Did Bernie Sanders miss a golden opportunity to contrast his standing as the avatar of liberal ideology with Hillary Clinton’s more centrist beliefs? Sanders chose to stay away from attacks that pointed to Clinton’s well-earned reputation for dishonesty–a reputation having to do with her email scandal as well as the serious conflict-of-interest charges resulting from the activities of the Clinton family foundation. But he was not shy about trying to tie the former secretary of state to Wall Street or painting her as a tool of the country’s financial and political establishment. But there was one issue where he might have appealed to the party’s liberal base as being more in line with their views than is Clinton: Israel. According to Peter Beinart, that might have been a mistake on Sanders’s part, and it won’t be repeated by another candidate the next time there is a Democratic presidential contest.
In his Haaretz column Beinart acknowledges that the two did highlight their disagreements over Israel at their Brooklyn debate in April. He might have also pointed out that this contrast was apparent even before that, in their contrasting Middle-East-policy speeches earlier in the campaign. Clinton gave a standard issue stalwart pro-Israel speech at the AIPAC conference. Sanders, who has gotten closer to winning a major party presidential nomination than any other American Jew in history, chose to boycott AIPAC and then gave a policy speech on the Middle East that was highly critical of Israeli policies while still reflecting support for Israel’s right to exist.
Yet Beinart is correct that aside from those two moments and the Vermont senator’s slanderous exaggeration of Palestinian casualties during the 2014 Gaza war, Sanders’s equivocal approach to Israel didn’t play a role in the campaign. It’s Beinart’s thesis that this was a mistake because of the way most liberals feel about the issue. Though I seldom agree with Beinart, he may be right about this. As I noted last week, Hillary Clinton’s decision to take a stand against the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement against Israel before the convention of the Methodist church where a resolution on the topic was to be voted on, put her at odds with the base of the Democratic Party.
Like Beinart, I cited a new Pew Research Center poll that showed that while most Americans remained solidly pro-Israel, there were two groups that were not: liberals and Bernie Sanders voters. However, if we take it as a given that the left represents not only the base of the Democratic Party but its future — due to the fact that Sanders has captured the enthusiasm of younger voters — then there may be some truth to the thesis. He believes that just as Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by telling the GOP base what it wanted to hear about immigration (but wasn’t getting from other candidates) about immigration, trade, and isolationist positions in foreign policy, so, too, is there “an unserved market among grass roots Democrats for a candidate that is critical of Israel.”
Is he right about that? He might be.
As I noted in the December issue of COMMENTARY, the Democratic Party has been undergoing a slow-motion divorce from Israel over the course of the last few decades. This culminated with Congressional Democrats choosing to back President Obama’s decision to appease Iran. The Pew poll is further proof of the contrast with the Republicans who, in the last generation, have switched places with the Democrats with respect to Israel. Where once the GOP was lukewarm at best about the Jewish state, GOP candidates now compete with each other to prove their pro-Israel bona fides during their presidential debates. Indeed, the willingness of conservatives — and especially conservative Christians — to unreservedly embrace Israel has rendered it even more suspect among some liberals.
Many on the left have swallowed Palestinian lies about Israel being at fault for the lack of peace or regard its acts of self-defense against terrorism as “disproportionate,” as Sanders does. Others simply don’t know that it is the Palestinians who have consistently rejected peace and statehood after repeated Israeli offers. Still others go further and support an anti-Zionist BDS movement that traffics in anti-Semitism. Though, as Beinart concedes, animus toward Israel isn’t nearly as important to Democrats as immigration is to the GOP base, a future presidential candidate who went even further than Sanders and embraced such positions would find many on the left willing to cheer. Where once anti-Israel rhetoric only came from outliers like former President Jimmy Carter and a few scattered members of Congress, to the extent that hard-core liberals ever completely control the Democratic Party, the party might well go from being divided about Zionism to overt hostility. This could make President Obama look like a supporter of the Netanyahu government.
But while Beinart is reading the polls correctly, he is ignoring a basic fact of American political life. While there is an underserved niche of the Democratic Party that may long for a candidate who is an open foe of Israel, it is nothing close to a majority. Thanks to the influence of the left, the Democrats have become less pro-Israel than Republicans in the last 25 years. But overall more Democrats still support Israel more than the Palestinians by a margin of 43-29 percent. That 43 percent plurality is nothing like the 75 percent of Republicans who are Israel backers, but it is not negligible. More than that, without mainstream moderates — the kind of people who like Israel — Democrats don’t win elections. Just as Republicans tend to lose national elections when their base gets too powerful, the same has always been true about the Democrats. A candidate who pandered to anti-Zionists and regularly bashed Israel might be in a position to claim the party base but they would lose centrist voters who decide general-election contests. A trip down the anti-Israel rabbit hole with the far left might gain the applause of the lef,t but it is a formula for electoral defeat.
If there is anything we’ve learned about the Democratic establishment in the last few election cycles it’s that they crave power and control of the state more than ideology. That’s why, unlike the more democratic system used by the Republicans to select a presidential candidate, Democrats have several hundred unelected super delegates who are there to ensure that their party never again does what it did in 1972: nominate a radical liberal for president who will lead them to catastrophic defeat.
What mainstream Democrats know is something that leftist Israel-bashers and bitter critics of the results of Israeli democracy, (like Beinart, who believes the repeated election victories of Netanyahu should be overturned by American pressure) often forget: Support for Israel and Zionism is baked deep into the political DNA of the United States. It’s true that the bipartisan pro-Israel coalition can be shattered if a president decides to make an issue a litmus test of partisan loyalty as Obama did with the Iran nuclear deal. But it must also be understood that pro-Israel stands aren’t merely a matter of political contributions. They are a reflection of Israel’s popularity among Americans of all different parties and backgrounds.
That is being chipped away at by people like Beinart and by others who go even further in their efforts to delegitimize Israel and its right to self-defense. But while they are winning on the left, the rest of the country is not with them. Nor is this a question of elites versus the people. If a political weather vane like Clinton is prepared to take a strong stand for Israel even when she is chasing Sanders to the left on most other issues, that should be a signal that she knows that hers is the more popular position. That means that even if someday there is a Democratic presidential candidate who is openly anti-Israel, he isn’t likely to succeed in winning his party’s nomination. And if he does, he will almost certainly be defeated.