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Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders

There is a rapidly shifting battlefield over Israel inside the Democratic Party.

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Ilhan Omar, Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

LAST WEEK, REP. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., ignited a controversy by tweeting a song lyric implying that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the flagship Israel lobby group in the U.S., leveraged the financial means at its disposal to enforce Washington orthodoxies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Republicans quickly piled on, denouncing Omar as an anti-Semite. Almost as quickly, Democratic leaders in both chambers swiftly issued statements saying that Omar’s tweets — though not the member of Congress herself — were anti-Jewish.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, Omar apologized for offending constituents. But amid a political landscape where progressives are increasingly critical of money in politics and human rights abuses, Omar also doubled down on the substance of her initial salvos. “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” she wrote. “It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

The reception to Omar’s tweets and her subsequent apology may be viewed as a cautionary tale for those who wish to see a more progressive policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the mere discussion of Israel lobby groups’ influence, the cash behind those efforts, and Palestinian human rights can also be seen as something of a step forward.

Meanwhile, lurking behind the weeklong controversy is a rapidly shifting battlefield over Israel inside the Democratic Party.

Omar has not been alone at the center of recent firestorms over the politics of the Middle East conflict: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American freshman from Michigan, has also faced backlash for purported anti-Semitism. Underlying the accusations against the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, however, is the fight over the growing movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its human rights abuses, which is known as BDS. Omar and Tlaib find themselves at the vanguard of these public scuffles not least because they are the first and only members of Congress to publicly support the BDS movement.

There are signs for pro-Palestinian activists to take heart. Omar’s and Tlaib’s strong stances reflect progressive voters’ desires for a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they certainly aren’t the only politicians paying attention. Democrats seem to be drifting left on the Middle East conflict, even some powerful figures in the party — including contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

JUST LAST MONTH, several 2020 presidential contenders broke with Democratic Party leadership in an attempt to thwart a major legislative priority for AIPAC: passing a law that attacks the BDS movement.

Twenty-six states across the country have taken up a some form of an anti-boycott law to insulate Israel from criticism, part of a broader Israel lobby effort focused squarely on combating the BDS movement. Some of the measures have been pilloried for restricting free speech, but many have passed without issue. Such anti-boycott bills have also made an appearance on the national stage — frequently with strong AIPAC backing. And yet hesitance to support the measures within the Democratic Party has sometimes squashed such efforts — as with a congressional effort to impose criminal penalties for those who engaged in boycotts.

When another anti-boycott law came up in the new Senate — the upper chamber’s very first bill — liberal opposition was not enough to squash it. The bill, known as S.1, gave Congress’s blessing to state- and local-level BDS bans.

The bill passed with an overwhelming vote — but a curious thing happened on the way: Almost every major announced or potential Democratic presidential candidate voted against it. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown all voted no, with only Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a long-shot candidate, casting an “aye” vote.

Some of these 2020 hopefuls’ positions constituted reversals of a sort. In the cases of Booker and Gillibrand, both had been previous sponsors of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would have criminalized certain forms of participation in BDS, making their departures on this softened measure noteworthy. Gillibrand abandoned her support of the 2017 bill after public outrage at its free-speech implications, particularly with the American Civil Liberties Union declaring the bill unconstitutional.

Explaining his vote against S.1, Booker threaded the needle. He told The Intercept that he opposed the bill because of free speech concerns, but suggested that he still supported the larger anti-boycott bill that he previously co-sponsored.

“I have a strong and lengthy record of opposing efforts to boycott Israel, as evidenced by my co-sponsorship of S. 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act,” Booker said in the statement. “I drafted an amendment to help address these widely held concerns, but there was no amendment process offered to allow for this bill to be improved. There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly misses the mark.”

Booker is still planning to find other ways to combat BDS, his spokesperson told The Intercept, but S.1 wouldn’t be one of them.

Though S.1 contained many provisions apart from the anti-BDS language, activists working for civil and human rights in Israel and Palestine say the reversal from Booker — who has staunchly opposed the BDS movement – was undoubtedly influenced by that portion of the measure. The change, the activists said, signals a broader attempt among Democratic presidential hopefuls to position themselves on BDS in a way that won’t alienate the leftward-shifting base in the run-up to 2020.

“As a recently announced presidential candidate, Sen. Booker’s recent vote appears to be designed to appeal to the base of the Democratic Party, a majority of whom support sanctioning Israel to end its colonization of Palestinian land,” said Josh Ruebner, policy director at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “Sen. Booker’s vote against debating a bill that would encourage states to punish individuals who boycott for Palestinian rights is an indication that his position on this issue is evolving for the better.”

Ruebner also pointed to the other 2020 hopefuls who voted against the new anti-boycott bill amid the long run-up to the Democratic primaries next year. Other activists saw the same dynamics at play.

“We’re seeing progressives in this country steadily uniting behind a shared platform of human rights, freedom, and equality for Palestinians,” Michael Deheeger, a congressional organizer with the Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement to The Intercept. “And the fact that 21 Democratic senators supported our right to boycott by voting against S.1 shows that they see this shift too.”

A COROLLARY TO the rise of BDS has been efforts by pro-Israel figures — including elites in the Democratic Party — to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include any criticism of Israel at all. This was the storm that Omar stepped into.

The tack was laid out by Israel lobbyists when an undercover Al Jazeera reporter infiltrated several right-wing pro-Israel groups for a documentary that was never aired, but leaked nonetheless. In one of the clips in the documentary, Kenneth Marcus, then the head of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law but now a Trump administration appointee, told Al Jazeera about plans to link allegations of “anti-Israel politics” with anti-Semitism. “What you’ve got to show: that they’re not the same, but they’re not entirely different either,” said Marcus, who has been a vocal critic of BDS movements across the country.

Initiatives pushed by Israel lobby groups that blur the line between criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitism have sometimes been championed by Democrats — including those gearing up for a 2020 run. The most notable arena has been the U.N.

In 2017, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Brown, and Klobuchar joined every sitting senator in signing a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres claiming that the world body has an anti-Israel bias. The letter implored the U.N. to “improve its treatment” of Israel and “eliminate anti-Semitism in all its forms.” The same year, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Brown, and Gillibrand joined 73 other senators in co-sponsoring a congressional measureobjecting to a late 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution deeming Israeli settlements illegal and calling for their end. Israeli settlements are in fact considered illegitimate under international law and according to longstanding U.S. policy.

In the two years since, several of these 2020 hopefuls have taken stands against lines pushed by Israel lobby groups. Sanders, who says he does notsupport BDS, sent a letter, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, urging Senate leadership to keep the anti-boycott measure out of the year-end appropriations bill.

Compared to other Democratic presidential contenders, Warren has made perhaps the most drastic changes in her stances on Israel in recent years. In 2014, at a local town hall, the senator defended her vote — along with Booker, Gillibrand, Brown, and Klobuchar — to approve a 2013 bill that sent $220 million in military support to Israel for its Iron Dome weapons system. Sanders voted against that measure.

“America has a very special relationship with Israel,” Warren said at the town hall, in remarks that closely hewed to pro-Israel groups’ talking points. “Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

Along with Gillibrand, Booker, Brown, and Klobuchar, Warren also joined 76 senators co-sponsoring another measure reaffirming a “strategic partnership” with Israel that same year.

Soon after, however, Warren began to pivot. In 2017, she joined Sanders and eight Democratic senators in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging his government not to proceed with demolishing and forcibly evicting Palestinian communities from the villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank. Last year, she signed a letter with Sanders and Brown asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” Last May, she spoke out against Israeli attacks that killed more than 60 Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip, joining Sanders in calling for the Israeli government to respect their right to protest.

Not all the 2020 hopefuls have made such drastic changes. After the killings in Gaza, demonstrators assembled outside Harris’s Los Angeles office and Booker’s Newark office, asking them to condemn the violence. Harris’s and Booker’s offices offered to have meetings with the protesters. After one such meeting in Booker’s office, the senator merely released a statement stating that the senator and his colleagues “believe deeply in the democratic process and folks speaking up on the issues that matter to them.” No condemnation of the killings came.

AIPAC’S ROLE LOOMS large in the Democratic Party shifts. There was a time when any serious political contender would make it a priority to appear before the influential Israel lobby group’s annual summit. Harris gave a formal address to AIPAC in 2017, and both Booker and Gillibrandhave spoken at the group’s conferences in the past. Sanders was slated to speak at the group’s 2016 conference, but skipped it, citing his travel schedule. Last year, however, Klobuchar was the only major Democratic 2020 contender who spoke at the AIPAC confab.

The once tight-knit relationship between Democrats and AIPAC saw its first major rifts open up with the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. AIPAC worked tirelessly to kill the deal, spending millions of dollars. But it was a major achievement for a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and so almost every single Democrat backed it. Notably, among the Democratic dissenters in the Senate — Sens. Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin, and Joe Manchin — are figures who hold powerful positions in the party’s caucus and constitute some of the closest Democrats to AIPAC.

The Iran deal vote signaled that AIPAC was losing it bipartisan grip on Capitol Hill Democrats. The threat of political backlash was no longer enough.

The Democrats who voted with the deal were in tune with public opinion, which largely supported the Iran deal. But those party elites who opposed the deal had to catch up. And some have: Schumer, four years later, has since opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement.

Schumer’s tale is instructive. Even as some Democrats step away from AIPAC in order not to transgress the progressive base ahead of the 2020 primaries, they must contend with a reticent and virulently pro-Israel party leadership.

Take the unfolding fight over BDS, where Schumer has supported AIPAC’s positions on S.1. and other bills. Likewise, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, is staunchly against BDS and supports anti-boycott measures over the First Amendment objections.

“I think BDS is a horrific thing,” Engel told The Intercept. “I think you have to look at some of these issues not politically. You have to look at what’s right and what’s wrong.” Engel rejected the idea that pro-Israel politics were no longer a guarantee in Congress and said he thought there was “clearly” still a pro-Israel majority among both parties in the House. “I think there is some disagreement over the BDS because of the free speech issue,” he said. “But I reject it, I don’t find that a compelling argument at all.”

With Israel’s body politic shifting to the right, so, too, have Israel lobby groups — and with them, the staunchest of pro-Israel Democrats. Yet the Democratic Party as a whole seems to be moving to the left.

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY’S shift might best be embodied in the rise of politicians like Omar, Tlaib, and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They ran on a reimagining of the political process, lifting even the most radical voices of their constituents, and beating mainstream predictions that they couldn’t win. They’ve attracted an energetic following, owing to their unapologetically progressive positions — something 2020 contenders are surely heeding as they move into presidential campaign mode.

Consider the way Harris has come around on criminal justice reform. Known as a tough-on-crime prosecutor who ran to unseat a progressive district attorney, she’s been criticized for policies that unfairly delayed justice and threatened to hit poor communities of color the hardest. Later, though, Harris pivoted to a “smart on crime” approach, joining the public push for a humane and restorative approach to justice reform. In addition to warming up to broader criminal justice reform, she’s since lightened up on marijuana, too. Originally opposed to legalizing recreational pot, she joked last week on a radio show about smoking during college.

Moves like Harris’s will be necessary for all the 2020 contenders if they want to capture the energy around the new crop of freshmen members who don’t hesitate to buck the conventional wisdom in Washington. It will be tough for more establishment-oriented politicians to keep up. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the principled stances of the new progressive Democrats might eventually clash with the cautious political opportunism of some of the 2020 candidates.

Akela Lacy is the politics fellow at The Intercept’s Washington bureau. She previously worked at Politico, covering breaking news and immigration.