As we head into another cycle of competitive Democratic primaries, conference calls among Democratic Party strategists and progressive organizations keep ending on the same question: “So, what is our AIPAC strategy?” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee endorsed over 100 Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election of Joe Biden, while weaponizing its super PAC, United Democracy Project, to spend millions of dollars on misleading attack ads, often accusing Democrats like Summer Lee, Jessica Cisneros, Nina Turner, Andy Levin, Donna Edwards, and others of insufficient loyalty to the Democratic Party. (Oddly, in all of these ads the words “Israel” and “Palestine” are never mentioned.) The specter of AIPAC’s unlimited spending now looms large over our democracy.
Some Democratic operatives are suggesting that prospective candidates just get “AIPAC’s target off their back” by conceding to the anti-Palestinian spending network (made up of not just AIPAC but also Democratic Majority for Israel, Pro-Israel America, NORPAC, and others) through vague or overly conciliatory positions regarding the billions in largely unrestricted military aid that American taxpayers provide the Israeli military. This view was summarized in one conference call last year in which a consultant suggested to a progressive candidate: “Why don’t you just tweet something about how you support Israel if you want to avoid $5 million in attack ads?” Missing from these short-term, tactical discussions about appeasing AIPAC are ideological, moral, and strategic questions regarding the Democratic Party’s position on a military occupation that leading Israeli and international human rights organizations like B’tselem, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all call apartheid.
Anxiety about AIPAC’s millions is certainly warranted, because when it spends, it spends big. AIPAC spent in just nine races last cycle and defeated nearly every Democrat it opposed—with the exception of working-class, progressive Summer Lee of Pennsylvania and Sri Thanedar of Michigan, a self-funded multimillionaire. The importance of Lee’s victory cannot be overstated. It is a recent and concrete example of how a strong candidate with a well-run, community-driven campaign and large progressive coalition can overcome AIPAC’s multimillion-dollar machine.
Lee’s victory is a road map for how progressive Democrats can unite to build infrastructure to elect candidates whose values will be consistent both at home and abroad. The AIPAC network is spending millions of dollars precisely because it is losing the generational and partisan battle to progressive Democrats. Instead of capitulating, progressives should continue building off Lee’s victory by coordinating our own network of anti-occupation donors, operatives, and local community members on the ground—precisely mirroring the ideologically driven electoral infrastructure that the AIPAC network has already built.
At least 88 Palestinians and 16 Israelis have been killed since January, making 2023 the deadliest year in the region in over two decades. A major factor leading to this surge of violence is the Israeli government’s embrace of a much more public racist, anti-Palestinian stance over this past year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed the support of the ultranationalist, far-right Religious Zionist Party, whose leader, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich—a settler himself—said in response to recent settler violence Palestinians, “I think the village of Hawara needs to be erased. I think that the State of Israel needs to do it.”
The Israeli government recently announced a plan for the biggest settlement expansion ever—a direct violation of both international law and stated United States policy, all but ending any realistic possibility of a two-state solution. On top of that, Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for corruption and fraud, is attempting to mount an overhaul of the Israeli judicial system that would give him and his political allies even more unchecked control and power in a “democracy” that has always excluded Palestinians. Yet the Biden administration has shown no sign of even considering making the $3.8 billion in annual military funding Israel receives from the US conditional in order to put pressure on the Israeli government to de-escalate and end their illegal annexation of Palestinian land.
The AIPAC network’s multimillion-dollar spending operation to punish Democrats who stray even one step away from unconditional support for the Israeli occupation makes sense considering how politically untenable such stances would be otherwise. A Gallup poll released this month found that for the first time a majority of Democrats now sympathize with Palestinians more than with Israelis. And as of 2019, 56 percent of Americans and 71 percent of Democrats said the United States should not “give unconditional financial and military assistance to Israel if the Israeli government continues to violate American policy on settlement expansion or West Bank annexation.”
However, because of the massive political and financial power of the anti-Palestinian lobby, only 14 percent of Democrats in the House of Representatives have signed legislation to condition aid to Israel on ending the expansion of settlements. If the AIPAC network can spend unlimited money to ensure that US politicians don’t represent the generational shift in the Democratic Party and the evolving views of the American people, it will have nothing to worry about.
After Bronx public school principal Jamaal Bowman unseated Eliot Engel—the anti-Palestinian lobby’s favorite Democrat, and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—the lobby tripled down on an electoral strategy. In the last cycle, for the first time in history, AIPAC launched its very own super PAC and—alongside the AIPAC-affiliated Democratic Majority for Israel—spent over $41 million attacking Democrats who violated its purity test on unconditional aid and support for the Israeli government.
AIPAC’s aggressive entry into Democratic primaries signals the increasingly partisan track that the anti-Palestinian lobby is taking, mirroring Israel’s rightward shift and the Democratic disavowal of groups like the NRA and more recently, Big Oil. While today there is only one NRA-backed Democrat in the House, just 12 years ago Democratic candidates in the House represented nearly 20 percent of NRA-financed candidates (a drop from 39 percent in 1992).
In the last cycle, AIPAC backed over 100 insurrectionist-aligned Republicans, opposed Democrats in general elections and primaries, spent zero dollars against Republican candidates—and were largely funded by pro-Trump Republican donors Robert Kraft, Bernard Marcus, and Paul Singer. Given the generational shift taking place in the Democratic Party—led by Justice Democrats like Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Summer Lee, and many others—it is clear that the extreme anti-Palestinian sentiment championed by AIPAC will increasingly fall along party lines, which is exactly what AIPAC’s multimillion-dollar spending seeks to avoid.
Just as with Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or criminal justice reform, we must organize to align the preferences of Democratic legislators with the voters who elected them. It is through Congress, after all, that we have the power to ensure that American taxpayers are not funding the violation of human rights and subsidizing the endless occupation of the Palestinian people. AIPAC and its largely Republican donors know that Democrats who speak out about the occupation also make the party more progressive on a range of other issues. A progressive movement, and a Democratic Party that sells out Palestinians for an easy reelection, is not a movement that can be counted on to fight back for any community when they need us most. Our end goal is not winning for the sake of winning. It’s winning to bring about fundamental change.