WASHINGTON – Bernie Sanders’ announcement that he won’t attend this year’s AIPAC conference in Washington did not come as a surprise to anyone: In his three decades as an elected official in Washington, Sanders had never attended the gathering, and there was no reason to think this year would be his first time, especially in light of his recent statements regarding U.S. military aid to Israel.
But what did surprise the powerful pro-Israel lobby was Sanders’ decision to make a political statement out of not attending its policy conference. This year’s event, which is expected to attract as many as 18,000 people, will take place this weekend – just 48 hours before Super Tuesday, the most important day on the Democratic presidential primary calendar. Currently, it’s not clear if any of the party’s presidential contenders will choose to waste precious campaigning time ahead of that day at a conference in Washington.
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Unlike the responses of other candidates, the declaration Sanders tweeted on Sunday – just one day after he won the Nevada Democratic caucus and entrenched his position as the front-runner in the Democratic race – wasn’t just about not attending the AIPAC confab: The Vermont senator gave political and ideological reasons for not doing so, unleashing a direct attack on the lobby.
More than the decision to give the event a miss, it was apparently Sander’s choice of words that surprised AIPAC most. He accused the organization of giving a platform “to leaders who express bigotry” – likely a reference to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is invited every year to speak before the conference, and is once again, in his current election campaign, making racist attacks against Israel’s Arab citizens and their representatives in the Knesset.
AIPAC’s response was swift and powerful: It released a statement rebuking Sanders, using words such as “shameful” and “outrageous,” which the lobby has never used before when criticizing a leading presidential candidate of either party. In the days that have passed since Sanders’ tweet, the lobby has used its social media accounts to highlight bipartisan support for its work, sharing posts on the subject from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress who, unlike Sanders, plan to attend the conference this weekend.
It was critical for the lobby to highlight such messages in the aftermath of Sanders’ statement not just because it prides itself on securing bipartisan support for Israel: Indeed, that is the main justification for AIPAC’s very existence. In the political reality of 2020, no one actually needs the lobby in order to ensure Republican support for right-wing Israeli policies. Such support is already being secured by powerful Evangelical Christian organizations and by major donors such as casino tycoon and billionaire Sheldon Adelson. But Israel’s official diplomatic approach is that the country needs bipartisan support in Washington, a city where power changes hands every few years between the two parties. AIPAC, for its part, presents itself to its donors and supporters as the organization most capable of providing “ironclad support” for Israel on both sides of the aisle.
Sanders’ attack on the lobby is a direct blow to its bipartisan talking points. If he does secure the Democratic nomination – a very likely scenario, at this point – AIPAC will face an extremely difficult challenge ahead of the November election, and its bipartisan reputation will be put to one of the toughest possible tests.
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As far back as the 1990s, Democratic presidential candidates all had a cordial relationship with AIPAC. Hillary Clinton gave a speech at its 2016 policy conference, when she was running against Sanders in the primaries; Barack Obama spoke at AIPAC in 2008, during his first election campaign, and once again in 2012 when seeking re-election. Sanders is the first Democratic front-runner to level such harsh criticism at the lobby. If he is nominated, he will also be the first to boycott the organization’s most important annual gathering.
A Sanders-Trump election would be a nightmare for AIPAC, because of the vast and consequential differences between the two of them regarding Israel. Trump is preparing to give a green light to Israel to annexing each and every settlement (but not outposts) in the occupied West Bank – a move that will effectively shut the door on the option of creating a Palestinian state next to Israel. Sanders, meanwhile, calls to condition the billions of dollars in military aid Israel receives annually from U.S. taxpayers, and to use it as leverage to push the country to curtail expansion of settlements and to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
AIPAC – which officially supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – will find it very difficult to maintain its bipartisan approach in the event of a showdown between Sanders and Trump. Although the lobby has tried to maintain support among American liberals and progressives, should it condemn Sanders for his views, it will not be picking a fight with just any Democratic candidate, but rather with the party’s presidential nominee, whom many party members across the country will be rooting for as he takes on their nemesis, Trump. Such a situation will cause a major headache for AIPAC, which could be accused, for the first time, of taking sides in a general election, at great cost to its bipartisan reputation.
But Sanders is, in fact, just a short-term problem for the lobby, regardless of the results of the election. AIPAC’s larger, long-term problem is not confined to a specific politician, but is rather a generational phenomenon. Overall, Sanders is very popular among young Americans, as has been seen in the support he has received in the caucuses and primaries to date. Moreover, national public opinion polls show that voters under 35 overwhelmingly prefer him over Trump.
In general, Americans in that age bracket today tend to be more liberal and left-leaning politically than those belonging to the older generations, and the widespread support Sanders enjoys within these younger people is just one example of a broader trend. This also holds true within the U.S. Jewish community, with the exception of the more right-leaning Orthodox community. Even among Christian Evangelicals, those under the age of 35 seem to hold more progressive views and are less supportive of Trump and the Republican Party than their parents’ generation.
Therefore, a major clash between Sanders and AIPAC this election year won’t just hurt the lobby’s bipartisan bona fides in the short run: It could also come to define the organization among an entire generation of young American voters – which is, strategically, a much more serious problem for it.
AIPAC will likely survive the damage that one tough election year will cause; it is, after all, a very well-funded organization, led by professionals with a lot of political experience. But a generational fracture over Israel will create much more lasting, bipartisan damages. If the lobby group wants to stay relevant among Democrats – not just in 2020, but beyond – it needs to prepare seriously for this new reality.