At AIPAC Conference, an Absent Sanders Takes Center Stage

On the first day of the pro-Israel lobby’s policy conference, Democratic candidates and Israeli politicians defend AIPAC and take aim at Bernie Sanders’ remarks

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife Jane, speaks at his campaign event at Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, March 1, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife Jane, speaks at his campaign event at Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, March 1, 2020.Credit: Damian Dovarganes,AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – On the first day of the AIPAC Policy Conference on Sunday, the politicians who spoke – both American and Israeli – voiced clear support for the pro-Israel lobby while criticizing and distancing themselves from a presidential hopeful who refused to participate: Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders.

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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Last week, Sanders, who currently leads the delegate count in the Democratic presidential primary, announced he would not speak at AIPAC’s annual gathering in Washington because the organization gives a platform to leaders “who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” He also referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “reactionary racist” in last week’s Democratic debate.

On Sunday, Sanders’ leading rival for the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, sent a video message to AIPAC in which he said he would “never boycott” the organization. “I’ve been speaking at your conference for a long time,” Biden said, adding that he has heard support for Israel from across the political spectrum at AIPAC. “I will always tell you what I believe, whether we agree or disagree,” he said.

Biden has a decades-long relationship with AIPAC and has spoken at many of the organization’s events over the years. He was a regular speaker at AIPAC’ conferences in the second term of the Obama presidency.

Biden added that it was important to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians – “real peace, not an empty political stunt,” a jab at the Middle East peace plan the Trump administration released in January. It is just as important, he said, to find a way to fulfill the “legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people” for an independent state. Netanyahu’s announcement of settlement expansion and annexation plans will “choke any hope for peace,” Biden warned, adding that such moves are “taking Israel further from its democratic values and undermining support for Israel in the United States, especially among young people. That’s dangerous.”

Biden also said he was proud of the military aid Israel received from the Obama administration, including the “life-saving” Iron Dome missile defense system. He added that “we can’t let Israel become another issue that divides Democrats and Republicans.” Biden recorded his message from South Carolina, where he was campaigning this weekend ahead of the state’s primary, which he won by a landslide.

Senator Amy Klobuchar also sent a video message to the conference from the campaign trail. (The Democratic candidate subsequently dropped out of the race on Monday.) She too emphasized her support for Israel’s security and her strong relationship with AIPAC, while speaking in favor of a two-state solution “that allows Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side in peace and security.” Klobuchar discussed the importance of “ensuring that support for Israel remains bipartisan.” Both Klobuchar and Biden missed the conference on Sunday because they were campaigning in states that will vote in the Super Tuesday primaries.

Also speaking via satellite link from the campaign trail were Netanyahu and his rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, who were preparing for Monday’s Israeli election. In their speeches this year, they offered two distinct messages. Netanyahu, in an indirect reference to Sanders, spoke about “forces who seek to break our alliance.”

Gantz emphasized his goal of repairing the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, saying that if he were to become prime minister, he would make “every Jew feel at home” in Israel and end the discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews that has expanded under the current government. He emphasized his commitment to ensuring egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, an initiative that Netanyahu abandoned in 2017 following pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Gantz spoke on the conference’s main stage last year. Netanyahu planned to do the same, but had to cancel his appearance after a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip wounded seven Israelis in central Israel.

Before the prime minister’s speech on Sunday, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, addressed the conference. In his speech, he said: “We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel.” He added, “Anyone who calls our prime minister a ‘racist’ is either a liar, an ignorant fool, or both.” Danon’s statement was not denounced by Netanyahu, but his office said it had not been “coordinated” with the prime minister.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected to speak at the conference on Monday, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Democratic candidate and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will also address the conference.

Trump has not himself attended any of AIPAC’s conferences since he entered the White House in 2017, and will skip this year’s gathering as he has a campaign rally in North Carolina on Monday night. During his previous appearance at the conference in 2016, while seeking the Republican presidential nomination, he used his speech to attack Obama. AIPAC issued an apology to the Obama White House for Trump’s use of AIPAC’s stage to make his comments.

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