The Bernie Sanders Factor in US Policy toward Israel

For years, there have been signs of a shift in attitudes in the Democratic Party toward Israel. There was that moment at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 when the vote was evenly divided for a party platform revision recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. One can also recall the highly covered event when 58 Democrats boycotted the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the US Congress in 2015. And there was the time when a debate audience in New York gave Senator Bernie Sanders the loudest applause of the night when he attacked his 2016 primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, for being too friendly to Israel. The shift in American public opinion about Israel has indeed become clear.

Now, in perhaps the most important sign yet of the changing attitudes on US policy toward Israel, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who has been most willing to speak out in opposition to Israeli policies as a candidate, is a leading contender in the presidential race. In effect, the idea that criticism of Israel is a political liability among Democrats has practically been put to rest by the success of his campaign.

How Is Sanders Doing This?

Senator Sanders has been able to capitalize on this political space for a few reasons. First, grassroots activism in progressive spaces, and particularly among younger demographics in the last decade and a half, has made the issue of Palestinian rights something of a litmus test for prospective leaders. Sanders’s campaign, with much of his support coming from younger voters, has strong connections with this part of the progressive base.

Second, the relationship between President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu over the last several years has played a significant role. The Israeli prime minister, whom Sanders describes as a “reactionary racist,” is increasingly viewed negatively by Democrats in large part because of his animosity toward former President Barack Obama and complete devotion to President Trump. This has contributed to the partisan polarization around the Palestine/Israel issue and made it easier for Democrats to take critical positions within the left wing of the party, having the greatest degree of political freedom to assume such a disapproving position.

The Israeli prime minister, whom Sanders describes as a “reactionary racist,” is increasingly viewed negatively by Democrats in large part because of his animosity toward former President Barack Obama and complete devotion to President Trump.

Third, Sanders is uniquely benefitting from his fundraising model. Unlike most other candidates, Sanders is relying on a grassroots-funded campaign with a very low average donation amount. He has the largest number of donors in the race and thus is less beholden to any one particular contributor or group of funders. This affords him the ability to speak freely in a way that represents his views and resonates with his base. To understand how powerful a role big money donors can be in influencing the candidates’ positions on these issues, one only has to look back at Hillary Clinton’s relationship with mega donor Haim Saban in 2016.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Sanders’s own Jewish heritage has clearly afforded him additional space to voice criticism of Israel. In contrast to President Obama, whose identity as an African American led political opponents to racialize so much of the critique against him, especially as it relates to Israel policy, Sanders’s Jewish background makes it much harder to attack him for failing to consider the Jewish perspective or to smear him as an anti-Semite. A good example of the absurdity surrounding some of the discourse during Obama’s presidency was in the reaction to a policy speech in which he spoke about the 1967 lines as the basis for a two-state agreement. This of course was the same position of the preceding Bush Administration and one enshrined in the international consensus. But some Zionist organizations used the opportunity to denounce Obama for what they said was tantamount to calling for “Auschwitz borders.”

Interestingly however, Sanders has not simply used his Jewish identity as a shield. Instead, he has spoken about how being Jewish and the lessons he learned from the history of persecution compel him to speak up for the dignity and rights of Palestinians.

The Mounting Clash

A confluence of several events underscores how the United States is moving closer to what could be a significant shift in US-Israel relations. Sanders, who is the candidate most attuned to the progressive base’s alienation with Israel, headed toward the Super Tuesday primary contests as one of the frontrunners in the Democratic presidential primary contest. He faced an opportunity to build a critical lead in the delegate count needed to secure the party’s nomination in the national convention in July. At the same time, the largest Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), convened in Washington and hosted several presidential candidates—though Sanders was not one of them. In addition, Israel held its third parliamentary election in less than a year. Each of these events contributed to the mounting clash in its own way.

Sanders, who is the candidate most attuned to the progressive base’s alienation with Israel, headed toward the Super Tuesday primary contests as one of the frontrunners in the Democratic presidential primary contest.

In the Israeli election, voters appear to have come close to breaking the deadlock, which has frozen the political system after results from the other two rounds prevented any party from forming a governing coalition. Netanyahu seems to be most likely to form a new government. With each election, Trump presented Netanyahu with a gift; most recently, Trump’s senior advisor, Jared Kushner, unveiled the Peace to Prosperity plan, one that could very well have been written by the Israeli premier himself. But the Trump plan was widely welcomed among Israelis, both inside and outside Netanyahu’s camp, which makes it clear that the annexationist politics that have long been the mainstay of the Likud Party have now permeated most of the Israeli political spectrum. Given license by Trump earlier this year, Israeli leaders might well take advantage of the opportunity between now and the end of the year to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. The vision put forward by Israeli leaders, which includes some de facto version of apartheid, contrasts sharply with the stated vision and values of Democrats in the United States who rely on a multicultural and diverse base of support. The outcome of this Israeli election will most assuredly move Israel in a rightward direction, heightening this chasm between Israel and the US Democratic Party.

One organization that has done much to expand that chasm is AIPAC. This best known and largest Israel lobby group spent tens of millions of dollars opposing President Obama’s diplomacy that led to a nuclear agreement with Iran. Ahead of its 2019 annual gathering in Washington, several 2020 presidential hopefuls decided not to participate and heeded the call of progressive groups, including Move On, to skip the conference. At the time, one explanation put forward by some was that candidates do not normally attend anyway in non-election years and 2020 would be the real test. Now in 2020, as AIPAC holds its convention, it is in direct confrontation with the Jewish American frontrunner for the Democratic Party ticket.

Sanders announced he would not be attending because AIPAC provides a platform for bigotry. Another contender, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), and others announced they would not be going as well. This led to condemnation of Sanders from organizations within the Jewish American establishment, but he refused to shift his position nonetheless. AIPAC responded with an online campaign using the hashtag #AIPACProud as a way to demonstrate popular support for the organization. But the fact that a lobbying group like AIPAC even found such a campaign necessary speaks volumes. The organization was once an indisputable gathering place for officials from both sides of the aisle around an issue that was more bipartisan than perhaps any other. Now, AIPAC is fighting to keep that old identity alive as opinion continues to shift in the opposite direction and is manifesting in real political change. Not only was AIPAC forced to respond with such a campaign, but Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, said that Sanders is either “a liar or an ignorant fool or both,” and that “We don’t want Sanders at AIPAC. We don’t want him in Israel.”

The AIPAC conference rolled on right into Super Tuesday, the biggest single day in the primary election calendar in the United States. Fourteen different states held contests for the democratic party nominee and Sanders had an opportunity to make a significant impact. But the results for sanders were not as good as the forecasts predicted, denting his frontrunner status, although he still commands a good number of delegates to the national convention and will likely gain more as the primary season progresses. Another scenario may have Sanders fall short of a majority of the needed delegates in the convention, so he would then have to go into a contested party convention which could spell disaster for him, and for the party more broadly, if the process ends with division. The fact that Sanders is one of the frontrunners at this stage should allow the possibility that he may be the nominee and potentially the future president, opening the door for considering possible changes in US-Israel relations.

The fact that Sanders is one of the frontrunners at this stage should allow the possibility that he may be the nominee and potentially the future president, opening the door for considering possible changes in US-Israel relations. 

Sanders has been, by far, the most vocal about conditioning aid to Israel and introducing forms of accountability for Palestinian rights violations. If he were to win the White House, Sanders would be in a position to make such changes. Importantly, however, it is not just his campaign commitments that would compel him to follow through; unlike presidents before him, Sanders would be uniquely positioned to act because his fundraising model of small donations means freedom from special interest groups. Further, his Jewish identity makes it harder for others to credibly attack him for being anti-Israel.

Shifting the Conversation

This is perhaps where a President Sanders could have the single biggest impact: in shifting the conversation. While he, unlike others before him, would have some leeway to take unorthodox policy steps, the truth is that however long his presidency would last, it would likely coincide with a right-wing government in Israel or at least a government highly beholden to extremist right-wing elements. In short, he would come up against significant opposition from the Israelis when it came to any push for peace.

But Sanders would have an opportunity as president to recast the conversation about this issue—not only as an American but as a Jewish American who understands his identity in a way that also affirms the rights of Palestinians. This vision put forward by Sanders from time to time could be a major message that is emphasized and reinforced by the weight of the presidency. It could also shatter countless stereotypes about the situation and allow people to reconsider the parameters of what is possible.

A presidency would also put Sanders in direct confrontation with the American Jewish establishment, even more so than he is now, and further catalyze a demographic divide in the American Jewish community on the Palestine/Israel issue. In the age of a Jewish American president, the question of who speaks for the American Jewish community would be an open and unresolved one, especially as the organizations that often claim that role would be facing criticism from their own communities, chiefly their younger members.

A presidency would also put Sanders in direct confrontation with the American Jewish establishment, even more so than he is now, and further catalyze a demographic divide in the American Jewish community on the Palestine/Israel issue. 

In sum, the Sanders candidacy represents the culmination of a shift in public opinion that has translated into never-seen-before political space that could lead to an actual policy change toward Israel. With months to go until the election, it is clear that pushing for policy changes on this issue is no longer a political liability in the Democratic Party; instead, a fair resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has become a mainstay of the party’s progressive base and perhaps soon part of its core politics. Sanders continues to hold a unique position to succeed because of his fundraising model as well as his identity. In addition, he speaks to a base that has made progress on this issue and represents the future of the Democratic Party.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here