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U.S.-Israel politics set to roil Democratic primaries

Political divisions among Democrats over the Israel-Hamas war are at the center of several upcoming primaries against liberal members who oppose the war.
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Political divisions among Democrats over the Israel-Hamas war are at the center of several upcoming primaries against liberal members who oppose the war.

Freshman Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., is a proud new member of the so-called "Squad" in Congress made up of a handful of the most liberal members in the party. "We put forth the boldest priorities and we fight for them, and we show other people them how to fight for them," she told NPR in a recent interview, "So it's not a pejorative to me at all."

While criticism of the Squad most often comes from conservatives, in the 2024 primaries forces normally aligned with the Democratic Party are working to defeat Lee and other Squad members over their critical position on Israel in the ongoing war with Hamas.

"What we have right now is a representative who has aligned herself with a small minority of the Democratic Party and has taken a lot of votes, I would say, that are not with the majority of Democrats in Congress," said Bhavini Patel, who is challenging Lee in the upcoming April 23 Pennsylvania primary.

Lee was one of just nine Democrats who opposed a resolution to support Israel, condemn Hamas and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Israel's security in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people — the worst attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust.

And earlier this year, under pressure from fellow Democrats including Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, Lee cancelled an appearance with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, after reports that some of the event's scheduled speakers had made anti-Semitic remarks about Oct. 7.

"We need to ask the question as to why she'd want to go and share that stage to begin with," Patel said.

It's a question resonating in her Pittsburgh-area district that includes most of the city and eastern suburbs, as well as the historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where Patel campaign signs dot neighborhood lawns and where she made a point to headquarter her opposing campaign. The district is also home to the Tree of Life Synagogue where, in 2018, a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers and wounded another six people in the deadliest anti-Semitic assault in U.S. history.

Shifting views on Israel at the center in primary challenges for the "Squad"

Lee is favored to win her primary — she has the endorsement of leading Democratic figures like Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman — but it's the first pressure test in a series of Democratic primaries in the coming months in which both wealthy Republican donors and pro-Israel Democrats are focused on defeating fellow Squad members including Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

"We have a small group of anti-Israel members of Congress. It's a small group, but we have to keep it from growing," said Mark Mellman, veteran Democratic pollster and strategist who helped from the Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI) in 2019. The political arm, DMFI PAC, has endorsed primary challengers against Bush and Bowman — the first ever endorsements against incumbents — and he told NPR more endorsements are likely.

Likewise, American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), has also endorsed primary challengers against Bush and Bowman, and other endorsements are possible.

This attack on progressive incumbents prompted a coalition of nearly two dozen liberal activist groups, including the Democratic Socialists of America, to launch REJECT AIPAC just last month. It's goal is to counter the reported $100 million AIPAC and its affiliates, including its super PAC United Democracy Project, is prepared to spend in 2024 campaigns.

This is no dispute among friends. Usamah Andrabi, spokesman for Justice Democrats, one of the member groups, told NPR there is a generational shift happening among young progressives in how they view the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

"AIPAC is our generation's [National Rifle Association]," he said, "As [the NRA] became a right-wing Republican-aligned lobby against all gun safety legislation, no matter what sort of gun violence was the product, we have seen the exact same thing happen with AIPAC, who has moved further and further right with the extremism of the Israeli government that it demands its endorsers unconditionally support [Israel], and further and further right as its donor base has gotten larger and larger shares of Republican mega-donors."

AIPAC does accept money from Republicans. Contributors to their super PAC include GOP megadonors like Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer, who are both Jewish with long histories of also supporting pro-Israel causes. However, AIPAC remains of the largest contributors to the Democratic Party. One of their top recipients is this election is House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

AIPAC says their "sole criteria" for endorsing candidates is their position on strengthening the US-Israel relationship, and spokesman Marshall Wittman told NPR in response to this story that AIPAC "believes it is entirely consistent with progressive values to stand with the Jewish state.

Mellman acknowledges that there is no clear resolution to this Democratic divide. "Among Democrats there is a rift that can be healed, but it can't be healed when people are heaping that kind of invective on Democratic groups like ours or on on the state of Israel or on the Jewish people," he said.

For her part, Lee rejected the argument that her position that progressives are out of step with the public on Israel. Just last week a Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans now disapprove of Israel's handling of the war in Gaza, compared to the majority who approved shortly after the Oct. 7 attack.

"Every day our numbers swell, people who are seeing what's happening on the ground in Gaza and are realizing that that is an untenable situation," she said, "And I think that what we see a lot are people who are not shooting the message but the messenger."

Debates among Democrats on Israel are not receding

Retiree Lisa Messineo lives in Lee's district and she's been canvassing to get out to vote later this month. She personally supports Lee but she told NPR she believes Lee's position on Israel hurts her in this primary. "Well," she sighed, "I do think it does, yes." Pennsylvania has closed primaries, which means only registered Democrats can vote in them. Messineo said she complaints about Lee from "the old guard" of area Democrats who generally dislike criticism of Israel. "They don't look at the work that she does," Messineo said, "They just say, 'I don't like her because she wants to be a member of the Squad.'"

Lee told NPR the effort to oust progressives could have negative repercussions for the party come November. "When you see us on ballots, we bring with us our communities," she said, who is black and 36 year old. In Pennsylvania, voter turnout matters not just for Lee but for President Biden in a critical swing state.

What these primaries might indicate is exactly who is welcome inside the Democratic Party. "You can't say that the Democratic Party is a big tent, and then in the same breath into that tent is big enough for [centrist West Virginia Sen.] Joe Manchin, but that tent is not big enough for a black progressive woman," said Lee.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.