Bernie Sanders Just Proved It’s A New Era For How Democratic Candidates Talk About Israel

WASHINGTON ― Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) showed just how far successors to President Donald Trump may go to reshape the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Palestinians, taking the stage at a Jewish American group’s conference on Monday to deliver impassioned remarks about his sympathy for Palestinians and issue a proposal that would have once been considered political suicide.

″$3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche,” Sanders said, referring to the amount of military aid Washington provides Israel each year. “If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza… I think it is fair to say that some of that $3.8 billion should go right now into humanitarian aid.”

Until recently, U.S. politicians of all stripes mostly avoided proposing policy changes to respond to Israel’s decade-plus-long “collective punishment” blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for fear of being painted as sympathetic to the militant group.

Sanders’ remarks, delivered at the annual confab for J Street, which advocates for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, represent a top presidential candidate’s boldest departure yet from that norm. But they’re only the latest step in an evolutionary process for the Democratic Party. In the past nine months, Democratic 2020 contenders have one by one warmed to putting conditions on American security assistance in order to push Israeli officials to negotiate with the Palestinians. They’ve mulled blocking aid from being used in violations of international law, such as annexing Palestinian land. And they’ve clearly committed themselves to using new tactics to resurrect the decades-old push for two independent states, Israel and Palestine. 

So perhaps it should be no surprise that Sanders’ proposal was greeted by cheers ― and that it was largely treated as just one more in a range of options for dealing with a human rights crisis. J Street officials didn’t feel the need to run damage control. Neither did Sanders’ campaign. And so far, his rivals for the Democratic nomination haven’t attacked him for his comments. At the end of former President Barack Obama’s time in office, Democrats regularly boasted about the massive new annual aid package he had secured for Israel. This is where they are now.

Sanders has driven a lot of that change. The independent Vermont senator, who in his 2016 primary run demonstrated the potential for mainstream Democratic realignment on Israel with frequent commentary on respecting Palestinians and tough words for the traditionally dominant pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, seemed omnipresent at the J Street conference. Of the four politicians who spoke Monday, he drew the loudest cheers. Even when he wasn’t in the room, like at a side panel on Palestinian organizing, his name came up: Rawan Odeh of the group New Story Leadership spoke of him as a model for listening to the community’s concerns in a way powerful Americans usually haven’t.

The fact that even Sanders rivals, such as centrist fellow speaker Pete Buttigieg, have urged big changes to Obama’s aid policy shows how much of the Democratic Party now believes a major reboot to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is essential. It suggests they don’t see the issue as a political loser. And it indicates that many politically savvy Democrats aren’t ready to be cowed by Trump’s bid to paint them as anti-Semitic for questioning Israel’s actions.

“I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” Sanders said Monday, using an approach far more personal than his usual stump speech. “If there is any people on earth who understands the danger of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people, and if there is any people on Earth who should do everything to fight against Trump’s efforts to divide us… it is the Jewish people.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the J Street National Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at the J Street National Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

There’s no inconsistency between supporting Israel as a strategic partner important to the Jewish community in the U.S. (which is overwhelmingly Democratic) and around the world and criticizing some of its policies and hard-line politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sanders and other candidates argued. Simultaneously, almost all highlighted the human rights of the Palestinians, who as recently as 2016 were rarely mentioned by Democrats on the campaign trail. 

A poll of likely Democratic primary voters conducted earlier this year by J Street, the Jewish American pro-peace group that organized the Monday event, suggests the candidates are in line with their base: 75% said they would be most likely to support a candidate who supported both Israel and the Palestinians, and 74% said the U.S. should be an impartial broker in talks between the two sides.

Trump and the GOP claim that because the Democratic Party now includes the first-ever Muslim-American congresswomen, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), whose family is Palestinian, it can no longer be trusted on Israel. Rooted in popular and hateful assumptions about Muslims and buoyed by rhetorical missteps by Omar, that narrative has caused alarm in traditional Democratic circles. Buttigieg attacked it head-on, calling it evidence of “upsetting cynicism” given how Trump has promoted a political narrative of conspiracy theories and racism that echoes anti-Semites in the U.S. and abroad. “The American people and the American Jewish community are a lot smarter than that,” the South Bend, Indiana, mayor said.

And Sanders, who has been endorsed by Omar and Tlaib, noted, “It will be hard for anybody to call me, whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler, an anti-Semite.”

Sanders, Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro all spoke at the two-day summit. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and author Marianne Williamson sent in video messages to the attendees. 

The 2020 contenders softened the blow of tough new suggestions for Israeli policy by tying them to proposals of a more ethical approach to a range of concerns about universal rights and freedoms, from China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its Muslim minority citizens to America’s systemic failure to provide citizens with decent health care. Castro spoke of defending the constitutional right to boycott Israel, braving a mention of a contentious movement called boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, that few Democrats endorse but almost all say needs to be protected against Republican-led suppression.

It’s clear some in the party are still conscious of old guardrails around the issue. It’s good that there is no longer “one voice” dominating political discussions of U.S.-Israel relations, Castro said, saying people should know who he was referring to. Ben Rhodes, the former Obama administration official interviewing him, made a similarly oblique reference in response. Neither said the word “AIPAC.”

Klobuchar, one of the more conservative candidates, thanked AIPAC during her Sunday night remarks, drawing the ire of some J Street backers. And Biden, arguably still the front-runner in the race, shied away from talk of conditions on aid or real criticism of Israel in his video, being vague when speaking about who was to blame for the failure to achieve peace except when criticizing the Palestinians.

But there was a clear sense that even as Rhodes and fellow Obama White House aide Tommy Vietor led discussions with the candidates ― except with Sanders, who commandeered the stage and the conversation to their visible alarm ― the next Democratic president isn’t likely to try to turn back the clock to the era that ended in January 2017. Between Trump’s reversals of traditional American policy to benefit Netanyahu, the country’s slide toward undemocratic behavior, like policies seen as denying full equality to its Arab citizens, and rising stateside awareness of Palestinians’ struggles, too much has happened.