Analysis |

AIPAC Conference Was Going to Be All About the Benjamin — Then Ilhan Omar Came Along

Concern about PM's political strategy of embracing the far right has suddenly become a sideshow to anti-Semitism storm surrounding the Democratic congresswoman

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, March 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, March 2018.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, AIPAC was making headlines for an unusual reason: The pro-Israel lobby had published a rare critical statement against a far-right Israeli party that had signed a controversial political pact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

AIPAC has a strict policy of not criticizing the Israeli government and not interfering in Israeli politics — which is why the organization’s denunciation of the racist Otzma Yehudit party made headlines in both Israel and Washington.

Netanyahu reacted by accusing “the left” of hypocrisy, and AIPAC found itself being attacked from both the left and right within the Jewish community. Left-wing critics said the organization’s comment on Otzma Yehudit didn’t go far enough and stopped short of referring to Netanyahu by name. Right-wing critics said it was wrong for AIPAC to release any statement in the first place.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 17Credit: Haaretz

With Netanyahu and other senior Israeli politicians scheduled to appear before AIPAC’s annual conference in less than three weeks, the tension was building. Journalists were asking how the prime minister, under a cloud of corruption allegations and tainted by his embrace of racist thugs, would be received at the conference (which starts March 24).

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Rep. Ilhan Omar participating in a House Education and Labor Committee, Washington, March 6, 2019.Credit: AFP

A warm embrace could hurt AIPAC’s attempts to preserve support on the Democratic side of the aisle, where Netanyahu’s current image is as “Israel’s Trump.” At the same time, any kind of protest, or even a simple lack of enthusiasm toward him, could once again highlight the schisms between Israel and the American-Jewish community, and empower AIPAC’s critics on the right.

Yet last week, in the midst of this storm, a savior arrived: Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comment about “allegiance to a foreign country” — which several of her Jewish colleagues on Capitol Hill denounced as anti-Semitic, or at the very least echoing anti-Semitic tropes — was a gift from the heavens for the pro-Israel lobby.

Two-week-old headlines that highlighted the growing divide between Israel’s government and the American-Jewish community were immediately forgotten, replaced by a new yet at the same time decades-old story: Jewish-American supporters of Israel rallying to protect that country, and themselves, from unfair and exaggerated accusations.

Before Omar made her “allegiance” comment, it was very probable that the divide over Netanyahu’s current political strategy of embracing the far right and attacking Israel’s democratic institutions would be the main backdrop to this year’s AIPAC conference.

Democratic senators who are considered close to the pro-Israel lobby, such as Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin (both of whom voted against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal), strongly denounced Netanyahu. Journalists that many AIPAC donors likely consider “must reads,” such as Bret Stephens and Eli Lake, wrote that it was time for Netanyahu to leave office (Stephens even compared him to Richard Nixon in his New York Times op-ed).

There was a moment when it seemed the ground was shifting beneath Netanyahu’s supporters in the U.S. Jewish community.

But now, all of that has changed. The theme of this year’s conference will very likely become unity in the face of anti-Semitism, and Omar, a freshman lawmaker with no legislative achievements, will be the “star” of the show.

Democrats at the conference will try to convince attendees that they have Israel’s interests at heart and that Omar doesn’t represent where the party is on this issue. Netanyahu will benefit from this, spinning it into proof that, contrary to (accurate and truthful) media reports, Israel is not losing support on Capitol Hill because of his politics and policies.

Some of Omar’s defenders on the left have highlighted the hypocrisy of her right-wing critics, many of whom are strong supporters of President Donald Trump — who has his own terrible history of using anti-Semitic tropes, not to mention his defense of neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville.

But the case against Omar is not a right-wing or Republican one. It is being made in a convincing way by people who are fierce critics of Trump: From President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, to Jewish-American journalists like Yair Rosenberg and Batya Ungar-Sargon. Three of those names, it should be noted, are also regular critics of Netanyahu (De Blasio is the exception).

The controversy has turned Omar into a hero of the “progressive wing” of her party. But the real benefactors of her statements are the people she is supposedly fighting against: Supporters of the Netanyahu government in the United States.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and one of the shrewdest analysts of Israel’s place in American politics, encapsulated this when he wrote in the New York Daily News that her words have transformed a debate over Israel’s policies into a debate over Jewish donors in American politics.

A debate of this nature is the best recipe for burying splits and disagreements within the pro-Israel camp, and creating unity ahead of the upcoming AIPAC conference.

If Netanyahu survives his visit to Washington without embarrassing headlines about his attacks on the rule of law and his embrace of a terror-supporting party, he should send flowers to Omar’s office before heading home.

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