Say what you will about Bernie Sanders’s quixotic quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders has accomplished something that seemed unlikely when the campaign began last summer. During the first debates held between the larger field of candidates then running in both parties, the Republicans competed with each other to demonstrate which one was the most ardent friend of Israel (much to the dismay of some commentators like Ann Coulter) while the issue went almost unmentioned among the Democrats. That seemed to illustrate the way the two parties had shifted on foreign policy, with the GOP speaking almost with one voice on the issue while Democrats no longer cared much about demonstrating support for Israel.
But thanks to the Vermont senator’s decision to blast the Jewish state for what he wrongly called its “disproportionate” counter-attacks against terrorists in Gaza and his insistence that U.S. policy be even-handed rather than pro-Israel, an exchange about the Middle East became one of the most contentious and talked-about moments in the Democratic debate last night in Brooklyn.
Most of the talking heads and pundits commenting on this dustup summed up the point of this part of the debate by claiming that Clinton was pandering to New York’s large number of Jewish voters while Sanders was appealing to the party’s liberal base that are likely to be less supportive of Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinians. While superficial, there’s some truth to this analysis. But the main points to be gleaned from this brawl is that it forced the presumptive nominee to reclaim support for Israel as an issue on which a Democrat could campaign while also reminding us that the large throngs of mostly young Democrats backing Bernie are abandoning the consensus position on the Middle East around which the leaders of both parties have coalesced for the last generation.
There was some irony that the woman who was President Obama’s secretary of state for four years and who on every other issue has desperately sought to link herself to his record would stake out such a strong position on Israel’s right to self-defense and to put the onus for the lack of peace on the Palestinians squarely where it belongs. After all, Sanders’ mischaracterization of Israel’s counter-attacks against Hamas missile launchers and terror tunnels as being wrongful was reminiscent of the White House’s own criticisms of Jerusalem during the 2014 Gaza war. Sanders’ position, that Americans should believe that “Netanyahu is not right all the time,” should resonate with Democrats who were told that they must back the president against the prime minister on the Iran nuclear deal out of party loyalty and their claim that the Israeli had insulted Obama. Indeed, though Clinton had reportedly spent the better part of an hour in 2010 yelling at Netanyahu over the administration’s claim that Israel had insulted Vice President Biden, she found herself taking the position last night of the advocate for less, rather than more, daylight between the two countries.
But, irony aside and the New York venue notwithstanding, supporters of Israel had to derive some comfort from the fact that Clinton spoke about the Jewish state in a way that reaffirmed the bipartisan nature of the alliance. Though no one should labor under the delusion that a Hillary Clinton administration would be as supportive of the Jewish state as that of her husband, it was nevertheless important that the country should hear the certain winner of the Democratic contest stating some plain truths about the conflict.
Though Clinton tried to couch her stand in language that made clear that she was a strong advocate for peace and for a two-state solution, her willingness to put the blame for the conflict on Palestinian terrorism and a refusal to make peace a refreshing moment of truth in a debate that otherwise centered on two variations of liberal cant.
While Sanders claimed the problem was that Israel and the U.S. were not devoted enough to the cause of treating Palestinians with respect, Clinton got to the heart of the issue by stating that, if a state was what they wanted, they could have had it 15 years ago when the Israelis first offered them one at the Camp David summit hosted by her husband. She also dismissed his talk of “disproportionate” Israeli actions by saying that Hamas hides among civilians, in effect using them as human shields, is rarely discussed when Palestinian terror is reported by the mainstream media. Even more rare was her mention of the fact that Israel left Gaza completely in 2005, and it became a terrorist enclave run by Hamas, “So instead of having a thriving economy with the kind of opportunities that the children of the Palestinians deserve, we have a terrorist haven that is getting more and more rockets shipped in from Iran and elsewhere.”
In reply, Sanders merely spouted about the need to recognize the problems of the Palestinians while refusing to own up to the fact that if the conflict has continued it has been by their choice. His statements were simplistic and as divorced from the reality of the conflict as a lot of the stands of the Obama administration which has done its best to create more daylight between Washington and Jerusalem since 2009. Though Sanders takes these positions while claiming to be a supporter of Israel and noting his personal connection to the country, his stands shows the breakdown of the once solid backing for the country among left-wing Jews.
But her push back, albeit delivered in the context of empty boasts about her negligible diplomatic accomplishments, made it clear that the mainstream Democratic position ought to be one that focuses on support for Israel and understands that the Palestinians are the authors of their own misery.
Given the way the Democratic Party has drifted away from pro-Israel policies in the last few decades while the Republicans are largely unified in their backing for the Jewish state, this was a significant moment.
But the question to be asked is which of those two candidates truly represent the future of the party. While it was important for Clinton to state these truths, the fact that Democrats are divided over Israel shows us the opening that Israel’s foes seek to exploit. If his positions earned cheers among young, left-wing Democrats, it’s not unreasonable to see the 74-year-old’s desire to downgrade the alliance as the voice of the future for Democrats rather than that of Clinton. Though Clinton will be the nominee, friends of Israel must worry that the Democrats are now increasingly Bernie’s party.