Furor over Omar puts spotlight on AIPAC

This week’s controversial tweets by Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarJohn Oliver torches Meghan McCain over Seth Meyers dust-up 'SNL' mocks Jeanine Pirro's support of Trump: 'He is the Michael Jordan of presidents' Omar introduces bill sanctioning Brunei over anti-homosexuality law MORE (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, has put the spotlight on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC, founded in 1963 with a mission of promoting the U.S.-Israeli relationship, has long been seen as a significant player in Washington.

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The group also has won support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for years, with many political figures, including presidents and presidential candidates from both parties, flocking to its annual conference, which always attracts some of the biggest names in politics and foreign policy from the United States and Israel.

But it has been long a target for criticism from the left wing of the Democratic Party, where support for a foreign policy that would offer more support for the Palestinian cause has been building as the Democratic caucus grows larger and more diverse.

The Omar controversy started Sunday when she commented on a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald, a loud critic of AIPAC’s influence on American foreign policy and politics. Greenwald had tweeted out a story about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Buzz grows Rep. Amash will challenge Trump as a Libertarian MORE (R-Calif.) promising “action” against Omar for critical views on Israel.

“It's all about the Benjamins baby,” Omar tweeted.

In a subsequent tweet, Omar directly called out AIPAC, suggesting it was the lobbying group responsible for U.S. support of Israel.

Democratic leaders just a day later were lambasting Omar over her tweets, accusing her of employing anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish people and money.

“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” a joint statement from Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE (Calif.) and other House Democratic leaders stated. “But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive. We condemn these remarks and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments.”

Omar did apologize for the remarks, but she stuck to her criticism of AIPAC.

“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “It’s gone on too long, and we must be willing to address it.”

Following Omar’s initial tweet on Sunday, AIPAC issued an official statement expressing its pride in working to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.
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“Our bipartisan efforts are reflective of American values and interests. We will not be deterred in any way by ill-informed and illegitimate attacks on this important work,” the group said.

An AIPAC official who asked not to be identified said the group’s “entire approach is to focus on a bipartisan path to pass legislation. From an AIPAC perspective, our strength comes from our grass-roots lobbyists efforts.”

The official was also unsurprised Democrats came to the defense of the organization.

“In many ways, they were expressing both outrage at what the bigoted aspect of it but they were also expressing support for grass-roots involvement in the democratic process and what AIPAC does is at the heart of the First Amendment, to petition government,” the official told The Hill.

While AIPAC has bipartisan support, there have been tensions with Democrats over various policy issues for years.

Pelosi herself has spoken at AIPAC, though not always to applause.

In 2007, she was booed by some members of the audience after she offered criticisms for the Iraq War.

AIPAC was decidedly at odds with the Obama administration over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which it lobbied hard against. The deal also divided the Democratic Party, with powerful lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer wants investigation into Chinese-designed New York subway cars Getting serious about infrastructure Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act MORE (D-N.Y.) opposing it.

Given shifts in the Democratic Party, such clashes over policy are unlikely to end — and they may also open up new battles over anti-Semitism.

Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure Top House Dem calls to launch impeachment inquiry if McGahn skips testimony Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution MORE (D-Mich.), who is the first Palestinian-American congresswoman and the other first Muslim woman to serve in Congress, has criticized AIPAC over its messaging on Israel and Palestine.

Shortly before she took office, she said that she wanted to plan a congressional delegation to the West Bank as counter-programming to the trip AIPAC regularly organizes for lawmakers to go to Israel.

“I don’t think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue,” Tlaib told The Intercept in December.

Tlaib herself has been criticized for anti-Semitism. Tlaib was called out for her own tweet in January that said lawmakers who support penalizing participants of the "boycott, divestment and sanctions" (BDS) movement “forgot what country they represent.” The tweet was widely criticized as invoking an anti-Semitic trope that Jewish people have dual loyalty.

Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinGOP lawmaker slams Pelosi over response to Tlaib controversy GOP lawmaker slams Pelosi after imam critical of Israel delivers House invocation Long Island rep wishes Billy Joel happy birthday on House floor MORE (R-N.Y.), who is Jewish, introduced a resolution in January condemning anti-Semitism that singled out Tlaib's tweet, her support for the BDS movement and a 2012 Omar tweet saying "Israel has hypnotized the world."

"She is being attacked for shamefully targeting Israelis, Jews and others with a ton of hatred obviously consuming her heart," Zeldin said of Tlaib in January. "It is ironic that someone who loves the dual loyalty line of attack against supporters of Israel draped herself in a Palestinian flag on election night."

Progressives who dislike AIPAC’s influence on U.S. policy say Omar’s mistake was not in criticizing the group, but in the language she used.

“While Rep. Omar has acknowledged that she could have worded her tweet in a way that didn't accidentally trigger cultural tropes, it simply can't be true that leaders can talk about the influence of big-money donations and lobbying from the NRA, Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Wall Street but are called names and conversation is shut down at the slightest mention of AIPAC — which is known as one of the most influential lobbying outfits in DC,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement to The Hill.

Natan Sachs, director for the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said AIPAC always tries to be bipartisan because it is “afraid” of a conservative image.

“I think the partisan thing is often very overblown,” he said. “People think of it as this great conservative power. Of course, there are conservative voices in AIPAC and around AIPAC.”

As far as Omar’s criticism, Sachs said part of the issue was that she did not focus on the group’s positions.

“What was raised by these comments was not the positions of AIPAC,” Sachs told The Hill. “I think there’s a very important distinction between the specific policies … but the idea that its illegitimate to operate in favor of what they believe is at best very wrong and at worst bigotry.”

AIPAC is far from the only player on lobbying related to Israel. On the left flank is J Street, which focuses on ending the Arab–Israeli and Israeli–Palestinian conflicts.

“[It believes] American Jews should criticize Israeli government policies when we think those policies sometimes harm Israel’s future,” J Street communications director Logan Bayroff told the Hill. 

Overall, pro-Israel lobby groups gave $14.9 million in the 2018 election cycle, and $12 million of that came from individual contributions. While AIPAC doesn’t have its own PAC, J Street’s PAC gave $4.1 million in the election, with about 98 percent of it going to Democrats, whereas the Republican Jewish Coalition, to which casino mogul Sheldon Adelson gives, spent $563,00, with 99 percent of it going to Republicans.

“I definitely agree AIPAC is a Republican-leaning organization, but it is not the main reason for the ties between the U.S. and Israeli establishments. It’s a mechanism and it's an important mechanism,” Sam Husseini, senior analyst at the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy, told The Hill.