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US Congress primary stokes debate among Democrats over Israel-Palestine

Pro-Israel groups have spent millions of dollars to help defeat progressive leader Nina Turner
Nina Turner speaks at a campaign rally in Cleveland, 24 July (AFP)
By Ali Harb in Washington

For most Americans, foreign policy is not a priority. The average voter in Ohio's 11th Congressional District may have some views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but public opinion polls show that domestic issues take precedent in US elections.

Still, the seemingly faraway geopolitics of the Middle East is becoming a decisive factor in a congressional Democratic primary in the midwestern state.

Pro-Israel groups are pouring millions of dollars into the contest to help their favoured candidate Shontel Brown defeat progressive firebrand, Nina Turner.

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Turner is a former Ohio state senator who co-chaired Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign last year. Brown is chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. The majority Black, safe Democratic district covers the cities of Cleveland and Akron in northeast Ohio. 

The seat was vacated by Marcia Fudge, who joined the Joe Biden administration earlier this year as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Progressive officials and activists are lining up behind Turners' bid. Sanders, Minnesota's Muslim-American attorney general Keith Ellison, and philosopher and civil rights advocate Cornel West held a rally for Turner in Cleveland this past weekend.

Brown has received the endorsement of some major figures in the Democratic establishment, including Hillary Clinton; Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip; and Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus is also backing Brown.

'Far beyond northeast Ohio'

"The results of the election reverberate far beyond northeast Ohio," said Hanieh Jodat, a Muslim-American political organiser from California who has been campaigning for Turner on the ground in Ohio for weeks.

Jodat, who is of Iranian descent, said the race for the seat in the House of Representatives has great significance for the progressive movement in US politics.

"It represents peace. It represents promoting and championing ideologies that could possibly save the people of Cleveland, the nation and the world," she told MEE. 

"We're talking about growing the progressive movement in the halls of Congress. We're talking about having allies who fight for issues like Medicare for All, for a Green New Deal, for world peace."

'We're talking about having allies who fight for issues like Medicare for All, for a Green New Deal, for world peace'

- Hanieh Jodat, Muslim-American organiser

Turner is a revered figure on the left for her uncompromising support for progressive policies, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She has continually voiced support for Palestinian rights despite the flood of pro-Israel advocacy against her.

With nationwide progressive appeal, Turner has raised more than $4.5m - mostly from small donors. Brown has amassed $2.1m with significant help from Pro-Israel America Pac and Norpac, two Israel advocacy groups that drove dozens of individual donations to her campaign.

Brown is also receiving support from political groups that are spending independently to help her get elected. The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group that backs pro-Israel centrists but presents itself as progressive, is leading that charge.

DMFI has spent more than $2m on ads and phone banking in support of Brown and opposition to Turner.

The group has recently faced criticism over controversial statements from two of its board members - including a 2018 tweet calling for Gaza to be burned and a more recent post mocking an anti-occupation Jewish activist for announcing her engagement to a Muslim man.

The Intercept also revealed earlier this week that many of DMFI's and Brown's donors are Republican. The group did not respond to MEE's request for comment. Neither did Brown's campaign.

Tightening race

Brown is a staunch supporter of Israel. She has described the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic and voiced support for unconditional US support for Israel.

"The United States of America and Israel have a deep, special, and unbreakable bond based on shared principles and values," she told Jewish Insider in February.

Early in the race, Turner - who enjoyed greater name recognition and successful fundraising - had a commanding lead in public opinion polls. But with more campaign funds and a slew of endorsements from the old guard of the party nationally, Brown has closed the gap to as little as five points.

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Last week, Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, partly credited Israel's supporters for Brown's resurgence.

"Undaunted by the early funding gap, the pro-Israel community took action, rallying to support the Brown campaign because she spoke so clearly and from the heart not only about her desire to be a representative that will get things done for her community, but about her support for the US-Israel alliance," Mendelsohn wrote in a Times of Israel article.

These dynamics are becoming a trend in Democratic politics. 

Last year, pro-Israel organisations failed to rescue incumbent Congressman Eliot Engel from a primary challenge from the left by Jamaal Bowman

They also unsuccessfully backed Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's primary opponent. Divergent views on Israel also played a role in the 2020 race between progressive challenger Alex Morse and senior Democrat Richard Neal. Morse was unable to unseat him.

Ideological battleground

In the Turner-Brown contest, progressives - who are more sympathetic towards Palestinians - are facing off against the Israel-supporting traditional establishment of the party for an open seat, without either candidate enjoying the advantages of incumbency.

However, the feud over Israel is but a small part of the larger rivalry that the election represents.

The race is heating up. It is now an election with broader implications - a battleground between the centrist and left wings of the Democratic Party.

It is a reflection of existing tensions. The election's outcome will likely be treated as a litmus test for the arm-wrestling within the party after Democrats appeared to unite last year to defeat Donald Trump.

Israel-Palestine seems to have become an inevitable part of that ideological showdown. It features prominently whenever these contests pop up.

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The issue is not a major one for voters, who are often more concerned with domestic priorities that affect their daily lives.

That's why DMFI is targeting Turner on issues unrelated to her views on the Israeli government, painting her as a disrupter and questioning her loyalty to the Democratic Party.

It is a familiar tactic. When DMFI ran TV commercials against Sanders in the Iowa caucuses last year, the script targeted the senator's age and electability, not his support for Palestinian rights.

Similarly, when the group came after Bowman late last year, an ad spoke of a modest amount of state taxes that he owed, not Engel's staunch support for Israel.

But for the future of US policy towards Israel-Palestine, this internal competition could prove decisive.

Ariel Gold, national co-director of Code Pink, an anti-war feminist group, said Engel's defeat to Bowman last year shook the perception of the influence of pro-Israel lobby groups that threw their full weight behind the losing incumbent.

"We're all looking at the Nina Turner's race as an affirmation that it wasn't a fluke with Jamal Bowman, that the people really want champions in Congress both for issues here at home - for housing rights, health care, cutting the Pentagon budget - and want them to align with our issues abroad with foreign policy," Gold told MEE.

"And so it's no longer the case that we can have candidates who are progressive except for Palestine."

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