Opinion

AIPAC Supporters May Have the Last Word About Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’ attacks on the pro-Israel lobby play well with his left-wing base. But the Democratic establishment could make him pay

Jonathan S. Tobin
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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Los Angeles, March 1, 2020.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Los Angeles, March 1, 2020. Credit: KYLE GRILLOT/ REUTERS
Jonathan S. Tobin

Given repeated opportunities to back away from his attacks on AIPAC, Sen. Bernie Sanders refused to do so.

The Vermont Socialist hadn’t merely declined an invitation to speak at the pro-Israel lobby’s annual policy conference, a Washington extravaganza in which leading members of both major parties have always participated. He damned the event to which up to 18,000 activists and donors flock as an illegitimate enterprise that provided a platform for “bigotry” and denial of “Palestinian rights.”

And, true to the way he has conducted himself during his four decades in politics, Sanders wasn’t about to admit he had been deeply unfair to the group. Instead, the man who, if elected, would be the first Jewish president, doubled down on the critique while claiming he was an advocate for both Israelis and Palestinians, particularly those trapped in Gaza.

Sanders’ barb about “bigotry” wasn’t merely gratuitous and hypocritical (especially since he has spoken at a conference of the Islamic Society of North America, a group that includes those who don’t merely deny Jewish rights but also advocate attacks on both Jews and gays). It was calculated to signal that he remains an outsider in Washington and indicative of his support for the sort of intersectional politics that conflates the struggle for civil rights in the United States to the Palestinian war on Israel that the party’s left-wing base supports.

So when Sanders was asked on the Sunday morning national talk shows if there was “political cost in taking on the pro-Israel lobby,” it was exactly the sort of confrontation that he not unreasonably believes bolsters his appeal. Antagonism toward Israel plays well on the left and not on the right. But this juxtaposition is akin to the same resentment felt by Trump voters about the Washington “swamp,” illustrating the common ground that political observers see between the president and his left wing challenger.

Nor did the resulting brickbats hurled at Sanders at the AIPAC conference — whether in veiled references from the lobby’s leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the open contempt expressed for him by Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon — do him any harm.

But if Sanders thinks that he can put this behind him after some expected primary wins on Super Tuesday, he is mistaken. As Sanders battles for the nomination, the wrath of that Washington establishment and Democratic supporters of AIPAC may come back to bite him.

As the field narrows, Sanders still is benefitting from the fierce competition for more moderate Democratic voters while he seems to have the lion’s share of left-wing support. But even if he were to win most of the upcoming primaries, the Democrats’ rules mandating proportional allocation of delegates will mean that the odds are against him winning a majority of votes needed for the nomination. If so, then the Democrats are in for something that hasn’t happened in American politics since 1952: a contested national nominating convention by one of the two major parties.

A contested convention has always been a fantasy for political junkies. It hasn’t happened since it is against the interests of either party for their quadrennial gatherings to be anything but a coronation to launch their general election campaign. But if the Democrats were to require more than one ballot to pick a presidential nominee, it’s the party establishment who will be doing the picking.

In 2016, Sanders railed, not unreasonably, about unelected “superdelegates” — party officials and officeholders who were given automatic seats and voting rights at the party’s convention. They ensured that Hillary Clinton would beat him for the Democratic nomination even though she could have secured the nod without them. Superdelegates still exist even if they are no longer allowed a vote on the first ballot. But if a second ballot is required because no candidate wins a majority, then their votes will count. And it is at that point that the revenge of pro-AIPAC Democrats may be felt.

Opponents of Israel have always exaggerated AIPAC’s power. Its ability to influence Congress is but a shadow of that exercised by wealthier lobbies such as those who represent major industries like pharmaceuticals. And it has never won a direct battle with any president as its failure to stop Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal illustrated.

AIPAC’s success is also more a function of the fact that Israel is genuinely popular with most Americans (though not with liberal Democrats) than its canny use of fundraisers in every House district and state in the country that cultivate up and coming politicians and help win them to the cause of the Jewish state.

Yet the effort by leading pro-Israel Democrats — and their designated Super PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel — to stop Sanders with a paid television campaign against his candidacy flopped. The DMI has already stated that it will cease paying for anti-Sanders ads, such as those that aired in Iowa, and concentrate on other races.

But if the Democratic establishment gets a chance to put its thumb on the nominating scale at the Milwaukee convention, then DMI donors and those sympathetic to its point of view are going to remember the way a Democratic Socialist has sought to run them out of a party that he never actually joined even after he started running for president.

His attempt to brand AIPAC as a pack of bigots or their enablers won’t be the only reason to derail Sanders. Nor will his positions that mark him as being as opposed to Benny Gantz’s stands as Netanyahu’s — such as his renewed call for an end to the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza or his demand for an “even-handed” policy to replace Trump’s tilt toward Israel  — be the main reason Democratic apparatchiks loathe him. They are primarily motivated by their fear that an extremist is less likely to beat Trump than a moderate even if the head-to-head poll matchups indicate otherwise.

Should the “Stop Bernie” movement take the nomination from Sanders after he won most of the primaries, it will create a split among Democrats that might be fatal to their chances of defeating Trump. It’s true that most Jewish Democrats will vote for Sanders if he is the alternative to Trump in November and the party establishment may fall in line behind him if he wins the nomination cleanly. But they will stop him at the convention if they can.

It would have behooved Sanders to avoid a confrontation with AIPAC but that wouldn’t have been his style or what his voters wanted. But he may pay a higher price for his unnecessary slap at the group than anyone in his camp currently thinks.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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