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Bowman vs Engel: 'Proxy war' between progressives and pro-Israel centrists

Pro-Israel groups have spent heavily to shield veteran Democrat Eliot Engel in primary against progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman
Primary contest between Engel, left, and Bowman is about future direction of Democratic Party, analysts say (AFP)
By Ali Harb in Washington

The primary race between US Congressman Eliot Engel and rival Jamaal Bowman has become a microcosm of the conflict between centrists and progressives within the Democratic Party, with pro-Israel groups spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the incumbent keep his seat.

Engel, the staunchly pro-Israel chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is facing the biggest electoral challenge of his 31-year Washington career. Recent polls show Bowman, an African-American, Bronx middle-school principal, in the lead before next Tuesday's voting.

The contest has gained national prominence, with left-wing Democrats flocking to Bowman's support and more traditional sections of the party backing Engel.

It is unusual for sitting members of Congress to face serious primaries, yet the school principal's chances were boosted by a series of recent events, including the consolidation of progressive support around his campaign after fellow challenger Andom Ghebreghiorgis suspended his candidacy and endorsed Bowman.

"On a national level, and even internationally, we see that this race has in many ways almost become a proxy war over - I don't want to necessarily say the future of the Democratic Party - but basically the state of the Democratic Party right now and which way it's going," Ghebreghiorgis told MEE.

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'The reason why I decided to run was because I could very clearly see the way in which Representative Engel's militarism abroad is connected to our economic exploitation at home'

- Andom Ghebreghiorgis, former Engel challenger

And while US-Israeli relations have not been the main topic of debate in the race, Engel's status as the top House Democrat on foreign policy has attracted pro-Israel special-interest groups to his side.

Political action committees (PACs) associated with the pro-Israel lobby have been among the top donors to Engel's campaign. That includes the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC, NORPAC and Pro-Israel America Pac. 

DMFI PAC in particular has stepped up its efforts in the last stretch of the campaign. Since the beginning of June, the group has spent more than $1.1m on campaign material attacking Bowman and promoting Engel.

Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American analyst, said the massive spending of pro-Israel groups on the primary is not only about Engel, but about the direction of the Democratic Party.

"There is a concerted effort to punish anybody who seems to be somewhat sympathetic to Palestinian human rights, as a way to prove that this is a losing strategy for running for office," Baddar told MEE. 

Staunch ally of Israel

In one recent TV ad, DMFI PAC called out the progressive challenger for owing around $2,000 in back taxes to the state of New York.

Other pro-Israel groups targeted Bowman over his ties to Justice Democrats, a left-wing organisation that backs progressive candidates. 

NORPAC, one of the biggest pro-Israel political action committees, described Engel as one of the "staunchest and most dependable friends" of Israel. The pro-Israel group criticised Bowman for receiving support from the Justice Democrats, who NORPAC accuses of backing candidates trying to unseat legislators who favour strong ties with Israel.

The group told MEE in a statement: "NORPAC is stepping up in full force so that Eliot Engel can defend himself against those who would look to boycott and cut aid to Israel, and who are trying to convince his constituents that his opponent would be better, despite Eliot's 30 year stellar record in his district on all Democrat mainstream issues."

Engel represents New York's diverse 16th District, where non-white ethnic communities are a majority. It includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County as well as some suburban towns.

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While younger Democratic progressives are likely to be more sceptical of US-Israeli relations, the Justice Democrats' platform says the group is focused on domestic issues, including "skyrocketing inequality, catastrophic climate change and deepening structural racism".

The same goes for Bowman, who is significantly to the left of Engel on Israel, but has focused his campaign on the district's local priorities, including education and environmental justice.

In fact, at a time when progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders, are calling for conditioning aid to Israel, Bowman's platform tip-toes around the subject. It says he supports "continued US aid to help Israel confront" security challenges.

The campaign also makes it clear that the candidate does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians.

Still, in another section it says that US "taxpayer dollars should not be going toward subsidising settlement expansion, home demolitions, the detention of Palestinian children, or in any way supporting the threatened Israeli 'annexation' of the West Bank."

Foreign policy hawk

It was Ghebreghiorgis who waged the most progressive campaign on foreign policy. 

Ghebreghiorgis said as a special education teacher at a school of almost entirely students of colour, he had witnessed first-hand the inequities in the district. 

"Our community, it's one of the most socioeconomically and racially diverse districts in all of the country," Ghebreghiorgis told MEE. "And there's deep, deep economic inequality, and pockets of poverty here that live in close proximity to areas that are some of the most affluent in all of America."

He added that injustices at home are linked to the kind of hawkish foreign policy supported by Engle, pointing to the bloated military budget and how it takes away resources from local communities while contributing to the militarisation of police forces across America.

"The reason why I decided to run was because I could very clearly see the way in which Representative Engel's militarism abroad is connected to our economic exploitation at home," he said. 

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Engel voted in favour of the Iraq war in 2002. He also rejected the Iran nuclear deal when it was signed by the administration of Barack Obama - a president from his own party - in 2015. 

During the 2014 war on Gaza, he spoke at the same pro-Israel rally as far-right activist Pamela Geller, who has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the "most visible and flamboyant figurehead" of the anti-Muslim movement in the US.

Ghebreghiorgis said his campaign was able to successfully raise issues around foreign policy, including US backing for human rights abusers and the "uncritical, reflexive support of Israel".

"Ultimately our goal was to be able to unseat Engel, and we didn't see that path for ourselves, so that's why we decided to suspend," he said.

Besides Ghebreghiorgis's endorsement of Bowman, another turning point in the campaign was an unfortunate hot mic moment from Engel. 

The congressman was heard saying: "If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care," at an event addressing civil unrest in New York city following protests demanding justice for the police slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this month.

While taken out of context it sounds as if Engel was saying he wouldn't care about the issue, in reality he was asking the organisers for a speaking slot, stressing that he would not make the request if he was not facing an election.

National implications

Still, the incident seems to have boosted Bowman. Later in the month, the challenger was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren. The challenger has also won the backing of the New York Times editorial board and former top Obama aide Ben Rhodes.

Traditional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Congressional Black Caucus and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have come out in support of Engel.

'If Engel loses, it will scare lots of other incumbents into wondering if they're next and what they have to do to recalibrate their mental model'

- Micah Sifry, author and activist

Micah Sifry, an author and activist who is a member of the progressive advocacy group the Jewish Vote, which has endorsed Bowman, said Trump's election in 2016 was a wake-up call for many Democrats to get involved in politics and challenge the party machine that traditionally favours and protects incumbents.

"Now, we have a lot more people at the grassroots level of Democratic Party politics who know how to knock on doors and know how to collect petitions and know how to use social media effectively and are comfortable giving money," Sifry, a longtime resident of the district, told MEE. "And they're hungry for more."

It is difficult to assess how much the candidates' policies regarding Israel might affect their chances at this point, Sirfy said. 

He added that as much as pro-Israel groups want to make the race about their ability to protect a "key ally", other factors are also at play.

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The recent protest movement around racial justice and Black Lives Matter will certainly play a big role in the race, especially in a diverse district where white people are not a majority, he said.

"If Bowman wins, it's going to be because he has positioned himself perfectly for that moment, that he has been part of this wave from before it was visibly a wave, and that he's an authentic representative of this idea that we really have to centre racial justice much more than we have up till now," Sifry said.

Nonetheless, the race will have implications on foreign policy, proving that a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a viable - if not rewarding - position in Democratic politics. 

"From a national standpoint," Sifry told MEE, "if Engel loses, it will scare lots of other incumbents into wondering if they're next and what they have to do to recalibrate their mental model."

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