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Back off Bernie, Jewish group tells Israel lobby

Back off Bernie, Jewish group tells Israel lobby
With a pro-Israel lobbying group spending vast amounts of cash on ads attacking Bernie Sanders, another Jewish group has demanded the ads be taken down, slamming the Israel lobby for “targeting progressives over Israel policy.”

With just under a week to go to the Nevada primary, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) has aired a series of ads in the state criticizing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ “electability.” The TV spots feature a cohort of Democratic voters questioning Sanders’ medical records and “divisive” character – but not his Israel policy.

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“DMFI in reality represents a minority of pro-Israel Democrats who seem more concerned with targeting progressives over Israel policy than with confronting the destructive agenda of Donald Trump,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said on Sunday. “DMFI has every right to publicly criticize the views of any candidate or elected official,” he continued, “but it has no right to claim to speak for a ‘Democratic majority’ of pro-Israel Americans.”

“The ads themselves have nothing to do with Israel and don’t even mention Senator Sanders’ views on Israel or foreign policy,” Ben-Ami added. 

His organization is among the top five pro-Israel lobbying groups in the US. Its members donated more than $3 million to Democratic candidates in 2016, and have given more than a million dollars to candidates this year so far, in addition to the $400,000 it spent lobbying Congress last year.

Following a second-place finish in Iowa and a win in New Hampshire, Sanders’ emergence as a frontrunner in the race to the Democratic nomination has split the powerful Israel lobby in Washington. 

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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is perhaps the most well-known organization advocating for Israel in the US. However, AIPAC’s lobbying activities are usually bipartisan, and the group was recently forced to apologize on Capitol Hill for an ad campaign that branded Muslim Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) a “radical” threat “maybe more sinister” than Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).

With AIPAC backing out of inter-party squabbling, DMFI has taken to primary politics with gusto. Staffed by a host of AIPAC alumni, the organization spent $800,000 running negative ads about Sanders in Iowa earlier this month. According to a report in the Intercept on Friday, AIPAC has endorsed this approach, and is allowing donations to DMFI to count as donations to AIPAC, buying anti-Sanders donors access to its roster of friendly congressmen.

“Like their partner organization AIPAC – which recently ran vitriolic attack ads echoing Republican smears against progressive Democrats – DMFI’s right-leaning positions on Israel and US foreign policy are completely out of touch with the vast majority of Democrats and American Jews, who are both supportive of Israel and strongly critical of the policies of the Netanyahu government and of Donald Trump,” Ben-Ami said.

The split between JStreet and DMFI illustrates a wider gulf between the various pro-Israel groups operating in Washington, most notably on how to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict.

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The Trump administration has granted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a wishlist of policy gifts, from recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights to the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. As such, AIPAC and DMFI have little quarrel with the president’s Israel policy. AIPAC greeted Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan – a plan weighted heavily in favor of Israel – with enthusiasm, calling it a solid basis for negotiations that would “resolve the conflict.” DMFI, though a Democratic group, called the plan “a welcome development.”

However, JStreet called it “a green light for annexation and a recipe for permanent occupation and endless conflict.”

If elected, Sanders would be the US’ first Jewish president, and would enter office with an Israel policy far closer to J Street’s than DMFI’s.

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