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AIPAC of Lies

The pro-Israel lobby brooks no dissent on Capitol Hill
At a large pro-Israel protest on Capitol Hill, an Israel flag flies above the crowd. In the distance, the Capitol building.

Nearly four months have elapsed since Israel commenced its military assault on Gaza, and in that time, the Israeli Defense Forces have killed over twenty-seven thousand people, the vast majority of them women and children. Most charitably, the bloody crusade can be described as ethnic cleansing. But genocide would be the most apt descriptor of the ongoing slaughter.

With scattered exceptions in Congress, the Democratic Party marches in lockstep behind President Biden, whose administration has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency “aid” without congressional approval into Israel’s war chest. (Only in Washington can the word aid mean artillery shells dropped on civilians). In response, Biden is hemorrhaging support among young voters and voters of color, critical blocs who are justifiably wary of throwing their support behind a man who’s not only supporting the violence but seems determined to expand the conflict. In numerous swing states, he’s now polling behind Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Biden’s reelection prospects have never been bleaker. And yet, as we rightly feel squeamish about the presidential election, it’s easy to forget that a group of embattled Democrats in Congress are currently fighting for their political lives, following their criticism of Israel’s wanton war crimes.

Late last year, it was reported that pro-Israel donors are preparing to spend in upwards of $100 million in 2024, largely in Democratic primary races. Once and for all, they hope to kill off any dissent among American politicians on the question of Israel. They’re working to ensure a future where the United States continues to extend unconditional support to Israel, turning a blind eye to human rights violations. Not only does this cash blitz jeopardize any future of legislative advocacy on behalf of dispossessed Palestinians, it’s an existential threat: a coordinated dark-money assault that presents the post-2016 electoral left with its steepest challenge yet. It may wipe out a near-decade of electoral progress in one fell swoop.

It’s no secret that the Israel lobby has enjoyed incredible success in guiding America’s Middle East policy. For nearly half a century, both Democratic and Republican aspirants for office at the federal, state, and local levels have been eagerly wooed by pro-Israel interests. These courtships assume any number of forms: direct campaign contributions, dark money, Super PAC expenditures, and lavish all-expenses paid trips intended to proselytize the righteousness of the Zionist mission. For decades, this operation hummed along as a unified front, relatively unchallenged, enabling the Israeli government to receive virtually unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans alike. But over the last eight years, the bipartisan consensus has increasingly been met with resistance.

Despite the hysteria of pro-Israel donors and groups over a small chorus of dissent in Congress, the status quo of the U.S.-Israel relationship remains entrenched.

This follows from two major developments: following the 2016 election, the left emerged as a meaningful force, one that rejects unqualified support for Israel on political and moral grounds; and second, the rightward shift of Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Today, any substantive legislative challenge to American support for Israel will emerge out of the left wing of the Democratic Party, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, and Summer Lee, who are among the most vocal critics of U.S.-Israel relations. This follows the growing chorus of human rights watchdogs that has taken to the term apartheid in characterizing the everyday reality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and occupied territories.

Historically, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been the primary enforcer of congressional compliance, having effectively served as a clearinghouse for pro-Israel donors for forty years. But AIPAC’s brand has suffered considerably in recent years. In fact, boycotting the annual AIPAC conference became a litmus test during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Their numerous endorsements of election-denying, insurrectionist congressional Republicans hasn’t helped.

Ever the nimble operation, the pro-Israel lobby quickly created another organization to more reliably play in Democratic races, one that’s ostensibly distanced from AIPAC. However, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), founded by Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman in 2019, is bankrolled by many of the same donors. For example, energy heiress Stacy Schusterman has poured in more than a million dollars into the group—she previously sat on AIPAC’s National Council. Or take Gary Lauder, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and another top DMFI donor. His wife Laura sits on the Northwest Regional Board of AIPAC. Disgraced crypto scammer Sam Bankman-Fried is another familiar name, having funneled a quarter-million dollars into DMFI’s 2022 war chest. These backers helped DMFI grow into a potent political force. The group boasts deep connections across the Biden administration. In May 2020, it even hosted Antony Blinken, then-senior advisor to Biden’s presidential campaign, for a special discussion on U.S.-Israel policy.

Ideologically, DMFI is indistinguishable from AIPAC; in fact, it may be more brazenly noxious. One of DMFI’s board members, Archie Gottesman, tweeted in 2014 that Gaza was “full of monsters,” and it was “time to burn the whole place.” Gottesman also cofounded JewBelong, the group responsible for the bright pink billboards cropping up in cities across the country, usually brandishing a deranged quip (recently, the group attracted headlines after it put up a billboard reading, “Trust Me. If Israel Wanted to Commit Genocide in Gaza, It Could”).

DMFI’s first major test took place in 2021, during a special congressional election for Ohio’s eleventh district. In the months leading up to election day, Nina Turner, a prominent surrogate of the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns, appeared to be the frontrunner by double-digit margins. Turner publicly aligned herself with Representatives Omar and Tlaib, which sent pro-Israel groups into a panic. In February, DMFI picked Turner’s most viable competitor, Shontel Brown, as its candidate, and began dumping cash into her campaign. In the seven-month stretch leading to the primary, DMFI spent over $2 million, much of that money funneled into attack ads against Turner.

The ads often had nothing to do with Israel—in fact, they were usually bad-faith critiques from the left. Some accused Turner of being insufficiently liberal on minimum wage, while mailers alleged she opposed universal health care. Of course, this was complete nonsense: Turner had cultivated a national profile, and ran as a firebrand progressive, supporting Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and an inflation-adjusted minimum wage starting at $15. But in a low-turnout special election, the ads played a decisive role: Brown emerged victorious by just over four thousand votes. Today, she is one of the staunchest defenders of Israel in Congress.

Israel’s assault on Gaza has appeared to enter a new phase. Pressure is mounting on Netanyahu to temper the violence, as both the civilian and IDF death toll mounts by the day. Negotiations are underway on at least a temporary ceasefire. And Israeli dissenters are growing louder, demanding the return of all hostages and Netanyahu’s resignation. Meanwhile, across the broader Middle East, a regional war involving Yemen, Iran, and Lebanon is brewing.

In the United States, calls to condition aid to Israel have picked up momentum. And even though such calls remain on the fringes of the congressional consensus (despite a degree of popular support), pro-Israel forces have kicked into overdrive in advance of the election. By early November, an AIPAC-affiliated group had already sprung into action. The ironically named United Democracy Project (UDP) launched attack ads targeting two Democratic members of Congress, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, as well as one Republican, Thomas Massie, a far-right congressman from Kentucky who occasionally criticizes U.S.-Israel policy on libertarian, non-interventionist grounds (critiques occasionally supplemented by dashes of literal anti-Semitism).

Even though Bowman ousted the long-time AIPAC favorite (and DMFI-endorsed) congressman Eliot Engel in 2020, his critiques of Israel have historically been more milquetoast than other left-leaning Democrats. Most notably, he drew criticism in 2021 after voting to give $1 billion to replenish the IDF’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Bowman has slightly sharpened his tone in recent years—and he may now pay the price. He’s facing a primary challenge from George Latimer, a local county executive in his district who contends that Bowman is weak on Israel in his introductory video. To no one’s surprise, AIPAC recently endorsed Latimer’s campaign, a move that has already injected over a half-million dollars into the race.

In 2022, Lee, who represents a safe Democratic district that covers the Pittsburgh metro area, defeated an opponent flush with millions from the pro-Israel lobby by less than one thousand votes. Now, she’s facing another daunting primary challenge, as pro-Israel interests line up to try and take her down once more. Bhavini Patel, Lee’s most serious challenger, has already carved out a sharp line of critique on the incumbent’s position on Israel. Patel’s campaign hasn’t officially won the endorsement of any major pro-Israel group yet, but she’s allegedly been in contact with AIPAC throughout the race. She’s also been courting Republicans and Islamophobic Hindu nationalists to vote in the Democratic primary.

UDP’s attack ads haven’t been smears from the left—rather, they plainly criticize Bowman and Lee for being inadequately supportive of Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, which left some twelve hundred Israelis dead. The ads allege that they “voted against condemning Hamas terrorism,” a reference to their “no” votes on House Resolution 771. Of course, this is a distortion: the actual text of the resolution is rife with bellicose language committing limitless military support to Israel. By October 25, the day the resolution passed—by a 412-10 margin—Israeli attacks had already killed over five thousand Palestinians. And yet, the resolution restricts mention of Palestinian life to one throwaway clause, which absolves the IDF for any moral responsibility for its mass killings: “Whereas since October 7, 2023, Hamas is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians.”

Then there’s Rashida Tlaib, the Israel lobby’s top bogeyman, probably more so than any of her other fellow Squad members. The fiery Detroit-area congresswoman is the chamber’s only Palestinian American, and has repeatedly drawn the ire of conservatives, as well as pro-Israel liberals alike, for her vocal opposition to American funding for Israeli apartheid. Most recently, she earned the distinction of being censured by the House, a symbolic gesture meant to convey stern disapproval of a member’s behavior. This came just weeks after she voted against Resolution 771, stating that it “does nothing but greenlight Biden’s call for unconditional military funding for a far-right government hell-bent on eradicating the Palestinian people.” Unsurprisingly, the censure motion, which sailed through Congress with the help of nearly two dozen Democrats, is littered with falsehoods: for instance, it claims that Tlaib “defended the brutal rapes, murders, be-headings, and kidnapping—including of Americans—by Hamas as justified ‘resistance’ to the ‘apartheid state.’” She has done no such thing. The entire ordeal was fabricated to silence Tlaib and placate a bloodthirsty, frothing Congress.

The Israeli government is losing the battle of public opinion across the world, and increasingly, in the United States.

In the 2022 midterms, many pundits thought that Tlaib was in danger of losing her seat. Pro-Israel lobbyists backed Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, pledging $1 million to support her primary challenge. But Winfrey’s campaign never picked up, and she ultimately won only 22 percent of the vote. Tlaib easily won reelection two months later. This year, Tlaib’s primary election will take place in August. No opponent has declared their intention to challenge her yet, but it’s almost certain that the pro-Israel lobby will recruit a challenger in the coming months. The prospect recently made national headlines, after news leaked that Hill Harper, a Democratic candidate vying for Michigan’s open Senate seat, was allegedly offered $20 million by a pro-Israel donor to drop out of his race and primary Tlaib instead. Days later, a second Democratic Senate candidate, Nasser Beydoun, disclosed that he’d received the same offer. DMFI hasn’t wasted any time: they started airing attack ads in November, following Tlaib’s calls for a ceasefire.

Despite the hysteria of pro-Israel donors and groups over a small chorus of dissent in Congress, the status quo of the U.S.-Israel relationship remains entrenched. The carnage in Gaza continues, but only sixty-one members of the House and four in the Senate have called for a ceasefire.

Senator Bernie Sanders is one of the most notable holdouts. For Palestinian advocates, this has been an unforgivable abdication of moral leadership, and will certainly remain a permanent blemish on his career—in fact, his obstinance has only given oxygen to AIPAC. Sanders did, however, introduce a Senate resolution that would have forced the State Department to report on any potential human rights violations committed by Israel with the help of American aid. Such a report would, in no way, guarantee any material change to U.S.-Israel policy. And yet, even this was a non-starter for the vast majority of senators. The chamber swiftly killed the resolution by a spectacular margin: 72-11. Given the customary unanimity of U.S.-Israel policy, even this landslide legislative loss must be heralded as a sign of progress. One political operative quoted in The Intercept’s reporting remarked, “It’s frankly historic that this vote took place at all.”

Be that as it may, it’s clear that in the short-to-medium term, President Biden—and the vast majority of rank-and-file elected Democrats behind him—will guarantee complete immunity, and virtually infinite resources, to maintain violent apartheid rule over Palestine. This cowardice has imperiled re-election chances. His mishandling of the Gaza crisis may cost him key battleground states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, where margins are already razor thin. Democrats frankly can’t afford to lose the vast swaths of voters (especially Arab and Muslim voters) who may, with good reason, choose to stay home in November. Biden’s answer to his skeptics boils down to a familiar refrain: “Trump is worse.” Maybe he should check in with freshly minted 2024 campaign advisor Hillary Clinton on how that worked out for her.

For nearly a decade, progressives have meticulously crafted a political infrastructure from the ground up, race-by-race, building up a congressional bench and creating a legitimate alternative to the corporate centrist stranglehold over the Democratic Party. But a nine-figure tsunami of dark money could very well wipe out a substantial portion of this progress before year’s end. This would be disastrous for the Palestinian cause. As futile as legislative advocacy may seem, it’s been an important tool in a wide-ranging arsenal of tactics meant to challenge the status quo of Israeli apartheid.

And clearly the Israel lobby perceives even rhetorical criticism from Congress as an existential threat. They’re dumping tens of millions of dollars into a handful of Democratic primaries in hopes of insulating themselves from further critique, which hardly seems like the action of a poised, confident movement. The paranoia may be justified: the Israeli government is losing the battle of public opinion across the world and, increasingly, in the United States. The Israel lobby is on defense for the indefensible, claiming that the IDF’s mass murder of Palestinian civilians is justified by the logic of “self-defense,” while simultaneously scrambling to obfuscate the explicitly annexationist ambitions of the Israeli regime. But the spin is failing. According to one recent poll, half of Biden’s 2020 voters believe that Israel is currently committing a genocide.

Those in Congress who’ve made this clear threaten to undo a consensus that’s held for decades. The Israel lobby has now turned on the cash spigot, hoping to douse any chance of this coming to pass.