Liam Hoare

If anyone has lost out from last weekend’s Bernie Sanders conference boycott, it is Aipac itself

The pro-Israel lobby group will struggle to survive if it stops appealing to both US political parties, Liam Hoare says

March 03, 2020 12:53

This year’s Aipac Policy Conference in Washington, DC took place without the man who might be the next President of the United States: Bernie Sanders.

Citing concerns about the platform provided by the pro-Israel lobby group “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights”, Mr Sanders announced February 23 he would give it a miss.

Mr Sanders was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

Had he attended, he risked alienating the left of the Democratic Party, a movement evermore attune to the Palestinian narrative and increasingly turned off by Israel’s rightward drift.

But by skipping the conference, he missed the chance to shape the American pro-Israel conversation by making the case for Palestinian rights directly.

Opting to call Benjamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist” within the safe confines of a Democratic party debate, as he did February 25, doesn’t quite have the same effect.

Nothing was gained by Mr Sanders bypassing Aipac. But in spite of his significant departure from American political etiquette, neither does he seem to have suffered either. Indeed, if there is a potential loser in all this, it is Aipac itself.

After all, ever since the mid-1970s when it really established itself in Washington as a pro-Israel lobby promoting close political, diplomatic, and security ties between the United States and Israel, Aipac’s strength has derived from a bipartisan consensus on Israel among the political class and the American public’s broad support for the Jewish state.

A Gallup poll from March 2019 found that a majority of Americans, 59 per cent, remain partial toward Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A similar poll taken by Pew in April 2019 revealed that 64 per cent of Americans have a favourable opinion of Israelis themselves.

But the rise both of Trump and Sanders has Aipac fighting to maintain its bipartisan image.

The conference turned nasty on opening day when Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon called Mr Sanders “a liar, an ignorant fool, or both.”

Mr Trump’s man in Jerusalem, David Friedman, used his podium time to trash the Obama administration. Aipac was said to be unhappy with the partisan tone of his address.

When politicians like Mr Sanders and Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren bypass Aipac, they leave behind a void, one filled by right-wing politicians like Mr Danon, Mr Friedman, and Serbia’s president Aleksander Vučić.

The invitation to Mr Vučić in particular was a colossal own goal on Aipac’s part: part of the claim for the American-Israeli special relationship is certain shared democratic and humanitarian values.

Someone who was Slobodan Milošević’s Minister of Information has no place at a pro-Israel policy forum.

No organisation is as misunderstood as Aipac. It is often spoken about in conspiratorial tones, as if this behemoth has used its power and financial muscle to bend American policy to its will.

“They have a lot of money. They have a lot of power,” Mr Sanders said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

What its critics don’t realise is that without the already-existing bipartisan consensus, Aipac would be nothing.

The truth is that Aipac’s clout derives from the fact that in their effort to strengthen the American-Israeli relationship, they have until now been pushing at an open door.

Now, then, Aipac is at a crossroads. Should Joe Biden win the Democratic nomination or Donald Trump win re-election, that bipartisan consensus upon which it depends should hold.

But if Mr Sanders occupies the White House, Aipac will suddenly find itself on the outside looking in, a diminished organisation looking evermore to the right in search of supporters in Washington.

March 03, 2020 12:53

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