AIPAC's new political action is legitimate - analysis

In December AIPAC announced that it was, for the first time, going to change its status, and both endorse and financially support candidates.

 A screenshot of the web page of AIPAC's new super PAC. It does not mention AIPAC or Israel. Taken March 21, 2022. (photo credit: SCREENSHOT AIPAC)
A screenshot of the web page of AIPAC's new super PAC. It does not mention AIPAC or Israel. Taken March 21, 2022.
(photo credit: SCREENSHOT AIPAC)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a classic one-trick pony. It cares about one issue, and one issue only: strengthening the American-Israel relationship. 

And it cares about this issue passionately.

Up until the current election cycle, AIPAC sufficed with lobbying to promote this issue, and did not formally endorse or contribute money to candidates. Its members did contribute to candidates individually, but the organization as a bi-partisan organization stayed out of the election campaign fray.

Until this year.

In December AIPAC announced that it was, for the first time, going to change its status, and both endorse and financially support candidates through the establishment of a PAC called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Political Action Committee, and a super PAC called the United Democracy Project (UDP). AIPAC would remain bi-partisan, but would now actively back and endorse candidates from both parties who it thought were best for the Israel-US relationship

A member of the audience looks on wearing a United States-Israel themed custom suit during the AIPAC convention at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)A member of the audience looks on wearing a United States-Israel themed custom suit during the AIPAC convention at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

PACs' contributions to campaigns

While PACs can directly contribute to candidates and their campaigns, the amount they can spend on each race is limited, as is the amount they can take in from individual donors.

The same is not true of Super PACS. Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors,  but cannot donate directly to the candidates or coordinate with their campaigns. Rather they can spend as much as they want on advertisements, for example, for one candidate, or against another.

According to OpenSecrets, a non-profit organization that tracks campaign financing and lobbying, AIPAC’s PAC spent $1.4 million in the current election cycle, with 55% of that going to Republican candidates, and 45% to Democrats.

The big money, however, is in the super PACs.  As of June 30, the United Democracy Project raised 27.5 million and spent $17.5 million on Democratic primary campaigns. Some 2,254 groups had organized as super PACs by July 25 and have reported total receipts of $1.5 billion. These super PACs have already spent nearly $370m.

What that means is that UDP accounts for 1.8% of all the super PAC money raised, and 4.7% of Super PAC money spent.  Judging by the coverage in the mainstream media, however, pro-Israel AIPAC is alone on the field, and its active support of candidates in the primaries that support its vision of what the US-Israel relationship should look like, and its opposition to candidates who don’t support that vision, is somehow nefarious.

For instance, in a piece earlier this month, The New York Times dubbed AIPAC’s efforts in a Maryland district in favor of a pro-Israel candidate as part of an effort to “stamp out dissent on Israel-Palestine orthodoxy” inside the Democratic party.

Wrong. What these efforts are is an attempt to support candidates who agree with AIPAC’s vision of what a strong Israel-US relationship looks like. That’s called working within the political system.

Various groups do it in support of various issues: pro-abortion groups and anti-abortion ones, conservative PACs and liberal ones, LGBTQ rights advocates and those groups who would curtail gay marriage.  But for some reason, when AIPAC engages in this normative political behavior, it attracts enormous amounts of attention and turns into an effort to stamp out debate. This is what’s called applying one set of standards to AIPAC, and another one to everyone else.

Last week AIPAC’s efforts attracted national attention when UDP spent some $6m. in Maryland’s fourth district in favor of Glenn Ivey, who went on to defeat his J Street endorsed and backed opponent, Donna Edwards, in the Democratic primary.

THE PRIMARY in this case, as in the vast majority of Congressional districts around the country, was more important than the general election, because most districts are clearly Republican or Democratic, and the candidate who wins that party’s primaries will go on to win in the general election in November. Of the nation’s 435 Congressional districts, only about 30-35 are considered “competitive” races that could go to either the Democratic or Republican party candidate.

AIPAC and J Street have fought it out in several primaries this election season, with AIPAC having won about half-a dozen races, losing to a J Street backed candidate narrowly in only one race.

This week the attention has turned from Maryland to Michigan. AIPAC is supporting Haley Stevens, an incumbent running because of redistricting in that state due to its losing a congressman following the 2020 census, against another incumbent, Andy Levin, a Jewish democrat. Both entered Congress in 2019.

In an audacious display of identity politics, Levin seems to believe that because he is Jewish, AIPAC ought to support him, or –at least – not support his non-Jewish opponent.

Levin intimated as much in an interview Sunday night with MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, who himself is hyper-critical of Israel.

“You are Jewish,” Hasan said to Levin. “Why is a pro-Israel lobby group using a super PAC, dark money, to try and defeat you in a Democratic primary,” he asked using a somewhat incredulous tone.

The premise of the question is this: how dare a pro-Israel group work against a Jewish candidate.

For the last couple of decades, Jews on the far Left have made it clear that just because they are Jewish, does not mean they have to support Israel, or like Israel, or not work against the policies of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel in all different kinds of forums.

While many may find this very unseemly, it is legitimate. Just because you are Jewish does not mean that you do, or need to, support Israel.

But the assumption in Hasan’s question was that pro-Israel groups – in a race between a Jewish and non-Jewish candidate – should obviously support the Jew.  Why? Because of the candidate’s religion.

Really? Pro-Israel groups have to support Senator Bernie Sanders, even though he would reduce US support for the Jewish state and make military aid to Israel conditional?

They have to support Levin, even though he introduced the Two-State Solution Act last year that essentially placed the onus for a lack of movement on the Israel-Palestinian track on Israel, obsessing on settlements and overlooking little things such as run-away Palestinian terrorism? That bill went nowhere, but that is beside the point.

“I’m not just Jewish, Mehdi,” Levin said. “I’m one of two former synagogue presidents in Congress … I’ve got mezuzot on all my doors. I’m really Jewish.”

So what? That doesn’t make Levin’s voice in Congress one that strengthens the Israel-US relationship. Rather, one can argue, it does the opposite. Levin’s is a voice that empowers those in the Democratic party that want to weaken that relationship and make it conditional.

“AIPAC’s completely gone off the rails and they’re trying to end my career because I won’t fall in line with their view of what it means to be pro-Israel.”

Andy Levin

The second part of Levin’s comment is correct: AIPAC’s PACs are working against him because they view him as a voice in Congress that will hurt, not help, the Israel-US relationship.

It’s the first part of the comment that Levin has all wrong. AIPAC has not gone off the rails in opposing him, rather it is doing what it feels it must to strengthen the ties between Washington and Jerusalem. And by working for his defeat, AIPAC has not gone off the rails, but rather is being true to its mission statement.

Politicians run on their records. Levin, as he is completely entitled, has pushed forward an I-know-it-better-than-the-Israelis tough-love approach to the Jewish State. That’s his right.

But it is also the right of other political actors, such as AIPAC, to take issue with that position and work to ensure that it does not gain traction. And when they do that, there is nothing illegitimate or nefarious about it, especially when they are working completely within the well-defined and Supreme Court-enshrined rules of the American political game.