WASHINGTON (JTA) — When the last plaintive shofar blast echoed through the Washington Convention Center at the conclusion of the annual Christians United for Israel Policy Conference, it was not the record attendance of 5,000 fired-up pro-Israel Christians that marked a turning point for the 10-year-old group.
Instead, it was the July 13 briefing by CUFI Executive Director David Brog, and Gary Bauer, a national CUFI leader, for a half-dozen journalists — this reporter among them — that revealed a muscular new role for the organization.
CUFI has spun off a ready-to-rumble political lobbying arm called the Christians United for Israel Action Fund. Its inaugural effort will be to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, which was announced earlier this week and is now being reviewed by Congress. “Not only has Iran not stopped its support for terror, it has not been asked to stop its support for terror,” Brog said during the briefing.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, meanwhile, is backing an action committee that plans to run TV ads across the country pressing Democrats to oppose the Iran nuclear deal.
Working independently of AIPAC, the CUFI fund promises to deliver its national reservoir of 2.2 million Christian Zionist followers.
Bauer said that even though the fund has yet to find office space and is still hiring for positions, multimillion dollar funding is already in place. Job one, according to Bauer, is providing daily reports to every congressional office detailing flaws in the Iran nuclear agreement, which CUFI argues necessitate a no vote.
In addition, the fund plans to mobilize core supporters across the country to create “centers of influence of local pastors and businessmen … leaders in their communities,” who are in a position to sway members of Congress.
Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder, was quoted this week in The Washington Post as saying: “Every person running for office [in 2016] is going to be aware we have 2.2 million households. If I were a candidate especially in the Republican Party, I’d be aware of how many voters will cast their vote principally on Israel.”
The briefing, which took place around a circular table in a small nondescript room in a roped-off corner off the lobby at the CUFI conference, held July 13-14, made clear that the CUFI Action Fund did not intend to employ AIPAC-style bipartisanship. Bauer called President Barack Obama “the most anti-Israel president in the history of Israel.”
The new effort is Brog’s second major announcement this month, after he was recently selected to head up the new $50-million Campus Maccabees initiative. The goal of that effort, which is being funded by Jewish billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, is to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, known as BDS.
During the CUFI briefing, held the day before the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran was announced, Bauer pledged the new lobbying arm would work 24/7, and not just as part of the annual national conference. “You can’t just bomb Washington, D.C. three days per year. You have got to actually occupy territory,” he said.
Brog said the new fund would make clear to every member of Congress that the Iran deal must be voted down.
The fund will insist that an arms embargo on Iran be held rigidly in place. Moreover, he insisted, any deal must bear a term of more than 10–12 years. “If a nuclear Iran is unacceptable now — barring regime change, it will be unacceptable a decade from now,” said Brog.
At the conference, Israel Defense Forces Lt. Tzur Goldin, the twin brother of IDF Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was kidnapped and killed by Hamas during the 2014 Gaza war, asked the crowd to push to make the return of his brother’s body a condition for allowing the Gaza Strip to be rebuilt.
Major Israeli and American political figures also spoke, including Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, who is running for president. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appeared via video link.
AIPAC's new battleground
The separate AIPAC-funded effort, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran is a 501 (c) (4), a tax designation that includes groups that advance political causes. It launched its website on Friday.
The group is “dedicated to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability,” said Patrick Dorton, a Washington spokesman who frequently speaks for AIPAC, the preeminent pro-Israel lobby, which opposes the deal. “It is financially supported by AIPAC and other individuals and organizations.”
Dorton said the group’s reach and ethos is bipartisan.
“Democrats should be especially concerned because this deal increases the chances of war, will spur a nuclear arms race and rewards an Iran with a horrific human rights record,” he said.
Democrats have become the battleground in the fight between the Obama administration, which backs the deal, and Republicans, who are sworn to kill it in Congress in the next two months.
Some leading Democrats, among them Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the U.S. House of Representatives’ minority leader, back the deal, while others have yet to announce how they will vote now that the deal has been reached and Congress has two months to review it.
The National Jewish Democratic Council on Friday strongly endorsed the deal.
“This was a deal aimed at halting Iran’s march towards a nuclear weapon, and we find it will do exactly that,” the council said in a statement.
The Sunlight Foundation, a group that advances political transparency, first reported on the new group on Thursday, linking to filings that showed it plans on running a TV ad in at least 18 states.
A source close to the new group said the ads would eventually run nationwide and that the group had millions of dollars at its disposal.
The advisory board is made up of five former Democrats who have close ties to the pro-Israel community: former U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.; former U.S. Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who ended his career in 2012 as an independent but who was the Democratic vice presidential pick in the 2000 election.
Notably, the team’s media adviser, Mark Putnam, and pollster, Mark Mellman, are also Democrats.