last updated: March 21, 2014
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- Washington Public Affairs Committee: Founder
- Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs: Vice Chairman
- Center for Security Policy: Member, National Security Advisory Council
- Jerusalem Summit: Member of Presidium
- American Israel Public Affairs Committee: Former Executive Director (1974-1980)
- Coalition for Democracy in Iran: Cofounder
- Coalition for a Democratic Majority: Former Board Member
- Washington Kurdish Institute: Advisory Board Member
- Council on Foreign Relations: Member
- U.S. Senate: Former Assistant in Office of Legislative Counsel
- State Department: Former Foreign Service Officer
- U.S. House of Representatives: Former Legislative Assistant
- Columbia University: A.B.
- Harvard University: LL.B.
Morris Amitay is a “pro-Israel” lobbyist who formerly headed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Vice chair of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a pressure group based in Washington, D.C. whose advisers “have a known fondness for the policies of [Israel’s right-wing] Likud Party,”Amitay is also a frequent commentator on U.S. and Israeli policy issues and a longtime supporter of numerous neoconservative-aligned groups, including the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI), the Jerusalem Summit, and the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD).
In the early 1980s, Amitay founded the Washington PAC to serve as a vehicle for donating money to elected officials “who share the view that a secure Israel is in the best interests of the United States.” Washington PAC’s website makes extravagant claims about its political influence, stating that it is “different from other pro-Israel PACs” because it is strategically located on Capitol Hill and meets with representatives and senators “on an almost daily basis.” The website also provides typical one-sided assertions about Middle East peace issues, stating: “Israel has taken enormous risks in its pursuit of peace, yet the pressure to make further concessions continues, despite America’s own war on terrorism. What is needed here in Washington is continued support and encouragement from Israel’s many friends in the U.S. Congress.”
Individual donors to the PAC have included numerous well-known backers of hawkish U.S.-Israeli policies, including Lawrence Kadish, David Steinmann, and Norman Hascoe. Recipients have included several key pro-Israel congressional figures, including John McCain, Jon Kyl, Harry Reid, Mark Kirk, Joe Lieberman,Ileana Ros–Lehtinen, Curt Weldon, and Eric Cantor.
Amitay has attacked the Barack Obama administration, frantically arguing that the president “is a disaster with regard to his foreign policy.” Among the issues he has been critical of is the administration’s handling of Iran. In a February 2014 interview with Washington Jewish Week, Amitay bemoaned how the” administration’s blandishments, threats, and promises” had kept many Democrats from supporting the Menendez–Kirk “Nuclear Free Iran” bill, a package of sanctions that observers argued would have derailed ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Role in Pro-Israel Lobby
Michael Ledeen, an often discredited writer based at the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, once described Amitay as “one of the great political minds in recent Washington history” because of Amitay’s work as a leading “pro-Israel” lobbyist.
Amitay took over the helm of AIPAC in 1974 and remained as executive director until 1980. During his tenure, the Justice Department investigated the lobbying group for potentially operating as an agent for a foreign power. Recounting the event for the right-wing Washington Times, Amitay said that "two agents from the Department of Justice showed up unannounced and said they were investigating whether AIPAC should register as a foreign agent, as opposed to a domestic foreign-lobbying organization.” He added: "I invited them to look at all of our records and to speak to any employee they wished, but I assured them that, as an attorney myself, I was conversant with the Foreign Agents Registration Act and that AIPAC was scrupulous to avoid crossing any line to have to register as foreign agents."
More recently, in early 2012, colleagues at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) reportedly called on Amitay to mediate a dispute between various factions within the organization that coincided with increasing public criticism of the impact of the “Israel lobby” on U.S. politics. The dispute involved Shoshanna Bryen, a long-time leader of JINSA whose outspoken views regarding Israeli and U.S. policies were viewed negatively by some members of the group’s board. Reported Forward in January 2012:
“With relations within JINSA deteriorating, board members had turned to Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a well-known conservative, to serve as a mediator. But his efforts were unsuccessful. … Bryen's termination rippled through the organization and led to the resignation of 10 members of JINSA's advisory board. Most notable among them are [James] Woolsey, who still plays an active role in conservative defense circles, and [Richard] Perle, who headed the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee during the George W. Bush administration. JINSA recently announced six new members to replace those who resigned; most are retired military and law enforcement officials and lack the public profile held by the resigning members.”
Middle East Advocacy
Amitay has a long track record promoting interventionist U.S. policies in the Middle East. In 2003, Amitay and Ledeen founded the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI), an advocacy group pushing for regime change in Iran. The now-defunct coalition proclaimed on its website, "The Islamic Republic as a whole must be held accountable for its actions. Engaging reformists tied only to the regime is counterproductive since it stifles the growth of more democratic forces inside Iran. Perpetuating the behavior of the current regime fundamentally undermines U.S. moral values and national security interests." Among the group's supporters and cofounders were Frank Gaffney, Joshua Muravchik, Danielle Pletka, and James Woolsey.
In mid-2004, Amitay joined a similar group of hawkish government officials and pundits in reviving the Committee on the Present Danger, a group that led the backlash against the détente policies of the 1970s and helped set the stage for the Reagan Revolution and a revived Cold War. In its more recent incarnation, the CPD has promoted an interventionist U.S. “war on terror” focused on the Middle East, claiming that it "is dedicated to protecting and expanding democracy by supporting policies aimed at winning the global war against terrorism and the movements and ideologies that drive it." According to its website, "Our mission is to educate free people everywhere about the threat posed by global radical Islamist and fascist terrorist movements; to counsel against appeasement of terrorists; to support policies that are part of a strategy of victory against this menace to freedom; and to support policies that encourage the development of civil society and democracy in those regions from which the terrorists emanate." In addition to Amitay, CPD members have included Kenneth Adelman, Rachel Ehrenfeld, Clifford May, and several original CPD figures from the 1970s, including William Van Cleave, Max Kampelman, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, and Peter Rosenblatt. CPD's honorary co-chairs are Sen. Jon Kyl, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and George Shultz.
During a May 2003 American Enterprise Institute conference on the future of Iran, Amitay sharply criticized the U.S. State Department's efforts to engage the Islamic Republic, saying that Newt Gingrich's much-publicized lambasting of the State Department and Colin Powell had not gone far enough. Clearly eager to see the United States take direct action against Iran, Amitay, who was introduced by Ledeen as the "godfather" of AIPAC, grudgingly acknowledged that such action would be difficult before the 2004 presidential elections: "As far as the administration is concerned, I think we have to concede that from now until November of 2004, the presidential reelection will be a very, very high priority, and that having taken on Iraq, I don't think that this administration or any administration would want to undertake the use of force for regime change anywhere else in the world. So I think what we will see is what we saw for most of [Bill] Clinton's eight years, a policy of kicking the can down the road, a hoping for the best, making tactical decisions, no really decisive, bold decisions."
Regarding the State Department, Amitay said: "The role of the State Department, then, with the White House I think paying less attention to Iran than it deserves, will be crucial. … I think at this point it's not enough to say that the Secretary of State is just a captive of the State Department. … In a State mind-set, no tyrannical regime can't be made a friend by showing our own goodwill, politeness, process, and accommodation, as Gingrich put it. … The Congress is held in contempt by the State Department. They are know-nothings. They're a bunch of yahoos. … They don't have the sophistication. Some members of Congress are flattered by the State Department as being one of us, and as we go to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Senator [Sam] Brownback's initiatives, we're going to have some problems with some of the leading members."
After Amitay's talk, Ledeen quipped, to laughter and applause: "Sooner or later, someone will have to give an anti-State Department talk at some other place than the American Enterprise Institute. Otherwise people will think badly of us. They will think that that's all we do here."
Amitay has been a vocal critic of U.S. Jewish groups who have not supported hardline Middle East policies. In a March 2007 column, for example, Amitay attacked the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for not expressly opposing Iran, writing: "The Jewish Council for Public Affairs purports to represent a consensus on issues of importance to the American Jewish community. However, its failure to issue any statement on Iran at its plenum here in Washington late last month was both shocking and shameful. It reminds one of the story of the two hapless Jews caught by the Gestapo during World War II, and lined up against a wall to be shot. Seeing that the end was near, one cried out 'long live the Jewish people.' His companion implored him to be quiet—'or you'll get us both in trouble!’ With Israel (surely a subject of importance to Jews) being openly threatened with annihilation by the rulers of Iran who are seeking nuclear weapons, how does one explain this glaring omission? Has the JCPA been so intimidated—or indoctrinated—by the voices raised against the possibility of the use of force against Iran, that it could in good conscience just take a pass here?"
Amitay continued this line of thinking in an April 2007 letter to Commentary, writing:
"The real threat to continued strong American public and congressional support for close U.S.-Israel ties comes from anti-Israel bias in the major media, elite universities, and most importantly from ultra-liberal Jewish organizations like Americans for Peace Now and individual Jews who seem to have difficulties dealing with their own Jewishness.”
Shortly after the final report of the Iraq Study Group (the presidentially authorized group led by former Secretary of State James Baker) was released in December 2006 calling for increased diplomatic efforts with Iraq's neighbors and a gradual drawdown of troops in Iraq, Amitay wrote a scathing critique of the report. He argued that those parts "dealing with the region go beyond foolish stupidity and could be viewed as being closer to appeasement of sworn enemies of the United States, and indicating malice toward Israel. The Report could also serve as an example of Churchill's definition of a second marriage—'the triumph of hope over experience.' Or, as one pundit put it 'the victory of assertion over analysis.' Surely our experience with Iran and Syria should have taught us what a fool's game it must be to rely on one's enemy to save you. Under the heading 'Throw the Iraq Report in the Trash,' Max Boot aptly described it as 'an anticlimactic combination of banalities … leavened with generous dollops of wishful thinking.' Perhaps he was being too kind.”
Like his neoconservative colleagues, Amitay is fond of the term "Islamofascist." In one column, Amitay used the mass killings by a lone gunman at an American university as a backdrop for his argument about why Americans need to be worried about the Islamofascists: "Inevitably after the tragic Virginia Tech shootings much attention was focused on why, despite the warning signs raised by the shooter's previous behavior, no action was taken. On a much more macro scale the question must be asked why are we not taking effective action against the very overt threats posed by Iran and the spread of Islamofascism? Surely unambiguous warning signs are there in abundance. We have the resurgence of the Taliban, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support of jihadist terrorists worldwide, and its proxies killing Americans in Iraq. The bellicose statements of Iran's leaders calling for the annihilation of Israel, their national slogan of 'death to America,' and the calls for even more 'martyrs' make perfectly clear their future intentions. Fueling this bitter enmity toward Western civilization is a fundamentalist religious belief that inevitably a caliphate will be established to rule over the entire world."