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AIPAC vs. AOC & The Squad: Pro-Israel Lobby Group to Spend $100M to Target Progressive Lawmakers

StoryJanuary 02, 2024
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As we begin a pivotal election year in the United States, we look at the powerful U.S. lobby group AIPAC, which is set to spend more than $100 million to defeat progressives who are critical of Israeli human rights violations in Palestine. That includes Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress. AIPAC’s outsize influence in national campaigns comes with “an implicit threat,” says The Intercept's Ryan Grim, whose new book, The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution, was published last month. “That money will still be spent, but it will be spent against you instead,” he says about politicians who dare to turn down the pro-Israel lobby's deep pockets. “That really, to a shocking degree, constrained what Democratic candidates were willing to say when it came to criticizing Israel.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

It’s 2024. As we move into this election year, we look now at how the powerful lobby group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is set to spend more than $100 million against progressive congressmembers critical of Israeli human rights violations in Palestine. The goal is to remove members of “The Squad” from Congress this year, including Congressmembers Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, Summer Lee and the only Palestinian American member of Congress, Rashida Tlaib. This comes as a Data for Progress poll found two-thirds of U.S. voters support a ceasefire in Gaza, including 80% of Democrats.

For more, we’re joined by Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. His book is just out. It’s titled The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.

Ryan, why don’t you lay out your revelations in this book? And perhaps you can start with AOC and what happened when she was elected. I want to play for you a clip. You write in your book about how a representative of AIPAC approached Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s team with an offer of $100,000 in July of 2018 to, quote, “start the conversation” about her views on Israel. This is the then-candidate Ocasio-Cortez being interviewed on PBS in 2018, before she was reportedly contacted by AIPAC.

MARGARET HOOVER: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere: What is your position on Israel?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if 60 people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if 60 people were killed in the South Bronx, unarmed, if 60 people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through — through just, as an incident. And to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, before she was first elected, one of the four members of what’s known as “The Squad,” which is also the title of your book, Ryan Grim. Can you take it from there, what you reveal in this book?

RYAN GRIM: Yeah. So, and later in that interview, the interviewer, Hoover, really starts to parse a lot of her words. You know, “You said the word 'occupation.' You said the word 'Palestine.' What do you mean by this?” And you can see her growing even more kind of visibly kind of uncomfortable about where the conversation is heading. And she finally just taps out at the end and says, “Look, I’m not a geopolitical expert on this issue. This wasn’t something that we talked about at my dinner table, you know, among Puerto Rican families in the Bronx.” And she just moves on from there, and actually stops doing interviews for a little while after that, after she had been kind of, from the time of her win in June until then, just kind of dominating and getting bigger and bigger interview requests, you know, eventually even doing like late-night shows.

So, then, like you said, a week later, her team gets a call from somebody who says they’re with AIPAC and that they saw the interview and that they’re willing to help, you know, educate her on the issue, start the conversation. And to start that conversation, they’ve already gotten commitments of up to $100,000 and that there would be a lot more money where that came from.

Now, she didn’t even consider the offer. She had plenty of campaign cash coming in, wasn’t even about the campaign cash. But it did open a window for her team and for her about what Congress is like for so many rank-and-file members of Congress who didn’t have her profile at that point, because now not only are you being offered $100,000 just to start, and there’s a lot more where that came from, it comes with an implicit threat — and I think that’s what you want to get into later — if you don’t take the money, that money will still be spent, but it will be spent against you instead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ryan, could you talk about — and you do so in the book — AIPAC’s role in purging the Democratic Party of any potential candidates or officeholders who don’t toe the line when it comes to Israel?

RYAN GRIM: So, the same month that the Squad was sworn in to office — that included Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, it was January 2019 — the super PAC Democratic Majority for Israel was stood up with this splashy New York Times profile. It was kind of — it was affiliated with AIPAC. It was founded by Mark Mellman, who is an AIPAC adviser, who had led AIPAC’s effort to undo Barack Obama’s Iran deal. He’s also — or, he was at the time — a consultant to Yair Lapid, who, as you know, is the head of the Yesh Atid party, eventually actually became, while he was Mellman’s client, prime minister of Israel, so he’s wearing multiple hats. So, he founds this super PAC, DMFI, which then kind of does AIPAC’s work in the 2020 and 2020 — in the 2020 cycle.

And they’e built, basically, explicitly to stop the expansion of this faction within the Democratic Party that feels willing to criticize Israel. In May 2021, the last time there was a major war on Gaza, the Squad and a number of other House Democrats went to the House floor denouncing Israel’s attack on Gaza, and that was sort of an alarm bell for AIPAC. And so, AIPAC itself then, after that, launched its own super PAC, after DMFI had spent millions itself, and in that cycle, the 2021-'22 cycle, spent more than $30 million. Now they're looking to spend significantly more this cycle.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also say that the rise of the Squad and the rise of the counterrevolutionary forces has been simultaneous. Could you elaborate on that? Because, obviously, Donald Trump never tires of criticizing the Squad as if they are in charge of the Democratic Party.

RYAN GRIM: Yeah, it was really remarkable to go back and kind of rereport this story, the arc of kind of — starting with, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2015-’16 up through today, to see just how central this question of Israel-Palestine has been to the kind of pushback and the reaction to the rise of the Squad the entire time.

You know, the Democrats, in 2018, if you remember, they ran against — they ran against Trump. They ran against his wall, his xenophobia, his Muslim ban. And much of the first six months of the Democratic majority in 2019 was spent with Democrats — sometimes joined by Trump, sometimes not — coming after Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib for various transgressions in tweets or speeches or otherwise. And it really kind of dictated and determined what the entire kind of progressive wing was doing.

And so, oftentimes you’ll have the organization Justice Democrats or members of the Squad say, you know, “Why are you spending so much time focusing on Israel-Palestine?” And the answer would be: They’re not. It’s actually — it’s actually the reaction. They’re kind of forced to. And so, the amount of spending that was done against them, and that continues to be done against them, kind of forged them into a cohesive political formation that might not actually have existed otherwise.

But so, in the 2022 cycle, like you said, that’s when they spent millions against not just Nina Turner, the most high-profile example that they kept out of Congress, but also across the country going after progressives who were critical of Israel, but also were progressive, because, you know, the same kind of hedge fund, private equity executives, baseball team owners that are funding AIPAC and DMFI also have the same kind of interests as any major business owner would. So, the same agenda, you know, that is — that forms kind of the Squad’s criticism of Israel, also their support of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, you know, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy — so it’s kind of a bonus that you kind of can align your class interests with this fight against Palestinian rights.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk more, Ryan Grim, about this election year, about the $100 million, who’s involved with that, about the targeting of the Squad, the Squad-plus — you know, more people who are allied with the Squad have been elected since then — and also the role of Mark Penn and Burson-Marsteller?

RYAN GRIM: Right. So, 2022 was the first time in its history that AIPAC did its own super PAC. Previously, it had given directly to campaigns, or its members had given directly to campaigns, and DMFI had done a super PAC kind of affiliated with AIPAC but not straight from them. 2022 was the first time they did that, and they came through with, like I said, more than $30 million, in some races, you know, spending more than $5 million. They spent millions against Summer Lee in the Pittsburgh race in the last month of the campaign, but there was enough kind of pushback from an organized group of progressive super PACs and also small donors that she was able to just barely — that she was able to just barely hang on.

And so, in 2022, they really tried to kind of constrain the growth of the Squad and Squad-aligned factions within the party. This cycle, they’re realy trying to shrink them. Like you said, there’s been reporting that, you know, there have been offers of $20 million to two different candidates to try to run against Rashida Tlaib. They’ve successfully recruited candidates to run against Jamaal Bowman. Cori Bush has a challenge. Ilhan Omar has a challenge. So now they’re coming kind of directly at them.

Now, Mark Penn and Nancy Jacobson are also kind of main characters in this book, as well, along with Mark Penn’s protégé, Josh Gottheimer, who’s a congressman from North Jersey who’s sort of like the chief antagonist of the Squad. And they have raised tens of millions of dollars over the years for this organization No Labels, also from hedge fund executives, you know, private equity folks, football team owners, Home Depot CEOs, that kind of crowd. They try to present themselves as this kind of nonaligned, centrist organization. Nancy Jacobson has said, you know, AIPAC is one of her — one of the organizations that she works most closely with. And, of course, famously, now they’re trying to recruit a Joe Manchin-type figure to run as a, quote-unquote, “independent” in the presidential campaign, which presumably would be to the benefit of Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You mentioned Josh Gottheimer, the congressman from New Jersey. Could you talk about his history before he got into Congress?

RYAN GRIM: Yeah. It is an interesting history, because not only does he have this kind of standard kind of pro-Israel activism, but he worked with Mark Penn for many years, and Mark Penn did a lot of his business with Saudi Arabia. And that gets to kind of a creation of a political alliance in Washington that didn’t get a lot of publicity over the years, which is kind of the teaming up of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Those two countries still don’t even recognize Israel, but in Washington, the three of them were spending enormously, basically to counter Iran, and to counter Iran, they — and also, of course, to push back on kind of any climate agenda that might get in the way of where their fossil fuel interests lay, and that often meant targeting kind of the left flank of the Democratic Party.

And so, Josh Gottheimer kind of became the kind of lead antagonist against particularly Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, you know, just repeatedly pushing for censure resolutions, going on cable news regularly to denounce his colleagues and encouraging other Democrats to then also denounce them, teaming up with Hakeem Jeffries to do a kind of a super PAC that was aimed at kind of going after them and going after kind of Squad-aligned candidates, as well. So, that’s really the kind of nexus of this civil war that’s going on inside the House Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: We have about two minutes to go, Ryan, and I’m wondering if you can talk about what most shocked you in the research for your book, The Squad.

RYAN GRIM: I think it was the sheer amount of money that was involved and just how dominant it had been, because we can say the numbers over and over again — $30 million, $40 million, $100 million — but what doesn’t quite come through is how that influences not just the races where money is spent, but also where it’s not spent.

And so, I heard of so many different conversations that would be held among consultants in campaigns that were worried that AIPAC or DMFI was going to start spending millions of dollars in their race. And they would meet, they’d have a conference call, and they’d figure out, “OK, how do we stave this off?” And so, this is without AIPAC even spending a dime. And they would say, “Well, let’s — you know, the easiest thing we can do is, let’s just post 'I stand with Israel.'” And some candidates would just do that. And then, others would reach out to DMFI — John Fetterman, his campaign did this; others did it, as well — and say, “What do we need to do? Like, what kind of policy positions do we need to publicly have so that you’re going to stay out of this race? Not that you’re going to fund us, but that you’re not going to fund our opponents?” And that, really, to a shocking degree, constrained what Democratic candidates were willing to say when it came to criticizing Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, we want to thank you so much for being with us, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept. Ryan’s new book is called The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution. And we’ll also link to your articles at The Intercept, as you continue to cover this issue.

For those who didn’t get to see Democracy Now! on January 1st, you can go to democracynow.org and see the Belmarsh Tribunal, excerpts of it, looking at the case of Julian Assange, whose final appeal goes before a London court on February 20th and 21st.

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for the first edition of Democracy Now!

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Rep. Jamie Raskin: Only a Two-State Solution Can End “Nightmare” of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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