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Bernie Sanders Boycotts Pro-Israel Americans

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With Bernie Sanders emerging as the front-runner to win his party’s presidential nomination, pro-Israel Americans must grapple with an uncomfortable question: Does the Democratic Party still support the world’s only Jewish state?  

What raises the question is next week’s annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. Sanders announced this week that he would not be attending, saying on Twitter: “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

At Tuesday night’s debate, Sanders clarified that he was speaking about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I’m very proud of being Jewish,” he said. “I actually lived in Israel for some months. But what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country.”

In other words, Sanders might deign to speak at the country’s largest organization devoted to the U.S.-Israel relationship — but only if it shuns the man Israelis have elected to lead their country for the last 10 years.

This is not to say that Netanyahu is beyond reproach. Last year, he cynically accepted the help of an extremist party that favors ethnic cleansing, providing political legitimacy to what used to be a third rail in Israeli politics. AIPAC, along with most other major Jewish American organizations, denounced his ploy.

If Sanders wished to highlight this ugly episode in a speech to AIPAC, it would be uncomfortable for the audience. If he wanted to make the case against President Donald Trump’s peace plan or defend Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, it would be tense. Instead, by boycotting the conference altogether, Sanders is lending legitimacy to a movement that seeks to make the pro-Israel lobby itself toxic within the Democratic Party.

There is a double standard at work here. In 2016 Sanders said he would work to normalize U.S. relations with Iran, a regime that sponsors terrorists who kill Jews and Americans. In January, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren hosted a conference call with the National Iranian American Council, a group that supports the U.S.-Iran relationship in the same way AIPAC advocates for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Then there is the Sanders campaign’s embrace of surrogates who support the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel itself, something Sanders has said he opposes. The most prominent is Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who in December said Israel is built on the idea of Jewish supremacy. (Unsurprisingly, she applauded his decision to skip AIPAC.) Another Sanders surrogate is Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who attacked her fellow Democrats last year, saying she “should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support for a foreign country,” meaning Israel. 

The list goes on. The Sanders campaign is a magnet for Americans who are hostile to both the Jewish state and those who support it.

All of this puts AIPAC, and the American Jewish community, in a bind. There is no doubt that it’s better for Israel if both major parties support the U.S.-Israel relationship. At the same time, it’s dangerous to pretend one’s adversaries are allies. Sanders has made it clear that he is no friend of Israel.  

There will be a temptation for AIPAC to gloss over this episode, especially if Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee. After all, Sanders supports a two-state solution. He lived on an Israeli Kibbutz. He has voted to sanction Iran. At a 2014 town hall, he admirably took on hecklers defending Palestinian terrorists, giving an even-handed response to a question about Israel’s war with Hamas.

That was six years ago. In 2020, on the verge of securing the Democratic presidential nomination, his views seem closer to the protesters in that crowd. In this sense, his decision to skip the AIPAC meeting is clarifying. It’s now time to return the favor. If Sanders wishes to boycott AIPAC, its members should boycott Sanders.  

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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