The pro-Israel lobby keeps drawing bipartisan leaders like no other group. But recent controversies are starting to take a toll.

Speaking via satellite feed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC's conference in Washington on Tuesday.
Speaking via satellite feed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC’s conference in Washington on Tuesday. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2019 policy conference—the pro-Israel lobby’s marquee annual event—sometimes felt defined by those who weren’t in attendance as much as by those who were. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been due to address the conference in person on Tuesday morning but cut his visit to Washington short after a Hamas rocket attack injured seven people in central Israel, prompting Israeli retaliation against Gaza. (He spoke by video.)

Then there were the Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination who chose not to attend, earning praise from the liberal group MoveOn, which had publicly called on them not to participate in a conference put on by an organization described as a “partisan lobbying group that has undermined diplomatic efforts” and given a platform to Islamophobes. These included Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar, who all have spoken at AIPAC in the past. Vice President Mike Pence called out the candidates in a combative speech for “boycotting this very conference.”

Both sides were somewhat exaggerating the significance of the non-attendees. They weren’t exactly boycotting, as it’s unlikely they were invited—AIPAC’s policy is not to invite candidates to speak outside of election years. Still, primary candidates have used the event to network and fundraise in the past—in 2007, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held dueling receptions on the conference floor. It seems possible some candidates may have concluded that the backlash they’d prompt among progressives for participating in the conference outweighed the backlash among staunch Israel supporters for not participating. At the very least, AIPAC is less of a must-attend than it used to be.

But if you were looking for evidence that the Democratic Party is souring on AIPAC, much less any sort of “Jexodus” from the Democratic Party, it was hard to find in the list of this year’s speakers, which included the bulk of the Democratic congressional leadership: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez all stood with their Republican counterparts to proclaim the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Few, if any, lobbying groups could hope to assemble such a guest list.

While her name was never mentioned onstage, another spectral presence in the convention hall was freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—and recent comments about AIPAC’s influence and the dual loyalty of Israel supporters—sparked accusations of anti-Semitism. (“Take it from a Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins,” Netanyahu joked in his video address, referencing Omar’s most controversial tweet.) Pence’s speech implicitly called for her to be removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Referring vaguely to recent controversies, Pelosi said in her speech, “We will never allow anyone to make Israel a wedge issue. In this Congress, support for Israel remains ironclad and bipartisan.” Engel, Omar’s committee chairman, said, “We may have some people say things they should not say, but by and large the American people support the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Hoyer, who will lead the regular AIPAC-sponsored trip for freshman members to Israel this summer, referred to Omar and her ideological allies Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying, “There are 62 freshman Democrats. Not three.”

To underline the point, three freshman Democrats from the House as well as newly elected Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema addressed the conference on Monday.

Still, Pence’s words rankled some Democrats at the conference. “I’m concerned that some conference-goers might be left with the impression that Ilhan Omar speaks for the Democratic Party,” Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said in an interview. “Just as I, as a Democrat, would never accuse any Republican of being represented by Steve King, I also would like people to recognize that Ilhan Omar is an outlier within our party.”

Perhaps in response to recent controversies, Pence’s speech notwithstanding, bipartisanship was a major theme of this year’s conference, which to its credit included voices from across the political spectrum of both countries. At a panel on progressive activism in Israel, Rabbi Susan Silverman from the group Women on the Wall, which advocates for the full rights of women to pray at the Western Wall, described the upcoming Israeli election as a choice between democracy and theocracy. Chen Arieli, an Israeli LGBTQ activist who next month will assume office as deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, said friends had criticized her for attending what they considered a right-wing conference but that “We need to start building a broad progressive movement. This is the place to start building it.”

Some self-described progressives went over the top in their eagerness to show off their pro-Israel bona fides. Engel boasted of having never missed an AIPAC conference in his 32 years in Congress. J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who spoke about Israel’s strong labor laws and compared the BDS movement to Trump’s Muslim ban, declared unprompted, “I love Israel as much as I love the United States of America” and “I would give the ultimate sacrifice for Israel.”

Most Democrats fall somewhere in the very wide gulf between that stance and Omar’s. A more common sentiment is the argument New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made at the conference—that specific disagreements with the current Israeli government “cannot detract from the requirement that Israel must be defended.”

Pointing to recent polling data on Jewish Democrats, Soifer said, “There’s overwhelming support for Israel within our community. When it comes to how they define that, it doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing and supporting every aspect of this current government.”

Stav Shaffir, a Knesset member from the Labor Party and former leader of the 2011 social justice protests, told me in an interview, “What people hear in the U.S. about Israel is mostly what they hear about the prime minister of Israel. They hear the voices of the government. What they’re missing is that the majority of Israelis disagree with their government. The majority of Israelis are very progressive.”

Although Pence and Trump may try to paint the current Democratic aspirants for the White House as Israel-haters (and implicitly by extension, Jew-haters), the candidates are more likely to take some version of this nuanced position: that Israel is an ally to be defended and a country to be admired, but its current government should not be immune to criticism.

Netanyahu, in many ways, makes this position easier. The prime minister’s personal corruption and political cynicism (his recent move to include the racist, terrorist-supporting Otzma Yehudit party in his coalition was too much even for AIPAC), and his transparently partisan interventions into U.S. politics under the Obama administration, tested the faith of even some of the staunchest pro-Israel Democrats.

But what happens if and when Netanyahu is finally out of the picture? (He is up for re-election on April 9, and even if he wins could face indictment on corruption charges this summer, which will increase pressure on him to step down.) Then Democrats won’t have such a convenient unifying villain.

On Monday morning, Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who is Netanyahu’s strongest rival in the upcoming election, addressed the conference. Gantz promised a change if he were elected, saying there would be “no racists leading our state institutions. No corruption leading our way.” He also promised a new commitment to relations with the U.S. in the “true spirit of bipartisanship that has served us so well in the past.” On a number of key issues, however, Gantz might not be that dramatic a change. Gantz praised Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “united and eternal capital” and his more recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He pledged that Israel would never withdraw from the Jordan Valley, which forms the border between the West Bank and Jordan. He has said in the past that he stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Netanyahu when it comes to Iran.

The main drivers of antipathy toward Israel on the American left are Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories and hawkish policies in the wider Middle East, policies defended by many Democratic leaders. Common antipathy toward the polarizing figure of Netanyahu (not to mention Trump) has made this divide easier to paper over. But what would happen if many of the same controversial Israeli policies were supported by a “centrist” Israeli prime minister like Gantz, perhaps governing in a coalition with the left? Democrats hoping to avoid a radioactive schism may miss Bibi when he’s gone.