Inside AIPAC’s Strategy to Back Israel’s Cheerleaders and Punish the Squad

The powerful lobby and allied groups have poured money into defeating candidates who voice any criticism of Israel. Amid calls for a cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza, they’re back at it again.

Naomi LaChance

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds its 2019 Policy Conference in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 234-188 to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — the only Palestinian member of Congress — on Nov. 7 for allegedly promoting false narratives” about Israel’s war with Hamas and assault on Gaza. 

Of the 22 Democrats who joined nearly every Republican member in voting in favor of the resolution, at least 14 took campaign contributions from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (or AIPAC) in 2022. In total, these lawmakers received $900,000. Republicans have similarly raked in massive donations from AIPAC, which spends millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to push pro-Israel stances. 

The dramatic move to censure comes amid a broader effort targeting Tlaib over her expressions of humanity and compassion in support of Palestinian and Israeli civilians, including a television ad that went on air in Detroit earlier this month attacking the congresswoman over her voting record on Israel and Palestine. 

And she refuses to answer even this horrific question” says an ominous voice while the ad displays an image of the congresswoman speaking into a megaphone. The ad then cuts to someone chasing Tlaib down a hallway with a recorder out: You can’t comment about Hamas terrorists chopping off babies’ heads?” the person asks. (The Israeli government has said it was unable to verify claims that Hamas decapitated babies in the deadly Oct. 7 attack.)

The ad is from the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a dark money group that has ties to AIPAC. The group’s president, Mark Mellman, has also consulted for AIPAC. DMFI board member (and former Coca-Cola Company executive) Peter Villegas has served on AIPAC’s national council,” while fellow board member and Democratic strategist Ann Lewis has worked with AIPAC’s spinoff, the American Israel Education Foundation. In the 2020 elections, AIPAC donors could count donations to DMFI as a credit to their AIPAC donations, which provided them extra benefits at events. 

A spokesperson for DMFI told In These Times: Democratic Majority for Israel is completely separate from, and independent of, AIPAC and any other organization. We have our own Board, leadership and staff, none of whom overlap with AIPAC. We advocate for different policies.”

It’s not just DMFI’s ad that’s targeting critics of Israel’s war on Gaza. AIPAC is reportedly planning to spend huge sums to unseat progressive members of Congress who have called for a cease-fire and spoken out in favor of Palestinian rights. According to Alexander Sammon at Slate, Close watchers now expect AIPAC to spend at least $100 million in Democratic primaries, largely trained on eliminating incumbent Squad members from their seats.”

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 Israelis, more than 13,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, according to Palestinian authorities, the majority of them women and children. More than 1.4 million people in Gaza have been displaced.

Last month, the Israeli army began a ground invasion into northern Gaza as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the world to prepare for a long” war by sea, on land, and in the air.” President Joe Biden is simultaneously trying to funnel $14 billion to help fuel the effort. In the midst of this devastating violence, AIPAC has ramped up its efforts to ensure that members of Congress stand in lock-step with Israel as it carries out its bombing campaign — and to go after those who break from this bipartisan status quo. 

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

On Nov. 2, the House of Representatives, led by new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), approved legislation that would, if also approved by the Senate, carry out Biden’s funding effort. However, it would also cut billions from the IRS, a move that would reportedly cost the U.S. government nearly $27 billion and is opposed by the Biden administration. 

Johnson received more money from AIPAC in 2022 than he did from any other group. He received $25,000, including $15,000 from individuals and $10,000 from its political action committee (PAC). (Corporations cannot legally donate to campaigns at a federal level, so data comes from PACs, employees and executives.)

On the day of the vote, Johnson said: Our supplemental package, which is fully offset, provides Israel with advanced weapons systems, supports the Iron Dome missile defense system, and replenishes American domestic defense stockpiles. This is necessary and critical assistance as Israel fights for its right to exist.”

AIPAC is the giant shadow behind many U.S. lawmakers’ responses to Israel’s attack on Palestine. The lobbying group has spent millions supporting pro-Israel candidates across the country and trying to prevent politicians who are critical of Israel from getting elected, including by funding challengers to them.

For example, AIPAC’s super PAC, called the United Democracy Project, spent more than $3 million against Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) in her 2022 House race, where Lee ran a progressive campaign, and noted that it was important both to ensure the security of Israelis and to protect and stand up for Palestinians.”

Since Oct. 7, AIPAC has been reaching out to members of Congress from both major parties to secure support for the Israeli military’s massive retaliation, Bloomberg Government reported.

The group’s focus is to ensure that America provides Israel the resources it needs as quickly as possible so it can permanently dismantle Hamas, which perpetrated the barbaric, terrorist attack on the Jewish state,” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, told Bloomberg.

Biden spoke with Netanyahu in late October and, according to the White House, told the Israeli prime minister that his country has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism,” but should act in accordance with international humanitarian law. 

And on Nov. 1, Biden called for a humanitarian pause.” He added: A pause means give time to get the prisoners out.” On Nov. 9, the White House said that Israel would begin to pause military operations for four hours each day in northern Gaza.

Biden, previously a senator from Delaware, has received the most money—$4.2 million — from pro-Israel donors of any federal politician (in total amounts) since 1990, according to OpenSecrets. 

Whenever things were getting out of hand with Israel, Biden was the bridge,” Dennis Ross, a former Middle East advisor to President Barack Obama, recently told Reuters. His commitment to Israel was that strong … And it’s the instinct we’re seeing now.”

Biden has long considered himself a friend of Netanyahu and told the Israeli prime minister and his war cabinet during a recent meeting: I don’t believe you have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist.”

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, said Biden’s connection to Israel is deeply engrained in his political DNA.”

A stranglehold on Congress”

AIPAC was created in the aftermath of an attack by the Israeli military on Palestinian civilians in 1953 when Israeli troops massacred more than 60 Palestinians in the West Bank village of Qibya. The United Nations and the U.S. State Department condemned the massacre while the State Department said: those who are responsible should be brought to account and that effective measures should be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.” 

In response to public and political backlash, and in order to defend Israel’s reputation, the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs, which would later become AIPAC, formally began operating in 1954. By the 1960s, the group helped make sure the U.S. would regularly sell weapons and send aid to Israel. By the late 1970s, AIPAC became increasingly involved in steering electoral politics. 

The only difference between all the domestic lobbies that essentially buy support for their agenda is that AIPAC is working for a foreign government,” M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC employee, wrote in the Nation in 2019

Former U.S. President George W. Bush addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 18 May, 2004 at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

AIPAC did not spend directly on elections until 2021 when it launched the United Democracy Project, a super PAC whose goal is to elect pro-Israel candidates. AIPAC exerts influence in a variety of ways. For example, the group regularly organizes trips that bring members of Congress to Israel to help win their support for the country’s government. 

In 2006, political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote: The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that U.S. policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world.” 

That stranglehold is evident in the influence the group wields over both major parties. As Connie Bruck wrote at the New Yorker in 2014: AIPAC’s hold on Congress has become institutionalized.”

Former Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) told Bruck: When key votes are cast, the question on the House floor, troublingly, is often not What is the right thing to do for the United States of America?’ but How is AIPAC going to score this?’” 

Big spending

Today, with the war on Gaza dominating the news, AIPAC-supported politicians are taking increasing measures to support Israel. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) backed a Senate resolution in favor of Israel that passed unanimously on Oct. 19. He has received $95,000 in campaign contributions from donors affiliated with AIPAC from 2017 to 2022, according to OpenSecrets. 

Before the vote, Schumer said, we stand firmly with Israel and her right to defend herself” and added that: we condemn the heinous, vicious attacks by the terrorist group Hamas. It is rare that all 100 senators agree on everything. But every one of the hundred of us is here today, united saying we are behind Israel.”

“AIPAC’s hold on Congress has become institutionalized.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) voted in favor of the $14 billion aid package that passed the House on Nov. 2. He said his vote was intended to send an unwavering signal to the world” in support of Israel. In 2022, like Johnson, Gottheimer received more from AIPAC in campaign contributions than he did from any other group. He received nearly $217,000 from individuals and PACs affiliated with AIPAC. 

Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) offered another pro-Israel resolution that passed the House on Oct. 25. Like Schumer, they both took major campaign contributions from AIPAC. 

Now is the time to show the world [that] the United States firmly stands with our friend and ally Israel in our condemnation of this heinous attack by Iran-backed terrorists,” McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said on Oct. 10

McCaul received nearly $8,000 from AIPAC’s PAC in the 2022 election cycle. 

Meeks, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, took more money in campaign contributions from AIPAC than from any other sources in 2022. He received $52,550 that year. 

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) is another lawmaker who introduced a pro-Israel resolution condemning Hamas in October. AIPAC’s United Democracy Project spent $3.9 million supporting her 2022 congressional race. 

In that race, the United Democracy Project also spent $342,000 successfully attacking Stevens’ opponent, former Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former synagogue president who has advocated for Palestinian rights. 

Last year, AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr explained to the Washington Post why the organization became involved in the race: It was Congressman Levin’s willingness to defend and endorse some of the largest and most vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said.

In the 2022 cycle, Stevens took more contributions from AIPAC than from any other source: $681,000. The same year, she received more money from AIPAC than any other politician in Congress except one, Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.), who has recently voiced his support for Israel as well. 

AIPAC has also recently spent millions on lobbying around federal policy. AIPAC reportedly lobbied in support of the $14 billion House aid bill. From the beginning of January to the end of September, AIPAC has spent $2.25 million on federal lobbying efforts about a variety of issues including legislation to sanction Hamas, condemn Iran’s nuclear weapons, and conduct research with Israel on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Targeting opponents

Not every lawmaker is offering unequivocal support of Israel, though. Nine House Democrats voted against a resolution that reaffirms the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security.” Among them are Reps. Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Lee. 

These lawmakers have also joined several others in co-sponsoring Rep. Cori Bush’s (D-Mo.) resolution calling for an immediate deescalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.” There are now 18 representatives who have signed on to the resolution, including Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.). As of Nov. 20, 40 lawmakers have called for a ceasefire. 

U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) listen during a news conference calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the U.S. Capitol building on November 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Bush recently posted on X (formerly Twitter): As a Black woman in America, I’m acutely aware of feeling unsafe in this country. I denounce every instance of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and every form of racism and bigotry. Always.” 

AIPAC responded: Always, @CoriBush? What about when your colleague @RashidaTlaib glorified a call for genocide against the only Jewish state?”

These sorts of moves by legislators generally make them targets for AIPAC, if they weren’t targets already, as the lobbying group frequently tries to stymie progressive candidates either by supporting their challengers or running attack ads. 

The sole factor for supporting Democratic and Republican candidates is their support for strengthening the US-Israel relationship,” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, told The Intercept last year. Indeed, our PACs have supported scores of pro-Israel progressive candidates, including over half of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus and almost half of the Progressive Caucus. Our political involvement has shown that it is entirely consistent with progressive values to support America’s alliance with our democratic ally, Israel.”

I sat in AIPAC staff meetings at which the political director discussed whom we’ would be supporting in this campaign and whom we’ were going to destroy’ in that one,” Rosenberg, the former AIPAC employee, wrote.

Matthew Kassel reported in Jewish Insider this summer that AIPAC is looking to recruit Minneapolis councilmember LaTrisha Vetaw to challenge Omar in the coming election cycle. AIPAC has reportedly met with Vetaw and engaged in ongoing conversations to convince her to enter the primary.” 

AIPAC,” Kassel wrote, appears to be embracing a more aggressive strategy as it seeks to pick off a handful of incumbents who have been unusually hostile to Israel, particularly in recent weeks.”

AIPAC is also in talks with a potential challenger to Bowman, Westchester County executive George Latimer. In late October, Bowman spoke at a ceasefire rally. I am ashamed, quite ashamed to be a member of Congress at times when Congress doesn’t value every single life,” he said. 

Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a summer fundraising email that her team just got word: AIPAC is at it again. They’re trying to recruit an establishment executive to run against my brother in The Bronx, Jamaal Bowman. We know what comes next. AIPAC won’t wait much longer to start funneling dark money against Jamaal and ramping up attacks against our movement.”

Ocasio-Cortez spoke out against AIPAC in late October, tweeting that the group was “racist and bigoted.”

Ocasio-Cortez spoke out against AIPAC in late October, tweeting that the group was racist and bigoted.” 

The same day, New York Times reporter Nicholas Fandos wrote that Perhaps no race promises to be so explosive, expensive or symbolically charged a test of the Democratic Party’s direction as a potential matchup between Mr. Bowman and Mr. Latimer.”

Ceasefire now”

The United Democracy Project has been pouring huge sums of money into challenging progressives since its launch in 2021. The arm of AIPAC spent nearly $3.3 million against Lee in her 2022 election race and another $660,000 boosting her primary opponent. 

And the United Democracy Project has begun regularly airing ads attacking Lee and Bowman for their stance on Israel. 

Omar has faced particular scrutiny from AIPAC. In response to a 2019 tweet saying Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was threatening Omar and Tlaib over their stance on Israel, Omar tweeted: It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” quoting lyrics from the rapper Diddy. She apologized after facing a wave of criticism alleging that she had used antisemitic tropes to make her point.

Last year, the United Democracy Project gave $350,000 to Make a Difference MN05, a super PAC supporting Omar’s primary opponent, Don Samuels. That same challenger recently announced he would again mount a run against the progressive incumbent. 

Bush, who’s leading the cease-fire resolution, is facing a pro-Israel challenger, Wesley Bell, in the next election cycle. He traveled to Israel with AIPAC in 2017, but declined to say if he has been engaged with AIPAC recently.

When the Washington Post asked Bell why he is running against Bush, he mentioned her stance on Israel. I think we have to stand with our allies, and Israel has always been an ally,” Bell said. 

Still, despite its continued deep sway in Washington, a handful of lawmakers are fighting AIPAC’s influence and pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza. 

In addition to Ocasio-Cortez’s critical statement calling the group extremist,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) recently said of AIPAC’s strategy: since they clearly don’t care about dead kids, it’s all about backing a conservative Netanyahu position.” And Bush recently tweeted a video claiming: AIPAC lies… AIPAC incites violence against Black and brown members of Congress. We won’t back down. Ceasefire now.” 

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Naomi LaChance is a freelance journalist covering influence and corruption from Washington, D.C.
The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.