Originally published at Daily Kos

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the first Jew to ever win a presidential primary, confirmed on Friday that he will not attend next week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference. 

CNN reports Sanders will be the only remaining major party presidential candidate who will not speak at the annual gathering of the powerful pro-Israel lobby. However, Sanders did not say he was skipping the conference because he objects to Israeli policies and actions; instead he blamed his busy campaign schedule for the move.

“I would very much have enjoyed speaking at the AIPAC conference. Obviously issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are of the utmost importance to me, to our country and to the world,” Sanders wrote to AIPAC President Robert Cohen. “Unfortunately, I am going to be traveling throughout the West and the campaign schedule that we have prevents me from attending.”

Politico reports Sanders promised to send AIPAC a copy of the speech he would have given had he attended the event. 

petition urging Sanders to reject AIPAC’s invitation launched by pro-Palestinian author and activist Max Blumenthal had collected more than 5,000 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Critics of Israel point to the Jewish state’s occupation and settlement construction and expansion in Palestine, which are illegal under international law, as reasons to oppose the $3 billion in annual military aid given to Israel by the United States. Before retiring in 2014, United Nations human rights official Richard Falk, a Jewish American, repeatedly asserted that Israeli settlement expansion is a “form of ethnic cleansing.” Other prominent international observers, including the Nobel peace laureates Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire, accuse Israel of practicing “apartheid” policies.

“When Israel [occupies] territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200 or so settlements with each other with a road and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing that road, this perpetuates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa,” said Carter, the former US president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a lasting peace between former bitter enemies Israel and Egypt.

Sanders, who spent time on an Israeli kibbutz more than 50 years ago, has been criticized from the left for being a staunch supporter of Israel and from the right for being perceived as too sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, who have lived under Israeli occupation since 1967 and who were victims of ethnic cleansing during the founding of the Jewish state a generation earlier. Sanders has promised to pursue a balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict if elected president.

“The United States will support the security of Israel, help Israel fight terrorist attacks against that country and maintain its independence,” he said. “But under my administration, the United States will maintain an even-handed approach to the area.”

“I believe in a two-state solution, where Israel has security and the Palestinians have a state of their own,” Sanders told Rolling Stone. “The United States has got to work with the Palestinian people in improving their standard of living, which is now a disaster, and has been made much worse since the war in Gaza.”

While Sanders supported Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge war against Hamas—which launched thousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel, the Vermont senator accused Israel of “overreacting” in an offensive that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them innocent civilians.

“​Has Israel overreacted? Have they bombed UN facilities? The answer is yes, and that is terribly, terribly wrong,” Sanders said at a town hall event in Cabot, Vermont during the war.

“On the other hand, and there is another hand, you have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel… and you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas; that’s a fact.”

Sanders has been an outspoken critic of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he is “not a great fan” of the hawkish leader. Last February, he was the first of 56 lawmakers—all of them Democrats except the independent Sanders—to announce he would boycott Netanyahu’s speech to Congress after the Israeli premier allegedly broke protocol by accepting a Republican invitation to speak without first coordinating with the Obama administration. 

“The president of the United States heads up our foreign policy,” Sanders said at the time. “The idea that the president wasn’t even consulted—that is wrong and not a good thing for our country.”

Sanders has historically sought to maintain a balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but has toned down his criticism of Israel over the years. In 1988, he suggested that the United States should cut off military aid to Israel if it refused to negotiate a viable peace deal with the Palestinians. He also said it was an “absolute disgrace” that there was not more criticism of Israel in Washington, DC. 

AIPAC has come under fire for inviting Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who has called for a total ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, to address the conference, with a growing chorus of Jewish voices condemning the move. 

“By extending an invite to Trump with no additional comment, no caveats, no reproach, AIPAC is helping Trump erase the many lines he has crossed.” wrote Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman. “By giving Trump a platform without taking a stand on outright hate speech, AIPAC is helping to fuel this discord. That’s the core moral mistake AIPAC is making.”