democratic primaries

Engel Teaches Dems That Backing War and Apartheid Has a Downside

A man preparing for an exciting new life in the private sector. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Eliot Engel has been in Congress for more than three decades. In 2018, he won the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District with 73 percent of the vote. This year, his reelection campaign boasted the support of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, the Congressional Black Caucus, Andrew Cuomo, and a variety of well-funded super-PACs. He out-raised his closest competitor for the Democratic nomination by more than $1 million.

And, by all appearances, an African-American former middle-school principal with no political experience just ended Engel’s career. There are still a lot of absentee ballots left to count. But after Tuesday’s in-person voting, Jamaal Bowman holds a nearly 27-point lead over the incumbent, a margin that many prominent election analysts deem insurmountable.

How a political party interprets an unexpected election outcome is a process fraught with ideological stakes. Every faction in blue America’s multifront civil war wants incumbent Democrats to fear crossing them. Thus, the battle for shaping the conventional wisdom about why Engel lost is liable to be as spirited and contentious as the primary race itself.

Those hostile to Bowman’s brand of unabashed progressivism can marshal an array of nonideological explanations for Engel’s defeat. The 73-year-old congressman did not look much like his district, which is now majority nonwhite and one-third African-American. Engel had not faced a serious primary challenge in two decades, and his electioneering muscles had clearly atrophied: The congressman failed to intuit a political downside to hiding out in his D.C.-area home while a pandemic was ravaging his constituency. Weeks later, at a protest against police brutality, Engel got caught on a hot mic imploring the organizer of a news conference on police brutality to let him speak to the crowd — while explaining, repeatedly, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” In Bowman’s own account of the campaign, this gaffe was pivotal. “Support throughout the district and across the country has grown exponentially since that moment,” the progressive challenger told the Washington Post. The context for Engel’s flub was ideologically charged; amid protests over police violence, the white congressman aimed to demonstrate his pro-reform bona fides, even as his Black challenger called for radical changes like the disarmament of the NYPD. But the gaffe itself was just sloppy politicking. Even if your intention is to excuse your own pushiness about getting a speaking slot at an event, no politician should ever say any variation of the phrase, “If I weren’t trying to win an election, I wouldn’t care” in public.

Still, the left has plenty of fodder for a more usable history of Engel’s (apparent) defeat. The New York congressman is a longtime supporter of Medicare for All. But in both the 2016 and 2020 primaries, he endorsed opponents of single-payer over Bernie Sanders. Engel may be a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, but he dragged his feet in adopting that stance and refused to swear off contributions from the fossil-fuel industry. Meanwhile, the George Floyd protests plausibly turned Engel’s relative moderation on policing issues into a liability.

It’s on foreign policy, though, where the distinctions between the two Democrats is sharpest. Engel is the embodiment of a classic Democratic archetype: a progressive in the streets, but a freak overseas.

Engel was one of blue America’s most enthusiastic supporters of the war in Iraq. He was an opponent of Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. After the Obama administration allowed the passage of a United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, Engel introduced a House resolution condemning the U.N. In 2016, as Saudi Arabia was starving and bombing Yemeni civilians, Engel joined Republicans in defeating a measure that would have restricted Riyadh’s access to cluster munitions, weapons that leave behind minelike explosives that can kill civilians for decades after a conflict has ended.

Bowman, by contrast, has called for slashing the Pentagon’s budget and conditioning aid to Israel on its government’s observation of human-rights laws. Bowman did not make the latter point central to his campaign, but he did attack Engel for his stances on the Iraq War and Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, donors affiliated with AIPAC and the pro-Israeli government super-PAC Democratic Majority for Israel both rallied to Engel’s defense. Americans who wish to protect Israel’s inalienable right to maintain de facto (and/or de jure) apartheid in the occupied territories saw Bowman’s challenge as a clear and present danger. As the president of the American Jewish Congress said of Engel, “Why are they targeting him? The only differentiator is Israel.”

Alas, all AIPAC’s donors and all Chuck Schumer’s men couldn’t put Engel back in Congress again.

For the minority of American Jews who believe (as I do) that Israel’s domination of the Palestinians is a shande — a betrayal of both Judaic principles and the injunction “Never Again” — it is tempting to declare Engel’s loss the beginning of the end of Democratic complicity in Likud’s crimes.

Liberal Zionist stalwart Peter Beinart sounded this note Wednesday morning:

Bowman’s victory is indeed an auspicious sign for the future of the Democratic Party’s posture toward Israel. But my optimism is more tempered than Beinart’s.

While Engel was getting his comeuppance Tuesday night, Ritchie Torres was cruising to victory in a neighboring district. Torres is an openly gay, Afro-Latino progressive who grew up in public housing. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, aspires to being a “national champion for the urban poor,” and has made maximizing the construction of high-quality social housing one of his signature causes. But he has barricaded Israel-Palestine off from the rest of his progressivism. Torres has called the concept of conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on its compliance with international law “absurd” and “a dog whistle for the pro-BDS wing of the progressive movement,” which he regards as deeply anti-Semitic.

These stances led Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others on the left to endorse against Torres in Tuesday’s primary, throwing their weight behind housing activist Samelys Lopez, who is currently polling in fourth place, more than 17 points behind the self-described “pro-Israel progressive.

The Netanyahu government’s open alliance with the Republican Party in general — and Donald Trump in particular — has helped to fortify skepticism of the Israeli government among younger Democratic voters, especially liberal ones. And this has emboldened leading progressive lawmakers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to embrace a more critical stance toward the Jewish state. Still, the shift in partisan opinion is modest. Four years ago, Democrats said they sympathized with the Israelis over the Palestinians by a 35-point margin in Gallup’s polling; now that margin is 28 points. Given what’s happened in the interim — Donald Trump’s election, Likud’s embrace of West Bank annexation — this is underwhelming progress. Democratic voters remain overwhelmingly deferential to Israel. The minority that has more sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight does not typically treat that issue as a priority. So, the challenge of making the Democratic Party as progressive as George H.W. Bush on Israel-Palestine remains formidable. And the task of making the Democrats into an effective agent of change in the region is even more daunting. Israel is a wealthy nation with one of the world’s most powerful militaries. It does not actually need U.S. military aid anymore, and surely would prioritize settlement expansion over retaining that aid, were it forced to choose. Only a robust sanctions regime could plausibly transform Israeli policy, and virtually no Democrats have endorsed such measures.

All this said, Engel’s defeat usefully exposes the limits of AIPAC’s power. Relatively few Democratic officials entered politics because of their strong views on foreign policy, let alone U.S. policy toward Israel. Many Democrats toe AIPAC’s line simply because it looks like the path of least resistance. Reflexively defending the Israeli government’s prerogatives appeared to earn one the plaudits of a powerful interest group without any offsetting detriment. Bowman’s victory complicates this calculus, especially for Democrats in deep-blue districts. Engel was the pro-Israel lobby’s loyalest liberal. And they couldn’t stop him from losing his job to an outspent, out-endorsed political neophyte. By itself, this failure won’t be enough to shift Democrats significantly on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But it could immediately move the needle on the complex of foreign-policy issues that pit America’s best interests against Israel’s perceived ones, such as U.S. policy toward Iran and Saudi Arabia. America has much less interest in ensuring Riyadh’s supremacy over Tehran than Likud does. More broadly, in an era of fracking and climate change, the U.S. has much less interest in expending resources in trying to shape events in the Middle East than the Israeli government would like the American public to believe.

Being a hawkish AIPAC loyalist might not have (single-handedly) doomed Eliot Engel. But it did not save him either. For those who wish to sustain bipartisan support for apartheid in the West Bank — and the immiseration of Iran — that fact could prove problematic in the years to come.

Engel Learns That Backing War and Apartheid Has a Downside