In extreme reality, can AIPAC remain bipartisan?

American Jewish Affairs: Is AIPAC on a collision course with a person who might become the Democratic nominee?

CAN AIPAC keep its bipartisan stance going? (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
CAN AIPAC keep its bipartisan stance going?
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – When Bernie Sanders – until this week the Democratic front-runner – announced on Twitter that he’d skip the AIPAC Policy Conference, no one in Washington raised their eyebrows. After all, Sanders has long opposed the pro-Israel lobby.
And yet the incident put the organization, built on a bipartisan basis, between a rock and a hard place. For a few years, AIPAC has struggled to remain a bipartisan organization. But in the hyper-partisan reality of Washington, when everything is partisan, is there such a thing as bipartisan anymore? And if there are a few bipartisan issues, could support for Israel remain one of them?
AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr gave a scathing speech at the opening session of the pro-Israel lobby on Sunday morning, sharply criticizing Sanders without mentioning him by name.
“Israel cannot afford false friends,” he said. “Any leader who energizes their political movement by demonizing Israel is not a friend of Israel.”
“The pro-Israel community will work to defeat those who try to harm our friends and those who try to harm the US-Israel relationship,” Kohr added.
Does this mean that AIPAC is on a collision course with a person who might become the Democratic nominee?
According to lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, Sanders’s decision to shun AIPAC is an unpleasant move that does not necessarily indicate that support for Israel is eroding, as Vice President Mike Pence warned in his keynote speech on Monday. Meaning, if Sanders is clashing with AIPAC, it doesn’t mean that all Democrats are clashing with AIPAC.
“Israel is the last thing that’s bipartisan in Washington,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) told The Jerusalem Post. “When we had the vote against BDS and reaffirming our relationship with Israel, more Democrats voted [against BDS] in the House of Representatives than Republicans. That’s because there are slightly more Democratic members of the House than Republicans. But the support was so overwhelming that we actually had more Democratic votes,” he added.
“We have in America a holiday called Mother’s Day,” Sherman continued. “And my fear was that Donald Trump would tweet just a nice message to the mothers of America on Mother’s Day, because then I would be pressured by my partisans to come out against motherhood. That is how partisan America has become.
“There are quite a number of Republicans who have kind of harassed me being here, because they’ve been faked into adopting what I call pseudo-Zionism,” Sherman added. “A pseudo-Zionist says no Democrat can be pro-Israel. Now that statement is very much helpful to the Republican Party. It is very much hurtful to Israel. But everybody who says it claims they’re pro-Israel.”
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine also mentioned the same legislation and the fact that some Democrats opposed it.
“AIPAC has great relationships with people on both sides of the aisle,” she told the Post in a conversation during AIPAC’s congressional reception this week.
“What has changed in the years that I’ve been here is it used to be that strong support and recognition of the special American-Israeli relationship was almost automatic,” she said. “And now we’d see a case where the anti-BDS legislation gets 23 votes against that, and it includes many of the people running for president on the Democratic side of the aisle. That shocked me, but I believe that support for Israel will always be bipartisan, nevertheless.”
“I worry about two of the people on the Democratic side, and those two are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, because they have talked about conditioning aid to Israel, and that would be a real break with both Democratic and Republican congresses and presidents in the past,” she continued. “They are the two that do worry me about continuing that long, proud tradition that we have of a strong and very special relationship between our two countries.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York) is one out of two Republican Jewish representatives in Congress. “AIPAC has worked incredibly hard over the years at building solid relationships and trust with members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle,” he told the Post at the reception. “If there’s a partisan fight brewing in Washington involving an issue that AIPAC cares about, they are in a unique position to be able to come in and instantly build a bridge to get something actually done – what might otherwise be unsuccessful.”
“The Democratic Party right now has the choice to make,” he added. “Who do they want as their nominee? What do they want as their party platform? And the party right now has a group of people who, in my opinion, don’t have Israel’s best interests at heart. And you have many other members of the Democratic Party who do. And it’s up to the Democratic Party, over the course of these next few weeks and few months, to decide where they stand. But as a Republican member of the House, I can’t answer that question for them. Right now, they are at a crossroads, and I hope that the party chooses to be standing strong, shoulder to shoulder, with our nation’s greatest ally well into the future.”
Sen. Joe Biden’s resurgence in the race against Sanders with his impressive showing on “Super Tuesday” bodes well for AIPAC’s relationship with the Democratic Party.
The former vice president is considered moderate on Israel and has visited the country many times, since the days that Golda Meir was prime minister, and it’s safe to assume that any government in Israel would prefer him over Sanders, who threatened to cut military assistance to Israel.
Biden appeared at AIPAC in a recorded video speech and said that a two-state solution “is the best way to ensure a secure and peaceful Israeli future for the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.” He also struck a middle ground, saying that while Palestinians need to eradicate incitement and rocket attacks, Israel needs to stop threats of annexation.
According to Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, there is room for optimism that AIPAC can maintain bipartisan support for Israel.
“I’ve been fighting for that for 40 years. I’m still optimistic about that,” he told the Post at the congressional reception. “AIPAC has to remain a bipartisan organization,” he added. “We know that the Republicans are doing everything to stop that for the last 15 years or so. And AIPAC has resisted that. And Bernie Sanders takes an unfortunate position, but hopefully he won’t be the party nominee.”
“I THINK Bernie Sanders is an anomaly, and I think that he is seeking to promote the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party, his base, to continue to support him,” Harris Silver of Sarasota, Florida, who attended AIPAC for the first time, told the Post. “I think it’s a mistake for Sanders, but it’s also a mistake for Jews. I think that 80% of AIPAC are probably pro-Trump and conservative, but there is a strong 20% who supports the relationship between America and Israel.”
Bruce Levy from South Florida voiced a similar sentiment. “I’ve been coming here for 15 years,” he told the Post. “We’re meeting more and more middle-of-the-road people. Rumor has it that this organization is really leaning heavily to the Right. Perhaps it is. Maybe a little more people are Republicans. But we’re meeting more and more middle-of-the-road people, which is refreshing. So, there is hope.”
“The meaning of having a bipartisan organization is what AIPAC is all about,” Levy continued. “It’s been like this forever. Do we have dissenting voices? Of course. But coming together with AIPAC, that’s what it’s all about. Yes, we have a candidate who is expressing his opinion. He is not necessarily the leading candidate, and I think it’ll be his downfall. Because his comments were just not just out of line, but just atrocious.”
Sam Delug from Los Angeles told the Post that it doesn’t matter who is the president, since Israel has strong, bipartisan support in Congress.
“There’s a contingent of the Democratic Party that is very out there in terms of anti-Israel, but they represent a very small percentage of the House representatives,” he added. “So I know we’re all panicking because they got a lot of press, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of politicians are supportive of Israel, and AIPAC can make sure it stays that way.”