Morris Amitay, ardent advocate for Israel, dies at 86 from cancer
Morris J. Amitay, a lobbyist who spent decades rallying financial, military and moral support from the U.S. government for the state of Israel and helped transform the American Israel Public Affairs Committee into one of the most effective advocacy organizations in Washington, died Feb. 10 at his home in Rockville, Md. He was 86.
The cause was metastatic prostate cancer, said his son Stephen Amitay.
Mr. Amitay became executive director of AIPAC in 1974, succeeding Isaiah L. Kenen, who had founded the organization in the early 1950s.
Under Mr. Amitay’s six-year leadership, AIPAC undertook an expansion that would ultimately make it the most influential member of a constellation of groups lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of Jewish and Israeli causes.
In a 2006 profile of Mr. Amitay published in The Washington Post, a reporter wrote that “even among his peers his success is something of a legend.”
He was deeply connected on Capitol Hill, with sources in Senate and congressional offices who kept him apprised on legislative matters of concern to Israel. He was in close touch with the Israeli ambassador to the United States. And he astutely marshaled AIPAC’s resources to promote legislators who supported Israeli causes and challenge those who did not.
Led by Mr. Amitay and his successor, Tom Dine, “AIPAC was transformed from an intimate, low-budget operation into a large, mass-based organization,” professors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt wrote in the 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
When Mr. Amitay took office, AIPAC had a staff of about a dozen and an annual budget between $300,000 and $400,000. He was credited with tripling both those figures. Three decades later, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, AIPAC’s annual budget was between $40 million and $60 million.
AIPAC and other groups advocating for Israeli interests have been buffeted by criticism over the years that they turn a blind eye — and ask the U.S. government to do the same — to the plight of Palestinians in their seemingly intractable conflict with Israel.
Mearsheimer and Walt took a critical view of what is often described as the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, arguing that pressure from AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups had distorted U.S. policy, so that it was no longer entirely in U.S. interests.
Defenders of AIPAC charged that antisemitism, latent or otherwise, lay at the root of much criticism directed at Israel and its supporters. In 1977, a bomb tore through Mr. Amitay’s Rockville home one morning at 3:20 a.m., leaving a hole 10 feet in diameter and killing his dog. He and his family were unharmed. An investigation yielded no charges.
Mr. Amitay left AIPAC in 1980 to work privately as a lobbyist, with clients including the American Petroleum Institute, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman.