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AIPAC’s Aggressive Spending Is Bad for the Democratic Party—and Democracy Itself

This election cycle will go down as the one in which the right-wing Israel lobby did something it always swore it would never do: make Israel a partisan political football.

An American flag and Israel flag
An American flag and Israeli flag are projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s old city in 2017.

One of the most storied lobbies in Washington, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee has, for more than six decades, built its brand as a cheerleader for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship rooted in values and interests the two countries share. Values like democracy.

In fact, one of AIPAC’s most frequent go-to lines is that the United States needs Israel because it is “the only democracy” in the Middle East.

In 2022, AIPAC has entered directly into American electoral politics for the first time, in an election cycle where U.S. democracy itself is on the line. The group launched both a traditional federal political action committee, AIPAC PAC, and a super PAC and has thus far poured nearly $30 million into primary campaigns.

Yet to date, AIPAC has spent not a cent to defeat members of the House or Senate who have threatened American democracy, voted against certifying the 2022 elections, and endorsed Donald Trump’s Big Lie. Instead, it has actually endorsed over three-quarters of the insurrectionist enablers—109 of them in total. Rather than devoting its resources to defending the democratic values on which the U.S. and Israel stand, its super PAC is putting 100 percent of its funds into crushing progressive Democrats it has labeled—without any good reason—“anti-Israel.”

Across the country, this spending has become a dominant storyline in this year’s Democratic primaries and is making Israel more of a political football than it has ever been in American elections.

Last week, in Maryland’s 4th congressional district, AIPAC’s “United Democracy Project” super PAC, or UDP, spent over $6 million to prevent former four-term Congresswoman Donna Edwards from returning to her old seat—helping ensure Edwards was outspent by a staggering 7 to 1. In Texas, the group spent nearly $2 million to help conservative, anti-abortion incumbent Henry Cuellar cling to his seat against challenger Jessica Cisneros. In Pittsburgh, AIPAC and its allies spent over $3 million in a failed attempt to defeat another talented young progressive, Summer Lee.

Next week, these forces hope to secure another victory in Michigan’s 11th district, where redistricting has pitted Jewish-American progressive leader Andy Levin against fellow incumbent Haley Stevens. Here too, AIPAC has spent over $3 million to date to help Stevens defeat Levin—whom AIPAC’s former president has labeled the “most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Levin may seem like a strange target for AIPAC. A staunch supporter of the two-state solution, he speaks passionately about his personal ties to Israel and his commitment to securing its long-term future as a democracy and national home for the Jewish people. The son of former Representative Sander Levin and the nephew of former Senator Carl Levin, he is a proud product of a leading Jewish and Zionist family—a former synagogue president who repeatedly stresses the importance of his Jewish values.

All of this appears, in fact, to be part of AIPAC’s problem with Levin. Like me and so many of our fellow American Jews, Levin is compelled by his genuine commitment to Israel’s future and to Jewish social justice values also to support the human rights of Palestinians and to speak out against Israeli government policies that deepen occupation and promote the creeping annexation of the West Bank.

In the current Congress, Levin introduced the “Two-State Solution Act,” a bill that proposes meaningful U.S. action to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, to push back against settlement expansion, and to end the 55-year occupation. Among other measures, the bill would put in place clear guardrails to ensure that U.S. assistance to Israel is used only for its legitimate security needs and not to deepen occupation in violation of international law—a commonsense provision that has become increasingly popular with pro-Israel, pro-peace Democrats.

Yet for AIPAC, no meaningful pushback against Israeli policy is ever acceptable. While it publicly smears Levin as “anti-Israel,” the truth is that what it really finds threatening is his willingness, as a Jewish-American who cares deeply about Israel, to oppose the occupation and right-wing Israeli policies—because it sets a “bad example” for other Democrats. David Victor, the former AIPAC president leading the anti-Levin crusade, wrote to prospective donors, “To make matters worse, Andy sincerely claims to be a lifelong Zionist, proud Jew and defender of Israel. So when Andy Levin insists he’s pro-Israel, less engaged Democratic colleagues may take him at his word.”

In truth, nearly all of the Democratic candidates attacked by AIPAC as “anti-Israel” are nothing of the sort. Levin and Edwards voted for security assistance to Israel throughout their time in Congress, and many of the younger congressional candidates attacked by AIPAC’s millions barely have made any public statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or foreign policy at all.

The simple fact that these candidates have the support of progressive groups and leaders—or of a liberal pro-Israel group like J Street, of which I am president—is often enough to damn them in AIPAC’s eyes.

By spending millions to attack these candidates, AIPAC hopes to send an intimidating message to others: Cross our red lines, and you could be next. Political space for open and honest debate over U.S. foreign policy has opened up considerably in recent years, and AIPAC is determined to close it down. It longs to return to the days when one-sided congressional resolutions about Israel routinely passed without objection.

Most voters seeing ads from the “United Democracy Project” super PAC have no idea that they are paid for by a group that endorses and funds 109 Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the election on January 6, 2021—lawmakers who oppose nearly every Democratic priority.

They don’t know that this group’s sole real agenda is to elect politicians who won’t oppose Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. And they don’t know that much of the funding for the ads comes from Republican megadonors like Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer—each of whom has given $1 million so far this cycle to UDP—or other billionaires like WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, a major funder of right-wing Israeli settler groups, who has thrown $2 million into the effort.

While AIPAC’s stated mission is to “secure the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” its actions are doing the opposite. Diving so deeply into intra-Democratic Party fights using right-wing Republican money will undo all its work to build broad bipartisan support for Israel.

Instead of keeping Israel out of partisan politics, as the group for years claimed was its aim, it has turned Israel into one of the sharpest wedge issues in American politics.

And by seeking to defeat anyone who dares to stray from uncritical support of everything Israel does, it is preventing Democrats and Republicans from coalescing behind the pro-Israel, pro-peace, anti-occupation policies that leaders like Levin and Edwards support, that majorities of Jewish Americans and Democrats support, and which are in the best long-term interests of both Israel and the U.S.

To respond to this new challenge, Democratic Party leaders should make absolutely clear just how harmful and unwelcome AIPAC’s interventions in its primary contests are. Candidates in competitive primaries should disavow and decline the support of AIPAC and its super PAC—which have come as a surprise to at least some of them.

A group that attacks Donna Edwards and Andy Levin as extremists who must be defeated, while endorsing Jim Jordan, Elise Stefanik, and 100-plus adherents of the Big Lie for reelection, is not a group that should be determining the outcome of Democratic primaries. For the health of the Democratic Party and for the sake of democracy itself, this needs to stop.