AIPAC has a problem. The pro-Israel group, known by its acronym, which stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has over the past several decades been one of Washington’s most influential foreign policy lobbies. But a bruising fight with a Democratic president over the past few years left AIPAC licking its wounds. Where once many of Capitol Hill’s Democrats could be expected to march in lockstep with AIPAC, the Iran nuclear deal led to a fissure: Most Democrats, save for a few of the Hill’s unreconstructed pro-Israel hawks, were torn over whether to side with Barack Obama and his Iran nuclear deal, or AIPAC and Israel’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which opposed the deal vociferously. In the end, Obama prevailed by marshaling Democrats in defense of the deal. Netanyahu had unambiguously sided with Republicans who opposed the accord, leaving the appearance that AIPAC was doing the same.
It was fitting, then, that AIPAC would gather its members in Washington’s Verizon Center over the weekend under a banner of bipartisanship, with the declared theme of the summit—”Come Together”—hailing a reconstitution of the group’s bipartisan appeal. The appeal to Lennon-McCartney was obvious: time to bury the hatchet and move on.
And so it was that invitations went out to all the presidential candidates from both parties; all accepted—Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—but not Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist running for the Democratic nomination. Sanders sent a letter to AIPAC, released on his website, in which he said AIPAC declined to have him address the crowd by video while he campaigned (a courtesy they had extended to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the 2012 Republican primary contest). Sanders ended up releasing the text of an address he delivered in Utah. “Let me begin that I have a deep personal connection to Israel,” he opened, “and I am fairly certain I am the only U.S. presidential candidate to have ever lived on a kibbutz for a while.” It’s a shame the AIPAC crowd didn’t hear it: Sanders is the only candidate who offered any sort of vision to beat back the tide of apartheid in Israel. The bromides about defending Israel’s legitimacy were there, but so, too, were the criticisms of Israel’s violent occupation and its destructive settlements expansion.
Come Together was a strange slogan for a summit where Donald Trump got raucous applause. This is a man whose campaign is based on demagoguery and divisiveness, some of it directed at Latin American immigrants and some of it against Muslims (though AIPAC has already shown it cares little for the latter). Should AIPAC have denied Trump an invitation? I’ll leave that for others to decide, but will note that the group has previously declined to host presidential candidates it deemed beyond the pale: In 2012, the group shunned GOP candidate Ron Paul, who opposed aid to Israel, which apparently is a greater crime than heading up American history’s most successful quasi-fascist movement.