By Tom Perkins and Will Craft

 

Congress members who were more supportive of Israel at the start of the Gaza war received over $100,000 more on average from pro-Israel donors during their last election than those who most supported Palestine, a Guardian analysis of campaign data shows.

Those who took more money most often called for US military support and backed Israel’s response, even as Gaza’s civilian death toll mounted, the findings show. The analysis, which looks at positions taken during the war’s first six weeks, does not prove any particular member changed their position because they received pro-Israel campaign donations. However, some campaign finance experts who viewed the data argue that donor spending helped fuel Congress’s overwhelming support for Israel.

The analysis compared campaign contributions from pro-Israel groups and individuals to almost every member of the current Congress with each lawmaker’s statements on the war through mid-November.

About 82% of Congress members were more supportive of Israel, and just 9% more supportive of Palestine during this period. The remainder had “mixed” views. Legislators categorized as supportive of Israel received about $125,000 on average during their last election, while those supportive of Palestine on average took about $18,000.

The volume and breadth of the donors’ spending is considerable: over $58m went to current Congress members, and all but 33 received donations.

The findings have “profound implications for what American policy toward … Israel looks like”, said John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political scientist and co-author of the 2006 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. “If there was no lobby pushing Congress in a particular direction in a really forceful way, the position of the US Congress on the war in Gaza would be fundamentally different.”

The groups’ campaign contributions have varying goals depending on the member. Spending can be “defensive” or “shore up support” in Congress for allies who already share pro-Israel groups’ views, said Sarah Bryner, a spokesperson for Open Secrets, which tracks campaign finance spending and collected the contributions data used in the Guardian’s analysis. Spending can also be “offensive”, or intended to persuade a lawmaker to take a pro-Israel position, campaign finance observers and political strategists who reviewed the data said.

The donors’ highest profile battles have involved members of the “The Squad”, like Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who are among the most critical of Israel. But statements from Representatives Don Bacon, Dan Kildee and André Carson in the wake of the 7 October attack in which 1,200 Israelis were killed help illustrate varying levels of donations and responses across Congress.

All three first strongly condemned the assault’s perpetrators and expressed deep sympathy for the victims, but their messaging quickly diverged.

Bacon, who received about $250,000, offered full-throated support for Israel: “Whatever Israel wants … we should be there to help.”

Carson, who received $3,000, took aim at Israel, denouncing its “unfair, two-tiered rule over the Palestinian people” and demanded a ceasefire.

Kildee, who received $91,000, fell somewhere in between, underscoring “Israel’s security and its right to respond” and his ”grave concern” over its airstrikes killing thousands of Palestinian civilians.

Included in the analysis are 33 pro-Israel groups and a number of individuals that work to shore up US political support, secure military assistance and steer national dialogue. Its prominent campaign finance players include the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI), and J Street.

The donors are not ideologically monolithic. J Street, which calls itself “pro-Israel and pro-peace” and is considered among the most liberal Pacs, only gave to Democrats, and in some cases backed progressive candidates targeted by more conservative Pacs, like Aipac or DMFI. While donors across the spectrum have pressured lawmakers to support Israel following 7 October, J Street has been among the only group to raise concern about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and express support for conditioning aid to Israel.

The groups are a powerful force in US politics that draw comparisons to the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the peak of its power, and spent more on the 2022 Congress than other special interests, such as the oil and gas industry.

The former president Barack Obama, in his 2020 memoir, detailed the threat Aipac presents to Israel’s critics, who risked “being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election”, he wrote.

In a statement to the Guardian, an Aipac spokesperson, Marshall Wittmann, said the group is “proud of our engagement in the democratic process – as is our right as Americans – to advance the relationship between the US and Israel”.

The donors’ success rate is often high: DMFI-backed candidates won over 80% of their 2022 races, the group says. Pacs such as DMFI and Aipac’s United Democracy Project, which was launched during the 2022 cycle, have focused attacks on progressive candidates.

The top six recipients of pro-Israel donor support in 2022 were centrist Democrats who defeated progressives in primaries and collectively accounted for around $25m, or about 42% of the donors’ spending.

What we found

To determine whether lawmakers were supportive of Israel, Palestine or had a mixed response, the Guardian examined officials’ media statements, X accounts and letters to Joe Biden from 7 October through mid-November.

The unprecedented moment in US-Israeli relations has helped lay bare the extent of Congress’s support for Israel.

The analysis of Congress members’ responses in this period found:

  • 93% called for US military or financial support for Israel.
  • 81% supported Israel’s response.
  • 17% criticized Israel or called for a ceasefire.
  • 17% contextualized the war, meaning they raised issues like Israeli settlement expansion or human rights violations in Gaza that preceded the 7 October attack.

Some legislators’ positions have shifted as a humanitarian crisis deepened and Israeli attacks caused mass civilian casualties. Following Israel’s deadly strike on the Jabalia refugee camp, for example Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Maxine Waters, who had previously shown stronger support for Israel, called for a ceasefire.

Congress has been much more sympathetic to Israeli civilian victims than Palestinian, but party affiliation, not money, predicted lawmakers’ statements on civilian casualties.

The spending patterns detailed in the analysis help explain why war exploded in Gaza, said Stephen Walt, a Harvard University international affairs professor who co-authored the book with Mearsheimer. Over recent decades, Israel likely would have been unable to carry out many of its inflammatory policies, like settlement expansion, without a “pro-Israel lobby” to help secure US arms and political support, he said.

Ideas such as US sanctions, withholding military aid or the US sponsoring a critical United Nations Security Council resolution are “complete science fiction” in large part because of the groups’ influence, Walt added.

Many of the pro-Israel groups have opposed Palestinian statehood, and played a significant role in derailing peace processes, Mearsheimer said.

“If the lobby had worked with any administrations to allow presidents to pressure Israel to produce an agreement that led to a Palestinian state, then we probably would not be in this disastrous situation,” he said.

Some groups mobilized against representatives who supported Palestinian statehood. In 2022, Aipac supported the ouster of the former representative Andy Levin, a Jewish progressive and self-described Zionist, in part over his proposed bill calling for a two-state solution and “an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories”.

Ahead of Levin’s primary, Aipac’s former president sent out a fundraising pitch calling Levin’s race against centrist Representative Haley Stevens a “rare opportunity to defeat arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship”.

The race turned into a battle between conservative and liberal donor groups: donors poured nearly $5.4m into backing Stevens. She easily beat Levin, who was backed with about $700,000 in J Street support. The Guardian analysis found Stevens to be among the staunchest supporters of Israel’s response – she was one of just 12 Democrats who broke with the party to vote for a GOP Israel assistance bill that did not include humanitarian aid for Gaza.

Congress members who were more supportive of Palestinian causes or more neutral prior to being elected, like Senator John Fetterman, Representative Maxwell Frost and Senator Raphael Warnock, shifted to take more pro-Israel positions after pro-Israel groups made donations, or threatened to get involved in a race. The Guardian found Fetterman and Warnock to be more supportive of Israel following the 7 October attacks, while Frost had a mixed response and has signed onto a resolution calling for a ceasefire.

The DMFI president, Mark Mellman, said the analysis does not prove that pro-Israel donor contributions influenced Congress’s position or caused any lawmaker to change their views on Israel. Anyone who posits that is “an advocate, not an analyst”, he said.

“I’m in favor of changing how it works, but it works that way for every issue, for every progressive issue, for every conservative issue, so there is absolutely nothing unique about pro-Israel community in this respect,” he said. “Not acknowledging that would be antisemitic.”

Campaign finance experts noted that some congressional donations are given to members because they already share a position, raising a “chicken or egg” question about the role of the money in members’ views. Bacon, a former Air Force colonel, said Israel has strategic value to the US and noted he is an evangelical with a “spiritual connection” to Israel.

Dozens of evangelicals serve in Congress, and Bacon said the question of supporting Israel “is a matter of the heart” for many people like him.

“My support comes from the time I was five years old and my dad said ‘Those who bless Israel will be blessed’ which is right out of the Old Testament,” Bacon told the Guardian.

At odds with the public

The analysis also highlights how most of Congress is in line with conservative pro-Israel positions – but not with those of the US public. While the Guardian found just 17% of Congress was critical of Israel or called for a ceasefire in the first six weeks of the war, US polls show up to 68% of Americans support a ceasefire, and around 80% of Democrats.

“There is no question” pro-Israel donor contributions spread across Congress drive the disparity, said James Zogby, a pollster and founder of the Arab American Institute. But he believes this is not a matter of more robust public debate because “if you raise the issue of money then you run the risk of being called an antisemite,” he added.

The Guardian identified 132 legislators who received less than $10,000 in backing, including 33 who received $0, but are still supportive of Israel. While that includes some Republicans who are ideologically aligned with groups like Aipac, some experts who reviewed the data believe it points to the donors’ strength.

Their vast spending instills fear across Congress, and Aipac is the “elephant in the room” in Democratic campaigns, said Waleed Shahid, a progressive strategist who said consultants have advised candidates to publicly take pro-Israel positions to placate pro-Israel donors.

“There aren’t that many lobbies that are willing to spend millions of dollars to unseat you in a primary,” Shahid added.

Moreover, most lawmakers represent districts with very few Jewish or Arab American constituents to pressure them on votes, and there is virtually no pro-Palestine lobby to counterweight, Mearsheimer noted. That makes it easier and safer for lawmakers to take pro-Israel positions, he added.

The 2022 primary in North Carolina’s first congressional district encapsulated those issues. Relatively few Jews or Arab Americans live in the area, and the Democratic representative Don Davis, armed with about $2.8m in donor support, defeated a more progressive candidate before winning in the general election.

Davis, fresh off a junket trip to Israel funded by Aipac in August, was one of 10 Democrats who in November broke with the party to vote to censure Tlaib and support the GOP Israel funding bill that did not include humanitarian aid for Palestinians.

Other Congress members have shifted positions or “been silenced on Palestine only because they were afraid of the wrath of Aipac,” said Usamah Andrabi, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which backs progressive candidates.

Democrats on average received more money than Republicans. Those who the Guardian found were supportive of Israel on average received about $243,000 compared with $52,000 for their GOP counterparts.

The next election promises more of the same. A pro-Israel donor has allegedly already offered $20m in backing for someone to run against Tlaib, the nation’s only Palestinian American lawmaker. Representative Jamaal Bowman, who is backed by J Street, faces a challenger who will likely receive support from more conservative pro-Israel groups.

Meanwhile, Representative Summer Lee, who, with around $38,000 in J Street support, defeated a candidate backed with millions in funding from more conservative pro-Israel groups, is again facing a challenge from a more pro-Israel candidate.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of Aipac has been Representative Mark Pocan, who received $5,500 in pro-Israel funding, and in November said he did not “give a fuck about Aipac”, labelling it a “cancer” in US politics.

The group took GOP dark money and spent it in Democratic primaries, often at levels exceeding candidate spending, and across a high number of races, Pocan said. As the strategy pays dividends on the war, he fears it will be copied by other powerful lobbies, which he said could be a “deathblow to democracy”.

“If outside groups – especially in primaries where so much less money is spent – decide to purchase elections and make them auctions, that really will change the character of Congress in a very negative way,” Pocan said.