The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the most influential, if not the most notorious, pro-Israel lobbying organization. So when it decided last year to start a super PAC and get directly involved in unlimited election giving—something it had not done before—the organization was clearly making a statement. This year it has spent tens of millions on TV ads, but what speaks the loudest is the one thing those ads never mention: Israel.
AIPAC has long preferred to operate quietly and in the background. As one of its former directors was fond of saying: “A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.” But this sudden and dramatic overt intervention by the pro-Israel lobbying group into the Democratic primary election process, along with the clearly strategic decision to erase Israel entirely from its ad buys, is the latest marker of just how seismic a political shift has taken place on this issue in recent years—and how much harder it has become to defend Israeli policy.
Despite spending millions of dollars in election races on advertisements to make sure that what the organization calls “pro-Israel” candidates are elected, none of the ads make any mention of Israel. In fact, watching the spots by the United Democracy Project, the generically named AIPAC PAC, a viewer would have no idea that the particular single issue the group paying for the ads is dedicated to is support for Israel.
In Maryland’s fourth-district Democratic primary, for example, AIPAC backed Glen Ivey over former representative Donna Edwards. The attack ads it paid for against Edwards don’t mention Israel at all, instead portraying Edwards as an ineffective congresswoman who ignores her constituents. In Pennsylvania’s 12th district, AIPAC’s attack ads against Summer Lee also don’t mention Israel, instead portraying her as a bad Democrat who criticized Joe Biden. In Texas’s 28th district, AIPAC’s ads against Julia Cisneros didn’t mention Israel but claimed Cisneros would be bad for jobs. The same pattern repeats in ads in races in NC-4, MI-13, CA-58, OH-11, NC-1, and so on.
On Tuesday, Haley Stevens defeated Andy Levin in Michigan’s 11th district in a race AIPAC’s UDP spent over $4 million on. Levin, a Jewish American and member of a leading political family in the state, had criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and introduced legislation supporting a two-state solution. But what really irked AIPAC wasn’t his criticism of Israeli policy but rather that he dared to do so while also being Jewish. Former AIPAC president David Victor wrote in a fundraising e-mail that Levin was the “most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship” and said that what makes matters worse is that “Andy sincerely claims to be a lifelong Zionist, proud Jew and defender of Israel.”
But the ads AIPAC bought to boost Stevens didn’t talk about Israel at all. Instead, they talked about her being pro-choice, good for jobs and an ally of President Obama. The ads also reveal the value-free nature of the PAC’s entire campaign. AIPAC’s PAC gladly instrumentalized Obama in the Stevens ads after spending some $30 million trying to sink his signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. In some districts, the ads lauded AIPAC’s preferred candidates for their positions on gun control and reproductive rights, while elsewhere they backed candidates who were anti-choice and pro-gun. This dishonesty is exacerbated by the fact that the PAC is using millions in donations from Republican megadonors to elect candidates it describes as “pro-Israel progressives” in Democratic primaries. The entire campaign is detached from any guiding values but one: electing candidates willing to follow AIPAC’s line on Israel—the one issue it are hiding from voters in its ads.
If it seems strange that a single-issue PAC would spend millions of dollars on political advertisements in Democratic primary contests only to not mention the single issue the PAC is dedicated to, you should consider just how much opinion on Israel has shifted, among Democrats in particular.
Public opinion polls have been capturing these major shifts for years now. According to Gallup, “Democrats’ views are now at a tipping point, with their sympathy for the Palestinians roughly matching their sympathy for Israel, while liberal Democrats have fully crossed the threshold and now sympathize more with the Palestinians.” Importantly, the shift among Democrats is not only noticeable when it comes to sympathies but also policy. In 2013, for example, the percentage of Democrats who thought the United States should put more pressure on Israel or put more pressure on Palestinians was even. In the years since, a significant 20-point gap has emerged. Now 50 percent of Democrats think the US must pressure Israel more while only 30 percent think more pressure should be put on Palestinians. More recent polling shows that when asked if they support boycott, divestment, and sanctions aimed at Israel, three times as many Democrats support it as oppose it.
Over the years these trends in public opinion have begun to translate into an opening of political space in Congress for dissenting opinions on blank-check US support for Israel. Last May, for example, as Israel was once again bombarding the besieged Gaza Strip, several progressive Democrats spoke up on the House floor to criticize its human rights abuses—a spectacle that would have been almost unimaginable just five years earlier.
AIPAC is clearly hoping to nip this growing congressional dissent in the bud with a multimillion-dollar power move—spending nearly $25 million so far in the 2022 cycle alone—precisely so continued debate over US support for Israel will cease. But if AIPAC and pro-Israel advocacy groups more broadly could defend what Israel is doing to Palestinians—which a long list of respected human rights groups and international organizations have concluded amounts to the crime of apartheid—they should welcome the debate instead of seek to shut it down. Instead, these heavy interventions in the Democratic primaries reflect the broader, if unspoken, strategy of pro-Israel advocates today: to prevent the debate from happening because they can’t win it.
We see this not only with deceptive ad campaigns aimed at unseating even mild critics of Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians but also with long-standing campaigns to pass repressive legislation aimed at making nonviolent dissent like boycotts of Israel off-limits, or instituting broad definitions of anti-Semitism that include criticism of Israel.
AIPAC is laughably claiming that the millions it is spending on ads that don’t mention Israel to elect its preferred candidates means that being pro-Israel is “good politics” for Democrats. That could be true if “good politics” means Democrats’ ignoring the actual views of their base to secure money from Republican donors. But polling consistently demonstrates that Democratic voters are in a very different place from where AIPAC wants to pretend they are. Given this colossal change in public opinion, AIPAC’s spending spree is the equivalent of responding by sticking its fingers in its ears and screaming, “la la la la la, i can’t hear you!”
AIPAC and others might continue to throw millions of dollars behind an effort to make sure criticism of Israel stays out of Congress, but the shifts that are taking place are on a tectonic scale, and will continue to grow precisely because, as AIPAC’s ads inadvertently make clear, apartheid is impossible to defend.