Netanyahu hits back at Bernie as lobby splits Democrats

by Shaun TANDON
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Democratic White House hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at the Virginia Wesleyan University

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday assailed US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, whose unprecedented boycott of the leading pro-Israel US lobby has laid bare divisions among Democrats.

Sanders is staying away from the annual conference of AIPAC, saying it offers a platform for "leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights," and has denounced Netanyahu as a "reactionary racist."

Netanyahu, addressing the conference by satellite on the eve of Israeli elections, made a clear albeit unnamed swipe at Sanders, a leftist who would be the first Jewish US president.

"This year AIPAC was accused of providing a platform for bigotry. These libelous charges are outrageous," Netanyahu said.

Speaking to the thousands of AIPAC activists gathered at a Washington convention center, Netanyahu said: "You send a powerful message to all those who seek to weaken our great alliance that they will fail."

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, was far more direct in attacking Sanders.

"We don't want Sanders at AIPAC. We don't want him in Israel," Danon said.

"Anyone who calls our prime minister a 'racist' is either a liar, an ignorant fool or both," Danon said.

Sanders lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s and calls himself a supporter of the Jewish state but has voiced alarm at its rightward turn.

Netanyahu has vilified Israel's Arab minority and vowed to annex much of the occupied West Bank if he secures another term in elections Monday -- the third time Israelis are voting in less than a year amid a political deadlock.

Calling the Palestinians "the pampered children of the international community," Netanyahu voiced confidence that the United States would recognize the annexation -- in line with a controversial Middle East peace plan presented a month ago by President Donald Trump, a staunch Netanyahu ally.

"This will be a truly historic day. The map of Israel will change, the future of Israel will change, and it will change for the better," he said.

- 'Even-handed' Sanders -

Sanders, asked about AIPAC in a televised interview Sunday, promised to protect Israel's security but also to be more "even-handed."

"What we need in this country is a foreign policy that not only protects Israel but deals with the suffering of the Palestinian people as well," he said, deploring the 12-year blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Ex-military chief Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's centrist rival, did not mention Sanders in his own remarks by satellite to AIPAC but vowed to rebuild support for Israel in the United States.

"I will instill hope and not hate. That is the Israel we know; that is the Israel we need," Gantz said to applause.

"Israel will never, ever become a partisan issue," he said. "I will work effectively across both sides of the aisle."

While showing few gaps with Netanyahu on security issues, Gantz said he would oppose far-right politicians seeking to enter parliament and, in an issue important to many American Jews, promised inclusion at Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall, where women are restricted.

- Biden warns on annexation -

AIPAC for years has been an election-year rite of passage for candidates of each party, but only one Democratic contender plans to attend in person this time: former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who was energized by a primary win Saturday in South Carolina, sent a video message in which he urged both Israelis and Palestinians not to scuttle a two-state solution.

He warned Israel not to move ahead with annexation and criticized the Netanyahu government's approval Thursday of nearly 1,800 new homes in the West Bank.

"That's going to choke off any hope for peace," Biden said.

"To be frank, those moves are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel in the United States, especially among young people of both political parties. And that's dangerous," Biden said.

But while promising to speak his mind, Biden said, "I will never boycott you."

Fellow centrist Democratic contender Amy Klobuchar also sent a video message to AIPAC, while liberal Elizabeth Warren is skipping it.

Democratic White House hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at the Virginia Wesleyan University

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks near Tel Aviv on the eve of elections

Democratic White House hopeful Bernie Sanders said the US needs "a foreign policy that not only protects Israel but deals with the suffering of the Palestinian people as well"

Leader of Israel's Blue and White electoral alliance Benny Gantz speaks in the central city of Ramat Gan on the eve of elections

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Columbia, South Carolina where he won the state's primary