WASHINGTON (JTA) — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee launched its annual conference with an appeal for bipartisanship and potshots aimed at the Democratic front-runner in the presidential stakes, Bernie Sanders.
The jarring contrast reflected how polarized support for Israel has become in the current political climate.
Amy Friedkin, past AIPAC president who is close to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker, joined Alan Franco, a national board member from New Orleans who is also a major supporter of Republican candidates.
They appealed for respectful dialogue. Friedkin called on speakers and the activists attending to “avoid the nasty partisan attacks that unfortunately dominate the dialogue… the best way to persuade us is with facts, not fire.”
They were followed by Howard Kohr, the lobby’s longtime CEO, who took aim at Sanders, the Vermont senator and currently the delegate leader in the race for the Democratic nomination. Sanders said last week he would boycott the AIPAC conference. He was “concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights,” he said.
Kohr did not name Sanders, but much of his speech appeared aimed at him. “In their political utterances, the leaders of this movement repeatedly and reflexively disparage Israel’s democracy and lump her in with nations hostile to American interests and American values,” he said. “Again, these are not the things a friend would say or do.”
More pointed was Danny Danon, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who spoke to AIPAC’s national council, who took issue with Sanders’ repeated description of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “racist.”
“We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC,” Danon said. “We don’t want him in Israel. Anyone who calls our prime minister a ‘racist’ is either a liar, an ignorant fool, or both.”
Other leading Democratic candidates are speaking to AIPAC, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who bested Sanders Saturday in the key South Carolina orimary, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is also boycotting the conference.
AIPAC conference opens with appeals for bipartisanship, broadsides against Bernie Sanders