Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns in Cleveland.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
No one would admit it, but there was probably a huge sigh of relief in the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday morning when it became clear that Hillary Clinton handily beat Bernie Sanders in Tuesday’s New York Democratic Party primary.
No one would say that, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – criticized in the past for his allegedly heavy handed intervention in the American political process – is now being extremely careful about doing or saying anything that could be construed as trying to impact the results of the US elections.
(Compare that with Vice President Joe Biden’s remark on Monday to Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir at a J Street event that he wished her views would “begin to once again become the majority opinion in the Knesset.”) But think about Netanyahu’s very, very likely preference for Clinton over Sanders for a moment.
This is Hillary Clinton, whose husband he famously did not get along with during his first prime ministerial term from 1996-1999; Clinton, with whom he had an imperfect relationship while she was secretary of state from 2009-2013; and Clinton, who is running against the first serious Jewish US presidential candidate ever.
And still it is safe to assume that Netanyahu prefers her to Sanders, which just goes to show how much concern there is about Sanders.
One does not need to be an overly acute political observer to assume that Netanyahu was not pulling for the candidate who earlier this month claimed that Israel killed 10,000 people in Gaza, continues to maintain Israel used “disproportionate force” to defend its citizens, and hired – and then only suspended – a staffer who wrote an expletive-laden diatribe against the democratically elected leader of the Jewish state.
Much has been said and written over the years about the absolute necessity of keeping Israel a bipartisan issue. Time and time again both Israeli officials and American politicians have said that while Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on much in Washington, the one thing they do see eye-to-eye on is support for Israel.
“Don’t turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue,” is the warning that was thrown at Netanyahu when he insisted last March on going to Congress at the invitation of then Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and addressing Congress against the Iran deal.
While Israel may not be a wedge issue between the parties, what Sanders has done – and what should concern Israel even if Sanders is not eventually the Democratic nominee – is turn Israel into a wedge issue inside the Democratic Party.
When Sanders went to Brooklyn last week for a debate against Clinton and slammed Israeli policies, when he continues to say that “you can’t always nod at everything Netanyahu says” (as if that is what the Obama administration has done for the last seven years), he was not just articulating his thoughts, but was clearly appealing – nay, pandering – to the progressive flank of his party.
(Notice that whenever a politician goes to AIPAC and articulates pro-Israel positions, they are characterized by some in the media as pandering to Jewish voters; but when other politicians go to J Street and articulate anti-Netanyahu positions, they are never accused of pandering to Jewish liberals.) Sanders was giving his core constituency – which includes all those millennials that Peter Beinart insists, just insists, are completely fed up with Israel – what he thought they wanted to hear. He was turning Israel into a divisive campaign issue.
And for that he received loud applause.
Israeli officials have noted this applause, just as they noted during the last Democratic convention in 2012 that a clause on asserting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was loudly booed, and that Sanders earned a loud ovation at a speech in Harlem last week when he expressed support for the Palestinians.
This applause was also picked up by some pundits who see it as a sign that a major candidate can be critical of Israeli policies and still win, indeed still win among some Jews.
Sanders was critical of Israel in New York, because he apparently thought it would help him with his millennial base, and he lost. He also lost the Jewish vote by an almost 2-1 margin.
To be clear, the New York primary was not about Israel, and Sanders did not lose because of his comments about Israel. But his comments did not help him to the degree he thought they would.
The progressive millennials – in fact, Jewish liberal millennials very critical of Israel – do exist. The polls bear this out.
But they remain a minority of American public opinion, and a minority of American Jewish opinion. A loud minority, whose opinions are magnified by a media – both the Jewish media and general media – that gravitates to stories showing dissent over Israel in the American Jewish community, But poll numbers continue to show strong US support for Israel. True, support is stronger among Republicans than among Democrats, and stronger among middle age and older voters, than among the youth.
A February Pew poll showed that 62 percent of the American public sympathize more with Israel, as opposed to 15% who sympathize more with the Palestinians.
Among Democrats and those in the 18-29 demographic, the pro-Palestinian sympathies rise to 23%. This is the audience to which Sanders was directing his very critical comments about Israel. Twenty-three percent is 23%, and something not to be dismissed. But it is still only 23%.
It is still far from the dominant trend in the party, and – judging by the pro-Israel rhetoric of the Clinton campaign – she does not think it will gain the upper hand anytime soon.