Mondoweiss / July 28, 2022
AIPAC’s all-out assault on Andy Levin and Donna Edwards reflects their ongoing effort to shift the boundaries of acceptable politics on Israel.
Andy Levin, currently the Democratic Representative from Michigan’s 9th District, was always going to have a difficult path to re-election. Because of redistricting in Michigan, he could either run in the new 10th District—where he certainly would have won the primary, but in a district that leans Republican, so it was questionable whether he would win the November election—or the new 11th District, which is a safely Democratic seat but where he was going to face another Democratic incumbent, Haley Stevens.
Democratic leadership wanted Levin to run in the 10th, hoping to flip that seat for themselves. Levin, who didn’t think it likely a Democrat would win the 10th, decided to take on Stevens. Stevens had flipped a generally Republican district in 2018, so the Democratic establishment are enamored of her, but redistricting made the district much more solidly Democratic, including bringing in more progressive voters. There seemed to be a solid chance that Levin could win there and maintain his place as one of the more progressive, non-“Squad” Democrats in Congress.
Then AIPAC got involved.
AIPAC spent well over $3 million to defeat Levin, using their new political action committee, the United Democracy Project, to leverage the race. That is an enormous amount of money in a single district primary race. But this is the AIPAC strategy, and it has proven effective. Last week, AIPAC used over $6 million in campaign spending to defeat Donna Edwards in Maryland, a progressive with a strong congressional track record who was trying to get back into Congress.
The race is looking grim for Levin. A poll released on July 21 showed Stevens with a commanding lead of 58% to 31% over Levin. The poll could be overstating the margin, and the head of Target Insyght, Ed Sarpolus, which carried out the poll noted that, “sometimes polls like this get much tighter by election day,” but it’s a huge margin. Sarpolus also stated that “Unless something happens, Haley is going to win.”
Not pro-Israel enough
Andy Levin is hardly a radical anti-Israel voice. He raises legitimate questions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. He supports military aid to Israel but believes it should be given under the conditions spelled out in United States law that bind all recipients of U.S. aid. He opposes BDS but supports a two-state solution.
That is not the profile of an anti-Zionist or a Palestinian solidarity activist. He fits solidly in the profile of a liberal Zionist. Levin says of himself: “Here I am a Jew, a proud Zionist, who can talk to people across lines. I can talk to IfNotNow, I can talk to JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace], I can talk to Palestinians, I can talk to other Arab Americans, I can talk to anybody.”
Moreover, Levin is a former president of his synagogue, a pillar of his Jewish community and holds, as he quite correctly put it, “a pretty f***ing conventional view of Israel” within that community. Yet he was described by David Victor, a former president of AIPAC as “the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Considering the things that AIPAC and its fellow travelers have said about Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and others, that’s a remarkable thing to say about a self-defined Zionist.
The all-out assault on Levin represents AIPAC moving the goalposts in their ongoing effort to define the boundaries of acceptable political stances on Israel. Victor defined the thinking: “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.” Unspoken here is that Levin’s word, in this case, is solid gold. What Victor and AIPAC are worried about is that fellow Democrats would hear even this much truth.
The strategy would seem to be to go hardest after people who can fit neatly into the J Street sector of liberal Zionism, and to either defeat them at the ballot box or intimidate them into a more hawkish position. That would then leave the few, more outspoken members in an isolated and vulnerable position.
AIPAC has focused its financial resources on Levin while hoping that another new PAC, Urban Empowerment Action PAC (UEA), will be able to undermine Rashida Tlaib in the nearby 12th District. It is a measure of AIPAC’s current strategy that Levin is of greater concern to AIPAC than the one Palestinian-American woman in Congress, a much sharper critic of Israel than Levin. The strategy would seem to be to go hardest after people like Levin and Edwards, who can fit neatly into the J Street sector of liberal Zionism, and to either defeat them at the ballot box or intimidate them into a more hawkish position on Palestine and Israel. That would then leave the few, more outspoken members like Tlaib and Omar in an isolated and vulnerable position, even if they hold on to their seats or pick up a few more allies. Fellow leftists like Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Jamaal Bowman who are already nervous about treading into the issue of Palestine, would become even more reluctant to risk their seats and their agenda for Palestine. But will it work?
Not just the politicians, it’s the voters
Levin said, “I think that AIPAC is so freaked out by J Street.” He is likely correct, but even more, AIPAC is probably concerned about the growing support for the Palestinian cause and the declining image of Israel among younger Democrats. With human rights groups documenting Israeli crimes, and more of them calling Israel an apartheid state, it is more and more difficult to paint a positive image of Israel to a critical or questioning audience. Instead, through its PACs mobilizing money and using a strategy of stealth attacks where it defends Israel without ever mentioning Israel or, frequently, foreign policy at all, AIPAC is seeking to block political avenues to support Palestinian rights.
In the short run, there are already signs of success for this strategy, but there are major pitfalls that will grow worse as time goes on. One is that there is already considerable backlash to AIPAC’s influence in Democratic politics. The fact that AIPAC’s two SuperPACs get a significant amount of their funding from major Republican donors will be an increasingly sore point for the lobbying group to overcome. So too will the fact that their PACs, in their zeal to be bipartisan and capture as many members of Congress as possible, have drawn considerable criticism for their support for some 100 Republicans who, to one degree or another, supported efforts to nullify the 2020 election.
More than this, though, AIPAC is targeting comparatively progressive candidates at a time when progressives are steadily gaining popularity in the Democratic party. Candidates like Levin, Donna Edwards, Summer Lee (who managed to overcome AIPAC’s campaigning against her) and others hail from the more progressive wing of the Democratic party. As more of these sorts of candidates are defeated, and as it becomes ever clearer that AIPAC, and therefore Israel, is the reason, sentiment against the lobby will rise and progressives will be able to counter AIPAC simply by naming them.
Few Democrats, including pro-Israel ones, want to see AIPAC’s far-right views on Israel become a litmus test. Democratic voters are far away from AIPAC’s zealous opposition to a two-state solution. The bill that Andy Levin authored, called The Two-State Solution Bill could be criticized for lack of input and support from Palestinian, or even any Arab groups, but there’s no doubt that it falls squarely within the mainstream of the Democratic view of Israel and Palestine. That’s what AIPAC is attacking.
But more than that, in attacking Levin, AIPAC has gone after one of the more outspoken progressive voices in Congress on many issues. This is how AIPAC plans to maintain bipartisanship with its new PACs: by supporting conservative Democrats and insurrectionist Republicans. The worst of both worlds.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics