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AIPAC Finally Gets the Best of Ilhan Omar

The Congresswoman has signed onto one of the lobby's letters calling for an extended embargo on Iran.
Screen Shot 2019-07-24 at 6.45.16 PM

It looks like AIPAC, the most influential pro-Israel organization in the U.S., has gotten to Rep Ilhan Omar.

The Muslim-American congresswoman who had been targeted by the lobbying behemoth a year ago for her “anti-Semitic” comments about “dual loyalty” in regards to members of Congress supporting a ban on American’s boycotting Israel businesses (BDS), has now signed onto a typically loaded AIPAC letter calling for the extension of a UN arms embargo against Iran.

The move has her supporters and political observers scratching their heads. The wider sanctions regime against Tehran, by all reports, was crushing the Iranian people long before the COVID virus began spreading through the country. Oil revenues, imports of basic necessities, all have been brought to a grinding halt thanks to the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Now Iranians are struggling for life-saving equipment and medicines in the wake of a pandemic. 

In a tweet on April 22 she seemed to be of the mind that sanctions are a dead end: 


Omar’s office released a statement after the AIPAC letter story broke, saying  the congresswoman still opposes wider economic sanctions, but “has consistently, for a long time, supported arms embargoes against human rights abusers.” It is not that she “supports [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s tactics or that her position on sanctions has changed, or that she is not in support of the [nuclear deal]. It was just a narrow ask that we couldn’t find anything wrong with.”

So what is this “narrow ask”? AIPAC, which has spent millions of dollars opposing the JCPOA, otherwise known as the “Iran nuclear deal,” wants to make sure a United Nations weapons embargo on Iran does not sunset as proscribed in the agreement, this fall. That will mean whatever is remaining of the deal since the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 will fall apart. That will likely trigger an escalation in the Iranians’ uranium enrichment, which was capped in the deal, and likewise lock all economic sanctions in, this time with the wider support of the other P5+1 countries that originally signed onto it (China, Russia, Germany, the European Union, the UK, and France). 

This is what AIPAC wants. It sent out this letter and got 390 members of Congress to sign it, including Omar. The fact AIPAC was able to get these signatures is a testament to its influence and the hurt that it can bring down on politicians when comes to re-election. Like Omar. A tough Democratic primary candidate has emerged in Antone Melton-Meaux, an African-American attorney and civil rights mediator who said in an April op-ed in the Minnesota Star-Tribune that Omar was disconnected from her district, has gotten no legislation passed for Minnesota, and  cut a divisive figure on Capitol Hill. Furthermore, Melton-Meaux said:

Omar has repeatedly made divisive statements that have been hurtful to members of our Jewish community. She creates distraction and drama, not results. That doesn’t work for us.

Rep. Omar believes that sanctions are economic warfare and is a vocal advocate for abolishing them, particularly for Iran. Yet she supports sanctions on Israel. She has repeatedly refused to explain this inconsistency. That doesn’t work for us.

Melton-Meaux is one of three primary challengers, but he has already raised nearly $500,000, more than any of them. He seems to have touched a nerve and is not afraid to use Omar’s reported issues with the pro-Israel crowd to his political advantage. According to a glowing profile in the Jewish Insider, Melton-Meaux already “has the endorsement of “pro-Israel America.” More:

In 2012, during a Jewish Community Relations Council meeting in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Melton-Meaux delivered a Dvar Torah, expounding on the connections between Leviticus 19 and Matthew 26, which calls for all people to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He added: “If there was ever a time when Jews, Christians, and all people of faith need to be reminded that we share a common bond, the time is now.”


Melton-Meaux alleges that his opponent, who has risen to prominence as a member of “The Squad,” has not worked to find common ground with others, including many of her Jewish constituents.

“Omar has made statements that have been reckless and harmful to the Jewish community,” Melton-Meaux told Jewish Insider. “I have spent time with the Jewish community and have met with Jewish leaders, and there’s a deep sense of betrayal by her actions and displeasure with the way that she has handled herself in the process with regard to the residents in this district.” 

And according to Gateway Pundit, Omar’s top Republican opponent, Lacy Johnson, got a huge boost from donors this week after an endorsement from President Trump.

Omar has been accused of anti-Semitic comments, but a closer look of course reveals a muddier picture. In an all-consuming debate last year on whether banning U.S. companies and citizens from boycotting Israeli businesses for its treatment of Palestinians was an infringement of Constitutional rights, the tweets and public attacks on both sides were flying. Omar made comments about AIPAC “funding” Republican support for Israel and decried its influence operations (which are notorious by the way on Capitol Hill, described by one former Hill staffer and AIPAC as a system of “rewards and retribution”). After this, Omar  was accused by other members of Congress and by AIPAC of promulgating the trope that some Jewish-Americans have “dual loyalty,” and her words were condemned as anti-Semitic. 

She ended up apologizing for a February 2019 tweet saying that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.”

“Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Omar said in a statement released on Twitter, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership publicly scolded her for engaging in “deeply offensive” anti-Semitic tropes.

“My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole,” Ms. Omar wrote, adding, “I unequivocally apologize.”

But she did not take back her comments about AIPAC. 

Omar’s recent signature on a letter that would have garnered hundreds of her colleagues’ support and made a splash with or without her, is a signal to AIPAC that she knows her seat is at risk, and that she would rather neutralize the feud with the pro-Israel powerhouse than send it flocking to the aid of her opponents. AIPAC spends millions each year lobbying Congress on behalf of its agenda, but does not give directly to candidates. However, its members do, and it works with other pro-Israel groups and individuals who give tons of money each election cycle (more than $12.4 million so far in 2020, compared to $15.5 million in all of 2016). Omar’s comments about “the Benjamins” could come back to bite her, and it will be, all about the Benjamins. That’s how campaigns rise and fall.

So why should we care? Omar says it’s a “narrow ask” to support extending the arms embargo, but it’s clear the Trump Administration is using this embargo to further kill the deal. If the deal is crushed, the hardliners in Iran will blow through uranium enrichment restrictions (in fact they already have, in response to U.S. sanctions). That will ensure that the other embargoes, the ones that affect food, medicine, basic necessities, continue to strangle ordinary Iranians. This is about “maximum pressure” and it’s what AIPAC and the hawks in Congress want. In her own “narrow” way, Omar is supporting their vicious cycle, one that she has already admitted, will not work. 

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is Executive Editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC