AIPAC Downplays Absence of Democratic Presidential Contenders at Conference

Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris among those staying away from the March 24-26 event in D.C., with left-wing group claiming it reflects the pro-Israel lobby's new standing in the party

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 Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, left, listens as Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, speaks during a health care bill news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren listening as Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a health care bill news conference in Washington. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON – Several leading Democratic presidential contenders said this week they will not be attending this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, which starts in Washington on Sunday.

The pro-Israel lobby downplayed the significance of these statements, noting that “since 2008, we have only had presidential candidates in election years.”

However, left-wing critics of AIPAC claimed the candidates’ announcements were a reflection of how the lobby is now viewed within the Democratic Party.

As of Thursday evening, seven Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination had publicly said that they will not be attending this year's conference: Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris; former Congressman Beto O’Rourke; former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro; Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee; and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The left-wing group MoveOn is running an online campaign to keep Democratic candidates away from AIPAC, stating that the lobby group “has been known to peddle anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric while giving platforms to those involved in human rights abuses.”

AIPAC strongly denies the accusations.

AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told Haaretz on Thursday: “Our focus for the conference has always been Congress — and we are proud that the bipartisan leadership of the House and the Senate will be speaking.”

Those speakers include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats.

In the past, politicians who were not invited to speak during the actual conference nonetheless participated in off-the-record sessions hosted by AIPAC or its donors and affiliated organizations.

The candidates who announced their non-attendance at AIPAC this year were specifically asked whether they would be taking part in the event “in any capacity.”

Harris, for example, attended an off-the-record session last year and was criticized for not making her participation in the conference publicly known. Following that criticism, she recently released a transcript of the off-the-record meeting.

Among the key speakers at AIPAC this year are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, preceded a day earlier by his main challenger in the April 9 Israeli election, Benny Gantz.

Top Trump administration officials such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are also set to speak at the conference, as will former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is rumored to be considering a presidential run, is also going to speak at the conference.