How would Israel-US relations change under President Bernie Sanders?

Israel-US Politics: Is Israel about to get ‘Berned’?

DEMOCRATIC US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders rallies with supporters in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, earlier this week. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
DEMOCRATIC US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders rallies with supporters in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, earlier this week.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – The annual AIPAC Policy Conference begins on Sunday, drawing in pro-Israel activists and politicians from around the US and both sides of the aisle.
There will also be a conspicuous absence: that of US Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), the front-runner in the Democratic primaries.
Sanders’s decision to skip AIPAC and his statements about Israel’s leadership and policies, along with his surge in the primaries, have left many observers of the US-Israel relationship wondering what would happen should he become president.
Most of the Democratic candidates won’t be at AIPAC; the conference is right before Super Tuesday, when 14 state primaries will take place. Sanders’s absence would not have been particularly noteworthy in that context. In fact, Sanders himself recently referred to the timing when saying he wouldn’t be attending AIPAC, adding that his positions on Israel and the Palestinians are more important than whether he would be there.
But on Monday, Sanders tweeted: “The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference. As president, I will support the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and do everything possible to bring peace and security to the region.”
AIPAC released a rare statement attacking a politician, saying that “Senator Sanders has never attended our conference and that is evident from his outrageous comment. In fact, many of his own Senate and House Democratic colleague and leaders speak from our platform to the over 18,000 Americans from widely diverse backgrounds... who participate in the conference to proclaim their support for the US-Israel relationship. By engaging in such an odious attack on this mainstream, bipartisan American political event, Senator Sanders is insulting his very own colleagues and the millions of Americans who stand with Israel. Truly shameful.”
Sanders’s statement brought up a number of questions. What is so particularly bad about AIPAC that he decided to single it out for opprobrium? Does it provide more of a platform for anti-Palestinian views than, say, Fox News, which Sanders has not boycotted?
While his staunchest supporters said Sanders did the right thing in skipping the conference, some left-leaning Jewish figures criticized the decision. Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs tweeted: “If Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to lead the Democratic Party and the nation, I hope he can speak to, engage with, and even debate everyone. Don’t skip AIPAC; speak to – and with – participants at AIPAC.” Anti-Defamation League CEO and former Obama adviser Jonathan Greenblatt called it “irresponsible” for Sanders to describe AIPAC as a platform for bigotry “at a time when we see a surge of real hate across the US.”
But Sanders’s position on Israel is more than skipping AIPAC. In Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, the senator from Vermont was asked what he would say to American Jews concerned that he is not supportive enough of the Jewish state.
Sanders said he’s “very proud of being Jewish” – not that he was asked – and referred to time he spent on a kibbutz in the 1960s.
“But what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country,” he said. “And I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel. But you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people. We have got to have a policy that reaches out to the Palestinians.”
Sanders also said that he would consider moving the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem.
Late last year, when speaking to J Street, the progressive alternative to AIPAC that is more critical of Israeli policies, Sanders talked about leveraging US aid to Israel.
“It is a lot of money.... We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy,” he said. “Some of that $3.8 billion should go right now into humanitarian aid in Gaza,” he said.
Sanders’s foreign policy adviser Matt Duss told The Jerusalem Post soon after that Sanders wanted to “make sure that aid is genuinely promoting security and is not supporting violations of human rights.”
Asked if that standard applies to Gaza, where aid routinely ends up in the hands of Hamas, Duss emphasized Sanders’s opposition to the terrorist group, their attacks on Israel and their embittering of Palestinian lives, but also said a focus on Hamas dehumanizes Palestinians and holds Gazans hostage to politics.
Then there’s the issue of some of the people surrounding Sanders. He’s been endorsed by Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has said Israel “hypnotized” the world, and that support for the Jewish state is “all about the Benjamins,” meaning, financially motivated; and by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who said that pro-Israel politicians forgot which country they’re supposed to represent, a form of the antisemitic dual loyalty smear.
Some official Sanders campaign surrogates have gone even further with anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric, despite Sanders’s proclaimed support for Israel’s existence and security, and his writing last year in an op-ed that “some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews.
Prominent Arab-American activist and Sanders surrogate Linda Sarsour said Zionists have no place in the progressive movement. Sarsour has also criticized people who try to “humanize” Israelis.
Another surrogate, Amer Zar, once tweeted: “Many American Jews are starting to realize that Israel might be their ISIS” and “Describing defenders of Israel as ‘scumbags,’ ‘pigs,’ and ‘bastards’ is not necessary. ‘Zionist’ is sufficiently insulting.” He also visited Tlaib’s office, where he covered Israel on a map on her wall with a post-it note labeling it “Palestine.” And that is just a few of his greatest hits, collected by the pro-Israel blog IsraellyCool.
IN LIGHT of all this, some are sounding the alarm about what a Sanders presidency could mean for Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had dodged questions about the Democratic race thus far, but when Sanders called him a “reactionary racist” this week, Netanyahu responded: “What I think about this matter is that he is definitely wrong. No question about it.”
Other Israeli politicians have made their concerns about Sanders known. Foreign Minister Israel Katz called Sanders’s comment on Netanyahu “horrifying,” and Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said he is “very worried” about Sanders’s “lack of understanding of our unique situation in the Middle East.”
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren called Sanders “a challenge” for Israel, expressing concern that “if the Democratic nominee refuses to go to AIPAC and accuses it of being a right-wing organization, then that is a serious and very long nail in the coffin of bipartisanship.”
Oren said a president Sanders would likely reverse some of US President Donald Trump’s policies in the region, like restoring aid to the Palestinians and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, and returning to advocating a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem.
He was less concerned with threats of reducing military aid to Israel by Sanders and other candidates who said they would condition it on certain policies, saying that they are “living in the ’80s.”
“Aid isn’t what it was. It’s not a huge part of the budget anymore, and has ever-decreasing leverage. We appreciate it, but... no Israeli government will have its arm twisted by a threat of reduced aid,” he argued, but said: “It’s not a good image to project to our enemies that we can be browbeaten like that.”
Oren found a positive side to a Sanders presidency, in that it would “conclude the process that began with [former US president Barack] Obama... [who] threw us out of the nest and forced Israel to forge relations with states in Africa, Latin America and Asia.”
“Israel will have to learn to stand on its own two feet. I think we’re strong enough,” Oren said.
The former ambassador added: “If we get into a war with Hamas or Hezbollah and have grown accustomed to relying on the US for certain types of support – military resupply, casting vetoes in the UN Security Council and defending us from sanctions... I think we can count on none of those things” under a Sanders presidency.
Renowned lawyer Alan Dershowitz said at a conference at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs this week that Sanders is the Jeremy Corbyn of the US, referring to the far-left UK Labour leader accused of antisemitism by the vast majority of the British Jewish community and beyond.
Sanders “has no idea what Israel is about, but he knows he gets applause lines when he attacks Israel,” Dershowitz said. “What the election of Sanders would do to the American-Israel relationship is [to] legitimate even more...the Israel-phobia, because you have a president” expressing those sentiments.
“I don’t think Bernie Sanders tries to hide” his dislike for Israel, Dershowitz added.
Others were more optimistic.
A former US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that “the idea of the US-Israel relationship going over a cliff is not really realistic.”
Under Sanders, “core commitments on Israel’s security are likely to remain very much observed, because any president will hear from our own security establishment how that will benefit us [and because] a high percentage of Democrats in Congress will want to continue to uphold those commitments,” he said.
A Sanders administration would be “serious in trying to get back to two states... serious in putting pressure on settlement expansion and an even stronger reaction if annexation is on the table.”
“Tensions” would happen, depending on what government Israel has, he said, implying that a Netanyahu-led government would likely clash with a Sanders administration as much or even more than it did with Obama.
It’s worth noting that while there is a difference in rhetoric and reputation between Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, the latter would probably disagree with Sanders on many of the issues that would be fault lines between the senator and Netanyahu and are supported by most Israelis. For example, both would maintain a military and civilian Israeli presence in the West Bank; the question is how much and whether to annex those areas.
Regardless of who will be prime minister, Israel would likely try to circumvent a Sanders White House via Congress when possible.
It’s clear that there would be far more daylight between the Sanders administration and Israel than with the Trump administration, which works extremely closely with the Israeli government, and Sanders would be more critical of policies that both prime ministerial candidates hold. It’s a question of degree – and, of course, whether Sanders will be the nominee and president.
Omri Nahmias contributed to this report.