The Israel Lobby’s New Campaign Playbook

Israel advocacy groups have developed strategies to raise huge sums for their candidates by appealing to corporate interests.

Peter Beinart
July 15, 2022

Shontel Brown at her election watch party in Bedford Heights, Ohio last August.

AP Photo / Stephen Zenner

IN RETROSPECT, one of the most important elections in recent US history occurred last year in a bright-blue congressional district in northeastern Ohio. The early favorite was Nina Turner, a well-known former state senator and co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. But in February, several months after Turner launched her bid, two fledgling pro-Israel organizations, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) and Pro-Israel America, endorsed her primary opponent, Cuyahoga County Democratic party chair Shontel Brown, presumably because of Turner’s stance on Israel-Palestine: She has argued that US aid should not be used to entrench the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Over the spring and summer, DMFI and Pro-Israel America spent shocking amounts of money to change the course of the race. DMFI spent over $2 million in independent expenditures, almost as much as Brown’s campaign did itself. Pro-Israel America contributed another $781,000 to Brown’s campaign directly; by comparison, her largest non-Israel-related direct donor provided less than $23,000.

Yet even those figures understate the scale of their intervention as pro-Israel groups also directed funds from organizations that ostensibly have nothing do with Israel-Palestine. When Turner ran against Brown a second time, in 2022, a political action committee called Mainstream Democrats added roughly $150,000 to the anti-Turner effort. Mainstream Democrats’ website doesn’t mention Israel; it instead states that the group opposes a “far-left” takeover of the Democratic Party “that makes it more difficult for Democrats to win the swing seats that make a majority and weakens the party’s ability to govern.” But according to Dmitri Mehlhorn, who advises several Democratic megadonors including Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, Mainstream Democrats was incubated and created entirely by DMFI. The two entities may be legally distinct, but they share the same office and staff.

According to Mehlhorn, Mainstream Democrats’ origins lie in a meeting during the Ohio primary in which DMFI President Mark Mellman and media consultant Brian Goldsmith asked him if his donors would support DMFI. Mehlhorn responded that while they did not want to enter the Israel debate, his donors did want to combat the Democratic Party’s drift to the left, which they believe undermines efforts to defeat the Trump-era Republican Party. So Mellman and Goldsmith created Mainstream Democrats. Mehlhorn told me that Hoffman also supports Third Way, a centrist think tank whose website says virtually nothing about Israel but which contributed more than $500,000 to oppose Turner in 2021. Mainstream Democrats gave funders like Hoffman another instrument to oppose progressive candidates while furthering DMFI’s agenda of opposing Palestinian rights.

The infusion of funds from establishment pro-Israel groups, in tandem with huge sums from other big money intererests, transformed the Ohio race, turning it into a case study in the way corporate interests and establishment pro-Israel interests ally. In April and May, polls showed Turner leading by more than 30 points. But the outside groups relentlessly attacked her as insufficiently loyal to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. By early June, her lead was down to single digits. With Brown now within striking distance, lobbyists for Fox News, Exxon Mobil, Walmart, PhRMA, and other industries threw her a fundraiser later that month. Progressive funders responded, but it was too little, too late. Brown won by six points. Campaigns & Elections magazine gave Mellman’s consulting firm an award for its upset win. For Mellman, Brown’s victory provided proof of concept. He told HuffPost it “sent a very important message that being pro-Israel was not just wise policy, but also good politics.”

The template that Mellman and DMFI created last year in Ohio—pro-Israel groups spending extraordinary sums of money to defeat progressive candidates—has this year gone national. It has transformed the way Democrats wage congressional primaries and laid bare the financial chasm separating the pro-Israel establishment from its liberal Zionist and pro-Palestinian opponents. But it has also illustrated the interconnections between the effort to preserve unconditional support for Israel and the effort to preserve economic policies favored by corporate power. If the formula born in Ohio succeeds—and so far it is succeeding—it will create a new generation of congressional Democrats unwilling not only to hold the Israeli government accountable for its misdeeds, but unwilling to hold America’s energy, health care, and financial industries accountable either. Critics of Israel often complain about the phenomenon known as “progressive except Palestine.” What this year’s campaigns make clear, however, is that if the Democratic Party isn’t progressive on Palestine, it’s unlikely to be genuinely progressive on almost anything else.

TO UNDERSTAND THE FINANCIAL ASSAULT that pro-Israel groups unleashed last year in Ohio, and have now expanded to the entire country, it helps to start in 2019, when Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered the House of Representatives, creating a cadre of Democratic rising stars who questioned unconditional US military aid to Israel. The emergence of the “Squad,” combined with polling showing a sharp drop in overall Democratic support for the Jewish state, fueled media speculation that Democrats might tilt in the direction of Britain’s Labour Party, which had chosen a longtime activist for Palestinian rights, Jeremy Corbyn, as its leader. “Democrats,” declared CNN, “may be approaching a turning point on Israel.”

To ensure that turning point didn’t come, the pro-Israel establishment realized it needed a new architecture. Despite its name, AIPAC had never created a political action committee to directly give money to candidates. Instead, donors close to the organization established their own PACs, whose giving reflected AIPAC’s priorities. For decades, the activists who ran these affiliated groups had been holding fundraisers in their living rooms and boardrooms. But individuals can donate only $5,000 per election cycle to a traditional PAC and another $5,800 directly to a candidate, and over the years, new fundraising techniques eclipsed this old way of playing the game. The first innovation was the internet, which allowed candidates with passionate followings, like Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders, to raise vast sums through small online donations. The second was Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that permitted the creation of the “Super PAC,” a new kind of political action committee that could accept unlimited donations so long as it spent them on “independent expenditures” that weren’t coordinated with the campaigns it promoted. Over the last decade, these two new methods—one based on large numbers of small donors, the other based on small numbers of extremely large donors—transformed campaign fundraising. AIPAC was employing neither.

All that began to change in January 2019, the month the Squad arrived in Washington. Over the years, AIPAC’s confrontations with Barack Obama and warm relations with Benjamin Netanyahu and the Trump administration had damaged its standing among Democrats. But a group of donors and strategists with close ties to AIPAC provided a solution: the creation of DMFI, which aimed to rebrand unconditional support for Israel as a Democratic cause. More importantly, DMFI ran a Super PAC, which gave pro-Israel donors a way to write $100,000 or even $1 million checks, which could then be funneled into congressional campaigns. Two months later, AIPAC created Pro-Israel America, which aimed to raise small donations from its members online.

The new institutions faced an early setback. In the summer of 2020, DMFI spent close to $2 million in independent expenditures to defend Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and an influential AIPAC ally, against a primary challenge from Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal who criticized the use of US aid to detain Palestinian children and garnered an endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez. Pro-Israel America chipped in another $228,000, making it the largest direct contributor to Engel’s campaign. It wasn’t enough. Boosted by spending from the progressive groups Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, Bowman defeated Engel by almost 15 points.

But the new pro-Israel groups proved their worth the following year by toppling Nina Turner in Ohio. Their victory opened the floodgates: Six months later, AIPAC created its own Super PAC. This year, another AIPAC ally, South Carolina political commentator Bakari Sellers, announced plans to create a PAC largely aimed at defeating Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. In New York, a billionaire investor, Daniel Loeb, has created an organization, the New York Solidarity Network, to boost pro-Israel candidates there.

What AIPAC and its allies have recognized is not just the power of immense campaign spending, but the power of immense campaign spending in open Democratic congressional primaries. Because partisan polarization has reduced the number of swing districts, primaries now matter more. In a district like Ohio’s 11th, which favored Biden by 60 points, the only way to defeat Turner was to stop her from winning the Democratic nomination. Open primaries are particularly important because, once elected, incumbents are hard to dislodge. And the combination of congressional redistricting and Democratic retirements has created more open seats than usual this year. Campaign spending in House primaries is also effective because voters know less about the candidates than they do in a presidential or even senate race, making it easier to mold public opinion. Finally, Democratic primaries offer pro-Israel groups an advantage. Many progressive donors are reluctant to match AIPAC’s spending in races that pit Democrats against each other, because they want to husband their money for general election campaigns against Republicans. AIPAC feels no similar reluctance. It doesn’t care if Republicans win elections. It simply wants to ensure that Democrats who support Palestinian rights lose.

By creating Super PACs, establishment pro-Israel organizations have revealed their massive financial advantage over groups that criticize Israeli policy. So far, AIPAC’s Super PAC has raised almost $22 million. DMFI’s has raised more than $7 million. By comparison, J Street, their liberal Zionist adversary, aims to raise merely $1 million through a Super PAC it created this January in an effort to keep pace. And the Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian solidarity groups to J Street’s left have even less money than that. The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace Action has a regular PAC, which has raised just over $45,000 thus far over the course of 2021 and 2022, according to the website Open Secrets. So far this election cycle, the Arab American Democratic Action Fund has raised slightly more than $18,000.

This yawning gap in financial power stems from several factors. AIPAC’s greatest advantage over J Street is the single-mindedness of its supporters. Some of the Democratic Party’s largest donors share J Street’s liberal Zionist, pro-two state, views. But the same moral universalism that inclines them to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank also fuels their concern about a wide range of issues, from climate change to gun violence to reproductive and voting rights—issues that don’t exclusively affect Jews. AIPAC’s donors, on the other hand, have no compunction about placing what they see as Jewish interests at the center of their political worldview. In the words of one liberal Zionist official, “We have the people with money but they just don’t view politics through this singular lens.” In an interview, a longtime J Street donor also speculated that liberal Zionist donors are more likely to disengage from Israel-Palestine activism out of frustration at the lack of progress toward ending the conflict. Donors to AIPAC and DMFI, who tend to assume that Israel will always remain embattled and thus require unconditional US support, don’t suffer the same disillusionment.

For Palestinian solidarity groups, the financial challenge is different. Until Tlaib’s victory, many pro-Palestinian activists saw the electoral arena as too hostile to merit any investment. Since then, Palestinian Americans have forged a growing fundraising network, much of which functions outside of formal institutions. On their own initiative, activists host fundraisers for favored candidates and invite fellow donors across the country through a WhatsApp group. But compared to AIPAC and DMFI, the sums raised remain miniscule. One obstacle is the relatively small number of Americans of Palestinian descent. George Bisharat, a Palestinian American law professor, estimates that there are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Americans compared to perhaps seven million American Jews. And while America’s Arab and Muslim populations are much larger, these diverse populations don’t necessarily prioritize Palestinian concerns. Some Arab American donors, Bisharat noted, rallied behind former Florida Congressman Donna Shalala despite her lack of concern for Palestinian rights because she championed US support for Lebanon. The biggest spenders in defense of left-leaning candidates targeted by AIPAC and its allies are Justice Democrats, which grew out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and the Working Families Party, an organization rooted in labor and community groups that recruits, trains, and elects progressive candidates. Both organizations have Super PACs, and so far this campaign cycle they have raised more than $3 million and $10 million respectively.

But this remains far less than the pro-Israel establishment. And in addition to this overall funding gap, the collection of liberal Zionist, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and progressive groups that oppose AIPAC lacks ideological unity. Because of J Street’s support for two states, opposition to boycotting Israel, and centrist self-perception, it doesn’t back some of the pro-Palestinian candidates under fiercest attack. J Street didn’t endorse Nina Turner and hasn’t endorsed Tlaib or Omar. In Illinois this year, J Street endorsed moderate Democrat Sean Casten in his race against Marie Newman, one of only eight House Democrats to oppose $1 billion in supplemental spending for the Israeli missile defense system Iron Dome. Backing Casten put J Street on the same side as DMFI and in opposition to both Justice Democrats and Jewish Voice for Peace. Justice Democrats, for its part, hasn’t endorsed Andy Levin, a close J Street ally whose legislation supporting the two-state solution has made him a top AIPAC target.

AIPAC and DMFI don’t always win. In May, Pennsylvania progressive Summer Lee survived more than $3 million in spending by establishment pro-Israel groups and squeaked by an opponent she had once led by 25 points. In June in Illinois, Delia Ramirez, backed by the Working Families Party, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women running for office, defeated a candidate backed by DMFI. But for the most part, the pro-Israel right’s formula—saturation-level spending on attack ads against progressives, focusing on poll-tested issues like their lack of loyalty to Biden or poor constituent service rather than on Israel—has proved potent.

It’s not just that AIPAC and DMFI-backed candidates have frequently triumphed. Other Democrats have tempered criticism of Israel to avoid their wrath. Connor Farrell, a consultant for progressive candidates, said the threat of being attacked by pro-Israel groups doesn’t sway candidates with a clear track record of supporting Palestinian rights. But he argues that “for those who don’t have a strong opinion, or are in the middle, they have been more motivated to seek out an appeasing position.” Several strategists pointed to the case of Greg Casar, a well-regarded House candidate in Austin, Texas. Casar averted an attack from establishment pro-Israel groups after writing a letter to a local rabbi detailing his opposition to boycotting Israel and support for military aid to the Jewish state. The letter, which also called for “restricting aid from being used in a manner that violates basic rights” and condemned “unchecked settlement expansion,” did not echo the AIPAC line. But it disappointed Democratic Socialists of America, which retracted its support. Asked for evidence that the threat of an AIPAC assault inhibits Democrats from more fully embracing Palestinian rights, Adam Loewy, an AIPAC donor in Texas, told HuffPost that the “Casar race is a very good example of how it’s working.”

What makes the threat to progressive candidates so potent isn’t just the attacks AIPAC, DMFI, and other pro-Israel groups themselves wage. It’s that when they enter a race, other moneyed organizations often do too.

As the relationship between DMFI and Mainstream Democrats suggests, the line between opposition to Palestinian rights and opposition to a progressive economic agenda can be fuzzy. DMFI’s Mark Mellman has worked for a long list of corporate clients, from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to health insurance giants like Aetna and BlueCross BlueShield. Stacy Schusterman, the chair of Samson Energy, an oil and gas company, has given DMFI more than $3.5 million since 2019, making her its largest donor. Hedge fund manager Paul Singer, who this year donated $1 million to AIPAC’s Super PAC, also serves as chairman of the board of the Manhattan Institute, one of America’s most influential “free market” think tanks. Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who gave AIPAC’s Super PAC a million dollar donation of his own, created the Job Creators Network, which lobbies against government regulation of business.

Given this ideological overlap, it’s not surprising that the combined assault by pro-Israel and pro-corporate organizations that helped defeat Nina Turner last year has been replicated several times this year. This spring in North Carolina, AIPAC and DMFI dumped more than two million dollars into an effort to defeat Nida Allam, an “unapologetically progressive” Muslim American candidate and a former regional director for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. If that was Allam’s only obstacle she might still have won: According to her campaign manager, Allam’s supporters “vastly out-organized our opponents, knocking on more doors and making more calls than any other campaign, by far.” But Allam had to contend with an additional million dollars in opposition spending from the crypto-billionaire-funded Super PAC, Protect our Future. Protect our Future may not have coordinated with AIPAC and DMFI. But time and again, the interests of groups opposed to progressive policies toward Israel-Palestine and the interests of groups opposed to progressive policies at home coincide. In North Carolina, according to Allam’s campaign manager, the result was that “we got outspent almost 10 to one on mail, TV and digital advertising by Super PACs.”

Another young progressive, Jessica Cisneros, was felled by a similarly double-pronged assault in Texas. AIPAC spent close to two million to elect her opponent, incumbent Representative Henry Cuellar, whom Cisneros has called “Big Oil’s Favorite Democrat” for his anti-environmental voting record. But Cuellar also benefited from roughly $750,000 in spending by Mainstream Democrats. He took in another $200,000 or so directly from the oil and gas industry. The American Bankers Association added $50,000 more. Cisneros lost by less than 300 votes.

If AIPAC and DMFI’s goal this year has been to create the financial equivalent of shock and awe, it has succeeded. Campaign money isn’t everything, to be sure—as last May’s war in Gaza showed, events on the ground can shift American public opinion. But when Israel-Palestine isn’t front page news, making campaigns a referendum on Palestinian rights is hard. The issue is too remote from most voters’ lives, especially given America’s multiple domestic crises. AIPAC’s favored candidates thus rarely pay a price for supporting positions on Israel-Palestine that most ordinary Democrats oppose. “I’m scared,” admits one Palestinian rights activist involved in campaign fundraising. “Here I am proud of myself for pulling in $50K and these guys are dropping millions. It’s very discouraging.” The longtime J Street donor calls the pro-Israel right’s spending spree “an existential threat” and worries about a future in which “only people who are running basically unopposed will speak out on this issue.” Looking forward to 2024, a strategist at a progressive organization suggests that the “most realistic scenario is a bunch of progressives who don’t want to take this on.”

The best shot progressives have to counter AIPAC and DMFI’s financial onslaught is to learn from it. The effort to defeat candidates who oppose Israeli human rights abuses is now deeply intertwined with the effort to defeat candidates who oppose corporate interests. In some of the races where AIPAC and DMFI have invested heavily, the candidate they’re opposing has said barely anything about Israel-Palestine. Pro-Israel organizations appear to be using a candidate’s general progressivism—their association with Sanders and AOC or their support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All—as a sign that they can’t be trusted to unconditionally back Israel. So progressives should do a version of the same thing: Link AIPAC and DMFI to stances on health care, the environment, and American democracy that even Democrats without strong views on Israel-Palestine passionately oppose. By endorsing more than 100 Republican candidates who voted to overturn the 2020 election, AIPAC has made that easier. In Summer Lee’s race in Pennsylvania, the Working Families Party ran an ad attacking her opponent for taking money from “a PAC that has supported over 100 Republicans.” The Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party withdrew its endorsement of Nida Allam’s AIPAC-funded opponent after declaring, “No American candidate should be accepting funds from an organization that provides financial support for those seeking to destroy our democracy.” Progressives need to dilute AIPAC’s financial advantage by making its money toxic. They can do so by making clear that AIPAC and DMFI are promoting an agenda that has dire consequences for the United States.

Progressives can use that argument with donors, too. To bring money off the sidelines, they must convince the Democratic Party’s biggest progressive funders that even if Israel-Palestine isn’t their priority, AIPAC and DMFI are electing the next generation of Joe Manchins and Krysten Sinemas. Already, AIPAC has helped reelect Cuellar, who last year was the sole House Democrat to vote against legislation that would have written abortion rights into federal law and one of only four House Democrats who voted against a bill to require publicly-traded companies to divulge their contributions to climate change. In Pennsylvania, the candidate AIPAC and DMFI backed against Summer Lee was a corporate lawyer who worked at a firm that fought labor unions. In North Carolina, AIPAC and DMFI donated money to State Senator Don Davis, who voted to deny state funds to Planned Parenthood.

When I asked activists where the cash to counter AIPAC might come from, several mentioned the Democracy Alliance, which advises its network of individual donors, foundations, and labor unions on where to direct their money. During the 2020 campaign, according to Democracy Alliance President Pamela Shifman, its members collectively contributed just over $70 million. “You’re not going to make those Democracy Alliance donors Israel-Palestine donors,” notes the progressive strategist. “You need to say AIPAC is in opposition to their larger goals.”

One day, hopefully, large numbers of Democrats will cast their votes, and direct their contributions, in defense of Palestinian rights. Until then, progressives need to convince Democrats that candidates hostile to Palestinian dignity and freedom can’t be trusted to protect dignity and freedom in America either.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Mainstream Democrats spent $150,000 to oppose Nina Turner in her 2021 House race. In fact, this money was spent to defeat Turner when she ran again in 2022.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.

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