When Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid took office in June, his first call to an American organization was not to one of the legacy Jewish groups or umbrella organizations of American Jewry. It was to Democratic Majority for Israel. DFMI is an advocacy group that supports pro-Israel policies in the Democratic Party and pro-Israel Democratic candidates. During that call, Lapid emphasized reinvigorating Israel’s ties with the Democratic Party.
Of course, it’s no coincidence that DMFI’s president and CEO Mark Mellman is a longtime Democratic pollster and political consultant who doubles as a strategic adviser for Lapid.
On Wednesday, DFMI celebrated its three-year anniversary, holding a virtual discussion with several key pro-Israel U.S. House members. At a time when the issue of Israel has caused strains in the party, DMFI hasn’t shied away from criticizing the caucus’ anti-Israel members. This coming election cycle, DMFI PAC—the organization’s political arm—is, for the first time, endorsing primary challengers against Democratic incumbents it feels aren’t sufficiently on Israel’s side in their policies and their votes. These include Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who have both frequently clashed with the pro-Israel establishment.
In the aftermath of last May’s 11-day conflict between Israel and the terrorist Hamas group that runs the Gaza Strip, emergency funding to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system ran into opposition among some of the hard-left in the party, temporarily halting its passage. Mellman said at the time that it was Lapid’s longstanding efforts to build ties with the Democratic Party that paid dividends in that moment, and showed why DMFI was needed, even as some claimed that the impact of anti-Israel elements in the party was being overblown.
“My organization wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a problem with the relationship between Democrats and Israel. But there is no question that the former Israeli government created some of those tensions,” asserted Mellman, laying blame at the feet of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tight relationship with former President Trump and Republicans, and his public disagreements with Democratic leadership. “We don’t know what would have happened with the Iron Dome funding measure today if the former government had been in place.”
He added that “Lapid was able to get on the phone after the Iron Dome funding was pulled from the bill earlier this week and talk to [House Majority Leader Steny] Hoyer to understand what was going on. There was and is an open channel of communication. I’m not saying the outcome would have been any different regarding today’s vote. But the process was certainly different, and it was better than it was under the previous Israeli government,” said Mellman.
‘Continue to provide adequate self-defense’
Iron Dome funding was a topic of discussion on Wednesday among Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East; Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee; and Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Luria acknowledged the push for $1 billion for Iron Dome emergency funding in the latest annual defense bill, explaining that “there was opposition because this is emergency funding and not part of the yearly budget.”
“The truth is that Israel needs to replenish Iron Dome in order to continue to provide adequate self-defense,” she said. “We are working through a variety of mechanisms to do it. We are trying to come to an agreement on a government spending budget. We need to fund the government, with a deadline coming up on February 18, and this will be another opportunity to put in the funding.”
Along with Deutch, Luria laid blame in Wednesday’s discussion on Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for his opposition to the supplementary funding. Paul has refused to acquiesce to unanimous consent on the item due to concerns about its budgetary impact, and Democrats are leery of eating up dozens of hours of precious floor time on a standalone bill with other pressing domestic matters to consider. DMFI has used the issue as a cudgel with which to beat Paul and Republicans, issuing daily social-media postings as reminders that Democrats are on board with the pro-Israel measure, while Republicans (perhaps more accurately, one Republican) stands in the way.
In response to a question from JNS, the three members on Wednesday’s call detailed their efforts to bring fellow Democrats who may be less enthused or involved with Israeli issues—or at times, even hostile to Israel—into a conversation on the subject.
Deutch said “that’s the beauty of the U.S. House. Literally every corner of the country and every view is represented, and we have to be respectful of that. That said, there are so many members who don’t have the same level of understanding that we have regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship, for a lot of reasons.”
“There are 1,000 issues that Congress members deal with,” he continued. “We’re not all experts on every issue. If we’re willing to share both our knowledge and our passion with colleagues, you can establish relationships based on those kinds of issues.”
“I want to be able to talk to them about Israel, and for them to have the opportunity to tell me about whatever issues matter to them. You build alliances that way, and the House becomes a more constructive body when it comes to supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said.
Luria spoke in a similar vein, telling the audience, “I try to reach out across the aisle and across the spectrum in our own caucus. This is an issue I feel passionate about and am a strong voice on. When you are a new member coming to Congress, as I was a few years ago, you only know what you know.”
Brown added, “It’s a matter of leading by example, and being able to have uncomfortable conversations at times. I believe in connecting, finding common ground, having uncomfortable conversations that don’t create a disconnect. You don’t want to start from a place where there is going to be contentiousness. You want to disarm and engage so we can have dialogue and comfortably and respectfully disagree, and connect the dots as it relates to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
She said “the State of Israel is as progressive as it gets. Some of what the progressive members of the party fight for is actually occurring in Israel. We need to make sure those who have a tainted, tarnished, misinformed view understand the reality. But you connect by feelings and relatability. I have started developing relationships, and hopefully, can get them closer to our side.”
Last summer, Brown defeated anti-Israel candidate Nina Turner in the special House election for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District. DMFI notably and visibly spent more than $2 million on Brown’s behalf in the race. A rematch is expected next fall.
‘Paint with the brush of apartheid’
In late September, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris came under fire after she didn’t push back when a George Mason University student told her Israel’s actions towards Palestinians was “an ethnic genocide and a displacement of people.” After the exchange, Harris reached out to natural partners in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League in an effort at damage control. But tellingly, she also contacted DMFI, with Mellman expressing appreciation for Harris’s outreach and the Biden administration policies on Israel.
Now, with Israel under fire again following Amnesty International’s release of a report this week labeling Israel as an apartheid state, those on DMFI’s anniversary call pushed back.
“The most important thing that anyone can do when something like that report comes out is to speak up and call it out. It’s just outrageous to try to paint the one democratic country in the Middle East—with the most diverse government in history, where Jews and Arabs sit together in the Knesset, where there is respect for women and for the LGBTQ community, where so clearly on display are the shared values of the U.S.—to paint that with the brush of apartheid is outrageous,” said Deutch.
He added, “Perhaps the most damning part of the report is Amnesty ignoring thousands of years of history and suggesting that the modern creation of the State of Israel is somehow illegitimate. That’s what plays into the hands of the worst kinds of critics of Israel who don’t recognize the importance of a Jewish state. … If you want to work towards a Palestinian state, you don’t need to be anti-Israel. It harms peace.”