The long-simmering estrangement between the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, and progressive Democrats, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, who now leads the quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, broke into open warfare over the weekend.
Sanders, in deciding not to appear at AIPAC’s annual conference next weekend (March 1-3) in Washington, D.C., issued a harsh statement bashing AIPAC for providing a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” In an unusually sharp rebuke, an AIPAC spokesman called Sanders’ comments “outrageous” and further declared that “by engaging in such an odious attack on this mainstream, bipartisan American political event, Senator Sanders is insulting his very own colleagues and the millions of Americans who stand with Israel.”
With this background, what was once a routine annual event has turned into a battlefield where the future of the relationship between the Democratic Party and Israel and its supporters will be decided.
Since its founding in 1951, AIPAC has adhered to two fundamental principles: bipartisanship and unabashedly pro-Israel policies. Suddenly, due to the ascendency within the Democratic Party of progressives such as Sen. Sanders who hold, at best, unsympathetic views on Israel, the notion of bipartisanship within AIPAC is about to collapse. The question AIPAC faces this election year is whether, in the interest of bipartisanship, it can stretch itself to accommodate the Democratic Parties’ progressives and yet still fulfill its primary mission of advocating on behalf of Israel’s peace and security.
The Democratic Party historically has been the bedrock of support for Israel and AIPAC. President Harry Truman, with the support of the Democratic Party, made the pivotal decision in 1948 to support the U.N. Partition Plan recognizing the new state of Israel in the face of stiff opposition from his own State Department. Historians consider President Johnson to have been Israel’s greatest friend and during his term, Israel became the chief ally to the United States in the Middle East. Sen. Scoop Jackson was a lover of Israel and the Jewish people who helped facilitate emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel. Numerous pro-Israel resolutions sponsored by a broad array of Democrats have passed Congress.
But that was then and this is now. Today’s Democratic Party is not your father’s Democratic Party and has shifted dramatically on Israel. Today’s party is held hostage to a coalition of “progressive” Democrats led by “The Squad”: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). This quartet is hostile to the very notion of a Jewish state and espouses policies that would undermine its legitimacy and existence.
Before her election to Congress, Rep. Omar tweeted that “Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” After her elevation to Congress, Omar tweeted that support for Israel by U.S. politicians was “all about the Benjamins,” a reference to U.S. $100 bills that feature a picture of Benjamin Franklin. In doing so, Omar spread one of the most nefarious anti-Semitic libels: that Jewish people use money to wield global power.
Rep. Tlaib advocates the “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a final settlement in which there would no longer be a Jewish state and the territory that is now Israel would gradually become Palestine. Both Tlaib and Omar have spoken in support of the BDS movement, which amounts to an economic war against Israel.
Traditionally, in an election year, presidential contenders of both parties have spoken at AIPAC’s annual convention. In 2016, both Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican contender Donald Trump were keynote speakers. This year, however, in an extraordinary move, none of the leading Democratic candidates is presently scheduled to appear at the convention.
As discussed above, Sen. Sanders declined to appear at this year’s conference in a blistering attack upon AIPAC which the lobby group labeled “shameful.” But even before this latest barrage, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination has repeatedly maligned Israel. He has called Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist.” He even accused Israel (falsely) of killing some 10,000 people in the 2014 Gaza war. During the fifth Democratic debate, Sanders proclaimed that “what U.S. foreign policy must be about is not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian as well.”
Sanders is also one of several Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who go so far as to support conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on Israel’s being more compliant in its negotiations with the Palestinians.
Warren has spoken out against what she calls the “far right-wing policies” of Netanyahu’s government, has called for making aid to Israel conditional on its settlement policies, and when the House voted on a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism, she slammed it, saying it was an attempt to silence debate.
Sen. Joe Biden, while generally supportive of Israel, was vice president under Barack Obama, who was notoriously hostile to Israel and personally repelled by Netanyahu. The other Democratic candidates, while not uniformly antagonistic to Israel, appear willing to cater to the party’s ascendant progressive left.
Polls underscore the decline of support for Israel in the Democratic Party. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Democrats are newly split on their sympathies between the Israelis and the Palestinians. While 27 percent of Democrats said they sympathized more with the Israelis, 26 percent sided more with the Palestinians. Back in January 2017, Democrats were much favorable to Israel, 42 percent to 23 percent. And 61 percent of Republicans and just 26 percent of Democrats view Israel’s government favorably.
Even before the latest flareup with Sanders, AIPAC cautiously attempted to distance itself from the radical anti-Israel fringe of progressive Democrats, a move that spectacularly backfired. AIPAC ran several ads on Facebook accusing “radicals in the Democratic Party” of pushing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies “down the throats of the American people.” As a result, AIPAC was vehemently attacked and forced to issue an apology.
The moment of truth has arrived for AIPAC. Although it is not on the official program, the question most on attendees’ minds will be: “What do we do about Bernie Sanders and the ascendancy of the anti-Israel progressive left in the Democratic Party?” Should such foes of Israel be shunned or ostracized? Or should AIPAC attempt to accommodate these strident opponents within its big, bipartisan tent? What is AIPAC’s red line? How AIPAC answers this question will provide the key to its future as an effective advocate for the State of Israel.
Columnist and JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin recently posited a bleak future for AIPAC, arguing in the progressive Israeli newspaper Haaretz that it was no longer feasible for AIPAC to deliver on its mission of defending Israel in a bipartisan way. “At a time of unprecedented hyper-partisanship, and with the possibility that support for Israel will be a point of partisan contention in the fall presidential campaign, especially if the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, it’s hard to see how AIPAC can continue to navigate between the parties,” warned Tobin.
At its upcoming conference, AIPAC faces an existential choice. It can attempt to continue its big-tent philosophy by stretching the tent’s perimeters beyond recognition to include the progressive movement’s often antithetical approach to Israel. Or AIPAC can draw a line in the sand, making clear that those who undermine Israel’s legitimacy or seek to undercut its security are not welcome in the organization. In short, AIPAC can either be allied with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party or it can be unabashedly pro-Israel. But it cannot be both. It is time for AIPAC to decide.
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in publications such as “The Washington Post,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Baltimore Sun,” “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Times of Israel” and “Moment” magazine.