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Pro-Israel Lobby Faces Challenges Amid Gaza War and Shifting Politics

WorldMiddle EastPro-Israel Lobby Faces Challenges Amid Gaza War and Shifting Politics

AIPAC, the pro-Israel group that has long been among Washington’s most powerful lobbying forces, is facing intense challenges as it seeks to maintain bipartisan support for Israel amid the war in Gaza — even as it alienates some Democrats with its increasingly aggressive political tactics.

While AIPAC has traditionally been able to count on strong backing from members of both parties, it has taken on a more overtly political role in recent years by helping fund electoral challenges to left-leaning Democrats it considers insufficiently supportive. The tension has been exacerbated by divisions in the Democratic Party over Israel against the backdrop of a rising civilian death toll in Gaza and the barriers placed on humanitarian aid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

AIPAC has also had to confront the tangled politics of foreign aid on Capitol Hill, where money for Israel is caught up in the dispute over providing assistance to Ukraine. Under the sway of former President Donald J. Trump, many of AIPAC’s traditional allies on the right have opposed additional funds for Ukraine, blocking the House from moving ahead with legislation that would also provide billions to Israel. It is a standoff that the group has so far been unable to help resolve.

“I think they’re in a bit of an identity crisis,” Martin S. Indyk, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton and was a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under President Barack Obama, said of AIPAC. “It gets disguised by their formidable ability to raise money, but their life has become very complicated.”

AIPAC’s aggressiveness and the challenges it faces were evident this week when the group — formally the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — brought together roughly 1,600 donors and senior lawmakers from both parties, including Speaker Mike Johnson and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, to rally support and show its muscle. Mr. Netanyahu spoke to the group by video link on Tuesday.

A separate video montage that played for donors at the conference featured Democratic members of Congress criticizing Israel or expressing support for the Palestinians. Officials at AIPAC, which is led by Howard Kohr, its chief executive, pressed donors to finance the group’s efforts to defeat some of the members. A panel included two challengers running against Democratic incumbents targeted by AIPAC.

But speakers and donors also pushed back against suggestions that the group was turning against the left flank of the Democratic Party. They emphasized AIPAC’s support for pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans across their respective parties’ ideologies. AIPAC donors, they noted, traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to visit members of Congress from both parties, including Democrats who identify as progressive, to seek support for the aid package.

“Most people are not purely liberal or purely conservative,” said Mark E. Ginsburg, a surgeon from New York who attended the conference. “AIPAC is an important component of the pro-Israel lobby, and it’s evolving with the times.”

Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who attended a reception for the conference participants on Monday night, said “it’s critical that they bring, and hold, Republicans and Democrats together.”

AIPAC has criticized at least one Republican lawmaker recently, but its campaign spending in this year’s election has focused largely on opposing candidates in Democratic primary elections it judges not to be in sync with its agenda. AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, has already spent money seeking to defeat candidates in Democratic primaries for House seats in California and Illinois deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel, including a Chicago community organizer who has described Israel’s offensive in Gaza as “genocide.”

And AIPAC has blasted its closest — though far smaller — rival, the more dovish pro-Israel group J Street, which has criticized Mr. Netanyahu and called for a negotiated stop to the war.

J Street “is many things,” AIPAC has said repeatedly on social media, “but it is not pro-Israel.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, responded, “Intra-communal bickering and organizational food fighting does nothing to advance the security and well being of the people of Israel.”

AIPAC’s bare-knuckled approach has sparked protest. On Monday, a coalition of progressive interest groups launched an initiative called “Reject AIPAC,” an effort to counter the $100 million that AIPAC is expected to spend to defeat congressional candidates who have decried the civilian suffering in Gaza produced by Israel’s war against Hamas.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, said in a statement: “Our sole criteria for evaluating candidates from both parties is their position on strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. We believe it is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with the Jewish state.” Regarding the anti-AIPAC initiative, he added, “We will not be deterred in our efforts by an extremist anti-Israel fringe.”

Last week Dave Min, a California Democrat targeted by AIPAC, prevailed in his primary despite a $4.7 million push against him by United Democracy Project.

AIPAC donors have told some candidates that if they accept J Street’s endorsement, they will not get AIPAC’s support, two people with knowledge of such warnings said.

AIPAC’s tactics have had a chilling effect in Congress, according to some Democrats.

“I’ve seen people who have said I really can’t vote this way because I don’t want an AIPAC opponent,” said Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin and an outspoken critic of the group. “That gets said a lot.”

AIPAC remains one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington. It raised a record amount of money in 2023, and its super PAC began this year with more than $40 million on hand to spend in campaigns. Some of its biggest donors are Republicans like the hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and the WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum.

AIPAC’s political action committee and super PAC “have given the pro-Israel community a stronger voice in the political process by directly helping to elect pro-Israel candidates and defeating detractors,” said Mr. Wittmann.

Founded in the 1950s, AIPAC for years mostly shied away from taking on incumbents by financing challenges from candidates who might be more supportive of its agenda.

But the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated in 2015 over AIPAC’s vehement opposition, led the group to begin taking a different approach, as did the growing prominence of a new generation of Democratic progressives who were not as reflexively loyal to Israel.

Friends of the organization urged it to adopt a more aggressive stance, said one activist who was involved in those discussions, including by launching primary challenges to incumbents whose commitment to Israel seemed inadequate.

United Democracy Project and the AIPAC political action committee were launched late in 2021. In the 2022 midterms, AIPAC’s super PAC supported candidates in nearly ten Democratic primaries, with most of them winning, including in a race between two incumbents.

Then came the Oct. 7 terror attack by Hamas on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza. Israel’s conduct in the conflict has split Democrats and left Israel increasingly isolated internationally, underscoring the importance for AIPAC of maintaining support from the United States.

“The world is kind of deserting Israel right now,” said Representative Tim Burchett, Republican of Tennessee, after meeting with AIPAC members from his district at the reception on Monday. “So they’re worried about that.”

AIPAC’s influence relies heavily on its ability to marshal top donors like those it convened just outside of Washington for this week’s summit — most of whom had committed to donating a total of $10,000 or more to AIPAC’s political operation or to candidates endorsed by the group, according to attendees.

Officials urged the donors to give more, casting the moment as perilous for the group’s mission, even as the programming demonstrated AIPAC’s enduring clout.

On Sunday evening, Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, spoke at the conference. On Monday, attendees heard from President Biden’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, as well as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, and Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet. Mr. Gantz warned the crowd that an Israeli invasion of Rafah — the area of southern Gaza where Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding — was a question of when, not if, one listener said.

Mr. Schumer received a standing ovation when he declared that “as long as Hamas exists, there will never be a two-state solution,” according to two people who heard his remarks, “with Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace, prosperity, security and dignity.”

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