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A Big-Money Operation Purged Critics of Israel From the Democratic Party

The following article is adapted from the new book, “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution,” out December 5, 2023.

In May 2021, the Israeli government began pushing ahead with evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. It was one more creeping step forward in an occupation and annexation process that had been under way for decades, but what was new this time was the reaction of Hamas, the government in Gaza. If Israel didn’t back off its plan to evict the families and the Palestinian Authority wouldn’t stand up for the homeowners in Sheikh Jarrah, Hamas announced, they would do it themselves.

The Israeli government did not back off, as was to be expected, and Hamas responded by launching rocket attacks into Israel, attacks that were intercepted by the U.S.-built Iron Dome air-defense system or that otherwise crashed to the earth. Israel launched an assault on Gaza, and what became known as the Gaza War of 2021 broke out.

In Gaza wars past, the Washington ritual had always been repeated. Israel had “a right to defend itself,” each statement began, even if the support for that right was occasionally caveated with a hope that Israel might decide to respect human rights and, perhaps, if it saw fit, limit civilian casualties.

This war was different. In the United States, the tenor of the coverage was far less sympathetic than it had been, with images of Israeli police attacking protesters in East Jerusalem and reports of widespread casualties from the Israeli strikes. Mark Pocan, the Madison, Wisconsin, congressman who’d previously co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus, reserved an hour of time on the House floor on May 13, and Democrats paraded through to denounce the assault.

It was like nothing the U.S. Congress had ever seen. Ilhan Omar, standing in the well of the House, bluntly but not inaccurately called Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “ethno-nationalist.” Rashida Tlaib added, “I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist.”

Omar recalled her own experience as an 8-year-old huddled under a bed in Somalia, hoping the incoming bombs wouldn’t hit her home next. “It is trauma I will live with for the rest of my life, so I understand on a deeply human level the pain and the anguish families are feeling in Palestine and Israel at the moment,” she said.

Ayanna Pressley, the elder of the Squad and the least inclined to challenge the status quo on Israel-Palestine, spoke directly to the political guardrails put up around members of the House of Representatives—and then ran right through those guardrails. “Many say that ‘conditioning aid’ is not a phrase I should utter here,” she said, “but let me be clear. No matter the context, American government dollars always come with conditions. The question at hand is should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing, and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid?”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hit hard, too. “Do Palestinians have a right to survive? Do we believe that?” she asked, reminding the House that Israel had barred Omar and Tlaib from traveling to the country. “We have to have the courage to name our contributions,” she said, referring to the U.S. role in perpetuating and funding the fighting.

The clerk of the House addressed Cori Bush: “For what purpose does the gentlelady from Missouri rise?”

“St. Louis and I today rise in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” Bush responded.

What made the moment dramatically different, however, was that the Squad wasn’t isolated, but instead was part of a sizable group pushing back. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota rose to slam the assault on Gaza, as did Reps. Andre Carson of Indiana, Chuy Garcia of Illinois, and Joaquin Castro of Texas.

As chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, McCollum had influence over U.S. foreign military aid. “The unrestricted, unconditioned $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid . . . gives a green light to Israel’s occupation of Palestine because there is no accountability and there is no oversight by Congress,” McCollum said. “This must change. Not one dollar of U.S. aid to Israel should go toward a military detention of Palestinian children, the annexation of Palestinian lands, or the destruction of Palestinian homes.”

Castro thanked Tlaib for her presence, agreeing with her statement, “My mere existence has disrupted the status quo.” He seemed to address Israeli leaders directly when he said that “creeping de facto annexation is unjust.” “The forced eviction of families in Jerusalem is wrong,” Castro said from the floor, offering what would have been an uncontroversial assertion most anywhere else, but that was a foreign one to the House floor.

Marie Newman, who had been beaten by the combined force of No Labels and AIPAC donors in 2018, had come back and won in 2020, and she joined her colleagues on the floor. In January 2021, she spoke out publicly against Israel’s unequal distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, demanding that the country vaccinate people in the Palestinian territories it was occupying and allow the vaccine to get to Gaza through the blockade. She organized a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding that he act. “They ended up negotiating that the vaccine would go through. And so, as a freshman, that was kind of a big coup,” she said. “Never before on any matter that engaged on Palestine, on any letter, resolution, legislation, did you get 23 or 25 members of Congress to sign up something, it just didn’t happen. So, we felt like, Oh, gosh, this is so good. Then that’s when the DMFI [Democratic Majority for Israel] first was like, ‘Oh, shit, she’s a pain. She’s a problem.’”

“That’s when I started getting donors that had given to me in 2018, and even some of them in 2020, saying, ‘This is going to really hurt you, Marie, just so you understand.’”

Newman was warned that being outspoken on the issue would come with a cost. “A couple of folks in my delegation, and then a couple of folks in Congress that were Democrats—more conservative than I am, said, you know, you need to be careful, because it’s really going to ruffle some feathers,” she told me. Speaking against the Gaza War on the floor brought out more opposition. “That’s when I started getting donors that had given to me in 2018, and even some of them in 2020, saying, ‘This is going to really hurt you, Marie, just so you understand.’ And it did; they were correct.”

The hour of speeches critical of Israel’s bombing of Gaza was a sloshing together of watery metaphors—a high-water mark and also a watershed moment, one that unleashed a flood of money that would erode the foundation on which the Squad had built its power to date.

After the success of the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, Democratic politicians began to recognize that voters were in a progressive mood. This early recognition had saved Ed Markey’s Senate seat and produced the environment in which progressive Democrats—and groups like the Sunrise Movement—had so much influence over legislation. If Sanders had led a self-described political revolution, the Gaza speeches galvanized the counterrevolution and brought tens of millions of dollars off the sidelines and into Democratic primaries, with the express purpose of blunting the progressive wave. “We’re seeing much more vocal detractors of the U.S.-Israel relationship, who are having an impact on the discussion,” Howard Kohr, head of AIPAC, told the Washington Post in a rare interview. “And we need to respond.”

Throughout the 2020 cycle, AIPAC had been content to let DMFI run the big-money operation in Democratic primaries. To encourage support for it, AIPAC donors were even allowed to count money given to DMFI as credit toward their AIPAC contributions, which then won them higher-tier perks at conferences and other events. But the unprecedented display of progressive Democratic support for Palestinians amid the Gaza War, as seen on the House floor, was triggering. AIPAC would go on to spend well over $30 million against progressive candidates in the coming cycle, potentially upping that to $100 million in the 2024 race. Their first target was Nina Turner.

The problem, Kohr said, was “the rise of a very vocal minority on the far left of the Democratic Party that is anti-Israel and seeks to weaken and diminish the relationship. Our view is that support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is both good policy and good politics. We wanted to defend our friends and to send a message to detractors that there’s a group of individuals that will oppose them.”

A Controversial Vote

In September 2021, Congress prepared to cut Israel a fresh check. It was considering its latest bill to both avoid a government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling—a legislative maneuver needed to avert both default on the debt and a global financial crisis—and Pelosi decided at the last minute to add a billion dollars in new money to the bill to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome, which had been depleted by the Gaza War. The round number had a symbolic, slapped-together feel and was well out of whack with what the United States had previously provided, representing 60 percent of the total funding given to the Iron Dome over the entire last decade. Sen. Pat Leahy, who chaired the Appropriations Committee, which doles out the money, told reporters the request wasn’t remotely an urgent one. “The Israelis haven’t even taken the money that we’ve already appropriated,” he said. Democrats, though, were making a billion dollar point, whether the money was needed or not.

But so was the Squad. Jayapal, backed up by the now six members of the Squad and by Minnesota’s Betty McCollum and Illinois’s Marie Newman, threatened to take the bill down if the money were included. Pelosi relented and pulled the bill from the floor on a Tuesday. The Washington insider outlet Axios described the stunning development for its readers: “Why it matters: There has never been a situation where military aid for Israel was held up because of objections from members of Congress.”

Mark Mellman’s client Yair Lapid, not yet prime minister, was serving at the time as Israel’s foreign minister. According to a readout later provided by the Israeli government, Lapid called Steny Hoyer to demand to know what had happened. Hoyer assured him that it was a “technical” glitch and that the House would get Israel its money quickly.

Making good on his promise, Hoyer moved to schedule a new vote, suspending the House rules so the bill could hit the floor on Thursday of that week. Omar spoke with him the night before and pleaded for a delay, arguing that a spending increase that large needed to at least be discussed and that there were other ways to move the legislation. Why use this moment, Omar asked him, to force a fiery debate on the House floor? Doing it this way would put a target on the backs of the opponents, she said—with part of her aware that this was the precise purpose of hurrying with the vote. “Israel wants a stand-alone vote to show the overwhelming support for Iron Dome,” Hoyer told Omar.

Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez both lobbied Hoyer for a delay or for a different legislative vehicle, but both were told the same thing. The vote was going ahead. In a floor speech, Rep. Ted Deutch charged Tlaib with anti-semitism for accurately referring to Israel’s government as engaged in apartheid. Pelosi made an unexpected appearance to claim that the proposed money was part of a deal President Obama had cut with Israel to fund Iron Dome. Voting against the funding, speaker after speaker said, would be tantamount to killing innocent Israeli civilians. “All of this framing starts to cross a new line—that we are now removing and defunding existing defense, when the bill is actually just shoveling on more,” Ocasio-Cortez texted from the Capitol, trying to lay out her frame of mind. “Meanwhile the vitriol started to really heat up—AIPAC has escalated to very explicit, racist targeting of us that very much translates to safety issues. This is creating a tinderbox of incitement, with the cherry on top being that Haaretz’s caricature of me holding and shooting a Hamas rocket into Jerusalem with Rashida and Ilhan cheering on.” Back at home in New York, she said, rabbis from City Island who were typically progressive and on her side were sending out mass emails warning that her vote would put people’s lives at risk. She had even been banned from attending High Holidays in her district.

Ocasio-Cortez walked onto the House floor and voted against the Iron Dome funding. She and Bowman, in the neighboring district, had gotten a barrage of calls and emails to their offices urging them to support the funding, but almost nothing at all from constituents telling them to vote it down. “Those on the ‘yes’ side were very clear, and very loud, and very consistent with why they believed the vote needed to be ‘yes,’” Bowman told me. “And that’s why I’m saying there needs to be much organizing on the left around this issue and others.” But back in the cloakroom, Ocasio-Cortez was shaken. For the first time in her life, she had been trailed that week by her own private security detail, the Capitol Police having refused to offer protection, even as the FBI was investigating four credible threats on her life, one of them a still-active kidnapping plot.

The other three members of the original Squad—Pressley, Omar, and Tlaib—had all cast “no” votes. The two newest additions, though, were split, with Cori Bush voting “no,” but Bowman voting to approve the funding. In the cloakroom, AOC began to tear up while telling Omar and Tlaib that she felt she had to go out there and change her vote.

“Alex, it’s fine,” Omar said, embracing her. “Just don’t go out there and cry.” Omar was a big believer in the mantra that you couldn’t let them see they’d hurt you.

Tlaib cut in. “Ilhan, stop telling people not to cry!” They all laughed, knowing Rashida’s penchant for letting her emotions flow freely down her cheeks.

It may have been good advice from Omar, but Ocasio-Cortez didn’t put it into practice. On the floor, she saw Pelosi, who knew AOC was angry at being forced to vote on the funding. Pelosi approached her, telling her she hadn’t wanted this stand-alone vote, that it was Hoyer, who controlled the floor schedule, who had forced it. “Vote your heart,” she told Ocasio-Cortez.

AOC broke down, this time on the floor, with tears flowing in full view of the press and her colleagues, some of whom gave a shoulder of compassion, others giving awkward back pats as they slid past. She switched her vote to “present.”

Speculation about the tactical designs behind the vote quickly shot through the press. Did this nod toward the pro-Israel camp mean AOC was angling for a New York State Senate bid? Was she worried that redistricting would bring heavily Jewish New York suburbs into her territory? Or was all of it just becoming too much?

Her “present” vote was the epitome of Ocasio-Cortez’s effort to be the consensus builder and the radical all at once. Voting her heart, she felt, would have permanently undermined her ability to serve as a peacemaker on the issue. “While I wanted to vote NO[,] the dynamics back home were devolving so fast that I felt voting P[resent] was the only way I could maintain some degree of peace at home—enough to bring folks together to the table[,] because all this whipped things up to an all out war,” she said.

Omar and Tlaib held firm, though, and the threats of violence ratcheted up. “For Muslim members of Congress, it’s a level no one understands,” Omar messaged me when speaking about the death threats the next day. “The anti-American rhetoric is a violent beast and our vote yesterday makes it 10x worse.”

Marie Newman also faced serious pressure after she had announced her opposition. Ahead of the vote, she said she got a call from a member of party leadership, and from other from rank-and-file members, urging her to reconsider. Pressure had been applied in the run-up to the vote, too. “I was like, well, it is what it is. It’s done. And I feel good about it,” she said. The resistance was fiercest on the floor during the vote. “I got bullied on the House floor. Two of AIPAC’s members—congressional members—came over and literally yelled at me,” she said, demanding to know why she had voted the funding down. “First of all, my husband is an engineer, and from an engineering standpoint, there’s no way that battery system costs a billion dollars,” she told them. But also, she said, her district was opposed to it and would rather the billion dollars be spent here, in the United States.

The next day, Ocasio-Cortez sent a long note of apology to her constituents. “The reckless decision by House leadership to rush this controversial vote within a matter of hours and without true consideration created a tinderbox of vitriol, disingenuous framing, [and] deeply racist accusations and depictions,” she wrote. “To those I have disappointed—I am deeply sorry. To those who believe this reasoning is insufficient or cowardice—I understand.”

Then Came the Money

Amid the 2021 war in Gaza, Nina Turner was setting on a 30-point lead in a special election when DMFI and an allied organization, called Mainstream Democrats, decided to make an example of her. 

Mainstream Democrats PAC, backed by LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, and DMFI were effectively the same organization, operating out of the same office and employing the same consultants, though Mainstream Democrats claimed a broader mission. Strategic and targeting decisions for both were made by pollster Mark Mellman, according to Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Silicon Valley executive who serves as the political adviser to LinkedIn’s Hoffman. DMFI also funneled at least $500,000 to Mainstream Democrats PAC. Together, Mehlhorn and Mellman controlled the kind of money that could reshape any race they targeted.

“Our money is going to the Mainstream Democrats coalition, which we trust to identify the candidates who are most likely to convey to Americans broadly an image of Democrats that is then electable,” Mehlhorn told me, saying he relied on the consultants linked to DMFI to make those choices. “I trust them. I think Brian Goldsmith, Mark Mellman—they tend to know that stuff.”

The super PACs came in with a deluge of money and swamped Turner, electing Shontel Brown instead. On election night, she thanked supporters of Israel for her victory. 

Mehlhorn, Hoffman’s right-hand man, was explicit about his purpose. “Nina Turner’s district is a classic case study, where the vast majority of voters in that district are Marcia Fudge voters. They’re pretty happy with the Democratic Party. And Nina Turner’s record on the Democratic Party is [that] she’s a strong critic,” he told me. “And so, this group put in money to make sure that voters knew what she felt about the Democratic Party. And from my perspective, that just makes it easier for me to try to do things like give Tim Ryan a chance of winning [a U.S. Senate seat] in a state like Ohio—not a big chance, but at least a chance. And he’s not having to deal with the latest bomb thrown by Nina. So anyway, that’s the theory behind our support for Mainstream Democrats.”

Mellman, in an interview with HuffPost, acknowledged that his goals extended beyond the politics of Israel and Palestine. “The anti-Biden folks and the anti-Israel folks look to [Turner] as a leader,” Mellman said. “So she really is a threat to both of our goals.” His remark was itself a case study in the strength of Washington narratives to withstand reality. The party’s right flank, led by Manchin, Gottheimer, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, was actively undermining Biden’s agenda, while Turner’s allies in Congress were the ones fighting for it.

In response to DMFI’s spending in 2020, the group J Street, a rival of AIPAC that takes a more progressive line on Palestinian rights, launched its own super PAC to compete. Its leaders guessed DMFI would spend somewhere between five and ten million dollars. If the advocacy group could cobble together $2 million, said J Street’s Logan Bayroff, that would at least be something of a fight, given that AIPAC and DMFI had to overcome the fact that what they were advocating for—unchecked, limitless support for the Israeli government, regardless of its abuses—was unpopular in Democratic primaries.

But then AIPAC itself finally stepped into the super PAC game in April 2022, funding what it called the United Democracy Project. It would go on to spend $30 million, with its first broadside being launched against Turner in her rematch against Brown.

The constellation of super PACs and dark-money groups around No Labels, the political vehicle for Josh Gottheimer and Joe Manchin, kicked into gear, targeting progressives in primaries around the country. And then came the crypto. Hoffman’s super PAC spent heavily, while crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, his Ponzi scheme having yet to collapse, chipped in a million dollars against Turner. SBF, as he became known, seeded his Protect Our Future PAC with nearly $30 million and began spending huge sums.

 “We’re always gonna expect the right to have more money, given that they’re operating off of the basis of big donors. But that’s a little bit more of a fair fight,” he said of the disparity between J Street and DMFI. “But now you add to what DMFI is doing, 30 million [dollars] from AIPAC—that’s just in a whole other realm,” he said. “It’s been a radical transformation in the politics of Israel-Palestine and the politics of Democratic primaries.”

Going into 2022, Turner was joined by the biggest number of boldly progressive candidates running viable campaigns in open seats since the Sanders wing had become a national force. There was Gregorio Casar in Austin, Delia Ramirez in Chicago, Maxwell Alejandro Frost in Orlando, Becca Balint in Vermont, Summer Lee in Pittsburgh, Nida Allam and Erica Smith in North Carolina, Donna Edwards in Maryland, Andrea Salinas in Oregon, and John Fetterman and Mandela Barnes running for Senate in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — both, coincidentally, their respective state’s lieutenant governor. Also in Oregon, Jamie McLeod-Skinner was challenging incumbent Kurt Schrader, one of the most conservative Democrats left in Congress, who had made it his personal mission to block the Build Back Better Act and to stop Medicare from negotiating drug prices.

Redistricting had also produced two progressive-on-centrist primaries between sitting Democratic members of Congress, as Marie Newman and Andy Levin were both crammed in against centrist incumbents. On January 31, kick-starting the primary season, Jewish Insider published a list of fifteen DMFI House endorsements, nearly all of them squaring off against progressive challengers.

“In Michigan and Illinois, Reps. Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Sean Casten (D-IL) are, with support from DMFI, waging respective battles against progressive Reps. Andy Levin (D-MI) and Marie Newman (D-IL), who have frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment over their criticism of the Jewish state,” the Jewish Insider piece read.

In January, DMFI released its first list of fifteen endorsements, the start of the year’s battle to shape what the next Democratic class would look like. The constellation of progressive groups that played in Democratic primaries scrambled to respond. Their loose coalition consisted of J Street, Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, Indivisible, the Working Families Party, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, and Way to Win.

Because Justice Democrats had been unable to form a collaborative relationship with the Squad, it hadn’t been able to raise the kind of small dollars that AOC or the Sanders campaign could. This meant it was increasingly relying on the small number of left-wing wealthy people who wanted to be involved in electoral politics and were okay angering the Democratic establishment. This left the organization without many donors, but with enough to stay relevant.

Collectively, the groups would be lucky to cobble together $10 million, up against well more than $50 million in outside spending, and that’s before counting the money that corporate-friendly candidates could raise themselves. Remarkably, the Squad and Bernie Sanders were conspicuously absent from this organized effort to expand their progressive numbers.

In the summer of 2020, facing down their most intense opposition from within their party, the four members had created a PAC called the Squad Victory Fund. But in the 2022 cycle, it raised just $1.9 million, and a close look at the finances show that it spent nearly a million dollars to raise that money—renting email lists to hit with fund-raising requests, advertising on Facebook, and so on. The remaining million was doled out mostly to the members of the Squad.

Had the Squad worked collaboratively with the coalition of organizations—lending their name, attending fund-raising events, and the like—several million dollars could have been raised. If Sanders had turned on his fire hose, the resources available to the left would have been considerable. As it was, the left had to find a way to even the playing field, and, to a handful of progressive operatives, Sam Bankman-Fried seemed like the only path left.

After SBF was arrested, he texted with a reporter at Vox, saying his effective altruism evangelism and woke politics was all a cover. “It’s what reputations are made of, to some extent. I feel bad for those who got fucked by it,” he said in a series of direct messages the reporter published, “by this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shib[b]oleths and so everyone likes us.”

John Fetterman was locked in what threatened to be a tight primary race with Rep. Conor Lamb for a Senate nomination, and Lamb’s campaign was openly pleading for super PAC support to put him over the top. Early in the year, Jewish Insider reported, Mellman had reached out to Fetterman with questions about his position on Israel. “He’s never come out and said that he’s not a supporter of Israel, but the perception is that he aligns with the Squad more than anything else,” Democratic activist Brett Goldman told the news outlet.

Mellman said the Fetterman campaign responded to his inquiry and “came with an interest in learning about the issues.” Following the meeting, the campaign reached out again. “Then they sent us a position paper, which we thought was very strong,” Mellman said. But it wasn’t quite strong enough. Jewish Insider reported that DMFI emailed back some comments on the paper, which “Fetterman was receptive to addressing in a second draft.”

In April, Fetterman agreed to do an interview with Jewish Insider. “I want to go out of my way to make sure that it’s absolutely clear that the views that I hold in no way go along the lines of some of the more fringe or extreme wings of our party,” he said. “I would also respectfully say that I’m not really a progressive in that sense.” Fetterman, unprompted, stressed that there should be zero conditions on military aid to Israel, that BDS was wrong, and so on. “Let me just say this, even if I’m asked or not, I was dismayed by the Iron Dome vote,” he added. DMFI and AIPAC stayed out of his race.

During the Gaza War in 2021, Summer Lee had once posted support for the Palestinian plight. “It was really one tweet that kind of caught the attention of folks,” she said. “Here, this is it, we got you. And it was really a tweet talking about Black Lives Matter and talking about how, as an oppressed person, I view and perceive the topic. Because the reality is—and that’s with a lot of Black and brown progressives—we view even topics that don’t seem connected, we still view them through the injustice that we face as Black folks here and the politics that we see and experience here, and are able to make connections to that.”

Lee had written on Twitter: “When I hear American pols use the refrain ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ in response to undeniable atrocities on a marginalized population, I can’t help but think of how the West has always justified indiscriminate and disproportionate force and power on weakened and marginalized people. The US has never shown leadership in safeguarding human rights of folks it’s othered. But as we fight against injustice here in the movement for Black lives, we must stand against injustice everywhere. Inhumanities against the Palestinian people cannot be tolerated or justified.” That was the extent of her public commentary on the question.

But the comment was shocking to some in Pittsburgh. Charles Saul, a member of the board of trustees of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, was later quoted by the paper saying he was concerned about Lee because “she’s endorsed by some people I believe are antisemites [sic], like Rashida Tlaib.” He went on: “Another thing that worried me was her equating the suffering of the Gazans and Palestinians to the suffering of African Americans. That’s one of these intersectional things. If that’s her take on the Middle East, that’s very dangerous.”

In January 2022, AIPAC transferred $8.5 million of dark money to the new super PAC it had set up the previous April, United Democracy Project. Private equity mogul and Republican donor Paul Singer kicked in a million dollars, as did Republican Bernard Marcus, the former CEO of Home Depot. Dozens of other big donors, many of them also Republicans, along with more than a dozen uber-wealthy Democrats, kicked in big checks to give UDP its $30 million war chest.

On May 11, Israel Defense Forces sparked global outrage, first, by killing Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and then, again, days later at her funeral procession, by attacking her mourners and pallbearers and nearly toppling her casket.

Primary Elections

That Tuesday in May was a day that DMFI, AIPAC, and Mainstream Democrats had been hoping would be a death blow to the nascent insurgency that had been gaining traction in the primaries. In April, AIPAC had begun its furious barrage of spending, tag-teaming with DMFI, Mainstream Democrats, and Sam Bankman-Fried to make sure Nina Turner’s second run against Shontel Brown never got off the ground. Turner was smothered. Reid Hoffman’s PAC had spent millions to prop up conservative Democratic representative Kurt Schrader, who was facing a credible challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon.

Nida Allam, a Durham County commissioner and the first Muslim woman elected in the state, ran for office after three of her Muslim friends were murdered in a gruesome Chapel Hill hate crime that drew national attention. AIPAC would spend millions to stop her rise. Elsewhere in the state, it spent $2 million against progressive Erica Smith in another open primary. United Democracy Project, for its part, began hammering away at Summer Lee, whose Pennsylvania primary was held the same day as North Carolina’s.

Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party, Indivisible, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, and the Sunrise Movement worked in coalition with J Street on a number of races in which DMFI and AIPAC played. Where the progressive organizations could muster enough money, the candidates had a shot. “If you look at the races we lost, we were outspent by the bad guys six, eight, ten to one. If you look at Summer’s race, it was more like two to one,” said Joe Dinkin, campaign director for the Working Families Party.

AIPAC and DMFI did manage to win their rematch against Marie Newman, who had beaten the incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski in 2020. That win had been critical, as Lipinski would certainly have been a “no” vote on Biden’s Build Back Better and the Inflation Reduction Act. In 2022, Newman was redistricted out of her seat, with much of her former area being sent to a new district, the one Ramirez claimed. Illinois Democrats carved up the Palestinian-American stronghold and split it into five separate districts, diluting its strength. This forced Newman into an incumbent-on-incumbent contest with a centrist. AIPAC and DMFI also knocked off the synagogue president Andy Levin.

Nida Allam lost a close race, and Erica Smith, who also faced more than $2 million in AIPAC money, was beaten soundly. And in Texas the following week, Jessica Cisneros was facing Rep. Henry Cuellar in a runoff she would lose by just a few hundred votes. But McLeod-Skinner knocked off Schrader, and progressive Andrea Salinas overcame an ungodly $11 million in Bankman-Fried money through Protect Our Future PAC to win another Oregon primary.

The marquee race, however, was in Pittsburgh, where AIPAC and DMFI combined to put in more than $3 million for an ad blitz against Summer Lee in the race’s closing weeks. In late March, Lee held a 25-point lead before the opposition money came in—and that amount of money can go a long way in the Pittsburgh TV market. As AIPAC’s ads attacked Lee relentlessly as not a “real Democrat,” she watched her polling numbers plummet.

But then she saw the race stabilize, as outside progressive groups pumped more than a million dollars in and her own campaign responded quickly to the charge that she wasn’t loyal enough to the Democratic Party. Her backers made an issue of the fact that AIPAC had backed more than one hundred Republicans who had voted to overturn the 2020 election while pretending to care how good a Democrat Lee was.

“When we were able to counteract those narratives that [voters] were getting incessantly—the saturation point was unlike anything you’ve ever seen—when we knocked on doors, no one was ever saying, ‘Oh, hey, does Summer have this particular view on Middle Eastern policy?’ Like, that was never a conversation. It was, ‘Is Summer a Trump supporter?’” she said. “We were able to get our counter ad up, a counter ad that did nothing but show a video of me stumping for Biden, for the party. When we were able to get that out, it started to really help folks question and really cut through [the opposition messaging].”

On Election Day, Lee bested Irwin by fewer than 1,000 votes, winning 41.9 percent to 41 percent, taunting her opponents for setting money on fire. Had she not enjoyed such high popularity and name recognition in the district, AIPAC’s wipeout of her 25-point lead in six weeks would have been enough to beat her.

John Fetterman, meanwhile, was able to face his centrist opponent in an open seat for the U.S. Senate without taking on a super PAC, too, and won easily. In Austin, Casar and the progressive coalition behind him had known he was within striking distance of clearing 50 percent in the first-round election, which would avoid a May runoff—and avoid the opposition money that would come with it. They spent heavily in the final weeks, and Casar won a first-round victory, another socialist headed to Congress. Once sworn in to the House, one of his first major acts as a legislator was to support Betty McCollum’s bill to restrict funding of the Israeli military. He quickly became one of the leading progressive voices critical of U.S. adventurism abroad, likely producing regret among DMFI and AIPAC that they had allowed him to slip through.

The big-money coalition had not gotten the knockout win in the spring it had hoped for. But AIPAC itself posted impressive numbers. It spent big against nine progressive Democrats and beat seven of them, losing only to Summer Lee and an eccentric, self-funding multimillionaire in Michigan. Without their intervention, Turner, Donna Edwards (who saw AIPAC spend more than $6 million against her), Nida Allam, and, potentially, Erica Smith would have joined the progressive bloc in Congress, in districts that are now instead represented by corporate-friendly Democrats. And many of the ones who did make it through had been forced to moderate their stances on the way in. Still, the Squad of AOC, Omar, Tlaib, Pressley, Bowman, and Bush was being joined by Summer Lee, Delia Ramirez, Greg Casar, Maxwell Frost, and Becca Balint. On a good day, that was ten. But what kind of ten?

“I see people who are running for office or thinking of running for office in the future, and they feel deterred because this is a topic that they know will bury them.”

Summer Lee, reflecting on her near-death experience, was pessimistic. I asked if the amount of spending had gotten into her head and influenced the way she approached the Israel-Palestine issue. “Yes, absolutely, and not just with me. I see it with other people. I see people who are running for office or thinking of running for office in the future, and they feel deterred because this is a topic that they know will bury them,” she said. “There’s absolutely a chilling effect . . . I’ve heard it from other folks who will say, you know, we agree with this, but I’ll never support it, and I’ll never say it out loud.”

More broadly, though, it makes building a movement that much more difficult, Lee added. “It’s very hard to survive as a progressive, Black, working-class-background candidate when you are facing millions and millions of dollars, but what it also does is then, it deters other people from ever wanting to get into it,” she said. “So then it has the effect of ensuring that the Black community broadly, the other marginalized communities, are just no longer centered in our politics.”

Her narrow win, coupled with some of the losses, began to crystalize into a conventional Washington narrative that the Squad was in retreat and that voters wanted a more cautious brand of politics. “It’s a way of maintaining that status quo,” Lee told me. “But also it’s just disingenuous when we say that we’re not winning because we’re not winning on the issues. No, we’re not winning because we’re not winning on the resources.”

Israel’s Rightward March Continues

Whatever the fears of hard-line Israel hawks, the rise of the Squad did not materially slow the expansion of Israeli settlements into occupied Palestinian territory. In 2019, the Squad’s first year in office, Israel added more than 11,000 new settlement units. In 2020, the figure doubled to more than 22,000, many of them in East Jerusalem and deep into the West Bank. “As stated in numerous EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible,” said an EU representative to the United Nations in a report chronicling the increase. The settlement expansion included multiple “outposts”—seizure of farmland and pasture—which puts any semblance of Palestinian independence or sustainability farther out of reach. In 2021—despite Israeli prime minister Lapid’s campaign promise not “to build anything that will prevent the possibility of a future two-state solution”—settlement expansion in East Jerusalem doubled in 2021 compared with the year before, threatening to fully slice the remaining contiguous parts of Palestinian territory into small, prisonlike enclaves.

On August 5, 2022, without the support of his cabinet, Lapid launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip, agreeing to a truce on August 7. Palestinian militants fired more than a thousand rockets, though no Israelis were killed or seriously wounded. The three-day conflict left forty-nine Palestinians dead, including seventeen children.

Israel’s initial denial of any role in the killing of reporter Abu Akleh gradually morphed under the weight of incontrovertible evidence into admission of possible complicity. Partnering with the London-based group Forensic Architecture, the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq launched the most comprehensive investigation into her death. On the morning of August 18, at least nine armored Israeli vehicles approached the group’s headquarters in Ramallah and broke their way in, ransacking it and later welding shut its doors. An attempt by the Israeli government, headed by Mellman ally Yair Lapid, to have the European Union label Al-Haq a terrorist organization was rejected by the EU, which reviewed the evidence Israel provided and found it not remotely convincing.

With the primaries over, Bankman-Fried’s PAC, AIPAC, and DMFI had mostly stopped spending to help Democrats. In September 2022, the Democratic National Committee refused to allow a vote on a resolution, pushed by DNC member Nina Turner and other progressives, to ban big outside money in Democratic primaries. Leah Greenberg, cofounder of Indivisible, said it was absurd that Democrats continued to allow outside groups to manipulate Democratic primaries even though they clearly had little interest in seeing the party itself succeed. Their goal is to shape what the party looks like; whether it’s in the minority or majority is beside the point. “For a group called Democratic Majority for Israel, they don’t seem to be putting much effort into winning a Democratic majority,” Greenberg said.

Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia whose race was listed as “key” by AIPAC, had been one of the organization’s most outspoken and loyal allies since her 2018 election and had regularly teamed with Gottheimer as he made his various power plays. Her first significant act as a member of Congress had been to join him in confronting Rashida Tlaib with their white binder of damning quotes. Still, AIPAC’s United Democracy Project had declined to help her, and Luria was among the few incumbent Democrats to lose reelection in 2022.

Instead, AIPAC’s first foray into the general election had been to spend its money in a Democrat-on-Democrat race in the state of California. According to Jewish Insider, “a board member of DMFI expressed reservations over [David] Canepa’s Middle East foreign policy approach, pointing to at least one social media post viewed by local pro-Israel advocates as dismissive of Israeli security concerns.” The allegedly dismissive message, which Canepa posted on May 13, 2021, as the Gaza War raged, had read, “Peace for Palestine.”

But AIPAC saved the rest of its energy for Summer Lee. Because the Republican in the race had the same name, “Mike Doyle,” as the popular retiring incumbent Democrat—deliberately, no doubt—voters thought that a vote for Doyle was a vote for the guy they’d known for decades. After spending millions of dollars attacking Lee for not being a good enough Democrat, AIPAC spent millions in the general elections urging voters to elect the Republican. Lee won anyway.

At the end of 2022, Bibi Netanyahu, at the head of a right-wing coalition so extreme that mainstream news outlets had dubbed it fascist, was once again sworn in as prime minister, ousting Yair Lapid, the prime minister backed by DMFI’s Mark Mellman. 

Disclosure: In September 2022, The Intercept received $500,000 from Building a Stronger Future, Sam Bankman-Fried’s foundation, as part of a $4 million grant to fund our pandemic prevention and biosafety coverage. That grant has been suspended. In keeping with our general practice, The Intercept disclosed the funding in subsequent reporting on Bankman-Fried’s political activities. A nonprofit affiliated with Way to Win, called Way to Rise, has donated to The Intercept, facilitated by Amalgamated Foundation.

The post A Big-Money Operation Purged Critics of Israel From the Democratic Party appeared first on The Intercept.

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