Demonstrators rally against the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision

Demonstrators rally against the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision on September 8, 2014.

(Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'Moderate PAC' Is Latest Big-Money Push to Keep Democrats in Line on Israel

It stands against Republicans, as it supports only Democrats. But primarily, it aims to move the Democratic Party to the right.

A new Democratic political action committee (PAC) has arisen, dedicated to cultivating what it refers to as “moderate policies.” It stands against Republicans, as it supports only Democrats, but primarily, it aims to move the Democratic party to the right. It’s the latest iteration of conservative efforts to revive the classical conservatism that has been drowned by right-wing fanaticism, creating the so-called “Never-Trump Republicans” who don’t have a political home for the moment.

But it also holds serious dangers for Palestine advocacy.

We’ve already seen that while more progressive Democrats are far from certain to support Palestinian rights, theirs is the sector which has seen the most change from the lockstep Democratic support that has been the norm for so long. So, just by targeting that sector, even if the targeting had nothing to do with Palestine, Israel, or Zionism, there would be cause for concern for Palestine advocacy.

Moderate PAC, as it is called, focuses on economic issues, echoing old Republican talking points from the 1980s about fiscal responsibility and low taxes. Justice Democrats’ executive director, Alexandra Rojas, said of the new PAC, “The corporate-backed establishment will stop at nothing to prevent more nurses, bartenders, principals, community organizers and regular people from entering the Democratic Party in Congress. They would rather buy elections than let working-class progressives even run. They will do everything in their power to make themselves richer at the expense of robbing poor and working-class Americans.”

The issue, however, is much deeper than that. The new PAC, which intends to raise at least $20 million to target progressive candidates in the 2024 election, currently has only one major donor: billionaire Jeffrey Yass. That name may not be familiar to most Americans, but it’s one we need to get to know better. Yass, often referred to as the richest person in Pennsylvania, is the driving force behind funding for the Kohelet Forum, an organization that bears a great deal of responsibility for pushing Israeli policy to the far right, and whose network expands not only throughout Israel but also deep into the United States.

Kohelet’s agenda sounds a great deal like Moderate PAC’s. Kohelet’s web site says it “strives to secure Israel’s future as the nation-state of the Jewish people, to strengthen representative democracy, and to broaden individual liberty and free-market principles in Israel.” What that translates into in real politics is promoting religious zealotry, a weakened judiciary, extreme nationalism, and minimal social services. As we can see in one election after another, Kohelet has been remarkably effective in pushing its agenda over time.

Indeed, the current furor in Israel over the attempt to gut Israel’s courts was driven by Kohelet, borrowing from the American right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Like ALEC, Kohelet wrote the bills that are being put forth in the Knesset now and brought in legislators to champion it. Indeed, Kohelet has been a driving force behind the whole settlement enterprise.

Of course, Israel hardly needed Kohelet to disenfranchise Palestinians and deny their rights. But the power of their tactics, and especially the fact that few recognize that an unaccountable organization is responsible for so much policy is considerable.

That’s why their connection to right-wing support of Israel in the United States is so important. The head of Kohelet’s international law department, Eugene Kontorovich, is perhaps the leading figure in both writing laws and manipulating existing legislation to support Israel’s interests. As Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace described it, Kontorovich has worked “to effectively change U.S. laws so that we no longer view boycotts of Israel or settlements as a legitimate form of protest.”

Kontorovich claims that his work on anti-BDS legislation has nothing to do with his work for Kohelet, but the overlap of interests is obvious, and it is telling that his biography page at his primary place of employment does not mention his work with Kohelet. Like most of the efforts supporting Israel, Kohelet works best out of the light.

Yass’s funding of Kohelet makes him one of the most influential people in Israel, despite not being an Israeli citizen. In the U.S., Yass is a major figure in the background of Republican donations. He is a leading funder of Club for Growth, which supports the Trump base of the Republican party, including many who sought to overturn the 2020 election.

With Moderate PAC, Yass is turning toward the Democratic party for the first time, and while the PAC is only starting up, it is sure to attract other right-wing donors quickly. Ominously, the only consultant Moderate PAC named in its expenditure report for last year was Greg Schultz, former campaign manager for Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. He moved aside for the general election, when the goal was to defeat the radical right, but Schultz was the architect of the Democratic strategy to erase the early advantages Bernie Sanders had made among Democratic voters, and he succeeded.

"It will be crucial that we make clear that this 'Moderate PAC' is Republican money trying to determine outcomes in Democratic primaries."

As with AIPAC’s targeting of progressives in the 2022 midterms elections, Moderate PAC and other conservative PACs targeting the Democratic Party primaries will not need to engage with questions of Israel or even foreign policy more broadly. They can attack Democrats who are even moderately supportive of Palestinians without having to wrestle with the difficult questions Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, especially under the newest government, raises.

The Biden administration, which promised major Democratic donors that he would maintain the basics of the inequitable economic system in the United States and has largely kept that promise in his first two years in office, has also made it clear that it has no interest in anything that addresses Palestinian rights. His administration refuses to even affirm that Palestinians are living under occupation, let alone take any significant action on their behalf.

Yass might prefer that Republicans win the White House back, but he is hedging his bets with Moderate PAC, and what he hopes to produce among Democrats as far as Israel is concerned was on full display this week after Israel announced its plans for massive settlement expansion and so-called “legalization” of settlement outposts erected without the direct permission of the government.

After the usual, ineffectual statements of “ deep concern” from the United States and Europe, the Palestinians, working with the United Arab Emirates, drafted a UN Security Council resolution that would call on Israel to halt all settlement activity in occupied territory. The United States immediately went to the Palestinians and the UAE to try to convince them to either withdraw or significantly water down the resolution, thus far to no avail. The resolution is expected to come to vote in the Security Council possibly as soon as Monday.

The State Department called the resolution “ unhelpful,” a strong signal that the U.S. would veto it. Addressing the resolution, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel equated the resolution with the “similarly” unhelpful Israeli decision to expand settlements.

This is what someone like Yass hopes to see from Democrats going forward. He may prefer Republicans, but he can read a political map and know that, whichever way Congress swings, Democrats have the advantage in popular votes for the White House. If Democrats are to be in control, Moderate PAC will, Yass likely hopes, make sure that on some issues—economic, as well as on Israel—they will not thwart his agenda. Two years of Biden would seem to suggest he’s right.

Moderate PAC will surely be trying to reinforce the thinking that led many progressives to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020: that a progressive, despite advocating policies that are overwhelmingly popular, would not be able to defeat Republicans, especially in so-called battleground states. Such debates will surely rage on, but there are certain issues where the absolute bankruptcy of conservative polices is evident. None more so than Palestine.

We’re already facing an uphill battle, to say the least, in Palestine advocacy. It will be crucial that we make clear that this “Moderate PAC” is Republican money trying to determine outcomes in Democratic primaries. AIPAC is doing the same thing. That has to be exposed, and Palestine advocates, as much, if not more, than anyone else, have everything at stake in exposing it.

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