The 2018 election of a number of outspoken progressives to Congress opened the door for a previously unprecedented conversation about the special relationship between the United States and Israel. But for longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, a top consultant for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, it was a warning sign.
This week, the political action committee affiliated with Mellman’s new group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, is spending at least $800,000 on ad buys in Iowa to go after presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is polling as the frontrunner for Monday’s early-state caucus. At least one of the ads mentions Sanders’s heart attack. The ad campaign, which the Daily Beast initially reported Monday, is the first attacking Sanders by name so far in either of his presidential campaigns.
The ads deal with electability and Sanders’s identification as a “socialist” label, but the name of Mellman’s group points to another motive for going after Sanders: the shifts in how Democrats, especially progressives, are approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As rote Democratic defenses of Israel’s actions become increasingly untenable with a rising progressive wing of the party, longtime party strategists are pushing back.
DMFI’s ties to AIPAC run deep, including a lucrative relationship between the lobby group and Mellman’s consulting firm.
Enter Democratic Majority for Israel. Mellman and several strategists close to the Democratic Party launched the group last year. DMFI aims to curtail criticisms of Israel from the party’s left flank by targeting primary challenges against pro-Israel Democrats. The group’s political action committee, which formed in July, has only spent money in Iowa so far. The PAC “does plan to spend in other races in other places, on behalf of pro-Israel Democratic candidates for House and Senate,” Mellman said. “We are still determining exactly which races we will be involved in.”
On Friday, DMFI PAC, which put out the anti-Sanders ad, released its donor list in a Federal Election Committee filing. The donor rolls include several overlaps with major AIPAC funders and activists. Though Mellman has denied that his new group is affiliated with the flagship Israel lobby, DMFI’s ties to AIPAC run deep, including a lucrative relationship between the lobby group and Mellman’s consulting firm.
The largest DMFI PAC donor in January, energy executive Stacy Schusterman, made a $995,000 donation; she is an AIPAC national council member, according to her family foundation website. Laura Lauder — the wife of Gary Mark Lauder, who gave DMFI PAC half a million dollars — is listed as an AIPAC Northwest regional board member on her foundation’s site. And Milton Cooper, an AIPAC National real estate committee member, contributed $140,000 to DMFI PAC. Schusterman and Cooper, for their parts, have mixed records of making political contributions to Republicans as well as Democrats. Some of the other donors listed in the DMFI PAC’s FEC disclosure also have AIPAC affiliations. (Reached for comment, Lauder bemoaned that some politicians were not “fully informed” about Israel, but demurred when asked if he meant Sanders. Schusterman and Cooper could not be reached by press time.)
The closeness of DMFI to the pro-Israel establishment’s more right-of-center leanings has not gone unnoticed among even Republicans. In a December tweet that’s since been deleted, Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks praised DMFI, citing a Nation story about the group. “‘We need an org that mirrors the @RJC and concentrates on Democrats.’ We agree! @DemMaj4Israel is an important voice in the Dem Party and fills a need due to the silence of other Jewish Dem groups,” wrote Brooks.
Democratic Majority for Israel is billed as a broad-based effort to shore up support within the party for Israel, but tends to spend its efforts pressuring presidential candidates to avoid certain positions. Mellman has been critical of Sanders’s Middle East policies in particular, suggesting last November that the senator, who has frequently opposed AIPAC’s policy priorities, was uniquely concerning. When Sanders snagged major endorsements from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in October, Mellman released a statement saying it was “deeply disturbing” that Sanders had “surrogates and endorsers who hate Israel, support BDS and have repeatedly made antisemitic statements.” (DMFI’s communications director Rachel Rosen told The Intercept that, though the statement had been prompted by Omar’s endorsement, it “purposely mentioned only [Linda] Sarsour,” a Palestinian-American activist who has supported Sanders’s campaign.)
As DMFI PAC launched its anti-Sanders ad in Iowa — which made no mention of Israel — the group sent a fundraising email focusing on a Sanders remark from October. Sanders had said that he supported conditioning military aid to Israel on changing its policy with respect to Israeli settlements and suggested diverting some of that $3.8 billion to humanitarian efforts in the impoverished Gaza Strip. “Some of Sanders’ views regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship are well outside the mainstream of our Party,” the fundraising plea said. “He suggested diverting some U.S. military aid, promised by the Obama administration, away from Israel and giving it to Hamas controlled Gaza.” The DMFI email also slammed Sanders for taking on official campaign surrogates who support the Boycott Divest Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel’s occupation.
Sanders, however, may not be as out of step with Democrats as Mellman’s group hopes. Last month, the progressive polling firm Data for Progress released a report showing 45 percent of voters support reducing military aid to Israel based on human rights violations, including 63 percent of Democratic voters.
What’s more, Sanders is not alone in his willingness to use aid as a diplomatic lever with Israel. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in June stopped just short of saying he’d consider cutting aid, saying taxpayers wouldn’t pay if Israel annexed settlements in the West Bank, though he waffled on the question last week, as Israel moved forward with plans for annexation.
Another candidate who has said that “everything is on the table” — including aid — if Israel moved away from a two-state solution, was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has also gotten pressure from DMFI. Last summer, the anti-occupation Jewish group IfNotNow convinced Warren to say she would push Israel to end the occupation. DMFI then sent a memo warning other Democratic presidential candidates about IfNotNow. Mellman also called Warren’s campaign seeking — and receiving — assurances that an IfNotNow co-founder on her staff was not making Israel policy. Emily Mayer, another IfNotNow co-founder, said it was “worrying that, behind closed doors, someone in [Warren’s] campaign leadership would try to appease the right-wing pro-Israel establishment.”
Mellman’s experience is varied, but his work rarely, if ever, extends beyond achieving centrist, moderate, and center-right aims. Along with his longtime Israel activism, he’s consulted for a number of clients including moderate Democrats, like then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., as well as a number of other federal and local officials. And his consulting firm’s clients have included pharmaceutical industry giants, health insurers, and Wall Street firms. Mellman’s centrism has even extended beyond U.S. borders: he worked for Israel’s centrist Blue and White party.
On the Middle East, however, Mellman’s advocacy has sometimes sided — and overlapped — with right-leaning groups. Mellman worked hard to defeat former President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal in 2015, despite the consultant’s ties to Democratic leaders who overwhelmingly supported the accord.
Mellman’s opposition, however, was in line with one of his highest profile clients: AIPAC. He worked with the Israel lobby as part of its efforts to defeat the deal, consulting for AIPAC’s dark-money cutout, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. CNFI spent tens of millions of dollars to oppose the deal in 2015 — including $241,439 paid to Mellman’s firm that year. (Mellman told The Intercept that he opposed President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. “I have publicly opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement which I think was a serious mistake,” he said.)
Mellman has also worked with another AIPAC-created group, the American Israel Education Fund, which is best known for organizing trips to take members of Congress to Israel. In 2015 — the year of the nuclear deal’s signing — the Mellman Group was the American Israel Education Fund’s second largest independent contractor, according to the nonprofit’s federal tax filings. Mellman’s firm was paid $1.3 million by the AIPAC-affiliated group, second only to a travel business owned by GOP megadonor and far-right Israel advocate Sheldon Adelson.
Though Mellman says his new group and AIPAC are “separate and independent,” there are more connections than just the DMFI PAC donor rolls: As The Nation reported, at least 11 of DMFI’s own board members have worked at, spoken to, volunteered with, or donated to AIPAC.
DMFI’s rhetoric and aims also mirror AIPAC’s. Like the Israel lobby group, DMFI loudly opposes efforts like the BDS movement. And, like AIPAC, DMFI can be slow to issue even muted criticisms of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Asked if the group opposes the occupation, Mellman did not offer an answer.
And DMFI and AIPAC even have the same target list: both groups have harshly criticized Sanders along with Omar, the Minnesota representative. AIPAC has released Facebook ads targeting the two members of Congress. Likewise, in addition to its criticisms of Sanders, DMFI spent at least $14,924 on Facebook ads, the bulk of which paid for at least 64 ads attacking Omar and urging viewers to sign a petition calling on lawmakers to condemn what it called her “recklessly anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
Mellman, however, is undaunted in advocacy for Israel — and he sees his group as a bulwark against changing views in the Democratic Party. “While we think the Democratic Party we know is overwhelmingly pro-Israel,” Mellman told Jewish Insider, “there is no question that we see some trends that are not reassuring and we want to respond to those trends and staunch problems before they become bigger and more serious.” Mellman told the Jerusalem Post in July that “the overwhelming majority of elected Democrats are pro-Israel and we intend to keep it that way,” adding that “there is a small group of outliers who are trying to change that and we are here to do battle with them.”
In a piece last month, Responsible Statecraft called DMFI “the last gasp of the bipartisan consensus on Israel.” That consensus has long held that critiquing U.S.-Israel relations is taboo — and that Israel must be supported no matter what.
Democratic Majority for Israel is flexing its muscle in the top-level structures of the Democratic Party.
Yet cracks are beginning to show, even in unexpected places. The Nation and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last year that Mellman complained during a June meeting of Senate Democrats that presidential candidates had not condemned rocket attacks from Hamas against Israel. The Nation reported that Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., normally a staunch Israel supporter, was unhappy that Mellman was criticizing members of his own party. DMFI responded that the account of the meeting was “not accurate,” and Schumer’s office didn’t comment.
Meanwhile, DMFI is still flexing its muscle in the top-level structures of the Democratic Party. In December, the Democratic National Committee released a statement through Mellman, on behalf of DMFI, in response to news that Trump would deliver the keynote address at the national summit of the Israeli-American Council. “Neither the American people generally, nor the pro-Israel community specifically, will reward Trump for fomenting hatred at home or for offering symbolic gestures and pursing counterproductive polices abroad,” Mellman said. The DNC is a former client of Mellman’s, but it’s unclear why it released a statement through his group. DMFI also saw one of its board members assigned to the DNC’s platform committee by party chair Tom Perez.
The group has already seen some victories. Mellman cheered a November decision by the California Democratic Party to vote against an amendment advocating for a Palestinian right of return and opposing “any unilateral annexation of territory” at their November convention. DMFI helped pro-Israel Democrats in the state defeat the amendment. Mellman told the Jewish Journal the failed amendment was “extreme,” “one-sided,” and “anti-Israel.”
Whether the group is able to slow Sanders’s campaign by shying away from Israel and going after electability, however, remains to be seen. The DMFI ad backfired in at least one sense: Despite spending $800,000 to attack him, Sanders’ campaign raised $1.3 million in a day in a plea noting the ad buy.
Correction: February 3, 2020
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated that DMFI released a statement criticizing Ocasio-Cortez’s and Omar’s endorsements of Sanders. In fact, the statement did not name either member of Congress, but was in response to Omar’s endorsement.