Boycott AIPAC? In Tug of War Over Israel, Democratic Candidates Are the Rope

As progressive alliance urges presidential hopefuls to skip the lobby group’s upcoming conference, a pro-Israel group is congratulating itself on damaging Bernie Sanders’ standing in Iowa. The fight will only intensify as the primary race heats up

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, left, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden speaking on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, February 2020.
Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, left, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden speaking on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, February 2020.Credit: Joseph Prezioso, AFP / Carlos Barria, Reuters
Allison Kaplan Sommer

With much online fanfare, a coalition of four progressive U.S. groups launched a #SkipAIPAC Campaign on Friday, aiming to pressure 2020 Democratic presidential candidates into missing next month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington.

Though it was billed as new, there is little fresh about the move by IfNotNow, MoveOn, Indivisible and the Working Families Party. Essentially, it is a continuation of an effort launched last year to keep the Democratic hopefuls away from the gathering of 18,000 activists at what is arguably the largest annual pep rally for U.S. support of Israel, culminating in a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.

MoveOn, which led the 2019 campaign, declared last year’s effort an unqualified success. It celebrated the fact that “the influx of progressive candidates confirming they will not attend – even those who have gone in years past – shows how the momentum is shifting.”

Even more eager to spotlight the Democrats’ willingness to heed the progressive call and stay away from AIPAC last year? Republicans. In 2019, speaking from the AIPAC podium, Vice President Mike Pence proclaimed: “As I stand before you, eight Democrat candidates for president are actually boycotting this very conference. So let me be clear on this point: Anyone who aspires to the highest office in the land should not be afraid to stand with the strongest supporters of Israel in America. It is wrong to boycott Israel, and it is wrong to boycott AIPAC.”

There was good reason to take the “boycott” pronouncements from both left and right with a grain of salt: The Washington Post officially gave the “boycott” description two out of four “Pinocchios” on its vaunted fact checker. Why? Because three of the so-called “boycotters” met with constituents representing the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, even though they did not go to the conference itself. Nearly all the others said they had chosen not to attend because they were “not invited” or blamed “scheduling conflicts” – without ideological or political reasons.

“Pence would have been on more solid ground if he said: ‘This is a moment of peril for the pro-Israel forces, and no one should claim they have a scheduling conflict or did not get an invite to avoid being seen here, among friends,’” the Post wrote.

JTA’s Ron Kampeas wrote at the time that Israel-watchers should “keep an eye on next year’s policy conference, when candidates will not be able to brush off AIPAC without explaining why – and might be less inclined to do so as they begin to pivot from pleasing the Democratic base and reaching out to independent voters.”

Well, “next year” has arrived. The most enthusiastic of the progressive groups in this year’s expanded campaign is IfNotNow – the Jewish group that has pivoted from trying to transform the American Jewish community to working to sway the Democratic candidates on Israel. Its energetic young team has been bird-dogging the candidates on the campaign trail and, this past week, made the switch from getting the candidates to go on record regarding leveraging U.S. military aid to Israel to end the occupation, to pushing them to stay away from AIPAC.

The IfNotNow activist leading the charge, Sarah O’Connor, began the mission at New Hampshire town halls with the two candidates firmly identified with the progressive base: Senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts).

US Presidential Candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, February 9, 2020.
US Presidential Candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, February 9, 2020.Credit: AFP

First up was Sanders, the progressive favorite who the group must have thought would be an easy target for an anti-AIPAC commitment.

Telling Sanders she was “disgusted and horrified” by the Trump administration’s “so-called peace plan,” as she was sure Sanders was too, O’Connor noted that “AIPAC rushed to embrace the plan.” (When the plan was announced, AIPAC said it “appreciate[s] the efforts of President Trump and his administration to work in consultation with the leaders of the two major Israeli political parties to set forth ideas to resolve the conflict in a way that recognizes our ally’s critical security needs,” and urged “Palestinians to rejoin Israelis at the negotiating table.”)

O’Connor added: “We know they will do what they do every year” at the AIPAC policy conference, “and that is take the opportunity to shore up support for unconditional military aid in the form of a blank check to fund occupation. And they do that by forming alliances with Islamophobes and anti-Semites and white supremacists.” This, she said, “doesn’t represent my values – I’m not going to the conference. You made it very clear last year that they aren’t your values and you didn’t go last year, so you’re not going this year, right?”

Sanders’ response was probably not what the activist expected. “If I do go – I don’t think I am, it’s not on my schedule – but I have no objection to going. The question is, What do I say when I get there? That’s the point. And what I will say is what I have said for years. And I speak as someone who is Jewish. And what I say is that we need a foreign policy in this country, a Mideast policy which absolutely protects the integrity and the independence of Israel, but also understands that the Palestinian people have needs and they have got to be treated with respect and dignity. And that is not the case right now.”

It was a surprise move by Sanders, considering that his team was painted as being the most explicit among the candidates about choosing not to go last year. His policy director, Josh Orton, told an activist last March that Sanders was staying away because he was “concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.”

Sanders’ response was not unlike the one the group elicited from former Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday. O’Connor caught up with him in a crowd and, when asked, he told her outright he would not boycott AIPAC. “No,” he said, “because I’m there to convince ... them to change their position.”

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2020.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2020. Credit: CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS

While IfNotNow ignored Sanders’ refusal to rule out attending AIPAC, Biden’s response drew public scorn. “Biden’s strategy that he’ll change AIPAC with a speech is as laughable & dangerous as his belief that he will be able to work with McConnell on bipartisan legislation,” the group tweeted.

In contrast to Sanders and Biden, Warren gave O’Connor and IfNotNow precisely the response they were looking for.

Echoing the script of her query to Sanders, O’Connor told Warren she was “terrified by the unholy alliance that AIPAC is forming with Islamophobia and anti-Semites and white nationalists. And no Democrat should legitimize that kind of bigotry by attending their annual policy conference. I’m really grateful you skipped the AIPAC conference last year, so my question is if you’ll join me in committing to skip the AIPAC conference this March?”

Warren gave her a straightforward reply: “Yeah.” The senator then transitioned into support for the two-state solution and direct negotiations between the parties, adding that “we are not a good friend to either party when we disrupt that process and keep it from going forward.” It also hindered that cause if America keeps “standing with one party and saying we’re on your side, we are going to give you all of the things you ask for,” she said.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren attending a canvas kick off with supporters at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire, February 8, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren attending a canvas kick off with supporters at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire, February 8, 2020. Credit: AFP

IfNotNow gave a massive publicity push to Warren’s response – pinning it to the top of its Twitter feed and circulating the clip widely. Her agreement to avoid AIPAC made headlines, winning cheers from the left and boos from the right, with even some of Warren’s Jewish supporters unhappy that she did not push back on the characterization of AIPAC as an ally of anti-Semites and white nationalists.

AIPAC might have been in a better position to garner sympathy as the victim of an “anti-Semitism” smear had the news not almost immediately broken that it had purchased Facebook ads that blamed “radicals in the Democratic Party” for “pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people.”

At first, an AIPAC spokesperson defended the move, telling Haaretz the ad “was directed to pro-Israel Democrats and they have responded very positively.” The group had merely been “calling upon the pro-Israel Democratic majority to continue to stand up against a minority of those in the party who seek to weaken our relationship with Israel,” the spokesperson added.

But a day later, that defense quickly morphed into an apology to the “overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress who are rightfully offended by the inaccurate assertion that the poorly worded, inflammatory advertisement implied.”

While the ad had been characterizing “a small but growing group, in and out of Congress, that is deliberately working to erode the bipartisan consensus on this issue and undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC said it regretted “that the ad’s imprecise wording distorted our message and offended many who are deeply committed to this cause.”

The Democratic Majority for Israel, meanwhile, sent a direct mail to supporters over the weekend celebrating the “effectiveness” of its own ad campaign in Iowa that cast doubt on Sanders’ electability and, controversially, invoked the senator’s heart attack last fall to suggest he was unfit to be president. One of the first negative ads to hit the 2020 Democratic race, it drew much attention when it debuted before last Monday’s caucus.

Without the ad, claimed group CEO Mark Mellman, Sanders “would have come out of Iowa with a significant lead on every metric and would likely have duplicated that result in New Hampshire and Nevada. At that point he would have been very difficult to stop. In part because of our ad, he still has a real fight on his hands.”

Mellman cited data which found that among Iowa voters “who decided which candidate to support before DMFI PAC’s ad went on the air in Iowa, Sanders was in first place by a 6-point margin. Among those who decided after our ad began, Sanders came in fifth, 10 points behind the leader.”

This, he said, was “clear evidence” that the ad had worked. Mellman noted that “undecided voters interviewed by the New York Times found many people literally repeating our ad.”

The Democratic Majority for Israel has been linked to AIPAC since its inception in January 2019, and it was recently reported that its donors “overlap” with major AIPAC funders and activists. Mellman denies any kind of official connection.

IfNotNow founder Simone Zimmerman joked in a tweet that she interpreted the AIPAC apology as “Whoops, we meant to post this from the DMFI account” – implying that the organization was explicitly designed to allow AIPACers to wage war against Democrats while AIPAC continues to profess bipartisanship.

This tug of war between the so-called “pro-Israel” Democrats and the party’s left flank is bound to intensify as the primary race heats up – even though few Democrats, even American Jews, are expected to make their primary choice based on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

However, making the refusal of primary candidates to attend the AIPAC policy conference a litmus test is a highly flawed exercise in a year when it coincides with Super Tuesday  on March 3 (when 14 states will choose their presidential nominee). Spoiler alert: The likelihood that even one candidate will show up in person, instead of merely sending a video greeting, is close to zero.

Even those who attribute outsized influence to the AIPAC crowd know it will be much more important for the candidates to be in the field shaking hands in California and Texas than schmoozing with the group’s activists in Washington.

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