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Democrats never said Ilhan Omar’s name during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gathering in Washington this week. But the Minnesota Congresswoman was all they could talk about.
One top Democrat after another criticized Rep. Omar during the three-day event. No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer kicked off the barrage Sunday, slamming Omar’s recent remarks that supporters of Israel push for unconditional “allegiance” to the Jewish state, and reminding the audience that there “are 62 freshman Democrats” besides Omar and her allies.
The next day, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appeared to compare Omar’s controversial remarks about campaign donations driving support for Israel to Donald Trump saying there were “very fine people” at the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel “bigoted.” Omar, a BDS supporter, responded to Pelosi by saying that the speaker’s harsh criticism of BDS was “beneath any leader” because it undermined people exercising free speech.
The broad, if veiled, attacks on Omar from Democratic leaders at the conference were meant to reassert their ironclad backing of the Jewish state. Instead, they exposed the growing split between the young, progressive wing of the party and its hawkish leadership on U.S. support for Israel — a divide only exaggerated by the absence of all presidential candidates on the AIPAC stage and the calculated campaign by Republicans to frame Democrats as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
“We’re at a turning-point moment.”
“These members of Congress are really trying to send a message that everything’s fine, there’s no change among Democrats. They’re trying to reassure the crowd at AIPAC that that’s the case,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “But I don’t think the crowd believes it, and I don’t think they believe it.”
“The base of the party has grown alienated from Israel and the policies it's pursuing against the Palestinians,” he added.
That alienation from Israel, driven by dismay at its nearly 52-year-old military occupation of Palestinians, the bear-hug embrace President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have given each other, and the disrespect the latter showed to President Obama during his two terms in office, has now reached the 2020 presidential campaign.
In an unprecedented move, the leading liberal group MoveOn called on all Democratic 2020 contenders to skip the AIPAC conference. A spokesman for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he boycotted the conference because “he’s concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.” Other top candidates followed suit, skipping the conference, though Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar met with AIPAC supporters who are constituents in their states.
The divide between the activist base and a party leadership that used AIPAC to slam Omar boiled over into intra-party sniping as the week progressed. Schumer’s drawing of an equivalency between Omar and Trump outraged progressive officials like Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy aide, who rolled his eyes at the comparison of a Somali-American Muslim refugee to a president who emboldens white nationalists.
“We’re at a turning-point moment,” said Yael Shafritz, a spokesperson for IfNotNow, a national group of young American Jews who oppose Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. “More and more progressives are coming out publicly to say we’re critical of what’s happening, critical of big money in politics, and critical of unquestioning support for Netanyahu’s government.”
The trend of Democratic critique of Israel is worrisome for those who back the traditional U.S.-Israel alliance, which has underpinned the massive U.S. military aid that flows to Israel and protection of the Jewish state in international forums.
“This is a damaging process,” said Oded Eran, a former deputy chief for Israel’s embassy in Washington. “All of our efforts in the past were directed to maintain bipartisan support, which we felt was essential for Israel. Unfortunately, in the last few years, there is a serious threat to this support — maybe in the long run causing damage to Israel’s interests.”
“If either side were particularly committed to Israel’s longevity and strength, the last thing they would want to do is make Israel a partisan issue.”
But for Republicans, the Democratic schism on Israel is a moment to savor. Speaking at AIPAC’s conference on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence accused Rep. Omar of anti-Semitism, and said Democrats should take a top Congressional committee seat away from her.
“Anyone who slanders those who support this historic alliance between the United States and Israel should never have a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives," Pence said.
Pence’s remarks shot an emerging GOP strategy to the center of the AIPAC stage: painting their opponents as anti-Israel, and thus anti-Semitic, to lure Jewish donors and voters, who have historically backed liberal causes, from the Democratic Party. But even some conservatives say the strategy could ultimately undermine the U.S.-Israel partnership.
“If either side were particularly committed to Israel’s longevity and strength, the last thing they would want to do is make Israel a partisan issue,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the conservative think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Whether Republican efforts bear fruit — an unlikely prospect given that 71 percent of Jews disapprove of Trump — will become clear at the 2020 presidential polls. Along the way, the GOP's campaign to use anti-Semitism as a political hammer to slam Democrats may end up shutting down serious policy discussions about the future of Israel-American relations, experts warned.
“What they care about is mobilizing their base and winning plaudits from far-right voters and the evangelical community, and they’re attacking Democrats to turn Israel and anti-Semitism into a partisan political weapon,” said Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group and rival to AIPAC. “It’s designed to undercut our ability to have a genuine, nuanced, conversation about these problems. It undercuts our ability to talk about whether it’s good for the U.S. and Israel, in the long term, to undermine prospects for a two-state solution and for Israel to annex the West Bank.”
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.
Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)