Dick Durbin, AIPAC’s First Successful Recruit, Becomes First Senator to Call for Gaza Ceasefire

Durbin’s willingness to tiptoe ahead of his colleagues is all the more surprising given his own electoral history.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 04: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), center, and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) depart from the Senate Chamber following a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, May 4, 2023 in Washington, DC.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at the U.S. Capitol on May 4, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Democrat Dick Durbin became the first senator to call for a ceasefire in the Israel–Gaza war on Thursday, as Israel’s bombing and ground campaign picks up in ferocity. Durbin, speaking on CNN, said that a ceasefire must come along with the release of hostages. 

“I think it is,” the Illinois senator and Judiciary Committee chair said when asked if it was time for a ceasefire, a term that has been off-limits for the Biden administration and the vast majority of Democrats. “At least in the context of both sides agreeing. For example, the release of those who have been kidnapped should be part of this — immediate release. That should be the beginning of it,” Durbin said. 

“An effort should be made to engage in conversation between the Israelis and Palestinians,” he added. 

Durbin’s willingness to tiptoe ahead of his colleagues is all the more surprising given his own electoral history. Durbin, as a House candidate in 1982, was the first successful recruit of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, to beat an incumbent. 

AIPAC reorganized itself in the late 1970s and early 1980s to flex its political muscle, setting a strategy to organize a national network of donors. They first tested their theory of the case on Republican representative Paul Findley. They viewed Findley as too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. AIPAC targeted Findley in both the GOP primary and the general election. A young Rahm Emanuel took time off from college to volunteer for his first campaign that year, becoming chief fundraiser for the Democrat challenging Findley, raising some three-quarters of a million dollars. It was the first attempt to unseat a member of Congress by fundraising on the issue of support for Israel, and Findley survived, but the model was in place.

In 1982, AIPAC recruited Dick Durbin to challenge Findley and helped make the race the costliest ever in Illinois. “If I hadn’t been a persistent critic of [Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin, I wouldn’t have had a real contest this year,” Findley told the Washington Post then. This time, he lost by less than 1 percent, and the message was sent that showing sympathy for the Palestinians or wavering in one’s full support of Israel could be politically costly, even in districts like Findley’s, with a significant Arab population. (Bridgeview, Illinois, is known as “Little Palestine.”)

The next cycle, AIPAC recruited Democrat Paul Simon to take on Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, whom the group also deemed too sympathetic to Palestinians; Simon won. Thomas Dine, AIPAC’s executive director, called it a warning. “Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy,” Dine said at the time. “And American politicians — those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire — got the message.”

In 2015, AIPAC and Durbin were on opposite sides of the Iran deal, with Durbin organizing Democratic colleagues to support it and AIPAC reportedly spending $20 million in ads against it.

Research for this article is drawn from Ryan Grim’s book “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution,” available for preorder now.

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