WASHINGTON – AIPAC’s annual conference starting Sunday in Washington has become the latest exhibit in the Israel debate within the Democratic Party. In one wing of the party, the powerful lobby group is being harshly criticized by two presidential candidates who are making a statement by not attending the conference. In another wing, prominent senators and House members are lining up to speak at the event and laud the organization’s work in support of the Israeli government.
The core mission of AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – is to preserve and expand bipartisan support for Israel in Washington. The group, which will bring approximately 18,000 people to the conference this year, takes pride in its strong relationships with politicians from both sides of the aisle. But in recent years, the hyper-partisan disputes in American politics have made it harder than ever for AIPAC to maintain its bipartisan bona fides.
The current political environment in Washington is creating challenges for AIPAC in both parties. On the Republican side, the group is no longer viewed as the most important force advocating for Israel. For many Republican senators, evangelical Christian groups are just as important. Republicans are also influenced by major donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who was the leading donor to President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.
This doesn’t mean AIPAC isn’t important at all to Republican politicians. AIPAC is connected to a network of rich donors eager to give contributions to politicians supportive of the Israeli government, and has grassroots supporters across the country. This year’s conference will host prominent politicians including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
But the most important Republican in Washington, Trump, will skip the conference, just as he has done every year since entering the White House. Trump spoke at AIPAC in 2016 when he was running for president, and his speech caused a lot of trouble for the group, which had to apologize to the Obama administration for Trump’s use of the conference stage as a platform for attacking Barack Obama.
This kind of behavior is problematic for AIPAC, which strives to convince its supporters that AIPAC can make Israel a rare exception at a time of partisan rancor, creating a nearly complete bipartisan consensus around it.
Trump hasn’t returned to the conference since 2016, though Obama spoke at it in 2012 when he was running for reelection; this followed his 2008 appearance when he was running for his first term. Obama thought it would be politically useful to appear at the gathering, while Trump is fine with sending Vice President Mike Pence. He doesn’t see any benefit from appearing himself.
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Sanders and Warren
AIPAC isn’t officially a Jewish organization, but the vast majority of its supporters and donors are American Jews. Trump won less than 30 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2016 election, and Republican candidates did even worse in the 2018 midterms.
For Trump, the most important pool of potential supporters who care about Israel is the evangelical community, which is much larger than the Jewish community and overwhelmingly supportive of his presidency. When it comes to evangelicals at the ballot box, Trump is counting on steps he has taken such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A speech at AIPAC won’t make any difference for them.
But on the Democratic side, AIPAC’s problems are worse. Maybe Trump doesn’t care about AIPAC, but he has never directly criticized the organization. (Though notably, his famous quote about “disloyal Jews” who support the Democrats was issued shortly after AIPAC disagreed when Trump supported Israel’s blocking of a visit by Democratic lawmakers Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.) Among Democrats, AIPAC has many strong partners, but it’s also facing a growing wave of criticism.
The most outspoken critics are left-wing Democrats spearheaded by Senator Bernie Sanders. The current front-runner in the Democratic presidential primaries announced this week that he won’t attend the AIPAC conference because the organization gives a platform to “leaders who express bigotry,” a clear reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Senator Elizabeth Warren told supporters in New Hampshire that she also won’t be attending the conference; she was replying to a question that described AIPAC in very negative terms – which Warren didn’t bother to dispute.
Several other Democratic presidential candidates are staying away from the conference, but unlike Sanders and Warren, aren’t making a “statement” out of it. Instead, they’ve cited scheduling concerns; after all, this year’s conference is taking place just 48 hours before Super Tuesday. But the same candidates – and others who have dropped out of the race – also didn’t come to AIPAC’s conference last year.
A Democratic congressional source who works closely with AIPAC said presidential candidates look at AIPAC differently than Democratic senators and House members. “For presidential candidates, the most important task is to win over as many votes as you can, and that includes at least some level of support from the left,” the source told Haaretz. “So why risk that by going to a conference that more and more Democrats, especially younger ones, see as problematic?”
For many young and progressive Democrats, AIPAC is totally affiliated with Netanyahu, who regularly speaks at the conference (this year he will send a speech via satellite, as will his main rival in Monday’s election, Benny Gantz). In recent years, Netanyahu has led a religious right-wing coalition in Israel, clashed with the previous Democratic president, expressed unending admiration for Trump, and been indicted in three corruption cases. All this time, AIPAC has stood by him, explaining that the organization’s policy is to support Israel’s elected government regardless of who leads it and what the government’s policies are.
The problem for AIPAC is that Netanyahu’s choices over the years have insulted, disappointed and enraged many Democrats, including politicians such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joe Biden, who are considered very supportive of Israel and enjoy strong, decades-long relationships with AIPAC. Biden skipped Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015, which took place exactly two weeks before that year’s Israeli election and which the White House considered an affront. Pelosi said that speech was “insulting.”
The anger at Netanyahu hasn’t caused center-left politicians like Biden and Pelosi to cut ties with AIPAC. The former vice president spoke at the 2016 conference, and Pelosi returned in 2019 after the Democrats took back the House in the midterms. But as a result of Netanyahu’s actions, the group is increasingly worried about losing allies and supporters on the Democratic side and is trying to make amends in order not to lose its standing with politicians like Biden and Pelosi.
Bloomberg is different
In speeches at recent AIPAC conferences, top people from the organization emphasized that AIPAC supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But AIPAC has so far said nothing about Netanyahu’s intention to annex all the West Bank settlements, a move that would shut the door on a two-state solution for good.
Last year, AIPAC twice distanced itself from Netanyahu – once by denouncing the far-right Otzma Yehudit party when Netanyahu was concocting a deal to merge it with another right-wing party. The second time was when Netanyahu blocked House members Omar and Tlaib from visiting Israel following pressure by Trump. But in both cases, the criticism was very subtle and didn’t directly mention the prime minister.
Last week, Sanders and Warren reminded AIPAC that these gestures have made very little impression on the organization’s critics on the left. Sanders and Warren made a point of not going to the AIPAC conference – instead of using the primary schedule as an excuse as other candidates did – because they think this approach will help them politically. They believe there is a constituency in the Democratic Party that will be more likely to support them if they come out against AIPAC.
Sanders’ “bigotry” statement represents a real threat to AIPAC’s bipartisan argument, especially if he wins the Democratic nomination. But it doesn’t mean that AIPAC will be left with no partners in the Democratic Party. Just like Republicans in Congress continue to show up every year at AIPAC even if Trump seems uninterested, plenty of Democrats still come to the conference, most of them moderate Democrats who represent areas of the country where they have to work hard to beat the Republicans.
This includes a group of first-term, moderate women members of the House who “flipped” districts previously controlled by Republicans. For these Democratic lawmakers – Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia – participating at AIPAC is still valuable. In fact, Sanders’ attack on the organization has created concerns among moderate Democrats with national security credentials like these three lawmakers who won very tough competitions in 2018 and are up for reelection this year. By going to AIPAC, they’re not only highlighting their support for Israel, they’re also distancing themselves from Sanders.
Of the Democratic presidential candidates, the only one who plans to speak at the conference is Mike Bloomberg, who is drawing every contrast he can between himself and Sanders. The disagreement between them on Israel was also on display in the Democratic debate this week when Sanders called Netanyahu “racist” and said he would consider moving the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, an idea that Bloomberg rejected.
The splits within the Democratic party, and the fact that Democrats still have to win in tough states or districts by electing moderate candidates, will ensure that the whole Democratic Party won’t turn away from AIPAC in the near future. But with Trump showing no interest in the organization, and Sanders completely disavowing it, the powerful lobby group will have to think of new ways to remain relevant if it wants to keep the mantle of bipartisanship.