Former AIPAC officials launch bipartisan political action committee

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, walks to the Capitol for a vote, Feb. 26, 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Two former top AIPAC staffers are helming a new political action committee that will steer donations to candidates in both parties who adopt a centrist pro-Israel position at a time when that gold standard for pro-Israel giving is being challenged by the right and the left.

Pro-Israel America launched Tuesday endorsing 27 candidates — 14 Democrats and 13 Republicans. All have long histories of working with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to advance the brand of pro-Israel legislation it favors. The endorsements on the new PAC’s website praise the lawmakers for their actions favoring the legislative agenda closely identified with the lobby: funding for Israel’s defense, sanctions on Iran and its regional proxies, and bills that seek to counter the boycott Israel movement.

They include Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del.; Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader; Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Rep. Michael McFaul, R-Texas, that committee’s ranking Republican.

Chairing Pro-Israel America is Jonathan Missner, formerly the managing director for national affairs at AIPAC. Its director is Jeff Mendelsohn, formerly AIPAC’s national outreach director. AIPAC, which is not a PAC, does not have a formal relationship with the group.

Planning for the PAC was first revealed earlier this month by the Huffington Post and Jewish Currents. It is being unveiled just days ahead of the lobby’s annual policy conference, and following a fraught season of congressional battles among Democrats over support for Israel, the party’s relationship with AIPAC and whether some on the party’s left were invoking anti-Semitic slanders.

The new PAC also comes as the pro-Israel community is increasingly polarized along partisan lines. J Street’s affiliated PAC backs Democrats who embrace the group’s ethos that one can be pro-Israel and sharply critical of its right-wing government. On the right, meanwhile, are donors who are deeply skeptical of the two-state solution, chief among them Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and Republican kingmaker.

AIPAC is careful not to openly challenge any sitting Israeli government, but also adheres to the two-state solution at a time when the Republican Party and the Israeli and American governments have retreated from it.

“The best way to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship is to elect pro-Israel candidates to Congress, and that requires political action from the thousands of Americans who care deeply about this issue,” Mendelsohn said in a release. A group hewing to a similar outlook, the Democratic Majority for America, launched in January and immediately took aim at lawmakers on the party’s left who are most critical of Israel.

The PAC also comes as online small donors are increasingly influential among Democrats, reducing the influence of the old model of pro-Israel giving, which centered on bundling donations at events attracting major givers whose political giving was primarily Israel-focused.

An official of the new PAC told JTA that the group’s website would function as a portal, summarizing the pro-Israel profile of endorsed candidates, and presenting options for individual donors to directly give to the endorsed candidate, or to give to the PAC in the name of the candidate.

“It’s a one-stop shop for people to learn about the candidates, the races, to have a mechanism for the candidates they want to support,” the official said.