AIPAC and US democracy: The evolving role of a pro-Israel lobby group

AIPAC- Getty
8 min read
Washington, D.C.
03 November, 2022

For decades, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was often referred to as the Jewish lobby. These days, it is far more common to hear it referred to as the Israel lobby - one of the main reasons being that many see it as more accurately representing the interests of the right-wing government of Israel.

"It's an organisation that doesn't just support far-right politics in Israel, but far-right politics in the US," Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, a self-described pro-Israel group that supports a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, tells The New Arab.

"I think it is becoming more and more of a partisan group. Many Jewish supporters are leaving AIPAC and there are more evangelical voices. AIPAC loves to talk about the American Israeli relationship and about shared values," he says.

"If you look at Israel's election, with the far right coming into power, AIPAC has been unwilling to condemn them for their policies."

"AIPAC has endorsed more than 100 candidates who deny that Joe Biden won the 2020 election"

Israel's newly elected right-wing government has coalition leaders who have openly promoted human rights violations against Palestinians, including using live ammunition against protesters.

It should perhaps be unsurprising then that AIPAC would endorse right-wing extremists in the US, many of whom openly advocate for violence against their critics.

AIPAC's endorsements of election deniers

In this election cycle, AIPAC has endorsed more than 100 candidates who deny that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, or 'election deniers' as they're commonly known.

Though AIPAC has repeatedly argued that they are a one-issue lobby group, focusing solely on Israel, it is hard not to see the contradiction in their approach. Many of the far-right candidates they've endorsed have expressed views against the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, and marginalised groups in general. 

This appears to go against why many people say they support Israel, casting it as the only democracy in the Middle East, surrounded by countries that suppress freedom and oppress marginalised groups.

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Pinkwashing is a term increasingly used by Israel's critics, who view its claims of LGBTQ+ tolerance as hypocritical given its oppression of Palestinians.

There are too many AIPAC endorsees to list, but what stands out are their beliefs. Many subscribe to the 'great replacement theory', the idea that white people are being replaced by non-white immigrants.

Many follow QAnon, an American-based conspiracy theory and movement (with a worldwide following) with roots in anti-Semitism that focuses on, among many other false narratives, accusing their opponents (usually Democrats) of drinking baby's blood and engaging in paedophilia and child sex trafficking. 

"This is an extreme move by AIPAC, but it shouldn't be surprising," Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace-Action tells TNA. "It's exposure. The goal of AIPAC is to ensure unquestioning support for Israel."

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks live via satellite at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. [Getty]

AIPAC's endorsements of Democrats

Though AIPAC continues its shift toward the Republican Party and far-right policies, that hasn't stopped it from endorsing Democrats. But with this latest election cycle, its methods have been unconventional. Many Democrats, including those supporting candidates that AIPAC opposes, only learned about their endorsements via Twitter, and once they were aware did not issue responses.

But in this year's primaries, some Democrats did accept support from AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, in some cases leading to major upsets against progressives.

"What's worse in some ways is Democrats going up against progressives who have accepted money from AIPAC," Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now, tells TNA

"Those Democrats who accepted AIPAC money to run against progressives are perhaps more dangerous and cynical," he says. "I think a lot of us believe the Republican Party is not a real party anymore. But it's the ones who proclaim to be part of the Democratic Party and saying they're standing up for democracy that are perhaps more detrimental."

"It's an organisation that doesn't just support far-right politics in Israel, but far-right politics in the US"

A new PAC

Despite what its name might imply, AIPAC is not a political action committee. In fact, for most of its existence, it has raised money for campaigns indirectly through PACs run by its members. This election cycle is the first time it is using its own PACs. There's AIPAC-PAC and its super PAC the United Democracy Project (UDP), which uses indirect messaging to meet its goals.

A super PAC is a PAC that can spend unlimited amounts of money, but it can't contribute directly to a campaign or candidate. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling paved the way for super PACs by essentially saying that money is political free speech.

In its ads, UDP tends to omit any reference to Israel (including its name choice), instead focusing on local issues much more likely to energise voters. In the primaries, its aim was to eliminate progressives.

Some ads against progressive candidates in deep-blue districts who have been critical of Israel have portrayed their opponents as more progressive, a sign of the lobby group's finger on the pulse of competitive races. 

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"AIPAC doesn't actually campaign on Israel in these congressional races, and they don't win on Israel because their positions aren't popular," says Miller. "Their playbook is basic. They don't talk about Israel in their ads. They smear progressives. If they win, they claim Israel won."

One race that observers are closely watching is that of Summer Lee, a progressive running in a deep blue district in the Pittsburgh area. She narrowly won the Democratic primary after leading in the polls until weeks before the election, when pro-Israel PACs aired ads saying she wasn't aligned with the Democrats.

Now, in the days leading up to the general election, they are running attack ads against her in support of her Republican opponent.

A lack of transparency?

One striking aspect of AIPAC's funding this cycle is what appears to be a lack of transparency. During  Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's primary race, many of her critics lamented that AIPAC should have thrown their support behind her opponent, given how tight the race turned out to be.

It wasn't until after the race that it was revealed they had in fact supported her opponent, which was reported by Jewish Insider days later.

Among the dozens of extremist candidates AIPAC has backed is New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who has been criticised for promoting the racist 'great replacement theory'. [Getty]

This then begs the question: are there other AIPAC funding arrangements that are still not publicly known?

It appears, at least for the most part, that AIPAC's activities are fairly public, especially given the step it took to establish a super-PAC.

But so-called dark money is an increasingly contentious issue that many progressives have been campaigning against, making many of them outright reject corporate or large-scale donations as a matter of policy.

A reaction to pro-Palestinian activism?

It is interesting to note that AIPAC's establishment of its super PAC did not come until around a decade after the Citizens United ruling. Though the timing is unclear, what is notable is that over the past several years Palestinian activism has been gaining ground. 

The 2018 "blue wave" of Democratic congressional victories saw the swearing in of the first Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Though they were far from the first members of Congress to advocate in support of Palestinians, their identities and their unfiltered styles of communication helped develop a movement that would only grow.  

"They don't say it, but they [AIPAC] feel like there are more anti-Israel members in Congress. More are standing up for Palestinian human rights"

"AIPAC never had a PAC or direct involvement until this election. But they feel like they need one now," says Miller.

"This means the Palestinian rights movement has been successful in organising," she says. "They don't say it, but they feel like there are more anti-Israel members in Congress. More are standing up for Palestinian human rights."

She adds, "They're worried that there's a trend of progressives and Democrats increasingly shifting."
In fact, some of the progressives AIPAC has spent money against have not been vocal on Israel and Palestine.

In Maryland, AIPAC, through its super PAC, spent around $6 million to help defeat Donna Edwards, a progressive Democratic incumbent who had not spoken out on the conflict, typically voting "present" when it came up.

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Another primary race that raised eyebrows was that of progressive Democratic incumbent Andy Levin, which pro-Israel groups spent around $4 million to help defeat. Despite being a Jewish congressman who has described himself as pro-Israel, a bill that he wrote requiring conditions on US funding to Israel might have been a step too far for AIPAC.

"It seemed like they were making an example of him," Doug Rossinow, a professor of history at Metro State University, tells TNA. "When they go big on a house race, there's the swagger of the organisation." 

He says, "I think it's fair to say they must be concerned about the growing stance of progressives. It's not an evolution they'd welcome. A fairly mainstream Jewish liberal Democrat could support Palestinians, and they worry that could spread."

"It's exposure. The goal of AIPAC is to ensure unquestioning support for Israel"

The future of AIPAC

It's unclear where AIPAC will go from its current right-ward trajectory. What is clear is that its support of election deniers and its open campaign spending through its super PAC has raised its profile this election cycle far beyond what it has been in the past.

For its critics, this higher profile has helped them organise, but it hasn't been enough to outspend AIPAC, as well as other groups that share its interests.

"What we learned from the Trump administration is that corruption worked," says Shapiro.

"Money allocated to AIPAC and other individual donors led to concrete action. The US recognition of the Golan Heights, cutting off funding for UNRWA, moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Should they give money to the Democrats who go through institutions?"

He adds, "This has become one of the best reasons why we need campaign reform."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews