AIPAC strikes back with  the help of cooperative Democrats

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  August 10, 2023

AIPAC’s latest congressional delegation to Israel led by House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries highlighted the split between the anti-Palestinian wing of the Democratic party and the growing majority who recognize the apartheid reality in Palestine.

House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries made his second trip to Israel this year, leading a delegation of Democrats to meet with Israeli officials. The scene, particularly given the timing, was disheartening, to say the least.

But it was hardly surprising. The delegation that Jeffries led was composed of two dozen House Democrats, and while many of the participants were conservative, established, lock-step supporters of Israel, some were relative progressives, including a couple that AIPAC had targeted for defeat in the last election. 

The comments from the delegation highlighted the already massive split between the anti-Palestinian wing of the Democratic party and the growing majority who recognize the apartheid reality in Palestine, both within and outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. 

While it’s been easy to celebrate this shift in public opinion as the beginning of the end for AIPAC and the rest of the powerful lobby that has been incredibly effective at maintaining support for a racist, authoritarian ethnocracy masquerading as a democracy, this trip is AIPAC reminding us all that it is far from dead and buried. And, at a time when the lobbying organization may feel more challenged than ever, it is also gearing up to reach new heights in its impact on the election, up and down the ballot, in 2024. 

The American Israel Education Fund (AIEF), an arm of AIPAC that is devoted to these propaganda-building trips that represent one of the most powerful ways that AIPAC maintains its grip on Congress, got a whole page on AIPAC’s website for this one trip, a louder celebration of such a delegation than usual. Undoubtedly, this was meant to strike back at the growing perception that support for the Palestinian cause was growing markedly among Democrats.

Indeed, at this site, both Michael Arria and Phil Weiss have reported just this week on influential mainstream Democrats and American Jews who have broken with Israel and recognize that, at least regarding the current government, Israel is problematic and not aligned with what they see as U.S. interests and values. 

Yet the core of the Democratic party, where the money and much of the influence resides, is pretending to be blissfully unaware of any of this. AIPAC is showing us why. 

It’s not only about campaign financing and endorsements, although that is surely a major factor. But when you bring American Congress-people to Israel and only show them what you want them to see, it’s easier to create a false narrative about what Israel is, as anyone who has ever gone on a pre-planned tour there can tell you. When those same people see only Ramallah in the West Bank, never seeing a refugee camp and bypassing the checkpoints and settlements, AIPAC’s narrative can take hold. 

And take hold it does. One can only guess how much of what the Democratic delegation said was the product of cynical politics and how much was the result of their seeing only what AIPAC wanted them to see on this trip. Either way, the statements from Jeffries, long-time AIPAC stalwarts such as Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Brad Schneider (D-IL), and Haley Stevens (D-MI) as well as the participation of newcomers like Don David (D-NC) and Becca Balint (D-VT), and even former AIPAC targets like Jasmine Crockett (D-TX) and Shri Thanedar (D-MI) demonstrate that AIPAC still has plenty of muscle to flex. Because the response of those Democrats was nothing short of delusional. 

Imaginary Israel

In the midst of efforts by Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Israeli government to shatter the democracy that had been kept secure for Jews—never, of course, for Palestinians, whether that be the full denial of rights under occupation or the second-class citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel—Jeffries said, “With this trip, House Democrats reaffirm our commitment to the special relationship between the United States and Israel, one anchored in our shared democratic values and mutual geopolitical interests…As we listen and learn, we reiterate our ironclad commitment to the safety and security of Israel and to the existence of Israel as a prosperous and Jewish democratic state.”

Jeffries also stated that no matter how deep into authoritarianism and illiberalism Israel sinks, the United States will continue its annual gifts of taxpayer dollars. He vowed “…to make sure that we maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, that it will still be with us regardless of where Israel lands in terms of the judicial reform effort.”

He apparently had little to say about the situation in the occupied West Bank, let alone Gaza. Though the delegation did meet with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, no major statements emerged from those meetings. Indeed, even the Palestinian Authority’s own news site, WAFA, reported only what the Palestinians told the Congress members. The Congress-members apparently had very little to say, and nothing worth reporting. The meeting was an entirely pro forma exercise, clearly undertaken for no reason other than to avoid questions about why the Democrats did not meet with Palestinian leaders at all. 

While Jeffries’ delegation apparently did mention the issues of increasing settler violence and the “judicial reform” to Netanyahu, this was clearly a minor side note for them, and Israel’s reportage didn’t even note that those issues were raised. 

This is all par for the course when congressional delegations go to Israel-Palestine. But given the recent upheavals in Israel, the massive increase in state and settler terrorism against Palestinians, and the profound cracks among formerly stalwart supporters of Israel in the Democratic party, the utter shamelessness of Jeffries and his fellow travelers is remarkable, even if not surprising. 

Haley Stevens, who was backed by AIPAC and the mainstream of the Democratic Party in ousting a liberal Zionist, Andy Levin, from his seat because he put forth a very moderate bill that called for concrete steps toward a mythical two-state solution, sent out a video that was nothing more than a travel ad for Israel. “We are here in the beautiful country of Israel,” she said, “learning about her democracy, learning about our shared commitment to national defense, economic development, and trade.”

Jeffries echoed the absurd statement that Israel’s ongoing protests are a sign of “a vibrant democracy,” a statement that is misinterpreted as support for those protests, when, in fact, it undermines them and reinforces support for an anti-democratic, apartheid government. Protesters in Iran earlier this year, in China, as far back as 1989, or, for that matter, in Gaza during the Great March of Return five years ago were not interpreted by anyone as signs of an extant “vibrant democracy.”

Jeffries went even further, regarding Israel’s violence against Palestinians. “Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear to us that he doesn’t condone violence, no matter where it originates, and I take him at his word,” he said. This, of course comes against a backdrop of Israeli soldiers protecting settlers as they attack Palestinian villages, towns, and farmlands, and an enormous escalation, even by Israel’s standards, in the level of direct state violence against Palestinians. 

The surreal against the real

While Jeffries and his ilk pander to the worst authoritarians in Israel, more and more erstwhile supporters of Israel were finally switching sides. A long list of Jewish academics and leaders, many of them prominent and well-known for their support of Israel over the years, signed a letter that called not just for an end to occupation but for full, equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. It demanded fundamental shifts in U.S. policy toward Israel and clearly called out Israel for indoctrinating young people with a distorted view of reality. 

It’s not what a BDS group or an anti-Zionist organization would have written, but for most of those who signed the document, it was a remarkable step forward. Importantly, the letter stressed that the problem was caused not by the current government but had roots that took hold years ago. “The problems did not start with the current radical government: Jewish supremacism has been growing for years and was enshrined in law by the 2018 Nation State Law,” the letter reads. It even makes an explicit connection between the so-called “judicial reform” in Israel and the drive to “ethnically cleanse” (their words) the Palestinians. 

While these people, who clearly care about Israelis and many of whom are, in fact, Israeli citizens and residents, are grappling with reality, Democrats who have nothing but cynical political interests at stake, are dedicating themselves to supporting authoritarianism and opposing the most basic rights of Palestinians. Hakeem Jeffries, who expects to be the next Speaker of the House if the Democrats take the House back in 2024, isn’t just throwing the Palestinians under the bus, he is driving that bus back and forth over their prone bodies. 

Having Jeffries lead this trip hand in hand with Steny Hoyer, with his long career of support for the worst Israeli policies, was a powerful statement by AIPAC, one which Palestinians and their supporters must listen to very carefully. They are gearing up for 2024 in a way they never have before. AIPAC will be going after representatives who have stood up to them like Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and the rest of the Squad. 

The empire is striking back, knowing that they are vulnerable yet still very powerful. It’s going to be crucial that supporters of justice and human rights be ready to do all we can to withstand the coming attack. 

 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