privately – tell the government of Israel what to do.
Q: What do you see as AIPAC’s top priorities?
A: The underlying AIPAC mission is to help create a very tight relationship between the state of Israel and the U.S. – that’s at the core of our work. We do that first and foremost by working through legislation and through Congress. Our priorities every year include U.S. foreign aid, which is now entirely security assistance. Four or five years ago, some component of that aid was economic assistance to Israel; this year, President Obama’s budget includes a $3.1 billion request for fiscal 2013. That’s very, very important. Not only is the money important, but the overall security collaboration between our two countries is more so.
Israel spends eight percent of its GDP on defense, more than any other industrial nation, and one-quarter is funded by our $3 billion in assistance. Even without that, Israel would spend eight percent on defense. To put that into perspective, the U.S. spends $4 billion, which wouldn’t be so high if not for Afghanistan. Most European countries spend one to one-and-a-half percent on defense; Israel spends nearly five times that. Most people in the American security establishment would say that the $3 billion is well spent, because it translates into American security, which is vitally important.
The most important thing we’ve done for the last 10-plus years is talk about the dangers posed to the world by a nuclear Iran. The Israelis started talking about this issue in the early- to mid- ‘90s, and Netanyahu talked about it in his first go-round as Prime Minister. In 1996, AIPAC helped lobby to pass the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which imposed relatively mild economic sanctions compared to those levied today. That was the official beginning of AIPAC’s legislative efforts regarding Iran. The hope is that, through legislation and sanctions, Iran’s leaders will come to the decision that their nuclear program is taking too much of a toll on their country, and that they should work to have a different kind of relationship with the other powers of the world. The likelihood for this happening is small to none, but this is the most important work AIPAC has done recently.
People say, “We’ve had all this sanction legislation but Iran continues to go forward.” I think Iran would probably have nuclear weapons by now, were it not for a series of American initiatives over the last 10 to 15 years. Experts estimate that if Turkey, for example, decides to develop a nuclear weapon, it would take five to six years. A sophisticated country like Iran, with access to materiel, could finish a weapon in the same timeframe.
One of the great challenges that the Iranian nuclear program poses is that, if they develop weapons, it will probably lead a number of countries in the neighborhood – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt – to feel that they need them as well, and the dangers of an arms race in the most precarious part of the world is high.
Q: It is common to focus on AIPAC’s lobbying efforts in Washington. But does lobbying work the other way around? Does Congress have any impact in determining AIPAC’s priorities or direction?
A: We work very closely with Congress and with the Administration. The belief of the founders of AIPAC – and this does not pertain only to AIPAC, but more broadly as well – is that the House of Representatives was always envisioned as the people’s chamber. The Senate was seen as more elite and aristocratic and populated by legislators not elected by popular vote; Congress, broadly, is supposed to be the voice of the people. The right to petition your government is enshrined in the Constitution. That’s a key building-block of American democracy that offers all kinds of groups a platform.
If you were to talk to the vast majority of Congress-members, they would tell you that AIPAC is a great educational resource that helps them be more knowledgeable about what’s going on in Israel and the Mid-East. We do that pretty well, but not perfectly, and we have to keep getting better at it.
In part because of what AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations do, and because of the natural interest of many in Congress, there are lots of legislative initiatives that come from representatives. For example, someone could put forward an amendment to the foreign-aid bill that would cut off some or all of U.S. funding to Egypt unless they can better protect the natural-gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan. I don’t think AIPAC would support something like that if it were proposed. As an organization, we hardly ever get behind an initiative that doesn’t have broad bi-partisan support.
Congress sees us a good educational resource. It’s very common for members of Congress to ask our staff or our lay leaders – especially our board members who lobby in Washington several times a year – for information on a certain Israeli policy or action.
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