Omar apologizes for AIPAC tweets

Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listens to President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech Feb. 5 at the Capitol in Washington. A tweet by Omar has sparked a bipartisan backlash, with some accusing her of being anti-Semitic.
J. Scott Applewhite ~ Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar "unequivocally" apologized Monday for tweets suggesting members of Congress support Israel because they are being paid to do so, which drew bipartisan criticism and a rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Minnesota Democrat said she had no intention of offending anyone, including Jewish Americans.

"We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me about my identity," Omar tweeted. "This is why I unequivocally apologize."

The statement was the latest reckoning among Democrats of intense differences in their ranks over the U.S.-Israeli relationship, highlighted by criticism from Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They are the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. Pelosi and other Democrats, including leaders and chairmen, laid down a marker making clear Omar had overstepped.

In a pair of tweets over the weekend, Omar criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. "It's all about the Benjamins baby," she wrote, invoking slang about $100 bills.

Asked on Twitter who she thought was paying members of Congress to support Israel, Omar responded, "AIPAC!"

That sparked Pelosi's first public rebuke of a freshman lawmaker who had helped flip the House from Republican control and is part of a record number of women in Congress.

"Congresswoman Omar's use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive," Pelosi said in a statement issued by her office and signed by other Democratic leaders after a bipartisan backlash against the Minnesota Democrat. "We condemn these remarks, and we call upon Congresswoman Omar to immediately apologize for these hurtful comments."

It also was a stark exposure of an increasingly tense split among Democrats over U.S.-Israeli policy ahead of the 2020 elections. None of the Democratic presidential hopefuls weighed in publicly as their party's House leaders chastised Omar.

Omar's fellow freshmen felt the strain. Some, such as Jewish Reps. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Max Rose of New York, explicitly denounced her remarks. But Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., refused to condemn them, saying they referred to money in politics and "not anything else."

Senior Democrats dealt the new lawmaker a swift schooling.

"There is an expectation of leaders -- particularly those with a demonstrated commitment to the cause of justice and equality -- that they would be extremely careful not to tread into the waters of anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice or hate," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said in a statement. "Rep. Omar failed that test of leadership with these comments."

Republicans called on Democrats to strip Omar of her seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, but Chairman Eliot Engel stopped just short of that. He said in a statement he expects his committee members to discuss policies on merits. And though he did not name Omar, he left little doubt his statement was a response to her tweets.

AIPAC is a not-for-profit organization working to influence U.S. policy toward Israel. While it is barred from directly donating to candidates, it encourages its more than 100,000 members to do so and to be politically active.

One way the organization has made a mark on Congress is through expense-paid junkets to Israel, which are paid for by an affiliated not-for-profit, which does not have to disclose its donors. The popular weeklong excursions for members of Congress, their families and some senior staff can cost upward of $12,000 per person and are intended to "educate political leaders and influencers about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences."

The not-for-profit responded Sunday night: "We are proud that we are engaged in the democratic process to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. Our bipartisan efforts are reflective of American values and interests. We will not be deterred in any way by ill-informed and illegitimate attacks on this important work."

Omar supports a movement known as BDS, for "boycott, divestment and sanctions" aimed at Israel. And it's not the first time she's fought accusations of anti-Semitism. She insists her rejection of the Israeli government refers to its stance toward Palestinians and is not directed at Jewish people.

Omar has expressed regret for tweeting in 2012: "Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel." She said the statement came in the context of Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

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