Israel Policy Doesn’t Matter To Most Voters. It’s Dominating Democratic Primaries Anyway.

Pro-Israel groups continue to reshape primaries with multimillion-dollar spending — regardless of how the candidates they support feel about it.
Former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (right) and former prosecutor Glenn Ivey, who are competing in a Democratic House primary in Maryland, avoid discussing U.S.-Israel policy. Rival pro-Israel groups have nonetheless taken sides in the race.
Former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (right) and former prosecutor Glenn Ivey, who are competing in a Democratic House primary in Maryland, avoid discussing U.S.-Israel policy. Rival pro-Israel groups have nonetheless taken sides in the race.
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OXON HILL, Md. — There are plenty of major issues in Prince George’s County. Inflation and high gas prices have hit the mostly working- and middle-class Black voters who live in this commuter suburb hard. While the county is one of the wealthiest majority-Black jurisdictions in the country, crime remains high: There were 135 homicides in 2021. Schools here lag behind those in the uber-wealthy neighboring counties of suburban Washington, D.C.

But it’s not crime or schools or the cost of living that has upended the Democratic congressional primary in the majority-Black district that dominates the county, but the United States’ support for Israel, a country 5,800 miles away.

Two pro-Israel groups have poured over $6.4 million into the contest, aiming to defeat former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards and boost the candidacy of Glenn Ivey, a former prosecutor and Capitol Hill aide. While little separates the two candidates ideologically — both are broadly liberal Democrats — Edwards’ willingness to even gently break with Capitol Hill’s long-standing consensus on Israel issues has earned her the ire of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In interviews last week outside an early voting center here, both candidates seemed somewhat baffled by the exorbitant spending.

The spending blitz in Maryland — led by the new AIPAC-funded super PAC United Democracy Project, and the smaller but more seasoned super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel — is part of a much larger campaign spanning Democratic primaries in at least seven states to shut down what they fear is a drift away from unquestioning support for Israel within the Democratic Party.

The offensive is on pace to exceed $28 million in super PAC spending — buttressed by millions of additional dollars in bundled donations directly to campaigns.

“This is a district where the issues that are core to AIPAC and its affiliated organizations don’t come up ever,” Edwards said of the majority-Black district, calling the spending “shocking.” “So to have these folks come in and spend this level of money in this congressional district is actually quite offensive.”

Ivey concurred, noting Israel never came up in candidate forums or debates.

“We haven’t really done much with that,” he said, adding: “I’m certainly pro-Israel.”

U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine is simply not a high priority for most candidates or voters: Muslim and Jews, combined, make up roughly 3% of the American population in surveys. And past polls of even just Jewish voters have found that support for Israel is rarely a top voting issue.

So, when presented with a chance to embrace AIPAC’s talking points and gain access to its funding network without compromising their liberal views on other issues, aligning with AIPAC and similar groups has historically been an easy choice for progressive and moderate Democrats alike.

But the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the election of the ultra-liberal “Squad” in the House upended that dynamic by elevating a new faction of progressives for whom solidarity with Palestinians is a core value.

AIPAC has escalated its involvement in elections to halt the left’s advance — and where possible, to roll back its existing gains.

“We’re going to do our best to make sure no new anti-Israel member of the Squad gets elected.”

- Patrick Dorton, United Democracy Project

“We’re going to do our best to make sure no new anti-Israel member of the Squad gets elected,” said Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for the AIPAC-aligned United Democracy Project, which has spent about $6 million against Edwards. “There’s no question Donna Edwards would actively undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

In targeting Edwards — and similar candidates — though, AIPAC has expanded its scope beyond the Squad to any members of Congress who might entertain stricter conditions on U.S. aid to Israel — or restrictions on how that money can be used.

“The targets of AIPAC’s new super PAC are not only progressive Democrats who have been particularly outspoken in their criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinians, but also more ‘mainstream’ Democrats who cannot reasonably be characterized as anti-Israel,” said Dov Waxman, chair of the Israel studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel.” “That reflects the view in pro-Israel circles over the last few years that not just far-left Democrats, but also the center of gravity of the Democratic Party is moving left on Israel-Palestine.”

Edwards has elicited particular skepticism from AIPAC for her decision to vote “present” on a host of largely symbolic resolutions affirming U.S. support for Israel, including a 2009 resolution endorsing Israel’s right to defend itself from attacks from Gaza. (The resolution was passed during an Israeli war with the Gaza-based militant group Hamas that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians.)

But with her support for a two-state solution and opposition to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Edwards is a long-standing ally to J Street, a more liberal pro-Israel group. J Street’s new super PAC, the J Street Action Fund is spending $660,000 in support of her bid.

Part of what grates on Edwards is the way Israel groups have hid their identity. The ads attacking her never mention Israel, instead slamming her for poor constituent service during her first tenure in the House. (Edwards won her seat in 2008, ousting incumbent Rep. Al Wynn in a primary over his support for the Iraq War. She gave up the seat to run for Senate in 2016, losing to now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen in the primary.)

A TV spot funded by UDP focuses on Edwards’ alleged ineffectiveness as a lawmaker, quoting a Washington Post editorial endorsing her opponent in the 2016 Senate primary that said Edwards’ office was “notorious for inattention to constituent services.”

“Donna Edwards didn’t get it done,” the ad concludes. “UDP is responsible for the content of this ad.”

The ad does not mention the words “Israel” or “AIPAC.”

“That’s nefarious when you don’t want to put your name on a thing,” Edwards said.

Of course, J Street Action Fund’s TV ad blasting Ivey and promoting Edwards also does not mention U.S. policy in Israel or Palestine.

For his part, Ivey seems exasperated by the focus on Israel in the race. Asked if he thought Edwards was anti-Israel, he said that question is better posed to her. He said he opposed then-President Barack Obama’s initial nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran in 2015, but believes it was a mistake for President Donald Trump to pull out of it and believes President Joe Biden should rejoin it.

While Edwards questioned whether Ivey would have “obligations” to AIPAC if elected, Ivey said he has had no conversations with the group during the campaign. In his eyes, what matters about the ads is their accuracy.

“She’s admitted she had problems [with constituent services],” Ivey said. “And that’s a big piece of what members of Congress do.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (left) campaigns for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (right) in Iowa in January 2020. The lawmakers are part of a newer faction of pro-Palestinian progressives.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (left) campaigns for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (right) in Iowa in January 2020. The lawmakers are part of a newer faction of pro-Palestinian progressives.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Pro-Israel groups’ investment in several Democratic House primaries in Michigan that are set to occur on Aug. 2 is also formidable.

The Urban Empowerment Action PAC, which supports pro-Israel candidates committed to the “uplift” of Black Americans, announced plans in May to spend $1 million in support of Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey’s primary run against Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D) in Michigan’s new 12th Congressional District. Bakari Sellers, the former South Carolina lawmaker heading the super PAC, has made clear that Tlaib’s staunch pro-Palestinian views — she backs the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel, and supports the creation of one binational state — are key reasons for the group’s involvement in the race.

As a two-term incumbent with grassroots Black support and a base in metropolitan Detroit’s Arab American community, Tlaib is going to be hard to dislodge.

Pro-Israel groups’ investment in an open seat next door could be an easier lift. United Democracy Project has spent nearly $2.5 million boosting state Sen. Adam Hollier (D) in his bid for the open seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. Hollier, who is vying to succeed retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence, is competing in a crowded field that includes state Rep. Shri Thanedar (D), an independently wealthy self-funder with pro-Palestinian policy views, and former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D).

The Michigan race that has elicited the most national attention — and that most resembles Edwards and Ivey’s showdown — is the contest between Reps. Haley Stevens and Andy Levin in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District.

Finger-pointing about which candidate is more entitled to run in the district dominated initial discussion of the contest between the two incumbents. Redistricting drew Levin’s suburban Detroit home into Stevens’ district, prompting him to run there rather than a more conservative seat in Macomb County that contains more of his current voters. Stevens has represented more of the voters in Michigan’s 11th, but lived outside of the current district until November.

More recently, though, the race has shaped up as a classic intraparty ideological battle with U.S.-Israel policy at the forefront. United Democracy Project has spent over $2.4 million in support of Stevens. Although Levin is Jewish and Stevens is not, she also has the support of Democratic Majority for Israel and the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Meanwhile, J Street Action Fund has spent over $700,000 in support of Levin, a champion of the group’s policy goals in Congress.

Unlike Tlaib or Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Levin has never said anything about Israel that Jewish groups have perceived as offensive, let alone antisemitic. He opposes BDS and supports U.S. funding for the Iron Dome technology that Israel uses to intercept Palestinian militants’ rocket projectiles.

Instead, Levin, a self-described progressive Zionist who believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fell out with AIPAC — and its many impassioned local activists in suburban Oakland County, Michigan — over his view that the United States needs to exercise more pressure on the Israeli government to end its occupation of Palestinian lands conquered in 1967. He has spoken out against Israeli plans to evict Palestinians from some parts of the West Bank and introduced legislation that would bar Israel from using U.S. aid to entrench its occupation through, among other things, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the expansion of Jewish settlements.

Rep. Haley Stevens (right) is battling Rep. Andy Levin for the Democratic nomination in Michigan's 11th Congressional District. Levin, who is Jewish, introduced a bill that would bar Israel from using U.S. aid to entrench the occupation of Palestinian lands conquered in 1967.
Rep. Haley Stevens (right) is battling Rep. Andy Levin for the Democratic nomination in Michigan's 11th Congressional District. Levin, who is Jewish, introduced a bill that would bar Israel from using U.S. aid to entrench the occupation of Palestinian lands conquered in 1967.
Associated Press/Getty Images

Levin, J Street, and other progressives maintain that absent a “tough love” approach from the United States, the Israeli government, which is more powerful than stateless Palestinians, lacks the incentive to actually negotiate a workable two-state solution.

“I’m a little old-fashioned in this regard,” Levin told HuffPost with a chuckle, noting that many of his friends on the left have given up on the idea of a two-state solution in favor of a single, binational state. “Given the difficult history of the Jewish people, my feeling is: Can we have a little homeland for our people and have a homeland for the Palestinian people? And we can aspire to [those states] having a relationship like the countries in the EU.”

AIPAC and its supporters share Levin’s support for a two-state solution on paper, but view U.S. aid to Israel as sacrosanct. They want to give Israel latitude to ensure its citizens’ security against threats from Palestinian militants — and the freedom to broker peace without significant U.S. pressure.

“The Congresswoman does not believe that it is the United States Congress that should dictate the terms of an agreement between Israel and Palestine,” Stevens campaign spokesperson Larkin Parker told HuffPost. “She believes that a peace process should be settled by the parties directly.”

Stevens was also one of a dozen moderate Democrats who, joining several Republicans, wrote to Biden expressing reservations about his efforts to revive Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement. In the March letter, the group insisted that Biden keep in place sanctions that Trump levied on top Iranian officials — after withdrawing from the agreement — for its sponsorship of “terror” in the region. (Obama had deliberately excluded those regional policies from the agreement he brokered in the interest of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program.)

Another dimension to AIPAC’s support for Stevens over Levin comes from the way the two lawmakers relate to AIPAC interpersonally and use their public platforms to discuss the issue.

The Stevens campaign boasts of how accessible she is to the Jewish community in Oakland County, noting that she often distributes her personal phone number to concerned, pro-Israel constituents. (Stevens was less forthcoming with a left-leaning Jewish constituent who wanted to know why Stevens had accepted AIPAC’s endorsement.)

Levin, by contrast, ruffled feathers with his outspoken defense of Omar and Tlaib against charges of antisemitism. He has touted his friendship with Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress, whom he calls ”Sister Rashida. He told HuffPost he values the opportunity to express respectful disagreement with Tlaib’s one-state solution idea without shunning her as his critics would like.

“Can we have a grown-up debate based on real substantive policy about what those two positions are as opposed to trying to attack her as being antisemitic simply because she’s for a one-state solution?” Levin said.

Tlaib’s support for a one-state solution would likely prompt charges of antisemitism one way or another. But she also drew criticism in August 2021 for the suggestion that a similar group of people were making money by oppressing people “from Gaza to Detroit.” Jewish groups objected to what they saw as the implication that a Jewish conspiracy is responsible for immiserating people in separate parts of the world.

Levin has also dismayed some local pro-Israel activists with tweets that they feel are one-sidedly pro-Palestinian. A particular point of contention is Levin’s perceived lack of adequate joy at the news of the Abraham Accords — the peace treaties that Trump negotiated between Israel and several Arab nations with a shared hostility toward Iran. In August 2020, quote-tweeting the news that Israel was suspending plans to annex the West Bank as part of its peace treaty with the United Arab Emirates, Levin said, “Now, time to end the occupation.”

Levin’s professed Jewish pride and status as a member of an influential Jewish family in Michigan — his father is former Rep. Sandy Levin and his uncle was the late Sen. Carl Levin — make him more dangerous to the pro-Israel cause, according to some Detroit-area pro-Israel activists.

“It’s deeply offensive to try and compare a sitting Democratic member who voted to impeach President Trump twice to an insurrectionist for her support of Israel.”

- Larkin Parker, spokesperson for Rep. Haley Stevens' campaign

“He is arguably one of the members of Congress who is the most corrosive to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said David Victor, a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, attorney and businessman who served as president of AIPAC from 2008 to 2010.

“I believe he feels that he is ‘pro-Israel,’ but that is central to the problem,” Victor said. “When a person with his pedigree behaves the way he behaves, you can forgive the less engaged members of his party when they look at him and say, ‘I can behave like Levin: I can play to the left side of my base, and I can also claim to be pro-Israel.’”

AIPAC’s increasingly aggressive approach is not without its risks, however, chief among them that the candidates they back will lose and in so doing, make the organization look weaker than it was before. This cycle, four Democratic congressional candidates backed by UDP, AIPAC’s super PAC — Reps. Shontel Brown (Ohio) and Henry Cuellar (Texas), and state Sens. Valerie Foushee and Don Davis in North Carolina – have prevailed so far.

But in southwest Pennsylvania, where UDP spent more than $3 million to elect Steve Irwin, Irwin fell short against progressive state Rep. Summer Lee in May.

In his bid to replicate Lee’s victory, Levin and his allies have framed the stakes of his race as not only an existential fight for progressive voices on U.S.-Israel policy, but a battle against the influence of Republican donors and supporters of Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

In a TV ad blasting Stevens, J Street Action Fund refers to AIPAC’s endorsement of over 100 Republican members of Congress who objected to the certification of the 2020 election, and the support AIPAC’s super PAC has received from the Republican mega-donors Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer.

“No campaign cash is worth abandoning our democracy,” the narrator concludes.

The Stevens campaign responded to the ad with anger. “It’s deeply offensive to try and compare a sitting Democratic member who voted to impeach President Trump twice to an insurrectionist for her support of Israel,” Parker, the Stevens campaign spokesperson, told HuffPost. “This is the death rattle for Mr. Levin’s ill-conceived and resource-starved campaign. If a super PAC wants to light $800,000 on fire, that’s their right.”

UDP, which notes it has also received $1 million from Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban, went on TV this weekend with an ad blasting Levin over the J Street ad. “Andy Levin should be ashamed,” the narrator says in a spot featuring a clip of Stevens discussing her vote to impeach Trump. “This attack ad is despicable.” (Levin, like all candidates, is barred from coordinating with J Street Action Fund, but he has not turned down their support.)

Asked about specific criticism of the decision to accept AIPAC’s endorsement, given its backing of Republicans, Parker noted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have also accepted AIPAC’s endorsement.

“Rep. Stevens is proud of her unequivocal support of the Jewish State,” Parker said. “Her support from AIPAC is solely due to that view.”

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