AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby in Washington, declared war on the man who could become the first Jewish president because he failed to meet the organization’s loyalty test. The lobby group vowed to work to “defeat” Sen. Bernie Sanders if he is the Democratic nominee for president.
Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, didn’t mention the Brooklyn-born senator from Vermont by name, but there was no doubt who he had in mind. He told the opening session of the lobby’s annual policy conference this week “The pro-Israel community will work to defeat those who try to harm our friends, and those who try to harm the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
“Harm” apparently includes criticizing the hard-right Netanyahu government and speaking of using Israel’s $3.8 billion annual aid grants as leverage on policies like settlements, annexation and Palestinian rights. AIPAC policy is no cuts, no conditions, no questions.
Kohr’s speech followed a call by the group’s former president, Amy Friedkin, to avoid “nasty attacks,” a plea also ignored by several leading Republican speakers.
Sanders refused to speak at the conference, accusing the group of providing a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” He also called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.” He’s got a good point.
Just this week a featured conference speaker was Aleksander Vucic, an accused war criminal and defender of genocide under Serbian Ratko Mladic, a convicted war criminal now in a Dutch prison for mass murder of Muslims. The unapologetic Vucic is now president of Serbia. He was praised while Sanders was damned.
Netanyahu, who apparently won re-election this week, has denounced Sanders’ criticism as “libelous,” and his UN ambassador went even farther. Danny Danon told AIPAC leaders, “We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel. Anyone who calls our prime minister a ‘racist’ is either a liar, an ignorant fool or both.”
Actually, his prime minister, who is due to stand trial this month on several criminal counts of corruption, has been accused by many to be a racist and a liar, not unlike his friend in the White House. Bibi has even been called a liar by Donald Trump himself as well as by Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and leading Israeli politicians of all stripes. He has sought alliances with ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious figures, notably the racist anti-Arab Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and warned his followers to get to the polls quickly because the Arabs were “voting in droves.”
Sanders’ over-the-top rhetoric was uncalled for and if he is to become the Democratic nominee or even president, he’s got a lot of cleaning up to do. For starters, he should have spoken to the conference. He blew an opportunity to bring his pro-peace message and to speak about Palestinian rights rarely heard from a presidential candidate on that stage. That would have impressed his pro-Palestinian supporters and helped assuage concerns among Jewish progressives who agree on most issues but are wary of voting for him because of what they see as his anti-Israel reputation.
Biden delivered a smarter, friendlier version of that message. Speaking on video link, he called Netanyahu’s plans for accelerated West Bank settlement expansion and annexation obstacles to peace that undermine support for Israel among young people in both parties. Trump has given Netanyahu the green light on both counts.
Kohr should know better than launch an attack on the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and the candidate who polls show defeating Trump. Instead he replaced the group’s longtime motto “friends and potential friends” with the Trump approach of targeting “false friends.” A group linked to AIPAC fruitlessly spent over $1.4 million on ads attacking Sanders prior to the Iowa and Nevada caucuses last month.
Kohr and Netanyahu overlook some important problems. First, if Sanders is the next president, they are going to have to work with him. Second, any Democrat will be reluctant to consult much less trust this pair of Likudlicans who worked so faithfully to elect Trump.
Then there is the growing disillusionment with Israel among American progressives and, notably, Jews, who see an Israel led by right-wing nationalist and religious extremists and in close alliance with a like-minded Trump administration.
Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s opponent, campaigned on a promise to rebuild bridges to the Democrats and American Jews, which Netanyahu has been burning for years; it looks like he may not get that chance.
Donald Trump, evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews may support Netanyahu, but most other Jews don’t.
Bibi’s reelection will almost certainly drive more young and progressive Jews further from Israel. The GOP has long sought to turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue, and AIPAC, led by a former top official of the Republican Jewish Coalition, has been a valued accomplice.
A survey by the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute shows Jewish voters will cast ballots for Sanders by more than 2:1 against Trump. Jews prefer any Democrat over Trump by 67 to 28 (Biden 67-31, Sanders 65-30). Sanders’ favorability rating is 52 percent, well below Biden’s 60 percent but 20 points better than Trump’s.
Importantly, the poll showed Israel ranks last on a list of priorities for Jewish voters, far below health care, Medicare and Social Security, jobs, the economy, fighting anti-Semitism and gun safety. The survey also shows 56 percent of Jewish voters are at least somewhat critical of Netanyahu’s policies.
The study also found that Trump and the GOP are viewed as “contributing to rising anti-Semitism” and at least partially responsible for “targeted attacks on synagogues.” Now that AIPAC has openly targeted the Jew who could be the next president, look for a Trump campaign seething with anti-Semitism and white nationalism.
Bibi had a rancorous relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, and it’s likely to be worse if there’s another Democrat in the White House next year, especially if it’s Sanders. Kohr warned “This fight won’t be easy. There will be angry opposition. And it won’t end in November.”
I understand AIPAC’s worries about a Sanders presidency, what I don’t get though is instead of finding a way to rapprochement, AIPAC has publicly declared war not only on a Jewish candidate but a possible president they will need to work with.