How Howard Kohr made AIPAC a pro-Israel powerhouse while keeping out of sight


WASHINGTON ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — It was September 2015, on the eve of what AIPAC was depicting as one of the most critical congressional votes in U.S. history — for or against President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which was reviled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and much of the centrist pro-Israel community.

Howard Kohr, the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby’s CEO, was making a rare public appearance at a synagogue in Maryland. He did not look at ease.

He uncomfortably held aloft a smartphone, and tried to explain:

“Go to that little address icon where you put in new numbers,” Kohr told 1,600 people packed into Beth Tfiloh in the heavily Jewish suburb of Pikesville. “Call Senator [Barbara] Mikulski and call Senator [Ben] Cardin and urge them to oppose the deal.”

Cardin was one of four Democratic senators to vote against the deal, but the appeal didn’t work: The agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, despite intensive opposition spearheaded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, survived a congressional challenge just days later.

It was a rare failure for Kohr. And the mood of his synagogue appearance validated his long-standing preference for working decision makers in back rooms, rather than persuading the public in open arenas.

Kohr, 68, who announced this week that he would retire by the end of this year, has used his negotiating skills to make AIPAC an inevitable Washington influence, steering the powerhouse for nearly 30 years through scandal and triumph while largely staying out of sight.

“I think there was a purposeful effort for there not to be a cult of personality around the AIPAC leadership, that it’s the cause, the U.S.-Israel relationship, it’s the organization that’s primary, not the person who happens to be sitting in the CEO chair,” William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and longtime D.C. operator, said in an interview. 

In 2007, when GQ named Kohr the sixth most powerful person in Washington, he declined comment.

Kohr’s note to the AIPAC board reflected his MO, as if to say: Enough about me, let’s get to work.

“There will be plenty of time for reflection when I leave the position in a little more than nine months,” he wrote. First, he said, AIPAC needed to pass “the president’s $14.3 billion emergency request for Israel.”

Kohr’s speeches to the lobby’s former annual Washington conference, which swelled to the largest yearly gathering of Jews in the country, consistently depicted a world teetering on the edge of doom, with only Kohr and the conference attendees — addressed like 15,000 of his closest friends — in a position to rescue it. 

“It falls to us,” Kohr said in a typical speech in 2011, distressing about the unfolding of the Arab Spring protests that year. “We must refocus our policymakers’ attention on what Iran is doing in this time of turmoil: its efforts to cultivate fifth columns in neighboring nations to advance Iranian ends; its use of terror by proxy; its relentless march toward a nuclear weapon.”

By the time Kohr got the top job in 1996, the board was looking for someone who did not bring the lobby unwanted attention.

Tom Dine, Kohr’s predecessor, was pushed out in 1993 ostensibly because he had offended Orthodox Jews. But an insider who was in a top position when Kohr was hired said Dine, who was erudite and dashing, was getting too much media attention. (Dine declined an interview request.)

Hired by AIPAC in the late 1980s after a stint helping to lead the predecessor to the Republican Jewish Coalition, called the National Jewish Coalition, Kohr was the lobby’s managing director by 1993 when Dine left.

Kohr wanted the top job, but the board was bedazzled by Neal Sher, the famed Nazi hunter, and offered a co-directorship. Kohr turned it down. Sher got the job.

Two years later, Sher was out and Kohr was in. Board members said Sher was not a good fit; Sher later said Kohr undermined him.

In a remembrance in 2007, Sher, who died in 2021, said he sought to reverse some of the tensions between AIPAC and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who regarded the lobby as an unwelcome interloper in the U.S.-Israel relationship during the era of the Oslo Accords. 

Rabin, and President Bill Clinton, did not want Jerusalem’s status touched during sensitive peace talks with the Palestinians. Kohr, Sher said, disregarded that wish, going behind his back and using his Republican contacts in Congress to help engineer a law recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.The 1995 bill was introduced by Kansas Sen. Robert Dole, who would become the Republican nominee for president the next year.

Did it matter to Kohr “that the scheme was in direct contravention of AIPAC policy?” Sher recalled. “Not in the least.”

In meetings with reporters Kohr, impeccably attired, and his managing director and then co-CEO Richard Fishman were two sides of a coin. Kohr was soft-spoken and given to opaque bromides, while Fishman, who died last year, was gregarious, voluble and sarcastic.

Kohr’s formidable fundraising skills were a factor in his long-term survival — he is the first AIPAC director to retire and not be pushed out since 1974. He draws an annual salary of more than $1 million.

In 2022, the lobby was worth $164 million, up from $105 million in 2011, according to tax returns. Staff grew during Kohr’s tenure from 40 to 300. In the 2000s, Kohr led fundraising for a glistening new headquarters near the Capitol, complete with a gym. AIPAC is the force behind securing $3.8 billion in annual defense assistance for Israel. It has been key to helping propel forward Iran sanctions.

When it held massive conferences, which it did until the pandemic, the lobby drew up to 18,000 people and served the largest catered kosher dinner in the United States, carting in 125 gallons of hummus in 2005. 

In the last election cycle, its affiliated political action committee, which Kohr and Fishman launched, endorsed 365 candidates in the 470 races up for grabs; 98% won. A second super PAC, the United Democracy Project, has $100 million to spend this cycle.

Under Kohr, the lobby has faced accusations of leaning Republican. Its affiliated political action committee, AIPAC PAC, targets progressives who do not hew to its pro-Israel parameters and has endorsed more than 100 Republicans who would not certify the 2020 election, while also endorsing dozens of members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The super PAC, UDP, spends most of its money targeting progressive Democrats in primaries.

AIPAC publicly battled with President Barack Obama over the Iran deal. The summer of 2015 was open season: AIPAC went so far as flying in hundreds of activists who lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to kill the bill, and cut short a meeting with top White House officials.

Kohr occasionally stood up to the right wing: He parted ways in 2007 with one of AIPAC’s most generous donors, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, because he would not back down from the lobby’s backing for negotiations with the Palestinians toward a two-state solution, which was at the time Israeli government policy. In 2016, he joined other AIPAC leaders on stage to rebuke then-candidate Donald Trump for mocking Obama in his speech. Trump never forgave the lobby and never spoke again at its conferences. 

It wasn’t all wins. A low point came in 2004, when government agents swooped in on two top staffers — Kohr’s erstwhile mentor, Steve Rosen, and Keith Weissman — and charged them with accepting classified information.

The case roiled the civil liberties community — a successful prosecution was seen as potentially hobbling not just lobbyists, but journalists. 

But within a year, under Kohr, AIPAC dropped its backing for the men. It was later alleged that the feds pressured AIPAC into the firing in part by threatening to prosecute the lobby.

One of the Obama administration’s first acts was to drop the case, but the damage was lasting: AIPAC, cowed by the probes into the case, substantially trimmed its executive branch lobbying.

Kohr ended decades of keeping out of direct elections in 2022 when AIPAC launched two political action committees. 

The pivot was a stark change, but Daroff said it made sense, especially now amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, because of the rise of a hyper-polarized environment in which portions of the left hope to drive support for Israel entirely out of the Democratic Party. A few Republican lawmakers also oppose backing for Israel.

Daroff said, “Looking at the reaction that we see post-Oct. 7 in some political quarters, if AIPAC had not pivoted in the previous cycle, they would have had to pivot now because of the changing dynamic of  the political landscape.”

Allies said that under Kohr, earthquakes within the lobby were the exception rather than the rule. Jonathan Kessler, the lobby’s longtime student director who now heads a Jewish-Arab dialogue group, said Kohr and Fishman stood out among the group’s leaders. 

“I’ve known and worked with each of AIPAC’s six executive directors and co-CEOs,” he said. “Howard Kohr and his inseparable professional partner, Richard Fishman, led AIPAC with unparalleled acumen, passion, discipline and grace.”