The big story about the AIPAC conference is the appearance of Donald Trump and the possibility of a walkout or otherwise negative reaction from some of those in attendance. Trump is deeply despised by many in the pro-Israel community because of his vulgar style of politics and his encouragement of hate and violence.
Others at the annual AIPAC gathering are just as unhappy about him because of his inability to articulate a coherent foreign policy, as well as his talk about neutrality between Israel and the Palestinians that is frighteningly reminiscent of the Obama administration he seeks to replace.
But while Trump at AIPAC will be yet another edition of the political world’s greatest show on earth, another story that is, in its own way, even more significant, is getting buried. That involves Bernie Sanders’ decision to be the only presidential candidate that is still in the race to decline an invitation to speak to the umbrella pro-Israel lobby group.
Sanders hasn’t yet announced why he will stay away from an event that has always been considered a must for any serious presidential candidate and perhaps there is a chance that he will reconsider. But his decision to avoid AIPAC is important not just because of what it might or might not mean about his own campaign but also because of what it tells us about the base of the Democratic Party that has embraced him.
After Hillary Clinton’s latest primary victories, the already untenable scenarios about Sanders stealing the nomination from the frontrunner are no longer viable. In a statist party that is primarily about holding onto power, the challenge to Clinton was never going to work even if the books weren’t cooked by unelected superdelegates to ensure her victory.
But the ability of even a 74-year-old socialist to give Clinton a strong run for her money and to win several states where her hold on African-American voters couldn’t ensure victory has been impressive. Clinton has the money and the party establishment backing that is crucial for the Democrats (though neither factor means much among Republicans this year), but Sanders has won the affection and the enthusiasm of much of the party base as well as young voters.
The party base’s distrust of Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and her weather vane policies on trade and a host of other issues are well known. But the activist core of the Democrats is also alienated from Clinton’s more mainstream foreign policy views. Though she was a reliable supporter of President Obama’s effort to create more “daylight” between Israel and the United States, as well as of the Iran nuclear deal, she is still perceived as being more supportive of the Jewish state than Sanders. Moreover, as polls consistently show, Democrats tend to be far less supportive of Israel than Republicans.
As I wrote in the December issue of COMMENTARY, the gradual “Democratic divorce” from Israel is the work of decades and not merely the result of the feud between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. But while the president has exacerbated relations between the two countries, the problem is that much of the left-wing base of his party is more likely to buy into the lies about Israel being an apartheid state than they are to be part of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that is at the heart of AIPAC’s continued strength and influence.
Thus, it should hardly be considered surprising that Sanders would choose to avoid an appearance that could only alienate some of his most ardent followers. Indeed, some of them have signed a petition urging him to stay away from AIPAC. Why? Because they view it as “sworn to promote the racist, militaristic, and anti-democratic policies” of the Jewish state in the words of the petition drawn up by radical anti-Zionist propagandist Max Blumenthal (the son of the shadowy Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal).
That disappoints some left-wingers both here and in Israel because they would like Sanders to go to AIPAC so he could tell off the lobby and openly espouse the sort of “even handed” approach to the Middle East that goes even farther than Obama’s “daylight.” But since doing so wouldn’t win Sanders any applause among more mainstream Democrats, he is taking the easy way out and blowing off the conference altogether.
That the most successful candidate for U.S. president who happens to be Jewish would boycott AIPAC might be seen as ironic. But since Sanders’ ties to Judaism and support for Israel have always been marginal to his political career (the only thing that he spoke of as having great meaning to him as Jew is the Holocaust), we shouldn’t be shocked at his decision. To the contrary, it is symbolic of the waning support for Israel among a Democratic Party base that has little interest in backing Israel.
While the question of whether AIPAC members will give Trump a Bronx cheer is transfixing members of the media that will cover the conference, Sanders’ decision to stay away is probably more significant in the long run.
While support for Israel is still a matter of bipartisan consensus, Sanders represents the heart of the Democratic Party that has little interest in mobilizing to defend the Jewish state. When one considers that his youthful supporters may eventually have more to say about the future of the Democrats than Hillary’s fans, that’s something that should be deeply troubling to all friends of Israel.