Pro-Palestine Democrat wins reveal weakening influence of Israel money

Pro-Palestine Democrat wins reveal weakening influence of Israel money

Comment: A string of defeats for pro-Israel candidates shows that Israeli support is not enough to overcome the progressive wave taking over the Democratic party, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
12 Aug, 2020
Cori Bush [L] made no secret of her support for the Palestinian cause [Getty/TNA]
It's been a tough summer for conservative pro- Israel groups in the Democratic Party. They were unable to mount a serious challenge to Rashida Tlaib (D- MI) - the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress and an outspoken supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement - and lost shocking congressional races in New York and Missouri. 

Their defeat in House elections was completed Tuesday as Ilhan Omar successfully defended her seat against Antone Melton-Meaux, a newcomer who received enormous contributions from pro- Israel PACs.

Defenders of Israeli policies can, however, point to some victories; the wording of the Democratic party platform section on Israel and Palestine, for example The party's centrist wing - led by presidential nominee Joe Biden - was able to prevent the word "occupation" from appearing in the platform. They were also able to include language which, while not explicitly ruling out leveraging US military aid to Israel to prevent Israeli annexation and settlement expansion, did commit to "ironclad" preservation of the military aid agreed to in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

In a similar vein, the presidential ticket, now firmly decided, features two candidates from the Democratic field - Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - who have unimpressive records on Palestinian rights. Harris, however, was one of the candidates who broke with AIPAC earlier this year and declined to attend their conference. Many of the Democratic contenders did likewise, a sign of the increasingly poor reputation the pro-Israel lobbying group has among Democratic voters.

Harris is in some ways emblematic of the new attitude of mainstream Democrats toward Israel. Not so long ago, she spoke at the 2017 AIPAC conference with awe about collecting coins to fund tree planting in Israel (presumably indifferent, or unaware that these funds were often used to forcibly displace Palestinians), and her tour of Israel and, crucially the West Bank. She even co-sponsored a resolution condemning Barack Obama on his way out the door for the one and only time he ordered the US Ambassador to the United Nations to abstain from a vote in a resolution critical of Israel.

Harris is in some ways emblematic of the new attitude of mainstream Democrats toward Israel.

But in 2019, Harris did attend the AIPAC conference, though she intentionally stayed out of the spotlight. This year, she skipped the confab, something serious candidates rarely did in past years. Instead, she had a low-key meeting with AIPAC leaders in her office.

The grassroots vs grasstops

The only Democratic candidates in races for House of Representatives seats to receive more than $200,000 from large pro-Israel donations - Engel, Melton-Meaux, and Dan Lipinski of Illinois - lost their primaries. All their opponents - Jamaal Bowman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Marie Newman, respectively - take explicitly progressive stances on Palestinian rights.

That point is important, but it should not be exaggerated. There is no evidence that the candidates won because of their support for Palestinian rights, although that support may be emblematic of the broad progressive policy views that did make them popular.

But in the past, it has been taken as given that strong support from pro-Israel donors was a huge boost for a candidate, and the negative messaging that such donors would put out about those they wished to defeat - which might not necessarily be connected to Israel-Palestine or foreign policy at all - was an almost insurmountable obstacle. Those days are over.

Part of the reason is that Israel has made itself a messaging liability. The sharp shift to the right the country has taken is visible and support for Israel's occupation, its denial of Palestinian rights, its violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and, especially, Gaza is met with disapproval by Democratic voters who are more aware of these conditions than they were not long ago.

Another race provides evidence for a change in how candidates can talk about the Palestinians. Cori Bush, who gained fame as a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement from its incarnation in the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, challenged long-time incumbent Lacy Clay, who had held the seat since 2000, when he succeeded his father who was the representative since 1968. Few incumbents are as entrenched as Clay was.

As an activist known for speaking truth to power, Bush also made no secret of her support for the Palestinian cause.  She had expressed her support for the BDS movement, saying, "Nonviolent actions like the BDS movement are so important - and… the effort to mischaracterize and demonize the BDS movement by its opponents is so urgent."

Clay tried to use the stance against her, but Bush did not back down or compromise her support. Her campaign responded to Clay's attack, stating, "Cori Bush has always been sympathetic to the BDS movement, and she stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives."

Conventional wisdom said that Bush had no chance, going up against such a familiar incumbent and then doubling down on the political third rail of BDS. But she won the contest, took a seat that the Clay family had held for over half a century and, incredibly, became the first black woman to represent the state of Missouri in Congress.

The cause of Palestinian rights is no longer a political poison pill

These victories, taken together with the comparatively conservative pro-Israel presidential ticket and a party platform that after 53 years is still afraid to call Israel's occupation what it is, we're left with a split between the grassroots and the grasstops in the Democratic party.

The money and the entrenched power in the party machine remain firmly committed to an obsolete approach to a mythical two-state solution predicated, first and foremost, on endless Israeli demands for security and reassurances. But the rank and file of the party, while supportive of Israel's existence and overall security, does not want to see the United States support apartheid, human rights violations, and occupation.

For the moment that tension is visible in fights like the one over the platform. But inevitably, it will grow and will play out in a struggle over the party's policy. And in that fight, it is the voters who must ultimately prevail, since it is the value of their votes that gives the donors' money its worth in the context of campaigns.

The pro-Israel money that once turned races isn't worth as much as it once was

Eliot Engel and Antone Melton-Meaux were, by far, the biggest Democratic recipients of pro-Israel contributions in House races, with Dan Lipinski coming in third. All of them lost, not because of their support for conservative policies on Israel and Palestine, but, in a new twist, despite it. The coveted pro-Israel support was not enough to overcome the progressive wave that is taking over the Democratic party.

The cause of Palestinian rights may not be drawing huge number of voters to support candidates, but it is no longer a political poison pill. More than that, it has become a part of a broader progressive policy landscape. It is now standard for progressives to oppose Israeli annexation, occupation, settlements, and human rights violations.

The times have changed, and incumbents who don't change with them are becoming more likely to follow Engel, Lipinski, and Clay out the door, while challengers like Melton-Meaux will find that the pro-Israel money that once turned races isn't worth as much as it once was. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.