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The Democrats Shun AIPAC, Except for One

Led by Sanders, the grassroots are more open than ever about their disdain for the pro-Israel group and Netanyahu.

Democratic Presidential hopeful former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2020 Policy Conference in Washington, DC, March 2, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference used to be a rite of passage for Democratic presidential candidates vying for their party’s nomination—but no longer. Only one Democratic candidate came in person to speak at AIPAC this year: former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.

The 2020 conference, taking place from Sunday to Tuesday in Washington’s cavernous Convention Center, boasts a roster of powerful and influential speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Yet three days before the AIPAC conference was to begin, Bloomberg was the only confirmed speaker among the Democratic presidential candidates.

At the eleventh hour, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former vice president Joe Biden announced they would address the gathering remotely, after AIPAC loosened restrictions barring video messages, reports The Forward. AIPAC blocked Sanders from delivering a video message in 2016.

“The fact that Democrats are unwilling to go to AIPAC, and that they’re even willing to criticize AIPAC, is a sign of the changing views of the Democratic constituency, who are more questioning of Israel and more progressive than ever in the past,” said author and foreign policy analyst Mark Perry in an interview with The American Conservative.

The choice to speak at AIPAC would appear to be less controversial for political figures that are not running for the Democratic nomination, as evidenced by the rousing speech in support of Israel given by former candidate for president Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Bernie Sanders said he would not attend the 2020 policy conference because AIPAC provides a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” Sanders excoriated Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “reactionary racist” during the last Democratic debate.

“I’m very proud of being Jewish. I actually lived in Israel for some months,” Sanders said in Charleston, S.C., ahead of the state’s primary. “But what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.”

“We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel,” Danny Danon, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations said Sunday morning. “Anyone who calls our prime minister a ‘racist’ is either a liar, an ignorant fool, or both.”

Netanyahu’s toxicity may be part of the problem, according to sources who spoke with The American Conservative. Netanyahu is running for his fifth term in office. On Monday, Israelis headed for the ballot box for the third general election within a year.

“It’s harder for AIPAC to appear to be bipartisan when they have a mandate to represent who is in power in Israel, and for the last few decades that’s been Netanyahu,” who himself has abandoned neutrality and bipartisanship, said American businessman Jeff Aronson in an interview with The American Conservative. 

In 2010, Netanyahu humiliated then-vice president Joe Biden by announcing a plan to build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem just hours before Biden was to publicly pledge strong support for the Israeli government. Five years later, on the invite of Republican then-Speaker John Boehner, Netanyahu eviscerated President Obama’s JCPOA Iran deal before a joint session of Congress.

“Due to that history Biden had a bone to pick” with AIPAC and with the American Jewish community in general, said Aronson.

“The most interesting of the Democrats and their responses was that of Bernie Sanders,” said Aronson. “He’s the one who announced his refusal to appear, which is certainly unusual in the annals of American political relationships with Israel.”

Aronson believes Warren and Sanders’s decision to skip AIPAC was a missed opportunity, and Perry agrees.

The candidates should have taken the opportunity to deliver their message to an audience that might disagree, rather than voluntarily surrender the stage, said Perry and Aronson.

There are, after all, a lot of voices at AIPAC that “are uncomfortable” with Netanyahu and his pro-settlement policies, said Perry.

During his speech Monday, Bloomberg blasted rival candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders for skipping the conference.

“Unfortunately, not all of my fellow Democrats in this race have attended an AIPAC conference,” Bloomberg said. “One of them, Senator Sanders, has spent 30 years boycotting this event. And as you’ve heard by now, he called AIPAC a racist platform. Well, let me tell you, he’s dead wrong.”

“Calling it a racist platform is an attempt to discredit those voices [in support of Israel,] intimidate people from coming here, and weaken the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said.

Bloomberg’s approach to AIPAC, and his speech, were traditional in every respect. But while this rhetoric would have been commonplace in the 90s and aughts, Bloomberg cut a lonely figure in the convention center.

“I was surprised by what Bloomberg said; he is not acting like he’s running for national office. He seems tone deaf about what the Democratic constituency are thinking,” said Perry. He added that Bloomberg’s speech seemed tailored  for a New York City audience, rather than the national one whose support he will need to win the nomination. “He’s distancing himself from the very supporters he needs.”

Michael Ellman, a member of the board of governors of the Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore and long-time AIPAC donor and attendee, believes the media is exaggerating the problem.

“I think the more attention we give to fringe candidates, the more power we give to them,” said Ellman. “I think the message we’re hearing here is that pro-Israel advocacy transcends political parties and it shouldn’t be hijacked by any side.”

“Support for Israel has remained in the mid to high 60s, and that has not really wavered. There’s always signs of alarm from people” said Ellman, but the proof will be in what is put in the Democratic party platform at the convention.

Howard Kohr, CEO of AIPAC, opened the annual conference by promising to “defeat” political movements and “leaders and their supporters” who are threatening the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. The Hill dubbed the speech “a veiled attack against Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).”

The divide between young progressives and the old Democratic establishment, and between American Jews and Israel’s Zionists, is “one of the most significant” political realignments “in my lifetime,” said Perry.

“We’re seeing a real chasm open up,” said Perry. “I can remember not too long ago when criticizing Israel was embracing the most marginal of positions,” he said.

“What’s happening now is what Hannah Arendt predicted in 1944: that the adherents of Zionism in Israel would become different than American Jews, that the communities would drift apart,” said Perry. “I think people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren realize it; Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton don’t get it yet.”

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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