Ilhan Omar's Fate Uncertain as She Faces pro-Israel Challenger in Democratic Primary

As a result of support from pro-Israel organizations, Antone Melton-Meaux has significantly out-raised Omar ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote

Amir Tibon
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Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks during a press conference outside the DFL Headquarters on August 5, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks during a press conference outside the DFL Headquarters on August 5, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota.Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images/AFP
Amir Tibon

<< UPDATE: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar defeats challenger to win primary

Democratic voters in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District will decide on Tuesday whether to elect Rep. Ilhan Omar for another term in Congress, or replace her with a challenger who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from pro-Israeli organizations and harshly attacked the Congresswoman for her record on Israel.

Omar, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, is a member of “The Squad,” a group of progressive female Democratic lawmakers that also includes Reps. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, Ayana Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. The other members of the group are almost certain to secure a re-election, including Tlaib who easily won a primary challenge of her own last week. Omar’s fate, however, is still uncertain. 

Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Antone Melton-Meaux speaks during a press conference on August 5, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Antone Melton-Meaux speaks during a press conference on August 5, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images/AFP

The Somali born lawmaker, who came to America as a child when her family received asylum, is facing a tough challenge from Antone Melton-Meaux, a lawyer who has raised more than half a million dollars from pro-Israeli groups for his Congressional bid. The spending is a direct attempt by organizations and Political Action Committees such as “Pro-Israel America,” “Friends of Israel “ and NORPAC (an organization affiliated with AIPAC) to drive Omar out of Washington.

Omar created a political storm in March 2019 during a discussion about Israel, antisemitism and the impact of the pro-Israeli lobby in America. Omar said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She was accused by Jewish organizations of antisemitism in response.

In February, a month earlier, Omar tweeted that support for Israel among American politicians was “all about the Benjamins,” referring to dollar bills featuring the face of Benjamin Franklin. This tweet, which she later deleted, also led to accusations of antisemitism and widespread criticism of Omar, including by many prominent Democratic politicians. Omar later apologized for the tweet. 

Omar and Tlaib, who are the two first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, planned to travel to Israel and the occupied West Bank in the summer of 2019,  but the Israeli government decided to bar them from entering the country following pressure from President Donald Trump’s White House.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Originally, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said that Israel will allow any member of Congress to enter the country, but after Trump tweeted about the issue, Prime Minister Netanyahu reversed course. This caused a crisis between Israel and the Democratic leadership in Congress, since Dermer personally told senior Democrats that no member of Congress will be barred from entering the country. 

As a result of the support he has received from pro-Israeli organizations, Melton Meaux has significantly out-raised Omar ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote. Melton Meaux has criticized Omar both for her statements and positions on the subject, and for focusing on this issue at the expense of local priorities. “I was hopeful that she would use her platform to do great work for the district,” he said in an interview with MinnPost. “But what I’ve seen since then is someone that doesn’t show up for votes,”adding that she “has one of the worst voter attendance in the United States House of Representatives missing, in 2019 alone, 40 votes.”

The race is important for groups like AIPAC as part of the broader battle over the Democratic Party’s approach towards Israel. In June of this year, the pro-Israeli lobby lost a major ally when veteran Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lost to progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman who was supported by Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians who promote a more critical policy on Israel.

Another veteran lawmaker who was favored by the pro-Israeli groups, Rep. William Lacy Clay, lost his primary last week to Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist whose views on Israel are much more aligned with those of “The Squad,” including support for the BDS movement. If Omar survives her primary, however, “The Squad” will emerge stronger from this year’s primaries, and it is doubtful if she, Tlaib and the group’s other members will face the same kind of primary challenges again in the future. 

Omar has been endorsed by Sanders and by former Congressman Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s Attorney General, as well as by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Her campaign released an internal poll last month showing her with a large lead of more than 30 points. The results, however, won’t necessarily be known on Tuesday night. If the race is close, mail-in ballots that will be counted over a period of days or weeks could end up being decisive. 

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