WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said Sunday that he would skip the upcoming American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference.
The Vermont senator said the pro-Israel lobby’s annual confab, which draws top Israeli and US officials, provided a venue for other leaders to disparage Palestinians.
“The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people,” Sanders tweeted. “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”
It was not clear which leaders Sanders was referring to.
“As president, I will support the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and do everything possible to bring peace and security to the region,” Sanders continued.
The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference. 1/2
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 23, 2020
AIPAC blasted Sanders following his announcement.
“Senator Sanders has never attended our conference and that is evident from his outrageous comment,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told The Times of Israel.
“In fact, many of his own Senate and House Democratic colleagues and leaders speak from our platform to the over 18,000 Americans from widely diverse backgrounds — Democrats, Republicans, Jews, Christians, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, members of the LGBTQ+ community — who participate in the conference to proclaim their support for the US — Israel relationship,” Wittmann said, in an unusually harsh statement for the group.
“By engaging in such an odious attack on this mainstream, bipartisan American political event, Senator Sanders is insulting his very own colleagues and the millions of Americans who stand with Israel. Truly shameful,” Wittman said.
Sanders’s refusal to attend the conference — which will take place in Washington on March 1-4 — comes after he won a decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday, making him the clear frontrunner in a crowded and combative Democratic party primary field.
Sanders is the second 2020 Democratic candidate to say they won’t be attending the conference. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said earlier this month that she won’t go.
No other Democratic candidate has yet committed to speaking at the gathering. An AIPAC spokesman told The Times of Israel earlier this week that the organization was still “in the process of finalizing speakers.”
Traditionally, in a presidential election year, AIPAC invites all the leading candidates of each party to speak before the thousands of attendees at the conference. In 2016, every remaining Republican candidate at that point spoke, including Donald Trump.
While Hillary Clinton gave a speech during a plenary session in 2016, Sanders did not — citing scheduling conflicts relating to his campaign. Instead, he spoke on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Salt Lake City.
In recent months, left-wing organizations such as MoveOn, Indivisible, the Working Families Party and IfNotNow have been pressuring the Democratic candidates to skip the AIPAC conference, waging an online campaign with the hashtag “#SkipAIPAC.”
IfNotNow celebrated Sanders’s decision in a statement: “Bernie’s sweep in the first three early states shows resoundingly that every day Americans support his bold and humane vision for America, and his announcement today that he is skipping AIPAC fits squarely within that progressive vision,” the group said.
(While Sanders won the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses, he came in second in delegate count in the Iowa caucuses, behind former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, even though he earned more votes.)
Out of all the Democratic candidates running for president, Sanders has been the most outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, calling for an “even-handed” approach more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
That has included openly considering cutting American aid to Israel to pressure the nation to curb its settlement enterprise, enter peace talks with the Palestinians and improve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“I would use the leverage of $3.8 billion,” he said last October. “It is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.”
His rivals have taken different stances. Buttigieg has said he would use American aid as “leverage” to guide Israel toward more liberal policies. Former vice president Joe Biden called the idea “outrageous” and said he would leave the military assistance alone.
Sanders, who is Jewish, has long ties to Israel. He spent months living on a kibbutz in the 1960s — an experience he has cited in the past to affirm his commitment to Israel’s security.
“I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” he said at a J Street conference in October 2019. “I spent many months on a kibbutz in Israel. I believe absolutely not only in the right of Israel to exist but the right to exist in peace and security. That’s not a question.”
“But what I also believe,” he continued, “is the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace and security as well.”