Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Israel and the War inside the Democratic Party

Israel will be a big factor in a primary election on August 2 where two Democratic Party nominees are competing to be the Democratic candidate next November against a Republican Party candidate to represent a Congressional district in Michigan.

The national lobby that rejects criticism of Israel, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), aims to remove a Jewish Congressional representative, Andy Levin, who was a president of a Jewish synagogue and defends Israel’s right to exist but who also defends Palestinian rights and the two-state solution.

In past years AIPAC identified American politicians whose support for Israel it considered inadequate. Other individuals and organizations then donated their money to the election campaigns of those politicians’ opponents.

But this year AIPAC established a branch organization that donates directly to political campaigns across America.

American political transparency laws require that campaigns report their donations and therefore we can see that so far this year the AIPAC funding branch has donated about $30 million to Congressional political campaigns.

Some officials from AIPAC have connected their direct financial intervention in campaigns to the changes inside the Democratic Party.

The left-leaning, progressive wing of the party is more critical of Israel. For example, last month 24 Democratic Party senators, including many progressives, sent President Biden a letter that urged him to intervene to ensure a fair investigation into the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh. (AIPAC had opposed the senators’ letter.)

In May, 57 Democrats in the House of Representatives, most from the left-wing of the party, had written a letter that urged the administration to investigate her murder. The Israeli Ambassador criticized that letter, but Andy Levin was among those who signed it.

By contrast, Levin’s opponent in the August 2 primary election, Haley Stevens who is also a Democratic member of Congress, emphasizes her decisive support for Israel. She declined to sign the May letter urging an American investigation. AIPAC donated three million dollars to her campaign.

Michigan is not the only state to see AIPAC direct financial intervention in Congressional elections.

So far, AIPAC has intervened financially in ten Democratic Party primary elections across the United States, and it claims that the candidates it supported won nine of those elections.

AIPAC chooses targets strategically. It avoided using its monies against Congressional representatives Rashida Tlaib in Michigan or Ilhan Omar in Minnesota despite their sharp criticism of Israel because AIPAC concluded it would be difficult to defeat them.

AIPAC’s new, direct intervention in Democratic Party primary elections is creating reactions against its successes.

Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pointed to rich businessmen involved in AIPAC’s funding branch and called AIPAC’s intervention a war for the Democratic Party.

One of the favorite politicians for Democratic Party progressives, Senator Elizabeth Warren, went to Michigan to speak in support of Levin.

The national organization J Street, which strongly supports the two-state solution and argues with AIPAC about US policy in the region, has also started to directly fund political campaigns, although its funding is less than the funding from AIPAC.

The progressive magazine Prospect on July 14 shouted that AIPAC has taken over the Democratic Party’s primary election system.

That is an exaggeration. In those nine primary elections where AIPAC’s preferred candidate won, the Middle East and Israel were not priorities for the voters. Americans worry about inflation in prices, a possible economic recession and social issues. Overseas they focus on Russia and Ukraine and China.

Debates about those problems, and financial donations from many organizations and individuals, determine results of elections in America. I have to acknowledge, however, that money is essential in modern American politics. It pays for vital advertising and campaign workers and logistics.

I have experience with AIPAC myself. After I resigned from the Department of State in 2014 because I disagreed with President Obama’s policy on Syria, I received invitations from AIPAC to speak at some of its conferences about the role of Iran in Syria and the region. (I received a small honorarium for such lectures. I gave my last talk in 2018.)

In those years local and national AIPAC directors stressed to me that support to Israel had to come from both parties to be strong.

AIPAC’s decision this year to target politicians like Levin indicates it will confront the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

If AIPAC is successful, it will increase the influence of conservatives in the party and drive elements of the left wing, including many younger activists, out of the party.

In the evenly balanced American political situation today, such a result will help the Republican Party win elections. It is not a surprise, therefore, that some Republican Party figures quietly support the AIPAC strategy.