Major candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have announced they will miss one of the biggest events on the national political calendar: the annual Washington conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shared his plan last week, following the example that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) set two weeks earlier.
“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,” said Sanders, the front-runner in the race.
It’s a striking development: Only one Democratic candidate ― former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg ― will attend the confab, which has traditionally hosted major candidates from both parties in election years before thousands of politically engaged AIPAC members. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg will address the convention through pre-recorded videos. And it’s the latest evidence of a shift with big implications for the Democratic Party, the American Jewish community ― in which AIPAC has long held a dominant role that appears to be shrinking ― and U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine.
The activist groups asking candidates to #SkipAIPAC, which include MoveOn, IfNotNow, Indivisible and the Working Families Party, rooted their pitch in progressive values. They argue a potential leader of the Democratic Party cannot appear alongside figures known for bigoted statements, like a pastor who said former President Barack Obama was not a Christian or Serbian President Aleksander Vučić, who has threatened a massacre of Muslims. They also painted AIPAC as a threat to Middle East peace, saying it enables Israel’s expansion into territory that would be the basis of a future Palestinian state, arguing AIPAC makes it harder to criticize often-brutal Israeli military control over the communities there, and highlighting its opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
Ahead of the three-day conference, those advocates can claim a win. But it’s one that is about more than their months of public pressure. AIPAC has built tremendous influence in American politics because of its members’ donations to and relationships with both major parties. It’s balanced prioritizing pro-Israel stances over any other aspect of a politician’s agenda ― telling Republicans it will treat them as “friendly incumbents” ― while presenting itself as a vital political voice for more than 7 million American Jews, most of whom reliably vote Democratic.
With AIPAC’s bipartisan credentials now in jeopardy, its leadership may well be slightly confused. They have been clear for decades about who they are.
“It is not new that AIPAC is giving a stage to voices that are far to the right of U.S. policy or of the mainstream U.S. Jewish community,” said Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. The conference has repeatedly hosted Pastor John Hagee, who has said Hitler was fulfilling God’s will by pushing Jews to move to Israel and called Hurricane Katrina a punishment for a gay pride rally, Friedman pointed out. Hagee founded an influential pro-Israel network called Christians United for Israel.
The group has also consistently been skeptical of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and U.S. pressure on Israel, despite its stated commitment to countries for both peoples. It’s forcefully challenged politicians on the issue, including former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Obama. It wasn’t a huge leap, then, to welcome President Donald Trump’s hardline plan, which Palestinians view as unacceptable but right-wing forces in Israel celebrated.
“AIPAC has behaved for the entire life of the peace process in a manner that suggests that the current policies of the Israeli government and the Trump administration are in no way problematic for its worldview,” Friedman said.
Nor was it unprecedented for the group to target political figures it viewed as threats, as it has for years. So far in 2020, it has produced ads saying Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) threaten Jews and Israel ― prompting McCollum to call AIPAC a “hate group” ― and helped an affiliated group attack Sanders. On Saturday, it released a clip heavily featuring criticism of Sanders on Twitter.
What has changed is the world outside AIPAC.
Politicians and activists have worked to show that it’s possible to be pro-Israel without following AIPAC’s lead. In 2007, former Bill Clinton aide Jeremy Ben-Ami founded J Street, which also reaches out to American Jews and lobbies Congress but tightly ties its support of Israel to advocating a two-state solution, which it calls crucial for the country’s survival as Jewish and democratic. The group has grown powerful, particularly among Democrats, and provided a platform for policymakers to talk about new ways to encourage peace and rein in aggressive Israeli behavior ― not outright endorsing dramatic steps like new conditions on aid to Israel but becoming the group through which those ideas are introduced and seriously debated, as they were last year by top 2020 candidates.
Skeptics of AIPAC and the Israeli government policies it defends have continued to demonstrate that they won’t shrink in the face of claims that they’re insufficiently loyal to an ally, or the charge — now championed by Trump — that they are anti-Semitic. (Dealing with that particular accusation remains complicated.)
Advocates, particularly younger American Jews, have also connected concerns about Israel and Palestine to the broader liberal agenda ― rejecting what Friedman described as AIPAC’s position, exemplified by Trump’s 2016 appearance at its conference amid the open racism of his campaign, that it “redefined pro-Israel to mean setting aside every other thing that you value in the world.”
That’s the thinking behind noting and publicizing the track records of AIPAC attendees. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s courting of authoritarians abroad who demonize minorities (from Hungary’s Viktor Orban and India’s Narenda Modi to Trump) helps campaigners make their point that true support of Israel, the Jewish people and progressive values requires change ― particularly given how the far-right, Islamophobic thinking of those leaders and their flirtations with “globalist” conspiracy theories has boosted international anti-Semitism. For Netanyahu, who is bound to serve Israelis, not Jews elsewhere in the world, giving cover to such movements may seem like a savvy political play; to others, including many American Jews, it represents danger.
AIPAC’s critics are energized.
“It feels significant and not at all something to take for granted that also the more moderate candidates don’t see it as necessary to attend AIPAC, and it might actually be politically strategic for them [not to] given the coalitions they’re hoping to attract,” said Morriah Kaplan, a spokesperson for IfNotNow, a group popular among younger leftist American Jews. Buttigieg and Klobuchar got attention and headlines after their campaigns said they would not attend; AIPAC released news of their videos days later.
Their next test might be one with broader impact: Change within the American Jewish community and how American politicians relate to it is clearly coming, but a big national conversation about the details of U.S. policies linked to human rights abuses and long-term risks in Israel and Palestine isn’t yet taking place.
For Kaplan, the former enables the latter.
“As there is a growing recognition that the status quo is untenable, that unconditional support for Israel is harmful for Palestinians and it’s harmful for Israelis, it creates more room for political leaders to take bolder stances in their foreign policy,” she said. “Part of the calculus is … we get to be a credible Jewish voice and be able to break the facade that [AIPAC speaks] for all Jews, that they are the Jewish stamp of approval.”
AIPAC and multiple Democratic lawmakers listed as speakers at its conference did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
UPDATE: March 1 — This story has been updated to reflect AIPAC’s announcement that Buttigieg will share a video, like Biden and Klobuchar. IfNotNow slammed the move.
“We are disappointed by Amy Klobuchar’s and Pete Buttigieg’s decisions to cave to AIPAC’s pressure, but also unsurprised, given that their campaigns have been distinguished by a stated desire to be seen as progressive alongside a demonstrated refusal to stand up to the corrupt establishment,” the group’s co-founder Dani Moscovitch said in a statement.
“The last-minute nature of the announcements — and the lowering of AIPAC’s own standards to accept pre-recorded videos from the candidates — gives a glimpse into AIPAC’s frantic scramble to save face. ... Since AIPAC’s last conference, more and more Democrats — including Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — have publicly challenged their shining achievement: the blank check American taxpayers give to the Israeli government to fund its brutal occupation of the Palestinian people. We are proud to be part of the growing movement encouraging more and more morally courageous leaders to stop funding the occupation.”