Sanders and Israel: Please say something

January 26, 2016

En route to Des Moines, Iowa, where I will spend my time until caucus day like everybody else — it is everybody, isn’t it? — I pass the time reading an article about Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Israel, and then another article about Bernie Sanders and Israel, and another and another, until I get tired of it.

It is “complicated,” announced Politico, referring to Sanders and Israel. But the story does not really back the headline. Nothing is complicated. The story is quite simple: In Sanders’ book, Israel is not an issue for most Democratic voters. It is even less of an issue for Democratic primary voters. And if it is an issue — it is not at all clear that being a great supporter is better, politically speaking, than being somewhat critical of Israel.

“How many Democratic primary voters might have qualms with Sanders is unclear,” Politico says. And then it moves to remind the reader, “President Barack Obama himself has grown increasingly critical of Israeli policy toward Iran and the Palestinians.” In other words: Hillary Clinton already tried the trick of utilizing Israel as a political weapon against one opponent — and it did not work. She is now using the same tool against her current opponent, either because she believes that this time she has a more convincing case, or because it is hard to get rid of old habits. Or — possibly — because she believes Sanders’ proposed foreign policy puts Israel in danger and wants the voters of the Democratic Party to understand that.

I tend to think that the third option — believing in what she is saying — is not the real motivation behind Clinton’s sudden use of Israel against Sanders. A few days ago, Jake Sullivan, a foreign policy adviser to Clinton, depicted Bernie Sanders’ call to normalize relations with Iran as dangerous. “Iran seeks the destruction of Israel; Iran is a leading sponsor of terror in the region; Iran is flouting international law with its ballistic missile tests and its threats against our allies and partners,” the adviser says in a Clinton campaign video. Surely Clinton believes this to be true. But what candidates say in campaign season is what they believe to be beneficial politically.

So the difference between the candidates runs much deeper than the argument about the right policy toward Iran (actually, Sanders barely invests his time thinking and articulating something that we could call a “policy” on issues such as Iran). The difference is between a candidate who still believes that a talking point on Israel, and the danger the other candidate poses to Israel, is still a worthy commodity in the Democratic Party; and a candidate who sees no great value in making Israel a talking point or making a huge effort to emphasize his support for it.

Sanders might agree with conservative Jonathan Tobin, who writes (in Commentary): “to argue that Israel is a potential liability for Sanders in the Democratic race is to misunderstand the dynamic of the Democratic Party in 2016.” He might agree with leftist Ali Gharib (of The Nation), who argues that what Clinton is doing by being more hawkish on Iran and Israel than Sanders “call[s] into question Clinton’s own bona fides on matters of war and peace.”

It is still early in the game and only time will tell if and how Bernie Sanders chooses to respond to the Clinton allegations concerning Israel. 

Here a comparison with Obama is also valuable. When Clinton questioned his affinity to Israel — directly or, in most cases, indirectly — Obama, then a candidate, was quick to respond. He was clearly concerned about the potential blow he might suffer if too many voters see him as “anti-Israel.” As I described in my book on the Jewish vote and the 2012 campaign, at the end of January 2008, I was among a group of reporters invited to participate in a conference call with then-candidate Obama. “Apparently,” I wrote four years ago (about the events of eight years ago), Obama “felt an urgent need to talk about a ‘constant virulent campaign’ that was being waged against him as he was fighting to win the party’s nomination. This campaign, he told us, was aimed specifically at weakening support for him within the Jewish community. It included calling him a Muslim and accusing him of not pledging allegiance to the United States. And this campaign might be ‘getting some traction,’ he said.”

Sanders has not yet responded to the early beginnings of a campaign that seems to question his policy on Israel. He did not respond (at least not as of press time on Jan. 26) for one of several reasons. It could be just an error in judgment: His camp does not yet grasp the harmful impact this campaign might have on his candidacy. Or it could be a belief by Sanders that he is different from the 2008 Barack Obama in the sense that in his case (being Jewish, white, a longtime senator, former kibbutz volunteer, etc.), no allegation concerning Israel would stick. Or it could be a deliberate decision on his part to ignore — maybe even embrace? — Clinton’s Israel-related attacks because he believes these attacks are actually good for him. Maybe Sanders thinks that Israel today is a burden for a primary Democratic candidate like himself. Maybe it is a burden for the anti-establishment insurgent. 

The Politico piece mentions that “many liberal voters” might have such a view. “A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that only 4 in 10 Democrats consider Israel to be playing a positive role in the Middle East.” So Sanders could be the candidate hoping to get the other six voters — those who do not think Israel is “playing a positive role” — to vote for him.

If that is the case — if Sanders does not end up responding to the Israel-related questions hurled at him — that is no less concerning than his simplistic and unimpressive views on Iran. True, Iran is a great danger to Israel, and Israel would naturally prefer a candidate who sees Iran with clear eyes. Sanders has not yet made a convincing case that he is such a candidate.

But no less true is the fact that the United States, and its friendship toward Israel, is one of Israel’s greatest strategic assets. And Israel would naturally prefer a candidate who sees the continuation of this friendship as a priority and as an asset — both a strategic asset for the U.S., and as a political asset for him, or her, as a candidate. Clearly, Barack Obama — while not shy of criticizing Israel, and while not trying to portray himself as an enthusiast of the current Israeli government (neither today, nor in 2008, when he was running for president for the first time) — did do his utmost to insist that he would be a friend no less strong than all other candidates. He made an effort to reject the hints that he would not be Israel’s ally, and this effort counts for something.

As long as Sanders’ stance is to ignore the Israel question, as long as he makes the calculation that silence is better for him than a vocal protest — that silence speaks volumes.

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