Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) (Photo: Phil Pasquini / Shutterstock.com)
How this year’s primary season demonstrated the waning influence of pro-Israel hawks

On June 4, Pro-Israel America, a political action committee launched by former AIPAC officials, sent out a fundraising email warning its supporters that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the democratic socialist group Justice Democrats had endorsed insurgent candidate Jamaal Bowman in his race against longtime incumbent Rep. Elliot Engel (D) in New York’s 16th Congressional district. “Justice Democrats, the group responsible for electing the squad, including one of the most anti-Israel members of congress, Ilhan Omar, sent out a fundraising email touting AOC’s endorsement of Bowman. … Eliot Engel is one of the most pro-Israel members of congress, and we NEED to fight back,” read the email.  

Despite raising over $125,000 for Engel’s campaign — more than any one entity has ever contributed as a single donation to the reelection campaigns of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Democrat — Bowman defeated Engel in a stunning upset, unseating him after three decades in office.

The Democratic Majority for Israel, another AIPAC-linked PAC, spent $2 million to help Engel keep his seat. Some of those funds ($100,000) were funneled into DMFI by a Republican super PAC called America for Tomorrow’s Future, some of whose donors have contributed to Donald Trump. Another hawkish pro-Israel PAC called NORPAC spent over $600,000 on Engel.

As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, endorsed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Engel’s loss to Bowman, a Black middle school principal in the Bronx, represents a huge victory for the progressive movement within the Democratic Party in general, and a blow to knee-jerk pro-Israel politics in particular.

Engel not only opposed the Iran nuclear deal under President Obama, he supported Trump’s controversial decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and co-sponsored the Anti-Israel Boycott Act, which the ACLU has deemed to be a violation of the First Amendment.

Bowman, on the other hand, has spoken clearly about the need for Palestinians to have the same rights to “freedom and dignity” as Jews, has expressed willingness to condition military aid to Israel, and while he opposes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel, he has insisted on Americans’ constitutional right to do so. “If the Squad members can take out a member like Engel, they’re going to be very emboldened. It’ll send shivers through the Democratic Party,” NORPAC president Ben Chouake told the Huffington Post at the time.

Those shivers proved true with additional primary wins for Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — who all decisively defeated their centrist primary challengers — and Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist and vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, who defeated St. Louis Congressman Lacy Clay (D) in a significant upset on August 5. All four of these female politicians are vocal critics of Israeli policies, and all except AOC have expressed support for BDS.

Hawkish pro-Israel groups that poured millions of dollars into Democratic races this year have thus largely failed to deliver on their investment. The very formation of so many new PACs — DMFI, Pro-Israel America, NORPAC and Americans for Tomorrow’s Future — whose primary mission is to maintain the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in the halls of power, is an agitated response to the increasing willingness by Democrats to question and challenge the status quo of U.S. policy on Israel.

These losses are not just a blow to hawkish pro-Israel policies; they are a sign that expressing support for Palestinian human rights and pushing for a shift in U.S. policy on Israel — including conditioning aid and even support for boycotts — is no longer a liability. For example, all three candidates now running for Engel’s seat as chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, including Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), a Democrat who has been staunchly pro-Israel, have indicated that U.S. aid to Israel cannot and should not be used by Israel to implement annexation of any parts of the West Bank.

Aligning with AIPAC used to be considered good politics — unquestioned politics, even. Most candidates would simply follow AIPAC talking points on Israel without much thought. And when they didn’t, they could be marginalized or demonized, some having had their careers destroyed. Not so much anymore. This was clear when almost all senators vying for the Democratic nomination for president voted against the Combatting BDS Act pushed by AIPAC in 2019, and when several, among them Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Julian Castro (D-TX), decided to skip its annual policy conference last year.

AIPAC’s ability to articulate bipartisan support for U.S. Middle East policy has been cracking in recent years as the Israeli government has moved further to the right by formally relinquishing the two-state solution and pushing for annexation. In 2015, AIPAC went all in against the Iran deal, promising consequences that never materialized for Democrats who supported it.

The Trump administration’s seamless alignment with Israel’s hard right and gaslighting of American Jews by accusing them of being “disloyal” by voting for Democrats — which they consistently do in large numbers — hasn’t helped AIPAC either. As more progressive politicians have openly advocated for conditioning aid to Israel to get it back on track to a two-state solution and stunt its violations of Palestinian human rights — most prominently Sen. Sanders — they have been emboldened to break away from AIPAC’s stronghold.

Indeed, DMFI spent $800,000 on attack ads against Sanders in the lead up to the Iowa caucus in February. While the ads themselves were not centered on Israel, but on Sanders’ health, they made their motive for opposing Sanders clear in statements about his surrogates, whom DMFI claimed “hate Israel, support BDS and have repeatedly made antisemitic statements.”

But by far the most pro-Israel muscle was flexed in Rep. Omar’s primary last week against Antone Melton-Meaux, a lawyer who came out of nowhere and largely campaigned on attacking Omar over her record on Israel, himself being more in line with Biden’s position of opposing BDS and any conditions on aid or pressure on Israel.

Melton-Meaux, who was one of the top recipients of campaign contributions from conservative and hawkish pro-Israel groups, following only Biden and Engel, lagged in funding until the second quarter of 2020, when he raised $3.2 million, nearly half a million alone from NORPAC and Pro-Israel America.

Omar raised $470,000 in that same period — and both candidates raised over $4 million in total over the course of the election cycle — but the main difference being that Omar’s average donation was $18 while Melton-Meaux’s was over $600, making it one the most expensive congressional primaries in history, according to Rep. Omar’s communications team. Melton-Meaux and independent groups supporting him spent over $6 million to defeat Omar, about half of which came from pro-Israel PACS, of which NORPAC and Pro-Israel America bundled over $400,000, while Americans for Tomorrow’s Future spent $2.5 million in ads.

One likely reason for these groups’ failure is that they do not have a constituency for their brand of politics on Israel in these districts. Israel did not feature prominently in the campaigns of these progressive Democrats. Omar’s race against Melton-Meaux, for example, was about what centrist challenges to progressives are always about: healthcare, climate change, taxes and housing. Those who voted for Melton-Meaux likely didn’t do so because of their opposition to Omar’s views on Israel-Palestine or accusations of antisemitism, but rather because they are not in favor of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a wealth tax.

While Israel is not even a top issue when American Jewish voters go to the polls (healthcare and gun violence are), pro-Israel PACs and individual donors gambled big on making Israel a wedge issue — and lost.