Amid widening political divide, AIPAC closes annual US conference

Israeli PM targets Ilhan Omar at conference that multiple 2020 Democratic presidential contenders decided to skip.

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on a video from Israel to the 2019 AIPAC policy conference [Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on a video from Israel to the 2019 AIPAC policy conference [Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]

    Washington, DC - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke via satellite on the last day of AIPAC's annual convention in Washington, DC, closing a three-day pro-Israel festival marked by partisan jabs between opposing politicians in the United States and news of rising conflict between Israel and Hamas.

    Speaking from Israel's military headquarters, Netanyahu told attendees of the American Israel Public Affair Committee (AIPAC) conference he had just come from a meeting with his chief of staff and military leaders after exchange of fire between Israeli forces and armed groups in Gaza.

    Netanyahu also took the opportunity to label US critics of Israel's treatment of Palestinians as "anti-Semitic". 

    "In recent weeks, we have heard a lot about the rise of forces who want to pull America and Israel apart. So I can tell you one thing - they will fail," Netanyahu said.

    "Those who seek to defame this great organisation AIPAC, those who seek to undermine American support for Israel, they must be confronted," the prime minister added. 

    Israeli warplanes targeted Palestinian homes in Gaza after a rocket landed on an Israeli home north of Tel Aviv, injuring seven. Amid an uneasy ceasefire, the prime minister said he was prepared to use whatever force was necessary to defend Israel. Netanyahu, who faces reelection on April 9, had cut short a visit to Washington, returning to Israel after meeting US President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. 

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    Some 18,000 people attended AIPAC's conference, including 4,000 students from US colleges in a pro-Israel leadership development programme. AIPAC is working to counter rising public opinion in the US in favour of the Palestinians on college campuses and among younger Jewish Americans.

    Outside the convention, members of Jewish Voice for Peace held a protest on a street corner offering AIPAC-branded toast to passersby and displaying a billboard on a truck depicting Netanyahu's face with the hashtag #SkipAIPAC.

    Several Democrats, including multiple 2020 presidential contenders, decided not to attend AIPAC amid pressure to boycott the conference. 

    Critics of AIPAC said the decision by some Democrats to skip the event showed a change in the larger political landscape surrounding attitudes towards Israeli policy. 

    AIPAC supports $3.8bn a year in US military aid to Israel and is pushing for legislation in Congress that would penalise those who support the BDS Movement, a pro-Palestinian global effort to pressure Israel through boycotts, sanctions and divestment.

    A few members of Jewish Voice for Peace held a protest on a street corner outside the AIPAC conference [William Roberts/Al Jazeera]

    Focus on Ilhan Omar 

    Leading US politicians at the conference condemned US critics of Israel as anti-Semitic but some warned against Republican efforts to deploy support for Israel as a political weapon against Democrats.

    "I am worried that if we do not unite to take action against a growing tide of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment we will live to regret what our politics become," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said.

    Washington has been lit by a political brush fire ever since comments by first-year Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and one of two Muslim women elected in 2018, were interpreted as critical of Israel and AIPAC with some claiming her comments were anti-Semitic. The House of Representatives passed a broadly worded resolution on earlier this month condemning anti-Semitism and bigotry generally. The measure included a defence of AIPAC.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, sought to reassure the AIPAC audience that support for Israel remains strong among leading Democrats in Congress. 

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    "Israel and America are connected now and forever," Pelosi said. "We will never allow anyone to make Israel a wedge issue. That pledge is proudly honored in this Congress where support for Israel remains ironclad and bipartisan."

    Omar has remained defiant in the face of criticism at AIPAC.

    "It's been fascinating to see such a powerful conference so focussed and so fearful of a freshman member of Congress," Omar told reporters on Capitol Hill, according to reports.

    She later tweeted, "I - like so many others - have not criticized AIPAC because of its membership or the country it advocates for. I have criticized it because it has repeatedly opposed efforts to guarantee peace and human rights in the region." 

    'We need leadership that unites country'

    Senate Republicans have put Pelosi in a box over anti-BDS legislation that would allow states and localities to withhold business contracts from anyone who supports BDS. The bill passed the Republican-led Senate and divides Democrats, some of whom see it as a free speech violation. Pelosi has decided not to advance the bill in the House and will put forward a nonbinding resolution condemning BDS instead.

    Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and senior member of Senate Foreign Relations, warned Republicans against tagging Democrats unfairly as anti-Semitic and he offered a veiled shot at Trump.

    "I cannot stay silent when the entire Democratic Party is castigated as Jew haters when what we really need is leadership that unites this nation and the world against the rise of anti-Semitism, hatred and white supremacy across the globe," Menendez said.

    Trump had told Republican donors at a private March 11 event at his Mar-a-Lago club, "the Democrats hate Jewish people," according to a report citing people in attendance.

    "When you accuse Jews of funding caravans of asylum seekers at our southern border or fail to call out and condemn the rise of white supremacy at home or abroad, you are fanning those flames," Menendez said "There is simply no excuse for dangerous vitriol from any politicians that threatens both the safety of Jewish Americans and Israel's core existence."

    "History warns us against letting anyone use the Jewish community as a pawn in a political game. For what is politically expedient today, may not be tomorrow when you are dealing with a leader who lacks any genuine understanding of the history of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and white supremacy," Menendez said.

    A few members of Jewish Voice for Peace held a protest on a street corner offering AIPAC-branded toast to passersby [William Roberts]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News