Pro-Israel Lobby Drops Millions To Influence Us Congressional Elections
One of the most closely watched races in the May primary cycle pitted Texas conservative Democrat incumbent Henry Cuellar against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney. Cuellar, an eighteen-year incumbent, is terrible on the environment, labor rights and immigration, and the only remaining House Democrat to oppose abortion rights. Cisneros almost beat Cuellar when she ran against him in 2020. In this year’s rematch, Cisneros came up 289 votes short. Cuellar squeaked by with 50.32% of the vote .
Were it not for major infusions of cash from outside organizations, Cuellar would undoubtedly have lost. One such group was AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This decades-old, Jewish organization has been the primary force in Washington when it comes to pro-Israel lobbying. But this year, for the first time, the organization formally involved itself in the electoral arena, contributing to endorsed candidates and participating heavily in independent expenditure campaigns. According to AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Whittmann their mission is simple: “We are engaged in the democratic process to elect candidates who will support the U.S.-Israel relationship and oppose those who will not.” In other words, they won’t be looking at candidates’ views on the economy, race relations, guns, abortion, the environment, or any other issue important to American voters. Only Israel. This could be devastating for progressives running for office.
Last May, AIPAC, along with its sister political action committees (PACs) the United Democracy Project (UCD) and the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), spent over $10 million on five Democratic party primary races. (For the purpose of this article, I will use “AIPAC” to represent all three PAC’s, since they are definitely partners in crime.) This equates to $2 plus million per election. Besides the Cuellar-Cisneros race, AIPAC was involved in two primaries in North Carolina, one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania. Their candidate won in four out of the five. Until this cycle, AIPAC didn’t have a super PAC. Now, with millions in contributions from both Democratic and Republican multi-millionaires, it’s on pace to become one of the most influential political funders in the country.
In the Ohio race, Nina Turner, a close ally of Bernie Sanders, was ahead in the polls for most of the campaign. But in the final lap her opponent’s allies bombarded the airwaves with hit pieces. AIPAC was the leading spender, dropping $1.5 million. Turner eventually lost by a two to one margin. The AIPAC money wasn’t the only reason she lost, but it made a huge difference.
As they do in many cases, AIPAC did not make support or non-support of Israel a major topic in the campaign. Often AIPAC prefers their signature issue to remain in the background, so there are fewer fingerprints. In this case they hit Turner by saying she wasn’t a “true” Democrat.
On July 19, AIPAC dropped $6 million to help Glen Ivey beat Donna Edwards in the Maryland’s fourth Congressional District Democratic Primary 52% to 35%. And on August 1, AIPAC invested $4 million in Michigan to successfully defeat Andy Levin’s efforts to stay in Congress. Levin, a Jew, a former synagogue president and a former union organizer, supports the concept of a Jewish state in Israel but is unabashedly in favor of Palestinian rights. AIPAC backed a more pro-Israel candidate, Haley Stevens. Stevens won with 60% of the vote.
AIPAC is not just dabbling. They intend to be players in electoral politics, and they bring major money to the table.
AIPAC’s foray into the campaign world is bad for progressives in three major ways.
First, in general elections, if there is a Republican who is more pro-Israel than the Democratic candidate, whether that candidate is a “progressive” or “moderate” Democrat, AIPAC is likely to back the Republican, probably with major dollars. Whatever we think of the weaknesses of the mainstream Democrats, if we don’t keep a Democratic majority in Congress, this country will move to the right at an even faster clip. AIPAC has already endorsed 37 incumbent Republicans who would not vote to certify Biden’s election, including notorious Trumpers Jim Jordan from Ohio and Scott Perry from Pennsylvania. Perry, by the way, is the Congressman who recently compared the Democrats to Nazis. Apparently the organization is more concerned about Israel’s financial and military wellbeing than with the future of democracy in the United States. This “my way or the highway” approach to politics is about as self-centered and opportunist as one can get, and it’s frightening that AIPAC is creating a situation where our elections will be heavily influenced by people acting, in essence, as agents of a foreign country.
Second, within the Democratic Party, AIPAC’s willingness to pour millions into elections based on the single issue of support for Israel will force progressives to make a choice: support Palestinian rights and risk AIPAC’s wrath, or fight for what they believe in. This will make it harder for progressives, and if the progressive wing of the party doesn’t grow, and there is no left-wing opposition to the Pelosi/Schumer middle of the road approach to politics, we will probably never get, national healthcare, reduced militarism, requisite environmental legislation and other critical reforms. We need Democrats to expand their majority, and we need progressive Democrats to gain power within the party. It’s a both/and situation, not an either/or, and AIPAC’s involvement will make both more difficult to achieve.
Third, if AIPAC’s efforts are successful, the US will be spending even more resources strengthening Israel, an apartheid state that started out as a settler colonial land grab in 1948 and has been grabbing more land every year since. Occupied Palestine is the only area in the world in which millions of civilians have lived for over 50 years both without a state and without citizenship of any country.Palestinian villages are routinely destroyed, houses demolished, and people jailed without due process or probable cause. Close to 700,000 Israeli settlers have illegally established what they view as permanent communities on Palestinian territory, and often attack and terrorize nearby Palestinian villages. Israel possesses state of the art military technology, including nuclear weapons, and has become a dangerous, aggressive, nationalist state. There is insufficient opportunity here to get into details about the history of Israel, its degrading and oppressive treatment of the Palestinians, and its toxic, race based, hierarchical, anti-democratic view of human society. But I recommend the following books: The Hundred Years War on Palestine, by Rashid Khalidi and Understanding the Palestinian Israeli Conflict: a Primer, by Phyllis Bennis.
How Israel has swallowed up Palestinian land since 1947
So why is AIPAC jumping into electoral politics now when it never did before?
In a nutshell, AIPAC sees the “special relationship” between the US and Israel being threatened by the growing American support for the people of Palestine, and it is playing offense in an attempt to reverse that trend.
First let’s talk about that “special” relationship, and then let’s talk about the growing support for Palestine in the US.
After World War II, creating a Jewish state in the Middle East relieved the US of accepting hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from post war Europe and provided a western outpost in the Arab world, something the British and the Americans had wanted for decades. On May 15, 1948, the western powers “gave” historical Palestine to the Jews. Immediately armed Israelis attacked Palestinian towns and villages and 720,000 Palestinians, or 85% of the Palestinian population were forcibly expelled from their homes or forced to flee to avoid being attacked.
Since World War II, the US has been Israel’s most fervent supporter. From that time until now the US has given Israel $244 billion in military and economic aid, in inflation-adjusted dollars, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of US assistance by far in that time frame.
Today Israel receives $3.3 billion annually in foreign military financing from the US. Earlier this year, our government decided that wasn’t enough and gave Israel an extra $1 billion to replenish their “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system. The two countries continue to conduct joint military training and coordination.
Washington politicians seem to love all this. There are more congressional junkets to Israel than any other country, by far, most of them paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC affiliate. The percentage of trips made to Israel exceeded any other foreign destination. House members made nearly 1,400 trips to Israel, while total subsidized visits to foreign countries other than Israel were 2,500. See chart below from the Arab-American, July 7, 2022.
Of the 3900 privately funded Congressional visits to foreign countries between 2014 and 2018, nearly one third were to Israel. This past February twenty-seven Democrats and fourteen Republicansvisited Israel.
Under Trump, the Republicans embraced Israel like a long-lost brother. Traditionally American support for Israel has stemmed from the Jewish community, but over the last few decades, white evangelicals have made Israeli domination over the Palestinians a major objective for the Republican party.
But the tide of public opinion is starting to turn.
Over the last few years, young Jews and young evangelicals have been backing away from Israel and towards the Palestinians. A poll of American Jewish voters revealed that a quarter of them now agree that Israel is an apartheid state – a number that shoots up to thirty-eight percent among those under age forty. Twenty-two percent of Jewish voters overall agree that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, a figure that rises to an astonishing thirty-three percent among the younger group.
In the evangelical community we see the same trend. Among evangelicals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, rates of support for Israel have fallen from 69% to 33.6%!
The primary reason for this change is, of course, the steadfast organizing efforts of Palestinians, in the United States and internationally. Publicity around the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)campaign, launched in Palestine, has provided an excellent vehicle for explaining Israeli apartheid to an American audience. True, it has engendered a backlash, but the backlash just heightens the contradiction and keeps the issue on the front burner. The movement for Palestinian rights in the US has taken hold on college campuses, particularly under the leadership of Students for Justice in Palestine. Inspired by Palestinian resistance, progressives have organized in non-evangelical churches, such as the Presbyterians and Baptists, and many church groups now condemn Israeli apartheid.Over the last fifteen years more communities of color have been won over to the Palestinian cause. Palestinian flags were displayed at many Black Lives Matter demonstrations and at Standing Rock. George Floyd’s image can be seen throughout Palestine. Activists have been stressing similarities between settler colonialist conquest in Israel and in the United States, exposing Israel’s lie that it is a democracy. Also, media coverage of Israel’s brazen brutality and arrogance towards the Palestinians is changing somewhat. Coverage is still very biased towards Israel, but the Palestinian side of the storyis beginning to creep through. The raw footage of the bombing of Gaza, the house and village demolitions, the military intrusions into the Al Aqsa Mosque, and most recently the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh are enough to make any honest person realize that Israel is an occupying power and is doing terrible things to the Palestinians. The attack by the Israeli military at Abu Akleh’s funeral made the whole world gasp.
This brings us back to Congress and why, after all these years, AIPAC wants to start investing in electoral politics. For the first time, there are now people in Congress willing to speak out against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, and they are getting some traction. At this time, it’s a small group: The Squad, Bernie Sanders, and several dozen others, depending on the issue. But it’s growing. Minnesota Congressperson Betty McCallum has thirty-two cosponsors on her bill prohibiting the use of US funds for unlawful detentions of Palestinian minors. Rep. Stansbury (D-NM) (not related to this site) and Senator Merkley (D-OR), obtained signatures of over eighty members of the House of Representatives and nineteen Senators on a letter calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to convince Israel to halt the planned expulsion of over 1000 Palestinians from Masafer Yatta, a small area of villages in the West Bank. Fifteen progressive House Democrats, led by Cori Bush (D-MO), sent a letter that was more forcefully worded, calling the expulsion of the villagers a “war crime.” Recently twenty-four US Senators, almost half of the Democrats in the Senate, called on President Biden to launch an investigation into the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh after the Israeli government determined that Israeli troops had nothing to do with it, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
By themselves these are small, mostly symbolic actions. But as young people become more conscious, and the contradictions in Israel/Palestine continue to intensify, the movement will grow. The Israel lobby does not want this ember to burst into flame, and it is using the new PAC’s to try to stomp it out before it gets to that point.
Additionally, around the same time as AIPAC made its move, another leading Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), upped its level of jingoistic rhetoric against those standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people. This past May, in a major speech ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt denounced three prominent groups that support Palestinian rights –the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) – and said they contribute to the spread of antisemitism as much as white nationalists. He described them as “the photo inverse of the extreme right,” and said the ADL plans to bring the full scope of its capabilities to bear upon left-wing opponents of Israel. Even though it has been well documented that antisemitism is far more prevalent on the right than the left, the ADL is so fixated on Israel that they are often willing to forgive the right-wing’s antisemitism because of its support for Israel. And both AIPAC and ADL equate criticism of Israel as antisemitism, by definition, in an attempt to discredit any criticism of the state’s actual attitudes or practices as “antisemitic” and therefore invalid.
What should we do about all this?
It’s a cliché but nonetheless a truism, that all things are connected. We can see that as Israel moves further to the right, its leaders will continue to unite with the right- wing in the US, and try to move both countries to the right, possibly towards fascism. Just look at the bromance between Trump and Netanyahu. Conversely, as working people and people of color become increasingly conscious of how they are being screwed over, they will move to unite with other oppressed people, here and in Palestine. The best way to stop AIPAC’s efforts, is to: 1) demand that the Democratic party do something to stop this theft of democracy. Their silence so far is deafening. And 2) work like hell for the candidates who are pro-Palestine and beat the machine. It’s critical that all progressives move Israel/Palestine closer to the top of their priority list. We have to educate liberals and moderates about the nature of the Israeli state and normalize the Palestinian narrative among the general population. We have to fight for justice in Palestine to counter the efforts of right-wing, racist, settler-colonialists in both countries.
But it’s not all bad news. Summer Lee, running for congress from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was able to withstand AIPAC’s attack. In 2018 Lee was elected to the stage legislature. She continued to build her community and activist base, supporting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, strong environmental protections, Palestinian rights and other progressive programs. When the local Congressional seat opened up, she and anti-union lawyer Steve Irwin, competed for the Democratic nomination. In March, Lee was 25 points ahead in the polls. At that point UDC dumped $1 million in negative campaign ads against her. This was on top of the $1.3 million they had spent earlier in the campaign. Irwin gained rapidly in the polls. But Lee’s solid base in the district helped her beat him by a fraction of a percent. Her reputation and her organization were key to her withstanding the onslaught of negative ads, and points to how we can win in future elections.
Ilhan Omar had it partly right. Sometimes it is all about the Benjamins. But candidates with a strong community base, and solid, progressive politics can prevail over deep pockets if movements can be built around them. As progressives, building these movements must be one our primary tasks.
Larry Hendel is a retired labor union representative and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.