Sanders' decision comes days after thousands signed a petition urging him not to attend
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has said he will not be attending the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) next week, after over 5,000 people signed a petititon urging him not to share a stage with "Islamophobes, anti-immigrant activists, and religious extremists".
"Unfortunately, I am going to be traveling throughout the West and the campaign schedule that we have prevents me from attending," Sanders wrote in a letter to AIPAC president Robert Cohen.
Instead, he offered to send written remarks that he requested be distributed to AIPAC members.
Meanwhile, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, in addition to all three GOP hopefuls - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich - have confirmed they will speak at the conference.
Petition creator Max Blumenthal - a staunch critic of Israel and son of Clinton administration aide Sidney Blumenthal - marked Sanders' decision not to attend as a victory.
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) March 18, 2016
Other pro-Palestinian Sanders supporters hailed the news as well, stressing how uncommon it was for mainline presidential candidates to skip the AIPAC conference.
It's virtually unprecedented for a presidential contender to skip AIPAC. Whatever his stated reasons, this sends a clear & bold message.
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) March 18, 2016
AIPAC has dubbed this year's conference "Come Together," a clear message that it seeks to cement pro-Israel policies as a bipartisan US issue.
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) March 17, 2016
Last year, a public spat between Democratic President Barack Obama and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal led to a number of Democratic lawmakers boycotting a speech by Netanyahu before Congress. Sanders, who is Jewish, was the first senator to announce that he would not be attending the speech.
While Sanders has largely supported pro-Israel legislation, he has not shied away from criticism of the current Israeli government. He has said he is "not a great fan" of Netanyahu, has called for an "level playing field" with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He is also the only candidate to call for an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza. This position earned him praise from the Dearborn, Michigan-based newspaper The Arab American News - and in turn Arab Americans in the Detroit area largely supported Sanders over his rival, Clinton, in the 8 March Michigan primary.
Public outcry over Israel's deadly assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014 - in which over 2,200 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, were killed by Israeli forces in addition to 66 soldiers and six civilians on the Israeli side - has led to unprecedented criticism of Israeli policy in the US.
The AIPAC conference's stated goal is to lobby "members of Congress in support of legislation that enhances the relationship between the United States and Israel".