Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC may have lost Democrats for good

It's not just Bernie: Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC may have lost the US Democrats for good
5 min read
28 Feb, 2020
Opinion: With presidential candidates boycotting its conference and Congressmen publically calling it a hate group, AIPAC may have finally lost the support of the Democratic Party, writes Josh Ruebner
The Israel lobby may have irreversibly lost the support of the Democratic Party [Getty]

An estimated 18,000 fervent supporters of Israel are set to gather in Washington, DC from March 1-3 for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), widely regarded as the most influential of the pro-Israel lobbying organizations.

Up until recently, AIPAC prided itself on bipartisanship, arguing strenuously that the unshakable, unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel transcended domestic politics and that US support for Israel constituted one of the sole issues which united Democrats and Republicans in a fractious political environment.

And, until recent years, it was difficult to argue against that. AIPAC-backed legislation routinely sailed through Congress virtually uncontested, with only a handful of brave voices standing up for Palestinian rights by voting no or quietly abstaining.

Not any more. This year, AIPAC’s policy conference convenes with this bipartisan comity in tatters, perhaps irreversibly so.

In theory, the wide-open Democratic presidential primary this election cycle presents candidates with a golden opportunity to sharpen their pro-Israel credentials at AIPAC’s conference and better position themselves to raise funds from deep-pocketed donors whose political giving is motivated by their support for a strong US-Israel relationship.

Yet, as of this writing, the only confirmed speaker among the Democratic presidential candidates is former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The fact he is now the standard-bearer of Democratic support for Israel should be of grave concern, for several reasons, to those trying to prop up faltering Democratic support for Israel.

Pro-Israel Bloomberg has a deeply troubling history of racist and misogynistic statements, behaviors, and policies - an unappealing record to the increasingly progressive base of the party

Bloomberg: A liability not an asset

First, Bloomberg’s connection to the Democratic Party is tenuous at best, given his recent funding of Republican congressional candidates.

Second, Bloomberg has a deeply troubling history of racist and misogynistic statements, behaviors, and policies - an unappealing record to the increasingly progressive base of the party.

Third, even though Bloomberg has the deepest connection to Israel among the candidates (his campaign is actively mobilising expat US citizens there to vote for him in the Democrats Abroad caucus), his grasp of the issues are shaky, as demonstrated by his perplexingly Orientalist and ahistorical comment at the most recent Democratic debate: “Well, the battle has been going on for a long time in the Middle East, whether it's the Arabs versus the Persians, the Shias versus the Sunnis, the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians, it's only gone on for 40 or 50 years.”

Meanwhile, four other Democratic presidential candidates from both the progressive and moderate wings of the party—front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg - have all pledged to skip the AIPAC conference.

Of the candidates boycotting AIPAC, Sanders did so most emphatically, declaring on Sunday that he would not address the conference because of “the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights” in a Tweet liked by more than 100,000 people.

“The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”

AIPAC retorted by calling Sanders’s comments “outrageous”, “odious”, and “truly shameful”, without addressing the substance of his critique.

On Tuesday, Sanders doubled down when asked about AIPAC at the Democratic debate, calling the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist” and urging Democrats not to “ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people” to raucous applause from the audience.

A tipping point for Israel support?

Nominally, this year’s AIPAC policy conference is still bipartisan. An impressive 22 Democratic Members of Congress are scheduled to speak. However, most of them are long-time stalwarts of strong US-Israel relations and represent the past, not the future, of the party.

Make no mistake though. The significance of four Democratic presidential candidates skipping AIPAC cannot be overstated, representing a fundamental break from bipartisan support for Israel.

To some extent, AIPAC’s wounds with the Democratic Party are self-inflicted. From its strategic blunder of trying to undermine President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement—the Iran nuclear deal—to its more recent attack ad this month against Democrats as being “more sinister” than ISIS, AIPAC is provocatively alienating the party base.

The ISIS ad prompted Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), a long-time supporter of Palestinian rights, whose image was used in the ad, to issue a blistering response accusing AIPAC of “incitement” and being a “hate group”, unprecedentedly harsh characterisations of the group from a Member of Congress.

The fact that Members of Congress like Sanders and McCollum feel emboldened to speak out against AIPAC is also a testament to changing mores in US society over which AIPAC has no control. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, the partisan divide over Israel and the Palestinian people has never been greater, with Republicans in near unanimity in unwavering backing for Israel and liberal Democrats twice as likely to sympathise with Palestinians over Israel.

In other words, despite the appearance of nearly two dozen Democratic Members of Congress at AIPAC, it is clear that Democratic opposition to AIPAC’s agenda is reaching a tipping point.

Josh Ruebner is senior principal at Progress Up Consulting and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama's failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

Follow him on Twitter: @joshruebner

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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