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AIPAC-Connected Lobby Whiffs in Eliot Engel Debacle

The Democratic Majority for Israel has nothing to show for its $2 million investment but a fresh narrative of defeat and party disunity

Armin Rosen
July 22, 2020
GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talks to U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel at his Jerusalem office, Aug. 18, 2003GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images
GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talks to U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel at his Jerusalem office, Aug. 18, 2003GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images

Eliot Engel’s political career is over, and not even a last-second fundraising gusher could save him. In the June 23 primary, Engel—chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and for several decades one of the leading pro-Israel Democratic members of Congress—suffered a double-digit defeat to Jamaal Bowman, the founder of a middle school in the Bronx and someone who had never run for public office. At the time of the publication of this article, Engel trailed by 23 points, putting him on pace for one of the worst primary defeats a senior sitting member of Congress has ever suffered.

In a disastrous hot mic incident three weeks before the vote, Engel had the bad luck of seeming to dismiss his appearance at a Black Lives Matter rally as if it were purely a reelection box-ticking exercise. But it is perhaps too convenient to claim that the humiliation Engel suffered was his alone.

The most significant independent expenditure in the race came from a group called the Democratic Majority for Israel, whose major contribution was an ad that hit the airwaves on June 17, attacking Bowman for owing $2,000 in back taxes. According to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission, DMFI raised over $590,000 in the week following the June 2 hot mic gaffe. Some $400,000 of it came from an obscure political action committee called Americans for Tomorrow’s Future, in two large donations made on June 5 and 10.

Framing an accomplished Black man as a deadbeat over a fairly insignificant debt would have been an odd line of attack in a socioeconomically diverse congressional district even if the country wasn’t in the midst of a terrifying, pandemic-triggered economic crisis and nationwide anti-racism protests. Engel soon asked for the spot to be taken off the air, but the damage was done. DMFI’s disastrous intervention showed that pro-Israel Dems couldn’t swing an election, not even for a pro-Israel icon representing a district in metropolitan New York. Donors spent close to $2 million with nothing to show for it but a fresh narrative of defeat and party disunity, along with a new potential opponent in Bowman.

“There is no question that this race has nothing to do with Israel. That’s absolutely clear,” DMFI president Mark Mellman explained to Tablet in an interview in early July. “The anti-Israel people who backed Bowman did not think the race was about Israel because they didn’t attack on that basis. They clearly thought the race was about whether Eliot Engel had lost touch with the district, because that’s what they said in their advertising.”

Mellman is one of the most respected pollsters in American politics, and in the United States he has only ever worked for Democrats. His clients have included the likes of Harry Reid and Steny Hoyer—as well as Yair Lapid, who became a political force in Israel during a time when Mellman was advising him. Despite DMFI’s gaudy spending totals, Mellman now thinks there’s little the group could have done to change the outcome of the race. “At a certain point, in the midst of a campaign, in a certain environment, candidates become difficult to attack,” he explained.

In Mellman’s view, this didn’t mean DMFI’s money was wasted. “There’s no way that the pro-Israel community and DMFI could just stand back from that race and say, whatever happens to Eliot Engel, that’s his problem. That’s just not the way you deal with allies and friends.”

Jamaal Bowman in New York City during the Democratic primary campaign for NY-16, June 2020
Jamaal Bowman in New York City during the Democratic primary campaign for NY-16, June 2020Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Engel’s defeat nevertheless exposed some of the asymmetries within the Democratic Party’s Israel debate. DMFI claims 14 victories, one defeat, and a single undecided outcome in races in which it has in some way participated, including the party’s presidential contest, where it worked in opposition to Bernie Sanders and had volunteers and organizers on the ground in Iowa and other early primary states. But an insurgent measures success differently than its more powerful opponents. A single new congressional seat means a significant expansion of progressive power, while even a single establishment loss proves how organized and threatening the insurgency has become. Even if the 13 Democratic members who signed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June letter calling for a possible cutoff of military aid to Israel represent less than 5% of the party’s seats in Congress, such a letter might not have existed at all a couple of Congresses ago—six of its signatories were first elected in 2017 or later. The trend line is clear, even if the numbers are fairly small for the time being. In the Engel race, the trend took a huge step toward redefining the party mainstream.

Ann Lewis—former communications director for President Bill Clinton and a senior adviser to both of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns—says that DMFI was largely her idea. In May of 2017, the California state legislature passed a bill scheduling its presidential primary for March 2020, three months earlier than in the 2016 cycle. Lewis believed an earlier vote in the country’s largest state would move the entire Democratic primary calendar forward. “I spent a lot of time talking to people about how this was now a different era and whatever the issues were that you cared about you’d better be able to make that case much earlier.”

Lewis’ issue was Israel: She has been a board member at The Israel Project and at Zioness, as well as a frequent AIPAC Policy Conference speaker. Bernie Sanders’ success in the 2016 primary had made Lewis concerned enough about the future of the party’s support for Israel to start imagining a group that could help pro-Israel Democrats ward off primary challengers. “I could feel the tectonic plates were shifting,” she said.

Around that same time, in early 2017, AIPAC convened a small group of its top Democratic Party-affiliated activists in Washington. While such gatherings are not unusual, this one included a meeting at AIPAC’s headquarters where president Howard Kohr and others in the organization’s senior leadership discussed the possibility of a new group that could help the pro-Israel camp secure its support among Democrats, according to someone with direct knowledge of the meeting.

It isn’t surprising that top leadership at AIPAC would discuss hypothetical new ways forward with the group’s Democratic donors—the alleged anti-Israel drift of the Democratic Party has been one of the organization’s all-consuming challenges in recent years. It also isn’t surprising that AIPAC didn’t simply launch its own PAC, following the lead of J Street, the lobby’s far more electorally active left-wing rival. The direct creation of a new group that meant to target members of a single political party would jeopardize AIPAC’s scrupulous bipartisanship.

Still, DMFI is a useful example of how the American pro-Israel lobby functions in practice. Though AIPAC is careful not to play around in electoral politics—instead, it lobbies Congress on a set of issues for which there is bipartisan consensus within the pro-Israel camp—it is also a meeting place for political donors who do in fact involve themselves in elections. AIPAC has created, and to a certain extent facilitates—through its donation tiers and gatherings on the sidelines of its policy conference and other events—a powerful informal framework through which activists can find one another, fundraise, organize, and bundle for candidates on a national scale. This system means that AIPAC can exert a pull on the political process without having to spend its own money on elections, issue grades or scorecards for members of Congress, or instruct its supporters to vote in a certain way. The inherently divisive work of electoral politics is left to the affiliated activists and donors.

The DMFI donor list has no real surprises—most of the big-money contributors are active in AIPAC’s network. The board includes former Democratic elected officials who are fixtures at AIPAC-sponsored events, like former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley. “You’d be hard pressed to find someone on their advisory board who isn’t on the AIPAC speakers bureau,” one Democratic strategist claimed. It’s also notable who isn’t involved in DMFI: Haim Saban, the leading pro-Israel figure within the top echelon of Democratic Party donors, does not appear to have given to the group.

Lewis and her board co-chair, Todd Richman—a New York-based financial adviser who is himself a former AIPAC staffer—approached Mellman about leading DMFI. According to Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s longtime foreign policy director, Mellman was considered for a top leadership role at the organization in the early 1990s but decided not to pursue the opportunity. “He’s certainly held in very high esteem by people in the AIPAC world, but I don’t think they control him. He’s a pretty hard guy to control,” said Rosen.

When we organize, when we make our case, when we are smart about our own advocacy ... we represent again the majority of Democrats and therefore the majority of the country.

In 2015, Mellman was the chief pollster for the AIPAC spinoff group that opposed the Iran nuclear deal, making him one of the main strategists behind the lobby’s response to the agreement. The $30 million effort failed to win over any of the four additional Democratic members of the Senate needed to force a vote on a resolution of disapproval of the deal.

Mellman was open to Lewis and Richman’s pitch and feared that the Democrats’ support for Israel was eroding. “I said to myself and then to them: We’re really, I think, standing at a precipice here. Things could go in either direction.” Mellman said he had spoken with activists who had witnessed the far-left takeover of the British Labour Party. “What they told me was this happened very fast. And it almost wasn’t noticeable until after it happened.”

The prevalence of AIPAC-friendly figures involved in the leadership of DMFI indicates to other donors that money spent on DMFI advances the pro-Israel movement’s broader objective. The two biggest donors to DMFI are Stacy Schusterman and Gary Mark Lauder, both of whom are active in AIPAC.

The pro-Israel camp’s equivocal strategy in elections has been reflected through DMFI’s treatment of this primary season. The organization mobilized in response to Bernie Sanders’ brief rise to front-runner status in early 2020. But their ads against the Vermont senator didn’t mention Israel. Instead, they attacked Sanders on the basis of his supposed unelectability.

“It created an impression that they were not confident in the political benefit of their positions on Israel, or that other issues were more politically important to the voters than Israel,” said Joel Rubin, Sanders’ head of Jewish outreach during the campaign. “You can’t claim that you have won the Israel argument if you’re not putting an Israel argument forward to the voter … Claiming a mandate on certain issues when those issues were not talked about is hard.” If anything, DMFI ads were an opportunity for the Sanders campaign to beg a few additional bucks off of their supporters.

“We’re Democrats—when a Super PAC attacks us, the grassroots fundraising appeal writes itself,” said Rubin.

The Engel race was the next big test for pro-Israel Democrats. At the beginning of May, it appeared the pro-Israel stalwart was in little actual danger. Then America changed for the second time in four months, turning an elderly absentee congressman like Engel into an anachronistic figure in a Black Lives Matter-driven political environment.

Engel was slammed with negative advertising after the hot mic incident, paid for with $750,000 in spending from the left-wing Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party. Engel had already gone negative during the race: Official campaign mailers received in Riverdale assailed Bowman for the math and English failure rates at his school in the Bronx, and for not registering as a Democrat until 2018. But in the two weeks or so between the hot mic and the first airing of the controversial DMFI ad, Engel made little attempt to rebut Bowman’s increasingly effective attacks, the delay becoming yet another sign of the congressman’s disengagement from his own campaign.

Within a matter of days, DMFI raised the money needed to conduct polling and run ads in the expensive New York local television market. Per a quarterly FEC disclosure, DMFI spending from the period includes $165,300 that went to The Mellman Group in late June, which included work that went into the development of the ad. “Let me put it this way: I’m a pollster,” Mellman said when asked about the process that led to the ad. “You don’t usually just willy-nilly do things in a campaign without some kind of research.” The payment was not only related to the Engel race. “There’s been national polling and other kinds of nonpolling activity and actions for which The Mellman Group has been paid by DMFI,” Mellman told Tablet.

You can’t do things in a campaign without money either. DMFI’s came from an unusual source. On June 5 and 10, DMFI received a total of $400,000 from Americans for Tomorrow’s Future, adding to an additional $100,000 the group had given DMFI earlier in the primary season. AFTF spends money without any apparent infrastructure—it has a skeletal website, whose domain was registered in March, that lists a P.O. box address and no staff members. On July 20, two requests for comment from the only email address listed on the website returned error messages from a [email protected] email address saying the message could not be delivered. The group does not hold public events or run advertising under its own name. According to its July 15 quarterly FEC disclosure, the group has raised over $1.2 million, while its only activity this primary season had been giving a total of $500,000 to DMFI. On July 21, the group premiered an ad criticizing the anti-Israel Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, who is facing a primary challenge. Large givers include Schusterman, Milton Cooper, and Alan Levow, all of whom have held leadership positions in AIPAC.

Mellman describes AFTF as “a bipartisan PAC that’s set up to help pro-Israel candidates.” He says that the PAC’s donors—many of which, like Schusterman and Cooper, are also direct DMFI donors—have given to candidates from both parties. “We went through the exercise: If you go through and look at the contributions of each of those people, you’ll find that most of the money that they’ve given by like 2 to 1 has gone to Democrats,” Mellman said.

The AFTF-DMFI pipeline is potential proof that the pro-Israel community is adjusting its approach to electoral politics in a way meant to preserve bipartisanship and protect AIPAC’s political neutrality. Despite Engel’s loss, both the existence of Americans for Tomorrow’s Future and DMFI’s success in raising so much in such a short span of time shows that pro-Israel donors are still a financial powerhouse that can mobilize in support of their political objectives on a remarkably compressed timeline.

But it’s not clear whether DMFI’s underlying assumptions and strategies make sense in a changed political environment. “They’re out there raising money and spending it in a way that makes the people who gave them money feel good rather than in a way that advances a cause,” alleged one Democratic activist and former AIPAC employee.

DMFI believes that it still reflects the Democratic Party’s mainstream. “Is it the Engel race or the Ritchie Torres race that represents the future of the Democratic Party?” Lewis asked, naming the New York City councilman and congressional primary winner, a young DMFI-supported Black and Hispanic progressive who was careful to present himself as pro-Israel during his campaign. With Bernie defeated, Democratic backers of a close U.S.-Israel relationship should be less concerned now than they might have been a couple years ago, in Lewis’ view. “I feel a lot better about the direction of the party now because I think we’ve shown that when we organize, when we make our case, when we are smart about our own advocacy that we represent again the majority of Democrats and therefore the majority of the country.”

But any such evaluation of the health of the pro-Israel part of the Democratic Party might depend on one’s definition of success. As long as Engel was in Congress, Democrats could claim that there was bipartisan common ground on nearly anything related to Israel, and that influential pro-Israel members of the party still held important leadership roles. With one of the most pro-Israel Democrats gone, the terms of success will have to shift. “At the end of the day, 95% of Democrats in the House and Senate didn’t sign that letter,” Mellman said of the Ocasio-Cortez-led call for conditioning military aid to Israel. It will be interesting to see whether that number goes up or down after November.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.