Bernie vs AIPAC: As Sanders surges, pro-Israel Democrats scramble for backup plans - Haaretz.com
For many, taking aim at the pro-Israel lobby this week embodies what the Democratic front-runner stands for – and highlights why others are worried about him
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Feb 26, 2020 6:40 PM
For about a minute last week, it seemed like the traditionally pro-Israel moderates in the Democratic Party were coming to terms with the fact that their least favorite candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, had all but locked down their party’s presidential nomination.
They appeared to be ceasing their attacks on Sanders in the name of party unity, and because alienating the presumptive nominee – who would be the first Jewish nominee by a major party in U.S. history – wasn’t a wise move.
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But the cease-fire proved too fragile to hold.
Signs of a truce came late last week as caucus polls in Nevada anticipated the sweeping Sanders victory over the rest of the Democratic field. News broke that Mark Mellman, who heads the lobbying group Democratic Majority for Israel, told a gathering in New York that his organization was taking a step back from presidential politics. “We don’t have plans to be further involved in the presidential race – against Sanders or anyone else, for that matter,” he said.
The audience awaiting the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally in San Antonio, Texas, February 22, 2020.
The audience awaiting the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally in San Antonio, Texas, February 22, 2020. AFP
Mellman told a panel at a Manhattan community center that his group would focus its efforts instead on congressional races – both in primaries where “there are pro-Israel champions running against anti-Israel challengers,” and where pro-Israel Democrats were running against Republicans.
Taken at face value, Mellman’s words pointed to a radical change in strategy. His Democratic Majority for Israel group had just spent over $1 million in negative ads in Iowa and Nevada casting doubt on Sanders’ electability and, controversially, invoking the senator’s heart attack last fall to suggest he was unfit to be president.
Mellman was personally vocal, sounding the alarm that a Sanders nomination spelled a “Democratic disaster.” Sanders was, he wrote in a fundraising email on the eve of the Iowa caucus, the candidate “we believe is least capable of winning in November and most likely to adopt a hostile attitude toward Israel.”
Despite those efforts, Sanders has surged in the polls.
And so last week, in the face of Sanders’ apparent near-inevitability as nominee, it seemed that Democratic Majority for Israel was refocusing on Congress, hoping to balance a possible Sanders White House with a House and Senate that could act as a bipartisan firewall against any attempts to leverage military and economic aid to influence Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
When Haaretz contacted Democratic Majority for Israel this week, the group denied having backed away from involvement in the presidential race. Rather, it was just taking a break.
“Today we don’t have plans for specific ads in specific places,” Mellman told Haaretz. “Tomorrow or next week or next month, we could develop plans.”
If Sanders had been a more conventional politician, he might have seized the moment to defuse the group’s opposition to his candidacy. He had already offered an unexpectedly balanced answer when confronted earlier this month by an IfNotNow activist, who urged him to boycott the upcoming American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.