THE ISRAEL LOBBY is in trouble. Until recently, support for Israel from both political parties was considered ironclad. But the Democratic Party is beginning to change, and its presidential frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, wants to condition US military aid on Israel respecting Palestinian human rights.
To stem this trend, groups like the newly formed Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) are trying to frame support for Israel as a natural part of a progressive agenda. But the downfall of The Israel Project (TIP), a once-influential pro-Israel group that counted prominent Democrats as top supporters, offers a sobering lesson for groups like DMFI. Once dubbed “Israel’s most effective media advocacy organization” by TIME magazine, TIP closed its doors last August after its funding dried up, with Democratic donors fleeing the organization because of its advocacy against the Iran nuclear deal, Barack Obama’s foremost foreign policy achievement.
TIP’s decline reflects a new reality confronting Israel’s supporters in Washington. The group found it impossible to balance peddling Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrative with remaining influential in Democratic circles. At its height, TIP had deep enough pockets to publish its own news articles, take journalists on tours of Israel, host briefings with top Israeli officials, and feed newspaper editorial boards with a steady stream of pro-Israel talking points—activities that helped the group forge relationships with mainstream journalists and ensure that the Israeli government’s perspective would be broadcast to millions of Americans. Its abrupt closure left Washington without any comparable organization with true bipartisan reach.
Right before TIP’s closure, I obtained a cache of documents from inside the organization that reveals its activities in stark detail. It offers a blueprint for how Israel lobby groups work to shape the mainstream media narrative, combat Palestinian rights activism and diplomacy with Iran, and use their own media outlets and social networks to spread pro-Israel propaganda. At the same time, the closing of TIP shows the limits of those tactics when trying to appeal to a bipartisan audience.
IN THE EARLY 2000s, there was no organized progressive base capable of challenging the US–Israel relationship, and so attracting Democratic support for a pro-Israel group was a much simpler task. “It was easier at the time to be liberal and staunchly pro-Israel. Palestinians had been unfairly portrayed as being so anti-American that they were dancing in the streets about 9/11, which was nonsense,” said Mitchell Plitnick, a Middle East policy analyst and former program director of Foundation for Middle East Peace.
In 2002, as the Second Intifada raged, TIP was founded by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Democratic operative. She pitched TIP to funders as a way to ensure that Israeli views on the Middle East were integrated into mainstream journalism. To that end, TIP worked with journalists around the world, from Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, bringing them to Israel on delegations, sending out fact sheets and talking points, and often connecting them directly to Israeli officials. Members of both parties in Congress, among them Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Mark Kirk, were on TIP’s advisory board.
Under Laszlo Mizrahi, TIP attracted the support of big donors like Seth Klarman, a prolific donor to both parties and a hedge fund billionaire who gave the group about $6 million in total from 2004–2015; Paul Singer, another hedge fund billionaire who has bankrolled the Republican Party, and who donated over $5 million to TIP beginning in 2012; and Lennert Leader, a former AOL chief executive and donor to Republicans and, to a lesser extent, Democrats, who gave $1.7 million from 2006–2016, according to tax documents and a separate document listing TIP’s biggest donors.
TIP also had help from thousands of small donors—including some who worked for the Israeli government. Officials who worked at the Israeli Embassy in DC, at Israel’s consulate in Aruba, and at the government agency Israel Bonds cumulatively contributed over $2,000 to TIP between 2005–2008. While that’s a small sum of money compared to TIP’s large donors, it reflected TIP’s close working relationship with Israeli government officials, such that they felt compelled to personally donate to the organization. One former TIP employee, who requested anonymity to speak critically about a former employer, said that TIP stayed in close contact with Israel’s ambassadors to the US, Ron Dermer and Michael Oren, and often set up meetings between foreign diplomats and top Israeli officials, up to and including Netanyahu.
In spite of her success as a fundraiser, Laszlo Mizrahi left TIP in 2012. “I was completely exhausted,” she said. “I just could not do it anymore. I ran a 24/7/365 newsroom for 10 years. I needed to be with my kids.”
According to a former employee I spoke with, some donors saw her departure as an opportunity to turn the group into a right-wing attack machine. Laszlo Mizrahi did not insert TIP into the middle of partisan fights over Middle East policy, and did not attack prominent Democrats who strayed from the pro-Israel line. But that changed when TIP hired Josh Block, a pugnacious veteran of the Clinton administration and former spokesperson for AIPAC, to replace Laszlo Mizrahi as CEO.
After leaving AIPAC, and before joining TIP, Block spent time working with Lanny Davis, former White House counsel to Bill Clinton, at a lobbying firm that defended known human rights abusers like the Honduran government that took power following a 2009 coup. In 2011, Block led a campaign to smear as antisemites writers at the Democratic Party-aligned media sites ThinkProgress and Media Matters who were critical of Israel.
Block continued to focus on giving journalists access to Israeli officials, and publishing and disseminating pro-Israel fact-sheets and reports. But where Lazslo Mizrahi had devoted resources to address Russian, Latin American, and Chinese perceptions of Israel, Block shut down most of TIP’s global operations and shifted the organization’s focus to the Washington debate. Unlike Lazslo Mizrahi, Block came out strongly against Obama’s Iran policy, and repeatedly slammed Obama’s opposition to Israeli settlements.
“The Israel Project under Block’s leadership became hyper-partisan and vitriolic to anyone who questioned not only the pro-Israel line, but the pro-Netanyahu pro-Likud line,” said Eli Clifton, a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a journalist who has long covered Block. (Clifton was one of the ThinkProgress writers attacked by Block as antisemitic.)
Block, who led the organization from 2012 until its demise, did not respond to a request for an interview.
THE CACHE OF DOCUMENTS I obtained provides more details of TIP’s activities under Block, which reflect the pro-Israel Jewish establishment’s obsessions in recent years: media coverage of Israel; the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and how communities of color feel about the Jewish state.
One document, a September 2016 report to the Jewish Community Youth Foundation, appealed for support for TIP’s “Intellicopter” program, in which TIP paid for journalists and diplomats to tour Israel by sky. TIP boasted of its success in giving an “Intellicopter” tour to CNN international correspondent Will Ripley. “The impact was immediate, with Ripley tweeting to his 20,000 followers about the flight and the insight the tour gave into the country’s accomplishments and contributions,” the document said. TIP also connected Ripley to Israelis who live on the border with Gaza and to an expert on tunnel warfare.
Ripley went on to produce a CNN report about Palestinian militant group Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza. No context about why Hamas might be digging tunnels, or about Israel’s devastating blockade against Gaza, was given in the report, nor did CNN disclose that the report was the result of a tour given by a pro-Israel organization. For TIP, the report was a victory: “It’s accurate. It’s compelling. And it wouldn’t have happened without the Intellicopter tour that enabled this reporter to get the facts,” TIP told the foundation. (Ripley did not respond to a request for comment.)
In one document, TIP appealed to the Myra Reinhard Family Foundation to support The Tower, the group’s attempt at producing pro-Israel media directly. They asked for $50,000 to support their Tower fellows program—run by Block, Tower editor David Hazony (the brother of prominent Israeli right-wing political theorist Yoram Hazony), and Aiden Pink, a former associate editor of Tower who is now an editor at the Forward—which would identify “the most talented” pro-Israel student writer-activists and bring between 10 and 15 of them to Washington to “[equip] them for the real-world challenges of defending Israel.”
TIP also portrayed itself as being a crucial part of the effort to pass state laws that crack down on the BDS movement by prohibiting government contracts from going to individuals or entities that support boycotting Israel. In a 2017 grant proposal to the Blavatnik Family Foundation for $36,000, TIP said: “Iowa and Alabama . . . joined Illinois, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, and Colorado to bring to nine the number that have adopted anti-boycott legislation. TIP played a key role in coordinating messaging for pro-Israel coalition [sic] in each state, developing and distributing talking points for our partners’ use.” (A handful of these laws have been struck down by federal judges who ruled that they violate the First Amendment.)
Worried about slipping support for Israel in communities of color, in September 2016 TIP requested $250,000 over three years from the Jewish National Fund’s Boruchin Israel Education and Advocacy Center in order to develop strategies to improve Israel’s standing in minority communities. Noting that the Movement for Black Lives platform had castigated Israel, TIP promised to lead an initiative to bolster support among communities of color with outreach efforts, polling to understand attitudes on Israel, tours to Israel for prominent minority reporters and opinion writers, and coordination of pro-Israel op-eds from progressives and civil rights activists.
How much impact these propaganda efforts had on Americans’ perceptions of Israel is unclear, but they do show how TIP tried to tailor a pro-Israel message to mainstream and progressive audiences. In their messaging against BDS, TIP claimed the Palestinian-led movement discriminated against Israelis on the basis of national origin—bigotry that they wagered would offend liberals, especially those concerned with antisemitism—and their outreach to communities of color was a clear attempt to make inroads into a key part of the Democratic Party base.
But pro-Israel messaging was always going to be a hard sell to progressives, especially when the product was a government helmed by a hard-right leader, Netanyahu. TIP itself recognized how much of a problem it was that they were associated with the right-wing.
“When we hear that some see us as ‘right wing’—too close to Bibi, too close to the GOP—we sit up and listen. We can’t be the ‘media hub’ of the pro-Israel community if we’re seen as shills for the right,” one document, a draft of remarks Block planned to make to TIP’s board in late 2016, reads.
But the internal contradictions of trying to sell right-wing Israeli policies to Democrats was impossible to overcome, eventually leading to the group’s demise as its funding flow slowed.
TOP DONORS like Singer continued to give to TIP, but others, like Klarman, had stopped giving by 2016. It’s unclear why Klarman stopped donating. “It’s our policy to not comment on any former grantee,” a Klarman Family Foundation spokesperson said. But Klarman’s politics have shifted in the Trump era. Where he once largely funded Republicans, by 2018 he was publicly declaring he would fund Democrats, a result of his disgust with Trump. (Donor data shows that last year, the vast majority of his campaign giving went to Democrats.)
Several foundations that once funded both liberal causes and TIP had already stopped funding TIP after Block came on board. The Shapiro-Silverberg family foundation, a donor to causes like Planned Parenthood, gave TIP $50,000 every year starting in 2008, but stopped after 2012, the year Block was hired. Similarly, the Gould-Shenfield family foundation, another Jewish foundation that funded liberal causes and TIP alike, gave TIP $6,000 in total since 2003, but stopped funding them in 2012. (Neither foundation responded to requests for comment on why they stopped giving to TIP.)
One 2016 document shows TIP falling short in their fundraising. From October 2015–September 2016, donors had pledged to give the group about $5.1 million. But TIP had only taken in about $4.5 million, leaving them $600,000 short. Tax documents illuminate TIP’s funding troubles in stark terms. In 2016, the group brought in over $8.5 million in donations. By 2017, that number had dropped to about $5 million. Ultimately, that kind of funding shortfall became too much to bear, and TIP closed its doors last August, a stunning blow to an organization that in 2011 brought in nearly $20 million dollars in a single year.
A key reason behind TIP’s fundraising troubles was their aggressive lobbying campaign against the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal. In 2016, as the administration implemented the deal, TIP worked hard to derail US–Iran diplomacy by feeding talking points to newspaper editorial boards. TIP would ultimately claim credit for influencing 20 editorials published that fall in newspapers from The New York Daily News to The New York Post to The Richmond Times-Dispatch to The Boston Herald. None of these newspapers disclosed their conversations with TIP, even as all of them railed against decisions like the release of $1.7 billion the United States had owed Iran for decades. In one document, TIP boasted of “using poll-tested messaging [and] traditional and online media dissemination” to create an “‘echo chamber’” of “opposition” to the Iran deal.
The group had long attracted the support of both Democrats and Republicans, reflecting longstanding Washington consensus that support for Israel should be kept above the partisan fray. But Democratic donors stopped giving to TIP in part “because we attacked the Iran deal,” explained Lior Weintraub, the head of TIP’s Israel office, in an interview with Haaretz. In May 2018, Block praised Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal, a decision even staunchly pro-Israel Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer disagreed with. Its Republican donors, meanwhile, began shifting their donations to more nakedly right-wing organizations, Weintraub added. (Weintraub did not return my request for comment.)
“Once Trump was in the office, [pro-Israel donors on the right] saw a friend. So what do you need The Israel Project for? They got the presidency,” a second former TIP employee, who requested anonymity, told me.
TIP’s closing shouldn’t have come as a shock. As Israel became a partisan issue in the Obama and Trump eras, TIP got caught in tough political headwinds. The Democratic Party that TIP once appealed to is a much different apparatus. While Democratic establishment figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still mostly avoid criticizing Israel, the new left-wing stars of Congress, like Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, have been much bolder.
Meanwhile, AIPAC is flailing in its own attempts to ensure that Democrats remain aligned with the Israel lobby. In early February, AIPAC published Facebook advertisements that suggested that Tlaib, Omar, and Rep. Betty McCollum, another Israel critic in Congress, were “maybe more sinister” than ISIS because of their concerns over Israel’s human rights abuses. In response, McCollum published a remarkable statement taking aim at AIPAC, calling the Israel lobby group an outright “hate group”—language no other member of Congress had ever dared to use.
While AIPAC is in no danger of collapsing, its current troubles in appealing to Democrats were foreshadowed by TIP’s failure to maintain influence with liberals. “The Democratic Party is no longer solidly aligned on what the US relationship with Israel should be. There’s an open questioning of what it should look like,” said Clifton. “The Israel Project painted themselves into a corner. They’ve become an interesting symbol for how the pro-Netanyahu, pro-Likud lobby is not welcome in the Democratic Party.”
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine, US foreign policy, and civil liberties issues. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.