If Bernie Sanders defeats Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, he’ll be the first Jewish presidential nominee of a major political party. But when it comes to his views on Israel, some Jewish Democrats are scratching their heads in confusion.
“His voting record on Israel recently is fine, absolutely fine,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a media consultant and former Clinton White House aide who supports Clinton. “I haven’t heard him once talk about it on the campaign trail. It’s as though he doesn’t utter the world Israel. It just strikes me as odd.”
But over his career Sanders has cast some votes and made critical statements about Israel that unnerve some in the pro-Israel community. That’s all the more puzzling, some say, given his own heritage as the son of a Jewish immigrant father from Poland whose family was wiped out by the Nazis — and someone who spent time working on an Israeli kibbutz.
As Clinton has struggled in recent days to prevent Sanders from notching twin victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, she has zeroed in on what she calls his naive statements about Iran — a country that Israel happens to consider its greatest enemy.
How many Democratic primary voters might have qualms with Sanders is unclear, however. President Barack Obama himself has grown increasingly critical of Israeli policy toward Iran and the Palestinians. Many liberal voters agree: A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that only 4 in 10 Democrats consider Israel to be playing a positive role in the Middle East.
“The faction of the Democratic base that supports a strongly pro-Israel point of view is shrinking,” said Matthew Duss, president of the left-leaning Foundation for Middle East Peace.
But the Democratic Party still features a strong network of wealthy Jewish donors, such as the Hollywood mogul Haim Saban and American Jewish Congress president Jack Rosen, who hold candidates to high standards when it comes to Israel. It also boasts better political organization than liberals who pressure Israel to take a more conciliatory line with the Palestinians and Iran.
Following the most recent Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, Clinton’s campaign pounced on Sanders for saying that the U.S. must “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.” Although Sanders couched the statement by saying that “Iran’s behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with,” Clinton called that a “fundamental misunderstanding” of diplomacy with Iran.
She has also hit Sanders for his past suggestion that defeating the Islamic State will require an international coalition, including Iran, that puts “boots on the ground” against the radical terrorist group.
“Sanders has said he would like to see Iranian troops in Syria. I think that would be a terrible mistake; Syria is on the doorstep of Israel,” Clinton told National Public Radio last week.
In a video tweeted last week by her campaign, Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, also made the link explicit. “Iran seeks the destruction of Israel!” Sullivan explains.
Citing Sanders’ call for Iranian troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria — a position Sanders has since denied he holds — Sullivan added: “It would be putting more Iranian firepower right on Israel’s doorstep.”
“Sen. Sanders has consistently defended Israel’s right to exist and thrive since his first days in office,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said in a statement. “He’s voted in favor of legislation that strengthens Israel economically, militarily and at the United Nations. Sen. Sanders supports a two-state solution that will allow Israel to maintain its historic nature as a Jewish and democratic state. He believes we can fight for Israel’s security and a Palestinian state at the same time.”
The Clinton campaign declined to comment for this story. Clinton herself, who has addressed several American Israel Public Affairs Committee conventions, has vowed to “do everything I can to enhance our strategic partnership and strengthen America’s security commitment to Israel.” She has also pledged to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House “in my first month in office.”
Early in his political career, Sanders didn’t conceal his frustration with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. During one March 1988 news conference when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders called brutal Israeli treatment of Palestinian protesters “an absolute disgrace.”
“The sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible” and “must be condemned,” he said. A few months later, Sanders went further: “The policy that Israelis shoot people is unacceptable. It is wrong that the United States provides arms to Israel,” he declared, according to a local newspaper account at the time.
In 1991, Sanders voted to withhold $82.5 million in U.S. aid for Israel unless it stopped settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That motion was rejected on a 44-378 vote.
A decade later, he was the only Jewish member of Congress not to back a House resolution condemning the Palestinians and expressing solidarity with Israel after two Palestinian suicide attacks killed dozens. Sanders voted present, and the measure passed, 384-11.
One Jewish Democrat who served as a senior aide to Sanders on Capitol Hill and has also worked for a leading pro-Israel organization said his stances on Israel are not a political liability.
“His views on Israel were pretty consistent with center-left people,” the aide said. “There was never any question like whether the country should exist or anything. He was a pro-peace process member.”
But the former aide added that Sanders tended to put more emphasis on the rights and suffering of Palestinians than did many other members of Congress. “If you talked about Israel, he would always talk about the suffering of Palestinians as well,” he said. “In D.C., that can be seen by some people as being anti-Israel.”
Although he has recently tempered his criticisms of Israel, Sanders is still not considered an ally by Washington’s pro-Israel community. Briggs did not respond to a question about when Sanders last visited Israel. And he has not recently spoken to AIPAC’s annual conference, which reliably draws top Democrats who pledge their strong support for Israel’s security.
In July 2014, during the Gaza war, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution supporting Israel “as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks” by Hamas; Sanders was one of 21 senators who did not co-sponsor the measure, which made no mention of Palestinian suffering.
And when word leaked in early 2015 that Netanyahu would deliver a March 2015 address to a joint meeting of Congress that was arranged by House Speaker John Boehner without the advance knowledge of the Obama White House, Sanders was the first senator to announce he would not attend the speech.
These days, however, he is far more likely than his younger self to defend Israel when it comes to questions like its treatment of Palestinians.
At a town hall meeting in August 2014, Sanders was confronted by an angry constituent who demanded he oppose Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which had killed hundreds of civilians. While conceding that Israel had “overreacted,” Sanders focused mainly on Palestinian provocations: “You have a situation where Hamas is sending missiles into Israel. And you know where some of those missiles are coming from? They’re coming from populated areas.”
“That’s a fact,” he declared.
By: Michael Crowley, Politico