WASHINGTON — WHEN Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin canceled a scheduled speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on March 21, some leaders within the Jewish community said the move was a signal that one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States was losing its clout.
After a decade during which the lobby was instrumental in shaping US Middle East policy to Israel's advantage, its future role is now in question.
"1992 was a trying year for AIPAC," the lobby's new president, Steve Grossman, said in a phone interview. These difficulties include a conflict with the Israeli government that became public last summer and press reports that the organization waged campaigns to discredit those it kept on "enemy lists."
In November, major US newspapers reported that David Steiner, AIPAC's president at the time, had bragged to a potential donor that the lobby was negotiating with the Clinton administration on executive-branch appointments. Mr. Steiner resigned, and AIPAC responded that his claims were untrue.
Since November, AIPAC has worked to recoup. Mr. Grossman is a former Democratic state chairman with close links to President Clinton. "AIPAC should act in as collegial a way as possible with other groups in the pro-Israel community," he said. And over several meetings, AIPAC has reconciled with Mr. Rabin, he adds.
But AIPAC leaders, Israeli officials, and leaders of US Jewish groups agree that one consequence of these difficulties will be a contraction in AIPAC's activities, with the lobby relinquishing some involvement with the White House and State Department.
After the Clinton-Rabin meeting March 15, Secretary of State Warren Christopher briefed leaders of the US Jewish community. Sitting next to AIPAC representatives were representatives of Americans for Peace Now and other Jewish groups who had never had access at such a high level.
"This administration appears to be bypassing the traditional institutions that usually act as intermediaries," says one US Jewish leader. "For the moment, [AIPAC is] not able to control access up and communications down."
"Rabin doesn't want us to be the primary conductors of relations between Israel and the US," says a source within AIPAC. "He's instinctively skeptical of the government of Israel operating through any intermediary."
During the Reagan administration, AIPAC set out to lobby the US presidency. AIPAC'S largely Republican leadership was able to sell its vision of Israel as a strategic asset to the US in the fight against communism.
AIPAC effectively became an intermediary between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Bush administration, and during the Gulf crisis lobbied Congress for a military solution against Iraq.
The peak of this involvement came in September 1992 when the Bush administration said it opposed immediate approval of $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel. Mr. Shamir and AIPAC decided to defy President Bush by pushing the loan guarantees through Congress. The challenge failed, and Congress lined up behind Mr. Bush.
Nine months later, a new Israeli leader took AIPAC to task. Rabin told AIPAC leaders in August 1992 that they had needlessly confronted the US administration and had been of disservice to the Jewish state. Israeli officials say Rabin was angry that AIPAC had allied itself with Likud and wanted it understood that Israel, not AIPAC, would conduct Israel's foreign policy.
"Now the message has gotten through," says a high-ranking Israeli official, about the conflict with AIPAC.
"AIPAC will contract to its earlier focus on Congress and spend less time lobbying the administration on policy matters," leaving that to the Israelis, said the leader of a smaller US Jewish organization.
Grossman confirmed that AIPAC would be concentrating on Congress and on recruiting future grass-roots activists. By 1996, Grossman said, AIPAC hopes to have "caucuses" in every congressional district, an indication that while it may be relinquishing its executive-branch lobbing, its grass-roots influence may, in fact, increase.