Absent Sanders takes center stage at pro-Israel AIPAC

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) isn’t at this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. But he’s on everyone’s minds.

Sanders, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, is an avowed opponent of the Washington group, which he has criticized as providing a platform for bigotry and opposition to Palestinian rights.

As a result, he’s been a target of speakers at the group’s annual conference.

Republicans have slammed the Vermont progressive, likening his boycott of the event as rejecting support for Israel. 

“Democratic candidates used to be proud to stand alongside Israel, and AIPAC,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), referring to Sanders. “Now some are jockeying to see who can get the farthest away.”

The attacks from McConnell and other Republicans are a preview of what’s to come against Sanders from Trump — particularly in the swing state of Florida.

Democratic opponents of Sanders who showed up at AIPAC have also taken their licks. 

“Senator Sanders has spent 30 years boycotting this event,” Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg told the 18,000 attendees. “He called AIPAC a racist platform. Well, let me tell you he’s dead wrong.”

The outsize focus on Sanders underscores the Democratic presidential contender’s prominence in the race and the pushback against his policy positions toward the Jewish state. 

Sanders, one of two Jewish candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee, often talks about his time spent living in Israel as a young man and his support for its security and independence.

But he has drawn harsh reactions for his outspoken criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — whom he’s called a “reactionary racist. ” He’s also been criticized for his calls to condition military aid to pressure Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians, and for suggesting he would move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. 

“Anyone who speaks of returning the embassy to Tel Aviv is rejecting a generation of overwhelming bipartisan consensus,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said at the conference. 

AIPAC stresses that the organization is solidly bipartisan to ensure support for Israel is maintained despite whichever political party controls the majority. It opened its three-day conference with an appeal for attendees to be respectful of speakers they may disagree with from political positions they don’t align with. 

But that sentiment was contrasted by remarks from AIPAC’s CEO Howard Kohr, who implicitly criticized Sanders without naming him.

“So let me say this plainly, any leader who energizes their political movement by demonizing Israel is not a friend of Israel,” Kohr said. “The pro-Israel community will work to defeat those who try to harm our friends, and those who try to harm the US-Israel relationship.”

Pro-Israel Democrats have been upfront on their concerns with Sanders.

“We have concerns about his divisiveness in general, and particularly his divisiveness on the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mark Mellman, President of the Democratic Majority for Israel Political Action Committee, told The Hill. His organization has launched attack ads against Sanders’s candidacy. Mellman is also a contributor for The Hill. 

Republicans at the AIPAC conference have noted that Sanders is backed by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a figure demonized among the crowd for her criticism of the organization; statements she has made that have been widely condemned as anti-Semitic; and her support of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“Instead of standing with Israel, he [Sanders] is campaigning with Congress’s most vocal supporters of the vile BDS movement,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told the crowd. “You may know her as Congresswoman Omar.”

The mention of her name at the conference prompted loud boos among attendees. 

Omar last year said that AIPAC’s influence is “all about the Benjamins” and that its supporters “push for allegiance to a foreign country.” The remarks were widely criticized as anti-Semitic by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Omar has campaigned for Sanders, including on Saturday in Virginia, where Sanders called her “one of the greatest people I know.”

Democratic lawmakers speaking at the conference refrained from addressing Sanders by name, but spoke out against policy positions he publicly touts.

“If anyone out there is suggesting that we cut aid to Israel, it comes from their ignorance, frankly, and they don’t understand the importance of the Israel-United States relationship,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the outgoing chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

AIPAC supports maintaining Congress’s annual delivery of $3.3 billion in foreign military financing to Israel and $500 million in missile defense.

Yet progressive groups say that military aid should have more oversight to ensure it’s not being used in policies seen as oppressing Palestinians. 

The organization is also criticized as acting as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu. Both AIPAC and Netanyahu spoke out forcefully against former President Obama for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. 

Netanyhau is Israel’s longest serving prime minister and is favored to lead the next government after an unprecedented third election that took place Monday. 

Speaking at AIPAC via satellite, Netanyahu took aim at Sanders, saying the senator’s statements against the organization are “libelous” and “outrageous.” 

“We were all reminded a few days ago that there were forces that seem to break our alliance,” Netanyahu told the crowd. “This year AIPAC was accused of providing a platform for bigotry. These libelous charges are outrageous.”

The Israeli ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon, called Sanders “a liar, an ignorant fool or both,” for calling Netanyahu a “racist.” 

“We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel,” Danon said. 



Tags AIPAC Benjamin Netanyahu Bernie Sanders Ilhan Omar Israel Kevin McCarthy Michael Bloomberg Mitch McConnell Nita Lowey

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