Champagne corks were popping in pro-Israel circles on Tuesday night following the announcement that Joe Biden had chosen Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate.
Among the list of finalists who were under consideration by the Biden campaign for the VP role, Harris had the clearest record of support for Israel. Her selection helped guarantee that the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket would be impervious to insinuation from the Trump campaign that Biden’s Israel policy could somehow be hijacked by the more progressive Bernie Sanders-led camp.
But the jubilant celebrations regarding the top of the ticket obscured a far less pleasant reality for groups like AIPAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel and their allies – the reality of the congressional primaries, where these pro-Israeli groups suffered a string of painful losses.
On the same day as the Harris announcement, the decisive victory by Rep. Ilhan Omar in her Minnesota primary sealed a 0-4 string of losses for pro-Israeli groups in their efforts to beat back the growing strength and popularity of the group known as the “Squad” – young, largely female progressive candidates of color.
The Squad originally contained four members of Congress who were first elected in the 2018 midterm election: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayana Pressley (D-MA), and the two first-ever Muslim women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). The group has been at the forefront of Congressional criticism against the Israeli government, and its members have joined Senator Bernie Sanders’ call to condition military aid to Israel.
In this year’s Democratic primaries, a battle line had been drawn, with the Squad and other left-wing Democrats on one side, and pro-Israel groups on the other. So far, in every major contest, the Squad emerged victorious. The pro-Israel groups hoped to knock down at least one of the group’s members, but instead, the group is likely to expand in the next Congress.
The first big sign of trouble for AIPAC and its allies began on June 23 in the primary for New York’s 16th district where challenger Jamaal Bowman, a progressive educator, defeated Eliot Engel, a 16-term Jewish veteran congressman and the chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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When the mail-in ballots were finally counted and the final result announced on July 17, the tally showed a humiliating loss for an established incumbent – Engel only won 40% of the vote to Bowman’s 55%. It was a far cry from Engel’s cakewalk in the primaries two years earlier in 2018, when Engel had effortlessly beaten back his primary rival Jonathan Lewis 73% to 16%, and viewed as a repeat performance of a New York upset two years earlier – when Ocasio-Cortez beat Democratic Caucus chair Joe Crowley in the 2018 primaries.
Engel’s defeat was a devastating blow for AIPAC and its allies, since his position as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee made him a key asset for Israel supporters. Engel consistently lined up with the pro-Israeli lobby on issues like Iran, Palestinian statehood and Israeli settlements. He was a Democrat who had actively promoted moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and supported President Donald Trump when he made the move – one of many times he reached across the aisle and worked together with Republicans when it came to legislation, resolutions and letters of concern, regarding Israel.
Because of this, Engel had been vigorously backed by pro-Israel PACs. According to the campaign funding website Open Secrets, Engel was the member of Congress who received the largest amount of pro-Israel funds for his primary race – $546,213. That included a controversial television attack ad against Bowman funded by the Democratic Majority for Israel, hitting Bowman for non-payment of taxes. Bernie Sanders publicly decried the ad, tweeting that the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC “is a corporate/Republican-funded super PAC that runs ugly, negative ads against progressives. This is establishment big-money politics at its worst, and why we have to transform the Democratic Party.” Ultimately, Engel felt compelled to ask the PAC to remove the ad.
Then, on August 4, came a double whammy. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib – a supporter of BDS and opponent of a two-state solution – easily won her primary in Michigan’s 13th district, defeating Brenda Jones, president of the Detroit city council, with 66% of the vote to Jones’ 34%. Tlaib’s margin of victory over Jones was far wider than it had been when the two faced off in 2018, defying the assessments of local Israel supporters earlier in the race that Tlaib was “beatable.”
In fact, she proved far less beatable than she had been in 2018, when the roles were reversed – Jones was the incumbent and Tlaib the newcomer – when Tlaib only squeaked ahead by fewer than 1,000 votes.
On the same day as Tlaib’s victory, Missouri’s Cori Bush, a progressive activist prominent in the Black Lives Matter movement and a supporter of BDS, scored her upset primary win against another powerful incumbent – Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. – whom she had unsuccessfully challenged two years earlier.
Bush’s victory was slim but definitive – with 48% of the vote to Clay’s 45%. Her victory over Clay beat back a campaign that attacked her for her BDS support and cooperation with activist Linda Sarsour. Her win against a member of a political dynasty whose family had held that Misouri’s 1st congressional seat for five decades, was hailed as the biggest progressive triumph since the ascendance of Ocasio-Cortez two years earlier.
The Bush-Clay contest, like Tlaib’s Michigan primary, was a rematch. Bush had challenged Clay in 2018, but was heavily outspent and lost to him 56%-36%. This time around, she seriously upped her fundraising game, coming closer to matching the funds Clay had assembled than in their first race. Her victory in this heavily Democratic district all but ensures that come January 2021, when the next Congress is sworn-in, the Squad will add a new members to its ranks.
Finally, on Tuesday, August 11, the final blow came with the victory of Omar, who successfully retained her seat in Minnesota’s fifth district. Omar and Tlaib have become heroes for Israel’s opponents on the left, demonized and targeted on the far right, and have attracted lots of media attention and controversy for their views regarding Israel, the Palestinians and BDS. In August of 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned Omar and Tlaib from a planned visit to Israel and the West Bank, citing regulations that “forbid the entry of people calling for and acting to placing a boycott on Israel.”
Almost a year later to the day, final election results had Omar devastating her challenger, attorney Antone Melton-Meaux, 57%-39%, overcoming the fact that, although Omar initially led in fundraising, in the months running up to the primary, Melton Meaux’s financial war chest dwarfed Omar’s six-fold.
According to the Minnesota Post, 20 percent of total large-dollar donations to Melton-Meaux came from pro-Israel Political Action Committees. Melton-Meaux “raised $382,000 in donations bundled by the Pro-Israel America PAC, a nonpartisan political committee that supports both Republican and Democrat pro-Israel candidates. He also raised nearly $106,000 in bundled donations through NORPAC, a political action committee that supports conservative policies in Israel,” the Post reported, adding that an additional $34,000 came in from a long list of pro-Israel groups, including “Citizens Organized, Friends of Israel, Grand Canyon State Caucus, Heartland PAC, Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens, Mid-Manhattan PAC, Pro-Israel America PAC and Sun PAC.”
But despite the financial support from such groups, Omar triumphed by an even larger margin than in 2018, when she received 48.2 percent of the vote – with her closest competitor, Margaret Kelliher trailing with 30.4 percent. Her overall share of the vote grew by almost 10%, ensuring that she will return to Washington for at least one more Congressional term.
The results in these primary races, from New York to Missouri and Minnesota, show that the Squad is here to stay. And while pro-Israeli groups are relieved to have Biden and Harris at the top of the ticket, the Sanders-led wing of the party is far from negligible, and will continue to try and push the party to the left on Middle East policy.