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Trimming Its Sails, Aipac Cuts Its Staff and Restructures

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Carrying the weight of unrestrained growth from the past decade and feeling the sting of a $1 million drop in fund-raising collections over the last year, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has laid off 18 employees amid a major restructuring effort.

The move resulted in the recent dismissal of 12 employees from the organization’s Capitol Hill headquarters and six others from its satellite offices.

The move also is considered by many close to AIPAC – Washington’s premier pro- Israel lobby – to be the first real assertion of strength by Neal Sher, the executive director who took over the organization from Tom Dine eight months ago.

As with other pro-Israel advocacy groups, AIPAC has been hard hit by a downturn in collections over the last year.

The uncertain U.S. economy and the ascendant Middle East peace process both helped contribute to declining donations. After more than a dozen yeas in which AIPAC tripled in size from a small but important lobbying group into a foreign policy behemoth with $15 million in fund-raising contributions, the time for reckoning had come, say many observers.

A number of departments within AIPAC were hit by the layoffs, including its grass-roots lobbying, political and legislative arms.

But Sher, asked if there were any more layoffs or major restructuring moves pending, said “the answer is no.” He also added that pledges for the coming year are up.

Although this month’s shakedown hit many AIPAC staffers hard, the consequences for AIPAC on the whole, many said, would not be damaging.

Staff size, while reduced by an aggregate 14 percent, will remain at roughly 110 people – more than a dozen positions stronger than it was five years ago. Last year, AIPAC’s staff reached its peak, at about 140 employees.

In all probability, AIPAC’s raison d’etre – lobbying Congress on issues of concern to Israel – will not be adversely affected. Although the legislative staff did lose support personnel, it has gained some stature.

Ester Kurz, a respected strategist, will return from a part-time to a full-time position, joining day-to-day organizer Arne Christenson, who heads the legislative shop.

Sher, well-known to many in Congress from his Nazi-hunting days as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, also said that he personally will be “devoting a considerable amount of effort on Capitol Hill” during the coming term.

As part of the lobby’s restructuring, some field activities, such as grass- roots work on state political party platforms and other issues, will be farmed out to regional offices. A few of the nine regional offices will also assume the duties of AIPAC satellite offices. The satellites are being reduced in number from six to four.

The Near East Report, AIPAC’s mass-circulation newsletter, will move from a weekly to a biweekly distribution schedule. Officials say NER will now provide more in-depth, analytical articles. The size of the publication, however, is expected to remain the same, four to eight pages.

Perhaps as another sign that direction will not change greatly at AIPAC, no department heads were laid off in the recent shuffle only mid-and lower-level staffers and clerical support were affected by the downsizing.

Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti – Defamation League, interpreted the layoffs at AIPAC as a “general attempt to refocus on fundamentals.”

“Many Jewish groups over the years have had to streamline,” Hordes said, nothing the analogous situation many organizations find themselves in after economic boom periods. “When you engage in an expansion that AIPAC undertook in the 1980s, at some point you’re going to have to re-evaluate your staffing needs.”

The economic situation for AIPAC was bolstered recently when Sher convicted Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of The Seagram Company Ltd., to become a major player at the lobby. Bronfman, one of the Jewish community’s largest benefactors, has recently pledged $130,000 to AIPAC, he said.

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