Bernie’s AIPAC Boycott

By | Feb 24, 2020
Israel, Latest

Jewish politics from the nation’s capital.
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1.   Bernie’s skipping AIPAC

Bernie Sanders announced Sunday that he will not attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference next week. “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,” Sanders wrote, promising that as president, he will “support the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and do everything possible to bring peace and security to the region.”

He’s not the first to boycott the conference; Elizabeth Warren did so much more bluntly last month when she seemed to agree that AIPAC is in alliance with “Islamophobes” and “anti-Semites and white nationalists.”

But Sanders’s decision carries more long-term significance.

Bernie Sanders is no longer an angry leftie Democrat dismayed by AIPAC’s policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is the party’s frontrunner, who may very likely become its presidential nominee. And as such, his snub to AIPAC is a statement that will shape relations between Democrats and the pro-Israel lobby for years to come.

AIPAC responded to Sanders’s decision with a statement saying that “Senator Sanders has never attended our conference and that is evident from his outrageous comment.” The lobby followed up with a string of retweetsall carrying the hashtag #AIPACProud from Jewish leaders and others denouncing Sanders and making clear they will not boycott the conference.

As a leading candidate, Sanders has set a new standard for the relationship between progressive Democrats and AIPAC, which is by and large the most powerful and influential pro-Israel group in America. Moving forward, any progressive politician will have to either abide by the Sanders precedent or explain why she or he deviated from it.

And still, one has to wonder, is there a scenario where Sanders would have attended? Would he have made the detour, on the eve of Super Tuesday, to address the lobby in Washington, DC? (Sanders will be in Virginia a day before the conference, but will focus his final push before Super Tuesday on other states.) His refusal to participate could have been explained by a mere scheduling conflict. But the statement makes clear that within his base, snubbing AIPAC carries some political value.

2. Are Jews against Bernie taking a step back?

As Sanders steamrolls ahead in the Democratic primaries, landing a major win in Nevada and heading strong into South Carolina and then Super Tuesday, it seemed, for a moment, that a temporary ceasefire has been called in the battle waged by pro-Israel Democrats against the senator from Vermont.

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), the PAC behind a series of attack ads aired against Sanders in Iowa and Nevada, does not plan to run such ads in the future. “We don’t have plans to be further involved in the presidential race—against Sanders or anyone else, for that matter,” the group’s CEO Mark Mellman said at a New York event, according to Jewish Insider. Instead, the PAC will focus on congressional races. 

But if there was any ceasefire, it was short-lived.

DMFI made clear in a later statement that it will continue to be “deeply involved in the presidential race” and that it is “continuously evaluating” specific plans and strategies. The statement also makes clear DMFI still doesn’t think Sanders should be the Democratic candidate.

And after Sanders’s announced his intention to boycott AIPAC, the group lashed out in a tweet, saying that Sanders shouldn’t be spreading claims of bigotry: 

Bottom line: the war is still on.

3. On eve of elections, Bibi tries to smear rival as anti-Trump

It’s election time in Israel. Again.

Yes, it’s already been six months since Israelis last went to the polls, which can mean only one thing: It’s time to have elections once again, in hope of breaking the political deadlock and perhaps actually succeeding to form a government.

And while Israelis bemoan having to go through another excruciating season of political mudslinging, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to share the joy with American TV viewers.

In an interview with Mark Levine of Fox News which aired this weekend, the Israeli prime minister, battling in yet another neck and neck race with his rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, conveyed to American viewers some thoughts about his political rival.

“When the Trump plan came out, [the Blue and White party] said, ‘Oh, we’re for the Trump plan.’ There’s only one problem with that: A, they’re not. B, they’ve said horrible things about President Trump just before the Trump plan was announced, like comparing him to Hitler…so they’re not going to adopt the Trump plan.”

There are a few things to unpack in this statement.

First is the claim that Blue and White is not committed to Trump’s peace plan. This is an unusual claim to make, since Gantz, to the dismay of potential political partners from the left, has stated clearly he sees Trump’s plan as a positive basis for advancing peace and even floated the idea of bringing it to a vote in the Knesset before the elections.

But there was something else at play, too.

Does Blue and White really see any equivalence between Trump and Hitler?

In the interview with Mark Levine, Netanyahu explains:

“One is an Israeli adviser called Ronen Tzur, he compared President Trump to Adolf Hitler. It’s incredible—the greatest friend we’ve ever had in the White House, he’s compared him to Adolf Hitler.”

Netanyahu then went on to another adviser of Gantz, Joel Benenson:

“He worked for Obama. But he too did something which I think is illegitimate. He, too, compared President Trump to Adolf Hitler.”

All this sounds pretty serious. Let’s fact check.

Did Ronen Tzur compare Trump to Hitler?

He kind of did. (And the Likud Party was kind enough to dig up his old tweets and share them with the press last month.)

In a 2017 tweet Tzur wrote: “Barack Hussain Obama left, Donald Adolf Trump arrived. Dying to see who comes next.”

Tzur, apparently not a big fan of Trump, had several other savory tweets in which he criticized and mocked the American president.

But he also said this, in a late-January tweet:

“Let me clarify: There were some issues on which the younger me thought differently from the president (not that it matters to anyone). Meanwhile, it turns out he is the most courageous U.S. president, and the most significant for the security of Israel in generations, and together with millions of Israelis, I salute him.”

And what about former Obama adviser Benenson? Does he see similarities between Trump and Hitler?

Not really. He did, however, in response to a 2018 tweet, argue that Trump kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. This claim is widely seen as factually correct, although it is not clear if Trump had ever read the book, let alone find any interest or inspiration in it.

4. Netanyahu’s calculation

Why waste important campaign time, less than two weeks before the elections, on an interview with an American right-wing commentator?

Netanyahu wasn’t just being polite to Levine. He used the interview to send a clear message to the Israeli public (the interview was widely reported in Israeli press) about Gantz and Trump.

It is a message that carries weight in Israeli politics: Gantz, according to Netanyahu, doesn’t respect Trump, won’t go ahead with the peace plan bearing Trump’s name, and even has close campaign advisers who dislike Trump and may or may not believe he is akin to Adolph Hitler.

For undecided Israeli voters, this is an important message, because regardless of how unpopular Trump may be among American Jews, he is extremely well-liked in Israel. Depicting Gantz as someone who does not share this admiration of Trump, and who subsequently will not get along with the leader of the free world, helps drive home Bibi’s message that only he is a statesman who can deal with world leaders and deliver their support.

5. Adelson is opening his checkbook

Back on the Republican side, Jewish donors are gearing up to assist Donald Trump with his reelection bid.

Mega-donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson will host a fundraiser for Trump at their Las Vegas home. It won’t be cheap: $100,000 to attend, and $250,000 for a roundtable discussion with the president. The fundraiser will take place a day before the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual Vegas meeting, so expect some overlap.

Adelson is said to be prepared to contribute anywhere between $100-200 million to ensure four more years of Trump in the White House.

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