Opinion |

Bibi Killed AIPAC Long Before Bernie Came Along

Sanders may not win, and even if he does will probably be an ineffectual president. But his candidacy is good news for relations between Israel and American Jews

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Speaking via satellite feed from Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC  policy conference in Washington, March 26, 2019.
Speaking via satellite feed from Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, March 26, 2019.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

If the professional employees, donors and lay leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee could vote in the Knesset election on Monday, I’m pretty sure they would send Benjamin Netanyahu packing.

No matter how many standing ovations Netanyahu has received over the years at AIPAC’s annual conferences, the pro-Israel lobby’s staffers admit – in strictly off-the-record conversations – that Bibi has fatally undermined their ability to drum up bipartisan support for Israel. They would happily never see him at their conference again, and can’t wait to host Benny Gantz as Israel’s new prime minister.

As my colleague Amir Tibon pointed out this week, on the Republican side, Netanyahu has made AIPAC superfluous by fostering many other players and multiple avenues of influence there. On the Democratic side, he has squandered most of the goodwill toward Israel with his obscene embrace of President Donald Trump, contrasted with his open disdain of then-President Barack Obama.

AIPAC’s leaders are aware that while he is still happy to fly to Washington and bask in their delegates’ adulation, in private Netanyahu has said he doesn’t “need AIPAC.” He has Trump, Sheldon Adelson and the evangelicals, whom he regards as much more effective.

Bernie, Bibi and the brutal occupation: Listen to Gideon LevyCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 64

To add insult to injury, Netanyahu has said he only needs AIPAC to balance out Jewish liberal groups, like J Street, that are critical of his policies. How humiliating for the grand old lobby to be equated to a young upstart with only a fraction of its resources and membership.

Fortunately for AIPAC, this year’s policy conference coincides with the Israeli election and Netanyahu cannot attend. If only, they whisper, he would lose, be caught up in his corruption trial for years to come and, just like another disgraced Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, never be invited again.

Even so, it is probably too late. Netanyahu has killed AIPAC. It will never regain the influence it once had. The next Israeli prime minister will be incapable of helping it restore its former glory, certainly not the lackluster Gantz.

Netanyahu won’t be missed at AIPAC – but Bernie Sanders will. The junior senator from Vermont never attended an AIPAC conference, of course, but he’s now the first-ever Jewish front-runner for the presidential candidacy and is making a point of skipping AIPAC (along with the rest of the Democratic field with the exception of Michael Bloomberg).

To make matters worse, Sanders has coupled his snubbing of AIPAC with a broadside against Netanyahu.

‘Proud to be Jewish’ (now)

There really isn’t anything radical about Sanders calling Netanyahu a racist. Netanyahu earned that title long ago by using blatant anti-Arab tactics in his campaigns. In 2015, it helped him win an election and cost him only a short sulk from Obama, who waited a few days before calling to offer his congratulations. It didn’t matter: Obama came around in the end and signed the 10-year $38 billion military aid deal.

It’s worth asking why Sanders isn’t calling other world leaders racist who deserve that label even more than Netanyahu does. But that is beside the point. Sanders – or more likely some of his advisers – recently decided to make both his Jewishness and his stand on Israel an issue. That’s why the senator, who in the past rather ridiculously preferred to talk up his family’s Polish roots and downplay his Jewish ones, has suddenly embarked on a “Proud to be Jewish” campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at a campaign event in North Charleston, South Carolina, February 26, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky,AP

He also just changed his version of why he’d be missing this year’s AIPAC conference, from being a “scheduling problem” to a principled stand against a platform for “leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

Will this help him win the Democratic nomination and then go on to beat Trump in November? There are more qualified observers than me on U.S. politics – and they’ve been wrong most of the time anyway over the past few years.

But one thing is clear to me: Sanders doesn’t really care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it will be surprising if it remains a constant feature of his campaign throughout 2020.

He has rarely been a vocal or constant spokesperson on this issue. And when he has weighed in – rarely at his own initiative – his statements have included criticism of Israel as well as lambasting Hamas during the 2014 Gaza war and saying in 2016 that there is an element of anti-Semitism in the calls to boycott Israel. His foreign policy interests have always been more focused on places like Cuba and the former Soviet Union, and his real passion is for domestic issues.

His current stance is almost certainly due to the pet obsessions of some of his advisers and the need to fire up parts of his base – the Jewish and non-Jewish activists who see Israel-Palestine as a moral pivot.

If he does make it to the White House, the 79-year-old president – who is unlikely to control both houses of Congress, perhaps neither – will have little time or political capital to waste it fighting bruising battles on niche foreign policy issues. He hasn’t even committed to reversing Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. At most, he will probably shelve the Trump Mideast Plan, which was a nonstarter anyway, and devote his energies to his grand social plans at home.

Any serious international diplomatic drive will focus on achieving global climate change deals, not making peace or war in the Middle East.

Sadly, Sanders won’t help pressure Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian people. He may go so far as to condition some of the aid promised by Obama (in reality, subsidies to the American arms industry) on some ill-defined improvement in the treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons or other human rights improvements. But while these are important, they won’t be sufficient to solve the wider conflict, which Sanders does not have the time or inclination to do.

The Sanders administration, if it ever happens, will be insular – if not isolationist – and totally ineffectual in the Middle East. Israel will be fine. American power has been on the wane in the region for over a decade anyway, and Jerusalem has already made its accommodations with Egypt, the Saudis and the Russians.

But whatever happens with the Sanders candidacy, it is already having a positive effect, both for Israel and American Jews. Most Jewish Democrats may not support him, but Sanders is saying what most of them are thinking – certainly younger Jews: Not only that Netanyahu and his government are racist, but that the Jewish-American establishment has enabled Netanyahu for far too long.

The illusion maintained for all these years by AIPAC and the rest of the major Jewish organizations is much bigger than Netanyahu. It was the grand illusion that Israel and American Jews are somehow essential to each other’s survival. That Israel needs the lobbying and the money, and American Jews need Israel as a crucial boost of self-confidence to their sense of identity.

Sanders’ gestures on the Israeli issue are unimportant. What is important is the fact that the first viable Jewish presidential candidate is a man who has no connection with the entire framework of organized American Jewry.

No matter how hollow the sudden reincarnation of Bernie the Proud Jew, it has struck a chord with young Jews who wanted little to do with organized Jewish life. And as the facade of both the Democratic and Jewish establishments crumbles, and with them the old orthodoxies of unconditional support and solidarity with Israel no matter how racist its government’s policies are, Israelis will finally hear what American Jews really think about them.

Just as AIPAC no longer has anything near the influence it once had, the same is true of the United States itself. The Obama White House failed to have any real impact on Israel and the region, and a future Democrat administration will have even less. Israelis no longer need American money, and they are increasingly making do without a significant U.S. presence in their region.

But Israelis still crave the admiration and affirmation of the second-most successful Jewish community in history. The Sanders effect is finally beginning to remove the blinkers from Israeli eyes, and soon they will realize that their American cousins don’t love them as much as they thought.

It is a long overdue and necessary awakening.

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