WASHINGTON — US Vice President Mike Pence issued a scathing attack against Democratic presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders on Monday, saying he would be “the most anti-Israel president” in American history if elected.
Addressing a crowd of 18,000 at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference, Pence turned the event into something of a campaign rally, ignoring the pro-Israel lobby’s general request that speakers avoid attacking the other party.
“The most pro-Israel president in history must not be replaced by one who would be the most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation,” said Pence to raucous applause, with some standing and cheering. “That’s why we need four more years of President Trump in the White House”
Last week, Sanders tweeted that he would skip this year’s AIPAC conference, saying it provided a platform to “express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” The powerful lobbing group responded with uncharacteristically strong language, calling it a “truly shameful” and “odious attack.”
The vice president also took aim at Sanders for his critiques of Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. “One of the leading candidates openly and repeatedly attacks Israel as a racist state,” Pence said.
In fact, the Vermont senator has not attacked Israel as a racist state, but has routinely castigated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as racist.
Last April, he explained his views during a CNN town hall. “What I believe is not radical,” Sanders said. “I just believe that the United States should deal with the Middle East on a level playing field basis. In other words, the goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing — dare I say — racist government.”
The self-described democratic socialist also cited his time spent in Israel as a young man, when he lived on a Kibbutz.
“I spent a number of months in Israel,” Sanders said. “I worked on a kibbutz for a while. I have family in Israel. I am not anti-Israel. But the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu is a right-wing politician, who I think is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly.”
In his speech Monday, Pence extended his critique of Sanders to encompass the entire field of Democratic hopefuls, arguing that they have not stood up to Sanders’ posture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Even more troubling, when Bernie Sanders smeared Israel at last week’s debate, not a single candidate on that stage stood up to challenge him,” he said. “But I’ll promise you we will always call out those who try to cloak their animus toward Israel inside a phony mantle of friendship.”
The leading 2020 Democratic hopeful has been the target of much criticism at the AIPAC conference since he dissed the confab, with Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon labeling him an “ignorant fool.”
In response, Sanders told CBS that he would do “everything I can to protect the independence and the security and the freedom of the Israeli people.”
But, he went on, “what we need in this country is a foreign policy that not only protects Israel, but deals with the suffering of the Palestinian people as well.”
Pence, who has addressed the conference every year he has been vice president, also used the occasion to tout the Trump administration’s policies on Israel over the last year. That included recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, signing an executive order targeting anti-Semitism on college campuses, defending Israel at the United Nations, and killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Those actions have all generated controversy, with free speech advocates saying the executive order was an attempt to silence Israel criticism at colleges and universities and Democrats arguing that the Soleimani assassination would trigger an armed confrontation in the region.