by Mitchell Plitnick
On Wednesday, after days of cajoling and political arm-twisting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish Home party agreed to enter into coalition with an extremist party, Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power.” As the name implies, Otzma Yehudit is an explicitly racist party, comfortably akin to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. It is led by former members of Kach, the party founded by avowed racist Meir Kahane that the Knesset banned in 1988.
The open embrace of such a blatantly racist party elicited anger and dismay from a wide range of Israelis and their supporters, while critics noted that this was the logical result of Israel’s years of rightward drift and Netanyahu’s open embrace in recent years of authoritarians and authoritarianism. That increasing authoritarianism is certainly a major factor in Israel’s severely diminished standing in the United States among liberals, progressives, younger voters, and, crucially, Democrats.
The growing debate among Democrats has been an increasingly hot topic since the 2016 presidential election. It presents a particular problem for Democratic leaders who identify closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and similar groups that work to pressure elected officials to support Israeli policies. The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.
Republicans have a simpler task. There is much less sympathy for things like human rights, international law, and for Arabs in general among their voters. Lobbying and campaign financing are not as crucial for Republicans to secure lock-step support of Israel, as that support is there based on their faith, their view of security, and their view of race and culture.
On the Democratic side, the effort to secure unconditional support for Israel depends much more on spin, marketing, and money. That is the basis on which a new pro-Israel group, the so-called Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), operates.
A New “Watchdog”
Officially launched in 2019 after being formed around the midterms, DMFI describes itself as “a group of proud Americans who believe the Democratic Party’s vision and values are best for the United States. We work to build a Democratic majority in our country, and to maintain and strengthen support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship among Democratic leaders and grassroots progressives.” DMFI lists its goals as:
- maintaining and strengthening support for Israel among grassroots progressives and Democratic leaders;
- advancing policies to ensure a peaceful and secure Israel;
- defending Israel’s legitimacy;
- promoting a two-state solution and Arab-Israeli peace through diplomacy and partnership;
- encouraging American global leadership;
- promoting progressive values;
- and educating and supporting Democratic leaders.
DMFI President and CEO Mark Mellman described the group’s mission in zero-sum terms. “Israel was once seen as much more of the David in the struggle,” Mellman said. “Now Palestinians are seen as the more put-upon group.”
DMFI quickly established itself as a watchdog and enforcer of Israel’s reputation in the Democratic party. In its first weeks, DMFI established its party bona fides by issuing statements criticizing President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address and his announcement of a national emergency to get the funding for his border wall that Congress had refused him. Otherwise, they directed their actions at Democrats, all of whom were known to stand for Palestinian rights. The language they used was harsh. For example, they called Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) remarks “bigoted,” after a controversy ignited over one of her tweets that suggested that support for Israel was rooted in campaign financing.
When another congresswoman, Betty McCollum (D-MN), said that “The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” she quickly faced a harsh response from DMFI as well. Calling her remarks “outrageous,” “vicious name-calling,” and “repulsive,” Mellman added that “by suggesting that Jews have disproportionate influence on U.S. elections, the Congresswoman exploits an anti-Semitic trope widely used by far-right forces from Czarism to fascism.”
DMFI’s most recent comment laid bare the attacking style it will be pursuing against Democrats who don’t toe the line. After a British pro-Israel activist group, the Israel Advocacy Movement, discovered that Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-MI) campaign had used Wix—an Israeli web development platform—to build its campaign web site, DMFI issued a sarcastic and mocking statement. It congratulated Tlaib—the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress—for “breaking her Israel boycott,” and described Israel’s contributions in technology at some length, a favorite pro-Israel talking point. Mellman then sarcastically applauded Tlaib’s decision “to use the best products she can find instead of discriminating against Israel in way that increases hostility, thereby making peace between Israelis and Palestinians more difficult to achieve.”
DMFI is sending a clear message. Supported by some of the most powerful Democrats in Congress—including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ), newcomer Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Sub-Committee on the Middle East and North Africa Chair Ted Deutsch (D-FL)—it intends to bring the weight of the party establishment down on any Democrat who criticizes Israel, knowing that it will be piling on top of what is sure to be intense Republican criticism as well.
Roots in the Democratic Party
Mark Mellman, the head of DMFI, is a leading pollster and communications strategist with a long history of activism within the Democratic Party. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Steny Hoyer, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) headline an extensive list of Democrats he has worked with on campaigns. Internationally, he worked on a successful presidential campaign in Colombia and a successful mayoral bid in Albania. Mellman is also president of the American Association of Political Consultants and CEO of The Mellman Group, a polling and consulting firm.
Mellman’s claim to fame in the centrist, pro-Israel world is his work with Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s center-right Yesh Atid party. In 2013, with Mellman at the helm of Yesh Atid’s campaign, the newcomer party was the surprise of the election, winning 19 seats and becoming the second-largest party in the Knesset.
Mellman won widespread acclaim in the Israeli political sphere for taking a party led by Lapid—who, though he was the son of a well-known politician, had been a television newscaster before quitting to enter politics—into such prominence that Benjamin Netanyahu invited the new party to join his government.
The co-chairs of DMFI’s board are also long-time Democratic Party activists. Ann Lewis was the White House director of communications for President Bill Clinton from 1997-2000 and a senior adviser to the campaigns of Hillary Clinton for Senate in 2000 and 2006, and for president in 2008. In 2016, she was co-chair of Jewish Women for Hillary. Lewis was the first female political director of the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985, the vice president for public policy of Planned Parenthood, and the chief of staff for Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski.
Todd Richman made his name as a fundraiser for Democrats like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Joe Manchin (D-WV). Richman served as a Democratic political consultant and has notably led and participated in several missions to Israel with elected officials.
The DMFI board also includes former Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-NV), who was known as one of the most hawkish members of Congress on Israel in either party when she served from 1999 to 2013. One journalist said of her, “When she arrived on Capitol Hill in 1999 Berkley was regarded as a leading congressional supporter of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, but since then she has moved steadily to the right on matters relating to Israel.” Other members of the board include former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Clinton administration housing secretary, Henry Cisneros.
Out of DMFI’s 15 board members, 11 have either worked or volunteered for AIPAC, or supported it in some other material way. The group tries to put distance between itself and AIPAC, but the connections “could undermine the new group unless it demonstrates its independence from the lobby” due to “AIPAC’s negative reputation in many progressive spaces,” according to the Jewish Forward.
Whether or not it maintains some illusory distance from AIPAC, DMFI can clearly intimidate Democrats. It is going to make it even more difficult for Democrats to try to promote Palestinian rights. It is a direct attack on the progress that’s been made on this issue. The pressure on Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and other politicians willing to make the case for Palestinian rights has already been extreme. Pro-peace groups, supporters of Palestinian rights, and those who want to see a democratic Israel must redouble their efforts to support progressive voices on this issue to counter DMFI’s considerable influence.