Washington — Thomas Dine believes he is just being as American as apple pie. "We play politics like any other interest group,'' he says. ''We take care of our own.''
Mr. Dine is chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the only American organization registered to lobby Congress directly on legislation affecting Israel.
He has led the efforts that have produced the largest amount of American military and economic aid to any country ($11.9 billion from 1980 to '84) - all while Israel's policies were becoming more controversial in the United States.
Critics say such largess runs counter to US interests. Former Rep. Paul (Pete) McCloskey (R) of California charges that because of AIPAC, ''the Jewish influence over Congress is preventing the US from maintaining an even-handed Middle East policy.''
In foreign affairs, Sen. Charles Mathias (R) of Maryland criticizes ethnic interest groups that ''sometimes press causes that derogate from the national interest.''
Dine rebuts such charges. He specifically rejects any accusations of dual loyalty as reeking of latent anti-Semitism. AIPAC, he adds, is not omnipotent. For example, it lost battles over the sale to Saudi Arabia of F-15s in 1978 and AWACS surveillance planes in 1981. What strength AIPAC does have, Dine insists, rests on Israel's strong and popular case in the US.
''American Jews represent only 2.5 percent of the American population; and 2. 5 percent of the country cannot control American foreign policy,'' he says. ''Israel is a democracy and America's strongest ally in the Middle East. It's hard not getting support for that.''
Ken Wallack, co-editor of the Middle East Policy Survey, concurs: ''AIPAC doesn't have to twist any arms. There is a basic sympathy on Capitol Hill for Israel. Israel still is seen as an embattled country, with the entire world lined up against it, and Washington as the one party which can correct this imbalance.''
No one denies that AIPAC helps form congressional consensus. It is a highly professional organization. Like Dine, most of its 35 staffers have worked years in government before joining AIPAC.
''If any arcane issue comes up affecting Israel, AIPAC will immediately analyze it and rush position papers up to the Hill,'' Mr. Wallack explains. ''They present their case well.''
Moreover, AIPAC packs more than just persuasive power. Dine explains that in the 10 largest states, Jews often provide the swing votes and that Jewish support can be key to a candidate's success.
AIPAC itself is growing. Since 1981, membership has risen from 11,000 to 50, 000. Its annual budget is now some $3 million, all from nondeductible contributions - unlike donations to most other US groups supporting Israel which are tax deductible.