WASHINGTON -- Back when Republican Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest was a poor little challenger running against a rich incumbent on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he needed every dime he could get. So it was almost like magic when one day last year someone offered to round him up as much as $100,000, a political bonanza by any standard.
The money, the would-be philanthropist explained, would come from a network of pro-Israel political action committees.
Though Mr. Gilchrest is skeptical that the Maryland man, whom he declined to identify, could have delivered the full amount, he nonetheless got the message: This was one powerful lobby.
How powerful? Wealthy enough to pump more than $4 million from political action committees into the 1990 election campaigns of representatives and senators, putting it on a par with such heavyweight givers as the oil industry. Well-organized enough to call to arms at short notice more than 1,200 community leaders from around the country to march the halls of Capitol Hill. And bold enough to warn at least one lawmaker that he'd have the blood of a pogrom on his hands if he didn't support immediate loan guarantees for Israeli resettlement of Soviet Jews.
Mr. Gilchrest turned down the offer of $100,000, saying he couldn't live up to the implicit obligation of unqualified support. The 1st District Republican has since been an occasional supporter of Israeli interests, while watching with fascination the workings of the lobby, as led by the efforts of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"It's not so dissimilar to the NRA [National Rifle Association]," he has concluded.
For all its various powers of persuasion, however, a new, uncertain age is dawning for AIPAC. Far more important to its power than either fear or money has been its ability to portray Israel's interests as identical to those of the United States, partly because its hostile Arab neighbors were backed by the Soviet Union. But now that the Soviets have left the stage, the United States is pursuing a new role of mediation before a suddenly receptive Arab audience.
As if to signal this era's arrival, the dispute arose with Mr. Bush on the touchy issue of the loan guarantees; touchy because new settlements on disputed territory are a flash point with the Arabs. Some think this issue, along with other disagreements sure to follow, will begin a gradual dismantling of AIPAC's longtime aura of invincibility.
"I think that the current situation shows that AIPAC's power has been greatly exaggerated," said Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly magazine billed as a Jewish critique of politics and culture.
Before now, he said, members of Congress "haven't even considered the notion that they could say no. . . . Once the myth has disappeared, the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction, and they may say no too much."
That may be even more of a certainty if Israel continues to reinforce its settlements in disputed lands with brute force against Palestinians, Mr. Lerner said. "Israel's only capital [in the United States] is the moral credibility that it has among the American populace. It's not as if Israel has oil or economic benefits it can bring to the United States."
AIPAC's public support fared poorly last week when pitted against the president on the loan guarantee question. An ABC poll said 86 percent of Americans backed Mr. Bush.
Those kinds of numbers have put members of Congress "in a hell of a squeeze" on the issue, said former Sen. James G. Abourezk, D-S.D. Mr. Abourezk, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a longtime adversary of AIPAC, said that lawmakers were "torn between exposing themselves to the constituents and exposing themselves to the lobby, which has a long memory."
As a result, practically no one on Capitol Hill wants the matter to come to a vote. Still, lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff members say that AIPAC is having little trouble rounding up a veto-proof margin of support -- 67 votes in the 100-member Senate -- for its position, though a two-thirds majority may be lacking in the House of Representatives.
But AIPAC also hopes to avoid a vote, fearing that even a victory could in the long run undermine support with a residue of bad feeling. Or worse, say others.
"The last thing I want to see is a backlash that creates anti-Semitism," Mr. Gilchrest said. "I think that's possible."
Such a reaction is always possible where AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby are concerned, Mr. Lerner said, which is one reason the lobby is ambivalent about its perceived muscle. "It's a traditional anti-Semitic fantasy that the Jews are running everything," he said.
Though that fantasy may have fed AIPAC's power over the years, it seems to have made the organization uncomfortable about media attention. Only a handful of AIPAC officials are allowed to talk to the press, and then almost always only if the reporter agrees not to link any names or even the name of AIPAC, which is headquartered in Washington, to any quotations. That was the case with this article.
But it is the lobby's tactics and organizational skills, not its dealings with the press, that have brought it success.
When a major issue arises, pro-Israel interests can rouse thousands of committed supporters to immediate action, writing letters and paying visits with a persistence that some lawmakers find unnerving.
It is in these cases that AIPAC's efforts are often augmented by those of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, although conference members disdain the label of "lobbyists."
Baltimore resident Shoshana S. Cardin, chairwoman of the conference, led a delegation of 1,200 through the halls of Congress 10 days ago to fight for support of immediate loan guarantees. The number was originally set a few months ago at 300, but when Mr. Bush announced two weeks ago that he would seek a delay, it rose to 1,200 virtually overnight.
"The others all called and asked to come," Mrs. Cardin said. (Her husband, convicted savings and loan executive Jerome S. Cardin, is the cousin of Maryland Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd.)
Such ready commitment has always been the "secret weapon" vital to ethnic lobbies, former Maryland Sen. Charles McC. Mathias wrote in a 1981 article on such lobbies for the journal Foreign Affairs. Mr. Mathias lauded the pro-Israel lobby for its effectiveness, saying that, without it, there was little doubt that "our military and economic aid to Israel would be less than it is."
When need be, the lobby can offer its arguments at gut level.
Consider the Midwestern Republican who welcomed a pro-Israel delegation a few days ago to discuss the loan guarantees. If the congressman backed the delay, his visitors asked, was he ready to accept the possibility of a pogrom in Moldova? Did he want blood on his hands?
The congressman didn't want his named used in this article.
Other times, detractors say, the lobby can get downright nasty.
Mr. Abourezk claims that AIPAC dug up unflattering publicity about his family when it was unable to find any dirt on him and planted in the press a story of his 23-year-old son living on food stamps on an Indian reservation. AIPAC denied any role.
In 1984, pro-Israel interests helped defeat Sen. Charles H. Percy, R-Ill., who had been counted as one of their supporters until he opposed the lobby on the 1981 sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. They gave money to his opponent, and later AIPAC officials boasted that they had been instrumental in his defeat.
The force behind Mr. Percy's loss represents the lobby's asset feared and respected most by some lawmakers: the millions of dollars from its thousands of supporters. And it is here, once again, that the lobby's disdain for attention shows up.
Although roughly 70 PACs have been identified as pro-Israel organizations, one would hardly know from their names, which are generally nondescript, such as the National PAC, Americans for Good Government, the Florida Congressional Committee, the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs and the Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens PAC, to name a few.
(AIPAC, despite the implication of its acronym, does not do political fund raising. It was created long before the term "PAC" entered the political lexicon.)
The generosity of the pro-Israel PACs -- a total of just more than $4 million to Senate and House campaigns for the 1990 election -- puts them roughly on a par with such heavyweight interest groups as the oil industry and the legal profession, while dwarfing the savings and loan industry and the gun lobby.
Two considerations make the numbers even more powerful. One, unlike most other big-money groups whose contributions are often offset by other big-money adversaries (the lawyers vs. the insurance industry), there is hardly any election money contributed by pro-Arab interests.
The largest such PAC, sponsored by the National Association of Arab Americans, gave only $2,525 to House and Senate campaigns for 1990, although for the 1988 elections its contributions totaled $27,800 nationwide.
Also, a study to be released tomorrow by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, shows that people who gave to pro-Israel PACs gave an additional $3.2 million in individual contributions to the same House and Senate candidates backed by the PACs. Add it up and you get an impact of $7.2 million on the 1990 races.
Even in the age of a "new world order," that kind of money is still likely to have an impact in Washington. Besides, lawmakers say, providing large sums of annual U.S. aid to Israel has become almost a reflex action and probably will continue without major cuts or serious challenges.
As Mr. Mathias wrote in 1981, "I remain convinced that, even if there were no Israel lobby, the American people would remain solidly committed to Israel's survival."