One of the many differences between the Republican and Democratic presidential debates has to do with Israel. As columnist Ann Coulter noted with exasperation during one of the early GOP debates, all of the Republican candidates were falling over themselves to express their devotion to the alliance between the U.S. and Israel and friendship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. By contrast, Israel rarely if ever comes up during when the Democrats are having at it. That’s why Politico’s feature about Bernie Sanders’ “complicated” relationship with Israel might be seen as a product of opposition research from the Clinton camp. Author Michael Crowley is right to point out Sanders’ history of problematic and often equivocal stands toward Israel, as well as aspects of his record that are more positive. But 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.
Clinton has criticized Sanders for his call for the U.S. to “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran” and pointed out that doing so would be to disregard Iran’s hostility toward Israel. But she has actually tread carefully on the Middle East during the campaign and understandably so.
The first reason why Clinton is in no position to make a meal out of Sanders’ history of less than supportive statements and votes is that her record on Israel isn’t pristine either. For every citation of a Sanders’ refusal to sign onto Congressional resolutions condemning Palestinian terrorism or his criticisms of Israeli policies, his side could cite her embrace of Suha Arafat in the moments after she falsely accused Israel of poisoning children. As far as Iran is concerned, President Obama’s former secretary of state can’t reasonably condemn Sanders’ willingness to jump into bed with the ayatollahs since she has defended appeasement of Tehran, too.
But even if would concede that Clinton has a slightly better record of emphasizing the importance of the alliance than Sanders that misses the point about the lack of a debate about Israel among Democrats. The real reason that there is no opening for Clinton on Israel is that the Vermont senator is firmly in the mainstream of Democratic opinion on Israel. If anything, his willingness to occasionally see things from Israel’s point of view — as he did in one August 2014 town hall event where he was challenged by an opponent of the Jewish state — or to reaffirm his support for its right to exist means that he is no longer completely in synch with the left wing of his party on foreign policy.
As I wrote in the December issue of COMMENTARY, “The Democratic Divorce” from Israel is something that has been in the works for decades as the party drifted to the left on foreign policy. The complete disappearance of the Scoop Jackson wing of the party that combined liberal stands on domestic issues with backing for a strong foreign policy that centered on support for Israel is a matter of record. The determination of Sanders and other liberals to view foreign policy entirely through the prism of the Iraq War and a determination to stay out of the Middle East completed that process.
The vote on the Iran nuclear deal in which virtually the entire Democratic Party caucus supported President Obama’s abandonment of decades of U.S. determination to halt Tehran’s nuclear program in favor of a pact that ensures it will be able to get a bomb within a decade was instructive because it showed the stark divide between the parties on the issue. Nor is it any accident that polls consistently show that those that identify as Democrats are less supportive of Israel in its struggle against Palestinian terrorism.
Sanders’ camp describes him as a supporter of the peace process and the two-state solution, something that equally applies to Clinton. Two states might be the ideal answer to the conflict, but the difference between most Republicans and most Democrats right now is that the latter seem to be more in step with opinion in Israel than among the Washington foreign policy establishment. As I noted last week, even Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s Zionist Union/Labor Party opposition, has served notice that he has given up on two states for the foreseeable future. That’s because although he is a stern critic of Netanyahu, he knows even the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority is simply not ready to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
What pro-Israel Democrats have to come to terms with is that President Obama has changed the conversation in his party about Israel. It wasn’t just that his stands on Jerusalem and the 1967 borders, self-defense against Hamas terrorism from Gaza and Iran, took U.S. policy on a collision course with Israel than that made past disputes between the two countries seem trivial. It’s that Obama’s contention that what is most needed in the relationship is more “daylight” rather than closer cooperation is now a mainstream position among Democrats. He and his supporters contend they merely disagree with Israel’s policies on the West Bank and believe it needs to be saved from itself. But what this means in action is a stance of pressure intended to force Israelis to accept further withdrawals that even its leading left-wing party thinks would be suicidal. Where the next step will take Democrats in their quest for “daylight,” either in the last year of the Obama administration or the first ones of a Clinton or Sanders White House, there’s no telling.
That’s why Sanders supporters are not wrong when they would contend that he would merely continue President Obama’s policies. And for all of her attempts to assure some of her major donors in private that she’d be very different from both Obama and Sanders, the likelihood is that a Clinton administration wouldn’t diverge much from the same pattern of distancing and pressure to no purpose.
A Democratic base that increasingly buys into canards about Israel being an “apartheid state,” that refuses to look honestly at Palestinian rejectionism and terror, and which views the projection of U.S. power in the region with distaste is not one that is going to care much about whether one of their candidates is more pro-Israel than the other.
Bernie’s position on Israel isn’t any more “complicated” than the rest of his party. The growing distaste for Zionism on the left has made it possible for a Democratic president to wage a seven-year campaign against Israel without paying a price for it within his party. Whether or not Sanders or Clinton would escalate tensions with Israel if they were president, the one thing we know for sure is that they could count on no problems from within their party and fervent opposition from Republicans.