AIPAC Has Bigger Problems Than Sanders’ Snub – and It Could Define Its Future

WASHINGTON – Bernie Sanders’ announcement that he won’t attend this year’s AIPAC conference in Washington did not come as a surprise to anyone: In his three decades as an elected official in Washington, Sanders had never attended the gathering, and there was no reason to think this year would be his first time, especially in light of his recent statements regarding U.S. military aid to Israel.

But what did surprise the powerful pro-Israel lobby was Sanders’ decision to make a political statement out of not attending its policy conference. This year’s event, which is expected to attract as many as 18,000 people, will take place this weekend – just 48 hours before Super Tuesday, the most important day on the Democratic presidential primary calendar. Currently, it’s not clear if any of the party’s presidential contenders will choose to waste precious campaigning time ahead of that day at a conference in Washington.

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 64

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

Unlike the responses of other candidates, the declaration Sanders tweeted on Sunday – just one day after he won the Nevada Democratic caucus and entrenched his position as the front-runner in the Democratic race – wasn’t just about not attending the AIPAC confab: The Vermont senator gave political and ideological reasons for not doing so, unleashing a direct attack on the lobby.

More than the decision to give the event a miss, it was apparently Sander’s choice of words that surprised AIPAC most. He accused the organization of giving a platform “to leaders who express bigotry” – likely a reference to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is invited every year to speak before the conference, and is once again, in his current election campaign, making racist attacks against Israel’s Arab citizens and their representatives in the Knesset.

AIPAC’s response was swift and powerful: It released a statement rebuking Sanders, using words such as “shameful” and “outrageous,” which the lobby has never used before when criticizing a leading presidential candidate of either party. In the days that have passed since Sanders’ tweet, the lobby has used its social media accounts to highlight bipartisan support for its work, sharing posts on the subject from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress who, unlike Sanders, plan to attend the conference this weekend.

It was critical for the lobby to highlight such messages in the aftermath of Sanders’ statement not just because it prides itself on securing bipartisan support for Israel: Indeed, that is the main justification for AIPAC’s very existence. In the political reality of 2020, no one actually needs the lobby in order to ensure Republican support for right-wing Israeli policies. Such support is already being secured by powerful Evangelical Christian organizations and by major donors such as casino tycoon and billionaire Sheldon Adelson. But Israel’s official diplomatic approach is that the country needs bipartisan support in Washington, a city where power changes hands every few years between the two parties. AIPAC, for its part, presents itself to its donors and supporters as the organization most capable of providing “ironclad support” for Israel on both sides of the aisle.

Sanders’ attack on the lobby is a direct blow to its bipartisan talking points. If he does secure the Democratic nomination – a very likely scenario, at this point – AIPAC will face an extremely difficult challenge ahead of the November election, and its bipartisan reputation will be put to one of the toughest possible tests.