Two branches of Israel lobby are fighting it out in the Democratic Party

J Street chart on spending by rightwing pro-Israel groups (MW)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  May 18, 2022

J Street’s battle with AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel is important because two branches of the Israel lobby are making Israel a political football. Maybe progressives will get a voice here too.

The big political news is that Summer Lee appears to have eked out a victory in yesterday’s Democratic primary to represent Pittsburgh in Congress despite the fact that rightwing Israel lobby groups AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel spent over $3 million trying to defeat her. The spending did help erase Summer Lee’s former 25-point advantage in polling.

AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) spent over $10 million in seven races last night, according to reports, with mixed results. In two North Carolina districts, those pro-Israel PACs helped defeat progressive candidates. They fell short in an Oregon congressional primary, won by State Rep. Andrea Salinas.

The spending by AIPAC’s super-pac United Democracy Project and DMFI is actually becoming a story. The Washington Post‘s political reporter says AIPAC is trying to knock off “leftwing” candidates. Salon calls the spending “dark money,” because the ads never mention Israel. (That’s just what Nina Turner called the money when it overwhelmed her campaign in Ohio last summer, and people tried to portray her as conspiratorial.)

The liberal Zionist group J Street wants more coverage of the money:

“No story about these elections is complete if it ignores the BIGGEST players/spenders in these races (links to spending reports below)… United Democracy Project (AIPAC) & DMFI have spent $2.9+ mil in #NC01 to defeat Erica Smith, $2.4+ mil in #NC04 to defeat Nida Allam and $3+ mil in #PA12 to defeat Summer Lee. It makes them them BIGGEST player in each race, spending more than the leading candidates COMBINED.

Let’s be clear about the fact that the big battle here is between AIPAC and J Street. J Street endorsed winners Summer Lee and Andrea Salinas, as well as Erica Smith, who was defeated in North Carolina.

J Street is also a member of the Israel lobby. Though it is often critical of settlement activity, and urges the Biden administration to do more to preserve the “two-state solution,” J Street supports unbroken $4 billion a year funding for Israel. It has backed legislation that characterizes BDS as antisemitic, and it embraces Zionism and the “dream” of a Jewish state.

J Street also supports many progressive causes, such as restoring the Iran deal; but it would not substantially change U.S. policy toward Israel.

In the past, J Street has sought to keep Israel support bipartisan — not a political football. That’s the best news from its battle with AIPAC: support for Israel is now a political football.

AIPAC thinks that J Street candidates like Andy Levin in Michigan are too hard on Israel. J Street thinks that AIPAC is backing authoritarian trends in the U.S. and in Israel. They’re openly fighting over these claims.

J Street says it’s on the good pro-Israel team:

Democrats must ask whether they are comfortable with AIPAC seeking to dominate primaries going forward. With each race at risk of becoming a multi-million dollar brawl with attack ads against anyone who holds balanced, mainstream, pro-Israel, pro-peace views.

J Street is clearly hopeful that Rep. Andy Levin– who holds “balanced, mainstream, pro-Israel” views — will win in Michigan in August if only the press makes an issue of all the dark money supporting Rep. Haley Stevens in their combined district.

As someone who has criticized the Israel lobby for many years, I’m very happy that the lobby has become a political issue. Though we have a long ways to go. Notice how this article characterizes AIPAC’s target as “working class candidates,” leaving Israel out of the headline. Or how this ad from Justice Democrats attacking Democratic Majority for Israel and AIPAC says that Stacy Schusterman is supporting DMFI because of oil and gas interests. Actually, the Schusterman Foundation’s political choices are clear: rightwing pro-Israel causes.

For its part, J Street is trying to reconcile the progressive Squad and liberal Zionists so that Israel support remains strong inside the Democratic Party, and remains a “progressive” cause in Congress. Summer Lee thinks that’s possible too. Look how she brought together the Squad and pro-Israel Jewish progressives.

J Street says AIPAC doesn’t represent Democratic voters.

This kind of overwhelming outside spending – driven by a hawkish, right-wing foreign policy agenda that is completely out of touch with most Democratic voters – deeply challenges the underpinnings of America’s political system.

The same question can be asked about liberal Zionists: are “balanced, mainstream, pro-Israel” views a progressive cause? I don’t think so. The Democratic street supports sanctions and boycott of Israel over its human rights violations. And some day those voters are going to demand that Congress-people represent that view.

The fight between AIPAC and J Street is good and important because it licenses more discussion. But for now it’s still a sectarian battle, over who is more PEP– progressive except Palestine.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006.