At the beginning of this year, AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby were riding high, coming off a 2018 which saw the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and again, no real challenge to the longstanding bipartisan consensus that Israel can do no wrong. How a few months can change things.
Following multiple spats between Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim-American women to serve in Congress, and both other members of her party and essentially the entire GOP, which characterized criticisms Omar made of the pro-Israel lobby’s influence in America as “anti-Semitic,” multiple Democrats running for president came out in defense of Omar. And now, some of those Democrats have announced that they’re skipping AIPAC’s annual policy conference, which begins on Sunday, altogether.
After an effort led by progressive grassroots group MoveOn, at least 6 Democratic presidential candidates have said that they weren’t going to be attending this year’s AIPAC conference. They include former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, South Bend, IN, mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.
In emails on Thursday afternoon, the campaigns of Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke told Splinter that they, too, wouldn’t be attending the conference. The others all announced they wouldn’t be attending or confirmed as such to other outlets.
This is not the first time Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president in American history if he’s elected, has pointedly skipped an AIPAC conference. In 2016, while running for president and campaigning in Utah while the annual conference was going on, Sanders gave a speech markedly critical of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli settlements.
For others, however, this is a complete 180. Back in 2017, Harris gave a nearly 20-minute address at the conference, in which Harris said she said that “America’s support for Israel’s security must be rock solid,” and called for the U.S. to “stand with Israel” against both Iran and Hamas. “I am fully committing to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge,” she said. Last year, The Intercept reported that Harris appeared at the conference again, in an off-the-record breakout session for students.
O’Rourke, too, seems to be going on something of a sudden journey. He was friendly with AIPAC as recently as last year, during his run for Senate in Texas. But this week, he denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he has “openly sided with racists.”
One caveat: as the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidates choosing not to attend this year are making a permanent break with the group. In 2016, with the exception of Sanders, every candidate who was still in the race in late March—Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich—spoke at the conference.
We’ve reached out to other 2020 candidates, including Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, and Jay Inslee, and will update with any response we receive. We’ve also reached out to former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not officially announced a run but whose potential announcement been the subject of rampant speculation over the past few weeks.
Despite the flight of 2020 candidates from the conference this year, the Democratic Party is set to be well-represented. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is set to speak at the conference, as are Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and (reportedly) New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s been inexplicably toying with a presidential run. You can find a list of speakers here.
Update, 3:30 p.m. ET: The Inslee campaign has confirmed to Splinter that the former Washington governor isn’t attending. So far, seven Democratic candidates have confirmed they aren’t attending.