A Proxy Conflict Embroils Democrats Over Support for Israel

OXON HILL, Md. — The primary on Tuesday for a Maryland House seat outside Washington would seem to be an ideologically monochromatic affair between two experienced, liberal lawyers who hope to represent a Democratic swath of predominantly Black middle-class suburbs.

But former Representative Donna Edwards’s run against the former Prince George’s County state’s attorney Glenn Ivey has become a fierce proxy fight between pro-Israel groups on the left and right, the latest skirmish in a war that threatens to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party’s ascending left wing and groups determined to stamp out dissent on Israel-Palestine orthodoxy.

As President Biden toured Israel and the West Bank this week and soaked in the accolades of Israel’s right and left, no such unity was in evidence back home. To the most ardent pro-Israel voices in the United States, Mr. Biden’s reception was proof that they still represent the mainstream, and that critics of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, are the outliers.

“Bernie and others need to accept the fact that the majority of progressive Democrats in America are pro-Israel,” said Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for the United Democracy Project, the nondescript name for a new political action committee affiliated with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Not so, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a progressive Jewish organization and foil for AIPAC, who maintains that politicians who support the Jewish state ignore the growing criticism of Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza — especially among younger voters — at their peril.

After four years of Donald J. Trump’s overt efforts to peel Jewish voters away from the Democrats by pursuing policies long sought by the Israeli right, now should be a time of healing, Mr. Ben-Ami said. Instead, the interventions in Democratic primaries are “driving a wedge between communities of color, especially progressives, and the Jewish community” and “turning Israel into a political football,” he added.

With more than $22 million in contributions, AIPAC’s new super PAC has spent $21 million in the Democratic primaries so far, a staggering $5.9 million of that in the Edwards-Ivey race alone.

Another new Democratic group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, has spent at least $7 million in the primaries aiding what it termed “pro-Israel Democrats,” including $426,000 to support Mr. Ivey. Both groups have flooded the airwaves with ads that make no mention of their singular rationale, promoting “pro-Israel” Democrats.

J Street has spent a comparably paltry $720,000 to support Ms. Edwards and $400,000 trying to counter the two rival groups in four other contests.

The showdown Tuesday in Maryland is only the latest. The politics of the Israeli-Palestinian divide have roiled Democratic House primaries in South Texas, Cleveland, North Carolina, Illinois, California and Pennsylvania. And for Michigan’s August primary, the AIPAC affiliate and the Democratic Majority for Israel have lined up behind a moderate congresswoman, Haley Stevens, who is Christian, in her incumbent-versus-incumbent primary against a more progressive Democrat, Andy Levin, who is Jewish — a reminder that in the political world created by Mr. Trump, being Jewish is no longer equated with being “pro-Israel.” Indeed, the Israeli right now views evangelical Christians as a much larger and more powerful ally than American Jews.

AIPAC is also seeking to defeat the House’s only Palestinian member, Representative Rashida Tlaib, in Detroit.

“Our goal is to build the broadest pro-Israel bipartisan coalition in Congress, period,” Mr. Dorton said.

The effort, remarkable for AIPAC, which until now has tried to keep its political interventions sotto voce, has yielded heated accusations of ethnic bias and deep concern that, rather than fortifying the Israeli government’s support within the Democratic Party, the groups are turning a tougher stance toward Israel and a forthright position supporting Palestinian autonomy into a litmus test for progressives.

“When an organization endorses, it’s essentially the political version of, ‘you’re with us or you’re against us.’ You’re creating a black-and-white scenario,” said Julie Rayman, senior director of policy and political affairs at the American Jewish Committee, which does not intervene in political races.

Mr. Ben-Ami is more direct.

“We’re about saving the space to preserve American policies that are more balanced, that push back on some of the things that are happening on the ground in Israel,” he said, adding, “AIPAC is trying to shut down the discussion and impose a political cost” on those who speak out.

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian rights activist and nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, sees the contretemps as a positive sign for his cause. For decades, AIPAC’s influence on campaigns was indirect. The group did not endorse or raise money for candidates, instead encouraging its members to do so.

Not anymore. The United Democracy Project was created this cycle with $8.5 million in seed money directly from AIPAC, as well as seven-figure contributions from two prominent Republicans, Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot, and the hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, and from Haim Saban, an Israeli-American media magnate and Democratic donor.

Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s longtime spokesman, said the super PAC was a response to the soaring cost of campaigns, high congressional turnover and “hyper-partisanship.”

“We will not be deterred or intimidated from engaging in the democratic process to elect pro-Israel candidates,” he added.

Unmentioned in Mr. Wittmann’s lengthy statement was the rising volume on the Democratic left of voices calling for a fundamental re-evaluation of the United States’ reflexive backing of successive Israeli governments, as the occupation of the West Bank stretches into its second half-century and the prospects for a two-state solution grow more remote.

Mr. Munayyer said AIPAC’s new tack was evidence that it was losing its grip on the Democratic Party.

“It’s certainly a flex, but it’s a flex that was never necessary before,” he said of the new super PAC, adding, “Hegemony is not supposed to require the constant use of power to punish.”

For Ms. Edwards, who in 2008 became the first Black woman to represent Maryland in Congress, Middle East politics should be beside the point. She spent nearly a decade in the House before a failed bid for the Senate in 2016. Her intended return is backed by much of the Democratic leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

And, she said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the furthest thing from the mind of suburban Maryland voters: “Never, ever, ever” has it come up.

But to hawkish Israel groups, Ms. Edwards has emerged as an enemy. She was an early supporter of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration — and fiercely opposed by AIPAC. After Mr. Trump walked away from the agreement, amid hosannas from AIPAC and many in the Jewish community, both Ms. Edwards and Mr. Ivey said they supported the Biden administration’s efforts to strike a stronger deal with Iran.

Perhaps even more eye-catching, Ms. Edwards voted “present” on a 2009 resolution recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza, on a 2011 resolution “reaffirming the United States commitment to a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” and in 2012 on a United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act that got 411 yes votes.

Ms. Edwards said those “present” votes were in protest of biases that she perceived in Republican-drafted resolutions — biases, she asserted, that are more broadly understood now in her party and among many American Jews.

“There’s not a rift between the progressive community and mainstream Jews,” Ms. Edwards said. Most American Jews desire a secure, democratic state for Israeli Jews side by side with a secure, democratic state for Palestinians, she argued, while “AIPAC and its front groups” have shown no interest in pressing for an autonomous, secure state for Palestinians.

And she called on Mr. Ivey to renounce his support from AIPAC, especially in light of its endorsements of Republicans who voted against certifying President Biden’s election.

Glenn Ivey, center, at an early voting location in Fort Washington, Md., Wednesday.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Campaigning on Tuesday as early voting was drawing to a close, Mr. Ivey was unconcerned by such calls. He said he had met with AIPAC and saw its demands — like opposition to the original Iran nuclear deal, and supporting a two-state solution that preserves the Jewish state’s integrity — as “reasonable stuff.” As for the United Democracy Project’s ads accusing Ms. Edwards of poor constituent service and ineffective legislating, he said, “They’re factually true and directly relevant.”

The same could not be said for J Street’s ads attacking him, he said, which accuse him of lobbying for “big business” and contributing to a corporate PAC that supported former Vice President Mike Pence.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he scoffed.

Mr. Dorton defended the United Democracy Project, saying regardless of AIPAC’s endorsements, the new offshoot had endorsed no Republicans and intervened only in a few primaries where the distinction between the candidates on Israel was clear.

Its forays include helping Representative Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, squeak past a liberal challenger, Jessica Cisneros, and twice helping Representative Shontel Brown defeat the progressive firebrand Nina Turner in Cleveland.

In North Carolina, the group helped Don Davis, a conservative Democrat and abortion rights opponent, beat Erica Smith, and promoted Valerie Foushee in her winning campaign over Nida Allam, a headscarf-wearing Muslim and Durham County commissioner. It took a loss in the Pittsburgh area when Summer Lee, a progressive, narrowly beat Steve Irwin, a lawyer on the board of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania.

The Democratic Majority for Israel tried but failed to defeat Delia Ramirez, a progressive in Chicago, and helped beat back the insurgent campaign of Amy Vilela against Representative Dina Titus in Nevada.

In the targeting of candidates like Ms. Cisneros, Ms. Allam, Ms. Lee, Ms. Smith, Ms. Ramirez, Ms. Vilela and now Ms. Edwards, Mr. Ben-Ami, of J Street, saw a pattern: “There seems to be something particularly on the line for some parts of the Jewish community when women of color speak out,” he said.

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who leads the Democratic Majority for Israel, called that “an outrageous, disgusting lie.” Ms. Foushee and Ms. Brown are Black women, while another target, Mr. Levin, is Jewish and white.

“The reality is the anti-Israel side created this problem,” Mr. Mellman said. “It’s not us who is creating conflict here.”

As the fight moves past Maryland to Michigan, the bad blood will continue. The United Democracy Project has already spent nearly $2 million to help State Senator Adam Hollier against Ms. Tlaib, while J Street rushes to shore up Mr. Levin with an advertisement castigating Ms. Stevens for accepting AIPAC’s money.

Foreign policy may not be driving votes in Prince George’s County, but voters have taken note of the ugly campaign. Ahmar Khan, 62, who called himself the only openly gay refugee from Balochistan, a province of Pakistan, said he was driven to volunteer for the Edwards campaign by AIPAC’s blitz.

And Emma Edwards, 75 and no relation to the candidate, was getting a word in with Mr. Ivey about help for the elderly when she added, “U.D.P.” — identified in a voice-over in the ads attacking Donna Edwards — “should be ashamed of themselves.”

“All this seems like the same thing these groups did with their help for Trump,” she said. “They mess up your mind.”

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